The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin

You probably think that booksellers all know each other and that we spend all our time talking to each other about books?  Well, you’d be mostly right – we do also have an abiding interest in cakes, going to the pub and, occasionally, our partners and families.  It makes sense then that I was led to the Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by enthusiastic comments from colleagues on our work intranet.  I have a bit of a general reluctance to follow fashion, to read the novel everyone is talking about or to see the film that is getting all the hype but when words like ‘charming’, ‘captivating’ and ‘gem’ are being bandied about by people whose opinion I value then I’m willing to give it a go.

9781408704615This is a slender book – only about 250 pages – but it packs a lot in.  Nothing earth-shattering or historic but the kind of thing I adore – the life and loves of one rather special character.  Our hero A.J. is a bookseller (first HUGE point in his favour) but he doesn’t really do ‘customer service’ in a big way. He is definitely cranky, sometimes downright rude – he probably wouldn’t fit in well on the average high street – but he is a good bookseller.  He knows books and he knows what kind of books his customers should and will read – he is a legend among publisher reps for his accurate buying. Okay, I realise that so far I am selling this book to no-one but booksellers but there is so much more.

As the book opens we discover that A.J. is a recent widower – his outgoing and popular wife, a native of the small island community which his bookstore serves, has died in an accident. As he is still reeling from this shock his ‘pension plan’, a rare and valuable book, disappears from his home – in a different sort of book (I have also just finished reading Stoner, by the way) this would be the cue for a descent into darkness and pain. The best I could have hoped for would have been a Black Books sort of vibe.  However, the story takes an unexpected turn when A.J. finds a baby abandoned in the shop. The little girl’s mother is found dead and, rather unusually, the bookseller decides to adopt the child.

A large part of the book seems to be about the relationship between A.J. and Maya, the orphaned child, and I loved the way that each chapter starts with a short story recommendation for Maya which shows how her education is being guided.  We also see A.J. developing as a person – initially you are concerned that he would be the worst person in the world to raise a child but, very soon, you realise that he has a huge amount to offer.  Maya’s education, both intellectually and emotionally, is unusual but you certainly feel that she is going to turn out alright.

There is a good cast of characters – I particularly like Lambiase, the local cop who starts a crime fiction book group, and the putative author of a memoir called ‘The Late Bloomer’ – and they are all, as far as I can see, basically good people.  The book is also a good description of a small, isolated community – it is certainly one that I could happily live in.

I won’t tell you how the book ends. But I will say that, towards the last few pages, I definitely had something in my eye.  Without being overly sentimental you are put through a bit of an emotional wringer – and I do prefer an unhappy ending – but positivity finally shines through.

Jane

 

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Life? Don’t talk to me about life….

I’ve been reading a couple of books recently which have, as part of their plot, a look at what it is like to be someone who is ‘different’.  They certainly made me realise that aspects of life which we take for granted can be much harder for some…

It’s not easy being 16 years old. It’s not easy dealing with your own problems, let alone those of your parents, and it is especially hard if you also have to deal with living with Tourette’s. Dylan Mint has an absent father, a confusing mother, a crush on a girl from school and, on the plus side, a really supportive best mate. He also, in the opening chapter, discovers that he only has months to live.

9781408838334When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan looks at Dylan’s short, but rather pithy, bucket list and also at his relationships, particularly the one with his mother.  We often have preconceptions about young people, and about those with disabilities: this book is like having those preconceptions stripped away and a rather refreshingly real boy is revealed.  This is, of course, not the only revelation in the story – we are the adults so we should understand so much more than Dylan does. But because we hear the story in his voice we find out the hard truths along with him.

Interestingly I have seen reviews of this novel which consider that Dylan is not a realistic sixteen year old – that he seems far younger, particularly emotionally.  I would say, from my own experience with kids his age that Brian Conaghan has portrayed his character pretty accurately. Yes, some young people would be much more mature, but many are not – nothing to do with intelligence or even disability – and we do teenagers a further injustice if we forget that many of them are also still kids.

