Category Archives: Short and sweet

And here are the books I read while I was away…

Over the past few months I guess I maybe haven’t read as much as I usually would. I’m not sure if that was just being very busy doing other things, or a bit of reading-fatigue.

I do think I felt less motivated to read as my head was so full of ‘to-dos’ and, as you may have gathered from my previous post on blogging principles it had started to feel a bit like a chore. Participants of Riverside Readers will also recognise that the selection below are almost exclusively book group choices. When you’re on a slow-reading run, reading a monthly book group choice can mean you don’t get to read much else but thankfully our members made some good choices.

Favourites;

Wide Sargasso Sea was my choice for Riverside Readers, a dark and moving tale which imagines the background and once vibrant personality of Antoinette Cosway a character Rhys plucks from Jane Eyre. Rhys’ sparing prose and darkly vivid descriptions of post-colonial Jamaica kept me spellbound. One that I would like to re-read.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus will always bring me fond memories, as I was reading it during my holiday to Prague where I became engaged to be married. It was such a delight to read about the magical world of the circus and it’s also a romantic story on many levels. Unusually for a book I’m enjoying, I found myself wanting to read it slowly so that I could savour it. One of the things that I loved was how the circus popped up all around the world (including Prague) so I could enjoy the descriptions of all the places that I have been. I also loved the imaginative characters.

Sweet Tooth is the last book I put down. A certain Savidge Reads gave me a copy about a month ago – we are both big fans of McEwan. I was a little uncertain about how much I would enjoy it as his last book Solar (review here) was was well written and topical but I wasn’t blown away with it as I was with other novels like Atonement or Enduring Love. In the end, it was that perfect combination of being both enjoyable to read and clever too. I also enjoyed reading from the point of view of Serena and the secret service plot-line although the storyline turned out a little differently than I thought it might – in a good way.

Worth checking out;



I also enjoyed Charlotte Rogan’s debut The Lifeboat which uses the plot device of  a stranded lifeboat to examine human behaviour in a claustrophobic and life-threatening situation. For me it read like a very well written television series – it was gripping but ultimately accounts of human behaviour under pressure such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Shute’s On The Beach (review here) disturbed me much more deeply.

God’s Own Country was excellent and also very dark. In the wild setting of the North Yorkshire countryside we meet local Sam Marsdyke who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young girl who has just moved to the area with her family. Raisin keeps the reader in an ambiguous haze as to Sam’s mindset – is he just a naive country bumpkin or are his motives more sinister?

The House of Sleep is the first novel that I’ve read by Jonathan Coe and one that I very much enjoyed. Featuring an insomniac and a narcoleptic who have a tormented relationship as well as a slightly evil doctor who studies sleeping habits it is an original and involving story. I found the narrative at the start of the book which jumps between different time periods a little confusing, but the way that the plot develops towards the end is very satisfying.

Fifty Shades of Grey. Well a friend gave me a copy of this though I’m not ashamed to admit that I was intrigued to read it. Long story short – a bit racy (oh I sound like a maiden aunt don’t I?!) but not that racy in the scheme of things (you’re wondering what else I’ve been reading now…). Not a literary feat, but not as terrible as I had been led to expect. Am I intrigued to find out what’s next for Christian and Ana…? Erm… kinda. Will I get prioritise reading Darker and Freed… probably not.

The Rough Guide to WeddingsThe wonderful Claire (of Paperback Reader) who comes along to Riverside Readers book group with me, and is going through her own big life-stage moment doing her new house up, gave me this one. I’m not going to lie – I at first thought “Ooh that’s absolutely lovely but I don’t need this, I am not after all BRIDEZILLA!”. Well you know what. I do need it and it is great. I started reading it on the tube home and I’ve read it cover to cover and referred back to it at least ten times already. It is also the most un-bridezilla wedding book as it is very practical and encourages you to think carefully about how nuts you want to go. Or maybe it is a bit bridezilla but I just can’t tell now because I’ve already transformed!

Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Manis one of those that I really enjoyed reading at the time but now can’t really remember much about except that I enjoyed it. I remember it being quite clever and prompting a good book group discussion but main threads… gone!

The rest;

Jasper Kent’s Twelve was Sakura’s choice for book group. I was really quite excited about this as the synopsis sounded thrilling – a vampire novel set in the Napoleonic wars in Russia. I was expecting a romp. It was a bit long and drawn out and not quite romp-ish enough. The main character was also really annoying and the female characters were totally unexciting. Overall quite entertaining but I wouldn’t read the next one unless I was on holiday, it was on the hotel bookshelf and I’d run out of books.

The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe was quite good but paled in comparison to The House of Sleep as mentioned above. It follows a some poor bloke whose life is falling apart as he goes on a mission to sell a prototype toothbrush to the furthest corners of the UK which involved going a long way out into the middle of nowhere and going slightly batty talking to his Sat Nav. Nice Novel Insights was thinking ‘poor old Maxwell Sim’ and nasty Novel Insights was thinking ‘oh sort it out!’

