Bliss

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Being able to read leisurely while enjoying the mild sea breeze and slowly watching the sun go down over the horizon, is certainly one of life’s few pleasures.

Feeling blissful.

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A Fresh Start

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….. Behold, I make all things new.

Revelations 21:5

So, the old has gone and the new has come. Whatever that has been left unsaid, unread, undone in the year just gone by, will just have to be left at that I guess. Thankfully, we can all start anew and afresh with the dawning of each new year.

2013 has been the year where I got acquainted with the brilliant Russian that is Mikhail Bulgakov, and became a fan of the gentle yet profound wit of Alexander McCall Smith’s writing. I am happy to know that there’s an extensive backlist of both the writers’ works still waiting for me to discover and to savour.

One other standout piece of writing that I encountered last year that calls to be mentioned was Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen (author of Out of Africa). This refreshing little gem, while being told in a quiet, unassuming way, left an indelible impression on both the heart and mind. Such brilliant storytelling!

My resolutions with regards to books and reading for this year are simply to be carried away by stories and to read without procrastination the books that are calling out the loudest at each particular moment, so as not to miss the ‘timing’ and the momentum that will help to give me the push to finish the books that I get started.

I also intend to get back into listening to audiobooks, something which I really enjoy doing very much but have fallen out of in recent months. This would also mean that I need to get back to regular workouts at the gym, because that’s where I get to do most of the listening done. So, more workouts = more audiobooks. An ideal way to be killing two birds with one stone. First in line would be picking up where I left off, the Julie Rose translation of Hugo’s Les Miserables read by George Guidall, which is a rather excellent combination, I must say. I’m hoping to finish the book before watching the movie proper.

IMG_0826aMeantime, these are some of the books that I have got going and was thinking to spend time with this month. But even as I write this post, I think I am begining to  hear the low rumbling of a different set calling out altogether ……. oh well.

Anyway, happy reading to all of you!
I hope you have all gotten off to a very good start to the new reading year. 🙂

The Dog Who Came In From The Cold

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This was one of those instances where I am made to wonder, why has it taken me so long to finally get acquainted with a writer whose writing is as delightful as this?
And looking at the extensive list of works Alexander McCall Smith has been busy churning out long before I had realised what I was missing, I’m gonna have a lot of catching up to do! But I’m sure this will be one task I won’t be complaining about having to take on.

Because I have truly fallen in love with the quiet, gentle yet quirky sense of humour of McCall Smith.

The Dog Who Came In From The Cold is actually the second book in the Corduroy Mansions series. Though I may have been late in joining the party, I’m glad it didn’t take long for me to warm up to the ensemble of characters within these pages and found myself comfortably drawn into their lives and going-ons.

While the central thread of the story involves the reader following the adventures encountered by William French (a failed Master of Wine, wine merchant) and his Pimlico Terrier (interestingly named, Freddie de la Hay) when they have been recruited by the MI6 to help infiltrate a Russian spy ring (you have to read the book to see how this works), there are a a host of other sub-plots taking place at the same time while the other denizens of Corduroy Mansions tackle issues of their own. 

What I found to be most endearing of all, were the subtle and beautifully observed descriptions on the pysche of the dog, Freddie. Reading them never failed to put a smile on my face. 🙂 

Here are some of my favourites.

An introduction to Freddie’s vocabulary.

William looked at Freddie. “Freddie, old chap,” he said. “I really must do something about getting myself a lady friend. You know how it is, don’t you?”
Freddie looked up at William, listening attentively. He had a very limited vocabulary, a small number of words that he recognised, and he was straining to pick up one of these. Just one. Walk or biscuit would do very well; but now he could make out no such profoundly welcome sounds, and he resigned himself to staring at his master, ready for what was coming next, whatever it was.

A little bit of Freddie’s background & upbringing.

