AlisonY Searches for Sparkle in 2018
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Hi, I'm Alison and this is my 4th year in Club Read (where has that time gone...). I live in Northern Ireland where I'm mum to two lovely children and am co-founder of a healthcare tech company.
2017 was a bit of a toughy, and this quote from Roald Dahl resonated with me a lot as I have been far from sparky of late. I like to use my start of the year thread in CR to set myself a little personal goal for the year, so this year I'm focusing on finding the sparkle again.
Reading-wise, I started off well in CR Year 1 with 70-odd books, but sadly my free reading time has dropped off quite considerably since then. When I'm busy in work I prefer the randomness of picking up whatever happens to suit my mood at the time rather than working through a specific wish list, so I'm not setting myself any specific book reading goals for 2018 other than to make sure I keep reading (and also to write more as well, which doesn't help the free reading time).
I enjoy literary fiction from any era, and non-fiction on a variety of topics that just happen to randomly grab my interest. Favourite authors include Thomas Hardy, Ian McEwan, John Updike and Richard Yates (I like women authors too, honest).
I read only 28 books in 2017, with just two 5 star reads:
Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Other fictional reads that didn't quite make 5 stars but are definitely worth a mention are:
The Elena Ferrante Neopolitan series
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
Notable non-fiction reads were:
I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice
A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold
My 2017 thread can be found here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/243775
1. Dubliners by James Joyce - read (3 stars)
2. Solar by Ian McEwan - read (4 stars)
3. The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver - read (4.5 stars).
4. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson - read (4.5 stars).
5. Fred and Edie by Jill Dawson - read (4 stars)
6. Academy Street by Mary Costello - read (3.5 stars)
7. Tampa by Alissa Nutting - read (4 stars)
8. The Story of Lucy Gault - by William Trevor (4 stars)
9. The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg - read (4 stars)
10. The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt - read (5 stars)
11. Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel - read (4.5 stars)
12. The Wild by Esther Freud - read (4 stars)
13. The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer - read (3 stars)
14. A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax - read (3 stars)
15. Black Dogs by Ian McEwan - read (3 stars)
16. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy - read (3.5 stars)
17. The Sea House by Esther Freud - read (5 stars).
18. currently reading
>4 ELiz_M: thank you Liz. They have been few and far between this year but hopefully this year I'll go up in volume rather than down!
1. Review - Dubliners by James Joyce
Sometimes there's a time not to read great works. I'm not sure why I chose the busy Christmas period to make my first foray into Joyce - to be quite honest it was hard going at times. Unlike what I've heard of Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, this collection of 15 stories was not arduous at all in terms of the style of writing, but I'm not a short story collection lover at the best of times, and I found myself often reading the book just for the sake of getting through it.
Can I see what everyone raves about? Yes, I think I can. These stories were all about characterisation - subtleties and nuances which made each character quickly very believable and credible. It's just that clever as the writing and these characters were, I often found myself glazing over. I enjoyed the Dublin setting, and a number of the stories hooked me in, but many of them went nowhere, and sharply observant as the vignettes were they were often peppered with characters I didn't particularly like, which makes it hard for me to fall in love with writing even if it's from one of the so-called greats.
I struggle with collections of short stories as they aren't long enough to suck me into page-turning addiction mode, and it can take me forever and day to get through a book like this as a result (despite it only being 250 pages long). Why did I pick this up then? Well, one of my late 2017 resolutions was to get back to doing more writing competitions again, and as I don't enjoy reading short stories I've been banging my head against a brick wall trying to write any that are a shade better than complete tripe. I wanted to examine the pace, the intros and the endings in particular, and how much plot to reveal.
On that level the book did deliver, but there is a time for reading work like this, and I simply hadn't enough time or peace and quiet to give it the attention it deserved. This is a collection of stories that deserves to be studied, with attention given to the deftness of Joyce's literary art. I, on the other hand, was simply in the mood for reading for the sake of pure enjoyment.
3 stars - I appreciated it, but felt like I dragged myself through much of it.
Enjoyed your review - its always good to get another persons view of books
>11 baswood: you're right - now that I reflect back, a lot of the stories were about missed opportunities, and to successfully deliver this in the medium of a short story is quite some achievement. I agree wholeheartedly that read at another time, I would get more out of many of these stories. A number of them I did really enjoy - I think the biggest issue was that I was just aching to get into a novel again, and so went into reading-for-the-sake-of-finishing mode.
>12 ipsoivan: that's a great idea. I don't normally do audio books, but certainly listening to one or two of these stories rather than reading them in print would give me a totally alternative perspective I expect. The Dead was very good - not just the sadness and feeling of complete illusion at the end, but also how within a few pages Joyce depicted so well a party in full swing and so many different characters.
