A Fresh Start

NY pic

….. 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. 🙂

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A Country Doctor’s Notebook

Country Doctor's Notebook (1)

I picked up the knife, trying to imitate the man I had once in my life seen perform an amputation, at university. I entreated fate not to let her die at least in the next half hour. ‘Let her die in the ward, when I’ve finished the operation…’
I had only common sense to rely on, and it was stimulated into action by the extraordinary situation. Like an experienced butcher, I made a neat circular incision in her thigh with the razor-sharp knife and the skin parted without exuding the smallest drop of blood. ‘What will I do if the vessels start bleeding?’ I thought, and without turning my head glanced at the row of forceps. I cut through a huge piece of female flesh together with one of the vessels – it looked like a little whitish pipe – but not a drop of blood emerge from it. I stopped it up with a pair of forceps and proceeded, clamping on forceps wherever I suspected the existence of a vessel.
‘Arteria…. arteria…. what the devil is it called?’ The operating theatre had begun to take on a thoroughly professional look. The forceps were hanging in clusters. My assistants drew them back with gauze, retracting the flesh, and I started sawing the round bone with a gleaming, fine-toothed saw. 
‘Why isn’t she dying? It’s astonishing…. God, how people cling to life!’

Mikhail Bulgakov, ‘The Country Doctor’s Notebook’

I am happy to report that my first encounter with Mikhail Bulgakov has been a great success! We managed to hit it off splendidly, much better than I had expected. Incidentally, this was also my first encounter with one of the Russian literary greats. I am now seriously looking forward to getting better acquainted with the some of the other Russians as well – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov et al., all of whom I have long had an interest or fascination with, but somehow have yet to get down to reading any of their works. Till now.

Although my chosen route to getting acquainted with Bulgakov was not by way of his most acclaimed masterpiece, The Master & Margarita, it was nonetheless a most rewarding experience to meet him at his twenty five year old self, when he was Dr Mikhail Bulgakov, a fresh medical school graduate who had just been posted to a far flung rural Russian village. The nine partly-fictional, partly autobiographical stories in this collection are inspired by the eighteen gruelling months between 1916-1917, where he had given of his services as a medical doctor. Each of the stories are told in a down to earth manner, revealing the different feelings of fear, doubt and inadequacy that the poor young helpless doctor had to deal with and conquer, in order to get the job done. In many cases, it’s usually a matter of life and death. 

The reader is given a close up glimpse as to the thoughts and emotions running through the heart and mind of the young protagonist with each emergency procedure he has to perform, with each decision he has to make. And all this is to be done with no help or advice from any contemporary or senior staff as he is the only doctor running the hospital with just a medical assisant and two midwives to aid. That, and thankfully also for the volumes of medical texts stocked up by the previous doctor in residence. Reading the intense accounts of emergency amputations, of the insertion of steel windpipes into the throats of toddlers, of complicated childbirths, of journeying through deadly blizzards in order to get to the patients, and other equally trying scenarios, one cannnot help but be taken along for the roller-coaster like experience! There is also one particularly gripping and intimate first person account of an individual’s slow descent into drug addiction. A very powerful depiction of the horrors and evils of drugs, once they are abused. A truly recommended read, to one and all. 

I am really looking forward to reading ‘The Master & The Margarita’ next.

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!

🙂