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July 22: Calendar Reading

This month’s calendar reading is The Boy From Lam Kien by Miranda July.

I had heard great things about this author, and the synopsis of the story sounded interesting, so I set out on a quest…

The story is available as a paperback

Yes. I’m not paying that sort of price for a short story. On googling, I discovered that there had been a BBC radio series read by the author:

Of course, it was unavailable.

So I bought a kindle version of the collection of short stories it was in, for a LOT less than I would have had to spend on a standalone paperback.

I started reading at the beginning, and stopped when I finished the story I’d bought the book for, about halfway in. And it was hard work getting that far. I should have just read the one story I’d wanted – it was the least objectionable of the ones I did read. I don’t often abandon a book unfinished, but occasionally it happens.

These stories are not for me, I’m afraid. There is too much very dysfunctional sex. There are dysfunctional sex workers, dysfunctional care workers, dysfunctional everything. A woman cheerfully admitting to having a fourteen year old boyfriend was the last straw for me.

I couldn’t make myself go any further.

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July 16: Reading

I have a pile of books to read (currently 46, shared between the kindle, iBooks and the wobbly pile of mixed paper-and-hardbacks on my coffee table). I also have a few on my shelves that I want to re-read. And a very long wish-list of books I don’t yet own.

I finished both my main Goodreads challenge and my personal summer challenge early, and in theory, all I have shouting “finish me!” are my two reading group books (Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and Drabble’s Pure Gold Baby).

I have scheduled reading times for book groups, so what to do the rest of the time?

The answer is always a random pick from my physical book pile and a random pick from my e-book “pile”. At the moment, my e-book is the latest Harry Hole, and my physical book is one of the slim Penguin classics (Kafka’s The Trial).

But – I follow authors and readers on Twitter, and they keep making recommendations. By coincidence this morning, two recommendations caught my eye: a short story by Miranda July; and a novel by Clare North that just happened to have the word “August” in the title. That set me off of course. I thought I would end up with a mix of author names and titles, but in the end, my calendar reads for the rest of the year are all title-based except for July.

I’m probably going to to do this for the whole of next year, as a sort of side quest to my main challenge.

Here they are:

No one belongs here more than you: Miranda July

The first fifteen lives of Harry August: Claire North

The Septembers of Shiraz: Dalia Sofer

October the first is too late: Fred Hoyle

Butterflies in November: Audur Ava Òlafsdóttir

December: Phil Rickman

I intend to be very disciplined and only read one of these a month. Let’s see how it goes.

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July 12: Summer Reading #6

R is for Roth

I chose a Philip Roth novel for my final book as a tribute, to mark his death this year.

Nemesis is a narrow story, with a narrator who almost doesn’t figure in the story at all. It tells the harrowing tale of one of the last polio epidemics and its effects on the lives of the Jewish population in Newark, New Jersey. Bucky Cantor seems to me to be a selfish character, always wishing that his life had taken a different turn, while turning away from what might be the best choices. He has some unlucky breaks, but in the end, isolates himself from anyone that might help him. The final chapter highlights starkly what could have been… perhaps.

This was a “short novel”, and I read it during a sleepless night. I find Roth very readable, even if I don’t much like his characters.

There are other structured reading activities still continuing – the Twitter reading group, the library reading group, but this book brings my personal 2018 “SUMMER” reading challenge to a close, much earlier than expected.

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July 11: Summer Reading #5

E is for Eliot

Every year I make myself read at least one of the “classics” that I should have read long ago. This is my “punishment reading” for the summer.

Actually, it was okay. I quite liked Dorothea, once she started to stand up for herself. I got irritated (as usual) by the various characters causing themselves trouble by not being open in their dealings. I disliked Rosamund, but she got her comeuppance, so that was all right.

Middlemarch was quite shallow, I thought. Similar to Austen books, very much about “place, face and manners”. I found it lighter than the Brontes, whose works I prefer. It was a “good read”, but not one that I expect to have any particular lasting effect. It would work very well as a TV serial.

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July 9: The Rings of Saturn #1

A few weeks ago, I came across a proposal to set up a Twitter reading group. The book to be read, studied, discussed is W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The activity is planned to run from July 9th until August 2nd.

I had joined in with a similar group at the end of last year, with the same group leader, and I decided to take up the challenge again. I chose a hard-copy edition this time.

So, I opened the book to chapter 1 this morning. The opening paragraph was encouraging:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.”

However, the author then spends the entire chapter not talking about the walk. Instead, he meanders off on an interesting discussion of several dead academics, and aspects of their work.

I can tell already that Sebald and I will have different opinions on things, if only from the interpretation of one item – Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson. Sebald mentions what I think is the most important item in the painting, the anatomy textbook that everyone is looking at. He then dismisses it as irrelevant (to Rembrandt, as well as to himself!). My copy of the book has two images of the painting:

In neither image does the textbook appear.

I am very curious to see how the book progresses. Watch this space.

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June 27: Library group

I joined a reading group at the library, and it turned out to be a very interesting first meeting, where we meandered from the book under discussion to other authors to politics and beyond. It was quite difficult to have a proper discussion of the book because the group leader and I were the only two who had actually finished reading it, so I’ll give my thoughts here.

It had a good opening line – probably the best I’ve read.

It was a bit of a family saga, over two generations. There was a mystery – at first only a disappearance, but eventually disclosure of a murder. Or maybe two murders. The probable murderer got his comeuppance. No police were involved.

I laughed out loud at an inappropriate moment (when the protagonist’s atheist father died). Well, he was climbing a church steeple and he got struck by lightning.

I didn’t really like the protagonist much. I didn’t like the girl he fell in love with, either. But I did like Ash, the girl he needed to fall in love with.

The ends were too neatly tied for me. Prentice got a second chance at Uni. He got a legacy and a fancy car. The murderer got what he deserved. The disappeared uncle was found (dead, sadly). The girl Prentice should have fallen for turns out to love him…

Iain Banks is an author worth reading, but not a quick read. This book was okay.

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June 11: Summer Reading #2

U is for Udall.

Strangely, I seem to have chosen another ghost story. Of course, I didn’t know it was a ghost story until about halfway through.

This book was okay. Not brilliant, but not bad. I felt sorry for all the characters, but not enough to cry for them, not even little Millie.

I wanted Jonah to get over himself, and I was oddly irritated by the central not-really-a-character, Audrey.

I wanted more of Kew, more of the paper birds.

I wouldn’t put this on my read-again list, but I don’t feel the time spent on it was wasted.

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June 5: Summer Reading #1

S is for Saunders

The first of my six summer books is coincidentally the fiftieth of my fifty-book challenge.

I wish I could say I liked this book, but to be truthful, I didn’t. The style is clever, but I found it irritating after the first couple of chapters.

I understand the concept of the bardo. And it seems to me that Saunders is using this ghost story as a way of marking Lincoln’s transition into an abolitionist. It feels clunky and patchworky, though.

There was one thing I really didn’t like. The notion that children had to be punished in order to allow adults to make penance did not sit comfortably with me at all.

Altogether, I thought there was too much bardo and not enough Lincoln.

I’m never sure what makes a Booker winner. Some I have loved. Others I have hated. This one doesn’t fall into either category for me, which says something in itself.

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May 31: Summer Reading Challenge

I did this last year, and it made me read some books I might otherwise not have chosen.

The way I planned to do it was to choose six books by author surname, corresponding to the six letters of the word SUMMER. I would first draw from my “books I own but haven’t read yet” pile; then from my wishlist of books that: I like the look of; I feel I ought to read; have been recommended etc. Finally, if necessary, I would search the internet for “author whose surname begins with U” (it’s always going to be U that’s a problem, let’s face it).

Last year I had to go searching out in the wide world for a “U”, and it gave me the odd but likeable “Baba Yaga Laid an Egg” by Dubravka Ugrešić. This year, I only had to go as far as my wish list.

So, this year’s challenge:

Between June 1st (start of meteorological summer) and August 27th (August Bank Holiday, which I consider to be the end of summer) I will attempt to read the following six books, in order.

S: George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo. I chose this because it won the Man Booker prize, and when I have read Booker winners before (Midnight’s Children, Life of Pi) they have stayed with me longer than I expected them to. I don’t think of myself as a “literature” reader. I gravitate towards crime and SF. But I make myself step out of my comfort zone every so often. I think it does me good.

U: Tor Udall. A Thousand Paper Birds. This is also literary fiction, with, I am promised, a bit of magical realism. There is a threat of romance (not my genre), but what sold me on this was the lure of origami. This was the only U author on my wishlist, and so I didn’t have many other choices(!). We’ll see how it goes.

M: Ian McDonald. Chaga. I have read a number of McDonald’s books (River of Gods, Brasyl, The Dervish House, spring to mind) and I like the idea of setting SF in a slightly “off” familiar location. I decided to go back to an early work for this first “M”

M: Ian McDonald. Time Was. The same “M”(not necessary, but I thought it would be fun), but bang up to date with this one. Time travel. Hmm…

E: George Eliot. Middlemarch. Every so often, I make myself read something I should have read when I was at school. This is it for this summer.

R: Philip Roth. Nemesis. Reading this in tribute.

The challenge starts tomorrow. Wish me luck!

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May 7: H(A)PPY

I really wanted to like this book.

I bought a hardback because I’d been warned that not all the graphic stuff would show up in an e-book version, and now it is taking up precious space in my actual physical environment.

It is clever. It won the Goldsmiths prize last year (which “celebrates qualities of creative daring…and rewards fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel”). Perhaps it’s too clever for me?

I didn’t like the protagonist. I didn’t understand the Paraguay references. I wasn’t overly impressed with the pseudo-mathematical artwork, and I have to say the changing colour of the font got on my nerves. I did understand that. I just think it was overdone.

The book blurb sold it as post-apocalyptic dystopia, but it seemed to me to be set mostly in the protagonist’s head. A bit of backstory would have been useful.

I give this three stars for the concept, but less than that for the execution.

I know a lot of people like this book, so make your own judgement.