Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse

Thinking About It DMAnother slightly out-of-the-ordinary title for me: Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse by David Mitchell.

The book is a collection of columns he has written for the Observer over the past five years. Normally, I’d be a bit cynical about already-published material being given a fancy cover and marketed as something new but in certain cases, I’m willing to put aside my reservations. From what I’ve seen of David Mitchell, I like him. Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look are both witty, and I find him absolutely hilarious on Would I Lie To You? He’s legendary for his rants, but I wasn’t familiar with his columns, so I was pleased to see that they were very much in keeping with what I’d have expected from him. He has a great command over the English language.

In the columns, he writes about everything from his thoughts on the monarchy to celebrity chefs, and everything in between. On the whole, it was enjoyable to read but with a couple of caveats. The first being that in a collection of columns like this, there’ll always be some that work better than others. It’s also not a book that I’d recommend reading from start to finish in one go, as it does get a little bit ‘samey’ after a while.

However, that said, I found myself highlighting an insane number of passages throughout that either made me laugh out loud or go ‘yes! Someone else thinks that too!’ I’ve picked my favourite out to quote here, as they’ll probably give a better idea of what I liked about this book than anything else I could go on about:

[On Downton Abbey]
I’ve seen every single episode. I think it might be my favourite programme. I enjoy it enormously. I also think it’s shit.

[On branding]
It’s like when you start worrying that blue looks yellow to everyone else and that when they say ‘blue’, they’re thinking of yellow, and vice versa. How can you check?

[On the rules of grammar]
If those who misuse the apostrophe are not adversely judged for it, then why did I waste so much time listening in class?

[On television]
There’s no other David Mitchell walking around, who, having eschewed TV, has an imagination unstunted by assiduously following the plot of Dynasty. Unless it’s that pesky novelist.

[Still on the subject of television]
Regurgitate half-remembered facts from your A-level syllabus on a panel show, I’ve found, and you’ll get lumped in with the learned.

[On the popularity of Harry Potter]
Others’ loss of perspective about its merits made me lose my own. Maybe I was trying to lower the average human opinion of the oeuvre close to what it deserves by artificially forcing mine well below that level.

[On politicians]
The intense joy because his opponents have messed up, and so he’s closer to his aims without having to do anything good, made me want to puke.

Reading through the highlighted passages to pick out these quotes actually reminded me of what I liked most about this book. The common theme in all of these columns is that David Mitchell is really taking the time to question some of our most bizarre social conventions. It’s refreshing.

The Woman Who Stole My Life

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The latest book from Marian Keyes is The Woman who Stole my Life. It’s the story of married mother-of-two Stella, who becomes struck down with a rare disease that leaves her paralysed. The only movement she can make is blinking. Lying in her hospital bed, she learns to communicate with her neurologist, Mannix Taylor, who devises a system of blinking inspired by ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’.

Despite what’s just happened to her, Stella remains mostly positive and over the months spent in hospital, she offers words of encouragement and positivity to Mannix during his daily visits. Once she recovers, these words form the basis of  ‘One Blink at a Time’, which is picked up by a US publisher who send her on a promotional tour around the US.

However, something goes wrong. When we first meet Stella, she is back in Dublin, separated from her husband, putting on weight and desperately trying to write a second book. Over the course of the novel, we slowly find out what happened.

As a long-term Marian Keyes fan, I was happy to learn she had a new novel out. Reading this, it reminded me strongly of elements of two of my favourite books of hers, Rachel’s Holiday (in structure) and The Other Side of the Story (in plot). While I’d rate both of them above this, I still found it to be an enjoyable read and lighter in tone than her most recent three.

My biggest critcism is with the character of Stella. I found her to be very passive. Everything happened to her – even the compilation and publication of ‘One Blink at a Time’. She seemed to spend a lot of time waiting for other people to tell her it was ok to do something, which became quite frustrating. (Although, isn’t there a theory that the characteristics you find most annoying in other people are the ones you don’t like in yourself?)

I also found that the ending wrapped up quite quickly, and a bit too cleanly.

However, a Marian Keyes book, even with some faults, is still worth reading. And there were a lot of good things about this book. The passages with Stella in hospital were strong, especially the growing communication between her and Mannix, her dad reading to her, her husband’s hints of frustration at the situation. I liked the glimpse at the US book tour and the sheer amount of money that’s involved in it. It comes across as much more of a business than the industry in Ireland, where she received a much warmer reception from both the media and her readers.

