Top of the Pile #34, #35, #36: Wild, Dark Places, The Angel’s Game

Remember when I used to publish a Top of the Pile post every week? I’d take my time covering just one book, then moan about not knowing what to read next for another couple hundred words or so.

Oh how times have changed, my friends. These days, though I read more than ever, or perhaps because I read more than ever, and jump from one book to the next straight away, I don’t even get a chance to gather my thoughts on the one I’ve just finished, never mind put everything in writing.

So here I am again, two weeks and three books after my last Top of the Pile entry, trying to compile my recent, tangled reading adventures into something that makes a little bit of sense.

The LuminariesI know I’d originally predicted The Luminaries would be my last 2014 read, but clearly I haven’t got a clue about anything.

I finished it in less than a week (800+ pages, humanity!) and it was so gripping throughout that I actually took it with me in the bathtub once, which I don’t remember ever doing with another book in the 25 years I’ve been reading on this planet. Oh, and I was almost run over a couple of times on my way home. Reading while attempting to illegally cross the A4, not my brightest moment really.

So yes, I couldn’t put it down.

It’s an adventure/detective story set in the last days of the New Zealand gold rush, following thirteen men working together to unravel a tangled mystery affecting all their lives. The book is so superbly plotted, the cast so diverse and animated, that it was intoxicating.

At first I was really intimidated by thirteen different characters jumping at me all at once from the first hundred or so pages, worried I’d not remember their names and I’d have to plod through another 600 pages not knowing who’s who (this has happened to me before, and I’ve scribbled my share of cast lists and family trees on dust jackets through the years). But although I was right, and I probably never remembered all of their names, their voices were all quite distinct in my mind and I never had any problem following each and everyone’s evolution.

Catton is a wonderful storyteller. The Luminaries got her a Booker Prize last year, and I really can see why. It’s just a gripping, exquisitely told story. You won’t identify in it a glorious theme, or hidden, life changing meanings. It’s not philosophical and will probably not make it onto the list of “important”, literary-world-changing books. But I found it absolutely marvelous, and I think it has changed the way I look at everything I thought I knew about stories and how to properly tell one.

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WildNext on my list was Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I’d seen the “based on the famous bestseller” Wild film preview before a screening of Nightcrawler (great, if very disturbing movie by the way!) V and I went to a few weeks back, and thought I’d give the book a try. I often do this, get reading inspiration from cinema previews, and after I’ve read the book I either go and see the film as well (Gone Girl, Into The Wild), or for no reason I can think of, even if I’ve really liked the book, forget about it or decide not to bother (The Railway Man, The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

Now, I don’t know if I’ll be watching Wild – the movie anytime soon or at all, though I hear there’s quite the Oscar buzz around Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Cheryl, but as far as the book goes, I loved it!

It’s the autobiographical story of a twenty-something troubled woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on her own for three months. It’s not a Long Distance Hiking Guide by any means, on the contrary. If you ask me, this girl is completely unprepared, both physically and mentally, and more than a little bit insane. But her story is extraordinary and her voice is very poignant, even when she touches on things I can’t really relate to or I don’t particularly agree with.

It probably helped that I was once a very troubled twenty something woman myself, and though I didn’t have a Pacific Trail of my own to embark on, I attempted and hopefully somewhat succeeded to fix myself in a similar way.

As I was reading Wild, I actually dug through my shoe closet (Can’t believe I haven’t blogged about this yet, I’ve actually got a walk in shoe closet now. Living the dream!) and got my hiking boots out to make sure they’re in good shape, just in case I feel like taking off on short notice. (They’re great, I can’t possibly imagine them turning my feet shapeless like Cheryl’s did hers, but I’ve never hiked for 3 months weeks days in a row!)

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Dark PlacesAnd my final read this November was Dark Places, my second Gillian Flynn novel in less than six months, after Gone Girl this August.

I’m new to her writing, and she doesn’t deal with themes I normally enjoy too much (except for my all time favourite, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, I’m not much into murderous lit), but I kind of like her style, and the fact that it’s rarely obvious (to me, at least) where the story is going.

Dark Places was no exception. It follows thirty something Libby Day as she is trying to come to terms with her family’s massacre 24 years prior, for which her then 15 year old brother is serving life in prison. The plot develops into a full on mystery/detective story (I seem to have had a taste for them this month), as it alternates from present times to the day of the crime, and across different characters’ perspectives.

It’s a story about imperfect, horrible characters doing horrible things to each other. I didn’t particularly liked Libby, but I understood her, she seemed like a real, fully formed human being, and that’s what I always expect from a properly built character. The writing as well was really good and the mystery prevailed until the very last pages, which I count as a big plus in works of this type.

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The Angel's GameNow I’m reading The Angel’s Game, my second Zafon book after The Shadow of the Wind a while back.

The reason behind this pick is the same bookpile cleaning craziness I’ve been mentioning in these posts before. My new commute has helped in making a tiny dent into the mountain of books piling up by my nightstand since we moved in, but only barely.

So I’m just picking whatever’s next at the top of the pile, and I’m rarely discriminating. The Angel’s Game it is then. I’ve read about 50 pages and I’m discovering the same magical atmosphere from The Shadow of the Wind, but that’s as much as I can say for now.

Wishing you an amazing, book-filled start of December, everyone!

Top of the Pile #31, #32, #33: The Grand Design, Breakfast of Champions, The Luminaries

I know it’s been rather quiet around here on the Book Pile front these days, but don’t you think I’ve put my reading on hold or anything.

In fact, I’ve been taking full advantage of my new commuting pattern and have been doing quite a bit of reading in between running through the rain to and from train stations twice a day.

Now, as a somewhat new train commuter, after years of mornings stuck exclusively on the London Tube, I’m discovering life as a train traveling reader a lot more challenging.

People are loud on trains. I mean, really loud.

On the tube, what with no cell signal in tunnels and everybody being so badly cramped there’s hardly any room for proper, oxygenating breathing, never mind yelling chatting, I’d read and read like there was no tomorrow.

It’s a whole different story these days. Loud as I can bare music in my headphones, and still I can hear each and every one of the six different conversations loudly drilling through the few breaths of air around me. And while we’re on it: Care to know what people like to talk about most on their way to work?

Buying property in London!

Here I was, feeling rather guilty about how this blog had turned into a why-can’t-I-have-a-freaking-place-of-my-own moaning ground, when not a day goes by now that I’m not involuntarily eaves-dropping on my fellow commuters’ home hunting struggles. Guilt no more, at least I’m not alone in my insanity!

But I digress.

You’ll be surprised to know that, against all odds, I’ve actually read not one, not two, but THREE books these past couple of weeks.

Bleak House, Charles DickensWell, maybe only two and a half, since I was already halfway through Bleak House by the time my train traveling adventure commenced. But still, it’s no short of miraculous, all things considered.

Now, first things first, I finished Bleak House. I really really liked it, though I must admit at one point I had to take a break from it for a few days, because, I don’t know, I think I’d become a little bored with it. Or maybe I’d just had a couple of bad days, because as soon as I got back into it, I ended up finishing it in just one more, very determined sitting.

OK, I’ll admit I found some of Bleak House a little predictable. Things like who ends up with whom, and the conclusion of the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce litigation (I’d figured that one out within the first couple of chapters, talk about genius!). But then everything else was absolutely mesmerizing.

I find it extraordinary that Dickens managed to create so many characters (and there’s a flock of them in Bleak House, more than in all his other books I’ve read put together!), in such a way that each and every one of them appeared to me like a perfectly formed individual, driven by genuine, if at times wicked purposes.

I think I’ve secretly always graded books by whether I felt I could write something of the same caliber myself.

I know it must sound oh so very smug. I mean, I’ve never and most likely never will write anything. I’ve never really entertained the idea of attempting real writing. I know where I’m standing, OK? But. Sometimes I come across books that, I can’t help thinking, with a sabbatical, a lot of luck and a really good dictionary, I could probably write myself.

I must say, Bleak House is NOT that kind of book. I could never, not in a million years, write something like that. It’s miraculous enough that it exists and that I’ve read it.

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The Grand DesignAfter watching the much talked about Interstellar last weekend (mixed feelings, thank God I’ve never been much of a film critic) it felt only natural for my next read to ponder on the origins of the Universe.

Clearly I’d been wondering about black holes and relativity before, as The Grand Design is my second Stephen Hawking book on the subject. After A Brief History of Time, of course, a book one of my friends likes to call “the most famous bestseller no one really understands”.

Now, it’s been a while since I read that one, so I don’t particularly remember how much of it, if any, I understood, but, older and clearly wiser now, I found The Grand Design quite accessible, and finished it in two days.

I later read that upon its release, it got a lot of publicity for supposedly tackling the question of God. This took me by surprise, as throughout the book I hadn’t noticed any anti-God feel whatsoever. Which I guess says things about me, or about us, or who knows.

It’s most and foremost, a book about physics. It asks a lot of interesting questions, some of which it answers in surprising ways. Well, that’s what I think, anyway. There’s always a chance there’s a million other versions of me in a million other parallel universes who very much disagree.

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Breakfast of ChampionsMy previous encounters with Kurt Vonnegut include Cat’s Cradle and A Man Without a Country, both of which I very much enjoyed.

I picked Breakfast of Champions on a whim, which is how I seem to make most of my reading selections these days, randomly making my way through the pile of still unread books I’ve got stacked on the floor by my nightstand. I’m determined not to put them on shelves until I’m done with them, in an effort to take control of my book hoarding issues and not buy anything new until, well, until I’ve got nothing else to read in sight.

So yeah. Breakfast of Champions. Such an easy read, filled with fun drawings, at times hilarious and then at times very much disturbing, in true Vonnegut character I guess. I’ve got my eye on Slaughterhouse-Five now, but I’d have to buy it first and that’s a NO-NO for the foreseeable future at least.

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The LuminariesI must say, I was a bit reluctant to embark upon another 800+ pages book after just finishing Bleak House. And especially now that it’s coming close to the end of the year, and I’m 15 or so books behind on my 2014 Goodreads Reading Challenge. But it just felt right.

I’ve had The Luminaries for ever now. V got it for me the moment it won the Booker Prize last year, and I’ve been putting it off since, intimidated by the sheer size of it, or who knows, perhaps just waiting for the right time.

It turned out that time was this morning.

I’ve only read about half a chapter on my way to work, and I’m happy to report there’s promise of a really good story here. It could be that this is the book I’ll be ending 2014 with, so I’ll make it special and pace myself with it. It’s getting colder, raining 24/7, and I’ll soon be having a bit more free time on my hands than I’m used to. A big book fits the story perfectly, doesn’t it.

Happy reading everyone!

Top of the Pile #19: The Snow Queen

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours was recommended to me by my best friend C, back when we were just on the verge of leaving high school, and each other, for what would be, we just knew it!, our real, extraordinarily adventurous, grown up lives.

Following the release of the movie, my paperback edition of The Hours had Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and an indecently red “Now a Major Motion Picture” label on the cover. I read it in a day and when C and I were talking about it afterwards, all I could come up with was something in the range of “It was sad. But in a good way.”. What can I say, I’ve never been much of a book critiquing pro. But hey, I bet you pretty much figured that out after one or two of these Top of the Pile posts.

Years later, I bought Cunningham’s Specimen Days at an open air book fair outside my faculty building in Romania. I knew nothing about it and pretty much got it because it was cheap and he wasn’t a stranger. As it happens, it soon became one of my favourite books ever. (Hey, I’ve even titled a blog post after it, that’s got to mean something!)

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that when I didn’t have anything to read for my flight back from Portugal this Sunday (I’d pretty much devoured Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant that morning, but more on that later), stumbling upon a glittery, aquamarine blue Michael Cunningham paperback among hundreds of brick sized Stephen King scary tomes in the Faro airport was infinitely comforting. €13.35 later (I know!!!), I was an immensely happier bookworm, and was already leafing through the double spaced, story book fonted first chapter.

I ended up only reading fifty or so pages on the flight back to London, as V wanted to watch a couple of episodes of The Killing together instead, but I’ve been making my way through it at a steady pace for the last couple of days, so it won’t be long before I spill the beans on it here.

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I finished Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant on our last day in Portugal, chilling by the pool as V was sleeping on a recliner nearby mummified head to toe in colourful beach towels. He’d been up all night with a nasty stomach bug the night before, and I hadn’t had much sleep either, what with all the tea making and ever supportive You’re-not-going-to-die-I-promise. But I ditched the much needed snooze in the sun, determined to finish the book before we left for the  airport in the afternoon.

Anne Tyler writes about the dynamics of families. Far from extraordinary, imperfect families, and as I read along I always get this feeling of familiarity, and more so, of belonging to a group I didn’t know existed. It’s strange how we grow up thinking we’re different than anybody else. Or at least I did. I was the one who thought the deepest thoughts. The one with the most daring dreams. The one part of the most deranged family, the one having to fight the hardest fights. Of course I’m none of that, I know it know (it’s only taken me 30 years to figure that out, but who’s counting), of course most of my problems are just as terrifying, if not significantly less so, than those of other people, and my hapinesses taste exactly the same as theirs. And yes, at the back of my mind I’m sometimes still convinced I’m special. Until I get my hands on another Anne Tyler book and can’t help but agree: everybody resembles everybody.

The fact that I identify myself, my friends and relatives with her characters is probably why I like her books so much. Oh, and also paragraphs like the below.

Early this morning… I went out behind the house to weed. Was kneeling in the dirt by the stable with my pinafore a mess and the perspiration rolling down my back, wiped my face on my sleeve, reached for the trowel and all at once thought, Why, I believe that at just this moment I am absolutely happy.  […]

The Bedloe girls’ piano scales were floating out her window, […] and a bottle fly was buzzing in the grass, and I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don’t care what else might come about. I have had this moment. It belongs to me.

I haven’t got any Anne Tyler on my reading agenda for the months to come, simply because I’ve got such a huge backlog of books to go through (your reading recommendations being just the tip of the iceberg) and so little time these days (flat hunting is in season again!), but I’ll definitely be keeping her in mind for those times when a book I feel has been written precisely for and about me is just what I need to keep going. In the meantime, my plan is to read some more stuff in French, perhaps even attempt something in German (a reread maybe? I’ve got a German edition of The Old Man and the Sea gathering dust somewhere), as I’ve very much neglected all my other foreign language affairs, what with all this obsessing over my less then perfect British accent.

Back to work now, or I won’t be able to keep the €13-a-book madness much longer. Happy reading, everyone!

Top of the Pile #18: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

I fell in love with Anne Tyler many years back, when I bought a Romanian translation of Breathing Lessons from a newspaper stand in my home town, for the equivalent of less than one pound. I read it in one sitting one hot, hot afternoon, and liked it so much that I immediately recommended it to my mother, who seldom trusts my reading tastes but will never dare discriminate against a Pulitzer winning novel based on the fact that I happen to like it. So she read it, loved it, passed it on to my sister, and thus it’s become one of the few books all three women in my family happened to enjoy (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go also comes to mind).

So anyway, having so many fond memories of Anne Tyler’s work, when I came across her name on Guardian’s Top 10 Overlooked Novels list, I couldn’t refrain myself from ordering a used copy of her Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant from Amazon. It turned out to be a used high school library book, but one in very good shape, protected by a transparent plastic cover and which hadn’t been checked out since 2003. I’ve never seen a library book in this country, me being such a big book spender and all, so it’s now the quirkiest, most treasured volume in my collection, and I’ll probably get people to wash their hands six times over before they’re allowed to touch it.

I started reading it yesterday morning, while waiting for half an hour for a delayed train, and discovered a very different style from what I’ve been reading lately, a true story teller’s style in lack of a better description, which I’m finding quite comforting. We’ve got a long bank holiday weekend ahead, and if the weather’s still on the summerish side I don’t think I’ll be doing much reading. But I am planning to finish it before the end of next week, when I’ll have more juicy details about the story, and if all goes well, a new Anne Tyler themed Amazon Wishlist.

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Taichi Yamada’s Strangers is definitely among my quickest reads of all times, having taken me less than a two hours in total. I’d chosen the book based on a colleague’s recommendation, and had no idea what it would be about except from it being set in Japan. It being a ghost story certainly came as a surprise, especially since I hardly remember reading any ghost stories ever (there were ghosts in Harry Potter, but come on, no one really paid much attention to them).

So anyway, Strangers tells the story of a recently divorced screenwriter who comes across a young couple resembling his long lost parents. It’s written in a style that leaves a lot to the reader (Yamada was a screenwriter himself before turning to novels), which at times reminded me of Haruki Murakami and Akira Yoshimura (in particular, La Jeune Fille Suppliciée Sur Une Étagère, which apparently wasn’t ever translated into English, or perhaps I’m just a really lousy googler).

I didn’t think the story was too scary (I expect truly terrifying ghost stories would make me wake up screaming for months on end) and halfway through the book I think I pretty much could tell what was coming, but I very much enjoyed the atmosphere, and I guess it was about time I tried some some new Japanese reading, after an endless, somewhat traumatizing 1Q84 experience throughout December of last year.

The colleague who recommended Strangers to me, an all-things-Japan enthusiast by the way, has already prepared me a list of other Japanese novels, so I guess you’ll be seeing a lot more of that around here in the future. Until then though, there’s Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (also from Guardian’s list of overlooked novels), and I most definitely need to catch up on all the books you lovely people have recommended me, shame on me for being so lazy unreliable.

In other reading related news, Goodreads says I’m six (!!!) books behind my schedule of 75 books to read this year, which has never, ever happened before, and I’m sure it will end up giving me night terrors before long.

To end on a happy-happy-joy-joy note though, I’m wishing you all a lovely sunny weekend ahead, and I hope you’re reading some truly amazing books these days as well, maybe on a nice beach somewhere!

Top of the Pile #17: Strangers

I’d never heard of Taichi Yamada. In fact, had I come across the paperback edition of Strangers in my local bookshop, I’m sure I would have taken it for a lovey-dovey Young Adult novel I’m way too cool to openly like. I mean, this cocktail dressed, pearl necklaced, shoes in hand girl walking away from the lens on the cover makes me think of prom nights gone bitter and, you know, feelings.

So yes, I doubt I’d have picked Strangers if it hadn’t been for one of my workmates (the only other person who reads around here, and more than me, go figure!) praising it as one of his absolute favorites. It being what looks like double spaced and less than 300 pages long anyway, I thought I’d give it a try, especially after what felt like a century long, The Book of Disquiet themed reading adventure.

I’ve read about 15 pages on my way to work this morning, and though I can’t quite form an opinion (at least it doesn’t seem like Young Adult material so far), the writing style does remind me of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a book and writer I’ve always had mixed feelings about.

So anyway, Strangers will be my read for the rest of the week. I’ll squeeze it in between evening runs, back to back laundry sessions and yet another bank holiday weekend (no kidding, it feels like we’ve had one every week this month) which I’m sure will leave me moderately exhausted, hungover and very much aware of my almost-30-so-I-need-my-beauty-sleep status.

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I finally finished The Book of Disquiet the other day, and I’d have definitely drowned my own Pessoa generated disquiet in significant amounts of alcohol, had I not finally accepted that getting tipsy on a week night doesn’t suit my soon to be three decades themed age. So I settled for shutting the book with a bang and shoving it onto the top most shelf, in between other tomes I won’t be rereading any time soon.

It’s not that I didn’t like Pessoa’s poetry like prose, it’s just that it was so very dreary, I’m actually quite proud I’ve managed to survive it without falling into a hopeless, more-serious-than-usual bout of depression.

You know and I know, grownup life tends to suck sometimes. And then sometimes it’s pretty good. Hear that, Pessoa?

The funniest thing I’ve come across while struggling with reading The Book of Disquiet is this little nugget of invaluable information: there’s apparently a bookshop in Norway where they sell this book and only this, which the owner considers the best piece of literature in the world. Here’s a lovely link just in case you don’t trust my disquiet overdosed little brain.

But enough with all this crazy talk. What are you reading these days?

Oh and I know I haven’t been taking your book recommendations too seriously lately, with all this disquiet in the air (see what I did there?), but don’t think I’ve forgotten about them, and please, if you haven’t recommended me anything to read yet, do it here.