Sunday 1 March 2015

Reading Journal #6: Catching Up

As predicted, I simply didn't have time to post during the week, and unfortunately I didn't get to visit many blogs either. By the time I have taught all day, attended meetings, got Giles home, cooked dinner, eaten dinner, given Giles his bath, put him to bed and sorted out everything for the next day, including planning and marking, I'm not in much shape for anything! Happily, one of the things I am in shape for is reading, so I've still been steadily going through books. Here's what I have read over the past two weeks or so:

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre is a non-fiction expose of the pharmaceutical industry and how trials, biased publications and access to doctors' training can lead to drugs being prescribed incorrectly, and patients not always getting what is the best for them. Prior to reading this, I had heard about the pharmaceutical industry in the USA, but had naively thought that we were more protected here in the UK, because we have the NHS and our medical system isn't for-profit. Goldacre quickly disabused me of this notion, pointing out how missing data, where nine unsuccessful trials could be buried and one successful one published, skews prescribing habits in all countries. It turns out that our regulators are no good at enforcing their own rules, that doctors can be paid to add their names to papers they did not write, and that drugs reps are allowed way too much sway over GPs. The single scariest fact in the book was that drugs are rarely if ever compared against the best available treatment, only against a placebo. This means we have no idea which drugs are the most effective for a whole host of common treatments.

Bad Pharma is well researched and it helps that Goldacre is a UK trained doctor, but at times his rhetoric was a bit over the top. I could have done without lots of the repeated anger, especially in a book as long as this one. It did however make me appreciate my own GP, who prescribes generic medications rather than the fancier branded ones that have the exact same ingredients, and who has explained this to me before prescribing. Bad Pharma covers an important topic and is well researched and written, so I would recommend it if you don't mind a bit of repeated anger on the part of the author.  3.5 out of 5

After non-fiction, I always need a bit of palate-cleansing fiction.  I've read White Teeth and On Beauty by Zadie Smith, and liked them both, so I decided it was time to pick up N-W. It tells the story of four Londoners from the same area - Leah, who is trying to avoid growing up and starting a family; Natalie, who has worked hard to leave her working class roots behind; Felix, who is trying to start again, and Nathan, who is angry.

Reviews of N-W seem to be very mixed, with readers tending to rank it lower than her other books. This is mainly due to the experimental writing style; parts of this novel are written in numbered sections, in fragments of sentences and in lists. Personally I loved that Smith had chosen to write like this, as she is definitely talented enough to pull it off.  The chaotic writing style matched the chaotic lives of the characters and I was hooked within a few pages. This book was challenging to read at times and the style didn't always work, but I found it thoroughly engrossing and a realistic portrait of London today.  3.5 out of 5.

And finally, an audio-book.  I was excited to start China Dolls by Lisa See, as See is one of my favourite historical fiction authors. Shanghai Girls in particular is up there with the best historical fiction I've read, and I've never read a bad book by her. Until now. China Dolls is the story of Ruby, Helen and Grace, who meet when they are auditioning to become dancers in a Chinese night-club in 1930s San Francisco. They soon become firm friends, and the narrative follows them through several decades, as they move through disappointments and traumatic times. Each is hiding a powerful secret.

To start with what I liked - I had no idea about the way 'Orientals' were treated in America at this time, and it was fascinating to learn about the 'Chop Suey Circuit' and the interment camps for American citizens of Japanese descendants during WW2. I liked the epic-ness of the story, how it covered many decades and events and gave a real sense of time passing. However, the three main characters were a major let-down. The only one I could ever really like was Grace, which wouldn't have been a problem if their storylines weren't so unbelievable.  Ruby, Helen and Grace kept on and on hurting each other, and their friendship seemed based only on jealousy and a common race. I just couldn't comprehend how they kept forgiving each other some pretty unforgivable things, and why they were so keen to hurt each other. It completely ruined what could have been an interesting novel, if only the portrayal of female friendship was more nuanced.  2 out of 5 stars.

So that's me almost up to date.  I've also finished The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller, but as it has led directly on to a reread of Jane Eyre, I'm going to save it for a joint post another time.  What have you been reading lately?

