March reading round-up

It occurred to me that with my rediscovery of short stories I have been doing quite a lot of reading this month that I’m not mentioning here or on Goodreads. And seeing as one of the reasons for having this blog is to keep a record of my reading, I thought I would make me a list! (I do love a list.)

Books read

Ritual by Mo Hayder (review)

Saga volume 1 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples (review)

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (review)

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult (review)

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer (review)

Room by Emma Donoghue (review to follow)

The Small Hand by Susan Hill (review to follow)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (review to follow)

Short stories read

“The furies” by Paul Theroux (New Yorker Feb 25, 2013)

“Symbols and signs” by Vladimir Nabokov (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“The lottery” by Shirley Jackson (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“Playing with dynamite” by John Updike (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“Where is the voice coming from” by Eudora Welty (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“My Russian education” by Vladimir Nabokov (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“Baader-Meinhof” by Don DeLillo (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“Compensatory behaviour” by Emma Newman (read by the author here and here)

“Sanctuary” by Emma Newman (available online here)

“Vanilla bright like Eminem” by Michael Faber (available online here; discovered via Books on the Nightstand podcast)

“The story of an hour” by Kate Chopin (available online here; discovered via Books on the Nightstand podcast)

We also went to see Richard III at the Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol and I bought too many books. Good thing I’m doing this Easter read-a-thon or I wouldn’t be able to justify buying more books for months! Now here is a pretty picture of spring buds in our garden during today’s actual genuine sunshine.

Cherry blossom

Easter read-a-thon – Saturday

Easter Read-a-thon with Nose in a book

So today has been a bit up and down, both on the holiday front and the read-a-thon front. By which I mean I haven’t felt entirely well and therefore wasn’t able to tuck into a bottle of wine, as I had been planning to do. I have had quite a lot of tea, of various kinds, which is also nice.

Today I finished reading The Small Hand by Susan Hill, which is a ghost story set in the current day but using the tropes of classic Victorian ghost stories. I enjoyed it but wasn’t at all scared, I must admit. I then read all of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, which I had heard a lot about thanks to the film. It’s a very sweet, honest book about being a teenager and I am annoyed with the edition that I have, because it both a film tie-in (never a good move) and it has a quote on the front comparing it to Catcher in the Rye, which it’s nothing like and which gets referenced in the novel. But I suppose I never like quotes.

What else have I been up to today? Well, there was a brief trip to the local pub, or at least brief for me because I felt unwell and came home. I indulged myself for a few hours with a hot water bottle, Pretty in Pink and Gilmore Girls, before deciding to stop wallowing and get back to the books. I also helped Tim feed the five thousand (or however many guests it is he has) with an oven full of jacket potatoes.

Potatoes

Now I’m weighing up whether I’m awake enough to begin book four – Dead Air by Iain Banks or if I should just go to sleep.

Easter read-a-thon – Friday

Easter Read-a-thon with Nose in a book

I meant to blog this update last night but it was a bit of a late one. So far the read-a-thon is going well. I’ve read one and a half books – Room by Emma Donoghue and a chunk of The Small Hand by Susan Hill. Both disturbing, in different ways.

One of the reasons for this read-a-thon is that Tim has visitors all weekend. They have basically taken over the house but I have created myself a book cave in the dining room. It’s pretty awesome. I have fairy lights, a reading lamp, some cushions and all of the books. If we’d already got round to buying me that special reading chair we’ve talked about, it would be perfect.

Reading corner

Really, I don’t think I would have left my reading corner at all yesterday except that we had tickets to see Eels. Oh yeah. So we nipped out for that. It was a fantastic gig, supported by a singer called Nicole Atkins who I’d never heard of but who was excellent. The band did lots of hugging on stage and mostly played their rockier stuff, which I don’t know so well but completely suited the mood of the crowd. They squeezed in a cover of “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces and a mash-up of “My beloved monster” and “Mr E’s beautiful blues”. And my favourite moment was when we were ever-so-slowly shuffling out toward the exit and the band came back on stage, Mr E said “Fuck it” into the mike and they played a third encore with house lights up and the roadies clearing the stage around them.

Anyway, enough reminiscing over yesterday, time for more reading! How are you all doing?

Easter read-a-thon: Ready? Set?

Easter Read-a-thon with Nose in a book

Just a quick reminder to anyone who’s interested that I’m doing an Easter read-a-thon, from Friday morning to Monday evening (ish), and anyone is welcome to join me. I hesitate to say I’m hosting it because I’m not doing any fancy linky or giveaway business but if you want to join in, feel free to add a link in the comments and I’ll come and cheerlead for you at some point!

In a foolhardy moment I gave Tim first pick on what I should read this weekend, which has resulted in a slightly odd combination of books from the TBR. I’m not necessarily going to stick to this pile. Maybe I’ll consider it the starting point. Really, this weekend is all about reading just for fun, so if a book starts to feel like hard work I will probably put it down and come back to it another time.

Read-a-thon

The sort-of shortlist is:
Dead Air by Iain Banks
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Claudine and Annie by Colette
Room by Emma Donoghue
Small Hands by Susan Hill
Hell’s Angels by Hunter S Thompson

But what to start with? I may have to roll a die. Handily that list is six long…

Happy Easter and happy reading!

Cookery challenge #2

Leon Book 3

LEON book 3: Baking & Puddings
by Claire Ptak and Henry Dimbleby

Bet you thought I’d forgotten this challenge, huh? It was never really forgotten, but I have completely failed for too long to make time for it. However, in celebration of Easter I thought I’d do a little baking.

This is actually one of the books that inspired the challenge, because about a year ago we bought a set of three gorgeous LEON cookbooks, which we pored over all the time but didn’t use.

Well, in the past couple of months I have used the third book in the set, this one on baking, three times. I have made cranberry and oat cookies, honey bread and simnel cake. I seem to keep picking recipes that include lots of awkward ingredients and adapting them quite a lot to fit what I have available or can buy from the corner shop, but all three experiments have been successful. Possibly not great looking (I figure that’s a skill I’d develop if I baked more often than once a month) but definitely tasty.

The books are artistically beautiful, with quite a lot of frontis material on baking techniques or ingredient groups. Most recipes are prefaced with a brief story about their origin, with several staff of the LEON restaurant chain featured heavily. Seeing as it’s their healthy fast food that initially attracted us, I shall have to crack open the main meals book at some point.

Leon simnel cake

Life had no before and after

The Confessions of Max Tivoli

The Confessions of Max Tivoli
by Andrew Sean Greer

This odd book has sat on my shelves for years unread but finally, after enjoying a couple of his short stories, I decided to give this a go. It’s a beautifully written book but it didn’t entirely engage me.

The story is that of Max Tivoli, born with the appearance of an old man in his 70s and ageing backwards over the years. In a sort of magical realism moment, no explanation is given for how that birth could possibly have worked, especially considering his mother survives it, but after that it takes the tack that Max has a condition that no-one will understand, though perhaps a handful of other people might have it. So for most of his early childhood he is hidden away, with a series of nurses brought to the house to look after him. Once he is old enough mentally to get away with it, he agrees his mother to always act the age he appears. And in time-honoured tradition, it is really only when he disobeys this mantra of his mother’s that things go wrong for him.

“I could never write a true history of my childhood, because everything happened before I knew what time was…Life had no before and after, was not yet strung upon a thread, and thus cannot be brought out from the drawer intact.”

Max is a largely unsympathetic main character, though obviously he has reasons for being how he is – selfish and stubborn – and perhaps the book is more interesting that way than if he had been a good person who sacrificed himself every time his medical condition got in the way of someone else’s happiness. But as the story is narrated by him in slightly dense prose, I found that to be a lot of time spent in the mind of someone I found unpleasant.

The conceit is an interesting one. Max is writing the story of his life as an old man with the appearance of a 12-year-old boy. He is now facing perhaps the most difficult part of his life – receding into a small child’s and then a baby’s body, and he does not know quite how it will end. So he is writing his confession, frequently addressing other characters in the story who he hopes will read it.

“This morning you were the ink monitor and soberly filled our clay inkwells to their brims before gaily dropping a tiny frog into mine. Until it perished, gagging on the lampblack, the creature left a leaping pattern across my lesson book so exquisite – a hail of dark roses falling from the sky – that I will try to place it here in this memoir as the only evidence that I am not lying.”

Though Greer does not attempt at all to make this science fiction, he does address the physical and emotional challenges of Max’s life in some detail. Which is at times disturbing, as it should be.

In a purely practical vein, I can see that the historical setting (from San Francisco in 1871 to a small Mid-West town in 1930) was necessary because a modern-day version of this story would be so much harder, what with widespread photography and needing to show ID for everything. At the very least it would have been more of a story on the run from authorities. Whereas the historical setting allows Max to spend most of his life in one city. And it also gives Greer the option to pick which historical events intrude into Max’s life.

Despite the highly unusual premise there were some clichés, and plot turns that were phrased as though they were intended as revelations but did not surprise me for a second. Was that actually the intention or a failure of plotting? It’s hard to tell. Perhaps it was intended to show that even Max’s extraordinary life is subject to the same banal basic needs as everyone else’s.

“We all hate what we become. I’m not the only one…I have seen men back from war, squinting at themselves in shop windows as they feel their skull beneath their skin. They thought they would shed the worst of youth and gain the best of age, but time drifted over them, sand-burying their old hopes. Mine is a very different story, but it all turns out the same.”

As for secondary characters – Max’s mother features very little despite her being so central to his survival. Again, I can see that this might be a deliberate device, showing how little Max thinks of his poor ever-sacrificing mother. Max’s best friend Hughie is wonderful, even if he is the subject of some of the worst clichés in the story. But even he and Alice, the love of Max’s life, really aren’t fleshed out fully. And you can go on filing that under Max’s narration and his character flaw of being selfish and not really trying to understand other people, but there should have been a way to let them come to life.

It’s certainly not a bad book by any means. It was a slow, thoughtful read and really moved me at the end. I’m glad I finally picked it up. I will certainly check out Greer’s other novel The Story of a Marriage, which got a lot of positive noises a couple of years ago.

Published 2004 by Faber and Faber.

Source: I think this was a freebie from an old job. It’s been sat on my shelves a long time.

Challenges: I read this for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Sunday Salon: Easter read-a-thon anyone?

The Sunday Salon

Lately I seem to have spent a lot of my free time planning various holidays, which has got me thinking about what makes the perfect holiday. The thing is, my favourite way to relax is with a book, but when it comes to holidays I always want to go somewhere new, to see and learn new things, which tends not to leave masses of time for reading, or really relaxing.

If I could take longer holidays, of course that wouldn’t be a problem, we could go somewhere long enough to sightsee and have whole days off reading. But being average folks who can usually only take a week off work at a time, we’re trying to figure out where we can go with enough amenities so we have food choices and some culture, plus beautiful surroundings so that if we do take a few days to chill and read, we can call it enjoying the beauty around us. I’m thinking maybe lakeside?

But in case we do plump for an action-packed city break later in the year, I figure I should make the most of any empty weekends at home to do lots of reading from the comfort of my sofa. Now as it happens, over Easter I have six days off work and plans on only two of those days. And Tim’s busy for most of the weekend, so that leaves me a lot of free time.

Easter Read-a-thon with Nose in a book

Which gave me a brilliant idea – an Easter read-a-thon! Okay, it wasn’t strictly my own idea. The primary school I volunteer at once a week issued a challenge to the kids to read six books over the Easter holiday. Now, they have two weeks, whereas I have four days, but I still think I can meet the challenge. Anyone want to join me?

I’m not going to set any rules, this is strictly for fun. But if you want to join in, feel free to use my button and have a fun weekend of reading. I’ll blog later in the week with my choice of books to tackle.

Yay, Easter read-a-thon!

NB The button was made using a Creative Commons photo by Ian Britton/freefotouk and a bit of fiddling in Photoshop.

Crime and Punishment read-a-long weeks 6 and 7

Read-a-long

The Crime and Punishment read-a-long is hosted by Wallace over at Unputdownables. In weeks six and seven we read from part 3, chapter 4 to the end of part 4 chapter 4. The official discussion posts are over at Unputdownables.

We’re now more than halfway through! And I read all of this week’s allotted chapters in a single sitting, so it might just be getting…compelling?

Unavoidably, this discussion will contain spoilers, so only read on if you don’t mind/have already read this far (or further).

I loved the conversation between Ras and Porfiry. Their discussion of Ras’ article about “extraordinary” people was full of fantastic quickfire wit and humour. I’m still torn as to whether Ras considers himself extraordinary, or perhaps did consider himself extraordinary until he tried to be and failed? Or if he knew all along he wasn’t and accepts that his crime was just that. But was this lucid period too much for Ras? He immediately sinks back into a bad state.

“‘Any man who has [a conscience] must suffer if he is conscious of error. That is his punishment – in addition to hard labour.’
…’But the real geniuses, those to whom you have granted the right to kill, ought surely not to suffer at all, even for the spilling of blood?’
…’There is no question either of permitting or of forbidding it. Let them suffer, if they feel pity for the victims. Suffering and pain are always obligatory on those of wide intellect and profound feeling. Truly great men must, I think, experience great sorrow on the earth,’ he added, suddenly thoughtful, as though to himself.”

Ooh, the stranger who calls Ras a murderer – considering all the references to ghosts in the following few chapters, was Ras just seeing things? Or is there really another character to be added to the cast list?

And what about Svidrigaylov? Was the imminent journey he referred to death? That was my immediate assumption.

Is it honourable of Ras to break off from his mother and sister and leave them in Raz’s care? I thought so. Raz has a plan, they have money coming; association with Ras will only bring problems and pain.

“I myself am, perhaps, even worse and viler than the louse I killed, and I knew beforehand that I should tell myself so after I had killed her! Can anything compare with such horror? Oh platitudes! What baseness!”

Now, Ras seems to be on the verge of something. Confession? Suicide? His conversation with Sonya veers wildly between compassion and complete lack of it, like he’s studying her to write an academic paper.

Recent reads in brief

My lupus has been flaring, just a little, not enough to knock me out completely or even stop me reading completely, but enough to make my brain go blank when I try to write a review. So here are some short reviewettes of the books I’ve been reading.

Portrait Of The Mother As A Young Woman

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
by Friedrich Christian Delius
translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

I had noticed for some time a growing number of glowing reviews for the books from Peirene Press, so earlier this year I ordered their Female Voice Series. This book is at once simple and highly experimental. A young German woman is living in Rome in 1943, waiting for her husband to return from the North African front. She is heavily pregnant and being cared for by nuns. The story follows her as she walks to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church and, once there, is transported by the music. That’s it. But it’s beautiful. Told in one long sentence, broken into paragraphs that work almost like the stanzas of a poem, her thoughts unreel. She ponders the sights of this foreign city, fear for her husband, faith in God, the contradictions of war and society in general, the possibilities of the future. She considers herself shy and uneducated but asks intelligent questions, questions she would only ever dare voice to her husband, if only he were there. A really excellent book and a great introduction to this new (to me) publisher.

“she sensed something within her rebelling against the constant obligation to stifle the feeling of longing with her reason and faith, because feelings were forbidden in wartime, you were not allowed to rejoice with happiness, you had to swallow your sadness, and like a soldier you were forced to conceal the language of the heart,”

Bildnis der mutter als junge frau published 2006 by Rowohlt.
This translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.

Source: I bought this direct from the publisher.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

My Sister’s Keeper
by Jodi Picoult

This was a much better book than I expected. I thought it would be an easy, fluffy, light read. Well it was easy to read but certainly not the other two. It’s the story of a family whose second child, Kate, has a rare form of leukaemia. When her brother Jesse proves not to be a bone marrow match, the parents conceive another child, using IVF so that they can ensure a match this time. And so Anna is born. Every few years Kate’s leukaemia returns and Anna is again called upon to save her sister’s life. The story begins with 13-year-old Anna asking a lawyer to medically emancipate her from her parents, so that she won’t have to donate a kidney to her dying sister. Despite the emotionally charged background to the story, the book isn’t emotionally overwrought, in fact it’s often funny. But it thoughtfully considers all the options, all the situations this family has been through. Crucially they all have lives beyond this current drama, and the yo-yoing loyalties are absolutely believable. I was gripped and empathised with all the characters.

“This is not Anna. I am used to struggling with Jesse, to lightening Kate’s load; but Anna is our family’s constant. Anna comes in with a smile. Anna tells us about the robin she found with a broken wing and a blush on its cheek; or about the mother she saw at Wal-Mart with not one but two sets of twins. Anna gives us a backbeat, and seeing her sitting there unresponsive makes me realize that silence has a sound.”

Published 2004 by Simon & Schuster in the US, Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

Source: I bought it secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

The QI Book of the Dead
by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

For those who don’t know, QI is a TV quiz show presented by Stephen Fry in which the celebrity teams have to come up with Quite Interesting answers. A whole raft of books have been published as an offshoot. This one is a series of vignettes about interesting dead people. They are grouped by topic (“Happy-go-lucky”, “Driven”, “Monkey keepers”, etc) and each person gets just 5–10 pages to have their life story told (and with more than 400 pages total that’s a lot of dead people). They’re a good mix of famous and not famous, though most were famous in their own lifetime. Often it’s the ones who have been forgotten with time that make the best reading. The book definitely lives up to its Quite Interesting label but it’s not one to read all at once. This perfectly suits dipping in and out of, reading 10 minutes at a time over a few months. The downside of this is that I’ve forgotten half the characters I swore I would look up to learn more about after John and John had whet my appetite.

“The establishment saw [Jeremy] Bentham as deeply dangerous. His ‘algebra of utility’ seemed to eat like an acid through centuries of accumulated privilege and injustice. He opposed slavery, and both capital and corporal punishment; he believed in equal rights for women, and for animals; he called for the decriminalising of homosexuality; he praised free trade and the freedom of the press; he supported the right to divorce and urged the separation of church and state. Most of what we now call liberalism can be traced back to Bentham.”

Published 2009 by Faber and Faber.

Source: A Christmas present from my brother a few years back.

Sunday Salon: Short stories

The Sunday Salon

I know, I know, it’s been months since I posted in the Sunday Salon. How are you all? What have you been up to? Me? I’ve been busy, but not with as much reading as I’d like. This week I have been thinking about short stories.

Every so often Tim has to go to America for work, usually at the last minute. One of the few advantages of this (besides getting complete control of the TV while he’s away) is that he brings me back the New Yorker, which I really love but can’t quite justify paying the international subscription price when what I’m really after is the weekly short story. They get the greatest writers in the world. Every week.

New Yorker

On the back of my recent treat of not one but two New Yorkers, I was browsing the website and spotted the fiction podcast. Oh man, this is the most amazing discovery. Once a month a writer picks a short story from the New Yorker archives, reads it aloud and discusses it a little. It’s an amazing resource. This week I have listened to “Symbols and signs” by Vladimir Nabokov, “The lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “Playing with dynamite” by John Updike.

I am not normally great at listening to audio books but a 20-minute story fits nicely into my commute and it’s a really good way to try some of the many authors I have heard praised but not read myself yet.

Do you read short stories outside of book compilations of them? Where do you read them? Do you subscribe to any fiction magazines?