Talking about books
~ at home
BOOKS WE’VE BEEN READING
I hope you enjoy this month’s selection – do let me know in the comments at the bottom of the page if you agree, disagree, or have anything else to add. I’d love to hear from you!
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
This has to be my book for February. Translated from Japanese and set in Tokyo, it tells the story of Keiko, a 36 year old woman who is quite happy with her life working part time in a corner shop. However, her friends and family feel she should conform to their expectations by looking for a ‘proper job’ and finding an eligible bachelor with whom to marry and settle down. Keiko is aware of their worries and knows that she is perceived as ‘different’, ‘a foreign body’ but wonders why she should change just to please them. This book prompts the reader to consider the wider picture about what society accepts and what society sees as abnormal. I’ll quote a line of dialogue to illustrate this ‘We live in a world that is basically Stone Age with a veneer of contemporary society.’ I feel this would be a book to read in a book group and discuss.
Ovid: The Metamorphoses
How grand it would be, I have thought, to go to an art gallery, see a painting of a woman proffering a severed head to an angry looking fellow and to know that this woman was Procne, that the man was her brother-in-law Tereus, and the head that of her nephew Itys. Procne, you see, was married to Tereus, but he raped her sister Philomena (and tore out her tongue so she couldn’t tell anyone) and the son, Itys was the result of the rape. The two sisters planned revenge: Procne killed the son, cut him up into pieces and served him as a meal to Tereus – all except the head. “Want to know what you’ve just eaten? Here’s his head!” Tereus was rather angry as might be expected, and to save to two sisters from his wrath, Olympian gods changed them into birds.
On a cultural trip to Italy one year, our art specialist told us that a large number of Renaissance and Baroque paintings can be understood by reading two books: the Bible and The Metamorphoses. I concur – the translation I read is by David Raeburn, Penguin, in a very pleasant style. I have also read them in French in a magnificent illustrated edition (160 reproductions 49€):
This is an abridged version of the sumptuous complete metamorphoses in two volumes with 370 illustrations, 310€:
Even if you don’t speak French, you can enjoy them accompanied by an English version such as Raeburn’s – the passages are all numbered and you can’t get lost.
If you want to see a marvellous Metamorphosis painting in the UK, go to the National Gallery and find “Phineas and his Followers Turned to Stone” by Luca Giordano, a favourite of mine.
I’ve opened the first volume of Marcel Proust with some trepidation! I’ll report how I get on, meanwhile:
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Last month I embarked on the Barchester series and I shall save more of those for another time. I’ve now read The Way We Live Now which gave me even more pleasure, all 750 pages! It’s a story set around financial skulduggery in London in about 1870, with a Maxwell-type character at the centre who is the cause of envy, greed and disaster among a credible cast of upper middle-class characters and some of the ‘lower orders’. Speculation in shares for an American railway project takes the novel to the City, Parliament, London clubland, the life and loves of idle young toffs and women, not to mention vast wealth, class, and country life in Suffolk. Beautifully written with perception and humour, I loved it. How Trollope managed to write over forty novels while working full-time for the Post Office (he also introduced the pillar box) I can’t imagine.
The Music Lover’s Literary Companion by Joan and Dannie Abse
This is a superb collection of some of the greatest writing about music and musicians. Here, among much else, can be found vivid autobiographical writings by Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Shaw and many others as well as a feast of memorable poetry and fiction. Published in 2009 it may now be out of print but can be found online. Since I discovered Dannie Abse some years ago, I’ve read his wonderful autobiography Goodbye Twentieth Century and his prize-winning The Presence, a moving and mesmerising journal of grief, following the tragic death in a car accident of his wife Joan in 2005. All highly recommended.
The Captains and the Kings by Jennifer Johnston (1972)
This is a melancholy short novel about a friendship between an elderly man and a boy, by an Irish author whom I’ve seen described as under-rated. I’ve read Irish short stories with a reading group and we found them rather gloomy. Although this story is rather gloomy, I found it enchanting too. A Guardian review quotes the author as saying, ‘I’d like people to find small truths in my work and go on doing so.’ I think I did.
