I knew it would be pulp but it needed to be read. The Rise, The Fall, and the Rise by Brix Smith tells a surprisingly rocky and neurotic tale. It’s a pretty candid romp about a damaged person who just seemed to choose all the wrong guys but who ends up mostly happy considering things. There’s nothing much new about Mark Smith here ( except for a disturbing hand-biting episode), but what was great to hear about was her life after 1988. Not being plugged into Brittish TV or fashion I didn’t know about her talents in both fields nor whether she still had dealings with ex band members. The perfect book to finish off on a plane to Perth for work. 3 stars.
If you had a Germanic sounding surname and lived in the UK post-WW1, it might seem wise to anglicise things a little. Perhaps turning Hueffer into Huffer or Heffer, however Ford chose Ford maybe out of imaginative desperation or love of symmetry. Whatever the reason, for someone like myself, this aroused a certain level of curiosity about such a man, leading me to buy his 4 part book Parade’s End on the cheap recently. It didn’t hurt that the rear cover proclaimed it “the finest English novel about the Great War” and was fronted by a mysterious gentile man in strange shiny shoes escorting a lady in a huge hat up some stairs. Talk about inviting your reading audience into your little tome of mystery!
Let me say that I’ve become a more patient reader over the years and I no longer baulk at 800 odd pages, however this book’s first 50 pages had me completely bewildered – reminding me a little like my one and only attempt at Ulysses nearly a decade ago. A month or so later after finishing it, after reading a couple of Amazon reviews, I was pleased that others felt the same way about the disjointed conversations, exaggerated reactions and impulses which begin the book, and are peppered throughout. It’s really not the most straightforward read (particularly the last part), and possibly the most challenging book I’ve read, however there is some some structure / story to it, and at certain points it gained a certain fluidity which made it very enjoyable. But I don’t think at any point I truly understood all that was going on – often due to conversations which were more about what was left out than what was said, and I went through an entire section being unsure of his use of the word “draft” and what that meant! The main character Christopher Tietjens is described as an 18th century Tory, a dour, brilliant, practical man for whom chivalry and honour are the foundations by which (to his downfall) he lives his life. I get that he is one of the great unique fictional characters, and I loved that the book was long enough to display many aspects of his personality and family history, but I felt you only ever got oblique angles on him, and his helplessness was nothing but frustrating by the end. As for Sylvia, the less said the better! I’m amazed that the BBC saw enough material in it to make a 5 part TV series in 2013, but I’ll have to watch it now. 3 stars.
Once again, a pile of books to write up and embarrassingly, one of them I cant recollect. Might as well stop reading non fiction for all the learning I’m doing right now.
I found The Sellout by Paul Beatty confusing and over my head. Satire isn’t my strong point nor my normal interest but the cover reviews and that little Man Booker Winner sticker worked their usual magic. At times I struggled to understand subtle points or the language and so many characters were unlikeable that I just slogged it out and finished up nonplussed. 2 stars.
Realising I had largely forgotten the subtleties of U.S Football I wanted a reference book to teach me about line play, types of coverage and play calling in general. I think Take Your Eye Off the Ball 2.0 by Pat Kirwan achieved that but only just. A few months later I should probably skim it again, though I at least know what Mike, Will and Sam linebackers are now. 3 stars.
Underground is Tobias Hill’s first novel, written in 1999 but hey, decent author and public transport / infrastructure theme and I’m interested. Hill does sinister and claustrophobic moods really well and avoided most of the usual serial killer tropes. That’s enough for my tick – 3 stars.
Having heard the ABC’s Book Club review of Ian McGuire’s The North Water, this novel was a must-read for me. Probably a little overly graphic at times (to the point that I felt queasy during a particular whale hunt scene) the novel delivered in spades and I couldn’t recommend it more highly although I certainly couldn’t watch the movie. Best book I’ve read in years, though not for the squeamish. 5 stars.
