Thursday, 24 March 2016

March: What I Read

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (4*) - FINALLY, I HAVE CONQUERED THE BEAST.  Yes, fifteen years after my teenage self combed through this book for 'good bits' and nearly lost her lunch, my adult self read it in its entirety and to her surprise, rather enjoyed herself!  This book is not going to be for everyone, or even for most people.  The eponymous Patrick Bateman's relentlessly monotonous cycle of brand names, outfit descriptions, expensive restaurants, pill-popping and bed-hopping will put many off before they even GET to the torture, murder, sadism and frenzied cannibalism - but actually, I ended up finding the repetitive detail quite soothing, and found that not only did this shallow everyday rhythm counter the (incredibly) graphic scenes beautifully, but it also allowed Bateman's black humour and moments of sudden wisdom and humanity to shine through with unexpected brightness.  I got quite fond of him by the end - like somehow as reader and character we had been through the wringer together, each inside the other's psyche - and I still can't quite work out how much of his narrative was 'real' or whether some interactions and moments were purely the product of his increasingly desperate mind.  Now I'm going to allow myself to revisit the (much tamer and more obviously funny) movie, and my mastery of this novel will finally be complete!

Little House in the Big Woods (Little House 1) by Laura Ingalls Wilder (4.5*) - I'm waaaay behind on Bex's 2016 Little House readalong, so this month I finally picked up the first book to get started - and it was wonderful.  Set in the early 1870s in Wisconsin, it's an autobiographical year in the life of four year-old Laura's pioneer family - Ma, Pa, Mary, Laura and baby Carrie - and their log cabin in the woods.  What really struck me was how connected the family is to its surroundings: how the shifting seasons are enjoyed; how the natural world is respected and seen as something to coexist with, not conquer; and how each meal, each foodstuff, each item for the house is carefully planned and created from scratch, often with help from Laura's wider family.  It's a wonderful antidote to modern living, with charming illustrations to add to the reading experience, and I loved every minute.  It's a rose-tinted tale to be sure, and it lost half a star for a couple of slightly muddled descriptions of the objects and processes Laura observed - but they were minor gripes.  Roll on book 2!

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (4*) - I'm not a massive reader of historical fiction, but when the film buzz first arose (with a bunch of my favourite actors attached to the project) it really whet my appetite for this one.  It's the story of a young Irish girl, Eilis, who travels from Enniscorthy to Brooklyn in the 1950s to start a new life full of expanded opportunities and interesting people.  The novel explores her growth from a timid girl to a poised young woman, and the way she is torn between her Irish roots and American lifestyle.  It's written in a slightly detached tone, and the ending was a bit too abrupt for me (albeit realistic), but I loved Eilis's journey and the many little details that brought her experiences to life, whether it was the rough crossing to New York, working in a department store, Christmas at the local parish hall, or spending the day at the beach with friends.  A compelling, subtle little novel that didn't rock my world, but made me very glad I picked it up and gave it a chance.  Just one word of warning - don't (re)watch the movie trailer if you plan to read it; it spoils (and therefore ruins) one of the most important plot points of the whole novel!

P.S. I watched the movie last night and it was BEAUTIFUL.  The music is to die for, it streamlines some of the fussier strands of the original, and the slight air of detachment in the novel gives way to a deeply emotional screen adaptation that ends on a perfect note.  My only issues with it were that some of the key characters lacked the depth and spark they had on the page, and it skipped over most of the novel's romantic scenes that served to heighten the stakes in Eilis's dual lives and make the necessity to choose between them all the more poignant.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (4*) - Yup, I finally read it - which is good, because I was starting to feel like the last person in the universe to pick it up, and it's been on my shelves for TWO AND A HALF YEARS already.  I didn't like it as much as Attachments, but I appreciated the slow-building and refreshingly joyful nature of the relationship between Cath and Levi, and I loved Reagan's sass and Mr Avery's dry wit (I was imagining him as Stanley Tucci all the way through!).  The focus on the Simon Snow fandom brought back some great Potter memories, and given my Carry On purchase last week it's probably a good thing that I preferred Cath's fanfiction to the 'real' Simon book excerpts peppered through the novel.  Overall I think it was maybe a little longer than it needed to be, but it finally succeeded where Anna and the French Kiss (and others) failed for me - it's a fun, bookish college novel full of interesting and multifaceted characters and different types of relationships and issues, and has a self-awareness and charm that help to excuse its more clichéd moments.  Bring on the next Rainbow! 

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (5*) - This book's been on my radar for the longest time (you know how much I love a good mental health novel) and HOORAY, it was so worth the wait!  First of all, let me say that it's quite refreshing to read one of these stories from the perspective of an average guy; not a painfully innocent or shy boy, or a kooky girl, but a regular, testosterone-driven, vaguely worldly fifteen year-old who likes video games, pot and jerking off.  Craig's description of his five days in a mental hospital, which he checks himself into after a long battle with depression and a night of suicidal crisis - is not only pithy, warm and very realistic (it is drawn from Vizzini's own experiences), it is also, as the title suggest, really kind of funny.  It's filled with wonderful characters and it's possibly the most relatable mental health novel I've read yet; I've scrawled so many notes and hearts and stars in the margin to mark passages to go back to next time I need to feel that I'm not alone and that other people have had the same weird thoughts as I'm having.  I also watched the movie adaptation, which is quite faithful to the book and put a big smile on my face by the time the credits rolled.  Highly recommended!

Gold by Dan Rhodes (4*) - This is an odd little book.  Nothing much happens, and yet it completely won my heart back in 2009 with its mixture of small-town characters, gentle charm and earthy British flavour.  It opens with three friends - short Mr Hughes, tall Mr Hughes and Mr Puw - chatting idly in their local pub.  Septic Barry is sitting across the room with his band, and Mr Edwards is pulling pints behind the bar.  All is as it should be.  And then a Japanese-looking girl walks in, orders a pint and sits down in the corner.  "Welcome back," everyone says.  But who is she?  Every year she arrives in this little Welsh coastal town and stays for a fortnight, alone, walking and drinking and reading.  Why is she here?  The book meanders through each day of her stay, adding little by little to the quirky tapestry of the town and the people in it as their stories unfold, and reaching deeper into Miyuki's life back home.  It's funny and delightful and strangely beautiful, and I loved reconnecting with it - and its sweetheart of a protagonist - all over again!

Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe (4.5*) - Another reread for me - and one I would wholeheartedly recommend to a large swathe of my fellow book lovers, be they LibraryThingers, GoodReaders, bloggers, BookTubers or just die-hard lifelong readers.  It could have been written for us - or by us, for that matter!  In short, this is a comprehensive guide to biblioholism and all the various quirky traits and habits that go along with it.  It is evident that Raabe is 'one of us' and he drives right to the heart of our affliction with humour and insight.  Alongside chapters on book buying, reading, collecting and storage, he also includes a hilarious alternative history of the book and a section on the extremes of bookish behaviour - eating books, stealing them, burying them and even destroying them.  With a wealth of interesting and amusing examples of biblioholic behaviour drawn from literature and history, this is a definite keeper for me - and I was delighted to find that when it came to the self-help-esque quiz (just how bad DO you have it?) I had actually increased my score a few points since my last reading; I can now rest assured that I'm still on my chosen path to eventually dying happily under a collapsed bookcase.  Good to know.  :)
Aaaaand that was my March...  Hope you all enjoyed your reading this month too!

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

A trip down (bookish) memory lane

This post was originally conceived as a wander through a few choice books from the span of my reading career, linking each one to tangible objects that have been spun up with them over the years to form the web that is my literary life.  A kind of bookish show-and-tell, if you like.  When I started thinking about it, however, I realised that most of my favourite and most memorable reads have been tied to places and experiences, not things - and certainly not things I still have around me now.

Reading On the Island by Tracey Gravis Graves, for example, immediately conjures up memories of reading it on a sunlounger in Fuerteventura during my first holiday in years, when my agoraphobia had been beaten into submission juuuuust far enough for me to get on a plane and go sit by the pool in a pretty resort for a week, alternating between reading my books and staring happily at the ocean.  Which is a wonderful memory, but hard to actually show you now, four years and many miles away!

How about the books from my schooldays?  For some reason everything we read at secondary school was quite clearly going to make everyone cry (frickin' sadists) so I got really good at sneaking my class copies into my rucksack at the end of the lesson, rather than depositing them back in the box as it went round.  I'd take them home and devour them right to the end, so that when the next English lesson rolled around I'd know exactly the right points to drift off and think happy thoughts so I didn't end up sobbing into my shirt like the rest of the students.  :)
Then there's my old favourite Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer, which is tied up with so many events in my life that I wrote an entire blog post about it.  I bought and read it at university, so its bohemian vibe is inextricably linked with the bookish good cheer of student life in York.  After I read it I discovered pictures, videos and documentaries to draw me further into the world of Shakespeare and Company.  Then came books about its history, films in which it makes an appearance, volumes written by literary greats who became linked to the bookstore over the years...  It helped shape my bookshop and my own approach as a bookseller, and that led to appearances in Jen's books - which also featured Shakespeare and Company, who invited her to speak there and stay at the bookshop herself.  FULL CIRCLE, BABY.  One big sparkly cloud of inspiration and books and wine and generosity and everything good.

Finally, I thought about The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, a lifelong favourite of mine.  I had already read and loved it as a very little girl, so one Christmas my parents bought me the audiobook version on tape.  It was read by a single narrator, but it had little musical interludes and she did all the voices, from the strict Mrs Medlock to the broad Yorkshire accent of young Martha and Dickon. 

I will always link that listening experience to my 'Nature Club', a youthful endeavour to raise money for Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital down in Aylesbury.  I watched their children's TV show, read their books and subscribed to their newsletters, and being a keen little nature lover and wildlife watcher I wanted to raise money to help the animals there. 

To do that I started a Nature Club for my primary school friends (I was only about 9 or 10 at the time), making little things to sell and producing a club magazine every few months.  I'd carefully write and draw each page, with puzzles, letters, pictures, wildlife information, recipes and all sorts of other things, then Mum would sneak the pages into work and photocopy them all for me. 

Back home, I'd carefully assemble and staple my batch of magazines, get out my bumper tub of felt tips, then put my Secret Garden tape into the old cassette player on the living room floor and lie next to it for hours, colouring in each individual magazine and making it pretty.  Sometimes I could listen to the whole book two or three times over before all the magazines were finished.  The next day I'd take them to school and sell them to my friends.  We didn't exactly make a fortune (a 9 year-old's disposable income being on the meagre side and all), but we managed to sponsor a pair of baby bunnies (Poseidon and Neptune), and I got myself featured in the Tiggy's magazine and found pen friends in two sisters whose mum worked in their offices, so I was more than happy!

All these years later my family still supports Tiggywinkles, and a couple of years ago we even surprised my grandmother with a trip there for her 80th birthday.  When I was little there was nothing but a small shop open to the public; now there's a beautiful landscaped area to walk round, lots of gardens and animal enclosures for the residents that can never be released back into the wild, a museum, nursery, Red Kite centre, plus refreshments and the gift shop - it's a really lovely place to go for an hour or two and enjoy the sunshine and the wildlife.  My grandmother literally didn't twig what was going on until we turned into their driveway, and she was so happy that she burst into tears as soon as we walked through the door.  The staff all wished her a happy birthday and treated her like visiting royalty; it was just the loveliest day.

Soooo, there we have it.  A few books from my reading life and the memories and feelings that sit quietly on the bookshelf right alongside them - as opposed to the physical objects and souvenirs that have long since dropped away.  There's a life lesson in there somewhere...

Friday, 4 March 2016

A long-overdue EIGHT mini-reviews

It's time for a mega mini-review catch-up!  I think that I'm now up to date with everything I've read up to the end of February, so... shall we get started?

The Pearl by John Steinbeck (4*) - It's been a while since I read this, and honestly I think it will be quite forgettable in the long run - but I obviously really enjoyed it at the time, hence the four-star rating!  A kind of fable about greed, materialism and envy built around the discovery of a great pearl by a poor Mexican freediver, it's short, folksy, lyrical and poignant, and I very much enjoyed the musicality and dreamlike feeling of the reading experience.  Not necessarily one I'd rush to read again, but quite beautiful!

Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser (3.5*) - This is essentially a novel for young teens about bullying and gun violence, in particular the school shooting phenomenon. Its moral is perhaps a little simplistic and obvious to an adult, especially so long after it was first written, but the evolution of the two boys at the centre of the story has played itself out so many times in the intervening years that it still rings all too true. It's clear that the novel has used genuine incidents to formulate the story, with Strasser including footnotes to show where specific details echo real-life cases. If this makes even one kid stop and think differently about how they treat others around them, then that's got to be worth something.

The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet by Dr Michael Mosley - I can't really rate this one yet, and it's very unusual for me to read anything like this - but diet book, yaaaaay! I've put on weight since my last mega-depression, and with my family history of diabetes, high cholesterol, heart problems and all kinds of other ticking time bombs, I thought this would be worth a try! Michael Mosley is known here in the UK for his well-researched, well-presented TV health documentaries, which time and time again have thrown things into new perspectives and flipped over decades-old received wisdom, so I have high hopes. The book itself is made up of a swathe of detail about Type 2 diabetes (which this diet has been proven to actually reverse), blood sugar, the Mediterranean diet and the science behind the resurgence of the VLCD (very low calorie diet).  All very interesting and persuasive.  The last section is all recipes, most of which I didn't like the look of - but I HAVE started the diet, using my own menu made up from the same foods and principles, and it's going well so far, cake cravings aside!

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (4*) - This was one of the longest-standing books on my TBR, and I'm SO GLAD I finally read it.  It's about four very different strangers who meet on top of a tall building on New Year's Eve, each planning to jump off - only they don't.  Instead, they grudgingly head back down the stairs together, and after a rocky night, end up making a pact to stay alive until Valentine's Day and see how things go.  I loved the four voices - disgraced TV presenter Martin, downtrodden Maureen, madcap young Jess and musician JJ (he was my favourite) - and the way this single shared experience unites them, separates them, brings them meaning but also trouble, creates opportunities but also slams doors.  It was real and blackly humorous and strangely uplifting and I can't wait to read my next Nick Hornby novel!
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon by Gideon Defoe (3*) - The fourth in the humorous Pirates! series, this one actually doesn't involved that much pirating.  After humiliation at the annual Pirate Awards, the Pirate Captain (with his luxuriant beard and pleasant, open face) has decided to retire - only his tropical island of choice actually turns out to be a bleak goat-riddled chunk of rock, and he'll be sharing the hearts of the local townspeople with none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.  Bring on the clash of the egos!  Funny, slightly surreal, and heralding the return of all my favourite pirates including Jennifer (former Victorian lady) and the long-suffering pirate with a scarf.  A fun way to while away an afternoon!
Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender (4*) - Reading this slim little volume was like sitting down in your favourite armchair with a hot cup of tea at the end of a long day: soothing, comforting and deliciously peaceful.  Built around Bender's fascination with Amish quilts, this is the story of how her interest became a full-fledged quest for a better and calmer life.  Bender went to stay with two different Amish families over the course of a few years, and tried to use her experiences in their communities to pinpoint what was missing from her life and reframe it in a way that balanced Amish values with modern American living.  Unexpectedly relatable, interesting and quite lovely.

An Age of License: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley (4*) - This was my third Lucy Knisley book (after Relish and French Milk) and despite the lack of all-out foodie emphasis this time, it was definitely my favourite of the three.  This time Knisley documents her trip around Europe promoting her books, meeting up with old friends and enjoying her three loves - comics, food and culture.  There's a dash of romance and a cheerful appearance from Knisley's lovely mother, and the overall tone is light and welcoming; she's mercifully lost that whining self-pity that made French Milk so much less appealing than it should have beenDefinitely a keeper!

Breathing Room by Marsha Hayles (4.5*) - I picked this up on Amazon when it happened to pop up in my recommendations at the same time as one of those sudden 'last copy of the current stock' price drops.  I had never heard of it before and had no idea what to expect - but I'm glad I took a chance!  It's a YA novel set in a Minnesota TB sanatorium in 1940, and is told from the perspective of Evelyn, a 13 year-old new arrival on the girls' ward.  Although it's undoubtedly sanitised for younger readers, there are some genuinely shocking moments alongside the friendships, intrigues, medical interventions and the relentless strict monotony of the sanatorium routine.  Whenever I started to forget, something drew my attention back to the fact that these patients were literally fighting for their lives, every single day.  I cried several times, and learned a lot both from the novel itself and from the historical images, background information and research details that Hayles includes in the book.  A well-written little gem.
Aaaaand that's me all caught up, finally!