Reading Round-Up – February 2016

A few days early, as I am off to Amsterdam this afternoon for a long weekend, and who knows whether I’ll be in any fit state to post anything on Monday…

Books read in February:

I’m really pleased with the progress I’m making on my Classics Club list, which until the start of this year was languishing a bit unloved following its creation in November 2014. I’ve slowed down a bit towards the end of the month (life, plus a less gripping read), but I still think that I should have finished my eighth book of the month by the end of February. My eight are:

  • Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier – LOVED this. Review here . I also had the pleasure of recommending this to a new-to-classics friend, and watching her fall in love with it too. ****
  • We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I recently read that this had been given free to all 16 year olds in Sweden, and I can only applaud the Swedes for their foresight. Short enough to hold the attention, and forceful without being angry, I consider this a must-read. ****
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I have been waiting for two weeks to be ready to review this, and I’m not yet. Soon, I hope. It contains multitudes. ****
  • The Ramblers, by Aidan Donnelley Rowley – It’s not that this was bad, exactly, but it seemed pretty facile compared to the other books I’ve been reading – like a debutante in a room full of Nobel laureates. The sense of place (New York) was good, and it jogged along at a decent pace; I found the story and characters, though, to be sadly lacking. **
  • The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes – Interesting, and with big stuff to say, but at times more like an essay than a novel. Review here ***
  • Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf – I can see this being a novel I go back and back and back to. The descriptions of London, the stream of consciousness, the incredibly modern picture of what war can do to a psyche – I liked this a lot, and I think I will like it even better on a second reading. ****
  • Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys – This was a re-read, although it’s been more than ten years since I read it for the first time. I was sent back to WSS by Rebecca, as another reaction to Jane Eyre (which I am also planning to revisit, later this year I hope). I got significantly more out of it this time around. Another novel with a strong sense of place and a compelling portrait of colonial doom, I found this to be tiny (124 pages, in my copy) but perfectly formed. ****
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers – The jury’s still out on this one. I’m about halfway through, and hoping to finish it today or over the weekend. It has had its moments, but I’m not quite sold on it just yet.

Best book of the month: It was a tightly run thing this month, but the award ultimately goes to Rebecca, with a strong second place for Americanah, and Mrs Dalloway and Wide Sargasso Sea sharing the final spot on the podium. I realise this is fully half of the books I read this month, but they really were all that good.

Which sort of brings me onto a bit of a dilemma. Most of my books so far this year have been four-star reads. I’ve thought long and hard about each one of those ratings, and concluded that they’re the right ones, but it is starting to dilute the value of the ratings system – sort of like giving everyone an A. I don’t want to read bad books just to prop up the bell curve, and I don’t want to be unduly harsh to some incredible pieces of writing. I’m still mulling it over.

My other highlight of the month was discovering the great #AW80books challenge – I’m already plotting a fictional trip to Amsterdam to match my real one, lining up what I think should be a bit of a lighter read – The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton.

Reading goals for March: Keep it up, really; life is set to get busier as spring arrives, and I’d like to try to keep up both the quality and volume of my reading from the first couple of months of the year. And I’m giving myself permission to put my classics list aside and focus on diversity for a while – #AW80books should help with that. Of course, given how bad I am at sticking to plans, I will probably read nothing but Dickens or something for the next three months…

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Book Review(s) – Alternative Histories

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick **

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth ****

(Time And Time Again – Ben Elton ****; 11.22.63 – Stephen King ***; Fatherland – Robert Harris ***; Dominion – CJ Sansom ****; The Children’s War – JN Stroyar *****)

 

Regular readers of this blog will have figured out by now that I like history. One of my favourite things about it is the spine-tingling realisation that, on the turn of a knife edge, it could all have gone so very differently.

This is why I will read pretty much any ‘alternative history’ I can get my hands on. Most of the ones I’ve read seem to be along the lines of ‘What if the Germans had won World War II’; I don’t know if that says more about me, or about the people who write them. Last year I read one which broke that mould, Time And Time Again by Ben Elton, which focused instead on World War I. I’ve (rather snobbishly) always thought of Ben Elton as a bit of a populist writer, but Time And Time Again made me eat my words; it was completely different to what I expected, in a really good way. 11.22.63 I found to be less well executed, but made from the same sort of mould.

