Our Magic Hour – Jennifer Down

Summary from Goodreads:

Audrey, Katy and Adam have been friends since high school-a decade of sneaky cigarettes, drunken misadventures on Melbourne backstreets, heart-to-hearts, in-jokes. But now Katy has gone. And without her, Audrey is thrown off balance: everything she thought she knew, everything she believed was true, is bent out of shape. Audrey’s family-her neurotic mother, her wayward teenage brother, her uptight suburban sister-are likely to fall apart. Her boyfriend, Nick, tries to hold their relationship together. And Audrey, caught in the middle, needs to find a reason to keep going when everything around her suddenly seems wrong.

Evocative and exquisitely written, Our Magic Hour is a story of love, loss and discovery. Jennifer Down’s remarkable debut novel captures that moment when being young and invincible gives way to being open and vulnerable, when one terrible act changes a life forever.

Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour is a gorgeous Australian debut – raw, affecting, and occasionally heartbreaking. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, but I read it in one sitting and I still find myself thinking about it.

The story develops out of a triangular relationship between three childhood friends now in their mid-twenties – Audrey, Katy and Adam – and grows in scope to include Audrey’s relationships with her boyfriend, Nick, and her family. Tragedy strikes within the first few pages and the novel traces the different ways that people process their grief. Plot, in a traditional sense, takes a back seat, allowing Down to explore the complexity of these relationships with empathy and nuance, never shying away from her characters’ ugliness or shortcomings. The characters in this book felt so incredibly real to me and they seemed to almost jump off the page.

While the characters are wonderfully constructed, my favourite thing about this book is Down’s depiction of place. The story is set both in Melbourne and Sydney, and these cities almost feel like characters in their own right. Maybe it’s because I have lived in both of these Australian cities, but I think that Down perfectly captures the atmosphere of both of these places and they felt so familiar to me when I was reading this book.

Overall, I thought this was an extraordinary debut and I’m really looking forward to reading more of Down’s work in the future. I think that she is incredibly talented and I believe that this book deserves a lot more attention than it is currently receiving. It made me smile, it made me sob, and it made me love and appreciate Melbourne so much more. Highly recommended.

Have you read Our Magic Hour? What did you think of it? Would love to hear from you. 🙂 

~Anna

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Summary from Goodreads:

The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you’ll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way–and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in).

Bill Bryson is the bomb. I read this book when I was feeling a little down and stressed out, and it was exactly what I needed. It’s hilarious, full of weird and wonderful facts, and it did indeed make me long for the great outdoors (or at least, it made me want to read this book while sitting in a comfy chair overlooking some misty mountains with a cup of tea in hand). In short, it’s a typical Bill Bryson book in the best of ways.

My favourite thing about Bill Bryson is his ability to see the humour in every situation. I think he’s absolutely hilarious (although I am also the kind of person who laughs at dad jokes and thinks that Mr Bean is a comedic genius). I read a good portion of this book while sitting outside in the Botanical Gardens, and I could not stop cackling madly to myself. Needless to say, I got a few strange looks. His descriptions of the gratingly obnoxious Mary Ellen in particular almost had me crying with laughter.

I also really love that Bill Bryson has such a sense of adventure. Yes, he is a curmudgeonly old man, but he also has some serious guts. I mean, hiking over half of the AT at middle age with no real hiking experience for months at a time with a junk-food-obsessed travelling companion prone to tossing irreplaceable supplies is no small feat.

I also really don’t know how it’s possible to know so much about everything. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to have to face Bill Bryson in a game of Trivial Pursuit. Throughout the book, he painlessly inserts lessons of history, geology, entomology, and more. We learn about the changes acid rain has brought to the wild, and he recounts the stories of the southern pine beetle, the smoky madtom and wooly adelgids, and about Daniel Boone, Henry David Thoreau and Stonewall Jackson. Bryson delivers an extended geology lesson on the tectonic formation of the 470 million year-old Appalachian Mountains that palatably educates. As I said before, he is the king of fun facts.

Yes, I have some criticisms of this book, but I don’t really feel like dwelling on them. I read this book precisely because I didn’t want to have to think too much, and it did not disappoint. It made me laugh, it made me cry (with laughter), and it made me feel so much better about everything. Highly recommended.

Have you read A Walk in the Woods? Or any of Bill Bryson’s other books? What do you think of him? 

~Anna

Liebster Blog Award

Hi lovely readers! So I’ve just been nominated for my first award, which is very exciting. A huge thank you to Alyssa over at The Ultimate Book Geek for the nomination (she has a wonderful blog, which I definitely recommend checking out).

The Rules: 

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.
  2. Answer the 11 questions they’ve written for you.
  3. Nominate 11 other people (preferably those with under 200 followers)
  4. Give your nominees 11 different questions to answer.

The Questions: 

1. Why did you start your blog? 

I started this blog towards the end of last year as a way of fighting tsundokism (that is, the act of buying books and not reading them, instead letting them pile up unread on bookshelves). I also think that writing reviews helps me to remember and think critically about the books I read.

2. If you had a chance to spend a day with any writer, alive or dead, who would you choose? 

If you had asked me which author, alive or dead, I would like to have dinner with, I probably would have said Virginia Woolf or maybe Stephen Hawking, but if I were stuck with them for the whole day, I’d probably go with Bill Bryson. I just think he’d be really great company and full of fun facts about everything.

3. Book subscription boxes: yay or nay? (Have you ever subscribed to one? Do you want to?)

To be honest, I don’t know too much about book subscription boxes. I’ve never subscribed to one before, but I think it sounds like fun.

4. What’s your favourite genre? 

I don’t really have a favourite genre to be honest – my tastes are very eclectic and I like to read a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Sorry, I know that’s not a very good answer!

5. Do you like to see film adaptations of your favourite books? 

Yes, I do! Although I think that the book is always better than the movie…

6. Have you read a book over a dozen times? If so, which book? 

It’s a bit of a cliché, but I’ve read the Harry Potter books more times than I can count. Those books basically defined my childhood.

7. Name a book you DNF’ed recently.

For some reason I couldn’t get through ‘The Blazing World’ by Siri Hustvedt. Don’t get me wrong, it’s exceptionally well-written and the idea is fascinating, but I just really wasn’t in the mood for it. At some point I would like to go back and finish it.

8. What was the last book that totally blew your mind? 

I recently read ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi, which was one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful memoirs I have ever read (you can find my review here).

9. What’s the last book you recommended to someone? 

I honestly have no idea. I work in a bookstore and so I spend a lot of time recommending books to different people and I am not very good at keeping track of all my recommendations. Sorry, I know that this is a terrible response!

10. Do you have a favourite bookmark? 

Confession: I dog-ear my pages instead of using bookmarks. I know, it’s terrible! I just always lose my bookmarks and I’m really bad at breaking habits.

11. Have you ever thought about starting a book club? 

I’ve thought about it and I think it would be great fun. Maybe some day!

My Nominations: 

Big Reading Life | Musings From Abroad Blog | Red Lips and Bibliomaniacs | Consumed By Ink | The Book Whisperer | Cleopatra Loves Books | MN Bernard Books | Reading Every Night | The Owl on the Bookshelf | Literary Weaponry | Deborahjs

My Questions: 

1. Do you read one book at a time or multiple?
2. What was your favourite childhood book?
3. Which author do you think is totally overrated and why?
4. What was the last book you read that made you laugh a lot?
5. What was the last book that made you cry?
6. Are you a fast or slow reader?
7. Name a book you DNF’ed recently.
8. What is your go-to genre for long-haul flights?
9. What is the most recent classic you read and what did you think of it?
10. What is next on your TBR?
11. Do you have a favourite bookshop? Why is it your favourite?

Once again, thank you to Alyssa for the nomination! I had a lot of fun answering these questions and I hope you will too.

