Saturday, 11 March 2017

Post 50 where I would expect a fanfare...

As I write this 50th post, I have just finished watching episode 1 of the 50th series of Gardener's World, my parents are just about to enter the 50th year of their marriage and I am not yet near 50!! It would have been nice and neat if I was on the 50th book of the year, but that really is pie in the sky!  Come on, it's only March! I'm proud of my 9 books so best start to a reading year ever. But I was looking through Litsy, a kind of Instagram for bibliophiles yesterday ( you can follow me there too, under the name karenmartinreads) when someone posted a photo of their 100th read of 2017...already!   There is a serious question here and I am going to take my 50th entry to ruminate a little on reading and perhaps even a little on life in general! Are books something that should be consumed and ticked off, or is there more to the whole process of reading?

I'm the first to recognise that if a book is read too slowly, even if it has the potential to become a favourite, it is likely to wither and die in your hands.  Some momentum is necessary.  a chapter a night isn't enough to fully engage with plot and character.  But as I was driving along recently, I caught a snippet of a radio 4 programme where an author said that he hated the idea of his readers reading too quickly. He pointed out that a novel took him a year to write and he didn't want it gobbled up in one sitting! Assessment of your reading enthusiasm should not be defined by the number of books consumed.  And it is that word consumed that holds the key.  Consumed has connotations of speed without pleasure. Even a chocolate bar, if consumed, goes down barely hitting the sides and we need another one, rather than savouring and enjoying the single treat. Maybe we all just need to slow down. With everything. Look around, breathe, take pleasure in things.

Snowdrops catch your breath at Welford
Modernity has got a bit lost.  We have forgotten to take pleasure. To experience rather than consume.

I work part-time in a full-time world and I see the ravages of overwork etched on my colleagues.  I like to think that I do my job well, that I care about the students that I teach, but I care as much about their experience of being in my classroom, under my direction, as I do about their end results.  I think I have this luxury because I can come up for air.

I do have stalwart colleagues though, ones who doggedly make time to read for pleasure amidst the clamour of increased targets in an under-resourced world. And reading does refresh you.  It can form escapism, fire new interests and hone empathy.  We all need kindness in a consuming world.

And so what have we been reading since the last blog?  My Head of Department was so evangelical about Guilia Enders' book, Gut, that she had all of us reading the biology of the stomach and wondering about our own eating habits, our toilet habits and the connections between belly and brain. It is very well written, not bogged down with science, but not pop-science only (in my humble, very non-scientific opinion!) I was most fascinated by the connections between our psychology and our gut; this is ground breaking research which is being studied in various facets of medical exploration.

Despite the fact that it was a good read, non-fiction is not my first love, so I'll direct you to The Independent Review of the book which discusses the bestselling qualities of a book that breaks the "poo taboo!"

More collective reading has been completed for the departmental book club. We have a resident youngster in the department who, I believe, joined the teaching staff in order to make me feel old.  I taught him when he was in year 9 and he now has the audacity to be 25 or thereabouts and walks around as a living reminder that I have been in this game too long! He is also our resident DNF in the book club. (Did Not Finish, for those of you unfamiliar with bookish acronyms!) So, we challenged him to choose the next read.  He did so with much trepidation, not wanting to foist a title on us that we would loathe....trepidation that was not without grounds!

When All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy was mooted, we found an online version of
chapter one to whet our appetites.  Reading aloud at the end of our last meeting, it was universally acknowledged to be a powerful start to a novel.  The protagonist is seeing his dead Grandfather for the first time and the repetition of "That was not sleeping" was more evocative a reaction to death than anything I have ever read. It communicated shock, sadness and natural human objection to the process which robs us of our loved ones.  We were all hooked.

Now I have to confess that it was downhill from here for me. Having tried to read The Road some years ago, I was wary of McCarthy's style.  He makes the reader work very hard, refusing, except in rare instances, to include narrative tags to his dialogue, so it is sometimes very difficult to work out who is speaking.  He is kind enough to set out his dialogue on separate lines, as per standard grammatical structure but he doesn't deign to use speech marks.  This winds me up!  I am not a total purist when it comes to Standard English writing; I acknowledge that deviation from the standard can be creative, but this I found totally annoying.  I should not be reading a story and be distracted by its graphology.

That aside, the novel itself has received high critical acclaim.  Time for a link to a positive review for comparison.  Do read it...there are no spoilers and it is a beautiful response to an evocative title.  But for me, there wasn't enough empathy built with any of the characters.  The premise of the novel is based on two young men leaving their home in Texas to go to Mexico.  They are on horseback and their love of horses and horsemanship drives their relationship, and indeed much of the plot.  They meet up with another traveller on horseback who seeks to fall in with them.  John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins reluctantly accept this addition to their adventure, and it is Blevins, the new recruit, who causes a series of disasters which form the backbone of the plot.

The mastery of description is undisputed.  I just thought there was too much of it.  Despite my earlier thoughts that a novel needs to be experienced rather than consumed, I found myself the master of skim reading.  I was using the Kindle, and was more interested in the hours left to complete than the story itself.  I found myself setting consumable goals...can I get reading time down by 30 minutes? So it became a challenge to complete rather than a pleasure to read.

But I have completed it. I remain unmoved by the characters and the events.  The Aunt at the hacienda seemed to be included only to move the plot forward and enable a potted history of the Mexican revolution.  She could have been interesting, but she wasn't.  The love affair that Cole experiences is a rite of passage, but despite its profound affects on him, held no heart for me.  At the climax of the novel they find themselves in prison and reunited with Blevin. It is dark and corrupt and was the most meaningful part of the tale for me. It was also the most character driven part, with more dialogue to balance the descriptive narrative voice, but I still wasn't moved to care very much about the characters or their fate.

Maybe cowboy stories are for boys....(brace myself for gender bias onslaught), maybe I missed something profound.  But if you're looking for effective description, profound relationships and exploration of itinerant life in the Americas,then go to Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. This, despite its bumbled interpretations by generations of O-Level and GCSE students, retains its brilliance.  For me, characters have to be convincing and have to be empathised with, otherwise a novel remains flat.

