Monday, 31 March 2014

Sofa Spotlight - Wessex Tales, Thomas Hardy

I finished this one last night. Overall I enjoyed it, although there was one story that I was disappointed with. If you're looking to try Hardy this would be a good place to start. As well as being short stories not all of them finish with the stereotypical depressing end that Hardy is known for. When I read one of his books I begin it by thinking that it will end badly and then the ending tends to be less depressing. And if it turns out to be a happy ending then that is a bonus.

There are seven stories in this collection. The first one is The Three Strangers. A farmer is having a party one night to celebrate the birth of his daughter. During the party, which takes place in the farmer's remote cottage, three strangers enter the scene. The first claims to be a wheelwright, the second a hangman and the third doesn't stay long enough to give an account of himself. How they are connected is interesting, but you will have to read it to find out why.

The second story is A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four. This is about an urban myth that Napoleon came to England in secret to plan an invasion. Fairly short, but not that interesting.

Third is The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion. Depressed German soldier falls in love with English girl, and they plan to run away together. There are complications, a bit predictable, but it is best to be prepared to be frustrated.

The Withered Arm is next. A long short story about superstition and unwitting witch craft. What I didn't like about this was that some aspects of the story are never explained. We never find out why the farmer abandoned his first wife and child, or how the child ends up in the mess that he does. However, the story isn't really about them but about his second wife and her quest to be healed.

Fellow-Townsmen is a story where the two main characters don't get what they want. They spend the story missing each other, marrying the wrong people and at the end making the wrong decisions. Didn't like this one.

Interlopers at the Knap is a similar tale but a little less sad. I say a little though because it is also bleak. Farmer Darton wants to get married and does so, but at the expense of someone else. When his wife dies he goes back to the girl he dropped to marry someone else. However, she doesn't want to marry him, and so he has to live with his mistake.

The Distracted Preacher is my favourite and the story I would recommend the most. It is about smuggling and a Methodist minister who gets dragged into it. I found it very funny, and it ends well too, although not as Hardy would have wanted it apparently.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Sofa Spotlight - Compared to Her, Sophie de Witt

How to experience true contentment.

That's quite a claim for a book to make, and I have to say that I was skeptical. But I have since changed my mind. Halfway in I realised that I was very guilty of comparing myself to others, particularly in the area of 'Christian-ness' (read the book to find out what I'm talking about). What is worrying is that I didn't even realise that it was going on.

Sophie de Witt begins by explaining what 'Compulsive Comparison Syndrome' is, what it looks like in real life and what triggers it. She then describes what the consequences of living like this are in the long term. That will take you to about the halfway point of the book. The next couple of chapters cover why we have this problem, and where it comes from. She does this by describing what the Bible has to say about our problem and the effect it has on our relationship with God. The solution comes when get our view of God and ourselves right. If He is not what satisfies us then we will never be truly content and doomed to be always comparing ourselves.

I haven't really done this book justice in the short space I have used to summarise it. The best thing that I think you can do is to sit down and read it for yourself. It is very readable. At less than a hundred pages it isn't a long or daunting read. Perfect for if you have never read a Christian book before and want to try something lighter than Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. That doesn't mean it isn't challenging though. It has eight chapters and an introduction, so if you read one chapter a day you would have read it in just over a week. I read it in three sittings, none of them longer than an hour. Reading it with someone might be a good idea. If you agree to be honest with one another about what you are struggling with you can fight that fight with someone rather than on your own.

What I'm taking away from this book is a greater awareness of what I am thinking. And when I think thoughts of comparison I am teaching myself to remember God and be satisfied with Him as my King.

Have you read this book? I'm interested to know what you thought about it.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Sofa Shelf

There are four new books on the Sofa Shelf this week. If you want to know what books were already on the shelf you can see them here: and you can find out how I'm getting on with them here:

It's a bit of mix this week:

Racing Through the Dark - The Fall and Rise of David Millar

This is an autobiography of Garmin-Sharp, pro-cyclist, David Millar. It's the first time I have read an autobiography and I'm excited about the new experience. I've chosen an autobiography of a cyclist because after reading cycling is my great love. If I could work out a way to do both of them together I would. The world stops for me in July with the Tour de France. It was while watching the Tour de France that I first heard of David Millar. I didn't start watching the Tour until a few years ago and the first time I saw David Millar he was responding to an interview by talking about his return to the sport from a doping ban. Reading this book is my way of trying to get an insight into this part of the cycling world, a side of the sport I know very little about. Incidentally this book was written before Lance Armstrong confessed to doping.

Holiness - J. C. Ryle

J. C. Ryle is one of my favourite Christian writers. What I love about the way he writes is the concern he has for his readers. There is no getting away from the fact that he truly cares for those who read his books. I haven't read Holiness before but already I'm feeling deeply challenged. You would need to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the way he pleads with his reader to put their trust in Jesus for salvation or, if they have already done so, to press on and not be lazy in the way they live for Jesus in this life.

