A reader reads

Inspired by Wallace of Unputdownables‘ lovely post about how her mum was her biggest reading influence, I got thinking about people who were important to me in that respect. One of my big reading influences was my third-year infants teacher, Mrs Barkley.

She quickly cottoned on to the fact that I was not only way ahead in reading the official school reading scheme books, but I was bored and unchallenged by them. So she introduced me to her special book cupboard. That place was amazing! A lifetime’s worth of children’s books, mostly suitable for kids in exactly my situation. That’s where I discovered Mrs Pepperpot and Supergran and countless others.

She retired at the end of that year and we held a special assembly for her, with lots of ragtime classics, including “Any old iron”, “She’s a lassie from Lancashire” and the specially written masterpiece “Knees up Mrs Barkley” (to the tune of “Knees up Mrs Brown”, if you didn’t get that). I remember that for “Here am I waiting at the church” we dressed up in bridesmaid dresses (or the closest equivalent we had) and I discovered to my horror on returning to the classroom to change for the next number that I’d gone out on stage with my ordinary dress unzipped and hanging around my waist, underneath the frilly frock. I was lifted by the success of playing Jennifer Eccles in “Lily the Pink”, particularly because I was deemed not freckly enough and had huge freckles drawn on my face. (At the age of seven I was a little self-conscious of my freckles.) But the highlight was when we sang Mrs Barkley’s favourite song “When you’re smiling” and she cried. It may have been the first time I saw someone cry with happiness.

My parents also, of course, had their part in my love of reading. I am fairly certain I could read before I started school, which must have been down to them, mostly my Mum, but I also fondly remember Dad reading us to sleep (for some reason the only title I remember specifically being read to us is Danny the Champion of the World). They also read for themselves, though not voraciously, and there were always lots of books in our house. In later years I took to reading to my older sister when we went to bed, because I wanted to share my favourite books with her. I have no idea if she actually liked this or was just indulging her little sister.

In fact, my whole family reads. But there is a definite step change between them and me. I was always the bookish one, even if everyone had a book on the go. I would read while walking to school, while eating my meals, with a torch under the bedcovers after lights out. I would read the same book a dozen times and make a diagram of the characters’ relationships or a timeline of events. And for some reason I attribute this extra level of obsessiveness, this need to devour every book in sight, to my favourite primary school teacher. So thank you Mrs Barkley!

One day in the life

Saturday
by Ian McEwan

I have read a few of McEwan’s books, and have had a pretty variable response to them. This one kept me so thoroughly hooked (staying up until 1 a.m. to finish it) and had such masterful language that it is definitely my favourite so far (oh, except maybe A Child in Time, which was heartbreakingly beautiful).

The story is about one particular Saturday, a day that is both ordinary and extraordinary for main character Henry, a brain surgeon in a wealthy part of London. McEwan goes into a lot of detail in this book, not something I remember particularly of his previous writing, so I suppose maybe it’s intended as a reflection of Henry’s precise nature. There are pages and pages detailing medical procedures, for example, both adding authority to the story and revealing how very much the job is a part of who Henry is.

Henry wakes early, unable to sleep, and by chance sees a plane burst into flames from his bedroom window. This is how his Saturday begins. It goes on to include a squash game, a minor car crash, food shopping, a family reunion and his observation of the Don’t Invade Iraq protest march. Yes, it’s set on that particular Saturday.

It’s an interesting set-up and is executed extremely well. The impending Iraq invasion pervades the whole day. Henry can’t get it out of his mind. He is completely torn on the subject. Not ambivalent – he definitely cares – but he is honestly not sure whether it’s the right thing to do. He’s not concerned about WMDs but he has met Iraqi intellectuals who tell awful tales of Saddam Hussein’s regime, tales that make him think that removing such a man from power could only be a good thing. But Henry’s an intelligent, astute enough man to know that it’s not that simple. For one thing, war is always to be avoided. There’s also the question of what happens next – does the UK suffer from reprisals? Does Iraq get another terrible dictator who inflicts unspeakable crimes on his own people? Does the US try to rule Iraq, causing a much bigger, longer-drawn-out war? Does this give us licence to go invade every other country with a despotic leader who we think is doing bad things?

