Sunday, 23 December 2012

REVIEW: Julie and Julia - My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell (4*)

(Penguin Books, 2009)

"There was something about all this familiar work - the kneading and rolling and flouring, the Book beside me, Julia in my head chortling quietly to herself like a roosting pigeon in its cote... It made me philosophical - or maybe just hungry."

This book centres around one woman, Julie Powell, and her impulsive decision in 2002 to give her life focus by cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year.  She set up a blog to record her experiences, and christened her attempt The Julie/Julia Project.  This is an expanded account of that project, drawing on her daily cooking battles, her working life as a secretary for a government agency, and her growing infamy as a food blogger.  She has also scattered a handful of cookery- and MtAoFC-related quotes throughout the book, as well as semi-fictional vignettes about Julia and Paul Child's relationship concocted from the material found in their letters, journals and (auto)biographies.

When I first started reading, I must admit, I thought Powell was going to be far too neurotic and self-obsessed for me, and that this might even end up as a rare DNF.  Fortunately it didn't take long for things to pick up: as the Julie/Julia Project begins in earnest, Powell's attention is drawn outside of herself and away from her own hysterical personality, and the book really takes off.  I wasn't a big fan of Julie when she was trying too hard to demonstrate her own kookiness - she came across as far more likeable, honest and yes, quirky, when she turned her pen towards other people and other things in her life.  This, for me, was where her writing felt the strongest and most enjoyable: when she was enthusing about food, sharing her cookery experiences, talking about her friends and family, and exploring the way her project brought her closer to the people she loved.

I think my favourite section of the book was "They Shoot Lobsters, Don't They?", a hilarious chapter about her first foray into cooking lobster.  I've never done it myself, but I've heard the horror stories, and Powell's experiences lived up to expectations in that regard!  The image of her sitting in her car after buying her first ever lobster, anxiously listening for the rustle of the paper bag that might signal a crustacean escape attempt in the back seat, is just wonderful.  From there it only gets better as she has a total freak-out in the kitchen, manages a successful couple of kills, and finally arrives at The Big One - the dismemberment of a live lobster for Homard à l'Américaine.  By this point she's almost like the Lady Macbeth of the kitchen, blood on her hands, worrying that maybe she'll actually enjoy this last kill, getting in touch with her culinary dark side.  Call me sadistic, but I loved every moment of it!

I also really enjoyed reading Powell's thoughts on blogging: her intrepid beginning, the first flush of excitement as she realises she has a mini readership all her own, and soon afterwards, her devotion to her 'bleaders' (her rather unpleasant term for blog readers), the feeling that she has to keep going for them, and the encouragement she draws from their feedback.  Later, she shares her thrill as her blog really takes off, as well as her worry that if she isn't 'the Julie/Julia woman' she will go back to just being a secretary with a lot of neurosis and two cats.  The project begins to give her a purpose, and to define her as an individual, and it made me think - what would all of us, we book bloggers, do without our own little empires?  She really reflected the stages of being a blogger, and the feelings we all have about it sometimes away from our carefully tended homepages.  I know I've sometimes wondered who I'd be if I wasn't 'the Bookshop Girl' any more, so it was interesting to see my thought processes put into words so honestly!

If there was anything that really flattened my enjoyment of the book, it was the moment when I was idly Googling around the subject and found out that Julia Child was actually very dismissive and uninterested in Julie Powell, intimating that her project was a stunt, and that she wasn't a serious cook.  I find that sad.  Powell may be quirky and neurotic, but I don't think you could NOT call her a serious cook, given how determinedly she followed through with her plan, cooking complex meals almost every night, using methods and seeking out ingredients that really aren't that common these days.  Her affection and reverence for Child shines out of her writing, and I'd imagined Julia as a kind of genial larger-than-life Ma Larkin figure who'd be tickled and perhaps flattered by the project.  It was her masterpiece, after all, that brought Julie, her husband, her friends and other Mastering the Art of French Cooking devotees together.  It must have been devastating for Powell, like a kid being snubbed by their favourite celebrity when they asked for an autograph.  I can't help but think that perhaps if Child had survived to read the book, rather than just part of the blog, she might have felt differently; as it is, Powell's reaction to Child's death and her tribute at the end were so moving they had me in tears! 

That blow aside, I really enjoyed this book.  I'll admit that there were occasional moments that began to drag, and little sections where Powell veered back into self-obsessed territory and began to lose me a bit, but these moments got fewer and farther between as the pages went by.  There was plenty of food-and-cookery writing to satisfy my taste for good mouthwatering prose, but there was also real heart, real smarts, a real individual, a real voice behind that prose that I ended up appreciating more and more as the book went on.  Of course, I have the DVD awaiting me now that I'm finally finished with the book, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Powell's kooky style translates onto the screen.  Knowing it was in the capable hands of the late, great Nora Ephron (and really, who does kooky better?), I'm expecting to be in for a lovely girlie evening of giggling and eating popcorn sometime over the winter!  Cautiously recommended for amateur foodies, hopeless cooks and people who can't resist another helping of dessert.  You'll be in good company here!

Notable Quotables:
  • "Sally and I have managed to remain close friends ever since living together in our freshman year of college even though I'm the kind of person who, when bored or unhappy, either drinks myself into oblivion or cooks very unhealthy things; Sally is the kind of person who, when bored or unhappy, goes jogging or cleans the bathroom with a toothbrush."
  • "You know that dejection that comes upon you when you realize that the person you're talking to might as well be from Jupiter, for all the chance you have of making them get what you're saying?  I hate that."
  • "I tore open the bag to let in some air - so this underwater creature could breathe better? - before putting him in the freezer.  Suffocating is worse than freezing to death is better than being steamed alive?  Perhaps anticipation of my evening of bloodletting had addled my brain, but the philosophical intricacies of lobster murder were proving too much for me to rationally negotiate."
  • "I knew I had to write something on my blog...  I wanted to write Julia the best, funniest, greatest in memoriam ever.  I got to work on it, and I was on fire, let me tell you...  I was on a roll.  And then I wrote this sentence: "I have no claim over the woman at all, unless it's the claim one who has nearly drowned has over the person who pulled her out of the ocean."  And I started crying so hard I had to stop writing."

Source: I nabbed this book from a bag of incoming stock.

Friday, 14 December 2012

REVIEW: Ex Libris - Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman (4.5*)

(Penguin Books, 2000)

"... there is a certain kind of child who awakens from a book as from an abyssal sleep, swimming heavily up through layers of consciousness toward a reality that seems less real than the dream-state that has been left behind. I was such a child."

This lovely little volume is a collection of essays about books and reading.  Fadiman does not deal in generalisations and the broad sweep of the literary world, instead writing about her deeply personal habits and experiences.  Whether she is discussing the difficulties of merging libraries with her husband, or the delights of reading a book in its real-life setting, her introspective approach means that the reader doesn't feel the need to argue or dispute her opinions; instead we are simply invited to enjoy the ride and reflect on our own reading experiences along the way. 

Like many American 'books about books' (and Fadiman does love her old-school highbrow literature), there were many titles I hadn't heard of and many authors I wasn't familiar with, but rather unusually, in this case I found that my enjoyment wasn't dented at all.  Fadiman's lightly-worn expertise means that her readers don't need an intimate knowledge of every volume she cites, and her infectious enthusiasm had me adding a whole bunch of new and exciting titles to my wishlist rather than getting frustrated.  She also includes a list of more 'books about books' at the end, some of which I already own, and some of which I'm sure I'll be seeking out at some point!