I also enjoyed that Marian is now writing about older women, who have been through a marriage and have raised their children – many of her previous books dealt with women beginning to settle down so it’s interesting to get a new perspective from her. I liked the idea that a new life can begin at any age.  There’s still a lot of humour in her writing but as always, she deals with difficult issues and handles them with sensitivity.

ARC copy received through NetGalley

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

100 Year Old Man

Allan interrupted the two brothers by saying that he had been out and about in the world and if there was one thing he had learned it was that the very biggest and apparently most impossible conflicts on earth were based on the dialogue: “You are stupid, no, it’s you who are stupid, no, it’s you who are stupid.” The solution, said Allan, was often to down a bottle of vodka together and then look ahead.

The title of this book has interested me since it was first published two years ago, but it’s taken me until now to get around to reading it. I’m delighted that I finally did.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is an absurd but utterly charming book by Jonas Jonasson. It made me smile from beginning to end.

Just before his birthday party is due to start, 100-year-old Allan Karlsson decides that he’s had enough of the retirement home he’s living in with all of its rules and regulations. He climbs out of his bedroom window and heads towards the nearest bus station. On the spur of the moment, he decides to steal a suitcase that was entrusted to him to watch, and that’s where our story begins.

In alternating chapters, we learn about Allan’s life up until now. Over the years, he has, amongst many other things:

  • Saved the life of General Franco from a bomb he planted himself
  • Got drunk on tequila with Harry S. Truman on the night Roosevelt died
  • Saved the wife of Chairman Mao
  • Saved the life of Winston Churchill
  • Asked Stalin if he’d ever considered shaving off his moustache
  • Comforted a ten-year-old Kim Jong Il when he learned about the death of his ‘Uncle’ Stalin
  • Became lifelong friends with Albert Einstein’s less-intelligent brother, Herbert
  • Given Nixon advice on how to use corruption to get ahead politically (which he possibly paid too much heed to)

Despite his extraordinary life, Allan himself is a very ordinary person. All he wants for himself is a bed to sleep in, food to eat, something to do during the day and vodka to drink. His simple desires are what make him so appealing. He has no interest in politics and his only concerns in relation to the people he comes into contact with are how they treat him. For example, the reason he dislikes Stalin is because he shouted at him. Having said that, while he’s innocent in his desires, he’s by no means unintelligent. He also knows how to be crafty and cunning when he needs to be.

Getting such an overview of the major events in the twentieth century through the eyes of Allan Karlsson was an interesting experience and in a way, puts them into perspective. Allan takes no sides, he finds friends of every religion and political affiliation and there is no prejudice in him. He’s baffled by the anti-Semitic and racist people he encounters in his youth, and his reaction on first meeting a black person is disappointment that they’re so ordinary. There isn’t a hint of greed in him and he accepts everything that comes into his life gratefully. He’s endearing, and while he’s naive in some respects, he’s more Odd Thomas than Forrest Gump.

In the present-day, we follow Allan and the suitcase as, on the run, he picks up a motley crew of people that can help him. Well, three people and an elephant called Sonya. On his trail is the original owner of the suitcase and a police officer. Again, this is treated lightly, with near-miss after near-miss, and some great backstory for each of the ‘villains’ of the tale.

Overall, this a light and charming romp, which I really enjoyed reading and would thoroughly recommend.

Spark!

While I still have some longlisted titles left to read, I’m suffering from a bit of literary fiction fatigue… so I’m taking some time to read a few books that are completely different before going back to the four I have left to read.

Spark!First up is Spark! by Norah Casey. It’s a mixture of autobiography and self-help. This is a slightly unusual choice for me – most of the books I read tend to be fiction. And while I often buy self-help books, it’s rare that I finish them. (Or sometimes, even make it past the second chapter.)

Spark! was different. Norah Casey is somebody that I admire – she’s smart, capable and a successful businesswoman and while I don’t really go in for role-models, if I did have them, she’d be on the list.

This book opens with her own story. Three years ago, her husband passed away from cancer. She writes about this with painful honesty. In the months afterwards, with her imagined future gone, she decides to take stock of her own life. What she decides is to start really living – so she starts to challenge herself by doing things that are out of her comfort zone. In doing so, she regains her own zest for life.

The second part of the book imparts what’s she learned over the past few years. This is quite a jumbled-up section with a lot of information in it – it advises you to analyse your life to date, and goes through the typical stages you can expect as you age. It looks at ten specific things you can do – from eating well and exercising, to trying new activities and the power of smiling. There’s some chapters on serotonin and dopamine, and the powerful effect these can have. There’s also a wonderful section where she basically sticks her finger up at the mindfulness craze. While I’m undecided on mindfulness – certainly it works for some people – I do have to admire how forthright she is in dismissing it.

The final section contains profiles and interviews with ten people she believes are inspiring, including astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, actress Fionnuala Flanagan and singer/actor David Essex.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this and it gave me a bit of a push. While I feel that the middle section tried to be too many things, and as a result, lacked coherency and focus, for the most part the advice given was practical and made sense – although, I do believe I may be a bit younger than the target audience she had in mind.

She encourages you to analyse where you are and how you got here – not judge, just analyse. She asks you to look back at what you used to dream about and then look at why it never happened. The message she’s giving is essentially, ‘well, why not do it now?’ It’s a call to action – a call to live, really – and it’s a message that’s worth spreading. We only have one life – why waste it?

Challenge 1, Book 9: J

Book 9, and the final of the shortlisted titles is by Howard Jacobson.

J is my kind of book. I love novels set in dystopian worlds, because they dare to answer the ‘what ifs’ and really explore what society is capable of. In this case, the novel is set decades after an event known as what happened, if it happened.

What happened, although it’s never explicitly said, was the annihilation of the Jewish people – pretty much a modern-day Holocaust. Afterwards, shocked at what had happened, the powers that be decided that society would focus on being calm and quiet – art would only express beauty, songs would only sing about things like love and anything likely to rouse people would be quietly, but firmly, extinguished. Names were changed, so that everybody could start off afresh, on an equal footing, as one nation. And everybody learns to say ‘sorry’ all the time, whether they’re at fault or not.

All great, in theory, but without people to act as an ‘other’, the anger and distrust is redirected, and expresses itself in different ways. Violence is a common feature of this new society, whether it be people brawling in the street or domestic abuse.

In the midst of this situation are Ailinn and Kevern, who are brought together by those who have something in mind for them. They fall in love but ultimately, their own personal history and the forces that want them together lead to tragedy.

While neither Ailinn or Kevern are particularly sympathetic characters, and their relationship often comes across like they don’t even like each other, the setting of the novel really grabbed my interest. What people are capable of terrifies me and fascinates me in equal measure. I also subscribe to the idea that without somebody there to be an ‘other’ to you, your identity can get lost. The characteristics I value in myself – tolerance, for example – loses its meaning if there’s nobody intolerant for me to measure myself against.

Overall, this was one of the highlights from the shortlist for me, and if you enjoy books such as 1984 or Brave New World, you should give this a go.

Challenge 1, Book 8: How to be Both

Book 8 is How to be Both by Scottish author Ali Smith.

The book itself is divided into two sections, Camera and Eyes. Camera is set in the present-day and is the story of teenager George, who’s grieving over the recent death of her mother. Eyes is set in 15th century Italy and is the story of Francescho, a woman living as a man in order to have a career as a painter.

The author invites us at the beginning to read Camera and Eyes in the order you’d like. I began with Camera, which probably shaped my experience differently to those who started with Eyes.

This is the book I’ve enjoyed least out of the eight I’ve read so far. It’s not a bad book and I know quite a few people have given it glowing reviews. It just didn’t speak to me. I did like certain elements of it – George was a strong character, although a bit prickly and precocious, and Francescho’s story gave me some insight into the work of artists but overall, it just fell a bit flat for me.

I’m sure that a re-read would throw up a lot of parallels between the two sections, and layers of meaning that I’ve missed this time around but to be absolutely frank, I’m not sure I’ll ever re-read it.

On a side note, I also have to say that I really dislike the front cover. I understand why that photo was chosen, and I understand that the white background and typography is in keeping with previous books of Ali Smith, but it’s not a cover that would make me pick this book up if I saw it on a shelf.

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So, with five of the six read in the shortlist, I’d rank them as follows:

1) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
2) The Lives of Others
3) The Narrow Road to the Deep North
4) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
5) How to be Both

Having said that, my money is on The Narrow Road to the Deep North to win.

Challenge 1, Book 7: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Over halfway through! Yay! While not completely on schedule, I’m hoping to get through the remainder of the shortlist, at least, by the time the winner is announced. Thankfully, there’s no equivalent to ‘The Luminaries’ this year!

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Where does this idea of greater connection come from? I’ve never in my life felt more disconnected. It’s like how the rich get richer. The connected get more connected while the disconnected get more disconnected. No thanks, man, I can’t do it. The world was a sufficient trial, Betsy, before Facebook.

