The oldies in my bookshelves

I don’t normally join in with Top Ten Tuesday but this week’s topic happened to coincide with one of my periodic reviews of my TBR. So I give you my list of 10 Books That Have Been On My Shelf (Or TBR) From Before I Started Blogging and Still Have Not Got Around to Reading.

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A selection of the books that have been waiting for years for me to read

In no particular order:

  1. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Yes I’m ashamed to admit I have yet to read this classic in its entirety – just read bits and pieces as needed for essays. Oops.
  2. Armdale by Wilkie Collins. Exactly when this book came into my house I am not sure.  It was at least 17 years ago  since it was in the boxes when when we moved into our current house that long ago. Indeed it is a rather old looking paperback though not so old that the pages are yellow. I might even have read it but if I did then it left no impression on me.  It is however not the oldest book on my shelves.
  3. Can Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope. I read the first two in the Barchester Chronicles (The Warden and Barchester Towers) and loved them. The plan was to read the whole series and then move onto the Palliser series of which Can You Forgive Her is the first title but I never got beyond Barchester Towers. My copy of Can You Forgive Her is dated 1996 so you can see how long ago I dreamed up that plan. I will get around to it sometime soon….possibly
  4. Even then the Trollope is not the oldest on the shelf. That dubious honour goes to The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. My copy was printed in 1986 – yep it’s been with me for 30 years and has never been opened since there isn’t any sign of a crease on the spine. I started reading an e version of this about two years ago but lost interest.
  5. George Eliot – The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes. I love Eliot’s work and bought this rather fat book as a way of getting to know Eliot the person. It’s been on the shelf now for longer than 5 years and I haven’t even opened it.
  6. A Parisian Affair and other stories by Guy du Maupassant: I made this a special request one Christmas having heard that Maupassant was a master of the short story format. I must have been in one of my “I need to read more short stories’ periods; none of which have proved successful.
  7. Virginia Woolf An Inner Life by Julia Briggs: There is a definite pattern emerging here with many of the books that are stuck at the back of the shelves falling into the category of literary biographies. Maybe I thought that I would seem very learned and intelligent by reading these…..
  8. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. About 10 years ago  some work colleagues recommended this breakthrough work on climate change and chemical pollution. I wasn’t looking forward to it, expecting it would be rather ‘worthy’ and stuffed full of facts which would make it less readable. But the introductory pages  were a revelation because Carson was clearly someone who understood rhythm and meter and imagery. It was a very poetic form of prose that I loved. But clearly not enough to read any further because there the book sits on the shelf unread all these years later.
  9. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. This 1794 novel is satirised in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I’d never read it but thought it would be interesting to see exactly some of the form and conventions of the Gothic novel that she was ridiculing. It’s a fat novel where not a lot seems to happen for a very long time other than the heroine goes wandering around some mountainous region of France. I kept waiting for the ‘horror’ element to kick in. My copy still has my bookmark showing that I read about half of it. Will I ever go back to read the remaining section? Hm, not entirely sure about that.
  10. Pamela by Samuel Richardson. This one belongs to an era when I was trying to fill in some gaps from my reading of the early British novel. Pamela, published in 1740, was the best-seller of its time. The reading public obviously had more patience and tolerance than I did because I’ve not got much further than page 50. As with Radcliffe, will I feel its good for my soul to read this or that life it too short to spend on books I am not enjoying?

 

Audiobooks: Ruth Rendell; Kim Deveraux, Arnaldur Indriðason #Britishcrime #Nordiccrime

Harm Done by Ruth Rendell

harmdoneRendell can always be relied upon for a meticulously plotted crime within the context of a contemporary social issue. Harm Done is no exception. It finds Chief inspector Wexford  confronted by three crimes – the abduction of two young girls by an odd couple who make the girls do their housework; mob violence targeted at a child molester recently released from prison and the disappearance of a three-year-old girl. Other novelists would have somehow connected these crimes, often in a highly implausible way but Rendell is too canny a writer to take that predictable approach. Instead she opts for  thematic linkage by showing that beneath the idyllic façade that Kingsmarkham shows to the world is a darker world of abuse towards women. 

Rendell’s tendency to contextualise her crime with current social issues is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her work. No Harm shows us the perspective of the victims of domestic violence, their children and the people who try to help by running refuges and helplines.  It pushes the Inspector to confront his assumptions about abuse and to learn more from the one member of his family who has hands-on knowledge, his daughter who works at one of the women’s shelters.

The novel works well as an audio version.  Nigel Anthony has the right kind of edginess to his voice to make Wexford’s sometimes irascible temper believable.  

Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriðason

silenceofthegrave-1I’m indebted to Sarah at HardBooksHabit for introducing me to Indridasonand his Reykjavik Murder Mysteries series. Her review of  Jar City got me scurrying in search of anything in our library service catalogue that featured Detective Inspector Erlendur and his team. Silence of the Grave , translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder is book number 4 in the series.

