AlisonY: 2019 - Rash and Random Reading
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For those who haven't visited my thread before, I live in Northern Ireland with my husband and 2 kids, now 11 and 9. I enjoy reading mainly literary fiction - classic and modern - with the odd thriller and non-fictional title thrown in every now and again.
Outside of reading, I enjoy a bit of Iyengar yoga, and am a little bit obsessed with oggling great interior design.
Last year I read 41 books, the best of which were:
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
The Sea House by Esther Freud
My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Beloved by Toni Morrison
My 2018 thread can be found here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/294081
This year's reading aims? Lots of random titles. Going where the prevailing reading winds take me.
1. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates - read (4 stars)
2. Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood - read (5 stars)
3. Back to Basics: The Education You Wish You'd Had by Caroline Taggart - read (3 stars)
4. Unnatural Causes: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain's Top Forensic Pathologist by Dr Richard Shepherd - read (4.5 stars)
5. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben - read (3 stars)
6. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy - read (4.5 stars)
7. Alexandra by Valerie Martin - read (4 stars)
8. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald - read (4 stars)
9. Hymns to the Night by Novalis - read (4 stars)
10. A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert - read (3 stars)
11. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay - read (4 stars)
12. The Accidental by Ali Smith - read (4 stars)
13. The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst - read (4 stars)
14. Decorating with Style by Abigail Ahern - read (4 stars)
15. The Great Lover by Jill Dawson - read (4 stars)
16. How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen - read (4 stars)
17. The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas - read (4 stars)
18. Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty - read (3.5 stars)
19. I'm a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian's Take on What Makes Us Human by Robin Ince - read (2.5 stars)
20. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson - read (2.5 stars)
21. Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis - read (4 stars)
22. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara - read (5 stars)
23. Crushing It!: How Great Entrepreneurs Build Their Business and Influence - And How You Can Too by Gary Vaynerchuk - read (2 stars)
24. Educated by Tara Westover - read (3.5 stars)
25. Autumn by Ali Smith - currently reading
Here's another gorgeous one:
Look forward to hearing what you think of Book 5. I'd love to read that some time this year too.
>4 dchaikin: thanks Dan - and to you too. Hope this is a great year for you and the family.
Loving the Naismith art.
I made my first trip to Northern Ireland last year. My father was raised in a Limavady, but we never got there. He died last year so we took a pilgrimage, staying in Belfast, stopping off at The Giants Causeway, and visiting Limavady.
Happy 2019 reading.
Also love the paintings! I'm really attracted to bold use of color when it's done well, and not just color for color's sake, and those two are great.
Yes, I'm quite enjoying random reading these last few years. It's nice just coming across a book unplanned and being pleasantly surprised. My first year on CR I did stick to a plan of 50 books I wanted to read, and it was good ticking off a lot of titles that had been passing me by for years, but my head has to be in the right place for that kind of reading.
Blonde seems fairly hard to get hold of these days, as I remember looking for it myself a while back.
Will post a review soon when I'm done with this one.
Someday I will try JCO again. I can't even remember which book I read, but it left such an impression I have never read another. Then again, if I pick one up now, I amy be hooked. Waiting to hear what you say.
>18 SassyLassy: thanks Sassy. I'll reserve my judgement until the last page, but so far so good. Probably not going to be my book of the year, but it's good enough from an enjoyment factor.
1. Review - We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
I'm a sucker for a good old family saga, and I'm glad to say that JCO didn't disappoint with this one.
Set in the 1970s, the Mulvaneys are the epitome of the perfect all American family. Michael Snr. runs a successful roofing company and is a stalwart of the business associations and circles of Mt. Emphraim, a small country town. His wife Corinne, a farmer's daughter, runs a hobby antique business from their picture postcard farmhouse, but is at her happiest when gathered around a noisy dinner table with their four children. The four children are all achievers in their own right and popular at school. In short, they are a happy family.
JCO takes her time allowing us to settle in with this rambunctious, close family, before an event happens which shatters the Mulvaney family harmony. I won't spoil it for anyone who might read it in the future, but it's one of those sad unravellings which as a reader you can see doesn't have to be that way.
I enjoyed this novel, as I think it portrayed well the potential frailty of even the strongest of family relationships, and how they can be turned on their head in a way that could never have been foreseen.
I doubt it will be my book of the year, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
4 stars - an enjoyable, page-turning read.
2. Review - Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood
I've had this book on my 'to read' list for three years now since I read a storming review about it when it was first published. At last I came across a copy of it last week in my local secondhand shop, and it lived up to the hype.
In this novel Naomi Wood creates a fictionalised account of the four marriages of Ernest Hemingway, portraying a man who loved his wives deeply yet who loved women in general too much to ever commit to monogamy. Four sections are narrated by each of the four wives, and it's an interesting angle through which to explore the heyday of that era and the personal life of one of the literary greats. The book takes us from Hemingway on the cusp of success in Paris to his final marriage when he begins to feel washed up as an author and ends up taking his own life.
The dramas of a third person in each marriage are played out amidst a fabulous social backdrop that includes the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Wood portrays him as a good looking man with incredible charisma, whose wives are (mostly) so infatuated with him they're desperate to overlook his indiscretions if he'll only stay with them.
This book works on so many levels. The crowded marriages are made up of complex relationships between the philandering author, the wives and the mistresses, who all become inevitably, reluctantly intertwined with each other. The affairs never stay secret for long in the wild, arty social circles in which Hemingway moves, and the famous Lost Generation are every bit as fascinating as the Bloomsbury Group were in London. It's also a fly on the wall account of the making and downfall of a darling of the literary world, and of the immense challenges of being married to a genius and dealing with the emotional swings that such temperament brings.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and flew through it over the weekend. There's something about those arty social sets from the early 20th century that's so absorbing, and it's prompted me to push some of Hemingway's work up on my to read list.
