thorold relieves the strain on the Ivar
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I've resisted the urge to join reading challenges so far - I read enough as it is - but the TBR shelves are becoming a problem, with over 80 books waiting to be read at the end of 2010. I'm going to aim for 40 off the shelf in 2011: that should leave me time to pursue new interests as well.
My rules: anything acquired up to 31.12.2010 and started on or after 01.01.2011 counts as off-the-shelf. I reserve the right to count re-reads, but I'm going to try to pick the 40 books from the TBR shelves.
Candidates are tagged: 2011 Off-the-shelf candidate
...and to get started I'm going to cheat a bit by counting back to the beginning of January:
1. The small house at Allington by Anthony Trollope - I downloaded all the remaining Barchester Chronicles from Gutenberg years ago, but it's been slow work getting round to them.
2. Maigret et le clochard - bought in October 2010 from the recycling shop
3. The life of my choice by Wilfred Thesiger - a real cheat: I only bought this in England on Christmas Eve and started it on the train back home after New Year, so it has never physically been on the TBR shelf
4. August folly by Angela Thirkell - another one bought shortly before Christmas
Your rules: if you want to set your start date as January, it's not cheating!
Welcome to the Challenge. I've got the same ticker - we'll have to chug those trains to the finish line!
To avoid further cheating, I've put the rules into my original post.
Thanks! I might have a slight advantage: I ought to be able to feed a few of my unread railway books into the firebox to get some extra steam out of the little engine...
Getting down to business - one that had been on the TBR shelf so long it had become invisible when I was looking for something to read:
5. Getting to know the general by Graham Greene - probably bought new ca. 1993, but I really can't remember where or why.
Worth reading, because Greene always is, but a bit sad to see him in what was practically his dotage. There's a lot of grumpy-old-man stuff, and quite a bit of moaning if he has to go without alcohol for more than half a page or so. And there's always a nagging suspicion in the reader's mind - though apparently not in Greene's - that General Torrijos only loves him for the articles he can write about Panama and its enlightened ruler, and not for himself.
...and this one wasn't even catalogued in the TBR collection.
6. God's grace by Bernard Malamud - bought ca. 1995, still priced in Dutch Guilders, and evidently picked up because it was in the sale.
Not the sort of thing I usually enjoy, and I didn't. Calvin Cohn, scientist and ex-rabbinical student, is the only human survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Being the protagonist of a novel by a Jewish, male, American, he naturally blames God for wiping out the rest of the human race, and has a big argument with Him about it. God finds a peculiarly apt and very nasty way to teach him a lesson. A clever, but testosterone-soaked fable with talking chimpanzees in it. Shudder!
Coincidentally another book from the very end of a distinguished writer's career, like Getting to know the general. Malamud seems to have become seriously angry in his old age, where Greene was just grumpy.
7. A painted house by John Grisham - probably needless to say that I didn't buy this for myself. I think it was left here by a guest five or six years ago.
Pleasant enough, but it needs something else to offset the endless, grinding, back-breaking rural nostalgia. If it had been written 50 years earlier it would have been a wonderful starting point for a Rogers and Hammerstein musical (Act 1 finale: baseball game at the farm; Act 2 the church picnic; Act 3 the Great Flood).
8. What the dead remember by Harlan Greene - bought secondhand sometime in the early 90s. A few uncut pages suggest that the previous owner had even less success at reading it than I.
Seriously overwritten: John Boy Walton writing in the style of Andrew Holleran, perhaps, if you can imagine that. If you can get beyond all the Creative Writing, there might be a decent novel in there somewhere, but whenever you're starting to like it he chucks in an unnecessary simile and you feel like giving up all over again...
9. Van oude menschen, de dingen die voorbijgaan... by Louis Couperus - bought about a year ago. I started reading this in 2010, but put it aside for a time when I would be able to give it the concentration it deserves.
After a spell reading things that had got stuck on the shelf either because I didn't really want them in the first place, or because the moment for them had passed, it was a relief to read something I really wanted to. A brilliant, complex, subtle, beautifully-written novel. I was a bit so-so about Eline Vere, but I can see that I'm going to have to read more Couperus...
