Books Read – May 2011

June 1, 2011

Three books this month (still not enough to satisfy!), so an improvement from March and April. I am doing a PhD, buying a house, caring for a toddler, and carrying another baby, so perhaps it’s reasonable that I’m distracted? I’m currently reading The Romance of the Rose, which might take me a little while. But I have very high hopes for new Ali Smith and Jane Harris novels that I can’t wait to get my hands on; the former is out tomorrow, but I’m hoping that the local Waterstones has a copy in early.

(15th May) The Siege – Ismail Kadare

Not sure I know enough about the Ottoman Empire or Albania under Hoxha’s Stalinist rule to really grasp all the subtleties of this novel. Nevertheless, it was striking and vivid prose.
(21st May) The Little Girl from the Chartreuse – Pierre Peju

Another translated novel glorifying the reading process, but at least in a slightly more interesting narrative form than The Shadow of the Wind. Personal anecdote: the book was given to me by Christopher Maclehose, who has done some rather wonderful things for literature in this country. I’m less proud of the fact that after meeting with him I then went on to write a pretty bog-standard Masters dissertation on fiction in translation.
(29th May) Easter Parade – Richard Yates

This last makes me realise that the books I read in May were uniformly pretty desolate, that I read all non-British fiction this month, and that I would love to read more Richard Yates, but I’d probably better intersperse them with more upbeat offerings.

Books Read – March and April 2011

May 1, 2011

A slow couple of months for reading.

(March) The Human Factor – Graham Greene
I must have read this before, since I haven’t got it listed on my unread books list, but I’d obviously forgotten enough of it for it to be quietly devastating.

(April) Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
I love Gilead and Home, so I have no idea how it took me so long to read Housekeeping. Robinson’s prose is absolutely saturated with imagery but is intently stylistically controlled.

(25th April) The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
When most people call a novel a ‘page-turner’ they mean it as acclaim. I found myself whipping through this book, but I was glad not to give it more time. Descriptions were cliched (a smile is ‘wolfish’), similes were inane (a morning haze lifts ‘like a watercolour coming to life’) and the twists were predictable. I always find it a bit self-indulgent when writers write about writing. This was no exception. The author’s attempt to sacralize writing didn’t convince me that this was anything other than a glorified Da Vinci Code.

March 27, 2011

I’m blogging here aswell now:

I’ll still be updating book lists here, but I don’t have much patience for listening to myself inner voice witter on. I have immense patience for thinking about food, though….

Books Read – February 2011

February 28, 2011

(6th February) Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
When Cloud Atlas was nominated for the Booker I had a habit of reading all the shortlisted entrants in a massive September binge. Except I didn’t make it in 2004, and it remained on my shelf for years. I’m not sure why, given that I later read Black Swan Green and thought it good. Perhaps it was the 19th century prose that is affected for the first story found in the novel, the journal of Adam Ewing. Anyway, my loss. I loved the inventiveness of this novel, the individuality of tone for each of the stories that comprise it. In the first half of the novel I felt that the links between each section were too obviously highlighted,  but by the end it is clear that this is a deliberate and self-conscious delight in the exposed craftsmanship of the novel, and it ceased to niggle. Found the birthmark link and the notion of reincarnation an irritation though. All in all, the novel is clever, playful, and not terribly worthy or too polished. Kicking myself that I hadn’t read it before. At least The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet shouldn’t suffer the same fate.

(9th February) By Searching – Isabel Kuhn
Christian biography of a woman who loses her faith at university. She embarks on an honest search for God and he reveals himself to her, in return for which she vows to give him her whole life. She would later serve as a missionary in China, though oddly, the book does not deal with her time in China, instead concentrating on her growth and ministry before she departs.

(10th February) Smith of Wootton Major – J. R. R. Tolkien
Enjoyed this short fairytale before bed as the antidote to lots of M R James ghost stories. It’s nice to read it too in a first edition, even though our copy isn’t in the slightest bit valuable. Neil Gaiman’ Stardust has real echoes of this story, I think, as does Susannah Clarke’s novel and short stories, in the subject of the Innocent crossing into Faery. But apparently he was cocking a snook at George Macdonald, whom I’ve never read and will not be doing soon, so this passed me by.

(13th February) Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories – M. R. James
Ghost stories are not good for my peace of mind. This collection seems to comprise most of the ghost stories published during James’ lifetime, and I enjoyed it but should have rationed it to one every couple of days.

