Our Little Northern Heroine

MAtildaAlthough, as I think I’ve mentioned recently, I haven’t set myself any hardcore reading resolutions or goals for 2015, there are certain little ‘mini-rules’ I have in mind to make the this year’s reading, well, a lot more enjoyable. These ideas generally encompass:

a) not reading books from my own personal library because I feel like I have to (e.g. ‘must-read’ classics) and reading purely on whim and inkling alone. I find this is almost always a sure-fire way of a decent read.

b) being very careful about what books I accept for review. Unless the blurb/hype, etc absolutely blows me away my sanity simply cannot take any more substandard books that are, worst of all, being rushed through towards a deadline.

c) taking a pause between each book and the next if possible. Most avid readers will have the same problem, i.e; that it is far too tempting to rush onto the next literary world immediately after finishing the last. In the past doing this has meant I simply haven’t appreciated the books I have read, particularly the fantastic ones, in the way that I should and that has to change.

d) although I won’t be joining in any readalongs unless I feel completely compelled to (however I will be reading Kakuzō Okakura’s The Book of Tea just in time for the next edition of the Happy Reader!) I have set a cheeky reading goal for myself on Goodreads this year just to see how I get along. This obviously won’t be prescriptive but I read a woefully small number of books last year (not helped by my two month stint on David Copperfield)  and it would be nice to get a few more in there.

With that in mind, my other half decided to support me by sending me a link to this article from the Manchester Evening News the other week, with a cheeky note saying that I needed to get a wriggle on…

Ten year old Faith Jackson read 942 books last year. According to her parents that’s 464 pages on average every single day.  2.5 books a day, between 77 and 80 books per month. Readers, hang your heads in shame.

The most wonderful part of this tale is that a few years ago the ten-year old was identified as having dyslexic tendencies. With relaxed, supportive parents taking the right approach however Faith has gone from being read to, to being the reader du jour.

This year Faith would like to read over 1000 books in total. My humble aim is just 60. No pressure. What will be your magic number for 2015?

A Tale for the Time Being

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Along Japan’s rugged coastline stone markers carry ominous warnings: Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point’  –  As most of us will remember, in March 2011, an earthquake reaching 9.0 on the Richter scale wracked the island, causing a huge tsunami that swept away entire towns and villages , killing thousands of poor people, these ancient warnings largely left unheeded.

Ruth, one of two intriguing narrators in Ruth Ozeki’s Booker-prize shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being reminds us of the facts and figures surrounding the catastrophe, bringing the human element back into sharp focus. Walking on the beach one day she stumbles across some ominous debris; a barnacle covered bag concealing a Hello Kitty lunch box, filled with a diary, letters and memories of a Japanese teenager.

Enter Nao. As well as having to deal with the ordinary troubles of a teenage schoolgirl, Nao’s daily strife has escalated to an unimaginable level. After losing his job in America and moving his family back home, her father is suicidal, her mother despondent and her classmates torturous. Her salvation lies in her 104 year old great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun and the legacy of her great-uncle Haruki; philosopher and kamikaze pilot. Sheltering within her rickety wooden house on a remote Canadian island, Ruth unravels Nao’s mystery in her own real-time, the mystery of her fate looming ever larger as she reads on.


 

17733621I’ve heard many a bookish internetter proclaim that this poignant novel should have been the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize over Eleanor Catton’s doorstop slice of historical fiction The Lumineries. Having not yet read the latter I don’t particularly feel qualified to judge, yet I always find the entire Man Booker process rather dull.  Although it is doubtlessly an absolute coup for a writer to win such a prestigious award, as an avid reader I always feel a little shaky on the criteria used by the ever-changing panel of judges and, frankly, fatigued by the hoo hah that surrounds it (e.g. Goldfinch-gate). Personally I’d much rather side step the entire thing and come to the novels (if I ever come to them at all) with a fresh set of eyes.

With fresh eyes attached, I delved into this wonderful book with enthusiasm. With most dual-narrative novels I often find myself entirely attached to one thread and completely nonplussed by the other. Not so with Ozeki. Although Ruth’s daily grind of power cuts and Google searches could so easily become tiresome, I found refuge in her small world, just as she does with Nao’s diary, falling rather in love with her (much more charismatic) other half Oliver and their adorable cat ‘Pest’. With her (rather stereotypical) profession as a writer and her isolated position helping make sense of her obsession with the teenager, her limited experiences help to focus the book on the ‘real’ drama across the water.

Nao’s convincingly immature narrative on the other hand can become quite brutal at times. With the bullying at school becoming so severe it extends even to the teachers, Ruth’s anxiety over her reflects our own as we read on in horror. The Tokyo landscape is dark, bleak and grey lending her world an oppression and sense of impending doom that we simply cannot shake.

In contrast, the peaceful beauty of Jiko’s temple, to which Nao retires to recuperate, is the perfect antidote and complete literary indulgence to a Japanophile such as myself. Hot baths, tea, cats and Buddhist mantras sounds like my idea of heaven and it is in this calm environment that the teenager begins to realise the significance of her family’s past. Although the added historical element and narrative of a WWII kamikaze pilot may simply sound like a plot too far, Ozeki’s deft skill as a writer grounds this element of the story, enriching the lives of those who encounter it and making the unknown fates of the women we have grown to know so well all the more meaningful.

Perhaps not a prize winner but beautiful all the same.

My copy of A Tale for the Time Being was purchased from Waterstones Deansgate  and was read for the Manchester Book Club (who are having a good run of books at the moment!) 

Stoner

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Every so often the book group will strike upon an absolute gem, the book of the year you simply knew was going to be great and that duly delivered on all fronts. Stoner by John Williams; the understated life story of a Missouri professor, was largely overlooked from its publication in 1965 until it was reissued by Vintage Books in 2012, it’s brilliance immediately pushed into the limelight.

Stoner is not, as I first reasonably thought from the title, a hazy tale of vice and drug addiction, but the life story of a fairly ordinary man; William Stoner; following him through his teenage years on the farm in Missouri right through college and eventually inexplicably into a life of academia. Stoner’s parents are simple, loving people, keen to better both their son’s and their own prospects in the future by sending him to the new agricultural college at the University of Columbia. One day, in the English Literature module he must take as part of his course, this young, unassuming young man has an epiphany:

Mr Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr Stoner; do you hear him?

William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath…Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness…                             

From that moment on Stoner’s life ceases to be one of simplicity as the beauty of art and thought reveals itself to him until all he wishes is to devote his life to study and the transmission of his passion to other people. Declaring his intention to his resigned parents, he embarks on a career in academia and a dutiful yet strained marriage to a disturbed young local woman who stifles their life together with paranoia and pettiness.


I fully expected, given all the reviews and raving from bookish people I know with impeccable taste, to love this book. I thank my lucky stars I did as there is nothing worse than dashed expectations. The subtlety and beauty of prose from an author I’d never even heard of struck me to my core, turning an often deeply mundane, ordinary life into a series of incredibly poignant, memorable moments:

Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness.

The despair and fatalism present in these out-of-body experiences accurately express Stoner’s attitude to the destructive elements in his life; a wife with mental health problems, a colleague destroying his career, a war raging on the other side of the Atlantic…all are met with the same resolute attitude, to the point where the r15790264eader is simply desperate to reach on in there and shake in some self-preservation.

Is this all a little too realistic?! I hear you cry. Perhaps so. But it is executed with an aplomb reminiscent of the very best in American literature. Stoner is a meek, forgettable anti-hero of sorts; a man lay hidden for far too long. Frustrations aside it is this very stoic, ever so slightly tragic passivity that makes this book so special.

Feel a little invisible and ordinary at times? That’s because, somewhere, deep down, a Stoner lurks with us all.

My copy of Stoner was published in 2012 by that most eye-pleasing of publishers Vintage Books. I read it for the  November edition of the Manchester Book Club

Happy 2015!

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A very Happy New Year to you all! I sincerely hope you had a wonderful break and have some exciting reading and bookish resolutions ready and waiting for a fresh start. I’m personally feeling pretty positive towards the new year and am determined for it to be, much like the fabulous parts of 2014, full of relaxation, peppered with a few exciting trips away and, most importantly of all, some game-changing literature. I learnt my lesson a long time ago with new year’s resolutions and, generally speaking, don’t really believe in them. I often feel too pressurised and consequently don’t end up seeing them through, particularly when it comes to bookish plans.

That considered, instead I’m going to share a few thoughtful bookish little gifts Santa left under my tree at Christmas. Something I’m sure will help focus my mind on some vague new reads and ideas for 2015.

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My other half miraculously (not that he’s been scouring this blog for gift ideas or anything *ahem*) acquired a couple of books I’ve been dying to delve into for some time now. Ever since the adventures we’ve taken to India over the past few years I’ve been completely fascinated by the eccentric lone female explorers of the late 18th and early 19th century and became naturally drawn to the stories of Alexandra David-Néel; the French explorer and pioneer who travelled solo around Europe, India and, most famously, into the Forbidden City of Lhasa in Tibet with her Buddhist monk guide Lama Yongden. An inspirational woman living in a time when most of us remained in place behind the stove or safely ensconced in the parlour.

Along a similar vintage theme The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate is, as I found out after adding it to my wish list, the book that inspired Julian Fellowes when dreaming up smash ITV hit Downton Abbey. I do love a bit of upstairs/downstairs so this should be great fun when I feel in desperate need of a bit of keen historical fiction.

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Like I (sometimes hopefully) do for them, the wonderful Mummy and Daddy Relish, the ultimate source of my bookishness, always unearth treats I never even realised I needed wanted. I had a bit of an attraction to all things magical in 2014 after reading Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the end of the Lane and have a flurry of books I would like to carry on this sparkly feeling with into the new year. After reading Pullman’s Grimm Tales I was so thrilled to get a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s complete works. Not only do they have a completely different vibe to the Brothers Grimm (maybe not quite as …well, ‘grim’?!) there are also plenty I’ve never heard of. In addition I bagged a Kerouac I have never even heard of it (it never ceases to amaze me how they find things I don’t even own despite my terrible book binge habits) having only ever read Satori in ParisA fact my other half loves to tease me for.

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As well as some gift cards which will help me do some much-needed cost-cutting on the book buying front, I also got some bits for sheer giggles; mainly cat orientated as you can see above! Our two are rather nervous since they realise I’m going to pitting them against one another with the IQ test very soon and, of course, giving them the lowdown on the spoof tabbies of Downton. Ha!

Although I always think that people lose sight of reality around Christmas time and go absolutely bonkers on the shopping front, it’s always such a pleasure to receive thoughtful things and, best of all, to watch your loved ones open the books you bought them (and that you can hopefully borrow afterwards!)

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I read yesterday that books and Christmas in Iceland have a very special relationship, with the long-standing tradition that every person should receive at least one book to take to bed with them on Christmas Eve. Aptly named the ‘Christmas Book Flood’, bookshop sales go bonkers from September right through to the festive season and Icelanders turn into regular book commentators and reviewers in their own right. Perhaps we could learn a few things! Hákarl anyone?

What bookish treats were under your tree this Christmas?

The Book-a-day Challenge! – 25. Under the tree

Johansen_Viggo_-_Radosne_Boże_NarodzenieMerry Christmas everyone! I hope you’re having a fabulous time today with your respective families/friends/pets and have some exciting reading on the cards whilst you’re eating your turkey butties tonight! I have no idea what bookish surprises Santa has brought along yet but I will certainly share anything booky I do get with you very soon…

The Book-a-day Challenge! – 24. For Father Christmas

10402932_10154850422220371_6107946694406976450_n (1)The usual fare for Father Christmas is a lovely hot mince-pie and a nice glass of milk (or something a little stronger!) and I suppose now I have a proper chimney I at least ought to leave a little something out for him or else it’s coal for the Relish household tomorrow morning! Instead, I’m going to leave a special little book out for him that I think he might enjoy…

24. For Father Christmas

157993Although I could easily have picked a Christmassy affair, I suspect that the big guy must get a little tired with the Christmas theme all year around. Instead, I have picked the most magical, spiritual little novella I could possibly think of. A book I think everyone should have on their shelves. The Little Prince’s adventure around the universe, the people he meets and idiosyncrasies he encounters is the most beautiful, important book you will read in 2015, I promise Santa.

Book chat aside, I hope all of you have a wonderful, restful, fun day tomorrow. Eat lots and drink even more. Happy holidays!

The Book-a-day Challenge! – 23. The best present

10402932_10154850422220371_6107946694406976450_n (1)As I said a few days ago, I really struggle to think outside of the bookish box when it comes to Christmas gifts. There are a couple of wonderful websites out there however that expand on the theme, like the intellectual hilarity over at the Unemployed Philosophers Guild or the wonderful Willoughby Book club. For the purposes of this post however I am going to be entirely selfish, just because I feel like it, and talk about the book I would like for Christmas please Santa.

23. The best present

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I LOVE Michel Faber. I’d even go as far as to say I think he is one of the greatest contemporary literary fiction writers out there. Anything I have ever read by him is gold dust and I am hoping and praying that this phantasmagorical new offering is no different. The thought of a book and marriage that spans universes excites me greatly and I have no doubt will show just how easily Faber can turn his hand to yet another genre entirely disparate from his previous chunk of historical fiction; The Crimson Petal and the White. A vicar from London introducing the Bible to a bunch of aliens? How intriguing.

Only trouble is I’ll have to wait until the paperback comes out….not a huge fan of chunky hardbacks, however shiny and gold they are…

The Book-a-day Challenge! – 22. Favourite festive scene

10402932_10154850422220371_6107946694406976450_n (1)Ah. I think I might just be feeling Christmassy enough to consider today’s flabbergasting task. Favourite festive scene?! I’m not entirely sure the breadth of my reading can stand up to this…

22. Favourite festive scene

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Little Women was the first ‘grown up’ book I ever took out of the library. I remember feeling completely enthralled by Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy’s journey into adulthood in a small New England town. Although a reread is an absolute must as my memories nowadays largely centre around the heartwarming 90s film adaptation, it is the frosty ice skating mishaps and Christmas scenes around the piano that chiefly remain within my mind.

‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.’   (Jo)

The Book-a-day Challenge! – 21. To be read

10402932_10154850422220371_6107946694406976450_n (1)Today sees the ultimate challenge, no doubt designed to spur my brain on and keep me awake to see Christmas out. Out of all the books I want….no….need to read right now this minute, which one tops the charts? Gulp.

21. To be read

1202712A serious toss up between this; Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Murakami’s classic; Norwegian Wood. Now, I love Murakami and his twisted blend of Japanese magical realism but I haven’t read anything of his for quite a while and his second to last offering; 1Q84, was a bit of a damp squib for me (I didn’t even make it beyond book one). The book group read The Goldfinch a few months ago that left me, and almost everyone else, completely spellbound. Her first novel is supposed to be even better. I’ll believe it when I read it.

The Book-a-day Challenge! – 20. Set where I live

10402932_10154850422220371_6107946694406976450_n (1)It is raining for the millionth consecutive day today which funnily enough is making reading, talking and writing books all the easier. Today’s theme could be, I suppose, as hard or as easy as you want it to be. Do I plump for the UK in general? – With a nighmarishly huge selection of books to choose from and a place in which most of my readers live? Nah. Instead I choose the place where I work, and vaguely live nearby. The fair city of Manchester.

20. Set where I live

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When I took the book group on the Manchester literary coach tour last year, our impossibly huge coach was driven down the winding backstreets of the most obscure housing estates of North Manchester only to arrive at a random cul-de-sac and be told that ‘this’ jumble of 1960s concrete was the setting for Magnolia Street;  Louis Golding’s classic tale of neighbourly strife between the ‘Gentiles’ and ‘Jewish’ in Hightown before and after the Great War. Sounds ace.