Book review – “To A Mountain in Tibet” by Colin Thubron

It is some time since I posted a book review – pretty shabby for a book review blog, though I like to think my non-review posts are suitably bookish too! I posted last week about my challenges in getting much reading done at the moment; even Why Mummy Drinks, Gill Sims’s very light, asking-to-speed-read, novel that my book club chose, seemed to be taking me ages. It has been a very busy few weeks – my paid work has been quite demanding (as has my non-paid work!), we have been undertaking a big decorating project in the house, plus we are properly working on the garden for the first time since we bought this house four years ago, and I am on revision-watch as one of my kids is on study-leave for exams this summer.

To A Mountian in Tibet imgSo my reading time has been severely curtailed. I managed to finish Why Mummy Drinks just after the book club meeting, just as well it was a quick read and did not require too much mental investment. My other big read for last month, however, did. Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain in Tibet was the April title for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was travel writing, not a genre I know very much about, so I did a fair bit of research before choosing Thubron. It came with some fantastic recommendations. At just over 200 pages, it is not particularly long, but it felt like a very slow read.

The author has written more than a dozen travel books (as well as eight novels), mostly about the East. In this book he crosses the border between Nepal and Tibet on foot, to follow a route taken by thousands of pilgrims each year to Mount Kailas. I confess I had not heard of it, but it is one of the holiest shrines on earth, important to both Hindus and Buddhists. Whilst I have not read much travel writing, I guess my expectation is that it should educate and inform the reader about the location (tick), consider some of the social and political conditions of the people living there (tick), and include the personal reflections of the writer (tick). After all, isn’t travel writing as much about an emotional and psychological journey as well as physical one?

Thubron’s book does all these things and does them well, and the writing is beautiful. I learnt a great deal about Buddhism, about pilgrims’ reasons for undertaking the perilous trek around Kailas, about the political tension between China and Tibet, and about the poverty and social problems in the region, particularly in Nepal. All of that said, I’m afraid I have mixed feelings about the book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but there was something languid about the book that at times failed to engage me. Some of the history was rather dry, while the account of the poverty, the terrible conditions in which some of the people in the towns and villages on Thubron’s route live, was brought vividly alive.

The ‘journey’ that Thubron himself is on, in a state of bereavement, all his family members now dead, reflects the motive of many of the pilgrims in whose footsteps he is following. He writes about his late parents, and his long-dead sister, but I feel this wasn’t covered in as much depth as I would have liked. The blurb on the book’s cover indicates this is a major element, but I would disagree and feel the content could have had a little more meaning if these passages had been included in a slightly less random way.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and I would like to read more of Thubron’s work. I imagine if you know a little more of the subject matter it might have greater impact.

Which other travel writers would you recommend?

 

 

Reading time deficit

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by my reading situation at the moment. A quick glance at my Goodreads profile will tell you that I have three books on the go right now. This is not by choice; I was reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but this was taking me longer than expected. Then I realised it was getting close to the end of the month and I hadn’t even started April’s choice on my Facebook Reading Challenge, Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain in Tibet, so I started that. It’s fascinating and enthralling, but written so beautifully, that you have to read every word, so it’s a slow read and has also therefore taken me longer than expected. At the beginning of last week, I glanced at my diary and saw that it was my book club on Thursday and I hadn’t even started our book. Fortunately, out choice for this month was Why Mummy Drinks by Gill Sims, which is, unlike the Thubron, a very swift read, so easy to whizz through sufficient pages to have a conversation…but still I have not completed it.

So, this all feels strangely messy to me. I know some people like to read a number of books at the same time, but I don’t. I prefer to immerse myself in just one and see it through to the end, before starting on another. I’m loyal like that! They are all very different books, so it’s not like I’m getting storylines mixed up or anything, but, when I do have some reading time, I find myself quite torn about which one to pick up.

The other problem is lack of reading time. It’s been a busy month so far, between work and my kids’ commitments, not to mention one of them deep in major revision mode, and we are decorating the last room in our (so far) four-year long house refurbishment project, which has involved much time poring over light fittings, carpet samples, colour charts and radiators, as well as handling tradesmen, people who measure stuff and retail professionals.

It’s all good, but I think it must be a problem unique to book-lovers, and perhaps also introverts (I am both), that the absence of reading time has a detrimental psychological impact, rather like a lack of vitamins leads to a deterioration in some aspect of physical health. That’s how it feels to me anyway. Many book lovers I know are also a little bit obsessive about certain things and having three books on the go, none of which I seem to be progressing in a satisfying way, is making me a little bit twitchy. I have just completed the audiobook of Professor Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox, though, so I know this is just my chimp talking.

I’m very nearly there with Colin Thubron and with Gill Sims, so my Goodreads profile should be back down to just the one book by the end of the week and I may start to feel a little more settled. And be able to post some book reviews again!

How does it make you feel when your days lack reading time?

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Facebook Reading Challenge – May’s book

The months are passing at a rapid rate and I can’t believe it is already time to consider a new book for my Facebook Reading Challenge. Last month the theme was travel writing and I chose Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain in TibetI have to confess that, almost a week into the new month, I still have not finished it. Although I am enjoying it, it is a very slow read. Something about the way it is written makes my reading pace reduce to the author’s speed of ascent up the mountain! I wish I could say look out for the review next week but I have had to set it to one side to speed-read my book club book, which I had forgotten all about…

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It will get finished, of course, and I posted a video on the Facebook group’s page last week announcing this month’s book which is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. A few people replied to say they had done it for ‘O’ level – I am sure they are of a similar age to me, but it was obviously not my year, as I had forgotten that it’s a favourite set text for 16 year-olds. Most people seemed happy to be reading it again though. You can see things in a completely different way when you come back to a book, particularly after a number of years and a number of life changes. My recent re-read of Perfume (the March choice for the Reading Challenge) gave me an insight into that.

 

So, if you care to join us for the challenge this month, hop on over to the group’s Facebook page and request to join, or else just read along and let me know your thoughts when I post a review in early June.

Happy reading!

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Book review: “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue

One of my earliest posts on this blog was a comparison of a handful of books with their film adaptations; it was 2016, a bumper year for great books in the Oscars with The Danish Girl, The Revenant, Room and Carol all nominated. Emma Donoghue’s Room was I think my favourite of that batch (both the film and the book) and was one of my best reads of that year. Shortly after, I picked up The Wonder and it’s been sitting in my TBR pile ever since! I resolved to read it while I was away over Easter and, my goodness, it did not disappoint.

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Lovely cover too

Set in rural Ireland in 1859, in the shadows of the Irish Famine and the Crimean War, the main protagonists have had disturbing brushes with death and suffering which impact the way they behave and how they interact with one another. Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright is a nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. She is sent to Ireland on a commission to observe an eleven year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, who, it is alleged, has not eaten for four months. Her survival without food is being hailed as a miracle and the village council has recruited a team of two (Lib, the English nurse, and an Irish nun) to watch her in shifts to ensure the child is genuinely not receiving sustenance. Many visitors have already come from both Ireland and abroad to view the child, and to perhaps receive some divine benefit from being in her midst.

Lib, with her scientific outlook, naturally suspects foul play. She has no religious faith and believes it impossible for the human body to survive without food or water; she fully expects quickly to get to the bottom of the suspected ruse. She approaches Anna with scepticism initially, believing she and her family are nothing more than manipulative, deceiving, attention-seeking hoaxers seeking to profit from their little miracle. Lib is also haughty, however; whilst she is aware of some of the wrongs that have been wrought upon the Irish people by her own country, she brings with her certain prejudices about social and cultural backwardness. She meets a Dublin journalist, staying at the same inn, and there to report on Anna’s case for his newspaper, and her conversations with him begin to educate her about Irish history about the status and role of Catholicism and about the nature of the people.

