Thursday, December 23, 2010

Intentions and reality: a 2010 blog review

I had intended to write about all of the books I’ve read over the last month or so to bring this blog up to date. I made a start on this when I wrote about Mike Gayle and 84 Charing Cross Road, but after that I lost my enthusiasm and didn’t see the point. Most of the books are by authors I already mentioned earlier in the year, such as Nick Hornby, Jasper Fforde, and Anne Tyler.

Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down is about a small group of people who are brought together by the only thing they have in common. They intended to kill themselves on New Years Eve. They run into each other on the roof a high rise building from where they have all independently decided to jump.

Each character tells their part of the story in their own words. Their vastly different backgrounds require Hornby to give each character their own distinct style of expression.

Other books have been with me almost from the start of this blog. They are non-fiction books I have picked up from time to time to read a chapter or two before turning back to another novel.

Chocolate and Zucchini is mostly a book of recipes – not exactly something to be read from cover to cover in a matter of days, but it is one I enjoyed a lot through my infrequent visits. Clotilde Dusoulier entertains and informs in her introductions to each recipe, revealing some of the personal history behind each dish and offering advice about various food related matters, like how to plan for a dinner party and how to create a balanced menu.

A Year of Slow Food by David and Gerda Foster is a book I had for a few years before I read it and it wasn’t one I wanted to rush when I had started reading. It’s the kind of non-fiction I enjoy, a personal account of country life and semi self-sufficiency. It describes the kind of lifestyle I’d like to follow – in fact the life I’d hoped to follow when I moved to a country town myself. His book is part diary, part recipe book – each section ends with a recipe using seasonal home produced ingredients, like vegetables, milk and honey.

The new authors I read during this period were Marele Day and Frances Eagar.

I’ve had The Life and Crimes of Harry Lavender for almost 20 years. I bought it from the author when she was a guest tutor during my University course. I finally got around to reading it this month.
Several years after meeting the author I was employed briefly by her publisher and saw her in a nearby coffee shop having lunch with one of the Directors.

Harry Lavender is a crime novel involving a private detective, touching on the organised crime scene in Sydney where Harry is a major crime boss. Some of the locations were vaguely familiar and it is easy to project certain old time crime figures onto the character of Harry. The book uses a lot of computer metaphors and some of its computer references are now a little dated, but it was still an entertaining book providing a reasonably literary approach to the genre.

Frances Eagar’s book Time Tangle is another that I’ve had for more than a couple of decades. It is a children’s book that tangles a little history with the modern world as a girl of the present crosses into a different time, meeting a boy close to her own age. She finds herself caught up in the religious persecutions of the Tudor ages. It seems that time travel books of various types have been a regular part of this year’s reading.

When I started this blog my hope was to find inspiration and encouragement to return to writing my own stories. Partly I hoped to find some ideas about what made successful stories work. What was in the stories I liked that appealed to me?

That part of this blog has been a failure. I’ve written no stories and I’ve merely found how incapable I’ve been in analysing someone’s writing to assess why it appeals or not. I merely know what I like without knowing why I liked it.

In the end I have only concluded that a readable story needs an interesting plot and characters I with whom I can identify. There’s nothing profound or inspiring in that conclusion.

While maintaining this blog has helped me to persevere with my reading instead of continually putting books aside only partly read, I found towards the end that I was getting too caught up in the numbers game being more interested in reading 50 then 55 or 60 books before the end of the year. As a result I avoided books that would take longer to read. Why read one book of 500 pages when I could read two of 250 pages in the same amount of time?

Well that could be all for this year. It is Christmas Eve tomorrow. After that I’ll be away from the internet until the New Year when I can start a new reading list. Until then I have just over a week to reach 70 books for 2010 – can I do it?

Friday, December 17, 2010

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

More from my “Completed 2010” list…

47b. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene Hanff
47a. 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff

I found these two separate titles in my copy of 84 Charing Cross Road. They were originally published individually with Duchess being a sequel to the other, better known book.

My paperback is a film tie-in edition published at the time of the Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins film. It was another of those books that I’ve had for years (probably over 20!) but never got around to reading. I bought it because I enjoyed the film so much and I’m not sure why I neglected it for so long.

The first section, on which the film was based, is a collection of letters written over many years between Hanff and the staff of Marks & Co., primarily their chief buyer Frank Doel.
Having seen the film again only a few weeks earlier, I could see how faithful the majority of the film was to this collection of letters. As such, the book became more of a written reminder of the film than a unique reading experience.
I wonder how different it would have been had I read the book first.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street was a surprise. Having neglected 84 Charing Cross Road for so long, I wasn’t aware that the sequel was there, and it was this part that I enjoyed most. It continued Hanff’s story as she finally realised her dream to visit London, thanks to the success of her earlier work.

I found Duchess a pleasure to read, mainly because of the genuine joy expressed by Hanff in her experience of London. How different it is to so many other travel books – where writers have a seemingly obligatory cynicism (at worst) or a (at best) a mildly mocking tone directed towards the places they see and the people they meet.

While the events in Duchess weren’t covered by the movie, the film continued to colour my reading of the book. I couldn’t help picturing Ann Bancroft as Helene Hannf, and when she finally met Frank Doel’s widow Nora, I kept seeing Judy Dench who played her.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mike Gayle and Friends

Mike Gayle has been one of my big rediscoveries this year. I found two of his books while I was sorting out my library.

It had been many years since I’d read either of them and when I re-read the first it was like reading it for the first time. I barely put it down.
I have since bought more including these on my “Completed 2010” list (see side bar).

45. Brand New Friend, Mike Gayle
55. The To-Do List, Mike Gayle
57. Life & Soul of the Party, Mike Gayle

Gayle’s dominant theme is friendship. This also comes across in his non-fiction book The To-Do List. In that book he describes a year of his life in which he compiled a list of 1277 things to do before his next birthday. These ranged from minor repairs around the house to an overseas expedition. Many things on the list related to expressions of love and friendship towards those close to him.

To aid motivation he shared the list with close friends who were given the task of assessing his achievement at the end of the year.

The thing I saw in this book was the similarity between Gayle and his friends and the characters within his fiction books. It seems clear that his fiction is about the kind of people and places he knows well.

Brand New Friend looks at the difficulties of a man trying to build new friendships in a new city.
When the strains of long distance romance make it necessary for Rob to relocate from London to Manchester, it means leaving life long friends behind. He tries a few different ways of meeting and making new friends.
Complications arise when the only suitable candidate he finds is a woman other than his girlfriend. Can men and women be and remain friends without romantic/sexual complications? And if so, how would their spouse/partner view the situation?

Life and Soul of the Party follows a group of friends during a year of tragedy and strained relationships. We see them through a series of parties which bring some of them together and tear others apart. (I assure you the melodrama of that last sentence is mine and does not reflect Mike Gayle’s story).
While Brand New Friend deals with the difficulty of starting new friendships, Life and Soul looks at the way failed relationships can linger and sometimes prevent us from moving on and how even the best and closest of relationships can be compromised by our associations with others, both in the past and in the present.

Gayle’s examination of love and friendship is done with a total absence of earnest navel-gazing or philosophical psychoanalysis. He just tells a story and entertains his readers, giving THIS reader the experience of what could have been – seeing how possible it would have been for me to be one of his characters with their experiences, if only a few things in my life had been different.


Other Mike Gayle books read this year, which I forgot to mention in previous posts.

24. My Legendary Girlfriend, Mike Gayle
26. Mr Commitment, Mike Gayle

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wuthering Heights - CELEBRATION!!!

I finally did it!

I reached the end of Wuthering Heights more than a year after I started. This reading experience was more about endurance than enjoyment. It was a battle from the first page.

I will admit that I was beginning to enjoy it towards the end, but I think that may have been the elation of realising I was getting close to that last page.

Apart from the satisfaction of not giving up, reading the book helped me appreciate and understand Jasper Fforde’s Wuthering Heights references in his Well of Lost Plots.

Now I think I should concentrate on getting this blog up to date.

So many books read – but nothing written about them!