Monthly Archives: March 2017

Book Review: Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut

This book is delightfully bonkers. Set over a million years, it focuses on a short period in 1986 when a small group of people became stranded on one of the Galapagos islands. These people seed the future of the human race after other circumstances cause humans every where else in the world to die out. It’s all narrated by the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son. Obviously.

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This is only my second Vonnegut book after I finally got around to reading Slaughterhouse Five last summer.  I listen avidly to the bookshambles podcast and they talk about Vonnegut A LOT. So I knew I wanted to read more. This one doesn’t appear on any YOU MUST READ THIS VONNEGUT BEFORE YOU DIE lists, but it’s on my book challenge list for the year. I knew if I like this there must be more that I would just LOVE.

The assorted characters are booked onto the Nature Cruise of the Century to the Galapagos islands. We have a Japanese computer genius, an expert flower arranger ( these two are husband and wife), a straight laced widow, a conman, a business man and his blind daughter. With various other characters, the small connections between their lives are revealed, along with much information about their intended cruise destination, the Galapagos islands, and Charles Darwin’s adventures there. We find out from our narrator what he thinks went wrong with humans, and find out how different (improved?) their lives are a million years after the events of the book, when they are all descended from the small group that finally made the Nature Cruise of the Century.

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It’s a crazy story of small events that have lasting consequences. I loved this book and I can’t wait to read some more Vonnegut. 🙂

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Book review: The Diet Myth – Tim Spector

Wowweeee a book about food and science! This is a scientific look at various ideas about food. The bottom line: it’s all about gut microbes. Eat natural food, lots of fruit and veg, some beer, coffee and chocolate (thank you, thank you, thank you). Don’t eat loads of processed food.

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The book takes on each food type and tells us about what scientific studies have had to say about them. It’s heavy on science (good) but even I got a bit lost in the various microbe names and some of the details of the studies. Luckily, you don’t really need to know them to get the point.

I wanted to read this book because I want to gain some scientific perspective on the conflicting diet and healthy lifestyle advice you get bombarded with. Happily, most of what I found out in The Diet Myth is what I suspected (or hoped) was the case.

The biggest challenge to my physics loving brain was getting rid of the idea that we are all identical black boxes, and losing weight is just a simple matter of calories in vs calories out. Of course messy, complicated, biology isn’t that simple. This book helpfully describes scientific studies (usually on identical twins – thank science for identical twins!) that show one calorie of food for one person is not the same for another person. And the difference usually comes down to genes, or your gut microbes. I’m not going to try and describe any of this in any detail here (and the book has many pages of references to the science if you are interested!). Of course, this is not magic, you will still gain or lose weight roughly on a calories in vs calories out basis – just that for one person this may work more easily than for another, and your microbiome health can tip the balance to it being difficult, or easier.

It’s not all great news though. Your microbiome is largely genetic, or passed from mother to baby during birth. There a section on birth and breastfeeding which I found to be largely unhelpful because these events are not something you can change if they are in your past. I found this chapter may actually just serve to make a mother feel guilt if they have either had a C-section or didn’t breastfeed. I felt quite strongly about this because I was reading the book to find out how I can change things for the better in my diet, in my future. I realise it fits in with the book narrative, but it was unexpected and mostly unwelcome. Probably all a bit too close to home given that my children are still quite small!

Overall I like the approach to food this book has given me. And it says I can eat cheese. Praise the Lord (of science), hallelujah! (to microbes), cheese is good! as is beer, and dark chocolate, and full fat yogurt, just not too much of it, and you must eat plenty of fruit, veg and whole grains :-). This is a way of eating I can get behind. Also, having slightly mucky children is also to be praised. Phew. 😉

Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

I absolutely loved this book. It’s been on my to read list for years but I never seemed to get round to it. Then I realised I’d better read it before the new TV series of it appears, and it seems timely as *everyone* seems to be reading or re-reading it due to scary times in the USA. (e.g. women are hosts comment from US politician. Urghhh)

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I knew a bit about the plot before I started reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I knew it was about women of reproductive age being controlled and I knew of the famous handmaid outfit. I didn’t know any other details and I wasn’t disappointed.

I’m not going to give away any spoilers here (if there’s anyone left who hasn’t read it yet) but Offred, our narrator, is telling us about her role as a handmaid.She describes her life, along with how she ended up as a handmaid, and what she was doing before the religious, military coup took over the USA. Offred is her current handmaid name – we never find out her original name (I assume so we can better imagine it could be us).

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The only negative (and it’s a small one) is the strange end chapter. It’s written as a speech, 200 years later, by an academic discussing the find of the Handmaid’s Tale document. Just a bit weird. I suppose it served to give us extra information about the Commander, made us realise the state wasn’t going to last forever, but largely I felt it was pointing out things that were pretty obvious from the text. Still, it didn’t ruin the ending, or take away from my enjoyment of the book, it was just a little bit odd.

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The Handmaid’s Tale on tour – waiting for a physics lecture to start.