9781405912792It then struck me, on reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, that things don’t necessarily get much easier for many adults.  Our hero, Don Tillman, is an academic, a geneticist with a good job, and his health. But he decides that what he is missing is someone to share his life with (because married men, statistically, live longer) and, in what you soon realise is typical Don style, he decides to find Ms. Right by means of a detailed questionnaire.  You can’t fault his logic – this scientific approach is one he uses in every other area of his life (on busy days I can really see the benefits of the Standardised Meal System…). Why should finding a compatible partner be any different?

I won’t give away the plot – there are some things which only Don himself can tell – but I will say I loved this book. It is very funny and, in the end, a love story but it is also a beautiful insight into what life is like for a man who probably has Asperger’s.  I went to a talk that the author gave in Leeds recently and we, as a group, had quite an interesting discussion about how hard it is to diagnose in adults – who have usually developed all kinds of coping mechanisms – and how foolish it seems to say that ‘people with Asperger’s do such and such’.  I guess the best and most positive message I got from the book was that anyone can find love – even with a very imperfect partner.

The Rosie Project started life as a screenplay and the author tells us that Hollywood is interested in making the film – it is one that I will look forward to, I’m just not sure who I would cast as Don….

Jane

Season to Taste – Natalie Young

So, one of the oddest experiences I’ve had recently involves reading this book.  Given that almost the entire action of the story revolves around a woman cooking, and eating, her husband it is a very strange thing to read, in bed, next to your own beloved. Especially if you are feeling a bit peckish.

{C91C779D-CC2E-4A7B-9DAB-5DC845C986B9}Img100The book is, as you may be able to imagine, a curious mixture of the macabre and the purely practical.  We all, lets face it, get a little miffed with our nearest and dearest at some point and it is surely healthy to imagine how we would do away with them (okay, maybe that’s not so normal) but planning to eat them – nose to tail – is a touch bizarre. To say the least.  Although, if you did ever decide to take this (highly illegal) step this book will at least give you some recipe ideas….

We only ever hear one side of the relationship between Lizzie Prain and her husband but I felt that even if her view was only partly true then he was a rather unpleasant man.  You do feel a certain amount of sympathy for Lizzie – he seems to have spent his time giving her nothing but negative comments – and providing the bulk of her calories for a few weeks seems to be the most sustaining thing he ever did for her. The story alternates between Lizzie’s voice and that of a young man she befriends and it is this relationship which, in the end, seems to bring her back from the rather odd state that eating an entire person brings about.

Lizzie kills her husband (by accident, but she caused his death), eats him and, along the way, learns how to live again. Sadly, after she has polished off the last of his body, she seems to run out of steam and her last actions suggest that she will hand herself in to the authorities. Mind you, who wouldn’t feel a bit sluggish after such a big meal….

Jane

Classic Cycling Race Routes – Chris Sidwells

9780749574109I’m sure that anyone who knows me will be at least a little startled to see me reviewing this book.  I do own a bike but, due to my extreme reluctance to ride it anywhere that has hills, watercourses or other people, I really don’t use it very much.  In fact I think the last time was Easter 2013 when I managed to fall into a snowdrift on the Monsal Trail, which is a step onwards from the time I fell off a Boris bike in Hyde Park, and I don’t really see me getting back on any time soon….However, I am not immune to all the excitement around Yorkshire’s involvement in the Tour de France and know many keen cyclists so I thought I would have a look and see if I could become inspired.

I think it is fair to say that, although this is a pretty sumptuous book – full of maps, technical advice and photos – I’m not likely to be doing any of the rides.  But I am fairly certain that at some point I will be planning walks in the vicinity of a route which I can do while Rob cycles the route itself.  The scenery alone would make it worth it – and I will be convincing myself that I will see it in far more detail on foot than I ever would on two wheels!  I am also sure that we will go along to watch the brave souls who do take part in these races – all the dates and website links are included in the text – and will have an even greater respect for their achievements since we will know what they have had to overcome throughout the whole route.

Rob had a more detailed look at the first few chapters of the book, which deal with the more technical aspects of preparing for these rides, and had this to say:

“The introductory chapters of the book give a good expectation for the expected skill level for these rides, in that they set out the basic equipment needed, the steps to create a training plan and the nutrition plan a rider should follow. The lessons here are not to skimp on details – for these rides, you are recommended to have a proper road bike, the right clothing from helmet to toe, and to have your bike position professionally set up.

“The training chapter is particularly technical. As a more casual rider (hybrid bike, 40-50 miles on a good day), reading the chapter had a lot of new lessons for me and had the potential to put me off – 6 levels of training intensity, seven key ingredients and two key scenarios to get to grips with.  But that said, the instruction is clear throughout and I felt I could follow it – this is a guide for cyclists who want to challenge themselves, so this is how sports cyclists do it and this is the discipline needed.

“The nutrition chapter is also a dense but clear package of information, going as far as detailing the grams of protein and carbs the cyclist needs before, during and after, and it sets out the options you have for meeting these through gels, energy bars and drinks as well a more traditional foodstuffs.”

All in all I think we agree that this is a great book for the serious cyclist – it will give you routes to aspire to, in the UK and Europe, and will also help you to achieve those aspirations.

Jane & Rob

 

Lazy Days – Erlend Loe

This week has been very relaxing.  I’ve had holiday time from work and on Monday I spent a wonderful day at a local spa getting a little head to toe pampering. For me pampering always involves reading so I had to take a book or two with me and, I decided, what could be more appropriately titled than Lazy Days?

9781781855171I read Erlend Loe’s previous book, Doppler, which was basically about a man who has some kind of breakdown and goes off to live in the woods. Where he is adopted by an elk calf after he kills its mother and ends up calling it Bongo. Like you do….This book again involves a man who is unhappy with his life – and especially with the holiday he is on (involving all the things he hates – walking, not being at the theatre and Germany) – and who also seems to have a meltdown.  Mostly involving the things he loves – the theatre and the delectable Nigella. When you describe the plot of these two books they don’t sound very amusing but if you were instead to try to think of key words that spring to mind after reading them you would come up with something much more interesting.  The words that occur to me are ‘darkly quirky’, ‘laugh-out-loud subversive’ and ‘addictive’.

This is a slim book and I finished it somewhere between lunch and the pedicure (although luckily I had popped a second book into my bag) but it was a great read.  Light, refreshing and a perfect palette cleanser between a novel about the Great War and one about hill-farming and badger-baiting in Wales.

Jane

I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

malala

Malala Yousafzai is the 16-year old Pashtun from the Swat valley of Pakistan, shot through the head by the Taliban in October of 2012, because she spoke out publicly for the right of girls to receive education. Since then, there has been a lot, an awful lot, of sides taken on the story and on Malala herself.

This review is not the place for such discussion – indeed there will be many who hold strong views on her that have never read the book at all. I choose to go directly to her own story and listen to her own words.

This is a well-written and very thought-provoking book. Ostensibly Malala’s autobiography up to this point, it is written with the assistance of journalist Christina Lamb – however, having also read her blog from 2009, and listened to her powerful and confident speech to the UN, I was confident that the tone and voice of the book, and all the opinions expressed, are those of Malala and her father. Only in a few places, where figures and statistics intrude a little too much in to the narrative, can you detect the hand of Christina a little too enthusiastically embellishing Malala’s more straightforward and idealistic prose.

The narrative is roughly chronological, taking you from the start of Malala’s childhood in 1997, and her early experiences of the Swat valley, a land which she loves and has still great affection for. A normal schoolgirl clearly influenced by her father’s own strength of character and opinion, she plays (and fights) with her brothers, has fun (and regularly falls out) with her rivals in class, and develops a love of the Twilight novels and Ugly Betty on DVD.  And, of course, she reads everything she can get hold of.

Matter-of-fact chapters take the reader through the rise of the Taliban influence in the valley, the gradual erosion of freedoms and tolerance, the suppression of music, art and much of the Pashtun’s own culture, and how moderate, traditional Muslim voices such as those of her father and his friends and colleagues were gradually suppressed, first through propaganda, then through fear, violence and death threats. In all of this the emphasis is on the impact on Malala’s own family, her mother, father and brothers, and how their own lives become a mere struggle for existence in the middle of it.

The theme of suppression of the Pashtun culture is important to understand and Malala repeatedly emphasizes it in the book. As the book progresses the reader’s sense of outrage grows steadily with each new example of casual corruption, each new grab of power through violence, each new failing of the Pakistani government, the Army, and yes, also us in ‘the West’, to prevent what was happening to their lives. In the middle of all this, even when her family are displaced by the government from their home and sent over the mountains, she goes to school and continues to speak at gatherings for her right to do so. One of the most striking and incongruous bits of the book is her description of reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time while bombs and bullets fly past outside.

We know how the story ends of course – the shooting is on page 203 – and by this point in the book, if you’re not on her side I cannot help you further. In trying to silence her, the Taliban made her voice stronger than it could ever have been before. In reading this book I learned a lot about Malala and her life, I also learned much about the reality of the last 30 years of Pakistan’s history – a subject I am now determined to read deeper into.

But mostly, I became a convert to her cause of education being a right for all children.

Anybody sneering “What’s so new and clever about calling for education? Anybody can do that!” – and I have read such sneers – does not understand the simple fact that they are not Malala’s target audience. They should instead read her book.

As Malala states in the book, “we Pakistanis like our conspiracies” and in her home country, she is a divisive figure. Even the myriad conspiracy theories are self-contradictory. She’s a Western stooge, who works for the CIA. She deserved to be shot. Her own family faked her shooting to get a Visa. She was shot by the US as a pretext for more drone attacks. She wasn’t shot at all. Without knowing it, in every ignorant Youtube comment, such people reaffirm Malala’s plea for education, for the ability to think freely and critically to become universal, to rise out of dogma to a new rationalism and simultaneously to the older, more tolerant version of her own religion that states that education is not only the right but the duty of all Muslims.

The road ahead is a steep and dark one. The Taliban men who shot her, although their names are known, have never been arrested. Members of the Taliban have vowed that if Malala ever returns to her childhood home, they will kill her.  While Malala addresses the UN, in private girl’s schools throughout Pakistan – those left that have not yet been bombed closed – her words will not be read by children her own age because this book is banned, supposedly because it is insufficiently reverential of Islam. The government of Pakistan once again, in February 2014, are talking compromises with the Taliban.

If there is a factual book you read this year, I’d urge it to be this one, and read it without prejudice, taking her words as they are on the page and decide for yourself. In gaining the education to write them, Malala Yousafzai almost paid the ultimate price.

www.orionbooks.co.uk Hardback 275pp

www.malalafund.org

To be Productive or to not be Productive?

Do you know that feeling where you do a thing – read a book, watch a film, meet a person – and then do what appears to be the absolute opposite?  Not that either thing is better or worse than the other but that they seem like they shouldn’t exist in the same space (or could at least power the Starship Enterprise with their matter/anti-matteriness)? Well, thats how I have been recently – and it is my totally valid excuse for not having posted for a while…..

Firstly, I read an excellent book on productivity. No, come back – honestly it was really interesting!  How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott is down to earth, light in tone and really, really useful. It recognises that we all need to work more productively – whether we are CEOs or full-time carers – and gives lots of good ideas for how to achieve that. 9781848316836 It starts off with an acknowledgement that we are now living in a world which bombards us all with enough information to make even Brian Cox’s head spin and remind us that we are not superhuman – we have permission to just do our best.

I would say the main thing that I have taken from this book (during a 3 hour train journey – way to use my time productively or what?) is that we all work better on one thing at a time.  If we are constantly trying to keep up with email, Twitter, Facebook and everyone else’s demands on our time we will get much less done – if nothing else, I have learned that it is better to turn off these distactions and to learn to say no to others.  I’m not yet a Ninja (the real reason I started the book – who wouldn’t want to be a Ninja?) but my email inbox now hovers around empty rather than bulging with hundreds of ‘things I might need’.

Which brings me to the reason why I am not yet a paragon of productivity. Oh, alright, one of the reasons…..9781845026509

I am getting a little bit fed up of the ‘Keep Calm and……’ theme, as I’m sure many people are, and I know the world is already jammed full with books, pictures and amusing videos of cats but, but, but……I just couldn’t resist this. Call me weak (and send me another YouTube clip of cats getting into tiny little spaces) but sometimes it is quite relaxing to just sit and contemplate your cat. And absorb the wisdom of quotes like ‘the trouble with cats is that they’ve got no tact’ (P.G. Wodehouse) or ‘there are many intelligent species in the universe. They are all owned by cats’ (anonymous).  While there are still cats in the world I will never become 100% productive. Which is a relief….

Jane