Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment

heroic measuresHeroic Measures centres around Ruth and Alex, who need to leave their apartment because they can no longer manage the stairs, their sick Dachshund Dorothy, and a suspected terrorist plot to blow up a nearby tunnel. The narration seamlessly switches between Ruth, Alex, and Dorothy. Yes, Dorothy the dog. It sounds gimmicky but, somehow, it works.

It’s a book about how life goes on, even in the face of personal crises (like a sick beloved pet) or wider crises (like a possible terrorist on the loose in the local neighbourhood). The morning of peak crisis for Ruth and Alex they still have to go ahead with their open house to sell the flat, because their lives must still move regardless. As must the lives of those wanting to move in (or just inappropriately lie on their bed for 1o minutes).

Linked to this, it’s also a book about growing older. We get some glimpses of Ruth and Alex’s lives when they were younger, but only in the context of Alex creating art from their (literal) records. The focus is on who they are now, and the small gestures and familiarity that comes with a decades-long relationship, though not without times the other person or themselves surprises or changes. It’s clear throughout that Ruth and Alex are coming to the end of long lives, but this does not mean they are standing still.

The book is also filled with immigration, New York, the media, and real estate.

There were moments it felt a little over-written, as a novel like this needs incredibly tight prose to work. But, most of the time, the details Ciment picks out are just right.

A quiet, light novel, with little in the way of plot, but in a way that feels real and intimate. It’s that feeling of ‘real’ that makes it. I like it.

Heroic Measures is released in the UK on 10th September 2015.

I received a free copy of Heroic Measures from Pushkin Press in exchange for an honest review.

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Times and Places: Landmark books

Some books always remind you of a certain place or a specific time in your life; a particular person, or a particular cake. The books I keep on my bookshelf are the ones that I’ll either re-read, or mean something to me, like little emotional or memory time capsules. Over on her youtube channel Jen Campbell made a tag discussing just this very thing, which I have now shamelessly stolen. These are the books that first came to mind when thinking about this, so I’m sure there are many more I could have chosen. They’re not favourites, but something else, something like landmarks in the road.

burglar billBurglar Bill

We moved a bit when I was younger, and I went to three different primary schools. I went to one of those twice, when we briefly moved back to our old house when we got back to England before moving on. The first time around, when I was very small, I had a teacher who played guitar and nearly always relented when we asked for Burglar Bill or Funny Bones yet again instead of something new. Burglar Bill is sitting cross-legged on the carpet, spinning on an icy playground in the winter, and daisy chains in the summer.

faraway treeThe Faraway Tree

Around the same time, in the same house, I read a lot of Enid Blyton. In a random act of synesthesia The Faraway Tree tastes and smells like victoria sponge, even though, as a child of the 80s/90s, I would have been more likely to be eating lemon curd sandwiches. I shared a bunk bed with my younger brother, and we’d stay up late while I told ‘shadow show stories’ from my top bunk using the light squeaking through the doorway. We don’t talk often now as we just have very different interests and personalities, but at the time he was my best friend. Even though he never read it, he feels as tied to The Faraway Tree as I am.

MiseryMisery

When I was 9/10, my parents started running a pub and restaurant, which we lived above. There weren’t a lot of books around at home as neither of my parents were big readers – just the odd Stephen King, John Grisham and Clive Cussler. But, as managing that sort of business is completely exhausting and pretty much 24/7, we kids were given a lot of free reign (my younger sister had also appeared by this point). Ten years old is probably too young for Misery, but I loved it. I re-read the part where she chops his foot off over and over again because it freaked me out so much. I never want to re-read it as it could never be as potent, or as terrifying, as it was to my young self. It was around the same time that I read The Client by John Grisham and decided absolutely that I would become a lawyer to Fight Injustice (I didn’t), and Jane Eyre, which remains one of my favourites. It was also around that time that I was having a really terrible time at my last primary school and was in desperate need of an escape. Perhaps these things aren’t just about what’s lying around. Afterall, I never picked up any Cussler.

the beachThe Beach

I hadn’t seen the film, but for some reason my friend Alice and I listened to the soundtrack all summer. I read the book voraciously, trying to map each song to parts of the story (I later watched the film and found out I was wrong on nearly every count). The Beach is being 15, before things got difficult, summer all year long, heat, Alice, and running around in trees. Nothing special happened, but, more than any other book, this is the one I always think of when tying books to places.

