Books you might enjoy: July to September

I lost my reading mojo last quarter. It has almost (but not quite) returned but it means that my reading slowed right down and I worried that I wouldn’t have much to recommend to you, my dear readers, who I know have been waiting with bated breath, library cards clutched to your chests in anticipation…

Luckily – quality not quantity and all that – what I did read last quarter turned out to be pretty brilliant so here are the books I most enjoyed in July, August and September. They should be added to your To Read pile immediately.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

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It’s a slim thing, this novel… or (prose) poem… or whatever it is (it doesn’t really matter). And its brevity means you can read it again and again, or – even better – read it slowly, relishing every word, because Max Porter makes each one work hard.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers tells the story of the aftermath of a woman’s death from the perspectives of her husband (a Ted Hughes scholar), her sons and Crow, a visitor that is both welcome and unwelcome, a bully and crook, a counsellor and protector.

There were sentences in this book so good, I literally (and I’m using the word correctly in this context) punched the air in delight, at least twice. When Crow fights a demon who feeds on grief, a stream of violence spills out, only to be interrupted by Crow’s playful glee: “…splashing in blood and spinal gunk and shit and piss, unravelling innards, whipping ligaments and nerves about joyous spaghetti tangled wool hammering, clawing, ripping, snipping, slurping, burping, frankly loving the journey of hurting, hurting-hurting and for Crow it was like a lovely bin full of chip papers and ice cream and currywurst and baby robins and every nasty treat…”

like a lovely bin”! That makes me want to punch the air again.

But even in the grip of grief, in this book, there is warmth and humour:

“I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much, it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.

Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.”

I don’t think I will read a better book this year.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

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Whilst I certainly didn’t love it as much as Grief is the Thing…, I’ve never read anything quite like Swamplandia!. Ava Bigtree and her family of alligator wranglers run the titular amusement park in the Everglades, off the southwest coast of Florida, embracing their alternative lifestyle as make-believe Native Americans. But Ava’s mum (the most famous gator wrangler of them all) dies from cancer – a death so relatively mundane, the adventurous family can hardly believe it – and the family falls apart. With her grandfather packed off to a residential home; her father away “on business”; her brother defecting to rival theme park The World of Darkness; and her sister increasingly obsessed with the occult and dating ghosts, Ava is left to her own devices.

Russell’s prose is rich and dense; I’m going to go there and say it’s swamp-like. It can be wallowed in but can also be impermeable and, although I loved the novel, its originality and some truly brilliant lines, I struggled with Russell’s efforts to sustain the richness of her writing. Just look how many (admittedly wonderful) images she packs in to the last few lines of this paragraph:

“Inside the house was bare wood. Smells bloomed in the dark, a mix of salt and bird droppings and deep rot, but the structure itself was in surprisingly good condition. No Seths, no hawks, no racoons, no trespassing felines. The main room was about three hundred square feet, and the roof was low enough to scrape back the Bird Man’s hat. There was almost no furniture, but what remained was arranged in the patterns you’d expect: a dining table twin beds bunked in an alcove that opened like a walnut mouth behind what had been the kitchen, a small black desk that looked so weak I didn’t even like to rest my eyes on it. Black and white specklings covered the walls, these grim starbursts of mold on the pale wood that made me miss with a random stab my acned brother. A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky: it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once, and lost interest.”

Swamplandia! is worth the effort though. It is fantastical, atmospheric, unsettling and, at times, even funny. If you like to be surprised by a book, this is one for you.

All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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In contrast to my other two recommendations this quarter, All the Light we Cannot See seems fairly traditional in its plotting and style, almost stately in Doerr’s story telling skill. But that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile; in fact, I was really bowled over by how well crafted this book is.

It is wartime. Marie-Laure, a young blind girl, lives in Paris with her father, a locksmith at a national museum. When the Nazis occupy Paris and demand access to the museum’s most prized artefact, the Sea of Flame, Marie-Laure and her father flee to an elderly relative’s house in Saint-Malo. There, they find that their relative is reclusive and eccentric, an obsessive collector of radio transmitting equipment.

