Re-reads and Re-rereads

Having last week discussed unfinished books, I thought I’d turn my attention to books I have re-read. I’m not even going to call them favourites, but they are books I keep coming back to time and time again.

Reads and Rerereads 2‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

I have lost count of how many time I have read this. It’s comforting- I know what’s going to happen- but I do find fresh insights every time I read it. Most recently, a little of the dialogue seemed a little stilted to me, but this is not to say I will not be reading it again and again. However, I avoid all the critical notes in my battered Penguin edition. I am not reading as an academic and they detract from my enjoyment.

Reads and Rerereads 5‘Truckers’ by Terry Pratchett

In fact, anything by Terry Pratchett; but I feel I should stick to one book. In this, aimed at children but so enjoyable for adults, a tribe of nomes (sic) are living in the spaces between humans, in the countryside and in a department store. It sounds ludicrous and fanciful, and it is, but Pratchett makes it playful, logical, and deeply insightful into our world and our condition; as he does more extensively with his Discworld books. I read this many times to children. Again, I now find some of his later work less fluent and enjoyable than when I first read it; but the invention, as ever, is always entertaining.

See also “It should have been me.”

DSCF0586‘Stolen Journey’ by Oliver Philpot

This is one few people now will have read. It is the true story of the “Wooden Horse” escape from Germany in World War 2, written by one of the three escapees. I suppose this is again a repeat read because it is comforting; I know he always escapes. It is from my grandfather’s collection and it is precious.

See also My grandfather’s books: A gentle tribute to a gentle man

Reads and Rerereads 1‘No Highway’ by Nevile Shute

Again I could pick anything by this author. He is now deeply out of fashion, but I read him again and again because he is very strong on the virtues of common men and women, triumphing because of their humanity. I wish I could persuade others to read his work; in fact I plan a future post on him, as I do with the next author….

Reads and Rerereads 3‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’ by William Gibson

I picked this book out of many I could choose by William Gibson because it has a great title. He is apparently the originator of cyberpunk. I reread his entire output every few years. His language use, plotting and invention are what keep me coming back. His novels repay rereading in that you start to understand just what is going on…..

Reads and Rerereads 4‘The Village Cricket Match’ by John Parker

This is a delightful tale of…. of the village cricket match of the title. It reminds me of watching village cricket in a village much like this one in Sussex, when I was a boy. (And I went to school with the author’s son, who was eventually the captain of Sussex. And was outstanding at all sorts of sports. And Oxbridge.)

dscn6090‘The Pickwick Papers’ by Charles Dickens

I like just about all Dickens, and this used to be my favourite. I used to read it when things were really bad. If I haven’t re-read it for some time, perhaps that’s because things haven’t been so bad.

As so often, by writing this post I found some new insights. I discovered that it was authors I reread, not individual novels, apart in the case of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Stolen Journey’. Of course, there are others, but Shute, Gibson and Pratchett are the writers I keep coming back to. (There is some non-fiction I re-read: ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ and others; but mostly I dip into it.)

And your choice is?


Unfinished Books

Recently I read about a survey of the books most commonly started but left unfinished by the British reading public. Statistically, this type of research is usually dodgy, but the results are interesting.

Of course, having written the above I conducted a search to find the list, but can’t find the one I originally read. There are several: there is a link to one here:

Unfinished Book List

I do remember that the list I originally saw featured ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Steven Hawking (I’ve read it, could have been better with a few more simple equations), the ‘Harry Potter’ series by J.K. Rowling (I’ve read them, need editing) and at the top ’50 Shades of Grey’ by somebody I can’t be bothered to check up (I haven’t read it, won’t be bothering).

I detect a certain air of smugness in myself when I have read books other have struggled to finish. ‘War and Peace’ comes to mind as often being in lists like this; I have read it but have mixed feelings about it (see my blogpost on War and Peace). Dickens often occurs in these lists. I love most of his novels but gave up on ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. What else have I abandoned?


Looking on my sadly depleted shelves (see yet another post: Decluttering 3: A final one on books and two more), I firstly find unfinished non-fiction, which I start with good intentions but then plough to a halt. I thought this trend might stop when I retired, but it hasn’t. I started ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ by Nicholas Crane, then found it….. just uninspiring, despite great reviews. So I tried the identically named book by Francis Pryor. I got a bit further, but have paused in my reading of it. Perhaps it’s the subject matter. Perhaps it’s me.

