April 2017 Reading Review

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So April fairly whipped by pretty speedily due to a general busy-ness of life and work. It was a pretty good reading month at the same time, but lower numbers than is traditional. (This would be due to a big mix of things, including my vision still having problems. Reading with one eye tends to slow things down, I’ve found.)

(To clarify: I still have my other eye, but the dodgy one doesn’t see very well a lot of the time. Thus the “one eye” comment. I didn’t mean that I was now Cyclops [although I might feel like that sometimes!]. I had no idea how much my reading would slow down due to this.  :-} )

The reads for April included:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in April: 5

Total number of pages read: 1,507 pages (av. 301).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 4 fiction / 1 non-fiction; 0 play.

Diversity: 0 POC (that’s a bit yikes for me.) 2 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 1 library book, 4 owned books and 0 e-books. (Yeah. Good on working on the TBR pile.)

Plans for May is to read, read, read. How glorious is that?

The Man from the Norlands – John Buchan (1936)

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Another caper novel from old John Buchan (1936), this one is set in mostly Scotland and England, along with some larks in Denmark, and features eponymous hero Sir Richard Hannay as he assists old comrades in rescuing a kidnapped daughter from the hands of enemies. (The “Norlands” reference in the title is to the Northlands and which refers in this case to Denmark.)

In a similar vein as the earlier “The Thirty Nine Steps”, this story relies on completely eye-rolling coincidences and some leaps (or perhaps lapses) of logic, but if you read it as it’s intended to read (as, I assume, a fun way to while some time away and to fall into a world completely different than your own), then it’s a good read. Nothing too deep and meaningful here, it is just a fun read featuring a “Golden Age hero who battles baddies in order to rescue a young maiden from the dragon” sort of idea.

Despite the superficial plot, Buchan is a good writer with an expansive vocabulary and a strong descriptive voice who can effectively weave the various strands of the plot together in a way that makes sense. I do think that this is a book to be read in huge big chunks of time as opposed to picking up and putting down (which is what I was doing). The large cast of characters (one of whom is a Viking descendent) travel up and down England so there is quite a lot of journeying for all involved.  That’s one of the reasons why I recommend you to read this in big chunks, as if not (or as was the case in my own experience), it can get a wee bit confusing at times. It’s quite fascinating just how well Buchan has managed to pack in so many car chases in the plot that they end up making this quite a thrilling read.

Again, classified as a YA book (as was The Thirty Nine Steps), this is a pretty fun and enthralling story about a time gone by. I think this would make a good movie (if it hasn’t been made into one already). Lots of car chases, airplanes, and chasing each other over the moors…

(It’s also titled “The Island of the Sheep” (UK title) or Richard Hannay #5, if you are a serious series kind of person.)

So just a fun read and nicely balanced out a rather heavy book I’m reading about medical apartheid in the U.S. If you’re searching for fast moving fiction and an overall palate cleanser kind of read, you can’t go wrong with one of Buchan’s books.

This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)

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Wanting to read something from the Lost Generation time period and having really enjoyed The Great Gatsby, I picked up this 1920 fiction book from F. Scott Fitzgerald. It follows the course of lead character Amory Blaine as he enjoys a privileged childhood of much traveling and little school, until, with the realization that college would be soon on the horizon, his mother enrolls him in his first middle school. This is rather a shock to the old bean of Amory, and as the novel progresses through his adolescence and young adulthood, it’s easy to see that his peripatetic childhood was fun but had not done him any favors in regard to his academics.

So Fitzgerald shows the reader how Amory’s life progresses (or doesn’t as the case may be), and how he is unmoored in life, not really understanding that academics are important (because they haven’t been up until this point in his life), fully aware that who he knows and who knows him is of utmost importance, and realizing he has very little intention of having a serious career of any type with not many consequences for him. His mum will always be able to rescue him.

This was written right after the Great War (WWI) had just ended (1918), and so Europe and the U.S. were still reeling from the high death count of their soldiers, the unrecognized PTSD (or shell shock, as it was called back then), and the large numbers of young men returning to an indifferent home after having survived the terrifying experiences of trench warfare. It’s around now that the U.S. has what’s termed the Gilded Age*, the “gilding” piece referring to something that is bright and shiny on the outside, but is shallow beneath the surface – just a superficial layer to cover deeper problems below.

