Talking about books
~ at home
Half way through the year already – where has the time gone?! – and although lockdown is easing, I for one, am pretty well carrying on as usual in the quiet of our home and village, with books as good – and safe – company.
We’ve got bumper reading recomendations this month – thank you everyone for sending in your reading record: keep reading!
If you would like to add your recommendations, I’d love to hear from you, now collating books read during July – thank you. And please feel free to add comments below – it helps it fo feel more like a conversation!
HERE ARE THE BOOKS WE READ IN JUNE
From Anna Dreda, We Need to Talk about Books,
Much Wenlock & Craven Arms
I have loved all of these books – not one among them that I don’t rate highly – but the outsandingly astonishing ones are Hamnet; Girl, Woman, Other; and Ducks, Newburyport. Rad will speak below about Bernadine Evariston’s exuberant and wonderful novel, and I’m guessing someone else may read and review Hamnet, so I’ll limit myself here to a few words about Lucy Ellmann’s stream of consciousness masterpiece (and I usually hate stream of consciousness) so I am surprised by my reaction!
1000 pages long, 8 sentences! The fact that I wasn’t going to even attempt it but this Guardian review piqued my interest when I was lent the book, the fact that if you don’t enjoy the review, don’t try the book, because this really is what it’s like, the fact that I love the way her mind works and that one word leads to another in deliciously funny and intriguing ways, the fact that songs come into her mind all the time, the fact that she worries constantly about guns, violence, the environment, Trump, how to spell hampster/hamster – on and on in an endless whirl of thoughts, the fact that I feel like this is the book I’ve waited all my life to read, the fact that I’m laughing even as my heart is in my mouth, the fact that I’m 400 550 pages in and with only 450 pages to go I am already feeling anxious about missing it/her …
From Pat Buchanan, Talking about Books, Craven Arms
Pat was looking to reduce her screen time in favour of reading, so she sent these photos and said she would recommend them all!
From Judith Armstrong, Talking about Books, Craven Arms
Educated by Tara Westover.
This is a memoir about growing up in a Mormon family in Idaho preparing for the Days of Abomination. It is a shocking account of physical and psychological violence, the turning of blind eyes to the most extreme behaviours. Some reviewers found the story exhilarating, seeing it as a triumph of the human spirit, but I found it profoundly depressing, because even though Tara escapes, other members of the family don’t, and the justification of brutality continues. The attitude of the Mother is problematic too: is she as brainwashed as her children and is that why she fails to defend them? Or does she think she’s stuck with the father, like it or not, and needs to make the best of it for her own survival?
The Stories by Jane Gardam
After this I needed a comfort read, not comfort in the sense of wallowing in trivia, but comfort because you can rely on her to write with acuity and grace. The range of the stories is wide and whatever the subject or genre (some are ghost stories, many are about family relationships, some are set in far-away places, some close to home) Gardam’s controlling intelligence is illuminating, civilised, and decidedly English.
Thin Paths by Julia Blackburn
Lastly I’ve been intrigued by Julia Blackburn. All her books are very different one from the other. Most have gained some award or other, or been shortlisted at least. Her website says engagingly that she found fiction too open-ended and frightening to write and changed to basing her books on investigating rather obscure people and places, of personal interest to her. This book is a kind of group biography of the old people living in the mountains of Liguria where she has a house.
Threads: The delicate life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn
Julia Blackburn lives also in East Anglia and went about looking for traces of the life of a fisherman, John Craske, who became ill, often took to his bed, and painted and embroidered scenes of the sea. In the event she found out very little about him but she describes her search, and all the dead ends make their own kind of pattern.
From Christine Leaman, Talking about Books, Much Wenlock
My American – Stella Gibbons
By the author of Cold Comfort Farm, this novel is the story of two children, Amy Lee from London and Robert Vorst from the US, who meet by chance at Harewood House not long after it opens to the public in the 1920’s.
After success for one and tribulations for the other they end up happily ever after. There is a strange element of the main characters dreaming about each other (and having visions, in Amy’s case) which makes their meeting again inevitable.
What I really enjoyed first and second time round reading this was the character of Amy Lee and the London she grows up in, vividly described in the years between the wars, the seedy streets around Archway, the views of St Paul’s looming over the little passage where Amy works, the plot working out in the lodgings above a baker’s and Corner House tea-shops.
It’s a period piece and very relaxing read.
A Boy at the Hogarth Press – Richard Kennedy
This is a memoir written in later life about the time Kennedy (sent down from school) worked for Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, as a rather privileged office boy.
I’m a Bloomsbury and V Woolf fan so it was interesting to see Virginia type-setting, and very funny to read a faux-naïve account of her rolling her own shag roll-ups on a tray (when the young Kennedy accepted one it was so strong it made him sick); and to learn that as well as a man of zen-like calm and genuine interest in others, Leonard Woolf had a tremor that affected his hand-writing, worried about money, was a stickler for detail and had a foul temper when let down.
