November reading round-up

(Beinecke Library, Yale)
(Beinecke Library, Yale)

Is it really December tomorrow already? Time really does seem faster every year. It looks like I have read way more than usual this month because I read seven graphic novels/trade paperback collections of comics and let’s face it, they tend to be quicker reads than your average non-graphic novel. I read them for Graphic Novel Week and wrote short reviews of them all here.

This week I took Tim (as a late birthday present) to see one of his favourite authors, William Gibson, speak in Bath at an event arranged by Toppings bookshop. It was a slightly odd evening, in that Gibson just did a reading from his new book then a short Q&A and implied that the main point of it all was the book signing. Every other author event I’ve gone to has had either an interviewer or the author giving a short talk, but I don’t go to that many so perhaps I’m just discovering late in the day that author events vary quite a lot!

I suppose I expected something more because this year it’s 30 years since the publication of Neuromancer, Gibson’s first novel, which has achieved legendary status and had major influence on the world that reaches far beyond those who’ve actually read it (which I had done in preparation for the event). I had seen on the Internet that Gibson was doing/had done some events specifically about Neuromancer this year and therefore expected it would at least get a brief discussion. As it was, it was only mentioned by audience members in Bath (who, incidentally, had some very intelligent questions that provoked some interesting debate between Tim and I as we waited in the cold and wet for our delayed train home).

Certainly it was different at the David Mitchell event earlier this month, at which an interviewer helped Mitchell discuss his new book and past work for a good half hour before the Q&A and signing. It’s a style I much prefer, even if it did mean I took an hour and a half lunch break that day! But then I’m pre-disposed to prefer an event with an author I’m a big fan of, whose work I have read all of (or at least all the novels, I believe there are short stories out there I haven’t read).

Books

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (review here)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (review here)

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Transmetropolitan Vol 1: Back on the Street by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Transmetropolitan Vol 2: Lust for Life by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Transmetropolitan Vol 3: Year of the Bastard by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Transmetropolitan Vol 4: The New Scum by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Transmetropolitan Vol 5: Lonely City by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Serenity Vol. 4: Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty

Ex Machina Vol. 1: The First Hundred Days by Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris

Short stories

“Can’t and won’t” by Lydia Davis (Selected Shorts podcast)

“If at the wedding (at the zoo)” by Lydia Davis (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The party” by Lydia Davis (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The two Davises and the rug” by Lydia Davis (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The egg race” by John Updike (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Camilo” by Alejandro Zambra (New Yorker, May 26, 2014)

“The right sort” by David Mitchell (Twitter, collected together here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/14/the-right-sort-david-mitchells-twitter-short-story)

“Sheherezade” by Haruki Murakami (New Yorker, available online: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/scheherazade-3)

“Here’s the story” by David Gilbert (New Yorker, June 9 & 16, 2014 )

“The adolescents” by Rachel Kushner (New Yorker, June 9 & 16, 2014 )

Happy December, folks!

Graphic Novel Week: Mini reviews

Reading in Winter Graphic Novel Week

To conclude this fantastic week of graphic novel celebration, organised by Kristilyn of Reading in Winter, I have written mini reviews of all the graphic novels I have read lately. I didn’t get through all of my reading list I set myself on Monday, but considering I was busy three evenings out of the five I don’t think I did too badly!

Transmetropolitan 1Transmetropolitan Vol 1: Back on the Street
by Warren Ellis (writer) and Darick Robertson (penciller)

Spider Jerusalem is a sweary, drug-addled, weapons-loving misanthropic journalist who retired to the mountains when fame started to make people actually like him. Now he’s running out of money and his publisher is threatening legal action if he doesn’t finally stump up the two books he’s contracted for, so he reluctantly returns to the one place where he knows he can write – the City. Ellis and Robertson depict a frightening future, a world that has got more extreme in every way. There is clearly a lot of Hunter S Thompson in Spider, but in a world where his brand of truth-telling is more badly needed than ever. Spider talks/coerces his way into a job writing a weekly column and as the words begin to flow, he becomes fractionally less awful as he has somewhere to channel his hatred, anger and misery. There’s great black humour in the words and the artwork – I definitely recommend paying attention to the details in every frame as there are so many stories being told here.

“I’ve shut off the mine-fields and the intelligent guns. For the first time in five years, there is nothing menacing in my garden. Five years of shooting at fans and neighbours, eating what I kill and bombing the unwary. Five years of being alone. I can’t begin to describe the ways I’ll miss the mountain…I could cry. I really could. Journalists do not cry. And I am a fucking journalist again.”

This collection published 1998 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

transmet 2Transmetropolitan Vol 2: Lust for Life
by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

In this volume, Spider Jerusalem gains a glamorous assistant called Channon who is both a fan and capable of handling his ridiculous habits, and starts finding himself a series of subjects for his column “I Hate It Here”. Often several pages in a row are, effectively, his column, calling attention to the poor and desperate of the city. He repeatedly breaks or bends the law not just to get his story, but also to exact small revenges on those he feels have failed the city in some way. There is one incredible and moving story about a woman called Mary who is revived from cryogenic sleep to find herself alone in a bewildering and inhospitable future. In another story, Spider visits a series of reservations created outside the city to preserve old cultures, where the desire for authenticity has stretched to removing the anti-cancer gene that humans have developed. It begins to be clearer in this volume how Spider comes to be so very fucked up. This is a truly fucked-up world and anyone who keeps their eyes open and dares to care is going to find their nature twist. It’s powerful, entertaining stuff.

“Mucus and soundbites. I remember this feeling now, from the last days before I went to the mountain. The sudden feeling that this place is Not On Your side. I’m hiding now. And writing. I can’t stop, even now. This goddamned city makes me write even when it wants me dead.”

This collection published 1998 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

Transmet 3Transmetropolitan Vol 3: Year of the Bastard
by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Spider Jerusalem was made famous years ago by writing a bestselling book about a presidential election campaign so now he is desperately trying to ignore the approach of election time, while his editor and readers clamour for his opinion on it all. Inevitably he is sucked into following the election of an opposition candidate for the current president, known as the Beast. Spider is accompanied by his new assistant Yelena, in many ways the opposite of Channon – a brooding, resentful girl who disapproves of Spider in every way. But Spider is busy now figuring out what the two main candidates have to hide and which of them is capable of beating the hated Beast. Ellis is careful not to use words like Republican or Democrat but there is still plenty of applicable-to-real-life insightful political commentary here, phrased as always in Spider’s spleen-filled invective.

“Two days in this whirlwind have left me shipwrecked and abandoned. Even the stuff I’ve been shooting in order to, Holmes-like, keep my interest in the world alive is failing me now. I’ve played the game like a good little whore, snarled and cursed on cue…I’ll let myself sleep soon, and hope to hell the world doesn’t seem so goddamn fractured when I wake up. Having said that, I also hope I wake to find half this city committed suicide in my honour.”

This collection published 1999 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

transmet 4Transmetropolitan Vol 4: The New Scum
by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

It’s time to elect a new president – will it be the Smiler or the Beast? Spider Jerusalem interviews both candidates, savagely digging for the truth, for which man will be the lesser evil. There are glimpses too of the “New Scum” – the city’s poor for whom Spider has declared himself spokesperson – but this is largely another political volume. After the revelations of Year of the Bastard there is little hope that the outcome of the election will really change anything, so this is the bleakest volume yet. There is some light relief from Channon and Yelena bickering but overall I struggled a little to maintain the excitement that had had me reading eagerly through these books. Still gotta love Spider’s columns though.

“And there you have it, reader. The Beast believes in something, perverted and filthy as it is…I was so shocked that I almost forgot to plant the guerilla neurotransmitter gel…And that, Mr President, is why you’ve been hallucinating having sex with speed-crazed Barbary Apes suffering from irritable bowel syndrome for the last week. And now you know what it’s like to have you as president; what it’s like to be constantly fucked by someone who stinks of shit.”

This collection published 2000 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

transmet 5Transmetropolitan Vol 5: Lonely City
by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Oh man. While volume 4 had me doubting this series, volume 5 has me convinced it is the greatest comic series I have read. Ellis really stepped it up a notch, I felt. Back on the city streets, Spider Jerusalem and his assistants stumble across a hate crime that doesn’t seem to be getting proper attention. When Spider calls the police out on it in his column, he unleashes a horrific series of events. Despite the futuristic setting and indeed the futuristic aspects of the crime itself, the rest of this storyline could terrifyingly easily happen in the real world today; arguably it has already happened over and over. I was chilled to the core and my fandom of the series fully reawakened. Also, this volume has an introduction by Patrick Stewart. Seriously. Cool.