~Anna

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

When I first picked up Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me, I was expecting a collection of funny stories about things overbearing men have said to the author. Oh boy was I wrong. This book is a dark and very serious collection of essays about feminism, sexism, misogyny, rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, poverty, class warfare, and the silencing of women’s voices across the globe. In short, this is pretty heavy stuff.

Yes, the first essay is funny and has been cited as the piece that launched the term “mansplaining” (you can read it here), but this is just Solnit’s hook to get you reading. The other eight essays in this book are unbelievably depressing. Solnit uses a lot of anecdotes and statistics to make her points and show just how widespread violence against women really is (and not just physical violence). Maybe it’s because I was expecting this book to continue in a similar vein to the first essay, but I really struggled to get through this one and it took me far longer than usual to read 130 pages.

While Solnit is undoubtedly a good writer (I really enjoyed Hope in the Dark, which I discussed briefly here), I thought this collection of essays was very scattered and lacked an overarching structure. The essay about Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag, although interesting, felt totally out of place, almost as if it had been added as an afterthought. Another thing that bugged me a little about this collection (especially all that Woolf/Sontag musing) was that Solnit made a lot of really tenuous links for the sake of… sounding poetic, I guess.

All in all, I wanted to like this book more than I actually did and it really did not go where I thought it would. It starts out strong, she ends on a decent note, but it meanders in the middle in a way that makes me wish it hadn’t been a book at all. It’s good writing, and the points she makes are important, but overall it was just a little, I don’t know, unfocused? Lackluster? Still, I’m glad that the issues Solnit raises are being talked about and I hope this book leads to more reading on the topic (and more social progress).

Have you read Men Explain Things To Me? Or any of Rebecca Solnit’s other books? What did you think? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

 

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Summary from Goodreads:

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality.

Oh my goodness, THIS BOOK!! I made the horrible, horrible mistake of finishing this book right before starting a shift at work, where I spent the next eight hours in a sort of daze, wandering around the bookshop like a zombie and struggling to process my feelings. I couldn’t bawl my eyes out (although I really wanted to). I couldn’t escape and just be alone with my thoughts. I couldn’t just go upstairs and eat away the sadness that this book made me feel. It was only later, when I came back to my apartment after work, that I fully digested what I had read.

When Breath Becomes Air is one of the most beautifully-written, honest, heartbreaking, and affecting memoirs I have ever read. I knew it was going to be an emotional investment before I even started it (come on, it’s a book written by someone who knows they are going to die soon) and it did indeed break my heart to read, but it is also incredibly life-affirming. Kalanithi’s prose is gorgeous (oh yeah, he also had an MA in English Literature btw) – it’s poetic without being pretentious, simple without being too simplistic, and there is not a trace of self-pity to be found anywhere.

I do not think you should read this book because the story of an incredibly gifted man who had his life taken away at such a young age might give you the motivation to live your life more fully. Read this book because that talented, inspiring man has some very important things to say that need to be listened to. Read this book with the knowledge that you might not always be able to understand everything someone goes through, but you can set aside the time to listen to their story and hopefully give them the dignity and respect they deserve as a human being, in life or in death.

Have you read When Breath Becomes Air? What did you think? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler

“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge sometime in 2006…”

Meet Tess: a twenty-two year old with a mundane, provincial past, who has come to New York to look for a life she can’t define. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a “backwaiter,” on duty and off. Her appetites—for food, wine, knowledge, and every kind of experience—are awakened. And she’s pulled into the magnetic thrall of two other servers—a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman she latches onto with an orphan’s ardour.

Let me just start this review by saying that I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. I heard wonderful things about it from customers and one of my colleagues described it to me as Kitchen Confidential meets Girls. What’s not to love? Being the sucker for foodie fiction that I am, I picked this one up and was very excited to read it, but I have to say that I was a little underwhelmed. That’s not to say that I totally disliked this book! In fact, I thought it had some great moments (especially in the first 100 pages), but I think it was just hyped up a bit too much.

