Wednesday, 5 December 2018

30 Books Before 30: #8 Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

I have a horrifying confession. I used to own Bel Canto by Ann Patchett but, I think because of the uninspiring cover, I never had any inclination to read it and I think it finally left the Rowsell Collection last year when I moved house.

This, I now see, was a terrible mistake. Commonwealth was SO good, you guys. Like, disturbing levels of goodness that I'm obviously incoherent about and obviously won't even be able to express properly because I am me (why do I even have a book blog? Not sure) This book is like a masterclass in storytelling - I was reading this whilst also trying to do NaNoWriMo and not only did it make me feel like a terrible writer, reading it also became the only thing I wanted to be doing which sounded the death knell for my own novel (don't worry. It wasn't any good)

The storyyy though. Let's see. Commonwealth is told in a non-linear way which I LOVE and it follows one very complex family through about a fifty year period. I think that sounds like it could be a long and rambling mess, but in fact Patchett chooses key moments from each of the characters lives and weaves them together into this amazing story. There is one main narrative moment that the stories revolve around, and it's perfect as a framing device but in the end it's only as important as all the other stories around it and I love that. I think writing at the same time as reading this only made me understand and appreciate the perfection that lay behind the crafting of this story, and so I appreciated it that bit more.

That still didn't tell you anything about the actual story, huh? Ok so. The novel opens at a baby's christening party, where I can remember none of the characters names but where the (married) mother of this new baby catches the eye of a bright young lawyer, changing both of their lives and the course of their two families' lives too. When I said that this is told over a fifty year period, what I mean is, this is the first chapter and then in the second chapter, the aforementioned baby is about 50 years old and accompanying her just young and healthy dad to a chemo appointment. The story unfolds in much the same way, going backwards and forwards throughout the years and circling around the same crucial moment.

What I especially love about this book is the tricky combining-of-families aspect of it. I think it's because my family life growing up was so normal, but I really really love well told tales of family combinations, and this one combines the two girls of one family with the four children from the other, and that combination is irresistible. There aren't even that many parts of the story where they're all together, but there is the constant impact that their time spent together has on the rest of their lives. They become interwoven in interesting and unexpected ways and did I mention that it's all just so good?

My favourite part of the story, though, was not even especially a part of the story. The (sort of) main character (also the baby from the very first chapter!) meets a famous author (which actually is a big part of the novel) and he asks her if she wants to be a writer. Her response: "No, I wanted to be a reader". I mean, same. So much the same that I still find it gross that you can't make money just from reading books and having thoughts about them, because ugh that is unfair. This happens fairly early on in the book, so that made me feel a certain kinship with this character and this book and just everything and yes.

So, yeah. This list did once again not steer me wrong, and I'm so glad it led me to this book. I now really really need to find whatever charity shop I donated Bel Canto to and get it back, and I also need to read all of the other things because oh Ann Patchett, you are a most excellent Ann, just like Ann(e) Tyler and Ann M Martin. Ten thousand thumbs up.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Things I Read In November

Ah, November. I really was motivated at the start of the month to do NaNoWriMo, but that motivation veeeery slowly ebbed away as I remembered that I really can't write at all but also mainly that I was quite knackered by work this month and just... didn't want to write? I think what this has done, more than anything, is made me realise that actually if I do want to write, I don't really have to limit it to one month a year and write like a maniac in that time, ya know?

Apart from not-writing, this month has really been quite busy and tiring at work. I'm still new enough that there are lots of things I need to learn, but then I've also been alone and holding the fort for a few days which is also exhausting. However, I had already booked the last week of the month off for annual leave, and so this last week has been me and my honey hanging out and resting and cleaning the house ready for Christmas decorating today (!!!!!!) In book news, we hung out with Katie and Bex in Rochester (always an excellent time!) and went to Cambridge, mainly because I'd never been there before and also this doesn't really have anything to do with books except that I bought a couple there.

Anyway. Reading! Because of the lack of NaNoWriMo, I read more than I had anticipated this month, although still less than most months because I did also get about 15,000 words in before abandoning novel. I would definitely have finished more books but I am currently reading The Count of Monte Cristo and it is the longest thing ever (and also a lot of fun!) and it kind of gets in the way of all other reading. But still, here are November's books:

Let's dive right in:

Wise Children by Angela Carter
Angela Carter writes some really weird books, but there was so much I liked about this one. It's essentially the story of twins, who are the children of a twin and half sisters with two other sets of twins and this is only the start of the weirdness. These twins, Nora and Dora are old, now, but this book is the story of their lives in showbusiness as well as their struggle to connect with their father who refuses to publicly recognise them. There's so much to this book and it is crazy and touching and pretty damn good all at the same time. Also I'm pretty into stories told by old ladies because that is not an age group we are not allowed to hear about much and I am here for it.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Full review of this is upcoming, but I really really incredibly loved this family saga it is so good and I feel like I didn't understand until now how good Ann Patchett is, my eyes have been opened. Please send me all the Ann Patchett books, stat.

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
I feel weird about his book after reading a review of it that talks about white privilege a lot, and I will explore this more in its upcoming review (I think, who knows what will actually come out of my brain when I sit down to write!) but this memoir was very well written, which I fully expected as Levy writes for The New Yorker. More to be revealed soon(ish).

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This novel is epic and well researched and fascinating and made me want to learn a lot lot more about the relationship between Korea and Japan. I have a few qualms about it (like, mostly anger at the characters, but there were also characters I wanted to hear more from, and others less) but mostly I found it absorbing and upsetting and just in general a really good read. More to be discussed in its full review (at...some point in life).

Runaway by Alice Munro
Ah, Alice Munro. She's really the queen of short stories, eh? I really really liked this collection, not least because there are three short stories that all connect which is, of course, my most favourite thing. The stories are all loosely tied together by women running away (as the title suggests!) from various situations, and they are just in general a delight to read. So good and true and excellent and there is even a mention of periods which basically never happens in fiction but yes this is an inevitable fact of life, thank you Alice. I didn't realise that this was my second collection of Munro short stories for this year, which makes me feel not-great about their ability to stick in my head, but I know for sure that I have an excellent time reading them, so what more can I ask for?

So yeah, that was November! I read books exclusively by women which of course I LOVE, as long as you ignore all the time spent plugging away at The Count of Monte Cristo (good Cristo that book is so very long). It's December now (yes this post took about three days to write, v sorry) so who knows how much chance I'll have to read, but you KNOW I'll report back at the end of the month with the always exciting (maybe only to me...) end of year stats! YAY CHRISTMAS!

Thursday, 29 November 2018

30 Books Before 30: #7 The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I have already read and reviewed this for the blog before (see! It's right here) so I don't really want to write a regular review of it because, see previous review and same. This reading was interesting in that it was the first time I'd read the book since watching the TV show, and so naturally my brain went into overdrive comparing and contrasting the two.

What I was most impressed about when considering this was just how right the TV show feels when held up next to the book. The book and TV show part ways narratively after season one, where Offred is, just like at the end of the book, taken away in a mysterious van. Season two decides, kind of depressingly, that this van does not take her to salvation but to more of Gileadean hell, but what amazes me when reading the book is just how correct this hell feels with relation to the book narrative. It's like the TV show takes the original story and runs with it, opening up the world that Atwood created and showing a much wider view of it than we're able to see from Offred's limited eyes in the novel.

I JUST REALLY LIKE THE TV SHOW OK?! (Not so sure about Atwood's sequel but I'm reserving judgement on it until I can actually read it for myself)

With the books on this 30 Before 30 list that I've already read, I'm aiming to look at why I think they were included on the list in the first place. The list itself is pretty opaque on its reasoning other than, like, 'this book is good' so I'm happy to make my own guesses on this. The Handmaid's Tale has, with women's rights under threat from every direction and a literal crazy (white man) sitting in the White House, become more and more relevant as the world gets scarier and more uncertain. I guess reading it as an under 30 makes it clearer just how much its events would affect the young - women would be eligible to be monthly, government mandated rape victims, men could be suppressed in their natural urges, or, more likely, dead - and just how quickly these things can take place.

I doubt this book was included in the list because we're under any real threat of its events unfolding, but more because, even a less extreme version of The Handmaid's Tale society is too much. As is the case with almost everything, this is the kind of book that needs to be read by people who won't do so, but if it alters the perceptions of even a few people then I think it's done a pretty good job. This time round of reading, I was terrified as ever, but with thanks also to the TV show, it really really hit home to me that in this society, I would not be allowed to read. And what would be the point of living, in a society like that? Exactly.

In short, I was glad to have the opportunity to read this book again (as if I need a reason) and, you know, I think it's a pretty important one for everyone to read before they're 30. I'm going to allow it to stay on the list (cause I have a say in that) and it hopefully goes without saying that I think you should read it too, young reader.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

30 Books Before 30: #6 When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

You guys. This book. I'm going to try to not be ridiculous and gushing about it and talk about it sensibly but the second I finished it, in one morning I might add, I deleted the facebook and instagram apps from my phone so believe me, it's had an impact on my life.* Let's see how I got there.

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, a father and a husband, and a really very good writer. He died aged 37 of lung cancer, and left behind this complete jewel of a memoir - written while he was sick and edited and completed after his death by his wife. It's incredibly moving, not only because you know that this is what he spent the last year or so of his life completing, but because his meditations on life and death are incredible and thoughtful and, through getting to know him through this book, you feel his loss so deeply at the end that you honestly feel as though you've lost a dear friend.

The first half of this book takes you through the majority of Kalanithi's life, before his cancer diagnosis, and my GOD the man was interesting. Far from being certain of being a doctor, Kalanithi took two degrees in English Literature, got a masters in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, and then chose to go to medical school and rather than getting a PhD in English Literature, his other path. Kalanithi, then, was a person with so many paths open to him, and could have been accomplished in so many areas, but chose medicine. I'm a little bit in awe of him, in case you couldn't tell.

The second part of the book, then, takes place after Kalanithi's diagnosis. It actually became pretty hard to read at this point, because dammit I liked the guy and, you know what, I didn't want him to die even though I knew both that this is a memoir, and that it was published post humorously. Kalanithi's approach to his illness left me as much in awe of him as his academic achievements - he kept going, as much as he could, he carried on being a neurosurgeon, he kept on living, even when he was dying. He lived as fully as he could for as long as he could, looking at amazing job opportunities that he didn't know if he'd be alive to take, but, as he puts it - no one knows if they will be. For him, the problem with knowing his time was limited was in not knowing exactly how limited it was - if he had 10 years, he'd go into neuroscience, one year, he'd write a book, but as he acknowledges - no one ever really knows how much time they have left.

Which brings us to me, really. His wife has an afterword in this book that I basically cried throughout, but her words of love and awe for her husband are really the perfect end to this book. Somewhere in there, she talks about how he lived each day to the full as much as he was able to, both before and after diagnosis, and that hit me really deeply because how much have I ever lived each day to the full? Basically never. This is not to say that I'm now going to become a neurosurgeon (I don't think that's my life path) or even that I'm necessarily going to become anything much at all, but it does mean that I decided that I want to live more purposefully, or even just be more present, which for me has meant taking my eyes away from my phone screen a lot more, even if it's just to be looking at a book instead - it's still something.

I don't really know if this review got across how much this book truly affected me, but I honestly can't think of another time that a book has made me DO SOMETHING in real life in such a way. I got this book from the library because of poverty, but I know that it's one I'm going to need to keep around me, for when I need the strength and dignity of a wonderful person to inspire and comfort me. It's not nearly enough of a consolation for him dying so ridiculously young, but I think it's still something, to keep affecting people in such a way, even after he's gone.

Just read this book, ok?

*That may not sound like a big deal, but honestly I had been spending a butt ton of time on them that could and should have been spent on just better things so yes. Impact.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

30 Books Before 30: #5 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is probably the book that I have been told to read the most, and that shocks people the most when I tell them I haven't read it. The marvellous Bex bought it for me ages and ages ago now during some kind of bookswap event thing, and still I did not read it, I think because other things always jumped out at me more. And like, AS IF I even like sci-fi, you know?

I do like sci-fi, but even if I didn't, it wouldn't really matter because The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy isn't really a sci-fi book. I mean, obviously it is, there are aliens and spaceships and all of that good stuff, but what it really is is a comedy book. I mean, everyone probably already knows this because everyone has read this book, but it is so funny - the observations about people and Earth and, well, everything, are just so spot on and funny, and I feel like a part of the pop culture sphere that was previously a mystery to me now makes complete sense.

Like towels! I know what towel day is, and how important towels are now! I know that the meaning of life is 42, whatever that means! I finally know what this book is about and it is kind of nonsense, but it is the best possible kind of nonsense, and completely and fully entertaining. I mean, nice work having good taste, everyone I know, because this book is pretty special and hilarious and just yes, very good.

Also, very British, have I mentioned that? Arthur Dent, the main, well, earthling, is incredibly, quintessentially British and baffled throughout, which just makes everything that much sweeter for me personally because Arthur I know you! You are basically everyone I know in this country! The humour, too, is very British in its nonsense, and silliness and just generally taking the piss, and I am genuinely interested in non-British readers and how they find this book - did you love it because you have an excellent sense of humour, or did you wonder what the f was happening? There are no wrong answers!

I realise I have written all this and not really said anything useful, but it's mainly because I feel as though everyone has read this already and ALSO because I read it ages ago now and AS IF I can remember any details about it. I also have another question: do we read the sequels? How do we all feel about them? Are they things we read or do we just nod about their existence and then move on with our lives? All I know is that the first book is very good, and thank goodness I've finally read it!

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

RIP Reads that didn't really do it for me

I was going to review the following two books separately, because one is from my 30 before 30 list whereas the other I read purely for RIP XIII. However, they both fell down for me in similar ways, so to avoid being too repetitive, I've decided to whack them together in one post to try and examine exactly what it was that didn't work for me in each case. Let's go!

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin (30 before 30: #4)
I pretty much solely read this book because it was on my 30 before 30 list and I'll be damned if I can resist a challenge. I don't know why I couldn't really get into this book, but I think it might have had something to do with the fact that you are quite literally just dropped onto another planet without proper context, and from there you're left to just run along after the narrative without any real help from the author. I'm not saying this book isn't clear, but it took me a very very long time to realise that there were two different narrators, not one, and I don't think it's because I wasn't paying enough attention.

It's a shame, too, because there are one or two soulful, interesting, life lessons-y moments that made me go 'oh! Oh right! THAT'S why this book made that list', like the below:
"Gethenians could make their vehicles go faster, but they do not. If asked why not, they answer 'why?' Like asking Terrans why all our vehicles must go so fast; we answer 'why not?' No disputing tastes. Terrans tend to feel they've got to get ahead, make progress. The people of Winter, who always live in the Year One, feel that progress is more important than presence."
And also, I mean, this one:
"'The unknown... the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God, there would be no religion... But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion... Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable - the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?'
'That we shall die.'
'Yes. There's really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer... The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.'"
Good, right? But, both of these little nuggets of goodness are contained within the first 70 pages and egh, I can't even tell you what the plot was, honestly. There were some very well written parts, of course, and some deep deep messages, but for the most part I was bewildered and confused and also huh? If the writing was good, the storytelling was, in my opinion, somewhat lacking.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (RIP XIII Book the Fourth)
Similarly to The Left Hand of Darkness, Something Wicked This Way Comes is very well written. Something Wicked also has the advantage of having a plot that one can follow, and that is a Very Good Thing indeed. The premise of the novel itself is incredibly creepy - a circus blows into a town and, rather than being a joyful place for children and adults to visit, is a horror show of epic proportions. There's a carousel that can fling you forwards and backwards in time, a hall of mirrors where you can get lost forever, and the circus folk quite literally stalk our two boy heroes across town.

HOWEVER. Bear with me, because the thing I am about to say is kind of stupid, but it's also the exact truth. For me, the fact that this novel is so well written turned into a weakness because it somehow managed to make it less creepy. The beautiful writing (and the writing is beautiful) creates a distance between the horror of the events and the reader, so as I was reading, I was distracted by the beautiful sentences and so was less scared than I could have been. This sounds like a really stupid complaint, but it's relevant - the writing style needs to match the tone trying to be created, otherwise dammit I'm going to be distracted because the excellent language is keeping me at a distance from the story.

