Category Archives: Books

Books I have been reading recently

Books for the journey

I daresay most people now take e-books on journeys, but I have loaned my Kobe reader and also the journey was only to Scotland, so I took four books with me.

One by an American author that I have only just discovered, and cannot imagine why I haven’t read any of her previous novels, of which there are nine, plus eight non-fiction titles and two books for children. Oh joy, because Anna Quindlen is a find!

QuindlanAlternate Side is a particular sort of domestic novel, in line with novels by Barbara Pym, but even funnier and taut with bitchiness, gossip and neighbourhood squabbles and American. Which makes it sound horrible, but it isn’t.

Nora and Charlie Nolan live in a dead-end street in New York City. The neighbourhood is a close knit community of middle-income families, with one block only housing people of low or no incomes. Most of the people in this street have servants, housekeepers or domestics and most of these are coloured.

Although an urban setting, this block has a village atmosphere: a summer barbeque party hosted by different families each year and a Christmas party at the Fenstermacher’s house, coffee mornings for gossip and dog walking chatters.

And then there was Ricky, the handyman they all used for the small stuff: dripping taps, washing machines that refuse to drain, clothes dryers that were not functioning properly – that sort of thing, and then there was The Parking Lot.

At the opening stage of the novel, Charlie has finally achieved a parking space in the one lot on the street that was not built upon. Everyone who did not have a parking space on this lot were reduced to on-street parking and it concomitant problems. Problems that applied to Ricky every time he turned up in his van.

Life drifts on, seemingly happily, for all the people on the block until one day a sudden act of violence throws everything into confusion, and the cracks begin to appear on both sides of the street, with harrowing results.

There is a marvellous sense of humour bubbling along in this book. Nora has an acute eye and Anna Quindlen nails perfectly the way women gossip and speculate about each other, while still remaining friends. And it is the women who carry this story along, although they are most of them married.

I loved this book and will go back and find some of the others. I finished this on the train and then read the next book before getting to my final destination.

Ghost WallGhost Wall is the latest novel from Sarah Moss (Night Waking, The Tidal Zone and others – posted April 11, 2018and this novel is set in Northumberland, a wild and beautiful county, still largely unpopulated in its boggy moorland heights. Looking out of the window just as I started reading, I realised I was actually passing through the eastern end of the county.

This book is a chilling reminder that families are all unhappy in their own way.

Sulevia, more commonly called Sylvie (and wouldn’t you be?) is a teenage girl on holiday with her parents, her father has a passion for historical reconstruction and they have joined with a group of university students in ‘experiental archaeology’ led by Professor Slade. I have no idea whether such a discipline actually exists, but the aim is to live for a short time as if you were part of (in this case) an Iron Age settlement.

So poor Sylvie and her mother are dressed in coarse tunics, Sylvie and the other students are sent foraging on the moor or beach for berries and food. Her mother is left behind to tend to the cooking over an open fire, with an iron pot to cook an assortment of grains and roots, with the occasional rabbit. The students are two young men, Dan and Pete plus one young woman, Molly who refuses to take the whole thing seriously.

Not taking it seriously is a luxury Sylvie is unable to entertain, her father is adamant that she sleeps in the roundhouse, a construction of withies and deerskins on a mattress of straw and sacking without any accommodation for modernity (except for toothbrushes and tampons) or for the fact that there is a convenient shop a short distance away.

Hanging over the whole experiment is the haunting story of a human sacrifice, a bog girl found preserved in the peat.

This is a very short book, 160 pages only, but it rises to an unbearable and disturbing conclusion; there are plenty of hints in the build up to give you a sense of direction, but it is still shockingly chilling once the momentum builds up.

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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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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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