The Curfew (Vintage Contemporaries)by Jesse Ball was the choice of one of our lovely book group members Armen. I look forward to Armen’s choices because he always picks something I wouldn’t have heard of and often from a far-off land. This one just didn’t do it for me though. Maybe it was just a bit ‘too Kafka’ for me and you know I don’t always like that

I hope you enjoyed that whistle-stop tour of the books I’ve been reading and maybe saw one or two you are interested in.

What books have you read in the last six months that really stood out as favourites?

The Visitor, by Maeve Brennan

3 stars

3/5

Originally written in the 1940s, The Visitor is a novella about a young woman named Anastasia, who returns to Ireland after living in Paris for six years. When she arrives, her Grandmother – Mrs King, greets her with a cool manner and instead of finding a welcoming home, is faced with the realisation that she is considered a ‘visitor’.

Atlantic Books, 2001 edition (first published in the 1940s), 86 pages - personal library

I’m not quite sure what I feel about The Visitor. I enjoyed the way that the novel had an element of suspense about it. Brennan builds an unsettling atmosphere with curious characters who either keep a cold reserve (Mrs King) or who are, at the other end of the scale, overwhelmingly emotional with an undertone of desperation (Miss Kilbride). Like Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, the house appeared at times to have it’s own creepy personality. Despite, the suspenseful start, I was a bit baffled by the ending because I couldn’t decide if it was really quite disturbing or a bit of a let down. I think that I was expecting something more dramatic, whereas the drama is really all in the psychology of the novel and the way that Anastasia feels and the other characters respond to her.

I think that there is also an important element of the reader’s perspective. The Grandmother is portrayed as a monstrous person, but perhaps this is because we experience everything from Anastasia’s point of view. There is clearly an important piece of the puzzle missing – it is implied that Anastasia’s mother and the Grandmother were always at odds and that Mrs King was an unhealthy influence on the family. That said, is Anastasia, or more to the point her understanding of the situation reliable or not?

At certain points in the novella, I found my empathy for Anastasia faded. She seemed to be missing some vital spark of self-preservation. This frustrated me, but possibly being a woman who has grown up in a modern-world, makes it harder to relate, and I suppose Brennan isn’t exactly trying to portray a heroine – but a situation and a impression of Anastasia’s circumstances.

I couldn’t help but compare Brennan’s style to that of Barbara Comyns, who was writing during a similar period. I think she teases out the nastier elements of human behaviour in a more disturbing way and somehow her quirky writing packs more of a punch. The Visitor was an interesting and clever piece of writing but it felt incomplete, and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

For a different perspective, you might like to read Savidge Reads’ review who in contrast to me appreciated the lack of drama, but was also a little non-plussed by the ending and also this glowing review at Reading Matters which also adds some useful context about the author.

Have you read this or any of Brennan’s other writing and would you recommend reading more?

In Love and Trouble, by Alice Walker

5 stars

5/5

I have loved reading this book. In the last few weeks it’s felt as if I haven’t been able to stop, but each time I picked Alice Walker’s collection of short stories, I felt as if time was suspended and I was transported completely to heat of the Southern America.

The Women's Press Ltd, 1984 edition (first published 1973), 144 pages - personal library

Alice Walker, in In Love and Trouble tells us stories of black women living in the rural American South. They are a mix of the strange, the devastatingly sad and totally delightful. They are brief, yet deep. In just a few lines, Walker drops you into someone’s life and you feel as if you had been a fly on the wall all along.

Flipping back through the pages, I would find it difficult to pick a favourite story, but to give you a feel for them I will highlight a handful.

Her Sweet Jerome is the story of a woman who falls in love with a studious school teacher. Handsome and ten years younger than her, she desires him so much that she won’t rest until “I were Mr and Mrs Jerome Franklin Washington the Third, and that’s the truth!”. But after she gets her wish, she becomes suspicious of his behaviour. Though she supports him financially and lavishes him with beautiful things, the relationship is troubled. She lacks his “eddicashion” and is conscious of the fact and that she is older. He has no respect for her, beating her black and blue whenever she opens her mouth. She believes that he is cheating on her in some way and in desperation, rifles through his clothes and belongings until dramatically she discovers that what he is being distracted by is to her even more devastating than she could have guessed.

In The Child who Favoured Daughter, an angry father sits on his watch awaiting the return of his teenage daughter. Memories from the past, of a white man damaging his dearest sister whose face, his daughter resembles haunt him. Discovering love letters from his daughter to her love – a “white devil” – a dark and destructive jealous fury wells up within him and he viciously takes his anger out on the girl that he loves.

