Big may be beautiful, but small is seductive!

Spoiler Alert: I am talking about books here.

I love small squarish books. I like the feel of them in my hands, their unexpected heft, their solidity. Customers in libraries ask all sorts of questions, like  “Where are your Biographies? Do you have any Italian books? How do I log-on to the computers?” and “Where are the toilets?” to name but a few. But as of yet, no one has ever asked me to direct them to the Small Seductive Books section.

A Dog a DayBut just recently I have been spoilt for choice. Here are 5 small, but perfectly formed chunky little books: A Dog a Day by Sally Muir is a collection of Muir’s dog drawings – a different dog every day over 365 days. I am moved by this book in more ways than one: I love drawing (and I try to draw every day), I love dogs (though Muir has omitted Scottish Terriers – what was she thinking?), and it is small and  squarish. Win, Win, Win.

In the midst of the dreary grey winter weather that was such a feature of life in Christchurch a few weeks ago, a small jaunty book stood out from all the drabness and said “Pick Me!”, and that’s how Brolliology (A History of the Umbrella in Life and Literature) ended up in my book bag. What substances are these people imbibing to get such an off-the-wall idea as linking literature and umbrellas? Whatever it is – Give It To Me Now!

Everyone know’s that I love café culture, that I never take my meals at my workplace, but each day treat myself to a capuccino at a nearby café. Some libraries even have café’s on site – that works too. Lonely Planet’s Global Coffee Tour is a neat little book that I wish I’d had in my possession when we travelled to Italy. I checked out the New Zealand and  South African cafés and I am pleased to report and I am ahead of the pack in these two countries. If you are about to travel, have a flick through this muscular little number.

Now, let’s put it all to music. Donna Leon, well known crime novelist has brought out a beautiful little book on an intrinsic aspect of Venetian life: the Gondola, and it comes with its own CD of well known Gondolier renderings. This book is arguably one of the most beautiful books I have ever held. It is also informative and entertaining. One of the first chapters “I Think I Could Do This” tells of a dinner guest who was given the blueprints of a gondola as a gift. It took him over 5 years to build, and 32 men to lift its 350kg weight onto the truck that would take it to its launching place. That’d keep Greg busy in his retirement!

And finally, step aside Hygge, because Japonisme is about to knock you right off your perch. In an exploration of your Ikigai (purpose), Kintsugi (repairing broken ceramics with gold) and wabi-sabi (the transience of life) and more, you will be gently exposed to much wisdom, such as:

One who smiles rather than rages is always the stronger.

Japanese Proverb

And I am delighted to tell you that all the above-mentioned seductively small books did indeed make me smile.

Recommended Reading:

Online dating and book reviews

CoverWe all have at least one story in us. But very few of us will ever write a book. Even a blog may be a stretch too far. Which leaves us with the option of the book review.

The nay-sayers will be quick to question the value of book reviews, but let it be known: on any catalogue, a book displayed with a picture of its cover, a brief description of its contents and followed by a couple of short book reviews is far more likely to be read.

I’m not going to tell you how to do this – you’ve probably all read a gazillion reviews anyway, but here’s a few hints on maybe what not to do:

  • Saying: “I loved/hated this book/film” with a big fat full stop at the end of the sentence just isn’t enough. Not unless you’re Stephen Fry, and even then.
  • If you’re still talking after 3 minutes, you have gone on for too long. About 50 written words should do it. Just piqué our interest. That is all.
  • Don’t mislead – for example, if you didn’t actually read the whole book, say so and say why. That in itself is valuable for a reader to know.

If you’ve got a real block about reviewing anything, try reviewing yourself. There may come a time in your life when you want to meet more people. You want to date, or pursue a relationship and so far no-one’s come knocking on your door. It’s online dating time for you. In other words: You will have to book review yourself. Follow the same rules for writing book reviews (as above). But to get fully into the zone with it, I recommend reading the personal ads in the The Times Literary Supplement.

