Upon which I discover Les Miserables is actually very good

I have recently been addicted to a dramatised version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables that has been playing on BBC Radio 4. Turns out this classic story, which frequently appears in ‘the best novels ever’ lists, is actually pretty bloody good. Marvellous, in fact. A portrayal of humanity and love most other works would struggle to equal. Who knew?

I have downloaded the behemoth (1200-odd pages!!) French tale onto my e-reader and only need a holiday curled up on a sofa with a bottle of brandy and no disturbances (ha!) to make my way through it. It will happen. I just don’t want to say when.

It also turns out that thirty-odd years of witnessing theatrical posters and TV commercials for cast recordings of the musical production were not enough on which to base my knowledge of the great book. I always presumed it took place during the French revolution, what with all the poor, grubby people and flag waving. Lucky I never pretended I had read it. Though the story begins only a decade or so after this time, it would still have been odd if I had started talking about guillotines and letting people eat cake. Now that would have been embarrassing…

Weekend coffee share – April 23

If we were having coffee I would tell you how excited I was to be out of the house on my own having coffee with you. Somehow I am assuming my children aren’t with us. Not that I don’t love my children nor enjoy their company, but coffee without them is nice too. After the general excitement of adult coffee and cake selection (there is always cake) I would tell you how nice it was to have posted my first blog post in years. Years! How when I first moved to the UK, somewhat friendless and jobless, I expected to have loads of time (though back then I would have said ‘heaps’ of time) to tend to my blog, to nourish my writings. I’d be one of those hip but unassuming types sitting in a cafe banging out posts, paragraphs, chapters and tweets, paying too much for a flat white, wangling free cake out of the waiters I knew by name and birth order. But it didn’t work out that way. And that’s okay. Other things happened. Good things happened.

But now I have written one post. And I’m very much looking forward to writing more. On books and reading, editing and writing, readers and stories and all the balloon-shaped swell of reading joy that surrounds me. That surrounds us. And maybe some writings on other things too. Maybe in a different place. And certainly in some time to come. But the scratching and bubbling of thoughts and ideas to communicate are suddenly alive in my brain, and this and the previous post have flowed  from my fingertips like an ooze of letters that have been building up behind a dam. And all these things feel very good indeed.


A little post on a little free library

When I was growing up, visits to our local libraries were weekly occurrences. There was a children’s library along my route between home and school and I would stop in often to switch one pile of books for another. I recall calico library bags groaning with treasures. I ended up working at that children’s library and at the main municipal library when I was in high school and found it hard not to check out for myself every book I was checking back in. Since finishing two stints at university in my twenties, I stopped frequenting libraries and I don’t really know why. Time, I suppose, that thing we claim never to have. No time to go, not enough time to read before needing to return your borrowings.

I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but they sure have been closing a lot of libraries in the UK over the last 12 months. It makes me angry, but I also feel guilty that I, like a lot of people, no longer frequent them, despite thinking them very important, for the community as a whole, as well as for accessing books. Maybe if more of us ex-library-goers still visited occasionally, local councils wouldn’t think they could get rid of them.

Not a ‘little library’ but a great one nevertheless. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

One of my blogging-friends this week presented her attempt to build community spirit, promote literacy and foster a love of reading. It’s called the ‘little free library’ and it’s a movement gaining popularity in the States. Participants build a small cupboard of some kind, fill it with books and leave it on their lawn or driveway for anyone and everyone to access. It was the perfect thing for Jeanne, a retired librarian, to do and you can read about, and see, her efforts here. And you should read Jeanne and Curt’s blog—Another Stir of the Spoon—anyway, especially if you like food, books or birds (and who doesn’t?!).

You can find out more about the little library people here. There’s only one in the UK so far, and also one in Australia… one day when I have my own lawn or driveway, I’ll have to add to those numbers.

Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part one)

A few weeks back I hit the one-year mark of living in London. It’s hard to believe, but some thirteen months ago all the talk of ‘Oh I’m just going  to the UK to see what happens’ became a reality. It’s been an interesting year; magical in some ways (I met my wonderful boyfriend and have visited lovely places), uneventful in others (one still has to work for a living, you know), ridiculously simple on occasion (you mean I just hop on this train and two hours later I’m in Paris?) and, at times, terribly difficult. The main difficulties come from being without family and social networks mixed in with a little British bureaucracy and the fact that even though Australian and British cultures have much in common, there are enough differences to sometimes make everyday conversations and errands somewhat… puzzling… and more difficult than you know they should be.