5 stars - a fabulous page-turner. Don't be put off by the chic lit-esque cover.
It's great as a piece of pure fiction, and good enough research to bring real life events to life.
3. Review - Back to Basics: The Education You Wish You'd Had by Caroline Taggart
I've had my eye on Caroline Taggart's work for a little while, as I was interested in her books on the likes of grammar and the classics. Back to Basics: The Education You Wish You'd Had is a book that aims to cover the basics and key facts across a number of subjects, covering English, Maths, Science, History, Geography, French and Religious Studies (the Bible). It's supposed to be a little bit tongue and cheek, and an aid for brushing up on stuff you learnt x years ago at school and can no longer remember anything about.
It's a quick read, and was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Some subjects, such as geography, history and the sciences, I enjoyed as Taggart pulled out a number of interesting different subject areas within each. The history chapter was a (very) short chronicle of the most important things that have happened in history (AD), and I found that an interesting refresher as I always struggle to remember that stuff.
The Maths chapter seemed to quickly jump in and out of a few different areas which I didn't feel worked too well (maybe just me - I'm more of an Arts person), and the English and French sections felt mostly far too simplistic if you'd studied these for any length of time at all at school.
Interesting enough for a quick read on my commute, but I won't be rushing back to Taggart.
3 stars - interesting snippets of info to jump in and out of.
>46 rhian_of_oz: Marmite is a very bizarre British yeast product spread that you put on toast and the like. It's an 'acquired' taste. I'm fairly sure more people dislike it than like it. So if something is described as Marmite you're exactly right - it means it's one of those things people either love or hate - no middle ground.
You really might like his writing though, Alison. We have similar tastes in many books, but we differ on authors like Yates and Updike - Hemingway might suit you in a similar way.
>48 RidgewayGirl: I think I'll have to read something and figure out for myself whether I like him or loathe him. Surely he can't be any worse than the laddish bore fest that was Jack Kerouac?
4. Review - Unnatural Causes: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain's Top Forensic Pathologist by Dr Richard Shepherd
Dr Dick Shepherd is a senior forensic pathologist in the UK, most lately well known for a TV programme in the UK in which he explains the autopsies and hence reasons for death of famous names. Whilst I find the premise of that programme distasteful for using people's deaths to create TV enjoyment, I admit to being wholly hypocritical; when I've happened to switch on in the middle of it from time to time it's been absolutely fascinating.
So too is this book. For starters, it's well written. Shepherd backdrops his professional stories with insights into his personal life, in particular the challenges of leaving the job on the doorstep when he comes home to his family, and the toll that his and his wife's demanding careers took on their marriage. Whilst for some this may be unnecessary mass market fodder, I felt this helped to answer that obvious question of 'how does someone do this as their job every day?'
There wasn't a dull story amongst the many told in this book. Some were murder cases where Shepherd explains how the body held the truth about what had actually happened to cause death (was that person attacked or were those self-inflicted knife wounds? Was that wife really defending her own life or cold bloodily murdering her husband?). Shepherd developed a specialism in stabbing wounds and also in the deaths of prisoners under police or prison restraint, and whilst at first glance these sound like gruesome subject matter, the forensic science was so incredibly interesting I found it compulsive reading.
He was also involved in some terribly sad high profile tragedies, including the Hungerford disaster, the sinking of The Marchioness, the Bali bombing, Stephen Lawrence's murder and the Clapham Rail disaster. Whilst all incredibly sad tales, the perspective of a pathologist in supporting in such incidences was again fascinating, particularly the insights into the difficulties of coping with so many bodies after a major disaster when grieving relatives want quick answers.
Shepherd also increased his notoriety when he was assigned as pathologist on the inquest of the death of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed. Although he did not perform the original post mortems, he was called in to review the original French post mortem reports which contained some inconsistencies which were feeding mass conspiracy theories.
Does this book capitalise on the sad deaths of many people? Undoubtedly yes. However, in its defence, real names are only used for those deaths which were already public knowledge, and where post mortem details had already usually been made public. I carry a bit of an unhealthy fear of death and get highly stressed at funerals, so I'm trying to educate myself around the topic a little more in hope that knowledge alleviates some of my terror. I knew very little about what happens to bodies after death, and it was interesting to become more informed around this. By using these high profile cases to explain some of his cases, it helped me put into context some of the public outcries that developed after these tragic deaths.
In all, a wholly fascinating read from start to finish. Some of the cases may not be known well outside of the UK, but I don't think that would detract from how interesting the science and pathology challenges are.
4.5 stars - definitely majorly ticks a box as a 'science for the unscientific' read. I'm just taking away half a star as the cover says he's Britain's top forensic pathologist - I get the impression that he's one of a number of senior pathologists, but that was probably his publisher more than him.
The book is great - I devoured huge numbers of pages in one sitting, whereas with some non-fiction reads I can only dip in and out of them in short bursts.
5. Review - The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben
I know i'm on my own here as lots of Club Readers loved this one, but I had a love/hate relationship with this book.
On the positive, undoubtedly there was a lot of interesting information in this book about the 'laws of the forest', from the critical role that fungi play to how trees help to sustain each other. However, there were a number of things that didn't work for me.
Firstly, it seemed at times that Peter Wohlleben seemed to see no division between scientific facts and things he believes to be true. He may well be right, but I'd rather know that something is a fact rather than an opinion.
Secondly, I can see what he was trying to do in weaving fantasy and storytelling into this book to bring alive the magic of the forests, but it started to grate on me after a while that nothing could be described simply in the context of botany or entomology or forestry. I don't think we need to humanise trees or plants or insects to make them interesting. It's interesting enough to understand the science of how trees protect each other in adverse weather by virtue of their positioning in relation to each other, for example - I don't need to think of them as a family protecting each other.