To Hell With Dying is the final story in the collection and describes the love of a little girl for family friend, Mr Sweet. A troubled man, but kind and charming Mr Sweet plays with the children and plays them songs, sometimes happy and sometimes melancholy on his steel guitar. A drunk and a diabetic Mr Sweet’s ailing health leave him laid out and the children are called to bring him back from the dead numerous times with tickles and kisses. Later, the little girl who narrates the story has grown up and left for university but drops everything to run back home to Mr Sweet one last time.

Walker manages to paint heavy and conflicted human emotions with a light brush. She roots the reader firmly in the sense of time and place, demonstrating a turning point where young people are struggling against prejudice and also the deep seated anger of a previous generation scarred by racism. I consumed each of these unique stories slowly, and as a collection they left me feeling totally satisfied. The richness and vitality of Walker’s writing makes this book an utter pleasure to read.

A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis

4 stars4/5

Does it seem morbid to choose to read a book about grief? I spotted this slim volume – A Grief Observed – on the library returns shelf and was drawn to the title which stood out as unusual.

Faber paperbacks, 1966 edition (first published 1961), 64 pages - library loan

I like the element of chance involved in picking up a book recently selected by someone else for reasons known only to them. I hope that the person who borrowed it previously read it like me, out of curiosity rather than personal grief. Having only read Lewis’s children’s books I felt it might be interesting to read outside of my typical reading scope, but with a familiar voice.

A Grief Observed, is an almost scientific title. It suggests abstraction as if the author is conducting analysis of another person’s state of mind. However this book is intensely personal. It reads like a diary and at the same time, a conversation. The reader comes to feel as if they are a true confident, trusted with Lewis’s most personal moments as he goes through the process of grief after the death of his wife, who is referred only as “H”.

At times his writing feels like a eulogy and at others a simple therapeutic act. At the beginning of the book, Lewis is working through his immediate emotional response, frightened that he might forget “H”, or worse still that he will create a false memory of her – a sort of idol or lifeless doll. He criticises himself for being self-pitying, angrily questions his idea of God and rails against the seemingly glib advice and words given by others trying to offer their awkward yet well-meaning words to a bereaved friend.

Of course, this is a sad book to read, but also so beautifully and eloquently written. The raw human feeling expressed by Lewis is moving. It is also frightening – who amongst us, as we become more aware of our own mortality and those around us does not occasionally think how terrible it would be to lose someone we love? In an odd way, I believe that this little book could be comforting at a time of loss, if only because of how openly the author shares his experience.

Fascinating for me (yet also perplexing), was Lewis’s exploration of his feelings towards God. At times he wonders whether he truly exists and in the depth of his anger declares that if he does he must surely be cruel.

“I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or worse still, rats in a laboratory. Someone said, I believe ‘God always geometrises’. Supposing the truth were ‘God always vivisects’.”

He uses the epithet “The Cosmic Sadist” to God, and the description of Him as a “Vivisectionist” is such a harsh yet vivid image of a person feeling literally pulled apart… experimented upon by some higher detached being.

In the later passages of the book however there is a distinct change in tone. The writing becomes more conciliatory, less passionate with convoluted explanations for why God does exist and isn’t cruel. Although I was unsure of some of Lewis’s logic, I felt relieved that the process of writing his grief seemed to have helped him to move through and beyond his initial pain. Still though, the knowledge that he has that he may be yet surprised by a new fresh sadness, lingers and reminds us of how deeply he loved his wife.

“Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something now to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape”.

I felt admiration for how the clarity and beauty of his words. Although A Grief Observed is a sad piece of writing, Lewis’s obvious passion for his wife inspires me and his words make me wonder at how strongly humans can be bound together by love.

What books have you read that really affected you?

The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson

4 stars4/5

After so enjoying two other editions from the Penguin Mini Classics set, I bought a copy of The Tooth, by Shirley Jackson. What a curious collection! Of the five stories in the book, I found three brilliant and the other two a little baffling.

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, The Tooth, Shirley Jackson

Pengin Mini Modern Classics, 2011 edition (paperback), 70 pages - own purchase.

The highlights for me were the shortest stories The Lottery, Charles and The Witch. All three sent shivers down my spine. In Charles and The Witch the stories are set in quite an ordinary situation, but as you read on, Jackson introduces an element of unease and plants an uncomfortable idea about what might be happening. These two stories also centre around the behaviour of children and what they might be capable of. The Lottery is more about community and the ability of the collective to affect the will of an individual.

The Tooth is the longest story in the book and I freely admit that I didn’t ‘get it’. It describes the experience of a young woman who travels to the city on her own to have her tooth extracted. I found it a little disorientating – which incidentally, is probably the point. In her drugged up, post-op state the woman experiences dreamlike moments of confusion. I thought it was evocative but something was missing for me because it was a little too abstract. I felt the same also with the final story - The Intoxicated.

