Category Archives: #20books of summer

#20booksofsummer wrap up

20booksof summerYes I know it’s no longer summer but better late than never I suppose. So here is the outcome of the first reading challenge I have ever completed (drum roll and applause please….)

I knew I would never get through 20 books so took advantage of the flexible choices offered by Cathy at 746books.com and went for 10 books. When I made the list I was trying to be clever by doubling up on titles that could also count for three other projects: Women in Translation month, AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) and my own Booker prize project.

I’m a bit behind on the reviews but am slowly catching up. So here’s what I accomplished – there were some hits, some also rans and some down right failures..

  1. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Excellent Read –review posted here 
  2. NW by Zadie Smith Read it – Dazzling in some ways but not sure I saw the point of it review posted here
  3. High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – Read but not a great choice for me review posted here 
  4. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford Thoroughly enjoyed this – review posted here Counted this for AllAugust/All Virago
  5. Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read and enjoyed in parts review posted here  I double counted this for my Booker project
  6. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Read and enjoyed the humour – review not yet written. I double counted this for my Booker project
  7. Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read but review not yet written because I haven’t made up my mind what I think of it.  I double counted this for my Booker project
  8. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimimanda Adichie Read – enjoyed the style, left me wanting more Review posted here 
  9. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – Enjoyable take on Japanese culture review posted here  Double counted this for Women in Translation Month
  10. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde: Read it but it was a bit of a slog. Review posted here Also counted towards Women in Translation month

I had a few back up titles on my list originally so I could change my mind if needed. The back ups were:

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. A dud – did not finish review posted here 

Frost in May by Antonia White never got around to reading this but it was a re-read anyway

An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah Started to read it but ran out of time 

Overall  I enjoyed the experience. Because I chose the entry level I never felt overwhelmed by what I still had to read. So I’ll be back again next year assuming Cathy decides to continue the venture that is.

NW by Zadie Smith: portrait of a divided city

northwestdivide

Until a few years ago few visitors to London would have made it to the parts of the city that collectively form the postcode area known as NW (an abbreviation of North West). Places like Willesden and Kilburn were simply names on the map but not anywhere you’d want to visit.  They’re still not in the top 10 places to see in the city but time has given some parts a more trendy and even gentrified feel.The rennovated houses and newly-built homes do however sit uncomfortably with down at heel council estates and crack-addicts just a few streets away. This idea of a divided city forms the basis of NW by Zadie Smith. This is her home turf as it were, an area she ‘escaped’ just as the upwardly-mobile Caribbean Keisha and the half-Irish Leah attempt to do in the novel with varying access.

Keisha makes her escape by changing her name to the more ‘acceptable’ Nathalie and making a name for herself as a commercial barrister tipped to be one of the youngest admitted as Queen’s Counsel. Her marriage to rich and stylish Italian-Trinidadian Franco, is accompanied by two kids and a plush home in the desirable Queen’s Park area – all signals to outsiders that that she’s made the leap from her respectable black working class origins in Kilburn. But it’s an illusion for Nathalie harbours a misery and tries to overcome it through some high-risk adventures.

Her school friend Leah also took the educational route away from her upbringing though her degree in philosophy hasn’t given her the financial success or the feeling of smug satisfaction she sees emanating from Nathalie. Leah is doing Ok, she’s married to a hairdresser who wants to be an online investor whizz kid, living in a council flat not too far from her childhood home and under pressure to have his child. Her work in an office is marred by the resentment of her fellow African-Caribbean workers who all think Michel, a black man of French origins. rightly belongs to them not to Leah. Whenever Leah visits Nathalie she can’t help ending up irritated by her friend’s patronising attitude.

The paths they take to  escape from destiny are shadowed by two men from their schooldays: Nathan Bogle who was once the shining boy in school, the flame around whom Leah built an obsessive love. Now he is a crack-smoking addict who hangs around the bus station . Then there is Felix, a boy neither of the others really knew but who descended into drugs before reforming and now appears to be on the cusp of a new beginning to his life.

