March and April Round Up – Or, Well, That was a Bust

2016 started so well, reading-wise. I was making a dent in my Classics Club list, I was reading some cracking new books, I was making some headway with some decent non-fiction. And then March and April happened, and my workload exploded, and my reading record took a nosedive.

It’s not that I’ve read nothing, exactly; more just that everything I’ve read has been somehow work-related. I spoke at two conferences this week, including one in front of around 300 people, and so I worked my way through ‘Talk Like TED’ in an attempt to conquer my suspicion that I’m an appalling public speaker. (I think it helped a little, but the jury’s still out.)

I also read ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg, and yes, it’s a shock that I haven’t read it before. Given that it sits at the intersection of feminism and high technology, it seemed like it would be right up my street, and it was.

I have two other non-fiction books on the go at present – The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, which was recommended to me by a friend at work, and Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, who was also a speaker at this event last week. The former is good, very witty and engaging, but has led me straight to Scandal, which I’m currently binge-watching. The Matthew Syed book is interesting, but I’m finding myself needing to work through it in small chunks.

So, that’s been my two months in books. There have been signs recently of me getting my fiction mojo back – books that I’d like to read, if only I had the time – and I have two 11-hour flights coming up in May, so I’m hopeful of getting back on track before long. That’s the plan, anyway…..

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Review – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I had been looking forward to reading this ever since 2014, when some friends and I went on a girly road trip through the Deep South and I fell in love with Dixieland.

Well. Carson McCullers’ novel, written when she was 23 (23! I find that irritating, to say the least) wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But let’s start at the beginning. This is the story of the misfit inhabitants of a town ‘in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot.’

I say ‘the story of’, but actually, if anything this felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel. I think a lot of that is down to how disconnected the characters are with each other (and themselves). The main character, although it feels odd to describe him that way, is Singer, a deaf mute towards whom a number of the other characters gravitate. His inability to speak inevitably draws other people out of themselves; he communicates little, allowing each of them to fill in the blanks and project a little of themselves onto him. They are not alone in this; the Turks in town are convinced that he’s Turkish, the Jews think he’s Jewish, and so on and so forth. ‘His eyes,’ McCullers tells us, ‘made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.’

Nobody else in the novel, though, seems to be able to connect with each other. There is one scene in particular where Singer, the deaf mute on whom the story hangs together, is visited by all four of his regular visitors at once; used to speaking only to him, they ignore each other awkwardly, until it’s time to leave again. This never improves; if anything, the sense of alienation gets worse, not better, and characters are driven through the book by their desires, rather than their relationships.

The writing is spare and precise and in places simply stunning – like the quote in the second paragraph above, which was one of my favourites. The sense of geography in particular, both in time and space and also in terms of the characters’ place in the natural world, is strong. McCullers (perhaps unsurprisingly, given her age at the time of writing) is also very good on the fizz of adolescent longing; ‘Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.’

There’s politics, too, and anger. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been read as anti-Fascist, which I can definitely see. A couple of the characters are preoccupied with fighting injustice in different ways; there is a doctor who struggles with racial injustice, and a violently self-destructive Communist, trying to open the eyes of the world to everything he finds to be wrong with it. In the end, though, the novel left me feeling a little flat. There was a lot that was good about it, but its vaguely nihilistic world view was a little too much for me – like a teenager trying a little too hard to be cool, I just couldn’t quite believe that someone with such a gift for observing the world could be quite so disillusioned with it. I haven’t read any of McCullers’s later work, but I really hope she grew out of it.

*** 

 

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…

Bookish Lists – Best Reads of 2015

A little late maybe, but because it’s (still, just about) that time of year again, and because – as I’ve said before – I’m a sucker for a list, here are my top eleven reads of 2015 (where I haven’t reviewed yet, I’ll try to soon):

  1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – this was amazing, unexpected, and kept me up till 2.30am and thinking about it for an awful lot longer. Probably my read of the year.
  2. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – review here
  3. Election Notebook by Nick Robinson – review here
  4. Words of Radiance (Stormlight 2) by Brandon Sanderson – I’m not an avid fantasy reader, but I discovered Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss last year as part of a push to read more widely, and this – read last January – was fantastic.
  5. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamond – review here
  6. The Vegetarian by Han Kang – definitely one of the most unexpected novels I read last year; weird, sad and reflective. It’s totally different to The Fishermen, but I sort of think that fans of The Fishermen might like this one as well.
  7. Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie – review here
  8. Tightrope by Simon Mawer – review here
  9. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg – review here
  10. The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma – review here
  11. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James – I’ve actually not long finished this, because I wanted to wait until I had the time to devote myself to it properly, but its scope and breadth and language are incredible.

And the eight biggest disappointments. When I say ‘disappointments’, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad – just that they haven’t sat quite right with me somehow – maybe because I expected great things. I tend not to review books I haven’t enjoyed very much, on the premise of ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ – but of these, 1, 4, 5 and 6 are by authors whom I admire and have previously enjoyed; 2 ticked all the boxes (politics, Andrew Marr, thriller) but just could have been better executed; 3 and 7 were my least favourite of a pretty strong field for the Booker Prize; and 8 was maybe the most overrated classic I’ve read in the last ten years.

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  2. Head of State by Andrew Marr
  3. Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
  4. The Cocktail Party by TS Eliot
  5. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  6. The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
  7. The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
  8. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Review – Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I loved this. It reminded me, very much, of Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Build a Girl’, which I reviewed earlier this year. There are obvious differences; Hornby’s novel starts in the Sixties, not the early Nineties, and it covers a much longer time period. But that’s not why I liked it more. I think what swung it for me was the well-rounded cast of characters. Hornby does comedy well, and pop culture exceptionally; that’s a given, for anybody who has ever read one of his novels, or even one of his articles in The Believer. But he can also twist your heart right in your chest. For example, this, about one of the main characters and his horrible wife:

‘What was he doing with her? How on earth could he love her? But he did. Or, at least, she made him feel sick, sad and distracted. Perhaps there was another way of describing that unique and useless combination of feelings, but ‘love’ would have to do for now.’