I think this is part of why I liked the book so much. I relate very strongly to this in Henry. It’s easy to say in hindsight whether something was good or bad, whether it was done well or badly. But at the time I was so uncertain. A lot of my friends went on that protest march through London and a few people were surprised that I didn’t. I’m a pacifist – I could never be for war – but there was a strong argument for removing Saddam from power. It would be wonderful if this sort of thing could be managed through the International Court of Justice, but it’s never that simple.

But back to the book…Henry is in some ways an irritating, smug, well-to-do character who is so far removed from war zones and human rights violations that it could have been hard to care about what he thinks. He certainly has money, a comfortable lifestyle, a loving wife and children, a job he thrives on. His difficulty relating to his creatively minded children could have been clichéd. At a party I might not be inclined to speak to him. But McEwan manages to both find the humanity of this man but also write his story in a way that does not ask you to care. In a way, the whole point is how comfortably middle class Henry is because he epitomises the capitalist consumer, he is the person Al Quaeda despises and wages hate campaigns against. And he is very close in type to the people who actually made the decision about whether or not to go to war. You imagine that he was probably classmates at public school and later university with key cabinet members.

In his favour, Henry is a thinking man and McEwan gives him a believably erudite turn of phrase. For instance, when considering his difficulty with reading poetry, his thoughts run:

“…it cost him an effort of an unaccustomed sort. Even a first line can produce a tightness behind his eyes. Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time…But to do its noticing and judges, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling.”

(Incidentally, I’m not sure if I somehow had an American edition but I did get a little annoyed that this well bred Englishman was using American terms like “airplane” and “movie” rather than the British English equivalents, but that’s the sub-editor in me coming out.)

This was a very well executed novel that held me in its thrall and I am very grateful to Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…] for recommending it.

First published 2005 by Jonathan Cape

The line between life and death

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman

Yet again looking for a quick, undemanding read, I picked up another of Gaiman’s children’s books. Once again I was reminded that not all children’s books work as easy adult reads.

Gaiman’s prose is beautiful, expertly bringing to life each scene. The story is original, with lots of twists and turns. The characters tread a fine line between over-the-top grotesque and real-life normality; definitely believable. But somehow…I wasn’t kept interested.

The story is that of Bod (short for Nobody), a boy who is raised in a graveyard after his family are murdered. The ghostly inhabitants of the graveyard club together to provide him with education and support, but his main guardian is Silas, not a ghost but some other creature who is neither alive nor dead. Bod is discouraged from leaving the graveyard because Silas is convinced that the man who killed his family still wants Bod dead.

The book opens brilliantly with the murder of Bod’s family, from the perspective of the killer. The pages are illustrated evocatively by Dave McKean and I genuinely thought from that first chapter that I would love this book. Certainly I love that this is a children’s book unafraid to talk about death – murder even – and from the interesting perspective of having ghosts be, for the most part, friendly or at least benign creatures. I also like that not every mystery raised is solved.

However, whether it was too vague an overarching story (each chapter is a separate adventure, a year or two after the last one) or something else, I wasn’t engrossed. Maybe I’ll switch back to Gaiman’s adult books now.

Published 2008 by Bloomsbury.

See also reviews from Col Reads, Farm Lane Books Blog and Girls Gone Reading.

48-hour TBR read-a-thon – it’s a wrap

48-hour TBR read-a-thon

It’s now roughly 48 hours since I turned off the TV and started reading on Friday evening. I’ve got a lot of reading done – two full books, the last quarter of one and the first half of another – and I’ve been thoroughly reminded of the pleasure of putting reading before everything else, of spending hours on end absorbed in the pages of a book, so thank you to Wallace of Unputdownables for the challenge.

