Review: Monsieur Proust’s Library – Anka Muhlstein

fullpage.doMonsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein takes us on a literary pathway through Marcel Proust’s great work, À la Recherche de Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). This slim volume (141 pages) is a printed in blue ink on high quality paper, with attractive illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.

I can’t say that I have finished reading Proust’s seven volume work despite its having been on my shelves for ten years or so.  I have made several attempts but have only read three of the books so far and I am beginning to wonder if I will ever complete the set.

It is not that La Recherche isn’t fascinating but that reading it slows you down so much that it takes weeks to read it properly; Proust keeps bringing you to a halt, sentence by sentence, so much is there to think about on each page.  As Anka Muhlstein says, Proust “is the master of long sentences with a grammatical foundation so refined that they accommodate themselves miraculously to all the meanderings of his thoughts”.  What a job for a translator!

Despite the difficulty I have in reading the book, I would not like to be without it – the books sit there on the shelf both as a rebuke and an invitation, the ultimate reading challenge.  But would reading it be enough?  Proust’s work is so loaded with literary and artistic references you’d almost need to read an annotated version to understand fully what was going on in it.

I can only admire people like Anka Muhlstein who have not only read the book but have made it their own by absorbing it so much into their system that they can write books as clever as this one, making an in-depth analysis of the text so they can guide others through “Remembrance” and help them to understand it.

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Review: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die – Peter Boxall

Christmas Gifts for Readers no. 1. (a short series)

Over the next month or so I’m going to write a few articles on books which if I’d not already got them I would be delighted to  receive on Christmas Day.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a controversial volume among book-lovers.  Let me say at the start that as a book lover, I really value this book – apart from its rich content with its high production values, it is a thing of beauty in itself and will not be a book to be placed on a shelf and forgotten about.

Some people hate it with a vengeance – one woman on Goodreads wrote a review full of expletives as she considered the thought that someone should tell her what she must read.  Others disagree with the selection of the 1001 books, while others accuse it of just being a collection of synopses of the sort you find on the back cover of a paper-back.  One reviewer on described it as “a cynical exercise in marketing to the culturally insecure”.

On the other hand, many reviews are glowing – for example, so many people think that the list of 1001 books is valuable that they have formed a group on GoodReads with over 11,000 members, many of whom have signed up to read all 1001 books – and why not? – its as good a list as any and at least has more rational thought behind it than just randomly picking books with attractive covers, or books you read reviews of in the newspapers.

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Review: Such Stuff as Dreams – Keith Oatley

The Stuff of DreamsKeith Oatley is a novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at the Univeristy of Toronto.  He has some remakable things to say about the act of reading.  His book, Such Stuff as Dreams suggests that when we read, our brains interpret social interactions in a work of fiction as the real thing – as far as our brains are concerned we experience real human contact and are as affected by the experience as though we were actually present with the characters in the novel.

Oatley has been quoted in the magazine Scientific American Mind (article Fiction Hones Social Skills) as saying, Reading “can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book  down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.”

Most readers know how deeply they can be affected by the books they read.  What they didn’t know before is that when they get involved with a fictional character, they tend to follow their actions as though they were participating in them and develop a deep empathy with their motives and feelings.  Oatley suggests that reading is a form of mind-training – a course in how humans behave and react to each other.  Readers tend to have better social skills because they are better aquainted with the way other people think and they are more familiar with the huge variety of human behaviour than non-readers.

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Review: Love, Sex, Death and Words – John Sutherland and Stephen Fender

This is a review of a book I was sent by Icon Books, but at my request – I would have purchased it anyway, especially after having read it, so thanks to Icon.

I have been looking forward to reading Love, Sex, Death and Words for some time, having enjoyed John Sutherland’s earlier books like How To Read a Novel and The Curiosities of Literature.  This time John Sutherland is joined by Stephen Fender in assembling this huge anthology of essays about writers and books, 365 in fact, one for every day of the year, although few readers will be unable to resist reading on through several articles every time they pick up the book.

The range is vast and I will mention just a few in order to provide some idea of the scope of the book.

An entry from 1922 describes T S Eliot writing to his friend John Quinn to tell him that he has written a long poem of about 450 lines.  This is of course, The Waste Land, and we learn that it was originally to be titled, “He Do The Police in Different Voices”.  Ezra Pound was much involved in the development of this modernist opus and Sutherland and Fenton give examples of how Pound suggested minor edits which Eliot adopted.

The collection includes American literature along with European and from 1692, there is a description of the Salem Witch Trial – I for one hadn’t realised that the hysteria arising from this resulted in over 150 people being imprisoned, nineteen hanged and one 81 year old man being pressed to death under a platform loaded with stones.  It is no wonder that these events have been a rich seam for writers to mine, not least Henry Miller in his play, The Crucible, which drew out the parallels between the Witch Trial and the House Un-American Activities Committee under Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s.  Sutherland and Fender quote from the investigation into Pete Seeger who refused to answer questions about his political beliefs and ended up with a one year prison sentence. Continue reading

Review: A Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cosse

As an avid reader I enjoy “books about books” and this one certainly falls into that category.  Imagine a couple of lovers of literature who get the opportunity to open a book-shop which only sells “good” books, those which meet a criteria of literary worth, deliberately ignoring the current literary prizes and the year’s crop of much-lauded novels.  The premise of A Novel Bookstore is that a wealthy woman, Francesca, is able to work with Ivan, a like-minded book-shop manager, acquire some prime real-estate in Paris and indulge their tastes without fear of bankruptcy.

A team of eight people is recruited (all writers of quality literature or having other suitable qualifications) and are required to provide a list of 600 books which the book-shop should stock. When the lists are received, the manager and owner correlate the eight lists together to compile an overall list which will provide the shop’s initial stock. The shop will not stock new books until they have proved themselves and the committee has agreed that they should be added.

But trouble soon arrives on their doorstep, beginning with physical attacks on three members of the selection committee.  Who is behind them?  Before long a vicious campaign is launched to vilify the shop and to present is as an elitist enterprise run by people who have contempt for the tastes of most readers.  The rest of the book follows the attempts to uncover the source of the plots and personal attacks, while a couple of romantic relationships are developed along the way with the usual joys and sorrows.

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Review: Life as a Literary Device – Vitali Vitaliev

British readers may remember Vitali Vitaliev from his time as Moscow correspondent on David Frost’s 1990s television programme, Saturday Night Clive, and many broadcasts on BBC Radio 4. Vitali was born in the Ukraine, eventually defecting to the West, living in Britain and Australia, and eventually returning to London where he is a successful journalist and writer.

Life as A Literary Device, is partly biographical, partly reportage, and partly miscellaneous musing on life.  The book consists of  “seemingly disjointed snippets of real life, they connect by association alone – the random pieces of coloured glass that from themselves into a pattern if viewed through that wonderful children’s toy, the kaleidoscope”.

Early in the book he writes of being influenced by the Russian writer Valentin Kataev, the founder of a literary style which he called “mauvism” – “a literary device consisting of the complete negation of all literary devices”.  The term mauvism comes from the French word “mauvais” meaning “bad”, and as Kataev himself wrote, “I am the founder of the latest literary school, the mauvistes,  the essence of which is that since everyone nowadays writes very well, you must write badly, as badly as possible, then you will attract attention”.

I am pleased to say that Vitaliev does not write badly – far from it in fact, but he has certainly held to the principle of mauvism in writing a book for the Internet age where  “one website routinely carries links to many others.  You open a link in a story that you are reading and it takes you away to another story loosely connected to the first one yet years and/or miles away from it;  you then close the link and return to the story you were reading in the first place”.

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Review: Excavating Kafka – James Hawes

I started to read the books of Franz Kafka as a young man and found them remarkably relevant to me at the time, describing as they do a sense of alienation from mainstream society which so fitted in with 1960/70s counter-culture.

Working in my first boring office job, the thought of waking up as a beetle (Metamorphosis) did not seem too unlikely a possibility, and the thought of being pursued for having committed some unknown crime (The Trial) was all part and parcel of hanging around with people who had radical political ideas.  The fact that no-one in suburban London cared tuppence what a group of long-haired young men were talking about in the pub was neither here nor there – perhaps we just wanted to be in Kafka’s world, and it certainly felt good to have one of Penguin’s Kafka paperbacks sticking out of your jacket pocket.

James Hawes is passionate about Kafka but believes that the bulk of modern scholarship is misguided in painting him as a lonely, heroic figure, bullied by his overbearing father,  ignored in his lifetime – a “fair unsullied soul” almost saintly in his appeal.  Excavating Kafka is his attempt expose the “K Myth” and to inject a note of reality into the study of Kafka, a man of his times who as we might expect had all the usual foibles and failings as the rest of us – and a few unique to himself  for good measure.

The first thing to say about this book, is apart from the writer’s attempt to correct other Kafka scholars, its actually a very readable biography of Franz Kafka, written in an amusing style and imparting vast amounts of information in a relatively compact package.  I think you’d have to read a substantial biography and then a couple of books of literary criticism to get quite as much information (unless of course you favour the cartoon approach!).

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