CoverI once shared a subscription to this behemoth of literary reviews with a friend. We tried, we really did. But the bulk of the reviews were on books we sheepishly admitted we would never read. But we both loved the Personal Ads column designed especially to cater for: “middle-class, well educated, intellectuals”. That’s us. You get just 30 words to convince someone to take a punt on you. They are succinct wee gems of the self. Have a look at these two compilations to get you started: They Call me Naughty Lola and Sexually I’m More of  a Switzerland. Here’s a couple of examples:

I celebrated my fortieth birthday by cataloguing my collection of bird feeders. Next year I am hoping for sexual intercourse. And a cake. Join my mailing list at box no. 6831. Man.

Or the brutally brief

I am not an Accountant. Box no. 7452

 

CoverThen just do it. I bash out my short book reviews fairly quickly, on desk, at work. After they’re done, mind not to stand between me and the Catalogue Computer. I like to elbow my way across the library to see the cover of the book I have just reviewed on that Recently Reviewed moving banner thingy. My pleasures are simple.

Writing reviews of books, or films or ourselves comes down to one’s own opinion. So let those babies out into an unsuspecting world. May they thrive.

Because best of all, here at last is something you cannot possibly do wrong.

Mild, spicy, or burn it all down?: Secrets in novels

Early on in our relationship, my husband and I vowed to start as we meant to continue – honestly and openly. Certainly, on our very first date I made it clear that I had no interest in electricity (he’s an electronics engineer) and that I preferred to eat breakfast on my own (unless transported to some amazing 5 star location, but I digress). It took him several more dates to fess up that he was a Ham Radio enthusiast. I think he knew it would add little to his allure. To be honest, it would have been a challenging hobby to keep secret.

So the revelation of riveting secrets is unlikely to play a big part in any fictionalised account of my life. But that is not true of most novels which hide at least one secret, and sometimes many more. But like any good curry – not all secrets are the same. There are secrets and then there are SECRETS.  So much so that I have devised a Spicy Secrets rating scale based on my three most recent reads:

The Korma: In the korma the level of secret combustion is low. The fallout is almost non-existent and the blandness quotient is about the most dangerous ingredient. Korma secrets usually originated in the past and don’t really influence the present. In the case of The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Arthur’s wife kept her fascinating life prior to meeting Arthur quite separate from her very happy marriage to him. Just one charm bracelet (discovered after her death) causes a flicker of unease. But no real harm ensues, and it is a sweet, if slightly formulaic, tale.

Things We Nearly KnewThe Balti: the balti secret is going to make someone uncomfortable, possibly very uncomfortable. Balti secret keepers like to live close to, but not right on, the precipice. Things We Nearly Knew is an excellent example of the mid-range secrecy novel. I love novels set in middle America with its low horizons, blue sky, trailer parks and run down motels. This novel has all that, and so much more: secretive Arlene, her search for a mystery man, and the resulting unravelling of more than one middle-aged lothario – all this achieved through the author’s use of pitch perfect dialogue.

The Pilot's Wife
Anita Shreve (1946-2018)

The Vindaloo: The vindaloo secret is going to take a lot of people down. It hits hard, below the belt, causes maximum discomfort and long-lasting after-effects. Recently deceased Anita Shreve (1946-2018) hit the vindaloo jackpot with her 1998 novel The Pilot’s Wife which brought in to sharp focus the bloodbath potential of a deep secret kept from a wife. In 1998, book group after book group reeled under the notion of a husband with another life complete with all the necessary accessories (think another home, another wife and other children) and how we were sure we would have known.

In writing (as in life) there is a constant push-pull between privacy and secrecy; between cruelty and protectiveness; between honesty and lying. You plot your own course, and hope you never become famous enough to attract the deadly curiosity of a nosy novelist.

I believe I will be safe. How about you?

Can men really write about women?

