The August bookshelf is a bit of a mixed bag, featuring brilliant children’s books, some bad choices, and some good advice. See if you can guess from the covers which book proved particularly crap.
Momo by Michael Ende
My great-aunt gave me this book for my first communion and I re-read and treasured it all through my childhood. I recently rediscovered it going through some old stuff at my parents’ house, and amazingly, it’s still every bit as wonderful and magical twenty years later. In an unspecified city, in an unspecified era, life is disturbed by the arrival the the mysterious Men in Grey, who live off the lifetime they steal off humans. Momo, an orphan girl living in an old amphitheatre on the edge of town, is the only one who knows about their secret undertaking and ends up having to save the entire city from an army of supernatural, life-sucking creatures. This book is a wonderful example of fantasy for children with a serious undercurrent. The time-stealing baddies are, of course, a metaphor for modern life, which has left us leading incredibly busy lives. It reminds us of our obsession with saving time, and argues that all this time we save is essentially time lost. An absolute classic of children’s literature and also a very good book for any adult who wants to be reminded what really matters in life.
Pens: 5 out of 5
Shella by Andrew Vachss
This book was sent to me as part of that pyramid thing where you send a book to a stranger and – supposedly – end up getting up to 36 of books from strangers in return. (A note on that: It doesn’t work. I got two books; among my friends who took part nobody made it past the five books mark.) It is marketed as an “ambitious and chilling novel that shows us not only what evil is, but where it comes from”, and tries to be a brutal and hard-hitting thriller about a hitman with no conscience tearing through the underworld in search of his estranged ex-girlfriend. Well, it might be all that, but only if Rosamunde Pilcher is your standard of comparison for tough shit. It’s neither ambitious nor chilling, and not particularly evil either. James Ellroy would eat this book for breakfast, have a good laugh, and then go and teach Vachss a lesson about how to write a bad guy character capable of inspiring thrills and chills.
Pens: 1 out of 5
The Wind from Nowhere by J.G. Ballard
It’s Ballard, it’s apocalyptic, and I so wanted to love it. But among the various doomsday scenarios Ballard imagined for our planet, this is the most meh one I’ve read to date. The idea is pretty cool – a steadily increasing storm is sweeping the globe, eventually taking down everything in its path and making life on the surface impossible, which (in the good old Ballardian tradition) results in the collapse of society and the rise of a new social order. But in this case, the story is about as muddled as if you were looking at it it through a typhoon. There’s too many groups of characters, too many secondary storylines woven into the action, too much pointless rushing around – and even when the story reaches its stormy climax, it’s still lacking focus and direction. Sorry, Ballard. I love you to bits, but your apocalyptic storm is just a lot of stale air.
Pens: 2 out of 5
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
In this quirky and lovingly illustrated graphic novel the inventor of the Bechdel test deals with a few hefty personal issues, including growing up in a family undermined by her father’s closeted homosexuality and his later suicide. The title gives you a good idea of the tone of what’s to follow: Fun home is the nickname given by the Bechdel kids to the family funeral home where they grow up. Death is daily business, and dealt with soberly – that is, until Bechdel’s father kills himself shortly after her own coming-out. The story is told in episodes, each investigating the father-daughter relationship from a different angle, which works very well until you reach a point where another new chapter starting with “So my dad killed himself and then…” and want to throw the book against the wall in frustration. But maybe that’s just the intended effect – this kind of family tragedy probably ends up going around the heads of all involved in similarly maddening circles. Overall this is a very touching and entertaining memoir that deals primarily with family issues but also has a beautiful undercurrent of feminism, literature and life in rural America.
Pens: 3 out of 5
The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition by Anita Bean
This is definitely the odd one out on this year’s bookshelf, but I’ve developed a growing interest in nutrition since I got into working out and picked this book to help me get my head around it, simply because it was the most comprehensive I could find in Waterstones. It offers a lot of information – so much in fact that I had to read some chapters twice to take it all in – but everything is explained brilliantly, making it accessible even if you’re completely new to the topic. However, it seems aimed more at athletes at competition level and those training them, rather than your everyday person doing a few hours in the gym per week. In that regard, a lot of the advice seems a bit of overkill if you’re not training at competition level or following a super strict diet. But even so, Bean also explains the basic science behind all the advice, so it’s pretty much up to you how much of it you want to take on board. I took a whole lot of useful advice away from this book, I’ve incorporated some of it in my daily nutrition, and it’s worked pretty well.
Pens: 4 out of 5
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
I first heard about Anne of Green Gables when I studied Canadian culture at uni, and it took me until my thirties to get round to reading it. This is another one of those books that make me want to have a time machine so I can go back and discover it as a child. It’s such a simple and traditional template for a children’s story – unwanted orphan girl finds a new home, many disasters ensue but she ends up winning the hearts – if not changing the lives – of her community. I’ve read similar books as a child in Germany, but none I remember was as funny and delightful as this. And that’s even though it is absolutely predictable and includes pretty much every moral lesson for a young girl that L.M. Montgomery could have possibly thought of. I fell in love with Anne and village life on Prince Edward Island on the first page, and I loved them more and more with every chapter. What an absolute treasure of a book.
Pens: 5 out of 5