10. The sea, the sea by Iris Murdoch - bought in January 2010 (at the FNAC in Brussels, for some reason).
Another book I've been wanting to read for some time, but hadn't got around to. Definitely worth the effort, even if it is a bit too reminiscent of Kim in parts. Unlike a lot of the books I've read lately, it has aged very well: in fact I probably got more out of it now than I would have in 1978.
...Just when I'm beginning to clear a bit of space on the TBR pile, temptation strikes and it starts to fill up again. Came home with five paperbacks from the secondhand booksale at work (and a bit of an insight into the sort of dreadful books my colleagues see fit to give to charity...).
11. The crimson petal and the white by Michel Faber - bought September 2010, started then, but put aside half-finished until last week.
Eight hundred pages of authentic Victorian smells. Obviously, Faber had to work pretty hard to do something original with the rather tired idea of the postmodern Wilkie Collins pastiche (why is it always Wilkie Collins?), but he seems to have managed it. It's a neat trick to go one better than John Fowles (instead of one story with two endings, two stories with no ending), and I liked the idea of a story in which a businessman's mistress becomes his secretary. He has some trouble writing a story about prostitution without falling into the trap of prurience: the excess of body fluids helps, but doesn't entirely solve the problem for him, as he still has to persuade us that there's something enticing enough about the whores to make men spend their money on them. The second half of the book is more interesting and original than the first, but it needs the first part (or at least some of it) to set up your preconceptions about the characters before it can start to undermine and demolish them.
Very competent technically as a historical novel - hardly anything in the way of glaring anachronism (a few small cheats, but nothing really obvious), and a pleasing absence of name-dropping. The writing is generally very agreeable, despite the squalor: only the occasional lapse into the pretentiously literary (the infamous "dead duck" passage, for instance).
Overall impression: there's a rather good novel in there somewhere, but to get to it you have to spend several weeks trapped in one of those awful but well-meaning museums of Victorian squalor where unemployed actors pretend to be skivvies and bootblacks.
I'm not terribly fond of business travel, but airports and planes do present a wonderful opportunity for putting in a few hours' solid reading, away from the distractions of internet and TV.
12. The busconductor Hines by James Kelman - bought mid-2010
Kelman's first novel, all about life at the bottom of the heap in Glasgow - I was expecting something very dark and depressing. It turns out to be rather a funny book, though. The "four-letter words" may have been controversial in 1984, but his stylised version of working-class Glaswegian train-of-thought wouldn't really be credible without them.
...another four books acquired today!
13. Alone of all her sex by Marina Warner - bought August 2009, picked up last weekend, but briefly shouldered aside by Scottish busconductors.
Nice to read some good, heavyweight non-fiction for a change. Warner is always illuminating, and cleared up a few mysteries for me about the oddities of the Roman tradition.
14. Homo Faber by Max Frisch - bought in December 2010
Another one I should probably have read long ago but escaped by never taking a formal German lit. course.
I can see the point of it, and enjoyed the language and style, but I wasn't really convinced by the whole "engineering vs. Greek tragedy" thing. The symbolism seemed a bit too heavy-handed, somehow. Maybe it's a mistake to read serious books when you have a cold...
15. The object of my affection by Stephen McCauley - the front cover is boldly overprinted "a novel for the eighties" so I suspect that this has been sitting on the shelf for some time.
Enjoyable, upbeat sort of gay novel, in a similar register to Armistead Maupin's stories, but set mostly in Brooklyn. Very 1980s, but in a good way.
ETA: There was an interesting resonance with Homo Faber (my No.14) in a passage where the narrator speculates about the need architects have to control their surroundings - given that Frisch was an architect himself, maybe he was projecting the déformation professionelle of his own colleagues onto an engineer?
16. On the black hill by Bruce Chatwin - another relic of the eighties, probably bought about twenty years ago and forgotten. Like No.15 it's a book that was sitting on the TBR shelf but I'd overlooked it when tagging the TBRs - I wonder how many there really are?
A lovely miniature agri-epic, depicting the life of a pair of twin brothers on a hill farm on the Welsh border as the 20th century fast-forwards all around them. Oddly reminiscent of Patrick White, I thought, but maybe that's just from the resonances with the situation of The solid mandala. Fun to see Penelope Betjeman making a cameo appearance towards the end of the book...
