As it happens ‘Persuasion‘ ticks a box on two of the challenges, so hopefully that will ease me in, and probab-, possibl-, hopefully help me stop buying books I know I’m not going to read just yet, but which I’m worried I’ll forget about if I go away and leave them on the shelf.
Now if I can just get the sound of their papery little sobs out of my head, as I walk away and abandon them…
As well as reading, this year I’ve decided to give my brain a workout and included a puzzle book. Though I’m not going to worry about trying to get through one a month.
I’ve been eyeballing these in Waterstones for about three years now, and over the Xmas break finally took the plunge with Sinclair McKay’s Scotland Yard Puzzle Book. I had assumed that they would be far too complex for me, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they also cater to those of us with an IQ level that more often resembles the lower end wattage of old-school filament light bulbs.They do get progressively more difficult, though, so there is a challenge there for everyone. Having mostly completed McKay’s puzzles in about a fortnight, I picked up the OS Puzzle Tour of Britain. There’s a secret cartographer hiding in a small ,quiet corner of my soul so this was an obvious choice, and it was half-price to boot. So far, so good, I’m three puzzles in and the lightbulb hasn’t blown a fuse. Yet.
This is a surprisingly ‘historical’ collection for me. I usually veer more towards crime and sci-fi. ‘Styles’* is an easy one, then, but I’m Christie-lover anyway, and anything by her can be classed amongst my comfort-reads. My copy is one of the facsimile editions released a few years ago. There is something particularly special for me about reading a book in the form the author understood it would be published in. I have also found, having now read a few, that this small hardback format, is actually very pleasant to read. They are not particularly heavy, but they have that feel of solidity, and substance that paperbacks lack, but without the bulk and stiffness of modern hardcovers.
The Austen is a different proposition. I’ve never been a fan of this genre (in my head its classed as ’19th Century middle-class soap opera’) But I’ve enjoyed, if not loved, the odd BBC production, and they are classics, so maybe it’s time to get my head down and give it a shot. Especially as this one book fulfils both Penguin’s monthly challenge, and one of MMD’s slots.
West Winging It, by Pat Cunnane has been on my shelf for a while. I’ve been mildly obsessed with the goings-on of the White House since the turn of the century, and (yeah, you got it) The West Wing TV series. (Thanks, for that Mr Sorkin). I’m not high brow enough to read the really in depth political books though, so I settle for the stuff that’ll fill the void left by the end of the show. The gossipy light-weight fluff that throws out an occasional detail of process whilst spilling hundreds of secrets about the people, their cock-up’s, and scandals and (hopefully) eschewing any kind of regard for the Official Secrets Act, or whatever they have over there. I’m hoping Cunnane is going to live up to all my lowest expectations.
The last book on the pile is ‘Gentleman Jack’. This is our January book over at The Old Baggage’s Book Club.
Chosen by one of our members, I’m having a little wobble about this, too. I love non-fiction, but the flat-out truth is I’m a junk reader, and whilst non-fiction subjects fascinate me…it takes me a lot longer to read them. They have complicated stuff like, y’know…𝑓𝑎𝑐𝑡𝑠, in them. It takes more time to absorb the information they contain. Not to mention my compulsive Googling of every tiny detail that I suddenly need to know more about. So whilst I’m thrilled at the idea of learning more about Annie, I’m vaguely worried I might have to exert some effort.
So, with slightly mixed feelings about how this month is going to go (how am I going to survive with no sci-fi, no urban fantasy, no….Bryant & May?!) it’s time to see if I can make it through the first month of my new reading routine. Or if I end up back in Waterstone’s gathering up my weeping new children from the shelves, and carrying them home to a life of comfort, genre-sectioning, and very little prospect of ever being read.
*If your first thought upon reading this was “Harry?”, then you should definitely be reading a different blog…
I picked this up through NetGalley. Short version: I struggled with it.
I had hoped it would be an enjoyable, easy, and amusing read. I love the art-work but the text just fell flat. I can see where the jokes are supposed to be, where the humour should be but it just wasn’t coming across.
