Book reviews – The Song of the Lark (Virago) and 88 Days in the Mother Lode #books #amreading

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Sept 2016 TBRTwo books today that are set in the American West, partly or fully (Colorado and California) and involve the effect of those places on the artistic careers of the main characters, a fictitious opera singer based on a real one and a writer who was in the middle of changing his name. I’m enjoying alternating those substantial Viragoes with other books and it’s certainly bringing up some interesting contrasts and links!

Willa Cather – “The Song of the Lark”

(23 October 2015, from Verity)

A wonderful and readable chunkster (like Edith Wharton, I find Cather extremely readable) detailing the life and creative development of Thea Kronberg, of Swedish extraction and born in Colorado. Although the author apparently came to dislike the way this book “tells all”, I really liked this detailed aspect showing exactly how she kept her talent safe and growing and exactly how she learned her craft – the book is based partly on interviews with a Swedish singer and that level of research shows in the detail but is cleverly woven in and doesn’t make it any less delightful to read. I loved the descriptions of her different teachers and what they bring to her, and how she’s always really yearning for the old days and the friends of her youth.

As with Wharton, Cather has her heroine defy convention, but in Thea we see a woman whose character develops unevenly, leaving her mature in some aspects but almost childlike in others. However, she loses her family and any sentimental connections in her single-minded pursuit of her dreams – but then again, how many other women written about at this time (the book was published in 1915 but set 20 and more years earlier) were able to do that to the detriment of a “normal” life?

The secondary characters are lovely and beautifully if a little sentimentally drawn, and Thea’s complicated relationships with them are laid out for us to see. The whole is nicely tied up in the closing scenes and epilogue. Don’t let the size of this book put you off: it’s a great read!

James Fletcher (ed.) – “Mark Twain’s 88 Days in the Mother Lode”

(25 December 2015 – from Tedd)

This was a Not So Secret Santa gift from someone in my Photo A Day Facebook group – I always say I’m happy to receive books set in or about or by a writer from the person’s home town, and this one ticked all those boxes, even coming from and containing the bookmark of a new and used bookstore in Sacramento, California, which was lovely.

It’s a very carefully researched and put together account of Samuel Clemens’ / Mark Twain’s (he was just starting to use the nom de plume) time hiding out in a California cabin with three brothers, gathering stories of the gold rush that would kick-start his rise to national and international fame. His career before (especially on the river boats) and after are filled in and the information and reminiscences are drawn together from various contemporary sources. Some of Twain’s own pieces are included, especially a famous jumping frog story (poor frog) that brought him his initial fame. A couple of hours of interesting reading with some good photographs.

I’m currently reading “Belinda” by Rhoda Broughton which is an intriguing 1885 Virago with a shy heroine who everyone sees as cold and horrible, quite a modern view really and a good read.

Book reviews – Dashing Through the Snow and Connecting in Iceland #books

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Sept 2016 TBRTwo books which are about travelling a long way in difficult circumstances today, even though one’s a novel and one’s a memoir / travel narrative. Both of them also arrived with me at Christmas time as part of a Not So Secret Santa gift. I’m reading my TBR a little out of order at the moment because I have a big wodge of substantial Virago novels at the front of the shelf and need to space them out with a few things. And the Macomber was perfect reading when I was suffering from a bit of a cold earlier in the week (I seem to be better now).

Debbie Macomber – “Dashing Through the Snow”

(03 December 2015, from Sam for Christmas)

This is a VERY silly short Christmas novel – but, of course, there’s nothing wrong with very silly short Christmas novels! Ashley’s trying to get home for Christmas and the improbably but usefully named Dash is heading to an interview in the same place. When Ashley mysteriously can’t get a plane ticket and there’s only one car left in the hire place, they’ll have to do the odd couple thing and travel together. Their enforced road trip – with added puppy, as  you do – is enhanced by a peculiar sub-plot involving a wanted terrorist a police officer is trying to track down. Is it a case of mistaken identity … or not? Silly but fun.

