Book review – Lynsey Hanley – “Respectable” and many book confessions

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I’m not sure how, but books have been flooding into the house. Well, some of them are for Reasons, one is for a challenge and two are slight blasts from the past. A book review first, though, which I’ve kind of been putting off because I’ve found it quite hard to review. You know when a book is quite challenging, and then also you’re part of the problem it’s writing about, and you feel like in writing about it, you’ll display all your privileges and be even more part of the problem? That. I’ll give it a go, though.

Lynsey Hanley – “Respectable: The Experience of Class”

(21 January 2017, from Sian)

I have to say, Sian does choose a good book from my (extensive) wish list!

Like her writing and sociology hero, Richard Hoggart, Lynsey Hanley mines both her own lived experience and research by others to investigate the class system in the UK, and specifically social mobility from the working class to the middle class, the path she herself has taken.

As a solidly middle-class person, it opened my eyes to my own privileges: that however poor I’ve been, and I’ve been pretty poor, working in a low-status job on a zero-hours contract, I have always still felt confident to access – or reject – both high and low culture, to use my library, to go to art galleries and listen to classical CDs as well as going to gigs, to read the Guardian and understand its talking to me, with few complications. As she says, you can’t really fall down out of the middle-class, however much you either think or fear you can. She does also make the point that middle-class people are as stuck as others and have disadvantages too, and I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve tried to maintain the class system, certainly not to promote the leadership of the country by the aristocracy, but I probably have been well-meaning, blundering and patronising, and if I’ve done that to any working class-identifying people, I’m sorry.

The author lays out how the working class – often now referred to at least in part as the underclass in order to keep them down and despised – is trapped by poor investment and a lack of larger-picture thinking, so that there’s a mismatch between god social housing and jobs, for example. Her discussions with an old middle-class friend, met at sixth form college, are poignant, and her explanations of why and how people get trapped and seem not to care or to want to free themselves compelling and upsetting.

The only problem really here is that I can’t see what can be done about this, so it’s a dispiriting read: in “bettering” herself, Hanley has left herself poised in a terrible balance, never able to go back home, but also feeling like an imposter in her new class. It seems so eternal and damning, and that’s fine, maybe it is. Maybe I got so depressed reading it that I missed the solutions, however I am now more aware of what is being manipulated in the media, and why some people act the way I do. I hope I always had compassion, and I’m not one of the patronising throng!

An interesting read that I’m glad I tackled, and I don’t feel I’ve done it justice here unfortunately.


I feel like this isn’t a good review and I might even delete it, so I’m going to save the pretty books for tomorrow, as it seems trite to display my conspicuous consumption here, as well. I’ve read Allison Pearson’s new novel now, too: backlog time!

Book reviews – Phil Hewitt – “Keep on Running”, Joel H. Cohen – “How to Lose a Marathon” and Lisa Jackson – “Your Pace or Mine?” #amreading #amrunning

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A little bit of a themed read and post today, and by the time this is published, I’ll have run and completed my second marathon, the Birmingham International Marathon [edited to add, I did it!]. This is the first time we’ve had a marathon in my home city since the 80s (some of my running friends ran those ones!) so it’s pretty special and exciting, and as a result of this, lots of my running pals have been inspired to run their first marathon, and someone’s worked out that over 1% of the whole field will be made up of our running club! I’ve been reading or re-reading a few marathon-themed books in the run-up (ha) to the event, so here’s a little cluster of reviews (two full, one re-read and a little mention, so hopefully not too much of a reading marathon (groan)).

Phil Hewitt – “Keep on Running”

(22 March 2017)

Subtitled “The Highs and Lows of a Marathon Addict”, this is the story of one man taking up (only) marathon running (I think he does one half), with a chapter each on some of the major and smaller races he’s taken part in. It does read like a series of race reports once he’s got the basic training in – because that’s what it essentially is – but they are interesting.

I loved the mentions of how the mass runners are racing with the elites, giving a real contrast as well with the fact that he usually trained alone. He talks of the anoraky way that you need to add up your timings in a race, and it was interesting to read about the usefulness but also joy-sapping nature of the Garmin GPS watch, which came in part way through his running career. I’ve gone from stopwatch to Garmin but I try to use the Garmin to keep a record and make sure I’m not overdoing it, but he becomes a bit addicted to watching his pace, one that’s very much faster than mine, I admit!

His notes on big city runs needing good quality routes hit home a bit when I thought of the somewhat “our industrial heritage gone to seed” and “here is this same stretch of road four times” nature of the Birmingham International Marathon: he definitely wouldn’t like our one! But I loved his different reactions to routes depending on his mood and the conditions going in – it’s very much a true and warts and all story.

