Reading reflections in the Bookinglass

An expat with a love of fiction

Archive for the ‘Things I have read and loved’ Category

ROOM by Emma Donoghue

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Grandparent's room with flowersIt has been a few months since I ending up sitting down and finishing ROOM. Not that it was a huge effort to finish, but I found the first half of the book much more gripping that the latter half.

What I remember most about this book now is how I imagined Room, the one in which Jack and his Ma, live.

They measure their square living space and find it to be 11ft x 11ft and the objects and furniture are explored in detail by Jack as he plays, sleeps and eats. But I think it doesn’t need a precise size, in my imagination the size and objects are indistinct and are constructed in the way that I think is important, not what I am told by the narrator, Jack, to be true.

Take for example, Eggsnake, a toy made of empty eggshells strung along a piece of thread, who “lives in Under Bed all coiled up keeping us safe”. There is something about the way that what we put or hide under the bed is able to say a lot about you. In Jack and Ma’s case, they are expert home keepers and frugality is their way of expressing creativity. Eggsnake is Jack and Ma’s guardian. Bed and Eggsnake are the two things that I think are most important in Room so they feature a lot when I am imagining Room and the goings-on in the book.

Surprisingly perhaps, I almost instantly fell in love with Room, even though it isn’t a character and certainly should put shivers up my spine, but because they have made it rich and full of life it seems almost welcoming.

Humans are so adaptable! Almost too adaptable, one message you could take away from this book is that we shouldn’t get attached to places just because we happen to live there. Sometimes we shouldn’t be content with what we’ve got or are given. We need to see outside of our mind’s room and step out of familiar places or ways of thinking. At the moment I am looking for a new job, so I have been content to spend a lot of time alone in my room. I think this was the perfect book in which to see that escape is not only possible, it is essential. As Emma Donoghue puts it (just replace ‘motherhood’ with ‘job hunting’):

I found motherhood a crash course in existentialism (what is my purpose in life, am I mistress or slave of my destiny, when the hell do I get some sleep?) and ROOM was the result.

OK, maybe job hunting is not in the same league as motherhood, but it does make you think more about what you make of your life, your opportunities and, of course, the future. Read more of her chat here but don’t spoil the story by reading too much! Really, I have said too much already.

Written by bookinglass

February 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm

How not to recommend a book

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There are many ways in which you can put someone off reading a book. The trap I fall into is that of the overly enthusiastic advocate.

“You MUST read this book”

When I read Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin, I was completely enamoured long after I finished reading it. During my honeymoon period with this book I expounded  its brilliance to whomever would listen to my soliliquising. But only my mum has embarked upon reading it.

Here is how I now know not to recommend a good book.

The book is set mostly in the civil war torn Congo and follows the life and career of the Irish journalist who reports from “cities of half-remembered conflicts”.

I have always wondered about the lives of those foreign reporters I saw on the BBC. It is thrilling to imagine seeking out places that most people would run a million miles away from.

More than anything, the poignant imagery and the cynical undertone really struck a chord with me. For example, the title of the book sounds like a cheesy and pretentious memoire that is an extract from the end of Philip Larkin’s poem, Talking in Bed. It is a finely-tuned joke that balances that shallow offhand use of a well-known poem, with the depth of feeling that he borrows from Larkin’s words nonetheless. As you come to realise that the narrator despises the type of bigwig journalists who romanticise their career and experiences in such a nauseating way.

The imagery is surprising and original. From the first page:

“The days and nights mill round like mismatched fighters, short and long, long and short, from summer to winter to summer again…”

I love how the weather in the UK is likened to what I imagine as cold, sweaty, mistrustful, grim boxers skirting around each other in a ring. The lack of daylight does seem like it loses out to the dark in the Winter and the change in seasons plays a unpredicatable role in people’s lives. This author is a master at creating atmosphere and setting.

But it was not until the hilarious scene with the journalists treking into the jungle in search of a gorillas that I truly madly deeply fell in love with this book.

There are few moments when you have to put down a book and wipe your eyes from tears. I was brought to this twice in Not Untrue and Not Unkind, once from laughter (gorilla scene and the unfortunately-worded T-shirt scene) and once from devastation (most of the other scenes to be fair).

But I shan’t give too much away. Therein lies the problem with recommending a book. It’s like when someone tries to inform you about what makes an in-joke funny: it flops like a flat lilo of undrollity. The more someone goes on about something that you can’t participate in, the less you want to know about it.

So my waxing lyrical about Not Untrue and Not Unkind is pointless really until you have read it too (and please tell me if you do!) and can put people off reading it altogether. So for now, as I am still not used to this what books would you recommend and why malarky, I advise you to get over the first chapter, just the first chapter, and get to the gorilla part and then you’ll be hooked.

Do you think you can be put off reading a book by someone who is too pushy?

Written by bookinglass

March 30, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Reading and Being A Woman in Berlin

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Reading a book that is set in the same place as where you happen to live (or are visiting) is a way to unearth secrets about that the place that you wouldn’t otherwise discover.

I read this blog post about ‘Reading Great Books in Great Places’ (London in this case) and I was inspired to embark on a little literary tourism of Berlin for myself.

When it comes to Berlin and reading the diary of a woman who was here in the final days of WWII whilst I was on the S-Bahn heading to Potsdamer Platz, I couldn’t help but feel closer to this city’s recent history.

I have been to see the Wall at Mauerpark, the preserved wasteland where the SS headquarters used to be, the chilly cavernous black room in the Jewish Museum, great historic hotspots. Yet reading about the violent, frightening upheaval seen through the eyes of this intelligent, brave, unyeilding woman is startling in a very different way.

I feel that as an archaeologist I am being a bit traitorous to my discipline, as I now understand how amazing it is to see history through people’s own words rather than dusty objects or architecture. But, this is such a remarkable historic source, not only did she write as the events were happening, she is detailed and literary and she could speak some Russian so she can report on what the conquering Russian soldiers were actually saying. It must be most WWII historians’ dream bedtime reading. I still love the dusty objects and architecture.

The anonymous author gives details of the destruction of the city, the rape of the women, the gossip at the pumps, the watches that the Russian soliders collect as prestigious charms and the cleaning, petty human actions, great hunger and extreme resourcefulness. Just a little tidbit:

“A reddish-grey light shining through the window means the war is still on outside. A distant rumble and hum The front is now rolling into the centre of town. I get dressed, wash myself as best I can, and listen carefully to the morning quiet of the stairwell. Nothing but silence and emptiness.” (p.78)

Although, I admit, I haven’t yet finished the book. You see, I read it on the train, and I only have enough pages left for half a journey. So I picked up another book and this one remains on the shelf. Do you think she dies in the end? Otherwise why would she stop writing? Can a diary ever truly have a satisfactory ending?

Written by bookinglass

January 18, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Glass Feet and Warrior Cats

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Cute cat with paw on windowThere has been no update from the land of currywurst and bears who do handstands. I have been busy getting to grips with this fantastic city but not yet with the German language.

So it’s been quite an eclectic mix of books that I have read over the last few weeks…and ‘eclectic’ is a euphemism to make it sound like my reading children’s books borrowed from the school’s library over their summer vacation (and, ok, into term time) is justified.

Warrior Cats by Erin Hunter. About cats who live in the forest and fight each other over territory and food. I just can’t get enough of this series of books written for 10 year olds.

I cried when the lovely cat died in kittenbirth.

I pumped my fist when the mangy old evil cat was kicked out of the clan.

Haven’t quite given into the desire to join the online fan page yet. And oh…just discovered a whole realm of Youtube videos surrounding the series. This one is pretty funny. It really is as dramatic as they make out, I tell you, puts my problems in perspective! Also it’s given me reason to think up new names for our old cat that are more in tune with nature and feistiness. Best I can come up with is Blacktail. I know, not inspired.

The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw. Not worth it. Really. Read the first and last chapters and you don’t miss much inbetween. She has glass feet, it says so in the title, so really all that mystery in the first few chapters around the reason behind her chunky boots and careful, stilted gait: Boring and pointless. And, no, there is no reason for her having glass feet. You just come to realise that even magical things can be dull:

‘I told you about moth-winged cattle after you saw the poor bull. I think I told you they eat and shit and die like everything else. You see, just because something is unfamiliar doesn’t mean it isn’t bound by all that stuff.’ (p. 164)

And yes, that says moth-winged cattle, pint-sized whirring cows. BUT I finished the book, so it can’t be that bad. And now I feel guilty as Ali Shaw has a blog and all….eek. It’s ok, Ali, if you’re reading this: I am that stupid girl who likes books written from the perspective of cats. It’s probably just my mood at this moment in time but if book 2 could be named The Cat with Glass Paws?

On a less facetious side, Ali Shaw’s use of language is astounding and intricate. I really love the image of the glass feet the first time that Midas peels back the sock:

‘In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles.’ (p. 62)


God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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I have moved to Berlin and have a 30 minute commute to work, the perfect opportunity to read! This is one of those I-really-must-read-at-some-point reads and I can’t believe I have actually gotten down to doing it particularly as I haven’t been feeling much like reading at all recently.

Set in Kerala, Southern India, the language is as rich and dense as hazelnut and honey cheesecake and I really feel like I have been there! On the downside, it’s like reading all my old English Lit. teacher’s prose extracts to Analyse (or shred to pieces) all put together in one enormous volume of Ahhhh that must MEAN something but I am not sure what!?

Goodness, the amount of extended metaphors in this book I don’t think even the keenest Lit. Crit. could count. My particular most pet-hated metaphor is a “fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo…” otherwise known as the little girl whose name escapes me right now but this image of her hair tied in a high ponytail with bobble plastic hair-tie (see picture) really sticks into my mind. There’s something about the way that it sounds that really makes no sense and yet is rather beautiful. It’s a very frustrating image for me…touristy, cheap and insignificant but lively and exotic and very very girly.

Another image that conjures up the same kind of sick touristy, unright feeling of the Love-in-Tokyo (How can Tokyo have anything to do with this part of India?). In the airport as the twins and their family await the much-anticipated arrival of their cousin, Sophie Mol from England. Rahel (aha, that’s the girl’s name!) notices statues described as “red mouthed roos with ruby smiles” that move “cemently across the airport floor”…how creepy is that? Statues of kangaroos with their pouches filled not with joeys but with disgusting stains from betel nut juice (spat by passersby) and cigarette stubs. Rubbish instead of offspring. And the fact that they are MOVING? It’s just as Rahel sees the dead girl cartwheel in her coffin, these inanimate objects should definitely not move, but because she (perhaps) imagines they do move, it creates a very unsettling  and foreboding atmosphere. The alliteration of  ‘r’ I think conveys how they might sound if they did move across the floor. Slow, inexorable, deadly and void of emotion.

Righto! That’s my comments for now. Still have to finish the book…although I am pretty certain that it is not a happy ending as the whole tone of the book so far is very dark and uncomfortable and icky (the weather and the people). Perhaps Roy is dealing with Untouchable subjects in many many ways into which I can barely begin to delve.

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Written by bookinglass

July 7, 2010 at 6:20 pm

The Bedside Book of Beasts and other beastly things

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Recently, I have been reading The Bedside Book of Beasts by Graeme Gibson, a lovely  illustrated hardback which I could hardly wait to paw through upon receiving (particularly in light of my post a couple of weeks ago on Animal agency in books). This book is FAB!!! The mixture of poems, diary extracts and fairy tales inside are all gripping, enigmatic, tragic and (most of all) thought-provoking about the human relationship with wild animals, in particular the bear, the lion, the wolf and the tiger.

I was particularly struck by the story of how to avoid being eaten for dinner by a lion by slowly walking away from the beast at an oblique angle.  It turns out that for Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, her encounter with a lion was quite the opposite, the lion was the one to walk away from the confrontation in this manner,

“By his smooth departure and his cool, detached behaviour, the lion apparently intended to save himself from the risks of an unwanted skirmish.”  (p. 27)

This anecdote was surprising, amusing, sincere and touching. I will be delving into the book for a long while yet.

Talking of Beastly Things….I went to a Group Assessment for an internship last Monday and it was Bubye, Tsuss, A bientot,  on Tuesday. Basically just got the feedback via phone call:

‘Well this is really difficult because the notes we took on you are all very positive but one thing we could say is that you were a bit quiet and although you had some really good ideas you were not assertive enough when putting them forward to the group. So really all I can say is that you will get a job sometime, you just have to keep on trying.’


Yes yes, I will get a job sometime. It’s a shame that I could have had a job next week….

Any suggestions for reading which will make me feel like being at this stage in life isn’t all bad? If you could pop it in the post for me as well….although that might be a bit cheeky of me to ask 😉

The Island at the End of the World

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One of the best books I have read in a long time but still feel that it doesn’t quite cut it. Who doesn’t love to be whisked away to a almost-deserted idyllic island?…set in the near future, this island inhabited only by a family of four: a pious Dad and his three curious and feisty children Alice, Finn and Daisy. And there are big tantalising mysteries right from the get-go:

  1. How did these people get to this island?
  2. Was there really a flood which wiped out the rest of the human race?
  3. What happened to the mother?

 We see the world through the Father and Finn’s eyes for most of the book then in Part Two it is Alice’s turn. The use of language is very original to set apart the three characters. The father speaks like this:

‘And the Father said to Alice, WHAT IS THIS THAT THOU HAST DONE?’

He is obviously using language which he has learnt from the Bible (according to him one of the three books worth reading along with Shakespeare and Fairy Tales), he refers to himself in the third person which makes him sound self-important and a little bit mad. I find the father’s voice is affected and although the character is indeed dangerously off-his-trolley his sanctimonious huffing and puffing generally sounds ridiculous. Having recently read ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ I have had enough of the constant references to Genesis, temptation and sexual knowledge to last me a couple of years and Kingsolver’s mastery makes this book seem like a poor cousin of the thematic genre.

What I did enjoy about  The Island at the End of the World and what makes it an outstanding read is Finn’s use of language. It took me by surprise that I had to make an effort to understand what he was saying, and some misspellings have a touch of genius. For example, cuddling is pronounced ‘culling’ which inverts the connotations of the word completely. This new pigeon English makes me look at language from a new perspective and shapes this new world as strange and refreshing.

The second thing I like about this book is Snowy, the cat which I think could be seen as the animal version of Jesus. Being murdered within the first couple of chapters, we only ever know about Snowy through Finn’s memory of his beloved pet and companion. The author creates a character void in killing off this animal as well as the unexplained absence of the mother which makes this island seems very empty and unsettling undermining its lush and beautiful appearance. Why is the cat called Snowy? Purity and transience come to mind but also a kind of untouchable-ness, as snow is cold and melts away. Also the book opens in the winter as the spring and summer come, Alice’s sexuality awakens echoing the fertility and heat around her.

There is enough to study in this book to last at least a dissertation….having its fair share of extended metaphors: island, sunflowers,ark,swimming,trees. I highly recommend the read.

Written by bookinglass

December 6, 2009 at 5:08 pm