Non-fic Shiny Linkiness

Yes, there’s more Shiny Linkiness today. One of the things I do love about reviewing for Shiny New Books is that it introduces me to some great non-fiction which I don’t read enough of, and the latest issue is no exception. Please feel free to comment here, or even better – follow the links to the full reviews and comment there.  Thank you!

Birth of a Theorem by Cédric Villani

birth-of-a-theorem-198x300I realise that a memoir about winning the Fields Medal for mathematics will not be to everyone’s taste – especially as it contains pages of equations… BUT – they are just illustrations, treat them sections from a musical score and pass them by whilst appreciating the complexity you’ve just skimmed over and it does make some kind of sense to see them on the page.

Cédric Villani is a flamboyant Frenchman who likes flashy clothes and music and brings his recent career to life so we can understand a bit about what mathematicians really do!

I was rather excited by this book and you can read my full review here.

The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell

the-knowledgeI was able to kill two birds with one stone with this book. We discussed it this month at our book group – I didn’t choose it, but was very glad to have read it, and as the new issue of Shiny New Books coincided with its paperback release, I could review it there and then discuss with the group.

This book is a thought experiment about rebooting civilisation’s lost science and technology following a world-disaster like a flu-pandemic. It’s a primer that’ll give you the basics – or point you in the right direction largely through re-examining how we discovered key processes the first time around in history. You’ll really get to appreciate how important being able to make soap and lime are after the end of the ‘grace period.’

Our book group found this fascinating and dry in equal measure. Although it is a science book written by a scientist, the others would have liked some more social science and comment incorporated – but it ‘does what it says on the tin’ and I enjoyed it a lot.

Read my full review here.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy miller book Lastly, again, to coincide with publication of the paperback, I revised my review of Andy Miller’s book which I originally posted about here. I may have had problems with one tiny section, but I did really enjoy reading this book.

Read my revised Shiny review here.

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Source: Top – publisher – thank you. Middle and bottom – own copies.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):

Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure by Cédric Villani (trans Malcolm De Bevoise), Bodley Head, March 2015, hardback, 260 pages.
The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World After An Apocalypse by Lewis Dartnell, Vintage paperback, March 2015, 352 pages.
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller, 4th Estate paperback, April 2015, 253 pages.


Reviving his thirst for reading…

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

andy-millerWhat do you do when you seriously lose your reading mojo? I tend to retreat into trashy fiction, but I have always managed to recover it after a short hiatus. This wasn’t the case for Andy Miller. He has a great job in publishing, a happy marriage and a young son, but wasn’t getting anything from reading any more.

His solution – to embark upon a grand plan – to read all those books (mostly but not exclusively classics) that he had lied about reading before. He had this epiphany when he picked up Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a book he’d never been able to get into before. (It took me three goes, so I know how he felt on that one.)

Miller draws up The List of Betterment, 50 titles from Middlemarch to War and Peace with some surprises in between; the aim is to read them in a single year.

The road to reading betterment is not without its blocks and detours. A couple of books on the list continued to defeat him (e.g. Of Human Bondage), others are a revelation. The chapter wherein he compares Moby Dick and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is hysterically funny, and truly insightful (I can say that having read both!):

Moby Dick is a long, gruelling, convoluted graft. And yet,, as soon as I completed it, once I could hold it at arm’s length and admire its intricacy and design, I knew Moby Dick was obviously, uncannily, a masterwork. It wormed into my subconscious; I dreamed about it for nights afterwards.

I can honestly say that I had exactly the same experience with Moby Dick (see here.)

Rather than formally critique these books, for the most part Miller’s book is a memoir of the reading experience – how he related to these books and they to him and his life. If you pick it up expecting a serious look at the canon from someone who knows about these books but had not previously read them, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it’s primarily a story about how to make reading fun, and through it, get more out of life.

I must admit to having bonded a bit with the author (as he portrays himself in this book). The Moby Dick chapter was great, but what sealed it for me was that he grew up in Croydon – my own neck of the woods.

How I loved the municipal libraries of South Croydon. They were not child-friendly places; in fact, they were not friendly at all to anyone… The larger building in the town had its own children’s library, accessible at one end of the hall via an imposing door, but what lay behind that door was not a children’s library as we might understand it today, full of scatter cushions and toys and strategies of appeasement; it revealed simply a smaller, replica wood-panelled room full of books. … The balance of power lay with the books, not the public. This would never be permitted today.

I convinced myself that he was talking about Coulsdon Library there – which is where I went as a kid every Saturday morning in the second half of the 1960s. Then we moved to Purley (closer to central Croydon), and Purley library was where I went every day during the months before finishing university and starting my first job. I also had a Saturday job at Norbury library through the sixth form – so I know Croydon and its libraries rather well.

In a footnote, he also praises the branch of WH Smiths in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon where he would go to spend prized book tokens – his birthday present of choice. (This is one point where I have to disagree – Websters, the indie book shop further up was far better than Smiths – it is now Waterstones!). I don’t mind footnotes at all, and Miller’s ones frequently contain funny asides – if you’re a footnote-o-phobe, you’ll miss some good little bits.

Miller is not afraid to court controversy in this book. This is where I unbonded with him for a bit. In the chapter on Books 41 and 42, he talks about blogging. He tried blogging about his project himself – but failed. He said he wasn’t reading the books for the sake of reading them, he was reading them for the sake of thinking of something to write about them on the blog. Fair enough, but he goes on to say how “The internet is the greatest library in the universe; unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.” after having made some very disapproving generic comments about bloggers. Guaranteed to piss people off, that!

The above section aside, I found this book very enjoyable and always entertaining – even the chapter written as a love letter to Michel Houellebecq’s novel Atomised, (a book I have tried, but disliked so much I did not finish it). I counted up how many titles I’d read on The List of Betterment. 18 + The Da Vinci Code – I was impressed with myself – being a scientist, not an English grad. I have added to my own wishlist – notably Bukowski, and I want to re-read Anna Karenina, preferably in Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation for the OUP. I’ve also made mental notes to dispose of my copies of Of Human Bondage and Dice Man – I’ll never read them now.

Fans of books about books of the personal reading journey type, rather than serious lit-crit will find Miller’s memoir great fun; easy reading in good company. (8/10)

For a pair of other contrasting views on this book – see Susan’s review here and Victoria’s one here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller. Pub 4th Estate, May 2014. Hardback, 336 pages.

My New Reading Chair

YIPPEE! My new reading chair arrived this afternoon (with matching sofa, from the sales at Furniture Village).

It’s a ‘smuggler’ chair – one and a half seats wide, so plenty of room for feet and wriggling and cushions – and a cat when we get one.  Meanwhile my daughter is pleased with the sofa because it is longer than our old one and she can lie on it, (just 3 months and she’s a proper teenager!).

New Chair 003

I’m now going to baptize it with my current read – The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers – I’m going to hear her talk next week (more info from Mostly Books).

I was slightly surprised that we ended up choosing a neutral grey-brown colour sofa though for there was red on offer (I love red), but I shall save that for winter cushioning.  But thinking about how I’d describe the colour – it’s minky – and that’s the name and colour of our much beloved hamster!

Mostly Minky 046 compressed


So that’s my new place to read.  Why don’t you tell me about your reading chairs and reading places …

Appearing elsewhere …

Just a short post to say that today I’m appearing elsewhere … My bookcases and I are over at Savidge Reads. Answering Simon’s questionnaire about my bookcases (and let’s face it, my mountainous TBR), was great fun and I am delighted to be taking part in his regular feature.

I took a bag of books to the charity shop this morning – including several chunksters that are just too long and don’t think I’ll ever read them – that means Infinite Jest, A Suitable Boy and Anathem amongst others. They may be masterpieces but life’s too short. Between them that frees up over six inches of shelf space, and I can always re-acquire/borrow them should the urge to actually read them come.

So see you at Simon’s and I’ll sure we can find a virtual cuppa and biscuits while you peruse the shelves…

Little & Often at the Right Time Of Day …

The very first proper post I wrote on this blog on 17th September 2008 was titled What’s your relationship to your reading? Within it I briefly explored whether I was a serial monogamist or two-timer in my reading habits. I was reminded of it recently because I have sort of been trying an experiment – more on that later.

Usually I find it difficult to read more than one book at a time, unless one is fiction and the other non-fiction. Experience had previously shown, that although I may start off alternating a couple of chapters at a time, when I try to read two or more fiction books alongside each other I always end up favouring one. Indeed the other book often then just sits there half read for ages, or maybe is never finished.

This is often the case with readalongs for me. Putting the book aside often means that the goldfish bit of my brain promptly forgets about it, and by the time I pick it up again, I’m a month behind and forgotten a lot of what happened in the previous section. The readalong is doomed then as far as I’m concerned.

At the moment though, I’m doing something different… I have two chunksters and one series of books on the go – all at the same time – and so far I’m managing to get them all read bit by bit.  I’m reading:

  • Oscar and Lucinda  by Peter Carey – 515 dense pages.  I’m now halfway through and loving it. I started reading it about a week and a half ago, around 25 pages at a time.
  • Riders by Jilly Cooper – 919 pages of horsey bonkbuster.  We’re actually reading this for bookgroup.  Not my normal fare, but it’s total racy fun, and the pages speed by.  I started reading it about 3 days ago and am up to page 205.
  • The Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend.  I got sent the entire set of eight, and they’re wonderfully funny and nostalgic.  I’m four volumes in.  (A major post on the series coming up in a couple of days.)

So how am I, previously a one book at a time girl, managing to juggle three successfully?  By reading each at different times of day…

  • I read O&L in the mornings in bed. I’m a lark anyway and have good concentration first thing.  I try to get at least half an hour’s reading in before getting up.
  • I read Riders when I go to bed.  Again I like to read for thirty minutes or more if I can before falling asleep (many times with the light on, glasses on and thumb wedged into the book).
  • I’m reading Adrian Mole at those other times during the day when I have short gaps – ideally suited to diaries. I’ve been reading them off and on since the New Year.

So far, so good.  I’m sure it’s only working at the moment because of the length of the books I’m reading.  The average length of the books I read tends to be around 300 pages, and that doesn’t present the same challenge in terms of the time needed, and I know I won’t feel the need to juggle them.

My “Little and Often at the Right Time Of Day (LORTOD)” approach is working well.

Do you read more than one book at a time, or different books at different times of day?   See how Fleur Fisher copes with many books at once …

A novel of ‘Great expectations’

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

With its lovely cover, and the promise of Dickensian fun in paradise, I was easily lured into this novel.  I’ll admit that having missed most of the hype about it when it came out, I was expecting a soft and lightly humorous novel along the lines of the The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.  It didn’t take long for these fanciful notions to be dispelled and replaced with less cosy and rather greater expectations!

The story is narrated by Matilda, looking back at the events that happened on Bougainville, her Pacific island home when she was fourteen.  It’s the 1990s, and there is civil unrest brewing on the island, which has yet to reach the end where Matilda lives.  School has been shut for some time and everyone is surprised when Mr Watts decides to reopen it.  Mr Watts, whom the kids all call Pop Eye, is the last white man living in the village.  He promises to introduce the children to Mr Dickens – and initially their hopes are dashed when Mr Dickens is found to be a long-dead author. When Mr Watts starts to read Great Expectations to them, one chapter a day it piques their interest, for Mr Watts turns out to be a natural storyteller.

Matilda and the other children take Pip to their hearts.  The book allows their imagination to fly beyond their island boundaries and confirms to them that there is another world out there.  Matilda’s god-fearing mother is suspicious of Mr Dickens and the faithless Mr Watts, and their war of words is a highlight of the novel.  However civil war intervenes with the arrival of the brutal ‘Redskins’ who have seen a word Matilda spelt out in seashells on the sand – ‘Pip’.  Demanding to see Pip, things rapidly turn nasty and the novel takes on sombre tone, and Mr Watts will prove that he is a good and decent man.

The parallels with Dickens abound, but I must admit my limited familiarity with Great Expectations really comes from the classic black and white film with John Mills as Pip rather than the book, which I read at school. I think that if you know the Dickens well, this novel will fascinate on a different level – without that, I did feel inspired to read the Dickens properly sometime soon.

It did evoke a picture of a life very different to our own successfully I thought – it would have been idyllic if not for the war. When the insurgents turned up, the pace upped a notch, and in the later stages there was a certain amount of convenient wrapping up at the end, which fell a little flat for me.   It was an enjoyable read, and if a book can make you want to read Dickens, that must be alright! (7.5/10) I bought this book.

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To buy from, click below:
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Great Expectations (Oxford World’s Classics) by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations [DVD] [1946] starring John Mills, directed by David Lean.