As Lib gets to know Anna better in the long hours she spends watching her, she also begins to grow fond of the child, something she does not expect and which interferes with her sense of herself as a rational being. She makes detailed notes about her observations of the child, and when it becomes truly apparent to her that little or no nourishment is reaching Anna, she becomes concerned about the deterioration in her health. The unwillingness of the family to confess to the hoax, as she sees it, disturbs her, and the vested interests of the local community, both the medical and religious elements, which seem to prevent them stepping in to save the child’s life, challenges her medical ethics. Most remarkably for Lib, however, is the commitment Anna has to her starvation; she truly has no desire to eat, and her religious fervour seems genuine and uncorrupted. Lib suspects some deep trauma (she is familiar with this notion following her experience in the Crimea) possibly connected to the death of her older brother a few months earlier, but struggles to get to the bottom of it.

The job Lib has been paid to undertake begins to take a grave emotional toll on her and all her certainties, her assumptions and the truths she has held dear begin to unravel at the same time as Anna’s health status is becoming increasingly grave.

This is a remarkable and complex novel which I found both profoundly moving and deeply interesting. The author provides an insight into a community, a belief system and a set of codes that most of us will struggle to comprehend. And yet, the way she recounts the story, you can see how Anna’s actions might make perfect sense to her, to her family and to her community. This is the most alarming part – how easily it could be seen as real and reasonable – and gives an insight into how sometimes bizarre doctrines can take hold in groups so that they can seem true, in spite of scientific evidence.

The plot of this book is also gripping and it has some remarkable twists, not to be revealed here, which will have you on the edge of your seat.

Highly recommended, a real page-turner which will draw you into a world you did not know about.

Have you read any other Emma Donoghue books – which would you recommend I read next?

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Book review: “Educated” by Tara Westover

Educated imgThis book caused something of a sensation when it was published last year. It is the extraordinary memoir of a young woman who grew up in rural Idaho, as part of a large Mormon family. Nothing too outlandish there until the author begins telling you about the father’s survivalist beliefs (he hoards supplies of food and fuel in their bunker for when catastrophe strikes, as he believes it inevitably will), his Christian fundamentalism (quite extreme beliefs about, for example, what women should wear, that even their fellow Church members find uncomfortable) and the obsessive control he exerts over the rest of the family. The unconventional nature of the family would be enough to make this a fascinating read, but what makes it shocking is the level of violence, of almost sadistic cruelty. Some of is quite hard to read and at times I found myself gasping out loud.

Tara, the author, is the youngest of seven children. The family lives in an isolated area, below Buck’s Peak mountain in Idaho, far from town and the influence of ordinary society. Her father runs his own business making money from scrap metal. He is a powerful patriarchal figure whose word must be obeyed and who has strong conspiracy theory beliefs. He distrusts all figures of authority and all institutions, including the police, doctors and nurses, public officials, banks and school teachers. His children are “home-schooled” (in the loosest sense of the term, since he also believes there is little need for an academic education), have no official records (neither of her parents can be sure exactly how old Tara is or of her birthdate) and never attend a hospital. Tara’s mother becomes a “midwife”; more accurately she is self-educated and self-appointed to attend births in other families with similar distrust of conventional medicine. (Later in the book she begins to develop her own homeopathic remedies which will make the family’s fortune.)

The book is a largely chronological account of Tara’s growing up and her increasing scepticism about her family’s views. She is an intelligent and curious child and inevitably questions some of the beliefs and assumptions underpinning her parents’ beliefs. As she gets occasional glimpses into the lives of others she determines that what she desires most of all is an education in a proper school or college. When one of her brothers manages to achieve this, and encourages her to seek it out for herself also, she makes the necessary arrangements. What seems to me to fuel Tara’s gradual withdrawal from the family, however, is not the desire for an education but an increasing intolerance of the violence experienced by her brothers, at the hands of their father, and that meted out to Tara herself by her brother Shawn, a deeply disturbed individual. The terrible ‘accidents’ that they all endure (even Tara’s mother sustains a head injury in a car crash that leaves her with unspecified brain damage) are the direct result of wilful neglect of normal standards of safety (her father removes all the seatbelts from the family car). Make no mistake, this level of violence and cruelty is all about control and ruling through fear.

