Book ’em!

Well, the bookcase Mr E Man got me for Christmas may not have been a surprise, but it sure is awesome!


Try finding a specific volume in this mess!

Books behind books on top of maps...


Beautiful virgin territory


Google books

(She also hopped into the dresser while I was emptying it, but I didn’t manage to get a photo. She’s very helpful).


Books! Beautiful orderly books!


Returned to its original purpose


While I was moving and organising my books, I kept thinking “Oh, right! I meant to review this one on my blog!” My book reviews tag has been sadly underused this year, and I don’t really remember the details of all of the books I’ve read since I posted my last review, but here’s my attempt at catching up!

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

This was a really, really challenging book. I don’t remember finding any novel quite so difficult to read since I started tackling “proper literature” in my early teens. It took me several attempts to get past the initial few chapters, but while we were on vacation in Cuba I finally managed to push through to the stage where I just had to keep reading to find out what happened .

I’m really, really glad I persevered, because the book is a gem. I love Rushdie’s use of language (and had to be very vigilant about not copying some aspects of his trademark style into everything I wrote while I was reading this book!), and it’s a very rich story; it starts with the main character’s grandfather as a child, which gives you a sense of the historic span of the book, and it’s incredibly densely packed with characters and events. This is the main reason I found it so difficult to get into, and the main reason it was so satisfying.

My one regret with this book is that without a very strong grasp of the history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, some of the impact of the story no doubt went right over my head. The lives of the main character and the rest of the Midnight’s Children (those born at the moment India became independent) mirror the story of India, and while I know enough to recognise a few of the analogies, my level of education in the history of the region definitely let me down. But even if you’re in the same boat as me in that regard, I’d still recommend this book if you feel like a challenge!

The Satanic Verses is in my pile of unread books (stacked horizontally on the fourth shelf of my new bookcase!) I hope it’s a leeetle less difficult to get into…

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

This is a love story about a professional violinist in London who rediscovers a former lover. Classical music features prominently, to the extent that it’s essentially a character in its own right; the events within the novel are intertwined with descriptions of several works, from the professionals’ point of view. It’s very well done; I wasn’t familiar with all of the pieces, but the book is so well written that this really doesn’t matter. Familiarity with any music (and especially playing it within an ensemble) is enough.

Overall, I quite liked this book, but I didn’t love it. It didn’t grab me on an emotional level. Part of the reason may be that having been cheated on myself by a long-term partner many years ago, I find it hard to be sympathetic to a relationship-wrecking main character, so your mileage may vary!

I won’t be keeping this book, so give me a shout if you’d like it! (Eva…?!) I’d be happy to mail it anywhere – surface, of course – maybe in return for a used book of your own…? ๐Ÿ™‚

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

I bought this book from GrrlScientist as part of her massive Transatlantic moving sale last year, and I loved it!

The story is set in Turkey before, during and after WWI, and begins with an introduction to the various inhabitants and customs of a mixed Christian and Muslim town. This part of the book is utterly charming – and riveting, despite the introduction of at least one new character per short chapter! The stories from the town are interspersed with snippets from the life of Mustafa Kemal and his rise through the ranks of the military; this, coupled with some knowledge of history and a familiarity with de Bernieres’ style, made me desperate to cling on to the tales of a happily integrated town and its inhabitants, knowing that things would go very, very wrong very soon…

…and, indeed, just as in Corelli’s Mandolin, when the war begins the descriptions of the battles, the living conditions in the trenches at Gallipoli, and the atrocities committed by both sides, were harrowing to read. No details are spared, no punches are pulled. It’s gruesome – but incredibly well written and engaging, even through the worst of the worst. My high school history lessons had covered some of these events, including the Gallipoli campaign and the rise of Kemal, which made it all the more interesting to me.

I’ve passed this book on to a Turkish friend of mine who grew up in the region described in the book. I showed her the book in the pub one night when I was about halfway through it, and it led to a fascinating discussion about many subjects, but especially about religion, history, and how they’re taught in English and Turkish high schools. I can’t wait to hear what she thinks of the book!

The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Mr E Man and I unaccountably forgot to pack any books when we headed off on our five-day kayak trip in Desolation Sound this summer, and found ourselves in the terrible situation of having to buy books in Safeway while we were stocking up on food. This was the only book we found that looked even remotely readable, and to be honest we only bought it because of the author (yes, it’s the same guy who directed Pan’s Labyrinth).

I won the first turn at reading the book in a game of rummy, and formed a fairly negative opinion very quickly. I informed Mr E Man that it read like a screenplay rather than a novel, and that the writing was similar to Dan Brown’s.

However, this booked reeled us in SO QUICKLY! We ended up arguing constantly about whose turn it was to read it, and whether turns should be based on the number of pages or the number of minutes (I’m a faster reader than him, so of course I favoured the latter while he thought the former approach was fairer). It’s much better than anything Dan Brown’s ever written – extremely gripping and well-paced, even if the subject matter is a little hackneyed.

Yes, it’s a vampire book, but these aren’t your drippy, sparkly, teenage fantasy vampires – they’re grotesque, painfully diseased, and deformed – old-school, old-country vampires. It’s great stuff, and by the end I was totally hooked! I can’t wait for the next two books (yes, it’s a trilogy) and, most of all, the (surely inevitable) first movie!

Moving on to the less serious books on the list…

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

Everything I said about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies last year also applies to this book: it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, tons of fun, and extremely silly indeed. At first I thought the side-story – the invasion and siege of England by a variety of grotesque marine dwelling nasties – had more of a narrative to it than did the plague of Dreadfuls in P&P&Z, but ultimately the story wasn’t developed and never resolved.

But really, who cares?!

Very highly recommended – just be careful about reading it in public, as involuntary and very undignified LOLs are a definite possibility.

The P&P&Z prequel is also in my pile of unread books!

I See Rude People: One Womanโ€™s Battle to Beat Some Manners into Impolite Society by Amy Alkon

I read Alyssa’s review of this book and went straight to Amazon to order a copy for myself. The author is a self-styled member of the Rude Police who calls people on their rude behaviour in a very entertaining way that makes me wish I wasn’t quite so British all the time. She calls people back who’ve had very loud public phone calls that involved giving out their phone number and chides them for their rudeness; she tracks down anonymous trolls from the comments section of her website and calls them to invite them to repeat their insults in person. It’s all very amusing to those of us who also get worked up by other peoples’ lack of manners – but it also got rather repetitive towards the end.

This is another book that I don’t plan to keep, but that’s definitely worth reading; again, let me know if you’d like me to mail it to you! (Again, maybe you can mail me one of your unwanted books in return!)

I think that’s it…

I’ve also re-read a lot of old favourites this year, including the entire Hitchhiker “trilogy” and the two Dirk Gently books, plus all the much-loved John Wyndham books my parents brought over in May. But for some reason I just don’t feel inspired to post reviews for old favourites – sorry! You’ll just have to read them yourselves.

Mr E Man says I’m not allowed to buy any more books until I’ve read all the ones I already own. But I’m already making a list of books to buy next, and recommendations are always welcome!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in blog buddies, book review, drunkenness, education, furry friends, photos. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Book ’em!

  1. RPS77 says:

    I wish I had a bookcase that looked that nice. Actually, one of mine might look almost as nice if I actually cleaned it. Of course, that would require taking all the books out, but I’m moving next month, so there won’t be much excuse not to clean it.

    The first piece of furniture looks very similar to one my parents used growing up.

    I read almost all non-fiction, mainly history, which I don’t think lends itself very well to book reviews unless I was writing for historians. Since I don’t have the expertise of an actual historian, it’s sort of a limbo when it comes to writing about what I read.

  2. Alyssa says:

    Gorgeous book case!! I love when cats are helpful like that ๐Ÿ™‚

    Here are some of my favorite books I’ve read over the last couple of years:
    The Book Thief (a story about a young girl living in Germany during WWII)
    Honeymoon in Purdah (non-fiction, a woman tells of her travels in Iran)
    The Glass Castle (a memoir about growing up with very very weird parents)
    The Book of Negroes (fascinating story that follows one African woman throughout her life – most of which was spent as a slave in America)
    The Lovely Bones (told by a teenage girl who was murdered and is now watching her dad unravel the mystery of who did it)
    The Thirteenth Tale (a mystery/thriller about family and secrets – keeps you guessing until the end!)
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (a mystery novel narrated by a 15-year-old autistic child – it even includes math problems!)

    Right now I’m reading Still Alice (a 50-year-old academic finds out she has Alzheimer’s). I’m only 30 pages in and can tell it will be heartbreaking, but is an amazing read already. Plus, having knowledge of the academic world makes it all the more interesting.

  3. Love the bookcase, and I heartily approve of all the reading matter that I saw had to be redistributed onto it. We’re also going to be putting in bookcases – built-in shelves – as a New Year’s project, a long one, and I will try to think to do some before and after as well. But you can’t look at the books because they’re still in their original fifteen moving boxes or so from last summer. SIgh.

  4. ricardipus says:

    Hah! I bought Mrs. Ricardipus Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for Christmas this year. I do have to admit that I’ve read none of the books in your list though…

    Oh, and nice bookcase – well done that Mr. E-man, and I hope you’re over feeling guilty about the non-surprise by now. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I have just put down DNA: The Secret of Life (James Watson/Andrew Berry) and A Life Decoded: My Genome, My Life by Craig Venter – both are well worth reading but I’m all scienced out at the moment. Currently in my book stack are the Keith Richards autobiography Life, which is a bit rambling but very entertaining, and The Camera by Ansel Adams, which is astonishingly fresh and unpretentious (turns out the man could write as well as take astounding photographs).

  5. Kaye says:

    Hi Cath,

    I had exactly the same experience with Midnight’s Children. I found the first chapter or two hard work, but persevered, and then found the book captivating and “unputdownable.” I rank it among the best books I’ve ever read (based on subjective and completely irrational criteria).

    Thanks for the reviews. I’m tempted by some of the others books on your list now.

    Kaye, booklover and bloglurker ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. ecogeofemme says:

    Lovely bookcase! Great reviews, too. You should post what books you’re planning to buy, and maybe your readers will send them to you! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    Nice post–thanks for the book suggestions! I especailly enjoyed the photos of your book shelves–it relieved some of my own guilt (I also have maps trapped underneath books!)…

  8. cromercrox says:

    There are few things on Earth more fair than a well-stocked (and fairly tidy) bookcase. I read ‘Midnight’s Children’ on a beach in Greece many, many years ago and loved it. Yes, it took some getting into, but the results were worthwhile. I remember two scenes – how one of the characters gets to see his betrothed by instalments, through a hole in a bedsheet: and how the main character’s abnormal sense of smell leads him to become a ‘sniffer’ for the army. I remember the second because it’s similar to a scene in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, in which one orc, a sniffer, is abused by another orc.

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    RPS77, I tend to max out on non-fiction reading at work, so with a few exceptions, I prefer to read novels in my spare time!

    I’m sure interested people would find any reviews you did post! As a scientist I’m always interested to hear what non-scientists make of science-related books and news articles etc., and I’m sure historians are the same…?

    Good luck with the move!

    Alyssa, thanks for the recommendations! I loved the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – and also his next book, A Spot of Bother. The Book of Negroes is in my pile of unread books, and I also got it for my Mum for Christmas!

    Heather, good luck with the project! Having books hidden away in boxes would be even worse than having them piled up so haphazardly that they’re hard to extract…

    Ricardipus, I hope she enjoys it! You should read it too – Mr E Man enjoyed it too, although less than I did, because he wasn’t so familiar with the original.

    I hear the audio version of Keith Richards’ autobiography is read by Johnny Depp. I usually much prefer holding a physical paper book than listening to a reading… but maybe I’ll make an exception for this one!

    Hi Kaye! Thanks for delurking! I’m glad you enjoyed the book too – definitely well worth the effort, as all the best things in life are!

    Eco, thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the reviews.

    Once I’ve cleared the backlog, my next purchases will be two novels by a certain Occam co-blogger!

    Thanks, Steve! My husband and I are both naturally messy people. It’s good because we don’t tend to annoy each other much (my last long-term boyfriend was a neat freak, and we drove each other nuts), but bad because, well, things get messy ๐Ÿ™‚

    Cromercrox, I read it partially on a beach, too – it’s not your average beach book though! Have you read any of his others?

  10. cromercrox says:

    I seem to remember reading ‘Midnight’s Children’ in short bursts between episodes of snorkelling. I haven’t read any of his others, though I have heard snatches of ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ on the radio.

  11. This is a great post! I’ve resolved to read (more) books this year, so the suggestions are great! Oh, and your readers’ suggestions are very helpful, too!

  12. Mike says:

    heh – I had a startlingly similar experience with Vikram Seth. Definitely some good parts, but ultimately the wrong book at the wrong time for me. I think it’s one of the few books I’ve started but never finished. Just too close to the bone. My commiserations on crappy partners and congratulations on coming out on the good side of it all. I also didn’t finish “High Fidelity” around the same time, but returned to that one later and loved it.

    The lower shelf on our bookcase is now being stocked with non-books (games and puzzles), which are less easy for an ankle biter to damage when he drags them down. Cats clambering around are nothing.

    Although you’re not so into non-fiction, I’m reading and loving “Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman” at the moment (HT little brother for a great christmas prezzie). What an incredible guy!

    For fiction, I can heartily recommend “The Glass Palace” by Amitav Gosh if you haven’t read it. I think I read it shortly after it came out (2000), and it remains one of my favourites.

    And a Happy New Year.

  13. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Henry, I’d only read The Ground Beneath Her Feet before – I’d never really thought to read Rushdie, but then U2 turned one of the lyrics from the novel into a song that I love, and I decided to give him a try!

    Thanks, UR! If you read any of these books, please come back and let me know what you thought!

    Mike, see, I loved High Fidelity (the book more than the movie, although the movie was also great. Sigh – the days of John Cusack making good films seem to be over, alas). And I also liked A Suitable Boy, so I’m not sure why this book just didn’t click for me. Oh well.

    Thanks for the recommendations! I should make one of those Amazon wish list thingummies so I can keep track of what I should be buying next.

  14. ruchi says:

    Gorgeous bookcase!! Midnight’s Children is probably Rushdie at his finest, though Haroun and the Sea of Stories is probably a close second in my book anyway. Definitely worth reading, and it’s a children’s book so it’ll be an easy read. Satanic Verses is great, but also hard to get into.

  15. Thanks Ruchi! Mr E Man has excellent taste (obviously).

    I’m keeping the Satanic Verses for my next long vacation – I tend to go through books really quickly when I’m spending lots of time on planes and trains, so taking something challenging will cut down on my speed and therefore on the number of books I have to carry around!

    I didn’t know he’d written a children’s book. Interesting!

  16. Frank says:

    Cath – Late to the game, but enjoyed t his post – commendably pithy reviewing style!. I’ve read your first two selections but not the others. I read Midnight’s Children a while ago and I know I enjoyed it but recollect some initial resistance. Loved Satanic Verses too – it speaks to the experience of having multiple places you call home. I will have to give the transformed Jane Austen books a try, I think. I’m tempted to try the de Bernieres book, but a Greek friend of mine foams at the mouth when his name is mentioned as (so I understand) his portrayal of history in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a little skewed.

  17. Frank says:

    My real reason for posting here though is to share this lovely blogpost – The Reading Map – with some book-lovers. I so wish I had written it!

  18. Happy New Year!

    I was going to ask if you’d read A Suitable Boy but then noticed in an earlier comment that you had. One of my favourite books of all time. I liked An Equal Music but nowhere near as good as ASB.

    And I second the vote for Amitav Gosh’s The Glass Palace – most excellent.

  19. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks, Frank! One of the benefits of leaving months between reading a book and reviewing it is that you forget so much, you can’t help but be pithy ๐Ÿ™‚

    Interesting comment from your Greek friend. I’m definitely very interested to hear what my Turkish friend makes of Birds Without Wings.

    Happy New Year, PiT!

    A second recommendation now puts The Glass Palace at the top of my list!

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