Towards the end of 2015, I became temporarily fixated by Amazon’s series, The Man In The High Castle. If you haven’t watched it, I’d recommend it very highly – although be warned, Rufus Sewell will give you nightmares. In mourning after watching the last episode, I downloaded the book, and read it over Christmas. Well, what a disappointment – I found it to be fragmented, linguistically uninspiring, and with really poorly-drawn characters. I haven’t read anything else by Philip K Dick, so I have no idea whether that’s characteristic or not – but to be honest, after that experience, I’m not particularly inclined to find out. (I am, though, looking forward to Season 2 of the TV series. I know, I’m a heathen.)

To rectify the situation, I picked up The Plot Against America, which I last read when it was first published, which somehow – horrifyingly – was more than ten years ago. This is also an alternative history, although it doesn’t go quite so far as to show Germany winning the war – rather, it is an imagining of how the early 1940s may have gone, had the US elected an anti-Semitic president in 1940. This was almost the complete opposite of The Man In The High Castle – the story is told through the eyes of a young boy, and the characterisation of him and his family and the rest of the neighbourhood is almost perfect, at times to the point of being heartbreaking. Because this isn’t only an alternative history story; it’s also a coming of age story and a snapshot of a ‘real’ social history which makes the ‘alternative’ stuff seem all too plausible.

To finish, a brief shout-out to three other alternative WWII novels which I read a number of years ago, but which I remember as pretty good (Fatherland), very good (Dominion), and one of the best books I’ve ever read (The Children’s War). All three focus on a post-WWII defeated Europe, with Nazi atrocities proceeding unchecked and conquered people trying to live their lives as best they can. Dominion gets an extra star over Fatherland because of the writing, especially the first scene (a gripping and memorable reimagining of the British Cabinet meeting in 1940 where Churchill took power…or didn’t). The Children’s War gets 5 stars for its unflinching plot (seriously, there is one scene in particular where I had a Joey Tribbiani moment and almost put the book in the freezer), complex characters and sheer richness of detail. It’s not that easy to get hold of, but if you only read one book about what life might have been like if the Nazis had won the war, it really should be this one.

Any other alternative history recommendations gratefully received!

Around the World in 80 Books (#AW80Books) Challenge

I think I may have mentioned once or twice (or more) that I like to travel. Well, ‘like’ is a bit of an understatement. If they had Travellers’ Anonymous meetings, somebody probably would have dragged me into one by the hair a long time ago.

I think I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I’d like to start to read more diversely. This is something I was pretty good at when I was younger (I did a postcolonial fiction module at university, and got a little bit obsessed, especially with Indian fiction), but I’ve lost it a little as I’ve got older.

Well, imagine my joy when I discovered yesterday that Sarah and Lucy (over at the fantastic Hard Book Habit) have had the rather brilliant idea of trying to go Around the World in 80 Books . This challenge literally could not have been more ‘me’ if I’d thought it up myself.

The gist of it is, participants should read their way around the world in 80 books. It’s very low-pressure, with no deadline and no set itinerary – and only one or two suggested ground rules, such as trying to hit every continent (ideas for Antarctica, anybody?), including a sea-based book, and reading one book which features travel (Orient Express, hot air balloon, road trip etc). One of my favourite things is that books can be fiction or non-fiction, so it really is pretty broad – which makes it perfect for those of us who are easily bored…

As you may have picked up by now, I’m not very good at sticking to plans (travel, reading, or life in general!), but I have set up this page to track my round-the-world reading from the beginning of 2016.

Now, if only British Airways gave airmiles for fictional travels…

 

Random (sort-of) Bookish Thoughts -14 February 2016

I am writing this from the cafe of the British Library. I know, how cool am I, hanging out at the British Library on a Sunday afternoon. I have just been to the BL’s current exhibition, ‘West Africa – Word, Symbol, Song’. It rounds off quite a cultural couple of weeks (by BooksAhoy standards, at least) and, as some of my recent outings have been at least tangentially book-related, I thought I’d share:

