Literary Challenges

Louise – Senior Librarian Manager – Local & Family History

Lou WutheringWhen I found the BBC list of 100 books you should read before you die I must admit to feeling quite smug.  Here I am a graduate with an English degree, 17 years’ experience of working in libraries and reading as a favourite pass time, surely I can score highly on this list.  However it was not to be, I was brought back down to earth with a score barely in the twenties, and while my English course had covered some of the lists authors, they were not the right books to allow me to tick them off the list.  And so began my literary challenge, my aim to complete at least two thirds of the list, why not the full thing? Because I know there are some on it I have no interest in reading and I fully believe that life is too short to read a book that doesn’t grip you.  I started with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and found to my surprise it was not at all the story I thought it would be, thanks to overly romanticised TV adaptations and one Kate Bush song I really thought this was an epic romantic tale, instead I found a book full a characters I really couldn’t like, spoiled, abused, abusive and cruel these were lives to be endured not rooted for, but it did grip me, and so I look forward to continuing on and finding more from this list of classic and contemporary books to keep me invested.

lou AnimalSo far I’ve discovered that ‘Animal Farm’ is as relevant to today’s political landscape as the time it was written, that the minor characters of Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ are as fascinating as the main ones (I mean you Mr Wemmick), and that Roald Dahl is as enjoyable now as he was when I was young.  So far this challenge has allowed me to focus my reading, and I’ve read more in the last 6 months than in the year leading up to it adding another 12 to my running total. I’ve begun to read outside my comfort zone, enjoying books I never thought I’d been interested in.  The challenge has also reinvigorated my reading and I’m spending less time in front of the TV and internet and more time curled up with a book, it also sparked conversations with colleagues who I found out have a number of literary challenges of their own.

Antony – Deputy Manager – Local & Family History

My reading challenge – started ten-years ago, and still ongoing – is to read one book for each entry in the Dewey sequence (e.g. 172, 389, 505, etc). That’s a lot of books – and I’ve only managed around forty in that time. That’s OK, though, because the challenge was really only designed as a way to focus my reading when I had nothing specific in mind to pick-up next: confronted with the myriad of possible options presented in any public library, all equally valid and thus impossible to choose between, I needed a system that would help me work my way through that maze – and so the Dewey Sequence challenge was born. A secondary purpose: the challenge would oblige me to read books that I wouldn’t normally choose (so no ticking off as complete just because I knew I’d previously read a book for that sequence number).

What have been the most and least interesting books? Well, I don’t really want to single anything out as being dull, because I firmly believe that no amount of learning about the world is ever wasted (another motivation for the challenge) – but I do have to admit that titles such as Teach Yourself: Windows Vista (005) and  Skywriting: The Best of Air Jamaica’s In-Flight Magazine (052) were, let’s say, a bit niche (albeit that reading the latter did mean I’ll never forget the name of Jamaica’s first Premier, Norman Manley).

Lou NaturalAs for the best reads – Roger Clarke’s A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting For Proof (133) stands out in a relatively crowded field, just above books such as Phillip Blom’s Encyclopédie : the Triumph of Reason in an Unreasonable Age (034), Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam (070), and Melissa Katsoulis’ Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes (098). Most recently I’ve read Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (300), which in some ways perfectly sums up the challenge: I’m not sure I completely agree with every argument made in the book – but I’ve at least opened myself up to the kinds of perspectives that I wouldn’t usually be confronted with; a core purpose, surely, for any public library service.

Helen – Librarian – Local & Family History

I set myself a literary challenge many years ago and I am still slowly working my way through it. In my youth I was a big fan of the band The Divine Comedy. If you’re not familiar with the name then you may remember the theme tune to Father Ted as well as the (fictional) Eurovision entry ‘My Lovely Horse’ – both written and performed by the band. In 1994 the Divine Comedy released their third album Promenade and track 3 features an unusual song entitled The Booklovers. The song itself is little more than a list of authors followed by a greeting or reference to a piece of their work. For example, we hear singer and songwriter, Neil Hannon, recite ‘Graham Greene’ followed by the words ‘Call me ‘pinky’, lovely’ (a reference to Greene’s Brighton Rock)’.  The song clocks in at nearly 6 minutes long and over 70 authors are mentioned in total.

