Book review – Ian Thorpe – “This is Me” #amreading

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I seem to be reading a bit slowly recently, not sure why really, and this appears to be my first book review of February. However, I am getting on nicely with my Iris Murdoch read for the month so that should be up next. Here’s one of the books I bought with a book token back in January last year, at a good price because it was slightly battered.

Ian Thorpe – “This is Me”

(14 January 2018)

A good autobiography (written with Australian sports writer Robert Wainwright, who is acknowledged on the title page) although it’s in a bit of a funny order: it’s a diary of his 2011-2012 attempt at a comeback after being out of swimming for four years, then looking back on his sporting life, although not all in chronological order. It’s all clear in the end and is probably fine if you’ve followed his career in detail.

He’s honest about his depression, towards the end and also about his terrible struggles with the media, which I hadn’t realised about, but I loved the bits about his love for Japan and his passion for his charity work with Native Australians – there are a few rants in there, good for  him. He also has an interesting view on training and racing, using racing as an excuse for doing what he loves best – training. I can identify with that in my running – although obviously he enjoyed and excelled at racing. It’s also interesting to think that you’re always in your lane in swimming, not the case with most running. I did get a bit lost in some of the technical details of his swimming training and strokes, but enjoyed the descriptions of his interactions with the water.

I got very excited at one point, when I was reading about Thorpe attending a swim camp in Tenerife at the same time as my friend Verity was attending her usual swim camp there – and yes, it was the same place!

What came through was an inquisitive mind searching for something outside swimming: I think he’s become a good commentator so hopefully he’ll continue with that (this book really finishes with the London 2012 Olympics). An interesting read.

Book review – Bella Mackie – “Jog On” #NetGalley #JogOn

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A running book with a difference, I was very glad to win this on NetGalley and can highly recommend it if you’re interested in the links between mental health and exercise or want to know more about getting a handle on anxiety.

An excellent book, part memoir and part how-to book, about how running helped the author’s quite severe mental health difficulties and can help others’. She usefully explains some of the issues one can face, and is pleasingly robust about post-natal depression not ‘just being a bit of baby blues’ and OCD not being about having tidy cupboards and I loved her honest and forthright style – she felt like someone you can trust, having been there herself but having the insight and self-knowledge to help others while telling it how it is.

Mackie’s breakdown and inspiration to start running were triggered by the end of her short-lived marriage, but she had deep-seated and life-limiting anxiety and depression from way before then. By starting running bit by embarrassed and difficult bit (she never, ever makes out it’s easy), she has chipped away at her fears, achieving what she refers to as small moments, for example getting on the Tube for the first time in years, or going through Camden Market. To be honest, I think this is more relatable than some of the big things people take on, and fits with the theme of the book being very personal and non-intimidating.

As part of this, I absolutely love how she isn’t a racer, not a marathoner, not a runner who ‘achieves’ some of the things other runners do (she does go to parkrun, though). I know the big racers and marathon runners (even one like me: I don’t like to think of myself as intimidating but I have a friend who was relieved when someone told them at a Run and Talk session that you can stick at 10ks or whatever, you don’t have to run marathons, and I try to remember to mention that now) can be intimidating and put new runners off, so I love this. She shares her struggles and is realistic, and also shares other people’s stories so the range of different kinds of runner is there, but it always comes back to the simple, pure running.

I love her description of a “good runner”:

By [good runner] I just mean a person who enjoys running and wants to keep enjoying it.

Mackie’s portrayal of how anxiety feels is top-notch but she doesn’t allow herself or her readers to beat themselves up over how they feel, act, or have felt or acted in the past. She’s very reassuring. She’s also very honest about how running isn’t a cure-all or an instant cure, and is strong on how we shouldn’t be afraid of using medication and therapy and also talking about that. She’s honest about how running can be another crutch and become obsessive, and bravely shares her own experience, shocked out of her for a lucky escape. She’s all about limiting how much you use it to keep it enjoyable and helpful.

From an acknowledgement that running can seem to mimic the symptoms of an anxiety attack (which is so helpful, I think, and also helpful for people to know who work with anxious runners) to an acknowledgement that everybody hates the first 10 minutes of a run, this is a book we can all relate to in some way. With a great resource list at the back, I have no reservations in recommending it highly.

Although I finished this book in January, it’s an ideal one to share in Time to Talk week which is all about exercise and mental wellness.