“You went to all the trouble of conceiving me, and giving birth to me, and raising me and feeding me and clothing me and all. And yeah, whipping me from time to time, and making me live in a house that’s freezing fucking cold all the goddamn time. And you make me cry and things hurt so much and disappointments crush my heart every day and I can’t do half the things I want to do and sometimes I just want to scream. And what I’ve got to look forward to is my body breaking and something flipping off the switch in my head. I go through all this – and then there’s death? What is the motherfucking deal here?”

This collection published 2001 by DC Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

Ex_Machina,_the_First_Hundred_DaysEx Machina Vol. 1: The First Hundred Days
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Tony Harris (pencils)

Imagine The West Wing with superpowers, well, just one specific superpower really, but even so – amazing combo, right? Civil engineer Mitchell Hundred just became mayor of New York City, running on a campaign of independence, promising to unite left and right, but everyone knows he was really elected because he outed himself as the Great Machine, the first superhero, and his last super act before hanging up his hero’s suit was stopping the second plane from hitting the World Trade Center on September 11th. Now in true Jed Bartlett style, he must wrestle with the petty and ridiculous when he’d rather be tackling the big issues. But there’s the added difficulties of the NSA demanding he no longer use his special powers and a freak snow storm threatening to cripple the city. There are lots of great female characters, lots of interesting political machinations and I’m eager to see where this goes next.

“‘Ms Padmilla, I admire your tenacity, but I do have a press secretary.’

‘Yeah, one who refuses to divulge the origin of your psychic rapport with machinery.’

‘First of all, I’m not psychic. That’s just dumb. And secondly, you know damn well the NSA has ordered me not to comment on any “extra-normal abilities” I might have.’

…’Are you an alien?…What kind of pseudonym is Hundred anyway?’

‘For the last time, I am a thirteenth-generation American. My ancestors renamed themselves after Brandywine Hundred, the division of Delaware where they settled. And unless you can prove to me that Myles Standish – captain of the fucking Mayflower – was an alien, I’m done answering retarded questions about my planet of origin.’

…’Let’s roll…Ahh, shit! She’s gonna quote me on “retarded”, isn’t she?'”

This collection published 2005 by Vertigo Comics.

Source: Excelsior! comic book shop, Bristol.

serenity 4Serenity Vol. 4: Leaves on the Wind
by Zack Whedon (script) and Georges Jeanty (pencils)

This picks up where the film Serenity left off (the previous three comic volumes filled in back story, both before Firefly and between Firefly and the film). The tone is pitched perfectly, depicting the crew dealing with the emotional and practical fallout from the film’s events while also setting up a new story thread and new characters – good, bad and wavering inbetween. Not every character gets equal air time (frame time?) – for instance, I hope that future volumes give Kaylee and Simon more story – and I also felt that Kaylee’s dialogue played her as dumber than she ever came across in the TV series. However, overall I thoroughly enjoyed this volume, especially the gorgeous chapter page artwork by Dan Dos Santos.

“Life’s a funny thing. We cling to it so dear. The thought of losing it pushed down deep with all the other dirty little things we don’t like to see the light of day. Yet it is so easy to take a life. We’re so soft. So fragile…We’re built to live but we’re so easy to kill. Does that seem right to you?”

This collection published 2014 by Dark Horse Books.

Source: Excelsior! comic book shop, Bristol.

Graphic Novel Week: reading list

Reading in Winter Graphic Novel Week

As I mentioned last week, Kristilyn of Reading in Winter has declared 21–24 November Graphic Novel Week, which came just as I had decided to read all of the Transmetropolitan comics, so that was good timing!

These are the books I have lined up to read before next weekend. The top row are borrowed from Tim, the bottom row were bought today from Excelsior! comic shop.