Meanwhile, in Germany, a young orphan called Werner comes to the attention of the Nazi Youth, thanks to his extraordinary talent for fixing things, specifically radios. He is transported to boarding school, where brutality reigns, and trained to use his particular skills to serve the Third Reich.

Inevitably, Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths cross. But the intricate plot to bring them together is enormously satisfying, making this book a real page-turner.


This quarter, I also read:
How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt
A Golden Age by Tahmina Anam

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Books you might enjoy: April to June

It’s been a funny few months, hasn’t it? Do you know what you need? Some cracking book recommendations! Without further ado, let me tell you the three best books I read in the last quarter…

May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes

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I love A. M. Homes. I really love her. Her writing feels almost dangerous to read; I once read a review of one of her books, which said she writes like a man and, whilst I generally find this offensive, I sort of know what they mean. She is unafraid of saying what she needs to say, she doesn’t hold back, she doesn’t side-step the nasty stuff. I love her.

May We Be Forgiven opens with a series of awful events, none of which I will tell you because I benefitted from not knowing and you should too. But they revolve around George Silver, a deeply unpleasant TV executive and his less unpleasant brother Harry, the book’s main protagonist, who is left to pick up the pieces. So many things follow – random internet hook-ups; the discovery of Nixon’s secret short stories; the disappearance of a local young woman; a Bar Mitzvah in an African village; an experimental correctional facility that is not unlike the setting of Battle Royale; a CIA sting; a swingers’ meet-up at a LazerQuest – that I’ve mostly forgotten and occasionally recall events and am surprised by them all over again.

If all that seems too much, there’s a point to the novel too, direction within the chaos, and the story moves from its grim opening to a resolution that is satisfyingly upbeat. Some might say sentimental, I say just right.

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

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I like quirky novels (as the review above probably suggests) and Undermajordomo Minor is a quirky novel, although not like May We Be Forgiven is a quirky novel.

Lucy Minor is a young man without many prospects. He applies for and unexpectedly secures a posting as an under-major-domo (me neither) in a dilapidated castle that is home to the all but invisible Baron Von Aux; his elderly and loyal major-domo Olderglough; Agnes, a mean cook who specialises in concrete-like porridge; and something terrible that stalks the halls at night. On the slopes of the hill that the castle sits atop, a war is raging but it is one that doesn’t seem to interfere with life inside the castle itself or in the nearby village, where Lucy meets and falls in love with Klara, the daughter of a local thief.

Undermajordomo Minor is strange and funny; at once a gothic folk tale, a comic fable and a love story, it is difficult to place in space or time but is charming all the same.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

Outrun

How to define Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun? It is autobiographical, charting Liptrot’s descent in to alcoholism and her subsequent recovery, but it is also a beautiful piece of nature writing, the Orkney Islands – their flora, fauna and wildlife – featuring centrally as the setting for her journey to abstinence.

The Outrun is arguably something of a busman’s holiday for me but, still, I was struck by Liptrot’s honesty, particularly in the passages that detail her behaviour and her experiences when drinking alcohol, and by how vividly the restorative nature of the islands is described. Sure, the islands are wild and destructive but they are not nearly as wild and destructive as her addiction.

This quarter I also read:

  • Carol by Patricia Highsmith
  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
  • Worse. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland
  • Lover by Anna Raverat

On the fifth day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

Sightlines.Cover_

Kathleen Jamie’s second collection of nature essays, Sightlines, is also the second book recommended by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights to feature in this list. Although I know of Jamie’s poetry, I’ve never read – nor ever really thought about reading – any nature writing. But my Mr B’s bibliotherapist picked up on the fact that I enjoy writing that is rich and poetic and that I also enjoy non-fiction and suggested I try it.

In Sightlines, Jamie casts her net wide across the natural world and draws in subjects as broad as the Northern Lights; a Shetland gannetry; Palaeolithic paintings in a Spanish cave; whales, both dead and on display in Bergen and very much alive off the coast of a Scottish island; and 1970s archeological digs. Throughout, she shares observations that are original but, on reading, strike you as satisfyingly true and considers the way in which we humans interact with the world, whilst never preaching.

What I enjoyed most about this book was Jamie’s attention to the details she observes along the way. She leans close to walls on Rona, listening out for the call of the Leach’s storm petrels she is surveying. She pays as much attention to the eerie iceberg-littered fjord she travels on to see the Northern Lights as she does the great spectacle itself. And, in one surprising essay, she swoops over the valleys, craters, seascapes and shores of the human stomach, viewed through a microscope in a pathology lab.

“‘The natural evidence of our mortality,’ Professor Fleming called it. Hearts and lungs, a colon that could be a pig’s. That’s the deal: if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it’s as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain. Not a deal anyone remembers having struck – we just got here – but it’s not as though we don’t negotiate.”

If, like me, you’ve never read any nature writing, I’d urge you to try this. It’s beautifully written but always accessible, eclectic in its subject matter but always engaging. I think I’m hooked.

On the twelfth day of Christmas…

This year, I’m counting down the 12 books I most enjoyed during 2015. As always, they’re books I read this year but they were not necessarily published this year. But books never go out of fashion so let’s not worry about that.

Shotgun Lovesongs
In Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs, four men return to their rural Wisconsin hometown and find that adult friendships have a quite different complexion to those we develop in our youth. The resulting story verges on sentimental but I was really struck by the quiet tenderness in the way Butler describes male friendship – unusual in literature – and was moved by the hurt the four men inflict on one another as they try to navigate adulthood.

There’s a song by Elbow – also a little sentimental – called Dear Friends, which goes: Dear friends / You are angels and drunks / You are Maji/ Old friends / You stuck a pin in the map I was in / And you are the stars I navigate home by. It makes me want to be in the company of those who’ve known me longest and so did this book.

Why migraine awareness is important to me…and millions more in the UK

Today marks the start of Migraine Awareness Week 2014.

If you know me (in real life or online), you probably know I am a migraine sufferer1. I had my first migraine 20 years ago, at the age of 12. I was sitting in Mr. Baddeley’s English class, reading from Call of the Wild (I hated that bloody book), when I noticed the words were starting to disappear from the left as my eyes scanned the page. I remember briefly wondering whether I was going blind – my eyesight is pretty terrible so it seemed plausible – before zigzags of light appeared and I was overwhelmed by nausea. I was taken to the nurse’s room, where the nurse suggested I was trying to bunk off, and I vomited into a bucket until my step-dad could come and collect me. He and my mum – a long-time migraineur herself – recognised it as a migraine straight away. I can’t tell you how many days I’ve lost to the condition since then.

I am one of 8 million people in the UK living with the most common but regularly misunderstood neurological condition: migraine. That’s why the work that The Migraine Trust is doing – not just during Migraine Awareness Week but also through their awareness raising and advocacy work throughout the year – is so important. Because, despite the fact that so many live with migraines, people continue to underestimate its impact on migraineurs and their families2, to dismiss it as malingering, as “just a headache”. When, in fact, it is utterly debilitating.

My mum and I were recently discussing the advice we’d give to a young relative who has just started having migraines. My mum joked, “Make sure you get a job in local government and have an understanding boss”.

It’s only half a joke really. I know I’m lucky to have employment terms and conditions that allow me to take time off with full pay when I have a migraine and I like to think I repay that in hard work and loyalty3. If I worked outside local government or had a boss with the same attitude as my old school nurse or I was self-employed, migraines would make my working life much more difficult. As it is, I hate phoning in sick, imagining my colleagues rolling their eyes at Jennifer having a migraine again. Here’s the truth: I’d far rather be at work – even on the most stressful or most boring day – than at home with a migraine. When I’m off sick, I am not putting my feet up in front of the telly or reading a book. I’m either in bed with the curtains closed, unable to move, or I’m in the bathroom with my head down the toilet.

