Firebrand Books

My Reading and Book Review Blog

May 17, 2015
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Comments Off on A Week in Reading: Enchanted Chocolate Pots and Doodling

A Week in Reading: Enchanted Chocolate Pots and Doodling

I’m recovering from a bit of a reading slump and have mostly been lost in Shakespeare’s plays and studying. I guess you could say it was a tactical retreat from the depressing election result and the polished but chilling dystopia, Station Eleven, which I found remarkably well-written but loathed by the end. Anyhow. Since I don’t plan to write about the Shakespeare plays here and am only slowly progressing bit-by-bit through the study texts, here’s what else I have recently managed to read:

Sorcery and Cecilia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot was a collaborative project between two fantasy authors who wrote letters to each other about a group of characters they created – without planning the plot out beforehand. They did a little editing of the letters afterwards, to tidy up loose threads and remove sub-plots that hadn’t been expanded, but essentially the book is the letters in the order they were written as the two authors revealed their plot ideas to each other. It’s a fun experiment and I rather like the set up – two young female characters, one in the country and the other in London for her first season, both getting tangled in a plot that involves a Mysterious Marquis, wizards (both secret and famous) and (of course) Austenesque suitors, lots of period slang and a magical chocolate pot. I first read it in the mid-2000s because an Irish bookcrossing friend declared it her favourite book from childhood and, when I said I’d never heard of it, she sent me a copy. It’s perfectly fine for an adult reader but I think it’s aimed at mid-teen readers who will know of some of the historical locations and recognise some of the social rules of the period (who can’t be left alone with who in a room, for example).

It’s been years since I last read Sorcery and Cecilia so my original plan was to pull it off the shelf, quickly whirl through it on a lazy afternoon, see if I still wanted to keep my copy or pass it on and at the same time claim it for 1988 in my 20th century of books. The only problem is that with it being fantasy in a historical setting, written by American authors who love the setting but don’t *know* it, and not entirely aimed at adult readers… I am not willing to count it for my century. The book’s 1988ishness is lost through the style, the setting, the intended audience and so on. It doesn’t warrant a full review here on the blog either really as it’s fairly frothy, but it did cheer me up one dark afternoon. 🙂

zentangle

Another book I won’t be reviewing in full but is worth a mention was on the subject of zentangles. A ‘zentangle’ is essentially a proprietary method for doodling. There’s a prescribed size of square to doodle in and a number of named ways of filling in blank spaces within the format. The idea is that you learn these patterns and then fill in your zentangle square or other zentangle-inspired shape with any combination of them to relax and improve your creativity.  I like the idea well enough and drawing patterns over a week of lunch hours was interesting but I confess, it’s not for me. The silly, silly names for each doodle style were incredibly irritating and I prefer the idea of learning to draw specific things rather than just improving my doodling patterns. (The one above is the pattern ‘Crescent Moon’, one of the less silly named patterns. This video of a bird being filled in gives an idea of what you can do with the patterns once you learn them though.)

I do plan to write a full review of a book of essays on the formidable Mrs Delany which I finished this week. Mrs Delany began creating very intricate paper portraits of flowers in her seventies (like these winter cherries which look painted but are in fact constructed from cut out pieces of paper), but the essays looked at her life and work from every angle and as I have been reading the essays at the rate of one a night instead of racing through them I need to pull my various thoughts together. I’ve read about her before but this book was far more informative and surprising than anything I’ve previously encountered. I think Mary Delany is one of those historical women who has been ‘defused’ by Victorian authors until you think she must always have been a sweet, little old lady, harmless and doddering about with her pictures of flowers because she was in need of something to do on cold, wet afternoons. It turns out she is much more interesting a personality than that and that her ‘paper mosaicks’ are far more a part of the eighteenth century’s scientific culture too.

I know that given a time machine we’re all supposed to want to go back and kill Hitler/talk to Shakespeare/solve mysteries but personally I’d like to go back and bop a few Victorian commentators and historians on the nose for lying about various historical women and the importance of their work. Perhaps not as dramatic a goal but, I think, a noble one.

May 13, 2015
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Comments Off on Review: All that is Solid by Danny Dorling

Review: All that is Solid by Danny Dorling

all-that-is-solid

Full Title: All That Is Solid: How the Great Housing Disaster Defines Our Times, and What We Can Do About It

Category: Non-Fiction, Property/Economics – Hardback: 400 pages – Publisher: Penguin – Source: Public Library
First Published: 2014

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I’m not entirely sure, but I am, I think, one of Dorling’s intended audience for his book, All that is Solid. Published in early 2014, it’s an account of some of the issues causing, affecting and predicted by the UK’s current housing crisis.

I am self-employed and I am a life long renter in the politically-less-valued north of England. The prospect of me ever buying a house or getting a mortgage seems as fantastical to me as the possibility of buying a seat on a shuttle to the moon.

I live in a neighbourhood where large, four-storey Victorian houses have been bought and speculated on by property developers who turned them into 8, 9 and even 10 bedroom properties for those studying at either of the city’s universities. The impact on the neighbourhood was considerable, good and bad, but the impact now is wholly bad – these ‘Houses in Multiple Occupation’ (HMOs) increasingly stand empty because those students have shifted their attention to cheaper areas of the city or have been deterred altogether by £9000 a year university fees. And what need has anybody else of a 10 bedroom rabbit warren?

Housing policies and rights are therefore a hugely important political issue to me as I think about my future housing options and see how my city’s housing stock is being affected by national issues of treating property as a financial asset rather than someone’s shelter.

Broken into sections titled Crisis, Planning, Foundations, Building, Buying, Slump, Speculation and Solutions, Dorling’s book looks at the issues around the US sub-prime lending disaster, the overheated property market of London, who now buys houses (and where and how) and the chaos caused when large numbers of people can not keep up with mortgage payments and banks must either repossess the house or let them live there for free as a caretaker to prevent others from squatting in it.

At the heart of the book is Dorling’s belief that the problem is not about how many homes there are in the UK. He rejects the constant calls to build more homes. According to every census and statistic he can find we have plenty of homes and more than enough bedrooms in fact. It’s just that they are so unfairly distributed that at least 22 million of them lie empty every night at the very same time increasing numbers of people are willing to pay to live in sheds to stave off the threat of being homeless.

Dorling is a well-respected Professor of Geography at Oxford who frequently comments on political and social issues surrounding housing, the north-south divide in England and so on. This is however a double-edged sword. He links together data and trends, always backs arguments up with statistics and gives numbers to what can sometimes become a very emotional debate. Instead of just declaring the ‘Bedroom Tax’ morally bankrupt he calmly shows that to be true through proven facts about those affected. However, Dorling is also limited by being an academic outsider who swims in a specialised sea of statistics. This is a book about the very human cost of corrupt, unequal housing laws and policies and there is not a single case study, no attempt to put any kind of human faces to the multiple and varied tragedies he’s describing.

I am not criticising him for not interviewing the homeless personally or tracking down and talking to those living illegally in sheds. Or rather I am not criticising him for that alone. But he avoids quoting from interviews others have done with those affected and even avoids communication with the organisations that are the front line services for the crisis he describes. He quotes statistics from the housing charity Shelter but doesn’t include much information about their work. He never talks to debt charities or those working in the Citizen’s Advice Bureau. There are photos of housing in Sheffield used throughout the book to illustrate the issues but it is telling that the only one focusing on a human subject is a disembodied hand inputting the number of a care worker into a phone.

And this is why I am not entirely sure who his intended audience is and whether I am criticising the book for something outside of its remit.

If he wanted to fuel the debate on housing issues and offer a ready source of statistics for those who will actually reach that wider audience, he succeeds. If he wanted to articulate the issues for some of the millions of potential readers affected by them and not just other academics and political figures, he fails to engage with them. I closed the book feeling like I had almost drowned in all those statistics, my lasting impression is of too much maths and not enough compassion.

And then there is the fact that a book like this, sold for the statistics alone and with little ‘artistic’ merit, has a limited shelf life. I find that I cannot recommend it to you as a fellow reader unless you were already likely to read it anyway.

Instead I am going to suggest you go and get a mug of coffee or tea and read novelist James Meek’s article, Where Will We Live?, which was published in the London Review of Books at around the same time Dorling’s book came out.

Meek’s piece is narrative-based, far more humane and very memorable. He brings an author’s eye for personal detail to bear on wider social issues and his piece focuses on conversations with those actually affected by them. At its heart is compassion not a graph.

So yes, it is incredibly rude of me to re-direct your attention from Dorling’s book to Meek’s article. And I truly do think we need both the Dorlings and the Meeks of this world, the statisticians and the authors, those who conjure graphs and statistics for the politicians and those who can make a story real and human for us. But I am fairly certain, as I think most readers are at heart, that it is narratives and images, not the statistics behind them, that change the world… So I hope you will forgive me the unorthodoxy and go ahead and read the article instead.

May 9, 2015
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Comments Off on Quote: The Filter Bubble and Democracy…

Quote: The Filter Bubble and Democracy…

So, we’ve just had a General Election here in the UK. I keep my party political views to my Twitter stream but general politics and personal principles will always be part of the mix here so I want to share two quotes about how the internet affects our view of the world, how the filtering mechanisms behind your Google search results and Facebook news feed give you a distorted view of what the rest of the world thinks. The result of our election was a surprise to many and part of that is to do with voters giving false answers to pollsters in the run up to it. But part of the shock was the contrast between living in personal filter bubbles surrounded by like-minded friends and followers and then being confronted with the differing opinions of the world outside your bubble. That experience will increasingly apply to you whatever your own personal political affiliation.

Here’s an explanation of what the ‘filter bubble’ means for your Google searches:

‘Starting that morning [04DEC2009], Google would use fifty-seven signals – everything from where you were logging in from to what browser you were using to what you had searched for before – to make guesses about who you were and what kinds of sites you’d like. Even if you were logged out it would customize it’s results, showing you the pages you were most likely to click on.

[…]

It’s not hard to see the difference in action. In the spring of 2010, while the remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig were spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I asked two friends to search for the term “BP.” They’re pretty similar – educated white left-leaning women who live in the Northeast. But the results they saw were quite different. One of my friends saw investment information about BP. The other saw news. For one, the first page of results contained links about the oil spill; for the other, there was nothing about it except for a promotional ad for BP.

Even the number of results returned by Google differed – about 180 million results for one friend and 139 million for the other.’

(page 2)

And here’s what it means for your social media streams and democracy:

‘For a time, it seemed that the Internet was going to entirely redemocratize society. Bloggers and citizen journalists would single-handedly rebuild the public media. Politicians would be able to run only with a broad base of support from small, everyday donors. Local governments would become more transparent and accountable to their citizens. And yet the era of civic connection I dreamed about hasn’t come. Democracy requires a reliance of shared facts; instead we’re being offered parallel but separate universes.

My sense of unease crystallized when I noticed that my conservative friends had disappeared from my Facebook page. Politically, I lean to the left, but I like to hear what conservatives are thinking, and I’ve gone out of my way to befriend a few and add them as Facebook connections. I wanted to see what links they’d post, read their comments, and learn a bit from them.

But their links never turned up in my Top News feed. Facebook was apparently doing the math and noticing that I was still clicking my progressive friends’ links more than my conservative friends’ – and links to the latest Lady Gaga videos more than either. So no more conservative links for me.’

(Page 5)

Both quotes taken from the interesting The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser (published in 2011 by Penguin) which I read in April.

April 19, 2015
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Comments Off on Readerly Quirks: Introduction

Readerly Quirks: Introduction

Welcome to a new intermittent series of posts on the topic of Readerly Quirks.

What do I mean by ‘readerly quirk’? Well, anything about someone’s approach to reading – book choices, reading practices, bookish preferences – that is quirky and affects their overall life as a reader.

Everyone has them, from only reading certain books in a particular chair to avoiding anything with talking animals on the negative side of things or, on the positive side of things, buying anything related to Jane Austen or being a sucker for a tale set on a small, remote island. Some readers will buy or accept any edition of a book they want, others insist on new, matching copies only for their shelves. Some of us even have definite quirks about exactly when and how we buy books.

And I think these quirks are what set us apart as readers and fuel some of the best bookish conversations, but up until now I haven’t really talked about my own quirks except for small mentions here and then in a review or two. Someone stumbling on my blog might be able to guess I love non-fiction about libraries and books-about-books because they are a definite trend in the titles I’ve reviewed here or they might know I like specific authors because I’ve said so in posts in the past even if they’re under-represented in actual reviews. But I doubt they’d guess that I have a shelf of books about lighthouses, have certain books I love to read aloud with partners for the sheer pleasure of sharing the magic of their stories, their language, with them for the first time or have very specific reasons why I don’t read crime fiction much any more. Because those niche, personal things tend to stay off my blog. I mostly assume that you won’t be interested in the super-niche stuff and I worry that writing a personal piece about ‘Why I Don’t Read (Almost Any) Crime Fiction’ will offend those of you who do enjoy a good police procedural or serial killer caper.

But what I want to do with my Readerly Quirks series of posts is share a few of the things that shape my reading, some are positive, some are negative and some are probably rather foolish. But they make me the specific reader I am and I think it would be interesting to write about them here. I suspect actually sitting down to write about these tastes and quirks will make me re-think a few ideas I have about books and perhaps I will even find fellow readers who share specific quirks of mine – after all, how will I know unless I ask you? 🙂

Anyhow, I’m going to share my first ‘quirk’ later in the week. I hope you’ll find these musings about how quirks come about, which factors affect our own preferences and how tastes change over time interesting even if you don’t share my particular quirks. I also rather like the idea having the series here on my blog as a sort of ongoing, adaptable manifesto of exactly what kind of reader I am, for better or worse…

April 18, 2015
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Comments Off on Review – One Hundred Details by Kenneth Clark

Review – One Hundred Details by Kenneth Clark

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Category: Non-Fiction, Art History – Hardback: 160 pages – Publisher: Harrison & Sons – Source: Public Library
First Published: 1938

Okay, so this is not so much a review as a sharing of treasure. 🙂

I read four books by the art historian Kenneth Clark in December/January, and while I will write a proper review of Civilization: A Personal View at some point (before they go ahead and make the planned remake of it *shudder*), this is the one I want to tell you about first.

In 1938, taking advantage of technical improvements in photography, Clark, who was in charge of the National Gallery in London at the time, devised this wonderful, wonderful book. What it does is simple: it offers big, clear images (A3 sized pages, near A4 sized images in the edition I had) of fascinating details in paintings within the gallery’s collection. Some of these paintings are internationally famous and some are overlooked by those crossing off the famous ones from their ‘artistic hit list’ as they swoosh through. All benefit from a closer second look.

By focusing in on small, interesting details rather than analyzing the whole of the images Clark offers any curious child or adult a way into the art without any stuffiness and little snobbery. (Well, he is a bit snobbish in the accompanying notes but you could easily just look through at the images and only dip into the notes.) All the notes are at the front of the book so that you can just look through the details without being bogged down in information. Each pair of details are presented one on the left page and one on the right to offer contrasts in style or show how techniques developed through time.

For example, that lovely image of a cat at the top of this post is from William Hogarth’s 1742 work, The Graham Children, a painting that focuses on rich, well-behaved children and then, in the background, there is this cat which has all the energy and personality that the children appear to be missing. As Clark says, you get the sense that Hogarth enjoyed painting the cat far more even though it’s such a small part of the complete painting. Clark says she is ‘the embodiment of cockney vitality, alert and adventurous – a sort of Nell Gwynn among cats.’

Hogarth’s energetic cat is paired with:

detail-piero-di-cosimo-dog-from-the-death-of-procris-c1495

 

This stately, grieving dog is from Piero di Cosimo’s A Satyr mourning over a Nymph from c.1492 (here’s the complete painting) and has ‘the gravity of an antique philosopher’. It’s such an entertaining comparison that nudges you to look more closely. Other pairings compare van Eyck’s approach to portraits with Raphael’s, show a medieval hunting scene that inspires sympathy for the wounded stag opposite a painting of Saint Sebastian being killed with arrows where the artist’s sympathy appears to be with the archers rather than the murdered saint, and point out how much imaginative energy was pouring into the backgrounds of medieval paintings because the rigid list of approved subjects – the Virgin Mary, biblical scenes, the deaths of saints – limited artistic freedom. I wonder how many people with gallery fatigue spot the lion and bear fighting in the top right corner of this painting for example (you can zoom in using the tool on the right of the painting)? I also liked a cutely funny pairing where it appears the little girl looking through a doorway in the image on the right page is seeing the view in the image on the left.

I would question whether it’s worth telling you about this book given that I read the 1938 edition and the images are in black and white, except for the fact that I was debating whether to mention it and found that a modern edition, replicating the images and notes, has been published by Yale University Press. And its in color too!

So, if you fancy an unusual approach to art and exploring a gallery’s collection in a quirky way without leaving your armchair…

April 16, 2015
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Comments Off on Quote: The Extremely Obscure Palinode

Quote: The Extremely Obscure Palinode

A fascinating little footnote from a recent read:

‘Western culture has another mechanism for admitting mistakes, but its extreme obscurity only underscores the point that such devices are woefully rare. In poetry, there is an entire form, the palinode, dedicated to retracting the sentiments of an earlier poem. (In Greek, palin means “again,” and ōdē means “song,” make a palinode linguistically identical to a recantation: to “recant” means to sing again. We invoke this same idea when we say that someone who has shifted positions on an issue is “singing a different tune.”) The most famous palinode – which isn’t saying much – was written by the seventh-century poet Stesichorus and serves to retract his earlier claim that Helen of Troy was solely responsible for the carnage of the Trojan War.’

(Kathryn Schulz (2010) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, London, Portobello Books, pp. 7-8)

 

March 21, 2015
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Comments Off on Review – Sewing School: 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make

Review – Sewing School: 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make

sewing school
First of all, let me start off by saying that I do not usually read “how-to” books. However, when a good friend of mine Crystal over at Sew Good Reviews  asked me to read it, I could not say no. Out of politeness, I read Sewing School: 21 Sewing Projects Kids Will Love to Make.  I was expecting a book of sewing patterns that are often very complicated and confusing. But after reading the first few pages, I realized how wrong I was.

This book does not just offer a step-by-step list of instructions on how to sew a stuffed animal. That book has that but it offers a whole lot more. The book starts off with an introductory section that is address to parents. The introduction tells parents how they should teach sewing to their little ones. After the introductory section, the book gives pictures of the most basic knots and stitches. The pictures are clear and easy to understand. Once you master the basic knots and stitches, you can then move on to a sewing pattern.

What I love about this book is that the patterns are very simple. It is perfect for any child, or even adult, who knows nothing about sewing. It is the perfect start to any sewing novice. Many of the patterns introduced in the book requires no or little use of a sewing machine. Many of the patterns requires very basic hand stitching maneuvers.

Another thing that I love about this book is that it does not just offer sewing patterns. The book provides twelve lessons that introduces concepts such as needle safety, facts about fabric, and other important fundamental tips. The book strives to not just show kids how to make things but to do it in a safe manner.

The book also makes sewing fun for kids by breaking the different sections into a “hug” or “hold” section. The “hug” section has patterns that kids can make that they can hold, such as stuffed animals. The “hold” section has projects that kids can hold, such as wallets and bags. There is also a “wear” section if your child is interested in making her own clothes.

All in all, this is the perfect book if you have a child or know a child who is interested in learning how to sew. This book not only has sewing patterns but tips and tricks on the fundamentals of sewing. Kids (and their parents) who read this book will have a newfound appreciation for the art of sewing.

February 28, 2015
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Comments Off on Reading Review: February 2015

Reading Review: February 2015

journal-by-curt-fleenor-photography

February’s reading has rather been overshadowed by the planning of my 101 goals list, although I read nine books they were all either short or inter-cut with lots of images, sometimes both! I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into more lengthy or immersive books in March.

February’s Books

I read genetic history meets archaeology, some architecture, art history and two books on crafting history for a arts-heavy mix of non-fiction. Not a single finished novel or short story collection this month though. I did try to lose myself in some fiction but just couldn’t drift into its rhythm, I think it was all the planning I was doing for the 101 goals, I can only really enjoy so much daydreaming and plotting at one time. With all the castles-in-the-air in my real life, there wasn’t mental space for them in my reading. Now the list is finalized though I can settle back down into a more mixed selection of fiction and non-fiction. 🙂

The Read Books

8) John Ashdown-Hill – The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of his DNA (Non-Fic) (2013)
9) Alexandra Johnson – A Brief History of Diaries: From Pepys to Blogs (Non-Fic) (2011)
10) Juhani Pallasmaa- The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Non-Fic) (2005)
11) Ruth Kenny, Jeff McMillan and Martin Myrone – British Folk Art (Non-Fic) (2014)
12) Thomasina Beck – The Embroiderer’s Story (Non-Fic) (1995)
13) Gary Schwartz & Marten Jan Bok – Pieter Saenredam: The Painter and His Time (Non-Fic) (1990)
14) Jonathan Conlin – The Nation’s Mantelpiece: A History of the National Gallery (Non-Fic) (2006)
15) Margaret Jourdain – The History of English Secular Embroidery (Non-Fic) (1910)
16) Rowan Moore – Why We Build (Non-Fic) (2007)

Books read: 9 /Books ‘Surfed’: 2 / Books marked Did Not Finish: 3
Fiction: 6 / Non-Fiction: 3
Female authors: 3 / Male authors: 4 / Multiple authors: 2

February’s Highlights: I didn’t love anything I read this month but I think that’s the nature of what I was reading, none of these books are the kind to make you a ‘fan’ of them, they’re good for dipping in and out of and absorbing interesting fact and images from. If I had to pick a favourite though I’d opt for the book on the Netherlandish artist Pieter Jansz. Saenredam. I’ll be reviewing it or at least sharing a couple of images from it because Saenredam has long been a favourite artist of mine. He’s not so well known but he did these amazing architectural paintings in the 17th century:

Pieter Jansz Saenredam – The Interior of St. Bavo’s Church, Haarlem – 1648

So many of Saenredam’s images look unbelievably modern and looking through the book, comparing different versions of various interiors, how his style developed though his subject stayed similar and drawings with finished works, was a great pleasure this month.

February’s Low Points: I suppose the flip-side of reading books you aren’t expected to fall in love with is not having much to dislike either! I wished the Conlin book on the National Gallery had a stronger sense of the author’s style (it had that dry, ‘correct’ tone of a spun-out thesis which I gather it was) and that the images of the gallery’s finest works weren’t all so unbearably dark in their reproductions. And Ashdown-Hill’s book on Richard III was simply messy, trying to do several things at once and not juggling them seamlessly. But it wasn’t really a ‘low point’ of my reading either, I still found the book interesting to skim through.

Reading Challenges

I am about to start another 101 goals in 1001 days adventure (01MAR2015-25NOV2017). I promise not to bore you to tears with non-bookish goals but you need to be aware that I’ll be working on these particularly bookish goals over the next couple of years:

6) Alternate male/female authors in my reading.
8) Have no more books in boxes by Day 1001.
19) Read a 19th Century of Books.
20) Read a 20th Century of Books.
23) Become an active autodidact.
38) Read all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays.
39) See as many of Shakespeare’s plays performed as I can.
47) Get my Commonplace Book v2.0 up to date by Day 1001.
48) Rejoin and stay with the Leeds Library.
58) Go for a bibliotherapy session.
59) Put up An Introduction to Commonplacing on my blog.
60) Build a library of books I love but don’t currently own.
75) Use my Book Jar once a month.
93) Read a book a day for a month.