So apologies to Tom for my failure to engage with his book club choice, but I would also like to add at this point, that just because a book fails to make your must-read list, there is still no excuse for a DNF!

As always, feel free to comment, write and suggest.
Buds...take the time to appreciate the
world around us. Photo courtesy of
my Dad xx

Thankyou for reading.  It is so delightful to hear from my readers, and it is very heartwarming that some of you are using karemartinreads as a place to go to decide what to read next.

Reading has heart.  It is good for you.  Take the time and be refreshed.  This is not a guilty pleasure.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Post 49: where I both loathe and delight in half-term novels

This post is going to be almost totally devoted to Kafka On The Shore, but before I dive right in and get a little over-excited about that reading experience, I need to dispense of  two other titles completed since my last blog. My nerdy English-teacher book group met earlier this month to discuss Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I recommend this book heartily and point you in the direction of blog post 26.  I enjoyed the re-read as much as the first read and that is always a good sign that a book has "meat"!

My next review is going to be very brief. I was drawn to the novel by its inclusion in an A-Level anthology where the opening pages of the book were quoted.  This set up a delightful tension between reformists and traditionalists at a thinly-disguised Cambridge college.  In these early pages, the modernist ideology of Sir Godber Evans, the new Master of the college, seem laudable to any enlightened reader; but the resistance implied by the other academics who gorge on their opulent feast of swan and indulge in ever-flowing good wine, creates an excellent premise for a good plot.  Skullion, the Head Porter is effervescent in his disapproval of the new man and thus the stage is set for a war of privilege and principles.

Whilst I recognise that this novel is lighthearted, I hadn't expected absolute farce.  Other reviews have deemed it highly comedic; I'm afraid I found it bawdy and ridiculous.  To me, the plot had so much potential, but I wanted it to result in a different novel.  That Porterhouse Blue engendered many sequels is something that I cannot quite comprehend, as the ending was so totally unconvincing that any suspension of disbelief was totally arrested.  It was a relief when I finished it and it is with gratitude that I don't ever have to read it again.

I am glad, at this point, to tell you that I finished the Tom Sharpe novel on the train to London.  This meant that my Karen-alone-in-London-doing-her-reading-thing was not wasted on a book I loathed! So I headed up the Charing Cross Road to Foyles. I'm ashamed to admit that I had never been there before. But I made up for lost time, by perusing the shelves, taking a tea break, indulging in guilt-free
uninterrupted reading time and spending a joyful hour (or maybe three) just soaking up the whole blissful bookishness of the place. It was here in Foyles, that I opened the first pages of my next read...

Reading Kafka On The Shore by Murakami is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Recommended to me by one of my students, (who, I might add, consumes book at an equal or faster pace than I do); I was intrigued to see what had captivated her. I was also delighted to see it as Foyles-recommends title, so I felt I was reading the right book in the right place.

This book precludes much explanation but instead demands more of a visceral, sensory, spiritual response.  The prologue almost made me put it back on the shelf: the protagonist is in discussion with some sort of alter ego, known as "The boy named Crow." It is apparent, even at this early stage of the novel, that this boy Crow is somehow a part of Kafka Tamura, the central character.  How this works is never fully explained, but by the end of the novel, there is a greater understanding of the symbiosis between them.

If you can see beyond this surreal, slightly disembodied opening, chapter one then goes on to set up the plot.  15 year-old Kafka is running way from home and at this point, we have no idea why. This works as an effective hook and the first person narrative builds some empathy with Kafka from the outset.  The second chapter then changes typeface and writing style as it reports on an incident, possibly chemical, that affected a class of Japanese schoolchildren whilst out on a field trip in 1944. Here context comes into play, and readers will wonder whether this might turn into an apocalyptic novel that draws on the horrendous aftermath of the atom bomb.  Essentially, mysteries are set up in these opening chapters.  We have no idea how Kafka relates to events that occurred years before he was born, but we are already seeking a resolution where one influences the other.

This is further intensified by the introduction of the third set of key characters and events.  We are introduced to Nakata in chapter 6.  He is a man, advanced in years, who cannot read or write.  He realises that he used to have such knowledge but an accident earlier in his life robbed him of much of his intellectual and reasoning capacity.  We meet him talking to cats!  (I know, but stay with me, I implore you. It's worth it!)  By this juncture, my brain was reeling so hard from the assault of the opening section of the novel that I wasn't sure whether I was loving it or hating it, but I know that I was compelled by it.  I wanted to find out how all these elements      would tie together.  I was beginning to make connections and I wanted to see if I was right!

So, no spoilers, and whilst this is a novel that I could write a dissertation on (indeed that might be fun!), I will cut to the chase.  Child 1 tells me that my blog is only properly interesting if I don't get too bookish!

This novel is one of the most clever constructs that I have read.  It draws on Japanese religion, Greek myth and drama, Christian teaching, secular philosophy, fate and ideas associated with author Franz Kafka and probably many other allusions that I have missed.  At its essence is an exploration of who we are, of what it means to be human.  There are deaths in the book that prompt an examination of where we go next, and whether this life impacts the next.

I was particularly struck by discussion of memory and forgiveness. We are encouraged to build
memories, to create safe places that our children can look back to.  When facing the death of a loved one we are encouraged to make memory boxes, to keep them in some ways alive for us.  But this novel challenged that way of thinking.  Characters are trapped by their memories, they are held back by the past.  This leads Miss Saeki to lead a half-life as she constantly looks back.  In comparison, Nakata has no ability to remember much, and he is shown to be free, albeit dysfunctional in this modern world.  Interesting was how Murakami moved this concept of memory into the afterlife, deeming all worldly recollections as unnecessary.  This releases us.