Grant and I, by Robert Forster was about what I expected for a Go Betweens memoir, but in a good way. A rock documentary a few years back had ex-drummer Lindy Morrison nearly in tears talking about how awful Grant and Robert had been to her/the other females in the band and I wanted to know why. To his credit Robert largely confesses to focusing more on competing with Grant for songwriting glory than on the women in their lives – both girlfriends / band members being ditched when it all got too much. There are a ton of songs listed and critiqued here (probably to the detriment of the book) and the studied pretence / concept / ambition of the band (even early on) was for some reason a surprise to me. It was still a wonderful read however much like after reading Fall biographies, I was left thinking how little I would like to spend time with the egos that made these great bands possible. 4 stars.
Ah….Slow Man by J.M.Coetzee, the writer who can do little wrong by me after the incredible Disgrace. Now that he’s Australian I seem to have developed a slight cultural cringe when reading him which isn’t helped by this unflattering portrayal of a recent amputee (bike accident) which is so plausible it felt autobiographical. Having not read Elizabeth Costello (written a few years before this novel) the injection of this magical / imaginary figure into this second book both saved it and had me arching eyebrows in disbelief. I don’t think this is anywhere near his best but it still wallops nearly anything else for honesty. This would be an awful movie though! 4 stars.
Lastly I had to know more about the circumstances that led to Ern Malley becoming one of the few genuine front page literary hoaxes in history. Michael Heyward’s The Ern Malley Affair drily spelt out the ingredients…the perceived pomposity of Max Harris and the Angry Penguins school; the greater foothold poetry had on a pre-television society and increasingly free-form experimentation in language and arts. The line between what was brilliantly original and what was a nonsensical pastiche was hard to draw, and the hapless but driven Harris was wounded for life as a result. Some of the court transcript of an inept prosecutor trying to prove vulgarity in the poems is amusing now but carried a jail sentence back in the 40s. What does “the black swan of trespass” mean anyway? 3 stars.
My reading has slowed in the last few months, as, on holidays up north, I started listening to weekly ESPN Cleveland Browns podcasts and found myself intrigued by a sensationally bad Browns team. This rapidly led to buying an NFL Game Pass in late October, and downloading 4-5 games a week to an old IPad and watching them on the daily tram to work. It confirmed for me that I enjoy it more when my team is losing than winning, and it was the sporting highlight of my year to see the 0-14 Browns finally win the second last game of the season in the dying seconds, and act like world champions.
Ended up reading Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which was and wasn’t what I expected. The Burma railway work camp and prisoner of war-scenes were graphic and revolting, and the description of surgery being performed with a sharpened spoon nearly made me put the book down for good. It was a terrific book I thought – 4.5 stars.
Had a 100-page go at Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey – My Own Life, and loved the snippets and diary format, however it was hard to stomach 500 pages of diary entries. Abandoned!
Finally for the year, a wonderful crime gem, translated from the French by Scot Graeme Macrae Burnet. The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau was an odd and charming novel. The guilt-driven paranoia of Manfred; his obsession with routine, and the oddly abrupt and suitable ending made for a perfect few days of entertainment. Just loved it. 5 stars.
Had a great end to an interrupted year by surpassing some modest goals post knee surgery in April. I didn’t really get back to running till July but I was fairly aggressive in building up mileage at Woolgoolga in September, and managed a first half marathon (1:39:00) in October, a 10k best (42:30) in the Zatopek minor grade track race in Nov., and a painful best Coburg parkrun (20:12) in December. Knee and hip issues have intervened though, and yesterday’s hip MRI apparently means stop everything for now. Gah.
Bonnie the wonder dog:
She continues to delight, and yet be completely ravenous at all times. We found out her original birthdate was 21st February 2004, and that she is a Jack Russell x Maltese. So fat!
Kim’s Christmas Presents:
Many books, many running tops and a whopper of an intimidating 3000 piece jigsaw which I hope to show more of later. Overall rating: 8/10.
TV this year:
These are the ones I remember: House of Cards, MadMen, WestWorld, Tudors, Wolf Hall, Ask the Midwife, Last Hope U, Midnight Sun, The Detectorists, Gavin and Stacey, Still Game, Raised by Wolves, Please Like Me, Rosehaven, Stranger Things, Downton Abbey, Fargo, The Killing, The Legacy and other Scandinavian stuff.
