Sunday Salon: Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge

The Sunday Salon

So, this one’s just for fun. The challenge has been around for a while but then it’s a long list to get through! I love the TV show Gilmore Girls and wish I could be half as smart and frankly lucky as Rory, or have half of Lorelai’s style and wit.

To borrow the intro from It’s Time to Read: With some wonderful people on the Book Club Forum we are reading through some of the books that Rory Gilmore read in the TV show Gilmore Girls. Here is the list of books she has read (taken from this forum – thanks!).

I have annotated the ones I have read and the ones that are already on my TBR.

1984 by George Orwell – read multiple times, originally in my teens
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – read in 2003, but I also half remember my Dad reading it to me and my sister many years earlier
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – read multiple times, originally when at primary school
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabonread in 2010
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt – read in my teens
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – read multiple times, originally in my teens
Archidamian War by Donald Kagan
The Art of Fiction by Henry James
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
As I Lay Dying by William Faulknerread in 2010
Atonement by Ian McEwan – read
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
The Awakening by Kate Chopin – read for my degree
Babe by Dick King-Smith – read (under its original title of The Sheep-Pig) when at primary school
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie – read 2009-ish
Bambi by Felix Salten
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plathread in 2010
Beloved by Toni Morrison – read
Beowulf A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney – TBR
The Bhagava Gita
The Bielski Brothers by Peter Duffy
Bitch in Praise of Difficult Women by Elizabeth Wurtzel
A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays by Mary McCarthy
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – read in 2009
Brick Lane by Monica Ali – read, I think, almost certain
Brigadoon by Alan Jay Lerner
Candide by Voltaireread in 2011
The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer – I’ve read the odd extract but not enough to strike this off
Carrie by Stephen King – read in my teens
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – started and gave up. I know, I know, I must try again sometime
The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger – read
Charlotte’s Web by E B White – read when I was at school
The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman
Christine by Stephen King
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – read multiple times
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – started and gave up. Another one I intend to try again
The Code of the Woosters by P G Wodehouse
The Collected Short Stories by Eudora Welty
A Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare – TBR
Complete Novels by Dawn Powell
The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornbyread in 2012
Complete Stories by Dorothy Parker
Complete Tales & Poems by Edgar Allan Poe – I’ve read several but certainly not all
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père – read
Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – TBR
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Cujo by Stephen King
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon – read in 2003
Daisy Miller by Henry James
Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
David and Lisa by Dr Theodore Issac Rubin
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown – read
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Deenie by Judy Blume
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band by Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, Mick Mars and Nikki Sixx
The Divine Comedy by Dante
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
Don Quixote by Cervantes – started and gave up
Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhrv
Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – read in my teens
Eleanor Roosevelt by Blanche Wiesen Cook
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn
Eloise by Kay Thompson
Emily the Strange by Roger Reger
Emma by Jane Austen
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective by Donald J Sobol
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Ethics by Spinoza
Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Extravagance by Gary Krist
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – read
Fahrenheit 9/11 by Michael Moore
The Fall of the Athenian Empire by Donald Kagan
Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson – read 2002-ish
Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom – read
Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
Fletch by Gregory McDonald
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – read 2008-ish
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand – read 2008-ish
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – read multiple times, originally for my A levels in 1998
Franny and Zooey by J D Salinger – read
Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers
Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
George W Bushism: The Slate Book of the Accidental Wit and Wisdom of our 43rd President by Jacob Weisberg
Gidget by Fredrick Kohner
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Alvin Granowsky
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford – read for my degree
The Gospel According to Judy Bloom by Judy Bloom
The Graduate by Charles Webb
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – TBR
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – read
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – read multiple times, originally in my teens
The Group by Mary McCarthy
Hamlet by William Shakespeare – read
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J K Rowling – read
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J K Rowling – read
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers – read
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Henry IV, part I by William Shakespeare – TBR
Henry IV, part II by William Shakespeare – TBR
Henry V by William Shakespeare – TBR
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – read
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
Holidays on Ice: Stories by David Sedaris
The Holy Barbarians by Lawrence Lipton
House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss
How the Light Gets in by M J Hyland
Howl by Allen Ginsberg – read 2004
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Iliad by Homer – TBR
I’m with the Band by Pamela des Barres
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – read
Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee
Iron Weed by William J Kennedy
It Takes a Village by Hillary Clinton
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – read multiple times
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare – read for my degree
The Jumping Frog by Mark Twain
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Just a Couple of Days by Tony Vigorito
The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – read
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence – read
The Last Empire: Essays 1992–2000 by Gore Vidal
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman – read for my degree
The Legend of Bagger Vance by Steven Pressfield
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis – I started this and ended up giving it away because I really didn’t like it
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken
Life of Pi by Yann Martel – read
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
The Little Locksmith by Katharine Butler Hathaway
The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen – read
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – read multiple times
Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Lord of the Fliesby William Golding – read
The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien – read
The Lottery: And Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – read
The Love Story by Erich Segal
Macbeth by William Shakespeare – read
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – read
The Manticore by Robertson Davies
Marathon Man by William Goldman
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov – TBR
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir
Memoirs of General W T Sherman by William Tecumseh Sherman
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer
A Mencken Chrestomathy by H R Mencken
The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare – read for my degree
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – read
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides read in 2011
The Miracle Worker by William Gibson
Moby Dick by Herman Melville – started, did not finish
The Mojo Collection: The Ultimate Music Companion by Jim Irvin
Moliere: A Biography by Hobart Chatfield Taylor
A Monetary History of the United States by Milton Friedman
Monsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret
A Month of Sundays: Searching for the Spirit and My Sister by Julie Mars
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – read (for A levels, I think)
Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath by Seymour M Hersh
My Life as Author and Editor by H R Mencken
My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru by Tim Guest
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult – I’m actually not sure whether I’ve read this…
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco – read 2004-ish
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin
Nervous System: Or, Losing My Mind in Literature by Jan Lars Jensen
New Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson – read some of them, not all
The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay
Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
Night by Elie Wiesel
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen – read for my degree
The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism by William E Cain, Laurie A Finke, Barbara E Johnson, John P McGowan
Novels 1930–1942: Dance Night/Come Back to Sorrento, Turn, Magic Wheel/Angels on Toast/A Time to be Born by Dawn Powell
Notes of a Dirty Old Man by Charles Bukowski
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – read in my teens
Old School by Tobias Wolff – read
On the Road by Jack Kerouac – TBR
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquezread in 2011
The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life by Amy Tan
Oracle Night by Paul Auster
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Othello by Shakespeare – read for my degree
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens – read for my degree
The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan
Out of Africa by Isac Dineson
The Outsiders by S E Hinton
A Passage to India by E M Forster – TBR
The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition by Donald Kagan
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – TBR
Pigs at the Trough by Arianna Huffington
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi – read
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker
The Portable Nietzche by Fredrich Nietzche
The Price of Loyalty: George W Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill by Ron Suskind
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austenread in 2011
Property by Valerie Martin – read
Pushkin: A Biography by T J Binyon
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shawread in 2012
Quattrocento by James Mckean
A Quiet Storm by Rachel Howzell Hall
Rapunzel by the Grimm Brothers – read
The Razor’s Edge by W Somerset Maugham
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi – read
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurierread multiple times
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories From a Decade Gone Mad by Virginia Holman
R is for Ricochet by Sue Grafton
Rita Hayworth by Stephen King
Robert’s Rules of Order by Henry Robert
Roman Holiday by Edith Wharton
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare – read multiple times, originally for school in 1994
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolfread in 2011
A Room with a View by E M Forster
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Sacred Time by Ursula Hegi
Sanctuary by William Faulkner
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
The Scarecrow of Oz by Frank L Baum – read
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – read for my degree
Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman
Selected Letters of Dawn Powell: 1913–1965 by Dawn Powell
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Sexus by Henry Miller
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – read
Shane by Jack Shaefer
The Shining by Stephen King
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
S is for Silence by Sue Grafton
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegutread in 2011
Small Island by Andrea Levy – read
The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingwayread in 2010
Snow White and Rose Red by the Grimm Brothers – read
Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World by Barrington Moore
The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht
Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems by Julia de Burgos
The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker
Songbook by Nick Hornby [31 Songs in the UK]
The Sonnets by William Shakespeare – read
Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – read some of, but not all
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron – read
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Stuart Little by E B White
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
Swimming with Giants: My Encounters with Whales, Dolphins and Seals by Anne Collett
Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – read
Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald – read
Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurtry
Time and Again by Jack Finney
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – read 2005-ish
To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway – TBR
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – read
The Tragedy of Richard III by William Shakespeare – read for my degree
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The Trial by Franz Kafka – read
The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson
Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
Ulysses by James Joyce – read for my degree
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962 by Sylvia Plath – TBR
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera – read
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe – read for my degree
Unless by Carol Shields
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
The Vanishing Newspaper by Philip Meyers
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray – TBR
The Velvet Underground and Nico (Thirty Three and a Third series) by Joe Harvard
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett – I’ve seen the play. I know that doesn’t count, but it was excellent.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau – read for my degree
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
We Owe You Nothing – Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews edited by Daniel Sinker
What Colour is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane by Henry Farrell
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Who Moved My Cheese? Spencer Johnson
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
The Wizard of Oz by Frank L Baum – read
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë – read
The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

