Talking about books
~ at home
Well, huge apologies – I seem to have somehow missed a month. But that has led to an absolute treat of a bumper issue ~ which can now keep us going until February! So, please could you let me have your reading recommendations by Monday February 8th please?
I’ve just started a ‘reading project’ ~ i.e. something that will take a bit of time and effort! This is going to be my very early morning reading, when my eyes are brightest and my mind most active (when is your best time for concentrated reading, I wonder?). I’m revisiting The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James,which beautiful edition you can buy from Pengwern Books by clicking here. I last read it in the Classics Reading Group that used to meet weekly in the bookshop where we read and discussed the book chapter by chapter. Only the very best books can withstand this level of slow and close reading ~ and this one certainly did. I recommend you try it – or if you’ve already read it, let me know what you think, in the comments bit below.
BOOKS WE’VE BEEN READING
I am ‘getting into’ reading children’s folktale books, mostly due to my 2 year old granddaughter and what she’s reading before bedtime. She calls me “Baba”, so that’s sparked my interest in getting some books about Baba Yaga, and all that she is doing. Some of the stories might be a bit grim, but with age, my granddaughter will hopefully enjoy them. She likes The Mitten by Jan Brett, and I’ve just ordered Patricia Polacco’s Babushka Baba Yaga and a collection of Russian folklore. Hopefully she’ll enjoy them as much as I do!
What a lovely reading project for you to enjoy with your granddaughter!
The book is probably not for someone desiring merely a story of criminal investigation in the form of a slightly different ‘who done it.’
As it is not often novels are set in this part of Spain, Iberolphiles might well be attracted.
The first book I have read by a Liberian author. It tells the story of the slave trade through the eyes of the three main characters, each with a different magical power, which they use when they are thrown together back in Liberia as the Free State of Liberia is being formed. I was interested in the descriptions of the former slaves’ lives and the tensions and dynamic once they were back in Liberia, but a little bit disjointed for me in terms of a novel which flowed well.
The main thing I enjoyed about this book was the ‘voice’ of the novel where the main character and narrator speak with a Nigerian accent. The story follows a young woman who is sold to become a ‘third wife’ at 14 years of age. Descriptions of her early life are grim, but she escapes to work in the big city as a housegirl for a wealthy Nigerian woman. A little predictable in terms of the outcome…
I was so looking forward to reading this and was sorely disappointed. An American woman inherits an old house in the UK and the story attempts to follow the lives of the characters who lived there and who tended the gardens. The characters reappear across generations and are seen as ghosts by some of the inhabitants of the house, but I just didn’t connect emotionally with any of the characters and their stories and was often left confused by which time period I was reading about.
I loved this. A really gentle and inspiring read of the magical things you can do very easily to get closer to nature.
Okot P’Bitek is a Ugandan author and ‘Song of Lawino’ tells of a wife’s lament of her husband who has been overseas for education and work and who returns to his community and wants nothing more to do with its cultures and traditions. In ‘Song of Ocol’, the husband gets his chance to respond. This was a celebration of culture and tradition told through Lawino who is deeply rooted in and very proud of her culture and the tensions that arise when someone steps out of, and returns to, that culture. What fascinated me the most was the discussion in the introduction of the East African Publishing House edition on the challenges of African poets trying to express rhythm and song when writing in English or French.
The final two books in this month’s list I have had on the go for a while and I just happened to finish them this month.
Literary Trails: Writers in their Landscapes – Christina Hardyment (out of print)
This was one of the reference books I bought from the Wenlock Books closing down sale. A lot of lovely suggestions for Literary Walks taking in the places and buildings which formed the backdrop to some famous, and less-well known, literary lives.
Salt Slow – Julia Armfield I keep trying with my short story collections! Bodily happenings and lovely language. With short stories, you just have to give them a go!
I loved this one, Rad: A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin.
A challenge for you all! If you can suggest short stories for Rad, please use the comments bit at the bottom of the page, or email me.
A couple of turns of phrase are among the reasons why Sweet Thursday is, in perhaps a slightly sentimental lightweight kind of way, my “favourite” book. (It is John Steinbeck’s sequel to Cannery Row.)
In a bar, ahead of a Snow White-themed fancy dress party: “Eight Happys, four Sneezys, six Dopeys and nineteen Grumpys clustered about the bar, earnestly singing ‘Harvest Moon’ in one and a half part harmony.”