IMG_7371-web

Transmetropolitan vol. 4: The New Scum by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Transmetropolitan vol. 5: Lonely City by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Transmetropolitan vol. 6: Gouge Away by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Transmetropolitan vol. 0: Tales of Human Waste by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson
Ex Machina vol. 1: The First Hundred Days by Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris
The Sandman vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman
The Sandman vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
Serenity vol. 4: Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty

You’ll notice that the only one of those that’s completely new to me is Ex Machina, which I picked up because I am impatient for the next volume of Brian K Vaughan’s current series Saga. I’m not good at this whole waiting game you have to play when you like current comic series.

I was intending to pick up some more literary graphic novels such as The Gigantic Beard that was Evil by Stephen Collins or Habibi by Craig Thompson but I think I have enough to be going on with.

It’s going to be a good week’s reading!

See how the light needs shadows

bone-clocks

The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell

It’s almost two weeks since I finished this book, and the more I reflect on it the higher it ranks in my esteem. It’s definitely a book that rewards giving it some thinking time.

If you’ve read any of Mitchell’s first three books (Ghostwritten, number9dream and Cloud Atlas) then this new release will feel familiar, and not just because of the direct references to characters, places and things in those books. This has actually been true of all Mitchell’s books but never quite so clearly as here. He has been world-building for five novels and now he’s capitalising on it with a glorious plot that combines the best of all that has gone before and throws in some brand new magic.

“Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark. See how the light needs shadows. Look: wrinkles spread like mildew over our peachy sheen; beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat, varicose veins worm through plucked calves; torsos and breasts fatten and sag…as last year’s song hurtles into next year’s song and the year after that, and the dancers’ hairstyles frost, wither and fall in irradiated tufts…”

As I mentioned in my write-up of David Mitchell’s talk at Bristol Festival of Ideas last week, it would be very easy to spoil this plot by saying too much, so I’m going to try very hard not to do that.

The Bone Clocks opens with teenager Holly Sykes having a really rubbish day. She starts off pretty annoying, as indeed most teenagers are, but as events continue to go badly for her, I realised I must have warmed to her because I really did care how things were going to turn out. It’s 1984 on the Kent—Essex border and though Holly mentions punk music and the miners strike, she doesn’t need to because the setting is so very alive. Holly’s parents own a pub and in reading about it I pictured all those small town pubs from my own childhood.

There are hints of something fantastical in the background, that this isn’t just a realistic story about a 15-year-old who’s had a massive fight with her mam, but Mitchell keeps these hints simmering slowly. It’s a tactic that for me paid off brilliantly, as it kept me reading even when the narrator switched to a whole new person and story that once again I needed to warm up to.

“Grey comes in through the cracks, birdsong too, and the sound of a lorry passing overheard, and a sharp pain from a knocked ankle, and I’m crouching on the concrete ground of an underpass, just a few yards from the exit. A breeze that smells of car-fumes washes over my face, and it’s over, my daymare, my vision, my whatever-it-was, is over.”

As always, Mitchell’s style is very readable and enjoyable. There’s plenty of humour to balance out the occasionally tough topics addressed. But key to what makes this such a good read is that every character is a rounded, believable person and though there are a few clear heroes and villains, even they can’t be relied on to be wholly good or bad.

Published 2014 by Sceptre.

Source: Waterstones.

On not reading much and Graphic Novel Week

I’ve been a bit rubbish at reading again lately. Working too many hours, busy too many evenings and weekends; it’s all led to the inevitable crash that is the lupus flare. I curl up in bed or on the sofa with a stack of books and wind up watching TV or browsing the Internet instead because it’s all my brain can cope with. And I don’t mean watching good TV or reading good articles online either, I mean the mindless stuff. (Mostly. I have read some good stuff online lately. As long as it’s short I can cope with occasional thinking material.)

I feel bad for the books I try to read when I’m flaring, because I either give up on them or struggle through without really enjoying the process. I know all reading is about timing, but maybe I need to get better at identifying when to switch to the right kind of book for mid-fatigue. But what kind of book is that?

So far, I’ve found the best answer is comics and graphic novels. I’m not saying they’re all easy reads (I won’t be attempting any Sandman or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in my current state) and I’m sure I miss stuff when I’m tired just as I do with novels of the non-graphic variety, but I do tend to find them both manageable and enjoyable when I’m ill, which is no mean feat and something I’m hugely grateful for.