Mark Archer – “Connecting in Iceland”

(03 December 2o15, as above, a great find!)

An oddly large-format (you can see it sticking out from the back row in the TBR picture above) self-published travel memoir in which the 58-year-old, unfit author decides to fulfil the dream of a lifetime and trek across Iceland, going right across the central highlands if he can make it.

It’s basically a good book, honest about the struggles both physical and psychological (I reckon I’d be OK, but if you’re the kind of person who needs people around you, and the author has just left a teaching job, which would highlight this even more, it would be tricky, I can see), but the humour is a bit laboured at times (just as Bill Bryson’s, an author he says he admires, is at times, to be fair) and …

OK, I’m an editor and I do notice stuff; I can’t help it. Normally I let things go by unless they’re really prominent, and I certainly don’t shill for work by pointing out when people need an editor, because I have sufficient work of my own without doing that (and that policy actually rarely works). But this book is quite badly let down by its lack of editing (the author thanks a relative for help with proofreading, so I’m going to assume there wasn’t an editor). There’s a lot of redundancy in the text, a lot that could be pruned, and an awful lot of writing /grammar / punctuation issues, all of which basically let what could be a good read down quite badly. In my opinion, the book could be the same thickness and a standard size and retain what is good about the text, and that’s a shame.

The book shares exactly what it’s like to trek across Iceland, with its uncertain weather conditions and difficult terrain, and does a good job of describing the people he meets along the way. The chorus of birds is interesting and well done and the descriptions of the birds themselves engaging. The technical details of his traverses of rivers and the summary of how the kit did are great, and the kit list at the back useful. I also personally loved reading about the bits of Iceland I’ve read about and some places I’ve actually been, once he got back to the south-east, and there are good descriptions of the mental efforts involved, too.

I’m currently still loving “The Song of the Lark” and looking forward to exploring a new (to me) Halldor Laxness novel next.

Book reviews – The Gods Arrive and Dawn’s Left Hand (Virago) #books #virago

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Sept 2016 TBR*** Spoiler alert *** If you’re planning to read or in the middle of reading Edith Wharton’s “Hudson River Bracketed”, this post contains a review of its sequel, “The Gods Arrive” which will, of necessity, include spoilers for the earlier book. I’ve reversed the review order so you can read the one of the Dorothy Richardson then ignore the second one, so hopefully won’t enrage anyone. Although, now I come to think of it, that one has spoilers, too! I’ll even say up here that I’m currently reading Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark”, another hefty Virago but she’s terribly readable, like Wharton, isn’t she, so I’m whizzing through it, with our musical heroine just dipping her toes into the heady world of Chicago at the moment. I’m so happy with the lovely books my friend Verity sent me last year! Do let me know how your September reading is going.

Dorothy Richardson – “Dawn’s Left Hand”

(28 March 2015)

The TENTH volume of “Pilgrimage” and I can’t believe we’re nearly there, especially as I have a matter of around 400 pages to go now, which is shorter than a lot of the single novels I’m reading at the moment.

But this one was really confusing, even if we do advance the actual plot quite a long way. Once we’ve got back from the holiday of Oberland (for once, this one runs straight on from the last, so you’d think there were no surprise events that have been missed out), it starts off with Miriam dotting around London meeting up with old friends and getting news of others, and I got a bit lost here – should have made a list of characters and their relationships! People are described as being “Oberlanders” without actually being the people she met on holiday (I THINK), but those dreaded Lycurgans and the mysterious Club also put in appearances.

It’s not all damp confusion and mists. The descriptions of the end of her experiment living with her roommate and returning to her old digs are well done, and the dawn of new experience when she finally launches into her long-foreshadowed affair is well described and probably quite shocking for the time, but the random French woman, constant harking back to what was effectively a two-week holiday and lack of a family base for Miriam in this novel make it quite hard work.

