November reading round-up

This month has felt full and busy yet I’m not sure I could tell you what I filled it with. I definitely seem to be over my reading hump, though I’ve still not finished that book of Orhan Pamuk essays I started back in September. I did finish the Little House series, which was surprisingly emotional for me. I certainly got sucked into that world by the end!

I also started thinking about my 2014 reading goals (it’s the Christmas planning that did for me, I think), which I’ll post more about soon. But mostly everything seems to be about Christmas already. There’s presents to buy, travel to arrange, outfits to plan and goodness knows what else I’ve forgotten. I was going to say I remember when Christmas was just about the one special day, but I don’t think that’s true. When I was little there was the school nativity play, the church nativity play, the Christingle service, the church carol service, the school carol service, Santa coming to switch on the lights in our town, Santa coming to switch on the lights in the next town over (where my Dad’s from), the day we put up the tree and other Christmas decorations, and last but not least Boxing Day at my grandparents’, which was like a second Christmas Day. So maybe these days I get off lightly!

But 2013 isn’t over yet. I have one month left to work on this year’s reading goals. Now I just need to figure which books to save for that week off work over Christmas…


Books read

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (review here)

A Handful of Sand by Marinko Koščec (review here)

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (review here)

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (review here)

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal

The Most Remarkable Woman in England by John Carter Wood

These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder


Short stories read

“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Dating Jane Austen” by T C Boyle (Selected Shorts podcast)

“You were perfectly fine” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Unprotected” by Simon Rich (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The day the dam broke” by James Thurber (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Center of the universe” by Simon Rich (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The Tablecloth of Turin,” by Ron Carlson (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The lesson” by Emma Newman (available online here)

“Tourists” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

“The letter” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

“The verdigris set” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

“Escapism” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

“The business of art” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

“Overdue” by Emma Newman (read by the author here)

How has your reading month been? Are you hastily trying to tick off your 2013 goals? Or are you done with all that now and enjoying some relaxing reading before the new resolutions kick in in January?

The wind had a desolate sound

Little Town On The Prairie

Little Town on the Prairie
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I read a couple of other books in-between, but now I’m back with the Little House series. Not many left to go now. This is book 7 in the series, so this review may contain spoilers for the previous titles.

I have mixed feelings on this one. After three great books in a row, this one just didn’t maintain the standard. I mean, obviously I am now hooked and want to find out how things turn out for everyone, so I’ll keep reading the series, but there was something missing here.

This book follows on from the terrible winter of 1880–1881 and shows the Ingalls family finally back on their feet, getting the land producing and getting used to the town of De Smet as well. Certainly, plenty of things happen – Mary finally leaves for the blind college in Iowa, Laura has some trouble with a teacher at school, Carrie has some health troubles, Almanzo Wilder starts showing an interest in Laura, though she doesn’t seem to have figured out why yet – but I suppose after the genuine fear-for-their-lives stuff of the last few books – a plague of locusts! wild fires, wild gangs of men, seven long months of blizzards – it all feels a bit tame.

Pa is becoming a bit of a town elder. And Ma now has a church social group, though she doesn’t like the priest. Until the last few pages of the book, it’s all got very settled, but I’m not even sure that’s what bothered me. Several times, there would be a major plotline about something negative, and then with the very beginnings of a possible solution, the subject wouldn’t be mentioned again.

It’s not that I disliked this book. It still had charm and great characters. I guess now the family’s settled there’s not a lot of historical stuff here for me to learn, but there are still anecdotes that stuck with me enough that I found myself recounting them to people who ask me about my reading.

“The wind had a desolate sound. The sun was small and the sky was empty of birds. On the endless dull prairie the grasses lay worn-out and dead. The schoolhouse looked old and gray.”

First published 1941.

Source: Google Books.

Sunday Salon: Reading plans for 2014

The Sunday Salon

It’s probably foolish to make any 2014 reading plans, considering I’ve not been great at the challenges I set myself this year and work is only getting busier. And yet, I keep having ideas for my 2014 reading that really excite me, so I thought I’d share them with you.

First, what did I set myself to do in 2013 and how, with five weeks of the year left, am I doing against those goals?

Well, this year I signed up to two challenges and a read-a-long, plus I set myself a challenge. The read-a-long of Crime and Punishment was run by Wallace of Unputdownables and was a great success. I (and many others) managed to get through a book I had previously given up on and I’m really glad that I did persevere. The 2013 Translation Challenge is run by Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm with the goal to read one translated book per month. I’ve actually not achieved that every month, but on the other hand in several months I’ve read more than one translated book. I think translated fiction has become a bigger part of what I read and I hope to continue that without needing a specific challenge.

