I’ve been away from this blog several months now. There was a time when I would review every book I read and post something new every day. I stopped because it felt like I’d run out of things to say and I wanted a little break which turned into a long one.
Anyway, I’m back because once again I have things I want to share and over the past week in particular, I found myself composing blog posts in my head. There’s been one thing on my mind a lot lately, and that is a significant change in my reading habits.
I say on the ‘about me’ page of this blog that
“I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction…memoirs, biography, history, science, nature, travel and books about food. I don’t usually read fiction, but I will make an exception every now and then.”
That was very true when I wrote it three years ago. And it had been true for nearly twenty years at that point. But over the last three years I have found myself reading fiction more often than not.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to read more novels. It was something that just happened. I started this blog and then I was reading other book blogs and listening to book podcasts and picking up recommendations…
Reading and listening to other readers gush about certain books made me want to read them. And a lot of the books that I was hearing about were novels. The more I heard about these books and these writers, the more I realised how circumscribed my reading life has been.
I’ve always been quite open when it comes to non-fiction. I don’t stick to authors I know. I’m willing to pick up any book that sounds interesting and really, it is the subject that matters more than the author. As long as the writing is good and the subject is intriguing, I’ll read pretty much any writer.
But my fiction reading has been rather limited. In the sense that mystery novels meant Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, thrillers began with Alistair MacLean and then there was Arthur Hailey and Jeffery Archer. Science fiction was Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov.
Fantasy meant Tolkien and Pratchett until I finally picked up the Harry Potter books. Throw in Wodehouse and Jane Austen and I’m done. That has been the sum of my fiction reading in the past. And I never considered how limiting it was because I didn’t read a lot of fiction anyway.
So there I was hearing about all these books and so many authors that I’d never heard of, who apparently wrote some very good books and I realised that I was missing out. My ‘I don’t read a lot of fiction’ stance started to sound a bit stupid. I mean why ever not? Why do I not read fiction? I had no good reason to offer other than…habit, perhaps.
So I started picking up a few of these books. The first book that I picked up because I heard about it on the radio was The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Then I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Then there was A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. All four utterly brilliant books that made me pick up others along the way and caused a fundamental shift in the books I choose to read.
I can no longer say that I read a lot of books, mostly nonfiction. I read a lot of books, period.
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
These are the words that A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with. It is a wonderful beginning…it made me want to dive right in and read the book. And I’m glad I did, because it is brilliant. It is one of the best books I have ever read and very likely, one of the best books ever written. It is a fantastic story, the kind that worms its way into your heart and settles there. It has characters that are beautifully drawn out and the writing is sublime.
This is a long book (over 700 pages) and it has plenty to say…about religion, Christianity in particular, about faith and what it means, about politics, what it means to be an American, about war and its consequences and about a country that seems to have lost its way. It is a book packed full of ideas and yet, it is a very human story.
At its heart, this is a story about friendship…between the narrator, John Wheelwright, who considers himself to be rather an ordinary guy and his best friend, Owen Meany who is the most remarkable person that John has ever known. He is also the most remarkable person that I have met within the pages of a book. And I use the word, person, because Owen Meany is real to me.
The book is set in two places, New Hampshire and Toronto and it is goes back and forth between two points in time. The first is in the 60’s when John Wheelwright and Owen Meany are both eleven years old. They have already been friends for a several years at this point. The second is the late eighties when John is living in Toronto, missing his friend, remembering him, struggling with his faith and trying to make sense of his life.
The first quarter of the book is focused almost entirely on the early part of John and Owen’s lives. It begins when they are eleven years old, when John loses his mother in a tragic accident. He doesn’t know his father because his mother never told him who he was. The story then goes a little further into the past when John was six years old and then goes on to talk about how his mother met his soon-to-be step dad, Dan Needham.
It explores the growing friendship between the two boys and the way Owen slowly becomes a big part of John’s family. John’s mother is particularly fond of the boy who is tiny for his age. He looks like a five year old when he’s actually eleven. His smallness is one of the most striking features about him.
And then there is his voice. The author tells you that it is a unique voice. Some of the characters in the book find it disturbing and at one point, a speech therapist describes it as a voice that is perpetually set to scream. And the reader is always aware of this voice because the writer has chosen to capitalise every word that comes out of Owen Meany’s mouth. This, I thought was a very useful device, because the voice is important.
Owen’s size and his voice are the most immediately noticeable things about him, but as you get to know the character, you realise that he’s extremely intelligent, opinionated, very sure of himself and very strong in his faith. He has no doubts about God, religion or his place in the world. I found myself envying his certainty. Faith is a tricky thing to write about. It can easily become preachy and just plain annoying, but John Irving never lets that happen. Owen’s faith is beautiful, it is touching and seeing him as we do, through the eyes of the narrator, it is impossible not to love him.
Owen has the most interesting ideas and opinionated though he is, he’s usually right. And this is brought out beautifully through the book. So the story begins when the two boys are eleven years old and then it goes back a bit to when they’re both six and just starting to play with each other and then back again to when they are eleven years old and John’s mother dies in an accident.
Owen is involved in this accident as mentioned in the opening sentences of the book, but how, I will leave for the author to tell you. What follows are the many years of growing up when John is adopted by his step-dad and he has to make his way through school which is a struggle for him because he’s dyslexic and no one has cottoned on to that…
Owen is with him all the way, lending his unique perspective to everything that happens to John and helping him in every way he can. He’s the one who figures out that John is dyslexic and he teaches him a few tricks to help him with his reading. He teaches John how to study, he helps him with his homework and he shows him how to write his papers. And John in turn is Owen’s biggest support. They go from the local high school to Gravesend Academy, they experience all the pangs of adolescence, all the trouble and confusion of growing up…
Through all this, we get glimpses of John all grown up and living in Toronto where he’s now a school teacher, teaching English. Reading is his life now as much as religion. We’re told that he thinks fondly of his friend and that he misses him a lot, though why, you won’t find out until the end of the novel. It is a long book, like I said, but it never feels tedious or drawn out. The pacing is perfect and the writing is incredible. Even when the characters are doing nothing more than watching Liberace on TV, it is all very engaging, somehow.
This is the story of two boys and their shared experiences, growing up and as such, it could’ve been very, very ordinary. What it is, is an extraordinary tale of courage, faith, love and friendship. And it is all due to the unique genius of John Irving. This book is an experience and it is impossible to read it and come out unchanged. It is a very special book and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I came across this article in The Guardian. It is a (longish) excerpt from the Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries given by Neil Gaiman.
This is another novella, running into just over a hundred pages. Alan Bennett is quite the master of this form, I have to say. This story, like The Uncommon Reader is just the right length. It wouldn’t have worked as a short story or as a novel. This is the story of a couple, Mr and Mrs Ransome who find their rather sedate and predictable lives disrupted by a completely unexpected event.
They go to the opera one evening and they come back home to find that they have been robbed, or so Mrs Ransome says. “Burgled,” Mr Ransome says, because people are robbed and homes are burgled and being a lawyer, he likes to be precise.
But neither of them is quite right, because burglars pick and choose, they don’t take everything. And whoever it was, took everything, every last thing including the drapes and the carpets. They took the casserole that was being kept warm in the oven…they even took the toilet paper rolls from the bathrooms.
At one go, the Ransomes lose everything. How does one cope with a situation like that?
The Ransomes are a wealthy, middle aged couple who are set in their ways and are perhaps a little bored of the endless routine of their lives. The burglary (for lack of a better word) shakes them up. All of their stuff is insured, so it’s not the shock of financial loss, it is the shock of losing all the things that they’ve built their lives around, even the things that they’ve never really used.
They begin to shop for a few necessary items while waiting for the insurance money and Mrs Ransome finds herself shopping in the local Indian store instead of the high street and discovering a lot of interesting things at her doorstep that she’d never thought to explore before. And as the days go on, she begins to find the loss of all her possessions strangely freeing.
Mr Ransome has one great love in his life and that is Mozart. He likes to listen to Mozart every evening. He bemoans the loss of his sound system until he realises that he can now buy a new, more state of the art system. So in their own way, they both come to terms with the sudden loss of all their possessions.
But losing all their stuff makes them rethink their lives a little bit. particularly Mrs Ransome who begins to realise that she’s been living in a box all these years, confined by stuff.She finds herself wanting to change her life, do something different with it.
As the novel goes on, Bennett explores the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ransome, the rut that it is stuck in, and he brings to light a whole lot of little lies that they’ve been telling themselves and each other for years. All long-term marriages have an element of deception in them, I guess. It’s rarely anything big, it’s just a lot of little things that couples hide from each other, or think they are hiding.
This book is an exploration of marriage, of long term relationships and of our unfortunate tendency to define ourselves by the things we own. The book is funny (I don’t think Alan Bennett can write without humour) and it is thoughtful and poignant. And Bennett brings to this book that unique blend of gentleness and irony that is so characteristic of him.
This is a very good book, a must read.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in America in 1885. Most people consider it a classic. Ernest Hemingway went so far as to say that it was the “one book” from which “all modern American literature” came, and that “there was nothing before and nothing as good ever since”.
While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or “it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.”
Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was a language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed the way Americans wrote.
The book sold very well when it was first published, but it was also criticized by many of Mark Twain’s contemporaries who thought it was coarse and uncouth.
Huckleberry Finn first appeared as Tom Sawyer’s friend in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.”
Though Twain saw Huck’s story as a kind of sequel to his earlier book, the new novel was far more serious, focusing on the institution of slavery and other aspects of life in the American South.
At the heart of the book is a journey… Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, escape down the Mississippi River on a raft. Huck is running away from his abusive father while Jim runs away because he is about to be sold and separated from his wife and children. Huck narrates the story in his distinctive voice, offering colourful descriptions of the people and places they encounter along the way.
The book takes a satirical look at racism, religion and other social attitudes of the time. While Jim is strong, brave, generous and wise, many of the white characters are portrayed as violent, stupid or simply selfish.
Huck, who’s grown up in the South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether or not to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.
Even in 1885, two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn landed with a splash. A month after its publication, a library in Concord, Massachusetts, banned the book, calling its subject matter “tawdry” and its narrative voice “coarse” and “ignorant.” Other libraries followed suit, beginning a controversy that continued long after Mark Twain’s death in 1910.
In the 1950s, the book came under fire from African-American groups for being racist in its portrayal of black characters, despite the fact that it was seen by many as a strong criticism of racism and slavery. As recently as 1998, an Arizona parent sued her school district, claiming that making Twain’s novel required high school reading made already existing racial tensions even worse.
A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.
To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley , believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continues to be one of the most-challenged books in American literature. It is still frequently in the news, as various schools and school systems across America either ban it from or restore it to their classrooms.
The objections are usually over the n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. That is certainly derogatory, but I don’t think the author intended it to be. He was merely portraying society as it was and writing the way people spoke. But I wish he had worked a little harder on the resolution of the book.
I have been on a bit of a science fiction trip ever since I read The Martian. I read 3001 The Final Odyssey soon after and then I went back to read 2001…and 2010…, the first two books in the Space Odyssey series and I have discovered once again the genius of Arthur C Clarke.
He is a wonderful writer with the ability to create interesting characters and to write engrossing stories with intricate plots and the kind of plot twists that keep you reading. But his great strength as a writer of science fiction is his ability to imagine believable futures.
A lot of fantastic things happen in his stories, but the situation of the characters and the kind of world that they live in is nearly always the kind of world that ours might very easily evolve into. He is often idealistic in his assumptions that humans will finally put aside their petty grievances and attempt peace rather than war, but I don’t think idealism is a bad thing in a writer. The way I see it, if we are going to imagine a future, why not imagine a good one, why not imagine that humanity will make sensible choices instead of stupid ones?
So this book, A Fall of Moondust, is set on the Moon, in a future in which humans have gone beyond the Earth and have settlements on most of the planets and sattelites in the solar system. They have in fact, been living on the moon long enough to have had people born there.
But most people still live on Earth and the Moon is a popular travel destination. And one of the tourist attractions on the Moon is a trip on the Selene, a hovercraft, the moon’s equivalent of a tourist bus. One of the attractions on the tour is the ‘Sea of Thirst’.
This is a fictitious location on the Moon. It is supposed to be a flat plane covered with fine dust which flows almost like water. The Selene and it’s crew have crossed the ‘Sea of Thirst’ many, many times. But on this particular trip, there is a moonquake that occurs, causing an underground cavern to collapse. The Selene goes under the dust and is trapped. It has to be rescued.
The entire book is about this rescue mission. It is a classic premise and it plays out like any good thriller. There are interesting characters, difficult situations, a whole lot of problems and a great deal of intelligent problem solving…all of it based on real science.
This is hard science fiction (a term that I learnt recently.) It just means science fiction with an emphasis on scientific accuracy and technical detail or science fiction with a good deal of real science in it (which is what I used to call it in my head until I learnt that there was an actual term for this.)
The book begins with the moonquake and the ship getting trapped under all that dust. We see the passengers and the crew on the ship and their attempts to cope with the situation. On the other side are the scientists and the crew involved in the rescue and the problems they face in dealing with the peculiar nature of the Moon.
