Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The Best Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant has oft been declared the master of the short story. I personally think that honour belongs to William Trevor, but I'm not going to quibble about that right now.

As it wasn't so much his short story ability that attracted me at this point, but more his membership of the literary naturalism club. A club that included the likes of (the founder) Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy - two of my favourite authors.

Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was born on the 5th August 1850 and died at the age of 42 on the 6th July 1893. Most of his 300 short stories (and six novels) were set during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71 - an era I'm not very familiar with, but am slowly learning about thanks to Zola.

I find it very easy to get mixed up by all the wars happening in Europe during this century - who started what and why. I'm also prone to getting my Napoleon's and French Republic's mixed up. Given that the imbalance of power in Europe, that this war created, is often cited as one of the causes of WWI, I feel that I should understand it better. 

The shock of France's quick defeat as well as the hardship and hunger suffered by the population during the Prussian blockade, created a ongoing desire for revenge and right-wing politics in France.

Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq - Le Général Faidherbe au combat de Biefviller-lès-Bapaume, 3 Janvier 1871
Boule de Suif (or Dumpling or Ball of Fat), Deux Amis (Two Friendsand La Maison Tellier (Madame Tellier's Establishment) are the first three stories in my Best Of. They all focus on the resistance of the French population to the German occupation.

In Boule de Suif we have a cast of characters, who would never normally interact with each other in 'real life', brought together in a diligence (I love that word - after reading about the care and attention that the hostler took to hitch his horses to the coach, I wonder if that is that where the phrase 'due diligence' comes from).

The journey is slow and uncomfortable. Each character represents a particular stereotype of rural French society. From Monsieur and Madame Loiseau (wholesale wine merchants) who sit 'right at the back, in the best seats of all' to Cornudet, 'the democrat, the terror of all conservative people'. 

The coach also contains four more people who 'represent Society - the strong, established society of good people with religion and principle', two nuns 'fingering their long rosaries and murmuring paternosters and aves' and last, but certainly not least, Elisabeth Rousset, or Boule de suif, 'who belonged to the courtesan class'.

To my mind, Elisabeth is the true hero of this story. Her generosity and kindness are not only not repaid by her so called 'betters', but she shows up their utter lack of principle and total hypocrisy. Despite their superior views on her profession, they show themselves up to be little more than pimps.

Two Friends is set in Paris during the siege. Monsieur Morissot and Monsieur Sauvage represent two different political views - Imperialism and Republicanism 'under a king we have foreign wars; under a republic we have civil war'. Whilst out walking and fishing they both lament the futility of war and agree on one thing 'that they would never be free'. 

Once again de Maupassant presents us with brave, patriotic Frenchmen as opposed to the brutal, dull-witted German soldiers who confront them.

La Maison Tellier has another prostitute as protagonist. The bawdy nature of her working life is contrasted with the religious event that her brother invites her to in a sleepy rural village.

It's a bit of an odd story with a whole houseful of ladies of the night being transported to a child's first communion. I wasn't quite sure what the point of it was, except, perhaps, as a bit of fun. Madame Tellier herself, observes towards the end, 'everything has its right time, and we cannot always be enjoying ourselves'.

La Maison Tellier. Illustrations d'Edgar Degas. Paris: Ambroise Vollard, 1933
De Maupassant's realism is all about the showing. His descriptions of the environment and the people are just lovely. Class and political ideology feature in all of his stories with hypocrisy often being the common ground. The three stories I've read so far have a fairly clear point, counterpoint and final conflict/resolution. However, working out why someone did what they did, is entirely up to the reader, which is exactly what de Maupassant wanted.

For most of his career he was wary of looking too deeply into characters’ motivations. “The man who goes in for pure psychology can only substitute himself for all his characters,” Maupassant wrote, “for it is impossible for him to change his own organs, which are the only intermediaries between the outside world and ourselves.” Better, he thought, to report what people do and say, and say to themselves, than to ask what makes them tick.                              (Lorin Stein, 2010)

I'm looking forward to meandering my way through the final fourteen stories in this collection. But for now, I'm thrilled that I snuck these three stories in, just in time, for my Paris in July challenge with Tamara @Thyme for Tea. As well as my Deal Me In Short Story challenge with Jay @Bibliophilopolis -  theses three stories see me finally move onto the next suit of cards in my euchre pack. Slow and steady, slow and steady!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

As most of you know, the past couple of months or so has been rather 'meh' for me and my family. As a result I've been searching through my rather extensive (okay, out of control) TBR piles for comforting, cosy, entertaining reads to ease me through this time.