Book 7 is To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris.

One of the six titles shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this book is about a New York dentist, Paul O’Rourke, who discovers that somebody is impersonating him online and using his name to spread a message about the Ulms – the descendants of a people called the Amalekites and whose only rule is that they must doubt the existence of God.

But… it’s also about much more than that. It’s about alienation and Paul’s search for belonging. It’s also about the meaning of faith and belief and traditions.

The character of Paul took me some time to warm up to. He’s unnecessarily abrasive at times and while amusing, he’s also deeply emotionally disturbed. He talks about the times he broke into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment to lie on her bed and cry into her pillows and while his description of it made me laugh, it’s not something that endeared him to me.

But as the novel goes on, we can see some of what made him who he is and we learn that while he has his faults, he also means well and just wants to belong somewhere. He never becomes likeable but we do start to begin to understand him. He’s alienated by the rituals that other people have, completely unable to understand the point of them – like rubbing hand lotion in when your hands are just going to get old and stiff anyway, or getting a dog when it’s just going to die and make you sad. At times he reminded me of an older Holden Caulfield – standing on the outside of society, not able to fit in. The difference though, is that Paul really wants to.

The closest thing he has to a belief system is in his support of the Red Sox. He has rules and rituals surrounding each game – he must watch each game from the start, he must tape each game (on video), he must have chicken and rice beforehand, he must never watch the sixth inning. He takes part in online forums about the Red Sox, which is the closest thing he has to community. But even baseball has let him down. When the Red Sox beat the ‘curse’ in 2004 and won, he felt like he didn’t know them any more. He also realised that them finally winning didn’t fundamentally change anything for him.

There’s interesting parallels between the different religious belief systems and the rituals people take part in in their everyday lives. As a dentist, Paul’s patients have faith in him but this expresses itself in different ways. The most interesting being the patient who visits him every six months because that’s what you’re supposed to do, waits when he’s told to because Paul is the dentist and he obeys his dentist, but then refuses to have his cavities filled because he feels fine.

On the whole, this book fascinated me (and made me want to visit a dentist). On a personal level, I’m from somewhere where Catholicism is beginning to lose its hold so the question of what replaces religion is one that interests me. Despite a couple of moments that jarred, I also enjoyed the character of Paul and his musings on the utter pointlessness of everything. It’s a book that’s very much of its time and while it seems to be getting mixed reviews on sites like Amazon/Goodreads etc, I think it’s a worthy nominee for the shortlist. I definitely see it as a book that could be studied in an English literature course in the future.

Challenge 1, Book 6: Orfeo

OrfeoBook 6 is Orfeo by Richard Powers. It’s the story of seventy-year-old Peter Els, a composer and hobby scientist, who finds himself on the run as a terrorist after his home-made lab was raided by Homeland Security.

Out of the six books I’ve read so far since this challenge started, this was the most difficult to get into. It opens with the police arriving at the door of Peter Els. His dog, Fidelio, had suffered a haemorrhage and in a panic, he’d dialled 911. While talking to Peter in his house, the police notice his lab and in a post 9/11 world, they get suspicious.

Incidentially, and slightly embarrassingly, for the first fifty pages, I was convinced this book was set in a dystopian world. The police are insistent that Peter call Animal Control rather than bury the dog in his own backyard. The idea of a government agency taking a pet’s body away just baffled me…

The police call Homeland Security in, who take samples of his work away for examination. What they find lead them to suspect Peter of being a terrorist, and in a panic, he decides to flee. What I loved, in particular, was the trial by media & social media and how random information can be used to condemn you if put together the right way. For example, following the first visit by Homeland Security, he goes online to investigate if it is really possible to grow something lethal in a lab – when he finds himself reading a recipe for how to create ricin from beans, I’m shaking my head in despair.

While this storyline forms the main plot, the majority of the novel deals with flashbacks of Peter’s life – his attempt to first discover, then create, music that moves the soul. His first relationship which led to his decision to major in music composition. The friendship that would influence his life and work. His marriage (and divorce) and the birth of his daughter – his ‘one perfect composition’.

Peter is a flawed character, but one I can identify with. All he wants is to leave something perfect behind – something that moves others in the way certain music once moved him. But as he discovers, when you’re striving for perfection, magnificent just doesn’t measure up.

In terms of the novel itself, it’s one that most definitely requires another reading. There are some amazing sections where particular compositions are explored in depth – in particular, Messaien’s Quartet For the End of Time, written and first performed when he was a POW in WWII.

I don’t want to say that Orfeo opened my eyes, because that’s both an exaggeration and a cliché but for those few hundred pages, it made me think about music differently. It’s another that didn’t make the shortlist for the Man Booker this year, but all I can say to that is that it’s in good company with History of the Rain

Challenge 1, Book 5: History of the Rain

imageBook 5 is History of the Rain by Irish writer Niall Williams. It’s the story of 19 year old Ruth Swain, who is bedbound in a small attic room in a Co. Clare village. With a possible terminal illness, she distracts herself by recounting her family history. Surrounded by her late father’s collection of books (3,958 to be exact), Ruth is determined to read each of them, to ‘discover’ her father in them. To do this, she needs to go back in time, starting with her father’s grandfather.

It’s a couple of weeks since I finished this book and it’s by far my favourite of the longlisted books I’ve read so far. I was very disappointed not to see it shortlisted. I’m sure that part of the reason I loved it so much was that, being from Ireland, the cultural references each hit the mark intended. The description of the ‘Aisling’ copybooks that Ruth and her father wrote in gave me a sense of nostalgia, the brief references to the recession resonated and the caricatures she drew of the people in her town made me laugh with familiarity (for example, the councillor who’s been known as ‘Saddam’ since going on a trade mission to Iraq).

The writing was beautiful, incredibly so. My only criticism would be that the Random Capitalisation of Key Phrases was a bit jarring at the start. But apart from that, there’s so much to praise that I don’t actually feel like I can do the book justice. Quite simply, I loved it. It was so ‘Irish’ but not in a depressing, maudlin sense – it was just the country I know.

This is my first time to read something written by Niall Williams, but it definitely won’t be my last and I’m delighted to have discovered such a writer that I may not have tried otherwise.

Challenge 1, Book 4: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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When, on 25 October 1943, steam locomotive C 5631 travels the length of the completed Death Railway – the first train to do so – towing its three carriages of Japanese and Thai dignitaries, it will be past endless beds of human bones that will include the remains of one in three of those Australians.

Book Number 4 is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.

It revolves around Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor who achieves war hero status for the part he played in a POW camp in Siam during the 1943 construction of the ‘Death Railway’ – a 415km railway stretching from Thailand to Burma.

The conditions of those building this railway, ordered by the Emperor of Japan, are quite simply, hell on earth. The POWs are starved and beaten and forced to work day and night. They’re dressed in nothing but filthy rags tied around their waists, and a pair of boots can literally mean the difference between life and death to them. Cholera sweeps through the camp, taking almost everyone it touches and the filth and squalor, assisted by the monsoon season, lead to ulcers, ringworm, malaria, dysentery and countless other diseases.

The middle section of the novel focuses on the events that take place over the space of a couple of days during the ‘Speedo’ – a period of time in which POWs were forced to work 16-hour days to construct the railway as quickly as possible. From a variety of perspectives, we see what daily life was like as a POW. We also get a glimpse into the mind of one of the Japanese officers and his motivations and beliefs.

Dorrigo Evans shines in this particular section. Refusing to be treated as anything less than an equal, he fights for his men in every way he can. Whether it’s negotiating over the number of men needed to work on a detail or operating on a man whose chance of survival is slim, he is the very definition of a hero, a leader, a man that can be looked up to. Part of this is construct – when offered a steak, he orders that it be taken to the sick, knowing that this story will be told and become part of his legend. But this story, he knows, is a necessity to the men he leads, and it is also a necessity to him, to help him continue the work he’s doing.

I cannot fault the middle section of this novel at all. It’s not comfortable reading but it gives an insight into a brutal period of history that deserves to be remembered. After finishing the novel, I found out that Richard Flanagan’s own father was one of the POWs who worked on the Death Railway, and this, perhaps, is one of the reasons why this particular section is so strong.

The rest of the novel, especially in comparison to this, is more miss than hit for me. It actually reminds me a lot of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, which I only read for the first time last year. Birdsong was a book that I’d looked forward to reading for years but when I did, I was left underwhelmed by large parts of it. Similar to Narrow Road, I disliked the love story but was mesmerised by the descriptions of trench warfare. Both are novels I’d recommend, but only for the parts that focus on their respective wars.

Do I think it will win the Booker? … I don’t know. For me, it just misses the mark. But, with the rave reviews its getting in Australia and its Birdsong-like composition, it wouldn’t surprise me if it did win.

Disclaimer: I received a free Kindle edition of this book through NetGalley.