THE GOOD:

  • If you have every worked in hospitality, this book will definitely hit home and you will be able to relate to a lot of Tess’ feelings and experiences.
  • Danler’s descriptions of food are absolutely mouthwatering, to say the least. Word of advice: do not read this book while hungry.
  • Sweetbitter is one of the few books I have read that focuses solely on the present. We learn very little about Tess’ past – we don’t even learn her name until around page 200 – and she rarely discusses or even thinks about her plans for the future. In a world where everyone seems to be overly preoccupied with the question ‘what next?’, it was quite refreshing to read a book that is 100% focused on the present.
  • The relationship between Tess and her mentor, Simone, was quite intriguing

THE BAD:

  • I did not care at all for the romance in this book. Jake, Tess’ love interest, has the personality of her favourite food item (which is toast, in case you were wondering). Side note: how does one manage to land a job at a top restaurant if one’s favourite meal is toast with peanut butter?
  • The writing is quite pretentious and overly flowery at times. I didn’t mind this so much when Danler was describing food, but at other times, it bothered me immensely.
  • None of the characters are well-developed.
  • I thought that this book tried way too hard to be edgy and contemporary. Like, what was was with the random poems that made no sense whatsoever and were totally out of context?
  • The dialogue was totally unrealistic.
  • As a side effect of being a book solely focused on the present, this book had almost no plot. Tess describes her life as a backwaiter, makes a ton of bad decisions, does a lot of cocaine, learns about food and wine, and well, that’s about it. If you’re looking for something that will keep you up all night wondering what will happen next, look elsewhere.

All in all, I thought this book was overrated, although I did enjoy some parts of it. If you’re after a good foodie book that will make your belly ache from both laughter and hunger, I’d take Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential over this one any day.

Have you read Sweetbitter? What did you think? Do you have any recommendations for good foodie books? 

~Anna

In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri

“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mothertongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realise that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.” 

– Jhumpa Lahiri/Ann Goldstein, In Other Words

As someone with three passports but no true homeland, three languages yet no true mothertongue, and a very fragmented cultural identity, these words from Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful and intimate non-fiction debut resonate strongly with me and I often find myself thinking about them.

Born in London to Bengali immigrants and raised in the USA, Lahiri spent most of her childhood trying to reconcile her parents’ Bengali heritage and language with the pervasive influence of American culture and the English language. At the age of twenty-five, while working on a PhD in Renaissance Studies, Lahiri decided to learn a language that had captivated her for many years – Italian. For close to twenty years, she attended private lessons in New York, did her grammar exercises dutifully, and caught brief snippets of conversation on the subway and on her few trips to Italy, yet true mastery of the language eluded her. Finally, seeking full immersion, she moved to Rome with her family for a “trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world.

In Rome, Lahiri began to read, and then to write solely in Italian. This book is a polished and edited version of what Lahiri wrote in her journals – a raw and intimate account of learning to express oneself in another language and the journey of a writer seeking a new voice. Presented in a dual-language format, it is a book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with honesty, clarity and most importantly, a powerful awareness of its own imperfection. Interestingly and quite controversially in fact, Lahiri did not attempt to translate her own writing from Italian into English, stating that she needed to sever all ties to the English language in order to fully immerse herself in the Italian language. Rather, she hired the magnificent Ann Goldstein (who I cannot praise highly enough for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) to do this for her. Unfortunately, as I cannot read Italian, this meant that I was, in a sense, exiled linguistically from Lahiri’s words. Ironically fitting, I think (although I really wish that I could read Italian).

As someone who has spent a great deal of time learning languages, I could identify with the frustration and excitement of learning to express oneself in another language that Lahiri describes. Her writing is clumsy and repetitive at times, but Lahiri is so painfully aware of this that you can forgive her for it. I for one believe that writing in a second or third language makes one feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed, and I applaud Lahiri for her courage in publishing this book. I greatly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in language, particularly the relationship between identity and language.

Have you read this book? Or any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s other books? What did you think? I would love to hear from you. 🙂 

~Anna