Books of July

I am writing this post on a packed train on my way home, on a random Thursday afternoon scarred by yet another London tube strike.

I’ve put down my copy of Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray, reluctantly, because I absolutely love it and have been pretty much wolfing my way through half of it since yesterday. But I haven’t written a book post in a while, and it so happens that I’ve been reading a lot of great stuff recently, so it’s only fair that I brag about that to you lovely people for a few hundred lines or so.

LATER EDIT: This has proven to be a much longer post than expected, you’ve been warned.

Here we go then.

The Lemon TableJulian Barnes, The Lemon Table

It’s been a while since I last read a short story collection, and to be completely honest I had no idea The Lemon Table would be one, that is, not until I finished what I thought were the first couple of novel chapters.

I’d bought the book a long time ago  (from what I can tell it’s part of yet another used paperback batch I got from Amazon when we were still living in our old place), and it’s been part of my ever growing, menacing nightstand pile since.

I’ve always loved Barnes. As my friend C recently put it, he’s fun. I mean, even when he isn’t. Like in his heartbreaking Levels of Life, which Goodreads insist I read back in 2013, but that can’t be right, can it? Time can’t just fly like that! I can’t be 31!

Oh well.

Back to Barnes and his Lemon Table. It was fun. If I’m ever geeky enough (and I might just be!) to make a list of my all time favourite short story collections, Barnes will surely end up at the very top, way up there with Jhumpa Lahiri and Alice Munro.

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ParadiseToni Morrison, Paradise

Believe it or not, Paradise was my first Toni Morrison read.

And yes, I’ve heard it’s probably not the best introduction to her writing, as people don’t consider it as good as some of her other novels.

Not to mention that it happens  to be the third book in what critics call The Morrison Trilogy, and it would have made a bit more sense to start at the beginning, with Beloved, instead. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers, even more so when there’s this huge paperback pile on and around your nightstand just begging for some serious, focused reading. So Paradise is what I had and Paradise is what I read.

Now, I don’t know about this book.

First thing first, I really wanted to like it. The first couple of chapters were quite exciting, the writing was good, the premise intriguing. And then… I don’t know.

It all just felt a bit pretentious. A bit sketchy. Criptic just for the sake of it. I read that people who really like Paradise, end up re-reading it a few times, and then reading every author interview and article on the subject. I don’t want to have to do that for a book to make a difference for me. I think it should be the other way around.

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24831147Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman

Harper Lee’s second, long awaited and infinitely debated novel was launched on a Tuesday.

In Picadilly Circus, two blocks away from my office, in what is probably the best known Waterstones shop in the country, they were opening at midnight on Monday for what they advertised as the most exciting literary event of the decade.

I’d walk past the shop a couple of times a day for weeks, windows packed full of bright orange, mockingbird themed posters, and feel a spark of excitement mixed with a mass of other complicated feelings.

I was fourteen when I read To Kill A Mockingbird. My mother’s old copy, a Romanian translation, yellow and white lines on the cover. I was wearing a blue shirt dress and sitting in the grass in our back yard, my dog’s head resting in my lap. I remember these things. I remember a friend popping by, us talking about the book, which she’d read for school a few years back. It was really hot. In the novel, and in our own summer that day, and we walked to the nearby park  for shade. A spot of dark green on the hem of my dress from a freshly painted fence has helped the memory of that day set.

I loved To Kill A Mockingbird.

It’s difficult to read/try/feel something in the shade of such a strong feeling.

I didn’t go to the late-night launch, but I did get a copy a few days later, and read it over a couple of train trips. I didn’t hate it, and it didn’t change my life. I think I was lucky enough to be able to read it as what I think it is. Not a sequel.

A week or two later, V told me he’d read somewhere that bookshops in the US were refunding buyers for it in light of readers’ general disappointment. Then a friend send me a tabloid article about a couple who’d named their baby Atticus in honour of the lead Mockingbird character, and were now renaming him after they’d read Go Set A Watchman.

What I can say is, I’m not going to ask for a refund. And Atticus is a perfectly good name. And I’m sure there’ll be countless people like me who’ll be reading To Kill A Mockingbird and never forgetting it, for many many lives to come.

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5996120Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I first read Pride and Prejudice many years ago. A super expensive, leatherbound but absolutely lousy Romanian translation which I hated.

But my friend S has been watching BBC’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation on Amazon Prime recently, and she’s grown so enamoured with Mr Darcy (Colin Firth, need I say more?) that it’s all she’s been talking about these last couple of weeks.

She even went and bought a lesson-plans-included paperback copy, and for the first time ever during our several year long friendship, we discussed classic literature over lunch instead of the regular shoe-shopping-office-gossip-fertility-treatments mess of subjects.

It got me thinking. About my relationship with Austen in general, and Pride Prejudice in particular. And since I happen to be the fortunate owner of the most beautiful, clothbound, Penguin Austen collection, I thought I’d give Pride and Prejudice another chance, and read it in original English.

I loved it!

I don’t know if you know this about me by now, but I’m not a romantic.

Not only am I not a romantic, but I’ve always thought that the present portrayal of romance in the media has rather unpleasant consequences for regular, easily affected people like me, and I normally avoid it at all costs.

And while we’re on the subject of life altering, unfounded expectations, I should also add that I’ve never really phantasized about getting/being/staying married to Mr Right, despite all odds and happily ever after.

These being said, why read Pride and Prejudice? Isn’t it, like…, a love story? Don’t they get married in the end or something?

You know what? Who cares!

It’s descriptive, super fun and brilliant. Eliza Bennet might just become one of your favourite female characters of all times. You might, like me, end up running your fingers up and down the stack of brightly clothed Austen hardcovers you’ve so far pretty much used for decorative purposes, and pick Persuasion, or Emma for your next read, and already think it sad that there’s only half a dozen of this lady’s novels in the world.

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Books of July, it’s a wrap!

I’ve already finished one of my August reads (more details in next month’s post!), and I’m filling this week’s commute with Charlotte Gray and Austen’s Persuasion,  so the end of the summer is shaping up as quite exciting reading-wise!

 

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 #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!

Poem to Start the Week #22: Book Passion

I dreamed I was eating
a book.
It was made from 8” by 12” slabs
one inch deep.
It tasted like cheese
but cut like watercress.
as I chewed I understood.

As I looked around
others were reading
the same title
but in the regular way
I couldn’t determine
which was best,
eyes only
or digesting it my way.

Others began to notice me
and stare.
Made me feel queer.

I was in a restaurant though,
a fitting place to eat
and drink
so I ordered bourbon
and I kept on chewing.

I realized
their eyes
would never make them full.

 

 

Belinda Subraman