I haven’t read entirely solidly, of course. Besides a couple of long nights’ sleep, I also did some housework, ran some errands, met friends for lunch. And I’m not stopping right now either, though I do have evening plans that will prevent me getting much more reading done this weekend.

In total, I finished off Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, read Saturday by Ian McEwan (on the back of a recommendation from Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…]), read Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut (as recommended by Gusset and several others on Twitter) and made a good start on reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (recommended by Amy of Amy Reads).

All the books I’ve read this weekend were really good, excellent even, and full reviews will follow when I get a chance to write them out! I hope all my fellow read-a-thoners have enjoyed/are still enjoying their weekend reads.

(If you missed my previous posts and are wondering what all this is about, Wallace of Unputdownables challenged her readers to join her for a 48-hour TBR read-a-thon this weekend. I look forward to the next one!.)

48-hour TBR read-a-thon – halfway point

48-hour TBR read-a-thon

So, an update on my progress so far in the 48-hour TBR read-a-thon. Yesterday I started well, finishing off Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (which I was already three-quarters through) before reading Saturday by Ian McEwan, on the back of a recommendation from Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…]. That turned out to be an excellent choice, keeping me so absorbed that I was awake until 1 a.m. when I finished it.

Today I decided to tackle Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, which I’ve been eager to read for a while but then I mentioned this to a friend on Thursday who said she thought it was horribly hard-going, so that put me off. Some encouragement via Twitter put me back on track and I am definitely liking it so far. I’m only halfway through, partly because it’s not a quick read despite its short length, but also because I wasn’t able to entirely ignore the rest of the world today.

I’ll write proper reviews at a later point, but for now some quick summaries:

The Graveyard Book is an evocative, imaginative adventure with intriguing characters and, in true Gaiman style, doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter. However, I just wasn’t absorbed by it and kept putting it aside to read other things instead.

Saturday, on the other hand, was all-consuming and brought together politics, self-discovery, brilliant characterisation and outstanding writing. My only complaint would be that the main character is so irritatingly, snobbishly upper middle class; but that’s part of the point of course.

And now I’ll get back to the reading. I hope all my fellow read-a-thoners are enjoying their weekend reads!

(If you missed my last post and are wondering what all this is about, Wallace of Unputdownables challenged her readers to join her for a 48-hour TBR read-a-thon this weekend. I am still intending to read the Southland Tales books by David Kelly, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Double Fault by Lionel Shriver. Or at least, that’s the slightly unrealistic aim.)

48-hour TBR read-a-thon – the plan

48-hour TBR read-a-thon

Wallace of Unputdownables has challenged her readers to join her for a 48-hour TBR read-a-thon this weekend. Because clearly I have nothing else I should be getting on with (like decorating or building bookcases) I have decided to join in.

(I know, I know, I am all about the challenges lately, which is a little unlike me. Thing is, I’ve been struggling a little to read much but these mini challenges from wonderful fellow book bloggers have helped me enormously, so thank you to everyone who takes the trouble to run these things.)

Anyway, the point of this particular challenge is to make a dent in the TBR, which in my case is more than 130 books. That’s a lorra lot. We’re supposed to pick out a few that we intend to read, but I’m a bit lost as to where to start so I thought I’d ask for recommendations. My TBR is here. Please do take a look then come back and tell me what you both recommend and think I stand a chance of getting through in a weekend.

I was thinking of queueing up Half of a Yellow Sun, Slaughterhouse 5 and the Southland Tales books. Any advances on that?

What women writers want

A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf

I was inspired to finally pick up this book by Amy Reads and her part in the Year of Feminist Classics project. It turns out, now I look at the reading schedule, that they’re not discussing this title until May, but I’d been meaning to read it for years anyway, and I can always go back and discuss it with them in three months’ time!

