Book review – Adharanand Finn – “The Way of the Runner” #amreading #books #running

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I’m hopefully caught up with the other book blogs I read by the time this comes out – I’d got really behind through a combination of working, running and reading, and felt bad. I hope my readers have stuck with me during this blog-reading rut!

Anyway, I read Finn’s book about running with the Kenyans recently and was a little unimpressed with his attitude to club runners / amateur runners / slow runners. But one commenter who has read both reassured me that he loses that attitude in this one, and I’d arranged a swap with a friend so we could both read both, so I decided to just go for it.

Adharanand Finn – “The Way of the Runner”

(borrowed from Jenny)

A little after his Kenyan adventure, Finn, about to hit 40, looks at how statistically good the Japanese are at marathons and moves there for six months to study their training and competitions. As you do. In particular he looks at – and tries to get into the world of – the immensely popular sport of ekiden, a long-distance relay competition that puts a high value on teamwork as well as individual performance and thus in some ways sums up how Japanese society works.

Finn handily runs into some Kenyans who have been recruited into company ekiden teams – because that’s how it works: people are paid a salary by the big companies to run for them, sometimes not even having to do any other work for the company. Like in Kenya, more than a couple of people at a time can actually make a living from running, and this is contrasted with the situation in the UK, which is fair enough. Meeting the Kenyan runners allows Finn to contrast the training methods used in the two countries – in Kenya based on the individual and their own motivation and involving running on trails and resting a lot more; in Japan based on teams being berated by a coach and running high volumes on hard surfaces (although this is beginning to change). There’s a concentration on high school and university competitions which Finn feels works towards a high burnout rate among young athletes, and he wonders how well Japanese runners could do with more trails and rest. He manages to talk to an independent runner (a rare thing) who backs some of this up.

Another aspect looked at is the fabled 1000-marathon monks. Do they really run 1000 marathons in 1000 days? (erm, you can probably guess the answer) It’s an interesting contrast with the ekiden runners.

Although Finn manages to join an older people’s running club (and meets another where many of the runners are over 70 – good for them!), his main effort is put into trying to break into bits of a notoriously closed society – and usually failing. This does lead to some interesting philosophical musings about training if there’s no race to do.

And, as promised, while it dwells on the decline in British fast long-distance running over the past few decades, it is not nearly as disparaging about club and amateur runners, and more self-critical about his need for records and times. So, a good read.

Book review – Kory Stamper – “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” #amreading #books @KoryStamper

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Kory Stamper Word by WordI would think that I’m pretty well the ideal reader for this book. First off, I’m an editor who loves words. Second, I studied English language including word formation, descriptive vs. prescriptive language definition, etc. and scored my highest marks in that part of my degree. Third, I’ve actually worked on a dictionary!! (I worked editing example entries down to a single line-length for a dictionary of collocations which was sadly never published). So this book going behind the scenes at Merriam-Webster was a no-brainer both in terms of ordering it as soon as I knew about it, and reading it as soon as it arrived in the house. Fortunately, it lived up to the hype I created for it!

Kory Stamper – “Word by Word”

(7 April 2017)

A wonderful insight into exactly how a dictionary is produced, by someone who works in that world, with chapters concentrating on particular words or types of words (small words, it’s, bitch …) using that as a way to discuss particular areas of dictionary work – from ideas of correctness and grammar through dealing with bad language, editing examples, corpora and reflecting new societal usages to recording pronunciations.

The pronunciation side of things was something I’d never come across (although I did once have a job recording myself saying lots and lots of British first names for a website), and was absolutely fascinating. Did you know that the phonetic alphabet used to describe pronunciations is accent-neutral, so will help you to pronounce a word in your own accent, however, for example, you pronounce the “a” in bath?

I also enjoyed the chapter on “Bitch” looking at how “bad language “or obscene words are treated in a dictionary – essentially just like any other, recorded, with their usage. On this area, there is a fair amount of swearing in this book – I found it read as fresh and modern and enjoyed being exhorted to “read the goddamned front matter” of the dictionary but I know some people (any of my readers – I’m just interested?) have a problem with “bad” language in books. I think it’s used wisely and makes for an amusing read. Oh, and by the way – I do read the front matter in dictionaries – anyone else?

I of course highly enjoyed the chapters on corpora (collections of language used in the real world from a variety of sources and searchable electronically) and choosing examples – and how it matters much less in this era of e-books if you use a too-long example and “turn” a line (go over the printed line length) which could then turn a column, page or section.

I also loved, for example, finding out that the word “portmanteau” is itself a portmanteau word (delicious!), the defence of a dictionary needing to be descriptive, not prescriptive, even to the extent of including non-standard usages, and the stated use of singular “they” early on.