The Essex Serpent came highly recommended to me via a colleague as exactly that kind of read.

Right from the beginning I went along for the ride that Sarah Perry set up so lushly. The Victorian time frame, the hint of danger, mystery and myth as well as a full cast of engaging characters kept me engaged and eager to pick up my book at the end of each day.

As most of you know, I don't write book summaries. But if you want to know what the book is about, without actually, you know, reading it yourself, and you've managed to miss all the talk it, you can read the Goodreads blurb here.

Personally, I loved the focus on all the ways we love - parental love, friendship, the first flush of romantic love, unrequited love and the long term, loyal love of a happy marriage. Having taken the time to consider Perry's epigraph, I was conscious of her intent the whole way through and it added to me reading experience.

I found The Essex Serpent to to a warm, generous and joyous read. Highly recommended as a holiday read or for those feeling jaded and in need of a good old-fashion reading romp.

The gorgeous William Morris-esque cover, designed by Peter Dyer, was simply an added bonus every time I picked it up.

The Essex Serpent has also been read and reviewed by Simon @SavidgeReads and Cosy Books.

It was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award and longlisted for this year's Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Fantastically, Fearless, Rebel Women in Books

It would be nice to think that books were one of the places where equality of access and representation were available to both sexes, especially given that over half the authors of all books written are now women. Sadly, though, it is still not the case.

Reviews of books in leading newspapers and journals around the world still show that women lag behind men in pretty much every arena (VIDA 2015 Count). There was also the recent video showing a young girl and her mum pulling books out of their library bookshelf that featured male only protagonists (human or animal), books with shared male/female protagonists, books where the girls barely spoke or failed to participate in the action etc, until they were left with the handful of books featuring positive female protagonists.

Recently the Little People Big Dreams series hit the Australian market and showed that there is a huge market for stories about girls. Especially books about successful, resourceful, smart girls.

This year at work we have had three new books about women and girls that have gone ballistic. We've had trouble keeping up with the demand as the publishers scrambled to bring in more stock from overseas and reprint.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World by Kate Pankhurst is a picture book for the 4+ age group.

Pankhurst (a descendent of the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst) has compiled a book celebrating the life and achievements of 12 fantastic women.

Featuring Emmeline, Frida Kahlo, Coco Chanel, Gertrude Ederle (the Channel swimmer), Mary Anning, Mary Seacole (nurse), Agent Fifi, Sagagawea (translator and guide for Lewis and Clark), Rosa Parks, Anne Frank, Amelia Earhart, Jane Austen and Marie Curie, each double page spread is illustrated in a cartoon-like way with speech bubbles, maps, text boxes and loads of humour.

The book finishes with a 'Gallery of Greatness' full of inspirational girl power quotes and a challenge to its young readers about how they might, too, change the world.

For the older reader (12+), Rachel Ignotofsky has collated Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Beginning in 350 CE with Hypatia, an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher in Alexandria, she travels around the world to highlight women scientists throughout the ages.

Each woman's history is discussed, plus any obstacles that she may have had to overcome to do what she did. But the main focus is on their incredible accomplishments. 

Ignotofsky has also included pages of timelines, statistics on the gender gap in science and lab tools.

Ignotofsky has a new book coming out later this month called Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win

Like her science book it will feature famous, internationally renown women as well as lesser-known champions plus more stats on female participation in sport, pay and muscle anatomy.

I can't wait to see which group of women she tackles next.

Finally we come to the best-selling Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and
Francesca Cavallo.

This is the book that has had the most attention and the biggest buzz. Aimed at the 9+ market, Favilli and Cavallo have indeed created 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women

Most of the bios begin with the 'once upon a time' tag and tell a fairly simplified, and dare I say, sanitised version of each woman's life. For example Anna Politkovskaya's page finishes with 
Anna continued to risk her life until she died, writing the truth in order to make the world a better place.

A quick wikipedia search reveals that she was in fact murdered in the elevator of her block of flats in 2006. She had also been held, beaten and tortured previously. Her murderers have never been brought to justice.

There is nothing wrong with making a story of someone's life - after all, we all do it with our own lives, in one way or another. Each bio is also only one page long. Only so much information can be included.