Seeing the pain of debilitation as my friend with Alzheimers struggles to square the circles in her battles to recall, it was comforting to think that one day this will no longer matter. I saw Christian theology in much of the final third of the novel, but I think that the book will speak to a universal theology and philosophy and appeal to different readers in different ways.

My colleague loves books that have an element of magical realism.  This one has much of it, where dreams and reality merge and the reader is left wondering which has most significance. There is a bit of a Lord of The Rings quest feel about it, and there is even a stone endowed with much significance. At times, (and I acknowledge that I am a bit of a prude), there was too much explicit sexual content for my sensibilities, but the overriding impression I have of this novel is that it was time worth spending.

I confess that the middle part of the book was a determined rather than an enjoyable read, but, by the final pages I felt encouraged and uplifted. And I wanted to talk about it, as hubby will testify. (He is, as I type, making the lunch so that I can get my bookishness down "on paper" whilst it is still fresh and real, and dare I say it, important in my mind.  I feel like I have read something important, but don't be surprised, if you take the road to the Kafka shore, if you're not entirely able to pinpoint exactly what it is that has so affected you.

And if this is too much bookishness for child 1, let me add that, as well as reading,  I have had a lovely birthday, which has seen delightful additions to my to-read shelf and book tokens to boot. I also got to see the most beautiful carpets of snowdrops at Welford Park (of Bake-off tent fame) and hubby and I came 3rd in a London Underground Treasure Hunt!

I'm off to peruse that shelf now.  I reckon I can squeeze in one more novel before I need to start on the next book club read!

As always, thank you for reading.  Please feel free to share, comment and enthuse!

Monday, 30 January 2017

Post 48: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I am not a fan of January.  In fact, I am not a fan of winter at all.  Despite the cosy evenings that make reading a more permissable activity, winter just seems to go on for too long.  My trowel hand is itching for a warmer day to dig around in the soil and speed springtime on its way.

And so it was with delight and relief that hubby and I managed a sneaky midweek stay in Brighton last week.  We arrived in dense fog, where our romantic sea view looked out on nothing but murk. Allegedly, we were a stone's throw from the beach.

Lou Fellingham live at The Old Market
We were stoic. We were British.  We wrapped up in a comedy of layers and headed out for an evening of Cafe Nero soup and coffee before going to The Old Market to the live recording of Lou Fellingham's latest album This Changes Everything.  A live album, and we were there, right at the front singing along.  The applause on that CD, when it is released, is ours!

It was a brilliant evening. The music was great and the musicians were friendly, making us feel very much a part of what was going on.  We had never been to a live recording before so weren't sure if we'd be encouraged to sing along, or whether we'd just have to be a polite audience, keeping mousy quiet so as not to interfere in the technical stuff.

It was great fun.  They ran through the whole album in one go, interspersing the worship songs with chat, bible readings and prayer.  There were only three repeats needed for the final take and we were on our way.  It was a brilliant evening, and I amassed many wife-points for making the tickets appear in  Hubby's Christmas stocking.

I can see the sea!
And hallellujah and praise the Lord, the fog had lifted and we were pretty sure that we could see the sea.  The problem now was that it was late and dark.  But we're British, and having missed the sea on arrival, we were just going to make sure that it was there, as promised in the sunny photos of the Granville Hotel.
So we giggled our way down the pebbly beach (or stony, depending on your opinion...I am firmly in the pebbly camp, hubby is not!), sliding through the undulations until we reached the shore.  There is something magical about the white of the foam in the night.  Incandescent is an overused word, but that is what it was. The light was eerie and shimmering as the waves rolled laconically towards the shore.
And in the morning, miraculously, the sun shone.  It was a glorious day, so lovely that we felt it necessary to take out two blue stripy deckchairs and eat fish and chips on the pier!  Such a contrast to the day before.

So for a day at least, winter wasn't bad at all, (probably because it felt like spring!) and we really enjoyed being way from it all for 24 hours.

So refreshed and perhaps a little less grumpy than of late I headed home with just a few chapters left of Half of a Yellow Sun.  I've said before that literature, especially fiction, has capacity both to inform and challenge readers.  Fiction has a mass audience and it has a power to change the way that we think.  This is one such book.  Told through the privileged eyes of Lagos-born Olanna, her  house boy, Ugwu and her sister's partner, British-born Richard, the book allows the civil war of Nigeria to unfold.  Based on true events that overwhelmed the country from 1967-70, this novel tells a story that I had not heard before.

It is not unusual for news of African and Asian nations to fall down the schedule or disappear completely, even now.  How many of us give much thought to the horrors in Burundi, the hunger in South Sudan and the starving in the Yemen?  All of this is current, and yet to look at our TV screens, our inboxes and our social media streams, it would appear that the only news is Donald Trump.  And so the most vulnerable and dispossessed are forgotten, they don't even impinge on our conscience.

That is how I felt when reading this.  I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing of this conflict, and am uncertain whether I had ever even heard of Biafra, the breakaway state that longed to be independent from Nigeria. I was born as the conflict ended, but it has never entered my history books.  In fact, the first time I was made conscious of Nigeria other than as just another African placename, was through Adichie's other novel, Purple Hibiscus.  That one has children as its main characters and I read it when my son was given it as his GCSE text.  It served as a powerful introduction to the potentially corrupting influences of foreign missionaries, and made me eager to read this novel.

Olanna spends significant time teaching the children of Biafra in makeshift classrooms and refugee camps, teaching them English and patriotism inbetween bombing raids. "She taught them about the Biafran was the blood of the siblings massacred in the north, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of the yellow sun stood for the glorious future."

This book doesn't shy away from atrocities, indeed some are even committed by the central characters, but it doesn't indulge in them either.  There is a matter-of-fact tone that reports deaths, bullets, lice and disease, but underpinning it all is a hearty compassion.  This compassion is felt between friends and strangers. In many cases, all they have in common is hope for an independent nation that they cannot allow themselves to believe might fail.