20180503_142925Then there’s ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong. ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ by Dawkins is a book I have read and re-read, and find inspiring. However this one is proving hard to finish, well-written as it is.

20180503_142859Another critically acclaimed and well-written book is ‘Jerusalem’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore. (What a great name that is.) It’s fascinating. It’s packed full of vivid detail. But. But. I just can’t get going on it.

20180503_143145I have just enough scientific education and interest to tackle ‘The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen’ by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. It is very readable, but does need a bit of concentration. However, once again I have pressed the pause button and the pause is lengthening.  (I must point out that all these books are very good and I do intend to finish them. Some day.)

20180503_142838On a different note entirely is my failure to finish ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe. It’s an account of Europe in the years immediately following the end of World War 2. It’s very, very good. I have read most of it. However, I just cannot face any more. It’s such an awful indictment how people can treat others with disgusting savagery, often because they are a different nationality, religion or ethnic grouping.

In a lighter vein, I have some unstarted books in my collection, which I may never start. They are books I have inherited from my parents and in-laws. Two of them, pictured here, are a biography of the sadly missed Brian Johnston by his son Barry (one of my mother’s); and ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes (in a version “adapted for the young” by one M. Jones) which must have been my grandfather’s. The latter looks unread and will probably remain unread. I may tackle ‘Johnners’ one day.

This moves us neatly on to fiction. I find this more difficult to illustrate, as I have generally got rid of fiction books I have not finished; I tend to hang on to non-fiction in the folorn hope that “I’ll get round to it some day”. I have selected a few abandoned books from my reading log (more on that another time) with some of the comments I wrote:

‘The God of Small Things’- Arundhati Roy: Beautifully written, but I found it too distressing to finish.

‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’- Alexander McCall Smith: not a patch on ‘The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’.

‘Anima’- M. John Harrison: I didn’t really get it.

‘The Three Musketeers’- Alexander Dumas: Tiresome

‘How To Be Good’- Nick Hornby: Didn’t finish. Long interior monologues, not very entertaining.

There are more. I was hoping for a pattern to emerge here, but I can’t find one. I seem to have found books tiring, or tiresome, or dense, or too full of exquisite description. I feel that often I give books up because I have a weakness for plot; if something doesn’t move I can’t be bothered.

I always advise people not to finish a book if they are not enjoying it. I realise, however, that this might mean you miss something. Recently I read a review of a novel which described it as almost impossible to read, but advised that it would give you huge rewards if you stuck with it. I find it difficult to envisage what these rewards might be (for fiction) if it’s not enjoyable. Now into my 60s, I don’t want to waste my time on anything; but whatever your age, there are impossibly more books than you will ever be able to read. Move on.

I apologise to my regular readers who were heartbroken when a post didn’t happen last Sunday. The Muse was not inspiring me.


Reading in Public 2

Another miscellany of books I have observed being read in public since 30th October. Well, I enjoyed writing it……

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown A lady was very absorbed in this in Waitrose; for a mad moment, I thought it was the new autobiography by recent British Prime Minister (briefly) Gordon Brown. How bold of him, I thought, to use such a title. Then reason re-asserted itself; at this time his memoir had not yet been released in hardback, let alone paperback. Also the photo on the back cover appeared to be of a lady, and I was not aware of Mr Brown having had any spectacular reassignment of his preferred gender. I fell to speculating what the reader was thinking as she read; was she absorbed in a fiction? Then she looked to see how many pages she had left, rather shattering the illusion. The book apparently addresses “the quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone”. (Did Gordon Brown need this, I wonder?) The author is apparently a TedTalk phenomenon- a good recommendation- and a New York Times bestselling author. Nevertheless, it doesn’t appeal.

Next: in Brasserie Blanc, of all places, was a lady dining alone and reading. How wonderful that somebody combines those two great pleasures, solo, with no apparent self-consciousness. The light was a bit dim, but I worked out that the book was by Colm Toíbín. It was one of those covers where the author’s name is bigger than the title. Hmm. Possibly the book was his latest, House of Names, a “brilliant retelling of a Greek tragedy”. Hmm. Possibly another one I shall pass by. His work sounds dry, but as usual, who am I to judge? (Did you notice I was able to put the accent on the í?)

