A New Reading Challenge?

shelves of classics

Tantalising Glimpse

I have been thinking about ways of revitalising my Landing Book Shelves challenge for 2015 and beyond. Many books remain to be read, especially if I count in all of the books belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up as well. This means that I have plenty to be going on with for the foreseeable future. The astute amongst you will no doubt point out that if I stopped going to the library then I could concentrate better on the Landing Backlog. Book club books and miscellaneous items of review copies that come my way have also regularly distracted me. Alas, ‘twas ever thus (and it will probably remain ever thus!).

I have set myself ‘mini challenges’, challenges within the main challenge as it were, over the last couple of years of this blog. You might cast your minds back (assuming that you have been with me that long) to the Christmas Advent Challenge/Calendar, Poetry in June and The Landing Eight Challenge. All of these literary challenges duly documented, have appeared within these virtual pages. The first two were time specific and featured poetry, rhymes and fiction extracts. I really enjoyed doing those as it was rewarding to rootle through the shelves and search out pieces to read/reread and talk about on the blog. The third challenge centred on my reading a random selection of books from the shelves. This actually drifted on for longer than I had planned and I was relieved to finish my self appointed task. What is next for the Landing TBR Pile Reading Challenge? Some literary planning is urgently required, to give the Landing Blog some fresh topics to feature.

I need to choose a challenge theme first; then to establish a period for the challenge. A month is quite a handy length, as it is long enough to look at extracts from a few volumes but not too long, that I will be in danger of going off the page (as I so frequently do). That would work for poetry or short stories, or for selecting extracts or essays to feature. Or I could aim for a longer (more in depth) challenge of a few months, reading one book per month (book club style).

Now, the task is to work out a few options and make a decision; easier said than done methinks. One choice would be to select a publisher or an imprint and read one title a month perhaps. I could tackle some unread Penguin Classics, Orange Penguins, Modern Classics or Twentieth Century Classics. Then there is a batch of Canongate Classics and several Pimlico non-fiction titles. Not to mention my green and gold ‘Book Club’ classics series (of which Diary of a Nobody was one). Several remain unread to this day, so perhaps that would be the way to go….

I’ll let you know when I have managed to come to a decision!

Finally there: The Frontenac Mystery by François Mauriac

The Frontenac Mystery

An evocative scene..

‘Before beginning a novel I re-create inside myself its places, its milieu, its colours and smells. I revive within myself the atmosphere of my childhood and youth – I am my characters and their world’ (François Mauriac).

This is the moment that you’ve all been waiting for (well I have at any rate) when finally I tackle the last novel in my Landing Eight sequence of books. After that I have another Reading Challenge lined up to tell you about, but more of that in due course. In the meantime I’ll put The Frontenac Mystery to bed and cross it off my TBR Pile with a sense of satisfaction. There have been many distractions along the way but I’ve finally completed reading the eight titles that I picked out last year. Still got lots yet to read though; but for now let’s move on with the book in hand…

I picked this book (one belonging to He Who Put the Shelves Up in fact) as part of my Landing Eight Challenge since I hadn’t read anything by François Mauriac (1885-1970) before and this seemed as good an opportunity as any to start. The edition of The Frontenac Mystery that we have at home is a Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition from 1986; the text was translated by Gerard Hopkins for the Eyre & Spottiswoode edition of 1951. Le Mystère Frontenac was originally published in 1933 by Bernard Grasset. For some background information on Mauriac here’s a link to his biography on the Nobel Prize page (he was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952).

At the centre of the novel is the Frontenac family, a landed gentry family from the Bordeaux region (Mauriac’s birthplace); Blanche Frontenac has been widowed with five children to bring up and a family reputation and tradition to uphold. Her brother-in-law Xavier helps her as a fellow guardian and as a custodian of the family’s business and estate. As the novel opens, Blanche has been widowed for eight long years; she was a ‘tragic mother with the black eyes, and the sick, lined face, in whom the traces of a former beauty still warred with wrinkles and approaching age. Her greying, rather untidy hair gave her the neglected look of a woman who has nothing to look forward to’.

Blanche has become subsumed into the family into which she married and carries the pride and ‘mystery’ of the Frontenac name within her. Having said that, she resents Xavier for apparently being unable to see her as a person; he sees Blanche only as the mother of the next generation of Frontenacs and she believes that he doesn’t even really see her as a Frontenac anyway. Similarly, he also sees in the children the glory of the family and therefore ‘what gave them value in his eyes had nothing to do with individual qualities’. But it transpires that Xavier has a secret that would not reflect well upon the august name of Frontenac were it to become widely known.

The novel follows the lives of the family as the children grow up and assume their place within the mystique of the Frontenac name. The boys Jean-Louis (the eldest sibling), Jose and Yves are all very different characters and Mauriac explores their contrasting hopes and ambitions. The two sisters Danièle and Marie don’t receive so much attention, probably because the times and social position they were in would never have allowed them much choice. Tellingly, at one point in their childhood they are described by Mauriac thus, ‘ They were two little brood-mares in the making, and found an outlet for their maternal cravings in ministering to the children of various washerwomen and chars’.     