The story is cleverly woven, beginning before the conflict and setting up the difficult relationship between Olanna and her twin sister Kainene.  The imposing character of Odenigbo is introduced as Olanna's lover.  Both families disapprove of the match and this tension is a backdrop for the national crisis that ensues.  Ogwu is Odenigbo's houseboy.  His differing social class enables us to see another side of life in Nigeria and the cultural tensions that existed between the educated and those still steeped in village tradition and spirit worship.  The western-centric Lagos life introduces Richard, a Briton whose love for Africa has inspired him to study the language and culture and make Lagos and later Nsukka, his home. His white skin and privilege do not make him immune from the suffering endured by the baby nation of Biafra, and he serves to give yet another perspective on the conflict.

As much as the civil war is the untold story that Adichie implores us "never to forget," it remains the backdrop to a compelling human story. The interwoven lives of the protagonists make you turn page after page. Amidst the bombs, there is fear, there is jealousy and recrimination.  There are people attempting to live their lives as best they can.

The structure of the novel works well.  We arrive in the early sixties when Ugwu begins his services to the esteemed lecturer of Nsukka University.  The gruff kindness he receives from Odenigbo warms us to both characters.  Odenigbo's house is one where fellow academics meet freely to debate politics and share differing opinions.  The food and drink are plentiful and it provides a stark contrast to later deprivations when sharing political opinion is dangerous. Once characters are established, part two moves to the late sixties and tensions in the house seem to be high, but we are uncertain why. Against personal conflict the civil war emerges as the force of change, but many questions remain unanswered.  Dipping back to the sanctity of the early decade, Adichie builds more context around the protagonists which leads to the closing section where civil war reaches its peak and is then ended.
The final pages show the initial aftermath of the ceasefire and the reader is left with a full account of each of the characters.

Realism makes this a profoundly sad read, as we are faced with what human beings can do to one another.  Maybe it was also a timely read as we look about us at an increasingly unstable political future.  One sighs and wonders whether we will ever learn the lessons of a complex, bloody and violent history that embraces us all.

This is a modern classic.  Read and be compelled by finely drawn, convincing character. Read and be challenged by our own ignorance and silent complicity.  The power of fiction.

I leave you with the Biafran symbol of hope.  A sun shining over the beach at Brighton, giving winter warmth as if to say, all will be well.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Post 47: A Good Start...

It all began with Hubby downloading Northanger Abbey onto his Kindle and announcing that "this book takes 3 hours 38 minutes to read."  Is that all?  Then why on earth can't I manage reading a book a week?  Surely everyone wastes at least three hours a week?!  So, not brave enough to up my never-reached target of 40 books in a year to 52, I am making a sterling attempt. It's January 15th and I've finished three books and am into my fourth. A good start at any rate!
One of my favourite Christmas presents this year was given to me by a good friend who knows me well.  The things in life that I need to keep me happy are books and a bottomless supply of tea. I fantasise about being famous enough to go on Desert Island Discs (well doesn't everybody?)  and I have already decided that my luxury would have to be a lifetime supply of teabags. So this mug really hit the spot.  It also got me thinking.  There are 30 classic titles pictured on the mug and I had only read half of them! Shocking, I know. So, as well as a mission to read at least 40 books in 2017, I now have an added ambition, to complete my mug list.  This is not without its of the books is War and Peace and I'm wondering whether watching the BBC series counts?????And try as I might, I don't think a whale interests me much, so Moby Dick might be a challenge...and Kafka?  Not sure I'm clever enough for him!  But I have made a start and am now up to 16/30. 

My first book of the year was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  It's a novella, so a nice short one to choose from the mug list to begin with. I read it, and then read some essays on it to make sure that I had understood it!  It is a quietly compelling book, heavily descriptive and with minimal interaction between characters.  It needs to be read quickly I think, otherwise you could lose the thread or forget the plot lines in the midst of the description.  The premise is the retelling of a tale by a mariner, Marlow, who had sailed up the Congo piloting a steamer. His mission was to bring home a white trader by the name of Kurtz whose behaviour had been worrying the Company.  Kurtz has a reputation that precedes him and everyone Marlow meets has an awed opinion of him. A specific company is never mentioned, but it is clear that white Imperialists are exploiting the area for ivory.  

And that is the basis of the plot.  Marlow recounts his tale in detail, describing what it was like to sail the treacherous river and encounter the native people. He tells of the differences and difficulties in working in such a tribal and hostile environment.  He narrates the story seemingly without judgement; hence I was left wondering whether I had read a subjective account, a piece that condemned Imperialism or condoned it, or, as has been suggested by some recent critics, famously the author Chinua Achebe, a wholly racist depiction of the times.  It is true that it is the voice of the white man that gets heard, but then it is written from the experience of a white man.  It is also true that he draws attention to the native Congolese by their colour and depicts them as something other than human. There is a distinct whiff of arrogant superiority when he writes, "The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us, who could tell?" And yet there is a naive honesty in its tone.  He describes"going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the word, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were Kings." And he creates an overwhelming impression of oppressive heat that lay heavy on the soul, "The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.  There was no joy or brilliance in the sunshine." For me,some of that oppression was found to have its source in Kurtz, a man who had enthralled the native population and earned their respect.  How he had done it however, was through cruelty and savagery that certainly Marlow failed to comprehend. Indeed the Heart of Darkness itself is not the river or the people who inhabit its environs, but rather Kurtz himself who Conrad describes as the "ivory face [with] an impenetrable darkness."
The discussions over this classic novella will continue, but I was left with the impression that Conrad felt ashamed by the white man's interference in the Congo, and scarred by his experiences there.

I have gone into more detail than I intended there, so I will be more succinct about the next two texts enjoyed this year so far. Appalled by my distaste for The Nutshell, I wanted to give Ian McEwan another chance!  And, as he has done so many times before, he wrote something that I was captivated by. This one was Amsterdam. One thing I loved  about it was that no action took place in the titular city until the denouement of the novel.  I kept saying to hubby, "Well, I'm this far in and no-one has been to Amsterdam yet!" The significance of the place was subtly foreshadowed, but I missed it. This made the ending more exciting as I hadn't recognised the significance of previous clues. (No spoilers here!) 

