Sunday, 29 December 2013

171/111 - It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

This is one of the books I received for my birthday yesterday, and since I've been hungover in my flat all day today, I decided to crack this open to read and I blasted through it. It's been on my amazon wishlist now for a couple of years, but I never got around to buying it because I don't buy much from there and this is an American book, so none of the bookshops I go to really carry it. The reason I asked for it for my birthday is that the author died a couple of weeks ago after committing suicide, and I knew his book was about some time he had spent in a psychiatric hospital during his twenties.

Supposedly the book is 85% based on Ned's real life experiences, with some changes to the characters' names and his own age too, I guess. He was in his twenties when he admitted himself voluntarily to a psychiatric ward after thinking of committing suicide, and was there for around a week. In the book, Craig (who is the narrator) goes through so etching very similar, however is is still a teenager rather than in his twenties.

The first half of the book covers Craig's life and how he is having difficulty coping with the rat race he sees himself in. He's constantly pushing himself to work harder and harder, desperate to get into a 'good' school, get 'good' grades, go to a 'good' college and get a 'good' job. Nothing he ever does is good enough, and he puts himself under an enormous amount of strain to fulfil on things he's not even really sure he wants. Hm, sounds familiar....

Eventually the strain catches up with him and he becomes depressed and suicidal and admits himself to hospital. In the hospital he meets a bunch of people and seems to get some perspective on his life, and also meets a girl who is going through something similar and they seem to connect. At the end, he leaves the hospital intact and hopeful for the future after re-discovering his love of art.

I liked this overall, there were some funny and quite touching parts. There were quite a few bits which I thought were superfluous to the flow of the story, there was a lot of dialogue that I skipped over because it wasn't really adding anything to the story and wasn't particularly good either. I also didn't like Craig's inner 'soldier' personality, I would have left that out because it didn't really seem necessary to make him more interesting or relatable. I liked it overall and I just wanted to read it after hearing that the author had died recently, which probably makes me some kind of a morbid bitch, but I just thought it was interesting, as well as pretty sad that the illness took over in the end.

I guess it was kind of surprising to reflect on his suicide after reading the book, as there were so many moments where Craig is contemplating it but ultimately decides to get help instead of carrying it out, but after decades of being unwell it probably grinds you down.

Christmas and Birthday

It's been Christmas recently and it was also my birthday yesterday, and of course most of what I asked for was bookish in nature. From my boyfriend I received a really cool pillow for my iPad which I have also been using to prop up books. I hadn't realised how hefty an iPad or a book could be on my poor delicate female wrists, so I'm pleased with the addition to my reading equipment.

I will probably be reading a lot of the books I received over the next few weeks, very exciting. Thank god for Amazon wishlists!

170/111 - Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

This is a review I actually forgot to write earlier this year, as I. Never finished the book. I remember receiving a proof copy of Swamplandia! when I interned at Vintage books, so I've had it for almost three years now, but the copy wasn't very well bound so I eventually bought an actual copy of the book. I thought that it was the binding of the proof copy which was making it difficult for me to read the book, so I expected to get along a lot better with the 'real' copy of the book, however on reflection, I suspect it may have been the content rather than the binding of the book.

This makes me want to talk about a couple of things: first of all, am I sometimes justified in judging a book by its cover or overall physical quality; and secondly, what do I do when I really want to like a book, and everything points towards the probability that I will like it, but that I just don't like it much?

The first one is a little easier to dissect for me, as I do see books as lovely objects, and so a nice-looking book for me makes the content seem more desirable, which is perhaps a little shallow but with all the books I read, I really want to enjoy the entire experience, and the aesthetics of the book also contribute to this. I haven't ever really given much thought to book design or book production, although there are lots of publishing houses out there that do, and as a consumer of books I benefit from the care and attention they put into the designs of their books. Because this is important to me, I dislike buying books that feel cheap, have overly shiny books covers, cheap or thin paper with a tiny typeface which makes it a struggle to read, etc etc. so when I first didn't really get on with Swamplandia! I thought it might be because of the quality of the proof copy over the finished copy. The finished copy was much better in terms of quality of paper, typeface, cover design, but I still found it really difficult to connect with the story.

Which I guess brings me onto my next point - I really wanted to like this book. The premise sounded fantastic, and Karen Russell is a young female author whose work I generally tend to enjoy, so everything suggested that I would like this. I've experienced something similar with a couple of other books this year too, that I felt slightly disappointed by even though by all accounts they should have been right up my street. The ones I didn't finish I haven't written about here, because I think like with Swamplandia!, I fully intend to give them another go, perhaps when I'm in a different frame of mind. When I first started this blog I had decided that my methods of selection for what I would read next would be totally random depending on what I picked out, however I've moved away from that, and I'm not sure it's really the best way to select reading material. I love the idea of randomly selecting what I'm going to be reading and having my eyes opened, or getting some unexpected perspective on something, but in reality it doesn't really work for me.

Friday, 27 December 2013

169/111 - The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

This book was assigned to me by my book club, which I'm quite pleased by as I would probably never normally read a book like this as I'm not really into historical fiction of any sort, but it's good not to pigeonhole myself I guess. I was also pretty intimidated by the size of this book - on my iPhone this was over 2000 pages long, which was pretty hefty. Since it was something I don't normally read, I put off starting it for ages and ages as there was other stuff I needed to do which seemed more important than committing to 2000 pages of something that I might not enjoy. Then I remembered that I would be letting downy fellow book club-ees if I didn't read this in time, so I knuckled down and got to the task.

I ended up really enjoying the book. It's set in the Middle Ages of England, in a desolate village called Ulewic. It follows the narrative voices of several different characters; a small girl, a priest, a teenage girl who has been cast out by her father, and the head of a new beguinage. What on earth is a beguinage? Glad you asked. It turns out that these are sort of similar to nunneries, in that they are communes of women of a religious nature, however the women do not take vows and are free to come and go as they please, although they do have rules and duties to abide by while they are there. There are loads of these in Belgium, and they tried to start some up in England with little success, as they were seen as witches or defying the Church in some way.

The story is about how this order of powerful men known as the Owl Masters try to take control of the village through fear, and how the different groups of people try to stand up to them in different ways. I really liked the story and it kept my interest up the whole way through, and I think the fact that it had so much historical information in it meant that I was also doing some learning without really realising (sneaky books!) which was really cool.

A couple of bits I didn't like so much were the narratives of Beatrice and Father Ulfrid. I found both of them to be so unreasonable and blind as to be unbelieveable. Beatrice has a grudge against Osmanna because she kills her unborn child, and she resents this deeply because she's unable to have children of her own, however I found the level of hatred a little pantomime-ish. Same with Father Ulfrid, who is so weak and spineless, and also spiteful. I found both of these characters to be as little two-dimensional and not very interesting to read. However the others made up for it, I think.

I was also confused by some of the names, as there was a male character called Hilary, which is semi-normal but there was also a female character called Andrew, which was odd but made me laugh. I also really enjoyed the fact that all the women in the beguinage were called Martha, which reminded me of The Handmaid's Tale and made me feel super clever.

I'm kind of curious as to what it would be like to live in a place like this - not in the time, obviously, I like my creature comforts like central heating and modern medicine, but I mean more like giving up your life to go and live as part of a religious order and doing nothing but praying and fulfilling your duties. I imagine that it might be quite relaxing for a bit but that it might become dull eventually, just like most things. In my naïveté I imagine myself sitting around reading books for a lot of the time and then maybe doing some sweeping and tending some goats. It's probably not much like that.

So in all, I enjoyed this a lot. Perhaps I'll have to give historical novels more of a chance in future, and as I'd really like to read some Hilary Mantel, that could work out quite well for me.

168/111 - Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

I actually bought this as a Christmas present this year for a couple of people as it looked really interesting so I sneaked a look at it earlier this afternoon. It's an autobiographical graphic novel told by Guy, who is an animator who goes to work in Pyongyang for a few months, and he talks about his experiences living in this slightly mysterious city.

I've had a few conversations about North Korea with people recently and so thought this might be a good introduction to the subject as I know very little about it, save for what I've seen in Team America World Police, which probably isn't all that accurate. In other pop culture references, I also really enjoyed the chapter on North Korea in World War Z where it talks about the North Korean people gradually disappearing into the tunnels under the cities, and the narrator of the chapter wonders whether one day a tunnel to their underground city might burst open and millions of undead will come flooding out. Spooky.

Anyway, Guy talks about some of the different aspects of day to day life living as a foreigner in North Korea, for example that the hotel lights are only lit on his floor, as this is where all the foreigners are staying, whilst the rest of the floors are dark. He talks about how the people are constantly preparing for a war that might break out at any second, and that any day now they hope that they might be reunited with South Korea. He has a guide with him at all times and exploring in areas without his guide is frowned upon. He doesn't ever encounter any really threatening situation or anything really chilling, it's more just the gradual daily things which are so insidious.

I just can't comprehend it, and yet I suppose I have a similarly skewed perspective of the world having grown up in Western Europe, so how would I ever know I'm not the one being brainwashed like the North Korean people? I'm pretty sure there must be some things that I just take in without question, but how is it possible to exist totally outside your culture or outside history?

167/111 - Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I've known for ages that this book was coming out and I was a big fan of the blog. I decided to download it and read it recently has I has sort of missed the release date, but really wanted to read the book.

I don't really know what to say about this other than that I loved it. There was some content from the blog and a whole bunch of new content, and it was all great and I stormed through it in a couple of days. It was pretty unusual compared to most of the books I read as there were loads of illustrations throughout the book, just like the blog, and they really add to the hilarity of all the situations.

There was so much more I wanted to write about this that's sort of slipped away from me because I read it quite a while ago now, damn. I really love the way she writes, her voice, her sense of humour, her illustration, it's all great. The honesty is also really touching in the parts where she reveals details of her personal life. All great, and look forward to reading more.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Some thoughts for December 2013

It's coming close to the end of 2013 and there are some things playing on my mind that I feel like exploring a little bit here.

First of all, I will have been keeping this blog and this record for three years come January, which is a pretty big deal I guess. I initially started out this project as a way of documenting what I read, as I read so much that I found I had a tendency to forget what I felt about certain books after I read them. In my time working for bookshops and publishers I had also acquired a growing number of books and I guess I wanted some way of cataloguing what I owned and what I was reading, etc.

While I was still involved in the book industry, there was more of a drive to this, I guess, in that I was keeping up more with book-related news, and it was using social media to make connections with people I found interesting or just to see what was going on.

Which I guess leads me on to 'secondly', which is that I'm not really sure what the purpose of this blog is anymore. I'm fairly certain I don't have any readers, so who is my audience and who am I writing for? Myself? I feel like my voice (whatever that is) has a slight self-consciousness to it in that I know that people can read this, but I'm not really expecting them to. As a result I think a lot of my writing on here has become sloppy and not particularly passionate. My 'reviews' tend to focus on whether or not I enjoyed a book, rather than looking at it critically in any way, or thinking about it deeply. And that's fine! To a certain extent. However it's also becoming apparent to me that it's not particularly satisfying, either. So I guess I need to make a decision with this. I need to either close up shop and make this private if no one is ever going to see it and it's just a record for myself, or I need to re-commit and throw myself into it again, put some thought into the words I'm stringing together and put myself out there. To what end? I'm not really sure.

What I am sure of is that I love reading. I love being transported into another world, I love seeing things from someone else's point of view, I love learning, I love becoming invested in the stories and the characters, I love the loyalties to my various favourite authors who I can rely on to provide this transportation to their world.

I haven't read nearly as many books this year as I did in 2011 and 2012, which makes me kind of sad, because books are my thing and if I'm not passionate about them then I'm not really passionate about anything, and I'm just not really doing much with myself, I guess.

I don't know what I want to do with myself in the future of my life - whether I want a career, or whether I want to settle down, or whether I want to travel, but I know that I pretty much need books to be a part of it in some way.

I think that's as good a place as any to start making a commitment from.

166/111 - The Round House by Louise Erdrich

I've been wanting to read this book ever since it won the National Book Awards in the US last year. I've never really read anything in this genre before - I guess I would count this as slightly historical being set in the 80s :) and set in Native American culture, which I also know nothing about.

The only other book I have read which was also set in Native American culture was a book I found at a book exchange at a hotel in Mexico. The book was a cheap romance novel called Bold Wolf and it had a really salacious cover. I think I may have even torn the cover off an kept it after ditching the book because it was so camp. Bold Wolf was about a young lady whose name I forget who has a forbidden love affair with a young Native American man called Bold Wolf. There's plenty of bodice ripping and sauciness throughout however it was also pretty racially insensitive, I remember thinking at the time. It passed some of the hours on a long bus journey, so I guess it wasn't all bad.

