What I’ve been reading this year . . .

I started the year where I left off in 2018: continuing with (and enjoying) Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace [1]. I finished that around the second week of January then dived straight into his Anna Karenina [2].

I guess I started War and Peace (first published in a single volume in 1869, although it had been serialized between 1865 and 1867) because I had this feeling that it’s one of the books that I (at the age of 70) should have dipped into by now. In 2016, at the beginning of the year just as I broke my leg and was laid up for the next six weeks, the BBC broadcast an adaptation of War and Peace in six parts that Steph and I thoroughly enjoyed. It was certainly a lavish production. And quite a feat to condense such a large book into six hours.

War and Peace is quite a marathon, and it must have taken me almost seven weeks to complete. What I liked was Tolstoy’s contrast between the privileged lives of the nobility—Society—and the horrors of war brought to nations through the expansionist policies of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Having completed the book, we decided to revisit the TV series (fortunately available as a box set on the BBC iPlayer). Inevitably I found myself comparing the portrayal of the various characters on screen with those that had formed in my mind. Perhaps the closest was that by Jim Broadbent as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, and to some extent, the weakest was Paul Dano as Count Pierre Bezukhov. Jack Lowden as Count Nikolai Rostov came across as a rather more callous individual than he appeared in the book.

Anna Karenina must have been regarded as quite racy when first published in 1878 (but serialized between 1873 and 1877) with themes of betrayal, faith, family, marriage, Imperial Russian society, desire, and rural vs. city life. The central plot is an adulterous affair between Anna (unhappy wife of a Russian bureaucrat in St Petersburg) and a cavalry officer, Count Alexei Vronsky.

One theme that recurs is the societal changes taking place in rural Russia, and the expansion of the railways. Suicide by railway is how Anna meets her unhappy end.

One small aspect that recurs throughout the novel is Tolstoy’s admiration for women’s bosoms. He seems quite obsessed by them considering his vivid descriptions.

Keeping with the Russian theme, I then moved on to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [3].

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (published in 1962) is quite short, a novella in fact like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (that I read in 2018). My first impressions were not promising. It’s just one long prose, no chapters. It’s one day in the life.

I persevered, and I’m glad I did. It’s a tale of survival told through the eyes of gulag prisoner Ivan Denisovich (and must have been autobiographical to some extent on Solzhenitsyn’s part). All the while I was reading Ivan Denisovich, I couldn’t help thinking about the prison sentence endured by one of my scientific heroes, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, one of the giants of genetics and agriculture of the 20th century. He fell out of favor with Stalin was imprisoned and died there in 1943.

It took me a week to read Ivan Denisovich. What next? More Russian authors or someone else? I decided on Russian, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was able to purchase his 15 novels for my Kindle. But which one to begin with? It had to be Crime and Punishment, concentrating on the mental anguish and moral dilemma faced by the main protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov.

March. New month, a new book. I decided to go back to my North Staffordshire roots, and explore Arnold Bennett once again. I’m pretty sure I already read Anna of the Five Towns some time in the past, but I can’t remember when, nor the plot. So it was like opening the book for the first time. As with much of Bennett’s writing, there’s a focus on the strong Methodism in late 19th century Stoke-on-Trent.

Then I moved on to The Old Wives’ Tale, considered by many to be Bennett’s finest novel. Then, to complete a Bennett trilogy, I quickly devoured The Card, a delightful tale of Five Towns’ ambitions, and made into a memorable film starring Alec Guinness as Denry Machin in 1952.

Jane Austen is always a favorite of mine; I’ve read all her novels. A year ago I tried to return to Emma, but somehow, I just couldn’t settle to it. This time round, however, I persevered and thoroughly enjoyed my reacquaintance. I have become so accustomed to reading on my Kindle, that I find the small print in some books (as was the case with my Signet Classic edition of Emma) rather hard to handle, especially in the evening when my eyes are tired. With the Kindle I can at least change the font size.

Early April. Return to Dostoyevsky, and perhaps his most famous novel The Brothers Karamazov [5]. I got about two thirds of the way through, and just couldn’t take any more. Page after page of philosophical navel gazing. I very seldom give up on a book. In fact, over the past nine years I can only remember having done this once before – a biography of William Pitt the Elder that I started in 2012.

Over the Easter weekend (and in preparation for visiting his family home in Kent, three weeks later) I decided to re-read to The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

But I didn’t get very far at all. It’s a very hard read. Not the content, I hasten to add. That’s all very familiar to me. No, it’s Darwin’s writing style. Very Victorian. And the copy I have has such small typeface that I had to put the book aside with the hope that I might return to it later in the year.