Up until now, war had been rather a glorious thing for the returning soldiers (now free to live their own lives), and I would think that it must have been rather a let-down for them to return back to their home towns and try to pick up their lives from before the war. Another name for this time period is the Lost Generation which references back to the view that once the war was over, many did not know what would be next. For some young men, soldiering was all that they ever known, career-wise, and those skills didn’t always translate once they were demobbed. Thus, the idea of the Lost Generation – what would they do now that was peace?

So you have this idealistic young man, who had grown up in the earlier war time, who had few goals and even less structure in his life, and this rather aimless mooning around is cleverly reflected in the narrative structure – it reads as a collection of short paragraphs (almost notes) about different pieces of Amory’s life. It’s an unusual set up (especially for writing in the 1920’s) and is quite PoMo in some ways, It’s a narrative structure that works really well – the random jumping around from subject to subject, and the changes in perspective all echo the rapidly changing opinions and moods of Amory as an undergraduate finding his way through college life at Princeton.

Wiki reports that this spotty narrative structure comes from the fact that Fitzgerald only had some bits and pieces of writing put together when he first started to write the novel. The deadline for the novel came very quickly for him, and so he had to throw some writing pieces together to make a complete project. Thus, the short pieces (poems, essays, sometimes just thoughts) carry the reader along with Amory on his coming-of-age experiences as he starts the process to become an adult. (So, not sure whether Fitzgerald was structuring it like on purpose or whether it was just a lucky break for him. Either way, it worked for the most part.)

So a pretty fast read which mostly kept my attention. There were parts that you could tell were just thrown together and the ending gets very serious and philosophical (and a wee bit boring if I’m honest with you), so you can tell it’s a first novel effort. Overall, it was a pretty good read though.

* (Actually, just found out that the Gilded Age phrase was actually referring to the last 20 years or so of the nineteenth century, but only came into common knowledge about 1920 or so. Thought to be coined by Mark Twain. Huh. Now you know…)

Related Reading:

The Limit – Ada Leverson (1911)

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Owing a review to the great Mike Walmer who had sent me a copy of Ada Leverson’s The Limit last weekend, I read this title. Mike is an excellent promoter of under-estimated and under-read authors, had sent an irresistible taste of this novel, and although I wasn’t familiar with either the title or the author, I plucked it off the pile at the end of last week. And what a fun read!

Leverson was a British writer who is known for her friendship with Oscar Wilde and as a turn-of-the-century witty novelist. Her friendship with Oscar Wilde was tested when he was accused of being gay (at the time, a crime) and when no hotel or inn would accept Wilde as a guest, Leverson and her husband opened up their home as a place to stay, a generous gesture which would lead to “serious challenges” for the Leversons’ other friendships in the future.

So – to the plot: Valentia and Romer are a happily married couple, but Valentia is slightly dismayed that Romer isn’t quite as interesting as she had hoped he would be. For excitement, she turns to Harry de Freyne, her dashing artist cousin, much to the consternation of others in her social circle. Daphne, Valentia’s younger sister, needs to find a husband and a visiting American millionaire seems to fit the bill for the family, but Daphne would much rather marry a young professional soldier. And then there’s Miss Luscombe, Mrs. Wyburn, Miss Westbury, and a young man covered in tattoos with a hobby of collecting theater programs.

So – tons of characters to keep track off, but as with any social commentary in the vein of Jane Austen, you get the hang of who is who and after whom, and by the midway point, you can clearly follow the various machinations of the social system in this small world.

I mentioned Jane Austen, and this narrative is reminiscent of her characters and their struggles to meet and marry the right people. I did at times get a tad confused, but a quick check of the back cover sorted that out in a jiffy. Lots of rather funny repartee between the characters, and loads of strong description of life in London at the fin-de-siècle, this was a quick and rather fun read.

Thank you to Mike!

March 2017 Reading Review

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March was a decidedly stronger reading month for me, but I’m not really sure why it was. I think some of it was that I read shorter page length books for the most part, but not certain. Most of the titles that I chose were NF (only 2 F titles this month), and, though I bow my head in shame, only two female authors and one POC. No really old books either as most of them were from the twentieth century. Interesting. (To me, at least. Maybe not so riveting for you!)

To the books:

This coming month will probably follow a similar reading pattern (in terms of number of books I read). Nothing too stupendous on the immediate horizon, but I’m looking forward to reading more titles from my TBR and less from the library. (My TBR pile is a tiny bit too high for my liking so I’ve instituted a book-buying ban for the next few months. We shall see.)

 

Update: I’ve bought two books this week. Must. Do. Better. 🙂

 

Bedknobs and Broomsticks – Mary Norton (1943)

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Browsing through the shelves, both on-line and in real life, I was searching for a quick read for the Century of Books project, and saw that the old kid classic, Bedknobs and Broomsticks by Mary Norton would fit rather nicely for 1943. So – happily snatched it up and had a pleasant little read. (The U.S. title is singular, though, for reasons unknown, but probably linked with copyright or similar.)

Any time you read a book from long ago, there are going to be differences in how you remember things, and there were a few things about this read that I had (mis-)remembered, but perhaps it’s because I only saw the movie back then….

There’s a big difference, for example, on content and what used to be thought suitable for children (and for the times) can be somewhat jarring. This narrative includes some rather questionable descriptions of cannibalistic “savages” from which one of the characters needs rescuing – it’s amazing to see what was (British culturally) acceptable at the time sometimes. These characters had “kinky hair” and “thick full lips” – the starring characters, naturellement, were white – and so I’m curious if these sort of books are still given to children to read any more in great numbers.

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(For example, my brother had a little book called “Little Black Sambo” by Helen Bannerman (1899) given to him for a b-day present at some point, and we children all adored the book. But looking back at it, regardless of the narrative itself, the illustrations are iffy at best. But them were the times.)

So, back to Bedknobs and Broomsticks….

The edition that I had combined two books, The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, both concerning three kids who move from their home to stay with an old aunt who lives in a small village in Bedfordshire. (Well, blow me over. That’s my home county!! Who would know?) The kids go outside to play and happen to see a woman flying by them on a broomstick who then crashes and they run over to make sure she is ok.

Thus begins the story of how these three city kids become enmeshed in the life of a novice witch who has sworn them to secrecy in exchange for a magic bedknob (corner decoration on the old brass beds) that can time travel. I was prepared for loads and loads of inappropriate cultural references, but the only patch (apart from the previously mentioned one) was when someone gets rather singed when he’s being burned at the stake…

But it seems to have aged rather well. I have no idea if kids today are still exposed to the film or the book, but it’s pretty good and I think the questionable references could be “teachable” moments overall. I am glad to have read this one, and was surprised to learn that actually it’s two stories inside: The Magic Bedknob (where the kids are first given the bedknob) and also Bonfires and Broomsticks (where the kids use the bedknob to time-travel back to the time of King Charles).

So not bad, not good. Just so-so. Norton was also the author of The Borrowers series of books that I adored. Perhaps I should track those down as well…

Let’s do some catch-up…

catch_upSo I’ve been reading, but there seem to have been one or two titles which are good but not quite enough to warrant an individual blog post. Honestly, I don’t think it’s the books’ fault so much as it is the reader’s in each case, so don’t think these books are less worthy or anything. It’s mostly a time thing at the moment.

A Long Way Home – Saroo Brierley (2015).

This is an autobiography written by a young man who grew up very poor in an Indian city and who, one day when he was only five years old, was playing on the train tracks with his older brother when he accidentally got locked into a railway carriage and was whisked away across the country to Mumbai, where he was put into an orphanage and then adopted by an overseas couple. This tale is how, by overcoming all the odds, he found his way home again. (This is the book that the movie Lion is based upon, btw.) It’s a fantastic story – that’s true – but I think the read would have been better if he’d used a professional ghostwriter (or editor) to up his writing game a bit. It was well written (in that there were few grammar errors etc.), but the level of writing was rather fundamental and rather clunky at times. Still a good story though. It might be better to watch the film than read the book.

Trifles – Susan Gaspell (1916)

I had recently been playing around with my Century of Reading (COB) project, and wanted to find a title that would help fill in some of the remaining blanks (not many really). So I searched for “books published in 1916”, and wanting a more esoteric title and something that wasn’t 500 pages long, picked out a play which seemed to fit the bill.

Just to be clear, despite the play being called Trifles, the play is not about that wonderful English confection of jelly/jello, whipped cream and other fine tasty tidbits. It’s used, in this case, in the sense of “seemingly unimportant things usually linked with women and said by men”… :-}

This play (which I’d not heard of before but I’m not a dramatic expert by any means) was interesting and is actually one of those stories that stick in your head for ages after you’ve finished it as you mull over the various interpretations of how it could be read (or played).

Set out in the country of somewhere like the Midwest, the narrative revolves around the death of Mr. Wright, a farmer who lived in a remote house along with his wife (obvs. called Mrs. Wright). The local sheriff and a deputy are searching the home for any clues after learning that Mr. Wright had died by strangulation. Was it a murder, and if so, who did it?

At the same time as the police officials are searching for clues, there are two women from the nearby community also accompanying the two men in a tag-along sort of way. The small community is far from other towns so any news is big news to the local folk. (It’s really interesting, btw, to see how these guys treat the crime scene vs. now how the crime scene is treated i.e. stomping around everywhere… 🙂 )

They are all unsure how to explain the crime until the women find a dead canary….

It’s a pretty good play to read, but I was more happy, TBH, that it filled out a year in the COB project. 🙂

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Library Haul – It’s good to have choices…

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So, as tends to happen on the weekend, I visited the library and ended up leaving with quite the stack. I’m not sure if I will actually get to all of these, but it’s fun to have the choices..

Top to bottom in above image:

        • This Side of Paradise – Scott Fitzgerald 1920 (F)
        • The Crofter and the Laird: Life on an Hebridean Island – John McPhee 1969 (NF)
        • The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig 1968 (NF)
        • Bedknob and Broomstick – Mary Norton 1943 (F)
        • Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways – Larry McMurtry 2000 (NF travel)
        • Dreams from My Father – Barack Obama 1995 (NF – autobiography)
        • As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda – Gail Collins (2012) (NF – political)
        • Eyewitness Books: Sports – Tim Hammond 1988 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Building – Philip Wilkinson 1995 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Castle – Christopher Gravett 1994 (NF)

I was interested to see that the U.S. title for the kidlit book, Bedknob and Broomstick was singular. In my mind and growing up in England, I had always heard it as plural (i.e. Bedknobs and Broomsticks), but that could easily have been a faulty memory on my part. I’m going to read this as part of my ongoing Century of Books project – it fills out 1947 rather nicely.

I am deep into Obama’s autobiography. I miss that guy…

Sula – Toni Morrison (1973)

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The purpose of evil is to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing that they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide – it was beneath them.

Read for a bunch of different reasons (including Black History Month and to fill in a year in my on-going Century of Books project), Sula was a great read once you got into it. It’s not the easiest book to read as it flips back and forth between an experimental style and a more straightforward narrative arc, but once I let go of any notions of expecting the traditional format, it became a really good read. It features two women, both very different from each other and the others in their small community. They meet when they are twelve, and from then on, they float in and out of each other’s lives as they get older and their lives change.

It’s a rather uncomfortable friendship with both friends choosing to be rather direct with each other (and crossing over into mean at times). The dichotomy between the two is around what the book revolves: Sula and Nel are frenemies for most of their years on earth, and it’s not a gentle read at times.

Having both grown up in a small community called The Bottom (although it’s up in the hills), their childhood overlaps and they are inseparable for their adolescent years. It’s not until both are young women that Sula leaves their home town and then disappears for years. Not until much later in their lives, does Sula return to her childhood home changed herself and bringing a tornado of memories and unpleasant truths with her to disrupt the Bottom’s own balanced little world.

It’s a good read with a lyrical tone to the writing – almost sultry and dream-like in places – and the structure of each paragraph reflects what’s happening in the characters (similar in some ways to Zora Neale Hurston and as things get complicated, the sentences become longer and longer and run on — similar to how dreams don’t really start or stop or have a logical arc to them. At first, I was wondering what was going on, but as with other experimental writing I’ve read, I found that the best approach was to just go with the flow and see where you end up. (It’s not even that experimental, really, when you compare this writing to others, but it’s not a straight-up A-Z narrative arc for sure.)

Morrison has written a lot of books, including The Bluest Eye (pre-blog) which I read years ago about a small girl who gets bullied by her school friends due to the color of her eyes. Similar to this read, it’s an uncomfortable and slightly edgy read but it’s really good all the same.

I recently read Morrison’s Beloved, and am looking forward to reading that whole trilogy. I’ve already ordered Jazz from the library. Squee.

Loved it. Highly recommend Morrison’s work.