Things to look forward to in 2017:
More jumbo Flat Whites; playing old records on my newly fixed turntable; Malaysian trip in Jan; seeing The Bats in late-Jan; 50th birthday dinner in March; another year up at Woopi in August; a ton of books to work through all year; the end of summer (and daily plant watering); some running without knee issues – maybe?
Managed to get through a few chunky books this time around, though sadly there were a few self indulgent doozies amongst them. And a few unfinished ones too.
Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory was a great, if slightly depressing read. It’s not hard to think that many elements of this are autobiographical, especially those about his dying father and his lament about his own failing libido / interests and health. His trademark hedonism is all present, but what makes this book stand out is its more reflective tone, despite plenty of laughs along the way. A melange of observations about modern life (French Tourism; Mercedes A Class vehicles; the financial madness of the Art world) in moments I didn’t expect, and even better, a book that kept surprising me. Probably a 5 star book for me (or close).
Fifty pages into The Hidden by Tobias Hill, a book that had sat unread for five years at home, I knew I was in for another real treat. There were visceral elements that reminded me of Tim Winton or Christos Tsiolkas, and a sense of impending tragedy (McEwan), plus the small group claustrophobia of Golding. I just thought it went on a little long and lost the tension of the earlier part of the book, though the chapter-flipping between modern day Greece and Spartan history was effective. Still a remarkable novel, and a writer I will seek out again. 4 stars.
About a third of the way through Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, I remembered that similarly in 2666, there was a monstrously relentless (and almost endless) section of the book documenting forty or fifty murders of Mexican women who fell fowl of local officials, or who just happened to be around when the cartel chiefs wanted to demonstrate their cruelty to scare off foes. Though not as gruesome as the earlier novel, the 400 page bulky midsection of this book is seemingly designed to wear you down in the same way, via interviews of people coming into contact with our two mad poets Arturo Belano and Ulisis Lima over 25 years of worldwide travels. The book is a loving, scattergun series of recollections about a brief period in Mexico when poetry meant everything to young writers and Viceral Realism was “a thing”. The final section is a harrowing hunt for the founding mother of this genre and whilst I applaud its wackiness and indulgence, I simply couldn’t recommend the book due to length concerns. It still largely won me over – 4 stars.
Well, there’s finally a Coetzee book that I didn’t want to endure, and it was his first and shortest – 1974’s Dusklands. I only managed to get to the end of the first novella and found myself thinking I’d rather move on. What a shame as his later books were so good. 1 star.
Without question I was drawn to David Szalay’s All that Man Is by the maps on the front dust jacket, and (I think) a review in The Age or The Guardian. I found the stories intriguing to begin with, in particular the second one in which the hapless Bernard finds himself trapped with an overweight mother and daughter at an overseas holiday resort. Towards the middle of the book the stories became more angry; materialistic and career driven men and their insensitivities in full flight. The internal lives of young to old men (in sequence) are lovingly examined in small slices, each believable and beautifully described. Well worth the read if you can forgive the stage-prop role of many of the female characters. 4 stars.
Stuck in Woopi, with all the time in the world to pick something long or tough, I lucked out on Foucault’s Pendulum, so grabbed Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before. What a terrible mistake that was; rarely have I found a book so infuriating and circular. Fooled by the Gulliver’s Travels adventure / man finds himself shipwrecked in odd place premise, Eco then digresses to alchemy, explains the cultural relevance of Doves, inset with expositions about longitude and scientific history. Somewhere amongst the 510 pages, there’s meant to be a story, and then it turns out, he’s been writing an imaginary story all along and pretty soon you really don’t care if he ever sees his Orange Dove. Eco is no doubt a clever man, but shouldn’t bore the pants off us needing to prove it. I think I said that about David Foster Wallace in a review of the Infinite Jest too. 2 stars.
I feel so sorry for Ben Pobjie (Melbourne’s Own), as I think he’s a smart guy, and his book Error Australis is often funny, particularly in the absurd chapter quizzes, but heck, reading it made me physically exhausted. I pretty much had to put it down every couple of chapters due to the relentless gag count, and I feel sick thinking about how many hundreds and hundreds of hours he’s put into writing it, only for me to want to bin it or give it to a smart nephew who wouldn’t ever read the Fatal Shore. If I ever need to light a fire, this is the first book I will use as kindling. 2 stars.
