Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Third year at Hay-on-Wye

I've been back to Hay-on-Wye for the third year running, and came back with eleven books, after promising myself that I would be restrained - however, I'm pretty excited about reading all of them.

Last year's haul proved to be a bit of a mixed bag; of the novels I'd not yet read when I made last year's post, I thoroughly enjoyed Run (Ann Patchett) and An Equal Stillness (Francesca Kay), but didn't get on so well with Born Free (Laura Hird) and The Fanatic (James Robertson). The former was simply unremittingly bleak, and I did find myself wondering what the point of the novel really was, other than to illuminate such grim lives - having now read Laura Hird's collection of short stories, Hope, as well, my opinion has largely been confirmed, although a few of the stories in the collection did break the mould. It seems to me that Hird has a problem with voice - although Born Free features four narrators, a teenaged boy and girl and their parents, they all 'sounded' largely the same, as did the narrators of her short stories. As for The Fanatic, I found the modern sections of the novel interesting but struggled with the historic flashbacks - I've always thought that switching between the (distant) past and the present is a difficult trick to pull off, and I don't think Robertson quite manages it.

As for this year...

Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster: A collection of lectures which I've always wanted to read, and which I found in this lovely edition for the bargain price of £1.25.

The Home and the School by JWB Douglas: Purchased for reference for my PhD; an important work of British sociology from 1964 discussing how a child's background affects his or her performance in school. Not terribly exciting, unfortunately...

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: A novel which I have of course already read, but I seized the chance to replace my horrible Wordsworth Classics edition with this rather nice Penguin copy.

Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith: I've had my eye on this collection of essays for a while and eventually snapped a copy up. I've already read her essay on Middlemarch, which, given my love for George Eliot, I predictably approved of - her analysis of why the novel works, and why some critics have deplored the prominence given to characters such as Fred Vincy and Will Ladislaw, is extremely insightful (essays on the rest of Eliot's novels would also be gratefully received, Zadie Smith, on the extremely unlikely off-chance you read this...). Oh - and it goes well with the EM Forster, an inspiration of Smith's.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith: Which I will finally read at last. Although I thought On Beauty failed as a novel, it's evident Smith is a brilliant writer, so I'm looking forward to her debut. I really wanted to read her new novel, NW, but decided I ought to read this first.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy: This is for a book group I take part in with two friends from university. I wasn't bowled over by Small Island - it was a satisfying novel but a little paint-by-numbers, with thematic parallels slightly overplayed, so I'll be interested to see if she can do better in this story of the last years of slavery in Jamaica.

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski: I had never heard of this writer before, but this, his debut novel, sounded intriguing. Set in Thailand, it promises 'Christian missionaries, mountain tribesmen, invisible demons and crazed anthropologists', and the opening is immediately engaging in a way that is somehow reminiscent of The Beach ('When he was a year out of Brown, my friend Josh O'Connor won a Thai beach vacation in a lottery in a bar. He spent two weeks on Ko Samui, decided that Thailand was home, and never left.')

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons: I picked this up for a bit of light reading and because it includes a lot of my favourite things in novels; country-houses, servants, abandoned villages, nostalgia, inter-war England. The first chapter seems to suggest it will be a good read.

The Andes and the Amazon by C. Reginald Enock: First published in 1907, I bought this to help in my research for the novel I'm writing at the moment, which is partly set in Ecuador and Peru in the 1890s. I think it's difficult to grasp how little Europeans knew about South America in those days - Macchu Picchu, for example, was not discovered until 1911, and I've read another travel guide deploring the fact that so few travellers visit Cuzco - and I'm hoping this will help me to understand a Victorian/Edwardian traveller's perspective.

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett: I've been steadily reading through Patchett's novels - but I thought I'd take a break to try her memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. Female friendship is a subject often neglected by both fiction and fact, so I'm interested to see if she illuminates her subject as she does her characters in her novels.

Antarctic World by John Euller: Published in 1960 and therefore probably a bit old-fashioned, this gives a potted history of Antarctic exploration, climate, and science. I have a long-running interest in mountain climbing and polar exploration (despite never having attempted either myself) and I thought this might be a charmingly dated way to read more about the subject.

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