Richard was sacked, not surprisingly when he spent a long lunch-times out on the town and was barely effective, but later went on to have a career as an artist and I have a print of one of his water-colours, Virginia with Pan.
From Hilary Tilley, Talking about Books, Much Wenlock
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
This was the sequel to Olive Kitteridge which I loved and it did not disappoint. The book follows the same format again as the first book so it is essentially a series of short stories about people in a small town community in Maine. In some of the stories Olive is centre stage, in others she is just passing through. The prose remains deceptively simple but the emotions described are sometimes blistering. The author is a brilliant observer of human relationships, the things which are said or not said, the struggles of family life and the adjustments which have to be made in old age. Olive is a tremendous creation, difficult, stubborn but despite her many failings very endearing. I love these books and I am sure I shall come back to them.
The Old Curiosity Shop Dickens
A great read. There was the usual cast of miscreants, caricatures, all portrayed in the author’s inimitable style. I thought it took a bit if time to get going but the second half was especially good with some very memorable descriptions of everyday life both in London and the country. There was also a delightful pony called Whisker who I found very amusing! I wasn’t quite sure why it was called The Old Curiosity Shop as the shop hardly featured at all but nonetheless a very good read if a little too long.
From Jude Walker
Well I’ve just finished Dip and Ness and I’m currently loving Andrea Levy’s Small Island. We’re off to Booka on Saturday and I’m hoping to get Hamnet. (I really enjoyed the Maggie O’ Farrell Hay event..). My daughter is reading The Goblet of Fire as a project book – and some graphic novels for fun. She’s wanting to buy the new Lucy Worsley novel about Jane Austen’s niece.
From Sue Whiston, Talking about Books, Much Wenlock
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
This is the book which precedes Crooked Heart which I recommended a month of two ago. Typical of me to read them in the wrong order! Although there’s not a lot of action in this book I really enjoyed it. It centres around Mattie Simpkin and her friend Flea who live together in The Mousehole, named for their former cat and mouse life, in and out of Holloway Prison. Rather than following the two militants in their prime, the book is set in the late twenties when Mattie is getting on a bit, but is full of “vim and vigour” still trying to motivate young women to take an interest in the world around them, beyond that of film stars and boys. It seamlessly incorporates the politics of the period, and the attitudes to women. Full of humour and pathos, it gives an insight into the lives of women after the first World War.
This Terrible Beauty by Katrin Schumann
I picked this up because it is set in East Germany after the Second World War, when the impact of the communist state was beginning to be realised by the people of the region. I was interested to read it because my daughter-in-law was born in East Germany, not long before the Berlin Wall came down, and her parents surprised me by declaring that life under communist rule really wasn’t too bad, that, in fact, there was a lot that was better then. To my western ears that seemed very strange. I don’t think this book has changed my original opinion. It centres around the effects of an affair between Bettina, a photographer, and a teacher. The complication is her husband, Werner, a bureaucrat who becomes a member of the stasi and who, on learning of the affair, threatens her with either prison or to leave at once. Both choices mean that she will never see her daughter again.
The Chessmen by Peter May
The third and final book in the Lewis Trilogy . I have read the previous two books and thoroughly enjoyed them, and this was not a disappointment. The books are well plotted, and the characters are interesting. It’s all you’d expect of a detective story.
The Last Pre-Raphaelite by Fiona MacCarthy
The Last Pre-Raphaelite follows Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of William Morris, and it makes sense that she should have written this as I am sure that a lot of the material she uncovered for Morris was also applicable to the life of Burne Jones. It would be a shame to waste all that research! I know that the Pre-Raphaelites are the marmite of the art world, but I have always admired their work – particularly the paintings of Rossetti and Burne Jones. This is a very well written biography, full of interesting details about the artist’s early life in Birmingham, and of his tentative first steps in the art world. I would have liked more illustrations, but that would have made the book even more of a doorstop!
From Marian Newell, Talking About Books, Much Wenlock
Some of my activities have returned to more like normal (and, as you suggest, the garden always needs attention), so life is less Covid-centred than it was. I’m still re-reading Christopher Fowler, so three volumes of short stories this month. As I generally find with short stories, some are more rewarding than others. A couple gave me pause for thought and there was one about a ‘dentist’ that I’d prefer never to think about again.
One thing that surprised me a little was that some stories were included in more than one collection, which seemed odd when they were published in fairly close succession (mid- to late-90s).
A big book I’ve had on my shelf for a while that someone recommended recently is 4321 by Paul Auster, so perhaps I should tackle that soon.
