On Reading…

Reading is an exquisite gift, particularly when a book impacts you in such a way that it dents the soul. Not all books do this, yet they too have their place.

Coming from a family of predominantly non-readers I was fortunate to be indulged and never censored in my choice of reading material. Earliest memories are of the ‘Golden Books’ range from the supermarket. I still remember being devastated at the ending of ‘Frosty the Snowman’ while wishing I had a friend like ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’.

My oldest friend Nat and I spent a few winters consuming the Trixie Beldon series. I still recall the method Trixie would use to memorise the details of a scene, at the time I was sure I too would need this skill when I became a detective. A love for the mystery genre took hold of Nat, while I went on to horror. In year seven there was Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot’. I was terrified, unable to sleep with the book cover facing up. I still love a psychological thriller be it a book or movie. When I need a quick fix, I pull out Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. Old nursery rhymes and fairy tales hold a particular fascination and I’ll randomly open ‘Grimm’s Fairytales’ and marvel at the truly frightful scenes we read as children. As an adult, it’s probably the only short story form that I’m regularly drawn back to.

In 1991 I bought ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis; R rated, cellophane wrapped and found on the top shelf, I was curious. There’s still a bookmark in page 247. I just couldn’t go on, this represents real horror to me.

Before the library was built at my primary school, I would spend hours in the book room. Always alone as it was the size of a small walk-in- robe and only one person would be able to fit at a time. Here I found Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. I was captivated by the register, tone and momentum of the style even if I didn’t know it at the time. A master to be revisited.

Every now and then I’m drawn into the world of the self-help genre and Stephanie Dowrick’s ‘Finding Happiness’ is divinely positive and life affirming, living in my bedside drawer for whenever I want a fix. Aspects of Stephen Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ have become part of my core. It’s my compound book, I absorb a little more every time I dip into it. However, it was Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’ that rescued me when a junction in life rendered me unable to read for a year, allowing me to escape into the mind of a genius. Reading is so much about headspace at the time that occasionally a book chooses me, not I it. Such as it was with the cover of Catherine Therese’s ‘The Weight of Silence’. I still smile every time I see it.

I coveted Patrick White for years, yet he was a beast that eluded me until the ‘The Tree of Man.’ What sublime perfection. White fused pleasure on pleasure. While driving one day, my friend Sandy was reading some of her favourite passages, I didn’t want to reach our destination! I’m a note taker when I read. Across the page (always in pencil) you’ll find symbols, thoughts, ideas to follow up and underlined passages, I see it as my journey through a book. I almost gave up this for ‘The Tree of Man’ as just about every line needed annotating. I want a book to make me feel something, be it pain, sadness, anger, exhilaration or simple joy. White did all that.

Some years back I joined a cult book club and was introduced to science fiction, among them being the ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. I may not voluntarily revisit this genre but I’m glad I went there. Irvine Welsch’s ‘Trainspotting’ felt like pepper being thrown in my eyes with every line, yet it didn’t take long to consume me with its wit and humour.

When I need my faith in a great story and polished writing restored, I take refuge in the classics. It’s rocks like Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ or Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’ that I revisit in my mind often.

The robust debate and controversy of ‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas was the gift that kept on giving, months of lively discussions followed.

I almost finished the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy, my thoughts mattered little as I was truly fascinated that a book could engage and consume conversations of so many men and women. Friends who I never knew to pick up a book were actually reading.

As an apartment dweller and regular traveller, the e-reader now has a firm place, but never for texts or reference material, or poetry, or Shakespeare! ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac came to me as an app and it was an immersive, interactive and sensory experience with photographs and added commentary interspersed. I now have the bragging rights to ‘Moby Dick’. I tackled this monster on a road trip, alternating between the hard copy and an audio stream. Often, I pulled the car over to read alongside the audio, a fabulous tool to combat the density of some of the prose.

