SEPTEMBER READING: Various Pets Alive and Dead; Aloft; So Many Books and So Little Time


Despite the title, there are actually very few pets alive or dead in this story, but it does make for a catchy title and a very striking cover design. The one pet that is a regular fixture in this story is a hamster. Not the same hamster mind you, but a number of different hamsters. The hamster, as a pet, in its little cage, being man-handled by children, adults and others, going round and round endlessly and vigorously on its little wheel, is of course a very metaphoric way of looking at the way everyday life goes - "Putting all your heart and skill into running round inside a spinning hamster wheel is fine for a while, if your're making money, but demoralising and exhausting when you're pushing flat out and getting nowhere." How many people spend their lives in exactly this type of situation? This is the central theme of the story. Beginning with the very idealistic, young and energetic Marcus and Doro way back in the 1960s who are looking for a new way to live a meaningful life. With a few others they create a commune in the vicinity of Doncaster, sharing everything, literally, until the commune self implodes some 20 plus years later. It is now 2008. Marcus and Doro have three children who want to have nothing at all to do with the politics or lifestyles of their childhoods. After all if you had spent much of your childhood eating lentils, doing chores and sharing you would want to escape too! Clara is about as far removed from the carefree existence of hippies by becoming a primary school teacher, trying to bring about order and stability to her lower decile students; Serge, a brilliant mathematician supposedly doing a Ph.D at Cambridge has been sucked into the money-go-round vortex of London's financial markets - naturally his parents do not know; and younger sister Oolie-Anna, who has Down's Syndrome,is desperate to claim her own independence and live in her own place on her own terms. Marcus and Doro have never got married. For some reason, one day they decide to get married. And this leads to each member of the family having to come to terms with certain things that happened in the past. Much of the novel focuses on Serge, as his carefully constructed facade gradually comes crashing down, along with the entire financial services industry. Clara's issues focus on keeping her students on the straight and narrow, and taking Oolie Anna's side in her bid for independence. In the middle of all this is Doro, her left wing fighting spirit just as bright as ever as she takes on the local council who wish to build over a much loved and cared for allotment area. This is an easy to read feel good story, a lovely commentary on money not being everything, and much like Justin Cartwright's "Other People's Money" actively ridicules and mocks the big city so-called money makers. Her characters are very, very human, as are the relationships between them. In fact I think this is her greatest strength. In the books of hers I have read, the plot is not always memorable, but the characters drawn with such fondness and care, do stick in the mind. Thoroughly enjoyable.

ALOFT by Chang-Rai Lee

On reading this novel I was constantly reminded of the lyrics from Pink Floyd's 'Learning to Fly' - marvellous words that perfectly capture the magic of flying, aloft from the troubles and cares of life on earth below. And so it is for Jerry Battle, middle aged, middle class, European man of south Italian descent, second generation small business owner with plenty of troubles and cares on his shoulders to keep him awake at night. And yet, until these small simmering problems reach a crisis point, which of course in the made up world of the novel they do, dear old Jerry really has no commitment whatsoever to sorting his problems out. So what are the things going wrong? Firstly and probably the most significant is the tragic death of his Korean/American wife Daisy when his children were young. I would say he never really dealt with his grief properly - his wife was probably manic depressive, and was not an easy person to live with. He remains strangely ambivalent about this monumental tragedy which left him a widower and sole parent to a son and daughter. The second major issue, is that Rita, his long time partner/step mother to his children, whom he met after his wife's death, beautiful, loving and probably the most well-adjusted person in the whole story, has just left him. It doesn't take much to figure out why. Thirdly his dear old father, living in a retirement home, truly hates where he lives, and actually strikes me as being far too with it to be there in the first place. Maybe that is what they do in suburban communities in America - pack all the old people off to retirement homes! Fourthly, the family business that his son Jack now manages, is about to hit the wall. Jerry can see it happening, but is unable to really do anything about it. Lastly his lovely daughter Theresa, strange mixed up sort of young woman, is engaged to the perfect son-in-law Paul, and has dropped the twin bombshell of pregnancy and cancer. Plenty of issues in life to deal with? No wonder he spends as much time as possible in the air. The novel gently unfolds with Jerry battling (ha ha) primarily with himself to sort these people in his life out, and of course in the process find his own self. There is plenty of picking away at the facade that each person has put up to get to the core and so begin the process of rebuilding relationships. It is all very tenderly and, and in some instances hilariously done. The tennis match between Jerry and his old school mate Richard over the lovely Rita, is just brilliantly captured. And so so funny. As is another episode at a family birthday party hosted by Jack and his conspicuous consumption wife Eunice. There are beautifully depicted conversations between Jerry and Theresa - the anguish of a father trying to do right by his troubled daughter, but struggling with expressing it, and the daughter still fighting behind the barriers she has erected over the years. I imagine so typical of many parent/child relationships. The author is of Korean descent and I have also read his previous novel 'A Gesture Life'. One of its themes was the alienation those of other cultures experience in modern day America. I was actually expecting more of this in 'Aloft', particularly in light of Daisy's mental health, her death, and her children's experiences, as 1/4 Korean, along with the Italian from their father, in growing up. It is interesting that Theresa's husband to be is Korean/American himself. But there was very little of this. This really could be any family in any middle class community setting. The author's writing is worthy of a review in itself. For me, the book is way too long. Too much pontificating, procrastinating, and philosophising. And his sentences!!! Long, long, long. One sentence has approximately 130 words, three sets of phrases in brackets, and only five commas. And there are many others like it. These long monologues detracted from the story and I did find them annoying! However as a study of a family evolving, being challenged and coming out the other side, it is really well done and quite moving.