That final phrase has stuck with me for forty years or so!
And of a man who runs a restaurant: “His bushy voice is congenitally confidential. He can say ‘Good evening’ and make it sound like an international plot.”
It’s full of that kind of writing, I love it!
Once again this month, my reading has coincidentally shared a theme: this time, religion.
I started with Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. Jenny recommended (and lent) this to me. I found it thoroughly compelling, giving insights into republican paramilitary thinking and greatly increasing my understanding of events I remember from my youth. It’s only tangentially connected with religion in that sectarianism in Northern Ireland developed along denominational lines. The thing that stays with me is how insular that world was – small towns in a small province, with people who often hadn’t travelled more than a few miles from their birthplace. It’s chastening to see how much suffering was inflicted by people with very limited world views. It would be nice to think that such a conflict was less likely in our modern, connected, world but I fear that any news broadcast tells us otherwise.
Next came Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, also lent by Jenny (I bought one of the sequels, Home, from an independent bookshop on holiday in Pembrokeshire – Seaways in Fishguard – and the proprietor advised me it would be better to read Gilead first). I know some of you have mentioned this series, so I expect many have read this first one. I found it an interesting and fairly easy read, with most characters evoked vividly, but it concentrated more on the narrator’s faith than I expected. I lost my faith in my early twenties and had agonised in preceding years over some of the questions in the novel, so it rather took me back to things I didn’t particularly want to think about. Life’s complicated enough without inventing theological challenges to feel guilty about.
The Chosen One by Sam Bourne. Sam Bourne is the nom de plume of the journalist Jonathan Freedland whose exciting thrillers are mainly set in the USA, many featuring his creation, Irish political advisor Maggie Costello, who frequently saves the country, the President and sometimes the world! The Chosen One is an early page-turner involving not entirely unbelievable international conspiracies. A good place to start, though, would be the more recent To Kill the President which is set in Washington and includes a President not unlike the recently-defeated incumbent. No spoilers, of course.
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris. I didn’t finish this! I had heard of it and knew it was a best-seller; I picked it up from the charity shelf in the bank and as usual, deliberately didn’t read the blurb as I like to approach a novel from scratch. I have enjoyed loads of Robert Harris books (see my recent post about V2, as well as Conclave, Munich etc) but after an intriguing few chapters realised that it is a post-apocalyptic novel, a genre which I don’t like as I prefer to be in the real world.
Letters from London (out of print) is a wonderful collection of essays by Julian Barnes written between 1990 and 1995 for the New Yorker magazine. It’s one of those books on my shelves that I’ve acquired over the years and am finally getting around to reading during the pandemic. The early 90s are brought back to life as we are reminded about the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the rise of Tony Blair, Salmon Rushdie’s fatwah, the opening of the Channel Tunnel, the collapse of Lloyds of London, Nigel Short’s chess match against Gary Kasparov, and much more. As a novelist, Barnes is one of my favourite writers and he doesn’t disappoint with his journalism either.
On the Road – American Adventures from Nixon to Trump by James Naughtie. Published shortly before the recent election, this is the story of the USA from 50 years of reporting ‘the journey of a roving reporter, full of laughter, adventure and surprise’. Most enjoyable.
This book was recommended by one of The Times journalists as a good extended read for a holiday. It is a novel about two retired Texan Rangers who had taken up ranching in Texas close to the Mexican border once rangers were no longer really needed in the late 19th century. They decide to start a new ranch in Montana, some 2000 miles away and recruit some cowboys to drive a huge herd of cows from Texas up to Montana. I have never been a fan of Westerns but I had enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End set in a slightly earlier era in the US and so decided to give it a go. I really enjoyed it and felt I was with them every step of the way, dealing with snakes, crossing rivers, defending the herd from rustlers and Native Americans, difficult weather conditions. There is a love story (or even two), some extreme violence, lots of deaths and yet also some amusing parts. It is a long book, between 800 and 900 pages, but it could have been longer still for me. This book was originally published in 1985 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1986.
I picked up this in the library just before the most recent lockdown. I have not read any Agatha Christie since the late 80s when I was living in the Netherlands and the local library had a fairly large collection of Agatha Christies among their limited collection of books in English. I found it fairly dated but it was ok for a light read. I had to laugh at the ageism; the first person murdered was “an old woman” and the third “an elderly man”. Somewhat later in the book more detailed questions were asked and the old woman turned out to be ‘close on 60’ and the elderly man was ‘nearly 60’!