  • The Friday before last, a group of friends and I saw the comedian Isy Suttie, for a friend’s birthday. This is probably the most tenuous link but, well, she has just written a book, so her current tour is a cross between a stand-up comedy tour and a sort of book promotion junket. The show (and the book, apparently) are all about getting to your late twenties/early thirties and finding everybody growing up around you, whilst you are still behaving like a nineteen-year-old. I can relate.
  • On Monday, I saw the European Union Chamber Orchestra. I didn’t think this would be book-related, but during the first half they played a symphony by Shostakovich – the subject of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (review published yesterday). Complete coincidence, but a nice one!
  • Yesterday afternoon, I watched the Saturday matinee of As You Like It at the National Theatre. It’s not one of the plays I was particularly familiar with, but the staging was excellent (in particular the transition from civilisation – a fluorescent modern office – to a Forest of Arden built from suspended office furniture. It sounds weird, but it was hugely atmospheric, and the play itself was great – a reminder of how very Shakespearean modernity really is, or maybe vice versa. There is a good article about Rosalie Craig (Rosalind) and Polly Findlay (director) here: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/nov/02/as-you-like-it-shakespeare-national-theatre-london-rosalie-craig-polly-findlay-interview – although, if you follow the link to the appalling review of Polly Findlay’s Merchant of Venice, I actually thought that production was pretty amazing too.
  • I wouldn’t have come to the British Library’s West Africa exhibition if I hadn’t recently read ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m glad I did, though. There was a little too much history and not quite enough literature, which is an observation I’ve made about some British Library exhibitions before, but overall it’s a pretty minor grumble.

Reading-wise, I read The Ramblers (which isn’t great) and am halfway through Mrs Dalloway (which is). I also owe the blog reviews of Americanah, Exposure, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and I’d like to write one of Scottsboro as well. Behind, as always. I’m really glad to be reading, though. For the last couple of years at this time, I’ve slipped into a late-winter-early-spring reading slump; I’m glad it doesn’t seem to be an annual thing!

Happy Sunday everyone!

Review – The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

OK, I’m calling it: When I grow up, I want to be Julian Barnes, please.

I’m not – specifically not – saying that The Noise of Time is the most enjoyable novel I’ve ever read. In places it was actually a bit of a slog. I did, though, still find it to be worth the effort. Why? Well, it turns out that Julian Barnes has a brain the size of a planet (and a proper planet, not one of those hokey-cokey ones at the edge of the solar system), and here he’s in the mood for sharing.

Indeed, there are times when this hardly felt like a novel at all. At its simplest, The Noise of Time is a fictionalised life of Dmitri Shostakovich under the Soviet regime, but that description in isolation is simple to the point of being misleading. This is not literary biography. Rather, Barnes takes three moments in Shostakovich’s life and uses them as a springboard for Barnes-as-Shostakovich’s ruminations on literature, music, philosophy, politics – really, a little of everything, delivered at times deadpan, with black humour; at others, with barely-suppressed anger. I’m not qualified (certainly not as qualified as Barnes) to comment on what Shostakovich was really thinking at these particular points in his life; to me, though, passages like this feel more like unfictionalised Barnes:

‘Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake.’

Or this eminently quotable quote:

‘How was it possible not to love Shakespeare? Shakespeare, after all, had loved music. His plays were full of it, even the tragedies. That moment when Lear awakes from madness to the sound of music…And that moment in The Merchant of Venice where Shakespeare says that the man who doesn’t like music isn’t trustworthy; that such a man would be capable of a base act, even murder or treason. So of course tyrants hated music, however strenuously they pretended to love it. Although they hated poetry more.’

There are plenty more where that came from; in places, The Noise of Time feels like an evening spent with your old university professor, the one whose approval you craved. I enjoyed it, but then, that’s because I’m crazy about smart people, and I was in awe of nearly all of my professors – learning is pretty much my favourite thing. As a novel, though, rather than an exercise in intelligence, I’m not sure how well it works. It’s certainly not a book which can be read quickly, despite being a slim 192 pages – I had to keep putting it down and going back to it – and it’s not a book to pick up when you’re tired or distracted. I’d say that The Noise of Time has about the same intellectual density as Marilynne Robinson’s Lila has spiritual density; if you have the patience and the attention span to enjoy one, I think you’ll probably enjoy the other.

Now, I’m off to listen to some Shostakovich. Seems like it’s about time.

***

(This rating is probably unfair; I’m already feeling a little guilty about it, and may come back and bump it up. I think Julian Barnes accomplishes exactly what he set out to – and if I hadn’t read so many great novels recently, I probably would have given this an extra star. But I am a Philistine, and could have done with just a tiny bit more plot to help me digest all that intellectual fibre.)

Review – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

No, really, I did. This book will get into your head. For that reason, this is going to be a difficult review to write without spoilers, but I’ll do my best…

For anybody who, like me, has somehow managed to avoid this particular piece of British culture until now:

Our unnamed narrator seems doomed to a harried and unfulfilling life as a paid companion to a brash American (the frankly hilarious Mrs van Hopper), until she meets and falls in love with the tragic, brooding Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind courtship (including, it must be said, one of the worst marriage proposals in literature), the newly-married de Winters return to his familial home, the incredibly atmospheric Manderley. And this is where the trouble starts. Manderley, in the great British Gothic tradition, is haunted. Not literally – although once or twice we may have our doubts – but emotionally, the whole estate is still saturated by the memories of the first Mrs de Winter, the eponymous Rebecca.

This had been on my TBR pile for years. I don’t know why it never made it to the top until now (I’m sure me buying a beautiful Little, Brown hardback edition had nothing to do with it…). Maybe I was slightly put off by a vague association of Daphne du Maurier with ‘romance’, by which I mean ‘romance’ in the awful, sniffy, prejudiced sense that associates the genre (falsely, in so many cases) with bad writing and unbelievable characters and events.

Well. I could not have been more wrong. I mean, there is romance, yes, and melodrama (in spades), and the characters are occasionally annoying. There’s a stretch in the middle, in particular, where I could quite cheerfully have slapped our narrator in the face for being such a bloody wet blanket. But something happens, and she gets over it, and besides, there’s so much else about the novel that’s good. I’m a fan of anything Gothic, and this novel has the Gothic in spades (remote country estate, characters communing with nature, unexplained phenomena – you name it, it’s there). There is also one of the strongest senses of place I’ve ever felt in a novel – Cornwall is never actually mentioned, but it’s everywhere, woven through the fabric of the story; apparently du Maurier wrote most of the novel while she was in Egypt and homesick for Cornwall, and it really shows.

The structure of the novel is intriguing, too. After a few pages at the beginning which make it clear that something terrible has happened, the rest is split broadly into thirds – the courtship in Monte Carlo, the tension-building introduction to Manderley and its residents, and then the breathless denouement, which has so many plot twists it’s like a cross between Downton Abbey and Eastenders.

But what really struck me were the parallels with another Gothic ‘romance’ with a troublesome first wife. I am, of course, talking about Jane Eyre. The character of Rebecca, unlike Bertha Rochester, is never seen, but she is everywhere, driving the narrative throughout – and in increasingly malevolent ways, through her own sinister presence or through the – frankly terrifying – agency of her own Grace Poole figure, Mrs Danvers. Maxim de Winter is, at once, both better and worse than Rochester; suffice it to say that they both play on our sympathies in comparable ways. Our narrator is like Jane Eyre mainly in the things that happen to her, rather than in who she is and how she reacts to them. She is younger than Jane, and less emotionally independent, and her own internal journey is all the more fascinating for that; her imagination gets her into a decent amount of trouble, and we’re never quite sure how much of what she tells us is really true. This adds a fascinating psychological dimension to the story, and kept me gripped, right to the end.

****

Sunshine Blogger Award

Aww! Thanks a million to the lovely Jo of the lovely Jo’s Book Blog for my Sunshine Blogger Award nomination http://josbookblog.co.uk/2016/02/02/sunshine-blogger-award/ . Jo’s blog has been responsible for more than one addition to my TBR, so head over there with care…(No, but seriously, you should head over there, though.)

Here’s how the award works:

  • Thank the person that nominated you
  • Answer the 11 questions they set for you
  • Nominate 11 other bloggers (and let them know they were nominated!)
  • Set 11 questions for them to answer

Here are my responses to Jo’s 11 questions:

    1. What is your favourite book? – Just one? Impossible! Gah…..OK. I change my mind on this a lot, but in the end, I always go back to Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I first read it at 18, and it really opened my eyes to the possibilities of language. It also fed my life-long obsession with interest in India, which is a bonus!
    2. Do you judge a book by its cover? – Guilty… honestly, I do this more than I should. Although not as much as I judge a book by its title. I have a real prejudice against rubbish titles – by which I mean, fragments of sentences, nonsense phrases, anything with an exclamation mark…although to be honest I’m sitting here thinking up exceptions to all of those rules, so I’m actually going to plead maddening inconsistency on this one.
    3. If you’re not enjoying a book, do you stick with it or move onto something new? – If something hasn’t grabbed me by page 50, I’ll normally put it down and move on to something else. I am such a mood reader, though, a lot of the time I’ll come back to it later and like it. I’m not bad at picking the right books for my mood (years of practice), or at being honest with myself when I’m not in the mood for reading, so DNFs are rarer these days than they used to be.
    4. How big is your TBR pile?  (Be honest!) – Oh, gosh, hundreds. Finally taking to my Kindle (on my third attempt to try to get along with it) hasn’t helped, as now the usual three dimensions aren’t even a limiting factor. If I had to guess, I’d say…500 or so books? Of which maybe 350 are ‘real’, 150 virtual. I’m planning to move house later in the year, so something drastic and traumatic is going to have to happen sometime soon.
    5. What’s the next book you’re planning to read? – Depending on which I’m in the mood for post-Rebecca, either Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, or The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
    6. Physical, e-books or a combination of the two? – Combination. Towards the end of last year, I was travelling a lot, and so for the first time I switched to reading more Kindle than physical books. It’s a bit of a vicious circle as now my most recent TBR is almost entirely on my Kindle, but I do still get a bit anxious if I don’t have a physical book with me (what if my Kindle, iPad and phone all break and I am left with nothing to read? This is a real concern.)
    7. 2016 publication that you’re most looking forward to – There were some great books published at the end of January, but the next release I’m looking forward to is The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan. I’ve never read anything of hers before, but here is the blurb: “Set in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter – it is snowing in Jerusalem, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to arrive off the coast of Scotland – The Sunlight Pilgrims tells the story of a small Scottish community living through what people have begun to think is the end of times. Bodies are found frozen in the street with their eyes open, midst economic collapse, schooling and health care are run primarily on a voluntary basis. Dylan, a refugee from panic-stricken London who is grieving for his mother and his grandmother, arrives in the caravan park in the middle of the night – to begin his life anew. Under the lights of the aurora borealis, he is drawn to his neighbour Constance, a woman who is known for having two lovers, her eleven-year old daughter Stella, who is struggling to navigate changes in her own life, and elderly Barnacle, so crippled that he walks facing the earth. But as the temperature drops, daily life carries on: people get out of bed, they make a cup of tea, they fall in love, they complicate.” Sounds like just my thing.
    8. Most disappointing book by a favourite author – I’m not sure whether he counts as a favourite author any more (yes, it was that disappointing), but I really didn’t get along with The Children Act by Ian McEwen. I found the main characters to be upper-middle-class in the worst way; insufferably smug and incapable of personal growth.
    9. What do you like to do when you’re not reading? – Travel is the other big drain on my resources. I’m a great fan of anywhere with history or beauty, so long weekends in Europe and fortnights in the American West have been the order of the day in recent years. New Zealand, central America and Iran are also firmly on the bucket list, as are return visits to India, China and Sri Lanka. I’m also a bit of a wine buff (which sounds so much better than just ‘drinker’) and love the theatre – in the past couple of months I’ve seen Guys and Dolls, which is one of my favourite musicals, as well as being lucky enough to score a ticket to Sir Kenneth Branagh and Dame Judi Dench in A Winter’s Tale. Pursuing any of these hobbies with any of my favourite people are guaranteed to make me smile.
    10. Favourite film / TV adaptation of a novel – Is it too early to call it for Andrew Davies’ adaptation of War and Peace? (For more details on my fangirl obsession, see pretty much any other post on this blog over the past month or so…) Honourable mentions to the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice (not original, but still the best), and Bridget Jones’s Diary – one of the only films I know that actually improves on the book, in my opinion.
    11. Which comes first – see the film or read the book – 99 times out of 100, read the book. Occasionally I’ll make a decision not to read the book, and then I’ll just watch the film (last time that happened was Gone Girl, I think). But I have issues with reading a book when someone else’s ideas of the characters are already in my head.

Fab questions – some of the opinions above I didn’t even realise I had!

My nominee list was tough to whittle down (and I’m sure some of you have been nominated already, so sorry if I’m double-tagging you!), but I nominate:

  • thepocobookreader
  • bitsnbooks
  • Marcel’s Book Reviews
  • Melissa (Melissa M Lindsay)
  • Word by Word
  • African Book Addict!
  • Ryan’s Book Reviews
  • Sarah Says Read
  • heavenali
  • A Little Blog of Books
  • The Air of Ideas

And my questions are:

  1. Who’s your favourite author? (A Top 3 is acceptable, if it’s too hard to choose!)
  2. What was your best read of 2015?
  3. Any reading goals for 2016? If so, what and why?
  4. Which book do you remember best from your childhood, and why?
  5. What’s your favourite literary genre?
  6. …And your least favourite?
  7. Where do you get most of your book recommendations from?
  8. And which book do you recommend most often (or most strongly!) to other people?
  9. What is your current read, and what made you choose it?
  10. What’s your favourite fictional location?
  11. What’s your favourite thing about book blogging?