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In the same weekend as Caitlin Moran took home the prize for “Non-Fiction” at the Galaxy National Book Awards, APW organised a book club meet-up for its readers across the globe on her fantastic book How to be a Woman.

A Practical Wedding is the only “wedding blog” I still read daily. It’s a group of intelligent, feisty women talking about weddings and marriage and feminism, and I love it. The last couple of book clubs they’ve done have been one weekends I wasn’t free or books I wasn’t so interested in, but when Meg announced that How to be a Woman was the next title we’d read together, I promptly ordered it on amazon and put the date in my diary.

Most of APW’s readers are US or UK based, but I found one other Benelux based reader, Amanda, and we made plans to meet for lunch in Antwerp on Saturday to talk about feminism and weddings and bras. Yes, bras. Actually, neither of us are actually from Benelux (I being British and she being Swiss-Mexican), but still.

I LOVED this book. I read much of it on the train to Luxembourg last week, laughing out loud at her slightly inappropriate but hilarious sense of humour and wanting to read aloud whole passages to the rest of the carriage.

I am a feminist. I have been for as long as I can remember. I have read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, frequently got very angry at the images of women that are used to sell everything from Philadelphia to furniture polish, and had heated theological debates over who exactly should be submitting to who. I simultaneously love watching Jane Austen films, would never ever ever burn my bra (being not exactly flat chested, it is my best friend) and become dangerously distracted every time a baby is within 50m. None of which I believe is remotely contradictory.

Why? Because as the wonderful Miss Moran so clearly states,

“The purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right ‘types’ of women is what’s screwed feminism for so long… What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat receding, lazy and smug they might be. Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are.”

So I loved this book. I didn’t agree with her on anything and I think she’d be ok with that. But what she had to say about bras, fashion, sexism at work,having children, not having children, the way women imagine a thousand scenarios in their head every minute, waxing, weddings, our relationship with food, ageing… I wanted to frequently exclaim, “YES. Exactly“.

Who wants to borrow my copy first?

It is a widely agreed fact that “the film of the book” is never as good as the book. (At least, I can’t think of any exceptions off the top of my head).

However, I am not one of those people who hate seeing their favourite book turned into a film, because of all they leave out, the characters who just don’t look like they did in your head, the altered ending. I get that a film is a very different story-telling medium to a book. I am a die-hard bookworm, but I also love a good film, so I can generally enjoy any “film of the book” for what it is, without comparing it too much to the book.

Still, I was bound to be just a wee bit nervous this week when Rasmus and I went to see the film of probably my favourite book of the year, thus far.

I read The Help in the spring time, I can’t quite remember when and apparently I didn’t write about it here, coz I can’t find it in the archives. But really and truly, I LOVED it. It is clever and wonderful and moving and so very special.

And yes, the film left out a lot, changed some of it. But I think it also really managed to capture both the fear and mistrust between white and black people at that time, and also the precious relationships that formed across the divide. It was a lovely film, I sobbed through a couple of scenes – most especially every time Aibileen tells Mae Mobley “You is kind, you is smart, you is important”.

I also loved the scenes between Minny and Celia. In the book, they had been my least favourite scenes, I preferred those with Skeeter and Aibileen. But the film showed this amazing relationship between them, the difficulty of being different and experiencing rejection, not matter whether you’re white or black. Theirs was a beautiful storyline.

I also adored every scene with Cicely Tyson in because I am entirely in love with her. She made me cry when she recited the famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” of Sojourner Truth, the 19th century abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. If you haven’t watched that speech, you should.

I read an article not long ago by Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help. She received 60 rejection letters for the manuscript of The Help before someone finally saw its potential and decided to publish it. SIXTY. She writes,

“The point is, I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript—or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]—in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.”

That’s a powerful thought for the day, I think…

Following my husband around the world for the summer is quite a lazy lifestyle. Yes, I’ve been studying and volunteering, but still my days are pretty relaxed. So I’ve had lots of time to read some of the books I brought along with me.

I started with Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I missed the film earlier this summer but I’m not too disappointed because I prefer to read the book first – there’s usually a lot more detail to the story and the characters, and you get the unique pleasure of imagining everything the way you want to, rather than the way the casting director and locations scout wanted you to.

I LOVED this book. It’s a suspenseful romance set on a circus train. What’s not to love? It also is written in the form of flashbacks by the main character, sitting alone in his nursing home chair, and I tend to really enjoy stories written that way because things unfold just a little slower and more suspenseful (is that a word?) than otherwise. And as with most books, I was completely surprised by the ending, although more astute readers could probably see it coming a mile off. :)


The second book I read this summer was The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake. It’s set in the Second World War so is unsurprisingly not the most upbeat of books. It’s three main characters are the postmistress of a remote town on the American east coast, a young newly married wife of the doctor in the same small town, and a young American radio journalist in Europe. The story works itself on the connections between these three and the men in their lives, and is quite beautifully written. I found it interesting and quite poetic, but not hugely gripping.

I’ve started two books since then that I haven’t been able to finish: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, and Snow by Orhan Pamuk. The former surprised because a number of people had specifically recommended it to me, but I’ve been finding it too slow and the characters too annoying. Maybe it improves? The latter I picked up from the library bookstore for a dollar and I can understand why the author is a nobel prize winner but there’s just a little too much new politics and history to wrap my head around for me to enjoy the story fully.

So, I was stuck for anything I really wanted to read two days ago when we headed down to the pool (me to the pool, Rasmus to the gym – don’t look at me that way, I’ve been doing pilates three times a week and it’s kicking my…) Rasmus told me to take the one he’d just finished, I am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore (actually the name of someone in the book). So I did.

And then couldn’t put it down. I finished it last night. Rasmus snapped this picture of me while I was reading…

Do you see the tension in my face? I basically ordered Rasmus not to speak to me until I was finished, although I’m not sure I would have heard a word he said anyway. I’m not usually a big science fiction fan but this book had me hooked from page one. It’s an easy read and sometimes the writing is a bit, um, bad (mostly just the romance scenes, the rest is good) but the story is great and the plot moves fast and I was physically unable to look away from the page as it neared its end…

It was also fun to read a book that Rasmus had read before me. I think that’s the first time it has happened and it was fun getting to exclaim “The Mogadorians are right there!!!” and “What is up with that dog?!” and have him laugh and nod knowingly and rub my shoulders to get the tension out…

Unfortunately we still have to wait ten days for its sequel, The Power of Six, to be released. In the meantime we could watch the film, but the actors all look a little too blonde and the story a little less detailed than the book. I guess that’s to be expected. It could still be fun…

For now I’m back to square one with nothing to read. Any recommendations?

I’ve got into a habit of reading on the metro to work. It’s not long – only six stops which takes about ten minutes. But I am a fast reader so I can get through quite a lot of pages in that short time, and I love the feeling of escaping into a book for the ride.

It also relies on me finding a seat since I have not mastered the skill of standing up and reading, particularly since some morning metro drivers seem to enjoy violently shunting their passengers around to test their balance skills.

Since the last book reviews I did here, I’ve read two more. The first came highly recommended by my friend Claire, who is an avid reader and a writer so has helpfully high standards. The second was one my mum gave me for Christmas, knowing I’d enjoyed another book by the same author.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann is quite simply a beautifully written book. His language, descriptions of people and places and the way he slowly pulls you in to the story is just lovely to experience. It is set around the famous event when a man walked a cross a tightrope between the twin towers in New York one morning (completely illegally…). The book tells the stories of a number of different characters and how their lives are impacted together that same morning in hugely different ways.

It tells each person’s story one at a time, but then you catch glimpses of them through the other stories. The book had this slightly heavy feeling as I read. It painted slow but impacting pictures of grief, poverty, prostitution, racism, infidelity. But you were also thrown images of hope, friendship and love in the midst of that heaviness that made the book bearable.

I don’t think it’s a book for everyone. It’s not always an easy read but it’s a beautiful read, and if you appreciate authors who use language really well and weave a careful tapestry of stories together, you’ll enjoy this.