Edith Wharton – “The Gods Arrive”

(23 October 2015 – from Verity)

The sequel, as mentioned above, to “Hudson River Bracketed”, some people have found this disappointing, but I just found it sad and a little frustrating, but understandable and well done.

Having finally got her man, so to speak, Halo, who was always a bit of a goddess on a pedestal and was able to discuss literary works with perception and acerbity, sinks into a secondary role and basically subsumes her whole self, body, mind, intellect and social position, to Vance. It’s a very perceptive study of what happens during Happily Ever After and when the thrill of the chase (and of being pursued?) is over and normal humdrum life sets in. It’s not even that normal and humdrum, as they hang around all sorts of bohemian and arty types, but as seen in the first volume, you can’t really change what you were born into, and neither fits particularly happily into these worlds, Halo being contrasted with those who it is possible to just hang out with and not marry, and Vance getting his kicks where he can but not able to settle to his work.

Vance, who seemed clueless but essentially kind (whatever Marilyn French thought in her Afterword to the first book) in “Hudson River Bracketed” is here just monumentally selfish – but does Halo allow and encourage him to be so, too, by biting her lip, trying to be the perfect ‘wife’ and stopping her former brisk criticism of her friend? It’s, of course, Halo upon whom society’s disapproval mainly falls, and who really suffers from that as well as Vance’s obvious disappointment and insulting behaviour. She tries to break it off, wants to go it alone, but has various men – including her ex-husband – try to protect her, and the ending shows the sour note behind the fairy tale.

So, a bit of a bleak book but so clear on how society works and the pressures on women to behave in the ‘correct’ way while men get off virtually scot-free. There is some great writing, especially when Wharton uses her technical skill to present events, such as the fate of Halo and Vance’s only friend in the South of France, obliquely or in flashback or discussion. So a good read.

Book reviews – The People’s Songs and Life, Love and The Archers #books

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Sept 2016 TBRTwo books, I would dare to put forward, by authors who are fairly generally beloved by my demographic of 40-something, literary-minded, music-loving type folks. Two books we would fall upon with excitement and joy. Unfortunately, both of them have disappointed a little. The reason for the second one disappointing may be that I read it with a cold, but the first was started a while ago. One good thing: I’m typing this on my new laptop – in budget, nice and small and light (unlike my original one, the ULL or Unfeasibly Large Laptop) and seeming to work quite nicely. So that’s a positive.

Stuart Maconie – “The People’s Songs”

(10 October 2015, from Sian)

I was really looking forward to reading this “Story of Modern Britain in 50 Songs”, adapted from a radio series where I THINK they were done in a random order, which explains some of the repetitions when they’re put into date order here (imagine if this had been in random order!). I was unfortunately a bit disappointed; it was terribly arch, which is normally OK in Maconie’s writing but seems annoying here (too many examples of “As one [insert full or original name of pop person] found out …”). The referencing is also dreadfully inconsistent, with some footnotes giving author and book, etc., some of that in the text, some reporting of hearsay or comments, one of which at least I know from a source of mine to be based on the serious reporting of a joke discussion, and some clear quotations not even linked to a person’s name.

There’s plenty of good pop writing and amusing anecdotes, and it’s nice to be reminded of various bands and songs, but some of the essays also felt like they were going through the motions a bit (“We need to have a chapter on x and y”).

Wendy Cope – “Life, Love and The Archers”

(3 Dec 2015 from Sam in the BookCrossing Birmingham secret santa)

I thought this was the lovely poet’s autobiography when I added it to my wishlist (and Cope is one of the few poets I enjoy reading) but it’s autobiographical fragments, and other writings – book reviews, prefaces and columns on TV programmes, the last of which were very ‘of the moment’ so not massively interesting. She’s spoken (and is indeed speaking at the Birmingham Book Festival) about her years in analysis, and that’s great for consciousness-raising, but in the end, I felt I would rather her editor had not as described, gone rummaging through the archive she sold to the British Library to put this book together, as it just made me feel a bit sad, even though there are some lovely pieces about her teaching days and children’s literature, etc. Just not quite what I was expecting, I suppose.

