Some good books

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I wrote about anything I’ve read. How has it been 5 months? I have definitely been doing plenty of reading; I’ve just gotten too distracted to write them up. This is, therefore, an unintentional roundup of some of the most memorable books I’ve read so far this year. Feel free to pop over to my Goodreads page to see a full list of what I’ve been reading.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

I am terrible about keeping up to date with fiction, but as I have an interest in anything to do with Lincoln, and have heard great things about Saunders, I wanted to try this one. It takes place over one night, and to me it read more like a play than a novel. Saunders skillfully transitions between conflicting voices; each of the characters were distinctive, well-rounded, and introduced/developed at a good pace. Having a novel that is set in only 2 places is also a challenge that Saunders handled really well. It’s hard to believe many authors could set a novel in a mausoleum without making it feel morbid. I particularly admired how well emotions were conveyed throughout the book; writing about the loss of a child can so easily be overly sentimental, but I thought Saunders portrayal was really authentic and quite heartbreaking. Overall, I found it a thought-provoking novel that I felt I needed to re-read to absorb fully, yet struggled to put down while I was reading. I would definitely recommend it to others who are in the mood for a challenging yet engrossing book.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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The Power has been everywhere this year, and why not? With an endorsement from Margaret Atwood and the Bailey’s Prize, it is hard not to be persuaded to at least read this book. And for me, it did live up to the hype, even if I am not sure it will be a long-term favorite. The Power is a dystopian sci fi story where the women of the world, starting with the teenagers, suddenly find they have skeins of power (literally, as in electricity). The story then follows what happens, both in the lives of a few specific characters, and the wider world. It was a thought-provoking book, and I loved the detail of the illustrations, but the structure didn’t quite work for me. I’m really glad I read it, though.

East West Street by Philippe Sands

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Having really enjoyed reading a ton of non-fiction a few years ago, I recently realised how much I missed it. I think I read a review of East West Street on the NPR book blog and decided it would be a good one to try to get me back into the habit. It tells the stories of three people – the author’s grandfather, Hersch Lauterpacht (who introduced the term crimes against humanity), and Raphael Lemkin (who originated the word genocide). All three were originally from the same city, now Lviv in Ukraine. The book starts off as 3 biographies, each of which are interesting on their own, but overall the book didn’t pick up for me until the second half, where Sands discusses the impact of Lauterpacht and Lemkin’s work on the Nuremberg trials. The story of Sands’s grandfather was really interesting, but for me it didn’t have a strong enough connection with Lauterpacht and Lemkin to fit in this book. Perhaps it would’ve worked better on its own as a short book. Nonetheless, I’m really glad I read this & would recommend it. It was a well-written book with a compelling narrative, and I learned a lot while reading it.

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being by Alice Roberts

The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being: Evolution and the Making of Us

A friend loaned this to me shortly after I told her I was pregnant. It’s not a pregnancy book, though; it’s about evolution and how that is reflected in human development. It was fascinating! And it pretty much blew my mind, too. I mean, the development of the heart in a fetus? Wow. Just wow. It made me understand exactly why I was so shattered during the first trimester in particular. I’ve not read anything by Alice Roberts before, and haven’t seen any of her documentaries, but she was a very persuasive writer. The bibliography was extensive, too, which is always important to me when evaluating the quality of a non-fiction book. I have to be honest & say I may not have enjoyed this quite as much if I weren’t pregnant…but I still would have given it 4/5.

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

The Sunlight Pilgrims

Set at the beginning of a modern ice age, The Sunlight Pilgrims takes place in the far north of Scotland and tells the story of Dylan, Estella, and Constance, who are living in a caravan park as an iceberg approaches the Scottish coast. It’s a surprisingly gentle book focusing on human relationships in spite of huge, overarching things happening in the wider world. So basically, it’s quite relevant to real life in that sense. It’s both apocalyptic and personal, quite a hard balance to capture. I picked this up because I loved The Panopticon so much. I didn’t like this novel quite as much, but still found it quite an interesting one.

Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love by James Runcie

Sidney Chambers and the Persistence of Love (The Grantchester Mysteries #6)

Ah, Grantchester! I love this series. All the characters seem so flawed and human. Also, I’m a sucker for a clergy detective. I do watch Grantchester on TV, but I prefer the books. The last one was a bit disappointing, though, so I was unsure about picking this one up. I’m glad I did, as it was back to the feeling of Runcie’s earlier books. The stories aren’t overly complicated, and this was a perfect summer read, which I got through in about a day sitting in my garden. There are some very sad (and shocking) events in this particular volume of Grantchester, yet it was still a comforting read – just what it should be.

