The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Friday, 27 May 2011

3rd Blogiversary

I almost forgot my own blogiversary this year, so nearly 10 days late, it was The Octogon's 3rd birthday on the 18th May.

Its been an amazing 3 years, lots of books, events, discussion and friends. A whole load of lovely things have come my way since I started this in 2008, many unexpected and surprising things, and I have enjoyed all of it and hope to continue for a long time yet.

I am off on holiday for a week, to work on the farm in Devon, so I'll catch up with you on the 5th June with a roundup of everything that happened in May.

Be back soon...

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Book Swap

It was time for another book swap in work. It has been 2 years since I organised the last one, and a number of people had enquired about whether we were having another, mainly because they had been having a clear out and had books to bring in. A good book swap is only as good as the books that take part, so the time was ripe to capitalise on spring cleaning ventures.

Throughout the day there were about 60 books on offer as various members of staff brought them in boxes and bags. There were some excellent titles on offer too, and many people were seen clutching their new books, showing other people, talking about which ones they had already read.

I have got better over the years with letting books go. I used to keep them all, but lack of space and a willingness to share have overcome this. Don't get me wrong, there are millions of books in our house, millions. I have just learnt that I cannot keep every one.

I took 3 books in... An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge, Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett, and Ox-Tales: Water by various authors. All 3 had gone at the end of the day, the Bainbridge going first. Ship Fever was an acquisition from a previous book swap.

In return I came away with 3 new exciting books... Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, and Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.

Oxfam did well out of the ones that remained at the end, about 20 in all.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920

It is time to fill you in on 2 more chapters from this really interesting literary theory book that I am making notes on as I read it throughout the year.

Last month saw chapters 4 and 5 on Thresholds and Interiors. This month sees the last chapter of Part One: Economies and Styles, and the first chapter in Part 2: Nation and Society.

Chapter 6 - The Relevance of Ulysses

If ever a book was thought to be the most prominent of the Modernist era, it is James Joyces' Ulysses, 'a novel which turned the whole genre inside out', p95. Difficult to market because of its 'peculiarity' it was to use this as part of its marketing ploy. It was rejected by mainstream publishers, but played upon its own 'uniqueness', with Joyce even producing a readers guide to help with its level of difficulty. All of this singled out readers who would invest time and energy in their reading, imbuing the book with a certain kudos and its readership as a literary elite, at least in the world of contemporary novels. 'Ulysses was defined by its difficulty' p97, even its title inferred a knowledge of Homer, to be going on with.

The first 10 episodes of the book are written in what is known as 'initial style', combining dialogue, first-person present-tense monologue, and third-person past-tense monologue. All pretty normative. This style evolves into a periodic structure, with the use of adverbials, descriptive words or passages which mean nothing as they are read and demand patience from the reader to be remembered for a later part of the book. These adverbials support inferences, and it is with this knowledge lies the art of decoding the narrative. Relevance of narrative is often layered and not laid bare. Joyce deliberately complicates his linguistic structure to avoid meaning.

This style of writing and form of communication exemplifies Modernist writing. Readers had to abandon all previous codes of reading and understanding novels. In later episodes technique overrides content and the story loses emphasis to expression. Huge amounts of effort in the reader produce small amounts of information. As the book progresses, the book becomes more difficult to process, with relevance seeming to be abandoned. As the reader strives to make connections, it can appear as if 'the joke is on us' p107.

PART II - Nation and Society

Chapter 7 - Degeneration

During the second half of the 19th century people became obsessed with the degeneration of the race. The theory of degeneration emerged from the natural and medical sciences. The 'decline of the white races', p112, included documentation of regression, an 'organic process' that was hereditary. This social theory was seen as the cause of crime, poverty and disease. Connecting to the 'age-old anxiety about the end of the world', p112, it reinforced theories regarding decadent lifestyles and the arts in general. This theory, as the new century got under way, became a habit of mind and was referred to often. Any social problem could be connected to it.

Naturalist fiction encorporated plots of decline, physical and moral exhaustion. Emile Zola's early novels, following strands of the same family from novel to novel, illustrated downward spirals through the generations of alcoholism, disease, poverty or madness.

Zola was not hugely popular in Britain, but he was notorious and Henry James noted a pessimism had descended upon the British writing of the time. Zola's grimy plots and downwardly mobile characters provided a stage for social comment. This led the way for 2 new genres, slum fiction and the New Woman novel.