I’ve also just finished “The Gods Arrive” and this month’s Dorothy Richardson, so I’m not actually reading ANYTHING right now, but I have picked a nice easy read off the shelves for an early night. What are you all up to? What’s the last book that really lived up to your expectations / excited and pleased you?

A quick book challenges and acquisitions round-up #books #1947club

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1947 club logoAlthough I HAVE been reading (promise), I haven’t finished anything since the end of 20BooksOfSummer. I’m reading Stuart Maconie’s “The People’s Songs” which is entertaining, but I do have a few issues with it, and Edith Wharton’s “The Gods Arrive”, which is the sequel to “Hudson River Bracketed” which I finished recently and loved; this one is sadder and a bit less persistent in wanting to be picked up and read. I’ve also been watching Paralympics coverage, which hasn’t added to my reading time.

Anyway, with 20BooksOfSummer over, it was time for a new challenge, and fortunately, Simon at Stuckinabook and Karen at Kaggsysbookishramblings are hosting another of their fab year reads from 10-16 October. The idea is that everyone reads books published in a particular year and shares their reviews, showing off a variety of new books for people to find out about and also introducing book bloggers to each other.

E.H. Young Chatterton Square

There are various options published in 1947 listed on their blog posts, but some, like Patrick Hamilton’s “The Slaves of Solitude” I’d already read, and others didn’t appeal. Of course I looked through my own library and of course I have plenty of books from the years either side … so it came about that I ordered a copy of E.H. Young’s “Chatterton Square”. Set as usual for this author in a fictionalised Bristol and examining the interplay between and within families, this does look like a classically excellent novel and I can’t wait to get into it in just under a month’s time.

I’m continuing with my other challenges, of course. Woolfalong is Essays and Non-Fiction and I’ve got the two volumes of “The Common Reader” to read, but I’m saving them up for next month when I have a couple of nice long journeys. I will admit to not having started my next Dorothy Richardson volume yet, so will have to break my usual habit and start her after I finish my Wharton (I like to space my Viragoes out a bit better than that).

sept-2016-3One more confession (if we don’t count the copy of “The Gods Arrive” that I bought, got into the house, went to shelve, realised I already had a copy obtained IN THE SAME BATCH as “Hudson River Bracketed” and promptly sent to Karen). We need a new shower and were looking at various plumbing and enclosures at the weekend. I hadn’t realised there was a The Works concession in our local Co-op and spotted Mark Mason’s “Mail Obsession” – it might not be in our local one! So yes, I went out to buy a shower and came back with a book about postcodes (jauntily posed on our top stairs). Hm.

Are you doing the 1947 club or any other challenges? Heard of any good ones for next year? I know one person is running a Hobbit / Lord of the Rings one and I am considering that … or should I just get on with working my way through Trollope?

 

20 Books of Summer Round-up: did it! #20BooksOfSummer #books #reviews

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20BooksofSummer logoAll summer, since 1 June, I’ve been taking part in Cathy at the 746 Books blog’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. The idea was to nominate and then read 20 books by the end of 5 September (Labor Day in the US and Back to School Day in most of England at least). I attempted this last year and managed 17, with two I didn’t finish (in fact gave up on) and one I didn’t start at all. But that year, I only found out about the challenge half-way through the year!

And this year, I did it! So here are some facts and stats.

I read 19 books in full. Book 20 is a book in Icelandic – a children’s book, admittedly, but there’s still a fair bit of text and while my Icelandic reading is much better than my production, it’s a funny old language with loads of extra letters that come at odd places in the alphabet, and words have a nasty habit of changing their spelling as the grammar changes, making it all super-hard to look up in the dictionary. So the aim there was not to finish the book, but to get into the habit of working on it, and that I have done. Also, one of the books, “Modernity Britain”, was actually two books in one volume, so it all balances out.

