AlisonY: 2019 - Rash and Random Reading II
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My reading's bumping along nicely thus far, so time for a new thread.
This is a picture of Scrabo Tower, which is a few miles down the road from where I live and can be seen spotted across the horizon from many parts of the county. It overlooks Strangford Lough, and Game of Thrones fans might recognise it as filming took place there a few years ago.
Part I of this thread can be found here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/301117
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 - read (3 stars)
26. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - read (3.5 stars)
27. Lullaby by Leila Slimani - read (2.5 stars)
28. So Much for That by Lionel Shriver - read (4 stars)
29. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund - read (3.5 stars)
30. A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale - read (3.5 stars)
31. Unless by Carol Shields - read (2.5 stars)
32. Home by Marilynne Robinson - read (3 stars)
33. Solitude: Memories, People, Places by Terry Waite - read (3 stars)
34. Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick - read (3 stars)
35. Some Rain Must Fall by Karl Ove Knausgaard - read (5 stars)
36. All The Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell - read (3.5 stars)
37. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman - read (4.5 stars)
38. The Vegetarian by Han Kang - read (3.5 stars)
39. Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes And The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall - read (5 stars)
40. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway - read (4.5 stars)
41. Chi Running: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running by Danny Dreyer - read (4 stars)
42. Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age by Sara Wheeler - read (3 stars)
43. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien - read (3.5 stars)
44. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermer - read (4 stars)
45. The American Boy - by Andrew Taylor - read (4 stars)
46. How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman - read (5 stars)
47. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford - read (3 stars)
48. Wild: A Journey From Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed - read (5 stars)
49. The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer by Dr Bertil Marklund - read (2.5 stars)
50. Hinch Yourself Happy: All The Best Cleaning Tips To Shine Your Sink And Soothe Your Soul by Mrs Hinch - read (2 stars)
51. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley - read (4.5 stars)
52. Jog On: How I Got My Life Back on Track by Bella Mackie - read (3 stars)
53. River Thieves by Michael Crummey - read (3.5 stars)
54. Cygnet: A Novel by Season Butler - read (4 stars)
55. Postcards From A Stranger by Imogen Clark - read (3 stars)
56. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson - read (3.5 stars)
57. Preston Falls by David Gates - read (4.5 stars)
58. The Millstone by Margaret Drabble - read (4 stars)
59. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy - read (4 stars)
60. Hard Times by Charles Dickens - read (4 stars)
61. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron - read (4 stars)
62. More About Boy: Roald Dahl's Tales from Childhood by Roald Dahl - read (4 stars)
63. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng - read (3.5 stars)
64. Poverty Castle by Robin Jenkins - read (4.5 stars)
65. The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst - read (3.5 stars)
Fiction titles to date: 42
Non-fiction titles to date: 23
25. Review - Autumn by Ali Smith
Ali Smith is a very clever author, no doubt about that, but I still can't quite decide if I really like her writing.
No, that's not true. I quite like her writing, and I understand why she gets her plaudits, but there's a modern day British grittiness to her writing with a slightly depressive 'real world' undertone which I'm not sure I overly enjoy in books (depressive writing I can do with pleasure, but I'm not overly keen on that particular type of British grittiness - perhaps it reminds me too much of depressing British crime dramas, or maybe I prefer to be swept away from what I know to something / somewhere else).
This is my second Smith read, and again you're never exactly sure where she's going with the book which is always interesting. There's a purposeful playing with time and other concepts, so that in the end Autumn felt less like a novel to me and more like a fictional vehicle used to carry an essay of social commentary ideas from modern post-Brexit referendum to gender equality past and present, delicately woven with apt observances from the arts (it was the best of times, it was the worst of times).
It's fresh off the press in terms of a social commentary of our times, and it's fresh as a daisy as a form.
3 stars - I compare my feelings on Smith's writing a little with Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' art installation: part of me sees why everyone is heaping on the praise about its genius, and part of me thinks it's just a slightly interesting unmade bed...
Small world! I live a few miles on the other side of Comber.
I don't know what to tell you on A Little Life as clearly there is a lot of split opinion on that one! It is highly emotive, probably excessively so, but I love a good saga so it worked for me. However, I can see how others felt they'd been worked over a little on the emotional front.
On the British grittiness thing, I think it's that I don't like reading books that are close to my day-to-day reality. I don't mind a book set in the UK if it's completely a world away from my world, for example the English upper class country mansion set, but I'm not so keen on those that are based around normal people that I might come across in my everyday life. For those stories, I prefer to be spirited away to the States, or mainland Europe - anywhere that's less familiar to me.
I don't think there's a whole lot of logic to it. Similarly, there's no logic at all in my refusal to watch films that have a lot of extras in them, which exasperates my husband no end.
26. Review - Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
I've not read anything by Marilynne Robinson, and I realised early on when reading Housekeeping that's she's an author whose prose cannot be rushed. Hurry your way through her writing and you'll miss the complete point of it - this is a book where the writing is a journey and not a destination.
As such, I found Housekeeping to be not a particularly plot-driven book. The gist of the story is that two young girls find themselves living in a town that's more of a pass-through than a destination following the death of their mother. When their grandmother dies fairly soon too, an unknown aunt comes back to the town to take care of them. She's well-intentioned but a drifter at heart, who has become unused to the normalcy of living in a house and the usual rules of normal living that the the other townspeople adhere to.
At its heart it's a book of the differing effects of loss and of the changing dynamics in family relationships over time. It raises the question of what really matters, whether living by the accepted standards of society is the necessary marker for love and responsible guardianship, or whether pure love without restrictions and expectations is the truest and most honest love of all.
It's a book of subtlety rather than drama, and I'm a little torn by my overall impression of it. I enjoyed it, and certainly plan to get to Gilead at some point, but part of me wonders if it's a little too quiet overall. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel that the slow layers of this book are really rather brilliant, and that its quiet execution is precisely its genius lies.
3.5 stars - enjoyable, but in a pondering rather than earth-shattering way.
I am veeeeeryyyyy late to the game here, sorry about that. But life got in the way of reading and even more in the way of posting and following around here. I'd like to say it will get better but I guess I'd be lying to myself a little as times are still way too busy. Still, enjoyed your reading. I could not catch up with every review, but I've read the odd one. Now my wishlist is a little longer than before. Especially Educated and Adventures in Human Being sound interesting. I always find it odd to have no idea about what goes on in my body either in sickness or in health, so an easy introduction that gives me some biological knowledge while not expecting too much of me would be great, I think.
EDIT: I forgot to say: Love that picture at the top of your thread!
>15 Caroline_McElwee: you're all convincing me to give Gilead a go, Caroline.
27. Review - Lullaby (or The Perfect Nanny) by Leila Slimani
I've been looking forward to reading this novel for a while now, but I feel very disappointed by it and am left wondering why it's deserved of the accolades and prizes it's received.
We know right from the first sentence that the nanny kills the children, and as expected the novel focuses on the build up to that awful crime, but yet in many ways it doesn't really build up to anything. The nanny is a cold, queer fish, but the writing too felt very cold and dispassionate. Being a mother myself the very premise of this novel should make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, but I felt very disconnected from the characters. The backdrop and supposed lead up to the terrible murders felt uneven, and whilst I know it's not a first novel it reads very much like one. The dissolving of the relationship between the nanny and the parents seemed rushed, as did her significant decline in circumstances.
All in all, I expected to be glued to the pages, but instead I was more glued to looking at the last page number to see when I'd be finished.
2.5 stars - completely forgettable and disjointed.
28. Review - So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
This is my third Lionel Shriver novel, and she's definitely becoming a favoured author of mine. In So Much For That, the novel opens with the male protagonist deciding to finally go ahead with his life's dream of escaping the rat race to live on a small island off the coast of Zanzibar, with or without his family. However (and this is no spoiler as the jacket tells you as much), his plans to live the dream are stopped dead in their tracks when his wife announces that she's had a serious cancer diagnosis.
The rest of the novel plays out predominantly around the impact that the terminal diagnosis has on his marriage, his family, their friendships and his own life plans. Such a topic could make for a very depressing read, but So Much For That is not so much focused on the sadness of the diagnosis but more on the emotional, practical and financial difficulties of caring for a partner whilst other life problems carry on regardless.
It throws out the window the stereotypes of terminal cancer patients somehow being super human and without flaws. Glynis (the wife who has cancer) was a difficult woman to deal with before the diagnosis, and as a patient is more difficult still. She's angry with the cancer, angry with family members who start to make appearances after long absences before the diagnosis, and rude with visitors whose visits she feels are to make themselves feel at peace once she's gone rather than being for her benefit. Doing the right thing is a very difficult line for Shep (the husband) to tread, and the strain of trying to keep the daily plates of life spinning whilst he cares for his wife is huge.
This is also a novel that heavily rails against the American health system (although granted this dates back to 2005 so I don't know how much things have progressed). Shep starts the novel with a tidy nest egg after selling his business, but the poor insurance plan provided by his new employer means that he has to cover vast excesses relating to the cancer treatment. Shriver (through this and another back story) is constantly poking at the sore of why those who have worked hard all their lives and paid their taxes should be penalised so heavily when it comes to needing health support, and the difficulties of trying to hold down a paying job when supporting a family member who's seriously unwell.
It raises some similar questions to those raised by Atul Gawande in his later non-fictional book Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End which was interesting, and is searingly honest in it's questioning of whether it's right to spend extortionate sums of money to extend a life under excruciating treatment for short-term gain.
In all, this is not a novel falling under misery lit. There's plenty of humour woven into the story, and I didn't find it a sad read despite the subject matter. Nothing escapes Shriver's eagle eye, such as familiar family stories where one sibling is left to bear the brunt of looking after an elderly parent.
It's not perfect - at 530 pages it probably took half of that before it become a page turner for me, but it's one of those novels where the second half is good enough to make allowances for that, and the ending is great.
4 stars - honest, brave and funny.
(post note - perhaps funny is the wrong word - more cynical black humour).
29. Review - History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
History of Wolves has an interesting and well depicted setting in the lakes of rural Minnesota. A young teenage girl struggles to find her place amongst her peers after a childhood spent largely in the company of adults in a now defunct commune, followed by an impoverished existence in an isolated backwoods cabin. When an out of town family builds a cabin across the lake, Linda becomes drawn into their lives as she becomes a regular babysitter for their four year old son, but despite outward appearances of devoted family life it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems.
I'm a little torn on this novel, and feel somewhat disappointed with it in the end. The first three quarters of the book - a first novel for Fridlund - were very strong. There was a great sense of place amongst the woods and the lakes, and the tension and sense of foreboding was gradually cranked up at a pace that really worked. However, much too early on in the journey Fridlund discloses all the story's secrets, and as readers we're left waiting for another twist that sadly never comes. As a result, what was a really strong and enjoyably tense novel for a good 200 pages becomes disappointingly deflated in the last 70. Fridlund seemed to reach her story's conclusion far too early and then desperately tried to let it linger on when she'd already shown her hand and the game was finished.
Bizarrely, the novel ends around a very much secondary plot in the book which all along never felt like it properly worked, and given that it had nothing to do with the main plot seemed a strange and lacklustre way to conclude the novel. Whilst much of the early writing in the novel read like that of an experienced writer, this attempt to use a secondary plot device that never quite worked showed Fridlund's inexperience. It felt like she was ticking the creative writing box of having a sub-story going on but failed to weave the point of it effectively into the main plot. Also, the occasional forays into the protagonist's life when she was some years older seemed misplaced and an unnecessary interruption into the flow of the narrative. We learn little from her hindsight reflections which don't supply any missing puzzle to the story. Rather, they make the narrative feel disjointed and meandering.
Given that I thoroughly enjoyed 75% of History of Wolves, I hope that Emily Fridlund irons out these mistakes in whatever shape her next novel takes. She can definitely tell a good story, but the fundamental mistakes in this one left the story flagging after a very strong start from the stalls. Certainly she feels like a novelist with great potential; I just hope she gets a better editor to guide her for her next book (although given that she was Man Booker shortlisted with this, both she and her editor would strongly argue on that point I'm guessing).
3.5 stars - enjoyable, but given the critical flaws mentioned I don't think this deserved to be Man Booker longlisted, never mind shortlisted.
30. Review - A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
Set in the early 1900s, A Place Called Winter tells the story of Harry Cane, a wealthy Londoner by dint of his father's trade, and his eventual forced exile as an early homesteader to Western Canada. The book opens with Harry Cane in an asylum, and much of the book is recounted as memories as part of his psychiatric treatment.
I've not read anything before about the first farming settlers in remote parts of Canada, and whilst I can't comment on how accurate this particular account is it made for interesting reading nonetheless. Half of the book was set in Canada, half in London, and I think it was a balance that worked fairly well.
Overall this was an enjoyable read with good characters and sense of place. I'm not sure I'll think about it for too long afterwards, but I would say it's good holiday read fodder, and probably sits comfortably in the mass market historical fiction arena. This was my first Patrick Gale read - from the interview at the end of the novel I gather he doesn't usually do historical fiction as a genre - I'm interested if anyone here has read anything else by him?
If you enjoy books such as Brooklyn or Life After Life this is probably a book you'll enjoy well enough.
3.5 stars - in terms of readability this was closer to 4 stars, but it wasn't extraordinary enough to warrant that extra half a star for me.
He's consistently strong on characters and families, as well as LGBT people, music, and British eccentricities. Some of his very early novels are maybe just a bit too much in the Firbankian-magic-realist-Aga-saga line to survive beyond the 1990s, though.
Notes from an exhibition is maybe one of his best. But the most recent one, Take nothing with you, which I read a few weeks ago is very good as well (lots of cello technique!).
31. Review - Unless by Carol Shields
I'm not quite sure what Carol Shields was trying to achieve by this book, other than she had a few (very important, obviously) opinions she wanted to get off her chest which she tried to weave vaguely into some sort of fictional backdrop.
The gist of the book is that the protagonist is an author whose eldest daughter has gone off the rails, spending her days begging on a street corner with the sign 'goodness' around her neck. I can save you a few hours of your life by letting you know that really there's not a lot more too it than that, save for a few sporadic feminist rallies and some (very important, obviously) musings about the challenges her (very clever, obviously) author protagonist is going through. Yawn. Oh, I nearly forgot the (very clever, obviously) observations (and chapter titles) on subordinate conjunctions. Because as women we are all subordinate and ruled by dependencies. Do you see? If we had beards we could scratch them thoughtfully while pondering over that at length.
I think I'm done with Shields. She's too consumed with her own writerly self-importance for my taste.
2.5 stars - well, I've had no problem getting over to sleep this past week.
But I can see how it could quite easily be a very annoying book.
I believe the book that finished me was the Jane Austen biography.
32. Review - Home by Marilynne Robinson
I think I was supposed to start with Gilead before I read Home, but nonetheless I think Home stood up well enough to be read independently.
Home is an abjectly sad tale of the return home of the black sheep of the family after 20 years. His elderly father's health his failing, and his youngest sister is reluctantly back living at home after her own life has fallen apart. At heart he is a kind man desperate to find some goodness in his own soul, yet despite the love of his sister and devotion of his father he cannot break the pattern of his own self-destruction and self-narrative that he is someone unworthy of love.
Robinson for sure gets under the hood of the sorrow and complexity of the family's emotions, but I did find Home a very bleak read. The entirety of the book is made up of the family's struggle with Jack and his struggles with himself, with little movement of plot or place to break a little sunshine through the clouds, and whilst the writing was first class it was a depressing place to hang out in.
3 stars - well conceived yet suffocating.
I think that while you can read her books out of order, they build on each other in an interesting way if you read them as written. This is because the point of view shifts as events the reader already knows are rehashed.
I also really loved Lila, but I do think it would mean more to you if you read Gilead first.
That said, I personally enjoyed Housekeeping more than Home. There were at least some shades of light in it, but Home was devoid of much hope.
33. Review - Solitude: Memories, People, Places by Terry Waite
Terry Waite, as many people will remember, was famous for being held hostage in Beirut for almost five years in the late 1980s.
As envoy for the Church of England he was trying to negotiate the release of another hostage when he was seized. For the majority of his imprisonment he was held in darkness in solitary confinement, with guards instructed not to speak to him. Almost 30 years on from that experience, Waite continues to work through understanding what it was within him that enabled him to mentally survive his experience, and the premise of this book is Waite's attempt to marry his experience of solitude with that experienced by people from a wide spectrum of places and circumstances (excluding those who have chosen a solitary life for religious reasons, about whom he felt much has already been written).
The book includes an intriguing cast of characters, including amongst others tough farmers who had chosen an isolated life in the Australian bush and the double secret agent George Blake. Whilst it read as a interesting travelogue of sorts, I don't think Waite successfully achieved his goal of reaching any enlightening depths on the topic of solitude. With Blake, for instance, he got caught up in his fascination with Blake's tales of how he became a double agent and whether he regretted that choice. It was certainly interesting to read, but it felt like the question of solitude was latched onto it as a bit of an afterthought to try to remain to topic. The same applied to many other stories - they were interesting for their own sake, but they really didn't get under the skin of solitude at all. Some were quite random and so brief (Myra Hindley, the notorious English child murderer, and Lana Peters, Stalin's daughter) that they read more as moments of name-dropping than anything else.
Having said that, I did enjoy reading this book. Terry Waite has led a unique and fascinating life, and it was an interesting assortment of people to read about. When I heard him speak at an event last week he mentioned that he's written six books across a number of genres books and has been trying to discover his writing voice or style. I think this writing naivety was very obvious in this book, with Waite overstretching himself both as an investigative journalist and as an armchair psychologist, but that aside I enjoyed my short trot around the globe with him.
3 stars - interesting,but would have benefited from some further editorial polishing.
34. Review - Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
Foreign Bodies opens with Bea, a middle-aged Amercian divorcee, ruining her first visit to Paris as she becomes embroiled in a wild goose chase to find her nephew (who is a stranger to her) on the back of her estranged, overbearing brother's demands. This opens up the premise of the novel, as Bea becomes reluctantly sucked in as the linchpin in her brother's family relations.
This was an OK read, but it failed to grab me in the way that I'd hoped it would.
3 stars - a bit bland for my liking.
35. Review - My Struggle: Book 5: Some Rain Must Fall by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Ah, Knausgaard - my unashamed literary crush. In this Book 5 he is at his archetypal bad boy best (or rather worst), and even though as a reader I regularly rolled my eyes at his behaviour it's impossible not to fall for him as protagonist just a little bit.
This book is much more linear than many of the previous books in the series. It follows on directly from Book 4 (which made me regret not reading them a little closer together), starting with Knausgaard moving to Bergen to take up his privileged place at the Writing Academy there and continuing for almost a decade through his twenties up to his publishing debut with Out of the World.
The youngest student on his writing course, Knausgaard's writing confidence is quickly squashed as he becomes horribly self-aware that his fictional writing capability and credibility pales significantly in comparison with that of his peers. As the years go by, he struggles to come to terms with his consistent writing failure, particularly as his friends' writing careers take off, drifting in terms of career, focus and general maturity. He falls in love, yet a pattern emerges of a struggle between his all consuming introspection and self-sufficiency and his partners' needs from the relationships. Socially, he suffers from a huge inferiority complex amongst work colleagues, friends and family, compensating with mortifyingly out of control drinking which made me want to hide behind a cushion.
As always with this series, this book was pure reading joy from the first word to the last. As I galloped through this latest instalment (despite its humungous size) I found myself wondering yet again what is it about Knausgaard's writing that pulls us in. For me, I think it is his unsurpassed ability to put you directly inside his head. In this series he doesn't just recount these past years in his life - rather, you live them out as him, experiencing his every thought and emotion. It sounds so simple, yet I cannot think of another author who has pulled it off to this extent. It is as if he has plugged us directly into his very thought process, and to put us retrospectively into his fictionalised mind as a child, a teenager, a 20-something year old, a young father is an incredible feat. Who remembers at a detailed level exactly how they thought at different stages in their life? Yet in this work of autofiction Knausgaard makes us believe that he really does. Couple that with the fact that he lives in an intriguing part of the world that I know little about in terms of day-to-day life and you have something really special.
Whilst this series is notorious for the backlash Knausgaard suffered from his family post-publication, I was conscious in this Book 5 that he was persistently respectful towards his friends and family, consistently shining them in a positive light which he largely used to illuminate his own shortcomings. He is brutal in his honesty about himself. If you have ever watched Jim Carrey's film 'Liar, Liar', you probably had a thought or two whilst watching along the lines of 'good job no one can get inside my head to know what I'm actually thinking most of the time'. If you've not read one of Knausgaard's book from this series yet, this is exactly what he does. He lets us into those deepest, truest thoughts that the rest of us keep us tightly locked away from everyone else.
I read somewhere that Knausgaard said that he has no imagination and cannot write proper fiction. I suspect that this may actually be true, as in this book he includes the first few pages of some short stories he was working on at the time which I couldn't wait to skip past. However, who cares. His approach to autofiction is like nothing that's been done before. It doesn't need flowery literary descriptions. Who looks for that when they find someone's diary lying open?
It's not often I say this about a large book, but I was so glad that he strung this Book 5 out for a delicious 663 pages. I'm sad that I have only one book left to go in the series, especially as the reviews have not generally been so kind given its 400 page segue into talking about Hitler. This series is a truly unique reading experience, and I suspect I'll have to come back to it as some stage despite my own general 'no reading twice' rule.
5 stars, 6 stars, 10 stars! - I'm running out of superlatives for this guy. Still crushing.
On Home - interesting especially because I didn’t consider Home to be about Jack...because I already knew him from Gilead. Instead for me the book was about Glory and her response to Jack. A curiosity, I guess. I suspect if you try Gilead, you’ll struggle as there is no plot for the first 2/3 of the book. If you try, keep in mind it took MR 20 years to write, maybe it will provide a little motivation to push through. : ) (Also - it reads better a second time.)
>53 lisapeet: Lisa, if you see this, I second starting with Gilead, best explained by Jennifer in >50 japaul22: . I haven’t read Housekeeping, though.
Finally, just before I duck behind my own cushion, I didn’t really like Lila...
I just can't summon the enthusiasm for Knausgaard right now, even though I totally believe your (and others') accolades--and I really have heard good things. Maybe someday, when I'm more in the mood to be immersed in someone else's experience.
>69 lisapeet: hope you give it a try some day, Lisa.
36. Review - All The Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell
This was my first Lucy Caldwell novel, having been impressed by a collection of short stories of hers that I read last year. She's a home grown Norin' Iron' (Northern Ireland) girl, so I'm interested that she's part of a small band of NI writers who are starting to make their mark further afield.
All The Beggars Riding is narrated by a London young woman looking back and trying to fill in the gaps of her family's story post the death (at separate times) of her parents. Her father was a surgeon based in Belfast for most of the month, and it is only at the age of 12 that the narrator fully grasps the truth behind her family situation (I won't spoil it). As time goes on she wants to understand more fully why her parents chose to continue their relationship, but as her Mum (who survived her father by many years) would never divulge this detail while she was alive, the narrator decides to fill in the blanks for herself by creating a fictional account of their story.
