Talking about books
~ at home
As the news worsens and it really does look like a long, hard winter is on the way, let’s hope that our reading recommendations are helpful – and that bookshops and libraries are able to keep going. I really appreciate everyone’s participation – and I love it that people are emailing me to talk about Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann.
I’m also enjoying the time (sorry for all of you who are still at work!) to enjoy not only lots of reading, but also cooking and curtain making (yes, honestly). I’m still doing a Zoom Poetry Club with my grand-children, which is such a joy, as you might imagine, and we are just about to do our last session on the theme of schools – two of them have even learnt poems off by heart. We’re moving onto winter poems in November and then Christmas poems in December – I’d love it if you felt like sharing any of your favourite poems on those subjects? Old family favourites, childhood memories? Email me or add to comments, below if you’d like to! Thank you.
BOOKS WE READ IN SEPTEMBER
Anna Dreda, We Need to Talk About Books
I enjoyed all of these books and recommend each of them. The stand out ones though are the new book of poetry from Barbara Kingsolver, and Tana French a new (to me) author I read about in the New York Times Book Review.
How to Fly – in 10,000 easy lessons, published by Faber, 2020, is Barbara Kingsolver’s second collection of poetry – her first was Another America which I read in one sitting when it was published in 1992. There are only three poets whose books I devour in one sitting and they are Barbara Kingsolver, Pauline Prior-Pitt and Liz Lefroy. This new one from Barbara is just gorgeous and I am on my second reading of it already – trying hard to read it slowly and carefully, rather then in a breathless state of awe! Try it, even if you don’t normally read poetry.
In the Woods by Tana French is the first in a series of Dublin murder mysteries – and as with all the very best of crime fiction, the relationships between the detectives/police involved in solving the crime are large part of what makes it so special – think Donna Leon, Louise Penney, Sara Paretsky, Elly Griffiths – the list could be longer!
Elmet by Fiona Mozley and A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better by Benjamin Wood are both dark tales about children with violent fathers, both are fascinating, but Elmet is the one that will stay with me.
Sheena Bacon, Lyth Hill Book Club
Lyth Hill Book Club has been meeting in small groups over the summer and into autumn, and we are pleased that Shropshire Libraries have restarted their group lending service.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
Our recent book club read was The Cutting Season by Attica Locke. This is a murder mystery set in America ‘s Deep South on a former sugar plantation, now run as a tourist venue. The main character is a young black woman who manages the business and who grew up on the estate. The body of a young woman is found and tensions rise as the police make an arrest . The murder is linked to the disappearance many years previously of a freed slave and the story hinges on the fact that apparently former slaves had rights to land ownership after the Civil War. We found it took a while to get into the story and remember who was who, but it was very pertinent to situations today and provoked great discussions, especially when we got on to taking down statues!
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
My best book has undoubtedly been Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann and recommended by Anna last month. This is a marathon read and has to be worked at, but it is well worth persevering. Set in modern day Ohio, the thoughts of a troubled housewife tumble out continuously as she makes pies to support her four children. Gradually the story emerges and we are drawn into her life, fraught with concerns about gun culture, her children’s safety, and grief over past events. Throughout it all is a parallel story about a lioness and her cubs which we can also identify with. The whole book has a great ending which made the discipline of reading it well worthwhile. I am so glad I kept going!
A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler
I followed this with a very different book – A Gentle Plea for Chaos by Mirabel Osler.
This is one for anyone who enjoys gardens. In the early 1980s, Mirabel and her husband bought land in South Shropshire – I ‘m not sure where – and set about establishing a garden. They loved to let plants ‘do their own thing’ and disliked the manicuring and perfecting of gardens which was popular at that time. So hence the title. She writes in a very amusing way, but there are frequent references to long Latin plant names which can be a bit daunting at times. But she also talks about botanical art, other gardens and the plant collectors of long ago to whom we owe so much of our garden enjoyment today. She wrote many other books before she died in 2016, and I shall look out for them.