By fortuitous timing, Kristilyn of Reading in Winter has declared next week Graphic Novel Week. What a great idea!

Reading in Winter Graphic Novel Week

I will be taking part by reading my way through Tim’s collection of Transmetropolitan, which I started today. And I’m sure I can talk Tim into a trip to Excelsior! comic-book shop to pick up some more reading materials. If my lupus has calmed back down I might even try to write something intelligent about graphic novels. No promises!

Anyone have any graphic-novel recommendations? Will you be taking part in Graphic Novel Week?

The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell
(CC BY Kubik)

David Mitchell
Watershed, 12 November

I’m a David Mitchell fan. This fact crept up on me somewhat. Selecting which book to take for him to sign at a talk on Wednesday, I realised that not only do I own – and have read – all his books, but the last three I’ve bought in hardback pretty soon after their release. That I’ve loved them all goes without saying – why else would I keep on spending extra on them – but I do feel bad that I forgot to say that to Mitchell himself, it seems like something I should have said.

I should clarify for fellow Brits that I am talking here about the novelist David Mitchell, not the comedian David Mitchell. They’ve both written books, they’re both great and they’re both touring the West Country this week, so I’d understand any confusion.

Mitchell started by talking about his new book The Bone Clocks (which I finished reading last weekend – my review will follow soon). He says the idea for it grew from his own sense of his mortality as he reached his mid-40s, and death certainly is a recurring theme. This time, the structure is the seven ages of man, each set in a different decade and each having a different style of writing (though that makes it sound more experimental and disjointed than it is – this a coherent novel with distinct sections).

There was quite a lot of discussion of The Bone Clocks that on reflection was a bit spoilery, so I won’t share too much of that. But Mitchell did talk about several overarching themes in all his books, such as alienation and difficulty communicating, which comes from a combination of his having a stammer as a child and his years living in Japan. He discussed how he writes all his books as a series of novellas, or long short stories, with the links between them being closer and more blurred in some cases (such as Black Swan Green) than others (say, Ghostwritten). He also acknowledged the growing “uber book” that is the world in which all his novels are set. This world-building, in which not only characters but also things from previous books reappear, started out of a sense of mischief but he soon saw that it has a certain utility – it enables improbable events to become believable and adds a sense of reality, because what is familiar feels real.

When asked about specific reactions to his book, Mitchell replied “in the same way that you can’t successfully tickle yourself, you are immune to your tricks” as a writer, i.e. he’s never read his books as a reader. (He similarly fobbed off questions about genre, saying – quite rightly – that it’s not up to him to label his books.) But when reading other people’s books, he appreciates being pulled along or swept up by them. He made the important point that pace isn’t just plot – you have to have a connection with the characters to be swept up in a book and plot is the enabler of this connection. I’d say this awareness certainly shows in his work.

Mitchell also talked about creating a sense of place. His books have been set all over the world, often in multiple locations, but they are always strongly placed. He said that writers are effectively location scouts, but also that “it’s my job to convince you that I’ve been there” – a job that can involve intensive research or a quick visit with his trusty notebook.

After a mini love-in for Ursula le Guin, Mitchell listed his other favourite authors as Halldór Laxness, Anton Chekhov, Marilynne Robinson and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, which is a suitably international top five for such a well-travelled man!

Finally, Mitchell revealed that he is working on a book largely set in 1960s London and New York, due for publication in 2016. And even more excitingly, he has written a short novel (his first short book!) as a spin-off from The Bone Clocks and that will be published in 2015. It’s clearly a great time to be a David Mitchell fan.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

An Elephant in the Garden by Poonamallee Productions and Exeter Northcott Theatre

My review of the play An Elephant in the Garden has been published over at Theatre Writers Bristol. The play was adapted from the book by Michael Morpurgo and performed in the Brewery Theatre in Southville, Bristol. It was my first visit to this relatively new small theatre, run by Tobacco Factory Theatres. It’s a lovely intimate space, though every noise the audience made seemed to be amplified.

Anyway, do check out my review and the rest of the Theatre Writers Bristol website.

Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases

sedaris-me-talk-prettyMe Talk Pretty One Day
by David Sedaris

I had come across Sedaris a few times in the New Yorker and found him invariably hilarious, so I’d been meaning to read this, his most famous book, for ages. Finally, on a day out in Oxford earlier this year with my friend H, we inevitably found ourselves in my favourite branch of Blackwells and I wandered around happily picking up and putting down books indecisively until I spotted this volume and knew it was the one.

This both is and isn’t an autobiography. It’s a collection of essays, previously published in various places including the New Yorker and Esquire, but they are all stories from Sedaris’s life and they are arranged in chronological order, so a sort of memoir emerges, a highly selective one.

“That’s one of Alisha’s most well-worn adjectives, sweet, and she uses it to describe just about everyone. Were you to kick her in the stomach, the most you could expect would be a demotion to ‘semi sweet’. I’ve never known someone so willing to withhold judgment and overlook what often strike me as major personality defects. Like all of my friends, she’s a lousy judge of character.”

The first half of the book deals with Sedaris’s childhood in North Carolina, his failed attempts to be an academic, his move to New York and the varied jobs he took to survive there, including as a house mover and as PA to an eccentric publisher. I say “deals with” but each essay tells one memory, or set of linked memories, so this is by no means the full story of Sedaris’s life. However, his open engaging style makes it feel a lot like a memoir, so it can be a bit disconcerting to realise that information learned in one essay means that some pretty important information was withheld from a previous essay.

“It was my father’s dream that one day the people of the world would be connected to one another through a network of blocky, refrigerator-size computers…He envisioned families of the future gathered around their mammoth terminals, ordering groceries and paying their taxes from the comfort of their own homes…’I mean, my God,’ he’d say, ‘just think about it.’ My sisters and I preferred not to. I didn’t know about them, but I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead. Unfortunately, my father’s team won, so computers it is.”

Apparently Sedaris has attracted some controversy for the questionable veracity of his non-fiction, to the extent that some magazines that regularly publish him label the work as fiction. It’s fairly clear in some stories that there’s an element of exaggeration if nothing else, but this doesn’t bother me at all, as they’re so very well written.

Sedaris really is a great humorist, making me laugh out loud and save up so many great quotes that I ended up reading whole essays out to Tim for him to share the fun. Sedaris makes genuinely funny observations on an at first glance unremarkable life – he’s been a drug addict and lived in Paris and New York, so it’s hardly been a dull life, but he somehow paints it as painfully ordinary, while also making it wildly interesting.

“If you happen to live there, it’s always refreshing to view Manhattan from afar. Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases, but from a distance it inspires fantasies of wealth and power so profound that even our communists are temporarily rendered speechless.”

What I’ll admit I did find odd is that there is no reference to Sedaris becoming a writer, and a successful one at that. The second half of the book deals with his time in France with his partner Hugh, from shorter trips and language difficulties to moving there full-time and taking French lessons (from which the title of the book comes). These essays feel like a series, like they had been commissioned and were being written in the moment, as indeed they were. This was long after Sedaris had achieved some success telling his stories on NPR, but he continues to refer to taking odd jobs and helping Hugh do up his rural French cottage, while never talking about writing or being a writer. It’s almost as though he wants to maintain the character built up in the first half of the book, that of a lovable loser, a disappointment for not making the most of his comfortable middle-class start in life. Perhaps he wanted to save writing on writing for another time, or perhaps he thought it a dull subject. I’m more than happy to read more of his books to find out!

First published in 2000 by Little, Brown & Company.

Source: Blackwells, Oxford.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Sunday Salon: Did not finish

The Sunday Salon I finish most of the books I start reading, but every couple of months something comes along that I realise I’m just not enjoying or I’m finding too slow/hardgoing to get into. So I stop.

I’m happy with that choice, but then I’m faced with the decision of what to do with the book. Do I just get rid of it, strike it off the to read list forever? (I’m pretty sure Tim is nodding furiously at this one, as we’ve already had to add another bookcase to the library!) Or do I keep hold of it for another time? Sometimes the answer is clear, but sometimes there really can be a right time and a wrong time for a particular book, and I’d hate to miss out on something wonderful because I made a snap decision when I was in the wrong mood.

