Thursday, 31 December 2009

Best of 2009

I have had a successful reading year in quantity but most importantly in quality. Some of the titles that I have read this year have become all-time favourites. I have also read a lot of new fiction and some of those were extraordinary and I couldn't choose between them all. I have included all of my favourites of 2009 (not in order, excluding the first book in the first mosaic) but have divided them into general best books, best fiction of 2009 and best young adult books read as some of those required special mention.

The mosaic maker crops the images but I thought it may be quite fun if you guessed my favourites from their covers; all of these images have appeared on my blog this year excluding two titles that have yet to be reviewed and were late -but deserved- additions to the list. Please feel free to ask in comments if you are unclear which book I'm referring to as some are more obvious than others.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Reading Year

As I was composing my end-of-year statistics I spied this meme on Savidge Reads and borrowed it.

How many books read in 2009?

I have beaten my own personal best by reading 133 books this year and I'll finish another before midnight on New Year's Eve.

How many fiction and non fiction?

I have only read eight works of non-fiction this year but that is actually rather good for me. I foresee me reading more non-fiction titles in 2010, with a few lined up already for the beginning of the year.

Male/Female author ratio?

35 male authors (two books at least but a few of them) and 78 female authors, which doesn't surprise me at all.

Favourite book of 2009?

The Group by Mary McCarthy, published in 1963 but reissued in 2009. For my favourite new book of the year, check back tomorrow.

Least favourite?

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?

I've been lucky (for the most part) with my choices this year and haven't picked anything up that I couldn't finish although I'm still stunned that I managed to finish The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt and there were definite moments when I suspected that it would never end.

Oldest book read?

I finally read my last remaining unread Jane Austen novel, Persuasion, this year and that was published posthumously in 1817 and the oldest book that I had this year.


After the Fire, A Still Small Voice was most likely the most recently published that I have read but I have read 24 new titles this year

Longest and shortest book titles?

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and Mort.

Longest and shortest books?

Wolf Hall was the longest (even if The Children's Book felt like it) and I read a number of novellas.

How many books from the library?

I've utilised the library as much as possible this year and 38 of the books read were borrowed from the library.

Any translated books?

Fourteen books, predominantly French.

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?

Seven Terry Pratchett novels, six of them set in the Discworld.

Any re-reads?

I reread some Angela Carter, a number of children's books and a few titles that came up as book group choices that I had read years before.

Favourite character of the year?

Terry Pratchett's Death.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?

Perhaps a world tour? London through the ages, Scotland, Ireland, The Czech Republic, the Deep South, North America, Domincan Republic, Colombia, Spain, Poland, Brazil, France, Russia, Australia, India, Japan, Afghanistan, Switzerland, Egypt, Iceland, Sweden, China, Australia, Brazil, Africa, a couple of deserted islands and the Disc.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?

It being my first year blogging, there have been several!

Which author was new to you in 2009 that you now want to read the entire works of?

Esther Freud, John Wyndham, Mary McCarthy, Jhumpa Lahiri, James Scudamore, J.M. Coetzee, Sam Taylor and a few debut novelists who I will seek out future writings from.

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?

There are a few books that I have been wanting to read for some time that I am annoyed with myself for not reading - look out for those in 2010! On the plus side, I read more new fiction this year than I ever have any other year but next year I would like to strike a balance between new fiction and those books that I have been meaning to read.

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (pre-blogging) and Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

Over the next couple of days check back for my round-up of reading in 2009 -both my favourite books of the year and the best published during the year- and following that there may even be a review or two to start of 2010. Once I return to London at the weekend I should be blogging regularly and proficiently again.

A few Christmases ago my boyfriend bought me the Book Lovers Edition of Trivial Pursuit and I thought I could virtually play with my fellow book lovers, or at least ask you a weekly literary question. So here goes (if you win then please treat yourself to a slice of pie/cake/pizza/delete where appropriate)...

From the Classics section:

What novel by D.H. Lawrence finds Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen from The Rainbow all grown up?

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"And somewhere she would find the key to the cupboard. If there was a secret, maybe it was supposed to be discovered like this, only after Shirley was gone"
From The Tin-Kin by Eleanor Thom p. 32

Monday, 28 December 2009


My Christmas-themed reading mainly consisted of Hogfather by Terry Pratchett as I have less reading time over the festive period than I had imagined. However, it was the perfect holiday reading as I could pick it up here and there and be amused for forty so pages before eating and being merry and then return to it for a few more pages in those exhausted moments before I fell asleep to dream of Santa.

I have previously waxed lyrical about Pratchett's anthropomorphic personification of Death and how much of a literary achievement I believe it to be. Hogfather concerns other anthropomorphic personifications that are believed in by humans to creatively explain natural and festive occurrences e.g. the Tooth Fairy and Father Christmas, or in this case the Hogfather who delivers gifts on Hogswatch Night on the Disc. However, something entirely non-festive is afoot, the Hogfather is kind of ... dead, and Death is adorned in a red suit, false beard and attempting to say HO. HO. HO. If Death, along with his granddaughter Susan's assistance, doesn't save Hogswatch by impersonating the Hogfather then the sun will not rise the following morning or thereafter.