Favilli and Cavallo have clearly chosen to view all these women and their achievements through a positive, inspiring, feminist lens that is suitable for younger readers. They have avoided language that echoes those used by victims or martyrs.

And for anyone who, like me, feels that the story is too brief or too safe, they can always do a quick google to flesh out the details!

One of the big pluses about Rebel Girls are the generous full page portraits of each of the women. Sixty female artists from all round the world contributed illustrations for the book. They have used a wide variety of styles and media which makes the book a visual feast as well as being inspirational.

Goodnight Stories features a large number of modern day women who are still alive and still achieving great things. Which begs the question, what's next?

For starters, the authors are planning a second book of Rebel Girls, and as they did with the first book, they will be using Kickstarter crowd funding to do so.

The Big Dreams, Little People series published by Frances Lincoln, continues with three new releases
- Emmeline Pankhurst, Audrey Hepburn and Rosa Parks - due in the Australian market before Christmas.

My other favourite girl power picture books include:

The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch
Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole
Louise Builds a Boat by Louise Pfanner
Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty
Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty
The Princess in Black series by Shannon & Dean Hale

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear

During my recent blogging malaise, Maisie Dobbs kept me sane and calm. She is familiar, comfortable and cosy. Although some of the crimes are getting a little nasty now that Hitler is involved, Winspear still avoids gory details and gruesome forensic descriptions, for which I am eternally grateful!

Journey to Munich is book 12 in the series and sees Maisie being recruited by the secret service to do some spying in 1938 Germany.

You do have to suspend a little belief whilst reading these later books in the Maisie Dobbs series, but the goodwill engendered in the earlier books has been enough to keep me going. I've never been a spy myself, so I'm happy to accept that Maisie's approach to undercover work could, well, work (despite the doubts of other reviewers on Goodreads).

To be honest, I don't care that much. I don't read the Maisie Dobbs books for an accurate how-to on spying or detective work. I read them for the relationships, the personal journey of Maisie herself and for the feel-good effect they have on me.

I also read them for the historical fiction element. The books are set between the two world wars in England - a period of time that has fascinated me forever.

With Maisie's trip to 1938 Munich and her brush with Hitler's henchmen, Winspear is preparing the way for a change in direction. I'm feeling a growing sense of trepidation for Maisie's best friend, Priscilla and her family of boys. Boys who will be coming of age as WWII starts.

I've now put In This Grave Hour on order, so that I will be prepared for my next bout of blogging blues.

Do you have a favourite series or author that you turn to when times are glum?

Please feel free to share with us what your favourite cosy crime series is. It will be handy to have a comfort read resource to turn to when I finish the last Maisie book.

Maisie Dobbs #1
Maisie Dobbs #2 Birds of a Feather
Maisie Dobbs #3 Pardonable Lies
Maisie Dobbs #4 Messenger of Truth
Maisie Dobbs #5 An Incomplete Revenge
Maisie Dobbs #6 Among the Mad
Maisie Dobbs #7 The Mapping of Love and Death
Maisie Dobbs #8 A Lesson in Secrets
Maisie Dobbs #9 Elegy for Eddie
Maisie Dobbs #10 Leaving Everything Most Loved
Maisie Dobbs #11 A Dangerous Place
Maisie Dobbs #12 Journey to Munich
Maisie Dobbs #13 In This Grave Hour

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Two Towers by J R R Tolkien

I had planned to write two posts about this, the second part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as it actually begs to be considered in its two separate sections. In fact, Tolkien originally wrote the book as one big book with six parts. He planned to name part III The Treason of Isengard and part IV The Journey of the Ringbearers or The Ring Goes East.

However, due to post-WWII paper shortages and size considerations, the book was eventually published as three books, with the middle one, The Two Towers, being published on the 11th November 1954.

Part III and part IV are two very distinct stories. The first part follows the trials and tribulations of the remnants of the fellowship after Frodo and Sam secretly depart. The second part is all about Frodo and Sam. And Gollum.

However whichever part you consider, the story continues to be about the role of fellowship, friendship, loyalty, duty, responsibility, honour, commitment and courage. The end of times may be fast approaching, morals may be slipping and attitudes may be changing, but our stalwart group shines on to show us a better, finer, more noble way.

One of the highlights of The Two Towers for me, though, are the Ents, and Treebeard in particular. I love his slow, thoughtful approach to life and decision making. But I'm being too hasty!

