Just a quick blog to alert all my followers to a change of location. From now my Girl, reading blog can be found at http://www.thegirlreading.wordpress.com or http://www.girlreading.net. You’ll be able to read all my past posts there as well. You can still find everything on my facebook page Girl, reading or continue to follow me on twitter @GirlReading1. Thank you to all of you who’ve taken the time to read my blog, it’s much appreciated!
Book lovers will agree on many things: that there’s never enough time to get through all the books you want to read, or that book shelves are never big enough to house all the ones we’d like to own. Yet judging by some conversations I’ve had with my fellow book enthusiasts recently there’s one dilemma that divides us: how to organise our book collection. It’s a question, I guess, that any collector faces whatever their passion. (I remember a long afternoon spent attempting to rearrange my DVDs so that each one was connected to the one next to it by either actor or director. I failed.) My book system of choice is pretty simple: all an author’s book together, fiction separated from non-fiction – and that’s it. I was intrigued, then, to discover a few weeks ago that a work colleague of mine shelves her books by colour. And today I had an unexpectedly involved tête-à-tête with another bookworm about how she organises her books autobiographically. These more esoteric arrangements leave me twitching slightly at the thought that they result in books by the same author ending up – horror of horrors – on different shelves….but they are undoubtedly imaginative and intriguing. I particularly love the idea of using your book collection as a way of telling your own life story; I can certainly place where I was, both literally and emotionally, when I was reading each one. So how do you curate your personal library? I would love to know.
Every now and then I come across a book that gives me what I can only describe as an internal squiggle of delight as I start reading; delight because I can tell straight away that it’s going to be phenomenal. Within a couple of pages I was grinning with the knowledge that in “A Reunion of Ghosts” I had found such a book. It tracks the history of the Alter family – five generations of people whose lives, it’s fair to say, haven’t been of the most upbeat variety. If you’re an Alter, you’re something of an anomaly if you don’t have a death wish. Great grandmothers, grandfathers and aunts hurl themselves into rivers or through windows with alarming regularity. And at the bottom of this rather wretched family tree are the narrators, three sisters who are planning to draw a line under their ancestors’ sorry story once and for all by means of a suicide pact to be carried out on New Year’s Eve 1999.
If this all sounds slightly farcical, well, to an extent it is. From start to finish this novel hovers on a very fine line between the comically absurd and the genuinely tragic. One episode involving a botched suicide attempt pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of making me laugh and cry at the same time. In fact, the whole book is built around a reversible conceit: in the midst of despair there is always humour to be found and conversely, behind an apparently comic situation can lie real pain.
The three sisters whose “suicide note” forms the novel are incredibly witty narrators. Their dry humour prevails right up to the end of the book (although what that end is I won’t reveal here). They accept the legacy of their family’s “curse”, as they call it, with wry resignation. Yet, as they gradually construct their family tree for us, they, along with other members of the apparently doomed Alter clan, pose the question: to what extent does one generation carry the weight of the sins committed by the one before? And there are, as we discover, some very dark episodes in the Alters’ history; events so horrific and far-reaching that successive generations seem to have arrived at the point of believing their very existence to be a kind of penance for actions carried out by their forefathers years ago. Can anyone ever escape the burden of their family’s past or is it inevitable that eventually we will be crushed by the weight of everything that’s gone before, with guilt passing through the generations as surely as if it were in our genes?
My hunch that this was going to be a standout novel wasn’t wrong – it is absolutely remarkable. With its slightly bizarre premise it could easily have been either an unbelievable melodrama or an out-and-out black comedy, but the author has been exceptionally clever in ensuring it becomes neither. The writing is stylish, the characters incredibly real and the experience of reading it genuinely emotional. I would recommend it to pretty much everyone.
The bookcases in my parents’ house are probably a pretty good indication of how mine will be thirty years from now. Books double stacked as there is no longer enough room to get away with a neat, single-layered display; shelves heaving under the weight of ancient paperbacks, their faded covers and yellowed pages a testament to their long life. Some old favourites have been revisited so many times that their pages are loose and the spines creased so severely that they are no longer identifiable. These shelves are the result of a lifetime of reading; they are also the place where I began my own reading journey.
Both my parents have always read, but it was my mum whose books marked the start of my foray into “grown-up” reading. I read as a child, of course, but as I gradually grew out of children’s literature the question arose, what next? Young adult fiction is obviously a huge part of the book market today, and has spawned some of contemporary culture’s most recognisable series and franchises – The Hunger Games, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight….the list goes on. But when I was going through that awkward transition phase into adolescence, twenty-plus years ago, books specifically for teens were pretty few and far between. I have very vivid memories of trotting along to the local library where my choices were Sweet Dreams or Point Horror. (Being the delicate girl I was I opted for Sweet Dreams every time!) But once I’d tired of a series where EVERY book involved a girl changing herself to get a guy, before realising that the guy she should be with is the one who likes her for what she is, I was pretty much out of options. So the next logical step was to go to my mum’s bookcases and start working my way through her collection.