catch 22Catch 22

I always prefer longer and more difficult books when I go away, just because you tend have more uninterrupted time to read which suits them better. I did a bit of travelling at undergrad and one summer planned a trip to Sri Lanka with my then boyfriend. We ended up going about 6 months after the tsunami. It was a strange trip, not least because my boyfriend had been cheating on me and we broke up two weeks before but still went anyway (1/10 do not recommend). I got to touch and be close to real live elephants for the first time. I spoke to people who had been clinging for their lives to wreckage and trees to survive the waves. I saw an infrastructure which in many places had not even begun to be cleared and repaired. I spoke to people who had the houses they rebuilt torn down because it was too close to the beach under new regulations but had nowhere else to go, so were rebuilding again. I drank Sri Lankan spirits and ate curry for breakfast. I extended my heartbreak. I have no regrets about going.

harry potter 1Harry Potter

I was in the second year of my doctorate, and had just started reading more regularly again (probably to avoid the increased work load). I’d somehow managed to avoid them as they were coming out, but I’m so glad I didn’t have to wait between books. I was in bed with the flu and extreme insomnia and decided I may as well read those Harry Potter books.  So I read them all.  In a week.  Flu, insomnia delirium and intensive Potter sort of, a little bit, made me believe that I was in fact a wizard.  When I started to feel better I took some laundry downstairs and dropped a sock.  Instinctively, I slowly reached for my wand to retrieve it…

What’s interesting to me is that there are no books that spring immediately to mind for some really important times and people. I didn’t read very much as a teenager, and didn’t become a Reader again until my early twenties, so maybe those people and places are tied to other things like music and films. I think it’s too soon to know what books will remind me of the past few years, especially as I read so much more now. I look forward to finding out.

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July Reads 2015

I haven’t been posting reviews in July as I had a bad illness patch for a good chunk and wasn’t reading much. But! But a few books did get read, and reviews and bookish things will start again this month.

the haunting of hill houseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (novel)

I really enjoyed this and can see why it’s one of her most famous novellas. I loved how ambiguous it is – nothing is ever really explained and you could interpret the ending in two different ways. It’s slow and quiet in that old-school horror way that relies on your imagination, and that Shirley Jackson does so well. I saw the 1999 version of The Haunting (based on this) a while back, and the film completely changes the plot (and isn’t great) so I was expecting something very different. Ignore the film and head straight to the book.

the paying guestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (novel)

I had high expectations going into this as two separate people said it gave them book hangovers and they loved it. I wasn’t quite as impressed. The first two thirds or so were enjoyable enough to read but nothing special. The final third was much more interesting and where all the themes about what’s right/wrong, consequences, and trust are at the fore. Because the book is written is from the point of view of the central character, but written in the third person, you really get pulled into the mistrust of certain other characters towards the end, which I liked. Overall, enjoyable enough, but no book hangover for me.

order of the phoenixHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling (novel)

Part of my re-read alongside the Witch, Please podcast (the last episode about the Goblet of Fire film made me do weirdo laughing out loud on the bus). Despite this being the longest book, and one I don’t think I’ve ever re-read, there was less I’d forgotten than the other shorter books. I love the character of Umbridge, and the point it makes about people not being easily split into good and evil, but it’s obvious this is the one where the editors had the least amount of input.

the examined lifeThe Examined Life by Stephen Grosz (non-fiction)

I’m still not sure what I think about this collection. I usually like a lightness of touch and the writer leaving space for the reader to fill, but many of the chapters felt a bit lacking something. I definitely preferred the longer chapters which talked about issues more broadly, as well as specifically. I wonder if maybe because I’m a clinical psychologist (though not a psychoanalyst) some of the thoughts weren’t as new to me, so lost some of their impact. I was also having something of a post-illness existential crisis at the time, and was perhaps looking for something the book was never trying to offer, so I’m going to have another flick through in the future to see if I feel differently at a different time.

Currently reading: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (non-fiction, and really excellent so far)

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June Reads 2015

A mixed bunch for June; a couple I loved, a couple I wasn’t fussed by, and a couple of good comics.

fanFan by Danny Rhodes (novel)

I really enjoyed this. It’s a grim and raw book, with so much unhappiness, and one in which you are not always going to like the central character. But it’s also gripping, beautifully written, and feels emotionally true (the author was also a Forest fan at Hillsborough that day). Highly recommended. Full review here.

the miniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (novel)

A good debut but I didn’t love it. I found the first half better than the second, which is perhaps because the first half was more about character development and the second more about lots of predictable plot twists and I’m more interested in the character stuff, though I also thought the writing was better in the first half. Even though this wasn’t for me, I do think Burton is an interesting writer, so if the premise of her next appealed I would definitely pick it up.

n.p.N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto translated from Japanese by Ann Sherif (novel)

This was completely different from what I was expecting from the synopsis. It’s an odd book and I’m not sure what I think about it. It took me a while to get into because it’s mostly written in short sentences which felt a bit staccato (I’m not sure if this is Yoshimoto’s style or the translation), and it felt a bit disjointed at times. I have another of hers (Kitchen) on my shelf to read which I’m told is a lot better so I’m looking forward to giving it a go.

no more worlds to conquerNo More Worlds to Conquer by Chris Wright (non-fiction)

I really enjoyed this book about what people did after their life-defining achievement/event – the ‘what next’ after the ‘happily ever after’. I wanted a bit more diversity from it, and I’m really hoping there’ll be a second volume. Full review here.

alex and adaAlex and Ada vol. 1 by Jonathan Luna & Sarah Vaughn (comics – fiction)

I shouldn’t have enjoyed this, but I did. It’s a human / A.I. story that doesn’t do anything particularly new or different, and I didn’t like the art style, but I just really enjoyed reading it. They’ve just published the final issue, so there will be three volumes in total, which I will probably pick up with a confused look on my face.

wytchesWytches vol. 1 by Scott Snyder & Jock (comics – fiction)

Though it can make the pages a bit too dark at times, Matt Hollingsworth’s colour work really makes this comic for me. He splatters watercolour over the top of the paints which gives the panels an obscured and other-worldly look. Interestingly, as the wytches enter the family’s lives more, the family’s panels, which start with more traditional colouring, gradually become more splattered. I like their concept of wytches as actual horrible things in the forest, but the story itself is a little predictable and not as properly scary as the quotes on the back will have you believe. I did enjoy Snyder’s letters in the back matter, about how Wytches relates to anxiety and parenting and fear. I will definitely pick up volume 2.

Currently reading: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Also on the blog in June:

My literary tattoos

How to read with a chronic illness

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No More Worlds to Conquer by Chris Wright

no more worlds to conquerThis book is about sixteen people who had huge, life-defining achievements / events relatively early in their lives, and what they did next. It includes astronauts, adventurers, a pilot, a singer, a gymnast, and survivors. When the first line of your obituary is already written, how do you move on from that? And how do you deal with it when you go on to achieve many other things, but all anyone cares about is that one event?

I was really excited to get my hands on this. The ‘what next’ is always more interesting to me than the ‘happily ever after’, but those stories are rarely told. One of the chapters that has stuck with me the most is the chapter on Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who was the first to achieve a perfect 10 in the Olympics (and eventually scored seven 10s in the competition) at the age of just 14.  The ‘what next’ of female gymnasts has always fascinated me – they can have a whole career and it be over before commentators have stopped saying ‘they just need to mature’ about athletes of the same age in other sports. The thing with Nadia is, she didn’t go back home to sponsorships and financial security, she did gymnasts for a little longer and then had to deal with the increasingly brutal regime of Ceausescu and poverty. As Wright says “Learning about this period in her life, I realise how frivolous the central conceit of my book and this interview – deciding what to do with the rest of one’s life after an immense and defining achievement – must seem. Because in her case, what came next was a bitter, constant, day-by-day battle to stay afloat”. Eventually she defected and ended up in America, which wasn’t just walking into an embassy, it was wading through icy lakes, climbing over barb wire fences, and walking for hours. And then came adjusting to life to in the States….

The stories and people in this book aren’t just about achievements; there are also a few people who have had life-defining things happen to them. Like Russ Ewin, who was one of only a handful of survivors of the Sandakan prison-of-war camp, and how he lived a full life afterwards, but that by being one of so very few to survive we put a kind of burden on him to often re-tell, re-live, and represent the story of what happened. And the crew of United 232, who handled an apparently unsurvivable plane malfunction, and how they dealt with the trauma, grief and feeling of responsibility for those who did not survive.