I don’t miss riding to work at all – especially not in winter when the trams are warm, and I’m sufficiently rested to enjoy an early morning read. This is not overly encouraged in our house – it’s like someone wants to play the parent figure of her teen years and shush me out of bed because there’s work to be done (there usually isn’t). So, I’ve been plowing through some fiction (some American also – something I doubted I would return to) and have some weighty books accounted for in 2016 so far. NOTE: This doesn’t mean In Search of Lost Time is on the cards for 3Q16 – let’s not get too crazy. I bought the set on a whim (and on some bonus money from work), but heck, it is mainly just for the bookcase if I ever develop a literary buddy or if Gerald Murnane by chance dropped around oneday.
Sometime in early 2016 I started watching Youtube Clips produced by a passionate man called Gilles (is that pronounced Giles or Gille – I’m unsure) in his early 40’s in Quebec. The amazing thing about Gilles is that he thinks nothing of live-streaming his Friday and Saturday night Amateur Radio hobby for three hours at a time without a co-host. The other amazing thing is that he almost single handedly convinced me to buy a small Shortwave (with SSB) radio to listen to mystery stations and generally tool around listening to a lot of static. Sadly, despite a trip to the Moorabin Ham Radio fair with Ash, and a flick through Low Profile Amateur Radio, the possible passion fizzled due mainly to the lack of channels I could pickup in urban Preston. So, the radio sits ready for a trip up north later this year – maybe.
Reading War and Peace threw my interests towards Napoleon, and this lead to Robespierre and the French Revolution by J.M. Thompson, probably the dullest book in the Teach Yourself History series to date. It seems that anyone 200 odd years ago who stuck their neck out and agitated for change, managed to cop it in the end, and Robespierre and his cohort of Jacobins polished off the Girondins before being flushed out themselves when the time came. Gosh he would have been a dull man to live with. 3 stars.
So, Gerald Murnane gets to 75 and then writes easily his most accessible book to date Something for the Pain, perhaps the only one I would recommend to a non-believer. I was delighted again and again with this recollection of childhood events and memories of the turf. It is possibly the only book that I’ve ever found myself consciously trying to slow down and soak in, because it I was gobbling it up like a pack of ginger biscuits. Outstanding! 5 stars.
Despite being pretty passionate about music in the past, composer stories (real or not) don’t excite. Ok, I did enjoy those Phillip Glass and Glenn Gould bios. I think I was dazzled by the Booker 2014 Longlist on the cover, and the mention of Bach on the rear. In truth Orfeo by Richard Powers wasn’t a bad book, but I just couldn’t accept the premise of the composer deciding to morph his passion into finding musical structures amongst the biological world. The book is clearly a love letter to classical composition, but I found myself glazing over in the more musical chapters and enjoying the human interactions and suspense elements. 3 stars.
I wasn’t convinced at all by Margaret Atwoods’ The Heart Goes Last. Although a real page turner with a sexy theme, the whole premise felt flawed; the story light and overly simple, the characters not believable and I spent the second half of it fobbing off my cynicism whilst trying to wind it up. This has shaken my faith in one of the few female writers I (mostly) trust. Will wait for her next nervously. 2 stars.
Speaking of female writers, Barkskins by Annie Proulx was a much more solid proposition (in more ways than one at 710 pages). Early on, I accidentally read a negative review of it in the Irish Times which called it trite and lambasted it for its “set pieces”, but thankfully I never found these aspects irritating. My problem with the book was (like Accordion Crimes) its overly broad generational sweep, which towards the last quarter of the book became a gallop through reams of names and sons of sons in a few quick lines with nothing more than an intention to get you to the present day. Other sections were far more consistent and engrossing – the fiercely business-like Lavinia Duke, the desperately unlucky travels of Jinot Sel, the descriptions of the logging camps and river work were all wonderfully convincing – I had no lack of interest in this book at all until about 3/4 way through. I’d read it again though – probably my second favourite of hers after Postcards – a real return to form which whilst lecturing about mans irresponsible ways, told some wonderful stories, with all the usual Proulx research and attention to period detail. Way too many characters though. 4 stars.
