Read of the year 458 BC

I always have such a huge TBR pile that I rarely read a book in the year it was published and am rather awed by people whose “best of the year” blogs are all about current favourites. However, even by my standards, my top read last year had been out there for a long while; two and a half millennia in fact.

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I think it says a lot about the events we lived through last year that so many books I read were either written centuries ago, or were about ancient history. The past seemed far safer, if only because we know who the heroes were who came along and got rid of tyrants, or which particular gods meted out their own brand of justice. My reading of ancient Greek plays was actually awakened at the end of 2015 but this was the year I finally read the Bacchae, the Oresteia trilogy and the Oedipus trilogy. They are all stories I thought I knew but I had never read the complete plays and was amazed by how much I didn’t know.

I’m also ashamed (due to how much I revere her books) at realising just how much of the ancient myths and texts Mary Renault seamlessly incorporated into her novels about ancient Greece. Now I know why Oedipus appeared in the Bull from the Sea. I long to go back and re read all of her books but have so far limited myself to The Praise Singer as being the one most closely associated with the days of Aeschylus.

Reading plays is not to everyone’s taste, and the skill of the translator can add – or detract – so much from the pleasure. I first read some Homer (a poem rather than a play – or of course a song given how we think they were performed) before I was ten years old. I’m ashamed (again) by how little of the complete plays I read when I got a degree in Ancient and Medieval History (it was too easy to just read the key passages that were quoted in lectures and text books.) In a way though, I’m quite glad. I’d’ve read them for the passages that proved an essay’s point rather than reading them for the love of the story or the language and I’ve lost count of the times I paused to marvel at the imagery they evoked and it was the Oresteia by Aeschylus, particularly Agamemnon that most delighted me.

Here are just a few examples:

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, P76, The Chorus

  • …., and feels
  • Pang and pulse of groin and gut,
  • Blood in riot, brain awhirl,

Do I love this because of my fondness/weakness for alliteration? Or was it reading Homer early on that gave my alliterative appreciation?

Aeschylus, The Choephori or The Libation-Bearers, P119, Just after Electra has said “O fierce flint-hearted mother” she goes on:

  • A husband laid unhonoured,
  • Unwept in a cruel bed.

And a few lines later:

  • And so my father perished;
  • And I, despised, unwanted,
  • Shoved to one side, and shunned
  • Like an ulcerous dog, let flow
  • Tears reckless and unstinted
  • As laughter, sobbing unseen.
  • Let this on your heart be printed
  • When you hear what grief can mean.

It’s always nice to find I’m not the only person to love “un” words.

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I do wish they hadn’t changed from the lovely matt black and gold cover to the glossy black one. Not least because of how hard they were to photograph together

Of the other books I read in 2016, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Silver Branch was a favourite, and yet another source of bafflement (this post can only contain so much shame) that I hadn’t read them earlier in my life. Dr J recommended The Eagle of the Ninth a few years ago, it was one of the few books other than the Lord of the Rings that he read in his teenage years and directly led to his love of history and his choice of a degree and subsequent career – more proof of how important books are. I loved the Eagle when I read it a year or so ago and was both pleased and anxious to discover she wrote two “sequels.” Pleased because I had loved the book so much, anxious as sometimes an author seems to want to capitalise on a book’s success and spins out further adventures for characters who had the perfect character arc in book one and then have nowhere to go. The Eagle felt nicely rounded for me and so I was delighted to find that the Silver branch followed new characters only loosely linked to the first – in short it was a perfect sequel; adding and enriching the experience of the first book yet a stand-alone adventure that held me gripped with its plot but also her wonderful writing, here again were marvellously vivid descriptive phrases such as;

  • Salt-soaked timber
  • Smoke-blackened atrium
  • Storm-lashed woods
  • Smoke-dimmed sky

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Sparkling prose is of course one of the most famous things about Raymond Chandler’s books, the book covers boast famous descriptions that live in the memory long after the book is finished. He deserves a whole post of his own, how I only read him in recent years, long after reading other books or watching films that spoof his style of dialogue and hard-boiled detective; I’ve seen and been baffled by a few of the adaptations of his own books too but nothing prepares you for the joy of his imagery and characters and dialogue and the world weary jaded eye he casts over his world. If I’m honest, the Long Goodbye didn’t grip me as much as his previous books, I’m not sure I was in the right frame of mind for it and I look forward to a re-read when I’m not puzzling over the plot; but if nothing else, I can thank the book for introducing me to Gimlets. I have no need to worry about getting scurvy any time soon with all the lime juice I’ve consumed this year.

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The final books I shall mention are the Harlequin Romantic Suspenses that I read. I actually didn’t think I’d read as many as I had, because I read none after May when I became absorbed in finishing my own manuscript aimed at this line. I keep a record of all the ones I read with a brief review, purely for my own memory and to help me when working out why some books worked for me better than others and I’m pleased to say that all the ones I read last year scored highly with me. I have no intention of reviewing authors that I hope to be published alongside but I will single out Mel Sterling’s Latimer’s Law (they are arranged in the order I read them in the picture.) The first chapter of this book was entered in Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 and it leapt out at me for its freshness, its voice and its complete unexpectedness. I entered my own first chapter on the same Romantic Suspense category but I knew from the moment I read Mel’s work that it was on a different level altogether – I said as much as well before voting had been counted and felt mildly smug when it was one of the 28 short listed chapters, and was proved right again when it became a top three finalist. I can at least spot brilliance, now to just achieve it in my own work…

And here’s to more excellent books (and drinks) in 2017.

