Talking about books
~ at home
Our two reading groups – based in Much Wenlock and Craven Arms – can no longer meet but that’s no reason to stop talking about books! I invite you to share your reading with us – maybe a photo of your book, and why you’d like to recommend it?
We’ll miss the human contact (and the home-made biscuits!) but let’s hope this virtual sharing of books will keep us going until we meet again …
Here’s a picture of my (still messy) book basket – and my reading sofa, which gets morning light: perfect for my couple of hours of early reading each day!
HERE ARE THE BOOKS WE READ IN APRIL
Anna, We Need to Talk about Books, Much Wenlock & Craven Arms
I know that lots of us have been finding it difficult to read at the moment, and I have every sympathy with how awful that condition is. Luckily, so far, I’ve not been affected by that particular doldrum, so here’s my reading (most of it!) this month:
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: I’m rereading this ahead of catching up with the two sequels, which are garnering such praise. If ever there was a series of novels that needed huge swathes of time in which to read them, it must be this. I’m especially ‘enjoying’ reading about ‘the sweats’ which afflicted London from the 1480s for about the next fifty years (I know, I know …) The writing is vivid and muscular. I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction – but, oh my!
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys: an old and much loved copy of the story of Rochester and his first wife. Hilary and I watched Jane Eyre, via the National Theatre’s streaming, and it set me off! This is a fascinating, and, in my opinion, sensitive handling of a terrible story. Well worth reading. Now desperate to read Jane Eyre again, but can’t find my copy so will have to wait.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: (I’ve just realised all my readng this month has been ‘historical’) This beautifully written novel starts in 1809, shortly after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular war. The main character, John Lacroix, is a wounded, traumatised soldier trying to flee from an atrocity he witnessed in a Spanish village. It involves an arduous journey to the Hebrides (hence my interest initially), and is also a gentle and incredibly moving love story. The army wants John back – they are looking for a scapegoat – and at times the hunt was so intense I found myself holding my breath.
At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell: part of my DoveGreyReader’s Reading Challenge: I think the reading challenge is a fatality of CV-19, which I understand completely, but I am currently hooked! It took a while (like at least two books worth) but – for now at any rate – I’m there, and I’m beginning to love it. I know that’s faint praise indeed, and this may not be the time for such a daunting undertaking, but I’ll stick with it until I give up!
From Pat H, We Need to Talk about Books, Craven Arms
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver 2018: Barbara Kingsolver delivered two stories in deceptively simple prose, the tension was maintained and the stories did come together in the last third of the book. Whatever the circumstances the author’s lightness of touch maintains a wry humour. My only worry is that the ending was a little too complete and left me worrying how we can help change society. I am only sorry I missed the meeting when Lorna bought the book to the group and the ensuing discussion.
Horizon by Barry Lopaz 2019: After the wonderful Artic Dreams I had keenly looked forward to reading this travelogue/biography, unfortunately I found his message very ordinary, the prose had beautiful descriptions, but unlike poetry had far too much detail of how much luggage he had and where he put it. I would love to know if anybody else found the magic that alluded me in this narrative.
Botanical Landscape by Kurt Jackson 2019:
A collection of Kurt Jackson’s art and jottings of his family, in relation to his art, and some of the processes, above all it is the paintings. A comment in the forward of his approach to the natural world is ‘To treat them only as resource … is to leave ourselves blind and deaf to their much older and more durable way of being. We need, soon, to tune into their ‘meaning’. Kurt Jackson does and is ‘urgently wondrous’.
Seal Morning by Rowena Farre 1957: A delightful tale of growing up with an inspirational aunt in Sutherland before the phone and television were commonplace and the postman was the main source of news. Rowena was given a young seal and the story is of their life in the croft with various wild animals and freedom to roam. In adulthood I found that it is Fac-Fic, but it does not take away the charm of the story.
(I have not heard the term fac-fic before! ~ Anna)
From Nicky, Reader’s Retreat, 2019
It’s interesting to think about guilty reading secrets. I recently decided to read the latest Marian Keyes novel, because I’d heard her quite a bit on podcasts and in interviews and thought that she seemed like a sound sort of woman and that the book, Grown Ups, sounded quite good. Well. I finished it, and it wasn’t a hard read in any way, but by the time I got near to the end I was deeply resenting the time it was taking me to finish it and feeling quite cross! I don’t often read genre fiction (as I suppose this is) because it seems there is too much good literature that needs reading, but sometimes I feel it might be a welcome escape. But no … I end up feeling somehow grubby, and thoroughly manipulated – it seems so obvious what I am supposed to feel. I get the same experience from reading Joanna Trollope novels. So that wasn’t a good read. So much for guilty pleasures!