Freddie de la Hay glanced up at his owner. He was aware of the fact that a remark had been addressed to him, but of course he had no idea what it was. He was a well-mannered dog, though, and he wagged his tail in that friendly way dogs have of encouraging their owners. Freddie de la Hay valued William highly, not simply because he was his master, but because he was what the Americans refer to as a pre-owned dog, and as such he had a distant memory of somebody else who had not been as kind as William; who had made him eat carrots and use a seatbelt when he travelled in the car; who had forbidden him to chase cats and squirrels, lecturing him sharply if he set off in the pursuit of either. It had been a world of unfreedom, a world from which all joy and canine exuberance had been excluded, and he did not want to return to that dark and cold place. William was to be valued for that – for rescuing him from bondage, from durance vile.

Freddie’s conspiracy theory.

This, then, was the person who took Freddie de la Hay into her flat in Notting Hill and introduced him to the place where he would be sleeping that night. After which she led him into the kitchen and gave him three large dog biscuits from a newly purchased box of Happy Dog Treats.
Freddie glanced down at the biscuits and then up at Tilly. Why was he here? What was going on? Where was God (William)? Why was the world so large, so strange, so filled with curious scents? (The sort of question that must have been posed by Iris Murdoch’s dog.) There were cats somewhere about, somewhere not far off – he could smell them. Did they have something to do with this devastating alteration that had befallen him?

Freddie being made a conscript.

Sebastian Duck made a gesture of helplessness. “He’s a volunteer,” he said.
It struck Tilly as a callous remark, and she frowned and looked away. Freddie de la Hay was not a volunteer; no dog was. Every single one of them was a conscript, just as most of us were, ultimately, in many aspects of our lives. We were conscripts, she thought, in battles that very few of us actually chose. We worked and worked, often in jobs that we did not really like; we paid taxes, and yet more taxes; we shouldered the burdens of awkward relatives whom we did not choose, who were just there, issued to us at birth; we lived in places because that was simply where we found ourselves. Conscripts.

Freddie de la Hay looked up, first at Tilly and then at Sebastian Duck. More biscuits, he thought.

Freddie has his views.

For Freddie de la Hay it was just another walk, although he felt a bit strange wearing this new, rather heavier-than-usual collar. But it was not for him to argue with the choice of collar or lead: this, he recognised, was the domain of the humans in whose shadow he led his life. He had his views – which were strong enough, and sometimes vocal – on subjects such as biscuits, squirrels or smells, but when it came to the broader parameters of his life, as laid down by humans, Freddie understood that this was simply not his sphere. Had he possessed the words to express it, he would no doubt have said that this was part of the social contract that existed between man and dog, which had been negotiated a long time ago, presumably not long after the first dog had stood outside the early human cave, which was redolent of warmth and charred meat and comfort, and whined to be admitted. That was the moment that sealed the fate of both parties, but particularly of dogs. Man did not ask to join dog, dog asked man, and was therefore the supplicant to whom no concessions needed to be made.

Freddie missed William. Having no real sense of time, he had no idea how long William had been gone from his life. In human terms, it was less than a day; in dog terms, it could have been a month, a year, half a lifetime. He just knew that William was not there and might never be there again. But he did not dwell on what might or might not be; dogs do not see the point, they are concerned only with what is happening now, and with the possibilities of the present moment.

To be fair, it must also be noted that McCall Smith’s tender observations are not just limited to canines. He is equally spot on when it comes to giving one a glimpse of how the human heart works as well.

William’s sense that all was not well in his life, an incipient, nagging doubt, had now become a full-blown conviction. There were many reasons for this, but one of them –possibly the most important one – was simple loneliness. Just as Freddie de la Hay was missing him, so too was he experiencing that sense of incompleteness one feels when a familiar presence is suddenly no longer there. Such feelings can be profound and long-lived, as when we lose a close friend or a member of the family – at that level, we are in the presence of true grief – or they may be less substantial, more transient, as when a shop or coffee bar we have grown to like closes down, or a favourite office colleague is transferred. These may seem little things, but they constitute the anchor-points of our lives and are often more important than we imagine. If we lose enough of these small things, we risk finding ourselves adrift, as William now felt himself to be.