Mirabel’s garden was in Ludlow, Sheena. It is a beautiful book. She came to the bookshop years ago to do an event with Katherine Swift, author of The Morville Hours – what an educational and entertaining evening it was! Anna
Rad, Lusaka Book Club and the Silverwood Book Group in Salisbury
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
This was my pick for the Lusaka Book Club this year; chosen because of a review I read which mentioned that the author was a poet and that this was his first novel. The novel took the form of a letter from a son to his mother, who couldn’t read. I was fascinated by the idea of this kind of ‘safe confession’ and was really curious about the language. I wasn’t disappointed on this front. It is a beautiful, haunting, and at times tough read. It’s a story exploring a fraught mother-son relationship where roles are often reversed; a story of the effects of war, of living between two cultures, of exploring sexuality (with possibly one of the most tender and tense descriptions of first sexual experience I have ever read). I have since read the poem the book was based on – I hope this will entice you to give the book a try.
I know, I know! (You need to indulge me here as a way of mentioning several novels based on both of Homer’s works!) Reading The Iliad was part of a lockdown project to read texts which are so often referenced in literature and which are still on year 1 university reading lists. Several of these books were deposited for me to ‘look after’ by my son after the first year of his degree, so I set myself a challenge. I started reading this in March so it has been a bit of a slow one. Apart from now knowing more detail about the events of the Siege of Troy, and how vengeful and petty all those gods could be, what this reading did for me was to illuminate a recent book I’d read which was a re-telling of the story from the women’s point of view. This was the brilliant Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. I need to get to Madeleine Miller’s Song of Achilles soon! And eventually I shall move onto the Odyssey (and I hope that it will make me feel the same about Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise and Madeleine Miller’s Circe – the latter, in particular, is excellent!)
The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert
This was a lovely, lovely read and I am looking forward to a Book Club ‘Walk and Talk’ this afternoon to discuss it! It was such an unexpected find. Every time I opened the book, I was kind of delighted to be reading! I really enjoyed the writing, loved the story with all its twists and turns and the flawed, but real, characters. I loved the botanical backdrop and the scientific detail that was always enough and never too much. I highly recommend it.
Philip Browning, We Need to Talk about Books, Much Wenlock
V2 by Robert Harris
The latest novel by Robert Harris, the bulk of it written during lockdown, so this book is a remarkably rapid turn round from author to publication! I’m always anxious to avoid spoilers but it’s no secret that this is about the V2 rockets directed at London from Scheveningen in the occupied Netherlands towards the end of the war. It’s very readable with credible characters created to tell the story. Harris has clearly done a phenomenal amount of research; I learned a lot, although my eyes did glaze over some of the details he unearthed which will be of interest to those of a more technical mind than mine. I’ve enjoyed many of his books, particularly Munich and this is another good one.
Jan Swafford: Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
I’d known of this book since its publication in 2014 and thought it would make a good Covid read between lighter fare. So: 21 pages of introduction, 936 pages of text, 118 pages of bibliography and notes, 23 pages of (a poor) index. For those wanting to read a concise life of Beethoven this is not the book for you. I often wonder how a writer of non-fiction gauges the level of pre-knowledge of his readers; a fair bit of this book comprises in-depth analyses of a number of important works (including some printed musical examples) probably beyond many general readers but set within a painstaking account of Beethoven’s life and times.
Although I consider myself pretty musical I skipped quite a bit of the detail on this reading although I may go back to relevant parts next time I listen to particular works. If that all sounds like damning with faint praise, I now have a far greater knowledge of Beethoven the man, and a much deeper understanding of his music and its development over his life. I’m glad I’ve read it and confirmed that for me, Beethoven is the one composer I would take with me to my desert island – the music that is, not the rather difficult man!
Jude Walker, Much Wenlock
I’ve just finished re-reading Salt on My Tongue by Charlotte Runcie which I found fascinating and beautiful. She explores, with tenderness and trepidation, her journey to being a Mum for the first time whilst also contemplating her’s and other women’s relationship with the sea. I’m now reading English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks, though I’m only 30 pages in. There is such honesty in the way he evokes place and his connection to the land. He writes with beauty and warmth, a complete lack of pretension and with a power that really stirs. Love him!
Fiona Berryman, We Need to Talk about Books, Much Wenlock
Circe by Madeline Miller
This is a re-telling of the story of Circe from Greek mythology. I really loved it. I read it last year for the first time and then read it again this month. I enjoyed it even more on the second reading. Highly recommended!
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
This is about a young woman who attempts to end her own life but seems to go into a suspended state in the ‘midnight library’ where she experiences what might have been if she had made different decisions in the past. This helps her work through the problems in her life and re-think her possible future.
Bones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs
This is a detective story about Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist. She investigates human remains in the US and in Afghanistan which turn out to be related. It was a light read and quite enjoyable.
I have also been trying to educate myself more on Black Lives Matter and have read several of the recommended books on the subject, namely White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates, Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and Brit(-ish) by Afua Hirsch. The first two are American authors and I found their books fairly hard going as I felt they were not entirely relevant to the UK. The second two, by British authors, were much more readable and certainly taught me something about black lives.
Hilary Tilley, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Nicky Bennison reviewed this in your July blog. I have no interest in hawks or falconry at all but Nicky’s review sounded such a fascinating blend of different strands that I thought I would give it a go.
I do not have anything further to add to Nicky’s comments except that I loved this book so thank you for the recommendation. The author’s relationship with the goshawk and its training was absolutely fascinating, as were the lives and interests of other falconers whom she met. Her difficult path through bereavement with the help of this animal so removed from the realm of human compassion was also very thought provoking. A book I shall definitely remember.
Notes from an exhibition by Patrick Gale
This was recommended to me by my neighbour Sue who is a big Patrick Gale fan.
It is really a book about the influence of a gifted bipolar artist on her family and her relationships with individual members.
Their story is pieced together by chapters which begin with a gallery caption describing one of her works. The chapter then describes moments in the past which caused the picture to be created or given to a particular person.
I loved this book for its very clever construction and the way the story gradually pieces itself together in a non-linear way. It is a painful portrayal of bi polar illness and in that sense I found it emotionally draining but there were moments of optimism and I thought it was an excellent read.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Newspapers have been full of the launch of her most recent novel but I thought I’d have a go at one of the earlier ones.
This is the story of a young girl trying to make sense of the world during her childhood having suffered deeply traumatic events. She is raised by several different people all of whom are dysfunctional to varying degrees.
I found this a very atmospheric book, often beautifully written in a dream-like way full of images of water, drowning in every sense of the word. It is a slim volume but a slow read as the sentences do not reveal their meaning easily (sometimes not at all to me). I am glad I read it but I found it ultimately desperately sad with no hint of humour to lighten the mood or even a flicker of optimism. Therefore you might not want to read it in the current climate!
Housekeeping is one of my all-time favourite books – timing is everything, I agree, but I would nevertheless urge you to read this one! Anna
Andrew James, France
In September I re-read a children’s story: Black Ivory, by Norman Collins. I was given this at the age of 13 in 1955 and never forgot it – have kept it safely ever since, but never thought of reading it again to remember why it was that this – the first novel I remember reading – was unforgettable. Well, I found out why. It’s an action-packed page-turner about a young lad who, after leaving home to seek his fortune after his family is evicted from their smallholding by an evil landlord, is kidnapped and put aboard a ship due to sail for Africa. When he realises what the mission is – slave taking – he resolves to thwart it. The ending too is a splendidly satisfying throw-back to the very beginning of the story, and I closed the book with the contented feeling that justice had been done.
The characterisations too are memorable, and we’re never allowed to forget who’s who and who’s done what to whom. I shall (I hope) read it again in twenty years’ time!
I turned once again to J.B. Priestley’s short pieces, Delight and Self-Selected Essays in an ancient Heron book edition. For comfort reading if you’re my age (78) it can’t be beat. There’s quite a lot of eyebrow-raising stuff, but they’re mainly wonderfully written evocations of the writer’s world, mainly between the two wars. (It’s a pity that none of the pieces are dated). I have many favourites including The Flower Show (a sort of expanded version of Philip Larkin’s delightful Show Saturday from High Windows), In Crimson Silk and Having Covered the Card Table.
Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy.
A wonderful book – this was an eye-opener to me about the state of education in Britain over the last thirty years. What took me to the book were the marvellous poems written by some of Kate’s young pupils, some of whom are immigrant children whose first language is not English. She regularly posts these poems on Twitter. Some of the chapters are very moving.
I’m now reading another by her: How to Grow Your Own Poem (watch this space!)
The Room Where it Happened by John Bolton.
I read it, dare I admit? We learn that Trump’s every decision is aimed at increasing his election chances and that he is not very dependable.
Live Flesh by Ruth Rendell
Not new, but a most original plot about the shooting of a policeman who becomes paraplegic as a result. What “butterfly in Patagonia” event made the criminal do what he did? See the last paragraph of the book! I will give no more away.
And finally, Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
The book has received much praise and I enjoyed racing through it. Several friends have read it, one of whom said she put the book down after four chapters because “Well, I knew all that”. Maybe, but it needs retelling and the author does it very well indeed.
And now in October? I’m starting with Neil Astley’s latest collection of poems, Staying Human, and it’s already bristling with post-its to mark poems that have made my hair shiver. And as I’m fortunate enough to be bilingual, a new French novel, Les Roses Fauves by Carole Martinez. Mais ça c’est une autre histoire …
Jenny Newton, We Need to talk About Books, Much Wenlock
“Hell is Empty. All the Devils are Here” is a quote from the Tempest and by strange coincidence, I’ve read three books in the last six months where it comes up. This story, that rakes up some previously unknown details from Gamache’s upbringing, is set in Paris. He and his family are there awaiting the arrival of his daughter Annie’s baby. The plot resembles a French TV series. Let’s get back to Three Pines in Quebec, the Bistro and poet Ruth and her duck!
This is a deeply absorbing book with an irritating and self-defeating main character. A few chapters would have helped instead of one long outpouring. A friend reading this now said she was waiting for something to happen as after 100 pages she was still in the overnight cemetery scene. Well nothing much does happen. Having read the previous three novels of the quartet as they’d come out, I’d forgotten that Gilead is the big picture and the others are back stories of some of the characters. The free guide from Blackwells is very helpful.
(Note the signed first edition from Toppings & Co.! Anna)
Sue Whiston, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
My reading has had to be slotted between packing the contents of my kitchen cabinets into boxes in preparation for a new kitchen to be fitted, and it has just about kept me sane. I have really needed to escape the day to day drudgery.
The River King by Alice Hoffman.
I chose it because I had enjoyed “Local Girls” and it could hardly have been more different. It was a strange tale which involved magic and an everyday ghost, but really seemed to be focussed on how difficult it is for adolescents who are not one of the accepted group, and the lengths they are prepared to go to. Some of the grown-ups are having a hard time too and reveal courage they didn’t know they had. I found it an intriguing read.
The Whereabouts of Aneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry.
Although I enjoyed it, it really didn’t hold a candle to “Days Without End.” The troubles in Ireland seem so desperately depressing that, although the story carried me with it, I was pleased to finish.
Silent Death by Peter May
I turned to this for light relief. I really bought it because I saw that it was set in and around Estepona, an area where we spent many happy holidays when the boys were small. If I had read this first, I might have reconsidered my holiday destination! It’s a crime drama which involves an ex-pat who is trying to leave his criminal past behind but whose true identity becomes known, and his subsequent vendetta against a female police officer and her family. It’s a real page turner but not for the faint hearted.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Although I don’t usually choose historical fiction, I love Maggie O’Farrell’s writing, so bought this and really enjoyed it. I found the imagining of Shakespeare, (never named) his early life, his over-bearing father, and the unhappy adolescence of Agnes, his wife to be, all very plausible. The death of Hamnet and the reaction of William and Agnes was very moving. I was glad that I had read it.
The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver
I had never read Barbara Kingsolver’s books, but on Hilary’s recommendation I began with The Bean Trees and went on to Pigs in Heaven. I thought that they were both so well written. Both have a great story line and race you to the end, although I really didn’t want to finish “Pigs in Heaven” (which I finished yesterday – so it has spanned September to October’s reading.) I was glad that I read them in the right order. I became very fond of the characters and so wanted there to be a happy ending. I would like a sequel to find out what the outcome is.
As everyone who know me is well aware, these are two of my favourite books from my favourite author. (I would never let anyone buy Pigs in Heaven if they hadn’t already read The Bean Trees!) I probably re-read these two (always together) more than any other book, and enjoy them all over again, every time. Anna
Marian Newell, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock
I’ve read two books this month. By pure coincidence, they both proved to have supernatural or fantastic elements to their stories.