This finds Erlendur called in when a skeleton is discovered half-buried in a construction site outside of Reykjavík. As archaeologists unearth the body inch by inch  Erlendur’s team painstakingly try to piece together the history of families who might have lived  in the area decades earlier. They are not sure even if they’re dealing with the victim of a murder or a simple case of a missing person who got lost in one of Iceland’s winter storms.Few people are alive who can help him unravel this cold case and even those who are, seem reluctant to tell the truth.

Compounding the problem is that, like many other fictional detectives Erlendur has a troubled personal life which threatens to erupt at the most incovenient moment.  When his estranged daughter makes a dramatic call for his help  Erlendur desperately goes in search of her through the streets of Reykjavik,  questioning drug addicts and previous known associates to understand how she has ended up in a coma from which she may never recover.   As Erlendur struggles to hold together the crumbling fragments of his family, his case unearths many other tales of family pain in the hills around Reykjaik: of domestic violence; family shame and loyalty.

This was a highly satisfying read; well paced with plenty of red herrings and false trails to keep me guessing plus of course it had the benefit of a strong sense of the Icelandic mentality and landscape. I also liked the fact this was constructed as a dual narrative – in parallel with the detection story we also have a dreadful, yet engrossing back story of a woman trapped by domestic abuse.

Well worth reading/listening to. I shall be on the look out for more of this series soon.

Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux

rembrandtThis is Deveraux’s debut novel. Like  Tracy Chevalier’s hugely successful Girl with a Pearl Earring  Rembrandt’s Mirror features a servant girl who enters the home of a leading Dutch painter and becomes their muse. The girl in question here is Henrickje, a young and innocent lass brought up in a strict Calvinist home in the provinces. Entering Rembrandt’s house (which also operates as his studio), she is shocked by his unconventionality and his carnal goings on with another servant. But she can’t stop herself watching  – or imagining – and gradually she is drawn closer and closer into his world.

This is  a novel set during Rembrandt’s later years which were marked by personal tragedy and financial difficulties. His adored wife Saskia who was a model for many of his paintings has died and he is struggling to regain his artistic inspiration. His housekeeper Geertje becomes his lover but Rembrandt finds her rather too much of a handful and sends her packing. It proves rather a costly move since she sues him for breach of promise and wins. But Geertje’s departure paves the way for the relationship between Henrickje and Rembrandt to flourish.   I should add here that this novel is based on fact – these three women did exist and were key figures in Rembrandt’s life.

Naturally the novel is steeped in Rembrandt’s art with each chapter named after one of his paintings and several passages which give us a window into Rembrandt’s way of working.

If I’d been reading a print version, I could have looked up the paintings as they were introduced but it was impossible to do that with an audio version that I listened to while on the treadmill. Another problem I experienced was that the narrative point of view switched between Rembrandt and Henrickje but because I heard only one voice coming through my headphones I was often tripped up  by the changes. That wouldn’t have happened with a print or electronic version of course. Overall I enjoyed this and I learned something new about Rembrandt. If it interests you I recommend you skip the audio option.

 

 

An Embarrassment of Riches

This was the week where my reading life went out of control.

newbooksI’ve been doing reasonably well with my attempt to read more from the books I already own this year, and consequently buy less. But the plan started to go south when I wandered into the library on Monday where they had a sale and found a reasonably good copy of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being which was a novel I meant to read when it was shortlisted but never got around to. Only one purchase – not disastrous by any means but a few minutes later as I was passing a Pound store  I remembered Karen at Kaggsy’sBookishRamblings had uncovered a few choice books among the acres of cheap shampoo and bathroom cleaner, there might be a few books).  It had frankly never occurred to me this kind of shop might offer any intellectual stimulation so it was a surprise to find two gems.

The first one, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was much talked about when it was published in 2011 but I wasn’t sure I was that interested in a novel set around the time of the Trojan War. But having been following a Coursera module on Greek and Roman myths for the past few weeks, my interest level as increased – so of course how could I resist a pristine copy at £1???  And then another much-discussed novel Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – this was even more of a bargain since it’s a never-opened hardback. Not sure its worth adding Poundstretcher to my regular shopping haunts but a peek every few months might be in order.

So Monday came and went with three new books added to the shelf. I knew I wouldn’t be reading these for a while since I’m still trying to finish the #20booksofsummer reading and get to read a few Viragos for All August/AllVirago month.

By Tuesday that plan was thrown a bit off course when the library called to say two of my reserved items were now available. I’d even forgotten about one of them (Don Delillo’s Zero K) since the waiting list was so long and when I looked at the blurb I was mystified when I’d even requested this. Science-based stories are not usually my thing so why had I reserved a novel about a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. In a spirit of generosity to other readers who do enjoy those kinds of stories, it was returned immediately.

Which left me with the ManBooker 2016 long listed novel All That Man Is by David Szalay. I have no intention of trying to read all 13 long listed novels before the Man Booker judges announce the shortlist on September 13. But I do like to read samples of them and read a few in full just to get a flavour of what’s in contention. This one picqued my interest because its essentially the story of nine separate individuals so can be read as a short story collection or as a novel.

Wednesday’s post brought another Man Booker title – The Many by Wyl Menmuir which is one I really, really wanted to read but couldn’t get my hands on a copy anywhere. The publishers Salt had printed only 1,000 copies initially so were rather overhwhelmed by the interest when the longlist was announced. A new print run was rushed through to satisfy the hungry appetites of readers like me….

If you’re keeping track so far you’ll have seen that it’s just midweek and already I have 5 new titles all demanding my attention. Some rapid re-thinking of the reading plan for the next few weeks ensued.

But like all the best laid plans, that too got thrown in the bin when NetGalley sent a batch of emails telling me I’d been approved for two other Man Booker Prize long listed titles: The Schooldays of Jesus by J. M Coetzee  and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Now I absolutely do want to read the Coetzee since the two novels I’ve read by him previously have been outstanding but having seen a review of Eileen on the Readers’ Room blog earlier today I’m not as convinced I will get on well with this.

Do Not DisturbSeven new acquisitions in four days is going some for me. But that wasn’t the end of the story because yesterday a box arrived from some kind colleagues in the USA containing – guess what? Books!

Am I complaining? No not a bit of it. I just have to get my head down and start reading through this stack and all the ones piling up on the e-reader including another of the Man Booker long listed titles Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. Expect me to be a bit quiet for a few weeks………Shhh

Devoted Ladies by M.J. Farrell #Virago

devoted ladiesWhen I spotted a Virago copy of Devoted Ladies by M.J. Farrell in an Oxford charity shop, I knew precisely three things about M. J Farrell:

  1. She was Irish.
  2. She also wrote under the name of Molly Keane – a name popular among bloggers who are avid readers of Virago Modern Classics.
  3. Her work was characterised by a sharpness of wit that was directed at the Anglo Irish landed gentry of which she was a member.

About Devoted Ladies I knew next to nothing. The back cover blurb told me it was her fifth novel and was unusual in that the elements which characterised her first four publications – namely, horses, romance and snobbery – were replaced by something rather more sensational and gritty. Rather more up my street in other words.

This is a tale of two women who live together within the fashionable London society circle of the 1930s. Farrell avoids any mention of a physical relationship between them but drops enough hints for us to detect this is a lesbian couple; a daring topic for a novel given that only a few years earlier Radclyffe Hall’s  novel on the same theme, Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity.

It doesn’t take long to further establish that far from being ‘devoted’ Jessica and Jane have a rather stormy relationship. Jessica is butch, domineering and sharp-tongued; Jane is softer, a bit silly, and a drinker. She is easy prey to the cruel possessive behaviour of her ‘friend’.

Her cohort of friends don’t care for what they witness – particularly when things turn nastily violent – and fear for her safety. But they’re also rather tired of what they consider Jane’s histrionics. One of them, the playwright Sylvester Browne, is too wrapped up in his own world and anyway doesn’t see it as his business to intervene. It’s left to a newcomer among this group, George Playfair, an Irish gentleman of the hunting class, to come to Jane’s aid. When he finds Jane recovering from a bout of alcoholic poisoning he takes pity on her and persuades her to leave her London home and visit Ireland to aid her recovery. Since he doesn’t really comprehend the nature of her relationship with Jessica he’s oblivious to the way she will interpret his invitation as a challenge to her own control over Jane. The battle is set with Jane caught in the middle.

It took a while for me to warm to Devoted Ladies. I enjoyed the first scenes which lay out a world which has so few cares it can devote itself entirely to hedonistic pleasures. Jane isn’t a particularly likeable character – in the early chapters she plays a lot on the little girl lost act but is essentially a drunk much given to plaintive requests to her guests to”fix me a brandy and soda, I feel horrible.” when she feels she is being ignored. The first chapters set in Ireland didn’t set me alight either since much of this revolves around Sylvester and the Hester and Viola (Piggy) Browne, two cousins with whom he stays in Ireland and who struck me as rather pathetic initially.

Piggy is a charmless character when we first get to know her; lacking self knowledge and consideration for Hester, spending money on frivolous presents ye nothing that would make the house they share more habitable. But then Piggy began to get a hold on me the more I saw how Farrell  made her silliness and self centred nature a mask. Piggy is so desperate to be loved and valued, that she goes to quite extraordinary lengths to gain the approval of her so-called friend Joan though their every encounter uses her hours of anxiety. How to time her arrival at Joan’s house so as not to appear too eager yet not lose a precious moment of time with Joan? And then the vexed question of what to wear, requiring a delicate balance between looking good and yet not looking as if she’d gone out to buy something new especially.

