Saturday 31 January 2009

8 - 'Bleak House' by Charles Dickens

In 'Oliver Twist', Dickens had already coined the phrase 'The law is an ass', but it is 'Bleak House' which shows the English legal system of the early-nineteenth century in all its assinine glory, ears and all. The story of a corrupt and unethical system, mercilessly bleeding dry those whom it supposes to represent, is the major concern of this great, sprawling novel, which takes in Dickens' usual London haunts, as well as drawing in other strands from outside the metropolis into the great imperial capital. Just as Mr. Tulliver in George Eliot's 'Mill on the Floss' learns that nothing good comes from going to law, those pitiful characters who get too closely involved with the cases in the Court of Chancery are likewise sucked dry and ground down, some even to the point of death.

If you've never read Dickens, the first few pages, or chapters, may leave you wondering what all the fuss is about. The writing is sensational, ironic, comic, and may leave you with impressions of a holiday read rather than classic literature (and you wouldn't be wrong - Dickens was a kind of pop star of his day, with his books released in installments and his public readings continuing almost until his death); however, the more you read, the more you get sucked in to the plot; and the plot, as is common in Victorian literature, is a good one.

To hold the reader's attention for almost 1000 pages by weaving mutiple plot strands together so skilfully that the resolutions do not appear contrived or over-coincidental takes a masterly control of the narrative, but it is the vast host of characters, of course, where Dickens shows his genius. The vile Smallweeds, the vagabond street sweeper, Jo (who don't know nothink), the half insane Miss Flite, the charming and mercurial Inspector Bucket; these characters, primarily conceived to support the main protagonists, steal the show thanks to their being so well drawn (as befits the creations of a man whose first popular work was entitled 'Sketches by Boz'). That the reader is able to follow the story and identify (or not...) with the people involved in it is further testimony to Dickens' talent. I won't spoil the enjoyment by revealing any of the plot, but I can say with great confidence that you'll guess many of the twists and turns, be slightly surprised by one or two and be floored by at least one (I never saw it coming!).

Coming back to Dickens after a long, long absence, filled as it was with books by Eliot, James, Hardy, Conrad and Lawrence, I was slightly worried that his rollercoaster novels would appear bland and inconsequential next to the works of the great masters of psychological literature. Thankfully, that was never going to happen. While Dickens cannot compare to the aforementioned authors when it comes to what's going on inside the mind, he blows them out of the water when it comes to reflecting the world around him. There's a reason why we still talk of Dickensian settings and characters; you don't get your own adjective for nothing (or nothink).

Friday 23 January 2009

7 - 'Persuasion' by Jane Austen

21st January

Dear Diary,

I have just finished Volume 1 of 'Persuasion', and I have a confession to make: I am beginning to lose faith in Victorian literature.

You have already heard my feelings about 'Jane Eyre', and after the first half of this book, I am again starting to feel disappointed. Anne Elliot is such a boring central character, whose actions are so unnoteworthy that I frequently find myself drawn to the remote control, rather than my book. As for Mary, well, I'm sure she frequently appears at the top of lists of 'Fictional characters you wish had mysteriously been eaten by wolves near the start of a book'.

I'm trying to stay strong, and the introduction of the nautical types brings some interest, but I'm finding it hard to focus on the storyline (which is even worse when you consider that there really isn't one). I've got a shelf-full of Dickens, Hardy and Eliot: what do I do if I get let down again?

Yours in trepidation,


23rd January

Well, I've just finished 'Persuasion', and I'm happy enough to give 19th-Century literature the benefit of the doubt for now; however, it was a close-run thing. Despite never reaching the dramatic, comedic (and even sarcastic) heights of 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Emma', the second volume did have some redeeming features.

The first part of this volume used the location of Bath to great effect, and Anne became more elegant, beautiful and wise with each passing page, with the arrival of the Musgroves and co. throwing greater emphasis onto the idiocy of Sir Walter and his eldest daughter. In addition, the intrigues and intricate byplay of the social life in the (not-so) big city approached the human relationships Emma Woodehouse dwelt on (and created). However, the 120-odd pages couldn't fully make up for the weak first volume, especially when the ending was so predictable and soppy. Yes, they may have had to wait donkeys' years to find true love, but after only 236 pages, you can't expect the reader to be cartwheeling around the living room out of joy for them.

Oh well, despite the lack of complete satisfaction, I'll keep on with my plundering of the canon for now, but it may be a while before I'm 'persuaded' to read this book again...

Yours in anticipation of better books to come,


Tuesday 20 January 2009

6 - 'Ansichten eines Clowns' by Heinrich Böll

Reading in a foreign language is difficult for a number of reasons. Firstly, you rarely understand every word, and even the ones you do understand may have different connotations and embedded cultural references which you don't get. It's also easy to drift off and, while concentrating on the meaning of the words in front of you, forget how that ties in with the book in general. A further issue is the fact that it's bloody tiring and gives you a headache...

I did encounter these problems while reading Böll's novel (simply 'The Clown' in English), but the biggest hurdle I faced was reading a book with virtually no frame of reference. When reading novels in English, my cultural background usually gives me some kind of insight into the topic and setting, and I often have a good idea of the writer and their background. Without this knowledge, reading can be a little unsettling; it can be difficult to understand why the characters act as they do, and you're not always sure that you understand what the writer is getting at.

Despite all this, I enjoyed the book greatly. The clown of the title, Hans Schnier, has been abandoned by his long-term partner after their marriage discussions broke down because of her Catholic insistence on promises regarding the education of their (future) children. From then on, he descends into an alcohol-fuelled decline, and one night (the length of the book), after returning to Bonn from his latest disastrous performance, he phones family and friends, ostensibly to ask for money, but really to clear the air with people who he (mostly) dislikes.

Many people see the book as an attack on the Catholic church (which Böll denied): it is certainly very critical of both Catholicism and the 'chattering classes' of Bonn's closed-in political world. It is also fiercely against the hypocrisy of those who went with the flow during the Second World War and claimed to be reformed democrats after it. Like the Nazi writer who was briefly censored and then used this to his credit after the end of the war, many of the successful characters in the book have used their positions to their advantage while the honest, generous clown ends up broke and broken begging in front of Bonn station, waiting for his former partner to return from her honeymoon with her new husband.

Much as I love practicing my German, it'll be a relief to return to English for a while (when you start thinking in a second language at night, it's a guarantee of a bad night's sleep!). I'll definitely read another of his books; however, next time I'll have a dictionary and a bottle of paracetomol handy.

Friday 16 January 2009

5 - 'Silas Marner' by George Eliot

George Eliot (who was born not far from my home town and used it as the basis of 'Middlemarch') wrote big books. Big, weighty books with important themes.

'Silas Marner' is about 180 pages long, and at first glance, is about a moody old bloke.

Of course, it's a bit more complex than that. The conflicting tales of the calvinist weaver, cast out of his home society by an evil friend, who finds riches, then despair, and finally fulfilment in the shape of a daughter (Silas does these things, not the friend; commas can be confusing); and the son of a squire who gives into temptation in the form of a secret marriage and hides the presence of the daughter after the hated wife's untimely demise (can you tell what it is yet...) pack countless religious, mythological, social and literary allusions into the twenty-one chapters, and many critics called it her finest novel.

Still, I wasn't entirely convinced. The book is slow at times, and a more thorough analysis of Marner's character before the changes in his life in Raveloe would have added to the story. In addition, while there is meant to be a contrast between the good-hearted (and simple-minded?) village folk and the gentry of the area, the scenes with the higher-status characters actually seem dull at times.

However, the passages with Silas and Eppie are full of interest (especially for a father with a baby daughter!), and the confrontation in Silas' house with Godfrey and Nancy Cass is made for a BBC television adaptation (and probably already has been...). Despite the brevity of the story, you don't feel that the tale has ended too quickly; in fact, for such a short book, a lot seems to have been packed in.