Following this, I spot a gentleman in the Waitrose café reading Tom Clancy’s True Faith and Allegiance: a Jack Ryan novel by Mark Greaney. Now there’s a title that needs a bit of unpacking. It appears that Tom Clancy did not write his later novels alone and that after his death further novels under his name were written by others. They are thrillers, for those like me who have not read them. Apparently they have a rather conservative world view; that’s an American conservative world view, with Reagan as a hero. Apparently. Correct me if I’m wrong. Again it’s a comforting thought, whatever your politics, that people enjoy reading when they’re on their own in public.  The next day, however, I saw the same gentleman reading on a Kindle. How I wish I had the nerve to ask what titles are being read on Kindles and the like. Plato, Porn, Proust, Pamuk, Patterson…. ? On another occasion, a reader had their Kindle propped up on a stand. Obviously in for the long haul.

Equally I wish I’d asked the title of the slim tome  being read by a (student?) girl at a bus stop. Is it inappropriate to ask a stranger of the opposite sex such a question in this day and age, even with Mrs O. chaperoning? Strange times.

I had another difficulty at the swimming pool the other day, where I saw somebody reading; but I didn’t have my glasses on, so had no chance of finding the title. (Note: if I don’t acknowledge you when swimming, I’m not ignoring you; if I stare fixedly at you, it’s not that I find you attractive or unattractive in your costume; it’s just that beyond a distance of about 3m you all look like pink or brown blobs if I haven’t got my specs on.)

There was also a child reading at the pool, but I don’t think it counts; she had so obviously been told to “do some reading” while a sibling was having a lesson. Back at my usual haunt, a boy (the same young gentleman who partly inspired Reading in Public) is reading Third Year at Mallory Towers by Enid Blyton. Maybe a strange choice for this day and age? I had my Enid Blyton stage, but that was a long time ago.

Another reader, with a laptop, who is obviously going to be in the café for a long time, has a bag (with Minions on it) from which she pulls a procession of academic texts. I identify The Handbook of Person-Centred Therapy and Mental Health: Theory, Research and Practice by Stephen Joseph and a title of which I can only read one word: “Authentic”. When I look up the first title on Amazon I find that “Customers who viewed The Handbook of Person-Centred Therapy.…” also viewed Authentic by the same author. It’s all too deep for me; and doesn’t really count as getting involved in a book. Nor does the lady who is looking at her diary; despite Oscar Wilde’s thoughts on the matter, she was probably just checking on birthdays. Ooh, the academic lady has just got a book called ‘Learning and Being’ from her Minions bag. I think this must be Learning and Being in Person-Centred Counselling by Tony Merry. You see where she’s going with this? I hope it’s a good journey, and has a real relevance to her career or life, or both.

There you are then. No deep conclusions, just the abiding thought of how lovely it is to see somebody lost in a good book.

(Of course, having finished this post and not published it, the list slowly goes on lengthening. Part of this interest- all of it, really- is just an abiding curiosity as to what people are reading. The above-mentioned young gentleman is now onto The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl. I’ve just noticed a lady reading The Girls. Investigation tells me it is a coming-of-age story centred on Charles Manson, written by Emma Cline. Hmm. Think I’ll stick to the Ms Oblique library for the near future.)

The Ms Oblique Library

LoansFurther to my last blog on “Print Junkies” I was fortunate enough to visit Miss (or Ms) Oblique #1 at the weekend. She and her partner, the erudite Red Rob, have an extensive and growing library, reflecting their varying interests of politics, military history, art, fantasy, SF, young adult fiction and much, much more. As is often the case on these sadly infrequent visits, I returned a stack of books that I had borrowed and came away with an even bigger stack, all recommended by the aforementioned Ms Oblique. This is of very little interest to anybody else, but I wanted to thank her with this brief post and to show the world what a 27 year old doing an MA in publishing thinks her 62 year old father with an MA in Education will enjoy. (She is very rarely wrong.) Thanks, Ms Oblique.