Sunday 22 February 2015

Sam Sunday #63: Eight Months and a New Routine

Returning to work hasn't actually been as disruptive as I was fearing (so far!). Granted, I only had to work a week before getting a week off for half term, but that week went as smoothly as it could have done. Giles is being looked after by family members, and every time I picked him up in the evening he was happy and settled, which does make it a lot easier for me. He's still sleeping well at night (in fact, better than he did before I went back to work), so if anything the transition was harder for me than it's been for him. I found myself clock-watching in after school meetings and trying to make the most of every bit of time that I get to spend with him.

I think one of the hardest adjustments will be trying to fit in all the extras that go along with being a teacher. I'm not willing to give up any evening time with Giles whilst he is awake, so I think I will be working later in the evenings, when he has gone to sleep. That's absolutely fine with me, but in turn that means less time for relaxing, blogging, reading and other hobbies. I still want to keep blogging, but I'm leaning towards weekly reading journal type posts, rather than full reviews of each title I finish. I'm planning to write full reviews for classic club books, and anything I finish for my two 1001 books projects, but everything else will probably just get a mention in a reading journal. Hopefully this way, I'll still be able to fit blogging into my life.

Giles turned eight months today and he is well on his way to becoming a terror!  He is pulling himself up on everything and cruising all along the furniture. At the moment, he is keen to press all the buttons on the TV, pull the socks out of our under-bed storage, hide from us while giggling and of course climb his bookcase (which is attached very securely to the wall).  He has well and truly reached the stage where he is into everything and it's a lot of fun to watch his brain working as he explores new things.

I have a feeling this week is going to be a tough one as tooth number seven is threatening to poke through, and as always, Giles is coming down with a teething cold.  But next Sunday is my birthday, so I'm looking forward to some lovely family time at the weekend.

How was your week?

Friday 20 February 2015

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

"The business of womanhood is a heavy burden.  How could it not be? Aren't we are the ones who bear children? When it is like that you can't just decide today I want to do this, tomorrow I want to do that, the next day I want to be educated!  When there are sacrifices to be made, you are the one who has to make them. And these things are not easy: you have to start learning them early, from a very early age."

Nervous Conditions is the coming of age story of fourteen year old Tambudzai, who lives in rural Zimbabwe but is able to attend a missionary school following the death of her older brother, Nhamo. Living with her aunt and uncle in a house on the mission grounds, Tambu is at first overwhelmed by their lifestyle. But the more she becomes accustomed to it, the more she starts to feel herself better than her beginnings. Tambu is determined to be educated and to provide for herself, but she keeps coming up against prejudices and barriers based on her gender, meaning that she has to battle for what she wants. Her story is contrasted with the stories of the complex women in her life; her Westernised cousin Nyasha, starting to examine the effects of colonisation, her uneducated mother, tied to a man she doesn't love by her children, and her mother's sister, forceful, outspoken and determined to do what is right for her and the people she loves.

Nervous Conditions is a wonderful book, and lots of that is to do with Tambu herself. As a narrator she is self-aware, honest, intelligent and full of complicated thoughts about the people around her. It helps that Dangarembga's writing is vivid, peppered with Shona vocabulary; reading Nervous Conditions is like being immersed in the Shona culture of the mid twentieth century.  This isn't a novel written with a Western audience in mind, and I liked that.

What I loved most about Nervous Conditions is that Dangarembga never over-simplifies the complex issues of gender, race and colonisation. Tambu is quick to realise the limitations placed on her by her gender, for example when her father states that it isn't worth educating her, as she will only get married and belong to another family.  Tambu also notes the powerlessness of her mother in the family, and the negative effect of her many pregnancies, but Dangarembga also writes about powerful Shona women, who are uneducated, but still refuse to accept gender boundaries. And the same is true of race and colonisation - Tambu views a Western education and lifestyle as her ticket to happiness, but her cousin Nyasha, who has actually lived in England for a spell, is torn between her conflicting identities and feels isolated from her Shona heritage. The portrait of both of these issues is complicated, many-layered and realistic,

To be honest, the only thing I didn't like about Nervous Conditions was the cover, which I think looks too cheaply made for the quality of the book. Although this book is set in a specific place and time period, it's coming of age theme is universal and it's one I would highly recommend.

Source: Library
First Published: 1988
Edition Read: Ayebia Clark
Score: 5 out of 5

Project 1001 Books: Book 2/80
My list of titles and reviews can be found here.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

A Little London Book Shopping...

