The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Inventing the Abbots and other stories by Sue Miller

This was a book of short stories that my mum brought back from Canada for me last year. I was unfamiliar with the author and it was only a short book.
All of the stories are set in modern America, and each one is like a microcosm of domestic drama. Some span a long time in retrospect, but each story felt like a peep through a keyhole at the characters and their lives.
There are 11 stories in all, many of which are astutely observed relationship accounts, including the psychology of sexual encounters, but not all of them. We have the brothers, one of which ends up having a relationship with each of the 3 sisters from the richest and most eligible family in town. We have a gentle matriarch whose personality is altered by a stroke. There are 2 young girls on the brink of discovering their own sexuality, who encounter a pervert in a secluded spot near their town. A mother who is watching her sons marriage disintigrate, and a father who takes his children for Christmas to spend with his new wife and her children. All of the stories are recognisable and relevant to the present day.
There are no massive plot twists, cliff hangers, mysteries, or surprises and those readers who like their short stories to be more wildly inventive or unpredictable may find this collection a little dull. If, like me, you enjoy subtle observations of people in recognisable situations, you will like this collection. None of the stories go on for too long either. There is nothing excessively exciting here, but the writing is still good and each one captured my interest.
If I had to make a criticism it would be that some of the stories kind of tail off, rather than conclude or even finish in a definitive way. Some endings left me a little bit adrift, but others worked more successfully.
What I did like immensely was the feel of the book in my hands. The paper almost felt handmade, and the type was a little larger than most mass produced paperbacks, which gave the book a touch of luxury.
Recommended for readers who like gentle, but thorough observations of people who may live on their street.
You can read about Sue Miller here.

Friday, 24 April 2009

BookCrossing Donation

I released my first book as a bookcrossing book last week. I have always wanted to do this although it was strange leaving something in public...I was more concerned someone would see me. I don't think anyone did.
The book in question was Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, and I left it in Abercrombie Square in Liverpool, right in the middle of University land. Its a really nice place to sit when it is sunny. Feeling a kind of surrogate maternalism towards the book, I responsibly left it on the seat in the pagoda in the middle for someone to find. It has gone, so someone has picked it up and I hope they enjoy it.
Psychologically I found it a bit strange, preferring to donate books to Oxfam, inside and out of the weather, to be bought by a fellow book lover. This felt reckless, irresponsible. I worried about the book (it was in a plastic bag from BookCrossing), would someone take it? Would a thug tear it up for fun? The whole reason I released this book was because, although appreciated, I did not love it. Someone else might! It was the only way I could leave it. Anyway, someone has it, a reader who visited Abercrombie Square.
I want to count this towards #8 of the 2009 mini challenges, to donate a book (along with the ones I have given to Oxfam and the Book Swap earlier in the year).

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Somewhere Towards The End by Diana Athill

This book was bought for me as a present and it was a pleasant change to read a non-fiction book for a bit of a change. The blurb on the back interested me as it says Diana 'born in 1917...reflects frankly on the losses and occasionally the gains that old age brings, and on the wisdom and fortitude required to face death.' From this I thought it was worth reading.
Each chapter covers a particular topic, whether it is looking back at relationships gone by, or highlights and interests during her life, or regrets, or feelings about being nearer the end of your life. The book is reasonably short and each chapter is straightforward and easy to read.
I didn't find any of the subject matter depressing, in fact the tone in which it is written is either matter-of-fact or even laced with a dry sense of humour. That is not to say that other readers may find it dour or gloomy, but I didn't.
What I did like was the succinct style of writing, never over sentimental, just honest. I also enjoyed the view point. I found the older persons voice, talking about simple things (like buying a plant that you may never see grow to maturity), that we younger people may not consider yet, interesting and refreshing.
While I was never depressed while reading her words, I was, on occasion moved to tears when she describes the deaths of her own parents. Obviously she covers some things that some readers may find difficult to read, but my own view is that these are things to do with life which we choose to contemplate or not, and that choice is very personal.
While I found her musings sometimes enlightening, and she raised a slight chuckle or two from me along the way, I also found some chapters a little dull. I think maybe her unsentimental and analytical style, while refreshing in some parts, can lead you to feel a little cold in others and at the end I couldn't help wishing that I connected to her as a person more.
I also disagreed with her on occasion, and found her passages dwelling on the lack of 'daughters' to look after her (rather than children of either sex) a bit of a sticking point. She repeats this specific opinion on the use of female children in several paragraphs, and while I know that her generation traditionally took this expectation, I still found my neck prickling when she mentioned it again.
There is, however, quite a bit to rouse discussion amongst book groups, regarding herself, as a person, her views and writing style, and also ageing and generational differences.
BBC radio 4 discussed this book on womens hour, and you can listen to this discussion by clicking on this link...
I read this book to complete #3 of the 2009 mini challenges, to read a non-fiction book.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I won this book last year from a giveaway over at A Readers Respite, it is a lovely hardback edition too so feels nice in your hands as you read. There has been a lot of coverage about this book in blogland so I was pleased to be able to read it for myself.
Told entirely in letters, it is the story of Juliet, a journalist in London in 1946, who is looking for some new material to write a book now that the war is over. Her inspiration comes from correspondence with a group of individuals who lived on Guernsey during the Nazi Occupation during the war, and who formed the society of the title, initially as a cover to get together without suspicion, but developing into a true appreciation of books and also of each other. We learn of the different characters who have become friends during the most testing of times, and of their support for each other. We also learn of one who is no longer with them because she was imprisoned by the Germans. Juliet becomes connected to the group, professionally at first, and also personally as she goes to visit them on Guernsey, and ends up extending her visit as her own life becomes entwined with theirs.
As we learn their stories, there are lots of references to their occupation, the conditions that they were forced to live with, and also accounts of the Germans as individuals, some ruthless but others who were kind. This provides an interesting backdrop to the individual stories, giving a slightly different slant to the many Nazi occupation stories that are about.
I found the general feel of the book to be optimistic and upbeat, even during the harrowing and troubled parts. The book does not allow you to dwell on these parts unnecessarily, conveying a post-war atmosphere of hope and regrowth after so much hardship and challenge, for some more horrific than for others. A lot of this good feeling comes directly from Juliet and also from other society members. Juliet is cheery and generous, embracing her new friends with enthusiasm. This generocity of character is reflected back to her from Amelia, Isola and of course Dawsey, and all the others, but it is never overdone to become cheesy. They are a joy to read about.
I found this book very easy to read and became involved with the characters quickly. Being all written in letters it was easily picked up and put down. I found that I read off 50 pages almost immediately, without blinking.
Essentially a selection of character studies, some quirky, others more conventional, all heroic, this book is ideal for readers who want something absorbing but not too challenging, and for those who crave a novel that gives the human race a hopeful glow. They say the worst of times can bring out the best in people and it helps to reinforce your belief in others with lovely novels such as these.
Book Browse have a readers group guide...

Sunday, 5 April 2009

March Roundup

I love Hares, probably because they are quite rare here in the north of England. I have been fascinated by the abundance of them in the fields down south. I love the imagery and stories that accompany them so I was pleased to be able to include one here, during its own symbolic month of March.
Onward, to my reading life during the month of the March Hare...
Read - 3 and a half books
Completed -
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Currently - reading Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
TBR Pile - has grown slightly, now at 59...
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
The History of Cumbrian Methodism by John Burgess (Family History Research!)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Everyman Pocket Book of Haiku
Challenges - I have completed #10 and #12 of the 2009 Mini Challenges and I am on page 253 of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, a personal challenge to read 3 pages a day to read it in a year.
Wishlist Additions -
Drood by Dan Simmons
Angels of Destruction by Keith Donohue
The Victorian Chaise Longue by Margharita Laski
The Story of Forgetting by Stephen Merrill Block
Girl by Jamaica Kincaid
Discoveries - Lots of lovely bookshops...
Daunt Books in London
Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge
Events - going to see Macbeth at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester...totally brilliant!
Now moving through April we swap the March Hare for the Easter Bunny.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye