Literature

What I read in February

Hello everybody! Apologies for the lack of posts in February. I hope you all had a good month. It’s time for my monthly wrap-up of the books that I read in February. It wasn’t as good a month quantity-wise as January, but I’m still well ahead of schedule on my reading challenge for the year so I’m not too worried. Life is too short to beat yourself up over something as trivial as not reading as much as you’d have liked! Without further ado, here are my February reads.

1. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh – ★★★★

I’ve wanted to read Trainspotting for a while now, but only just got around to picking it up from the library. I felt a little bit intimidated by the prospect of reading it, because while I’m Scottish, I thought I would find the written dialect really difficult to decipher. However, I was pleasantly surprised; it actually flowed really well and after a couple of pages I was completely used to the writing style and could understand everything being said. As a case in point, I even went home the weekend after I finished reading this and my parents asked me why I was talking like I was from Leith…But yes, this is actually a really heartwarming book and I loved how well-developed and distinct each character was, and how their stories overlapped and twisted together in sometimes unexpected ways. So don’t be put off by the dialect, if you’re not used to the Scots language – it’s well worth persevering!

2. An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender – ★★★

Sadly, I was really disappointed by this book. I bought it on a whim because I had seen some rave reviews on BookTube, and based on its Goodreads blurb, it sounded like my kind of book. I even read a few pages in Waterstones before buying it and was really taken in, but unfortunately, it all fell a bit flat for me. Don’t get me wrong, Bender writes some really beautiful prose (and that’s what bumped it up to three stars for me), but there were so many points in the plot that made me want to bash my head against a brick wall. This book is widely considered to be magical realism, which I like and I’m generally good as suspending disbelief, but it didn’t seem particularly magical or whimsical – just irresponsible. Writing about a teacher my own age, who has zero teaching qualifications but quite a lot of deep-seated emotional issues, displaying an ax in her primary school classroom isn’t the kind of thing for which I’m able to suspend disbelief. It just made me go, “BUT WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT AND NOT FORSEE THAT SOMETHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN, YOU SILLY PERSON.” I rest my case.

3. Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – ★★★

This was so nearly a four-star book, but occasionally I found myself zoning out when reading it (maybe I was tired, who knows) so for that reason it lost a star. I did really enjoy it; I thought the subject (erotomania) was fascinating, and it really made me question a lot – mainly whether the narrator was reliable or whether it was literally in his mind. Something I found interesting was the appendix at the end, which is a journal article detailing case studies of erotomania; it discusses the plot and the characters in such accurate detail that to be honest, I still don’t know whether the article itself was real or made up by McEwan. Does anyone know?

4. Yes Please by Amy Poehler – ★★★

I feel really sad that I could only give this three stars, as I am a huuuuuuge Amy Poehler fan, but it just didn’t win me over. I expected something different from what I got, which is almost definitely the reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would; I expected it be a fun, sometimes serious, collection of essays, aphorisms and general life advice. I don’t know why I got that in my head because while it’s got odd chapters like that, for the most part, this is an autobiography. And a slightly self-conscious one at that. Poehler talks a lot about how she doesn’t actually want to be writing a book, and how difficult it is, and how she’s only doing it because her agent told her to. I kind of wish she’d have just gotten on with it, to be honest. Sorry Amy. I love you dearly but wasn’t completely won over by your literary offering.

5. The Humans by Matt Haig – ★★★★★

And from a book that I had high expectations for, to one I wasn’t really too fussed about picking up…but which turned out to be my favourite book of the year so far! Much like An Invisible Sign of My Own, I picked up The Humans because I had seen a lot of BookTubers absolutely rave about it and thought “why not?” Admittedly, I was very confused for the first few chapters because I had misconstrued the blurb and thought the main character had been turned into a dog, and wondered why he was being treated like an outcast for not wearing clothes or being able to speak. I’m an idiot, basically. Needless to say, this book is NOT about a man who has turned into a dog, but rather an alien who has been sent to take over the body of a Cambridge mathematician whose work on the Riemann hypothesis is considered a threat to humanity, as the human species are supposedly not mature enough to be able to cope with the advances it will bring. It sounds weird, but IT WORKS. IT SO WORKS. I almost cried multiple times because it’s just so, so moving seeing how he becomes more and more attached to humans, discovers how to love and feel empathy, and wishes to become one of them. I borrowed it from the library but will definitely be buying my own copy soon, if only to copy down the chapters of “lessons about being human” that he leaves for his (sort of, but not really) son. It made me realise how miraculous life can actually be and affected me on such a profound level.

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So, that’s my wrap up for February done and I hope I’ll be able to find a bit more time to read this month despite my crazy hectic schedule. Shameless plug time… I’m running my first ever 5k on Sunday (March 8th) to raise money for Health in Mind, a local mental health charity, and would absolutely love your support because I am so nervous and it’s such an important cause! You can donate HERE.

Then from the 18th-21st March, I will be performing in the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh as part of my Music in the Community course. We’re doing an opera for children with local primary school children called Watching, which is all about sleep and a little girl who just can’t get any. If you’re in or around Edinburgh, please come along, but if not, it would still be nice for you to check out our WEBSITE! (I’m the project blogger – not to shamelessly self-promote…)

Literature

My Top 10 Books of the Past Year

Yes, I know, it’s another of those “looking back on 2014” posts and I should really just move on (ironically, I don’t really celebrate New Year or anything), but as I plan on discussing the books I’ve read each month, I thought that recapping on my top ten books of 2014 would be a nice way to kick off proceedings. I set myself the challenge of reading 60 books in a year, and I just missed and finished up with 56 books, but I discovered some real gems along the way. So, in chronological order of when I read them, because rankings would be waaaay too difficult, here are my top ten books of the past year.

1. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

January saw my first adventure into the moving, often surreal, world of Murakami, and it was incredible. Norwegian Wood is different from many of his other books as it isn’t magic realism (the next Murakami I read was Sputnik Sweetheart, which is much the same, so it wasn’t until I picked up After the Quake in July that I discovered how weird and wonderful his stories can be). It tells the story of young Toru Watanabe starting University in 1960s Tokyo, where he finds his passions being torn between Naoko, his troubled friend from adolescence, and the brazen Midori. It may sound like your typical love triangle, but I can assure you that it is full of very real emotion and is an incredibly poignant tale of growing up and seeing the world without rose-tinted glasses.

2. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

I read The Five People You Meet in Heaven a good few years ago now, but Tuesdays with Morrie is different in that it’s not fiction, but rather an account of how Albom used to go and visit the home of his ex-professor every Tuesday, providing companionship in exchange for valuable wisdom and life advice in his final days as he lies dying from ALS. However, it is presented as a novel, rather than some sort of self-help book, and the prose is often beautiful in itself. I’m not one for books that go all-out on the “life is amazing and inspirational and you should live every day to the max!” front, but Morrie really moved me. I found great comfort in his astute words, and they provided me with great comfort at a time when I really needed it.

3. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Here’s something you might not know about me: I love fairy tales. Not necessarily the saccharine ones often found in children’s books and Disney films (not to knock Disney – I love Disney, but it is fluff, really), but the ones where things are not at all what they seem and there’s danger lurking behind every tree. That’s why I enjoyed The Book of Lost Things so much. It’s about a young boy named David who, after narrowly escaping a plane crashing into his back garden during the war, escapes into a magical world he has only read about in books. However, it’s not quite the storybook fantasy he has imagined, but rather a world filled with ferocious half-wolf men, witches with Frankenstein complexes and a terrifying Crooked Man who wants nothing more than to capture and steal the soul of David’s younger brother. I’d like to imagine it as Labyrinth rewritten by the Brothers Grimm on a hefty dose of absinthe.

4. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

There’s a particularly cute story about how I came across this book. When I was together with my ex-boyfriend, we would often visit bookshops together, and one day, when trying to decide on a third book for my “3 for 2” offer at Blackwell’s, I said “go and choose me a book that you’ve read and think I’d like. Any book at all, as long as it’s in the offer. You choose it and I must buy it, no questions asked.” Turns out he had very good taste, as he chose A Tale for the Time Being (in return, I chose The Secret History for him, which he loved, so it was a win-win situation, but I digress). This book was so good that I even braved my awful motion sickness to read it on a two-hour bus journey, sans paracetamol. It is about a writer, Ruth, who discovers the diary of a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, washed ashore near her home, all the way across the Pacific. The POV alternates as we learn more about Ruth’s journey to track down the diary’s owner alongside Nao’s difficult family life, endearing and inspirational Buddhist nun grandmother, and how she has resorted to keeping this diary as a way of dealing with the tragedy that surrounds her. It was so perfect and to be honest, only lost one star on Goodreads for the gratuitous suicide talk, which I found difficult at that point in time. Otherwise, a five-star novel.

5. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Can you tell that I like contemporary magic realism yet? I had been planning to read this for a while, but didn’t get the chance until an old friend said “I love this book so much that I have two copies, so you can keep one of them” (thanks Alethea, you babe). I love weird and wonderful circuses. I love mystery and things that appear different on the surface. I love magic. I love old-time-y settings and the taboos that surround them. So all in all, this book was a real winner for me. I can’t really explain the whole book, as there are so many intertwining plots, but the overarching theme is that there are two rival young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been raised to duel each other once they come of age by taking part in an ominous “competition” at a mysterious circus that is only open at night, is gone the next morning and travels the world at lightning speed. But surprise surprise, poor Celia and Marco fall in love and it all gets a bit complicated. It’s so much more than that though. I promise.

6. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Warning: the book made me cry real, big, messy tears. Books hardly ever move me to tears. Films, yes, but I can usually maintain composure with books. So take heed. Having said that, this was definitely my favourite book I read all year and I devoured it in a day. It tells the story of the teenage June and how her life changes in 1987 when her beloved Uncle Finn dies of a “mysterious illness” (spoiler alert: despite the blurb’s best attempts to keep it a secret, you can tell right from the start that it’s AIDS). It seems her family, especially her sister, are putting up barriers and trying their best to get on with life, but June finds the grieving process much harder. She tentatively forms a beautiful friendship with Finn’s boyfriend, in whom she finds great solace. What I loved about this book was how real all the characters were; I felt like I was grieving with them. I loved their complexity and seeing how each of the characters dealt with Finn’s death, as it felt very realistic – I liked the fact that they weren’t too soppy about it, but instead pretended to be okay with it while bottling up their real emotions, in an attempt to “put on a brave face.” BECAUSE THAT’S REAL GRIEF TOO, PEOPLE. Gah, I feel emotional just thinking about poor June and Toby and Finn and Greta and all the other wonderful characters that I just want to cuddle. All the feels.

7. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Now, I realise this is quite a departure from the other books I’ve listed, but I really do enjoy horror, especially when it’s as suspenseful as this. I have always liked Chuck Palahniuk (who, incidentally, wrote the introduction to my edition of Rosemary’s Baby), but after reading Ira Levin, I don’t think I will ever be able to enjoy Palahniuk in the same way again, because this guy is just the king of suspense. I haven’t seen the film, so I didn’t know what the ending held in store, and I was left guessing throughout the book. Rosemary was a total badass (despite his gender, Levin seems to be really good at writing really awesome lady characters – I read The Stepford Wives shortly after this, and its protagonist Joanna was equally cool) and the ending left me with the same kind of good chills that a good American Horror Story finale (i.e. not Coven) leaves me with. Aaaaaah.

8. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I had been meaning to read this for absolutely ages, so I leapt at the chance when I saw it in the library. I don’t think there was much point in me borrowing it in all honesty, as it can be read in half an hour, but it was amazing all the same. I could hear the unnamed protagonist’s voice so clearly that her descent into full-on madness as she becomes convinced that there are women trapped beneath the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom was truly chilling. Combined with shrewd comment on mental illness and the challenging relationships between men and women (Perkins Gilman was a staunch feminist and generally fierce), it really stayed with me long after I turned the final page. It’s so short that I will no doubt re-read it sometime, as I’d really like to look at the allegorical content even more closely, especially now that I’ve read up on Perkins Gilman’s life.

9. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

I don’t quite know what it is, but there was just something about The Virgin Suicides that made me go “yes.” Ironically, I found it both amazingly enjoyable and triggering – the mind is a funny thing, isn’t it? After the first suicide in the novel, I could really feel myself getting sucked into the Lisbon family’s grief and could clearly picture their decaying, dusty house with windows full of candles. I liked learning about all the sisters and their varying responses to the first death in the family, although I kind of wish Eugenides had focussed slightly less on Lux. The narrative itself was also really interesting, as it was plural first-person, but you never really learn more about this mysterious “we”, other than the fact that they’re a group of boys who congregate to watch the Lisbon home from their vigil across the street, out of sympathy for their isolation. However, the fact that the boys were unnamed, combined with how the Lisbon family eventually faded away from the scene, gave a real sense of impermanence and reminded me of how life can pass by us so easily.

10. The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

And finally, yet another mental illness book to round off my list! This is the only book I’ve read about schizophrenia so far, but I found it so so moving and would love to read more fiction on the subject (especially since I wrote my research methods essay on it and am considering it as a theme for my dissertation). After witnessing the death of his older brother Simon, who has Down’s Syndrome, as a child, Matthew grows to blame himself for the tragedy as he feels he should have protected him. He develops schizophrenia in his teenage years and begins to see and hear Simon everywhere, and after recalling a science lesson from his first year of secondary school, makes it his mission to rearrange atoms to bring him back to life. Of course, this can’t be done and he is hospitalised. His account of being in hospital was reminiscent of The Bell Jar (one of my favourite books of all time) and I loved how Filer used different fonts and layouts to convey Matt’s troubled mindset. There were quite a few moments when I shed a tear (refer back to point made in 6…), and like Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I also read this in a day. I don’t know – maybe I’m just a book-masochist?

So there you go, after two hours of typing, I am finished with my top ten. What books did you really enjoy in 2014? Do you have any reading goals for this year?