5 happy things – the one with buds of spring

It’s been a little while since I’ve done one of these lists. Actually, it’s been a little while since I posted on here. Things are pretty busy at the moment. I’m working on my final module for a PG Certificate, which involves a lot more work than previous modules, and I’m gathering all my documents for my Permanent Residency application (and being grateful to my mom, yet again, for her German citizenship so I didn’t have to worry about this until now, because it is really stressful), there’s lots to think about in regard to the allotment, and we’ve got plans for house stuff (bookshelves, at last!).

But in spite of all this, I have been reasonably content. There have been lots of little things to make me happy. Here are five of them.

  • Daffodils

I planted some daffodils in our front garden late fall, but hadn’t seen any sign of them. I was already starting to assume they just hadn’t made it through the winter for some reason. But on Saturday morning, there they were! Granted, they’re still tiny, but it’s something to look forward to.p1080229

  • Local bookshops

Cheltenham didn’t have an independent bookshop when I moved here, but a couple of years ago The Suffolk Anthology opened. It’s a lovely shop, with a carefully chosen selection of books. They also sell tea & coffee & cake. I stopped by on Saturday & left with Exchanging Hats, a book of paintings by Elizabeth Bishop. It was there when I visited late last year, and I didn’t buy it. The fact that it was still there tells me it was fate. Right?

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  • Morning cycles in the daylight

I love my morning  bike ride to the train station. But it is so much better now that it’s light when I leave the house.

  • More books

Oops, I bought some more books. This is my favorite illustration from one of them, 365 Penguins.

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  • Time with R

I do think Valentine’s Day is a load of rubbish, but it was nice to have an excuse to go out during the week. We are both prone to inertia & very rarely do. A Tuesday evening out broke up the week & made it fly by.

How are things going for you at the moment?

Half a year of reading – highlights

Hello! Sorry for the long break in posting; things have been pretty crazy in real life recently, and I’ve been having a hard time sitting down to write. That’s also why I haven’t put any pictures here (far too lazy)…sorry, bad blogging etiquette, I know.

Anyway, apart from the Yarn Along, I haven’t been sharing much about what I’ve been reading this year. I’m putting this down to lack of energy – all this year, my energy seems to have been put into thinking rather than doing for some reason. Perhaps it’s because it’s been such an overwhelmingly negative year, not necessarily for my personal life, but in the world overall? Hm, there’s a thought! Anyway, I have been reading even if I haven’t been blogging about it. It’s about time to share a few, though, so here are my favourite books so far. I’d recommend all of them, so if the summaries/reviews below make the book sound like your kind of thing, I’d encourage you to borrow a copy from your local library.

Plague of Doves Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s been publishing since the 80s, but somehow I failed to read her until this year. Plague of Doves is set in a small town (and the nearby reservation) in North Dakota, and revolves around the lasting effects of a murder that happened decades before the novel is set. It has three narrators, and this is what I particularly loved about the book. Balancing 3 perspectives is hard, and Erdrich totally mastered it. The connections are clear, but still leave you wanting to know more. The narrators are all quite different, too, so some of the relationships are unexpected. I also felt I learned about Ojibwe culture. I had a hard time putting this book down because I was so interested in seeing how the story would unfold. I will definitely be reading more Erdrich in the future.

The House that Groaned , Karrie Fransman

I do love a good graphic novel. I veer towards autobiographical titles. Though I love a good superhero movie, I am not one for traditional comics as I am apparently too flaky to stick with series. The House that Groaned contains the stories of each of the current tenants in a Victorian house. It’s all about the things that affect us as children, how they reveal themselves through our interests/personalities/habits as adults, and how they manifest themselves in our relationships. Complete with thoughts about weight, gender, and disability, it’s a thought-provoking graphic novel, even if, for me, it didn’t address them all at a level I agreed with.

The Crane Wife , Patrick Ness

The Crane Wife by The Decemberists is one of my favourite albums, and people have been recommending Patrick Ness to me for years, so I was very pleased when I spotted this book in the library. Of course there’s no real connection between the album & the novel though both are inspired by the same folk tale & Ness does acknowledge The Decemberists in an afterword. The story is about George Duncan, an average man whose life changes when a woman mysteriously shows up in his copy shop. Ness’s storytelling is simple and elegant, and the characters are whimsical and heartbreaking. I would read this again, and will be picking up more Ness as well.

Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England , Ian Mortimer

I enjoy reading non-fiction, too, and the Elizabethan era is one of my favorite time periods. The Time Traveller’s Guide is engaging as well as clear and accurate (according to my limited previous knowledge of the era). Eventually I hope to get around to reading Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England as well.

