February reading round-up

Woman reading c.1890
UK National Media Museum (c. 1890) via Wikimedia Commons.

I feel like I have done a lot and also very little this month. That doesn’t make much sense but it’s a pretty accurate summary of how I feel about the past four weeks! I’ve managed to read a decent amount, and I’d say my favourite read this month was The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey.

I also realised that I am terrible at giving book recommendations. I’m pretty good at knowing what I’m going to like but I’m also aware how much taste varies and it’s a rare book indeed that I would say no-one could like or that everyone would like. And yet people always ask me for advice, which is perfectly reasonable because I not only read a lot but I have this book blog thing…

How do you feel about recommending books? Do you have special favourites that you always recommend? How did you come to select those? I seek advice!


Books read

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (review here)

The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey (review here)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (review here)

Code Monkey Save World by Greg Pak (I haven’t reviewed this comic because it was just a quick read for fun but do check it out if you can)

Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood (review here)

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks (review to follow)


Short stories read

“Break it down” by Lydia Davis (Guardian Books podcast)

“Meet the president!” by Ali Smith (New Yorker, available online)

“The heron” by Dorthe Nors (New Yorker, Sep 9, 2013)

“Concerning the bodyguard” by Donald Barthelme (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“A village after dark” by Kazuo Ishiguro (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“Bluebell meadow” by Benedict Kiely (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“A different kind of imperfection” by Thomas Beller (New Yorker Fiction podcast)

“I see you” by Harry Harrison (from his short story collection 50 in 50)

“The mistake” by Martín Kohan, translated by Nick Caistor (Guardian, available online)


How was your February? Has it finally sunk in that it’s 2014 now?

Most stories about the past have an element of pain


by Margaret Atwood

This is the third instalment in Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, following on from Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, so this may review contain spoilers for the previous two books. Once again we are in a post-apocalyptic future that feels at once entirely alien and all too possible.

Like the previous two books, this novel looks back to a pre-“flood” story, while also dealing with the post-flood present, but there is more of the present than there has been previously, because really here that’s the emphasis – is this the new way of things? Can humanity survive and if so, how?

The pre-flood story that is slotted into the narrative is mostly about Zeb, who was a fairly minor character in The Year of the Flood but turns out to be an important link between everyone and everything else. However, this wasn’t clear at first and it seemed strange that the flashbacks should linger for so long on him. In particular, there’s an early episode about him having killed a bear that frankly dragged a bit. But once the pace of his back story picked up and some of the links to the wider story became clear, I did enjoy getting to see all the same events again from yet another fresh perspective.

“Will this be a painful story? It’s likely: most stories about the past have an element of pain in them, now that the past has been ruptured so violently, so irreparably. But not, surely, for the first time in human history. How many others have stood in this place? Left behind, with all gone, all swept away.”

The post-flood story is less contemplative than it had been in the previous two books; in fact there’s quite a bit of action. The plague-surviving humans (a mix of God’s Gardeners and Maddaddamites) and the Crakers are learning to understand each other and co-exist, and this raises a lot of issues. Are the Crakers human – and indeed, what is the nature of humanity? Are culture and storytelling innate or taught? Can/should the humans protect the Crakers from bad stuff and teach them knowledge, or should their innocence be maintained as Crake intended? Are the Crakers the only hope for the future?

“He could sense words rising from him, burning away in the sun. Soon he’d be wordless, and then would he still be able to think? No and yes, yes and no. He’d be up against it, up against everything that filled the space he was moving through, with no glass pane of language coming between him and not-him.”

One of the recurring scenes in this book is the Crakers’ story time. The Crakers insist on the daily ritual that Jimmy/Snowman began in Oryx and Crake, and though the storyteller now varies, the style is the same – a somewhat stilted, sanitised version of the truth. These sections are at first odd, irritating even, but gradually become familiar and often humorous, and finally they become the backbone of the whole novel.

“In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you. Yes, good, kind Crake. Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story…All around the Egg was the chaos, with many, many people who were not like you. Because they had an extra skin. That skin is called clothes.”

This was a satisfying end to the trilogy but it didn’t quite match up to the high point of The Year of the Flood for me.

Published 2013 by Bloomsbury.

Source: Bought at an author event run as part of Bristol Festival of Ideas.

The truth is complicated

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple

I picked up this comedy for a quick read when I was struggling to get into another book and it turned out to be much better than I had expected: funny but also original and compelling.

The story is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Seattle-resident Bee (short for Balakrishna), whose mother Bernadette has gone missing. Who Bernadette really is and why she disappeared is gradually pieced together and it’s both an odder story and a more relatable one than it at first appears.

“The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’ You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, ‘The truth is complicated. There’s no way one person can ever know everything about another person.’ “

Semple rips into Seattle culture, but it’s humour with an edge of fondness. She satirizes the dominance of Microsoft and its influence over the city, the difficulty of being a retiring artistic type in a social group that puts pressure on to get involved at your child’s school. But she also acknowledges that, unlike in California (where Bernadette and her husband Elgie moved from), people in Seattle (including teenage children) aren’t obsessed with fashion or the latest gizmos.