The second book I read was almost the opposite to McCann’s. The Jewel of St Petersburg by Kate Furnivall is an unashamed romance set in early 20th century Russia on the brink of the Revolution. It follows the story of young aristocratic Valentina Ivanova, a piano player whose life is turned upside down in the opening pages when her beloved sister is crippled by a revolutionary bomb. What follows is a story of love and revenge which completely absorbed me.

I rarely see where a story is going. I guess if I stopped and thought about it objectively I could often guess how a book or film is going to conclude, but I never do, because when I read or watch a film it just takes over my entire thought process. I am literally standing alongside the main characters through every page and scene. I think that is partly why I enjoy books that are so different from each other. But it’s also dangerous, because if things are going badly for my character I will be moody and depressed until I get a few chapters further and the possibility of hope and a happy ending is thrown in.

That’s also why I had to stop myself watching Grey’s Anatomy. I loved it but it was terrible for my emotional stability… :)

But back to the book, which is fantastic. I was so keen to read a few more pages each day that I became one of those metro-riders who keenly observes the carraiges as they pull into the station, analysing where the best opportunities for an empty seat are and not allowing other slower passengers a chance to get there first!

If you like historical novels and if you love a thrilling romance, this book is for you. Also, the man Valentina is madly in love with is a Danish engineer, so I felt we had a lot in common *wink*.

For the last month I’ve been working on some teaching for the church I go to on the characters of Mary and Martha in the bible. These are the sisters of Lazarus, who is more famously known for being raised from the dead by Jesus. These lovely ladies take up just three short chapters of the Bible (Luke 10, John 11-12) but I have totally fallen in love with them and wish I could skip back in time and have a good natter with them over a cup of tea.

I have also decided that Mary and Martha are the Elinor and Marianne of the Bible.

Martha is Elinor – responsible, sometimes burdened by her sense of duty and cultural appropriateness, supporting her family, warm and welcoming in her home, feeling responsible for her sister’s behaviour, a deep loyalty and love for Jesus, a surity in her beliefs.

Mary is Marianne – passionate, emotional, extravangant in her expression of love for Jesus, less concerned with breaking social norms and roles, eager to learn and experience new things.

Anyone else see it, or is it just me?!

I took three books with to Denmark and read two of them which is quite a good sign – I had enough time to read, which I love, but I was clearly not bored and needing something to do!

The two I read were both great, which is nice because when I was in Morocco I took a book that pissed me off so much that I sulked and ranted to Rasmus for a good fifteen minutes. No one ever likes to be disappointed by a book.

The first I read was “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” by Amy Tan. It’s set between modern-day California and China a few generations ago. It follows the life of Lu-Ling, a Chinese woman born in rural China who eventually moves to California and has a daughter, Ruth. The book is set when Ruth is in her forties and her mother begins to lose her memory. She starts to translate her mother’s life story and discovers a whole life she knew nothing about and explanations for her mother’s behaviour as she grew up.

The story is tragic and terribly sad in parts, the women characters in China suffering such a great deal that you begin to believe in the system of curses and blessings they live under and wonder how they will ever escape. The details describing life in rural China are beautiful so that the whole dusty difficult land comes alive on the page. The relationship between Ruth and her mother is complicated but realistic. And the resolution of the story is satisfying and perhaps even redeeming.



(Tangent: I’ve been reading a lot of daughters books recently. This one, this one, this one and now this one – they’ve all been good, and there’s more I want to read so it must be a good sign to call your book something like this…)

The second book I read I enjoyed even more. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant is set in the 16th century in a Benedictine convent in Ferrera, Italy. A young novice enters the convent against her will and the calm but fragile peace of the place is threatened. Most of the story centres around another nun, Sister Zuana, who runs the dispensary and feels drawn to this new novice’s journey.

There’s an undertone of suspense throughout the whole book and the relationships between the different nuns are related with realism and sympathy. I really enjoy books that explore how women interact with each other and a book set in a closed convent is by nature unfolding that theme. I also really appreciated how Dunant dealt with the nun’s spirituality and faith – showing the false for what it was while allowing space for true faith and piety without scepticism.

A colleague passed on this book to me at the Vienna AIDS Conference after she had finished it, only a little battered. It’s written by Marina Lewycka, the same author who wrote A short history of tractors in Ukrainian, which I never read but saw in the top ten stacks quite often when it came out.

This was a much easier read than Wolf Hall. I started it standing on the platform of the station waiting for the train to Vienna airport. I finished it waiting for my luggage to arrive at Brussels airport. Granted, my plane was two hours delayed, but that just made me even more grateful to have reading material that wasn’t on the pros and cons of male circumcision for preventing HIV transmission…

The story is of Georgie Sinclair who meets her batty old German Jewish neighbour Mrs Shapiro and gets wrapped up in her fight to save her house just as Georgie’s own marriage is falling apart.

The book is often a fascinating insight into a complicated cultural history and I was most absorbed in the parts where Mrs Shapiro’s history was being discovered. Lewycka dives into the decades long conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians in Israel – quite a brave attempt for what is for a lot of the rest of the book just slightly better written than most chic-lit. But she pulls it off quite well. And the jarring feel when she switches between those sections and the sections about her fling with a dark charming estate agent is only really as much as I often feel turning off the news of war, famine, violence, and carrying on with my daily life. You feel the one should have more impact on the other, but the reality is it rarely does.

So in short, this is a good book when you need a distraction from the fact your plane is even further delayed. It’s quite well written, often funny, many times very moving, and even a little educational.

The wedding went well, I’m sure you were wondering. I will maybe tell you more later this week once I have gathered some more photos (I had no time to take any so I will be relying heavily on facebook!)…

Also this weekend, I think I may have completed another of my List of 26 Things.  #17 is “travel to a new country”. I need to double check with my parents but I don’t believe I have been to Luxembourg before. On Sunday we had a friend staying from Denmark and we drove down to Luxembourg (the country), spent some time in the capital (also Luxembourg) and then drove along the wine route which is the river that marks the border between Germany and Luxembourg.

I also discovered that Schengen is actually a place. Not just a wonderful free travel zone in Europe.

If it turns out Luxembourg was a brand new country for me, I’ll type it up as a proper blog post with pictures and everything.

In the meantime I will get to the point of this post. Which is that I have two new books to write about so clearly am doing well with point #15: read one book a month. Technically July is already spoken for, so this first book (come back tomorrow for the other one!) will count for June since I think I started it way back then. Maybe even in May. Actually definitely in May because I was reading it in California.

Yes, I finally finished reading Wolf Hall.

This was a gift from my Auntie Allie at Christmas (or was it birthday? Birthday I think – I recall it coming in the post) and I was a grateful recipient because a) I adore historical fiction and b) it had just won the Booker prize which made me quite want to read it, being a wannabe-book snob.

The first thing I can say is it is LONG. A dense 650 pages long. So if detailed Tudor history is not your thing, this one is not for you. The plot is not particularly fast – the author Hilary Mantel really does go into detail of every thing that Cromwell did – but somehow it managed to still keep my interest. I only put off finishing it so long because I wrongly assumed the book would end with Cromwell’s execution and I had become quite attached to Mantel’s vision of Cromwell (if you don’t know your British history and I just spoiled the whole thing for you, apologies) But the book doesn’t end that way and apparently there’s a sequel on it’s way…

The Cromwell that Mantel writes is sympathetic but still quite mysterious. She writes in the present tense all the time, nearly always referring to Cromwell as “He” which makes you feel incredibly close to him and all the action around him. And yet at the same time, his thoughts and emotions are not laid bare so you must guess or infer from his actions or words to others. Yet there are moments of intense emotion, particularly around the death of his young daughters which haunts him throughout the book. I admired all the way through the way he worked, managing people around him, managing King Henry, carefully choosing his words, his approach, depending on who he was speaking to. You got this amazing sense of what a powerful person he was, not because of his title or position (he was the son of a blacksmith) but because he was just really that good a business man and strategist.

Also really interesting to me was the sub-story of the Reformation going through, of which Cromwell was a huge driver. He uses Henry’s political and romantic interests to further a cause which is actually very close to his heart. I felt his deep desire throughout to see the English people have the scriptures in English, to rid the church of all the lies and politics and greed. It was quite a profound part of the story for me.

Most of all, I just liked Cromwell.

Which is perhaps why the 650 pages did not feel so difficult to read. Bring on the sequel!

One of my list of 26 things to do before I am 27 is to finish at least one book every month. I love to read. As a child I was a huge bookworm and the local library was one of my favourite places. I believe one of my early teachers even asked my parents to stop me reading a bit so that my other subjects could catch up.

I read most nowadays when I have a chance to travel somewhere. Yesterday I was in London for work so had about four hours on the Eurostar to finish reading a book I started a few weeks ago, The Piano Teacher. I think it was a Christmas present, it had been sitting patiently on my bookshelf for a few months.

It’s set in Hong Kong, before, during and after the second world war. There are two parallel stories. One around the characters Trudy, a Chinese- Portuguese woman, and Will, an English man, who meet just before the invasion of the Japanese. The second story takes place twenty years later when Claire, a newly arrived English woman (the “piano teacher” of the story) meets an older Will.

I happened to start reading it at the same time as my friend Claire. She got bored of it and stopped not that far in. I admit the story gets going a bit slowly. The first quarter or so is setting up the relationships between the three main characters and it can sometimes feel a bit stilted a slow.

But then…

Once the Japanese invade the story really gets interesting. The depiction of Hong Kong during the invasion and in the prisoner camps is fascinating and the deeper motivations and strengths and weaknesses of the characters come to the surface. The tension between the characters, the slow move towards an ending which you can sense but not quite figure out until it arrives.

The end is tragic and poignant and beautiful all at the same time. Is that too much? The writing was not always mind-blowing but the story was good enough to carry it through. I would definitely recommend it.

Although Claire, knowing a little what kind of books you like, I’m still not sure you’d like it even if you made it to the end :)

p.s. while I was in England I took the opportunity to stock up on English books (and spent a blissfully long time browsing in the bookshop). Waiting for me now (once I have finished Wolf Hall, which I am so nearly done with) are: The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison; The Help by Kathryn Stockett; and The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.

Anyone read any of them and can recommend which one to start first? Or have other recommendations for me to add to my amazon basket?

Possibly the strangest title of any book I have read.

Mum and I both had this book on our Christmas lists this year, and conveniently both bought it for each other :)

Last week I had to make an overnight trip to Germany for some meetings so had around seven hours of train journey to fill, without the luxury of being able to watch the changing landscapes because I was travelling both ways in the evening. (I love watching out of train windows… the route between Liege and Aachen that I took is particularly beautiful as the train goes through steep green valleys following the river)

So I grabbed this book as I quickly packed that morning (last minute of course) and had finished it by the time I got home the next night.

I really enjoyed this book! It’s the post-war story of a women writer called Julia living in London, who by chance starts corresponding with the members of a book club on Guernsey. The entire book is written in the form of letters – between Julia and her editor, her friends, the man courting her, and of course with the quirky and captivating islanders.

It’s a book about the occupation and is quite often serious and moving, but without feeling heavy. It is immensly readable and the characters wonderfully likable. The main character Julia has a wonderful dry humour which made me feel like I would get along with her very well in real life!

I often find myself reading books which, although I love, leave me feeling a bit emotionally washed out, I think because I get so absorbed in them. This one was nice because it was light without being vapid, and the ending seriously made me want to clap my hands.

I didn’t, because I was on a crowded train, but I did set it down with a big smile on my face, only to pick it up again three minutes later to re-read the last five pages…

So now I need a new reading recommendation. I’ve got a few non-fictions lined up to read, and I’m currently dipping in and out of the fascinating auto-biography of Carly Fiorina, Tough Choices, which my friend Linda at church gave me, but I need a new fiction book to get inspired by.

Read any good books recently?

(even better if you want to lend me your used copy so I don’t have to pay the exorbitant prices at one of the two English book shops in the city… :)