Noontide Toll – Romesh Gunesekera

When the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist popped/ thumped through my letterbox (kindly sent by New Writing North who run the prize) I thought that I would head to the biggest first and work my way down, literally in size. However as my trip to America gets ever nearer so does my reading for it, which is roughly eight books some of which are massive, so I decided to pick a more slender volume and grabbed Noontide Toll. I soon discovered that Romesh Gunesekera’s latest work might be slender in size yet is a book that keeps on giving and most importantly keeps making you think both whilst reading and long after.

Granta Books, 2014, paperback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by New Writing North

On the island of Sri Lanka we meet our narrator “Vasantha the van man” who, as you might have guessed from his nickname, spends his days driving around the island ferrying tourists, soldiers, business men and their colleagues or wives, ex pats, aid workers and more to their various destinations. In doing so, in what is a collection of short stories which form the novels narrative, he introduces us to all the aspects of present day Sri Lanka, it’s history, its people and also the predicament that it seems to find itself in as a place that has often been torn apart by wars and natural disasters.

‘You ok?’ I asked Chen.
‘Sure, sure.’ His head tilted, not quite as buoyant as he had been at the start. Perhaps he was too young to know any of the gruesome history of his homeland. Maybe there they don’t talk about the terrors of invasion, the herding of people, the famine, the ideological culling, the suppression of the decent. All that probably disappears in the harmonious joy of economic development. At least that’s the idea, I think.

I have to admit that reading Noontide Toll had a slightly shaming effect on me whilst being utterly fascinating, sometimes grimly so. Despite having some friends from the country I had absolutely no idea, other than the Boxing Day Tsunami, what turmoil the country had been through. As Vasantha drives through both the North and the South (which is also how the book is divided in parts as well as stories) we meet the landscape and people who have been scarred by the historical tumultuous past. Old mansions which if haven’t been blown up or destroyed have been ransacked for anything or worth, wrecked ships that have now become the backdrop to music videos. Hotel managers who can throw bottles at rats with such precision you know they have had to defend themselves, people whose grief at losing a family is etched on their faces and yet manage to stay positive on the lookout for turtles laying eggs at sunset.

Whether you know the whole history or not one of the most intriguing things which Vasantha notes when he is with any client, is that his homeland is now free of war yet is struggling in a whole new way as it tries to reclaim itself as a country and with other countries around the world. In some aspects, like with The Weightless World which I discussed a while ago, it is trying to work out what its place and its worth is within the economic worlds (be it tourism or business and trade) of both the West and Asia. It is also a country that is trying to decide what to do with its history; should it embrace it and own it or should it erase any sight of it? Can we really simply remember and move on? What is also somewhat unsettling is that it seems that those who live there are both wary and befuddled by their own homeland being a place of peace can it really last?

I asked the soldier whether I could park the van around the side. He shrugged. In the military I thought one had to be more decisive and heroic, but perhaps that was further up the chain of command and only in times of real conflict. Peace has made us all dozy, I guess. Even the crickets were muffled.

If this all sounds very serious, rather maudlin and a little heavy going, I promise you it is not. With the structure of this book Gunesekera gives you these wonderful intense vignettes from Vasantha that you can read as a single short standalone story in itself or indeed read a few as you are utterly charmed by Vasantha and some of the characters that he meets along the way and interweave creating a patchwork of views and insights into all walks of life from all over the place which form this incredibly complex world yet all in bite size portions which really entertain you whilst leaving lingering, occasionally unsettling, thoughts in your mind.

I found Vasantha a really interesting character. By the end of Noontide Toll you are utterly charmed by him and yet he remains something of an enigma. He gives you insight into the history of Sri Lanka and the lives of those in his van, yet bar the occasional titbit keeps himself something of a mystery. I wondered if this was because Gunesekera wanted him to literally be a vehicle for the reader, or if we were meant to feel like one of his clients on a long road trip around the island being told the tales of previous clients yet never themselves, as is the case often when you go aboard and have a driver. That slight customer and contractor relationship which is intimate yet distant all at once.

I think Vasantha is a marvellous creation and a brilliant character. He embodied everything l  admired so much about Gunesekera’s colourful and vivid writing. As you go along his humour and (mainly) joyful wonder of everything around him is a delight. He always knows just when to tell you something funny amongst it all, one of my favourite moments which I think sums him up is when he describes a lighthouse as a naughty beacon of the south, perfect. I was completely charmed by him and his narration as we drove around and often felt his musings about life were very much like mine and in particular my thoughts on why we read.

I like to know about the world beyond our shores. About faraway countries where people behave differently. I like to hear about their food and customs. How they deal with the cold and the rain. What it is like to drive on the other side of the road. I like to take foreign tourists around because it gives me a glimpse of a place that is different in touch, taste, smell, sound and look, from the place I am stuck in. I watch how they sit, how they walk, how they talk, and I try to see what they want to escape from and return to. They are not all driven by the desire for sex in new places. Some want to know our history and our culture and what makes us live the way we do. So do I.

I am not sure I would have read Noontide Toll if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, as I have  to admit I hadn’t heard of it until then, so I am very grateful that it has. It is a wonderfully narrated and intricately detailed tale of a country its history and its people, by the end I felt Gunesekera had educated me with writing of delicacy, wit and slight horror. It is also a book that will remind you why we read and why we should read as widely as we can to experience and learn through other people’s eyes. I would highly recommend giving it a read.

Have any of you read Noontide Toll or any of Gunesekera’s other novels? I have that lovely feeling you get when you discover a new-to-you writer where you want to run off and get your hands on everything else that they have written.

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Filed under Gordon Burn Prize, Granta Books, Review, Romesh Gunesekera

Other People’s Bookshelves #70 – Thomas Otto

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week, for the (fanfare) 70th post in the series we are going through the shelves of a very special guest, Thomas Otto. Thomas is not only my co-host on The Readers but he is also one of my best bookish buddies and someone I have known since my blogging began, or at least it feels like that. So we head to Washington D.C where he doesn’t just have shelves but an entire library, one which I will be having a gander at in four weeks when I spend a few days in DC after Thomas and I go on a road trip around America to Booktopia MI. So let’s all grab on of John’s pina colada’s, give Lucy a pat and find out more about Thomas and his books.

A puppeteer and demolitions expert by day, Thomas Otto has been blogging since 2006. Okay part of that first sentence is true, I will leave it up to Simon’s readers to figure out which part. But seriously, I live in Washington, DC with my husband John and our dog Lucy. I blog about bookish stuff at Hogglestock.com (formerly My Porch), and I co-host a bookish podcast with some guy in England.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

My reasons for keeping books aren’t very straight forward. The only thing that is a constant is I don’t keep books I don’t like and I keep books I like. I know that sounds straight forward but there is a middle ground of books I am somewhat ambivalent about that fall under other criteria that aren’t always the same. At some point, if I need to start getting rid of books, I will probably keep stuff that is harder to find because they have been long out of fashion. I hate the thought of those books disappearing. Lately I’ve been thinking of my will. My collection may not fetch much money but I want it to go to someone who will appreciate some of the oddities I have rather than having my next of kin pulping them when they find out they aren’t worth anything.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

With a few exceptions, all of my fiction is organized alphabetically by author and then chronologically by title. I used to have my TBR on separate shelves, but since we moved back into the house after the renovations I have mixed them with everything else. I can’t bring myself to break up my Persephones into alpha order, so they are all together as are my collection of Melville House novellas and those little old Oxford World Classics that can fit in your pocket. My nonfiction is roughly divided into memoirs/letters, books on books and literature, books on music, books on England, etc. One day I will organize John’s collection of garden books, but for now they are grouped rather higgedly-piggedly.

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I also ‘face’ my shelves. That is, I make sure all the spines are lined up at, or near, the edge of the shelf. It drives me bananas when they are pushed to the back of the shelf and the spines of the various sized books are uneven. I should also note that I got to customize the dimensions of my shelves and I made them shallower than the typical bookshelf which I find far deeper than what I need for fiction.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

One of Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe books, but I don’t remember which one. It may have been Ordinary Jack which is the first in that series. My copy of it disappeared over 30 years ago, but oddly enough I just bought it on my recent trip to Powell’s Books in Portland. There was a small, very short-lived bookshop in my hometown when I was a kid. For some reason I bought the Cresswell and was wildly confused by all of the Britishisms in it that I didn’t even realize were Britishisms at the time. I guess even then I was an Anglophile.

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Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

Although I don’t feel any guilt about them, I think that the non-Buncle D.E. Stevenson novels probably fit this category. They are overly twee, chaste romances that are not very well written, and some of the 1970s paperback versions are definitely embarrassing to be seen reading in public. I also have most of Nevil Shute’s novels. He tells great stories but his prose can be a little embarrassing. Still, I never feel guilt when I read them, only pleasure, and they both hold pride of place with the rest of my fiction collection.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

Many of the books on my shelves are not expensive but they are hard to come by, so it is hard to think of which one I would save in a fire. There is a whole class of books on my shelves that fit that category. However, if I had to choose just one I would have to go with a limited edition of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Not only is Lewis one of my favourite authors but this edition has colour illustrations by Grant Wood and is numbered and signed by the artist. It was also an insanely thoughtful gift from my husband.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

Although my parent’s read quite a bit, there really wasn’t a bookshelf, it was more of a library existence for us in those days. The first adult book I read was Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. I was far too young to read it but that didn’t seem to bother anyone even though my mother and older sister read it first.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I haven’t borrowed a book in many years, but if I did and loved the book, I would definitely buy my own copy.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I just bought 61 books at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, but they are being shipped so I haven’t added them to my shelves yet. I did, however, recently add Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. I have never read her so I hope I like it.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

I still need to find about 20 D.E. Stevenson novels as well as more R.C. Sheriff and Richmal Crompton.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

Unless they have tastes similar to mine I think their eyes would cross as they tried to find books or authors they recognized.

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A huge thanks to Thomas for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. I am beyond excited about heading over to the US to see him and go on our road trip, I am counting down the days. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Thomas’ responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

There is a sad truth that sometimes it can take the death of an author to remind you that you have always meant to read them. This was very much the case when Maya Angelou died last year and I was reminded that I had still not attempted to read any of her many volumes of autobiography. These books also happen to be some of my mother’s favourite books and on many occasion she has told me I really must read. So when I saw the first four of them pristine in a charity shop last autumn I snapped them up, it took my friend Rachael choosing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for book group earlier this year for me to finally get around to reading it.

Virago Books, 1984, paperback, memoir, 320 pages, kindly bought by me for me

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers the first year of Maya Angelou’s life, opening in the small segregated town of Stamps we soon learn that Maya and her brother were sent there to live with family after their parents marriage failed. What breaks your heart early on, and indeed sets a tone to this memoir, is the fact that they had tag attached to them labelled ‘To whom it may concern.’ The landscape and times of Maya’s childhood are not easy. Whilst Stamps is segregated that doesn’t mean that it is safe from racism or other evils of the world and nor is living with her grandmother really an exactly happy or enriching experience especially once she is sent away again to live with her mother having only just got used to almost calling one place home.

In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.
I remember never believing that whites were really real.

From here things swiftly go downhill as Maya where she is sexually abused by her mother’s partner and once this is discovered he is soon found dead having been murdered, Maya becomes a mute. What then follows from here is a tale of how a young woman who has already faced so much difficulty must not only try to make her way with that mental and physical scaring, but also in a world set against her firstly because she is black and secondly because she is female.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
It is an unnecessary insult.

There were several things that I found fascinating about I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. First and foremost was its look at the plight of black people during a horrendous time in America’s history, though scarily you see moments of the past in the present when you watch the news, when racial tensions were incredibly heightened. Black people were simply considered second rate, if that, and what adds such an impact to Angelou’s writing is that everything she encounters is fact not fiction. Big moments such as having to help hide her uncle from the Klu Klux Klan, how an employee of hers simply changes her name to Mary (partly because it is easier but also because it is whiter) to smaller yet just as awful moments like simply being unable to see a dentist when she has toothache as he only deals with white girls. Yet amongst all this, we read, there remainded hope.

Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas. Some of the men went behind the Store and poured white lightening in their soft-drink bottles, and a few of the bigger boys followed them. Those who were not chased away came back blowing their breath in front of themselves like proud smokers.

 As I read on I both admired Angelou for the things she accomplished (which I will not spoil) before she even turns twenty, as the book ends when she is seventeen, and also because of all the things she encompasses in writing  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings later in her life. It is interesting that in some ways you get the older and younger writer all at once, if that makes sense. I found her honesty, forgiveness, humour and acceptance both humbling and fascinating. I also found her passion for literature wonderful (there was a bit about The Well of Loneliness which I found very funny) and I loved how she talked about and looked at class, family and identity.

Bailey persisted in calling her Mother Dear until the circumstance of proximity softened the phrase’s formality to ‘Muh Dear,’ and finally to ‘M’Deah.’ I could never put my finger on her realness. She was so pretty and so quick that even when she had just awakened, her eyes full of sleep and hair tousled, I thought she looked just like the Virgin Mary. But what mother and daughter understand each other, or even have the sympathy for each other’s lack of understanding?

There is a small but for me, my mother will be reading this and raising an eyebrow sorry Mum, which that is that I actually wish I had read it back in my teens. Whilst I totally understood it is an incredibly important piece of work, one which should frankly be on the syllabus around the world especially in the US and UK, I did feel that coming to it now it did have a slight less impact that I wanted it to. This might be because so many people have told me how fantastic and important it is, which can add a lot of hype and pressure to a book, yet I think it is because I have read a lot of other works that look at this time period and the horrendousness of it all, albeit through fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that you only have to have read a few books on a subject to understand it (far from it, on some parts of history we can never know enough no matter how difficult) and you can’t really compare fiction to fact. I was often very moved by the book; I just didn’t really gel with it until about two thirds/three quarters of the way through, I wondered if this was because Maya’s memories of her early childhood might not be as strong until her early teens and hence why sometimes I felt rather distant and confused with what was going on. However as Maya grew up and became more independent, I became hooked and was very disappointed when it then soon ended, meaning I will have to get to the second in due course. I have a feeling the further I read on with Maya Angelou and her story the more and more effect it will have on me.

What I found interesting was that Tracy, Rachael and Barbara, who I am in my book group with, all felt very similar. Have you read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and what did you make of it? Have your read the following six volumes and how was your journey, no spoilers, with Maya as you went on? Do you think how old we are, or where we are in our life affects the responses we have to books along with what we have read before?

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Filed under Maya Angelou, Non Fiction, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

Significance – Jo Mazelis

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging  Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last six weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week alongside the team at Fiction Uncovered. In the penultimate week this week it is all about Jo Mazelis’  novel Significance which is quite unlike any literary crime novel that I have read before, seriously.

Seren Books, 2014 (2015 edition), paperback, fiction, 472 pages, kindly sunbmitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Lucy Swann has run away. She has fled the life she had in Britain to start a new life with no attachments and no history. She has dyed her hair, bought new clothes and changed her image. What we the reader want to know of course is why. What the people in the Northern French town she comes to stay in want to know is who on earth this mysterious woman travelling alone is. Yet just as we, and they, are beginning to get some insight into Lucy (we the old Lucy, they the new invention) she is brutally murdered. Inspector Vivier and his assistant Sabine Pelat are called to investigate and as they do they begin to learn not only more about Lucy but about all the people in the town she ended up in.

Lucy orders a bottle of vin rouge. Madame Gallo watches her from behind the bar, she is middle aged, but her face is still pretty, her hair dark and glossy. She dresses well. Looks exactly right for the part. As does Lucy, who is a runaway in the disguise of a confident young woman with money and credit cards and expensive clothes.

So far admittedly it sounds very like many a murder mystery or thriller you might have read before. However the murder and indeed the murderer and their motive are really the background of the book, whilst remaining the driving force of the novel. I know this sounds somewhat bonkers so let me explain, without giving anything away of course. In the lead up to, and indeed after, the murder of Lucy Swann we not only get insight into her life, we also get insight into all the people that she interacts with even if it just be a random bumping into in the street. Slowly but surely Mazelis spins us into a web of the stories of many of the people in the towns and what their relationships are and what it going on behind closed doors.

Florian looked at Suzette; three weeks ago she had invited him back to her flat. They had drunk tequila together, biting into oranges between shots instead of limes. He had not expected her to suddenly kiss him, but she did. And had wordlessly taken his hand and drawn him into her bedroom. But in the morning he’d had to get up early and was slightly hung-over. She hadn’t given him her number. He hadn’t asked, nor given her his. It was his mother’s birthday so he’d gone to dinner that evening, though he’d really wanted to see Suzette again. The night after that he’d gone to the bar to see her, but it was her day off. Then, for some reason or another, he couldn’t get to the bar for another three days, and the next time he tried she was again not working. More than a week had passed before he finally saw her at the bar, but it was unusually busy and Jaques was in a foul temper. When Florian caught her eye Suzette barely looked at him. He took the hint and left after just one drink.

I loved this element to the novel as we really get into the lives of a whole cast of characters with many mini stories or vignettes interweaving around the main one. This I found gives Significance additional depths to a simple ‘whodunnit’ or ‘whydunnit’ as it shows the secrets that the victim of murder has, how the murder effects a town brimming with secrets and whose secrets and relationships are significant to each other and the murder. It is rather like Mazelis has taken a box filled with all the crime novel/thriller tropes and really shaken it up to see what can be done outside the box. Have I gone too far with that metaphor? Maybe, but it is true none the less. I think I also loved it because I am quite a nosey person, which I think all readers are to an extent as why would be want to read about so many other people’s fictional lives, and this gives you a chance to have a really good route around into a whole host of characters lives. I found the stories of Suzette the bar maid, Joseph a young black soon to be medical student and Marilyn and Scott holidaying with his younger autistic brother to give his parents a break as interesting and poignant as Lucy’s.

There is also a much deeper level to the novel that just an enthralling and entertaining, and it should be said beautifully written (you can tell Mazelis is a poet, the writing is lyrical yet has real pace) and crafted, read. From the title you would imagine that the novel is about the significance of a murder and of course it is, yet it is also about many other significances; the significance we give ourselves and others, the significance we are given, the significance of tiny details or moments and how they can change everything. It is also a book that is very much about perception, the things we notice and the things that we don’t. I was reminded a lot of this novel when I was reading Melanie Finn’s Shame which has been shortlisted for the Not The Booker which is also a sinister tale which unravels in all directions, changes perspectives and expectations as it goes.

It is dark when she leaves the hotel. A boy is standing on the edge of the pavement across the road. Lucy has the curious sensation that she passed him earlier – hours earlier, when it was still light, although the shadows had been lengthening.

I think Jo Mazelis has created something quite unique with Significance. Not only has she created a tense (occasionally quite sinister and gothic) literary thriller, she has also created a novel where the murder is really the back story and the human nature of a collection of people in one town and how their lives and their little actions can create a turn of events. It is a novel that will have you guessing and as Poirot, or Agatha Christie really, said it is a novel where those “grey cells, sometimes they work even better in the dark”, mine certainly did and not just about murder but a whole host of societal issues.

I would love to know if any of you have read Significance and what you thought of it. I would also be really keen to hear if you have read any of Jo Mazelis (who also writes as Jo Hughes) other works for there are lots of them, short stories, novels and non-fiction, do let me know.

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Filed under Fiction Uncovered, Jo Mazelis, Review, Seren Books

Your Thoughts; Board Games, Stationery & Incoming Books

I have been thinking about bringing some new posts to Savidge Reads, and indeed bringing some old posts back, so have been pondering them all. I then thought ‘hang on, who better to ask for some feedback on all this than those lovely folk who visit the blog’ and so that is what I am doing, I know I am like Sherlock in my deducing of problems, ha!

So, first up new ideas. One of them I have been thinking about for a while and it involves stationery. I have been a huge fan of stationery since time began, well since I was about eight or nine. I can spend hours and hours, and often have, in a Paperchase and am always hankering after a notebook fix. Myself and the lovely Kate of Adventures with Words, did try and start a blog on stationery alone back in 2014. I was rubbish, Kate was brilliant, we both got crazy busy. Well I am thinking of bringing the occasional stationery post to Savidge Reads as in general if you love a good book you love a good notebook… or twelve. What do you think?

The next new idea has a much less booky link and I have to admit I hadn’t thought of doing until I had an email this morning. The email was asking if I would like to review the occasional board game or two. Now admittedly I don’t play them often but I do love a board game and as the nights draw in and you long to sit in front of a fire of an evening (even when you don’t have one like me, weeps) sometimes you want to actually spend some time being social rather than having your face in a book. I know, it sounds crazy but it’s true. Well there are only so many more episodes of The Good Wife, which I am obsessed with, that I have left to watch and I used to love Monopoly, Cluedo, The Gunge Game, etc. So I am thinking about it, it could be fun every now and again?

Clacts-10-Best-Learning-Board-Games-For-Kids

Finally I am pondering whether I should bring back my incoming posts. Not everything that comes in to Savidge Reads, that would be bonkers and with so many unsolicited (and sometimes totally inappropriate) copies of books coming here it might make my fingers bleed. I am talking about the highlights, some books that you might want to check out in the forthcoming weeks and months. I love nosing at what other people get copies of, but it can seem show offy. Maybe there is another way I could do it? Could I consider bringing back some embedded vlogging?

I would love your thoughts on these, bringing back the old or keeping the new. Feel free to shout ‘what the hell are you thinking of Simon, the blog is Savidge Reads not Savidge Stationery or Savidge Games – what next from board games to yawn tastic ‘gaming’ on the computer and telling us all about that or maybe you’ll just start with a weekly post about kittens? ‘ or want to yell ‘Book blogs should be just that and nothing else, think on sunshine!’  I would also love to know if you have anything you would like to suggest for a new series of posts or any other feedback, like get on with commenting back (which is my next ‘thing’ over the next week) or things you don’t like on the blog, only the later if you put it nicely – ha! As always any feedback and thoughts on my thoughts are welcome. Blimey, that was only meant to be a short post.

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A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Back in May I spent a bank holiday weekend in tears. That is because I spent the three day break (which I still don’t understand why we have several times a year, yet obviously embrace) reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Though saying that you read a book like A Little Life I actually think does it a disservice as it is one of those all encompassing books that you live through. It is rare that a book as it ends leaves you feeling a somewhat changed person to the one who started it, that is what happened to me and is probably why this will be one of my all time reads.

Picador Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 736 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A Little Life is one of those books that slightly fool you from the start. As it opens it seems to be the tale of four men who become friends in college, we watch as they struggle (well three of them do) to make successful lives in New York; Willem as an actor, JB as a photographer, Malcolm as an architect and Jude as a lawyer.  Initially the novel traces how the four men meet, how their friendship develops and then how their lives and careers in the big smoke unfold. If you are thinking ‘oh right, it is another of those New York novels about successful men’ whilst rolling your eyes, you would be wrong as Yanagihara weaves in various question marks about all of these men and the darker parts of their personalities and pasts, particularly into the unknown and almost mysterious psyche of Jude who never gives anything away, not even snippets, of his youth.

His feelings for Jude were complicated. He loved him – that part was simple – and feared for him, and sometimes felt as much his older brother and protector as his friend. He knew that Jude would be and had been fine without him, but he sometimes saw things in Jude that disturbed him and made him feel both helpless and, paradoxically, more determined to help him (although Jude rarely asked for help of any kind.) They all loved Jude, and admired him, but he often felt that Jude had let him see a little more of him – just a little – than he had shown the others, and he was unsure what he was supposed to do with that knowledge.

It is Jude who fairly soon becomes the focus as the novel and it is here that A Little Life starts to take its, now infamous, darker turns. Without giving too much away, and I think it has been discussed quite a lot all over the shop, we look into his background, the horrendous abuse that he endured and the physical and mental scars it has left and which he is still dealing with now. How does someone cope with having been abandoned and then physically and sexually abused? How does someone make a success of their lives after that? How do they survive? These are some of the many questions that Yanagihara asks and some of the answers are not comfortable ones. For example in order to escape the almost constant pain, Jude often (to the horror of those who know about it; Willem, Jude’s physician Andy and his mentor Harold) uses the release of self harm. Yes it makes for disturbing reading, yet I have never understood the psychology behind it before as I have reading this.

Jude shrugged, and Willem felt his annoyance quicken into anger. Here Jude sat after what was, he could now admit, a terrifying night, acting as if nothing had happened, even as his bandage-wrapped hand lay uselessly on the table. He was about to speak when Jude put down the water glass he’d been using as a pastry cutter and looked at him. “I’m really sorry, Willem,” he said, so softly that Willem almost couldn’t hear him. He saw Willem looking at his hand and pulled it into his lap. “I should never -” He paused. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me.”

Yet this is one of the things that Yanagihara seems to want to look at. Her writing, whilst admittedly (and she has said intentionally) making everything a little extreme, has an honesty about the things we like to talk about and also the things that we don’t which I found impressive and often heartbreaking because we have all felt or thought these things. “I’m lonely,” he says aloud, and the silence of the apartment absorbs the words like blood soaking into cotton. And there is so much Yanagihara looks at; pleasure vs. pain, success vs. failure, love vs. hate. She also looks at how society has expectations for us from birth; we should all be able to endure anything, we should all want success and riches, we should all have the best relationships possible of all kinds, we should all love sex, we should be grateful to be alive, we should all be survivors. But what if we don’t, are we failures, and are we not truly ‘human’ if we are not conventional in all ways? I could talk about the thoughts and questions A Little Life gave me for days and days.

If you are thinking that this sounds like the most miserable, upsetting, confronting and disturbing novel you are going to read, you would be wrong. Yes there are a lot of moments where it will leave you bereft and broken; however it is also a novel of incredible hope, especially in the testament of friendship and the power of love. I cried as many times through happiness as I did sadness, I laughed as much as I gasped or winced in horror. In some ways there is a fairy tale like quality to A Little Life both in its sense of timelessness, the way it has it’s goodies (Willem is now my idea of a contemporary Prince Charming if ever there was one) and baddies (Caleb and Brother Luke will make your skin crawl) and also in its believe in the goodness of many over the wickedness of some and the power/magic there is in love in all its forms.

“All I want,” he’d said to Jude one night, trying to explain the satisfaction that at that moment was burbling inside him, like water in a bright blue kettle, “is work I enjoy, and a place to live, and someone who loves me. See? Simple.”

Someone asked me the other day, after I had recommended that they read it, why on earth it had to be so long? Good question, why couldn’t Yanagihara have made it 500 or even 350 pages long instead of over 700? My answer is simply that you have to get completely immersed into these lives in order for the book to have the incredible emotive, happy and sad, effects that it does. By the end of the novel you will feel you have made friends and lost them, you will have felt like you have endured their happiness and their pain, you will feel you have lived a little of other people’s lives and been subconsciously made to reflect on your own.

I am going to urge everyone I know to read A Little Life. It is a novel that looks at love, friendship, loss, pleasure, pain, hope, survival, failure and success. It is a book about class, disability, sexuality and race. Overall it is a book about what it means to be a human. It’s amazing, it is also brutal. Like I said back at the beginning of this post, A Little Life is not just a book you read through, it is a book that you experience and live through. Without a doubt this will be my book of the year, if not my book of the decade, something about it (and Jude and Willem) will stay with me for many, many years to come. I am changed a little, something only the rarest and most moving and thought provoking books can do. Get it, read it, then talk to me about it.

If you would like to hear more about A Little Life from Hanya Yanagihara, you can hear her in conversation with me on the latest You Wrote The Book. If you have read A Little Life I would love to know and hear your thoughts on it and the affects it had on you, whatever they were. I think it’s clear this is a book I could talk about all day, this review took fifteen edits, I kid you not! I would also love to know if any of you have read Hanya’s debut The People in the Tree’s which I have and want to read right now and yet want to save, as it may be a while before we get the next Yanagihara novel.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hanya Yanagihara, Picador Books, Review

Other People’s Bookshelves #69 – Thom Cuell

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in the wonderful town of Buxton to join blogger, writer, publisher, all round good guy and complete book addict Thom Cuell. If you don’t have the Workshy Fop bookmarked as a favourite then you should. Before we have a rummage through all of his shelves, lets all settle down on her lovely sofa’s, grab a glass of spa water and find out more about him.

(I hate writing bio’s in the third person, so here goes) – I’m a book reviewer and essay writer, and my writing has appeared on websites including 3am Magazine, The Weeklings and The Literateur, as well as the blog Workshy Fop, the website I began in 2007. I also co-host a literary salon in London, for authors, reviewers and publishers, and my latest venture is the indie press Dodo Ink, which will be publishing exciting and innovative new writing, launching in 2016. I have an MA in English and American Literature from the University of Manchester, and I live in Buxton with my daughter Gaia. My favourite novels include Great Apes by Will Self, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and Zone by Mathias Enard, and I’ve recently fallen for Nell Zink in a big way. I am also one of the founders of new imprint Dodo Ink which will be launching in 2016, with three original novels. You can be part of it by donating to The Grand Dodo Ink Kickstarter here.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

I’m a terrible hoarder, so yes, most books do end up on my shelves after I’ve read them! My main ambition for old age is to have a study lined with books from floor to ceiling, so I’m making a start already (I wish I had that sense of forward planning when it came to finances – maybe my collection can become my pension. Wishful thinking?). But space is quite limited, and the shelves are constantly overflowing, so I tend to do a monthly sweep where I try to find at least a bagful which can go to charity shops…

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Before I give my answer, my favourite ever reply to that question was from someone on Twitter who said that they organised their books ‘in ascending order of threat to national security’. My shelves are colour coded – I think I first sorted them that way about 5 years ago, and have kept it in four different flats now. I’ve tried different things before, like by publisher or subject, but I prefer the look of colour coding. The main thing is that I’ve always been opposed to alphabetical order. Sam (Mills, author and co-director of Dodo Ink) has a habit of wandering off with my books, so I don’t want to make it any easier for her to find what she’s looking for…  The downside is that I have found myself thinking ‘I could do with more red books to fill a shelf’. And the ever-expanding TBR pile is currently on the floor, awaiting the arrival of more shelving.

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

I have no idea! I can tell you my first record (Mis-shapes by Pulp), but no memory of what the first book would have been. However, I do have a huge storage container full of books from when my parents moved house about 10 years ago, so it is almost certainly in there, going mouldy, whatever it was.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

No, no shame! At some point I might have to hide some of the Victorian filth away I suppose, for practical reasons. (One disclaimer – the Shirley Conran book is Sam’s!)

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

The piles of books probably make my flat a massive fire hazard, so this question is quite worrying… I don’t tend to get into big emotional connections with specific books – the words in them, yes, but not the physical entity. There are a few I’d be sad to lose though – a Left Book Club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, which my dad bought me, and my paperback copy of The Quiddity of Will Self, which is full of crossings out and notes from when Sam used it in a reading. And there are two more, which I’ll talk about in the next question.

What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

I was always surrounded by books when I was growing up, and I was never told that any of them were off limits. I think the first ‘adult’ books might have been some of Roald Dahl’s horror stories, which I borrowed from my junior school library – I had a bash at A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovic when I was 10 or 11 as well. From my parents’ shelves, there are a few that stick in my mind: American Psycho and Trainspotting, both of which I read, and are now on my shelves (I got both copies signed by the authors too), and also A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, which I never read at the time, but have bought and read since.

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If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I do prefer to have my own copy, yes – just in case I ever have to refer to them for any reason (I’m always dreaming up elaborate research projects). I normally wait to see if I can find them in charity shops though.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

I was in Southport this weekend, which turned out to be secondhand book heaven – especially Broadhurst Books (note – this was the book shop Granny Savidge used to spend her weekends reading in as a little girl). By the time I got to the third floor there, I was testing the patience of a six year old who had been promised a trip to the beach, so I didn’t get to explore as much as I’d have liked, but I did come away with Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson – a 1980s crime novel involving anarcho-feminist communes. I’ve been getting very into The Women’s Press recently – they published some stunning novels which are often out of print now – so I’m really excited about this one.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Ah, there are always more books! One that I’ve always wanted, but which comes with a hefty price tag, is Il Settimo Splendore by Girogio Cortenova, the catalogue from an exhibition I went to see in Verona in 2004. And there are loads which I do own, but are buried in storage when they should be on my shelves – In Search of the Pleasure Palace by Marc Almond is one, and my collection of Attack! books, a short-lived imprint created by sadly deceased NME journalist Steven Wells, which specialised in highly offensive gonzo thrillers.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

Probably that I am a mad pervert! I’d like to think that it shows a wide-ranging set of interests…

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A huge thanks to Thom for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forget if you would like to be part of helping set up an new publishing imprint, you can help kickstart Dodo Ink here – backers can receive rewards including bookmarks, signed books and invitations to launch parties. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Thom’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?

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