In conclusion, if you haven’t read it, go and read it now 🙂 Can’t believe it took me so long to pick it up.

P.s. looking forward to this!

Family Film Time – February 2017

Every week we have enforced family film watching time. Its partly to try and have a couple of hours down time, partly to be able to share our love of film with our kids, partly to have a tradition we hopefully will continue in the future. We take turns to pick. The participants are currently 38, 37, 6 and 4.

Hotel Transylvania

This was my choice and it is a great film. There are a couple of scary bits (when Dracula gets a bit worked up and does a scary face). I was a bit concerned the 4 year old might not like that, but she was fine.

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Dracula has set up a hotel for all the supernatural creatures safely away from humans. Then a back packer stumbles upon the hotel and wants to stay…

Dracula also has a daughter, Mavis, he is desperately trying to protect from the world. She is getting older and wants some independence. This is also the story of them adjusting to their new relationship. I loved the character of Mavis, and overall really enjoyed this film.

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Explorers

This is our childhood nostalgia film for the month 😀 Not mine, I’d never seen it before. It was enough for me that it has a very young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix in. So cute! It’s the debut film for both of them.

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The plot is that these teenage inventors build a spaceship and explore space, encountering aliens. The internet tells me there were big production troubles with the film and it was rushed to be finished. You can tell! It starts off with so much promise, then just goes a bit crazy towards the end.

I’ll be honest though, I fell asleep just as they had discovered how to make an unlimited source of oxygen, then when I woke, there were these crazy, vagina faced, aliens everywhere.

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Hotel for dogs

I went into this with quite low expectations, and then I LOVED IT!

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There are orphans, cute dogs, amazing gadgets, evil foster parents, sweet romance, and a very silly plot. What more could you want?  This film was universally loved by all of us (and we don’t even really like dogs in real life 🙂 ) It even made me cry at the end – a sure sign that I have actually really enjoyed a film and have got emotionally invested.

As a superb bonus, there is a big action sequence in the middle with an amazing Tim Armstrong song accompanying it. Heaven.

Pokemon – Hoopa and the Clash of Ages

I tried to follow the plot, really I did. In fact, I think I was the only one left watching it at the end. Two other family members were snoozing, including the 6 year old who chose this film. There were murmurings of ‘I know how it ends… I’ve seen it before’.

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I really would only really recommend this if you are already heavily invested in the world of Pokemon 🙂

February 2017 book round up

Books bought

I’ve been on a bit of a kindle book spree this month…

The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing World – Margaret Cavendish (kindle edition). I found this book on a list of Amazing feminist sci-fi or something like that. Written by a women, under her own name in 1666. It’s considered the first female written sci-fi novel. Sounds interesting! She sounds great too.

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a badass women from the 1600s – Margaret Cavendish

The Toy Dolls: From Fulwell to Fukuoka – Ronan Fitzsimons (kindle edition). The Toy Dolls were one of my favourite bands in my late teens.

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Silly, punk rock, probably only known by the wider public for their version of Nellie the Elephant. I’m not expecting literary greatness from this but I’m hoping once I start it I won’t be able to put it down! May be a niche interest book, this one. 🙂

My, haven’t music videos improved since 1984!

Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays – Rebecca Solnit (kindle edition) I’ve wanted to read this for a while. In fact, I’ve been waiting so long to actually buy it I don’t want to read it and it be over really quickly! 

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The Good Immigrant – Nikesh Shukla (kindle edition). I heard about this book when it came out last year and saw it on loads of ‘best books of the year’ lists in the run up to Christmas. Especially post Brexit, a small thing I can do is make more effort to support BAME writers. Also, I’ve read Coconut Unlimited and *really* enjoyed it.

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How Hard Can Love Be? (The Spinster Club Series Book 2) – Holly Bourne (kindle edition). I read the first book in this series last year (Am I Normal Yet?) and absolutely loved it. It’s about a teenager with mental health problems navigating college life. I highly recommend that one and hope this one is equally as good. 

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The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man’s Struggle with the Monthly Tide of the Books He’s Bought and the Books He’s Been Mean –Nick Hornby (paperback). Oh wow! a book I both bought and read in the same month!

Gordon Ramsay’s Ultimate Home Cooking – Ramsay, Gordon (hardback). Fiver. Gordon’s usual cooking is a bit fancy for me, so hoping this one will be more accessible.

Beloved: A Novel (Vintage Classics) – Toni Morrison (kindle edition). Another I bought to read straight away. This is one of the few books by a writer of colour on my reading list challenge for this year. I bumped it up the list because I like to try and make sure I read from a fairly diverse group of authors. I don’t always achieve my goals, but I do try. I didn’t realise when I chose my challenge list for this year that it was just so, so white and American and European. Not ideal. 

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng (paperback) – I have heard great things about this book and can’t wait until it arrives. Still waiting though…

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photo from myfrenchtwist.com/read-everything-never-told

Wishful Drinking- Carrie Fisher (kindle edition). 99p kindle bargain. I realised I read a lot of biographies of men and want to even it up a bit, so have been looking out for autobiographies of interesting women.

