It’s been a pretty eclectic month, reading-wise. There’s been short stories, novels, poetry, work in translation, graphic-novel memoir and more non-fiction of very different kinds. Which I think is an excellent start for a new year.
I did break my book-buying rule very slightly last week, but as Tim bought me tickets to see author Matt Haig as a Christmas present it would have been rude not to buy the book! Haig was a great speaker – warm, funny, intelligent and honest – and I’ve added his older books to my wishlist. I’ve already read the book he was speaking about, Reasons to Stay Alive, and thought it completely brilliant. (Review will follow soon.) And I’ve been to bookshops no less than four times, so only buying one book for myself is frankly amazing, if I do say so myself.
In book-relatedness, I have watched the films of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (great, possibly better than the book, though equally hard to follow to begin with); Push (which is fun if ridiculous and has a comic-book mini-series prequel); and Limitless (pretty good despite the annoying premise and based on the book The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn).
I have to try very hard to separate the prose of this book from its politics – and those of its author – because I quite liked the book but it was decidedly tainted for me by the occasional political comment. There was one short section of what can only be described as lies about the NHS that got me so mad I very seriously considered stopping reading then and there, despite it being more than 400 pages in.
Politics aside, this is an enjoyable enough, reasonably well written story that kept me interested and got me looking at my own life through a new filter, which is generally a good sign. I don’t find its central conceit as mindblowingly original as those reviewers quoted on the cover (it is, after all, straight out of Sliding Doors, a film I’ve watched many many times) but it is done well and I like that Shriver didn’t make obvious choices but kept it subtle.
Irina and Lawrence are an American ex-pat couple living a comfortable, if bland, life together in London. After nine years, and now in their 40s, they are very much set in their ways and their future seems obvious. But one night, Irina finds herself unexpectedly attracted to another man almost the opposite of Lawrence. Whether or not she kisses Ramsey is the question on which the rest of the book turns – because both answers are given, with two stories told from that point on.
I have had some interesting conversations in recent weeks when I told people I was a reading a book from 1919 about American English. I know that it’s an odd choice of reading matter. It’s because I was looking for older titles from the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge on Project Gutenberg, which didn’t have either of the Mencken titles on the list but did have a dozen others, including this one. I didn’t expect to read more than the first chapter or so, but found it strangely enticing.
This is a difficult book to categorise. It’s part reference book, part textbook, part history, part sociology. Mencken combines his own knowledge of etymology and philology with a huge array of sources in order to cover the rather large question of how the American language evolved into its then-current state.
For most people, January is pretty quiet. You might be drinking less so you maybe cut down on socialising, when the booze might get tempting. You might be eating more healthily after Christmas indulgence so you don’t go out for meals. The weather is nasty and the evenings long and dark, so walks and other outdoor activities are kept to a minimum. Which makes it a great time for catching up on reading books and watching films.
On the other hand, January is also traditionally time for a fresh start: a new exercise regime, a new project at work, an honest look at all those DIY projects that need finishing. Which isn’t so good for the ol’ leisure time.
This graphic novel is set in 1982 and tells the story of three young girls who start a punk band. If that sounds oddly familiar, it may be because Coco Moodysson’s husband, Lukas Moodysson, adapted it into his 2013 film We Are the Best! (It’s an excellent film, I highly recommend it.) Having seen the film first, I was initially confused by some of the differences I found in the book but I’m trying not to compare the two.
12-year-old Coco lives with her divorced mother and her 17-year-old sister Magda. Their mum’s a bit of a party animal and gives the girls a lot of freedom. Coco’s best friend since third grade is Klara. Klara’s big sister Matilda (her age is never given but it’s implied she’s very close in age) often hangs out with them, and the three of them have decided to start a punk band. None of them can play an instrument but it’s punk, so that doesn’t matter.
The story is about female friendship first and foremost, touching on a few coming-of-age moments such as trying alcohol and starting to see parents as human beings. These girls have turned to punk because they are outsiders by nature, and they’re proud of it. They’re scathing of mainstream music and they talk about politics and environmental issues. The day they first heard the Clash they all cut their hair into spikes and dyed it black. But they’re also a little socially awkward, reliant on each other because they can’t really talk to anyone else.
The Vagabond by Colette
translated from French by Enid McLeod
I love Colette. This slim, seemingly simple novel is beautifully told and explores in great detail the psychological weight of the decisions we make.
Renée is a music-hall dancer in Paris. Divorced and in her 30s, she has to perform in seedy venues late at night to pay her rent but she doesn’t mind that. In fact, she quite enjoys it, though it does give her a great fear of getting old, knowing as she does that it is her looks and not her talent that the crowds are attracted to. For now she has an agent who keeps her in work and a regular partner called Brague, a mime who designs and choreographs their act.
“Behold me then, just as I am! This evening I shall not be able to escape the meeting in the long mirror, the soliloquy which I have a hundred times avoided, accepted, fled from, taken up again, and broken off…Behold me then, just as I am! Alone, alone, and for the rest of my life, no doubt. Already alone; it’s early for that.”
Birthday Stories selected by Haruki Murakami
Japanese text translated by Jay Rubin
When rearranging my TBR on my new shelves just before my birthday, I spotted this title that seemed like it would be pretty appropriate birthday reading. Even more appropriately, today is the birthday of the book’s editor, Haruki Murakami (happy 67th birthday Haruki!). This slim collection of 13 short stories is not the most cheerful but it provides a good introduction to a variety of authors.
The book started life as a collection of works in English translated into Japanese by Murakami, with an added short story of his own that he wrote specially. For this English edition he has written an introduction about the curation process and perhaps reading this first gave me a slightly negative start. First, Murakami freely admits that he is not a big birthday person himself and that the stories he found tend to be dark and unhappy. Second, he struggled to find enough stories and ended up asking friends, editors and agents for ideas, which does not suggest a rich treasure trove from which to curate a “best of”. But it’s a nice idea and there were a couple of authors here – David Foster Wallace and Claire Keegan – who I’d been meaning to give a try, so this seemed like a good route.
It’s been mostly a good start to 2016 for me. I got through the first week back at work with not only no major mishaps but also no major stresses, which is nice. I’ve got another year older but don’t feel it, which is also good. I’ve just had a lovely weekend away with friends. The only negative is my apparent lack of attention span to any one book. It’s not that I’m not reading, I just seem to have picked a couple of giants to start the year with, and then I got disheartened that I wouldn’t finish a book for several weeks, so I started yet another book. I did finish that one, and I’ll try to review it this week as it has a certain timeliness factor.
I did gain a few books for my birthday, which is inevitable and I am not at all upset about it, but it’s probably for the best that it’s a much smaller pile than I got for Christmas!
Happy New Year! For 2016 I have set my Goodreads challenge to 80 books (I don’t really use it as a target so much as a counter to check against my spreadsheet. Last year I was somehow 6 books out, so I either read 85 books or 91. Or maybe a number inbetween!). I have already made a good start on my primary aim to reduce my TBR by giving it a good old clearout.
For my birthday my Dad bought me a set of shelves for the master bedroom, which gave me the perfect opportunity to collect my unread books from the spare room and give them a thorough sorting before re-shelving them in their new home.
I thought I would struggle to discard any of my books so I gave myself the rule that I would remove anything I’ve had for more than 10 years. I’m not sure if I quite stuck to that but I actually found it fairly easy to set aside no less than 35 books! These are mostly older classics, with a handful of freebies and other books I’ve tried once and decided not to give a second chance to.