Hi all. I hope everyone is well. I didn’t have very high hopes in terms of reading for March. I started the month with the John Irving which seemed to take FOREVER to read but on finishing, I was obviously inspired to devour another 5 books so I’m pretty happy. I finish work in mid April so I am looking forward to tons of early nights in my bed with a book! Simple pleasures.
- The Cider House Rules by John Irving. 3⭐️.
- John Irving born 2nd March 1942.
‘The reason Homer Wells kept his name was that he came back to St Cloud’s so many times, after so many failed foster homes, that the orphanage was forced to acknowledge Homer’s intention to make St Cloud’s his home.’
Homer Wells’ odyssey begins among the apple orchards of rural Maine. As the oldest unadopted child at St Cloud’s orphanage, he strikes up a profound and unusual friendship with Wilbur Larch, the orphanage’s founder – a man of rare compassion and an addiction to ether. What he learns from Wilbur takes him from his early apprenticeship in the orphanage surgery, to an adult life running a cider-making factory and a strange relationship with the wife of his closest friend…
Long books. What are your thoughts on long books? As someone who sets themselves a Goodreads challenge, I admit that I am often guilty of reading shorter books that are about 250-300 pages in length. I am definitely an impatient reader. When it comes to books, I feel a little like a child in a sweet shop….I want to try EVERYTHING, I don’t want to linger too long on one book. At a time in my life when my priorities are my children, feeling like I have achieved something for myself each day is really important to me. Usually this is something as simple as remembering to put my eye cream on. 😂🤣. Getting through at least a book a week makes me feel positive and challenged. The challenge of getting through 720 pages of The Cider House Rules in a week was a challenge too far. I felt like I was barely making a dent in it…I’m sad to say it was a little soul destroying and frustrating. Once I hit the 60% mark however, I raced to the finish line and I now feel crazy happy….not least because it has freed up space on my book shelf to fill with new books. 📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚📚
So did I enjoy it?? Yes but I didn’t love it. It was a little slow and rambling for me. I enjoyed the beginning of the book the most. Dr Larch was a brilliant character and I enjoyed all the stuff about back-Street abortions. I listened to a podcast with John Irving and it makes sense to me that he is so heavily influenced by Charles Dickens. Irving seems obsessed by haunted figures. Scarred, damaged characters – prostitutes, abandoned children, ether addicts…. they all appear in this book. Don’t let this put you off however. In amongst all the damaged souls, Irving manages to inject humour and lightheartedness. Unfortunately, for me however, the enjoyment and the time it took for me to read the book were not directly proportionate.
- A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively. 2⭐️.
- Same Penelope Lively born 17th March 1933.
Maria is always getting lost in the secret world of her imagination…
A ghostly mystery and winner of the Whitbread Award,republished in the Collins Modern Classics range.
Maria likes to be alone with her thoughts. She talks to animals and objects, and generally prefers them to people. But whilst on holiday she begins to hear things that aren’t there – a swing creaking, a dog barking – and when she sees a Victorian embroidered picture, Maria feels a strange connection with the ten-year-old, Harriet, who stitched it.
But what happened to her? As Maria becomes more lost in Harriet’s world, she grows convinced that something tragic occurred…
Perfect for fans of ghostly mysteries like ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’.
Last month I attempted to read Milly Molly Mandy to Edie. It was a complete and utter failure. My 5 year old city girl was underwhelmed with quaint country life. She couldn’t believe that Milly Molly Mandy spent her time picking blackberries and running errands. “The most boring book ever” I was told. This got me thinking about how literature has changed. Edie is too young to read A Stitch in Time….the back of the book says it’s recommended for 9 year olds. Having said that, I don’t think she would enjoy it when she gets to 9. I am embarrassed to say that me at 37 found it dull!!!! Looking at reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the star rating seems high but nearly every review is written by an adult who remembers it from their youth.
A Stitch in Time won the 1976 Children’s Whitbread Award so at the time it was obviously incredibly popular. Undoubtedly, the writing is lovely and the character of Maria is beautifully drawn. I particularly enjoyed Lively’s description of Maria’s parents who were obviously the dullest of the dull. My issue with the book is that nothing really happened. It is slow but I guess that is because in the 70s, the pace of life was slower. Nowadays, we are spoiled by the internet, social media etc. We are used to things happening immediately, at the touch of a button…..you can even turn your house lights on with your mobile phone! I guess we don’t have to work at things as much. This book made me think how much the Harry Potter phenomenon must have changed literature. I’m not saying I need magic and giants but I need SOMETHING and I know my children definitely do.
- The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. 4⭐️.
- W.C. Minor died 26th March 1920.
The making of the Oxford English Dictionary was a monumental 50 year task requiring thousands of volunteers. One of the keenest volunteers was a W C Minor who astonished everyone by refusing to come to Oxford to receive his congratulations. In the end, James Murray, the OED’s editor, went to Crowthorne in Berkshire to meet him. What he found was incredible – Minor was a millionaire American civil war surgeon turned lunatic, imprisoned in Broadmoor Asylum for murder and yet who dedicated his entire cell-bound life to work on the English language.
Wow just wow. I am so pleased I read this book. I first heard it mentioned on the brilliant podcast What Shall I Read Next. It was described as a non fiction account of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and the story of WC Minor who contributed 12,000 words and definitions but was also a patient of Broadmoor. Does that not sound like the most amazing tale??? I bought it straight away.
Without a doubt, this is an utterly amazing tale and one I knew nothing about. When you discover a book like this you feel slightly like you have been given a box of treasure! It has never occurred to me how dictionaries came to be and how they were compiled. I remember when I started secondary school we were told we had to invest in a ‘proper’ dictionary (I guess the word ‘proper’ here, means ‘grown-up’ ie no pictures) and a posh calculator. I never did discover what all those buttons on my posh calculator did and I never did take my ‘proper’ dictionary into school because it was hardback and massive. It still sits on my bedroom shelf back at my parent’s home. The very idea that the dictionary came to be thanks to volunteers who would pour over endless books from different time periods, tracing the root of each individual word is mind blowing!!! Can you imagine the time this took?!?!
Minor’s story is an incredibly sad one. Born in Ceylon in 1934, he served as an army surgeon in the American Civil War. It is thought that Minor’s mental health problem came as a result of being tasked with branding an Irish deserter. After the war, Minor returned to New York city where he was a frequent customer of the prostitutes in the red light district. By 1868, the army had learned of his mental deterioration and he was transferred to an asylum. In 1871, Minor decided to move to London for a change of pace. His paranoia became out of control and in 1872, he fatally shot George Merrett. Merrett was not previously known to Minor who wrongly believed Merrett had broken into his rooms. He was found not guilty by insanity and sent to Broadmoor where he was given access to comfortable rooms and a library. During his incarceration, he read an advert by Dr James Murray for volunteers to help with what would later become the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor became one of the largest contributors of the dictionary. Dr Murray didn’t meet Minor until 1891 and it was only then that he learned about Minor’s background. Sadly, Minor’s condition deteriorated. He started to believe he was being abducted from his cell and forced to abuse children. These delusions reached a peak in 1902 when Minor cut off his own penis. With Murray’s help, Minor was deported back to the US.
This book not only gave me an insight into how the dictionary was compiled but it also taught me about the relationship between Minor and Murray-an unlikely friendship based on a mutual respect which helped to create the Oxford English Dictionary.
- The Foundling by Charlotte Brontë. 3⭐️.
- Charlotte Brontë died 31st March 1855.
Written when she was seventeen, The Foundling is a classic fairy tale, set in the imagined kingdom of Verdopolis, which will delight fans of Charlotte Bronte’s later work. Edward Sydney is abandoned as a baby but finds a ‘protector’ in Mr Hasleden, a rich local landowner who declares an interest in the child, and claims him as his own. The boy grows up believing Hasleden to be his father, but, after his death, Edward discovers evidence of his real name and the circumstances of his birth. Full of curiosity about his true origins, he decides to set off on a journey to the mythical kingdom of Verdopolis. There, after several adventures, he meets and falls in love with the noble Lady Julia, only to find she is betrothed to another…
A few months ago I picked up two books by Charlotte Brontë from a library sale. 20p each! Total bargain. They have sat in my cupboard, untouched and undiscovered until last week when after trawling through the MASSIVE tome that was The Cider House Rules, I felt I needed a book under 200 pages. Similar to my discoveries about the Oxford English Dictionary in the Simon Winchester, this book by Charlotte Brontë has opened up the world of ‘juvenilia’ of which I knew absolutely nothing. The term ‘juvenilia’ is usually given to books written by authors in their youth. In 1826, Patrick Brontë gifted his son, Branwell, a set of toy soldiers. Charlotte, Anne and Branwell each picked soldiers and used them to create characters and lands which were used in their stories, plays and poetry.
So, the story…. it was full of magic, strong men, pathetic women and amazing insults:
‘Get up, heap of baseness, and be gone instantly from my presence!’
‘Do your worst, driveling dotard.’
If I had to use one word to describe it I would say melodrama. I don’t want this to take away from the fact that Brontë wrote this at 17! 17! At 17 I was stealing alcohol from my parents drinks cabinet and snogging boys in parks. Reading Brontë’s work is without a doubt humbling and thanks to her ‘driveling dotard’ is now my insult of choice .
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. 4⭐️.
WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017
A STORY OF LOVE AFTER DEATH
‘A masterpiece’ Zadie Smith
‘Extraordinary’ Daily Mail
‘A tour de force’ The Sunday Times
The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War
The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.
From this seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling, supernatural domain both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself trapped in a transitional realm – called, in Tibetan tradition, the bardo – and as ghosts mingle, squabble, gripe and commiserate, and stony tendrils creep towards the boy, a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders’ inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Here he invents an exhilarating new form, and is confirmed as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Deploying a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional – Lincoln in the Bardo poses a timeless question: how do we live and love when we know that everything we hold dear must end?
This is Saunders’s first novel having dedicated himself to the short story genre in the past. The novel is based on fact- during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie died of typhoid Fever. Lincoln did apparently visit the body of his son twice on the day he was interred. The whole novel takes place during this one evening. The setting of the novel is The Bardo which is the land between the living and the dead. The novel is a strange collection of quotations, some real and some not.
This was a book club read and I am sad to say that it was pretty unpopular, in fact, a lot of people didn’t finish. I have to admit that my thought are a little confused. The reason is that I read the book in conjunction with listening to the audiobook. Usually, I struggle to concentrate on audiobooks but in this case, it was the audio which spurred me on to finish the book. The audio is epic with 166 voices. Apparently Random House are hoping for a World Record for most voices on an audiobook. The cast includes Don Cheadle, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore and David Sedaris. Over 6 months, the speakers recorded their lines in 17 different studios across America. The recordings were then sent to the audio editor Ted Scott who pieced it all together. Lincoln in the Bardo is a book which translates so well to audio. The book almost reads like a script with snippets from characters and quotes from books so to have each one of these voiced by a different actor makes it much more accessible. Listening to it also slows the reading down. I am definitely someone who can rush reading. The one line snippets and sections of the book which highlight the fact that history is an unreliable narrator, I know I would have skimmed and therefore completely missed the point.
Saunders calls this an experimental novel. At first I thought this was a disclaimer, almost as if Saunders was making an excuse in case it didn’t work out….”sorry if you don’t like it guys, it’s just an experiment.” For me, this was an experiment that paid off.
The writing is beautiful, poignant and moving. There is one passage in particular that broke me:
I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same. Even instant to instant.
He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.
Only I did not think it would be so soon.
Or that he would precede us.
This passage is Lincoln talking about the death of his son. I think this must perfectly describe the loss of a child: almost a magical entity that is not meant for this world….a burst of energy.
One of the most interesting topics that the novel brought up was that history is an unreliable narrator. We reply on people of the time to relay events but everyone sees things differently. There were a couple of chapters that expressed this beautifully. One, describes the moon on the night of Willie’s death and the other the facial features of Abe Lincoln. The majority of accounts differ which makes the reader question who to trust.
I would say that it takes a good 60 pages to get into the swing of this book. Once you get used to the method of writing and the world that Saunders creates you will be massively rewarded. I am so pleased I read this book and can honestly say that I have never read anything like it. There are also tons of discussion points which would make it a great book club choice.
- After the Party by Cressida Connolly. 2.5 ⭐️.
It is the summer of 1938 and Phyllis Forrester has returned to England after years abroad. Moving into her sister’s grand country house, she soon finds herself entangled in a new world of idealistic beliefs and seemingly innocent friendships. Fevered talk of another war infiltrates their small, privileged circle, giving way to a thrilling solution: a great and charismatic leader, who will restore England to its former glory.
At a party hosted by her new friends, Phyllis lets down her guard for a single moment, with devastating consequences. Years later, Phyllis, alone and embittered, recounts the dramatic events which led to her imprisonment and changed the course of her life forever.
This is the first time I have come across a book discussing Sir Oswald Mosley’s party The British Union and the fate of its followers during WW2. Apparently, around 800 of his supporters were imprisoned without trails or access to legal representation under the Defence Regulation Act.
Connolly said she was inspired after reading a book called Blackshirts on Sea: A Pictorial History of the Mosley Summer Camps 1933-1938 by A. J. There seems to be relatively little fiction written about The National Union of Fascists and how Oswald Mosley came to power and I was definitely excited to discover more about this period of history. Unfortunately this is where my issues with the book lay. I felt there was minimal character development so I struggled to empathise with the characters and the historical detail was so scant I felt utterly frustrated. The book was readable and the writing good but the novel just left me feeling a bit ‘meh.’ I can’t really work out Connolly’s intentions….she managed to write a novel with minimal story and no historical depth.
Thanks for reading. See you next month.