Talking about books
~ at home
books we read in November
A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins
This is both horrifying and hilarious. The author is a documentary film maker who was jailed for defrauding HMRC in a film financing scheme. He kept a diary of his time in HMP Wandsworth to help him survive the brutality and the despair of the inmates. The UK prison system is broken and his efforts to understand and manipulate it along with others in the white collar crimes wing reads like a novel. We’ve all seen those films of US prisons – this is far worse.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
I enjoyed this more than I expected. It tells of close but dysfunctional siblings, abandoned by their feckless rockstar father, who grew up in Malibu before it was trendy. The action centres on the 24 hours of the annual end of summer party held by the eldest, Nina who is a successful model, at her cliff top mansion and attended by the celebrities of Hollywood. A wildfire ensues.
April in Spain by John Banville
Having abandoned the pen name Benjamin Black for crime writing, this latest Banville novel is more about the political situation in Ireland than the crime portrayed. There are two parallel narratives ; one of the re-appearance in Spain of a presumed dead Irish woman doctor and the other of an orphaned career hitman who identifies with Pinkie in Brighton Rock. It is the second novel (after Snow) featuring the down at heel protestant detective St. John Strafford from the Dublin police force but he only shows up halfway through the book.
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Yet another set of interesting documents has just ‘fallen into’ this Glaswegian author’s lap – a genre apparently known as metafiction. Half the room at his Edinburgh book launch event thought his earlier book His Bloody Project was a true story. ( I almost did myself). This new novel is set in the 1960s and based on the diary of a young woman whose sister committed suicide after visiting a charlatan psychiatrist Collins Braithwaite. Such is the interest in this character, a contemporary of RD Laing, that Macrae Burnet is considering creating his Wikipedia page.
Home in the World by Amartya Sen
The first half of this weighty book is excellent. It tells of the author’s upbringing in rural Bengal, family visits to Calcutta, partition and how Bangladesh came into existence. His education at a school founded by the poet Tagore, the 1943 famine and his self cancer diagnosis at the age of 18 were formative in his becoming an economist (and a Nobel prize winner). The second half, after he goes to Cambridge in 1953, is much less interesting and degenerates into endless name dropping of the great and the good in the academic world.
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
I found this book utterly compelling in its study of a major family trauma and the lifelong effects it had on a young family struggling to cope in the aftermath. The book swings between the main narrator as a child experiencing deep grief and her reactions to it later on in life so there is a constant reevaluation of emotions and relationships. The novelist, rather like Elizabeth Strout or Anne Tyler, seems to be able to plumb the depths of human emotion in the simplest of language. Both the adult and child narrator are utterly believable and hugely moving as they begin to grasp or indeed fail to grasp an understanding of who they are and their relationships with others. Brilliant!
A Possible Life Sebastian Faulks
I have never been a huge Sebastian Faulkes fan although I can enjoy his books to a degree. This however was a major disappointment. The book was a series of unconnected stories depicting very different people at very different times. I could not empathise with any of the characters, I disliked most of them or at least found them irritating and did I care what happened to them? No! Enough said or perhaps I just missed the point of the stories all together.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Silverwood Book Group decided to listen to this – my first experience of an audiobook! I actually really enjoyed listening, and, although it took me much longer than if I had read it, I definitely remembered many more details of the story. I thought the audio recording was very well done, but have found out I cannot listen to a book and drive (far too much going on!), but I can listen and cook. Sparse, beautiful language and exquisite storytelling. Recommended.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihana
This has been on my list for a while – it’s a long one, but moves forward at pace. I loved it, but it is very, very difficult reading at times. It tells the story of four friends who studied together and then all lived and worked in New York. We are slowly introduced to more and more details of the characters’ lives, fleshing out the hints of the earlier chapters to form a full – often horrific – picture of what has gone before. The events of the novel are at times brutal and overwhelming, but ultimately this is such a tender story.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Brilliant – I loved this and read it in less than 24 hours! The story tells of twins who grow up in a town where the ‘whiter’ you appear, the better. They run away from home as teenagers. One twin lives her life as a black woman; her sister ‘passes’ as white. We follow the wildly different lives of each twin, with the story continuing through the lives of their daughters. So many complex themes were dealt with so well; the issue of ‘passing’ (as white), loss, sexuality, trans-issues, relationships, sense of self, memory. Highly recommend this – we had a brilliant book club discussion after this one!