Slight spoiler alert: Tara does eventually break free from her family, though it is a difficult journey for her, and she finds herself torn many times between her attachment to her parents and siblings, in spite of everything she has had to endure from them, and her academic ambitions which see her winning scholarships to Cambridge and to Harvard. Her achievements are extraordinary given her background and her lack of formal education. She realises how sheltered her life has been when she stuns a lecture room into dumbstruck silence by asking the teacher what is meant by the term ‘Holocaust’. Adapting to life ‘in the outside world’ is extraordinarily difficult and she often wonders whether it might just have been easier to stay where she was.

I found this both a shocking and a moving read. There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the book; the family has closed ranks around itself and some members have contradicted Tara’s account of events. The author alludes to some of these differences in the notes section and also states at several points throughout that her memory of an event is vague and she is relying on others’ recollections. I felt at times uncomfortable reading the book, it felt voyeuristic. At other times I found myself disbelieving – how could Tara even think about going back to her family after all they had done. It was hard to imagine how she could not see through the lies and the control. But then, on the other hand, this is an account, you could say, of abuse, and of how the victim can be drawn back to the perpetrator. Especially where those perpetrators are her closest family. Without them she has no-one.

Recommended, but not the easiest of reads.

How do you rate Educated?

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>>>STOP PRESS<<< Teenager goes on reading binge!

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Yes, it’s true – one of my children is currently reading at a rate of about one book per day! They are currently on Easter holidays so that helps, but this started a couple of weeks ago. I thought it would pass, a mere flash in the pan, but so far so good, more and more books are piling up. Instead of walking around with eyes firmly fixed on the phone, she is walking around with her nose in a book. I am even having to suggest she stop reading and turn off the light at a very late hour!

So, how has this magic occurred? Perhaps you would like to know. Don’t get me wrong, she has always been a good reader, but in recent years, as with most young people once they hit the teens, it has tailed off in favour of the mobile phone, social media and TV streaming services, plus of course homework and friends. Sound familiar? Even when she has wanted to read, the motivation to put down the phone and pick up a book has not always been there, and hours are suddenly lost.

I asked her what has brought about this change (I wish I could claim the credit for it!) First of all, we had a grown-up conversation (ie not a parent-child, I’m-telling-you-what-to-do-type conversation) about getting enough sleep and she realised (quietly) that perhaps being on the phone late into the evening was not a good idea. She was also seeing that friends and peers were posting on social media well into the early hours. These are the kids looking exhausted at school, under-performing and experiencing behaviour problems, so she made the connection herself.

Once the phone was off, she had to find something else to do. This coincided with her watching the film of The Book Thief , which she had read and loved a few years ago. Realising how much had been omitted from the film, she went back and re-read the book. This set her off re-reading other books she had enjoyed. Once she’d got through a good few, she decided to get some new titles, and watch some film adaptations as well. And thus, a virtuous circle of reading, re-reading and associated film watching ensued.

I hope it lasts. She seems to be finding genuine pleasure in reading and it seems the more she reads, the more it motivates her to continue. Keen adult readers will no doubt recognise this feeling. It has, I think, also made her realise the pointlessness of much social media activity. She is aware of the potential harms, both the large and the small, and has decided, off her own bat, not to put herself in a scenario that might impact on her in a negative way.

Naturally, I feel very proud, but I assure you I am not smug; much of parenting teenagers involves realising you have less effect than you’d like and just hoping things turn out okay – it’s not for the faint-hearted!  I would like to think that we adopt certain habits at home that are helpful – modelling both reading behavior and limiting our own phone use – but, frankly, who knows?

So, that’s my little bit of domestic wisdom. If there are young people in your life, I hope they too will see the light.