Lou MobyLong ago I decided that I would read something by each of these authors. Luckily the list is of fairly well known writers so getting hold of works by each has not been a problem so far, especially working in a library… I’ve managed to read 33 of  the authors so far, possibly more, but if I cannot recall the storyline of a particular work then I’ve discounted it and will have to read it again sometime for it to properly ‘count’. Through this song I’ve discovered many of the classics of literature including Melville’s Moby Dick, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and one of my all-time favourites Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Ross – Librarian Manager – Local & Family History

I’ve set myself a reading challenge based on the traditional Japanese parlour game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, usually translated as ‘A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales’. The game became popular in the 17th Century and often an entire village would play. After sunset, villagers would gather in a darkened house and light a hundred candles. Each would then relate a strange or supernatural tale, finishing by blowing out one of the flames. The game would continue long into the night, and it would be up to those present whether or not they dared extinguish the last remaining candle. (As well as being a frightening prospect in itself, doing so was also believed to summon a demon!) In my version of the game, I plan to read a hundred ghost stories, blogging about each as I go. I’ll try anything from Victorian classics to modern creepypasta, but I definitely intend to include some works by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who’s written some brilliantly spooky-sounding short stories but is better-known for Rashomon. I probably won’t get going until December (that being perfect ghost story season) but, if you want to follow my progress, you can do so at: 100flickeringflames.blogspot.co.uk

Sally – Deputy Manager – Local & Family History

Lou HarryTo coincide with our latest exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic I set my self the challenge to read the Harry Potter book series. To everyone’s dismay I have never given the books a proper chance, and even more embarrassingly I was the perfect age to read them when they came out, being ten years old when The Philosopher’s Stone was released – somehow they managed to pass me by and I never got past the second book…

Whilst still not quite finished, I’m ploughing through with a new found, and growing appreciation for the series.  I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition in London whilst working on our own here in Leeds Libraries along with watching live panel discussions on the books and their effect on the world – working with and understanding our special collections which are on display in our exhibition has enabled me to put clear links between legendary literature and the hard work and real magic Jk Rowling put into the series. I’m excited to finish and become a fully-fledged fan!

So those are our literary challenges, I think a common theme appears to be that these challenges will take time, in some case decades to complete and while reading off list is fine in some ways it’s nice to have something to come back to.  Do you have a literary challenge of your own?  If so please let us know in the comments box below.

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Librarian’s Bookshelf

This blog is from Stu, a community librarian in the east of the city.

Stu's Bookshelf

If you ask most people who work in libraries what they love most about the job, or why they came to it in the first place, they can probably answer in a single word: books. I’m no different. I learned to read before I even went to school and have been a total bookworm ever since; I studied English Language and Literature at A-level, then English and American Literature at University. I have literally thousands of books in my house – more than some of the smallest branch libraries in Leeds – and love to read widely around a whole variety of subjects. Above is a snapshot of a random bookshelf of fiction in my house. Right now, I’m going to give you a guided tour of some of my favourite things on it:

The Poems of Emily Bronte: you can see the Haworth moors from the window of the house I grew up in, and I spent a lot of my childhood on my aunty’s bleak hilltop farm with the wind rattling the rooftop and snow piled as high as the windows in winter, so I’ve always had an affinity for the Bronte sisters. Emily in particular is my favourite, and this is a fantastic collection of all her best poems. It’s a little stilted by the standards of today – bound as it is by the poetic conventions of Victorian England – but there’s no doubting the power of the language, and the way she evokes the beauty of the harsh Northern landscape is utterly sublime.

Stu Ask the DustAsk the Dust by John Fante: Bukowski fans, walk this way…..He’s not a particularly well-known name, but John Fante was Bukowski’s hero, and his nihilistic brand of downbeat LA tales – mostly featuring the semi-autobiographical protagonist Arturo Bandini – were also a great influence on Bret Easton Ellis. This is the tale of an aspiring screenwriter, down on his luck in the early years of Holloywood, and, like the best of Buk, it’s pathetic, tragic and hilarious in equal measure. Ask the Dust is also notable as it contains one of my favourite lines in all American literature – “It was a great problem, requiring immediate attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.” Most of Fante’s stuff is excellent, but this really is a high point. For the dedicated searcher, Chump Change by Dan Fante, his son, is another overlooked classic.

Hell by Dante: otherwise known as Inferno, this particular translation of part 1 of Dante’s Divine Comedy is by Dorothy L. Sayers, who’s far more widely known for her crime writing. I’ve read a few different translations of Dante but this is my favourite by far as it retains the playfulness and bawdy humour of the original, which can be lost in some of the more po-faced translations of earlier years. For a book about a journey through Satan’s underworld, it’s a lot funnier than you’d expect it to be, although it goes without saying that it’s pretty harrowing too.

