Comfort reading

Crumpets and milk

One of my strongest sensory memories is the smell/taste of buttered crumpets, which takes me back to being very young (primary school) and sitting at the breakfast bar in the kitchen eating a snack while listening to an audiobook on cassette. My favourite audiobook was The Secret Garden and, even now, certain words (“wuthering” and “daffydowndilly” come to mind) can only be said in the voices I remember from that tape, with their Yorkshire lilt.

The Secret Garden

I don’t own a cassette player anymore, but I do still have that cassette because I couldn’t bear to throw it away. Thankfully I have the actual book too, for times when I really need comfort in my reading. (Like now – can you tell I’m feeling a bit lupusy? Yes, it’s a word.)

One likes to read

The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett

This is a brilliantly funny, astute, thought-provoking book that is sadly small enough to read in one short sitting. I immediately added a whole bunch of Bennett books to my wishlist (any advice on which to read next appreciated).

The “uncommon reader” of the title is the Queen, who has never had much time for reading, but on bumping into a travelling library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace takes out a book, initially to be polite. Politeness turns to genuine interest, tempered by a keen awareness that she doesn’t know much about books besides having met most of their authors. So she promotes kitchen hand Norman, the library van’s only regular customer, to be her amanuensis and literary adviser. As her passion for reading grows, she becomes distracted from, and then bored by, her royal duties, and her staff conspire to cure her of this bad habit.

The first half of this book is acutely observed, laugh-out-loud funny, with the character of the Queen being charming, intelligent and completely believable. There is absolutely no doubt that this is Queen Elizabeth II and not some nameless dateless monarch. From the corgis to the extended family to the list of prime ministers she has worked with, this is undoubtedly our very own Queen. And Bennett has made her initially very likeable:

“‘Do you know,’ she said one evening as they were reading in her study, ‘do you know the area in which one would truly excel?’
‘No, ma’am?’
‘The pub quiz. One has been everywhere and though one might have difficulty with pop music and some sport, when it comes to the capital of Zimbabwe, say, or the principal exports of New South Wales, I have all that at my fingertips.’
‘And I could do the pop,’ said Norman.
‘Yes,’ said the Queen. ‘We would make a good team. Ah well. The road not travelled.'”

In the second half of the book, the tone shifts a little. The emphasis is a little less overtly comedic and more seriously looks at how reading can change a person, both in perhaps obvious ways such as informing and widening horizons, and in less obvious ways – increased observation of details, reduced tolerance for the status quo, an appearance of being constantly distracted – that in some people might not be a problem, in fact might be welcomed, but in the Queen are seen as troublesome and even dangerous.

I was a little sad about the reduced comedy but still greatly entertained and impressed by how smartly Bennett envisaged this scenario and how various people might react. The denouement is fantastic, though I’ll admit it did change my mind about making this book the topic of any conversation I may ever get to have with the actual real-life Queen.

First published in 2006 in the London Review of Books.
Published as a book by Faber in 2007.

Holiday reading

And I’m back from two weeks in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I visited some new places to me, remembered how similar but different our cultures can be, and helped my sister to get married (I was maid of honor, I’d say “honour” but we call it chief bridesmaid on this side of the pond). But more of all that later (there’s a lot of pictures to go through). For now, let’s talk holiday reading.

I took six books with me, of which I had already started one – Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – which I suspected my Mum would like more than me so I took it partly to pass on to her. I finished that and another book – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – on the journey out, then spent two weeks reading at the slowest pace imaginable so that I am still barely three-quarters of my way through One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I’m not sure if it’s his writing style or my mood but I just can’t get absorbed.

I am always torn, when picking holiday reading, between light easy reads and big chunky literary works that I have been putting off. This time I tried to pick some of both but the literary monopolised my time somewhat. Which way does your holiday reading lean?

New books

Despite my reading slowness, I still took advantage of our “buy whatever you like while you’re on holiday” rule to buy some new books for my shelves. Well why not? Perhaps surprisingly, half of my new buys came from the excellent (and well named) comic shop Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find. From there I picked up:

Palestine by Joe Sacco, a journalistic account of Palestine in 1991–1992 in graphic novel format.
War is Boring by David Axe, a war correspondent’s memoirs in graphic novel format.
Dollhouse: Epitaphs by Joss Whedon, which I’m saving up until I’ve finished watching the DVD boxset.

In addition, we found a huge secondhand bookstore, Book Buyers, from which my brother dragged me when I had picked up three books from one bookcase alone. I could have spent a fortune in there easily, it was a great place. What I did spend my pennies on was:

Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award 1993 (I loved her second novel, The Temporary).
Disgrace by J M Coetzee, winner of the Booker Prize 1999 (gotta continue my attempt to read all the prizewinners).
The Romance Readers’ Book Club by Julie L Cannon, a lighter sounding read set in Georgia, which I thought was appropriate while I was in the vicinity.

On an aside, I should mention that by searching out these shops, plus the equally great record shop Lunchbox Records, we ended up exploring parts of the city we wouldn’t otherwise have gone near (not exactly tourist traps) that turned out to be very cool areas full of arty/indie shops and bars.

Back to sifting through those photos…

My next book

One of my favourite things is standing at my bookshelves selecting my next book to read. I can happily stare at my books for far longer than seems reasonable, waiting for a whim to make me choose one over all of the others. But most people don’t have more than 100 unread books sat around in their house, so how do you choose your next book?

In addition to my physical TBR I also have a wishlist of another 50 or so books (from word of mouth, or authors I follow, or reviews I’ve read) and I am constantly adding stars to posts in my Google Reader that mention books I like the sound of. I can’t imagine ever running out of ideas for what to read, and consequently I don’t use services like Goodreads or Your Next Read or even Amazon recommendations. But other people are often mentioning how useful they find them. Maybe if I got through books more quickly…

I also get great pleasure from going to a bookshop without any titles in mind and just browsing until something jumps out at me. Much like my method of choosing from my own library! I am trying to reduce the TBR at the moment and have therefore not yet been to Bristol’s brand new Foyles bookshop, or indeed the almost-as-new The Last Bookshop on Park Street, but later this year I plan to do a bit of a tour of Bristol’s bookshops. Watch this space!

Growing out of it

Back in my early twenties I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other books by Milan Kundera and loved them. But a few years later, when I read more of his books, I struggled – I found them dull, monotonous, samey.

The same happened with other authors I’d loved during and just after my degree course: Chuck Palahniuk and Orhan Pamuk spring to mind. (Okay, no-one could call Palahniuk dull but I haven’t really enjoyed any of his books since Diary.) I had decided that I loved these authors only to change my mind shortly afterward. Did I just read all the good ones first and save the crud for later or did I grow out of these particular authors?

This has happened before of course. The first series I can remember falling in love with was Colin Dann’s Animals of Farthing Wood, shortly followed by Brian Jacques’ Redwall. I continued to buy those books as they came out well into my teens but the last few were left unread, as my interest had petered out. In my teens I loved the works of Victoria Holt/Phillippa Carr and anything in the Point Horror series but (thankfully) I grew out of those as well.

And I expected that. To grow out of those books was part of growing up. But I never expected to grow out of adult books, for there to be authors who only appealed to me for a few years of my adult life. It seems bizarre.

But then maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s more that my taste in books is in flux and I have to wait a few years for the vibe of my early 20s to hit again. Maybe when I hit 40 or 50 I’ll pick up a Kundera or Pamuk and love it. In fact, maybe when I hit middle age I can stop buying new books altogether and re-read all the ones that I have kept because I enjoyed them the first time around. As I’m something of a book hoarder, I hope so.

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!

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.)