Thursday, 27 April 2017

Review of 'My Antonia' by Willa Cather

'My Antonia' by Willa Cather is a story set in the early years of the 20th century in the prairie plains of Nebraska. The book is notionally the third in the author's Prairie Trilogy, but as far as I can tell the only connection is they share a theme and general setting and were written one after another within a few short years. There doesn't appear to be common characters or storyline, but I could be wrong about this as I haven't read the other two yet.

'My Antonia' is the story of Antonia Shimerda a Bohemian girl who moved from her European home to a farm on the prairie in Nebraska. The book is told by the narrator Jim Burden, and so it is also a story about him (some sections of the book don't even have Antonia in). The book follows them, and their family, friends and neighbours, from their homes on the farm to living in the nearby town of Black Hawk, and then to Jim's life away from Nebraska as he goes to study at Harvard. Other characters include the vivacious Lena Lingard, the shady Black Hawk moneylender Wick Cutter, and the Harling family who live next door to Jim while he is growing up.

The story starts with Jim, meeting an unnamed friend. "Do you remember Antonia?" one asks the other. Jim decides to write Antonia's story down, and this forms the main part of the book. Inside that story, are the stories of the individual characters what they are like growing up and what they make of their lives. Many of the characters are immigrants, including Antonia, Lena, Otto Fuchs, Tiny Soderball and Cuzak. They come from all over Europe - Austria, Bohemia, Norway, Sweden - and the story partly of an earlier generation of immigrants integrating in American society. The children of many of these characters would still be alive today, and their children and grandchildren would have spread across the country, American born and bred. Worth thinking about as much anti-immigrant feeling is alive today.

I loved this book. The rich descriptions of the Nebraska prairie was beautiful and sublime. It is not a long book - only about 230 pages - but by the end you feel at home there, and the characters feel like old friends. All the stories in the book are interesting, they draw you in and create a wonderful tapestry of life on the great plains of the mid-west a century ago. It also has quite a bit to think about in it, and the author skillfully compares the differing ways of life and philosophies on living as we find out what the characters make of their lives. The end of the story, wraps things up wonderfully too, and I went away with a warm, happy feeling and something of a "wish I was there" emotion. I really do like books that do that!

This was the second book I've read by Willa Cather, the first one being her later work 'Death Comes for the Archbishop'. I loved that one too and wasn't sure which I was going to prefer, but the last couple of chapters edged it in favour of My Antonia. My edition of the book had a relatively recent introduction which gave some biographical information on the author. She obviously put a lot of her own experiences into this book as her early life followed a similar path to the narrator, Jim Burden. Both moved from Virginia to Nebraska when they were around 9 or 10, spent a year or two living on a farm before moving into a town, and both left for good in their early twenties. Willa Cather clearly knew well what she was writing about, and this authenticity, and her love for the landscape, really comes through in this book.

A truly great book, 5/5 from me.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

US States Reading Challenge

Some of the books to read soon...
I do like my reading challenges, and when I came across an article called The Most Famous Book Set in Every State (of America) I thought this would be the basis for a really fun challenge. I'm not American, I do like the country though and have visited a few of the US states on holiday (and hope to visit many more in future). This challenge would allow me, through the pages of books, to visit every state. I wasn't sure about it as it would be a big challenge, but then my wonderful wife, Kate, decided we should do a joint challenge and read all the books on the list between us. We can each choose the books we most fancy. So we decided to go for it. We'd probably read about 5 or 6 between us in the past, which still left quite a few. I've just finished the first book I've read for the challenge, 'My Antonia' by Willa Cather, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Anyway, here's the list. Those highlighted in red are read (pun intended!), those in blue/purple are books we are currently reading. I'll update this post as and when we read the books on the list, and include links to the review where we've done them.

ALABAMA - To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Steve - pre-challenge)
ALASKA - Into the Wild by Jon Kraukauer
ARIZONA - The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
ARKANSAS - A Painted House by John Grisham
CALIFORNIA - East of Eden by John Steinbeck
COLORADO - The Shining by Stephen King
CONNECTICUT - Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (Steve currently reading)
DELAWARE - The Saint of Lost Things by Christopher Castellani
FLORIDA - To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway
GEORGIA - Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
HAWAII - Hawaii by James Michener
IDAHO - Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
ILLINOIS - The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
INDIANA - The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
IOWA - A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
KANSAS - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum (Kate - pre-challenge)
KENTUCKY - Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
LOUISIANA - Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (Kate - pre-challenge
MAINE - Carrie by Stephen King
MARYLAND - Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
MASSACHUSETTS - Walden by Henry David Thoreau
MICHIGAN - The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (Kate - pre-challenge)
MINNESOTA - Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
MISSISSIPPI - The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
MISSOURI - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
MONTANA - A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean
NEBRASKA - My Antonia by Willa Cather (Steve - April 2017)
NEVADA - Fear and Loathing in Law Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
NEW HAMPSHIRE - The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
NEW JERSEY - Drown by Junot Diaz
NEW MEXICO - Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford
NEW YORK - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Kate/Steve - pre-challenge)
NORTH CAROLINA - A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks
NORTH DAKOTA - The Round House - Louise Erdich
OHIO - The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
OKLAHOMA - Paradise by Toni Morrison
OREGON - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
PENNSYLVANNIA - The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Kate - pre-challenge)
RHODE ISLAND - My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult (Kate - pre-challenge)
SOUTH CAROLINA - The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (Kate -pre-challenge)
SOUTH DAKOTA - A Long Way From Home by Tom Brokaw
TENNESSEE - The Client by John Grisham
TEXAS - No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
UTAH - The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
VERMONT - Pollyanna by Eleanor H Porter
VIRGINIA - Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson
WASHINGTON - Twilight by Stephanie Meyer - read previously by Kate
WASHINGTON D.C. - The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (Kate currently reading)
WEST VIRGINIA - Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
WISCONSIN - Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
WYOMING - The Laramie Project by Moses Kaufman

So that's the list. I've set no specific deadline, but will just see how we go. I'm hoping that most of these books really give a good flavour of the state they are set in, historic or current, rather than just being a plain vanilla setting. If any don't, I might find another book about that state to read in addition.

It isn't a competition, but if it was then counting books previously read it is 8 - 3 to my wife, so I've got a bit of catching up to do!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

What Do You Look For in a Book?

As any keen reader will know, far more than other mediums such as film or TV, books are a highly personal, subjective thing. Why does your best friend love a book, and you think it is a worthless piece of trash? How can one of you get it so wrong? The answer is of course that they don’t. Yes, some books can objectively be said to bad, according to some easily defined measure – most readers can agree that anything with lots of spelling mistakes, poor grammar, contradictory plotlines and other mistakes is not a good book. But beyond that? I think it is impossible to say. You often see this with fans of literary fiction who bash genre fiction such as crime/thrillers or SF & Fantasy. But you also see it the other way round too with fans of genre fiction saying how terrible literary fiction is (I know, I used to be one of them).

So what makes one person rate a book so differently from someone else? I think the answer is that they are looking for different things in a book. Most readers don’t actively think much about what they are looking for in a book but it can be worthwhile considering this. It can help you make better choices about what books to read, and get more enjoyment out of reading. Here are just a few things people look for in a book and reasons why they read.

Escapism – This is where you are looking for books to take you away from your life for a time while you are reading, to forget the cares, worries and stresses of modern life. It is a very common thing to look for in a book. Fantasy and science fiction or historical fiction are popular escapist books, but most genres can be escapist too.

Visit new places – Most people experience a wanderlust, the urge to travel to see new places, at some point in their lives. Few people have the time, money or sometimes the ability to visit all the places they want to. Books allow you to cheaply and easily visit new places, and you don’t need to take two weeks off work to do it! Travelogues are obviously good for this, but so are novels.

Get New Experiences – This is a little bit similar to visiting new places. Books can allow you to experience so many new things – climb Mount Everest, dive into the deepest ocean, sail around the world, live alone in the woods – all from the comfort of your armchair. Books can also give you experience of growing up in a different country, doing a different job, even being an animal!

