Category Archives: Reading challenges

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson [bookreviews]

We Have Always Lived in the CastleIt’s taken me long enough to get around to reading the novel considered to be Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it was well worth the wait.

How could it be otherwise when the novel begins with one of the strangest introductions to a narrator I’ve come across in a long while.

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

Amidst the humdrum detail about hygiene and dogs there are some clues in that mention of deadly fungus that this is a dark and strange novel. And it gets darker and stranger once we learn that the reason “everyone else in our family is dead” is because they were the victims of poisoning six years previously.  Someone put arsenic into the sugar bowl and then the family sprinkled it on their fruit dessert.

Mary Katherine (known as Merricat) survived because she’d been sent to bed as punishment for some misdemeanour or other so never partook of the family dinner that claimed the lives of her parents, an aunt and her brother. Her elderly uncle Julian did eat the poisoned sugar but fortunately only in a small quantity so he survived while Constance who didn’t ingest any sugar was arrested for, though eventually acquitted of, the crime. Now the remaining three members live in isolation in a large rambling house out of the sight of villagers. Constance hasn’t left their home since her acquittal while Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, obsessively writes and re-writes notes for his memoirs about his relatives’ deaths. It’s left to Merricat to brave the hostility of suspicious villagers when she does the weekly grocery shopping and visits the library, their taunting song ringing in her ears as she passes:

“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”

It’s a peaceful if restricted existence disrupted by the arrival of cousin Charles, a man against whom Merricat takes an instant dislike because she suspects he is visiting only to get his hands on the family’s money. When she thinks Constance is failling for his charms, she plots the several ways in which she could get rid of him.

I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.

The revenge she eventually enacts is rather more dangerous than turning him into an insect. It brings the wrath of the whole village against the sisters, culminating in violence and pushing them even further into reclusiveness.

Jackson tells this story in a style that’s sparing yet evocative using a narrator who is an arch deceiver. She’s childlike in her belief that she can protect her family with lucky days and magic rituals which include burying relics and nailing items to trees. She spends her days parading the boundaries of their home marking it out with fetishes and totems made from scraps and trinkets. Yet she is a perceptive commentator on the people and places that surround her. On her trip into the village she observes:

In this village men stayed young and did the gossiping and he women aged wih grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.

All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it. The houses and the stores seemed to have been set up in contemptuous haste to provide shelter for the drab and the unpleasant.

 

Together Merricat and Shirley Jackson lead readers a merry dance with a trail of clues about the events of that night six years previously. Who did put the arsenic into the sugar bowl? Why did Constance wash out the sugar bowl before the police arrived, on the pretext there was a spider in it? It’s not until the book is almost over that the truth is revealed.

In true Gothic traditionWe Have Always Lived in the Castle features a rambling ruin of a house and a tyrranical figure in the form of cousin Charles. It does have a haunting quality but there are no chain-rattling ghosts or spectral figures. Jackson is too fine a writer to resort to such devices.  Yet We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a disturbing, unsettling novel, maybe even more so because of  the very absence of those devices. It’s as if the largely domestic focus makes the events more disquieting, particularly when you force yourself to stop being seduced by Merricat’s tomboy persona and begin to wonder about her true nature.

To say more however would spoil the pleasure of reading this book for others.

Footnotes

About this book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s final work and was published three years before her death in 1965.  It was named by Time magazine as one of the “Ten Best Novels” of 1962. The first film version is due for release later in 2017.

About the author: Shirley Hardie Jackson was born in San Fransisco in 1916. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall was publised in 1948.  Also published in 1948 was the story The Lottery which established her reputation as a master of the horror tale. Although popular and well regarded during her lifetime, the 1980s saw more scholarly interest in Jackson’s work and her influence on other writers become more appreciate (she has been cited as an influence on a diverse set of authors, including Neil Gaiman and Stephen King) . According to the post-feminist critic Elaine Showalter, Jackson’s work is the single most important mid-twentieth-century body of literary output yet to have its value reevaluated by critics in the present day. She died in 1965.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it’s one that regularly appeared on blog sites as a highly recommended novel.  It was one of my #20booksofsummer books and is on my Classics Club list. I’m now encouraged to read her other landmark text – The Haunting of Hill House published in 1959.

