To Kindle or not to Kindle?

Five reasons why I want a Kindle

  1. My luggage won’t be overweight from cramming too many books into it when I travel
  2. I won’t break my shoulder with my hand luggage, into which I’ve shoved all the book so that my bags aren’t overweight
  3. Sadly enough, downloaded books are a whole lot cheaper than real ones. With the amount of reading I do, that’s a big attraction
  4. I won’t squash the pages of a Kindle when I shove it into my handbag/down the side of the sofa/when I fall asleep on it late at night
  5. I will look like a hip middle-aged techno-whizz

Five reasons why I don’t want a Kindle

  1. How could an electronic gadget replace the feel of paper pages?
  2. It won’t have that clean, woodchip smell that a new book has
  3. A Kindle won’t feel like a friend when I hold it
  4. I can’t have a pile of Kindles next to my bed
  5. Books have existed for millenia – will Kindles?


The angst of first love

Believe it or not, I’ve just finished reading Twilight. No, I wouldn’t recommend it for book club or put it on your list of must-reads, but I wanted to see what on earth has made this series so unbelievably popular. Even the boys at Bishops are reading them, and they very seldom read books with a female main character (I can say a few rude words about that, but won’t).

Reading Twilight, I was immediately thrown back to being a fourteen or fifteen-year-old in the throws of first love. Do you remember being in love for the first time? It was agony and ecstacy all in one. The physicality of it – sweating palms, racing heart, trembling legs and then that aching heart when you couldn’t see him. The very seriousness of that relationship – it was all a matter of life and death whether he phoned or not, whether he smiled at you at the right time or not, whether he walked out the room when you expected him to; for god’s sake, even whether he raised his left eyebrow or not. Everything was fraught with meaning.

Twilight brought it all back for me. Belle falls crashingly in love with just the boy she shouldn’t. He seems to hate her at first, although already you know that he is in love with her as well. And of course he is the best-looking boy in the school. He has to be – it wouldn’t make much of a story if he were an Archie lookalike.

Even though I can relate to those agonising moments of first love, I didn’t fall for a vampire. Although I probably would have, knowing me. I always went for the dangerous ones. Belle falls deeply in love with Edward (whoever has heard of a vampire called Edward – wrong name, I think) and of course there’s trouble.

There were many elements of the book that irritated me – for example, Belle seems to take the whole vampire thing totally in her stride, so much so that she suggests Edward should “take” her and make her into a vampire. I mean, come on, how stupid is that. Rather just have plain bonking sex and stay the same.

Sexual repression vibrates through the whole book; in fact, it has been touted as a good advertisement for abstaining from sex before marriage. The author is, after all, a Mormon. A bloody rich Mormon by now.

I don’t think I need to read any of the others, now that I know what the fuss is all about. And, you know, if I were thirteen or fourteen again, I would have devoured these books.  I caught a glimpse of the movie on TV the other day, and yes, Edward is ghoulishly delicious. All ivory skin and dark bags under the eyes, rippling six pack. Strange hair, though.

If your daughter (and dare I say, your sons) hasn’t read Twilight yet, give it to her; I think it’s a great, well-written gripping book for a teenager.

“Shoot the Damn Dog” – she’s gone barking mad

Winston Churchill called it his “black dog”, some call it a “black hole” , it has been  called “the noonday demon”, and Sally Brompton just wanted to shoot the damn thing. Once a successful editor of Elle magazine, Sally suffered from such a bad depression that, at one stage, she was unable to leave her flat and was drinking two bottles of wine a day. She tried to commit suicide twice and was hospitalised twice. Both the alcohol and suicide attempts were a desperate wish just to get rid of the dark cloak of depression that covered her.

I found this book to be a fascinating account of her depression – she writes about it openly and frankly, with no self-pity and no attempt to glamourise it either. She says that looking back on it, there were signs that depression was creeping up on her, such as a grief and sadness welling in her; she pushed those feelings aside, as she had such a successful life, it wasn’t possible that she could be feeling sad.

Unfortunately for her, once clinical depression was diagnosed, she seemed to have drug-resistant depression and was unable to find an anti-depressant that could lift her out of it. The overwhelming severity and length of the depression was what led her to drink and pills. So, as well as having to deal with her damn dog, she had to go into rehab for alcoholism. Now that’s a bummer.

The book, though, doesn’t only cover her story, but also discusses depression in an easily accessible way, which makes me think that this would be a good book for anyone to read, not just those who battle with depression. Personally, I found it such a comfort to read, having had a pack bloody rottweilers snapping at my ankles at times. It’s always good to know there are others out there who have had the same experience, for, as Sally puts it, depression is such a lonely illness.

What does amaze me about her story is that she seems to go to such disasterous therapists – she must be a very intelligent woman, yet she was unable to see how bad some of them were. To be fair to her, she writes that she was in such a bad way that she couldn’t make any decisions. Her psychiatrist, also, doesn’t seem to tackle the problem with much urgency, but perhaps that is just how she writes about him.

The psychiatric units she goes into sound horrendous, with bars on all the windows and even the odd screaming person, like in horror movies. Both the ones I’ve been in have been positively luxurious compared with the ones she describes. But then, she meets some wonderful characters in the insititutions, who become great friends of hers over time.

Through her awful depression, she somehow managed to keep her relationship with her daughter, Molly, going (who was about 10 at the time and a very mature sounding 10 year old, but I suppose she had to be in that situation). Sally did everything possible to look after Molly. She also had a good relationship with her ex-husband, who looked after Molly when Sally was physically unable to because of the crippling effects of the depression and the side-effects of the drugs she tried.

I could go on for ages about this book, as I could relate to virtually everything in it – except for the drinking and the terrible side-effects of the anti-depressants. It is extremely well-written and I would recommend it to anyone who has battled with depression or anyone else who wants to understand the illness.

Mow the damn dog down with a machine gun, I say.

The Selected Works of TS Spivet

I felt lost in another world when I read this book, a bit like I felt when I was young and read The Magic Faraway Tree; that gloriously delicious feeling of escaping life here and being someone, or with someone, for a while. This is Rief Larson’s first novel (I hate him) and Vanity Fair speculated in an article that he was given an advance by Penguin (I think) of $1 million, after a bidding war (I hate him even more now).

TS Spivet is 12 year old and lives in Montana. His dad is a cowboy and his mother, Dr Claire, is a frustrated scientist, forever in search of the elusive tiger beetle. TS is a mapmaker. He maps everything, from the size of his bedroom to facial expressions. His cartography is so good that he contributes drawings, maps and articles to magazines across America, and is so well done that an elderly friend of his submits TS’s work to the Smithsonian Institute. When the Smithsonian Institute phones TS to tell him he’s won a prize and has to come to Washington to receive his award, he disguises his voice to sound like an adult and agrees to go. And so TS runs away from home and travels across America to go and receive his prize.

There is much more to the book than those bare bones I have just given you. TS has siblings and there is a family tragedy, and the story line is good, although I found it did drag a bit towards the end and I don’t think the ending was worthy of the rest of the book. Possibly the editing could have been a bit tighter.

But, what made me love this book was the cartography within the book. It has been published in a bigger format than usual, to give it big enough margins to include drawings, maps, graphs, figures and annotations, all supposedly done by Larson. I worry that I am becoming terribly cynical as I get older, but I do wonder how on earth god dolloped so much talent onto one person. I bet you he’s good looking, too.

The drawings wander up and down the pages, crawl around the edges and onto the next, run alongside the text and hide at the bottom of the pages. I would guess that about 2/3 of the pages have some sort of drawings on them and a huge range of subjects is covered by them. I was fascinated and spent ages pouring over them; it was a bit like reading a book within a book. A bit like looking at a book made by little people, like fairies or elves. I know that some people were irritated by all this extra information in the margins, but it delighted me. I might have even bought the book just for its size – there is something very appealing about a book that doesn’t fit well into the bookshelves at Exclusives.

Not everyone I know has been captivated by this book; I know some friends have wondered why on earth I’ve made such a fuss about it. But even if you don’t like the book or don’t want to buy it, take a look at the book’s website. I also found that to be a delicious experience.

I would like to meet TS Spivet. He is a fascinating literary character. Perhaps he will become a classic, along with his cartography and the book about him.

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

I read this book a couple of months ago, but it still remains in my head. I would like to have written this novel. This is how I would like to be able to write.

The story starts in Nagasaki in 1945, as the atomic bomb goes off, and the main character, Hiroko, is hit by shrapnel. Her lover is killed. Everything in her life is destroyed. She leaves Nagasaki in search of her lover’s relatives and goes to Delhi, where she falls in love with an Urdu man and moves to Pakistan. The story of the two families are intertwined and end up in Pakistan, just before the 9/11 disaster.

So the story itself is fascinating, although I found the first half of the book to be more gripping than the second and felt that towards the end, the author was starting to run out of oomph.

But it is the writing that appealed to me. Look at this description:

“An old man walks past with a skin so brittle Hiroko thinks of a paper lantern with the figure of a man drawn on to it.”


“… images of classrooms swooping through her thoughts the way memories of flight might enter the minds of broken-winged birds.”

Beautiful images, aren’t they?

I have read one other book of hers called Kartography, in which I also found beautiful metaphors and similes.

They are both worth reading, but especially Burnt Shadows. And once you’re read it, you’ll understand the haunting title.

Jodi Picoult – is she worth the time?

I was having a really shitty day on Friday, because Paul was leaving that night to go on exchange for 4 months, so I knew that I wouldn’t want to do much other than read or watch DVDs most the weekend. As I was leaving the school library, I grabbed a Jodi Picoult that one of the boys had just returned, thinking that a light, schmultzy read would be a good thing for my sad soul. It’s called Nineteen Minutes.

Well, I have read only two other books of hers and I might have well been reading them again. She sticks to the same formula each time, but changes the scenarios. This time it was a high school shooting. Nine times out of ten, there’s a court case in her books, and sure enough, this time there’s a court case for the boy who did the shooting.

But, you know, as irritating as the formula is, I had to keep reading until I came to the end. I didn’t want to put it down and leave it. So I skimmed through it in a couple of hours, concentrating enough to know that the boy goes to prison for life (but somehow she manages to make that sound like not such a bad thing after all) and all the other little twists and turns tie up neatly.

Jodie Picoult is damn clever. She picks pertinent subjects, such as high school shootings, or teenage suicides, or autism and she weaves dramatic narratives around them. She manages to end each chapter with an irritating ironic comment from a character, usually dripping with meaning. Her writing irritates me so much, yet I admire her so much for making herself such a popular author.

I really hope, though, that no more movies are made of her books. I couldn’t stand Her Sister’s Keeper. I got stuck watching it on a plane and, in fact, in the end I turned it off. No more agonised little Abigail Whatsit acting so sincerely, no more Cameron Diaz trying to be a stressed out mother. No more dying young girl looking beautiful with a little flowered doek on her bald head. A friend of mine had leukemia twice as a child (aged 7, then 15) and she says there is nothing glamourous about the disease at all. You cannot look vaguely pretty, your mouth is usually covered in sores, your skin is a pallid grey and you are often throwing up.

All in all, though, the book took a couple of hours to read and all of nineteen minutes to forget.

Half Broke Horses and The Glass Castle

Have any of you read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls? If you haven’t, you must because it is an unbelievable (in all senses) autobiography of a girl and her three siblings growing up with parents who are so neglectful that it borders on child abuse.  Her parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, drag their children around America from one small mining town to another; their father, brilliant when sober, drinks most of their money away, and their mother harbours artistic desires that prevent her from ever holding down a real job – “I’m an excitement addict,” her mother says. So the children bring themselves up against the most impossible odds, surviving by doing things like sleeping in cardboard boxes, eating margarine and cat food and hiding money away from their father.

Somehow Jeannette Walls manages even to bring humour into the story that left me with my mouth gaping open sometimes. She also somehow speaks of her parents with affection and most of all, she somehow managed to drag herself out of that situation and lead a normal life with a good job in New York when she grew up.

If for nothing else, read the book for the opening chapter. It gripped me straight away.

So back to Half Broke Horses – this is the story of Jeannette Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey. Walls calls it a “true-life novel”, as it is her grandmother’s story, but she has fictionalised dialogue etc. As a novel alone, this is a wonderful story, but know that it’s based on someone’s life makes it more incredible.

I live a very boring life.  I didn’t start life in a mud dugout in west Texas. I didn’t learn to ride before I was 5 years old. I didn’t become a teacher and leave home to trek across states to a teaching job at the age of 15. I haven’t been a bootlegger, a ranch wife, a bush pilot, a horse breaker or a poker player. I haven’t driven across America with my dead father in the back, stopping to beg for petrol from truckers.

Lily Casey did all this – and have two children. I had two children and landed up in a clinic.

The book takes us as far as her daughter, Rose Mary, marrying Rex the Scoundrel. And those two are Jeannette Walls’ parents. It was very satisfying to finish a book and know how the characters carry on living. Often I’m left hanging, wondering what happens to characters I’ve grown to like while reading a book. And now I know the background of the very weird mother, Rose Mary, in the Glass Castle. Although I don’t think anything excuses her behaviour. Ever.

I think you can read the two books either way round; it doesn’t really make a difference to either story. Both are fascinating, absorbing reads.