April – On the Bookshelf

Okay, rather than doing a round-up of the month – which is a waste of time given that anything interesting goes in my weekly 5 things posts that I’m sure you wait by your laptop every Sunday (or Monday) to read – I’m looking instead at what I read for the month.

Now, I’ll preface this by saying that I’m the world’s worst critic. For me, reading, like art and like wine and like, well, TV and movies, is about enjoyment and escape. I can appreciate the “good” but not necessarily always enjoy it. So, bearing that in mind settle back, this is a long read (pun not intended):

Audio Books

In April I chose to do some virtual travel, I also (finally) gave Audible a red hot go.

At first, I tried sitting down and listening to a book in the same way that I read a book, but that didn’t work; my attention wandered. What I have found though, is that an audiobook is the perfect companion for my afternoon walks around the neighbourhood. 

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

First up was Michelle Obama’s Becoming. As I mentioned in a post earlier in the month, I rarely read autobiography/biography so this is a long way out of genre for me and while I loved it to pieces, I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed the read as much as I enjoyed the listen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautifully written, and full of warmth, it’s just that I tend not to sit down and read non-fiction for relaxation.

This is a long read listen – at nearly 18 hours – but I walk around the neighbourhood for an hour most days when I knock off work so was able to knock it over that way. I think I’m probably going to read (do you still say read when you’re actually listening?) more non-fiction in this way.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

How had I never read anything by Oscar Wilde before?

Narrated by the utterly fabulous Stephen Fry – honestly, is there anyone else in the universe more born to narrate Oscar Wilde? – this is a gothic tale of a young, beautiful and narcissistic man (Dorian Gray) who sells his soul for eternal youth.

The picture in question is painted by his friend Basil Halwood who finds himself totally enthralled by Dorian. But when Dorian sees the painting in all its perfection, he despairs that it will always be a reminder of when he was young and beautiful while he, himself, will lose that. He wishes that the painting can take the ravages of the years, leaving him unchanged. And so it is. #spoileralert

Wilde’s prose is witty, hedonistic and perfect for the time. If this had been a real book there would be corners turned and lines highlighted all the way through it. And each of Wilde’s perfect lines sounds like dripping honey when delivered by Fry.

Other Books

Shakespeare: The World As Stage, by Bill Bryson

I went through a stage a number of years back where I read a lot of English history – and I mean a lot of it. That was then and this is now. These days I read to escape and any non-fiction I read for relaxation falls into one of the following categories:

  • Travel memoir
  • Food memoir
  • Travel and food together
  • Cookbooks
  • Anything written by Bill Bryson

Of course I was going to pick this one up – and I’m glad I did. You see, despite the millions of papers and research documents about William Shakespeare there’s actually not a whole lot that we know for sure. For starters, there’s a whole lot of wilderness years following when (we think that we know) he left Stratford Upon Avon and his wife and family and when (we think) his first play was performed (although we don’t even know for sure which was, in fact, his first play).

The important parts of what we do know or think we know are told to us by Bryson – along with a few fabulous conspiracy theories about how Shakespeare isn’t really responsible for writing those plays – with trademark Bryson wit.

My favourite one of these was put forward in 1920 by an English schoolmaster named J Thomas Looney when he wrote a tome titled Shakespeare Identified:

“…in which he proved to his own satisfaction that the actual author of Shakespeare was the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, one Edward de Vere. It took him two years to find a publisher willing to publish the book under his own name. Looney steadfastly refused to adopt a pseudonym, arguing, perhaps just a touch desperately, that his name had nothing to do with insanity and was in fact pronounced loney…”

Bill Bryson

As a completely irrelevant aside, I had a school teacher whose surname was Looney…he changed it to Loney.

Anyways, Looney’s theory was that “the Stratford man” lacked the worldliness, polish and literacy to write his own plays so it must have been written by someone much more versed in the ways of the world – an aristocrat. Oxford (posh people go by their titles rather than their surnames) was the most likely candidate yet he was also, apparently:

“arrogant, petulant and spoiled, irresponsible with money, sexually dissolute, widely disliked and given to outbursts of deeply unsettling violence.”

Bill Bryson

Then, of course, there are pesky issues around timelines and a number of other reasons why Bryson (and most scholars) discounts this theory and the others also doing the rounds. It does, however, make for a good story. And besides, Oxford’s crest does depict, wait for it, a lion shaking a spear. Get it?

The Anglo Files by Sarah Lyall

Okay, I finished this, but I didn’t enjoy it. There were a few passages that piqued my interest and a few that made me smile, but on the whole, I didn’t feel as though Lyall, an American journalist, who had fallen in love with an Englishman and moved to London, understood her adopted country or its people at all.

There was an interesting snippet about Charles Vere, the Earl of Burford who had decided to dedicate his life to proving that his 16th-century ancestor Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford was (you know what’s coming here don’t you?) the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

I’ve spent 53 years not knowing that there was ever a doubt about Shakespeare being Shakespeare and I’ve read about it twice in one month. As (another) aside, Lyall goes onto mention that another ancestor of Burford’s (remember the title as name thing) was the first Duke of St Albans who was the illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwyn – remember I told you about them in relation to secret passages in pubs.

A Year In Provence, by Peter Mayle

Don’t you just love my model (in the pic above)?

It’s hard to believe this book was first published in 1989 and harder to believe that I first read it a year or so after that.

For those who don’t know the story, Peter Mayle (an ex London advertising executive) and his wife buy a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the Luberon and move there. That’s pretty much it.

Through a year Mayle introduces us to a fabulous cast of characters, the climate, the wine, bureaucracy, the foibles and mostly the food. Unlike Lyall’s effort (I really didn’t enjoy that) Mayle tells it with real humour, resisting the temptation to compare them unfavourably to how it was at home. Vive la difference and all that.

It’s warm, witty, colourful and very tasty, and all these years down the track I enjoyed it as much as I did back then.

Mastering The Art Of French Eating: Lessons In Food And Love From A Year In Paris, by Ann Mah

So that’s not exactly a title that runs off the tongue.

We’re still in France, this time with Francophile American Ann Mah. Overjoyed when her diplomat husband is posted to Paris, that mood quickly changes when soon after arriving he’s sent to Iraq for a year – alone.

To combat loneliness and find a place for herself in the city she’s always loved, Mah sets out to explore the story behind French classics from pistou and cassoulet to (the dreaded) andouillette (remind me to tell you about them some time).

Food and France – what’s not to love?

A Good Year, by Peter Mayle

Yep, still in France…and back in Provence with another re-read, although I don’t think I’ve read this since 2004/05 when it first came out. I have, however, seen the movie (which stars Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard) countless times.

Neither the book or the movie received good reviews, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying both…equally…even though the book is a little different to the movie. Max Skinner is a rather shallow player in the high end of town where a late start at work is 6.30am, where you run up bills with your tailor and get screwed over by your nemesis. On the day he loses his job he finds out he’s inherited his late uncle’s vineyard in Provence. A little mystery, a little romance, and a lot of food and wine, this is a sunshiney romp that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that.

Okay, that was my reading month (phew)…what was on your bookshelf this month?

Author: Jo

Author, baker, sunrise chaser

31 thoughts

  1. Jo, what a wonderful book review! I read Becoming and enjoyed it. Michelle Obama just launched an online weekly reading series for children during the pandemic. She started with The Gruffalo which I love. This month I read Dear Life by Alice Munro, Angela’s Ashes, a memoir by Frank McCourt, and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. #MLSTL

  2. Thanks for the reviews Jo and I must investigate audio books which seem to be gaining in popularity. I’ve been engrossed in British Crime and although I’ve read some ‘holiday’ style books I keep coming back to crime and thrillers. I wonder what that says about my personality LOL:) Thanks for sharing at #MLSTL and have a lovely week. xx

  3. I haven’t read any of these Jo, except for Michelle Obama. But they look great. Adding a couple to my list. I love audiobooks, but like you can’t sit and listen. I listen while walking, in the garden and in the car

  4. Hi Jo – thanks for the reviews (don’t forget MLSTL is a lifestyle share though…) It’s always interesting to see what you’re filling your spare time with – beats me how you have any time at all to fit these in. Do you sleep?? You always choose much more “intelligent” reading matter than me! I’m in the middle of another Fantasy series because I love the escapism – although I may read Michelle Obama’s book one day.
    Thanks for linking up with us at MLSTL and I’ve shared on my SM 😊

  5. I like your ‘travel’ idea. I’m still in Norway with the HalfBrother -having knocked off only another 100 pages…my attention span is gone at the moment. I am listening to Jasper Jones – one of the kids is doing it for school so thought I’d listen to it incase I needed to answer questions (or ask him questions to make sure he really read it! Ha!). We’re doing Mrs Dalloway for book group. #MLSTL

  6. Great reviews Jo! I’d really love to read Michele Obama’s book. Love the idea of an audio book too that I could listen to when I walk. I often listen to podcasts as I walk so why not a book. I must investigate!

