So life continues to be hectic. It feels like I’m completing a series of to-do lists (or not completing them) and I have to remind myself that I’m doing things I chose to do, I’m exactly where I put myself. But I still need the occasional breather.

And generally reading is my breathing time, my “me time”. But I can’t always read, either because I’m walking somewhere or I’m too tired or I have to prioritise doing some exercise to maintain the gradual improvement to my health that is my major goal this year. So the other thing I have been filling my brain with is podcasts.

What a great invention! Seriously, being able to pick and choose the best radio shows from all the channels and listen to them when it suits you? Genius! I use the humorously named MyPod app on my Android phone to manage them but there are no doubt other ways. I can listen on the walk to and from work, at the gym, in the kitchen while making dinner, in my library while sorting books into alphabetical order (yes, dull I know but I have a lot of books and I like to be able to find the right one).

I do feel that I’m not making the most of this wonderful new world, though. I have five podcasts that I follow – The Naked Scientists, Radio 4 Open Book, Excess Baggage (another Radio 4 one, discovered thanks to Liz of Eliza Does Very Little), Wittertainment (Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s 5 Live show) and the Guardian Books Podcast – plus I will of course eagerly download the Adam and Joe show when it finally starts back up. But what am I missing? Any and all recommendations gratefully received!

I knew my Mum’s obsession with Wimbledon would come in handy one day

Double Fault
by Lionel Shriver

I picked up this book, like many people have, I suspect, because I was bowled over by We Need to Talk About Kevin and was hoping for more of the same hard-hitting, emotionally draining, intelligently frightening fiction. This was a good book, but it wasn’t those things; not really.

It does cover some of the same ground, though. This is a dissection of a modern marriage, a tumultuous story of two large egos struggling to adapt to loving someone. There’s a lot of introspection, a lot of dissection, a lot of resentment and only brief euphoric highs.

The background is the world of professional tennis and Shriver has clearly done some homework here. As I often find to be the case, I found a lot of the detailed descriptions of matches or point systems to be laboured and dull. But then I’m really not a sports fan. And the book isn’t really about tennis so it’s probably okay that I started skimming those passages.

What it’s really about is doggedly pursuing ambition in the face of many reasons not to, confusing your self with your ability, gender politics in relationships, and the difficult questions of marriage itself – should it change you? Should love have already changed you so that the compromises of marriage are a breeze? What if your career requires you to be the sort of person who never compromises? How do you switch that off when you get home? Plus the added complications of being a professional athlete – being away from home a lot, having to fit in training – and you have a marriage that seems doomed from the start.

I was not bowled over by this book but I do think it was well done, so I think I have to admit that my problem was mostly with the main characters and my inability to connect with them. Wilhelmina “Willy” Novinsky had some charm at first in her noviceness at relationships, it is sweet to see her being won over. But she has so much anger in her, and is so ready to blame everyone else in her life when things go wrong, that I lost all empathy with her.

The writing is good, with believable dialogue that occasionally raised a chuckle or a wry smile of familiarity from me. There’s an early scene where Willy is on a date and senses that she is being scored on her answers to some probing questions. The one question she won’t answer is the lighthearted assertion that she must be having an affair with her coach. It’s a neat way of introducing the possibility, and the air of disappointment and uncertainty that flavours the whole book.

The back of my copy had a couple of pages of reading group questions, and I do think this could be a good choice for a book club. There’s a lot I’d love to discuss that I can’t raise here without giving away key plot points, particularly in the gender politics area.

First published 2006.

Drifting, teenage style

Lost at Sea
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

It was inevitable, after my great love of the Scott Pilgrim books, that I would search out O’Malley’s earlier work, and this is it – a simple, sensitive tale of teenage confusion. It’s touchingly written and artfully drawn.

O’Malley sticks to black and white for his comics, making great use of plain black or white backgrounds to highlight moments of loneliness, with a surprising amount of detail packed into other panes.

The story is simple and yet at times can be hard to follow. This is because the main character, 18-year-old Raleigh, is both jumbled up herself and reluctant to tell the story that she is telling. Initially I found that irritating but then I relaxed into it as I realised how necessary it was to illustrate Raleigh’s state of mind.

Action switches between a road trip from California to Vancouver, to the events that led to the road trip, and sometimes further back still. The story touches on lost friends, parents divorcing, first love, losing your soul (possibly to a cat) – the usual teenage stuff. It’s familiar without being cliché, sweet without being saccharine, quirky without being unrelatable.

Fans of the Scott Pilgrim books may not all love this as much as I do. This has none of the geekiness, boyishness or the comedy. What they have in common, in addition to the great art and believable dialogue, is the sense of drifting aimlessly through life. Those who criticised that in 20-something Scott Pilgrim may find it more forgiveable in 18-year-old Raleigh.

Published 2002 by Oni Press.

One year in

“Happy blogoversary to me,
happy blogoversary to me!”

Today is a ridiculously busy day for me, with bridesmaid dress arrangements, furniture moving, book unpacking, filing and other useful things to be done. However, I am hoping to find time to do some exercise and to bake a blog birthday cake. And post a picture of it here, of course.

