Author Archives: BookerTalk

Read It Now – Tomorrow May Be Too Late

Henry Thoreau on Rainy Day Books

Do You Have Rainy Day Books?

I’m not talking about what you read on days when the heavens open and all you want to do is snuggle up by the fire with a cuppa and a good book.

I’m talking about books that you’re looking forward to reading so much that you reserve them for a future time? A time when you know you’ll want to read something very special.

I have a few books that fit this description. They include:

  • Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) by Emile Zola
  • Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan
  • Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama

This is just a sample of my ‘rainy day books’ from my large collection of unread books. I think there are around 30 in total, some of which have been on my shelves for more than five years.

Some are books by authors whose work I’ve enjoyed hugely in the past (Adichie, Flanagan, Zola). Others like the Ghosh and Cunningham have come highly recommended by other bloggers.

The problem is that the rainy day never actually arrives.

I’m coming to the conclusion that in fact the day will never materialise. That I’ll always find a reason to leave the rainy day book on the shelf and go in search of something else to read.

Which means that instead of reading a book I’m more or less guaranteed to enjoy, I read one that I might enjoy.

How perverse is that???

That quote from Henry Thoreau has given me the impetus to rethink this whole rainy day approach.

What If Rainy Days Never Materialise?

None of us like to contemplate the fact that we have only a finite number of years left on this planet. And thus a finite number of books it’s physically possible to read.

If I keep putting certain books aside to read one day in the future, that day may never come. I could easily go to my grave never having read the very books I most want to read. Meanwhile I could have wasted time on second best novels. A sobering thought.

It’s time to turn my thinking completely on its head.

Instead of squirrelling them away it’s time to bring these books into the daylight. And to read them. Because if not now, when will I ever get around to them? I’d hate to think the answer to that question could be never.

Do you have ‘rainy day books’ ? Or am I alone in being perverse in my reading?

Eye Opening Tale of Stitchers and Ringers

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

If you’ve ever taken up  painting, playing a musical instrument or cross stitch, then you’ll know how utterly absorbing these activities can be. 

In A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier shows how engrossing yourself in an interest can also be a form of salvation.

A Single ThreadIt’s embroidery that comes to the rescue for the protagonist, Violet Speedwell.  It rescues her from a life where her only choices are to stay at home with her over-bearing embittered mother or live hand-to-mouth in a draughty boarding house and drudge each day as a typist. 

Violet is what the newspapers of the 1930s labelled a “surplus woman”: unmarried and likely to remain so because vast numbers of eligible men died during World War 1.  The war was a double tragedy for Violet, both her fiancée and brother having fallen at Passchendale. She is still mourning their loss 16 years later.

Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere of home, she moves to Winchester to take up a secretarial job. But still she feels she is living only half a life. 

I felt as if I were in a deep hole that took me so long to climb out of. It was as if I were sleepwalking, awake but unable to say anything or do anything to make my life come to to life again.

It isn’t until she visits the cathedral and discovers the broderers, a group of women creating intricate canvas embroidery for kneelers and cushions, that she finds fulfilment and friendship. 

Under the mentorship of the group’s founder Louisa Pesel, Violet flourishes.  Her nights at the boarding house are no longer an ordeal when she has her stitches to practice. She gains the confidence to negotiate higher wages from her employer and to handle her mother’s demands. Romance beckons in the shape of a bell ringer at the cathedral, though it’s a forbidden love since Arthur Knight is already married.

 

A Celebration of Stitches 

The story is reasonable though ideally I would have preferred more drama and greater variety in pace. The elements did exist. For example, there’s a stalker who accosts Violet in a field and again near the Cathedral one dark night (no prizes for guessing who comes to her rescue!).

There’s also tension within the borderers because of one member who’s very bossy. And we have a lesbian love affair that raises eyebrows in the ultra conservative cloistered world of Winchester.

Unfortunately they all seem to fizzle out too quickly.  

But I’ll forgive Tracy Chevalier because there were two aspects of this novel that were simply wonderful. 

This is a writer who can take an artist or a great work of art and pluck from her research a story of its creation that is rich in detail and historically accurate. A Girl In A Pearl Earring opened up the world of Vermeer and a later novel, The Lady and the Unicorn, delved into the world of tapestry weavers in sixteenth century Brussels.

In A Single Thread she turns her attention to the work of Broderers’ Guild  in Winchester. The members took inspiration from the Cathedral’s medieval tiles; using cross, tent and rice stitches to form intricate patters of medallions, Celtic knots, trees of life and flowers.  The kneelers, cushions and alms bags had a practical purpose – they were used everyday by the congregation and clergy – but they also wanted them to be beautiful, as befitting the grandeur of the Cathedral. 

A Single Thread

Tracy Chevalier shows how this is a painstaking exercise, demanding precision and attention to detail but get it right and the canvas comes alive. As Violet discovers:

…once you were skilled enough, you could settle into it and empty your mind of all but the work in front of you. Life then boiled down to a row of blue stitches that became a long braid across the canvas, or a sunburst of red that became a flower. 

It’s hardly surprising that Violet finds stitching more satisfying than typing contracts. 

