Thursday, 26 November 2015

Canongate Handpicked: Get On It

One gloomy Friday evening at the end of October, I was cooking dinner and browsing Twitter and spotted something that set my book loving heart all a-flutter: order any book from Canongate before the weekend was out and I'd get a free book, handpicked by one of their lovely staff members.

They had me at "free book".  

As always, excuse my photography!
Deciding what to buy turned out to be a tricky task.  It has rarely (never) occurred to me to buy direct from a publisher's website.  I don't know why that is.  Maybe because, although there are publishers whose books I know that I almost always love (Canongate because I love the Canongate Myths books, Orion's fantasy imprint Gollancz and Vintage because of their gorgeous red-spined classics), a book's publisher isn't what draws me in.  Browsing Canongate's website and realising just how many great books they've brought to the world (and how many of these books I actually already own...) was an eye-opener.

In the end, I went for The Well by Catherine Chanter because the cover is delightfully creepy and it sounds excellent.  Also, give me a story about a family moving into a seemingly idyllic new residence that turns out to not quite be all it seems and I will be happy.  There was no way that I was going to be picking just one once I'd started exploring.  My second pick was The Ghost Rider by Ismail Kadar.  Who could resist this blurb?!
An old woman is awoken in the dead of night by knocks at her front door. The woman opens it to find her daughter, Doruntine, standing there alone in the darkness. She has been brought home from a distant land by a mysterious rider she claims is her brother Konstandin. But unbeknownst to her, Konstandin has been dead for years. What follows is chain of events which plunges a medieval village into fear and mistrust. Who is the ghost rider?
Not me.

I wasn't sure what I was more excited for: the two books I'd chosen or my handpicked wildcard.

The two books arrived and while I was as excited as I ever am to receive new books, it then became apparent that I was in fact mostly curious and excited about the wildcard.  Thankfully, it arrived the next day.  Cue gushing.

What surprised me was that the package didn't feel like a hastily thrown together freebie or a gimick designed to get people buying more on the run up to Christmas.  It actually felt like receiving something put together by somebody who loves books just as much as I do.  Obviously there couldn't be a great deal of planning in what to get me personally because all the person doing the book selecting had to go on were the two books that I'd picked out on that occasion from their pretty hefty range but it still felt thoughtful.  It was nice to think that someone had taken the time to pick out a book, write out a postcard and bundle it up with a letter.  

And here's another great and glorious thing.  Left to my own devices, I'd have almost certainly not have picked out No one belongs here more thank you but now that I have it, I can't wait to read it.  I don't usually read short stories but I've seen nothing but glowing praise for this collection so it seems as good a place as any to start.  So not only was it free, it might just push my reading in a new direction.  Book buying from other book lovers is always the best kind of book buying.

I have no affiliation with Canongate (sadly) and this post is entirely unprompted - I just think that in the run up to Christmas, there is little that could be better than a bookish pick-me-up.  Or pick-you-up.  That should be a phrase.

If you missed the chance to get yourself a free handpicked book the first time around, get over to Canongate now.  You have three whole days to order a book and then you'll get your own package of loveliness at no extra cost.  I may have already ordered another book (The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber) so that I can get another surprise...

Monday, 23 November 2015

Moby Dick Read-Along: Week Six - THE END!

Wow.  What an ordeal THAT turned out to be!  The early days of highlighting endless quotes and revelling in Ishmael's witty chatter seem a dim and distant memory.  Hanna and I are now even for the Hope: A Tragedy debacle.  I unwittingly inflicted exploding animals on her; she unknowingly inflicted graphic animal butchery on me.  We're quits, right?

In case my gleeful post title didn't give it away, this is the last post in our read-along - if you don't know the ending of Moby Dick and you want to keep it that way, look away now.  Actually, before you do look away, please note that I in no way encourage you to read this book unless you have frankly borderline-unhealthy interest(s) in whale anatomy, how to skin and de-blubber a whale, rope and/or the colour white.  You have been warned.

Right.  On with the prompts! 

1) Let's start simply. Did you like this book?