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
A gentle read which sees Miss Benson and her assistant, Enid Pretty, embark on a journey across the world in search of a golden beetle and uncovering a lot of other things as they go. A bit slow in places, with a healthy dose of magical realism, but, as always with Rachel Joyce, some lovely moments along the way. (I can highly recommend her book of short stories, The Snow Garden, for the festive season (which I enjoyed more than this novel!)
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
My standout read of the last few months has been The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. The setting is Dublin in 1918, a city frightened and on edge, ravaged by the Spanish flu; the story centres on a makeshift maternity ward in an overcrowded hospital, and on the nurse who finds herself in charge there for three days. The writing is stunning: not remotely fancy, not seemingly effortful and utterly compelling. It’s a story that is visceral and at times horrific, but there were times when I couldn’t put it down. I was completely absorbed in the characters and their journeys. It’s not perfect – there are a couple of stereotypical characters and, in my view, an unnecessary romantic twist – and some people might find the more gory bits too much. What I really liked about it was the women in it: their intelligence and stoicism; their work, their labour, their coping with dreadful things, managing. These things more than redeemed the death and disaster for me. The parallels with today’s pandemic are poignant. It will stay with me – I am so glad I read it. It was the first of Donoghue’s books that I’ve read, and I’m keen to read more.
The Mountain Village by Chun-Chan Yeh
This is the first of a trilogy of novels entitled: Quiet are the Mountains. This is the only one written in English whereas the following two have been translated. The tale revolves around a very poor peasant farming community at the beginning of the Chinese communist revolution. Their lives are sensitively described. The main characters evolve showing all their personal strengths, weaknesses and proclivities as things fragment. Retreating forces raid the village, despite clever tactics by the inhabitants to pacify them, which leaves them virtually nothing. A stand becomes necessary and is taken against the local landlords during the devastation left. This was later contrasted with the subsequent communist Political Organiser’s attempt to convince the generally uneducated community to understand and appreciate the newly implemented changes even while some of their more educated members are removed and executed. It appears that the elite will disappear and everything distributed to the peasants. Already everyone has been given three acres but those that do not do their duty by their three acres are severely reprimanded. Some repine and even decide to leave and move to the hills, which includes the main family. (Out of print)
Rural Portraits by Polly Pullar
The portraits are of the farming characters and livestock of Scotland which are focussed on those native to that country. However this is also a large coffee-table type book and appropriately the portraits handsomely illustrate these animals and the many farmer owners and stockmen involved all painted by the impressive artist, Keith Brockie. An interesting book as Ms Pullar travels throughout the Scottish mainland and islands interviewing the farmers about their lives, works and animals. This is therefore a present-history record too, not just because many of the lives and practices are changing but even the animals are being ‘redesigned’ to make them better suited to today’s requirements; this is most apparent with the dairy animals. As they have become larger and thereby more productive milk prices have decline. The narrative also includes wonderfully evocative descriptions of the places, countryside and scenes they visit and the wildlife they see such as “a giant stack, iced with gannets emerges…”. Very engagingly written and it makes an enjoyable read if such things interest you. (Out of print)
Narrow Boat by LTC Rolt
This book was described in a more recent canal travel book that I read as being by the original pioneers of such living, published in 1944. It is a beautifully written narrative of a couple who decided to take to life on the canals. Starting with the work they had to do to bring a boat up to a standard suitable for living on they then journey round England describing the existing canal network and characters they encountered. In addition they describe visits to various villages and towns especially where they moor. Details too are given of the canal system and its various issues at the time, especially the consequences of industrialisation and its environmental impacts. But this is also a travelogue of the journey with the added dimension of a trip that started before the 2nd world war with the book ending once it had started. However there is no reference to the impact of the war on them so maybe they remained blissfully isolated.
44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
First in the Scotland Street series this is a very enjoyable read which is as one would expect from the ever jovial McCall Smith. The tale is of the lives of a community of disparate people living in tenement flats in the eponymous building. We become involved in the fraught life of precocious young Bertie and his very woke mother who insists on making him wear pink dungarees and sending him to an analyst to explore his suspected behavioural issues, much is revealed thereby of his mother’s own behaviour. We also follow the exploits of two fascinating characters who share a flat; one a student undertaking her second gap year from university and the other, a young big-headed surveyor who see himself as god’s gift to women. I’m now on to my second volume of the series. Brilliant books.