I think that it is actually to be expected when reading stories designed to be disturbing that a reader should be more affected by some than others, if only because certain ideas will make a specific person feel more uneasy than others. As a collection I thought The Toothwas a brilliant bite-sized selection of unsettling moments and everyday horrors.

More Mini Moderns: You can read my reviews of other Mini Moderns - Children on their Birthdays, by Truman Capote (4/5), and Through The Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (5/5), and see a list of other blogger’s reviews of this excellent series at the Curious Book Fans blog. Savidge Reads also read The Tooth and loved it.

Have you read any Shirley Jackson stories?

The Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

3.5 stars3.5/5

The Private Lives of Trees, was February’s Riverside Readers choice from Armen, who never fails to choose something different and surprising.

Private Life of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra

Open Letter, 2010 edition (paperback), 98 pages - book group.

Zambra, a Chilean author, tells the story of a single night in the life of Julian, a young professor of literature. He reads to his step-daughter Daniela, while waiting for his wife Veronica to return from her art class. The later it gets into the night, the more nervous Julian becomes about whether she will return.

The reader is like a fly on the wall watching Julian, the book’s main subject, in three states: In the present – telling stories to his step-daughter Daniela, In the past- remembering his ex-girlfriend Karla and recalling how he met his wife, and in an imagined future where Daniela is in different stages of womanhood. Julian is introspective and uncertain – comparing himself jealously to the Daniela’s father.

The Private Lives of Trees, is a book that feels fleeting. At just under 100 pages it is brief and the spare use language adds to the overall minimalist impression. Recalling the story for my book group was a bit like waking up from a dream and struggling to remember details, but being left with a particular feeling. Many of the descriptions feel fluid and dreamlike:

“The point of the pen draws lines, the ink covers the page with black water.”

There are parts of the book that verge on surreal, and Zambra clearly enjoys experimenting with the idea of what it is to write a novel. Perhaps Julian, an aspiring writer is creating his own reality? At times it feels like a clever work of art and at others, simply the story of a self-consious man and his rather tender relationship with his step-daughter.

The Private Lives of Trees is a book you can pick-up, experience and will leave you thoughtful. For me, it was a bit like the experience of wandering into an art-gallery at whim and following my nose around an exhibition. It was playfully written, but I never found myself lost in the way that I did with Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller or Kafka’s The Trial. One of our book group members said that it was a book that asked nothing of the reader, which is exactly how I felt. It was absorbing when I was reading it, but I left the characters and the moment behind when I turned the final page.

Have you read any books that felt fleeting / self-contained in this way?

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskya

5 stars5/5

Wow – what a spooky and unexpected little collection this is! Possibly, sandwiching my sleeping time with reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Through the Wall was a little ill-considered as I had some slightly odd dreams last night.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Penguin Books, 2011 edition, paperback, 69 pages - review copy.

I had never heard of the author, although Petrushevskaya is considered to be one of Russia’s greatest living writers and was so controversial that for decades, her writing was banned in the Soviet Union. Reading stories like this make me grateful for whoever decided to translate them and I am curious to read the disturbingly entitled There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby which is a collection of nineteen short stories.

 

I’m tempted to liken Petrushevskya’s stories to those of Angela Carter, because they are dark fairy tales, reminiscent of the style of those in The Bloody Chamber. However, the tales in Through the Wall feel much more of this world – albeit this world, seen through a distorted glass.

The Cabbage Patch Mother for example is the tale of a woman who has a tiny child named Dewdrop, who never grows. She is told to set her aside and forget her. Later she discovers that Dewdrop, who she placed amongst the leaves of a cabbage has become a full-size, mewling, clumsy real-life baby. This was the story I found most heart-breaking, as it is evidently an allegory for the experience of a woman who has undergone an abortion in the past and can’t forget the baby she might have had.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Click the image to read a short interview with the author in the LA times

Marilena’s secret is the story of a woman who is “so fat she couldn’t fit in a taxi, and when going into the subway took up the whole width of the escalator.” It turns out that Marilena is in fact two normal sized women, turned into one by a wizard. She becomes rich and famous for her unusual stature but begins to lose her real inner-selves as she is encouraged to become a poster girl for her husband’s dieting clinic. A tragi-comic tale where the manipulative husband eventually gets his come-uppance.

These are my favourite two of the five fantastic stories in this collection. The stories sound barmy, and yes there is a heavy dose of the surreal, but Petrushevskaya’s tales at their heart are real human experiences of grief, love and loss. They are dark and melancholy stories but each has a resolution and tells of human resilience.

By telling each story as a fairy-tale Pertrushevskaya somehow amplifies the impact of each situation. Isn’t it true that sometimes the most difficult experiences in life feel quite surreal?

What stories have you read that surprised you lately?