Overall this was an enjoyable read, although a little uneven in parts. The approach halfway through of the narrator choosing to write her own version of her parents' relationship felt a little clunky and unseasoned, as if Caldwell crowbarred it in as a method of the narrator being able to tell the full story that she otherwise wouldn't have had insight into. I also squirmed at the voices she gave to the Belfast characters - they were clearly from educated backgrounds, yet Caldwell bizarrely chose to litter their speech with manners of speaking that one would never hear from someone in a position such as a surgeon. I found that strange and disappointing that Caldwell is from NI herself yet seemed hell bent on creating some cringeworthy accent stereotypes.
Caldwell definitely can write - in this novel I just think she got a little too caught up in unnecessarily trying to tie up all the loose ends, and a different narration approach probably would have been more successful.
I think the title was really great - I just wish Caldwell hadn't gone to such pain to explain it to the reader at the end, which made the writing feel inexperienced.
3.5 stars - an enjoyable read but a little flawed.
37. Review - Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I picked this book up a couple of weeks ago as I wanted some light, enjoyable reading for my holiday, and Gail Honeyman delivered that very nicely.
When we first meet Eleanor she comes across as completely bizarre - an old-fashioned head on young shoulders who has little social interaction with the world. Her work colleagues find her freakish and make little attempt to keep their jibes from her ears, but Eleanor is only concerned with doing her job efficiently, completing the daily crossword at lunchtime and getting through the loneliness of the weekend before she can busy herself with work again.
Initially Eleanor appears to be autistic, but as the novel develops we discover that she has zero emotional interaction or support structure in terms of friends or family. She has been alone for so long she misinterprets this survivalist behaviour as self-imposed independence, but through an unexpected event Eleanor gradually has the opportunity to turn herself for the first time towards the warmth of human kindness.
Mass market? Definitely. Page-turning? Absolutely.
This is not highbrow literature, but if your head is in the place of wanting an absorbing feel-good read with some great characters it ticks all the boxes.
4.5 stars - it warms the cockles of your heart.
38. Review - The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Vegetarian is a dark, spare, unusual Korean novel about a previously unassuming wife who becomes an ardent vegan after a disturbing dream. As the violent and disturbing dreams continue, to the shame of her husband and her family the wife continues to ignore the expected social behaviour of a wife, becoming increasingly mentally unstable as she shuns basic human needs in favour of earthly needs.
Creating a ripple effect of family destruction, Han weaves an unsettling and unusual tale of dark depths and mental imbalance.
The Vegetarian reminded me of the translated novels from the Peirene Press stable - it had the same spare darkness that many of their novels have, and whilst I couldn't read this literary noir type of genre all the time, it is interesting to delve into them from time to time.
Worthy of being a Man Booker winner? From the Man Booker judge perspective of unique oddness probably, but from the average reader perspective probably not.
Not a novel I'd rush back to, but it did keep me hooked and I enjoyed it nonethless.
3.5 stars - clever, dark and unsettling, but hard to tag as 'enjoyable'.
39. Review - Born to Run: The hidden tribe, the ultra-runners and the greatest race the world has never seen by Christopher McDougall
Four days before my recent holiday in the French Alps I hurt my ankle. After too many years in the serious exercise wilderness, I'd had a resurgence of interest in running and had been diligently plugging away at the Couch to 5K training plan when injury struck out of the blue, most annoyingly after my easiest and fastest run to date and in my final 'graduation' week. As a result, I couldn't comfortably walk the length of myself for most of our holiday, and as I sat and stewed over the loss of our travel plans and the loss of my training plan I contemplated hanging up my trainers for good. I didn't want to - I was enjoying feeling my fitness improve - but this latest injury was hot on the heels of increasing running knee pain from overpronation and a torn miniscus last year.
Cue an excellent piece of book serendipity.
With plenty of time on my hands I'd finished all the books I'd brought with me before the week was up, and scouring a very small shelf of books written in English in a local bookshop a cover caught my eye. Christopher McDougall, a US men's magazine writer, was fed up repeatedly injuring himself on insignificant short runs, prompting a trail of discovery into what makes ultrarunners such as the infamous Tarahumara tick and why the rates of runner injury have been significantly climbing ever since the invention of clever cushioned running shoes.
Even if you last ran in 1972 when you were 12 years old, I think this is a fantastic read for anyone. Part science, part travelogue, part social history, part anthropology, part extreme sport, it's peppered with a cast of fabulous characters such as the shy and reclusive Tarahumara people who run hundreds of miles up mountains for fun in sandals made out of old tyres, Caballo Blanco, the mysterious loner who turned his back on a life in the US to become an ultrarunning nomad in the Copper Canyon wilderness, and Barefoot Ted, the annoying US ultrarunner with insatiable verbal diarrhoea who became a respected pioneer for barefoot running.
It's utterly fascinating, and extremely well written. McDougall manages to really nicely knit investigation into the science and history of our bodies and distance running with a gripping travelogue which culminates in the first ever underground ultra race between the Tarahumara and a handful of selected US ultrarunners in the deadly terrain of their Copper Canyon homeland. As I read I was able to Google this infamous cast of characters and images of the Copper Canyon which really nicely complemented the book.
And in case you were wondering, it's the marketing devilment of Nike and the like that is behind our increased running injuries. Build up the natural muscles in your feet and ankles that the modern day running shoe prevents you using and your injury woes will be behind you. (Apparently).
5 stars - the Asics are in the bin and the barefoot trails are beckoning.
PS - my husband, who has only read 2 books in the 16 years we've been married, picked up this book yesterday to look at the cover and is already 30 pages in. I rest my case.
PS - my husband, who has only read 2 books in the 16 years we've been married
And you're still with him?! I thought that spouses and significant others of LT members had to be at least casual readers. Tim will undoubtedly have something to say about this.
I haven't got to Milkman yet but I definitely will at some point. I've heard nothing but good reviews on CR. I'm curious as to how she's handled dialect, etc., although some people have commented that it's complex in dialogue structure more than getting into local slang.
>86 baswood: I'm not giving in yet, Mark! I doubt I'll get into bare-foot running as let's fact it we don't have the weather here to support it. Having said that, I am very tempted to try a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.
>87 AlisonY: Alison, I think your comment about structure is spot on. I’m sure you’d enjoy it.
>80 AlisonY: My running days are over, but I loved your review. I’m sorry about your injury. I always have a hard time finding the perfect shoes / trainers. I’m very fussy with my footwear.
My hubby reads loads of magazines, but only reads about five books a year. Every once in a while I’ll give him a book that I’m sure he’ll enjoy, just to push him to read more, (usually war related books). He watches far too much tv. I dread when he retires next year. ;-)
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Milkman.
My husband also watches too much TV - action films galore. I'd love to see a bit more book reading going on.
>89 lisapeet: I definitely couldn't imagine barefoot running in NYC! I still haven't quite got the running bug - it definitely still feels very hard, but this book made me wonder if I could get to the stage of really enjoying it if I learnt a better running technique. No aspirations to become a marathon runner, but would be happy enjoying maybe up to 6 miles.
I wouldn't worry too much about your husband not sharing your love of reading. My husband reads a lot but our tastes are miles apart and often I have to put up with him telling me about his current book. I thought my reading covered most topics, but none of his books interest me in the slightest, obviously mutual because it's been years since I've heard "What are you reading?"
40. Review - A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
I started this book with serious trepidation as it's my first Hemingway book and I feared I wouldn't like his writing at all given previous discussions on him, but I'm delighted to say I really enjoyed it.
Set in Italy during WWI, the narrator of A Farewell to Arms is an American lieutenant serving with the Italian army as part of the ambulance corp (echoing Hemingway's own experience). On good terms with the Italian officers he is stationed with, his love affair with a local English nurse deepens when he is badly wounded by a shell, but once his convalescence is complete and he returns to the front he discovers that the summer has been a difficult one for his compatriots, and his war turns a very different corner.
Given Hemingway's first-hand experience of what he was writing about, this book felt very powerful on many levels. Less about the experiences of being in the middle of the fighting on the front-line battlefield (although at one point it touches on it in a hugely impacting way), it is more about the myriad of war experiences of the men involved in the Italian front in the border mountains with Austria-Hungary, especially while they were waiting for the bigger offensives to take place. As the protagonist is wounded, we experience the juxtaposition of life in untouched Milan, where normality continues to a large extent, and the difficulty of then returning to a much changed war. The depictions of being part of a losing army that is being pushed back were deeply moving and engrossing, and Hemingway puts us front and centre in the middle of the confusions, heightened emotions and dangers that arose during the chaos of a major retreat.
At its core, this book is the story of a love affair being conducted in the thick of the war. The protagonist's lover is very much a woman of that time, focused on doing whatever keeps her man happy. If you can't stomach that outdated portrayal of a relationship then perhaps this is not the book for you. However, if you take it for what it is - a fictional account of a war relationship from a very different era - it's a terrific read. His sentence style is a little bizarre at times (on occasions he jumps around topics between commas requiring some rereading to get the flow of the sentence properly), but the occasional choppiness in style somehow fits the tensions of the time where one couldn't afford to think too deeply and long-term about anything.
Overall, I'm surprised and delighted by my first Hemingway. It was a fabulous page-turner, and I'll definitely be back for more.
4.5 stars - one of the most authentic wider war experience books I've read to date.
>102 rocketjk: Yeah, I do think whether one enjoys a book at that age, maybe particularly something so entrenched in the canon, comes down to how it's taught. I was definitely not the most attentive student in high school, and the private education my parents probably paid a lot for was honestly not very good--this was hippie boarding school in the late '70s, and both students and faculty were off the rails. On the other hand, I read voraciously and panoramically--and while I may have snoozed or daydreamed my way through classes, my friends and I avidly talked about what WE were reading. So I was very understimulated when it came to classroom reading and classics, but pretty hip on everything else. Which... hey, prepared me to be a good LT contributor, at the very least. I would really like to reread a lot of those books now, though, because I feel a little bit like I missed out.
>103 AlisonY: I read To the Lighthouse in a freshman college class. I remember not hating it, but having to push my way through it. I'd probably like it a lot better now!
>106 AlisonY: I can't quite imagine getting—much less relating to—the "angel of the house" concept at 17. I read it in my 40s and just loved it.
41. Review - Chi Running: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running by Danny Dreyer
The concept of Chi Running was mentioned in Born to Run, and I was hugely attracted by its claims to make running something that is injury-free and enjoyable. I've yet to try out the tips, as ironically I'm still getting over my July running injury, but it all makes sound sense. It's just about the opposite of everything I do when I'm running, so I'm interested to see how I get on with the new techniques if and when I get back to it.
A great book - well explained in terms of not just how but why - but obviously a bit of a niche subject area.
4 stars - I live in hope that my running maybe become enjoyable at some point
>112 OscarWilde87: It wasn't really intentional (to read up on running), but I got so inspired by Born to Run and so hopeful that I might be able to have injury-free running that it one book led to the other. Today was my first run since my ankle injury, and although I'm nervous to say it in case I wake up in agony in the morning it was a great run. I tried to apply as many of the chi running tips as I could, and it made a huge difference - it didn't take anywhere near the effort it usually does, so I came back ecstatic. My ankle has been a bit sore this weekend, so I hope I don't slide back again with injury - time will tell.
The main pointers I took from the book that you might find useful are:
1. Your main effort should be coming from your core, not your legs. Make sure you have a straight column (without your stomach sticking out which many of us do). Try to imagine as you run that there is a big bungee cord attached to your middle and it's pulling you towards a point in the distance (I tried that a few times and it was quite useful). Your arms and legs (and also shoulders) should remain very relaxed.
