Friday, 31 August 2012


I spent ages before my holidays doing a Bookworm News post to publish on this date, only to discover that my computer has apparently eaten it :(  Sucks :(  Oh well - you'll just have to wait until September for the latest and greatest in the world of books - which, in September, will include details of the newly-released Kindle Fire...

Thursday, 23 August 2012

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

--The blurb--
""Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird". This is a lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of this story - a black man charged with raping a white girl in the Deep South of the 1930s."

--The review--
Literature professors and other book lovers around the world, since time immemorial, have long argued about the purpose of literature. Is it to teach? To entertain? To transport, to allow for escapism? To reassure you that there's someone out there who has once felt as you now do? Or something else?

Harper Lee was working at a very sensitive time for America - and yet somehow, in the turbulence of the late 1950s and early 1960s, she managed to encapsulate all of these things in what is essentially her only work, To Kill A Mockingbird. It's certainly worth doing something only once if you do it right the first time, and this is proved by Lee's lingering legacy. Her only novel leaves an ongoing flavour in the mouth and mind as all five senses try to wrap themselves around the warmth of the Alabama summers, the noises of the courtroom, the taste of Coca-Cola out of a brown paper bag, the smell of Miss Maudie's beloved azaleas, and the unending motif of calm protagonist Atticus leaning over a book or newspaper. The author's powers of description and observation mean that the transportation of the reader is complete; it is this, combined with the compelling plot line, which make it difficult to extract oneself from what is being told.

Entertainment is not so prevalent in To Kill A Mockingbird in terms of laughs; Lee is, after all, dealing with a serious subject. The characters are strong, touching and eccentric in equal measure, and contrast each other enough to create real variety, while the plot is precise and carefully executed. Tension is built up successfully as Lee hangs onto control of the dénouement, throwing in a twist just as the reader believes that they know what will happen. This is not to say that the writer scores perfectly on all counts, however: at times the narration is too unrealistic to possibly come from the mouth of an eight-year-old, even a precocious one (a third-person omniscient narrator, or even the first-person voice of an older child, would have perhaps been better), and further expansion on the Boo Radley subplot would have added even further mystery. None of these flaws, though, prevent the reader from being riveted throughout.

At once the reader is somewhere else, and at the same time reminded of their life's own unfairnesses (even if only in the sense of how they diminish by comparison to the novel's main unfairness). But Lee does not encourage us to wallow - to the contrary, we are guided to take inspiration from the sage Atticus, who dispenses life advice throughout the novel at appropriate intervals, without seeming interfering. To Kill A Mockingbird perhaps contains life's most important lessons, but the reader does not feel patronised by this, as the author's points are well-made. 

It is therefore from the combination of all of the above "purposes of literature" that To Kill A Mockingbird has truly earned its place in the annals of literary acclaim. All should be urged to read it - and not only that, but to read it more than once.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Bill Bryson)

--The blurb--
"Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has fig­ured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture."

--The review--
Bill Bryson's amusing travelogues are known even to those who have never picked up one of his books. Focusing chiefly on his homeland of America, and his adopted homeland of Britain, several of his works have been adapted for television and there are even plans afoot for a film version of his 1998 work A Walk in the Woods. His prominence over almost twenty-five years, and ability to straddle the genres of travel, history, biography, memoir, language and science as almost nobody else does has assured his comfortable position as a household name. His latest opus, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which was published in 2010, continues in the author's tradition of trying to eagerly dash through as many topics as possible, in this case in an attempt to illustrate how it is what we do in our day-to-day lives, rather than what battles, monarchs and laws do, that in fact makes history. 

Always engaging, and only occasionally patronising, At Home is intriguingly structured around the layout of Bryson's home, a former refectory in Norfolk. Laying aside the fact that it is practically criminal to a book-lover to have a library and not use it (which Bryson cheerfully admits, which almost makes him seem ungrateful for the large and apparently beautiful home that he has at a time when many young people will probably never become homeowners, let alone have the luxury of a library for their delectation), Bryson more than compensates for this transgression through his compendium of fascinating and eminently quotable facts and stories. His chosen structure (linking the anecdotes with each room in his house) is successful for the most part, although perhaps inevitably - given the scope of the work - is stronger in some places than others. The stories connected with the attic and the cellar, for instance, appear to have little to do with these rooms - and this would have surely been an ideal opportunity to start on when British people started to drink wine and beer and perhaps keep it in their homes before taking it seriously as a hobby. Unfortunately, it's a chance that Bryson apparently missed - but in spite of this, it's a remarkable achievement to keep up the reader's interest in quite such a sustained way, given At Home's length.

While for the most part incredibly readable, the author does seem to have an aversion to semi-colons, which would make some of his longer sentences far easier to read if they had been included. It's difficult to say whether this is a deficiency on Bryson's own part, or just sloppy editing - although if he does have a specific vendetta against this humble punctuation mark then there's probably an explanation tucked away in one of his language books. 

One of the elements which does contribute to the book's readability - and this applies across much of Bryson's canon, as mentioned in my introduction - is the fact that he does focus in At Home, for the most part, on British and American history. This is understandable given his own background, and he does well to pull in stories from around the world at appropriate moments too. Ultimately, despite At Home's 'stab in the dark' approach, it is this unifying principle, as well as the book's mostly successful underlying premise (with an additional focus on the year of his home's construction - 1851), which adds structure, form, and a real conclusion to this history book. Far more interesting than other populist historians such as Stephen Clarke, Bryson remains accessible in the face of the depth of research undertaken and the sheer finesse involved in selecting information from more than 500 works and incorporating the most vital tidbits into a single book (although cynics may suspect that he has an army of willing interns/minions to assist him in this monumental task). For this, in spite of any errors he makes, his place in Britain's (and America's) literary canon, as well as his honorary doctorate from St Andrew's University, is well-deserved.