Pioneered in the 1880's by Gissing and Besant, slum fiction took the French pessimism and incorporated women protagonists who, following failed relationships, plummed the depths of existence, with violence, abandonment, prostitution or death. These plots differed in blaming external circumstances for their downfall, rather than a hereditary malfunction. The women start off spirited, but have the life beaten out of them by circumstance.

Deformed children, illustrating the degeneration of bloodlines, was popular in naturalist fiction, as was hysteria in women. Professor Moriarty of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Count Dracula were all examples of the degeneracy that people feared and these characters were described as such. 'Parasites, outcasts and madmen' p118.

Another off shoot of these theories was the continuation of race, in order to halt degeneration, through preservation of bloodlines. Women should mate with racially sound men, and this came into the fiction of the time. Examples can be found in the novels of D H Lawrence where the characters discuss racial purity, as well as E M Forster.

Contemporary works that illustrate the above points include...

Ulysses by James Joyce

The Time Machine by H G Wells

Germinal, L'Assomoir and La Terre by Emile Zola

A Mummer's Wife by George Moore

The Unclassed by George Gissing

Women in Love by D H Lawrence

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Look out for the next two chapters which will be covered some time in June.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Tinkers by Paul Harding

I saw this one in Waterstones and it caught my interest. It has since been chosen as one of our set books for this years Novel Holiday in August.

George is dying, ill and bedridden, he starts to hallucinate, about the clocks that were his job, their intricate mechanisms, and also about his father, a salesman who peddled his wares in the poverty ridden backwoods of Maine in 1927, as well as battling with epilepsy and griefs about his own father.

This book drifts between memories, some lucid, some hazy. There are stories about things that happened as well as lengthy descriptions about the countryside and the beauty of nature. There are also heightened descriptions of epileptic fits coming on, how clocks work and what George can see and make sense of from his death bed.

Some passages in this book are a pure joy, lovely to read, and rich with story and detail. There was one particular passage recounting an old hermit who lived in the woods that I had to read again immediately because it moved me to laugh and cry. There are other passages that are dense and need concentration, but you are rewarded most of the time with literature that is exciting, involving and beautiful. There are also however places where it was difficult to keep up with what was being relayed, and about whom. While this emphasised the main characters loss of grip on reality, I felt I had also missed out on its meaning.

I found the ending moving, as Georges reality slips into unconsciousness, and elements of the book are successfully brought together. There is little straightforward narrative, the passages jump about and some offer little clue or continuation. This can enrich or baffle in turn. The parts describing Georges father on his cart full of household wares, trading in the woods were the most lucid, and also the most memorable. I also loved the passages about clocks, told with a craftsmans respect and love for his art.

This book will not appeal to those who like straightforward prose, but if you enjoy dense literature, where you need to stop every few pages to take it in, then you will find this a very rewarding read.

I really enjoyed it on the whole, mainly for being about a particular view of American history, and its unusual descriptive style for the genre.

A good one for reading groups with lots to discuss. For discussion questions about Tinkers use the link.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

April Roundup

How gorgeous are these Alliums, which are just like mine blooming in the front garden. They are so effective when grouped together. Lovely April, when the flowers come to life!

Read - 2 and a quarter books

Completed -

Through the Garden Gate by Susan Hill

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Currently Reading -

Survivor by Chuch Palahniuk

Through the Kitchen Window by Susan Hill

The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920 by David Trotter

TBR pile - 94 books (according to GoodReads) with none added. I've been good this month.

Challenges - summarised Chapters 4 and 5 from The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920, that I am serialising each month here at The Octogon. Look out for the next 2 chapters during May.

Not strictly a challenge, but I have also read one of the set books for our literary holiday in August in Dorset. Look out for my review of Tinkers by Paul Harding next week.

Wishlist Additions -

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Discoveries - a new blog OverBooked written for followers of the Topsfield Library in Massachusetts. Some nice reviews and a good selection of books.

Events - Finally got my finger out and organised our next bookswap at work after a 2 year absense. A number of colleagues had requested it, probably after having their spring clearouts. It is set for monday 16th May and I'll let you know how it goes.

It is a sunny May Day (and bank holiday/Royal Wedding weekend) up here in Liverpool. I hope it stays awhile.

Onwards into May...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye