Catching Up Time…

Have just got my self back to being fairly human after my trans-Atlantic visit. My, I don’t remember jet lag being so tough before, so perhaps I am getting old after all. This assertion (of getting old[er]) is also supported by the fact that I was incredibly stiff after sitting in my plane seat for about 9 hours. (My knees were killing me.) However, all that to say that I had a lovely trip to Old Blighty and enjoyed seeing everyone and everything.

Now for the books:

My original thought had been that I would get loads of reading completed on holiday, both during the journey and then when we were hanging around various ports of call whilst we were there. However, this was not to be. I did manage to visit loads of wonderful bookshops and charity shops (with books in them), so all was not lost with regard to bookish-ness. I quite restrained myself in the Purchasing category, and only
bought 5 or 6 new (and new-to-me) titles so that was quite good. I could quite easily have gone crazy with the amount of titles that I found, but was trying to keep it down to reasonable levels.

Reading-wise, I finished up a couple of quite good reads, and I only classify them as “quite good” due to the fact that my timing was off and I was tired when I read them. I think in other more perfect circumstances, they would have been classified higher. Aah well. The joys of reading.

I finished up “Ms. Hempel’s Chronicles” by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (2009), a short book of inter-linked short stories (more vignettes really) about a central character, Ms. Hempel, who is a new middle school teacher. This was really well written, and it was clear that Bynum had been through the engine of graduate school creative writing. (Not that that is a bad thing, by any means, but just to say that there is a certain style that goes with that.) Additionally, several of the stories were also originally published as short stories in and of their own right and printed in prestigious literary journals. (So – yes, she definitely made a successful completion of the Grad School machine.) This had really good dialogue, and it was obvious that Bynum has had experience as a teacher because some of the situations that her central character goes through are very true to life (as least to me). I am not usually a big fan of short stories, but this book worked for me, as there was a common thread running throughout each story. A good read, but not outstanding. (But again, it may have been just the timing for me.) (Plus another one off the TBR pile.)

The other book which I finished was “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Andrey Niffennegger (2009). I kept hearing good things about this, and had enjoyed her first novel (“The Time Traveller’s Wife”), so picked this up with good hopes. I really enjoyed this, and read a good portion of it in a great bed and breakfast in Brighton and the rest on my way to London where I would, among other things, be wandering around Highgate Cemetery which is one of the main locations in the novel. Niffennegger is a visual artist, and so it’s to be expected that there will be some “artistic” things about the book. The one main artistic-y thing I truly appreciated was that at the start of each chapter, someone (the author, perhaps?) had used a really good font for the title of the chapters – a gothic ghosty sort of feel to it that really fit the story line. I love it when authors do little touches like that.

(It’s also quite humorous to me that the title is a verbal pun (in an English accent): Symmetry and Cemetery. Tee hee.

The plot revolves about two sets of twins, one set being identical twins who have moved apart, had children, and then something has occurred to make them not talk to each other for years. The other set are the identical twin daughters of one of the twins, except these two are mirror twins. So lots of twin stuff which, of course, I enjoy (being a twin myself). I do think that Niffenegger had done her research well in regard to the twin
theme, and I appreciated that.

One of the adult twins (the aunt) dies and in her will leaves the two younger mirror twins her flat in north London; however, it is only under certain conditions (which the twins obey) and by introducing the twins into the old building, it’s a chance to meet the other building inhabitants and learn how (and why) the two adult twins had behaved as they
had. It’s a bit of a convoluted story in places, and I don’t really recommend this book as a pick-up-and-put-down venture; I do think you need to have a good chunk of time to really get into the plot and learn who is who, character-wise. (It’s not like War and Peace nutty, but it can get a bit confusing if you’re sleepy!)

The plot is set in and around Highgate Cemetery, and what was particularly interesting about this was that I was actually walking around that very same cemetery for some of the time that I was reading the book and could recognize details that were mentioned in the novel. (And it was a perfect day for that: overcast, a bit chilly, a bit damp)…

In reviews of the book, I have read that this is “a haunting ghost story”, but I think that that description sells it a bit short as it is much more than that, really.  It’s more of a familial drama, with some ghosty bits put in it.

In preparation for this, Niffenegger had studied the cemetery enough to become an official guide, and this knowledge is really showcased in the novel’s descriptions (without crossing the border of becoming obnoxious of showing just how much knowledge she had.) I learned quite a bit about this Victorian cemetery from the book, and as you know, I loves me a Victorian anything.

And then the ending – goodness gracious me. What a plot twist that I actually had to read it a couple of times to make sure that I had it correct. I love HUGE twists of plot like that, so it really worked well and ended up as a satisfying read. I actually enjoyed this novel more than her earlier one.

One interesting factoid: Niffenegger was given a five million dollar advance on this book. Wow.

A good read and one more off my TBR pile. Yahoo.

And when I came back from UK and saw the remaining pages left in Peter Hessler’s China travelogue, I realized that I had had enough, got the idea, and so left that one unfinished.

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