2. Lean a little forward from your ankles (not too much, although if you're already a good runner you maybe can). Your speed should come from your lean - the more you lean, the faster you will go, but your stride should never be in front of your body (that was a major mistake I was making - it burns up far too much energy and also you heel strike hard when you land). As you get faster, your stride should extend behind you, not in front. When you lean, you automatically land more on the centre of your foot instead of the heel too.
3. Lift your feet after they land. This was the biggest game-changer for me. Keep strides short and a high cadence, and rather than pushing off from your foot that's on the ground concentrate on lifting it instead. His example was to imagine you are cycling small circles with your feet.
4. Pump your arms backwards, not forwards.
5. Head should not be too far back. Put your thumb and middle finger on your collar bone and stick your index finger up straight - your head should rest on this and no further back.
If you're into running it's worth buying the book as there was a lot more than that in it (such as training plans, stretches, etc.), but that's a good starting point.
I do hope that you will wake up as ecstatic as before and without sliding back into your ankle injury. Don't put too much strain on your ankle before it's completely healed, though.
42. Review - Mud and Stars: Travels In Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age by Sara Wheeler
Sara Wheeler is a travel writer, and in this book she travels across Russia visiting the homelands of the great Russian writers. Along the way we discover something of the writers themselves, gather insights into their literary work and learn what it is like to be a Russian today in different parts of the country thousands of kilometres apart.
I have conflicted opinions on this book. On the positive, I learnt some more about a number of Russian writers, and I was particularly interested in reading about some writers I'd not heard of before. Her account of Ivan Goncharov's Oblamov piqued my interest, and Gogol was a new name to me. Surprisingly, one of the best parts of the book for me was when she looks at the English translator Constance Garrett, and gives some excellent examples of the differences between work by her and other early translators and those of modern successors. I will certainly be noting this when I next pick up a Russian classic - see this example between an early translation by the Maudes and a more modern translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky:
(From Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich')
Maudes - At the entrance stood a carriage and two cabs. Leaning against the wall in the hall downstairs near the cloakstand was a coffin-lid covered with cloth of gold, ornamented with gold cord and tassels, that had been polished up with metal powder. Two ladies in black were taking off their fur cloaks.
Pevear and Volokhonsky - At the entrance stood a carriage and two cabs. Downstairs, in the front hall by the coatrack, leaning against the wall, was a silk-brocaded coffin-lid with tassels and freshly polished gold braid. Two ladies in black were taking off their fur coats.
I know which version I prefer.
There were, however, aspects of Wheeler's writing that jarred with me too. She's clearly extremely well read around the Russian authors, and often assumed that her readers were too. A particularly irksome habit was flitting between talking about the authors to talking about various guides on her travels or people helping her learn the language in London, and then when she'd jump back to talking about the author again she'd refer to him by his first name, or jump into talking about his friend, by which stage my head was spinning with Russian names and I couldn't remember who was who.
Wheeler has a dry humour which sometimes was amusing but at other times felt a little bit 'gobby teenager'. I would probably summarise her view of Russia as a bit of a sh*t hole; whether that's true or not I'm not in a position to say as I've never travelled there, but often despite the country's vastness there was seemingly little to see or comment on beyond depressing ex-communist flats and cross looking people. Perhaps that is the reality of the place, but after a while from a travelogue perspective it became a little tedious at times.
Would I read this again? No. Was I glad I read it? Probably yes, for the nuggets of very interesting information, but the writing wasn't tight enough and meandered too much when she hadn't enough material on a certain place and/or author. I also would have got more out of it if I had already read a number of the texts she refers to, but I feel like it shouldn't have been necessary to come to this type of book with existing background knowledge.
3 stars - a bit less smart commentary and more attention on content would have improved what was an interesting premise.
43. Review - The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien
A mysterious Balkan figure strides from the darkness into a quiet Irish pub one night. Charming and magnetic, he soon has the spellbound villagers eating out of his hand, but all is not as it seems and soon his past will become irreversibly blotted on the past of one inhabitant in particular.
I'm a little torn by this novel. I raced through the first half of it gripped by the mystery and inevitable sense of foreboding, but the second half lost some its mystique as O'Brien focused on the aftermath of redemption and retribution. The tension fizzled out for me from that point onwards, and the social and political messages of that second part seemed somewhat gritty and inconsistent with the spellbinding magic of the first half.
3.5 stars - a book of two halves that in truth are two different types of novel. It was too light a touch to do justice to the true human impact of the horrors of the Bosnian war, and that second half seemed incongruous with the sleepy Irish backwater of the first half.
Is it ever?
Ha! I crack myself up. Sorry the book couldn't maintain its interest level for you. If you're looking for suggestions regarding novels to do with the Bosnian War (or even if you aren't :) ), I highly recommend The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon.
Actually one thing this novel did do was make me think some more about that war and how little I really know about it, so I'd made a mental note to start looking around for some books on the topic. You read my mind - thanks for the recommendation.
Also, I don't know where I get the chutzpah to tease about things not being what they seem. I've certainly used a cliche or two in my time!
By the way, in honor of "Free Association Tuesday" (which I just made up), I'm for some reason reminded of one of my menu pet peeves: " . . . to perfection." As in, "Two pork chops, grilled to perfection." Can't they just say, "Two grilled pork chops?" I'll give the cooks the benefit of the doubt that they're trying their best. It's not like there's a sliding scale of description, here. Oh, grilled to perfection. As opposed to what, "Grilled to pretty good?" "Grilled to the consistency of old shoe leather?" Sorry. Evidently it's also "Menu Grump Tuesday." What were we talking about, again?
>119 RidgewayGirl: Yes. My wife and I both loved it. Whenever I got a copy in my used bookstore, I always recommended it and sold it quickly. Never heard a discouraging word about it. My wife brought it to her reading group, as well.
>120 rocketjk: Your "Free Association Tuesday" is hilarious. Thanks for that, I needed a laugh.
The types of restaurants that typically use the phrase "grilled to perfection" tend to be the ones with the sticky menus that I can't cope with.
>121 VivienneR: yep, I wish she'd stuck to the bits that worked. It felt like she was trying to shoehorn some subjects in when she really didn't need to.
44. Review - A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Patrick Leigh Fermor was quite the character. Living to the ripe old age of 96 despite a penchant for up to 100 cigarettes a day, he was a wonderful mix of scholar and travel writer, as well as being a decorated solider in WWII. At the age of eighteen, after many years of being troublesome and difficult to tame at school in London, Fermor decided that the army wasn't (yet) for him, and on a relative whim set out in the depths of winter 1933 to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. This book chronicles his journey through a pre-WWII Europe as far as Hungary.
Reading this book truly transports you to a bygone era, where a traveller's welcome and hospitality awaits in every town and village, rural peasants still wear the traditional dress of their culture, and beautiful medieval German towns have yet to be destroyed by the war which is only a few years away. As Fermor wrote this book some 40 years after his journey, what ensues is a mix of travelogue embellished with detail from subsequent cultural and historical learnings, peppered with interesting insights which the passing of time and hindsight enabled him to draw different conclusions on than may have been apparent during his travels (for instance, the spread of Nazism in many German towns).
Despite a shaky start to his education, Fermor clearly was a natural scholar and intellectual, and at times his knowledge on the complexities of the changes of European power through the centuries in relation to various castles and cathedrals was dizzyingly dense and detailed. In an ideal world, this is a book that should be read slowly in complement with a study of European history, as in places it was challenging to keep up with the pace of Fermor's expansive knowledge.
The first half of his journey was my favourite, as Fermor travelled through the Netherlands and followed the Danube through Germany. We feel more of his journey experience at the time rather than the historical detail that makes up some later parts of the book, but I suspect that's a point of personal interest as I enjoy social history, whilst others may enjoy more of the political and historical architecture sections. Although I suspect he liked to downplay his background, Fermor was clearly from a privileged family, and despite travelling on a shoestring budget his stays in hay lofts and hostels were interspersed with stays in magnificent homes and castles of European gentry.
This is a beautiful book written in a dense, literary style which requires close reading (and sometimes rereading) of passages to fully absorb it. It truly is an insight to an era that we will never see again; a romantic perspective no doubt, but one that leaves you longing to experience that magical Europe of old when a traveller was something of a rarity (how difficult to imagine that nowadays where the places Fermor visits would today be crushed by heaving swarms of tourists).
4 stars - a wonderful book which transports you to everyday life across Europe at a time when the horrors of war are just around the corner.
****I just checked, and apparently I already have a copy on my kindle. Now I’m trying to figure out who recommended it.
>126 thorold: I'll have to catch up with the rest of the journey to Constantinople at some stage. I think he lived part of the year in Greece in his later life, didn't he? I'm sure that one's particularly enlightening.
>127 lisapeet: that would be a tricky biography to write given how well he chronicled a lot of his own life.
>128 NanaCC: I think a few CRers have spoken about this book, Colleen, but it might have been RebeccaNYC who the main recommendation came from.
Artemis Cooper, who wrote the biography, also tidied up the posthumous papers and brought out The broken road. There are a couple of other posthumous books I haven’t read yet, I must have a look for them.
45. Review - The American Boy by Andrew Taylor
Set in Regency London and the Home Counties, The American Boy does an admirable job of recreating an authentic period novel. Tom Shields, the protagonist, suffers a breakdown and gets into trouble after being injured at Waterloo and suffering the heartache of being romantically jilted. Helped by his aunt to get a position after his fall from grace, he takes an opening as a master at a boys' boarding school and his life begins to return to an even keel. But when a new boy Frant joins the school, Shields becomes embroiled in the treacherous world of his rich banking family as the dark underworld of their wealth emerges.
This is a novel I've gone past on my TBR shelf for many years now, and I'm really glad I settled myself to read it at last. The American boy of the title refers to a young Edgar Allen Poe, friend of the schoolboy Frant. Although he appears very little in the novel, it is circumstances directly connected to him which contrive to bring about the dark events of the rest of the novel. Taylor was inspired by the real life mystery leading up to Edgar Allen Poe's death, when he was found delirious in the street wearing clothes that were not his own and shouting for an unknown 'Reynolds' on his deathbed. As Poe, unusual for that period, had spent much of his childhood in London before returning to America, Taylor sought to create a historical novel based around a fictional mystery from the early years of his life.
Poe is weaved into the fabric of 'The American Boy' by a fairly tenuous link, but needed or not Taylor has doubtlessly created a very enjoyable historical crime / fiction novel. Some references at the back of the book cite it as a modern day Wilkie Collins, and although that sets the bar very high I think it's fair praise on many levels. Taylor clearly researched the period setting meticulously, such that it feels entirely authentic to the early 1800s, and throughout he builds a great tale of tension and suspense. My one criticism is that it feels 100+ pages too long; despite really enjoying it my enthusiasm waned a little in the middle as the plot felt like it treaded water. By the end it became apparent why Taylor had wanted to build in a number of plot elements which seemed incidental in this section, but still - a shortening of these would have helped keep the tension tighter.
Overall, an enjoyable read, and certainly one to look out for if you enjoy historical fiction.
4 stars - high quality period drama.
I picked that one up for free years ago (I was attracted to the shiny cover to be honest) but the title just bores me to tears. I didn't know it was EAP -- and I love him. So I'll bump it up the list. Thanks for the review.
>137 Nickelini: Joyce, there was something about it that also kept me continually going past it on my TBR shelf. I only started it this time because I let my 9 year old daughter to go through my unread titles and choose my next book, but I'm really glad she plumped for it.
