Then this beauty landed in my lap (courtesy of Profile Books via Allen & Unwin), The Library: A Fragile History. Pettegree and der Weduwen explore “the rich and dramatic history of the library, from the famous collections of the ancient world to the embattled public resources we cherish today”.
This is a BEAUTIFULLY designed hardcover, with ribbon bookmark; I suspect the designers knew full well that the subject matter would appeal to bibliophiles.
Pettegree and der Weduwen’s focus is more on the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance history of the library, when it largely existed as personal collections of the wealthy and powerful. I’ll admit I skimmed some of those chapters, but if those eras of history make your heart sing, you’re in luck.
The final chapters, with more recent history of the politics and progress of the library as a public institution, were of most interest to me.
While The Library wasn’t quite as snappy and readable as Orlean’s book, but it was still an interesting wide-view window into world history via book collections through the ages.
I was recently clearing out some old bookmarks, and found this post from BookerTalk back at the end of 2019. It seemed like such a fun idea, I saved it to give it a go myself sometime: answer a bunch of questions using only the titles of books you’d read that year. Looks like I’m finally getting around to it! Here’s my life in books for the year 2021…
The actual origin of this list/game is a bit of a mystery; it’s been floating around the book blogs for years now. I’ve linked back to where I first saw it (BookerTalk, one of my favourites!), but if you know who came up with it originally, please let me know in the comments so I can give them full credit!
I’ve been wanting to read My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises by Fredrik Backman ever since I read (and loved!) A Man Called Ove. It sounded like an equally sweet and disarming story: a young girl reaching out on behalf of her beloved grandmother to right past wrongs. Then, around this time last year, I lost my own beloved grandmother, and I worried that this book would simply feel Too Real. So, I put it off, until now. I felt ready, and I was in the mood for something Backman-y.
This book was first published in the original Swedish (Min mormor hälsar och säger förlåt) in 2013, then it was translated into English (My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises, or in the US, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it) in 2015 by Henning Koch. The rights for translation have been sold in over 40 countries; after the success of A Man Called Ove, everyone was banking on another hit from Backman.
Once again, the story takes place in Sweden, but instead of a curmudgeonly old man, it follows seven-year-old Elsa. The young girl knows she’s different from other children, though the adults call it being “smart for her age”. Her Granny (who’s “old for her age”, a former surgeon turned eccentric) is her superhero, and her best (only) friend. Granny takes her on marvellous adventures, talks their way out of trouble, and teaches Elsa how to stand up to the kids who bully her at school.
They live in a house of flats, with a large cast of quirky neighbours forming a de facto extended family. I’ve drawn you a map, because I found it quite hard to keep track for the first couple hundred pages.
When Granny dies (which I guess is kind of a spoiler, but c’mon, clearly you saw that coming) Elsa slowly learns more about the life she lived before Elsa. She leaves behind a series of letters for Elsa to deliver to people she has hurt or offended.
Elsa soon realises that the fantasy land Granny has been “taking” her to ever since she could remember – The Land Of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom Of Miamas where no one has to learn to ‘fit in’ – might not be entirely imaginary. The terrifying hound hidden in the basement actually seems more like a wurse. The Monster who lives next door to the wurse might actually be Wolfheart, the hero of Miamas. She worried when Granny died that she might never get to visit The Land Of Almost-Awake ever again, but maybe she’s been living in it all along.
My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises is a step above A Man Called Ove in literary terms, fusing stark Swedish realism with childhood imagination and fairy tales. While I didn’t find Elsa quite as endearing a main character as darling old Ove, she still provided a humourous and poignant insight into what might otherwise have been a very dark story.
I suspect, with the Britt Marie character’s arc, that one of Backman’s other books – Britt Marie Was Here – picks up where My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises left off. Luckily, I’ve got a copy on my to-read shelf, ready to go whenever the mood strikes.
The take-home message is that you never really know someone. Everyone has hidden depths, even precocious seven-year-olds and their eccentric grandmothers. I’m grateful to Backman for the ever-timely reminder.
My favourite Amazon reviews of My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises:
“A rather stupid grandmother with her elderly granddaughter a the central figures. The grand daughter is only seven but behaves like a grown up. Thankfully the stupid, demented grandmother dies half way through but is still remarkably central to the childish story. Harry Potter is better reading than this for an adult and so much of the story is stolen from Harry Potter.” – nigel barnard
“One complaint to Mr. Backman directly: stop feeding literary dogs chocolate, baking mixes, cookies, and coffee. In my experience, that can only lead to bad, bad things.” – Jessie
“I recommend this book to anyone who has a heart and a brain.” – Kindle Customer
Ready to feel bad about how little you achieved during quarantine? Christos Tsiolkas committed to writing 800 words a day, and the result is 7 1/2. It’s “a novel about beauty”, or – more accurately – a novel about a novelist on retreat, trying to write a novel about beauty. My friends at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review, and it came highly recommended, with blurbs from Helen Garner and Charlotte Wood.
I’m quite skeptical of writers writing about writers, and I must say Tsiolkas’s latest hasn’t done much to change my mind. He goes the full Martin Amis with his main character: a mid-50s gay Greek writer named Christos Tsiolkas who is “tired” of writing about politics and religion and sex, and hates how often he checks his phone.
I perked up a bit in the sections where the Christos character was writing a novel about a retired porn star, but most of the novel was Christos being amazed by nature, bemoaning technology, and sniffing armpits (seriously, the guy is obsessed with sweat, I could’ve made a drinking game out of it).
I really wanted to be generous in my reading, and Tsiolkas is undeniably a talented writer, but 7 1/2 at its heart is one long lament about The Modern World. It’s more masterfully written than a forwarded chain email that’s been scanned by Norton Anti-Virus, but the vibe is the same.
Sometimes, strange things tie otherwise disparate books together. I have a particularly attuned radar for books with the word strange in the title – mainly because it’s my last name! So, here are eight strange book titles (geddit?).
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak
What happens when we die? No one knows for sure, but the protagonist of Elif Shafak’s 2019 novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World can tell us what happens in the strange interval between her heart ceasing to beat and her brain ceasing activity. In as long as it takes to drink a cup of coffee, she takes us through her childhood in the Turkish provinces, her ‘career’ on the Street Of Brothels, and the special relationships she forged with her chosen family in life. This vivid philosophical novel brings the streets of Istanbul and the shared realities of mortality to life.
Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is named for the two characters at its heart: scholarly fusspot Mr Norrell, and reckless talented Jonathan Strange. In Susanna Clarke’s speculative historical novel, magic has been gone for centuries, only to manifest finally in these two strange sides of the same coin. The two magicians work together until their differences drive them apart, but neither of them foresee the consequences of their dabbling in the magical arts. This is one of the most richly-drawn worlds of contemporary fiction, written with breath-taking detail and two characters that will stay with you long after you turn the thousandth page. Read my full review of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell here.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
Following up a worldwide best-seller like Big Little Lies is no mean feat, but Liane Moriarty swung for the fences with Nine Perfect Strangers. As the ‘strange’ title suggests, nine people from various walks of life find themselves gathered at a remote health retreat. They’re all seeking something – relaxation, weight loss, a balm for a broken heart, a cure for writer’s block – but at Tranquillum House they’re going to find something else entirely. Moriarty has the propulsive page-turner down to a fine art, and you won’t be able to look away from this one until all of the threads finally weave together.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Look, it’s hard to be spooked – even by a particularly strange book, like Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – when the plot twist has become so well-known it’s slipped into the English language idiom. Still, this short novel is the finest example of classic doppelgänger literature, and it’s well worth a read. The “big reveal” – that well-mannered genteel Dr Jekyll has been secretly transforming into the monstrous Mr Hyde – might not make you gasp, but the abundantly obvious queer metaphor and the new resonance in the age of alt-accounts online will give you a lot to think about. Read my full review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde here.
Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar
How do we decide to do good? Help others? And why do we make the decision to help one, but not another? These strange philosophical questions inspired Larissa MacFarquhar to write Strangers Drowning, a book about idealism and the urge to help. She seeks out those rare individuals who have made extreme commitments to one cause or another – parents who adopt dozens of children, people who found a leprosy colony, people who live on a fraction of their income in order to donate the rest – in an effort to understand why, and what it costs them. The fact is that “doing good” isn’t always the imperative it appears to be.
The Secrets Of Strangers by Charity Norman
It’s a sad fact of modern life that almost all of us city-dwellers have a story about traumatic act of violence in their metropolis that has indelibly imprinted on us. For New Yorkers it’s September 11, for Londoners it’s the 2005 bombings, and for Sydneysiders (myself among them) it’s the Lindt Cafe siege. The premise of Charity Norman’s novel The Secrets Of Strangers seemed eerily similar (which is why I put off reading it for so long, for fear of triggering those memories): a group of strangers in a cafe on a regular weekday morning find their lives thrown off-course by a gunman who takes them hostage. It’s chilling, but all the more so for the secrets that bind them all together…
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
Sometimes, fact is stranger than fiction. That’s definitely the case for Ann Rule, the crime writer who discovered that the kind man who’d worked with her at a suicide hotline in Seattle was actually America’s most feared serial killer: Ted Bundy. She’d already received an advance to write the story of the Campus Killer when she learned that she was far closer to the perpetrator than she ever could have imagined. As well as being a classic of the true crime genre, The Stranger Beside Me is a fascinating interrogation of the ethics of writing, the obligations of friendship, and the minds of serial killers. How well do we ever know the strangers beside us? Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.
The Strangers We Know by Pip Drysdale
Pip Drysdale nods to a strange fact of the human existence in The Strangers We Know: when our lives collapse around us, it rarely happens all at once. Rather, the Jenga pieces are pulled out one by one, until the whole thing comes tumbling down. For her main character, Charlie, the first piece to go is a glimpse of her husband on a friend’s dating app. How could her loving partner be swiping through chicks when he seems so dedicated to her? Believe it or not, that’s just the beginning. When Charlie signs up for the app herself, in the hope of dismissing her doubts (or catching him in the act) she quickly finds out that’s the least of her problems. Read my full review of The Strangers We Know here.
Is it too soon for a COVID-19 murder mystery? Catherine Ryan Howard surely hopes not 😅 56 Days is her latest high-concept crime thriller, set in Dublin in the early days of the city’s first lock-down. The wonderful team at Corvus (@AtlanticBooks and @AllenAndUnwin) kindly sent me a copy for review.
56 Days is well written, well paced, with tantalising clues and a couple of truly excellent fake-out twists. The couple at the heart of the story barely know each other when they’re forced into the pressure cooker pandemic situation, so the reader gets two (or more?) very different perspectives on the same events. My full review is up on the blog now (👆 link in bio) - 😷😷😷😷😷/5
So, what do you think? Is it Too Soon? When the book’s as good as this one, I think we’re ready 😉
#56Days #CatherineRyanHoward #2022Books
The Pulitzer Prizes are a set of awards given each year for achievements in American journalism, literature, and composition 🏆 You might have noticed that quite a few of the books I’ve read and recommended here on Keeping Up With The Penguins are Pulitzer Prize-winners – for some reason, I seem to share a literary sensibility with the revolving panel of judges 🤔
I decided to go through the entire list of Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners (previously the Pulitzer Prize for Novel) and pick my favourite-favourites, the creme de la creme 🙌 Up on the blog now (link in bio 👆) is a list of KUWTP-approved Pulitzer Prize winners, and some are pictured here 📷
Are there any literary prizes that pretty much guarantee winning reads for you?
#PulitzerPrize #BookList #BestBooks
Jeffrey Eugenides tends more towards writing short fiction than he does full-length novels… but damn, when he turns it on, he *really* turns it on 😳 I recently read his 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner (that turns 20 this year! 🎂), Middlesex.
Yes, the main character is intersex, and no, Eugenides is not, and there’s all the expected debate around that… but it’s important that you know Middlesex is much more than a gender novel. It’s a big book, in length, depth, and breadth, and yet it’s compelling and thoroughly readable. My full review is up on the blog now (link in bio 👆) - 🧑💼🧑💼🧑💼🧑💼🧑💼/5
Which book contained a WAY bigger story than you expected? 🤔🤯
#Middlesex #JeffreyEugenides #BookReviewersOfInstagram
Lily Harford’s Last Request revolves around (you guessed it) Lily Harford: her move into an assisted living facility, her decline into dementia, and her desire to end her life on her own terms. My friends at @HarlequinAus were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
While I appreciated Buckley’s choice of subject, and warmed to the nature of the characters, Lily Harford’s Last Request fell a bit short for me. The dialogue was often stilted, and the “twist” ending was foreseeable. This one would resonate, though, for fans of Still Alice. Even though it wasn’t for me, I hope it does encourage more open conversations about assisted dying and the options that are (or should be) available to those who wish to control their own death. My full review is up on the blog now (link in bio ⤴️) - ✍️✍️/5
Have you talked to your loved ones about your end-of-life care? Even if you’re in your first blush of youth, like me (ahem), it’s a good idea. You never know what’s around the corner!
#LilyHarfordsLastRequest #JoannaBuckley #HarlequinBooks
A brand new year has begun (and thank goodness for that!) 🎉 That means, among other things, that a whole new batch of books are celebrating milestone birthdays! 🎁🥳🎂
Up on the blog now (link in bio 👆): a list of books celebrating big birthdays in 2022. Pictured here: Gone Girl and The Fault In Our Stars turn ten this year, Middlesex and Kafka On The Shore turn 20!
When’s your birthday? Mine’s 28 April 🗓💃
#BookBirthday #BooksOf2022 #BookSpines
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post has one of the best opening lines ever (“The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.” 👩🍳😙). Plus, this Penguin edition is absolutely gorgeous, with sprayed edges in the colours of the Pride flag (swipe across to see 👉). I didn’t know much else about it when I picked it up, but hey: that was enough to convince me!
It turns out it is, in a sense, a “coming out novel”, but it’s much darker and less trope-y than that label implies. I loved it – it’s a difficult read at times, but an immersive and impressive one, a must for fans of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. My full review is up on the blog now (link in bio ☝️). 🌈🌈🌈🌈🌈/5
What is/was your first read of 2022? 🗓
#TheMiseducationOfCameronPost #EmilyMDanforth #PenguinBooks
Indigo Daisy Violet Amber Hasluck Royce Jones Boomberg still hasn’t lived down the scandal that saw her investigated for the murder of her husband 😬 She has every intention of keeping a low profile… but then she stumbles over a corpse in her grandmother’s back yard 💀 The wonderful team at @HarlequinAus were kind enough to send me a copy of Murder Most Fancy for review.
It was a pleasant surprise to read a “glamorous” cozy mystery set at home, and McCourt also gets bonus points for crafting a clever murder mystery with no dead or missing girls. The pacing was a little off for me, though, and I think readers will enjoy this one more if they’ve read the previous book - Heiress On Fire - first. 💆♀️💆♀️💆♀️/5
Are you happy to read books out of order? Or are you committed to the author’s chronology?
#MurderMostFancy #KellieMcCourt #HarlequinBooks
We had high hopes for 2021, didn’t we? 😅 Needless to say, they didn’t exactly pan out. I’m ending the year in isolation with my husband, a pox upon our house 😷, and midnight can’t come a minute too soon. I’m ready to throw the whole year in the bin and start over! 🗑
The one thing that didn’t let me down this year is BOOKS 📚🥰 I’ve waited until the very last minute to post my year-in-review best-of list, to give as many books as possible the chance to get in under the wire - it’s up on the blog now (link in bio), and some of my favourite-favourites are pictured here.
What were YOUR best reads of 2021? 🎆
#2021Books #2021Reads #BooksOf2021
I started off this year reviewing Ian McEwan’s Atonement. While I didn’t love it, I thought it might be nice to book-end the year with another one of his that’s been on my to-read shelf for years: The Children Act 👶
The good news is, McEwan’s style suits this story far better than it did Atonement. Atonement was about kids and self-destructive deception, while The Children Act is about ethics and mortality. His writing, which felt overwrought and pompous in Atonement, seems natural in the context of a well-educated very-British judge contemplating marriage and death. Full review up on the blog now (link in bio) - 👩⚖️👩⚖️👩⚖️👩⚖️/5
Have any authors redeemed themselves in your eyes, after a rocky start?
#TheChildrenAct #IanMcEwan #EnglishLiterature
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