The basic plot is that of two lifelong friends, united by experiences shared and a woman that they had both loved at certain times of their lives. Vernon Halliday is the editor of a broadsheet newspaper and Clive Linley is a composer.  Both are more concerned with their own lives than anyone else's, and yet their flaws are those that most people will empathise with at some level.  Both men make moral decisions in this novel that impact their friendship and have consequences for others.

This is a modern novel for a modern age.  It is contemporary and the moral questions raised are current. There is a sense when you complete the novel that you need to examine your own motives for actions, your own responses to events and to other people.  It reminded me that we are a body of people co-existing in the same space.  We have responsibilities that come with that. Community is a much brandished word, and I think, little understood or lived out. The world could be a better place if we considered our morals, our actions and our decisions in a broader light, recognising that for every action there is reaction and consequence.

My final read for this blog entry is another Kazuo Ishiguro.  I confess myself a fan.  I love his gentle
narrative tone. The Remains of the Day has the simplest of formats.  A butler of the old-school, Mr Stevens, is taking a road trip to the West coast to see a former employee of  Darlington Hall, the housekeeper with whom he had shared many years of service.  The book is set in 1956 and Stevens is aware that everything around him is changing.  His employer is now an American who has bought the house from the English nobility who had lived there for many years, the staff is skeletal and the demand for the services of a butler is dwindling to nothing.

In short, this is a novel where Stevens is allowed to reminisce, to define his role as butler and legitimise his working life. His narrative voice is gently defiant as he explains what makes a butler great and what counts as dignified behaviour in service.  There is, as you might expect with Ishiguro, another significant strand to the tale. Stevens' deferment to Lord Darlington in all matters led to a willing blindness to his politics.  Recognising that important statesmen were meeting in the house, Stevens tells the story of utter servitude, staying in post to meet the needs of the party even while his father lay dying upstairs. His loyalty meant that he refused to see his master's involvement in pre-war Germany. Even when others tried to tell him of Lord Darlington's closeness to Hitler's agenda, Stevens deferred to him as the nobler, and therefore wiser man.

This is a nostalgic tale, but it is sad.  Stevens failed to recognise his own opportunity for personal happiness in his desire to serve his Master.  He failed to be at his father's deathbed and he failed to hear the warnings uttered to him by others.  His story is proud as he justifies his work. We see a butler determined to be the best he could be, and we respond to that.  And we empathise with him rather than judge him.  He wrestles with his conscience as he admits to occasions where he pretends that he has never known Lord Darlington.  Through these slips, the wider political background is revealed.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that after his trip, he seeks to return to the same life.  He knows no different and so promises himself that he will be the best he can be in his servitude under his new Master.  New skills may be needed, but he will try his best to attain them.

A gentle story with an unlikely, likeable protagonist.

Thank you for bearing with me through this long post!  If I'm to read this voraciously, I'll need to blog more often...My current read is a longer novel, so I may give you a little bit of breathing space. I am compelled by it so far, so watch this space for a review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.

Thank you for reading.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Post 46: Review of the Reading Year...And the Winner is....

Looking back to my reading resolutions, I made a valiant attempt to speed-read my way to 40 books by the end of 2016,but alas, I was 4 titles short.  Still an average 3 books a month isn't to be sniffed at, and it is far better than the meagre 23 novels managed in 2015. So the golden (arbitrary) number of 40 is still there to be claimed in 2017, and I have begun in earnest, completing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as my first book of the year.

Another activity which dominated 2016 was walking.  After child 1's advice to ditch the gym and get fit doing what I enjoy most, I did just that.  April was the start date and I am now much fitter and two stones lighter than I was in January last year.  The real test is to see whether I can keep up the walking and maintain the weight.  So my non-reading resolutions are to do just that.  Two days into the new year, I can honestly say that I have got out and walked every day so far!  But back to work tomorrow...yes I'll walk there, but I confess that it does only take me 10 minutes.....

And so to the final reads of 2016. I stumbled on Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katrina Bivald by accident.  I found myself in town and about to wait for child 2 to have his eyes tested when I realised that I had failed to bring a book with me.  This state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, so I nipped into WHSmith and bought the first novel that took my fancy.  I liked the quirky title and the premise of the story looked entertaining.  The irony of this whole book-less farce takes full shape when you realise that I had mistakenly booked the optician appointment for the previous month, thus rendering all panic purchases moot.  However, now committed, I began the book as soon as we got home!

The plot centres on Sara Lindqvist.  She is 28, has never travelled and has spent most of her life reading, preferring books over people. (Any similarity to anyone you may know is entirely unintentional!)  When her job (in a bookshop!) is made redundant, she takes up her long-term pen pal's offer to come to the state of Iowa to visit Amy and discover the streets and the townsfolk that Amy has written about for so long. This is a bold move that is out of character, and it is a distinctly nervous Sara who appears in Hope, the neighbouring town to BrokenWheel, at the beginning of chapter one.  When her lift fails to materialise, she accepts help from a local man to get her to her destination. Here, she is alarmed to discover that her elderly pen-pal has died but has left instructions that Sara should stay in her house and continue with her planned visit.

This rather bizarre opening sequence holds promise, but it is difficult to suspend disbelief for the whole novel.  Sara is broadly welcomed by the locals as a friend of Amy, but her stay is scheduled to last only 6 weeks.  In that short space of time, we are supposed to believe that she forms bonds with these people that are deeper than any she has made in the previous 28 years and that they are as fond of her as she has become dependent on them.  She finds many books in Amy's house and sets about opening a bookshop with these as her first stock.  This is all accomplished within the time frame.

The novel is built on a great idea, but becomes less than I wanted it to be.  It is not quite chick-lit, but it teeters there.  The romantic aspect is predictable and a tad dull and the plot arc isn't convincing. I think it might be one that ends up in my charity shop box rather than my bookshelf.  I am unlikely to re-read it.