EAP is, as I mentioned in my review, a bit of a tenuous link as really it's the book has very little to do with him, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. Not perfect, but good enough.
46. Review - How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
On to an old Booker prizewinner now, way back from 1994. This is possibly one of my favourite titles for a book for a long time. You just know it's going to be a great read.
How Late It Was, How Late is written in thick working-class Glaswegian vernacular, narrated by the protagonist Sammy in a stream of consciousness style. One page in and I thought I was going to hate it. The combination of keeping up with Sammy's inner dialogue and staying tuned in to the slang required close reading to begin with, but after a while you get used to it, with the local patter developing him into the most fantastically vivid character.
The book opens with Sammy waking up in someone else's too-small trainers after a two day bender. He doesn't know where he is, he doesn't know where his good shoes have gone to, and he's completely lost a day. Things get steadily worse, setting off a bizarre chain of events that we walk through with him for the rest of the novel.
To the outside world Sammy is a no-good drinker and troublemaker who's been in and out of prison a couple of times and isn't to be trusted. As readers, though, despite his nonsense we quickly fall for him as a brilliant anti-hero, a loveable rogue with a good heart who wants to change his lot but who just can't help himself. This time he's really landed in it, but Sammy being Sammy he just batters on, trying to find his way to the end of the rainbow.
Full of black comedy, this is a funny, brilliant and authentic novel. Given the vernacular, the prose is heavy on the swearing from start to finish so it may not be to everyone's taste. Without it, though, Sammy simply would not ring true as a character, and I had to laugh on many an occasion at his swearing creativity.
5 stars - naw, but I'm no jokin ye man, ye couldnay read this to the end and no end up lovin it. Nay point being fucking daft, now - ye get me?
I enjoyed this Guardian article from 2011 which puts two fingers up to all those 'aghast' comments from the time of its Booker win:
>146 lisapeet: I think you'd enjoy it, Lisa. I haven't read anything else by Kelman, but now I'm a bit nervous that his other books will fall below par as this one was so enjoyable.
Looking forward to a good mix of speakers, from debut writers to a comedian trying his hand at slightly barmy travel writing to a seasoned pro who divides the critics. For better or worse, I'll probably come home with copies of most of the books relating to the events we're going to:
Colleen - possibly on the 'feckin', although Sammy in the novel definitely likes to keep it traditional :) Feckin' is certainly what would be used in Ireland a lot.
>154 dchaikin: thanks for dropping by, Dan. Interesting your strong feelings on the PLF book - it's not like you to quit a book, so he must have really crossed a line for you. Do you mean that you felt he was too apathetic about the rise of Nazism? If so, I read that differently. Partly I thought that he was trying to avoid his travelogue becoming too politically overshadowed - it seemed to me that he wanted to focus more on the geography and history of places he was travelling to - and also, although he was writing the book many decades post his travels, I felt that he was still trying to portray the situation as much as possible through the cheerfulness of 18 year old eyes.
He did comment on the ugliness of the fanaticism he encountered in a few people he met, but also it seemed that he wanted to demonstrate honestly that many German people on his travels were just ordinary, decent folk, even if they were to end up fighting against him some years later in WWII. This echoes a lot the sentiment in Christabel Bielenberg's book The Past Is Myself, where she sheds light on a silent split between those who were truly behind Hitler, and those who didn't agree with Nazism at all and who therefore tried to present the party line in public for their own safety but felt very differently behind closed doors. As an affable young 18 year old, maybe it's even simpler than that - perhaps the reality is that most of his conversations were lighthearted and typical of those between genial strangers, especially given that many of the places he visited were often small towns and villages.
Anyway, my reply on that was longer than intended! I'm not trying to persuade you to give it another go, but I'm curious as to whether you read it differently and felt that he deliberately avoided facing the reality of what was occurring in Germany as he travelled through it? Of course that could very well be true, but then I feel it would have ended up a different kind of book and less a coming of age travelogue.
Eta a correction to the REM song title
There's a new Edna O'Brien coming out here next week.
Yes, I saw a review in last week's Saturday Times about the new O'Brien book. Given that this one's set in Nigeria, I'm nervous that I won't like it for the same reasons I didn't like her foray into the Bosnian war in The Little Red Chairs. I thought she wrote well in the Irish setting, but there was something that didn't work for me with her writing when applied to a foreign issue. Perhaps it seemed inauthentic. Hopefully she gets that right with Girl. It seems to be getting good reviews, and she apparently did a lot of on the ground research, which is delightfully gutsy for an 88 year old woman.
It’s a long time since I read it, but my impression was that he was struggling to give us an honest idea of what was going on inside his head as it was then and not write the book with the hindsight of an adult who had lived through the war (and fought in it). Which is impossible, of course. There’s a bit where he looks back on his education and tries to explain how badly equipped he was to think seriously about any kind of political extremism - “I might have been sleepwalking”
>142 AlisonY: I hadn't come across this book before, but you've made me very curious now. I think I'll have to check it out.
>148 AlisonY: I just got Ayoade on Top on audio, since I find the idea of a book written and also narrated by him irresistible. Enjoy the festival!
Will be interested to hear what you think of the Ayoade book. No doubt it's one I'll be coming home with. I think he'll be one of the highlights of the festival in terms of entertainment value.
47. Review - The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
The Sportswriter takes place over a pivotal weekend in sportswriter Frank Bascombe's life. Opening with Frank commemorating the anniversary of his son's death with his ex-wife, Ford wants us to see how this filial death has messed up Frank's relationships and life choices, and how he moves through the adversity that this weekend brings and out the other side to greener grass.
Those who love this book possibly laud it for Frank's pervading optimism in the midst of life's tough times, but I found it an exercise in dull introspective tediousness.
As a character I couldn't warm to Frank. He moved his attention between women so fast it made my head spin, and although I'm sure Ford wanted the reader to feel 'poor Frank - he's lost and without purpose and looking for happiness wherever he can find it', instead I just thought 'Frank - you're a shallow, womanising, self-serving dick'. And this from the girl who loves Updike's writing... Updike's Harry Angstrom in the Rabbit series was written in such a heartwarming way that you couldn't help but love him despite his constant screwing up, whereas Frank Bascombe just felt like a cold fish who was happiest with relationships that don't require too much effort or involvement. Whilst Ford might have told us that this was really because he was grieving, it didn't feel as if it rang true with his character; I doubted Frank had depths enough to feel anything.
Ford's writing in this book felt very old school male, which is something I don't usually give to much thought to when I'm reading. There was a 'what they won't know won't hurt 'em' boys' club undercurrent to his narrative more in keeping with writing a few decades earlier than this was written. If there's heart to the characters like in Richard Yates' books or Updike's it amuses me and I take it with a pinch of salt as a snapshot of that time and generation, but Ford somehow rubbed me up the wrong way with Frank. He felt cocky and insincere.
In Ford's world in The Sportswriter everyone was divorced and miserable. I'm quite sure there are many places in the States where happy marriages and happy people abound, but not in Ford's America - everyone's marriages and relationships were shitty and broken, and everyone was damaged and trying to find their little moment of happiness. The characters on their own were bleak central, but one hoped for at least some redemption in the form of an interesting plot around them. Instead, time was centrally devoted to Frank's self-analysis and inner journey, and at the end we were supposed to feel elated by what a great guy Frank was to come out the other side. I was just elated to reach the end.
I will cut Richard Ford some slack and say that you can tell he's a talented writer, but this novel mostly left me cold. There were some interesting interludes, but he dived far too much into dull musings that went on for far too long. If you've ever tried to read Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot, it had that similar annoyingness of a writer who gets carried away with how important he thinks his own ramblings are.
3 stars - hints of brilliance, yet too caught up in its own importance.
48. Review - Wild: A Journey From Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed
In 1995 Cheryl Strayed's life was a mess. Still locked in grief from her mother's untimely death, she had divorced the man she loved, was messing around with heroin, sleeping around and moving from one waitressing job to another. Her family unit had collapsed without their mother as the pivot, and without a centre to ground herself around Strayed was spinning into self-destruction. By chance one day she picked up and leafed through a book on the Pacific Crest Trail in a store, and the rest, as they say, is history.
This is a gutsy, page-turning memoir that plucks at the heartstrings. Starting out on the trail, Strayed was a total greenhorn, unfit, hapless and inexperienced for what lay ahead of her, and it is this that makes this book work and resonate with so many readers around the world. She wasn't equipped (well actually she was over-equipped in some respects and carrying too heavy a load), she wasn't prepared (emotionally or physically), yet she never quit, keeping one foot going after the other no matter how hard the going got. It's a story of grit and determination, and of a woman who had to become lost from the real world to emotionally find herself again.
5 stars - A sad, joyful and ultimately triumphant read. You'll be dusting down the hiking boots before you're done.
49. Review - The Nordic Guide To Living 10 Years Longer by Dr Berti Marklund
This short book appealed as we all know by now that Scandi folk have basically sussed out the meaning of life. They look good, we're all trying to decorate our homes like theirs, and despite having some of the shortest days on the planet in winter they're all super chilled and contented with their lot.
The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer: 10 Easy Tips to Live a Healthier, Happier Life is written by a Nordic doctor, and... well, that's the tenuous link to the title and the start and end of the Nordic aspect of this book. Now where did I put that phone number for Advertising Standards....
Apparently, to live longer according to good Dr. Marklund, all we have to do is exercise, eat well and be less stressed. Who knew? Wow, that
2.5 stars - not Nordic in the slightest, but I will give him some kudos for some interesting thoughts on inflammation in the body, and the gut / food section was especially interesting.
50. Review - Hinch Yourself Happy: All The Best Cleaning Tips To Shine Your Sink And Soothe Your Soul by Mrs Hinch
Annoyingly, I left my current read in work the other day, so I somewhat reluctantly picked this up as a quick filler. My sister bought it for me a while back - perhaps she was trying to give me a hint, but nonetheless I have to say it wasn't at the top of my TBR pile.
Mrs Hinch, for those who've never heard of her, is a twenty-something year old average UK girl from an average house who is crazy about cleaning and has somehow built up a huge social media cult following (2.8 million and rising) from posting about cleaning with average products on Instagram. (If you're drifting off my page at this point I bear you no ill will). I don't follow her, and I have no interest in her, but nonetheless I started the book so I felt obliged to finish it. It was a quick read, with no long words, large print and lots of 'here's space for you to write your own notes on your favourite way to clean the bathroom' type filler pages. Oh, and a chapter on who her 'besties' are. Because we're all interested in that - right?
This book was hilarious in many places for reasons not intended. Mrs Hinch is your stereotypical Essex girl, complete with false eyelashes and Rapunzel-esque extensions, and having lived in Essex for many years the narrative (if you can call it that) was straight from the mouth Essex banter. You have to feel sorry for her - she's only young, yet I expect she's little time for fun by the time she gets through her endless hours of cleaning. Her daily list of cleaning chores is what I'd call a major result if I managed to do it once a week, and God love her - she'll be dead before she gets to 40 from all the toxins she constantly sprays and scrubs around her home. Nothing misses getting constantly, obsessively doused with Zoflora and Febreze. She's a one woman environmental disaster - Greta Thunberg must stick pins in her effigy every night.
The cult of social media really is something I can't get my head around. The price of a cleaning cloth Mrs Hinch lauded on Instagram rose from £3 to £50 at one point. A cleaning cloth, FFS!!!!
Anyway, doubtlessly I'm not the intended audience for this book, and I'm sure there are 2.8 million people who will devour it and hang on her every word.
2 stars - I'd rather do the 3 second rule on dropped food off my slightly grubby floors than off Mrs Hinch's toxic paradise any day.