But migraines respond well to self-management. Over the years, I’ve learnt to understand and recognise my migraine triggers (for the record: hormonal changes, dehydration, hunger, tiredness, alcohol, salt, MSG) and I’ve been able to reduce migraines by eating and drinking regularly and sensibly and, sadly, cutting out alcohol (almost) entirely. I also sought a second and third and fourth medical opinion and finally found a GP willing to let me try different medications until I found one that has profoundly changed my quality of life. These steps mean I have fewer or, at least, less severe migraines and take fewer sick days than I did a few years ago.

The thing is, when I do have to take a day off work and I return to record it on my employer’s online system, I type in “migraine” and the system helpfully autocorrects to “headache”. So much for understanding…

A migraine is not the same thing as a headache. With a migraine, you might get a headache (some people don’t, actually) and, if you do, it’s likely to be excruciating. But there’s so much more to it than that. Migraines differ from person to person but here’s a quick run down of what a migraine means to me (in order of appearance):

  • Visual disturbance – mostly flashing lights in the corner of my left eye these days.
  • Slurring / loss of words – remember the American reporter who suddenly started speaking gibberish on air? That was possibly transient aphasia and some people report it happening during the early phases of migraine. Mine is nowhere near as extreme as that example but it’s still quite frustrating when it happens in the middle of an important meeting.
  • Clumsiness – I usually have a lot of bruises after a migraine.
  • Vertigo – this is quite a recent one for me. Migraine is a gift that just keeps giving, eh?
  • Severe headache – so painful, I feel sick when I move my head and even the pressure of a lovely soft pillow can hurt. Here’s a video by The Migraine Trust which sums it up for me (just a warning, I find it quite upsetting) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKTo-OuKhKg&list=PLH9IgWYN7oCXhp9oi3OJtPHkMpWXGMjrb&index=5
  • Nausea and vomiting – oh God, the vomiting. I hate this more than any other part of a migraine because it just doesn’t stop. Every 20 minutes or so (whilst awake) for 2-3 days, unable to keep down even a sip of water. By day 3, the symptoms of dehydration are almost worse than the migraine itself. Thanks to my current medication, I haven’t vomited for almost a year and I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s changed my life.
  • Hangover – this is known as the postdrome phase and it is exactly like a hangover, without any of the fun of being drunk beforehand. Also, things like news reports or soap operas will make me cry hysterically during this phase.

It sounds awful, doesn’t it? It is a lot worse than that for many people. Some people experience the things I’m describing (and more) several times a week. It dominates their lives. I can’t imagine it, to be honest.

That’s the reality of migraine. That’s why it’s important to raise awareness and increase understanding of migraine: to help those of us living with it to access the best support and medication and to learn to manage it as far as we can and to ensure we are not excluded from education or employment as a result of the condition.

For more information, The Migraine Trust’s website is well worth a visit: http://www.migrainetrust.org/.

1 Many people dislike being described as a “sufferer”. I prefer it because I am and I do. So you’ll note that, when I’m talking about myself, I will say “sufferer” but, when talking about others, I won’t.

2 My husband has to live with my migraines too. His plans are cancelled when I’m too ill to get out of bed, he has to creep about the house when I can’t bear the smell of his dinner cooking or the sound of the TV. It sucks for him too.

3 I am not up for a debate about local government employment terms and conditions, by the way.

CD Singles – free to a good home

I have a bunch of old CD singles which I’m trying to get rid of. A feel a bit bad dumping them on a charity shop (who buys CDs anymore?) so, if you’d like any of them message me on FB or Twitter by lunchtime this Saturday 26th April and they’re yours!

(Although, if I don’t know you in real life or chat to you on social media, I’ll probably say no. Same goes if you live overseas what with postage and that.)

Muse – Cave
The Smashing Pumpkins – Ava Adore
JJ72 – Long Way South
3 Colours Red – This Is My Hollywood
Coldplay – Shiver
Semisonic – Secret Smile
JJ72 – Snow
Muse – Unintended (2 CDs in a box)
Seafruit – Hello World
Puressence – All I Want
Straw – Weird Superman
Cyclefly – Violet High
Radish – Simple Sincerity
Christina Aguilera – Genie In A Bottle (I know…)
Idlewild – Little Discourage (2 CD set)
The Chemical Brothers – Out of Control
Bis – Detour
Paul Johnson – Get Get Down
Ooberman – Million Suns
Radish – Little Pink Stars
Terrorvision – Tequila (Mint Royale Mixes)
Queens of the Stone Age – The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret
Morgan – Miss Parker
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – Mistakes & Regrets

My Favourite Reads of 2013

For almost 15 years, I’ve kept a record of every book I’ve read in a small, gold spiral-bound notebook. The first entry is Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which – according to my notebook – I finished on 4th August 1999. It is, apparently, seminal. I don’t remember anything about it. I often think I should go back and see what all the fuss is about but, then, the only other book that appears more than once in the notebook is Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (read a second time for book club). I don’t read books twice: there are too many unread books in the world to waste time doing that.

I’ve often thought about complementing my notebook with a blog, where I would write a little more than the author, title and date finished. I tried to register it as The Golden Notebook but was miffed to find it, unsurprisingly, taken. Besides, I find it difficult to find the time to blog, feel I should be writing creatively when I’ve got the time and am often eager to get started on the next book. So, as a compromise, I’ve been tweeting a very short review of each book I finish and promised myself I’d write this blog post to end the year.

So far in 2013, I’ve read 30 books (I’m always a bit disappointed by my annual total) and have only really hated one. That dubious accolade goes to Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. Interestingly, 20 of the books I’ve read this year were borrowed from the library. I’ve been so impressed with the book stock held by Gloucestershire Libraries, which has included all but one of the very recently published, occasionally obscure books I’ve tried to reserve. If they can get a copy of The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan in 2014, I’ll never access books from anywhere else.

Of those 30 books, then, these were my five favourites. (Note: these are the five best books I read this year. They may not necessarily have been published this year.)

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse is a brief novel but its impact lingers. It follows Futh, an introverted middle-aged man, as he leaves behind his unsuccessful marriage for a German walking holiday. As you follow his journey, Futh’s situation – his cyclical revisiting of unhappy childhood memories, his absorption in his grief for the mother who abandoned him – is claustrophobic. But there’s real peril in the plot that drives you to turn the pages, despite a growing sense of dread, to the novel’s dizzyingly brutal and unsettling climax.

Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

In Where’d You Go, Bernadette (nope, no question mark apparently), the story is told by Bee, the daughter of the eponymous Bernadette, through the letters, emails, magazine interviews, FBI reports, TED talk transcripts and doctor’s notes she gathers in an effort to track down her adored – and missing – mum. This book just sneaks in my top five because, despite the second half tailing off a bit, the first half fizzes with Semple’s acerbic wit and then clobbers you with Bernadette’s heart-breaking withdrawal from her career, family and society.

Nicola Barker, The Yips

The Yips was one of the quirkiest books I read this year (only Everything Is Illuminated pipping it to the most unusual, probably) and without doubt my favourite. It’s typical Barker fare: full of off-the-wall characters, coarse humour and an improbable, almost anarchic plot. Plus the best 50 Cent anecdote you’ll ever read. I’m still miffed that this book was shortlisted for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for a scene by which – coming so suddenly out of nowhere – I was genuinely moved.

Rainbow Rowell, Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park is a romance for young adults. But it’s also much more than that: it’s a story about poverty, domestic abuse and being a misfit. And it completely nails the sheer joy and terror of falling in love. Reading this book was like being in the throws of a teenage crush: I thought about it all day, left work early and stayed up all night to read it, resented the next book I read because it wasn’t Eleanor & Park. Teenagers these days are so bloody lucky.

Ros Barber, The Marlowe Papers

Whether or not you buy in to Barber’s central premise – that Christopher Marlowe’s death was staged and that he wrote in exile the plays we know as Shakespeare’s – the language in this novel is an absolute joy to read. Barber chooses to tell the story in verse (for the most part, iambic pentameter) and pulls it off, too. The Marlowe Papers is clever, playful, gripping and quite frankly much raunchier than I expected.

Very close runners-up, in no particular order, were:

T.C. Boyle, San Miguel

Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary

A.M. Homes, This Book Will Save Your Life

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry