Author Archives: BookerTalk

The Comforters by Muriel Spark #bookreview

The ComfortersThe Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.

It contains two broad plot lines.

Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose,  a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.

Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes:  On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena. 

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”

Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.

Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery.  Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.

With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.

I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.

I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.

That was also my reaction.

I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.

 

There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles.  Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.

The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.

Footnotes

About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.

Why I read this book:  Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.

Other opinions: Other reviewers have enjoyed this far more than I did. Take a look at reviews by HeavenAli  (who is hosting a#ReadingMuriel2018 project) and piningforthewest. 

 

 

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles #bookreview

gentleman_in_moscowIn Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, the Russian Revolution is a few years old but the country is still in a state of upheaval. The ruling bodies are on a mission to root out individuals whom they consider to be a destabilising force. Their attention turns to Count Alexander Rostov, a suave and handsome member of the aristocracy who has gained a reputation as a poet but whose work is considered counter-revolutionary by the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.

Only his connections with some high-ranking officials save him from being stood in front of a wall and shot. Instead, after declaring him to be a “Former Person” , the Committee sentence the count to imprisonment in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. It’s the city’s foremost hotel, an Art Deco edifice place frequented by the rich and famous, bureaucrats and foreign visitors. As befitting his status and love of the finer aspects of life, the count has been a regular guest at the Metropol, occupying the elegantly furnished suite 317 from which he can look upon the Bolshoi Theatre.

His new abode will be considerably more modest; a miniscule attic room whose ceiling slopes so acutely it’s difficult for the new occupant to stand to his full height. Into this disused servant’s quarter, the count crams some of his favourite pieces of fine furniture: two high back chairs, an oriental coffee table, a Louis XVI desk, two table lamps fashioned from elephants and his grandmother’s favourite set of porcelain plates.

It’s in this cell that he will live for the next forty years.

The insularity of this setting seemed one that would pose considerable challenges for both writer and reader. A Gentleman in Moscow is a long novel with more than 400 pages of small text and not much white space. I started reading with some trepidation. Could this book sustain my interest when the central character never goes anywhere?

The answer is unquestionably yes.

Unable to send his count out into the world, Towles makes the world come to the count. Effectively he makes a whole new world out of the hotel, one peopled by a multitude of colourful characters. Actresses preen in the lobby, overseas journalists get drunk in the bar; members of the ruling elite plot and scheme and architects dream of one day being allowed to design more than just residential tower blocks. Other more permanent characters are the people who make this haven a special place: the barber who does not permit political talk within his salon; the moody chef who has to work magic with cauliflower and cabbage when other food becomes scarce and the bar staff who keep the candlelight glowing and glasses twinkling. And then there is Nina, a child of nine who has discovered more about the hidden corners and spaces of the hotel than the count ever dreamed existed. With the aid of a skeleton key she unlocks for him the secrets of the Metropol.

No character is as engaging or enticing as the count however. He’s a man who adopts a philosophical stance to the limitations of his new residence. Convinced that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.”  he determines on a path that will enable him to live a full and rich life. He adopts a few rituals; a weekly visit to the barber, a daily perusal of the newspapers in the lobby;  dinner in the Metropole’s prestigious Boyarsky restaurant and squat exercises every morning (the number of repetitions he achieves diminishes every few years). He lives according to the principle that, “If one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them.” And so he hits on a means to double the size of his room; kicking through into a closet to create a study.

As the years progress he proves to be the epitomy of the perfect gentleman; intelligent and charming; uncomplaining about his confinement and generous with his time and advice about the correct pairing of wine and food. He builds a camaraderie with the chef and maitre d’ that sees them plot how to beg and scrounge the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse. He is on first name terms with Marina the hotel seamstress whose help he needs when his trousers split. He even stands in loco parentis to the daughter of young girl.