As Wright talks a little about in the introduction and epilogue, the people in this book are almost all men, almost all white. I understand what he said about why – he started from an interest in American adventurers, particularly astronauts, and they tended to come out of the post-war military, which was very white and male. But I found the lack of diversity noticeable as I was reading, and I wonder if Wright could have found a way to be a bit more inclusive. I definitely would have preferred a longer book with a greater variety of stories, not just in terms of race and gender, but also in the kind of achievement/event. (Incidentally, an interview with Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, which didn’t make it into the book, can be found here).

However, as it is something he is aware of himself, and seems keen for more, I’m really hoping there will be a second volume with a little more balance – I would pick it up in a heartbeat. Fascinating and extremely readable.

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How to read with a chronic illness

I read a lot. I also have a chronic illness which sometimes makes it difficult for me to read at all (extreme fatigue, migraines, pain which makes holding up a book difficult, etc). It’s different from the kind of sleepy reading you do when you have a cold or flu, because there’s no recharge – resting doesn’t make the exhaustion go away and overdoing it can lead to days of payback. (If you haven’t heard of it before, check out the Spoon Theory – it’s a really good explanation of what living with chronic illness is like, and why people call themselves spoonies!).

Every person and the way their condition affects them is different, but these are some of my tips for reading with chronic illness:

spoonBe honest with yourself about your limits, and what your warning signs are that you need to stop. This is one of those ‘do as I say, not as I do’ things – when holding the book open is tiring or I’m forgetting the beginning of the sentence at end of it, it’s probably time to stop. When my face is a bit numb I probably shouldn’t start reading. When my eyesight gets ‘swirly’ I should definitely stop so I’m not more ill the next day. Should. Should…

I usually read in small chunks, and stop before I really have to. Though this can be damn frustrating when it means stopping before I want to, I know I get more done overall if I don’t wear myself out in one binge. I could kiss books with short chapters for this reason, I really could.

Think about the typeface in the edition you choose. Anything you have to concentrate on more will be more tiring (for me that means small text and/or a weird contrast between the text and the page). If you have an e-reader you can change the size of the text (though keep in mind you might find the screen tiring), but if you’re reading a physical book either have a flick through in the bookshop to choose a better print edition for you, or read less to take the extra concentration into account.

Sentence length and complexity of language can also make a difference – when you’re tired, go for something with shorter sentences and more simple language. If you just really fancy a more difficult book, read it slowly and in even smaller chunks.

Comics and graphic novels are an absolute saviour when you want to read but are too tired for too much actual reading, as there’s artwork to break it up and less text. There’s a real range of genres and styles, it’s not all DC/Marvel superheroes, so no matter what your usual book tastes I guarantee there will be a comic for you. (I did a post on where to start if you’re new to graphic novels over here). Not all are comics are ‘easy-read’, so you might need to take the concentration factor into account with more difficult ones (I’m looking at you Are You My Mother).

If you have any other tips, leave them in the comments below. Take care of yourselves my fellow spoonies, and happy reading.

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Fan by Danny Rhodes

fanWhen I was little, and lived in Devon, Chelsea came down to play a local team. Big teams never came round our way, so my dad and his mate took me and my younger brother to watch. It would have been around ’91/’92, and I would have been 7-ish years old. At the time, I had no idea why my mum was so anxious about letting us go. I had never heard of Hillsborough.

Fan has the 1989 Hillsborough disaster at its centre, as it follows avid teenage Forest fan John Finch (Finchy) going to matches, and the match, in 1989, and his adult life down south in 2004, which is not going well. The book moves seamlessly between the two time periods of Finchy’s life, something that’s rarely done really well. This is a grim and raw book, with so much unhappiness, and one in which you are not always going to like the central character. But it’s also gripping, beautifully written, and feels emotionally true (the author was also a Forest fan at Hillsborough that day). That truth is not just about the disaster, but also in Finchy’s development as a character – there are no great leaps for the sake of a story, but something slower and unfinished that feels more true to real people.

Photo 14-06-2015 15 58 44Although the term ‘PTSD’ is never used, you can clearly see how the the trauma of witnessing the disaster has had huge effects on Finchy and his old friends. Related to this, the book also deals with masculinity and coping, and the impact the stereotypical ‘men don’t share their emotions’ can have, as well as the different ways people cope with trauma. It’s also about communities – small towns, at work, as fans – and what happens when you leave them, and when you go back.

I’ve fallen seriously out of love with football as I’ve gotten older, but Fan is not ‘just a football book’, and even if you, too, don’t like football, I’d still urge you to pick this up. One of my favourites of the year so far.

I received a free copy of the new B format of Fan in exchange for an honest review.

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