Or this, about Tony, a young man who wanted to be conventional, at a time when being a homosexual was anything but. Tony marries June, and they are lovely both individually and collectively, but of course their life together is far from easy. Hornby keeps it relatively light, but he doesn’t shy away from complexities altogether, creating moments of pain and beauty like this one, at their anniversary dinner, when Tony says:

‘You’re so patient, and kind, and loving, and I don’t know why.’
‘I love you,’ she said with a shrug and a little smile – not a sad smile, exactly, but a smile conveying complications.’

The star, though, the runaway star of the novel, is Barbara (or Sophie, if you prefer). From the moment she runs out of Blackpool (almost literally), she wins over almost everyone, but in a completely unirritating and authentic way, with as many adolescent mistakes and false starts as triumphs.

At its most basic, the novel charts her rise from teenage beauty queen to a Lucille Ball-type star of BBC teatime telly. Hornby uses the format to poke fun at the naysayers of light entertainment, but also to attempt to convey the energy of the Sixties, and the desire for newness, brightness, following the overdue end to post-war austerity:

‘Was it really only young people who wanted to pain over the misery of the last quarter of a century? The first thing she did when she moved in was strip off the brown wallpaper, and then she paid a man to paint the place white. As soon as she had the money and the time, she’d find things to hang on the walls. She didn’t care what these things were, as long as they were yellow and red and green and there were no sailing ships or castles and there was nothing with four legs anywhere.’

This success spree, though, eventually runs out. And it’s good that it does, because it’s this that allows us to see how the characters cope, not only with success, but with its aftermath. I won’t say anything more, as I don’t want to spoil it for people who might read it (and I hope you do) – but as much as anything, it’s this which gives the novel its heart.

****

Random Bookish Thoughts – 22 December 2015 – Festive Edition!

It’s Christmas time! I don’t finish work for the holidays until tomorrow evening, so I’ve had a bit of a hard time getting into the festive spirit, but I have at least been in a bit of a social whirlwind over the past few weeks – as is right and proper for December.

All of that does, unfortunately, mean not much time for reading, and even less time for reviewing. Although looking at my last post, which was (whoops) about six weeks ago, I have finished ten books since then, namely:

  1. Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig. ‘Enjoyed’ is the wrong word for this, but I’m really glad I read it.
  2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman. Really didn’t like this, which disappointed me greatly as I loved Good Omens and liked American Gods
  3. The first three books in the Thursday Next series, Jasper Fforde. These were a re-read, and in fact I have read them many times since first being introduced to Jasper Fforde by my English teacher when I was a teenager.
  4. Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, Maggie Gee. It took me quite a while to decide that this was a complicated three-star read – it would have been three and a half, if I let myself award half stars. I’ll try to review this one separately, as it was interesting and charming and probably deserves more than two sentences.
  5. The Vegetarian, Han Kang. This one definitely needs its own review. Unlike anything else I’ve read this year, possibly ever.
  6. Cameron at 10, Anthony Seldon & Peter Snowden. Probably a bit niche for most readers, this is a detailed and authorised look at the UK’s most recent Coalition Government. Good for a politics geek like me, although even I found it a bit heavy-going in places.
  7. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. I know, I’m late to the party on this one, but I did like it. Not as much as the rest of the internet, but plenty.
  8. Child 44, Tom Rob Smith. More interesting and convincing for its portrayal of life in 1950s Russia, than as a pure crime thriller, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m currently reading The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, and think it may be one of those rare occasions where the (superb) Amazon TV series is better than the book. That may just be because I watched it before I read it – I’ll deliver my final verdict once I’ve finished the book and had more time to reflect.

All of those take me up to about 85 books year to date, so not quite at my original goal of 100. I still think I will take a break from numbers-driven reading goals next year; I want to participate in a couple of challenges (particularly the Classics Club Women’s Classic Literature Event), and I have my eye on the idea of finally reading War and Peace ahead of the BBC’s adaptation in January (not sure you can really have your eye on an idea, but you know what I mean). Plus next year looks like being a big year work-wise, so I’d rather not commit to any huge reading goals. (See how I’m getting my excuses in good and early for 2016??)

Anyways, I’m heading back to the family home for five days over the holidays, and looking forward to lots of uninterrupted reading time, in between time catching up with schoolfriends and the family of course. And hopefully even time to fit in a few more blog posts by the end of the year as well! Merry Christmas, happy holidays, enjoy Winterval, delete as appropriate!

Announcing the Women’s Classic Literature Event.

Love this idea. Now to get started on my list…

The Classics Club

Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, Zora Neale Hurson, George Eliot, Rose Wilder Lane, Louisa May Alcott, & Virginia Woolf. Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, Rose Wilder Lane, Louisa May Alcott, & Virginia Woolf.

Have you ever read A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf?

There’s this scene in the essay where Woolf’s narrative persona is in the British Museum and can’t find a proper history on women. She can find a whole bunch of books by men about what women think, what they should think, what they shouldn’t think, who they are: but she can’t get at the actual woman. In fiction by men, she finds that women are either portrayed as angels or promiscuous monsters. Always they are portrayed in relation to men. In history, she finds that they are invisible, and that she cannot rely on the portrayal of women she finds in the British Museum:

“Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends…

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