My May Reading List

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I know from reading the blogs and tweets of my book-loving friends that I’m not the only one struggling to concentrate on reading (or anything much) at the moment.  It’s not that the tempting titles aren’t there, but there’s simply so much chaos, stress and confusion going on in what’s become an almost unrecognisable world that it can’t help but filter its way into everyone’s minds and hearts, whether we’ve been personally touched by the current tragedy or not.  On the days when I do feel inclined to pick up a book, however, they’ve come to my rescue as they always do and taken me to a far more manageable place, if only for a while.  So although May has got off to a bit of a slow start, over the next few weeks I’m going to make a concerted effort to take time away from the news and social media, and just relax with my paperback friends.  If you’re in need of some inspiration yourself, here are my picks for this month.

A Map of the Damage – Sophia Tobin

I’ve been a fan of this author since I read her first book, The Silversmith’s Wife, so I was crazily excited when I saw that her latest was about to be released in paperback.  I started reading it a few days ago and it’s already made me cry, made me angry and got me utterly hooked – so a good start then!

The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki

Another bookseller recommended this to me, calling it “the Japanese Little Women” and my word it’s lived up to the comparison so far!  Told almost entirely from a female perspective, it’s a real cultural eye-opener, shedding light on the expectations, conventions and disappointments of marriage among the more privileged elements of pre-war Japanese society.  I’m loving it so much, at the moment it looks set to be a contender for one of my books of the year so far.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

I read Reality is Not What it Seems last year and was surprised how much I enjoyed it (and also, I’m not going to lie, a little bit chuffed how much I managed to grasp) so decided to give this one a go.  To be fair, any understanding I gleaned from the aforementioned title was entirely down to the author’s skill at conveying complex concepts in an accessible way rather than any innate scientific instinct on my part, so I’m very much hoping he pulls off the same trick with this one.

Collected Ghost Stories – M R James

I’m utterly useless when it comes to ghost stories, horror films or anything remotely spooky, and I usually avoid them like the plague, knowing if I don’t I’ll be sleeping with the light on for at least a week afterwards.  My sister gave me her spare copy of the book this week (with a warning that at least two of the stories are guaranteed to freak me out completely), and I very bravely started tackling it this afternoon.  I have to say, sitting under a tree in the sunshine it didn’t seem that bad, but we’ll have to wait and see how I feel about it when darkness falls…..

What’s on your TBR pile this May?  Anything you’ve started reading that you’re particularly enjoying?  As always, please do share your comments!

 

Six Degrees of Separation – a journey in 6 books!

Something new on This Girl’s Book Room today! The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best and it’s really easy to join in. Each month you get given a book as a starting point, and from there you create a chain of 6 more books, each with a link to the previous one. The connection can be anything you like – it can be related to the book itself, such as a theme or setting, or something more personal, such as another book you read on the same holiday or that was recommended by the same friend. This month was the first time I’ve taken part and honestly, I had so so much fun rifling through the bookshelves to make my book chain! If you fancy having a go, you can leave a link to your 6 Degrees blog post in the comments section over on Kate’s page here, and you can join in on Twitter too using the hashtag #6Degrees. So without further ado, here are my 6 degrees of separation.

This month’s starting book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve never read it, so I thought I’d use the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize to take me to my next title, which is…..

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is one of my all time favourite books! Like The Road, it also won the Pullitzer Prize a few years ago, and is set primarily in France during the Second World War. The Paris setting inspired me to go for my next choice, which is….

These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

This novel follows the lives of a group of residents in a Paris apartment block; however, beyond the personal stories of love and loss, it also deals with the wider themes of culture and belonging, in particular in relation to the growing anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic feeling festering behind the closed doors of Number 37 and across the city. This notion of culture clash, and of being treated as an outsider in your home country leads me to….

The Immigrant by Manju Kapur

This tells the story of a woman from India who moves to Canada following an arranged marriage. It’s a brilliant, although often quite sad, story of feeling torn between two opposing cultures and identities. I took the book’s theme of moving across the world to start a new life to take me to my next choice….

