Who’s with me?

26 books in 2015

There are all sorts of reading challenges out there aimed at motivating you to stand down from the TV/computer and read a little bit more. Check out this Pinterest page, which lists LOTS to consider. I aim to read 60 books this year. I didn’t meet my goal of 65 last year and the number really doesn’t matter all that much…so long as I am reading. What are your goals for the 2015 reading year?

The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay

The Secret of Lost Things is a quiet book inhabited by a cast of eccentric characters who all work in a labyrinthine book store in New York City.

If I start with my own beginning you will understand how I came to the Arcade, and how it came to mean so much to me.

18-year-old Rosemary Savage leaves her homeland of Tasmania after the death if her mother. Rosemary really only knows two things: the hat business (her mother was a milliner) and books (her mother’s only friend , Chaps, owned a bookstore.) Upon her arrival in New York, Rosemary stumbles across the Arcade and lands a job.

The Arcade reminded me immediately of The Strand. Any book lover who’s spent time in NYC has likely visited The Strand. It’s a sprawling, book-crammed paradise for bibliophiles.

As it turns out, Sheridan Hay actually worked at The Strand for nine months, so the similarities I saw in her fictionalized  bookstore were no doubt based on her real-life experiences at The Strand.

Rosemary’s colleagues are a strange crew. There’s Pearl, the man transitioning to become a woman. There’s Oscar, the beautiful gay man in charge of the Non-Fiction section. And there’s Walter Geist, the bookstore’s manager who is an albino.

Although the blurb on the back of The Secret of Lost Things makes it sound like a literary thriller, that’s not what the book is really about.  The characters who work at the Arcade are bookish types, more comfortable with the dusty tomes they sell than with each other. Each of them guards their little book store nook like jealous lovers. Rosemary’s arrival awakens all sorts of feelings and pettiness and passions. Rosemary develops a crush on Oscar even though he’s clearly not interested in her. (In fact, he’s downright mean.) But it’s Geist whose life is forever changed by Rosemary’s arrival. In retrospect she remarks:

Walter Geist’s blindness is important, but it’s my own with regard to him, that remains a lasting regret.

The Secret of Lost Things is a coming of age story. It’s a story about loss and grief. And it’s a story about the transformative power of literature. While there is a literary mystery at the book’s core, it’s not nearly as interesting as the mysteries of the heart.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I still remember the feeling I had the first time I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was probably about 11 or 12. No teacher could have explained the horrors of Nazi Germany to me as well as Anne did. She was speaking to me. Many years later, I visited her attic annex and it was a profound experience.

Reading The Book Thief was also a profound experience for me.

I don’t even know how to begin to talk about The Book Thief. The New York Times said it was “the kind of book that can be life changing.” I mean, you start a book like that with a little trepidation: can it really live up to all the hype? For the first 30 pages or so I thought, “no.” Last night, as I closed the book and wiped the tears away I thought, “every person alive should read this book. I want to teach this book.”

The Book Thief has so many things going for it, I’m not sure where to start singing its praises.

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger.  Liesel is almost ten when she ends up in Molching with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents. It is 1939. In Nazi Germany.

Readers are either going to be totally enchanted or annoyed by the story’s central conceit: the novel is narrated by Death. “Here is a small fact, ” Death tells us. “You are going to die.” For the next 500-plus pages, Death is our constant companion. Sometimes the action unfolds without commentary, other times he weighs in.  Although I found the first 30 pages or so a bit of a slog, I soon settled into the book’s rhythms.

Then I fell in love with Liesel. And Hans. And Rudy. And Rosa.

Liesel is extraordinary. She and Hans bond late at night, when Liesel’s nightmares wake her, and Hans teaches her to read. Books and words are central to Liesel’s story. So is her friendship with Rudy, the boy next door. Through their eyes we see Hitler and Nazi Germany; we experience the atrocities and the small kindnesses. Zusak’s story is mostly about everyday things: hunger, pettiness, laughter, hope, cruelty and kindness.

Liesel is sustained by the books she steals and anyone who loves words will appreciate and understand their ability to comfort Liesel. But she is also intelligent enough to understand how words can be used to hurt and coerce.

Where is Death in all this? He carts the souls of the dead off and is, in this story at least, a loving and benign figure.

Death gets the last word. He always does.

Cleave by Nikki Gemmell

I am not a Nikki Gemmell newbie. I first discovered her a few years ago when I stumbled across her book The Bride Stripped Bare. I liked that book enough to track down more of Gemmell’s work. Cleave is the third novel I’ve read by her.

Cleave is the story of Snip Freeman, a 30 year old Australian artist. The novel opens with Snip making a long journey from Sydney to Alice Springs in Central Australia.  Snip’s  grandmother has died and left Snip enough money to buy a ute (which I gather is the Australian version of a pick up truck), but she has one request: Snip has to return to Alice and find Bud. Bud, as it turns out, is Snip’s father. Finding him isn’t a problem: Snip knows where he is.

Alice (and Bud) have an emotional hold on Snip. Well, lots of things have an emotional hold on Snip. She’s prickly and needy and in desperate need of the answers to some of the big questions of her life.

The distance between Sydney and Alice Springs is roughly 2700km and Snip doesn’t want to make the journey alone so she puts an ad in the paper: Girl plans ute, Sydney to Alice, share the lot, now. Dave is intrigued by the ad and ends up sharing the journey with Snip. Dave becomes a major player in Snip’s life. She’s always reckoned herself a free spirit, bouncing between friends, setting up makeshift studios wherever she lands. Although he’s slightly younger, Dave is settled and he wants Snip to settle, too.

Cleave means to break or come apart. Cleave is a story about fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, lovers. Although that might be familiar territory, Gemmell’s story is made new by her original and fresh prose and, for this Canadian at least, the unfamiliar terrain. Gemmell’s characters are intriguing, particularly Snip and her father. I think Gemmell’s a brave writer, too. She takes chances with her words and pushes the reader along ground that is often uncomfortable, but all the more rewarding because of it.

I am happy to say that I have now completed the first book in the Aussie Author Challenge.

A Reading Challenge

I see a lot of reading challenges when I am reading other book blogs. People sign up like mad for these things and they often seem onerous to me.  I like to keep my reading schedule more flexible. I belong to a reading group and I have to read those books. Beyond that, I like to peruse my tbr shelf and pick what I feel like reading at that moment.

That said, I did sign up for The Memorable Memoir Reading Challenge because it only required me to read four memoirs and I have (at least) four on my tbr shelf.

This morning I stumbled across the Aussie Author Challenge over at Booklover Book Reviews. I can be a ‘tourist’ and read just three novels. Interestingly, I am part way through Cleave by Nikki Gemmell and next up is The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. (I didn’t even know he was Australian, so bonus!) I also have a couple Tim Winton’s on my tbr shelf…so signing up for this challenge seemed like a no-brainer!

Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter

The Betty and Boo Chronicles is hosting a Memorable Memoir Reading Challenge and as I actually have a few memoirs on my tbr pile, I thought I could manage to fulfill the challenge’s requirements: read four memoirs in one year. That’s doable.

I just finished my first memoir, Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter.

Before I talk about the book, let me say a few words about the author. I discovered Carolyn Slaughter 20 odd years ago, purely by accident. I came across her novel, The Banquet in a book store and its tag line “a taut and powerful story of obsessive love” caught my attention.  Well of course it did. At the time I was madly (and a little obsessively) in love myself. I devoured the book and then went looking for more. In a second hand store I came across her novel Relations (which is also known as The Story of the Weasel in that weird way books have their name changed between the UK and North America). That book was stunning. That book caused me to write a letter to Ms. Slaughter, the first and only fan letter I have ever written to an author. A letter to which she replied. In total I have read six novels by Ms. Slaughter (I highly recommend Magdalene as well as the two I have already mentioned) and I count myself a huge fan. She is an immensely talented writer.

Her memoir wasn’t what I expected, however, and I can’t say I loved it. Born in India, her parents moved to Africa when Slaughter was very young. Her father had some sort of government job; her mother was mostly emotionally unavailable and Carolyn, her older sister, Angela and her younger sister, Susan had a weird and unhappy childhood.

Carolyn prefaces her story by telling the reader of a horrific incident that happened to her when she was six. Then she goes on to say that Before the Knife isn’t a memoir about that. Except it is –  because Carolyn was clearly shaped by what happened to her. She does her best to survive her cruel mother and horrible father and much of her survival depends on her affinity with the land. She clearly loves Africa, its wild and exotic landscape a place of  refuge for her.

The story covers Slaughter’s life from her arrival in Africa to her return to England when she’s 16 or so. The pages in between are filled with striking images of the land, the people (both blacks and whites) who occupied it and Slaughter’s complicated and strained relationship with her siblings and parents. She’s not entirely likable – prone to violence against others and herself.

It’s not until years later, when she herself remembers what had transpired when she was just a little girl, that her story comes into focus. By then, though, I felt disconnected from her – the strange little bits of revealed life never really coming together. And I really wish she’d talked about writing.

Nevertheless, I have no regrets about reading her story. There was certainly nothing ordinary about it!

Here’s a challenge for you…

If you check out my page On My tbr Shelf…oh dear, you’ll see that I have more than enough books to keep me reading for the next year (or three). My goal this year is to watch less TV and read more…and also to try not to buy any books other than what’s required for my book club.

Currently my tbr list is organized alphabetically. I’d love it if you’d take a look and help me prioritize my reading list. What’s on that list that I should be reading straight away because it’s awesome? What should I relegate to the bottom because, quite frankly, you have no idea why I’d want to read that.

I’d love to compile a list of 50 because that’s my reading goal for the year, so by all means…tell me what I should be reading in 2010.

My first ever reading challenge…

Sandy at You’ve GOTTA Read This mentioned  a challenge I think I can manage.  The Betty and Boo Chronicles is hosting a ‘Memorable Memoir’ challenge.  I like this one because it’s totally doable: you have to read four memoirs by the end of the year.  I have four memoirs on my tbr shelf…so this will be the perfect excuse to finally read them!

The four memoirs I plan to read are:

  1. Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller
  2. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  3. Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter
  4. Cherry by Mary Karr