WHY has no one made a film of Code Name Verity? WHY?

Film industry, you are being remiss. Get to it.

My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff – 8/10

“Carolyn began talking about friends of hers named Joan and John, and their daughter, who had an odd name, an odd name that sounded oddly familiar to me. I’d heard her discuss Joan and John before, but now I realised, with a jolt, that she was talking about Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn. These were Carolyn’s intimates, the people whose pedestrian travails – bathroom renovations and missed flights – she chattered about.”

my salinger yera

Joanna is a newly minted Master of a literature degree, badly in need of a job. She wheedles her way into a job assisting a literary agent – and discovers, several weeks into the job, that the agent represents J. D. Salinger. With no background in Salinger at all, she muddles along in the job and in the big city, while trying not to let leech-like boyfriend Don scupper her prospects.

Not masses happens in the course of this year – although obviously enough to fill a short book, it’s not action-packed. Which is fine; it gives Rakoff plenty of time to muse on being young and broke and working in the literary world in New York. I would happily read more of Rakoff’s writing; maybe it is easier to be funny and light-hearted and insightful when writing about one’s own life rather than making up a world, but I liked what I read. It was intelligent without being overwrought, evocative without being cluttered.

At this point in a review template, I have the prompt “characters”. Which is tricky when reviewing non-fiction. The protagonist is impossible to review, given that it’s the author! But Rakoff does a good job of moulding the people around her into characters on the page, particularly helpful office furniture Hugh, deadbeat boyfriend Don, Next Big Thing in Literary Agency Max. I liked these people (apart from Don, who sounds like a waste of space), and they were fine to spend some time in the company of.

This was yet another instalment in my recent New York themed reading and watching – as I mentioned in my post on the subject, I loved the frequent references to a little bit of New York I spent some time in recently (and I was most amused to find the quoted reference to Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking which I read immediately before this!). I know it was set 20 years ago, but apart from the technophobic set-up in the office, I hardly noticed this at all. I suppose not knowing what Brooklyn rents are these days probably helped, that the figures given didn’t age the book!

Well worth the quick read, whether you’ve read Salinger or not, just as a fun “a year in the life” story. If you’ve read Salinger, possibly more interesting?

Additional info
Copy from publisher through NetGalley (which I have not used in a while!)
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 273 pages
Order My Salinger Yearfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

How It All Began – Penelope Lively – 8/10

“But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course.”

How it all began

When Charlotte is mugged in the street one day and breaks her hip, a chain of events is set off for a much wider group of people. Her daughter Rose has to cancel a day’s work. Rose’s boss Henry goes to Manchester to give a lecture without his notes. Henry’s niece Marion cancels a date and thus reveals the affair to her lover’s wife. All because a delinquent wanted Charlotte’s cash.

Lively writes a good book. I loved Moon Tiger, quite enjoyed Heatwave (which I don’t seem to have reviewed); were I to sit down and consume her entire oeuvre, I’m confident I would enjoy it. She strikes the balance between clever writing, interesting characters, and just enough plot progression to keep things going. The plot only really exists to make the characters do things, and in fact the plot movements are only really as the result of a passage of time rather than the result of actions or events.

The cast of characters is appropriately limited so that we feel we know each of them well, without getting them mixed up with each other. It is clever to have multiple perspectives but linked characters so that the transitions from one narrator to another are not as jarring or frustrating as such transitions often are.

It’s not a demanding book to read – and this is a huge part of why I like authors like Mitchell, Patchett, Lively; you notice the quality of the writing only when there is a showy sentence. Apart from the odd “look at me, I’m good with words” sentence (like the one below), the text is not too dense, but concise and clever. It’s only 230 pages long, and I would happily have read another 100 pages, but on the other hand, it felt complete without being overcooked.

“That evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could share it anyway.”

Something I noticed in How It All Began and hadn’t noticed in her other works was the occasional breaking of the fourth wall – every now and again (and pleasingly infrequently) the narrative moves from the consciousness of one of the characters out to an omniscient third party style narrator who is very conscious of the reader. The quote I selected above is just one such example. I couldn’t decide whether these added to or detracted from the book; they broke up the flow in a slightly irritating way, but the writing is so good and these little bits are sufficiently valuable to the book, that I didn’t really mind.

If you’ve enjoyed anything else by Lively, you’ll like this.

Additional info
Copy bought at Strand Bookstore in New York on a recent visit. 
Publisher: Penguin, 229 pages (paperback)
Order How It All Beganfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion – 7/10

“Time is the school in which we learn.”

year of magical thinkingThis is the story of a year of Didion’s life – the year started by the death of her husband. A very precise account of the experience of grief, with sections on vortices of grief (the memories, items and events that pull us back into grief when we think we have overcome it), the physiological effects (cognitive failures, cold) and assorted other ponderings. I found the couple of pages on why we consider grief to be a condition to be overcome and a healing process at the same time spot-on.

It is an extremely personal account, and not just of her own life during that year – there are so many names of friends included (one presumes real as they all seem to be personages of modern American literature) and her daughter’s assorted medical emergencies in the year are recounted in some detail. Of course there are some details which are omitted, and their omission is obvious (her daughter’s occupation, information about her mother and father, and there is a reference to her daughter’s adoption which is then never explained).

Didion’s selection of events to be included is selective, and is clearly selected to fit the theme of her book, that is, her recognition of her altered mental state due to grief, her wishes to be able to change history. It’s part memoir, part examination of a particular phenomenon through personal events – not unlike Happier At Home, or Sleeping Naked is Green (though those were happier topics).

The title took a long time to make sense to me, until Didion admits (late in the book) that she had been trying to keep life the same, to bring John back, to freeze time just before he died. The penultimate chapter on his last few days – her horror at obliterating his last dictionary search, working her way through the reading pile next to his chair and finding a newspaper with a date in the New Year (after he died); Didion writes the moments very well.

It’s definitely worth reading and is beautifully written, but I did not find it as moving as I expected, somehow – less moving than The End of Your Life Book Club and similar works.

I think I will read Blue Nights, another work of non-fiction which follows this one chronologically, but I won’t hurry to buy it.

Additional info:

Copy bought at Strand Bookstore in New York on a recent visit. 
Publisher: Vintage, 227 pages (paperback)
Order The Year of Magical Thinkingfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

New York everywhere!

Ever notice how things seem to theme themselves?

I went to New York, and bought quite a lot of books. And while I was there, I read a fair chunk of Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, which despite assorted other faults, is extremely evocative of the city.

Then I came back and discovered that the Physicist had found a new TV series and SAVED it to watch with me! (this never happens) Or at least he did a reasonable job of pretending he’d not watched it before. And it’s set – in New York (and is rather good and highly entertaining). It’s called Forever and stars Ioan Gruffudd, for whom I have much sympathy for having a more-difficult-to-spell name than my own, and whom we have loved in both Fantastic Four and Amazing Grace. Let it not be said this is a mono-dimensional household in our viewing.

I digress. Forever is set in mid-town New York. So of course I sat there shouting “I was there!” all evening. The Physicist did his best to tolerate this as a sweet foible of mine rather than as something really annoying.

Then I read Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking and followed it up with My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. The latter not only references the author of the former, but both have lots of references to mid-town New York. I particularly loved My Salinger Year for its references to ludicrously expensive Park Avenue lunches and the Waldorf Astoria and the subway station at Lexington and 51st (which I used a number of times when I was there).

Now I’m deliberately hunting for more New York themed books, I probably won’t find any. My latest read, How It All Began by Penelope Lively, is set in assorted places including bits of north London which might as well be in New York for how little I know them.

Any other geographical themes you can think of (with related reading and viewing, please) I might enjoy?

Sunday Salon – “Scusi!”


A couple of days’ holiday in Rome have done me a world of good. Not least because I’ve now finished 5 books in 5 days and am due to start on the 6th any minute at time of writing.

Couple of catch-up posts have covered what we’ve seen in Rome – days 1 and 2, days 3 and 4. In short, much old stuff, some gelato.

Books read by me while here:

All That I Am by Anna Funder

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

and next on the list is The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

(I finished Let The Great World Spin the day before coming on holiday).

Books read by the Physicist while here:

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

(has now started on Matter, also by Banks).

Assorted waiters and waitresses in Rome have thought we are a) insane b) terribly mannered or c) very happy ignoring each other while reading our books, as the books have come out at every meal while waiting for food. We read on the Metro, at the top of the monument to Victor Emanuel I (there were a lot of steps and I needed a rest at the top) and on a wall outside the Pantheon.

Reading makes a holiday.

Rome, days 3 and 4

We’re still here, so this blog is going to keep having holiday updates for now.

Day 3: A LOT of churches. Well, I suppose only 3, but they were all basilicas (basilicae? basilice?) so they took at least half an hour each to look around (in fact, we spent nearly 2 hours at one). They were St Paul’s Outside the Walls, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St John in Lateran (including a little stop to see the Scala Santa). Loads of photos but they are marooned on the iPhone so just this one which I put up on Instagram and totally doesn’t do justice to the scale and majesty of these buildings.

St Paul'sMore photos later, I suppose. There was clearly a fashion at some point for enormous, more-than-lifesize statues in white marble of the Apostles (lots of them at St John in Lateran). They were my favourite part of the day.

Also a nifty little fact – all three of these basilicas have extra-territorial status for the Vatican, i.e. they are in Italy, rather than the Holy See, but they have the same legal status as embassies. How cool is that?

Also I conquered the Metro ticketing machines. It was a hard-fought battle, but I won.

Day 4: got off to a rocky start with the water pressure in the hotel having gone entirely, but eventually we got underway on a day of a lot of walking: through the Piazza (I can’t type that without typing it as “pizza” first!) in front of St Peter’s dodging street hawkers to the Metro, over to the Colosseum for a quick peek at that and the Constantine Arch, then up to the monument to Victor Emanuel I (me: “I want a monument that impressive in my memory after I die,” the Physicist: “Then I need a job that pays more”).

Lots of stairs and pizza later, the church of St Ignatius of Loyola (another very fancy church), the Trevi Fountain (under scaffolding and now featuring a hideous plastic walkway – disappointing), the Spanish steps (also not hugely impressive absolutely covered in tourists and a massive advertisement at the top) and Santa Maria del Popolo, which has two famous Caravaggio paintings, but was otherwise a bit underwhelming compared to the other churches of the last few days. Gelato on the way home from the Metro, obviously.

Back home again tomorrow. It’s been a great couple of days!


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