I’ve tried tapestry work myself and would have loved Louisa Pesel as a tutor. I doubt however that my work would be anywhere near the standard of those cathedral stitchers. But I’d have more of a chance at proficiency in embroidery than I would at bell ringing.

 Ringing the Changes

I’m rather like Violet when she has her first introduction to ringing:

She could not make out any pattern in these bells ≠ though each was clearly struck they seemed to clatter over each other in no particular order. Yet they were deliberate, not chaotic. It was like listening to people speaking German and sensing there was a grammar and structure, a rhythm and logic to it, even if you could not understand the meaning. 

Arthur tries to explain:

We start by ringing the five bells down the scale, one after the other. These are called rounds. Then we switch the order of two of the bells, so that each sequence of bells is different from the last. We call them changes. One of the rules of change-ringing is that no sequence is repeated.

It’s all to do with maths apparently and something called factorials. Don’t ask me to explain; I can only just cope with fractions and equations. I suppose the only way to really understand what’s going on is to climb up into a bell tower and watch the ringers in action. I wonder whether Tracy Chevalier did that as part of her research? Since I’m highly unlikely to summon up enough courage to climb so high I shall just learn to appreciate the magnificence of the sound that comes out of that tower.  

There’s no doubt that this is a highly readable book with some interesting characters (I loved the depiction of Violet’s mum) and fascinating historical detail. 

A Single Thread: Fast Facts

  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier will be published by The Borough Press in September 2019. My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a balanced review.
  • Louisa Pesel is a real person. She was the first President of the Embroiderers’ Guild of England in 1920.
  • Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral,She has a modest gravestone whose inscription records her personal virtues and stoicism, but makes no mention of her writing.

 

 

Fear And Evil Lurk In Idyllic Village [book review]

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Take one idyllic village buried deep in the Québec countryside

Add a bunch of memorable characters who include a duck loving poet and a rather portly host of the village bistro.

Finally, mix in a police chief with a penchant for Marcus Aurelius and an instinctive understanding of human nature. 

This, in essence, is the recipe for the highly successful Armand Gamache series of crime fiction by Louise Penny.

There are 14 novels in the series to date – the 15th comes out in the next few weeks. I’ve read eight and there hasn’t been a dud among them. 

My latest venture into Armand’s world was via The Cruelest Month which is book number three in the series.

It takes its title from the most frequently quoted line in  T S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. And it picks up Eliot’s theme of rebirth and new life.

Gamache took the bread to the long pine table, set for dinner, then returned to the living room. He reflected on T.S. Eliot and thought the poet had called April the cruelest month not because it killed flowers and buds on the trees, but because sometimes it didn’t. How difficult it was for those who didn’t bloom when all about was new life and hope.

The spirit of re-birth is alive in the tiny village of Three Pines. It’s Easter. Spring is on its way. And the villagers are celebrating the first signs of new life in the trees and in their gardens. 

But the fun and festivity of the annual Easter Egg hunt is overshadowed by an evil from the past. 

On a hill above the village stands the old Hadley House, the scene of some very nasty events in the previous novel A Fatal Grace. The atmosphere of malevolence has never completely gone away.

When a group of friends hold a seance in the house to rid the place of its past, one of them dies. Of fright? Or was she murdered? That’s the question Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team must answer.

As they uncover long-held rivalries and secrets, Armand Gamache has to confront his own worst fears. Someone seems hell bent on damaging his reputation and destroying his career.

Just like the other books in the series, The Cruelest Month has a plot with enough twists and turns to keep you turning the pages. But the plot isn’t the most important aspect of this novel.. It’s the setting of the picturesque Québec village of Three Pines and the character of Armand Gamache that give this book, and indeed the whole series, its edge.

Enticing Magical Village Setting

The Cruelest Month takes us once more to Three Pines; a place so tiny that it doesn’t even figure on a map. Yet it boasts a bistro that becomes a home from home for the detectives (food figures large in every book) and a bookshop presided over by Myrna Landers, a black psychologist. It’s residents include Ruth Zardo, a blunt-spoken award-winning poet with a pet duck and Clara Morrow, a respected painter.

It’s the kind of place in which I could happily take up residence. In fact I cherish the hope that one day one of those cottages will come up for sale….. Until then I have to see it through Gamache’s eyes.

The mountains rose graciously on the far side, folding into each other, their slopes covered with a fuzz of lime green buds. He could smell not just the pine now, but the very earth, and other aromas. The musky rich scent of dried autumn leaves, the wood smoke rising from the chimneys below, and something else. He lifted his head and inhaled again, softly this time. There, below the bolder aromas, sat a subtler scent. The first of the spring flowers.

That setting and its comfortable social structure is of course one of the hallmarks of a traditional murder mystery. But although Louise Penny uses this – and other traditional devices like a careful questioning of suspects and well reasoned deductions – she goes also one step further with a psychologically astute dimension.

Behind every crime Armand Gamache investigates lies a tale of raw emotion and human tragedy. In The Cruelest Month we’re talking of jealousy and how kindness can turn to murderous intent.

