Midnight’s children

Pink and white rosesWhen I was younger a thick book was a good book. I am a fast reader and I wanted books that would last me awhile. In the library I therefore went directly towards the heavier tomes and longer series. But things have changed, these days I find myself drawn towards the shorter fiction, preferring books with less than 300 pages. If a book approaches 400 pages I get easily distracted and start to read other books in parallel. This was the case for Midnight’s children (538 pages) which I have been reading on and off for several months.

Midnight’s children by Salman Rushdie is an award-winning novel following the protagonist Saleem Sinai who is born on the stroke of midnight of the day India gained independence. His history thus runs parallel to the history of India and events in his own life are often mirrored in Indian history (at least that is how he prefers to tell it). It is a meandering story, moving from the mundane to the magical, from trivial occurrences in the life of Saleem Sinai to major historical events.

I struggled quite a bit with the novel in the beginning. It is very well-written but I got lost among all the names and historical references which I was only vaguely familiar with. I therefore repeatedly put it aside to read other books. Of course that meant that I had forgotten even more names by the time I came back to it. However, about halfway in, the book picked-up pace a bit and I decided to make a concentrated effort to read in it every day. From there on my my impression of it greatly improved, I started to know who (almost) everyone were, the story suddenly made sense and I actually enjoyed it. 

It’s not really like any other book I have read but the book I associated it closest with is another book from my Classic Club reading list, Gösta Berling’s Saga by Selma Lagerlöf. The settings couldn’t be more different, in Midnight’s children we follow the protagonist (and his ancestors) over several decades as he moves across India and Pakistan, whereas Gösta Berling’s Saga takes place in Värmland, a sparsely populated Swedish region during a single year. However, both books feature larger than life protagonists, a small touch of magic, and are narrated in a style that stays close to oral tradition. More importantly, they are both more a rich portrait of a country (or a county in Lagelöf’s case) than a linear story.

First published in 1981 Midnight’s children  is on of the youngest books in my Classics Club reading challenge.

This weekend there is also an Indian Literature Readathon arranged by Nandini, Shruti, Charvi and Aditi. Unfortunately I don’t have time to join but head over there if you are interested in Indian reading recommendations.

 

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On the dangers of impossible dreams

Extravagant_flowerThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a book I have long felt I know more or less what it is about despite never actually having opened it. In this case the omission was a bit embarrassing as the book in question has been quietly abandoned on my To Be Read shelf for years despite being neither long nor particularly heavy.

However, during a recent travel I decided only to bring books lingering on my TBR shelf and finally got started. (Well, the truth is that I first bought new books by Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Anne Fadiman, read those and then, when I was once more out of fresh reading material, started on my TBR books). Having once started on The Great Gatsby I found it a smooth, enjoyable read. I really don’t know why it took me so long.

The image I had of The Great Gatsby included a love story set against a backdrop of extravagant nightly garden parties during the 1920s. I wasn’t exactly wrong but after actually reading it the image I was left with was rather of the loneliness and futility hidden behind Gatsby’s shining dream. Perhaps not a new favourite but nevertheless a beautifully written novel which did not deserve to linger forgotten on my shelf.

The Great Gatsby was one of the novels on my Classics Club reading list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Progress report

read_jan-pr_2018

Map showing author’s country of origin for the books I have read in 2018.

A third of the year has gone (how did that happen?) and it is time for me to look back on my reading so far. In total I have read 34 books in 2018, by 19 women and 13 men (and two anthologies). I have read books from eleven decades and by authors from twelve countries. Most of them have been very good so I’m happy with my reading year so far.

Best 2018 read so far

Honorary mentions

  • The Boarding-School Girl by Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya. The Khvoshchinskaya sisters have been a great discovery for me this spring. I have greatly enjoyed both this one and City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya .
  • Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena follows a Latvian mother and daughter whose relationship crumble under the Soviet rule. It was published by Peirene Press, an interesting publisher of translated fiction which I discovered in my effort to read novels by authors from a wider range of countries.