Wessex Tales - Thomas Hardy

It's Hardy again. This time it is a book of his short stories that I picked up in a second hand bookshop in Sheringham, Norfolk. Some of them I have read before, but I enjoyed them so much the first time that I'm looking forward to reading them again. I've read the first one in this collection called The Three Strangers and it was just as good the second time round.

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

I read this book in 2009 and didn't enjoy it. The aspects of the book that I found irritating are probably the ones that make you want to keep reading. For example the short chapters, some no longer than a page, that end on a cliff-hanger so that you jump to the next chapter without thinking about pausing for a break. However, I've just recently finished reading Angels and Demons and I did enjoy that, without finding the short chapters annoying. What I am finding interesting is the striking similarity between the beginning of both books. Robert Langdon awoken in the middle of the night to be consulted about a grim murder. A mysterious assassin hired by an anonymous agent. I'm not sure how I feel about books in a series that follow a formula. When this book came out there was a fair bit of controversy surrounding it concerning the subject that it covers. It seems to me that most of that has died down now, but one thing I will be doing while reading this book is to make sure that I know the reasons for believing what I do.

Let me know what you think of my choices and if you have read any of them.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Sofa Shelf Update

This is a little update on how I'm doing with the books that I talked about on the Sofa Shelf last week. If you missed it you can catch up here:

Compared to Her - Sophie de Witt 

I'm halfway through and have quickly found that this book does have something to say to me. It's the sort of book that I find myself thinking about all the time. So far I've been shocked at how much time I spend comparing myself to others - suppose it is in the title. Looking forward to how it concludes, not looking forward to the changes I may have to make to my thinking.

A Book of Narrative Verse - compiled by V H Collins

Since last week I've managed one poem and it took me an hour to get through. It was by Chaucer and I didn't like it. Mainly because it took me an hour, but also because I couldn't understand most of it - please don't ask me to tell you what it was about because the best I could give you would be an educated guess. Not sure how I feel about trying another.

The Well-Beloved - Thomas Hardy

I finished this one. You can see what I thought about it here:

The Cuckoo's Calling

Got a bit of time to read this one but not much, which is disappointing because I'm really enjoying it.

There's some new books coming up on the Sofa Shelf. Keep your eyes peeled for them.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Search for Alexandre Dumas

Yesterday I wrote about how I had bought more books than I had resolved to buy. In case you missed it this is the link: I also said that I would explain what the circumstances were that had led me to buy them.

My explanation is this: Alexandre Dumas. I think he is the best writer to ever hold a pen and he used that pen to write a great stack of books. The sad thing is that most of them haven't been printed in English for a long time. Getting my hands on them has been tricky. I've done quite well and my collection was boosted at Christmas when EG gave me what she had tracked down.

If you are a relative or friend who has been coerced into looking for these books then I am truly sorry for the hours you have spent searching shelves in second hand bookshops. I am very thankful for my sister who ran around Norwich with me in the search of Dumas (and also many other places) so that I could get my favourite edition. What a hero.

Dumas is probably most famous for his Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo. It was watching a film version of The Count of Monte Cristo that started my love for Dumas.  I wanted to read the book and then I found out that he had written loads. And so the search began.

Yesterday I saw a few copies in a bookshop, most of them were titles that I already had, but there was volume two of one that I didn't have. No volume one though. Off I went to find the owner to ask. Turns out that he hadn't sold volume one it had been moved by another customer and my guess was as good as his when it came to locating it. Apparently this happens fairly often, and he explained that he spends half his time searching for books that have been moved from their original location... ...and the other half of his time looking for their rightful home. This is a bit of a mystery to me, why do people move books around like that? If you have a theory or you are a book mover yourself please share with me why this happens. I'd love to know.

Anyway, I roped EG into help me search for volume one and off we went. It took us a while, and I found another Dumas that I didn't have, hidden in a corner on the way, but eventually I spotted it. On a shelf on the far side of an alcove that was blocked off by piles of books and a chair (also piled with books) was volume one. It was a happy moment. There was no way I was sticking to the 'only buy one book rule' and I walked out with both.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

A Bookish Challenge

This morning I was in a second hand bookshop. Nothing odd about that. What is odd is that I only bought two books, although one of them was in two volumes so I walked out with three actual books...but really it was only two. Later on I bought a third book (or fourth depending on how you're looking at this)... but that was for someone else so it doesn't count.

I'm justifying this (to myself more than anything) because I'm trying to keep the books I own and haven't read to a minimum. This isn't because I need to cut down how many books I buy (although that is probably true too) or because I'm trying to save money (that would be nice too) but because tonight I have counted up how many books I have and then I counted up how many I haven't read. By the end of September I need to have read 25% of the unread books I own. If I don't my housemate and I will not be going to Hay-on-Wye in October. This doesn't rest on my shoulders alone. EG has to read 10% of her books or we don't go.

