Friday, 28 March 2014

Lit Nerd Recommends: Books About Books

I challenge you to point me in the direction of an individual of a particularly bookish persuasion who does not like (read: love) books about books. Bit tricky that, isn't it? I for one, go week at the knees at the thought of reading books about books and it all started with Susan Hill. One particularly long day at uni I took a trip to Plymouth's Waterstones on my break (as I was frequently wont to do) and partook in some bibliotherapy in the form of Howards End is on the Landing. I'd always kind of liked the idea about reading about reading but never actually gone for it. Had I known I was in for such a treat, I would have gone for it sooner. Since then, I've not really looked back and I have read some brilliant books about books, both fiction and non-fiction. I'm going to share a few of my favourites with you to start off my new 'Lit Nerd Recommends' series.

1. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

2. How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

3. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

4. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

5. The Library Book by Various

6. The Novel Cure by Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud

7. The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack

1. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

2. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

3. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

4. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

6. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

7. The Reader by Bernard Schlink

Have you read any of these? Can you recommend any books about books for me to try? Pile in!


Monday, 24 March 2014

Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Dover Thrift Editions (1998)
124 pgs

I've fancied reading this short novel ever since reading The Yellow Wallpaper at uni and loving it. It has been on my shelf for some time and I couldn't resist diving in when I noticed the March theme for the Classics Club Twelve Month challenge was feminist reading. This turned out to be the perfect feminist read and an unexpectedly good one, at that.

Herland is narrated by Vandyck Jennings, a sociologist who determined to discover the mythical place where only women lived, with a couple of friends. Discover it they do (more like stumble upon it), and after a tense beginning, the men are welcomed into the fold and spend years living with the women, learning their language and history and teaching their own. As they're men, things do eventually take a sour turn but not before they've been educated in the Utopian beliefs of these women. The men themselves fit into quite stereotypical roles - Terry is the man's man and is the one who is always complaining about their lack of femininity. Jennings would fit into the metro-sexual role. He gets on with the women better than his fellows and the women say they like him best because 'you seem more like us' (he didn't take this well).

Whilst this is a polemical novel with quite a strong socialist-feminist undertone, it never feels like you're being bashed repeatedly over the head with ideologies or opinions. Herland is funny. It is witty, imaginative, mischievous and really so very funny. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I first laughed out loud. It took me quite by surprise as I was expecting exactly the opposite (not that The Yellow Wallpaper does that, it is just much darker). I think having a male narrator is key to this level of humour. With a female narrator, particularly if it was one of the women of Herland, it would be too preachy. Instead, there are some interesting debates and exchanges alongside some hilarious responses from the men.

If you're in the mood for a quick feminist read that makes it's point without the politics becoming the story, then I'd highly recommend this. I am certainly going to look into some of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's other works. I'm not sure I'll tackle Women and Economics, the social critique that rescued her from obscurity after her death, but I think I'll go for some more of her short stories. By the by, Perkins Gilman is another female writer who took her own life when she was diagnosed with cancer and realised her ideas were 'no longer of service'. Depressing, huh? I think even now we can learn things from her writings so I'm glad she didn't remain forgotten.

I'm going to leave you with some of my favourite quotes:

''But they look - why, this is a civilised country!' I protested. 'There must be men.''

'I rather liked it myself [short hair], after I got used to it. Why we should so admire 'a woman's crown of hair' and not admire a Chinaman's queue is hard to explain, except that we are so convinced that the long hair 'belongs' to a woman.'

''Confound their grandmotherly minds!' Terry said. 'Of course they can't understand a Man's World! They aren't human - they're just a pack of Fe-Fe-Females!''

'we talk very fine things about women, but in our hearts we know that they are very limited being - most of them. We honor them for their functional powers, even while we dishonor them by our use of it; we honor them for their carefully enforced virtue, even whilst we show by our own conduct how little we think of that virtue; we value them, sincerely, for the perverted maternal activities which make our wives the most comfortable of servants, bound to us for life with the wages wholly at our own decision, they whole business, outside of the temporary duties of such motherhood as they may achieve, to meet our needs in every way...These were women [in Herland] one had to love 'up', very high up, instead of down. They were not pets. They were not servants. They were not timid, inexperienced, weak.'

I read this as part of the Classics Club Twelve Months of Literature Challenge.

Have you ever read anything by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? 


Friday, 21 March 2014

On Comfort Reading

I'm going to get straight to the point and say that this week has been shit. I made the transition from my old role to the new one and that has caused a whole host of problems and a ridiculously strong sense of isolation. It really is not fun in my office at the moment. There have been other factors that have made this week stressful, namely that I have a new house mate and I always find it testing living with a complete stranger. You know the phrase 'shit storm'? Yes, that pretty much sums up my week. 

As a food lover, I have a ridiculous tendency to drown my sorrows in a bag of mini eggs or a rather large bowl of my Dad's chilli. But as the need for comfort has been surfacing with an unusual frequency in recent weeks, I've been thinking about other ways of getting a calorie free warm and fuzzy 'it'll be ok' feeling from other sources. Running still works a treat and since I've started running home from work I've been out a lot more. I've been enjoying leaving work and pounding out my frustration before I even get home. 

Then there's the written word. I've been turning to books even more than usual to achieve that sense of calm that usually comes over me as I read. My reading this week has consisted of the feminist novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Dracula by Bram Stoker, both of which have been just what the doctor ordered. Usually when I start comfort reading I head straight for The Woman in White, Great Expectations or an old favourite from my battered collection of very well-loved teen reads. This time, though, it has been refreshing to dive into two novels that I've not read before, and that are also pretty different to anything I've read before. 

Books have always been an escape for me (excuse the cliche), but I had forgotten quite how comforting they could be when, to put it bluntly, shit got real. It's nice to immerse yourself in other people's worlds and, by comparison, my week hasn't been as bad as Lucy Westernra's. I know Dracula is not going to come and start sucking my blood nightly (I mean, I really hope not), but it is good to put your own worries and stresses into perspective. I can find excitement, distraction, happiness, and even hope in the pages of a good book. Yes, books often make me sad and we all know I'm a sobber, but even those books can still be comforting. And sometimes all you need is a good cry, so why not turn to Birdsong or The Universe Versus Alex Woods for a little extra help. 

Until this job situation settles down and the flat situation settles down then I'm going to continue with my schedule of comfort reading. I have some very tempting looking books waving at me from my shelves so I'm going to sit down with them later and decide which looks to be the most comfort inducing. In fact, I have a whole evening of bookish delights in store for me as I'm planning on re-organising (by which I mean alphabetising) my shelves. Here's to comfort reading, not comfort eating.

Do you comfort eat or comfort read? Which book would be your choice for the ultimate feeling of comfort? 


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Spring Reading

The topic for this week's Top Ten Tuesday has been exactly what I need to (hopefully) get back into this old blogging lark. I've been perusing my shelves at regular intervals recently, shuffling things around and generally trying to decide what my 'priorities' are (i.e. the books I'm dying to read RIGHT NOW). This is what I came up with:

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

I still need to get the Russian Challenge underway and I've been eyeing this one up for some time. Thankfully, I found a copy on my Mum's bookshelf when I was home and in my favourite version (Penguin Classics from around the 60s).

2. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Another acquisition from my Mother's shelves that came with a sparkling recommendation. Mum has even decided to re-read the entire works of Pym so no doubt there will be conversations and comparisons to be had.

3. Stoner by John Williams

This is a left over from my Winter Reads list but I couldn't let it go. I'm still so desperate to read it.

4. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

Ok, the majority of this list has come from my Mum's shelves rather than my own. This novel has the famous quote about the past being a foreign country so I am thoroughly intrigued.

5. The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak

Another one that crops up on so many TBR lists. I so want to read it but other things keep getting in the way. Soon.

6. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

I went mad when I saw this is The Strand bookshop in New York, bought it, then carted it (and many other books) through the New York streets in a massive rain shower. And yet, I still haven't read it. It's time.

7. Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer

I have Ellie to thank for this recommendation and Hayley from Dark Readers to thank for the book (Valentines Ninja Book Swap win).

8. The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

WW1 and women...need I actually say more?

9. Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

As well as browsing my shelves, I also browsed the hidden shelves of my kindle (I'm ashamed to admit how much is on there). I remember reading such brilliant reviews of this one and I've enjoyed her novels before so, it's about time I got to this.

And for my final choice, I'm going with a novel released in May this year:

10. The Heroes' Welcome by Louisa Young

I adored My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and this is it's sequel. Again, it's WW1 so it's pretty self-explanatory.

Have you read any of these? What's on your Spring TBR?


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Blog Tour: Fagin's Boy by Christina E. Pilz

Fagin's Boy
Christina E. Pilz
Blue Rain Press

'Your past is an angry, monstrous thing; you must do your best to escape it.'

Fagin's Boy is a sequel of sorts to Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. I'm almost certain that if someone came to me and said that they weren't familiar with at least the rough outline of Olivier Twist, I'd eat my hat (or something). The story of Oliver Twist, the workhouse orphan, has been adapted so many times and in so many startlingly different ways (anyone seen the film 'Oliver and Company' where Twist is a cat and Fagin a dog?), that I think it's pretty widely known. For that reason, I commend Pilz for having the stones to take it on. It's kind of a biggie. 

"Five years after Fagin was hanged in Newgate, Oliver Twist, at the age of seventeen, is a young man of good breeding and fine manners, living a quiet life in a corner of London. When Oliver loses his protector and guardian, he is able, with the help of Mr. Brownlow’s friends, to find employment in a well-respected haberdashery in Soho.

However, in the midst of these changes, Jack Dawkins, also known as the Artful Dodger arrives in London, freshly returned from being deported. Oliver’s own inability to let go of his past, as well as his renewed and intimate acquaintance with Jack, take him back to the life he thought he’d left behind."

My opinion of this book is varied. There were elements that I loved and some that I wasn't so keen on. The main element that I didn't love is Oliver himself. He is trying so hard to avoid his past because he feels it is the 'right' thing to do, but actually it isn't what he wants to do. This inner turmoil is expressed really well and you do get sucked into his whole 'I shouldn't but I want to' attitude. We do all know that forbidden fruit feeling. But as Oliver's character is further embellished, I grew to really dislike him and this dislike affected my enjoyment of the novel as a whole. I do see this as a strength of the writing. It's rare that I have a really strong reaction to a character that gets in the way of the story and I think it is down to clear and detailed characterisation. 

'Maybe he'd truly been meant to be one of Fagin's boys from the very moment of his birth.'

There is a subtle exploration of fate and destiny underlying Fagin's Boy. As Oliver is trying to escape his past, he is also drawn to the idea that he cannot escape it and that he is fated to be one of Fagin's boys forever. I found some of these ideas really interesting and they got the old cogs whirring. These ruminations, alongside the descriptive writing - it made me long to be in the street of London eating lots of food - made this a rich and sensory read. 

Although this book wasn't quite my cup of tea (let's call it an over  sweet vanilla latte), it does have some interesting ruminations on fate and destiny and some lovely nods to Dickens. For that alone, and for the fact that 'lollygagging'* is used on more than one occasion, I'd say that Fagin's Boy is a uniquely interesting read. If you're a fan of Oliver Twist then I'm not sure I could predict how you'd react to some of the plot points, but Pilz is certainly well acquainted with the text and it shows in subtly delightful ways.  

Visit Christina Pilz’s website for more information. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author:

"Being a writer is not just what I do, it’s who I am. Even if everything else in the day turns sour, if I have written, then it’s still a pretty good day.

I decided I wanted to be a writer when my fourth grade teacher (Mrs. Harr) gave me a good grade on a creative writing story I’d written. And not only that, she added “I like your ending,” along with a smiley face. At that point, I was off and running. I’ve been writing and making up stories ever since.

I live in Colorado. I’ve tried to live elsewhere, but it’s always too far from my family, so I returned for good some time ago. Colorado is a brilliant location to live in as it’s not very far from either coast, and the local international airport is only an hour away.

Right beside my writing desk, I have a green arm chair and ottoman that I call The Vortex. There are two reasons I call it that. The first is that it’s always trying to suck me in and sit down and do nothing but think and read and stare at the sunlight and shadows as they dapple the walls and ceiling. The second is that once I sit down in the thing, it’s almost impossible to get up, as The Vortex keeps sucking me in."

(I love this idea of The Vortex! I need to get a chair like that...)

* fast becoming a new favourite word. I am lollygagging myself, at work today.


Sunday, 9 March 2014

This Week in Books

This weekend I braved the London roads and drove home. It was my first time driving in London and I would be lying if I said the three of us in the car didn't celebrate when we hit the M4 intact. One of my favourite things about being back in Somerset (aside from my parents and the pooch), is being reunited with my bookshelves. When I moved, I took only a handful of books from my 'to read' pile and a couple of my old favourites (The Woman in White, Return of the Soldier, To the Lighthouse), which means the majority of my collection is still there. 

Whenever I'm back (and often when my parents come to visit), I do a book swap and take books I've read in London back to Somerset and get new books from Somerset to take to London. I like to think of it as shopping my shelves. It gives me little shivers of excitement to browse my own shelves of unread books and decide which deserve the honour of a trip to London. As much as it is heartbreaking not being with my entire book collection I do enjoy shopping my shelves and discovering books I'd forgotten I'd bought or remembering the reasons why I'd bought others. Trust me, it's exciting.

As well as spending some time rummaging through my own shelves this weekend, I also spent some time with my Mum's books. My Mum's shelves are amazing - lots of Virago Modern Classics and the entire works of authors like Barbara Pym and Fay Weldon. I have always relied on my Mum for brilliant book recommendations as so many of the books she has pressed on me in the past have turned into beloved favourites. We may not always see eye to eye (she has just DNF'd May We Be Forgiven which I loved), but I can more or less guarantee that any books still on her shelves that have survived years of charity shop culls are worth reading. So, to cut a long and meandering story short, these are the books I acquired from my Mum's veritable bookish treasure trove:

Look at all the pretty VMCs! 

Have you read any of these? Do you ever shop your shelves?


Monday, 3 March 2014

March Reading

Currently at my bedside
March is well under way now and, so far, I've been to one museum (Tower of London) and one art gallery (National Portrait Gallery). London is practically a cornucopia for museum lovers such as myself! With all that museum visiting, I failed to pick up my book at all this weekend but I'm hoping to finish No Name this week so I can get cracking with my March reading plans.

In the Classics Club 'Twelve Months of Classic Literature', March is feminist literature. I've got a couple of books picked out for this: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Awakening by Kate Chopin and A Vindication on the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft. I'm really looking forward to getting my teeth into these, particularly Herland as I loved The Yellow Wallpaper. I also have a whole host of Virago and Persephone books on my shelves that would suit if I feel the need for more feminist lit (it's likely, I do love the laydeez). 

March is actually going to be a month of finishing books that have been hanging about my bedside for far too long. Fighting on the Home Front has been there since before Christmas (started, got half way and then was distracted by various shiny books), and Careless People has been there since January (again, about a quarter through but the distractions are too great). I've been reading a short story from May Sinclair's Uncanny Stories every so often but I'd like to polish those of this month too for the TBR Pile Challenge. My final book to finish is No Man's Land, a chunky (and brilliant) anthology of WW1 writings. 

One book I've been dying to read (I think since Riv's review) is Dracula. I have not read it before but it is one of those 'must read' cult classics I've always meant to get around to. I treated myself to this Penguin English Library edition a couple of weeks ago and I think I'll dive into it this month.

I think that's probably enough to be getting on with but no doubt distractions will happen and I'll end up winging it (the joy of reading, surely?!).

Do you have any reading plans for March? Will you be reading feminist literature with the Classics Club?

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