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Bookends #7 Sept 2018

I neglected my Bookends posts over the summer — not through lack of material to share, just a question of other things taking priority (like sitting in the garden). But with September comes that feeling of  “summer is over, time to knuckle down to work/schools/study” so I’ve given myself a good talking too and promised to get back into a regular routine with Bookends, sharing just three things that have sparked my interest from the multitude of news articles, blog posts and announcements that drop into my email box.

This week brings an article about the supposed health benefits of reading, a new novel by a favourite writer from the past and

Book: Transcription by Kate Atkinson. 

TranscriptionAtkinson has been a favourite of mine for several years , starting with Scenes Behind a Museum and continuing with her Jackson Bodie series. I fell out of love with her Costa-winning novel Life After Life and wasn’t excited by the idea of A God in Ruins.

But her latest novel Transcription which is published in the UK this month, sounds much more promising.

At the heart of the novel is a woman who gets a job in an obscure department of the British secret service during World War 2. Once the war ends she joins the BBC, where her life begins to unravel.

The reviewer in the Guardian suggests this novel sees Atkinson once again use an indirect structure (the novel apparently begins at the end) and play with questions of reality/unreality.

I’m hoping our local library system has put this on order…

Blog Post: Podcasts for every reader

As a devotee of podcasts I’m always on the look out for something new to listen to while in the gym or driving to the supermarket. I’ve tried dozens over the years. Some like the A Good Read stream from the BBC, I’ve stuck with but others I’ve abandoned after just one or two episodes because I find the style of presentation (far too many “awesomes”) or the presenters’ voices hugely irritating.

Buzzfeed has just published an article listing 31 podcasts all relating to books and reading (why 31 and not 30 is a mystery). Many of these I’ve not heard of before and some are definitely not to my taste but there are a few I think I’ll dip into. I’m intrigued by one podcast called Live by the Book where the two hosts take a self-help book and try to live by its ‘rules’ for two weeks. Self-help books vary enormously in quality I’ve found, the worst being from authors who came up with one idea that can be explained in a page or two but then gets spun out to more than 200 pages.  Yes “Who Moved my Cheese?” I’m looking at you…..

Article: Readers tend to live longer?

Over the decades, I’ve seen many benefits claimed for the practice of regular reading, from improving your vocabulary, expanding your knowledge of other cultures and ways of living, to helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Today I came across a report from Yale University that claims reading books on a regular basis can help you live longer.

Apparently, Yale’s School of Public Health conducted research in 2016 with a group of 3,635 people, that looked at possible links between the number of hours each individual spent per day on reading and their  life expectancy.

One of the conclusions was that the book readers in the study group who spent up to 3.5 hours a week engrossed in a book were 17 percent less likely to die over the 12-years following the study, while those who read more than the three hour-mark were 23 percent less likely to die.

I’m quite taken by the idea that even 30 minutes reading a day has a health benefit (do the longevity benefits increase if you read standing up??). What a great way to justify my habit of buying yet more books…….they’re an investment for the future in essence.

Unfortunately the researchers didn’t provide a detailed explanation of how this connection works other than to point to the known cognitive benefits associated with reading.

“Reading books tends to involve two cognitive processes that could create a survival advantage,” say the authors. “First, it promotes “deep reading,” which is a slow, immersive process; this cognitive engagement occurs as the reader draws connections to other parts of the material, finds applications to the outside world, and asks questions about the content presented. Second, books can promote empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, which are cognitive processes that can lead to greater survival.

I can understand how the process of reading stimulates the brain and helps mitigate against conditions like Alzheimer’s. But I’m still not clear how empathy, emotional intelligence necessarily translate into the ability of the body to withstand conditions such as cancer or heart disease.

However it’s an interesting question and one I was hoping Yale had continued to research – particularly since in their report they mention the potential for looking at differences between reading physical books and e-readers or listening to audio versions. But I’ve not found anything more recent to indicate their work is on going.

If anyone finds a more recent article, do let me know

In the meantime you can read an abstract of the study  here  and a detailed article here

 

 

 

Crystal ball gazing for Booker prize 2015

Tomorrow sees the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2015. I was hesitating from making some predictions of what we might see since a) my previous attempts at anticipating the winners and losers have not exactly been stellar and b) I’m struggling to think of 13 titles which is the traditional number on the longlist.

But having scratched my head for several hours I’ve come up with a few that meet the stipulation that only novels written originally in English and published in the UK (regardless of the author’s nationality) can enter. The book has to have been published between October 2014 and September 2015.

First up are two novels I hope don’t win. I know that sounds a bit mean and disrespectful to the author if either is truly considered the best of the last 12 months. But neither of these books interests me and if it wins I will have to read it as part of my Booker Prize project.

Buried GiantI do expect to see The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro on the longest, and probably on the shortlist, given his stature and the fact this is his first novel for 10 years. It’s attracted widespread acclaim. I had planned to read it and even to see the great man at the Hay Festival but then discovered that much of it was a fantasy and it contained non human creatures that talk (a bug bear of mine). My library reservation was cancelled.

 

A God in RuinsAnother prediction I hope doesn’t materialise is Kate Atkinson’s A God in RuinsThis is another book I’ve not read but since it’s a companion to her earlier novel Life after Life which I could not finish (I got completely bored with it ) I’m not keen to read this one. I may be lucky here since she hasn’t made it to the longlist in the past and she’s written far better novels.

 

 

And now to the books I would like to see at least long listed.

Flood of FireFlood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh. This is the third novel in the Ibis Trilogy which began with Sea of Poppies set against a background of the Opium Wars in China. His latest novel Flood of Fire returns to the outbreak of that time and follows a cast of characters through to China’s devastating defeat and Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong. Ghosh is someone who meticulously researches his novel and brings the historic period to life through some well-drawn characters. I’m relatively new to his novels but have enjoyed everything I’ve read so far.

 

god help the childThe change in rules which came about last year means that American authors can now enter the Booker Prize. Which means we could see Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and 1998 Pulitzer Prize, enter the fray with God Help the Child. Robinson is known as an author of epic themes and for raising the American consciousness. In her latest novel she explores how the sufferings of childhood shape the life of the adult, about the nature of beauty and veneration of being black.

I’m saving my favourite for last….

Norah WebsterNorah Webster by Colm Tóibín, a tremendous study of grief and the rebuilding of a life in 1960s Eire. Norah is recently widowed, left with four children, little money, no job and far too many people trying to tell her how best to organise her life from here on. It’s a story told in chronological order, following Norah’s consciousness as she shapes her new life inch by inch. Tóibín is no stranger to the Booker Prize – he’s been on the shortlist three times:  in 1999 for The Blackwater Lightship, in 2004 for The Master’ and 2014 for The Testament of Mary. Could this be his lucky year??

If you don’t trust my predictions and would like some alternative crystal ball views take a look at:

 

Atkinson’s Life after Life Runs out of Breath

lifeafterlifeIt took three months for my name to get to the top of the library waiting list for Kate Atkinson‘s Life after Life.  Every day that elapsed brought another review in the blogosphere that lauded this novel so the expectation of the delight awaiting me went up a few notches each week.  Which made the disappointment of the actual experience of reading it all the more acute.

So disappointed was I by this novel, that I never got further than half way through. It now has the dubious honour of being the only novel I Did Not Finish this year.

I’ve always enjoyed Atkinson in the past so what went wrong this time?

The heart of the novel is a premise in the form of a question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

We’ve all been tempted to play that ‘What If’ game haven’t we?. The one where you look back at your life and wonder what would have happened if only you’d made a different decision;  that you’d said yes when he declared undying love and you just gave him the cold shoulder cos he was really the class nerd. Except years later he turned out to be a real dish.  Or if only you’d seized that chance to go backpacking around Asia for a few months instead of working in a cafe before heading off to university. If only you had that opportunity to wind back the clock and take the untravelled road.

Wistful thinking for most of us but in Atkinson’s novel, the central character Ursula Todd gets to do exactly that; to rewind the clock and to re-live her life many times over.  She’s born in a snowstorm in England in 1910 but dies at birth. Rewind the clock and she survives for a few years and then dies again when she falls off the roof of her house.

It’s an interesting basis for a story and it moves along quite rapidly, Atkinson proving once again what a good storyteller she is. But – and it was a big BUT for me – the cleverness of the idea of a death/life repeating cycle quickly palled. It actually became tedious especially when the content in between wasn’t particularly interesting. By the time the child is 5 she has died at least four times, during which time  World War 1 has come and gone, an event dealt with in an unbelievable cursory fashion: Ursula’s dad goes off to war, her mother starts knitting socks for the war effort, then whoosh, the  war is over.  It’s not enough to counterbalance the number of twists in fate Atkinson introduces. Nor does this pace allow characters to be sufficiently developed to keep the attention.

The further I read, the more I felt that this was a book that was trying to hard to be clever. That she’d had this idea and was milking it for all it was worth but never really examining the most interesting aspect – what would you do differently if you had the chance to replay your life and take a different course.  Maybe if I’d read to the end I would have seen more of this aspect as Ursula became an adult but as a child she never made any life choices, her deaths seemed primarily the result of external forces outside her control. Which made the premise of the novel meaningless for me.

I realise I might be a lone voice in disliking this book. Many people seemed to have loved it and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t even longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.  Assuming it was nominated (not sure how you can discover that) maybe it didn’t make the list because the judges thought she had planted a seed of a good idea but never managed to get it to germinate.

It will not stop me reading her novels. I’ve enjoyed every one so far from Behind the Scenes of the Museum through to the Jackson Brodie series. Sorry Kate, this one didn’t do it for me.

Sunday Salon: To read or not to read on..

sundaysalon

I wonder if you have conversations like this in your household. They’ve happened a few times recently because some of the books I’ve had on the go have been rather disappointing.

Me :  This book isn’t grabbing me

Mr BookerTalk:   Find something else then . 

Me:  Maybe it will get better – I’ll read a couple more chapters

Mr BookerTalk:  Why bother if you don’t like it

Me:  It’s had good reviews. I could be missing something

Mr BookerTalk:  Really????

Me: I’ve read half of it already. Seems like a waste of time now not to finish it…..

Mr BookerTalk:  But you’re going to waste even more time if you finish it and you still don’t like it….

Does that sound familiar at all? I know some readers operate a rule that if  a book hasn’t grabbed them by about page 50 or so, then they’ll give it up as a lost cause. The page number seems a bit arbitrary – some people operate an 80 page rule and others about 100.

My own rule of thumb varies a lot. Sometimes  (as in the case of The House at Riverton) I can tell within about 10 pages that’s it’s not worth going any further. Other times it will take me to around about the 80 page mark.

But in the case of my recent experience with two novels published in 2013 I was half way through and having trouble making up my mind.

Dilemma number 1 was triggered by Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I had such high expectations for this having read multiple reviews which called it ‘astonishing’ or words to that effect. Being made to wait almost 3 months for my library reservation to come through, just meant the expectations got higher and higher.  Which made the disappointment even greater when I started reading it and found the experience under-whelming.  The first 40 pages were intriguing enough to keep me reading but it felt very fragmentary. I was hoping that if I continued to read I’d find it would develop into a more cohesive narrative but it didn’t. I battled on purely on the basis that I’ve enjoyed all her previous novels, and this has been lauded as her best, but at around 200 pages, I decided to give up.  I remembered having the same feeling about this book that I’d had when reading The Time Traveller’s Wife which I’d read through to the end but wish I hadn’t bothered. So back to the library it went.

Dilemma number 2 was over Colum McCann’s Transatlantic which was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I was curious about this one because it’s his first since the award-winning Let the Great World Spin which I’d enjoyed in part. Transatlantic is written in a similar vein in that it begins with the dramatisation of an actual historical event (in this case, the first non stop flight across the Atlantic) and then proceeds through several inter-connected stories. The section dealing with Alcock and Brown’s flight was wonderful but McCann’s narrative didn’t sustain that initial impetus and got dragged down in some cliched writing and some rather pedestrian characterisation of an American politician trying to broker a peace deal to resolve the Irish conflict.

In this case I kept going purely on the basis that the synopsis of the book mentioned a narrative strand that hadn’t yet materialised.  And fortunately in this case I made the right decision because the last third of the book was back to the same quality as the first third.

But I still don’t have a clear rationale for when to abandon a book or when to persevere. Maybe there isn’t such a thing, maybe it will also be a subjective decision.  How do you all resolve this question – any suggestions on approaches??

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