No.  No, I did not.  I liked the first couple of weeks' reading when the tone was light and essay-free, Ishmael really shined through as a character instead of just being a neutral narrator and the world was full of mystery.  It really started to fall apart for me I think maybe in the third week?  Whenever the monologues about whales started.  

When they started, Ishmael's personality sort of faded away and the story of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick became like debris drifting around in a sea of facts nobody ever wanted to know about whales.  I understand that when the book was published, the background was probably essential in engaging readers who couldn't pick a whale out of a fish line up (apparently) and that's fine but why, oh why has it endured as a 'classic' and WHY does it continue to be dangled in front of diligent readers' noses as Worthy?  I hate to say it (and you can call me a philistine if you like) but this book is dull and no amount of people on GoodReads extolling the virtues of Melville's charming prose will convince me otherwise.

2) Is the ending what you expected? Was it worth the wait?

No and no.  I'll be honest, I thought that Ahab would get his whale.  I didn't want him to because one intimate account of a successful whale harpooning was more than enough for me but I thought Moby Dick would come a cropper.  I thought Ahab would probably die in the attempt and that there would be some kind of poetic mutual dying of a hunter and his quarry.  I did NOT think that the ending would be not dissimilar to many I wrote as a child.  "And then they all died" is not a million miles away from, "And then they woke up and realised it had all been a dream".  

I felt cheated.  I felt like I'd endured endless hours of wading through a whale textbook only to be fobbed off with something entirely unfulfilling.  And don't even get me started on the fact that there were 135 bloody chapters in the bloody book and only 3 of them actually featured Moby bloody Dick.

I remain glad that Moby Dick had the audacity to defend himself and lived to fight another day but I'd rather not have had to tolerate much tedium for a rushed ending.

3) Do you think this book is rife with symbolism and metaphor... or is it just about a whale?

I grumbled about this last week and I actually stand by what I said.  Again, ignorant or not, I just can't believe that somebody would wrap up a fable about the fallibility of man or whatever it's rumoured to be about in so much drivel about whaling.  What purpose would that serve?  I don't doubt that there was some symbolism and if I hadn't been distracted by just trying to stay awake, I would probably be able to tell you about it now.  Overall, though, I just don't buy that this is fundamentally about anything other than a sodding whale.

4) Is it likely you'll ever read this book again, or recommend it to anybody?  

Good heavens, no.  I neither hate myself nor any other human beings enough to suggest that they pick this up.  Unless I know them to be a whale scholar.  Then I might.  But even then I'd have to say, "Melville thought that whales were fish" and that would probably put them off unless they were very specifically a scholar of Views on Whales in the 19th Century.  

To sum up: no.  

5) Did you end using the tactics you identified earlier or did you just slog through to the end? 

I slogged.  I tried to remain focussed on the 'just 10 more minutes and you've knocked off another chapter' but it became so hard to pep talk myself.  This last week I was mostly just concerned about getting through each page.  Not even the near-death of Queequeg managed to engage me.  It was rough.

6) Sum up this book in six words. 

A poor excuse for a classic.

And on that slightly miserable and grumbly note, I'm going to go and carry on reading The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan.  Because if there's one thing my reading year clearly needs, it's another 600+ page book.  At least I know that this one doesn't include anything to do with whales.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Moby Dick Read-Along: Belated Week Four Thoughts

I was away last week and didn't get to pitch into Hanna's passive-aggressive assault on Week Four's chapters.  I have some feelings and they need sharing.  Also, I didn't at all get time to do Week Three's prompts either so it's high time I got something into the #letsreadmobydick fray.  

My main feeling right now (especially now that I've now also finished Week Five's reading) is relief that we've made it this far!

1) Please tell me you didn't attempt to read this week's chapters whilst eating. How did you find the... instructive aspects of these chapters?

I did not, thankfully.  Those chapters were harrowing.  I was surprised, actually, by just how unpleasant I found them.  It's not that I thought that whale harpoonings and...'processing' would make for nice bedtime reading, just that I didn't expect them to be so gory.  It seemed to come out of nowhere!  One minute, we're bumbling along and being bored to tears with excruciating details of rope and then BAM.  Horrific.

2) What tactics have you been employing to get through this book? Marking off chapters? Reading online summaries? Crying into the pages?

Very similar to when we tackled War and Peace, actually.  I'm reading it on my Kindle and I have it set to show the 'time remaining' in the chapter.  It's not really that accurate but I find that going onto a new chapter it's quite comforting to be able to tell myself that it'll be over in just a few minutes.  I do try to avoid accidentally "clicking" onto 'time remaining in book', though.  Nothing good comes from that.

3) Why do you think Moby Dick has become a classic? 

I honestly have no idea.  I've been thinking about this a lot while we've been reading.  My fledgling conclusion is that there is something about Great American Novels that I just don't get.  I'm utterly at a loss as to just what thousands of modern readers have seen in this book that must be preserved and shared for generations to come.  I can see why it might have been fascinating in the late 1800s, say, when knowledge of the world wasn't as expansive and they couldn't just pop on a David Attenborough documentary and learn about the anatomy of whales in a far more charming manner.  Now, though?  No.

My personal opinion is that this is a classic case of readers and academics imposing metaphors and symbolism onto a work that might not have been intended.  I fully accept that there are symbols and there are themes but implying that the whole novel is a metaphor for some great human struggle against an unknowable enemy strikes me as wishful thinking.  If that were true, why would Melville waste everybody's time with endless descriptions of types of whales, Whales Through History and the rope used on whaling ships?  All of which isn't to mention the philosophical diversions into the nobility of whaling as a life calling.  I don't doubt that there are themes to explore if a reader has the inclination (I don't) but I'm completely failing to grasp the Higher Meaning amongst the whale heads.

We've been rewatching Parks and Recreation recently because it's bloody brilliant and this came up in a rather timely manner:

I hear ya, Ron.

4) So apparently people can get stuck inside a whale's head and nearly drown. Please inform me exactly how you intend to read this book to your children as a bedtime story? 

How awful was that?!  Good heavens.  Just being in a whale head at all sounds horrific to me but getting stuck in there and dragged into the depths of the sea?!  Words can not express how awful I find that thought.  I love my potential future children too much to subject them to this book.  I'd read them the first couple of weeks' chapters maybe so that they can learn about tolerance and then I'd play "1, 2, skip a few, 99, 100" to get to the end.  "Once there was a man named Ishmael.  He made friends with a man named Queequeg.  They went on a boat trip.  The End."

I mean, really, what was Miss Honey THINKING letting Matilda pick this up?!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Review: 'Into the Wild' by Jon Krakauer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself.  He would give himself a new name, Alexander Supertramp, and, unencumbered by money and belongings, he would be free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experiences that nature presented. Craving a blank spot on the map, McCandless simply threw the maps away

Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.


When I first gave Into the Wild five stars, it was with a wavering finger and a little doubt. The book really touched me and I loved every minute that I was listening to it but, thought I, was that because Christoper McCandless' story was so moving or was it the book? Could I give a book 5 stars because I found its non-fiction subject matter affected me?  It took me a little while to realise that the question is stupid.  It wasn't only McCandless' story that had been so moving but Krakauer's telling of it.  

I understand that the story wasn't particularly positively reported in the American press, not least because McCandless' fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness was seen as reckless and juvenile and that, when it came down to it, he was a victim of his own stupidity and nothing else.  When Krakauer originally published an article about McCandless in 1993, his empathy was derided.  A few, however, reached out to Krakauer and provided letters and postcards and memories of McCandless/'Alexander Supertramp'.  

Those letters and the stories of the people who knew McCandless are meted out perfectly.  Alongside the pieced together narrative of McCandless' life are stories of other young people who for their own reasons took off into the wilderness, never to be heard from again, and Krakauer's own recollections of mountaineering.  The effect is really quite something.  I listened to most of it while training for a half marathon and all the talk of nature and freedom and outdoor living fit perfectly at a time when I needed all the inspiration I could get to keep pounding the pavements at less than sociable times of the day.

Into the Wild actually made me want to do more than that - Krakauer's sympathetic chronicle of McCandless' ambitions and dreams made me want to live more cleanly and more freely and with less of a focus on Things...
"The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty" [Taken from a letter Christopher McCandless wrote to a friend]
Ok, so I might not exactly be camping in the wilderness, spurning all of my worldly possessions and retreating from my family but this book made me think that there's some beauty in the simplicity of the aspiration to just be a little braver and a little less shackled by routine.

Five stars it is.

Overall:  I don't read a lot of non-fiction so the fact that I've given this 5 stars hopefully says more than any snappy sentence I could come up with here.  In case it doesn't:  Into the Wild is a moving account of a young man who wanted to live differently, and very nearly managed to prove that it was possible to branch out and live on your own terms with nothing but a backpack full of Tolstoy and rice.  If you're looking for something that might give you a new perspective and a fresh way of approaching things (or even just something that you can have a good cry over), Into the Wild is for you.  

Date finished: August 2015
Format:  Audiobook
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre: Non-fiction; Biography
Pictured Edition Published:  in January 1997 by Anchor

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Moby Dick Read-along: Week Two - Chapters 22 to 41

Wow.  This week was not easy.  I know that I wasn't alone in breathing my sigh of relief when this week was over, thankfully.  Ah, the beauty of a read-along.  

1) We've met Captain Ahab now. What do you think of him? Did he meet your expectations? Who would you cast to play him in a movie?

Captain Ahab has exceeded my expectations!  I wanted him to be grisly and wild.  Conflicted and genuinely intriguing was more than I'd dared hope for.  I think this is one of my favourite quotes from him:
"They think me mad - Starbuck does; but I'm demoniac, I am madness maddened!  That wild madness that's only calm to comprehend itself!  The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and - Aye!  I lost this leg.  I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer" [Page 119, Kindle edition]

I've been disappointed that we haven't seen more of him, really.  Fewer rantings about the apparently misunderstood cleanliness of whaling and more Captain Ahab would be just great. 

In my head, Captain Ahab looks like...wait, like Geoffrey Rush.  I have a memory that Hanna and me have done this before but I was fumbling around the internet trying to work out who played "the guy from Pirates of the Caribbean who goes on about eating a lot of apples in the first film".  The answer is Geoffrey Rush and Hanna beat me to it.

2) Some chapters seem to focus on action and attempt to move the story along, whilst others seem to ponder the concept of a whaling and life. Do you find one type easier to follow than the other?

I'm pretty sure that I nearly died during the chapter describing the different species of whale.  Or at least, my brain nearly did.  I read all of the words but I'm pretty sure I took about 7 of them in.  And those 7 weren't in order.

Every time Melville starts lecturing, I stop absorbing.  

3) Keeping in mind everything we've learned about whaling this week, has it changed your views on it at all?

Not at all.  I think it's appalling.  One man's rambly discourse about how it's really a lot cleaner than I was thinking (because my real problem with it is of course how mucky the whole practice might be) is not going to change that.

I understand that perhaps in the 1850s maybe people's concerns were a little less animal welfare/extinction prevention focussed and that Melville's attempt at very dull propaganda might have worked but now?  Not so much.

4) Why do you think Herman Melville suddenly branches off into lectures about how acceptable/difficult/clean whaling is? 

Because he hates his readers and wants them to die?  Ok, fine.  I'm being melodramatic.  

My real answer:  I know very little (nothing) about whaling in the 19th century but these chapters read to me like the tide was turning against whaling generally or as though whalers were seen as second-class citizens and he was trying to do some good for people who apparently he believed were worth more than that.  

5) Do the scientific misconceptions bother you at all? i.e. that whales are fishes etc. 

Although it's the kind of thing that might usually bother me, it actually doesn't very much.  I find it interesting, in a way.  It's one thing knowing that people once thought that whales were fish but it's another reading a whole series of misconceptions branded as fact.  Which I suppose they were at the time.

Onward, read-alongers!  I'm actually most of the way through Week Three's chapters and they're not bad!  Sure, it's not all been plain sailing (sorry - someone had to say it!) but it's better.