Talking about books
~ at home
Welcome back after the summer break – I do hope you managed to get away if that is what you needed to do? We had a gorgeous couple of weeks on Berneray in the Western Isles with two of our grand-children, (and a week later, their parents!) so enjoyed camp-fires on the beach, lots of lovely walks, and kayaking! We also enjoyed a mini-break to my beloved Harlech, where we enjoyed sunshine, mountains and, of course, that fabulous beach – with Snowdon in the background.
It may have been that we got away just in time as it’s all looking very uncertain and frightening again now – but today, the sun is shining, the birds are singing – and my lovely friend and neighbour of the last twenty years will celebrate her 93rd birthday this week with home-made biscuits and flowers from the garden. I hope all is well where you are.
Here are a few holiday snaps …
BOOKS WE READ IN AUGUST
Before lockdown began, I ordered a couple of books from the library that I thought might be a way of keeping things in perspective. They didn’t arrive until after the event, but have been so interesting, nonetheless. I read An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan when it first came out – I remember being deeply shocked by it, but also in awe of the way in which he and fellow hostage, John McCarthy, found such strength and courage while enduring their long, harsh and brutal captivity. My horror was less, second time around, but my sense of awe remains. I’d not read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl before and it was salutary to be reminded that whatever the circumstances, we can always be free, we can always love, and we can always choose to live a full life. In this vein, I’m going to read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which for some strange reason, I’ve never read, along with my regular reading of The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday.
And everything else in the picture here was sheer and unadulterated pleasure! Holiday reading at its best!
Rad, Lusaka Book Club and the Silverwood Book Group in Salisbury
Out of Our Minds – Sir Ken Robinson
I know that when this was written in 2001, many of the ideas about education must have been revolutionary, but now they feel very familiar and ‘of course we should do that’! But, it still remains that as a society we don’t value all subjects/disciplines equally and do not encourage children (through our current education system) to explore their creativity. Sir Ken’s words still remain relevant and if you haven’t seen his TED talks, then I highly recommend them too. Probably over and above this book!
Milkman – Anna Burns
I loved this book! I had heard it was a ‘hard, stream of consciousness’ kind of read. It certainly was a stream of consciousness, but it was a very funny one at times. And plenty of dark humour mixed in. A brilliant account of the pressures, the expectations and the claustrophobia of small communities, woven alongside the ridiculousness of rigid thinking and situations. Set in Northern Ireland during the troubles I was reading about a place and time I had heard so much about when growing up, but heard about it from ‘over there’ and from one viewpoint only. I highly recommend it.
Nudibranch – Irenosen Okojie
A collection of some of the most amazing and challenging short stories you will probably ever read. Needs time and re-reading. The jury is out on this one, but, even so, I loved it for its boundary pushing. When I read the stories again, I will let you know!
My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologies – Fredrick Backman
For the first 3 chapters of this book I have to confess I was in a ‘not another book from a Swedish author about the escapades of an older person’ frame of mind. (The 100-Year Old Man… which I didn’t enjoy and the ‘Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules… which I stopped reading after 4 chapters). But, I reached the final page of chapter 13 and the book made me cry! That was the turning point. It is the story of a 7 – (almost 8) year old girl with her own challenges and how she copes with her grief after her Grandmother passes away. Her Grandmother’s fairy tales are a link to her family history and this, and the ‘letters’ she has to deliver on her grandmother’s behalf, provide her with a way to navigate and understand her family and cope with the difficulties she has managing relationships at school and at home. There is a story behind all behaviours. Really lovely.
The Queen of the South – Arturo Perez Reverte
It was a bit of a surprise that I even read this. I wouldn’t normally pick a book about a woman involved in the world of drug-smuggling in Mexico; her escape and subsequent re-entry and rise in that same world in the south of Spain, but I did! And I was horrified-fascinated by a world I know nothing about with its own rules and codes of honour, and by the fact I am clearly very naive about how this world operates and who in society is involved! I don’t think I’d recommend it but I am a little wiser about some things now!
Philip Browning, We Need to Talk about Books, Much Wenlock
I haven’t been reading as much as I should (newspapers and magazines as well as spending too much time on Twitter) but here are two pairs of books from me this month, pictures attached. I’m also halfway through the 1,000 page Jan Swafford biography of Beethoven!
Enemies of the People? by Joshua Rozenburg and Fake Law by the Secret Barrister
Although a bit of a busman’s holiday for this ex-judge, these books are important, if not essential, contributions to the current debates about the law, courts and judges. They will help you to see through the fog of the disinformation and misunderstanding promulgated by the media, both mainstream and online. Joshua Rozenberg speaks up for the judges; his final sentence is Far from being enemies of the people, judges are just about the only friends we have. The Secret Barrister rails against deliberate attacks on the law in a strong but very readable style. I recommend both, but then I would, wouldn’t I?
NW by Zadie Smith and Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford
A couple of very different books of fiction. Zadie Smith is a brilliant writer. I loved On Beauty, her take on Howard’s End. NW is perceptive on how lives are blown in different directions by circumstance and chance. I hadn’t read it before now but enjoyed it – and there’s a barrister in it!
Richard Ford is one of America’s finest writers, up there with Philip Roth. I’ve been a fan since I heard him at Hay in about 1990 and devoured the first two of his Frank Bascombe trilogy, The Sportswriter and Independence Day. For me, he captures the male soul in all its rueful manifestations. This latest collection of stories, many set in Maine, where he now lives, reflects that same introspection. I wonder what women might think of his books?
I’ve read a lot more than I usually do over these last few months and while there have been some disappointments I’ve enjoyed finding some new voices. Two novels, both debut works, stand out:
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is not an easy read, as it tells of the grooming and abuse of a 15-year-old girl by her English teacher. I’ve read a few books on this theme but none of them made quite such an impact. It was interesting in that I spent the first half of the book being quite irritated: the style seemed gauche and forced, the characters nondescript and the narrative predictable. But then something changed, and by the end of the book I was in pieces – floored by the bleakness and devastation, initially denied by the girl and so honestly portrayed. It is powerful writing, no holds barred. (How do you bar a hold, actually?!) Thought provoking, moving. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is life-affirming, but the protagonist does survive and there is a definite suggestion of hope and a new life as the book ends.
On a rather more upbeat note, reading Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud was a glorious experience. Set in Trinidad, it is the story of an unconventional family group. Each of the three main characters comes fully alive on the page, pulsing with love and kindness amongst occasional grief and alienation. Best of all is the writing style, which lilts with the warm ease of Trinidadian dialect. I had to bite my tongue sometimes to stop lapsing into said dialect¦ Sad things happen, but everything is suffused with humour and warmth. It is a joy! Ingrid Persaud is Trinidadian herself and although I haven’t read anything to confirm this I imagine that the title of her novel comes from the poem of the same name by her fellow-Trinidadian Derek Walcot
I don’t know what it is about this lockdown malarkey but it seems to have given me permission to treat myself by buying hardback novels. I took my first foray back to Kibworth Books, my local independent bookseller, at the weekend, and splashed out on Summerwater by Sarah Moss, based on good reviews and an interview with her that I’d read; also treated myself to an early Elizabeth Strout I’d not seen before, Abide with Me, in paperback. How lovely it was to be back amongst the books after months of online ordering. I also have the new Sue Miller, Monogamy, waiting … can’t wait, I think she is a wonderful writer.
Fiona Berryman, We Need to Talk about Books, Much Wenlock
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
This is a gentle story about an elderly widow living out her last months in a small hotel along with a number of other elderly people, mainly women. It describes the small details that keep these old folks going, the gossip about drinking habits, visitors (mainly infrequent but talked over for a very long time both before and after their visits) and what is on the daily menu. She has a grandson in London and makes the mistake of talking about a possible visit early on in her time at the Claremont but he never comes. She then meets a young man who helps her after she has a fall in the street and has him pretend to be the grandson when he visits her. Needless to say complications arise out of this deception. I enjoyed the prose and intend to seek out more books by Elizabeth Taylor
Diary of a Somebody by Brian Bilston
I very much enjoyed this diary of a divorced man chronicling a year in his life, describing his relationship with his son who mainly lives with his ex-wife and her new partner, his visits to a book circle and attendance at a poetry group. He is trying to get his life back on a better path and decides to write a poem every day for a year. The story also incorporates a possible new relationship with a woman who started to attend the poetry group and a mystery about the possible murder of the most successful poet from the group. It was the poetry that I found most entertaining, with lots of puns, wordplay, etc.
