The End of Eclectic Reader 2015

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Well, that is another Eclectic Reader Challenge finished. And as ever, it has led me to some interesting books and into some unusual genres. Some I certainly would not have read otherwise, some I was looking for an excuse to read.

My favourite book of the challenge was Just My Type by Simon Garfield for the genre of Microhistory. This is an interesting and informative look at the history of fonts. It certainly opened my eyes to the amount of fonts around us and made any journey I took straight after, both a joy and a pain as I assessed all the fonts around me.

Most of the books I read, I was happy with. The only real disappointment was Before I Go To Sleep which I expected to love as I had really loved the film. However, I found it a harder concept to deal with in the book and by the end of it I could no longer suspend my disbelief.

I’m pleased to have finished the challenge with plenty time left. I wasn’t sure I was going to manage it as I didn’t pick books that crossed over with other challenges. I’m looking forward to next year already.

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Books Read in 2015 – 49. The Fight by Norman Mailer

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Genre: Boxing, 

Narrative Style: Third person – Norman features as a character in his own reporting.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1975Unknown

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Norman Mailer is one of many journalists invited to Kinshasa to see the Rumble in  the Jungle between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman. He documents the many characters on both sides and in the process takes sports’ writing to a new level. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2015 – Genre: sport

I’m  not entirely sure how I came to be in possession of this book but as I had been wanting to read some Norman Mailler for a while, it came into my head straightaway for this challenge. And while I don’t really watch boxing, there is no doubt that it has produced some of sports’ biggest personalities, Muhammad Ali being a case in point.

In a lot of ways, this is a psychological study, not only of Ali and Foreman but of Mailer himself. Throughout the text, Mailer refers to himself in the third person as if he is just another character in this narrative. He tries to unpick his own magical thinking and attempts to ensure that Ali will be the winner and his racial attitudes come under scrutiny as well.

The run up to the fight is described first along with the training methods of two very different men and all the attendant hangers on that they both inspired. Neither Foreman or Ali seemed particularly likeable in a straight forward sense. But then that is scarcely the point. It was whoever was braver, stronger, more arrogant that was going to win this contest and these are the traits that they both showcase.

If you didn’t know the outcome, you might not expect the winner to be Ali. This is one reason that “Norman” is so worried early in the text. Ali is curiously disinterested in the beginning while Foreman shows no fear whatsoever. In fact, I found myself questioning my knowledge of the outcome. Had I really got it right? That was until the fight itself started.

I’m not the biggest fan of boxing but Mailer’s praise made it seem a noble pursuit, almost as delicate as a dance rather than a brutal fight. Certainly, he takes sports’ journalism to a new level, to where it is poetic rather than merely descriptive. It was a joy to read the in depth account of each round. I felt like cheering when Ali eventually won whilst also feeling a great deal of sympathy for Foreman who at first seemed under the impression that he had won.

I don’t read a lot of sports’ writing but based on this, I would certainly read more of Mailer’s work.

Books Read in 2015 45. Consider Phlebus – Iain M. Banks

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Genre: Science fiction, Adventure

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1987

Format: Paperback8935689

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre: Science fiction set in space.

Synopsis: Horza is charged by the Idirans with finding one of the Culture’s minds which, while escaping from its ship, has taken refuge on Schar’s World, a planet that Horza knows well. Nominally on the side of the Idirans, Horza starts the mission optimistically but even his journey to the planet is not straightforward and once he arrives, he realises that finding the mind is the least of his problems. 

There is no doubt that Iain M. Banks has quite an imagination. The space within which this story takes place is exciting and interesting and Banks is clearly fascinated with where technology might take us as a race and how that will effect our humanity. This is most apparent in his descriptions of the Culture, the most advanced race in the book, and in Horza’s objections to them.

The story is action packed and races along like an out of control racing car, leaving the reader little time for breath or even thought. And while I did want to see if they were going to succeed in their mission, it left little space for character development or emotion of any kind.

That was my problem with it. There was little in the way of depth. Horza, a changer, could have been a fascinating character but you never really find out that much about him or his inner life. Even as his relationship with one of his fellow mercenaries develops and she announces that she is pregnant, there is little in the way of emotion developed between them.

There are some grisly moments in this book and that is where some of the best writing is. As in Iain M. Banks other fiction, his warped imagination takes the reader into some very dark places. It was a bit disappointing that in the end, this became merely a gun battle with all the usual cliches.

In the end, I felt about this the way I feel about a lot of big budget science fiction. It looks amazing but it is all surface. It left me feeling a little cold and  empty.