When selecting this book, I think I mistook the “#1 International Bestseller” label on the cover of The Truth and the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker for “Winner of the 2015 Edgar Award“, because that’s what I wanted out of my annual / bi-annual crime book (just to show my wife I really do read other genres occasionally). I thought it would be a little more serious, and by the end (640 pages mind you!) it felt preposterous and silly; the number of twists in the last few chapters becoming a bit crazy. The dialogue was terrible, the inclusion of the young novelist into a 33 year old crime case implausible and yet it was still a massively addictive page turner which had me wanting to know who killed Laura Palmer, I mean Nola. 3 stars.
I don’t know what it was about this year which made me write down some Post-It note goals and want to actually do some of them. I’ve read about people hitting middle age and sensing the tightening of time they have left, which leaves them feverish till the end; ambivalent years in their 20s seeming wasteful in hindsite. Maybe I’ve become one of those people.
Finished a 3000 piece jigsaw puzzle which took me about 5 months in the end. It only cost $1 – a shrewd buy from Kim at an Op shop up north. Choosing a 1615 Belgian civic parade or “Ommegang” ticked all the right boxes (historic, low countries, and fine detail) which generally draw me to a picture. At one point it sat untouched for 6 weeks around Christmas, when I’d done all the easier bits (top 3rd) and had to identify maybe 2000 single pieces and place them in their spots – never connecting them all till right near the end. That was exhausting, and the lighting and uncomfortable seating didn’t help. But I’m really pleased I did it in the end – many cups of herbal tea (and dry biscuits) later. Now I want to go see a real one!
Then War and Peace got read. When I heard the series was coming on TV this year, I knew that my 2013 purchase needed to come off the shelf, and at first I was worried with all the French phrasing interspersed amongst the Russian to English translation, but it was quite a pleasure to read really. Apart from a tedious Epilogue which I think Tolstoy intended to prove his rigour but to a modern reader seemed like the same argument twisted 20 ways to fill pages, it was surprisingly breezy and fun. I didn’t really know what to expect, not an anti-war piece; Tolstoy at pains to point out the fate of the naive, seeking glory or the blind worship of the Tsar, and scornful of those wishing to summarise the result as a series of won or lost encounters. General Kutuzov seemed to be the anti-hero, unpopularly retreating again and again to save the Russian Army, at the risk of being un-Russian but in doing so, gaining eventual victory but lifelong ignomony amongst his peers. Loved the 6 part series on the BBC too. 4.5 stars.
20 years ago, I was mildly stung by criticism by Kim that an expensive hardback I’d asked for as a present was unread (and it remains the case). It’s become a running joke whenever she shells out some dollars on me, and 2015 seems to have been the year I either ran out of personal reading interests, or the year I paid respect to my wife’s tastes. Two out of three of her Christmas books are in the can so to speak, and there are smiles all round.
It was a weird year for reading, where the English history books were losing their lustre a little, the Dutch ascending, and the emergence of a few Running texts reflected recent interests. The podcast listening probably went the same way – no more WoW ones (despite still hanging on by a thread playing the game), and Marathon Talk and local Aussie equivalents got a regular listen. I became familiar with the IAAF and Russian state-sponsored doping! Interviews with local aspirants means I now have heightened awareness of the leadup / qualifiers to the Rio 2016 Olympics, so I’m looking forward to the big distance events this year since I know the athletes names and follow a few on Twitter.
Back to some books, Russell Shorto’s “Amsterdam” was a $10 Reading book table special I was pretty certain I’d dislike – written by a yank, newly resident in Europe, and starting off with him dropping his child at a nanny’s place, so he could be free to research and ponder earlier times. I thought I’d last 50 pages, but the book ended up winning me over. Well researched and comprehensive – hats off to Russell! 4 stars.
Wanting something a little lighter next, I couldn’t resist the preposterous bestseller “The One Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared” by Jonas Jonasson. A silly farcical road trip it was, but utterly charming. There are not many books that can lay claim to including a scene about an elephant evading police capture by riding in a converted yellow school bus. The movie just happened to have been released recently, so we watched that too, and it was fun watching how they grappled with the more ridiculous scenes, some of which just couldn’t be executed on screen. Such a fun romp. 4 stars.
“A Gentle Madness” by Nicholas Basbanes took me awhile to get through. Dense and serious, I came to appreciate how long it may have taken the author to establish the credibility to mix in the circles needed to learn the legendary stories of the high-end book buying world and its obsessive collectors. The section on Stephen Blumberg was particularly good due to the criminal aspects and his close access to the man. It was still a wonderful read, full of eccentrics, despite being dry and overly lengthy in parts. Don’t think I’ll ever own a First Folio though… 4 stars.
Why did I read another Dutch book? Kim bought it for me of course! “Why the Dutch are Different” by Ben Coates, a pom who married a Dutch girl in Rotterdam, was a much more modern take on the country. He’s out there travelling around the south, soaking it all up, going to a bunch of Carnaval celebrations in Breda and Eindhoven and asking some of the trickier questions about the limits of Dutch tolerance, the uncomfortable racism of Zwarte Piet, and some of myths of Dutch wartime resistance and narrative. It got a touch repetitive near the end but I really liked this book too. 4 stars.
I heard a decent summary of the battle of Agincourt in a History Extra podcast interview with Anne Curry, so her book “Agincourt” surprisingly had little left to add in it’s efforts to unearth all possible references on the English and French sides. Long debated aspects such as “the sizes of the two armies”, “the importance of the English bowmen” and “whether the French prisoners were killed on the King’s word” were worked through again and again. The problem with such limited source material – often written well after the events, is there really isn’t much of a book in it, especially with someone as scrupulous as Curry at the helm. More interesting would have been an imagining of the events told as fiction. Probably not the wisest choice of a purchase Kim! Too academic for me. 2 stars.
“Two Hours” is Ed Caesar’s well researched history of the Marathon, running physiology and of the current crop of Kenyans who are inching the 26 mile record closer to 120 minutes using previously unthinkable early race aggression, and pacers. There’s some talk of drug use in the sport, and a sense of how far the race has fallen in terms of public awareness and admiration for its stars, now that they are almost always African runners. From what I gather, no other writer has taken the time to get to know the Kenyans, visit their training camps and tell their stories like Ed, so I am full of respect for his efforts. It was a decent book, which reminds that success is brief and hard work is everything. 4 stars.
Ruth Goodman wrote “How to be a Victorian” and its sister book How to be a Tudor because she’s a practical lady with oodles of curiosity and time on her hands to explore yesteryear. Arranged in dawn till dusk order, she takes us through a day in the life of the various classes from the 1830s till 1900, providing personal examples of her attempts to eat, clean, dress and work like a Victorian for what must have been years on end. I think someone told me she was on a “period-reality show” for much of it. Seems like bloody hard (and hot – 10 petticoats anyone?) work. I was never bored, but it was a touch long maybe – attitudes to bathing, clothing and health in particular were eye opening. 4 stars.
Some more odds and sods here before I completely forget the gist of them.
“Thinking Medieval” by Marcus Bull had delectable front cover artwork and was thin enough to tempt me despite the dry tone and feeling that it was someone’s PHD thesus. The takeaway for me was being aware of the traps for historians examining and assessing a former age and rigour needed to keep an open mind and not make assumptions based on today’s values. 3 stars.
In complete contrast, “The Adventures of Holly White and the incredible Sex Machine” by Krissy Kneen was lurid and thrilling – especially to begin with, but the repetitive sex scenes in Paris became a little wearing and the ending was so wilfully climactic that I don’t even really know what happened. 5 stars for imagination and a willingness to go into unknown surreal territory, but I’ll have to deduct 1 point for the last third of the book which was all over the place in trying to bring the story back to some sort of end. Crazy stuff! So much fun – 4 stars.
There’s nothing by Coetzee I haven’t liked, including his decision to become an Adelaide resident and Australian Citizen, so an $8 hardback “Youth” – the story of his move from South Africa to England in the 1960s was always going to be interesting to me. Every bit as interesting as Clive James, (less funny, but more honest and self deprecating) this was a marvellous read. Who knew his beginnings as an early IBM programmer would be just the antidote needed to force him into writing and a more satisfying life. 4.5 stars.
Footnote: How embarrassing, I read the above book seven years ago and reviewed it more comprehensively here. Sigh.
