Which Booker winner to read next? The experts have weighed in…

Earlier in the week I asked for help in working out which of the remaining 8 Booker titles from my list I should read next. And also was there a standout novel with which to end.

Thanks to everyone who weighed in on this. As I expected, opinions were divided, proof if ever any were needed that reading is a highly personal experience.

Some clear trends did emerge however.

GG.  the 1972 winner by J Berger got zero votes of confidence which is not surprising since it had been read by only one person: Susan at A Life in Books. Only one other person seemed to be aware of Berger’s work: Kelly at Kellysbookishramblings has G on her TBR shelves..

 

the conservationistAlso not universally recommended is the 1974 winner The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer. Lisa of ANZitlovers gave it a resounding vote of confidence calling it a brave book written by a brave woman who exposed the day to day reality of apartheid to the international stage” and Bookbii described it as an “excellent, if challenging book.” Countering this however is Alison, a blogger from South Africa who commented : Nadine Gordimer is a Sacred Icon in South African literature, but I’ve always found her books very heavy going.” 

how late it wasLocal connections certainly played a part in reactions to James Kelman’s 1994 winner How Late It Was, How Late “Don’t be put off Kelman,” said Weezelle at BooksandLeaves. My (Scottish) husband says that the criticism aimed at him comes from certain parts of the British Isles who were educated in certain institutions that may or may not have a particular elitist view of the world. Even for me as a non-Scot, I loved this book.” Col, a Glaswegian, loved the book but admitted to maybe a little bias since it is set in her home city and the language is thus very familiar.

Vernon_god_littleThe jury delivered  a minority verdict on Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. Some of you  really enjoyed it, calling variously “a riot’ and “bonkers” but others declared they hated it and Paul Fulcher thought it “lightweight and completely unworthy of the prize.”

 

 

What did you recommend?

Top of the poll was Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the 1993 winner by Roddy Doyle with nine paddy clarkevotes in favour and no negative reactions. Kim at Reading Matters described it as “one of my all time favourites. ” Many of you commented on  its readability – a description that would have pleased the judges of the 2011 prize but was dismissed by many of the literary great and the good asa sign of dumbing down of the prize. But what’s wrong with saying a book is readable? I’m more than confident that people reading this blog don’t mean these are “simple” books or superficial. Maybe we mean they are less challenging in form or subject but still require engagement of the brain.

Also described as an easy and very readable book is The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst which won the Booker Prize in 2004. It attracted 6 votes, a draw with The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.

seven killingsThe novel that had me most curious to hear your reactions was the most recent winner on my list: the 2015 winner  A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Although it attracted only 4 votes in its favour there were none against which surprised me because I’ve seen many other reviews commenting on how complex a novel this is structurally and how tough it can be to tune into the Jamaican dialect.  Yet one commenter said it was “An astonishingly good book, that stays with you long after you’ve read it. Yes, there is extreme violence, some of the dialect is hard to understand, and the politics can be confusing. It is not an easy read – but worth the effort.

Where does this take me?

I’m going to save The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end since they were so highly recommended. It would be tempting to leave one of the least favourite novels to the end but I  really do not want to mark the completion of this project by reading something I don’t enjoy. I’m going to make The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey by next choice given it has had a positive reaction. After that I’m going to let my mood dictate what I choose, trying to space out the more challenging reads where I can.

Thanks for all your help.

And then there were 8 [Booker prize]

8-Booker-titles

The countdown has begun  for my project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’ve read 40 of the winners, abandoned two which means there are just eight remaining ( I decided to call a halt in 2015).

It’s taken far longer than I anticipated when I started more than 5 years ago. If you’re a book blogger you can blame yourself for my slow progress – you would insist in pushing other titles under my nose that I felt I absolutely had to read. In other words I got distracted a few times. But I’m determined to wrap this up before the end of the year.

I’m just not sure what to read next particularly since some of the remaining titles sound challenging. A Brief History of Seven Killings, the 2015 winner is ” a difficult book with a stop-start structure ,” and cast of around 75 characters according to The Guardian reviewer.  One of the Booker judges declared the 1994 winner How Late it Was How Late to be “crap” while The Guardian review considered the novel “brilliant, sometimes quite funny, but more often a miserable slog….  confusing, claustrophobic and miserable” .  I started The Conservationist at the end of last year but found it confusing so set aside temporarily.

Here’s a little request – can you help me work my way through the final eight by letting me know if you’ve read any of these and how you found the experience? I especially want to make the final Booker I read to be a firework and not a damp squib. So are there any rockets in this list?

For those of you who don’t know these books, here are the Goodreads synopsis for each one

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

“…a masterfully written novel that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s.

On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.

Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters—assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts—A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the 70s, to the crack wars in 80s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the 90s.

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)

In the summer of 1983, twenty-year-old Nick Guest moves into an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Feddens: conservative Member of Parliament Gerald, his wealthy wife Rachel, and their two children, Toby-whom Nick had idolized at Oxford-and Catherine, highly critical of her family’s assumptions and ambitions.

As the boom years of the eighties unfold, Nick, an innocent in the world of politics and money, finds his life altered by the rising fortunes of this glamorous family. His two vividly contrasting love affairs, one with a young black clerk and one with a Lebanese millionaire, dramatize the dangers and rewards of his own private pursuit of beauty, a pursuit as compelling to Nick as the desire for power and riches among his friends.

Richly textured, emotionally charged, disarmingly comic,

2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)

Named as one of the 100 Best Things in the World by GQmagazine in 2003, the riotous adventures of Vernon Gregory Little in small town Texas and beachfront Mexico mark one of the most spectacular, irreverent and bizarre debuts of the twenty-first century so far. Its depiction of innocence and simple humanity (all seasoned with a dash of dysfunctional profanity) in an evil world is never less than astonishing. The only novel to be set in the barbecue sauce capital of Central Texas, Vernon God Little suggests that desperate times throw up the most unlikely of heroes.

