Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Non fiction (page 1 of 6)

Reviving his thirst for reading…

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy-millerWhat do you do when you seriously lose your reading mojo? I tend to retreat into trashy fiction, but I have always managed to recover it after a short hiatus. This wasn’t the case for Andy Miller. He has a great job in publishing, a happy marriage and a young son, but wasn’t getting anything from reading any more.

His solution – to embark upon a grand plan – to read all those books (mostly but not exclusively classics) that he had lied about reading before. He had this epiphany when he picked up Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a book he’d never been able to get into before. (It took me three goes, so I know how he felt on that one.)

Miller draws up The List of Betterment, 50 titles from Middlemarch to War and Peace with some surprises in between; the aim is to read them in a single year.

The road to reading betterment is not without its blocks and detours. A couple of books on the list continued to defeat him (e.g. Of Human Bondage), others are a revelation. The chapter wherein he compares Moby Dick and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is hysterically funny, and truly insightful (I can say that having read both!):

Moby Dick is a long, gruelling, convoluted graft. And yet,, as soon as I completed it, once I could hold it at arm’s length and admire its intricacy and design, I knew Moby Dick was obviously, uncannily, a masterwork. It wormed into my subconscious; I dreamed about it for nights afterwards.

I can honestly say that I had exactly the same experience with Moby Dick (see here.)

Rather than formally critique these books, for the most part Miller’s book is a memoir of the reading experience – how he related to these books and they to him and his life. If you pick it up expecting a serious look at the canon from someone who knows about these books but had not previously read them, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it’s primarily a story about how to make reading fun, and through it, get more out of life.

I must admit to having bonded a bit with the author (as he portrays himself in this book). The Moby Dick chapter was great, but what sealed it for me was that he grew up in Croydon – my own neck of the woods.

How I loved the municipal libraries of South Croydon. They were not child-friendly places; in fact, they were not friendly at all to anyone… The larger building in the town had its own children’s library, accessible at one end of the hall via an imposing door, but what lay behind that door was not a children’s library as we might understand it today, full of scatter cushions and toys and strategies of appeasement; it revealed simply a smaller, replica wood-panelled room full of books. … The balance of power lay with the books, not the public. This would never be permitted today.

I convinced myself that he was talking about Coulsdon Library there – which is where I went as a kid every Saturday morning in the second half of the 1960s. Then we moved to Purley (closer to central Croydon), and Purley library was where I went every day during the months before finishing university and starting my first job. I also had a Saturday job at Norbury library through the sixth form – so I know Croydon and its libraries rather well.

In a footnote, he also praises the branch of WH Smiths in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon where he would go to spend prized book tokens – his birthday present of choice. (This is one point where I have to disagree – Websters, the indie book shop further up was far better than Smiths – it is now Waterstones!). I don’t mind footnotes at all, and Miller’s ones frequently contain funny asides – if you’re a footnote-o-phobe, you’ll miss some good little bits.

Miller is not afraid to court controversy in this book. This is where I unbonded with him for a bit. In the chapter on Books 41 and 42, he talks about blogging. He tried blogging about his project himself – but failed. He said he wasn’t reading the books for the sake of reading them, he was reading them for the sake of thinking of something to write about them on the blog. Fair enough, but he goes on to say how “The internet is the greatest library in the universe; unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.” after having made some very disapproving generic comments about bloggers. Guaranteed to piss people off, that!

The above section aside, I found this book very enjoyable and always entertaining – even the chapter written as a love letter to Michel Houellebecq’s novel Atomised, (a book I have tried, but disliked so much I did not finish it). I counted up how many titles I’d read on The List of Betterment. 18 + The Da Vinci Code – I was impressed with myself – being a scientist, not an English grad. I have added to my own wishlist – notably Bukowski, and I want to re-read Anna Karenina, preferably in Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation for the OUP. I’ve also made mental notes to dispose of my copies of Of Human Bondage and Dice Man – I’ll never read them now.

Fans of books about books of the personal reading journey type, rather than serious lit-crit will find Miller’s memoir great fun; easy reading in good company. (8/10)

For a pair of other contrasting views on this book – see Susan’s review here and Victoria’s one here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller. Pub 4th Estate, May 2014. Hardback, 336 pages.

Christmas Shiny Linkiness …

Today, I’d like to direct you over to my reviews in the Shiny New Books Christmas Inbetweeny.  By the way, have you tried our Shiny Advent Quiz yet? Ideal as a post-prandial competition… But back to my reviews as these books are all too good to leave off mentioning here too:

The Islanders by Pascal Garnier

islanders Translated for Gallic Books by Emily Boyce, with whom I’ve been having some lovely email conversations.

I’m a recent convert to Garnier (see here), and if his novel The A26 was ‘the Road to Hell’, the latest to be published – The Islanders is certainly about the Christmas from Hell!

A man returns home to Versailles just before Christmas when his mother dies in the coldest December for years and re-encounters an old flame… cue memories and murderously dark noir events tinged with humour.  Absolutely brilliant!

Read my review here, and Emily wrote a piece about translating it for Shiny here.

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The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli

head of the saintYA books in translation are a rarity – so I lapped up the chance to read this one by Brazilian author Acioli, developed at a writers’ workshop hosted by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It’s a lovely quest story about a young boy who sets out to find his grandmother when his own mother dies and he ends up sleeping inside the giant saint’s head that never got raised onto the statue. A magical and lovely tale.

Read my review here.

 

 

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Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No HarmI always find accounts of lives worked in medicine absolutely fascinating, especially those of surgeons, who live on the cutting edge (sorry!) of medical science.

Henry Marsh is one of the UK’s foremost brain surgeons and his account of a life in neurosurgery is candid, honest, reassuring and totally engrossing and fascinating. Successes and failures are all discussed with compassion and wit where required.

Now out in paperback and a must-read for all those fascinated by doctors and medicine.

Read my review here.

 

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Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry book cover Perry’s book, which is essentially a transcript of his Reith Lectures for the BBC last year, seeks to demystify the modern art world in his trademark flippant yet serious at the same time style.

It’s fully illustrated with his cartoons too, which accompanied the talk, but which we couldn’t previously see on the radio where the lectures were broadcast.

Full of anecdotes, advice and jokes, it’s great fun.

Read my review here.

 

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Shiny New Books will be back in late January with a new batch of reviews and features for you, but there is still much to explore in Issue 3 of Shiny, which includes the Christmas update. Also why not explore the archives from Issue 1 and Issue 2 you can explore for inspiration, especially as some of those books are now available in more affordable paperbacks.

 

 

Hitch's last essays …

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-MortalityI’m a long-term fan of Vanity Fair magazine for it’s in depth articles, photo portfolios and reportage, (OK, I don’t read the bits about obscure US politicians). One of the highlights most months though was to read the latest essay by British writer Christopher Hitchens.

A sublime essayist and journalist, a forthright and vocal atheist always happy to debate on difficult subjects – his pieces were always worth reading, whether you agreed with him or not.  I say were – because he died in 2011 from oesophageal cancer, more than likely brought on by his heavy drinking and smoking.  He collapsed in 2010 on the book tour to publicise his memoir Hitch 22, and was found to have cancer which had metastised, spread and thus was terminal. As he said: ‘…the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.’

His last book, published posthumously, Mortality, is a collection of the essays he wrote during that last year for Vanity Fair around the subject of his cancer and dying. It is prefaced by his friend and editor of VF Graydon Carter with an afterword by his widow Carol Blue. I remember devouring them each month, and it is entirely fitting that they be collected into this short book.

Of course, memoirs about dying and cancer have been done before. Notably, I still can’t forget John Diamond’s page-long columns in the back of the Saturday Times magazine in which he wrote of his life once diagnosed with throat cancer. These columns became the basis of his memoir C: Because cowards get cancer too. He died in 2001: Diamond’s wife was Nigella Lawson, and I really felt for her, having already lost her mother and one sister to cancer. In fact, in Hitch’s unfinished notes in the final chapter he mentions Diamond:

Like many other readers, I used to quietly urge him on from week to week. But after a year and more … well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, miracle cure!  Hey I was just having you on! No, neither of those could work as endings. Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this? A stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end…

But back to Hitch himself. Having the benefit of being able to write full essays for VF, he is able to expound at length, essentially taking a different related topic each time as well as updating us on the progress of his illness and treatment.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay is the second in which he deals with religion, and how he had both people praying for him and condemning him to hell!  For an atheist polemicist, he has many friends among the world’s many religions, and is more likeable than Dawkins for it. However, some would still hope to persuade him to have a deathbed conversion …

I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.

A different secular problem also occurs to me: What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.

In another chapter, he writes about his voice – his vocal cords going decidedly croaky – and as a man who earns his living by voice as well as pen, he hated the idea of having to communicate by writing, even if his writing is his voice on paper.  He thanks (also now the late) Simon Hoggart who …

…about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write ‘more like the way you talk.’ At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.

Another interesting essay is based upon Nietzsche’s pronouncement: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich starker – Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Hitchens discusses why it doesn’t really work, although you may think it does until you get terminal and he illustrates the essay with quotations from Kingsley Amis, Betjeman and Bob Dylan.

These essays and additional material were a joy to revisit. Well-argued, supported by apposite quotes, each encapsulates its subject brilliantly. His interest in  the human condition too shines through the writing – it always has done. You could argue that this is not his best work, but perhaps it is is his most meaningful. Hitchens for all his bravado comes across as so full of life, even as the end approached and he shows great courage. His voice – spoken and on the page is a great loss, but luckily, he wrote lots of books, including his memoir Hitch 22, his anti-theist treatise God is not great: how religion poisons everything, and a great collection of other essays from 2011, Arguably. Now I don’t have him to read in VF any more, I shall start on these. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2012 paperback 128 pages.
Hitch 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2010 paperback 448 pages.

 

"Marvellous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World"

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

stuff matters cover What would we do without man-made materials?  We can’t live without them these days.

Mark Miodownik, whom some of you may recognise from his regular TV appearances on Dara O’Briain’s Science Club on BBC2, wants to tells us all about the things our man-made world is shaped from. Mark, like me (!), is a materials scientist. Unlike me, he’s a practising one, being a Professor of the subject at UCL in London.  In his book, published last year, now available in paperback with this gorgeous cover, he wants to persuade us that ‘Stuff Matters’.

Further down this post, you’ll find a competition to win a copy of the book plus a signed poster of the cover.

In the introduction, he explains to us where his fascination with materials came from and it’s a grim start. As a teenager, he was badly slashed with a super-sharp razor-blade by a mugger on the London underground, and couldn’t believe that a small blade could cut through five layers of clothing and so deeply through the skin of his back as he escaped.

mark miodownikIn the following chapters, he takes us through the development of some of the fundamental materials in our lives like steel, paper and concrete; materials that help us as we age, entertain us at leisure; also some of the most interesting new ones like aerogel and nanotechnology.

He’s great at explaining complex subjects making things like how the faults in the crystal structure of metal alloys are what helps to make it strong seem straight forward, (although at uni-level I remember struggling with atomic planes and dislocations at first) and that’s no mean feat. This is a wonderful tour around the world of materials science, it’s entertaining, full of facts, and easy to read. Mark makes for good company on the page and I heartily recommend it. (9/10)

Now for the giveaway:

Thanks to those lovely people at Penguin, I have a copy of Mark’s book and a signed poster of the book cover to giveaway.  I’m afraid it’s open to UK residents only.  Just leave a comment below – and if you like, tell me your favourite material that things can be made of, but that’s not compulsory. We’ll draw a winner at Wednesday tea-time.  Good luck!

I shall leave you with a clip of the front cover being assembled.

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World by Mark Miodownik, pub Penguin 2013, paperback 272 pages.

If you found Stuff Matters fascinating, you might be interested in the book below. The second edition, published in 1976, is still in print and still used today. It was the one book I was told I had to read before going up to university, and it was fascinating.

The New Science of Strong Materials: Or Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor (Penguin Science) by J.E.Gordon, pub Penguin, paperback.

50th Anniversary of the Assassination of JFK

The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo

jfkI was just three and a half when JFK was assassinated, so I remained blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had happened on 22nd November 1963.  They say it’s one of those events that everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

I’ve checked my late Mum’s diaries and she didn’t comment, (in fact hardly any events in world politics made it into them). I asked my father (who was 84 on Monday- Happy Birthday Dad!) what he was doing. – he remembers it as a badminton night, and is sure they’d have heard the news over tea before going out to play that evening.

So, fifty years later we are remembering Kennedy’s untimely death. Jonathan Mayo, who has already done a ‘Minute by Minute’ treatment for the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, has done the same for JFK. It is going to be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on the 22nd at 6pm.

The book takes the timeline from just before Kennedy’s arrival in Texas in the evening of the 21st of November and follows through chronologically until the evening after JFK’s funeral on the 25th.  Mayo tells the story of everyone who was involved in the story, however small their role. It is, Mayo says:

The story of what took place in Dallas is not just about President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald; it’s also about the scores of people who were drawn into the developing drama. Some are famous, some obscure, but it affected them all, putting them in unexpected situations, and sometimes making them behave in unexpected ways. This book is full of stories that I hope will restore the impact of the assassination.

There is no room for conspiracy theories in this book which tells it as it happened.  This immediacy gives it the feel of a thriller.

I had no idea that there was no love lost between Kennedy and Johnson, and the Texas Governor Connolly, and that it had been considered dangerous for Kennedy to go to Dallas.

I was amazed to find that DJ John Peel had been in Dallas at the time, and was just feet from Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him, whereas Alastair Cooke had declined to go on the trip being fed up of Democratic politics, and had remained in New York.

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside her. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside him. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

I was saddened to hear that JFK’s back-brace for chronic back pain, held him in a position where the second bullet was able to hit his head.  We share Jackie’s pain as she steadfastly stays in her pink Chanel suit, even when they reach Andrews Air Force Base saying ‘No, let them see what they’ve done.‘ when it was suggested that she change her dress. I really felt for her, Robert, and her children.

As for Lee Harvey Oswald – well, he was obviously a wrongun’! Enough said.

There was so much I didn’t know about the events in this book. The only thing missing in this book were some more photographs.  Adding the famous ones like that above, the Jack Ruby one, Oswald posing with his gun, etc. would have given it just that little extra to make it an exceptional read.  The minute by minute format gave it real pace, and unlike those difficult novels (and a certain recent Autobiography), the fact that the events unwind in the present tense generated a real sense of suspense and anticipation.  No matter what you think of JFK, this book gives a fascinating insight into some truly sad days. (9/10)

See also DoveGreyReader for another excellent review of this book.

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Source: Publisher (thank you). To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo, pub Nov 13 by Short Books. Hardback 288 pages.

'November spawned a monster'?

Autobiography by Morrissey

autobiographymorrissey_lrgSorry – couldn’t resist the title of this post.  I wrote about my initial reaction to the opening pages of Moz’s memoir here.  There, I questioned whether I could stand to read a whole 457 pages of his purple prose.

Well, reader – I finished it. Contrary to my expectations, I enjoyed a good amount of it too, but, if ever there was a book to which the term ‘curate’s egg’ could apply – this is it! Famously unedited, it is at least one hundred pages too long.  This is primarily because, (as I at once surmised), he uses double the amount of words that he needs to.

I suspect that, as his sense of humour is entirely on a different plane to that of the general public,  he didn’t set out to make anyone laugh – but laugh I did in quite a few places. Let me share some of those with you before getting serious:

Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big, …  (p5)

England calls with an offer of a role on Eastenders, as the son (so far unmentioned) of the character Dot Cotton. I would arrive unexpectedly in Albert Square and cause births, deaths and factory fires every time I opened my mouth – numb to shame throughout. (p353)

The cast (of Friends) is friendly, and I am immediately taken aside by the scriptwriters and asked if I’d jump in on a newly jumbled plot-line where I appear with the character Phoebe in the Central Perk diner, where I am requested to sing in ‘a really depressing voice.’ Within seconds of the proposal, I wind down the fire-escape like a serpent, and it’s goodbye to Hollywood yet again. (p368)

A Manc-accented Nick Cotton in Eastenders – I don’t think so.  At least he has the sense to recognise that he probably can’t act, but it would have been wonderful to see him send himself up in Friends, but ever Narcissus, he can’t.

Morrissey is famous for being vegetarian; later walking out of many restaurant meetings when someone at his table orders meat.  This was even so in his childhood, and his description of school dinners could turn you off most food for life.

Putrid smells reduce me to a pitiful pile, and none are more vomitarian than school dinners. All foods of miasmic fragrance disturb me, and the mere hint of garlic induces the shakes, as fish cooked or uncooked causes gut-wrenching panic. This boy of 1971 has an abnormally limited palate – a working-class host of relentless toast, and the inability to expand beyond the spartan.

What was nice was that although he hated school, outside, he developed a love for poetry, starting off with the wit of Hillaire Belloc, and Wilde, then Dorothy Parker before moving on to Stevie Smith, WH Auden, Herrick and Housman.

It is page 141 before he meets Johnny Marr, shortly after discovering he has “a chest voice of light baritone,” and an initial flirtation with performing in public as The Nosebleeds (not a band name of his choosing).  He and Marr hit it off, and the rest, as they say is history.

The years with The Smiths, before it all fell to pieces are fascinating. Like all tyro bands faced with their first record contract, they gaily sign.  They have hit records but never reach the number one spot, something that really irks Morrissey. All the way through his memoir, whether with The Smiths or solo, he is obsessed with chart positions, seeing the inability to get a single to the top spot as a failure of the record company.  It is hard to see how a song called ‘Shoplifters of the world unite‘ could have got the airplay he thinks it deserves.  The albums chart higher though, and live audiences bear out their popularity, but you sense he is really aggrieved at never having had a No 1 single.

On p175, he talks about why he calls himself Morrissey…

My own name has now become synonymous with the word ‘miserable’ in the press, so Johhny putters with ‘misery’ and playfully arrives at misery mozzery, which truncates to Moz, and I am classified ever after. I had originally decided to use only my surname because I couldn’t think of anyone else in the music that had done so – although, or course, many had been known by just one name, but it hadn’t been their surname.  Only classical composers were known by just their surnames, and that suited my mudlark temperament quite nicely.

Comparing himself to a classical composer – he’s having a laugh, isn’t he?

Where I got bogged down with this memoir was the section post-Smiths when Morrissey was sued by the Smiths’ bassist and drummer, whom Morrissey insists had been signed on for 10% (himself and Marr as the songwriters getting 40% each), asking for their full 25% – years after the event. Morrissey is full of vitriol at them, and as it goes on and on for about fifty pages, I got more and more bored.

Things get a little more interesting again when Morrissey moves to LA, meets various celebs and has strange conversations. He also has relationships which are still kept very private. They get boring again when he goes on tour – and we get night after night of a new city and audience sizes.

So – a mixed bag of too much information, too little information. Occasions of too much purple prose – “even though his expressionist jargon often swamped logic in far too much existentialism” – I can’t even begin to assimilate that phrase. I have no idea of the veracity of his writing – Stuart Maconie and Julie Burchill give different accounts of meetings for instance, but it is his own (narcissistic) account. Morrissey shouldn’t have been allowed to become the first living author to be published in Penguin Classics – but it was a great marketing coup.

To sum it up, when talking about family, friends, poetry, The Smiths’ creative peak, Morrissey was happy – and I was happy reading about it too; when whining about record companies, court cases, the NME, never getting to no 1, endless gigs, being a Misery Moz – I thought ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’. (7/10)

So I shall leave you with a promo video for Girlfriend in a Coma, and links to Morrissey’s appearance on Desert Island Discs which was fascinating plus a couple of press reviews of his book – one funny, one more balanced: Craig Brown in the Daily Mail; and Stuart Maconie in the Guardian.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Autobiography by Morrissey, Penguin Classics, October 2013, 457 pages

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