Talking about books
~ at home
Thank you to Chloe for this gorgeous photo which I am using as our featured photo this month.
We’re taking a break in August, but do please email me your reading updates by September 10th.
What a wide and interesting collection of books again this month – thank you!
BOOKS WE READ IN JULY
Anna Dreda, We Need to Talk about Books, Much Wenlock & Craven Arms
I talked about Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann when I was just a few hundred pages in last month, so I really wanted to report back having read all 998 pages. I honestly feel that this is the book I have waited all my life to read and if I still had my bookshop, it would be piled high on the counter and I’d be talking everyone into buying it! I shared the Guardian review with you last month, and would still recommend that you read it before deciding whether to embark on this BIG reading journey, but please note a slight error: there are not eight sentences, there is just one in the main story (she’s right, you do have to work for the story, but it is there), but every few hundred pages or so there is also the story of the lion, which is written in sentences. The lack of sentences, or rather the fact of this 900+ page long sentence, is crucial to the story and to the experience. And do not for a minute think that this is anything other than a carefully, finely crafted novel. By the way, I spotted just two tiny typographical errors in what must have been an enormously difficult book to proof read or edit. Everything about it is excellent. I can’t stop talking to my friends about this book – please let me know if you read it!
Dead Land by Sarah Paretsky and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens definitely suffered from being the next books I read after Ducks, Newburyport, but by the time I got to The Great Levels by Stella Tillyard my reading requirements were normalising, and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell broke my heart with its story and reminded that novels written in sentences can also be remarkable. I do highly recommend each of these books – honest! – but I am actually still grieving the loss of the Ohio housewife from my daily reading habit.
Pat Buchanan, We Need to Talk about Books, Craven Arms
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)
‘This is a gentle yet symbolic depiction of the valiant survival of Kya Clark—a reclusive young girl who has been abandoned by her parents, siblings, school system, the entire town surrounding her, and what ultimately feels like life itself.
Mother Nature has literally become Kya’s caretaker, and deep in a lonely Marsh along the North Carolina coast is where Kya will not only hide, but blossom into a primal independent being….’ Kristin KC.
Interestingly, readers who live in North Carolina and other nearby states seem to think that this book is too unrealistic and inaccurate to enjoy, but as I live far away from those marshes, I did enjoy it thoroughly. I enjoyed the writing and the setting and lost myself in it. The criticisms about the way the characters are written and the unreality of the story may well be valid, but it met my needs for appreciating the natural world in an individual way. I thoroughly recommend it.
How to Disappear by Gillian McAllister (2020)
‘Lauren’s daughter Zara witnessed a terrible crime. But speaking up comes with a price, and when Zara’s identity is revealed online, it puts a target on her back. The only choice is to disappear. To keep Zara safe, Lauren will give up everything and everyone she loves, even her husband.’ Penguin.
I love thrillers and enjoyed this one very much. It took a while to get going, but became more and more engaging. Obviously, like all thrillers, it’s unrealistic, but a good break from reality.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (2017)
‘Cyril Avery is not a real Avery or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him. And he never will be. But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he? Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community and adopted by a well-to-do, if eccentric, Dublin couple via the intervention of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun, Cyril is adrift in the world …. ‘ Goodreads.
A long (too long?), often amusing book about a gay man’s life growing up in Ireland in the second half of the Twentieth Century. He travels to Amsterdam, then New York and returns to Dublin. It’s a sort of history of gay life, but contains many inaccuracies. The story is too neat and sentimental. However, I did enjoy reading it; I liked the idea and the humour.
Dead at First Sight by Peter James (2019)
A book to avoid. I don’t know why I bought this book; I was intrigued by the idea of internet dating being used to con people out of money. However, the idea was spoilt by being completely overblown and introducing an unnecessary and crude American angle. Had the early tone of retirees on the South Coast being conned by a professional group of scammers been continued, it could have been good.
Pat Morrison, Poetry Breakfast,
Rosemary Swainson, Book Share,
Sollas, North Uist
The book I have enjoyed most during lockdown has been Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell (1959) – a clever, sensitive picture of the life of an American housewife that occasionally had me laughing out loud while not losing compassion for the character.
I read Twilight in Italy by DH Lawrence with a fascinating introduction by Jan Morris…perhaps you know it!
No, I’ve not read this, Rosemary: to add to my list!
