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Reading horizons: Episode 24

Reading Horizons: November 2019

What I’m reading now

I’ve been digging into my stack of “owned but unread” books in an attempt to  bring some order to the chaos of the bookshelves. 

A Change of Climate was published in 1994 and is nothing like any of the other books by Hilary Mantel that I’ve read. She never seems to write the same kind of book twice.

This one is focused on a couple living in Norfolk who run a charitable trust for homeless people; drug addicts and problem teenagers. In their early married life they worked as missionaries in South Africa at a time when restrictions are tightening towards the non white population. The couple’s liberal attitudes land them in trouble and they are arrested.

I’m half way through and while I’m enjoying Mantel’s descriptive style I think the book needs to move up a gear now.

By contrast I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, owner of the second largest second hand bookshop in Scotland.

It’s a journal which details the day to day events including the number of books ordered, the number of customers and total sales for the day (horrifyingly low!) Shaun’s comments on his often eccentric customers and his eccentric shop assistant Nicky are wonderful because he has a great eye for the absurd. This should be required reading for anyone thinking of buying a bookshop because while it sounds like great fun, the economic reality is sobering.

What I just finished reading

After a run of three books so disappointing that I abandoned them (one of them after just 5 pages) it was a delight to read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. From start to finish it gave a fascinating insight into the character of a woman that stamped her mark on the White House. I loved her honesty and her humility – even with everything she achieved, she constantly asked herself “Will I be good enough.”

The Bowery Slugger was an experimental toe in the water of crime noir. Set in one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century, it traces the downward spiral into violence of a Jewish immigrant boy. The level of violence was disturbing but the book was redeemed by its depiction of New York gang culture and the Jewish community.

What I’ll read next

A friend keeps raving about the Australian author Jane Harper. I have two of her novels, The Lost Man and Force of Nature, both of which are appealing. But I’m also in the mood for some Trollope so might delve into the next in the Barchester Chronicles – Framley Parsonage.

That should keep me busy for a while.

Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks?

This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Dynamic Action In Notorious New York

The Bowery Slugger by Leopold Borstinski

The Bowery Slugger by Leopold Borstinski

The Bowery was a dangerous place to live in New York in the early 1900s. Gangs ruled the streets and controlled the unions. They also exerted their influence over their elected representatives and government officials.

It was the roughest neighbourhood in Manhatten.

Along certain sections of the road in the Lower East side, each building was occupied by either a gambling den, whorehouse or bar. Sometimes they combined to meet the needs of a man who had many vices to fulfill at the same time.

It was also a place of opportunity for a young man with a sharp brain and a willingness to use his fists . Such a man is the key figure in The Bowery Slugger; Alex Cohen, a Jewish immigrant boy who muscles his way into the gangs and become the notorious “Slugger”.

Alex is one of thousands of European immigrants drawn to New York “not speaking the language but hoping, beyond hope, this land of opportunity would deliver plenty to them.” The Cohens had been driven from their small wooden home in the Ukraine because of religious persecution by the Russians.

The promised land they expect to find in New York doesn’t deliver. The Cohens end up in small, run down apartment in a tall tenement building in The Bowery. Alex’s father fails to find work as a tailor so it’s down to their son to help them pay for food and accommodation.

He’s a resourceful boy who in the Ukraine had already learned “how to read people and to persuade them to bend to his will.” It’s fortunate that on his first night in the city he finds a way into a trickster operation. From there he progresses to the loan shark ‘business’ and then extortion, becoming a heavy man for one of the big gangs.

The Bowery Slugger traces his life over the course of three years. It’s an episodic novel full of incidents in which Alex becomes a force to be reckoned with in the neighbourhood. He’s never far from violence. Anyone who displeases him is liable to get their nose smashed, their jaw broken or their neck slashed.

This kind of narrative could easily become very tedious especially since I’m not a fan of violence. But Leopold Borstinski’s novel has two significant redeeming features that kept me reading.

First up was the detail of life in this area of New York in the first decade of the twentieth century. You really get the sense of how difficult it was for immigrants to find a footing in the city.