Most of all, although he usually runs sub-4 hour marathons, I loved his sincere admiration for his father in law, Michael, and all the other runners who are out on the course for many more hours than he is (although he does talk about older or compromised runners which undermines that a little) and his description of Michael’s wonderfully supportive running club. His best race experience and the most heart-warming part of the book is when he witnesses Michael coming through the end of the Berlin marathon being interviewed by the press and to huge cheers from the crowd.

A bit blokey in parts and honest, but a decent read with a lot of recognisable stuff.

Joel H. Cohen – “How to Lose a Marathon”

(23 August 2017)

A book about another unfit man’s running journey and path to the New York Marathon, with the end of the book being devoted to the race report. The author is so self-deprecating about his “terrible” running and writing that it all gets a bit laboured, but there are genuinely funny moments, too. He says it’s the book he wanted to read when he started running and didn’t know what to do, and has useful explanations of terminology and some good points about training, although not set out in a way that would particularly help someone else (he records his own marathon training mileage with funny comments, but not really a standard one for someone to follow, for example, which is fine). I think basically he wanted a book that told him a real person could run, and this certainly does this (although his so slow he’s almost going backwards speed is actually the highest end of my speed spectrum with a fair wind and not for 26 miles). I do love that his main aim is to beat Oprah’s marathon time.

I liked his espousal of other running books, and the startling discovery, reading “Born to Run” (which I bought just the other week), that people actually enjoy running! And I loved his practice of popping some small mints into his pocket and bringing them out as “Hill Pills” that will magically help him up hills, something I might well try out. His nuggets of wisdom are great, too (you can’t run 5 miles until you’ve run 4, bad runs happen to good people, etc.) and he’s genuinely emotional and celebratory about the achievements of the people who come in behind him in the marathon: he’s at his best when he ditches the very silly stuff.

Lisa Jackson – “Your Pace or Mine?”

(25 July 2016)

A re-read of this excellent, wonderful book, which allayed my fears as a slow runner before my Reykjavik Marathon last year (with a much smaller field, I really could have come last; I didn’t) and was very helpful for calming any nerves this time round, too. I would recommend this to anyone who likes a running book. Sections on what running has taught Lisa about, for example, not giving up, lifesaving (but who saves whom?) and dreaming big are capped with other people’s real life stories, and there are laughs, tears and smiles of recognition throughout. I can’t think of a better book to re-read in the run-up to the big race.

A longer and more detailed review from last year’s first read can be found here.

The Dorling Kindersley Complete Running & Marathon

(some time earlier in the year)

Matthew picked this up for me from the Book People table at his work and I will admit to not having read all of it, but the section on marathon day was excellent, full of good, calm and sensible advice. I will go through all the stretching and other sections another time, but I do recommend this for newbie and experienced runners.

Book review – Simon Armitage – “Walking Away” plus as it’s about Cornwall … #books #amreading

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I took this book on holiday specifically to read in or coming out of Cornwall, as it’s set in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and in fact read it on the train home, going through those exact counties! A triumph of themed reading. And as he visits Godrevy, St Ives, Newlyn and Penzance in the book, I’ll share a few photos from our holiday after the book review.  There’s no sign of the reading / reviewing slacking off, by the way – it’s marathon time on Sunday and so I’m resting up as much as I can, and will have a v quiet Saturday, then I’ll be recovering from the big effort (I forgot to do that for a bit last time: big mistake), so I hope you all don’t mind almost-daily single-book posts as opposed to the doubles I used to do.

Simon Armitage – “Walking Away”

(21 January 2017 from Sian)

The follow-up to his wonderful “Walking Home“, but this time he walks the same distance around the South West Coast Path, starting in Minehead and doing the northern coast, giving poetry readings for whatever people feel they should pay as he goes along.

Full again of his laconic observations, people-avoiding and random poetry happenings, and with a new suitcase and old friends, this is a real joy to read – easy to read but not facile or shallow. I loved when the radar dishes he passes turn from menacing, sinister structures to white cereal bowls on the drainer after the washing up as he sees them from a different angle and in different weather conditions, and chuckled at his issues when presented with a special apple by an expert (he doesn’t like apples but when he goes to give it to a horse, remembers he doesn’t like horses much, either).

A few poems occur in the text (I think ones he wrote inspired by the journey) and more are mentioned – he does some Gawain and the Green Knight for some children at breakfast one morning, which was fun. Finding fewer birds inhabiting the cliffs than he’d expected, he treats us to a wonderful description of Bempton Cliffs, north of Bridlington, which we’ve visited a few years ago; it’s always lovely to find places you’ve been and things you know in a book, isn’t it (more of that later). He bemoans the up and down-ness of the endless river valleys working their way to the sea and longs for the moors, feeling ungrateful all the way – I love how he includes the bad as well as the good, or maybe I just like a moany traveller (cf. Paul Theroux).

