June reading round-up

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I have not read many books in the past month. I had a bit of a lupus flare, and then politics sent the world doolally, which between them led me to abandon a couple of reads. I’m currently halfway through three different books and I’m not sure I’ll finish all of them. I am still reading a lot of John Allison webcomics, but mostly I’m obsessively reading news and politics articles in case someone has figured out how to fix this mess.

Right back at the start of the month, I went with a big group of friends to see Buzz Aldrin speak about his new book No Dream is Too High. And last week, Tim and I took my Mum and brother to the theatre in Bath to watch Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, which was a welcome funny distraction as well as, like all Theatre Royal shows, boasting an excellent cast.

I also, possibly overambitiously, joined a new book club at work. It seemed like a nice idea at the time, but the first meeting is next week and I haven’t picked up the book yet. Hmm. Maybe it will be a good idea to just put aside all the false starts and start July with a fresh new read. Maybe.

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Her compressed and coded thoughts exploded between them

in certain circlesIn Certain Circles
by Elizabeth Harrower

I first heard about Elizabeth Harrower in a New Yorker article a couple of years ago that celebrated the republication of the elderly Australian author’s works. It included the intriguing detail that this would be the first opportunity to read her fifth novel, In Certain Circles, because back in 1971 the author decided at the last moment not to proceed with its publication.

There is no obvious clue to what Harrower could have disliked about her work, as this is a tremendously well written novel. Perhaps she didn’t like its negative tone, because this is not an uplifting read. It is deeply sad, but not due to big disastrous events. Its sadness is the type that comes from life’s disappointments, poor decisions that are only revealed to have been wrong several years later.

It doesn’t start out with an especially sad tone. When we meet main character Zoe Howard she is 17, fully aware of her beauty and privilege, living as she does at the opulent end of Sydney Harbour. Her older brother Russell was a POW during the war, forever changing his outlook on the world and the circles he wants to move in. He introduces her to his friends Anna and Stephen Quayle, siblings who were orphaned and left in the hands of a poor abusive uncle. Despite their very different circumstances, the four connect in a way that keeps their lives bound together far beyond Russell and Stephen’s shared university course.

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We are the 48%

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I am heartbroken by the EU referendum result. It is a win for nobody, except perhaps the Daily Mail. I am sad that the Leave campaign’s lies and scapegoating somehow convinced 52% of voters that leaving the EU would fix all this country’s problems.

It will not, which I think is now becoming pretty clear. (Or should I say would not? I am clinging to the hope that the referendum was not legally binding, that a majority of MPs did not want it and supported the Remain campaign. But I fear it not happening is too optimistic.)

The EU is not perfect but it is still a wonder of modern democracy, of peaceful co-operation. A consortium of 28 countries can tackle bigger problems better than any individual nation could. The benefits are so much more than a bald sum of money that no-one can agree on an exact figure for. But it is worth saying that EU immigrants are a net gain to this country.

I love Europe and I am proud to be European. I love living in a country that is diverse and enriched by immigrants from almost every other country on the planet. I want to tell every European living here that they are welcome, they are appreciated, they are needed, and that it will all be okay.

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Sunday Salon: A time to fight, a time to chill

The Sunday SalonConsidering the timing of this post, there are some definite political interpretations of today’s headline, and I am a political person. However, what I want to write about is a more personal health-related meaning of the words “A time to fight, a time to chill”.

Having lupus means it’s extra important for me to stay fit, because the less fit I am, the more often I fall into the fatigue vicious circle (too tired to exercise → less fit, therefore more tired) – and for me, when the fatigue hits, it’s serious business. So early this year I made the decision to really push myself to get fit. I started running at least twice a week, going a little further each week, no matter what the weather, no matter how little I wanted to go out sometimes.

And it was working well. My first run in the first week of February was about 2.5 k in 17 minutes. In mid-April I beat my previous PB of 5 k and started plotted out some 6 and 7 k routes to aim for. I was finding it hard to get past 5.5 k but I was so proud of myself for how far I’d come. I was feeling healthier, happier and had energy.

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Recent reads in brief

I seem to have been reading so quickly for a few weeks there that I am way behind on reviews again, so here are a few quickies.

lifeboatThe Lifeboat
by Charlotte Rogan

This is the story of Grace, survivor of a 1914 ocean liner disaster. We learn at the start that she survived for three weeks in a lifeboat and is now facing trial for her life. She narrates the story of the shipwreck and Lifeboat 14, gradually revealing the crime she now stands accused of.

