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emma who reads a lot (London)
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How Should a Person Be?
How Should a Person Be?
by Sheila Heti
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing, unique book, 24 Oct. 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a novel describing the lives of a group of artists in the early 21st century, in particular focusing on the friendship of Sheila, a writer, and Margaux, a visual artist.

I wasn't surprised to find that a lot of reviewers found the main character, 'Sheila', in this book, a bit TOO much. She is at many points quite irritating and self-obsessed.

HOWEVER....

As I read further, I began to feel how interesting the book was as a piece of fiction. OK, if you simply read it as plain description of reality and start judging 'Sheila' on the basis of what author Sheila Heti has written about her, yes, you will hate her. (For her whinging and her drug-taking and her slightly annoying love life, amongst other things.)

But if you read the book (which I eventually did) as a sort of love poem to Sheila's friend Margaux, an artist, it's a much more interesting experience. Novels about artistic friendships (inspiring, creative friendships) are actually quite rare, and I'm pretty sure I've never read a book where one woman artist helps and inspires another. Margaux helps Sheila refocus her artistic practice, and shows her for the first time that she can be good friends with another woman.

This aspect of the book I found totally 'novel', and really intriguing and delightful. I think Sheila Heti has made 'Sheila' the character pretty unappealing absolutely BECAUSE she hated how stuck she was in her work, and Margaux is lovely because she provides a solution.

I think the book is highly feminist and at the same time would be interesting to anyone who is intrigued by creative processes and by 'what there is left to say' in art. I came away thinking of the book very warmly and bought a copy for a friend of mine who's a sculptor.

Incidental Gossip: Sheila Heti looked really familiar to me on the jacket photo.... I found out she is the woman who played the part of 'Lenore' in Leanne Shapton's totally wonderful and groundbreaking Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry!


John Updike: The Collected Stories (Library of America)
John Updike: The Collected Stories (Library of America)
by John Updike
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £53.11

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful edition, wonderful stories, 10 Oct. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
An edition from the Library of America is always a cause for celebration, because they are so beautifully made; this is no exception, arriving in a handsome cloth slipcase with a nice painting of Updike on it (though he is not smiling! In my experience, John U was ALWAYS smiling!).

The contents, though, are what really matters, and here there is no disappointment. You have of course been able to acquire these stories before; but this is a really well-considered collection of 186 of Updike's finest short fictions. From the very first (which is 'Ace in the Hole', the story which later was reworked at length into Rabbit, Run) to some stories he wrote knowing he was dying - there are real treats in store.

You do not have to love John Updike to love this book: one extraordinary thing for me was to see his variety as a writer. He is famous for writing about love, couples, sex, infidelity, but many of my favourite moments in these two volumes were to do with how well he writes families and children. "La Bébésitter", about a French afternoon childminder looking in on a disintegrating American marriage; and my absolute favourite, "Should Wizard Hit Mommy?" about a dad making up a story for his daughter and realising she is beginning to have her own ideas of how the story should go, which he dislikes and resists!

There are also some wonderful surreal moments where you sense Updike is 'trying on' Donald Barthelme and others 'for size' - "During the Jurassic', about, er, dinosaurs... and "Love Song for a Moog Synthesiser"...

Also there are some amazing evocations of American childhood and youth - here the highlight is "The Happiest I've Been" about a boy driving with a friend to college, who stops at a party before leaving town. Superb.

Of course there are also the many, many great stories he wrote about, well, love, couples, sex and infidelity. "The Women Who Got Away"..."Spanish Prelude to a Second Marriage" argh!!! SO great!! AND SO MANY!!

(Speaking of marriage... Missing from this book are all the The Maples Stories, which are collected nicely by Everyman and which do run so well together that it almost seems good not to have them mixed in in this volume.)

If you love reading you should own this. It is a fitting tribute to a great writer and his many moods.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 8, 2014 8:32 AM BST


Was She Pretty?
Was She Pretty?
by Leanne Shapton
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another exceptional, genre-bending book by lovely Leanne, 9 Oct. 2013
This review is from: Was She Pretty? (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I don't know why I feel allowed to call author Leanne Shapton by her first name - I guess perhaps the highly personal nature of her work. Though it clearly has fictional elements - and is by no means 'tell-all' - "Was She Pretty?" asks a series of questions that seem to comment on the way we think about relationships now, so acutely, that I wish she WAS a friend of mine...

Was She Pretty? on the face of it is a very simple thing: a book where each set of facing pages details one person's annoying ex - or later on, an annoying new partner - in a very sparse few sentences / single sentence. Each page has a different character. Each 'ex' is summed up in the two line way that allows all that is hateful and enviable about the person to be freighted in one tidy container (I remember one new girlfriend of a boyfriend of mine 'could speak seven languages' and that's all you needed to know to find her really annoying).