#20booksofsummer 2017 wrap up

15 books of summerThat’s it for another year. #20booksofsummer hosted by Cathy at 746books came to an end on September 3. I knew I would never be able to read 20 books between June 1 and September 3 (that’s 7 books a month) so I went for the 15 books option. Even that proved a step too far but so what – unless Cathy has a nasty surprise in store I don’t think any booksofsummer police are going to come banging on my door and hauling me into court to justify why I didn’t reach the target.

I read 12.5 books which is 2.5 more than last year so I count this as a success. I would have completed more but I had some review copies that needed my attention.   A bonus is that I read some excellent novels and there was only one book I failed to complete (hence the .5 I am claiming).  I’m glad I went for a mixture of Booker prize winners, crime and works in translation because the variety meant I had plenty of choice when I needed to pick up the next book. I’m also relieved that I thought to include a few shortish books because while I enjoyed both Sacred Hunger and True History of the Kelly Gang they were rather long.

Of all the books I read, my favourite was A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki which is a wonderfully thought-provoking novel set partly in Japan and partly in Canada. I’m usually a bit hesitant about child narrators but in Ozeki’s schoolgirl protagonist I found a character for whom it was hard not to feel affection.

From my original list of 20 here’s what I read (links take you to my reviews):

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson (review to follow)

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane

 Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran

Anglesey Blue by Dylan Jones

The Hogs Back Mystery  by Freeman Wills Crofts

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (review to follow)

The Finkler Question  by Howard Jacobson (part read – review here)

Books I never got around to:

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer: a Booker winner that I started last year but stalled on part way through. I will read this later in the year as part of my Booker project which is due for completion by end of December.

Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis

twilight in djakarta-1

Oh dear, I seem fated never to get to this book. It was on my list of books to read this Spring but it fell by the wayside and now I’ve overlooked it again. The novel was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest. It depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.

 

 

The Kill/La Curée by Emile Zola

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My plan to read all the books in the Rougon-Marquet cycle stalled last year so I was planning to read The Kill to give it a kickstart. I thought it was book number 2 in the series but just as I was about to begin reading it, I discovered that although it was the second to be published the recommended reading order from Lisa and Dagny who are the brains behind the readingzola blog actually puts this as book number 3. So then I went shopping for the book they recommend to read second His Excellency Eugene Rougon but it doesn’t seem that it’s available as an Oxford World Classics edition (the editions I prefer) so now I’m stuck wondering which other edition to try. Any suggestions for a good translation?

Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre

three days and a life-1

I wanted something in my list that fell into the genre of thriller, for those days when I just crave a fast paced narrative. Three Days and a Life which was published in July, fitted that description perfectly. But after reading two crime fiction titles I lost the appetite for this one. I will still read it, just not in the immediate future.

 

 

An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

elegy for easterly-1

This was on last year’s 20 books of summer list but I only got half way through the collection of short stories. And now I can’t find my copy.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Know I Cannot Say/ All That Lies Beneath by Dai Smith

Ghostbird  by Carol Lovekin

what I know-1

Both of these are books by Welsh authors that I bought at the end Ghostbirdof 2016. The Dai Smith book is actually a combination of a novella and a linked section of short stories that reveal life in the South Wales Valleys during the twentieth century.  Carol Lovekin’s novel was the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April 2016. I still plan to read both of these before the year is out

 

That’s it for another year. How did you fare with your summer reading projects?

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth [book review] #Bookerprize

Sacred-HungerIt’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.

The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth.  It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.

He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks  mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult.  In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.

It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his  wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.

When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:

Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.

Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:

I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.

Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.

A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.

The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.

 

Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant  with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.

 

Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.

 

 

Footnotes

About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).

About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.

Why I read this book: Sacred Hunger is one of the remaining books on my Booker prize winners project. It’s also part of my 20booksofsummer2017 list.

The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts [book review]

hogs-headThe Hog’s Back Mystery is a gem of a book for readers who enjoy crime fiction, prefer it to come sans details of bloody corpses, tortured victims or nasty things lurking in the woodshed but don’t want it to veer too much towards “cosy”.

It’s one of the titles republished in the British Library Classic Crime series and comes from what’s been labelled as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (a term coined by the writer John Strachey in 1939 to describe crime novels written between the world wars). These authors followed certain conventions, chief of which was that readers shouldn’t be cheated by sudden revelations or surprises. No-one to whom the reader hadn’t already been introduced should be revealed as the murderer for example.

