New year, new books

Happy new year!

I now have a lot of new books, except I only physically have half of them so the photo doesn’t look as impressive as it might do. Stupid rubbish postal service. Not that I read fast enough to get through these before the end of the month.

So these are the books I received for Christmas…

Stack of books

An Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot
And Now You Can Go by Vendela Vida
Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years by Sue Townsend
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
The Breaking Point and other stories by Daphne du Maurier

…and if anything I have less reading time than last year, so this should be an interesting exercise in time management. Please don’t judge me if it takes months for my reviews of these titles to appear!

Celebrate your freedom to read

This week is Banned Books Week in US and UK libraries, with the aim of raising awareness of the freedom to read, hopefully with an added bonus of getting people talking about censorship and its ramifications. I don’t know how big an event it is outside of getting book bloggers excited. There’s nothing on my local library’s website about it. But even if it’s just a series of articles in the Guardian, I hope that it does get this issue talked about.

I have certainly seen plenty of mentions on Twitter, and books blogs For Books’ Sake and Books on the Nightstand have some interesting things to say. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts.

These days censorship mostly seems to centre (at least in the UK and US, to my knowledge) around children’s books, or books that are deemed as being aimed at children. There’s a whole range of objections that stem from the viewpoint that parents know best – and not just for their own children but for all children. I understand a parent who knows their own child worrying that a particular book may be wrong for their child at that time and gently suggesting that they wait a year or three, but to insist that any book is banned from a school or public library is denying other children the opportunity to read a book, often classics. It is making the arrogant assumption that you know better than other people. And what does it achieve?

I believe in reading as wide a range of books as possible, especially as a child. In a privileged sheltered life reading is your greatest opportunity to learn more about the world, how other people think and live. While I would prefer that children not have to see a dead body until they’re grown up, I do think they should learn about death and reading is a good way of doing that. I also don’t see any point in hiding them from knowledge of war, prejudice, disability, disfigurement because they will find out that those things exist and wouldn’t it be nice if they were able to come to terms with that in the safety and comfort of their own bedroom? I definitely think children should learn about the normalities of life that aren’t talked about much with the young like what puberty is really like, relationships, sex, masturbation, religion, class/money, and books are the best way to learn about things like that.

I think children are often underestimated, that they understand and can cope with far more than adults give them credit for. I also think it’s important to expose children to lots of different concepts and viewpoints to prevent prejudices growing from not knowing anyone who’s black/gay/Mormon/whatever or indeed from believing playground talk, where “gay” and “spaz” are often accepted pejoratives. And if that child does think they might have different religious beliefs from their parents or want to stop eating meat (or start!) or stop wearing skirts even though they’re a girl won’t that be easier to talk about in the real world if they’ve encountered it in a few books and seen how it can work out?

Yes, there are some people who will write books that to most other people are hate-inciting, prejudiced, dangerous even. But the problem with any level of censorship is that someone, with their own personal set of morals, gets to choose what is and isn’t acceptable and to me that is a far more dangerous position. If I can read a story with an anti-Semitic narrator I can decide for myself that I don’t agree with their views but also learn a little about why they think that way, what exactly it is they believe and, being widely read, I will probably figure out that their hate is based on lies/misinformation/assumptions made with no basis. By not letting that person speak all we have is a hatred that no-one understands and therefore no-one talks about. And by letting someone choose what is and isn’t acceptable we risk letting books about important issues be banned because that person is in the small minority who don’t want children to hear the word sex before they turn 21. But that’s a whole different matter…

I have rambled on a bit, haven’t I? But this is important. Read everything! Let children read everything! And then teach them that the written word is not always the truth, even if it sounds like a fact. If they haven’t already figured that out from reading so much.

Eyes bigger than my capacity to read

In a shameless copy of a brilliant idea by Novel Insights, I have painstakingly listed all of the books that I own but have not yet read – my TBR list. There’s quite a lot of them because I am very naughty about buying more books than I read, but it’s a useful exercise to have undertaken so thank you Novel Insights for the idea.

The 137 (!) books on my list would probably take me about two years to read and I am clearly not going to stop buying books for two years, but I will at least try to buy them at a slower rate and also to read at a faster one. Most of them were bought by me, but some were given to me, some acquired when I was the intern who got first dibs on the unwanted review copies at a certain magazine, some passed on to me by friends or family, some I have been hanging on to for so long I couldn’t say where they come from.

It struck me that this would make an interesting permanent feature, so I’m going to try to keep it up to date. Even if I don’t remember to update it constantly, it’s been a useful exercise for showing up my book-buying habits and if I compare it to what I’ve read over the last four months, I suspect the two won’t quite match up. Is that always the case or am I particularly overambitious?