As always, Pratchett is pithily wise and witty and observes the traditions of Christmas/Hogswatch with an ironic and observed pen. On Christmas Eve I read "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Anderson and then serendipitously came to this section in Hogfather when I resumed reading it afterwards:

'But ... little match girls dying in the snow is part of what the Hogswatch spirit is all about, master,' said Albert desperately. 'I mean, people hear about it and say, "We may be poorer than a disabled banana and only have mud and old boots to eat, but at least we're better off than the poor little match girl," master. It makes them feel happy and grateful for what they've got, see.'

Hogfather is about believing as much as it is about suspending belief and is also a story about storytelling. It was ideal themed reading during the festive period as I was engaged and amused as well as absorbed without being so immersed that I forgot to eat a mince pie or two. I have always maintained that Pratchett makes perfect reading for those in book slumps and recently I haven't been reading as much as normal so it was an ideal choice for Christmas. As I also prepare my review post for the year, I discovered that I have read seven Terry Pratchett books this year (six of the Discworld), which is far more than any other author, so it was also a treat to return to him at the tail-end of the year.

A few other examples to demonstrate why this book is read to be jolly fa la la la la la la as Pratchett is so much better described in his own humorous words :

But it was much earlier even than that when most people forgot that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the story more acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quite keen on blood provided it's being shed by the deserving), and then wondered where the stories went.

The Death of Rats nibbled a bit of pork pie because when you are the personification of small rodents you have to behave in certain ways. He also piddled on one of the turnips for the same reason, although only metaphorically, because when you are a small skeleton in a black robe there are also some things you technically cannot do.

'Right you are, master.'
'I'm laughing like hell deep down, sir.'

Ridcully sat in horrified amazement. He'd always enjoyed Hogswatch, every bit of it. He'd enjoyed seeing ancient relatives, he'd enjoyed the food, he'd been good at games like Chase My Neighbour Up the Passage and Hooray Jolly Tinker. He was always the first to don a paper hat. He felt that paper hats lent a soecial festive air to the occasion. And he always very carefully read the messages on Hogswatch cards and found time for a few kind thoughts about the sender

Here too is a clip from the television adaptation of Hogfather that aired a few Christmases ago:

Friday, 25 December 2009

Merry Christmas!


I hope your holidays are filled with joy and books!

Normal blogging service will resume in due course.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Rosie's Riveters

Today I appear on Aarti of Booklust's blog, participating in her wonderful Rosie's Riveters series. I am grateful to Aarti for running such a fascinating feature that celebrates strong and memorable female characters in literature and I am delighted to have had a chance to participate before the feature ends in the New Year.

Check out my post to see who I chose as my Rosie's Riveter!

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

A few Christmases ago my boyfriend bought me the Book Lovers Edition of Trivial Pursuit and I thought I could virtually play with my fellow book lovers, or at least ask you a weekly literary question. So here goes (if you win then please treat yourself to a slice of pie/cake/pizza/delete where appropriate)...

From the Non-Fiction section:

Which Nobel Prize winning writer's autobiography became a bestseller in the Spanish speaking world in 2002?

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on."
From Hogfather by Terry Pratchett p. 40

Monday, 21 December 2009

A Christmas Memory

I had been planning on finally reading "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote for a few months, ever since reading this post by Mee. I also knew that it was one of Nymeth's favourite stories and this would finally be the year to read it. I settled during this festive period fully prepared to be heart-warmed and I was but I realised from the opening paragraph that I have actually read this short story before! Possibly last Christmas or the Christmas before, I don't recall, but I have read it. Has this happened to you? It never happens with novels but there are short stories that have escaped my memory, which is ironic considering this one is entitled "A Christmas Memory"; it is a reminder why I blog because I have a hopeless retention for all that I have read.

Anyway, second time or not, "A Christmas Memory" is a sweet and touching story about a young boy named Buddy, our narrator, and his friend, an older woman and distant cousin, who live together along with a household of other relatives, none of whom they really care for. This unconventional but touching relationship is joyful to read about, especially during the festive seasons which is essentially about spending quality time with our loved ones. Buddy recalls one Christmas -their last spent together- in which they made fruitcakes together, up to thirty-one of them, which they sent to passing acquaintances and even one to President Roosevelt. The making of fruitcakes for Christmas gifts is one of their traditions and on a morning in November Buddy's friend wakes to declare "It's fruitcake weather!"

This is a gently affecting story that serves as a reminder of the true nature of Christmas. Even though I happened to have read it before I was happy for the reminder as it served as a festive reinforcement. Apparently autobiographical, you can watch Truman Capote read the story here (thanks to JoAnn for the link).

Friday, 18 December 2009

Brief and Wondrous

Junot Diaz was scheduled to speak at the Festival of Ibero-American Literature hosted by Foyles bookshop a few weeks ago and I read his 2008 Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in preparation. Regretfully his talk was cancelled due to travel issues and I was disappointed not to hear him speak but enjoyed the book nonetheless.

Oscar is an unconventionally overweight and nerdy Dominican Republican teenager living in New Jersey with his mother, Belicia, and punk runaway sister, Lola. Oscar dreams of becoming the next Tolkien and is continually falling hopelessly in love. Their story is predominantly narrated by Yunior de Las Casas, who was a friend of the Cabral family, although he remains unidentified for the first half of the book. This is a narrative not just concerning the "brief and wondrous life" of Oscar but an epic that spans the Cabral's tragic past in the Dominican Republic under the rule of dictator Rafael Trujillo and a study of the fukú, or curse, that has plagued the Cabral family.