They found they were looking at a most extraordinary face. It belonged to a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen feet high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each. The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends. But at the moment the hobbits noted little but the eyes. These deep eyes were now surveying them, slow and solemn, but very penetrating. They were brown, shot with a green light. Often afterwards Pippin tried to describe his first impressions of them. 
'One felt as if there were an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake.'
Treebeard by Alan Lee, Timothy Ide and Jerry Vanderstelt
I love this description of Treebeard and the Ents, but sadly I have never seen an illustration or a movie version of them that does justice to what I have in my mind. All the art work, to my mind, fails to capture that ponderous, slow, kind, considered gravitas that Tolkien refers to.

Lee and Vanderstelt are close to the mark, but the eyes in both are wrong while Ide's version is too scary. Severin's 3D model has a nice face, but is missing all the green, twiggy stuff. And they all lack the size and bulk that I feel is necessary for an Ent. I have always imagined a giant, stately oak tree as an Ent, not the spindly version that every artist seems to prefer.

Treebeard by Alexey Severin

The other character that appeals to me in The Two Towers is Boromir's brother, Faramir. He is a brave fighter, but prefers peace. As the younger son, he has a more balanced attitude towards power and leadership. He provides thoughtful counsel and safe harbour to Frodo and Sam, in much the same way that Treebeard assists Merry and Pippin.

Despite the dark days looming, honour and kindness can still be found, when least expected.

And that's why I enjoy these books so much. The fellowship, goodness and hope that shines through the darkness and despair is something we can all take heart from. 
The movies have this too, but the level of violence and the massive battle scenes so often overwhelm the other messages that Tolkien was trying to convey.

Previously I read these books so quickly, that I missed lots of the finer details. This leisurely reread has been a delight of rediscovery and paying attention.

How are you going? 
I see that Jean has finished and Nick is still adding page updates on Goodreads. I think Nancy may have fallen to the wayside. As with all of life's journeys, we travel at our own pace in our own way!


The Fellowship of the Ring 

- Halfway post - Book one 
- TFOTR - Book two

The Two Towers

- Welcome to Book
- Review

The Return of the King

Friday, 14 July 2017

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

I have yet to read Turgenev's First Love, so I cannot assess the claim made by Alan Warner on the back cover of my edition of Gwendoline Riley's First Love that they are not too far apart. According to Warner they have 'the same panoptic, all-too-human lurches, afflictions and doubts, gorgeously exposed.'

I'm not sure how 'all-seeing' and 'all-too-human' Neve's story is. But for anyone who has found themselves in an unsavoury, bullying relationship, this story would contain many truths.

Fortunately I've only ever witnessed bullying relationships from afar, but Neve's story made me feel so claustrophobic and so caught up in the drama of her stumbling from one poor choice to another, that I felt like I was intimately involved in the dysfunction.

Riley deftly draws the line between adult Neve's unhealthy relationships to those between her parents and the way they parented her and her brother. Edwyn's life is less exposed, but we are given enough clues to see that he also suffered from poor parenting and relationship models. He is the classic case of someone who is only able to see the world through his own lens. Everything he throws at Neve verbally and accuses her of is actually an insight into his own thoughts and feelings.

There were times when I wanted to shake Neve out of her complacency and learned helplessness. It was frustrating to see so little personal growth and awareness in a character. By the end, it felt like she would always be nothing more than the product of her environment and upbringing.

I'm not sure if that's the lesson Riley wanted us to get from her novel. That the individual is doomed to live out the mistakes that their childhood inflicted on them seems terribly sad and fatalistic. But maybe free-will, self-responsibility and choice is only something that those lucky enough to have a safe and loving upbringing can claim?

First Love was provocative and challenging at times, but it wasn't really a 'story of love' like the blurb suggested. It was more like people searching for their idea of love, but not being capable of recognising it or participating in it in a healthy way.

I'm not sure why this book was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize this year. Yes, it has some fine writing, but Neve's stuck-ness and despair was never overcome and I ultimately felt let down by the ending that resolved nothing and allowed no-one to move forward. I still have no idea why Neve chooses to stay with Edwyn, except for the usual psychological reasons that any abused person chooses to stay with their abuser. But it's not love, no matter how they dress it up.

For another point of view about this book try Simon@SavidgeReads (who might help you see some layers that I didn't) and My Booking Great Blog.

Fifth book completed and fourth book reviewed for #20booksofwinter

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Epigraph Philosophy

I love a good epigraph.