Judith Armstrong, We Need to Talk About Books, Craven Arms
For me it’s getting increasingly important as time goes on to be aware of others reading as I am, and trying to remain sane in the company of books, so thank you so much for facilitating this. I find it very comforting. Plague keeps popping up, though I had no intention of seeking it out, last month in Hamnet, and this month in Peculiar Ground, both written before our current predicament, a happenstance which I find both apposite and a bit too relevant. So here goes …
My reading this month has come in threes. First a sequence of detective novels by Abir Mukherjee set in Calcutta in the 1920s: A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil and Smoke and Ashes. The familiar elements of the genre are all there (the Inspector and his Sergeant, the hierarchy that thwarts their progress, rivalry between the plain clothes men and military intelligence, for example) but the Indian setting revitalises the clichés. This is a time when Ghandi’s non-violent protests are worrying the British authorities, when an Indian, Sergeant Banerjee, educated at Harrow and Oxford, a high caste Brahmin, whose family home is like a palace, is still reckoned inferior to any man with a white skin, however stupid and corrupt he may be. So the background is complicated. The plot line takes the reader effortlessly though all the machinations of Imperial control and agitation for Home Rule, so that these are not only good stories but informative as well.
Next I re-read Jane Gardam’s trilogy which recounts the life of Edward Feathers: Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends. I love these books. They are witty, humane, clear-eyed about the human condition, and though reticent themselves and certainly not drumming up emotion, sometimes they make me cry. Filth’s motherless childhood in the time of Empire; then his transplanting to a cruel foster mother in Wales; his rescue by ‘Sir’ who runs the strangest and most admirable school in Lancashire, and who cures his stammer; the beginning of his career as a lawyer which might have foundered almost as soon as it started; his chance meeting with a Chinese dwarf who in the end proves to be the best friend he ever had. Eventually Filth becomes an eminent judge in Hong Kong, and finally he retires with his wife, Betty, to a village in Dorset where nothing ever happens. It is funny and it is sad. Betty dies upended in a flower bed planting tulips; Filth dies just as he gets off the plane in Malaya and feels himself to be home at last.
Lastly, Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Clearly this is a very ambitious work which I have begun twice before, and only now, at the third attempt, have I been able to finish it. It still puzzles me. Even after 470 pages I don’t feel I’ve quite got the point. Throughout the author is concerned with how walls keep people out and fence people in. The metaphor is enacted in the building of a real wall round an estate in Oxfordshire by Mr Norris, a Capability Brown figure, who is central to the first and last sections of the book set in 1663 and 1665. The middle of the novel takes place at various points during the twentieth century, though the location is still mainly in Wychwood. The wall is breached by a house party, then by a pop concert when the crowd sing ‘Don’t fence me in’. Elsewhere the Berlin Wall is built, communism confronts capitalism, a Russian spy is nearly unmasked, superstition is set against rationality, children die by drowning, and there is heavy reference to the expulsion of Eve from the garden of Eden. In the final section migrants flee from the plague in London and what we now term social distancing is facilitated by the domain wall.
Philip Browning, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
At last I’ve read The Leopard by Guiseppe di Lampedusa, said to be one of the most important, if not one of the best novels of the twentieth century. If you know something about Garibaldi and the Risorgimento it might be an easier read but it did lead to a lot of looking up the history of the unification of Italy in 1860 which I’m pleased to have learned. The main characters eventually precipitate into the flow after, for me, some early difficulties. I did persevere and am glad to have finished it. I can’t remember how long I’ve had my second hand edition, but look at the price!
There are a few Little History books around, published by Yale – The World, Philosophy, Science and so on – here are a couple. David Crystal’s Little Book of Language is an easy read and a delight but then I’ve been a fan of his for years! The same goes for John Carey and his Little History of Poetry, although it’s really a primer for those who need more.
After spending a career in crime, in the legal sense, I am of course interested in the current state of our criminal justice system and these two books lay bare the crisis it now faces. Suffice it to say that I am pleased I am retired!
Hilary Tilley, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This was a great read and I thought it provided marvellous descriptions of marshlands in North Carolina. The story is the battle of a young child abandoned by her family who struggles to survive in the solitude of the marshlands and to interact in any way with the local community and their antagonism towards her.
Wonderfully evocative and a very engaging read.
HMS ULysses by Alistair MacLean
A golden oldie on our bookshelves and what a treat to read it. I was completely transported into the world of the Arctic convoys in the second world war, the appalling suffering, loss of life and terrible conditions. Some of the nautical details about the ship were too technical for me but the friendships and tensions amongst the men, the constant fear of being attacked, the bitter weather, storms and fog, the exhaustion and inhuman demands placed on the crew were incredible.
Donald Adams, We Need to Talk About Books, Craven Arms
The Road to Oxiania by Robert Byron (1937) pp383
Hearing this described somewhere as the Best Travel Book Ever Written and seemingly confirmed by Bruce Chatwin, I realised I had an unread copy of it in my collection of Picador Travel Classics. Being a great fan of Patrick Lee Fermor, Colin Thubron, Gavin Young and even Gerald Durrell, I was primed. It is written as a diary and describes Robert Byron’s journeys mainly round the then Persia and Afghanistan in the 1930s. He went in search of the origins of Islamic architecture and demonstrates a considerable expertise when describing what he finds. Apparently without any particular planned route, and accompanied by various friends who come and go, he describes his journeys. And the means are varied; for example: “On the way home the landau stopped at Takht-i-Safar, ‘the Traveller’s Throne’, a terraced garden all in ruins.” He was obviously an experienced adventurer: “I lunched there on my way to India.” and he cheerfully adopted whatever mode of transport was most convenient: “We travelled in a banana-shaped tender on two wheels, which was attached to the dickey of a two-seater Buick and euphemistically known as the aero bus.” This is a diary par excellence and the entries present almost individual tales but following a logical thread described with genuine eloquence. It has plenty of in-built opinion too: “There is a lot of missionary effort here, of the muscular, wicked-to-smoke-or-drink type.” But it remains readily relatable to: “The red wine tastes of a Burgundy grown in Greece. We have drunk a bottle apiece today.”
This version printed in the 1990s includes his photographs which were not included in earlier versions.
Moss Witch and Other Stories by Sara Maitland (2013) pp222
A collection of very inventive fictional reflections exploring various modern and plausibly futuristic scientific issues. Many of the tales are complex but, neatly after each of the fourteen stories, there is a relevant expert (mostly professors) explaining the underlying science and how the author’s imagination has credibility even if the actuality does not yet exist. Some of these experts are well known radio presenters in their own right. This is amazingly educational even if sometimes rather technical. Obviously tailored for a specific audience, the science is directed towards the intelligent lay person. The stories are never too long, entertaining and discretely individual. There is no narrative connection with the scientific prose other than to understand the reality behind the fiction. But to omit that aspect would be to miss out on a broadening of one’s own horizons. The issues range from appreciating strange, biological life cycles, understanding religious interpretations or reinterpreting classical myths and industrial revolutionary happenings, to reviewing human nature and learning about Dirac’s ‘beautiful equation’ (a formula combining quantum theory and special relativity which contributes to defining the behaviour of an electron which predicted the existence of ‘antimatter’ – now you know!). Sara Maitland certainly has amazing capacity to have coped with these many and varied concepts. It was challenging too to be exposed to the realisation that my own appreciation of much of what goes on around me is verging on the ignorant.
The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw (2014) pp260
This is the story, with deliberations and flights of fancy, of what seems to be an unprofitable bookshop aboard a canal narrowboat. Sarah Henshaw provides a wonderfully engaging tale of the rapture she feels for an amazing and challenging life aboard this intriguing enterprise. She appears to be honest about her total incompetence at steering the vehicle at the start and the difficulties in managing the whole operation alone – especially the 707 locks. However, she seems to be able to attract the help she needs and many of these characters are eccentrics in their own right. Starting in London Henshaw eventually journeys round the English canal network, selling and swapping books as she goes. Some of this swapping provides accommodation and bathing facilities mainly due to the fact that there are none on board. Her style is youthful and humorous and this is sometimes intimate but always very engaging and certainly an entertaining read. Rather a loss to the UK unfortunately as I understand she is now based in France.
I am an Island by Tamsin Calidas (2020) pp289
A captivating book, this is the autobiography of someone who has lived a life with much tragedy and unbelievable challenges. Tamsin Calidas moves with her husband from London to a Scottish island to live on a derelict croft, and has to set about establishing herself in a very reserved and, probably, bigoted community. She writes remarkably well and it is not just a catalogue of what happens but a hugely insightful analysis of how she feels about, and responds to, what goes on around her and to her. We learn of her encounters and reactions while she evolves to be in equilibrium with her surroundings and the small farm and also of her immersion into its animals and the natural environment. It is amazing that she perseveres through some of these experiences. All in a very gentle manner too. A brilliant book, superbly written. Already marked as a Best Seller on Amazon.