If you want a suggestion of short stories that may fare better with you, Ursula K Le Guin's are excellent. Unlike, oh, practically every other short story ever, I don't feel like there was no depth, or it was over too quick, or missing elements, or, something I've tended to notice - that they're all utterly depressing in the end. Her writing is always great, on multiple levels, and I really don't feel I'm missing out with her short stories, like I normally do with them. :)
>15 dianeham: yes, he seemed to spend much of his adult life away from Dublin, but I think he can still be classed as Irish :) CS Lewis only lived in Belfast until he was 9, but certainly as a city we insist he was "one of us" so I think Joyce would have to qualify! Dublin today is certainly very multi-cultural and cosmopolitan, but a lot of the city and its people resonated with me in Dubliners, and I enjoyed the references to streets that I know well.
>16 dchaikin: it definitely wasn't an arduous struggle, Dan, but I just was in that reading mode of "I need to move on from this". And you know I love a bit of McEwan.....
I can relate to your thoughts about collections of short stories not being page-turners. I sometimes like collections as I can read different stories which can be read in one or two sittings. It takes me months to finish collections, though.
2. Review - Solar by Ian McEwan
Ah, McEwan. I just love this writer. Every book is so different that you start them in perfect anticipation of what he'll throw at you this time.
Solar was a great read, possibly one of the funniest of McEwan's that I've read so far. The protagonist is scientist Professor Beard, Nobel Prize Winner, womaniser, egotist and general all round self-indulgent pig. He's a great character - super smart and super dumb in equal measures, a loathsome sloth of a man who rides his professional and personal life largely on the back of his Nobel win. Oftentimes he reminded me of an academic version of John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, another brilliantly flawed character who is one of my all-time favourites.
I always find it very difficult to review a McEwan book as I never want to give too much of the plot away. It's suffice to say that in Solar Beard's professional and personal lives collide in some very unexpected ways which are in turn toe-curlingly embarrassing, laugh out loud funny and page turningly brilliant. A great mix of comedy and tension, and thoroughly enjoyable read.
4 stars - immensely clever.
Given that I read significantly less books than most of you last year this next statement probably sounds like I've lost the plot, but I'm actually wanting to read a little less this year. Life's busy and I don't get a lot of free time, and I feel like I've been spending too much of my personal time with my head stuck in a book instead of actively doing something with my lovely family. Does that sound crazy? Do any of you guys ever feel like you read too much?
It's all about prioritizing the things that take up our time. It's a pet peeve of mine when people say to me "oh I wish I had time to draw" or "I wish I had time to read", because with very rare exceptions, the time is there, it's just that the person would rather do something else with it. And that's valid. So if reading is bumping up against other ways you would prefer to spend your time, you've gotta realign. :)
I was just curious if anyone else on here ever feels like that, or has had similar family complaints.
3. Review - The Post -Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
I don't know why I haven't read another of Shriver's books since loving We Need to Talk About Kevin. I'd forgotten what an insightful author she is with characterisation.
The premise behind this novel isn't new - akin to the Sliding Doors movie and more than a few novels, the book hinges around the two different lives the protagonist goes on to lead following a pivotal fork in the road moment. Irina, a children's illustrator, lives with her intellectual steady Eddy partner who is part of an important political think tank. Through Irina's work the couple become friends with an author and her husband Ramsay, a famous East End snooker player. Circumstances eventually collide to create a situation where Irina ends up having to take Ramsay out for his birthday by herself, and an unexpected frisson of sexual chemistry creates an out-of-the-blue do I / don't I decision point with this man who is the complete antithesis of her partner Lawrence in every way. Is passion, and with it the extreme lows that inevitably come with the euphoric highs, worth more than a steady but unexciting life of anticipated security and steadfastness?
This novel hooked me from the beginning. I initially questioned why Shriver had written a chick lit type romance book, but the more I got into it the cleverer it became. As a reader we get to see her live out similar events through the two opposing life paths, neither of which turn out out as she had expected. It's a clever interpretation of how the grass always looks greener from the other side, with Irina constantly questioning the other life choice she could have taken, and thinking it would have been something very different to actually how we see it pan out. Life never turns out as you expect it, and in Irina's world people are not necessarily who you thought they were.
A thoroughly enjoyable read, I lost myself in this novel for hours this weekend. It's not perfect - for one I hate the title, and the cover is most definitely chick lit. More annoyingly, Shriver often misses the mark quite considerably with Ramsay's Cockney dialogue, confusing Northern colloquial sayings for Cockney slang and using phrases more at home in the old film adaptation of Oliver or the Carry On films than on the real streets of the East End. Having said that, Shriver portrays the two opposing romantic relationships and the complexities of leaving a relationship but still emotionally hanging on to part of it very cleverly. A tale of romance it may be, but romance from the twin perspectives of outside in and inside out.
4.5 stars - the critics may have panned it, but for me this was a great read.
4. Review - The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
I fear that anything I attempt to write about this book will be too clunky, too indelicate, too impure for this work of beauty. This is a novel that needs to be on social prescription as an antidote to stress and busyness, dished out to all who have forgotten how to stand still and take in the wonderment and hugeness of the small things in life.