A: Do you think the five second rule applies to soup?
A: Would you like some soup?
OMG that's hilarious. I'm stealing it.
Hmmm. Well, that was entertaining for sure. I'm amazed at some of these--what I think of as obscure--- YouTubers who actually have these huge followings. I have 19 and 22 year old daughters, so we share things around. Haven't come across this one yet. She's not from the cast of The Only Way is Essex, is she? My niece is really into that show. I was thinking I didn't really know what being from Essex meant, but then I remembered I watched the really great series "Educating Essex."
"what is pi? where did it come from?" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxK3_hihHis
>178 VivienneR: thanks Vivienne - it was fun for all the wrong reasons.
>179 Nickelini: no, she's not from TOWIE, but she's getting close to their level of fame, at least from a social media perspective.
We did laugh when "Educating Essex" came out, as guess what - that's my husband's old school! Hilarious. Somehow he did all right out of it, even though it was at one time the worst school in the county, and up there in the list of worst schools in England. We lived in Essex for a number of years after we got married so I do have a soft spot for it despite my teasing. Thankfully, most people are not like the TOWIE cast of horrors.
Wow! What a claim to fame. I must tell my daughter. LOL.
Just back from a fantastic couple of days at the Cheltenham Literarature Festival with my friend who lurks on CR from time to time.
The surprising highlight was Howard Jacobson - I expected him to be a bit of an arrogant so and so, but he was a complete delight. Very, very funny, with a real twinkle in his eye. I may even read The Finkler Question at long last.
We also enjoyed a great panel discussion with three new authors chosen by the Festival as the ones to watch from this year's new releases. Ronan Hession has debuted with Leonard and Hungry Paul, which seems to be a quietly funny book about the relationship between two friends. Season Butler (what a name) has kicked off with Cygnet, about a teenager who ends up on an island for the elderly. I have that one and hope to read it later in the year - it sounds quite spiky and original. Finally, Saltwater by Jessica Andrews turned out to be the one I think I should have bought, as the prose from the reading she did sounded delightful. This is a coming of age novel about a girl from North East England who is struggling to settle at university down South.
Comedian Richard Ayoade was amusing, but sadly he didn't stick around for any signings. What a shame, as I'd pre-purchased the book, and am unlikely to ever read it (it's a comedic analysis of a Gwyneth Paltrow film).
Saturday kicked off with a lively and funny panel with two authors who have used cooking and running respectively to deal with serious depression and anxiety. Bella Mackie (author of Jog On: How I Got My Life Back on Track) was quick witted and unashamedly honest about how she hit an all time low when her husband left her after 8 months. She's now married to the Radio 1 DJ Greg James, and I sincerely hope it's a case of 'who's crying now?' where her first husband's concerned. Her book is my next up for this month.
Ella Risbridger is a young blogger who has suffered from anxiety all her life and became suicidal after her partner's death. She has written Midnight Chicken, which is part cookbook, part memoir about coming back from the lowest of places through cooking. Also a great panelist, but I have too many cookbooks on my shelf.
The afternoon brought a panel of crime writers. Not my genre, but a really enjoyable panel - Oyinkan Braithwaite (who has won several high profile awards this year for her debut novel My Sister The Serial Killer), Denise Mina and Erin Kelly. I might even surprise myself and read one of their novels at some stage.
The final bit of fun was taking part in a TV programme on the Festival for Sky Art. 'Taking part' is perhaps pushing it a bit - we stood in a small audience and watched David Nicholls and Jessie Burton talk for 6 minutes about their favourite novellas (they both picked novellas by Penelope Fitzgerald which sounded fantastic).
A fantastic couple of days of complete book immersion. When I retire I'm doing the full two weeks :)
51. Review - A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Well done to my daughter for picking this one out for me from my TBR - what a belter.
I'm possibly the last person to read this on CR, but in case there are still one or two people who haven't the basic plot (a modern retelling of King Lear) is about a successful US farmer who divides his farm between two of his three daughters with catastrophic results.
This was a tremendous read with incredible characters and a vivid sense of place. Coming from a country background I've seen first-hand how the question of farm inheritance (who? when? how?) can be so difficult to navigate smoothly, between sibling jealousies and parental inabilities to let go of the reins. It's a fantastic plot base for a novel, and Smiley handles so deftly the repeated misunderstandings and horrific family skeletons in the closet that gradually seep under the doors of the families involved like filthy rising water, soaking into every aspect of their daily lives until everything is rotten.
Much too great a book for me to ever have a hope of doing it justice in a review, so I'll leave it there.
4.5 stars - gripping and much deserved of it's Pulitzer award.
>186 NanaCC: Denise Mina was fantastic, Colleen. She's a woman I suspect doesn't spend a whole lot of time worrying what people think about her. Bold and intelligent with a strong sense of fun. It did cross my mind when I was there that you and Vivienne would have loved that particular event.
I forgot to add in my Festival post that we also sat in for a freebie session from a bibliotherapist. I never knew this was a thing - where was that in my school career advice session 30 years ago!!! To be fair it did seem fairly fluffy and is probably aimed at wealthy Home Counties people with too much money and spare time on their hands, but I love the idea of it. You bring your problem (mental or physical) to this lady and she 'prescribes' reading therapy that will get you through. Sigh - I'm so in the wrong profession.
52. Review - Jog On: How Running Saved My Life by Bella Mackie
Sorry to do yet another running related book. (Well, not that sorry really - this is my thread, after all.)
This was one of my purchases relating to the Festival, and I wanted to read it as I've reached a bit of a running plateau (i.e. I'm not running any faster or further and I still want to stop most of the way through). In other words, I was looking for an injection of inspiration.
This wasn't really it. In 360 pages Bella Mackie finds lots of different ways to say 'go out and exercise - it does your mind good'. A lot of this book was devoted to what it's like dealing with anxiety or depression (but more so the former), which I guess is to be expected from the title, but it's not something I greatly suffer from so it was only mildly interesting. There are a lot of books and magazine articles out there these days on the themes of anxiety and depression, so nothing felt particularly new in her information. I do agree that regular exercise makes you feel generally chirpier, but I didn't need to read this book to find that out.
Mackie refers to a few interesting running books - perhaps they will offer more of what I was looking for.
3 stars - well written, but perhaps something more of interest if you are specifically struggling to deal with anxiety.
I've been going over your post gleaning some titles and authors for my wishlist.
53. Review - River Thieves by Michael Crummey
This was my first foray into Michael Crummey's writing, who has come highly recommended on CR over the years.
River Thieves' plot is based around the divisions and conflicts between the British white settlers and the native Beothuk aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland, or "red Indians" as the Settlers referred to them as. The Governor of Newfoundland enlists a morally conscientious young Naval officer to head up a winter expedition to demonstrate peace and fellowship with the Beothuk, and he in turn enlists the help of a number of reluctant local white settlers to act as guides up the frozen lake. The settlers, having historically experienced bloodshed and thievery with the Beothuk, share little of the officer's appetite for reconciliation, and as the years pass the officer becomes increasingly entwined in their lives as he takes on the mantle of justice for the native settlers.
As with any good novel, the real magic lies in the sub-plots revolving around the main characters, and the development of these secrets into interconnecting threads. Crummey develops strong characters and evocative landscapes, and if you enjoy novels set in the days of the early North American settlers this will surely be a winner. There was a familiarity to this novel, and I think many other novelists have also successfully written this type of book, but it was enjoyable nonetheless (although perhaps slightly longer than it needed to be). I just wish he had left out the two or three pages of sex he weaved in, which definitely would be contenders for the Bad Sex in Literature Award. It seemed out of keeping with the rest of the novel and felt uncomfortably cringey - like reading an account of your parents' sex life (sorry to create any unwanted mental images there, folks).
3.5 stars - excellently written and a fabulous plot, but for some reason I laboured over this at times. I think this was more a reflection of my reading mood rather than the novel, so don't let my score put you off.
54. Review - Cygnet: A Novel by Season Butler
Swan Island is a small fictional retirement island off the coast of New Hampshire. 'The Wrinklies' (as the teenage protagonist refers to them) fiercely guard the sanctity of their dream island home; those from the Bad Land (i.e. anywhere outside of the island) are only allowed onto the island one Friday in every month, when visits by relatives are tolerated and a resupply of recreational drugs is welcomed.
The narrator is a 17 year old teenager who finds herself unwillingly coming-of-age in this alien environment, where her presence is accepted with strict limitations by the friendlier residents and abjectly abhorred by others. Left there 'for a few weeks' by her ill-equipped parents, the novel opens with the narrator now living alone in her late grandmother's house which is perilously close to falling off the edge of the eroding cliff face.
This is a clever and unusual novel which plays with a reversal of the societal norms where it is usually the older generation who are left lonely and isolated. Tolerated but not fully accepted as part of the fabric of the island, this is a novel of loneliness and marginalisation, where the raw and remote natural beauty of the island idyll amplifies the narrator's feelings of desolation. Like any teenager she's conflicted between outwardly kicking back whilst inwardly desperately wanting to feel wanted and secure, and is terrified of leaving the island in case her parents are just about to come for her.
Cygnet was one of the three debut books of the year picked out by the Sunday Times at this year's Cheltenham Festival. It's not a perfect novel - the author's greenness showed through in places (particularly towards the start of the novel) with occasional overworked prose, and I couldn't necessarily connect the narrator's voice with naturally being that of teenager. However, overall this novel engaged me much more than I'd expected it to. Its plot was fresh and highly original, and as a result it kept me hooked as I had no idea where she was taking me as a reader.
To me, Season Butler is just cutting her teeth as an author, with bigger and better still to come. Although a new black voice in published fiction, she's no stranger to writing, having already carved out a career as a dramaturgist, creative writing teacher and academic. Her experience from academia was apparent - in this novel you could tell she didn't just want to tell a story but was also interested in exploring certain 'what if' scenarios and schools of thought. Her blurb states that she's interested in intersectional feminism and difference bias, and although Cygnet wasn't overtly covering those themes, her 'day job' of exploring ideas and concepts certainly added an unexpected depth to her writing.
4 stars - imperfect yet enthralling nonetheless.
Yes, or to put it another way, at least for me, my ratings are a reflection of the context of a particular book. So I would rate an author's first novel, say, within the context of other first novels I've read. Or if I gave 4 stars to a mystery, that would mean it was a 4-star mystery, not necessarily to be compared to the 4 1/2 stars I might give a contemporary literary novel or a very gripping and well-researched history.
55. Review - Postcards From a Stranger by Imogen Clark
I've got some Autumnal snuffles on the go, so this book from my TBR fitted the bill for a light, easy read that didn't require too much thinking.
The protagonist is caring for her father who has Alzheimer's when she discovers some postcards in the attic which throw into question her mother's death when she was a toddler and the truth of her family back story.
Although not the most eloquently written book I've ever read (too much switching between timeframes, narrator viewpoints and first and third person, as well as a lot of 'tell' rather than 'show'), this surprised me by turning into bit of a page-turner once it got going. This is not high-brow fiction, but it ticked the box for guilty pleasure comfort reading.
3 stars - fairly predictable and lacking writing finesse, but an enjoyable read on these dark evenings nonetheless.
56. Review - The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Test by Jon Ronson
I have to admit to having a partially serious reason for reading this one, having had my life made a misery for too long by someone who I'm fairly sure is a psychopath. I'd not heard of this title before, but when I started talking about it to a couple of not-particularly-bookish friends they both said 'yeah, I read that a number of years ago', so I'm guessing I must be last to the party on this one.