Books Read in 2015 42. July’s People – Nadine Gordimer

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Genre: Political fiction, African Literature

Narrative Style: Third person from various points of view

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1981

Format: PaperbackUnknown-1

Synopsis: Violence has broken out in South Africa and this time the rebels have planes and bombs at their disposal. Bam and Maureen Smales and their children are rescued by their servant, July, who takes them to his village. This changes their relationship in ways that they could not have envisaged and inevitably leads to tension between the servant and his former masters. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – genre: Set in a country beginning with S – South Africa

I must admit that I do not know a lot about the history of South Africa. At the point when this novel is set, I was nine years old. I was aware of the situation in the same way that I was aware of the Irish problems of those years. There was often violence on the TV  but I didn’t really understand the reasons behind it or who I should have sympathy for.

In this novel, it is easy to have sympathy for both sides. The Smales are liberal whites who have tried their hardest to be fair to their servant and treat him with respect. So much so that he decides to rescue them. However, they are still on the side of privilege and they really understand little of July’s life outside of serving them.

This is brought into clear relief when they are brought to his village. They are no longer in charge of him or their lives. They are placed in the position of the blacks in South Africa. They are displaced and have no control and they do not like it.

It is equally difficult for July and his family to cope with the Smales’ presence. July’s wife and mother do not trust them and they reject Maureen’s attempts to try to help and laugh at her because she does not have their skills at picking the right plants or cooking them properly. July is caught in the awkward position of having more power than the people he has been serving, something they all find difficult to deal with.

This was a clever look at power and relationships within a racist society and it shows that it is anything but simple to resolve. The only complaint I would have is that I sometimes found it difficult to follow Gordimer’s prose. It was sometimes hard to know who’s point of view was being given or who was speaking. Other than that, this was an excellent dissection of a harmful power structure.

Books Read in 2015 37. Just My Type – Simon Garfield

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Genre: Non-Fiction, Microhistory

Narrative Style: Academic, Some first person anecdotes

Rating: 5/5

Published: 201151lZzrI4UcL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: This is book is the story of how we came to live in a type saturated world and how there came to be quite so many fonts to choose from. This is a book for anyone who has ever pondered what font to write that letter in or why the 2012 Olympics logo was just so terrible. This book takes us from the very beginnings of print to the very latest computer designed fonts and takes in all the stages in between. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge Genre: Microhistory

The reading of this book came about because my husband is obsessed with fonts and often bemoans the trend for not saying what font a book has been typeset in. So I bought him this book a while ago and when this genre came up, it seemed to fit perfectly.

This is not just a book about type and its (seemingly) infinite varieties. it is also about the history of the industry. It takes the reader from the very beginnings of type when it was a laborious and highly skilled job to the modern day where anyone can invent a font or base on one their handwriting using their personal computer. This is not to suggest that modern font designers are not craftsmen, just that it is a completely different process and as with so many things, the computer has made it a much wider playing field.

Along the way, there was much nostalgia with discussions about printing sets for children and Letraset – both of which I can remember. I loved the inkiness of using the printing set and it was less irritating than trying to actually use Letraset. Certainly, children who are interested in such things these days will never know that particular frustration. There is an undercurrent of longing for the old days throughout this book as if the computer has sucked some of the romance out of font design. Which undoubtedly it has.

There are also chapters on specific fonts, the circumstances of their birth and the use to which they are now put. These were particularly interesting as they showed the eccentricity of many designers. This thankfully hasn’t changed with the advent of computer design. There are still mavericks out there, doing their best to be as different as possible despite the universal pull towards simple – and I think boring – fonts such as Helvetica which is becoming stupidly ubiquitous.

Finally, here is a warning. When you read this book, you will bore your friends silly with the amount of interesting font trivia in this book. And also, you will find that it is almost impossible to walk down the street without surveying every single sign you see. It’s funny how much we take for granted. It is strange to think of motorway signs being designed. This is because they work so well. (And when you see the font we could have had, you understand exactly how important this design was.) Everywhere in our lives, we see type working well, doing its job. it’s only when the font doesn’t work that we groan and hold our heads. For the most part, the designers get it right and fonts don’t invade our consciousness when we are trying to find our way or read important information. But now, I will certainly think about it a little more and appreciate the effort a designer took to make life a little bit more effortless for me.