I’ve also got 4321 waiting – has any one read it? Anna
From Jenny Newton, Talking about Books, Much Wenlock
A famous Irish actress’s daughter tells of her mother’s career (rise and fall) after she’s been approached by a journalist wanting to do a superficial biography. It’s not a thick book but is so rich. Not often do I read something twice but this one I will. Her interview on the Hay Digital site was also excellent.
This is ~ #20 in the Chicago-set series about Private Investigator VI Warschawski. As ever VI is relentless in her pursuit of white collar crime, corruption and social justice. Made me think about my favourite protagonists in these long running series who become old friends. VI is right up there with Louise Penny’s Gamache, Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Reginald Hill’s (sadly no more) Dalziel and Donna Leon’s Brunetti. More recently I am getting very involved with Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway and Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb. I also like Janet Evanovich’s bounty hunter Stephanie Plum who is a comic version of VI in Trenton, New Jersey. Almost without exception the location functions as a main character too. Maybe this is why I don’t feel the same about Lee Child’s Jack Reacher who is itinerant.
The Year of Magical Thinking:
Joan Didion writes so well that this is an easy and compelling read. This memoir is about her coming to terms with the sudden unexpected death of her husband of over 40 years. It sounds as though it is very sad but somehow it isn’t. As she tries to understand she has memories and references that are both comforting and inspiring. I had to check quite a few out as they were writers and quotes I should have known but didn’t. The London Library (who are posting books out) has one on the shelf by a Hungarian born American Historian (John Lukacs) who sounds fascinating. It’s on the way.
Finally, prompted by Anna’s praise of long books I must give this one another outing.
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili
I have recommended it to everyone who will listen and without exception they have also loved it. Starting in 1900 in Georgia it tells of generations of a Tbilisi family and the fictional and real historic events they experience. It is about 900 pages and I never wanted it to end. I was just browsing at the reopened Burway Books and Ros had a couple on the shelves. It has been selling very well.
From Philip Browning, Talking About Books, Much Wenlock
Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks
Described in reviews as ‘expository’ and ‘didactic’, this heavyweight novel, over 600 pages, requires some perseverance; a friend gave up about two-thirds of the way, which I can understand, although by skimming over the details of nineteenth and early twentieth psychiatry and psychoanalysis, I am pleased to have completed the story of the characters which could, it has to be admitted, have been achieved in a shorter, more satisfactory book. It is the quality of Faulks’s writing which kept me going! I am glad to have read it.
This is one of the longest sentences I’ve ever written but I hope it make sense! Philip
From Rad, Lusaka Book Club and the Silverwood Book Group in Salisbury
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo
I LOVED this book. It made me laugh, it made me cry. I loved the humanity … the Britishness … I loved reading a book that described the familiar and also the not familiar. I loved that Evaristo wrote things that people don’t normally say aloud and how she continually turned things on their heads. I loved how she explored sexuality, ethnicity, the mother/daughter experience. How she acknowledged the experiences which shape us and that we often choose to keep secret; that each person’s experiences inform their actions and how we should never judge because we will often never know anyone’s life journey. And I loved how she always bestowed so much grace on each one of her characters. I liked discovering the link in each story that bound it to the others. I thought I’d be put off by her choices with punctuation (or lack of it!) but I wasn’t at all. The stories moved at pace and just flowed. My top read so far this year for sure.
Kintu – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
A sweeping epic, set in Uganda, exploring the lives of individuals across generations of a family as they live in/through the shadow of a family curse. Each section of the novel after the first, which sets the scene for the curse, follows a different descendant of Kintu, before bringing everything together in a final chapter when the clan members assemble in their ancestral home to take part in a cleansing ceremony. Makumbi blends, fact, myth, tradition, magical realism and much reminded me of Zambia. In particular I was intrigued by her exploration of African masculinity through her description of the central character – a powerful read.
The Buddha in the Attic – Julie Otsaka
This is a quick read, but a pretty emotional one. It tells the story of ‘picture brides’ who travelled from Japan to America between the wars, holding only a photograph of the man they were to marry. What was so moving about this novel for me, was the method of narration. I have never read a novel about a period in history which has reinforced the idea of individual perspective on any event. The at times almost list-like prose, reinforced the terrible conditions and situations these women lived through, but also how each experience was so individual.
A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman
A beautiful, magical, gentle read. I don’t think it needs more description that that – give it a try!
From Donald Adams, Talking about Books, Craven Arms
Independent People by Halldór Laxness published 1946 pp 567
This was recommended twice in the newspapers in March. Once as a good Doorstop-type read for lockdown and another by an actress I now forget who said it was her favourite book. I feared it was going to be an Icelandic saga; swords and dragons type read, but it is nothing like that. The main character is a sheep farmer who is vigorously determined to run his peasant croft, outwith the constraints of his local community. It is the tale of his, his animals and his family’s interactions and struggles against the elements, plus the personalities that engage with him, especially the girl he adopts as his daughter. Some aspects are amazing, or awful, while others… you just know that, if he would only… but there is every likelihood he won’t. All very engaging though. A long tome but I got through it remarkably quickly.