The 2013 TBR Pile Challenge is run by Roof Beam Reader and it’s probably the goal I needed the most. I have so many books that have sat on my shelves unread for years. I have read eight and a half of the 14 I listed for myself, plus I tried and discarded one. I could have done better and I probably need to have a think about what’s putting me off picking up those books. Certainly it hasn’t helped reduce the size of my TBR, which is almost exactly the same number of books now as at the start of the year. I just love books too much to not buy new ones! But my biggest failure by far is the challenge I set myself – the Cookery Challenge. I said I would make more use of my many cookbooks and blog about them one by one. So far I have blogged about just two of my cookbooks. It’s a poor show.

So that’s 2013 so far. But what are these grand ideas I’ve had for 2014? Well, there are three and if anyone is running a challenge related to any of these I’d be interested to see it, so let me know!

Set

Science fiction
As a teenager I read some classic science fiction along with everything else I could get my hands on to read. But as an adult I haven’t read that much of it. I tried a few years back to get better at this, with some guidance from Tim, whose reading is about 90% SF. But this year I notice I have been especially bad at including any SF in the mix, so I’m going to make it a specific goal for 2014. But what form should that goal take? One random SF book per month? Read my way through the Gollancz SF Masterworks series à la Gavin back in his Gav Reads days? I’d quite like to find some good SF by women, so if anyone has any suggestions I’m all ears.

Popular science
I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction, but I do like a good essay and I like to learn things. As an English graduate who works with mostly science graduates, I am finding that the scientists tend to be open to and enjoy the arts but a lot of my arts friends shy away from science. There’s a lot of fear of science as something hard or “other”. I think science is fascinating and an important part of understanding the world around us and I’d like to know more, hence this goal. I asked a few people for recommendations of really good popular-science books and the plan is to create a list and read my way through it. I’ll publish the list in December and am open to further ideas on this.

Untitled

Re-reads
I own thousands of books, the majority of which I have read and kept because I thought I’d like to read them again some day. But since university I have done very little re-reading and what little I have done has largely been provoked by book clubs choosing something I’d previously read, rather than my own overwhelming urge. Partly this is because I am aware of just how many great books are out there, more than I will ever be able to get to. And partly it’s a fear that a book I loved first time round won’t seem so great on a re-read. But there are so many books I have put down thinking how I would get even more from it on a second read. And so many I read 10 years ago that I have mostly forgotten but know I loved. I think it’s about time I stopped being scared and made time to re-read, even if it’s just four or five books per year. I’m not sure if this should be a challenge per se or just something to keep in the back of my mind.

Have you starting thinking about goals for 2014 yet, reading or otherwise? Do you like to be involved in lots of challenges and projects?

The reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors

The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende
translated from Spanish by Magda Bogin

I had been meaning to read Isabel Allende for years, so I heartily encouraged this book-club choice. I knew absolutely nothing about it going in but I did know a little about the author and it was interesting how that coloured my reading, especially toward the end of the book.

This is both a family saga and the tale of a country over the span of 70 or so years, beginning at the start of the 20th century. The country is clearly Chile though it’s never named. The characters – beginning with Clara del Valle as the youngest child of a large, wealthy family – and their lives are described by two narrators, one of whose identity becomes clear early on and another whose identity is not revealed until the epilogue. The longest-lived character – and therefore in some ways the largest presence in the book – is Esteban Trueba, whom I found inscrutable. He’s not hugely likeable but he’s also not 100% bad; he has genuine complexity that makes him difficult to write off or ignore.

In fact, that’s true of all the characters, despite the many stories packed in here and the sometimes extreme views depicted, they remain believably human. The family is not a metaphor – they’re well-drawn characters with shades of grey and sometimes confused loyalties – but they do represent types of people in Chile to an extent – rich landowner, activist student, charitable middle class, etc.

“She was one of those people who are born for the greatness of a single love, for exaggerated hatred, for apocalyptic vengeance, and for the most sublime forms of heroism, but she was unable to shape her fate to the dimensions of her amorous vocation, so it was lived out as something flat and gray trapped between her mother’s sick room walls.”

In the beginning I found this book funny, charming and lovely, but then we get some shocking scenes – such as Esteban Trueba mistreating his farm tenants – that remind you that this is a book with a political agenda. Not that it’s rammed home at the cost of good storytelling, by any means, but I did find that the novel moved a little uneasily from family story with politics in the background to an overtly political story with the few remaining family members directly involved in the politics.

