Tuesday, 26 March 2013

choosing a BOOK

I am always very tense to the point of being frightened at the dentist and usually there is nothing I can do to distract myself from that. But one day, trembling in the waiting room chair I forced myself to  look at a newspaper, left on the chair beside me and folded open to a page of book reviews.  The lead article was about the 'humble little book' that had taken New York book stores by surprise. 

And that's how I discovered the  No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, by Alexander McCall Smith. I was able to get the first two books in the series then, and we are now up to No.13.  I buy them all and have a special book shelf for them.  I love the stories of Precious Ramotswe in Botswana,  and I love the story telling style that is sweet and simple, often seeming to state the obvious by our 'sophisticated' standards, but in the search for understanding why people do the things they do, it is just right. Alexander McCall Smith is a philosopher and that is the approach he takes to writing. And yes, there is a TV series now, and while it's a little different to the books, it follows the same stories and is lovely to watch.  These books show a simple world, like going back to the 1950's, and create a place to visit, escape to and hide. 

Alexander McCall Smith writes several series of episodic novels, though I've only ventured into two of them. The Isabel Dalhousie books, Sunday Philosophy Club, is one series, and 44 Scotland Street is the other. 
I like the Scotland Street stories which follow the lives of a group of people who all lived in the same building, at 44 Scotland Street, Edinburgh, in the first book, and though several have since moved out they still appear.  Bertie, the six year old saxophone player with an eccentric mother, and Cyril, the dog of an artist whose best friend lives at number 44, are my favourite characters but I won't spoil it further for those who would like to read the books.  My only complaint is that these books are too short, can be read in a weekend and then I have to wait a year or so for the next one.

Some book discoveries remain very clear in my mind. One winter morning back in 1967, I was on my way through Taylor Square in Darlinghurst, Sydney - to catch a bus to the city. On the corner, where the Bird Cage Nightclub used to be was a news stand. A man set it up in the very early hours of the morning, with folding tables and stands, and took it down before the night life began. On this particular morning he had new books on display and I reached for an interesting title and bought it.  He asked me to let him know if it was any good. I'd never heard of it before but it turned out I'd chosen a book that is often cited as one of the great literary works of the twentieth century.  It was Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.  Yes, it's been made into a movie, but I think it's easier to follow the movie if you've read the book first.

Two other favourite books came from reviews in the Women's Weekly. The Life of Pi was one. I had heard of it before, then after reading the review I bought it - I prefer to buy books rather than borrow them, probably so I can keep the ones that are really special.  I know it's unfair to the author, as they only earn from sales of new books, but many of mine are second hand. I kept Life of Pi.  

The other one was called Started Early, Took My Dog.  Again, I liked the title. The book cover says it's Kate Atkinson's best work to date!  Well, I'm sold.  It was hard going to start with but  once I was in tune with her writing style I found I really enjoyed the story, the characters, the little asides, the sudden switches from one scene/person to the next. I soon discovered this was the last book in a series of four, so I went online and ordered the first three, from different sellers and they didn't arrive in order so I had to wait until I had number one.  But, what a luxury!  I had four books in a series I really enjoyed and I got to read them like one very long novel. Though, the fourth title later became a disappointment because the dog who gets to start early with Jackson Brodie, described as an unlikely but utterly addictive detective and I agree,  is not actually his dog.  I soon went into Kate's other novels, also good, but the Jackson Brodie books are the best. 

Another source of recommendations is TV, in particular The First Tuesday Book Club, hosted by Jennifer Byrne - renamed 'Book Club' for 2013 - I suppose so it doesn't limit them to Tuesday.  As well as new books I've been encouraged to revisit ones I've read before and older books I might never have thought to read.  I have a list from the Book Club that I want to read one day.  The Light Between Oceans by M.L.Stedman is one of those, as is Gilgamesh by Joan London.  I'll wait until I find preloved copies at a good price. In the meantime I have revisited Catcher in the Rye and The Selfish Giant and have discovered new books, and some I've enjoyed a lot, like The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak, which I was put off reading until this cover came out - and just last month,  Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally. He writes about two sisters, from a dairy farm in NSW, who trained as nurses and went overseas during WWI, to nurse the wounded at Gallipoli and in France. Two of my grandmother's sisters, my Great Auntie Ada and Great Auntie Claire, from a dairy farm in NSW, went to France as nurses during WWI - one drove an ambulance.  Not the same story, of course, but details of their lives and events are a little more real to me now.

Sometimes it's fun to read books with other people.  My mother in law borrows 40 books at a time from the library. We've both enjoyed all the Jennifer Chiaverini novels in the Elm Creek Quilts series and they have given us something to day dream about. My favourite is The Runaway Quilt which dips into history, touching on the use of quilts and quilt patterns as signals for runaway slaves.  Then my niece had an Amish period and we shared and swopped Amish novels, mostly in series of three and mostly love stories.  They were relaxing to read and fun to talk about.  I was inspired to read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, after watching the min-series.  It was disappointing that the book is so different in several areas and I think the screen writers did a wonderful job on the story, making it much more interesting.   
Finding books can be an adventure in itself.  Recently my lovely friend Mel, who lived with us as a school girl back in 1989, mentioned she was reading a book called Der Hals der Giraffe. I translated that as The Neck of the Giraffe and found the title, written by Francis Hitching, about missing links in the theories of Charles Darwin, that is transitional links between supposedly evolved species.  As we'd been discussing exactly this subject at home that week I ordered a copy. It was actually out of print, but plenty of second hands available.  Excitedly I emailed Mel in Germany and said, 'We are reading the same book'.  Mel replied, saying she didn't realise Judith Schalansky's novel had been translated into English. Hmmmm. I looked again and this time translating a whole web page, instead of just the title, found that Judith Schalansky wrote a book called The Giraffe's Neck about a biology teacher fighting to adhere to the laws of nature, straining her neck while eating forbidden fruit and eventually losing faith in her personal God, Darwin.  Hmmmm.  Maybe not exactly the same book.  Babel Fish strikes again!  

Second hand shops and fete stalls are great places to find books and the most exciting as you can often get lots and lots of books for a few dollars.  I get carried away and end up with books we never look at and which we donate to the next fundraiser.  Last year I packed up a box of books for a school stall, including The Living Planet by David Attenborough.  On the night of the fete I was with my son and his girlfriend, also Mel. She browsed through the book stall, picked out a few to buy and held one out to show me.  "I wonder if this is real", she said holding the book open at the title page. There was a signature -  David Attenborough, it said.  I looked at the cover and it was the book I'd donated, that I'd bought second hand and had been on our shelf at home for at least five years!  Of course we paid the 50c for it. Mel has it on her book shelf now and she recorded the event with a photo layout.

Famous people are often asked what books sit on their bedside table.  As I don't read in bed I can't answer that except to say I think I have a book on patchwork and quilting there, but my husband, Rory, has some favourites that come and go -  a variety of Bill Bryson and Lee Strobel books, plus Sherlock Holmes, Red Dwarf and a huge book on creation. Rory reads books that are given to him or recommended by friends, so doesn't often choose a book unless he is following a particular author or series. He has collected the James Bond novels and books by Wilbur Smith.

My book pile is in the dining room and on the top is How can I use Herbs in my Daily Life? by Isabell Shipard, who lives locally. I am no expert on herbs which is why this book it always on the top. I'm actually more interested in the medicinal qualities of herbs than how to grow them but that should come, I hope.  I my pile to read is Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, Dubliners by James Joyce (I love short stories and my son lived in Dublin last year so...), a P.G. Wodehouse novel, The Girl in Blue, various books on writing and the English language like Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue,  plus patchwork magazines, cross word puzzles and I've just started In Cold Blood by Truman Capote - because I've never read it. 
We were both introduced to reading by our mothers who bought books and read to us at an early age. The Color Kittens was my favourite and I think sparked my enjoyment of interesting book covers.  I joined the local library when I was 10 years old and devoured their entire stock of children's books in two years including the whole series by Lucy Fitch Perkins on twins around the world.  Two old ladies ran the library in a room behind a shop and their book numbers were limited.
 As the closest Council library was out of my reach I attacked the book shelves at home. Dad read classics and war stories and Mum read Readers Digest condensed novels and whatever was popular. I found her books in a suitcase under the bed and read The Carpetbaggers, Mila 18 and Exodus.

I have not, so far, ventured into digital books. I think my hard copy pile-in-waiting will keep me busy for a while yet and then I have stories of my own to write and edit - digital may be the way to go when I am ready - and it will be interesting to see how we choose books from a digital range.


  1. Thanks Maureen -
    Hi Janine, Very interesting blog, thanks for the book recommendations..just what I needed as I have just finished..The Kashmir Shawl..by Rosie Thomas.

  2. Thanks Jen -
    I love your new blog page, Jen

  3. From Wendy J. Whittingham
    I found your blog very interesting. You mention lots of books I'd like to read, some that I have read. The Runaway Quilt sounds like a good book and I'll prob read it soon if I can find it in my local library. Wendy

  4. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that Janine created the covers for her digital books as well as the text within.I particularly like Tiger Walks. Some illustrations inside gave trouble in getting the eyes just right, specifically the pupils - you can only erase them so many times. She cut out black dots and shuffled them around with a toothpick until it looked right then drew the pupils in.

  5. Ha ha I wonder if it is the real autograph. MP

  6. I have read some of those. Catch 22 is a very special book. One of a kind. MP


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