There’s a suggestion right at the beginning of the book of an anti Jewish feeling with landlords unwilling to rent to those families. Naturally the Cohens feel more comfortable amid people of their own kind, particularly since they have little command of English. The Bowery Slugger is full of Yiddish expressions which I thought brought a level of authenticity to the dialogue.

The other element of The Bowery Slugger that I enjoyed was the character of Alex. What Borstinski gives us is a young man with a dilemma. He needs to keep in with the gang leaders to support his family but as the violence escalates he gets increasingly worried about what he is getting into. He also finds himself in love with the young girl who lives in the same apartment block. But she won’t marry him unless he gives up his gangster life. It’s the conflict between these different aspects of his life that make the book interesting but I think it could have been developed even further.

Even though Alex was a thoroughly nasty character, I was invested enough in him to what to know how this conflict would be resolved. We don’t get to find out because, right at the end, Borstinski engineers a plot development that leaves Alex’s future open for the next book in the series. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the details. I’ll say only that Alex might think this is a way out of his problems but actually he is about to get himself involved in a whole new heap of trouble.

Crime noir is outside my normal reading fare but The Bowery Slugger was an engaging blend of dynamic action and period detail topped off with a morally questionable character.

The Bowery Slugger: Fast Facts

The Bowery Slugger is the first book in a series featuring the Jewish gangster, Alex Cohen. It was published in paperback and e-book format by Sobriety Press on 10th November 2019.

Leopold Borstinski

Leopold Borstinski turned to writing after a varied career in financial journalism, business management and teaching. He lives near London with his wife and child and no pets.

He is drawn to stories about the morally questionable and to characters who are morally suspect. His favourite fictional character is Winnie the Pooh.

His previous work includes the Lagotti Family series, six crime noir novels set in 1960s Baltimore.



J R R Tolkein’s Hobbit Home For Sale

If you’re a Tolkein fan and have £4.5M to spare, you can now buy a piece of literary history.

The house in which Tolkein lived and in which he is believed to have written The Hobbit and worked on The Lord of the Rings is up for sale.

It’s a six bedroom brick house built in 1924 in a quiet suburb of Oxford. The estate agents describe it as “largely unaltered” which means you’d be moving into a property substantially as it was when it was occupied by J. J R. Tolkein and his family.

This house was quite a step up from their previous home in a four bedroom terraced house in Warwickshire. Incidentally that house, built in 1906, went on sale for £285,000 in June 2017.

J R R Tolkein’s home: What’s On Offer

A rather pleasant house it would seem. it’s quite a spacious house of almost 4,000 sq feet in one of the most desirable suburbs of Oxford. Number 20 Northmoor Road comes with six bedrooms, two reception rooms, a kitchen/breakfast room and a walk-in pantry.

The agents describe the rooms as “Well-proprtioned and filled with natural light, enhanced by the high ceilings and large windows.”

But it’s the association with Tolkein that really makes the house special. The author lived next door at number 20 between 1926 and 1930. But in 1930 he and his wife Edith and at least three of their four children moved into the larger property at number 22.

The first two books in Lord Of The Rings are believed to have been written in this house. Tolkein apparently used the drawing room as his study, typing his manuscripts using only two fingers on an old manual typewriter.

I think this is how the drawing room looks today.

The house doesn’t have any particular architectural features but was nevertheless awarded Grade II listed status in 2004. simply on the basis of the association with Tolkein. A blue plaque on an outside wall commemorates the link.

In 1945, the family left Northmoor Road, two years before Tolkein left Pembroke College where he had been a Fellow and Professor of Anglo-Saxon. In 1945 he moved to Merton College, Oxford, becoming the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature.

The identity of the new owner of 20 Northmoor Road isn’t known but in 2004 it changed hands for more than £1.5m. Was the new owner just lucky and got in before the Grade 2 classification was announced which would have put the price up?

Nomadic Existence

Where did the Tolkein’s go after Northmoor? They moved around the Oxford area for a number of years, initially in the city centre near to the colleges. Perhaps this coincided with Tolkein’s new post as Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College. Perhaps the new residences were prompted by a desire to be nearer to the college or maybe the Tolkeins were looking for a smaller house perhaps because the children had grown up and moved away?

In 1949 they were living at 3 Manor Road. in central Oxford but in about May 1950 they moved 99 Holywell Street, a house built in the early seventeenth century. Both of these were close to the colleges.

99 Holywell Street., Oxford J R R Tolkein lived here in the 1950s

They were on he move again in 1953, this time to a house outside the city in the suburb of Headington. While living at number 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Tolkein published three books in the Lord of the Ring cycle :The Fellowship of the Ring (1954); The Two Towers (1954) and The Return of the King (1955).

Sandfield Road, occupied by J R R Tolkein from 1953-1968. Tolkien worked in the garage on the left of this photograph,

The publication of these books brought literary fame and increased public interest in Tolkien. The attention of fans became so intense that the couple removed their phone number from the public directory. It also drove them out of Oxford – Tolkein and his wife moved to Bournemouth in search of a quieter life in 1968.

Tolkein’s final residence was back in Oxford. Edith his wife died in 1971 and Tolkein was offered accommodation in Merton College, Oxford, close to the High Street. It was here he died in September 1973.

Bring Me Your Favourite Memoirs

The Nonfiction November topic this week is an opportunity to take advantage of the wisdom of the crowd. The host, Katie at Doing Dewey, suggests we can “Be the Expert/Ask the Experts/Become the Expert”). 

I’m going to take the “Ask The Expert” path and ask for help with a newly- acquired reading interest I want to develop further.

Memorable Memoirs

Most of my non fiction reading this year has been in the form of memoirs. I never planned it that way and in fact until this year I wouldn’t have even predicted this genre would be a favourite.

But that’s how it’s turned out.

I’ve read some stunning books, vastly different in scope but every one of them written by a person with insight and the ability to let me into their world.

From Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt, I learned how medical practitioners get burned out to the point they give up the profession despite their passion for healing. Through The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, I appreciated how easily you can lose everything – home, money, career – and yet maintain your dignity and courage. And from Becoming by Michelle Obama I saw how, even when you have a high profile role on the world political stage, you can still have doubts about your abilities.

I know I have barely touched the tip of an enormous iceberg. But my appetite has been whetted and now I want more.

So here’s my request to you all.

Give me your recommendations for killer memoirs.

i’m looking for the memoirs that are breathtaking, spell-binding, unmissable etc etc They could be But – and it’s a very big BUT – you’ll have to avoid those from so-called ‘personalities’ or people in sports, show-business or politics. The reminiscences of a member of a girl-band/boy band have zero appeal to me. Nor am I particularly fond of the ‘misery memoir’ which deals with the abuse someone experienced as a child (I find them too painful to read sorry).

What I’m really looking for are books by people who witnessed or achieved extraordinary things. And they can relate this to me in a way that is memorable, engrossing and thought-provoking.

If you know just the thing to fit my requirements, do leave me a comment and tell me why you think your suggestion is special.

Six Degrees from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland

It’s time for another episode of Six Degrees of Separation, (#6degrees) a literary version of a word association game. The idea is to begin with one title and let your mind take you to six other books.

We begin with a classic that has never been out of print since it was first published in 1865. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) baffled critics initially because of its fantastical creatures, bizarre adventures and nonsensical riddles. But it’s since been the subject of numerous academic papers about the symbolism found in the novel.

Original illustration (1865) by John Tenniel  in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Source Wikipedia, Public Domain

One aspect often highlight has been the numerous references in the novel to mathematics (Carroll’s own field of study). Poor Alice finds herself completely out of proportion and gets completely muddled when she tries to perform multiplication.

Perhaps Alice needed to take some lessons from the Professor in my first book in the chain: Yuko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor.

Yoko Ogawa

This is a delightful book about a wise old academic who leads a younger mind to enlightenment. Due to a traumatic brain injury, a once great mathematician has only 80 minutes of short-term memory available to him before he forgets everything. When he introduces his housekeeper’s young son to the beauty of numbers, a bond of friendship begins between the three.

Charlotte Bronte chose a teacher as the protagonist of her first novel. The Professor was based on her experiences in Brussels, where she studied as a language student and was herself a teacher. Anyone reading this expecting to find a novel as full of drama and passion as Jane Eyre is going to be disappointed. It’s about rather more ordinary people and events – definitely no madwoman in the attic or jilted brides.

The Professor was rejected by most publishing houses it Britain, remaining unpublished until after her death.

Rejection is something the author of my third book knows only too well.

Yann Martel had a less than enthusiastic response when he approached the big London publishing houses with his second novel, Life of Pi. Maybe they thought this tale of a boy stranded on the Pacific Ocean with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra and a Bengal tiger was too far out to be commercially successful.

They were wrong.

Martel eventually found a publisher in Canada willing to take a risk. The novel went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide and won the Man Booker Award in 2002. The film adaptation won four Academy Awards in 2013 and is now a highly successful play running in London’s West End.

Life of Pi deals with metaphysical and spiritual questions but it’s also an adventure story. If you prefer dry land for your adventure, my fourth book may be more to your taste.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London is a favourite of mine from childhood though it made me cry.

It’s set in Canada at the time of the Gold Rush when there was high demand for strong sled dogs. One of these, a St. Bernard and Shepherd dog cross by the name of Buck, is stolen from a very comfortable billet in California and sold into service as a sled dog in Alaska. There he is forced to fight in order to survive and to dominate the other dogs. He becomes progressively feral in the harsh environment, relying on instinct to emerge as a leader in the wild.

Buck would undoubtedly have enjoyed life considerably more if he’d been the lucky dog featured in my next book: Belle et Sébastien by Cécile Aubry.

Cover of the first edition, source Wikipedia under Creative Commons Licence

Belle is a Great Pyrenean dog found by the six year Sébastien near his village in the French Alps. Sébastien was abandoned as a baby and spends his days in the mountains looking for his mother. Belle was treated badly by her owners but managed to escape into the mountains. The two become inseparable and go on many adventures together in a novel frequently described as “heart- warming.”

The author Cecile Aubrey turned to writing after a successful – though short – career as a film actress in the 1950s. She came to public attention in her home country on the strength of Pony, a television series for children and the film and tv version of Belle et Sébastien which became an international success when translated and broadcast by the BBC.

Her success was however modest when compared to that of another actor turned author, David Walliams. His children’s books have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide and been translated into 53 languages.

His debut novel, The Boy In The Dress, provides me with my final link since, by good fortune is protagonist is, like Sebastien, a child missing his mum.

Twelve-year-old Dennis lives with his dad and brother following the break-up of his parents’ marriage. He finds comfort remembering his mother’s yellow dress and pleasure in playing at dressing up with a friend.

And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end. We’ve travelled down a rabbit hole to Brussels, across the Pacific Ocean to the Alps and England to find friendship among tigers and dogs. Where would your six degree of separation take you? Play along by visiting the host Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) 

Dullest Book Of The Year: Love Is Blind

Dull. Dreary. Dry. These are not words I would ever have expected to use to describe a novel by William Boyd.

I used to love his work. Sadly the William Boyd who wrote the masterpiece Any Human Heart and the highly enjoyable Brazzaville Beach and A Good Man In Africa, seems to have disappeared. The new incarnation if Love is Blind is anything to go by, is but a pale imitation.

Love is Blind by William Boyd

Love is Blind is fundamentally a historical romance featuring a Scottish piano tuner and his obsessive love for a Russian singer. In the late 1890s, Brodie Moncur works for Channon & Co, an Edinburgh-based piano manufacturer. He’s thought of so highly he gets sent to Paris to help establish a branch in the city and drum up new business.

He comes up with a clever marketing scheme to get leading pianists to always use Channon pianos for their performances. It’s through this project he encounters John Kilbarron – “The Irish Liszt” – once a brilliant pianist but now finding his powers at an ebb. It’s also how Moncur meets and falls for Kilbarron’s lover, the would-be opera singer Lika Brum.

Discovery of the lovers’ trysts triggers a breakdown in Moncur’s professional relationship with Kilbarron. The piano tuner ends up criss-crossing Europe finding work as best he can and trying to stay one step ahead of Kilbarron’s vengeful brother. Lika flits in and out but even when she is not physically with Moncur he can’t stop thinking about her. His love for her is indeed so blind he can’t see what is patently obvious to readers: this woman can’t be trusted.

Why Love Is Blind Is Boring

First of all, Love is Blind moves very slowly, particularly at the beginning. It takes 50 pages before Moncur is even in Paris and another 50 before the relationship with Kilbarron materialises. A fair chunk of the early pages are taken up by a trip to his home in Scotland and a hostile encounter with his father. It’s an odd episode. There’s a history between this pair that William Boyd hints at but never fully explains so the point of the episode was wholly lost on me.

Most of the novel takes place in Russia, Paris and the French Riviera but Boyd manages to rob these locations of any kind of atmosphere.

He brings Scotland to life well as on his first visit home after many years:.

“The dog cart clip-clopped through the village and led them past the church, St Mungo’s, still looking new – pure Gothic Revival with flying buttresses, finials wherever a finial could be placed and a tall bell tower with no steeple. Its rowan- and yew-dotted cemetery was crowded with ancient graves, former parishioners, the late, good folk of the Liethen Valley. Then they turned into the gravelled carriage drive of the manse, set in a wide dark garden filled with ornamental conifers – monkey puzzles, larches and cedars – and beech trees. Beeches grew well in the Liethen Valley soil.”

But when it gets to some of the greatest cities in Europe, we got what sounded more like bland travelogue. Here’s how in a letter to his brother in Scotland, Moncur describes one of the grandest streets in St Petersburg:

Think of Edinburgh’s Princes Street transported to Russia and double the width. Shops, apartments, grand hotels –and there are three of these great boulevards radiating out from the Admiralty complex of buildings on the southern bank of the Neva river. Perhaps Piter’s Champs-Elysees might give you a better sense of the huge scale of these streets.

Doesn’t give you much of sense of the place does it? Even so, its better than the picture we’re given of Graz in Austria:

… the provincial capital of Styria, a venerable small city situated 120 miles or so to the south of Vienna. Graz was divided by the river Mur, surrounded by the high mountains of the eastern Alps and dominated by its own castle on a hill, the Schlossburg.

If this had been written by a less well established author I’d be harbouring suspicions that they’d just copied text from the state’s travel brochure….

How Not To Show Historical Context

To add to my frustrations Boyd seemed to think it necessary to contextualise the story by stuffing his novel with lists of world events. And so in Biarritz, Moncur picks up a newspaper:

An anarchist had shot at – and missed – the Prince of Wales in Belgium, the Olympic Games were about to start in Paris, and the Automobile Club of Great Britain had completed a 1,000 mile trial run from London to Edinburgh They not only felt awkward they served no useful purpose. I used to love his work but will be very reluctant to pick up anything by him in the future.

Earlier, while in Paris recuperating from his first episode of tubercolosis, he occupies his days reading newspapers.

He read about the continuing animosities of the Dreyfus Affair, the celebrations being organized around Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the economic tribulations facing President McKinley , and a review of a shocking new novel called Dracula.

Every time I encountered one of these passages, it had the effect of deadening what was already unremarkable prose.

Love is Blind has sadly very few redeeming qualities. It was one of the dullest books I’ve read all year.

The plot was pedestrian; the obsession not obsessive enough, none of the main characters were well rounded. As for Moncur, well frankly I didn’t feel strongly enough to care whether he captured the girl of his dreams or remained blinded by love.

It wasn’t so bad that I felt compelled to abandon the book before the end (though I really kept going only because it was a book club choice). But it was poor enough to convince me that it will be a long time before I pick up another William Boyd novel. I shall just wallow in the pleasure of the past rather than have any expectations for future pleasure.

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