Top Reads of 2018

Top Reads of 2018If I had to pick a top ten reads for this year, I’d struggle. So I’ve decided on 15. What novel did I enjoy the most? What book had the greatest impression on me? Well, Dickens doesn’t make the list. On reading “Our Mutual Friend”, which Italo Calvino reckons (in “why Read the Classics”), I’m finding it a bit of a chore: it’s a bit Dickens-overdone. The order is a little troubling and presents a challenge, so I didn’t bother.


  1. Villette by Charlotte Bronte


  1. The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet


  1. The Charterhouse of Parma by Henri Stendhal


  1. Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme


  1. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov


  1. Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino


  1. Pricksongs and Descants by Robert Coover


  1. Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi


  1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov


  1. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani


  1. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino


  1. Contempt by Alberto Moravia


  1. Blow Up – Stories by Julio Cortázar


  1. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy


  1. The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield




Numbers in the Dark – Fables & Stories 1943-1958  by Italo Calvino

Numbers in the Dark CalvinoOther than the title story, “Numbers in the Dark”, not much stood out in this collection, which represents the early period of Calvino’s output. Bookended by almost great “The Path to the Spider’s Nest” of 1947 and the fully great “Mr Palomar” of 1983, Calvino’s literary career has, if anything been unusual. Passing through “Cosmicomics”, “Invisible Cities” and “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” one may well become a little dizzy. But this is as it should be. And, I suppose, as it is for all great writers. The title story of this collection, “Numbers in the Dark”, is a genuinely beautiful example of a piece of fiction that works. On being read again, and again, it works again and again.


Mr A

The Doves Nest & Unfinished Stories by Katherine Mansfield

The Doves Nest & Unfinished Stories by Katherine MansfieldMansfield was about something different in this collection, one that she never completed. The incomplete stories may offer some clues as to where she was going, but they don’t give the reader much in the way of satisfaction. But then, what satisfaction can a reader be expecting? There’s a kind of newness about some of the incomplete stories, not the unconvincing experimental approach of some of her stories from ‘Bliss’, which was completed some years before ‘The Garden Party and Other Stories’, but a kind of promise, though one that isn’t quite fulfilled. One or two of the stories, such as ‘The Dolls House’ work in the fashion of ‘The Garden Party’. ‘The Fly’ is perhaps the most interesting story of the collection: what is the reader’s satisfaction upon reading it? A rather grim one. But one you certainly wouldn’t renounce.

What is a story such as ‘The Fly’ for? It’s like asking what a great work of art is for: well, look at it and see!

Mr A

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine MansfieldThese are stories that work as pieces of literature – they do more than simply bemuse, pass the time, occupy an idle hour – they change us. The reader will leave many of these stories ‘At the Bay’, ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ or ‘An Ideal Family’ altered in some way: these are stories that ‘touch’ us, not through their sentimentality, but because they ring true in their presentation of an aspect of life, and more than touch us, they seem to cut at us, wound us a little, rough us up perhaps: we’re given a not so gentle shake. We are not merely getting life in many of its facets reflected back at us: life is represented, it is shaped, it is dusted off, it is framed, and maybe it is wrung out too, and as it is served up to us, it is dropped in our lap. What is the art of the short story? What is literature for? Upon reading ‘The Garden Party’ or ‘The Stranger’ one feels one knows. These are not merely beautifully piquant examples of defamiliarisation; we’re not merely seeing an aspect of life anew: we’re seeing it for the first time, and we are troubled by it.

I have read these stories many times; each time I read them I am troubled anew, but gladden anew too: Mansfield is a master of the form, right up there with James and Chekov. Modern short story writers don’t seek to do better what Mansfield, James and Chekov have done; they are about a very different business, and go about that business in new and exciting ways.

Mr A

Parson’s Pleasure by Roald Dahl

Parson_s Pleasure by
Roald DahlIs this a “great short story”?

I would say no.

Does it engage the reader? Yes

Is it well written? Yes

Beautifully written? Yes, if “beautiful” means clearly, succinctly and fluently; if it means any more than this, then who knows. But let’s say it is beautifully written, in every possible meaning of the word “beautiful”.

But does it do anything to the reader over and above occupy them for twenty minutes, even if that’s an enjoyably spent twenty minutes? Even, if in that twenty minutes, the reader is marveling at how it can possibly end up, and then gets a real thump by the end: well, fancy that? Because it’s one of those stories – with an end, a reveal, a bang. You know it form the very first sentence – it’s so perfectly discernable in every twist and turn,  just as it is in the way it starts to subtly twist and turn from the off.

And you do get quite a bang for your buck with this one, and the reverberations may well be there for quite some time after the story has come to an end. But over and above that slight shiver of fancy-that, there’s nothing else. No “take-away”.

This is a piece of literature that tells us nothing about ourselves, a piece of literature from which we learn nothing; there is no insight for the reader, no themes revealingly touched upon, turned over or turned inside out. we’ll not see the world one jot differently by the end of this story, no more than after reading the ingredients of a bag of crisps. We will be ourselves just the same, the world will be as it was, and we’ll be none the wiser about any aspect of anything.

So, as a piece of literature, I would say that this story, despite being brilliant in one way, fails. It fails in every important way. 

Quite far into the set up of the story, one about a conman looking for antiques from unsuspecting country folk, the narrator breaks out of the protagonist’s point of view, to give us this:

“The oldest of the three was a stumpy man with a wide frog mouth and small shifty eyes, and although Mr Boggis didn’t know it his name was Rummins and he was the owner of the farm.
The tall youth beside him who appeared to have something wrong with one eye, was Bert; the son of Rummins.
The shortish flat-faced man with a narrow corrugated brow and immensely broad shoulders was Claud. Claud had dropped in on Rummins in the hope of getting a piece of pork or ham out of him from the pig that had been killed the day before. Claud knew about the killing – the noise of it had carried far across the fields – and he also knew that a man should have a government permit to do that sort of thing, and that Rummins didn’t have one.”

…so when we get this: “Again the silence, and Mr Boggis glanced quickly from Rummins to Bert, then to Claud then back again to Rummins, and he noticed that each of them had the same peculiar expression on his face, something between a jeer and a challenge, with a contemptuous curl to the mouth and a sneer around the nose.” the reader is already clued up, over and above the protagonist: why? Or why? We so want to read on. We have that faint feeling of dread in our stomachs: I know and I don’t know. This is suspense, artfully turned, deftly played and expertly refined: Dahl is a master of the story, of narrative, of suspense. 

Sure – there’s a delicate balancing act being maintained, so when we’re told “’You know what I think?’ Rummins said, fixing him with his small wicked eyes. `I think you’re after buying the stuff yourself. Why else would you be going to all this trouble?’” we are tipped quite far, maybe even too far, one way rather than the other. But no – we are still held in suspense.

Then it happens, that is ‘something’: “He must have time to think, he told himself. More important still, he must have time to compose himself thoroughly before he said another word. Take it gently, Boggis. And whatever you do, keep calm.” And the reader will be thinking – oh here we are, just what I’ve been expecting. Or is it? oh the suspense!

So as the plot thickens – and there is only plot in this story (Oh how will things turn out?) – Dahl opts for the subtlest but surest signs and markers: “He looked around and saw the three men standing absolutely still, watching him suspiciously, three pairs of eyes, all different but equally mistrusting, small pig-eyes for Rummins, large slow eyes for Claud, and two odd eyes for Bert, one of them very queer and boiled and misty pale, with a little black dot In the centre, like a fish eye on a plate.”

Dahl never lets up: “Walk slowly, Boggis. Keep calm, Boggis. There’s no hurry now.”

The ending doesn’t disappoint. But it’s just that and only that: an ending. This story doesn’t reach beyond it.

Great literature doesn’t come to an end. This story does – the satisfaction is acute, but ultimately shallow. No sustenance.

Mr A

7 Tips from Edgar Allan Poe on How to Write Vivid Stories and Poems

Edgar Allan Poe …the elements Poe considers most necessary to “effective” literary composition…

  1. Know the ending in advance, before you begin writing.

“Nothing is more clear,” writes Poe, “than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.” Once writing commences, the author must keep the ending “constantly in view” in order to “give a plot its indispensable air of consequence” and inevitability.