All great stuff and one of the most perfect matches between book and reader I’ve had for a long time.

Book reviews – Lorna Landvik “Patty Jane’s House of Curl” and “Once in a Blue Moon Lodge” plus a book confession #books #amreading

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Lorna Landvik Once in a Blue Moon Lodge

Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with this novel back in October – there was an embargo on reviews until nearer the publication date, but I think it’s actually out now so all is good. Somehow I’d managed not to realise (even though the description does say this is the case) that this is the sequel to Landvik’s “Patty Jane’s House of Curl”. I knew I had that book, but when I went to get it from the shelf, I realised that I’d had it for 20 years and could hardly remember a thing about it, so then I had to read that one first so I could get the most out of “Once in a Blue Moon Lodge”. I’m glad I did, and I’m going to review them together – divided by a small book confession (a loan isn’t as bad as a full-blown purchase, right?) so if you don’t want to know what happens in “House of Curl”, stop reading when you’ve seen the book on running and come back to this review when you’ve read “Blue Moon Lodge”.

Lorna Landvik – “Patty Jane’s House of Curl”

(9 March 1997)

A much-loved Minnesotan novel of which I had fond memories and which has survived 20 years of regular book culls. The story of Patty Jane and what happens when her husband goes missing suddenly, it’s a tale of female solidarity and friendship which reminds you of “Steel Magnolias” or Fannie Flagg’s novels, with the Minnesotan setting bringing up memories of Garrison Keillor, too. Patty Jane, her daughter Nora, her sister Harriet and her mother-in-law Ione make up the nucleus of the family, and there’s a cast of characters around the salon and then the salon-within-a-salon who support, annoy and cheerlead for them in equal measure. A few curve balls are thrown in as the salon with a difference develops a sexy male manicurist and classes in music, Hollywood and dodgy films, amongst other things. Men tend to be artists, women to be practical and solid, and it’s a great read with laughs and tears and good characters.

Interlude … a book confession

Carry on after the book confession for “Once in a Blue Moon Lodge” …

Even though I wasn’t massively keen on his “Running with the Kenyans”, I did get quite a lot out of it and have done a book swap with my friend Jenny. I’m especially OK with it because my friend Andy commented that Finn is a bit more mature here, so hopefully there’s less disparaging of the club / “fun” runner.

Lorna Landvik – “Once in a Blue Moon Lodge”

(20 October 2016)

This sequel can’t have been planned when “House of Curl” was originally written, because the epilogue of that book happens 25 years after a certain pivotal episode in the novel, and the earliest parts of this one happen before that but take a different path. Anyway, that doesn’t really matter because I’m sure people will be really happy to find out what happened next to these well-loved characters.

It is lovely to revisit Patty Jane’s daughter Nora, now finished with law school, back home and wondering what to do with her life when Patty Jane decides to close the House of Curl. Grandmother Ione is also having a change: when she receives a life-altering letter, she decides to go back to Norway to confront issues from deep in her past. Nora accompanies her, and I got a bit lost here, as they end up being separated so that Nora can meet a lovely chap and fall for him.

There’s a lot of jumping around in timelines and sometimes an e-book is not the best format for this kind of book, as breaks within chapters can get a bit lost. It was easy to pick up the story again, and we find Nora with some hard decisions on her hands, one of which is an offer to buy a lodge by the lake she has previously visited by accident, somehow endearing herself to the crabby owner.

There’s plenty of story in the book, perhaps too much: it jumps about and forwards a lot, and seems to start just listing events rather than dwelling on their emotional importance and impact, and filling us in, introducing a new social issue (war, women’s issues, eating disorders) or giving a character an illness then jumping ahead to the next milestone. Maybe someone who reads more slowly than me would find this more satisfying, but I will admit to being a little disappointed.

I’m sure the few typos I found will be ironed out by publication, but I hope someone picks up that the mention of Reese’s second wife should be of his third, as this had me leafing back through the first novel to check.

Thank you again to NetGalley for providing me with this pre-publication copy.


Are sequels ever as good as the original? Discuss!

Book review – G.S. Fraser – The Modern Writer and his World #books #amreading

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To be read April 2017One of the last reads I’ve got left from my Astley Book Farm haul, I picked this up because I spotted Iris Murdoch’s name on the cover (along with Virginia Woolf: the modern writer and HIS world, eh?). I do love old Pelican books, too, and have struggled my whole adult life not to collect them (the same with Observer’s Books – though when I discovered there was an Observer’s Book of Observer’s Books, that all got a bit weird for me). Anyway, quite an intense read, but all done now!