Obviously I would highly recommend this one to book lovers who haven't already succumbed to its pleasures - but rather than leave the post at that, I thought instead I'd give you a run-down of the essays themselves.  I don't know about everyone else, but sometimes with a book like this I like to know a bit more about what I'm buying so that I can better judge whether it's going to contain pieces I'm interested in, written from a perspective I'm going to appreciate...

1.  Marrying Libraries
One of my favourite essays of the bunch - though like songs on a CD, I do sometimes wonder if this is because it's at the beginning and so I've probably read it most often!  It is about a reader's love for their own books, about an individual's unique history with each volume on their shelves, and the perils of trying to sort and categorise books when you are melding collections with another, equally idiosyncratic reader.
  • "Promising to love each other for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health... had been no problem, but it was a good thing the Book of Common Prayer didn't say anything about marrying our libraries and throwing out the duplicates.  That would have been a far more solemn vow, one that would probably have caused the wedding to grind to a mortifying halt."

2.  The Joy of Sesquipedalians
Fadiman shares her family's love of words, and the pleasure they get from learning new, long or archaic words to add to their already impressive vocabularies (this is one of the few books I've read over the years where I've had to consult a dictionary every few pages!).  Some of the more ancient examples she cites are quite beautiful, and her enthusiasm is infectious!

3.  My Odd Shelf
A quirky essay about what Fadiman calls her 'odd shelf' - a collection of around sixty books on polar exploration.  She practically bubbles with enthusiasm, sharing little-known facts and explaining why she loves these tales so much.  This is the kind of essay she writes best, I think: sharing her affection for her favourite books and making us want to rush off and read them too!
  • "When the corpses of some of Franklin's officers and crew were later discovered, miles from their ships, the men were found to have left behind their guns but to have lugged such essentials as monogrammed silver cutlery, a backgammon board, a cigar case, a clothes brush, a tin of button polish, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.  These men may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentlemen."

4.  Scorn Not the Sonnet
Fadiman looks back at her youthful fascination with the sonnet form, and neatly captures the earnest but usually fairly painful compulsion of a bookish teenager to write bad poetry.  It is also the moving story of her father's developing blindness, and the poetry and intellectual curiosity that saved him from despair.
  • "It was a grievous blow when Miss Farrar tacked up the class's star sonnets on the bulletin board and mine was not among them.  Her favorite was about the Acropolis... its author called the Parthenon "a ruined crown".  It never occurred to me that this metaphor alone was worth a hundred of my entire sonnet."
  • "My sonnets looked like poems.  They quacked like poems.  But at seventeen, when I got to college and my critical faculties suddenly kicked in, I had to admit that they weren't really poems.  I had mistaken for lyric genius what was in fact merely the genetic facility for verbal problem-solving that enabled everyone in my family to excel at crossword puzzles."

5.  Never Do That to a Book
An exploration of the way readers interact with their books, and the different attitudes we have towards the book as an object.  Do we keep our books pristine and care for them faithfully, or do we annotate, dog-ear, stick mementoes between the pages, and generally make them our own?  Is the book a vessel or a sacred object, and what makes this particular topic so inflammatory for bookish folks?  This is another of my favourites, because it's so very relatable!
  •  "The chambermaid believed in courtly love.  A book's physical self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller.  The Fadiman family believed in carnal love." 

6.  True Woman
Musings on an old book on the subject of a woman's duties, passed down to Anne from her great-grandmother Maude.  The archaic advice laid down in the book is set against Maude's life and against Anne's role as a modern wife and mother.  It's quite interesting, but very personal and not so bookish; it would probably have been a better fit in Fadiman's other book of essays, At Large and At Small.

7.  Words on a Flyleaf
A rather lovely essay about inscriptions, beginning with where they are written and how they are acquired.  Fadiman includes some famous examples (eg. Shelley to Keats, Byron to the Marchesa Guiccioli) as well as some personal ones, showing how special a book becomes when it contains a carefully-considered inscription from a lover or friend.  Another one I like to reread fairly regularly!

8.  You Are There
What is it like to read a book in the very place being described within its pages?  For Fadiman this is a kind of literary double whammy - being able to look around and see, smell and experience some little piece of that book in the flesh.  The less the place has changed, the better!  My favourite part of the essay is when Fadiman's little daughter gets to enjoy this phenomenon at a certain famous New York hotel - it's so adorable!
  • "When he read Livy at Thrasymenus - in Latin, of course - Macauley achieved a kind of Double Word Score whose peculiar frisson will be instantly recognized by anyone who has ever read Wordsworth at Grasmere, Gibbon in Rome, or Thoreau at Walden."

9.  The His'er Problem
One of the duller essays of the collection, about gender bias in language, and the pros and cons of trying to find more neutral alternatives.  Fadiman successfully walks the fine line between historical precedent and modern feminism and it's worth reading, but honestly?  I'm not THAT interested in etymology, and I prefer it when she's talking about books.

10.  Insert a Carrot
The actual title of this essay has proofreading symbols in it, which I can't figure out how to do on here, so... go with it.  This one's about spelling and grammar mistakes, and the sheer impossibility of switching off your inner proofreader if you have a pedantic nature.  I'm sure many of us can identify!  Fadiman comes from a family of compulsive correctors and includes some brilliant examples of classic proofreading blunders, which always make me laugh!

11.  Eternal Ink
Fadiman goes right back to the basics of the writing experience: the implements we use.  Part of the essay is a kind of love letter to her favourite pen and the romance of writing with a quill, before she moves on to modern convenience and how writing on a computer differs to the reassuring permanence of ink.  I really enjoyed this one for its simultaneously relatable ideas and its very personal touch.
  • "What a pleasure it is to open one's mailbox and find a letter from an old friend whose handwriting on the envelope is as instantly recognizable as a face!"

12.  The Literary Glutton
One of my absolute favourite essays, covering every aspect of literary gluttony, from the literal (people who chew book pages) to the sublime decadence of food description.  Interestingly, she returns to her polar exploration shelf to show how vivid and joyful a hungry man's description of an imagined meal can be.  This is a real celebration of the sensuousness and poetry of food writing, and made me immediately think of everything from The Darling Buds of May to Enid Blyton picnics, Chocolat to the groaning tables in the Great Hall at Hogwarts.  Gorgeous.
  • "My most frequent response to gastronomic references in literature is an immediate urge to raid the refrigerator.  When I happen to be reading in bed, the spoils are a source of marital strife.  If I had married Charles Lamb, who once told Coleridge that he was especially fond of books containing traces of buttered muffins, I would have no problem, but instead I married George, to whom crumbs on the pillows - especially after we have brushed our teeth - are a sign of grave moral turpitude."

13.  Nothing New Under the Sun
A playful but enlightening look at plagiarism in an era in which nothing is truly 'new' - who does it, how attitudes to plagiarism have changed, and how it affects its victims.  Fadiman cites some extreme (and deeply ironic) examples, which made me smile!  In a rather inspired move, this essay is also excessively footnoted, showing every single source of influence and input, from the title (taken from Ecclesiastes) to phone conversations Fadiman made to her mother.  It's amusing but also makes her point very cleverly!