Unfair as it seems it does work out as roughly the same amount of books each. EG has far more books than I do and her 10% gives her 64 books to read, while my 25% gives me 66.

Therefore, when we planned our visit to the bookshop I said that under no circumstances would I buy more than one book. I'll explain what the circumstances were that made me buy two in a later post. If you're wondering why Hay-on-Wye check out this page:

I'll keep you posted on how we progress. I'm quietly confident. What do you think of our challenge and our chances of keeping it? Let me know if there are any books you think I should look out for on our visit to Hay-on-Wye (note my confidence) and if I don't already own them I'll see about adding them to my list.

Below is the wonderful chart we have to keep check on how we are doing. EG has ALL the credit for its creation.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Sofa Spotlight - The Well-Beloved, Thomas Hardy

See what I mean about that cover?! What really shows the age of this book is that on the back the price is 75p! I paid £1.40.

I hadn't heard of this book before I saw it in a charity shop a few months ago. I like the way Hardy writes, it's just the storyline of this one that's a bit weird.

The book is about Jocelyn Pierston (I thought Jocelyn was only a girl's name, oops), a sculptor who is looking for his ideal. He calls the ideal the 'well beloved'  and the well beloved appears in different women at different times. His life's mission is to pursue the well beloved in whatever form she appears, regardless of who he hurts when he leaves them behind to pursue someone else. I translate 'well beloved' as fickle, so does his friend Somers. Somers doesn't have many lines but he is the small voice of reason in the background.

So far not that weird. The weird bit is that Pierston tries to marry three generations of one family. (Not all at the same time though). Avice is his childhood sweetheart and he agrees to marry her even though she is not possessed by the well beloved. Before they can marry Pierston sees the well beloved in someone else and leaves Avice to marry this new love of his life. It doesn't happen and the next thing Pierston knows is that he is twenty years older and Avice is dead. He realises that he undervalued her in her life and should have married her, and then he meets Avice's daughter Anne.

Anne is the image of her mother and Pierston sees the well beloved in her. He tries to marry her, but it doesn't work out. We next meet Pierston twenty years later when he is sixty and just about to meet Anne's daughter Avice who he tries to marry.

It all gets messy and Pierston's actions earlier in the book complicate his plans and eventually foil him. Although I think Pierston is a ridiculous character (sorry Mr Hardy, I know he might have been a self-portrait of you) it did make me think about how if we are ruled by what we want, even with all our best efforts one day our dreams will leave us with nothing. It made me check that my heart still belongs to Jesus and not to my bike or my books. And it made me glad that I know Jesus, who isn't fickle, and has given me something that will last - a place in His eternal kingdom.

Overall I think I did enjoy this book, even if it was just for how tangled up Pierston became at the hands of Anne and her daughter. Worth a read.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Sofa Shelf

There are currently four books on the shelf:

Compared to Her - Sophie de Witt 

I'm reading this one because an old housemate recommended it last May and it's about time I got on with reading it! My housemate made brilliant cake, so hopefully her book recommendations are just as good. Shame she isn't here to bring me a piece of cake while I read it. I have to say that it's not a book I would choose to read. The blurb says that it is a book about 'Compulsive Comparison Syndrome' - not something I have thought much about. Maybe that is a good enough reason to read it in itself. So far I've read the introduction and I'm intrigued.

A Book of Narrative Verse - compiled by V. H. Collins

Poetry isn't a genre I enjoy. I've tried a few times and this is my latest attempt. It's on loan from my Dad, I'm not sure where or when he got it but it's the 1972 edition. I've no idea who V H Collins is either, so I'm going in blind, but hopefully it will be an experience that I will enjoy. Again all I've read so far is the introduction.

The Well-Beloved - Thomas Hardy

For the past six months I've been working my way through Hardy's works. I haven't read all of his novels and I probably won't on this visit, but what I have read I have enjoyed. I certainly haven't tried his poetry -
not brave enough for that yet. The cover of this book is truly awful. It's another edition from the 1970s, which may explain the cover. I'll let you see it in a later post. I picked it up in a charity shop for not many pennies so I can't complain. I've got further than the introduction with this one, in fact I've nearly finished it. I'll let you know what I'm thinking about it soon.

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith

This is J. K. Rowling writing a crime novel. I've never read any of the Harry Potter books - they don't appeal to me - so I can't compare the two. What I have read of this seems really good. I'm glad to be trying a bit of crime fiction, I can't remember having read any before. I have it on loan from a friend, if the whole book is as good as what I have read so far I will be taking more recommendations from her!

I'm interested to know what you think about my choice of books, and if you agree with what I think of them.