Review // All My Puny Sorrows

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by Miriam Toews
4/5

I was recommended this story during my book spa at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath. I couldn’t resist the snappy, witty writing, and was intrigued by another female author who has a few award-winning books under her belt. All My Puny Sorrows is named after a line in a Samuel Coleridge poem, and has received so much praise for its combination of bittersweet humour and a tragic tale of loss. The story of two sisters – Elf and Yoli – explores the idea that sometimes in order to help somebody you love so much, you have to let them go.

Elf is an international pianist with a successful career behind her, and yet another global tour ahead. She has everything Yoli doesn’t – a happy relationship, a job she loves, a beautiful home and all the adoration she could wish for. The only trouble is that Elf wants to die. After numerous attempts on her life, she finds herself in hospital, and Yoli is at her side trying to convince her to find a way to stay alive.

The story is told from Yoli’s perspective and as such is quite stream of conscious-like. It flits between memories of the sisters’ childhood, and parallel storylines about family members and friends. This adds a certain humility and humour to the writing, and it’s obvious that Toews is drawing on her own experiences to write with such insight. Yoli is desperate to help her older sister get better, but Elf’s depression is all-consuming. After much convincing, Yoli agrees to look into helping Elf end her life, as one would help a family member with a terminal illness end the pain.

The story is touching and funny, honest and terrifying. It’s wise and insightful, and explores a point of view that’s difficult to imagine. I thoroughly enjoyed the style of writing, which rolled along like the thoughts in Yoli’s head. The poetic, rhythmic lines lent a lovely flow and honesty to the story. A highly recommended read, but be prepared to cry!

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Discovering Copenhagen on a Budget

Last week we packed up some reading materials and headed to the Danish capital of Copenhagen for some real R&R. Armed with just a few thousand Krone, we wanted to make sure that we saw as much of the city as possible for as little as we could.

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Before heading to the city, we were warned it would be an expensive trip. But upon arriving, that idea didn’t seem to add up to our overall first impression. Jumping off the metro at Nørreport into the heart of the city, it’s plain to see that the place isn’t flashy, and it seems that throwaway culture doesn’t really exist here. The bikes that swarm the cycle lanes across Copenhagen are all well-worn, and the hordes of bike repair shops have a steady stream of customers fixing punctures or getting a spruce-up. Copenhagen city kids are content to be outdoors, climbing the frames in the many family-friendly parks. Coffee shops and restaurants are filled with genuine vintage decor. Rustic wooden crates and well-worn furniture rival that of the ‘vintage inspired’ decor that comes with a hefty price tag at home. As our flights from Manchester came in at under £100, and we bagged three nights in a hygge apartment in the heart of Nørrebro for less than £150; we were surprised to learn that Copenhagen has a reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in Europe.

We discovered that when the weather’s good, there’s so much to see and do in the fresh air. The myriad parks and gardens are perfect for strolling with a takeaway Kaffe and a fresh Danish pastry. Street food vendors selling hot dogs, falafel and sandwiches are rife, and are perfect for lunch in the open air. A wander around Freetown Christiania is ideal for intrepid explorers looking for something off the beaten track, and there are plenty of stalls selling deliciously cheap food and drink. For something a little grander, taking in the palace of Slotsholm and its peaceful gardens is a must.

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When the weather’s not so great, heading indoors to one of Copenhangen’s many free galleries or museums is a great way to while away a bitingly chilly Danish afternoon. We discovered the National Museet, which has a great exhibition of Viking and Renaissance objects; and the city’s Kunsthalle offers a great introduction to Danish art history.

Getting about cheaply in Copenhagen is a doddle. Avoid the taxis, which are painfully expensive, and take to the cycle lanes instead. Apartments and hotels often come with bikes included, but you should be prepared to take in a lot of the city on foot – by far the best way to make the most of the Old Town’s narrow cobbled streets, winding canals and expansive lakes.

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Those looking to take home a souvenir without breaking the purse strings must wander the city’s plenteous flea markets. From bits of vintage kitchenware to jewellery and old photographs, haggling for a bargain on the market is the ideal way to pick up something to remember Copenhagen by.

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We saved our last few Krone for a trip to Tivoli, which didn’t exactly come under budget entertainment, but was the perfect showstopper for our final evening. Visit on a Friday night, when it’s a flat rate to get in and guests are rewarded with a spectacular music show featuring some of Denmark’s best bands. Once in, the rides are a little extra, but riding one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coaster is certainly worth the 100kr (about £10) we paid.

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In terms of bookshops, we had a little rest from book hunting whilst we were off. This ended up as more of a writing trip than a reading trip, and it was great to flex our thinking muscles and get down some ideas for stories and bits of writing. With it’s super-relaxed atmosphere and plenteous places to sit and watch the world go by, we discovered that Copenhagen is a real paradise for thinking and writing.

