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Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Lying around with my leg in a cast for six weeks meant that I finally got around to doing some reading. It was quite nice not to feel guilty for reading during the day. So I thought I’d do a brief summation of the books that helped me through my convalescence.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I really loved this book set in WWII, though it can be very harrowing. I thought it was a well-deserved 2014 Man Booker prize winner, it takes me to dark places, even in some of my favourite places in the world. I remember hearing an interview with the author who talked about someone in his town who had been a refugee from a war torn country, was separated from his wife and tried in vain to find her, concluding in the end that she had died. He established a new life with a new family in Australia. Then one day many years later, on a business trip to Sydney, he was walking down the street and saw his first wife, walking along with a family. And the question was, would he stop or not? This was part of the inspiration for his book, but there was much much more to the story.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Another WWII book, set in Germany and France, telling the story of two children growing up in the 1930s, and as young adults in the 1940s. Perhaps an easier read than Richard Flanagan’s book, but an interesting story, with interesting perspectives of the war that I haven’t necessarily read about before.

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

A very easy read, light relief after the two WWII books, though perhaps this one was a little too glib, about a man with Asperger’s (though he’s never specifically diagnosed) and his life with his now wife, Rosie. A sequel to the Rosie Project, it didn’t really find anywhere new to go, so was a little disappointing, perhaps even slightly annoying.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I haven’t seen the movie starring Reese Witherspoon, but after reading this, I’d like to. I like the idea of doing a walk like this, but know the reality would be completely different. I could feel the pain of every blister on my own sensitive feet, and still don’t know how she managed to keep walking! I enjoyed the book much more than I expected, and walked away from it with a useful piece of information – my new walking shoes are probably a size too small.

Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga by Sarah-Kate Lynch

Sarah-Kate Lynch is a New Zealand writer with a good sense of humour, and I gobble up her books in a day or so. They are light, comic, and set in exotic locales – this one is set in Mumbai, India, a city I’ve been to briefly for work. Whilst they probably fall in the chick-lit (I hate that name) genre, there’s always something a bit poignant in her books. They’re not great literature, but every so often we need to read something that makes us happy. That’s the conclusion I made at the end of 2015, and I’m pleased I did!

Adoration by Doris Lessing

I usually avoid compilations of shorts stories like the plague, because I find them so unsatisfying. Just as I become committed to a storyline or a character the story ends. But stories here are slightly longer – perhaps more like novellas – and were intriguing, with interesting (if occasionally unbelievable) characters. The fact that two are set in Africa also appealed. Again, there is a war theme in at least one of the stories. Ultimately, though, not as satisfying as the few other Doris Lessing books I’ve read.

We are Now Beginning Our Descent by James Meek

I haven’t read James Meek’s most famous book, The People’s Act of Love, much to the horror of some readers I know. I started it, and got stuck. This book is less well known, but I enjoyed it, though I will admit the characters frequently frustrated me. Part set in Afghanistan and Iraq, part in the UK and part in the US, there was definitely enough here to keep me reading. There were moments in his writing that captured me – one comment about hope gave me an entirely new perspective on the concept. I appreciate any writer who can make me think like that. Maybe I’ll give The People’s Act of Love another chance.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, this is only the second Anne Tyler book I’ve read. They are books focusing very much on family and interpersonal relationships. They might at times be frustrating, with flawed characters, but they are certainly not boring, and this one – which covers several generations – has a few surprises that I just did not expect.

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In 2015, I read 30 books, meeting my achievable Goodreads Challenge target, having lowered my sights from previous years. Still, as 31 December approached, and as other activities encroached on valuable reading time, I was afraid I wouldn’t meet my target, and as I hate not meeting targets, I resorted to asking my husband for a quick, trashy book recommendation. I attacked it on the afternoon of the 31st, finishing it mid-day January 1st, disappointed that I hadn’t completed the challenge. But then the kindly software at Goodreads pointed out that a particular book I had recorded last year as “read,” hadn’t noted a specific “read-by” date, and so ensured that I had reached my 30 book target!

My husband scoffed at this low number, but when I think of the number of blog posts I read weekly, the number of articles I click on from Facebook or through Brainpickings or other sites I read, I’m sure that’s the equivalent of at least another 10 books (I say rashly, confident that no-one can factually dispute this estimate) I read mostly literary fiction (whatever that means), as the articles and essays I read on-line are all non-fiction, political or philosophical or psychological studies, or biographical pieces about people I admire, and people I don’t. I find that from time to time, my enthusiasm for reading needs a kickstart. This year, I’m going to continue to read the “worthy” books I mostly enjoy, but will try to intersperse them with a bit of fun too, because I’m starting to think that too much serious “worthiness” is what scares me away from reading as much as I would like.

 

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After a longer than usual and excellent workout, I’m enjoying a very smooth flat white, double shot, of course, and I’m still reeling at hearing the woman before me ask for a half- strength latte, though she qualified that as a semi-shot, which in Wellington is actually a quarter strength, but maybe I’m just being pedantic. It’s a cold spring day,  and in deference to the month, I’ve refused to wear a winter coat, though I do have a scarf keeping the back of my neck warm. It is sunny, though, and so in spots, out of the wind, it will, in fact, be quite warm, but there still isn’t anyone sitting in the outside seating today, despite it looking like summer out on the water, with some kayakers and a few yachts heading out for Friday afternoon on the harbour in a brisk breeze.

So I’m enjoying my coffee, and the chill music, and the bustle of the cafe, and my book, the recent winner of the Man Booker prize, which is very promising so far. My reading mojo has returned recently, even though Goodreads tells me I’ve only read 28 books so far this year. Maybe I’m reading more know due to the fact that I keep putting e-books on hold at the library, and they keep coming available all at the same time, so I have to adhere to those deadlines. Some of the 28 have been very good, but I haven’t rated any with five stars yet, as I’m quite stingy with my ratings at that level, though generous with two stars ( it was ok) and three stars (I liked it).  Still, I have high hopes for Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, and enjoyed Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen very much, and hope I can get my hands on the other shortlist nominees soon.

Even though the cafe is busy this morning, it is relatively peaceful, as I’m sitting on the quiet side, and so all the conversation from the other patrons is just a hum in the background,  and there are none of the piercing screams from children that I’ve endured previously. Come to think of it, the noise level has improved considerably since the management put up this sign. You’ve got to love their style …

Behave or the Kraken will get you

Behave or the Kraken will get you

* even though I’m posting this on Saturday.

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In my youth I was a voracious reader. The problem then was always a shortage of books. Now there’s a shortage of time – and yes, I know I’m self under-employed right now, but there’s still far too much to do and not enough time. And there’s the internet. So I don’t read nearly as much these days. But I still love it, even if I lose my reading mojo from time to time.

I’m not always choosy in my reading choices. Occasionally I just need something light that I can race through, even if at times I do cringe at exactly what I am reading. (I do have some standards though – there are some books/genres I don’t touch). A quick easy read often allows me to renew my enthusiasm for what I like to call Real Books. It is rare for me to find a book I can’t finish.

But there are some books that are harder to get through than others. I persevere with them, getting through them a few pages at a time. Others languish on my “currently reading” list on Goodreads for months. I like them, but not enough to devote a lot of time or energy to them. Some of these books get a second chance, and I find if I read them at a different time, with a different mindset, I can get something from them, and often finish them easily.

Abandoned books

Abandoned books

But inevitably there are books I just do not enjoy. I feel as if I need to persevere, that I’m missing something if I don’t finish them, that I’m admitting to a character flaw if I stop half-way through. It’s worse if they’re books I’ve bought – then I feel as if I’m wasting money if I don’t finish, and so they might get shifted to what turns out to be my perennially-reading list. As long as I think I might finish them, then I haven’t wasted* my money.

In recent years, I have conceded and begun abandoning books if I just can’t get through them. I’ve abandoned two Booker prize winners – Anne Enright’s The Gathering (all I remember of it is “whine, whine, whine”) and John Banville’s The Sea (unrelenting and ultimately uninteresting gloom and doom) – and two of the popular Kate Atkinson’s books. I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Dealing with a character’s conception, the first words were “I exist!” The ridiculousness of this (not to mention the biological inaccuracies of the timing of conception – I know too much for my own good) insulted me. I pushed past those first paragraphs, but I couldn’t continue. Equally I found her Life after Life book – much lauded, including by members of my own bookclub – so gimmicky and so pointless (less Sliding Doors than a very tedious A Thousand Ways to Die), that, despite going into it with an open mind and forcing myself through several chapters, I eventually threw it aside in disgust. I’m officially giving up on her as an author. I feel liberated by the decision.

I’ve decided I need to embrace the idea of abandoning books I dislike. Life is too short to read bad books, when there are so many wonderful stories and authors out there.  What about you? Do you feel the same guilt at not finishing a book? Or do you abandon with … well … abandon?

 

That’s my logic, and I’m sticking to it.

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A week or so ago, I was in the city, and decided to kill time by going to Unity Books, a wonderful independent bookstore that has, so far, managed to survive the arrival and departure of Borders, and more significantly, the shift to buying books and e-books online. I am one of those people who now reads most books on-line, and so it had been ages since I had browsed the shelves and tables piled high with new releases and best-sellers and obscure local publications.

Thirty minutes later, I walked out of Unity buzzing with enthusiasm.  It had been a sensory experience: the colours of the books, vibrant, artistic, attractive, wooing me to pick them up and read them, buy them, take them home; the feel of those books, their weight, the ease with which I could flip through them, read the blurbs or reviews or author information, and stop at various pages to sample the writing. I fell in love again with books, real books, the hard copies – until I looked at the prices.  They were three to four times more expensive than the e-books I buy on-line, and in my current pecuniary state, I can’t justify that expenditure. I left feeling guilty, knowing I probably wasn’t coming back to buy, yet knowing too that I want them so desperately to survive and prosper.

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When I first joined a book club – which must have been about 13-14 years ago – I was a voracious reader, and thrilled at the opportunity to try new books and authors that I might not normally have picked up. Another of our group was worse than me, but I gave her a run for her money. I’m a fiction reader, perhaps because I got enough of non-fiction at work, where I needed to keep up with international political and business writings in The Economist, and the Far Eastern Economic Review (which sadly exists no longer), to name just a few. The last thing I wanted to do in my leisure time was to read non-fiction. And I read a lot. Travelling was always a problem, because I had to ration the number of books I could take with me. (Thanks to e-readers, I never have to worry about that again.)

But something happened in the decade following. I started spending much more time on-line, first on a health support group messageboard, then as a volunteer for that organisation. In 2006, I discovered Nanowrimo, and then at the end of the year, began blogging in earnest. And I’ve been blogging ever since, here, there and everywhere! And of course, part of being a blogger is reading other bloggers’ blogs (and books, when they publish). That takes time. So does FB. It’s not all about what people ate for lunch. I find my US FB friends link to fascinating (or horrifying, sometimes) articles about politics or society, and then I get surfing and read more. And I read these on my iPad, where I also have apps for a number of newspapers and magazines. I realise that I am now, predominantly, a non-fiction reader.

Reading actual books has suffered as a result. Last year I set myself a challenge of reading 40 books. I managed 25. (I blame the attractions of Italy for not achieving this target). This year I’ve set myself a challenge of 45 books. I am already one book behind, and I feel I have cheated getting even this far with a number of small books. Eleanor Catton’s 800 page Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries, is slowing me down. I go days without reading it, even though every time I read it I want to read more. But I’ll find myself back reading a blog, or thinking about or writing a blog post, or reading an article from the Washington Post or The Guardian or Telegraph or Salon or Slate or … or … or …

I was going to title this post “Did blogging kill my reading mojo?” But I have realised that it is the internet that is the real culprit. Or maybe, more broadly, technology.  Whatever the reason, I miss reading fiction. And I am determined to get back to it.

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The power of the internet is often the power of the crowd.  Online review sites can be found for just about anything.  Tripadvisor has been around for a long time, and I am a big fan.  I first used it for a trip at the end of 2004.  Our first TripAdvisor hotel was in Budapest, nicely located just behind the Opera House and a convenient metro stop, with modern furnishings and facilities for a very reasonable price.  On that trip, we stayed in Tripadvisor hotels in Budapest, Prague and Berlin, all of them an unqualified success.  I have two favourite TripAdvisor hotels.  One in Cappadocia, a cave hotel in a tiny remote village that transported us into another time (yet we could use wi-fi on the terrace), and the other, a small Riad with only about six rooms in Marrakech.  I continue to use Tripadvisor, but also (on the recommendation of a blogging friend)  used Airbnb in Italy last year, both with success. To do my bit as part of the communities on these sites, I review extensively too.  My policy is to be as honest and as balanced as possible.  Over the years, I’ve learned some tricks about how to read the reviews, how to assess* the increasing number of fake reviews, whether they are experienced travellers, whether they can in fact be objective.   And so my experiences in Tripadvisor hotels continue to be positive.  So far so good.

But there’s one area where I realise – after a conversation the other day with my husband – I find online reviews frustrating.  We’re both avid readers, and now mainly read e-books.  I maintain a profile on Goodreads, and religiously record every book I read (well, every book I’m not ashamed of) and give it a rating.  I have a number of friends who have similar enough reading tastes who also use Goodreads that means my “to-read” list is always much longer than I have time or money for.  But I find reviews from strangers – and particularly star ratings – for books, in both Goodreads and on Amazon – much harder to assess.  What do the star ratings mean?  At least on Goodreads there is a popup label on each star rating (eg. two stars = it was ok, three stars = I liked it, four stars = I really liked it, etc).  But in Amazon, we have to guess.  Is two stars ok?  Or does two stars mean “It was pretty bad, but not the worst.”  Three stars in Goodreads is positive, but in Amazon it could simply mean “didn’t like it didn’t hate it.”  I’m confused.  So I rate sparingly on Amazon (but still stick to my policy to be unerringly and brutally honest).

But my main complaint is that I find it almost impossible to tell if a rave review for a book is written by someone with similar (eclectic) tastes, or by someone who would never read the books I read.  (I’m trying hard to put this politely).  My brain is always reminding me to “beware the lowest common denominator.”  (Yes, I realise I just sounded like a snob).   I find it hard to figure out if a book is the type I might occasionally dip into and enjoy, or in fact is representative of a genre I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.  Unless a review is well written and succinct (rather than a high school or English Lit type book review), and perhaps references other books I might know, it is often too difficult to figure out whether it might be something I would enjoy.  So I find myself relying on friends’ recommendations, or looking at book award listings, or reading authors I already know and like.  I worry that my world of reading has narrowed.

And I wonder if this is a result of my change in reading habits, the fact I rarely (guilty gulp) frequent our town’s fabulous independent bookstore anymore for their recommendations, the fact I’m now reliant on the internet?  But I’m not sure.  There’s always something subjective about choosing a book – the title, the cover, the size and feel of the book, the quality of the pages and size of the typeface, and of course the price.  So this hasn’t changed completely online – the availability (copyright sometimes restricts books in different parts of the world), the branding (categorisation in Amazon, book artwork/cover, etc), and the blurbs provided all influence me in the way that a real, paper book does.  Recommendations from friends work the same, except that we could swap books more easily when we weren’t e-reading.  And even that lowest-common-denominator factor was in play.  The piles of books at the front of Borders/Whitcoulls are similar to the popular recommendation on Amazon.   The award list books are more like the display entry to Unity Books.  And in writing this post, I was finally motivated to Unity’s website, discovering their on-line reviews and recommendations.  So maybe things haven’t changed that much after all?

 

 

*  I intend posting about this separately sometime.

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