When the Selene goes underground, for example, the dust covers it right up and goes back to being as smooth and undisturbed as before…something that would never happen on Earth. And the dust itself is so weird. It is not solid, like mud and not liquid like water. And there’s tons of it that has to be moved somehow and twenty-two people on the Selene who have to be dug out of there.
Arthur C Clarke begins with an interesting premise and he delivers a book that is interesting and engaging. It feels real enough that after a while you start to think that ‘Calvius base’ is a real place and that there are real people living and working on the moon…it is not a brilliant book, but it is a good one and it is definitely worth reading.
The blurb for this book is as follows:
“How much money does it take to quit your job?”
Exhausted and on the verge of burnout, Janice poses this question to herself as she doodles on a notepad at her desk. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t as daunting as she expected. With a little math and a lot of determination, Janice cuts back, saves up and buys herself two years of freedom in Europe.
A few days into her stop in Paris, Janice meets Christophe, the cute butcher down the street—who doesn’t speak English. Through a combination of sign language and franglais, they embark on a whirlwind Paris romance.
She soon realizes that she can’t ever return to the world of twelve-hour workdays and greasy corporate lingo. But her dwindling savings force her to find a way to fund her dreams again. So Janice turns to her three loves—words, art, and Christophe—to figure out a way to make her happily-ever-after in Paris last forever.
It sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? It’s a memoir and it could have been cheesy given the well worn, oft-repeated theme, but it isn’t. It is an honest, funny, self-deprecating account of the author’s attempts to turn her life around, to get out of the corporate rut and create a life that is happy and meaningful.
And the way she goes about it is so unusual. She writes letters to people, painted letters. Each letter is set in a particular spot in Paris. She paints the scene, leaving some room for text and writes about that place and that moment in time.
Then she makes copies of that letter and sells them on etsy.com. The letters are beautiful and she has subscribers who get twelve letters a year. Some of them write back and there is this wonderful correspondence in the book between Janice and her grandmother and this other lady, a Canadian called Mary.
The book is written well and it holds your interest all through. The reason for this, apart from the writing is the author herself. She’s funny and quirky and she’s engagingly honest. And Christophe, her husband by the end of the book, is very charming.
She writes lovingly about him and her account of their wordless romance (you can’t talk much when you don’t know each other’s language) is well worth reading about.
This the fourth and final part of Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and in my opinion, it is the most disappointing. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. I loved the premise and I found the first half of the book very engaging, but then it completely lost it’s way and towards the end, I was reading just to find out how it would all be explained.
This review will probably not make any sense to someone who hasn’t read the first two books in the series. I apologise for that, but it is a complicated story and a bit too long to go into here. I will say though, that 2001 A Space Odyssey and 2010 Odyssey Two are utterly brilliant and a must read for anyone who likes science fiction.
So, Back to 3001 The Final Odyssey. The book begins with a space ship finding Frank Poole (one of the astronauts to go on the original discovery mission in 2001.) He was presumed to be dead, but it turns out that he was frozen and therefore still alive. He’s rescued and revived. The year is 3001 and Frank wakes up to find himself living in a world that is a 1,000 years after his time.
The first part of the book deals with him learning about this new world and trying to find his place in it. This part of the book is very interesting. I like the way Arthur C Clarke has imagined and presented the beginning of the 30th century. It is all very plausible and yet it is intriguing and the reader finds himself discovering all the new and wonderful (and sometimes not quite wonderful) changes along with the protagonist.
Then the focus turns to Europa. Poole makes a trip to Europa and contacts his old ship mate Dave Bowman who was turned into a creature of pure energy by the end of the first book. Poole talks to him and tries to make some sort of contact with the Europans….
The story is quite interesting up to this point and then it jumps ahead 15 years in which time Poole apparently gets married, has kids and then gets divorced. And one fine day he gets a strange message from David Bowman saying that humanity might be in danger. The how and the why are never explained. We’re just told that the monolith on Europa which has been inactive for a thousand years is suddenly receiving a lot of messages and instructions and that Bowman can only guess that it is threat and humanity has to somehow find a way to save itself.
I won’t go into any more detail because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone. All I will say is that I wish this book had lived up to all the potential that it promised in the first few chapters.
Even as a kid, Tom Clancy was obsessed with naval history, reading books written for engineers and officers. He went to Loyola University in Baltimore where he studied English and dreamed of being a novelist. He graduated in 1969, but he didn’t pursue a career in writing. Instead, he went to work for an insurance agency.
