Author Archives: BookerTalk

Library of Wales celebrates the country’s authors

It’s taken more than a decade but a government-backed initiative to celebrate the English-language literary heritage of Wales has reached a significant milestone.  Since the Library of Wales project got underway in 2006, 50 titles have been published, many of them books that had been forgotten or were out of print. And another is due to hit the bookshops in a few months.

The Library of Wales series is a selection of English-language classics from Wales, ranging from novels to short stories, biographies and poetry. It’s funded by the Welsh Assembly Government through the Welsh Books Council as a way of sustaining the country’s heritage. When the project was announced in 2006 the intention was to o “…include the best of Welsh writing in English, as well as to showcase what has been unjustly neglected. ” 

Have they succeeded?

Raymond Williams

Professor Raymond Williams

It would be hard to challenge the inclusion of Raymond Williams in the list of books selected by the series editor Professor Dai Smith.  Williams, who came from Monmouthshire, was one of the leading literary academics in the UK in the 1970s and 80s. His writings on politics, culture, the mass media and literature were influential in the developing field of Marxist criticism of literature. He has two titles in the Library of Wales series: his novel Border Country was actually the first book to be published in the  Library of Wales series. Published in the 1960s it had been out of print for several years. I was expecting The Country and The City,  in which he used alternating chapters on literature and social history to consider perceptions of rural and urban life, to be included. But instead we get the Long Revolution in which he discusses a revolution in culture, that he saw as having unfolded alongside the democratic revolution and the industrial revolution and another novel, The Volunteers. Personally I would have opted for another of his academic works instead of the latter.

No surprises either to find the Rhondda author and broadcaster Gwyn Thomas included, also with three titles. I’ve read only one of these The Alone to the Alone and though I enjoyed it, I wonder if it’s too much a novel of its time and will not resonate as well in modern-day Wales.

Equally unsurprising to see the big guns Alun Lewis, Glyn Jones, Emyr Humphreys and Jack Jones amongst the selected authors.

A few choices did cause some raised eyebrows in the Booker household however.  Carwyn by Alun Richards is a biography of one of the big names from the golden era of Welsh Rugby. I can’t help wondering if this is on the list because of the popularity of the subject rather than because it’s the best biography written by a Welsh author. I’m also lukewarm about the choice of autobiographical novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse. I would have expected his inclusion to be more for his poetry than his prose. 

The question of how decisions were made what to include came up in a discussion panel at the Hay Festival about the Library of Wales initiative. Unfortunately Dai Smith was ill so couldn’t attend to answer a challenge from an audience member so it was left to Phil George, Chairman of the Arts Council, to defend the selection. He didn’t convince the questioner that this wasn’t “The Dai Smith Library of Wales” rather than a generally acceptable selection of the best from Welsh writers.

 

But the Library of Wales is to continue. The series publishers, Parthian Books, will be issuing the 51st title in September, with a new book from Stevie Davies who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001 with The Element of Water.  It’s likely to find favour with one of the other Hay panelists, lecturer Tomos Owen, who wants to see more contemporary authors selected.

Here are all the 50 books in the series. Click on the title to read the description and order the book direct from Parthian.

  1. A Kingdom, James Hanley
  2. A Rope of Vines, Brenda Chamberlain
  3. A Time to Laugh, Rhys Davies
  4. All Things Betray Thee, Gwyn Thomas
  5. The Alone to the Alone, Gwyn Thomas
  6. Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, Dannie Abse
  7. The Battle to the Weak, Hilda Vaughan
  8. Black Parade, Jack Jones
  9. Border CountryRaymond Williams
  10. Carwyn, Alun Richards
  11. The Caves of AlienationStuart Evans
  12. Congratulate the Devil, Howell Davies
  13. Country Dance, Margiad Evans
  14. Cwmardy, Lewis Jones
  15. Dai Country, Alun Richards
  16. Dat’s Love and Other StoriesLeonora Brito
  17. The Dark Philosophers, Gwyn Thomas
  18. Farewell Innocence, William Glynne-Jones
  19. Flame and Slag, Ron Berry
  20. Goodbye, Twentieth Century, Dannie Abse
  21. The Great God Pan, Arthur Machen
  22. The Heyday in the BloodGeraint Goodwin
  23. The Hill of DreamsArthur Machen
  24. Home to an Empty House, Alun Richards
  25. I Sent a Letter to My Love, Bernice Rubens
  26. In the Green Tree, Alun Lewis
  27. Jampot Smith, Jeremy Brooks
  28. The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams
  29. Make Room for the Jester, Stead Jones
  30. Old Soldier Sahib, Frank Richards
  31. Old Soldiers Never Die, Frank Richards
  32. Poetry 1900–2000, Meic Stephens (ed.)
  33. Rhapsody, Dorothy Edwards
  34. Ride the White Stallion, William Glynne-Jones
  35. So Long, Hector Bebb, Ron Berry
  36. Anthology of Sport, Gareth Williams (ed.)
  37. The Library of Wales Short Story Anthology Volume I, Dai Smith
  38. The Library of Wales Short Story Anthology Volume II, Dai Smith
  39. Turf or Stone, Margiad Evans
  40. The Valley, The City, The Village, Glyn Jones
  41. Voices of the Children, George Ewart Evans
  42. The Volunteers, Raymond Williams
  43. The Water-castle, Brenda Chamberlain
  44. We LiveLewis Jones
  45. The Withered Root, Rhys Davies
  46. A Man’s Estate, Emyr Humphreys
  47. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp W. H. Davies
  48. Young Emma, W.H. Davies
  49. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Tresize
  50. Selected Stories, Rhys Davies

 

 

The Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley [book review]

Beware of the book’s seductive charm. Once you’ve been lured in, the door slams shut behind you and its not easy to emerge with your perceptions entirely unchanged …

Sugar motherThis quote from the New York Times Book Review, on the back cover of my copy of The Sugar Mother, perfectly reflects my reaction to Elizabeth Jolley’s novel.

It’s one of those novels that grabs you from the start, not because of any shock-inducing event or dramatic moment, but because it’s clear this is a writer who understands how to make odd characters spring to life. As you read further you get so swept along by the humour of this tale of a pathetically fussy professor and his relationship with the newcomers next door that you almost miss the undercurrents. The humour never completely goes away but it’s countered by some elements that left me with an uneasy sensation.

There’s no feeling of apprehension at the start of the book however as we meet the Pages : Edwin, a middle-aged professor whose obsessed about his health, and his much younger wife Cecilia. She’s a successful obstetrician who is embarking on a fellowship year abroad. She has taken care to leave Edwin in good hands, arranging for their set of friends to host him at regular dinners so that he doesn’t get lonely.

What she couldn’t have predicted was that their new neighbours, Mrs Botts and her twenty-something-year old buxom daughter Leila, would make a move on Edwin almost the minute she leaves. It start’s innocently enough. They’re locked out of their new home and since they have no-where else to go, Edwin offers them refuge in his home.

Mrs Botts is a wily old bird for whom the naive Edwin, for all his intelligence is no match.  His future at the university seems unstable but at home with the Botts’ women he feels like a lord of the manor. The fool becomes obsessed with Leila, jumping readily at the idea planted by Mrs B that the girl could become a “sugar” mother (a lovely Malapropism) for Edwin and his childless wife. Edwin’s growing  infatuation with Leila sees him become more distant with Cecelia, avoiding her phone calls and pulling out of a trip to visit her in Europe. There is no way this can turn out well….

Edwin is a delightful character. An annoying individual who painstakingly documents all his ailments in a book which has separate pages for each part of the body, he is just as pernickety about finding the perfect quotes for his lectures. But he’s also a rather pathetic character who doesn’t fit in with the hip lifestyle embraced by his wife and her friends. The first flush of love between him and Cecilia has vanished:

The feeling of being special and chosen and cared for was gradually absorbed, he realised now, in the more important matter of appearances. How they were seen by other people began to mean more to them and they must, all the time, have been meaning less to each other and thinking only of the next thing they were going to do. Things which would be evaluated by other people and measured against standards which were not necessarily their own.

The ‘swinging’ parties with their friends, which presumably were meant to bring an added spark to their relationship, have lost all meaning for Edwin.

The evening, in the pattern of doing things, was endless, hours of jokes and anecdotes, mostly with double meanings. They would eat and drink and talk too much in loud voices and play foolish games … and would end with the ritual of keys in the ring since that was the way of broad-minded couples …

His growing disenchantment with life makes him ripe for emotional and financial exploitation at the hands of Mrs Bott.

But perhaps we shouldn’t expend too much sympathy on Edwin. I know Leila is older than Lolita but there is still something unsettling about the way this 54-year-old lusts after the body of the much younger girl. He treats her as a child one moment, making her hot drinks  to help her sleep, and then caressing and fondling her at every possible opportunity.  So caught up is he in his desire and – the boost to his ego – that he is blind to reality even when  a close friend raises an alarm bell about the cost of having these women in his house. I wanted to throttle him at times, and shake him out of his blind faith in the domestic bliss he imagines he has with the Botts, but right at the end I did feel my sympathies return.

The Sugar Mother is a novel which is full of unexpected delights. It’s the first time I’ve read anything by Elizabeth Jolley – I hadn’t even heard of her until Lisa at ANZLitLovers decided to host an Elizabeth Jolley reading week. But now I’m hungry to read more…..Luckily I had already bought an earlier work; Miss Peabody’s Inheritance.

 

 

 

WWWednesday 13 June 2018

I’ve tried various ways to provide a snapshot of what I’m reading from Sunday Salon to my ‘Snapshot’ posts. They all fell by the wayside I think because I made them too complicated. WWWednesday is a much simpler approach. It’s hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words  and requires me to answer just three questions

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

So here goes….

 

Currently reading: The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (我们家)  by Yan Ge

This was the May selection by the Asymptote Book Club. I took out a subscription at the beginning of the year but I’ve yet to read any of them (until now). Apparently in 2014 it was described by Words Without Borders  as a “delightfully irreverent” novel and China’s “best untranslated book.” It’s taken a few years but thanks to translator Nicky Harman we now have it in English.

In a small Sichuan town, preparations are underway for a party to mark the 80th birthday of the matriarch ‘Gran’. The celebrations will bring to a head sibling rivalry and unveil secrets from the past. I’m about 80 pages in and enjoying the portrait of ‘Dad’ who is boss of the family’s famous Sichuan chilli bean paste. He’s a heavy smoker and a womaniser who can’t live up to the success of his elder brother and has to contend with the competing demands of three women: wife, mistress and mother.

 

 

Recently Finished: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

This is a novel I’ve been intending to read for some time. With that title how could any self respecting Welsh reader ignore it? It’s the debut novel by Ho Davies and is set just as the second world war is staggering to a close. Despite their remote location, the people who live in rural Wales find their lives impacted by the war when soldiers arrive to build a new camp for German prisoners of war.  Ho Davies uses this as a mechanism to consider issues of identity and belonging. Well worth reading

 

 

 

Reading next

One of the book clubs I belong to has just chosen Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe for our July meeting. This has a similar plot to Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor – the disappearance of a teenage girl though McGregor’s novel has a rural setting where Thorpe goes for an urban location. Reservoir 13 was one of favourite reads from 2017 so it’s going to be interesting to see whether Thorpe can top it.

And I know you must be tired of hearing me say this now but I will anyway. I do need to get back into reading my Booker prize winners. I’ve given up on G by John Berger – such a dull book. I might tackle A History of Seven Killings next – it has to have more life in it than G…

 

 

 

The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda [bookreview]

The Whale CallerThe world of literature abounds with tales of love triangles but I’ve never before come across one involving rivalry for the affection of a whale. Yes I do mean whale as in marine mammal.

How can anyone be jealous of a whale you might wonder? Well this one is special. She’s a large Southern Right who swims each year close to the coast of South Africa on her migration from waters close to Antartica to warmer climes further north. The path takes her near to Hermanus on the southern cape, home to a man who’s become rather attracted to her: The Whale Caller.

This is a man so enchanted with these creatures that he’s perfected the arm of using a kelp horn to communicate with them. One in particular, that he names Sharisha, seems to respond to his calls, showing off by loptailing and rolling and blowing in time with the horn. He becomes rather obsessed with her, sinking into despondency when she swims away, not to return for months.

On the morning of her departure, the Whale Caller is at the rocks to bid her an emotionally charged farewell.

Sharisha responded with her own love calls. She rocked in the water in a mating dance. The Whale Caller stood up and rocked on the rocks. He raised his left leg, turned and twisted on one spot, then sampled the foot down. He did the same with the right leg. he repeated the dance in rapid success for a long time, whilst blowing the sounds of the whining winds.  ….Sharisha did not seem to tire either. She was creating a whirlwind on there water by making a complicated  combination of rocking, breaching  and lobtailing.

As the Whale Caller progresses he becomes the object of affection of a woman from Hermanus. Saluni is the village drunk, a wild-looking woman with missing teeth and laddered stockings, who seems to be everywhere he goes. Despite her disapproval of the Whale Caller’s obsession with Sharisha, the pair end up as an item sharing a tiny dwelling he calls the Wendy House.

It’s rather one sided relationship.  Throughout the novel the Whale Caller experiences conflicting emotions — he tries to love Saluni but every time the lure of Sharisa proves too strong. Saluni tries every trick in her book to win over this man —  seducing him, tantalising his taste buds with window shopping in grocery stores —  but it’s to no avail. His mind is filled with Sharisa. Saluni decides to change tack, she will not be beaten by a creature she sees as nothing more than “a big fish”.  As she executes her revenge the becomes significantly darker: blindness, a catastrophic storm; desperate attempts to save a beached whale and a murder all ensue.

Southern backed whale

A southern right whale. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

It’s this  vengeful element which occupies the second half that won me over to the novel. Until then The Whale Caller felt somewhat unbelievable as well as repetitive. But Zakes Mda turns up the emotional dial, showing how love can so easily become malice. The Whale Caller irritated me early on. How could he not see that the love of a living, breathing real woman was infinitely better than a few tricks by a whale whom he sees for just a few months a year?  But then we begin to feel his genuine  pain and sorrow at what happens to his beloved Sharisha and his sense of a personal responsibility.

The Whale Caller isn’t simply a love story albeit a rather unusual one. It’s also a reflection on man’s relationship with nature. The Whale Caller has a genuine love for these creatures and despises the tourists who flock to Hermanus to watch them for a short time before heading to their next destination.  It’s good news for the local businesses but the visitor’s desire for thrills threatens the very thing they have come to watch. Whale watching trips become so popular the government has to introduce regulations to ensure boats don’t get too close to the whales. The Whale Caller feels a sense of foreboding at what this portends dismay.

There is no doubt that this boat-based whale watching will be abused. And no-one will be out there at sea to enforce the regulations. Soon the ultimate prize for a boat trip will be the touching of a whale. … As far as he is concerned these boat-based whale watchers are no different from the whalers of old. They might as well carry harpoons and tryputs in those boats. 

it’s a prescient warning and one which can apply just as much to other situations in which man and nature come together. African safaris are now unfortunately spoiled in many cases by enthusiastic mini bus drivers who crowd around a lion and her cubs, hemming them in and edging ever closer so the tourists on board can get their Instagram shot.

I’m not pretending to be holier-than-thou. I’m just as fascinated by seeing these magnificent creatures but have no desire to get so close that it frightens them nor do I have any interest in petting baby cheetahs and ‘tamed’ leopards. Nature deserves respect, not to be treated like some interactive display in a theme park. A sentiment with which I suspect Zakes Mda would heartily agree…. 

Footnotes

The Whale Caller was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It’s the fifth novel by Zakes Mda, who was born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa but spent his early childhood in Soweto.  He is a prolific writer whose work has been translated into twenty languages. he is based on Ohio, USA, where he is a professor. The Whale Caller was released as a film in 2017 . I read this book because it was recommended by an assistant in a bookstore in Stellenbosch, South Africa when I walked into the shop in December 2017 and asked for recommendations of local authors. It proved a good decision…

 

Six degrees from the tipping point

Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book.  This month Kate who organises the meme, has chosen a non fiction work as the trigger book.

Tipping pointThe Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is one of the few business books I’ve read (rather than just bought and left on the bookshelf). Even more remarkable I enjoyed reading it and found it helpful in my own line of work. Gladwell defines the ‘tipping point‘, as the moment when an idea, a trend or a form of behaviour crosses the threshold, tip and spreads so extensively it becomes a noticeable phenomenon. His first example is about the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s but he also goes on to talk about a battle between a director of the New York subway and the graffiti artists who are intent on spoiling the look of his trains.

Gladwell sees how the involvement of different types of people with particular sets of social gifts are essential for change to happen: some are “connectors” who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions; “Mavens” are information specialists, the people who delight in gathering information and sharing it. Then there are the “salespeople”, the ones who are great at persuading others to a point of view or to a particular action.

It’s one of these “salespeople” that features in the first book in my chain.

Long walk

Nelson Mandela was one of the most significant and influential political leaders of our time. His autobiography Long Walk to Freedom profiles his early life, his political awakening and the 27 years he spent in prison for acts of terrorism. But it also shows his ability to persuade people to a different point of view – most notably to the need for reconciliation and not recrimination in post apartheid South Africa.  In the final chapters of the book, Mandela — now President of his country — looks to the future and his belief that the struggle against apartheid would continue.

It’s in a post apartheid South Africa that my next book is set.

The Whale CallerThe Whale Caller by Zakes Mda takes us to a town on the south coast of the Western Cape. It’s become famous as one of the best places from which to watch the migration of Southern Right Whales during the spring and winter. The Whale Caller develops a an affinity with these whales, calling to them using his kelp horn. Much of the book is about the relationship of man to nature but it also has a theme of betrayal. One of the ways this is played out is through a set of characters called The Bored Twins who start off as being playful but they take their games a step too far, with tragic consequences.

God - of-small-thingsThe twins in The Whale Caller are not anywhere as endearing as the pair in my next book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.  The Kochamma “two-egg twins”  are a mischievous pair, loving nothing more than to indulge in word play, where they read backwards take words and phrases  uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version. They’re also a jealous pair whose noses are decidedly put out of joint when another young girl comes to stay with the family.

 

All that talk of twins puts me in mind of a classic in the science fiction genre.

Midwitch Cuckoos

Still from the Village of the Damned

John Wyndham’s The Midwitch Cuckoo gives us more than one set of twins. We get a while village of identical children born within a few days of each other in the same small village. They all appear normal except they have unusual, golden eyes and pale, silvery skin. As they grow up it becomes increasingly clear they are far from humanThese children have none of the genetic characteristics of their parents. As they grow up, it becomes increasingly apparent that they are, at least in some respects, not human. This is one of the few science fiction novels I’ve enjoyed along with the film version called Village of the Damned.

womaninblackWyndham’s novel was creepy rather than shockingly scary. If it’s the thrill of the later you’re looking for, then Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is more likely to suit. It’s written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel using the familiar device of a storywithin a story.  This tale of a mysterious spectre that terrifies a small English town, because it heralds the death of children, proved to be a huge success when it transferred to the stage in 1987 becoming the second longest-running play in the history of the West End after The Mousetrap. I didn’t care for the book at all — I thought Hill’s prose was overblown (it’s so tedious when an author loads up the narrative with adjective upon adjective) but the stage play is superb. Daniel Radcliffe’s film version, felt to me like a very pale imitation.

woman in whiteFor brilliance in the Gothic vein, we have to turn to a much earlier novel. For my last link I’m chosing a book with a similar title. The Woman in White was the fifth title published by Wilkie Collins and generally regarded as an early (if not the first) example of the sensation novel. Collins ingeniously hit on the idea of telling this story of an heiress caught up in a deadly conspiracy, through multiple narrators. The effect is akin to hearing witnesses in a legal trial with the reader given clues to help solve the case. The plot does stretch credulity but Collins is such a ace storyteller that you get swept along anyway. But the book wouldn’t be half as good without the character of Count Fosco, a larger than life villain who hides his menacing nature behind a mask of intelligence and urbanity. Early critics of the novel were uncomfortable about this character however, fearing it could corrupt susceptible women readers.

And with that we have reached the end of a chain which has gone from a book that caused a sensation when Gladwell published it in 2000 to one that caused a sensation in 1859. A bit of a strained connection maybe but I shall let you all judge.

An alternative Golden Booker Prize

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. Apart from a big party to celebrate the event in July, the Booker Prize organisers are also staging a ‘Best of the Booker’ award. They’re calling it the Golden Booker Prize, an award which will “crown the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize, as chosen by five judges and then voted for by the public.”

Now there are a few odd things about this celebration.

One is that the first Booker Prize was awarded 49 years ago this year, not 50. So where did they get the idea this was a golden anniversary year – it’s not clear from their website but I am assuming they are taking their starting point an announcement of the inauguration of the prize or maybe the judging process itself.

Stranger still is the process they are using to determine which book/author gets the ultimate prize.

Five judges have been put in place. Each has a remit to review the prize winners from one decade and decide which of them has “best stood the test of time”.  The shortlist announced on May 26 is really therefore just one person’s point of view. What a missed opportunity. A more robust process would have been for all judges to have reviewed all the winners  and debated/discussed their merits before choosing a shortlist?

But what’s done is done and we have five shortlisted titles.

1970s: In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul

1980s: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

1990s: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

2010s: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

goldenbooker.jpg

Have they made the right choices? Having read all bar 4 of the Booker prize winners since it was first awarded in 1969 and all of these shortlisted titles except for Lincoln in the Bardo, I feel somewhat qualified to give an opinion.

I’m pleased to see that one of my top three Booker titles has made it to the shortlist. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje was selected by the novelist Kamila Shamsie because she felt ‘it has everything”. She specifically calls out its characterisation, intricate structure and the way it makes readers think about love and friendship. My own take on this is that it’s a  beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war.  It’s short but rich in themes and has a very strong emotional pull.

Also delighted to see Hilary Mantel on the shortlist even though I thought her later novel, Bring Up the Bodies (another of my top 3 ) was stronger than Wolf Hall.   The judge for this decade, broadcaster and novelist Simon Mayo called Wolf Hall “fantastically readable and unbelievably complicated.” I’m not going to argue with that assessment – Mantel’s achievement was to take a historical figure typically portrayed as cold, distant and manipulative, and make him human. But in Bring Up the Bodies, I think we get an even stronger sense of the moral and ethical dilemmas confronted by her protagonist Thomas Cromwell as he seeks to serve his master the King. Bring Up the Bodies just missed out inclusion in the assessment for the 2000s where it would have been pitted directly against Wolf Hall. Instead it was evaluated by a different judge who perhaps didn’t have Mayo’s declared love of historical fiction.

But that flip into a new decade meant it was up against the final title in my top 3 – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Lincoln in the Bardo was a hot tip to win the prize last year but it wasn’t universally praised – some readers and bloggers found it too fragmented. Flanagan’s novel however I thought exceptionally well constructed even though it moved across time periods and countries. Leaving this off the shortlist was a miss I thought by the judge, poet Hollie McNish.

What of the choices to represent the remaining decades?

For the 1970s the writer and editor Robert McCrum judged In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul  as the best of the decade. I think he drew the short-straw by being given the 1970s since there were few, in my opinion, stand out winners. Naipaul’s book was one I read early on in my Booker Project and you can maybe gauge my reaction to it from the fact that I haven’t as yet posted a review. I recall it being a strange novel where often I wasn’t absolutely sure what was happening.

My own choice would be Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea which slightly has the edge over Paul Scott’s Staying on. I never thought I would be gunning for Murdoch since I’d always thought her work difficult to penetrate but The Sea The Sea was a revelation.

As for the 1980s, I know the popular opinion in the blogosphere is that the judge Lemn Sissay made a mistake in overlooking Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I did read it though it was a struggle. I did appreciate the inventiveness of the novel but the truth is I just didn’t enjoy it so my vote would go to The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro for its superbly understated portrayal of a man who has suppressed his emotions for so long he cannot let them go even when this is to the detriment of his happiness.

So if I’d been the judges ( I expect a call from the Booker people any day now) my shortlist would be:

1970s: The Sea The Sea by Irish Murdoch

1980s: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

1990s: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I know I said earlier that Bring up the Bodies is better but that’s in a different decade)

2010s: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan

What would your shortlist look like?

The reading public now get a chance to make their preferences know via the public vote which is open until June 25. Vote here 

 

Travels through Middle England

Just returned from my road trip around the part of England that is sandwiched between the north (Yorkshire, Northumberland etc) and the south (Somerset, Wiltshire etc). It’s the area that in the past I’ve rushed through en route to somewhere else.

This year however we decided to stop and look. Over the course of almost two weeks we traversed Derbyshire (home of the renowned Peak District National Park), Leicestershire and Warwickshire. We saw stunning scenery, picturesque villages oodles of historic buildings and, finally, a Jacobean tragedy which oozed more blood on stage than I have ever seen previously.

Let’s begin with Derbyshire.

Even if you’ve never heard of this place you might know of it via the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice since this is where Lizzie Bennett takes a holiday with her aunt and uncle. Cue lots of shots of dramatic scenery and of course that view of Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s ancestral home. We never got there but we did manage to visit another modest abode: Chatsworth House, home of 16 generations of the Cavendish family.

Chatsworth _Derbyshire

This is the rear view from the vast gardens landscaped by “Capability” Brown. It’s only a part of the estate – missing from this view are the fountains, a rock garden (I say rocks but these were ginormous boulders); meadows, stables etc etc.

Less grand but teeming with atmosphere was our next destination: Haddon Hall. It’s a fabulous example of an English medieval and Tudor country house. The chapel dates from the 12th century and bears many of the original frescos and wall decorations.

Haddon Hall chapel

Some of you might recognise this house too – it’s been used as a film set on multiple locations including three versions of Jane Eyre. Elizabeth (the version starring Cate Blanchett) and  The Other Boleyn Girl.

Haddon Hall exterior

It was empty from about the 1740s except for a caretaker but in the 1920s the Duke of Rutland (owner of the house) decided to restore it and the gardens. The current holder of the dukedom lives with his family in Haddon Hall. All I can say is that they must have a greater tolerance of draughts than I do. The house is spectacularly atmospheric but it doesn’t come with central heating and there is only so much a tapestry can do to keep out the icy blasts…….

PS: If you visit Haddon Hall do try the cream-filled scones in the tea shop.

And then to Lincolnshire and the town of Stamford which has more than its fair share of historic buildings though these are more modern being from the late 18th and mid 19th centuries. Sadly there was far too much traffic to capture on my camera.

But once again we have a literary connection for the town was used by the BBC as  a location for the adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I whiled away a few hours delving around corners and going into various courtyards in search of places I could recognise from the series. I never did find the building used as home of Dr Lydgate and his wife Rosamund but I did wander into St Martin’s square which was used for the memorable scene of the election hustings.  The photo shows filming in action. The building at the rear is now the tourist information centre.

St Martins square Stamford.png

Stamford also boasts a superb Elizabethan dwelling set in a massive parkland. Burghley House was built by Sir William Cecil, Lord Treasurer and trusted aide to Queen Elizabeth 1. Burghley house Lincolnshire.jpg

Looking at the ornate nature of those chimneys and all the windows you can understand why it took 30 years to complete this structure. It was designed to impress visitors with the wealth and status of its owner. Sadly Elizabeth never got to see it. She was due to arrive with her entourage but there was an outbreak of smallpox in the house so it wasn’t deemed safe….

For my next destination we stayed in the sixteenth century. I’ve been to Stratford Upon Avon several times but have never seen a play in the Swan Theatre.

Swan Theatre_Stratford.JPG

What a special place in which to see a play. It’s housed in a Victorian Gothic building at the rear of the main RSC building and is designed around a thrust stage which means if you are sitting at ground level you are within just a few feet of the actors. For the production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, this meant we got to see the blood in great detail.

And boy was there plenty of it to see. You get to expect with Jacobean tragedy that there will be blood and lots of bodies ( I counted eight in this production). But this had blood like I have never seen before on stage.

At one point a lake of formed and spread across almost the entire stage, in which the actors rolled and fell and fought. By the end there was barely a cast member who wasn’t caked with the stuff. I know the costume people at the RSC are masters at creating different kinds of blood but they seemed to have gone for a particularly viscous product this time around. It had a sticky, oily look to it that must have been a nightmare to wash out…. Fortunately we were not in the front room because otherwise we’d have been asked to wear capes to protect our own coats from splashes……

An incoherent play but as a theatrical experience this was unsurpassable. And what a way to end our holiday. It was yet another reminder of the treasure of delights that is in my backyard (well not far away). I’ve travelled far and wide across the world and will do so again soon. But I’m coming to realise that you don’t have to go too far to be entertained and stimulated.

Has that been your experience too? Are there some magical places in your home country that you keep thinking you should visit – but never seem to get around to following through on that idea?

 

 

Searching for Schindler by Thomas Keneally

Searching for SchindlerBut for serendipity, the world may never have heard the remarkable true-life story of Oskar Schindler, the man who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2.

It would never have become a novel that went on to win the Booker Prize for Thomas Keneally in 1982.

It would never have become an Oscar-winning film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993.

The fates however determined that one evening in 1980, the Australian author Thomas Keneally would walk into the leather goods shop in Beverley Hills in search of a replacement briefcase. Discovering that his customer was an author, the elderly, very talkative and inquisitive Polish proprietor pitched him a story he said the world needed to hear.

In Searching for Oskar, Keneally looks back at the unusual genesis for his award-winning novel and his many subsequent meetings with Leopold Poldek. Poldek owed his life and that of his wife to Schindler. In gratitude he wanted the world to know how Schindler had risked his own life to protect many Jews from concentration camps and certain death.

In essence this is a memoir of how Schindler’s Ark came to be written, the battle with the publishers over their preferred title for the American edition (it came out as Schindler’s List in America only), Keneally’s struggle to write the screen play (Spielberg eventually gave the job to someone else) and the long gap before the film version got into production.

For much of the early section of the book he traces the steps he and Leopold took together to track down some of those survivors and capture their stories. There were times when this threatened to become a dull list of names and places but fortunately Poldek is such a remarkable individual that whenever he is present, the book comes alive. Keneally is more than once mortified by the behaviour of his travelling companion but is also charmed by him. On one trip to Warsaw (still part of a Soviet state) Keneally is terrified that Poldek’s insistence he change his currency on the black market will land him behind bars. Another time he waits in acute embarrassment when Poldek remonstrates with a hotel clerk that had the temerity to charge them for photocopying (the bill seemed to be less than $5).

The Independent newspaper in the UK was less than flattering about Searching for Oskar, implying that it was written because Keneally wanted to cash in on the success of Schindler’s Ark. The reviewer calls it ‘tedious’, ‘banal’, ‘cliched’ and ‘clumsy’, a book in fact that should never have been published.

I think that’s too harsh a critique. Searching for Oskar does have its faults – for example, Keneally dwells far too much on some famine relief trips he made to Ethiopia while waiting for Speilberg to begin filming, These sections felt as if he was just padding out of the book. But I did find some other insights interesting – like the issue of whether in writing Schindler’s Ark he was producing a work of fiction or a biography – and some of the insights into Schindler’s character that were not captured in the novel or film. I finished reading Keneally’s memoir with a huge admiration for the determination shown by Poldek in ensuring the story came to public attention and Schindler got the credit he deserved.

 

WWWednesday 23 May 2018

Greetings from sunny Stratford Upon Avon which is the third destination in my “heart of England” holiday tour. I’ll post some pictures soon of the stunning countryside and grand houses we’ve seen so far but for now, here is my latest WWWednesday update. This is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words  and involves answering three questions

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

This has been on my E-Reader for ages. I hadn’t planned to read it now but was so bored by my chosen book – G by John Berger – that I went looking for a more enjoyable alternative.

The Welsh Girl is the first novel by Peter Ho Davies. It’s set in North Wales during the final months of World War II when a German prisoner of war camp is set up near the home of farmer’s daughter Esther Evans. Turmoil ensues with Esther caught in its midst. I’ve only read about 20 pages so far so it’s too early to gauge whether this will be to my taste but the book was well received when it was published in 2007.

As for G, I don’t know whether I’ll continue to read this. I didn’t have great hopes for it but it was one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project list so needed to be tackled. I’ve struggled to page 90 hoping it would get more interesting – it hasn’t… It could become the third Booker Prize title I failed to finish.

 

Recently Finished: The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Another novel that has been lingering on my shelves for a few years but what a joy to read.

Grenville focuses on the early white settlers in Australia and the clash of cultures between the incomers and the indigenous Aborigine population. While Grenville tells the story through the eyes of the white settler, a transported convict who wants to make a better life for himself, she shows how the conflict affects  both sides. It’s a thoughtful novel that raises questions about identity and ownership and also conveys a strong sense of time and place – of London and Australia in the early 19th century.

 

 

 

 

Reading next – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

For once I know what I am going to be reading in the next few weeks. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is the next book selected by the book club of which I am a member. Shortlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction this is a novel The Guardian describes as “A powerful exploration of the clash between society, family and faith in the modern world”. It’s apparently a re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone. I’m just wondering if a knowledge of Antigone would be helpful to fully appreciate this novel. If any of you  have read this book perhaps you can advise?

 

 

 

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I don’t know what possessed me to request The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a gift one Christmas many years ago since I seldom enjoy tales involving the supernatural. Nor do I often read what has been labelled ‘cross over fiction’  – books that can be read and enjoyed by adults and children alike.

I did enjoy reading it far more than I expected and would have given it a wholehearted endorsement but for one thing….

Gaiman relates his story through the eyes of an unnamed man who has returned to his hometown for a funeral and recalls events that began forty years earlier.

As a child he is a solitary figure with no friends (no-one turns up for his seventh birthday party), a fearful boy who sleeps with his bedroom door open and the hallway light on. His world is transformed the day his parents’ lodger kills himself in the family car, an event which enables a supernatural being to gain access to our world.

That day  is also significant for another reason. It is the boy’s first meeting with a young girl called Lettie Hempstock who lives in a house at the end of a lane with her mother and grandmother. The boy is captivated by them, especially when Lettie tells him that the pond behind her house, an expanse of “dark water spotted with duckweed and lily pads” is  really an ocean. But he isn’t too sure what to make of Old Mrs Hempstock. Could she really make the moon full every night and how could she have been alive long enough to have witnessed the Big Bang?

The trio of women turn out to have special powers that are needed when dangerous, malevolent forces begin to attack the boy and get into his house in the form of a nanny. The narrator is the only one in his family to suspect Ursula Monkton is not what she seems. She worms her way into the home, ingratiating herself with his sister and seducing his father, a situation which leads to a complete breakdown in the relationship between the boy and his father.

In one of the most memorable scenes, the boy’s father who had hitherto been a kindly man, turns violent, dumping the terrified child in a freezing bath and holding him under the water.  Worse is to come when the Hempstocks do battle with the dark forces, threatening them with annihilation if they do not return to their own world. The boy is saved but one of the women is sacrificed in the process.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a coming of age novel that deals with the loss of innocence and the disconnection between childhood and adulthood.  Gaiman reminds us of the vulnerability many children experience during childhood, times when terrors seemed to lurk around every corner and could only be assuaged by the comforting arms of parents and adults. But what if the very people you turn to for succour cannot be relied upon? Gaiman’s narrator comes to realise that adults are not always what they seem: “People kept pulling their faces off to reveal new faces beneath,” he observes at one point.

He reaches another epiphany of understanding when he enters Lettie’s “ocean” and is “reborn” into a life where he knows and understands everything.

I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.

I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.

Despite my normal scepticism I had been fully engaged by this story right up to this point. But then Gaiman destroys it in just a few sentences. As the boy is in the ocean he accepts what seems impossible – that candles can burn in water. Ok so far but what are we then to make of this:

I knew the peculiar crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time befoer the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind.

Or of this:

I understood it just as I understood Dark Matter, the material of the universe that makes up everything that must be there but we cannot find.

It’s one thing to accept that when an imaginative seven year old who loves books, describes his adventures we believe they are extraordinary.  But are we really meant to believe that the boy who thinks in terms of icing on birthday cakes is the same child as the one who fully comprehends  quantum physics and the nature of the universe?

This was however just one quibble and I’ll forgive Gaiman for this indiscretion because the rest of The Ocean at the End of the Lane was beautifully constructed and a joy to read. I’m not surprised it was voted Book of the Year in the 2013 British National Book Awards.

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