Thank you to William Collins for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Black Prince” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I’m so sorry this is so late – life and work have got in the way, I only finished this yesterday morning and here I am, trying to get the review in by the end of the month. I am enjoying the project and I massively welcome and appreciate everyone’s input: sorry if you’ve been waiting, poised with your amazing comments and reviews!

I’m going to start the next one on Friday, and that’s a promise!

Iris Murdoch – “The Black Prince”

(October 2018)

This is really one of those books that changes as you re-read it, I think – and I’ll be interested to hear other people’s experiences if they’re doing a re-read. I must have read it first in 1995, as that’s when my oldest copy is dated, although maybe I’d read my friend Mary’s copy before then. I remember then, at age 23, identifying with Julian and thinking she was great, and feeling it was all a bit Lolita-y. Now of course I’m nearer Bradley’s age than Julian’s and I see that actually it’s a book about menopausal women and the horrors of marriage!

I can see this in the context of a phase of IM’s experimenting with form. This story of eccentric loner retired tax man failed author Bradley and his violent falling in love with his rival, Arnold Baffin’s, daughter, alongside a backdrop of his sister’s arrival fresh from her failed marriage and his ex-wife’s return to London as a widow, with her weird brother. Although the scene moves from London to the coast, it’s quite one of her “closed” novels in that there’s a small group of characters and not much of the outside world – apart from Bradley’s colleague, who himself is pulled into the fold rather amusingly by the end. Where “An Accidental Man” worked through party chatter and chapters of letters, this narrative is nested within layers of editorial and commentary, something IM didn’t return to in the other novels as far as I can think. I will find it interesting to read “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” in light of these experiments.

I had forgotten about what is pretty much a rape scene, when Bradley falls upon Julian having seen her dressed as a schoolgirl Hamlet. I really don’t understand how I’ve missed this stuff in two books now: I’ve always been a feminist, a domestic violence campaigner, alive to the assaults women experience day in, day out. It’s not like I was awakened by #MeToo and can suddenly see this stuff. I’m not saying IM condones it (although she talks here and there about people wanting to be forced, etc.) but it’s pretty horrible. I’m also not saying Bradley is a nice or attractive character, so he’s even more rapey than almost-forgiveably horrified by himself Garth in the last novel.

This novel is unusual in my mind in not really having a saint or an enchanter. Bradley is obsessed with Arnold and in love with Julian in some way, and induces a slavish secretarial following in Francis Marloe, but not really in an enchanter way. He’s also “a failed person” but “a trouble maker” (p. 43) – although he’s messy and weepy and contingent, being seen as an active stirrer makes him unsaintly, plus he’s into psychoanalysis, not something that’s often a positive in the novels. Bradley achieves some kind of unselfing when he becomes a void on loving Julian (p. 232) but this is soon lost in control and ego. Maybe Shakespeare is Bradley’s enchanter. Various men are described as demonic, but in a sort of more general way, somehow.

It’s really a musing on art, isn’t it – or a musing on musings on art, maybe, which follows the metafictional form of the novel. I had to both smile at this and wonder if it’s IM’s description of her own work in Arnold’s:

“he lives in a sort of rosy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea. (p. 137)

I also liked the aside about critics, which would have been a nice epigraph for my book on IM and the Common Reader:

‘So the critics are just stupid?’

‘It needs no theory to ell us this! One should simply try to like as much as one can.’ (p. 240)

We do have our usual themes. The Civil Service is there, with Bradley’s ex-job as a tax inspector. Thinking of siblings, we only have Bradley and Priscilla and Christian and Francis. There’s plenty of hair: Rachel’s is gingery and wiry, while Julian has a weird crest which turns into those familiar flat metallic locks we’ve had before. There’s a heck of a lot of water – lots and lots of women’s ugly crying for a start, and then the sea in the Patara sequence, bringing calm but emphasising Julian and Bradley’s differences, she cavorting in the waves, he unable to swim. And a mist comes over the sea and over them as they try to live in their little bubble of love for a few days. Christian has a face like “a grotesque ancient mask” (p. 93), another small theme we notice again and again. Bradley stares in the windows of the Baffin house and happily we are back chasing a pale thing through the night, except this time it’s a balloon!