Finally, there seemed to be a lot of repetition to fill the book. What was interesting the first time around became dull and a slog the third or fourth time I read about it.
3 stars - my enjoyment level was probably more on a 2 star level, but I'm awarding an extra star for the base facts which I did enjoy learning about.
I love the colourful art opening your thread.
>64 VivienneR: glad you have a thread coming
6. Review - Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
I wasn't sure what this book was going to be about, and now I've read I'm not even sure I can explain it well.
At a plot level, Sophie is a young woman spending the summer months in Almeria in Spain caring for her mother whilst they try to get a diagnosis for a mystery psychosomatic condition that affects her ability to walk. However, this novel is really about emotion, and the change that being amongst these new surroundings and unexpected people brings.
This novel really worked for me. Levy establishes not only an acute sense of place, but also manages to evoke so well the heightened senses that Sophie experiences from her physical and emotional environment. It's a melting pot of inescapable heat, of noise (from the dog at the diving school that's perpetually chained up), of pain (from repetitive jelly fish stings), of complex sensuality and of rising frustration from being carer to a mother who's determined to suffer and not find any enjoyment of life. The pressure from these elements steadily increases until they result in a new emergence in Sophie, one where she is bolder in calling out those in her life for what they really are, and where she seeks to experience without needing to understand or to know where any of it is heading.
I think an onslaught on the senses is very difficult to convey in a novel, but Levy nails it in Hot Milk. I know some people think this is a hugely overrated novel, but I think it's for this exact achievement that it has earned its plaudits. There was a tinge of Anita Brookner for me in this novel, but with more light at the end of the tunnel than Brookner normally allows.
A great read. I felt the movement from Almeria to Athens for a short part of the novel broke the spell a little, so for that I'm taking away half a star, but hugely enjoyably otherwise.
4.5 stars - powerfully emotive.
7. Review - Alexandra by Valerie Martin
It's a long while since I read Property by Valerie Martin - so long that I couldn't overly remember what her style of writing is like. Alexandra was a quick read, but it pulled me in very quickly and I enjoyed it.
Claude is a middle-aged accountant who's been bumbling along with a middle-aged widow, filling a void yet depressing himself in the process as he really doesn't like her. On one of her must-do nights out in the city he comes across Alex (Alexandra), much younger than him and very much an enigma. So far, so middle-aged guy cliché. Circumstances concerning Alex put Claude in a 'stick with the old or throw caution to the wind' scenario, and the novel plays out how that turns out.
Whilst the plot of this novel is verging on chic-lit territory in places, Valerie Martin is a good writer - she knows how to spin a good yarn, and I zipped through this in a couple of sittings as she had me hooked early on. The ending was a bit anticlimactic, but otherwise an enjoyable (but probably fairly forgettable) read.
4 stars - good summer holiday reading fodder.
8. Review - The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
Set in the late 1700s in Germany, The Blue Flower is a fictional account of the life of Fritz von Hardenberg, who would later become known as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Born into a noble, pious family, young Fritz's future has already been mapped out for him; he will follow in his father's footsteps in the Salt Mines Directorate. Yet as he studies, Fritz's predisposition for thought and romanticism leads to him becoming utterly entranced with the 12 year old Sophie whom he believes to be his muse.
The Blue Flower was a lot more 'readable' than I'd expected. Whilst Fitzgerald plays with Fritz's elevated thinking (which touches on humorous madness at times), there was so much more to this novel than simply being an account of the early life of this renowned man of literature and philosophy. With well researched historical detail, we are swept back to the times of eighteenth century nobility in Germany, as von Hardenberg breaks all the expected rules of his position and intellect in his pursuit of this vacuous child from a lower class family.
4 stars - first class historical fiction that swept me away with it.
I'm also a rereader - I probably reread 5-6 books a year. These are mainly classics but not always. I figure 5-6 books is a pretty small percentage of my reading since I read 70-80 books a year and they are often my most enjoyable reading.
There are definitely a few books I'd love to reread, but I'm definitely hung up with my FIMO attitude. Maybe if I got through a few more books every year I'd slot some back in. I'd love to reread some books from my youth in particular that I don't think I was mature enough to fully appreciate at the time (like you, many of them classics).
>95 thorold: thanks so much for sharing a link to your excellent review. I definitely felt a little frustrated to have finished a fictionalised biography of sorts without having read anything non-fiction about Novalis to match it to. I was interested in the afterword in Fitzgerald's book to learn that his period of writing was really very short - only about five years or so.
I'm not sure I could work through an entire novel from the German romanticist period, but I think I'll read Hymns to the Night as a short undertaking so that I can understand better something of his work.
9. Review - Hymns to the Night by Novalis
Reading Mark's (Thorold's) excellent review of Heinrich von Ofterdingen inspired to me read something by Novalis, as I felt frustrated to have enjoyed The Blue Flower whilst remaining completely ignorant about Novalis and his writing. As German Romanticism isn't my thing I know I'd struggle to read a longer piece by him, so Hymns to the Night seemed perfect as it's relatively short and rounds off The Blue Flower reading nicely - Novalis wrote this in his grief over his child-fiancée's death. Happily there were lots of free versions of George McDonald's translation available on line, so I got to this much sooner than expected.
It's hard not feel for poor Sophie (Novali's muse), as not only did she die an early death at the age of 15, in life she seemed to be entirely vapid and lacking in anything remotely interesting to say. All the more bizarre that someone with Novalis' / von Hardenberg's brilliance should fall for this dull little child (and apparently her physical beauty was nothing to write home about either). Here's an extract from her diaries which give you an idea of Sophie's intellect:
March 1. Today Hartenberch visited again nothing happened.
March 11. We were alone today and nothing at all happened.
March 12. Today was like yesterday nothing at all happened.
March 13. Today was repentance day and Hartenb. was here.
March 14. Today Hartenber. was still here he got a letter from his brother.
Scintillating stuff. Anyway, beauty is in the eye of the beholder so they say, and Novalis obviously saw something in the young Sophie that eluded everyone else.
I was delighted to enjoy Hymns to the Night much more than I expected. Given how hard and inexplicably Novalis loved Sophie in life, it was unsurprising that his mourning of her should be nothing short of dramatic despair in the romantic tragedy of it. Yet this account of his pull to the night as he mourns her was nothing short of beautiful. A short mixture of prose and poetry, Novalis describes how in grief he is drawn to the night, when he feels much closer to Sophie through the mysterious spirituality of the darkness than he does in the cold light of day when his loss is most keenly felt. I expect that many who have lost someone close might argue that the night-time is the hardest part of the grieving day, when the sense of loss and isolation is at its most intense, but Novalis finds comfort in the single night-time dream that brought his Sophie once more 'to life', and the keenness of that spirituality which he feels only in the darkness.
Hymns to the Night mixes both religious spiritually with his spiritual sense of Sophie reaching out to him through the stars. It is fatalist writing, with Novalis comforted by his inevitable journey to his grave and the life beyond where love endures and pain is left behind. In the interim (which, bless him, wasn't long to wait), he writes of this heavenly comfort that the night-time brings:
Once when I was shedding bitter tears, when, dissolved in pain, my hope was melting away, and I stood alone by the barren mound which in its narrow dark bosom hid the vanished form of my Life, lonely as never yet was lonely man, driven by anxiety unspeakable, powerless, and no longer anything but a conscious misery;--as there I looked about me for help, unable to go on or to turn back, and clung to the fleeting, extinguished life with an endless longing: then, out of the blue distances -- from the hills of my ancient bliss, came a shiver of twilight -- and at once snapt the bond of birth, the chains of the Light. Away fled the glory of the world, and with it my mourning; the sadness flowed together into a new, unfathomable world.
4 stars - even for non-poetry lovers like myself, this is prose to romantically immerse oneself in. Indulgent reading out loud is mandatory.
Sometimes books like this make you think “I wish I’d read that when I was 16” - but this one is probably the opposite. It feels like a book that shouldn’t be allowed to get into the hands of anyone who might be inclined to take it seriously.
I’m sure you could have a lot of fun with all that weird mother-imagery if you were at all inclined to Freudian readings, though. What is going on there? Sometimes he’s cutting the umbilical cord, sometimes he seems to be trying to climb back in.
I agree wholeheartedly that this is not work to be taken too seriously. I did think it beautiful in an over-dramatic way (I can imagine there were plenty of woe-is-me throwing himself on the grave moments), but you can't help but think what a bloody idiot at the same time despite his intelligence. Brains and no common sense, as my mother would say.
10. Review - A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
Set in a small town in the Ukraine in 1941, A Boy in Winter fuses the stories of three main characters together. One is a German engineer who has been sent to the town to oversee the building of new roads, yet who hates everything the German forces stand for. Another is a young farm girl whose intended has deserted the Red Army and has now reluctantly volunteers for the German police. Lastly, there is a young Jewish boy who has run away with his younger brother before the troops came to round up all the Jews in the town.
There are many great Holocaust and WWII fictional works out there, but for me this isn't one of them. Seiffert wanted to set the atmosphere of the times, with people from different backgrounds wary and suspicious of each other and as a result avoiding interaction. Yet the characters didn't just lack engagement with each other - they lacked engagement with me as a reader as well. These were horrifying times, yet I couldn't connect to what they were going through. The plot felt rushed and uneven, with peak plot points being reached too hurriedly before the characters and their back stories had been developed out properly.
I get what Seiffert was trying to do, blending the stories of characters from three very different positions in the war who ultimately at heart were all decent people. However, the writing was as cold as her winter setting.
3 stars - fine to pass time with, but not a book I'll think back on again.
11. Review - This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Diaries by Adam Kay
So, after 75 people before me at the library were done with this, I finally got my hands on a copy of this book, which has sold a million plus copies and counting. Was it worth the wait? Well, yes - I thoroughly enjoyed it. Will it be the best book I've ever read. No. But that's fine.
Adam Kay is now a screen writer in the UK, but for seven years he was an NHS doctor in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology (or, as he and his colleagues call it, 'brats and twats'), working his way up to Registrar (a couple of rungs on the ladder below Consultant). This is Going to Hurt is based on his diaries from those years, following his journey from lowly House Officer to when he hung up his stethoscope for good.
Kay is a funny man, and it's a very British comedic account of the NHS at its very worst and best. The anecdotes are hilarious, yet they're tinged with sadness as Kay shines a light on just how severely under pressure our public health service is, with doctors working ridiculously long hours often in states of severe sleep deprivation. At best, it's a system that completely undervalues and exploits its best assets. At worst, it's fatally dangerous. Who would allow a pilot to fly 400 passengers counting his sleep in the last few days on one hand? For some reason that's OK if you're a junior doctor (i.e. below the rank of consultant) and performing life and death procedures. Mental health care and support for those doctors totally burnt out and/or suffering from PTSD? Zero with a capital Z.
This book makes me slightly terrified of the next time I need medical intervention. Firstly, never, ever get seriously ill on 1st August, the day Junior Doctors start work (otherwise affectionately known as Black Wednesday, when hospital death rates spike), or on the days of the year they all rotate en masse to a new department and hospital. I believe the NHS is working on changing this, but still - I wouldn't risk it. Stay at home with your slippers and a glass of whiskey. Secondly, if you have the misfortune to be already on a ward and are going to have something serious like a heart attack, definitely do your best to hang on until morning when everyone comes back on shift and you're not stuck with the single (very) junior doctor looking after all the wards by him/herself.