I suspect that this is a collection of work based on the things actual kids have said, and had I witnessed any of them in real life I probably would have found them hilarious.
I find my own kids hysterical, and I am clearly the funniest person on the planet, but other people’s kids and their parents’ funny stories rarely do it for me.
What can I say? Humour is subjective and water is wet. Other people may love this, or it may all have got lost in translation.
Seven Days in and I’ve already stumbled into Perplexing Poetry.
Having decided to spend a year reading more poetry (Adventures in Poetry),and exercising the long dormant poetry-processing portion of my brain: then having found a book that will remove all responsibility for making any kind of decision regarding what poetry I should be reading¹, (A Poem for Every Night of The Year) I am happy to report that the first seven days have been pleasantly rewarding.
Actually, that’s a slight exaggeration – for me it was the first five days. I didn’t remember to buy the book until January 3rd. But once I’d got it and overcome my personal discomfort at not having begun it on the right day, thereby missing the first two poems² I found it quickly became something I looked forward to each night.
The very firstnight I was initially joyful and then increasingly confused as a poem I thought I remembered from my childhood soon became unrecognisable. Sara Coleridge’s The Months begins with a stanza that is engraved on my heart, but as I progressed through each month I began to feel more and more like the child that loses it’s parent in the toy department: I should have been in seventh heaven but there was a nagging suspicion at the back of my mind that I might have spend eternity in my posh shoes and pooing in a public toilet if I couldn’t get back home. Not only was I certain that the words I was reading were not the words I used to repeat as a child, but I knew for a fact that the last verse ran thus: “Then- , Bloody January again!” and with each advancing line I was more convinced that those words had never sprung from the pen of Miss Sara Coleridge. I was deep into the dark days of November when it came to me. Miss Coleridge had been cannibalised by Flanders & Swannª:
The next coupleof nights were happily occupied by A A Milne (apparently its alright to like his poetry as a grown up!) whose style and syntax, I realised, are probably unique and certainly instantly recognisable, and Robert Frost.
I repeatedly forget Frost when thinking about poets I love despite the fact that at least two of his poems have affected me profoundly. Nothing Gold Can Stay shattered my heart into blissfully desolate pieces³ when I first read it at about fourteen in Susie Hinton’s The Outsiders. Undoubtedly context played a part in that: without the tragic story leading up to Ponyboy’s analysis of the poem I probably wouldn’t – at that age – have fully appreciated the meaning in it. But the other, The Road Not Taken, has resonated with me since the first time I read it, at a level so deep I can’t easily define it. If I were asked to choose a motto for myself it would be “I took the road less travelled by”. So much so that I used to have it written on a wall in my house. It both describes, and informs my life-choices on a daily basis. That andThe Logical Song.¹¹
As it turnsout these few nights of happy, reminiscent and uncomplicated reading were designed to lull me into a false sense of security. On night six I reached for The Book secure in the knowledge that we, the readers, were being eased into the Serious Poetry Stuff along a gentle and meandering path. So my shock was whole-hearted when Esiri side-swiped me with a fully loaded T.S.Eliot, and there wasn’t even a cat in it!
If you don’tknow, T.S.Eliot – when he’s not burbling on about cats – is a hardcore Poet. A Real Poet’s poet. Initially, the poem didn’t appear to be too demanding but in the final verse the true Eliot rose from the sea of the comprehensible and suddenly I was equating birth and death and wondering what the hell had happened, and if he even knew what he was trying to say.
I find that’s generally the give-away. If you find yourself perplexed; re-reading it six times, moving your lips as you go; if there’s a big, fat “eh…?” punctuating every line then you have probably arrived at Serious Poetry. I’m pretty sure it’s a rule or something, somewhere. “If it’s too obvious you’re not poeting properly!”