Doubling: we have two locations, two ended marriages bring people into Bradley’s life, and scenes at the Baffin household of mayhem and violence at both ends of the novel, even before P. Loxias’ intro and outro. Rachel and Priscilla both cry, half-dressed, in bed. Roger and Bradley both have relationships with very much younger women, Roger being successful with his. There are stones on the beach which are brought back to the bungalow and arranged. The buffalo woman is a strange symbol, usually accompanying someone of great wisdom, but broken until Francis mends it …

There is humour – Bradley failing to catch his train over and over again, his identification with the Post Office Tower and his horror at using the simile of a red-hot needle through the liver which he has picked up from Priscilla. Much of the novel is too horrific, though, for a smile to be raised.

Links with the other novels do abound. I’ve always felt this had a lot in common with “The Sea, The Sea” in terms of the unreliable and egocentric narrator, but this time round he also reminded me of Hilary in “A Word Child”, possibly because of the brother-sister relationship and back story. As in “An Accidental Man”, at least Rachel and also to an extent Priscilla are shown to have been diminished by their marriages in what could be brought round to a feminist tone. There’s also a lot about “women of a certain age” becoming hysterical and basically menopausal, which is not something I associated IM for writing about until I remembered all those faded and drying women, from “A Severed Head” through “The Nice and the Good” and onwards. Bradley not wanting to be “a nebulous bit of ectoplasm swaying around in other people’s lives” (p. 49) reminds us of is it Willy Kost who uses the same metaphor? Broken china features, as in “An Accidental Man” and a set of books are torn up, as Rupert’s book is in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”. Rachel, suddenly naked to the waist, recalls Annette in “Flight from the Enchanter” and “The Italian Girl”. Julian climbs over a suburban fence (and her mother fails to), recalling so many fence climbers, from “Bruno’s Dream” maybe particularly. At the end Julian goes off to Italy in a car with her father – “The Flight from the Enchanter” springs to mind there, and another one? The theme of an ordeal which Bradley mentions he has in relation to Julian is going to come up in “The Green Night” and “A Good Apprentice”.

One last point: I was thrilled to notice a quotation from Njal’s Saga, one of my favourite Icelandic sagas:

There was even a sort of perfection about it. She had taken such a perfect revenge upon the two men in her life. Some women never forgive. ‘I would not give him my hair for a bowstring at the end. I would not raise a finger to save him dying’ (p. 382)

Those last two sentences are said by Gunnar’s wife as she fails to help him survive an attack on their homestead. How lovely to find that cropping up in an IM novel!

So a magnificent work that’s uncomfortable to read. Do we ALL know someone who threw it across a room and refused to finish it?


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

Book review – Chrissie Wellington – “A Life Without Limits” plus some unseasonal confessions

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Having committed to a slightly unusual way of reading my TBR, I picked off the NEWEST book that had come in at the time to read next.* This was one given to me at the county cross-country championships by my friend Kate from the running club, after I’d asked to read the copy she was offering to people.

I also had a walk up the high street in the week which ended up with me somehow buying three Christmas books. But they’re set somewhere lovely, so that’s fine, right? Read on to find out about those …

Chrissie Wellington – “A Life Without Limits”

(05 January 2019, from Kate)

Several people have touted this as the best running/sport book they’ve read (it’s actually a triathlon book, and she came to the sport from the swimming side, but there’s plenty about running in it). Unfortunately, I can’t quite agree – I really didn’t find her relatable, although there’s a huge amount about her to admire of course, and I had difficulty reading about some of the issues she faced.

It’s clear that Wellington has always been incredibly driven, and this is why she managed to excel in a sport she only took up relatively late.  She’s stubborn and she admits she rushes into things, leading her to injure herself often and not get on well with her teammates in her first professional set-up. More importantly for me, in the early part of the book she details falling into two different eating disorders, with rather too much information about how this happened: I find it difficult to read about such things and although she does explain how she climbed out of them and acknowledges the help she had, it does feel rather that she swapped one compulsion for another, having previously enjoyed sport for the social side and then become driven to the point of, for example, swimming with a broken wrist inadequately waterproofed and getting an infection.

The book does open well with a description of her first Ironman World Championships with some visceral writing. A good word there: runners are usually very open about their toileting issues, etc., among themselves, and I’ve certainly read some other very “open” accounts, but she takes the discussion of GI issues and antics to a whole new level, which shocked even me (and I’ve been to the (staff) toilet in a tile shop during a DIY marathon, so very little shocks me!). This sentence, although a bit different from her other experiences, sums up the book for me:

The big day dawned, and I was encouraged by an unusual steadiness in my bowels. (p. 253)

Okaaaaay! I liked her race reports and enjoyment of racing with amateurs (she even has a chapter dealing with various charity fundraising, adversity overcoming and brave amateurs she admires). She mentions her mum taking an exam in swimming timekeeping and judging, which is the first mention of this kind of thing I’ve seen in a book (though she fires a gun to start a race in the book so must have done some exams herself!).