From the irreverently-told prologue explaining fukú, I was enthralled. Yunior is a witty and pithy narrator who tells the story as if he is sitting down in a coffee shop recounting it to you; I enjoyed the conversational style of the story-telling, the everyday colloquialisms and language and dialogues. However, be warned that some of the narrative is peppered with colloquial Spanish and, more often than not, I was reading without my babelfish to hand.

In honour of Oscar, much of the text alludes to and cites science fiction and fantasy, with Tolkien references and analogies prolific and a love for footnotes that are as amusing as those by Terry Pratchett. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel concerning big themes of identity, of the Dominican Diaspora, of family, of masculinity, of dictatorships. I was unaware of The Trujillo Era in the Dominican Republic, of the bloody tyranny of Trujillo, El Jefe, until his assassination in 1961; embarrassingly, it wasn't until towards the end of the book that my brain processed that this Dominican Republic with its bloody history -one of the bloodiest of the twentieth century- was the same Dominican Republic of all-inclusive holiday resorts in the twenty-first century. The tragicomic novel uses its fantastical and familial narrative to historically educate and now that I am more informed I am seeking out another Dominican novel cited, In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, a fictional account of the real-life Mirabel Sisters, who Trujillo had murdered for resistance. This type of fictionalised history that Diaz and Alvarez utilise works for me; I respond better to history in the form of fiction, when I can empathise with fully-fledged characters rather than facts and statistics and Diaz blends well the facts with the fiction.

The style of
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is unique and the reader has to be paying attention to its narrative leaps in time, narrator and jumps from story to footnotes; the linguistic lapses into Spanish, the footnotes and the dependence on knowledge of the genres Oscar's life revolves around may be offputting but this is a highly enjoyable, absorbing and rewarding novel from an original voice. From its opening pages I was immersed in this humorous, heartwarming but ultimately tragic story; Oscar Cabral is indeed a wondrous protagonist.

Some favourite passages:

These were Oscar's furies, his personal pantheon, the girls he most dreamed about and most beat off to and who eventually found their way into his little stories. In his dreams he was either saving them from aliens or he was returning to the neighbourhood, rich and famous-It's him! The Dominican Stephen King!

Shrugging of her weariness, she did what many women of her background would have done. Posted herself beside her portrait of La Virgen de Altagracia and prayed. We postmodern plátanos tend to dismiss the Catholic devotion of our viejas as atavistic, an embarrassing throwback to the olden days, but it's exactly at these moments, when all hope has vanished, when the end draws near, that prayer has dominion.

To say I'd never in my life met a Dominican like him would be to put it mildly.
Hail, Dog of God, was how he welcomed me my first day in Demarest.
Took a week before I figured out what the hell he meant.
God. Domini. Dog. Canis.
Hail, Dominicanis.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Library Loot: the débuts

If I stick to my resolve, this will be the last library loot I shall be posting about for a while as I attempt to tackle the overwhelming to-be-reads. Coincidentally these books are all débuts by female writers, three novels and one collection of short stories. I requested the top one, which reminded me to request the second one (both won first book awards, the Guardian and Orange, respectively) and the bottom two both come highly recommended.

An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah won the Guardian first book award 2009 earlier this month. Synopsis (from the publisher Faber and Faber): In her spirited debut collection, Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah brings us the resilience and inventiveness of the people who struggle to live under Robert Mugabe’s regime. Despite their circumstances, the characters in An Elegy for Easterly are more than victims; they are all too human, with as much capacity to inflict pain as they have to endure it. They struggle with larger issues common to all people everywhere: failed promises, unfulfilled dreams and the yearning for something to anchor them to life.

An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay won the 2009 Orange Award for New Writes prize. Synopsis (from the publisher Orion): Jennet Mallow is born in Yorkshire in the 1920s but her interest in art and creativity alienates her from her family, her father who is a priest, her conventional sister and her emotionally stunted mother. Jennet moves to London in search of a more exciting life and finds it in her new environment and in the handsome and enigmatic figure of the painter David Heaton. When Jennet falls pregnant, her parents more or less force the two to marry. In the postwar austerity of the 1940s, the young couple struggles to make ends meet and Jennet finds that her home life is gradually eroding everything she has fought to achieve. Aware that David is becoming increasingly reliant on drink and tired of the dank and drab bedsit in which they live, Jennet suggests they move to Spain. There, the bright blue skies, warm air and sunlit beaches give the couple and their children a new lease of life. Jennet begins to paint again and an agent takes an interest in her work. But as Jennet's own career begins to take off, her relationship with David sours and the two enter a destructive spiral with tragic consequences.

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton is a book that I first came aware of a few months ago but allowed it to fall off my radar until a couple of bookish friends on Twitter reminded me about it when they named it as their favourite read of 2009 last week. Synopsis (from the publisher Granta): A high-school sex scandal jolts a group of teenage girls into a new awareness of their own potency and power. The sudden and total publicity seems to turn every act into a performance and every platform into a stage. But when the local drama school decides to turn the scandal into a show, the real world and the world of the theater are forced to meet, and soon the boundaries between private and public begin to dissolve. The Rehearsal is an exhilarating and provocative novel about the unsimple mess of human desire, at once a tender evocation of its young protagonists and a shrewd expose of emotional compromise.