17. Mobile Köpfe: Menschen, die Hamburg bewegen by Kerstin Schaefer et al. - bought August 2010, after a visit to Hamburg
Third volume in a series published to mark the centenary of the Hamburg Hochbahn. This part deals with the human aspect of running a public transport undertaking in a big city. There are chapters on the training and daily work of Hamburg's train and bus drivers, and a brief look at the jobs that are done "behind the scenes". These are occasionally revealing, but rather routine - lots of photos of smiling trainees being shown the controls of underground trains by helpful instructors. Slightly more interesting, but a bit smug, is a chapter describing the Hochbahn's role as an employer of foreign workers.
This is all pretty much what you would expect in a corporate history: the organisation profiling itself as a good employer that does all it can to ensure the welfare of staff and the comfort and safety of the travelling public. However, two further chapters are a little more unusual: Kerstin Schaefer on the passengers of bus route 13 and Susanne Limroth-Kranz on the Hochbahn in the Third Reich. Both are excellent and well-worth having.
18. Leute Von Hamburg; Meine Strasse by Siegfried Lenz - bought about ten years ago, another thin book that got pushed to the back and forgotten.
For a vegetarian, I'm reading a surprising number of books about Hamburgers...
Lenz in whimsical mode: two essays about his adopted city. In "Leute von Hamburg" (1968) the reader is supposed to imagine sitting at the window of a bar, looking at the people who walk past through a rum glass. We get a dozen or so virtuoso character sketches of Hamburg "types" and are encouraged to speculate about what - if anything - distinguishes the Hamburg character. "Meine Strasse" (1981) is a sort of apology for living in a bourgeois suburb. Both nicely done, but really just glorified newspaper columns.
19. The Monastery by Sir Walter Scott - read as a facsimile from Google Books, downloaded in May 2010 when someone was kind enough to give me the sequel, The Abbot.
Great fun - I normally find ghosts and ghoulies rather irritating in novels (and silly anywhere else...), but there's something so endearingly batty about a ghost who can only talk in ballad-verses and makes it her business to promote the Protestant faith that it would be churlish indeed to complain about her. This is another book where Scott wisely lets the "minor" characters do all the hard work, and leaves the ostensible hero and heroine very much on the sidelines. Halbert gets to fight a duel and escape from the evil baron's castle hanging from his belt, but that's about it; the lovely Mary Avenel has to be content with about three lines in the whole book. The characters who steal the show are the foppish courtier Sir Piercie Shafton and the intrepid Mysie of the Mill. Sir Piercie can't stop himself talking like an Elizabethan play, to the growing frustration of all those around him; Mysie is a splendid woman of action out of the same stable as Jeanie Deans (but unaccountably in love with Piercie).
It struck me as I was reading this that it's an even more operatic story than The Bride of Lammermoor, but no-one seems to have made a successful opera out of it. (I did find a reference to something called La Donna bianca di Avenello by Pavesi, but as far as I could see it's a completely different story.) Maybe the Italian censors weren't ready for stories that show protestants getting the better of Benedictines. A missed opportunity: it would have been great if Bellini or someone had done it, with Dame Joan as the Donna Bianca, Dame Janet as Maësi della Molina, and Sir Geraint as Sir Piercie. I suppose we'd have had to have Domingo and Carreras as Halberto and Eduardo, too...
...not to mention the lost masterpieces Die bezauberte Schrift of Carl Maria von Weber (missing out all the politics, and with the duel in the enchanted glen as Act I finale) and Die Mönche der Mark of Richard Wagner, in which the monks are members of a knghtly order, not Benedictines, and the central character is Hob Miller (bar.).
20. The country ahead of us, the country behind by David Guterson - bought about fifteen years ago, after enjoying Snow falling on cedars.
Basically these short stories are readin' 'bout how to hunt, fish, shoot, bang 'n wank, as someone elegantly put it in another talk thread today. Good if that's the sort of thing you enjoy reading about, but otherwise a bit of a turn-off for the reader. "American elm", about an encounter between a youth and an elderly farmer, is probably the only one I'd trouble to read again.