Print Junkies

Many years ago I was privileged to hear Harold Rosen give a talk at Southampton University. (A few years later I was privileged to hear his son, Michel Rosen, give a talk to teachers and read his poetry, in a classroom in a primary school in Winchester. For free. But I digress.)

I don’t remember the title of Harold Rosen’s talk and I remember virtually nothing of its content. It must have been something to do with reading, or literacy before that became a term hijacked by the as yet unborn National Curriculum. (Yes, children, there was a time before the National Curriculum and I was there. I am that old.) I probably took some notes, but these must be long gone, maybe even in the final clearout I made of all but a few sentimental items from my teaching career.

All I remember of the talk is Mr Rosen calling his audience of teachers and academics ‘print-oriented junkies’. He was right about me then and right about me now.

The Bookworm by Carl SpitzwegWhen I was younger I was that mythical person, a reader of cornflakes packets. If we still ate cornflakes, I would still be that person now. I am addicted to print. If cleaning my shoes (which is rare since I stopped working) I have to read articles in the discarded newspapers I am using. Mrs Oblique still gets annoyed, quite rightly, at my habit of reading signs aloud as we drive or walk down the street. I am addicted to print, especially books.

Like any addict, I do my best to avoid being without my fix. The Kindle has helped. I make sure I have books ready on it whenever we go away, but also take a print/ real book “just in case” the Kindle fails. Another digression: I recently recklessly loaded up on Amazon recommendations for my Kindle when we went away for a fortnight, only to find that at least three of them were dross. But anything will do when you’re craving a hit.

If I go into somebody else’s house, I make a beeline straight for their bookshelves. (Why is it a beeline? Do they always fly straight to their target?) Since I decluttered my own library, as documented earlier on this blog, I am sometimes saddened by the losses from mine. I always expected to have a huge, rambling library in my third age, but living with other people involves compromise.

It’s always a pleasure to meet another print junkie. My eldest daughter is one. She says her gateway drug was ‘The Hobbit’. I am delighted that she is now recommending books to me. I don’t look down on people who don’t read, but I wonder what they get our of life.

Addictions or obsessions have their problems. I have on occasion, probably fairly, been accused of ignoring people because I have had my head in a book. Maybe more seriously, I think that being a fluent reader might have handicapped me in my approach to young readers, both as a parent and as a reader. It’s always been hard to empathise with somebody who just doesn’t get reading, no matter what I might claim.

Now to continue with Miss O’s latest recommendation. ‘Ancillary Justice’, by Ann Leckie, as you are so kind to ask.

The illustration is ‘The Bookworm’ by Karl Spitzweg, in public domain. Mrs O. was unavailable for illustrating duties, being occupied making Dockers’ Chutney.



‘Racing Through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar’ by David Millar

David Millar will be known, to anybody who has followed the Tour de France on ITV4, as a commentator, with a rather lovely voice and a very informed and clear outlook. Anybody who knows little about cycling will perhaps never have heard of him.

He was formerly a top professional cyclist, who achieved some notoriety additionally to his cycling fame when he was exposed as a doper. This book is, as the title says, the story of his fall and subsequent rise. It’s rather good, so much so that it has just earned an Oblique re-read.

DSCN6799Apart from beginning with some forward glimpses, the structure is pretty much chronological, to my pleasure; I have read too much recently which tries to be clever by dodging around in time and ends up being confusing. It’s very good on David Millar’s early life: born in Malta, raised in Britain and Hong Kong by his divorced parents. I found the everyday details of his early life as a professional cyclist absorbing, as with the subsequent account of his rise to success. It is written “in collaboration” with Jeremy Whittle, but reads very much as Millar’s own voice.

Gradually, one realises the pressures on him to start doping; how he is never going to achieve the success he craves and deserves if he doesn’t give up his intention to stay clean and ‘prepare’ for the key races. He is very good on the conspiracy of silence which stops people disclosing the real secrets of drug use. This is what kept Lance Armstrong’s image so clean for so long. (At the time of publication of this book, in 2011, the Armstrong scandal had still not broken.)

Millar tells the story of his fall matter of factly, explaining his motivation without making excuses. He doesn’t flinch from the details of injecting and taking precautions not to be found out. What is remarkable is how he recovered: he has since taken a very firm anti-doping stance, and had some success when he resumed his career. This is the ‘rise’ of the title.