Astute Psychological Insight

What I love about this series is how Louise Penny introduces a new psychological concept in each novel. Gamache has a natural ability to see beyond the facts to the emotion that often his suspects are at pains to hide. But in The Cruelest Month, his resident psychologist suggests what he’s dealing with is “the near enemy.”

Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other; is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other ‘s sick, twisted. … Attachment masquerades as Love; Pity as as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity.

While I love the settings and the characters of these novels, it’s the psychological dimension and the way they draw upon other influences that I enjoy the most. How often do you come across another crime novel which as seamlessly incorporates psychological theory as it does poetry, Marcus Aurelius and the Bible?

The Cruelest Month: Fast Facts

Louise Penny
  • The Cruelest Month is the third title in the series of novels by Louise Penny featuring her Canadian chief police inspector Armand Gamache.
  • The series began with Still Life in 2006. The latest episode , A Better Man, is due for publication end of August 2019
  • Each of the books in the series is meant to be a stand-alone tale although Louise Penny does recommend they are read in order. Her advice is based the progression of the characters from book to book.
  • Based on my experience with this series I think if you read out of sequence you’ll miss a lot of the drama of what happens to Gamache himself
  • Details of each book be found on Louise Penny’s website
  • If you like what you find there there is another site she calls her ‘virtual bistro’ where she reflects on each book and explains what inspired her thinking and readers can post questions/comments.

Reasons to Justify Your Passion for Reading

The Benefits of Reading

For large numbers of people, reading is a form of entertainment. A chance to escape from their normal lives and be transported to a different time or place. For a short time, they also get an opportunity to inhabit other lives that could be more exciting than their own.

Other people read to improve their knowledge. Obviously students and school pupils fall into this camp. But they are not the only readers who delve into a book so they can feel better informed about a particular subject. Biographies, memoirs, travelogues all bring opportunities for discovery.

Do the benefits of reading go beyond entertainment and knowledge?

The answer from American novelist and activist, James Baldwin is an unequivocal yes.

It was reading that helped him leap over the barriers he experienced when growing up as a black child in a white neighbourhood. And then during his early adult years when he frequently encountered discrimination, being turned away from restaurants, bars and other establishments because he was African American.

In an interview for LIFE Magazine in 1963, he described how, as a child, he read everything he could get his hands on from the public library

… murder mysteries, The Good Earth, everything. By the time I was thirteen I had read myself out of Harlem. What I had to do then was bring the two things together: the possibilities the books suggested and the impossibilities of the life around me.

Reading, said Baldwin, taught him that the things that tormented him the most were the same things experienced by people in the novels.

You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. 

What Happens When We Read?

Recent decades have seen a wealth of scientific studies designed to address that very question.

Some studies looked at the benefits of reading on stress levels others on mental ability and emotional capacity. What these scientists discovered make a compelling argument about the transformational nature of books.

Reading Enlarges Your Brain

Let’s take the example of a study by two scientists at Pittsburgy-Carnegie Mellon University.

Instead of looking at the effects of reading on the body’s physiological, psychological and emotional mechanisms, they turned their attention to the brain.

Would reading have any effects on the neurological system, they wondered.

Their study of children aged eight to ten discovered that a programme to help children improve their reading skills caused a re-wiring of their brains.

The quality of white matter in the children’s brains — the tissue that carries signals between areas of grey matter where information is processed — improved substantially during the programme..

Although the study was relatively small (just 72 subjects), the researchers believed it could be a break-through in treating developmental disorders, including autism.

Reading Makes You Smarter

If our brains can change as a result of reading, what does that mean for intelligence levels?

It turns out that reading and intelligence have a symbiotic relationship.

“Crystallised intelligence” – the mishmash of knowledge that fills our brains – is improved with reading. As is “fluid intelligence” which is the ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns.

Some academics have used these connections to explain a 20 point increase credited in IQ scores among students. It’s the result, they claim of an increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in UK schools.

The lesson? If you want to have a chance of winning Mastermind or to excel in a survival exercise, you’d better get those books out now.

Reading Creates Empathy

But wait a moment. Being able to regurgitate facts and figures or to see connections between random thoughts might seem impressive.

But we’re missing a vital factor. One that makes an even more compelling reason for us to read and read and read.

For there’s third type of intelligence that is even more profoundly impacted by reading it appears. It’s called “emotional intelligence”.

We’re talking here about the ability to accurately read and understand our own and others’ feelings. And how to respond appropriately.

How do we know this?

In a 2013 Harvard study, a group of 1000 volunteers were put through an experiment designed to test other people’s mental states – what scientists call Theory of Mind.

One group was assigned literary fiction such as Corrie by Alice Munro and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. Another read popular fiction such as Space Jockey by Robert Heinlein. A third group got nonfiction such as “How the Potato Changed the World” by Charles Mann. A control group had nothing to read.

Across five experiments, people in the literary fiction group performed better on tasks like predicting how characters would act. They had a stronger ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions – a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.

One of the study leaders said the results showed that social empathy was enhanced by reading literary fiction.

If we engage with characters who are nuanced, unpredictable, and difficult to understand, then I think we’re more likely to approach people in the real world with an interest and humility necessary for dealing with complex individuals,”

David Kidd, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education

Reading other kinds of fiction – like graphic novels, light romances, chick lit – didn’t have anywhere near the same kind of benefit, the study leaders maintain.

Why the difference? Literary fiction (or what they called ‘writerly fiction’ contains more gaps in detail. The reader therefore has to work harder to find their way through the blanks, drawing more upon their ability to connect and to imagine. So instead of being told what a character is thinking, readers of literary fiction have to interpret it for themselves based on how they are shown of the character’s actions.

Reading Improves Mental Well-Being

The ability to understand other people’s emotions is now being viewed as a key element in the power of reading to affect mental well-being.

In part this is due to the benefit of reading on stress levels, as discovered in a 2009 study at the University of Sussex,

The researchers took a bunch of volunteers and put them through a series of activities designed to increase their heart rate and stress levels. Then they were tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation.

The activity that turned out to have the biggest effect, was reading.

Reading a novel for just six minutes lowered the volunteers’ stress levels by 68 percent. Other anti-stress strategies did work, just not to the same extent.

Going for a walk for example led to a 42 percent reduction; drinking a cup of tea or coffee saw a 54 percent improvement. Listening to music fared better, resulting in a 61 percent reduction in stress.

The authors reasoned that it’s the ability to be fully immersed and distracted that makes reading the perfect way to relieve stress.

This finding has had profound implications for the treatment of mental disorders. Doctors are now increasingly prescribing books to patients with depression or emotional disturbance. 

‘Bibliotherapy’ as it’s been termed, isn’t new – it was apparently coined in 1916 by a clergyman named Samuel Crothers. But the National Health Service in the UK is taking a much closer interest into the benefits of literary prescriptions.

Since 2013 they’ve been working with The Reading Agency on a programme called Reading Well which offers a books-on-prescription scheme and a recommended list of mood-enhancing fiction that can be sourced from public libraries. The results so far are impressive.

These are the theories. Is this what happens in real life?

I’ve certainly had times when I’ve turned to books to help take my mind off a stressful situation. But I’ve been struggling to think of situations in which I’ve found empathy by reading a book. Or made a connection between my own situation and what I find in a work of fiction. Maybe the connection has happened but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Or maybe the time has not yet come.

What do you think about all these studies? Do you know of people who who have found comfort in books? Do share your insights if you feel comfortable about doing so.

Powerful Tale Of A Slave’s Survival: The Long Song

Novelists who write about slavery seldom shy away from depicting the immense cruelty and inhumanity of this system.

They pull at the heartstrings with historically accurate scenes of brutality and deprivation and characters forced to experience  injustice and degradation. 

Few authors dare to introduce any element of comedy into their work. 

Few that is except for Andrea Levy in The Long Song

A Different Form of Slavery

This is the story of Miss July, a child conceived as a result of the rape of Kitty, a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation in the early 19th century. She is destined for a hard, and likely short life, toiling in the fields with her mother.

But the plantation owner’s sister, recently arrived from England to live at Amity, spots the child. On a whim she decides this cute child will become her maid. So at the age of eight, July is separated from her mother and moved to the great house.

It’s an improvement on working in the fields. But she’s still a slave and not even allowed to keep her own name. She’s set to work sewing and waiting hand and foot upon this fat and temperamental woman.

The Long Song

The Long Song is set in the turbulent years before the abolition of slavery in Jamaica.

July experiences the violent retribution enacted by white settlers upon their slave populations in the  aftermath of uprisings in 1831. She lives through years when rumours of freedom run through the plantations. But when freedom does happen in 1838, it doesn’t bring an end to hostile relationships between the slaves and their former masters.

Not much scope for levity you’d think.

But surprisingly, without ever trivialising her subject, Andrea Levy manages to inject a fair degree of humour into this narrative. She clearly has a gift for finding the comedy in the most unlikely of situations.

Light Amid The Darkness

July is a mischievous figure, happy in the midst of chaos. One scene has her ruin her mistress’s Christmas lunch by using an old bed sheet instead of an Irish linen table cloth. Another sees her hiding under her master’s bed, desperately trying to control her bladder while he paces the room.

Switching between third-person past and first-person present, Andrea Levy mixes the earthy Jamaican patois of the young girl with the more sophisticated and reflective voice of the older woman.

The Long Song is told in the form of July’s memoirs. Her son Thomas, a wealthy printer, intends to publish the book in an attractively bound edition with sugarcane on the cover.

But he and his octogenarian mother comically don’t see eye to eye on how this book should be written. Thomas remonstrates with his mother when he thinks she is misleading readers or leaving out significant episodes. But to Miss July, its all “fuss-fuss.

July is, as she has always been, a shrewd, independent-minded woman. This is her story and no-one is going to tell her how is should be told, not even her son.

She will not, she tells us, dawdle over descriptions of trees and grass. Nor will she fill her memoir with the “puff and twaddle ” found in books to satisfy “some white lady’s mind”.

… your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink.  Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire

A Reliable Witness?

Can we rely upon her as a narrator? Only in part….

She describes one milestone event – the symbolic funeral that marked the end of slavery on 31 July 1838 – only to later admit she was in the house with her mistress at the time.

