The Gallery of Vanished Husbands – Natasha Solomons

This has merely a single vanished husband, but a gallery full of portraits. A nice fluffy story, about love, loss and beauty.It is also about a small close Jewish community, motherhood, and the cost of family values. Most the the plot is about a husband who never appears in the pages of the book, and a bohemian artistic community that Juliet finds herself falling into.

This was the third book in a week to mention Constable’s sky studies, so I wandered down to the Manchester Art Gallery to see this one in real life. Its beautiful and I’ve been back twice since in my lunch break to visit it and tour the gallery a bit more.

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The News: A User’s Manual – Alain de Botton

This thoughtful little book discusses how the news is chosen, and how this affects our world views. Taking topics by turn, the general theme is that light-touch headlines cause us to be less, not more, aware of the realities of the world around us.

I loved how it looks at good intentions of sharing important information can lead to a bias in how we view the world, and how news cannot allow depth of studying of decisions, but only outcomes.

It certainly has helped break me of my headline-watching habits, and after a couple of weeks I don’t think that is a bad thing. Instead I check a weekly news review, and don’t feel less aware of the world for it.

Unfinished: The Journal of Beatrix Potter transcribed by Leslie Linder

Yet another library oddity – a collection of Potter’s journals, which were originally written in code, transcribed by Linder. Unfortunately although the cracking of the code was interesting, the journal entries themselves had value only for dipping in and out of. Potter had kept a private diary for her own purposes, and as such this was not written from prosperity, but instead just a collection of very human comments.

I do want to see if I can hunt out the Beatrix Potter collection at the V&A next time I am in London though. Linder donated much of it as part of his fascination with Potter.

Travels with My Sketchbook – Chris Riddell

As I ordinarily take my young son to the library, we always turn first to the children’s section so he can pick his books out to look through whilst I browse. As a Gaiman fan, I was therefore drawn to Riddle’s doodled journal, and borrowed it for me.

His daily doodles inspired me to pick up a new sketchpad, and they are often humerus and light. His role as Children’s Laureate was presented as both hard work and a dream come true as he trotted around the country giving talks and drawing on library and bookshop walls. Then there are bits and pieces from special events, or from projects going into publication which were absolute gifts. My favourites were generally illustrated quotes and poems.

Given its prominent placement in the library, I expected this to be very much a children’s book. It isn’t: it covers his children’s material, yes, but also current affairs commentary and his weekly Observer cartoon. Much as it stretches and humanises the Mediterranean crisis, the below is not an image that should be in a book in the junior (not even teenage) section of the library. There are many (every 3-4 pages) of these images humanising or mocking current affairs. I am glad they are there, they put his life into context against the events of 2015-16, but they change the tone of the book.

So don’t give this to your children, but do get it for yourself and share it with them as appropriate.

Bye Bye BnB – Joan Campell

Following two quite heavy-going books, Bye Bye B&B is a humorous anecdotal biography on the last year of operation of a B&B near Thurso in the far north of the Scottish Highlands. This had me laughing aloud at times, especially when Campbell is dealing with BT and their notoriously dreadful customer services. Or when she lets guests ride her own horses and they get carried away by them

The life of a B&B owner is not for everyone, and even for those who choose it certainly has its challenges. Not least the tourist board Visit Scotland’s changing standards and methods of inspection. This is hard enough for a woman who ultimately leaves her B&B for a career with VisitScotland, so you are left wondering just how those less connected to the organisation feel.

 

BlueEyedBoy – Joanne Harris

I am more used to Harris’s magical realism, but this crime mystery novel is way outside this genre. I love the style it is told in: the protaganist’s blog posts and discussions in the comments. It reminds me of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book which I didn’t keep, but found a good strong read.

The setting is of course as grim and gritty as is expected in this style of book, and in the absence of magic we instead have synaesthesia, because Harris can never have characters who are entirely normal human beings. As the characters are built, we get the feeling of the rug being shifted under us, with nothing ever quite fitting the picture I already had. But despite knowing a twist must be coming, the one taken was not what I expected.

A disturbing but satisfying read.

The Secret People – John Wyndham

The Secret People is a scifi classic with a setup reministent of Blyton (plus extramarital passion). We have a rich boy with a private jet who manages to crash it in the most inconvenient place possible. But then we take a swift turn into the underworld and discover “The Secret People”.

I loved the main concepts of this: environmental changes and evolution of races of peoples. It also considers zenophobia and true fears. Everything hangs together well on the two central characters and their investigation of this world. My only quibble is that the ending could have been improved above the current one!

The Clothing of Books – Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a lovely little essay I borrowed in ebook format from the library. It examines how little influence most authors have on their book jackets, and yet how much what is on the book jacket influences reader perceptions.

The opening is not on books but on real clothing, and how we choose it to present who we are to the world. She then explores her experience as a normal author, and how covers change between translations.  One little gem was how Virginia Wolfe’s first edition covers were designed by her sister following conversation between them.

I love this look at this aspect of perception of books, and the irony as I was reading this as an eBook, chosen based on the library service’s tagging of it, so with the cover having such little impact on my reading experience!

Notes on a Thesis – Tephanie Riviére

One of my current goals is to undertake a PhD, although life events keep stopping me from starting that (such as children!) But the cynical look at PhDs in the comic press always helps steer me away, as opening up for such a long drag always comes with hesitation. Riviére’s examination of a PhD is one of that tone, a woman who starts with dreams and ambition, and just about manages to end it.

A grim and adult look at relationships under pressue, family, ambtion and poor mentor support. Only the last I thought was unfair – putting words into the mouth of an advisor to make them unsympathetic rather than just distracted. Although French academic culture may be different in this regard.

But there are plenty of dry laughs in here, and a driving need to see if Jeanne succeeds. The art is also inspired, with lecture theatres full of vicious tigers one moment and shy kittens the next as she learns to manage lecturing and conferences. Worth a read!

 

Rethink – Steven Poole

Rethink is a look at the history of ideas. How there are very few truly new ideas, but a lot of ideas which were thought up before they reached their time. The focus was spread across scientific, political and economic disciplines, leaping from astronomy to mental health via chess.

The encouragement is to look again at currently discredited ideas, and to be patient with new ideas that require time and understanding be accepted as conventional. It makes fascinating reading, as links to modern ideas are found in ancient texts, and I enjoy a good story on an old academic debate, where what we know as a fundamental truth was first proposed.

Then there is a look at what ideas could be due for renaissance. This is where we steer quite firmly into political and economic territory, betraying Poole’s lack of scientific training. But these are all ideas which are moving into the Overton window, and becoming feasible in a way that they weren’t 20 years ago.

An interesting look on how ideas develop and move in and out of being accepted truths in human society.