The case of the disappearing bookshelves

Can you love books too much? For me, a large part of the pleasure when reading a book is deciding where it will go on my bookcase when it is finished. I love blogs or twitter chats about book shelves and how they are arranged, pictures of libraries are pure book porn for me and I often fall asleep at night imagining redesigning the entire house around books.

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From the number of posts I’ve seen along these lines I am obviously not alone, but of course I’m a reader and a writer and the people I follow are too; or they are editors, agents, publishers – book lovers. But what about other people in our lives? Even if they don’t introduce themselves with; “Hello, I’m a reader,” don’t  they like books too? I started wondering this a few weeks ago when I was writing about how I read and I realised that in almost all the houses I have visited for the first time in the last 6 years, I haven’t seen a single book in a living room.

There could be many reasons for this. For a start I’m talking about less than a dozen houses – I’m not a madly sociable person. The people I have visited have often been because of children’s parties or looking after a neighbours pets, it may well be that many of my friends have houses bursting with books. But it has still struck me each time I see a room with not a single book, either laid aside mid-read, or proudly on display.

I know ebooks are replacing the need for books on shelves, and de-cluttering is very much in fashion now. But even if people are reading on tablets and pads, where are all their books from just a few years ago before ereaders? I had friends years ago who gave many books away to charity shops after reading due to a lack of space, but they always replaced them at the same time with more second hand books to read. Are books considered old fashioned? Ugly? Bragging? I cannot imagine not having my collections all around me, but as I have said before, I am a slow reader for whom each book represent a microcosm of the person I was when I read it, where I was, how the book made me feel – I am bombarded with memories when I pick up a loved read, and the story itself isn’t often the first thing I think of when I feel the physical book in my hands again.

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I would never judge anyone on the books they have on display – well I would try not to. But these days it’s more the utter lack of books that surprises me (and which I also try not to judge). Maybe it is to do with the age I now am and that the homes I visit are all of busy working families. When I was a student or single (ok, I lived in Oxford but I refuse to believe only University towns have people happy to display books so prominently – having said that, I did used to love walking home and peering into lit rooms, so many were lined with books in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere in the countryside, but I think a lot of that is architecture as much as the occupier’s choice. The classic town houses of Oxford and other cities and towns are designed with nooks and alcoves for book shelves, even if you don’t put books on them. The countryside homes built with agriculture or industry in mind tend to have more utilitarian features (I’m aware this is a sweeping generalisation but so many homes have been made in converted barns and former farm or industrial buildings and they are huge or neatly uniform places, no recesses or niches and any book shelves often seem dwarfed by the size of the rooms.) Plasma screens are the dominant features and dvds or games are the only purchases on display, books are only to be found in children’s’ bedrooms it seems.

Were books on display a part of showing off in the 70s and 80s when I grew up and all the houses of my parent’s friend’s were full of books? Are they no longer seen as essential? Were they for show, or art back then? Or am I basing all this on a very small selection or homes (yes, this cannot be a statistically significant finding.)

I do unashamedly love books though, browsing shelves whether in a library, a book shop or someone’s house – and I almost always ask permission before approaching someone’s shelves (or waited till they had left in the days when I babysat in other people’s homes.) Having just written that as if it were normal I think I have answered my initial question – it is possible for me to love, or revere, books too much.

However, even now, when I finish a book I take a lot of pleasure in working out where on my shelves it will go. My bookcases are roughly arranged with absolute favourites at top left and on around the room in decreasing satisfaction. If I read a book by an already admired author and it disappoints, it can mean the author’s entire oeuvre gets moved down – or up of course if an author surprises me.

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The pictures I have posted here are all from my flat in Oxford. It was a bare concrete place when I moved in and along with a budget for a washing machine, fridge-freezer, bed, sofa, carpet (yes, I did choose that very dark green one in the photos, I loved it, everyone else who ever visited commented on it and at least two people offered to mow it for me) I also had money put aside for bookcases to create the effect in the first picture. It gave the room a focus and features, yes the tv was prominent, and the hi fi, but for me it was all about the books. I loved the fact I had enough space to break up the shelves so some just had ornaments on them. That last post is the bookcase I had in my bedroom where I could lie back on a lazy weekend morning as I drank a pot of tea and wondered if the book I was currently reading would make it into that room with my absolute favourite books (although I had forgotten until I looked at the picture just how many of the shelves contained pony books!) I feel as if I haven’t read nearly as much as I would like to in the 6 years since I took these photos just before the flat was sold, but comparing them with todays shelves my top selections have indeed been added to. I’m resolved to take photos of my collections at least once a year to monitor their change, and I shall never apologise for loving books too much.

Inheritance tracts

This was not the blog post I intended to write this week (and it’s a little later than planned) but a visit to my parents had an unexpected outcome. My mum told me she had some books for me, this happens quite often; books she has read and thinks I will enjoy and lends me. Or more often these days, books she has decided she won’t read again. She has been doing this for over ten years, mostly because she still buys books and is picky about which get to stay. Last time I saw her, only two or three weeks ago she gave me Tom Bombadil and also Diana Wynne Jones’ Hexwood which I pointed out was actually my copy that she had refused to return as she enjoyed it so much. However I was not expecting her to give me these books:

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They have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can picture them on a shelf in the living room, although mostly I recall them on a shelf by her bed, where all her most treasured books or comfort reads were. Her excitement when she unwrapped Dunnett’s King Hereafter for a Christmas present in 1982 is also clear in my memory, even though she knew exactly what was in the parcel.

I must have taken these books down and looked at them many times; I remember that terrifying leopard so well and being annoyed that Checkmate’s glossy plastic cover did not match the beautiful matt paper of the others, and that its art work was far less imaginative and evocative (great, I was an aesthetic book snob before the age of ten) I also remember being bothered that there were only six books with their chess related titles – where was a bishop or rook one? They were among the only books in the house that I wasn’t encouraged to read, mum treasured them so much and said they were very densely written, and complex – those are compliments – and that they weren’t something to be read too soon. (I made that mistake with the Lord of the Rings, rushing onto it after the Hobbit and finding it very slow going and hiding my copy of Five go to Smuggler’s Top inside it so that mum wouldn’t know I wasn’t enjoying one of her favourite books – I’m not sure if this means I was reading Tolkien too soon, or Enid Blyton too late.)

It was a very odd moment when I was offered these books. Mum said that at nearly eighty she isn’t going to read them again. I haven’t felt such a pang when she’s said similar things about other books and she has been frank and wonderfully sensible about aging, knowing her limitations, not fighting it but adapting with grace and practicality. I just can’t imagine ever giving away my most treasured books like this (and she is of course still holding onto a lot and ordering books every week through the local library so she’s hardly giving up) I just associate these with her so strongly. They take me straight back to my early teens when my dad worked away from home mid-week and my sister and I took it in turns to be allowed to sleep in their double bed with mum; lying there in the morning looking at these magical books with their matt covers, gothic lettering and tantalising illustrations was like peeking into a treasure chest of jewels.

And now they are mine.

I just need a quiet few years to read them in….

I hadn’t realised how much fun I would have with a dictionary when I started this blog, nor just how atrocious my taste for puns and word play would be. This blog title is borrowed from BBC Radio Four’s Inheritance Tracks where a known public figure talks about one piece of music that they “inherited” or grew up with, and then nominates another piece to pass on. I frequently find the stories they tell about why the music means so much to them far more emotive than the music.

I was sure that tract referred to a written piece of work, as well as to an area of land – anyone who loves Monty Python will never be able to forget the allure of a Princess with “huge tracts of land” in the Holy Grail. I had also forgotten until I checked my dictionary that a tract can be a passage in the body – I love my mum but have no wish to inherit her digestive tract. The writerly tract is “a short treatise or discourse, especially on a religious subject” and I feel that at times my reverential approach to books is bordering on worship. I must also remember to look up the definition of short as well one of these days…

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Among other hand-me-down books are my mum’s copies of Winnie the Pooh. Published just after the war they are flimsy and battered but so loved, I have a hardback complete collection that I have been reading to my daughters and while the illustrations are fabulous in this large format, it’s a bugger of a book to read in bed. I have our original copies of the Narnia books – although we had to replace the Horse and His Boy before I was ten years old as I wore it out. Again, I am reading hardback copies to my girls, easier on my eyes and with quite frighteningly atmospheric covers, but I am more attached to the very loved and battered covers on the 1970s versions.

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And then there is mum’s Mrs Beeton. Anyone who visited my flat and was at all interested in the books on my shelves always commented on this one. Partly as it was at eye level but also because there aren’t many books almost as wide they are tall, they also loved the fact that it was called a new edition whilst being the oldest book in the house. I have never cooked anything from it, but again, it was a part of my mum’s bookshelves and something that defined “home” for me for years.

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These then are just some of the books I have physically inherited, there are others I have bought myself and would never have tried if mum, and occasionally dad (he’s only become more of a fiction reader after he retired) hadn’t recommended them and thus I think of them as inherited books. I hope at least one of my daughters loves reading as much as I do and I wonder if I will be able to pass on my mothers’ books to them; which I will allow out of the house in dribs and drabs, and which, to use a slightly morbid phrase, they will have to prise from my cold dead hand? I have a feeling these Dunnetts may be here a long time, alongside Diana Norman, John le Carré, Mary Renault and Raymond Chandler…but it will probably be quicker to list the books I don’t treasure. I’ve only been pondering this topic a few days so maybe I shall write another post if I am able to narrow my selection to one book I have inherited, and another to pass on to future generations. Do let me know any of your inheritance tracts.