Wednesday, 29 July 2009

C is for Tim Clare





This week I read We Can’t All Be Astronauts, by Tim Clare. Just like Joey D’s Submarine, I feel obliged to say at the beginning of this review that I know Tim, although I feel I know him better now than I did before I read his book!

The memoir makes for a compelling read as Tim stuggles towards his life long dream of becoming a published author, while his uni friends and colleagues breeze past him in the publication race. Conversely, you as the reader know that Tim’s dream will be realised because you are holding a published book, and without that you wouldn’t know about his struggle at all…It’s a little bit like watching something about the Titanic – you already know the ending but the story’s interesting, so you don’t switch over. In this case, it’s the race that matters, not the finish line.

Although it is a memoir, it doesn’t follow a linear narrative, choosing instead to move about in time. I enjoyed this approach as it kept everything fresh, as well as making the successful encounters more of a surprise, as they weren’t all at the end. Some of the stories told are funny, some are insightful and a few are really sad, such as the one where Tim’s grandfather dies in the car en route to the holiday destination.

There were two things I realised about the vignettes in the book. One is that Tim’s personal dialogue is always witty, concise and thought through. Knowing Tim, I can believe that 99% of the time, the dialogue was true, but as Memento taught us all, Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car.. Personally, I have trouble remembering what someone said to me ten minutes ago, let alone months or years.

The second thing is that hindsight is always valuable, and Tim’s approach to some situations was frustrating. Many people feel uncomfortable in social situations, and knowing that other people feel awkward can make it easier for you to deal with. In the book at least, Tim suffers from severe depression and that will make everything ten or even a hundred times more difficult than it should be. Walking into a pub on your own (with your friends on the othser side) will seem like climbing Mount Everest. I still found what seemed to be wilful self destruction frustrating at times.

I thought it would be weird to read a book by a friend, which features other friends, but it actually wasn’t. Far from feeling like a stolen journal entry, I giggled at nickames and drunken nights out, perhaps more because I know the people that were involved. The few celebrity sightings were placed at welcome points too, such as Amy Winehouse trapped in a human cage. Although it can be difficult to inject your own writing style into a memoir (or a review, for that matter) he does it very well through description – of scenes, of people, of emotions and so on. The Amy Winehouse scene stands out for me, perhaps because it made me realise that she is a human being. Not that I’m constantly chasing after her in my Shogun with my telephoto lens in the passenger seat, but celebrity publications have cast her in demon drug addict/voice of an angel roles for so long, I forgot she gets scared and happy and sad, just like everyone else. She does have horrible tattoos though.

We Can’t All Be Astronauts is compelling. I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to finish it, as it clocks up over three hundred pages and I didn’t begin reading it until I had recovered from Latitude, on Wednesday. Luckily, I found that it had such a nice pace that I finished it on the Friday evening. Bonus. I am definitely looking forward to a fiction book – perhaps something about dog faced boys, in the fantasy genre?

Friday, 24 July 2009

B is for Bennett, Alan

I feel like I cheated a bit this week. The Uncommon Reader is definitely not one of Bennett’s longest novels, clocking in at barely one hundred and thirty pages. In this case, the old ‘good things come in small packages’ adage rings true, and I thoroughly enjoyed the foray into Our Majesty’s psyche.

So, the story begins with a travelling library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The Queen stumbles across it after chasing a wayward corgi into the bins. Feeling obliged to borrow a book owing to the etiquette instilled in her all her life, she does so. This opens the floodgates on her creativity and she begins to devour books at an alarming rate, alarming, at least, to the rest of her household. She employs one of the kitchen boys who she met in the library van to be her adviser, pointing her towards books and authors which she may be interested in. The Queen discovers a world she never knew before, where her status does not immediately command deference from the words itself. For the first time in her life, she’s treated like a normal human, the same as everyone else.

This new found interest causes discomfort for her public appearances – she’s late for appointments, disinterested in previous hobbies (shooting, walking etc), wears the same clothes day after day and is so passionate that she deviates from the ‘script’ when talking to her subjects. This last set of behaviour appears mortifying to her staff, who find themselves having to contend with a trolley full of books given to HRH by the public, once they’d caught on, as well as embarrassing, stilted conversations which would have lasted forty five seconds previously.

Eventually her reading leads to other things, and she begins to write instead. It’s oddly heart-warming – the Queen finally finds her own voice among the bloodline and is inspired to write. Not just a memoir but a fiction novel, much to her household’s horror. Bennett writes superbly as in a few short paragraphs he conveys the claustrophobia that she feels in everyday life – she is the freest woman in the kingdom but at the same time, she cannot do anything alone or without itinerary. Books help her escape, as anyone who reads can agree with. Her only sorrow is that she started too late to read everything.

I found her encounters with authors interesting, and the accounts of that were darkly comic, such as the one with TS Eliot. She reveals that she wishes she made more of her connections while the authors were still alive, as then she would have found something more to say than: “Good journey?”.

It’s a strange blend of real and fantasy, as Tony Blair (unnamed, but pretty obvious), the UEA Creative Writing department and even the Queen herself spring from the page, fully formed and human. At times it seemed real, as if Alan Bennett had squashed into a corner behind the curtain to write about the events at the palace.

I would recommend this book to anyone with a couple of hours to spare, who can identify with how consuming reading can be, especially in the face of a really good read.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

A is for Jane Austen


Reading Jane Austen is like watching The Wire. Bear with me, I have evidence to back this up.

Both The Wire and Jane Austen inhabit a completely different world to myself and the average watcher/reader. From location to dress to language to the complex social hierarchy, it’s a bewildering place to be. Stick with both, though, and you’ll find that in no time at all (four our five episodes and approximately a hundred pages in ) you find that not only do you understand what’s going on, you want to find out what’d going to happen next.

Both are ultimately rewarding, and for first time watchers/readers there will no doubt be a period where you recommend either/both to everyone you meet.

“Pride & Prejudice” is one of those books. You know, those ones, the ones that everyone has read at some point so there are lots of pieces of mis or half remembered plot all over the place. Personally, I read this at uni but reading it again, I fear I may have skipped over some parts as, quelle surprise, I hadn’t started my reading early enough.

I’ve seen the movie(s), caught some of the spin offs and read both Bridget Jones’ diaries, which owe a very large debt to Miss Austen. I’ve even seen Becoming Jane, with Anne Hathaway. Before last week, however, I don’t remember ever sitting down and reading an Austen from cover to cover for entertainment.

It was worth it. Pride & Prejudice is tense, exciting, emotionally involving and, above all, funny. I would like to have met Jane Austen, she sounds like one cool girl to go out with.

A quick plot rundown: Elizabeth Bennet is the second eldest of five sisters, daughter to mother and father at the bottom of the rung in society. Daughters are bad news as the estate gets left to the nearest living male relative, as girls don’t count. Their mother spends most of her time trying to marry off all of her daughters to the highest bidder, ruining an already precarious reputation. Their father keeps himself to himself most of the time, trying to avoid the tantrums of his nervy wife and younger daughters.

From oldest to youngest: Jane is the good, kind one, Elizabeth is the heroine – feisty, independent and generous, Mary is the dull middle one who only likes reading books, Kitty follows whatever Lydia says and Lydia is flighty and foolish.

Elizabeth would like to marry, but for love and not money, although money would be nice. Jane would like to marry for love, and nothing else. As the eldest, these are the girls who have more page time.

Like The Wire, there is a cast of thousands and everyone’s called ten or fifteen different names. Confusingly, Jane is also always called Miss Bennet even though there are four other Miss Bennets. Whenever someone marries they are referred to as their married name without transition, so if you’re not paying attention you need to go back and re-read. That’s another thing in common with The Wire – there can be no skimping on attention, as you won’t have a clue what’s going on if you do.

I was afraid that the love between Darcy and Elizabeth would turn out to be like the ‘love’ story in Wuthering Heights – two people who tortured each other to death ain’t a love story to me – but it wasn’t like that. There were beautiful explanations for everything, from Darcy’s aloof manner to Bingley’s sudden withdrawal from Netherfield. If you’ve read it, that’ll make sense. If not, it probably won’t but I don’t want to explain the whole plot – go and read it for yourself!

It took me a long time to read three hundred pages, a lot longer than it would have normally. Normally I can read about a hundred pages in an hour, depending on interruptions and subject matter. Instead it took me the best part of a week, including all of Sunday, a little bit of the following Monday and Tuesday morning. I think this was because the language was so different to what I was used to, and the type was tiny. It’s also quite dense – the paragraphs are quite long. As I’ve said already, though, about a hundred pages in you settle in and realise that you’re going to have to read everything, and maybe aloud, to understand what’s going on.

What Austen should I read next? I feel like it should be Persuasion, but I’m open. It might not be for a while but I’ll try to fit it in around the challenge!

Next week I’m reading “The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett. We’re also off to Latitude so it’s lucky it’s a short book…

Half way point

Can you believe I’m half-way through? Where have the last six months gone? I’ve settled into my new job, seen my brand new niece, celebrated countless people’s birthdays (including my own) and managed to read more than twenty-six books on top of that. Pretty cool.

Here are five things I’ve learned in the past six months:

1. There are TV or film adaptations for a lot of books. A lot. I haven’t got exact figures, but I’d estimate that about 60% of the books I’ve read so far will be adapted, have been adapted or, in the case of Dickens, have been adapted so many times that people read it with a certain adapation in mind. For me it was the
Muppets.

2. I’m not very good at pacing myself. Every single week I tell myself that I will start reading on the Monday and leave myself with the weekend free, and every single week I read ten pages in the week and end up reading hundreds of pages on Sunday. Poor Mr Charming, our only day off together and I spend it reading. I will get better!

3. The length of the book does not dictate the time needed to read it. Just as in the old adage “Never judge a book by its cover”, I have also found that you cannot judge the time needed to read a book based on number of pages. At barely two hundred pages,
Dorian Gray took me pretty much the whole week to read, and I made a good attempt at mid week reading too. Marian Keyes, a whopper at seven hundred pages, took me an afternoon, basically. Font size and depth of message counts for a lot, in that case.

4. Books are all about people. Even when it’s a lack of people (
The Life of Pi) it’s about people. Even when you think there are no people in it (Buffalo Gals) and only animals, they are anthropomorphic animals.

5. Author names, first and second, seem to cluster around certain letters of the alphabet so I’d have hundreds of choices for ‘S’ but only one for ‘L’, for example. I suppose this is just like ordinary, non writer people names, but it does make the book challenge difficult!

So now I have the easier six months – weekly by author surname. This is where you lovely people come in.

I need suggestions for authors whose second names begin with the letter D onwards. I thought of Charles Dickens, but I read him for C so I’d like something different. I can read poetry, plays, non-fiction and so on, books I’ve read and books I haven’t – the only stipulation is that the surnames are in alphabetical order from Jane Austen. I would like it if I didn’t read the same author twice this year, and it would also be nice if the books weren’t too long/heavy i.e. Les Miserables or Vikram Seth’s tomes, which are all about a thousand pages long.

Thanks in advance!

Z is for Zadie Smith


This was approximately my third attempt at reading Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth”. I’d tried before, and failed. Perhaps I found the neon cover too gaudy, or was put off by the five hundred plus pages the story filled.

After reading the whole thing, I think it may have been the fact that it just wasn’t very interesting. It basically tells the tale of Archibald Jones and Samad Iqbal, and the unlikely friendship that sees them through war, wives and the struggle with the new world as it springs up around them. The thing that confused me was that it begins with Archie trying to kill himself, with no Samad in sight, and then suddenly they’re the best of friends and will always be there for each other. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, after all, Samad does advise Archie to find a wife, but I didn’t really believe their undying friendship. Instead I felt that they were friends out of habit and because they were both too boring to have any other friends.

As small sketches, Smith does well with her characters. I liked the women of the story – Alsana Iqbal, Niece-of-Shame Neena and Irie Jones, but they weren’t allowed enough page time for me, and remained relatively two dimensional.


Despite the book racking up over five hundred pages, it felt rushed in places. The Clara and Archie relationship was born and over within fifteen pages, where it was relegated to the background for the rest of the novel. The climactic ending, where fate/coincidence/whatever brings both families together in one place on New Year’s Eve, lasts about five paragraphs, where Smith explains what happened to everyone. I found that to be very disappointing.


Interesting wikipedia information nugget #1 : there was a TV film adaptation in 2002, where Om Puri was Samad and James McAvoy was Josh. Josh? As in, the lardy, geeky Chalfen with a crush on Irie? That seems to be a bit of a mis-cast to me – McAvoy’s forearms are definitely not geeky or lardy. Naomie Harris is Clara though, which is cheering.


Anyway, back to the book. My main point is that, I didn’t really like it. Perhaps I’ve read too many books done after this one which tried to copy the time jumping, generation bending style, but I found it to be a little clich├ęd. If you want a generational story, read Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Everyone gets a say and most importantly, every story is actually relevant.


With Zadie Smith, I felt that every important part of the story was highlighted, red circled and underlined in gold marker so that none of us readers could miss it. The rest of the stuff felt like filler – the way Hortense lives (underground), how Irie feels (yes, we get it, she’s fat and unhappy but if she could only see how beautiful she is, yawn yawn) or Archie’s dead-end job.


I like to connect to characters, I want to root for them and cheer them on, cheer them up when they’re down and boo when they’re being moustachioed villains. I want to get to know them well enough that I don’t need to be told how they react to a situation or respond to a remark – I know that already. With White Teeth, I often got conversations between Clara and Alsana mixed up, and the kids were nigh on impossible.


There were scenes I did like though, like one between the kids and the old man they try to donate food to. I also began liking the Chalfen family as a fresh introduction, but got bored of them when they only ever seemed to do one thing each (Josh is jealous, Joyce is a mumsy flirt and Marcus is a flat out pervert, yawn).


Maybe I read it too fast, like when you watch too many episodes of Scrubs and start noticing the repetition of their catchphrases, like Dr Cox’s “Ahmjusgonnagorightheadan”, and it gets annoying very quickly. Maybe I read it in the wrong setting, perhaps it’s better suited to a beach somewhere. Whatever the reason, I don’t recommend this. Read On Beauty if you need to read Zadie Smith, for a book challenge or something.


Next week I’m reading Jane Austen. Although I will have finished it by now so that might be a bit late. Whoops.