Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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A Smorgasbord of Reading

I’ve been gobbling up The Hunger Games trilogy in tandem with my two daughters (they’re reading it in German) and while many of the scenes are incredibly moving, there were no parts of the books I needed to reread for the beauty of the words. Collins is brilliant at plot and she has a cast of memorable characters, led by the inimitable Katniss (such a superstar heroine compared to the dweeb who MC-ed Twilight, name utterly forgotten). I have images in my mind from the novels, whole scenes washing around in my head, but no words. Collins is a world-builder, a plotter and an ace at character, but perhaps not a poet.

The second book I’ve bounced through this week is the much-awaited (by me) The Obamas by Jodi Kantor. Longterm blog readers will know that I was an averred Obama fan. I howled big salty tears at his inauguration, had his poster up in my office and even stopped highlighting my hair in solidarity with his peppery side-burns. Like many, I grew disillusioned with his apparent inability to ring the changes and rise above the bipartisan US politics as he promised the world he would. When we moved house, his poster was relegated to the garage.

The Obamas is a very reasoned attempt to explain why this disillusionment happened for so many, how much it frustrated the first couple and how hard they are both still working to bring changes that will make differences in ordinary people’s lives. My respect for him was largely restored (though Guantanamo and the treatment of Bradley Manning are still blemishes), and my respect for Michelle Obama is hugely increased. I read The Obamas for facts and for the insight of Jodi Kantor, a journalist who followed them closely for years and interviewed hundreds of people for the book. It was engrossing, but dry.

Now I’m doing a third kind of reading. I’m late to the party with Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs and I knew in advance that I was likely to enjoy it, given the many glowing reviews. But I had no idea how much. Moore is in love with language. She delights in great sentences and I am having to read some of them twice or three times just for the fun, the lightness, the poetry that they offer. Here is one where the main character describes the mosquitoes on her parents’ farm:

Mosquitoes with tiger-striped bodies and the feathery beards of an iris, their wings and legs the dun wisps of an unbarbered boy, their spindly legs the tendrils of an orchid, the blades of a gnome’s sleigh.

And here’s a great pair about the strangeness of coming home after having left for university:

At home in Dellacrosse my place in the world of college and Troy and incipient adulthood dissolved and I became an unseemly collection of jostling former selves. Snarkiness streaked through my voice, or sullenness drove me behind a closed door for hours at a time.

I’m only 63 pages in, so I have a lot of great sentences ahead of me. Sigh! What a lucky, lucky reader I am. I can tell that Lorrie Moore is about to be put on the list of favourites and her back-list hunted out.

To use my husband’s favourite software analogy, reading The Hunger Games is like eating popcorn (light, fluffy, but oddly compelling), reading The Obamas is like eating broccoli (healthy and enlightening), but reading A Gate At The Stairs is like eating the perfect meal at the perfect moment with the perfect person. It’s apt. It’s delicious. And it’s memorable.


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Hello January!

Hallo January! Gosh, you’ve been a frisky little month, haven’t you? But I quite prefer you to December, which I am trying to extinguish permanently from my memory. December was flabby and exhausted, and quite, quite grumpy. Smelly also. But we won’t go there. We don’t need to remember it. January, on the other hand, you are fresh and full of promise. You are green. You are fragrant and exciting. You contain possibilities – potential new jobs, potential book deals, potential trips to faraway places that contain sun, beaches and disgustingly alcoholic cocktails. Your tail is twitching with the thrill of the new. And there is nothing I like more than new.

Here are some of the new things that January has brought me thus far:

1. A new handbag. A luscious, velvety object in peacock-feather blue.

2. A trip alone on a train.

3. A night alone in a hotel.

4. A walk around Munich on my own.

5. A large pile of non-fiction reading.*

6. Zumba – going tomorrow, will report back.

7. Pinterest – oh, the allure of this spectacular time-sucker. It is a revolting amount of fun. If you are a pinner, let me know and I will follow you.

8. Having a long-lost cousin from New Zealand find me on the Internet. Hello Amanda! *waves*

Have you done anything new this month?

* The Emperor of All Maladies, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Reading Women, soon to start the Charles Dickens biography.


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Top Five Novels of 2011

The books I love most are the ones I press on others, saying, ‘You must read this. Absolutely, you must. Ignore the wet patches where I read it in the bath, the tear stains where I wept, the coffee blotches where I spluttered with laughter, the lint from my handbag when I carried it around with me, the small drops of blood where this book dived into my veins and took up residence there with its beautiful sentences and refused to come out. Ignore all these, and read this book because you will be better for it.’

This year, I’ve had the privilege of reading five books that I want to press on people, bloodstains and all:

Ali Smith There But for The

This is the book that got away, the one that should have topped the Booker and Orange Prize lists and didn’t. Smith is the queen of sentences, of the poetry of words, of rhythm and of little short sharp electric shocks that bite you at the full stop. I’m not a re-reader but this is a book I will return to.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

I’m only on page 326 and still have another 250 pages to go, but this book is also making me jealous on sentence level. For example, ‘He spoke German nicely, keeping an amused pedantic eye on the slowly approaching end of his sentences’  is exactly what speaking German feels like. Hollinghurst’s descriptions of English social situations are masterly – the double of layer of what is happening and being said and the undercurrents of what is being felt and thought. I’ve never seen another writer do it as well. He also writes beautifully about desire. It’s taking me forever to read, mostly because I am savouring every mouthful.

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle

I rampaged through this in a day. It’s hilarious and wistful, and the protagonist Cassandra is superbly charismatic. One of those books you dive into and when you look up again, you can’t quite believe that the world is the same because you are changed on the inside. Glorious.

Jennifer Egan A Message from the Goon Squad

Sadly, since I read this as an ebook, I can’t foist a blood-stained copy on anyone, but I can urge you, urgently, to read it. It has a similarity to There But for The, in that it covers a cast of characters vaguely related to each other without much in the way of what creative writing teachers would call a plot arc. Not to say it’s plotless, not at all, but the value is in the way she draws her characters (sharp lines, funny, often hard). Egan also shocks and surprises on sentence level and, as it turns out, that is a quality that  makes me love a book.

Which leads me to – ta dah! – The Charlotte’s Web Book of the Year:

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

I cried when I read it, cried when I described it to my book club and I get a lump in my throat when I think about it now. This novel is a punch in the solar plexus, a long slow gentle punch that you only wake up to about 400 pages in. It rivals one of my other favourite novels, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, for its depiction of grief and it throws the messy, neurotic, fearful underbelly of parenting into the light. Read it if you dare! I recommend tissues for the tears and something stauncher for the blood, for it will haunt you.

What were your top reads in 2011?


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What I’m Reading

Ms Musings is a style leader, both in terms of shoes and reading, so I’m grabbing her books meme and outing myself as a slavish follower of fashion. I hereby give you:

The Five Books Meme

1. The book I’m currently reading:

a. Paper book

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides. When I love a book, it’s usually because there’s a sentence that grabs me like a trout on a hook and I know I have to let the author’s mind reel me in. With most books, the hook sentence usually occurs somewhere in the first chapter. With The Marriage Plot it was the very first one: “To start with, look at all the books.” Done! Here’s my lip, please hook it! TMP makes me think of Freedom, but Eugenides is much warmer about his characters than Franzen is. He reveals their flaws and foibles, but with a generosity and warmth that is heartening. Also these are three characters who mediate their love lives through the books they are reading at the time – luckily, since I’m reading and writing crime, I no longer do this, but I do remember having Jean Rhys and Angela Carter days at university. I’m halfway in, but I’m taking it slowly because this is a book that I never want to end.

b. Ebook

I’m also reading Before I Go To Sleep, the runaway crime success of 2011 by SJ Watson. It tells the story of a woman who loses her short-term memory while she sleeps, so every morning her husband, Ben, has to tell her who she is, who he is and remind her of the story of their marriage. In order to keep some sort of order, she keeps a diary that she hides from him (her psychiatrist phones her every morning to tell her where to look for it), and on the front page of the diary are the words ‘Don’t trust Ben.’ I’m heading into the final act, and it’s getting very exciting – when I can wrestle the iPad from the four Angry Birds addicts with whom I live.

2. The last book I finished

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo. I am a desperate and huge Nesbo fan, but this one let me down. I thought it was overly-long, far too gruesome and there were too many plot strands for the tension to remain high. However, I am more than a little in love with Harry Hole, so will continue to read the series. Note to Jo: your audience won’t be bored if something happy happens to Harry.

3. The next book I want to read

Well, it’s hidden in the Christmas drawer, but I doubt I will be able to wait that long: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

4. The last book I bought

I bought Germany’s Top Husband the Steve Jobs biography for his birthday, but I have a growing wish list on The Book Depository that contains these books.

5. The last book someone bought me

Germany’s Top Husband bought me The Marriage Plot. Did I mention that he was top?

What’s on your book list? Feel free to play along.


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I Submitted

… my revisions and therefore I deserve a list. After I open a large bottle of wine, that is.

Thanks to the lovely Ms Musings – who found it at Thomas’s Porch – here is a list of The Sunday Times 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945. Which ones have you read?

1. Philip Larkin – yes
2. George Orwell – yes
3. William Golding – yes
4. Ted Hughes – yes
5. Doris Lessing – yes
6. J. R. R. Tolkien  – yes
7. V. S. Naipaul – started, got bored, put down
8. Muriel Spark – yes
9. Kingsley Amis – yes
10. Angela Carter – yes
11. C. S. Lewis – yes
12. Iris Murdoch – yes! big favourite here and long overdue for a re-read
13. Salman Rushdie – yes
14. Ian Fleming – nope
15. Jan Morris – nope
16. Roald Dahl – yes
17. Anthony Burgess – no
18. Mervyn Peake – yes
19. Martin Amis – yes
20. Anthony Powell – no
21. Alan Sillitoe – no, not even heard of
22. John Le Carré – yes
23. Penelope Fitzgerald – no
24. Philippa Pearce – no, not heard of her either
25. Barbara Pym – yes
26. Beryl Bainbridge -no, but I want to
27. J. G. Ballard – no
28. Alan Garner – no. Who he?
29. Alasdair Gray – no
30. John Fowles – yes
31. Derek Walcott – yes
32. Kazuo Ishiguro – yes
33. Anita Brookner – yes
34. A. S. Byatt – yes
35. Ian McEwan – yes
36. Geoffrey Hill – no
37. Hanif Kureishi – yes
38. Iain Banks – yes
39. George Mackay Brown – no
40. A. J. P. Taylor – yes
41. Isaiah Berlin – no
42. J. K. Rowling – yes
43. Philip Pullman – yes, but only part of, aloud to a child
44. Julian Barnes – yes
45. Colin Thubron – no
46. Bruce Chatwin – yes
47. Alice Oswald – no
48. Benjamin Zephaniah – yes, but how does he get on the list and Zadie Smith doesn’t?
49. Rosemary Sutcliff – no
50. Michael Moorcock – no

Out of my ‘nos’ are there any I should chase down and fling onto my TBR pile? Unmissable books that I’ve missed and without which my reading education is poorer and sadder?

Do tell.


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May Madness

May is turning out to be quite the month chez moi, which means my presence here at Charlotte’s Web will continue to be vague, scattered and somewhat erratic. Here, in order of importance, are three of the many things happening to me:

1. Complete novel revisions. It turns out that my main revisions are plot-related and plotting is my weakness, which is something I’m going to have to address if I plan to be a professional crime writer. That aside, I’m done with cogitating and have committed to completing and handing them in by the end of the month. I’ve said it! Feel free to stop me in the street and question me in depth about my progress, even if I look evasive and try to distract you with cheesecake.

2. Give creative writing workshop. At the end of the month, I’m giving a weekend workshop to undergrads at Heidelberg University. I’m looking forward to it very much. I visited them last week and asked what they want from their workshop and now have a clear idea how to structure it.

3. Run marathon. For an ex-asthmatic and renowned non-sportler this is the most intimidating, though I am slightly exaggerating the extent of the run. It’s a team event and four of us run a marathon as a relay. My leg is just over eight kilometres: short for some, very long and daunting for me.

I’m also attending to an admin list as long as my arm, one that includes passport refreshing for certain members of my family and other unspeakable horrors. If I’m ever rich/successful/clever enough to have an admin assistant, it is this kind of thing I will gladly hand over. Ticking boxes and filling out forms is not my forte. Give me character motivations and new plot strands any day.

However, I’m finding comfort in reading and have read some excellent books, which I will detail in another post. Right now, Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men is glowing all buttercup-yellow and tempting next to my bed.

And in other news, today is the last day for voting for Expatica Germany’s best blog 2010/2011, so if you feel moved to support me, here’s the link.


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Cafe Society

One of the most appealing things about Germany is its cafe society; places where you can nurse a coffee, read a book and watch the world go by. You are never hassled to move on, they serve breakfast all day long and usually have an array of freshed baked cakes. German cafes tend to have a handy stash of magazines and newspapers, so if you happen to leave your book at home, there’s always something to read.

Writing at home is fraught with booby-traps: the laundry, the phone, members of my family, so I have spent large chunks of the last three years writing in Heidelberg cafes where I have no alternative but to knuckle down. I thought that over the next few weeks, I’d introduce you to some of my favourites.

The first candidate is my newest find, the Literature Cafe. On arriving in Heidelberg, the first thing we did was join the library, a lovely glass building overlooking a small park in the centre of town. It is light-filled, groaning with books and scattered with cushions for readers to lounge on. My family and I felt immediately at home.

Attached to the library is the Literature Cafe and yesterday, without my small attendants and in need of a quiet hour to face my novel revisions, I went there. The cafe is glass-walled, like the library, so even on a gloomy, rain-bespattered day, it was light. There is a terrace that will come into its own in a couple of months time.

The cafe has a small menu of hot and cold drinks, breakfast items, sandwiches and cakes, which are apparently baked by the owner herself. There is a short daily specials menu, and since I was there at lunch-time, I ordered the spicy vegetable coconut soup, which was delicious and an extremely reasonable €3.50. Along with a large Milchkaffee and a mineral water, my bill came in at €7.50. The service was polite and efficient, and in the German manner to which I have grown happily accustomed, not over-friendly. On Sunday, the Literature Cafe does a brunch for €6.50 per person, which is a bargain. There is a selection of 50 newspapers from around the world, which customers are welcome to pick up and read with their coffee.

For me, the Literature Cafe’s biggest selling point is its proximity to  the library. You can get your books and head straight for the cafe to start reading. The clientele yesterday were mainly people on their own, either reading or writing. Those in couples or groups spoke quietly, as if in deference to the library next door, and the only person who broke the quiet was a four-year-old who had a spectacular melt-down but was quickly removed by his mother. I could still hear his screams of  ‘Mean Mummy! Mean Mummy!’ going down the road as I smugly returned to my personal oasis of coffee and words.

Heidelberg’s Literature Cafe can be found at Poststrasse 15. It is open Tuesday to Friday from 10am till 8pm, Saturdays from 10am till 5pm and Sundays from 10am till 3pm.