The views of St Ives from Godrevy and visit to the seal beaches, with their charming signs asking people not to talk too loudly directly mirrored my experiences only that Wednesday, and it’s rounded off with a visit to the Scilly Isles, where I haven’t been yet (he doesn’t encourage me with his description of the boat over, although it’s lovely that he previously visited the shipyard where the Scillonian was built). A lovely and appropriate read.


A few photos that are appropriate for this post …

Mousehole in the sunshine, the furthest point from home on my 10-mile run on Tuesday. I banked lots of good memories and feelings for the marathon on this relaxed run which ended with a local friend joining me on her bike.

The Scillonian coming in to harbour:

Towards St Ives from Godrevy:

Godrevy Lighthouse (that’s Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse and I took the photo for Ali):

Godrevy seals. I heard them calling, too! A lovely friend took me there and it was magical.

Birds in Penzance, I love the fuzzy Ringed Plover in particular:

Reading on the prom: my happy place:

Sunrise from our holiday cottage:

Book review – Courttia Newland – “Society Within” plus a small book confession #bookconfessions #amreading

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I have been reading up another storm this last week, I know, and today and tomorrow will be reviewing the last of the books I read on holiday. I don’t like broadcasting the fact that we’re both away, so I kept that a bit quiet, I know. And rather amazingly, I have managed to go to our much-loved town of Penzance and only come home with two books (and I left four at the hotel, bringing back one I’d taken down but then saved for the journey back) so I’d call that a win. I also got through 1.33 of my NetGalley TBR but won one book while I was away, so that’s less well done, I suppose. Anyway … Oh, I’ve just realised this TBR pic was a slight lie, as I had already removed the books to read on my trip as I needed to post the pic while we were away. However, I’ve added four books to the end of the TBR and only moved two to the front so there’s a balance there somewhere.

Courttia Newland – “Society Within”

(Acquired via BookCrossing 22 July 2017)

This book was published in 2000 and although it didn’t seem too dated, apart from the use of pagers, things have probably moved on and become more difficult to negotiate in its setting since then. Set on a West London housing estate, this lively, provocative and engaging novel shows in almost a set of short stories the interlocking lives of teenagers and their parents on and sometimes off the estate, although life off the estate is limited to visiting other estates and going Up West for often nefarious purposes.

There is sex, rape and gun violence, the latter being shown carefully at a distance and with consequences, but it’s not gratuitous. Attention is paid to people who are trying to improve their lives, like author Michael, tempted to get involved in some shady business in order to finally make some money, and Nathan, who wants to set up a pirate radio station. Both are trying to operate on the right side of the bad stuff, but are constantly tempted.

The youth club has already been threatened with closure and the youth workers go one of two ways – this was quite an upsetting aspect of the book, but probably rooted in reality, unfortunately: it’s clear that people can use networks of connections for good or for bad. Some people’s fates aren’t clear and I think this is a sequel, so some of their motives are also a little cloudy, with some scenes being about retribution or apology for past deeds. It’s interesting that parents are often as fallible as the kids, but the grandparents seem to stand firm and moral, even if their moral codes are a bit different from those of outside the estate.

Men are objectified as much as women and women are as strong and sassy as men; Newland writes women’s friendships well. It’s a good read, reminiscent of Bali Rai or Benjamin Zephaniah, although not as diverse racially.


On to the confessions.

I visited all of the charity shops of Penzance and only found Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” (I seem to buy running books in Penzance). I visited the marvellous Edge of the World Bookshop and bought Gillian Tindall’s “The Tunnel Through Time” which is about the layers of communities and history the excavation of the new Queen Elizabeth Line in London brought to light. I like to buy a “nice book” in this bookshop every time I go down, and got “The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees” there last time. I did go to Newlyn Books on Chapel Street, but only to buy a book for a friend who was giving us lunch, and not one to keep.

When I got home, I discovered that dear Ali had picked up on a hint I’d made (OK, quite a heavy hint) about the Virago Angela Thirkell re-issues, and had sent me a lovely copy of “The Headmistress”. As I was expecting a parcel from the Virgin London Marathon containing a top that you get sent when you DON’T get in, and my only other post was the quite dense journal of the Norse Atlantic Society, while Matthew had lots of lovely birthday cards, this was most cheering indeed.

I was thinking of sharing some photos from the holiday with my last review, especially as that book is set partly in Cornwall. Would you like to see those?

Book review – Bill Drummond – “45” #amreading #books

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My friend Sian recently passed me two books. One, “Proust and the Squid”, about the neuroscience of reading, she had really enjoyed; this one, by one half of the band KLF, among others, she’d not really taken to. Well, I loved this latter book and didn’t get on with the Proust one, so there you go!

Bill Drummond – “45”

(21 May 2017) via Bookcrossing, from Sian)

A sort of patchy autobiography, possibly work of fiction and dabbling in psychogeography, looking at life from the age of 45, this is hilarious, irreverent and self-undermining, an excellent read, although I’m wondering if it’s best read in large chunks, as I’ve done, to catch all the references and re-references.

In effect, it’s a series of shortish pieces going all over the place physically and temporally and covering many of Drummond’s art and music works either directly or obliquely. At various points, he creates a set of fake bands and a record label to promote them; recalls going to Iceland aged 17 with his sister and hitching around the island while reading the sagas; walks and colours in pages of the A to Z to spell his name across the map; travels by bus in Finland; considers changing his name after an error in a music reference book; meets one of his heroes while realising the German translation of his own book is not as it should be; remembers a trip to Serbia and fails to draw a connection between the Balkans and Take That; and creates a theme tune for democracy demonstrations. As you do.

I loved his piece, “My modern life”, detailing a day in his writing life, including all the signs he sees on his way, and loved his description of partner in crime Jimmy’s project to paint some weird, horrific canvases: “Then he destroyed the lot by sanding the paint off the canvases, carefully sweeping up the dust and keeping it in a series of jam jars. One jam jar for each painting. Why? Best not to ask We  all deal with our moments of doubt in different ways”.

Funny, human, and surprisingly readable, however real or fictionalised the individual episodes were.


Have you had startlingly opposed views on a book to one of your readerly friends?

 

Book review – Indu Balachandran – “The Writers’ Retreat” #NetGalley #amreading #books

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Indu Balachandran The Writers' RetreatThis book has had an interesting story so far. It was written for the Indian market then re-edited for the world market, with a new editor. I thought it was really well done, with enough explanations of possibly unfamiliar concepts without patronising the reader who’s read a few Indian novels.

Its a charming, funny and modern novel which takes three Indian women who work in writing already but want to take it further – a movie star’s Tweet-ghost-writer who wants to write the next great romantic screenplay, an advertising copywriter who wants to move into travel writing and a popular children’s book author who wants to try her hand at erotica – and sends them to a writing retreat on a Greek island.

It is a romance, with prospective arranged marriage suitors lurking around every corner and a love marriage prized maybe a little more, but there’s the potential for not everyone to be tidily paired off at the end and the female characters certainly have their own minds, careers and agency

The book is also steeped in online culture, with a bit of mild Facebook ‘stalking’ going on and a gossipy side character being known as Vikki-leaks. A was delighted to see several mentions of Chetan Bhagat, whose novels are helping to fill my Kindle at the moment and even more excited to see Cauvery Madhavan mentioned in the acknowledgements, an author whose earlier novels I loved a decade or so ago.

So, will the writers fulfil their plans? After a chat with a mystery guest author, they all write postcards to themselves, which he will post to them in a year’s time. This gives an opportunity for a fun epilogue and the chance for all of the characters to prove their worth. This is a novel that fizzes with fun and is self-aware but not arch, with a decent message that is never preachy. A fun light read with a heart.

Thank you to Jacaranda Books for making this available via NetGalley and choosing me to read it in return for an honest review.

Book review – Liz Fenwick – “Under a Cornish Sky” #amreading #books

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I’m catching up a bit here, with an easier novel left over from when I went to Cornwall in July, after having some non-fic. I did try “The King of Lavender Square” but unfortunately it mentioned on the first page an accident involving some animals and I searched and yes, just put in there to advance the plot and I can’t have that, so a no thank you to that one. In fact, this one was a bit less gentle than I’d expected …

Liz Fenwick – “Under a Cornish Sky”

(10 June 2017, The Works)

A step more towards lit fic than chicklit, perhaps, occupying the space Mary Wesley used to control, this second read by this author situates itself on the Helford River and in Falmouth after a start in London.

Demi is betrayed by her boyfriend and escapes to her grandfather’s house in Cornwall. Having recently lost her mother and messed up a job situation, she’s not quite ready for the family secrets her grandfather is all too ready to share. Meanwhile, well-preserved Victoria works on her family home, reclaimed through her unloved husband’s money and a playground for her and her toyboy lovers when he’s away. Fate throws these two women together and there’s plenty of animosity and angst. Victoria is an unattractive character but is racked with the pain of being childless and the treatments she has gone through in the past, and she is then dealt a very – too? I think so – cruel hand by the author to teach her about inner vs outer beauty – I found this plot device a bit heavy-handed and unneccessary, requiring someone to be effectively mutilated before she can become lovable. Hm.

The secondary characters and location were nicely done and it’s readable and decently plotted, with everything hanging together well, but a bit cruel.

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