One of my Christmas presents from Tom this year was a trip to and overnight stay in London. He arranged it for this half term, knowing that I might need a bit of a pick me up after returning to work last week.  As it's also my birthday very soon, I persuaded him that what I wanted most for my birthday was to browse all of my favourite bookshops in London and pick out a few things to read.  Giles was with my Mum, and it felt like such a luxury to have the time to properly scan the shelves and choose what struck my fancy the most.  Here's what I picked out (links to goodreads):

  1. The Virago Book of Women Travellers edited by Mary Morris - This is an anthology of travel writing by women throughout the past few centuries, and it looks so interesting.  I'm hoping to be inspired to read lots of full length books after getting through this one.
  2. The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World by Tom Feiling - Feiling travelled the cocaine routes of the world and this book is part history and part contemporary review of the status of cocaine.  I love a good micro-history.
  3. Wild Women edited by Sue Thomas - I've been trying to get into short stories lately, so I was excited to find a second hand copy of this anthology of short stories by women, all with a feminist slant.  Some of my favourite authors have contributed, and I'm sure I'll find more authors to try.
  4. Shadows of the Pomengranate Tree by Tariq Ali (Islam Quartet #1) - Another second hand find, and I hadn't heard of this one before.  I've never read a novel set during the fall of Granda and Moorish Spain, so it will be interesting to try.
  5. The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller - I love the Brontes, so this non-fiction account of how they have been viewed and mythologised over time will definitely be read soon.
  6. Devil on the Cross by Ngugi wa Thiong'o - I've read about this Kenyan author, and finally I've found a copy of the book of his I want to try.  He wrote it whilst he was imprisoned, and it's apparently a bitter indictement of corruption.
  7. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami - Purely because I've been getting into Murakami lately.
  8. A Short History of Polar Exploration by Nick Rennison - I would love to be an explorer, but I'm simply not cut out for it.  I will have to content myself with reading about exploration instead.
I'm really excited about all of these books.  I feel like my reading tastes are going through a change at the moment, and my shelves don't reflect that.  I'm still into my classics, but I'm more and more drawn to books about the world, about travelling and history, and books by authors from different countries, full of different experiences.  If you've read any of these titles, I'd love to know what you thought of them.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Reading Journal #5: February So Far...

It all went a bit quiet here last week, mainly because I returned to work after nine months on maternity leave.  That was always going to be a shock to the system, but I also returned to a slightly different role, so I had lots of new things to get used to as well.  Thankfully Giles has taken the change very well, and has still been happy, which has made it a bit easier.  I am still reading in the evenings, but at a much slower pace, as I often have to work instead once Giles has gone to bed.

The first book I picked up in February was Robert Jordan's The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the epic Wheel of Time series.  This one is a real chunker too, coming in at roughly 1000 pages and I have to say that I felt the length in this installment.  I still loved the fantasy world and particularly the magic system, but I found myself getting a bit bored with the cliches and repetition that weighed the story down.  Jordan appears to equate strong women with argumentative, stubborn women, and this became tiring.  Stock phrases were repeated one too many times, and I have to admit that I was glad to finish this one.  I still want to continue on with the series, but I'll need a good break before I pick up the next one.
After this, I turned to Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.  It was my third Steinbeck and it was a grower.  At first, I didn't think I liked it, but by half way through I was enjoying it.  However, I only really appreciated and loved it after finishing and reflecting on it, which can happen sometimes. I've written a full review of this one, which you can read here.  Cannery Row left me in the mood for something else equally literary, so I picked up Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, from my Project 1001 list.  Dangarembga is a Zimbabwean author, and Nervous Conditions is a wonderful coming of age story that focuses on feminism and the effects of colonisation.  It was so good it deserves a full review, which I will hopefully get a chance to write soon.  Please ignore the dreadful cover - a book as good as this deserves a much less misleading one.

And that leads up to my current reading situation, in the middle of three books.  On audio, I've almost finished China Dolls by Lisa See, a book I was looking forward to, but which has turned out to be very disappointing.  My non-fiction pick is Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre, a scary account of the power of the pharmaceutical industry, and fiction-wise I'm about a third of the way through Zadie Smith's NW, which is fantastic.  It's half term next week, so I'm hoping to finish all of these and maybe start something new as well.  
What have you been reading recently?

Saturday 7 February 2015

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row is the third John Steinbeck novel that I have read,  but it was completely unlike the other two.  Lacking what anyone could call a real plot, Cannery Row is best described as a series of vignettes that star the inhabitants of the Row, that work together to build up a vivid portrait of a particular place at a particular time.  Steinbeck takes as his subjects the misfits of society - prostitutes, drunks, artists and squatters, and he describes their lives and the everyday occurrences that happen in them.  Homeless Mack and his group of boys move into an abandoned building and set about improving it.  Lee Chong, the grocery owner, is called upon to accept payment in frogs rather than cash.  Doc, a lonely biologist, journeys to the coast to collect specimens.  And the prostitutes at Dora's place face a busy season.

I loved that Steinbeck set this novel among the 'low-life' inhabitants of the Monterey area, and that he infused it with such humanity and hope.  Despite the miserable surroundings the characters find themselves in, their lives are essentially happy.  They aren't caught up in consumerism and the desire for status, and they are able to appreciate some things about life that we can miss, such as how valuable simple acts of kindness can be.  Perhaps because they have found themselves at the bottom rung of society, they live without judgement and simply take people for who they are.  That's a message that we all need to be reminded of every now and again, that beauty and kindness can be found anywhere.

The sense of place in Cannery Row is fantastic.  Steinbeck's writing seemed more poetic in this novel, particularly when he was describing the quality of light over the row, or the sunrise over the sea.  It made the novel extremely visual, and by the end I felt as if I knew Cannery Row myself, as I could imagine it all so clearly.

My only complaint with the novel is that, in common with the other Steinbeck novels I have read, there was too much focus on the male characters.  The character of Doc was fascinating, and so was Mack, but I wanted to read more about Dora and the women who worked for her.  There's a great little section where Dora schedules the girls to deliver soup and company to families during a flu outbreak between clients, but it's never expanded on.  I wanted to know their thoughts and motivations, and experience their lives too.  Similarly, it's hinted that Lee Chong has a wife, daughters and daughters-in-law, but they are entirely absent from the novel.

Still, Cannery Row is a beautiful novel.  The writing and the characters combined to give me such a feeling of hope, that people anywhere can live their lives in a decent and caring way.  I'm looking forward to getting to the sequel, Sweet Thursday.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1945
Edition Read: Penguin Modern Classics, 2000
Score: 4.5 out of 5

The Classics Club: Book 33/72
My full list of titles and reviews can be found here.

Sunday 1 February 2015

January 2015 Wrap-Up

January was an awesome reading month for me, the best since Giles was born in June.  Not only did I finish 11 books and 3259 pages, but I was really into reading and lots of the books ended up being 4 or 5 star reads. I read the following (links to my reviews):
  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
  2. World War Z by Max Brooks
  3. The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe
  4. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
  5. Under the Skin by Michel Faber
  6. Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
  7. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
  8. There Was a Country by Chinua Achebe
  9. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
  10. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  11. Where I'm Reading From by Tim Parks
My favourite book of the month was unquestionably The Blue Castle.  Even though Under the Skin and The Good Earth were also five star reads, The Blue Castle was just so cosy and comforting, and I loved Valancy's journey to independence and freedom.  The only disappointing book of the bunch was World War Z, which was a good idea but way too heavy on the army and logistics front.

In terms of diversity, 18% of the books were by authors of colour, and 36% by authors that aren't British or American.  I'm OK with that, but I'd still like to read more works in translation, something I'll keep in mind for February.  I read 36% non-fiction, which I am thrilled with, and my reads included classics, fantasy, horror, science, literary fiction, history and essays.  I'm glad that I'm reading a good mix of things and not getting stuck in a particular genre.

Eight of the eleven books that I read were from my TBR shelves, which would be amazing if I hadn't also purchased the following eight, thus cancelling out all of my good work:

  1. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
  2. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
  3. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
  4. The Visitors by Sally Beauman
  5. The Martian by Andy Weir
  6. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  7. A Free Life by Ha Jin
  8. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Still, at least I haven't added to my overall TBR!

Looking forward to February, the only thing I will definitely be reading is Robert Jordan's The Fires of Heaven, book five in the Wheel of Time series.  I'm currently about half-way through it, but it's a chunky book so should keep me happy for some time.  After that, I'm going to read mainly by whim, but hopefully knock one book off my classics club list, and one off either of my Project 1001 lists.

How was your reading month?