The Tenancy by Eva Figes (1993 – out of print)
This novel is described as an urban fable and perhaps that’s fair. Its central character (and also the mostly off-stage villain) feels old-fashioned, but I became quite engaged with the situation. I found the author evoked the time and place convincingly: 1990s London, at a time when the refuse collectors are on strike. I was commuting back then, walking from London Bridge station through Borough Market, and can still remember the growing mountains of increasingly malodorous black bags.
Although the author won the Guardian Fiction Prize for Winter Journey in 1967, I couldn’t find much online about this title. The cover has a TES quote describing the book as ‘a beautifully shaped novel’ but a 1993 review from the Independent was less positive: ‘None of these niggles would matter if we were able to suspend disbelief and accept The Tenancy on its own terms as a spare, well-written and reasonably compelling story of individual distress. But as a projection of social collapse it is curiously old-fashioned…’ I wonder if perhaps you have to accept that you’re seeing everything through the narrator’s perceptions, and hence not necessarily very reliably. For whatever reason, I read it at a sitting and found it sustained my interest.
Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor
This is a devastatingly sad novel about the death of an ordinary man whose life has imploded, and the reactions of the people around him. It is written in an appropriate, slightly modernist style which when you get into it is easy to read and really brings the characters and their individual ways of thinking to life. There is an episode in a morgue which some might find difficult reading, but it is highly empathic, and, I think, like all Jon McGregor, humane and sympathetic to people who live life on the on the edge of society. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it.
Excellent Essex by Gillian Darley
Light relief after Jon McGregor, this was another Christmas present. (Not mine this time, but one I appropriated). I’m from one of the parts of Essex that has been swallowed up by Greater London (I went to school in Chigwell, lived near Gants Hill on the Central Line), so I know a lot of the places mentioned in this big portmanteau book. The chapters are organised under themes, and sometimes it was frustrating to jump from one bit of story to another, or to come loop back towards a related anecdote again. Sometimes, though, it was a delight to come across some part of Essex history that I knew (or had a different version of). I’m in awe of the amount of research and organisation that goes into writing a book like this – and it gave me some ideas for places to visit or revisit when we can travel again.
The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun
(trans. Kathie von Ankum)
Set in Weimar Germany, this book follows the adventures of a very young girl on the make, Doris, who is bored by work, wants fun and luxury (or even a decent diet and enough clothes). After impulsively stealing a fur coat she flees to Berlin for an adventure. Written in her naïve but street-wise voice, it’s a robust counterpoint to Jean Rhys’s females struggling to survive in interwar Paris. Doris hits hard times but she is pretty much indomitable, even though the reader knows she can’t have a happy or easy life ahead of her. It’s a feminist book in as much as it is asking why the roles of men and women have to be so differently defined. (Doris is rebelling against ‘Kinder, Kuche, Kirche’ – children, kitchen, church, as a woman’s role was still defined in Germany at that time). Doris knows she has little chance of even a half-decent life unless she can exploit her only assets – her looks and ability to understand men better than they do themselves. She is honest about sex, but can’t help falling in love from time to time (sometimes with some luxury goods) but is realistic about her opportunities. And all around her, Keun shows the hypocrisy of society, the decadence and despair of Weimar Germany, and the growing threat of fascism on the rise.
Woman with a White Pekingese by Elizabeth O’Connor
This is the winner of the 2020 White Review Short Story Competition. This enjoyable read threads its main story through a day in the life of a woman showing her white Pekingese at a dog show.
The White Review Competition looks for formally adventurous short stories, and the story is told sometimes through short bursts of dialogue, with a time-scale ticking through the day, and jumps between past and present, as the woman contemplates the end of possibly the most significant relationship in her life.
I am afraid I have not read anything particularly memorable this month. I have been missing the library. I did try their Ready Reads Collect system, where you tell them what genres you like and one of the local librarians selects some books for you which you can then collect. However, I really only enjoyed one of the four books selected (the Kelly Rimmer one below). I will be glad when we finally get released from all the restrictions, when I can go into a book shop again and pick up a book and read a little to help me decide what I want to buy!