There were a lot of things to like with this book. It reminded me of Christopher McDougall's Born to Run book in the way that Ronson made himself (as journalist) part of the story, and I think that works very well where the writer has a generous dollop of dark humour and self-deprecation. It added another dimension to the book, allowing us as readers to be a fly-on-the-wall of his interviews and research. Ronson often questioned himself on the correctness of his assumptions, and I liked the honesty of that. As a character, he very much plays on his Louis Theroux type of persona - the amiable, slightly dorky guy who lulls his interviewees into a false sense of superiority which greatly loosens their tongue to the joy of his dictaphone.
On the subject matter of psychopathy, he raises a number of topical questions, looking at both sides of the argument on the psychiatric method of diagnosing psychopathy, and speaking with a number of alleged psychopaths, from violent men in prison to a hard-nosed top CEO. Wider than this, he highlights the disputes that have arisen over the last publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), which has been heavily criticised by many as it has expanded to the point where most of us could easily end up being (mis)diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder, so wide is the landscape of potential symptoms and character traits. Is this a pinnacle for psychiatric diagnosis, or are the pharmaceutical companies cleaning up to the detriment of many people unnecessarily being prescribed horribly strong drugs and indelibly labelled with a mental illness? And on the question of the psychopath test in particular, is this yet another fallible mechanism for misdiagnosing people? Is that ruthless Fortune 100 CEO really a psychopath because he possesses no empathy, or is he more simply just a greedy, ruthless money-maker who's out for himself?
All interesting points to think about, but this is light-touch journalism which investigates a serious subject with its tongue firmly stuck in its cheek. The blurb on the jacket has a quote from Will Self saying that he found himself 'laughing like the proverbial loon for page after page'. Whilst Ronson definitely doesn't take himself too seriously, this certainly wasn't a book of belly laughs for me. Psychopaths are dangerous people who destroy people's lives, so it was much too close to the bone for me to find the humour in the psychopathic cases he looked at. Which then made me think about what is the true point or value of this kind of book? Was it written first and foremost for comedic value, or was Ronson trying to cover both bases of funny man and proper investigative journalism? If it was the latter (which I suspect it was), I think with that approach you need to choose your topic wisely. Ronson liberally uses the word 'madness' throughout the book, which I'm fairly sure is not a particularly P.C. term these days and spoke volumes to me about Ronson's approach. There's a sniggering schoolboy aspect to his research; a juvenile delight derived from meeting these 'mad' people and trying to diagnose for himself whether the experts were right or not in calling them psychopaths. Funny for now, maybe Jon, but come back to me when you truly get entwined with one of these people and let's see how funny you think it is then.
3.5 stars - an engaging and interesting read, but just not a topic I can find humorous.
Post note - I did really enjoy Ronson's writing, though, and will definitely read more by him. This is too sore a topic for me, but if you're lucky enough to be psychopath-free to date knock yourself out - you'll enjoy it.
I was thinking I've read this, but then I remembered that it was another book So You've Been Publicly Shamed that I read. He did quite extensive publicity tours for both, so I've heard of the Psychopath one a lot too. I've been meaning to read his other books.
Is it possible that his cavalier manner with "madness" is because he's English and embraces that "mad Englishman" eccentric identity? Just a thought.
He has a large presence on YouTube if you're interested and I think he did a TedTalk.
Great review, Alison. Your experience is alarming.
I watched part of one interview he did on You Tube and he's very likeable. I'll check out the TedTalk as I love a bit of Ted.
>216 VivienneR: oh he definitely kept it entertaining, Vivienne. I actually surprised myself by how cross I'd become by the end of my review as I'd finished the book really enjoying it. It's just the more I thought about the topic area the hotter under the collar I became. My own issue rather than Jon Ronson's, I would say.
57. Review - Preston Falls by David Gates
I still can't think for the life of me where I got the nudge for this book from, but no matter - it's not been on my TBR for long, and it's been intriguing me so I wanted to get stuck into it.
This is a book for the Jonathan Franzen and Richard Yates lovers amongst us. Willis, the protagonist, is having some sort of midlife crisis. He doesn't exactly know what's making him unhappy or what will actually make him happy, but he's taking a 2 month sabbatical from his PR job in NYC to figure it out. By himself.
The book opens with his family joining him at their second home in backwoods Preston Falls for the Labor Day long weekend which will kick off his sabbatical. Despite being on the cusp of having two months pretty much by himself up there, Willis is at snapping point with everyone and everything, and he's done with pretending otherwise. Meanwhile his wife is reaching the end of her tether with his absolute selfishness and total lack of regard for their marriage or sense of responsibility for the children. When a snap reaction results in Willis winding up in the county jail, the gulf in their marriage becomes an ocean, and the delicate balance of their relationship reaches tipping point as Willis' hits the turbo on his me-me-me mode.
This was a fabulous read, and will probably end up one of my favourite books of the year. David Gates ratchets up the tension fantastically about what's going to happen next to Willis and to the marriage. He's out of control and undeserving of all the good things he has in his life, yet somehow we still root for him to get his sh*t together and do the right thing.
Highly recommended for those who enjoy good ole American family / relationship angst novels.
4.5 stars - it lost steam a little towards the end right when it counted, but otherwise this was a brilliant page-turner.
58. Review - The Millstone by Margaret Drabble
This short novel was my first and long overdue introduction to Margaret Drabble.
It's 1960s London, and Rosamund, a young intellectual just beginning to make her mark in academia, loses her virginity and gets pregnant in one fell swoop. There's a few places Drabble could have gone with this story, and most interestingly she approaches it from the perspective of an intelligent, independent young woman who is damned if she's going to allow societal expectations to make a social pariah out of either her or her baby. Equally, she challenges the notion of needing a husband to raise a child, determined that it will be well within her grasp to financially support the two of them by herself.
I really enjoyed Drabble's writing. It reminded me of a bit of a mix of Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym - Brookner's type of setting and prose with Pym's wit, although with a little more spunk and modernity (for it's time) to the humour.
4 stars - a great start to the world of Drabble.
Welcome to Margaret Drabble. She's one of my favourites.
59. Review - Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Hardy is synonymous with 19th century English country landscapes, and never more so than in Return of the Native. Set on the mythical Egdon Heath, this novel is the next best thing to a time machine, so evocative are his descriptions of these bygone Wessex rural scenes. One doesn't just read a Hardy novel - it's a completely immersive virtual reality experience, and for this reason he remains up there as one of my favourite novelists of all time.
Although perhaps not so well known as Hardy's greats such as The Mayor of Casterbridge, this is still a very fine novel. In typical Hardy fashion there is heartbreak and tragedy in spades, yet it is the rural landscape that almost becomes the main protagonist. The descriptions are incredibly vivid, yet their conveyance is so deftly subtle that it adds an additional dimension and depth to the story rather than getting in the way of it.
Whilst many novels of that era excel at transplanting you as a fly on the wall to the centre of English social history, I can't think of a better way to experience English natural history than through the experience of a Hardy novel. By the end of Return of the Native the heath was as familiar to me as the countryside on my own doorstep. No, on second thoughts, it was significantly more familiar. Our green space has changed in so many ways since that time, but whilst some of the flora and fauna has changed forever (for instance, adders are much rarer in number now in the English countryside than they would have been back then), it is our interaction with it which has changed most acutely. In Hardy's time the average rural dweller had little option but to traverse their local countryside by foot, often travelling many miles in a day to run an errand or visit a neighbour. Imagine, therefore, how much more familiar and in touch with the earth you become when you are literally walking through it's rural midst every day. And that is precisely the experience that Hardy brings with this novel. You feel 19th century England.
This was Hardy book number six for me, and thinking I'd already peaked with his best work I was absolutely delighted to be proved wrong with this novel.
4 stars - a wonderful sojourn in rural Victorian England.
60. Review - Hard Times by Charles Dickens
From Hardy's Victorian England of gentle walks amongst the furze on the heath to Dicken's Victorian England of dark, polluted skies above smoky industrial northern towns. Ah, Dickens loves a bit of dreariness!
Hard Times is a right hook in the face of class snobbery and prejudice. It opens with a couple of pompous middle-aged men delighting in pontificating on the merits of facts in the total absence of feelings, fancies or fun. Their lives are governed by arrogant decisions and judgments made on their skewed version of facts, with their assessments of people's characters clouded entirely by their class prejudice around the honesty and capability of those less fortunate than themselves. Ruling their families and homes with a cold and efficient lack of sentimentality, Dickens ultimately teaches these old fools a harsh lesson in what's actually important in life (although sadly one is too far gone with his own sense of self-worth and importance to ever change).
Although quite bleak in places, and in true Victorian style faintly ridiculous at times (pass me the smelling salts - again), I loved the ultimate message of this book. Dickens is very clever at engineering an exposition of the truth that real wealth lies in goodness and happiness, and rounds off the novel nicely with the very people who were most looked down on at the beginning of the book being the characters who ultimately are proven to have the truest riches.
This is only my second Dickens novel, and I didn't love it just as much as Great Expectations, but once I got into the swing of it I still enjoyed it.
4 stars - some particularly unlikeable characters, but a great jaunt all the same.
Great reviews, thanks for being so thoughtful in them!
The only Hardy I can recall reading is Far From the Madding Crowd, which, for some reason, I read while traveling alone in Costa Rica several decades ago. At any rate, I enjoyed it very much.
My reading has slowed up lately, between marathon sessions on Amazon doing Christmas shopping and dealing with a flu bug in the house (I escaped, touch wood). Anyway, I finally finished the Byron book:
61. Review - The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
Reading a bit of back story on Robert Byron along with this book, it seems he was once met, never forgotten. Expelled from Oxford for his 'rebellious and hedonistic ways', he evidently was fascinating and tiresome in equal measure. Labelled as one of the 'Brideshead generation' by a number of biographers, he was unapologetically snobbish and outspoken, often full of vitriol for places and people so often revered by others. 13 years after his death, Evelyn Waugh was quoted as saying "It is not yet the time to say so but I greatly disliked Robert in his last years & think he was a dangerous lunatic better off dead."
It is his character that makes his writing in this iconic travel book all the more wonderful. The success of this book is the very thing that got him sent down from Oxford - his natural recklessness and single-mindedness. Although only 27 when he embarked on this trip through the Middle East, Byron had firm surety in himself, his social position and his travel goals, and as a result had gumption in spades.
Travel through 1930s Persia and Afghanistan was not for the faint-hearted. To begin with, political tensions in the Middle East were... well, tense. Whilst political facts could be bad enough, the rumours were almost always worse, therefore paranoia and suspicion abounded wherever he went. Byron's travel progress was often hampered by the bureaucracy of waiting for letters to be sent here and there so he had permission to travel, and managing guards who were regularly sent to escort him to ensure he didn't take photographs or infringe any other supposed priceless intellectual property they imagined he was going to make away with. This was all handled with brilliant abject disregard by Byron which was comedy gold. Dealing often with armed and potentially volatile locals, it's impossible not to admire his total chutzpah. He was so intent on his travel goals that no one or no thing was going to get in his way, and with an old-fashioned British colonial attitude he bulldozed through any resistance he encountered. For sure he was prejudiced in many of his opinions which would not be acceptable by 21st century standards, but it was an interestingly honest window to social thought and class divide from a bygone era.
In addition to the political hurdles, Byron encountered numerous physical hurdles on his journey, from perilous overhangs to weak bridges made extra lethal by floods of biblical proportions. En route axles broke on cars and lorries skidded towards the edge of precipices, and when destinations were reached there were mosquitos and bed bugs and difficult hosts to deal with. What I loved most about this book was Byron being Byron. All of these were minor trifles and inconveniences which he hardly took under his notice, such was his fascination with the physical natural beauty he encountered and the architectural wonder of the archaeological sites he visited. He was almost a parody of that upper-class no-nonsense British gentleman seen in so many black and white movies, and his intolerance for petty annoyances is recounted with superb dry wit.