UPDATE 1: A fair few things ticked off the list, which is satisfying. Here is a sneak peak at the library project that has been keeping us busy for weeks:

Books books books

I’ll do a proper post about it when it’s complete, with before and after pics and all that jazz. But it’s already looking good, no?

Also, forgot to say earlier, happy World Book Day! All sorts of fun things seem to be going on. Twitter is full of updates on book giveaways and other projects. BBC2 has some special programmes about it on tonight that I can’t watch live because I’m going out but I’m recording them to watch tomorrow.

Right, now for that cake…

UPDATE 2: Well, I baked a carrot cake that smells amazing but it fell apart a bit so…not so photogenic. But I’m still feeling celebratory because I won a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from Little Interpretations for World Book Night! What a day!

Disagreeing with the majority

Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen

This is a book I had started half a dozen times but never finished before. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg so that I could help test the Kindle that we bought for Tim’s parents and somehow wound up reading the whole thing, finally!

My previous attempts at this book were thwarted by the detached, stuffy manner of the storytelling. I read recently that Jane Austen wrote all her books in secret while in a drawing room full of family and other guests, so she naturally turned to the type of drama that is played out in a drawing room. And that is certainly true. She turns a certain studious eye and ironic wit on her subject and I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud on occasion.

As a lover of the 1990s BBC retelling of this story starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, it was hard to be indifferent to the love stories that were playing out or the comedy of some of the characters, however I still can’t say that I greatly liked this book. Austen never really gets under the skin of anyone and, though she hints that the social niceties being followed are silly or pointless, they are never truly thwarted.

I was surprised to find, despite this being a dialogue-heavy novel, that some of the most important moments are not told in enough detail. For instance, when Lizzie finally confesses her love to Darcy or when she tells her father of her love for Darcy, Austen does not actually give us the words Lizzie uses or hears in return, which I found deeply dissatisfying. Nor is there even one single kiss, and the only embraces are between friends and family. But there is a slightly odd final chapter summarising the next few years of everyone’s lives, giving the novel a feeling of not having a proper solid ending.

I know that a lot of people out there love this book and will wholeheartedly disagree with me. I should also say that I have read a couple of Austen’s other books and enjoyed them (though still not loved them). I recognise that Austen had great talent, intelligence and wit. Her style, however, is not one that I particularly enjoy.

First published in 1813.

For some alternative points of view, see reviews from Bookworm With a View and The Zen Leaf.

Class commentary

The Pursuit of Love
by Nancy Mitford

The cover of this book is disturbingly pink and in her introduction Zoë Heller describes it as an “unassuming bit of mid-century ‘chick-lit’” but then she also calls it “spiky and intelligent” and that, I think, comes closer to my experience. Do not be fooled by the bright pink – here be politics, acute observation of human life and some tragic events.

The infamous Mitford sisters had never really been on my radar until last year when a friend mentioned reading a volume of their letters to each other and I became instantly fascinated. That letters compilation is still on my wishlist but in the meantime this loosely disguised autobiography has provided my first insight into the Mitfords’ colourful world.

Colourful is certainly the word. A quick search on Wikipedia reveals that if anything this novel tones down the reality somewhat, but the fictional Radlett family are engrossingly colourful. Narrated by cousin and confidante Fanny, the novel follows the lives of the many Radlett children, particularly the irrepressible Linda. From teenage crushes to marriage, divorce, infidelity and loss, the pursuit of love is ever central to Linda, but gradually less so to the novel. Like everyone living through such times, the Radletts’ world becomes increasingly preoccupied by politics and the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Radletts are thoroughly upper class, with an estate in Gloucestershire, a seat in the House of Lords and a love of hunting. As such it is good that Mitford does not make much effort to endear them to us, but instead lovingly picks apart their language, ideals and ideas. Linda has some fantastically flippant lines comparing the parties of Conservatives to those of Communists and insists on classing everyone as Hons or counter-Hons. In many ways I really wanted to dislike her but she was just so funny…

This small book packs a lot of historical and social observation between the comic lines and yet is still an easy, fun read. I look forward to delving further into the Mitford world.

First published in 1945

Down time

All of two days back at work and it feels like we didn’t have a holiday at all, but the photos say otherwise! Here are a couple of snaps I took during our chilled not-quite-a-week in France. (I took more but mostly on film, which I will probably get developed in several months’ time.)

There were chilled walks in town,

and chilled walks in the country.
Mood lighting

Mostly, though, we sat around a log fire doing nothing much at all. That was great.

I read to open up my world

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a book that you know from the start is going to be hard in terms of subject matter, but worth it. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and it was completely deserved.

There is a fairly long build-up before the horrors, a window into “normal” life in Nigeria following independence from Britain. I was charmed by the cast of characters – largely well-off middle-class people – and their lives that were familiar (jobs in universities, trade, journalism) and yet unfamiliar (different clothes, different foods, the politics of tribes and postcolonialism).

