Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Ernest Hemingway's list of 16 books we ought to read, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina

In 1934, a young American with aspirations to become a writer hiked across America to meet Ernest Hemingway in his Florida home. After knocking at the author's door, Hemingway gave the young man, Arnold Samuelson, some advice.

Firstly, he warned not to compete against contemporary authors, but rather writers of the past that haven't yet been forgotten. Samuelson told Hemingway that he had enjoyed Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. “Ever read War and Peace?”, asked Hemingway. 

Samuelson replied that he had not, to which Hemingway said, “That’s a damned good book. You ought to read it. We’ll go up to my workshop and I’ll make out a list you ought to read.” 

And so Samuelson left Hemingway's home with a list of fourteen novels and two short stories to get started on. What better list to follow when choosing our own reading resolutions for 2015 and onwards?

Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia, Cuba, in 1946.

1. “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane

Hemingway handed Samuelson a copy of Stephen Crane's short stories before he left his home, alongside a copy of A Farewell to Arms (that he politely asked to be returned after he had read it).

"The Open Boat", found in the same collection as "The Blue Hotel", is based on the 1896 sinking of a ship on which the author himself was a passenger: an intriguingly harrowing story that helped marked the author as one of the most innovative of his generation.

3. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

The first landmark of Russian literature to appear on this list. Although not a great favourite of my own, it certainly has some great quotes:
“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”

4. Dubliners by James Joyce

Dubliners gets to the heart of both Dublin streets and a more universal human nature. "The Dead" is known for its startlingly beautiful final lines, while "Eveline" is the story of a young woman unsure which way to turn in life: to emigrate to Buenos Ayres or stay in the safe confines of Dublin. Arguably, Dubliners is the finest short story collection of the last two-hundred years.

Children's party, Dublin (1920s)

5. The Red and the Black by Stendhal

A remarkable tale of ambition, corruption, crime, and madness in French Restoration society after Waterloo.
“I am mad, I am going under, I must follow the advice of a friend, and pay no heed to myself.”

6. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

His habit of reading isolated him: it became such a need that after being in company for some time he grew tired and restless; he was vain of the wider knowledge he had acquired from the perusal of so many books, his mind was alert, and he had not the skill to hide his contempt for his companions' stupidity.

7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

A beautiful novel of contrast, human emotion, and beauty, Anna Karenina isn't just about the consequences of extramarital affairs. I'd recommend the recent translation by Rosamund Bartlett, alongside paying close attention to the transformation of Levin, a character closely based on Tolstoy (minus many flaws, however).

Tolstoy with wife Sofya, his son, and his dog (c. 1870-90)

8. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The ultimate trial for a reader, but certainly one of the most rewarding for many. Here are the reasons why I love it, some tips I have for a first-time reader, and why I prefer the Anthony Briggs translation.

9. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

“Often, the outward and visible material signs and symbols of happiness and success only show themselves when the process of decline has already set in. The outer manifestations take time - like the light of that star up there, which may in reality be already quenched, when it looks to us to be shining its brightest.”

10. Hail and Farewell by George Moore

George Moore, a leading influence on Joyce's writing, certainly deserves more literary recognition. "Home Sickness" in The Untilled Field is a great starting place - with brilliant themes of recuperation, travel, and questions of home - although Hail and Farewell is considered by many to be his masterpiece.

Manet - George Moore ou café (1878-9)

A book that stands in a league of its own - unsettling, philosophical, and simply marvellous.
“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” 

12. The Oxford Book of English Verse

A treasure trove of over seven centuries of poetry, this anthology was created in 1900 by Arthur Quiller-Couch and selected anew in 1972 by Helen Gardner. If you're looking for a collection at the forefront of English poetry to adorn your bookshelves, this is a great representation of its history to choose.

13. The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings

In 1917, a young E.E. Cummings went to France as a Red Cross volunteer on the western front. Marked as a possible enemy of La Patrie due to his free-spirited nature, he was taken to a concentration camp in Normandy where he suffered unimaginable hardship. 

The Enormous Room is the account of the famous poet's four-month confinement: a story of journeying into the greatest deprivation while retaining a degree of hope.

14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

A novel that can't be read merely once. Also, somewhat surprisingly, a reminder of the virtues of waking early:
“A person who has not done one half his day's work by ten o'clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.” 

The Brontë sisters, painted by their brother Branwell, c. 1834

15. Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson

The autobiography of William Hudson, author and naturalist, who spent the first eighteen years of his life in Argentina, where his father was a colonist.

16. The American by Henry James

It had come back to him simply that what he had been looking at all summer was a very rich and beautiful world, and that it had not all been made by sharp railroad men and stock-brokers.

Hemingway's list (among a great range of similar ones) can be found in the brilliant Lists of Note anthology, compiled by Shaun Usher. You can also read more about Samuelson's meeting with Ernest Hemingway here, alongside the story of how he remarkably became the author's assistant for a year, during which time he wrote the memoir "With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba". 

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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Marina Keegan on Finding Hope & the Courage to be Creative

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan, a reminder
to nurture hope, creativity, and a love for life.
Marina Keegan's story is a tragic one: five days after graduating from Yale with great prospects ahead of her - including a job at the New Yorker and a play to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival - Keegan was involved in a fatal car accident.

Although published under terrible circumstances, The Opposite of Loneliness is a celebration of the written legacy that Marina left behind, and the book's greatness is in the hope that it offers.

Divided into two halves (starting with Keegan's fiction followed by her non-fiction), the non-fiction stands out, as in the essay that lends the collection its name: "The Opposite of Loneliness", Keegan's last essay that was published in the Yale Daily News upon her graduation. Unaware of the international audience this essay would reach, Keegan wrote:

"What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over...We can't, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it's all we have". 

Something that we'd all do well to remember, regardless of age.

"Even Artichokes Have Doubts" has a similar message, questioning the 20% of Yale graduates that are destined for careers in consulting and finance despite their ambition and initial plans (arguably because it is a more accessible option than finding fulfilling work in non-profits and creative industries).

I want to watch Shloe’s movies and I want to see Mark’s musicals and I want to volunteer with Joe’s non-profit and eat at Annie’s restaurant and send my kids to schools Jeff’s reformed and I’m JUST SCARED about this industry that’s taking all my friends and telling them this is the best way for them to be spending their time. Any of their time. Maybe I’m ignorant and idealistic but I just feel like that can’t possibly be true. I feel like we know that. I feel like we can do something really cool to this world.

The encouragement from a twenty-two-year-old to put creativity before money is perhaps an unusual one, but an important one. Likewise, Keegan's short stories "Cold Pastoral", "Winter Break" and "Hail, Full of Grace" act as clever reminders to nurture our family bonds. "Hail, Full of Grace", my favourite story in the collection, has Keegan's literary talent on full show. There's loneliness, jealousy, and mourning for what's passed in the story of Audrey, a woman who returns - with her newly adopted baby - to the town she grew up in, faced with the memories of what has passed and the baby she lost in her twenties.

Keegan's writing isn't always perfect (it's worth remembering that it wasn't left in that way), but it demonstrates both hope and an exceptional awareness of life's ultimate balance with death. Throughout the collection, Keegan is questioning "if not now, when?", and it's impossible to undermine the impact that this book has certainly had upon twentysomethings struggling to navigate the economic climate. However, I think it's worth trying to avoid classifying an audience for this book.

I think we can all pick up something of our own human spirit in Keegan's writing, as in "Song for the Special": 

I'm so jealous. Laughable jealousies, jealousies of everyone who might get a chance to speak from the dead. I've zoomed out my timeline to include the apocalypse, and, religionless, I worship the potential for my own tangible trace. How presumptuous! To assume specialness in the first place. As I age, I can see the possibilities fade from the fourth-grade displays: it's too late to be a doctor, to star in a movie, to run for president. There's a really good chance I'll never do anything. It's selfish and self-centered to consider, but it scares me.

It's easy to mourn what could have been upon reading The Opposite of Loneliness, but this well-crafted book allows us to praise the work that Keegan created before her passing. What is more, it is a book that allows us to be inspired to take action in our own lives, whatever our age: a legacy the author more than deserves for these stories and essays.

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Saturday, 27 December 2014

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Books That Kept Her Strong, Including John le Carré, Austen & WWI Poetry

BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs makes for intriguing listening. Each episode invites the chosen castaway (a celebrity or important figure of lesser or greater fame or virtue) to choose eight pieces of music, a book (in addition to the Bible - or religious text - and The Complete Works of Shakespeare) and a luxury item.

A favourite of mine is the interview with Aung San Suu Kyi, first broadcast on 27 January 2013, which is a rare personal interview with the Chairperson and General Secretary of the National League for Democracy in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi is an incredible figure of courage and an endless campaigner for democracy, and I've been previously inspired by her collective writings, Freedom From Fear. However, even the strongest of wills would by tested by facing almost 15 years of house arrest. To hear about the music and books that helped Aung San Suu Kyi to retain a degree of strength during this time is a great gift to us.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi arrives to give speech at her constituency Kawhmu township, Myanmar on 22 March 2012. Image by Htoo Tay Zar.

1. Aung San Suu Kyi's book for a desert island: the Abhidhamma

As her one book to enjoy as a castaway on Desert Island Discs, Aung San Suu Kyi chose the Buddhist Abhidhamma, a collection of core Buddhist texts. I'm fascinated by Buddhism, and I'm currently reading The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa.

The book is a great introduction to becoming a "warrior" of the mind, and comes with some great advice to apply to our own lives (on both good and bad days):

May we continue to open our hearts and minds, in order to work ceaselessly for the benefit of all beings.
May we go to the places that scare us.
May we lead the life of a warrior.

The Buddha preaching the Abhidhamma.

Elizabeth and Mr Darcy by Hugh Thomson, 1894

2. Fiction by and about inspiring people (alongside beautifully written books) 

In the Desert Island Discs recording, Aung San Suu Kyi added some further choices that are both brilliantly crafted and greatly inspiring. If we're looking for some day-to-day motivation, here are some superb recommendations to get us started. 

Why not re-read Austen's novels, get inspired by Gandhi's autobiography, or flick through the Selected Writings of Havel?

Of course I read a lot about people who were inspiring, people who could help me with my task... Gandhi, Nero, Václav Havel. At the same time, I would re-read Jane Austen and get a lot out of that, simply through the beauty of the language.

- Desert Island Discs, 27 January 2013

I'm a firm believer in the positive effect of inspiring books - see my list of some favourite novels here. I've also written about the anti-anxiety effects of beautifully written fiction.

3. John le Carré's novels

An unexpected yet brilliant choice from Aung San Suu Kyi is John le Carré's work, the author of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (also a major film). Can't we all relate to her desire for an escape from the real world, or rather "a journey into the wider world"?

I have to mention one of my fellow honorands at this time, because when I was under house arrest I was also helped by the books of John le Carré. They were an escape – I won’t call it an escape, they were a journey into the wider world. Not the wider world just of other countries, but of thoughts and ideas. And these were the journeys that made me feel that I was not really cut off from the rest of humankind. I was never alone, because there were many, many avenues to places far away from where I was.

- Oxford University Speech, 20 June 2012

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

4. Poetry of the First World War

I frequently write about my love for Edward Thomas's poetry, while I know that many of you also enjoy the work of Robert Frost and Wilfred Owen. Therefore, WWI poetry comes as another welcome choice from Suu Kyi.

The First World War represented a terrifying waste of youth and potential, a cruel squandering of the positive forces of our planet. The poetry of that era has a special significance for me because I first read it at a time when I was the same age as many of those young men who had to face the prospect of withering before they had barely blossomed.

- Nobel Lecture, Oslo, 16 June 2012

In particular, Aung San Suu Kyi has quoted "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" by Alan Seegar (1917):

I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
Men of U.S. 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918

Are you inspired by the favourite books of great leaders, thinkers, and artists? Do share your favourites below in the comments. I hope to be sharing more insights into the reading lives of inspiring people every few weeks!

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Saturday, 20 December 2014

Festive Reading: 10 Warming Books to Enjoy by the Christmas Tree

After postponing the Christmas music, mince pies and decorating for a few weeks later than most, I'm finally letting myself enjoy the run-up to Christmas. And what goes best with a glass of mulled wine? A good book, of course. Here are a few cheery, uplifting and warming books (in my opinion - feel free to contest) to enjoy over the next few weeks.

1. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Whether it's the TV adaptation or the book with its wonderful drawings, The Snowman epitomises childhood Christmas memories for me. If it brings back happy memories for you too, I say find a copy for your living room this Christmas.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Image source.

2. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

A book about friendship, letters and great reading material that I think all worshippers of the written word should dedicate a few hours to. A warming novel that reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (another great book!)

84 Charing Cross Road, 1969

3. The Five Orange Pips and Other Cases by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A brilliant collection of Sherlock Holmes stories to help us wind down this winter, and that allows us, like Sherlock, to create a balance between using our intellectual talents and resting on a good sofa in a warm sitting room.

4. The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

The first non-fiction choice on this list, but, as a celebration of etymology with lots of quirky facts and peculiar words, it's a great choice for fiction fans.

5. A Christmas Tree by Charles Dickens

One of the lesser known stories from Dickens's array of Christmas fiction, the warming and festive descriptions in the book make it a refreshing, although much more concise, alternative to Dickens's most popular story for the Christmas season.

Albert Chevallier Tayler, The Christmas Tree (1911)

6. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Yes, the title is quite pessimistic, but it's a superb celebration of life, family and reading that is one of my favourite choices for Christmas reading. A novel I'd do well to read again (and soon, if possible!)

7. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

A landmark children's fiction series that should by all means be revisited in adulthood!

Novels on my sofa reading pile 

(which may or may not be good festive fireside reading)

8. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

"Doerr's gorgeous combination of soaring imagination with observation is electric. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another." Goodreads

9. How to be Both by Ali Smith

"Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real - and all life's givens get given a second chance." The Man Booker Prize

10. The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories by Marina Keegan

"An affecting and hope-filled posthumous collection of essays and stories from the talented young Yale graduate whose title essay captured the world's attention in 2012 and turned her into an icon for her generation." Goodreads

Other noteworthy titles

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Do you tailor your reading choices around Christmas? Let me know what you're reading (or planning to read) in the comments below!

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Saturday, 13 December 2014

"Head and shoulders above the others": What James Joyce Thought of Leo Tolstoy

Stephen Longstreet, Elliot Paul and James Joyce, 1927

James Joyce wrote to his brother, Stanislaus, in September 1905 at the age of 23:

As for Tolstoy I disagree with you altogether. Tolstoy is a magnificent writer. He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical! He is head and shoulders over the others. I don't take him very seriously as a Christian saint. I think he has a very genuine spiritual nature but I suspect that he speaks the very best Russian with a St Petersburg accent and remembers the Christian name of his great-great-father [...] 
He goes on to add, in a rather wonderful defence of Tolstoy,
A writer in the Illustrated London News sneers at Tolstoy for not understanding WAR. 'Poor dear man!' he says. Now, damn it, I'm rather good-tempered but this is a little bit too much. Did you ever hear such impudence? Do they think the author of Resurrection and Anna Karénin is a fool? Does this impudent, dishonourable journalist think he is the equal of Tolstoy, physically, intellectually, artistically or morally? The thing is absurd. But when you think of it, it's cursedly annoying also. Perhaps that journalist will undertake to revise Tolstoy more fully - novels, stories, plays and all.

This letter is quoted in the brilliant James Joyce by Richard Ellman (1983, p209-10), the go-to biography of Joyce. The book is exceptionally long at 887 pages in paperback, but it's incredibly well-researched and I'd recommend it to anyone keen to know more about Joyce.

It also has a superb intertextual level - as in the letter about Tolstoy above - and does much to honour the favourite authors and books of Joyce. In a well-written biography, I always see this as a great addition.

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Saturday, 6 December 2014

Retreating into a Book for Bibliotherapy: 8 of the Best Retreats in Fiction

I'm convinced that when we read about characters retreating into settings that allow them to recuperate and relax, we undergo a similar process. Here are a few of my favourite literary retreats - they might just help you too. 

1. The Pyrenees mountains in The South by Colm Tóibín

Calm, quiet days in the Pyrenees. The sharp chill of winter yielding to the subtle movements of spring. The foresters were at work in the hills above the village. She watched the elaborate ritual of felling a tree, the long preparations, the shouting, the resting periods.

2. The haymaking fields in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Not understanding what it was, or where it came from, in the middle of his work he suddenly experienced a pleasant sensation of coldness on his hot, sweaty shoulders. He looked up at the sky while the scythes were being whetted. A low, heavy cloud had blown over, and large drops of rain were falling. Some peasants went to put their kaftans on, while others, like Levin, just shook their shoulders gleefully at being so pleasantly refreshed.

3. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

He missed Hogwarts so much it was like having a constant stomachache. He missed the castle, with its secret passageways and ghosts, his classes, … the mail arriving by owl, eating banquets in the Great Hall, sleeping in his four-poster bed in the tower dormitory, visiting the gamekeeper, Hagrid, in his cabin next to the Forbidden Forest in the grounds, and especially, Quidditch, the most popular sport in the wizarding world
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

4. The library in Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

“The library was like a second home. Or maybe more like a real home, more than the place I lived in. By going every day I got to know all the lady librarians who worked there. They knew my name and always said hi. I was painfully shy, though, and could barely reply.”

5. Antarctica in Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

“All you need to know about Antarctica is it’s three horizontal stripes. On the bottom, there’s the stripe for the water, which is anywhere from black to dark gray. And on top of that, there’s a stripe for the land, which is usually black or white. Then there’s a stripe for the sky, which is some kind of gray or blue.” 

6. Miss Honey's house in Matilda by Roald Dahl

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,’ Matilda said.
‘Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?’ Miss Honey asked.
‘I do,’ Matilda said. ‘Children are not so serious as grown-ups and love to laugh.”

7. The Italian Riviera in The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

“That evening was the evening of the full moon. The garden was an enchanted place where all the flowers seemed white. The lilies, the daphnes, the orange-blossom, the white stocks, the white pinks, the white roses - you could see these as plainly as in the daytime; but the coloured flowers existed only as fragrance.”

8. Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Elrond's house was perfect, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing (or reading), or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness. ... Evil things did not come into the secret valley of Rivendell.”

What's your favourite retreat in fiction, and when was the last time you escaped to it? I think finding such a place is the ideal way to engage with a bit of bibliotherapy!

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Friday, 28 November 2014

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: A Novel About Transforming Ourselves That's Inspired by Austen

Colm Tóibín is a writer I know a fair bit about yet have never properly read. Until now, that is (one of the great benefits of taught literature modules being that you must read writers you'd otherwise skate around).

When researching my blog article about novels set in Barcelona before moving there, Tóibín was right at the top of every Goodreads list or Guardian top-ten article. His non-fiction guide to Barcelona, Homage to Barcelona, is a book that I've meant to read (much like Orwell's Homage to Catalonia that the title nods to) but never got round to, despite some encouraging flicking through pages and browsing contents.

Perhaps this explains why I didn't make the link between the Tóibín who celebrates Catalan culture, and the Irish-born Tóibín who plays an integral part in my Irish literature studies. These two sides of the author seemed to be so different - such unlikely parallels in a way - yet finally drawing a line between the two has been fascinating. Reading Brooklyn (Tóibín's 2009 novel) was a wonderful experience to kick this off, and I'm enjoying all there is to learn about the author's multi-faceted, complex body of work.

But more about Brooklyn.

Brooklyn: A Novel About Transformation

The novel centres on Eilis Lacey, a young woman living in small-town Ireland in the 1950s - a space in history where opportunities were few, particularly for women. Eilis is quiet and completely lacks all assertion, particularly when standing against Rose: her confident, fashionable and sociable sister. However, with the help of an Irish priest from Brooklyn, Eilis is the one to make the transatlantic journey to America, not Rose. What follows is a beautiful story of self-transformation, the complexities of romance, and the realities of homesickness.

If you're often reserved and a little shy, or you struggle escaping your comfort zone, you will probably see something of yourself in Eilis. She is frustratingly passive at times, and all readers are likely to shout at her to just do something at one stage or another, but there's something very relatable about her. Having been accustomed to living in the shadow of her confident sister, Eilis's relocation to Brooklyn changes everything. She becomes the centre of attention (albeit a very foreign one), and after a period of homesickness and displacement, she starts to shape her own identity.

Eilis takes up an evening class in accounting, and retreats to her books at the end of the day. She also meets Tony, a loveable Italian who distances her character even further from the 'old Eilis'. However, her family ties pull her back to Ireland and we're left to see if her life in Brooklyn - and her new identity - can sustain itself. The plot is directly influenced by Tóibín's own time living in Barcelona during his twenties - a direct parallel with my own life that must have coloured my reading of Brooklyn in more ways than one.

Pride and Prejudice of the 1950s?

In the early stages of the novel, we come across a scene that alerts the intertextual senses of every keen reader. Eilis is at an evening dance, standing with a female friend, and they approach two men. George is warm and friendly, but his friend, Jim, is decidedly not: he is rude, dismisses her offer to dance, and creates a lasting impression as a character to avoid. That is, if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice. This is a Mr Darcy figure if ever there was one.

Connections to Pride and Prejudice can be picked up on throughout the book, although it's worth considering if Eilis really fits the bill as an Elizabeth Bennett figure. I'd like to think so, but it just doesn't seem like a comfortable fit. Do, however, look out for the Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the Bennett sisters.

Deciding to read more Tóibín: The South and The Master

Perhaps my newfound interest in Tóibín's writing will be confined to Brooklyn, although it won't hurt to read a few of his other novels before I make up my mind.

I'm currently reading The South (Tóibín's first novel that's set in Barcelona), which doesn't quite seem to have the same magic, but I haven't given up just yet. The Master - a fictionalised biography of sorts of Henry James - seems fascinating. Surely one of the most rewarding elements of reading is coming across a new author and delving into their body of work.

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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Reasons to Read Anna Karenina, Part 1: The Authenticity of Levin

I shared some thoughts on the introduction to Rosamund Bartlett's translation of Anna Karenina at the start of October, happy to have found a new edition of Tolstoy's classic novel. War and Peace has always seemed to win more of my attention, but I think that's largely due to the diversity of translations available and the rereads I've enjoyed. As a result, I'm so glad there's a new, exciting and high-quality translation of Anna Karenina available as an alternative to the standard Pevear & Volokhonsky found in most bookshops.

I began the book impressed by the introduction, and I'm enjoying it more and more as it progresses. Although it was quite difficult to get used to, I'm appreciating Bartlett's dedication to the original Russian. It's not always pretty and it's often repetitive, but it's accurate, and Bartlett somehow manages to convey a wonderful sense of beauty at the same time. I'll write more about this as I get on with my reading.

Now that I'm in the midst of the novel, I'd like to share a series of posts - focused on the Bartlett translation - encouraging you to give it a go too. This week, let's celebrate one of the most-loved characters of the novel: Konstantin Levin.

Domnhall Gleeson as Konstantin Levin in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina

What's so special about Levin?

1. He's innately good, as opposed to so many others in the novel

Levin strives to achieve worthy goals and be a good person, and on the whole he succeeds. He's an idealised figure for Tolstoy, as he becomes for many readers of Anna Karenina, and he's a wonderful character to watch develop.

Hypocrisy in whatever guise can deceive the cleverest and most perceptive person, but the dullest of children will recognise it, however artfully it may be concealed, and be repelled. Whatever Levin's faults, there was not a shred of hypocrisy in him, and so the children displayed to him the same friendliness they found reflected in their mother's face.

2. Yet he's not at all perfect

Levin's story of transformation is a central part of the plot, and we see him progress from an anxious, awkward and confused young man to a happy and settled husband and father. The first part of this story is perhaps the most interesting, and we realise that Levin, just like all of us, has flaws. As one example, we can consider his inner dilemma about how to deal with his troubled brother:

A battle was going on in his heart between the desire to forget now about his unfortunate brother and the recognition that this would be wrong.

3. He feels anxious and self-conscious, although we realise he has no reason to

Levin, like Pierre in War and Peace alongside Tolstoy himself, experiences nerves like the rest of us. In the early stages of the novel, we see him trying to cultivate calm in front of the beautiful and kindhearted Kitty Scherbatsky:

He walked along the path towards the skating-rink, saying to himself: ‘You mustn’t be nervous, you must calm down. What’s the matter with you? Be quiet, stupid!’ he told his heart. But the more he tried to calm down, the more breathless he became.

However, it's not just love that evokes anxiety and self-consciousness in the character:

‘Yes, there is something loathsome and repellent about me,’ thought Levin as he left the Shcherbatskys and set off on foot to see his brother. ‘And I don’t fit in with other people. Pride, they say. No, I don’t have any pride. If I did, I wouldn’t have put myself in such a position.’

4. Tolstoy shows us how he struggles in society

Levin is most at home in the countryside, mindfully turning the hay or roaming his estate with his hunting dog. City life, however, brings out a frantic and unsettled side to Levin:

Whenever he arrived in Moscow, Levin was always agitated, frantic, slightly awkward, and annoyed by this awkwardness and, more often than not, came with some completely new and unexpected way of looking at things.

5. He sees the good in others

Levin isn't just good in himself, he also has a positive outlook that allows him to appreciate the good in others. When Stiva laments that Levin has "everything ahead of [him]" while he feels hopeless, Levin responds, "Surely you don’t have everything behind you?" Levin is a good friend and quick to find a positive instead of a point to criticise: something I know I should remember.

This even extends to Vronsky, Levin's rival standing in the way of his affection for Kitty:

There are people who, when meeting their victorious rival in whatever arena it might be, are immediately ready to turn their back on all that is good about him and see only bad things; and then there are people who, on the contrary, take pains to locate in this victorious rival the qualities with which he defeated them, and who, with an aching heart, look only for good things about him. Levin belonged to the latter category.

Can you relate to Levin and feel inspired by his transformation, as I do? Alternatively, does his character frustrate you slightly?

To all fellow fans of Anna Karenina, what do you love most about the novel: character, theme, or otherwise?

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Saturday, 1 November 2014

Family Life and Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I wanted you to have an extraordinary life.

- Rosemary's mother, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Often when I find myself in a reading slump, reading too many academic, heavy books is to blame. When it comes to my favourite authors (ahem, Tolstoy), reading is still a joy, but when it comes to books I need to read for some reason or another, I often end up struggling (the Spanish plays from the 1800s I'm reading for university come to mind). The remedy? An exciting novel I can immerse myself in for a few days.

After I kept seeing the bright yellow cover of Karen Joy Fowler's (Man Booker shortlisted) novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I wanted to see if this was the book for me to be reading. Although it took me a few weeks to start, when I did, it didn't take long to finish, and it successfully got me back into reading again - for fun.

However, rather surprisingly, the novel was nothing like I thought it would be. I picked up the book because I'd been seeing it everywhere, and I like to give a few novels selected for The Man Booker longlist and shortlist a go. I didn't know that the author wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, or that she often wrote science fiction or fantasy.

I'd worked out that the novel was about sibling rivalry - an exciting prospect - from a few glances at the back cover, but I had no idea about the book's central theme. I didn't even give the epigraph from Franz Kafka's "A Report for an Academy" a second thought (although I'll admit I haven't read the short story!) Here's the summary I'd read:

As a child, Rosemary used to talk all the time. So much so that her parents used to tell her to start in the middle if she wanted to tell a story. Now Rosemary has just started college and she barely talks at all. And she definitely doesn’t talk about her family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to find out for yourself what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other. Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. But there's something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. So now she's telling her story; a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice.

Now, if at this stage you are planning to read the novel, and have not read any detailed reviews (as I had not), I'd recommend you approach it blindly. Pick up the book when you have a few hours of uninterrupted reading time, and see what you think of it. You may be put off slightly by the revelation that arises perhaps a third of the way through the book (I must check the accuracy of this), or you might be intrigued.

For me it was a mixture of both. The novel quickly became something I could relate to (haven't most of us with siblings experienced rivalry at some point?), and I could see some of my own awkwardness yet love for learning in the protagonist, Rosemary. I was keen for this to develop further, but the revelation put a bit of a stop to it.

However, the plot turn did make for very interesting reading. I was grappling to understand the implications on the wider plot, which Rosemary in fact decides to start "at the middle", and my reading pace must have at least doubled at this point. How could the novel possibly end? Regardless of the unexpected big reveal, the central theme I was expected remained: family.

There are countless relationships and friendships at work in this novel, and none remain static. The oft-quoted first lines from Anna Karenina (more on Bartlett's new translation next week) that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" comes to mind here, and Tolstoy surfaces at various stages in the novel. Keep a look out for these! However, it's a very individual, yet relatable, depiction of family life. Rosemary struggles to find her place in her family, but does reach a sense of clarity, identity and purpose in the novel's closing pages.
Read it and have a think about your own life and ties to others.

That's all I'm going to say about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Give it a go, allow Rosemary to tell her story in the way she chooses, and keep your mind open. If I could only give one reason to read this book, this quote would be it:

One day I found a note he'd left for me inside The Fellowship of the Ring. He knew I reread that trilogy often; he knew that the day would come when I'd need the consolation of the Shire, which was as much like Bloomington, Indiana, as any place else in the world.

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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Winter Reading: 9 Books to Keep Warm With in the Coming Months

What makes good winter reading? For me it's all to do with what goes with hot drinks, warm covers and a comfy sofa. Uplifting fiction is good, but I don't choose the same feel-good books I'd go for in summer. I look for real characters who face difficulties, yet show a true love for life instead of disillusionment. I want something well-written and beautifully crafted, and I don't mind if it takes me slightly longer to read.

In an article for The Guardian back in 2011, Alison Flood wrote about the booksellers Waterstones asking authors, "What's your favourite fireside read, the book you go back to every winter?" Ali Smith chose Tove Jansson's The Summer Book ("a piece of light: what better to keep you warm through the darker months?"), Jonathan Coe selected Sherlock Holmes - one of my own choices in this article - while Jacqueline Wilson chose Jane Eyre as a winter classic.

Here are my choices. What do you look for in winter reading material?

Is it too early for this? Let's say we're planning ahead.

9 Fireside Reads for Winter, Best Enjoyed with Hot Chocolate

1. We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I've just started reading this novel, and the allure of its similarities to my own life and character have stopped me from putting it down and prioritising my academic reading (as I should). The novel's first lines place it "in the winter of 1996", so I thought it deserved a place in this article. Let's see if I change my mind. Have you read this Booker nominee yet?