So that’s 336 titles, I think, of which I have read 96. (I wasn’t sure how to count the “complete novels of” collections.) I have edited the list a little, removing duplicates for example. And I don’t know whether the TV series actually showed Rory reading all of these. I suspect a lot of the titles just came up in conversation or can be read when she packs her book bag. If you think you see any errors in the list, let me know.

The ones I own but have not yet read make up a bit of a heavy list, which may be why they have all sat on the TBR pile for a while. But perhaps having this challenge in the background will be a good way to finally get round to them! In addition, I would really like to read these:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
The Code of the Woosters by P G Wodehouse
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Gospel According to Judy Bloom
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Songbook by Nick Hornby
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

I have half a plan to come back to this list every six months or so and see how I’m doing. I may have to transfer it all to a spreadsheet of some kind 🙂 And I’ll be keeping a close eye on book titles when I watch Gilmore Girls repeats!

I have been meaning to do something with this challenge for a while, so thank you to Reading in Winter for reminding me!

Are you taking part in this challenge? What do you think of the list?

She thought she’d left her past behind

In Her Shadow
by Louise Douglas

I was sent this book on spec by the publisher, I’m guessing partly because it’s set in Bristol, or at least half of it is. But I must admit that I wasn’t entirely won over.

The premise sounded a bit woolly and to be honest, it was. Highly strung museum worker Hannah Brown has never get over the death of her best friend Ellen when they were 18, especially because she feels that she had betrayed her friend in some mysterious way. What appears to be a sighting of Ellen sparks off a long-drawn-out breakdown, or almost-breakdown, told in alternating chapters to the story of her childhood friendship with Ellen.

The characters are interesting and varied. As well as mousey matter-of-fact Hannah and exuberant arty Ellen there’s Ellen’s brooding, troubled father and Hannah’s sort-of-foster-brother Jago who is a gentle salt-of-the-earth type.

And there is quite a lot going on. In her youth Hannah nurtured an obsessive fixation on Ellen’s father, turning a blind eye to his failures as a father to her best friend. She also got pretty jealous over both Jago and Ellen. In the current day Hannah has a fixation on her co-worker John who is married, though not happily. And she’s having a meltdown.

Which all sounds like it could have been gripping. But somehow…it wasn’t. It was easy enough to read but there were no stand-out passages. The Bristol setting if anything annoyed me because it was slightly clunky, name-checking streets and locations constantly, rather than using more subtle descriptions that Bristolians would recognise anyway.

The Cornish setting was better, combining the romantic wild landscape and the mystery of a big rich house (Ellen’s) and the starker reality of working-class Britain in what I think was the 1970s and 1980s. Douglas showed some love for this setting, subtly dropping in local detail the way I would have liked her to in the Bristol sections.

The climactic reveal of the betrayal was actually better than I had expected, and made me dislike Hannah where up to then I had been on her side. I know the moment itself could be written off as a youthful mistake but she has spent years (16 or 17, I think) doing nothing to right the wrong.

There was some gothic, melodramatic potential for this novel but for me it didn’t deliver.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

The person you thought you knew

The War of the Wives
by Tamar Cohen

I was intrigued by this book from the synopsis and I am left feeling very smug that I know myself well – because I loved it. It isn’t perfect but it is gripping and thought-provoking, and story and character are equally strong.

To save you even having to read the blurb, the tagline on the front of this book tells you all you need to know (when did books start having taglines? Is that a thing now?): “At your husband’s funeral you don’t expect to discover his other wife.” So it’s about grief, lies, family, bigamy, but also modern life in London and how change can make you realise what kind of person you are.

The storytelling is narrated alternately by the two wives, Selina and Lottie. Initially there’s a little bit of stereotyping. Selina is well off, uptight, a kept woman who keeps her very nice, very big house in Barnes in impeccable order and doesn’t check the price tag before buying yet another cashmere coat. She was married to Simon for 28 years, they have three children, aged 17 to 26, and while there’s not really any passion left she still loves her husband. She worries about ageing, her children’s choices of partner and why her youngest son insists on eating junk food.

Lottie is artistic, but illustrating children’s books isn’t making her a living so she also has a job she dislikes in a hotel. She lives in a flat in North London with her and Simon’s daughter Sadie, who is 16 and very difficult. She and Simon were married 17 years and they were still very passionate about each other, though they had money troubles and they fought a lot.

Cohen takes as her structure the five stages of grief. So the wives’ hatred of each other and what Simon did really comes to the fore in the “Anger” section. And the book inevitably wraps things up in the “Acceptance” section. Which was where, looking back, I feel a little disappointment. A lot of mysteries turn out to have been red herrings, which I should have seen coming when a potential major storyline just didn’t go anywhere. But what this does is keep the focus on the families, which is definitely Cohen’s strength. That and her fantastic turn of phrase that can combine urbanity and sentiment in clever, often comic, ways:

“I know how you can think you know someone, really know someone, only to find the person you thought you knew turns out to be a hollow timber structure with someone entirely different inside – a plastic wheelie bin of a someone.”

I liked the depiction of the children through their mothers’ eyes. I liked the way the women developed from the stereotypes they saw each other as being into complex, interesting characters. I liked the ultra-current setting – not just Twitter and Facebook but also preparations for the London 2012 Olympics – but I do worry that it will date the book quickly. I suppose that’s a decision the writer and her editor have already made.

The main flaw, I would say, are the prologue and epilogue, which is a shame because they are the first and last impressions. I found the epilogue especially jarring and completely lost my hold on the fictional world I had until then been enjoying thoroughly. But the rest of the book is good enough to forgive the slight lapse.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

My first step from the old white man was trees

The Color Purple
by Alice Walker

When I read the first page of this book I wasn’t sure I could carry on. Walker plunges right into the heart of the awful beginnings of her story. But I made myself continue and within a few pages I was hooked.

The story is told in the form of letters, initially all addressed to God, from Celie. She tells how from the age of 14 she was repeatedly raped by her pa and bore him two children, both taken away from her. This has destroyed her ability to have further children so she is offloaded as a wife to Albert, a man looking for a trouble-free mother to his children. He beats her and makes no secret of his hate for her. Her beloved sister Nettie lives with them briefly before being forced to run away when she rejects Albert’s advances.

It’s all pretty bleak. And then along comes Shug Avery. The love of Albert’s life, she is a nightclub singer and quickly becomes Celie’s first real friend. Finally joy, happiness and the ability to talk openly come to Celie and she gradually finds the strength to make her life what she wants it to be.

Obviously, I knew this from reputation, but I realised it was a few chapters before it is clear that all the characters are black (at least, initially they all are). They are simply poor, ill-educated farm folk. But as Celie gets older and meets more people she learns what it means to be black. She learns about black people in other cities, other countries and even other continents. And she learns about being a woman, how she doesn’t have to be subservient.

Although the book goes very firmly from dark to light, it never gets over-sentimental or mawkish. Celie’s matter-of-fact tone gradually gains humour and worldliness. Always observant, she reports the moments and the conversations that have made her who she is at the end of the story:

“I believe God is everything, say Shug…My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds…it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything…And I laughed and I cried…It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.
Shug! I say.
“Oh, she say, God love them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did…
“God don’t think it dirty? I ast.
“Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love &ndash and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
“You saying God vain? I ast.
“Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Now, I’m not religious, but there was something very moving about Shug’s idea of God and I love how it freed her and later Celie to follow their own rules. Not to give too much away, but this book includes some frank talk about sex and some homosexuality, not to mention all of the affairs characters keep having. Which I hadn’t expected and found refreshing. Yes, these are poor black people in the segregated southern USA in I think the 1930s and 1940s (there’s some vague talk about war breaking out in Europe) but take away the poverty and politics and they’re still human beings with hearts to give and break and libidos to follow.

The style of writing took some getting used to. Beside the dialect, Celie doesn’t always name characters or explain a situation clearly until much later. And time was passing far more quickly than I realised. There are sometimes years between letters. Also, the absence of speech marks was sometimes confusing. But looking beyond all that, it is a wonderful book well worth the pain of the early chapters.

First published in the USA in 1983 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

These are some of the things I know

I Remember Nothing and other reflections
by Nora Ephron

I wasn’t planning to read this. I visited my good friend H last weekend and saw it on her shelf and remembered H had said good things about it. So I read it.

In the light of Ephron’s very recent death, it was horribly poignant to read her memoir that begins with thoughts on memory loss and ends with thoughts on cancer, but in-between there is a charming, funny story of a life lived fully and happily.

Not one to be entirely conventional, Ephron tells her story in a series of essays. Some are very much memoir – how she began her career in journalism, for instance, an intriguing study in the sexism of the 1960s – while some are more rants on a topic – online Scrabble, the pointlessness of certain diets, e-mail – and others are really anecdotes. Which were perhaps my favourite bits:

“This is one of the things that drives me absolutely crazy when I see movies that take place in the fifties and early sixties: people are always saying ‘fuck’ in them. Trust me, no-one threw that word around then the way they do now. I’ll tell you something else: they didn’t drink wine then. Nobody knew about wine then. I mean, someone did obviously, but most people drank hard liquor all the way through dinner…These are some of the things I know, and they’re entirely useless and take up way too much space in my brain.”

Ephron’s writing style belies her early days in magazine feature writing. It’s a friendly, chatty style that drops in facts and cleverness without appearing to do so. Not that she hadn’t moved with the times. It did not feel like the writing of an “old person” at all:

“Alcoholic parents are so confusing. They’re your parents, so you love them; but they’re drunks, so you hate them. But you love them. But you hate them.”

There are some sweet quirks of the book. Three or four recipes are included, for example. Though after the chapter about how her friends don’t like her cooking it may or may not be worth following said recipes. There are also some lists. Mostly very funny ones but, on a bittersweet note, the book ends with “What I won’t miss” and “What I will miss”. However, my favourite part was the essay on journalism:

“It was exciting in its own self-absorbed way, which is very much the essence of journalism: you truly come to believe that you are living in the center of the universe and that the world out there is on tenterhooks waiting for the next copy of whatever publication you work at.”

Ephron comes across as a wonderful, astute, funny woman who was well loved and had lived well. What more could anyone want?

First published in the US in 2010 by Alfred A Knopf, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Sunday Salon: Here and there

The Sunday Salon

We keep on doing lots of stuff with our weekends. Mostly of the fun variety, which is good, but it isn’t half cutting into my reading time!

Last weekend we went to visit my family. As my Nan has been ill we dropped by to see her and my Grandad, which was lovely as she is now doing well. We saw my Mum’s new house that she moved into a few weeks ago. I got to spend time with my little brother who I hardly ever see. I showed Tim a few more sights from my younger days. And we enjoyed being in the countryside. Even if it was raining almost constantly.

Untitled

Before we came home, my Dad had the brilliant idea to take me and Tim fossil hunting. That was so much fun! We were on the Severn Estuary and it was hideously muddy but we found loads of real actual fossils, which was amazing. And the dog had a whale of a time.

Untitled

This weekend I went to London to see my friend H while our menfolk did their man thing at Farnborough Airshow. I finally got to go to Persephone Books, which is just as wonderful as I had imagined. Huge thanks to H for taking me there and buying me one of their beautiful books. We also talked endlessly and painted our nails and had a generally brilliant time.

Persephone Books

It’s all been great. But I’m still a teeny bit glad that we don’t have much planned for the next few weekends. What have you been up to lately?

One man cries ‘Doom’

The Gods Themselves
by Isaac Asimov

This is a complex but mindblowingly clever book. It took far too long for me to get through as it required actual thinking but I would still rate it very highly.

The book is split into three sections. In the first we learn that scientists have discovered (and implemented) a way to create unlimited clean energy using a link with a parallel universe, named the Electron Pump. The scientist who invented the method, Hallam, is lauded as a hero, the saviour of mankind. But his colleagues dislike him and one in particular, Lamont, is concerned that the Electron Pump has not been fully thought through and could very well threaten the future of mankind.

This section delves into how science works via the importance of publication and attribution, but also the politics and power struggles. It’s genuinely moving to follow someone trying his best to selflessly save humanity:

“You want me to fight the good fight? I’d like to. There’s a certain drama in going down in a good cause. Any decent politician is masochistic enough to dream now and then of going down in flames while the angels sing. But…shall I demand every man give up the personal comfort and affluence he has learned to get used to, thanks to the Pump, just because one man cries ‘Doom’ while all the other scientists stand against him?”

The characters (and this was probably where I found my main criticism of The Bicentennial Man) are well enough developed that I missed them when the narrative left them behind. Which happens at the end of each section. An entirely new setting and group of characters inhabit each part of the book. Which makes sense, but was also a little frustrating.

The middle section is set in the aforementioned parallel universe – a very carefully thought through idea of alternative intelligent life forms adapted to different fundamental constants. I found this section fascinating but also really tough. Asimov has worked so hard to create completely non-human intelligent life that it’s pretty hard to grasp. Or it was for me.

And I think that’s my only real gripe with the book. It was hard. Perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to understand the high-level physics concepts but just skimmed over them. Would I have enjoyed it more but found it less impressive? Probably.

First published in Great Britain by Victor Gollancz 1972.
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards for the year’s best SF novel.

Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?

How to be Good
by Nick Hornby

I was feeling a bit ill and not quite up to stretching my brains around the Asimov novel I’m in the middle of reading, so I picked this off the TBR. Somehow that sounds as if I’m disparaging it. I’m not. I really like Hornby. And he is easier to read than Asimov, it turns out.

But how did I like this Hornby novel? Well, it was better than Slam, which is a good start, and generally pretty funny and intelligent, but I do have some bones to pick. And I can’t tell if I’m mostly annoyed with the storyline or with the way it’s told. Some of each, probably.

Kate is struggling with her marriage. It’s not so much that the sex has become mechanical, or that she has started an affair, or that her husband David is constantly in a heightened, bordering-on-caricature, state of anger…but something is clearly wrong and only apathy has prevented the inevitable divorce. Then, out of the blue, David visits a faith healer (largely to spite Kate, who is a GP) and suddenly he is changed beyond all recognition, his whole aim in life is to do and be good, and he’s damn well going to make the whole family join him.

A certain suspension of disbelief is required for this story that, frankly, I didn’t quite manage. Despite the faith healer, DJ GoodNews, being unappealing and having no religion and no oratory skill, he is successful at healing doubters and believers alike. David changes from comically angry and judgemental to painfully earnest do-gooder with difficulty having any other topic of conversation than, well, doing good:
“[David’s] relentless quest for the gag in everything used to drive me potty…some elaborate and usually nasty witticism would come darting out of his mouth…and I would either laugh, or, more often, walk out of the room, slamming the door on the way. But every now and again – say, five per cent of the time – something would hit me right on the end of my funny bone…So now I very rarely walk out of the room and slam the door; on the other hand, I never laugh. And I would have to say that as a consequence I am slightly worse off.”

Kate is, for the most part, pretty believable. As the narrator, it is her head we are inside and her perspective we see. She believes herself to be a good person because she is a doctor, and that the number of pus-filled sores she tends to each day outweighs minor aberrations such as having an affair. She is initially outraged that her husband’s mid-life crisis appears to require her and her children to give up some of their middle class creature comforts but she tries to support David and even begins to see the point of his efforts.

There are brilliantly quotable lines on almost every page but I think this gives a particularly good flavour:
“What is the difference between offering spare bedrooms to evacuees in 1940 and offering spare bedrooms to the homeless in 2000?…do we have a moral right to keep a spare bedroom as a junk room, or a music room, or for overnight guests who never come, when it is February and freezing and wet and there are people on the pavements? Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?…I wish David and GoodNews were interested in starting up an Internet company so that they could make millions of pounds to spend on Page Three girls and swimming pools and cocaine and designer suits. People would understand that. That wouldn’t upset the neighbours.”

The story of a failing marriage is told poignantly and well. It was achingly sad to read about Kate being happy to share a bed with David because they have learned to fit together, but at the same time growing to hate him. And the social issues that David and GoodNews touch on are real ones that people should care about and want to do something about.

But this is a gentle comedy, not a hard-hitting one, so of course it implies that Kate was right to not bother in the first place and David is made to look stupid for having tried. Which is a shame. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think it’s easy to poke fun at middle-class left-leaning liberals. The tone of the book, for all its humour, is actually very bleak – there is no point, no hope. Which is depressing. And not true. There are good people out there who didn’t need a spiritual conversion to make them good and don’t make themselves ridiculous by doing good deeds. Guess I’m just an optimist.

As you can tell, the story does raise interesting questions about faith, “goodness”, charity and family, though it explores them from a fairly limited Christian perspective. There were some irritating non-sequiturs when Hornby switched between David being a hardnosed rational to a science-hating artist. And a GP who doesn’t know basic first aid and includes homeopathy in a list of “proper” treatments preferable to faith healing? Both equally terrifying though sadly the latter is at least believable.

So where does that leave me? I thoroughly enjoyed the read but it also frustrated me and continues to now as I mull it over. Is that a sign of good writing? Perhaps.

First published 2001 by Penguin Books.

A Switzerland of the soul blanketed in snows of peace

Death and the Penguin
by Andrey Kurkov
translated from Russian by George Bird

I first read this maybe six years ago, I think for a previous book group, so it’s odd that I remembered so little of it. I think I remember it being funnier. Or maybe I used to be more receptive to super dry, dark humour? I mean, I still think it’s a very good book.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, aspiring writer Viktor lives in a city tower block with his penguin Misha. Not exactly a pet, Viktor took in Misha when the Kiev city zoo starting giving away animals that it could not afford to keep. They have a sweet, bizarrely realistic co-existence. Misha shows occasional curiosity and less occasional affection for Viktor, but mostly stands stoically in the coldest corner he can find, staring into space. Viktor, despite being given every opportunity over the course of this story, is close to no-one and seems happy enough with that, in an apathetic sort of way.

Not that you can blame him for keeping his distance once the story gets started. There’s a reason for that “death” in the title. Viktor is hired by a newspaper editor to write obituaries of prominent persons who are still living. Which seems harmless enough. But facts in these people’s files and a few untimely deaths lead him to realise that all is not as it seems. At the very least, warring factions of the local mafia are very very active. And warlike. Viktor’s life is almost certainly in danger and it may or may not be a good thing that some powerful people have taken a liking to his penguin.

Most of the humour, as you can perhaps tell from the above summary, comes from the surreal situations, especially those created by the presence of a penguin. And it’s hard not to smile at the image of a penguin. Kurkov’s manner of phrasing is unusual and yet familiar, for instance: “Progress was terribly slow. Words refused to deploy in battle formation, sentences scattered, only to be slaughtered by irritable x’s and reformed.” Isn’t that lovely?

It’s also a pretty dark book. In a bleak, run-down sort of way. Here’s Viktor pondering his obituaries:
“The pure and sinless did not exist, or else died unnoticed and with no obituary. The idea seemed persuasive. Those who merited obituaries had usually achieved things, fought for their ideals, and when locked in battle, it wasn’t easy to remain entirely honest and upright. Today’s battles were all for material gain anyway. The crazy idealist was extinct – survived by the crazy pragmatist.”

The darkness of mood and subject matter mean that the occasional poetic phrase stands out as a beautiful, rare thing. Which is not to say that the majority of the book is not well written, but it is for the most part written in a matter of fact tone appropriate to its main character. For a writer, Viktor is not a romantic. Not most of the time, anyway:
“He suddenly had the sensation of being abroad, out of reach of yesterday’s existence. This abroad was a place of tranquillity, a Switzerland of the soul blanketed in snows of peace, permeated with a dread of causing disturbance; where no bird sang or called, as if out of no desire to.”
(Yes, even the poetic bits are downbeat.)

I was glad to find that I still liked this book, even if I had mis-remembered it a little, and I’m now looking forward to reading the other Kurkov books I have in my TBR.

First published as Smert’postoronnego in 1996 by the Alterpress, Kiev.
This translation first published 2001 by the Harvill Press.

Sunday Salon: Ups and downs

The Sunday Salon

It’s been a bit of an up and down week. I haven’t got much reading done but I am currently completely absorbed in an old Nick Hornby novel. Which is something good to alleviate the curled-up-under-the-sick-blanket day I’m having.

For most of the week Tim was working so many hours we didn’t really see each other but on Wednesday he surprised me by taking me out to dinner. Which was lovely. It was a beautiful evening, we ate tasty food, strolled along Bristol harbour arm in arm, talked and laughed. Perfect.

Untitled

Then I found out my Nan was ill. It’s not super serious but her general health hasn’t been great this year so any illness is a bit worrying. So I got stressed. Then I pushed myself to do too much stuff and got tired.

And I thought maybe I’d got away with it. Yesterday I felt good, it was the weekend, we went into town for the afternoon, got alternatively cooked and soaked by the changeable weather, sorted some chores, drank good coffee, had a nice evening playing silly computer games and watching DVDs.

But today I feel terrible. Completely bleurgh (to use a technical term). It will pass, it’s not even the worst I’ve felt this year, but it’s still a bit of a crap end to the week. Here’s to a brand new week starting tomorrow.

How has your week been?