Tag Archives: reading

What I have tried to read and how cricket won me over

Half way through the year seems like a good moment to stop and update you on my ambitious reading goals for 2016. It actually just happens to be the first time in about a month when I’ve had more than a nanosecond and two spare brain cells in order to sit down and write.

If you were reading the blog in January then you’ll remember I committed to Modern Mrs Darcy’s 2016 reading challenge, and simultaneously joined a new local book group, meaning I had to read at least two specific books a month whilst keeping a brand new baby and an adventure-loving toddler alive, fed and entertained. I am nothing if not optimistic.

So it’s time for an honest update. What has been brilliant about both the book challenge and the book group is being introduced to all kinds of new authors and books I hadn’t heard of or tried before. Almost all the books I’ve read have been novels, because I just enjoy them so much and so reading novels feels more like leisure than self-improvement. Plus, entering into entirely different worlds has been a welcome distraction from the trenches of parenting.

Here is what I managed, and what I thought about them (spoiler: I got hooked on a book Andy chose about CRICKET of all things).

January I dealt with in that first blog, but February I committed to read In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie for the book challenge (‘a book published this year’), and May We be Forgiven by A M Homes for book group. I was quite excited about the first one but just really struggled to love it enough. You know when you don’t love a book enough to actually make the time to read it (unlike the books I really love which I balance precariously in one hand and read whilst feeding the baby)? Well, that was it. The second book, however, was an unexpected joy. It was really nuts, and kept shooting off in the strangest direction. It was at turns hilarious, bewildering, terrifying and just plain odd. But always imaginative. I kept expecting everything to fall apart, but it never did, and I actually relished its perverse optimism.

In March I was allowed to pick our book group’s selection so I cheated and nominated the book I was already reading for the book challenge – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I loved it and devoured it in less than a week because it was just so darn good. The two main characters are utterly compelling. This book seems to be almost universally loved – it is beautiful, thoughtful, moving, surprising and gripping, so if you haven’t read it yet, go find it in your local library. (I now want to read Four Seasons in Rome by the same author which describes the year he moved to Rome with his wife and twin babies, during which he wrote much of All the Light We Cannot See).

In April I was supposed to read a book chosen by my local librarian and she gave me a book written by someone I knew at university, coincidentally – Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson. I really enjoyed its quirkiness and readability – I also like it when I can’t figure out where a book is going – but I didn’t quite finish it within the month. And book group were reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman…which I didn’t even try to read because I wasn’t organised enough and then realised I couldn’t make the meeting anyway. (Shame).

In May we read A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler for book group which I enjoyed. Like the title suggests the story kind of keeps unwinding like a spool of thread, with no great climaxes or reveals, I guess more like real life just keeps going. It’s thoughtful and warm-hearted as it winds between generations. It starts with a kind of dramatic family crisis which turns out not to be so important in the end, but the characters are interesting enough to keep you following along (for me, anyway). Not one for people who like all their mysteries to be unravelled. For the reading challenge I was supposed to read a book I should have read in school. I actually forgot which one I had decided on (The Mayor of Casterbridge) and so started The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins by accident. I’m only half way (it’s pretty darn long), still, but I am enjoying it.

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And now in June I am ahead of the game. Andy chose a book for my reading challenge. He kept threatening me with a history of American football but in the end went for a book written recently by a friend of ours: Following On: a memoir of teenage obsession and terrible cricket by Emma John. This book was a complete joy and I was totally hooked. A large part of that is due to the fact that the author charts not just her cricket obsession but her teenage years more broadly, and frankly I identified very strongly with her nerdy, hard-working, naive persona. I think we’re about the same age, and our families and backgrounds are similar. Plus, we both wanted to study English at Cambridge and become the next Emma Thompson (amazingly, neither of us managed it). Her writing is funny, self-deprecating and clever and she somehow got me completely enthralled by the story of the English cricket team. Their names were familiar to me because my dad’s family has a passing interest in the sport, so it wasn’t all new to me, but I loved the journey of discovery from Emma’s memories of the matches she followed to her modern day interviews with the key players from that era. I mean, I was just desperate to get to the Michael Atherton interview (which is right at the end), which is something you might find hard to believe. What’s more, Andy has been completely delighted by my new knowledge of cricket trivia. I have defended the legacy of Alec Stewart and discussed the relative strengths of England’s 90s bowlers. It’s not that I want to watch cricket matches any more than before, but I loved being taken into the world and given an appreciation of its beauty and drama. So thank you Emma John. (I finished it inside a week).

I am also a few days away from our book group meet-up and getting close to finishing Hitman Anders and the meaning of it all by Jonas Jonasson. It’s comical and fast-paced and, I am realising, not my kind of book at all, but I reckon I’ll make it through. The problem is that I want to care deeply about characters in books but this book just doesn’t let you. If I tried I would just be paralysed by sorrow at all of their pain and disfunction which is not really the point.

In July I shall be reading some L M Montgomery for the book challenge, and engaging in some literary matchmaking with my book group!

If you’d like to continue following my reading adventures or find out what else is on my nightstand, I have recently joined GoodReads so head over and find me there!

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The books that kept me afloat

There was a moment last Christmas when I was struck by a terrifying thought. My three week old son was sleeping in my lap, and I was looking through an exhausted fog at one of the Christmas presents Andy had bought me. It was the novel, Philomena, by Martin Sixsmith. I had been to see the film at the cinema just days before going into labour, and had loved it. And now I could enjoy the book.

Or could I?

What if motherhood meant spending this entire year pinioned under a helpless infant? What if the moments I did not spend feeding/changing/entertaining/ soothing my child were all given over, by necessity, to sleep?

(This was the crazy, twilight hour of early parenthood, when I didn’t really understand that things would change and get easier, I just thought “This is my new life and I don’t think I can do it”).

More to the point, WHAT IF I CAN’T READ ANY BOOKS

I had a vague memory of hearing other mothers lament that since having children they were no longer able to read more than half a magazine article at a time. What if I had to give up reading books for the year (or longer)? I wasn’t ready (for any of it, frankly).

I know, I know, it’s not the worst thing in the world not to be able to read books for a little while. But it does matter to me. Reading is a big part of what nourishes my imagination, develops my empathy and humanity, and enables me to step back from the smallness of my own life. Sure, sometimes I love to escape, but more often I need to reconnect with other people’s windows in the world we share.

Nine months in and I’m unspeakably relieved to say that I have not had to give up reading books, and in fact I’ve read some beautiful, wonderful pieces of writing, many of which have done wonders for my psychological and emotional survival. Although there are certainly less of them than in previous years.  They have not been books about looking after babies (although there have been desperate, sleep-deprived moments when I have reached for all the familiar guidebooks, skim reading them in search of a panacea, and I’ve googled everything that mothers google). Instead, I have found that my need for stories has outweighed my need for information. Even in the baby-lit category, what I have drawn strength from is the stories of other mothers, not the dos and don’ts of parenting.

It’s not a long list, but I’m so relieved it’s there at all. So here’s a whistle-stop-tour.

phil bookI started with Philomena, resolutely developing my one-handed reading technique as Jesse nursed, his eyes closed contentedly. I persevered with the book mainly out of stubborn determination, to see if I could actually get through it whilst looking after a newborn baby. Contrary to the general trend, Philomena the film was a lot more interesting than Philomena the book. But still, I felt victorious that I had made it through, in a thousand tiny installments.

I got a little cocky and headed out to our local library, returning with three significant tomes. Two of them were returned, untouched. But I loved The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I was fascinated by the world and the characters she had created, in a sigperiod of history I knew little about. I renewed the book three times in order to continue wading through it. Tragically, it was then recalled to the library for another reader so I never got more than half the way through. I have put it in my Christmas list because I am desperate to know what happens to Alma.

One of the bloggers I follow recommended a new book by Lisa-Jo Baker and on a whim, I downloaded the ebook onto my phone (easier to manoeuvre whilst breastfeeding than an actual book). It was called Surprised by Motherhood which sounded like the understatement of the year, but at least in the ballpark of what I was feeling. It did me good. I needed someone (frankly I surprisedneed a lot of people) to tell me that motherhood is hard. And to prove that they knew that from experience, with their honest story. I also needed reassurance that it is glorious. And I liked the book because my blog-reader was a little overloaded with American mothers (that’s another story), and Lisa-Jo is South African.

 

Then, the summer came and we went on holiday with my parents (translation = with free childcare). And Andy was around all day, every day. So I devoured a series of excellent books (in this new economy, this means I read three books in two weeks), mainly recommended by my wonderfully well-read friend, Sophie. I adored the hilarious Where D’ya Go Bernadette by Maria Semple – it was brilliantly original, funny, moving and optimistic. It was an easy summer read, but not trashy at all. I relished discovering a hitherto unknown Victorian novel called Odd Women by George Gissing, about singleness and, specifically, female singleness in an era in which the traditional, nuclear family was idealised. The novel presents such a breadth of experience and tragedy within a small section of society, and I almost wish that I had to write an essay on it for my degree because there would be so much to say. And then there was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, leaping artfully between contemporary Hollywood and 1950s Italy, with a familiar detour at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Again, I loved the story and the beauty of the words, but I also loved its optimism.  I can do tragedy, but it seems like so many contemporary novels are just so cynical and jaded; in stories I crave hope and a belief in redemption, probably because I know how much I need them in life.

Then somewhere in there I also read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection which I sought out in an attempt to help me to relinquish my perfectionism (it’s a long, slow, painful journey).

I just finished, and loved, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life – having loved her first two novels when I was about 18 and not read another since.

And now I am reading two books which, in different ways, are about mothering: Found by Micha Boyett, and Ordinary Mum, Extraordinary Mission by Joy French and Anna France-Williams.

What else can I say, except that they have all helped.

I remain open to recommendations!

 

 

 

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