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.

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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.”

and

“… 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.

The Pronutro Box

This isn’t the title of a book. This is the Pronutro Box. The one that I read when I’m eating breakfast and there’s nothing else for me to lay my hands on. The back of a Pronutro Box can be fascinating when there’s nothing else around. As can the back of the Coco Pops box. It amazes me how healthy the manufacturers claim their cereals to be. Balanced, nutritional and full of essential vitamins and minerals. Especially Coco Pops, which we all know are pure crap full of sugar and refined wheat and not much else; yet the blurb on the back manages to make me think that maybe they aren’t too bad for my children.

I have scrutinised every item of print of cereal boxes, as well as milk cartons and vitamen boxes. I have compared nutritional values, ingredients and endorsements. Did you know that there isn’t much difference between the fat content of full-cream milk and 2% milk? Did you know that reading the Woolies Ayreshire milk bottle is so much more interesting than the PnP no-name one, because the Woolies one has a story about the beloved cows who produce the delicious milk and it makes you feel warm and fuzzy before you’ve even started your day properly.

I used to think that I wasn’t too hooked on reading, until I was working my way through Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. Apart from really battling with writing morning pages (morning drivel), I reached a brick wall when I got to the exercise where you are not allowed to read for a week – a whole week. It’s supposed to free your mind up.  So I didn’t read books or newspapers, and that’s when I realised how often I read cereal boxes, vitamen boxes, milk bottles, yoghurt cartons, anything on the the kitchen table.

Needless to say, I didn’t do well that week. I was irritable, depressed, insecure and felt like I had given up smoking cold turkey. In fact, I couldn’t last a week without reading and I’ll never put myself through that test again. If I can see, why not read?

Tears while I read The Elephant Whisperer

I don’t often cry when I read books. I don’t often cry altogether. So it really took me by surprise when I found myself crying on Saturday night while reading The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony. Okay, I was on my own for the weekend and Saturday nights can be long sometimes, but I started reading the book on Friday night and finished late on Saturday night because I had to know what happened.

I can’t write much about it, because that’ll ruin the story for you. But it’s a short, easy- to- read book and a fascinating insight into animal communication. Lawrence Anthony is a South African conservationist who owns a game reserve in KwaZulu Natal called Thula Thula. He takes on a herd of “rogue” elephants that is going to be culled if he doesn’t. He has had no experience with elephants and these ones are traumatised and furious elephants, abandoned after most of their herd was killed. Everyone thinks he’s mad to take them; he thinks he’s mad to take them, but he does and so the story goes and I won’t tell you any more.

I heard him talking at the Book Fair – he’s a rough looking “oke” in his khaki shorts and shirt, a hairy white beard and big hands. But he is passionate about his elephants and reading his book is like listening to him speak. It is not scientific, he has no academic facts backing him up – he just tells his story and it is a wonderful, funny, sad and eye-opening book.

And I’m glad to tell you that my puppy-who-drives-me-mad came and put her head on my lap when I was crying, so there is something about animal/human communication that we don’t yet understand.

“So Much for That” by Lionel Shriver – an example of why I love words

I can’t live without words. They swirl around my head sometimes, my mind getting stuck on the particularly delicious ones. Like esoteric; or slumber; or balderdash.

And the best place to find words is in books, of course. Books are where words live, where they build homes: sometimes castles, made out of bricks of serious, pompous words; mansions of literary merit. There are words in dark caves, shivering in thrillers and murder stories; swooning words, crossing and caressing each other, in love stories. Words that skip across the pages in children’s books; sashay in chick-lit; and glide in erotica.

There are always books next to my bed, at least two, but more likely eight to ten. Sometimes they rest on the bedside table, but when the pile gets too big, it tends to fall over. So now I have a leather box on the floor, into which I put the books – initially in neat piles, which tend to slowly collapse over the month.

I can’t sleep without a book next to the bed. In fact, I feel worried and insecure if I haven’t got at least one there. Even if I don’t read before falling asleep, I like to know that I could if I wanted to. Preferably, though, I like to have a few so that I can choose depending on my mood.

I’ve just finished reading “So Much for That” by Lionel Shriver and so enjoyed it that I continued holding it in my hands for at least five minutes after finishing reading it. It was almost as though I could taste the words, their aftertaste lingering like the bittersweet memory of dark chocolate.  She’s the author who wrote “We Must Talk about Kevin”, which was a hectic, angry, scary book. This one is still hard-hitting and honest, but has a lighter touch in that she imbues a sense of humour into it, albeit dark and ascerbic. She writes  about cancer without romanticising it; her character Glynis is bitter and angry about having cancer – it doesn’t turn her into a nicer person. Flicka, a teenage girl with Dysautonomia, is sarcastic, rude and gaspingly honest about her condition. Shep, Glynis’ husband, had been hoping to escape the rat race to go and live on a carefree African island, when Glynis is diagnosed with cancer and Shep has to carry on working to get his health insurance.

Shriver uses the story to highlight the short-comings of the American health system, and how it screws the man in the street, by highlighting how Shep’s savings are rapidly depleted by the medical demands of his wife’s cancer treatment.

This is such a well-written book that I didn’t want to stop reading it and after I had finished it, other writing seemed childish or inept for a while. The story started flagging towards the end, and I felt that Shriver was trying to tie the whole story up too neatly, but it didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of it.