Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Oreo is a lost novel from 1975 novel by Fran Ross. Reedist says it deserves to be rediscovered:

Incredibly vital, clever writing about family, identity and race, also laugh-out-loud funny and profoundly erudite and incidentally allegorical. A real find, thank you library. Can’t believe this book is so little-known, though it’s very plain that it was years ahead of its time. Highly recommended.

And it’s a great read! The hook is supposed to be Arthur’s sword, Excalibur (Caledfwlch here) but in fact this is a family history through the 20th century, starting with the sinking of the Titanic and encompassing the first, second and (to a lesser extent) the cold wars, all seen through the eyes of a Russian/Welsh family. There’s Welsh Revolutionaries as well as the usual Russian ones, and first world war antics from someone who almost never gets to the front. A gorgeous percussionist allows Burgess to show off his knowledge and love of music (he composed, too). And the second world war is viewed from the story of a POW who has to walk across a shattered Europe when the war ends.

Is it all a bit too much, and is Burgess trying too hard at times? Well yes, but I’d rather read an author who makes an effort to entertain while telling his story. The characters are well drawn and the whole is great fun. I’m glad I stumbled upon it.

A powerful and frightening novel of Trump’s America and its problematic relationship with firearms. In one of the book’s many memorable scenes young Pearl, whose home for her first 14 years has been a wrecked car on a seedy Florida trailer park, is smuggled across the Mexican border hidden in the backseat of a car with guns covering her; the border guards will turn a blind eye to the guns, but not to a child.

For me, as a professional scientist, this was a fascinating insight into the earliest origins of what became the scientific movement in Europe. Bruno, who lived shortly after Copernicus, is probably most famous today for having proposed that the stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets, and raising the possibility that these planets might foster life. However, if you thought that what prompted Bruno in these notions was anything we might recognise as “scientific thinking” you would be quite wrong. Bruno was a renaissance Magus and his thought was heavily informed by the Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts ascribed to Hermes Trimegistus. So Yates’ book describes, to some extent, how science developed out of (or transcended) magic. The Holy Inquisition was unimpressed and Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori in 1600.

It’s written like the recollection of a scene observed from a distance on a misty day decades ago, or a half-forgotten dream that nevertheless left an indelible imprint on you for reasons not quite known; it’s very short and the prose is written in what feels like a carefully calibrated metre to give the reading a palpable poetic rhythm; it’s stunning, really.

It’s a short novel, translated from Japanese, about a homeless man who narrates to us from beyond the grave the story of his life and his death. It’s a lot about the treatment of homelessness, the gap between rich and poor, and the paralysing effects of grief on a person. It’s told in kind of non-linear fragments, as our narrator both sees the present and seems to inhabit the past simultaneously, and so the story is sort of pieced together and filled out gradually as the book moves on. I thought it was marvellous.

Kennedy has been assassinated and Frank Guidry knows a little about the guys who did it. Problem is, knowing just a little is enough to get you whacked. So Guidry hits the road, headed for Las Vegas, his former mob boss’s goon on his tail.

Charlotte is sick of her life – small town, bland, with a drunk asshole husband to boot. One night she summons up the courage to bolt. She packs up her daughters and the dog and splits, heading west.

The funniest book ever written. Funnier than Don Quixote and Oliver Hardy. Finished it, went straight back to start and read it again. Ignatius Reilly. Just the name is enough to get me grinning now.

“Hugo cherishes the sky-scraping side of Gothic because it represents the opening of men’s minds…” John Sturrock on Victor Hugo and Notre Dame de Paris.

“So much survives, so much is lost.” Shakespeare and Company Paris have also honoured their neighbouring cathedral. (Scroll down.)

Persephone Books is 20.

Ian McEwan talks about machines in Edge.

A perfectly normal interview with Carmen Maria Machado where everything is fine.