It’s difficult to know how people who are not keen on cycling would take to this book. I think it’s a great human story, as well as a sporting one, told with humour and I believe honesty. Recommended.

(David Millar has published another book about life as a professional cyclist subsequent to this one, which I have not read. Both were in the bookshop I visited today.)

Reading in Public

Now that I have more leisure time, I have started to notice what people are reading in public. Just for my own amusement, but hopefully yours, I am sharing my observations with you.

This all started when I saw somebody who I stereotyped as a businesswoman reading Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a world without work, by Nick Srineck and Alex Williams, which is apparently a “major new manifesto for a high-tech future free from work”. To which I will only say: oh yeah? For all the starving or impoverished billions of the world? Or just the privileged few? No, I haven’t read it, and am not inspired to do so.

Persuasion (Jane Austen) This was being read by the kind of lady you would expect to be reading Jane Austen; although a surprisingly wide range of people like her work. An old hardback copy. It does inspire me to want to reread Austen, a pleasure that never fails.

Azol Agol This is a cautionary tale, perhaps. We were in Boston Tea Party, Honiton; the youngish man at the table was reading a book. Mindful of my intention to write this blog, I was peering to see what the title was, and realised this looked incredibly creepy, so stopped. It was something like Azol Agol, but I can’t find this anywhere! I can find books with Azul (I think this is “blue” in Portugese), but not the exact title. Have I misread it? I know it was recommended by New Statesman. It remains A Mystery.

Kindle Here, of course, is Another Mystery. There is no way of knowing what someone is reading on a Kindle. Of course, you could guess, from the gasps of surprise or horror, the tears, or perhaps the heavy breathing: apparently this is a good way to disguise an interest in pornography (sorry, erotic literature). Fifty Shades of Grey is allegedly a favourite; no, I haven’t read it; yes, I have peeked into it; yes, it does really look like rubbish. Come to think of it, I see a lot of Kindle reading, by all ages, and I am sure this is more for convenience than from a desire to hide titles from prying bloggers.

(According to Mrs O. it is common to see Japanese commuters reading the most violent and sexual manga comics and books on their journey to and from work.)

On a lighter note,  I was delighted to see two young children having breakfast before school in the Waitrose café, reading with apparent pleasure and apparently uncoerced. Their books were J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and that timeless classic, Digger to the Rescue (author unknown) (see footnote). Interestingly, there is at least one edition of the Harry Potter books that was published in “serious” covers for adults. A couple of weeks later, I saw the family again and had the courage to tell the mum that as a retired teacher it did my heart good to see children reading, not playing on their phones. “Oh, you wouldn’t want to teach this one,” she smiled. “He reads all the time, even when the teacher is talking.” I rather think this might be a Good Thing. Depends on the teacher.

Another recent sighting was a table of four people with a copy of The Ups and Downs of Cruising. Before you get any peculiar ideas about the subject matter, it turns out to be a rather light-hearted book by Bryan Shelley about…. taking a cruise. Not “walking or driving about a locality in seach of a sexual partner” (Wikipedia). What a relief. This is Hampshire, after all.

Trains are another good source of reading matter observations: newspapers, manuals and magazines as well as books of course. The Kindle is popular. However, last week I saw Miracle Cure by Harlan Coben, which I think is some sort of medical thriller, and A Piano in the Pyrenees, which is a “light hearted travel book” by Tony Hawks. Older readers will remember ‘A Year In Provence’, another book in which an Englishman moves to France. I assume that this is similar, full of gentle misunderstandings and affection. I may be wrong and I have too much to read to confirm or deny this. I speculate that these books may be indicative of a desire to escape from the mundane reality of commuting. I only spotted the author’s name on another train book: Phillip Kerr, who I have found writes crime novels set in wartime and post-war Berlin, with detective ‘Bernie Gunther’. More escapism?

I suppose I should mention The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. These could recently be spotted being read by the Obliques while waiting for daughter #3. I have blogged about the latter (‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ by Katarina   Bivald). The former is apparently a very amusing read about camping. We’ve been there….


Footnote: ‘Digger to the Rescue” is part of a series by Mandy Archer and Martha Lightfoot. Putting jokes aside, they look great for young readers.