So, yes. These books were not my favourite, but they weren't exactly terrible either. I'm sure they have their audiences and are much beloved by others, but not so much by me.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Things I Read In October

October felt kind of long. Remember when January this year was about a thousand years long, mainly because January always is but also because it started on a Monday? I think that was part of the problem with October. At the same time, though, October feels as though it's flown by, and this combination is always the weirrrrdest. I mean, I've applied, been interviewed for, and gotten the permanent version of the job that I was already doing, but it also feels like I've only just returned to work after my week off at the end of September. WEIRD.

October has been a bit of a poorly month in my household - we've had to cancel two attempts to visit Kew Gardens because firstly I had a gross cold, and then because my boyfriend had a (different, we think!) gross cold. This is ok, we'll make it there one day, and we've been doing a lot of relaxing and laying down and also drinking lots of fluids cause, you know, health. I've also been trying to not feel too Christmassy yet and mostly failing - I've started buying Christmas presents already because of spreading those costs out, and this coming weekend we're going to start a movie countdown to Christmas by starting the Harry Potter movies (one a week takes us right up to the weekend before Christmas!) So, yeah. Trying to keep cool about Christmas but mostly failing, but also trying.

What have I been reading though? I think I heard a whisper in the back asking that, so let's have a look:
OOOOH, books. Let's discuss.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
I... Did not love this book. I've written a miniature review (forthcoming!) explaining why, but mostly I found it confusing and just didn't love either the way it was written or the story itself. Pretty conclusive there, I guess, but yeah, not for me.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
THIS book, however, is a pretty fab little nugget of humour and excellence! I have also written a review of this (you're going to see that a lot in this post, and HOW WEIRD IS THAT?! This is a book that I've been meaning to read for, honestly, about half my life, so I'm so glad it's one finally ticked off the list, not least because I enjoyed it quite a lot. Don't delay reading books so much, kids!

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
JOE HILL IS AWESOME. Once again, I have reviewed this already, but the short version is that this is a collection of 4 novellas and they are all fabulous and terrifying and I am very into Joe Hill at this length of story.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
I have reviewed this too, try not to be scared! I was moderately underwhelmed by this one, because (and I discuss this further in my review) I felt like the language and the story didn't meld very well, so that I felt as though I should be very scared, but I was not, in fact, very scared. Maybe it's just me, but it's how I felt.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I am going to review this one so I don't want to say too much but this book was incredible and moving and even, for me, very slightly life changing (on a really small scale) and I have no idea how to approach a review of it so yes. We'll see how that goes but please read the heck out of this book.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
I'm ALSO going to (re) review this book (please don't have a heart attack) but come on. It's The Handmaid's Tale. Read it, watch it, be scared, don't let it become non-fiction.

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
I don't have an actual plan to review this book (I know, what a relief) but considering I'm in the process of reading another Angela Carter at the moment, I might do a little joint review post for both of them. This book was so good and weird and kind of upsetting - a 15 year old girl has to go and live above a toyshop with a tyrannical uncle and mute aunt and you know what, there's no way I can describe this book and how unsettling it is in words. You're going to have to read it, I'm afraid, and let me know how unsettled you are.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
OMG you guys. This book is 649 pages long, and I read it feverishly over two evenings after work, plus the bus ride to work in between. I barely moved, during all of the time I spent reading it, and I somehow spent the day at work in between actually getting work completed as opposed to just going home to finish reading this book. This is of course a detective novel so I can't tell you anything about the plot at all, but you know what? JK can spin a yarn. I'm not even sure how I feel about the plot or the ending or anything, but I know that this was fucking readable and just so exciting and well paced and GOOD SO GOOD. I love a good Galbraith.

Books books books are so good. I feel like I'm in an extremely good reading place at the moment, not least because I've been dedicating more time to it with my lack of social media usage, and I feel like I'm more able to focus and whatnot. Also, you know, it's cold and dark outside a lot and I don't even have to feel a tiny bit bad about staying inside and reading (not, you know, that I would anyway). November is going to bring NaNoWriMo back into my life, so who knows how much reading I'll get done, but you know I'll give it my best shot.