I’ve just read five books in a row written by male authors. I’ll freely admit that this doesn’t qualify as a statistically significant sample. And yet I feel compelled to wade right in and share with you my thoughts on the abilities of men to really really understand their female characters. We’re not talking Nicholas Sparks here, so Buckle Up. It could be a bumpy ride.

The Dreams of Bethany MellmothIn my fantasy “authors I have a bit of a crush on” life, for some reason I have William Boyd pegged as a Big Game Hunter type of a man – leaning nonchalantly against a muddy Landrover, smoking a Camel. As a result I’m always taken by surprise to rediscover that he writes really well about women. In The Dreams of Bethany Melmoth  the portrayal of Bethany herself is very finely wrought. However, not to move the goalposts, I think that Boyd is trying to appeal to a female readership here, I just can’t picture male readers taking to this book at all.

Colin Cotterill gets round the problem of writing about women by simply excluding them, if not altogether, in the main. In The Rat Catcher’s Olympics there are really only two female characters and they are like male characters only with female names and husbands. This doesn’t deter me from Cotterill as an author, as his male characters have quite well-developed feminine sides anyway. Colin (I feel we are on first name terms) is the only author I have ever tried to meet: in Chiang Mai at The Blue Diamond Cafe which I had heard he frequented. The Rat Catchers Olympics is a hard novel to recommend to others. Dr Siri is an acquired taste and you need to have a high tolerance level for all things Laotian and in this book, Russian.

The Flight AttendantChris Bohjalian in The Flight Attendant, takes the cliché of a promiscuous air hostess and weaves an unsettling murder mystery out of it. Like a lot of male authors he’s really better at vampish/bad girl females – chances are you’ll not easily recognise yourself in Cassie.

Deon Meyer in the brilliantly dystopian Fever gets round the whole issue by paring the female presence in his books right down to the bare minimum – the very beautiful and the very sporty. Post an apocalyptic disaster, guess what?  It will still be a man’s world!

Cover of Adventures in modern marriage

Only William Nicholson in Adventures in Modern Marriage comes even close to trying to get under the skin of females you might meet in your everyday life. One woman at a time he does this really well, but he too has a problem with interactions between women – which , let’s give credit here, he does at least attempt to portray.

This seems to me to be a major problem area for many male authors. They struggle to write about women in groups, they have no ear for dialogue between women.

There, I have said it. What do you think?

 

Have you found yourself yet?

I Am, I Am, I AmHave you found yourself yet? And if so, how?

Maggie O’Farrell, author of seven very successful novels, has worked out who she is using her seventeen (that is correct) brushes with death, and has put it all together for us in her memoir: I Am, I Am, I Am.  And it is very good.

O’Farrell has had a truly amazing life. Seventeen times she very nearly died (think attacks on lone walks, aeroplane near misses, medical blunders and and and and), but seventeen times she came back to live another day. These experiences have taught her a lot about herself, and she has assembled each episode into this uniquely structured memoir. After reading this book, it is almost impossible not to compare, to think back on one’s own life to times of danger or to those fleeting moments when guiding forces seem to have  intervened and prevented something truly awful from happening. I have not had a life like O’Farrell’s. And I come from Africa.

The ImmortalistsBut what if you did know the exact day when you were destined to die? Is this something you would want to know? And how might it affect your life?  The Immortalists explores this option after four young siblings consult a travelling fortune teller who predicts the exact death date of each of them. Half way through this novel I wouldn’t have minded if all four Gold siblings had died at the same time, like immediately, but it is worth it to hang in there as it’s a book that gets better in the second half.

Could it be instead that some of us live lives that have been shaped by the small, by a huge number of minor chords, by repetitive everyday attrition, by little tests that slowly reveal who we are?  Personally, I love to be told about myself by answering a gazillion questions (think the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs). I also suspect my birth date has subliminally influenced me. And this has been all well and good, until the library poster for the Lunar Year of the Dog arrived at work. To my dismay I see I am an Ox: steady, loyal, determined, blah blah blah. Just say “plodding” and be done with it why don’t you? I love my western Astrology sign of Sagittarius, but I am not a happy Ox.

Then I happened to glance at the top of this draft page and saw that this is my 200th library blog post.

I am indeed doggedly bullish. But I like to think of myself as an Ox armed with a Sagittarian bow and arrow with which to optimistically shoot my ideas all over the place. Maybe this is how I have found myself. Maybe it is with this kind of action I prove to myself: I Am, I Am, I Am!

Where have all the middle-aged gone?

There have been no middle-aged folk in any of my recent reads. It is as if they have been spirited away to a far-flung galaxy at the end of the reading universe where they beaver away at earning the cash to put food on the table, or spend their weekends repairing the gutters and ferrying kids to sports matches. But no on seems to be writing about them any more.

The Story of Arthur TruluvInstead there has been a veritable deluge of books where the very old become all matey with the very young. Books in which the middle-aged, (for a variety of reasons) barely feature. Books like:

The Story of Arthur Truluv: Maddy pals up with Arthur after they meet in a cemetery. Maddy’s father, although still alive, is a remote, unhappy figure who is next to no help to her at all.

A Man Called Ove: OK, let’s be honest here, initially Ove hates everyone, but by the end of this sensationally successful novel, his redemption comes from his relationship with his new, young neighbours and their children. All the middle-aged people are idiots of one stripe or another.

The Lost For Words BookshopThe Lost For Words Bookshop: Loveday’s world changed in one unspeakable night of horror. She is left with no family. Elderly Archie takes her in as an assistant in his quirky Lost For Words Bookstore. There are hardly any middle-aged people in this book at all.

Our Souls at Night: Addie and Louis, two lonely small-town-America pensioners, form an unusual relationship that is complicated by the arrival of Addie’s 6 year old grandson. Gene, the father of the child, has issues that relate to the death of his sister. He just can’t get his act together. So Addie and Louis need to pick up the slack.

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises: Elsa’s Granny is eccentric (to put it mildly), but Elsa loves her. Even after her granny dies, Elsa’s relationship with her granny remains more important than her relationships with any of the other adults in her life.

Raising our children's childrenAnd real life reflects this trend as well. Two Stuff articles this year have revealed the extent to which grandparents are having to raise their grandchildren. In one remarkable case a granddad  is raising two sets of twins for his step-daughter who has drug addiction problems.

Where is the help should this happen to you? In New Zealand the organisation Grandparents Raising Grandchildren is your starting point. Where is the research on this social phenomenon? Raising our Children’s Children is a good place to start with its many stories about how other families have coped.

But, in at least half of the novels I have read on this topic, the young people are completely unrelated to their older mentors. So this could happen to any of us. Don’t get too hooked on that luxury cruise to Vancouver is all I can say.

If you’re interested in more stories about the older generation, try our If you like … Older adults behaving badly and other quirky characters list

The many confusions of a new year

At the start of every new year I feel a certain sense of confusion. How will this year be for me? How will I be for this year? I feel very receptive to signs and portents at this time. Here’s what I’ve garnered so far:

Breakfast is a Dangerous MealWhat will I eat? Not breakfast as it turns out! The very latest foodsy trend knocks on the head the old notion that brekkie is the most important meal of the day, and does so with one of the cleverest cover designs so far this year! Terence Kealey’s Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal is a very well researched diatribe against early morning eating for diabetics, the overweight and those with blood pressure problems. How does he cope? “On waking I resort to a strong cup of black coffee; then I go for a run, a swim or a cycle ride. It helps that I have a job that I love.” Oh and Kay.

Goodbye ThingsWhat will I do? More tidying I’m afraid. Goodbye Things by Fumio Sasaki (who is quick to point out that he is no Marie Kondo) is just a regular messy guy who changed his life by getting rid of absolutely everything he did not need. The effects were remarkable: “Sasaki gained true freedom, new focus, and a real sense of gratitude for everything around him.” Sounds good – and there is no folding of clothing required.  If you can’t handle that, try Bohemian Residence instead which bills itself as being witty with: “lavish possibilities for contemporary city living”. There’s something about that word “lavish” that fairly screams “Bring Me My Eggs Benedict Now!”

I actually Wore ThisWhat shall I wear? Years ago I loved Trinnie and Susannah because they helped us work out what to wear by ruthlessly telling us what not to wear (everything we had in our wardrobes, as it turned out). I Actually Wore This (Clothes We Can’t Believe We Bought) is a happy reminder of that time in my life. Arty types and fashionistas reveal those items they bought and then never wore (or hardly ever). It is comforting to realise that we have all done this – bought an item for a New Year’s do, worn it once, then only dragged it out again as a kind of fancy dress item for Halloween. This book is visually pleasing and very wittily written. I now know that I must NEVER AGAIN be tempted by ethnic clothing while on vacation to exotic shores.

So there you have it: the all new, possibly snappy (no brekkie) 2018 Roberta. Neat and tidy, but whatever is that she is wearing?

Happy New Year!

Serial killers

Face facts, life has bad patches. I’m in one right now: post Italy holiday blues; Skype meltdowns in the middle of calls to the grandies; and Pneumonia.

GormenghastTime was I would have bounced back from all of this, but now it feels more like I am seeping. Seep-back requires that you do nothing. This is so much harder to do than one might have thought.

What I really needed was a good book. And the best books for holidays and dark times are serials. The first serial I ever read was way back in my twenties – The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake – a cultish read at that time. I loved these books and I remember, in particular, that my understanding of the importance of setting and naming in a novel stems largely from these reads. Ah Steerpike, Titus Groan and Fuschia!

DissolutionForty years passed before I read another serial: The Dissolution series by C.J. Sansom. Far surpassing anything else written about the time of King Henry VIII, these books get down and dirty with England at the time of Henry’s reign and they do this through a hunchback lawyer – Shardlake – as the main protagonist. If you’ve read Hilary Mantel and have tired of Philippa Gregory, do yourself a favour and try Sansom’s clever murder mysteries set in Cromwell’s time.

My Brilliant FriendAnd that was it for me and serials. Until we went on holiday to Italy, and right at the last minute I remembered that I’d been given the first book of The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend. I popped it into my hand luggage, and what a wise move that turned out to be.

Written in Italian and translated into many other languages, I have become a Ferrante groupie. I now know that this is the pseudonym of an author who wanted her real identity kept secret (but who has just been outed by a nosy journalist). I’m also now aware that there are actual Ferrante tours of Naples  which visit all the main locations mentioned in the books. And I’ve learnt that a TV series on the Neopolitan Novels is currently being filmed in Italy.

But mainly I fell onto the couch, and into another world of family and friendships and fall-outs. A world that does not stop after one book. A world peopled by characters so real you want to slap them, or as said by reviewer John Freeman writing for The Australian:

Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.

I’m saving the fourth and last book for my Christmas read, my not-so-Secret-Santa gift to myself!

Any suggestions for other very readable series?

“What will you be reading in Italy?”

By the time you read this blog, I hope to be on the receiving end of the gracious services of airline personnel as we wing our way to Italy on a long-awaited trip.

This trip has been four years in the making, starting with my husband learning Italian (thanks Mango Languages!), followed by library colleagues making all sorts of wonderful suggestions on what to do and where to stay (whilst others provided terrifying horror stories of things that could go wrong), and one dear colleague who helped my husband get conversation practice by meeting us for coffees and setting him up with an Italian pal for chats. Thanks one and all.

But now for the really important question on everybody’s lips: “What will you be reading in Italy?”