I’m so glad I finally read this book. It is truly brilliant. I struggled a little with the Woolf books I had to read for my degree, but this is actually a reworking of two speeches she gave at women’s colleges in October 1928 and therefore has a rather different style from her fiction. For me it was much more accessible and approaches the topic of feminism from an angle that I am very interested in – women and fiction.

Of course, Woolf being Woolf, she doesn’t approach the subject in an entirely straightforward manner. Instead she begins with her answer to a question as yet unvoiced and then invents the character of a woman writer to illustrate how she arrived at this answer, including all of the research and ruminating along the way. But bizarre as that sounds, it’s a fascinating and intelligent study of its subject with so many quotable passages that my copy is now covered in bright yellow sticky notes.

The conclusion of this extended essay is so famous that it is not only the title but is also repeated in red text on the front cover of my edition: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” These days that may seem like an odd statement but it’s worth remembering, as Woolf ably illustrates, that at the time of writing there were very few colleges in the UK that accepted female students and almost no scholarships or bursaries for them; women were not allowed in Oxbridge libraries unaccompanied, even if they were students there; a woman’s property and wealth legally became her husband’s upon marriage; and even upper class women were very unlikely to have a study or sitting room of their own.

“The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up [a newspaper] could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy.”

Woolf counts the four great women writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and George Eliot (which was interesting of itself to me, that 80 years ago the same names should have been considered “great” as now, or maybe we consider them great because we have been told they are for 80+ years) and looks carefully at how being a woman influenced each of them. In Jane Austen she sees the greatest influence of having had to write in a shared sitting room, as so much of Austen’s work is set in those very rooms, but she also bestows great praise on Austen for having such an honest, undeniably female voice. Charlotte Brontë, Woolf says, was a better wordsmith but also more given to expressing discontent with her lot in life, giving her heroines speeches about being held back from the world that jar with the rest of the novel.

Woolf finds women depicted by men, in fiction and non-fiction, wholly unsatisfactory, partly because men tend to depict women as hollow featureless objects but also because a lot of what they do show is unrealistic idealism. In truth, through most of history women have not been nearly as well educated or as wordly as men.

“A very queer composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history…some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”

Women depicting women, however, can actually do it properly, creating real personalities, likes, dislikes, good qualities and bad ones. Woolf describes her delight when reading, in a not particularly good book by a woman writer, about the friendship between two women – a subject she declares is at every woman’s heart and yet never depicted yet by any man. (She makes a few generalisations like this. I have to presume that, though reasonably well read, she had not read every book ever written and therefore an exception to this statement may well exist.)

In the face of such adversity, Woolf shows great admiration for those pre-20th-century women who did defy convention and write, even those who did it in secret, but especially those who published their work like Aphra Behn (another name I studied at university). She urges the women she is speaking to – women who have at least a little money, some education and most likely a room of their own – to continue this tradition, to find their own voice uninfluenced by men. She complains that her reading has become monotonous with so many men’s voices, so much male influence, and expresses a hope that the time will come when readers will think her rant out of date.

She closes with the sentiment that in “another century or so” women writers will have found their voice. I like to think that, while the gender equality fight is still very much on, in writing at least women have found an equal footing. I don’t know how the numbers compare of books published by men and women, or indeed books sold, or literary prizes won, and if they are even now it’s probably a very recent development, maybe even in the last ten years. But the world has changed drastically from the one Woolf knew and I like to think she would be proud of women today, especially women writers.

First published 1928.
I read the Penguin Great Ideas edition, published 2004.

UPDATE: If you’re interested, you can check out the Year of Feminist Classics discussions about this title here and here.

Hello Japan! January mini-challenge: Something New

Hello Japan! mini-challenge

On Tanabata’s book blog, In Spring it is the Dawn, she challenges her readers every month to do something Japanese. Each mini-challenge has guidelines and January’s was “try something Japanese that you haven’t tried before”, which I did. And it was most certainly an experience.

For my birthday earlier this month I booked a karaoke booth at a local Japanese restaurant. I love Japanese food, I love karaoke, as do several of my friends – what could possibly go wrong? The only real question was why I had never done this before.

There were some setbacks. A few karaoke-friendly friends couldn’t make it so I ended up with a group heavy on the “I’ll come but I probably won’t sing” side. On arrival, as we squeezed ourselves into a tiny room that could only possibly have seated the advertised occupancy of 20 if they were all model-thin, was boiling hot and had the music volume so loud we couldn’t hear each other across the table, I began to worry this wouldn’t be all it was cracked up to be. The hostess didn’t explain the computer properly and we appeared to have a songlist composed solely of Madonna, Britney, Mariah and Japanese acts we’d never heard of.

Thankfully, while I knocked back my first flask of warm sake and caught up with my friends over the as-always immensely tasty food there, some of my more computer-savvy friends worked out not only how to adjust the volume to an acceptable level but also that there was a huge long list of songs to choose from hidden in a sub-sub-menu. And we were off!

And it was a brilliant night. Sure the computer crashed a few times, wiping our carefully crafted playlist. We suspected that the karaoke tracks and videos were largely cheap knock-offs, with hilariously wrong lyrics and videos either from some tourist agency or a sort-of Japanese Pop Idol show. But everyone had a good time, everyone sang (sometimes all at once with harmonies and everything) and I laughed so much I cried.

I loved that we had to take our shoes off and that we sat at a table at floor level, something I’d only seen in films before. I loved that the most resistant of my friends let inhibitions go and belted out tunes wholeheartedly. If they had let us we could have carried on all through the night and they would have made a fortune out of our sake and Asahi consumption, but sadly they closed at 10.30pm.

It was a great way to spend an evening with friends and I shall definitely accept any opportunity to try it again.

(By the way, this is my 100th post! Very exciting. I was hoping to post about my newly redecorated library on this auspicious occasion but progress has slowed on that front, mostly because I’ve been too exhausted to help Tim out with the legwork. We will finish it…one day.)

That’s prostrate, with two Rs

Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years
by Sue Townsend

Oh, Sue Townsend, you never let me down. I’ve been struggling to read much lately but as soon as I opened this book I was tearing through the pages, laughing out loud and loving reconnecting with the characters that are so familiar they are like extended family.

I pretty much grew up with Adrian Mole. I somehow got hold of the first two books when I was about 10 (I think they’d been given to my older sister, not to me) and I read and re-read those volumes many a time through my teens. I think I have bought and read all of the subsequent volumes, and though grown-up Adrian is far more annoying than the teenage boy was, I still love being back in that world.

Adey, as Pandora still calls him, is approaching 40, is living next-door to his parents in a converted pigsty, is worried that his wife Daisy is gaining weight and losing interest in him, and is having trouble with his prostate (which everyone keeps calling his prostrate, much to his irritation). Still, he enjoys his job at a local independent bookshop and his five-year-old daughter Gracie is a treasure, albeit one with an overactive imagination. And surprisingly, the glamorous and successful Pandora (MP and junior minister) still shows enough interest in him to make his wife jealous.

This wouldn’t be an Adrian Mole book if he wasn’t teetering on the brink of total failure and there are moments when you wonder if he doesn’t bring it on himself (he’s so earnest) but he is ultimately a very sympathetic character surrounded by everyday-type chaos. What I’ve always thought Townsend does particularly well is to make Adrian a terrible writer when he’s trying to write (which he’s still convinced is his forte despite only ever having published a cookbook that his mother had to ghost-write when he couldn’t get past the introduction) but a brilliant diarist. His daily life, boring to his own eyes and those of his friends and family, becomes wonderfully funny through a combination of keen observation and fantastic characterisation.

In this book, for possibly the first time, my favourite character was Adrian’s mother Pauline. She freely admits to a long litany of faults but is devoted to her family and amazingly capable (she is often the only one who can persuade Gracie to wear her school uniform and not one of her many fancy dress costumes…and she does it without tears or tantrums). She is also writing an autobiography full of shocking lies that she has provisionally titled A Girl Called Shit and is threatening to take Adrian’s sister Rosie on The Jeremy Kyle Show to reveal who her real father is.

As ever, the diaries are set in the recent past (2007–2008) and provide an often-satirical look at life in Britain. There are the precursors to and early rumblings of recession, the resignation of Tony Blair, the summer floods and the smoking ban.

The next instalment of the Mole diaries is due out later this year and I greatly look forward to it.

Published 2009 by Michael Joseph.

Where dark and light meet

The Ivory and the Horn
by Charles de Lint

I first discovered de Lint years ago and quickly fell in love with his world where fantasy and real-life middle America meet in stories that are both scarily dark and almost frothily light. It’s an amazing creation that this collection of short stories opens up beautifully.

Short stories are a perfect fit for de Lint. All his tales are set in the “realistic” city of Newford and the magical realm that many of its inhabitants travel to – some at will, others involuntarily or only in their sleep. The short story format allows all these different experiences to be depicted without laborious explanation.

The characters are mostly people who are struggling with life in some way and need an escape, or did when they were children. Many are or have been homeless. There are also a lot of artists and writers, presumably because their creativity and social circles tend to make them open-minded and curious about the world.

Not everyone in these stories goes to the magical world. Some have strange experiences that as a reader you put down to magic. Others are fully immersed, even to the point of drifting through the “real” world while living in the magical one. This is roughly the progression of the book. We see more and more of the magical world in later stories. In early ones, it’s more hints and whispers.

The stories are narrated in the first person, or alternate between first and third person, and de Lint’s writing allows you to quickly get to know each character, so that when they pop up later in someone else’s story it feels familiar and friendly.

The dark element comes from the reasons people have for escaping to another place, or wanting magic on their side. From chronic shyness to psychiatric problems to child abuse and the many reasons why a person might be homeless, the possibilities of magic are anchored heavily down to earth. There’s a strong sense of living inbetween, of the magic being a metaphor for other coping mechanisms.

The stories stand alone if you want to read them that way, which is good as most of them had been previously published in magazines or anthologies. Each has a strong storyline, a journey for its main character, a start, middle and end. They gain further dimensions by being in a collection but they don’t depend on it.

I do love being able to revisit characters from books I read years ago. One of the main linking characters is Jilly Peppercorn, an artist and star of my favourite de Lint novel, The Onion Girl. I didn’t realise when reading that book that she had featured in several previous Newford books. In fact, de Lint said in an interview that she is the “warm beating heart of the city” (can’t find the link right now).

One criticism I have of this book is that it’s occasionally trite. For all of the dark pasts and presents, most characters end their story in a better place and they almost always learn a life lesson. I suppose when dealing with depressing subjects it helps to have a lighter side.

In a similar vein, all of the narrators are such…good people. I know a lot of people struggle to read about a main character who’s bad or unpredictable, and it’s a nice idea that most people are good at heart, but I think there’s room in de Lint’s universe for a few more, if not evil, at least selfish or mischievous characters.

But they’re minor quibbles. I loved these stories. I think my favourites were “Bird bones and wood ash”, about a woman who is imbued with supernatural abilities by animal spirits and uses them to fight evil, literally donning a black bodysuit, gloves and hood, but it drains her and joining forces with a social worker almost ruins everything; and “Mr Truepenny’s Book Emporium and Gallery”, about a dreaming place invented by a child that is falling to rack and ruin because she never visits anymore.

I have been reminded how much I enjoy this blend of myth and reality – de Lint calls on all sorts of mythologies, from Native American to the Brothers Grimm to Shakespeare – and I will definitely have to look out for the Newford titles that are missing from my collection.

Published 2005 by Tom Doherty Associates