The Colour by Rose Tremain

This tells the story of a couple who emigrate from England to New Zealand in the hope of making their fortune from the goldrush that gripped the country in the nineteenth century. From here, there was only really one book that I could pick next!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

This is also set in goldrush New Zealand; I found it a pretty challenging read I have to admit, in terms of its length and also its labyrinth of plots and characters, but it was certainly highly rated, and went on to win the Man Booker Prize. Which brings me neatly to my last book….

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Once I got as far as The Luminaries I knew another Booker prize winner would give me a nice long list of titles to choose from – but which one? In the end, I simply decided to go for one I’d really enjoyed, and this was it.

So there we are – from The Road to The Sea, The Sea in 6 books! Please do comment and let me know if you’ve taken part; it’s really fascinating to see which direction everyone takes and where they end up!

My top 5 reads of 2020

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Back in 2018 I started keeping a log of all the books I read over the course of a year (the old fashioned way, with a notebook and pen, naturally!)  It came about partly out of a desire to count how many books I actually got through in 12 months – not as many, incidentally, as I would have guessed before I started keeping score – but also because when you’re on a continuous reading cycle I find it can be really hard to recall what you were reading even a few weeks earlier, so absorbed do you become in the latest book pile.  With current events playing havoc with perceptions of time (I barely even know what day of the week it is anymore) I suddenly felt the urge to get my notebook out this morning, in the hope that looking back over this year’s reading would drag me back into some kind of meaningful mental timeframe.  Not entirely sure the strategy worked, but what it did make me realise was how many great books I’ve already enjoyed this year; of course, because I only returned to my blog a couple of weeks ago after quite a long time away, that means a whole host of fantastic recommends I haven’t yet shared!  So I thought it would be fun to do a run down of my top 5 reads of 2020 so far, and here they are – in no particular order (that was too hard!)

Chernobyl – Serhii Plokhy

I found this book via quite a surprising recommendation, from someone I would never have imagined enjoying a book on this topic.  I have to admit I’d looked at it previously and assumed (with little reason and completely unfairly it turns out) that it would be quite dry, but following my friend’s enthusiasm decided to give it a go.  And I have to say, it absolutely blew me away.  Its analysis of the tragic event and the politics surrounding it was absolutely forensic in its detail, yet it remained constantly gripping right to the end, when the disaster itself was receding into the past but the political machinations were far from over.  Be warned, it will make you furious, and also incredulous that any state could disregard the lives of its citizens so rashly in order to maintain a political advantage; but I do believe it needs to be read, if only in order to understand what corruption and deceit institutions are capable of.

Invisible Women – Caroline Criado Perez

Another book that will leave you absolutely enraged (I realised while writing this there’s a definite theme emerging!), this time about how women have not only been short-changed by societies across the world, but actively put at risk and in the most extreme cases, effectively killed by assumptions that normality = masculinity.  The book hinges on the idea that since pretty much the dawn of civilisation, a male-dominated society has equated humankind with mankind, leading to a blank space where women’s data should be, with horrendously discriminatory results.  From crash test dummies that are based exclusively on the male physique to pharmaceutical companies that run all-male tests leading to drugs that are less effective – or even harmful – to the female body, the pervasive nature of this absence of women will shock and horrify you.  Read it, then get all your friends of all genders to read it – I honestly believe this is one of the most important messages I’ve come across in any book over recent years.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk

Laced with a merciless dose of pitch-black humour, this novel bares its teeth and goes for the throat of Polish society.  Patriarchal authority figures, blood sports enthusiasts, the institutions of law and order that ostensibly work for the greater good of society while marginalising those who fall outside the “boys’ club” of politics and business – none are safe from this stinging literary attack.  This superb novel has minutely realised characters, and follows a series of macabre events that will leave you caught somewhere between laughter and revulsion; it’s memorable, stylish and completely different.  Apparently it caused an uproar in Poland when it was published, which possibly shows how acutely on-point the satire was….