The first was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sanders, published by Bloomsbury in 2017 and winner of the Man Booker Prize that year. The bardo is a transitional realm in Tibetan tradition. Here, Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie is in this realm after his death in 1862. The story is told through quotations from residents of the bardo, living people and documents (some real, some not). The blurb describes it as ‘a theatrical, kaleidoscopic panoply of voices – living and dead, historical and fictional’. It’s certainly inventive and must have been a major factor in the Booker judging. I initially found it heavy-going but, once I got used to it, the different viewpoints and conflicting accounts began to sink in as if by osmosis rather than by reading the attribution and thinking about who said or wrote the quotation. I’ve watched the film Lincoln fairly recently, set shortly afterwards and referencing the ongoing impact of the bereavement, and it was interesting to see how some accounts tallied with that.
It’s a short book: 343 largely double-spaced pages. It’s also very strange: the occupants of the bardo are manifestations and their appearance, often extraordinary, reflects their reasons for lingering in the realm. The author vividly evokes their plight, as well as Lincoln’s grief. An interesting idea is that most of the spirits don’t realise they’re dead – they talk of their deaths as sickness and their coffins as sick-boxes. They’re mostly waiting for someone or something to resolve their situation. It’s only when Willie decides to stay, a terrible thing for a child to do in the bardo, that they come together to help him.
My second read was The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, published by Bloomsbury in 2018 and winner of the Costa First Novel Award and the Books Are My Bag Readers Award. I read its 500 pages in three sessions (and agree with a reviewer who says it’s best to do so, to keep it sharp in your mind). Apparently the author was given Agatha Christie books by his neighbour as a child and always wanted to write one. Many years later, the idea for this murder mystery came to him, complete with time-travel and body-hopping elements. Even after finishing it, I’m not sure by what mechanism these were supposed to be achieved but they made for an intriguing and thought-provoking story.
The viewpoint character who must solve the mystery occupies ‘hosts’, other people in the house. He retains something of himself, his soul perhaps, but no memories of his own identity and life. He occupies his hosts’ bodies but aspects of their minds remain, This was the most striking aspect of the book for me. One host is a hugely fat but mentally astute man – the protagonist is mortified by his dependence on the man’s valet, frustrated by his immobility to pursue clues but then amazed at how effortlessly he can reason through what’s happening (a reviewer complained about the descriptions of the obesity but I thought the recognition of the man’s mental acuity reflected a broader characterisation). Another host is an anger-filled rapist – the protagonist struggles to control his violent urges and is also hampered by other characters’ reactions to the host. An important aspect of fiction for me is how it illuminates character; this technique did that in a fresh way and some of the descriptions were startling.
There was a similar facet to Lincoln in the Bardo, where the spirits occupied living people and shared experience and feelings with both the living person and each other, Again, we feel characters’ emotions through other characters’ senses. It seems very odd that I should read two books one after the other that shared so much thematically, although perhaps it’s been popular in recent years.
In any event, I thought both books highly inventive. It was the Turton, though, that had me lying awake thinking about the complicated plot (the result of three months of planning with Post-Its) and how the events seen from different perspectives meshed together. It’s staggering to think that it’s a debut novel.
Pat Buchanan, We Need to Talk About Books, Craven Arms
Last month I ploughed through Dombey and Son, mostly because I knew nothing about it. As usual, it was funny but soooo sentimental. If I dared criticise Dickens I’d say it was self-indulgent. Not sure why I stuck it out, but don’t like to be defeated.
I also re read The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje; not sure why. In some ways it’s so clever, so vivid and intriguing.
More great recommendations – thank you everyone; I don’t think we’re going to run out of reading, are we! Next month’s blog will be published towards the end of November ~ please let me have your reading lists by 10th November if at all possible.
These blogs are free and always will be, but if you would like to buy me a virtual cup of coffee that would be very nice! And thank you to everyone for your generosity – I get cake, and even a book to go with it sometimes!
Keep safe, stay well, enjoy your reading, oh and please remember to send me your favourite poems for children on the theme of winter and Christmas if you’d like to.
(yes this is still the right email!)
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