We're very lucky to have a free public health system, but it is straining at the seams to say the least. I know many people who work within the NHS, and the amount of expenditure wastage is criminal, whilst elsewhere spending on key areas is insufficient. Having read Kay's book, I now feel a little less sore about being left for four hours in stage 2 labour with my first child before I was brought into theatre. The doctor who eventually dragged my blue and floppy baby out was likely 5 hours beyond the official end of their shift and on their umpteenth emergency of the day. Thankfully, all turned out OK, but not everyone is so lucky.
Anyway, I digress. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was hilarious, interesting and shocking in equal measure, and I love how Adam Kay doesn't give a toss about keeping NHS lids firmly on - it's all out there, warts and all.
“But it’s a Saturday night and the NHS runs a skeleton service. Actually, that’s unfair on skeletons – it’s more like when they dig up remains of Neolithic Man and reconstruct what he might have looked like from a piece of clavicle and a thumb joint.”
4 stars - a fun read (although possibly not if you're about to have a baby or go in for a gynae operation in the near future).
12. Review - The Accidental by Ali Smith
Ali Smith has left me discombobulated with this novel, which I have to admit is the calling card of a great writer.
That's not to say I completely loved it; for the first quarter or so I had to make a big effort to stay with it, mostly because I didn't like the characters. The horrible adolescent daughter. The depressed teenage son. The can't-keep-it-in-his-pants stepdad. The pathetic mother. And the setting of a miserable summer rental in an ugly village in Norfolk. So far, so bleak. In fact, it was that gritty British bleakness and the detachment of the family members from each other that turned me off this novel the first time I attempted to read it (and abandoned it).
Once the mysterious Amber appears, it starts to gather pace into an edgy psychological read, and we're thrown all over the place trying to figure out who she is and what she's doing in the middle of the family. That's done very well - she confuses the hell out of you as a reader for a while.
The writing was very, very good, but at times the conscious playing with narrative form irritated me, like Smith was trying so hard to intellectualise and get on that Booker list. And whilst she was clever at getting into the adolescent Astrid's head, often I found it an annoying 12 year old head to be in.
All in all, if you'd ask me would I read another Smith at the end of the first half I'd probably have answered no. But the second half was brilliant and had me reeled right in, desperate to find out where on earth it was all going. So yes - I probably don't love Ali Smith just yet, but there's enough there to tempt me to look at her latest novels if they come my way.
4 stars - clever and unsettling. I'll be thinking about this one for a while.
Everyone seems to have rated Autumn very highly, so I'll have to give it a go when it comes my way in the secondhand bookshop.
>113 RidgewayGirl: is Hotel World a novel or short story collection?
>114 lisapeet: I'm still a little unsure about it, but the good parts were so good I think they outweighed the aspects I wasn't keen on.
13. Review - The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
With Alan Hollinghurst novels you always know roughly what you'll get - a story revolving around gay men moving in wealthy upper class social circles in London, and absolutely fabulous writing.
This is the fourth Hollinghurst I've read now, and is up there as one of my favourites, possibly only beaten by The Line of Beauty. It's a modern family saga with the enigmatic David Sparsholt as the thread that links it all together, starting off at Oxford University in the early part of WWII and moving through the decades up to present day London. Although David Sparsholt is at the core of each of the five sections of the novel, at the same time he's merely an accessory to the plot. We're teased by Hollinghurst into wanting to delve more into his story, but he only allows us partial hints here and there, which somehow reflects the private mystery that is the man himself.
From the second section onwards, the novel unfolds from the perspective of his son Jonathan. I'd been hugely enjoying the first section set in 1940s Oxford, and would have quite happily languished there for the remainder of the book. The move in the next section to the 1960s and the distancing of the main thrust of the story from David Sparsholt initially broke the spell for me a little as I'd been enjoying the period setting of the first section, but I took it for what it was and enjoyed Jonathan's moving through the decades as a painter in London who becomes connected with his father's old Oxford acquaintances.
The Sparsholt Affair is a great alternative modern day family saga, centred around the awkward father / son relationship between a gay man keeping up a life of heterosexual pretence - despite having been scandalously outed decades before - and his openly gay son. The two men are from very different eras with vastly differing acceptance of homosexuality, their shared sexuality the elephant of truth in the room that David Sparsholt can never acknowledge to allow their relationship to fully flourish.
All in all, another great Hollinghurst read. I still would have liked to have stayed more with David Sparsholt as the main character and to have become more fully immersed in his story, but this wasn't the point of the story that Hollinghurst wanted to tell. A fabulous writer, Hollinghurst captures acutely the mood of the moment across the ages, from the necessary subtleness of gay flirtations in the war era to the 'out and proud' modern day London gay scene.
4 stars - a wonderful writer who will always be one of my favourites.
That sounds good. I’ve never even heard of it but I’ve liked others by him and agree he’s a great writer.
>123 lisapeet: Line of Booty isn't too far wrong! It's a great read, though. I would start with either The Line of Beauty or The Sparsholt Affair if you're going to give him a go at some point. His writing's perhaps not for everyone as he can a bit explicit at times, but I think he's just fabulous.
I've only read The Swimming Pool Library and The Stranger's Child, both which I thought were terrific. I own The Line of Booty but it looks so big so I haven't tackled it yet (I don't tend to like long books)
14. Review - Decorating with Style by Abigail Ahern
I am worryingly obsessional about interior design and waste far too many hours a week coveting design accessories and rooms on Instagram and home decor websites. Abigail Ahern is one of my Instagram staples; whilst I don't 100% share her eclectic interior taste, I get what she's doing and admire her bold use of dark colours and interesting accessories and furniture. She's pretty big now in UK interiors, and was a forerunner in the trend for faux indoor botanicals.
This book has been on my Amazon wish list for a few years now, so I was delighted that my library now have it in stock. It was a quick read with some great photography. Nothing overly knew for someone obsessively devoted to pouring over interiors pictures on a daily basis, but some good tips to remember (no more than 4 colours in a room scheme.... go big with accessories, no matter how small the room (in fact especially if the room is small).
