Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett

I liked this book, which was gently readable despite potentially depressing subjects - AIDS, unrequited love, family conflicts. It was good to read a book that dealt with an unusual relationship of a woman who has finally married the man she loves - who is gay and is not in love with her.  His gay partner has recently died of AIDS.  The woman is left to mourn him after his sudden death - and her partnership with him as magician's assistant must also end - though it has future benefits she does not foresee.

Then she is called to Nebraska to meet his relatives, hitherto unknown to her.  Although this could have been the last straw of a painful life, it is not at all - and there are interesting worlds to explore: the sunlit luxury of LA and small-town, snow-bound Nebraska; the making of magic tricks, and the generosity of the family she gets to know. I loved the bits about magic, and the optimism of life moving on and new beginnings.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

News re Murder Must Advertise - on BBC 7!

Have just discovered that this last book I reviewed is being broadcast, with the great Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, on BBC 7.  Catch up on episodes with the i-Player by going to this link:  There are 5 days left to listen to the first episode.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Murder Must Advertise!

This book is by Dorothy L Sayers and is fresh, funny and relevant today as a critique of advertising, capitalism etc in a humourous way.  The author worked for 11 years as a copywriter so she is questioning rather than biting the hand that feeds her.. and her experience adds to the sparkle and the satire of this very readable detective story.  Lord Peter Wimsey, her creation, part Jeeves, part Wooster - very debonaire and clever, has been invited to work incognito in an ad agency after a suspicious death.  His expensive shoes are remarked on, but generally he disguises his usual suave demeanour and starts to enjoy earning a living.  The plot develops well, with humour, style and good writing and a great cricket match even if you don't have a clue about cricket, though some of the vocabulary needs a glossary.  Read!

Friday, 16 April 2010

Katharine McMahon's favourite books

Hi - I have just read Lovereading's latest recommendations and shamelessly voted for Mary Renault for the 'Lost Booker' prize as I loved her books as a teenager. (I say shamelessly as I haven't read them - and there must be strong competition from Muriel Spark and Patrick White and the others - great reputations as writers.)  'The Bull from the Sea' was the Mary Renault book I remember - about Theseus and Ariadne from A's point of view.

Anyway, Katharine McMahon is guest editor this month, and has chosen her favourite books .  I think 'Stuck in a Book' will like these too! 

Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction - Red Carpet
I'm reading 'The Road Home' by Rose Tremain right now and enjoying it, though it is a bit close to home as I have some Polish friends - while their story is different, the 'no jobs' situation is the same as the hero of this book.  Let's hope Poland does have jobs from joining the EEC...

I also enjoyed KM's The Rose of Sebastopol and The Alchemist's Daughter (you can find out about those through the link at 'favourite books' and read extracts).

And now the season is almost right for reading outside - have preempted summer by sitting against my apple tree with my book and tea and Hot Cross bun!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A daily book of Buddhist slogans: Always Maintain a Joyful Mind

V&A Launch Their New Gallery Space And Exhibition

'Always Maintain a Joyful Mind: and Other Lojong Teachings on Awakening Compassion' by Pema Chodron is very easy to use every day to give you something useful to focus on.  I could say something 'spiritual' to focus on, but that could put people off who don't believe in God - these teachings are useful in taking us outside of our inward-looking selves, our egos, whatever we believe.

It consists of 59 'slogans' or one-line instructions designed to wake you up.  They are ancient Tibetan 'lojong' teachings.  Each slogan occupies a page, and on the opposite page there is a short commentary by Pema Chodron.  The idea is that you open a page every day and let that be the theme for the day.
Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun and teaching director in an abbey in Nova Scotia, who has written many popular books on Buddhist teachings.  She is American; I think she is popular as she can make Buddhist teachings understandable to a Western audience without diluting their power.  For example, the slogan "Don't talk about injured limbs" has her commentary: "Don't make yourself look good by disguising others' weaknesses."  About "Don't be so predictable" she says: "Don't hold grudges against other people."

What I particularly liked about this book is that Pema Chodron emphasises how we ourselves benefit from behaviour that may look purely altruistic: being generous, kind and less reactive decreases our own suffering as well as that of other people.  I guess that's the point of Buddhism: we look at the blissful face of Buddha and think he got that way by meditating, but that's a Western misconception; he got that way by practicing letting go of his selfishness and developing compassion - and became blissful as a result!

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Books we can't put down

I liked ABE books' piece on 'Books we never get round to reading' or similar title.  Now they have the opposite - books we devour.  Here is the link.  I liked the fact that the author included ones she/he didn't think were 'good' books but was stuck into them anyway!  I read Nora Roberts that way.. though I support her having a 'kick-arse' female detective series, politically speaking.
  What books does everyone else have like these?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Doris Lessing - The Grandmothers

BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize For Non-Fiction Doris Lessing on right, with Beryl Bainbridge, 2008
This is a collection of 4 short stories published in 2003 when Doris Lessing was I think 84.  It is an excellent book, with very different stories, circumstances, people.  It's as if she wants to convey the whole of her perception of humanity and her values, through these stories, which are very readable, clear prose.  I think she wants to pass on what she knows and feels - about education, the value of culture, the different experiences of love, of the history she has lived through.  I've always loved her books for this huge view she has, ranging from politics, prophecy, different countries, states of mind (mental illness included), much about relationships between men and women and love, spirituality in its broadest forms, the environment.. and all very clear-sighted.  My favourite is the 'Children of Violence' series ending in 'The Four-Gated City'.  I haven't read it for decades but I still remember it.

Full Catastrophe Living - reduce your stress using 'mindfulness'

This book, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is a course used in the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre for stress management and reduction.  The people using it, whose case histories are included in the text, are not ‘burnt-out yuppies’ but people with very pressing physical or emotional problems, including chronic pain and frightening illnesses.  It involves using a secular form of meditation, relaxation and yoga for an 8-week period, during which no goals are set, in order to release people from striving to achieve a result, just as they might do in their everyday lives.  I liked this attitude – an achievement orientation can be a curse for those who like me were recovering from ME, though motivation is important.

I used this course and book in my own way – following the relaxation and meditation practises but not the yoga or ‘walking’ meditation.  I found that it was very helpful in reorienting myself to ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’, creating a feeling of more space in my life to appreciate things.  The relaxation exercise was helpful in increasing my sleep at night and properly relaxing during the day, which felt healing.  The 8 weeks was just a start for me – this is a life’s work!

In addition to the course exercises there is a lot of useful material here on all kinds of stress – ‘people stress, ‘time and time stress’, ‘working with physical pain’, ‘working with panic, fear and anxiety’.  These provide useful fuel for your mind at bad moments, and the case histories mentioned are very encouraging.  I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to improve the quality of their life, including their health.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Seabiscuit and me

I just noticed I had this comment on another book on my personal blog - here it is for you, in the hopes you'll enjoy this book, which is a great yarn and a true story.

I have just finished 'Seabiscuit' by Laura Hillenbrand. It is a fantastic true story, well told, and I was very involved with it (OK I cried at times). It's about a bow-legged horse who makes an unlikely racehorse, and the stories of the team who worked with him.  At the time of the Great Depression people all over the USA were obsessed with him and his rivals.  Although I knew nothing about horse-racing before I read this, it didn't matter - all was explained, in a page-turning absorbing manner.

Then I read Laura H's article about her illness (CFS) which is another moving true story, of determination against the odds and terrible setbacks to produce a best-selling, award-winning book. She is still ill. I do hope she finds ways of recovering like I did.

I am getting better after a long CFS-like recurring virus since April. I am relieved I can use the Lightning Process to get rid of it, even after I'd left it awhile to try and clear up on its own. I am plugging away at my walks and short drives, and seeing people in the village, and I'm seeing positive results again - phew!

Laura Hillenbrand's story and her book have moved me. Not the drama and the struggle but the characters' creativity and enjoyment of life, even when they are in pain. Keep on trucking!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

I seem to be going in for epic novels about completely different cultures at the moment. This is the best of all of them! I heard about it in Oprah's Book Club. It is one of those books that can change the way you view everything - in this case, valuing what you have, and also putting it in a different light. It's funny, sad, disturbing, beautiful and intelligent.

An American Southern Baptist preacher (zealous) and his family go to live in the jungle in the Congo in 1959. The preacher's aim is to enlighten the heathen - however the whole family is drastically changed by living there, in different ways. As the jacket says, it's the story of the family's 'tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over 3 decades in postcolonial Africa'.

Barbara Kingsolver has tackled many themes in this novel, in a very readable and articulate way - she reminds me of Doris Lessing in this: including a wide historical viewpoint and viewing events and cultures as they affect different people, who have very different opinions. She has said that she waited 30 years waiting for the wisdom and maturity to dare to write this book - it was worth the wait.

It's about Africa, America, colonialism, religion, agriculture, the jungle, family life, love - and as Barbara Kingsolver puts it, 'the great shifting terrain between righteousness and being right'.