14.  The Catalogical Imperative
Fadiman explains her peculiar addiction to mail order catalogues: she delights in the ridiculous yet tempting items on offer, and the vastly hyperbolic descriptions that are always so very entertaining to read!  She describes the wondrous plenty of an old Sears catalogue, and explores the way these companies pander to our fantasy lifestyle via her imaginary alter-ego, 'Anne Sadiman'.  Pithy and amusing!
  • "... why do I receive catalogues devoted exclusively to salsa, equestrian gear, electric grills, extra-large clothes, extra-small clothes, tours to sites at which UFOs have landed, and resin reproductions of medieval gargoyles?  Do these companies know something about me that I don't know?"

15.  My Ancestral Castles
A rather magical essay about the way in which a parent's reading habits trickle down to their children: how a child observes someone reading, imitates them, and might later borrow books from their library, opening up a new world of discovery.  Fadiman talks about our fond memories of the books that we had around the house in childhood - and how many of us had our first encounters with literary 'dirty bits' via sneaky peeks at some of the less virtuous titles on those very same bookshelves!
  • "My daughter is seven, and some of the other second-grade parents complain that their children don't read for pleasure.  When I visit their homes, the children's rooms are crammed with expensive books, but the parents' rooms are empty...  By contrast, when I walk into an apartment with books on the shelves, books on the bedside tables, books on the floor, and books on the toilet tank, then I know what I would see if I opened the door that says PRIVATE - GROWNUPS KEEP OUT: a child sprawled on the bed, reading."

16.  Sharing the Mayhem
Fadiman explores the joys of reading aloud, and of hearing a story read aloud to you in turn.  She discusses Dickens's famously dramatic public reading of Nancy's death scene from Oliver Twist, the act of reading aloud to your children, and the romantic intimacy of lovers reading to one another.
  • "When you read silently, only the writer performs.  When you read aloud, the performance is collaborative.  One partner provides the words, the other the rhythm.  No stage is required, no rehearsal, not even an audience.  When he was a boy, Heine read Don Quixote to the trees and flowers in the Palace Garden of Düsseldorf.  Lamb believed that it was criminal to read Shakespeare and Milton silently, even if no one was there to listen."

17.  The P.M.'s Empire of Books
An essay about William Gladstone and his obsession with arranging, cataloguing and housing his books.  He saw this occupation as a retreat from his government work, and made it his mission to cram as many books as possible into a small space: he designed an optimum library layout, and invented the rolling bookshelves now used at the Bodleian Library (amongst other places).  He even wrote a book about it!  Definitely one of the more unusual and fascinating pieces of the bunch.

18.  Secondhand Prose
I'd actually forgotten all about this essay in between reads, so it was a pleasant surprise to get to the end of the collection and find an entire piece about the delights of second-hand books!  Obviously I'm biased, but I loved this one.  Fadiman writes eloquently about her affection for second-hand bookshops: the surprises, the romance, the temptation...  In the name of balance, she also cites George Orwell's experiences as proof that running one of these bookshops isn't always idyllic (yup), and describes the flipside of used books - all those unwanted titles sitting unloved, without a home.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the idea that once a library is split apart in a secondhand bookshop, it no longer 'is' its owner - the books lose their context and meaning.  With my own books, I definitely find that once they're divided up onto the bookshop shelves, they no longer feel like a part of me and it's easier to let them go.  If they're together in the office in a stack, on the other hand, they still feel like a part of 'my collection'.  Books get their value from the way they sit within a library or a personal collection - a book with no home and no context loses that value.
  • "On an earlier birthday, George gave me a two-volume set of Farthest North, Fridtjof Nansen's account of his unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole by ship.  The edges were unopened.  As I slit them with an unpracticed fingernail, I was overcome with melancholy.  These beautiful volumes had been published in 1897, and not a single person had read them.  I had the urge to lend them to as many friends as possible in order to make up for all the caresses they had missed during their first century."
  • "In a secondhand bookstore, each volume is one-of-a-kind, neither replaceable from a publisher's warehouse nor visually identical to its original siblings, which have accreted individuality with every change of ownership.  If I don't buy the book now, I may never have another chance.  And therefore, like Beecher, who believed the temptations of drink were paltry compared with the temptations of books, I am weak."

Source:  I acquired this book six years ago after finding it frequently quoted in The Book Addict’s Treasury (Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy), and it's been a much-loved fixture on my shelves ever since!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Bookish Epiphany Part 3: Getting back on track

This has been a bit of a marathon, but fret not - this is the last post of the bunch!  So, in Part 1 I talked about how dissatisfied I've become with my reading and with the way I seem to keep falling down the twin rabbit holes of trashy telly and the internet instead of doing things I enjoy of an evening, like reading good books and watching documentaries.  In Part 2 I sketched out how my reading has changed from 2006-12, and clearly demonstrated the discrepancy between what I love to read most (as evidenced by my favourite books of each year) and what I'm actually reading (the figures never lie).

That really only leaves one question - where do I go from here?  What have I learned this week, and how do I implement these lessons in such a way that I can start to regain my genuine love for my books and get some much-needed balance back in my free time?

  1. Mixed reading is good reading - I enjoy a really mixed diet of books.  That means classics, history, literary fiction, chick lit, humour and journalism, natural history, science, YA, social sciences and biography.
  2. Not every blogger recommendation is a GOOD recommendation - Just because twenty bloggers have recommended it, doesn't mean it's worth buying.  WHO those bloggers are, and whether I share their tastes and sensibilities, is more important.
  3. I really like non-fiction - Nothing makes me feel quite as satisfied as getting to the end of a book that's taught me something, and where I've had to think and persevere and understand instead of just being able to skim along on the surface.  Books about books are also a good bet, for obvious reasons!
  4. I also really like classics - Not every classic hits the spot for me, but the ones that do make up a large proportion of the books I keep and love and re-read.  There's a reason they've stuck around so long!
  5. Quality over quantity - Reading less books but choosing wisely and really enjoying them is FAR preferable to ploughing through twice as many but not clicking with most of them.
  6. Self-inflicted pressure never helps - Feeling like I should be posting reviews twice a week doesn't help.  Joining challenges that I have no chance of finishing doesn't help.  Overthinking and overprescribing and fretting does not a happy reader make.
  7. The internet is a deceptive fiend - I am REALLY good at 'popping online for five minutes' only to come back to consciousness three hours later and realise I've lost another evening.  Then I feel like a muppet and go to bed in a huff.
  8. The BBC is my friend - I love documentaries on BBC2 and BBC Four.  I also love great dramas like The Hour and Homeland (ssh, I know, Channel 4).  I get more out of watching something fascinating at 9pm instead of spending another hour on Pinterest.
  9. I enjoy taking a chance - Picking up books on a whim from the library often yields some of my favourite books of each year.  Taking a chance on something I know very little about, or that is completely outside my comfort zone, is one of the most satisfying parts of my reading life.
  10. Reviewing for others isn't doing me any favours - I'm happiest when I'm free to read whatever I like, whether that's a pile of chick lit over a busy summer or a wave of books on Ancient Egypt because I'm on a history kick.  Throwing compulsory reading into the mix - especially compulsory reading that isn't something I enjoy that much - seems rather counter-intuitive.