“She felt that everything was made of glass, as fragile as a sigh, and that the machine-gun fire and bombs of that unforgettable Tuesday had destroyed most of what she knew, and that all the rest had been smashed to pieces and spattered with blood.”

This book is an often-cited example of magical realism and it certainly starts with lots of magical/fantasy elements but they fade away until they’re only a memory of the surviving characters. Which I suppose forms part of the political message getting darker and more overt as the book goes on. But perhaps the magic is also part of the old way of life, which has been lost irretrievably.

“Childhood came to an end and she entered her youth within the walls of her house in a world of terrifying stories and calm silences. It was a world in which time was not marked by calendars or watches and objects had a life of their own, in which apparitions sat at the table and conversed with human beings, the past and future formed part of a single unit, and the reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors where everything and anything could happen.”

I did feel that the earlier politics was dealt with more subtly, with distance, whereas the later politics felt much more angry and personal. This reflects to some extent the characters who are the two narrators, but it also seemed a lot like Allende’s own anger, which would certainly be understandable. And the end section of the book is certainly gripping – probably the only section that truly is – but it felt like a very different novel, at times hardly even a novel but more an account of Chile in the 1970s.

We all agreed at book group that this novel is very readable, though it’s not one to rush through. And it is perhaps a little overlong – it could easily have been trimmed. But overall it’s enjoyable, and I am interested in reading more Allende.

La casa de los espíritus published 1982 by Plaza & Janés.
This translation published 1985 by Jonathan Cape/Alfred A Knopf.

Source: Waterstones Bristol.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

A thick, pulsating silence gushed from the walls

A Handful of Sand

A Handful of Sand
by Marinko Koščec
translated from Croatian by Will Firth

I ordered this book after Tony of Tony’s Reading List blogged about new publisher Istros Books, who specialise in fiction translated from Eastern Europe. They have lots of authors who have won big literary prizes in the Balkans but somehow have not previously been translated into English, so I am glad that they exist. However, I must admit I was not entirely won over.

The writing is very lyrical. The story is about two lonely people (narrated by them alternately) who are heading towards romance, and how all-consuming and overwhelming passion can be. It takes its time, examining more than a decade of their lives and how they come to be the people they are with the attitudes to love that they have. But it’s not just a love story, it’s also a story about parents and children and how that relationship changes as the children become adults and the parents are the ones who need support.

“A thick, pulsating silence gushed from the walls, filling the whole space and burning my throat. I went to bed around midnight; Mother lay directly below, down on the ground floor. Needles stabbed from the depths of the night. At around four, the birds began to call with their inexhaustible joy at the breaking of a new day.”

I learned a lot about the atmosphere of modern Croatia, from this book. And while it’s a simple story, it felt very real, with people and emotions brought completely alive. Sometimes it verged on heartbreaking, and it certainly delved thoroughly and believably into different types of loneliness.

There were some passages that felt almost like set pieces – a mini rant on a given topic. But this is forgiveable because they tended to be well written and often funny.

“I came to hate that house with which we lived in symbiosis. We were vitally addicted to it, and it mirrored our inner states and limitations, never hesitating to show its disdain for all our efforts to retard its ageing. As restless as it was thankless, it added fresh cracks to the collection on the walls, rescrawled its mouldy graffiti in corners only just repainted, left rust on metal, and heralded each spring with clogged drains, peeling woodwork and a leaking roof. Selfish and ungrateful like a pre-pubescent child, it demanded constant attention to restrain even just the outward signs of decay.”

However, the two narrative voices were very similar, in fact two very different fonts had been used to distinguish between them, which is not a sign of faith in the writing or the readers. And I was not hugely impressed with the technical quality of this book – the paper and print quality, design, typesetting and proof-reading could all have done with more care. In the final chapter at least half a dozen times a sentence didn’t make any sense – I’m not sure if words were missing or lines transposed, but it jolted me out of the book at a critical juncture. I hope Ipsos Books is able to invest a little more in the production of future books so that good writing isn’t let down by such mundane and yet very important matters.

To malo pijeska na dlanu published 2005 by Profil International.
This translation published 2013 by Ipsos Books.

Source: Waterstones.com. (I tried to order direct from the publisher but their online store didn’t seem to want to sell me anything!)

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

The silence was as terrible as cold is

The Long Winter

The Long Winter
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Appropriately, I read the majority of this book on a cold, windy November day, feeling increasingly grateful for central heating and a cupboard well stocked with teabags. Before I carry on, this is book 6 in the Little House series, so this may contain spoilers for the previous titles.

No sooner have the Ingalls family installed themselves in their claim shanty (their littlest house yet) on their brand new Dakota farm that they hope will be their last home, than what should come along but a prediction (and early signs of) a seven-month extra-harsh winter. The shanty is far from weather-proof and they haven’t been able to grow themselves a winter store of supplies yet, so there’s nothing for it but to move into the nearby new town (De Smet) where Pa owns a store building they can live in. The store building is weather-proof and just over the road from shops that can sell them supplies as they need them. And there’s a school in town, so Laura and not-so-little-anymore sister Carrie can go to school and make new friends.

The bulk of the story to this book is: really bad winter, poor family barely scrapes through. But it’s actually pretty gripping. Wilder tells us how monotonous it got eating nothing but potatoes and brown bread and desperately trying to eke out the kerosene by using the lamplight as little as possible, but she doesn’t repeat these details more often than needed.

One way that she manages to bulk out the narrative is by adding in the Wilder brothers as new characters. Obviously we all know that Almanzo Wilder is going to wind up marrying Laura Ingalls – it’s right there in her name on the cover of the book, after all! But I still found it odd that after four books written from the perspective of Laura, we now have scenes following Almanzo’s story, scenes Laura isn’t in at all. The thing is, the narrative is third person, not first, but it’s most definitely not omniscient. We only ever, before this book at least, experience events as Laura experienced them. So, for instance, when Pa meets an Indian when he’s out hunting the panther in Little House on the Prairie, we only hear that story as Pa recounts it to the family when he gets home. But now we get scenes of Almanzo and his brother Royal cooking pancakes and making plans for their own homestead, next door to the Ingalls’ new land. Perhaps if I hadn’t skipped book 2, Farmer Boy, which is about Almanzo’s childhood, this would have been less strange. I’ll probably go back to it.

Incidentally, much is made in this book of Almanzo being 19 years old, which means that he has lied to the officials to make a land claim because the rules say he’d have to be 21. But in real life Almanzo was 24 at this point. Wikipedia suggests this change was made so that the age gap between Laura and Almanzo is only 5 years, which would be more palatable to 20th-century readers than the true gap of 10 years once their romance gets going in later books. Personally I think knowing they were happily married for several decades, until Almanzo’s death, negates any question about the age gap being inappropriate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the same concern would be raised by a publisher today.

“Everything was still. No wind stirred the grey-bleached grass and no birds were on the water or in the sky. The lake faintly lapped at the rim of that stillness. Laura looked at Pa and she knew he was listening too. The silence was as terrible as cold is. It was stronger than any sound. It could stop the water’s lapping and the thin, faint ringing in Laura’s ears. The silence was no sound, no movement, no thing; that was its terror.”

Published 1940 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books.

It’s here! The Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (9–13 November)

**This giveaway is now closed. The winner will be announced shortly.**

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop

Hello and welcome!

I am offering up for grabs one copy of the very entertaining The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (which I reviewed here). Just leave a comment before the end of 13 November to enter.

I will select the winner on 14 November using Random.org. This competition is open to anyone anywhere that the post can reach you.

This blog hop is run by Judith of Leeswammes. To find out more check out the blog hop announcement. And do take some time to visit some of the other giveaway participants, listed below.

Linky list:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Ciska’s Book Chest
  3. Sam Still Reading
  4. The Things You Can Read (US)
  5. Col Reads
  6. Guiltless Reading
  7. Love at First Book (US)
  8. Maurice On Books (US)
  9. Mythical Books
  10. Books by Judith
  11. Bees Knees Reviews (US)
  12. River City Reading
  13. Too Fond
  14. Exurbanis
  15. Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
  16. Book’d Out
  17. Roof Beam Reader
  18. Books Speak Volumes
  19. The Relentless Reader (US)
  20. Under My Apple Tree (US)
  21. Booklover Book Reviews
  22. Nishita’s Rants and Raves
  23. Ephemeral Digest
  24. Julia Crane Author (US)
  25. Melissa Pearl Author (US)
  1. Read Lately (US)
  2. Readerbuzz
  3. Lucybird’s Book Blog (Europe)
  4. The Misfortune of Knowing
  5. Bibliophile By the Sea
  6. The Novel Life
  7. Kinx’s Book Nook US)
  8. Dolce Bellezza
  9. Nose in a book
  10. Book-alicious Mama (US)
  11. Anita Loves Books (US)
  12. Words for Worms (US)
  13. Wensend
  14. A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall (N-America)

Cold purple shadows rose in the east

By the Shores of Silver Lake

By the Shores of Silver Lake
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I may have been sold on this book by the section where Ma mourns the lack of trees on the prairie. I do love me some trees. This is book 5 in the Little House series, by the way, so this may contain spoilers if you haven’t read them.

Laura’s getting all grown up! I almost don’t want to carry on with the series now, but leave them all here, with 13-year-old Laura interested in that Wilder boy only for his beautiful horse. Wilder has apparently skipped the few years her family spent running a hotel in Iowa so that her fictional age and real-life age finally match up. This might be because she had a baby brother who died during that time, which isn’t exactly kids’ book material. Or it might be because living in an established town and running a hotel doesn’t fit the pioneer theme of the series.

Despite skipping over the baby brother, this book has a pretty depressing opening. Obviously bad stuff does happen in life and Wilder chose not to omit all of it from the books, so she threw it all into the opening chapters of this volume (or that’s how it felt reading it). The first chapter is actually a bit of a catch-up because a couple of years have passed since the end of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Carrie is no longer a baby, but now there’s new baby Grace. And they’ve all had scarlet fever, which has caused Mary to lose her sight, so Laura must be Mary’s eyes. (This is actually rather well dealt with and reminded me a lot of the Helen Keller book I read recently.)

Once again Pa has itchy feet. He wants to go out west but Ma will only agree to go where there will be a school nearby, so they head to Dakota, where a new town is planned for the following spring on the path of a railroad that’s under construction.

I enjoyed the children riding on a train for the first time, and the combination of excitement and fear that came with that. I liked the interactions with some very different people – the construction crews and fellow would-be settlers are a wilder lot than the townfolk they’ve left behind in Plum Creek.

In this book I really felt how much this series is teaching me about the history of the USA. It is so strange to be sat here in a house that’s older than the town the Ingalls family helped to create, back in 1879. Obviously this is a children’s book so it doesn’t go into the politics of the population boom in Dakota, or the question of it being a territory rather than a state, but the fact that I have gone and looked up that history says something about Wilder’s ability to drop in just enough detail to pique interest. Some details might well be coloured by hindsight – did Pa really talk about how all the buffalo are gone because white men have come and shot them all? Or is that 20th century Laura Ingalls Wilder speaking? But really I don’t mind that and it’s interesting to see what Wilder does choose to comment on.

On reflection, a lot happens in this book. It meets the same criteria as Plum Creek, in that it’s well written but also has plenty of story and isn’t hideously racist. There is actually a slightly dodgy character who’s half American Indian but he’s Pa’s friend and Laura really likes him so Ma’s distrust passes as just one character being racist, rather than Wilder herself.

“The sun sank. A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in clouds of crimson and silver. Cold purple shadows rose in the east, crept slowly across the prairie, then rose in heights on heights of darkness from which the stars swung low and bright.”

Published 1939 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books.

The little cloud was glittering gold

On the Bakns of Plum Creek

On the Banks of Plum Creek
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Finally a Little House book that didn’t upset me politically and had plenty of story and good writing! This is the fourth book in the series, so this may contain spoilers if you are that rare breed like me and haven’t read the Little House books.

The Ingalls family have moved on to Minnesota, buying land from a Mr Hanson who wants to travel out west. Initially, they live in Hanson’s small dugout home, quite literally built into the banks of the creek, but Pa is certain that once he grows a good crop of wheat they can afford to build themselves a proper house and have all the treats they could dream of.

It’s clear from early on that Pa is setting himself up for a fall, especially when he borrows money in anticipation of the wheat crop, but I think that just shows how Wilder had developed as a writer by this point. Again, Laura’s age is not quite accurate to her real life as she is depicted as 7–9 years old rather than 4–5, which would actually make more sense of some details in the story. Laura and her big sister Mary are sent to school for the first time in their lives (they are only two miles from a small town) and while Mary can read and write already (having submitted to lessons from Ma), Laura can’t yet do either.

This really did have the best qualities of the previous two books. There are lovely descriptions of the landscape, both in good times and bad, there are interesting details about farming and housebuilding, there are Laura’s moments of naughtiness (Wilder has set herself up from book 1 as the wild child and Mary as the goodie goodie) and a stark contrast between the highs and lows that the family goes through. There are genuinely life-threatening times, standing beside Laura’s petty conflict with another girl at school.

“The sky was very faintly pink, then it was pinker. The colour went higher up in the sky. It grew brighter and deeper. It blazed like fire, and suddenly the little cloud was glittering gold. In the centre of the blazing colour, on the flat edge of the earth, a tiny sliver of sun appeared. It was a short streak of white fire. Suddenly the whole sun bounded up, round and huge, far bigger than the ordinary sun and throbbing with so much light that its roundness almost burst.”

Published 1937 by Harper and Brothers.

Source: Google Books.