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

For decades our ghoulish obsession with Jack the Ripper, in particular the titillating spin that’s been attached repeatedly to his crimes by the accepted mythology around his victims being prostitutes, has completely overshadowed one crucial fact: those he killed were all real people who had a story of their own before they came to be notable in history merely as dead bodies.  In this book, Hallie Rubenhold gives these women back their voices, and in doing so dismantles many of the lurid assumptions that have surrounded them for so long.  In keeping with the theme of my favourite books of 2020, yes, it will make you a little angry – every single one of these women were let down by a society that left no room for a woman to survive and make a life for herself without a man by her side on which to depend.  But it will also make you extremely sad, and yet grateful to the author for putting these victims back into the spotlight as living people, rather than corpses on a street corner.

Austerlitz – W G Sebald

Since I read this back in February I’ve been recommending it to tons of people; it’s one of those novels that’s so unique it sticks in your mind long after the last page.  It’s unusual in that it masquerades as a true story, even to the point where it includes photographs that purport to be of places and people connected to the main characters.  It’s so convincing that while you’re reading part of you starts to wonder if indeed these people are in fact real and this truly is a biography.  That’s not the case, but it is a thoroughly authentic exploration of suffering and loss, and what that does to the psyche over many decades.  The background to Austerlitz’s story is the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews around the time of the Second World War; however, the inevitable fate of his family and the horrific situation from which he managed to escape are only hinted at.  The sadness is somehow more powerful for being so opaque; it’s a truly affecting novel, mighty in its quietude and subtlety.

Which have been your favourite books of 2020 so far?  Do comment and let me know!

 

 

 

 

 

Why we will always need bookshops….

Picture1I was beyond excited last week when the first of three book parcels arrived on my doorstep.  Working in a bookshop, I’m lucky enough never to have any need to order my books online, but I have to admit there was an undeniable sense of anticipation knowing what longed-for items lay within.  I’ve watched a few unboxing videos now and then, and as an enthusiastic proponent of hands-on high street shopping I confess they’ve always left me a little bit underwhelmed; but having experienced the warm, fuzzy glow of seeing the big black W on my post office delivery, I feel a bit more like I get it.  Will this be anywhere near the happiness of stepping back into a bookshop again when these dreadful times are over, however?  I somehow doubt it.

Since we closed our doors my fellow booksellers and I have been struck, and quite moved, by the affection that’s come our way from the local community.  There have been posts and messages online telling us how much we are missed.  A couple of my colleagues have been stopped (at a safe distance let me reassure you) while out walking by customers who want to tell us how much they loved coming into our shop and how they long to be able to return.  I’ve even seen an amazing piece of artwork posted online that was done by someone sitting in our café prior to the lockdown and which depicts various groups of people relaxing with a coffee or browsing the shelves in the background.

All this is proof, if any were needed, of the genuine emotional connection that exists between a community and its bookshop.  It’s so much more than a convenient place in which money is handed over in exchange for goods; it’s an ark of knowledge, artistry and ideas, and a space in which any book lover can wax lyrical to like-minded individuals about a shared passion.  It’s a cornucopia of reading pleasure in which you can get a recommendation from a person, not an algorithm.  It can be a safe haven for the anxious or the lonely, or a place that inspires children to embark on a lifetime of reading.  It’s an outing to look forward to when you unwrap those book vouchers on your birthday, and a place to make and meet friends – or even, if you’re lucky, come face to face with your favourite author.

No cardboard box on the doorstep can ever compete with all that.  I very much hope that there are enough people out there in agreement with me to ensure those bookshops that survive these difficult months will be there for many years to come.

Welcome back to the blog!

I think it’s fair to say that many of us have taken to doing some pretty weird and wonderful things during lockdown.  My own isolation achievements certainly cover off many different points on the (all too often mutually exclusive) scales of usefulness and enjoyment.  I have, I’m proud to say, finally discovered what all my hoover attachments do.  I’ve started shredding the two foot high pile of mail going back to 2015 that was becoming a health and safety hazard in the spare room.  I dug out my “brand new for 2010” Camilla Dallerup Cardiodance Workout DVD (although to be fair that’s only happened once so far).  Most pleasurable by a long way was the rearranging of the spare room bookcases.  But of course, more than anything else, I’ve done a hell of a lot of reading.

(I genuinely had to break off from writing at this point to buzz in the postman with a book parcel delivery….)

Talking to my much-missed bookshop colleagues (all currently at home now of course) we agree to a man how much harder this peculiar time would be if we didn’t love reading so much.  Right now, I think everyone out there is finding whatever psychological escape route they can, whether that’s baking, art or Netflix marathons, and reading of course, is mine.  After a couple of bad days earlier on during lockdown, getting myself back into the headspace where I could completely lose myself in a book again has been enormously beneficial; because of course books in their turn put you in a more relaxed state of mind where you can take pleasure from other things.  Over the coming weeks I’ll be sharing the books that I’m enjoying, and as ever I’d love to hear what you’re reading too.  I actually stopped writing for my original blog – Girl, Reading – a couple of years ago for various reasons, but now seemed like the right time to pick it up again and to spread a bit of literary love in these difficult times.  Happy reading to you all.

July blogging update!

I can’t believe it’s July already.  I also can’t believe how much time has gone by since my last blog post so I thought I’d better check in and let everyone know I’m still here!  Honestly, I have so many great books either on the go or imminently pending, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day right now to get all my reading done, let alone writing.  For a start, it’s Wimbledon – and as a bit of a tennis lover, even my beloved books are going to have to take a bit of a back seat for the next fortnight.  Work is mental (no change there then!) but there’s never a dull moment and the days pass in a whirlwind of activity until someone gently reminds me I should be going home.  And since I’ve turned into a bit of a slug recently I’ve resolved to get back to doing at least a little bit of yoga every day.  Which doesn’t always happen.  BUT I’m determined to share some of my July reads with you soon.  I’m just about to start “Wives and Daughters” as part of my challenge to get back into the classics, and I’ve just started what promises to be an amazing book, “These Dividing Walls” by Fran Cooper.  Should I admit that I’m STILL going with “4 3 2 1”?  It’s a bit embarrassing since I distinctly remember posting about that very book in my April reading round-up and am still barely a quarter of the way through, but I have no bookish secrets from you all, my lovely followers!  I’m sure we’ve all been there though, with those books that for some unfathomable reason you enjoy at the point of reading yet don’t feel any burning desire to come back to once you’ve put them down.  Paul Auster’s latest is one of those, but I’m sufficiently invested to keep going with it, albeit at a slower pace than normal.  I’m also excited to be taking part in the Quercus Summer Reads competition and as part of that I’ll be reading and blogging about “The Little Theatre by the Sea” by Rosanna Ley, so look out for that review coming your way soon.

I’ll do my best to get something online before too long – in the meantime enjoy the sunshine!

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A generous helping of guilt for a Tuesday evening…

A few days ago I took myself off to Whitstable (a picturesque, characterful town on the Kent coast) and, predictably, ended up in a bookshop.  It was one of those small but perfectly formed independents that somehow manage to cram an impressive literary catalogue into the space of a living room, and in the corner near the till my attention was caught by the best collection of Wordsworth Classics I’ve seen anywhere for a long time.  I’m sure book lovers everywhere will agree there’s something about classics by any publisher – Wordsworth, Penguin, Oxford, whoever – all grouped together that’s pretty intoxicating to us book addicts.  There was no way I was going to be able to leave without buying one, but even as I handed over my £2.50 (bargain!) for Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Wives and Daughters” I was already trying to ward off the nagging awareness that although I do still love to buy classics sometimes, in truth I’ve almost entirely stopped reading them.

I honestly feel quite guilty about this; after all, I was brought up on the great Victorian classic novelists, reading those way before I moved on to contemporary adult literature, which I only really got into in my early twenties, and I’m an English Lit grad too, which I still feel marks my reading card sometimes though it was many years ago.  A year or so ago, when I tried to get back into classics with “Armadale” by Wilkie Collins – an author who wrote two of my all-time favourite novels – I was horrified to admit I found it so…. hard-going.  The language and the pace of this kind of fiction is worlds away from so much modern literature to be sure, but I was still ashamed at how bogged down I felt while trying to read it.  Have I got so out of the habit of reading classics, I thought, that I just can’t cope with them anymore?  And have I got so used to the ease and familiarity of the modern writing style that I’ve lost my ability to absorb, concentrate on and enjoy anything that sounds remotely archaic?  If that’s true, then what a massive failing for someone who claims to be a book lover!

I was talking about reading guilt with someone at work not long ago and we agreed that it can sometimes be a bit difficult to admit you don’t particularly like certain books or authors regarded as “classics” from any era.  In the spirit of honesty I’m going to hold my hands up and say here and now that I can’t stand Dickens.  I’ve started five (never let it be said I don’t give people a fair shot!) and only managed to finish one.  From an objective point of view I can completely see why he’s a literary genius – but I don’t get on with him because he just doesn’t resonate with me.  And that’s ok, my colleague and I decided, because why should anyone be obliged to enjoy certain things?  What’s bothering me about my falling out of love with classic literature isn’t to do with that “shame” of only reading contemporary fiction, as I don’t believe one kind of fiction is more or less worthy than another, but rather what it says about me that a style of writing that once gave me so much enjoyment suddenly feels inaccessible.

I’ve come across quite a few bloggers who set themselves reading challenges, maybe to read a certain number of books a year or to read genres they’d usually avoid.  As yet I’ve never felt I wanted to set myself a challenge of this kind, because a) I don’t like pressure! and b) I’m a reasonably changeable soul and would much prefer to read as the mood takes me; but now I’m thinking that a little, informal challenge might be what’s needed to get me back into classics again.  Quite simply, instead of passing over my unread classics in favour of something shiny and new, I’m going to make sure I start one within the next week.  I bought “Wives and Daughters” – so I’m going to read it!

Maybe this is all an unnecessary hang-up, but I’d really like to feel engaged with older literature like I used to, as it gave me so much pleasure before.  I’ll let you know how progress goes!  I’d also love to hear your thoughts if you’ve ever felt the same, or indeed if you have a completely different take on my predicament – if that’s even what it is.  See you back on the blog very soon, hopefully with a classic book review!

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Bookshop haul – a moment of heatwave madness!

It’s quite clearly not unusual for me to indulge in a bit of book-shopping.   It is unusual for me to lose all self-control and succumb to not just one but multiple hardbacks in a single splurge.  Honestly, I don’t know what came over me.  Maybe it’s the knowledge that it’s payday tomorrow or maybe I was just slightly high on the prospect of a week off with the forecast of blazing sun every day and absolutely no commitments beyond my blog and my books; whatever the (100% valid) excuse I’m now the proud owner of a diverse and somewhat unexpected pile of reading happiness.  So what is this booky bounty?

“Silk” by Alessandro Baricco – since I’m still going with “4 3 2 1” I’m in desperate need of something short to make me feel like I’m achieving something!  I would never have picked this up off my own bat but two colleagues at work have recommended it so I have faith that it’s going to be a good ‘un.  As an added bonus the chapters are about a page each, so if that doesn’t make me feel like I’m making progress nothing will.

“These Dividing Walls” by Fran Cooper – I find Twitter such a great way of discovering new and forthcoming titles, and this is one that I’ve seen mentioned or reviewed several times with almost universally favourable comments.  The premise sparked off comparisons in my mind with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, which I adore, due to its Parisian apartment block setting.  The style and indeed the substance may well turn out to be completely different of course, but nevertheless I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy it.

“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg – this is a bit of a risk in a sense since I know nothing at all about either novel or author.  Yet something about it kept nudging at me as I was browsing the shelves and eventually I decided to take a punt.  The cover art is stunning for a start, and the impression I get from the tiny sections I’ve dipped into is that it has a slightly strange, dreamlike and almost musical quality that I found magnetic, even without knowing anything about the story or setting.  Watch this space.

“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman – I read an excerpt from this novel in a magazine a while back and immediately thought: I AM Eleanor Oliphant!  I was intrigued by the heroine and the idea that life can be, well, absolutely fine, and yet missing something very fundamental at the same time.  There’s been so much love for this all over social media and I can’t wait to read it.

So, a week off awaits and I have a stack of new books, so the reviews should be coming thick and fast before too long!  Here’s hoping your week is as sunny as mine, see you back on the blog soon.

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Glitch on Girl, Reading!

Just a very quick post this evening to apologise to anyone who’s tried to comment on my blog over the last few days. Apparently comments aren’t being accepted for some unknown reason, but rest assured I’m trying to find a fix! If any other WordPress users have had this problem and know how to resolve it please do get in touch via Twitter or my Facebook page – I’d really appreciate any help you can offer. With any luck everything will be running as it should very soon…

 

Reflections on a life in books – a personal post

If you’ve been reading my blog recently you may know I went for a job interview a couple of weeks ago.  You’ll also know I didn’t get it, but the fact I came so very close to embarking on a completely new life (in the end it came down to a choice between me and just one other person) threw me into a state of reflection and self-evaluation the like of which I haven’t experienced for an extremely long time.

My original career plan was to go into publishing after graduation; I realised pretty quickly however that either living in or commuting to London were both out of the question due to my financial circumstances at the time.  Instead I plumped for what I felt was the next best thing but what instead turned out to be the very VERY best thing: a career in bookselling.  In fact, to start with it wasn’t even meant to be a career, rather a way of earning some money in a relevant field before I moved on to what I really wanted to do.  Fifteen years and several bookshops later and I’m still here.  I’ve been a shopfloor bookseller, a store manager and more recently have done some really interesting and fulfilling work in learning and development – but everything I do is grounded in books and the joy I find in them every single day.

And this new job?  Well, it was pretty amazing.  If I’d been successful I would have had an opportunity to travel all over the UK and to work with some of the leading figures in retail L&D.  The responsibility and kudos attached to the role would have been something else.  Yet as I sat on the train on the way home from the final assessment day I felt slightly sick.  Not simply from the fear of change or nervousness about my ability to take on a new professional challenge but because – I realised later – I couldn’t imagine a life away from the world of books that had come to virtually define my existence for most of my adult life.

In the days after the interview and subsequent rejection I was struck by the fact that I’ve managed to achieve something (through chance I should add!) in my working life from the word go that many people take years to find, and some possibly never at all: I found a career that’s a perfect mirror of myself.  Bookselling is essentially me personified and what’s more, it’s also a reflection of almost everyone who works in it.  I’m going to put it out there: I’m a little weird and finally, as thirty recedes rapidly in the rear-view mirror, I’ve made my peace with that.  I’m sure my bookselling colleagues who’ve also found themselves in it for the long haul wouldn’t mind me saying that a few of them are a little weird too!  Books undoubtedly draw in a certain kind of person, and as I sat a couple of weeks ago in a plush Birmingham hotel surrounded by a completely different breed of working people – lovely, welcoming and friendly as they were – I felt my kindred spirits were suddenly very far away from me.  My non-booktrade friends would probably tell you they have some people at work they really like, some who are fine and a not insignificant number they’d be happy to see fall under a bus.  I won’t pretend I’ve adored every single person I’ve ever come into contact with at work but by and large the proportion of people whose company I’ve enjoyed and who I’ve felt I can be completely myself with has been pretty high.  My career in books has given me some of the best friends I could ever have, and it’s no exaggeration to say that at times my book-loving workmates have felt like my second family.

We spend a ridiculously high percentage of our lives at work and so to find a professional world into which you fit without effort is nothing short of a blessing.  I also feel now that not getting that new job was a blessing of its own as it made me stop and think about where my happiness really lies.  I’ve heard so many people say over the years that you don’t work in the book trade to get rich; you do it out of passion.  I see now that my passion is more consuming than I’d ever realised before, and I hope it will keep me at the forefront of this great industry for many years to come.

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