  1. Take the blog down a notch - That means less filler, more substance.  Instead of feeling like I NEED to post three or four times a week, I'm going to scale things down and start enjoying what I write again!  I'll review to the timetable of my reading instead of reading to fit a review timetable, if you see what I mean...  Hopefully it'll just loosen everything up and take the pressure off. 
  2. Get off the reviewer radar - Reviewing for RHCP was a great privilege at the beginning, partially because much of what I read I'd chosen from their blogger bulletins, or I was emailed first to see if I was interested.  These days it seems many books are just sent out regardless so I've ended up with a big pile of titles that I'm not really interested in but still feel obligated to read.  I've asked to be removed from their mailing list and I'll just read and review the couple that HAVE piqued my interest in the near future.
  3. Quit planning - We all know that the moment you make a list of books you want to read next, you end up desperate to read something else entirely.  So I'm going to stop for a while and see what happens.  When I finish a book, I'll go up to the flat and choose something else.  Something that I want to read RIGHT NOW - not next week, not next month, NOW.
  4. Challenge-Free for 20-1-3 - I'm always tempted by challenges.  Always.  But I don't think I've finished a single one yet, and they just end up hanging over me in December chortling to themselves.  Yes, they've pushed me towards some great books in the past - but the whole point of this exercise is to start doing that for myself again, so maybe I won't need them in 2013!
  5. No to the numbers game - An extension of the Challenge-Free 2013, this means no numerical target next year.  Not that I ever expect to hit it anyway, but subconsciously it seems I still feel the need to boost my numbers via quick reads.  My average on a free year seems to be around 40-45 books, so why am I aiming for 75?!
  6. Use the TV guide, Luke - Instead of switching on TV Catchup at 7pm and watching whatever's on, I really want to start planning ahead again.  There are so many wonderful-looking series and one-offs that I've missed because I just didn't bother checking the TV guide online or in the paper.  I can't watch everything, but I won't spot the gems unless I look!
  7. Interacting mindfully - One of my main problems is focus.  How am I reading properly if I'm sitting a foot away from a humming laptop screen?  How am I watching a programme properly if I've got Twitter open in the next tab?  Instead of doing multiple things at once, I'm trying to practise doing one thing at a time.  When something else flits across my mind, I'm trying to set it aside for afterwards.
  8. New and shiny doesn't mean better - Just because a book's hot off the press and everyone's talking about it, doesn't mean I have to buy it right this minute.  In fact, it's often better to wait until the filter's kicked in a bit and there's a more balanced response out there, so I know whether it's worth reading or not.  Being a blogger doesn't mean I have to jump on every bandwagon that rolls past - especially when there are so many awesome books already waiting for me on my bookshelves.
  9. Allow one thing to lead to another - Once upon a time, I would read a bunch of books on a particular topic within a short space of time, because one naturally led to another and I couldn't get enough.  Or maybe I'd watch an amazing programme and want to read the book behind it (Ben Macintyre tends to make a compelling one-off BBC documentary every time he has a new book out, for example), or see a biopic movie and want to know more.  Instead of thinking, "Oh no, I should mix things up more for the blog!" I'd like to go back to following the book trail wherever it may lead!  Who am I reading for, in the end?!
  10. Finding a balance - I don't want to implement a reading plan or only ever watch BBC Four for the rest of my life - but nor do I want to continue to waste hours and hours of my time reading books I'm not enjoying, watching comedy episodes I've only seen two days earlier, and obsessively trawling epic Pinterest boards for days at a time.  Hopefully just being conscious of everything I've talked about this week will help me make better choices and do what I want, when I want, instead of feeling constrained by self-inflicted pressures that I've accidentally allowed to take over!


Crunching numbers and making sweeping statements can start to sound prescriptive, but ultimately this entire Epiphany triptych is about regaining a balance that has been skewed by what I have perceived to be my blogging responsibilities, by my sheer laziness in my free time, and by force of bad habit.  Instead I want to use my time wisely, to read as the mood strikes, to watch some fantastic television alongside the fluff, to break up my evenings between different things instead of spending the whole night hopping across the internet without even realising.  As I have found in the past, before the shop started, before the blog, before challenges and targets and reviews - THAT'S what makes this reader happy.  It's time to rekindle the passion I have for books and learning and everything they bring into my life...  I can't wait to get started!

Thanks to everyone who's read along for the past few days and left comments - there have been some interesting suggestions, lots of 'OMG ME TOO' moments, a little mutual inspiration, and plenty of discussion!  As always, feel free to continue the conversation below (and do a little Carlton Wiggle while you're at it).  I'm off to read me some Anne Fadiman before The Hour comes on, woohoo!  :)

Monday, 19 November 2012

Bookish Epiphany Part 2: Devolution by numbers

Yesterday I posted Part 1 of this rather epic exploration of my dissatisfaction with my current relationship with books, as well as with other media that I use on a daily basis - namely, television and the bottomless rabbit hole that is the internet.  I talked about the way my ability to prioritise seems to fail me completely so that I miss out on a lot of the stuff I really used to appreciate, instead spending hours watching the same old telly and messing about online.

In Part 2 I want to delve further into the way my reading habits have changed.  For a while I have been using the collections feature on LibraryThing to add each book I read to a collection for the year (Read in 2011, Read in 2012, etc), but have never actually gone back and looked at them in much detail before.  Until this week my only real interaction with these little reading microcosms has been to idly scroll through them and vaguely feel that some of my previous years' collections contain far more interesting and memorable books than those from the most recent years.  Crunching the numbers over the past few days, looking more closely, I've learned a few startling home truths about my reading habits, which illustrate pretty clearly why my relationship with my reading has gone downhill over the past year or two...

So, here we go.  I started making some kind of record of my reading mid-2006, so that's where we'll start.  I've included university texts where I read them in their entirety (eg. some classic novels) but not if I just used them briefly (eg. for essay research), because there'd be too many to count.  I've classed 'YA and Children's Books' as a genre, simply because I tend to read YA fiction as a break from adult novels and so splitting them up would be beside the point.  The only exceptions to this rule are books like The Wizard of Oz and A Little Princess, which I've counted as classics. 

This may be the most boring post EVER, and if that's the case I do apologise, but I'll be honest... I'm laying this out as much for my own benefit as I am for entertainment value, so just run with it, okay?  Think of it as a chance to get to know me better, and have fun ringing the differences between the statistics here and what I've been reading and reviewing so far this year.  :)

2006 (23 books) 
Male authors: 12 / Female authors: 11
'Serious' books: 14 / 'Fluffy' books: 9
Adult books: 23 / YA and Children's books: 0
Fiction books: 7 / Non-fiction books: 16
By genre
Literary fiction: 5
Miscellaneous non-fiction: 5
Social sciences: 3
Humour: 3
(Auto)Biography: 2
Classics and Poetry:
Travel writing: 1
History: 1
Chick lit: 1
2006 covered two thirds of my first year at university, and the first semester of my second year.  I read Between the Acts and The Waste Land for my course, and a book on flamenco from the library out of pure interest.  'Books about books' came in the form of Ex Libris and A Book Addict's Treasury, and I also ventured into literary fiction and the social sciences.  I alternated between reading fiction and non-fiction, supplementing heavier classics and ethical manifestos with gripping page-turners and humorous non-fiction.
The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafón), A Book Addict's Treasury (Julie Rugg and Lynda Murphy), No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Naomi Klein), The Highest Tide (Jim Lynch), Ex Libris (Anne Fadiman), Neither Here Nor There (Bill Bryson)
2007 (42 books)
Male authors: 20 / Female authors: 22
'Serious' books: 20 / 'Fluffy' books: 22
Adult books: 35 / YA and Children's books: 7
Fiction books: 15 / Non-fiction books: 27
By genre
Social sciences: 9
(Auto)Biography: 8
YA and Children's: 7
Chick lit: 4
Classics: 3
Travel: 3
Humour: 3
History: 2
Miscellaneous non-fiction: 2
Literary fiction: 1
Most of 2007 was spent at university, but actually, simultaneously not there.  A rather hideous depressive episode in the last semester of 2006 meant that I took the decision to spend the rest of the academic year away from my course, resuming my studies in September.   Despite this, I still lived in my uni house, worked locally to make up for my halted student loan, and still had all the perks of a student - like a university library card.  I read tons of non-fiction for pleasure, including lots of social science books (mostly on consumer behaviour and children's welfare), a rather obscure 'biography' of Saint Nicholas and the evolution of the Santa figure, Che Guevara's The Motorcycle Diaries, and a potted history of Eton.  This was also the year of the 'all seven Harry Potter novels' marathon, the year I first read the life-changing Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs, the year I finally reread Wuthering Heights, AND the year I discovered that Nicholas Sparks could make me cry even if I already knew the sad part.  In short, this was a great reading year.  One of the two I look back on and think 'yeah, that was the stuff'. 
Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets (Joanna Blythman), Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë), The Story of Childhood: Growing Up in Modern Britain (Libby Brooks), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier), Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co. (Jeremy Mercer), Hunger: An Unnatural History (Sharman Apt Russell), The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks), Shop 'Til You Drop: Consumer Behaviour and American Culture (Arthur Asa Berger - the chart comparing shopping malls to cathedrals and shopping to religion was particularly memorable)
2008 (42 books)
Male authors: 21 / Female authors: 21
'Serious' books: 26 / 'Fluffy' books: 16
Adult books: 36 / YA and Children's books: 6
Fiction books: 21 / Non-fiction books: 21
By genre
Literary fiction: 9
Social sciences: 6
YA and Children's: 6
(Auto)Biography: 4
Humour: 4
Miscellaneous non-fiction: 4
History: 3
Chick lit: 3
Classics: 2
Sci-fi, Fantasy and Horror: 1
2008 was a very... equal... year in terms of fiction and non-fiction, and male and female authors, leaning towards literary fiction and in-depth non-fiction.  This was the year I was at home, pretty much housebound, thanks to the onset of my agoraphobia.  Many of my favourite books of the year actually came courtesy of a couple of all-out trips to the big library in the next town, where I upheld my university love of taking a chance on all kinds of non-fiction in my quest to learn more about the world.  I read books on Ancient Egypt and Shakespeare, more social science books, and finally picked up A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve.  I discovered Alice Hoffman and Alan Hollinghurst, and reread childhood favourites Matilda and A Little Princess.  This was also the year Twilight hit our shelves (and screens), so I swallowed that whole as well!  This was the second of my two great reading years, I reckon, because I made the time to do what I love best - learn new things and devour great novels.  This, then, was the pinnacle of my reading pleasure. 
A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens), Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century (Lauren Slater), The Swimming-Pool Library (Alan Hollinghurst), The Ice Queen (Alice Hoffman), Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You (Samuel Gosling), Tutankhamen: Life and Death of a Pharaoh (Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt), Nefertiti (Michelle Moran), Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime (Joe Moran), The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers and Family Life (Marie Winn), Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), This Book Will Save Your Life (A.M. Homes), Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks), The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

2009 (55 books)
Male authors: 28 / Female authors: 27
'Serious' books: 32 / 'Fluffy' books: 23
Adult books: 49 / YA and Children's books: 6
Fiction books: 29 / Non-fiction books: 26
By genre
Literary fiction: 10
(Auto)Biography: 8
Chick lit: 6
Classics: 5
Social sciences: 5
YA and Children's: 5
Miscellaneous non-fiction: 4
Crime and Mystery: 3
Humour: 3
History: 2
Travel writing: 2
Science and Natural history: 1
Sci-fi, Fantasy and Horror: 1
This, for me, seems to be the year that my reading began to go downhill.  The numbers went up, sure, but the quality (or substance, might be a better word) seemed to go down.  The number of YA novels I read equalled the number of classics, for example, and three of them were the rest of the Twilight Saga.  I loved them, sure, but they weren't exactly high literature!  There was still a diversity there - fiction and non-fiction, male and female authors - but there was also a noticeable shift towards easier reading.  This was the year we refitted and opened the shop, and I found myself reading lots of frivolous incoming stock (humorous books on the modern family, for example), as well as more trashy fiction and lovely but undeniably frothy animal autobiographies like Marley and Me and Under the Paw.  This may also, if I'm not very much mistaken, have been the year I first started challenge reading on LibraryThing (the 50-Book Challenge, I think).  Play the numbers game and things start to slide - coincidence?  I think not. 
Running with Scissors (Augusten Burroughs), The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Cinnamon City: Falling for the Magical City of Marrakech (Miranda Innes), Like Water for Chocolate (Laura Esquivel), Firmin (Sam Savage), The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (Nick Hornby), Egypt's Golden Empire: The Age of the New Kingdom (Joyce Tyldesley), My Autobiography (Charlie Chaplin), Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey (Holley Bishop), Gold (Dan Rhodes), Biblioholism (Tom Raabe)

2010 (71 books)
Male authors: 24 / Female authors: 47
'Serious' books: 31 / 'Fluffy' books: 40
Adult books: 54 / YA and Children's books: 17
Fiction books: 53 / Non-fiction books: 18
By genre
YA and Children's: 17
Chick lit: 10
Sci-fi, Fantasy and Horror: 9
Literary fiction: 8
Classics: 5
Social sciences: 4
Humour: 4
Crime and Mystery: 4
Travel: 3
Science and Natural history: 3
(Auto)Biography: 2
Food writing: 1
History: 1
The bookshop was in full swing in 2010, and I started this blog around the time of our first 'birthday' in July.  This was also the year my reading really changed.  For the first time, lightweight books outweighed the more substantial ones, and fiction had a massive lead on non-fiction.  I think there were various contributing factors: ongoing adjustment to the shift from not working at all to working most of the week; boosting my LT challenge reading from 50 books to 75 books; being 'picked up' by Random House Children's Publishing and suddenly having far more YA novels on my shelves than ever before...  There was a massive increase in my consumption of YA fiction, chick lit and paranormal romance - some good, some bad - and a massive decrease in the amount of social science and history books I read.  The classics stayed steady, mostly during the blissfully quiet winter months.  I think this was the year that, for the first time, I wasn't especially gripped by much of what I read, and I was clearly prioritising quantity over quality.  Bad move Ellie, bad move.
North and South (Elizabeth Gaskell), Eat Pray Love (Elizabeth Gilbert), Frankenstein (Mary Shelley), Eating for England: The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at Table (Nigel Slater), The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas), 84, Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science (Mary Roach), Forbidden (Tabitha Suzuma), Pet Sematary (Stephen King), Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl (Stacey O'Brien), The Snow Goose (Paul Gallico), Bedlam: London and Its Mad (Catharine Arnold), The Snow Tourist: The Search for the World's Purest, Deepest Snowfall (Charlie English), Persuasion (Jane Austen)

2011 (60 books)
Male authors: 26 / Female authors: 34
'Serious' books: 32 / 'Fluffy' books: 28
Adult books: 42 / YA and Children's books: 18
Fiction books: 39 / Non-fiction books: 21
By genre
YA and Children's: 16
Sci-fi, Fantasy and Horror: 9
Literary fiction: 7
Science and Natural history: 6
Humour: 5
(Auto)Biography: 3
Social sciences: 3
Crime and Mystery: 3
Travel writing: 2
Classics: 2
Chick lit: 2
Miscellaneous non-fiction: 2
By this point we had really settled into shop life, but yet again my reading was suffering.  I hit the big library again over the winter and enjoyed some cracking science books from there, but only read three social science books, and no history at all.  My chick lit consumption was way down in 2011, but I also only read two classics all year, compared with the second set of high figures for YA and paranormal fiction.  Why is this?  I have a feeling it was a combination of laziness and the influence of so many new blogs that I leapt on during my first year of blogging without being particularly selective.  As with all new things, it took a while for the filters to kick in so that I could start paring down to the ones with the tone, information and books that really hit the spot for me.  Of course, it wasn't all bad - I also read some great books thanks to Adam's TBR Pile Challenge, which pushed me quietly towards some of the most neglected titles on my shelves, including The Princess Bride and (finally!) The Hunger Games.
Tipping the Velvet (Sarah Waters), How Reading Changed My Life (Anna Quindlen), The Princess Bride (William Goldman), Perfume (Patrick Süskind), Atonement (Ian McEwan), Long Lankin (Lindsey Barraclough), The Shallows: How the Internet is Affecting the Way We Think, Read and Remember (Nicholas Carr), To Touch a Wild Dolphin (Rachel Smolker), Faceless Killers (Henning Mankell), The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan)

2012 (50 books and counting)
Male authors: 24 / Female authors: 26
'Serious' books: 23 / 'Fluffy' books: 27
Adult books: 31 / YA and Children's books: 19
Fiction books: 42 / Non-fiction books: 8
By genre
YA and Children's: 18
Literary fiction: 10
Classics: 5
Humour: 5
Sci-fi, Fantasy and Horror: 3
Crime and Mystery: 3
Miscellaneous non-fiction: 2
Graphic novels: 1
Social sciences: 1
(Auto)Biography: 1
Chick lit: 1
Look at those statistics!  'Fluffy' reads outstripping more substantial ones, and my non-fiction reading outweighed by a ratio of around 4:1.  It's no wonder I've not exactly been engaging with the reading life thus far in 2012, is it?  I've read no science, natural history, travel or history books at all, and even the lone social science book was really an autobiography (Nina Here Nor There, Nick Krieger's transgender memoir)At least my classics numbers have stayed steady, thanks in large part to Hanna's LXG Challenge.  A shocking proportion of my reading this year has been YA fiction, mostly due to spells of guilt reading when I've realised how many review copies I've got stacking up.  I've counted only twelve books so far in 2012 that I've really, truly enjoyed, and those were mostly library books!  These figures are the most devastating of them all, from where I'm sitting.
On the Island (Tracey Garvis Graves), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson), In Cold Blood (Truman Capote), Rant: An Oral Biography of Rant Casey (Chuck Palahniuk), V for Vendetta (Alan Moore and David Lloyd), King Solomon's Mines (H. Rider Haggard), The Sisters Brothers (Patrick deWitt), The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey), Dearly, Departed (Lia Habel), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)


Looking at the figures year by year, it becomes very clear that my reading habits have pretty much done a full 180-degree turn since I started keeping my nerd-lists in 2006.  More importantly, as the numbers have shifted and my reading has veered further away from classics and non-fiction and further into the frothy end of the book spectrum, my satisfaction and enjoyment have waned noticeably.  I don't doubt that experimenting with new genres, and having a wider outlook thanks to the blogs I read, can only be a good thing, but if my favourite books of each year have remained very similar - non-fiction on subjects that really interest me, books about books, literary fiction, classics - then why have I allowed my reading choices to veer so far away from what I clearly love the most?  Likewise, it becomes apparent that the more reading obligations I have - challenges, numerical targets, lists, review copies - the less I'm reading of the things that really make me tick.  I'm reading to hit targets and cross off boxes rather than to learn and enjoy what my books have to offer.  The quality of my reading has been sidelined in favour of quick fixes, popular fluff, and the need to review 'often enough' on the blog.

In the last part of this Epiphany, Manifesto, Whatever You Want To Call It Thingy, I'll be pulling all these points together and working out where to go from here.  How can I start easing my reading back towards where my bookish satisfaction clearly lies?  What does that mean for the way I use my time, and for the way I think of my blogging responsibilities?  What can I do to quench my thirst for learning again and become the passionate reader I once was?

If you've stuck with this post through all the figures and notes, then congratulations!  I hope it's been interesting, or at the very least mildly entertaining.  Go have a nice lie down with a drink and a plate of cookies, you deserve it!  And if you have any thoughts to share or want to contribute to the discussion, then hit that comment box...  Until Part 3, amigos!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Bookish Epiphany Part 1: What the hell happened to my reading?

Sometimes a post really needs to be written.  On this blog there have been very few such posts, but they have all been written from the heart, with total and complete honesty, and have received some fantastic responses from other people who have found themselves in a similar predicament, or are simply reaching out with advice and kind words.  This is one of those posts – a set of posts, in fact, or it’s going to get stupidly long - because it comes from the kind of epiphany that is going to completely change the way I read.  Here’s the crux of the matter – I used to read very differently to the way I do now.  And I used to enjoy it an awful lot more.

These past few weeks have left me with plenty of time to think.  Time to reflect.  Knowing that we’re moving house soon has a tendency to do that to a person; you start to consider everything in your life in a different way as you prepare to make a fresh start.  Done right, this ends up stretching across the entire spectrum of your existence, from the objects in your room to the books on your shelves to the very way you live and work on a day to day basis.  As I’ve started to think about all these things, something has been bothering me.  My reading.  My approach to the internet and television.  The way these things work themselves into my life each day.  And so I decided to go back and study the way I used to read, the way I used to interact with media, and how I felt about that reading and that media then compared with the way I feel about it now.  

Okay, bear with me here...  To really understand how things have changed and what that means, I’ve gone right back to the moment I decided I wanted to be a literature student.  I hadn’t taken English Literature as an AS Level – looking back now, I wonder why the hell not – but during a visit to Sheffield University, standing in the middle of the literature section of their library, surrounded by tattered old Bronte and Dickens hardcovers, I realised I HAD to take those exams.  I just had to.  In my single-minded way, I volunteered to take the AS and A-level courses the same year, combining classes with extra tutoring to complete everything in time.  I loved it!  I was in my element.  Over previous years I had devoured other texts in the classroom – Macbeth, The Outsiders, Of Mice and Men, A Kestrel for a Knave, Romeo and Juliet – and now I did the same all over again, sinking deep into the exquisite language of Measure for Measure and Othello, and soaking up the cadences of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The only book I didn’t like was The Color Purple, which just didn’t click with me.  The rest?  Brilliant.

The following year I went off to York University as a combined English/History of Art student, and the love affair continued.  I adored most of my literature modules.  I ultimately decided to switch courses, but this was more to do with the way the course was structured (and staffed) than the literature itself.  It didn’t seem right to me that combined course students routinely got lower marks, got their last choice of modules, and that we were forced to spend ridiculous amounts of time (and money) on certain pet topics according to the mysterious lottery that formed our tutor allocation.  The last straw came when I got landed with a Joyce-addled, Ulysses-obsessed sociopath of a professor determined to make us splash out on his expensive version of the texts we were studying; that was it for me.  Over and out.  But before this, I HAD enjoyed, for example, John Bowen’s lively lectures on Dickens, and listening to John Barrell (or ‘Santa’ as we knew him) passionately extolling the virtues of his favourite literary greats. I picked apart one of Keats’ Odes for a tutorial and spent a seminar debating whether Fanny Price was, in fact, a ‘wet lettuce’ or actually just a nice person.  It was great!

In between days at the library and nights frantically writing essays, fuelled by chocolate, Red Bull and cigarettes (a habit I’ve put behind me, kiddies, before you gasp and tut), I kept my personal education ticking over in other ways.  I used the university library to track down books on topics I wanted to know more about, just for the hell of it (a photographic exploration of flamenco, for example, and lots of books relating to consumerism and marketing).  In the evening I’d switch over to documentaries on literature and history on BBC4, watch amazing movies just because they were there, and geek out big-time with my then-boyfriend Adam ploughing through box sets of Charmed, Mythbusters and Stargate SG-1.  And I’d read!  By the river, while Adam was playing video games, in the college cafe, wherever.  It was what I did.

Now, fast forward to 2012.  What exactly do I do with my time now?  Well, I work, yes.  But that really takes up no more of my time than cramming for tutorials or reading swathes of criticism ever did.  Less, in fact, since technically my working day is basically seven hours of sitting doing whatever I want, punctuated by admin.  Unless it’s a REALLY busy day, there are only so many sales, customer requests, questions, shelf-filling duties and so on to be done.  I’ll freely admit that I find it harder to read in public now; I get distracted far more easily, perhaps because of my tendency to keep one eye on my customers and one eye on my book.  Instead I usually take the lazy way out and allow myself to get pulled down the rabbit hole that is the internet, where I can spend an entire day trawling Pinterest boards for fun stuff, or article hop for three hours, or skip from blog to blog until I finally hit a distant end point, only pausing for breaks every time a customer approaches or it’s time to make more coffee.  It’s just too easy.

And what about the rest of my time?  My mornings, until we leave at 9:15am to get to the shop?  My evenings, when we get home at about 5:30pm and start winding down?  Well...  I do try to read a little in the morning.  Quite often I’ll sit on my bed, or on my bedroom floor, sipping coffee and munching a chocolate chip muffin for breakfast, waking up gently with the help of caffeine and my book.  This can topple anything from five to twenty-five pages or so, I suppose, before it’s time to get off my ass and finish getting ready.  On other days, however, I’ll turn on my laptop and catch up on a few blog posts from the last 24 hours, or watch something on iPlayer, or video-hop on YouTube. 

After work the possibilities are even more tempting – but no matter how often I tell myself that tonight I’ll settle down and read for a few hours before bed (at university I would often read until I fell asleep), or get everything done so that I can watch a great movie, this never actually happens.  Part of this, I’m sure, is due to the change in my routine.  At university I regularly went to bed at 2am and didn’t get up until well gone 9am for breakfast, which clearly isn’t good form when you’re working.  These days it’s more like up at 6:30am and in bed by 10:30pm – but all that really means is that my time has shifted slightly, right?  So why do I always wind up watching the same comedy episodes over and over on E4, or getting dragged back down that internet rabbit hole, instead of doing what I really want to be doing?  Every night I hit 10pm and think, “What have I done with my evening?  Where the hell did that time go?” 

Okay, this is getting rather long, so consider this Part 1 of my Reading Epiphany.  The next part(s) will get to what I really wanted to talk about – that is, what my reading used to be, how it has shifted, and why, and what I need to do about it to get my passion for books back again. 

Thanks for reading this far – and do comment if any of this sounds even remotely familiar, it’s always reassuring to know you’re not the only one!

Friday, 19 October 2012

REVIEW: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne (3.5*)

(Penguin Popular Classics, 1994)

'Is the Master out of his mind?' she asked me.
I nodded.
'And he's taking you with him?'
I nodded again.
'Where?' she asked.
I pointed towards the centre of the earth.
'Into the cellar?' exclaimed the old servant.
'No,' I said, 'farther down than that.'

Everyone knows the basic premise of Journey to the Centre of the Earth - but like so many novels that have made their way into the public consciousness (Frankenstein, anyone?) it's still well worth reading the original, because they're never quite what you think!  Like a game of Chinese Whispers, things get so distorted and simplified along the way that nothing beats going back to the source...

I had tremendously high hopes for this book, because as a little girl I had a mini square illustrated children's edition which I read cover to cover several times over.  I still remember the images of some of the most dramatic moments - Axel collapsed in a tunnel, all alone; Gretchen (simplified from the original Graüben) weeping over her beloved's departure; superhero Hans drawn in clean black and white ink...  Needless to say, I've been very much looking forward to reading the all-grown-up version these 20 or so years down the line!

As most of you will already know, the novel pretty much does what it says on the tin; it begins with Professor Lidenbrock, a geologist, scientist and all-round intellectual (the book calls him a savant)*, finding an ancient piece of parchment, inscribed in code, left in a book by the Icelandic explorer Arne Saknussemm.  When he finally deciphers the code, he is astonished to find that the parchment contains the precise location of the starting point of a journey to the centre of the earth.  His interest piqued, the eccentric professor immediately sets out for Iceland, dragging his long-suffering nephew with him.  There he hires a guide, ascends Mount Sneffels, and determinedly follows Saknessumm's footsteps down into the bowels of the earth...

I made that sound like the start of the story, right?  Indeed, the blurb of my Penguin Popular Classics edition states that "Their journey... begins on the summit of a volcano..."  Well, yes, but what it DOESN'T mention is that 100 pages into the 250-page book, they are only just reaching the crater that marks the real start of their adventure.  This is not a novel that plunges you head-first into action and excitement; it takes a LONG time to get going, and nearly half the book is taken up by the description of the trip to - and across - Iceland.  I couldn't help but think that if this was a modern novel, it would probably have been returned to the author with 'PACING!!!' scrawled across it in red ink...

Fortunately the pace soon picks up once the descent begins, and from that point onwards, the novel becomes a rip-roaring tale, crammed with drama and peril, excitement and discovery, all narrated by young Axel and sprinkled with scientific intrigue.  It must be said that Verne doesn't always wear his science lightly - at times his novel reads more like a scientific-minded vintage travelogue - but then another dramatic event will occur, or another wonder will be uncovered, and the reader is captivated all over again.  Not that the scientific elements are dull, particularly - in fact, Axel can become quite poetic about his pet subject, and some of the historical details are fascinating - but there is a liberal sprinkling of Latin names and geological jargon that requires a little care and concentration to grasp.