A full list of works by Bill Bryson can be found here.

Friday, 17 August 2012

If music be the food of love


Since time immemorial, literary greats have been immortalising their appreciation for music through their words. As well as Shakespeare encouraging us to "play on", there are numerous other authors who have given music the nod in their works: Vikram Seth's An Equal Music and Proust's In Search of Lost Time are equally suffused with love for all those black and white dots and lines. There are also plenty of songs that retell a work of literature - not only is there Kate Bush's legendary retelling of Wuthering Heights, but a whole catalogue of Iron Maiden songs based on works by Edgar Allan Poe, Aldous Huxley, and William Golding (to name just a few) also exists (a comprehensive list of such songs can be viewed here).

So if you have any friends with summer birthdays on the horizon, why not educate and entertain them simultaneously with an album from one of the bands in the list above? Or perhaps invest in books like 31 Songs (by the musically talented Nick Hornby), Alex Ross' monumental tome The Rest Is Noise, or Rose Tremain's Music and Silence?

The history of humans enjoying music certainly goes back a long way, right back to when people first learned that beating a stick on a stone could make a pleasing rhythm. Since then we've enjoyed everything from Ancient Greek music to Alex Clare, and from madrigals to Maroon 5. Luckily for us bookworms, there are plenty of books on these subjects as well.

Over the next few days, though, I'll be working with the Guardian to respond to their questions, providing insight into my personal 'sound'. We've all been asked which songs mean the most to us, but sometimes defining why can be difficult. It's also said that everyone has a book in them - and at times it really would take a whole book to explain how some songs are irretrievably linked with certain pivotal moments in our lives.

To start with, though, I give you "This Summer I Went Swimming". It's not based on a book of any kind, but was a favourite of a book-loving friend of mine who is now no longer with us.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

How Hard Can It Be? (Jeremy Clarkson)

--The blurb--

"A world where the nonsensical made sense, the idiotic was abolished and the sheer bloody brilliant was embraced. In How Hard Can It Be? our hero embarks on a quest to set the world to rights. Again. En-route he discovers how rhubarb will become the new crack, that a comb over will end anyone's quest for global domination and what unites a Filipino chambermaid in Abergavenny with Prince Andrew.

For anyone who's ever woken up and thought the time has come to stop the nonsense and celebrate the sensational, read on. Because seriously, how hard can it be?"

--The review--
Given the Top Gear trio's seemingly eternal presence on television and in newspapers - even on completely non-car-related matters - it seems likely that everyone has a little piece of them in their lives, or on their TV screens, or in their Sunday papers, at some point or another. This pervasiveness even now extends to our bookshelves: what with James May's geeky and quirky efforts (think Toy Stories and Magnificent Machines), and Richard Hammond's gamut of solemn and humorous publications (from On The Edge to his children's books on science), it also appears that startlingly there may be something for everyone from this triad too.

Jeremy Clarkson's books of essays are no exception. People that tend to hate him have generally only seen him on television, but it would arguably be difficult to read one of his compilations and not find a single thing that interested you or that you agreed with (even if you are not typically of a right-wing disposition). In this fourth volume of The World According To Clarkson, the collection entitled How Hard Can It Be? (published in 2010) encompasses topics as diverse as skiing holidays, accents, trying to work while on holiday, and what we should do to solve the problem of overcrowded prisons (to name just a few).  

Given that the essays were originally published on a weekly basis in The Sunday Times, they are all of a similar length and highly readable. This equally makes the collection very suitable for dipping into on a whim to fill life's five-minute stopgaps (while queuing, waiting for a train, or waiting for the water to come to the boil, for instance), although this by turns makes it less appropriate for reading at greater length, as the articles are so short as to become potentially repetitive in their structure - so for your bedtime reading, choose something longer perhaps, depending on how quickly you tend to fall asleep at night.

Clarkson's turns of phrase are exaggerated and deliberately provocative, but almost guaranteed to induce a smile, giggle, or even proper belly laugh. It turns out that (beneath the remarks which some may consider offensive) one of the most hated men in Britain actually has plenty of viable propositions to get around life's little niggles as well as its greater problems - teach schoolchildren to do things they will actually need in life, for example, and how to choose a pet for your children that will survive a nuclear holocaust (and no, it isn't a cockroach).

Naturally, there is plenty in this collection that clearly isn't intended to be taken seriously, so readers need to go in with a pinch of salt - but if you're even remotely interested in this book, you're probably dragging a whole bag of the white stuff behind you as we speak. Besides all of this, the reason for the series' enduring popularity is clear: while topical, the issues Clarkson raises are equally pertinent even when read a few years after their original publication. Perhaps more importantly - although some may disagree - they serve as an important historical and personal document of our age (in a similar way to a diary, but with arguably even greater relevance that extends beyond just one person's view). The essays also educate without patronising and stimulate conversation in handy bite-size chunks - and their at times inflammatory tone means that teens may find them as appealing as adults. Now find me a Nintendo DS that can do that. A perfect addition to any family bookshelf.

Other works by Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Clarkson's Motorworld (1996)
Clarkson on Cars (1996)
Clarkson's Hot 100 (1997)
Planet Dagenham (1998)
Born to be Riled (1999)
Jeremy Clarkson on Ferrari (2000)
The World According to Clarkson (2004)
I Know You Got Soul (2005)
And Another Thing (2006)
Don't Stop Me Now (2007)
For Crying Out Loud (2008)
Driven to Distraction (2009) 
Round The Bend (2011)