A well-chosen, thoughtfully considered epigraph can set just the right tone for the book journey you are about to embark on. However so many authors spend much time and effort on finding a fitting epigraph only for it to be skimmed over by most readers.

For the reader who does consider the epigraph, its true significance may not become apparent until the end of the book, by which time it has been long forgotten.

I want to rectify this sad, sad wrong, here today.

I'm currently reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way. 
They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners' agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart. 
Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.
Perry begins her tale with an epigraph from Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship.

Straight away I had a personal connect to this quote. It sums up beautifully how Mr Books and I feel about each other (although, apparently, Montaigne himself didn't believe that women were capable of this level of emotion, but that's another story!)

Montaigne's quote also gives me another clue about the romance that is at the centre of this story.

Furthermore, on the blurb for Montaingne's book, On Friendship, it says,
Michel de Montaigne was the originator of the modern essay form; in these diverse pieces he expresses his views on relationships, contemplates the idea that man is no different from any animal, argues that all cultures should be respected, and attempts, by an exploration of himself, to understand the nature of humanity.

Not only the epigraph, but the author of the epigraph, highlight Perry's intentions in The Essex Serpent. In this case, the pertinence of the epigraph is apparent from the beginning.

This post is now beginning to feel rather meme-ish to me.

Have you come across a particularly meaningful, insightful or startling epigraph in your recent reading?

I'd love to know what it is and why it took your fancy.

Did you connect to it personally?
Did it put you off or lead you into the story?
Did the quote only make sense once you got into the story? Or at the end?
What does a little bit of googling reveal about your epigraph?

If you'd like to write your own #epigraphphilosophy post please add you link in the comments below.
Use <a href="URL">word</a> to make your link hyper.

If this becomes a thing, I would happily consider another name/hashtag, if any of you have a talent in naming memes!

To finish, I leave you with another Montaigne quote,
I quote others only in order the better to express myself.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Murderer's Ape by Jakob Wegelius

Sometimes the perfect book lands on your doorstep at exactly the right time.

This past month or so has been pretty ordinary. The loss of a much loved family member to cancer has left us all exhausted and numb. I'm sure many of you know the drill we've been through lately. The shock, followed by hope and a more positive outlook, then facing up to reality, one last hope - dashed, the waiting, the decline, the sadness and the final goodbye.

One of my solaces through all of this has been reading - I need to read - I just had to find the right book.

I needed something easy but engaging. I needed a riveting story with an abundance of heart and soul. I also needed some aesthetic pleasure.

My previous posts focused on all the books that didn't work for me during this period, but now let me share with you the delightful, charming story that did provide comfort and joy.

The Murderer's Ape by Swedish writer Jakob Wegelius gave me all of the above and more.

Wegelius has created a classically told story full of friendship, courage, kindness, determination and loyalty. Sally Jones is a gorilla - yes, a gorilla - who is smart, thoughtful and very talented, but she cannot speak. However Sally Jones can write a little and at the start of this story she learns to type on a 1908 Underwood No. 5 typewriter.

By the end of the first page I completely believed the premise of this tale and having a gorilla as the protagonist seemed perfectly natural. Sally Jones has a captivating voice and an amazing tale to tell.

The Murderer's Ape is an adventure wrapped up in a mystery with a quest that takes us around the world. From Lisbon to India and back again this story meanders along at a leisurely, thoughtful pace, gradually revealing little nuggets of insight and information.

Wegelius has drawn numerous pen and ink illustrations for each chapter. Seventeen full page character profiles also grace the beginning of the book.
See more of Wegelius' illustrations here.

In Sweden, he was awarded the August Prize for Best Children’s Book and the Nordic Council Children and Young People’s Literature Prize for The Murderer’s Ape. The Nordic Council had this to say,
The Murderer’s Ape injects a new lease of life into the classic adventure story. Along with a gorilla named Sally Jones, the reader visits the run-down docks of Lisbon, embarks on dizzying journeys across the seven seas, and calls on the Maharaja of Bhapur’s magnificent court – all in an attempt to clear the name of Sally’s best friend, the sailor Henry Koskela. Through his love of narrative and fine knack for portraying character, the author brings early-20th-century history to life, with a particularly keen and curious eye for the new-fangled technology of the day. Detailed portraits and vignettes, as well as maps that chart Sally’s adventures, make this a book that is as visual as it is literary.

Originally published in 2014 and now translated into English by Peter Graves, Wegelius has created an instant classic with this beautifully written, sumptuously produced and generously illustrated novel for thoughtful 12+ readers.

Due for publication in September with Pushkin Press and Allen & Unwin Australia. I seriously hope and pray that they also translate and publish Wegelius' earlier 2008 book called The Legend of Sally Jones, detailing Sally Jones' early life and adventures.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Spring Cleaning (a season early)!

My current mood and recent events have led me to tidy up my TBR pile.

Mr Books is cheering me on from the sidelines and I feel better for the mini decluttering.

I returned a whole stack of books to work for someone else to have a go at and, perhaps more controversially, I have now decided to abandon several half finished books.

They have been lying around, under my bed, half finished for a reason.

I've been trying to get into them. 
I've been determined to find them worthy & engaging but life really is too short to read a book I'm not enjoying.

So farewell thee well Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang.

I made it to pg 195.
 As much as I love Chinese history, I've struggled with the lens though which Chang is gazing.
She is challenging many of the prevailing views on Cixi's leadership, but there were no footnotes or clear references saying why she believes this.

At the beginning, she said that she had access to never before seen by Westerners, imperial decrees, court records, official communications, personal correspondence, diaries and eye-witness accounts.
I don't have any problems with new information and applying a feminist lens to history, but I need proof and a properly documented flow of ideas.

Be gone!

The Salzburg Tales by Christina Stead - so long, see you honey!

I made it all the way to pg 284, but I put it down in the build up to Christmas last year and have felt no desire to pick it up again.
It was an intellectual exercise that failed to excite any passion or feeling in me.
I wanted to get into it, and for a while I was happy to go along with the clever concept, but ultimately, I read for pleasure. 
I read for connection and belonging.
I enjoy fine literature and require good writing, but I also need heart.
And soul.
The brain on its own is not enough for me.


Goodbye also Michael Rosen and The Disappearance of Emile Zola.

Pg 168 was my end game for Zola.
It turns out that you can love someone's books, but not admire them as a person very much.
Zola lived a double life between his wife and his mistress who bore him two children.
It seemed like he spent his life disappointing all of them.

Rosen's book focused on the time that Zola was in England hiding out from the fallout of the Dreyfus Affair and J'Accuse!
It should have been fascinating, but instead I found it deadly dull.

It's time for you to disappear for good!

Bye bye to The Best Australian Essays 2016.

I only read one essay.
It was interesting and I may still be tempted by the rest later, but for now, be gone!

That feels so much better!
A weight has been lifted from my shoulders and my Goodreads page.

Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy my comfort reading phase.
I've just started an amazing children's book called The Murderer's Ape by Jakob Wegelius. 

It was published in 2014 but only recently translated into English from Swedish.

'I don't know when I last read a book with such pure and unalloyed pleasure. It's ingenious, it's moving, it's charming, it's beautiful, it's exciting, and most importantly the characters are people I feel I know like old friends. I thank Jakob Wegelius wholeheartedly for giving me several hours of joy'  Philip Pullman

Sally Jones is not only a loyal friend, she's an extraordinary individual. In overalls or in a maharaja's turban, this unique gorilla moves among humans without speaking but understanding everything. She and the Chief are devoted comrades who operate a cargo boat. A job they are offered pays big bucks, but the deal ends badly, and the Chief is falsely convicted of murder. 

For Sally Jones this is the start of a harrowing quest for survival and to clear the Chief's name. Powerful forces are working against her, and they will do anything to protect their secrets.

So far I agree wholeheartedly with Philip Pullman. 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Brona's Salon

Brona's Salon is a new meme which aims to gather a group of like-minded bookish people 'under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.'

I will provide a bookish prompt or two to inspire our conversation.
However please feel free to discuss your current read or join in the conversation in any way that you see fit.
Amusement, refinement and knowledge will surely follow!

I'm not sure there will be much amusement in this particular post.

A big part of my recent blah, blah, blah feelings have stemmed from the ill health of a much loved family member. Her peaceful passing this weekend now allows us to move onto what comes next.

As it turns out, one of the things that does not come next is Max Porter's Grief is the Thing With Feathers.

Two of my colleagues adored this book, so I'm not going to say don't read this book, ever.
Obviously it has some amazing qualities, that failed to move me at all, if the many Goodreads reviews are to be believed.

