a whole pile of books

I have been reading a lot since the bad weather started and three books were literally un-put-downable, such that I was still reading at 3AM. Which is fine, but I realise rather indulgent.

The Collector

So for the serious one first. The Collector is a translated recollection (in a very real sense) of the life and collections of a Russian family called Shchukin, but particularly Sergei Shchukin, by Natalya Semenova and André Delocque, translated by Antony Roberts.

The Shchukin family were immensely wealthy Russians, they had a near monopoly on fabric manufacture, and interior fabric items such as curtains, bed linen and bed covers and other designer accoutrements of the bourgeoisie.

There were several brothers who collected: Petr whose interest was mainly in Russian artefacts of all sorts, a John Soane of Russia you could say; Ivan, who collected paintings and Sergei who collected specifically French Impressionists.

André Delocque is Sergei’s grandson and helped with the material and research. Sergei was a man of extraordinary vision, buying paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Whistler, Puvis de Chavannes, Cottet, and a great many more. Sergei went regularly to Paris and met most of these painters, particularly Matisse and Picasso, whose pictures he bought long before either of them were famous.

Even before the Revolution in Russia, this outstanding collection was willed to the people of Russia together with the impressive Trubetskoy Palace, Moscow, for which many of the paintings by Matisse were commissioned and in which they were housed.

This I followed with a wonderful new historical novel by Victoria Glendinning about a group of nuns in Shaftesbury Abbey in 1535, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Abbess was confident that such an Abbey would not be targeted, she was Dame Elizabeth Zouche and had influence in high places. How wrong can one be?

The main character, Agnes Peppin, has been sent to the Abbey by her parents because she fell pregnant. Obviously, unmarried and now spoiled, her only recourse was to take holy vows. Actually, this never was fulfilled as the Abbey was destroyed, stone by stone before her novitiate was completed.

So she was out in the world again. But her life, and her observations, since this is a first person narrative, give us a very complete insight into the gentle, and not so gentle life of a community, followed by its exceedingly painful exodus. More painful for the elderly nuns and for the Abbess herself.

Glandinning

It is both a gripping look at the times and an affecting story of the strong and the weak, and the powerless. Agnes lives to see Thomas Cromwell executed, Henry VIII dead and her own lover, Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet) imprisoned and executed.

This reminded me very strongly of HMF Prescott’s A Man on a Donkey, but The Butcher’s Daughter is much more concentrated than this older novel, though the earlier book remains one of my favorite historical novels of all time.

The other three by Simon Mawer, AN Wilson and Louis de Bernières were all of a completely different sort. And these were the ones that I read through at one sitting each.

So Much Life Left Over has characters that appeared in a previous novel, The Dust That Falls from Dreams; though cleverly it is a stand-alone novel and not having read the previous book would not detract in any way from this emotionally taxing story. In fact, my tears streamed through the first three chapters and then the last three, but that says more about me than maybe anything about the book.

Rosie and Daniel have moved to Ceylon with their daughter Esther to start a new life after the horrors of World War I, in which Rosie had been a VAD and Daniel a fighter pilot. Daniel loves everything about the life they lead there, but Rosie finds herself increasingly bored and dissatisfied, a personal loss which has affected them both drives a wedge between them, and eventually Rosie insists that they return to England.

This is a love story as much as anything, but also has humour and beauty; the characters of Rosie’s family in particular are uniquely individual and unusual; her mad mother and strangely peripatetic, golf-loving father; her sisters and their wonderful partners and then Daniel and his friends. It is all captivating and brutally sad, as the end comes as World War II starts in all its forbidding darkness.

Prague Spring has one of those giveaway titles that tells you where you are and when. Two rather feckless university students decide to hitch-hike around Europe together in the long vac of 1968; but lacking a definite destination and due to a lot of arguing and finally, decisions made at the toss of a coin, they end up in Dubček’s Prague.

Having got through the Czechoslovakian border, they are trudging along the road hoping for a lift, when the diplomatic car of the First Secretary to the British Embassy draws up. Simon Wareham, with his girlfriend Lenka, have returned from a visit to Munich and thus accommodated they all arrive in Prague.

Lenka is living, unofficially, with Simon in his embassy flat so Ellie and James go to live in her apartment. And so there they all are, with the nemesis of the Czechoslovakian dream hovering on the borders…

Aftershocks was a very strange novel for me to read.  In a preface, AN Wilson writes very firmly that this is not a book about the earthquakes in New Zealand. Now, I have been to Christchurch both before and after the earthquakes, and so although this novel is set in an imaginary island in the Pacific, I could not but read it as if, in spite of what Mr Wilson said, it was about New Zealand.

His discretion lies in the knowledge that he was only a visitor to Christchurch, that therefore he could not possibly know what is was  like to live through such a traumatic experience – but at the same time, he fills the novel to the brim with what amounts to an hour by hour description of those events.

All that said, the novel is seen with a perceptive and kindly eye upon a number of characters who for one reason or another will turn out to be closely related. It has a first person narrative of a slightly different complexion, since much of the time this “voice” is more that of the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, rather than the straightforward narrator.

To the extent that I accept his disavowal with a pinch of salt, this novel touched me deeply and was read in a single day. It is a beautiful story, not least because it captures something of the distance that there is, emotionally, between families that are left behind in England when, say, a beloved daughter takes up a job, in this case Dean of Aberdeen Cathedral in the far-off Pacific Island.

 

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A Book for Giving

It is not Christmas yet, but you might get copies of Sea Prayer ready for anyone with a heart. It is a short book, the best prayers are. It is not too expensive at about £13. It is exquisitely beautiful and painfully relevant.A Sea Prayer

Khaled Hosseini shot to fame with his first novel The Kite Runner, about a young boy who let his friend down in a crisis, and never really recovered. Hosseini’s later books also dealt with loss, family crisis, pragmatic choices and all of them dealt with emotional pain.

Inspired by the images of Alan Kurdi, a three-year old, whose little body was found on an Italian beach, this book sends up a prayer to the indifferent sea, for Marwan. His father stands on the edge of a moonlit sea, praying for a safe passage to a better life.

The sadness, as the father recalls his home, is palpable. He wishes that his little son was older, would remember the beautiful things about his homeland, rather than the mortal difference between dark blood and bright red blood; that he would remember the olive and fig trees and his grandmother’s cooking rather than the dark cellars with too little to eat or drink; that he could remember the sound of bleating goats rather than the scream of dropping bombs; but above all the father’s prayer is:

Pray God steers the vessel true,

when the shores slip out of eyeshot

and we are a flyspeck

in the heaving waters, pitching and tilting.

easily swallowed.

Because you,

you are precious cargo, Marwan,

the most precious there ever was.

I pray the sea knows this.

Inshallah.

You can only just see it on the far left of this part of the double-spread illustration, but there is a tiny overloaded speck of a boat, on the surface of this wild, swaying, indifferent sea.

sea prayer illus

The exquisite watercolour illustrations by Dan Williams, move from glorious, painterly, golden hues of vibrant wild flowers, olive trees and busy markets through a dread-filled palette of greys, browns and blacks into this sweeping, moonlit, green sea.

Nothing could be more impactful.

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Souvenir de temps perdu

Two very different novels, both revisiting France in World War II.

Manda ScottA Treachery of Spies is a thriller, as well as a police procedural that starts in March 2018 with a ritualized killing. Manda Scott has revived her detective Captain Picaut, last seen in an extreme trauma unit having suffered burns to the right hand side of her body. [Into the Fire]

Picaut has reported back fit for duty just as a new crime scene emerges in an Orléans car park. In a stolen, or borrowed, Citroën BX there is a hideously mutilated, but still obviously beautiful, elderly woman of about ninety five; killed by three shots, one to the head and two to the chest, and with her tongue cut out.