From Iowa I travelled to Swansea and South Wales, reading Rob Brydon's autobiography, Small Man In A Book. It's subtitle is much more interesting, How I very slowly became an overnight success!  Hubby had read this book previously and his chuckles as he ended each day with a bedtime read made me want to see what I was missing.  To start with, I was mildly amused by his recounting of a childhood that overlapped my own.  His education via Ivor the Engine, Blue Peter and Swap Shop echoes my did the fact that the ITV equivalents of Tiswas and Magpie were not
                                                      condoned in his household!

The difficulty with likeable chaps like Rob Brydon is that they are a bit too boy-next-door.  His
childhood was stable and unremarkable, like mine and like many others.  Very pleasant to live through but not very exciting to read about. I became much more engaged when he recounts his early career and the tenacity he demonstrated to reach into a world that remained so elusive for so long.  Fame is a funny thing.  If you had asked me prior to reading this book when had Rob Brydon reached our TV screens, I think I might have said that he had always been around.  This isn't the case.  A household name now, most of us wouldn't have heard of him before 2000 when he won best newcomer award, and by my reckoning he is 51 now. So success was well earnt and striven for.  It is this story that forms the backbone of the book and it is a story of tenacity and determination.

This isn't a romanticised biography.  Brydon keeps his private life private throughout.  The escapades of youthful romance are included and some photos of a 1970s, 1980's Rob Brydon are as embarrassing as those of any of us who happened to be young in the disco dancing, big hair era! This is quite a relief to me, as I sometimes leaf through through my parents' albums and my university photos and wonder what on earth I was doing with my follicles!  It is good to know that I wasn't alone in being a style disaster!

Behind a story like this, of a young man seeking success in a world that is very hard to break into, there must be supportive family and friends.  In Brydon's case, his wife must have been there for him every step of the way.  They married in their twenties and 3 children are mentioned, but that is as far as it goes.He protects them from the reflected light of fame and we are left recognising their significance but knowing nothing about them. I respect that.

There are many funny anecdotes, but my favourite was when Brydon decamped from the doss-house flat shared by him and his fellow performers at Edinburgh fringe. After a particularly heavy party night wherein his fellows consumed much alcohol and he drank nothing but juice, the sight of a curtain torn down amongst the comatosed revellers sent him literally packing his bags and off to spend the rest of the run in the 5-star Balmoral hotel!

And so Mr Brydon ends my run of 2016 reading.  He is great. We saw him in The Painkiller at the Garrick earlier in the year, and it is true, that he is not "just" a comic presenter of Would I Lie to You?, he is a talented actor and singer.

So 36 books read and which are to be the winners and losers of 2016?

My favourite was definitely All The Light We Cannot See. I have been evangelising about this novel ever since I finished it and feel that I must be partially responsible for its sales figures!  Beautifully written,evoking character most empathetically and telling a story that is credible, convincing and tragic; this novel does what I want all my novels to do, put its finger on the pulse of something of what it means to be human, something of what it means to co-exist with others, to love them and to suffer with them.
My other top reads were: Never Let Me Go  by Kaziro Ishiguro, Stuart, A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and The Conclave by Robert Harris.
And should I pan any? I'm not in the market to slate anyone; writing is hard and creative thinking is demanding.  I'm sure every book costs its author something to write it.  Mostly, I am just grateful that they do, as I have escaped into worlds created by others for as long as I could read. But I was disappointed by The Nutshell and Solar.  I have a complex relationship with McEwan I've decided.  I can't fail to be excited by his new books and by those moments in a  charity shop when I find a title I haven't got yet, but sometimes I'm just not on his wavelength.  Others I failed to fully enjoy were the Little Paris Bookshop, The Examined Life and The History Room.

2017 opens with The Heart of Darkness.  I've just finished it and I've just embarked on yet another McEwan, Amsterdam.  Watch this space for more reviews coming soon!

Thank you for your continued interest in my blog.  Please keep your comments coming through fb, twitter, the comments box at the end of the post or google+.

Happy New Year to you all. I wish you health, happiness and a profusion of books!

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Post 45: In a Nutshell, one cracking good read and one that tried too hard.

Happy Christmas to all my readers.

Sheffield Cathedral
With just 11 days to go, I decided writing a blog was much better use of my time than hunting around for lords-a-leaping! And for the purists among you, (yes Richard, you), I realise that the twelve days of Christmas pertain to the period after Christmas Day; I am using poetic licence!

So forgoing the leaping lords hunt,what have I been up to?  A lot of miles have been covered as I Christmas marketed in Bath, carolled in Sheffield, shopped in Cirencester and pottered back to Oxford to collect Child 2 from his first term at uni.  I may also have attended a speed awareness course, just to sharpen my driving talents a little further!  Carolling has also been happening in our church and town hall and I anticipate a little mince pie and mulled wine in the weekend ahead as we share the festive spirit with Child one, her significant other and his parents...

My reading material, you may be relieved to know, has not been festive at all.  Aside from Mr Dickens, I find most Christmas literature to be a little trite.  We did however indulge in mince pie, gingerbread and mini Christmas cakes as the English Department gathered for their inaugural meeting of book club for nerds!  We had all read The Nutshell by Ian McEwan and there is absolutely nothing trite or seasonal about this novel.  I have a complex relationship with McEwan!  I seem to love or loathe his books, and this one is not one I will be re-reading in a hurry.

I loved the premise.  Narrated in utero, I eagerly anticipated the voice of a foetus, thinking that it gave great scope for originality and perspective. In the opening chapter, I was happy.  The baby had a bizarrely adult tone, but I was content to suspend disbelief when the rationale behind this was that he had gleaned his vocabulary and world views from various radio 4 programmes and podcasts that his mother was listening to.  I liked that. Quirky. It was in or around chapter 3 when it dawned on me that the mother was called Trudy and her lover (not the baby's father) was called Claude.  Could this be a pastiche of Hamlet?  My heart fell.  Surely not McEwan?  He doesn't need gimmicks...and this felt like a gimmick.

