Annabel's House of Books

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

Tag: Reading (page 1 of 2)

Reading as if his life depends on it…

Latest Readings by Clive James

Clive James Latest ReadingsI was supposed to review this book for the latest issue of Shiny, but just couldn’t write it up in time, so Simon obliged with a review for Shiny (here), in which I was surprised to read that Simon was actually new to James’ writing.  To me, he’s an old friend. I grew up reading his TV column in the Observer each week, went on Flying Visits with him, read most of his memoirs, and of course I diligently watched him on the telly. His rapier wit and deadpan Aussie delivery was perfect for dissecting the week’s TV viewing in a literary yet accessible and hilarious way.

Of course, he’s getting on a bit now, although still only 76 he’s sadly suffering from leukaemia – but as he said in the Guardian the other week ‘Still being alive is embarrassing.’ He’d expected to be dead by now, but new treatment is helping. Long may it continue.

James may have retired from making personal appearances, but in his reading and writing he is still indulging with gusto, and this book is the result of his publisher asking him what he’s been reading lately. It caused him to set off on a voyage of exploration amongst his newly winnowed shelves (having moved), but added to with each visit to Hugh’s bookstall on Cambridge market.

Even after the request came, I went on reading in no particular order, mixing books of obvious seriousness with books of seeming triviality; as I always have, in the belief that culture is a matter not of credentials, but only of intensity, and sometimes you will find things out from fans and buffs that you won’t from a tenured professor.

However, he does institute a bit of plan to give this book an arc or re-readings – starting and finishing with Hemingway, going from young to old, and a peppering of Conrad throughout. We begin with Hemingway’s debut The Sun Also Rises:

All too often he overdoes the repetitions in those dialogue passages where the speakers seem mainly intent on echoing each other’s phrases. Worse, when they get drunk they start echoing themselves. But even with that irritating trick, he occasionally gets it so right that you laugh.

At this point, I had to (somewhat smugly) agree with him!  The next chapter moves on to Conrad – an author I’ve never read (but feel as if I have). On re-reading Lord Jim, which he’d found boring as a student.  He says:

… the book struck me as no more exciting than it had once seemed, but a lot more interesting.

I found that a fascinating point of view, and so true too, given a lifetime of reading and experience you would approach the historicity of a novel differently. In contrast, he says Nostromo is ‘one of the greatest books I have ever read.’

He discovers a love for Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, wondering why he’d never read them before (making me want to re-read them instantly), and discusses other series of novels such as Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and Ford’s Parade’s End quartet, before moving on to devote a chapter to the charms of ‘Patrick O’Brian and His Salty Hero’. Urged into reading them by his daughter, he polished off all twenty volumes of the Aubrey/Maturin books, despite musing that O’Brian ‘doesn’t know what to do with an interesting female character.’

He talks eloquently about his love of factual books about the second world war and its leading figures, even if the contents are suspect or controversial.

We move on to another series of books – Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  (I must get my reading of this series back on the tracks.)  James had been determined not to re-read them, but was waylaid by a complete set of paperbacks on Hugh’s bookstall with cover illustrations by a dear late friend of his, Mark Boxer.

And they do read well, as I soon found out all over again; because when I got them home I started reading them one after another. In the last years of his life I knew Powell well enought to be sure he would have approved of how I relished the physical experience of consuming his little books like plates of sweets and grapes as I sat on my garden terrace while the heat gradually went out of a long summer.

I could go on and on, for James’s prose is just so quotable, whether he’s talking about big volumes on politics and history, or his love of poetry. What I particularly love is his unsnobbish attitude and his joie de vivre for reading.  He can also make anything sound interesting. This little volume was an absolute joy to read, and it ought to go on your Christmas present lists for anyone who likes books about books.  I’ll finish with a quote from a chapter called ‘Extra Shelves’:

When is an extra bookshelf not really an extra bookshelf? When you don’t have to build it. In my house I am under steady pressure from my most frequent visitors – wife, two daughters – not to turn it into a book warehouse like every other dwelling I have ever been in.

… We are often told that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be in the computer. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love, and therefore scarcely rational at all.

Couldn’t agree more! (10/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you!

Clive James, Latest Readings, August 2015, Yale Hardback, 192 pages.

Non-fic Shiny Linkiness

Yes, there’s more Shiny Linkiness today. One of the things I do love about reviewing for Shiny New Books is that it introduces me to some great non-fiction which I don’t read enough of, and the latest issue is no exception. Please feel free to comment here, or even better – follow the links to the full reviews and comment there.  Thank you!

Birth of a Theorem by Cédric Villani

birth-of-a-theorem-198x300I realise that a memoir about winning the Fields Medal for mathematics will not be to everyone’s taste – especially as it contains pages of equations… BUT – they are just illustrations, treat them sections from a musical score and pass them by whilst appreciating the complexity you’ve just skimmed over and it does make some kind of sense to see them on the page.

Cédric Villani is a flamboyant Frenchman who likes flashy clothes and music and brings his recent career to life so we can understand a bit about what mathematicians really do!

I was rather excited by this book and you can read my full review here.

The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell

the-knowledgeI was able to kill two birds with one stone with this book. We discussed it this month at our book group – I didn’t choose it, but was very glad to have read it, and as the new issue of Shiny New Books coincided with its paperback release, I could review it there and then discuss with the group.

This book is a thought experiment about rebooting civilisation’s lost science and technology following a world-disaster like a flu-pandemic. It’s a primer that’ll give you the basics – or point you in the right direction largely through re-examining how we discovered key processes the first time around in history. You’ll really get to appreciate how important being able to make soap and lime are after the end of the ‘grace period.’

Our book group found this fascinating and dry in equal measure. Although it is a science book written by a scientist, the others would have liked some more social science and comment incorporated – but it ‘does what it says on the tin’ and I enjoyed it a lot.

Read my full review here.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy miller book Lastly, again, to coincide with publication of the paperback, I revised my review of Andy Miller’s book which I originally posted about here. I may have had problems with one tiny section, but I did really enjoy reading this book.

Read my revised Shiny review here.

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Source: Top – publisher – thank you. Middle and bottom – own copies.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):

Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure by Cédric Villani (trans Malcolm De Bevoise), Bodley Head, March 2015, hardback, 260 pages.
The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World After An Apocalypse by Lewis Dartnell, Vintage paperback, March 2015, 352 pages.
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller, 4th Estate paperback, April 2015, 253 pages.

 

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.

My New Reading Chair

YIPPEE! My new reading chair arrived this afternoon (with matching sofa, from the sales at Furniture Village).

It’s a ‘smuggler’ chair – one and a half seats wide, so plenty of room for feet and wriggling and cushions – and a cat when we get one.  Meanwhile my daughter is pleased with the sofa because it is longer than our old one and she can lie on it, (just 3 months and she’s a proper teenager!).

New Chair 003

I’m now going to baptize it with my current read – The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers – I’m going to hear her talk next week (more info from Mostly Books).

I was slightly surprised that we ended up choosing a neutral grey-brown colour sofa though for there was red on offer (I love red), but I shall save that for winter cushioning.  But thinking about how I’d describe the colour – it’s minky – and that’s the name and colour of our much beloved hamster!

Mostly Minky 046 compressed

 

So that’s my new place to read.  Why don’t you tell me about your reading chairs and reading places …

Appearing elsewhere …

Just a short post to say that today I’m appearing elsewhere … My bookcases and I are over at Savidge Reads. Answering Simon’s questionnaire about my bookcases (and let’s face it, my mountainous TBR), was great fun and I am delighted to be taking part in his regular feature.

I took a bag of books to the charity shop this morning – including several chunksters that are just too long and don’t think I’ll ever read them – that means Infinite Jest, A Suitable Boy and Anathem amongst others. They may be masterpieces but life’s too short. Between them that frees up over six inches of shelf space, and I can always re-acquire/borrow them should the urge to actually read them come.

So see you at Simon’s and I’ll sure we can find a virtual cuppa and biscuits while you peruse the shelves…

Happy Easter!

I hope to be doing some of this over the next few days …Image

Have a lovely Easter, however you celebrate it.

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