Sunday, 27 March 2016


I read an interesting article in the Guardian overnight (small children woke me up, went promptly back to sleep, I was awake for an age) about books that we choose to keep on our bookcases.  The essence of the article was that the books we actually like to read we perceive to be too trashy or unimpressive to be put on public display.  These books we probably picked up in a charity shop and will probably take back to remove all trace of them.  Proof of this phenomenon is that this week charity shops have reportedly requested that 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is no longer donated as they are rather inundated with copies.

The implication is that our bookcase is a public display of who we are as determined by what we are prepared to show others we have read.  This is all pertinent to me right now as we are in the process of building bookcases.  Having lived in various rental properties over the last nine years the amount of books that we had space to display has been varied and limited.  Last year we finally got our act together and bought our very own renovation project.  Some books that have been recently read were crammed on an IKEA bookcase but aside from that all our reading material has been neatly presented in sealed boxes in the attic.

On first reading the Guardian's article I was quite resolute that this didn't reflect me. Certainly with two small children I am unlikely to go to any shop, charity or otherwise, to actually buy a book.  Amazon all the way, next day delivery and I can buy the Kindle version too which enables middle of the night reading while sitting with a small child.  I do recognise I am probably the only person in the world who buys every book they read twice for this purpose - once for the bookcase, once to actually be able to read.

However...three years ago now and at a reading impasse I decided to give my reading habit a kick start.  For Christmas I asked for the Booker Prize Shortlist books in an attempt to take the choice out of selecting books.  With a baby, a toddler, a pre-teen and teen I hardly had time to eat let alone search for books that I'd like to read. Everything I encountered I found hard to get into, most books indeed sent me to sleep within about five minutes.  When my first box of Booker Books arrived however they took pride of place on the end of the mantle, all hardback copies proudly showing themselves off.  I received general public approval for choosing this as a 'thing to do' and certain amount of status as a serious reader.  Perhaps there are elements of me in the article after all.

I have given some thought to how our books will be presented on the bookcases when completed.  I am a great advocator of alphabetical order having worked in the university library while studying for my degree - I am perhaps a little pedantic about book organisation in fact.  Once a colleague described to me how over the weekend she had reorganised her bookcases arranging her books by colour.  I was, in fairness, aghast, however looking at an image in a Conran book of a bookcase presented in this way I have to say the pleasing aesthetics rather took me aback.  Whatever is decided about our organisation, and I suspect our books will be alphabetical, I had envisaged that the Booker Prize books would have their own section, separating them from the other, more mediocre text.

Not believing myself to be a book snob it seems that I almost certainly am.  I find this to be a disappointing realisation about myself as I thought I was simply a great advocator of reading.  As a teacher I would rave about the joy to be found in a good book and would painstakingly cajole my pupils to learn to read and to seek text of interest to them in an attempt to make a small contribution to tomorrow's reading community.  As a parent I have so far taught three our of four children to read and number four is just starting to recognise some phonemes.

It seems I have a choice to make; am I comfortable being a book snob sending my children the message that not all books are equal, or should I just bite the bullet and display fiction as one complete alphabetical section?  To my dismay the answer is obvious.  I will have to settle for being a closet book snob.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane

I began reading this book with high hopes; although I read reviews and blurbs I am drawn to aesthetics and I loved the presentation. 

On starting to read I was taken aback by the forthright and bolshy attack of the storyteller. Certainly different from my recent reads and I rather liked it. I too enjoyed the early stages of the book, getting to know the characters and their relationships. 

Jean is a mother of two children, a tiresome teenager (Priscilla) and a nine year old boy (Otis). Her relationship with her husband (Gordon) is frayed and she has been having an affair for some time. Her lover commits suicide and she falls apart. Gordon is entirely peculiar, possibly a little too peculiar to be realistic. He has a habit of talking - just talking at people (no one else really gets a chance to join in), giving a detailed explanation of any and every occurrence, mostly learned by reading Wikipedia and by virtue of a good memory. He becomes entirely distracted on learning that his memory might not be what it was and struggles to accept that normal aging might be the reason. I have to say, almost from the start, Gordon is autistic was screaming out at me and goes a good way to explain some of his behaviours. Priscilla is not sold well to the reader, described consistently as a bitch and presented as self centred and impossible. Otis also presented as if on the autistic spectrum too and is a clever, literal boy who falls in love for the first time. I liked him particularly but was troubled by the extend to which his mother confided in him over her affair. Just wrong. Add to the familial home Gordon's father (Theodore) who has Parkinsons and his Grandmother (Vivien) who is fighting fit at 98 and loves to talk about herself and we have the Copeland complement. 

The book tells us the comings and goings of the their family life, with some historical content thrown in. We learn more about Jean's affair, Gordon's memory loss, Priscilla's drive to do something she is proud of and of Otis girlfriend. The older members of the family provide backdrop and humorous interludes. For the best part I enjoyed being in their lives and although I wouldn't necessarily want them as friends they were good company. 

Latterly though I found my self wondering how this would all tie together. How would the author draw on the many ongoing threads to conclude the story? I was expecting some great event where everything came out in the open and somehow they muddled through, or didn't as the case may be, towards an ending. Somewhat disappointingly, and hence the reason for the two star review, it simply didn't happen. Certainly there was resolution for Theodore in that he passed away and for Priscilla, who showed signs of growing up and who had had a lightbulb moment. Why didn't Otis conversations with him mother come out into the open however? It was alluded to that Gordon may have an inkling of his wife's indiscretion but this was not developed. Indeed Gordon was taking some mood altering, probably illegal drug for memory loss, bought on a shopping channel which it seems totally changed his personality but this was not uncovered either. I could go on. I felt disappointed and the ending where the author asks the reader "What do you think?" is just weird. 

No review would be complete without some consideration of the feasibility of the tale told, if indeed it was intended to be feasible. Jean's grief for her lost love was well constructed, I believed her sense of loss, devastation and confusion. Her involvement with the priestess church though? A step too far for me. Gordon's fear of memory loss was plausible too and again believable. His reaction to it, less so. His family not saying anything after his personality transplant? Ridiculous in spite of their preoccupations. The memory loss thread was never really concluded either which is unfortunate. I don't even want to get started on what happened to Vivien towards the end. Ridiculous.

What is here is not complete. It is as if the author, on realising that there were enough written words to make a novel, just stopped writing rather than actually finishing the book. This is a pity; the text is well written, the voice different and engaging, the characters interesting and some of the plot lines believable. I enjoyed much of the reading but as a whole this novel was disappointing.