Sunday Salon: A time to fight, a time to chill

The Sunday SalonConsidering the timing of this post, there are some definite political interpretations of today’s headline, and I am a political person. However, what I want to write about is a more personal health-related meaning of the words “A time to fight, a time to chill”.

Having lupus means it’s extra important for me to stay fit, because the less fit I am, the more often I fall into the fatigue vicious circle (too tired to exercise → less fit, therefore more tired) – and for me, when the fatigue hits, it’s serious business. So early this year I made the decision to really push myself to get fit. I started running at least twice a week, going a little further each week, no matter what the weather, no matter how little I wanted to go out sometimes.

And it was working well. My first run in the first week of February was about 2.5 k in 17 minutes. In mid-April I beat my previous PB of 5 k and started plotted out some 6 and 7 k routes to aim for. I was finding it hard to get past 5.5 k but I was so proud of myself for how far I’d come. I was feeling healthier, happier and had energy.

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Recent reads in brief

I seem to have been reading so quickly for a few weeks there that I am way behind on reviews again, so here are a few quickies.

lifeboatThe Lifeboat
by Charlotte Rogan

This is the story of Grace, survivor of a 1914 ocean liner disaster. We learn at the start that she survived for three weeks in a lifeboat and is now facing trial for her life. She narrates the story of the shipwreck and Lifeboat 14, gradually revealing the crime she now stands accused of.

Most of the boat’s occupants are upper class women, and as such practical matters quickly fall to a small number of characters. Grace is young, recently married to a rich man, but her background is murky, as are her actions. Throughout a fairly suspenseful, exciting story she muses on matters of guilt and innocence, on character traits and social status. She watches alliances being formed, gossip spreading, moments of human strength and weakness. But ultimately Grace is a frustrating narrator. She rarely places herself in the story, and when she does her position is often unclear. Is she as weak and on the fence as she seems or is it an act? The whole narrative is being written as a piece of evidence for her lawyers, so she has a clear motive to paint her actions whiter than they perhaps were. I like ambiguity and unreliable narrators, but I found the hints at Grace’s unreliability were a little too hidden. And for a lot of the start of the novel I found the uselessness of the majority of the women incredibly annoying.

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Hello! What are you reading?

hello-what-are-you-readingIn this blog series, I ask my friends and family to talk a little about their current reads. I figured it would make a change to look at the reading habits of people who read a lot but don’t blog about it usually.

This week we’re hearing from Claire, who is the newest member of our pub quiz team and the most likely to be there on the days we win – could be there’s a correlation there. We share a love for all things Italian, but unlike me she can speak – and read – the language. In fact, she has a PhD in it (newly minted last year) and as soon as I’ve got that TBR down to a more manageable size I’ll be hitting her up for some Italian literature recommendations. Let’s find out what Claire has been reading recently.

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Buzz Aldrin: No Dream is Too High

(Photo by talkie_tim)
(Photo by talkie_tim)

Toppings Bookshop event
The Forum, Bath, 3 June 2016

When a friend at work e-mailed round a heads up that tickets were about to be released for a chance to meet Buzz Aldrin, a bunch of us leapt at the chance. It almost didn’t matter what the actual event would be – we’re talking about a man who has walked on the Moon, a genuine living legend. Turns out, he’s promoting his new book No Dream is Too High: Life Lessons from a Man who Walked on the Moon.

The Forum can seat 1640 and the event was a sellout, but with a bit of planning ahead we managed to get ourselves near the front, with a prime view of the 86 year old and his manager, who corralled him through his story, prompted by photos from his life. And I do mean corralled. From his parents (with wonderful foreshadowing his mother was called Marion Moon), to his Air Force career, to NASA, to scuba diving with sharks on his 80th birthday, Buzz was ready to expand at length on every anecdote, to go off on tangents (often related to the more scientific or historic aspects of the tale) and had to be persuaded back on track. Which was wholly delightful.

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She succeeds in doing what no one ever dared think she would

little-communist-who-never-smiledThe Little Communist Who Never Smiled: a Novel
by Lola Lafon
translated from French by Nick Caistor

Like many who dabbled with gymnastics in their youth, I have a small obsession with former Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci. I remember a year or two when a VHS copy of the made-for-TV biopic Nadia was passed around my gym club like a precious jewel. I watched it several times during the week I took it home. Years later I realised that this was the same Nadia on our TV screens during every Olympics and World Championships, only now she was an American coach. But despite my love for Nadia the gymnast, I never really looked further into her life.

On reflection, it should have been obvious that her life was more interesting than the bare facts of her gymnastic achievements. Born in 1961, the Romania she was raised in and trained in was a “Marxist-Leninist one-party state”, as Wikipedia puts it, until the 1989 revolution that ousted – and executed – the state’s controversial leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nadia defected to the US just weeks before the revolution.

As the subtitle and author’s note make clear, this is fiction, but it’s fiction written in a journalistic style. Lafon uses real sources – articles, footage, interviews, even Nadia’s own memoir – and an imagined dialogue with Nadia to piece together her life from the age of 7, when she was picked for training by legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, to 1990, a year after her mysterious escape. As such this reads like a particularly well-written biography, careful in most places not to invent what cannot be verified and to be clear where events are disputed. But there is, of course, invention – not least those conversations with a current-day “Nadia C”.

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Shiny New Books: Issue 10 out now

Just a quick nudge that Shiny New Books issue 10 has been released – dozens of new book reviews and other bookish articles including the first of a new series called A Novel Calling. There are also two reviews by me squirreled away in there: French psychological drama in Ladivine by Marie Ndiaye and Russian Revolution in The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson. Hop on over there to see what I thought of those two and to check out all the other great new reviews.

Hello! What are you reading?

hello-what-are-you-readingIn this new blog series, I ask my friends and family to talk a little about their current reads. I figured it would make a change to look at the reading habits of people who read a lot but don’t blog about it usually.

This week we’re hearing from Bruce, who I originally met through Tim – they were in university halls together and have been close friends ever since – and over the years we’ve become close too. Bruce is always good for a heartfelt all-night chat and if he would only remember my need to eat dinner I would rate his nights out as the best fun! He’s another fellow karaoke fan, though our musical taste is rather different, but we do have quite similar taste in books, which I always forget until the rare occasions when I actually ask. Which is why I started this blog series. Here’s what Bruce is reading.

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May 2016 reading round-up

(George Wharton Edwards, 1873)

In writing this post I was briefly convinced I was wrapping up June, not May. It must be the lovely weather we’re having. I’m glad I was wrong! This month we went to three gigs (Sound of the Sirens, the Heavy and the Dandy Warhols) and one play (The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary), had two weekends away visiting family and I still managed to read a lot. (Tim thinks I have more energy these days, since taking up running regularly. He might be on to something.)

I think May is a good month. It’s bookended by bank holidays; it’s warm even on wet days (I have had “Summer rain” by Belinda Carlisle stuck in my head far too often lately); the months of summer stretch out ahead full of promise. It’s also when the city really begins to be packed with far more things to do than we can get to. For instance, yesterday Bristol Old Vic had a huge street party to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It looked awesome, but we had a lawn to mow, pictures to hang, books to read, new music purchases to listen to. Chilled time at home is good too.

How was your May?

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Comics in brief

To celebrate the sunny long weekend I decided to sort out our comic book collection, which had become several scarily tall piles around the house. We already had the boxes, the plastic covers, the back boards – I just had to combine them and give them some kind of order. The latent librarian in me thoroughly enjoyed it. And it reminded me of how many said comics I wanted to read, so I read a handful.

I-Kill-Giants-coverI Kill Giants
by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura

This is a gorgeous graphic novel about a teenage girl going through a difficult time. Barbara and her younger brother Dave are being cared for by their older sister Karen, but their situation feels precarious. Barbara won’t stop telling everyone that she kills giants, that the handmade bag she carries is her secret giant-killing weapon, and everyone is getting fed up of humouring her. What is this fantasy life all about? How much does she really believe in it herself? Can her new friend Sophia and the school counsellor get through to Barbara before something awful happens?

The art is manga-inflected, which feels right with the dark fantasies and darker themes that are gradually revealed. It’s heartfelt and sad, so much so that I pretty much wept through the last 20 or so pages. If anyone ever doubts that comics and graphic novels can deal with deep, nuanced themes, this is the story to show them. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Thanks to Purple_Steve for the reading suggestion!)

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The true India slid by unnoticed

passage to indiaA Passage to India
by E M Forster

This is the second time I’ve tried reading this book and I almost didn’t finish it again, but this time I was near the end when I got a little bored. For the most part I found it gripping and beautifully written, if a little troubling when it comes to race and politics.

The thing is, it’s a story about how problematic colonialism can be; effectively it’s about racism, and yet it itself reads as racist. It was written in the 1920s so that wouldn’t normally be a surprise, but when Forster has taken race as a central theme you’d think he’d have the self-awareness to avoid his own racist remarks. Unless they’re all intended ironically, which is a possibility, but in that case the point being made is just as obscured as if it were not ironic.

“She continued: ‘What a terrible river! What a wonderful river!’ and sighed. The radiance was already altering, whether through shifting of the moon or of the sand; soon the bright sheaf would be gone, and a circlet, itself to alter, be burnished upon the streaming void. The women discussed whether they would wait for the change or not, while the silence broke into patches of unquietness.”

The story centres around Dr Aziz, a young Indian doctor in British-run Chandrapore (a fictional city in north-east India). He is well liked by everyone and has a large circle of close friends from different religions, different backgrounds. So it is doubly surprising when he is accused of assault by newly arrived Englishwoman Adela Quested.

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