2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)

Told in the form of a journal justifying Ned Kelly to the daughter he would never meet, this is a mesmerising act of historical imagining by one of the most popular novelists at work today.

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)

One Sunday morning in Glasgow, shoplifting ex-con Sammy awakens in an alley, wearing another man’s shoes and trying to remember his two-day drinking binge. He gets in a scrap with some soldiers and revives in a jail cell, badly beaten and, he slowly discovers, completely blind. And things get worse: his girlfriend disappears, the police question him for a crime they won’t name, and his stab at disability compensation embroils him in the Kafkaesque red tape of the welfare bureaucracy. Told in the utterly uncensored language of the Scottish working class, this is a dark and subtly political parable of struggle and survival, rich with irony and black humour.

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

“Sometimes when nothing happened it was really getting ready to happen.” Irish Paddy rampages through Barrytown streets with like-minded hooligans, playing cowboys, etching names in wet concrete, setting fires. The gang are not bad boys, just restless. When his parents argue, Paddy stays up all night to keep them safe. Change always comes, not always for the better

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

“The winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature paints a fascinating portrait of a “conservationist” left only with the possibility of self-preservation, a subtle and detailed study of the forces and relationships that seethe in South Africa today.”

1972 – G. (J Berger)

John Berger relates the story of “G.,” a young man forging an energetic sexual career in Europe during the early years of this century. With profound compassion, Berger explores the hearts and minds of both men and women, and what happens during sex, to reveal the conditions of the Don Juan’s success: his essential loneliness, the quiet cumulation in each of his sexual experiences of all of those that precede it, the tenderness that infuses even the briefest of his encounters, and the way women experience their own extraordinariness through their moments with him. All of this Berger sets against the turbulent backdrop of Garibaldi and the failed revolution of Milanese workers in 1898, the Boer War, and the first flight across the Alps, making G. a brilliant novel about the search for intimacy in history’s private moments.

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane [book review]

country-houseThe ancestral home of Temple Alice might be crumbling and the debts piling up. But for the St Charles family, it’s imperative that appearances are maintained and they uphold the standards of good behaviour befitting the Anglo-Irish gentry. And on the surface they are successful. Papa occupies his time hunting, fishing and generally having a good time with his coterie of female admirers. Mummie is so busy with her gardening and her painting she has no time or patience for all the dull business of housekeeping and child rearing. Daughter Aroon and her younger brother Hubert are consequently left in the care of their beloved governess Miss Brock with whom they swim and picnic joyfully.

It all sounds a halcyon existence. But that’s only on the surface. Time and time again in Good Behaviour a darkness seeps through that is all the more disturbing because it’s so subtly introduced and then glossed over. The tone is set in the opening scene in which Aroon, now a mature woman, prepares a rabbit mousse for her invalid mother’s meal, despite protestations from housemaid Rose that mum gets sick if she eats rabbit. Mother takes one mouthful, is sick. and dies. The result of an error of judgement by a well-meaning daughter or a deliberate act of a woman grown embittered over the years? The reader is left to decide but that episode is already  a signal that maybe Aroon is going to prove an entirely unreliable narrator of her story.

The chapters that immediately follow the rabbit episode reinforce our initial impressions that more is going on beneath the surface than first appears. They seem to be series of entertaining anecdotes about Aroon’s childhood in her ancestral country home yet it’s obvious to us, even if it isn’t to her, that she is being largely ignored and starved of affection. Her mother is either distant or dismissive and cruel and her father only seems to pay attention when she is exhibiting her horsemanship even when this results in a near tragic episode where she clings onto a troublesome horse. She is further burdened by her size and shape. She’s tall and full blossomed in a way that is totally out of synch with the fashion in 1920s for slim, boyish figures.  To onlookers she looks like a Fat Lady in a peepshow with her “bosoms swinging like jelly bags”.

I have now come to terms with my height but in those years when I was nineteen and twenty, I bent my knees, I bowed my shoulders; I strapped in my bosoms until they burst out around my back.

Aroon is in essence an outsider. Although there are moments when she feels she’s “there at the heart of things” – like when her brother teaches her to dance and she finds there is something at which she can excel or the evenings when Hubert and his friend Richard invite her for drinks and music in their bedroom. Richard gets into bed with her one night.  Though nothing happens sexually, the fact Richard was in her bed is enough for Aroon to believe he is in love with her and to eagerly that anticipate nuptial bliss will follow.

But too soon the dream falls apart. Hubert is killed in a motoring accident and Richard disappears to Kenya. The death of son and heir and the earlier tragedy when Papa lost a leg in the battle fields of World War 1 barely disrupt the routine. For this is a house where every mishap or tragedy  is shaken off, never spoken of and never allowed to interrupt the gardening or hunting. “Our good behaviour went on and on. . . no one spoke of the pain.” says Aroon after Hubert’s funeral. “We exchanged cool, warning looks – which of us could behave the best: which of us could be least embarrassing…”

Though she does feel the pain when her hopes of marriage fade, she will not show it for she has learned to be a dutiful daughter and how to behave in the same socially impeccably manner as her parents. Phoning the doctor to report her mother’s death for example to the others she has time to observe:

… how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave – believe me, I know. I have always known. All my life far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives.

