Having read four-and-a-bit books so far this year, I've already read nearly half as many as I did in 2013. Good going, no? As well as being a (relative) success in terms of quantity, my 2014 reading experience has been a great success in terms of quality as I've really enjoyed all four books I've read so far.
I thought The Ballad Of Trenchmouth Taggart might be a bit macho for me (I did get a bit lost in the shoot-em-up parts, to be honest) but I ended up being completely engrossed by it. It tells the story of a pretty remarkable West Virginian from his birth at the end of the 19th century to his death at the end of the 20th. I usually hate it when books set in the olden days (I mean that to be vague) try to bring the story into modern times, like Birdsong*, for example, but in this book it actually worked really well. It added to the sense of the epic, I thought, and the central character was strong enough and the setting alien enough to pull it off. There wasn't a sense of the protagonist having changed, looking back on their previous existence, it was all one continuous story. Plus the book was full of bad breath, blood and guts and juicy language. Possibly my favourite description was the twice-repeated, "This place stinks of assholes and oregano." (That may be a slight misquote as I do it from memory, but the "assholes and oregano" part is definitely correct.) There were also lots of interesting historical details. I learned that early Model Ts had a poorly designed engine, so that the petrol supply was cut off if the car was driven up a hill beyond a certain incline. This led to exciting scenes of high-speed getaways driven in reverse. I guess I ended up enjoying the macho side of the book too!
I suppose I've just cited a character not overtly reflecting on their youth/past as a good thing, but that's really the whole premise of The Sense Of An Ending and it was what I liked about the book, what I like about many other books, in fact. (I think I probably only dislike it when the narrative is in the present tense throughout the book, if a narrative is backwards-looking from the outset, it becomes a good thing.) I've read and enjoyed Julian Barnes before, especially Arthur And George, but this book in particular ticked quite a few of my boxes - short, easy to read, plenty to think about. I like that in a book. And I do like introspection, especially if it comes from men of middle age to advancing years. But hey, this won the Booker Prize, so I'm not sure what I can really add to further recommend it.
I recently read Mariella Frostrup's problem page in The Observer. A woman had written in complaining that she was over-sensitive and took life too seriously, couldn't handle criticism and that it was affecting her relationships. She had tried meditation and reading up on psychology, but was finding it hard to toughen up, roll with the punches and take life lightly. Mariella's advice was surprising to me. She advised reading fiction. Hmm, interesting. I'll give you a lengthy quote from her reply, but you can read the full article here.