Luckily for me my mum was – and still is – a great reader of the classics. She’s the reason I fell in love with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. I’m sure if they hadn’t been under my nose as a teenager I would have discovered them later in life, but I think I probably enjoyed them more then than I would if I read them for the first time now. I remember they held a certain mystique for me when I was younger, probably because it felt like opening a door to a world – and a language –completely different from my own. In fact, it wasn’t until my early twenties that I started reading contemporary novels; up until that point, reading for me meant Anthony Trollope or Wilkie Collins. Even at university I entrenched myself firmly in the medieval, Renaissance and Victorian periods, rarely venturing past the turn of the twentieth century. I remember when I first got into modern fiction I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it; now, working in the book trade where I see so many enticing new works turn up in front of me every day, going back to a classic is a rarity, an indulgence. But whenever I pick one up I love the feeling that I’m disappearing into a book that I know my mum first fell in love with maybe fifty years ago.
The prospect of a summer holiday, albeit five months away, has got me ridiculously excited. Already I’m mentally reclining by a sparkling pool, G&T in one hand and book in the other, cocooned in that blissful bubble of relaxation that only comes from being several hundred miles away from the demands of the daily grind….but I’m getting ahead of myself. Until I’m on that plane, I’ll have to make do with the figurative escape that, thankfully, is easily found within the pages of a book.
Thinking about it, it’s fairly unusual for me to read a novel based entirely in a familiar setting. More often than not there’s at least an element of history involved, but I also tend to gravitate towards books set in foreign countries. And it’s definitely a conscious choice to avoid anything that resembles my own life and experiences too closely; I get quite enough of that every day as it is! Exotic holidays may be few and far between, but I can always rely on reading to take me to a different place as often as I like. So, in case there are no opportunities for escape on your horizon, here are…
My top 5 books for getting away from it all!
- “Miss Garnet’s Angel” by Salley Vickers – I’ve never been to Venice, but after reading this book I felt as if I had. There’s a real intimacy between the characters and the city, and it’s this relationship between people and place that binds this gorgeous novel together.
- “An Artist of the Floating World” by Kazuo Ishiguro – you just can’t have a literary world tour without including one of Ishiguro’s Japanese novels. I love the fact that his serene prose belies the turmoil bubbling under the surface of his characters – and increasingly throughout Japan itself.
- “The Wedding Officer” by Anthony Capella – back to Italy, this time during the Second World War. A romantic, sunny, yummy novel that will make you hungry for some proper Italian food…
- “Big Stone Gap” by Adriana Trigiani – this is the first in a series of novels set in a sleepy Virginia town. It’s not the most glamorous of literary voyages, but the setting is so vividly realised that it becomes almost a character in its own right. By the time I’d finished I felt like I’d been living in Big Stone Gap; it’s several years since I read it but even now I could describe every detail.
- “The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh – if you want to venture somewhere truly out of the ordinary, then this is the book for you. Set among an archipelago if islands in the Bay of Bengal, we witness the arrival of two outsiders into this somewhat mystical landscape and journey with them into an environment that very definitely has its own rules.
Happy reading….and bon voyage!
The past week has not been a good week for blogging. This is due in part to the fact that I’m currently under a blanket debating whether to reach for the Beechams or the Olbas Oil first, my head fuzzy, and my nose and sinuses a festival of phlegm that has well and truly repelled any muses that might have considered visiting me to provide inspiration for my writing. I also have to admit, however, that this week I have fallen prey to the temptation that is the scourge of book lovers everywhere: starting more books than I can hope to finish anytime soon.
A quick glance at the “in progress” pile on the coffee table will reveal the following.
- “Armadale” – I have spent a lot of time with contemporary fiction of late and suddenly had a hankering for a good old Victorian classic
- “Look who’s back” – a satire, translated from the German original, imagining what might ensue if Hitler hadn’t in fact died at the end of the Second World War but was alive today and promoting himself through the many media outlets we have at our disposal
- “Flood of Fire” – I must resist the temptation to start gushing about this now as I will definitely be returning to it for blogging purposes at a later date; suffice to say it’s AMAZING
- “A Reunion of Ghosts” – an advance reading copy that I consider myself extremely lucky to have got my hands on as it’s turning out to be one of the most remarkable novels I’ve read in a long time
- “Death in Florence” – despite being a fiction girl first and foremost, I do always like to have some non-fiction to hand as well, and I’m a sucker for an engrossing history book
I love having book to suit every mood and it’s incredibly rare for me to have just one on the go. And, if I’m honest, my concentration span is not the longest you’ve ever seen; I’m very easily distracted, so it suits me to be able to flit from book to book without too much in the way of commitment. The downside is, of course, that I will have lots to write about in a couple of weeks’ time – but not a whole lot right now! So it’s pen down, I think, and back to the reading. I will endeavour to return before too long…