Embassytown . China Mieville

Embassytown is an ode to the power of language. If you’ve ever felt the urge to explain to someone that, yes, the words and inflections and syntax you use are significant, you may want to recommend they read Embassytown. It is a proper science fiction book, set in a distant future where humans have set up a city (Embassytown) on a distant planet. The native inhabitants are the Arikei, who cannot communicate with most humans as their language is so different; they cannot lie & therefore cannot even make metaphors/similes. Therefore, ambassadors have an honored role, and occasionally people are called upon to act out metaphors so the Arikei can understand. While I did find the plot convincing & interesting (a citizen of Embassytown has returned after living away for a long time; things go a little crazy when she returns), for me it was very much secondary. Mieville isn’t for everyone, but I love his attention to detail and ability to create totally distinct worlds. Well worth reading if you like sci fi like me.

Americanah , Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I loved this book, and it’s one I definitely hope to reread. There’s a lot to take in, with the themes of (lost) love, race, immigration, and what it means to be successful. It’s a very good take on coming to terms with living in a different country, and what that means for your identity, as well as how race is perceived differently in different places. I know I’m being vague, but that’s because I am one of those weird people who likes to start reading books without knowing much about plot details. Do check out the synopsis & reviews on Goodreads if you want to know more. But I can confidently say I recommend it without hesitation to anyone who has the least interest in learning about how cultures are perceived by immigrants. While it’s obviously specifically about America, it also alludes to the experience of immigrating to England. I think the one surprise for me about this book was its ending – for me, it wasn’t a feminist ending (though I think there is an argument that some people would interpret it that way).

Brooklyn , Colm Toibin

Set in 1950s Ireland and New York, Brooklyn is the story of young Eilis, who moves to New York to help support her family in Ireland. I think I’ve mentioned before that I love coming of age stories, and this is a really good one. Several of my favorite novels are set in early 1950s Brooklyn, so it’s no surprise I like the setting as well. Toibin is an excellent writer, and the characters are well-rounded and believable. It’s not a 5-star book, but it is overall a very convincing narrative of a young woman trying to balance her new identity with a real sense of family obligation.

Temeraire , Naomi Novik

Most of the books I’ve mentioned so far have been pretty serious, so it’s nice that I can recommend a properly fun one. Temeraire is set in an alternative 19th century where Britain is still fighting Napoleon – using dragons! The book tells the story of a Navy captain who is suddenly put in charge of an exceptional dragon and their ensuing battles & adventures. Definitely recommended if you like dragons & good writing. I have since read others in the series, and to be honest they’re not quite as good as the first one, but still enjoyable reading.

Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015

I don’t read many books of short stories, but I loved this one. There is a huge range here, from funny to creepy to just bizarre. They really are the best of the best. I gave it 4 out of 5 stars, though, purely because there were two introductions and neither of them were very good. Skip them & go right for the body of work.

If you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve read/am reading more regularly, do come find me on Goodreads.

 

Yarn along & a couple of presents

On the knitting front, the saga of the blue willow jumper continues. I really love the way this looks, but I’m really regretting not taking the time to work out how to knit it in the round. Purling colourwork is a pain. I am definitely going to take the time to work out how to knit the sleeves in the round, though.

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On the train this morning, I finished reading The Guest Cat. While I admire the elegance of Japanese prose, and love how descriptive it is, I must admit most Japanese books aren’t really for me. There’s just something that doesn’t click with me. I really enjoyed reading The Guest Cat, though, and found it very moving. It’s slow-moving, eloquent, and emotional. It was a slow and enjoyable book, but I am not sure yet whether it’s memorable. I would still recommend it if someone is in the mood for beautiful reflective writing.

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I think I mentioned before that I was thinking of making a sampler for my friend who was getting married. As you can see, I did! When I asked what the theme for her wedding was, she said pink & glitter (which is very her). This was my interpretation. I would’ve liked to do something prettier, but I have to admit I was quite last minute. I have a long way to go to improve my written embroidery, too. But I liked all the French knots on the outside, and it did look nice when framed. I was also very impressed with my heart, especially given that  I didn’t use a template. Nice and symmetrical! I really hope they liked it. My embroidery still isn’t great, so I always get anxious when I give it as a gift.

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My next present is going to be a set of soft blocks for my friend’s newborn, using some scrap fabric from my stash.

Linking up with the Yarn Along. What are you up to this week?

Blue willow & Potter

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Hello. If you’re reading this, thanks for sticking around. My trip home was wonderful, and I’ve got a couple of posts lined up, including one about the Van Gogh bedroom exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Shortly after I got back I went to Warner Brothers Studios to celebrate my 30th, which definitely merits a post (though I’ll try to make sure I don’t overshare in case you haven’t been). I’m also way behind on my A Considered Life series…rest assured I haven’t forgotten about this & will be trying to catch up over the next couple of weeks.

But back to this week. I didn’t make nearly as much progress on my sweater as I thought I would while I was away. It’s also not as good as I’d like – I initially misjudged the tension, so it is a little bubbled. I am cautiously optimistic that will be taken care of when I block it, though. Overall the jumper is okay right now, and I’ve worked out a way to make sure the tension stays consistent, by trying to keep the knitting as flat as possible while I’m working.

Now that I’m back, I’m also back on Harry Potter. I do love Goblet of Fire, so it’s particularly nice to be rereading it. Dragons for the win!

Linking up with the Yarn Along.

 

FO: Kokkeluri mittens

The mittens are finally finished, just in time to share them for a Wednesday Yarn Along. I am really happy with them. For once, I will have something to look forward to in the winter!

P1040367.JPGI should say that the reason these took so long was nothing to do with the pattern itself. Kate Davies clearly spent a lot of time designing them & writing clear instructions. But when you only knit on the train, it’s bound to take a little while to finish a project, regardless of size. These mitten instructions were easy to follow, and the chart was absolutely brilliant. I also love that there’s a list of links to videos for the particular techniques used throughout the book (Buachaille). I did struggle a little bit with the yarn I used, though, as it wasn’t very well spun & kept getting caught.

 

 

As for the reading part of the Yarn Along, I just finished reading The Memory Keeper’s Daughter for a book club I participate in at work. The novel starts in 1964, with a doctor giving away his daughter (a twin) who was born with Down’s Syndrome. That sounds like a huge spoiler, but actually that is about as much as is given away in the Goodreads synopsis, so I don’t feel too guilty! The rest of the book follows the lives of the two children, the doctor, his wife, and the woman who raises the little girl for the next 25 years. To be honest, I was dreading reading this as I thought it was going to be saccharine & overly sentimental, but was pleasantly surprised. Instead it was genuinely moving, and was about secrets, connections, forgiveness, and human nature. The portrayal of Down’s Syndrome was exceptionally good, and the characters were well-rounded in general.

 

Dinos, elephants, and other big news

P1030827.JPGThis week has been great fun, as I’ve been knitting dinosaurs. RAWR! They’re presents for the various little ones in my life. I have to say these are the most fun thing I’ve knit in ages; I keep looking down and thinking, “Look at that tiny dinosaur leg!” and then chuckling to myself. I’ve made them half the size of the pattern by halving the number of stitches – this stegosaurus was supposed to be 30 cm, much too big for the 1-year-old it’s intended for. Also, part of the reason I went for making toys in the first place is that I wanted to use up some of the double knit yarn in my stash.

I’ve not been reading much recently, but I did squeeze in another Tom Cox book, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, the end of The Matchmaker, and am currently reading The Sense of an Elephant. Hm, that sounds like more than I thought…but they are all light hearted reads, apart from the last one. Some random thoughts:

  • I would like to meet Tom Cox’s cats, but also his dad, because he sounds awesome.
  • The Matchmaker was underwhelming. I really wanted to like it, but the plot wasn’t strong enough for me, nor were the characters people I liked. While a couple of lines were funny, overall I thought the book was a bit lacking in something indefinable. There were also interruptions from the writer (ala Jane Austen & the Bronte sisters), which didn’t really work in this context. I managed to finish it, and liked the very last page best out of the whole book. However, I could easily have not finished it & just forgotten about it. I may give Gibbons another go later, but I suspect she’s not for me.
  • The Sense of an Elephant is enjoyable so far. It revolves around Pietro, the concierge at an upscale Milan apartment building – his past and his relationships with the tenants. The writing’s nice, and I think the book has a good structure.

Finally, the big news. As of yesterday, R & I are homeowners! We got our keys yesterday and will be moving early next year. It’s not a big fancy house, or anything approaching our dream house, but when we started thinking about buying we realised quite quickly that a period home like we would have really wanted was out of our budget. Yes, maybe we could have gotten one that needed a lot of work, but neither of us have any experience of DIY & we were a little too intimidated (though I personally am hoping our next house, if there is one, will need an overhaul!). The one we’ve got is a sensible house with a good kitchen & enough space for us to live in for quite a while. Expect photos soon.

Update: linking this with the yarn-along.