This won’t include every book that I review because I do get loans from friends and I may even go to a library again one day. Maybe. Clearly, I have no pressing need. This may even result in a clearout of some of those books that I have tried and failed to read, nevertheless hanging on to them for years in the belief that I will read them one day – unless anyone enthusiastically recommends any of them to me, spurring me to try again.

I notice that I have a bad habit of buying several books by the same author after reading one of their books and then not getting round to that pile (case in point: Salman Rushdie). I should stop doing that.

I am reminded that I still need to get hold of Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell so I can read the full Alexandria Quartet, rather than 3/4 of it. I’ve been trying to find it in the same lovely old Faber edition that I have the others in. I also notice a few books from my degree course here, which I should probably have read about eight years ago. Oops.

Now I need to stop listing and get back to reading!

My TBR

These are books that I own but have not yet read. The idea was shamelessly stolen from Novel Insights, so thank you/apologies to her for that.

A few of these I have actually started reading at some point and then given up on – mostly “classics” or I would have got rid of the book – and I have marked these with an asterisk.

EDIT: I have now moved this to its own page. I will update it there. This post can stay as a historical record, or something.

A
Edward Abbey – The Monkey Wrench Gang
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun
Isabel Allende – The Sum of Our Days
Tash Aw – The Harmony Silk Factory

B
Honore de Balzac – Old Goriot
Iain Banks – Dead Air
Louis de Bernières – Red Dog
Vinoba Bhave – Moved by Love
Christopher Brookmyre – Not the End of the World
Christopher Brookmyre – A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
Anita Brookner – Falling Slowly
Anita Brookner – Providence
Mikhael Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita
William Burroughs – Naked Lunch
A S Byatt – Still Life

C
Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus
Angela Carter – Nights at the Circus
Bernardo Carvalho – Fear of De Sade
Blaise Cendrars – Dan Yack
Blaise Cendrars – Moravagine
Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote*
Raymond Chandler – Farewell My Lovely
Vikram Chandra – Red Earth and Pouring Rain
Anton Chekhov – Three Plays
Jonathan Coe – The Rotters’ Club
Colette – Break of Day*
Colette – Cheri/The Last of Cheri
Colette – Claudine at School
Colette – Claudine in Paris
Colette – The Rainy Moon and Other Stories
David Crystal – The Stories of English

D
Roald Dahl – My Uncle Oswald
Charles Dickens – The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Charles Dickens – The Old Curiosity Shop
Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
Carol Ann Duffy – Feminine Gospels
Alexandre Dumas – The Black Tulip
Lawrence Durrell – The Alexandria Quartet [3 books – one’s missing]

E
Umberto Eco – Foucault’s Pendulum
Umberto Eco – The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Bret Easton Ellis – The Informers

F
E M Forster – A Passage to India

G
Neil Gaiman – Coraline
Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book
Gabriel García Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude
Luiz Alfredo García Roza – Southwesterly Wind
Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter
Graham Greene – The Ministry of Fear
Andrew Sean Greer – The Confessions of Max Tivoli
George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody
Ursula le Guin – The Earthsea Quartet*

H
H Rider Haggard – Allan Quatermain
Knut Hamsun – Hunger
Thomas Hardy – The Return of the Native
Joseph Heller – Catch-22*
Joseph Heller – God Knows
Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway – The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Ernest Hemingway – To Have and Have Not
Hermann Hesse – The Glass Bead Game
Michel Houellebecq – The Possibility of an Island

I
Christopher Isherwood – The Memorial

J
Henry James – The Bostonians
Henry James – The Portrait of a Lady*
James Joyce – Dubliners

K
Richard Kelly – Southland Tales II – Fingerprints
Richard Kelly – Southland Tales III – The Mechanicals
Mark Kermode – It’s Only a Movie
Jack Kerouac – On the Road
Milan Kundera – Immortality
Hanif Kureishi – The Black Album

L
J Robert Lennon – The Light of Falling Stars
Primo Levi – The Periodic Table
Charles de Lint – The Ivory and the Horn

M
Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince
Thomas Mann – Death in Venice and Other Stories
Yann Martel – The Facts Behind the Helsinki Reclamation
Hisham Matar – In the Country of Men
M Somerset Maugham – The Moon and Sixpence
Daphne du Maurier – The Glass-Blowers
Daphne du Maurier – The House on the Strand
Daphne du Maurier – The King’s General
Daphne du Maurier – The Progress of Julia
Ian McEwan – Enduring Love
Robert McGill – The Mysteries
Haruki Murakami – Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net*

N
Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
Irène Némirovsky – David Golder
David Nicholls – Starter for Ten
Geoff Nicholson – Bedlam Burning

O
Elsa Osario – My Name is Light
Jim Ottaviani – T-Minus: the Race to the Moon

P
Chuck Palahniuk – Non-fiction
Alan Paton – Cry, the Beloved Country
Elliot Perlman – Three Dollars
D B C Pierre – Vernon God Little
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
Dennis Potter – Blackeyes

R
Rainer Maria Rilke – Turning Point
Salman Rushdie – Fury
Salman Rushdie – The Ground Beneath Her Feet*
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie – The Moor’s Last Sigh
Salman Rushdie – Shame
Geoff Ryman – The Child Garden

S
J D Salinger – For Esmé: With Love and Squalor*
Paul Scott – The Jewel in the Crown*
Hubert Selby Jr – Requiem for a Dream*
Will Self – Great Apes
George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion
Mary Shelley – The Last Man
Mary Shelley – Lodore
Murasaki Shikibu – The Tale of Genji*
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath
Stendhal – The Red and the Black
R L Stevenson – Travels With a Donkey
Theodore Sturgeon – More Than Human

T
Dorothea Tanning – Chasm: a Weekend
William Thackeray – Vanity Fair
Hunter S Thompson – Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72*
Hunter S Thompson – Hell’s Angels
Mark Thompson – A Paper House: the Ending of Yugoslavia

V
Voltaire – Candide
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5

W
H G Wells – boxset of short stories and novellas [3 books]
H G Wells – The History of Mr Polly
Thomas Wolfe – You Can’t Go Home Again
Tom Wolfe – The Bonfire of the Vanities
Virginia Woolf – Orlando
Virginia Woolf – Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid

Total = 137

75 years of Penguin

Penguin book design is fab

I love penguins, I love books and I love Penguin Books. I love that little paragraph most Penguins have somewhere in or on them about Allen Lane deciding to start a publishing company when he couldn’t buy a decent book at a railway station. I love the design of their covers and the fantastic range of quality content between them. In short, Penguin Books rule.

A lot of my childhood books were Puffins, which is this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, so happy birthday to them too. And Penguin Classics have always been my preferred editions, even when they cost more than the equivalent from other publishers, because the Penguin ones look better, have better introductions and, in the case of translations, have better translators. I remember when I read The Count of Monte Cristo a few years ago, after a couple of chapters I read a comment online about the Penguin edition being the only one to use a new translation that reinstated the sex and violence that the Victorian translator had censored out, so I immediately went out and bought the Penguin version and switched to that. (And I still didn’t find it particularly sexual or violent. How times change, eh?)

I have really liked the Penguin birthday promotion running at the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street in Bristol (no idea if their other stores are doing this) for the past few months because it’s meant they have dug out and displayed hundreds of old Penguins, particularly those with the classic orange and green covers. I am a sucker for those editions, even in poor condition, and I loved the Penguin design exhibition when I saw it at the Holborne Museum in Bath. If I didn’t find books such tactile objects I would totally put a bunch of Penguins in a glass frame on my wall. That would look awesome.

So, in short, happy 75th birthday Penguin Books. You’re great.

Mr Penguin Sir

Penguin!

The value of books

Books v. Cigarettes
by George Orwell

This is part of the Great Ideas range, yet another excellent and also stylish set of paperbacks from Penguin that are either excerpts from longer works or collections of shorter essays, as this one is. They’re small and affordable (unless like me you find you want to buy the whole set – there’s 80 of them so far!) and well designed. And from what I can tell from my sample size of two, the contents have been carefully and skillfully chosen.

It would be hard to go wrong with George Orwell, mind, which may be why Penguin already has three books of his writings in this range. Everything I have read by Orwell – fiction, autobiography, letters, newspaper columns – has been exceptionally well crafted, intelligent but also interesting and accessible. He was very open about things like money, social background, politics and patriotism, which are things we can all relate to and yet seem so rarely to be discussed.

I picked this book up in the wonderful Toppings bookshop in Bath, one of that now rare breed of independent bookshops that are bigger than a shoebox and have a genuinely good selection of books, which was appropriate because two of the selected essays deal with buying and selling books, and I found Orwell’s thoughts on the subject and expectations for its future fascinating. In the opening essay, he compares his spending on books with his spending on tobacco, to see whether there is merit in the claims he often hears that books are too expensive for “normal” people. With some lengthy reasoning and a little maths he concludes that this is rubbish and the true reason that people don’t buy books is that they consider reading to be a dull pastime, not the cost. I wonder what he would have made of the breaking of the Net Book Agreement.

Which brings us to his second essay, on bookselling. Orwell worked in a bookshop for a time and makes some lively, often caustic, observations of regular customers that he remembers. But what I found most interesting were his closing remarks. First, that “any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop…combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman” – a surprisingly shortsighted comment from the man who wrote 1984. And second, his description of how working in a bookshop made him fall temporarily out of love with books, almost made them repulsive to him. That was a real surprise to me and I’d like to hear from any booklovers who have worked in a bookshop to see if they felt the same.

The other essays deal with book reviewing (which he is most vicious about, sadly), patriotism (he was just too young to fight in the First World War and felt it very keenly), free speech, his experience of a particularly awful French hospital and his time at boarding school (an endlessly fascinating topic to me, and one that is of great interest here because he was a scholarship boy, so he was an outside observer to the high end of the class system that dominates such schools). It’s a truly excellent selection of writing and I doubt it will be long before I buy more books from this series.

Published 2008 by Penguin. Essays originally published between 1936 and 1952.
Number 57 in the Great Ideas series.
ISBN 978-0-1410-3661-8

On location

I have lived in Bristol for a few years now and am coming to really love it. Like most things I love, I want to get to know it better. There’s a few ways of doing this, like going for random walks and attending community events, but one that particularly appeals to me is finding some books that are set in Bristol to read.

I mean, when a book’s setting is an important element of the story, when it’s evocative and detailed, it invariably makes me want to go to that place and walk in the footsteps of the characters, visit the same cafés and cinemas. I love that feeling. But what makes an author choose their setting? Any writers among my readers want to comment?

I don’t think, as far as I can remember, that I have ever read a book set in Bristol. There must be a few. It’s a reasonably sizeable city and a particularly creative one. But the majority of books I’ve read that are based in Britain use London for a setting. I know it makes sense in terms of mass appeal. At any given time around 10% of the UK population lives in London, possibly more. If you consider how many of those people spend only a short part of their life there, then the proportion of Brits who have either lived in London or regularly visit friends or family in London has got to be pretty high. It’s certainly the UK city that non-Brits are most likely to have ever visited. And I’d guess the number of authors who have lived there is also pretty high. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if some agents have persuaded authors to change the setting of a novel to London so that it has wider appeal.

But I want to read some books set in my city, so I’m going to compile a list. What should be on it? Please leave some ideas in the comments below. I did find this list (PDF, page 2) but I haven’t heard of any of the books on it. If you have and can recommend or indeed warn me off any of the titles, let me know!

UPDATE
The list so far:
Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
Dead Innocent by Maureen O’Brien
Gone Without Trace by Caroline Carver
Selfish People by Lucy English
A Respectable Trade by Phillippa Gregory
Future Bristol edited by Colin Harvey
A Penny for Tomorrow by Jeannie Johnson
The Last Llanelli Train by Robert Lewis
Where’s My Money by Mike Manson
Life and How to Live it by Daniel Mayhew
The Sun is my Undoing by Marguerite Steen
Shawnie by Ed Trewavas

On being a book lover

I love to read. I mean, I really love to read. I was that child whose parents had to wrestle the book from my hands at the dinner table to get me to eat, who had to seriously weigh up severe car travel sickness against the awful idea of a (sick-free) journey without reading, who read almost every book at the local library so was greatly relieved when they largely restocked in my early teens, who in a recent house move packaged up my most beloved books more carefully than the crystal wine glasses. In my defence I know that Debenhams still sells those glasses.

The point is that I write about books because I love them. I love the look, feel and smell of them, old and new. I love the shape of words on a page. I love the language of books: folio, typography, endpapers, head and tail bands.

But mostly I love to read. As a grown-up I read a lot less than that book-obsessed child I once was, because reading has to fit around work and housekeeping and socialising and all the rest of it, but reading is still a great pleasure, a guaranteed escape to a good place (no matter what the book is about).

My favourite books is an ever-changing list, partly because there are so many great books out there. But my favourite ever grown-up book is probably Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.

My favourite books as a child were much more clearcut. They were:

  • The Ghosts of Motley Hall by Richard Carpenter
  • Alpaca by Rosemary Billam
  • Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh
  • The Wickedest Witch in the World by Beverley Nichols
  • The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allen Ahlberg

Plus I also devoured everything by Roald Dahl, Colin Dann, Brian Jacques, Noel Streatfield and Frances Hodgson Burnett over and over again. Which is probably a more sophisticated list than the five I’ve picked out above, but taste is taste and they were my absolute favourites.

It’s personal, it’s about you the reader as much as anything else, it can be hard to put a finger on. I rate enjoyment of a book separately from quality of writing or storyline or characters because sometimes an author does everything well but I still don’t enjoy the book. And vice versa.

So, without further ado, my first Nose in a book review is here.