Sea Room – an island life by Adam Nicholson published 2001 pp 380
Adam Nicholson inherited the Hebridean Shiant Islands from his father when he was 21 and this book was written just before he transferred them to his son in the same way. It is the story of the three main islands and the history played on and around them. There are 600 acres off the east coast of North Harris and difficult to access because of the currents and often inclement weather. I found it a very complex book as he investigates and drills down into minutiae involving the islands, especially their geology and historic settlement. In addition to the earlier agricultural settlements the islands are important breeding grounds for various sea birds, mainly gulls and auks. He has spent a lot of time there often alone and that is revealed in the passion of his descriptions and also his involvement with the community on neighbouring islands. Interestingly the islands were previously owned by Compton Mackenzie who describes them in his own autobiography, possibly in better prose, but without the same depth. He called them “The Enchanted Isles”. All in all a helpful read if Scottish island history appeals to you.
Winter Journal by Paul Auster published 2012 pp 230
I listened to his wife Siri Hustvedt at Hay last year and she mentioned him in her talk. He is a prolific author and screenwriter, and even a poet. This is his autobiography, unusually written in the second person which gives a strange feel to begin with but you quickly adapt. Throughout he considers both striking and mundane events and reveals their impact on him, his family and his relationships. He certainly has had a very varied life and much of it he suggests was disastrous, at least early on. He’s American too so that assaulted a prejudice I have about bothering to venture into literature from across the ocean. But he proved to be a brilliant master of his art; evocative and sometimes revealingly intimate. He starts with his childhood, shortly after WW2, sub-titled under the many addresses he has lived at both in the USA and France, then by dates. He becomes more expansive towards the end including analysing both his parents’ marriage and his own. I stumbled on this American book second-hand so I’m not sure it is readily available in the UK. Well worth searching for though.
The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens published 1995 pp105
Hitchens was well known for his exposés and that is how this book approaches Mother Teresa. He presents a lot of research about her activities and cites a number of situations where she was involved with rather dubious characters. He terms her defence that her Missionaries give a free service to the poor and “cannot work for the rich or accept any money for the work we do” as misrepresenting the fact that an affectation of poverty contradicts the receipt of extraordinary largess of governments, foundations, corporations and others. He specifically criticised her failure to return a donation made by a fraudulent investment adviser, even though she was told that many of the underlying investors had lost much or even all of their life savings. He also quotes from named former nurses at her hostels and clinics of their concerns as to the treatment forced upon the sick and the dying. Some saw this as manipulative to encourage more donations and some as applying “a regime of austerity, rigidity, harshness and confusion”. It was said conditions could be deliberately affected – such as heating turned off in winter in New York even though the resources were available to provide such comfort. The images he developed were condemnatory on the whole. Co-incidentally Adam Nicholson (see above) quoted a sermon presented to the deeply conservative church in the Hebrides: “Some of you here might think you are on this earth to enjoy yourselves. You are not. You are here to suffer…”. A provocative, interesting, short and punchy read. It didn’t undermine her progress to sainthood though.
Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth – Alfoxton 1798 and Grasmere 1800-1803 pp 214
Dorothy, the sister of William Wordsworth, kept a diary while living with her brother; one journal when in Somerset and a second at Dove Cottage, Grasmere in the Lake District. The details presented in my book were adaptations from her notebooks where regrettably some pages had been lost. The Alfoxton journal is thankfully brief. It starts encouragingly then descends mostly into reports of them getting up, going for a walk and going to bed. She gets fully into her stride once they move to Grasmere. Still plenty of walks but now there are fuller details; opinions and descriptions of her neighbours and surroundings. They live as an integral part of the community. She describes the characters in their vicinity and those met on walks and also the various visits to and by Coleridge, the poet, a good friend of both of them. You learn of life for the not well-off at the start of the 19th century and much about William’s struggles with the challenges of writing poetry (and his not so good health). The most amazing intrigue was the lack of any anticipation of William’s marriage which is held in Yorkshire, on the way home from a holiday in France. Even though staying there at the time, Dorothy did not attend the ceremony. Things obviously resolved themselves as William and his new wife, continue to live in Dove Cottage along with Mary. A charming book which stops in 1803 and you are left longing for more. There were poems by William as an appendix too but I couldn’t understand why they were not Dorothy’s poems in this context.
I have one more recommendation to make, for any one who enjoys short fiction and/or poetry, especially by new writers. Under the Radar is a quarterly magazine produced by Nine Arches Press, based in Birmingham. You can buy single issues, or subscribe (just £25 a year) and the magazine is full of genuinely exciting writing and excellent reviews. If you are interested in the very best of contemporary poetry – this is the place to go!
So that’s it for another month: what a stash of marvellous reading!
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