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I need to curb  my book buying a little bit.

Books read

Links to reviews, if I’ve done one 🙂

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

Dancing With Myself – Billy Idol

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Beloved – Toni Morrison

The Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling. Bedtime story book for 6 year old – it’s going to take a while to get through!

Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone – J.K. Rowling. Bedtime story for 4 year old. We will be reading it for a long time I predict – he’s not even had his ‘You’re a wizard Harry!’ moment yet.

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Phoebe the Fashion Fairy – Daisy Meadows. 4 year old’s library book choice. Help.

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Book Review: Night – Elie Wiesel

You don’t start a book about the holocaust expecting anything but horror. Horror that people are capable of the most inhumane, disgusting acts. Horror that this is not fiction. Horror that this could ever happen. I had to keep repeating to myself ‘This was what he saw. This is real. Real people did this.’

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Elie Wiesel was brought up in Sighet, Romania. Himself, his Mother and Father, and his little sister were moved into a Jewish Ghetto when German troops occupied the town in March 1944. Elie was 15 years old. In March 1944 they were deported to Auschwitz. His Mother and seven year old sister were murdered there. Elie and his Father were later transferred to Buchenwald camp. Before the camp was liberated on April 11th 1945 his Father died.

He wrote this book about 10 years  after the camp liberation. He explains in the introduction that he was writing it because so many couldn’t tell the story because they didn’t survive. He needed to give voice to the experience so it could not be forgotten.

I don’t even need to explain that this is a harrowing read. Harrowing, but important. I am shocked I had not heard of it before seeing it on my reading challenge list for this year. It’s a very short book, so if you haven’t read it yet, you can do it in an hour or so.

Book Review: A Winter Book – Tove Jansson

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Tove Jansson is better known as the creator of the Moomins. She is less well known for her stories for adults, but according to the intro to this collection by Ali Smith,  she mostly wrote for adults when she was between the ages of 50 – 80 years old. This collection contains 13 stories from her first book for adults, Sculptor’s Daughter, first published in 1968. There are also 7 stories written from 1971 – 1996, translated for the first time into English for this collection.

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A Winter book is split into 3 sections. It’s not all stories set in Winter, perhaps I was expecting the title to be too literal!

It begins with a section called Snow. Some stories are directly about her childhood. The daughter of artist parents, a sense of her childhood is evoked in Parties. Others are pure fantasy, like The Stone, a retelling of the story of Sisyphus.

The Dark begins with Tove describing how she scares her childhood friend. A darkness in the wilds around their home is also described, and linked in with the joy of ice skating. It moves onto a tunnel she is digging in her family home, her parents love for fires and bible stories. All in a few pages. It’s all probably very Finnish.

I found the first section of the book the least interesting. Each story jumped around so much I missed having a narrative!

The second part of the book: Flotsam and Jetsam, has stories connected with the sea. Ultimately though, I’m not sure I care that much about flotsam, jetsam and fishing… There’s nothing wrong with each story, I just think I prefer a more coherent story.

The last story, The Boat and Me, is lovely. A 12 year old Tove taking her first boat out on a 24hr round trip alone. Without her parents knowing. She’s so fearless and full of adventure. She discovers her mum does know about the trip and she helps her keep it secret, but pretends not to know to her father:

…she was on my side as far as deceiving Dad went. He would never have let me go. And I’m pretty sure Mum would never have managed to deceive her own father, who never let her sleep in a tent or even wear a sailor-suit collar. A terrible century.

The last section is Travelling Light. We have moved away from the young girl stories and are now dealing with older people. In The Squirrel, an old lady living alone on an island gets a squirrel island-mate who has appeared on a floating wood raft. The image I’m left with of an old lady running around the island, waving her hands in the air, making loud noises, to annoy the squirrel, who has slighted her in some way, is brilliant.

Correspondence is fan mail received by Tove from a Japanese fan. I struggled with this one at first – couldn’t really see it’s value. By the end, it is one of my favourite stories. You don’t get much text, and you only get one side of the conversation, but it’s sweet, funny and heartbreaking. How the fan is put off from a face to face trip to Finland is genius:

I understand the forest’s big in Finland and the sea too but your house is very small. It’s a beautiful thought, to meet a writer only in her books.

The final story, Taking Leave is about old age and when you need to decide you are not capable of living your usual life and must make changes because of your age.

And that last summer something unforgivable happened: I became afraid of the sea.

This one is more obviously autobiographical than some of the other stories and that just makes it more moving.

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Overall, I took a while to warm to this book. I was wondering if I just didn’t like the short story format. I really slowed down in my reading of it and struggled to get past the middle section. It’s my first read of a short story collection. But, I really enjoyed Travelling Light, the final section about old age. I keep going over several stories in my mind, and clearly I’ve had a lot to say about this book – unusual for me when I’ve quite liked something! I usually only find a lot to say in criticism! There are lovely photos illustrating the stories and I would really recommend this Finnish adventure!