My own travels in the Middle East have been limited to those of the touristy type in Israel and Egypt, therefore I read The Road to Oxiana with a profound sense of regret that my limited personal knowledge of Iran and Afghanistan - so tainted by the news headlines - means I can never appreciate this book to the fullness that it deserves. It would be wonderful to be able to compare the sights Byron saw with one's own experiences, but like many readers I am limited to the power of Google, which at least I should be grateful for. Various civil wars in the Middle East over the past few decades have meant that sadly a number of the archaeological sites Byron visited have now been destroyed, such as the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, dating from the 6th century, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 for being 'heretical idols'. I don't think Byron would be too upset though. Describing them he said:
"Neither has any artistic value. But one could bear that; it is their negation of sense, the lack of any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens. Even their material is unbeautiful, for the cliff is made, not of stone, but of compressed gravel. A lot of monastic navvies were given picks and told to copy some frightful semi-Hellenistic image from India or China. The result has not even the dignity of labour."
Such is Byron - say what you think.
I admit to glazing over a little at times when he went into over-detail of some of the architecture he encountered on his travels, but overall this book was a wonderful armchair ride, not only into an unknown (for me) land but also into a past era. Interestingly, many of the sites Byron visited were already in ruins, destroyed by previous conflicts and mad men in previous centuries, and he describes many times unprecedented weather patterns. I couldn't help but ponder that observed with modern eyes we would approach this with a completely different attitude, theorising to the nth degree until we convince ourselves that this is all evidence of us being on the peak of self-destruction. Alternatively, perhaps such events have happened since the beginning of time and are simply part of the crazy circle of life here in Earth.*
*Before anyone shoots me down, I do know that climate change is a thing... I'm just noting that Byron encountered many crazy weather patterns which were more extreme than anything that had been seen for a very long time, and they just took it for what it was - the unpredictability of Mother Earth.
4 stars - a wonderful and amusing experience (for to read this book is to feel like you've had a travel experience).
I did some travelling in Afghanistan in 1975/6 and saw the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan. Byron was right they were no works of art, but their size and their place in the cliff face made them very impressive. I remember climbing up to them and then discovering a stepped passage in the hollow, which I walked up and which led out onto the top of the head of one of the statues and it felt exactly like compressed gravel.
Did you refer back to The Road to Oxiana at all when you travelled through Afghanistan (or maybe you only read it more recently)? I imagine it's a fascinating country to visit. Just a little more volatile these days I guess, although there don't seem to have been many periods when Afghanistan hasn't been volatile in one way or another.
What about Darul Aman Palace - did you get a look at it in Kabul? Byron seemed to be particularly scathing about it, especially hating how it sits at an angle at the end of the long avenue leading up to it. Still, it looks pretty impressive to me in Google images. I believe the renovations on it were supposed to be completed this summer - I'm not sure if it's completely restored yet or not.
Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy it.
Have you read Nicolas Bouvier? He’s a sort of anti-Byron, the super-modest Swiss traveller, and a lovely writer too. L’usage du monde/The way of the world is his overland-to-India book.
I don't think Byron would have been half as entertaining, though, if he hadn't been so cock-sure of himself.
62. Review - More About Boy: Tales From Roald Dahl's Childhood by Roald Dahl
This was an in between book, one of those you pick up for a quick flick through and before you know it are committed to the end.
I adore Roald Dahl. I know that in this snowflake generation I'm not supposed to, given he's been outed as a philandering racist with a dyspeptic streak, amongst other things, but I'm sorry - I can't let that overshadow the brilliant output of his prolific imagination and enduring capacity to see life through the lens of a 7 year old boy. Plus, somehow he managed to figure out the secret of living multiple lives when the rest of us have to make do with one. Spy, fighter pilot, medical inventor, adult fiction writer, children's writer - how, just how?
This book is an embellishment of the original Boy: Tales of Childhood (which was Dahl's early memoirs), and includes extra letters and stories gathered by his widow. As you would expect, it's full of the most wonderful japes and tomfoolery, many of which were the sources of inspiration for his best known characters and stories. My favourite was the mean old sweet shop lady with the filthy dirty fingers who was later reincarnated as one of The Twits. Dahl got caned for hiding a dead mouse in her jar of gobstoppers - a perfectly naughty escapade fit for one of his characters!
As an older boy, his school were regularly enrolled by Cadburys as chocolate tasters. I shall send a silent prayer of thanks next time I eat a bar of Fruit and Nut. Imagine if that hadn't happened and Dahl had never come up with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It doesn't bear thinking about.
Although a children's book, I thoroughly enjoyed More About Boy. The stories were fabulous and larger than life, and it was terrific that nearly every page had photos or letters from Dahl to his Mama which illustrated the stories being told.
4 stars - with rose-tinted glasses.
In 1975 and in April 1976 when I returned from India I spent a week each time in Kabul, which was peaceful. At that time the journey from Kandahar to Kabul was fairly tiring and Kabul was a great place to recharge ones batteries; get some decent food and relax in one of the caravanserais type hotels. I was on a very limited budget and travelling overland on a motorcycle and so I didn't get to see all the sights.
63. Review - Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
There are a number of blurb comparisons on the cover of this book to The Lovely Bones, and I think they're apt - the prose has a similar feel to it, although it covers a different aspect of death (potential suicide rather than murder). Like The Lovely Bones we know from the start that the young daughter dies, and it's a familiar story of grief and a search for the truth.
Whilst enjoyable, this book isn't as perfect as some of the jacket accolades would have you believe. The harrowing event of a child dying should have thoroughly grieved me, yet something was missing for me to feel that connection to the characters. I read about their grief, but I didn't feel it like I should have done.
The racial tensions of the book also didn't quite work. Ng wants us to feel the family's isolation as an inter-racial family, but I found it bizarre that every single person who knew them seemed to treat them like social pariahs. I know the novel was set in the mid-1970s, but surely there were significant numbers of mixed race families in the US even back then? Ng tells it as if no one in Ohio had ever seen a Chinese person before. Am I being white and dumb and completely ignorant to racial issues 40-odd years ago, or does this seem a fairly unlikely scenario that absolutely no people - friends or family - could accept these people because of their Chinese heritage?
Those quibbles aside, this was an enjoyable page-turner that I sped through fairly quickly.
3.5 stars - good, but I don't quite get the superlatives of praise that have been heaped upon it. Closer to 4 for enjoyment, but 3.5 at a prose level.
64. Review - Poverty Castle by Robin Jenkins
Robin Jenkins was a prolific Scottish writer whose work spanned five decades. Although he achieved critical acclaim with The Cone-Gatherers, despite his impressive literary output he struggled to get published at various points in his writing life, and his previous books went in and out of print. Having experienced Jenkins' writing for the first time with Poverty Castle (which isn't one of his better known books), I'm calling this out as an absolute travesty. Shame on those UK publishers for denying this wonderful writer the full success he deserved!
Poverty Castle takes the form of a novel within a novel, although the story of the novelist writing the book is a light touch, taking up a small percentage of the novel. That being said, it adds depth of poignancy to the overall story that is brilliant in both its subtly and gentleness. The writer (semi-autobiographical, by all accounts) is an elderly Scottish author who has struggled with writing success yet can't live without it. He knows he is writing his last novel, and is fixated with writing one "that is a celebration of goodness, without any need of irony". His long-suffering wife is exasperated by how much the book is taking out of him, yet despite herself slowly becomes equally charmed and beguiled by his characters.
The characters in question are the enigmatic Sempill family who are middle-class by birth but recent acquirers of a bequeathed fortune. With a charming, idealist father and ethereal mother who is obsessed with giving her husband a son, the five daughters are brought up in a self-sufficient Eden with a strong sense of social justice and encouragement to voice their opinions. With little to test their true moral fibre whilst they remain cocooned in their own idyll, as they grow older and inevitably flee the nest the writer calls into question whether their magnetic and radiating presence comes from an authentic goodness, or is ultimately a product of wealthy privilege and their own self-importance / self-delusion.
I hugely enjoyed the writing in this book. It pulled me in from the first sentence and kept me there until the last. Why I am the only person on LT to have reviewed this book is beyond me. If you enjoy old fashioned writing such as Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle then I think you'll enjoy this one.
I'll definitely be seeking out more of Jenkins' work. In the meantime, here's a great article that provides an interesting angle on the problem of being Robin Jenkins:
4.5 stars - perhaps this book doesn't deserve for me to have fallen for it as much as I did, but Jenkins charmed me with his own old-fashioned goodness.
Enjoyed catching up. I can’t vouch for 1970’s Ohio, but there are and surely were then some weird small-mind spots there. Really enjoyed your Robert Bryon review.
>265 AlisonY: Lovely review! I'm also a big fan of Roald Dahl's work.
Roald Dahl's writing makes the world feel happy and shiny for a little while. It's hard to argue with that.
65. Review - The Spell by Alan Hollingshurst
As is typical to Hollinghurst novels, there was no surprise that the characters in The Spell were all posh, eternally horny, gay English men. Whilst this definitely runs as a strong thread in the weave of his other novels, mostly they still have an alternate plot line of sorts that carries the story.
In The Spell the gay scene itself was the plot line, or at least that part of the scene that involves an older man / younger man dynamic. Hollinghurst writes with introspection around the draw of the fun, hedonistic younger guys to the older men who think they've found nirvana only to break their hearts over the inevitable transience of the relationships. In many ways I suppose it's not dissimilar to the classic heterosexual relationship disaster of women who go for the 'bad boys' and then sob with incredulity when they turn out not to be husband material. Both moths to a flame. Possibly more sex involved in the former.
There was a lot more shagging in this novel than in some of his other titles. And I mean a lot of shagging. If someone wasn't at it every few pages they were primed and ready to be at it. Hollinghurst evidently wanted to write a novel that was squarely about the 1990s London gay scene of clubbing, drugs and promiscuous sex with strangers in toilet cubicles / park bushes, etc., and the trickiness of trying to keep monogamous relationships going when there were so many strangers in toilet cubicles / park bushes, etc. to be having sex with.
Having a very good friend of old who was having a gay old time (pardon the pun) doing exactly that in 1990s London (the promiscuous bit - not so hot on the relationship side), I get that Hollinghurst depicts the London gay scene very well in this novel. However, for me it wasn't enough of a plot line to carry the rest of the novel. The younger characters were intolerably selfish and self-absorbed (so far, so accurate when I think back to my friend during that period), and the older characters were desperately annoying doorsteps. Their relationships therefore left me a bit cold, and perhaps I was too heterosexual for all the shagging but after a while I just wished they'd give it a rest for 5 minutes and watch a bit of tele and drink some cocoa.
However, having said all that, although Hollinghurst's novels can often be imperfect (sometimes I find I lose interest a bit when his plots meander), he's a very, very fine writer at a prose level, and I find myself drawn back to his novels time and time again. it's similar to how I am with McEwan - I don't love every page of every book he writes, but there's something about his writing that just draws me back time and time again.
3.5 stars - with more plot beyond the sex this could have been a very fine novel, but sadly this novel was as superficial as the relationships it described. An extra half star for the consistently fine writing, though.
I haven’t read Thomas Hardy and I might have to get to him at some point based upon your comments. Have you read David Copperfield? I think that one is my favorite Dickens so far.
Interesting. I've liked the Hollinghurst I've read too (more than I expected to). I won't add this to my list just because my reading has slowed almost to a halt, but I did enjoy your comments.