Empathy and understanding – reading books can help you better understand your fellow human beings, appreciate their drives and motivations. Literary and character driven fiction is best at this. It can even help you get on better with other people.

Indulge in Personal Fantasies – People can look to books to act out their personal fantasies, to do things they could never or would never do in real life. Take revenge on people who have slighted you, have passionate love affairs with billionaires, movie stars etc. With books, the world really is your oyster.

Adrenaline Rush – Many people like the gripping plots, the edge of the seat action, the compulsion to keep reading. This is most common in thrillers and adventure novels, but can be in any type of book.

To relax – If you are anything like me, to relax with a good book is one of the great pleasures in life. Reading can be one of the most relaxing of activities, and many people read to relax at the end of the busy day before going to sleep.

Beautiful writing – Some books seem to rise above the rest, their authors showing a such a mastery of language that it is a joy to read them for the sheer joy of the words on the page, irrespective of plot or characters. When beautiful writing is linked to wonderful characters and a great story, you have something really special.

To learn new things – Many books are read simply for the information in them, because the reader needs the knowledge they contain, but even more than that many people read not because they have to, but for the joy of learning new things and acquiring knowledge.

To help yourself – Self help books are very popular, as people try to improve themselves – mindfulness, dieting, getting on at work, finding happiness, the list is endless. Beyond that though, by reading the right kind of novels people can find help, and therapy through reading is starting to even be prescribed by doctors!

To be challenged – Perhaps you want to pit your wits against the author, solve a mystery or a puzzle. This is particularly common with crime novels and the mystery genre.

These are just some of things people look for in books, and a few of the reasons why people read. There are many more. Next time you are choosing what to read, think about what you want from your next book. It will help you choose a great book, perfect for you right then.

What do you look for in a book? Let us know in the comments.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Top 10 Books to Read From my Kindle

While I prefer reading a physical paperback copy of a book, I do quite a bit of reading on my Kindle too, for the sheer convenience (I can read in the lunchtime sandwich queue, waiting at the bus stop and even while walking home from work although that takes some skill). I'm a addictive buyer of books, physical and e-books. For real books I'm constantly reminded what they are as I see my bookshelves every day. For e-books though it is easy to forget what I've got on there, especially impulse 99p deals or free books. I have 236 books on my Kindle currently, and between half and three quarters of them I haven't read. So I decided to do a Top 10 list of the books from my Kindle that I most want to read. This isn't my Top 10 must read books by any stretch of the imagination, that is for another post, if anything it's my Top 10 Forgotten About Should Reads!

  1. 'The Sins of the Father' by Jeffrey Archer. This is Book Two in his Clifton Chronicles, following the life of Harry Clifton through most of the 20th century. I really enjoyed book 1, Only Time Will Tell. Archer gets a bad rep for being too commercial, formulaic etc and that may be true, but I enjoy them!
  2. 'Emperor: The Gates of Rome' by Conn Iggulden. I enjoyed his series about Ghengis Khan, and I really like Roman history, so this first book in his Roman historical fiction series should be good.
  3. 'The Last Grain Race' by Eric Newby. The author went on to become one of the best travel writers of the 20th century, but before all that as an 18 year old he signed on for a sailing round trip from Europe to Australia on one of the last voyages of its kind. I really enjoyed his book 'Love and War in the Appenines' so hoping this will be good too.
  4. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. A short story cycle, all the stories in this anthology link together and portray the life and people of a small town in Ohio.
  5. 'Raven Black' by Ann Cleeves. The first in her crime series set in the Scottish Shetland islands, now a popular TV series. I've heard a lot of good things about her books but never read any.
  6. The Time Machine by H G Wells - a short sci-fi classic I'm almost ashamed I've not read yet.
  7. 'Dark Star Safari' by Paul Theroux - Travel writer Paul Theroux journeys across the length of Africa.
  8. We Need to Talk About Kelvin by Marcus Chown - A science book about what the everyday can teach us about the universe (not to be mistaken with 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' which is about a kid who shoots loads of people at his school'!)
  9. 'The Card' by Arnold Bennett - a humorous classic about a confidence man/con artist. Set in the area my wife grew up in, so a - tenuous - personal connection!
  10. 'The Rain' by Joseph A Turkot - A post apocalypse novel, first in a series. Two-a-penny but this one looks really good.
So this is a bit of an eclectic mix, but some gems here for sure.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Getting Back into Reading

I'm always interested in asking people about books and reading. Do you like reading? What are you reading? How books do you read in a year? What can I say, I'm bookishly curious. A large proportion of the people I come across don't read much. Out of those, some never read, but a common story is that they loved reading as a child, and then at some point probably in their teens, they stopped reading. Now there's nothing wrong with that, growing up is a fun and challenging time, but in many cases they never go back to reading. It would be interesting to see if this pattern existed in the past, or if it is because of computer games, the internet, Netflix and all the other distractions of modern life. The result though is the same. Other people used to be really keen readers and then 'burned out' and don't enjoy it any more.

This would all be fine, I think everyone should do what makes them happy, but I think a lot of people would like to read more, and a lot more people would enjoy reading if they gave it a good go. Reading is a really rewarding experience, but sometimes you just have to work at it. Here are a few suggestions for how to get back into reading and enjoy it.

Make time to read - I'm starting off with possibly my most important suggestion. You've got to make time to read, without distractions if you can. I love reading and I generally read every day, but it is so easy to just have an extra few minutes on the internet, watching tv, or some other distraction. I still have to make the conscious decision to pull myself away from those distractions and saying I'm going to read now for 15 minutes or half an hour. It's harder when I'm not in the middle of a book. I always enjoy it though, and usually a lot more than whatever else I could be doing.

Read regularly - You should read regularly, every day if possible, to maintain your interest in a book. For every day that goes by without reading your book, you forget a little bit and lose interest in the book. Obviously the more infrequently you read, the longer it takes to read a book which in itself will make you fed up with it.

Choose the right book for you - A lot of people that have lost interest in reading or think they don't enjoy reading are probably reading the wrong type of book for them. If you don't read much or haven't read for a long time, then you shouldn't start off reading Dickens or Tolstoy. People that don't read much probably aren't that aware of what books are out there, and when they do read they read a book that someone else told them "you should really read this book", when that isn't necessarily the best thing for you. There's a perception some people have that if you are reading you *should* be reading classics or literary fiction. If you try these and find them difficult or boring, it's easy to think you just don't enjoy reading. Instead, you should perhaps be trying a fast paced crime or thriller, a young adult book, chick lit or even a graphic novel, whatever takes your fancy.

Life's too short for bad books - by that I mean books you aren't enjoying. Don't feel you have to finish every book you read. Give it more than a couple of pages - my rule of thumb is read the first 10%, or maybe a bit more if it is a short book - as a lot of books take a bit of getting into, but after the first couple of chapters if you aren't enjoying it, give up and try something else. If you don't you'll just get bogged down for weeks or months and get fed up with reading generally. Even if you find yourself halfway through and suddenly find you aren't enjoying it anymore, don't persevere, give it up. Some people have the idea that they're invested too much time in it not to finish, but why? That's dead time you can't do anything about, but you can stop yourself having to put up with any more.

Be Mindful - Mindfulness is something of a buzzword these days, the idea is if you concentrate all your attention on what you are doing at that moment, you will get more out of it, find it more useful, enjoy it more. This is true in all sorts of activities, including reading. Try and clear your mind of anything else as you read, fully immerse yourself in the story, try not to let your mind wander. You'll enjoy the reading experience much more because of it.

Don't Force It, Take a Break - Sometimes life is really busy and stressful. Reading can help that in many cases, providing an escape and a comfort, but not all the time. Don't stress yourself out feeling you've got to read. If you've tried everything else, but you are still not enjoying it then stop for a while. Give yourself a break, and come back in a few weeks or months when things have calmed down. This is also a good idea if you've been reading a lot, perhaps for studying, and are fed up with it. Give it a rest, try again at a later date.

I hope some of these suggestions are useful. Have you got any other ideas for how to get back into reading or how to enjoy it more? If so, post them in the comments below and share with everyone!