Blood, Salt, Water by Denise Mina
This is a gritty Scottish detective story with a tough female detective, Alex Morrow, as the lead character, partly set in Glasgow and partly in Helensburgh. She is investigating the disappearance of a young woman who has recently arrived to run an insurance business that is under secret investigation for possible money laundering. The book opens with the murder of another young woman and eventually you find out that the two are linked. The book presents chapters from the point of view of the criminals as well as the detective. It is a good read and the complicated plot hangs together well.
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
I read this as a teenager and have only just re-read it. I found that it still had all the menace and foreboding about what is likely to happen to those boys trapped on their island alone just as it did when I was at school. I really enjoyed it.
The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater
This is the book I get out every year in the autumn when I start to think about Christmas. It is full of recipes ,as you would expect from Nigel Slater, but it also has lots about winter weather, winter feast days, his memories of childhood winters and more recent Christmas celebrations. The book’s subtitle ‘Notes, stories & essential recipes for midwinter’ probably gives the best description of the book. After the initial introduction, the chapters are dated, starting from ‘1 November’ and ending with ‘2 February’. Not every date is included but for those that are, there is always a story relevant to the date and at least one recipe, often a couple of recipes. For example, the entry for today (headed ’20 November-ish. Stir-up Sunday’) describes the folklore and superstitions behind Christmas Pudding and gives two different recipes for puddings. I have tried a number of recipes from the book but I enjoy re-reading the stories included on each date over the whole winter period even when not looking for a recipe.
Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym
In April 2021 BBC4’s Book of the Week was The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne. As a result, I’ve recently read A Quartet in Autumn which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977. Barbara Pym had been unpublished for 15 years, having been rejected after several successful novels in the 1950s and 60s. Re-discovered, largely as a result of admiration by Philip Larkin, she acquired a new popularity for her light novels of ordinary unassuming people, particularly clergymen and academics. Quartet in Autumn is very much of its time and one can understand why her books went out of fashion, as the ‘angry young men’ emerged in the 60s and 70s. The story is of four people who work together in an anonymous office and who are nearing retirement. Their individual lives are gently and sympathetically interwoven in this short book which is an easy read. I recommend a superb short film from 1991, available on YouTube, Miss Pym’s Day Out with Patricia Routledge playing the author on the day she travelled to London to attend the Booker prize dinner.
Prisoners of Geography and The Power of Geography by Tim Marshall
These are two excellent books about the state of the world today told through ten essays in each book about twenty different countries and areas, often unknown to many of us. Described respectively as Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics and Ten Maps that Reveal the Future of Our World they are, in my opinion, essential reading for anyone who wants to know about international politics and power. We are such an insular country that this should be essential, if sobering, reading for those who need to look at the world beyond our shores – particularly young people and, dare I say it, many of our politicians.
The Son by Philipp Meyer
This novel was published in 2013 and has been adapted into a television series, so may well be familiar to most people. I hadn’t heard of it, and nor had I read the author’s first novel, American Rust. There are so many extensive reviews online, if you’re interested, that I’ll keep my comments fairly brief.
The Son is a family saga set in Texas that shifts between three viewpoints (a fourth appears late on), covering the mid-19th century, 1917 and the late 20th century. Its theme is how people kill and steal to get what they want, and how their cultures regard the resulting eradications and acquisitions. Its focus is the founder of a dynasty and his impact on his descendants.
I found it engaging and quite compelling, reading the 500-odd pages in several sessions over about ten days. On reflection, the thing that interested me most was that the indigenous peoples were described individually, rather than lumping all Native Americans together. Having said that, the vivid rapes and murders perpetrated by many on many are grim going.
I’d recently read a Taschen title, The American Indian, which reproduces illustrations and notes from Die Reise in das innere Nord-Amerika in den Jahren 1832-1834 by Maximilian Prinz zu Wied and Karl Bodmer. That gave some idea of the breadth of appearance and attire seen on their journey, but they didn’t record a great deal about the cultures.
It’s a fascinating subject. I’ve read quite a few factual books about the West in the past, including a couple by Dee Brown, and had a very good set of three volumes that sadly fell foul of bookshelf thinning a while back. I can’t say for sure how accurate Meyer is but some online museum resources support some of the events he recounts.
The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny
I read this mostly by torch-light in a power cut: it was too engrossing to wait for the lights to come back on! It’s the latest from Louise Penny, and as you know already I am a huge fan. It tells the story of a statistician who makes the spurious correlation that as most of the people who died in the pandemic had underlying issues, in order to protect the population in a time of limited resources, ‘mercy killing’ should be made mandatory for the sick, the elderly and the disabled. The author explores this in a carefully nuanced way that looks at our fears and prejudices, and shows how the ‘madness of crowds’ is dangerous and seductive. At the same time, we have a gripping crime story to follow, and as ever, the philosophy of Inspector Gamache and the loving community of family, friends and community in the village of Three Pines ~ where all is not always as it seems. First class.
The Kids by Hannah Lowe
A book of sonnets, short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize, based on the poet’s experience of teaching for many years in inner-city London. I read this in one sitting, and it is still on my bedside table where I pick it up and read a poem at random when I have five minutes. The poetry seems effortless, and I was swept into a world that felt familiar (from my school days, and because I live with a woman who was a teacher for thirty years) and yet strangely new. Hannah explores the complexity of relationships with her students; the joys of teaching, and is honest about the times when it all goes so horribly wrong and all she can do is drag herself through another hour. What shines through is the love she has for these kids ~ they were lucky to have her. A really great read.
Rival Camps by M. Vera Armstrong
I read this when I was a young Girl Guide back in the very early sixties and have been looking for it for years. I finally found a copy, and with some trepidation (it’s not always a good idea to go back, is it?) picked it up one morning to see what is was like fifty years on! Of course, there had to be some allowances made for the time of writing (it was published in 1950) but not as many as I feared ~ and I LOVED it! You probably need to have been a Girl Guide back then to fully enjoy and understand the book, but for me, it was an absolute joy and brought back such happy memories of my Guiding adventures, friendships, and aspirations. For Queen’s Guides everywhere! (Out of print.)
My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Both of these came from the library and I am now waiting for them to have stock of the third in this series, Oh William! which is just out this year. I love Elizabeth Strout’s writing ~ she writes in a way that seems incredibly simple, very conversational, almost slight, and yet she paints such detailed and intimate pictures of her characters that I feel I know them as real people. The small (and massive) hurts that we all carry are treated with compassion and understanding and there is such tenderness here. Reading them reminds me of an introduction given by Maya Angelou to her poem “Phenomenal Women’ in which she talks about how we suffer through our darkest hours, but get up and carry on. These books are about how we carry on. Marvellous.
Another Night Before Christmas by Carol Ann Duffy
Every year, on my birthday, I celebrate the magic of Christmas Eve by reading this gorgeous, long poem by Carol Ann. It was published in 2010, the year my first two grand-children were born to my two daughters. At first, I was a bit nervous about reading it as I knew Carol Ann had written it as an homage to CC Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas which I already loved wholeheartedly. I need not have worried! This is a gorgeous poem and quickly became the centre point of my Christmas Eve candlelit reading for children in my bookshop. Even without the bookshop, we still gather together to read it, and though we were disappointed to have to read it on zoom last Christmas. it was still wonderful! This year, I am thrilled to be reading it at Deb’s gorgeous Poetry Pharmacy in Bishop’s Castle ~ the only concession being that it will be on 23rd not 24th December, as I think at the grand age of 66 this year (my pension ~ hurrah!) it’s time for me to have my birthday at home with with my family!
Thank you so much to my lovely regular (and occasional!) contributors to this book blog, and to all our readers ~ I hope you all enjoy this edition. I certainly now have yet more titles to add to my wish list. And big thanks too for adding to my ‘coffee and a paperback’ fund (especially while pension-less). It has meant such a lot to me to be able to treat myself to some very special books this year. Thank you!
No more blogs now until February 2022, so I hope you have a lovely Christmas and let’s hope we might actually manage to get together next year!
Here’s one of my favourite Christmas songs to leave you with.
With love, Anna x
(yes this is still the right email!)
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