What Keane lets us see is how Aroon is ‘right’ about behaviour but so often wrong about people. She doesn’t see that Richard’s romantic overture is designed to disguise his intense relationship with her brother or that the cook Rose isn’t just warming her father’s foot when he’s confined to bed after a stroke. Nor does she see her mother’s lack of affection as odd. It’s just the way things are. “I don’t blame Mummie… She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had children and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all.  She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either…”

Is she really that limited in understanding that she doesn’t see her mother’s behaviour for what it is: cruelty.  It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl whose life has been blighted and who seems not to understand how this has happened.

It’s the gap between what Aaron knows and understands and what we as readers understand that makes Good Behaviour such a tremendous book. Added to that Keane’s characters are wholly believable; none of them come across in  flattering way. They wouldn’t dream of treating their dogs or horses badly yet are perfectly capable of being mean and spiteful to fellow humans in revenge for personal grievances whether real or imagined. That doesn’t mean this is a novel entirely devoid of humour. There is a wonderful set piece towards the end of the novel where Aaron, on the morning of her father’s funeral is despatched to the station to collect one of his old friends.She lets herself be persuaded to take a tipple in the station buffet – one brand and ginger ale turns into two and three and then she falls on the ice and spends the afternoon sleeping it off while everyone else is at the funeral. But Keane suddenly turns from humour to pathos as Aaron realises she has “let the side down”.

At that moment I knew myself entirely bereft. The sofa murmured and creaked under my sobbing. She [Mummie] was keeping strictly to the day’s essentials; things must be done, masks against any vulgar intrusions of grief. I felt like a child who wets her knickers at a party. Nowhere to hide, no refuge from the shame of it.

Impossible not to feel sympathy at moments like this for a girl who has only wanted ever to love and to be loved but whose soul has been suppressed through neglect and a lifetime of required good behaviour.

A wonderful book; faultless in its concept and in its execution.

Footnotes

About the book: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane was published in 1981 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year. It is the first novel Molly Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of Maggie J Farrell.) Apparently Keane sent it to a publisher but when it was rejected as ‘too dark’ she stuck it in a kitchen drawer. But then Peggy Ashcroft visited and struck down with flu, asked for something to read. Having read the typescript she urged Molly to try and publish.

About the author: Molly Keane was born as Mary Skrine in County Kildare in Ireland in 1904 into a ‘serious hunting and fishing family’. She wrote her first novel at the age of 17 to supplement her dress allowance, using the pseudonym of M. J Farrell to hide her activities from her sporting friends. Between 1928 and 1961 she wrote 10 novels and a clutch of successful plays.The death in 1946 of her husband, at the early age of 37, was a blow. She stopped writing and devoted herself to bringing up their daughters. Interest in her revived after publication of Good Behaviour. She continued to write well into her 80s. There is an excellent article in The Guardian in which editor Diana Athill reflects on her relationship with Keane – click this link

Why I read this book: I bought this in a library sale.   I’d read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. But I’d seen plenty of reviews by bloggers whose opinion I trust to the effect of persuading me I really should read Good Behaviour. So thank you Heaven Ali ( her review is hereand the many other reviewers in the Library Thing Virago group. Good Behaviour is one of my 20booksofsummer choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee [Booker Prize 1983]

I approached J. M Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novella The Life & Times of Michael K hoping against hope it would be easier to penetrate than the last novel I read by him: The Schooldays of Jesus. I found the latter simply baffling as you can tell from my review. The Life & Times of Michael K fortunately proved more straightforward though I can’t say that reading it was a wholly satisfying experience.

It started in a promising fashion with the introduction to Michael, a simple man who has spent his childhood in institutions and works as a gardener in Cape Town. Michael tends to his mother,  a domestic servant to a wealthy family. Michael is a man deformed by a hare lip, a disfigurement which makes people look down on him. They view him as a simpleton, as a doctor later explains:

He is a simpleton, and not even an interesting simpleton. He is a poor helpless soul who has been permitted to wander out on the battlefield, if I may use that word, the battlefield of life, when he should have ben shut away in an institution with high walls, stuffing cushions or watering the flower beds.

Lacking in intellectual power he might be but Michael is a good son who wants to do right by his mother. When she becomes very sick and decides she wants to return to her birthplace, he quits his job so he can take her home. But the country has descended into civil war and martial law has been imposed so he cannot get the proper permits for travel out of the city.   He builds a shoddy rickshaw in which he pushes his mother through the streets and onto the main highways out into the countryside. It’s an arduous journey. The roads are full of armed convoys from whom they must hide and other travellers who want to steel their possessions. At night they have to sleep hidden among straggling roots and wet bracken with only  cold food to eat. His mother’s health declines further but when she dies Michael resolves to carry on alone to deliver his mother’s ashes.

He finds the farm at Prince Albert where his mother once lived but it is abandoned and desolate. Soon, Michael is living in a dug-out, communing with nature, making a garden where he grows melons and barely surviving. His melon-growing might have been highly allegorical but if so its significance was rather lost on me.

Every so often Michael’s quiet and happy existence is disrupted by a war he feels is nothing to do with him. He finds himself in and out of prison and labour camps that have sprung up all over the country, forced to work, and to answer questions he does not understand. His act of defiance is to rejecting the food his captors give him and then to escape, managing to return to the apartment where he and his mother lived in Cape Town. He is still the mute and simple man he was at the beginning, he acknowledges. But he has learned some things from his experiences. One was how to be a better farmer.

The mistake I made, he thought, going back in time, was not to have had plenty of seeds, a different packet of seeds for each pocket…. Then my mistake was to plant all my seeds together in one patch. I should have planted them one at a time spread out over miles of veld in patches of soil no larger than my hand, and drawn a map and kept it with me at all times so that every night I could make a tour of the sites to water them.

And that he is happiest when left alone. Everywhere he goes there are people who want to exercise their form of charity upon him, asking him questions.

They want me to open my heart and tell them the story of a life lived in cages. They want to hear all abut the cages I have lived in as if I  were a budgie or a white mouse or a monkey. … When my story was finished people would have shaken their heads and been sorry and angry and plied me with food and drink;women would have taken me into their beds and mothered me in the dark.  … I have escaped the camps; perhaps, if I lie low, I will escape the charity too.

That reflection and Michael’s interpretation of his experiences represented the flaw in this book for me. They come in the final pages of the novel and feel totally out of character. We’re now far removed from the man described by a doctor in the labour camp as ”an original soul . . . untouched by doctrine, untouched by history . . . evading the peace and the war . . . drifting through time”. Michael along the way acquires sufficient deep insight to ask searching questions and pass comments about whether his time in a camp is a process of self-education.

I understood this was a novel about passive resistance to oppression and about survival but Coetzee had me perplexed by his ending with its last-minute imposition of a “message”. He makes Michael ask: “Is that the moral of it all…that there is time for everything? Is that how morals come?”. Completely out of character, clumsy and unnecessary.  Spoiling an otherwise reasonable yarn.

Footnotes

About the bookThe Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee was published in 1983 by Secker and Warburg. My copy is a paperback edition published by Vintage in 2004. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1983.

About the author: John Maxwell “J. M.” Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. Apart from his fictional writings he is also an essayist, linguist, translator.  He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He relocated to Australia in 2002,  becoming an Australian citizen four years later. He has an impressive record with the Booker prize, the first author to receive the prize twice ( the other was Disgrace  in 1999 (reviewed here).  His novel Summertime, was shortlisted and was hotly tipped to win but ultimately lost out to  Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. He made the longlist in  2003 for Elizabeth Costello, 2005 for Slow Man  and again in 2016 with The Schooldays of Jesus.

Why I read this book: Quite simply I read it because it was one of the books I hadn’t got around to on my Booker prize project

 

From Austen to Forster in six steps

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best and for once I have read the starting book in the chain. For anyone unfamiliar with Six Degrees of Separation each month the idea is that from the book chosen as a starting point we find link to another book, and another using whatever flights of fancy and free associations our brains can muster. As always the books in my chain are one I’ve read.

The starting point this month is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in honour of the author’s bicentenary. The story of five daughters of the Bennett family was her third published novel and arguably most popular work in her lifetime, going through three editions before her death. The multiple tv and film adaptations produced since have helped maintain its popularity. One of the key turning points in the narrative arc is when Lizzie Bennet, second eldest daughter, visits Pemberley, the large country estate of Lord William Darcy, a wealthy landowner with whom she has previously clashed. Lizzie’s delight in seeing this estate brings her realisation that she might have misjudged this man and “that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

For my next link I’m choosing a book where the central character finds a door into a new world via another large country estate .

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh traces from the 1920s to the early 1940s, the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, including his friendship with the Flytes, a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. He becomes seduced by the charms of the family but ultimately the relationship turns sour, not because Charles is of a different class but because they are Catholic and he cannot understand the hold religion has on their lives. Waugh wrote this as a convert to the Catholic faith and his novel reflects themes of divine grace and reconciliation as the characters struggle with their beliefs.

Like Waugh, Graham Greene was a Catholic convert who also explored the  drama of the struggles within the soul from a Catholic perspective. I could chose one of several books for my second link but I think I’m going to opt for  The Heart of the Matter (my review)  which is my favourite Greene novel. It details a life-changing moral crisis for Henry Scobie, an assistant police commissioner in a British settlement on the West Coast of Africa during World War II. A superb book about a tortured soul who wants to do the right thing but finds himself morally compromised.

Greene was at one time an agent of the British intelligence service and supervised and befriended by Kim Philby, a man later revealed as a traitor and Soviet spy. They worked together in what is known as MI6. Which gives me my next link …

John le Carré is a highly successful British author of espionage novels. He could write authoritatively about spies and their practices because he was, for a time, one of them. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for both the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service under his real name of David John Moore Cornwell.  He’s best known for his masterful novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which is a fiendishly intricate plot about a traitor at the heart of the security service. But I’m going to select his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which is a tremendously atmospheric novel set in Berlin at a time when the city was divided by the wall. Much of the force of Le Carre’s writing comes from the way he portrays the inner conflict of his characters and in this one, he features Alec Leamas, a British agent, who has been sent to East Germany as a fake defector with a mission to spread disinformation. By the end he has to choose between a German girl with whom he has fallen in love and his duty to his country.

Berlin and the cold war. Now that reminds me of the first Ian McEwan novel I read, The Innocent. Set in 1950, this centres on a joint American and British security operation to build a tunnel from the American sector of Berlin into the Russian sector to tap phone lines of the Soviet High Command. Leonard Marnham is the young Englishman tasked with the set up and repair of the tape recorders used in the tunnel. He’s out of his depth and bungles along until he finds in a spot where betrayal becomes easy.

 

That idea of an innocent caught up in something he doesn’t fully understand gives me my next link.  L P Hartley’s The Go-Between is the recollection of 1900 when 13-year-old Leo Colston spends the summer at a grand country house in Norfolk, rented  by the family of a prep-school chum, He gets caught unwittingly in a love affair between his friend’s beautiful sister and a neighbouring farmer.  Initially is involvement is all rather innocent, he just acts as postman between the pair but each of them is eventually very nasty to him and he’s made to feel an intruder rather than a welcome guest.

 

For my final link we’re going to visit another country house though this is on a less grand scale. Howard’s End by E. M depicts the clash of attitudes between three families, the rich and capitalistic Wilcoxes, the half-German Schlegel siblings (Margaret, Tibby, and Helen), whose cultural pursuits have much in common with the real-life Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, a poor young couple from a lower-class background. Leonard represents the aspirations of the lower classes; he is obsessed with self-improvement and reads constantly, hoping to lift himself up. But he is never able to transform his meager education into an improved standard of living. Through an accidental encounter with the Schlegels he sees a chance to change his fortunes. The Schlegel’s well-intentioned idea of helping him go horribly wrong when, because of their advice he loses his job and becomes destitute. Another example of an innocent seduced by a world outside his own experience.

And with that we’ve looped back to book number 2 in my chain and not just thematically. The TV adaptation of  Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons, was in fact filmed at  real country house called Castle Howard.

The many sides of Jane Austen

jane austen noteTwo hundred years after her death, the world has not yet had enough of Jane Austen. The Bank of England marked the bicentenary by unveiling a new version of the British  £10 note complete with  Jane’s portrait and a quote from her novel Pride and Prejudice. Winchester Cathedral where she was buried opened a new permanent exhibition about Jane Austen and her life while the town of Basingstoke, near her birthplace of Steventon unveiled what’s believed to be the first statue of Austen. All this in addition to a host of commemorative events in Bath, the city that features in more than one of her novels, and Hampshire where she lived for much of her life.

What is it about her novels that holds such attraction for readers? Is it the fact, as the Wall St Journal asserted, that they deal with universal themes of “love, money, power and status.”? Or that so many of the plots revolve around the desire for personal happiness; something to which we can all relate? Is it the fact her characters are often people  we can recognise from our own communities: the pushy mother (Mrs Bennett); the shy and self-effacing young girl (Fanny Price); the wrong-un (George Wickham) or the romantic idealist (Marianne Dashwood)?  Or is a question of how she tells her stories with their subtle undercurrent of wit and satire that punctures the pretensions of anyone who gets above themselves?

It’s surely all those components.   Austen’s work has so many dimensions that there’s sure to be something that resonates with our individual interests, whether that’s romance, or the social conventions of Georgian England; or the difficulties of being an unmarried woman in a world which offered few prospects of earning your own income.

One of the critiques often levelled at Austen is that her work is circumscribed in its social and emotional range; that her uneventful, retiring life within the domestic circle of her family meant she was secluded from the larger world of political and social affairs. Consequently her novels are concerned only with the domestic affairs of two or three families in a tranquil English neighbourhood. It’s true her plots largely deal with the affairs of the heart rather than the ideological conflicts that characterised English culture during the years that followed the French Revolution. But I don’t think she ignores these issues —running through her work for example are questions about the individual and society: what should their relationship be and what  are the consequences for the individual, for others, and for society when the individual ignores or even deliberately transgress society’s rules?

She also considers the relationship of the imagination/fancy versus reason/judgment; a pertinent issue given the cult of sensibility which had arisen during the late 1700s in reaction to the emphasis on reason and intellect that had predominated during the earlier part of the century. So we have Austen debating in Sense and Sensibility the consequences of Marianne’s yielding to imagination, rather than listening to the dictates of reason that characterises her sister Elinor.

And then of course we have Austen’s concern with income, property and marriage (look carefully at her text and you’ll find repeated references to someone’s wealth). This isn’t in the novels because she had nothing else to write about but because Austen recognised this as one of the big social issues of her time.

In a social world where the only moment accorded importance in a woman’s life was marriage, the choice of a partner was a serious business.  Upon the rightness of that choice depended their entire future well-being. Their ability to actively seek a partner was however severely limited to the number of social acquaintances that came within their social circle. Mrs Bennett boasts that she dines with “five-and-twenty families” but that’s not sufficient to get marriage partners for five daughters so when Lizzie rejects what would be considered a very desirable offer from Mr Collins, her mother’s concern and warning is understandable:

if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all — and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead —  shall not be able to keep you.

Understandable therefore that Lizzie’s friend Charlotte takes the more pragmatic approach and positions herself to accept the same offer from Mr Collins though he is a few years her junior. Being neither young, pretty, or rich Charlotte cannot afford to view love as the most vital component of a marriage. She knows she has to marry someone  to avoid a life of dependancy on her family but her choices of husband are limited. She is too wealthy, educated, and upper-class to marry a working man—that would represent a social demotion for her family—but not rich or good-looking to attract a truly wealthy one. She can’t marry up or down—she can only marry sideways. Mr Collins, for all he is the “conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” Lizzie despises does offer respectability and a secure future. As Austen puts it:

Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.

Austen’s primary theme of marriage is thus far from trivial. She understands the reality of her age that marriage is women’s best route to financial security and social respect.

Sweet Aunt Jane writing gentle romances from her rose-clad cottage? Conservative Jane who mocked subjective feelings in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility?  Master stylist Jane who invented the technique of free indirect discourse to gently mock her characters and undermine the persona they want to present to the world?  Many different Jane Austens have been celebrated since 1817. Just like that scene in the film version of 84 Charing Cross Road where Helen Hanff recalls “I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for”, we go looking for the Austen we want to experience and enjoy.

If you want further proof of how Austen continues to interest and intrigue take a look at a series of essays published by  Signature (a Penguin Random House site) in a free downloadable guide: Signature’s Essential Guide to Jane Austen. The guide features 12 essays on topics from the level of sexiness in her novels to book-to-film adaptations, from the challenges of  editing Austen fictionso that it resonates with  modern audiences and how Alexander McCall Smith came to write a new version of Emma.

austen in augustNot yet had enough of Austen? Then the Austen in August event at Roof Beam Reader might be your answer. Visit the intro page to find out more and access reviews and guest posts.

Snapshot of August 2017

As a  new month  begins I’m sitting here feeling very sorry for myself . After a year of being stuffed with chemicals and radiation before three rounds of surgery to remove nasty tumours, I thought I’d  had my quota of medical treatments. Life was beginning to look up with a holiday even being planned. All of which I scuppered by falling over while helping to set up a community event, breaking my humerus in three places. So now my dominant arm is in a sling making it extremely difficult to do basic things like eating and dressing (I dare you to try fastening a bra one handed). My blogging is curtailed because it’s so slow to type one-handed so if you find I’m not commenting much on your posts it’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with you.  Reading is about all I’m good for but even that begins to lose its appeal after a few hours. Sigh…

Apart from nursing my damaged paw, what else was I up to on August 1, 2017?

 Reading now

I’m gradually making my way through the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list.  After a diversion to read The Monster’s Daughter, a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius) I was looking for something from my list that promised to be equally well constructed and thought-provoking. Sacred Hunger ( joint winner of the Booker Prize in  1992) by Barry Unsworth gets that bill perfectly. It’s set in the eighteenth century when the slave trade was in full flow. The action takes place on a ship sailing from Liverpol to pick up a human cargo in Africa and sell it in the sugar plantations of Jamaica. It makes for grim reading understandably though Unsworth doesn’t wallow in details of the inhumane conditions under which the captured Africans were kept on board. His theme is  the lust – the hunger –  for money which drives men to extraordinary actions.

You couldn’t get more of a contrast between this and a book I just started today – What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullen. It’s a collection of twenty essays about different aspects of Austen’s work. One deals with the names  characters call each other and how this is often used to denote not just their different social status but their changing relationships to each other. Another looks at the question of the age at which its deemed appropriate for people to marry. I’ve read three essays so far as part of my participation in Austen in August and am impressed by how thoroughly Mullen knows these novels. He deals with details and nuances that escaped me when reading Austen but know I can see add new perspectives. Fascinating stuff.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.  I’m now down to 278 ( it would have been lower except I indulged with four new purchases and two ARCs in July).  I had been thinking to buy a few more once the judges chose the Booker long list but when the announcement came last week I was underwhelmed. I’m sure there are many fine books on that list but with one or two exceptions it felt rather predictable. So I’m just going to get some samples and se if anything sparks my interest.

Thinking of reading next…

This month is All August/All Virago month so I have Good Behavior by Molly Keane lined up. This is the first novel she  published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

I also have Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch which was recently published by Seren ( a Welsh publishing house based about 45 minutes from my house). It’s part mystery, part biography, part romance set in 1950s Hull and recreates the world of Philip Larkin. Larkin makes an appearance in the guise of librarian Arthur Merryweather and through his poems which are woven into the narrative.

Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK is coming to an end. I ddo nt enjoy the one episode which showed the backstory of Offred’s husband but everything eelse about this series has been first class.

Listening: Since I stopped commuting to work I’ve not listened to anywhere near the same number of audiobooks this year. I did try one in the Aurelio Zen series about a fictional Italian detective but the narration was really off putting so I gave up after an hour. A pity because this series written by Michael Dobdin is meant to be excellent.

And that is it for this month. Lets hope by the time of the next snapshot I’ll be feeling more perky. A Chinese friend tells me that this is the year of the Roster which is my animal sign. According to Chinese traditional beliefs, you may face big challenges in your animal year. However once those are overcome good fortune will come. It can’t come too soon for me! I’m advised that wearing red ( especially red underwear) will help. Time to get the credit cards out I think.

Reluctant to let your books go?

BookshelvesA columnist in one of the UK national newspapers confessed recently that she feels unable to give any of her books away.  About to move house she is faced with the prospect of finding space for her collection of roughly 10,000 books in a property half the size of her current abode. Such is her reluctance to part with any of them she even ponders farming her son out to his grandparents because that would give her another 150 feet of shelving.

I can’t give away unread stuff, obviously, but I can’t give away the things I’ve read either. They all carry memories — of the places I read them (all of Austen one glorious fortnight with an equally bookish friend at the end of university), the people who gave them to me, the long-gone second-hand shops I found them in …

I can sympathise a little. Some of my books are precious too because they come with their story of how they were bought or acquired. Like my copy of Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery that I bought in celebration when my exam essay was deemed best business paper by no less than The Economist (no idea even now how I pulled off that feat). Its covered in greasy dabs but its seen me through many large family Christmas lunches so there’s no way I’m giving that one away. Or my copy of Zola’s Germinal bought after a search in every bookshop in every town on a trip to South Africa in an effort to replace the copy I’d taken from home and accidentally drenched with suntan cream from a leaking bottle. Believe me that quest took some effort but I was only 100 pages or so from the end and had to know what happened.

I used to keep most of my books even if they had no provenance I could remember. I’d finish a novel, think “I might want to read this again” and shove it back on the shelf. Did I ever go back and re-read – hardly ever in fact. The only ones to get a second look-in were those loosely deemed classics. The rest just gathered dust. The few attempts I made at a clear out usually resulted in me creating a pile to give away and my husband removing at least half of them because “I might want to read that”.

In the last few years I’ve changed tack and become more inclined to let go of books. Partly because I’ve been buying more than ever before and simply had no place to put the new ones but also because my tastes have changed. I read very little historical fiction now so what’s the point in keeping a stack of these bought 20 years and kept for re-reading? There’s also a large dose of reality at work — I struggle to get through all the books I buy each year or find in the library so the chances of me getting to re-read ones from the past are very slim indeed.

Now when I finish a book I quiz myself on the chances I will re-read it and it’s only if I answer with a ‘definitely’ does the book syay in the house. All ‘maybes’ and ‘possibleys’ go immediately into my giveaway bag destined for the library or a charity shop or  Bookcrossing cafe.

What I have never thought of doing was scanning them to create a more space-efficient electronic copy. Apparently there is a whole community of people who do just that, investing quite some serious sums of money to get a quality product though it also appears you can get a relatively decent scan with equipment costing around $20. If you’re so inclined take a look at the DIY Bookscanner site which has instructions on how to scan and what equipment you need.

I can see this might be a solution for people who are reluctant to let go of books yet have space constraints. But its not one I’ll be adopting.

First there is a legality question that bothers me. Isn’t it a breach of copyright to scan an entire work like this even if for your own use? I’m no legal expert but it seems an issue and I cant find a clear answer.

Then ther’s the fact I would end up with an electronic copy but the experience of reading this wouldn’t be great. It would be the equivalent of reading a stack of photocopies or PDFs surely?

But the biggest cocern of all for me is that to produce this scanned version you first have to remove the cover and cut the pages, thus completely destroying a perfectly good book that someone else might appreciate. I hate the thought of books being destroyed in this way. Fair enough for people to do this as a way of preserving a book that was otherwise damaged beyond repair and irreplacable or out of print but surely not the best approach for run of the mill titles and editions. Why not just buy the e-reader version and donate the original? Or am I being too harsh and judgemental?

The Monster’s Daughter by Michelle Pretorius #bookreviews

the-monsters-daughterThe Monster’s Daughter is an impressively ambitious debut novel by South African born Michelle Pretorius. Many first-time authors would have steered clear of multiple points of view, a plot which shifts between South Africa during the Boer War of the early 1900s and the post apartheid rainbow nation of 2010 and deals with issues of race, obsession and police corruption. But Pretorius dives in fearlessly to deliver a novel that blends historical thriller, sci-fi and police procedural genres.

It begins somewhere in the open landscape of the veld. As war rages between Britain and the Dutch Boers, a doctor in a British concentration camp begins conducting genetic experiments on female prisoners. Two children survive as freaks of nature: Benjamin and Tessa, white skinned, with remarkable piercing eyes and a genetic make up that makes them look far, far younger than their actual ages.

More than 100 years after their birth, Alet Berg, a female police constable, turns up in the backwater town of Unie in disgrace after an affair with a senior officer. Only the intervention of her father, a former high-ranking police officer, has saved her from dismissal. The townspeople don’t like her drinking and swearing, her colleagues don’t rate her and she resents the way she is relegated to menial tasks. Her chance comes when she is called to a remote farm where the body of a woman has been discovered burned beyond immediate recognition. Despite opposition from her commanding officer, Alet is determined to play a part in the investigation. As it proceeds, she is taken into the violent past of her country and that of her father during the apartheid era and the country’s clandestine involvement in the independence wars in Rhodesia and Mozambique.

Threaded throughout the investigation is the story of the two children created in an experiment to design the perfect race. Tessa is adopted by a white British soldier turned farmer and his black wife who rescued the baby from the concentration camp. They and their daughter have to keep moving from place to place in order to survive in a country which forbids inter-racial relationships. As an adult, Tessa keeps moving, changing her name and residence many times over to avoid Benjamin who has fallen in love with her and believes she belongs to him. Thwarted in love, he becomes hard and cold, believing God has chosen him to be his instrument to eliminate oddities like him.

He could never get over the feeling that God was watching him, controlling him, withholding what he desired most until he did as he commanded. Though it had turned from a sharp pain to a dull ache the longing for Tessa was still with him every waking moment.

The Monster’s Daughter is powerful and atmospheric novel set in a context that is unsettling. The experiments that produce Tessa and Benjamin are precursors to those conducted by Mengele in 1940s Germany; then we have the brutal attitude of the British towards the Boers whose farms they raze under Kitchener’s Scorched Earth directive; and , coming into more recent history, the massacre at Soweto. Pretorius is clearly not afraid to delve into contentious social and political issues, showing how some ANC supporters were also culpable of acts of violence in their campaign against oppression.

The question of race features prominently as you’d expect given the history of this country. Pretorius makes it evident that there are no easy resolutions to the tensions created in the past. After Apartheid is made illegal, and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee begins its work to investigate human rights violations and consider amnesties, the resentment remains between white and black South Africans.

These blacks claim they were so oppressed. Let me remind you, nobody in this country has been more oppressed than the Afrikaner in the Boer War, or has everyone forgotten that? Our people suffered more for this land than the blacks ever did. ~but we didn’t go out killing everybody. We rebuilt the nation. We didn’t need to become terrorists or thieves or murderers to do it.

This is a novel that deals with complex moral questions but it doesn’t do so at the expense of characterisation. The individuals who people its pages are not mere ciphers spouting predictable positions, they are flesh and blood who laugh and love in the most difficult circumstances. Alet – as we’ve come to expect in fictional detectives – is a flawed individual but I warmed to her. She rubs people up the wrong way, makes mistakes but every time she’s knocked down she gets back on her feet to prove her opponents wrong.

The Monster’s Daughter isn’t without its flaws. There were so many characters I lost track at times and the final few paragraphs which summarise Alet’s future were unnecessary I thought. I do want to feel the characters I’ve come to know have a life after the book ends but that doesn’t mean I want it all tied up in a neat bow.

On the whole however I did enjoy this book and experiencing a promising new writer.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Monster’s Daughter was published by Melville House in July 2016. The paperback is published in July 2017 by Melville House.

About the Author: Michelle Pretorius was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. She gained an MFA in fiction writing from Colombia College Chicago and is currently studying for her PhD at Ohio University. The Monster’s Daughter is her first novel.

Why I Read This Book: I enjoy fiction from Africa and I love the country of South Africa. So when the publishers asked if I’d be interested in reading this, it wasn’t too difficult a decision. My thanks to Melville House and Michelle Pretorius for giving me many pleasurable hours.

 

Summer holidays 2017: What books are in your luggage?

summer reading 17The summer holiday season is in full swing now (at least in the northern hemisphere). Apparently this weekend is the big getaway when multiple thousands of us Brits depart this isle in search of warmer climes and sunnier skies. Even our Prime Minister has packed her bags and departed for a walking holiday and the Downing Street cat has been moved into temporary accommodation next door with the Chancellor. Those choosing to holiday at home just hope it stays dry but if not, then they’ll encounter merely the odd sprinkling of rain rather than a deluge. Nothing more guaranteed to the take the veneer off that camping holiday than day after day of rain fall.

Whether the destination is a lazy beach holiday in the sun,  a trek through the mountains of Switzerland or a meander around French chateaux and vineyards, our national newspapers claim to have found exactly the right books to be your companions.  I enjoy reading those lists of  ‘summer holiday must reads’ and not simply to look smug at home many of them I’ve read (actually the answer this year is very few since I’ve been concentrating on reading books bought in past years so haven’t read much published in 2017). But I often get ideas for gifts to myself and for others when I see the recommendations.

So what do the professional reviewers/commentators think we should all be putting in our cases and backpacks?

The Daily Telegraph listed 15 titles in their ‘literary’ category.

  • Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: A sort of follow up to her highly esteemed My Name is Lucy Barton
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy: Her first novel for 20 years and it’s a scorcher apparently.
  • Transit by Rachel Cusak. Second in a trilogy that began with Outline, and is built almost entirely in the form of conversations.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whithead: I thought this was doing the rounds last summer so odd to see it pop up again in 2017
  • House of Names by Colm Toibin: A retelling of an ancient Greek tale about Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Cassandra
  • Moonglow by Michael Chabon: The (fictionalised) deathbed memories of Chabon’s grandfather, an American-Jewish rocket scientist.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This revolves around the ghost of Abraham Lincoln’s son who died aged 11, and his neighbours in the graveyard. A very large cast of characters who all get their moment in the spotlight.
  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru: Two white boys, one an outsider, one a nerd, bond over their infatuation with black music.
  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: To call this “a novel of American domestic life”, a description I’ve seen in multiple places, does a disservice to Patchett’s talent.
  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith: Two female friends growing up on the same kind of housing estate in north west London where Smith herself spent her formative years.
  • The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride: Expect the same kind of bewildering fragmentary narrative style as in her earlier A Girl is a Half Formed Thing.
  • The Traitor’s Niche by Ismael Kadare: the only translated book to feature in this list. Set in the Ottoman era, a world where everything is subordinated to the needs of the state.
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman: Winner of the Bailey’s Prize 2017
  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley:  A novella tracing the disintegration of a marriage
  • Night of Fire by Colin Thubron: Fire breaks out in a large house divided into flats. Each tenant gets to tell the story.
  • Reservoir 13 by John McGregor: Each of the 13 chapters covers a single year since a 13-year old girl goes missing when out walking with her family
  • The Idiot by Elif Batuman: A comic portrayal of  university life in the 90s
  • Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney:  A debut work about four Dubliners in a strange relationship.

There’s a lot of overlap between this list and recommendations made in The Guardian‘s article where they asked some authors what they would recommend and in The Sunday Times list of 50 Beach Reads. Lincoln in the Bardo, House of Names and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness came up more than once.

How many of these have I read? OK I come clean – the answer is zero. I do have Commonwealth and Anything is Possible on my Goodreads wishlist and will now add two more as a result of these recommendations: Night of Fire and Reservoir 13. 

I do enjoy peeking behind the curtain to find out what authors will be packing alongside their flip flops and sun hats but the real fun for me comes when the newspaper approaches our politicians to ask either for their recommendations or the titles of books they’ll be taking on their own holidays. I can only imagine the angst such a request triggers because it comes laden with minefields for the unwary.  The ministers and Cabinet members will want to ensure their choices are suitably matched to the seriousness of our times so they’ll probably nominate something rather worthy about economic or social issues. Then they’ll think they need to mix that up with some choices that show they have the finger on the pulse so will pick one or two titles that ‘everyone is talking about’, probably from the top of the Sunday Times list. And just to show that they have a personality and are, deep down, just like you and me, they’ll finish off with something odd or witty. It wouldn’t surprise me to find some of these folks even get their public affairs advisers to put the list together so they don’t unwittingly trip up. What you never see is anyone brave enough to admit that they just want a darn good crime story or thriller. Where’s the harm in admitting that after a stressful few months, they simply want to chill out. I bet you that more than one of them sneaks an Ian Rankin or Jo Nesbo into their luggage.

How many of these ever so worthy titles they mention, actually get read? I now that’s something I’d love to know but we never get to find out. No newspaper ever seems to go back to these people and ask them for their reactions. I bet most of them come back with hardly a blob of suntan cream  blemishing their pristine pages.

What will I be taking on my holidays? No flitting off to the sun for me yet sadly – I’m still in recovery from my last round of surgery and not yet allowed to fly. But I’m hoping to make it to a cottage in Derbyshire in a few weeks and since I won’t be constrained by luggage weight restrictions I can pack in quite a few options. As always I won’t decide until the night before we leave – or given my procrastination, it might be in the last 30 minutes before we head off.

What are you packing with your sun dresses and shorts this year? Anything from the list of recommendations that takes your fancy?

 

 

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