She has identification papers, elegant (but not French) clothes and apart from the grotesque manner of her death, there seems to be no reason why she is where she is, or indeed who attacked her.

The thriller switches between present day Orléans and the search for answers to this and other killings and 1940-44 in Occupied France and the activities of the Résistance and SOE As one might expect from this talented writer the plots, double crossings, red herrings and altered identities are numerous. The team on the ground in 2018 have to follow leads that reach right back to a period in France even before some of them were born.

The chapter headings make it quite clear which period we are in, but the many different identities that were taken up by members of the Résistance and SOE makes it important to keep a firm grasp of who everyone is, at which point in time – for all is not what it seems.

Captain Picaut is struggling to see the direction that this investigation is taking, and one of the hazards lies in the very people who seemed to be helping.

The second novel by Sebastian Faulks is in familiar territory for him, though a very different and blistering novel, quite unlike Birdsong and Charlotte Grey.

FaulksTwo characters descend on modern day Paris. Tariq from Morocco, in pursuit of his mother’s family, and Hannah, an American, who is doing some post doctoral research into the lives of women in Paris during the Occupation.

We meet Tariq first, just at the point at which he makes the decision to go to Paris, he has no money and therefore goes under the radar; his first encounter once in France is with Sandrine and together they hitch-hike to Paris, and find somewhere fairly insalubrious to doss down.

Next we meet Hannah, just arrived and with an address to find, a small flat which she is renting for a few months. She later finds Sandrine, weakened and feverish, who she takes in temporarily out of sheer kindness.

Once Sandrine is better, she goes back to where she thinks Tariq is, finds him and brings him back to Hannah’s flat. Thus far, so simple.

But Paris Echo is about re-membering (literally putting flesh upon ghosts). Hannah uses the audio recordings of women who lived in Paris during the Occupation, two in particular –  Mathilde Masson and Juliette Lemaire. Juliette died in 2001, so the record says but it appears that Mathilde might still be alive, though now about eighty five. Hannah listens to their accounts of what life was like for them and goes for a revealing interview with the old lady.

Meanwhile, Tariq keeps looking at women, and for people who might be able to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of his mother’s family. He does discover something, from a man who claims he is Victor Hugo, though it is not quite what he was expecting.

With two first-person narrators, it can sometimes takes a few words to work out who is speaking, but it quickly becomes apparent, for both Tariq and Hannah have very different pursuits and voices.

There are many and wonderful characters in this novel: friends (or ghosts) that Tariq makes and follows; lines of enquiry that Hannah follows and her friends in Paris and beyond. This is also a poignant love story, a journey of self-knowledge and an exploration of a period in France which was temporarily buried in shame and is slowly rising again to the surface.

There is one character, though, who is not fiction. One of the best and bravest SOE women of the betrayed Prosper circuit, Andrée Borrel. Caught, tortured and executed in the only concentration camp in France, the terrible and notorious Natzweiler-Struthof. Hannah takes the train from Gare de l’Est to Strasbourg, very probably the very train that took Andrée and her three companions, to the camp. There she has a very out-of-body experience and from which she returns, changed and aware of something she has missed.

It is also, in passing, a salute to the Paris Metro, very decidedly one of the more interesting characters in this sublime novel.

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And now for something radically different – making paper gift bags

Yes, I know! This is not about books or films, though these bags make a lovely gift bag for when you next give away a book. I was asked to show someone how to make these bags, I started with an email but that simply does not work.

So inspired by Tom (of Kate Davies Designs https://katedaviesdesigns.com) I am giving you the opportunity to make these lovely bags yourselves. Though in no way do I suggest that my photographs are in any way comparable to Tom’s.

MaterialsYou need newspaper, 3 sheets, stiff card, 3 pieces cut to size. Scissors, a paperknife, a hole punch and spraymount or pva glue, double-sided selotape and plain selotape (though other tapes are available) in a narrow width. French knitting strings or ribbons for handles.

  1. Choose a centre fold (or similar 2.5 times the width size of the bag you want to make, and the right height plus 8cms extra) from a newspaper journal, it does not have to have pictures but all mine do. Take two more sheets of newspaper, spraymount or glue them on 1 side and carefully lay them on the reverse side of your cover page.
  2. To join lift and fold back one inner sheet about 3cms and lay down one strand of double sided selotape at the outer edge of the other two sheets, but on the inside not the cover side. Carefully stick together.
    You now have the basic bag.
  3. Taking the centre of your cover page as one side, lay flat and press a fold into the newly sealed side.
    Then carefully indent both sides equally.5. the indents looking down the bag
  4. Cut away a 5cms x C cms (where C is the width of your indent x 2) from the TOP edge and discard, repeat on the other side.5. cutting away the side pieces
  5. Then taking one piece of thin card, fold the long edge of the top of the bag and tuck the card underneath right up against the fold, secure with ordinary adhesive tape. And repeat on the second side.Then centering carefully, hole punch both – making 2 holes in each top edge.
  6.  To make the bottom of the bag, using your side indents as a guide to size, fold the bottom edge up (all together) to the same dimension, then fold again the other way to make sure you have a clear line all the way round the base.
  7. Then fold as if it were a parcel, bend the side in to create a diagonal (envelope style) on both sides. Place 2 lines of double sided selotape along the long edge of one side, pull off the cover strip and then do one line along each diagonal edge.
  8. You now carefully upend your bag, so that the selotaped fold is on the outside of the un-taped envelope fold. (This takes practice but providing you have a good guide line as created in no 7, you should get a squared off base).9. tipping up the bag to secure the base
  9. Take a third piece of card measured against the area of the base of your bag but slightly smaller all round and double side selotape all round the edges. Extremely carefully slide this down your bag, inside with the bag lying down and the selotape face up, when you reach the bottom of the bag and the card is tight against the base, flip it upright and turn the bag upright and press down. (This is also a matter of dexterity and practice).
  10. Take you French knitting or ribbon and thread it through the holes you made earlier.20180916_154432
  11. et voilà!finished bag, ta dah!

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Man Booker 2018/My shortlist

In advance of the real judges, I give you my personal shortlist. I am naturally confident of some of my choices, wishful about others.

2018 BLL Shortlist

In spite of what I may have said elsewhere, I have dropped Sally Rooney. I have re-read these titles and have decided she is not as good as or better than my selection. I fear though, after all the hype and presentation that she has received already that her place on the genuine shortlist is a shoe-in. This will be a dreadful mistake.

My titles are not placed in any particular order. They are all worthy to win, there is no outright candidate for me. Warlight, for example, might be in with a good chance were it not for the fact that Michael Ondaatje just won the Booker 50 Years Best Booker prize.

Donal Ryan has replaced Sally Rooney in my selection, it is an excellently constructed novel with an extraordinary twist in the very end. Interesting characters – introduced slowly and with some grace, and then wham!

The Guy Gunaratne is wide of my comfort zone and I certainly would not have picked it off the shelf in ordinary times. But what an eye-opener. Grimy, gritty and nail-bitingly fierce, scraped off the street – but how brilliantly managed, everything about it is unusual, and appallingly real.

Picador Poetry have slid in a fast one with The Long Take. It is not even on the shelf with the other novels but in another department all together. As long poems go, though, this is as much a novel as any. Robin Robertson is definitely narrating rather than meditating, and there happens also to be a considerable amount of actual prose, and it is a great story. Which is why it appears, in spite of my misgivings, in my list.

There has been much mining of the Greek myths and legends recently, so why not choose Oedipus for your target. This is a cleverly disguised re-telling by Daisy Johnson, with an androgynous character who fills the place of the abandoned Prince of Thebes, but everything else is there and then much else, because this is also a love story about water, river or canal: the reedy banks and the smell and Everything Under. So evocative and so differently weathered from its original setting: Greece. Almost, a poem. If chopped up to look like verse!!

And finally Washington Black, I wish this was just a little bit better as a book. But here it is on my shortlist. Esi Edugyan is a great storyteller and although I had qualms about the slave-to-free narrative, which I think did not quite get to the heart of the matter, I would certainly think that this is deserving of a second reading, and rewarding once re-read. Truth to tell, I thought her previous long listed title was better. But good luck with this one.

 

 

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Another for the reading list

Glos CresThis time an eloquent coming-of-age memoir by William Miller, son of the more famous Jonathan; neighbour to Alan Bennett and the Lady in the Van, Nicholas and Claire Tomalin and then Michael Frayn, George and Diana Melly, Colin and Anna Haycraft, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Max Stafford Clark and other, presumably less famous, neighbours and in the next street Sir AJ Ayer and Dee,  Shirley Conran and then all their many and various children.

The time was the 1960s and the place was Gloucester Crescent and the other street was Regent’s Park Terrace, the book is Gloucester Crescent, Me, My Dad and Other Grown-ups.

Colin Haycraft was the founder of Duckworth’s the publisher, so as well as publishing a lot of books by the writers listed above, he also published Oliver Sacks, Beryl Bainbridge, Robert Lowell, the American Poet and William’s godfather, and a host of other luminaries all of whom drifted in and out of each other’s houses as guests – long stay, short stay, coffee, dinner or lunch – and talked and talked.

The abiding impression of this fascinating and gossipy book, written now the author is in his mid-fifties, but from his perspective as a child, is of someone who longs to get a word in edgeways.

It all sounds rather chaotic and free, happy and unclouded. But actually, small children do need attention and preferably from their own parents, William seems to have got most of his parenting from some of his adult female neighbours. And that might equally go for some of the other children in this remarkable list of extraordinary people.

The section on William’s schooling is simply chastening.  Shades of Philip Larkin spring to mind as the political philosophy of the left leaning, public school educated adults choose the State system for their own off-spring. Even the journey to and from Pimlico School is fraught with stress and incipient danger, it breaks one’s heart.

This is the Bloomsbury Group of the nineteen sixties, the Gloucester Crescent set, I suppose you could call them, though I have never heard them described like this. It was a time of febrile activity for the grown-ups, William describes the tattoo-sound of typewriters pinging across the gardens of the surrounding houses, the pauses to drag deeply on a cigarette, then the tap, tap, tap. Some fluently hammering out words, Alan Bennett for example, played his typewriter as if it were a piano, using all his fingers, Jonathan Miller was a two-fingered typist, until the lovely Stella Coltman-Rogers came to type his letters, then the sound changed to a flowing, professional typing speed.

The games and the gardens, the dogs and the other children. All wonderfully present. The epilogue is a recap of where we are now, the departed (and lamented) or the simply moved away; Alan Bennett is one such, and he moved with Rupert into the house opposite my own in another North London crescent.

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Not the Man Booker 2018

The laptop catastrophe has meant lots of reading and no blogging. Here are four excellent novels of merit that I have read recently, anyone of which could have been on the Man Booker list:

Michael Arditti – Of Men and Angels

Patrick Gale – Take Nothing With You

Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls

ArdittiOf Men and Angels is a strange books, it is really the story of how the Angel Gabriel, Michael and other angels, but especially Gabriel, have been portrayed in human storytelling. Going back particularly to the part played by the angels in the telling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the saving of Lot and his family.

Each section, and there are five, brings us nearer and nearer the present day. The opening section, By the Rivers of Babylon, deals with the familiar story and its origins in various scriptures, The Bible, The Koran and other Babylonian texts; the next section tells the story of the traditional Guild that staged the Lot story in the York mystery plays of the Middle Ages; moving on from the fifteenth century we arrive in Florence at the time of Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities and finally more or less to the present day to Los Angeles, the City of Angels.

As a quick run through literature, painting and poetry this is quite a feat. There is drama, passion, humour and imagination. Each section is prefaced with a short introduction in the “voice” of Gabriel, but then the narrative takes off into a realm of its own. His/her wonderment at the way men imagine angels, at what point they acquired wings, sex and other attributes. It is a researched and well trodden topic, but here is gets the full panoply of treatments from the forbidding flaming sword of Michael, to the number that can dance on the head of a pin and finally to the creation and destruction of the modern city of the plains, Los Angeles.

GaleAn entirely different book from a prolific and favourite author, Take Nothing With You is a love story with a terrible difference. The narrator has only recently recovered from the loss of his long term partner and has found, online, a new friend; Eustace has just a day to reflect on his life and his new happiness before embarking on a radical, aggressive treatment for thyroid cancer.

The novel covers his strange childhood, his love of music and his cello teacher, Carla Gold, his adolescence and growing awareness of his homosexuality and the dramatic turn of events that leads to his parents’ separation.

This is set still in the age of Aids and HIV as a deadly disease, Eustace is surviving and the cancer is just the beginning of what might be the downward spiral. Meeting someone online throws up difficult decisions, about revealing his cancer and the treatment.

Patrick Gale’s writing is informed, insightful and full of gentle humour. There is a tremendous sub-plot which the intuitive reader will have understood immediately, but which the young man, the narrator, remains entirely unaware of. It is never spelled out, so it becomes distinctly possible that Eustace remains ignorant even to the end.

This is a stunning coming-of-age novel, complex, transitory, confusing. Patrick Gale never disappoints and this one has all the hallmarks of a masterly pen.

Melissa HarrisonAll Among the Barley is set in the years immediately before the Second World War, even the shadows have not started to fall. In a rural community a young girl, Edie Mather, watches as her life slowly disintegrates; with the coming of a journalist, Constance FitzAllen from London, the young girl begins to see her life from a different perspective.

She is not aware how very destructive are the motives behind Constance’s questions, and Constance inveigles herself well and truly into the farming community, only in the end to upturn the tables.

The narrative is bookended with the voice of an elderly woman returning to her community after a near lifetime in an institution – care in the community is the name of the movement, and that did not go well for anyone.

Melissa Harrison has a wonderful eye for detail and ear for cadences. Like Jon MacGregor we are made aware of the seasons. For lives in a farming community at that time, before mechanisation and industrial farming methods, the seasons and the weather were key.

Belief in influences that were unseen but deeply felt, tradition, superstition and magic were commonplace. Health and ill-health were transparently part of daily life, hospitals and doctors came at a cost, so why not go to the healers, who were mostly women.

England in all its past magnificence and glory is on these pages, and read now it is possible to take fully on board what was swept away by the coming conflict. The absolute unawareness of impending disaster hangs over this novel from start to finish.

The ending is one familiar to many farming families in its bleak tragedy.

Barker GirlsFinally, back to a re-telling of The Iliad. This must be the most richly mined resource in literature, after perhaps The Holy Bible. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Margaret Atwood, Madeleine Miller and many, many more have mined this great epic and Pat Barker is no exception.

Abandoning the First World War, she has turned her gaze on to the Greeks and Trojans. In The Silence of the Girls, she reminds us that there were two women at the heart of the Trojan War.  Helen obviously, since her abduction (or elopement) led to it all and Briseis, a Trojan princess who is abducted after the sack of Lyrnessus and awarded to Achilles, filtched from him by Agamemnon when he was forced to give up his own prize and all that followed from that fateful decision…

The narrative is Briseis’ summation. Long after the war is over and Achilles is dead, she looks back at the lives of the captive women in the seemingly endless war at the base of the walls of Troy. Slaves and concubines to their captors, they still had to make a life. It might not have been the one they had chosen, but to survive they had to put up and shut up. And that it the point really. The Iliad is all about the men; this novel is also all about the men, and Achilles mostly but the women are there, ever present and not speaking much.

There is an exquisite moment when Briseis’ silence speaks volumes…

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