Best page-turner

  • Into the Fire by Elizabeth Moon (Trading in Danger is the first book in this series). Elizabeth Moon’s novels would be my guilty pleasure if I felt the least bit guilty about reading them. Her SF and Fantasy series tend to keep me reading way past my bedtime…

 

Reading challenges for 2018

Finish the 30-20-20-10 challenge from 2017

In 2017 I managed to read books from (more than) 10 decades, written by (more than ) 20 men and (more than) 20 women and by authors from 21 (rather than 30) countries. In 2018 I want to finish this challenge by reading 9 books from countries I didn’t read any book from in 2017. So far I have managed to add 6 new countries to my list.

I also decided on the additional challenge of reading 12 books from countries I read no more than 1 book from in 2017, but so far the books from these two challenges completely overlap.

Read and blog about at least 12 books from my Classics club reading list

I’m falling slightly behind on this challenge, I have only read three books from my Classics Club list so far this year, bringing me up to a total of 8 out of 50 since my start in October 2017.

In 2018 I have read and reviewed the following classics from my list:

I also joined the Back to the classics reading challenge

Apparently classics not on my Classics Club list are more tempting than the ones on the list.  I therefore joined a second classics challenge which allows me to count many of the classics I have read this year but didn’t list on my Classics Club list. Here I have managed to fill seven of the twelve categories.

Read at least as many of my unread books (including new books) as I buy in 2018

Probably the hardest of my challenges and one I’m currently falling behind on. I have bought 27 books this year and have only read 25 of my unread books (in total I have read 34 books but that include re-reads and library books). And that is despite buying eight new books in December with a January delivery which gave me a head-start. However, in my defence, a few of the books I have bought have not arrived yet so I obviously cannot read them.

The challenge has helped though, it has made me somewhat less likely to impulse buy books I’m not sure about as every buy mean I cannot buy a future book I might want more. It has also motivated me to read more from my unread books rather than searching for new ones. Not a large effect but every bit helps…

Classics Club Spin – Nights at the Circus

Photo of a St Petersburg canal

I finally finished my Classics Club spin book, Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter, on the very last day of the challenge. Not because it was a particularly hard read, it wasn’t, but because it was one of the few books I didn’t already own and when it arrived I suddenly had almost no reading time. Due to my lateness, and even more due to the fact that I’m currently somewhat overworked and completely uninspired, I won’t give this novel the proper review it really deserves.

Published in 1984 it is one of the youngest books on my classics list, one I added to my list after being stunned by her brilliant short story collection The Bloody Chamber and other stories. Most of the novels I have read lately have been sharp, restrained texts but Carter’s is neither. Indeed Angela Carter may be the least restrained author I have read anything by, she is constantly pushing the border between brilliance and nonsense. Her imagery is rich, disturbing and always on the brink of collapse but somehow it mostly works. I left the novel with a wide collection of imagery and ideas but the over-abundance of the text is such that I know that I probably missed half of it. As a break from the more focused texts I usually read I found it very refreshing but my recommendation if you want to explore Angela Carter’s works would be to start with The Bloody Chamber and other stories which remains my favourite.

Last year this book was discussed in a series of articles for The Guardian‘s reading group. I really recommend this article series if you are interested in in-depth discussions of the novel. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 (with some spoilers).

 

 

 

Classics Club Spin

I’m finally joining my first Classics Club spin. In it I trust random chance to provide me with my next reading for the Classics Club. Or, perhaps not my next one, I already have a few I’m reading, but at least a book which I need to read before April 30th 2018. The rules were simple, make a numbered list of twenty books from my Classics Club reading list and on the 9th of March the Classics Club will provide me with the number drawn and thus tell me which of my books I should read.