My first graphic novel was ‘The Great Gatsby’ by Nicki Greensberg, what a wondrous way to add a new dimension to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. Forevermore I will visualise Daisy as a strange newborn chick and Gatsby as the elusive sea horse.

Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ was a physical experience. Hyperventilating and overcome by tears for some 20 pages, I was haunted for months. Such depth and quality of writing is like the undertow of the ocean, if you allow yourself to drift long enough it will eventually take you.

Brain clearing books are my own personal genre and at times I default to them. They don’t demand too much, they simply entertain with a story, offering the balm that we all need when our schedule gets a tad gruelling. Courtney, Picoult, Deaver, Beauman, and some more recent inductees being Moriaty and Harper.

Historical fiction is a fascinating way to passively learn. Dave Eggers, ‘What is the What’, delivered exactly what it said it would “At the heart of this astonishing, soul-wrenching novel is a true story of courage and endurance in the face of one of the most brutal civil wars the world has ever known” by providing an insight into the plight of Sudanese refugees minus the preaching works for me.

I’m not going to speculate what life would be like if I couldn’t read, there will always be a book, no matter what form it takes.  With blindness running in my family I went through a phase of toying with the idea of learning braille. However, reading takes many forms and audio editions are fine too. There’s Alan Rickman reciting Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ -My Mistress Eyes, or Ralph Fiennes’s reading of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ and Noel Pearson’s eulogy to Gough Whitlam is among some of the most emotive speeches ever written. Technology is improving all the time, and someone will perfect the e-reader so that it doesn’t sound so automated and that’s saying nothing about what a pleasure it is to have someone read to you, I’ll take that if that’s my lot in later years!

Quarterly Bookclub 7 – Wrap

NEXT MEETUP: Friday 14th June 2019

BOOK: ‘No Friend but the Mountains’ by Behrouz Boochani (translated by Omid Tofighan)

I have a dilemma. How do I write about a book that I don’t like? Do I write nothing at all? I’m torn because I take my hat off to anyone who has written a book, published or not. I haven’t. I’m awed by the sheer will and determination one must possess to complete such a project. Right now, I don’t have it. Perhaps I may never have it. Although like a lot of people some part of me believes that there’s a book in me somewhere, at some future time in my life. Who knows? And if there is, will I have the courage to put it out into the world? Because it’s courage and fortitude and resilience that’s needed to open yourself up to not just critique but also criticism. Maybe the answer is to simply not include those books I don’t connect with for whatever reason.

The space I’m in right now yearns for more kindness and generosity in this world. If I put something out to there, am I responsible for the effects of that? Even if those effects don’t find their way back to the subject of my words? Yes. I am.

Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m only going to talk about books that I do like. Perhaps that looks like a 3+ star rating. And, give respect to all that put their labour’s out there for the rest of us to make of them what we will.

So, given this, check out my review on Richard Powers ‘The Overstory’ (create link to blog post). What a popular choice this was for a bookclub read even if we hadn’t all quite made it to the end, but the consensus was that we would all finish. When you read a book about the human exploitation of the natural resource of trees, it’s hard not to think about the merit of buying hard copy books. Some of us are unlikely to embrace the e-reader movement because the time spent with a book is as much a tactile experience as it is an emotional and intellectual one and each of these contribute so much to the experience of reading. Then there are those of us that for practical reasons like the lack of bookshelf availability, the ability to customise the text size and simple convenience are starting to be drawn further into the e-book world. I for one, can add just a little bit of guilt to the mix of buying physical books after reading ‘The Overstory’, but there will always be exceptions!

One of the topics that we discussed was books that have made an impact on each of us. It was fascinating to not only hear our stories but to watch each other as we talked about these experiences, each person’s face gave away so much more than our words could have done on their own. As a follow-up I’ve written a piece called ‘On Reading…’ featuring a tribute to some of my memories with books that have made my reading life to date so vivid.

Book Review: The Overstory

By: Richard Powers

Review:

The Overstory is nothing short of epic. The writing is original, insightful and challenging. I feel like I’ve been led on a journey through the forest of Powers mind, and it is a place of ‘fluid beauty’ (p.61). Like the central character – the trees – the storyline spirals out like annual growth rings, building layers of sublime narrative to merge the deep connections of humanity and nature. One of the many messages is that we need to listen with more humility and then perhaps we might be able to see.

‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story’ (p. 336). And Powers sure has delivered just that, a story that’s impossible not to be changed by.

Pages: 493

Genre: Literary Fiction

Awards: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018

Reviewer: Jody

Book Blurb:

The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond:

An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling in a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A Hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing and speech impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another.

These four, and five other strangers – each summoned in different ways by trees – are brought together in a last violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. There is a world alongside ours – vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

Book Review: Unsheltered

By: Barbara Kingsolver

Review: I’m drawn to family sagas, and Unsheltered is just that. It interweaves the story of two families connected by the same house yet separated by 150 years. While not one of Kingsolvers finest, it’s passable and for me it fits into the ‘Brain Clearing’ category. Structurally, it alternates chapters between the two families, dedicating good chunks each and allowing for reasonably well developed characters, even if it is a tad repetitive at times. It’s certainly a worthy read if for nothing other than the historical references, particularly those relating to the theories of Charles Darwin and the public’s responses at the time.

Pages: 480

Genre:Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Brain Clearing

Published:November 2018

Reviewer:Jody

Blurb:

2016 Vineland

Meet WillaKnox, a woman who stands braced against an upended world that seems to hold normercy for her shattered life and family – or the crumbling house that containsher.

1871 Vineland

ThatcherGreenwood, the new science teacher, is a fervent advocate of the work ofCharles Darwin, and he is keen to communicate his ideas to his students. Butthose in power in Thatcher’s small town have no desire for the new world order.Thatcher and his teachings are not welcome.

Both Willa and Thatcher resist the prevailing logic. Bothe are asked to pay a high price fortheir courage. But both also find inspiration – and an unlikely kindred spirit– in Mary Treat, a scientist, adventurer and anachronism.

A testament to both the resilience and persistent myopia of the human condition, Unsheltered explores the foundations we build in life, spanning time and place to give us all a clearer look at those around us, and perhaps ourselves. It is a novel that speaks truly to our times.

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

By: Anthony Doerr

Review: Filled with beautifully crafted and poetic passages, it’s one of the most absorbing books that I’ve read in a long time. The story weaves around the lives of two families, transcending the WW2 setting to capture such vivid imagery that it’s as mesmerising as it’s sublime with a touch of magical realism.

It’s filled with philosophical passages that made me pause, re-read and take a moment to allow them to subsume into my thoughts. There’s an energy about this book that captured me for the duration, a true gift to a reader.

Pages: 528

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015

Reviewer: Jody

Book Blurb: For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.

In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

Book Review: Lolita

By: Vladimir Nabokov

Review: Lolita has been on my shelf for many years, a book I’ve picked up and put down often. Knowing the subject matter, it feels like I’m violating my ethical code to even open the front cover. After coming out the other side of Lolita, I can say that this is a book primarily about the deep emotional battles of troubled souls. You can sense that this is an author who loves words, yet the words sometimes suffocate, even though this is some of the most beautifully polished prose you will encounter. It’s every bit a classic. At times I was deeply troubled and despairing about where I was being led, and each time Nabokov anticipated this reaction. He would address the reader directly, asking us to persist and stay with him. A writer that can challenge and manipulate our compassion and empathy between such flawed characters so effectively is a true literary master.

Pages: 309

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published: 1959

Reviewer: Jody

Book Blurb: ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.’

Poet and pervert, Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed by twelve-year-old Lolita and seeks to possess her, first carnally and then artistically, out of love, ‘to fix once and for all the perilous magic of nymphets’. This seduction is one of many dimensions in Nabokov’s dizzying masterpiece, which is suffused with a savage humour and rich, elaborate verbal textures.

Book Review: Tales From Shakespeare

by Charles and Mary Lamb

Review: Being the perennial mover that I am, there are a number of favored books that fit into the ‘never to be packed’ category. This little gem is one of those. Written in 1807 by a brother and sister – who incidentally have their own troubled history – and still in print today, is a synopsis of sixteen of Shakespeare’s plays. This book comes out every time I’m going to a one of the featured productions or before I read the full play, see a film reproduction or even when I hear the slightest reference. It’s simply part of my prep work, and Shakespeare for me, is always a reward that deserves more of my attention and effort. While no substitute for the real thing it’s fabulous as a first reference.

Pages: 256

Genre: Reference

Themes/topics: Shakespeare’s plays.

Published: 1807

Reviewer: Jody

Book Blurb: Charles Lamb was born in London in 1775, and educated at Christ’s Hospital. He was employed in the South Sea House in 1789-92, and in the India House from 1792 to 1825. In 1796 his siter Mary, in a fit of insanity, fatally stabbed her mother, and Charles undertook her guardianship himself. He began his literary work in the same year, by contributing four sonnets to a volume of poems by Coleridge. The Tales of Shakespeare, written in collaboration with his sister, appeared in 1807, and the celebrated Essays of Elia began in the London Magazine in 1820. He latterly lived with his sister at Enfield, and died at Edmonton in 1834.

Book Review: Home Fire

by Kamila Shamsie

Review: This is a book that matters. It makes us think about what can sometimes be seen as a paradox between the law and what is justice. We’re confronted with questioning how society views family loyalty, politics, race and religion and how the decisions we make impact each of our lives and what is means to feel connected and to belong. This is a book that challenges our world view by asking us to consider the different perspectives when it comes to extremism by opening the door to a level of understanding of the choices that individuals make.

I was captivated by Shamsies’ retelling of Sophocles ancient tragedy of Antigone, and compelled to explore a deeper understanding of how the classic is re-imagined through the contemporary setting. They’re both overwhelmingly good.

Pages: 288

Genre: Literary Fiction

Awards: Woman’s Prize for Fiction 2018, Book of the Year 2015: Guardian; Observer; Telegraph; New Statesman; Evening Standard; New York Times, Shortlisted for the Coasta novel Award 2017, Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Reviewer: Jody

Blurb: Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong, sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his birthright to lie up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

A contemporary re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.

Book Review: ‘Ghostly Tales: Spine-chilling Stories of the Victorian Age’, illustrations by Bill Bragg

Review: Give me a good psychological horror, add in a hardback edition with haunting illustrations and the subtle formality of the writing style of the 1800’s, and you’ve nailed one of my many reading pleasures! This is a collection of seven short stories, some familiar and some new to me. Although none are truly terrifying, I must confess as I was driving home a week ago in the midst of a storm, a modern version of Amelia B. Edwards, ‘The Phantom Coach’, was playing out in my mind. Through these stories I was reminded of the mastery of Dickens with ‘The Signalman’, while being introduced to F. Marion Crawford, who had me sitting by the fire, three parts gone with a glass of Hulstkamp, right beside Captain Charles Braddock while listening to his tale of the screaming skull. Every now and then we need to be reminded of what good writing is, and it’s right here.

Pages: 175

Genre: Horror

Reviewer: Jody

Blurb: A vengeful phantom lurks in a country graveyard. A whaling crew becomes trapped on a haunted ship. A human skull is kept locked in a cupboard, but sometimes at night, it screams….This collection of tales will transport you to a time when staircases creaked in old manor houses, and a candle could be blown out by a gust of wind, or by a passing ghost. Penned by some of the greatest Victorian novelists and masters of the ghost story genre, these stories come alive alongside exquisitely eerie art in this special illustrated edition.

Source: Dubin, E. (Designed by), Ghostly Tales: Spine-chilling Stories of the Victorian Age’, illustrations by Bill Bragg, (2017), Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

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