While I've read a fair bit of George Eliot recently (and enjoyed all of it), this, in my humble opinion, does not match up to 'Adam Bede' or 'Romola'. I am soon to re-read 'Middlemarch', and as this time I won't be keeping an eye out for places I know (for some reason, I kept thinking that Eliot would mention prominent Coventry landmarks on each page!), I'm sure I'll enjoy it more - and probably a little more than 'Silas Marner' too.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

4 - 'To The Lighthouse' by Virginia Woolf

'Stream of conciousness' is one of those expressions that I had a vague idea of, but had never really come across until last year. Then I read 'On The Road' and experienced the style of writing where you are inside the head of the characters, confusing as that may be at times, something which makes you keep reading even though it's sometimes difficult to follow the ideas.

Well, 'To The Lighthouse' is that to the power 27. The book is only about 220 pages long, and the short middle section is comparatively easy to read, but what comes before and after this passage of literary calm is more mentally taxing than a whole shelf at your local Borders. The quick exchange of points of view from the numerous characters at the Ramsay's (not-so-secret code for the Stephens, Woolf's family) holiday house on the Isle of Skye draw you in; it's difficult to stop (but a relief, at times, when you do!).

Essentially, as Woolf puts it, 'an elegy' to her parents, especially her philosopher father, it also explores various relationships (husband-wife, father-son, friends) and lays bare the tension that is always present in human relationships. The use of stream of conciousness brings the aggression and tension to the forefront of the reader's attention, similar to the way D.H. Lawrence shows us the thoughts of the characters of 'Sons and Lovers' and 'The Rainbow'. I always had Woolf down as a feminist writer and was a little unsure as to how I would like this book, but it's definitely enjoyable (providing you don't have too many external distractions!).

So, is it worth reading?

In short, I bought this on a whim, and after reading it, I'm keen to read 'Mrs. Dalloway' and explore Woolf's literary world a little more. I think that's about as good a recommendation as you'll get!

Sunday 11 January 2009

3 - 'Kafka on the Shore' by Haruki Murakami

A common theme that comes up in the Facebook groups I frequent is the comparison of favourite books to comfort food; I don't mean junk food ('Twilight', thy name is Big Mac), but food, or books, that you come back to again and again because of their effect on you. Well, Murakami books are definitely one of my favourite literary snacks, and 'Kafka on the Shore' doesn't disappoint.

To explain the plot would make no sense to those who have no experience of Murakami's surreal tales; when you get a man who talks to cats, a magic stone, rains of leeches and mackerel, and Colonel Sanders (I'm not joking), it's hard to summarise plot lines.

What can be explained are some of Murakami's usual themes: characters who don't fit into the 'Salaryman' 9-to-5 life of modern Japan, a preoccupation with literature and music (both classical and popular) over the mass media, a need to find your true self, even if that means going away to find it. Oh, and cats. Murakami likes cats.

If you've never read a Murakami book, 'Norwegian Wood' is probably a better place to start as the lack of talking cats and parallel worlds will make it easier to enjoy the writing. However, for those of you who have previously read works like 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' or 'A Wild Sheep Chase', this is 505 pages of pure comfort food.

Now, where's that grilled eel...

Friday 9 January 2009

2 - 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte

Mugging grannies, kicking puppies, dissing 'Jane Eyre': I am about to be guilty of one of these three crimes. Alright, seeing as this is a book blog it probably wasn't too hard to guess which one, but I stand by my decision; 'Jane Eyre' is not all it's cracked up to be.

I don't mind 'Jane Eyre', but I don't really like Jane Eyre, at least, not after she's hit puberty. The fire of her encounter with Mrs. Reed is impressive, but the adult version is merely over-religious and annoying. Her insistence on speaking her thoughts aloud also grates. To be honest, the whole first-person narrative does the story a disservice; I think the book would have been better written at a distance.