But this is ultimately a book about war. The dates are given and I know only a very little about Nigeria, it’s that they had a civil war in the late 1960s, a war that was brutal and involved genocide and other war crimes. So I knew this book was going to some dark places, but I let myself be lulled by the peacetime stories of love, family problems and – yes – politics.

At the centre of the book are twin sisters Olanna and Kainene. Their father is a Big Man, a tribal chief by name, a successful international businessman by trade. The twins were raised in luxury in Nigeria’s main city, Lagos, had an expensive education and travel to England often.

Beautiful Olanna is drawn by revolutionary ideals and moves to Nsukka to work at the university and be near her lover Odenigbo, a revolutionary who gathers like-minded people in his house every night to discuss social and political problems over dinner and brandy. Plain Kainene is ever-practical and takes over part of her father’s business to support herself. She can’t believe any man could really love the ugly sister, but Richard falls for her at first sight. He is an Englishman who came to Nigeria to study ancient pots and has fallen for the country and is frustrated that he can never be truly Nigerian, with his white skin and the advantages it confers.

The other central character is Ugwu, Odenigbo’s house boy. Ugwu comes from a small village with very limited education but knows that being a house boy is his chance to prove himself worthy of the girl he likes back home. Odenigbo, unusual as he is, shows kindness to his servant and educates him, even gives him his own room and a bed to sleep in.

When war does come, its effect on their lives is gradual. Everyday life is still about love, friendship, trust and betrayal. As the war worsens/gets closer it gets gradually more central to the characters’ lives.

There is a sense, inevitably, that this is about how rich (or at least reasonably well-off city-dwelling) people are affected by war, which is not necessarily how poor country folk are affected, but Adichie does try to show through minor characters how different people experience both war and the build-up to war, and also how war, when it gets really bad, is a great leveller of rich and poor. When money is no longer worth anything, when everyone has fled their homes with a handful of clothes and little else, are rich people really any better off than anyone around them? Perhaps, in that they are more likely to know people – useful people who can things, messages, news. And even when money is supposedly worthless and there’s supposedly nothing to buy with it, there is always someone who can be bribed.

There is a surreal sequence at the height of the war when Richard goes to meet a pair of American journalists, to act as their guide and translator. Of necessity he takes them only to relatively safe places and feeds them decent food paid for by the government. They complain that it doesn’t seem that bad. Then Richard goes home to a place where even rice is a rare luxury, where children catch and roast lizards to fend off starvation.

The title, by the way, refers to the flag of the short-lived nation Biafra, the south-eastern region of Nigeria where all the main characters live. Their anthem was “Land of the Rising Sun” and their motto “Peace, Unity, Freedom” – which sadly never came. The region still suffers from ethnic and religious violence.

This book is brilliant and sad and warm and heartbreaking. It’s an important reminder of the best and worst of humanity. Thank you once again to Amy Reads for recommending it to me.

First published 2006 by Fourth Estate.

UPDATE: See also this review by Amy of Amy Reads. Plus you can listen to an episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to June 2009.

War novels do not necessarily glamourise war

Slaughterhouse 5
or, The Children’s Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death
by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr


This is a book I had been meaning to read for a long time. I bought it, some people recommended it, and I got excited and lined it up for the recent 48-hr TBR read-a-thon. Then someone else told me it was really hardgoing and I got scared of it. Then some lovely people on Twitter encouraged me to give it a go anyway so I did. Yes, it’s a little crazy but it is a great great book.

There are no surprises in this book. Everything is laid out in chapter one, which is actually a sort-of prologue, or a “Why I wrote this book”. Vonnegut’s style takes a little getting used to. It’s chatty in a realistic kind of way, by which I mean that it’s not always fluid, jumping around between subjects, but not in a stream of consciousness way.

The central story is that of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier, prisoner of war, optometrist and time traveller. At least, he says that he was kidnapped by aliens on the night of his daughter’s wedding and ever since has been able to travel around in time the way they taught him to. This allows his life story to jump around in time, only dealing with the horrors of war in small chunks. I was never entirely clear how seriously we’re supposed to take the time travel thing, or whether Billy himself really believes it. But it makes sense for a person whose whole life has been coloured by the awfulness of witnessing the Dresden firebombing, who was institutionalised and became a fan of cheap science fiction, to latch onto this coping mechanism.

Vonnegut gives Pilgrim a lot of his own wartime experience, often stating things like “I was there too”. It is unclear how much Pilgrim is himself or how much Pilgrim is other people he observed during the war. Despite the awfulness of what both men observed, Vonnegut doesn’t linger on gruesome details. Though they are there, this book is primarily about the emotional impact of war. He states early on that this is an anti-war book and that is undeniably true. There is a very telling quote directed at his publisher: “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Despite the tough subject matter and obscure manner of storytelling, this is a tender, funny book. It is moving and also oddly innocent – Vonnegut’s subtitle is certainly apt. He shows great sympathy for dogs, horses and children, which challenged my assumption that a war veteran would be hardened emotionally.

First published 1969.