The books I selected are:

  1. de Beauvoir, Simone: The Second Sex
  2. Boye, Karin: Kallocain
  3. Carter, Angela: Night at the Circus
  4. Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby
  5. Fogelström, Per Anders: Mina drömmars stad (City of My Dreams)
  6. Ibsen, Henrik: Peer Gynt
  7. Lie, Jonas: Fortellinger i utvalg (Selected stories)
  8. Linna, Väinö: Okänd soldat (The Unknown Soldier)
  9. Mansfield, Katherine: Short story collection
  10. Moberg, Vilhelm: Din stund på jorden (A Time on Earth)
  11. Morrison, Toni: Beloved
  12. Plath, Sylvia: Ariel
  13. Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea
  14. Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children
  15. Scott, Robert Falcon: Scott’s last expedition
  16. Sturlasson, Snorre: Heimskringla
  17. Tikkanen, Märta: Arnaía kastad i havet
  18. Tolstoy, Leo: Anna Karenina
  19. Undset, Sigrid: Kransen (The Wreath, Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, part one)
  20. Walker, Alice: The Color Purple

To make it easy for myself most of the books I selected I already own. A few of them I’m really longing to read (2, 3, 17) whereas others I fear would be heavier reads (8, 19). One of them, Heimskringla at number 16, I dread.

Wish me luck!

Edit 17.03.2018: And the lucky number is 3! It looks like the well-wishes worked, I’m really eager to read Angela Carter’s Night at the Circus!

 

 

La Vita Nuova

Flowers

The latest classic from my classic club reading list was La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri.

I really got myself into deep water with this book. It felt a bit like watching a game where you know none of the rules. One reason for my struggles was the disadvantage of reading it in translation which is always difficult with poetry. However, I believe the greatest barrier was the cultural one. I’m so used to texts were the plot and/or character development are central that I’m apparently lost without them. I eventually found some rhythm in the narration and enjoyed the ending much more than the beginning but it was a challenging read.

La Vita Nuova was first published in 1295, which probably explains my cultural chock. It is centred around the narrator’s impossible love for Beatrice and consists of a series of poems prizing her and describing her influence on the narrator and others. These poems are divided by texts describing the context of the poems and explanations of their structure. Little happens and Beatrice never really takes shape, she remains an idea, a living angel. Instead I felt that Love, both as a concept and its influence on those it touches, was the real focus.

In many ways it reminded me of The Sorrows of Young Werther which I read last year.  In it the story is also centred around an impossible love and I got the impression that the main goal of the text was that it should be beautiful. As in La Vita Nuova the love described in The Sorrows of Young Werther was an idealized romantic love which appeared more like an idea than an actual human emotion.

So did I enjoy it? Not really but I’m glad I have read it. It was different from almost anything else I have read and I could see glimpses of the beauty in it. It was also a rather short read, although it still took me surprisingly long to finish, and it may help me to better understand references to Dante in later works. However, to really appreciate it I would have needed a much better understanding of the context and preferably to be able to read it in its original Italian.

I read it in a translation by Mark Musa but an earlier translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is available for free from Project Gutenberg.

La Vita Nuova is on my reading list for the Classics club and I also count it as my “Classic by an author that’s new to you” for the Back to the classics reading challenge. It also means that I can add another country, Italy, to my 30-20-20-10 reading challenge, only eight more to go.

 

 

 

The Dark is Rising

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The Dark is Rising in Susan Cooper’s classical fantasy series and the only thing that can stop it are the combined forces of a group of modern children (well 1960s children) and the heroes of Arthurian legends.

I have recently spent some enjoyable days with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series (well, four out of five books in it, I somehow missed the first one at the library). There are some parts that felt a little dated but overall this is a classic series that have stood the test of time very well, I’m sure I would have loved it as a child. As an adult I greatly enjoyed the first book I read in the series (Over Sea Under Stone) but lost interest a bit when it came to the sequels. I don’t think they are actually worse in any way but to me the real draw was the world-building and the mixture of modern children and Arthurian legends. This theme runs through the entire series but in the sequels it was no longer new and therefore less exciting.

As these are children’s books they are not too heavy on the darkness which I’m sure was a good choice for the intended audience. Personally I would have preferred them to be somewhat more nerve-racking. Nevertheless these are well-written and fun books with a good concept which worked reasonably well as a light read also for an adult reader.

What the series also did succeed in was to convince me that I want to learn more about the Arthurian legends (sometime, eventually). I’m not British and my knowledge of these legends can basically be summarized as a bunch of names and a sword in a stone which is somehow important.

I count Over Sea Under Stone (published in 1965) as my children’s classic in the 2018 back to the classics challenge.