The Summer Book is not a plot-directed book. It feels like a retelling of real memories which are most likely fiction, a gentler, less self-absorbed version of what Knausgaard does in his 'My Struggle' books. Jansson draws on her mother and her niece as inspiration for the two main characters in the book - a grandmother and her young granddaughter who are whiling away the summer on their small holiday island in the Gulf of Finland, which is based on Jansson's family's real-life island home.
Nothing and yet everything happens in these bewitching stories. We touch every spongy piece of moss, feel the cool of the granite beneath our feet, lick the salt off our lips. We experience the delight of the elements through the twin views of the very young Sophia and the elderly grandmother. The grandmother's thoughts and deeds are poignant, full of consciousness of the injustice of the decreasing amount of time she has left in life yet possessing an infinite patience for the child. She has a rare adult willingness to let the child run free with both her mind and body, letting her discover the world for herself rather than teaching her, and entering her world of imagination with the same respect and seriousness that any adult conversation would be given.
The pace of life is slow in this book, and it's simply a joy to slow down with it.
4.5 stars - I will be returning to this in the future when life gets hectic and I need a good reality check on priorities.
47> The summer book sounds lovely.
This comment by itself made it rewarding to check out your thread. I’m not even exactly sure what it means.
>47 AlisonY: Isn’t it beautiful? A very special book. Just reading your review gave me goosebumps remembering it. (I read it whilst nursing my newborn daughter - the perfect book for it).
>49 janemarieprice: it's definitely a lovely summer read, and it was quite lovely to be reminded of sunny summer times in this bleakest of months (isn't February such a flat month?).
>50 dchaikin: Did the British Carry On franchise of films not make it to screens in the States? They're full of old fashioned East End of London (Cockney) speak, like 'Cor blimey, guv'nor!'. Another good example of OTT Cockney is Dick Van Dyke in the Mary Poppins movie with Julie Andrews (cringe). In reality no Cockney actually speaks like that (certainly not in recent times), and Shriver definitely didn't get it quite right. Ramsay kept calling the main character 'Ducky' as a term of endearment - I don't think anyone has used that word in 50 years.
In the UK you also get lots of different slang words that are typical to certain parts of the country. In Belfast, for instance, people say 'Bout ye!' as a form of greeting, but no one in Birmingham or Manchester would say that. Shriver mixed up her colloquial sayings at times, giving this Eastender slang words that wouldn't be typical of the area (like 'pet', which would be more of a North of England / Newcastle saying).
It's complicated... If she wasn't totally sure she should have stayed away from trying to make him so Cockney in her dialogue I think. Surely there's a British editor there who needs slapped across the knuckles (Shriver is an American living in London, so she has an excuse).
>51 rachbxl: it seems a bit of a Marmite read looking at the reviews on LT as well, but it worked for me.
The Summer Book would have been a lovely novel to read with a newborn. I can imagine you felt completely inspired and invigorated to go on lots of lovely adventures of the imagination with her in the future.
>54 Rebeki: it's a strange book, isn't it? Gets right under your skin. For the first page or two I thought ' this is going to bore me rigid very quickly', but I just fell in love with it. I guess what's not to love about a summer idyll!
5. Review - Fred and Edie by Jill Dawson
Fred and Edie is a semi-fictional retelling of a true crime of passion from the 1920s. With Edie Thompson and Freddy Bywater on trial for murder from the beginning of the book, Edie recounts the story of how the pair began the affair which ended with the vicious stabbing of Edie's husband.
Edie's love letters to Freddy were the undoing of her defence in the case, and Dawson has built very solidly on a number of those real letters to build a fictional account of Edie's thoughts both during the trial and in the period of the affair that led up to the murder. Much of her story is told through the letters she writes to Freddy from Holloway Prison, and it's an interesting portrayal of a case that shocked London at the time. Was Edie a co-conspirator in the murder, or despite her hatred of her husband was she unknowing about Bywater's deadly plans? Interestingly, Dawson leaves us to come to many of our own conclusions around that, and instead concentrates on Edie's blind love for Freddy. Was it true love, or was Edie simply a vain, silly, unhappy woman whose head was turned by the attention of a dashing, younger man?
I've read a few of Jill Dawson's books now (she initially piqued my interest after I attended a writing master class she gave many years ago), and I've always felt she's somewhat an under-read author despite many of her books receiving positive critical reviews. This one was shortlisted for both the Whitbread Novel of the Year and the Orange Prize of Fiction, and it's well-crafted. Although it's fairly obvious right from the start that this tale isn't going to end well, the evolution of the love affair and it's dire consequences draw you in quickly. As Edie narrates the story for us, we're sensitive as a reader to her many character shortcomings, especially her vanity, naivety and inability to absorb the full risks attached to her trial.
4 stars - predictable yet page-turning at the same time. Another great Dawson read (and what a great cover - so apt).