However my confusion led me to a realisation. I had started this experiment just one week ago to try and discover what it is that sets poetry readers apart from prose readers.Why they seem to be two different breeds of the same animal. Why do poetry readers get so much more out of the texts they read? In truth it was something I had forgotten, rather than something I’d never known. They get more out because writers like Eliot do their stuff. If the words you’re reading don’t state simply “Jane shot John”, but twiddle around the edges and swap clarity for obliquity then the reader is gong to have to bring more of their own thought to the understanding process:
“Jane raised the gun and pulled the trigger once. John fell in a bloodless heap on the floor and plaster rained down on his face, matching the pallor of his skin. Holes pierced his body and mind but as Jane dropped the empty weapon and blood spilled from the searing wound in her chest he rose to his feet, turned, and left.”
I mean, I just wrote that and I don’t have a clue what happened, but I’m pretty sure someone could make a story out of it if they thought about it for a while.
Perhaps it is just as simple as that. Prose readers read for the story. Poetry readers read for a deeper understanding, not just of the text, either. But does that mean the story is less important to them? Or is it that the story within a poem changes from reader to reader, biased by individual interpretation? If so when did that happen? The Icelandic Sagas just tell stories. I’ve read Beowulf (in translation, obvs!) there’s nothing that seems to me deliberately obscure. So when and why did poetry attain this highbrow quality that stipulates Real Readers have to be willing to indulge guessing games? I am genuinely asking, I don’t actually know.
It’s easy to come away from these kinds of analyses with the feeling that somehow you are ‘less’ than the towering intellects that spend years immersing themselves in tomes of Serious, Perplexing Poetry, squeezing every last ounce of interpretive meaning from them. So cheer up. Because if you are comforted by petty examples of how the literati occasionally get so full of themselves they just disappear up their own arses then you will love this.
The only poem from The Book that I am going to reproduce in full, this is a shining example of something that makes normal readers gape at each other in astonished bewilderment. Somewhere there are people out there who think that this (fun as it may be) actually warranted publishing:
Edwin Morgan, from From Glasgow to Saturn (Carcanet, 1973)
¹ In fact the book suggested the process. When I first saw it on the shelf at work I thought it sounded like a flowery, fluffy idea for poetry-wanna-be’s who think it’s all beautiful suffering and unrequited love. Fuzzy Emos, basically. But the idea of a daily dose of poetry seeped into my subconscious until the whole plan erupted, fully formed, into my conscious mind. I subsequently realised that this was the perfect text for my experiment. Of course I simultaneously realised that rather than a flowery, fluffy idea for poetry wanna-be’s,the book was, in fact, a very sound anthology of reliable verse for sensible people who make informed and intelligent decisions regarding their reading matter and practices. No Fuzzy Emo shit here.
² I’m not O.C.D. I’m not ‘a little bit O.C.D.’ (that’s not a real thing), I’m just tight-fisted. There is a sliding-scale zone within which I can more or less comfortably ignore the real start date for something, but there comes a point beyond which I cannot go. January 14th would have been too late. I could never have started this book that late into the year. I paid for those first fourteen poems, dammit, and I don’t want to be wasting money on poems I’m not going to use!
³ I’ve always had a bent for the melancholic, tragic irony, and pathos. It’s why I love David Gemmell. And Irish music. The only music on the planet that can sound sad, even when it’s belting out cheery sedition.
¹¹ If you think this is weird print out the the words and read them instead of listening to them as happy background noise. Then take a good look at education for the last thirty years¹²
¹² I had to go straight to ’11’ because there is no superscript ‘4’…thanks WordPress.
ª I grew up on a regular diet of these two. They were hilarious and ridiculously clever, and in a small but tidy piece of construction Donald Swann, who was an Oxford Linguist, was very good friends with another professor of languages called J R R Tolkien. The man who first translated Beowulf into English, and whose translation I read.
First on the list is Jane Harper’s New book Force of Nature. I loved her debut – The Dry – last year, so I’m excited to see if she’s done as well this time. It’s always a concern of mine that a new author will have a wonderful first book, but then the follow-up will be disappointing.
Back in the days when you could get a publishing contract for just one book, those who only had ‘one book in them’ could still be published without the pressure of being expected to produce more. These days, when publishers want a three book minimum, I have read a few books which have never been well-followed-up. I wonder sometimes how many great books we’re missing out on because the authors can’t produce a second that will at least satisfy the contractual demands of publishers.
After that, some political history.
Feminism is very current, once again, and whilst I am passionate about it I feel that I have never really read enough into it. With that in mind I have devoted a small corner of my personal library to space for books on the subject. So far they have all been recent texts dealing with contemporary issues, so I was very happy indeed to receive this reading copy of Jane Robinson’s book Hearts & Minds. Though the book is new the story it tells is of one of the key moments in the actual advancement of equality.
The Pilgrimage was a six-week march beginning in June 1913, organised by the NUWSS. Groups of women proceeded from one of the three starting points (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Carlisle and Land’s End) and followed a common route to the finally assembly point in London. The purpose of the march was to show the establishment how many women actually wanted the vote – that it was not just a few shouty, brash Suffragettes – and how much they wanted it, and also to explain to other ordinary people why the Suffragists wanted the vote and felt it was so important: meetings were held along the route of the march to that end. The Pilgrimage was not without violence, though it was invariably inflicted on the pilgrims rather than starting with them, but in spite of the best efforts of their detractors to silence and intimidate them on July 26th 1913 50,000 women arrived in Hyde Park. They had made their point.
It is shocking, though unsurprising (most British civil rights movements are ignored by our education system) that this incredible achievement is not taught in schools. Everything I know about the march I know from researching it prior to requesting the book, and that, right there, is why I am so eager to read this. Even those of us who consider themselves ardent feminists have often forgotten or never learned the history of our own movement beyond a few key names and buzzwords. It’s good to see more of the history of the movement finally being brought a wider audience.
My book absorption for 2017. Not as impressive as I would have liked, but there have been some great books in it. I have had the pleasure, this year, of discovering a number of new authors that I have immediately fallen in love with. A couple of whom even had the great decency to already have a good back-catalogue for me to work through!
There were some dark moments this year. Certainly one of the darkest but most compelling books I have ever read, made it onto the list. One or two debut authors, and a couple of returning favourites.
Stand-out names this year for me have been Abir Mukherjee, Jodi Taylor, Jane Harper, Laura Lippman and Ben Aaronovitch and – absolutely not ‘least’ – Adam Kay whose book This Is Hurt Going To Hurt should be required reading for anyone who thinking of criticising the NHS or supporting J.Hunt in his efforts to break it.
Beautifully rendered story chronicling the awful collision between events past and present for a newly inaugurated District Attorney.
Thank you to Andrew at Faber & Faber for the ARC. This book was the first in a run of a fantastic half dozen or so that I read back-to-back – either ARC’s or proofs – and that were all compulsive reading.
OK – so my first admission here is that, although I read a lot of crime I have somehow managed to remain completely oblivious to the (quite large!) body of work from Ms. Lippman!
That said the, fact that there exists such a body to give evidence to her long experience as a writer goes someway to explaining the smooth skill with which the story of newly-appointed State’s Attorney, Lu Brandt, is unpackaged and delivered to the reader.
The story is told in a combination of first- and third-person relating current and past events. I found this a slightly odd and unsettling, though effective, way to use the voice of the narrator, and I was constantly bothered by who was narrating in the third-person sequences.
Lu Brandt, scion of a former and legendary State’s Attorney , grew up in the experimental new town of Columbia, in a house on the edge of Wilde Lake. For me she is one of the most realistic characters I have ever read, and I feel a strong empathy for the child Lu in the historic sequences, though she was far smarter than I ever was! Her mother’s death early in Lu’s life, her father’s immersion in his job and the age gap between Lu and her older brother left the precocious Lu with the feeling of always being an outsider in her own life, yet one with a unique and largely over-looked position from which to view the events of all their lives. In childhood this externalism simply confused her: as an adult she misconstrues it as casual and unintentional neglect – nothing she can’t overcome or forgive with an adult’s perspective. Gradually, though, she begins to feel there may have more deliberation behind it.
The plotline is simple: The first case to land on Lu’s desk in her new job is a mundane but nasty murder. Directing the police to be more thorough than her predecessor demanded Lu finds occasional links back to her earlier life in Colombia. At first these seem like nothing more than the kind of inter-connection of lives that is to be expected in small town, but the further she digs the closer to home the connections appear to come, and her earlier childhood observations begin to take on a more menacing cast.
This is not an original format or even a particularly uncommon story but it is in the details and the delivery that Lippman’s skill is brought to bear. The steady rhythm with which the facts and fictions, truth and lies are laid before the reader; the characters, who are developed from bright-eyed high-schoolers, through college and into more cynical middle-age; the events that carry those same characters to that darker stage of their lives – all of these aspects of the story are delivered with a style and depth that make this one of the most thoroughly engaging books I have read this year.
A trip through the modern NHS in easy and accessible anecdotes.
On the surface of it this is an engaging and often hilarious collection of anecdotes from someone who worked as a doctor in the NHS for several years. There is an abundance of stories for those who love to hear about the quirks and peculiarities of humanity. Dark and funny things that will make you laugh out loud whilst simultaneously making your toes curl. The de-gloved penis. The dehydrated cocaine users. The homeless man who preferred to go back out on the streets rather than run the risk of MRSA.
Referring to the diaries he was obliged to keep during his years as an obstetrician, Kay has pulled together a raft of stories and thoughts ranging from simple one line ‘notes-to-self’ to more lengthy tales of patients he cared for.
The happy, the funny and the occasional simply uplifting make for an easy and read that clips along nicely. I had this in audio book form and it was a little over six hours long. It is easy to pick up, slightly less easy to put down.
You may also have seen this book referred to as ‘heart-breaking’.
And it is. Because in writing a highly entertaining memoir Kay has found the perfect vehicle to deliver some brutal truths about the state of our NHS these days. To highlight the lies being peddled by the Secretary of State for Health and the government.
This is not a treatise on the issues facing the National Health Service and the people who work there-in delivering health care, there is no lengthy analysis – he simply punctuates the usually funny, sometimes tragic stories with brutal realities he has experienced first-hand:
Being told that he would have to come back for a weekend halfway through a two-week holiday abroad because the cover he had had to arrange himself fell through;
Falling asleep in his car in the hospital car park before he even managed to start it and waking up the next morning only to find he’d slept so long he was still late for work. On Christmas Eve;
Working out that with the unpaid overtime he was expected to put in his actual wage was £6.60ph – less than if he’d worked in McDonalds.
This is far more important book than it is really given credit for. I would recommend this book for everyone who loves stories about the peculiarities of people, and it’s a must read for all those who love the NHS. It should also be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever nodded their head when Jeremy Hunt’s lips have been flapping.
OK, it’s not actually trademarked. You couldn’t actually trademark that. Probably. Unless you were a big multi-national corporation, preferably U.S. based…
Anyway, enough rambling, I do quite a lot of that, which will probably become to clear to anyone who is masochistic or foolish enough to follow this blog for anything more than one post. Assuming that I actually manage to do anything more than one post. I’m a bit of a Serial Starter. Things seem like a great idea. I look into them, I set them up, I get some steam into them and then with clockwork regularity and a complete lack of consideration for my efforts they fail to run themselves. Posts don’t write themselves, images don’t edit themselves and comments don’t respond to themselves. It’s very disheartening and shows an utter disregard for the feelings of their creator. Aaaand now I sound like I have a God-complex. I don’t, although my kids may disagree. And some of my friends. And relatives, and possibly the poor bastards that have to work with me.
Anyway generally speaking I don’t have a God-complex, nor am I U.S.-based multi-national corporation (though if you want to see some people with YUGE God-complexes…) but I do have bloody good taste and great discernment when it comes to books, which is why you really should follow and read this blog, becasue you just will get some amazing tips on books you should read. And possibly some other crap. And probably cats. And also, I have words. I have great words. I have the bestest words on the planet, it’s true. Ask anyone, they’ll tell you…