The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
This book is set in the US in recent times and Poland during the Second World War. The main protagonists are a grandmother and granddaughter. The grandmother had been born in Poland and emigrated to the US in the 1940s. She has now had a stroke and cannot speak but wants her granddaughter to do something for her related to her origins in Poland. The granddaughter is married with two children, the younger one being on the autistic spectrum. He is non-verbal, easily upset by any change in routine but bright and intelligent and communicates using a special programme on an iPad. His mother does not work outside the house because of all the extra problems of caring for her son. The chapters describing the events happening during the second world war and the events in the present day are interspersed. Eventually the grandmother manages to use the great-grandson’s iPad communication programme to tell a little of what she wants but not giving the full information. Her granddaughter then goes off to Poland to try to find out what is meant. I enjoyed this book, both the parts describing the harrowing events taking place in Poland in the war period and those describing the present day with the extra difficulties of looking after a child on the autistic spectrum.
The Silver Road by Stina Jackson (translated by Susan Beard)
This is Swedish-noir. The book is set in a remote part of Northern Sweden. It is about Lelle, a middle aged teacher, whose 17 year old daughter disappeared three years previous to the story. He spends all his free time searching for her, even all night in the summers when he is free from school, driving up and down the ‘silver road’ looking for her when the sun barely sets. When another 17 year old girl disappears, Lelle suspects there may be a link and he does not feel the police are doing a good enough job looking for the missing girls. A third seventeen year old girl is also involved when she and her mother come to live in the town with the mother’s new boyfriend and she (the daughter) takes up with a son of a family of self-sufficient survivalists. The prose describing the landscape, especially the dark forests and abandoned buildings, is evocative. The weather extremes from summer heat (with added dreadful mosquitos) to freezing winter cold are also well described and help set the scene. Through it all is Lelle’s anguish at the loss of his daughter and his constant search for where she could be. It is a crime novel in the sense that teenage girls are being kidnapped but it is probably more a novel about grief and loss. It is certainly not a cheery read!
My most recent read is:
Middle England by Jonathan Coe
I love this book and will immediately hunt out as many others by this author as I can find!
It’s a fabulously accurate State of the Nation Brexit novel, brilliantly amusing yet sympathetically written. Characters, politics and life expertly interwoven. A joy to immerse yourself in, difficult to put down, impossible to leave unfinished.
The Stranding, Kate Sawyer
I’m not typically a one for ‘how we survive the end of the world’ stories, but I was drawn to this book, I admit, by its beautiful cover and the idea of surviving the moment of destruction in the body of a whale. Ruth is escaping a failed relationship when she travels to New Zealand to fulfil her lifetime ambition to see whales in the flesh. It ends up being the saving of her, in more ways than one.
The book posits some important questions: How do you decide what’s worth carrying on for, when all you know is gone? What is the measure of a successful life? What can we pass on to our children and how do we prepare them for life without us? The way Ruth eventually resolves these issues – will keep you turning the pages and forgetting that you have to get up early in the morning.
As we all face up (or not) to the seemingly inevitable consequences of climate change, The Stranding outlines the impacts of ecological disaster in very stark terms. For that alone it’s worth reading. But it is also a wonderful investigation of character. Taking shelter with the whale and then leaving it behind, we watch Ruth transform, settle and find her strength. Her terrible regret for all that’s gone and the pain of her longing for the people she loved and lost are rendered with poignancy but never sentimentality. I recently heard someone say that to be happy we must reduce our expectations. You may think that sounds like the abandonment of ambition or drive. But, no, it’s just about realising what’s important to us and where our joy comes from. Ruth, I suppose, manages to do that.
The writing is economical and beautifully paced. The plotting – which involves twin timelines that eventually meet – is faultless. I can’t recommend it highly enough. But you’ll have to wait a while. The Stranding is published by Hodder and Stoughton on 24 June 2021.
A Net for Small Fishes, Lucy Jago
It’s rare that historical fiction is this good, or focuses so strongly and without sentiment on female relationships.
A Net for Small Fishes has a lot to say about the rights (or lack of them) of women in Jacobean England. It could easily slip into polemic. But the writing is just too good. Beautifully structured, with a driving plot line and entirely realised characters, it holds the reader’s attention from start to finish.
It’s central characters, Frances and Anne, suffer terribly at the hands of men, and we are constantly aware of how their status, security and very lives depend on the whims and machinations of the men around them. But they never appear as mere victims. They are women of intelligence and strength, struggling to determine their own futures and never giving in.
The end of the novel is heart breaking and, yes, I was brought to tears. But, once I’d mopped myself up, I raised a glass to Frances and Anne, to their loyalty and indomitable courage.
Bravo Lucy Jago. This is one to return to again and again.
The Mermaid of Black Conch, Monique Roffey
I’ve always been a sucker for mermaids, selkies and merrows. Watery creatures that leave the sea to live with men a while, but are ultimately and inexorably drawn back to it. I’ve read many such tales over the years, but The Mermaid of Black Conch (both the book and the mermaid herself) are the best of the lot!
Set on a tiny Caribbean island in the 1970s it tells the story of the fisherman, David and the mermaid, Aycayia, cursed to life in the water by the jealousy of other women centuries ago. When she is caught and captured by Florida big prize fishermen, she is rescued by David, sheds her tail and learns to live on land – and that’s a process that has implications for her and everyone around her. Ultimately, this is an archetypal story of a disruptive outsider, whose arrival alters a community by revealing it to itself.
Now, you might say you’re not interested in fairy tale and myth. And there’s no denying the mythical status of mermaids. But what really gives this novel its heart is the combination of myth with real world detail. Roffey makes her characters and her readers face up to the rapaciousness of the west, the denigration of women and the legacy of slavery – bitter pills beautifully wrapped within a bittersweet love story. The Mermaid of Black Conch will delight you, but don’t be surprised if, a few days after finishing it, you find yourself thinking hard about the issues it raises.
More than anything though, I urge you to read The Mermaid of Black Conch for the sheer beauty of the writing – the sheer wit and joy and dexterity of it. Oh, and if you don’t fall in love yourself with Aycayia, then you’re probably past hope!
A shameless plug here for my friend Annie’s debut novel – click on the pic for all the latest!
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
Do not let this odd title put you off – this slim memoir is a compelling read. It tells of Alexandra and her sister’s childhood in what was then Rhodesia and how her parents, despite all manner of setbacks , are committed to building a life there. As it falls apart politically they try to return to Britain but before long they are back in Africa amongst a motley band of expats. It is all they know. You can see their sun beaten faces. The children have the same sense of Africa being their home although it changes unrecognisably as they grow up. I shall be reading the next volume – Travel Light, Move Fast.
Trust by Chris Hammer
This is the third in his thriller series. An Ozzie journalist of 30 years’ experience he does atmosphere and location brilliantly. This latest story is based in Sydney and I felt as though I was there. The main character is also an ex journalist turned true crime writer who now lives with the main female character from his first novel Scrublands. However their joint pasts come back to haunt them. A page turner.
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
A middle aged teacher leaves her dead end job, advertises for an assistant/ travelling companion and embarks on an expedition to the other side of the world in 1950. Since her childhood she has been captivated by the idea of the Golden Beetle of New Caledonia which her father described to her just before he shot himself. Initially this reads like a project on a creative writing course ( not that I’ve ever been on one) as it is clunky. However things improve markedly as she reaches Australia and her quest progresses.
The Appeal by Janice Hallett
This is a current day version of the epistolary novel. Two junior law pupils are asked to analyse a dossier of texts and emails to establish if there has been a miscarriage of justice. A community with a strict social hierarchy has an amateur dramatics society dominated by the alpha family. Their granddaughter develops a brain tumour and all are mobilised to raise funds for an experimental drug treatment. The treatment and the financial campaign become increasingly suspect. A good read but the raft of minor characters become confusing.
Grand Hotel Europa by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
This book has been a huge success in Europe and will be published in the UK in September. The hotel, somewhere in Northern Italy where Ilja (an unreliable narrator) has stowed up to write his memoir, is a metaphor for a Europe which is past its peak and milks out its history. He writes of his doomed relationship with the aristocratic art historian Clio moving from Genoa to Venice.
It is extraordinary – a novel about mass tourism with threads about the lost last work of Caravaggio and the migrant crisis. The language has amazing cadences and some laugh out loud moments. However it also has some essay like sequences that are just a tad too long.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)
Set in Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) and America this is a story following individuals from two family lines starting about 1775 through to modern times. For each generation, events involving a main character’s life are told in their historic context. The novel describes the tribal conflicts in the Gold Coast and the conventions and circumstances that establish and impact the life of the character. The relationship between the tribal chiefs and the British colonialists who administer the area are key when it involves the trading in prisoners of the tribal chiefs following local warfare. Many of these people get shipped as slaves to the Americas. Cleverly the stories alternate but run in parallel on different sides of the ocean revealing experiences of each generation. Many of the lives described are harrowing and challenging but throughout it is eloquently described and the resultant passions and sufferings can be fully appreciated. A cleverly written book and nicely brought to a conclusion. It reads with an understanding of what these people went through and the pressures enduring. Very engaging.
A Castle in Spain by Matthew Parris (2007)
The story of the renovation of a magnificent house in Catalunya in northern Spain. Not truly a castle but a place of great local historic importance. The area is nowhere I know but the descriptions of this mountainous region are inspiring. The Catalan area is well known for behaving independently from the rest of Spain and this seems to inspire the author and his family (married to locals) who join together to rescue this classic, crumbling building. As a well-known journalist, columnist and former MP, Parris is well able to describe life at three thousand feet in the Pyrenees but there are a few longueurs which I didn’t find relevant. His descriptions of the renovation work sound remarkable; not least the financial implications and the actual developments they undertake. And there is the incredible issue about their protracted battle with the neighbouring farmer. When he sold the property he committed to supply their water but he appears to cut off their supply after an argument. He then defies various adverse court cases and fines to leave them bereft. An amazing story and I could be tempted to visit the area now.
The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell (2014)
Not, as you might expect, a book exclusively about bookshops. It is certainly the main theme and the selection stretches around the world. Plenty there to improve a visit almost anywhere. Enhanced by a number of intriguing photographs of some spectacular establishments such as Livraria Lello & Irmao in Portugal. In addition there are many interviews with some of the actual booksellers who explain their motivations and experiences. Also there are others from authors like Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveller’s Wife), Tracey Chevalier (The Girl with the Pearl Earring) and Brian Aldiss (named Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers, USA). Interspersed there are ‘Bookish Facts’ which give unusual or little known gems from the world of writers; such as Lord Byron, who loved dogs, taking a bear to Cambridge University as there was a ban on dogs in dorms (? sounds more like school). Most engaging – but I like books! If you’ve read this far then maybe it’s for you too.
The Searcher by Tana French
I enjoyed The Searcher very much as I felt I could relate to the main character and felt sympathetic towards several other characters. They were a group of folks that I wouldn’t mind meeting and having a drink with.
Cal Hooper, the protagonist, was in the Chicago Police Department for 25 years and on retirement and after an unhappy divorce chose to retire in a small community in Ireland. He buys a house which needs a lot of work doing to it but is situated on land of its own and has beautiful views. Cal is a thoughtful, warm-hearted man who wants to live in the community and not simply be a part-timer fixing up a house as a holiday home. He is also at home with his own company. I like him very much. Although there is a mystery at the core of the story, I think it is his relationship with others that is most interesting.
Cal is asked by Trey, a young lad, to look for his older brother, Brendan, who left home some time before and has not returned or been in touch. This is the mystery. Where is Brendan and what is he doing or what has happened to him? What interests me more than the search for Brendan is the relationship between Cal and Trey, aged 12/13, and Cal and how it develops and what it gives to them both.