The story is mostly told through e-mails and letters, with some being brief notes and others much longer storytelling affairs. This meant there were not only lots of voices, but some characters were depicted in multiple facets of their life and I thought this was handled well. It was a nice update to the epistolary style without feeling like it was trying too hard to be modern (except where mocking modernity).

“Your mission statement says Galer Street [School] is based on global ‘connectitude’. (You people don’t just think outside the box, you think outside the dictionary!)…you must emancipate yourselves from what I am calling Subaru Parent mentality and start thinking more like Mercedes ParentsGrab your crampons because we have an uphill climb. But fear not: I do underdog.”

I liked the combination of themes dealt with – there’s career versus family (for men and women) and how everyone, even your nearest and dearest, is a mystery to everyone but themselves. The book also touches on technological developments (through the character of Elgie) and the fight to balance societal and commercial pressures. And without giving anything away, I loved the final section, which could have felt like it just wrapped everything up neatly, but managed to steer clear of that, just as it managed to get emotional without seeming mawkish.

Semple’s is the comedy of everyday irritations and she judges well the point when something stops being funny or when it stops being acceptable to get annoyed. Not that that line is never crossed, but the character in question stops being sympathetic, which is such a realistic means of showing up character flaws.

I must admit that, more than a week later, this book hasn’t particularly stayed with me, but as you can tell I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Published 2012 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Source: Amazon.

Sunday Salon: Bookmarked

The Sunday Salon

As a booklover, I’m also quite a fan of bookmarks. I like to pick up the free ones that bookshops give away, especially if I found a good bookshop on holiday, but I also have some nice ones I paid for or was given as gifts. And yet in my day-to-day reading I’m just as likely to use a random scrap of paper to mark my place as I am to search out a proper bookmark.

To take the photo below, which I’m pretty sure is barely half of my bookmarks, I scoured shelves and books alike. In some cases the bookmark was a reminder of where the book came from. But just as often I found receipts or ticket stubs in the back of books and I quite like the variety of memories they bring back. A restaurant bill reminds me of sitting on the harbourside in the sunshine a few years back with a glass of wine and a Colette book before Tim joined me for dinner. A corner torn from a newspaper puzzle page reminds me of doing crosswords with Tim after we both put our books down of a weekend morning.


So why do I still like bookmarks? Well, they can provide memories too (and, as I said, the majority of those pictured were left behind in books, so it’s no wonder I often can’t find one and use whatever scrap of paper is handy!). Those that are gifts remind me of the giver, including one bookmark I still use now that was given to me by a friend when we were 9 or 10 years old. They often, unsurprisingly, have bookish quotes or phrases on them, which are things I like. And sometimes they are just simply things of beauty.

Do you collect bookmarks? Do you use them? Or do you prefer to use something you can leave behind in the book that reminds you of when you read it?

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

Since discovering Didion last year, I have been eager to read more of her work, and where better to start than her famous memoir of the year following her husband’s death? Thankfully my book club agreed and we picked it for our February meeting.

This book wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought it would be very slow and contemplative, so I started it well ahead of book club. But actually I sped through it, I might almost call it gripping. The book starts with Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne dying of a sudden heart attack. But at the same time their daughter Quintana was in intensive care fighting pneumonia, so Didion couldn’t let herself fall apart or retreat into herself. She dealt with this odd delay in her grief by writing about it, then and there.

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

This is very much a memoir of that specific year in Didion’s life, not of her life before. Nor is it about her husband, though obviously memories of him do feature, but only in relation to Didion experiencing them resurfacing, which often results in some of the book’s more moving moments. She will mention in a very matter-of-fact way that she can no longer drive down certain streets or let herself see certain landmarks because the memories they recall threaten to break her, and it is only when you think about what she has said that you realise how close to the edge she is.

“One day when I was talking on the telephone in the office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message?”

Because what’s interesting about this book is that although it is raw and honest, Didion’s emotions are processed in a very cerebral, intelligent way, so initially she seems a little cold or detached (which is no doubt partly shock), and it takes time to realise that this is a very emotional, hurt person, dealing with that pain the only way she can. As the book goes on, feelings come more to the fore, and some of the more recognisable signs of grief such as regrets and obsession over details emerge.

“What would I give to be able to discuss this with John? What would I give to be able to discuss anything with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one that one small thing be? If I had said it in time would it have worked?”

The precarious health of Quintana does of course complicate the grieving process. It gives Didion something to focus on but also an excuse not to get back to “real life”. It’s also the aspect of the book that consolidated my sympathy for Didion, because while it may sound harsh, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Didion and her husband lived a very privileged life – they were famous, successful and well paid, with multiple homes and an intimate knowledge of the best hotels in many a city. I think this bald fact ran the risk of detracting from any sympathy I felt, but for the most part I was fully on Didion’s side, absorbed in her story.