July cheekily challenges any reader who disputes her version of events, to do their own research. She, herself, will not be weighed down by any burden of proof. But she warns these readers: if you find yourself in agreement with the views expressed in one publication Conflict and change. A view from the great house of slaves, slavery and the British Empire, “then away with you – for I no longer wish you as my reader.”

July is a fantastic character; vulnerable yet proud. “Me be a mulatto, not a negro,” she insists when trying to get admission into a Friday night dance. She’s more successful at gaining entry into the bed of her mistress’s new husband, Robert Goodwin, a pretty-faced, naïve new overseer. But his belief in abolition is thrown out of the window – and July out of his bed – when the newly freed slaves refuse to obey his commands to work. They’d rather be tending to their own crops than bringing in his harvest.

Andrea Levy shows the reality of plantation life: the extreme physical hardship and the brutality meted out casually to the slaves. Women are raped, slaves are flogged and hanged or locked into a rat infested prison. But she never descends into crude sensationalism or allows the narrative to be weighed down by obvious messages. The novel is all the better for that.

The Long Song: Fast Facts

  • The Long Song was published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize the same year.
  • It was the recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction in 2011.
  • Andrea Levy was born in London to Jamaican parents in 1956. Levy began her career as a costume assistant, working part-time in the costume departments of the BBC and the Royal Opera House. She began writing in her mid-30s after her father died.
  • She struggled to gain acceptance initially but achieved critical success with her fourth novel, Small Island , which deals with the immediate outcomes of World War II and migration on the Windrush generation. It was subsequently adapted for television and stage.
  • A three-part adaptation of The Long Song was broadcast by the BBC in December 2016.
  • Andrea Levy died in February 2019. The Long Song was her final novel.
Books of Summer

Writers On Reading: Stephen King

Stephen King

Imagine you’re in a train station or a doctor’s waiting room.

If you prefer, imagine you’re standing in a queue to get your passport renewed, pay your parking fine or buy theatre tickets.

Are you:

  • frantically texting on your phone;
  • glancing at your watch every few seconds;
  • staring into space;
  • glaring at the back of the person in front of you, somehow thinking this will make the queue move quicker or
  • reading a book/magazine/newspaper?

If you picked the last of these options, you are in a minority I suspect.

Take a look around you the next time you’re in one of what Stephen King would call “dead spots in life”. How many of the people around you are reading? Very few I suspect.

For reasons I won’t bore you with right now, I’ve spent many hours in hospital waiting rooms in the past few years. They always run late so I make sure I have a book or an e-reader with me.

I’m often the only one. I’ll see the occasional person with a magazine or a newspaper. But the majority are just sitting, either looking at the blank wall in front of them or reading dog-eared notices about the myriad of problems the body can throw at you.

How can they do this? I find the prospect of being stuck in a place for even 15 minutes without anything to read as highly stressful. No-one wants to be in these places but if you can lose yourself in a book for a while, it makes the wait slightly more manageable. But there these people sit, sometimes for more than an hour, with absolutely nothing to occupy their minds.

I’ve not reached the level of Andy Miller who, during his Year of Reading Dangerously, would find an excuse to go to the post office just so that he could read.

But I do tend to have a book with me almost every time I step out of the house. They help keep me sane.

How about you? Do you always carry a book with you or are you happy sitting in a Zen like state while waiting?

10 Wonderful Books By Women In Translation

It’s August so it must be Women in Translation month.

This year, founder and host of #WITMonth, Meytal at Biblibio, is building a list of the top 100 women in translation.

Although I haven’t read anywhere near as many women writers in translation as I’d like, I still managed to find 10 that I recommend.

The Murder Of Halland by Pia Juul (Danish)
murder-of-halland

An enigmatic novel that demonstrates how Nordic fiction isn’t all about “noir.” Though crime does features, the discovery of a body is simply a trigger for the dead man’s wife to re-evaluate her marriage, her relationship with friends and with her estranged daughter.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Korean)

The Vegetarian

A startling and disturbing novella of a Korean housewife who decides to stop eating meat. Her decision puts her at opposition to her family and her culture and on a path to mental collapse

Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook (Korean)

Shin Kyung-sook

The children of one elderly Korean woman are forced to re-examine their relationship with their mother when she goes missing in a crowded metro station.

Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb (Belgian)

Amelie Nothomb

An unusual novel of the difficulties faced by a young girl when she begins to work in a Japanese multinational company and doesn’t understand the rules.

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik (Norwegian)

The Blue Room

Another gem from Peirene. This one looks at the difficult relationship between a mother who likes to be in control and a daughter who wants her freedom.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani (French)

Lullaby

Parents intent on building a successful career. A nanny who seems too perfect to be true. Two children in her care. What could possibly go wrong?

The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf (German)

A fascinating portrait of an East German woman from her childhood at the end of World War 2 until her early death in a 1960s Communist state. 

Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi (French)

A mother’s love for her children and her fears of letting them go out into the world are brought vividly to life.

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

Goodbye Tsugumi

Two old friends re-unite one summer. A chance to re-kindle their relationship and remember the idyllic times they spent together. But their lives are set on different courses.