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Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye is a sharp study of a very female torture


As we approach the novel’s 30th anniversary, it’s hard to think of many characters who have endured pain like Atwood’s Elaine

One of the first things you notice when embarking on the unsettling experience of reading Cat’s Eye is that its narrator, Elaine, is herself unusually observant. Her memories of her messed-up childhood are more than vivid. On the first page, she remembers her brother studying while standing on his head (he claims that this will make the blood run down into his brain and nourish it), while wearing his “ravelling maroon sweater”. We are introduced to Elaine’s teenage friend Cordelia, who has “grey-green eyes, opaque and glinting as metal”. Cordelia is on a streetcar with Elaine and they wear: “long wool coats, with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men’s work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear, but that we take off as soon as we’re out of their sight … Our mouths are tough, crayon red, shiny as nails.”

And on it goes: everything about the way people look and present themselves is precisely rendered and catalogued. The smells Atwood describes are especially evocative: that streetcar “is muggy with twice-breathed air and the smell of wool”; Stephen “smells of peppermint LifeSavers” over his usual scent of “cedarwood pencils and wet sand; the alcohol her entomologist father uses in his work “smells like white enamel basins”. As Elaine even tells us, with typical wryness: “We remember through smells, like dogs do.”

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

There must be something in the air. I’m re-reading Wind in the Willows,” says kate king:

I never fail to be enchanted by it, as a countrywoman, gardener and grower. Poor Mole – ‘Oh my oh my oh my’ – and his sardines on toast. But it’s so true that this time of year is magical and entrancing, and it would be so easy to spend hours watching bubbles in a river and the patterns of sunlight and willow leaves. It’s my Spring book – again.

Moving, powerful stuff. I like the dramatic way Smith writes dialogue and how she weaves it into the rest of the tale. I also thought as I read, and not for the first time, that she is one of those writers who demands that her readers do a bit of work as they read.

A mock autobiography of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle setting out the rise and fall of an early film legend. It’s a hell of a sad story, details an example of how low the gutter press will go to bump up sales and shows where the religious zealots of the USA have their roots, both in condemnation and narrow minded belief. A cracking read.

First published in 1962, the tense and absorbing plot becomes a means to explore and criticise contemporary attitudes in the author’s country, in particular the continuing glorification of the military. Far better than the film (which I saw way back when), it deserves to be reprinted: there is much here about lies and cover-ups among the powerful relevant to our own times.

I cannot recommend it highly enough. Obviously it’s informative and interesting, but it’s also exciting, dramatic, moving, riveting. A tale of high adventure and extraordinary human courage and endurance (natch) which you know actually happened. I gasped, I exclaimed, I cried real tears. Give it a go, you won’t be sorry. (The narrator, Simon Prebble, is outstanding – and I’m rather fussy that way.)

22nd century murder mystery with a backdrop of revenge, corporate intrigue, possibly an alien. I’m about halfway through and it’s a complicated story with many threads but despite being a (very) long book it holds together well and it rolls along at a good pace.

Well worth it despite the ever increasing forays into piety as the book goes on. It was a little strange reading something that was so familiar in other forms: film/tv series/sci-fi iterations etc, but interesting too to see what (such as the Christian piety) that has been mostly or entirely excised from the adaptations. I was left in some awe of Defoe’s imagination, the vivid and detailed way in which he put himself in Crusoe’s place. Not sure if I will tackle the further adventures though.

This Paradise (2019) by Ruby Cowling, a debut short story collection from Boiler House Press. It’s creepy and disquieting, mixing kitchen sink drama with dystopia, technology and eco-activism all resting on a very British landscape drenched with rain. Maybe too many kids for my liking, but it has twins. A good, sturdy collection nicely produced with design by Emily Benton and cover image by Kristy Campbell.

‘I get it.’ I said. ‘You need somebody to insult. Fire away, chum. When it begins to hurt I’ll let you know.’

I’m reading Playback the last Philip Marlowe novel and feeling bereft because there are no more to come.

What your book covers say about you.

An extract from Ian McEwan’s new novel Machines Like Me.

“I don’t really care”: Bret Easton Ellis gives a “chill and neutral” interview to the New Yorker.

The CIA scheme that brought Dr Zhivago to the world. Really.

Tim Parks gives a readers guide to planes, trains, and automobiles.

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Poem of the week: The Porch Light by David Wheatley


This quiet poem, about the ways locations both literal and metaphorical can be kept open, is wonderfully musical

The Porch Light

Birchwood ankle-deep in leafy mulch:
borrowed green of a buried can of Grolsch,
all living streams iced over or departed;
wrecks of chestnuts echoing, empty-hearted,
hollow victories woodpeckers tap
on trunks picked open for a place to sleep.
The breeze’s whistling summons and refines
itself to a buzzard’s wheep beyond the pines,
where arrowheads of geese above the farm
lock onto, lose their target and reform.
Eggbox hills that line the far horizon
draw a ribbon out of slowly rising
tracks that circle straggling round the village
millponds, quarries, setts, a gateless gate-lodge
keeping nothing in or out. A dipper
breasts the Don and wades in deep and deeper;
a porch light glimpsed among trees might be my house.
The path wants feet, it will not matter whose.
Whose woods these are I couldn’t claim to know,
the way I go all ways, on in back through.

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Why Mrs Hinch and the 'cleanfluencers' are sweeping up the book charts


Sophie Hinchliffe, a hairdresser who dispenses cleaning advice to 2.3m Instagram followers, has sold more than 160,000 copies of her first book in three days. What’s going on?

In 1861, the original domestic goddess Mrs Beeton warned her readers: “not only health but life may be said to depend on the cleanliness of culinary utensils.” More than a century and a half later, more than 150,000 people have rushed to snap up a copy of Instagram “cleanfluencer” Mrs Hinch’s guide to a spotless home, Hinch Yourself Happy, which promises to reveal “how a spot of cleaning is the perfect way to cleanse the soul”.

Mrs Hinch, AKA Sophie Hinchliffe, is a hairdresser from Essex who dispenses regular cleaning advice to her 2.3 million Instagram followers: how to make a bed “‘bedgasm’ ready for the week ahead”, her favourite cleaning gloves, dousing her bathroom in disinfectant and karate-chopping cushions. Her book, a mix of memoir and advice, promises that cleaning (which she calls “hinching”) “can soothe anxiety and stress”, according to her publisher Michael Joseph, which bought the rights to the book in a “heated” 11-way auction in December. Published on 4 April, the book sold sold 160,302 copies in three days – making it the second fastest-selling non-fiction title of all time, just behind Kate Allinson and Kay Featherstone’s recipe collection Pinch of Nom, which broke the record just last month by selling 210,506 copies in three days.

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Reading group: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood is our book for April


Atwood’s blistering take on a female friendship that descends into bullying and torture was criticised as ‘anti-feminist’ on its release in 1988

Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye has won our vote and will be the subject of this month’s reading group.

The 1988 novel was shortlisted for the Booker prize and the Canadian Governor General’s award, and was described in the New York Times as “the finest addition to the Best Girlfriend genre yet.”

Any group that feels beleaguered also feels that you shouldn’t tell tales outside the group. You shouldn’t give the enemy any ammunition. On the other hand, that just puts a great deal of pressure on those who have stories to tell. And on those who think that only certain kinds of pain are legitimate, ie not theirs.”

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Let’s begin with an old favourite: Captain_Flint is reading JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur:

Having lots of fun. His writing style is enhanced by a perfect sense of timing and faultless rhythm; humour-wise his punchlines never disappoint.

As the author said it has very little to do with zen or motorcycle maintenance, but is an account of the author’s trip across the US on a motorbike with his teenage son, a travelogue touching on (among much else) mental illness, (a lot of) philosophy and even (a little) politics.

Well, well worth reading, or even rereading if you read it in your youth. In my opinion it has not dated at all, in fact in some ways is more relevant now than it was when first published.

At my local recycling centre I had the luck to come across Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit Of Love and Love In A Cold Climate: Oh the laugh-out-loud joy of discovering hideous Uncle Matthew and the equally obnoxious Lady Montdore.

This is great – a bit Iain M Banks with its artificial planets and human personalities being saved to new bodies, but with an intriguing mystery and Zelazny’s interest in mythology and religion too. Plus some really gorgeous passages of writing. I’m coming to the conclusion Zelazny is severely underrated.

This has been terrific in every respect. The style is clear and forceful. Wulf relates the biography with drama and passion … Humboldt could lay claim to being a pioneer of the environmental movement, viewing the interdependence of all living things and the habitats they occupy. He established the concept of the web of life. Wulf propels the drama forward even after Humboldt’s long and fruitful life has ended. She examines his profound influence through the careers of various intellectual disciples – people like George Perkins Marsh, Thoreau and Ernst Haeckel. The reader can only marvel that a man of such prodigious ability, enthusiasm and dedication ever lived.

It’s a collection of short translated pieces, some very short, which offer a different perspective on Japan a millennium ago than the elegance of Genji. They’re full of monsters, magic, and low action. Although bear in mind that the cultural gap may be an obstacle to enjoyment, depending on tastes. As with other collections of very short works, dipping in and out might also be a good idea – I just read straight through.

A month or so back, I decided to distract myself from Brexit by rereading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels followed by the Palliser novels. I read somewhere that this was what people would do during the second world war to distract themselves from reality. I heard that it was particularly good during air raids.

I’ve finished the Barchester novels and loved them as much as ever, though the standard of writing does improve as the series progresses. I’m now onto the Palliser novels and have reached Lady Eustace’s diamonds. Lady Eustace is one of Trollope’s most vividly awful characters. I still remember the TV series ‘The Pallisers’ from the seventies with Susan Hampshire as Glencora and Donal McCann as Phineas Finn. I take my moniker from that character.

This Hamilton biography had so many vintage examples of ye olde petty, over-the-top insults, but I think my favourite that I would like to use from now on, was: “Damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won’t damn John Jay. Damn everyone that won’t put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay.”

“Of all the minor literary arts, none is quite so delicate as the production of jacket-copy, known to British editors as ‘blurb-writing’””: so says DJ Taylor.

William Barr’s book report. I think they’re suggesting something… (Hat tip to Swelter.)

Bret Easton Ellis has calmed down, says the New York Times.

“While I Live, I Remember”: Agnès Varda’s Way of Seeing.

Scott Walker as “vocal auteur.”

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Poem of the week: Recipe for a Salad by Sydney Smith


This rhymed recipe is comfort food – an amusing and sensuous guide to making a dressing that ‘would tempt the dying anchorite’

Recipe for a Salad

To make this condiment your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two hard boiled eggs;
Two boiled potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,
Smoothness and softness to the salad give;
And, scarce suspected, animate the whole;
Of mordant mustard add a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment that bites so soon;
But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault
Four times the spoon with oil from Lucca crown,
And twice with vinegar, procured from town;
And lastly, o’er the flavored compound toss
A magic soupçon of anchovy sauce.
’T would tempt the dying anchorite to eat;
Back to the world he’d turn his fleeting soul,
And plunge his fingers in the salad-bowl;
Serenely full, the epicure would say,
“Fate cannot harm me, — I have dined today!”

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Books within books: the bestsellers we'll never get to read


An author obsessed with an imaginary novel, bodice-rippers in Stephen King’s Misery, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy … why do writers love to write about writing?

In David Quantick’s new novel, All My Colors, Todd Milstead, a budding novelist with delusions of grandeur, a vastly inflated sense of his own talent and a photographic memory, recalls a book he once read – word for word – called All My Colors by Jake Turner. But to Todd’s characteristic fury, nobody else has heard of this book; he asks his wife, his friends, the bookshops, the libraries but All My Colors, and Turner, appear to exist only in Todd’s imagination.

What’s a struggling writer who suspects his genius will never be recognised by an uncaring world to do? Why, write the book that doesn’t seem to exist from memory, and pass it off as his own.

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