I liked that I was able to recognise the style of Didion the novelist in this book, even though it was a very different beast. She makes use of quotes, repetition, research and fractions of thoughts, returns over and over to certain moments, in an otherwise linear narrative. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed The Last Thing He Wanted and will continue to check out her back catalogue.

First published 2005 by Alfred A Knopf/HarperCollins.

Source: Foyles Bristol.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Such innocent words to drop like hot cinders

The Ship Who Sang

The Ship Who Sang
by Anne McCaffrey

As with most of my SF reading, this was a recommendation from Tim and it was one of his most successful recommendations, by which I mean I loved it and was happy to learn that it was the first book in a series.

This really felt like it had an original but somehow classic set-up. In a future with commonplace space travel and human settlements on other planets, science has found a fascinating way to help children born with certain birth defects. Those who are born with a body that is useless but a brain that is high-functioning are trained to become encapsulated brains, plugged into one of the Federation of Planets’ specially designed shells, such as a space ship, fully controlling it in every way. Each “brain ship” is partnered with a “brawn” – an able-bodied pilot whose job is not really to fly to ship (though they can, if needed) but to keep the brain company and be their “mobile half” as they run jobs for the Federation across the known universe.

“Shell-people were schooled to examine every aspect of a problem or situation before making a prognosis…Therefore to Helva, the problem that she couldn’t open her mouth to sing, among other restrictions, did not bother her. She would work out a method, by-passing her limitations, whereby she could sing.”

This book had me hooked from page one, and the way it did that is that we learn all of the above by following the brain ship Helva from her birth, through her schooling and transfer to ship 834 and on into her adulthood as a working brain ship. This is essentially an adventure story, one with plenty of heart and a great character at its centre. Helva is, in her own words, “all woman”, despite her useless body, and she has a wry sense of humour that often wrong-foots her passengers, especially those who think the voice speaking to them is that of a mere ship’s computer!

“He directed his bow toward the central pillar where Helva was. Her own personal preference crystallised at that precise moment and for that particular reason: Jennan, alone of the men, had addressed his remarks directly at her physical presence, regardless of the fact that he knew she could pick up his image wherever he was in the ship and regardless of the fact that her body was behind massive metal walls.”

I like that McCaffrey didn’t present the brain ships as ubiquitous and universally accepted. There are many characters who have qualms about this form of genetic engineering, whether that be for ethical reasons or just their own uneasiness about the end result. There are some thorny issues around their service to the Federation, as they do earn money, but this is deducted against their debt resulting from their training and brain ships can take centuries to pay off and earn the freedom to work for other employers.

“Theoda was talking nervously, her eyes restlessly searching over the supplies in the galley cupboards…’Do you enjoy your work? It must be a tremendous satisfaction.’
Such innocent words to drop like hot cinders on Helva…Rapidly Helva began to talk, anything to keep herself from being subjected to another such unpredictably rasping civility.”

The novel is very much episodic, which makes sense as five of the six chapters were originally published as short stories, but there’s still a through storyline that makes it work as a novel. In fact I’m curious how much was changed from those original stories, because if anything it flows too well as a novel for those stories to have properly stood alone. Perhaps I’ll have to hunt them out and see!

I loved Helva and was completely emotionally involved in her story. I really liked McCaffrey’s style of writing and fully intend to search out more of it.

First published 1969 by Rapp & Whiting. (Selected sections previously published 1961–1969 in various publications.)

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

January reading round-up

A Girl Reading
A Girl Reading by Berndt Abraham Godenhjelm (1830s).

January was so busy I didn’t even find time to write this post! I had a slow start reading-wise, possibly not helped by my new knitting hobby, which gives me an excuse to watch telly instead of reading, as I am still “being useful”. I’ve settled into a better balance now so hopefully February’s round-up will look a bit healthier. (I also have a few days off work coming up, which should help with finding time to read.)

Lack of reading certainly didn’t translate into low-quality reading, as this month I awarded my first five-star rating on Goodreads since last August, to The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I really do recommend this book to anyone and everyone; it ticked all the boxes for me. (Not that I’m a fan of star ratings, I find them a bit of a crude measure and we all have different levels of generosity/harshness, but they can be useful as a rough idea of how I felt about a book immediately on completing it.)

So what did I read this month overall?

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin (review here)
Bullet Park by John Cheaver (review here)
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (review here)
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (review here)

Short stories

“Victory” by Yu Hua (New Yorker magazine, Aug 26, 2013)
“The veldt” by Ray Bradbury (Selected Shorts podcast)
“The catbird” by James Thurber (Selected Shorts podcast)
“I love Girl” by Simon Rich (Selected Shorts podcast)
“Then we lived together in the belly of a whale, some nights were perfect” by Mara Sternberg (Selected Shorts podcast)
“Jubilation, Florida” by N M Kelby (Selected Shorts podcast)
“Homegirls on St Nicholas Avenue” by Sonia Sanchez (Selected Shorts podcast)
“Strike and fade” by Henry Dumas (Selected Shorts podcast)
“Fenstad’s mother” by Charles Baxter (Selected Shorts podcast)

How has your reading month been? What was your last outstanding read?