Reading Round-Up – January 2016

My timeline is full of monthly wrap-up posts and they look like fun, so here is mine:

Books read in January:

This was a pretty good month, all in all. I read 8 books (none of which I have reviewed yet, whoops….), all of which were 3-star or better reads for me, including War and Peace which was my first 5-star read in ages. It has also got me firmly back into my reading groove, after a bit of a bumpy finish to last year. The 8 books I read were:

  • The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth – This was a re-read, but I read it for the first time back when it was originally published, around ten years ago I think, so I came to it as if for the first time. It marked the end of an alternative-fiction-what-if-the-Nazis-had-won spree, triggered by The Man In The High Castle, which I’ll write about in more detail soon (I promise).
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy – This took up most of my month. It’s been on my TBR for years, in one form or another, but the promise of the Andrew Davies BBC mini-series was what finally prompted me to start reading. Both the book and the mini-series have been superb. I finished the book last Friday, and am sort of in mourning for the characters – and in total denial that the final episode of the series is this coming Sunday.
  • Pietr The Latvian, by Georges Simenon – This was purchased on a whim, a relatively quick read as part of 24-in-48. I enjoyed it at the time but it didn’t really leave a lasting impression.
  • Men Explain Things To Me, by Rebecca Solnit – Title essay brilliant, others mixed, overall better than average.
  • Scottsboro, by Ellen Feldman – A slightly-fictionalised account of the 1930s court case of 9 boys in rural Alabama, showing that nothing really ended with the Civil War.
  • The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon – I had very high expectations of this and it didn’t quite live up to them, which isn’t to say it wasn’t good – I enjoyed it, and there were some particularly good laugh-out-loud moments, but it wasn’t the ‘Read of the Year’ I’d seen it hyped as.
  • Exposure, by Helen Dunmore – I’m very into spies, at the moment, and this was great. It seems like it’s difficult to say anything new about the Cold War, but looking at it like this, through a more domestic lens of what happens to the family of someone accused of spying, was really clever. One of the best I’ve read from Helen Dunmore.
  • The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi – My first ever graphic novel! The first half of this, detailing the Iranian revolution through the 9-year-old eyes of the author, was wonderful. The second part, in Austria and Iran, lost its way a little for me. But still very much worth the effort.

Best book of the month: War and Peace, by a country mile. I know that sounds like one of those hoity-toity things people say to make themselves sound good; believe me, I didn’t expect to love it. But I did. More on that to follow.

Reading goals for February: Stop buying books (easier said than done, when there are so many good ones being published)! And get on with the Classics Club Women’s Challenge. Five out of the eight books I read last month were written by women, but none of them were on my classics list. My first planned read for February is Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier), so hopefully this should start to fix itself.

I’d also like to read more diversely in February, which – looking at the list above – wouldn’t be difficult. On the TBR (among others) are The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen), Human Acts (Han Kang, whose ‘The Vegetarian’ was one of my favourite books of last year), The Automobile Club of Egypt (Alaa Al Aswany), Beloved (Toni Morrison, actually a re-read but I remember loving this at university), and Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). Any other recommendations gratefully received!

 

Random Bookish Thoughts – 27 January 2016 – On New Books for 2016

Following fellow readers on WordPress and Twitter has not, in any way, helped with my book-buying addiction. I’m not convinced I’m actually reading any more,* but I’m certainly contributing plenty of cash to the publishing sector.

In that vein, whilst I’m still in a pretty serious relationship with War and Peace, I will admit to checking out the eye candy (ie new books) that have crossed my consciousness recently via t’internet. The British publishing industry, in its infinite wisdom, seems to have concentrated the release of half a dozen brilliant new books on 28 January, which happens to be (a) tomorrow, and (b) the first payday since Christmas. So, either pre-ordered or on the Amazon wishlist, I have the following (with official-ish blurb):

 

  • The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes ‘In May 1937 a man in his early thirties waits by the lift of a Leningrad apartment block. He waits all through the night, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.’

 

  • The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon ‘England,1976. Mrs Creasy is missing and The Avenue is alive with whispers. As the summer shimmers endlessly on, ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands.And as the cul-de-sac starts giving up its secrets, the amateur detectives will find much more than they imagined…’

 

  • Exposure, Helen Dunmore ‘London, November, 1960: the Cold War is at its height. Spy fever fills the newspapers, and the political establishment knows how and where to bury its secrets. When a highly sensitive file goes missing, Simon Callington is accused of passing information to the Soviets, and arrested. His wife, Lily, suspects that his imprisonment is part of a cover-up, and that more powerful men than Simon will do anything to prevent their own downfall. She knows that she too is in danger, and must fight to protect her children. But what she does not realise is that Simon has hidden vital truths about his past, and may be found guilty of another crime that carries with it an even greater penalty.’