But the good times outweigh the tough times. Most of the time. The longer I’ve been here the more friends and contacts I’ve made and the more I seem to be able to function in society without having to use charades or repeat myself. Yes, this happens even when you’re both speaking English.

One of the best things I did last year was join a book group. They’re an excellent bunch of people, and I look forward to our monthly meetings. The chance of a group of strangers thrown together because they all ‘like reading’ getting on really well and even being able to talk about other things than the books they like (or don’t like), must be slim. Think of all those author events you’ve been to where everyone who asks a question seems to be a bore or raving lunatic… they all really like reading too.

So joining a book group worked out for me. For all the reasons I have mentioned in previous posts and now I also always gain a snippet of information about London life or a recommendation for a new thing to see, do or visit. Most of all, I like that it is my thing. My new book group is a little piece of my London life.

And so to the books. Selected for general interest, discussion potential, reputation, size (a shorter book has more chance of being read by all), enjoyment and intellectual growth, we have read six books in the last six months that I have yet to share with you. I am tired of focusing on the infrequency of my blogging (one of the not-good things that has occurred over the last thirteen months), so let’s just get on with it.


The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A slim volume where the reader is put in the position of one of the characters. A not-particularly-interesting character but the person to whom the is-he-just-friendly or is-he-simply-dangerous narrator addresses himself throughout the novel. It’s rare as a reader to be being told by the narrator about what ‘you’ are doing. It puts you in an intriguing position. Do I feel uncomfortable because the story is setting me up to feel this way? Or do I just feel uncomfortable? And do I want to be continually addressed as a middle-aged American businessman? I am very different to those kinds of people. Aren’t I?

Our narrator, Changez, tells his story in a cafe in Pakistan to a man who he may or may not have run into on purpose. His story is of his development from an optimistic, ambitious Princeton student who socialised with the wealthy and aimed to have a New York business career, to a young man disillusioned with America and all it represents, so much so that he finds himself returning to Pakistan and ‘siding’ with Islamic fundamentalism.

The writing is technically strong, and the narrator slippery and clever. This has its annoyances for a reader. I read the whole novel with a sense of mistrust and a slight sinister feeling. I constantly wondered if I was being misdirected. I recall finding it difficult to relate to any of the characters, though I felt sorry for Changez at times. Could he really be a terrorist? Maybe he’s just a friendly man. Why do I assume he is dangerous? Is it because he claims to be sympathetic to the jihadists’ cause? Or is it just because of his clothes, his beard, his language? There is allegory and symbolism at play—perhaps a little too much. And I say this having not caught it all as I was reading the novel. When the extent of it was relayed to me by—more insightful—others, I do admit to some eye rolling on my part.

I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist an interesting read and it dealt with themes I wouldn’t usually choose to deal with in my novel-choices. Many in my group liked it and had enjoyed the author’s previous work. It was a good novel to talk about and, as we all know, for a book to work at book group it has to be able to be talked about.

With that premise in mind, the next selection definitely fit the bill. Ever wanted to use the term ‘Kafka-esque’ in context? Well, soon you will be able to. (Mind you, my readers being such a smart bunch you probably already do!) Our next selection was The Trial and I will post on it and other book-club selections sooner than you—or even I—could possibly imagine.

To be continued…

Some links masquerading as a post

You know how in times of singledom, life-issue avoidance and exercise procrastination, some well-meaning friend uses the phrase ‘get back on the horse’? And you know how you kind of want to slap them but after the initial urge for violence has passed you acknowledge, at least a little bit, somewhere deep down, that they may, perhaps, kind of, in some small way, have a little bit of point? Well, my blog is the horse and I am the scowling, sighing, dust-kicking, slightly frightened cowpoke with her Stetson pulled down and her eyes shut, hoping that if I just keep wishing it my blog will write itself.

In lieu of a real post, but in attempt to put my foot back in the stirrup, here are some links I’ve been meaning to share.

In high school, while most of my friends were working at fast food establishments, I had a job at the local library. Apart from the general joys of alphabetising and Dewey-decimal organising (discussed briefly in a previous post), I have always found libraries a comfort, as well as infinitely interesting places. The London Library is a new discovery for me. A discovery of existence only, for I have not been lucky enough to visit its rooms, nor be offered a membership from a generous benefactor. But a friend has been a member from a young age and you can read his very good article on this amazing institution if you click here.

