Book reviews – The Common Reader Vol II and Lingo #amreading #woolfalong #books

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nov-2016-tbrGetting two book reviews in before the end of the month – everything on the front of the TBR is now Large Books so these will be the last ones finished this month (and the photo is a bit outdated so you’ll see those on Thursday)! At least these two go together a bit better than yesterday’s mixed bag, both being non-fiction.

Virginia Woolf – “The Common Reader Vol 2”

(2 September 2016)

OK, this was for the last chunk of #Woolfalong but it wanted to be read and was most enjoyable. More beautiful, elegant, lucid essays, and in fact more about people I knew (of) than volume 1. There’s also the seminal “How Should one Read a Book”, which I’d already read through and mined for my research project while on holiday in October.

I loved the pieces on essayists, wondered if anyone DOES read George Meredith nowadays (anyone?) and enjoyed the piece on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which made me think of Woolf’s lovely book, “Flush”. Even when she’s writing about someone I don’t know, she’s just so enjoyable to read, and it was lovely to read her on Hardy in this volume, even if she doesn’t rate him as highly as I do.

I find it hard to write about collections of essays without going into too much detail, so I’ll leave this there, but I really enjoyed it.

Gaston Dorren – “Lingo”

(29 December 2015)

Purporting to be a romp (OK, an “intriguing tour”) through the main and minor languages of Europe, this translated book is a bit of an oddity. It’s often simultaneously two detailed and not detailed enough, going into linguistic subtleties but then laughing at linguists, and then skating across whole languages and only giving them a paragraph at the end of their own chapter.

Then there were some big problems. It made a little more sense when I realised on reading the Acknowledgements that the author is Dutch and the book has been translated, because it’s a well-known fact that humour is practically untranslatable, but the chapter on Belarus(s)ian, made up of two invented addresses from the different sides of the dispute about which form of the language to adopt seemed in very poor taste, inflammatory and at best misguided. This was followed by a chapter on Luxembourgish written in the form of a fable, which was confusing and never actually explained which languages the author was talking about. Then there was a section later very carefully explaining how to read the Cyrillic alphabet based on the Greek, which even I, someone who likes an alphabet, skimmed.

There were good bits, and a nice pairing of a loan word plus a not-directly-translatable word that would be useful to have in English at the end of this chapter, but this was a bit patchy and in places downright uncomfortable.

I’m going to go and pick a new book off the shelves to start, and then on Thursday it will be (gulp) State of the TBR time. And what a fine, full TBR it is …

Book review round-up – Black Hearts in Battersea, English to English and Cornish Feasts and Festivals #amreading #books

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Cornish Feasts and Fesivals front coverA little round-up today (tonight) of a few smaller, lighter books I’ve been reading this week.  Sometimes you just need a little book or two, don’t you – plus the first one in this set of reviews I bought on my trip to London and had to start on the bus home from the station, as I’d not taken quite enough bookage with me to see me through the journeys to and from London! So it’s a bit of a mixed bag: a children’s book, a book about language and a book about Cornwall written by a friend …

Joan Aiken – “Black Hearts in Battersea”

(19 November 2016 – Any Amount of Books, Charing Cross Road)

I love Aiken, but apparently not enough to remember that this is the sequel to “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase”. But it was in the top of my rucksack full of books, so …

It’s a classic children’s adventure with plenty of peril and excitement for orphan Simon as he makes his way to London to study painting with an old friend, only to discover that he’s disappeared. Dukes, lowlifes and artists about and there’s a great comedy Frenchman, an excellent donkey, a kitten that is still OK at the end of the book and the beguiling urchin, Dido Twite. A great and masterful writer – I know there are some short stories out that I’m going to have to look out for.

Suzan St Maur – “English to English”

(1o October 2015)

An A-Z of British-American-British translations, bought to help my editing and particularly localisation (turning US English into UK English work). It’s pretty exhaustive and I wish I’d had it when I needed to know what a muscle car was. It’s also the most modern book of its kind, being published in 2012 (most are early 2000s) although it might have been overstretching it to include Australian and Canadian English as well. It’s laid out a little clumsily and appears to be in a series that’s written to a template – there were confusingly two sections about the author at the end, but it’s a workmanlike and decent resource.