An unusual and late-developing talent is still torn down then built up again by a first coach who is very harsh indeed, and while this was interesting to read about, it was so alien to my experience or anything I’d want to experience that it was very hard to read (I know people have different ways and we can’t all be the same, but it was just alienating to read it).

So a decent and interesting book but not the best book on sport I’ve ever read. I was glad to have the chance to read it, though!


Those naughty books – so we have “Confetti at the Cornish Cafe” by Phillipa Ashley, about a cafe holding a wedding (no, you don’t say); “Christmas at the Little Wedding Shop” by Jane Linfoot, and “Christmas on the Little Cornish Isles” by Phillipa Ashley again – this one set on the Isles of Scilly! I rather suspect these are all some way through series, as they were all out on The Works’ Christmas themed shelves (and now reduced to £1 each) so I might be forced to look for the others or might save them for my next trip to Cornwall or Christmas and read them all then. Anyone familiar with the series?

And how do you read YOUR books?

Next up, Iris Murdoch’s “The Black Prince”. I’m a bit late starting it already …

* Because Grab the Lapels does something similar but not exactly the same, she has asked me to share her link about her way of doing it, which I share gladly here.

Book review – D.E. Stevenson – “Mrs Tim Carries On” @DeanStPress #amreading

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As regular readers know by now, I’ve been very fortunate to have been sent some lovely books published by Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint: I’ve already reviewed “Spring Magic” and “Alice” and here’s the third one, and what a treat it was. This is the follow-up to “Mrs Tim of the Regiment” which was republished by Bloomsbury and which I read last year (just after I’d had an operation: no wonder I didn’t remember much about it when I was reading Heaven-Ali’s review of the same book!). This was published in e-book and print form on Monday and I feel bad for not getting my review out more promptly, but the lovely people at Dean Street Press are very forgiving so I hope they don’t mind.

D. E. Stevenson – “Mrs Tim Carries On”

(12 November 2018)

The lovely first sequel to “Mrs Tim of the Regiment”, detailing the life and surroundings of a British Army wife from the 1930s onwards, this one is both written and set during the Second World War, a circumstance I always find very moving and poignant.

Although the upbeat and funny “Provincial Lady” tone prevails, Mrs Tim is careful to explain to her friend Grace exactly how it is she carries on and doesn’t become unnerved or hysterical, in a passage which describes so accurately SO MANY books and diaries from the period:

None of us could bear the war if we allowed ourselves to brood upon the wickedness of it and the misery it has entailed, so the only thing to do is not to allow oneself to think about it seriously, but just to skitter about on the surface of life like a water beetle. In this way one can carry on and do one’s bit and remain moderately cheerful.

Faced with crises on the home front, including an exciting interlude while out in the countryside and a lack of gloves to send the men at the front, but also a more serious concern about Tim himself, she passes the test with flying colours, smoothing over skittish servants and dealing with her two precocious and amusing children,  plus her statuesque house guest, Pinkie (I do love the portrayal of female friendships in the book) and her complex affairs, friends far and near and characters from the first novel and even an influx of Polish airmen with whom she has to communicate in her schoolgirl French.

A trip to London to see her brother before he goes to war and then on to Essex to visit Tim’s uncle and aunt (brother and sister) contrasts with the fairly quiet time they have been having at the army base in Scotland, with the London blackout and a bomb crater being converted into a rockery respectively. Uncle Joe’s speech about his reaction to the threat of invasion is very moving and the book captures very well the spirit of carrying on and not complaining, but with many funny scenes and set pieces.

Although this book itself seems to come to an interesting and settled idea for a conclusion to their vagabond lifestyle, there are two more books to come in the series, and I’ve already put a paper copy of this one and the two sequels on my birthday list!

Thank you to Dean Street Press for sending me an e-copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Vinegar Girl” #amreading

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I pulled this off the TBR a little out of order because it was the first smaller book on the shelf which would bear rattling around in my rucksack for a day out officiating at cross-country: I knew I’d have a bit of reading time while my friend Dave zipped round parkrun on the way. My lovely friend Laura bought this for me when we met up last year as a birthday present – how lovely to march round the charity shops of Stafford demanding books!

I have a new plan for reading my TBR which might happen and might not: the oldest, the newest and one from the Kindle, in rotation (apart from my Murdoch a month and any review books that are in). Might work, and will let me get to my latest acquisition sooner (see more on that below).

Anne Tyler – “Vinegar Girl”

(15 February 2018 – from Laura)

Not a standard Anne Tyler (and I thought it would be her last when I got it, as she’d announced that she would stop writing: I will be getting the paperback of her new one as soon as it comes out …) as it’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. Now, while I remember the main characters and their characteristics, and the vague outline of the story, I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow comparison. I love Tyler and I found myself just reading it for that aspect, as a novel by a favourite author. The retelling is in there, though, and cleverly done, although her characters are always quirky and you can’t think that just any woman would behave as Kate does.

So it worked as a novel on its own and was entertaining and a good read. Kate was believably mardy, as she is supposed to be, but her home set-up with her dad and his systems and her very different sister was completely Tylerian. The family and their relationships, including with aunts and uncles, are as beautifully done as you would expect, and the overseas characters are drawn carefully and their accents got across through their grammar, which we’re however reminded is not the only thing about them, but is used to show Kate’s thinking and noticing (I’ve just been reading a blog post from Louise Harnby about how to express accents in fiction (here) which is why this struck me, I think). A good read.


I did mention this on my running round-up post on Sunday, but for anyone who skips those, a new acquisition. I have to mention that only I could be officiating at a county cross-country match and STILL manage to acquire a book – my friend Kate from running club had offered to pass it to me but we’d not coincided until now, so she managed to get it to me in a gap between a race starting and me timing it through at the finish, after her own race. Good work! “A Life Without Limits” is meant to be one of the best sporting autobiographies ever and I can’t wait to dive into it: I know I really enjoyed her book on how to do triathlons even though I have absolutely zero interest in doing a triathlon!

 

Book review – Tirzah Garwood – “Long Live Great Bardfield” @PersephoneBooks #amreading #Persephone

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The last of my lovely Christmas 2017 books and a fabulous Persephone given to me by Ali (we have a great tradition of exchanging Persephone books and I love going to the shop in the late autumn to do the book-buy). Although I know Eric Ravilious’ work I wasn’t that familiar with all the other artists mentioned, or indeed, with Tirzah’s work, but that doesn’t matter as what does matter is the lovely engaging tone that makes the pages fly by.

Tirzah Garwood – “Long Live Great Bardfield”

The autobiography of the wood engraver and painter Tirzah Garwood, wife of Eric Ravilious, who lived in a succession of challenging houses around Essex for the most productive and family orientated parts of their lives, both sadly dying young. It’s told in a rather flat, naive and artless style with many non-sequitors which reminds me a bit of Dodie Smith, Barbara Comyns and new favourite Elizabeth Eliot, it’s a charming and absorbing read, even though it’s quite a long book. Lovely examples include the way in which she uses her netball skills in later life – “I can nearly always get things in [the bin] from right across the kitchen” (p. 67), but the most wonderful sentence, wholly encapsulating her attitude to life, animals and people, and which wouldn’t be out of place in a Comyns novel, comes in the middle of the book:

I had bought the tortoises from Woolworth’s to save them from death in the same spirit that we [later] offered our home to German refugees. (p. 315; brackets, editor’s)

Tirzah maintains this matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, from descriptions of early family rows and odd neighbours through domestic disasters to upsetting love affairs conducted by both her and Eric, but it’s curiously sweet and intimate. Her openness leads her to discuss her lovers and the complicated affairs of the  group of friends but also her struggles with her periods, something not often discussed so openly. She’s relatively breezy and lighthearted on most subjects and is aware of this and not being “put out by misfortunes as much as most people” (p. 280): she puts this down to her ability to be absorbed in her art. She states late on that she wants to write her autobiography while she’s happy because that’s the kind of book she prefers to read.

A lot of artists and other characters come in and out of the narrative and are seen by Tirzah’s beady eye: she’s great at seeing the continuity in someone’s behaviour through the years and I loved her portrait of Edith Sitwell in particular.

She wrote the main body of the book in hospital in 1942, recovering from a mastectomy; the rest of her story and a missing part caused by lost notebooks is deftly told by her editor (her daughter), who interweaves letters and notes from other characters in the story, including letters from Eric, to complete the picture. Lovely illustrations by Eric and Tirzah complement the text in this Persephone edition.

A lovely book which would merit a re-read, and a great addition to my Persephone shelf. You can read Ali’s own review here.

 

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