And there I stopped reading for a month, until I decided to give Rudyard Kipling a try out, so to speak. During our week away in East Sussex and Kent, we spent an enjoyable morning at Kipling’s home, Bateman’s.

And that’s when I chose Kim as my next challenge, followed up a month later by The Man Who Would Be King (a short story in The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Other Tales).

Kim. What a strange book. Not as easy as I thought it would be. Just as it was getting going, and I expected to read all about Kim’s exploits as a spy, it ended.

Given that The Man Who Would Be King was made into a feature film directed by John Huston, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine, no less, I was surprised to discover that it was only a short story, rather inconsequential. Kipling himself has a cameo role as a burgeoning newspaperman.

But, having worked my way through, and it having coming to an abrupt end, I opted for another Arnold Bennett tale as my next challenge. The Grand Babylon Hotel seemed to me a rather poor imitation of an Agatha Christie novel. Way before Christie was writing. The plot was weak and ludicrous, to say the least. And although it was a diversion for the five or so days for me to work through it, I found the next four Bennett novels much meatier and to my taste. It was back to The Potteries with Clayhanger, a ‘trilogy’ plus one: Clayhanger (a boy’s tale from the Five Towns), Hilda Lessways and These Twain, followed by Roll Call by mid-August.

Then it was Kipling once again – Plain Tales from the Hills, a collection of 40 short stories, 28 of which first appeared in the Civil and Military Gazette between November 1886 and June 1887. These took me about a week to devour.

I’m not sure if I’d already read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. We have a copy in the house. But I decided to download a copy on to my Kindle, and delved into it from late-August. It must count as one of the great social novels of the 19th century.

While in the USA in September, I bought a secondhand copy (for <$10) of the coffee table book, The Untold Civil War, published by National Geographic. Each page is a different story, liberally illustrated with contemporary photographs and cartoons. An excellent read and resource.

Just before departing for the USA, I finished North and South, and started George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, first published in 1860. But somehow, while away, always found something else to keep me occupied than settling to this novel. I was busy sorting and editing over 1000 images I’d taken during our road trip before traveling on to Minnesota. I’d only read a few pages, so on return home, I started from the beginning again. But didn’t get very far.

During the first part of October, I couldn’t settle to reading. First I was seriously jet-lagged and it took me longer to recover than after past trips. Then I went down with a nasty cold that laid me low for almost a fortnight. And during this period I just lost interest in Mill on the Floss.

At the beginning of November I decided I had to find something to read. So I returned to Arnold Bennett and his collection of short stories, The Matador of the Five Towns and Other Stories. I lost count of how many there were; it must have been 20-30. Most were excellent, and often quite humorous. Reading just a few pages a day, it took me almost a month to work through these.

And here we are, on 1 December, and I have just decided to tackle Middlemarch by George Eliot. Published in 1871-72, it’s regarded as her finest, a tale of love, life, and politics set in a fictitious Midlands town in the 1830s, and currently being serialised on BBC Radio 4. No doubt this will take me the whole month to devour, and probably into January. But I’m determined to persevere with George Eliot this time.

That’s it for 2019. Which book(s) did I enjoy most? On reflection, I think I’d have to choose Clayhanger.

I wonder what literary treats 2020 has in store?


[1] Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

[2] Translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude

[3] Translation by Gillon Aitken

[4] Translation by Constance Garnett

[5] Translated by Constance Garnett.

I’m a 19th century sort of person . . . and a Kindle convert

I started to draft this post several weeks ago, with the intention of completing it between Christmas and the New Year. I was all set to put the finishing touches after Steph and I returned from our short Christmas break with family in the northeast. It was meant to be my last post of 2018. Instead, it’s my first of 2019.

I was laid low by a nasty respiratory viral infection, and that was that. Ten days later and I’m still not fully recovered, but at least I can face sitting at the keyboard and tapping out the few last thoughts of a post I’d expected to complete before now.

I spent much of 2017 working my way through all the novels of Charles Dickens, taking a mid-year break from those to pursue my other literary interest: history, and in recent years, history of the American Civil War. And also towards the end of the year after completing the ‘Dickens literary marathon’. In the process, I have become a convert to the Amazon Kindle.

A couple of years back, my elder daughter Hannah recycled an old Kindle to Steph, but she never really got to grips with it. Once I found there was a wealth of titles available, many free or at a very low cost, I decided to invest some time in this new-fangled gadget. Some of the books I fancied reading were not available in our local library, and we no longer have the shelf space to accumulate more books. I haven’t disposed of any of the many history books I bought over the years we lived in the Philippines. And, each year that we visit Hannah in Minnesota, I have added to that collection with regular visits to Half Price Books in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

But after fifteen Dickens novels, and five Civil War histories, I decided to take a short literary break at the beginning of this year, before starting a rather gruesome—but fascinating—book that my younger daughter Philippa and husband Andi had given me for Christmas.

Written by Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian with a doctorate from the University of Oxford, The Butchering Art is an account of how 19th century medicine, and particularly surgery, was transformed by Joseph Lister, a Quaker surgeon.

With that under my belt, so to speak, I looked round for my next literary challenge. I attempted to re-read Emma by Jane Austen, but soon grew dissatisfied with the main character. An attempt to re-read the first of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, Can You Forgive Her (1864) also ended in failure. I’d first read these in the late 1970s when we lived in Costa Rica.

Then, in April, BBC TV screened a five-part adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s 1859 novel, The Woman in White, set in Cumberland. Having enjoyed the dramatization, I wondered how true it had been to the original. Of course I knew of the novel, but until then, had never considered reading it. And it was through A Woman in White that I decided that 2018 should be a year when I explored novels that are often considered among the finest of 19th century literature. And a couple of others.

So, I searched out novels by the three Brontë sisters, F Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Alexandre Dumas, and Leo Tolstoy, as well as enjoying three more American Civil War tomes mid-year.

Wuthering Heights, a text that’s almost compulsory reading on high school curricula (but was not on mine). So in my 70th year, I finally got round to investing time with Emily and her sisters Anne and Charlotte. A couple of years ago, in December 2016, the BBC screened an excellent 2-hour drama, To Walk Invisible, about the lives of the Brontë sisters. What that drama emphasized—and what one clearly sees in their writing—was just what extraordinary authors they all were. Sitting around their parlour table in the Haworth rectory, their words conjure up a world way beyond the close confines of their Yorkshire upbringing. Remarkable!

What a joy Wuthering Heights was to read. Heathcliff and Catherine!

Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was completely unknown to me, and like Wuthering Heights is a tale of love among the moors. And of mistaken identity and all its consequences.

Villette is regarded as one of Charlotte’s finest novels, and although it has its merits, the fact that large sections are written in French don’t make it particularly accessible. I have basic French so could more or less follow along. But it was a struggle. It’s based on Charlotte’s experiences in Belgium.

Jane Eyre is much more familiar. How many times has the BBC adapted it for the small screen? We’re currently watching the 2006 version starring Ruth Wilson in the lead role. And there have been large screen adaptations as well. The novel is so much better than any of the screen versions I have seen.

In between Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I decided to search out two masterpieces of 20th century American fiction: The Great Gatsby (1925) by F Scott Fitzgerald (and St Paul native), and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1960). I knew Gatsby from the 1974 film version (script by Francis Ford Coppola) starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. What surprised me was how short the novel was, almost a short story.

Now that I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird, I’m still not sure why it’s regarded as such an outstanding novel. I’d only ever watched one or two scenes from the 1962 dramatization starring Gregory Peck, and had expected much of the novel to focus on the trial. Not so. It’s full of observations of small town life in Alabama during the 1930s, seen through the eyes of six year old ‘Scout’ Finch, daughter of town lawyer Atticus Finch who takes on the defence of a young African American accused of raping a white woman.

Considered a classic of American literature, and a Pultizer Prize winner, there’s no doubt that Mockingbird is a significant novel. But I’m still not certain just how significant it is.

The three novels by Alexandre Dumas that I tackled were just a romp, as it were. On reflection, I think that I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo most. The Man in the Iron Mask was not what I expected at all; it’s the third part of a much larger novel, but often distributed on its own.

Mid-year I purchased three more American Civil War biographies, and since our summer road trip took us through Ohio, the Buckeye State, these biographies (1656 pages in total) of murderous guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrill, and Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S Grant (all hailing from Ohio) were most illuminating.

And as 2018 drew to a close, I was less than one third of the way through Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace, published in 1869.

Even now, I’ve only just reached 40%, and I reckon it will take me a few more weeks yet. I hadn’t really expected to appreciate it very much. I was taken with the 2016 adaptation of the novel on the BBC, and look forward to seeing that again, once I have finished the novel. But War and Peace is a delight, much to my surprise.

Written by British author Bill Laws, I look forward to dipping into Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History (2010). This book was another Christmas present from Philippa and Andi. Laws apparently has a book on the potato coming out in 2019.

Having taken a peek at the chapters on potato and rice, I’m not entirely convinced of the focus he took with both of these crops – of which I know quite a bit myself. Anyway, time will tell, once I have delved into the various topics in more detail.

But that won’t be for a week or two yet. I still have to settle the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte, courtesy of Leo Tolstoy.