I obviously won’t be trying to do all of these at once in the next month but expect to see a steady stream of ‘Century of Books’ related posts, regular selections from the book jar and so on over the course of the adventure. 🙂

Plans for March

I have a couple of books I definitely want to read this month. Danny Dorling’s All That is Solid has been patiently waiting my attention by my bed for a couple of months and I have Siri Hustvedt’s collection of art related essays here too, Mysteries of the Rectangle. Oh, and the Slaves of Golconda (a very informal online reading group I enjoy taking part in) has chosen Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet as this month’s read and I have tracked down a copy. Mostly though I am looking forward to using my book jar for the first time in ages, making sure I read more fiction (maybe something big and Victorian to get lost in?) and seeing how my first month of alternating books by author gender works for me…

February 8, 2015
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Comments Off on A Week in Reading: Bright Days and Kenneth ‘Napoleon’ Clark

A Week in Reading: Bright Days and Kenneth ‘Napoleon’ Clark

I’m combining more than a week’s worth of reading but despite January being hectic and chaotic I don’t want to pass it over completely. There were three real bookish threads of note in the month: a book I loved was adapted for the radio, a book took me to Venice but left me drifting there hopelessly and I spent rather a lot of time with a deliciously opinionated author. Oh and I accidentally borrowed a book from the library that could break my foot if I dropped it…

Firstly, there was that radio adaptation: J B Priestley’s Bright Day for the BBC. If you’re in the UK you can still listen to it for the next week or so. Bright Day was my first experience of Priestley’s fiction and, as I’ve since found some of his novels very hit-and-miss, I think this one was a great place to start. It’s under 300 pages, full of very people-y characters and at its heart is the contradiction of what we remember happening vs. what really did happen. It’s a little bit like Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending in that respect now that I think about it. It also manages to capture the sense of working 9-5 in the city and then joyfully scampering away to the hills and parties at the weekend just about perfectly.

Secondly, there was a book I really enjoyed but was frustrated mightily by: Bidisha’s Venetian Masters. London-based writer Bidisha spent a couple of weeks staying in Venice with a rich friend and her family and was then seduced and curious enough to return to the city to find her own place and live there for several months. She has a happy knack of perfectly capturing the feel of a market or standing in a particular square at a particular hour in just a few fragmented sentences. Like this passing mention on page 10:

‘We go to the fish market, the pescheria, in the oldest part of town: wet shadows, sour, addictive fish smells, sluiced water, columns white and grey.’

But all this evocative scene-sketching frustratingly doesn’t seem to add up to anything more. I kept wondering whether there would be anything to give the memories shape but eventually drifted away from the book after a couple of hundred pages when it just continued floating along like an unmoored, directionless gondola. I loved her style but I guess I need more substance to a narrative like this. If you don’t mind a very relaxed, meandering travelogue though, this would perfect.

Thirdly, I spent rather a lot of January in the mind of one author and he’d already popped up in another book I’d read in December too. Essentially it went like this: in October my Open University course on art history mentioned a work of art I remembered being covered in the iconic 1969 documentary series, Civilisation: A Personal View which was made and presented by the art historian Kenneth Clark. I own the series on DVD but remembered the scripts had been edited into a book so I went hunting it in the library thinking I could quote from it in one of my essays. And since I like Clark’s refusal to dumb material down and love arguing with his opinions sometimes, I borrowed a couple of his other books that were relevant to the course too.

In December I was reading Carola Hicks’s Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait (I’m not sure I’d write a full review of it here since it’s so specifically about one art work but I’ll manage a mini one) and found the wonderful story about Clark being so determined to do things his way at the National Gallery when he was director there that he gained the nickname Kenneth ‘Napoleon’ Clark. Based on that I don’t suppose I’d have liked working with him for one moment but, after immersing myself in them last month, I really do love reading his books. They’re packed full of a lifetime’s worth of observations and absorbed readings and it feels like taking a walk with the most passionate, argumentative guide imaginable. Even when he’s wrong I love being pushed to consider my own opinion and its foundations. I foresee even more of his books in my future.

Finally, a reminder to always check exactly what you’re reserving at the library. The juicy, new history book I reserved in January arrived for me to collect this week and I was equal parts delighted and horrified to find it on the Awaiting Collection shelf and realise it is over 1000 pages long. And there’s another reservation against it so I have to finish it before the 23rd. Aie! It’s Robert Tombs’s The English and their History in case you’re wondering. I reserved it because I was rather intrigued by the fact that Tombs is a professor of French History rather than British but I somehow managed to miss any reference to its hefty dimensions. Having had a look at the bibliography it appears to be very idiosyncratic so I am somewhat dubious about this one.

Yes, I am the kind of girl that starts a book like this by looking through the bibliography. 🙂

Anyhow, this brings us to this week’s reading which appears to contain rather a lot of English history. I really must dig into my stacks and find some fiction to balance it out with. Maybe some of Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book? I don’t think I’ve read any Jansson at all but I’ve seen a lot of love for her around my favourite blogs so I think it would be a good pick…

October 18, 2014
by admin
Comments Off on October 2014 Readathon Updates

October 2014 Readathon Updates

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(I’ll be updating this occasionally throughout today’s 24 hour readathon. )

00:01

I grab some coffee and Between Weathers, an account of traveling around the remote, sparsely populated Shetland Isles which are way up to the north of Scotland. I’ve been craving maps and travel non-fiction for the last couple of weeks so this has to be the first book I read for this readathon. I’ve decided not to actually tweet or blog very much this time round so I can just concentrate on the selfishly wonderful pleasure of reading for hours and hours and hours alone and uninterrupted.

06:01

I’ve finished Between Weathers and am over a hundred pages into re-reading Pride and Prejudice. It’s been glorious to be taken so far away from here by books, first to the Shetlands and then to Austen’s world of letters and balls and drawing rooms, all while occasional (but very heavy) rain showers bounce off the window frame and echo on the neighbourhood’s roofs. It’s definitely time for breakfast though as my concentration is slipping and I am craving more coffee. 🙂

15:10

Oops. I got a little derailed by a phone call and finishing my third book but so far I’ve been wandering around the Shetlands with Between Weathers, been outraged and delighted by the fortunes and misfortunes of the Bennet sisters with Pride and Prejudice and Educating Alice has made me dream of running away to learn a new skill somewhere exotic as its author did repeatedly in a quest to improve herself. I think I need some more non-fiction next so time to take a break and then I think I’ll settle down to Britain After Rome and some time spent contemplating the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a day of reading so much. Choosing a couple of re-reads to mix in with new-to-me titles has meant today has been very relaxed and I don’t feel at all tired yet…

20:30

Yes, I can definitely confirm this: I’m having the most enjoyable and productive readathon I’ve ever had. I took a break from Britain After Rome to read A Time To Keep Silence (Patrick Leigh Fermor’s brief but enjoyable account of staying at monasteries on silent retreat which was originally published in the 1950s) as a palate cleanser to keep my mind sharp and then returned to it for more ‘Dark Ages’ history. I’m now about three quarters of the way through it which, if my quick maths is to be trusted after so little sleep, means I have read more this readathon than at any other. By about 100-and-something pages with over three hours left to go. And I don’t even feel particularly tired or as if my head is stuffed too full of dates, quotes and characters like I usually do towards the end of a readathon. Strange witchcraft indeed.

Oh and I took a short break to re-arrange the bookcase by my bed after having a bright idea. As you do. 🙂

As awake as I feel and as well written as Britain After Rome is, I think it’s time for another break from this history non-fiction book. I don’t think I can absorb the hmmm, people-liness of the Trollope (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever read any of his novels) and I think HHhH might be better suited to another day when I am approaching it completely fresh. So my choice of what to read next is between the play about Hans Christian Andersen staying with the Dickens family, a collection of Elizabeth David’s cookery essays, Bulgakov’s biography of Moliere and four very different novels by Elizabeth Taylor, Herman Hesse, E M Delafield or Dodie Smith. Decisions, decisions. I think I’ll have a mug of cinnamon-spiked cocoa while I peruse the blurbs and make a decision…

00:15

I actually ended up reading past the 24 hours. That’s never happened before either!

In the end I decided to go with the biography of Moliere but I admit I did read it very s l o w l y and got distracted by another phone call. I only went past 23:59 because I was sitting face away from my clock and was determined to get to the next obvious break in the book before setting it aside. But it’s time to sum up.

I have read three complete books, 75% or so of a fourth and about 50% of a fifth. I think I’ve read something like 1500ish pages but that sounds incredibly high even based on some of the books being re-reads and I am too tired to count properly now. So, take the number with a pinch of salt until I’ve checked the page counts in the morning. I need my bed. Goodnight, beautiful readers. I hope everyone who’s taking part in the official readathon hours enjoys the rest of their event.