Like Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, which I reviewed a couple of years ago and absolutely adored, "Was She Pretty?" plays with our assumptions about story and about fiction and non-fiction. It's heavily illustrated, though in a totally different manner than Important Artifacts - with Shapton's own line paintings of the characters she discusses. I just loved the format.

In fact having now read all of what she's put out for public consumption, I think of Shapton most closely in relation to the kind of conceptual art produced by people like Tracey Emin and Michael Landy, which uses the artist's own life as a starting point for meditations and deconstructions of intriguing kinds. In "Was She Pretty?" Shapton examines the way that our culture, with its acceptance of breakups and new partnerships almost ad infinitum, also opens the door to all kinds of narratives about exes, an area where the STRONGEST feelings can be evoked. To me its admirable and extraordinary that she's done this in such a concise and unemotional way.

A really interesting experiment that leaves you thinking.


The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
by Christopher Clark
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Message of caution for a connected Europe, 5 Oct. 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This account of 'how' Europe descended into general war in late 1914 is emphatically focused on what happened, event by event, rather than on 'why' it happened. From the first chapters the level of detail is astounding, though never overpowering, and there were many aspects of the book which were completely new to me (and I studied this period at a good university).

The subject of 1914 is really important in the present day: firstly, for publishers because there's the big anniversary coming up :-), but also for us mere mortals because we live in a turbulent Europe where 'marginal' nations seem on the brink of collapse, and so we MUST consider the history when it tells us we CAN be sucked into the fates of apparently distant countries.

This book contains a resounding message of caution in such times.

However what made my enjoyment all the more was that Amazon reviewers SO much added to my critical appreciation of the work. You often hear people slagging off Amazon reviews and saying they are written in great ignorance, but a brief survey of the reviews written here should shame anyone continuing to blunder along with such opinions. There are nuanced critiques, fervent condemnations and glowing testimonials for the book, most of which display detailed knowledge of the period and deeply committed reading. I felt EXTREMELY grateful for these careful reviews, which made it easy to find other critiques of Clark's work and to read it within an informed context. I felt more scepticism about the book's argument once I had finished, and also felt much more informed (the three star reviews are particularly helpful, acknowledging the book's qualities as well as its flaws). THANK YOU, fellow reviewers, for adding to my enjoyment and knowledge, whether negative or positive.


La Folie Baudelaire
La Folie Baudelaire
by Roberto Calasso
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars meditative, dreamlike, strange, wonderful, 4 Oct. 2013
This review is from: La Folie Baudelaire (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Completely uncategorizable; instantly seductive; deeply factual; firmly rooted; visually rich; fleetingly illustrated; certainly dreamlike; physically detailed; utterly, utterly evocative. Read one chapter and you will be hooked. Read them all and you travel a long journey. Not like anything else you'll ever read: without a doubt, unmissable.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 25, 2013 2:48 PM BST


Derrida: A Biography
Derrida: A Biography
by Benoit Peeters
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Easy-to-enjoy biog of a 'difficult' thinker, 4 Oct. 2013
This review is from: Derrida: A Biography (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I loved this book. Benoit Peeters has chosen to write about one of the last century's most notoriously 'difficult' thinkers in a lucid, intelligent way that completely avoids the kind of opaque language that occasionally leaves you gasping in Derrida's own work.

This is a strategy that he consciously chose, after what sounds like a good deal of reflection, and for me at least it completely pays off. The book contains copious detail about Derrida's actual life (ie it is a proper biography, not just an 'intellectual' biography) and gives a wonderful flavour of Derrida's life as a young man ('Jackie', in fact).

Peeters has obviously been aided by having total access to many letters which are just infinitely readable, and he quotes big chunks on almost every page. This makes the book a real treat for lovers of Derrida's saner, more comprehensible moments. And some of it is as wonderfully unexpected as (knowing the thinker) you might expect: my favourite quote came on p.426:

"I'm more frightened of a hotel room without a television than a house without running water".

I loved how much this made me think about Derrida's relationship to culture and to his own childhood.

Wonderful book and much to be recommended.


Bleeding Edge
Bleeding Edge
by Thomas Pynchon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'old-fashioned readability' in a thoroughly modern novel, 2 Oct. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Bleeding Edge (Hardcover)
Bleeding Edge tells the story of Maxine Tarnow, former-certified-accountant-turned-fraud-investigator. Tarnow is hired by a whole series of recognisably Pynchonesque clients, in a series of possibly connected, mostly-computer-world-related, cases in a swirling Manhattan just prior to September 11 2001. And whilst you won't be surprised to learn that you never really find out 'whodunnit', the book is an EXTREMELY entertaining read.

The book begins with Maxine walking her sons to school and this domestic setting remains a constant throughout the novel - despite the Russian mobsters, dotcom billionaires, political internet activists, drug smugglers, professional smell experts, codewriters, cop fanciers and other freaks who populate the investigator's working life. (I really liked this aspect of the book - I also really loved Vineland for the father-daughter relationship, though I know it's not most people's favourite Pynchon book.)

The text is absolutely full of jokes - one of my favourites is an invented series of very US-style true-life-story films mentioned in passing: Anthony Hopkins starring in the Mikhael Baryshnikov Story, Leo di Caprio in the Fatty Arbuckle story, etc. Lots of the jokes are popular culture-based - personally I feel that a seventy-six-year-old recluse who knows as much about disco as this, let alone ALL of the other gags which require detailed knowledge of the NOW - should be getting five stars just for KNOWING about the present.

And the aspects of the book about computing are fascinating - I'd never really known what the Deep Web was before, and I found a surprising level of interest about code matters! (It actually began to remind me a little of a William Gibson book, in the sense of seeing the present / near future written down in such an enthusiastic, living way.)

The best recommendation I can give is this: people expect Pynchon to be complex, full of jokes that require specialist knowledge, and proffering a confusing cast of characters - this book is all of these things, and yet every evening I looked forward to picking it back up, and sometimes couldn't resist reading a bit in the day as well. It's got a really good, gripping story, and you 'care about the characters', for what that's worth - in other words, 'old-fashioned readability' in a thoroughly modern novel.


Go Giants
Go Giants
by Nick Laird
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "it does for me": Go Laird, 27 Sept. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Go Giants (Hardcover)
I loved this book of poems from the word "Go" - printed on the cover - and the fab poem addressing Poetry herself, placed on the flyleaf in lieu of a blurb: "One time I found you mooching round the back/of the loading dock at the meat factory"...

Just like Heaney before him, representing the earlier Northern Ireland generation, Laird aims to remind us that he knows all the classical conventions - as Heaney's "North" began with Antaeus, so Laird's volume starts with an Epithalamium. And it quickly becomes clear that the poet's been living in Rome, contemplating some of those vast legs left in the sand that populate the city: the Capitoline Museum provokes "The Mark", on the flaying of Marsyas, which quotes from Julian Barnes' memoir of his late wife whilst pondering pain in its many forms.

Laird's personal life is clearly much of his subject matter; it could be intensely tiresome for him to be so often reminded that he's related by marriage to a much-more bestselling writer, but even the tiny glimpses we might be getting of some kind of literary domestic life ("Talking In Kitchens") are so sweet that I found myself wishing I was talking in the kitchen with them, rather than resenting their happy-sounding existence. Much of the book seems interested in what place means, which also connects "North" and "Go Giants": at once intensely global and metropolitan, there are also these intimate domestic moments that you sense for Laird are completely key.

The thing I MOST love about this book is Laird's almost unbelievable ability to change tone. When you read North again AFTER this book, you go, "wow, Seamus, you really did go on and on and ON about bogs". Laird is one minute under a Spiderman duvet (he also, it's later revealed, had the matching curtains), the next discussing the immortal gods. he switches from discussing the gospels and how their interpretation affected Irish history, to talking about body shop flavoured lipbalm, it's completely fluid, and irresistible. AND he's so funny, as well as writing great poetry: it's such a plus.

There are tiny poems and really long ones, ones with tons of structure and some with hardly any, apparently: every one of them a completely distinct creation. I'm still mulling over the long poem, "Progress", about Northern Ireland, that finishes the book (24 pages long), and which definitely speaks in dialogue back to "North": lines like "our mild and violent land of the giant/ leylandii", aw, how can you not fall in love with this poet? So much to look forward to, I hope he writes poetry for the rest of my life.


The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War
The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War
by Halik Kochanski
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A different view, 9 Sept. 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is an excellent if extremely heavy (in both senses) history of Poland's role in the Second World War. It covers both the Polish situation at home, and the role that Poles played outside their native country, for example in the UK RAF. It is an absolutely keen reminder of the huge place that nation occupies in European history, really easily forgotten from our point of view here in Britain. I was motivated to read it to try and understand a bit more of the history of many of my new neighbours in London, but it also illuminated my own understanding of the war.

My only reservation actually was the astonishing length. Possibly one to buy on Kindle, if I had thought of it.


Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56
by Anne Applebaum
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars heavy duty history, 9 Sept. 2013
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I was motivated to read it to try and understand a bit more of the history of many of my new neighbours in London, but it also illuminated my own understanding of the period after the war, which I had previously only really thought about in connection to exciting novels by John le Carré. I would add that despite the author holding political views that I can only characterise as `different' from my own, I felt the subject was treated in a careful, nuanced way.

My only reservation actually was the astonishing length. It took a long, long time to read, and I think the length was actually at time offputting, despite the quality of the writing. I think that for this general reader, just occasionally, I felt it wasn't so much the crushing of Eastern Europe as the crushing of my wrist and armbones. Possibly one to buy on Kindle, if I had thought of it.


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