Saturday, 29 April 2017

April reading round up

I seem to have been doing a bit more reading than usual the past couple of months , but not so much blogging. Many of the books I've read have been garnered on quick sweeps in my local library; some are titles I've bought to read for the book club I belong to, others just acquired on a whim, such as Bee Wilson's This Is Not A Diet Book. I picked this up at my local university bookshop and read it that evening. It 's an interesting take on how to have a more rational approach to food and feeding ourselves as human beings - not depending on fast food and takeaways, but creating something nourishing from scratch, which is something I've tried to do for a very long time. There are a few useful recipes within and simple guidelines as to how to eat well.
 For a bit of light relief, I read a couple of titles by Veronica Henry, How to Find Love in a Bookshop, and The Beach Hut Next Door. Both are easy stories, with enough about the characters for me to care for them and to want to find out what happens to them.

Fredrick Backman's " A man called Ove" is a beautifully told story about a grumpy old man called Ove, who lives in a small Swedish town. Ove makes several, fortunately unsuccessful attempts to take his own life. Ove's life story is revealed slowly, over the course of the book: his childhood, his meeting with his wife Sonja and her childhood in an isolated house. This book gives a picture of modern Swedish life in all its complexity, including the bureaucracy revealed when an old friend in need of care is being hustled off into a care home, despite his wife's pleadings against this action. Ove's daily inspections of his neighbourhood bring him into contact with the many people in the locality, including recent arrivals Parvenah and her husband. Parvenah is Iranian and forms a close bond with Ove, He even teaches her to drive. This story is a complete contrast to the Scandi-noir thrillers which have been popular for some time.
Having recently watched the final of University Challenge, which I've been watching since its Bamber Gascoigne days, I picked up Jeremy Paxman's A Life in Questions ,(a sort of autobiography,) in the library and read it fairly quickly. It does give a picture of his family background and working life, but little of his personal, private life. Nevertheless, I found it an interesting read, despite its slightly limited scope on his life.
I don't know how, over a long reading life I haven't read anything by Penelope Fitzgerald. however I have now made a start with her last novel, The Blue Flower, a story about the love of Freidrich (Fritz) von Hardenberg for Sophie von Kuhn, who was only 12 when they first met. Von Hardenberg went on to write poetry and philosophy under the name Novalis. Set during the 18th century, on reading it I became totally absorbed into the life of the characters: she makes the 18th century seem very real and immediate and describes beautifully Fritz's family's total bemusement at his falling in love with an apparently rather ordinary, plain young girl, who is also not of his class in society. It is good to find a new to me author who has a solid body of work to keep me reading.
Note: there is more about Penelope Fitzgerald and her novel The Bookshop over on Vulpes Libris blog.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Swimming along

I bought Alexandra Heminsley's book "Leap In: A woman, some waves and the will to swim "on a whim, as I'd heard her talking about on the radio, and as a regular swimmer myself, it sounded interesting, and so it proved. She details her desire to not just swim, but to swim in the sea next to her Brighton home, and takes in other open water or wild swims as well. It also adds to my small collection of books about swimming - or perhaps that should be the literature of swimming, as there is nothing in the form of training manuals. There are a couple of guides to open water swimming, which in my young days was just called outdoor swimming. Brought up partly on the isle of Wight during the 1960's, swimming was for the majority of people a summer activity, in the sea or in the few open air pools on the island at that time. My sister and I were both in our respective school swimming teams, but training was fairly minimal, and we did quite a bit of leisure swimming in the sea during the summer. I've since swum in rivers and lakes as well as the sea, but only as a leisure swimmer, not competitively. However these days I mostly swim in pools, indoor or outdoor whenever possible.
Alexandra Heminsley's book is enthusiastic about open water swimming and I have to admit it is a lovely way to swim, but not always accessible She includes several tips about how to swim in open water, recommends some places to swim in the open air and also has tips about equipment to use while swimming.
There are some guides as to where to swim outdoors: this website has links and maps to hundreds of places in the UK and beyond:
Go  on, leap in and enjoy the water.

Monday, 20 March 2017

A boarding school tale

Terms and Conditions; a history of girls boarding schools between 1939 and 1979 by Ysenda Maxtone-Graham was a must read for me on purely personal grounds. I  attended a small boarding school in Berkshire during the 1950's, together with my sister. Some of the descriptions and events recalled in this book are highly amusing, some terrifying and others recall the boredom of times at school. We were sent to boarding school because our parents worked abroad, in West Africa, in the Gold Coast/Ghana and after about the age of 10, coming up to secondary stage education, what was available for English children in that part of Africa was somewhat problematic.
 The school we went to in England was small, with few teachers, but reasonably friendly. Accommodation was in small dormitories, with usually only about 4 -5 girls to a room, all the same age.The education was not terribly good and when I passed the 11+ exam, I went to the local grammar school, on the recommendation of the headmistress of the boarding school, while still boarding at the school,
 The tales Ysenda Maxtone Graham tells of life in a variety of girls boarding schools, all revealed by former pupils, now grown women, do reflect some of my and my sister's experiences and their lasting effects. These include a certain independence and self-reliance from a young age, few expectations and a tolerance of not very good food.
For those of us who went to boarding school during the period covered by this book, I think this book will probably bring back a host of memories

Monday, 30 January 2017

Contrasting reads

Kent Haruf's Benediction is a quiet, sad story about an old man dying. Put like that, it would seem to be not a book one would search out and read. But do search it out and read it, because Kent Haruf's writing about the daily lives of his characters is the best. His prose is spare, quiet, thoughtful and  immensely readable. His characters are ordinary people living ordinary lives, which is what makes his books so sympathetic, because his characters and their lives are just like our own, immediately recognisable.
Dad Lewis, retired businessman, is dying through a long, hot summer in Holt. Cared for by his wife and daughter, he is visited by old friends and looks back over his life in the small Colorado town. He also reflects on his relationship with his son Frank. The Lewis's next-door neighbour  looks after her young granddaughter, and a recent arrival in town the preacher Rob Lyle has problems of his own.
I have enjoyed Kent Haruf's writing since first reading Plainsong many years ago. He is not a prolific writer, but one who makes every word count .

Amy Liptrot's book The Outrun is a completely different take on life.  Brought up on a farm on Orkney, Amy leaves the island for university and then life in London, where she throws herself into its vibrant social life, and the drinking that goes with it. Gradually as she becomes increasingly reliant on alcohol, she loses jobs, homes and lovers. Eventually she enters rehab and decides to leave London ,returning to Orkney for a summer job which involves counting corncrakes for the RSPB. She decides to spend the winter on Papay, the small island she had spent summer on and writes - marvelous descriptions of of the wildlife, the clear starry skies, sea swimming and snorkeling with a local group and meditating on how she can continue to be free of the alcohol addiction which blighted her younger life.
Amy Liptrot comes across as warm, friendly and self sufficient. A wonderful read- part memoir, part nature description, showing how paying close attention to our surroundings can be a source of healing.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Lloyd Jones

Wandering through my local branch of Waterstones, I picked up a copy of Lloyd Jones latest book, A History of Silence, on sale for £1. Never one to refuse a bargain, this one provided me with several days of slow, contemplative reading. I'm a fan of Lloyd Jones writing, having read a few of his novels, such as The Book of Fame, Mister Pip and most recently Hand Me Down World. This last was borrowed from my local library and was quite different to his other books, in that the story is about a young African woman, working in a hotel, who becomes pregnant and has her child stolen from her. Her story is told mainly through the eyes of those who she comes into contact with on her terrible journey as she  searches to find her son again. Many people help Ines, as she is called, not all of them willingly. Eventually Ines reaches Berlin, where her son is living with his father, but her difficulties do not end there. She is homeless, without money, but manages to find work and help from other people from time to time. This story gave me an insight into the horrendous difficulties people overcome in their search for a better life when they choose to migrate across the Mediterranean sea and across Europe to their destination, and how they may be helped along the way, or treated unkindly, or worse.

A History of Silence is a family memoir and a reflection on the earthquakes in New Zealand in 2011. The family memoir tells of Lloyd Jones growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, his early life there, his brothers and sisters and his parents. His mother's life seems to have been complicated,, but her story is gently teased out from the silence and dissimulation that seem to have surrounded it.
I enjoyed this memoir, which is not a traditional linear story, as a gentle, discursive read, as the writing is clear yet imaginative. It occasionally goes off at surprising tangents, but these are usually linked back to the family story or the authors reflections on it. The visit to Pembroke in search for the sailor who "died at sea" was unproductive, but gave Lloyd Jones a chance to consider his family connections with Wales.

Monday, 31 October 2016

All the light we cannot see

A recent read I really enjoyed is Antony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See.  The title comes from the radio waves and other forms of electro-magnetic communication waves which we cannot see with our eyes, yet which surround us everywhere. Apparently Antony Doerr saw someone on a train beating his mobile phone on the armrest of his seat when the train entered a tunnel, thus losing connection, and thought how we take such communication for granted these days. This was one of our Book Club choices and I was really glad to see it on the list. ( We usually choose 5 -6 months worth of titles at a time, and meet every three weeks for discussion along with coffee and cake)
I hadn't read anything by this author before, and will now seek out some of his other titles.
Set during, before and after World War Two, this is a complex book, with many different themes, yet is so beautifully written that despite its length it seemed to be an easy read. Each chapter is fairly short, so there is time to really grasp the flow of the story. Partly a coming-of-age story, as both main characters, Werner and Marie-Laure, are very young during the story and only teenagers when they finally and briefly meet; partly about the impact of radio communication, Werner is a young German radio whizz; partly about blindness -  Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six; partly about the Nazi's hunt for  art treasures in the countries they invaded; despite these varied themes the story combines them in elegant, lyrical prose. The discussion we had during our book Club meeting ended with a desire to have a group outing to St Malo, a place which some but not all had visited, and which is also an important character in the book.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Last of the summer reading

Autumn is definitely here now days are getting shorter with darker mornings and evenings and I need to catch up with comments on some of my late summer and early autumn reading.

  Having read Lila, the last of Marilyn Robinson's trilogy set in the small rural town of Gilead first, I thought I'd better catch up with the others. Gilead is the first and a beautiful read. Written as a letter to his young son by John Ames who is now aged and recalling his past life. He often refers to "your mother" but never mentions her name when talking to his son, yet it is apparent that he loves and values her. The letter explains John Ames' whole life, his close friendship with the Presbyterian minster the Rev Boughton, his father and grandfather, who was an abolitionist and eccentric in his behaviour. The reflections on life in a small mid-western American town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are eloquently described and the theology by which John Ames lives is almost more humanistic than Calvinist, although he frequently mentions the grace of God throughout his reminiscences.

       Beloved by Toni Morrison is a book that escaped me when first published, but the beauty of a trip to my local library and a browse along its shelves is that it reveals several titles that I feel like reading; this title was one such. Beloved won the Pulitzer prize in 1988 and Toni Morrison the Nobel prize for literature in 1993. This is a complicated story about slavery and its consequences in the Southern states of America. Sethe and her daughter Denver are living in a house which previously belonged to Sethe' mother-in-law and which is haunted. Paul D arrives, a former slave and friend of Sethe's husband who has disappeared, and manages to expel the ghost, but a real life girl appears, called Beloved, the name of the infant whom Sethe killed when she was found after running away from the plantation on which she was a slave. Beloved is welcomed into the household, and gradually seems to take over. Sethe loses her job which provided the only income to the household but still spends money on providing beloved with whatever she demands. Eventually matters come to head; Denver asks a group of local women to help. When the group arrive to visit Sethe, Denver's employer, a white man arrives to collect her for work, but Sethe thinks this is a re-enactment of a past event when she was escaping slavery. However a tragedy is prevented, but in the comings and goings of this event, Beloved disappears.  There are  a number of themes running through this novel, as well as slavery and its consequences for both black and white people America is shown at a time of change, just after the Civil war. Memory and how past memories are repressed for fear of what remembering might bring is another theme, as is the relationship between mother and daughters.

Yet another novel set in America, in the west as it was being opened up by pioneers is Willa Cather's "O Pioneers". I found this while browsing the local brocante fair in France and paid one euro for it.
Set in the underdeveloped prairie lands of Nebraska, this is the story of Alexandra Bergson, who is sixteen at the beginning  of the  tale, and her family. Her father, a Swede who left his native land for a new life in America, is dying and leaves the farm to Alexandra, realising that she has the intelligence and ability to make it successful. Her two younger brothers each inherit shares in the land, while the youngest Emil is set to go to university and study law. The descriptions of family life on the farms, the social lives of those who have chosen to make their lives in this hard land are drawn from Willa Cather's childhood in Nebraska. There was a mix of immigrants from many European countries, all searching for a better life for themselves and their families, along with the Native Americans, original inhabitants of the prairies. Alexandra is friendly with another Nordic family, the Linstrums and their son Carl. However the Linstrums leave Nebraska during a prolonged drought. Sixteen years later, Carl returns, meanwhile Emil has fallen in love with Marie, who they have known since childhood and who is now married to Frank. this affair is ended brutally. Despite being written over 100 years ago, the descriptions of human behaviour show that we haven't changed very much. I have read the last in this trilogy, My Antonia, but have yet to catch up with the second.

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