The Black House by Peter May (2011) pp477
The first book of the well-known Hebridean detective trilogy involving a Lewisman detective called Fin Macleod. This story involves him returning to the place of his youth to investigate a murder. The investigation necessarily involves various adults with whom he was at school. It cleverly interweaves his childhood experiences with the people he now encounters and it is all described in a remarkably believable manner. You get totally involved in the characters’ lives and also the activities, including an amazing sea bird hunt. The brutal relationships (and some romantic ones) seem entirely plausible and you are carefully carried along, fully engrossed, to the end by a very entertaining read.
Marian Newell, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
Clark Gable by Warren G Harris
This is a readable profile of the man and his career, although it seems under-illustrated for a 2001 publication date with only a short section of photos. I was never a fan of Clark Gable, so haven’t seen that many of his films, but I’ve always enjoyed reading about the golden age of Hollywood.
Despite being a heavy drinker and incurable womaniser, Gable seems to have been professional and well-liked. His third wife was the huge star Carole Lombard but she was killed in one of the earliest multi-passenger plane crashes only a couple of years after their wedding, a loss that hit him very hard. Apparently, Gable wasn’t that handsome but had such screen presence that audience feedback on early films in which he had small parts led to the studio bosses making more use of him – it was only after they fixed his teeth (which were replaced by almost complete dentures by the time he was 32), eyebrows and suchlike that he began to look like Clark Gable the star. Interestingly, plastic surgery was considered risky enough in the 1930s that they didn’t pin his ears (which he chose not to have done later anyway). Everyone seems to have considered him a genuine kind of man, true to himself and loyal to his friends. He despised disloyalty and dropped people in an instant if they betrayed his trust.
His last film was The Misfits, an unhappy filming experience with Method-actor co-stars who didn’t have the hard-working stage and studio ethic he had. He always turned up on time with lines learned, but then had to wait around until Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift showed up, if they ever did. He died of a heart attack soon after completing the film, which his fifth wife blamed on the experience although no doubt a lifetime’s heavy drinking and smoking didn’t help. He was interred alongside Lombard.
Nicky Bennison, Shared Reading, Leicester
The best thing I’ve read in the last month or so is H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. I came to it late, given it won a prize in 2014, but I’d heard good things about it from a variety of different people, different types of reader, so I thought I should give it a go. I knew it was about taming a goshawk, and about the writer’s grief for her father. The latter thing made me a bit nervous – my father, too, died suddenly and too young, and although it was over 30 years ago I was worried that the book would stir up some difficult, unresolved stuff. I suppose it did – but there was so much more to it. I found it hard to put down, but upsetting, startling, weird, wonderful. I’ve never read a book quite like it: the descriptions of the bird, Mabel, are extraordinary, but more moving is the unflinching detail of the author’s journey through grief; you find yourself wondering, alongside her, whether she will make it through. There’s a lot more to it, besides – a twin narrative about the writer T H White was a revelation to me, and the insight into the world of hawking was fascinating. It’s terrific – a book you read and don’t forget.
Paula Hazlehurst, Idsall School, Shifnal
I’ve just read Scythe by Neil Shusterman, and to my surprise, I enjoyed it. Met up with my nephews (a bi-annual event) and discovered that my oldest nephew had read the series and had met the author. So, we had a good natter about BOOKS! 🙂 Unfortunately, he’s reading Game of Thrones now and trying to write a book in a similar style. Woe is me!
Recently re-read Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham and was disappointed that it wasn’t as good as when I’d last read it (35 years ago).
Also, re-read Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleeve who must be one of the best writers out there for me, a non-intellectual reader.
Chloe Alexander, Poetry Breakfast, Bishop’s Castle
So … my July reading has been this list. Accomplished with my morning ritual of feeding the pusscat then inviting her up to share the morning Tea And Read In Bed ritual. As long as she gets a chin tickle, we’re both happy.
At the start of July when I thought it would be hot (!), I went for The Jesse Tree, written by my dear Clun-based friend Linda Hurcombe. A delightful tale centring around a family who move to “a small village in Shropshire” and befriend a gypsy community as the young protagonist unearths some mystery surrounding the neighbours and (in what is a true-life case) the Heath House murder. A wonderful read, aimed at young-teens market but definitely appealing to all. A wonderful Summer read, if you remember summer …
Then I went for a delve into some exquisite prose in Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout with a really beautifully drawn character, Olive Kitteridge, and her acerbic dealings with the others in her small seaside town of Crosby, Maine. I love Olive, she is me.