 

  • In a Land of Paper Gods, Rebecca MacKenzie ‘Jiangxi Province, China, 1941. Atop the fabled mountain of Lushan, celebrated for its temples, capricious mists and plunging ravines, perches a boarding school for the children of British missionaries. As her parents pursue their calling to bring the gospel to China’s most remote provinces, ten-year-old Henrietta S. Robertson discovers that she has been singled out for a divine calling of her own. Etta is quick to share the news with her dorm mates, and soon even Big Bum Eileen is enlisted in the Prophetess Club, which busies itself looking for signs of the Lord’s intent. (Hark.) As rumours of war grow more insistent, so the girls’ quest takes on a new urgency – and in such a mystical landscape, the prophetesses find that lines between make believe and reality, good and bad, become dangerously blurred. So Etta’s pilgrimage begins.A story of a child far from home and caught between two cultures, In A Land of Paper Gods marries exuberant imagination with sharp pathos, and introduces Rebecca Mackenzie as a striking and original new voice.’

 

  • The Romanovs: 1613-1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘The Romanovs were the most successful dynasty of modern times, ruling a sixth of the world’s surface. How did one family turn a war-ruined principality into the world’s greatest empire? And how did they lose it all?
    This is the intimate story of twenty tsars and tsarinas, some touched by genius, some by madness, but all inspired by holy autocracy and imperial ambition. Montefiore’s gripping chronicle reveals their secret world of unlimited power and ruthless empire-building, overshadowed by palace conspiracy, family rivalries, sexual decadence and wild extravagance, and peopled by a cast of adventurers, courtesans, revolutionaries and poets, from Ivan the Terrible to Tolstoy, from Queen Victoria to Lenin.’

 

  • Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, Daisy Dunn ‘Catullus was famed for his lyrical and subversive voice. His poetry tells the story of a life beset with love, loss, and the political conflict that characterised the end of the Roman Republic. ‘Catullus’ Bedspread’ follows the young poet’s journey through a world filled with all the indulgences and sexual mores of the time, and his lasting affair with a married woman called Clodia. While Catullus and Clodia made love in the shadows, the whole of Italy was quaking as Caesar, Pompey and Crassus forged a doomed allegiance for power. In these circumstances, Catullus composed his greatest work of all, a poem about the decoration on a bedspread, which forms the heart of this biography.’

 

I’ve pre-ordered the top two. Julian Barnes has been a bit hit-and-miss with me in the past – I Capital-L-Loved ‘Arthur & George’, I think I was a bit young for ‘The Sense of an Ending’. But this one sounds great. And ‘The Trouble With Goats and Sheep’ comes highly recommended by a number of people whose opinions I respect. I’m pretty excited about the other two novels on this list, too, and I suspect I will buy and read them well ahead of a lot of the other stuff on my TBR.

The two non-fiction I might resist a little longer, mainly because I have Peter Ackroyd’s awesome History of England series on the go. But ‘The Romanovs’ has been everywhere this month – even on Radio 2 – and it sounds frankly awesome. The Catullus is a more random pick, based not on any pre-existing knowledge of the Classics, but rather on some stellar reviews and a constant quest for ever more esoteric knowledge.

In any case, I’m looking forward to dipping into something a little more modern, once I finish with Tolstoy. (Although I’m not sure I will actually finish with Tolstoy, so much as turn the last of the 1273 pages and, somewhat befuddled, come up for air. In a good way.) Luckily, it looks like being a great month for new books!

 

*Actually, that’s not true. Based on my GoodReads record, I am actually reading more since I started following bookish social media – and remembering more of what I read, too. Long may it continue 🙂

#24in48 (sort of) wrap-up post

My final tally was about 9 hours of reading – not as much as I’d hoped, but not bad considering other commitments, not to mention the traditional January head cold! I read 2 books in full, 44% of another, and a good 80-odd pages of War and Peace (which is enough to take me to around page 500, and keep me just ahead of the BBC adaptation – although I suspect I will have to put in some serious reading time to stay ahead for next week!).

I’ll post more about War and Peace in due course. I’m enjoying it so much, and have so much to say about it, that I think an interim post when I get to the halfway mark might be a good idea. (So strange to be 500 pages in and not half done yet! But I’m enjoying the characters so much that I’m actually quite pleased.)