The Music ShopA friend’s suggestion: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. “For your trip” she said sliding it across the café table. From the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I thought I’d get home and just read the first couple of pages. Within two days I had read the whole book. It is every bit as good as Harold Fry, with the same complex characterisation, the same zingy dialogue, the same fullness of heart. But with a more complex resolution of plot. All that this book is missing is a soundtrack list. I loved it, but now it can’t come to Italy with me.

A Florence DiaryA book from my must read list: Dianne Athill is a favourite author of mine – she is one of that breed of really old women (she is now aged 99) who still writes. If you’ve not done so yet, read her book Alive, Alive Oh! which asks the question, should you live to be 100 years old, what will you remember? One of the things Diana hopes to remember is sex! I’ve had her A Florence Diary on one of my must-read lists, and it’s time has almost come. It is a small book on her trip to Florence with her cousin when she was a young woman. I shall read it in that city. Into my case it goes.

The LoversA serendipitous find: How could I resist The Lovers’ Guide to Rome by Mark Lamprell. This one crossed my path in the course of a day’s work and it felt as if it were meant to be. What I love about the first few pages is that they include quite an arty little map of Rome. My husband and I both love maps, they form part of the early folklore of our relationship. It turns out that  “the Eternal City has secrets only lovers can glimpse.” This one is coming with, and as an eBook on my iPad!

JohannesburgA book which has nothing to do with Italy at all: A possible antidote to all this Latin charm is the in-your-face 2017 novel entitled Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose. Here were my first thoughts: Nobody writes novels about Johannesburg. No-one even calls the city by its full name any more. The library won’t have this book, and even if they did no one in New Zealand would read it. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Set in Joburg in the twenty-four hours after Mandela’s death, the first few pages convinced me that this is a brilliant book.

And if I do read this book in Italy, I think we can safely say I will be the only person in the whole of that country reading an English novel set in South Africa and with the title Johannesburg. And there is something about that which I find perversely appealing!

Goldilocks and the three book club books

The very best thing about belonging to a book group is the variety of new reads to which one is exposed. And if, like moi, you belong to not one but five book groups (two in Christchurch, one online, and with connections to two in South Africa as well), there will come a month when you encounter the bookish version of the Goldilocks Syndrome:

The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book ClubAs in This book was too soft: The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club. Books about book groups run the risk of being quite formulaic. Take a group of women, vary their life stories, get them to meet up about once a month and toss some favourite reads into the mix. This has been done before. So what does Sophie Green do to lift her book club book out of the ordinary? She sets it in the 1970s in the Northern Territory of Australia. All that this really means is that the reads are dated and the women have vast distances to travel to get to Fairvale for a  natter and a plate of buttery scones. Look, it’s sweet and it will have a bit of a following. But it was too soft for me.

The Ministry of Utmost HappinessThis book was too hard: It’s Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It’s been a long wait for a novel from Roy whose The God of Small Things was published in 1997 and is one of my favourite books of all time. Of course this latest offering is beautifully written. Of course I can hear, see and smell India. Of course there are fascinating characters. But it is so sad, so cruel, so political, so jumbled, so devoid of storyline. I put it down intending to return and never did. I am aware that this says more about me than it does about the book, but I was a receptive reader and I got lost. Moving on.

The Keeper of Lost ThingsThis book was just right: The Keeper of Lost Things is a first novel by Ruth Hogan. Anthony Peardew has spent half his life lovingly collecting lost objects. These lost objects and their possible return to their owners give this novel the structure that holds it together. And what beautifully descriptive writing it is too, with phrases like: “an unfolded paper-clip woman”; “an old-woman-shaped vessel of vitriol” and “the tinnitus of technology”. You will have worked out that the people are more lost than the things, but this is a hopeful book, one in which we are reminded how important it is just to be kind to one another.

The best thing about any book group is that you don’t have to love every book you read, but you do develop a vocabulary for talking about even those books that have not worked for you. I know in my bones that there will be readers who will react completely different to my Goldilocks choices. And to be honest, that’s what book groups are really all about. Over to you!