I’m not sure whether I really liked this novel as I didn’t feel much of a connection with or sympathy for many of the characters. They all seemed to be trapped in a web of their complex family history (and their pride in it)  that they all at times kicked against, yet ultimately submitted to maintaining. I did however, feel sorry for Xavier’s secret woman Josefa (who is not as much of a secret as he thinks) who lives patiently in the background since she isn’t deemed to be worthy of a life amongst the family Frontenac.  Xavier has conflicting emotions towards her, referring to as ‘shop-soiled’ but at the same time, ‘She was a kindly creature with a strong maternal instinct who did not laugh at him’.

Mauriac’s prose is beautiful and elegant but I think that the overall effect is cold and that the novel lacks that certain something that would draw me into the lives of the family. Perhaps it’s just that times have changed so much that it’s hard to imagine anyone devoting themselves so entirely to a collective without any consideration for the individual needs. The social segregation of Josefa from the family and her humble attitude towards them is hard to swallow. I would however, like to read something else by Mauriac (I will probably read this one again at some point) to delve a bit further into his world. It would perhaps help to read more on his life and the influences upon his work I think. Another project for the future.

And don’t forget that I promised an announcement on the next chapter of the Landing Book Shelves TBR Pile Reading Challenge! Tune in next time folks for an update…

If you’re also in Ireland, have a great Bank Holiday weekend.

L.P.Hartley: The past is a foreign country

The Go-Between

The winged messenger

I said that I would return to the topic of The Go-Between and so I have (with a certain amount of delay admittedly). I enjoyed the novel a great deal, which is set in a period and in a milieu that has always had a particular fascination for me. The Penguin Modern Classics edition (1997, 2000) has an excellent scholarly introduction by Douglas Brooks-Davies which I read before the novel, but that I wish I had left until afterwards as it gave away the details of the plot. Bearing that in mind, I will attempt to do no plot spoiling myself. Suffice to say that at one point I was irresistibly reminded of Aunt Ada Doom seeing something nasty in the woodshed at Cold Comfort Farm.

The novel recalls memories of a hot summer in 1900, in which Leo Colston has been invited to stay with his somewhat grander school friend Marcus Maudsley at Brandham Hall. Twelve-year-old Leo is the go between of the title, in his role of secret messenger between Marian Maudsley and Ted Burgess, a local farmer. These messages are mirrored by the errands he runs between Marian and the man her mother wishes her to marry, Viscount Trimingham.

Leo, as an old man looking through childish souvenirs in an old Eton collar box, recalls the details of that summer from long ago. The discovery of the box and its contents prompts memories that Leo has suppressed for his entire adult life. The book deals with loss of innocence (Leo’s) and class issues, as well as love, loyalty and friendship. The class barriers of the pre-war years are neatly encapsulated. The set pieces of the local cricket match and the post-match concerts show clearly the ‘them’ and ‘us’ aspects of the social life of the village. Against this background is set the affair between the lovely Marian and the attractive, but socially inferior Ted.

The Go-Between

First edition (1953) cover

The focus of the novel is on Leo’s naivety and the drastic effect that the discovery of adult sexuality has on his subsequent emotional development. He clearly at first has no idea of the nature of the relationship between Marian and Ted. It is hard to imagine that such innocence existed from our twenty-first century perspective. However, the narrative makes clear that life was very different then. Adults and children lived almost separate lives; indeed at first, Leo did not even realise that Marian was the sister of his school friend. All the adults seemed indistinguishable from one another. They even seemed to speak a different language from the public school patois he shared with Marcus. Leo, being of a humbler background than the Maudsleys (yet not lowly enough to be excluded from the delights of Brandham Hall) has at times to submit to being corrected about what is appropriate behaviour or language by the often insufferable Marcus. It has to be said that Marcus is (in my view at least) a very unappealing child in his snobbery towards the lower orders. No doubt however, his attitude to the villagers was common enough at the time.

If Marian fascinated Leo, then he was almost terrified of her mother and lived in dread of doing the wrong thing. Manners and behaviour were very important and obedience was expected from children. It was however, a time when children were left to their own devices for long stretches so the boys could escape adult supervision for hours on end. This of course facilitated Leo’s mission as Mercury, flying between the hall and the farm bearing messages with nobody being any the wiser.

I said I would try not to plot spoil The Go-Between, so I will leave it there and hope that my notes have whetted your appetitite if this is a novel that has so far passed you by. My only remaining task is to point out that the copy I have been reading actually belongs to ‘He who put the shelves up’ (with many thanks). 

Happy reading! 

Landing Eight Progress: L.P.Hartley

The Go-Between

The winged messenger

Turning my attention back to the Reading Challenge that was whole purpose of this blog, I have been scanning the remaining Landing Eight titles to decide what will come next. My choice will be to read L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (Penguin) as a complete contrast to The Periodic Table. In common with many people I suspect, I have known the famous first line to this novel for years without ever having read the book. Well, now is the time to put that lack of experience finally to rights. That is, after I have finished a couple of other books that are floating around, procrastination being my modus operandi (she confesses sadly).

The Locust and the Bird

The Locust and the Bird – trade paperback edition

At present, I am reading My Mother’s Story: The Locust and the Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh, a completely engrossing Lebanese memoir. The book is a trade paperback title that I grabbed from a bargain section some while ago because the lovely title (and the stylish woman on the jacket) appealed to me. A quick mention also for the memoir, The Storyteller’s Daughter by journalist Saira Shah; in which Shah tells of her attempts to come to terms with, and understand her Afghan heritage. She has had some truly close shaves during several years of conflict in Afghanistan, which are un-nerving even to read.

A wonderful thread running through the book is that of the stories passed down the generations of the family. At one point Shah quotes her father comparing stories to dried onions. He told her that stories are ‘like dried experience. They aren’t the original experience but they are more than nothing at all’. The stories have a purpose in helping to explain and deal with life’s experiences as they come along. I have written a little about the importance of stories and storytellers in a previous post (April) so this aspect of the book was of particular interest to me.

Now, your starter for ten: tell me about your favourite storyteller…

Other News:

As I am sure many people know, the nice folks running the Grafton Media Blog Awards Ireland have recently announced the shortlists. This blog has been shortlisted in the ‘Best Newcomer’ category, which is very exciting for me. A big ‘Thank You’ is due to the organisers (Amanda Webb, Lorna Sixsmith and Beatrice Whelan) for selecting the Landing Bookshelves for inclusion on the list. I put my head in the sand after the nomination went in and tried not to think too optimistically about the awards, so it was particularly cheering to find that I had got this far. I will be firmly crossing fingers (and maybe toes too) ahead of the Finalists announcement (29th September). However, the crossing fingers part may make typing tricky so perhaps I will simply try to visualise crossed fingers and see how that works. Actually, page turning would be awkward as well and I definitely do not need any obstacles on the reading front either.

So, it’s back to The Go-Between for me…

Blog Wards Logo

It’s awards time…

A Glimpse of the TBR Pile: A Reading Challenge

shelves of classics

Tantalising Glimpse

A friend has given me a suggestion for a way of tackling my TBR Pile Reading Challenge, so I am basing this piece on that feedback (thanks Teri!). Never let it be said that I fail to listen to sensible advice (especially when I asked for it in the first place).

Various tantalising glimpses have been given of my Landing Bookshelves, but I have not actually written down any of the titles that I may tackle during my trek around the TBR Pile. This post is an attempt to remedy the lack thereof. It will probably be a random list as I am about to leave my computer and browse the shelves for ideas. The plan is to simply jot down any title from the TBR Pile that takes my fancy and present the list to you, dear reader, as an indication of my future (good) intentions.

Before I set off for uncharted (and possibly shockingly dusty) territories, I will just draw to your attention that I have set up a Bibliography page on the site, where I plan to list all of the books mentioned (however briefly) in the Reading Challenge blog posts. Some titles may be out of print, but I will try to remember to give details of dates, publishers etc in case anyone wants to follow up on anything. I hope to update the page regularly and even to maintain strict alphabetical order (that might be a challenge in itself).

(Noises off...)

Now, that was quick; I am back already from the cobwebby wastes of the upper storey with my list of books; in no particular order I hasten to add.

On the menu: The Landing Eight

A pile of classic novels



The Daughter of Time Josephine Tey (Orange Penguin)

The Frontenac Mystery François Mauriac  (Penguin Modern Classics)

The Go-Between L P Hartley (Penguin Classics)

In a Free State V S Naipaul (Orange Penguin)

The Periodic Table Primo Levi (Everyman)

The Diary of a Nobody George & Weedon Grossmith (Guild Publishing)

Murderers and Other Friends John Mortimer (Orange Penguin)

The Thirty-Nine Steps John Buchan (Orange Penguin)

Some of the above will be re-reads but most of them are genuinely from the TBR Pile that constitutes much of the Landing Bookshelves, but I will leave it until a future date to disclose which are which, thus creating a modicum of suspense. I will not promise to read them in any particular order, but rather as the fancy takes me. I have also spotted a more few books that I would like to write about, but I will tuck them in here and there as a surprise literary morsel in between courses.

Feel free to suggest any preferences as to reading order. In the meantime, I will be busy cleaning my bookshelves; I may be some time.

Until we meet again behind the TBR Pile…

Studying the Shelves: Books Galore on the TBR Pile

I have arrived at a point where I have become extremely sidetracked into reading books other than those on The Landing, so I thought I’d do a quick tour of the shelves to remind myself what I am supposed to be reading. Not that it will do much immediate good as I have just begun Jane Harris’s Gillespie and I and I am completely hooked. I have started, so I’ll finish…

book shelves

Where do I Start?

Taken at random, these are a couple of the shelves that this Reading Challenge is all about:

section of book shelves

A Few Orange Penguins

I have been going around snapping bits of the shelves in an effort to record the shelves for posterity (and inspiration). Let’s hope it works!

shelves of classics

Tantalising Glimpse