I have not read many books this month. I am, however, part-way through not one, not two, but three books. And for the first time in a while I’m riveted by my current read. I have missed that feeling.
This month we have again been busy. We went to the Great British Beer Festival (many beers, but it felt odd drinking them in a conference centre) and to the Science Museum (always excellent), revisited Reading University campus, watched 1987 film classic The Lost Boys on an outdoor screen at Bristol Zoo (bats flying over the audience added to the atmosphere and walking past the lions at night is genuinely a little scary), did a treasure trail around Bristol Harbour and celebrated our 15th anniversary. So maybe it’s not surprising that I struggled to find time to read.
I chose my online moniker more than 10 years ago when I joined Flickr. I ran through various options, including some I had used before, such as “The onion girl” – the cheesy idea that there are many layers to me, shamelessly stolen from a novel of the same name by Charles de Lint – but none felt like me until I hit on “Nose in a book”.
It’s not an original term, and I’m not the only “Nose in a book” on the Internet, but it’s a phrase that has described me all my life. As a young child if I was going to flout rules, there was probably a book involved: reading through my meals despite the “no books at the dinner table” command; reading in bed long after lights out (I always had a torch and books stuffed down the side of my mattress); even reading when I had invited a friend over to play, and leaving my sister to occupy the poor guest. My parents, being reasonable sorts, didn’t actually mind this type of rule-breaking (though some of my potential friends probably did) and would tease me gently about it.
The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift translated from German by Jamie Bulloch
I read this as part of Women in Translation Month. This is one of those strange psychological thrillers where it is never entirely clear how much of what’s happening is real and how much is in the narrator’s head. I like that.
The narrator is walking past a cake shop in Vienna when an old lady asks her to share a Gugelhupf (a yeasted cake common in Austria), because the shop only sells them whole. This turns into an invitation to the home of Frau Hohenembs, where she is quite forcefully encouraged to help eat the cake. At first the narrator’s unwillingness to partake seems like the usual misgivings of a woman watching her figure. Then she goes home and eats her half of the cake then makes herself throw up.
Yes, it’s a story about bulimia. And it doesn’t romanticise or shy away from the details. It turns out that the narrator has been keeping her illness at bay for years, but now that she has been triggered, she spirals downward. Soon, the only other thing in her life is her growing relationship with Frau Hohenembs and her housekeeper Ida. And it’s a weird relationship, with some weird people.
Since its publication in 1992, this book has come to be considered a modern classic. I remember Tim reading it around 12 years ago and loving it – indeed, he still remembers it in remarkable detail. So in my ongoing science-fiction education, this seemed like a natural step.
This book has a fascinating setting that, though complex enough to be slowly revealed over 470 pages, is at heart simple enough to not require masses of exposition at the start. Instead, Stephenson opens with an action-packed sequence that introduces our main character – the aptly named Hiro Protagonist – and his foil, YT.
Hiro is a freelance hacker. His home is a storage unit that he shares with an up-and-coming rock star, a cramped situation that suits him fine because he spends most of his time in the Metaverse anyway – an alternative space that anyone with virtual-reality goggles and what is effectively an Internet connection by another name can plug into. In the Metaverse, your avatar can own property, socialise and explore in the vast space created many years ago by Da5id – superstar hacker and old friend of Hiro’s. In the Metaverse, Hiro is a sword-fighting expert, but in Reality (always written with a capital R) he delivers pizza to pay the bills.
I’ve read three Jane Austen books and so far not been blown away, but I keep wondering if she’s a writer I’ll appreciate more as I get older. She’s certainly not flowery, which I have less and less patience for. And she’s smart, which I do like. It’s hard to talk myself into reading a book that I suspect I’m not going to enjoy. But I have heard good things about Mansfield Park, so maybe I’ll give that a go.
I used to read Philippa Gregory a fair bit, back in my teens and early 20s, but until last week I hadn’t picked up one of her books in 14, 15 years. I associate her with a certain type of easy-reading historical romance that appealed to young me, particularly in my teens, with risqué sex scenes that I suspect I wasn’t emotionally ready for.
It probably didn’t help my opinion of Gregory that I tended to confuse her with Philippa Carr, another writer of historical romances that I loved as a teenager. My Mum introduced me to Carr (historical family sagas with lots of romance), along with her alter egos Victoria Holt (gothic romance) and Jean Plaidy (more serious historical fiction, which young me wasn’t a fan of). Carr’s Daughters of England series ambitiously traced the women of one family line from the early 16th century to the 20th century in 20 books, of which I think I read and adored the first 10 before I outgrew them. Perhaps I am judging them harshly in hindsight, but when I was 19 or 20 I decided they weren’t that good and stopped buying them.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that I tried and probably failed to come to this book with an open mind. I had also already seen the film, not to mention studied the Tudor period of British history multiple times at school (it’s not a running joke for nothing). So maybe I’m not objective, but I didn’t think was a great book.
“Her hand, when she gave it to him to kiss, was steady as a rock. Her voice was sweet and perfectly modulated. She greeted the cardinal with pleasant courtesy. No-one would ever have known from her behaviour that it was her doom that came in that day, along with the sulky ambassador and the smiling cardinal. She knew at that moment that her friends and her family were powerless to stop her. She was horribly, vulnerably, completely alone.”
As I subscribe to And Other Stories, I receive their books through the post four times a year and, most of the time I know nothing about them aside from the title. But I’m going to read them all anyway, so I choose to keep it that way, which makes each and every one a wonderful surprise.
I really liked this farce about an old man living in a block of flats reserved for retirees in Mexico City. Teo (not his real name) enjoys standing apart from the other residents, refusing to join their daily book group and accusing them of snobbery about his having been a taco seller all his life. He’s a drunk and also suffers from dementia, so it’s hard to know whether to believe him when he insists to his neighbour Francesca (not her real name) that he’s not writing a novel.
“All Mexico’s artistic geniuses of the 20th century passed through its doors…And the rest of us passed through, too: the cannon fodder, the filler, the extras, the gatecrashers, the ones who didn’t have the combination that gives you a ticket to the history of art. We were there, the ones who one day had to renounce our aspirations, forced by circumstances or by accepting our own limitations. Then there were the ones who pressed on through mediocrity, made art their profession and condemned themselves to a life of ridicule. And on top of that were those who couldn’t do anything but keep on painting, no matter what, and who ended up mad or ill, or died when they were young, martyrs of art.”