With that in mind, here are the last three books I gave up on part-way through. These aren’t exactly reviews, because I read less than 100 pages of each. Have you read any of these? What did you think of them? Do any of them deserve another chance?

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery
translated from French by Alison Anderson

This had been recommended in several places so I thought it was a great find when I spotted it in a charity shop. The synopsis – Parisian concierge strikes up an unusual friendship with a 12 year old in the building who has secretly decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday – sounded interesting, and I usually love stories set in Paris. Not so this one. More than anything I am reminded of Sophie’s World – it seems to be a series of short essays on philosophy and the arts (and not particularly good ones) with a thin veneer of story. The two alternating narrators are both intensely annoying. The concierge is obsessed with hiding the fact that she is cultured and loves to read, because apparently no-one would expect that of the working class. (I mean, really? Wasn’t that the origin of Penguin Books back in the 1930s? Perhaps it’s a French thing.) The 12-year-old rambles on about how clever she is and really has raised not one iota of sympathy in me. An unfortunate event has just happened (on p80 or so) so maybe it changes from here on in, but it would have to be a radical change to keep me reading.

Published 2008 by Europa Editions.

Ghana Must Go
by Taiye Selasi

Almost the opposite of the Barbery book, this is beautifully written and there’s plenty of story happening. I loved the language and was marking favourite passages constantly, but I kept losing track of the story. The book opens with the death of Kwaku Sai, a Ghanian doctor who moved back to Ghana after many years in America and has married a younger woman his children (now grown and still living in the US) don’t approve of. His death is slowly drawn out, filled with the memories of his life that he lingers on as his heart fails. There’s a whole life to tell, so it doesn’t feel dragged out, but I did sometimes get confused about past versus present. While I loved the language, I found it hard work and wasn’t drawn into the story. But I think I’d like to give this another try.

Published 2013 by Viking.

A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos
by Dava Sobel

I wanted to like this book, I really did. I loved Sobel’s breakout hit Longitude, which doesn’t deal with an obviously interesting to me subject, but Sobel made it fascinating. In this case there’s again a historical setting – the 16th century – plus the added interest of how Copernicus balanced his life as a priest with his growing interest in astronomy. I didn’t get as far as his controversial observation that the Earth is not in fact the centre of the universe. I didn’t even get as far as the fictional play script in the middle of the straight biography (which to be honest I was wary of). I’m afraid I was bored. Perhaps it’s an artefact of there being few primary sources of Copernicus’s life to draw on, but I didn’t feel that Sobel brought the period or Copernicus alive for me.

Published 2011 by Bloomsbury.

October reading round-up

Dorothy Canfield, 1907.
(Dorothy Canfield, 1907)

Ah autumn, time of cold weather and rain when the best thing in the world is snuggling up with a book. Well, we had two weeks of that and then it got warm again; weirdly warm. And then I wasted a week reading a book I disliked (more on that tomorrow), so my reading completed list doesn’t look too impressive this month.

I had planned to read some horror for Halloween, maybe some Daphne du Maurier, but the closest I got was making a start on David Mitchell‘s new book The Bone Clocks, which sounds spookier than it is, though I have a feeling that might change when I get further in. I did, however, watch the film of Gone Girl, which is super disturbing in an entertaining kind of way. I haven’t read the book as I’d heard mixed reports about it, but I think now I’d quite like to, even if I do now know all the twists and turns of the plot.

A quick catch-up on my reading aims/challenges for the year, as I only have two months left to get where I want to be with them! I’ve read nine popular-science books, so I only need to read one more of those. I’ve read seven books in translation, which is not so good. I was hoping for one per month but that would be more catching up than I have time left for. Must do better on that front next year. And as for science fiction, I’ve read six so far this year, which is as many as I read total in 2013 so I only need to fit in one more to achieve my aim of reading more SF!

Books
Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley (my review)

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (my review)

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley (my review)

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones (my review)

Short stories
“The magic barrel” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel)

“The first seven years” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel, available online here)

“The mourners” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel)

“The bill” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel, available online here)

“The girl of my dreams” by Bernard Malamud (from The Magic Barrel)

“The sexes” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

“In the throes: the precious thoughts of an author at work” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The standard of living” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The waitress” by Robert Coover (Selected Shorts podcast)