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 #29, #30: RAGE, Bleak House

When, early last week, we found ourselves homeless and with no roof-of-our-own prospects any time soon, we arranged to stay with friends for a while. Well, for as long as they could keep us before being driven mad by our domestic habits, really. They’re only people, after all. But I digress.

So one night after work, we packed the car with what little possessions we hadn’t yet put into storage, and were just about to set off for their place, when they called and cancelled everything.

Jerks.

OK, OK, they had a pretty sucky health scare to deal with at the time (all fine now, yay!), so we’re still on speaking terms and everything, but you can imagine how super excited we both were once we found ourselves stranded in what used to be our dark, wet parking lot, car packed like a sardines tin and no roofed destination in sight.

So we did what I assume most soft pillow accustomed, sleeping in the car reluctant people would do, and checked into a hotel.

We were only there for 2 nights, but it so happened that V had to work late on both of them, so I ended up having to kill a lot of time on my own, in a room only slightly larger than our storage unit, and providing about the same amount of  entertainment opportunities.

So I read a couple of books, of course.

The Country Doctor

First things first, I finished Balzac’s The Country Doctor.

Quite a few people, including some of you kind enough to be following my reading adventures here, have warned me about it not being the best of his works, and also about not much happening throughout.

I did find myself wondering where it was all going more than once, and I only kept reading because I found the descriptions, both of scenery and characters, absolutely beautiful, and of course, because there was little else to do in that shoebox of a room.

In the end, the story does reach a conclusion. So at least there’s that. Now, it so happens that I didn’t find said conclusion particularly impressive, and that the end feeling was that of being preached at throughout, which I never like, no matter how well disguised it is.

Now, by no means has all this put me off Balzac. In fact, I do plan to read my way through the entire Divine Comedy at some point (Perhaps next time I’m stranded in a hopelessly austere hotel room with no check out date in sight? Yikes!)

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RAGE, Stephen SpielbergAnd speaking of Yikes…

I also read Stephen King’s Rage, another book I happened to have on my Kindle with no recollection of when and how that came to happen.

I had little knowledge of what it was going to be about, and pretty much no expectations to begin with, which I always find exciting, if a bit dangerous.

It proved to be a very quick read, easily manageable in one sitting, and kept me interested almost up to the end, when, as King seems to usually do for me, he threw in a little plot twist I found rather ridiculous and I actually managed to put the book down and go to bed, leaving the last 10 or so pages for the following day.

One thing Rage did for me though was that it made me want to revisit some really special troubled teenager reads from my past, D B C Pierre’s Vernon God Little and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin to name but a couple. The former I particularly miss, having read it in Romanian the year it won the Booker, quite a while back. So straight to the top of my book pile it goes, and as soon as I’ve got shelves again I’ll make sure I get a copy.

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Bleak House, Charles DickensUntil then though, I’ve recently embarked on a Dickens reading marathon, and picked Bleak House after stumbling upon it in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, under Books to be read immediately.

It’s among the two or three Dickens novels I haven’t already read at least once, and it felt like such a fitting read what with the somewhat Dickensian weather we’ve been having lately, and me commuting through London for significantly longer these days. I actually find myself looking forward to my evening train trip, and I’ve only read about 200 pages so far, so that’s really something.

So yup, that’s all I’ve got for now on the reading front. Anything interesting you’re leafing through this autumn?

Top of the Pile #27, #28: David and Goliath, The Country Doctor

I know I haven’t done one of these posts in a while now, but I’ve been busy. And sad. And busy some more. Not to mention that all of my books are packed in boxes and have been for weeks now, so they haven’t been laying around to remind me how I’ve been neglecting them lately.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve ignored reading altogether. On the contrary, I’ve managed the impossible.

Infinite Jest CoverI’ve finished Infinite Jest and lived to tell the story.

You probably think I saw it coming, and made sure I was in a public place where I could immediately start bragging about my accomplishment and have people cheering and asking for my autograph on their bare muscular chests (yes, all my imagined fans are bare chested male models who have the deepest respect for Infinite Jest survivors!).

But to be honest, finishing the book caught me completely off guard. Faced with such lengthy a novel, my lovely Kindle got so utterly confused that it never indicated the right reading progress throughout. Some days it said I’d read 85%, then days later it reconsidered and decided it was more like 73%, and this went on and on for weeks driving me completely crazy, until one day, ONE DAY, I tapped to get to the next page and there it was, the final paragraph of Infinite Jest and my most wondrous reading victory thus far.

Now, what an extraordinary book!

I was talking to a friend and fellow “Infinite Jest survivor” (yes, we’re starting a club!), and she said that the moment she finished it she turned back to the first page and started reading it a second time. Now, I really don’t think I’m in a place right now where I could possibly handle that, my brain being complete mush after all the homeless-flat-hunting insanity these days, but I totally get what my friend was about. Infinite Jest is a book to be read more than once. That may sound off putting, it being 1000+ pages of Foster Wallace often crazy lingo, but I have a feeling one reading couldn’t possibly do it justice.

And yes, it’s a complicated, difficult read. It’s most certainly not for everyone. But, throughout the long love-hate relationship I’ve developed with it, I never once could deny its brilliance. So yes, there you have it. I’m an Infinite Jest groupie. There’s a chance I’ll give it a second try some time in the future, and I’ve already bookmarked some Foster Wallace essays and short stories for when I get part of my sanity back and I’m ready to dive into reading again. So take of that what you will, and if you’d like my autograph (even if it’s not on your pecks, sigh), I’ve got six dozen rainbow coloured sharpies to pick from, after all these weeks of packing and labeling. Just say the word.

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Read Like a WriterI finished Reading Like a Writer last night, and it’s the very last book I packed for our move to God knows where. I really wanted to finish it before we left, so that I’d be left only with my Kindle during our homeless-and-certain-to-be-shelf-less phase. So this will be the last hardcover I touch in a while, and I’m glad it was this and no other, because I happened to really enjoy it.

I expected it to be about writing and how to become better writers, but it turned out to focus more on reading and how to become better readers, which is unlike any other creative writing book I’ve read. It’s full of examples of brilliant writing from authors I’ve loved all throughout my reading life, and new ones I’ve only thus discovered and added to my to read list.

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David and GoliathSo here’s a fun story.

A few weeks back V and I took a long weekend trip to Bristol, to get away from the cardboard box invasion taking over our flat, and the clouds of hopelessness and homelessness gathering on the horizon.

And during that trip, which I haven’t written about because, well, I’ve been battling lots of lovely shades of flat related despair and frustration since, well, during that lovely trip I have been super duper strong and managed NOT to buy any books, not even one.

It’s incredible what having to pack and store 300+ paperbacks in half a day does to your book shopaholic compulsions.

But anyway. Halfway through our Bristol adventure, we stopped to rest for a few minutes on a park bench, and there it was. A paperback copy of David and Goliath, slightly dogeared but in pretty good shape altogether, just waiting for someone to save it from the coming rain. V, who had previously voiced his admiration at me not buying a single book during our weekend away, threw up his hands in despair but resigned to his fate, and minutes later we were leaving the park, David and Goliath safely resting in my handbag.

Now, this isn’t the first book I’ve found on UK streets since we moved here (it’s the fourth, actually, an average of a book a year, believe it or not!), but it’s the first one I’ve actually read, and not just took home, stacked on a shelf and forgot about it. I finished David and Goliath in a couple of sittings, and it was an interesting enough little book, if a little lacking in the conclusion drawing department. Gladwell’s stories and examples are intriguing, easy reads, but to me they lacked closure, and I was left feeling that I needed to read more on the subject before I’d be able to form an opinion on it.

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The Country Doctor

And finally we reach my current reading affair, Balzac’s The Country Doctor. I wish there was an extraordinary reason behind me picking it, but I’ll be reading exclusively on Kindle until we’ve finally settled somewhere, and since I already had a few of Balzac’s novels on it, The Country Doctor being the shortest one, I just went for it. I know, talk about superficial!

Anyway, I started reading it last night and my Kindle says I’m about 10% through. To quote one of my picky reading friends, “Nothing’s happened yet. No one died..”, so there’s not much I can say about it for the time being.  I’ll definitely keep you posted though!

That’s it for now, happy reading everyone!

Top of the Pile #20: Infinite Jest

OK, so this will very likely be my final Top of the Pile post, as I’ll surely be plodding through this ginormous book for the remainder of my life.

You think I’m exaggerating? Well then, you clearly haven’t heard all the scary stories about how only a minute fraction of those who embark on the Infinite Jest adventure survive, minds and limbs intact. I, for one, have countless friends who’ve admitted defeat at various stages throughout their 1,000+ pages long self imposed reading challenges, and only one who’s made it to the finished line. He, this person whom I now treat with the amount of reverence fit for a book reading god, admits he’s emerged out of it all scarred and bruised but also (how else?) a changed human being in more ways that one.

As for myself, I’ve been putting off even considering the possibility of ever intentionally touching Infinite Jest. I’ll admit it, I was intimidated. I was more than intimidated, I was certain I wasn’t smart enough for it. I had always suspected it, you know, that there would come a time and a book to confirm me I was nothing but a blonde, freckled, geek looking (oh the irony!) bimbo.

So this is it, my friends, the moment of truth. Will I fail or will I live to tell the story? Time will tell. For now, I’ve been officially reading Infinite Jest for about 6 days, and my Kindle says I’ve made it through 6% of it. Dare I predict it will take me 100 or so days to finish it at this rate? That’s not too bad, really, considering people around the world are doing this Infinite Summer thing, where they set aside an entire summer to read Infinite Jest together.

So I guess this summer will be my Infinite Summer. It was about time I embarked on something fashionably weird/insane. I’ll keep you posted (aka moan about it) throughout it all, and I swear I’ll try my very very best to make through to the end, like a self respecting, blonde, infinitely geeky bimbo.

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I finished The Snow Queen last week after a 5k evening run (yup, still doing those, or more or less trying to survive one every other day).

If you’re after the short version, I didn’t find it as good as The Hours or Specimen Days.

I mean, it was all right (is that ever a good thing in a book review?).

It’s a story about things unseen. A higher power. A sign that everything will be OK, that one and one’s problems have been acknowledged, and there’s someone, something hard at work making sure everything turns out all right. All one needs to do is read the signs and wait.

I mean, it’s an interesting enough premise, I just wish it’d been a little more elaborated on in the book. Everything felt quite a bit unfinished, and though I guess it fits the theme, and you’re free to read into what’s not visible and pick our own signs, I wanted more detail. And the writing, though it’s beautiful, gave me the impression of “Hey, I can write a metaphor and you can’t! I can even do it on every other line! Look, no hands!”. No one ever likes that.

I don’t have any more Michael Cunningham works around and I’m surrounded by piles and piles of novels I’ve been meaning to read since forever, not even mentioning Infinite Jest looming in the background like a freaking book Godzilla for the next couple of months or who knows, so I don’t think I’ll be touching another Cunningham book for a while. I will leave you with a tiny Snow Queen quote though, it’s definitely a better way to end this post than I ever could come up with.

It’s hardly ever the destination we’ve been anticipating, is it? Our hopes may seem unrealized, but we were in all likelihood hoping for the wrong thing. Where did we – the species, that is – pick up that strange and perverse habit?

Happy reading!

 

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!