How To Look One’s Best in Old Clothes was a question that fevered Piggy to her very soul. The passion that was on her to look her very best on these lovely days was set about miserably by the knowledge that her appearance in Castlequarter in any clothes not in rags would be met by a cold scrutiny, and Joan’s faint ridiculing voice would examine the matter, saying “Why are you so grand today Piggy?” or “i did mean to take the children ratting in the manure heaps this morning but it seems a bit severe on your nice new clothes.

Poor Piggy resorts to deliberately cutting holes in perfectly good clothes, wearing clothes stained with a dog’s footprints and an odd ensemble, just to try and pass muster. This is a woman whom Farrell shows, is not living – and has never really lived – but merely existed; a victim to stronger characters who know exactly how to pull her strings. Though Devoted Ladies is meant to be comic – and indeed it has its witty moments – my overwhelming feeling when I learned Piggy’s fate was of profound sadness for a life wasted.

What started as a novel I was ambivalent about – and at times considered abandoning – became by the end a moving experience. It’s apparently not Farrell/Keane’s best work (that seems to be considered Good Behaviour which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981) but it’s given me enough of a taste to read her other novels.

Footnotes

Author: Devoted Ladies by M. J Farrell

Published: 1934. Re-issued as Virago Modern Classic number 138 in 1984

Length: 303 pages

My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until All August/All Virago month and #20booksofsummer 2016

Opinions about this novel differ considerably according to some of the reviews on Goodreads. For another fan take a look at the review by heavenali

 

 

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa #Japanliterature

housekeeperForget about class divisions or gender boundaries, generation gaps or religious beliefs; in my view of the world what really separates us is whether we are numbers people or words people. I’m firmly in the latter camp. Give me a piece of text to analyse, interpret and possibly improve and I am in my element. Confront me with a bunch of numbers whether in table or graph or columns and my brain shrivels.

It was always so. At school I was the one in class who handed a question along the lines of “if a bath fills at x number of gallons per minute and empties at x gallons per minute, how long before the bath will be full?, would answer “a damm sight quicker if you left the plug in the hole.”

I do admire people who can see  a set of numbers and instantly detect patterns and connections. I can get there after a fashion – you have to if you don’t want to look entirely stupid in a business meeting – but it takes a lot of blood and sweat.

What the hell you might then think am I doing reading a book about a maths professor? And one that also contains numbers and real maths problems with concepts like prime numbers and logarithms? The first time they appeared in Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor I actually got out my pencil and tried to work out the problem (I would have loved to have been able to do it in my head just like the young boy whose mother gets to clean house for the maths guru but no such luck). So struck was I with another little puzzle about prime numbers and the fact I could even understand it, that I challenged my 17-year-old nephew who is a maths whizz kid to solve it. He didn’t. I didn’t push my luck though with the next batch of questions which looked much harder. I know my limits. Instead I just enjoyed the words which flowed around the numbers and just accepted that there are people in the world who might get even more out of this book if they understood both the numbers and the words.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is set in modern day Japan and features a Professor who was a brilliant mathematician until he was injured in a road accident. Now confined to a dingy two-room apartment his brain can retain only 80 minutes worth of memory. His suit jacket is covered with reminder notes he scribbles to himself to make up for his incomplete memory. He can still solve maths problems and in fact spends much of his day tackling competitions in specialist journals. But ask him to remember the name of his cleaner or even who this woman is who turns up at his door, and he is lost.

It’s as if he has a single, 80-minute videotape inside his head and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.

Over the years he’s gone through a lot of housekeepers. They find him too strange to stick around particularly when seemingly innocuous questions like “what is your birthday’ or ‘what is your shoe size?’ are transformed into lessons about number theory. The narrator of this novella is housekeeper number 10 (we never learn her name). At first she too finds him strange but  comes to respect him and to like him through witnessing his passion for maths and his kindness towards her son, a boy he nicknames Root because the shape of his head reminds him of the mathematical square root symbol. Slowly the three form a connection as the Professor instills his knowledge and his enthusiasm for number patterns with mother and child. Inevitably we learn that this knowledge provides the foundation for the boy’s future career.

