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Monthly Archives: August 2012

On Freedom of Choice

I am lucky.  I have always lived in democracies.  I grew up with middle class, liberal parents, with enough time and enough money.  This means I am not accustomed to having my choice constrained.  I have been brought up to believe that choice (in its broadest meaning – having the freedom, time and money) to do most of what you want, most of the time, is almost natural, a necessity at the least.

Most of the time, the only thing constraining my choices has been me. My fears, my rules, my plans, aspirations or timelines.  In general, my choices have been most constrained by me when I am focussing on things I find hard: exercising more, going out less, dieting, studying for exams etc.

So my current situation is very strange, because I am electively reducing my opportunities for free will on a subject I enjoy, am relatively good at and am not working toward getting better at.

Because people know I love to read, they often suggest books to me.  I love working to recommendations, so this suits me down to the ground.  But in the last few weeks this has got frustrating.  There are so many books out there for me to read, yet until this project is complete, I have utterly reduced my ability to choose to read them. In addition, in response to this project people have started suggesting lists of books I should read, as the next project.  My brain is overflowing with novel (get it?) ideas.

Luckily, I have a coping mechanism for this.  When I want to do something that I know – for whatever reason – I won’t get around to right now, I make a list.  Type A, moi?  So:

The next project:

  1.  Books people think I have read.  People often assume I have read most of the classics I haven’t.  Maybe I should.
  2. All the Man Booker winners, ever.  I reckon I have done about half of these, so would have a head start.  But reading the remaining half may make the project feel a little incomplete.
  3. The most difficult books to read.  To be honest, this just sounds ridiculously hard and no fun.  But as it was suggested, I felt I should add it for completeness.

Books people have told me I would enjoy:

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain) – see point 1, above.
  • NW (Zadie Smith)
  • Sweet Tooth (Ian McEwan)… look, I am aware that they all have the same ‘sliding doors’ plot line, but I am always hooked, nevertheless
  • Toby’s Room (Pat Barker) – a new PB always makes my day
  • The Gift of Rain (Tan Twan Eng) – so excited to hear The Garden of Evening Mists wasn’t a first novel

Further suggestions in both categories welcome.




Head over heart?

Reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I have been ruminating on what makes a Man Booker Winner.  This struck me because, much as I think that this novel is wonderful, I just can’t see it winning. It just seems so old-fashioned, so generous-spirited, so little England (in the good sense).  It reminds me of my grandma, and the smell of baking scones and damp country lanes.  It resonates with something deep within even my, not particularly English, soul.  But I am just not sure it is winning material.



Now it is important to stress my thinking on this is as unscientific as it comes.  I haven’t read  all the winners, I don’t know the judges or their judging criteria, but still a few things hit me.

The Man Booker Prize is an international prize

This ‘internationality’ is something it stresses, as a differentiator with the ‘American’ prizes.  This book is terribly, wonderfully English. I can’t imagine how international audiences will react to it.

It likes to be a little edgy

Not on the scale of the ‘no winner for you this year’ Pulitzer or anything, but still, I struggle to see this on a list with Rushdie’s works.  It is quaint and endearing and a little retrograde.  You could give it to your Grandma for Christmas.

The prize is a little too ‘literary’

The panel comprises an author, two publishers, a literary agent, a bookseller, a librarian, and a chairperson appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation.  This novel is anything but literary in the snobby sense.  It is accessible and friendly and kind to the reader.

As you may be able to tell, I have fallen a little in love with this novel (and I haven’t even finished it yet).  If you are a Brit abroad in particular, you must read it for a little nostalgia (whilst quietly humming Jerusalem to yourself).  I could provide an extensive list of all the things it brings to mind, from rich tea biscuits, to boisterous pub landlords, to boat shoes (something of a theme in this novel).

But at the same time, I understand why the judges are unlikely to prove me wrong – plucked heartstrings does not a winner make.






The Yips: Over the Hump

Most of us – well, all of us really, as far as I am aware – like to be right.  Not only in the sense that we like to know things, but also in the sense that we like our more qualititaive preconceptions to be proven correct.

For me, this project has turned this ‘normal’ response on its head.  I find being proven right a little dissapointing.  The whole point of this reading adventure is to prove me wrong; to teach me that it is worth reading outside my normal boundaries and that often the books I have chosen not to read, may, in fact, be more enjoyable than those I would normally have selected.

Unfortunatelty, The Yips proved me right. 

The likelehood of me normally buying a book with a cover like this is basically 0.

Though I would like to caveat this with two things. (a) The Yips was my ‘hump book’.  It fell in the middle of the project, it was long, and I have been busy.  It took me ten days to read it – far longer than any other book so far – and I undoubtedly lost my flow at points so am a little concerned it didn’t get the most fair reading. (b) When thinking about reviewing this novel I find my feelings are really mixed.  Overall, I didn’t really enjoy it and I struggled to push on with reading it.  However, it did a couple of important things really well – better than any of the novels so far.  Which makes you think, which of the ‘important things’ is most important for a good novel?  More ruminations on this to come, as the adventure progresses…


Why The Yips didn’t float my boat:

1. It didn’t have an obvious purpose

I have literally no idea what I was supposed to take away from this book.  The whole book, including the ending were just a bit inconclusive.  Things happened, and then other things happened – there were twists and turns, just no sense of purpose.  Maybe this was some kind of deep commentary on the human condition.  Maybe I just completely failed to understand a seminal, state of the nation work (as the c0ver would lead you to believe).  But, itt all just seemed a bit facile, which is a particular problem, as….

2. It wasn’t funny, in fact it was really bitter

There were elements of dark humor from time to time, but it didn’t even nearly make me laugh.  It is not implausible that what I took to be unremitting bitterness, others would see as funny.  Maybe I am just a little Pollyanna for this book.  But it just seemed to be down on everything: sex, relationships, work, religion (and so the list could go on…)  For instance:

On sex: ” ‘ There’s the women who will have sex with you, and the women who won’t have sex with you because they think that if they do have sex with you then you won’t respect them afterwards.  This second kind are the worst, because they actually think that by not having sex with you they actually represent more of “a challenge”, so when they do finally have sex with you (and – let’s face it – it’s only a matter of time), it will somehow be more “meaningful”‘… Ransom enunicaites the word ‘meaningful’ in much the same way as a normal person might enunicate the word ‘diarrhoea’.”

On marriage: ” ‘ How does it work?  With endless amounts of compromise of course! And self-denial. And frustration. And confusion. And bitter recrimination. And constant resentment. And utter boredom…’ She pauses, briefly, to draw breath. ‘And bouts of incandescent rage,’ she continues, opening her eyes again.’


But, all was not lost. 

A couple of things about this novel worked in its favour:

A. Characterisation

This was easily the most wonderfulyl executed characterisation of any of the novels so far.  By the end, I really felt I knew who the characters were: how they would answer my questions if I had them around for tea.  This comes back to my earlier point that, clearly, longer books allow for more well-rounded characters.  But also the characters were interesting – they had interesting ideas and spoke of interesting things. An agrophobic, fourties-styled tattoo artist would be one example, of many.

B. Facts

Oh, how I love a good fact. And this novel is choc-a-bloc with factual anecdotes.  I probably learned more random information from this novel than from any book for a very long time. Some examples:

  • The word ‘ individual’ did not exist in Japan until 1884.  It first came into use following an early translation of Rousseau’s Social Contract;
  • Battenberg was created in honour of Queen Victoria’s Granddaughter’s marriage to Prince Louis of Battenberg – the squares represent the Prince’s four brothers; and
  • When bears mate they go through a process of delayed implantation – the egg fertilized egg floats around in the uterus until the bear is in hibernation.  The cubs are born eight weeks later whilst the bear is asleep.

c. Selfishness and guilt

These two subjects are addressed in quite an interesting (and intertwined) fashion in the book.  At one point, one of the principal characters opines that guilt is a selfish emotion (as when it is social it becomes shame).  As much of the second half of this novel centres on ideas of guilt and repentence (and whether public repentence is anything more than a publicity stunt), this statement sets the tone for the way the reader is supposed to view the narrative playing out.  This really coloured my reading of the second half of the novel, which on the one hand made it more interesting, whilst on the other, made it more depressing, as characaters who you had previously liked, appear less likeable when viewed through this lens.


A last little aside.  Obviously, the books I am reading are pretty different to each other.  But weirdly, reading them back-to-back like this, you start to notice little conncections and similarities.  For instance, this novel and The Garden of Evening Mists both focus heavily on the role of the tattoo in society and both even reference its association with the Japanese underworld – a location in which neither novel is set.


Some brief thoughts on learning… a follow up to 3738 days, 83 pages

Right at the outset  of this project, I outlined the things that I thought, for me, made a good book.  To recap:

  1. They can’t be all doom and gloom
  2. Things need to happen
  3. They need to be quotable
  4. They have to be memorable

(Despite the lack of obvious segway, this next section is related…)

I was thinking about The Yips last night.  And how, even though it still hasn’t made me laugh out loud once (or even chuckle quietly to myself, in my head, as I am want to do) it has grown on me.  This was puzzling me.  I mean okay, it is not gloomy and stuff happens, but it is not particularly quotable or memorable.  Yet I am definitely warming to it.  And then the missing piece of the jigsaw came to me, good book rule number 5:

5. I learn something


I love a good random fact; if a big teaches me something I didn’t know, not only may that come in handy at pub quizzes or in dinner party conversation but it will mean the book lives on in my memory long after the narrative itself is forgotten.

The Yips is good for that.  Some examples to follow in the forthcoming Yips review (expected this weekend, if all goes to plan).

Neither fish nor fowl….

Being in the middle is famously problematic.  Middle child, squeezed middle, mid-week blues….

The middle of a project  often suffers a similar fate.  At the beginning you are all excited, motivated and raring to go.  By the end, finish line in sight, you get that last burst of adrenaline and press on.  But the middle is neither fish nor fowl.   If you have ever flagged in the middle of a run, or a long day at work, you will get the gist.

Right now I am pretty much slap bang in the middle of my project – half way through book six of twelve (and I started out with most of the longer books…) I am struggling a little, but far from giving in (hey, I am no quitter!)

I have thought a little about this and have decided my mid-project blues can be attributed to three issues:

  1. I don’t have any reading adventure buddies.  I am doing this alone.  So there is nobody out there, who I know is doing the same thing, to encourage me or compete with me, or mock me, or do whatever it takes to chivvy me along;
  2. Being ‘ahead of the curve’ in the middle is particularly problematic.  Because there is literally no onus to press on.  The beginning is far away, the end is not yet in sight and there is no time pressure keeping you going; and
  3. The Yips hasn’t made me laugh yet (and it is loooong).

I am persevering, but slowly.  I just wanted to let you know I hadn’t forgotten you.

The inevitable back story chapter…

Until just under a month ago I had never blogged, or really had any inclination to.  I am a reader not a writer.  And in terms of blogging about books, well, I hadn’t really thought about books in that way since school.

Ironically, it was actually two books, neither on blogging, which inspired me to start this blog.  Both were books that it was quite unlikely I would ever normally read.

The first was The Night Circus:

Now this is a fantasy book, and as a person with a highly limited imagination, I would never choose to read one of these. Even the cover put me off.

But as discussed previously, I comply with rules.   And this was a book selected for my work book club – and the (admittedly unwritten) rule about book clubs is that you chose to be a member, of your own volition, so read the book, whether you would have chosen to or not.  So I did.

It is not that I loved this book.  I liked  it in parts, found it hard to understand in parts and disliked it in parts.  But I did think a bit about why other people had loved it so much and came to the conclusion that, without loving it myself, I could understand why it was good.  It was beautifully written, incredibly evocative and unusual.

This led me to thinking that there were probably a lot of books out there that I would normally write off which were actually worth a read.  That it was good to expand my mind by thinking about different books – and the more different a book is the m0re likely it is to lead to a little thinking. And finally, that probably the best way to assess whether a novel is worth reading – as I couldn’t use my normal criteria – was by knowing that other people thought they were good.  This started me thinking….

The second was the Happiness Project:

Now as a rule I don’t read self help books.  And I have read – but don’t particularly like – if you are even a little unhappy throw in the towel – kind of inspirational books.  And this book does fall into that general category.  But I picked it up while browsing a book shop abroad and I liked the premise.  Which is: I like my life, but I know – deep down – that there are some things I could do to make it that bit better.  I will apply some time to thinking about those things and then doing them and see what happens.  And that is what the author Gretchen Rubin does.

So, as I am sure thousands (if not millions) of people who have read this book before me have done, I tried it too.  There was a fairly long list of small things I tried, including Rubin’s ‘one minute rule’ (paraphrasing: if a task takes less than a minute do it at the time as having it hanging over you will inevitably annoy you more than the actual task).  But some things on my list were:

  • Take time for the things you really enjoy
  • Bask in being outside your comfort zone

And this blog is both: I love reading (and wanted an excuse to take more time out to do it) but is also, in both a choice of literature and a blogging sense, outside my comfort zone.

So that is how I ended up here.

And I am really, really enjoying this project.  I knew I would love taking time out to read.  And I knew I would love some of the novels.  But I am also finding a great deal of joy in the more cerebral way of reading – thinking about novels as I go, analysing them and writing about it.

But possibly my favourite thing of all is the connections I have made through this project.  Beyond my own circle, I have never sought to publicise the blog- that wasn’t the aim.  I have no idea how it happened, but I now have readers, commenters and twitter followers I have never met, from countries I have never been to.

And that is such an unexpected delight, so thank you.


I love to laugh, ha ha ha ha

Apparently, the average adult laughs fifteen times per day.  Most days I like to think I laugh more than that.  I openly laugh at (or maybe with) most people I know and a fair few I don’t. Occasionally I giggle on my own, at socially awkward moments, whilst mentally recounting some previous hilarious incident.  Good, live, stand up comedy can make me laugh until I look like I need hospitalization.  I have been known to laugh until I get the hiccups.

But I am not very good at finding less interactive entertainment truly funny.  Very rarely, I will laugh at television (okay, only really New Girl), films or the theatre. I don’t think I have ever laughed out loud at a book.

I could probably do a fairly good job at psychoanalyzing this element of my personality, but for the sake of both my sanity and yours, I will refrain.

Because I inevitably find them both boring and disappointing, I avoid books marketed as ‘funny’.  When I read a book, I want escapism, to enter the protagonists’ world, to live their life.  I don’t read to laugh.  I realise this may well be a chicken / egg situation – I don’t read books that are supposed to be funny because I have never found a book funny.  But I am just not sure I am mentally composed in the right way to laugh at a novel.

Unfortunately, my reading journey now takes me to The Yips, a 550 page ‘funny’ novel:

I am really not looking forward to reading this book and just getting started this evening will take all my will power. But maybe this will be the book that changes things. Will it challenge my preconceptions?  Will I look like one of those crazy people laughing aloud to myself on the tube?  Only time will tell.