One step forward, two steps back: I noticed that a couple of the books I'd taken off the shelf weren't in my TBR collection, so I spent a bit of time this morning doing an audit of the TBR shelf. I found two books there that I've definitely read already (Yes!) but 25 books that weren't in the TBR collection and thus hadn't been given the "2011 Off-the-shelf candidate" tag. Two of them weren't in my catalogue at all, presumably abandoned here by departing guests. So the number of candidates has gone up to 100, twenty more than I thought it was in January...
21. Midnight all day by Hanif Kureishi - bought about ten years ago.
Hmm. Short stories about depressed, divorced, middle-aged dads in Notting Hill or somewhere: fairly uniformly miserable, with only the occasional touch of humour, mostly directed against himself. There are a couple of really good, memorable pieces: "Strangers when we meet", in which a young actor's plans to slip away for a few days with his lover are upset when her husband comes along, and "Four blue chairs", in which a couple who have rather tentatively moved in together after leaving their previous partners are faced with the challenge of getting some furniture home from Habitat. (Well, you didn't think it was going to be MFI, did you...)
22. Unnatural relations by Mike Seabrook - bought a long time ago, well past its read-by date.
Worthy, well-intentioned bit of propaganda fiction, pointing out how cruelly the (then) English law treated gay teenagers who had the bad luck to get caught up in it. The author was no Dickens, and didn't quite manage to turn his fictionalised case history into an interesting novel - unusually for me, I gave up after the first three or four chapters and skimmed to the end.
23. Roumeli: travels in Northern Greece by Patrick Leigh Fermor - bought August 2008: started then, put aside when I got stuck in one of his digressions, but taken up again last week as my "bus book" because the biography of Bruce Chatwin I'm reading is a bit too doorsteppy for the rucksack.
The concept of "Northern Greece" is elastic enough to stretch from Crete to Honduras in this second set of virtuoso, quasi-random ramblings about Greece and the Greeks from PLF. As we might expect, he draws on his vast and diverse store of knowledge of two and a half millennia of Greek history and culture to wander off into strange and wonderful digressions, either fascinating or tedious according to how mellow you are when you read them.
24. Weerborstels by A.F.Th. van der Heĳden - since this was the Boekenweek gift in 1992, I know exactly how long it's been sitting on my shelf. Nineteen years in the queue for a novella of less than a hundred pages!
A nice, well-crafted little story about the life and death of a father and son in Eindhoven.
25. Jackson's dilemma by Iris Murdoch - bought in August 2009
Iris Murdoch's last published novel - a bit of a puzzle, and very possibly not the book she would have liked it to be, but still interesting to read.
26. Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey - bought September 2010
I was looking forward to reading this, but it didn't live up to expectations. Lots of nice lines, some very good bits and pieces of stories, but when he puts it all together it doesn't really seem to add up to anything. There's a bit of a send-up of de Tocqueville, some vaguely Jeremy Bentham/Foucault stuff about prisons, a Dickensian tale of forgery and insurance fraud, and a master-servant plot that is obviously supposed to make us think of Papageno and Tamino. Some of the period details are a bit ropey too, especially when he ventures on board a Royal Navy ship taking prisoners to Australia and clearly either doesn't have a clue or is taking perverse pleasure in setting the teeth of naval fiction buffs on edge. Carey has never been the most focussed of writers, but he usually manages to make some sort of sense emerge from the chaos: this time it doesn't.
You are doing a great job both of reading those oldies and keeping your TBR shelf at a fairly consistent level. Good on you!
27. Mr Stone and the knights companion by V.S. Naipaul - bought November 2007, read because it's only short and I could knock it off in a morning, the end of the month being rather imminent...
The opening of this 1962 novella makes you think it's going to be something like Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn, a depressing story about lonely middle-aged office workers drifting into retirement, but it turns out to be surprisingly upbeat. A bit of a period piece in some ways, but with all the deceptive subtlety you would expect from Naipaul.
28. The passion of the new Eve by Angela Carter - bought in November 2010
When you come back to it thirty years on, apocalyptic seventies gender-bending generally turns out to have been appallingly badly written. Not if it's Angela Carter. Every metaphor is spot-on, every word is doing its job: the satire is devastating, but the language is never remotely ugly.
29. Specimen days by Michael Cunningham - bought September 2007
Conclusive evidence that you can have too many stories about people who quote Whitman compulsively.
30. The Cardinals by Bessie Head - bought ca. 2000
Bessie Head's posthumously-published first piece of long fiction, a quasi-autobiographical novella set in South Africa around 1960. Matter-of-fact about poverty and apartheid in a way you can only afford to be if you've come up the hard way yourself, but rather oddly romantic about African men.
31. L'Ami d'enfance de Maigret by Georges Simenon - bought October 2010. Inevitably, if you pick up a book to read on a lovely early spring day in the country, it turns out to be about wet weekends in Paris...
Classic Maigret: after thirty-five years, an old classmate from the Lycée turns up in Maigret's office. He's the chief suspect in a murder case, but Maigret can't bring himself to believe that the former class clown could kill someone.
32. I served the king of England by Bohumil Hrabal - bought March 2010
Engaging picaresque tale of a waiter's rise and fall, set against the background of mid-20th century Czech history. I suspect that the English translation didn't do it justice.
33. De ontdekking van de Hemel by Harry Mulisch - bought October 2007: its 927 pages of Dutch have been menacing me from the TBR shelf for the last three and a half years, but finally I took the plunge!
The Dutch are still in some ways a Calvinist nation and value industry: short books are given away for nothing in Boekenweek; intolerably long ones are considered masterpieces. The British and Americans, on the other hand, care little for length, but will buy any work of fiction that deals with angels, Solomon's Temple, and the Vatican. Mulisch certainly knew what he was doing when he planned this book as his masterpiece...
34. Mon ami Maigret by Georges Simenon - bought October 2010. Thanks to two very long books, June hasn't been good for the off-the-shelf campaign, but I managed to squeeze in a short one just before the end of the month (and finished it moments before midnight).
Slightly pedestrian Maigret from 1949, but the Mediterranean setting makes a nice change.
35. Hundejahre by Günter Grass - another one that turned out to have escaped from the TBR shelf without being read. Bought sometime between 1989 and 2007.
36. Das Versprechen by Friedrich Dürrenmatt - bought sometime between 2001 and 2007 - yet another thin book that got overlooked on the TBR shelf.
Intriguing crime story in which Dürrenmatt speculates about the whole premise of detective fiction - is the concept of solving a crime meaningful?
37. De Avonden by Gerard Reve - bought in December 2010
Another Dutch classic I've been avoiding for years, that has finally caught up with me. Not as exuberant in its language as later Reve, but a beautiful, often painful, sometimes very funny dissection of the emptiness of life in Amsterdam in the 1940s. Very Dutch, but also has a lot in common with the books young English writers would be producing ten years or so later.
38. A meeting by the river by Christopher Isherwood - bought a long time ago, left on the shelf because I wasn't sure if I could take Isherwood in full-on Hindu mystic mode.
Reading this novella is a reminder of how difficult it is to write religiously-based fiction that is still moderately readable for someone who doesn't share the author's beliefs.
...and, since it's the end of the month, I polished off another overlooked thin one:
39. Serenade by Leon de Winter - the Boekenweek gift from 1995
A nice, well-made little story about a composer whose elderly, Jewish mother suddenly goes missing.
I seem to be on a roll this weekend:
40. Attentat by Amélie Nothomb - bought January 2010, put on one side for a while because I was a bit Amélied out at the time.
Beauty-and-the-beast story with a modern twist.
...that means I've met my initial target of forty books off the shelf in the first seven months of the year!
So, nothing for it but to up the target to sixty - only fair when you consider that I grossly underestimated the size of the TBR pile when I first set myself the target.
41. Joe Wilson's mates by Henry Lawson
Mateship and the grim realities of the Australian outback, a century ago. Some touches of Edwardian archness, a few bits of sentimentality, but also quite a number of strikingly original, witty stories.
42. Le capitaine Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte - acquired March 2010
Modern Dumas-pastiche - quite fun, and more readable in French than in the appalling English translation I tried before. I should learn a bit more Spanish...
43. Pfitz by Andrew Crumey - bought 2006
Hilariously over-the-top bit of nineties postmodernism with the usual generic Enlightenment setting and a big helping of Diderot. Seriously out of fashion, but still quite amusing.
44. Jacques le fataliste by Denis Diderot - bought ca. ten years ago
Gloriously random, constantly interrupted discussion. Figaro meets Tristram Shandy.
45. Wodehouse: a life by Robert McCrum - was a Christmas present in 2009
Useful biography, bringing together a lot of the recent secondary material on Wodehouse in one book, but not adding very much in the way of new insights.
46. The Abbot by Sir Walter Scott - acquired in May 2010
This sequel to The Monastery only took Scott a few weeks to write, but it's been sitting on my shelf for over a year. Much more conventional in structure than the earlier book, it was more of a popular success, but I found the simple divided-loyalties plot much less interesting than the rather surreal set-up of The Monastery.
47. Les liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos - acquired in February 2008
It's amazing how much fun you can have with 175 French letters.
48. Jonathan Wild by Henry Fielding - acquired about 20 years ago
As usual, finishing the month with a bit of low-hanging fruit: not the best of 18th century novels, but it's a short, quick, entertaining read.
49. This sweet sickness by Patricia Highsmith - acquired a long time ago...
50. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning - contained various bookmarks from whenever I last wrote an essay on Victorian poetry, but I'd never actually attempted the 12000 lines of blank verse that make up Aurora Leigh before
Gloriously over-the-top Victorian grand opera, beautifully written by EBB. But it's distracted me into downloading the Letters from Gutenberg, so a net increase in the TBR pile...
As it's the end of a month in which I've been much-distracted by freshly-downloaded Victoriana from Gutenberg, I finished off a couple that have been sitting there with bookmarks in them for far too long. So, today you get two Theodores for the price of one:
51. Railroads in the African American experience : a photographic journey by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr. — bought in August 2010. Very interesting: the only reason it took me a year to finish it is that it's such a big, heavy book, it's almost impossible to read anywhere except on a bookstand on the table.
52. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane — bought in July 2008. Classic adultery-tragedy: I was stuck for a long time in the "Kessin" section, but it was worth pressing on to the end.
53. Under the net by Iris Murdoch — bought June 2009.
I started reading this on a 'plane soon after buying it, then laid it aside and forgot about it. It was worth finishing: the last few chapters are where it all really starts to make sense...
54. Man about town by Mark Merlis — bought ca. 2004
At first sight, this looks like an eighties gay novel 20 years on and in the mid-life-crisis stage, but it turns out to be something much more subtle and grown-up.
55. Mein Jahrhundert by Günter Grass — bought October 2007
Grass's millennium special, probably a bit past its read-by date, but still interesting. For all his Nobel-prize-winning genius, he still hasn't worked out that 1900 was not the first year of the 20th century, nor 1999 the last...
56. Proust by Edmund White — bought ca. 2000. You wouldn't think so many thin books could get stuck in the TBR queue. Maybe I just fail to see the thin ones when I'm looking for what to read next?
More of an extended introduction to A la recherche du temps perdu than a biography, really — a handy little guide to what Proust is all about.
57. Betrapt by Elizabeth George — since this was a free gift for "Suspense month" in 1996, I know exactly how long the two copies of this 58-page booklet have been on my shelves. Which probably expresses the extent of my interest in Ms George's crime stories...
Competent but rather generic crime story, with rather too much stress on "glamorous lifestyle" details for my taste. Padded out with a smug, self-satisfied essay on the art of crime writing.
58. Sketches from Memory by Edmund White and Hubert Sorel — bought ca. 1994. Yet another slim volume that got away...
A surprisingly bright, cheerful mood for a collaborative work from a couple with the shadow of AIDS hanging over them. All that's missing to turn it into a 50s musical is the Gershwin soundtrack. Sorel's picures are occasionally hidden by White's blizzard of dropping names, but it's all in good fun.
59. Shalimar the clown by Salman Rushdie — bought 2006
Well, no-one would expect Rushdie on Kashmir to be upbeat and cheerful...
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