By 1980, he was making a good living in the insurance business, but he hadn’t lost the desire to write a book. One day he was puttering around in the archives of the Naval Academy when he found a master’s thesis by a U.S. Navy officer named Greg Young. The thesis was about the Storozhevoy, a Soviet destroyer whose crew had mutinied and attempted to set sail to Sweden to seek political asylum. They were discovered, the leader of the mutiny was executed, and the others were harshly punished. The ordeal was covered up by the Russians, and it didn’t make the news, but Young had done some investigative journalism and spent two years piecing together the story into his thesis.
Clancy wrote to Young and asked if he could use some of the material to write a novel. Young was excited that someone had actually read his thesis, and he agreed, and suggested some additional sources for Clancy to use. Tom Clancy began working on the novel in all his spare time. Although he based his plot on the Storozhevoy incident, his version of the story had a happy ending: the mutinous Soviet submarine crew is welcomed to the United States.
When Clancy finished the manuscript, he called up the Naval Institute and told them that he had written a novel called The Hunt for Red October. They had never published a piece of fiction, but the acquisitions editor there was convinced that it had promise, and they agreed to publish it, offering Clancy $5,000. Fact-checkers spent eight months going through Clancy’s manuscript, and were shocked at how accurate it was, considering that the author had never even been on a submarine.
Sales for The Hunt for Red October were good, but not particularly impressive. Then the publisher managed to get a copy to a friend of Nancy Reagan, and it made its way to the president, who loved it, announcing that it was “unputdown-able” and “a perfect yarn.” Suddenly, The Hunt for Red October became a huge best-seller. When it was published, Clancy had hoped that it would sell 5,000 copies. Instead it sold 45,000 copies in its first six months, and has since sold more than 3 million.
Clancy went on to write many best-selling books. More than 50 million copies of Tom Clancy’s books have been printed, and four have been adapted into major films.
It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. It is a novel that chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California.
It is a portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength. The novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.
Steinbeck wrote the novel at an incredible rate — about two thousand words a day — in a tiny outhouse that had just enough room for a bed, a desk, a gun rack, and a bookshelf. He finished it in about five months.
When he was done, he wasn’t very satisfied with it: He wrote in his journal, “It’s just a run-of-the-mill book, and the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.” And he warned his publisher that it wouldn’t be very popular.
The Grapes of Wrath became one of the most beloved novels of American literature. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and has since been translated into nearly every language. Over 14 million copies of the book have been sold and it is estimated that around 100,000 copies of the book continue to sell every year.
When it was first published, Americans both embraced and scorned the novel. Some applauded Steinbeck for capturing so honestly the lives of migrant farm workers during the Depression. Others accused him of being a socialist and of championing communist beliefs.
Californian farmers loathed Steinbeck’s unsavory depiction of, well, Californian farmers. In short, this novel sent America into a bit of a frenzy. Eleanor Roosevelt took note, and, as a result, she called for congressional hearings on migrant worker camp conditions and labour laws were changed.
The Grapes of Wrath has been banned, burned, and bought over and over again.Steinbeck’s publishers lauded the book as one of the, if not the, greatest work of American Literature. Time Magazine disagreed in its 1939 review of the novel, saying, “It is not [the greatest work of American literature]. But it is Steinbeck’s best novel, i.e., his toughest and tenderest, his roughest written and most mellifluous, his most realistic and, in its ending, his most melodramatic, his angriest and most idyllic.”
The Grapes of Wrath has firmly lodged itself within American culture, and references to the novel continue to be made in movies, music, art, and TV. Allusions to this epic tale have surfaced in both South Park and The Simpsons. Many songs have been written and sung about Tom Joad, most notably by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. The Joads are a fictional family, and yet they (and what they represent) have become a part of the American story.
The main character is Professor Jason Fitger. He teaches creative writing at Payne University. He has been teaching for many, many years now and a good part of his work life is taken up with these letters, recommending students for jobs or fellowships, recommending colleagues for promotions and so on.
As any academic knows (I used to be one, so I can definitely relate) writing recommendation letters is a somewhat tedious part of your work. And it seems that Professor Fitger has just about had it. He is so sick of the whole business that he starts adding his own touches to what are essentially form letters.
There is humour, irony and sarcasm as he pokes fun at his students, their prospective employers, the university and the system. But there is sadness here too and genuine warmth as he tries to help a deserving student. As the letters go on, you start to see glimpses of the Professor’s own life, his hopes and ambitions, his mistakes and his regrets.
It is a beautiful book. It is touching and thought provoking. It makes you wonder about students and education and the what and the why of it all. How can you possibly tell a coherent story in recommendation letters? I thought when I first heard about this book. Well it seems you can. It is incredibly hard to do, but Julie Schumacher has definitely pulled it off.
It was sad to hear of his death. He was a wonderful, wonderful writer, one of those rare people who could write a story that had brilliant characters and an engrossing plot. He wrote books that were outrageously funny, but not frivolous in the least. And he would make you think even as he was making you laugh.
I was introduced to Terry Pratchett by a friend when I was maybe nineteen years old. I hadn’t read any fantasy fiction at that point and I had no idea what to expect. The book I took home from the library that day was Interesting times.
I was completely taken by the cover. It was so weird and interesting. There just has to be a good book in there, I thought. The book was unlike anything I had ever read before and it completely blew my mind. It is by no means Terry Pratchett’s best book, but it is a very good book. I had no idea until then that a book could be so clever.
I went back to the library and picked up another of his books, Wyrd Sisters. And this is without a doubt one of his best books. It is a parody of Shakespeare and the Globe theater and Macbeth and conniving dukes who kill kings for the throne, but are caught in the end.
A lot of his books are a parody or satire on something in the real world like opera and rock and roll, fairy tales, news papers, film making and so on. And they are so well done. What gets me every time is just how smart the books are.
Most of Terry Pratchett’s books are set in the Discworld, a magical world that is balanced on the backs of four elephants which are in turn standing on the back of a giant tortoise called The Great A’Tuin. In Pratchett’s words,
“The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. This is one of the great ancient world myths, found wherever men and turtles were gathered together; the four elephants were an Indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber rooms of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off.”
Terry Pratchett was just thirteen years old when he sold his first story. He used the money he made from that to buy his first typewriter. Ten years later, his first novel, The Carpet people was published. The Colour of Magic was the first Discworld novel to be published. It came out in 1983.
There have since been more than forty books in this series. His books have been translated into 36 different languages and have sold over 60 million copies. Terry Pratchett was awarded the OBE in 1998 and he was made a knight in the New Year Honours list of 2008. He received the honour for services to literature.
In addition to Fantasy, Terry Pratchett has written science fiction and horror as well. But fantasy was his preferred genre. According to him, “Fantasy…is about seeing the world from new directions”. His writing certainly lived up to that belief.
Today is the birthday of Douglas Adams. He was born in Cambridge, England in 1952. He studied literature and spent many years struggling to make his mark as a writer.
He had nearly given up hope when in 1978 BBC radio accepted an outline of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for a radio comedy. He wrote 12 episodes for the radio series, which was a big hit.
It was nominated for a Hugo award and it is the only radio show ever to make it to the shortlist. It was nominated in the category “Best Dramatic Presentation” and it lost to Superman, the movie.
The success of the radio show resulted in an offer from a publisher and the show turned into a book. When the book came out, it went straight to number one in the UK Bestseller List and in 1984 Douglas Adams became the youngest author to be awarded a Golden Pen. He won a further two (a rare feat), and was nominated – though not selected – for the first Best of Young British Novelists awards.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the first in a series of comic science fiction novels that have sold over 15 million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages.
The idea for the book came to Adams when he was backpacking through Europe at the age of 19, lying drunk in a field with his tour book called the Hitchhikers Guide to Europe. He said it occurred to him then that somebody ought to write a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.
The book is about an Englishman named Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect who has been posing as a human (and an out of work actor) for nearly 15 years.
He comes to find Arthur seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway. Arthur is plucked off the planet by Ford who is in fact, a researcher for the revised edition of
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by advice from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”) and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers:
Zaphod Beeblebrox–the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie, Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur had tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot and Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years.
The book was followed by four others, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish and Mostly Harmless.
I have just finished reading a remarkable book, a truly brilliant piece of writing and I cannot stop talking about it. I heard about The Martian several months ago. I heard a lot of good things and I got the book, but somehow, I never got around to reading it.
I picked it up three days ago and it started a bit slow, but then it took off and it was such a wonderful experience. The key word being experience. It wasn’t just a book that I was reading. It was a world that I was transported to, a world that felt so very real that it was hard to believe that this was a story. This had to have happened somewhere, I kept thinking. I could continue gushing, but I will stop so I can tell you about the book. The Martian is set sometime in the future and it centers around a manned mission to Mars, the Ares 3 that goes horribly wrong.
A team of six astronauts have landed on Mars and they are going about their regular duties when on the sixth day of their month-long mission, they are hit by a huge storm that makes it unsafe for them to stay on Mars because if their spaceship is damaged, they will not be able to return to Earth.
They are leaving when the communication dish is ripped apart and one of the astronauts, Mark Watney is stabbed by the antenna. He falls off their path and disappears into the storm. His life sign readings shut down and his colleagues conclude that he is dead.
He wakes up a couple of hours after they have left and well, there he is, stranded on Mars, injured, not dead. But with little hope for survival. The next ship to Mars isn’t scheduled to arrive for another four years. He has no means of communicating with Earth, he is going to run out of food in a few months time and no one knows that he is alive.
This would be a thoroughly depressing scenario if it wasn’t for the fact that Mark Watney is a very resourceful guy who is determined to survive. He’s a botanist and a mechanical engineer and he comes at every situation with the attitude that he can figure out what to do if only he thinks about it.
It also helps that he has a sense of humour and he’s willing to try pretty much everything. NASA does figure out that he is alive and they try to help. They have their own set of disasters and difficulties, but everyone is trying really hard and there’s a ton of creative and sometimes dangerous problem solving.
The book has a tight story line. It starts a bit slow, but it is engrossing and you literally do not want to put it down. The characters are all very well fleshed out, particularly the protagonist. He’s smart and funny, irreverent, but serious in his own way. A good part of the story is told in the first person, in the form of Watney’s daily log entries and that really helps set the tone.
There is a lot of action, obviously, and it so well written that you can practically see it happen. There is also an economy of words here that I truly appreciate. The novel is only 289 pages long, but the story has a scope that belongs in a much longer work.
What endeared the book to me the most is that it is science fiction based on solid science fact. There is a lot of science in this book and it is all explained, so that the action, the events and the characters’ choices make sense. You follow the reasoning and the logical chain of thought and it is stimulating.
What makes it even more remarkable is that this is the author’s first book.
This is the second book by Laura Bradbury, also a memoir, also set in Burgundy. It is set around five years after the first book (My Grape Escape) which I reviewed in my previous post.
At the time the narrative begins, the author and her husband have been running a successful vacation rental business for the last five years and are now looking to buy another house to repair and restore.
They have been living in Canada all these years and have just made the decision to move to Burgundy for good. But it isn’t just them. They now have two daughters, both under five. It is a big move and it is tougher on all of them than they thought it would be.
Their kids have to adjust to a new school, a new culture and a foreign language while the parents negotiate the purchase of a house and once again set themselves an near impossible deadline by which it has to be ready to rent.
It is hard work, made harder by the fact that workmen aren’t readily available, they don’t have a much of a house to live in while they work and their kids seem to be unhappy at school for the first several months.
This is a memoir that is very much about the day to day joys and struggles of a young family trying to adjust to living in a foreign country. There is plenty of musing about what parenting means and how the French see it as opposed to the North Americans. There are the doubts and struggles that every new parent is familiar with….
It is a narrative that could easily descend into being mundane and repetitive. The fact that it doesn’t, is entirely due to the author’s skill with words, her ability to make you see and hear and feel. It is impossible not to care about this young couple and their kids as they make mistakes and learn and just try to keep going.
The writing is excellent and the pacing is smooth…right up until the end when it felt a bit rushed. I enjoyed this book, but I did feel that the last few chapters needed tighter editing. That small complaint aside, it is a delightful read.
This is a memoir that I read back in December. It was an Amazon recommendation. It sounded good and the reviews were all quite wonderful.
But I hesitated to buy it, because the book follows what is by now a thoroughly overworked theme…the story of someone who bought an old house in a French village and then went about restoring it while experiencing all the joys of rural France.
So I didn’t expect much from it and I was very pleasantly surprised.
My Grape Escape is an account of the author’s journey from being all set to be a lawyer to giving all of that up to run a vacation rental in Burgundy, in a small village called Magny les Villiers along with her husband Frank who is a native of Burgundy.
The narrative begins with Laura and Frank going from Oxford, where she was studying law to stay with Frank’s family for a while. It is a vacation after all the gruelling law exams that Laura has just finished. Being in Burgundy is wonderfully restful and the author finds herself wondering if she really wants all the stress of the law career that she’s worked so hard for.
She realises that she doesn’t and that is as scary as it is freeing. She finds herself wondering what to do next when almost on impulse she and her husband decide to buy a small house in Burgundy, a vacation home for themselves which eventually turns into a vacation rental and a small business.
They find a house after quite a bit of trouble. They buy it and they get to work fixing it up. They advertise it as a vacation rental and suddenly they have bookings and a deadline they have to meet. It is, of course, a lot of work and they don’t have enough time or money and they have all sorts of troubles.
The author takes you through all their struggles, their doubts and their difficulties with such honesty that you can’t help but feel for this young couple and cheer them on through the tough times, the small victories and the invetivable setbacks.
There’s a whole bunch of interesting people who end up helping them, loads of wine and wonderful food and so many experiences that you can only have in France.
Now I’m an unabashed francophile and I would have enjoyed this anyway, but what made this book so special is the writing. This is Laura Bradbury’s first book, but you wouldn’t think it. The writing is fluid and the pace is just right. The descriptions are beautiful and you can almost see, hear and feel everything.
And the people in the book are so very real. The author is a Canadian and she is surrounded by French people who look at life very differently from her time and goal driven North American way of seeing things. They frustrate her no end, but sometimes they make her stop and think that maybe she doesn’t have to worry so much. Maybe it is okay to believe that things will work out…
It is a thoroughly delightful book and the first thing I did when I finished reading it was to go buy the sequel.
I was not around to do a year end post and it is perhaps too late to do that now, but I do have to try. 2014 is the first year in which I have kept a systematic record of my reading. I have reviewed or written about every single book that I read in the past year (except the three that I read in December, which I will review very soon) on this blog.
I tried to track my reading on Goodreads as well, but that didn’t really work for me and I stopped updating my Goodreads account after a few months. I don’t know why I didn’t take to Goodreads, but whatever the reason, blogging about my reading was a lot more fun.
I read 35 books last year, not a particularly big number, but then it is not about the numbers, now is it? Seven of these books were re-reads and 23 out of the 35 were non-fiction. I enjoyed them all, except one (The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs which I thought was a bit painful.)
My favourite book of the lot? Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is a brilliant book and it will stay with me for the rest of my life. The other books that meant a lot to me were The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, Cooked by Michael Pollan and Provence 1970 by Luke Barr.
I discovered two writers last year, David Sedaris and Laura Bradbury (and by this, I mean writers that I liked enough to want to go look for all their books.) Sedaris is by no means a new writer, but he was new to me. I discovered Laura Bradbury through an Amazon book recommendation. She’s written two memoirs, (My Grape Escape and My Grape Village) both set in Burgundy, France.
The recommendation came up because I’d bought Encore Provence by Peter Mayle earlier in the year. I looked up the two books and I found that they didn’t have many reviews, but all the reviews said the books were wonderful. So I picked them up and now I’m waiting for her next book…I don’t want to say anything more here because I plan to write a proper review of both the books.
It was great fun to do this blog last year and I love that I now have such a detailed record of my reading…and now that my life has stopped being crazy, I hope I can get back to blogging regularly. On a somewhat unrelated note, the last three months have been tough on me for all sorts of reasons and there were so many times when being able to disappear into a book for a while made everything a whole lot easier to deal with. Thank God for books!
The full title of this book is: The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry – Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. The cooking school in question is, of course, Le Cordon Bleu.
This is a memoir written by a journalist, Kathleen Flinn. It is an account of the time she spent at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, learning to cook.
It was a long held dream and one that she had set aside for years in favour of getting on with life and her career. She had settled into a job that she wasn’t all that passionate about and she stayed… until the day she lost her job.
Instead of looking for another job, she decided to take advantage of her unemployment to follow her dream. She enrolled herself at Le Cordon Bleu, packed her bags and moved to Paris.
This is a record of her time in Paris where she was joined by her (then) boyfriend, Mike Klosar, her experiences at the school, the whole business of learning to cook, dealing with the pressure of the kind of precision that French cooking demands and so on.
Through the course of this book Katheen and Mike got engaged and married. She also met some fascinating people and made a few very good friends.
It is clear that she had an interesting time in Paris and she writes about it all rather well. This is a food memoir, but it is about a lot of things besides food, so there is something for everyone here.
The book comes with a recipe at the end of each chapter. This is a trend in food writing that I don’t particularly care for. I think recipes should be left to cook books, but perhaps there are other readers who will disagree with me.
I like memoirs and this book was no exception. But I did have one complaint. Everyone in the book is is painted vividly, particularly Mike. But Kathleen herself remains a shadow.
She is always the observer. Even when she is taking about times when she is excited or upset about something, the narrative is detached, like she’s observing herself from the outside.
I enjoyed the book, but I wish there had been more of the author in it.