From that point on, I just wanted to finish it.  Not because it was a page turner, but because I had better things to do with my time, (now where are those 11 lords?!)  From a promising start, it descended into an unconvincing thriller where the baby's mother and Claude plot the perfect murder of John, (baby's Dad).  As in the Shakespeare play, Claude is odious.  His hold over Trudy seems to be merely sexual, and often exploitative.  Trudy has little resemblance to Hamlet's mother, and yet she appears weak and ineffective against Claude until the closing chapter.  In the same way, Gertrude only finds her voice when she declares she has been poisoned by the drink; perhaps in some way trying to warn her son of treachery afoot.

And whilst Hamlet is a typical Shakespearean tragedy with everyone ending up dead, The Nutshell contains some hope in its final pages.  Trudy's show of strength as she is about to give birth allows her to control Claude and prevent him from fleeing justice. 

I hated the connection to Hamlet; it felt forced and unconvincing.  I loathed the descriptions of sexual activity from a baby's perspective.  Whilst I could find humour in the adult voice and perspectives in the baby's narration, I couldn't find space in my heart for the total removal of his innocence.  Yes, you could argue that Hamlet lost his naviety when faced with the murder of his father, but that wasn't a strong enough justification for me.  You may like to read The Guardian's review of The Nutshell which explores the Hamlet connections in greater detail. 

And the rest of my book club nerds?  It was an overwhelming, "no".  Some enjoyed it more than others,but the narrative voice proved unconvincing to many; even with the idea that radio 4 has been his educator, there were many discrepancies that made his world view inconsistent.  And we all felt that some of the descriptions were repellent and gratuitous.  Would it have been published had it been written by an unknown author?  Possibly not.

So having given a book I didn't like so much air time, I am excited to give you a taster of a novel that I think deserves a place on your Christmas list.  I saw Robert Harris at the Henley Literary Festival in October where he spoke about his research visits to the Vatican in preparation for writing Conclave.

I was intrigued.  Harris is not a religious man; indeed he joked that he wasn't even a member of the Church of England club, having not been baptised as an infant, a birthright he felt every Englishman should be entitled to. He also said that having written the novel, he was more inclined to the agnostic position that a God who created the world, who oversees in some way, who is bigger than we are, must exist. 

And so to the novel.  It is set in a Conclave; the formal term for the group of Archbishops of the Catholic Church who meet to vote on who amongst them should be made the next Pope. Not an action novel then.  Most of the plot takes place in a locked room with 118 clerics.  No-one can enter or leave until votes have been pondered over, prayed about, cast, counted and checked. This has the makings of a dull read perhaps?  Maybe in the hands of a different author, but this was a gripping storyline.

The central character, Lomelli, is deeply human and I felt immediate empathy with him. He is aware of his own weaknesses and yet carries his responsibilities well in spite of this, (perhaps even because of this).  He confers with others and seeks to do the will of the Lord for the good of the Church, despite his own difficulty with prayer.  In his role as Archbishop in charge of the Conclave, he is the unwilling recipient of gossip and intrigue.  Harris times these gobbets perfectly to move the plot forward and add new dimensions to the story. His use of pragmatic suggestion is well crafted; the outcome of who is to be the next Pope is left ambiguous and uncertain until the final revelation.  

As always, I promise no spoilers, but there is a subplot which I outted before the final reveal.  Rather than spoil the story for me, it merely made me smug that I had seen this particular aspect of the story coming!

This was a good read.  Well written, it is popular fiction at its best and Harris deserves acclaim.  Its storyline was one that left me thinking that every moment I wasn't reading the novel was an inconvenience.  I wanted to talk about it and share my discoveries as I read them.  I have handed the book to my husband now, eager to discuss the story and see if he got the sub-plot!

Go on, ask Santa to add another book to your stocking.  Then you can tell me what you thought of it too!

Current read is The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald.  Enjoying it so far, and hopefully I'll be finished in the next couple of days. And nerdy book club?  We re-convene in February for a discussion on Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  A brilliant book that I have already reviewed, but which I eagerly anticipate re-reading.  
Happy Christmas to you all. May your Christmas Stocking be bulging with books....and if Child 2 has got to the end of this entry, I am very happy for him to continue his quest to provide me with the best reads of the year!

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Post 44: Five Books and A Quiet House

I began my last blog with apologies for bombarding you with, nearly two months later, my confession is of my laxity in sharing the joys of life and reading with you. So, with five books and eight weeks to fill you in on, this will be a whistle-stop tour.

I'll begin with Simon:Genius in my Basement, which is a biography by Alexander Masters (see June post for, Stuart: A Life Backwards). This details the story of Simon Phillips Norton, a child mathematical prodigy who achieved O and A Level Maths grades as a boy. With his genius there is social awkwardness and lack of conformity.  Despite his high IQ, he failed to gain the highest honours in his Cambridge degree because he had already completed the course and was bored by the time he had to take his exams.  His obsession with public transport is eccentric, and Masters calls his basement "a cave" in which only the timetables and ticket stubs have any sense of organisation.
Like Stuart, Masters builds a relationship with his subject, even accompanying him on holiday.  He seeks to understand the man, but also take the reader on a mathematical journey.  You cannot understand Simon, it seems, unless you have a grasp of maths.  This isn't any old maths either.  Masters uses cute triangles with expressions on their faces to hide a complexity of patterns that end up being used to illustrate groups.  These groups form the basis of his Monster theory and there ends my level of understanding...despite the triangles!
My problem with this book was fundamentally, the maths.  I wasn't interested enough in the quirky drawings and Masters grappling with his own intellect in order to comprehend Simon's. Like Stuart, he is on the edges of society, but for very different reasons. At the end of the book, I am uncertain as to whether he lacks the social skills necessary for relationship and conformity or whether he merely disregards such social conventions as unnecessary.  He eats what he wants when he wants it. He lives in a mess or not as he chooses.  He does maths as and when he feels an urge or an inspiration, rather like the romanticised view of a poet. He loves buses and trains.  A genius, but perhaps a lonely one, separated from the rest of us by his capacity for brilliance. Despite this, empathy was not fully achieved and this biography lacked the compelling interest gained from Stuart.

A few days after completing the Simon biography, we were university bound for child two, leaving hubby and I home-alone for the first time in almost 21 years! Whilst child two works out how to concentrate on essays whilst the college opposite has almost constant organ practice and bell ringing, we set to work on remembering what it was like to be just the two of us. And it turns out, that it isn't bad at all!  Food bill is down, crumbs on the carpet markedly reduced and half term is just an excuse for a day out!  We have managed an historic visit to St Albans, a trip to Sheffield to see child one, Oxford to check up on child two and the luxury of Celtic Manor for a weekend courtesy of hubby's work.  Good start!

So on with the reading.  I completed my students' coursework texts with the young adult novel, All The Bright Places  by Jennifer Niven and People, Places and Things, a play by Duncan Macmillan. The novel communicates well to its target audience about significant mental health issues.  Both central characters have reasons not to live.  Finch already has a name for himself as being violent and unpredictable,beset with depression that is always threatening to overwhelm him.  Violet, on the other hand is vulnerable because of grief.  Her sister has died in a car accident and she feels simultaneously responsible, (she encouraged them to go home on the route that killed her) and guilty for being the one to have survived the ordeal.  The book starts with her about to throw herself off a bell tower in their school, and Finch talking her down.  He protects her reputation by saying it was she who had saved him from the same fate.  I wasn't convinced by this opening. It was very American High School and the drama seemed fake.  I had no empathy with either character at this point and it took a huge measure of suspension of disbelief to continue reading. But I'm glad I did.  What unfolds is a tender story that gives both Finch and Violet a chance to express themselves and find themselves in one another.  Finch is significant in enabling Violet to cope with her grief, and she is significant in giving him the experience of a genuine relationship.
I enjoyed the story-telling in this book, because ultimately, I gained interest in the characters and was invested in what happened to them both.  I concede that it might be a "platform read", a vehicle to highlight an issue rather than weave a convincing narrative, but on the whole, for its target audience, it works.  And if it means young people talk more about grief and depression, then it is a good thing.

National Theatre 2016
Similarly, People, Places and Things could be seen as an issue-play.  It centres on Emma and her experience of addiction and rehab.  She is an adult, but I was very surprised to learn in the closing scene, just how old she is supposed to be.  My reading of the script had been of a teenager or early twenty-something.  Perhaps that says more about my preconceptions than the play!  Emma is only one of the monikers used in the drama, but it is the most consistent.  As you might expect,this play seeks to understand identity and reinvention of self, and naming conventions is one way the playwright achieves this. It is gritty and honest and has hope laced through despair. Did I enjoy it? Enjoy is probably the wrong verb choice for this text.  It is not designed to be comfortable. I appreciated it and again, if it helps start dialogues then it has served its purpose.

After such a hefty library of depression, suicide, addiction and displaced genius, I wanted to read something light.  I picked The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared. What can I say?  It looked light!  The front cover is quirky and the opening chapter is hilarious.  There is something endearing about a very old person escaping the clutches of care home ritual and claiming back his own life.  I loved this aspect of the story and I found the frankly ridiculous and unbelieveable accounts of his life on the run to be comedic and irreverent. The blase attitude to death is so irreverent that it doesn't shock or repel.  In fact these chapters were almost Fawlty Towers in their execution. But what of the rest of the story?  Masked
behind the centenarian's escape is a run-through of twentieth century world politics from the nuclear bomb to Russian defence, international spying and multiple wars.  He dines with American presidents, Swedish ministers, Russian leaders and Korean dicatators.  It is a very clever book.  Factual history is communicated through the interventions and exploitations of the seemingly incidental  Allan Karlsson whose expertise in explosives made him an asset to successive regimes and governments. Wildly implausible, it serves as a tool to convey the events of the time.  It also serves to demonstrate the ridiculousness of humanity and its political ducking and diving. Add a police chase, an elephant and a submarine and you have the bases covered.  Light?  Not really.  Too much fact and recognition of human stupidity and recklessness preclude comedy, but it is very clever indeed. I wonder what Allan Karlsson would make of Brexit and Trump?

Having felt slighted by a dust jacket that promised humour but left me with politics, I sought solace in Don Tillman.  The Rosie Effect is a sequel to The Rosie Project which I had enjoyed previously and this one was almost as good.  The premise is that Don is on the autistic spectrum but refuses to label himself as such. He acknowledges that he finds reading other people's emotions difficult and some social conventions leave him baffled. This leaves him high and dry with his wife Rosie, when he fails
to attend the ultrasound of their unborn child. This example is typical of the miscommunication between Rosie and Don that forms the basis of the plot.  And this is what disappointed me slightly. Rosie was perceptive and patient in the first novel.  She compensates for Don and he brings out the best in her.  In this novel, she seems to have forgotten how to communicate with him, and this is a fundamental flaw.  For the novel to be completely successful, Don and Rosie needed to be consistently portrayed.  The cliche of the woman losing herself in pregnancy is also a little overdone.  That said, I did enjoy the book.  I particularly liked Don's research in the playground and his contribution to the Lesbian Mother's Project. I also enjoyed his practical research as he attended the birth of a calf! Definitely light, but also with serious intent.  No-one can read these novels without acknowledging a little bit of themselves in also helps see beyond autistic spectrum labels and see the person behind them.

So there you have it. Reading reviews up to date, with a tiny bit of life thrown in.  My current read is Nutshell by Ian McEwan, prompted by the wild suggestion over break-time coffee that we start a nerdy bookclub consisting only of members of the English department!  Watch this space!