(Your comment about ‘old age’ made me smile, Fiona: I loved Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson and then found out that the rather elderly central character was just 40! Anna)
This is an enjoyable read from Anne Tyler as usual. It is about Micah, a man in his early forties, who has a very predictable and ordered life running a small IT consultancy. He is not very emotionally intelligent and the book is really about his difficulties imagining how other people might be feeling. It describes what happens when his long-standing girl-friend may be about to be evicted from her flat and at the same time a young man appears claiming to be Micah’s son.
I’d like to recommend two Irish writers. No, not Sally Rooney!
Jennifer Johnston is a writer recognised in Ireland (lots of Irish awards), though barely over here (although The Old Jest was made into a film, The Dawning, with Anthony Hopkins). She has written several moving novels, some set after WW1 when the Troubles were beginning, some later, when Irish life is still painful. Usually there’s a strong relationship involved, rendered ultimately hopeless because of the politics, the hatred. Wonderfully plotted, beautifully written, with exceptional dialogue (she’s also a playwright), I’d say read anything you can get hold of; but the two I have to hand here are The Railway Station Man (1984) and Fool’s Sanctuary (1987), both published by Headline. I was terribly struck by both and shall certainly read them again and again.
Johnston was born an Irish Protestant and the disintegration of the Ascendancy is often part of her story-telling. Mary Costello is a much younger writer whom I was pleased to meet last year when her book The River Capture was about to come out at roughly the same time as my own novel. Interestingly enough, although her background is entirely different from Johnston’s, her book features a large old house in Waterford in which one man is living alone, clinging on, absorbed by the place while also mentally obsessed with James Joyce. Neither Costello’s nor Johnston’s books could be anything but Irish. And I suppose what I love about both of them is their melancholy.
The River Capture has a stunning, overwhelming ending. I hope the book has done well, though I have no idea. Costello won the Irish Book Award for an earlier book, Academy Street (2014), whose title tells one little about its disturbing content, but I strongly recommend her short stories, The China Factory (2012). Her books are published by Canongate.
Both of these women can write! I feel enriched, inspired by them.
And here’s one to look out for: The Plague Letters by V.L.Valentine (Viper Books). I know about this because I’ve just read the proof and written something for the cover for when it comes out in April 2021. Despite my own writing (though I do write contemporary short stories – honest!) I don’t like reading historical fiction. Yet the first thing I thought as I read page one was, ‘This woman can write!’ Indeed she can. Set in just one terrible plague year in London, 1665, the novel is a whodunnit full of excellent period detail, never overdone. Certainly there are horrid scenes as there must be with an appalling death-rate and 17th-century squalor, and the plot centres on the mystery of certain deaths being murder. The book is beautifully put together with maps marking time changes and the progress of the plague. You don’t read whodunnits? You don’t read historical fiction? Break the moulds and try this one!
Since the last post, I have only read a couple of books.
The first was The Fourth Sacrifice by Peter May. I read the first of the series, The Firemaker, over a year ago and really enjoyed it, so was looking forward to this one. It was also very readable but not as engaging as the first. The story focuses on a Chinese detective and an American forensic psychologist, who was initially in China on a university lecturing exchange programme. In the first book she is called in to do an autopsy on a victim. She and the detective become involved emotionally, as they work to solve the case. In Book two, the relationship has soured, and she is on the point of returning to America when a series of murders again leads to her being asked to help. The plot felt too contrived for me to be convinced, and the actions of the characters left me rather irritated. I don’t think I will bother to read the third in the series.
Hilary kindly lent me The Jacaranda Tree by H. E. Bates. I had read The Go Between when I was a teenager, and that was a very long time ago, but nothing since. This book was a marvel! The landscape and characters were beautifully drawn, and the descriptions of the searing heat in Burma left me feeling the need to find some cooler clothes! I was full of questions when I finished reading: did the three survive? How did Tuesday and his sister come to be looking after Patterson in the first place? What happened to the Major and the nurse? It was a tense story, with the threat of disease and the progress of the invading Japanese always present, and yet the prose was so rich that I delighted in it all.
I am currently reading The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri. I remembered that someone at “We need to talk about books” had talked about it and at the time I thought that I would have to read it, but it has taken me a long time to get down the pile and start. I can see why it was recommended . I am really caught up in the story and desperately want it to have a happy conclusion, but I fear that I may not get my wish. The life of the fleeing refugees is told in stark and unsentimental detail, and the hopeless and aimless days stretching into the distance, contrasted with Nuri’s vivid recollections of life before the bombing in Syria. I am dreading reaching the end.
Having more time on my hands does not necessarily, mean I read more books but I do read more slowly. I cogitate between paragraphs and chapters, take my time to start something new. Shuggie Bain had sat on my shelf since September, highly recommended by a Scottish friend, but waiting. I did not think it would disappoint but I wanted to give it my full attention and when I began I had no idea that it would take hold of me the way it did. I had to read every word, in fact re-read every word sometimes for sheer pleasure. Sometimes I read it aloud to the birds at breakfast time.
No, there were no uplifting passages of lyrical description but an intimacy with detail that built up a picture of unattractive places made vital and important to the story. A spoil tip, a tenement, an ill-conceived housing scheme were as immediate as any landscape of my personal history. No familiar circumstances in this raw story set in post-industrial Glasgow, in the eighties, so how was it that my overwhelming sense, as I read, was of familiarity. I still have not worked out why.
Author Douglas Stuart’s semi-autobiographical book, creates a world so real, characters that are so human and lovable that I wanted to spend as much time as possible with them. The relationship between Shuggie and his alcoholic mother Agnes is the main focus of the book but the many other characters, malign or well-meaning, that inhabit and impinge upon their story are captivating in their own right. Despite the sadness, the physical and mental violence, scenes of phlegm and vomit, this is often a funny book. And I do not laugh easily. The veracity of the incidents between Shuggie and other children who see him as ‘not normal’ or scenes of Agnes’s addiction: her pride, clothes, hope, despair, ability to ‘put on a face’, is unquestionable. As is Shuggie’s love for his mother.
An insight into the nature of alcoholism, it pulls no punches and offers no answers through the actions of its characters except, perhaps, in the way the three children determine their own survival in the wake of their mother’s damaged life. The triumph, I believe, of this book is that Douglas Stuart has created in Agnes, an infuriating, unreliable, drunk, funny, passionate, feisty, sad, lovable woman and in Shuggie, a loving, strange, tender, continually bemused, well-intentioned, tenacious, misfit of a lad, whose story I never questioned.
The places and people of this book will stay with me, I am sure, as vividly as some long ago, much loved, childhood tale. My ‘best read’ of 2020’
I currently have three books within grabbing distance of my spot on the sofa. Thoroughly indulgent and visual delights, they are good companions on a winter’s evening. The first is A Cloud A Day – an anthology of 365 images of the most awe-inspiring skies. The pictures are accompanied with snippets of science, history and art. (Who knew there were such things as single red rainbows?) Compiled by Gavin Pretor-Pinney of the Cloud Appreciation Society, it’s a beautiful book that reminds me of the incredible changing canvas we can enjoy if we look out and up a bit more often! The second book is The Lost Spells, by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. The art is divine and the poems – or ‘spells’ – celebrate language. They just beg to be spoken aloud and shared. The third book on my pile is Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words for Snow, I do like words. I particularly like the Icelandic ‘Hundslappadrifa’, which roughly translates as ‘snowflakes as big as a dog’s paw’. On these wet dreary days, I dream of Hundslappadrifa… (Jude)
I’m reading A Snowfall of Silver by Laura Wood. It’s a YA book. It’s quite like I Capture the Castle because it’s a gentle, fun romance. Set in the 1930s, it is about a girl who follows her dreams to become an actress, touring with a theatre company. She makes friends and memories on her adventure. I’d give this 5 stars!! (Phoebe – age 13)
A light read as nothing much happens however Anne Tyler is masterful at writing involving characters and their families. You remember them for a long time afterwards. The nerdy protagonist in this book is similar to Marilynne Robinson’s Jack. I love the Baltimore setting – I still miss The Wire.
While mentioning a TV series, I am a huge fan of West Wing and love to read about the goings on in The White House. This memoir recounts Ben Rhodes’ 8 years as security advisor and communications chief with Barak Obama. It covers world events including the Arab Spring, Burma, Cuba and the doomed Benghazi. If we think the Westminster political workplace is toxic, Washington ratchets it up a notch. I’d hoped that there would be background on then VP Joe Biden but he only merits a walk on part. Most poignant of all is what happens to all these people when they leave office and relinquish power. Obama’s last flight on Air Force One is desperately sad.