4 stars - interesting read if dark and quirky interiors are your thing.
15. Review - The Great Lover by Jill Dawson
The Great Lover is a fictional novel based upon the life and loves of the WWI poet Rupert Brooke.
Brooke was part of the influential artistic circles of the day, mixing with the likes of Virginia Stephen (Woolf) and Lytton Strachey, and ringleader of his own influential group of socialites at Cambridge - many of them members of the Fabian Society - who became known as the Neo-Pagans. Renowned for his good looks and boyish charm (W. B. Yeats famously referred to him as "the handsomest young man in England") Jill Dawson has woven a fabulous fictional novel around his love interests and search for self.
Whilst the Cambridge friends and lovers are all based on factual research, in this novel Dawson creates a fictional love interest with a maid Nell who works at the Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester where Brooke stayed and spent a lot of his time over a number of years. She uses Nell and Brooke's voices to narrate the story, and whilst their part of the story is purely fictional, they are an instrument to tell an imagined account of many of the real aspects of Brooke's friendships and love interests, some of which is taken from actual letters Brooke sent around this time.
I've mostly found Jill Dawson to be a strong writer who excels in weaving great fictional stories out of nuggets of factual stories from the past, and The Great Lover was another very enjoyable read. Rupert Brooke is the out and out star of the show in this novel; Dawson conveys a very vivid picture of his magnetic attractiveness mixed with geniality and boyish good humour, of his pull and popularity amongst the Cambridge set, and his dark doubts and insecurities around his literary talent, sexuality and understanding of love.
Having finished the novel I almost feel like I'm going to miss being in his company - for me that's great writing.
It's not a perfect novel - despite only being 300 pages long I found it slow to engage me for a while, but once I became immersed in Brooke's world and social circles I wanted to stay there longer as a fly on the wall.
4 stars - closer to 3.5 for the first part of the novel, and much nearer to 4.5 by the end. Jill Dawson remains on my list of unsung modern favourites.
>137 thorold: I'm quite tempted by a Rupert Brooke biography now having read this. I find the English literary circle from that period fascinating, and he seems to have been an interesting character.
His poem 'The Great Lover' concludes this book, which was a wonderful ending to the novel.
16. Review - How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen
Clay Christensen is a successful business consultant and business school academic at Harvard Business School. The premise of this book came from an end of year speech Christensen gave at HBS which he was widely lauded for, based around the idea that his young students venturing out into the world should set out clearly for themselves the goal on what they will truly measure the success of their life.
Drawing from this speech, in this book Christensen aims to take a number of key learnings from business and to apply these to life in general, family relationships included.
I'm not quite sure that the book lived up to what I had expected from the title in that it was more about causality and repeatable business patterns. I would say the taking these learnings and applying them to the wider parts of your life beyond business and career perhaps made up only 20% of the book. However, having said that, I found lots of unexpected gems of inspiration out of this book for our own business, such as finding the true reason why someone hires your resources (be that product or service) rather than the reason you think they're buying (or not buying) from you, and some valuable lessons from large company failures, such as Blockbuster's catastrophic failure to stop Netflix from stealing their business from right under their nose.
Clayton Christensen is clearly a very smart but also very nice man - his integrity comes across in this book, and he has some interesting thoughts on successful career people and why they often only realise too late in life that they've focused on the wrong thing (i.e. career) and lost what really matters (i.e. family and friendship).
I wouldn't recommend this book if you're not involved in business - I don't think it would be an overly helpful general take stock of your life type book. As a business book, however (which is not what it's intended to be), I found it very useful and unexpectedly inspirational. I also liked the fact that it didn't go into the in depth minutae that so many business books go into - there were enough short nuggets there just to prompt your own thinking.
For anyone who hasn't already given up reading this review, there's a Tedx Talk on this topic which I'm going to check out:
4 stars - not what I thought it was going to be at all, but very useful nonetheless.
17. Review - The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas
In typically spare Nordic literary style, The Birds is a short novel by one of Norway's most revered classic authors. The main protagonist is Mattias, a man who suffers from learning difficulties and who lives with his spinster sister Hege in a small Nordic town. Although it may not be his only mental condition, Mattias certainly seems to display strong autistic traits.
This is a very beautifully written book, but one that I found hard to enjoy at times precisely for the very reason it's such an accomplishment. Although written in the third person, Tarjei Vesaas puts us smack inside Mattias' mind; we endure his daily social struggles and awkward interactions, and the impact of the huge emotional upheaval he faces when a major change threatens to upset the normalcy that is his life with Hege.
As a reader we feel somewhat for Hege whose life has been so limited by their situation, but the real honesty is in experiencing what it's like to be Mattias. I can honestly say this is probably the first time I feel like I've had a proper insight into how a person with such a condition might feel and how they experience the world at large. Mattias was incredibly frustrating to be around at times from the third person perspective, but we also acutely feel his anxiety, his alternative way of thinking which skews the relative importance of things, and his fear.
4 stars - perhaps not the most enjoyable book I've ever read given its subject matter, but a fantastic achievement nonetheless.
I’m catching up (you’ve been on a roll) and enjoyed your review about Hollonghursr. I still need to read this one but it’s good to know it’s almost as good as The Line of Beauty!
18. Review - Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
Gerry and Stella, an older Irish couple, take a long weekend break to Amsterdam. For Stella it's a purposeful trip to investigate the potential of a life-changing decision she wants to make, spurred on by Gerry's relentless heavy drinking.
I was a little disappointed by this novel. MacLaverty writes in quite a bleak style, and whilst I'm quite up for a good dollop of angst in a novel I find hopelessness much harder to tolerate. He also has a style that involves commenting on every minutiae of what his characters are doing, which I grew weary of from time to time.
My other irk was that I didn't like the fairly one-sided portrayal of the Troubles in the novel. Given that he'd decided to place his characters as now living in Scotland (mirroring his own life), I felt the backdrop story from their earlier life in Northern Ireland was somewhat unnecessary and brought politics into a book which was essentially about love and disappointment. Stella's back story was quite sensationalist, and I think the plot line in Amsterdam would have carried the novel sufficiently without it.
3.5 stars - readable enough, but not a favourite by any stretch.
Please turn a polite blind eye to further such horrors. This could continue for some time.....
Interesting, I let Midwinter Break go, as it didn't come up to expectations, but your mention has brought quite a lot of it back to my mind. Maybe I will revisit sometime.
>154 AlisonY: It happens to us all.
19. Review - I'm a Joke And So Are You: A Comedian's Take on What Makes Us Human by Robin Ince
Robin Ince is an English comedian, but I have to admit not one that I'm familiar with. I believe he's done a lot on the live comedy circuit and the likes of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but more latterly is known for his radio work. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to getting my hands on this fairly new release, as from The Times review it sounded really interesting, and the Amazon reviews - although only in double figures - were very favourable.
What did I think I was going to get out of this? Perhaps an alternative introspection on some of the most common human frailties, such as anxiety. However, I'm afraid I don't share the plaudits on the jacket cover. If I was a stand up comedian, then yes - no doubt I'd find this book particularly interesting, so perhaps that's where the fellow comedian glowing recommendations are coming from. Ince looks at many of the common emotions and characteristics that fuel comedians, such as how they find their creativity, the difficult marriage of the on-stage persona versus the real persona, and imposter syndrome. Whilst it was all well written, I have not been, nor am I planning to be any time soon, a stand up comic, therefore I can't say I overly care too much about why comedians feel the need to follow that line of work and their emotional issues (which - spoiler alert - are exactly the same ones the rest of us face). Would we devour a book on the human frailties of insurance underwriters? I therefore don't see why I should be any more interested in comedians just because some of them are well known and have bigger egos to polish.
I'm not sure who this book is for, beyond those employed in the arena of comedy (that's possibly where the 43 mostly rave reviews on Amazon come from). The last chapter was probably the strongest, in which Ince looks at death and grief and examines how comedians differ in their approaches to how they use comedy to deal with (or not deal with) the death of a close relative, but it wasn't enough to win me back.
2.5 stars - well written but just mind-numbingly uninteresting for large swathes for me.
20. Review - The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson
I picked up a bunch of business books last weekend at the secondhand bookshop and have learnt a valuable lesson - whilst fiction books still remain relevant even if published 20, 50, 100 years ago, the same cannot be said for business books, particularly those orientated around digital businesses. Note to self - check the publication date next time!
This would have been a great read had I read it in 2006 when it first came out, but 13 years later it is outdated as technology has moved so quickly. To Chris Anderson's credit he was pretty much on the ball in this book about the extent to which the internet would affect our shopping habits for music, television and movie media and general products. By 2006 many of these patterns had already started to emerge, but were nowhere near developed to the extent they are today. For example, he refers to Blockbuster in this book, which hadn't yet been completely killed off by the market shift towards Netflix.
It was still an interesting read, as the long tail (i.e. finding hugely successful markets at the niche end of shopping habits) is what's made zillions of dollars for Jeff Bezos and lots of smaller entrepreneurs. Very simply, although less people buy certain goods at the long end of the tail (on a graph of purchasing habits), when you aggregate the numbers of those people times the number of niche products they're interested in purchasing it creates a huge overall market, and online stores (which aren't limited by physical shop shelf space) have enabled businesses to capitalise on that.
Still some interesting points to take from the book at a general business level, but it's just too outdated for where we've moved on to (Instagram wasn't even a twinkle in someone's eye in 2006, and Etsy and YouTube were just getting going). I think there's a more up-to-date version of this book that would have been a better read.
2.5 stars - interesting and well written, but just dated.
I’ve been a little awol, so enjoyed catching up. Wish you well with your business plans. Don’t be Blockbuster. !!
21. Review - Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis
Somehow I've had a bit of a run on medical non-fiction books this quarter (all of which have been hugely interesting, even to someone who could only manage a C in GCSE Biology).
Adventures in Human Being is written by a British GP who takes us on an interesting jaunt through the human body from tip to toe. Francis has an interesting approach of mixing modern medical knowledge with occasional forays into medical practices and superstitions from the past or from other geographies (such as how different cultures over the ages have treated afterbirth).
For most of the body parts he tells us about a particular case he dealt with affecting that body part - some are funny, whilst other are sad realities of common deaths (such as the elderly lady who dies after breaking her hip in a fall). Some others are a hypochondriac's nightmare (the young gardener who ends up in intensive care after pricking her finger on a rose bush).
This was a book nicely handled for the non-scientific reader - chapters just the right length, and a nice mix of the clinical and the emotional impact of those clinical diagnoses on the affected patients.
4 stars - I wonder if I could scrape to a B now in that GCSE....
>160 AlisonY: Great review! It sounds interesting and I learned a new word: colcaneus. It's always a good day when I learn a new word.
>162 lisapeet: it's a great cover. It's hard to see in the small pic I've put up, but parts of the body are written in words all through the anatomy.
>163 VivienneR: thanks Vivienne. And yes - it's a very interesting book. Obviously he's only covering the tip of the iceberg in terms of bodily afflictions, but I think the ones he focused on were interesting. I found the chapter covering kidney failure and transplants particularly interesting.
I will add it to my list. I have read of the wives separately it will be interesting to have them together. I also added Unnatural Causes.
22. Review - A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Oh boy. I wonder if I can think about this book again to write this review without sobbing halfway through.
Despite its vastness (720 pages), if you haven't read it I feel that I don't want to give you any clues whatsoever as to what it's about. I don't want to spoil a single page for anyone else (and incidentally, those 700 odd pages galloped past faster than plenty of 200 page novels I've read). All I will say is that it's beautiful, harrowing, joyful and heartbreaking in equal measures. It's a book of extremities - the worst of life, the best of life, and the unending depths of love.
Who would like this book? Well, I'm tempted to say anyone who has something ticking inside them. (And if you read it and don't sob ridiculously at some point I'd suggest you pull that little ticker out of your chest and give it a shake to check it's still working). This is a book that will squeeze out every last bit of emotion from you. That it can do that and sustain itself for so many pages says everything about the quality of the writing.
That's me done. I'm too emotionally depleted to think of anything else. Just read it.
5 stars - lock yourself away for a few days with a large box of tissues and prepare to be very moved.
23. Review - Crushing It!: How Great Entrepreneurs Build Their Business and Influence - And How You Can Too by Gary Vaynerchuk
I was hoping this would be a great marketing book for our B2B orientated business, but alas not. Not only was it very B2C orientated, it was also everything that I despise about certain parts of business, or should I say certain people involved in business.
To give Mr. Vaynerchuk his due, he's a multi-millionaire so he's been successful at what he does. He understands the different social media platforms inside out, and how each should be worked in a different way. But I do wonder how he managed to get his head out of his own arse for long enough to write this book. It reminded me of all the reasons I stay away from the self-promoting fake-altruistic sham that LinkedIn has become.
Yes, there were a few interesting insights here and there, but I was constantly distracted from the real life examples of people 'crushing it' by the repetitive reminders that 'oh by the way, they 'crushed it' after reading Gary Vaynerchuk's first version of this book written in 2009'. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. I care less.
And then there was the 'crushing it' phrase itself. What a tosser.
If you polish your ego regularly on the hour and can think of nothing better than spending 16 hours a day developing your personal brand on social media, look no further than this book. Otherwise, pick the fluff out from between your toes or something else instead.
2 stars - crush him
24. Review - Educated by Tara Westover
I'm developing a bit of a split personality over this book. The sprite on one shoulder (let's call her Good Read Sprite) thinks it's very good - a well written page-turner and an interesting insight into life in a rural American survivalist family, which hitherto I didn't know much about. But the other sprite (let's call her Cynical Sprite), feels a little played, and having chewed over this for a day it's Cynical Sprite's thoughts that are winning through.
I'm not questioning whether the events that Westover writes about occurred or not - I expect that they did, and that there were many traumatic instances in her childhood and adolescence - but when I compare it to other Misery Lit titles this book feels very self-pitiful, and in some areas I suspected that Tara's viewpoint only uncovered part of the story, which supported how she wanted to position the overall narrative of her life.
For instance, on education she wanted the reader to believe that she had had next to nothing in the way of education before she sat her college exam. It seemed incredible that she could reach such stellar heights against such insurmountable odds, but then we read that 6 out of the 7 children went on to some level of higher education. When I read further around the subject, I discovered that both her mum and dad attended at least a year of university classes each, which Westover failed to mention anywhere in this book. Also, one brother (who I recollect she was close to in the book) has since questioned the accuracy and one-sidedness of a number of her recollections. He admits that their parents were extremists and that things happened to hurt Tara, but he points out that he has a different interpretation of some things that happened within the family. Tara would like us to believe that this is because her family are all indoctrinated by the family's very strict faith and controlling nature of her bi-polar father - yes, that's entirely possible, but equally her can-do-no-wrong self-positioning in this book made me begin to lose my trust in her as a narrator of her story at times, and to wonder what the full story was.
Westover also positions her mother's hugely successful business as a random happenstance that happened to some poor, uneducated hillbillies on the back of treating her father's injuries. That felt very glossed over, and again by sowing that doubt in my mind I further questioned how fully accurate the rest of the memoir was.
In all, I'm very conflicted by this book. I don't feel that we ever got to meet the real Tara - we meet the version of Tara and her story that Westover wanted to portray, and it didn't feel wholly authentic to me. Clearly I'm in the minority on this as I know the world and his wife loved this; I did really enjoy reading it, but I'm not sure I overly liked Tara in the end, which is very surprising as I usually root straight away for the underdog in this type of book. Her story was fascinating, but I think I would have sympathised with her difficult family upbringing much more if she'd let a bit more of the true Tara through.
3.5 stars - a really good read, but I was left with too many niggling questions.
Yep, count me in as one of those wives. That doesn't mean I disagree with anything you say here.
Her family's facebook pages are open and I browsed through them. They say she's lying, but they also have a lot of hallmarks of people I don't trust. And her close brother that seemed pretty normal? His family photo tells me he's anything but.
So who knows? She does admit in the book where her memories are different from what others say happened, and where her memory doesn't make sense. Which is the nature of memories. And different people see things differently even at the moment things are happening. So sure, I take it with a grain of salt. But I also don't think she's fabricating her story either.
Wish you could have been at my bookclub meeting when we discussed this. Your voice would have been interesting and welcomed.
That did make me chuckle. It's somewhat bizarre that her family have kept their FB pages open.
Perhaps that's another aspect of the book I didn't like; I know Knausgaard talked about his family in graphic detail in the My Family series, but somehow they didn't seem so accessible to the world. By keeping her family name so public you can look them up on social media in seconds like you say, and even Google Earth shows you easily where they live (and incidentally, it's nothing like you would imagine from her recounting in the book - I looked). Perhaps they operate a complete house of horrors and deserve it. Perhaps not. Certainly she went for the jugular exposing them in such a bright light like that.
And I offer you this poem on the nature of memory:
Knap the sensoria; sheer by the parallax
Bright sharp shards of circumstance.
I give you instruction:
Excise by your privy lens; choose;
Make memory of a memory,
An edit of edits.
Fables enfabulate; Impose your Story;
That's if you know who you are.