The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey
This is the fourth of a series of police detective stories. The main character is Maeve Kerrigan, a London-Irish detective in the Metropolitan Police. It is a a good detective story with interesting characters. There are nine books in the series at the moment. I read my first Jane Casey book, the 9th of the series, during lockdown when the Times serialised the Cutting Place, a chapter a day for fifteen days. I had never read a book as a serial before but found I enjoyed waiting for the next chapter the following day. It would really have been better to start with the first one because Maeve’s successes and relationships are changing as she matures. The first in the series is called The Burning. Nice to find a new author of detective stories that I like. Plenty more in the series still to read.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
This is about a young computer programmer who moves to San Francisco to take up a job working on control programming for robotic arms. She works long hours and ends up always getting a takeaway from a local kitchen. When the brothers who ran the kitchen leave they give her their sourdough starter and her life becomes a mix of robotic arm programming and making sourdough bread. It is a quick easy read really about the importance of work-home balance in life and of doing something that you really enjoy, in her case both programming to solve the control problems and baking bread. I enjoyed it. Robin Sloan has written another book entitled Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore which also sounds interesting.
Char March, Poet
I love Kathleen Jamie’s poetry, and am delighted she’s started writing non-fiction books. Her latest – ‘Surfacing’ – is full of amazing writing and imagery, and she stitches together really interesting stories from her seemingly disparate subject matter. I am a volunteer for Shared Reading – a brilliant nation-wide scheme to get more people enjoying good writing, and not being afraid to discuss how it moves them/relates to them. We used to meet weekly in Loughborough Library – now we meet online using Zoom. I took several extracts of ‘Surfacing’ to the group a couple of weeks ago. They not only generated a very warm response but also great conversations on the beauty of the tundra, the joy of tiny objects, the need for simplicity, the laws on taking pebbles from beaches, the nature of time… What more could you ask for from a good book?!
Judith Armstrong, We Need to Talk About Books, Craven Arms
‘Braiding Sweet Grass’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is a First Nation American who is also a scientist with a PhD in Botany who teaches university students. As a scientist she knows that native knowledge of plants is the way to sustainable living, and that respect for the natural world is the foundation of a healthy reciprocity between the land and the people. I’ve never read a book quite like this and I feel instinctively that what she says is of great importance.
Then ‘English Pastoral’ by James Rebanks about the farm he inherited from his grandfather in the Yorkshire Dales. He is practising regenerative agriculture, producing food at the same time as looking after the soil and managing the landscape for many of the birds and mammals he has seen disappear during his lifetime (and he’s only 45 at the time of writing!). This is not rewilding, but a return to farming respectfully rather than as if the landscape were a factory and the animals just so many inanimate beings to be exploited to the maximum.
Lastly ‘Common People’ by Alison Light. She is a historian who turned to investigating the history of her own family, all poor , all working class, not a distinguished ancestor among them, so this is actually most of our histories. She investigates how they made enough money to keep body and soul together – nail making, stay-making – what consoled them (often religion, especially non-conformism), how some inevitably ended up in the workhouse and how those institutions operated. Her insights I find thought-provoking. ‘As we grow older we see not how unique our lives have been, but how representative we were and are; that we are part of the figure in the carpet woven by events, by chance and accident, and by the play of forces more powerful than us.’
Rachel Buchanan, Aardvark Books
Jane Brown, Poetry Breakfast, Much Wenlock
Donald Adams, We Need to Talk About Books, Craven Arms
My Man Jeeves by PG Wodehouse pub. 1919 pp135
This is a collection of 8 of the earliest stories written by PGW. They were published in America in various magazines before being compiled into this volume and published in the UK. They are certainly not his most entertaining of stories although some worked well as Fry and Laurie episodes in their Jeeves and Wooster television series. I think it is best viewed as a dip into the embryonic world of PGW as there are definitely more worthwhile reads in the many Jeeves and Blandings series or even his other titles. (Sorry, no usable picture of this title, Anna)
English Custom and Usage by Christina Hole pub. 1942 pp146
A volume exploring the traditional customs, rites and ceremonies which existed up to the second world war in England. In many cases exploring their history and origins. Well illustrated with black and white photographs. It is written interestingly and readily carries you back to times of yore. The likes of the Overton Mummers in Hampshire, the Pace-egging play in Halifax, Court Leet processions, Dairy Queens and many Christmas activities all let you wallow in and dream of the past. We’ve lost a lot.