He’s a brilliant tutor – the kind I wish I’d had in my school days. Explaining prime numbers he draws an analogy with a hunt through inhospitable countryside

 When you get to much bigger numbers – a million or 10 million – you’re venturing into a wasteland where the primes are terribly far apart […] that’s right, a desert. No matter how far you go, you don’t find any. Just sand as far as the eye can see. The sun shines down mercilessly, your throat is parched, your eyes glaze over. Then you think you see one, a prime number at last, and you go running toward it – only to find that it’s just a mirage, nothing but hot wind. Still, you refuse to give up, staggering on step by step, determined to continue the search … until you see it at last, the oasis of another prime number, a place of rest and cool, clear water …

Just as steadily the book began to take a hold on me too with its skilful mixture of  understated atmosphere and its attention to the minutea of life.  There are plenty of feel-good moments  when mother and son scour the city for a momento of the Professor’s beloved baseball player so they can mark the old man’s birthday. Occasionally the narrative stretches the boundaries of plausibility – at one point the housekeeper gets to grips with Fermat’s Last Theorem with the aid of a few pages in a library book.

Is this knowledge an illusion? The novella certainly has a dreamlike, almost mythical quality to it with its idea of a wise old man leading a younger mind to enlightenment. Even so most of us can appreciate that when knowledge is acquired, when we discover that what had so far seemed complex and unattainable, is now revealed. Perhaps for us, as for the housekeeper  “the world suddenly changed” at that moment. I’ve not given up hope that one day I’ll understand logarithms et al but I rather suspect it will take me a lot longer than the few hours it took the housekeeper.

 

Footnotes

Author: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Published: original title Hakase  no Aishita Suushiki 2003 by Shinchosa Co Ltd

Translated: from Japanese by Stephen Snyder  for Vintage Books 2010

Length: 180 pages

My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016

The View from Here: What to read from Japan

BellezzaContinuing The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to Japan with the help of Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. From her home in the suburbs of Chicago she keeps a close eye on Japanese fiction and hosts a Japanese fiction challenge each year to share her love of literature from this part of the world. 

Let’s meet Meredith

I have been an elementary teacher for 32 years, and it is one of the great joys of my life. But, another passion of mine is the love for literature. When blogs were first coming into existence I found a few related to books, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that. Discussing books with fellow readers was such a rare thing for me, because while there are book clubs, so many of my friends and acquaintances did not want to read translated literature as I do. So, my blog has leaned more and more toward toward that genre.

Q. You are the host for a Japanese literature challenge. Why does fiction from this pat of the world appeal to you so much? 

I have hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge for ten years, which surprises even me. It was most popular in its second year, during which I “met” many of the people with whom I still blog. But even today, those who love Japanese literature still look forward to the event which begins in June and ends in January. I have always held a fascination for Japan, particularly with origami which I use constantly in my class for lessons and rewards. I wanted to learn more about Japan’s authors, and through my own challenge and its participants, was able to expand my knowledge of Japanese literature.

Q. What was the first book by a Japanese author that you can recall reading and enjoying? What made it so special?

The very first book I remember  reading was Kafka on The Shore by Haruki Murakami. I loved it so much, I have since read it three times. But, I do not presume to know all of what he’s saying in that, or any of his other, novels. I love that Murakami suggests, in his own words, that readers should be “wide open to possibility”. To me that means there is not just one interpretation of the life lessons he so ingeniously writes about.

Q. Authors like Huruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto have done a lot to bring Japanese writing to the attention of people around the world. What about writers from an earlier phase in the country’s history – are there some ‘classic’ works of fiction we should look at? 

Some of the books that I would term classic Japanese literature are by authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki. I have particularly enjoyed Naomi by Tanizaki, and The House of Sleeping Beauties by Kawabata.

Q. One comment often made about Japanese fiction, is that plot development and action have often been of secondary interest to emotional issues. Has that been your experience or would you say that’s a fairly simplistic assessment?

One of the most difficult things about coming to Japanese literature, for me, was that there often wasn’t the  beginning-middle-end I had come to expect from western literature. Once I could suspend my disbelief, and look at the writing more as a “slice of life”, I could enjoy the books much more. It was a necessary change of mind set for me, otherwise I felt rather lost in a Japanese novel. Unless it was a crime thriller, of course, of which the Japanese are so stupendous at writing.

Q Which contemporary Japanese authors do you think we should be paying more attention to?

I wish that I knew more about the contemporary authors outside of the crime/thriller genre. I have a great passion for the young writers of this genre, particularly Keigo Higashino and Fuminori Nakamura.

Has this whetted your appetite?

If this has given you an enthusiasm to discover more about  Japanese literature, there is still time to join in the Japanese Literature Challenge because it runs until January.  The idea is that participants would read at least one work of Japanese literature – be it classical or contemporary, mystery or thriller. See the introductory post here  If you are looking for inspiration there is a recommended reading list available too.

The Tree of Life by Maryse Condé #WITMonth

Tree of Life_miniI’m beginning to wonder if I have an issue with multi-generational family sagas. They do tend to go on for far longer than the story can sustain – and my patience endure. Or perhaps Tree of Life by Maryse Condé had been on my ‘to read’ shelf for well past its ‘best before’ date and the initial impetus for buying it had long disappeared. Either way, this was my first read for Women in Translation month 2016, and I was disappointed.

Tree of Life is a very personal story of multiple generations of one family from poverty in Guadeloupe to a comfortable existence with the trappings of a middle class life. It’s told by one of the descendants Coco although it is not until the end does she understand why she is telling this story.  She is ‘the child of our tomorrows’ a family acquaintance tells her, the keeper of the flame of memory not just of her family but of her country’s history.

Coco begins by relating the history of her great grandfather Albert Louis,  a man of determination who resolves to be slave to no man and to forge a new life for himself.

..on that day, Albert Louis,  … looked at the handful of coins he had just received from the over-seer, raised his eyes to Heaven as if asking courage of the sun, and thundered:

It’s over. This is the last time I come here to get my pay like a dog.

And with that dramatic flourish he prepares to leave his  native island and head to to America where he’d heard there was money to be made building the Panama Canal. After years of hardship and a few personal setbacks he rises above the level of a drudge and in doing so lays the foundation of a dynasty  whose members travel far and wide from Guadeloupe. The lives, loves and tribulations of his descendants become the focus of the rest of the book  tracing their rise to wealth from around 1904 to the 1980s as they move variously between cane plantations in Guadeloupe, poor settlements in Harlem and Haiti and the excitement of the streets of Paris. They try their hand at commerce, experience the joy and heartache of love and dally with politics.

This sweeping narrative is appealing in part. Arthur Louis is very much the patriarch who rules his life and those of his children with passion and stubbornness. There is more than a tinge of moral ambiguity to this figure. He gets swept along by the teachings of the Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey, placing huge faith in Garvey’s statement “I shall teach the Black Man to see beauty in himself.” Yet back home in Guadeloupe the native workers he employs to run his import-export warehouse and business fare little better than Albert Louis did in his plantation days and he squeezes everything he can from the impoverished black families who rent his shoddy tenement houses.

Equally well drawn is the troubled relationship of Coco and her mother Thecla. The latter  sees herself as rather a free spirt, which seems to involve having a love affair and then ditching the resulting mixed race daughter in France, never to see or make contact with her for 10 years.Then when she’s shacked up with some other guy she drags the poor child first to Guadeloupe and then to Jamaica, exposing her to bulling and ridicule as not racially pure. If I had a mother like that I’d be hell bent on putting as much distance as possible between me and her.

Woven through the life stories of the generations is the emergence of black consciousness and the struggle for equality. Individuals within each generation develop their own approaches to the issue with varying degrees of success but despite the growth of mixed marriages, there is still a feeling of animosity between white and black populations. It’s left to Coco’s mother to make the most impassioned statement about discrimination that can ranges from verbal and physical attacks to prohibiting children playing together and forming friendships across colour. Yet what Thecla also sees is how racial attitudes may to always be stated – they just exist.

Thecla explains to her daughter that her origins as the child of a white family,  make it hard to relate to her daughter because all she sees is the whiteness of her father and

…  his mother …  on her high horse, asking me who my family was and sniffing in disgust at the salt-cod smell of our name. For no one ever said a word about my colour which fundamentally was the real problem. They never talk about colour even if its right there before their eyes: It’s not done. It’s dirtier, color is, than the green diarrohea of amoebic dysentery or the sulphurous yellow piss of incontinence! When I see you, yes, I can’t help it, it’s all that I see. … Filthy stupidity, stubborn arrogance, pettiness ….. Alas thats how it is and neither you nor I can do a thing about it.

Tree of Life is a meandering novel that starts well but then seems to get bogged down in detail when Arthur Louis returns to Guadeloupe and the next generation grow up. The detail is clearly important to Coco and to Condé herself but I don’t see them as interesting to us just as my family’s history is precious to me but I know few other people care what my great great grandfather did. So for all the references to the troubled history of Guadeloupe and its people, ultimately this felt like a very long story about a set of individuals who once inhabited the planet.

Footnotes

Author: Tree of Life by Marys Condé

Published: as La Vie Scélérate in 1987 by Editions Seghers

Translated: from French by Victotia Retter and published in English by Ballantine Books/Random House in 1992.

Length: 368 pages

My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016

 

Moskva by Jack Grimwood: darkness at the heart of the Soviet Union #thriller

moskvaMoscow Christmas Eve 1985. The naked body of  a young boy is found at the foot of the Kremlin. There are no clues as to how he met his death. No bullet holes, no stab wounds, no broken limbs, no bruises. But his skin is unnaturally white. Someone, it seems, drained his body of blood before dumping him in the snow.

One week later and Alex Marston, the headstrong teenage step-daughter of the British Ambassador, goes missing from the official residence. Has she been abducted? What’s the connection between her and the body found at the Kremlin? Her mother is distraught. For her step-father it’s an inconvenience because if she’s not found quickly he’ll be obliged to involve the Soviet police and diplomatic service.

Though he has little regard for Major Tom Cook, the newest member of the Embassy team, the Ambassador’s options are limited.  Cook, a chaplain turned army intelligence officer who it appears was hurriedly sent to Moscow to avoid spilling secrets to a government inquiry about uncover operations in Northern Ireland, is drafted in to find the girl. It’s an assignment that drags him deep into the heart of a faction of the Soviet establishment that is determined to protect itself at all costs.   Cook has to call on all his resources in the face of opposition from KGB, the Politburo and some of the highest level of government ministers, none of whom want the secrets of the past to come to light. He has few people on his side other than the owner of a seedy bar, a former soldier who returned from Afghanistan with a prosthetic made from the leaf spring of a car. This unlikely pair have to act fast as the body count rises.

An avalanche of thrilling set pieces propels the plot forward to a perfect show down ending. Grimwood is new to thriller writing (he’s a well established author of science fiction) but his handling of tension and complex plot lines is sure-footed. If that was all this novel offered I’d have rated the novel as a good one to read on a beach/sun l0unger

kremlin

Russia’s ruling elite at Red Square, Moscow 1985

with eyes only half open. But this is a novel which brings Moscow and the Soviet system in the era before Glasnost vividly to life. This is a country divided between those who want to protect the centralised command and control model of the past and the newer political leaders like Gorbachev who see the future as one of reform and openness.

Into this maelstrom steps Cook, a hero who is as divided as the country in which he now has to operate. He’s a man very much at home with a very large flask of vodka. Alcohol is the only way he can deal with his demons; the despair over the death of his daughter and his failure as a father. His quest for Alex becomes a personal quest for salvation:

…. how could he explain he’d pinned his entire hope of redemption on finding Alex? He needed redemption as much as she needed saving. If she was still alive to be saved. if there was enough of him to be redeemed. He wouldn’t allow himself to leave the Soviet Union until that was done. He couldnt…

Tom knew how absurd that was, how arrogant, how messianic.

He didn’t care.

Like most of the characters Grimwood presents in Moskva, Cook is larger than life. But there’s enough of his back story, and enough of his ruminations on his failure as a father, a husband and soldier to feel that we want to be on his side; empathising when he suffers set backs, groaning when he seeks out yet another shot of vodka and cheering him on when he gets his breaks. Without him Moskva wouldn’t be half as good a novel. It would still be a good yarn but with him, Grimwood has delivered a stunningly readable, atmospheric, gripping novel.

The Daily Telegraph picked it as one of the best crime fiction novels of 2016. I won’t argue with that…..

Footnotes for Moskva by Jack Grimwood

  • Published in hardback format: May 2016
  • Paperback due out November 2016
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Print Length: 480 pages
  • Language: English
  • Author webpage: http://www.jackgrimwood.com/index.html

 

Last Orders by Graham Swift #Bookerprize

Last ordersLast Orders  is a tale of four men who embark on a day trip to the seaside. Actually there are five people in the car that takes them from London to Margate though one of them is not in a position to contribute much to the conversation, he being recently cremated and present only in the form of a box of his ashes.

Jack Dodds, a butcher by trade, may not be alive but he is very much the focal point of this trip. It was his dying request that his son Vince and his three best mates Ray, Lenny and Vic – scatter his ashes from the jetty at Margate where he spent his honeymoon. As they journey from Bermondsey to Margate with detours to the  Sailors’ Memorial at Chatham and Canterbury Cathedral, each of them reflects on his friendship with Jack and their own lives. Their stories are revealed in short chapters told from one or other of the characters, stories which intertwine and build gradually to a picture of men who are in denial about their lives.

There’s Ray, an insurance clerk whose wife dumped him for another man. He gets sympathy from the others because for many years he hasn’t heard from his only daughter who lives in Australia. Actually the breach is Ray’s fault – he is the one who stopped writing, unable to find a way to tell his daughter about key events in her life.

Vince, the chauffeur for the day, had a troubled relationship with Jack throughout his life. It stemmed from his resentment that he wasn’t really Jack’s son but taken in by him and his wife Amy as a baby when his own family were killed in a bombing raid during World War 2. Vince was in effect a substitute for their real child who was born severely retarded and whom Jack could never accept. As Vince grew up he railed against the presumption that he would become a butcher just like Jack. Instead he turned his hand to car mechanics, much to Jack’s dismay even though the business proved successful.

And then there’s Lenny, a fruit-and-veg stallholder who has good reason to be angry with Vince. Having got Lenny’s daughter pregnant Vince disappeared into the Army instead of doing the decent thing and marrying the girl.  It suits Lenny to blame Vince for the fact his daughter is now shacked up with a guy who is serving a prison sentence. What he doesn’t admit even to himself is how much he played a part in her unhappy life by forcing her to have a backstreet abortion.

margate

Margate: the final destination in Last Orders

All these undercurrents rise to the surface as the quartet make their circuitous pilgrimage to the coast. It’s left to Vic, an undertaker, to act the peacemaker though even he cannot prevent a standoff fight between two of the other men.  All four of these men have experienced disappointments and frustrations but they won’t admit it to themselves or to their companions. They draw a discrete veils over many events like Ray’s affair with Jack’s  wife. Only the reader can see the truth by piecing together what the men say – but even more significantly what they don’t say. For this is a novel where despite the multiplicity of voices it’s the silences that tell the real story.

In some ways Last Orders is quite a simple book about rather ordinary people, the kind you can meet every day. It’s very much a male world – Jack’s wife Amy is the only female character of note – dominated by the pub and the armed forces in which all these men served (the title Last Orders has connotations of military orders as well as Jack’s instructions). It’s a little bleak in some parts but lightened with the occasional moment of black humour when the guys became resentful they were not getting their fair share of time carrying the plastic bag containing Jack’s ashes. By the end they are beginning to look to the future and the possibilities remaining in their own lives: Ray for example thinks it’s time he visited his daughter in Australia while Amy who has visited her daughter in her institutional home every week for 50 years, decides it’s time for a parting of the ways.

It was hard to feel much connection with these characters initially because the narrator kept changing so often with only subtle changes in their speech patterns.  I found I had to keep checking the chapter headings to make sure I knew whose story was being told. But as the book progressed it became clear that this lack of clarity was by design – just as I couldn’t sort out their lives neither could each of these men. Maybe everyone of us has a jumbled life. We’re too close to it to make sense of it ourselves so we just relate the pieces and let others put it together to make a cohesion.

Footnote

Last Orders by Graham Swift is published by Picador. It won the Booker Prize in 1996 though true to form, not all the critics thought it was a good choice. One Australian professor pointed to the similarity of the plot with William Faulkner’s As I Lay DyingSwift responded to the critique by saying his book was an “echo” of Faulkner’s but nothing more.

Six degrees: From Year of Wonders

I’ve never tried my hand at the Six Degrees of Separation but the latest chain resulted in some creative linking by a number of bloggers. It got me thinking what connections I could find.

The chain starts with Year of Wonders, a novel that was an international best seller for Geraldine Brooks. Year of Wonders is based on a true-life story of the small Peak District village of the village of Eyam that put itself in quarantine to prevent the spread of the dreaded bubonic plague. If you don’t know this book, I hope my review will persuade you to beg/borrow/buy it soon.

The plague also makes its appearance in an audio book I just finished – Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux  – which features a young servant who goes to work in the painter’s house in Amsterdam and ends up becoming his muse and model. I won’t reveal exactly how the plague fits in because that would reveal too much of the plot but I can recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction set in the seventeenth century.

If you’re thinking the servant/painter’s house/Netherlands combination sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be far wrong because this is also the premise of Girl with a Pearl Earring  the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier set in the Delft studios of the painter Vermeer.Chevalier said she was inspired to write the book having seen the Vermeer painting at the Mauritshuis art museum in The Hague (you can hear her Ted talk on this here).

From the Mauritshuis it’s but a short step to the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This is a key location in   Edna O’Brien’s most recent novel The Little Red Chairs in which a war criminal known in his country as the Beast of Bosnia is found hiding in a remote Irish village. He is captured and taken to the Hague to stand trial for genocide just as Radovan Karadžić was and sentenced earlier this year to 40 years’ imprisonment for atrocities and war crimes.

Violence and crime committed during war also feature large in the novel I’ve just finished reading – Moskva by Jack Grimwood. It’s a page turner of a thriller that begins with the discovery of a young boy’s body at the foot of the Kremlin and the disappearance of the British Ambassador’s daughter. The year is 1985 and Gorbachev is the man who has just taken the hot seat as leader of the Soviet Union with the intent of rescuing the crumbling economic and political system. The plot takes us back to 1945 and the Russian advance on Berlin. What happened then is something the KGB and the Politburo would prefer remain a secret but they have a determined adversary in the form of Major Tom Fox, a man used to going undercover in some of the world’s hottest spots.

Moscow. Snow.  KGB. Bodies. It wouldn’t be a thriller set in Russia without these features and they don’t get much better than Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. The story follows Arkady Renko, a chief investigator for the Militsiya, (the civil police) who is assigned to a case involving three corpses found in Gorky Park, an amusement park in Moscow, who have had their faces and fingertips cut off by the murderer to prevent identification. So realistic a picture did it depict of everyday life in pre-Glasnost era, that the book was immediately banned in the USSR. It’s still one of the best thrillers I’ve read set in Russia.

So in six smallish journeys we’ve gone from plague to political intrigue and from a small village in England to  a Dutch city in its golden years and from painters to men determined to get to the truth.

 

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