The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett: Beckett was a literary colossus who wrote plays, poems, short stories and novels in both English and French, and excelled at every form he tried. This collection contains his entire dramatic output, from more famous plays such as Waiting For Godot and Endgame to more experimental works like Breath. My personal favourite is Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an old recluse looks back over his life by having a dialogue with his younger self, via listening and then responding to audio diaries he’s recorded over the years. There’s an amazingly powerful production of this starring an ageing Harold Pinter – Beckett’s most famous disciple – available online.

Stu GravitysGravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon: how the hell this guy hasn’t won the Nobel Prize for Literature is an absolute mystery for me. A man of singular vision, and possibly the greatest prose technician in the English language since James Joyce, his oeuvre is absolutely unique and nigh-on impossible to describe. For this gargantuan, head-frying classic, try reimagining Moby Dick as a World War Two espionage thriller, written in the style of Ulysses. On acid.

Stu TortureTorture Garden by Octave Mirbeau: words fail me when trying to describe this oddity from 1898, so here’s what Phil Baker of The Sunday Times had to say about it: “This hideously decadent fin-de-siècle novel by the French anarchist Mirbeau has become an underground classic. A cynical first half exposes the rottenness of politics, commerce and the petit-bourgeois; in the second half, our totally corrupt narrator travels to China and meets the extraordinary Clara. She shows him the Torture Garden, a place of exotic flowers and baroque sadism. There are satirical and allegorical dimensions, but it remains irreducibly horrible…..” Well worth a look if you want something totally left-field, but it’s not for the faint of heart!

Stu Malcolm xThe Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley: this is a stellar bit of biographical writing and is essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in 20th Century American history or the history of the Civil Rights movement in general. This works best when read immediately before or after The Autobiography of Doctor Martin Luther King, which is sadly absent from this shelf as some miscreant absconded with my copy a few years back. It’s fascinating to look at them side by side so you can see two completely differing solutions to the same problem.

Stu RainRain On the River by Jim Dodge: this little gem is, alongside The Complete Poems Of Raymond Carver, my favourite book of poetry, and it’s so well-thumbed that it’s starting to fall apart. I can’t think of any other poet who has brings such beautiful clarity to his images with such economy of language, and he gets right to the heart of what he wants to say every single time. “Naked beyond skin/we lift our palms to the moon/our bodies trembling like the limbs of a tree/a heartbeat after the bird has flown.” Unbelievable stuff.

Stu War and PeaceWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: some books are canonical for a reason. You know all those lists you see where they claim to show the greatest novels ever written, and this is always top? They’re absolutely right.

All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky: like most people, I discovered her when Suite Francaise was rediscovered and republished in 2004, over sixty years after the author’s death at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz. Since then, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on of hers that’s been translated into English. This is a typically sharp bourgeois tragedy about a man in love with a girl considered beneath him by his wealthy, snobbish and tyrannical family. As with all her work, the characters are beautifully and perceptively drawn, the story told in crystalline detail and the prose is exquisite.

And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave: it was perhaps inevitable that a man who so renowned for his lyrical skills should turn his hand to fiction, and this is his brilliant first foray into it from way back in 1989. For anyone familiar with his music – especially the stuff from the 80s – this is pretty much what you’d expect, that is to say, a hefty slice of dense Southern Gothic, with the ghosts of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor haunting every page. As you’d expect from him, it’s full of blood and guts, devils, demons, hellfire and the wrath of a vengeful God, but it’s savagely funny to boot. A deserved underground classic.

Young Adult Favourites

This blog post comes from Caitlin, a 15 year old student from Cardinal Heenan school who has been working at Central Library on work experience over the last couple of weeks. Here are some of her recommendations:-

Caitlin Counting by 7sCounting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by Sevens is one of my favourite teenage fiction books. It is about a young girl who loses both parents at the same time to a car accident. The young girl is far from stupid and doesn’t seem to let things like being judged for being unique to faze her, but the accident does. It portrays a good example of trying to move on from heartache and that if people are there to help don’t seclude yourself from them, open up to them because they only want to help. It also shows the struggles of carrying on through hard situations and the fact that even though you think you may be stuck, there is always a way to pull yourself back up again.

