The Ocean at the End of the Lane

My most recent read is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.
I have spent the best part of the day trying to write about this book as I have for the past ~7 books I have read.
It is not that I don’t have anything to say, it is more that my brain does not seem to be in a good place to make complete sentences.
Bit of a nightmare really.

Must be one of them days.

I enjoyed it. I love Neil. Master of stories. Birds=evil. The Ocean is inspired.

Onwards and upwards.

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The Undertaking

The Orange prize for women’s fiction has recently become the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and I feel the marketing has really ramped up this year! It is probably because of this that the long list made it onto my radar. Well, it could be this or it could be my obsession with one of the judges that caused me to pay attention. Caitlin Moran. Enough said.
Moving on from unhealthy obsessions, a few of the books caught my eye including; Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The luminaries – Eleanor Catton, Burial Rights – Hannah Kent and the Undertaking by Audrey Magee. I decided to opt for the latter based on the premise of the book and an urge to read some historical fiction from that particular time (Life after Life – Kate Atkinson paved the way for this I believe).

The Undertaking is set in 1930’s Germany, as Nazi propaganda is at its strongest and fit, young and able men are sent off to fight for their country and a bigger, better future. Heads held high, a proud and noble nation. Due to a woman’s need at the time for stability through marriage and a soldier’s desire for relief from the incessant fighting, both Katharina Spinell and Peter Faber opt to marry, at two separate ‘ceremonies’ and only meet after the marriage is complete. A bank worker and a former teacher come soldier, perfect strangers. The story goes on to follow these two who, whether for strength, personal moral, genuine affection or for appearances, meet, fall in love and continue to write to one another despite both living through very different wars.
Katharina’s Berlin, first experiencing war rations and witnessing daily persecution of the Jewish communities around her, then feeling her city shaken and torn by bombs and finally being invaded by the English, Americans and Russians as Hitler’s Germany falls.
Peter, referred to predominantly as Faber, is at the front of the fighting, having been in Belgium and France and now based on the seemingly hopeless Russian front. He is seen to be experiencing unbearably cold conditions, the daily violence of war and near starvation.
It would not be an overstatement to label some parts of this book as harrowing. It ranges from the glamour of the high society of Berlin to the lows of a hopeless Stalingrad siege, from the hurt of separation to the depravity of loss. Brutal violence, while highly unpleasant to read in places, just further hits home that while this is fiction these situations are not unfounded.

I would find it difficult to recommend this book to people because while it is great, it is written superbly, it has heart and multiple dimensions and characters that break your heart, I wouldn’t want other people to experience the need to weep quite as heavily as I did. I think this is more a reflection of me as emotionally unsteady but if you are looking for a joyous book this is not it. If you are looking for a book with hope and light. This is not it. This book has the feeling of realism to the maximum and a terrifying reminder that the Second World War happened and it was devastating for all involved regardless of what side of the North Sea they happened to be born on.

Magee’s The Undertaking has clearly impressed itself upon the judges of the Baileys Prize as it has made it into the six shortlisted this year and I am rather intrigued to see which book wins. Despite the ever present ‘to read’ list I feel I may need to hit the remaining five on the shortlist.

pileofbooks

pileofbooks

As of January this year I have been working with this a nice shiny pile of books that I have yet to read or finish. Because I am amazingly lucky and because the list of books I want to read will never really go down my pileofbooks has increased! New to the pile is a bit of Sophie Kinsella! Not something I have ever really considered reading but I have been advised by a friend that ‘Got Your Number’ is a good idea. In addition this I have the new Dawn O’Porter book (Young Adult fiction is nothing to be scoffed at) and a Steinbeck I have not heard of before.

I shall be interspersing all these books with Kindle reads for the weekday.

What next?

On Beauty

Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’ really does beg the question ‘can this woman do no wrong?!’ This is the third Smith novel I have read and every time she seems to completely capture the heart and soul of her characters. You can hate, love, pity and despair for each of them but the point is indifference isn’t a feeling up for grabs.

This is a story centred on the Belsey family, their life in the suburbs of New England and a long standing feud between two professors in the field of Art History. The Belsey family consists of Howard (a reference to ‘Howard’s End’, a novel by EM Forster that I have yet to investigate), his wife Kiki and their three very different children living their lives in and out of a university in the suburbs of Boston. It is a snap shot of a time where fifty seven year old Howard has been ‘indiscreet’ with one of their old friends, Claire, while his academic ‘nemesis’ takes up a position with in the same university as him. His eldest son Jerome has embraced Christianity, his daughter is throwing herself into academia and a potential soul destroying ‘project’ crush on a ‘brother’ from Boston, whilst his youngest son Levi struggles with his identity as a middle class and privileged black teenager.
Smith seems to open this family’s crises so that it plays out like a film swinging in and out of focus on individuals and their personal contentions.
While the story is solid it is not this that has kept me hooked for the last week, the character’s depth and personalities are what achieved this, including Howard’s hypocrisy, Zora’s tenacity and sheer stubbornness and Kiki’s beauty, presence and slightly bruised and very lost spirit that all add up to create a web that, in equal measures, made me root for and despise various members of this family and others found on the university campus.
A family like the Belsey’s, with such diversity, creates the perfect stage for the humour and heart that Smith really builds on. I was a little sad for it to end if I am honest.

The inclusion of Howard’s specific field of Art History and Zora’s interest in poetry gave this book an added dimension which I thought to be fascinating. More so is the fact that some of the poetry found in the book can be credited to the author’s husband, Nick Laird, and is done so heavily, in the author’s notes, the dedication and in the copyright notes.

Over all a great read, Zadie completely deserves the accolades she received for this modern take on an apparent Forster classic.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

I have just finished ‘Where’d you go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple and absolutely loved it! If relatively light hearted and often laugh out loud is what you are looking for please please please read this book.
Written from the perspective of 14 year old Balakrishna [don’t ask] ‘Bee’ Branch, heavily mixed with an epistolary format including letters, emails, faxes and hand written notes, she depicts the trials and tribulations of her life in Seattle with her Microsoft genius of a dad and her artist come menace to society mother. It is her mother, Bernadette, who does just as the title suggests and disappears. It turns out that the book I was reading was billed as what Bee had created when piecing together what the crikey had happened to her mother as things went from strange to ridiculous, in every sense of the words!
From Seattle to Antarctica this book is full of sometimes stereotypical but nearly always funny characters, some you want to know and others not so much!
I inhaled this book and feel it falls in the category of ‘perfect holiday read*’ without being full of wishy washy** romance and completely impractical perfect lives!
While it does make light of the subject, Bernadette clearly suffers from a pretty severe social anxiety disorder which, unmonitored and untreated, has left her and her family in quite a unique living arrangement. I think it is nice to have a character that is clearly flawed depicted in quite a positive light by the end of the book, working through her issues and bringing her slightly dysfunctional family back together.
There is a section in the book that really caught my attention where Bee and her father, Elgie, are discussing how the human brain is constantly evolving and how it is specifically a ‘discounting mechanism’, so you get use to your surroundings and therefore learn to live with things. The example Bee uses to check she fully understand is this:
‘The first time I walked into Kennedy’s house [..] it had a horrible Kennedy-house smell because her mother is always frying fish. I asked Kennedy, What’s that gross smell? And she was, like, what smell?’
Elgie goes on to explain how this is for survival so that people notice changes in the surrounding and not just get overpowered with the everyday occurrences.
It is the little things like this that made me think that this book had a hidden intelligence to it that appeals to those looking for a light read but still want some substance. In fact, I am desperate for some of my friends to read this book so I can annoy them with topics like this!
Apparently a lot of talk about this book has come from the author’s descriptions of Seattle. It is very rarely painted in a positive light in this book but I am still adamant I will get there at some point. My reasons are thus:
I have been advised by a friend who has lived there it may well be my spiritual home. Breweries. Checked shirts. Weird and wonderful indie bands. The setting of the best and worst hospital drama known to man (FYI Grey’s Anatomy). Ferry boats. Not to mention I actually have family who live there! One day…
One last thing before I go too far and start handed out copies of this book to people for free (it’s like the Caitlin Moran obsession all over again – *flashbacks*), the author, Maria Semple, an inhabitant of Seattle (as referenced on the back of the book), spent 15 years in LA working as a TV writer working on Ellen, Saturday Night Live and the hilarious, and potentially my all time favourite comedy, Arrested Development! She is clearly a winner of this little thing we call life. In my head she is a real life version of Liz Lemon, the Tina Fey character in 30 Rock. Nobody burst this bubble. Please.

*Please note I am not on holiday and just doing my usual day job; answer calls, greet people, sort mail, read book.

** Technical term.

The Sisters Brothers

 

 This book was one of the few I have read that really seemed to have a classic ‘story-telling’ feel about it. This may be because of its format, which to me is screaming for a film adaptation… or because of its narrative and historical topic, a classic Western tale with the expected outlaws, assassins, prospectors, whores and saloons.

 *researches*  The rights to this book have been bought. Potential film times!

 It is a winding tale of two brothers in the mid 1800’s as they go about yet another job as infamous assassins on the west coast of America during the ‘gold rush’.Told from the perspective of Eli Sisters, he talks us through not only the brothers going about what is their day to day lives but we find Eli at the end of his tether in this particular industry. While he suffers with a sometimes uncontrollable temper, Eli is a preferable character to his brother and is depicted as gentle at times and less suited to the role than his hardened brother, Charlie. One thing I did like about this is the explanation of why these two men are so different, considering they are brothers without a dramatic age gap. I won’t go into it but that bit of history does really develop the characters and takes Charlie from an initially 2D nasty character to one with purpose and, in places, even demanding sympathy.

 I found the first half of the book a little slow but the second half really did pick up pace and the section of the story involving Warm & Morris, the keen prospectors, caught my attention substantially more.The inclusion of Morris’ diary entries plus Warm’s explanation of how he came about his invention that ended up leading the brothers to him really did add depth and intrigued to a story that could have become stale from being purely from one perspective.This book is classified as being a ‘dark comedy’ and yes, it is entertaining, but I would not go as far as to dub it a comedy. Glad as I am to have read it I am not entirely sure it is worth such critical acclaim that it has previously received. I will not be falling over myself to lend this to others yet in the same breath would be incredibly intrigued to see what they would do with it in film format.

 *I have probably rambled about this before* My thoughts of book adaptation tends to be this; If I love a book and take it completely to heart I will go out of my way to avoid seeing the film for fear of ruining the memory of it in my head. No one wants to go to the cinema with someone who spends the entire film moaning about ‘the character not being right’ and exclaiming ‘they missed a complete scene!’ (Flash back to any of the Harry Potter films). If the book is average I am intrigued to see if someone took something I didn’t from it and therefore I will first in line to see it.

 Roll on the Sisters Brothers on the big screen.

 

p.s This was the last book I read as a 24 year old. I am officially in a different age bracket. I have not made me piece with this yet.