DAY 21. – Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished).

There are a few of candidates here. Books that I have made it known that I don’t like despite not having finished them. It doesn’t happen often because I am quite careful to choose things I am fairly sure I will like.

The first is On The Road by Jack Kerouac which I would probably never have picked of my own accord but it was for a class on my MA. Obviously for the purpose of the course I claimed to have finished it and I started to believe myself. It was only recently I remembered that I hadn’t actually finished it.

What was it about this book that meant I didn’t finish it? I found the tone irritating and the style worse. It gained the rare honour of having been thrown across my living room the most times due to the dubious attitude towards women shown. Ultimately I didn’t feel compelled to find out what happened. I just didn’t care.

Similarly, I read (or started to read) Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea when it was on the GCSE syllabus as I realised that I might have to teach it. (How to put teenagers off reading in one easy lesson.) Part of the problem was I already knew how it ended and when I got bogged down in the narrative, it just didn’t seem worth it. I quickly realised there was no way I could possibly teach this book as I could barely summon up the enthusiasm to pick it up, never mind try to get the point across to others. Thankfully, I have never worked in a school where they have taught it. Maybe it’s not just me!

Finally, in a doomed attempt at reading more classics (something I keep trying despite the evidence that I will probably never enjoy them), I decided to try The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I picked it because the subject matter sounded interesting. However, I soon found myself ignoring the book in favour of something with less dense prose and it was abandoned on my bedside table for a while before eventually winging its way back onto the downstairs bookshelves. Probably I should give it to charity as I will never pick it up again.

DAY 19. – A favourite author – Margaret Atwood

I did not have to ponder very long to decide who to write this post about. There were some other candidates (Terry Pratchett, Ian Rankin, Angela Carter.) but the reason that Atwood remains my favourite author is that I cannot think of a novel of hers that I did not like and I also feel that her novels have been there as I was growing up and have helped me become the person I am today.

The first Atwood novel that I met was Surfacing, over 20 years ago now, It was for my BA and it really opened my eyes. (Interestingly a lot of my favourite novels stem from this time: Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, The Master and Margarita, The Magic Toyshop. Maybe because I had no idea that such books existed.) What I liked about it are the same things I like about all of Atwood’s novels. Her narrators / characters find life difficult in ways that make sense to me. Their relationships are difficult. And they are not always likeable or straightforward or even easy to understand. But they are always interesting, always compelling and always convincing.

It’s hard to say which of Atwood’s novels is my favourite. How could you possibly pick? I do have a soft spot for Surfacing because it was the first but then what about Life Before Man or The Blind Assassin. And what about the wonderful dystopian vision of The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake. Impossible. I love them all. And if I could only read her books for the rest of my life, I know I would never be disappointed.

Day 18 – A book you wish you could live in – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I suppose, as with a lot of people, when I saw today’s subject I first thought of Harry Potter and the magical world where he resides. However, at the end of the day, the main setting in the stories is Hogwarts. I see enough of schools in my day job so I do not particularly want to imagine myself there in my spare time. After all, a magical school is still a school. In fact it would, in some ways, be worse. Think of all the trouble that could be caused by classroom full of fourteen year olds and then add in magic. No thanks!

I am sticking with magic though. What I loved about Suzanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was the way it mixed magic into the real history of the start of 1800s. It reads like a genuine history of the times, complete with footnotes like any academic book and makes reference to other biographies of Strange and Norrell. Imagine if the during the Napoleonic war, the French were really frightened off by ghost ships

IMG_0024sent to scare them. How much more thrilling than any actual history of this war!

For me, one thing in the Potter books that did not sit well was the use of magic in a modern world with cars and buses and so on. In my head, magic belongs in an earlier time with horses and candlelight and no technology to speak of. The nineteenth century seemed to be more likely a setting for magic than the twentieth. And then there is the dashing, handsome figure of Jonathan Strange who is daring – indeed reckless might be nearer the mark – and will see no limits to his power. I felt strangely sad at the end of the book when he and Norrell disappear into the darkness. As if England were really bereft without the only men who could save it.

Day 17 – Author I wish people would read more – A. L. Kennedy and Patrick McGrath

I want to point out again at the beginning of this post that I really do not know what people read and what they don’t. So, I am only going on my own experience when I mention authors among my friends who read and claim not to know who I am talking about. Also, I could have easily spent the post describing how much I love James Kelman but as I have already written about him when I was talking about underrated books, I decided to choose two other authors. Although it goes without saying that you should read him as well.

My first choice is A. L. Kennedy. My favourite novel by her is Looking

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for the Possible Dance which is about being

female and being Scottish. It discusses all the pressures that are on women, marriage, relationships, children. It has its funny moments – like when she discusses the ways in which she does not fit in on her ‘English, English Literature course’ but is most successful, I think in charting Margaret’s psychological state and her difficulties with fitting into society.

This book also contains one of my favourite images from a book “She remembers seeing waxwings searching the grass when she was at university and suddenly feeling homesick because they were not Scottish birds. There was something a little impossible about them. And that was all it took to make you miss things, a mild impossibility, a slight difference of birds.” It seems a perfect description of homesickness which can sneak up on you at the most unlikely times and for reasons as small as this.

Secondly, I have chosen Patrick McGrath. What I like about his narratives is the ambiguity of his narrators who are always in some ways suspect. They are superbly unreliable and even as you know this, you are drawn into their world, only to discover that you have been duped once again.

My favourite McGrath book is Asylum. It seems an obvious set up; a psychiatrist with a beautiful wife takes over the running of a hospital for the criminally insane. When she befriends a patient, it seems we can see the way that things will go. However, McGrath, while leading us in one direction, is actually taking a very different road and the horror and terror do

IMG_0020not come from the direction you would expect.

The narrator of the story is the one of the doctors Peter Cleave. He opens his narration with the line ‘The catastrophic love affair characterised by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years.’ This perfectly sets the scene for the story to come and the reader is given just enough information to come to the wrong conclusion. This is a masterful psychological thriller that plays with the readers’ expectations in a cunning and clever way.

Day 15 – A character who you can relate to the most – Little Women and The Robber Bride

This gave me food for thought as a lot of the books I read include narrators / characters that are not the sort of people that you would want to identify yourself with – Patrick Bateman, for example or Vernon God Little, any of McEwan or Amis’ impossibly difficult narrators. Also, I felt that didn’t identify with any narrators who are mentally ill in The Bell Jar, Surfacing, Catcher in the Rye or One Flew Over the Cuckoos nest, for example.

The first character that I can remember really appealing to me was Jo in Little Women. In fact, I went on to read the rest of that series of books many times because I liked her character so much. One of the first things that Jo does in Little Women is cut off her beautiful long hair and she is frequently found to be doing things that were considered slightly unsuitable for her sex. This appealed to me at age 12 when I first read it as I was a tomboy and really didn’t see the point in make-up, dolls, jewellery or any of the other things that nearly teenage girls seem to be obsessed with. It was good to find a kindred spirit.

It is surprising that I have managed to get this far in this challenge without mentioning Margaret Atwood who is one of my favourite authors and one of the few writers where I have enjoyed all that I have read by her. Her female characters often seem to find life difficult in similar ways to me. The character I have chosen is Tony from The Robber Bride. I related to her straight away as she is left handed (as am I) and as a result of this learns how to write backwards. (This is a logical conclusion. If you have ever watched anyone left handed write, you will see how awkward it is. It would make much more sense to write backwards.) Furthermore, she is constantly reversing words in her head and sometimes out loud in conversation. It often feels as if the world is entirely the wrong way round when you are left handed. It seems that this has even effected Tony’s thought patterns and language use. Often the backwards words were exotic looking, forming a new language that only Tony could understand. It made me wish for the ability myself.

Day 13 – A book that disappointed you. Lighthousekeeping and The Sense of an Ending

I try to avoid disappointment when reading. That is probably an obvious thing to say but I am quite a careful reader and I know what I like and what I don’t like. If, for whatever reason, I end up reading something I’m fairly sure I won’t like then I have lower expectations and so no disappointment ensues. I think the only time I am disappointed is when I read a book by a writer I really like and it isn’t as good as I expect. It is probably still a lot better than a lot of other books I read but my expectations lead me to expect too much from it.

I first discovered Jeanette Winterson when I was at University and The Passion is one of my all time favourite books and I’d liked everything that she had written before. I couldn’t wait to read Lighthousekeeping. The excitement behind reading this book was made all the greater by the fact that as part of Off The Shelf, I went to hear her read an extract from the book. I was really expecting to love this book.

And it still contains all those things that Winterson is so good at;

photo (1)the poetic imagery, the love of language and playing with language, the telling of and de-constructing of the stories we tell ourselves. But at the end I felt dissatisfied. It was even difficult to say exactly why or what the problem was. It just felt a little hollow, as if I had expected this book be a three course meal and to fill me up but I was left still feeling peckish.

It was too insubstantial for me. The language didn’t seem to lead anywhere and I was left with a feeling that I had greatly missed the point.

I had a similar feeling when I got to the end of A Sense of an Ending. Again, I love Julian Barnes and have read The History of the World in 10 and a half chapters a number of times, as well as a lot of his other novels. Again the story is well told, the narration is strong and the main character is convincing

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but it didn’t seem to add up to a lot.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to say that I was both glad and not when this book won the Booker. Glad because it surprised me that Barnes had not won before with say Arthur and George, to name but one possibility. Not glad because I do not feel that this is Barnes’ best work by some stretch.

Perhaps my tastes are changing and both these authors are no longer what I really want to read. I hope not. I haven’t really returned to Jeanette Winterson after reading Lighthousekeeping which seems a little churlish considering how many of her books I have enjoyed. As for Barnes, I will have to wait and see what his next novel will be.

Day 12 – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t.

I have actually been quite good at hoovering up some of the long-standing members of my bookshelf. Over the last couple of years I have tried to make sure I read some things that have been shelf residents for a while. So, for example recently I have read Schindler’s Ark, Day of the Triffids, Ark Baby, The Pianist, Half a Yellow Sun, all of which had been hanging around for a while.

