Tuesday 29 April 2014

DOUBLE REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (5*)

~ THE BOOK (5*) ~
Published by Arrow Books, 1997.

"There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads - they couldn't be fair if they tried.  In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins.  They're ugly, but those are the facts of life."

I can honestly say that I don't remember how long ago I acquired this book.  I know I got it for Christmas at around the age of 12 or 13.  I know that my mum and possibly my sister read my copy within a year or two.  I know that in my entire reign as bookseller at our shop I never felt so ashamed of a bookish shortfall as I did when customers happily pointed at our giant TKaM book cover poster and tried to engage me in conversation about one of their favourite books, and I - a lifelong reader, English student and bookshop owner - had to admit that I'd never read it.

Having decided that I must finally pick it up this year, and having recently seen positive reviews from Mercedes and Barry on BookTube, this month I FINALLY plucked it down from my shelves and started reading.  I have to admit, despite its small size I was surprisingly nervous about tackling this one, mostly because I have a track record of loathing big American classics that everyone else loves.  Happily for me, this one completely lived up to the hype, exceeded expectations and won me over completely!

As anyone who was around Twitter when I started reading will know, initially I was a bit sceptical.  The first sixty or seventy pages are slow-going, and I was struggling to see what all the fuss was about.  Young Scout Finch, little sister to Jem and daughter of the iconic Atticus, is recounting anecdotes about her neighbours, about her experiences at school, about her summers spent playing with Jem and their friend Dill, and about the mystery surrounding the Radley house next door.  One of the few things I already knew about the book was that there was an important character called Boo Radley, and that he was somehow meant to be sympathetic, so I was definitely getting a bit impatient when the children's interaction with the house seemed to mainly involve running past the gate at high speed and poking at the windows with a fishing pole. 

HOWEVER.  I now fully appreciate that what Harper Lee did so beautifully in these early chapters was to build up such a rich picture of the neighbourhood, of the characters that live there, of the dynamics within the Finch family, of the attitudes and proclivities of the local women in particular, that from that point on she's pretty much free to weave her story uninterrupted.  Because we already understand the people, their politics, their idiosyncracies, and the way each of them relates to Scout and her family, the author doesn't need to hold up the increasingly riveting plot twists explaining other people's motivations.

I don't want to say too much about the actual plot, because as someone who had never seen the movie and knew only the bare basics going into the book - Atticus Finch, Scout, Boo Radley, a rape charge, racial tension in a southern town, a compelling court case - I was gripped anew by each twist and turn of the local politics, each moment of violence, each terrible incident of wilful prejudice.  Seeing everything through the eyes of young Scout made everything that much richer, as she understands certain things very differently to her well-heeled neighbours (Tom Robinson's innocence, for example), yet fails to understand the significance of other events, so we have to read between the lines and see what she can't.  I also liked the fact that her tomboyish nature and hatred of all things girlie introduced feisty discussion of gender politics into the mix alongside the expected questions about race discrimination and racial equality.

I don't really know what else to talk about, because it's To Kill a Mockingbird, what is there to say?  It tackles huge themes like race, class, feminism, family, sexual abuse and the loss of innocence, and does so perfectly.  I just loved this book, and I urge everyone who's been inexplicably putting it off (like me!) to just read it already.  There are so many memorable moments and images in this book (and yes, Atticus is just as heroic and perfect as I wanted him to be; his closing statement to the jury made me want to stand up and applaud), and the characters felt so real to me as I was reading, so complex and rounded, that I felt almost bereaved when the book was over.  There were twists I didn't expect and horrors I sadly did, and I read the last quarter of the book through a thin veil of tears that shifted from happy to sad to horrified and back again as the story of one man's heroism and the fall-out in a traditional southern neighbourhood reached its close.  It's beautifully written, very accessible, thought-provoking, compelling, heartbreaking, and frequently - thanks to young Scout and her wonderful way with words ("Talking to Francis gave me the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean.  He was the most boring child I ever met.") - very funny.  READ IT!

Two Questions

1.  Did Bob Ewell rape his daughter?  That's what I read somewhere afterwards, but I didn't interpret it like that at all.  I read it as Ewell beating his daughter when he caught her 'tempting' a black man, whether sex was involved or not - but I saw no hint that he'd raped Mayella.  According to the court case no doctor was called to examine her, so how do we know there was any sex involved at all?  That Ewell didn't just catch Mayella making advances on Tom, beat her for it, then accuse Tom of rape in order to bring down 'justice' on his head in revenge?

2.  Why is Jem not a more famous character?  I didn't even know Scout HAD a brother - you hear about Scout and Atticus every time someone discusses the book, but I've never heard anyone talk about Jem!  Which is a shame, because he's basically a mini-Atticus.  He's brave, and thoughtful, and understands things that Scout doesn't yet; he was the character that inspired most hope in me, the one who seemed to represent the dream of a less prejudiced and more equality-driven future generation.

Notable Quotables:
  • "... sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of - oh, of your father... if Atticus Finch drank until he was drunk he wouldn't be as hard as some men are at their best.  There are just some kind of men who - who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one."
  • "The things that happen to people we never really know.  What happens in houses behind closed doors, what secrets..."
  • "Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire.  I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches: when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn't supposed to be doing things that required pants.  Aunt Alexandra's vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father's lonely life.  I suggested that one could be a ray of sunshine in pants just as well..."
  • "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

Source: I've had this book on my shelves for over a decade; I think I got it for Christmas one year?

~ THE MOVIE (4.5*) ~
Starring Gregory Peck and Mary Badham. Directed by Robert Mulligan, 1962.
Okay, the first thing to say about this movie is READ THE BOOK FIRST.  It's wonderful in its own right, but I think I got more out of certain pivotal scenes thanks to the background knowledge and additional detail I'd gleaned from the book.  The second thing to say is that this segment of the post will be a bit spoilery, because I HAD FEELS AND I WANT TO TALK ABOUT THEM.
So, I was very, very impressed with this film.  I thought that it was very faithful to the book; there were significant exclusions that maybe wouldn't have translated to the screen, or would have dragged the whole thing down (like a lot of the neighbourhood gossip and drama), and the time period between Tom's trial and the aftermath was tightened, but there were no major changes.  Considering the fact that the movie was never going to be inside Scout's mind in the same way, I thought the atmosphere and tone of the film stayed remarkably consistent with the book.  There was a warmth about the Finch family, about their little unit of Atticus, Jem, Scout and Calpurnia, which translated beautifully, and worked to offset the violent moments and the spooky intrigue of the Radley house next door.
The thing that really makes this movie, of course, is the acting.  Gregory Peck is wonderful as Atticus, and his dry reactions to his childrens' quirks made me chuckle a few times, just as they did in the book.  I thought his closing statement to the jury, which, as I said above, made me want to give him a standing ovation in the book, was a bit overblown and filled with dramatic huffing and puffing, but everything else was spot on for me.  You know how even if you're not a kid person, occasionally you will see someone, whether in real life or a fictional character, and get this overwhelming feeling that you could have children with that person?  That was how I felt about Atticus Finch.  He was perfect.  Props also go to Brock Peters, whose testimony as Tom Robinson nearly broke my heart, it was so powerfully and quietly played.

The children's acting was also excellent, very natural and full of fun.  Mary Badham's Scout is so mischievous and determined to be just as good as her brother, and she made me laugh a few times with her quick retorts and absolute horror at having to wear a dress for school.    Phillip Alford, playing Jem, was the perfect big brother, defending Scout one moment and soundly chastising her the next.  You could see Atticus in him, just like in the book.  I read somewhere that Mary and Phillip were actually very much like brother and sister on the set, constantly bickering and playing off each other, so maybe that's why they have such good sibling chemistry on-screen!  Likewise their family chemistry with Gregory Peck was fantastic.  It was like watching a real family, no sense of awkwardness at all, just affection.  In fact, as Mary Badham wrote later, she and Peck stayed in touch and called each other Atticus and Scout until the day he died.
So, shall we talk about the feels now?  As I gushed on Twitter last night, this movie made me SOB.  Just like the book.  At least one tear-worthy moment didn't appear in the film, but there were several here-come-the-tears moments, and two serious-crying stop-the-film-until-you-can-see-again parts.  This was the first:

It's just as perfect a moment as it is in the book, that show of respect for the one man in town who dared to defend an innocent man despite the fact that he was black.  When I mentioned how hard I'd cried on Twitter, Liz immediately tweeted back the Reverend's immortal line ("Miss Jean Louise, stand up... your father's passing"), and I knew I wasn't alone.  And then there was the real tear-jerker...

This was the moment that finished me off completely, in both the book AND the film.  This was where I really benefited from having read the book first, I think, because there was more background between Boo and the Finches in the novel (during the fire, for example, which doesn't appear in the film), and also Scout's insight at the end into how much Boo could see from his house: how he'd been watching over 'his' children for a long time, finding solace from his lonely existence in these two good and vibrant young people.  I thought Robert Duvall played this moment beautifully.  He never has to say a word, but he is PERFECT.  His fear, followed by that moment of relief and happiness as Scout recognises and accepts him... ALL THE FEELS.  At the moment Atticus says, "I believe he already knows you..." and the gorgeous Elmer Bernstein score swells, I absolutely fell apart.  I'm welling up just thinking about it, and I think that moment from the score will probably make me cry forever more.

Okay, I'm going to stop rambling now, because I'm never going to be able to do either the book OR the film justice.  Just, please... if you've been putting off this book because of the overwhelming hype, or if you've just not been sure it's for you, and if you haven't seen the film yet... PLEASE GO AND DO IT.  RIGHT NOW.  You won't regret it.  This is what books and movies are supposed to be, you guys.  This is the real deal.  Go!  Read!  Watch!  Cry!

Saturday 19 April 2014

REVIEW: Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs - The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co, by Jeremy Mercer (5*)

Alternative title - Time was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare and Co.
by Jeremy Mercer (Phoenix, 2006)

"Two months before I'd had a high-profile job with an enviable salary, a sleek black German sedan on lease, an apartment in a fashionable downtown neighbourhood, and a collection of not-so-inexpensive shirts and jackets hanging in the closet.  Now, there were a few hundred dollars in my pocket, no job or prospect thereof, some clothes jammed into an old handbag, and a bed in a tattered bookstore to call home.  All things considered, I couldn't have been happier."

As most of my regular readers will know (because I've mentioned it so many times!), this book and I have been good friends for many years now.  I bought it from the bookshop on my university campus and this month has marked my third reading.  The first time I read it, I fell in love.  The second time, I looked for inspiration.  The third time, I found both.  This is, I suppose, the story of our friendship!

My first reading...

I was still at university (I think) and fell utterly in love with Mercer's world of bohemians and books.  My review on LibraryThing went like this:

"On the run from an unfortunate mistake in his Canadian life as a crime journalist, Jeremy Mercer heads to Paris to escape for a while.  Caught in a rainstorm near Notre-Dame one afternoon, he spots a welcoming light across the river and thus stumbles inadvertently on the Shakespeare and Company bookshop.  Invited upstairs for tea by the beautiful woman behind the desk, wandering the labyrinth of books and beds, he soon realises that this is no ordinary bookshop and, as a poor writer, is invited to join the ranks of lost souls inhabiting the book-lined rooms.

So begins his whimsical and quintessentially bohemian stay, under the watchful eye of eccentric owner George Whitman (surely the star of the book, with his fascinating life and Communist ideals), who renamed his unique store after the original literary oasis, run by his good friend Sylvia Beach, which was forced to close down during the Second World War.  Here all are welcome to browse and lose themselves in their reading; tea is offered on a Sunday; eclectic readings take place in the library; literary and political opinions are argued out – and those in need of a bed will find one amongst the books in return for a few hours helping around the shop and in the kitchen.

Mercer deliciously evokes days trawling the scattered tomes, nights spent storytelling by the Seine, tourists attracted by the store’s reputation, wanderers attracted by Whitman’s generosity, showering in the public washhouses, scrounging leftover food to get by: in short, a poor life, without good facilities or scope for wastage of any kind, but a happy, lively life nonetheless.  The characters moving through Whitman’s utopia are many and varied, yet he remains, a kind of rock in the tides of time and tourism, as the chaos of youthful dreams and books and wine whirls around him. 

Of course, eventually reality bites for Mercer and it’s time to move on – but his journey is magical and the lessons of the bookstore honest.  Now I have Sylvia Beach’s own book 'Shakespeare and Company’ to read, and I recommend the documentary ‘Portrait of a Bookstore as an Old Man’, made towards the end of Mercer’s time in Paris and readily available online.  Still not sure whether to read it?  Try searching online for photos of the store in all its glory – if that doesn’t persuade you, nothing will!"

My second reading...

The second time I read the book, two years later, I was on the cusp of opening my bookshop.  Since then I'd seen the documentary I mentioned at least twice - it became one of my go-to methods for getting out of a reading slump or inspiring me to read more each day - and seen lots of pictures and amateur YouTube footage of the shop, and I felt like I was going into the book with a more rounded feel for the world George Whitman had created for himself, his writers and the daily flood of visitors.

This time around, I wasn't just looking for a bookish good read - I was also looking for bookshop inspiration.  Thanks to George and to Mercer's book, I understood that books are, ironically, only a small part of running a bookshop.  While we wouldn't have the space and the right kind of customers to create anything like George's vision, I tried to adapt some of the elements of the atmosphere I'd fallen in love with through Mercer's account into workable parts of our own shop.  We tried to pour ourselves into our surroundings and make our shop a friendly and idiosyncratic place to be.

We didn't have a mirror covered in letters and cards - but we had a humble pinboard with pictures, interesting things we found tucked in books, recommendations and bestseller lists.  We didn't have a shop cat - but we did have a tiny mouse that liked to sit in our bird feeder, much to the bemusement of the tourists.  We didn't have beds amongst the bookshelves - but we had comfortable chairs where regulars would sit chatting about books and their lives (or sleeping, in one case).  Because it was OUR shop, and we had the flexibility of mostly selling second-hand books, I wasn't afraid to sometimes make personal decisions instead of business ones, waiving a few pennies for a kid whose pocket money wouldn't quite stretch to a book they wanted, slipping in a freebie for a teenager who was eagerly collecting Star Trek novels, or helping out a practically-homeless woman who would 'buy' a book for a fraction of the marked price on the understanding that she'd bring it back when she was finished with it.  In the back of my mind, there was always the question, "What would George do?"  I still hadn't visited Shakespeare and Company, thanks in part to the agoraphobia that crippled me right at the time when a Paris trip would have been ideal - after uni, before work - but it was always in my mind, thanks to Jeremy Mercer and his magical book.

My third reading...

And so we come to 2014.  After four and a half years of trading as a mother-daughter business, in a bookshop that had become our second home, we sold up and moved on around the New Year.  Neither of us have been back to see what it looks like now - it would be like going back to your old house to see what the new owners have done with it - and it already feels like a distant memory, thanks in part to the crippling depression that's driven such a huge wedge between me and the rest of the world of late.

As far as rereading this book goes, it means I've finally read it as a whole, in a lot of ways.  The first time, I was reading it as a magical vision of bookish possibility; the second time, I was reading it and feeling inspired in my own business; the third time, I've been able to just read it for itself, feeling greater familiarity with the world Mercer was immersed in and a greater appreciation for the negative aspects of life at the bookshop - the thieves, the poverty - as well as the amazing ones.  I can also now place the timeline of the book compared to the documentary, which was made after Mercer left the shop but while he was still in Paris, the summer that George's teenage daughter Sylvia returned from England to live with him for a few months; some of Mercer's friends at the bookstore appear in the film, and so does he, briefly!  I can now appreciate how close George and Jeremy became over the years, and the role he played in bringing Sylvia back to Paris.  At the time he stayed in the store, George could only dream that one day Sylvia might come home and carry on the family business in his place, so it warmed my heart to know that his dream came true.  Without her permanent return to the shop, where she quickly took over as manageress, the bookshop might have been lost when George died just before Christmas 2011.  I only wish that I'd made it to Paris while he was alive... 

If you'd like to watch the documentary that I've been going on about with such reverence, it's not available as a whole on Google video any more, but it keeps cropping up around the internet, sometimes in sections, sometimes in its entirety.  It's just under an hour long in total, and gives you such a flavour of life at Shakespeare and Company in the early Noughties, its history, its eccentric late owner, and the 'tumbleweeds', the ever-changing collection of young writers who continue to live and work there to this day.  I love it, and (when it's available!) I watch it every so often when I'm in a reading slump or feel generally uninspired.  I hope you enjoy it too!

Notable Quotables:
  • "I woke up straight.  The instant my eyes opened, everything felt sharp and clear, as if I'd finished a wind sprint or stepped from a frothing sea.  I'd always been one to play with snooze buttons, lolling in bed and rationalising being ten, twenty, thirty minutes late for work or school.  But that first morning at the bookstore, there were no slow degrees of consciousness or seductive fingers of sleep.  I was alive."
  • "In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the caf├ęs.  Poets and writers, models and designers, painters and sculptors, actors and directors, lovers and escapists, they flock to the City of Lights.  That night at Polly's, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple.  That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too.  Hope is a beautiful drug."
  • "He washed his clothes by hand, ate the most basic of meals, and shunned the cinemas or restaurants.  With this regime, not only was he able to survive on the bookstore's paltry receipts but he also managed to provide communal meals and tuck away enough money to keep expanding the bookstore... George had discovered money to be the greatest slave master, and by reducing your dependence on it, he believed, you could loosen the grip of a suffocating world."
  • "I had been at the bookstore more than a month, but it felt like time had barely passed.  Without the normal barometer of a workday or a fixed schedule, life had become fluid.  It was hard to keep track of the hours and days in the bookstore, everything came and went in pleasurable waves of evenings and mornings and afternoons.  In the criminal world there is a term, hard time, which refers to difficult prison sentences in maximum-security facilities... Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I'd ever felt."
  • ""You know, that's what I've always wanted this place to be," he said.  "I look across at Notre Dame and I sometimes think the bookstore is an annexe of the church.  A place for the people who don't quite fit in over there."  I understood.  We sipped our beer until the sun set and then sat awhile longer."
  • "Living with George at Shakespeare and Company has changed me, made me wonder about the life I left and the life I want to live.  For now, I sit, I type, I try to be a better man.  Life is a work in progress."

Source: I bought this book from the little branch of Blackwell's, above Market Square, at the University of York.

Saturday 12 April 2014

DOUBLE REVIEW: Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson (5*)

Published by Hodder Children's Books, 2008.

As I mentioned in my March reading wrap-up, this was actually a reread for me.  I first read this book at the age of perhaps 11 or 12, and really didn't understand what all the fuss was about.  Why?  Well, I'd only been at secondary school for about ten minutes, had no knowledge of sexual violence, and thus didn't really appreciate the level of 'reading between the lines' that is required in order to catapult this book up to greatness.

This time around I absolutely loved it!  On the surface it is the story of Melinda Sordino, a thirteen year-old girl starting high school for the first time.  Unfortunately, Melinda has recently alienated her entire group of best friends - amongst others - by calling the police from a party over the summer.  What her ex-friends don't know is why she called the police: she was raped at the party by the hottest boy in school.  Which brings us to what's going on under the surface - because this isn't just some flighty Mean Girls novel about an unpopular girl in high school.  It's really about a young woman slowly healing after a terrible experience, finding her voice, discovering her own strength, and finally being able to speak out about what happened to her.  And what a beautifully evoked journey it is...

Not only is the writing deceptively simple and frequently gorgeous, but what really surprised me was how much humour runs through this book!  I didn't remember that at all from my first reading, so I was delighted to discover that Anderson has a marvellous knack of combining sparkling wit with troubling themes to offer a reading experience that has it all - it's funny but truthful, sarcastic but airy, tongue-in-cheek but very moving.

One thing I absolutely loved was the idea of art as therapy.  Early in the book, Melinda's unconventional and completely awesome art teacher allocates each student an object that will form the basis of their work that year, across as many media and styles as they care to try.  Melinda's object is 'tree'.  Not only does this offer a metaphor for Melinda's personal growth, strength and return to life as the novel goes on, but her artistic efforts, and Mr Freeman's enthusiastic mentoring, become the means for her to learn self-expression and explore her feelings in new ways.  She keeps her work in a deserted janitor's closet (like a mini staffroom), which she cleans, personalises and adapts into her own little sanctuary.

I think these elements of the novel particularly struck a chord with me because I, albeit for different reasons, found similar refuge within my school environment as a teenager.  Like Mr Freeman's art room, ours was light, bustling, relaxed, and always open to students during breaks and lunchtimes.  I'd tag along with friends who were taking art and spend time doing homework, eating lunch, singing along to the radio, and ogling my crush, a shy boy from the year above who was also a proficient artist and could usually be found hiding away in the art room with his best friend.  My 'janitor's closet' was an upstairs classroom, my Mr Freeman a history teacher who would quietly unlock the door for me and unceremoniously throw out any rowdier groups who dared to invade by pretending I was in detention!  Like Melinda, I found that having somewhere peaceful to go made school more bearable.

In conclusion, this is a truly fantastic novel.  Despite being published fifteen years ago (so around the time I first read it, rather scarily), it still has a wonderful blend of humour and truth, a school setting that is still relatable now, and a strong and inspiring message about sexual violence, self-expression, and having the confidence to speak UP and speak OUT against people who have hurt us and experiences no one should have to endure alone.  This is definitely a story that will stick with me this time around - I may even buy my own copy to keep - and I can't wait to read Wintergirls, which is already installed on my TBR shelves!

Notable Quotables:
  • "Art without emotion is like chocolate cake without sugar.  It makes you gag...  The next time you work on your trees, don't think about trees.  Think about love, or hate, or joy, or rage - whatever makes you feel something, makes your palms sweat or your toes curl.  Focus on that feeling."
  • "I try to read while eating alone, but the noise gets between my eyes and the page I can't see through it."
  • "People say that winter lasts forever, but it's because they obsess over the thermometer.  North in the mountains, the maple syrup is trickling.  Brave geese punch through the thin ice left on the lake.  Underground, pale seeds roll over in their sleep.  Starting to get restless.  Starting to dream green."
  • "I crouch by the trunk, my fingers stroking the bark, seeking a Braille code, a clue, a message on how to come back to life after my long undersnow dormancy.  I have survived.  I am here.  Confused, screwed up, but here.  So, how can I find my way?...  I dig my fingers into the dirt and squeeze.  A small, clean part of me waits to warm and burst through the surface.  Some quiet Melindagirl I haven't seen in months.  That is the seed I will care for."

Source: I borrowed this book from my local library. 

~ THE MOVIE (4.5*) ~
Starring Kristen Stewart and Steve Zahn. Directed by Jessica Sharzer, 2004.

I wanted to give a quick shout-out to the excellent TV movie, which I watched the day I finished the book.  It stars Kristen Stewart as Melinda and (sorry Stewart-bashers) she's really great!  It's a pretty faithful adaptation - a couple of detail tweaks, a little less friendship-drama and a slightly altered ending to her year as Mr Freeman's art student aside, it's spot on.  Everything is beautifully played, from the giddiness of the party to the horror of rape, from the trauma of Melinda having to be around her attacker in the school environment to the slow process of self-expression in her art class.
I think my absolute favourite scene is between Melinda and Mr Freeman (played by Steve 'This place is a tomb... I'm going to The Nut Shop where it's fun!' Zahn, aka George from You've Got Mail) at the end of the school year.  Unlike in the book, Mr Freeman leaves at the end of the movie, just not suited to following the no-radio no-freedom no-fun rules of the school board.  To show him what a difference he's really made, Melinda takes him into her janitor's closet, which is now FULL of her art.  All kinds of trees, studies of leaves, paintings, a sculpture and the most beautiful Picasso-esque chalk drawing.  It's basically Melinda's entire emotional journey, and he can only look around in wonder, tears in his eyes, while she watches shyly.  It's a beautiful moment, perfect and simple, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I had tears running down my face by the end.

Anyway, if you like the book, watch it.  It's hard to find on DVD here in the UK, but you can watch it on YouTube or elsewhere online quite easily.  Highly recommended - I might even cough up for the DVD now! 

Tuesday 1 April 2014

March: What I Read, What I'm Reading

Another month down, and happily, over the last week or so, I've finally been feeling like I'm getting my reading mojo back!  My general outlook hasn't really improved, not by much anyway, but my passion for books has returned at full throttle so hopefully I'll get plenty of reading done in the coming weeks.  Not only that, but I'm making a real effort to write some proper reviews as well so the blog should be a bit more active again.  It's still daunting to be staring at a blank Blogger post, so instead I've been writing one paragraph at a time in a notebook, in between reading chapters of my book or doing something else.  The whole process feels much easier once I've got a draft down like that!  In the meantime, here's my overall reading wrap-up for the month and what I'm getting stuck into as we careen into April!
~ What I Read ~
 Kiss Me First
by Lottie Moggach
A semi-thriller about online life, obsession, death and ethics, this one piqued my interest way back before the hardcover was released.  I picked up the paperback last month and dived straight in!  Basically it's about a young woman, Leila, who is chosen by a cultish website founder to help a friend of his, Tess, who wants to end her life.  To save Tess's family and friends from heartbreak, Leila will spend time learning everything there is to know about Tess before taking over her social media presence for several months after 'check-out', slowly decreasing the frequency of her communication until she's just... gone.  There are some pretty big themes in this book: it's about the naivety of young people who've spent more time online than in the real world; it's about the ethics of suicide and an individual's rights over his or her own body; it's about how easy it is to become enmeshed in an online world, a life, even a romance that isn't real in any way.  The middle section was a bit slower, and the story arc didn't really play out in the way I expected, but the beginning was fascinating and the ending quite fitting and even a little startling, so I still enjoyed it and found much to think about within its pages.  I gave it 4 stars.

by Laurie Halse Anderson
I first read this many years ago, when I was only around 11 or 12, and honestly, I didn't get what all the fuss was about.  This is definitely one of those YA books that requires you to actually be - or have been - a young adult to really appreciate it.  Although it's simply written, getting to the heart of the novel and reading between the lines of Melinda's story needs a little more maturity and understanding of the world, I think.  This time around I absolutely loved the book, which in case you've been living under a rock, is Anderson's very famous novel about a girl who is raped at a party and spends the next year at her new school slowly working towards finding her voice, expressing herself, and speaking out at last.  It's a very easy read, and very funny, but it also packs a real emotional punch and captures the teenage experience beautifully despite the book now being fifteen years old.  I'll be reviewing this one properly this week, along with the excellent TV movie - 5 stars, highly recommended!

Screen Burn
by Charlie Brooker
I've been hopping in and out of this book since last year, so I was quite glad to have had a little flurry of reading and actually finished it this month.  It's a book of Charlie Brooker's TV columns from The Guardian, dating way back to the early Noughties.  You'd think that they'd be a bit boring to read now, so many years later, but actually Brooker is much like Caitlin Moran in that even if you've never seen the programme he's discussing, you can still enjoy the ride and get a few giggles along the way.  He particularly delights in reviewing bad telly, bringing out his blisteringly acerbic humour at full throttle, which is always fun!  It was a bit of a nostalgia trip too, reminding me of programmes I enjoyed waaaaaay back when I was a teenager - and it made me feel suddenly old, with references to review copies of upcoming shows making the transition from VHS to DVD, and early mentions of brand new series like Scrubs and Smallville.  Wow...  Great for idle moments, 4 stars.

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian
by Scott Douglas
THIS!  THIS was what I wanted when I picked up Don Borchert's Library Confidential back in 2010.  As a young librarian in Anaheim, California, Douglas provides all the funny stories and strange characters that Borchert does, only he does it with a genuine feeling of affection and respect, and more importantly, a real understanding of libraries and their place in a community.  Whereas Borchert seemed to be trying to shock the reader with scandalous tales of library shenanigans, Douglas's anecdotes are friendlier and he seems to learn from every experience, adjusting his picture of library life and his role within it.  He definitely has a touch of the Bernard Black about him, but always rounds off his gripes with a warm acceptance of the experience and (mostly) generosity towards whoever (or whatever) is on the receiving end.  Oh, and I also loved the funny, self-deprecating and frequently very interesting footnotes and info inserts.  I gave it 4 stars.

The Shock of the Fall
by Nathan Filer
I only bought this book last month, but I was stalking Hanna on LibraryThing and noticed she'd given it 5 stars, and then she urged to me read it via Twitter, and that was that.  Happily I wound up completely agreeing with her: this is a beautifully written, effortlessly smooth and utterly compelling debut novel.  Written by a registered mental health nurse, it's about a little boy called Matt whose brother Simon dies while they're on holiday; writing his story down ten years later, Matt chronicles his family's grief and recovery, and his own quiet descent into schizophrenia.  It sounds really heavy when you put it like that, but it's not at all.  The prose is gorgeous but easy to read, and as he slowly unfurls Matt's history, Filer drops the pieces into place with precise and perfect timing.  I breezed through it in two or three days, thoroughly enjoyed every page, chuckled a few times, and had a little weep or two along the way as well.  It's perfect.  5 stars!
~ What I'm Reading ~

Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co. 
by Jeremy Mercer
I've spent a little time this week starting to go through my book boxes again, sorting out a few more to go the charity shop.  At the same time I've been pulling out books I've already read and loved to put up on my bookshelf - and this is one of my absolute top all-time favourites.  This is my third read, and I've fallen in love with it all over again!  Basically 20-something Jeremy Mercer left Canada in a rush after receiving death threats linked to his job as a crime journalist; broke and disillusioned, he ended up in Paris and discovered Shakespeare and Company one rainy day.  Known for its eccentricity, warmth, literary credentials - and for providing food and lodgings for drifters and writers, with beds nestled in amongst the bookshelves - the rest is history.  Mercer spent over a year living there under the watchful eye of the late George Whitman, immersing himself in bookshop life, new friendships, a little romance - and LOTS of books.  This travel memoir is the result, and it's been one of my biggest inspirations and most beloved books ever since!

Aaaaand that was March!