Category Archives: Sunday Salon
The summer holiday season is in full swing now (at least in the northern hemisphere). Apparently this weekend is the big getaway when multiple thousands of us Brits depart this isle in search of warmer climes and sunnier skies. Even our Prime Minister has packed her bags and departed for a walking holiday and the Downing Street cat has been moved into temporary accommodation next door with the Chancellor. Those choosing to holiday at home just hope it stays dry but if not, then they’ll encounter merely the odd sprinkling of rain rather than a deluge. Nothing more guaranteed to the take the veneer off that camping holiday than day after day of rain fall.
Whether the destination is a lazy beach holiday in the sun, a trek through the mountains of Switzerland or a meander around French chateaux and vineyards, our national newspapers claim to have found exactly the right books to be your companions. I enjoy reading those lists of ‘summer holiday must reads’ and not simply to look smug at home many of them I’ve read (actually the answer this year is very few since I’ve been concentrating on reading books bought in past years so haven’t read much published in 2017). But I often get ideas for gifts to myself and for others when I see the recommendations.
So what do the professional reviewers/commentators think we should all be putting in our cases and backpacks?
The Daily Telegraph listed 15 titles in their ‘literary’ category.
- Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: A sort of follow up to her highly esteemed My Name is Lucy Barton
- The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy: Her first novel for 20 years and it’s a scorcher apparently.
- Transit by Rachel Cusak. Second in a trilogy that began with Outline, and is built almost entirely in the form of conversations.
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whithead: I thought this was doing the rounds last summer so odd to see it pop up again in 2017
- House of Names by Colm Toibin: A retelling of an ancient Greek tale about Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Cassandra
- Moonglow by Michael Chabon: The (fictionalised) deathbed memories of Chabon’s grandfather, an American-Jewish rocket scientist.
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This revolves around the ghost of Abraham Lincoln’s son who died aged 11, and his neighbours in the graveyard. A very large cast of characters who all get their moment in the spotlight.
- White Tears by Hari Kunzru: Two white boys, one an outsider, one a nerd, bond over their infatuation with black music.
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: To call this “a novel of American domestic life”, a description I’ve seen in multiple places, does a disservice to Patchett’s talent.
- Swing Time by Zadie Smith: Two female friends growing up on the same kind of housing estate in north west London where Smith herself spent her formative years.
- The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride: Expect the same kind of bewildering fragmentary narrative style as in her earlier A Girl is a Half Formed Thing.
- The Traitor’s Niche by Ismael Kadare: the only translated book to feature in this list. Set in the Ottoman era, a world where everything is subordinated to the needs of the state.
- The Power by Naomi Alderman: Winner of the Bailey’s Prize 2017
- First Love by Gwendoline Riley: A novella tracing the disintegration of a marriage
- Night of Fire by Colin Thubron: Fire breaks out in a large house divided into flats. Each tenant gets to tell the story.
- Reservoir 13 by John McGregor: Each of the 13 chapters covers a single year since a 13-year old girl goes missing when out walking with her family
- The Idiot by Elif Batuman: A comic portrayal of university life in the 90s
- Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: A debut work about four Dubliners in a strange relationship.
There’s a lot of overlap between this list and recommendations made in The Guardian‘s article where they asked some authors what they would recommend and in The Sunday Times list of 50 Beach Reads. Lincoln in the Bardo, House of Names and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness came up more than once.
How many of these have I read? OK I come clean – the answer is zero. I do have Commonwealth and Anything is Possible on my Goodreads wishlist and will now add two more as a result of these recommendations: Night of Fire and Reservoir 13.
I do enjoy peeking behind the curtain to find out what authors will be packing alongside their flip flops and sun hats but the real fun for me comes when the newspaper approaches our politicians to ask either for their recommendations or the titles of books they’ll be taking on their own holidays. I can only imagine the angst such a request triggers because it comes laden with minefields for the unwary. The ministers and Cabinet members will want to ensure their choices are suitably matched to the seriousness of our times so they’ll probably nominate something rather worthy about economic or social issues. Then they’ll think they need to mix that up with some choices that show they have the finger on the pulse so will pick one or two titles that ‘everyone is talking about’, probably from the top of the Sunday Times list. And just to show that they have a personality and are, deep down, just like you and me, they’ll finish off with something odd or witty. It wouldn’t surprise me to find some of these folks even get their public affairs advisers to put the list together so they don’t unwittingly trip up. What you never see is anyone brave enough to admit that they just want a darn good crime story or thriller. Where’s the harm in admitting that after a stressful few months, they simply want to chill out. I bet you that more than one of them sneaks an Ian Rankin or Jo Nesbo into their luggage.
How many of these ever so worthy titles they mention, actually get read? I now that’s something I’d love to know but we never get to find out. No newspaper ever seems to go back to these people and ask them for their reactions. I bet most of them come back with hardly a blob of suntan cream blemishing their pristine pages.
What will I be taking on my holidays? No flitting off to the sun for me yet sadly – I’m still in recovery from my last round of surgery and not yet allowed to fly. But I’m hoping to make it to a cottage in Derbyshire in a few weeks and since I won’t be constrained by luggage weight restrictions I can pack in quite a few options. As always I won’t decide until the night before we leave – or given my procrastination, it might be in the last 30 minutes before we head off.
What are you packing with your sun dresses and shorts this year? Anything from the list of recommendations that takes your fancy?
After six months in which I bought only three books I’ve been on a little spree this week. I say ‘little’ because I’m determined not to let the TBR get further out of control. This is a reward for sticking fairly well to my goals for the first half of the year. As reminder I set two goals:
- Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months. In other words: read the books I already own rather than go chasing shiny new ones. This was a more positive approach than a book ban (I know from past experience I’d never keep to that) and did give me the flexibility to borrow from libraries. I did acquire a few titles via give aways and offers of review copies but I also declined more than I accepted so the TBR is still on a downward trend. Down from 318 at the start of the year to 276 by end of June. I’m counting this as success.
- My second goal was to Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images. With help from my husband who is a whizz-kid with this software program and some online tutorials I’ve managed to get beyond the basics. Much huffing and puffing is still involved each time I want to do a new montage and realise I’ve forgotten the instructions again or my computer won’t do what the tutorial says it should do. But I’m getting there.
I’m giving myself a breather in July before going once more unto the breach for the final five months of the year.
I’ll keep goal number one but will give myself a bit more slack to buy a few new titles (I’m thinking four new books would be a reasonable allowance for a 5 month period). I have a very long wishlist that I maintain on Goodreads so chosing just four books from that list could be a challenge.
Goal two will remain – there is still a lot more I to learn with Photoshop so I don’t think I can declare victory just yet.
I’m going to add a third goal.
Goal 3: I will finish all the books remaining in my Booker project. I have only 8 more titles to go before I’m done. No reason why I can’t do this by end of December.
So what did I buy on my mini spree? I deliberately avoided going to a bookshop which would be way too much temptation. Mind you I have a few hours to kill in the city tomorrow so my resolve might waver….. (I’m making zero promises!).
The local branch of The Works was doing a deal on paperbacks of 3 for £5. I couldn’t find three but did end up with:
Stasi Wolf by David Young. This is an atmospheric crime fiction series set in East Germany in the 1970s, in other words when it was still part of the Soviet empire. There’s a good review of this book by MarinaSofia at CrimeFictionLover. I won book two in the series in a give away earlier this year but was then advised to start from the beginning so was delighted to find what I thought was book. That will pay me to give closer attention to my TBR – I got home to find Stasi Wolf is the one I already have. Maybe it doesn’t count as a purchase in that case???
The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny. I wasn’t familiar with this title in the Chief Inspector Gamache series set in Quebec and the publishers have a habit of using alternative titles for some of her books. So I did a quick web search while standing in the shop to confirm that I don’t already have this under a different name. I should have done that with Stasi Wolf shouldn’t I?
My local library branch has a regular book sale table which I browse regularly, on behalf of my dad, for books in the Detective Superintendent Roy Grace crime fiction series by Peter James. He loves this series set in Brighton but gets frustrated because he can’t borrow them from his library in the order of publication. So I keep an eye out to fill in any gaps for him. No luck again on my recent visit but I did find that monstrously large book at the bottom of the stack.
Cwmcardy is published by the Library of Wales as part of their project to bring out-of-print or forgotten books of Welsh literature back into play. Cwmcardy is one of two epic novels written by Lewis Jones about his experience in South Wales between 1890s and 1930s and is considered one of the Great Welsh novels. This is a rather graphic portrait of exploitation, violence and political aspiration experienced by the industrial workers of this part of Wales around the time of the General Strike in 1926. That could make it sound rather grim and ‘worthy’ but I note that the reviewer who nominated this as a Great Welsh Novel, considered it a page-turner full of action and sensation. It’s more than 700 pages long so quite when I’ll get round to reading it is a big question – however it cost 20pence which seemed a small investment for strengthening my collection of Welsh authors.
I decided at the start of this year that I wouldn’t make any reading plans. I’m just hopeless at sticking to them so what’s the point? And so far I’ve been able to keep pretty much on track, just reading whatever has taken my fancy from my current bookshelves (only a few non-bookshelf exceptions like Station Eleven).
But a few cracks have developed in that game plan lately.
First, along came Cathy’s 20booksofsummer challenge which I joined last year and thought would be good to repeat. I seem to prefer short term ‘challenges’ where you can participate at different levels. This one is just three month’s duration and though it involves making a reading list, there’s no compulsion to stick to the list. I’m now on book five from my list and not yet feeling constrained.
Then Adam at Roof Beam Reader pops up with his Austen in August event where the idea is to read Jane Austen’s works (finished or unfinished), or biographies, critique’s etc. Since this is Austen’s bicentenary year, what could be more appropriate? Besides which I have a few non-fiction books that I’ve been meaning to read for several years including What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullen and The Real Jane Austen by Paula Bryne. And so I’m signed up for this.
The next person to test my resolve was Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. with her Japanese literature challenge which runs from June to January 2018. Easy this one I thought – there’s no need to make any kind of a list and most of the activity will run after 20booksofsummer is over. And so I’m signed up for this.
Still manageable I was thinking until I saw a blogger mentioned a few that I’d forgotten about like July such as Spanish Lit Month in July, German Lit Month in November and Women in Translation Month in August. And then there is the All August/All Virago project happening in just a few months.
You can see a pattern emerging now I think?
For someone who had no plans, I seem to have acquired one which will take me into 2018. Hmm. However that’s happened, the reading journey ahead is going to get congested because I still have 10 titles remaining to complete my Booker Prize project . I’m determined to do that by end of this year.
To navigate around the bottleneck I’m going to reign back even further on my Classics Club reading . I’m way behind with that anyway – 16 books to read before the end of August if I’m to meet the ‘deadline’ of 50 books in five years which is never going to happen. I’ll also be a little more judicious about any further reading projects/challenges I join for the rest of 2017. I’ll do the ones I’ve already signed up for (20booksofsummer, Austen in August, Japan literature) but I’m going to forgo Spanish Literature Month and decide between Women in Translation and All August/All Virago.
Wish me luck as I steer through the congestion.
#6Degrees of separation, hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best starts this month with The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. I’ve not read this book though it gained so much publicity when it was published that only sequestration in a remote mountain retreat sans phone, tv, newspapers, would have prevented me getting to know about it. This was a controversial book that puts liberal, middle class attitudes towards child control under scrutiny, via an opening chapter in which an adult slaps another person’s kid who is misbehaving at a Melbourne barbecue. We’re talking here about consequences.
Which leads me seamlessly into another book in which one action, one mistake, has long term repercussions: Atonement by Ian McEwan. The mistake is made by Robbie, the son of housekeeper at a posh country house. He’s passionately in love with Cecilia , the eldest daughter of the household though she’s well above his station in life. He writes her a letter expressing his feelings. He asks Cecilia’s impressionable younger sister Briony to deliver this missive. But he gives her the wrong version, the one that is sexually explicit. Briony opens it and completely misunderstands what she reads. Before the night is over two children have gone missing, a young girl is raped, class prejudices come to light, Robbie is in custody and his relationship with Cecilia seems doomed. I say doomed because this is a novel which ends with a twist … if you want to know what that is, you’ll just have to read the book.
The tempestuous relationship shown in Atonement reminds me of another remarkable novel which deals with class divisions: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. There are other parallels between these two novels: both include a pivotal, emotionally charged scene at a huge fountain in the grounds of a country mansion and both see one of the principal characters go off to fight for their country in a global conflict.
From here it’s but a short step to another novel where an illicit, highly charged relationship is set against the background of war. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks takes us to the theatre of conflict in France during World War 1 and the preparations for what will become the mass slaughter of the Somme. Part of this involves the digging of tunnels underneath no-man’s land and into the enemy’s own defences where the idea is to listen in to their plans. Who could be more suited for this work than coal miners from Wales who are experts at lying on their backs, in the dark, setting explosives and chipping away at the rockface?
Mention of Wales of course brings me back to my homeland. For my next link I could take the easy way out and choose one of the many novels set in the coal-mining area but I thought it would be more interesting to show rather less predictable facets of our Principality.
So let’s start with the fact much of Wales, was – and in many parts still is – prime farmland. Farming and the pull of the land feature heavily in On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. The title might give you the impression this is about the ‘hills’ formed from the black waste of coal mining but in fact it refers to the Mynydd Ddu (translated to Black Mountains) range in Mid Wales, on the border between England and Wales. This is the location of an isolated upland farm called The Vision farmed by twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin Jones, between whom a special and very strong bond develops. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed well into their eighties, touched only occasionally by the advances of the twentieth century and the call for Benjamin to serve his country in World War 1. At times they resent each other yet they are too tightly entwined to be wrought apart and too closely bound with the land to ever leave.
Many of the places mentioned in the novel exist in reality including the market town of Hay on Wye (yes this is the place that hosts the Hay Literary Festival). Mention of Hay-on-Wye and borderlands takes me to Owen Shears’ debut novel Resistance which imagines that the Germans defeated the Normandy landings of 1944. In the sparsely populated farmlands of the Black Mountains, all the men have disappeared, leaving their wives to run the farms and look after the animals. At first they are hostile when a German patrol arrives in the valley but as a harsh winter takes hold they have to find an accommodation of sorts with the invaders.
During the course of the novel we learn that the farmers are all in hiding underground, preparing to become members of a secret British resistance movement. Shears connects their endeavours with an old Welsh legend in which a Prince of Wales sleeps with his solders in secret caves, readying them for a call to arms.
Welsh royalty and conflict between Wales and England brings me to the final novel in my chain: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman. This is the first of her trilogy about the medieval princes of Gwynedd (an ancient county in North Wales) and their long-standing conflict with the monarchs of England during the12th and 13th centuries. Over the course of the three novels we meet two figures who are central to Welsh history – Llywellyn the Great (known in Welsh as Llywelyn ap Iorwerth) and his grand-son Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the last native born Prince of Wales. The trilogy is a well researched account of the conflict and battle of wills between the Welsh nobility and the English kings, played out in the castles stretching along the border between the two nations. It feels over-written at times but Penman does show clearly men who have to contend with competing loyalties to family, king and country.
And there the chain ends. We started at a barbecue in Australia’s second largest city and end at a castle in Wales. As always, the books I mention are ones I have read even if, in the case of Sharon Penman, it was some 20 years ago.