There is also his relationship with his next door neighbour, Mart, who is his connection with the wider community of the village. Mart takes him into the community and introduces him to others at the same time as he makes it clear that Cal is an outsider to the secrets and stories of the community. This can be a tense and challenging relationship for Cal which, like the other relationships, develops over time.
He has a long distance relationship with his grown up daughter, Alyssa, who lives in the United States. This relationship can be tense and difficult but it also matures during the story when he begins to see her as the competent, professional young woman she has grown into.
The relationship he has with his house is one of bringing it back to life and all the work that involves and, after living in a big city for years, there is his growing relationship with the land and animals around him.
There is a friendship with Lena which could become a love relationship, but that doesn’t happen … it grows into a relationship of mutual respect with possibilities.
If you like a good mystery and are interested in the characters and their relationships this is a book for you. Tana is a good writer, her conversations between characters is believable, the central story is interesting and the people are likeable. My partner and I have both enjoyed it very much.
Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout
Like many people I’d not come across Elizabeth Strout before the marvellously atmospheric Olive Kitteridge hit our bookshelves a few years ago. I was so impressed by the book that I’ve kept an eye out for her other work including her earliest books. I have just finished reading Abide with Me, which was first published in 2006, and it’s astounding. It’s a more difficult read than Olive, and is possibly less squarely aimed at a commercial market. It feels muscular, dense, hefty – full of ideas and feelings, and not many of them happy. Its characters are mostly damaged, by their past lives or their ambitions and desires, often angry or lost. The one child who has a meaningful part in the story is rendered almost mute by her own sadness. At the centre is Tyler, a young and bookish priest, by turns wise and naïve. We see him struggling with his identity and his faith as he deals with the mundane reality of life in a small gossipy town in remote Maine in the late 1950’s. It’s not a barrel of laughs, then … ? No. But it is wonderful, believe me! There is so much love and humanity amongst all the damage, much of it hidden by custom and tradition, that I ended up feeling that hope outweighed despair. As Tyler himself says at the end, ‘Where there are people, there is always the hope of love’. I loved it.
This may be the last month of home-schooling, so although I will miss my journey back into nouns and adverbs, science experiments and maths (!) I shall look forward to reinstating my several hours a day of early morning reading. For this month – an eclectic mix:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I really wouldn’t call this ‘the greatest love story ever told’ as it seems to have been described over the years, not even close. But, it was a fascinating immersion in Russian life at a time of huge change and I enjoyed the detail and scope of this novel. The minutiae of daily life is there along with the sweep of history and I did feel I got to know the main characters well and had sympathy with all of them. I’m glad I read it, but I think I’ll never be a huge classics fan – next in line from the Everyman’s Library is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – have you read it?
More Than a Woman by Caitlin Moran
My friend Sheena in New Zealand decided I had to read this and sent it to me via bookshop.org. I found the start tricky, rather vulgar for my sensibilities (especially after Anna Karenina!) but 30 or 40 pages in and I was completely hooked. This is a marvellously rip-roaring, take-no-prisoners feminist manifesto and I loved it. Why isn’t there a union for women that looks at every policy decision to check it for bias and assess its impact on the lives of women? So simple – and everyone benefits!
Creole Belle by James Lee Burke
I’m three away from being completely up-to-date with the Robicheaux series (23 and counting) and though they are not for the faint-hearted I love these books. They are dark and disturbing, and central character Dave Robicheaux is plagued with demons and an ongoing fight with alcoholism. They are also deeply spiritual. Burke’s descriptions of the Louisiana landscape, weather and food are lyrical and loving. He is scathing of the political system and his tender depictions of those at the bottom of the heap is intelligently drawn. A great writer.
The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
I read this to my grand-children – and cried. It’s gorgeous. I listened to it over Christmas on BBC Sounds, an absolutely lovely production which you can enjoy on CD read by author and illustrator Charlie Mackesy, with a beautiful musical score and the gentle wildlife sounds of rural England.
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