(23rd February) Sabriel – Garth Nix
Enjoyed aspects of this novel: details of a necromancer’s journey into Death were striking, for example – the body left behind becoming cold and encrusted with ice while the spirit crosses the river into Death. And the pseudo-European setting almost worked for me, except that I kept trying to map Ancelstierre onto Britain, and I’m not sure this was intended. And a very interesting pre-Rowling boarding school that teaches magic arts. The pacing was good, setting for the most part seemed vivid.

Books Read – January 2011

February 1, 2011

Having a toddler and husband and all their attendant mess, as well as a PhD to write, and a full-enough life, I’ve had to decide that there is a glass ceiling for me and my reading. I can see others achieving dizzying heights, but I will be content with two or three books a month, and half an hour before bedtime every so often.

(7th January) Risotto and Nettles – Anna del Conte
    A memoir by the Italian food writer, esteemed by Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson. I found it difficult to reconcile del Conte’s obviously highly-privileged upbringing with the suffering she underwent during the latter years of the Second World War. What was more accessible and interesting to me were her descriptions of moving to England, learning a new culture and sharing her own through the medium of food. Best of all, the autobiography features recipes!

(18th January)  Star of the Sea – Joseph O’Connor
    A group of passengers, wildly different in terms of class, wealth, politics and power all travel on the eponymous ship. The Star of the Sea is sailing from Ireland to North America, with a handful of first class passengers and hundreds in steerage, fleeing Ireland’s potato famine. Their pasts obstinately trail all of them.
    The novel is presented as a collection of writings assembled by one of the first-class passengers, Grantley Dixon, a failed novelist, and thus it wears well the detailed research that must have been undertaken. It is obviously dark; it deals with the potato famine, after all. Whilst it doesn’t really hold back (one image that stands out is the consumption of two barrels of maggoty pork by the starving passengers in steerage), description isn’t intensely visceral. More disturbing was its portrait of our failures to be humane to our fellow men.
    The ship functions as a microcosm for all of society, bringing into sharp focus the absurdity of the gap between the have-everythings and the have-nothings. Whilst the first-class passengers enjoy lavish dinners, passengers in steerage are tipped overboard as they die of diseases exacerbated by malnutrition, or simply of starvation itself. Of course, in the vastness of the universe, our world is just like a ship travelling through a dark night, and the very needy are our neighbours, audible through the walls of our own comfortable, safe cabins.

(31st January) Out of the Woods – Will Cohu
    The reader accompanies the author on an imagined walk through countryside and town. The aim: to shed light on the identity and personalities of trees, bare in Winter and so easy to overlook. This is genuinely an armchair guide – utterly impractical to take out on a walk, but great to read by a fireside. An odd, Choose Your Own Adventure kind of feel, with the prose sometimes engaging, sometimes a little purple. I can now recognize ash trees in Winter (small achievement, I know), and I find myself looking at the texture of bark of trees, or the perpendicularity of branches to trunk, which is something of a comfort in the depths of Winter.

smaller worlds

December 12, 2010

This morning in church we had the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist read to us. In the middle of our lecture on who Zechariah was, and the priestly duties he would have been expected to perform, we were shown a scale drawing of the temple in Jerusalem, cut away to reveal the curtain separating off the Holy of Holies, and showing a tiny figure by the altar of incense, utterly dwarfed by the dimensions of the building.

I couldn’t help but think that I rarely experience this sense of awesome scale in my life now. We have a ruined cathedral; acts of the imagination are required to make it whole again. We have the sea, but I am so insignificant in comparison to the sea; I mean nothing to it and it means nothing to me. No man created it; man has no place in it, and leaves no mark on it.

It’s strange and a little sad to think that these experiences of man-made awe are generally so easy to come by: a shopping centre, a football stadium, a railway station or an airport. But having been in Fife for however many months now, with a bare excursion to Edinburgh last weekend to unsettle the coherence and absoluteness of the small world we’re living in, I long to walk into a cathedral, sit in a concert hall, get lost in a museum.


November 17, 2010

Charlie was born at 4.43am, on the 17th November 2008. To my disappointment, and your relief, that means that I can’t tell you exactly what I was doing two years ago to this moment. Well, I can, but it involved either sitting in a chair or lying in a bed and wondering what I should be doing, and therefore is not that dissimilar to any normal day.

The year that followed Charlie’s birth was much harder than the labour, anyway. The difficulties were manifold, some self-inflicted, some utterly unasked-for, and mostly mundane and to be expected. Except that you simply don’t know how hard it is until you do it, which is why I now ignore child-raising comments from anyone who hasn’t cared for a child for more than 48 hours.

Now, if you don’t count the fact that ‘No’, ‘Go away’, and ‘Stop’ are some of Charlie’s most uttered words, we have an unmitigatedly wonderful boy with floppy blond hair that we daren’t cut, and a devoted attachment to cake, his Peter-Mamma rabbit, and anything with wheels (the more, the better, basically). Best of all, along with commands to leave him alone, and instructions to do what he wants, the word ‘Yes’ has entered his vocabulary. He pronounces it the way you would expect of a Russian.

When he was poorly, over the weekend, I asked him if he hurt. ‘Yes.’ ‘Do your legs hurt?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do your arms hurt?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do your eyes hurt?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do your fingernails hurt?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Does your hair hurt?’ ‘Yes.’

‘Charlie, are you happy?’


Rootless Tree

October 26, 2010

I’m not about to have a nervous breakdown, I promise, but this is the first song that made me stop typing and listen this morning.

Acoustic version, since I can’t find the album version online, and the version with music video is too pop.


October 15, 2010

Things I can do: drive a car, speak French, make creme brulee.

Things I cannot do: read ancient Greek, ride a bike, persuade Charlie to eat pizza

Things I cannot do all at once: post regularly on a blog, keep the house clean (so that someone could walk in at any time), bake like some domestic goddess, stay on top of the washing and ironing (laundry basket overflowing), maintain the garden (carrots got swamped by weeds), research for a PhD thesis, be always ready to engage with a two year old, be happy/witty/insightful on demand, send people birthday cards and pay bills on time, retain a sense of calm equilibrium and healthy self-esteem if dependent on the preceeding.

New Year’s Eve

September 24, 2010

It turns out that a person utterly secure in themselves would not be irritated by others’ neediness (see yesterday). But it’s a New Year in my mind, and I am full to the brim with excitement and anxiety at what will be swept in the door. Welcome in. Let me show you round.

Effectively, the situation is this: someone is paying good money for me to read things and have good ideas, and though I’m very glad that I get to do this, I’m not convinced they’ve got the right person for the job. In particular, I’m occasionally quite lazy, and I’m not yet sure that I can remember anything (ANYTHING) for longer than a year. It’s quite possible that by the end of a PhD, everything I read at the beginning will have dropped out of my head. I’m also thoroughly desperate for approval, so what will I do when I no longer get marks out of twenty to measure myself with?

Add to this kind of thought the following situation: I am not the most organized or tidy person in the world, nor do I have limitless energy. So days sometimes tax me, even though they’re desperately ordinary. Today I did the following: took Phil up to his regular appointment at the hospital and ran to Morrisons, before dropping him at work. Desperately tried to find a parking space to take Charlie to his music group at 9.30. Dragged him protesting into the toilet with me when we arrived; why are my simple bodily functions a battleground? He fell asleep on the journey home, so I left him in the car while I ran to the Post Office in Cupar to pick up a parcel. They told me I needed the Royal Mail; I inwardly cursed and nipped next door, thinking all the while that if I passed a car and saw a toddler unattended in it I’d think pretty badly of its parents. Got in the door ready to bake by 11am. Charlie kept grabbing my hand and dragging me through to the lounge while I tried to stir pan of chocolate melting on the hob. When eventually I ignored him he first climbed onto the dining room table, got hold of the breakfast cereal and spread handfuls liberally on the table and floor. He then took the wire rack and chopping boards from the kitchen and tried to drop them all down the backs of radiators. I had to make him cry to make him eat his lunch. Then I had to put him, protesting loudly all the way, to bed for his nap. He napped for two hours; I ate lunch and tried to clean up, then had to wake him and hurry out to make it back to St Andrews for a leaving do, in a park, where I ate too much cake and  yet also spent most of my time about a hundred yards away from everyone else, rocking a massive metal horse backwards and forwards.

I’m not quite sure I’m cut out for any of this, frankly, but I’ll give it a good shot, because it makes me quite happy at the same time as nearly giving me a nervous breakdown. It’s not surprising, is it, that at 9.15 I went for a bath rather than to sweep the kitchen floor?

I took Wolf Hall to the bath, because I’m finally reading again. To be honest, I had some far more interesting thoughts to share with my readers, about how Mantel’s novel had suggested to me that I find the UK’s virtuoso female authors (Ali Smith, Nicola Barker, Sarah Waters, to name a handful) more absorbing and seductive than its great and masterful men. But instead of that, I’ve given you a post about prams in the hallway. I’ve dwelled in my own anxieties rather than, like some husband striding off in the morning to his job at the bank, rising above entirely and proclaiming upon higher matters. Bringing me full-circle right back to the beginning again: full up, right to the top, of stomach-turning anticipation.