What did you recently finish reading?
Dignity by Alys Conran
The first book I ever reviewed was so dreadful that I have obliterated its title from my memory.
It was by Maeve Binchey and though I know she is extremely popular among some readers, I vowed never to read anything by her again. Ever. I only got to the end because it formed part of a book review column that was being introduced on the newspaper where I was a rather junior reporter.
Maybe it was that experience that destroyed my interest in reviewing. It wasn’t until I started this blog that I began in earnest. I’m re-interpreting the brief for this week’s Top 10 topic.
Instead of listing the first 10 reviews to appear on this blog (which would be dull) I’m opting for the first 10 reviews of Booker Prize winners. It is after all my project to read all the prize winners that prompted me to begin the blog in 2012.
Here’s my list. All links take you to my review
It’s been interesting to look back at these blog posts and to see the progress I made in just over a year of writing reviews. When I decided to begin blogging I had no concerns about my ability to write: I had after all trained as a journalist and had worked for years in a communications role. But it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that writing reviews of books is an art that requires a completely different skill set.
There is still a long, long way to go before I reach the point where I find it easier to write these reviews and am more satisfied with the result. I wonder if I ever will reach that day or whether I’m too too much of a perfectionist to ever be satisfied….
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. .
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation begins with a book that has divided opinion ever since it was published in 2014.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith contains two stories. One story features the Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy. The other story, relates to a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father.
The book was published in such a way that readers might either begin with Francesco or with George. My copy opened with the Italian artist and I was immediately captivated. (see my review here ). But I know quite a number of bloggers whose opinion I value didn’t rate the book at all.
How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but the prize went instead to the Australian author Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
This was such a superb book that I’ve struggled to write a review that would do it justice. It’s one of the few Booker prize winners that I want to re-read.
This is a novel set in the context of one of the most infamous episodes in World War 2: the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At the heart of Flanagan’s novel is an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, who to his astonishment becomes something of a legend for his wartime courage at a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. The novel ends with an encounter between Evans and one of those captors.
A similar encounter takes place in The Railway Man by Eric Lomax.
This is an autobiography in which Lomax relates his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II during which he was forced to work on construction of the help Thai-Burma Railway. The book won the NCR Book Award (until it closed in 1997 it was the major UK award for non-fiction) and became a film starring Colin Firth.
A later winner of the prize was another of my all-time favourites – Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.
This is a family history spans more than a century of China’s history told through the lives of three female generations of Chang’s family. Chang’s mother was a member of Mao’s Red Army while Chang herself willingly joined Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions.
As time progresses, life under Mao and his Cultural Revolution became more difficult and dangerous, causing immense suffering. Parts of the book are heart-wrenching as we learn of citizens rallying to a call for metal so it could be turned into weapons, giving up their cooking pots and pans to avoid being denounced by the regime.
My fourth book also recounts times of hardship for the peasants of China.
The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (my review is here ) is a tale of the fluctuating fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress. His land is the essence of Lung’s being. When the harvests fail and his family have no more grain or rice to eat, they move to the city where they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut . But Lung always dreams of returning to his land.
The novel won Buck the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.
That accolade of “biographical masterpiece” from the members of the Swedish Academy could equally apply to my next choice: Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin.
Pepys’ story is an extraordinary one: his origins were humble (he was a tailor’s son) but he became one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in England in the seventeenth century. He’s most famed of course for his diaries in which he described his daily domestic routine and gave us an account of landmark events such as the Great Fire of London.
Tomalin does a superb job of bringing the man to life, weaving extracts from his diary into details from contemporary letters and official court documents. I read this seven years ago and still remember some of the episodes she relates. (my review is here)
Pepys loved hearing gossip. He also loved to collect books. In his will, made shortly before his death in 1708, he bequeathed his vast library to Magdalene College, Oxford. It remains there to this day.
Not on the same scale as Pepys but the final book in my chain was written by another avid ‘collector’.
The author Susan Hill lives in an old and rambling farmhouse full of cosy fireside nooks and aged beams. It’s also full of bookcases overflowing with books. Howards End is on the Landing ( see my review here)recounts the year she decided to ‘repossess’ these books. For a year she read only those books already occupying a space in her shelves (or on the floor), foregoing the purchase of anything new.
Would that I were disciplined not to buy new books until I had read the old. But my experiment with restraint lasted only a few months.
Six Degrees of Separation #6Degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books. I’ve made one rule for myself – all the books in the chains I create are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed. I never cease to be astonished at the level of variety across all the bloggers who take part in this meme.
I have three books on the go at the moment.
Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne
In 1888, the works of Emile Zola were denounced in the House of Commons in London as “vile” and “diabolical”. Zola’s novels were – according to Samuel Smith of the National Smith – sold to “young girls in low bookshops”, leading directly to prostitution. Zola’s British publisher, Henry Vizetelly, was subsequently prosecuted and imprisoned, his health suffered and he was ruined financially.
Horne’s book reconstructs the events using court records, Hansard transcripts, letters, journalism. It’s a fascinating topic but I so wish Horne had done a better job of creating dialogue between the various members of the Vitzelly family.
One Woman Walks Wales by Ursula Martin
This is an extraordinary account of Ursula Martin’s decision to walk through Wales to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.
She initially set out to do a route that she could cover the six months between hospital appointments for check ups after her own treatment four years earlier. But she miscalculated and ended up walking around 3,700 miles. It took her 538 days on her own most of the time. Camping in the wild most nights (without a tent). Without equipment to make a hot meal.
I’ve reached only day two of her journey and already I’m thinking she must be crazy. But also far braver and more determined than me. I know she made it because this year she was trekking through Romania. In the snow.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
This is my book club selection for April. I wasn’t jumping for joy when I heard this had been selected. Not that I knew anything about the book, it was just the title that was off-putting.
But I’m pleasantly surprised by this tale of a couple whose life together is severed when he is accused and imprisoned for a crime they both know he did not commit.
This was an Oprah Book Club title in 2018 and apparently one of Barack Obama’s best books of 2018.
I enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her latest novel Dignity which was published at the beginning of April, is I think just as good.
It’s a tale of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse. Review coming soon……
I had this idea last week where I would identify the categories of books I like to/want to read, and then make my next reading choice based on a cycle of those categories. So I’d read a classic, say, then a book in translation, followed by a Welsh author, a prize winner, crime fiction or a ‘new this year’ book. I didn’t include non fiction since I tend to read those simultaneously with a work of fiction.
This sounded a good idea at the time but then the doubts began to creep in. Does it feel too rigid, not spontaneous enough. What if I’m not in the mood for that particular category?
And then I challenged myself: who says you have to stick 100% to that cycle? It’s your plan so you get to make up the rules.
Rule number 1: if I don’t feel in the mood for a particular category at the time, I can skip to the next category in the sequence. For example if I really don’t fancy a translated book, I can skip to a Welsh author……
Rule number 2: There isn’t one. There is only one rule. No sense in making this a burden.
All of this is a long winded answer to a simple question: what am I thinking of reading next? I don’t know exactly what I’ll read next. All I can say is that since I’ve just read a book in translation (Emile Zola’s The Kill), and then a Welsh author (Alys Conran), it will either be a prize winner or – if none of those take my fancy, a crime novel….
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?