I had a rare trip to the theatre this evening to watch a new adaptation of George's Marvellous Medicine at our gorgeous Grand Opera House in Belfast. I'm not a mad lover of theatre (there's something about overly enthusiastic people running about on stage and talking in loud voices that curdles my stomach a little), but I have to admit this was fun for the kids (or should I say kid - the other one was at home with a vomiting bug, poor soul).
Perhaps I'll give theatre going another chance. This was a nice break from the norm.
Now come on - doesn't this lovely building just make you want to visit our wee city?
Good effort by someone Photoshopping in some sunshine.
>58 AlisonY: Your city (and one-time mine) is lovely. When I lived in Victoria, British Columbia, I always told people it reminded me of Belfast. So anyone who has ever been to Victoria will know how beautiful Belfast is.
6. Review - Academy Street by Mary Costello
I'm not in the mood for reading anything too profound at the moment, so this was perfect comfort reading.
A little in the same vein as Brooklyn, Academy Street is about an Irish girl who moves to New York in the early 1960s. Unlike Brooklyn, which had searing highs before the searing lows, Academy Street is a quiet book about a life full of losses and longing for love and happiness.
An enjoyable read, but probably not one which will stay in my head for long.
3.5 stars - enjoyable comfort reading fodder.
Alas the sunshine comment isn't too far from the truth...
I don't think he was exaggerating much about the weather. And boy do we like to moan about it too.
There was a really lovely story in the local papers a few years back. An American GI stationed in NI crashed his plane into one of the hills that surround Belfast and sadly lost his life. Fast forward 70-odd years and a local metal detector enthusiast was up on the hill and found a wedding ring with an inscription along with some very small pieces of the plane wreckage. After a long social media search he managed to locate this chap's elderly widow in the States who was still living and went over to return the ring to her in person. I thought that was a really lovely story. I can't imagine how she must have felt getting that ring back.
>62 AlisonY: I enjoyed Academy Street too. And I'm sure Colleen would.
>65 NanaCC: Heard many times, my Dad used to say the Americans stationed in Northern Ireland claimed "if you can't see the mountains in Belfast, it's raining and if you can see them, it's about to start raining".
I'm sure the rain is NOT one of the things you miss about NI!
7. Review - Tampa by Alissa Nutting
OK. First things first. This is not a book to buy grandma for Christmas. If this was a Channel 4 TV programme it would be preceded with a voiceover saying "warning - the following programme contains adult themes of a strong sexual nature and of explicit nudity". If you own this book and have teenage boys in the house I would find a sturdy safe to lock it away in.
There is a lot of sex in the novel, and I mean a lot. Like on practically every page for the first third of the book especially, and this was before the main character had even got her hooks into one of the students.
This, coupled with the front cover which my husband told me assuredly was a picture of a vagina (to which I retorted that it was merely an innocent buttonhole and to keep his dirty thoughts to himself) meant that I found this book rather embarrassing to read on my public transport work commute. The more I opened up the book to hide the cover, the more I displayed paragraphs of copious shagging to whoever might happen to be glancing over my shoulder. It felt like there was a flashing arrow over my head with the words "depraved middle-aged woman reading dirty book alert" emblazoned on it.
It's a book that means to shock, mostly as the sex offender in question is a hot young woman and not some lecherous old man (not sure why Harvey Weinstein sprang to mind there). Celeste is a married teacher whose libido is off the scale, and unfortunately it is young 14 year old boy students who push her buttons, so to speak.
For the first third of the book I thought it was very OTT on the graphic sexual content, and the protagonist preying on young teenagers was a very unsettling context. However, unlike 50 Shades of Grey which is all sex and no writing talent, Nutting is a good writer, and once the storyline properly gets going it becomes a gripping and witty read. The reader never becomes sympathetic to Celeste and her deviant ways, but her extreme sexual predator nature makes for some very funny scenes. There's also a great minor character - a fellow teacher - who's akin to Melissa McCarthy's Megan character from the film Bridesmaids, and she adds a lot of humour.
It's an unsettling book, and Nutting purposely does that to you as a reader. You're happily reading away one minute and then feel decidedly uncomfortable the next for enjoying a book that has a sexual deviant who preys on young people at its core. She also pushes some interesting questions within the book. If the sexes were reversed we'd be in no doubt that the (male) teacher was a disgusting paedophile, but when it's a hot young female teacher and pubescent sex-obsessed boys who are willing accomplices does it still feel like clear cut abuse?
This is most certainly not a book for everyone, and on that basis I would not recommend that you all rush out to your local bookshop to pick up a copy. Having said that, it's a good read.
4 stars - shocking yet funny and unlike anything you'll have read before. Now to pick up something suitably straight-laced to redeem my reputation on the bus...
Two more things: I think your husband is right regarding the button and I agree with you on Lionel Shriver. I just read her A Standing Chandelier and it is really good!
Noting A Standing Chandelier. I'll pop over to your other thread to check out your review. I think Shriver has the possibility of becoming a favourite author if her other books meet the standards of the first two I read.