The interactions with these men propel some of the story forward and force the girls to re-evaluate their lives. But these men – just like the two husbands – are figures in the background  whose personalities are not as fully developed as the women and who existed for me simply to move the story along and give us a different perspective.

So what is the story? The details I’ve given above are about as coherent as I can describe it since this is a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense. It’s more a kaleidoscope of closely observed scenes of city life and inward reflections about individual struggles.

It’s told episodically in four sections which begin with Leah’s story  in a section called Visitation as she goes about her life. At the end she hears of a fatal stabbing in a street in a local street. We then switch to Guest which takes place on the day of the murder and is told through the point of view of the dead man (I wont give the name to avoid spoiling the story). Section 3 Host is about Nathalie which takes us back to their childhood and teenage years and reveals her unhappiness with life. In the final section she meets unexpectedly with Nathan and they go on a wander around their old neighbourhood which acts as a catharsis in her relationship with Leah and her husband.

At times intense, at others rather chaotic and jumbled, this is a novel where the personality of one segment of a city and its population come to life. It’s closely observed from street level as it were with finely judged dialogue. In one scene, where Leah and Michel go for dinner at Nathalie’s home, the conversation is rendered as a meld of banal comments about food fetishes amidst diatribes about the state of the health service, immigration, Islam, birthing strategies, water shortages and so on.

The conversational baton passes to others who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. … Pass the heirloom tomato salad. … Pass the green beans with shaved almonds

Much of the narrative is stream of consciousness which at times is delivered with such pace it’s hard to keep up with. Fresh and original as this novel is in style and fun for that reason to read, overall I was left with the feeling that I was missing whatever it was Zadie Smith was trying to say. Was she trying to show that you cannot entirely escape your past? That there is questionable value about getting on in the world since it doesn’t always make you happy. NW felt like a book that meandered rather than coming to any conclusion.

 

Footnotes

Author: NW by Zadie Smith

Published: 2013 by Penguin

Length: 294 pages

My copy: I acquired this as a spur of the moment purchase in Birmingham airport as a way of relieving the boredom of a delayed flight to Brussels. The forgot I had it until the 20booksofsummer challenge prompted me to delve deep into the bookshelves.

A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford: #Virago

bedfordcomposite2The Favourite of the Gods is the first novel by Sybille Bedford that I’ve read . It will not be the last. This is a writer at ease with the nuances of European social classes and alert, even sympathetic to the oddities of human behaviour. Conscious of their propensity to make poor decisions, she is also alive to the possibilities of their struggle towards fulfilment and happiness.

This 1963 novel is a tale of three generations of women and their, often problematic, relationships: Anna, an American heiress who marries an Italian prince; their Italian born daughter Constanza upon whom the Gods appear to look favourably and her British born daughter Flavia. It’s  tale of character and motivation that unfolds within the framing device of a train journey taken across continental Europe by Constanza and Flavia in late 1920s.  Almost as an afterthought readers learn that Constanza is travelling to her wedding in Belgium. But the pair never make it further than France. Through their carelessness they lose a valuable ruby ring (an heirloom from Constanza’s father), miss their train connection and end up having to spend the night in a small fishing village in the South of France. Not until the last chapters of the novel do we discover the consequences of those mishaps, the life changing decision taken by Constanza and why the overnight stop become their home for the next 11 years.

In between we learn the story of Anna’s upbringing in New England, her marriage to the prince and her early married years in an Italian palazzo. Anna tries to find a purpose to her life through travel and (misdirected) ‘good works’. But all comes crashing down when she discovers her husband Rico has been unfaithful to her for most of that time (her embarrassment exacerbated because the whole community near their Italian palace knows of the affair). War is declared. Anna departs in a flurry for London, taking 16 year old Constanza with her and vowing that the girl will never see her father again. Her son Giorgio, who is already a spoiled brat by the age of 10, will continue to live with his father.

Constanza is one of life’s golden girls. Naturally intelligent and inquisitive her mother ensures these qualities are polished and honed to perfection through a succession of scholars and tutors in literature, botany, social history and economics. Constanza soaks it all up.

She was as quick as a bird, and as live, and it all came easy to her, natural as life, as breathing, talking, reading, thinking , arguing…. She enjoyed being with people who knew things, she enjoyed logic and pulling questions apart and going to the heart of a matter and looking at more than one side.

Her time in London is one of a heady social life in which she floats between authors, military men, aesthetes, academics and the hunting set. Her’s is also the London of the suffragettes, the young T.S Eliot and Henry James and of ‘rather a magic girl, Virginia Stephen’ (AKA Virgina Woolf). Constanza’ life is not without its setbacks including a rather marriage to a  man who begins as a charming rebel but ends as a pompous politician, involvement in a scandalous divorce, feelings of estrangement from her father and a sense that she doesn’t know the truth of the schism between her parents. She suffers for a time, uncertain of what life holds for and conscious of her dwindling ability to engage in adventures. And yet:

She had what all mortals pray for and unfortunately few are given. She had health, she had looks, she had money for her needs. … She was equipped to appreciate, to derive entertainment, connotations, pleasure, from almost any situation she happened to find herself placed in. … And she was not unhappy, there was only a vague disquiet, a nagging question: What is it for? What have I made of it? Where is it going, where can it go?

The qualities that Constanza has in abundance are transferred to her daughter Flavia. She has her mother’s curiosity and independence, though more of a desire for a structured education. But is blessed by a greater sense of proportional and rational thinking than her somewhat mercurial grandmother.

sybille-bedford

Sybille Bedford

These relationships are all played out against a background of political and social change across Europe: female emancipation, the Great War, the rise of Mussolini, the spectre of the Wall Street crash and depression, the introduction of National Insurance are among the developments mentioned in the novel. Bedford marks the passage of time too by tracing the reading habits of her protagonists. Constanza devoures Racine, Byron, Shelley, Swift and Geoge Eliot before she turns 15. She then moves on to the Sitwells, Erza Pound and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her mother’s tastes remain more conservative – holding H. G Wells in awe and extolled the virtues of John Galsworthy . “But what she saw no loin in was formlessness, ugliness, obscurity” which is how she views Virginia Woolf’s A Voyage Out. D H Lawrence she considered incomprehensible, E. M Forster pointless and drab and Proust ‘affected’.

The richness of issues and themes plus the wonderful characterisation of these three women make this novel a fascinating read.  If you don’t believe me, just try it for yourself.

Footnotes

Author: A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

Published: 1963 by Collins. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1984

Length: 312 pages

My copy: Bought from a charity shop in Oxford. Read as part of AllVirago/All August month in 2016. Also counts towards the #20booksofsummer challenge for 2016

Read further: There is a sequel to A Favourite of the Godscalled A Compass Error (published in 1968) which further develops the character of Flavia.

 

The Guardian gives a good insight into Bedford’s legacy with this article

Reading Snapshot September 2016

poole quays

Poole, Dorset. Building in the background is Booker Talk’s ‘home’ for a few days

BookerTalk is on a little holiday in the UK – what apparently we now supposed to label as a ‘staycation’ and feel proud that we’re doing our bit for the UK economy instead of jetting off to far climes. When the sun is shining the British coast is indeed a wonder – especially around Dorset which has spectacular cliffs and hills rolling down to the sea. This is Thomas Hardy country (it’s the Wessex in his novels) but though I should really be re-reading one of his books I forgot to bring one with me.

 

Just Finished

I managed to squeeze in a third Virago title just before the end of AllVirago/All August which also enabled me to complete the #20booksofsummer challenge (or 10 in my case). A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford more than made up for the disappointing The Ice House by Nina Bawden. With a name like Bedford you’d imagine she was a British author but not a bit of it – she was born in Germany to an aristocratic family,  fled to USA to escape the Nazi regime of which she was vocally critical and spent most of the post war years living in France and Italy. A Favourite of the Gods is her second novel – I’ll get around to reviewing this soon but if you haven’t read it, its a wonderful portrait of three generations of strong women.

Reading Currently 

I’m deep into the Booker prize 2016 longlist at the moment. There’s no chance of reading all – or even most – of the 13 titles before the shortlist is announced mid September but I wanted to try a few just to get the measure of what’s in contention. I know many people are anti-Amazon but I do like the option to download a free sample of an ebook. It’s meant I’ve been able to get a feel of some of the longlist without having to fork out too many pennies to buy hard copies. I do have full versions of three to read yet though: J.M. Coetzee’s  The Schooldays of Jesus; Graeme Macrae Burnet’s  His Bloody Project and David Szalay’s All That Man Is.  But first I need to finish the rather wonderful  The Many by Wyl Menmuir. This is a short novel but the atmosphere of foreboding he creates is superb. Hope this one makes it to the shortlist – it deserves to be on it.

On the Horizon

Probably I’ll be opening the J.M. Coetzee  The Schooldays of Jesus shortly. I’ve enjoyed the two other novels I’ve read by him so expecting a lot from this one. After that it will be a case of head down to read the titles on the syllabus of a course on children’s literature I start in October. Hoist the sails for Treasure Island and (sigh) Swallows and Amazons…..

 

An Embarrassment of Riches

This was the week where my reading life went out of control.

newbooksI’ve been doing reasonably well with my attempt to read more from the books I already own this year, and consequently buy less. But the plan started to go south when I wandered into the library on Monday where they had a sale and found a reasonably good copy of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being which was a novel I meant to read when it was shortlisted but never got around to. Only one purchase – not disastrous by any means but a few minutes later as I was passing a Pound store  I remembered Karen at Kaggsy’sBookishRamblings had uncovered a few choice books among the acres of cheap shampoo and bathroom cleaner, there might be a few books).  It had frankly never occurred to me this kind of shop might offer any intellectual stimulation so it was a surprise to find two gems.

The first one, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was much talked about when it was published in 2011 but I wasn’t sure I was that interested in a novel set around the time of the Trojan War. But having been following a Coursera module on Greek and Roman myths for the past few weeks, my interest level as increased – so of course how could I resist a pristine copy at £1???  And then another much-discussed novel Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – this was even more of a bargain since it’s a never-opened hardback. Not sure its worth adding Poundstretcher to my regular shopping haunts but a peek every few months might be in order.

So Monday came and went with three new books added to the shelf. I knew I wouldn’t be reading these for a while since I’m still trying to finish the #20booksofsummer reading and get to read a few Viragos for All August/AllVirago month.

By Tuesday that plan was thrown a bit off course when the library called to say two of my reserved items were now available. I’d even forgotten about one of them (Don Delillo’s Zero K) since the waiting list was so long and when I looked at the blurb I was mystified when I’d even requested this. Science-based stories are not usually my thing so why had I reserved a novel about a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. In a spirit of generosity to other readers who do enjoy those kinds of stories, it was returned immediately.

Which left me with the ManBooker 2016 long listed novel All That Man Is by David Szalay. I have no intention of trying to read all 13 long listed novels before the Man Booker judges announce the shortlist on September 13. But I do like to read samples of them and read a few in full just to get a flavour of what’s in contention. This one picqued my interest because its essentially the story of nine separate individuals so can be read as a short story collection or as a novel.

Wednesday’s post brought another Man Booker title – The Many by Wyl Menmuir which is one I really, really wanted to read but couldn’t get my hands on a copy anywhere. The publishers Salt had printed only 1,000 copies initially so were rather overhwhelmed by the interest when the longlist was announced. A new print run was rushed through to satisfy the hungry appetites of readers like me….

If you’re keeping track so far you’ll have seen that it’s just midweek and already I have 5 new titles all demanding my attention. Some rapid re-thinking of the reading plan for the next few weeks ensued.

But like all the best laid plans, that too got thrown in the bin when NetGalley sent a batch of emails telling me I’d been approved for two other Man Booker Prize long listed titles: The Schooldays of Jesus by J. M Coetzee  and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Now I absolutely do want to read the Coetzee since the two novels I’ve read by him previously have been outstanding but having seen a review of Eileen on the Readers’ Room blog earlier today I’m not as convinced I will get on well with this.