But don't read this book if you are in the early stages of grief yourself.
Or you have no knowledge whatsoever about Ted Hughes.
Or if clever, experimental literature is not your thing.
Or if you're feeling 'meh' about pretty much everything.

Which leads me to wonder about all the books about dying out there at the moment.
Why are we so obsessed with this topic right now?

The inevitable, unstoppable journey to our deaths is what defines all our lives.
It is the stuff of stories.

But right now, in the world of literature, we seem to be focused on the specifics of how we die.
What happens when we get that diagnosis, how do we face the treatments and the decline, why is this happening and what have we learnt along the way?

It's curious that the title of this book called to me this afternoon.
Evidently, I was looking for some kind of solace, or deeper meaning.

I'm used to finding empathy and understanding and fellowship in my reading.
But I didn't find it here.

Perhaps it's too soon.

I was looking for a warm, comforting embrace.
Instead, this intellectual exercise left me cold, bemused and confused.

Is grief such a personal thing, that no one book can ever match our circumstances or describe our particular experience? Are we searching for something that cannot be found except in the hard-won, day-by-day process of just going through it?

I'm not looking for sympathy, answers or enlightenment, however for the first time in ages, I felt compelled to write something.

It didn't feel right to confine this post to my usual Salon framework.
But if you'd like to share your latest read with us, then feel free to join in with the questions below in any way that suits you best.
Or if you'd like to share your thoughts on my book choice or topic, then please leave a comment.

I've been reminded this weekend that life is too short to read a book you don't like, but sometimes they help us to define what we are really looking for.

What are you currently reading?

How did you find out about this book?

Why are you reading it now? 

First impressions? 

Which character do you relate to so far?

Final Thoughts

Saturday, 1 July 2017

#6Degrees July 2017

#6degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate @Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Oftentimes I haven't read the starting book for this meme, but I can assure you that I only play the next 6 books with ones I have actually read. 
If I've read the book during this blogging life, then I include my review, otherwise, you just have to take my word for it!

This month the starting book is Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.
Are you game?

Old image alert - Kate @Books Are My Favourite & Best now hosts #6Degrees but this is a good refresh of the rules.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of my favourite Australian stories. It's a story that hinges on a pivotal, climactic picnic scene.

Another literary picnic that is a major turning, is the one in E M Forster's A Room With A View where George shouts his love for Lucy and beauty in a field near Florence.
The story is full of torturous social dilemma's and class conflict. But English society was not the only one to suffer these problems.

New York society in the mid to late 1800's proved to be fertile ground for Edith Wharton and her Age of Innocence (coincidentally, the movies of both these books starred Daniel Day Lewis).
Age of Innocence also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921.

In 1925 another female writer, Edna Ferber, won the Pulitzer Prize for her now almost forgotten best seller, So Big. It was such a pleasant surprise that I'm not going to say anything else about it, because I want you to discover it for yourself. Suffice to say, So Big was so good!

Another forgotten classic that has been recently rediscovered is Stoner by John Williams. I have yet to read this book, but it is waiting patiently for my attention on my rather extensive TBR pile.

Stoner features an existential hero which leads me nicely back to Bilbo Baggins and The Hobbit.
All roads lead to Middle Earth this year as I continue my leisurely #HLOTRreadalong.
The Hobbit is also the quintessential road trip story.

The very first road trip story ever recorded was told by Homer in The Odyssey.
After twenty years of warfare and wandering the world Odysseus finally returns home.
A home that has changed and moved on during his time away, but home nonetheless.

I've travelled from an Australian rural picnic through the social minefields of English and New York society, with a detour via rural America, Middle Earth to end on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Where did you end up this month?


Thursday, 29 June 2017

Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris

As someone who understands and knows solitude pretty extensively I was instantly attracted to this title.

Feeling that my solitude and busy times are currently out of whack also made this seem like the right book at the right time.

But I'm not sure that Solitude by Michael Harris is really about solitude.

It was more of an exploration of our modern, connected, tech-obsessed society. He discusses what that looks like, how it happened and it's impact on our daily lives and on our long-term health. Harris wonders if social media has made us 'socially obese', like teenagers who need to be needed and loved. And he talks about the addictive nature of 'sharing'.

The technology becomes a salve, a way to calm our worries about fitting in or belonging.

Harris started off with the first line from an Emily Dickinson poem. I was curious enough to find the whole.

Part Five: The Single Hound


THERE is another Loneliness
That many die without,
Not want or friend occasions it,
Or circumstances or lot.

But nature sometimes, sometimes thought,
And whoso it befall
Is richer than could be divulged
By mortal numeral.

Emily Dickinson

As someone who has an abundance of the nature and the thoughts that Dickinson referred to, this poem gave me great hopes for finding within the pages of this book, the richer stuff of 'true solitude' (as opposed to the 'failed solitude' of loneliness).

It was not to be, but Solitude did plant the seed I needed to rediscover it for myself.

There must be an art to it....A certain practice, or alchemy, that turns loneliness into solitude, blank days into blank canvases.

But, of course, as we all probably know anyway, these things have to be worked out for yourself, in your own way, usually from hard-won experience, determination and hard work.

Daydreaming our days away is a thing of the past.

Our phones and other devices suck up all of our spare time, our leisure time and much of our working time as well.

However good old fashioned daydreaming had it's purpose. Being on our own, with unfettered time and nothing to do, forced us into self-governance. It gave us those eureka moments and acted as a form of self-therapy.

The truth is that most of our daydreams are not particularly noble or important or fruitful (phew! perhaps I'm doing it properly after all!) An annoying truth about daydreaming is that it takes practice to get good at it.

Solitude also allowed us to be free and independent thinkers - more sure of our thoughts and less likely to be swayed by popular opinion.

The choices we now make online 'become less independent and more manipulated'. We begin to believe that the technology knows us better than we know ourselves. Our world becomes confined to what our known data thinks we would like to have more of. We stop being exposed to new, different and unusual things. We stop thinking for ourselves. We accept the decisions that come at us 'through our screens and accept them as our own'. Until, without realising it,

you become trapped inside an algorithmically defined notion of your own taste....you wont be exposed to things you don't know, things you haven't loved yet. Personal growth becomes stunted.

Thanks to our technology we now never get lost. There is no longer any wandering around trying to find our way and stumbling on something unexpected. Google maps are causing our 'wayfinding skills to atrophy.' We have stopped paying attention to the details of the world around us as we let our phones guide us to our destination. It is no longer the journey, and the stuff we learn and see and experience along the way, that is important. It's the getting there.

Harris then moved onto the art of reading and writing and how these technologies changed our world. 'Each technology drops its own lens over your eyes' - the printing age and the era of screens have both affected the way we tell stories. We believe in,

the fragile idea that your life is a cohesive story....the idea that you are a hero of some story...(however)...Real life feels more like a Tumblr feed than a novel. Real life is random, overpowering, and scarcely knowable as it scrolls past our bewildered, blinking eyes.

This tied in with memory and how technology has changed our ability to remember. Our memories change every time we remember them. They're reassessed to reflect our subsequent knowledge and experiences. So how does this process change when all our memories are documented on social media? And not left to the vagaries of time and revisionism?

So what did I get out of Solitude?

I realised that part of my blogging blues stems from an over-active, over-stimulated mind. I need to find calm, peace and joy. I need to slow down. I need to spend more time in nature and less time on my devices.

I might try the Japanese idea of forest bathing.

Ultimately, it's our choice to nurture our solitude or to allow it to be depleted.

I choose to calm down, slow down and find my centre again.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: The Best of 2017...so far

The Broke and the Bookish host a weekly meme called Top Ten Tuesday.

This week we nominate our list of
Best Books Read In 2017 So Far!

I'm trying everything I can to get over this blue blogging and reading funk.
What better way than to remind myself of the books I've loved (& have raved about) so far this year?

In no particular order (because making that kind of decision is a thought too far right now) my top ten books of 2017 looks a little something like this...

The after effects of this book are lingering far longer than I thought they would.

Tender and sweet, presented in a beautiful package of a book.

I loved this book when I read it, but curiously it's not lingering in the way some books do.

Really loved this one & I'm tempted to reread it soon.

I love both of Balla's books in this style.
For nature lovers of all ages.

This is one is growing in my estimation as time goes by.
Fascinating, disturbing speculative short stories.

What's not to love?
Dogs, Paris & gorgeous, fun illustrations.

A book that will now forever be tied in my mind to Cuba and Mexico.

It's lovely when a childhood favourite maintains its charm.

I only gave this little book 3 stars on Goodreads, but it's screaming reread me, reread me!
As per usual with Strout, so much more going on here than first meets the eye.

What has been your favourite read of 2017 so far?
Inspire me, tempt me, I dare you!