The Tin-Kin by Eleanor Thom comes highly recommended by dovegreyreader and I am annoyed that it has taken me to the very end of the year to actually get around to borrowing the book, let alone reading it. However, upon discovering that Thom graduated with her Master's in Creative Writing from my alma mater, the University of Glasgow, I think I will be reading this next. The synopsis (provided by the publisher Duckworth) cements by desire to read it: When her aunt Shirley dies, Dawn finds herself back in her claustrophobic home town in Northern Scotland for the first time in years. She spends her days caring for her small daughter, listening to tapes of old country songs and cleaning Shirley’s flat, until one day she comes across the key to a cupboard that she was forbidden to open as a child. Inside she finds an album of photographs, curling with age. A young couple pose on a beach, arms wrapped around each other; little girls in hand-me-down kilts reveal toothless smiles; an old woman rests her hands on her hips, her head thrown back in blurry laughter. But why has her aunt treasured these pictures secretly for so long? Dawn’s need for answers leads her to a group of Travellers on the outskirts of Elgin. There she learns of a young man left to die on the floor of a cell, and realises that the story of her family is about to be rewritten... Weaving between narratives and decades, The Tin Kin is a beautiful moving novel about love, hardship and the lies and legends that pass between generations. It is a striking, unforgettable debut.

Never have I read so much new fiction in the one year, least of all new writers, as I have in 2009. Next week I shall be reviewing an astonishing début -also a prize-winner- and easily one of my favourite books of the year (a list of those will appear before the end of the year).

Have you read any of these or do any appeal?

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg encouraging library use and its promotion.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

I Am a Cat Vol. II

I have enjoyed Volume II of I Am a Cat as much as I have Volume I, probably more so as I have become immersed in the novel and attuned to its narrator and satirical humour. I Am a Cat is highly amusing with wry perceptions through the eyes of a cat. Volume II has been more episodic -with the setting and premise established in Volume I- with the cat (or Neko, as I refer to him when posting) venturing out to a Japanese bathhouse, spying on neighbours and being the only witness to a burglary in his master's home (of course burglars are also known as cat burglars). The scene were Neko attempts to prove his worth by catching rats -before a visitor to the Sneazes' home takes him to eat- is a moment of high comedy. Neko's commentary is insightful as well as scathing at times but it is always witty; when he is not participating in his own escapades then he is observing the domestic dramas of his owners, their friends and acquaintances. I also enjoyed a cheeky reference to Sōseki and his poetry by Sneaze and his friends, Coldmoon and Waverhouse.

I am finding I Am a Cat immensely readable and enjoyable and have definitely found my stride with Volume II; the characters are more fully-fledged and less annoying than in Volume I (not that they irritated me that much but Mr Sneaze is rather pompous) and the cat, himself, is more humanised, which is a development interesting to follow. The cat is by far one of the most intriguing and compelling narrators I have ever had the joy of reading. The concept of an omniscient narrator that is a character and a cat is awe-worthy and it still impresses me two volumes on; I am very excited -but also disappointed- to read the third and final volume for January 15th.

How are you finding I Am a Cat? I know that some of you have borrowed it from the library on my recommendation and I hope that you are enjoying it as much as I am.

Some quotes from Volume II:

So who the hell is this that has so blithely appropriated the cushion which was destined, sooner or later, to have eased Suzuki buttocks? Had the interloper been a human being, he might well have given way. But to be pre-empted by a mere cat, that is intolerable. It is also a little unpleasant.

But cats, I can assure you, just like anyone else, feel the heat and feel the cold. There are times when I consider that I really wouldn't mind, just that once, soaking myself in a bath, but if I got hot water all over my fur, it would take ages to get dry again and that is why I grin and bear the stink of my own sweat and have never in all my life yet passed through the entrance of a public bathhouse. Every now and again I think about using a fan but, since I cannot hold one in my paws, the thought's not worth pursuing.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

A few Christmases ago my boyfriend bought me the Book Lovers Edition of Trivial Pursuit and I thought I could virtually play with my fellow book lovers, or at least ask you a weekly literary question. So here goes (if you win then please treat yourself to a slice of pie/cake/pizza/delete where appropriate)...

From the Book Club section:

What Pulitzer-winning book notes: "Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood?

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"Two of the boys I was running with, boys I had found on the bank of the bloody river, they both went to her. And when they drew close enough, she lifted an automatic rifle and shot through the chests and stomachs of the boys."
From What is the What by Dave Eggers p. 6

Monday, 14 December 2009

I Was Dreaming...

... of a grey Christmas. I hear that it's foggy at home so when I'm there for Christmas I shall be in good company with Persephones to read. One of the Persephones that I will be packing to read over the festive period is my newest acquisition, Every Eye by Isobel English. This novella was sent by my Persephone Secret Santa and I am very much looking forward to reading it. I also received an exceptionally sweet pencil case that is very me (or Matilda, if you prefer) and a Jennifer Gordon designed bookmark; I have been coveting one of her bookmarks ever since she was profiled by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings. Open gifts of any kind is such a joy, especially when they are book-related, but to receive a Persephone book is a joy in itself. Thank you so much to my generous -and secretive- Santa, whoever she may be, and to Stacy at Book Psmith for organising this exciting gift exchange; may we all have a wonderful grey Christmas.

Thomas of My Porch was my Santee and you can read about the Persephone I sent to him (including review!) by popping over to his lovely blog.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Recent Acquisitions...