Meanwhile the revolution lumbers along. It disrupts the smooth running of the hotel to the dismay of the staff who pride themselves on their professionalism. The quality of service which has been the hallmark of the Metropol is threatened. First,  the government decrees, in accordance with the spirit of egalitarianism, that labels must be removed from all the wine bottles in the hotel cellar. Then the overbearing manager nicknamed The Bishop (a Soviet stooge) introduces a new procedure  for taking, placing and billing of orders in the restaurant.  This procedure involves a lot of paperwork:

Henceforth … when a waiter took an order, he would write it on a pad designed for this purpose. Leaving the table, he would bring the order to the bookkeeper, who, having made an entry in his ledger, would issue a cooking slip for the kitchen. In the kitchen, a corresponding entry would be made for the cooking log, at which point the cooking could commence. When the food was ready for consumption, a confirmation slip would be issued by the kitchen to the bookkeeper, who in turn would provide  a stamped receipt to the waiter authorising the retrieval of the food. Thus a few minutes later the waiter would be able to make the appropriate notation on his notepad confirming that the dish which had been ordered, logged, cooked and retrieved and was finally on the table.

Towles can’t resist the opportunity to highlight the idiocies of the Soviet system but that doesn’t mean he completely ignores its darker side.  His unnamed narrator acknowledges that the 1930s was a difficult time for Russia with famine, housing shortages, constraints on artists and regular purges of undesirable individuals. Closer to home, the count’s friend Mishka feels the weight of censorship of the arts and literature and Nina, an enthusiastic supporter of  collectivisation, sees at first hand the savagery of Stalin’s plans for agriculture.  When her husband is arrested and sentenced to hard labour she feels compelled to follow him to Siberia, leaving her small daughter Sofia in the Count’s care and protection.

With the exception of  twist in the final section of the novel, there are no big dramatic turns of events. The delight is in the development of the characters.  I loved the many touches of humour but also the more reflective passages where the count recalls his childhood spent on a large family estate outside of the city and his relationship with his  friend Mishka, a poet. A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautifully paced novel, packed with detail and atmosphere that is a joy to read.

Footnotes

About the author Amor Towles was born and raised in Boston, USA. He worked as an investment professional for many years before devoting himself to writing. A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is his second novel.

Why I read this book: Quite simply because I saw several very positive reviews of this during 2017. If you want a second opinion on just how good this book is, take a look at these reviews:

Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings 

Lisa at ANZLitLovers

The View from Here: Books from Spain

Welcome to the next country in  The View from Here series on literature from around the world. Today we get to visit Spain. Our guide is Isi who loves blogging so much she has two sites: FromIsi in English is available via this link. The Spanish site is here.

Isi describes herself as one of those persons who enjoys winding down by grabbing a hot tea and a book and finishing the day immersed in a good story.”

Given that, she says it was a natural step, once the technology was available, to create a blog to talk about books.  Her first blog was in Spanish. How did the English language version happen?  “At the age of 30,” says Isi, “I decided to resume my long abandoned English lessons I started at school and my teacher, knowing my love for books, suggested to start a book blog in English, so I could practice my writing skills by writing reviews – a book lover always has something to write about, hasn’t she? That was the best idea ever, because not only did I practice every week, improving fast and enjoying the process, but I also found a great community of book bloggers from all around the world; people who have become my friends.”

Q. What books and authors from Spain were required reading in school? Books/authors that wereconsidered classic in other words and that every child was expected to know about?  

There are many of classic books you had to know at school, including all genres (poetry, drama, etc.), which, of course, at such ages you can’t enjoy or even get to know the subtle message hidden in them that seemed to provoke that awe to Literature teachers. It didn’t help that they are still written in old Spanish, which makes the reading even harder for young lads. I also remember learning lists of authors and their books by heart, an activity that I now see as useless as reading all those classics at such ages. I guess Literature lessons are the same in schools all over the world, but in my opinion, this approach only makes students hate books.

However, there is one exception: Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, the poet. I believe all teenagers have a “Bécquer period” in their lives; you fall in love for the first time, and Bécquer’s love poems begin to make sense…

To mention some other author and titles that have been translated into English, we all have read “The Celestina” by Fernando de Rojas, “The Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, “Lazarillo de Tormes”, whose author remains unknown, or “The grifter” by Francisco de Quevedo.

Q. It’s likely that anyone asked to name a Spanish author would come up with Cervantes. Or looking more to contemporary authors, they might name Javier Marías. Who are some authors we could be missing out on?

Well, let’s start with some authors who have been popular in recent years. Luz Gabás has been a best-selling author, whose first novel (Palm trees in the snow) has made it into a film, and it’s a great romance novel set in the last years of the Spanish colonialism in Africa. I particularly liked this book because I read and commented it with my grandmother, who also enjoyed it, and then we went together to watch the film. Almudena Grandes is another example of great literature I always recommend because her characters are too real, with complex stories that make you be part of them. Arturo Pérez-Reverte can be also considered a modern classic (like Javier Marías); his articles, short-stories and long novels are all well written and hooking – I particularly like his books about Captain Alatriste, but I’ve enjoyed every other piece he’s written. I’ll finish with Dolores Redondo, whose crime novels, The Baztán trilogy, have been also best-sellers and made it into films everybody talks about nowadays.

viewfromhere

Q. Which classical author from the past is your particular favourite  — and of course, why?

I couldn’t tell another than Benito Pérez-Galdós. I knew the titles of his books (because I had learned them by heart in school), but I only read one of his novels for the first time a few years ago, thanks to a fellow blogger. He wrote 46 books called “National episodes”, which are actually fictional, but include real events from our recent history, beginning with the title “Trafalgar”, that relates one of our endless conflicts with the British (I had to mention this, haha!).

Q. What can you tell us about the themes and traditions of literature in Spain?  Are there particular styles of writing or themes that are prevalent?

The most influential theme in our literature is the Spanish civil war. Like the books set in both world wars, our books set in the civil war always have something new for you to learn, and it is an issue that still divides Spanish society. To mention some of my favourite novels on the subject, I recommend “The frozen heart” by Almudena Grandes, who I mentioned above, and “In the night of time” by Antonio Muñoz Molina. However, I must warn future readers because I think you must do some research on the subject before reading these books to really benefit from them; you might get lost otherwise (after all, Spanish readers have being told about about the war by their relatives and studied it at school).

Recently there was a kind of “breakthrough” in Spanish literature with the publishing of a novel set in the Basque Country talking about ETA terrorism. The author is called Fernando Aramburu, and the title is “Patria”. It has been translated into several languages, so I guess it will be available in English soon.

Q. Who are some of the up and coming authors in Spain to whom you think we should pay more attention?

Apart from Aramburu, you absolutely have to read Víctor del Árbol. His books will be published in English this year, and you will find deeply emotional and though-provoking -but very hard- stories. Add “A million drops” to your reading list, please.

Alejandro Palomas is one of those rare cases in which I have to recommend an author I still haven’t read, but everybody is talking about him now and I have many reasons to believe I need to read his novels: he just won a literary prize and all my fellow bloggers are in love with his work, so take him into account as well.

Q. Are there any literary prizes that help to promote Spanish writing?

Many (too many?). There are several prizes awarded by some of the most important Spanish publishing houses but we, the readers, don’t pay much attention to them because they always seem to go to very famous authors, in order to increase sells for the publishing houses. An unknown author wouldn’t sell as much, right?

Nevertheless, there are other prizes that promise a good read. One of them is the Nadal Prize (nothing related to the tennis player, lol), the one Alejandro Palomas won this year, and there is another I always consider reading, which is an award from the booksellers association.

 

From Lincoln to Gaza in six steps

journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step is a common saying that originated from a famous Chinese proverb. Our journey in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation is going to begin in North America but is going to take us rather more than a thousand miles to complete. But we have to start somewhere and this month it is with the book that won the 2017 Man Booker Prize: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

I’ve not read this and don’t have any plans to do so essentially because it has a vast number of characters and I know from experience I get lost with books of that nature.

winding-roadThe title of this book refers to the 16th President of the United States. But Lincoln also happens to be the name of a city in the UK. It’s also a colour (Lincoln Green is what Robin Hood’s merry men were reputed to have worn). Which gives me a clue for my first link… a city associated with colour.

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason is set in the capital of Iceland, a country to which thousands flock every year in the hope of seeing the phenomena of the Northern Lights. The most common colour seen in this natural light display in the sky, is yellowish-green. 

The colour most associated with my next city is red.

If you’ve ever seen the May Day parade in Moscow, you’ll know that it takes place in Red Square watched over from the walls of the Kremlin by members of the Politburo. Just around the corner is another of the city’s landmarks – the Hotel Metropole,  renowned as a haunt for kings, politicians and cultural luminaries. In the superb novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Count Alexander Rostov is escorted out of the Kremlin and into the hotel where, by order of a Bolshevik tribunal, he has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest. Instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.

The upheaval of the Russian Revolution started not in Moscow but in the city that was, for a time, the capital of the country.

