JHUMPA LAHIRI – Unaccustomed Earth

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Bought 05 Jun 2009 – Bookends, Hay-on-Wye

More (long) short stories by this wonderful writer. The form gives Lahiri room to explore the lives of her characters, all immigrants from India living in America, but in various situations and levels of happiness. As in her other books, the writing and situations are deceptively simple but beautifully done and almost perfect in their completeness and clarity. I particularly liked the three linked stories at the end – following two second-generation immigrants and their feelings for their families and each other – you have to like a heroine who starts off hating the hero because she ends up with his cast-off coat when everyone else has pink girly jackets. I got a bit worried about a plot point near the end, but it was sensitively and well done and did add something to the narrative.

Excellent stuff – I’d like to see another novel from this author next.

MOHSIN HAMID – The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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Acquired via BookCrossing 06 Nov 2009 – BookRing

A monologue narrated by Changez to a mysterious American in a Lahore cafe, this is an intriguing book that is difficult to put down. Changez takes his audience through his life from arrival in America for college aged 18, his relationships to Pakistan and America, his relationship with the American, Erica (see what they did there?) and his gradual disenchantment with his Westernised life. The part about his reaction to 9/11 is, I think, supposed to be shocking, and is indeed not presented in isolation, given a strong and complex context. I wasn’t shocked, but then again I think I’d maybe be typical of the people that would pick up this book in the first place.

I hope I’m wrong there, as this book does a lot to “normalise” and contextualise the kind of person Changez appears to be, an immigrant trying to settle in a new country, sometimes becoming more American than the Americans, sometimes hopelessly out of his depth and out of place.

The atmosphere of the cafe, probably because I’ve sat in similar in Tunisia, was beautifully done, and the subtle build-up of menace as we realise that, let alone Changez, we really don’t know who this American is, was really well done too.

A compulsive, interesting read.

VED MEHTA – All For Love: A Personal History of Desire and Disappointment

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05 Jun 2009 – Hay-on-Wye Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye

Part of the Continents of Exile series of autobiographical writings by Mehta, here we find an unflinching memoir of his disastrous love affairs with four women, in almost excruciating detail. It’s not something you find often in a memoir, but the long series allows him the room for this. We also get a large section about his subsequent psychoanalysis – frustratingly, I have yet to fill in the gap between this and his eventual happy marriage and family life.

I think this was in many respects one for the completist – it was a touch harrowing at times and the women’s letters were reproduced (presumably with permission) which made it a very intimate read. Interesting though, as we very rarely get into the nuts and bolts of someone else’s relationship.

PAUL MAGRS – To The Devil – A Diva! (DNF)

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5 Jun 2009 – Castle Bookshop outside, Hay-on-Wye

At least I rescued this from a damp fate! I love Magrs’ books and pick up any I see. This looked fun, if not totally a LyzzyBee book, with its vampire B-movie star attempting to save the ratings of an X-rated soap, set in Manchester’s gay and fanfic communities. Unfortunately when I was half way through things got too icky with me, with brain-eating etc (handily signposted at least) and I had to give up. Which was a shame, as I was enjoying the read!

VARIOUS – Spare Rib Reader

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05 Jun 2009 – Cinema Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye

A collection of articles from the first 100 issues of the marvellous Spare Rib magazine. Apparently the magazine ran until 1993 but I didn’t see it in the early 90s and it’s always been something I knew about but was too young/ isolated in a small fairly conservative village to find and read. The articles are divided into subject areas such as work, state, education etc and are a mix of editorial, pieces by journalists and vox pop pieces by women on the front line of 2nd wave feminism. Some of the concerns and attitudes seem a bit dated, but many of them are, sadly, still relevant today – equal pay etc. I’m not sure that blatant sexism and harrassment on the street are still so common, but women are probably far more objectified and have more difficult images to live up to – as, indeed, have men.

A walk down memory lane as I looked at the concerns and language of my own early feminism, and some genuinely good and interesting reading too.

CHRISTINE COLEMAN – Paper Lanterns

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From the author – not yet published

I loved Christine’s previous novel, "The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society" and was eager for more by this quirky and original author.  So, when a discussion about my new copy-editing and proof-reading business led to a new opportunity, I leapt at the chance to work on "Paper Lanterns".

I feel that Christine is a great chronicler of the "ordinary" person, a person often overlooked or relegated to the cast of supporting characters in the modern novel.  I praised "The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society" for its lovely truck drivers and housewives, and "Paper Lanterns" opens with us meeting Ann, so ordinary that she doesn’t even have an "e" on the end of her name, middle-aged, plain and self-doubting.  Ann has always been in the shadow of someone else, and it’s with a sinking heart and a sense of duty that she prepares to fly out to Hong Kong to console her mother over the loss of her partner.

Vivienne has always been the shining star, and Ann has suffered throughout her life by the comparison with this beautiful mother.  Her grandmother, Grannibelle, absent through death but present through Ann’s memories, was beautiful too, but redeemed by her warmth, love for and celebration of Ann.  Vivienne, on the other hand… well, there’s rivalry, bitchiness, betrayal…

Ann starts to feel more free as she starts her long journey to Hong Kong, until she has a rather embarassing accident involving a businessman and a china cow.  Surely she won’t ever have to see him again… But once in Hong Kong, beautifully evoked through lovely descriptions which really bring to us the sights, sounds and smells of the lesser known Lamma Island, she begins to find she is appreciated for herself by the disparate community of which her mother has become part.  

As usual with Christine’s works, the secondary characters are beautifully drawn, whether a young traveller, open and welcoming, or the delightfully dotty octogenerian, Poppy.  And we are drawn into an older world, still on Lamma, when Ann is given a parcel of documents belonging to Grannibelle’s earlier life.

Ann, and we, end up reassessing our impressions of several of the main characters, including Ann herself.  We watch her blossom in self-confidence as she finds time to examine her own life as well as those of the other strong women in her family, and as she finds new family, and new ways to relate to family.

The double layered timescale gives a rich depth to the story, as Ann finds herself revisiting places her grandmother knew well, and visiting some of those strong emotions too.  We find out the family revelations as Ann does, and find ourselves rooting for her as well as falling in love with a beautiful island and a happy, free way of life.

A good read, a satisfying range of characters, an engrossing plot and a new place to learn about – highly recommended.

Christine’s web page is here.

VALERIE HOLMAN – Print For Victory: Book Publishing in England 1939-1945

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From the Library

A fascinating subject and a book filled with exhaustive detail which makes it one of the slower reads… but never boring.  The author has done so much research on this subject and it’s full of the struggles between publishers and the Government over the paper ration, the difference between literature to send overseas to help the war effort and out-and-out propaganda, etc.  There’s an interesting chapter on publishing overseas before, during and just after the War, and the book includes excellent photographs and appendixes.  Very glad this passed through my hands at work and I could secure it for a read!

ROBERT ARTHUR – The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow

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Bought 05 Jun 2009 – Corner Bookshop, Hay-on-Wye

Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators # 12

A great read for a cold night, huddled in bed with the electric blanket – a mystery to solve involving not one but two Native American tribes, an academic, Hitchcock himself and the usual mild peril and resourceful boys.  There’s even a dodgy vegetarian in this one! Great stuff and as usual the spooky-seeming phenomenon has a rational explanation and some people are not what they seem.

Good stuff!

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