From one editor and writer’s dream to another. I have gone on (and on) about style guides before; those wondrous tools of an editor’s trade that we can’t live without and that we can’t understand why more communication-based folk don’t avail themselves of more frequently. I have particularly gone on about the Chicago Manual of Style and my love for it. And now, so has someone else.

And finally, while I am kicking back dreaming of library wonders, consistent style and a multi-million-dollar scheme where all restaurants must send me their menus to edit and proofread before they are printed, I’d like to be drinking my tea (or wine, depending on the time of day) out of one of these mugs.

Well-meaning friends are right in this case. It feels good to be back on the horse.

Remember me?

Hello. Your humble blogger here, all red-faced and shuffling feet. If you’re having trouble recalling when we last met… well, so am I. If you’re having trouble  placing me… I used to write a fairly regular blog about books. And sometimes you flattered me by reading it. Then in 2011 I moved to London, picked up a weird Australian/cockney accent, met the love of my life, got caught up in jobs and the blogging wheels fell off, or something…

I could sit here for some time rattling off a list of excuses for why last year (despite having a lot of spare time, reading many books, and not having that many friends in my current locale to be distracted by) I still managed to put in a very poor show of blogging. But why waste all of our time? Especially when I’ve clearly been doing that enough. It’s a new year, I have a new job, a new abode, and your usual blogging will resume shortly.

By way of a small apology here is a link to a fantastic band I saw perform last weekend at a book-group party (no one parties like a book group). Little Machine put well-known (and not-so-known) poetry to music and they are wonderful. And I’ve never been one to say that I like poetry, but I like these guys, and they reminded me that wonderful words can do wonderful things to a person; whether they are prose, verse or song. The tunes possibly sound better live but the band have some songs online. Philip Larkin’s poetry should be punk rock, and a lament by Keats a haunting ballad—enjoy.

There’s no place like book group

It’s a funny thing homesickness. It can creep up on you in such an unassuming, disinterested kind of way that you aren’t aware of its stealthy pursuit until all of sudden you find yourself struck down with some kind of antipodean homesick blues. One moment you are ordering a pint of lager in a voice reminiscent of an extra in a 5th grade production of Oliver Twist and explaining how of course you miss certain people but that London is fabulous; and the next you are grumbling about it being so bloody cold all the time and asking how come it’s so hard to find a proper decent cappuccino and some sourdough toast in this overcrowded sunless city?

And then you calm down and try to re-embrace your sense of adventure and acceptance of experiences new; you remind yourself that moving to the other side of the world away from your regular life, comfort zones and loved ones is difficult at the best of time. And, really, I’m basically having the best of times; I can’t complain at all. But the homesickness has caught up with me of late and it seems a long road back, despite all the good things and wonderful people around me, to those half cockney/half crocodile hunter union jack waving pip-pip jolly good times. But I know it’s a phase that will soon pass. I’ll stop drudging about, buy myself a decent coat, and be all warm and keen and able to blog like a decent proper book blogger.

One thing that I think will help a lot is that this week I went to a meeting about joining a newly formed (well currently forming) book group. It was very exciting and my potential book group members were lovely and enthusiastic, and the organisers of the wider company of book groups (my group will be no. 18 or so that they have helped put together) were friendly and organised and encouraging. I’m very much looking forward to it kicking off. Stay tuned for a discussion of the first book selection.

On the day of that meeting I was ill, over my job, tired and lacking in any recognisable features of charm or sense. By the end of the get-together I no longer felt quite as ill, nor as world-weary, nor as overwhelmed by that wispy feeling of being a long, long way from home and I cheerfully trotted off to the tube and into a pub for the night’s next appointment.  It didn’t cure my antipodean homesick blues, but even the initial manoeuvrings of a book group get-together shone a lot more light on my little world. I felt like I might be finding some of my people – well some new ‘my people’ – and it reminded me how comforting, and also inspiring, the book world is for me, and how much I miss being a part of it; even if only as one of the many who like to meet up over a drink and talk about a novel for an hour. At the new pub, when I went to the bar to order a drink, there was definitely a little more of a Dick van Dyke chimney sweep in my voice than there had been for a while.


I know the book posts have not been too regular of late. It pains me more than it pains you, I’m sure. I have been reading, just not writing. I’ve discovered (not entirely unexpectedly) that moving to a new country, finding and starting a new job, and negotiating your way through a new life, new routines, new people (and trying to make some friends) is fairly time-consuming and energy draining. 