There have been rather less books arriving at Paberback_Reader abode recently as I have been making a conscious attempt to receive or request less titles, as well as buying none, because I completely overwhelmed with reading material at the moment. As of early New Year I will also be using the library less as I embark on a personal challenge to gain control of my current to-be-read titles without adding to them. However, there have been a few recent acquisitions, a few of which are photographed below.

When Verity recently wrote about the Animal Series published by Reaktion Books, I was immediately intrigued and thought that the books looked original, interesting and beautifully presented. Upon looking at the website I also discovered their Edible series and knew that I had to have a closer look at these titles; Reaktion Books very kindly sent me two titles from each series: Penguin and Elephant from the Animal series and Cheese and Chocolate from the Edible one. These books are simply stunning with wonderful illustrations and both are unique series with Edible books hardbacks and both series have their own distinct style.

The lovely people of Random House also sent me a review copy of Ruby's Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni, which sounds spell-binding. In the photograph below, the book is wrapped in a promotional newspaper front-page that alludes to the witch, mermaid and missing woman that the plot revolve around.

Another package to arrive this week that was not a book but definitely a bookish item was this incredible Jane Austen action figure! I won this from J.T. Oldfield of Bibliofreak blog after entering Everything Austen mini-challenge there. As a Jane Austen fan and a lover of all things literary, this action figure will make a wonderful addition to my bookshelves where I shelf a lot of bookish and literary-themed paraphernalia.

Have you received anything exciting recently or are you waiting for Santa Claus to bring you some instead?

Saturday, 12 December 2009

A David Garnett Duo

Blogging definitely opens me up to more obscure titles and A Man in the Zoo and Lady Into Fox by David Garnett both fall into the category of neglected classics; one was a novella that was a gem to discover and the other was more like cubic zirconia that should have stayed unearthed. A Man in the Zoo was brought to my attention by Fleur Fisher and Lady Into Fox by both Simon T and Simon S; upon reading the first and third reviews, respectively, and realising that the writer was one in the same, I decided to purchase an out-of-print volume containing them both. Lady into Fox is in print with Hesperus Press in a delightful-looking edition.

Lady Into Fox concerns John Cromartie who, upon having a quarrel with his fiancée, Josephine, offers himself as an exhibit within the Ape-house of the Regent's Park Zoo.

'You are Tarzan of the Apes; you ought to be shut up in the Zoo. The collection here is incomplete without you. You are a survivor - atavism at its worst. Don't ask me why I fell in love with you - I did, but I cannot marry Tarzan of the Apes, I'm not romantic enough. I see, too, that you do believe what you have been saying. You do think mankind is your enemy. I can assure you that if mankind thinks of you, it thinks you are the missing link. You ought to be shut up and exhibited here in the Zoo - I've told you once and now I tell you again - with the gorilla on one side and the chimpanzee on the other. Science would gain a lot.'

I found the premise to be intriguing and fully expected to be enchanted. Alas, I struggled with this novella and found it inaccessible for the most part in its lofty tone and thought John was exceptionally condescending. I was bored and mildly irritated but then towards then end became thoroughly offended when a "second man, a negro" was exhibited in the cage next to Cromartie, and the latter's subsequent treatment and opinion of his new neighbour, Joe Tennison. I realise that A Man in the Zoo is very much a product of its time but overall the novella left a thoroughly bad taste in my mouth. I imagine that Garnett was attempting to say something original about humanity but his point eluded me.

Conversely, Lady Into Fox was enchanting and I was completely charmed. A country gentleman, Richard Trebick, and his wife, Silvia, née Fox, have been married only a year and are very much in love, when Silvia turns into her former animal namesake. Devastated Richard attempts to keep living as husband and wife, dressing his wife in her old clothes and dismissing the servants; he attempts to control his wife's new carnivorous and cunning nature to no avail (see the bottom quote for a beautiful description of his devotion to them staying together). Lady Into Fox is a tender and poignant novella and is also a very clever tragicomedy; Garnett ingeniously plays on her name Silvia Fox and moreover on the word vixen with the villagers suspecting that she has run off with another man. I shall not spoil the conclusion of this charming and emotive story for you - do you think it will have a happy ending?

He waited till it was quite dark that he might the better bring her into her own house without being seen, and buttoned her inside his topcoat, nay, even in his passion tearing open his waistcoat and his shirt that she might lie the closer to his heart. For when we are overcome with the greatest sorrow we act not like men or women but like children whose comfort in all their troubles is to press themselves against their mother's breast, or if she be not there to hold each other tight in one another's arms.

Then she ran hither and thither a stark naked vixen, and without giving a glance to her poor husband who stood silently now upon the bank, with despair and terror settled in his mind. She let him stay there most of the afternoon till he was chilled through and through and worn out with watching her. At last he reflected how she had just stripped herself and how in the morning she struggled against being dressed, and he thought perhaps he was too strict with her and if he let her have her own way they could manage to be happy somehow together even if she did eat of the floor.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Cassandra at the Wedding

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker: Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-wracked, miserable. At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut. Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding.

Dorothy Baker's entrancing tragicomic novella follows an unpredictable course of events in which her heroine appears variously as conniving, self-aware, pitiful, frenzied, absurd, and heartbroken—at once utterly impossible and tremendously sympathetic. Cassandra reckons with her complicated feelings about the sister who she feels owes it to her to be her alter ego; with her father, a brandy-soaked retired professor of philosophy; and with the ghost of her dead mother, as she struggles to come to terms with the only life she has.

First published in 1962, Cassandra at the Wedding is a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve. Like the fiction of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jhumpa Lahiri, it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind.

I wrote last week that I was intending to indulge in some themed reading at the weekend as I was attending a wedding (two friends - beautiful day) and I did; I opted for Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker. I decided on this one because it was the title that most intrigued me, I had been tempted by it since reading Verity's review this summer and, moreover, it had been some time since I read any of my green Virago Modern Classics (or non-green, come to that). So, Cassandra at the Wedding it was. I felt it worthwhile to include the synopsis again to firstly recount the key plot points and also for the comparison with Jhumpa Lahiri that is given; after also reading Lahiri recently, I can testify that Dorothy Baker is likewise a "master stylist", skilled at evoking emotion.

Cassandra at the Wedding is a novel of heightened emotion; it is intense. The narrative is written in a conversational style that is inclusive and yet also overwhelming; Cassandra's narration is so emotionally-charged that it is a relief when Judith narrates a section in the second half, before a calmer, more focused and less passionate Cassandra resumes the telling. The intensity of the novel is employed also through the short time period of events -two days- and a stifling heat is described that also evokes a sense of claustrophobia within the text; these literary devices are highly effective as we are taken on an emotional rollercoaster of a ride with Cassandra. Also indicative of Baker's sheer talent is that never once is the word "twin" used yet Cassandra and Judith are twins and that is very much conveyed without using the term, for example, "I looked ... in a blue mirror .... It was the face of my sister Judith" and "It was on our birth cerificates that way. The one named Cassandra was two ounces heavier and eleven minutes older than the one named Judith." This is a novel about the struggle for identity especially when you have someone who looks identical to you and who you sometimes think is you; it is about familial and emotional dependence and an exceptional study of jealousy. Cassandra at the Wedding will resonate with anyone who has a sister, not necessarily a twin, who understands the sense of moving on and moving away and grieving for a childhood that was so much simpler.

Cassandra at the Wedding is not a plot-driven novel but an emotion-based one that has wonderful moments of wit and wryness. Cassandra is both an unreliable narrator and a sympathetic one; she was an intriguing character and one that I enjoyed immensely. The rapid and pithy dialogue between Cassandra and Judith is like an energetic, competitive game of tennis and a joy to read, if a little difficult to keep up with as they parry back and forth. This book is engaging as well as a great study in writing.

A favourite passage and example of the style:

I'm not, at heart, a jumper; it's not my sort of thing … I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I'd go home, attend my sister's wedding as invited, help hook-and-zip her into whatever she wore, take the bouquet while she received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it, and hold my peace when it became a question of speaking now of forever holding it.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Christmas Reading

Here's a sneak peak at some of the themed reading that I am hoping to indulge in over the next two weeks. What are your festive reads, if any?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Interpreter of Maladies

When I wrote about books to take home with me, it was Aarti (thank you!) who commented that a short story collection would make the perfect reading for a busy long weekend; the comment immediately reminded me of another short story collection that I have been desperate to read recently since the one lined up no longer seemed appropriate: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I packed it and it was the perfect read, especially on the returning flight, when short stories were the perfect length for the wait in departures, a few read on the flight with the last pages of one finished whilst we were delayed taxiing on the runway and another on the train home from the airport. The stories themselves are a good length as is the volume and I didn't bore of them or have my attention diverted as is the case with some short story collections; instead I was engaged and entranced by the writing.

After reading "Hell-Heaven" from Lahiri's new volume of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, I knew that I loved her style; her writing is simple yet nuanced and her stories are rich and powerful. Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 and I wish I had read it earlier. Very accessible, these stories are a delight to read and riveting in the Bengali Indian experiences (native Bengalis, Bengali immigrants to America and second generation Bengalis) that the stories evoke. Some of the stories are about assimilation into American culture whereas the title story is about a Bengali man encountering an American woman in his own county and others are about young married couples. As with all short story collections some stories are stronger than others but all of Lahiri's resonated; with some I have been left with a profound feeling of sadness and sympathy for the characters depicted. There is a sense of being disconnected from the characters at times but I think this was intentional, especially in those stories where the protagonist is struggling to fit in and feel distant themselves from their Indian home and from the culture surrounding them; moreover, the characters often feel distant from one another, most often in their marriages.

My favourite stories (from nine)

"A Temporary Matter" is by far the strongest story in the collection, the first and my favourite. The temporary matter refers to an electrical outage that will affect the house of married couple, Shoba and Shukumar, but that temporary matter becomes to symbolise more. Since a tragedy befell them, Shoba and Shukamar have been unable to communicate more than superficially but the blackout allows them to speak to one another again and freely they begin to confess things unknown to the other. This story is profound in its exploration of what couples leave unsaid and what they say to hurt one another. Its play on silence and communication is accomplished.

"This Blessed House" is a story I read in a short story collection recently about lovers' quarrels and I did prefer the stories about the younger married couples than I did some of the others. Twinkle and Sanjeev had their marriage arranged and barely know one another; the story charts their growth as a couple and how they begin to understand one another and the compromises they make.

"Mrs Sen's" is one of the stories I found the saddest as Mrs Sen's loneliness is palpable. Mrs Sen is a tragic character seen through the eyes of eleven-year-old Eliot, who stays with Mrs Sen after school whilst his mother works. Tradition is a huge part of Mrs Sen's reason for being and her traditions aren't always feasible in her new surroundings, especially when it involves learning new skills such as driving. Like most of Lahiri's stories, food is a central component to the plot: the ingredients and preparation, the eating and the senses it evokes.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

I have finally caught up with the 1200+ blog posts in my Google Reader. Apologies for commenting less and writing less but now normal service really should resume. I have a few reviews pending and they will begin appearing from tomorrow as I have been somewhat lax in that area of late. After being away for a long weekend, ill and then busy, I have also been having a mini reading slump but I'm hoping that will be taken in hand today.

A few Christmases ago my boyfriend bought me the Book Lovers Edition of Trivial Pursuit and I thought I could virtually play with my fellow book lovers, or at least ask you a weekly literary question. So here goes (if you win then please treat yourself to a slice of pie/cake/pizza/delete where appropriate)...

From the Beloved Children's Books section:

What poem from Through the Looking Glass inspires Alice's remark: "It seems very pretty, but it's rather hard to understand"?

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"It was on our birth certificates that way. The one named Cassandra was two ounces heavier and eleven minutes that the one named Judith."
From Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker p. 8

Monday, 7 December 2009

Library Loot

I haven't posted a library loot post for some time as I have been consciously attempting not to borrow (nor buy) any books and work on the every-increasing to-be-read piles/stacks/shelves. instead I did collect a few requests this week though and noticed another that I had been wanting to reading so added that to my ticket.

Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education by Jane Robinson is a book that I requested upon reading Nymeth's review a couple of months ago. I wanted to read it at the time but now serendipitously it will make for the perfect non-fiction reading for the Women Unbound Challenge.

Another non-fiction title in this current library stack and also another blogger recommendation from Eva of A Striped Armchair is Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf. I actually requested this before Eva endorsed it, when she mentioned in her own Library Loot post a few weeks ago; I knew that a neuroscience book about how and why we read was something that ... well, I needed to read. Last Christmas books about the effect of music on the brain seemed to be all the rage and I am thrilled that there is a literary equivalent. I have a feeling that upon reading this I shall want to own my own copy.

Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi is a book that I've been trying to track down for a couple of years. It is out-of-print in the UK and the library in my home-city didn't have a copy at the time I was originally looking for it so I was excited to discover that my new library's district did upon remembering about it. I did buy one of Malladi's other titles, The Mango Season, last year and enjoyed it; it was easily readable and diverting. I enjoy Indian-American settings and books about cooking and suicide (my, that makes me sound morbid) so the synopsis for Serving Crazy with Curry intrigued me.

It's not that Devi is the black sheep of her family. It's just that she can't seem to succeed at anything. Not even suicide. Rescued at the last minute by her interfering mother, Devi is returned to the family home to recover from the 'incident.' While Devi refuses to talk, she insists on cooking - and what food she creates! Drawn back to the table again and again by her stunningly successful dishes, the other members of the family talk, argue, joke and worry. Soon, secrets emerge, unshakeable family relationships lurch into new patterns, and success and failure don't seem quite as clear-cut as they used to be. This delightful, hopeful book sheds a warm light on three generations of women. Traditional and modern values and the cultures of Southern India and California are stirred and blended into surprising new flavours, much like one of Devi's own curries.

Last but not least is the debut novel of James Scudamore, The Amnesia Clinic. After loving Heliopolis when I read it as part of my Booker longlist reading challenge, I made a mental note to read Scudamore's previous work at some point and jumped on it when I happened to spy it in the library on my visit to collect requests. Winner of the Somerset Maugham Award in 2007, The Amnesia Clinic was also shortlisted for other literary prizes and sounds as fantastic (in both senses of the word) as its follow-up.

Anti, a quiet English boy living in Quito, Ecuador, strikes up a friendship with flamboyant classmate Fabian, who is everything Anti isn't: handsome, athletic and popular. What's more, he lives with his rakish Uncle Suarez, while Anti is stuck in the dull ex-pat world inhabited by his parents. Suarez, a storyteller par excellence, infects the boys with his passion for outlandish tales, and before long their relationship becomes one conducted entirely through the medium of storytelling. One subject, however, is taboo: Fabian's parents. But when details surrounding their disappearance begin to emerge, Anti decides to console his friend with a story suggesting that Fabian's mother may be living at a bizarre hospital on the coast for patients with memory loss. With confused emotions and reality losing its tenuous grip, the boys embark on a quixotic voyage across Ecuador in search of an 'Amnesia Clinic' that may, or may not exist.

Have you looted any library books this week and what do you think of mine?

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg encouraging library use and its promotion.

Friday, 4 December 2009


An appendix to yesterday's post on Mary McCarthy's The Group: I forgot to mention that a copy of the book appeared in the current series of the critically-acclaimed and popular American TV show, Man Men. From the screen-shot below you can see that the copy is being read in the bath by the character, Betty Draper; set in the 1960s the book itself would have been topical and I like the clever and historically-accurate product-placement.