If you have never given Alexander McCall Smith’s works a try, I would strongly urge you to. Waver no more. Pull it out if you have this or any of his other books sitting on your shelves. You will be in for a real treat.

Dog lover or not. 😉

What Our Furniture Says About Us

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He walked slowly about his flat, moving from room to room, thinking of what would be necessary to reform his flat completely. Starting in the drawing room, he looked at the large oriental carpet that dominated the centre of the room. It was said that some such carpets gained in value as the years went past, but he could not see this happening to his red Baluch carpet, which was beginning to look distinctly tattered at the edges. Then there was the furniture, and here there was no doubt that the chairs, if once they had been fashionable, no longer were. If there was furniture that spoke of its decade, then these chairs positively shouted the seventies, a period in which it was generally agreed design lost its way. It, he thought, would all have to be got rid of and replaced with the sort of furniture that he saw advertised in the weekend magazines of the newspapers. Timeless elegance was the claim made on behalf of such furniture, and timeless elegance, William thought, was exactly what he needed.

Our furniture, he reflected, says so much about us, and our tastes – perhaps more than we like to acknowledge. We may not like a piece of furniture now, but the awkward fact remains that we once were a person who liked it. And unlike clothes, which are jettisoned with passing fashion, furniture has a habit of staying with us, reminding us of tasteless stages of our lives. William looked at his settee; he had bought it at a furniture shop off the Tottenham Court Road – he remembered that much – but he would never buy something like that now. And certainly not in that colour. Did they still make mauve furniture, he wondered.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Dog Who Came In From The Cold

I have just finished reading this utterly delightful book sometime last week. It was my first taste of Alexander McCall Smith’s genius, and I was totally charmed! Starting with this excerpt found in the first chapter, I realised I was in for a real treat.

Will be sharing more of the delights that I found in the book in the next post. 🙂

Ending the year with a bang (or rather, a loud THUD!)

BBW all (BW 2a) pYes, I am definitely ending the year on a high! Not contented with just a tiny ‘thud’, it has to be a THUD!THUD!…THUD…THUD!THUD!! :p

In case you are wondering, no, these are not what I found under my Christmas tree. The people in my life obviously do not think I am in need of any help in the book buying department, as I hardly ever get any books as gifts anymore. They probably think I am in need of help in the opposite, rather.

As such, left to my own devices, this is the bounty resulting from my six days of book-hunting at the biggest book sale ever to have been held over here in Malaysia. A person of stronger mettle might have been able to exert more restraint and resist such temptations I guess, but clearly, I am not that person. Honestly, I really do get a tingling sensation of thrill and excitement just by looking at them all spread out there. Many a times when I stop to gaze at my shelves and stacks of books, thinking of all the goodness that is lying in wait for me within those pages, I just feel like I am the richest person in the world.

Does anyone here feel the same?

Anyway, without further ado…… here they are, in all their glorious beauty and dazzling splendour!

BBW 1Isn’t that about the most beautiful cover you’ve ever seen on a book? I just fell in love with this Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain, the moment I set eyes on it. And the binding and texture of the book feels really good too. As I am a big fan of all things British (well, almost all), this anthology of how different localities and landscape has played a part in the works of various British poets and novelists seem like a perfect blend of both inner and outer beauty. I have not read anything by Drabble as yet, and am looking forward to reading her. Also interesting to be reminded that she is the sister of A.S Byatt with whom she has a lifetime “feud that is beyond repair”.

Doris Lessing is another writer I am looking forward to reading, not so much her novels though, but rather her essays and short stories. And talking about short stories, Julian Barnes’s The Lemon Table and Jeanette Winterson’s anthology of opera-inspired stories by some of the most acclaimed writers of modern fiction in Midsummer Nights look to be very promising too.

I was very excited to come across Four Letter Word, an inspired and unique collection of love letters edited by Joshua Knelman & Rosalind Porter. “Is there any communication more potent than the love letter? Is there any charge greater than seeing those words on paper? The editors of this collection decided to ask some of the most important writers of our time to compose a fictional love letter – breathing new life into a forgotten custom, and affording words themselves the power of seduction that they richly deserve. The result is an iridescent picture of what love looks like in the twenty-first century: a collage of methods and moods. Each letter is radically different from the others, and all but one are published for the first time.” Some of the names included here are Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Lionel Shriver, Jan Morris, Jeanette Winterson, Audrey Niffenegger, to name a few. Delicious!

BBW 2Speaking of delicious, I manged to get myself a few titles from the Penguin Great Food series, which look really delectable both inside out. I’ve got the ones by Charles Lamb, M.F.K Fischer, Alice B. Toklas and Brillat-Savarin’s Pleasures of The Table. Still on the subject of food, Adam Gopnik’s essays in The Table Comes First is also another much anticipated read. I still want to read his Paris To The Moon (which has been sitting on my shelves for a while now) first though, before getting to The Table.  I sometimes see myself like my dog, Sandy, who while having a bone/ treat already in her mouth, still tries to get her paws at another piece. :p

I have always wanted to read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and so was happy to find it at the sale. And having recently started on Alexander McCall Smith’s The Dog Who Came In From The Cold (and liking it), I thought I’d add another one (Friends, Lovers, Chocolate) to the collection. Besides, it was in an edition that I like.

I am no gardener, and have close to zero knowledge about plants and gardening. But in recent years, I seem to have developed a fascination for books on the history and science of it, also memoirs of those working on their gardens and such. Maybe it’s also the influence from reading the blogs of all you garden loving bloggers out there that has brought about this new appreciation. At least I know I recognise the name Anna Pavord from having read about her in The Captive Reader’s blog. The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants certainly looks to be a fascinating read.

BBW 3aAlthough I have been slowly acquiring various volumes on the Mitford sisters and their works, I have never read any of eldest sister Nancy’s books. Now, having found three of her fictions and one non-fiction (Frederick The Great), I can finally see for myself where her genius lies.

Joseph Brodsky is a name I have never come across before, but definitely not unfamiliar to many of you I suppose, being a Nobel Prize winner for Literature at one time. I like essays, and this one (Less Than One & other selected essays) sounds like pretty good stuff!

I have only read, or rather listened, to Graham Greene’s The End of The Affair and although I enjoyed it, I somehow do not find myself wanting to read any of his other books as their subject matters just don’t quite appeal to me. But a book on Greene’s life in letters, that’s another story altogether.

BBW 3bIf you haven’t noticed that I love books on other people’s letters, here’s two more to convince you. Jessica Mitford’s Decca and Lillian Smith’s How Am I To Be Heard?. The Mitford one I am familiar with, but Lillian Smith is new to me. “This compelling volume offers the first full portrait of the life and work of writer Lillian Smith (1897-1966), the foremost southern white liberal of the mid-twentieth century. Smith devoted her life to lifting the veil of southern self-deception about race, class, gender, and sexuality.” Sounds interesting enough to me.

I have not read any Nabokov and have no intention of reading Lolita, his most acclaimed work, but I couldn’t resist this lovely Penguin Modern Classics edition of Pnin. I just love the cover design and the paper quality used in this edition. The story about a Russian professor adapting to the American life and language also seems appealing enough. And I get to say ‘I read Nabokov’ at last (that is, when I have really gotten around to reading it).

Penguin really does have a wide selection of editions and most of them are very pleasing to the eye (and hand, for that matter). I bought both the Chatwin and Auster mainly because they were in the Penguin Deluxe Classics editions. I just love the feel of those French flaps and rough cut pages. Yes, shallow reader that I am.