The other weekend reads were:

  • Pietr the Latvian (Inspector Maigret #1), by Georges Simenon. I bought this on a bit of a whim, because I fancied some classic crime fiction and a fairly quick read. It was good enough, not amazing. The writing was clunky in places (although it felt like that may have been over-faithfulness to the French original) and the plot was a little far-fetched, but it was an enjoyable read and I liked the slightly awkward character of Inspector Maigret. ***
  • Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit. I’ve had this on my Kindle for a while. The further I get up the professional ladder, the more necessary feminism feels to me. The title essay in this collection is great. Some of the others are less great, feeling a bit like ‘filler’, and she is better on current events than on other topics (such as the Virginia Woolf essay, where I think she is trying to say more than the essay form really lends itself to). There is also a little bit of first-world smugness when talking about women from other cultures; you’re not necessarily oppressed just because you don’t like hotpants. (It’s not overt, not really, but I think it’s there.) Still, these are important ideas, for the most part elegantly expressed. ****
  • Scottsboro, by Ellen Feldman. An only-slightly-fictionalised account of an event I was completely unaware of, until my trip to the Deep South in 2014. I’m ashamed to say this has been on my Kindle since then (Mount TBR has exploded, now that physical space is no longer a limiting factor), but I’m really glad that I’m finally reading it. Scottsboro tells the story of the Scottsboro Boys, 9 black teenagers falsely accused of ‘interfering with’ 2 white girls on a train during the Great Depression. I’ll wait until I’m finished before saying more, or giving a rating, but I’m really enjoying it so far.

I really like the 24in48 event – it’s low-key, low-pressure, and very light on rules. I’m already looking forward to the next one, when hopefully I can be better organised and actually fit in the full 24 hours of reading. In the meantime, I hope it will encourage me to keep up an increased reading pace throughout the week and into next weekend (and beyond? We can but hope…).

Readathon – #24in48….sort of

The non-conformist in me struggles with organised reading events. The second anybody tells me that I have to read a certain book, or for a certain length of time, my brain rebels and wanders off to seek other entertainment.

24 in 48 is sort of perfect for that. Rather than imposing a requirement of staying up for 24 hours straight, the rules are that you just read as much as you can, over the course of a weekend. The goal is to read 24 hours total, but I will be nowhere near that this time around, and that’s OK.

We’re 11.5 hours into Day 2 here in the UK, and, well, yesterday was a bit of a bust. I blame Tolstoy. I’m loving War and Peace, I really am, but it’s not an easy read – the Kindle percentage calculator ticks by at a demoralisingly slow rate – and so I think I clocked up a measly 3 hours yesterday.

This morning is going better. I switched to Georges Simenon (the first Inspector Maigret novel), followed by Rebecca Solnit’s collection of feminist essays, Men Explain Things To Me. After a couple of hours of solid reading, I’ve finished the former, and am about halfway through the latter.

I have nothing else I have to do today, other than the normal Sunday chores (laundry etc). Even still, I’ll struggle to spend the rest of the day reading – my rebellious brain, again, will distract me with musings on what else is going on in the world. If I can get to 12 hours total, I’ll be happy.

More later!

Review – My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

I go through phases where all I want to read are books-about-books. So when – during one of those phases – I saw this, in Waterstones in Bath, I had to have it.

Which is why, when I first cracked it open, I didn’t think that me and Ms Rakoff were going to get along very well. What I expected was a literary-cousin-once-removed type memoir; what I got, for the first chapter at least, read like a graduating-and-moving-to-New-York-City novel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for a good graduating-and-moving-to-New-York-City novel, but I don’t like being missold to. What I wanted was some gossip on JD Salinger, so when the author admitted early on that she hadn’t read any of his books, it didn’t bode too well.

Fortunately, things got significantly better once the man himself showed up. I ended up really enjoying this. There are some brilliantly concise pen portraits of characters at the agency, and some glorious moments of social awkwardness with the ill-suited socialist boyfriend which would have had the early-twenties version of me cringing in recognition. It continued, throughout, to read like a novel – but I don’t mean that as an insult; instead it meant that I raced through it in a single evening, which can only be a good sign.

It also made me want to re-read ‘Catcher in the Rye’, and read (for the first time) some of Salinger’s other work, so those go firmly onto the TBR list.

You can tell that the author is a poet by some of the turns of phrase, beautiful and rich without being overwritten. And if there were parts of it where the plot seemed a little unbelievable for a ‘non-fiction’ volume, well, I think it’s a fair trade for it being such an entertaining read.

****

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