St. John Rivers isn't much better. I don't think a character has annoyed me as much since the weird bloke in 'Mad Max 3' refused to die after being smashed around by Mel Gibson. In fact, in terms of persistence, there's an eery similarity... Not being religious myself, his good points were lost on me, and I just found him to be a big bully (I bet he kicks puppies).

Even after all of that, I may have got by unscathed were it not for the cheesiest ending of all endings. Edward and Jane heard each other in the night. At exactly the right time. From at least a hundred miles away. Now I know some loud women, but this might be a little bit of hyperbole here. Love is blind (and so is Edward until his sight miraculously reappears...), but it's obviously got extremely good hearing.

I'm not saying I hate this book, but for a classic which is always mentioned in the must-read category, it's pretty much chick-lit. A colleague of mine said it was a girl's book, and I should have listened.

Alright, alright, I admit it, I've kicked a couple of puppies in my time too...

Monday 5 January 2009

1 - 'Sons and Lovers' by D.H. Lawrence

During the Christmas holidays, I happened to catch part of a 'Home Improvement' episode where Tim set Al straight about his relationship with his girlfriend, telling him that he had to set boundaries with his mother if he wanted things to work. I don't really tend to follow advice from anyone called The Toolman, but it's a shame Paul Morel, the central character of 'Sons and Lovers', didn't have anyone to give him the same tip.

Paul's almost incestuous relationship with his mother overshadows the book and prevents him from finding love or happiness with either of his two partners (the clinging, religious and frigid Miriam, and the sexual, separated woman Clara). His mother resents the way that the women in her son's life take up so much of his time and energy; I'm pretty sure they felt the same way about her...

I enjoyed a lot about this book; coming from a working-class Midlands family myself, I could identify with the struggles Paul faced. However, his pathological attachment to his mother did wear a bit thin. This was made up for by Lawrence's style of writing which allows you to delve deep into the protagonists' thoughts. At times, you think that the emotions are a little exaggerated as characters seem to love and hate each other at five-minute intervals, but let's face it, if we all examined our emotions, that's exactly what happens.

You don't need a toolman to tell you that...

Thursday 1 January 2009

Review Policy

As people seem to be in the habit of sending me books now (or asking if I would like them sent), I thought that it was about time to post a proper review policy for Tony's Reading List.  I do enjoy receiving books from publishers, but I don't have enough time to read everything I'm offered.  I'm also hoping to avoid wasting people's precious time and money (I do understand that sending things to Australia from other countries can be fairly expensive...).  With that in mind, here is some useful information for anyone hoping to have me review a book...


1) If I request a review copy, and you send me one, I will always write a review (health permitting, and in the absence of major disasters), and I will do my best to publish it in a timely manner.  I'm not saying it will always be a positive one though :)

2) If you send me an unsolicited review copy, I may or may not read and review it.  I reserve the right to pass these books on to friends (or other bloggers), or take them to a charity shop.

3) The only books I am really interested in for review purposes are works of literary fiction (or, occasionally, non-fiction) in translation.  I am much less likely to want to read works in other genres (e.g. crime, fantasy, romance, historical fiction) or books originally written in English.

4) I am always happy to hear from publishers - feel free to e-mail me at:
               tonysreadinglist [at] y7mail [dot] com
I am always likely to reply (unless I sense that the e-mail is a mass one).

Thank you for your attention - and the interest in my blog :)

Just who is Tony, and what exactly is his Reading List?

Welcome to Tony's Reading List, a place where I pretend to know a lot more about literature than I actually do!

Tony?  That's me, a forty-something Englishman who has somehow ended up living in Melbourne with a wonderful wife and two cheeky daughters.  Don't ask how that happened as I'm not too sure myself...

The Reading List?  It does exist, in Excel form, and it's getting longer by the day.  The list was started on the first day of my blog, and it now contains hundreds of titles, culled from the never-ending pile of books we call literature.

