On the Bookshelf – April

Okay, rather than doing a round-up of the month – which is a waste of time given that anything interesting goes in my weekly 5 things posts that I’m sure you wait by your laptop every Sunday (or Monday) to read – I’m looking instead at what I read for the month.

Now, I’ll preface this by saying that I’m the world’s worst critic. For me, reading, like art and like wine and like, well, TV and movies, is about enjoyment and escape. I can appreciate the “good” but not necessarily always enjoy it. So, bearing that in mind settle back, this is a long read (pun not intended):

Audio Books

In April I chose to do some virtual travel, I also (finally) gave Audible a red hot go.

At first, I tried sitting down and listening to a book in the same way that I read a book, but that didn’t work; my attention wandered. What I have found though, is that an audiobook is the perfect companion for my afternoon walks around the neighbourhood. 

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

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First up was Michelle Obama’s Becoming. As I mentioned in a post earlier in the month, I rarely read autobiography/biography so this is a long way out of genre for me and while I loved it to pieces, I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed the read as much as I enjoyed the listen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully written, and full of warmth, it’s just that I tend not to sit down and read non-fiction for relaxation.

This is a long read listen – at nearly 18 hours – but I walk around the neighbourhood for an hour most days when I knock off work so was able to knock it over that way. I think I’m probably going to read (do you still say read when you’re actually listening?) more non-fiction in this way.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

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How had I never read anything by Oscar Wilde before?

Narrated by the utterly fabulous Stephen Fry – honestly, is there anyone else in the universe more born to narrate Oscar Wilde? – this is a gothic tale of a young, beautiful and narcissistic man (Dorian Gray) who sells his soul for eternal youth.

The picture in question is painted by his friend Basil Halwood who finds himself totally enthralled by Dorian. But when Dorian sees the painting in all its perfection, he despairs that it will always be a reminder of when he was young and beautiful while he, himself, will lose that. He wishes that the painting can take the ravages of the years, leaving him unchanged. And so it is. #spoileralert

Wilde’s prose is witty, hedonistic and perfect for the time. If this had been a real book there would be corners turned and lines highlighted all the way through it. And each of Wilde’s perfect lines sounds like dripping honey when delivered by Fry.

Other Books

Shakespeare: The World As Stage, by Bill Bryson

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I went through a stage a number of years back where I read a lot of English history – and I mean a lot of it. That was then and this is now. These days I read to escape and any non-fiction I read for relaxation falls into one of the following categories:

  • Travel memoir
  • Food memoir
  • Travel and food together
  • Cookbooks
  • Anything written by Bill Bryson

Of course I was going to pick this one up – and I’m glad I did. You see, despite the millions of papers and research documents about William Shakespeare there’s actually not a whole lot that we know for sure. For starters, there’s a whole lot of wilderness years following when (we think that we know) he left Stratford Upon Avon and his wife and family and when (we think) his first play was performed (although we don’t even know for sure which was, in fact, his first play).

The important parts of what we do know or think we know are told to us by Bryson – along with a few fabulous conspiracy theories about how Shakespeare isn’t really responsible for writing those plays – with trademark Bryson wit.

My favourite one of these was put forward in 1920 by an English schoolmaster named J Thomas Looney when he wrote a tome titled Shakespeare Identified:

“…in which he proved to his own satisfaction that the actual author of Shakespeare was the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, one Edward de Vere. It took him two years to find a publisher willing to publish the book under his own name. Looney steadfastly refused to adopt a pseudonym, arguing, perhaps just a touch desperately, that his name had nothing to do with insanity and was in fact pronounced loney…”BILL BRYSON

As a completely irrelevant aside, I had a school teacher whose surname was Looney…he changed it to Loney.

Anyways, Looney’s theory was that “the Stratford man” lacked the worldliness, polish and literacy to write his own plays so it must have been written by someone much more versed in the ways of the world – an aristocrat. Oxford (posh people go by their titles rather than their surnames) was the most likely candidate yet he was also, apparently:

“arrogant, petulant and spoiled, irresponsible with money, sexually dissolute, widely disliked and given to outbursts of deeply unsettling violence.”BILL BRYSON

Then, of course, there are pesky issues around timelines and a number of other reasons why Bryson (and most scholars) discounts this theory and the others also doing the rounds. It does, however, make for a good story. And besides, Oxford’s crest does depict, wait for it, a lion shaking a spear. Get it?

The Anglo Files by Sarah Lyall

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Okay, I finished this, but I didn’t enjoy it. There were a few passages that piqued my interest and a few that made me smile, but on the whole, I didn’t feel as though Lyall, an American journalist, who had fallen in love with an Englishman and moved to London, understood her adopted country or its people at all.

There was an interesting snippet about Charles Vere, the Earl of Burford who had decided to dedicate his life to proving that his 16th-century ancestor Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford was (you know what’s coming here don’t you?) the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

I’ve spent 53 years not knowing that there was ever a doubt about Shakespeare being Shakespeare and I’ve read about it twice in one month. As (another) aside, Lyall goes onto mention that another ancestor of Burford’s (remember the title as name thing) was the first Duke of St Albans who was the illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwyn – remember I told you about them in relation to secret passages in pubs.

A Year In Provence, by Peter Mayle

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Don’t you just love my model (in the pic above)?

It’s hard to believe this book was first published in 1989 and harder to believe that I first read it a year or so after that.

For those who don’t know the story, Peter Mayle (an ex London advertising executive) and his wife buy a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the Luberon and move there. That’s pretty much it.

Through a year Mayle introduces us to a fabulous cast of characters, the climate, the wine, bureaucracy, the foibles and mostly the food. Unlike Lyall’s effort (I really didn’t enjoy that) Mayle tells it with real humour, resisting the temptation to compare them unfavourably to how it was at home. Vive la difference and all that.

It’s warm, witty, colourful and very tasty, and all these years down the track I enjoyed it as much as I did back then.

Mastering The Art Of French Eating: Lessons In Food And Love From A Year In Paris, by Ann Mah

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So that’s not exactly a title that runs off the tongue.

We’re still in France, this time with Francophile American Ann Mah. Overjoyed when her diplomat husband is posted to Paris, that mood quickly changes when soon after arriving he’s sent to Iraq for a year – alone.

To combat loneliness and find a place for herself in the city she’s always loved, Mah sets out to explore the story behind French classics from pistou and cassoulet to (the dreaded) andouillette (remind me to tell you about them some time).

Food and France – what’s not to love?

A Good Year, by Peter Mayle

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Yep, still in France…and back in Provence with another re-read, although I don’t think I’ve read this since 2004/05 when it first came out. I have, however, seen the movie (which stars Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard) countless times.

Neither the book or the movie received good reviews, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying both…equally…even though the book is a little different to the movie. Max Skinner is a rather shallow player in the high end of town where a late start at work is 6.30am, where you run up bills with your tailor and get screwed over by your nemesis. On the day he loses his job he finds out he’s inherited his late uncle’s vineyard in Provence. A little mystery, a little romance, and a lot of food and wine, this is a sunshiney romp that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that.

Okay, that was my reading month (phew)…what was on your bookshelf this month?