Anyway, I'm not here to talk about Bold Wolf, I'm here to talk about The Round House.

This obviously has a very different feel to it. It's the story told from the point of view of a teenage boy called Joe who lives on a reservation with his family. One day his mother is brutally attacked, which damages her mentally as well as physically. Joe becomes consumed with finding out who attacked his mother as well as grappling with different relationships with members of his family. I really liked Joe as a narrator and I loved the way this book showed the different family and community groups so richly. Some of the stories and characters were hilarious, and others, like Linda's, were pretty tragic. But all of them were really interesting, and so I wasn't just reading a story about this particular incident and Joe's struggle with it, but I was also getting a bit of a history and anthropology lesson at the same time, in a very entertaining way.

Louise Erdrich appears to have won several awards for her writing, and yet I had never come across her before hearing about this novel last year, which is strange I guess. Maybe she's more popular in the US, but in the UK I had never come across her before. I would definitely read more of her work, a lot of which is set against the backdrop of Native American culture. According to Wikipedia, she is also part Native American which is great because I guess it means she can write from experience to a certain extent. I don't know if I would class that as something essential to the writing but I think it certainly helps. This was really interesting as it's a culture and a history I know nothing about, so I enjoyed what I learned.

Friday, 6 December 2013

165/111 - Joyland by Stephen King

Of course I was going to end up reading this at some point! I've actually had this for a few months but had been saving it for my holiday that I am currently on. I really like reading Stephen King in large chunks because I find myself getting so caught up in the story. Reading it in dribs and drabs of ten pages here and there is really unsatisfying for me, so I wanted a good chunk of time where I could just read this uninterrupted.

It's part of the Hard Case Crime series, like The Colorado Kid, so I think I hesitated a little reading this because I'm not a huge crime nut, but when I read this it didn't really fall into the category of crime as I see it in my mind. I guess it was more of a mystery, which is fine as that's probably an off-shoot that comfortably fits into this genre.

It's set in the 70s and told from the point of view of an older Devin Jones who is remembering the year after his first year of college where he went to work in a theme park called Joyland. He moves for the summer to work at the park, makes new friends, gets his heart broken and tries to solve the mystery of who killed Linda Grey on the haunted house ride. Throughout the course of this he learns a lot of stuff about life, which sounds really cheesy but I'm too lazy to articulate it any better at the moment.

I really enjoyed this, as I almost always do with Stephen King books, and I don't think there's really any need for me to elaborate on that any more than I already have. It kept me enthralled with a good story and compelling characters that made me want to read and read and not stop, and that's pretty much all I ask for in a book.

164/111 - Naomi's Room by Jonathan Aycliffe

I downloaded this book onto my iPad to read on holiday in Cornwall. I was hoping for a nice scary read while in a cottage somewhere so I could sort of snuggle up under a blanket while being creeped out. I think I first read about it online somewhere.

The story is told from the point of view of Charles, who is an old man I think, who is writing down an account of the haunting of his house by his daughter Naomi. He describes his perfect life with his wife Laura and their adorable daughter Naomi, and how one day on a shopping trip in London, Naomi is abducted. Several days later, her mutilated body turns up and Charles and Laura are totally grief-stricken. There are no leads in the murder, however after several weeks, they start to experience some ghostly happenings in the house, and it becomes clear that Naomi is haunting the house.

Then there are some twists - the police detective who is investigating the murder also turns up dead at the site where Naomi's body was found, and then Charles starts getting involved with a journalist who claims to have photos of the house with the ghost of Naomi in them. They start to investigate and sort of start to get to the route of things. Turns out, there is an evil presence in the house from the previous occupant, who was a doctor who went mad and killed his family. He is also haunting the house along with the ghosts of his dead wife and daughters. Then the journalist turns up dead. Then, for some reason, Charles becomes possessed by the ghost of the dead doctor and rapes his wife and sister and murders his niece and then buries their bodies behind a wall in the attic.


I was really enjoying the book up until this weird plot twist, which to me seemed totally bizarre and came out of nowhere. It was really creepy and atmospheric. I don't know what I was expecting - maybe for them to put their daughter to rest, or get rid of the evil spirit or something, but to just end up casually becoming possessed by him seemed really silly.

Good first half, lame second half.

163/11 - Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin

I first came across Andrea Dworkin when I was a sixth-form student at Kendrick. I studied Sociology as one of my A-levels, which was offered by a teacher called Dr Swale. I don't know which subject she was a doctor in, however I remember finding her to be quite odd when I was a teenager, but looking back now, seeing her as someone who 'marched to the beat of her own drum', as the cliche goes. A pretty inadequate phrase, but it will do for now I suppose. She was odd, but very measured and definitely knew what she was talking about. Very quiet and thoughtful woman.

One of the topics we covered in this class was Feminists theory and history, which I suppose was what really started to speak my interest in that area. Dr Swale mentioned these writers like Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller and Catherine McKinnon who had very radical views on what it meant to be female in the world we inhabit, and different ideas on how to radically change society for everyone in it. As a teenager, I suppose I was pretty intrigued by some of the more 'salacious' areas of their writings, such as that 'all sex is rape', and that 'all men benefit from rape', which are two ideas that have really stuck with me, although I didn't have any deeper understanding beyond those headlines.

The next time I came across Andrea Dworkin was when I was working for Waterstones, and we had a copy of her biography in stock, which was going on sale as it was end-of-line, or something like that. I didn't buy it at the time.

This time round, I have come across her work again through some recommendations through radical feminist blogs who have again put forward the ideas that men and women cannot have sex without it being exploitative to women, and that all sex is rape, and one of the comments from an author who was getting into a debate with a commenter was, first, go and read Intercourse, and then come back to me and we can continue with this discussion.

Although this comment wasn't aimed at me, I noticed a link for the PDF of the text and decided to download one of the books and try to give it a read, so as to better understand this position. As of writing this post, I am about a third of the way through Intercourse and I'm finding it to be quite a tough read. It reminds me a little of some of the Judith Butler texts I tried to read at Uni without much luck, as I found them to be too dense for me and I didn't connect with them much. I'm also finding this of Intercourse, and I'm not sure I'll be able to finish the book, which is guess is why I'm writing this post at the moment, as a sort of internal debate about whether I should continue with it. I want to understand the ideas put forward, but I'm just not sure that I do, which is a little off-putting. I'm not against working hard at a read, however I'm not sure that I'm getting it, which is pretty frustrating.

I think I might park this for now and read something simpler and work my way up to this kind of heavy theory, as I'm finding it a bit inaccessible. Not a comment on the content, more just that I'm not able to really take it in as it's so far removed from what I know, so I'm not really able to make a good judgement on whether I agree with any of the ideas yet. This kind of heavy theory feels like it requires translation from English into...layman's English?


I've decided not to finish this book for now. It's just too incomprehensible for me. I don't understand it and I think that there's an arguments to be made for texts being too inaccessible which is itself a form of privilege. I've got fairly good grades at school and I've got a university education, and I can't understand this book. There are also going to be many others who can't, which makes me question who this book (and others like it) is actually written for? For other academics? For other radical feminists? If its aim is to educate then it seems to fail at that somewhat because of the language and phrasing of ideas that are just too obscure. Perhaps this is the wrong text to have picked up for now, maybe something simpler to start with.

162/111 - Driven by James Sallis

I read this quite a while ago now so I don't have much to say about it as I've forgotten pretty much everything. I had no idea that James Sallis has written a sequel to Drive, or that it was called Driven, however I really enjoyed Drive so decided to buy this to read.

I didn't enjoy this as much as I enjoyed Drive, I felt like for a lot of the book I was sort of waiting for it to get started, and it never really felt like it got off the ground. In this book, it's six years later and Driver has his own life now, only suddenly one day someone starts trying to kill him again, so he has to go back underground and become his old self. He spends loads of the book moving from place to place, doing up old cars and killing people that are out to get him. The other characters are all pretty much interchangeable and not particularly interesting. The main thing driving the plot (so sorry for the pun) is Driver trying to discover who is out to kill him.

You may remember the character Blanche from the book/film who has a very minor role and ends up getting killed during a heist that goes a bit wrong. It turns out that her father is pretty sore about the whole thing, and thinks that Driver is the one that killed her. He has basically no evidence to prove this, so decides to send goon after goon to try and kill Driver. I think at the end they have a conversation where Driver says something like, "Dude, I didn't kill your daughter" and the father says "Okay, cool" and then everything is fine . I'm not sure, I can't really remember.