From the original 20, I made four swaps (two swaps were Icelandic books, though, as I found the ideal one to start my reading and “translating” project). That’s, then, two DNFs out of 19, both of which I replaced, and read and enjoyed the replacements.

In the time between 1 June and 5 September, I actually read 37 books! The additional ones turned out mainly to be easy books I fitted in when I needed a simple and/or comforting read, books for the #Woolfalong and Dorothy Richardson projects and a big slew of running books I read coming up to my marathon. I never thought I’d “only” read 20 books through the period, it was more nominating a jolly pile (which started off as the front of my TBR but was more spread out on the back shelf) and a pile that’s representative of my reading tastes.

I read 13 works of fiction, 6 works of non-fiction and one children’s book, and that’s fairly representative of my reading this year in general (I’m on 58 fiction and 27 non-fiction this year so far).

Nine books were by men and ten by women, but I don’t keep records on this, so not sure if that’s representative.

I read books on words, on sport, on bookshops, on Iceland, on adventurous travel and on social history; I read only one modern novel, a bit of mid-century fiction, some classics, some Viragoes and two crime novels.

I read books set in the UK (several), Ireland, Iceland (three), the Poles and mountains, America (some), India and Morocco, and that feels representative, too.

While this challenge was going on, I was also doing the Dorothy Richardson “Pilgrimage” readalong and #Woolfalong, which didn’t feature in this list, and All Virago / All Summer, which did.

And I enjoyed it. I “met” some new book bloggers and gained some new followers and commenters, which was great fun. Thank you, Cathy, for marvellous hosting!

Here’s what I read!

20 books of summer 2016

20 books of summer 2016

Charlie Hill – Books – read and reviewed as Book 1 in the project

Michael Rosen – Alphabetical – read and reviewed as Book 2 in the project

Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee – Swim, Bike, Run – read and reviewed as Book 3 in the project

Joanna Biggs – All Day Long – read and reviewed as Book 4 in the project

Arnaldur Indriðason – The Draining Lake  – read and reviewed as Book 5 in the project

Cathy Kelly – The Honey Queen – read and reviewed as Book 6 in the project

Ranulph Fiennes – Cold – read and reviewed as Book 7 in the project

Julia Strachey – Cheerful Weather for the Wedding – read and reviewed as Book 8 in the project

Nilanjan Choudhury – The Case of the Secretive Sister – read and reviewed as Book 9 in the project

George Eliot – The Mill on the Floss – read and reviewed as Book 10 in the project

Salman Rushdie – Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights swapped for Robertson Davies – A Mixture of Frailties – read and reviewed as Book 11 in the project

Ann Bridge – A Lighthearted Quest – read and reviewed as Book 12 in the project

Andrew Flintoff – Being Freddie – read and reviewed as Book 13 in the project

David Kynaston – Modernity Britain – read and reviewed as Book 14 in the project

Auður Ava Olafsdottir – Butterflies in November – read and reviewed as Book 15 in the project

Edith Wharton – The Reef – read and reviewed as Book 16 in the project

Jane Smiley – The Greenlandersswapped for Angela Thirkell – August Folly – read and reviewed as Book 17 in the project

Edith Wharton – Hudson River Bracketed – read and reviewed as Book 18 in the project

A.S. Byatt – Ragnarok – read and reviewed as Book 19 in the project

Sogur ur Biblikunniswapped for Af Hjervu Gjosa Fjoll?  then swapped for Blómin á þakinu – got on with nicely as Book 20 – the plan all along

Book reviews – Hudson River Bracketed and Ragnarok: The End of the Gods #20BooksofSummer

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20 books of summer 2016

ORIGINAL 20 books of summer 2016

Well, I’ve gone and done it! The two books reviewed here are Books 18 and 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project. Book 20, “Blómin á þakinu”, has NOT been read in its entirety: I didn’t actually expect to do that. As it’s in Icelandic and is being used as a project to improve my Icelandic by laboriously translating it, and it takes an hour or so to work on each page, I was always going to end up with that one as a work in progress, having established a routine to work on it regularly and improve my language skills. So that’s a win in my book! Anyway, two great books to finish up with, and as these reviews are quite long, I’m going to do a 20Books round-up tomorrow, if Cathy doesn’t mind! … and No Confessions today, although my last two confessions are in the post and should arrive soon!

Edith Wharton – “Hudson River Bracketed”

(23 October 2015 – from Verity)

This was one of the set of five lovely big Viragoes my friend Verity kindly sent to me when she was having a clearout (I’m pretty sure I did a donation to Mind for them). It’s a bit of a chunkster, but being Wharton, that’s not a problem as it’s easy to read and just skips on by.

The central character is Vance Weston, a boy from the Mid-West who’s from a family that’s commercially and religiously minded but not providing him with the intellectual stimulation he needs – or rather that he doesn’t truly realise he needs until he encounters a distant cousin who’s grown up in entirely the opposite milieu in the house of another distant cousin which is full of books, poems and cultural references he has never before come across. His vague yearnings to create a new religion and to write poetry are now subsumed beneath a desire to acquire the knowledge he would have gained from a combination of being a man and having his cousin Halo’s education.

There are a few false steps, and he does end up spending some time back home trying to fit into a journalism role he’s not happy with, still yearning for the intellectual environment that’s been dangled before him. But also, it’s the emotional outpouring after witnessing his grandfather’s bad behaviour that gets him his first literary break, and it’s the world of the motions, from his impulsive marriage to a wife who seems to exist wholly in the world of emotions, the impulsive expression of needs that draws Halo towards him and the brief trend for his grandmother’s brand of emotional evangelism that prove to shape Vance’s life far more than intellect and the world of the brain.

Of course, Vance can never return home once he’s had a second taste of the literary life and the emotional blending of a marriage, however impetuous. He’s distanced himself through both intellect and emotion, and I think the author may be pointing out that you need a decent balance of both, as he teeters between the two ends of the spectrum. Wharton pays little attention to convention, and although the Afterword suggest otherwise, I think she draws a portrait of a man with insufficient early education in the subtleties and control of both the emotions and the intellect, bewildered and attracted by both. Society’s expectations are also denigrated in Wharton’s social commentary: Halo and others are effectively bought, and all kinds of society work on commercial exchange rather than love or honour.

I was put off by mention of this being inspired by the early life of a writer, as I don’t tend to like novelisations of real-life events, but her portrayal of 1920s literary life in New York and a flawed hero drew me in.

This was Book 18 in my #20BooksofSummer project

A.S. Byatt – “Ragnarok: The End of the Gods”

(25 December 2015 – from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, Virago Not So Secret Santa gift)

As part of Canongate’s retelling of the great myths by various writers, Byatt cleverly frames her reworking of the Norse creation and end-of-world myths by using a small child (herself), evacuated during World War II and seeking comfort from a German book about the Norse myths and legends.

Comparison is made between the gentle Christianity she’s presented with in the parish church, the more violent and basic myths and the claims she rejects of a link between the two made by the German editor of her book. The writings of the myths are superb, with all the right stuff in muscular, absorbing, dense and rich prose which uses alliteration and repetition to echo the language of the originals (but not in a pastiche, with an inventiveness all its own). The description of Loki, student of chaos, and his demonic offspring, especially the snake, is just wonderful, and it’s a tour de force indeed, attractive, multi-layered and thoughtful.

Messages about women’s roles in war and peace and about ecology are not too laboured, the Afterword reveals Byatt’s own childhood engagement with the topic, and the bibliography shows that she read the translation of the Edda done by my own Old Norse tutor, which pleased me. An amazing book.

This was Book 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project

I’m currently reading Stuart Maconie’s “The People’s Songs” which is as excellent as I hoped it would be, and about to start my next Dorothy Richardson. How are you doing with your challenges?

 

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