What are you currently reading?: The Line of Beauty by Alun Hollinghurst
Category Archives: Bookends
Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain. The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.
This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.
It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.
I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.
For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen. Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.
In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.
Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.
John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.
It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party. Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.
The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.
Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.
It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II. Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.
Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.
Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”
Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.
But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.
Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.
For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)
The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.
All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.
Right well it’s just cup a soup then…..
The Classic Club is entering a new era with a changing of the guard (in other words we have a new set of moderators). They’re fired up with bags of enthusiasm and some of that has clearly rubbed off on me because it’s prompted me to revisit my Classics Club list.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Classics Club the idea is that we list 50 classics that we’d like to read over the course of 5 years. The definition of ‘classic’ is very fluid so there’s no compunction to be reading Tristram Shandy if it doesn’t appeal.
I put my list together in August 2012 and made good progress for the first few years. But I’ve neglected it for the last twelve months. I read only two from the list last year and so far it’s just been one – The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola So naturally I didn’t make the “deadline’ of completing 50 by the end August 2017. I still have 14 titles to go. But really it doesn’t matter. It’s a self imposed deadline and I can’t imagine any of the club moderators are going to throw me out as punishment.
To coincide with the ‘relaunch’ of the club, we get to play in the Classics lub spin where the idea is to choose 20 titles from our Classics Club, number then in sequence starting with 1. On August 1, 2018 the wheel will turn and reveal the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List, by 31 August 2018.
The moderators would like us to put the list together in four categories:
- 5 books you are dreading/hesitant to read
- 5 books you can’t WAIT to read
- 5 books you are neutral about
- 5 books which are free choice
I don’t really understand the point of creating a reading list that includes books I am dreading to read. So I don’t have any in that category. Nor do I have any that I can’t wait to read – if I truly couldn’t wait then I would have read them long ago. So I’m going to have to go with just a free choice list. Since I don’t have 20 titles remaining, I’ve had to add in a few to the original list just in case a number between 15-20 comes up on Wednesday.
My list is as follows: it’s a mixture of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’ve included two Welsh authors and an Australian to bring a little diversity
- The Vicar of Wakefield — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
- The Black Sheep — Honore Balzac 1842
- Basil— Wilkie Collins 1852
- Framley Parsonage — Anthony Trollope 1861
- New Grub Street— George Gissing 1891
- Lord Jim — Joseph Conrad 1899
- Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton 1920
- All Passion Spent — Vita Sackville West 1932
- The Pursuit Of Love — Nancy Mitford 1945
- The Quiet American — Graham Greene 1955
- My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin 1901
- O pioneers — Willa Cather 1913
- The Last September — Elizabeth Bowen 1929
- Old Soldiers Never Die— Frank Richards 1933
- Troy Chimneys — Margaret Kennedy 1952
- Gone to Earth — Mary Webb 1917
- Never No More— Maura Laverty 1942
- Return of the Solider — Rebecca West 1917
- A Kiss Before Dying — Ira Levin 1953
- Turf or Stone — Margiad Evans 1934
If I had to choose a few that I would most like to read it would be Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton whom I read many years ago but don’t feel I appreciated her enough at the time. I would be quite happy with some of the Virago classics too such as the Mary Webb or the Maura Laverty.
All will be revealed on August 1.
This was the book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and is one of the few books remaining for me to read in my Booker Prize project. Almost a year ago I asked you all which of the winners still outstanding you would would recommend. The Line of Beauty came in as joint first with The True History of the Kelly Gang. Some of you described Hollinghurst’s book as very readable.
I have to say that so far I am finding it rather dull. It’s meant to be about class, politics and sexuality in 1980s Britain but so far there is a noticeable absence of the political dimension. Class does make an appearance but overwhelmingly the first 100 pages or so have been about sex. Our protagonist Nick Fadden is a middle class Oxford graduand who is lodging with an MP and his family. Nick feels very much the outsider in their midst but the book’s main tension revolves around his homosexual desires and his relationships with two men. My reaction to the book isn’t connected to prudish sensitivities on my part but just that so far this is all the book is about and its highly repetitive. Can someone please assure me that the next 400 pages will be rather more interesting?
What did you recently finish reading? The Latecomers by Anita Brookner
Few authors can get into the skin of the “outsider” as well as Brookner. The Latecomers features two delightfully conceived men of this ilk: Thomas Hartmann and his friend Thomas Fibich. The men are both Jewish and sent to London as refugees in the war. They go into business together and, once married, have apartments in the same building. We follow them from their youth, into marriage with women who seem to reflect their idiosyncratic traits and the puzzling world of fatherhood. It may not be Brookner’s strongest novel but still highly engaging.
What do you think you’ll read next?
Shall I continue on my Booker trail with How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman? It may be however that by the time I’m finished with Hollinghurst one of the Booker 2018 longlisted titles will have come through from the library. I’m not planning to read all the longlist since some of them hold no appeal for me but I would like to read two or three if possible before the shortlist is announced.
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?
Currently reading: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa
This is a debut novel which is based on a true story of a wealthy Jewish family who manage to get papers enabling to leave Berlin in 1949 to make a new home in Cuba. But as they approach Havana, they learn that the government has changed its mind and will deny admittance to all but a few of the passengers. The ship has to return to Europe with its passengers fearing for their lives. Seventy years later a young girl in New York receives a package of letters from a great aunt in Cuba, a delivery that inspires Seven decades later in New York City, on her twelfth birthday, Anna Rosen receives a strange package from an unknown relative in Cuba, her great-aunt Hannah. Its contents inspire her to to travel to Havana to learn the truth about her family’s history.
Recently Finished: Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe
One of the best books I read last year was Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which looks at the reactions of a community when a teenage girl goes missing on New Year’s Eve. Adam Thorpe’s novel is also an ensemble narrative that begins with a missing teenager but takes a slightly different path by focusing on six individuals who had a connection —sometime fleeting — with the missing girl. The book proved more enjoyable than I expected because Thorpe peppers it with symmetries of detail whose significance only becomes apparent when you reach the end. It’s the kind of book that you immediately want to re-read once you’ve got to the end, convinced that there were so many details that you missed the first time.
It has to be The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. In my recent post about the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize, I said I was going to mark the event by reading the remaining books from my list.
After that I might make a return visit to Louise Penny whose Chief Inspector Gamache series set in Canada, is my favourite detective crime reading. I feel I’ve neglected her of late.
This week saw the announcement of the winners of the Wales Book prize. It should have been an occasion to celebrate the finest work by authors from Wales writing in the Welsh or English language, but instead the event has been tainted by a dispute over sales figures for the winning books.
Neilsen – a company specialising in market research and measurement – disclosed that half of the books on the shortlist had sold less than 100 copies. According to Nielsen:
- The overall winner, Diary of the Last Man by the poet Robert Minhinnick, had sales figures of just over 200
- All that is Wales (a collection of essays byM Wynn Thomas) which won the English language creative non-fiction award, sold 34 copies up to June this year
The English language fiction award winner, Crystal Jean’s Switches Are My Kryptonite achieved sales of 49 copies.
Wales-based publishers have been quick to dispute the figures, complaining that Neilsen failed to take account of sales from small independent bookshops and book fairs. They’ve also criticised BBC Wales for placing too much weight on Neilsen’s assessment.
Are the publishers correct and we are reading too much into this data?
Maybe not. Poetry collections tend to see lower sales than fictional works but realistically even when the additional sales are taken into account for the fictional works, there is little evidence that these books are attracting readers in any significant number. The best-selling title on the shortlist reached just 4,000 sales. Still very modest.
It’s hard not to sympathise with the authors and their publishers who are now feeling bruised by this debacle. All the locally based publishers are modest sized businesses with equally modest marketing budgets so they pick their authors carefully and nurture them well, often focusing on a niche. But it’s a struggle for them to get the attention of mainstream media for these books. As Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, said in an interview with me last year, the Welsh book scene doesn’t have anywhere near the presence and visibility enjoyed by authors from Scotland or Ireland.
Even more worrying, the book sellers in Wales don’t seem to be throwing anywhere near enough weight behind local authors. Last week I was in a Waterstones book store in Cardiff (the capital city of Wales). This is the only dedicated book shop in the centre of the city. Did they have any display promoting the Wales Book of the Year? None that I could see (unless maybe it was buried in the deepest recesses of the shop somewhere between the sections on how to care for your pet dragon and macrame for idiots). If a store like this doesn’t promote indigenous writing, why should we expect sellers in England or Scotland to do so?
The owner of Octavo’s bookshop, an independent seller in Cardiff, said in response to Neilsen’s figures that more needed to be done to bring books like these to the attention of the reading public. She suggested reading groups, extracts in magazines etc. All good ideas but, I don’t see that it’s nearly enough. Unless the big boys get behind these publishers and authors and give them shelf space, they’ll face many years on the fringe.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
This week’s Bookends brings you photos of libraries to drool over novel, a novel and – for those who love lists – 100 books Americans consider ‘great reads.’
Book: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
I’ve enjoyed Ondaatje’s work in the past – The English Patient is in fact one of my three favourite Booker Prize winners His new novel Warlight was described by Publishers Weekly as ” a haunting, brilliant novel… Mesmerizing from the first sentence …. may be Ondaatje’s best work yet.”
Warlight is set in the decade after World War II and is the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945 they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. Fourteen years later Nathaniel begins to uncover what he didn’t know and didn’t understand about that time in his childhood.
This is one that is definitely going to get my attention later this year.
Article: What do Americans consider a good read?
Discussions about reading don’t often make an appearance on mainstream television channels which makes a new 8-part series about to air on PBS in America even more noteworthy. It’s designed to get people thinking and talking about reading by asking them about books that are special to them. A list of 100 has been compiled so far – click here to view this. Signature – an online newsletter from Penguin has highlighted a few that they believe are particularly important in the context of diversity. Take a look at their selections here
Blog Post: Public Libraries Around the World
As a staunch advocate of the public library ethos, any article about such places is sure to get my interest. On the LitHub site, Emily Temple posted a list of the 12 most popular libraries in the world. No surprises about which were included since in the main they were the national libraries in capital cities. What got my heart racing were the photos more than the stats.
I look at these places and drool. And I compare them with the building that is in the capital city of my own country, Wales.
It was opened in 2009 to much applause about its architectural and environmental credentials which include a sedum roof. The coloured glass facade does look attractive but the interior is nothing special. And sadly, after only 9 years its function as a library is being diminished. One floor is closed and half of another is given over to a drop in centre for council services. How long before all of it goes????