However, it really is a list that never ends. I almost never buy books in just ones. (Especially as the kind people at Waterstones often seem to have offers such as buy one get one half price or three for two and it would be rude not to indulge them.) So inevitably there are always books that wait along time to be read.

Here is a list of the long standing ones that I hope to read this year:

  1. The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides
  2. The City and the Pillar – Gore Vidal
  3. Girl Interrupted – Susanna Kaysen
  4. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
  5. The Player of Games – Iain M Banks
  6. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
  7. Glamorama – Bret Easton Ellis
  8. Rentboy – Gary Indiana

No doubt their places will be taken by other books that I have bought or have been bought for me and are even now waiting eagerly to be read, only to be bitterly disappointed.

Day 10. – A book you thought you would hate but ended up loving – The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and The Book of Lost Things.

I always feel a bit suspicious when someone says that they’ve just read something and think I will really like it. For a start, it says something about what they think of me and if I don’t like it, might suggest that they don’t know me as well as they thought. No pressure then.

Both of the the books I am going to talk about today were recommended in such a way. Both times, I was not immediately convinced that I would like them but because the two friends were avid readers and generally had good taste. I gave it a go.

The first book is The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. I was not looking forward to starting to read this book for a couple of reasons. It is about a girl with Down’s Syndrome and having lived with a brother who, although he didn’t have Down’s, was physically and mentally disabled, I was worried what emotions the book might bring up for me. My brother had died not long before I read this book and there were a lot of feelings that I didn’t want to examine too closely.

The second reason I didn’t want to read it was more mundane. I

memory-keepers-daughter

was worried it would be like some dreadful American movie that gets shown on daytime TV in order to make housewives cry. I am not good with sentiment or melodrama (unless of course, it is me being melodramatic. Obviously, that is different.)

Of course, the book is nothing like this. It is emotional, definitely, and it did make me think about my own feelings towards my brother. That was a good thing, in the end, and helped me understand the way I was feeling. The ending of this book is truly hopeful and life-affirming. I would never have picked this book for myself and was immensely grateful to the person who suggested it to me.

I’m not sure why I was so positive that I would not like The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. I think I thought it sounded a little clichéd  In fact, it is a magical tale about grief, anger and the power of myths and fairy tales. Connolly successfully gets inside of the head of the main character David, a little boy who has just lost his mother and the point of view is consistent and convincing. He shows clearly David’s lack of understanding of his situation.

As the story continues, David becomes less and less attached to reality. He has blackouts and hallucinations where he is in another land; a land of woodsmen and wolfs, trolls, enchantresses and The Crooked Man. As David’s attacks grow worse, he hears his mother’s voice asking him to rescue her and his adventure truly begins.

book of lost things

Like all fairy tales, this story is instructive and also moral. It is a story of the difficult transition out of childhood when you start to learn life’s lessons. It’s also a book that is about the importance of reading and

how much books can help you when life becomes difficult. This is a view that I wholeheartedly support.

Day 9 – Most Overrated Book – David Nicholls and Ian McEwan

The words don’t get me started spring to mind. Narrowing this post down to just a few books was not easy, believe me. For this reason, I decided not to have another swing at 50 Shades of Grey when I have already blogged about it once. I don’t really feel that it is worthy of more of my blog space. So let’s just take it as a given that I think that 50 Shades, Twilight and their ilk are overrated and I’ll have a rant about some other books instead.

My first choice is One Day by David Nichols. This book went round my co-workers like a particularly virulent dose of the flu. Everybody loved it. Everybody thought it was tragic when… I was one of the last to succumb as I already knew it was probably not the sort of thing that I would like (due to my anti-romantic nature). Nevertheless, I gave in and bought a copy. Perhaps my expectations were too high.

It is quite a neat idea – the same day year after year but it quickly seemed that the days were not that different from each other, particularly at the beginning. Then there was the fact that both characters were unappealing but particularly Dexter. If the novel was building towards a romantic end

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for these two, I felt that it seemed more than a little unfair on Emma, who although annoying was nowhere near as obnoxious as Dexter. So the romance was already alluding me.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t badly written and I have read another David Nicholls book which I did like better, I just thought it was a little forced and the characters seemed more like types than people. I wasn’t bothered really even though the events could be described as tragic. There was no emotional resonance. I felt like I should be saying please try harder.

My second choice is Solar by Ian McEwan but it could be any of his more recent novels. I used to quite like Ian McEwan and was happy studying him for my MPhil. I don’t know if my tastes have changed or if his writing

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style has become more pretentious but I find it harder and harder to read his work. It seems, more and more, that he writes like a man in love with his own prose. The sentences scream off the page ‘look at me, look at how clever I am’. This is more than a little off putting.

His characters are also becoming more and more obnoxious. Michael Beard, the protagonist of Solar is a womaniser, he steals another’s ideas and claims an enormous amount of fame and money afterwards. I’m quite fond of unreliable narrators who are difficult to like but there was little that was appealing or even worthy of empathy. Again, I was left not caring about his inevitable downfall. It is disappointing that McEwan seems to have almost become a parody of himself.