8. Review - The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
The Story of Lucy Gault is an immensely sad story of missed opportunities and wasted lives.
Lucy Gault is a young child who lives a solitary but contented life with her ex-military father and English mother in a country house in rural Ireland. Over a short period of time, a series of unfortunate events born out of fleeting errors of judgement rip through the lives of the Gaults, the effect of which is born out over their lifetimes and of those closest to them.
This is a poignant, melancholy read, with Trevor's usual delicacy of prose. Whilst I very much enjoy his style of writing, somehow I always remain a little detached from his characters. I'm not entirely sure why this is as his characterisation is excellent. I wonder if perhaps he was drawn towards creating characters who in real life would be the kind of people to keep you at arm's length. I felt in Lucy Gault that the main characters had a bit of a wall up around them that I couldn't penetrate, but in fairness to Gault this was entirely true to their personalities and situation.
Nonetheless, a very enjoyable read.
4 stars - Trevor is an undoubted master of achingly sad and wasted lives. I think he and Thomas Hardy would have had plenty to chat about over dinner had their lifetimes overlapped.
Excellent review and very perceptive comment! Trevor is one of my favourite authors.
9. Review - The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg
A few years back I went through a period of reading a fair bit of fictional and non-fictional accounts of WWII. These were told from many perspectives - the Jew who survived the Holocaust and concentration camps, the Brits living in Nazi-occupied Jersey, the post-war German adult struggling with her unrepentant ex-SS mother, the resistance operatives who risked everything to deal a significant blow to the Nazi leadership, stories of lovers caught on opposite sides of the political spectrum.
This autobiography is told from another unique, yet no less interesting, perspective. Chris Bielenberg was a privileged British woman who married a young dashing German lawyer in the early 1930s, becoming a German citizen a few years before the outbreak of WWII. Her husband Peter, an Oxford graduate, quickly leaves the law after witnessing first-hand the complete disregard which Hitler's regime had for fair justice. He and his friends are all heavily against the Nazi regime, and with high connections in both Germany and Britain they use their influence to avoid becoming soldiers, instead taking up senior civilian roles in industry whilst trying to spread the message to the Allies of support within Germany for an uprising against Hitler.
Christabel spends most of her wartime in Berlin and the Black Forest. Her own first-hand account of living in wartime Germany is fascinating, particularly the delicate dances that must be played in every day social interactions when trying to evaluate where the political sympathies of new faces lie. She provides interesting insight into why many everyday Germans became Nazi sympathisers; for many, the high inflation after WW1 caused previously comfortably off Germans to become poor overnight, whilst many of their Jewish neighbours saw their wealth grow in the same period. While many of her neighbours didn't fully agree with all the Nazi ideals, they saw the new regime as the first real opportunity to improve their situation, and there was little sympathy for the Jews who they felt had profited from their own misfortune.
The wide variance of political feeling amongst Bielenberg's friends and neighbours was incredibly interesting. It would be easy for us to look back so many decades later and tar all Germans of that era with the same brush of being at best Nazi sympathisers and at worst Nazi activists. Bielenberg paints another picture - that of a wide group of everyday Germans who despised what Hitler and the Nazis were doing to Germany, to the Allies, to their own people. Their every day normality was of tapped home telephone lines, of unplugging the telephones to have anti-Nazi political conversations at home and with friends, of avoiding Nazi sympathising colleagues and neighbours who would be quick to whistleblow, of taking months to ascertain the political sympathies of the new neighbours next door, of following the party line when speaking with strangers in train carriages.
Those who sympathised with the Nazi regime could also not be straightforwardly pigeon-holed. Whilst many carried out despicable acts, many others were kind to Bielenberg and her family during the war, particularly when she was placed under house arrest in the Black Forest.
As a British woman living in Germany, hers was a precarious situation. She was at risk not only of becoming a victim of yet another Allied raid, but of being turned over to the Gestapo as an enemy within. Highly intelligent, it's clear she used both her guile, charm and social position on many an occasion to survive the war. Similarly, it's clear her husband had been able to use his social influence to avoid the German military, but near the end of the war his life was put at great risk when a number of his close friends fail in an attempt to assassinate Hitler and he is arrested and sent to Ravensbrück.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, if "enjoyed" is the right word. Perhaps a better word is that I now feel a little more educated on the complexities of German feelings and sympathies during WWII having read it. There is often not much that is black and white in this world, and this book goes some way to explain the shades of grey that existed in Germany during this period. Like all autobiographies, we only have the perspective of the author and the light that he or she wants to portray on actions they have taken. I sense that the Bielenbergs were incredibly privileged and fortunate compared to others, yet theirs was also a hard and long war.
4 stars - a fascinating social and political WWII commentary from an unusual perspective.
Yes, it was a fascinating account, and very well written. I'd seen it recommended a long time ago, but it had languished on my shelves for a few years before I got around to reading it.
Happy Easter to you too!
>94 dchaikin: thanks Dan. Tampa was an amusing read. And of course there is a button - it's just on the back page....