It was only at this book sale that I first discovered the Penguin’s series of Central European Classics. These are translated works of writers from Central Europe who are completely foreign to me, but all of which appeals to me very much. Titles such as The Elephant, Snows of Yesteryear, Old Masters, Proud to be A Mammal, etc… all look to be very compelling reads.

Another writer whose translated works I am rather excited and looking forward to reading is Mikhail Bulgakov. I managed to get four of his books at this sale and am having a hard time deciding which one to start with. I think I am leaning more towards A Country Doctor’s Notebook, though.

BBW 5For some non-fiction selection, I was most thrilled to find a copy Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, having read Darlene’s wonderful review of it some time back. The Virago Book of The Joy of Shopping is also looking to be a fun read.

For some heavier non-fiction reading, I managed to find The Lost Battles, a historical account of the fierce competition between Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, each trying to outdo the other during their heydays. Hot stuff.

This next title really caught my attention – Reading by Moonlight: How Books Saved My Life by Brenda Walker.
“Packing her bag for hospital after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Brenda wondered which book to put in.  As a novelist and professor of literature, her life was built around reading and writing.  Books had always been her solace and sustenance, and now choosing the right one was the most important thing she could do for herself.
I am really interested to know which books she did end up packing into the bag.

If there was one book I did not have to feel guilty for buying, it would be this one.  When We Were Young: A Compendium of Childhood compiled and illustrated by John Burningham. This is because proceeds from the sale of this delightful collection of contributions by various personalities such as Michael Palin, Seamus Heaney, Donna Tart and Kofi Annan, goes entirely to UNICEF. So, that’s my good deed for the day, I guess. What a great excuse for buying a book, don’t you agree? 😉

Back to the fiction section, I was particularly thrilled to find a copy of The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West. Having been recently reading (and loving!) her All Passion Spent, I think I’m going to be in for a treat with this one as well. And speaking of treats, I can’t wait to read Ishiguro’s The Remains of The Day.

BBW 6This was the final batch of goodies I managed to pick up on the last day of the great sale.

I was really happy to see a copy of Catherine Hall’s The Proof of Love among books that were still left for the taking on the last day. I had read her debut novel, Days of Grace earlier this year, and had really loved it. It was one of my favourite reads for 2012. Am highly anticipating this one now, especially after reading quite a few raving reviews of it around the blogosphere.

William Maxwell is another writer I am keen to get acquainted with. Managed to get my hands on two of his books at this sale, So Long See You Tomorrow and The Chateau. I was actually on the lookout for a copy of his correspondence with Sylvia Townsend Warner The Element of Lavishness, but since none was found I guess I’ll just have to settle with his two novels for the time being. Not really complaining though, as you can see I have more than a fair share of books to keep me busy for a long, long time!

I also found a collection of Du Maurier’s short stories, an Elizabeth Bowen and  a Beryl Bainbridge. And I’ve finally gotten myself a copy of Lady Audley’s Secret, after having been wanting to read it for awhile now.  Then there’s also W. Somerset Maugham’s literary memoir, The Summing Up and Stella Gibbons’s Westwood.  I had already picked up Maugham’s essays on Ten Novels & Their Authors earlier during the sale.

And for something completely different and refreshing, I found Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams to be utterly appealing. “A room of one’s own: is there anybody who hasn’t at one time or another wished for such a place, hasn’t turned those soft words over until they’d assumed a habitable shape? …. Inspired by both Thoreau and Mr. Blandings, A Place of My Own not only works to convey the history and meaning of all human building, it also marks the connections between our bodies, our minds, and the natural world.”

BBW highlights 2
A few of my favourite cover designs. These are the crème de la crème in terms of their aesthetic beauty.

BBW allAnd now, to find ‘a place of my own’ where I can sit down to quietly enjoy all these bookish goodness. What bliss!

🙂