What do I read?  A lot...  Over the past few years, my preferences have subtly shifted towards fiction in translation, and for the past two years, I've had a strike rate of over 90% in favour of books originally written in languages other than English.  While my major areas have been German-language literature and Japanese literature, 2014 saw a new focus with my self-education in Korean literature.  Let's see what the coming year will bring ;)

What else do I do?  That's not enough?  Well, I teach English as a second language, currently to migrants and budding university students, and try to keep up my own language skills in French and German (although I'm now focusing on Korean, too).  I used to play football too, but those days are long gone :(

Why do I do this?  If anyone finds out, please let me know...

2009 Challenges

Japanese Literature Challenge 3 - July 31st, 2009 - January 31st, 2010
- Read at least one Japanese book!
1) Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
2) Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami
3) The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
4) Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto
5) Runaway Horses by Yukio Mishima
6) Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami
7) The Temple of Dawn by Yukio Mishima
8) A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
9) The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
10) Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami
11) The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima
12) The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima

Mission well and truly completed :)

2009 Reading List

Click on the link to read the review :)

91 - Gott ist Rund - Die Kultur des Fußballs by Dirk Schümer
90 - The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima
89 - Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
88 - Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami
87 - Also Sprach Bellavista by Luciano De Crescenzo
86 - The World from Italy by George Negus
85 - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
84 - The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
83 - Der Weg Zurück by Erich Maria Remarque
82 - The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
81 - The President's Last Love by Andrey Kurkov
80 - A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
79 - The Temple of Dawn by Yukio Mishima
78 - The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White
77 - A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
76 - Stasiland by Anna Funder
75 - Gruppenbild mit Dame by Heinrich Böll
74 - Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami
73 - A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
72 - Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
71 - The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy
70 - The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes
69 - Katz und Maus by Günter Grass
68 - Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
67 - Runaway Horses by Yukio Mishima
66 - Dubliners by James Joyce
65 - The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
64 - The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
63 - Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto
62 - The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
61 - Scenes from Clerical Life by George Eliot
60 - Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami
59 - Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll
58 - Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
57 - The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevesky
56 - Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
55 - Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
54 - Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan
53 - Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
52 - Das Versprechen by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
51 - Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
50 - The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
49 - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
48 - Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
47 - The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
46 - Der Prozeß by Franz Kafka
45 - Notes from Underground & The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
44 - One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
43 - Headgames by Nick Earls
42 - The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox
41 - Medea/Hecabe/Electra/Heracles by Euripedes
40 - Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
39 - Les Récrés du Petit Nicolas by René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé
38 - Atonement by Ian McEwan
37 - Getting Rich First - Life in a Changing China by Duncan Hewitt
36 - What Maisie Knew by Henry James
35 - Breath by Tim Winton
34 - Middlemarch by George Eliot
33 - Forbidden Colours by Yukio Mishima
32 - The Universe by Richard Osborne
31 - Remembering Babylon by David Malouf
30 - Der Verdacht by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
29 - Der Richter und sein Henker by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
28 - Wish You were Here by Mike Gayle
27 - My Favourite Wife by Tony Parsons
26 - The Family Way by Tony Parsons
25 - Ulysses by James Joyce
24 - A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
23 - Billard um Halbzehn by Heinrich Böll
22 - Blind Faith by Ben Elton
21 - The Riders by Tim Winton
20 - Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
19 - Songs from the Other Side of the Wall by Dan Holloway
18 - Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
17 - Candide by Voltaire
16 - Slam by Nick Hornby
15 - A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
14 - Howard's End by E.M. Forster
12a - Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather by Gao Xingjiang
12 - How to Study Business Law by Glenda Crosling and Helen Murphy
11 - Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
10 - The Theban Plays by Sophocles
9 - How to Be Good by Nick Hornby
8 - Bleak House by Charles Dickens
7 - Persuasion by Jane Austen
6 - Ansichten eines Clowns by Heinrich Böll
5 - Silas Marner by George Eliot
4 - To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
3 - Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
2 - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
1 - Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence