Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sam Sunday #62: Seven Months Old

It's been a while since I've written a personal post.  Life on maternity leave has continued much as normal, with lots of walks round the park and playing.  Giles turned seven months on Thursday, and it's in this last month that I've really seen some changes.

The first change is how mobile he is.  Giles has always been mobile (even as a newborn he could roll over), and he started to crawl at five months, but now he is so fast and can get pretty much anywhere. He is also pulling himself up to standing against everything, cruising sideways along the sofas, and today I found out that he can actually climb the stairs.  We're spending a lot of time baby-proofing our house at the moment, but it's worth it as being mobile has made him so happy.  Giles was never a contented baby, no matter what we did, but now that he can go wherever he wants, whenever he wants, he is much happier.  I think this is what he has wanted ever since he was born!

His personality is really starting to show now, too.   Looks-wise, he is all Tom, but several people are commenting that his personality is more like mine.  Like me, he is very determined, and doesn't give up when there's something he really wants to do (like climb the stairs).  Some may even go so far as to call it stubborn, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of persistence in life!  He's also getting more into playing with his toys now, and has learned to wave and clap, which is very cute.  He's into his food, especially now he has six teeth to chew it with.

The main issue is what it has always been - sleep.  Naps have always been a disaster, and not much is improving.  When I put him down for a nap in the day, he will sleep for a maximum of 20 minutes and then wake up still tired and crying, wanting me to hold him while he goes back to sleep.  The nights are getting better (apart from the teething nights), but you would never describe him as a good sleeper.  I dream of getting a full night's sleep, just once!  But now that we have had seven months of poor sleeping, Tom and I are taking a more philosophical approach - he has to sleep through eventually, and until then we are just taking it one night at a time.

There's big changes coming up for both of us though - in two weeks time I return to work and I've got such mixed feelings about it.  I do genuinely enjoy my job (teaching) and I'm looking forward to the mental challenge and to do something that I find very rewarding.  But at the same time I know I'll miss Giles like crazy, and it's going to be hard to accept that someone else will be doing all of the little things I am used to doing with him during the day.  At the moment, I'm just planning to make the most of these last two weeks.

How has your week been?

Friday, 23 January 2015

Library Trip #2: I Have A Problem!

I just want to read all of the books, all of the time at the moment.  This has resulted in yet another library trip, in which I have checked out more books than I will ever have the opportunity to read:


  • Somewhere - This is a collection of short stories with the premise 'somewhere else', so it contains a lot of speculative fiction.  I'm in the mood for trying short stories at the moment, and this collection contains a story by Michel Faber, so I can't lose!
  • Ariel by Sylvia Plath - I never read poetry, although I keep intending too.  I loved Plath's poetry as a student, and am looking forward to reading this collection in it's entirety.
  • The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa - More short stories/novellas!  Ogawa's writing intrigues me, as it seems to have an undercurrent of darkness running through it.  I've been meaning to try some Japanese literature that isn't Murakami, and this seems like a good place to start.

  • Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith - I love Zadie Smith, so I'm keen to try her collection of essays.  It's split into four sections; reading, being, seeing and feeling, and I can't wait to dip in and out of them.
  • The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby - This is essentially a collection of essays about what Hornby has been reading, and I've seen rave reviews of it on other blogs.  I enjoy the light style of his fiction works, so hopefully that will translate well to these essays.
  • Where I'm Reading From by Tim Barks - As you can see, I was loving the essays section of the library today.  This collection promises to be about books and how the way we appreciate both them and literature is changing, which sounds very interesting.
If you've read any of these titles, I'd love to hear your thoughts on them.  It might help me to prioritise!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Reading Journal #3: A Bumper Reading Month

This month, I am in love with reading again.  I always enjoy reading, but sometimes I get into a phase where I want to spend every free minute lost in a book, and happily that's where I am now.  I'm reading during Giles' naps and all evening after he has gone to bed, and I'm simply loving it.  What's more, I'm picking up some fantastic books too.

The first book I have to write about is Haruki Murakami's novella, The Strange Library.  I've read one other Murakami book, Norwegian Wood, and whilst I thought it was OK, I was disappointed to find out that it's one of his straightest novels, lacking in the surreal and magical elements that he is more famous for.  The Strange Library seemed like a good way of getting to grips with his more usual style.  Told with words and pictures, it's about a young boy who wanders into a library one day, as he wants to find out how taxes were collected in the Ottoman Empire.  He is directed to a special 'reading room' in an underground maze, and here he is imprisoned with a sheep-man and a girl that only he can see.

The Strange Library isn't really much of a story, and I read it in under an hour, but it had a beautifully haunting quality about it, a bit like a fairy tale.  I'm sure there is some deeper meaning to all of the strangeness, to do with grief and obedience, but I was happy just to revel in it and enjoy the experience.  It helps that this is a truly beautiful book, and the images add a lot to the story.  Now that I've finished this one, I'm looking forward to exploring the more surreal side of Murakami, starting with The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of short stories I already own.   4 out of 5.

After finishing The Strange Library, I was in the mood for some non-fiction so I picked up Chinua Achebe's There Was A Country. Ever since reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's excellent Half of a Yellow Sun a few years ago, I've wanted to learn more about the Biafran war, in which Biafra decided to declare itself independent of Nigeria.  Achebe was deeply involved in this part of history, being Biafran and acting as a Biafran envoy in countries all across the world, as well as living through the conflict.

There was a Country is a powerful book.  Achebe blends history, politics, memoir and poetry together to create a personal account of the time.  Starting from his childhood during the British Empire, Achebe gives a brief overview of Nigeria gaining independence, and the problems that came after, before launching into the Biafran war.  Achebe manages to impart a lot of information without it ever feeling dull, and the poems were haunting.  Whereas the actual text occasionally lacked emotional engagement, the poems more than made up for it.  Sometimes Achebe's straight-forward writing made the book all the more impacting, particularly when he was discussing the deliberate policy of starvation employed against the Biafrans, and the near-misses encountered by his family. My only complaint is that sometimes Achebe became too bogged down in names and individual events rather than showing the whole picture.  But the tone of regret, of Achebe's sadness at the lost opportunity Nigeria's independence represented, permeates the whole book and makes it devastating.  4 out of 5

After the heaviness of war and corruption, I turned the L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, a novel I picked up on impulse from the library.  I have read and enjoyed Anne of Green Gables, so I was keen to read Montgomery's adult novel.  The heroine is Valancy, a twenty-nine year old woman who has been written off  as an old-maid.  Unquestioningly obedient, she has allowed her family to stifle her, and the only joy she has is escaping to a fantasy land, in which she lives in a magnificent blue castle.  But when she is told by a doctor that she only has a year to live, due to a heart condition, Valancy resolves to actually live.  Throwing off her fears, she sets out to experience as much as possible, and to do things that please her, of course scandalising her rather staid community.

The Blue Castle has a lot of comic moments and a perfectly swoon-worthy love story, but at heart it's a coming of age story, about finding yourself and having the courage to make your own choices in life.  I loved watching shy, obedient Valancy stand up for herself, and act according to her own personal values.  In a way, this book was ahead of it's time, what with Valancy moving out, getting a job to support herself, and even making her own marriage proposal.  The Blue Castle is a dream of a book, that made me smile, inspired me, and reminded me of the joys that life can bring.  5 out of 5.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Project 1001: Two Book Reviews

My two 1001 Books projects have got off to a flying start.  From my adult list, I picked up Michel Faber's Under the Skin, which I received for Christmas.  I was already a Faber fan before starting this novel, the fourth of his that I have read.  And it's completely unlike the others, being dramatically different in tone and content to his more famous work The Crimson Petal and the White. 

The story opens with Isserley, who spends her time driving along the roads of the Scottish Highlands, looking to pick up male hitch-hikers, but only the large, muscular ones.  Apart from that, there's nothing else I could say about this novel without ruining how unexpected, different, surprising and chilling it is. There's so much I could rave about, particularly concerning Faber's brilliant use of language, but the reveal in this book is so wonderful that I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone.  Just trust me when I say that it is an amazingly gripping book, one that will lodge into your brain.  There's one scene in particular that I can not get out of my head, and that has made me completely re-evaluate a certain aspect of my life.  Under the Skin is a book that seeks to challenge and confront, and it does so very cleverly.  It's a book I will remember and think about for years to come. If you like thrillers, sci-fi, or books about ethical issues, you really need to pick this one up. 5 out of 5 stars.

From my children's list, my first selection was Lian Hearn's Across the Nightingale Floor, mainly because it was readily available in my library.  The main character, Takeo, is a member of a secretive religious group called the Hidden in a fantasy world based on Japan, when he witnesses the massacre of his friends and family. Escaping with the assistance of the mysterious Lord Otori, Takeo comes to learn more about his past, and the supernatural talents he has inherited from his ancestors.  When he discovers who is responsible for the massacres of the Hidden, and for the autocratic rule large parts of the island are suffering under, he becomes involved in a plot to assassinate the tyrannical Lord Iida.

Across the Nightingale Floor is best described as a crossover novel between YA and adult.  It's shelved in the adult section of my library but the two main protagonists are teenagers, and a lot of the plot deals with Takeo finding out who he is and what is important to him.  What I liked about the novel was that Hearn didn't shy away from darker issues or pretend that everything was always going to be OK.  Death and grief are handled sensitively but straight-forwardly, without talking down to the reader at all.

I enjoyed reading Across the Nightingale Floor, as it's always good to find fantasy set in non-Western contexts.  I liked reading about the belief systems of the people in Hearn's worlds, and the different approaches to marriage and politics.  Although the beginning and end sections of the novel were pacy and engaging, the plot did seem to lag in the middle, and sometimes I had trouble keeping track of who was related to who, and what others thought of them, as there was much in the way of intrigue going on.  Still, I enjoyed it enough to want to continue with the series.  3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

The Good Earth opens on Wang Lung's wedding day.  As the son of a farmer, his only option is to marry O-lan, a slave working in the great house of the village.  Although they start off as strangers and with next to nothing, Wang Lung and O-lan make a good pair, making the most of their land and growing family.  When a famine strikes and the family are forced to flee to the city, it is O-lan's determination and luck that keep them alive, and even enables them to return to their farm much richer than before.  As Wang Lung starts to accumulate more land and become more than just a peasant farmer, his expectations start to alter the family dynamics.  He starts to view O-lan as too simple, too plain and not enough for him.  As his sons grow up with more security than Wang Lung thought possible, the family begins to change for ever.

I really enjoyed The Good Earth.  Although Buck isn't Chinese, she lived in China for the majority of her life, and she presents the customs and attitudes of the time without judgement or condescension.  In fact, she doesn't even stop the story to explain things that would have been self-evident to Wang Lung, such as foot binding and the role of women, and this makes the story stronger.  Buck doesn't impose any Western ideas or views on her Chinese characters, even when their attitudes will make Western readers uncomfortable.

For me, The Good Earth was all about O-lan.  Having suffered through her childhood and adolescence, she is ready to live a quiet life with Wang Lung and devote herself to their family.  She suffers constantly throughout the book and yet is always thought of last.  Although Wang Lung does come to respect her in some way, for most of the book he ignores her presence, does not appreciate all that she does, and he is never able to love her.  When she returns to work the fields after literally just giving birth, he accepts this as what she should do.  O-lan made me wonder how many women there are like this in the world, forced by custom and attitudes to do everything for their family, never getting any reward or potential for personal growth, essentially giving up their own lives.  O-lan had so much inside her, but Wang Lung never thought to find out who she really was.

Another thing that struck me whilst reading The Good Earth was the parallels with Dickens' Great Expectations (this may sound strange, but bear with me).  Like Pip, Wang Lung starts to think of himself as grand, and therefore deserving things according to his new station.  A more attractive wife. Sons that are scholars rather than farmers.  Many rooms to their house.  Tenants that defer to him and treat him with respect.  As in Great Expectations, this can only end in misery for Wang Lung, something that is perfectly summed up in the last scene of the novel, which coincidentally was one of the strongest endings I've read in a long time.

I would definitely recommend The Good Earth.  I had my reservations about a book narrated by Chinese characters written by a Westerner, but these were unfounded.  The Good Earth is very well written with memorable characters, and I can't wait to read more of Buck's work.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1931
Edition Read: Simon & Schuster, 2005
Score: 5 out of 5

The Classics Club: Book 32/72
My list of titles can be found here.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe

With the ebola outbreak capturing headlines, it seemed like a good time to pick up this non-fiction book about viruses and how they turn into pandemics.  Wolfe is a scientist, professor and self-confessed 'virus hunter' who spends his time studying viruses, their transmission from animals to humans, and predicting which viruses have the potential to mutate and turn into pandemics.  The aim is to catch viruses before they spread - pandemic prevention rather than pandemic reaction.  The Viral Storm is split into three sections, dealing with the science of viruses, how human societies and contact with animals has enlarged the risk of pandemics, and finally what can be done to prevent them.  The science sections of the book are interspersed with parts that feel more like a memoir, with Wolfe recounting his experiences studying viruses all over the world.

The Viral Storm is a great example of a widely accessible science book.  I have a science degree, but I specialised in neuropsychology, and I am rusty to say the least with regard to anything else! Wolfe assumes no prior knowledge in the reader, and has a really clear style that means he presents his information clearly and concisely.  I loved the initial section explaining the science of viruses, even if the information about just how many are out there made me squeamish (250 million virus particles per ml of seawater!).  Although studies are referenced, Wolfe doesn't get into the nitty gritty of how they were conducted or the analysis of results, which is just what I wanted in a general introduction to a topic like this.

One of the many things I didn't know before reading The Viral Storm is that viruses in humans can almost always be traced back to animal contact.  Whether it's a bite, or contact with tissues and blood through hunting, it comes back to our interaction with the environment.  The history of HIV included was very interesting, especially as this is something that is often misrepresented in the media.  I also didn't know that when a person has two viruses, they can mutate and create mosaic viruses combining elements of both, which is how some pandemics have started.

Wolfe's key argument is that we are living in a time when the potential for pandemics is high.  When our ancestors learned to cook food, destroying microbial life, the viruses we were exposed to gradually lessened, meaning that they are all the more potent when we do catch them from animals. Poverty forces many populations into subsistence hunting, which is often linked to human transmission of animal viruses.  And our inter-connected world means that viruses have a greater than ever potential to spread rapidly, and come into contact with more people than ever,  But that's not to say the book is all doom and gloom, as Wolfe recounts some of the work being done to prevent pandemics, and the early successes of such projects.

On the whole, The Viral Storm was an accessible and enjoyable read.  I learned a lot from it, but the reading experience never felt like a chore.  The inclusion of the memoir sections really broke up the science and it was interested to see what studying viruses in the field actually entails.  My only (minor) complaint is that sometimes Wolfe was a bit repetitive, but this didn't alter my enjoyment.  Definitely recommended.

Source: Personal copy
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Monday, 12 January 2015

Project 1001 Books: Let's Go!

Last week, I posted about two new projects I have created for myself using 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up and 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  I've spent the weekend flipping through both of them and have selected the titles from each that I want to read. This challenge isn't time limited, but I'm aiming to read one book a month, from either list.

  • From 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, I ended up with 101 titles, which I think is a great number!  You can find my list here.
  • From 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I ended up with slightly less, mainly because my classics club reading has enabled me to tick quite a few of them off already.  My final list has 80 titles, and you can find it here.  Or alternatively, you can click the tabs at the top of my blog.
Of course, I already own lots of these titles.  In fact, the reason many of them have made it on to my lists is that I own them and want to read them.  Despite this, I couldn't resist the lure of the library and I wanted to see which books I could just pick off the shelves, without having to place a hold.

Unsurprisingly, the books I could find came from the classics section, with one fantasy.  Books that are translated, or more modern titles were much harder to find, although after a quick check of the library catalogue, I should be able to put a hold on most of them.  I picked up:
  • For my children's list: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn and The Red Pony by John Steinbeck.
  • For my adult list: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, The Monk by Matthew Lewis and The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe.
I'm thinking I will read one of these next.  I've already finished one title on my adult list, Michel Faber's Under the Skin, which I started on Saturday but just could not put down as it was so creepy and excellent and thought provoking.  At the moment, I'm drawn towards Henry James, as I've been a fan of all the books of his I have read so far.  I would love recommendations as to which of these I should try first.