  1. Keep it short—the “single sitting” rule.

Poe contends that “if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.” Force the reader to take a break, and “the affairs of the world interfere” and break the spell. This “limit of a single sitting” admits of exceptions, of course. It must—or the novel would be disqualified as literature. Poe cites Robinson Crusoe as one example of a work of art “demanding of no unity.” But the single sitting rule applies to all poems, and for this reason, he writes, Milton’s Paradise Lost fails to achieve a sustained effect.

  1. Decide on the desired effect.

The author must decide in advance “the choice of impression” he or she wishes to leave on the reader. Poe assumes here a tremendous amount about the ability of authors to manipulate readers’ emotions. He even has the audacity to claim that the design of the “The Raven” rendered the work “universally appreciable.” It may be so, but perhaps it does not universally inspire an appreciation of Beauty that “excites the sensitive soul to tears”—Poe’s desired effect for the poem.

  1. Choose the tone of the work.

Poe claims the highest ground for his work, though it is debatable whether he was entirely serious. As “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem” in general, and “The Raven” in particular, “Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones.” Whatever tone one chooses, however, the technique Poe employs, and recommends, likely applies. It is that of the “refrain”—a repeated “key-note” in word, phrase, or image that sustains the mood. In “The Raven,” the word “Nevermore” performs this function, a word Poe chose for its phonetic as much as for its conceptual qualities.

Poe claims that his choice of the Raven to deliver this refrain arose from a desire to reconcile the unthinking “monotony of the exercise” with the reasoning capabilities of a human character. He at first considered putting the word in the beak of a parrot, then settled on a Raven—“the bird of ill omen”—in keeping with the melancholy tone.

  1. Determine the theme and characterization of the work.

Here Poe makes his claim about “the death of a beautiful woman,” and adds, “the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.” He chooses these particulars to represent his theme—“the most melancholy,” Death. Contrary to the methods of many a writer, Poe moves from the abstract to the concrete, choosing characters as mouthpieces of ideas.

  1. Establish the climax.

In “The Raven,” Poe says, he “had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word ‘Nevermore.’” In bringing them together, he composed the third-to-last stanza first, allowing it to determine the “rhythm, the metre, and the length and general arrangement” of the remainder of the poem. As in the planning stage, Poe recommends that the writing “have its beginning—at the end.”

  1. Determine the setting.

Though this aspect of any work seems the obvious place to start, Poe holds it to the end, after he has already decided why he wants to place certain characters in place, saying certain things. Only when he has clarified his purpose and broadly sketched in advance how he intends to acheive it does he decide “to place the lover in his chamber… richly furnished.” Arriving at these details last does not mean, however, that they are afterthoughts, but that they are suggested—or inevitably follow from—the work that comes before. In the case of “The Raven,” Poe tells us that in order to carry out his literary scheme, “a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident.”

Throughout his analysis, Poe continues to stress—with the high degree of repetition he favors in all of his writing—that he keeps “originality always in view.” But originality, for Poe, is not “a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition.” Instead, he writes, it “demands in its attainment less of invention than negation.” In other words, Poe recommends that the writer make full use of familiar conventions and forms, but varying, combining, and adapting them to suit the purpose of the work and make them his or her own.

Though some of Poe’s discussion of technique relates specifically to poetry, as his own prose fiction testifies, these steps can equally apply to the art of the short story. And though he insists that depictions of Beauty and Death—or the melancholy beauty of death—mark the highest of literary aims, one could certainly adapt his formula to less obsessively morbid themes as well.

War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 3rd Volume – at last! Alas!

Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 presetThe second – yes, second – epilogue, is an epilogue too far: it will have you wondering at the sheer density of nineteenth century people, who really must be of a different species entirely. But let’s not let that detract from what is a worthy final volume of a truly great and epic work. The story is brought to a conclusion with tremendous sensitivity and the sentiment is balanced and pure. There’s not a single bum note. And the prose, as they say, is beautiful.

One particular passage is especially remarkable. It concerns the execution of some prisoners of war / suspected arsonists. If one wants to see how Tolstoy puts his art to work to achieve something, here it is clear what he achieves: the reader is hit in the viscera with what it means to die, to be killed, to have a life calmly and deliberately taken.

The reader cannot believe it, and yet the reader must. It cannot happen thus, and of course it does.

Mr A