>95 baswood: it was such a fascinating read, and I feel like I have a much more rounded view now of the German perspective.
We went over the border into Co. Cavan last week for a few days away with the kids. A few interesting sights whilst we were down there. Firstly, we walked 2 km underground in the Marble Arch Caves which was fascinating (well, the adults thought so anyway - the kids just wanted back to the hotel swimming pool). An amazing display of stalactites in this fabulous limestone cave which is now part of a UNESCO Geopark:
We also passed on the way the Bawnboy workhouse which looked every bit as foreboding, austere and depressing as you would imagine a workhouse to look (pictured below now and back in the day):
I have to say it rattled me, even though we just whizzed past in the car. The thought of all the destitute, the orphans and the disabled who went through those doors and never came out again is horrendous. This one dates back to 1851.
There are plenty of Irish fiction books set in the workhouses. They were set up under Poor Law Unions in Ireland in the 1800s as a grim solution for the poorest of the poor. This was the last resort option for those in complete poverty, either families or orphans or the infirm. If you couldn't support yourself you went to the workhouse where you got food and shelter in return for labour. They were prison-like, designed to look as grim as possible to deter people from going to them. You could leave if you wanted to, but generally those who entered the gates were so destitute leaving was never going to be an option. When you died, you were generally heaped into an unmarked mass grave.
A lot of Irish people ended up in workhouses during the famine. After that, they were populated mainly by the social outcasts of the time - unmarried mothers, illegitimate children, the mentally ill, the old and the infirm.
They had workhouses in England as well, but I don't know much about those. Something similar I would imagine, although I think there was a lot more poverty in Ireland around this era.
I don't think it's much further forward in terms of progress.
What if it never comes back on?.... We have no emergency CR muster point... What if I never find out about Colleen's next mystery read... or Dan's latest Herculean literary challenge... or never get hit with CR BB's ever again? etc., etc.
We are truly blessed, people.
Whilst some poor LT techie person was sweating profusely over their PC, my husband very kindly put up my new shelves. We have an awkward bit of wall in a back corridor in our house which has a light switch smack in the middle making it a nightmare to decorate. We had a recent lightbulb moment on the perfect solution - IKEA's finest filled with loads of my favourite covers and reads.
i'm loving it - now I can swoon over all the lovely covers every time I pass. Cue lots of extra dithering.
Wasn't that a stressful weekend without LT? To make matters worse, my banking website was down too! It felt like the end of the world!
>111 VivienneR: it really did feel weird when LT was out of action. Joking aside, it did make me appreciate what a lovely wee community of fellow book lovers and friends we have on here. We may not have met in person, but still I would have felt bereft if someone had pulled a plug and accidentally killed LT for good.
It was a surreal weekend without LT wasn't it? Beyond missing my reading peeps, I was also concerned that I would never be able to remember what books I have, what books I've read, and what books I want to read.
Re. the shelves, I think I've read most of these bar one or two. They're books I particularly like which happen to have nice covers too.
10. Review - The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt
Wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.
I very nearly abandoned this amazing book early on. The first couple of chapters were great - totally engaging - but then Byatt chose a midsummer party to introduce a crazy amount of characters. Their families were all interlinked in some way, and it was important to know who was who, and for a good hundred pages I grew tired of continually flicking back to the party scene to remind myself who was related to who and how. Why the editors didn't think a short character guide at the start of the book would be useful is beyond me.
The 'children's book' (or rather a collection of children's books the author character writes for her children) is really quite a minor part of the book. This is a sweeping, complex, intellectual family saga of sorts, telling the interconnecting stories of 6 English families from the late Victorian era up to WWI.
Art - in the form of ceramics and dark fairy story writing - is an important backdrop to this novel, as well as intellectual and political thought from the era. I feared that this might be a book that tries too hard to be "intellectual" and ends up irritating me, but by the end this was one of the things I loved most about it. Byatt's depth of research is simply vast, and this novel fuelled a continual thirst for knowledge in me simply because she made all these backdrop reference points so interesting. In between reads I was Googling everything from Palissy pottery to the Fabian Society to the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900, as she brought them to life so well. In fact, this book is so well researched it's difficult to believe at times that this isn't a novel written during that period.
It's a complex book with a lot of depth, but the characters are fabulous and I was hooked right up to the end. In fact I spent a good bit of the last 50 pages wiping away tears.
If you enjoy writers such as Alan Hollinghurst, or McEwan's Atonement, or even the likes of Woolf's To the Lighthouse, then I think you'll enjoy this.
5 stars - easily this will be my book of the year (even if it is only April). A modern classic.
Northern Irish politics and the Troubles are very contentious with local people having many different view points. In this exhibition, art successfully captures the real impact of those terrible decades - the impact that lives on in the eyes of the victims all these years later.
Terrific paintings and a moving exhibition.
Here is a little taster of some of my favourites, with the full 18 portraits below:
>117 AlisonY: What an impact that exhibition must have! I went to the Ulster Museum on my last visit to Northern Ireland and I was really impressed, especially by its appeal to children (quite different to when I visited as a child). At the time I worked at a museum so I was looking at it from that point of view. Thanks for posting the images.
If you pick up The Children's Book stick with it past the first 100 pages.
>121 japaul22: I must confess I'm not much of a poetry appreciator either (wish I was), so good to know Possession works even without that interest.
>122 dchaikin: thanks Dan. He's done some great paintings of lots of famous people as well.
11. Review - Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
In Beatrice and Virgil, Martel plays with novel form once again. The main character - Henry - is clearly a representation of Martel. He is a successful author who has spent 5 years working on a book which is an allegory of the Holocaust, only to have it crushed by his editors. Utterly defeated and wishing to leave his craft for good, he and his wife move to a new country and city and are enjoying getting on with life when he receives a letter from a reader of his previous novel, and is pulled into the mysterious world of a taxidermist who is trying to perfect a play allegory of the Holocaust, in which a monkey called Virgil and a donkey called Beatrice represent the Jewish victims.
A lot more transpires beyond this, but.... no spoilers.
This novel got fairly annihilated by critics at the time. Most of this criticism seemed to be on two fronts - firstly, it was felt that Martel was being disrespectful of the Holocaust through his allegory, and secondly, it was felt that in writing a version of himself into the novel he was overly consumed by his own egotism.
I didn't feel either of these things when I read it. It shouldn't have worked but it did, despite being really quite odd. I don't think for a minute Martel was making light of the Holocaust - on the contrary, as his character was trying to do, I feel he was simply trying to use an alternative view to bring home the horrors of what happened. It's difficult reading in places, and I think it successfully enables you to properly place the horrors in your mind in relation to the actual Holocaust, despite it being represented in a different way. I also enjoyed Martel as a writer writing about him writing the book we were essentially reading. I think that's been done before, but for me it was interesting rather than a display of arrogance and self-importance.
It's a long time (15 years) since I read The Life of Pi, but this book reminded me once again of the immense writing talent of Yann Martel.
4.5 stars - a short yet astonishing read.
Nice review of Beatrice and Virgil. Yours is the first positive one I've read of it.
And I'm so glad you loved The Children's Book! I loved that book so much!
The Davidson exhibition looks amazing. I'm reading a book of short stories now, all about the ordinary life of children and teenagers, but set in Belfast during the Troubles. It's called Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell and I'm really impressed with it so far.
Yep, The Children's Book will be up there as one of my favourite ever reads, I suspect. I could have easily turned straight back to page 1 and started all over again, and it's got so many layers I'm quite sure I would have found lots of new things on a second read.
Lucy Caldwell seems to be doing pretty well for herself, but I had no idea she was doing so well that her books have made it across the pond. I've not read any of her work yet. There is no rhyme or reason to this, but for some reason I seem to avoid books set in Northern Ireland - perhaps it's that I want to escape Northern Ireland when I read, not be drawn back into the realities of it! Multitudes looks interesting, though - you may convince me otherwise.
12. Review - The Wild by Esther Freud
I like Esther Freud's writing. She seems to have a niche of writing about uneven relationships in hippy chick settings.
In The Wild, two families are drawn together when a single mother of two children - Francine - rents a couple of rooms from another single parent at school who has three daughters (William). William commands an ideal of communal, self-sustaining living at his ramshackle home in the country ('The Wild'), where they eat and make much of what they need, and the children are encouraged to learn through work and creative play without television or other modern distractions.
A romantic relationship soon builds between Francine and William, but with Francine's children's having very opposing views on William's true nature, is William really the knight in shining armour that he portrays?
This was an enjoyable read, with excellent characters and a great sense of place. The conflicted, innocent emotions of the children were especially well handled.
4 stars - although not a book to remember necessarily, it was an enjoyable page-turner nonetheless.
>142 LadyoftheLodge: welcome! I've somehow got derailed from reading much over the last couple of weeks, but hopefully should be back posting again shortly.
13. Review - The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
Based on the same premise as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this is the tale of Max Tivoli who is born an old man and endures a life in reverse, his body growing ever younger whilst his mind ages as normal. Except for a few fleeting years in the middle of his life, Tivoli's mind and body are always out of step with each other, an immature child when others see him as an old man, and at the other end of his life an older man in a child's body.
At a young age, when outwardly an old man, Tivoli falls for the young girl who lives in the flat below him, and much of the novel centres around his complicated lifelong love for Alice.
This was a most frustrating read for me. For the first two thirds I couldn't wait for it to finish - I didn't give a fig for Max or any of the other characters, and felt that Greer was poorly repurposing an idea from one of writing's masters with little emotional substance. However, in the last third when everything started to be revealed, it did become more of a page-turner.
3 stars - a great final burst, but disappointingly much too late.
14. Review - A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax
I stumbled into reading this book quite by accident. A friend and I booked to go and see Ruby Wax last week as part of her tour of this book, and we ended up doing selfies and getting books signed by her in the break.
