Librarian’s Choice: The books that got me back into reading

This blog is from Louise, a librarian based at Central library.

I used to read, a lot. Days would be lost with my eyes tied firmly to the pages in front of me as I awaited what would happen next, early favourites included the adventurous tales of Robin Hood and the multiple ‘scrapes’ encountered by red-headed orphan Anne Shirley. Teenage years followed with a dip into the teen horror genre and Stephen King, who I found way too scary but had to read because all my friends were. As young adulthood overtook teens it was into the world of ‘chick lit’ I fell. My reading tastes continued to grow and change as I aged and there was always a book in my bag to be opened and indulged whenever the chance arose.
And then it stopped.

Something major in my life happened that pretty much stopped dead my love of literature. I became a parent. Instead of reading by lamplight my nights were spent with a fractious babe. Sometimes I could barely remember what day it was never mind where I was up to in the plot. Instead of finishing a book in a couple of days it was now taking me a couple of weeks to even get to the middle and by the time I’d gone a whole year without finishing a book I realised I’d lost the habit. To me that’s what reading always was, a good habit that brought pleasure, escapism and knowledge.

Two children and one house move later I’d had enough, I wanted reading back but it appeared I’d forgot how to become engrossed in a book once more and repeated efforts left me feeling a failure when I couldn’t get past chapter 3. And then I remembered a book that I’d read 15 years previously and still had squirrelled away in a box somewhere. True Tales of American Lives by Paul Auster. 180 stories chosen from his National Public Radio programme are the stories of everyday people living in twentieth century America. There were only 2 rules to have your story included, it must be true and you must be previously unpublished. The resulting stories cover everything from grief to romance, adventurous to the hum drum, humourous, sad and ridiculous but all of them real. The best bit, most of them were short. Some barely a page while others took up 5, the book was one that could be picked up and put down without plot lines or character getting confused. This book got me back into reading while being one of the most authentic but multi-voiced books I have ever read. Some of the stories I couldn’t remember from my first reading 15 years previous, but others were like old friends just waiting to be reacquainted.

Louise The MothIt was also talking about my love of this book that had my next read recommended to me. The Moth: This is a True Story
by Catherine Burns.  Like True Tales, The Moth gathers together a selection of stories though this time there is definitely more of a fantastical element to the tales, with accounts of space walks from astronaut Michael J. Massimino, to the American doctor spirited away by a group of nuns to the bed side of Mother Theresa. Again the stories are short but always engaging and easy to read wherever you are.

These are the two books that got me back into reading, these are the two books I would recommend to anyone and everyone, whether you are already a voracious reader or someone looking for a way into a wonderful new habit.

Here are some other short story collections to kick off your reading habit.

Lou The not deadThe not-dead and the saved and other stories by Kate Clanchy

None of us are perfect, in the way we love, age, or view the world. ‘The Not-Dead and the Saved’ offers us an opportunity for reinvention: of ourselves, those we have lost, and the world in which we live. From a man doomed to spend his life trying to find solutions to cancer; to a new mother haunted by a swaddling, tablet-eating great-aunt; to an intrepid literary agent who travels to the Yorkshire Moors to discover the next big thing, and ends up eating Anne Brontë’s rock cakes, we meet a host of characters who are desperately, creatively, and often hilariously trying to evade the underlying truths of their lives.

Lou Sweet HomeSweet home by Carys Bray

A surreal supermarket, fictional parenting books, a gingerbread house and an alternative to IVF steeped in Nordic mythology are deployed in 17 very different notions of home, as Carys Bray explores loss, disappointment, frustrated expectations and regret through dark, funny stories which strike at the heart of family life.

 

Lou The visiting privelegeThe visiting privilege: new and collected stories by Joy Williams

Joy Williams has been celebrated as a master of the short story for four decades, her renown passing as a given from one generation to the next even in the shifting landscape of contemporary writing. And at long last the incredible scope of her singular achievement is put on display: 33 stories drawn from three earlier, much lauded collections, and another 13 appearing here for the first time in book form.

Lou Those were the daysThose were the days by Terry Wogan

Welcome to the party. Pull up a chair, take your ease, and join Tom, king of the Cattle Market branch, for a bite to eat and a glass or two of wine. Come and meet his customers: many of whom have become his friends, and many more of whom haven’t. Either way they’ve some fine tales to tell. Join Tom as he reminisces about the places he’s been, the people he has met, the laughter and the tears of daily life as he made his way from humble bank clerk to the heady heights of Branch Manager. ‘Those Were the Days’ is a collection of short stories by national treasure Sir Terry Wogan, filled with his famous humour, and charm.

Lou American HousewifeAmerican housewife by Helen Ellis

Meet the women of ‘American Housewife’: they wear lipstick, pearls, and sunscreen, even when it’s cloudy. They casserole. They pinwheel. They pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy. And then they kill a party-crasher, carefully stepping around the body to pull cookies out of the oven. Vicious, fresh and nutty as a poisoned Snicker, this collection is an uproarious and pointed commentary on womanhood.

Lou Single, carefreeSingle, carefree, mellow by Katherine Heiny

A tender and ruefully funny look at varieties of love, secrets, and betrayal in ten exquisite stories that form a guided tour of the human heart.

 

Librarian’s Choice- my first five books of the year

A blog from Stu, a Community Librarian based in the east of the city.

In an attempt to stave off the inevitable post-Christmas comedown, I’ve been distracting myself by reading as many books as I possibly can. Here’s a rundown of the first five books I’ve read this year:

stu-temporary-gentlemenThe Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

An elegiac tale in which a retired UN weapons inspector looks back at the course of his life, and particularly the tempestuous marriage which ended with the early death of his alcoholic, mentally unstable wife. Barry is a tremendously gifted writer and the prose here is pretty much flawless, but somehow this never got going for me. I was reading page after page without really getting involved, almost as if I were waiting for the story to start properly, and I was still waiting for it to start when I turned the last page. It’s beautifully written but lacked a bit of depth for me, as if it was a 300 page synopsis of a much longer, weightier novel, but it’s still worth a look for the quality of the writing alone.

stu-daylight-gateThe Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

Marvellously lurid horror from Accrington’s finest, this is a fictionalised treatment of the tale of the Pendle witches. If you know the story, most of the facts are loosely in place, although she freely admits in the preface that her Alice Nutter bears no resemblance to her real-life counterpart. It’s pretty schlocky in places – as the fact that it’s published under the Hammer imprint would suggest – but it’s still not for the faint-hearted. There’s incest, grave-robbing, torture, necromancy and black magic aplenty, not to mention a deliciously sensual lesbian love story as well. She even manages to work in an invented plot of her own – involving Shakespeare himself as well as Doctor John Dee, all of which adds real flavour to the tale. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Hammer Horror movie there’s much to like here, and for those who already know the story and want to have a bit of fun with it there’s plenty to enjoy as well.

stu-assasination-of-thatcherThe Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

These days she’s famous for her outstanding historical novels based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, but this brilliant collection of short stories shows she’s possesses a much broader palette than that would suggest. These are fabulously dark little tales, always slightly grotesque in a Salinger or Roald Dahl-esque sort of way. They’re mostly tales of middle-class life gone awry – bored couples, failed marriages, the hideous grind of everyday life – described in tremendous prose and with a fine feel for dialogue. The title story seems to take most of the critical plaudits but my favourite is The Long QT – the shortest one in the whole set – in which a wife catches her husband in an extremely compromising position, before meeting a sticky – albeit hilarious – end. Highly recommended.

stu-where-have-you-beenWhere Have You Been? by Joseph O’Connor

More short stories, this time from one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary writers. Whereas Mantel’s stories are always slightly exaggerated, placing them just outside the realms of the completely believable, this collection is firmly rooted in real life, and it’s absolutely wonderful in places. Orchard Street, Dawn is a coruscating account of the lives of Irish immigrants in 19th century New York (a constant theme in his longer prose works), but most of these have a reasonably contemporary feel. His descriptive prose is a real treat for connoisseurs, and his talent for capturing the nuances, rhythms and colloquialisms of everyday speech is every bit as good as that of Roddy Doyle. By turns heart-breaking and laugh out loud funny, this collection has the temerity to be even better than Hilary Mantel’s.

The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave

A disjointed, rambling travelogue in which the formidable Bad Seeds frontman spiels stream-of-consciousness thoughts onto aeroplane sick bags whilst in the throes of a US tour and collects them here in one handy volume. It also contains lyrics for songs he wrote at the time and discarded. It’s a bit too fragmentary to make any real sense – and maybe that’s the point – but overall it came across as if he were trying to write some sort of Ginsberg-esque jazz poem, and it didn’t work for me at all in that respect. That said, Cave is Cave and in amongst the weirdness there are some lines of genuine brilliance – “If the past don’t get you, the future will.” Right on.

Costa Short Story Awards finalists announced

The Costa Short Story Award 2014 finalists have been announced.

The judging panel included writers Patrick Gale and Victoria Hislop; Richard Beard, director of the National Academy of Writing; Fanny Blake, novelist, journalist and Books Editor of Woman & Home magazine; and Simon Trewin, agent at William Morris Endeavor.

It was then made available on the Costa Book Awards website for the public to download and read, and then vote for their favourite, although the names of the authors were only revealed on 19th January, after the vote for the winner had closed.

 The six shortlisted authors are Paula Cunningham, Zoe Gilbert, Jane Healey, Joanne Meek, Mark Newman and Lucy Ribchester, you can listen to their stories on the Costa website

 The Costa Short Story Award was started in 2012 and is judged without the name of the author being known throughout the process. It is open to both published and unpublished writers, for a single, previously unpublished short story of up to 4,000 words by an author aged 18 years or over and written in English.

 The winner is decided by public vote and this year’s will be announced at the Costa Book Awards ceremony on 27th January. The winning writer gets £3,500, with second place receiving £1,500 and third place £500.