Back in the UK, William Boyd’s latest novel is set in Brighton. This does seem a fertile location for fiction although I, in a minority of one, find it a dismal place. The structure of this novel is excellent. The short chapters cycle through the three main characters. It captures the zeitgeist of the 60s and the sleaze of the film industry beautifully.
Still on the film industry, this is terrific. The structure is around the action that happens in six places in the world as the Greek born narrator charts her career as a film soundtrack composer after she meets director Billy Wilder by chance in 1976 at the age of 22 while backpacking in LA. She’d never seen ‘Some Like it Hot’ or ‘The Apartment’ but gets hired as a translator for the filming of ‘Fedora’. Locations are fantastic. He is very successful with a female protagonist. I couldn’t put it down.
I finally gave in and read this having been put off by all the hype. The first few chapters were tedious but then it picked up. Shakespeare is never mentioned by name; only as the eldest son, husband or father. His wife, who we know as Anne, is called Agnes in this book. Snippets we recognise are woven into the novel. Her research is excellent and portrayal of Stratford in the 1500s is fascinating. The annual plague season is curiously topical. The son of an abusive glove maker (reminiscent of Mantel’s Cromwell) who probably never left England, it is mystifying as to how he was writing plays about Italy, Denmark, Kings of England and Scotland as well as social comedies.
Over the last few weeks I have been reading A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, with my shared reading group. In shared reading we read aloud and talk about each passage as we go, so it’s a live experience, and the pace is slow; you can really get into the book as you discuss it. We have just finished this short book, which could easily be described as a ‘gem’. Written some forty years ago, it tells the tale of a young man’s experience of the summer of 1920, as recalled when he is old. Tom Birkin returns from the Great War with shell-shock; his marriage is broken and he has no work or home to go to. He is a skilled restorer of mediaeval wall paintings, and finds himself in a small Yorkshire village, commissioned to uncover a painting in the church. It turns out to be a work of great quality, but no one is really interested – the work is only being done because it’s a condition of a hefty bequest to the church. He lives simply, sleeping in the church’s belfry. What follows is an absorbing account of a summer of healing, friendship, craftsmanship, art and love. It’s just beautiful! Every character, however minor their role in the story, comes alive on the page. There is humour, there is heartbreak. Perfect. The author was new to me, but this has made me want to seek out his other books.
A very special book, and a pretty fine film!
In the Lyth Hill Book Club this month, we have been reading The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.
I found this a profound and sad story, which in some ways reminded me of The Kite Runner, where one person’s action affected the lives of others for years to come. In this case it was the several actions of Udayan, who became active in the Communist Party of India in the mid-sixties. His younger brother Subhash and other family members have to live with the consequences of his involvement and the reader is drawn into their lives, in both India and America. Our group thought the characters were well drawn and emotionally involving, and that the author gave a clear picture of Indian culture in particular. However we were all quite glad to reach the end of the book and probably would not seek to read anything else by her.
These last weeks I have also read Old Baggage and Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans. I thoroughly enjoyed them both. Old Baggage tells the story of Mattie, a former suffragette, who I think would be described as feisty in modern parlance. In looking for a new project, she starts a Girls’ Club, with all sorts of consequences. In the final chapter of the book, one of the former members of the Club presents Mattie with her four year old son, along with a plea for her to adopt him. I really did not want the book to end there, but Crooked Heart takes up the story six years later when the boy is evacuated to stay with another feisty lady. As his quick witted brain helps her with various schemes for making money, they form a bond much needed by them both.
As well as being good, enjoyable stories, these books give much insight into how hard it was in so many ways for people during the war years.
I find Jean Rhys is a somewhat neglected writer. She is most famous of course for the prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, which has been admired ever since she first published it when she was in her seventies (in 1966). Her style is modernist which may not be to everyone’s taste. She writes about women struggling to survive on the edges of society – a little bit Colette, a little bit Mansfield, but very much herself. She’s particularly good at skewering hypocrisy, and gives a wry sense of humour to her protagonists. I like her because she is such a great stylist but the earlier novels are quite bleak, so not something to cheer you up for Christmas!
The short stories are more accessible – I particularly like some of the early ones such as ‘Illusion’ – about a slightly butch middle-class artist living in Paris who is not quite what she seems, ‘Mannequin’, about a young girl’s first day modelling for a couturier, (something Rhys herself did), and the better known, ‘Let Them Call it Jazz’, about an African Caribbean woman able to make a go (eventually) of living in 1960’s London.
I love her very precise but poetic style and her sympathy for the under-dog.
Talking of style I have recently read Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees – a little bit of Hemingway bombast sometimes but a mostly sympathetic portrait of a soldier trying to recover from war.
Finally – Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry is a very accessible book about modern art which answers some of the questions you might have wandering around a gallery like White Cube or Tate Modern – but were afraid to ask. It’s done with a light touch but is serious underneath because Perry is serious about art and what it contributes for humanity.
Oh, and for Christmas I am reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson and then I will get onto some old favourites, maybe A Diary of a Nobody, some Jane (Austen of course!) and A Christmas Carol. I also have the new Marilynne Robinson, Jack to read.
The stories address women’s lives and problems head-on. The Guardian describes them as ‘Literary hand grenades – just what we need right now’, and I thoroughly agree. As a man reading these stories, I get an insight into the psyche of women, the messes they sometimes have to wade through. And the stories are entertaining!
Antigona is a Kosovo refugee whom the author employed as a nanny:
‘Antigona,’ I said. ‘How would you feel if I wrote your life down in a book?’
‘Good,’ she said at once. ‘Good. And then a feature film, actually. Mini-series.’
Names and details have been changed of course; a chilling, funny, tragic, tender account of Antigona’s life in the Clanchy household.
(I’ll stop saying ‘I thoroughly recommend’ because that applies to all the books I mention here!)
A highly detailed and fascinating commentary and explanation on each of the lieder in Schubert’s ‘Winterreise song cycle. I read the book chapter by chapter, listening to each song before and after, with the benefit of translation. A very enriching way of enjoying the cycle. Ian Bostridge is a tenor and you can hear him sing Winterreise on YouTube. I shall be reading the book again, once more accompanied by the recordings. Actually I happen to prefer bass-baritones like Hans Hotter or Fischer-Dieskau to tenors with this particular work, but Ian Bostridge’s scholarship is precious.
Still on music, I sometimes return to Gerald Moore’s delightful autobiography, ‘Am I too Loud?’ Penguin 1962 (out of print), with tales of Kathleen Ferrier, Elisabeth Schumann, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Yehudi Menuhin and more. (Ella Fitzgerald is mentioned too). There’s a fascinating chapter called ‘Recording in the Brave Days of Old’.
Another autobiography: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay Picador 2010
Jackie Kay is the Scottish Makar and has a Nigerian father and Scottish mother. She was brought up by loving adoptive parents. Did she meet her biological parents? (Now read on!) I went to a performance by her at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival a few years ago, and laughed till I ached. The book is heart-warming and spiced with humour.
the bricks that built the houses by Kate Tempest (now known as Kae Tempest) Bloomsbury 2017.
I went to a poetry performance by Kate Tempest in 2016 at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and the following year this novel came out in paperback. She’s a hard-hitting spoken word performer – you can hear her here:
She’s angry at social injustice, and has made art of that anger in this novel of sex and drugs and poverty. You might think that a seventy-five year old (as I was at the time) would be an unlikely audience, but I raced through the novel enthralled.
From Eve’s Rib’ by Gioconda Belli (poems in Spanish with English translations by Steven F. White) 2nd edition Curbstone Press 1989 Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan poet born in 1948. Her father was Italian, hence the name. Many of these poems are intensely erotic, such as Brief Lessons in Erotism I, which includes the lines
‘To sail the entire length of a body
is to circle the world’
For a week or even longer I found myself unable to read anything, and panicked. Never in my whole life have I been in such a pickle. I tried one title and then another, but all left me dissatisfied and unable to continue. But then I remembered Thomas Hardy whom I used to describe as my favourite novelist, and belatedly took down The Woodlanders. I absolutely loved it, even more so than when I first read it fifty years ago. So Hardy rescued me, though I’m not counting my chickens yet. It was such a bizarre thing to happen after a lifetime always stuck in a book.
I can now recommend A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann ni Ghriofa who is a prizewinning poet writing in Gaelic and English. This is an account, in part autobiographical, of her own day-to-day life, bringing up four children in southern Ireland. She reminds me of the heroine of ‘The Pumpkin Eater, absolutely loving being pregnant, wanting more and more children, delighting in their endless demands for food and attention, needing clean clothes and a clean house, and although she and her husband are both exhausted, she is consumed with the glamour of each new baby and the charm of toddlers, and then young children going to school. She writes lists daily to help her complete all the tasks that have to be done, and this aspect reminds me of Gillian Clarke’s poem, ‘Letter from a far Country‘. Housework as a worthy occupation not a chore to be despised. But there is a second strand to her account. She comes across a poem, a lament, by an Irishwoman whose husband has been brutally murdered in the late 1700s. She determines to find out more about the life of this woman of the old Irish gentry, so this strand follows her researches, both over the internet, and physically visiting the old places when she can. She begins with the sentence: THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT (in capitals) and ends with the same sentence. It is not a resentful polemic about women’s lives wasted over the kitchen sink, but about women’s lives fulfilled in the caring for house and children. I found it refreshing and loved her translation of the lament.
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is a novel I shall have to read again because I had the sense that it was interesting and possibly very good indeed, but I lost the thread and was mired in confusions. Both the books I have chosen here are unusual, and not easy reads, but I found them intriguing and worth the effort.
I recently heard Elif Shafak in discussion on the (really excellent) Sky Arts Book Club. I was immediately impressed by her humanity and erudition, so I raced off to buy this, her latest novel. It didn’t disappoint. It tells the story of Tequila Leila, an Istanbul prostitute, who is murdered in the moments immediately before the novel begins. Leila’s heart has stopped beating, but her thoughts continue on for – you guessed it – the ten minutes and 38 seconds it takes for the brain to die. During that time she, and we her readers, are given an opportunity to reflect on who she is; her origins, what brought her to Istanbul and her life as a sex worker. The second half of the book focuses on her friends, their response to her death and their efforts to redeem her from a grim and lonely grave. The first half of the novel reflects an entire life, the second the events of a single, chaotic day immediately following her death. Some readers may make it hard to make the leap between the first and the second and, I admit, I loved the first half more. However, Shafak’s confident writing, her skill as a storyteller and the pull she exerts on the heart, make this a remarkable novel despite the shift in narrative style and pace. The book evokes Istanbul in all its lurid, colourful and unjust reality. It is very much a book about a certain time and place. More than that, however, it is a book about a single brave and fierce woman who stands in for every woman that – through circumstance rather than choice – is forced to rely upon her body as her only source of economic currency. In that respect this is both a sobering and tragic read.
I had the good fortune to have Sarah Moss as my tutor during my recently completed MA in creative writing at Warwick University. So, as you can imagine, I was keen to dive into her latest novel. Though completed before the pandemic hit Summerwater makes perfect lockdown reading evoking, as it does, a sense of entrapment, frustration, dissatisfaction and stasis.
The novel is set in a rain-drenched holiday park on the shores of a remote Scottish loch. It’s been raining for days and shows no sign of stopping. The characters are the individuals and families inhabiting each holiday cabin, trapped by the weather and cut off from the soothing distractions of their everyday lives. There’s no phone, no internet, nothing to do and nowhere much to go. The action takes place on a single day – dawn to dusk – and from the moment the novel opens we know that something terrible is going to happen. There’s just no way of knowing what. If, having read this review to this point, you’re thinking Summerwater must be a thriller – a gut-wrenching murder mystery – let me stop you right there. It’s nothing so straightforward. This slim volume is an excoriating examination of the way we live now – right now – in twenty-first century Britain, with Brexit just around the corner, racism (both overt and otherwise) on the rise, and all the messy complexities of family life writ large. It’s a painful novel to read at times. It confronts us with uncomfortable truths and poses awkward questions. Make no mistake, though Moss’s prose is subtle, it’s sharp enough to cut you to the bone. Above all though, this is a beautiful book – both as a whole and at sentence-level. The precision of her descriptions – of both of the physical landscape and the landscape of her characters’ minds and motivations – will leave you breathless. It’s opening paragraph is one of the best I’ve ever read.
Phew – I want to start book shopping!
Thank you to everyone for sending in your reading notes – what a wide and varied selection. Do let me know, in the comments bit below, if you follow up any of the recommendations, or have anything else to say about the blog.
So – I would like to wish you a very happy and safe Christmas, and I do hope you manage to get some quality – if distanced – times with your loved ones. If not – I hope you have lots of good reading to enjoy. Let’s hope that we can move into 2021 with some confidence, and that we take with us into the new year, all we may have learnt from this one.
And here’s a little gift from me – one of my favourite Christmas songs – I hope you like it.
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