Wednesday, 30 June 2010

update June 2010

# of books read in June: 3
Cumulative total: 29

1. The Blessing (Nancy Mitford)
2. The Plato Papers (Peter Ackroyd)
3. The Hours (Michael Cunningham)
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows)
5. Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)
6. En passant (Raymond Queneau)
7. The Story of God (Robert Winston)
8. Ye Gods! Travels in Greece (Jill Dudley)
9. The Man in the High Castle (Philip K Dick)
10. La Chine Classique (Ivan P Kamenarovic)
11. White Teeth (Zadie Smith)
12. The House in Norham Gardens (Penelope Lively)
13. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)
14. Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)
15. Rebuilding Coventry (Sue Townsend)
16. On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
17. The Undomestic Goddess (Sophie Kinsella)
18. French Kissing (Catherine Sanderson)
19. Icons of England (various authors; edited by Bill Bryson)
20. Shirley (Charlotte Brontë)
21. Women's Hour Short Stories
22. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
23. Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)
24. Reviving Ophelia (Mary Pipher)
25. Nightingale Wood (Stella Gibbons)
26. The Orange Girl (Jostein Gaarder)
27. Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)
28. Gemma and Sisters (Noel Streatfeild)
29. See Under: Love (David Grossman)

The 100-book target is seeming increasingly out of reach :( I should have ideally read 50 books by now. The low number of books read in June can be attributed to the 'waste of time' that I spent rereading the St Clare's series by Enid Blyton (and rereads don't count towards this total, if you remember), and the fact that I have just started reading possibly the longest novel ever written (Proust's In Search of Lost Time). Quality, not quantity, friends.

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Holiday Reading

It's that time of year again - that time when bibliophiles everywhere try to work out just how many books they can squash into their suitcases for a few weeks' holiday.

As someone who's been known to get through 8 books in a week on holiday before, this problem is something with which I very much empathise and sympathise. However, it's become far less of a problem for me in recent years, and I suspect for many others, due to the following reasons (and if you're still grappling with the bibliophile's yearly dilemma over which books to take and which to leave, you may even learn something here! yay!):
  1. I have, in the past three years, mostly holidayed to destinations where books are available for free and in plentiful supply - mainly the respective houses of my parents and my fiancé's parents. I will also never forget the hotel in Requiècourt where they actually left books in the hotel room for guests to read, nor the gîte near Fontainebleau that opened the family bookshelves to the guests. Equally in the past I have stayed in many a French and Italian campsite that has offered a book exchange programme.
  2. Taking one or two weightier tomes rather than several lighter reads may not cut down on weight, but it does cut down on space in your case and you still have plenty to read. Plus, you get that satisfying feeling when you come back of having read a few classics during your hols rather than just liquefying your brain with issues of Heat magazine.
  3. Bookshops do exist! If you are holidaying in an Anglophone country, just perhaps pack one book for the journey and buy others as and when you require them (although I admit this does pose problems on the way back that you managed to avoid on the way there). If you holiday in one particular place with any sort of regularity, you could also join the local library (when my grandparents still owned a holiday flat in Dover, we were members of the local library there as well as being members of the one at home. BOY was that a good move.). If you are holidaying abroad, kids' books provide rich pickings if you're wanting to improve your command of the language, and if you are already fairly proficient in the language, then well...the world is your huître, or your ostra, or your Auster (or whatever the word for oyster is in the country that you're in).
  4. Technology is an amazing thing, and while I can't really see any significant everyday use for something like the Kindle, I can definitely see how it would help come holiday time. The ability to load tens or even hundreds of books onto one handy lightweight device? YES PLEASE. (Which is all fine and dandy until this expensive bit of kit gets nicked, I suppose.)
  5. Audiobooks are also pretty marvellous for travel if you're that way inclined: just dump a load onto your MP3 player and you're set for the flight, the hours in the car, the days on the beach, and whatever else your holiday might bring. Simples.
However, should you choose to just stuff your suitcase full of books and leave behind all your clothes (you can go for two weeks just in the clothes you're stood up in, right? And you can buy clothes when you get there, yes?), there should certainly be no shortage of ideas of what to read: the broadsheets in particular at this time of year turn out summer reading supplements with a predictability that you could set your watch by. Even just buying one broadsheet's summer reading special should provide plenty of inspiration: the FT's summer books special alone contains 92 suggestions, covering everything from general fiction and kids' books through to business, food and travel books.

As for me, I'll be continuing to tackle Proust (in English) as well as some contemporary French fiction (of course, in French). I'll probably also throw in a few wildcards from my bookshelf that I've not yet got around to reading. But naturellement, feel free to leave any suggestions that you might have here too. Bonnes vacances!

See Under: Love (David Grossman)

--The blurb--
"Momik, the protagonist of the book, is the only child of survivors of the Holocaust. He grows up in the shadow of their history, determined to understand the nature of the Nazi "beast" and to prepare for a holocaust he knows is still to come."

--The review--
Languorous reading of See Under: Love is enjoyable but not advisable; it is not the ideal book to take months over. This is because Grossman's work is many of the things that contemporary literature almost shouldn't be - it is risky almost to the point of being unsellable due to its sheer ambition, complexity and convolution (and not always in a good way). Still, I suppose that never stopped James Joyce or Joseph Heller. It is all of these things in a way that makes the book almost bewildering (thankfully without being totally incomprehensible); as a reader you sometimes ask yourself why you are continuing with this. And yet you do, because it is utterly compelling.

In fact, there are many reasons to continue with this book. Its slightly wacky and yet always eloquent style makes it intriguing, original and beautiful in a way that nearly makes aspiring authors want to stop writing because they'll never be able to make anything as good as this. Utterly poetic, it still simultaneously manages to reach out to humanity in a way they will understand; it is significant historically, culturally and literarily, reminding us in more ways than one that whether we like it or not we are our history, we are what has gone before us. It has an interdisciplinary, learned and highly intelligent quality to it, which makes it both wonderful and somewhat intimidating. The title becomes apparent in its meaning only towards the novel's end, but when it does, it's highly fitting and it becomes abundantly clear.

Most interestingly, it manages to cross cultures and genres and voices and times while still remaining distinctly Jewish. It confronts the issue of the Holocaust and the history of the Jewish people in an entirely new and breathtaking way, and while perhaps not all of it is initially understandable, in many ways it almost doesn't matter; it is a pleasure simply to sit and allow words and images to wash over you. My advice is therefore not to borrow this book off anyone: it is an intense and complicated experience, and you need your own copy with you along the way, so that you can peel back the layers and unwrap the emotional and historical complexes indicated here in your own personal way.

Other works by David Grossman*
The Yellow Wind (1988; non-fiction)
The Smile of the Lamb (1990)
Sleeping on a Wire (1993; non-fiction)
The Book of Intimate Grammar (1994)
The Zigzag Kid (1997)
Duel (1998)
Be My Knife (2001)
Death as a Way of Life (2003; non-fiction)
Someone To Run With (2003)
Her Body Knows (2005)
Lion's Honey (2006)

*the dates given are the dates of translation into English

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Gemma and Sisters (Noel Streatfeild)

--The blurb--
"Gemma, once a child film-star in Hollywood, is living with her cousins in a small provincial town. Having thought that she would find it a terrible backwater, she now finds that her cousins are much more talented than she is! There's tremendous excitement in the Robinson household. Gemma and her cousins have put together an act using all their talents, and they're an instant hit! Everyone wants to see Gemma & Sisters. Robin, the younger brother, has swirled some new tunes, and his friend Nigs is on the drums. Ann sings solo and Lydia, the show-off of the family, is thrilled to be able to dance in front of an audience again. Gemma is a sensation on the banjo, but she has an awful feeling of foreboding. Then one day disaster strikes. Lydia, in a stupid moment of revenge, has an accident and badly injures her hip. It looks like the end for Gemma & Sisters; but much more important: will Lydia ever dance or even walk again?"

--The review--
Acclaimed effectively as a writer of modern-day fairytales, Noel Streatfeild's appeal is not just restricted to wartime Britain. Ballet Shoes, for instance, remains a children's classic, and it was recently made into a movie for television starring Emma Watson. Perhaps lesser-known, though, is the Gemma series, published in the late 60s just as the author's career was beginning to wind down. She was already over 70 by this time, and while like other prolific children's authors such as Enid Blyton she tended to recycle character types and plot bases, this made her books no less enjoyable. The Gemma series is no exception, and the story is continued smoothly in Gemma and Sisters, the second instalment in the series of four (the other three being Gemma, Gemma Alone, and Goodbye Gemma).

Just as in her other books, the common themes of performance and of unexpected modern-day fairy godmothers saving the family's skin just at the right moment are prominent. The characters are vivid, pace is kept tight, and suspense is built effectively. Gemma and Sisters proves supremely comforting and readable for all ages and is something that families can enjoy together, allowing hope to be instilled that all will come right in the end.

The book is dated and thus may not appeal so much to some young people, although it may be of sociological interest to those who work in this field of study. A very definite picture is built of the time in which it was written, and while the situations can at times seem contrived (Streatfeild characteristically ties things up perhaps a little too neatly), the characters never do, seeming genuine and largely likeable. Readers want to know what will happen to Gemma and all of the others next, not just in the context of the series but also in the twists and turns of the book itself. Streatfeild delivers humour, tragedy, feistiness, seriousness, mischief and happiness in equal measure, packing a lot of variety into what is in reality just a few short pages.

Streatfeild's work may prove a little too twee and sentimental for some, and ultimately the ending is happy, as it usually is for the author's heroes and heroines. However, it's perhaps worth throwing in the idea that sometimes the "best" books are not always the most well-written or perfect: just look at Twilight and Harry Potter.

Selected works by Noel Streatfeild (for children)
Ballet Shoes (1936)
Curtain Up (1944)
White Boots (1951)
Apple Bough (1962)

Selected works by Noel Streatfeild (for adults)
Saplings (1945)
Grass In Piccadilly (1947)
Mothering Sunday (1950)
Judith (1956)
The Silent Speaker (1961)

Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)

--The blurb--
"David Sedaris moved from New York to Paris where he attempted to learn French. His teacher, a sadist, declared that every day spent with him was like giving birth - the Caesarean way. Inspired by the move, these essays chronicle his life so far, from childhood to his time in France."

--The review--
Openly gay entertainers tend to do one of two things with their sexuality: one is to turn it into a positive thing (à la Graham Norton or Elton John), and the other is to adopt a somewhat self-pitying persona while curiously almost wanting to draw attention to their sexuality, in a way that almost makes you feel as if the person concerned should never have come out of the closet if it makes them feel this negatively self-conscious. Stephen Fry is one of these (judgement based on his autobiography Moab is my Washpot) and to an extent David Sedaris is as well. His sexuality is the first topic of conversation in Me Talk Pretty One Day and the emphasis given in the blurb on learning French in France is perhaps unfairly skewed: it is a thread that runs through the memoir, to be sure, but it's certainly not the focus and it definitely plays second fiddle to Sedaris' quest to 'find himself' (my words, not his) spiritually and sexually (although it's not a sexually explicit book).

I am also usually sceptical about books that claim on the front cover or within spitting distance of it to be hilarious or guaranteed to make you laugh aloud. I can think of only a handful of books that have ever made me do this; this wasn't one of them. The humour was at times quite American and smacked a little too much of trying a little too hard. However, saying this, the episodes where the French classes were described were amusing, even if not of the laugh-out-loud variety. Some of the humour was more dry, more 'British', and this mix of humours really made the memoir a mixed bag.

The structure of the memoir is both original and engaging: while it does follow a loose chronological pattern, it consists of snapshots of the most interesting or important parts of Sedaris' life, rather than giving the reader a blow-by-blow account, which is many ways is very refreshing. Equally, despite my previously ambivalent comments regarding Sedaris' humour, the memoir strikes me as being highly performative, relying heavily on tone of voice, facial expression, and other elements of comedy in order for the text's full potential to be realised. Me Talk Pretty One Day would therefore perhaps work better in some other format than as a written memoir, and it is maybe because of this, as well as the lacklustre ending, that the memoir is a little on the forgettable side.

Despite the high points, then, this autobiography was something of a disappointment to me. I don't know what I had expected but I still felt that I had expected something more than what I got. Still, I'm not usually one to write off an author completely after only sampling one of their books, so away from what is perhaps the amuse-bouche and towards the starter and main I go. If I'm lucky, I'll get as far as cheese, coffee, and dessert.

Other works by David Sedaris
Barrel Fever (1994)
Naked (1997)
Holidays On Ice (1997)
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004)
Children Playing Before A Statue of Hercules (2005)
When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008)