So for my next link let’s travel a little further north to St Petersburg and an early novel by Ken Follett, The Man from St Petersburg. This was the first book by him that I’d ever read. It was so long ago that I can’t tell you much about the story other than it was completely engrossing tale set before the outbreak of World War 1. One thing I do remember is that Follett had clearly undertaken a lot of research yet it never felt like he was just dumping the results on his readers. All the historical detail was carefully woven into the narrative. 

But I’m feeling rather chilly after spending so much time in the north. Let’s go south in search of some warmer climes.

The city in Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne is more than a setting, he makes it as much a character as his unamed narrator. With him we go on a meandering journey through deserted streets, across moonlit squares and into the cafes and bars of Paris. This is a novel which so effectively conveys the sense of the French capital that you feel you’re there, sipping wine in a boulevard cafe.

Let’s turn up the temperature even further with my fifth book: The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra. Now I like heat and sun but I don’t think I fancy taking a trip to this particular city. I’d have to wear a burkha and walk a few steps behind my husband, both of which would be anathema to me. 

So lets get out of here quickly.   The Book of Gaza edited by Atef Abu Saif is a collection of short stories by ten Palestinian writers.  They live daily with the dangers and frustrations of restricted movement, military control and curfews and the threat of violence. But through their stories they also show  there is another side to life in this embattled region from what is typically seen in media reports. Well worth reading. 

And so we have reached the end of the chain this month. We’ve travelled from the land of the free to a land of conflict, and from icy climates to oppressive heat.

If you want to join in with the Six Degrees of Separation, take a look at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest. 

Snapshot February 2018

Throughout 2017 I was making a note on the first day of the month of what I was reading and the level of what I call my personal library (otherwise known as the TBR mountain). I forgot to do this in January but here’s how things stood on February 1, 2018.

Just read

I limped my way through Muriel Spark’s The Comforters which was her first published novel. Such a disappointment after the other two novels I’d read by her: Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means.

Currently reading

When I complained recently that I’d hit a reading slump there were many bloggers coming forward with ideas of how to get the enthusiasm back. Melanie at Grab the Labels recommended: “return to a book or genre you deeply enjoyed before you started blogging” which advice I duly followed that very evening when I was looking for something new to begin reading. Two writers called out to me: Louise Penny whose Chief Inspector Gamache series I’ve loved so far and Emile Zola who I have sadly neglected this last year. Since I had recently read and listened to a few crime fiction novels I plumped for Monsieur Zola.

Melanie’s advice proved the perfect medicine. I am now happily ensconced in the world of a Parisienne department store in the nineteenth century via The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames). It was one recommended by Lisa at ANZLitLovers to whom I shall be eternally grateful. Zola’s usual approach of conducting meticulous research before writing his novels is very much in evidence here. We get details about how every department works, from the cashiers to the sales people who work the floor, and some colourful details about the wonders to be purchased in this emporium. Department stores are nothing remarkable to us now but in the time Zola was writing, they were a revolution.

State of the personal library

Once again I find my numerical skills – or is my cataloguing skills – leave something to be desired. I thought I was doing a pretty good job last year of keeping track of all the owned but unread books in my home. I even had a spreadsheet with formulae designed so that I wouldn’t have to do the counting manually.

Well something clearly went wrong because instead of the downward trend I was congratulating myself upon all throug

h the year, I thought I ended 2017 with 225 books in my library. But somehow I have started 2018 with 245. Where that extra 15 books came from is a mystery. But no amount of double checking my spreadsheet or my formulae is giving me the answer. So I just have to accept that the number is 245.

But instead of going down, it’s already gone up from that…

Joanna Cannon

I won two books in a giveaway hosted by Kath who blogs at Nutpress. I might just be the only person on the planet who hasn’t read Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I now have no excuses since Kath presented me with this plus Cannon’s latest novel Three Things About Elsie. 

 

 

I’ve also just taken delivery of the first book from my year-long subscription to the Asymptote Book Club. As part of this I’ll receive 12 books from around the world. January’s choice comes from the Indian sub-continent. Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was written between 1937 and 39 and looks at the conflict created between the need to cultivate the land for food and shelter and the need to preserve ancient forests and the traditional ways of life followed by its indigenous population.

My recent blue period also saw me indulge in a few purchases….

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty. This is the selection for our next book club meeting in March

Since I was in the shop buying this I couldn’t help but have a mooch. So ended up buying a book I’ve seen attracting a lot of comment recently. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Walker is a professor and Director of the University of California Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab so he knows a little about sleeping. In the book he explains the science about sleep and the consequences of too little sleep (clearly not something I should be reading on nights when I wake in the wee hours and can’t get back to sleep again).

I’ve also picked up a copy of Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett. This wasn’t an intentional acquisition but driving to the gym one day I noticed a little free library outside a house. It’s the first one I’ve seen in the UK. So of course I had to stop and have a peek at the contents …. a lot of the titles were thrillers or crime so not of interest but I saw the Bennett and knew I had to have this because most of this series which is set in the fictional Potteries towns of Stoke, are out of print. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it…..

Hopefully by the time March 1 comes along and it’s time for another snapshot I will have actually read something from my growing collection….. But I won’t guarantee it.

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer #Bookerprize

the_conservationistBooks frequently have deeper resonance for me when I read them in the country in which they are set. This was particularly true in the case of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist,  a 1974 Booker prize winning novel set in South Africa. Last year as I drove across the vast dry plains of the Klein Karoo, empty but for a few isolated farms, we were looking upon a landscape which is a key point of reference in this novel.

Gordimer’s novel is a character study about a rich, white South African capitalist who  buys a 400-acre farm as a tax dodge and a love nest for assignations with his mistress. Mehring soon becomes absorbed in the mechanics of running a farm, making excuses to get away from business meetings and social occasions so he can spend more time on his land. He believes he is a good steward of his land and a fair and generous employer.

We see him in a very different light however.

Mehring feels he bonds with his black labourers when he hands out cigarettes and indulges in good humoured banter. What we see is that his workers largely go about their work regardless of whether he is there to supervise. He thinks he understands how to look after the land but his Boer neighbours view him as merely an amateur, a ‘weekender’ from the city. He considers he is creating value by ensuring his land is productive, but his lover sees a man who pays starvation wages and writes off losses against tax liabilities.
He believes he has developed a physical and emotional affinity with the land.
His shoes and the pale grey pants are wiped by wet muzzles of grasses, his hands, that he lets hang at his sides, are trailed over by the tips of a million delicate tongues. Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
But here too he is blind to reality.  Death and violence lie beneath the surface of his idealised rural retreat, emerging quite literally in the form of a man’s body dumped in a shallow grave. As if in protest at the treatment of people like Mehring, the land rebels. Drought, followed by flood, destroy Mehring’s farm.
Such is Mehring’s inability to understand reality that he alienates all around him. His estranged wife has gone to America and he struggles to form a relationship with his liberally-minded teenage son, Terry. Though he’s frequently invited to social gatherings we get the feeling it’s Mehring’s wealth and status that is the attraction, not his personality.

Although The Conservationist concentrates on one man, it’s clear that Gordimer sees Mehring as a representative of a particular type of South African. One who reads the signs that change might coming but has no desire to take any action himself to end discrimination or improve the lot of his workers. He simply doesn’t see there is any need for change. If ever he needs a signal that he is wrong and that hold on the land is but a tenuous one, it is the body of a black man that refuses to remain buried. The corpse is the real possessor, the real guardian of the land; not Mehring. 

The Conservationist is an intense read and not simply because of Gordimer’s message. It’s the style of narrative that takes time to get used to, with its frequent flashbacks, stream of consciousness monologues and lack of speech tags.  It was hard work, necessitating many stops while I tried to work out whether I was reading a dialogue or unspoken monologue, and where in the sequence of events was this scene taking place. There is really little in the way of action – everything revolves around the farm and the different attitudes towards it exhibited by Mehring and his workers.

I respected what Gordimer was doing but can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.

If you’d like to see another view of this book, take a look at Lisa’s review at anzlitlovers.

 

Footnotes

About the author: Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s most respected authors. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.  Over a career spanning some 60 years she dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.  Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa.

The book: The Conservationist was joint winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.

Why I read this book: It is one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project.

A touch of the January blues?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that January is the least favourite of months for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Sleet, rain and wind do not a happy formula make especially when combined with chilly mornings and loss of daylight around 4pm. Maybe that’s why I’ve struggled to get back into a reading and blogging groove this month.

gentleman_in_moscowThe beginning of June, things looked promising. My first book of the year was a stunner -— A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I was curious how Towles would manage to sustain interest in a 400+page novel about a member of the Russian aristocracy under house arrest in a plush Moscow hotel. Wouldn’t it get rather repetitive I thought? The short answer is no, absolutely not. This is a master class in how to construct a narrative. I’ll get around to posting my review shortly but in the meantime I’ll simply say that if you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing something special.

After that things went downhill rapidly.

I’d agreed to review the fourth book in a crime series which pays homage to the Golden Age of detective fiction. Sadly, A Death in the Night wasn’t much more than just ok. So then I turned to Muriel Spark and her first published novel The Comforters. I chose it because it was published in 1957, the first year of my ‘reading my life’ project. Now I’d enjoyed two other novels by her: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means so I had similar expectations to be as entertained by The Comforters. Far from being entertained, I found it a struggle to get to the end and was heartily glad when I did. Clearly her kind of humour isn’t for me.

Even my audio book choices have been disappointing this month. I’ve abandoned most of them: The Untouchable by John Banville (about an esteemed art historian revealed to be a double agent); Father Brown Stories by G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie Close Up (a collection of archive radio programmes about Christie). None of them held my attention.

I’ve also struggled to get enthused by blogging this month. Hence why I am way behind with reviews, many from last year even. I’m way behind also on reading posts from other bloggers even those that are my favourites. As for Twitter, well I seem to barely look at it some days. I’m just a tad tired of seeing message after message about book cover reveals…. So if you’ve not heard from me for a while, I promise it’s not because I don’t love you any more.

This fug is not anything I’ve experienced before. I hope it doesn’t last much longer. In fact I hope I can break out of the cycle tonight when I’m going to be opening a new book. In keeping with my intention to make 2018 the year of reading naked I have a completely free hand in selecting that book. There has to be something in my bookshelves that will tickle the taste buds back to life again.

 

A Death in the Night by Guy Fraser-Sampson #bookreview

death-in-the-night

A Death in the Night is the fourth book in the Hampstead Murders series which focus on the activities of the detectives based at Hampstead Heath police station in London. They are police procedurals that seek to pay homage to the spirit of the Golden Age of detective writing, particularly the principle that everything the reader needs to know to solve the crime themselves, is contained within the text.

The crime with which the detective team have to wrestle in A Death in the Night is the murder of Professor Fuller, mistress of a prominent barrister, who is found dead in her room at The Athena, an exclusive women’s club in Mayfair. By coincidence Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis, together with psychologist Peter Collins, were all attending a vintage-themed dinner dance in the club at the time the woman is believed to have met her killer. 

There are a multitude of suspects but very few clues. Added to the problem is that initially the initial identification of the body is incorrect. By the time the real identity is confirmed, the hotel room has been cleaned and vital evidence lost. To get at the truth the team, under the direction of their Golden Boy boss, Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, have to meticulously dissect every statement from staff and guests as well as her lothario husband. Was Professor Angela Bowen killed by her lover or by his wife or perhaps by another of his mistresses? For a time the team are not sure if she was even the intended victim. Nor are they clear on how the murderer managed to obtain a spare key to the room unnoticed by all the people milling around the reception area. By the time they find the answers, reputations have been damaged irrevocably.

As with the other novel in the series I’ve read, Miss Christie Regrets (book 2 in the series),  A Death in the Night is strong on procedure and on the setting. The atmosphere of the Mayfair club is captured particularly well. Amid the private equity firms and luxurious hotels frequented by Russian billionaires and “exotic creatures  wearing handmade suits, bright waistcoats and permanent suntans” it is a reminder of Mayfair’s more dignified past.

Tucked into an unassuming corner position in Audley Square, its membership continues to be drawn from exactly the same sort of intelligent, well educated woman as it was back in its earliest days when Dorothy L Sayers used to write her books in its library and take tea and anchovy toast afterwards in one of its famously comfortable armchairs.

Designed to be a comfortable bolt hole for professional women who find themselves in the city,  The Athena offers discretion for those who want a place to discreetly entertain male friends and companionship for those who dislike eating alone at restaurants. 

As much as I admired the nod towards the Golden Age (Peter Collins is a devotee of Dorothy L Sayers and loves to drop her name into conversation) I felt the novel would have benefited from a lighter touch on the procedural aspects. The team meets every day to review progress which means there is a fair amount of repetition of key facts (presumably these reminders were give readers a good chance of spotting the clues). More problematic for me however was an early chapter where the Metropolitan Police Commissioner chairs a meeting to review a report recommending a reorganisation of the force’s detective resources. The intent was presumably to show that Superintendent Collison, the report’s author, is gaining respect among his superiors, but to me it was an overlong and unnecessarily detailed interlude that didn’t strongly connect with the narrative.

Don’t let this comment put you off the novel however. If you enjoy well constructed crime fiction and are happy with a measured pace, then this will certainly be a series to consider.

Footnotes

The Book: A Death in the Night was published in November 2017 by Urbane Publications UK. My review of Miss Christie Regrets is here.

The Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson has a list of writing credits to his name including works on finance, investment and economic history. He is best known as the author of  three novels in the Mapp and Lucia series created by E.F.Benson.

Why I read this book: I received a review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards EndUnlike author Susan Hill I don’t live in an old rambling farmhouse with aged beams and cosy nooks from which I can look upon “gently rising hills and graceful trees”. Nor sadly do I have an elmwood staircase that could take me up to a landing with overflowing bookcases. But I do know the sensation of coming face to face with a mountain of unread books.

Climbing the stairs one day in search of a book she knew was there, Hill discovers “at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred” that she had never read. Among them are recommendations from the Richard and Judy book club, Booker prize winners, classics, childhood annuals (charmingly she still gets The Beano every year) and an old alphabet book.  She resolves to spend a year reading only those books already on her shelves, forgoing the purchase of new ones, which, she admits, is a strange decision for someone who is both author and publisher.

I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read.

We get some delightful and often surprising titbits: about the time when as an English student at King’s College London, she  devoured detective stories as light relief from Beowulf (one can understand why!). Or the unexpected encounter with EM Forster in the London Library. Having bent down to pick up the book an elderly man had dropped on his foot she looks up to find herself looking into the watery eyes of one of the grandest of the grand old men of literature. But here he was “slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable.” and yet “the wonder of the encounter has never faded.”

 

I warmed to her after reading the chapter where she recollects the magic of receiving the gift of books as a child. It was impossible to disagree with her that today, with such easy access to books, we have forgotten how special they were in our past. For Hill growing up in the 1940s they were rare treats.  Every Christmas brought annuals that she read so often she could memorise the stories but the most precious gift she remembers is her first pop up book. Some of these she still has and one of the pleasures of her year of reading from her bookshelves is going through the collection.

Over the year, Hill draws up a list of 40 titles that she thinks she “could manage with alone, for the rest of my life”. It’s absolutely not a ‘best books ever written’ type of list but ones she considers has special meaning for her. The list tells you a lot about her taste and her foibles. Trollope gets two places, as does P G Wodehouse; Dickens is there with Our Mutual Friend, Virginia Woolf with To the Lighthouse and E. M Forster (not Howard’s End surprisingly but A Passage to India).

The list is significant for its omissions. There is little in the way of European authors unless you count Dostoevsky as ‘European’ – no Zola or Camus however. The Americans are represented by Edith Wharton (the House of Mirth) and Henry James (Washington Square). Her rationale for the poetry choices tell you that she is in essence a conservative reader.  “I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new,” she admits. “I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don’t and that’s that. Perhaps I don’t need to. I can recite the whole of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, after all.”

She is without question a woman of firm opinions. Some I found it hard not to agree with, such as her love of the physical feel of a book (she loathes e-readers) and her aversion to the fashion for reading the “very latest book everyone is talking about.” She has little patience with people who pretend to have read certain classics or who boast about the number of books they read each week (“Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?” she asks). Jane Austen she finds boring but considers Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower to be a masterpiece and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s work is long overdue for a re-issue.

The interjections spice up what could easily have become a pleasant but otherwise inconsequential journey through one woman’s reading preferences and habits. Hill has an edge that nicely counterbalances the sometimes whimsical tone and in her final selection of 40 has made certain to stir up debate.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

lastpaintingFact and fiction blend seamlessly in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith’s remarkable novel about choices and consequences and the power of art to stir our deepest emotions.

New York lawyer Marty de Groot is the latest member of his family to take possession of a Dutch landscape painting called ‘At the Edge of a Wood’, believed to be the only surviving work by Sara de Vos, one of the few women admitted to the prestigious Guild of St Luke. It hangs above his bed in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife Rachel.

Family legend holds that the painting is “cursed”, responsible for the“300 years of gout, rheumatism, heart failure, intermittent barrenness and stroke in his bloodline.” Ever since Pieter de Groot bought it, in 1637, at an auction, none of its owners  has lived past the age of 60.

Still, de Groot values his family heirloom. Every night he studies the painting, admiring the haunting quality of the scene in which a young girl emerges from a snowy thicket above a frozen river.  He knows it intimately. One night in 1957 something doesn’t seem quite right with the painting. The frame looks different. And the canvas is dirtier than normal. Closer examination shows it’s a fake; a meticulously crafted replacement for the original stolen while he and his wife had hosted a charity benefit event six months earlier.

When police fail to find the thief and there’s no sign of the painting on the black market, Marty resorts to a private investigator to find the forger and retrieve his lost masterpiece. And so begins a decades-long obsession.

The culprit is not a professional forger but an impoverished graduate student Ellie Shipley who goes to extraordinary lengths to understand the techniques of the Dutch masters she studies. In her tiny Brooklyn apartment she boils rabbit pelts to make glue and pulls  apart old canvases so she can build them up a layer at a time and so understand the process of creation. When approached by a secretive art dealer, she doesn’t see her copy as a forgery but as a tribute to the legacy of Sara de Vos.

She has no interest in the composition from ten or twenty feet—that will come later. What she wants is topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old. She’s been known to take a safety pin and test the porosity of the paint and then bring the point to her tongue. Since old-world grounds contain gesso, glue, and something edible—honey, milk, cheese—the Golden Age has a distinctively sweet or curdled taste.

The past catches up with her in 2000 when, as an internationally renowned art historian, and curator of a gallery in New South Wales, Australia, she anxiously prepares for a show devoted to works by female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Two identical paintings are on their way to the gallery:  the original Sara de Vos  “At the Edge of a Wood,” and the forged version painted by Shipley nearly 50 years earlier. Ellie understandably  “feels certain this is the beginning of how it all ends”.

Between these two threads is a narrative set 300 years earlier in Amsterdam which reveals the life of Sara de Vos and the grief that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood.  Sara, widowed, bankrupt and mourning the death of her only child from the Plague, can find no relief in painting the tulips that her clients demand. Only in painting rural landscapes that are surreal allegories of loss can she find the strength to carry on.

The appeal of Smith’s book is the way he weaves three alternating timelines and locations to show how one painting exerts a powerful influence on three people across the centuries and across the world. One moment we’re in 1950s New York jazz clubs tracing de Groot’s attempts to track down the forger; the next we’re in mid seventeenth-century Holland as Sara de Vos struggles to regain her position in the all-powerful Guild and finally in Sydney in 2000 as forger and victim come face to face.

The Dutch sections were captivating. Smith spins an aura of melancholy around de Vos and tantalises us at the beginning of the book with a description of her supposed last work.

A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. . . . Her eyes are fixed on some distant point — but is it dread or the strange halo of winter twilight that pins her in place? She seems unable, or unwilling, to reach the frozen riverbank.

I was ready to believe not only did Sara de Vos exist, but so did her painting. Sadly both are as much an invention as Ellie Shipley’s forgery.  Although women were admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke  (without membership no painter could have sold their work) Sara de Vos herself never existed. She is a composite created from the ” biographical details of several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age” Dominic Smith found while researching through the Guild’s records, as he explained in an article for The Paris Review

Such detailed research gives the novel its feeling of authenticity but Smith is too canny a writer to let his knowledge of seventeenth-century painting techniques or the techniques of forgers, drag down the impetus of the narrative. Just as astutely he navigates between the mystery element and the history, delivering a multi-layered narrative that I found totally engrossing.

Footnotes

About the author: Dominic Smith is an Australian who has lived for much of his life in Texas. He has garnered several awards for his fiction.  His debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Book, and received the Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was a New York Times Bestseller and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

Why I read this book: I love books about painting (Michael Frayn’s Headlong is a favourite) but when you bring in Amsterdam, one of the loveliest cities in Europe, it was hard to resist. Even harder when I read some the reviews of other bloggers including Lisa at ANZLitLovers (see review here) and found no-one had a bad word to say about this book.

Postscript: since publishing this post I’ve also discovered that Kim has reviewed the book. Here is her review

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