On a more positive note, a friend lent me That Summer by Andrew Greig and I adored it! It’s the only book of his I have read but I am looking forward to reading more of them. His writing is so light and spare and yet so freighted with emotion – wonderful! Some of it reads like poetry, which is hardly surprising of course. And then, I liked and cared about the characters, and I didn’t know how their story was going to end, so that was good. Its wartime setting also gave it some resonance with the situation we are in today, too; it was kind of heartening to read of young people coping with difficulties and still finding love. Maybe it was the love that did it for me – so … what? I don’t know. So true, so real, so beautiful!
Now I’m reading a Kate Grenville book, lent by the same friend – The Idea of Perfection. Very different, but equally absorbing.
Nicky, I read this again just a couple of years ago, having enjoyed it hugely when it was first published. If anything, it was even better second time around – really one of my favourite books. Beautifully understated writing; tremendous insights into the human condition; grief and joy and all you’d ever want to know about concrete! Hah!
From Fiona, We Need to Talk about Books, Much Wenlock
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: It is about a “perfect” middle class American family in a “nice” suburb and their relationship with a new tenant and her daughter in the flat that they rent out. The new tenant is an artist and lives a fairly alternative lifestyle compared to the middle class mother. There are relationships between the daughter of the artist and several of the children from the landlord (the mother in the middle class family; the father does not play much part in the story) as well as that of the two mothers with each other. The middle class mother has always behaved exactly as was expected of her, whereas the artist has always done what she believed was right even if that meant disappointing her family or others. The theme is the strength of mother/child relationships and the conflict between the two different ways of living a life. It is very good at characterisation and describing the different relationships and the way those relationships change in the course of the book. I really enjoyed it and will certainly look for more books by Celeste Ng.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams: This is about a young black London woman who breaks up with her white boyfriend and goes off the rails for a bit. Her performance at work suffers (poor time-keeping and not completing tasks properly) and allows things to be done to her in her private relationships that spell out just how poor her self esteem has become. It did make clear some things about casual racism experienced by most black women in present day British society. Although it has had very good reviews, I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much although I am not really sure why not. I found I just wanted to shake Queenie and tell her to stand up for herself and not put up with the kind of treatment that she was experiencing from others. I would be interested to hear of opinions on this from any others who have read Queenie.
Rose Gold by Walter Moseley: This is an Easy Rawlins private investigator mystery set in Los Angeles in the 1960s. It is a combination of a mystery with description of the social inequalities experienced by black people in the US in this time period. The story is about Easy searching for Rosemary Goldsmith, the daughter of a rich white manufacturer, who has supposedly been kidnapped but is suspected of being in league with the ‘kidnappers’ to extract money from her father to be used by left-wing extremists (a bit Patty Hearst-like). As with all the books about Easy, it was an enjoyable read.
Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood.
This is a retelling of The Tempest, set in the present day. The Prospero character was ousted from his job as the director of a theatre festival in a small Canadian town and retires to a life of exile in a very basic hut on a farm in the wilds of Ontario. Eventually he returns to directing plays as the drama/literacy teacher in a men’s prison. The people who ousted him from his original job have by this time become important in government and by luck they are to visit the prison and see the play that the prisoners will perform under his direction. That gives him the opportunity for revenge. As always with Margaret Atwood, it is very well written and very enjoyable. Highly recommended!
As for guilty secrets, I would admit to having read several Georgette Heyer Regency novels! They are very light and usually make me laugh. I find that ideal in this time of being stuck in the house.
From Tim, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
Lamentation by C. J. Sansom: It’s about the fifth (I think) – the latest but one – in a series of mystery/detective novels set in the time of Henry VIII. (So lots of Thomas Cromwell, man of the moment, in the earlier ones). The central figure is a lawyer with a conscience (tricky thing to have in Tudor times, just ask Cromwell) called Matthew Shardlake, and they’re fictional stories involving real historical people. I thought very highly of the first few when I read them a few years ago: devious, intricate and absorbing plots, easy writing, vivid characters and he does very well with period atmosphere, details of what it was like to live and do things in England, mainly London, in the 1530s and 40s. I’d actually recommend the earlier ones, I felt the inspiration had disappeared a bit with this one; it’s much harder to sympathise with the scrapes Shardlake gets into, he seems to be asking for trouble for unconvincing reasons.
From Hilary, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
I have been having a bit of an H. E. Bates fest. I just love the ones I have read and cannot think why I haven’t read them before. Following on from The Jacaranda Tree which I mentioned last month, I have now read Fair Stood The Wind For France which I also really enjoyed. I don’t have a photo of the book as I read it from Shropshire library’s iCloud.
However the one which really blew me away was The Purple Plain. Definitely my favourite of all. As you can see from the dust jacket I was reading a very old battered copy which used to belong to my father-in-law and is rather precious to us.
As with The Jacaranda Tree, it is set in Burma towards the end of the war and is really the story of a fighter pilot trying to cope with his past traumatic experiences of war. He is a difficult, dislikeable character unable to relate to his staff but the book is really about his slow reconnection with human beings during some very difficult times. The descriptions of Burma, the sapping heat, the beauty of its scenery and people are wonderful. A great read! I could not put it down and was reading it from 3-5am to finish it.
I have also read A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry after all your recommendations. Again I have no photo as I read it on the online Shropshire library service. An excellent read although my initial reaction was that it wasn’t quite as good as Days Without End. Then the more I thought about it, the more I decided it was. The total lack of rights for Native American Indians was very shocking as was the brutal racism against them. It also brought home to me how even after the American Civil war, the country was still in a state of real lawlessness with ingrained animosity and brutality still rife between Union and Confederate factions. I love the way in both books the author identifies 100% with his narrator and really gets inside their head.
I have read other things but that is all I am saying for now!
Maureen, Reader’s Retreat, 2019
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming: I have just finished On Chapel Sands which I would definitely recommend. She combines memoir with mystery, art with social history in a way that I found very satisfying. Halfway through I thought I’d guessed the answer, which I had, and it was immediately revealed. But the rest of the book I took slowly because it answers all the other questions, those less uppermost in your mind, questions you hadn’t thought of. Brings revelation after revelation, new facts that revise old facts, and old opinions. Questioning how we see and judge our families. Connected to universal themes through art and set, mostly, against a flat and rural Lincolnshire.
It made me realise the things I do not know about my family which I have never questioned.
Philip recommended this last month, and I did the month before. It is a very special book ideed – highly recommended!
From Marian, We Need to Talk About Books Much Wenlock
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak: I read The Insult by this author a long time ago, loved it, and recognised his name when I saw this second-hand book in Anna’s sale. I think his writing is unusual and vivid, but also rather surreal and sometimes confusing. Dreams of Leaving was his debut novel. The central character is a 25-year-old man called Moses who was sent off down a river in a basket as a baby to escape a Sussex village being run as a police state. It is as curious as that sounds; I found it intriguing but the denoument perhaps a little disappointing. Nevertheless, I found plenty to contemplate in the characters and how they respond to their circumstances.
I initially found all the names difficult, being Russian and also mixing surnames, patronymics and diminutives, but eventually got the hang of it I found reading about the terrible conditions following the revolution challenging in these times, when we’re wondering how the world will get back to some kind of normal operation. The events and settings were interesting but the characters seemed two-dimensional and the plot relied on coincidence. I looked at Wikipedia when I finished the novel and found these criticisms were made at the time. The author’s response was essentially that the effaced characters and repeated coincidences were deliberate; he wanted his ‘novels to represent the whole sequence (facts, beings, happenings) as a great moving entity… a developing, passing, rolling, rushing inspiration’. Seen in those terms, I think he probably succeeded.
From Philip, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
At last I’ve read Middlemarch, all 700 pages! There are perceptive gems on every page about people, class, character, the mind’s working, English buttoned-up reticence, pettiness, provincialism, all within the framework of an agreeable narrative. After the flood of characters to keep hold of at the beginning, the various strands begin to separate out as the story develops. Very well worth the time.
From Jenny, We Need to Talk about Books, Much Wenlock
Restoration Heart by William Cash: The local detail of Upton Cressett near Bridgnorth in the William Cash book was very good. I must have frequently driven unknowingly past the turning. However I am still mystified as to where the money came from. I didn’t realise that journalists earned enough to restore a Tudor manor, gatehouse and church.
The author’s dissolute early lifestyle in LA, subsequently swilling champagne with dubious company at London’s poshest restaurants and proposal to (and subsequent divorce from) unsuitable expensive society women after six weeks acquaintance were obviously not the road to happiness or financial stability. There is a lot of name dropping – Boris and Margaret Thatcher each make a cameo appearance.
A bit like Nicholas Coleridge’s The Glossy Years.
The Yellow House by Sarah Broom: The Yellow House on the wrong side of the tracks in New Orleans was the childhood home of Sarah Broom and her 10 older siblings. Bought by her 19 year old mother, Ivory Mae, in 1961, it tells of the bonds of home and extended family. Even after its demolition in the wake of Katrina (the Water), the house exerts a pull on Sarah who had left several years previously. Interestingly she also had a career in journalism. This book was a present from my NYC friend Stephanie and was a National Book Award Finalist last year.
Fascinating to read alongside Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men we Reaped and her wonderful novel Salvage the Bones.
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