I think it was probably the three main characters themselves that made the novel for me (that, and the incredible prehistoric cavern with its glowing light and subterranean sea).  While Axel is probably the weakest of the characters - he reminded me rather unfortunately of Fanny Price, constantly keeling over or going into a blind panic even as his middle-aged uncle strode calmly on - he has a gently wry sense of humour and describes his companions very astutely.  He paints a wonderful picture of his uncle as the archetypal eccentric genius: determined, short-tempered, single-minded and completely ignorant of his own flaws.  Their hulking guide Hans, in contrast, is always calm, extremely skilled and capable, strong and unshakeable; he is their rock and their saviour on many occasions, like some kind of Nordic Superman.  It made me smile when Axel described his eyes as 'dreamy blue' - the hero-worship, the sheer awe with which he reveres him definitely borders on a man-crush at times!

Would I recommend reading this book?  Well, yes, of course - it is a classic adventure story, and as I said before, it has worked its way into the public consciousness to such an extent that it really deserves to be enjoyed in its own right.  It is not a fast-paced thriller, but it is one of the most famous fictional journeys in literature; it occasionally wears its scientific background heavily, but read in the right spirit is crammed with interesting nuggets of information; its narrating character is not the most witty or memorable of men, but he describes his surroundings beautifully.  I'm not sure yet whether it's going to be a keeper for me, but I AM glad to have honoured my childhood love for Verne's imagination and read the original at last!

*Okay, HOW MUCH did I want to write "defender of the innocent, protector of the weak, and all-around good guy... George of the Jungle" right there?  *coughs and grins*

Notable Quotables:
  • "On our old icy island people are fond of study.  There isn't a single farmer or fisherman who can't read and doesn't read.  We believe that books, instead of mouldering behind an iron grating, far from inquisitive gazes, should be worn out under the eyes of a great many readers."
  • "The rector did not seem to go in for traditional hospitality - far from it.  Before the day was over, I saw that we were dealing with a blacksmith, a fisherman, a hunter, a joiner, but not in any respect with a minister of the Lord.  Admittedly it was a weekday, and perhaps he was different on Sunday."
  • "On earth, even on the darkest night, light never entirely abdicates its rights.  It may be subtle and diffuse, but however little there may be the eye finally perceives it.  Here there was none.  The total darkness made me a blind man in the full meaning of the word."
  • "Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth."

Source:  I bought this book years and years ago - I have no idea where!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Top Ten Literary Names I'd Totally Give My Non-Existent Kids

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, this week's Top Ten Tuesday is a rewind!  Looking back over all the TTTs I've missed, I picked this one from February 2011: 
Top Ten Characters (Or Literary Figures) You'd Name Your Kids After

Because who DOESN'T occasionally sit pondering what they'd call their completely hypothetical and (thankfully) non-existent children?  And when you're a book fiend there are so many brilliant names to choose from!  Not only that, but a beautiful edition of a namesake book would make a fantastic gift for, say, a 16th birthday.  See, I THINK about these things...  Some of the names could obviously be strung together into a first AND middle name, so really, the combinations are endless.  I have a feeling this might be harder than I thought...

Lorna Doone -  This one's been set in stone for years!  My first daughter (should I ever have one) will be Lorna Rose, after Blackmore's beautiful and feisty young heroine.  I fell in love with the book - and the characters - as a young teenager, and with the BBC's gorgeous adaptation as well, and that was that!

Lord Byron - I LOVE the name Byron for a boy, and always had it in mind for my first son.  Not only was he a passionate, witty and brooding poet who cast his shadow over large swathes of my teen years, but She Walks in Beauty remains my all-time favourite poem.  Now I just need a middle name...

Dorian Gray - Okay, so like Byron, he's not the most morally sound of namesakes - but I love him anyway.  The Picture of Dorian Gray was the first classic I ever bought myself and it's been my favourite book ever since.  I'm a sucker for a tormented bad boy, and I always secretly hope Dorian will be redeemed before it's too late...  Also, it's a bloody awesome name!

Edmond Dantes - Or as he is perhaps better known, The Count of Monte Cristo.  I actually like both Edmond AND Dante, so either would work.  The epic story of a humble man wronged and imprisoned, only to rise again as a strong, intelligent and wordly avenger, this book absolutely blew me away.  Incidentally, it was also my very first review on this blog!  Yes, the Count is occasionally a bit scary - and very dangerous - but at his heart he is still Edmond Dantes, the hard-working sailor deeply in love with the beautiful Mercedes...  That's got to be worth naming someone after, right?

Isabella - This has become seriously clichéd in recent years thanks to the number of breeding TwiHards who couldn't come up with a less obvious tribute, but it is a beautiful name.  Not only is there the vampilicious Miss Swan, but Bella was the name of the title character in one of my favourite books as a child, The Enchanted Horse by Magdalen Nabb.  She was a wooden horse who came to life at night under the tender care of a little girl, and the book always made me cry.  Bonus point: Bella was also my great-grandmother's name.

Jolyon Forsyte - That's pronounced Joe-lee-un, by the way.  Like Lorna Doone, I fell in love with the book AND adaptation of The Forsyte Saga in my early teens.  There are three generations of Jolyon Forsytes across the trilogy, all of them generous and kind-hearted; like the youngest, I'd probably shorten it to Jon.  The alternative, of course, would be to go for good old John - perhaps as a middle name - which immediately brings to mind steadfast John Ridd (Lorna Doone), loyal John Watson (Sherlock Holmes) AND hard-working John Thornton (North and South)...

Beth March - When I was younger I, like every other wannabe-writer book-loving kid out there, always thought of myself as a 'Jo'.  But over the years I've come to appreciate quiet Beth far more than her rowdier sister.  Sweet, innocent and selfless, she's the one the other girls depend on without knowing it, the one they turn to for comfort and balance and a kind word.  If you wanted to name your little girl after a literary character, you couldn't choose one much lovelier! 

Daphne du Maurier - Daphne is a beautiful name, and I love her novels (Rebecca is one of my favourite books), so this one's a bit of a no-brainer really.  Not only is du Maurier a bit of a literary legend, but Daphne is also the name of one of the characters come good in Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series, AND it was the name of my stepdad's witty and wonderful mother.  I didn't know her very well but she was a sweetheart, and sharp as a thumbtack!

Harry - Include Henry in this bunch, and you've got a hat trick of characters to choose from as a namesake: the dashing Sir Henry Curtis in King Solomon's Mines, the incorrigible Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and of course, the boy wizard himself.  Plus Prince Harry was always my favourite...   ;)

Charlie - I know I only read The Perks of Being a Wallflower recently, but I completely fell in love with Charlie.  It's a lovely name, and if I had a son who was even half as sweet, thoughtful and bookish as the blossoming young wallflower he was named after, I'd be a very lucky woman!

Come on then, fess up - if you had to name a child after a literary figure, who would it be?  Perhaps you already have?  And if you're a TTT participant, feel free to leave the link to your Top Ten Rewind in the comments so I can come a-visiting and check it out!