I blame the people who run our public library service. They’ve made it too darn easy to reserve books on line. Don’t they know there are members like me who just can’t stop themselves acquiring books? It’s really not my fault that I am faced with a glut of books and only a few weeks in which to read them because we go on holiday in three weeks and I don’t want to lug hard cover books around with me in Germany. It surely couldn’t have been me that went into the reservation system the day the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced on Wednesday and clicked on three titles that were already available. Just as it wasn’t me a few weeks ago who did something similar on the night the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize was announced.
Sometime you can wait months for a reserved book to become available (I often forget I’ve even requested some of the books) but yesterday I dropped into the local branch to say farewell to one of the librarians. When she handed me three books that had just arrived, she burst into giggles at the horrified look on my face. I left, trying to work out how I was going to get through them and concluding one of them would probably have to be returned unopened. Just as I was getting into the car she came running up to me; she’d found another one that I’d reserved.
So now I have on my bedside table three Booker prize candidates:
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
And a fourth is a novel that I requested about two months ago The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw.
All of these are calling out to me but I had to make a start somewhere. Since O’Hagan was on the top that became the one I started yesterday. It’s such a well written novel about two characters; one an elderly lady who is trying to remember her life when she was a photographer of note and her grandson who is trying to forget his time as a soldier in Afghanistan. O’Hagan is as insightful when he is portraying life in a care home and the onset of dementia as when he is portraying life on the front line in Helmand province and the mental disintegration of a career solider. It’s one of those novels that you just have to keep reading, reading, reading. If you want go get a taste of this novel there is an extract in The Daily Telegraph from one of the Afghanistan sections.
I’m about a third of the way into Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac which is part of his novel sequence La Comédie humaine. It’s a book that’s been on my TBR shelf for about four years so the TBR Challenge run by Adam at RoofBeamReader was the perfect catalyst to get it down off the shelf. Now I’ve started I don’t really understand why I’ve held back for so long. Set in Paris in 1819, Old Goriot follows the intertwined lives of three characters who live in a down at heel boarding house in an undesirable part of the city. Goriot is an elderly retired trader in vermicelli who is so devoted to his daughters he descends into penury just so they don’t go without. Other inhabitants include a mysterious agitator called Vautrin; and Eugène de Rastignac, a naive law student intent on getting established in the higher reaches of society. I love the way Balzac describes the depressing, gloomy nature of the boarding house, its miserable environs which have ” a suggestion of a jail” and its wretched food.
On my journey to work I’ve been engrossed by a true-life story of a friendship conducted via email between a British mother and an Iraqi teacher. Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit traces the stages of a friendship which began in 2005 when Bee (a journalist on the BBC World Service) interviewed May (a lecturer in English literature at Baghdad university) for a feature piece. Their lives as so different; one woman is trapped in the bloodbath of Baghdad while the other bakes cakes for the school’s parents’ association; but their friendship grows. Together they hatch a plan to get May and her husband Ali away from the dangers of Iraq. As in all good human drama stories, it’s a plan that doesn’t go smoothly. This is a book that exists only because of that plan (its publication was designed to fund a PhD position in London for May). As a written text I’m sure it would be a fascinating read but it works so much better in audio format where the letters are read by an actress Sian Thomas. She captures so well each woman’s speech patterns and accidents so you feel they are really talking to each other across the miles.
I admit defeat. I am clearly not skilled in the art of book prize predictions. When the Man Booker prize judges announced their 2015 longlist today I found that none of the titles that came up in my crystal ball yesterday made the cut. Not one. I had floated briefly with nominating one of the titles that did get chosen: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Not that I’ve read it yet (I’m planning to take it with me on holiday in a few weeks) but it has been getting a lot of exposure recently and sounded like the kind of novel the judges would choose.
My reactions to the list are rather mixed.
On the plus side I was relieved that Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson were not listed but disappointed that Colm Tóibín didnt get get selected.
On the plus side I’m delighted that the list contains so many authors that are new to me. But the diversity seems to have dissipated. Last year there were no long listed titles from the Commonwealth countries but five from USA. This year we have five USA authors again but only one each from Jamaica, New Zealand and India.
- Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg, a literary agent from USA. This is his debut novel
- The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright. The Dublin-born author is a previous Booker Prize winner with The Gathering in 2007
- A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica
- The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami, born in Morocco and now living in USA. This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
- Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy, a Londoner
- The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma, Nigerian born now living in North America. This is his first novel
- The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, the Scottish born author is a previous Booker shortlisted author with Our Fathers, in 1999
- Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2005 for Gilead
- Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy, born in Calcutta, India
- The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota, born in Derbyshire, UK.
- The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill, a New Zealander. This is her debut novel
- A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler, American born, previously nominated for a Pulitzer prize
- A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara, the second novel by this American author
Im not sure I’ll get to read many of these before the shortlist is announced on October 13. My interest is leading towards The Year of the Runaways, The Illuminations and The Fishermen.
For other views on the list take a look at:
C.S.Lewis was apparently seldom happier than when he was making notes as he read, actively engaging with the text by underlining passages, sketching genealogical trees, adding headlines to each page. In a letter he wrote in 1932 he explained his thinking:
Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.
I seldom follow his lead when I’m reading purely for pleasure. If I come across a scene I think is remarkable or a passage with an interesting perspective or idea I’m far more likely to tear off a Post-It note than to get out a pen.
It’s an approach that is flawed in many ways. Those little squares of day-glo coloured paper do have the annoying habit of coming adrift from the page to which they were once attached. Not very helpful therefore as aide mémoires or ways of quickly finding significant pages. The bigger flaw however is that generally (the photo above is a rare exception) I omit to add any note to the sticker which captures my thoughts about the passage I’ve marked so weeks after I finish the book and look back at the Post- It notes, I often can’t remember what had caught my attention.
My other habit, when Post-It notes are not available, has a similar flaw. I know some people hate the idea of turning down a corner just as they hate to see cracks along the spine. But this doesn’t worry me at all. I wouldn’t of course want to read books which have coffee stains or food marks on the pages but books with turned down corners and creased covers signal to me that this was a book that I read and enjoyed, maybe the marks show that I carried it with me on a holiday or to read in the park. In short, it’s a book with which I had a relationship.
I know the theory that reading should be an active exercise; that you should annotate it at the same time as reading. Making notes as you go along makes you think more about the ideas being presented which helps to improve retention of what you’ve read. I do it if I’m reading a novel as part of an educational course. Hence why my copy of Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady contains plenty of scribbles (even then I’m clearly not as committed as Lewis since my notes are faint pencil marks not ink). But I’ve never got into the habit of doing this with books I’m reading for pleasure. Somehow it feels as if it would spoil the experience itself to break off, reach for a pen and begin scribbling. Some bloggers do I think and others keep a notebook by their side as they read. Maybe it would help me to remember some books in more detail (but then I have the blogsite for that) but I’m not convinced.
What camp do you all fall into – are you corner turn-downers or note takers?
With The Fortunes of the Rougons, Émile Zola embarked on an ambitious project to write a comprehensive fictional history of the social, sexual and moral landscape of his era. By examining in minute detail the “natural and social history” of two branches of the same family, he intended to demonstrate his theory that character was inescapably determined by the twin forces of heredity and the environment.
In his preface to The Fortunes of the Rougons, Zola commented that the book could just as appropriately have been entitled Origins. It’s a reflection of the fact that as the first of his 20-book Rougon-Macquart cycle, much of this novel is concerned with introducing the members of the respective family branches. The Rougons are the legitimate side, loyal supporters of the Royalist cause who rise to occupy commanding positions in government and finance. On the opposite side of the political fence are the illegitimate disreputable Republican Macquarts. Both branches are descended from the strange and “quite mad”Adelaide Fouques who twice shocked the fictitious Provençal town of Plassans: first when chose as her husband a peasant by the name of Rougon and then, on his death, when she shacked up with an unsavoury poacher called Macquart
The fortunes and misfortunes of these families are set against the background of Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état in 1851 which resulted in the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As the novel begins, Republican opposition to the coup is gathering pace in Provencal. Idealism sweeps through the Var region. The region’s woodcutters and peasants begin to march towards Plassans, intent on seizing control of the town. In their midst are Silvère and Miette, two young lovers who get caught up in the patriotic fervour and join the march, a decision which ends in tragedy.
The novel isn’t really about these ill-fated lovers although it’s their moonlight assignation in a deserted cemetery with which the book opens. What Zola is really focused on is depicting how the imminent crisis exacerbates the tendencies in the Rougon and Macquart family to greed, treachery and murder.
The insurgents’ march provides Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, with the perfect opportunity to achieve their ambition of power and influence. They calculate the fortune that will be showered upon them by a grateful Emperor if they can rally the loyalists and hold the town for his cause. They set about ingratiating themselves into the bourgeoisie of Plassans, using their “yellow drawing room” as a meeting place for the conservatives who support Louis-Napoleon. But their manoeuvring is threatened by the activities of Antoine Macquart, the illegitimate son of Adelaide, who sees the Republic as a way “to fill his pockets from his neighbour’s cashbox and even strangle his neighbour if he objected in any way…”
Zola’s portrayal of the clash between these characters, none of whom can be considered remotely sympathetic, is superb. Zola exposes them as manipulative, avaricious individuals whose desire for fortune becomes tainted with blood. In one key passage as Pierre and Félicité lie in bed and she explains her plans for the conquest of Plassans bring together themes of blood, greed and money.
They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinkingly at the pale, slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.
As that passage shows, there is nothing very subtle about this novel. Each member of the Rougon family has blood on their hands by the end of the novel, laying the foundations for the family’s future as “a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.”
It is a thrilling story. Fast-paced with some glorious set pieces in which Zola satirises and parodies, the extreme provincialism of Plassans, and the lack of principle in its inhabitants. Although the political dimension is central to the plot, it doesn’t require an exhaustive knowledge of the period (my Oxford World Classic edition contained a very useful summary plus family tree) to understand the issues which divide the Rougon-Macquart family and the citizens of Plassans. Zola’s writing, if not as powerful in The Fortune of the Rougons as in the later novels (particularly Germinal and La Bete Humaine), is still completely engrossing.
The Fortune of the Rougons was published in 1871, serialised in the newspaper Le Siècle. Émile Zola went on to publish a further 19 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series under the sub title of Histoire natural et social dune famille sous le Second Empire.
The sympathetic portrait of the insurgents seen in The Fortune of the Rougons stems from Zola’s own opposition to the Empire — he once referred to Louis-Napoleon’s coup as a bloodstain that could never be washed away — although he abhorred violence and did not believe in violent action.
Earl Grey tea is brewing; the birds are having a jolly time in the pond and I can hear the faint sound of a lawn mower. It’s a glorious Sunday morning here. Perfect timing to catch up on the week just ending (or last week for those of you who consider Sunday the beginning of a new week).
It was a quiet week on the blog for me. Deadly silent in fact. I managed just one post in eight days. In part this was because my niece came to stay while she did a week’s work experience with me to help her make some decisions about career options post university. So one can hardly have a house guest and then bury one’s head every night in a computer can one??
When I did have some spare time, it was entirely focused on reading. I had been over-enthusiastic on the library reservations site a few weeks ago and ended up with four books arriving all around the same time. I’m not the fastest of readers and hate rushing books. Unfortunately some of these titles couldn’t be renewed so The Confessions of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson was returned yesterday without ever having been opened.
I did however read The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. It’s years since I came across a novel I simply could not put down. This was one of those books. It’s a superbly constructed book of three separate story lines and two characters that asks the question many of us ponder at different points in our lives: what if I had done X instead of Y? How would my life have been different? If you enjoy well written stories about relationships, this is probably going to delight you.
I also finished a delightful short story collection by Carys Davies called The Redemption of Galen Pike and, unusually for me, reviewed almost immediately.
Now I’m part way through the third book I found through the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered award winners; The Offering by Grace McCleen. It’s told from the perspective of Madelaine who has been an inmate of a mental health facility for the last 20 years; taken there after a breakdown at the age of 14. Through hypnotherapy, she is forced to return to the days when she lived on a remote island with her evangelistic father, deeply confused about what she believes to be her relationship with God. The novel is clearly building up to a point where McCleen reveals what caused Madelaine’s breakdown. Parts of the book are very moving but I’m not yet sold on the novel as a whole.
What have you all been up to? Have you uncovered any hidden gems recently?
I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I can admire the skill needed to create compelling characters, evoke a sense of place and tell a well rounded story all within a few thousand words. But when I read a short story I always get to the end feeling I’ve been short changed; that I’m just getting into it only to find myself adrift.
But two recent collections have shown that maybe the problem is that I just hadn’t found the right author.
I ordered The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies on the day it was announced she had won a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award and I discovered she comes from my home country of Wales. We have so few good contemporary authors that I wanted to show my support. I must have been in a fog at the time because I didn’t even twig that this was a collection of short stories.
Having now read it I can only concur with one of the Jerwood judges who called this collection ‘stunning’. It’s a slim book of 17 stories one of which Nothing Like My Nightmare is essentially a paragraph; a complete story told in 186 words by an unnamed narrator (a parent I surmise) reflecting on all the things that could go wrong as the daughter embarks on a flight overseas. Without spoiling the effect I’ll just say that the final sentence caught me so unawares I gasped.
The other stories, many of which have won prizes or been shortlisted in competitions, show the infinite variety of Carys Davies’ use of the short story form. They vary wildly in location from the wilds of Siberia to a remote farm in the Australian outback and a prison in a small Oklahoma community. It’s hard to determine exactly the time period in which some of the stories are set — the only clue in Precious, for example, a story about a foolish, idolised middle aged man who falls for his young cleaner, comes early on when he describes arriving at an apartment dragging his wheeled suitcase.
Many of these stories convey a impression of the vulnerability experienced by individual members of the human race and their consequent desire to connect with a fellow creature. In the title story, the connection is motivated by the desire of a Quaker spinster to bring comfort to a condemned prisoner and persuade him to cleanse his soul before death. When he rejects her overtures she simply sits with him in compatible silence waiting for the moment when he feels ready to talk. In another story, a woman reluctantly lets a neighbour into her home while her husband is away, believing him to be obnoxious only to discover they endure the same painful secret.
Vulnerability isn’t confined to ordinary people in Carys Davies’ world. She delivers a delightful story of a man’s daring attempt to rescue the widowed Queen Victoria from yet another desperately dull official event by relating a story about his wife’s infidelity. Another, rather poignant, tale brings us Charlotte Bronte purchasing a new hat before a meeting with the publisher to whom she’s rather taken a shine.
These are stories that are hard to resist reading in one sitting. But they are best savoured in small doses, the more fully to enable the resonance of each to linger.
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies is published in the UK by Salt Publishing.
You can read the title story at Prospect Magazine here but I urge you not to stop at this one story. Go and buy the book.
An occasional round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)
As predictable as the ‘Must have Christmas gifts’ and the ‘get in shape for the beach’ feature articles, newspapers have started trotting out that annual stalwart: “must read books for your holiday.”
The Sunday Times “Suitcase Essential” feature listed 100 of what they claimed were the best books for the summer. The basis for their selection wasn’t explained but we had a variety of history, biography, memoirs, and science titles plus of course a fiction list. Out of the 50 fiction titles, they singled out five as ‘top choices’
- Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend which it described as “an addictive read”
- The Green Road by Anne Enright summarised as “a heart-wrenching novel about family secrets. The newspaper is tipping it for the Booker Prize this year.
- All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, described as “an exquisite nobel that feels wrenched from the author’s heart”
- Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster – considered a vivid description of small-town life. This is the only one I’ve read. I thought it was a superb study of how a recently widowed woman slowly claws her way back into some form of a life.
- The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – a “superb tale” according to the Sunday Times
- The Cartel by Don Winslow which is described as a superb thriller on a par with TV’s The Wire
Surprisingly given the amount of attention garnered by The Girl on the Train, this didn’t get a mention in the crime & thrillers category. It did however make the summer selection published recently by the Financial Times.
It’s interesting to see how different the two lists are in their selections. The FT selects two of the big stories from this year so far – Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, The Buried Giant— though both are missing from the Sunday Times list. But the most significant difference is the selection of works in translation or by authors from outside the British/American camp. The Sunday Times manages just two as far as I can tell; The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara and The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Dadud, an author who seems to be creating rather a stir with his retake on Albert Camus’ L’Etranger. The Financial Times however gives us a special list of fiction in translation. The title that most caught my attention was Wolf, Wolf, by Eben Venter who provides a scathing perspective on the new South Africa. it could however be next summer by the time I get around to reading this…..
If you want to read the Financial Times list in full, click here
And this doesn’t help you fill up your bookshelves, you could always take a look at the list of upcoming new publications put together by The Millions.