Books Read in 2015 32. Babette’s Feast – Karen Blixen

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Genre: Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person

Rating: 3/541+8Z8uVWwL._SL500_AA300_

Published: 1952

Format: Kindle

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2015 – genre fiction for foodies

Synopsis: Martine and Phillipa live a quietly pious life in a remote part of Norway. Their lives are ordered and there are no surprises. That is until the arrival of Babette, a  refugee from the French revolution. Babette is a cook and although she wishes to cook more extravagant meals, she agrees to cook the simple dishes that the sisters require. That is until she wins money in the French lottery and insists on catering for the whole town. 

I really had no idea what to expect from this book. I was looking specifically for the challenge as I must admit fiction for foodies is not really a genre I know much about and a lot of the books I was finding seemed like chick lit and I tend to find that a bit annoying. So when I saw this, I jumped at it.

The main characters are two elderly sisters – named after radical religious reformers – who have eschewed love and adventure to remain pious and devote their lives to the church and God. Growing up, they are much in the thrall of their father, the pastor who stops any chances of marriage that the sisters may have had.

Years later, Babette appears on their doorstep, a French refugee who cooks for the sisters. Every week, she faithfully plays the French lottery. One day, many years later she wins 10000 francs and instead of moving home, as the sisters assume she will, she offers to create the feast to celebrate the anniversary of the pastor’s 100th birthday.

The feast represents everything that the sisters have removed from their lives. It is sumptuous, rich and over the top. The sisters and the townsfolk have misgivings about the feast but resolve not to mention the food, no matter what they think of it. So they sit and eat the most incredible meal they have ever had without ever commenting on it.

This was an odd story which was rich in symbolism and an interesting look at the meaning of self-sacrifice. The sisters may have devoted their lives to the church but Babette sacrifices her entire winnings to pay for the feast, to have the townsfolk not even mention her efforts. Her sacrifice is surely greater. While it was interesting, I wasn’t really grabbed by the characters and didn’t really feel any emotion at the end of the story.

Books Read in 2015 – 24. The Giver – Lois Lowry

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Genre: Young Adult, Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person from one point of view

Rating 3/5Unknown

Published: 1993

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Jonas’s world is perfect. No one is ever hurt or upset. Their roles are carefully chosen and everyone fits right in. Even death has become something to celebrate with the ceremony of release for the old. However, as Jonas discovers when he is given the role of Receiver of Memory, underneath the surface there is pain. But there is also love and passion and colour. Jonas has to decide whether the love is worth the pain.

Reading challenges: eclectic-reader-challenge-2015/- genre: Middle grade / Young Adult adventure

This book is interesting rather than exciting. At first, it seems that there is no problem with Jonas’s world. Everyone is happy because no one can remember or process upset or dissatisfaction. Everyone is the same. There are hints of the extent that the society is controlled – for example when Jonas takes an apple home that should have been eaten as a snack – but it isn’t until Jonas receives his new role at age twelve that the reader gets to see exactly what is missing from this society.

Jonas is to be the new Receiver of Memory. He has to visit The Giver who passes on the memories physically to him. Some of the memories are good – they are of family get togethers and having fun in the snow. Others are painful, memories of war or injury. Most interestingly, it transpires that Jonas’s people cannot see colour so that everyone is literally the same. (It isn’t explained how this has come about but I’m going to assume it was some genetic cleverness that somehow bred out the ability to see colour.) Jonas has already had hints that he can see colour and once he can, the world of his community seems terribly dull.

Quickly Jonas learns that nothing is quite what it seems. He discovers exactly what happens when people are released and realises with horror that some people – himself included – are allowed to lie to everybody else about what actually happens in their jobs or when people are released.

I was quite interested up until this point. The importance of memory – be it good or bad – cannot be doubted and when The Giver and Jonas decide to give some memories back to the community, I thought it would be quite exciting. However, the story just fizzles out from this point onwards and I think Lowry squandered what she created. Jonas runs away, taking with him a small child who is about to be released. They obviously quickly run into trouble away from the community as they have very little food and the weather is not controlled, unlike in the community. Jonas’s death seems inevitable although Lowry makes it into a spiritual experience where Jonas remembered one of the more pleasant memories he had been given.

This left me wondering exactly what point Lowry was trying to make. Obviously, Jonas died because he separated himself from the community so was she suggesting that any regime, however horrible, was better than individualism. It would have been more interesting to see the effect that the memories that were released had on everyone in the community but that is never mentioned.

Ultimately, this was an interesting idea that I feel was underdeveloped and left me with a bit of a sour taste. In the end, I just wasn’t sure what Lowry’s message was and that made me feel a bit uncomfortable.