The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa

Quietly understated tale of a wise old man who leads a younger mind to enlightenment. 

What women in translation books would you recommend? I’m particularly interested in authors from Asia or South America.

Enter The Magical World Of Stories with Once Upon A River

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Do you remember the first time you heard those words: “Once upon a time…” ?

They were magical words.

Words that transported you into new worlds of good fairies and naughty imps; of brave warriors, damsels in distress and knights in shining armour. 

As you grew older, fairies and goblin stories lost their appeal. In their place came family stories heard around the dinner table or the camp fire. Stories perhaps of war and adventure, or mysterious events and comic mishaps. 

The characters changed and the stories changed. But what never altered was your love of a good yarn. 

Fireside Stories

The characters in Diane Setterfield’s magnificently atmospheric and mysterious novel, Once Upon a River, are lovers of stories too. When the gravel-diggers and bargemen gather around the fire of an ancient inn at Radcot on the Thames, they love to share stories.

Bridge over the Thames at Radcot

Stories keep them entertained on dark and dreary nights. It matters not that they’ve heard them all before: they’ve found new ways to enliven the tales, with ever more outlandish new versions.

None of them, however, came up with a tale as outlandish as the one that began one one winter solstice night.

The regulars at The Swan are indulging in another telling of their favourite story about the battle of Radcot, when the door to the inn bursts open. In staggers a man, soaked through and with his head bashed in. In his arms is what looks like “a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and sickly painted hair.”

Except it’s not a puppet. It’s a young girl. And everyone in the pub agrees she is dead. Imagine their astonishment when hours later the girl revives.

Miracle and Mystery

For weeks afterwards the regulars of the Swan can talk about nothing other than this miracle.  

Who is the mysterious girl? The girl herself doesn’t provide any answers since she doesn’t speak. Nor can the injured man help solve the puzzle. He can say only that he found her in floating in the river.

Once Upon a River by Diane Settlefield

Theories are proposed. Gnawed over. Found wanting.

In the absence of any natural explanation, the villagers begin to wonder if other forces are responsible. Could this be the work of Quietly, a ghostly ferryman who features in many of their fireside stories? When someone gets into trouble on the river, Quietly appears

… manipulating his pole so masterfully that his punt seemed to glide as if powered by an otherworldly force. He never spoke a word, but guided you safely to the bank so you would live another day.

He’s there to get you safely home. But to whose home does this mysterious child actually belong?

Three people claim she is theirs.

A local couple whose marriage faded when their daughter was kidnapped.

A prosperous mixed race farmer who believes she’s the illegitimate
off- spring of his ne’er do well son.

A simple housekeeper who believes her long dead young sister has returned.

Sorrow Amid the Menace

Diane Setterfield takes her time to unravel the answer to this mystery. Just like the river her story “does not seem particularly intent on reaching its destination. Instead “it winds its way in time-wasting loops and diversions.” 

That doesn’t mean Once Upon a River is a laborious read however. It’s simply that a leisurely pace works best for a tale that, for all its Gothic elements of mystery and menace, is ultimately about grief.

Sorrow that never fades is experienced acutely by all three families who believe the child is theirs. But is encapsulated best by the father of the kidnapped girl

He saw her not here, in this room and not now in this hour, but in the infinity of memory. She was lost to life, but in his memory she existed, was present, and he looked at her and her eyes met his and she smiled.

Setterfield situates every aspect of the narrative in relation to The Thames.

It’s too simplistic to say that the river is as much of a character as the regulars at The Swan or the families who vie for the child. But The Thames is certainly a powerful presence, reigning god-like over the villagers of Radcot.

The river finds its way into their wells and is “drawn up to launder petticoats and to be boiled for tea” and ‘from teapot and soup dish, it passes into mouths’. The Thames provides them with transport and an occupation. It nourishes the crops needed to sustain their lives. But it also takes life away.

Mastering The Art Of Once Upon A Time

Once Upon A River is a beautifully crafted novel showing the thin border between the real and the unreal worlds. And how sometimes rational explanations do exist for strange and mysterious events.

For me the greatest pleasure lay in how Diane Setterfield uses the novel to celebrate the traditions of storytelling but also remind us that it’s an artifice.

Faced with a dearth of fact about a boy who died at the Radcot battle, the storytellers turn to invention.

At each retelling the drinkers raised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him a new death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways ever more outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell you are allowed to take liberties with it….

Some, like the landlord of The Swan, realise that storytelling is as much about the performance as it is about the narrative.

With a bit of practice he found he could turn his hand to any kind of tale; whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation relief, doubt and any other feeling as well as any actor.

But as we see through the character of the landlord’s son, not everyone can be a storyteller.

He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed squirmed with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.

This is a novel that shows what great storytelling is all about. And why we never tire of hearing a good tale.

Once Upon A River: Fast Facts

  •  Once Upon A River was published in January 2019 by Transworld Publishers, part of the Penguin Random House Group
  • Diane Setterfield was born in Berkshire, England. She embarked on an academic career but gave that up to concentrate on writing full time in the late 1990s
  • My copy was provided by the publishers in exchange for a fair review
  • Her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale (published in 2006) was an international bestseller

Booker Prize 2019: Hit Or Miss? What The Experts Think

Booker Prize longlist 2019

It’s Booker Prize season once more. The 2019 longlist was announced this week, triggering a process that will end on October 14 when the winner will pick up their £50,000 cheque.

It all felt very familiar. 

But there was one thing different this year. 

The judges made their usual remarks about the diversity and richness of the novels submitted for consideration. And, as so often in the past, they described their experience of reading 151 novels as  “exhilarating.”  It’s not my idea of exhilaration but perhaps that’s why I’ve never had the call inviting me to become a Booker Prize judge. 

There was no controversy about the longlist. 

No complaints about the imbalance between male and female authors. 

No complaints that the judges were dumbing down the prize, trading literary experimentation and creativity for re-readability and popularity

And no complaints that the prize was becoming dominated by American authors at the expensive of those from Commonwealth countries. 

The reaction to the longest announcement was in fact rather muted. 

Booker Prize: Reactions from Experts

What’s all the fuss about?

The surprise about this year’s Booker longlist? That for the first time in years, there are few surprises.

Justine Jardin, The Guardian

Justin Jardin’s reaction encapsulated the responses of many literary editors and arts editors who work for national newspapers around the world.

The longlist … is ever so woke-flavoured; it’s very Hackney book club. It’s solid … but it lacks thrillers.


Robbie Millen, Literary Editor , The Times

Reading these articles I got the feeling that journalists were struggling to make a decent story out of the Booker Prize longlist.

The mystery novel

A number of them like Alex Marshall, European culture correspondent for the New York Times, homed in on the one book on the list which is a mystery.

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, doesn’t get released until after the shortlist is announced on May 3.

“….its contents and plot are a closely guarded secret. Little is known except that it is set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale and is narrated by three female characters. 

Alex Marshall, New York Times

According to The Guardian, the Booker Prize judges were so constrained by “a ferocious non disclosure agreement’ that they couldn’t give any details about plot, setting or characters. All they could say was :

… it’s terrifying and exhilarating.

Big names dominate

Several of the editors focused on the presence of previous award winners, like Margaret Atwood, in the longlist.

Booker Prize 2019 longlist
Authors featured in the Booker Prize 2019 longlist

Irish News speculated that Salman Rushdie, who won the Booker Prize almost four decades ago could win again. His novel Quichotte, which is published in August, is described a picaresque road trip through contemporary America and was inspired by Don Quixote.

Other newspapers highlighted that this will be the third nomination in a row for Deborah Levy. Her novel The Man Who Saw Everything, contains two versions of the same story.

Although the list is packed with the names of well established authors, only The Guardian mentioned some notable omissions such as Ian McEwan, Mark Haddon and Ali Smith all of whom had well received novels published within the eligibility period.

Weighing in at 1,000 pages

It was the inclusion of Lucy Ellman on the Booker Prize longlist that caught the attention of Anita Singh of The Daily Telegraph.

If you’re looking for a long read, the Booker Prize has just the thing.

Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, consists of a single sentence running over 1,000 pages. It is the interior monologue of an Ohio housewife … a stream-of-consciousness written without paragraphs or full stops.

The 426,100-word sentence is broken only a handful of times, 

Anita Singh, The Daily Telegraph

As if anticipating the eyebrow raising and pursed lips that would greet Ellmann’s inclusion, Anita Singh quoted the judges’ comments about how readable people will find this book.

The thing to know is that it’s extremely funny. So although it looks very dense and worrying on the page, actually every single page is full of puns and jokes. And there is a plot in there

Joanna MacGregor, Booker Prize judge

The nationality game

Every year the announcement of the prize is followed by an analysis of its geographic diversity.

After the rule change in , there were complaints that there were too many American authors selected, which was unfair to authors from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc

We didn’t get that reaction this year , largely because American authors were noticeable for their absence.

As David Sanderson, Arts Correspondent for The Times, noted, there is only one American on the longlist (Lucy Ellman) and she moved to UK as a teenager.

The list will go some way to appeasing British publishers who last year wrote to the Booker trustees to object to the broadening of entry criteria  to include American authors

David Sanderson, The Times

Patriotism did however rear its head. The Irish Times (of course) led its Booker story with the fact local boy Kevin Barry had been chosen for Night Boat to Tangier. They’re no doubt hoping 2019 will see Barry emulate the success of last year’s winner, Belfast-born Anna Burns

There was cause for celebration in Africa however with the inclusion of two Nigerian authors and another whose work explores the African disaspora. The Johannesburg Review of Books, was obviously nursing old wounds since they couldn’t resist mentioning the absence of any African authors on the list for the past two years.

And the winner is???

None of the journalists at this stage are predicting a winner or even what will make it to the shortlist on September 3. In any case, history has shown us that it isn’t always the favourite that walks off with the prize.

If you enjoy a little speculation, take a look at the Booker Prize 2019 longlist discussion board at Goodreads where the members of the Mookse and Gripes group are voting for their favourites.

I’m definitely underqualified to give my own predictions because, for the first time since I started my Booker Prize project, I’ve not read even one of the longlisted titles.

But if you have, then do post a comment below with your reactions and comments.

Booker Prize Longlist 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – Canada– (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – Ireland– (Canongate Books)

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Nigeria – (Atlantic Books)

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – USA/UK – (Galley Beggar Press)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)

The Wall by John Lanchester – UK– (Faber & Faber)

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – Mexico/Italy– (4th Estate)

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma – Nigeria– (Little Brown)

Lanny by Max Porter – UK– (Faber & Faber)

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –UK/India– (Jonathan Cape)

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak – UK/Turkey – (Viking)

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson –UK– (Jonathan Cape)

Complex World of Party Animal Holly Golightly [Review]

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Today she’d be classed as a ‘celeb “ or a socialite. The kind of girl whose party-loving, free-wheeling lifestyle fills newspapers and magazines with gossip and sparkle.

Holly Golightly was not the original “IT” girl but she is the character forever synonymous with a dazzling, sophisticated, glamorous way of life. It’s an image cemented into the public consciousness by Audrey Hepburn in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hepburn’s Holly is chic, carefree and charismatic. 

Holly Golightly

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly

However, Truman Capote’s novella provides us with a far more complex figure. His Holly Golightly is rather a lonely figure, a girl whose carefree persona is a front, and one she protects fiercely. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is set in New York, mainly around a brownstone building in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The un-named narrator, an aspiring writer, gets his first glimpse of Holly when she arrives home late at night, and tries to rouse another tenant because – once again – she’s lost her apartment key.

… she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness…  A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman.

Holly, he learns, has no job. She lives by socialising with wealthy men who take her to clubs and restaurants and give her money and expensive presents. She hopes to marry one of them.

Is Holly Golightly a prostitute?

This was a question Capote tried to address in a 1968 interview with Playboy. Holly Golightly, he said, was a modern day version of a Geisha girl.

Holly Golightly was not precisely a callgirl. She had no job, but accompanied expense-account men to the best restaurants and night clubs, with the understanding that her escort was obligated to give her some sort of gift, perhaps jewelry or a check … if she felt like it, she might take her escort home for the night. So these girls are the authentic American geishas, and they’re much more prevalent now than in 1943 or 1944, which was Holly’s era.

Holly, with her curious lifestyle and outspoken views, fascinates the narrator. Over the course of a year, they become close friends. 

Who is the real Holly Lightly?

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

The narrator only gets a glimpse of her past through the fragments she occasionally reveals. She talks about her childhood as “an almost voluptuous account of swimming and summer, Christmas trees, pretty cousins and parties: in short, happy in a way that she was not”.

We never know if Holly is making this up or if she’s describing her actual childhood, but the narrator doesn’t think it squares up with the girl he has come to know.

But when he asks any direct questions, she clams up again.

She has, it turns out,  one obvious reason to be secretive.

Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae. And she’s not a single girl but a child bride who ran away to New York to escape her hillbilly husband and her step-children.

Capote’s narrative presents us with a subtler reason, one that gives us more more reason to sympathise with this girl. 

Orphaned as a young child, she’d been sent with her brother to live with relatives who treated them badly.

Well, you never saw a more pitiful something. Ribs sticking out everywhere, legs so puny they can’t hardly stand, teeth wobbling so bad they can’t chew mush. … She had good cause to run off from that house.

Secrecy as a form of protection

Too damaged to have a deep emotional connection with anyone but her brother, she has fabricated a new identity as a form of protection. If she can isolate herself emotionally from other people, then she can always be in control.

She won’t even allow herself to become attached to the cat she found by the river one day. ” We don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent and, so am I”, she says at one point. And later on, when she is about to leave the country; she defends her decision to let the cat loose.

We just met by the river one day: that’s all. Independents, both of us. We never made each other any promises. We never – ” she said, and her voiced collapsed … 

Holly tries to convince herself that she’s happy being alone. But is she?   I’d like to imagine her enjoying her new life in Argentina but reading between the lines, I suspect not. 

Though I’ve enjoyed the film version, I prefer the novella’s more complex portrayal of Holly Golightly. Capote gives us plenty of reasons not to like this girl. She steal’s another girl’s fiancée, shows little concern for who she inconveniences as long as she gets what she wants and acts as a messenger for an imprisoned gangster.  

But Capote has also made Holly Golightly a sympathetic character; one that embraces the good things in life as a way of hiding from its darker side. By the end, we wish her well.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s Fast Facts

  •  Breakfast at Tiffany’s was bought by Harper’s Bazaar. A change of editor resulted in requests to change some of the language which was considered too ‘tart’ and unsuitable. Capote was incensed and sold his work instead to Esquire magazine who published it in 1958.
  • Holly was originally named Connie Gustafson. Truman Capote later changed her name to Holiday Golightly and then Holly. He apparently based the character of on several different women, all friends or close acquaintances.
  • The novella was loosely adapted into the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s directed by Blake Edwards. The movie was transposed to 1960 rather than the 1940s, and had the narrator and Holly fall in love.
  • I read this as part of my #15booksofsummer reading project and my Classics Club project.
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