Caitling Violet WingsViolet Wings by Victoria Hanley

Violet Wings was my favourite book as a ten year old, a book about fairies, magic and wings, this was my ten year old dream after watching Barbie movies constantly. It is a book about a seemingly weak girl called Zaria, who after discovering her magical powers as a faery is faced with unspoken powers and evil people after her at every turn. In an attempt to help a human boy find his father, Zaria is faced with uncountable troubles. This book is full of excitement and intensity and made me see that power isn’t everything. It teaches near teens girls that truth is absolute and that you can do anything if you believe in yourself and the people around you.

Caitlin LimitLimit by Keiko Suenobu

This manga though less well known in the younger generation is a really good manga with a gripping and intense plot. After a group of school pupils are involved in an over the Cliffside bus accident, a small number are left behind and the less popular begin to show their true colours. Forced under a kind of leadership, Konno has to learn how to survive and keep her wits about her or her life could be taken by a satanic classmate. This book is very gripping and had me on my feet wondering if anyone was going to be killed. It shows you how to cope in an unexpected situation and that you must be able to survive because only the strongest do.

Caitlin Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights is a book about life, death and above all love. Catherine who is in love with Heathcliff is forced with another man against her will, this leads to saddening events and tragedies. A story, the epitome of how strong ones love for another can be and that pulling this meant to be love apart is tragic, a bit like Romeo and Juliet. This book had me crying for which reason is still unsure to me, is it the gripping love story, the tragic ending or the message behind it all- loved ones can’t stay forever.

Caitlin Carry OnCarry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On is a wonderful story of two boys falling in love. Simon and Baz are kind of enemies but secretly they both don’t think that is true. In a world of magic, is it ok for a vampire and human to be in love? In this coming of age book about diverse love, it made me really happy how accepting we are as a community nowadays. The book was really well written and had an intense plot and it was very gripping. Overall it had me very in depth with the storyline and hoping that what happened was best for the characters.

#FF Poem of the Week

Loud Without the Wind Was Roaring by Emily Bronte Selected poems

Loud without the wind was roaring

Through th’autumnal sky;

Drenching wet, the cold rain pouring,

Spoke of winter nigh.

All too like that dreary eve,

Did my exiled spirit grieve.

Grieved at first, but grieved not long,

Sweet–how softly sweet!–it came;

Wild words of an ancient song,

Undefined, without a name.

 

“It was spring, and the skylark was singing:”

Those words they awakened a spell;

They unlocked a deep fountain, whose springing,

Nor absence, nor distance can quell.

 

In the gloom of a cloudy November

They uttered the music of May ;

They kindled the perishing ember

Into fervour that could not decay.

 

Awaken, o’er all my dear moorland,

West-wind, in thy glory and pride!

Oh! call me from valley and lowland,

To walk by the hill-torrent’s side!

 

It is swelled with the first snowy weather;

The rocks they are icy and hoar,

And sullenly waves the long heather,

And the fern leaves are sunny no more.

 

There are no yellow stars on the mountain

The bluebells have long died away

From the brink of the moss-bedded fountain–

From the side of the wintry brae.

 

But lovelier than corn-fields all waving

In emerald, and vermeil, and gold,

Are the heights where the north-wind is raving,

And the crags where I wandered of old.

 

It was morning: the bright sun was beaming;

How sweetly it brought back to me

The time when nor labour nor dreaming

Broke the sleep of the happy and free!

 

But blithely we rose as the dawn-heaven

Was melting to amber and blue,

And swift were the wings to our feet given,

As we traversed the meadows of dew.

 

For the moors! For the moors, where the short grass

Like velvet beneath us should lie!

For the moors! For the moors, where each high pass

Rose sunny against the clear sky!

 

For the moors, where the linnet was trilling

Its song on the old granite stone;

Where the lark, the wild sky-lark, was filling

Every breast with delight like its own!

 

What language can utter the feeling

Which rose, when in exile afar,

On the brow of a lonely hill kneeling,

I saw the brown heath growing there?

 

It was scattered and stunted, and told me

That soon even that would be gone:

It whispered, “The grim walls enfold me,

I have bloomed in my last summer’s sun.”

 

But not the loved music, whose waking

Makes the soul of the Swiss die away,

Has a spell more adored and heartbreaking

Than, for me, in that blighted heath lay.

 

The spirit which bent ‘neath its power,

How it longed–how it burned to be free!

If I could have wept in that hour,

Those tears had been heaven to me.

 

Well–well; the sad minutes are moving,

Though loaded with trouble and pain;

And some time the loved and the loving

Shall meet on the mountains again!