Sunday, 26 March 2017

My Mum's love of reading

Mum and me & a much sought-after book

Mother's Day always smarts a little for me because it reminds me of what I no longer have: a Mum. My Mum died several years ago, so a day that celebrates mothers is naturally somewhat painful for me. But rather than focus on the sadness of her loss, which I can do any day of the year, I've decided there's no reason why I can't celebrate her even though she's not here anymore. Fittingly given that this is a book blog, I want to honour my Mum's love of reading.

I think anyone who knew my Mum even vaguely would know she liked to read. So frequent were her visits to the library, that the librarians knew her by sight if not by name. Admittedly, Malvern  - my hometown - isn't exactly a sprawling metropolis, so people do tend to know each other but, still, Mum must definitively have been on the top 10 must frequent users list (should such a thing exist). In fact, much to her amusement, I once observed she used library cards as other women used credit cards. Having taken as many as books as she was allowed on her own card, she took out yet more books with my Dad's, my sisters' and my cards. In fairness, having moved away to various locations, my sisters and I had no need for our cards and she did use Dad's card to take out books that he might like.

She not only went to the library for her reading fix, she also regularly raided the shelves of the local supermarkets for books; if you have go through the tedium of picking up broad beans each week (my Dad's favourites), you may as well use it as an opportunity to indulge in your favourite pastime. Whenever I went to the supermarket with her, her first question as soon as we were through the doors was "shall we look at the magazines/books?". This question was always rhetorical given, without waiting for me to answer, she immediately headed in the direction of the mag/book aisle. Should I grumble too much about this, she'd shut me up by offering to buy me a mag as well (she did this even when I was in my 20s).

Our house, therefore not surprisingly, had books in pretty much every room; some parents turn their children's bedrooms into gyms once they've flown the next, she turned ours into mini libraries. My Dad (fair enough really) had limited tolerance for having books (and magazines) everywhere, so Mum would occasionally palm off some of her extensive collection to her friends to quieten his mutterings.

Mum not only loved to read, she also enjoyed writing about the books she'd read. Flicking through these observations, it seems she finds a fair few books "OTT" (if you will read romantic sagas, what do you expect?) and wonders if Shopaholic and Baby will be the next book to follow Shopaholic and Sister in Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series - an accurate prediction it turns out. I think she'd have loved Goodreads  - assuming I was able to teach her how to use the site (teaching her how to send an email was a hit and miss affair) - and would have enjoyed reading book blogs. In fact, one of the saddest things about her being no longer around, for me, is that she'll never read this blog or follow my bookish musings on Twitter. Mum and I had many things in common, but our shared loved of reading certainly created a strong bond between us.

One of my most lovely reading memories of Mum is that, shortly before she died, she found a copy of Chronicle of The Royal Family in the local Oxfam. She'd apparently wanted it for years but could never bring herself to fork out the £20 or so quid it would cost to buy it new, so she was absolutely delighted to pick it up secondhand (muggins here was less pleased as I was the one who had to lug the huge tome back to the car). She never got chance to read it, but I am happy that she achieved one of her book ambitions before she died. I own the book now and I'll never part with it. She, of course, would think it was a total hoot that her die-hard republican daughter now treasures a book on the royal family (she'd find it even funnier that I am actually much more of a monarchist these days).

Appropriately enough, there's a now bench in her memory in the grounds of the library that she loved so much. It's in the perfect location - anyone who sits on it can read their library books while looking at all the people coming and going from the library. I can't think of anything my Mum would enjoy more than combining reading with people watching.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Anne's Ghosts - A review

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family SecretAnnie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolutely fascinating story of how Luxenburg tries to find out what happened to his mother's "secret" sister Annie - only finding out about her existence a few month's before his mother's death. More than that it explores why his mother kept her sister hidden and how a woman, as Annie was, could be committed to a mental asylum and essentially forgotten about.

I think the book also taps into a fear that you have when someone you love dies - did you really know them? Will some secret come out that changes how you view them? How Luxenberg comes to terms with the fact that his beloved mother kept a major secret from him and his siblings (and possibly his father) is another intriguing element of the book.

The only downside of this book is that it's difficult to get hold of in the UK (I had to order it via Amazon)

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A reading list for International Women's Day

To mark International Women Day's* , which "celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women", I've decided to highlight five books that I think provide positive messages for women (and men!). Some of these books are intentionally feminist while others are not, but all - I think anyway - have the underlying message that being yourself is a perfectly OK thing to be. 

1. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
This part memoir, part feminist manifesto (no, I don't think it should be "womanifesto") was a revelation when I read it at the tender age of 32. I'd always been a bit ashamed of the fact that I am not really into clothes or make-up  - sort of felt like I'd failed some test of womanhood - but, in this book, Moran says you don't have to be that fussed about make-up just because you're a woman. In other words, women don't have to be a particular way.

2. 84, Charing Cross Road By Helene Hanff
This account of Hanff's correspondence with a bookseller (at 84 Charing Cross Road, funnily enough) for me was so much more than an endearing tale of friendship; it was an insight into how to be OK with yourself. Yes, Hanff  probably did suffer from the odd bout of self doubt (as most humans do!), but she comes across as someone who is comfortable in her own skin. She doesn't fret about the fact she's single or anything else women are "supposed" to get upset about; she just gets peeved because Frank (the bookseller) has sent her the "wrong" version of Samuel Pepys' Diary.

3. Girls will be Girls by Emer O'Toole
An interesting read in which O'Toole argues that concepts such as "femininity" and "masculinity" are learned traits rather than anything to do with biological sex. Therefore, according to her, don't beat yourself up if you're not a very "feminine" female because it's all a performance anyway.

4. South Riding by Winifred Holtby
To be honest, it's so long ago that I read this book (at least seven years) that I don't remember much about it. But, what I do remember is how much I liked the protagonist Sarah Burton. It is always refreshing to have such an independently-minded female in a novel, but particularly so given that this book was first published in 1936.

5. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
What I loved most about Strayed's memoir of her hike across the Pacific Crest Trail is that she doesn't "find herself" or any other tedious cliche during her time on trail - she just gains a sense of accomplishment and tries to come to terms with the mistakes she's made in her life. Wild, though, is making this list because walking 1,100 mile solo with flip all experience of hiking is a pretty kick ass thing to do.

* = If you're wondering when the equivalent International Men's Day is, please see the other 364 days of the year

Sunday, 5 March 2017

March TBR

I am not normally one for monthly "TBR" - aka To Be Read - lists because I prefer to choose books on a more ad hoc basis. Choosing from a set list of books per month seems too much like homework to me. However, thanks to a couple of bouts of online book shopping when I should have been going to bed, I have found myself with a glut of books to read. Therefore before I damage my bank account any further with more book purchases, these are the books I am planning to read in March:

1: Annie's Ghosts by Steven Luxenberg
This non-fiction book charts the efforts of Luxenberg to discover what happened to his mother's sister Annie - who Luxenberg and his siblings didn't know existed until a few months before their mother's death. Annie, they discover after their mother's death, was committed to the local psychiatric unit at the age of 23 and never released. Luxenberg doesn't only explore Annie's life but also tries to understand why his mother was so keen to deny she had a sister.
N.B: This book is pretty difficult to get hold of - it's not available as an ebook and I had to order from it from the Book Depository, via Amazon, because even Foyles didn't stock it. 

2. The Gustav Sontata by Rose Tremain
I've got no idea what this book is about (something to do with lifelong male friendship according to the description on Amazon), but I am reading it because it's my book group's book for March. Having read barely any of the group's books last year (at least, that's what it felt like), I am determined to read more of their books this year. Here's hoping I get further with The Gustav Sontata than I did with Tremain's The Road Home, which I failed to get past the first chapter on at least two occasions.

3: Two books from Moth Box
Moth Box is a postal book service run by book vlogger Mercedes (MercysBookishMusings). Each box contains two independently published books that are individually wrapped by (presumably) Mercedes and come with fancy bookmarks (I think). The idea of the box is to encourage people to read more independently published books with the added novelty that you're buying "blind" (you won't know what the books are until you unwrap them). I haven't received my box yet but I am already suffering from buyer's remorse (or perhaps understanding why online shopping at midnight is never a good plan). Considering each box costs £20, not including post & packaging, I am not convinced it's value for money given your average book costs about £9 (ie. you are probably spending more than you would do if you purchased the books from a shop etc.). Still, I do want to read more independently published stuff rather than just going for what has won the latest literary prize etc. and this seems as good as any way of doing it.
A new Moth Box is available for sale on the first of every month. For more information, click here

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Worst book sins tag

Given that lent is starting today—though I should point out that I am not a Christian in the traditional sense (it’s complicated coz I am a Quaker) and have no intention of giving up anything for lent (really don’t have the will power for that kind of malarkey)—I decided to start my own tag about what I considered to be the “worst” book sins. I can only apologise if someone’s already done this type of tag (I haven’t read that many tags, but someone undoubtedly has already come up with this idea).

How many books do you own that, if you’re being truly honest, you know that you will never read/finish reading?
Two technically, but it was at least 50 (and that’s a conservative estimate) before I had a mass delete of books on my Kindle cloud late last year (I’ve only just figured out how to do this).

Have you ever borrowed a book from a friend and never given it back?
Yes but in my defence, I don’t think the friend expected it back.

Have you ever pretended to have read a book that you actually haven’t read?
Not so much pretended as genuinely mistakenly thought I’ve read something that I haven’t. I can’t remember whether I’ve read both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility or just the latter—I suspect with the former, I’ve just watched multiple adaptions.

Have you ever preferred the TV/film adaption to the book?
Yes. I much preferred the 2000 film of Chocolat (staring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp) to Joanne Harris’s source novel. I think this is because I saw the film before I read the book (the ending is completely different!)—I do wonder how I would I have felt if I watched the film after reading the book. I can’t think of an example where I thought the film/TV adaption was better than the book when I read the book first. On several occasions, however, I’ve liked the film/TV adaption as much as I liked the book.

Have you ever judged a book by its cover?
All the time—no bad thing actually. You can tell a lot about a book by its cover in my opinion, which is why I tend to ignore anything with “girly” fonts or “cutesy” designs on it because it’s blatantly “chick lit”. Not that there’s anything wrong with chick lit; it’s just that having read an awful lot of it when I was in my early 20s, I don’t really want to read any more of it (I will always make an exception for Marian Keyes though). Mind you, far too often, a book is categorised as being stereotypical chick lit just because it's been written by a woman and is about women. 

Have you read a book that you later realised was “problematic”?
“Problematic”, for the uninitiated, basically means something that promotes stereotypes or prejudices. This for me was Me Before You by JoJo Moyles, which—SPOILERS AHEAD—is about a relationship between a suicidal quadriplegic man and his able-bodied carer (or personal assistant to be more accurate). At the time, I felt it showed the realities of being severely disabled: that everything requires planning and that even taking a bath can be like a military operation. However, after reading about the furor surrounding the film version, I realised that it is “ableist” (that is discriminates against people with disabilities). While I don’t believe Moyles meant to promote the view that people with disabilities can’t live fulfilling lives, she doesn’t exactly dispel this particular myth by having the aforementioned man end his life at Dignitas. Plus, it doesn’t help matters that the book is never from his viewpoint—just the carer and (I think) his physiotherapist.

Have you ever written/underlined text in a book?
No! Like my Mother, I can't even bring myself to write a gift note in a book when giving a book as a present. That's what Post-Its are for! 

And finally, I am presuming that all your books were bought in independent bookshops and not from the very devil that is Amazon?
Erm well, here’s the thing, I own a Kindle and only Kindle ebooks work on it, so I have to buy from Amazon. (This does bother me; just not enough to download software to convert standard ebooks to Kindle ebooks.) I do smugly pride myself on buying (online) physical books from Foyles rather than from Amazon. Well, apart from the book that I just bought because Foyles didn’t sell it and I couldn’t be faffed with searching for a non-evil online retailer that did.  

Like in the previous tag I did, I tag anyone who reading this who wants to give this a go. Do you agree that these are the worst “book sins” you can commit or do you think there are much more heinous crimes readers can commit?