Books of January

I’ve been reading a lot lately, so much so that it would be quite a challenge to find the time for a Top of the Pile post for every book.

So I figured I’d just put everything in a Goodreads-style list for the time being, stars and everything. Well, stars and little else, really, but who’s got time for rambling about books, when there’s actual reading to be done.

So feast your eyes on my super duper list of January reads, as I now run back to my copy of Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and a cup of camomile tea.

Ta-dah!

Revolutionary Road
Revolutionary Road
Richard Yates
★★★★★

Beware of Pity
Beware of Pity
Stefan Sweig
★★★☆☆

The Arabian Nights
The Arabian Nights, Volume 1
Anonymous
★★★☆☆

The Bluffers Guide to Etiquette
The Bluffer’s Guide to Etiquette
William Hanson
★★★☆☆

The Last Hundred Days
The Last Hundred Days
Patrick McGuinness
★★★★☆

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery
★★★★☆

Burning Bright
Burning Bright
Tracy Chevalier
★★★☆☆

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 #26: Reading Like a Writer

Read Like a WriterReading Like a Writer will be my second Creative Writing themed read in a couple of weeks, after finishing Stephen King’s On Writing this weekend. A subject I’ve hardly read anything about altogether, but which I turned to after stumbling upon a bunch of literature podcasts which I now listen to almost on a daily basis at work.

So following another podcast session, I bookmarked King’s On Writing and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; then a few days later, while on an impromptu used book shopping spree in Soho, I also got a Cambridge Creative Writing companion, so I’ve got my work cut out for me in terms of writing techniques and I’ll-never-ever-be-the-new-J.-K.-Rowling epiphanies for at least a couple of weeks or so.

For now though, Reading Like a Writer begins by advising me to slow down my reading and pay attention. That’ll surely be a challenge, as I’ve always been a fast reader and, especially now, when I’m fighting my way through never ending Infinite Jest and trying to catch up on my 2014 Goodreads reading challenge (still 12 books behind, grrr!) I’m in more of a rush than ever.  I’ll try to calm down a bit and hopefully enjoy it more, so I probably won’t be posting another Top of the Pile entry too soon.

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I finished Hatching Twitter yesterday, in between sessions of laundry and babysitting a dish of potatoes au gratin. It advertised itself as a saga of Twitter’s invention and evolution, but I found it more an account of how a bunch of nerdy guys repeatedly stabbed each other in the back for money.

The geek inside me would have been more interested in reading about the technical side of getting Twitter to its current super-duper-online-monster status, about what went wrong and how they fixed it and how certain ideas and concepts came about, but instead I found myself drawn into these soap-opera-ish scenarios culminating in bursts of “The CEO is dead, long live the CEO!”.

It was an OK and very quick read (2 sittings), but not entirely what I expected really, so maybe 3 stars out of 5?

That’s it for today, back to my podcasts and some startup unrelated coding. 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!

Cien Años de Soledad

By the time I got my hands on my first Marquez book, everybody I knew had already read them all.

I was halfway through my first year at Uni and was traveling to my hometown after an exam. It had been snowing for days and the city looked brand new for once, though I knew it wouldn’t be for long. Snow is never snow in a big city. It feels like it just ended there by mistake, like a lost piece of luggage in the wrong airport. I was awfully tired, I’d pulled another all nighter and was looking forward to a good sleep on the train. But then there were the books.

I’d bought the new hardcover editions of Love in the Time of Cholera and A Hundred Years of Solitude the day before, from a street vendor who’d opened shop under an overhanging roof on University Street. I never could resist a snow covered book. And there was always such a flow of interesting people on that street, tall, handsome, mysterious students walking back and forth from one faculty building to the next. Buying those books everybody who was anybody was talking about felt only natural, carrying them against my chest through the snowstorm, in plain sight, made me feel sophisticated and like I was finally fitting in somewhere.

It makes me smile now. My relationship with Garcia Marquez was built upon superficial dreams of finding myself an intellectual looking boyfriend, in the middle of a crowded, snow covered street.

Sunk in my seat in the overheated train car, I took Love in the Time of Cholera out of my bag and started reading. Just for a little while, I thought, then I’d let it fall in my lap, the title conveniently visible just in case some well read, attractive young stranger looking for a meaningful relationship happened to walk by. Then I’d finally fall asleep. White, endless fields were running past the windows and it was slowly getting dark. This kid was falling in love with a beautiful girl, in a steamy, decaying port city by the Caribbean Sea.

By the time I got home, I was more than halfway through the book and hadn’t slept at all.

Dad picked me up from the train station. In our small town, a hundred miles closer to the mountains, the night was frozen and the snow looked like it was there to stay. Ladder climbing people were hanging tiny yellow Christmas lights along the street as we drove by. There was pop music and talk of road closures on the radio, and in a faraway cholera infested town, people were falling in love for life.

Is it strange that I remember the how, when and where of every Marquez book I ever read? Does it say things about me, this? That I never can keep track of friends’ birthdays or favourite colours, but I remember that the title was slightly embossed on the A Hundred Years of Solitude dust cover, and it was catching the light in a certain way?

Years later, I read Living to Tell the Tale in between fancy dinners, romantic walks and breakfasts in bed along this man I’d found. I’d dyed my hair a brave strawberry blonde, I’d gotten a job, I finally had an intellectual, mysterious beau of my own, things were good. As I was reading this book, it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe and as scary and completely insane as it sounded, what I really wanted to do was to write. Somewhere along the way, perhaps precisely because I’d read Marquez later than everybody else, I’d taken a wrong turn, and here I was now, this person with a story to tell and no means to tell it. Now of course, I wouldn’t be a writer, I told myself, like a proper, responsible grownup. But I could be. If I wanted. I could try, even if I failed. In fact, I could try that, and another thing, like Impressionist finger painting, or learning Japanese, at the same time. I could do more than change the colour of my hair and eat toast in bed. Months later, I left my job, my country and my beloved collection of Marquez books, and moved to London.

When I learned he’d passed away last night, I was folding laundry. My phone blinked with the news from the Guardian app, and I jumped to look at it, forever worried about the Ukraine crisis, flight MH370 and the rise in London property prices.

Marquez died, I told V, phone still in hand above the mountain of unfolded t-shirts, and he must have known it was something big, though I doubt the name sounded even in the least familiar to him.

I read all his books, I said. He came and gave me a hug as I just stood there, because he knows me, and knows there’ll always be things he won’t understand about me. Pain caused by the death of a stranger whose made-up stories I read once when there was nothing good on TV. You’ll find another writer to love, he said, and I said yes, because how could I have explained it to him, when I wasn’t a teller of tales myself, and I had no Marquez books in this country, not even one, to hold tight against my chest and feel like I finally belonged.