G.S. Fraser – “The Modern Writer and his World”

(3 September 2016, Astley Book Farm)

Originally written in the 1950s and updated significantly in the early 1960s, it’s a brisk survey of English Literature from around 1890 to the then present day, designed as a basic introduction for college and university students, but with a feistiness and lively opinions that makes it less of a dry academic text than it could be. Having said that, I got a bit bogged down and then skippy in the last sections on poetry and criticism. I wonder if a survey by era rather than by genre would have made for a more interesting read?

It was interesting to read opinions that were closer in time to the books than we naturally are today. For example, Anthony Powell’s classic “Dance to the Music of Time” series was only on book 6 (of 12) and Fraser both wonders what will become of it and opines that books of the upper layers of society like Powell’s and Waugh’s will be ignored in future in favour of works chronicling the rise of lower-class people to power, etc. I’m not sure that’s happened, as Powell and Waugh are still popular in their way.

He does talk about women writers, and has quite a big section on Murdoch with a handy chunk on “The Bell” (with none of the concerns that the modern readers in my research study raised). He does sort of dismiss Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym et al, as chroniclers of the domestic, but does point out that they convey the texture of daily living better than their male contemporaries do. He thinks the middlebrow and highbrow are merging in fiction, although sees the comfy suburban middlebrow dying out entirely in the theatre, with drawing-room comedies being phased out in favour of the kitchen sink drama. He pooh-poohs the notion of Iris Murdoch being part of the “angry young men” (where she’s traditionally said to have been placed by contemporary critics) and claims that she has the most striking individuality amongst her contemporaries.

He’s endearingly scathing about new modern drama, mocking critics who instinctively praise anything that criticises something that isn’t usually praised, or is set in a kitchen, indeed. This kind of comment raises it above the dry and while it does offer a fairly traditional close reading of poems and plays and is quite dense, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be bad by getting in close to particularly contemporary literary movements.


What are you reading this Easter? I’m diving into the rather wonderful “Word by Word” by Kory Stamper (pictured here) and unfortunately being a little confused by Lorna Landvik’s “Once in a Blue Moon Lodge”, where I seem to have missed a bit of the story. Watch out for a double review of that and “Patty Jane’s House of Curl” soon, though!

Book review – Adharanand Finn – “Running with the Kenyans”

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Look at this lovely set of almost completely random books I bought in Cornwall last October. A running book, a music bio, a school story and a Bloomsbury reprint. Anyway, today we have a running book that quite a lot of people I know have read and seemed keen on. I do like reading about other runners but I’m more used to them being a bit more understanding and supportive of other runners, something I loved about Jo Pavey‘s book, for example, where she shared how she loves taking part in mass participation races with all the club runners and other people who don’t run for a living, but for the love of it. This chap almost sees the point in a couple of places – maybe we are running for the joy of it, but is a bit more mean-spirited than I really like in my running books. Anyway, on with the review …

Adharanand Finn – “Running with the Kenyans”

(03 October 2016)

An interesting book in which the author ups sticks and moves himself and his wife and three children to Kenya in a last-ditch attempt to become a “proper” runner. His aim is to complete his first marathon in a few months’ time (a scary marathon where they have to clear lions off the course).

Training is very different there, with simple sessions involving effort but not as much constant recording of data on watches as you might think, but Finn is disappointed to see no evidence of the barefoot running he’s heard about and which the Kenyans are famous for (it turns out they build up stamina and toughness running to and from school etc. but are then put into trainers and taught how to negotiate races – I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler and I won’t reveal the secret of their success, which Finn is obviously also looking for).

Running in Kenya is a way of life, you do it because you’re good at it and you have a chance of doing well for yourself. The only recreational runners are more well-off people who run in the city. And this is where the author loses me a bit, because even though he experiences what it’s like to run at the back of the pack over there, I didn’t feel he needed to be quite so disparaging and plain nasty about people who don’t run professionally in first world countries. I do understand that he’s contrasting the all-or-nothing world of living eating carbs and running training, hoping to be spotted and to win prize money with the life of a person who runs as a hobby, but he’s really pretty sneery about club runners (let alone non-club ones), grey-haired men with bandy legs doing the cross-country for the fun of it and – shock, horror – those people who can “only” run 10-minute miles. He also claims there are only a few dedicated club runners who turn out for races in all sorts of weather conditions, etc. Although, as I said, I do understand the contrast he’s highlighting, as someone who puts quite a lot of effort and energy into encouraging people along their beginner runner journey to the proven physical and mental health benefits of regular exercise, and someone who has gained those herself and is proud of her 6 hour 1 minute marathon, I think he could have been a little kinder.

I did enjoy the stories of the Kenyan runners and getting behind the scenes info on some of the people we’ve seen excelling in marathons etc. on our screens, and the description of the marathon as well as the way his children integrate into the village is very nicely done. I will be reading the next book, set in Japan. but with slight reservations.


Has a book annoyed you recently?

Book review – Robert Penn – “The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees” #amreading #books @Edgybooks

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To be read April 2017I had felt bad because I’d bought loads of books from second-hand bookshops and charity shops in Penzance and none in the lovely independent bookshop, so I popped in to the Edge of the World Bookshop  for a second time to see what appealed, and this one jumped out at me, even though I’ve fought shy of the great slew of nature books that have appeared over the past five years or so.

Robert Penn – “The Man Who Made Things Out of Wood”

(03 October 2016, Edge of the World Bookshop, Penzance)

The title is a bit misleading, as Penn doesn’t make things out of trees himself; he causes things to be made by other people – sometimes, admittedly, having a go himself – from one particular tree that he has selected and had felled.

He decides to cut down an ash tree, as the most useful tree in the forest and the UK’s third most common tree, and to find as many uses from it as he can, using traditional craftspeople (most of them men, it has to be said) to achieve this, making both traditional (bowls, arrows) and more modern (bicyles, baseball bats) for him and his family to use. He also leaves a certain amount of wood where it falls in the forest – as well as donating sawdust for various uses – giving the slight lie to the impression given on the cover that he kind of lined up a load of spoon and axe-handle shapes and carved them all out of one trunk. But really, that was my own invention, I fear!

I was a bit bothered about him cutting down a perfectly good tree, especially as diseases and pests are attacking ash trees in the US and UK, but he is, too, and makes that clear, and while he “honours” the tree in its felling, etc., he does also say that he plants replacements, goes back to the stump and finds new growth there and does highlight in a very positive way the wonderful work of the craftspeople maintaining their traditions.

There’s lots of information in this book, presented in a pretty natural way, as it comes up, and I’m pleased to now know how knots are formed, for example. Being a modern nature book, thre’s the obligatory mention of the author’s personal life, apart from the nice details of his family’s reaction to his project, although the part on nature’s aid in depression is not over-done.

I liked this book and particularly the list of items that had been made from the tree in the back. Well-written and a pleasant read, though I’d have liked more pictures of the items that were made, perhaps.


Do you read these nature books that are all the rage? What’s the best one you’ve read?

Book review – Elizabeth Fair – “A Winter Away” @DeanStPress #amreading

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TBR shelf March 2017Another lovely novel from Elizabeth Fair, kindly supplied to me by Dean Street Press‘s in their excellent Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. I read “Seaview House” last month, too (I finished “A Winter Away” on Friday) and I’d be hard-pressed to say which I enjoyed most. If you like a family-based story with an interesting heroine and quirky, eccentric characters, a bit like Margery Sharp, you will enjoy these books.

Elizabeth Fair – “A Winter Away”

(21 February 2017 ebook)

Another super novel. Maud, who used to be delicate (but firmly is not now), comes to live with her elderly cousin Alice (firmly not an aunt) and her rather terrifying companion, Con, along with their spoiled and unpleasant dog (nothing happens to any of the animals in the book) to work as secretary to Old M, an irascible chap who lives a somewhat miserly existence in the Big House in the village. He’s got a dull son and an exciting and possibly renegade nephew, and there’s a hint of a family falling-out, all of which get Maud’s nerve-endings twitching and looking for excitement, although she’s too sensible and moral to get mixed up in too much excitement.

Add in a retired vicar, his downtrodden daughter and the curate she yearns for and a nouveau riche and rather glamorous family with a whiff of divorce about them who like to throw very carefully arranged parties, and you’ve got a set of lovely eccentric people to have fun with.

Maud is a great heroine, her development as a real secretary after going to secretarial college is hilarious as she grapples with too-fast dictation and an incomprehensible accounting system (this reminded me of some Victoria Clayton heroines, too, or a touch of the Dodie Smiths). She’s able to grow and perceive where she’s misjudged people, and while she genuinely wants to help people along their way, tries hard not to meddle. And she’s got a bit of a temper, which gets her into some trouble.

Alice and Con’s relationship is cleverly drawn and although they’re gently satirised for their modern methods of preserving vitamins and inedible biscuits, it’s gentle and kind. The plot does rely a tiny bit on Alice slowly warming to Maud while rebelling against Con’s strictures, and telling her things she really shouldn’t do, but as the whole plot revolves around secrets and unveilings, it’s not implausible as such plots go and you can forgive this for the delicious tete-a-tetes they indulge in. There’s also plenty of tartness, for example when Con, trying to oust Maud, tells her she’s made mistakes and left taps running before “she” actually “has”.

Very satisfying and another lovely read.


Heaven-Ali has also read and reviewed this book and you can read her review here.

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