Review // All the Light We Cannot See

4/5

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Having met a little controversy with his ‘overly sentimental’ portrayal of World War II, I have to say that I don’t really mind too much about what some of the critics have said about All the Light We Cannot See. Some have fact-checked Doerr’s writing and found a few geographical inaccuracies. Others have accused him of not picking a side when it comes to the War itself. If I wanted a book that did all of the above to a tee, I would be reading non-fiction. Or my school textbook. When I pick up a book – and in particular a Pulitzer Prize winning book – all I’m looking for is a great story, challenging writing, and perhaps a new perspective. As All the Light We Cannot See ticked most of these boxes, there isn’t really much for me to complain about. Except that after hitting over 300 pages and discovering there was over 200 more to go, I do wish it would have been a little shorter.

All the Light begins in Paris, where we meet Marie-Laure, a terrified six year old who has recently lost her sight. With the help of her loving father, she is given an injection of confidence, and soon finds herself walking the paths of the Jardin des Plantes to the museum where her father works. Having spent a lot of time in Paris, I loved being taken through the streets with the help of Marie Laure’s cane. I could imagine the smells, the sounds and the bustle of energy that she would have felt. Fast forward a few years, and WWII has reached the city, and Marie-Laure and her father flee, having been entrusted with a priceless precious stone from the museum. The pair find themselves taking refuge in St Malo, a seaside town in France, where they stay with Marie-Laure’s Great Uncle.

In parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is that of Werner, a young and ‘feathery’ German boy who is groomed by the Nazi party thanks to his talent for fixing transmitter radios. He is sent away from his sister and the oprhanage where he grew up, and endures the gruelling regime of Hitler’s Youth Camp. He then joins the army on the front line in France, tasked with tracking the transmissions of the French Resistance.

Without giving too much away, it becomes a matter of time before Marie-Laure and Werner come across each other, and there’s a fantastic, pensive build-up until they do. This is short-lived, however, for when they do meet it’s a little anti-climactic, and I was already getting a little restless. This is redeemed slightly by the flip forward to the 1970s, and then to 2014, where we reconvene with some characters, and more loose ends are tied up.

All in all, the detail in All the Light We Cannot See is second to none. Not having an advanced history degree, I didn’t notice any of the mistakes that other reviewers have pointed out, but I also did have enough knowledge of WWII to appreciate the characters and their development. For me, the ending could have come a little sooner. But overall, All the Light was a thoughtful page-turner with those fantastically short chapters that you just can’t stop reading – and a clever little nod to the parallels in life that tend to go unnoticed.

Book Spa at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights

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My big sister and brother-in-law know me well. For my birthday last year they very kindly booked me in for a book spa at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. With not much interest in real spas, the book spa had peaked my interest the first time I visited Mr. B’s a few years back. With the promise of a comfy seat, a cup of piping hot tea, a slice of homemade cake and a pile of recommended reading to take home… there was absolutely everything to look forward to!

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Arriving at the shop for my spa I had a quick browse around before being taken up to the newly refurbished reading room, where my spa would be held. Quickly handed a fresh brew made just the way I like it and invited to make myself comfortable, I was in my element. The room was fab – deep green walls and cool chequered floorboards, as well as the odd cockatiel…

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Soon I was introduced to my book spa companion – the lovely Lucinda who proceeded to ask me some vital reading questions to gauge my interest in literature. I’d already emailed over a list of favourite reads, which formed the basis of our discussions. We covered my day-to-day work, hobbies and interests, and even talked about some of the books that I really haven’t got along with (the latest being my failed Franzen attempt). I found out quite a bit about my reading habits just from having this quick chat. My penchant for female literature has grown a great deal over the past few months, with favourites including AM Homes for her snappy, witty dialogue; and Ruth Ozeki for her Eastern wisdom coupled with fantastical storytelling. These were used to help Lucinda pick some books she knew I’d love, as well as some that would take me a little bit out of my comfort zone. After our chat I was left alone with my chocolate brownie and a brew whilst Lucinda toured the bookshop in search of some future favourites.

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Coming back with a pile of titles towering over her head, Lucinda proceeded to talk me through every title she had found for me. With a fantastic knowledge and infectious enthusiasm for every book recommended, it was so hard not to take home every single one. This was the most enjoyable part of the spa – and I’ve found that Lucinda’s way of storytelling has really stuck in my head. I was able to excitedly recite the plot of each book back to my partner when I got home to Manchester that evening.

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After a lot of careful consideration, I came away with six shiny new reads. A pile on the chair in the reading room was begrudgingly left behind – but will be duly emailed to me so I know just where to head when I’ve finished the ones I took home. Overall, I had a fantastic hour at Mr. B’s, and would heartily recommend a book spa not only to those after a bit of literary pampering, but to those struck in a reading rut and looking for a little inspiration.

Books I took home:

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – Wells Tower
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis – Lydia Davis
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews
The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng
That Old Ace in the Hole – Annie Proulx
The Next Step of the Dance – Tim Gatreaux