Once again we’re months into the year and I’m just catching up on the Bookshelf! In my defence I’ll say I’ve had a very busy spring with lots of things happening that kept me away from both my books and the blog. But books have been read and are now in the process of being reviewed. This year’s Bookshelf, so far, has been a weird mix of classics and random books I picked up in bookshops or got as presents, some of which took me quite a bit off my planned reading path for the year. Here’s the first lot, with more on the way.
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
I picked this book up purely because I loved (LOVED) A Tale for the Time Being. There’s just something about Ozeki’s writing – it creates this kind of magical other world that will stay with you forever after you close the book. So I didn’t really care what this one was about, although I will say if you’re squeamish or easily put off your dinner, only read this if you’re prepared to go into (temporary) vegetarianism. This story about two women, an American film-maker and a Japanese housewife, whose involvement with the US meat industry will change their lives forever is at once funny, tragic and infuriating. Ozeki’s characters are of the kind you just instinctively bond with – whether you want to or not – and coming back out of the book feels a bit like saying goodbye to good friends. My Year of Meats covers some pretty uncomfortable topics that we really should be talking about and does it beautifully.
Pens: 5 out of 5
Inside and Other Short Fiction: Japanese Women by Japanese Women compiled by Cathy Layne
Reading two of Ruth Ozeki’s novels left me curious about the glimpses of Japanese culture she offers, so I went off my set reading path to explore some Japanese literature. I started with these short stories, which actually came with a foreword from Ozeki, and they offered quite a good introduction. Written about women at various stages in their lives, by women of various ages, this book covers the usual range of coming-of-age, relationships, motherhood / other options and old age that you would expect from a collection focusing on women. In regard to these main themes, the stories don’t actually differ very much from their Western equivalents that I’ve come across. With a range of engaging stories, an English translation that reads very well and an absolutely gorgeous hardcover design, this is a beautiful addition to any bookshelf.
Pens: 4 out of 5.
Plus extra gold pens for the design. Look how pretty it is:
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Almost ten years after my creative writing professor recommended this book, I actually got round to reading it. For me personally, this was a bit of mother-daughter relationship overkill. That’s a sore topic with me though, so I’ll try not to let it cloud my judgement. It’s certainly an enjoyable and easy read and beautifully written – great for a holiday or a flight or something light-ish in between. And Tan, together with Ruth Ozeki, got me interested in East Asian literature which has led me to pick up some pretty awesome books I never would have come across otherwise. So overall I’m glad this is now on my read list.
Pens: 3 out of 5
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
This is the second time this year that I’ve broken my No War Stories rule – and again it paid off. What a frustrating, stupid, brilliant, weird, infuriating and wonderful book. It took me about three hundred pages just to get over hating its guts and hating every single character in it, and then, suddenly, it blew my mind. Credit to the boyfriend for a) buying it for me, b) pestering me to read it and c) convincing me to stick with it all those seven thousand times I was ranting and threatening to tear it up and throw it out the window. I have rarely had such a strong hate-love relationship with a book. I think this is genius.
Fun fact: The boyfriend’s dad designed the original British cover for this book. I need to find a picture of that.
Pens: 5 out of 5
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
If you’ve been reading this blog you may have noticed that I’m probably the biggest Edith Wharton fangirl alive. It’s just amazing how everything she wrote about relationships and society more than 100 years ago is still so relevant today. But then I guess being able to bridge a century with a sentence is what makes a truly great author. The Custom of the Country, one of the cornerstones of the triangle of genius that also includes The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, is pretty similar to the other two in that it follows a New York high society woman’s rise and fall throughout a series of relationships that are ultimately doomed by the ridiculous rules and traditions of her social setting. This one felt a bit more complex and mature than the other two, with a very conflicted protagonist at its centre. While in both House and Age I found myself sympathising more and more with the hero(ine) as their fate unfolds, in Custom the central character gradually becomes the antagonist and messes with your empathy a fair bit in the process. A beautifully written book full of truths about social politics that remain surprisingly relevant to this day.
Pens: 5 out of 5
Parade’s End (Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, The Last Post) by Ford Madox Ford
I don’t like war stories. I never usually touch a book or film about wars. But then they adapted Parade’s End with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, so of course I watched it. And about twenty minutes into the first episode I was on my Kindle, manically downloading all four books. And while the adaptation is great, the books are just…freaking out of this world! I honestly have no words for how brilliant these novels are. The only thing I can liken them to is the experience of reading Edith Wharton; Ford’s writing has got the same sense of timeless human truth about it. Yeah, this one’s about as much about war as a book can be. The second and third part rarely set foot outside the trenches. But I didn’t even mind that because behind the frontline action, the characters are beautifully crafted and so alive with love and hate and jealousy and compassion, and the stories of their lives and relationships are just utterly captivating. I also found in Ford’s writing the same quality that I love so much in Wharton: prose so gorgeously crafted you have to go back and read them again and again and again simply for the pleasure of seeing those particular words strung together into an artwork of a sentence. Finishing these books was bittersweet; there’s the knowledge that I’ll never be able to discover them again, mixed with the anticipation of going back and reading them all over again in a few year’s time and probably discovering new treasures inside.
As an extra bonus this work contains my favourite ever definition of love. It’s so good it got its own blog post.
Pens: One gazillion out of 5. (Yeah, so I’m in love with a book. Get over it.)
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
And once again I found a book that had me wishing I could go back in time and read it to my ten-year-old self. Coraline, like everything I’ve ready by Gaiman, is fun and dark and full of wisdom and empathy. Whatever your age, Gaiman’s children’s books have a way of making your inner child feel understood and comforted. And Coraline especially is the kind of character I know I would have bonded with when I was little; she is like the essence of every little girl ever. When I mention Coraline a lot of people start talking about the film and I die a little inside. Yes, the film is lovely but you really must read the book. And more than anything, if you have kids please, please read the book with them. You’ll all get so much more out of it.
Pens: 5 out of 5
The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Ah, Holmes. I was going to take a break from him, but then waiting for series 3 of Sherlock got too much, so to pass the time I read up on his original return after the Reichenbach Falls. I know people generally complain that the original solution is a bit lame, but I just love the fact that Doyle so clearly couldn’t be arsed with this hero anymore and yet the more he tried to shake him off, the more he stuck. I very much enjoyed this volume, seeing as it not only brings Holmes back amid much suspense, but also has some pretty gruesome stories such as Black Peter, Priory School and the Six Napoleons and introduces Charles Augustus Milverton, who eventually became a much more brilliant and terrifying enemy by the name of Magnussen in the latest instalment of the BBC series. Probably a bit darker than previous volumes overall, this collection is still full of fun and adventure and good, old Sherlock Holmes-ness. And, yes, I’ll have to read them all. Can’t leave a series unfinished.
Pens: 4 out of 5