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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