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February Summary and Plans for March

This month’s reading has been dominated by the amazing book, Far from the Tree. Its slow pace and the density of new knowledge lead me to crave lighter, faster paced books to read alongside it. This contributed to an increased number of average reads this month, but I don’t regret that – there is only so much brilliance you can take in one month!

Book of the Month

Far From The Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love

Books Reviewed in February:

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon 

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke 

Moffie by André Carl Van Der Merwe 

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence 

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld 

The Good Father by Noah Hawley 

BBC Good Food Cookery Book Set 

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Abandoned Books: The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Herzog by Saul Bellow

Plans for March

Tomorrow I’m going to a new book club for the first time. I’m very excited about the prospect of meeting a new group of book loving people and really hope that it works out. For our first meeting we’ve read The Hare With Amber Eyes. I’ll let you know my thoughts (and hopefully theirs) next week. Our second book is Cloud Atlas, so I’m looking forward to re-reading that and seeing if I still love it as much as I did on its release.

I also hope to read most of these:

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey

Magda by Meike Zervogel

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

Have you read any of these books?

I hope you have a wonderful March!

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2013 Non Fiction Recommended books

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon

Far From The Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love

Five words from the blurb: parents, exceptional, children, difference, acceptance.

Far From the Tree is the most important book I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece of research; giving an impressive insight into human relationships and our tolerance of those who are different. If everyone read this book the world would be a better place.

I requested a review copy of this book because, as the mother of a child with autism, I was hoping for some insight into the way my relationship with my son might develop. The book not only managed to do this, but also had a profound impact on the way I view the rest of society. It made me appreciate the similarities that exist between groups that I’d previously thought of as quite separate and it gave me an insight into the problems faced by other parents around the world.

The title takes its name from the phrase “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” and, through 700 pages of outstanding non-fiction, Andrew Solomon investigates how parents cope when their children turn out to be different from themselves. The book begins with Solomon’s own experiences as a gay man, and continues to include chapters on many different groups, including the parents of children who are dwarfs, deaf or born from rape. I expected to find the chapter on autism the most interesting, but this wasn’t the case as the details were already familiar to me. I was surprised to discover that I was most interested in the conditions I knew less about – the chapter on schizophrenia was particularly eye-opening and I found myself sympathising with those parents, along with the parents of children who committed horrific crimes, the most.

I normally like to make a note of the important passages that I find whilst reading a book, but just 10 pages into this one I gave up. Almost every page contained some sort of profound insight and this was especially true of the first chapter, Son.

Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors. From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what might be life’s most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values. Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.

This opening section was one of the most impressive pieces of writing I’ve ever read and, if the length of the entire book intimidates you, I urge you to at least read the first 48 pages – they summarise the key findings of Solomon’s research and, although you’ll miss out on many wonderful examples of parents explaining their problems and accomplishments, you’ll come to realise how people can be united and supported by others who experience difference.

The only negative aspect of this book was that after a while some of the parent’s testimonies began to feel repetitive. Overall this was a good thing as it emphasized the fact that the parents of this diverse range of children all experienced the same set of emotions.

For me, the take home message of this book comes from Ari Ne’eem, a man with Asperger’s syndrome who is quoted in the chapter on autism:

Society has developed a tendency to examine things from the point of view of a bell curve. How far away am I from normal? What can I do to fit in better? But what is at the top of the bell curve? Mediocrity. That is the fate of American society if we insist on pathologising difference.

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this book. It is a modern masterpiece and I’m sure it will be quoted from and referred to for many years to come.

Very highly recommended.

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Other

Three Mini Reviews

Mercy (Department Q 1) Translated fron the Danish by Lisa Hartford

Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Five words from the blurb: Copenhagen, detective, unsolved, crimes, tortured

I decided to read Mercy after Kim gave it a glowing review. Unfortunately I didn’t love it as much as she did, but it was an enjoyable piece of crime fiction.

Mercy is a police procedural that centres on Detective Carl Morck, a moody man who is haunted by the recent death of a colleague. In order to distract him from his problems he is assigned a new job investigating unsolved crimes. His first case involves a woman who disappeared five-years-ago. Everyone thinks she’s dead, but through her narrative, which is given in alternate chapters, the reader discovers that she is imprisoned in an underground bunker.

I initially loved this book – the character development was fantastic and the descriptions of the woman trapped underground were vivid and compelling. Unfortunately everything unraveled as the story continued. I found the pace slowed and the middle section was far too long. The also thought that the ending was a little predictable and there were too many cliches.

Overall it was entertaining, but nothing made it stand out above other good pieces of crime fiction.

Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Five words from the blurb: hospital, memory, unrecognizable, madness, tests

Brain on Fire is a non fiction account of what happened to a New York reporter in the month she was struck down by a rare brain disease (anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis). The details of how her mind was affected were scary to read, but I found myself bored by the large amount of medical data. I think part of my problem with this book comes from the fact I listened to a wonderful Radio 4 interview with the author which summarised the major aspects of this book. This meant I knew the more interesting scenes already and the additional information didn’t add anything to the story I already knew.

The book was written in a compelling, chatty style and I found the beginning, as the first signs of her illness appeared, very good. Unfortunately I found the rest of the book disappointing. The descriptions of each visit to the hospital became repetitive and, although I realise she suffered greatly, I’m afraid that the confusion of doctors and the details of the tests they performed was of little interest to me.

Overall I’m sure this book will be of great benefit to the families of those suffering from encephalitis, but I think the technical details may be too much for the general reader.

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The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Five words from the blurb: catastrophe, survival, rotation, Earth, vulnerability

The Age of Miracles has been dividing opinion in the blogging world and I was convinced that I’d hate it, but, although it was a light book with lots of flaws, I found it strangely compelling.

The book is narrated by an eleven-year-old girl living at a time in the near future when the Earth starts to spin more slowly. This means that the days become longer and Mankind begins to suffer from a range of problems, from food shortages to gravitational sickness.

The plot was gripping throughout and, although I questioned many of the scientific details, the basic story of a world in crisis was thought provoking.

The narrator felt much older than her eleven years and I’d have preferred to know about the problems faced by the adult population, but these are personal preferences and it almost seems wrong to bring them up when the book was so compelling that I read it in a single sitting.

Recommended to those looking for a light, entertaining piece of dystopian fiction.

Have you read any of these books?

Did you enjoy them?

Categories
2011 Books in Translation Other Prizes

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld

Blooms of Darkness Translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green

Winner of the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Five words from the blurb: Holocaust, Jewish, boy, hides, brothel

Blooms of Darkness is set during WWII and follows an eleven-year-old Jewish boy as he is forced to leave his family and hide from the Nazis in a brothel.

Blooms of Darkness is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It isn’t a roller coaster of emotions, it is an endlessly bleak book without a glimmer of hope anywhere. I think the fact it is narrated by an innocent child, separated from his friends and family, makes it have even more impact. The loneliness and grief were heartbreaking and the thought of any child growing up in such terrible circumstances is hard to take.

Very little happened, but the observations and emotions were powerful and realistic – the author’s own experiences as a Jewish boy in hiding gave this book a painful authenticity. The writing style was simple and quiet and it was surprising to see how distressing a book could be without actually containing any graphic scenes.  The fear of discovery and imagining what might have happened to loved ones was enough to give this book a terrible sense of impending doom:

Hugo refused to think about what had happened to Erwin in the ghetto. One night they sealed off the orphanage on all sides, took the orphans out of their beds, and loaded them onto trucks while they were still in their pyjamas. The orphans wept and cried out for help, but no one did anything. Anyone who opened a window or went out would be shot.

It seems wrong to criticise a book for revealing the painful truth, but the continual darkness was too much for me. I longed for a few lighter moments to penetrate the bleakness, but I guess I’ll just have to take comfort in the fact that I’m lucky enough to never have experienced anything like this.

Recommended to anyone who’d like to know what it is like to be a child living in constant fear, but I’m sure it will be too distressing for many.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

Aharon has shown why he considered one of the foremost Hebrew writers. Winstondad’s Blog

…there’s nothing in the novel which makes it stand out amongst its peers and competitors. Tony’s Reading List

It’s a sombre work, because it deals with the Holocaust, but it’s beautiful all the same… ANZ Litlovers Litblog

 

 

Categories
Books in Translation

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

The Mussel Feast Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

Five words from the blurb: German, family, issues, revolutions, understand

Beside the Sea is one of my favourite books, but I’ve had less success with other Peirene releases. A few weeks ago Meike, the founder of Peirene Press, assured me that The Mussel Feast would be to my taste, so I decided to accept a review copy. She was right – this is a fantastic book and the ending is particularly good.

The Mussel Feast is a 112 page monologue narrated by a daughter as she waits for her father to return home for dinner. The father is expected to receive a promotion so the family cooks a large pot of mussels to celebrate.  A wonderful sense of foreboding mounts as the father is increasingly late; mirroring Beside the Sea in the way an ordinary situation slowly becomes unbearably tense.

She opened the wine and we felt terribly insubordinate. We sat around the dead mussels as if part of some conspiracy and drank father’s second best wine without him, gradually realizing that the mood had been spoiled for all of us.

The book is set in Germany and was written shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The repressed state that they live in is revealed over the course of the book, perfectly capturing what life is like for a family living under the power of a tyrannical father.

The writing was gripping, despite the meandering narrative, and the lack of chapter/page breaks encourages the reader to complete the book in a single sitting, giving the book maximum impact. 

This is a wonderful little book and I’m sure that a second reading would reveal even more depth. Recommended to anyone interested in thought-provoking international literature. 

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

For a book so troubled in tone, I found it to be funny and inventive, and with surprising flashes of relatability to familiar aspects of family life… Tolstoy is My Cat

The style is curiously hypnotic… Book Word

…a work which is surprisingly powerful and layered for its size. Tony’s Reading List

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Other

BBC Good Food Cookery Book Set

set

I love cooking so was very happy to receive unsolicited review copies of the new BBC Good Food cook books. Unfortunately they aren’t as good as the wonderful BBC Good Food website, but if you have limited access to the Internet they’re worth the investment.

There are 10 books in the series, with titles ranging from Low-fat Feasts to 101 Recipes for Kids. Each book is small (15cm square) with about 200 pages and each recipe is paired with a full colour photograph of the completed dish.

goodfood

The recipes are simple and “triple tested” to ensure that they work. The books focus on quick, easy recipes which are ideal for everyday meals. As a good cook I found most of the recipes quite basic, but there were still a few original ideas to inspire me. They’re perfect for a new cook as there aren’t big ingredient lists and each meal can be prepared in a short amount of time, without any fancy equipment. I was surprised to learn that these are Britain’s best-selling cookbook series, with over 3 million copies sold. I was aware of the website and the monthly magazine, but somehow this set of books had passed me by.

The BBC Good Food Website allows people to comment and rate each of the recipes. I love this feature as it allows me to read extra tips on the dish and see which recipes are the most popular. For example, this recipe for lemon drizzle cake is one of the highest rated on the site, but the comments let me know that many people prefer it with more lemon zest and that others have successfully made it with oranges. None of this information can be found on the recipe for lemon drizzle cake in the Good Food: 101 Cakes & Bakes, which bizarrely includes this recipe for the less popular Lemon and Violet Drizzle Cake.

Overall this is a good basic cookery book set, but I’d head the website first every time.

Books: 

Website: 

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Are you a fan of the BBC Good Food books/website?

weekendcooking

For more cookery posts see the Weekend Cooking post at Beth Fish Reads