Ruby Wax has reinvented herself this past decade from the ballsy (and often cutting) TV presenter and comedienne into a mental health guru of sorts. Hats off to her, she went back to school and got a Masters degree from Oxford University in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Her shows still have a lot of her old trademark humour, but they're based on the premise of intellectual discussion around certain factors of mental health, and the combination of the two worked. This one was all about the positive impact mindfulness can have on stress.
I'll preface this book review by saying I'm not really into mindfulness. Actually, I'm not into it at all. BUT - I do believe in it, because when we do even 5 minutes of meditation at the end of my yoga class I open my eyes at the end and feel like I've had 8 hours sleep. What was interesting in the show and in the book was Wax's comments about how science has shown how mindfulness has a physical benefit on the brain, reducing your future stress responses to stress (if that makes sense).
Unfortunately I liked the show a lot more than the book. There was a big chunk in the middle on a 6 week course of mindfulness activities which I just wasn't that interested in, and also the chapter on parenting babies and very young children was irrelevant as mine are both past that stage. Whilst Wax is quick-witted and amusing in real life, I feel much of that comes down to her unique comic delivery, and somehow the same humour fell flat in print. I was conscious of someone trying really hard to be funny through their writing. It's like someone trying to be cool - if they're trying it's not working. She's also evidently pulled a lot of the gags from the book into the show, which in retrospect made me feel like she'd been a little lazy in earning my ticket fee.
Whilst Wax obviously knows her stuff in this area now, she's never going to shake her old persona, and somehow it's difficult to buy into the ideas she's putting forward when she's delivering them laced with her trademark biting sarcasm and the baggage of her own mental hang ups which never seem too far away.
3 stars - interesting in parts, but felt too commercially driven for my liking.
15. Review - Black Dogs by Ian McEwan
I found this an odd sort of McEwan. Not odd in the usual off-the-wall odd McEwan style, but odd in that I'm not quite sure what I made of it.
Set in the 1980s, the protagonist dips in and out of the past as he tries to piece together the reason for the broken relationship of his in-laws as he toys with writing the memoir of his deceased mother-in-law. Although the two had been estranged for many years before her death, both clearly still loved the other.
At its core is the tale of how the two young lovers were both wedded in their devotion to communism, until the aftermath of WWII unravelled their beliefs. The husband found his answers in science, and when his wife has a frightening encounter with two large black dogs believed to be offspring of those used by the Gestapo, his scientific mind cannot grasp her beliefs in superstition and mysticism.
It's delicate in its handling of the complexities of marriage and of the many significant points which underpin a relationship, but somehow it just didn't do it for me. I wasn't altogether in step with exactly what McEwan was trying to do with the novel.
3 stars - definitely not my favourite McEwan.
16. Review - Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
I don't know what it was with this Hardy, especially as so many people give it a 5 star rating, but I felt like I was really labouring through the first half of it. It seemed to take so long for the scene setting of the three suitors before the story really got going, and compared with other Hardy novels I've loved I wasn't feeling the characters for the first 150 pages or so.
Once it finally got into its stride it was standard Hardy gold - drama, tragedy, wonderful characterisation. I just wish it hadn't taken quite so long to pull me in.
Perhaps it's just me. It's been a bit of a head-spin year in work, and I'm finding it hard to get long periods of reading time to savour novels properly.
3.5 stars - not my favourite Hardy, but he's still my main man.
17. Review - The Sea House by Esther Freud
This is the third Esther Freud novel I've read, and they just keep getting better and better. This one is my favourite to date, and definitely a recommended starting point if you've not read any of her work before. Esther Freud comes from some serious pedigree - her father is the painter Lucian Freud, and Sigmund Freud was her great-grandfather.
There's a wistfulness to her writing that I just love. Her protagonists often tend to be soul searchers who are looking for a combination of the right soul mate and their perfect corner in the world. I said in my recent review of her book The Wild that there was an evocative sense of place, and this is so true of The Sea House as well. If I was to compare her to another writer, I'd say perhaps Anita Brookner or Iris Murdoch (in terms of The Sea, the Sea anyway).
This novel tells two connecting stories set in the same sleepy English village by the sea but separated by 50 years. A reluctant student architect rents a house in the village to study the work of a Jewish German architect who had built a home for himself and his wife in the village after WWII. Whilst reading his passionate love letters to his wife Elsa, her awareness of the flaws in her own relationship back in London is heightened, and the gulf between her new life in the village and her old relationship throws up some serious questions about the future.
Meanwhile, we also discover the reality of the architect's relationship with his wife, told through the perspective of an artist who befriends the couple whilst spending the summer in the village as a distraction from his sister's death.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The two interchanging stories worked well alongside each other, coming together in a satisfying conclusion, and the tension around the various relationships and passions played out wonderfully in the gentle backdrop of the idyllic seaside haven.
5 stars - a page-turner from the start.