Then for light relief and for immense joy and laugh-out-loud writing I’ve demolished my old edition of The Jeeves Omnibus and consumed Carry On, Jeeves, The Code of the Woosters and The Mating Season in one go. Just unbeatable humorous prose, perfect for these dark days.
Finally I’m making my way through Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido which I heard reviewed recently in glowing terms on a re-run of A Good Read on 4Extra. It’s good but a little too self-regarding and arch. I’m inclined to agree with the critic on the programme who said the narrator character herself was not well-drawn enough, especially in comparison to the (mostly repellent) characters she describes. Still, it was £2 in a charity shop so it would have been rude not to.
I’ve also dipped in to this, Vagabonding In America by Ed Buryn which has been a life-long favourite of mine since it was first published in 1970. Sadly his observations on the state of American society, and the ruining of the beautiful American landscape by the populace, has not changed at all in these passing 50 years. But his guide to being a true vagabond in that wonderful continent is a delight. I’m planning a virtual Road Trip at the moment to compensate for the lack of my ready-to-go Californian train trip which was supposed to happen for me all through May this year. Tragically Mother Nature had other plans for us all.
As August is a Wicked month, I think I’ll re-read a bit of Edna O’Brien.
Happy reading, y’all.
Rad, Silverwood Book Group, Salisbury, & The Lusaka Book Club
Unorthodox – Deborah Feldman
I don’t think I would ever have picked this out myself (this was the July choice for the Silverwood Book Group in Salisbury), but I became increasingly fascinated as I read on. This is the true story of the author and her upbringing in – and subsequent departure from – a Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. It gives an account of a life so different from probably anything I have ever read. I was often horrified, almost disbelieving, at reading how girls and women in the community are expected to behave and found it hard to imagine living with the kind of restrictions the author describes. But, reading opens doors to other worlds and this certainly did that for me. (The book was made into a film, shown on Netflix, which I haven’t seen, but it apparently differs quite a bit from the written narrative).
Lanny – Max Porter
This was one of my purchases from the newly re-opened, brilliant independent Rocketship Bookshop in Salisbury. They specialise in books for children and young people but have an excellent curated adult section too – more of that maybe next month! Lanny was a quick read and I think I need to read it again. It is beautiful and it is dark. It is about a sensitive young boy and his friendship with an artist; it is about settling -or not- in rural communities; about fitting in -or not-; about nature and the Green Man with more than a touch of magical realism. The language is beautiful. The story sometimes isn’t and something about it felt very unsettling.
10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World – by the brilliant Elif Shafak
This is the story of the last few minutes and seconds of the life of Leila, a sex worker killed whilst working in Istanbul. A key memory in each of the last few minutes of Leila’s life, leads to vivid descriptions of growing up in a family where things are hidden, not talked about and shut away. I quickly realised that the time delineated for the retelling of her life as per the title, was going to be up before the book finished and it is then, in the final chapters, that the themes of friendship, loyalty and survival come into their own as we learn more about the 5 friends we have met briefly through the earlier narrative.
The novel does not shy away from describing lives destroyed by sexual violence and is at times a difficult read, but I still found it incredibly ‘readable’ and often very tender. Leila doesn’t ‘fit’ into the patriarchal society into which she is born and those in her inner circle, also living on life’s fringes, are all ultimately portrayed as resilient, courageous and strong.
Thank you everyone for contributing to this blog. I know it can’t possibly take the place of our monthly meetings with coffee and homemade biscuits, but it is so good to know that we are all still reading, and indulging our passion to share our finds with each other. And I know I’m preaching to the converted, but do support our fabulous indie booksellers who are working so hard to keep you provided with the books you need: Susan at Pengwern Books; Ros at Burway Books; Deb at The Poetry Pharmacy and Debbie at Kibworth Books. For second-hand books and great coffee, Sarah and Sheridan at Aardvark Books, too. All of these fine booksellers will order books for you! Let me know if there is a bookshop (or library) that you would like to give a mention to.
The next post will be at the end of September so please do send me your reading news by September 10th.
Oh and by the way, if you didn’t get around to sending in your book recommendations, please use the comments functions below!
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