As I have disclosed previously on Twitter to some fellow bloggers, I have tried to watch Man Men but I can't get into it. I find it aesthetically pleasing (the sets and styling are sumptuous) and I have a love of the period but it fails to fully sustain my attention; it is a very gentle and character-focused show and my concentration fails. I have attempted the first two or three episodes of the first season and my boyfriend is a huge fan so should I persevere? I have the feeling that it is a series that I would ultimately love and that it is the Richard Yates equivalent of television. Furthermore, how can the inclusion of The Group not sell it to me? I have heard nothing but positive reviews thus far but I need some extra encouragement ... so do you watch it and recommend it?

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Group Redux

In July I wrote about The Group by Mary McCarthy and I enthused about it; five months on and it remains one of my best book discoveries of 2009. Today marks the reissue of The Group by Virago Press as a Virago Modern Classic, a categorisation it so richly deserves; readers in the UK can now buy a copy (with 25% off from an affiliated online bookseller). Virago very kindly sent me the book and I was so happy to receive a copy of my own that I was tempted to immediately reread it again, which is testimony to how profound an impression this book made on me. I actually received my copy a few weeks ago but it was under embargo so I haven't been able to urge you all until now to buy The Group now that it is newly available!

When I reviewed The Group I mentioned the comparisons to Sex and the City (that may make some run for the hills but I personally love the show) and appropriately Candace Bushnell wrote the introduction to the reissued edition. Bushnell's editor commissioned her to write "the modern-day version of The Group" and what is apparent, being familiar with both and being a woman myself, is that the issues that face women and the choices they make are not so very different seventy years on (the novel is based in the 1930s).

The Group was published a few months after The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and is a seminal feminist text within the bounds of fiction. I find it interesting that Mary McCarthy distanced herself from this label as do current female writers (you can read more about the effect of the novel on McCarthy and subsequent women writers in this interesting Guardian article from the weekend). There is such a stigma attached to the word "feminist" that is, in my opinion, unjust. The Group is a highly enjoyable and intensely interesting novel that vividly evokes the era it is set in and yet remains timeless in its concerns. The first of its kind to address the issues of sex, contraception, motherhood, marriage and careers, The Group is a striking study of the issues women face and the choices they make. It is also wonderfully well-written and for writers and those aspiring to write, a great example of what can be achieved writing about real-life and personal experience.

In a serendipitous blog coincidence, Verity has reviewed The Group today.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

I Take This Book

I am attending a wedding this weekend and I have some wedding-themed literature lined up to read. I'll probably only manage to read one of the following but I thought I would share the ones that I have in mind. Do you like to theme your reading around things you are doing or places you are going? It isn't something that I do frequently but I thought it would be fun and weddings make me happy.

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers: With delicacy of perception and memory, humour and pathos, Carson McCullers spreads before us the three phases of a weekend crisis in the life of a motherless twelve-year-old girl. Within the span of a few hours, the irresistible, hoydenish Frankie passionately plays out her fantasies at her elder brother's wedding. Through a perilous skylight we look into the mind of a child torn between her yearning to belong and the urge to run away.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker: Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-wracked, miserable. At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut. Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding.
Dorothy Baker's entrancing tragicomic novella follows an unpredictable course of events in which her heroine appears variously as conniving, self-aware, pitiful, frenzied, absurd, and heartbroken—at once utterly impossible and tremendously sympathetic. Cassandra reckons with her complicated feelings about the sister who she feels owes it to her to be her alter ego; with her father, a brandy-soaked retired professor of philosophy; and with the ghost of her dead mother, as she struggles to come to terms with the only life she has.
First published in 1962, Cassandra at the Wedding is a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve. Like the fiction of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jhumpa Lahiri, it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind.

The Wedding by Dorothy West: Set on the Elysian isle of Martha's Vineyardm among an insular community of proud and prosperous black families, Dorothy West's first novel for nearly fifteen years centres around the marriage of Shelby Coles, daughter of the community's foremost family to a struggling white jazz musician. Not just the story of one wedding, but of many, this thought-provoking and deeply interesting novel offers insights into issues of race, prejudice and identity while maintaining its firm belief in the compensatory power of love.

I also have The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty and The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood to hand but those are only wedding-themed in their similar titles only. I want to read all three of the books detailed above but I am leaning towards the one pictured and the one I know most about, Cassandra at the Wedding. Verity read this thematically over the summer and I have been saving it to read until I had a wedding to attend also.

Of course, it being the first weekend in December, I am also preparing a pile of Christmas reads but more on that another day...

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Tuesday Teaser and Trivia

I'm back! Normal service should now resume ... although I picked up the cold whilst away and now in bed with hankies, painkillers and tea but that may give me the opportunity to catch up with the 850 posts currently waiting for me in my Google Reader. I read a little whilst away (although none from the previous books hinted at, despite packing one of those) and will be back to reviewing this week.

I am continuing my new Book Lovers Trivial Pursuit mini meme. A few Christmases ago my boyfriend bought me the Book Lovers Edition of Trivial Pursuit and I thought I could virtually play with my fellow book lovers. So here goes (if you win then please treat yourself to a slice of pie/cake/pizza/delete where appropriate)...

From the Book Bag Surprise section:

What Katherine Dunn novel centres on a carny owner Aloysius Binewski and his freakish kids?

(Although we are only in the second week of this meme, I am so far only asking questions that I know the answer to myself and/or about books I have read).

Quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences from the book you’re reading to tempt others.

"Something happened when the house was dark. They were ab;e to talk to each other again."
From "A Temporary Matter" in Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri