Bibliophile’s Progress

Bookshelves in secondhand bookshop, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire
Bookshelves in secondhand bookshop, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Actually, this title’s a sprat to catch a mackerel: my reading progress appears to have been minimal this month, as you may have noticed from my February posts. I’ve read a couple of kids’ books (one of which was a reread and actually completed in January), a non-fiction history (granted, it’s over 500 pages of smallish print) and a modern take on the Alice books; and I’ve started a couple of classics. That’s still barely one a week.

True, I’ve been involved in other matters, mostly musical — choral singing (a scratch Mozart Requiem as well as a scratch Mahler Resurrection Symphony for example) and piano accompanying — but that shouldn’t really have impinged much on reading time, though it did reduce the time I might’ve dedicated to composing posts.

But, really, what I should be considering is less progress than process.

Because I haven’t just been pondering books I’ve actually completed. The state of the world we’re in and the prevailing mindsets that have been exposed have exercised my mind as much as it has that of fellow bloggers. So, I’ve asked What is Truth? and praised political correctness as a corrective to the open season that seems to have been declared on  hunting victimising. I’ve noted the prescience of Nikola Tesla where technology was concerned but also pointed out where he was over-optimistic when predicting political and sociological change.

But we must nevertheless cultivate optimism if we’re not to fall easy prey to institutionally-sanctioned bullying. Children’s literature often focuses on righting wrongs, as we saw with Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, written at around the same time as Tesla was peering into the future. And of course Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake, on which — in case you hadn’t noticed — I’ve posted at inordinate length, the equally resourceful Dido Twite manages to elude the machinations of a delusional autocrat in their tower and helps effect regime change of a benign kind. If only real life could parallel fiction.

But I should be talking about process. While I have yet to publish many reviews this month (and February’s not over yet) that doesn’t mean I’m not immersed in half-finished books: at present I’m simultaneously reading two classics. One is Jane Austen’s Emma, the last of her novels to be published in her lifetime, at the end of 1815; she died two hundred years ago, and — if perchance you’d missed the fact —  the world is gearing up for valedictory celebrations in a few months. Ironic that Emma appeared when Europe had come together to defeat a French dictator when two centuries later that same Europe, if reports are to be believed, is experiencing shocks that may well tear it apart after a half-century of closer co-operation. The other modern classic I’ve started is Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist President of the United States. Sound familiar? (Penguin Books have cunningly republished this in paperback this very year, no doubt anticipating commercial reward at a time when fact seems to proving stranger than fiction.)

Then there’s Gregory Maguire’s After Alice, which I’ve just completed and about which I’m still ruminating. I can’t decide if it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it’s definitely not ‘wicked’* but it’s certainly curious. The more I consider it the more it insinuates itself into the wormholes (or should that be rabbit holes?) of my mind. A fully considered opinion will doubtless suggest itself in due course, but I note that he includes aspects of emancipation — of blacks and females — in his novel. Again, all strangely relevant to current events.

Finally, I should mention two items that also appear to be in part following a similar theme. I’m composing a review of Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes, a review of the recent history of autism. You may know that, being on the spectrum myself, I have a personal interest in how this condition has been diagnosed; so I was particularly interested in how authorities in Europe and America regarded and subsequently treated those with autism over the years. I can tell you it has not, on the whole, been a happy story, rather one with institutionalised victimisation.

The other area I’ve been examining is local claims that Tolkien’s Shire was based on an area on the Welsh Marches, as described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Whether it was or not is perhaps less important than that some commentators should actually lay claim to it, as though some of the magic of these fantasies would by association rub off on the Black Mountains and the Vale of Usk. What we mustn’t lose sight of though is that — like the children’s novels I mentioned earlier — Tolkien’s fictions focus on the power of the lowly individual to make a positive difference in countering oppressive regimes, to the extent that they are decisively overcome.

There we have it, then. Synchronicity of a sort in action, where much of what I’ve read has a bearing directly or indirectly on contemporary events. Let’s fervently hope that this month’s musical experiences — of Mozart’s Requiem and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony — are only temporary commentaries on the nadir that precedes our ascent from the present Slough of Despond.


* Yes, Maguire is also the author of Wicked, though I haven’t read it. Yet.

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19 thoughts on “Bibliophile’s Progress

  1. There are a lot of intelligent things that could be said in response to this post, but i’ll leave that sort of thing up to the intelligent readers. Instead, i just want to declare my envy (which is mixed with admiration, btw) of your ability to get so much reading done. You must be good with the time management. That’s something i’m frankly shite at. I also have the attention span of a flea, so have unfinished booksies littered about the place, looking neglected and sad. It’s not that the books are boring – in fact it’s quite the opposite. They’re all TOO interesting, and i want to read them all at once, but can’t for obvious reasons. So i get overwhelmed and do something else instead. Not good!

    And now here are some new ones to add to the ever growing “want to read” list. “NeuroTribes” sounds quite interesting. I’ll definitely be looking for a copy of that. “After Alice” has piqued my curiosity too. I’ve not read anything by Gregory Maguire, so have no idea what to expect style-wise.

    As for the importance of optimism, i wholeheartedly agree. It can be easy to focus so much on all the crap that we forget to stop and zoom in on the various little sparkly things trying to sprout, which need out attention in order to thrive. Kid’s books ARE great, this way. It probably sounds silly, but Tove Jansson’s Moomins books (especially Moominland Midwinter) always make me feel positive. I love the way all the characters are so comfortable with their own (and in turn, one another’s) flaws and quirks and uniqueness. Diversity is always celebrated in Tove’s stories. It’s a nice message to bring to kidlets.

    1. Thanks for these lovely compliments! To take your comments one by one:

      1. Being retired is a great way to free up time to read! To be able to read in bed without much urgent business calling me out is a wonderful luxury — that’s about all the time management that’s involved. 🙂 And I too have “unfinished booksies littered about the place” but at least I have the leisure to go back to them when I’m good and ready.

      2. NeuroTribes will be reviewed soon but I warn you, not only is it a doorstopper of a tome but it gets quite distressing at times when one contemplates ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. Still, I’m glad I read it, and it gets a bit more positive towards the end, even if there are aspects of Silberman’s journalistic approach I have problems with. As for After Alice, I’m in two minds about it, but you’ll see what I mean when I stick up a post about it!

      3. I never got into the Moomin stories, they just didn’t appeal, but I read a couple of reviews of Tove Jansson studies recently which suggested I’m missing something here, so I might well give them a try sometime. Yes, pessimism sucks — we could all do with a Good News Week, or Month, or Decade …

      1. Well, i’m glad you get to do so 🙂 Still though, I’ve been in the position where i’ve had ample time, but still didn’t manage to fill it with so much reading. So, still impressed.

        Doorstoppers don’t scare me (even though my lack of eloquence may indicate certain intellectual limitations 😉 ), but the distressing factor is something i’ll have to psych myself up for, no doubt. Certain things are important to delve into though, i feel.

        Looking forward to hearing more about ‘After Alice’ !

        Fair enough; different strokes and all that. And they ARE aimed at kids, after all. I just happen to be a rather overgrown kid 😉 I discovered them when my daughter was a few years younger, and i really enjoyed reading them to her. They just resonated with me, for whatever reason. Tove seemed like a pretty cool lady, too.

  2. inkbiotic

    Looking forward to your interpretation of NeuroTribes, I agree with Siddie, it sounds like it could be a very interesting (if disturbing) read. It Can’t Happen Here, sounds good too. You go far deeper into books than I ever could, so I’ll catch up once I have a better idea of what’s there (YES! This is lazy! 😉 )

    1. That’s the beauty of reviews, isn’t it, they (hopefully) give you an overview of a book independent of the publisher’s hype: like Tesco’s “We shop around so you don’t have to” claim which we’re told checks their rivals’ prices, I try to give you the flavour of titles so that you can decide if they sound appealing or not. (But my thoughts are just opinions so I really don’t mind if others disagree!) That’s why I trawl (not troll!) book review blogs whose writers I respect as I can generally rely on them to provide a balanced and considered opinion of titles I’ve yet to read or which I might be tempted to revisit. So, it’s not lazy, Petra, just sensible husbanding of your valuable time and money!

      1. inkbiotic

        Yes, that’s me! Always with the sensible husbandry! Please can I get the calmgrove app who reinterprets all my foolish behaviour as smart and efficient behaviour? 😉 If there isn’t such an app, someone should make it.
        And thank you for the book tasting, it always adds flavour to the day 🙂

    1. Yes! I did go at it hammer and tongs for a couple of weeks or so, especially towards the end where I was desperate to get the damn thing finished! But thanks for supplying the copy, Flo, I’m not sure I’d have necessarily picked one up. Did you want it back soon?

  3. I found NeuroTribes fascinating, and yes, often distressing. There were also some loose ends that I thought the author could have given more attention to. But it gave me much food for thought in my work with autistic individuals, and in considering the nature of the human being in general. We can each of us only try to learn from history and do what we can to create a better future in our own lives and those that we touch.

    I’m putting It Can’t Happen Here on my list now. I’ve never read Sinclair Lewis and this one sounds too prescient to pass up.

    1. Absolutely, Lory. Learning from history to create a better future, now that’d be a novel idea for politicians and the general public to grasp! And if NeuroTribes helped you with your work it certainly improved my own radar for detecting others with the condition, however varied their behavioural response might be; before that I would have just thought of them as ‘odd’ — probably much as neurotypicals have regarded me!

      The Sinclair Lewis starts in Vermont: if only Penguin had issued this in 2016 I could have read it in time for the Reading New England Challenge! (I still think I might try to complete all six states in time, without a deadline to work to.) It’s an interesting read so far, full of contemporary references that go over my head but the thrust of which I can entirely follow.

      1. Good thing we don’t have to stop reading New England books now that 2016 is over. 🙂 For me, even though I decided not to “officially” run it again, it remains a perpetual area of interest. As with the Read All Around the World project that I’m doing without a deadline, I hope you’ll feel free to continue your journey through the six states at your own pace, and share your discoveries.

        1. I seem to have over-concentrated on Massachusetts, so Vermont will be a nice change! (Though given the subject matter, perhaps ‘nice’ is too strong a word.) I’d forgotten about the open-ended Read All Around the World project but fifty countries without a time limit sounds just about manageable to me, so I think I’ll sign up for that, extending my literary horizons being one of my hopes for 2017. And I see there’s March Magics coming up too … Where will it all end, and am I stretching myself too much yet again?!

  4. Looking forward to hearing more about It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what other books, apart from 1984 and Brave New World, have surged back. Lord of The Flies, perhaps? Frankenstein?
    War Of The Worlds?

    1. I’ve seen Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 mentioned in this context a few times, recalling the Nazi burning of books and the present POTUS railing against the opposition free press and their supposedly fake news.

  5. A quick plug for Maguire: I heard him speak at a small conference in NY, the year A Lion Among Men was published. He had great things to say about the importance of the imagination (I’ll have to locate my notes and find the quote) and how fantasy is NOT escapist fiction. My favorite book by him is Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Holland, tulips, frozen Zee, painters — way better than Girl With a Pearl Earring), but Wicked and its sequels are worth the read.

    1. Anyone who bigs up the power of the imagination is OK in my book! (Though I’m not sure I necessarily agree with all rightwing philosopher Scruton opines on.) I’ll deliver my own opinion on Maguire’s After Alice in due course — almost finished ruminating on it!

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