Wow. I tore through this book in one day. I laughed, I cried and I closed the book feeling informed, entertained and warmed inside.
Leon is eight when his little brother Jake is born. Their mother is struggling to support them on her own, but it’s okay because Leon loves his brother so much that he wants to help any way he can, and their neighbour helps when she can. Until it’s not okay anymore and social services have to step in. At which point, the difference in the two brothers’ ages and skin colour threatens to have very real consequences for their futures.
“The first day when Carol brings the baby home…she puts the baby on the floor in the living room and Leon tiptoes over…They watch the baby turn his head and open his lips. They watch the baby move one of his miniature hands and when the baby yawns they both open their mouths and yawn with him…All that day and the next day, the baby is like the television. Leon can’t stop watching him and all his baby movements.”
Brrr. Storm Emma has well and truly hit Bristol and I am cold, even huddled on the sofa under a blanket. The snow has been falling non-stop all day and is expected to keep it up all through tomorrow as well. We’ve changed our weekend plans from going away and seeing to art to hunkering down and maybe venturing out to take some photos – making our own art.
February was a pretty good reading month for me. I finished Anna Karenina and followed that up with a few short books to give myself a refresh. And then I read one of the best books I’ve found in a few years: My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal. I loved that book so much. Eventually I will write a proper review, but you can see my initial thoughts below.
Thankfully our local chippy is still open so we have loaded up on fat and carbs to see us through the frozen night. Any excuse gladly taken!
I’ve spent years hearing about Zooniverse, right back to its origin in the Galaxy Zoo project, but it occurred to me that outside of academia and science journalism, maybe it’s not so well known. Zooniverse is a citizen-science platform, where anyone can register and help to sort through the types of data that are easier for humans to classify than computers.
That might sound dull, but most projects involve looking at photos and ticking a box for each one. You can choose between dozens of projects to find something that you will enjoy looking at photos of. There’s Cheetahs of Central Namibia, where the photos are from a camera trap in a Namibian national park. There’s the Weddell Seal Count, where the images are from a satellite pointed at sections of ice in the Antarctic. There’s the Milky Way Project, with images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and WISE satellite observatory.
One I got a little obsessed with last year is Penguin Watch, where you click on every penguin in each photo. I love penguins and it’s reassuring to see photos of hundreds of them just getting on with their quiet little lives.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy translated from Russian by Rosamund Bartlett
Phew, I made it to the end! This is a big book and it took me a month to read. But it wasn’t a slog. I found Tolstoy’s writing much more accessible than Dostoevsky or Dickens, his contemporaries.
I had a rough idea of the story before I started this book, but hadn’t realised that the story of Anna is not the only plotline. As its famous opening line suggests, the novel follows a few interlinked families, and Anna is not the focus of the first nor the last chapter. We open in Moscow with her brother, Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, who is in trouble with his wife, Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly), after cheating on her with the nanny. Only the arrival of Anna from St Petersburg manages to calm the household down.
At the same time, Oblonsky’s close friend Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin has come to Moscow to propose to Dolly’s younger sister, Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty), but unfortunately while he has been away at his country estate, Kitty has taken up a flirtation with Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a dandy young cavalry officer from St Petersburg. In confusion between her two suitors, she turns Levin down. But just a few days later, at a society ball, Vronsky meets Anna and their mutual attraction is immediately obvious to all.
“It was as if tears were the essential lubricant without which the machinery of mutual relations between the two sisters could not operate effectively – after the tears the sisters did not talk about what preoccupied them, but they understood each other even though they were talking about other things. Kitty understood that she had deeply wounded her poor sister with those words she had uttered in a fit of pique…but that she was forgiven. For her part, Dolly understood all that she had wanted to know.”
I would like to cut down my TBR without it feeling like a chore. I currently have 133 books that I have bought and not yet read, which is massive. And I know I’m never going to get it down to 20 or 30 books, neither do I want to, but under 100 would feel more manageable, maybe even under 80.
Then again, that would mean almost a year of reading without buying new books. It seems unlikely. And new books always seem more exciting than ones that have been sitting around for a while. (See, for instance, the fact that I started reading my new copy of Anna Karenina as soon as we got back from holiday. Not that I regret finally embarking on this classic, but 822 pages of one book means not tackling four normal-sized books.)
I’ve already blogged quite a bit about Japan, including my holiday highlights, but the one glaring omission from that highlights list was the food. Because food was both a highlight and – well, maybe not a lowlight, but certainly stressful on occasion.
First: the highs. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city on Earth, so it’s pretty foodie. Before we went on holiday we did a bit of research and picked out two restaurants we really wanted to eat at that allowed us to book via e-mail. (One of them specified on its website that its staff was bilingual so we were able to book in English. For the other, Tim asked a Japanese friend to help us out.) Those meals turned out to be two of the best meals of our lives (albeit two of the most expensive).
I am so behind on blogging. Isn’t January meant to be a down month, with plenty of free time sat at home? I think we’ve been avoiding post-holiday blues by doing lots of stuff – pub quizzes, film nights, weekend outings (even in the rain), plus lots of catching up with friends and family we didn’t see over Christmas and New Year. I even went to see The Dark Side of the Moon as a visual show at Bristol Planetarium. That was pretty awesome (and also made me feel a little queasy – the mind can play funny tricks when you’re sat still).
I have also done a fair amount of reading – more than the list below might suggest, because three weeks ago I embarked on Anna Karenina, which in the Oxford Classics edition I’m reading is 822 pages (not counting the introduction). I’m halfway through and really enjoying it. Definitely not a slog like Dostoevsky was for me, at least to begin with.
Even though January included the second half of our awesome Japan holiday, and my birthday, I’m still a little bit glad it’s over and spring is edging closer. I’ll be glad to wake up in the light again, especially if I’m going to force myself to run more often in preparation for doing the Bristol 10k again in May.
The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman
This is an astounding collection. It is all the more remarkable when you remember that these stories were written in the 1890s and yet most of them feel like they’re set in the 1950s or even later.
The title story is the best known and probably also the best written in the collection. It’s certainly the most psychologically complex. A married couple rent an old house while their own home is being remodelled. The wife, who narrates the story, takes an instant dislike to the yellow wallpaper in the large room they use for a bedroom. Her health and mental state deteriorate, leading her physician husband to confine her to bed, which she is sure is exacerbating the problem.
“I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The colour is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”
I know it’s more than a month since I posted a book review, and I will get caught up on that soon. But I have been spending my free evenings going through the thousands of photos I took in Japan, so that I can give holiday slide shows to friends and family who visit. They may or may not want a holiday slide show, but they’re getting one!
Now we’re getting to the real holiday nitty gritty! Well, actually, this was a low-on-reading holiday, despite basically spending four days just travelling.
You see, as part of our almost-everything-going-wrong outward journey, my Kindle broke. At some point between the third flight and arriving at our hotel, the screen was damaged so that the bottom third or so was just a grey rectangle. Which made it unusable. And I had packed ZERO physical books. So that sucked.
I thought about buying a new Kindle there and then, but I decided to just download the Kindle app onto my phone and look out for a book shop. Which initially seemed really smart, as there were LOADS of book shops in Tokyo. They were everywhere! On our first proper day of holiday we walked a couple of miles from Roppongi to Shibuya and went into at least four book shops, while passing another half a dozen or so. But I quickly learned that even in foreigner-filled Roppongi, the only English-language books were those about learning Japanese. Handy, but not quite what I had in mind.