In The Hog’s Back Mystery author Freeman Wills Crofts this plays scrupulously fair with his readers. Every detail the armchair sleuth could possibly need to make their own deduction is provided. His detective in charge of the investigation, Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard, helpfully recaps and reviews his findings every few days. To play even more fair with his readers, when the crime is finally solved he provides the page numbers for every clue in the trail, a detailed timetable of events and a little sketch map. It still took me three quarters of the book to get an inkling of the identity of the perpetrator but I never got close to working out how the crime was committed.

I say crime but in fact this book has four. It begins with the disappearance of a semi-retired doctor from his home in the vicinity of The Hog’s Back, a ridge on the North Downs in Surrey. Doctor Earle left the house in slippers and minus hat one evening. Had he been abducted or murdered? Or was his disappearance planned? The mystery deepens when a nurse who he had met secretly in London also disappears. One theory holds that they had run off together but then a house guest of the doctor and his wife also vanishes.

Solving this puzzle requires all of French’s skills in getting people’s confidence so they open up to him and disclose seemingly small and inconsequential details about their movements at the time of the disappearances. They build a picture of an era and a way of life that most of us wouldn’t recognise today. The buses run so punctually that an alibi can be built around them and telegrams popped into a rural postbox will reach its city destination promptly. The families and individuals in this novel dress for dinner; eat a substantial lunch as well as dinner except for Sunday’s when it’s their cook’s day off so they take a cold collation and the men smoke a lot. French has a healthy appetite himself and is concerned that the quality of his work will fall away if he is hungry. Fortunately in this investigation he gets to do a lot of cycling between different houses, borrowing a lowly constable’s bike to do so. Could you imagine Inspector Morse’s reaction if told to forgo his beloved Jag for a two-wheeler?

There are a plethora of suspects, a multitude of dead ends to navigate and some complex alibis for him to evaluate before he can wrap everything up and help bring the guilty to justice. In the introduction to the British Library edition, the crime fiction expert Martin Edwards, indicates that Freeman Wills Crofts wrote an essay in which he described his method for constructing his plots. Apparently he first prepared a synopsis of the “facts” and the chronology of events then sketch maps of key locations and character biographies. Finally he developed a summary of how and when the facts are revealed to his investigator. I have to believe  such meticulous attention to detail is linked with his training as a civil engineer, an occupation which requires precision and logic. It meant that by the time I got to the end of The Hog’s Back Mystery I didn’t have that feeling I so often experience with crime novels, that I’d been cheated and led up a garden path.

Footnotes

About this book: The Hog’s Back Mystery  by Freeman Wills Crofts was first published in 1933. It was his fourteenth novel and the fifth to feature Inspector French.

About the author: Freeman Wills Crofts was born in Dublin in 1879. At seventeen he began studying civil engineering and developed a passion for railway engineering. He began writing to amuse himself while recovering from an illness, initially combining his new career with his work as chief engineer for an Irish railway company. Such was the success and esteem of his novels that he gave up the railway work.

Why I read this book: I learned of this book via Ali at HeavenAli (her review is here) and she kindly donated her copy to me. I added it to my #20booksofsummer reading list for 2017. It was ideal reading for my period of enforced leisure after my broken humerus adventure.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf [book review]

room of ones own-1Virginia Woolf’s essay  A Room of One’s Own is a landmark text of feminist literary criticism and, as such, is required reading for students of literature around the world. But I was a student at a time when feminist criticism was not even in its infancy so though we studied Woolf’s fiction, no lecturer ever thought to direct us to her seminal non-fiction output. My experience of this essay has been fragmented as a consequence; I’ve mostly encountered it as references in other works such as Elizabeth Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own.

Now I’ve read the essay in its entirety I could better appreciate the full impact of Woolf’s assessment of the difficulties and obstacles facing women writers and how they have risen above those challenges.

The first challenge Woolf identifies is one of attitude. Woolf dramatises this through her narrator’s experience of undertaking research at one of the Oxford colleges. First she is told in no uncertain terms that it is forbidden to walk on their grass (is there a fear she might contaminate them?) and then that as a woman she has no right of entry to the college – such hallowed halls of education are reserved for male students only.  After a day at the British Library perusing the scholarship on women, she discovers that little has been documented about the everyday lives of women; what does exist has come from men who seemed to have been writing in anger.

What I find deplorable … is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that. … I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting rooms to themselves; … what in short they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.

The second issue is one of practicality. Reflecting on the different educational experiences available to men and women as well as on more material differences in their lives, she concludes that women were kept from writing because they had no money of their own. Significantly Woolf is writing at a time when the law had only recently been changed to allow married women to own any money they earned.   Without money of their own, and without any space of their own (out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble), their creativity is stifled she argues. And she points to the Romantic poets and those of the nineteenth century for evidence – all but three of them were university men and of those three it was only Keats who was not well to do. Poverty and poetry were impossible bed fellows.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from what the beginning of time . . Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.”

In Woolf’s view the lack of money and lack of privacy influence also what women wrote. Women turned to the novel form ( considered  a very poor second to the art of poetry) because it was easier to put down and pick up again without loss of imagination. If you had to do your writing in a public space like a drawing room rather than in the private male space of a study or library, then you would have to contend with frequent interruptions. And learn, as did Jane Austen, to hide her manuscripts and cover them with blotting paper when anyone approached her corner of the communal sitting room.

Woolf seemed to then suggest that the quality of what women writers produced was somehow inferior to that of male writers. Having highlighted people like Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters ( Woolf rated Emily as superior to Charlotte) she ponders how much better their work could have been if their experience of life had not confined to house and hearth. How enormously their genius would have benefited if only they could have travelled or gone to a war as did Tolstoy. In Woolf’s mind, War and Peace could not have materialised if Tolstoy had spent his life in domestic seclusion. Well clearly not – it would have been nigh on impossible to write so vividly of battles if he hadn’t witnessed them at first hand during the Crimea war.

There were a few points in Woolf’s argument I found myself challenging. One was the premise that these leading female writers seldom moved beyond the house yet Charlotte’s portrayal of the plight of Victorian governesses is all the more real because it came from her own experience. I doubt Tolstoy could have written so astutely about the position of a woman who was on close intimate terms with a family yet not regarded as one of them or as a servant. Nor does it allow for the role of the imagination – Wuthering Heights owes much of its power to the evocation of the wild moorland Emily Bronte knew well but the portrait of evil and malice in Heathcliff came from her imagination, not knowledge.

Then there is the idea that the challenging conditions under which such novels were created gave rise to a style of sentence alien to women’s nature..

“To begin with, there is a technical difficulty -so simple, apparently; in reality, so baffling- that the very form of the sentence does not fit her [the woman]. It is a sentence made by men; it is too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use.”

Instead of trying to ape male writers, Woolf encouraged her sisters to turn their exclusion from the opportunities afforded men to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

It’s a point which I found hard to grasp because Woolf never really gives any examples of what she means. Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

Im confident that I have merely scratched the surface in trying to understand Woolf’s essay and to fully do so I would need to spend many hours taking it apart point by point ( it gets convoluted many times as she wrestles with her own thoughts). But she ends strongly by positioning fiction by women as on the verge of something unprecedented and exciting, and exhortating ther audience of women to take up the baton bequeathed to them and to pass to their own daughters.

Footnotes

About the Book: A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1929, the essay was based on lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College,  Cambridge the previous year. The title of the essay comes from Woolf’s conception that, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

Why I read this book: Partly from a sense of guilt that I claim to be keenly interested in literature yet have not read this essay. Hence why I added it to my #20boksofsummer reading project.

Summer holidays 2017: What books are in your luggage?

summer reading 17The 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?

 

 

Hidden voices of Chinese women [book reviews]

good women of china-1Maybe I was spoiled by the brilliance of Wild Swans by Jung Chang but any thoughts that The Good Women of China by Xinran would be similarly revealing about the lives of Chinese women today were sadly quashed.

Xinran is a journalist who worked for eight years as a presenter at a Chinese radio station. Touched by many letters she received from women she persuaded her bosses to let her reveal some of their stories. It was a bold move because some of those stories were critical of Chinese society and it’s ruling elite — exactly the kind of story subject to the country’s strictly enforced censorship rules. Though Deng Xiaoping had started a process of opening up the country in 1983, it was still risky to discuss personal issues in the media. But Xinran prevailed. She was, she said:

… trying to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breath after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years.

Over time she began pushing the boundaries, taking a risk that one mistake – even one comment – could endanger her career if not her freedom. Such was the popularity of her program that the radio station had to install four answering machines so women could call in and record their comments.  Words on the Night Breeze became famous through the country for its unflinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in modern China. Xinran was hailed as the first female presenter to ‘lift the veil’ of Chinese women and delve into the reality of their lives. Her programme dealt with sexual abuse, attitudes towards disability, forcible removal of children from their mothers and a practice of pushing intelligent women into unhappy marriages with government leaders — marriages they could not leave because of the resulting damage to the husband’s reputation. Her stories concerned women of all different classes and ages and degrees of experience.

The most moving for me was the story of  Xiao Ying, a survivor of an earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 which killed 300,000 people.  In the subsequent chaos she was gang raped by soldiers. When her mother found her in a ditch, she kept pulling down her trousers, closing her eyes and humming. Xiao Ying was sent for psychiatric treatment. She seemed better after two and a half years, but the day before her parents were due to take her home, she hanged herself. She was 16.

Xinran was deeply affected by what she discovered, travelling the breadth of the country to track down some of the women whose stories she had heard. One of them lived in a poor shack next to the radio station, keeping body and soul alive by scavenging though Xinran discovered her son was a wealthy party official. Another woman she found in a remote hotel in shock after meeting again the boyfriend from whom she’d been separated 45 years earlier. Xinran sat with her throughout the night, slowly giving the woman the courage to speak about her life.

Centuries of obedience to the principles of “Three Submissions and the Four Virtues” (submission to fathers, husbands and sons), followed by years of political turmoil had made women terrified of talking openly about their feelings. Xinran won their trust and, through her compassion and ability to listen. Repeatedly they told her that she gave them a space in which to express themselves without fearing blame or other negative reactions.

If the ability to tell their stories, changed these women, hearing them also changed Xinran. Her youthful enthusiasm gave way to pain the more she learned and the more she understood.

At times a kind of numbness would come over me from all the suffering I had encountered, as if a callus were forming within me. Then I would hear another story and my feelings would be stirred up all over again.

By 1997, after a particularly traumatic visit to a community where women were denied sanitary product, whose wombs had collapsed through constant childcare,  the pain became too much and Xinran left China for England. She wanted, she said to breathe new air and to feel what it was like to live in a free society. But she didn’t want to abandon the women who’d been encouraged by her programme – so she wrote her book to teach the west what it meant to be a woman in China.

It’s a worthy cause and there is little doubt that Xinran gave hope to thousands of women whose stories she heard and the millions more who listened to her programme. But it doesn’t make for a very good book. By the very nature of its subject The Good Women of China is an episodic book and each of the 15 personal stories she relates is touching. But it lacks objectivity and analysis. Instead of stepping back from a story and reflecting what this tells us about Chinese society, she’s onto the next example and the next and the next. Without analysis and reflection on whether these conditions have changed, it’s hard to comprehend if these are isolated examples or how representative they are of real life. Reading this book left me with too many unanswered questions.

Footnotes

About the bookThe Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is translated by Esther Tyldesley. It was published in 2002 by Chatto and Windus in the UK.

About the author: Xinran (the name means “with pleasure” ) was born in Beijing in 1958 and lived with her wealthy family until the Cultural Revolution separated them when she was seven. After working in a military university she became a radio journalist. Her talk show, Words on the Night Breeze, started in 1988; within three weeks she was receiving 100 letters a day, mostly from women. She moved to the UK in 1997, where she compiled their stories in The Good Women of China. Xinran is a columnist for national newspapers in the UK.

Why I read this book: I’ve been fortunate enough through my job to visit China and to meet many people from that country. The stories of their culture and how this is under pressure as the country becomes an economic power house and a force in international affairs, has fascinated me. I thought The Good Women of China would help me better understand the people of this country. This book is part of my 20booksofsummer reading list.

 

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto #bookreview

goodbye tsugumiGoodbye Tsugumi is the story of one summer in the lives of two girls who are related by blood if not by temperament. 

Tsugumi  Yamamoto is a mercurial character. An invalid from a young age she has grown up in a small seaside inn as a spoiled and occasionally mean spirited girl around whom everyone tiptoes, afraid to spark her ill-humour.  According to her cousin Maria, Tsugumi “was malicious, she was rude, she had a foul mouth, she was selfish, she was horribly spoiled, and to top it all off she was brilliantly sneaky.

Maria  Shirakawa (the narrator) is a more thoughtful girl, a model of patience and affability who has learned to deal with the uncertain relationship of her parents – her father is a businessman living in Tokyo, her mother is his mistress who lives and works in the inn. She is aghast at some of Tsugumi’s pranks and hurt to be the victim of her acid tongue but she is still drawn to the girl.

It wasn’t narcissism.  And it wasn’t exactly an aesthetic.  Deep down inside, Tsugumi had this perfectly polished mirror, and she only believed in the things she saw reflected there.  She never even considered anything else.
That’s what it was.
And yet I liked her even so, and Pooch [a dog] liked her, and probably everyone else around her liked her too.  We all continued to be enchanted by her. 

Part of Tsugumi’s attraction is that she has a vivid imagination which makes her fun to play with. She creates wild and inventive games for her and Maria, including their favourite “The Haunted Mailbox” in which they pretend to receive letters from the dead in an old rusted box behind their school.

When her father gets his divorce, Maria and her mother move to Tokyo and Maria  embarks on a new path in her life as a university student. But a call from Tsugumi offers her a chance to return to the inn for one last summer before the place is sold. It’s a chance to recapture idyllic summers of the past and to deepen the bond with her difficult cousin. She acknowledges that Tsugumi is “really an unpleasant young womanbut that summer she sees for the first time the inner strength of her friend and has to face the real possibility that she could lose her.

In essence this is a coming of age novel in which Maria comes to appreciate that time does not stand still, that her childhood is in the past and loss is a part of growing up.

Summer was coming.  Yes, summer was about to begin.
A season that would come and go only once, and never return again.  All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had.  And this made the ticking of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress.  We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together.  We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy.

This is a beautifully atmospheric novel rather than one which has a strong plot. We get a  strong sense of sadness at the loss of the idyll of one’s youth (the goodbye of the title is not the end of a relationship but the end of childhood innocence) but there is also a feeling of hope as Maria comes to appreciate the potential of her own life in the future. 

Yoshimoto’s description of nature and the beaches and the mountains at the resort have a poetic quality which also drew me in.

The whiteness of the flowers seemed to levitate in the dark. Every time the crowd of petals bobbed under a puff of wind you were left with an afterimage of white that had the texture of a dream. And just beside that dream the river continued to flow, and off in the distance the dark nighttime ocean stretched the glow of the moon into a single gleaming road. The black waters before us swelled up and fell back again, glimmering with tiny flecks of light, the dark motion extending all the way to infinity.

I also enjoyed her gentle, yet thoughtful style. Here is just one example:

Each one of us continues to carry the heart of each self we’ve ever been, at every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. And we have to carry this weight all alone, through each day that we live. We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves.

I’ve seen some comments from other reviewers that Goodbye Tsugumi isn’t as strong a novel as her debut work Kitchen. Since I’ve not read that or anything else by Yoshimoto in fact I can’t judge how accurate that assessment is. Goodbye Tsugumi may not be as rich in philosophy or big ideas as some of the other Japanese authors I’ve read but I still enjoyed it.

Footnotes

About this book: Published in Japanese in 1989, translated into English in 2002 by Michael Emmerich.

About the author:  Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name of the Japanese writer Mahoko Yoshimoto whose debut novel  Kitchen was widely applauded on publication in 1988. Yoshimoto began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf club restaurant. Apparently she adopted the name Banana because of her love of banana flowers, but also because she considers it “cute” and “purposefully androgynous.”. She has written 12 novels many of which deal with themes  of love and friendship, the power of home and family, and the effect of loss on the human spirit. 

Why I read this book: I have a feeling I came across the name of Banana Yoshimoto when I was reading about the Japan in January project run by Tony at tonysreadinglist. It’s been stuck on my shelves for a few years now but I dusted it down ready for Japan lit challenge. It also counts as one of my 20booksofsummer reading list.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson #BookerPrize #bookreviews

finkler question-1I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).

The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish.

One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular  mainstream books on philosophy.  Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”  Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.

In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.

A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family.  In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”

According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew.  Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.

That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.

Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know  whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C . 

About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the remaining 10 titles in my Booker prize project. I also made it one of my 20booksofsummer titles 

 

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki [Book Review] #20booksofsummer

Tale for timeIf you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether I’d be likely to enjoy a novel about everything from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation, I’d probably have said no way. But not only did I enjoy A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki it’s turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

This is a novel that addresses big themes that transcend cultures and borders yet it starts at the level of one individual. In a Tokyo cafe where waitresses dress up as French maids, 16 year old Nao (pronounced as “now”) Yasutani  pours out her thoughts into a diary. Her journal is an attempt to deal with the severe loneliness and feelings of alienation she has experienced since her father lost his lucrative hi-tech job in Silicon Valley, California  and the family had to move back to Japan. They live in a one bed room apartment; her mother sits for hours in front of a tank of jellyfish at the aquarium, her father, unable to get a job, has attempted suicide. Nao has been bullied, ostracised and humiliated at school and is herself contemplating suicide. But first she will write the life story of her 104-year-old grandmother Jiko, a nun who lives in a remote Buddhist temple in north-eastern Japan.

More than a decade later, the diary, wrapped in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and freezer bags covered in barnacles, is washed ashore on an island in British Columbia where it’s discovered by Ruth, an author.  As she reads the Nao’s words Ruth becomes sucked into the mystery of the girl’s life.   How has the diary wound up here on the other side of the world? Did it float across the Pacific on one of the huge gyres of waste she learns about from her husband Oliver?  How long had the package been tossed about in the sea? What happened to Nao – did she kill herself or was she a victim of the tsunami in 2011? Can Ruth find and save her? Questions that compel Ruth to frantically hunt the Internet, seek insight from local marine experts and help with translation. Each time she thinks she is making progress, she hits another dead end.

The novel oscillates between first person excerpts from Nao’s diary and third person narration in which Ruth reacts to the diary and the other documents. New layers of story emerge and new connections are made. In the lunchbox, Ruth discovers letters from Jiko’s son, Haruki, a young man forced to give up his studies and become a kamikaze pilot during the last days of the Second World War. In the letters, written in French so his commanding officers cannot understand them, he reveals his fears about the task he has been ordered to undertake. The package also contains Haruki’s watch which miraculously still keeps time.

Time of course is one of the threads that holds the novel together. The slippery nature of time is one of Nao’s preoccupations. She calls herself a “time being.  … someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”  She captures her thoughts about her “last days on Earth” in a diary bound within the covers of an old copy of Proust’s  A la Recherché du Temps Perdu. As she recounts her past, she wonders not only who will read her story, but also when she will catch up to her present and what catching up will feel like. At the same time, she seems to believe that “now” is an impossibility because it keeps disappearing:

In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already thenThen is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something.

She invites her imagined reader to count the moments of the now with her. Across the years and across the ocean Ruth tries to keep in time with Nao, forcing herself to slow down the pace at which she reads the journal. Reading it at the same pace at which Nao wrote it, will she reasons, enable her to “more closely replicate Nao’s experience.”  It’s left to Ruth’s husband Oliver to provide a logical explanation for the conflation of past and present she experiences, using the experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat as evidence that an object (or Nao herself) may be simultaneously both alive and dead.

Philosophical explorations of quantum mechanics, discussions about crow species and the anatomy of barnacles populate A Tale for the Time Being. It’s a dizzying array of ideas which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the reader (especially if you also pay attention to the 163 footnotes and six appendices). What holds it all together is Nao’s voice. She’s a direct and engaging narrator, holding little back in her account of her fears for her father and the despair when a disturbing film about her goes viral through social media.  What saves  her is her relationship with her grandmother. During a summer holiday at the temple Nao learns how to control her anger, empty her mind and express gratitude for the simplest things in life. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl in her pain and her desire for love. 

If you want a novel that deals with both the big and the small issues,  A Tale for the Time Being ticks all the boxes. It’s quite mesmerising in scope but at the heart of it is a young girl reaching out across time and space for help.

Footnotes

About the Book: A Tale for the Time Being is Ozeki’s third novel. It was longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Award and shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.

About the Author: A native of Connecticut, Ruth Ozeki immersed herself in English and Asian Studies college and through extensive travel in Asia. After working in cinematic set design and television production, she became an independent filmmaker. Ozeki’s two earlier novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, were both recognized as Notable Books by The New York Times. An ordained Zen Buddhist priest, Ozeki divides her time between New York and British Columbia. There are numerous parallels between the author and the character of Ruth in A Tale for the Time Being – aside from sharing a name, they are each married to a man called Oliver, have a mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s, a moody cat and have a house on an island in Desolation Sound. 

Why I read this book: I heard about this book when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was considered to be a strong contender (though some reviewers said they felt the section set in British Columbia was weaker than the Tokyo sections). I never got around to reading it but then found a copy in a library sale. It’s one of the books on my 20booksofsummer reading list.

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