But you’ll be pleased to know (well, at least I’m pleased to tell you) that most of my little jaunts outside of London have involved some key book locations. Edinburgh, as mentioned last month, and also Paris (where some Victor Hugo-related sites in particular were visited, but how do you even start listing the authors and books connected to Paris that resonate with you), the Dorset countryside (for Thomas Hardy’s cottage and gardens; pictured), Lyme Regis (setting for one of my favourite Jane Austen novels Persuasion), and of course there’s London itself; setting and home to oh-so-many stories and their writers. I’m reading Bleak House at this very moment (perhaps I’ll post on it in about eight months’ time) and loving that I now have more of a proper sense of where all the streets and areas Dickens writes of are.  

Last week, this happy book-world jaunting took me to Bath. The sometime home of Jane Austen is a modern pilgrimage site for literary types, and you really can get yourself as much Austen-related fun and souvenirs as your little heart can manage if that is your wish. Apart from that, it’s simply a very picturesque and lovely city to visit and if you can cram in an Austen-inspired high tea, then so be it. On this occasion, I was happy to stroll the streets, tour the Roman Baths (excellent, by the way) and lounge about eating and drinking. As happy to concede to an Austen walking tour as I’m sure my boyfriend would have been, I decided to save up some of that literary tourism for another time, perhaps with a female conspirator in tow. Mind you, we discovered we were missing by only a matter of days both the Jane Austen Festival and a classic car weekend, so perhaps next year we could visit at that time and flit between the two when either bonnets or carburettors become too much.

This week I am lucky enough (thanks to my much-missed editorial colleagues in Sydney) to be going to the Savoy Hotel for afternoon tea. It is slightly book-related (apart from being given to me by booky people) as the grand hotel does have a much-desired writer-in-residence program. You can see authors the world over pegging crumpets at each other for a turn at that, can’t you? As someone currently struggling with even managing a blog post once a fortnight or so, a month in a luxurious hotel suite would surely give one the boost they need to hit the keyboard again. And if not, it would certainly be a memorable experience…

In Book Town

Pile o’ Books is currently in Edinburgh, Scotland enjoying the book festival and this beautiful city in general. There really is a strong sense of literature here, even once you are out of the confines of festival square. Within the festival compound there is nothing but a feeling of love for all things book. Where else can you look up from your novel while enjoying lunch in the sun and see nearly every other punter likewise supping and reading.

And on that note, I’m taking my book back out to the sun.

A Book That is Nice Just to Have

A little-known fact about your humble blogger (though becoming more known as I seem to be publicly embracing it of late) is that I like birds. A lot. And I don’t just mean that I’m into all this bird jewellery that’s fashionable at the moment, but that I feel a particular affiliation and have a more than general interest in our feathered friends.

I have been living in London for almost three months now and have spent a fair amount of that time pointing at winged creatures and saying, ‘Well, just look at that little, erm, birdy.’ I lack the nomenclature, you see. Even the bird knowledge I do possess doesn’t necessarily transfer across the globe—a wagtail in England does not look quite as one does down in Oz.

So after announcing recently that I was going to buy myself an English bird book as a treat, my flatmate asked her dad to bring over their copy, which they suspected had never been used. Having worked on natural history books in the past I thought I knew what to expect—location maps, detailed and technically-correct drawings, some notes on breeding and habitat preferences. And all this I got. But I got it in a barely-touched 1975 edition of The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe, and it is one of the most delightful books I have had (temporary) possession of in a long time.

There is something special about having an earlier version of a book that is still in print today—especially when it is such an attractive thing. Granted, if it had been stuffed in the pocket of a hiking jacket and carried from campsite to picnic area over the last 36 years it would now not be quite so lovely, though I suspect it would wear the added character well. It is now sitting on my bedside table for in-depth pre-sleep perusal, and on the next trip to the countryside, it will be coming along.

Speaking of the older editions of books, a month or so ago I was shown what is currently my very favourite street in the whole world. Cecil Court is lined with second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, a small street just steps away from the Leicester Square underground, it hides among the hustle and bustle of this crowded touristy area. I was there after closing, so most of the shops now wear an imprint of my nose on their front windows—especially the one that had the old copies of Winnie the Pooh and Enid Blyton’s ‘Adventure’ series on display—and I suspect that soon some of these stores will also have my cash in their tills. Perhaps one of them will have another 1970’s version of my bird-nerd book.