2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

Reading these opening lines are enough to make me firmly consider a reread. Is that allowed considering I only read it in June? The Goldfinch is also a perfectly grandiose monument of a novel for wintertime.

3. Lists of Note by Shaun Usher

This beauty of a book will be the first item on any Christmas list of mine. A sequel of sorts to Letters of Note, this is a superb book that celebrates the humble list. Flick through it and you'll find a shopping list written by two 9th-century Tibetan monks, Galileo's list of parts needed to build his telescope, and 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe's inspirational set of New Year's resolutions. The perfect Christmas gift (although can I wait that long?)

4. Dubliners by James Joyce

The final words of "The Dead", the last short story in Dubliners, is enough to make my winter reading worthwhile. Simply magical stuff, and I'm so glad my current studies of Joyce has revitalised my love for his writing. I don't want to give away the quotation, I'll just say - as I have before - that it's worth getting to.

5. The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1) by Philip Pullman

My reading of His Dark Materials as a child was very much like my Harry Potter reading experience: magical, warming, and otherworldly. I always seem to come across writing on the philosophy and wider meaning of the series, and I'd love to see how I react to Pullman's writing as an adult. With its polar bears and snow leopards, I think I'd choose winter for this.

6. The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz

I'm so excited to read more of Sir Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories this winter. I think Holmes and Watson are the perfect companions for a warm reading day inside from the cold, and the books provide just the right amout of mental stimulation. I'm also looking forward to reading the Anthony Horowitz sequels, with Moriarty - the book following House of Silk - also released earlier this week.

7. A Game of Thrones by George R.R.Martin

Going beyond the wall isn't really suited for summer, and I'm looking forward to continuing with the series after a break of several months. I tend to read novels fixed in the present and ordinary, so an occasional escape from this is often welcome. And after all, "winter is coming" (I couldn't resist). I'm also quite keen to give the graphic novel a try.

8. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

One of the most heartwarming books I've read, this memoir is sure to leave an imprint and top-up your to-read list. If you haven't yet read it, I'd say that this winter - when most of us have a bit more time to immerse ourselves in a book - is a wonderful time to do so.

9. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

When I think back to The Silkworm, sequel to The Cuckoo's Calling, I remember protagonist Cormoran Strike struggling to travel around London with one amputated leg, a crutch, and very icy pavements. I seem to associate snow with The Cuckoo's Calling too - if you haven't read the series, why not give it a go as temperatures fall this year? I'm looking forward to a few detective novels in the next few months.

What books are you adding to your to-read list this winter?

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Saturday, 18 October 2014

5 Pieces of Advice for Reading, Understanding & Enjoying James Joyce

I'm currently studying a modern Irish literature module, and I'm enjoying every moment of it. The last two weeks have been spent studying W.B. Yeats (on Thursday I submitted a critical analysis on "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"), but this week I progressed to James Joyce. I've never read Joyce in an academic setting before, and I thought it could go one of two ways: it could help me to enjoy Joyce's writing more, or it could simply make it less fun. I'm pleased to say it was the latter.

The selected book was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book I devoured as a teenager. In our seminar spent discussing the book, however, I realised that not all fellow-students were as keen on Joyce's writing. We discussed our first impressions of reading Joyce, and the class was divided: while half of us couldn't get enough of Joyce's groundbreaking style, at least as many people couldn't get into it at all.

The class soon developed into what the lecturer neatly termed a "Joyce self-help session", and we agreed upon five main ideas to make James Joyce more accessible to read. If you're curious, read on!

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co Paris, 1920.

1. Start small

Some of Joyce's finest writing can be found in Dubliners, his short story collection, and it's the least daring of his books. Immerse yourself in the world of Dublin and savour the final lines of "The Dead". Enjoying James Joyce doesn't mean battling through Finnegans Wake.

2. Get an audiobook

Joyce is wonderful to listen to, and you could say his books are better heard than read. Get an audiobook - the free LibriVox recording of Portrait is great - and let the words flow over you.

3. Don't worry too much about details (or understanding everything)

One of my fellow students suggested that there are two ways to read Joyce: understanding all the little details and intricacies below the surface, or allowing yourself a 'superficial' reading that doesn't question too much. I've only really done the latter so far in my Joyce journey, and I think it's helped me to gain a really good basic understanding of each book I've read (and enjoyed, too).

4. Joyce goes well with whisky

My lecturer recently admitted that one of her best experiences reading Joyce happened when she was in bed with fever...and a bottle of whisky. If you enjoy a nightcap, combine it with Joyce's writing and you won't find yourself preoccupied with the little details, that's for sure.

5. Develop a lifelong relationship

I started reading Joyce a few years ago, and I'm so enjoying adding layers to my reading as I get older. When I first read Portrait, I could relate to Stephen's shyness during his school years. On my recent reading, however, I've been drawn to his search for meaning and creativity. It's exciting to think what my interpretations will be like in years to come.

My advice for reading Joyce is similar to that for reading Tolstoy, although Joyce's writing comes with its characteristic modernist style. It's easy to feel put off by this, and Joyce isn't for everyone, but I'm hoping these ideas will provide guidance for those who wish to give his books a go.

Have you read Joyce before? Is it on your literary bucket list?

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Friday, 10 October 2014

Initial Thoughts on Rosamund Bartlett's Translation of Anna Karenina

I don't give Anna Karenina enough attention here on Tolstoy Therapy. In fact, I've never given the novel it's own, dedicated post. Now that Rosamund Bartlett, author of my most-loved Tolstoy biography, has translated the novel, this will certainly change.

In fact, the one translation I've read of Anna Karenina was the Pevear and Volokhonsky. I wasn't overwhelmed by their translation of the novel, but considering my opinion of their War and Peace, I think it's time I try something new.

Bartlett's translation provides the perfect opportunity. Published by Oxford University Press, the book is currently available as hardback and ebook (I'm reading the latter). I'm planning to provide you with a few articles on my opinion of the translation itself, alongside ways in which we can apply Anna Karenina to our own lives. These will be posted as I read the book over the coming weeks.

An organism like a bubble will emerge out of infinite time, infinite matter, and infinite space, and that bubble will last for a while and burst, and that bubble is me.

- Levin in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, from the Bartlett translation

Let's talk about the introduction

To say the least, the introduction is extensive, which is what I was expecting from the author (as a biographer of both Tolstoy and Chekhov). For some readers its detail and length might seem overwhelming - it took me several train journeys to finish - but I think there's nothing wrong with skipping an introduction, or returning to it after finishing the book.

Bartlett covers the historical and political context of the novel, alongside Tolstoy's growth as writer and thinker. She writes with beautiful astuteness to illustrate Anna Karenina in its own time, as is the case here:

'Everything was confusion in the Oblonsky's house', we read in the opening lines of the novel. Everything was also confusion in Russia. It is thus understandable why, at an age of such social and political upheaval, why some of Tolstoy's more progressive readers were nonplussed by the idea of a novel about an aristocratic woman who has an affair with an army officer. It seemed out of date to them, and their author out of kilter with his age. But of course Anna Karenina is very much more than a society novel. 

Rather than simply stating facts and biographical details, Bartlett explains what these really mean for the novel. She situates the publication of Anna Karenina in a time and place which we can actually imagine and compare to modern society.

Bartlett goes on to consider Tolstoy's path to creating the novel as we know it today. In January 1872, Tolstoy attended the autopsy of a young woman he knew called Anna Pirogova. Bartlett writes: "Spurned by her lover, she had thrown herself under a goods-train at Yasenki, the railway station close to Yasnaya Polyana which had opened only five years earlier."

The following year, Tolstoy read an article by Alexandre Dumas (fils) which responded to a recent controversial trial in which a husband was given a light prison sentence for murdering his unfaithful estranged wife. These factors - alongside an unfinished sketch for a story by Pushkin with an immediate narrative style catching Tolstoy's eye - led to a draft of the novel's opening first finding itself on paper.

For new and existing readers alike, Bartlett's introduction does much to illuminate Tolstoy's shaping of Anna Karenina and our modern reading. The introduction also makes a neat defence of her translation decisions, which I'm curious to see on display in the novel itself (there's nothing too surprising, but we'll cover this later). So far, so good.

Have you read Anna Karenina? How does a British translation with a comprehensive introduction sound to you?

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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Reading W.B. Yeats's "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" as a Meditation on Life

Today I'm sharing with you something that's a little different. I've just started a university module on Modern Irish Literature, and this week's focus is on W.B. Yeats. While I was tempted to write a little about "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" to help us to envisage relaxing settings, I decided to embrace the unpredictable and contemplate another poem that caught my eye.

Let's give it a quick read:

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (1919)

I know that I shall meet my fate,
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

A gloomy or calming poem?

I was hesitant to write about this poem at first, largely because I thought you might find it gloomy, perhaps even depressing. However, there's something that's making me think otherwise. Upon reading the poem there's a meditative sense of giving way to fate, and I felt this gave the experience a calming and pleasant element. Perhaps this stems from the nature of flying in the beautiful realm "somewhere among the clouds above", or maybe from the more direct line which reminds me of a Japanese haiku or Buddhist mantra: "in balance with this life, this death".

Considering 2014's centenary while reading Yeats

It's a sad poem for me primarily in its injustice: the persona - based on Yeats's good friend Robert Gregory - shouldn't have to be in this situation, especially fighting for England rather than his native Ireland. We shall all "meet [our] fate", but having to "foresee" it - whether through patriotic duty, medical evidence or some subconscious inkling - can never be easy.

I think "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" helps me cultivate gratitude in that I - and the wider modern world - are unlikely to be forced to fight those we do not hate, and guard those we do not love. It also feels particularly fitting to read this poem in light of the 2014 centenary of the First World War, giving special thought to those not necessarily doing their patriotic duty, as in the case of this Irish airman.

Let's look up at the sky

Finally there's the sublime nature of the sky above us. I know I often paraphrase or directly quote Andrey's observations in War and Peace on the triviality of anxiety compared to the sky, but I think dwelling on it is a great way to put things into perspective. Perhaps contemplating this also gives us greater insight into the mind of Yeats's pilot at such a difficult time too, alongside Yeats' own difficulties in coming to terms with the loss of his friend.

How would you read this poem? Do you find it sad, moving, or calming in some sense, as I do?

“Behind all seen things lies something vaster; everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something other than itself. ”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars

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