It took me awhile to read, but the comprehensive and never boring “Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England” by Ian Mortimer contained stories and samples of daily life in the 1300s. There’s not an aspect of life that isn’t covered – from how many shoes people owned, to how many people slept in a bed or where the term “room and board” came from. From mostly horrifying sections on the Law, Medicine, Hygiene and Food to more fun parts about humour, language and pastimes, the crazy facts just kept coming. I loved the small cheats guide to Chaucer section, because I’m never going to read Canterbury Tales anyhow. 4.5 stars – enthralling.
The closest I get to Sci Fi nowadays is Margaret Atwood, and the Oryx and Crake trilogy needed to be completed with “Maddaddam” and it was. Genuinely imaginative, the absolutely necessary matter of fact summary of the first two books at the beginning of the third was a godsend to me. The story is so out there that it’s troublesome to describe to a friend or partner as it reads as part kids story and part dystopian Animal Farm, where everyone has an odd name and copes as best they can with the increasingly dire situation. Atwood tries very hard to be original and succeeds wonderfully – her blue Craker race of genetically modified, simpler, gentler humans being absolutely believable. Although a little sad towards the end, I felt I’d been on a great journey – the Zeb and Adam story was particularly interesting (if a little improbable) and formed the backbone of this third book. 4.5 stars.
Now that the free MX magazine has ceased and the temptations of I-spotted-a-future-boyfriend-on-the-South-Morang-3:47pm letters have faded, I’ve been able to focus on my backlog of London Review of Books and the Monthlys. Meanwhile, some bedtime books are getting read too.
Firstly, let me say what a terrible disappointment the Punch books have been. It probably didn’t help that my cheap copy of Mr. Punch goes to War arrived with goop on the front cover, was full of dust and neglect, and when I attempted to clean it, managed to smear the gilt lettering on the cover with green dye. I rated it as disappointing on Abebooks and promptly had a guy all over me selling his arse to get me to change my review. I’d forgotten how important online reputations are to sellers, and didn’t mean any harm – was just an honest assessment of the quality of the book that arrived. So, in the end, he sent me Mr Punch on Tour, which was in better nick, though no funnier. Not recommended, though the pictures were fun. Two stars.
HHHH by Laurent Binet was quite a change in pace, and an enthralling page turner about Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SS in WW2. Particularly horrifying was the vengeful obliteration of the town of Lidice as a consequence of the attack on Heydrich. I cannot recommend this book enough – Five stars.
The Saturday book is a charming annual (I have mild aspirations towards collecting the set from 1941 to 1973(?) – this one being #23 from 1963) – there’s the usual slightly salacious cartoons and an article about old rude postcards, an article about the origins of ladies bloomers, and a short biography of the creator (Heinrich Hoffmann) of the apparently well known Struwwelpeter (the original Edward Scissorhards I suppose) from the mid 1800s. Finally an interesting look at the eccentric Marie Laurencin and her unique ghostly paintings.
Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is an earnest expose on the conditions and knife-edge lives of Mumbai slum-dwellers. Completely compelling, though sad, and meticulously researched (in person), I heard the film adaptation was canned by critics, and came across as clichéd, but the book doesn’t read like that in the slightest. Four stars.
I just loved A Wanderer in Holland by supposedly populist writer E.V Lucas, written in 1905 and filled with forthright statements about the sillyness of certain Dutch towns for their architectural or artistic decisions to not champion world class artists or writers. Primarily a travel guide to the countries greatest artwork and writings, filled with paintings of towns and from galleries, with copious gruesome historical details such as the Spanish siege of Haarlem (and others), it was a wonderful introduction to the country, just as I was doing my dutch genealogy research. I got to read about cities my relatives lived in (Dordrecht and Leiden), whilst the author travelled the country on boats and railways which no longer exist since the destruction of WW1. It made me want to pay some good dollars for a Baedekers handbook for Holland. Four stars.
Bill Bryson’s At Home was also quite the page turner – he covers an awful lot of ground, but does it in an entertaining way. The bibliography is stupidly, snobbishly long and even improbable I think, but the 632 pages were full of early facts about the habits of home life and the surprisingly uncomfortable lives that mankind led up until very recently. Four stars also.