  7. I have heard good things about the Michelle Obama book and might do as you did, listen to it rather than read it. I have given audio books a go before and agree with you they’re great for walks, or long drives. I’ve had an eclectic month of reading myself and now that the rain has set in I’m off to find a comfy spot near the fire and read some of the afternoon away! Sharing for #mlstl

  8. Hello Jo! First of all, I love that your dog appears to be ready to read over your shoulder. Or is he just waiting for a chance to curl up on your lap? I really enjoyed Michelle Obama’s book and would be interested in hearing her read it in her own voice. I don’t listen to a lot of audio books, but did listen to Michael J. Fox’s autobiography on a long car ride and really enjoyed that. I also listen to The Moth podcast, which is a series of shorter stories told by the people that lived them. I highly recommend it. Enjoy your May reads!

  9. I have read Michelle Obama’s book. … Today morning I finished reading Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I yet to take to audiobooks. Maybe someday, I will get on to it.

    1. I didn’t think I’d ever listen to a book, but I can do it with non-fiction when I’m walking. The kilometres simply vanish.

  10. Jo, Autobiographies are also not my usual but I did enjoy reading Becoming. I yes, I did read it (not listen) and it was actually an easy read. This month I (finally) figured out how to use my Kindle app. Please don’t laugh. Maybe I should try Audible next? Perhaps it will encourage me to walk more! I’m currently reading The Island of Sea Woman. It’s also out of my comfort zone but was recommended to me by a book club member.

    1. I usually have something on the go on my kindle, something I’m reading in paperback and (now) something on audible that I’m listening to when I walk. Somehow I can keep up with them all.

  11. Hi Jo, Funny we both listened to Michele Obama’s autobiography rather than read it. I enjoyed it, but felt it was a tad too repetitive. Maybe a 3 star rating? This month I read “Girl in the Dark” by an author that’s new to me. Her name is Marion Pauw and I recommend this suspenseful read. I read cookbooks often and this month I read and tried out recipes from “Vegan for Good.” Be well, stay safe, and lead a colorful life. Meeting you at #MLSTL and pinned this post!

    1. Don’t you just love cookbooks where the writing is fabulous? I haven’t heard of Marion Pauw but am off to google it now.

    1. I can’t believe that I’d never read Dorian Gray before, yet I absolutely adored it and could picture London and the drawing room scenes so well in my head.

  12. I thought I would be reading more during this pandemic, but found that I have not. I have succumbed to more home redesign shows on television which don’t require much thought and are escapism for me. I have not been much of an audio book listener, but I like your idea of listening while I walk. I need to walk more now that zzi cannot swim, and that might entice me!
    And how have I never seen the movie from A Good Year? ??? I loved those books.

  13. I’ve not read any of these but agree re the concept of non-fiction via Audio. I used to listen to a lot when I drove in that job I had a few years ago and it was perfect. 2 or 3 hour drives would just disappear when I had a book.

    I saw some version of this (?!) is coming to Netflix soon.

    1. I listened to Persuasion last week but don’t think I’ll be using it much for fiction – whereas I’m less likely to sit down and read non-fiction. It’s funny how it goes.

  14. I haven’t read nearly as much as I thought I would and more to the point I haven’t read nearly as much as I wanted to during the pandemic but I’m definitely adding Becoming to my To-Read list and anything Bill Bryson gets my vote too. I’m so nosy, I love seeing what other people are reading, so thanks for sharing!

    1. I’m listening to Bryson’s The Body at the moment – as I walk, of course. May, though, is a bit of a by request reading month so I’m trying a few things out of my normal reading list that have been recommended by others.

  15. Very little was on my bookshelf. I can’t actually remember. I think I’ve been more re-reading random bits because I haven’t been able to concentrate at times.

    1. It’s funny what this thing has done for concentration. Mine (concentration, that is) is all over the place.

  16. Hi, Jo – Being I huge booklover, I absolutely ADORE ‘On the Bookshelf”.
    My big question (to myself) is how have I only read one of the books that you have listed. (Becoming).
    I am adding others right now! Thanks for this great share.

    1. You’re welcome. What I find amusing about reading older books is the change in outlook between now and then. I’m having a bit of a “by request” month in May so reading books recommended by other people…I suspect a couple might be a challenge.

  17. Your post reminds me that I’ve got ‘Becoming’ in my Audible library and haven’t listened to it yet. I’m going to be checking out A Year In Provence and Anglo Files soon. Have you listened to/read Educated?

    1. I haven’t read Educated, but I just googled it & it does sound like a good book to listen to while walking.

  18. Hi Joanne, A few people have brought to my attention Bill Bryson this month. I should download another one of his books. I have read a couple and enjoyed them. I saw the Dorian Gray movie years ago and I still shiver at the thought.

    A great selection of diverse books and reviews!

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