How luxurious and set yourself the challenge of reading 52 books a year and then write about it. What makes the journey? The selection and reading of the books; the challenges along the way that either slow down or prevent progress; or the writing about it all; or even what to do once the year is complete? Here we have a woman who could be described as dangerously obsessive and quite simply mad about reading. I have no idea at all how someone like this woman who, at the time of her undertaking this feat, was a senior editor at Glamour magazine, and a columnist for the New York Post, and other bits and pieces on the side. Plus she is married with a young child. Where on earth did she find time to fit all that in!!! At precisely half way through her memoir she has a bit of meltdown - not a surprise - and at another point in the book does mention that she is feeling somewhat isolated and distanced from the world around her. Day to day stuff such as what's on at the movies, the gossip and chit chat about popular TV programmes. She has nothing to contribute because she spends all her time reading, and I mean all her time!

I love reading, it is my favourite past time. I have over a hundred unread books quietly waiting for me to pick them up. I don't read for a living but I would like to. Even so, I would still need a break from time to time. The glaring thing that jumps out to me in this book is that this woman never has a break from reading or anything else for that matter! Her work, her family life, her reading - it seems she never stops, even waking in the night and reading till all hours. A little crazy, obsessive perhaps?

But anyway - the reading itself. She has very wide ranging tastes, interests and reasons for choosing books to read. She is very curious and open to all different types of books and authors. It would take too long to make mention of what she read and wrote about - part of the fun of this book is the surprise factor! Of the books she has read that I have too - not a great many - she thinks deeply and writes well. I can only assume she has done the same with the rest that I haven't read! I very much enjoyed her views and analysis of the love of reading and why people become so addicted to it - in other words I could relate.

Did she manage to read 52 books? According to her epilogue she read more, but that also seems to count those she dipped into or skimmed through. What is interesting and to which she alludes to regularly is that she didn't read what she intended to read, and found that the book was choosing her rather than her choosing the book. The books seem to mirror what is going on in her life at the time, and in her writing she is able to intertwine the two. It would appear she doesn't have as much control over her life as she would like, but she accepts the slightly chaotic existence she lives in and invites the reader in.

Despite her seriously high intellect, her high powered publishing career, the sheer busyness of her life, she seems to be a very down to earth, normal sort of woman trying to keep her career going, her child and husband happy, and like many of us, finding a spare half hour to sit down with a cuppa and a book. How can we not relate?

I enjoyed this very much. It is light, fun, interesting, insightful and stimulating. Each chapter is pretty much self contained so great for dipping in and out of. My list of 'To Read' has grown somewhat...sigh.

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