What are your top tips for getting teens reading?

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Book review – “Perfume” by Patrick Süskind

This book is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of the late twentieth century. It was first published in the original German in 1985, and published in English the following year. It has sold over twenty million copies worldwide and been translated into 49 different languages. It won numerous prizes, remained on the bestseller lists in Germany for many years and was universally acclaimed. Despite this, its author published only a handful of other works (Perfume was his second book) and virtually retired from literary life in the mid-1990s and now, in his seventies, lives as a recluse between Germany and France, shunning all publicity. None of this surprises me; this book has surely to be the product of a very unusual mind.

Photo 11-03-2019, 13 52 18The book begins in mid-eighteenth century Paris when the central character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born beneath a fish stall, to an indigent mother. She pauses her work briefly in order to give birth to him but then, believing or perhaps wishing him to be yet another of the many stillbirths she is said to have had, she leaves him for dead amongst the discarded fish guts. When he is discovered alive, his mother is tried for infanticide and executed. He is left to the mercy of the church, but proves a demanding and difficult baby, who, despite his unpromising start, appears to enjoy rude health. So much so that the wet-nurse hired to take care of him, returns him as he is drinking too much of her milk, making it impossible for her to take on any other infants and therefore make a living. The sense of his insatiable appetite and how he sucks the life out of those around him is established. As he goes through life, we learn that those who come into contact with him invariably meet a tragic end.

Once old enough he is apprenticed to a tanner and lives a brutal existence. He also begins to learn that he has an exceptional sense of smell – it’s almost painterly in its precision. An unscrupulous perfumer in the city, whose best days are behind him, discovers the boy’s skills and buys him from the tanner, obviously without revealing Grenouille’s gifts. The vain Baldini uses him to copy the successful scents produced by others and to create remarkable new fragrances which restore Baldini’s fame and fortune.

It is whilst working for Baldini that Grenouille commits his first murder, spontaneously and without any particular malice. He follows an enchanting smell only to find that it belongs to a young nubile girl. In its purity and its goodness, the smell is like nothing Grenouille has ever come across and he wishes to possess it. He kills the girl and remains with her body until he has absorbed every atom of her odour into himself. The curious thing about Grenouille is that despite his acute sense of smell her has no odour of his own and can pass through society virtually unnoticed. With this first murder he realises that he will never be found out.

Years pass and Grenouille moves out of Paris, including spending a number of years as a hermit, living in a mountain. He is constantly searching, for some essence of life that he lacks in himself and covets in others, for some sort of olfactory peace. He has the capacity to deceive others and, although he is cruel and unfeeling, by doing so he exposes the foolishness, vanity and greed of others. It is inevitable that Grenouille will become a prolific serial killer. His final act is a kind of aromatic climax, following which he is both spent (there is nothing left for him to do) and satisfied.

The opening chapters of the novel are an assault on the senses – eighteenth century Paris, with all its filth, poverty and physical and moral dereliction, is right there beneath your nostrils. Grenouille’s journey is narrated in the most extraordinary prose that you will ever read. The final scenes, with the baying crowd of thousands that gathers to witness his execution but which then, utterly transfixed by the hypnotic odour he has doused on himself, stolen from the bodies of his young female victims, descends into a wild orgy. It’s like the author presents a Hogarth painting on the page! (Hogarth was working at around the same time and I wonder if the author had him in mind?) It is quite extraordinary.

Perfume was one of the first books I read after graduating. I had a reading holiday after I’d finished my degree in English and this novel reminded me of my love for literature (at the time I was feeling pretty spent myself!). The other memorable book I read around this time was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I count both among my favourite books of all time. I was nervous coming back to Perfume, concerned that I might not find it as good and therefore its memory may somehow be spoiled. I needn’t have worried – it was an even greater pleasure second time around. Parts of the book left me breathless they were so powerful.

Highly, highly recommended, whether as a first or subsequent read. Astonishing.

Have you read Perfume? If so, how do you rate it?

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