Liz Woods – “Cornish Feasts and Festivals”

(September 2015 – from the author)

An absolutely charming little book in the Pocket Cornwall series, based on the blog of the same name and written by my dear friend, Liz. This has been hanging out on the Pile to the side of my TBR for a while, but what better time to dip into it than in a quiet bit of evening after a heavy work day?

Each little chapter has a piece about an (old, newer, extinct, still-going, continuous, revived, countryside, seafaring) festival tradition, taking us through the year in order, with a sweet illustration by Freya Laughton and a recipe for a linked dish, either a Cornish classic like Star-Gazy Pie or Saffron Buns or something made using Cornish ingredients, with a photograph taken, as the introduction carefully explains, just before the author devoured the food item in question.

Just lovely, and a great reminder of lovely Cornwall, too.

I’m still reading “Yeah Yeah Yeah” and that won’t be done by the end of the month (year??) but it’s v good. I’m also reading a book called “Lingo” about the languages of Europe which I’m not too sure about at the moment … And you?

 

Book review – The Year of Reading Dangerously #books #amreading

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nov-2016-tbrI am ashamed. I read this book in its entirety LAST SATURDAY, yet here I am reviewing it almost a week later. I read it on the way down to my lovely day in London (I started it at  home in case it wasn’t any good – that wasn’t a problem), got more than half-way through, but reckoned I would probably have some more books by the time I was on my way back to Birmingham (I did). It’s still bad that I left it until now to review – I’ve had work, running, yoga and cutting-down of shrubs and it all got away from me a bit …

Andy Miller – “The Year of Reading Dangerously”

(29 December 2015 – bought in Waterstones in a 3-for-2 offer along with “A Spool of Blue Thread” and “Lingo”, using a book token from the previous year)

Stuck in a bit of a life rut, Miller decides to read a Proper Book and ends up enjoying “The Master and Margharita”. He then goes on to create and read (much of) his own List Of Betterment, not books he thinks everyone should read, but his own collection of classics and Great Books that he thinks he should read (I don’t think he reads all of his list, as there’s a list of other books he’s still planning to read in the back of the book. While the book makes it clear there was a gap between reading the books and writing this one, it’s not clear whether there were some interstitial books that filled in the time between the read list and the as-yet-unread list. I’m probably over-thinking this).

He in no way exhorts people to read what he’s read – it’s a personal list that fills in gaps in his own reading, which has also lapsed since his son was born (hooray for commutes, he finds. I miss commuting, for only that reason). I don’t think he describes all of the books he reads in his year (50 in all, not bad going when you consider they include “War and Peace” and “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists“), and his notes on the ones he does discuss include some spoilers (there’s a warning in the front of the book).

Interwoven with his musings on the books he readers are bits of memoir and anecdotes from Miller’s more recent life with wife and child. It’s enjoyable and funny without being trite and silly, and it’s lovely to see ‘proper’ books getting an airing, not to mention a man talking about reading Austen and Eliot. I’ll even forgive him for not getting on that well with Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea” until he realises thanks to a friend that parts of it are supposed to be hilarious, for the general high quality of the book and for the fact that he lists the Three Investigators Mysteries in his “The Hundred Books Which Influenced Me Most”.

This book might not change your life like it profoundly changed the author’s – and I admire him for getting through some of the books – as I suspect it might appeal to those who’ve read a number of the Big Books anyway (but if it lassoes the odd Quest Book reader and encourages them to try a more challenging book than usual, that’s wonderful, of course). But it’s an engaging and very readable book which will certainly appeal to anyone who likes books about books. It’s well written (as befits an editor) and has a great mix of books and memoir. The only odd bit was his appendix listing all the times he met Douglas Adams, which I think could have been woven more happily into the substance of the book itself. But a good and entertaining read that I’d recommend.

I’ve read 20 of his 50 and wouldn’t want to read another 24 of them myself. No idea how that matches up against other readers of this one!

Phew, that feels better. I’m currently (still) reading Virginia Woolf’s “Common Reader” Vol. 2 and “Yeah Yeah Yeah”, Bob Stanley’s wonderful but Very Large history of pop. How’s  your reading going as the year draws towards its close?

London book confessions

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nov-2016-1I went down to London yesterday with booky friend Ali to meet up with some other ladies from the LibraryThing Virago Group, one of whom is also a book blogger. After having trips to Cornwall and Buxton where I was ‘allowed’ to buy books and didn’t really buy an awful lot, now it’s Christmas and (for me, at least) birthday season and I’m supposed to NOT buy books, I went a bit over the top and came home with … um … ELEVEN BOOKS.

Here I am looking a bit startled, with Claire, Lucy, Ali and Karen, outside the Persephone Bookshop. But you want to know about the books, right?

nov-2016-2First of all, Luci is known for the very generous bags of books which she drags up to meetups and then lays gently on the table in front of us. I’ve done very well from this habit of hers before, and yesterday was no exception.

Barbara Taylor – “Eve and the New Jerusalem” – a history of 19th century feminism and socialism which is interesting in its own right and might give me some background to my reading about New Women and even the Dorothy Richardsons.

Jane Gardam – “Old Filth” – Gardam is one of my favourite authors ever and I love her books set on the East Coast and her quirky way of writing. I’ve never read these ones, though, put off a bit by the male main character. But there it was, so …

Natasha Solomons – “The Gallery of Vanished Husbands”  – I’ve apparently never read anything by her but this seemed intriguing – a novel about a woman regaining confidence in herself and breaking free in the 1960s.

Diana Wynne Jones – “Dark Lord of Derkholm” – I adore Wynne Jones and rate her novels above the Harry Potter ones, in fact press them upon people. This is both a satire on high fantasy and a highly readable work of high fantasy, apparently, and I bet it is!

nov-2016-3We then popped up the Charing Cross Road (from Gaby’s, somewhere I’d inexplicably never been and which is now a firm favourite) to Any Amount of Books, which is perhaps my favourite of the (dwindling number of) bookshops on that road. It has “£1 each, 5 for £4” trays outside (and a bookcase just outside the front door) where I’m pretty well guaranteed to find something. And indeed I did. Sorry this picture is blurry – I’ve put them all away now!

Joan Aiken – “Black Hearts in Battersea” – well, I didn’t put this away because I started it on the bus home from the train station. I loved these in my youth and they still stand up. I can’t wait to get her short stories soon.

Francis Brett Young – “The Black Diamond” – a book in the same Shropshire Pear edition as the one I bought in Penzance, although not signed. This is set in Africa, not a favourite setting of mine (sorry, entire continent south of the Sahara) but it’s bound to be a good read.

John-Paul Flintoff – “Sew Your Own” – a quest book in which he looks into life, the universe and everything via learning to make his own clothes.

Veronica Stallwood – “Oxford Mourning” – I enjoyed her “Oxford Exit” and have been looking out for others by her – this is the only book that was remotely on my wishlist and is quite a battered copy so I don’t mind if another turns up at some stage! “A crime novel!” cried Mr Liz, but a literary, Oxford-based one!

Eric Newby – “Something Wholesale” – I adore Newby’s books but I didn’t have this one about his early life in the rag trade.

nov-2016-4Those were all from outside, and then I spotted these two final lovelies on the New Books shelf inside.

Richard King – “Original Rockers” – the story of a small independent record shop in Bristol. I worked on transcriptions for this book a while back, so it was exciting to see it in print, although I have sort of read it before.

Jon Kalman Stefansson – “The Heart of Man” – a novel set in the north of Iceland, by an Icelandic author, about loving two women at the same time (rather than chopping people up, etc.). Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that this is the last in a trilogy. But never mind, it’s gone on the Pile (which includes Books Where I Have To Wait To Read Earlier Books In The Series First) and I’ve put the earlier two on my wishlist.

I did at least read a whole book on the journey to and from London – “The Year of Reading Dangerously”, which was excellent, so that’s one off the pile.

We did also go to the Persephone Shop. Some of the books bought there will end up on my TBR in December and January, but the only ones I bought there myself were two for Ali for Christmas.

So there we go – what a lovely day and, I think, a good haul that hasn’t damaged any possible buying by other people.

Have you read any of these? Which would YOU fancy reading?

 

Book review – Tazeen Ahmad – “Checkout Girl” #books #amreading

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nov-2016-tbrI’m experimenting with single book reviews for a few days to see if people like those more than the doubles – if you are interested in one book but not the other, does it put you off reading the post and/or commenting? I’d love to know. Anyway, I also started a substantial book today so there might not be another one to review for a few days, so here’s my reaction to a book in a genre I enjoy (is that the right word), where someone goes undercover to explore a different life or experience to the one they’re used to. What would you call that – social experiment books? Quest books? I did hop ahead in the TBR for this one as I started it when I had a bit of a cold and wanted something easy and not too taxing on the brain.

Tazeen Ahmad – “Checkout Girl”

(11 July 2016 – charity shop in Bridlington)

A journalist goes undercover during the early days of the recession to see first-hand the effect it’s having on people’s lives and spending habits. As it’s a Friday Project book, I assume it was based on a blog, but it’s well put together and reads coherently, which is refreshing.

It’s a warts-and-all but seemingly fair and balanced description of both behind the scenes and in the customer front line working at Sainsburys. She’s honest about her own struggles with the amount of customer interaction she’s supposed to do, the complicated transactions and processes and the different personalities of her colleagues and supervisors. I was saddened – but not surprised – to read about the attitudes of customers – I’ve certainly been guilty of carrying on my own life (and, dare I say it, bickering with Mr Liz) as I pass by the till, but I do make an effort to be polite! In fact, when I was talking to a lady in our Sainsburys, I confirm that although I do place my items on the belt in the order I want to pack them, I also do it so they’re close to her and the right way round (she said she doesn’t notice but I bet she does). I will be extra polite and supportive in future (in fact, I and a friend both told off someone who swore at the lady in the cafe the other day when she needed to check their large-denomination bank note, so hopefully I’m already walking the walk there).

I have to say that my checkout lady said they weren’t actually told to talk to every single customer, but I’m sure stores differ, and this book was published a few years ago now. I’d be interested to read an update on whether the redundancies started to diminish and people moved back from Basics to branded items, for example.

A well-written book which had a lot to recommend it and a human interest story as well as an economic exploration.

 

Book review – Dimple Hill (Virago)

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Dorothy Richardson - PilgrimageWell, it’s time for another review of another volume of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” series. I’ve been reading these for almost a year now, and although we’ve all ended up reading different volumes at the same time, it’s been a real pleasure to read these alongside my fellow book bloggers and Virago fans as we’ve gone along (it would be lovely if everyone could comment with where they’re up to and a link to their most recent review). I can’t believe I’ve only got 105 pages to go now!

Dorothy Richardson – “Dimple Hill”

(28 March 2015)

With one book to go in the series, why do I think this is like my experience of the film “Magnolia”, where I was sure everything was going to tie up together at the end … and then it didn’t?

We open on holiday with Florence and Grace in a cathedral town as part of our heroine Miriam’s six-month rest cure – but who are Florence and Grace? I really cannot recall if we’ve met them before. Maybe that little book I bought in Buxton will explain all. There’s some griping about holidaying with friends and not all wanting to do the same thing, and a changed experience in a church, where Miriam describes that she, “felt nothing of her old desire to smash their complacency”, perhaps a sign that she’s maturing (this is handy, as she’s going to be spending quite a while in places of worship quite soon).

Having caught up with Amabel and Michael’s budding romance via a packet of letters that’s been around pillar and post trying to catch up with her (this almost normal novelistic device stood out for me as the rest of the work is so decidedly and carefully against narrative conventions), Miriam goes off to stay with the Roscorlas, a Quaker family, farming in Sussex, who rent out a room. She falls for their simple ways, although she does seem to spend her time at Meeting looking at men and at people’s hats, and while there are some lovely descriptions of the house and the nature surrounding it, she seems to get into one of her interminable misunderstandings over men, upsetting someone’s girl and somehow simultaneously humble-bragging as not presenting as a standard simpering female and fancying (?) herself romantically linked to the man of the house.

It’s all very confusing and seems to end in upset and a hurrying moving on, as ever. Meanwhile, Amabel the fearless fighter for women’s rights has basically got herself in a position where she needs one man (Michael) to rescue her from oppression by another (her brother), which doesn’t seem that ideal.

Bitchy about other young women and their accents, mean about a mother who’s protective of her son, always getting into emotional tangles and being obsessed with men and switching between the first and third person – yes, I know the last point is a feature of the writer, not the character, but they are so closely identified and unfortunately, while I certainly do not have to like and admire every character in a book to enjoy the book, it’s pretty heavy-going when the central character is fundamentally unlikeable and unattractive, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe that’s the point, though. Who knows?

Well, that one’s done and just the last, very short, volume and then the small book about Richardson that I picked up and hope to be the Key To All Mysteries to go.

I’m currently reading “Yeah Yeah Yeah”, which is Bob Stanley’s excellent history of pop music from the advent of the vinyl pop single to its demise. Very, very good so far. And I might have bought Greg Rutherford’s autobiography For No Reason. Just because I clicked.

Book review – Grayson Perry, “The Descent of Man”

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The Descent of Man Grayson Perry front coverI’ve been a fan of Grayson Perry for a good number of years now, like other people, first coming across his amazing pots and fabulous alter ego, Claire, with her little girl party dresses, then enjoying his documentaries and printed lectures on art. His wonderful tapestries were exhibited in Birmingham a few years ago, and more recently I’ve enjoyed his guest editorship of the New Statesman and his TV series, “All Man” about masculinity. I enjoy reading about and thinking about gender in society and gender roles, so all in all, this was a book for which I was the ideal audience. And it lived up to expectations – except that I wanted more!

Grayson Perry – “The Descent of Man”

(ebook, 18 October 2016)

Working off a basis of his New Statesman guest editorship and the TV series on masculinities, “All Man”, this distils Perry’s personal musings on traditional masculinity and the need to find new patterns and role models for men to follow.

He’s open about his own background, his struggles with masculinity as a product of his home life, his splitting off of his own masculine attributes into his famous teddy bear, Alan Measles, and his issues with his masculinity as an adult who exists in a world of art and transvestism but with strong competitive and territorial instincts. He looks first at what he calls Default Man, the hegemonic middle-aged, middle-class white man whose opinions, interests and concerns – and fear of being thought to be gay, rather than actual homophobia – are thought of as the norm.

He doesn’t go in for a lot of castigating, noting that the traditional man is actually existing in an unhelpful straitjacket and, even when still in power at the moment, is having his ways eroded and starting to experience fear. He calls on us, instead of criticising, to challenge and examine possible gender biases and counter traditionally ‘male’ power where we can. His traditional men are men in the city and of the city, patrolling invisible boundaries to give themselves something to do or channelling old needs for sweat, toil and togetherness into the gym or boxing ring.

When Perry talks of the need to change, he talks movingly and convincingly of men caught in “the suicidal rigidity of the cliché of masculinity”, not encouraged to talk about themselves or their feelings and dying in their droves. He talks of a need for society to prize tolerance and emotional literacy in the same way as more traditional values like stoicism are prized at the moment. He is a little bit starry-eyed about women bonding and helping each other and looking forwards rather than backwards, but he is at least honest that he knows nothing about ‘being a woman’ even though he dresses as an ideal of one.

He’s very good and funny about areas like male ‘frippery’ being expressed in useless features on watches and complicated trousers and how no one has sexual fantasies about gender equality (“except, perhaps, Nick Clegg”). He even suggests we get Gareth Malone off to the sperm bank because society needs to “breed smaller, more sensitive men”. This humour, and the excellent illustrations, break things up and make the book easier to digest.

Perry exhorts men to demolish the “Department of Masculinity”, which is always looking at men’s performance and judging it, internally and externally, from within. He calls for new more flexible models of manhood and a celebration of the less flashy attributes that help in everyday life rather than one that resembles a racecar you will never take onto the track.

A book that makes you think, and is designed to be the first book someone might pick up on the subject. In a way, he’s preaching to the choir here; I would actually have preferred a little more substance, perhaps more from the TV series and the works of art he produced from it, but the book as it stands is easily readable and digestible. And highly recommended.

This book was kindly supplied by the publisher, via NetGalley, in return for an honest review.

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