Findings by Kathleen Jamie pub. 2005 pp190
A collection of the musings and curiosities that the poet encounters in her travels around Scotland. And extensive travels they are too, including the Outer Hebrides and the Orkneys. Her descriptions are usually gentle (could it be poetical) and you are carried along following the things she finds and engages with. This holds good for most of the tales where the sights and natural sounds become vital backdrops to the enterprises she goes on. But when she visits Surgeons Hall in Edinburgh, where some of the specimens she views are challenging, she can remain eloquent and write of them sensitively. A very engaging book and there are interesting elements even taking you into her own life and what and why she retains as her personal souvenirs. As the blurb says: it’s surprising what you can find by simply stepping out to look.
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks pub. 2013 pp259
One of the authorised homage volumes to PW Wodehouse. This started rather frenetically with lots of Woosterisms, much like the early developments apparent in My Man Jeeves (see above), don’t you know. It then settled down into a steady story of Sebastian Faulks quality. In fact it became quite complicated, however much I tried to keep up with the shenanigans, but the characters continued to be entertaining and the story rolled through to a quite surprising finale. A reasonable read but only after you have devoured the real PGW canon.
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood pub. 2016 pp289
Said to be Shakespeare’s The Tempest retold. I liked the title but it would probably have helped to have a working knowledge of The Tempest to get the apparent insight within the story. At one stage I did have a flip through the actual play but it was not enough. It certainly reads like a sophisticated re-analysis of the play but it has a relevant purpose and it fits in well with the main story-line of the book. That story-line is clever and reveals Felix’s revenge on his former duplicitous work colleagues where he was sacked. From his new role at the local jail he uses inmates undertaking vocational correction as the performers in the play. An entertaining read but I feel I was underprepared as there was much more there.
Marian Newell, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
4321 by Paul Auster
This book describes four possible lives for one person, interleaved rather than told consecutively. I felt it was overlong at 1070 pages and that the effect could have been achieved in, say, 600 pages. You could probably get the idea from the last few pages.
While reading the book, the most tedious thing for me was the amount of detail included about the interests of the different versions of the character. Whether it was sport, literature or music, it was explained exhaustively rather than evoked lightly.
In retrospect, the problem I’ve come back to is that having multiple variants of all the characters means that none of them come alive. It’s difficult to remember them and to switch between realities, which aren’t so very different anyway (Columbia vs Princeton, or novelist vs translator).
In summary, I’d say it’s a clever book but not an engaging one. It’s not quite the same premise as ‘Life After Life’ but, published four years after that, it feels a bit derivative.
Bodies Electric by Colin Harrison
You could say this is a simple story, simply told. It’s economically written (341 pages) in the first person. I empathised with the viewpoint character and was swept along by how he saw things without really questioning the reliability of his perceptions.
The story, published in 1993, is set in a vast corporation based in Manhattan. I was on the edge of the international banking world in London at that time, so characters, companies and behaviours were somewhat familiar. The technology is inevitably dated but took me back to what we had then.
There’s a sense of foreboding throughout the book but I didn’t foresee exactly how events would unfold. I’m not sure if the author had a ‘message’ in mind but, and I’ve only just finished the book, it left me thinking that perhaps it’s a bad thing to want anything too desperately.
In Harrison’s world, people trample over others with little thought or become so blinkered by their own perspective that they miss what’s really going on. Reviews of some of his other books suggest he’s well known for his vivid evocations of New York and his damning portrayals of various sectors.
Once again a fabulous collection of titles – I don’t know about you, but my ‘to be read’ pile gets bigger every month! Thank you so much for all your recommendations – and do let me know if you take the plunge with any of them. I get lots of emails from readers telling me that reading, and following these blogs, is helping to keep them sane, and gives them a sense of belonging at this time of not being able to be together: THANK YOU for enabling this to happen.
Next month’s blog will be published towards the end of October ~ please let me have you reading lists by 10th October if at all possible.
These blogs are free and always will be, but if you would like to buy me a coffee that would be very nice!
Keep safe, stay well, enjoy your reading,
(yes this is still the right email!)
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