Most of the boat’s occupants are upper class women, and as such practical matters quickly fall to a small number of characters. Grace is young, recently married to a rich man, but her background is murky, as are her actions. Throughout a fairly suspenseful, exciting story she muses on matters of guilt and innocence, on character traits and social status. She watches alliances being formed, gossip spreading, moments of human strength and weakness. But ultimately Grace is a frustrating narrator. She rarely places herself in the story, and when she does her position is often unclear. Is she as weak and on the fence as she seems or is it an act? The whole narrative is being written as a piece of evidence for her lawyers, so she has a clear motive to paint her actions whiter than they perhaps were. I like ambiguity and unreliable narrators, but I found the hints at Grace’s unreliability were a little too hidden. And for a lot of the start of the novel I found the uselessness of the majority of the women incredibly annoying.

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Hello! What are you reading?

hello-what-are-you-readingIn this blog series, I ask my friends and family to talk a little about their current reads. I figured it would make a change to look at the reading habits of people who read a lot but don’t blog about it usually.

This week we’re hearing from Claire, who is the newest member of our pub quiz team and the most likely to be there on the days we win – could be there’s a correlation there. We share a love for all things Italian, but unlike me she can speak – and read – the language. In fact, she has a PhD in it (newly minted last year) and as soon as I’ve got that TBR down to a more manageable size I’ll be hitting her up for some Italian literature recommendations. Let’s find out what Claire has been reading recently.

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Buzz Aldrin: No Dream is Too High

(Photo by talkie_tim)
(Photo by talkie_tim)

Toppings Bookshop event
The Forum, Bath, 3 June 2016

When a friend at work e-mailed round a heads up that tickets were about to be released for a chance to meet Buzz Aldrin, a bunch of us leapt at the chance. It almost didn’t matter what the actual event would be – we’re talking about a man who has walked on the Moon, a genuine living legend. Turns out, he’s promoting his new book No Dream is Too High: Life Lessons from a Man who Walked on the Moon.

The Forum can seat 1640 and the event was a sellout, but with a bit of planning ahead we managed to get ourselves near the front, with a prime view of the 86 year old and his manager, who corralled him through his story, prompted by photos from his life. And I do mean corralled. From his parents (with wonderful foreshadowing his mother was called Marion Moon), to his Air Force career, to NASA, to scuba diving with sharks on his 80th birthday, Buzz was ready to expand at length on every anecdote, to go off on tangents (often related to the more scientific or historic aspects of the tale) and had to be persuaded back on track. Which was wholly delightful.

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She succeeds in doing what no one ever dared think she would

little-communist-who-never-smiledThe Little Communist Who Never Smiled: a Novel
by Lola Lafon
translated from French by Nick Caistor

Like many who dabbled with gymnastics in their youth, I have a small obsession with former Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci. I remember a year or two when a VHS copy of the made-for-TV biopic Nadia was passed around my gym club like a precious jewel. I watched it several times during the week I took it home. Years later I realised that this was the same Nadia on our TV screens during every Olympics and World Championships, only now she was an American coach. But despite my love for Nadia the gymnast, I never really looked further into her life.

On reflection, it should have been obvious that her life was more interesting than the bare facts of her gymnastic achievements. Born in 1961, the Romania she was raised in and trained in was a “Marxist-Leninist one-party state”, as Wikipedia puts it, until the 1989 revolution that ousted – and executed – the state’s controversial leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nadia defected to the US just weeks before the revolution.

As the subtitle and author’s note make clear, this is fiction, but it’s fiction written in a journalistic style. Lafon uses real sources – articles, footage, interviews, even Nadia’s own memoir – and an imagined dialogue with Nadia to piece together her life from the age of 7, when she was picked for training by legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, to 1990, a year after her mysterious escape. As such this reads like a particularly well-written biography, careful in most places not to invent what cannot be verified and to be clear where events are disputed. But there is, of course, invention – not least those conversations with a current-day “Nadia C”.

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Shiny New Books: Issue 10 out now

Just a quick nudge that Shiny New Books issue 10 has been released – dozens of new book reviews and other bookish articles including the first of a new series called A Novel Calling. There are also two reviews by me squirreled away in there: French psychological drama in Ladivine by Marie Ndiaye and Russian Revolution in The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson. Hop on over there to see what I thought of those two and to check out all the other great new reviews.

Hello! What are you reading?

hello-what-are-you-readingIn this new blog series, I ask my friends and family to talk a little about their current reads. I figured it would make a change to look at the reading habits of people who read a lot but don’t blog about it usually.

This week we’re hearing from Bruce, who I originally met through Tim – they were in university halls together and have been close friends ever since – and over the years we’ve become close too. Bruce is always good for a heartfelt all-night chat and if he would only remember my need to eat dinner I would rate his nights out as the best fun! He’s another fellow karaoke fan, though our musical taste is rather different, but we do have quite similar taste in books, which I always forget until the rare occasions when I actually ask. Which is why I started this blog series. Here’s what Bruce is reading.

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