Do Not DisturbSeven new acquisitions in four days is going some for me. But that wasn’t the end of the story because yesterday a box arrived from some kind colleagues in the USA containing – guess what? Books!

Am I complaining? No not a bit of it. I just have to get my head down and start reading through this stack and all the ones piling up on the e-reader including another of the Man Booker long listed titles Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. Expect me to be a bit quiet for a few weeks………Shhh

The Tree of Life by Maryse Condé #WITMonth

Tree of Life_miniI’m beginning to wonder if I have an issue with multi-generational family sagas. They do tend to go on for far longer than the story can sustain – and my patience endure. Or perhaps Tree of Life by Maryse Condé had been on my ‘to read’ shelf for well past its ‘best before’ date and the initial impetus for buying it had long disappeared. Either way, this was my first read for Women in Translation month 2016, and I was disappointed.

Tree of Life is a very personal story of multiple generations of one family from poverty in Guadeloupe to a comfortable existence with the trappings of a middle class life. It’s told by one of the descendants Coco although it is not until the end does she understand why she is telling this story.  She is ‘the child of our tomorrows’ a family acquaintance tells her, the keeper of the flame of memory not just of her family but of her country’s history.

Coco begins by relating the history of her great grandfather Albert Louis,  a man of determination who resolves to be slave to no man and to forge a new life for himself.

..on that day, Albert Louis,  … looked at the handful of coins he had just received from the over-seer, raised his eyes to Heaven as if asking courage of the sun, and thundered:

It’s over. This is the last time I come here to get my pay like a dog.

And with that dramatic flourish he prepares to leave his  native island and head to to America where he’d heard there was money to be made building the Panama Canal. After years of hardship and a few personal setbacks he rises above the level of a drudge and in doing so lays the foundation of a dynasty  whose members travel far and wide from Guadeloupe. The lives, loves and tribulations of his descendants become the focus of the rest of the book  tracing their rise to wealth from around 1904 to the 1980s as they move variously between cane plantations in Guadeloupe, poor settlements in Harlem and Haiti and the excitement of the streets of Paris. They try their hand at commerce, experience the joy and heartache of love and dally with politics.

This sweeping narrative is appealing in part. Arthur Louis is very much the patriarch who rules his life and those of his children with passion and stubbornness. There is more than a tinge of moral ambiguity to this figure. He gets swept along by the teachings of the Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey, placing huge faith in Garvey’s statement “I shall teach the Black Man to see beauty in himself.” Yet back home in Guadeloupe the native workers he employs to run his import-export warehouse and business fare little better than Albert Louis did in his plantation days and he squeezes everything he can from the impoverished black families who rent his shoddy tenement houses.

Equally well drawn is the troubled relationship of Coco and her mother Thecla. The latter  sees herself as rather a free spirt, which seems to involve having a love affair and then ditching the resulting mixed race daughter in France, never to see or make contact with her for 10 years.Then when she’s shacked up with some other guy she drags the poor child first to Guadeloupe and then to Jamaica, exposing her to bulling and ridicule as not racially pure. If I had a mother like that I’d be hell bent on putting as much distance as possible between me and her.

Woven through the life stories of the generations is the emergence of black consciousness and the struggle for equality. Individuals within each generation develop their own approaches to the issue with varying degrees of success but despite the growth of mixed marriages, there is still a feeling of animosity between white and black populations. It’s left to Coco’s mother to make the most impassioned statement about discrimination that can ranges from verbal and physical attacks to prohibiting children playing together and forming friendships across colour. Yet what Thecla also sees is how racial attitudes may to always be stated – they just exist.

Thecla explains to her daughter that her origins as the child of a white family,  make it hard to relate to her daughter because all she sees is the whiteness of her father and

…  his mother …  on her high horse, asking me who my family was and sniffing in disgust at the salt-cod smell of our name. For no one ever said a word about my colour which fundamentally was the real problem. They never talk about colour even if its right there before their eyes: It’s not done. It’s dirtier, color is, than the green diarrohea of amoebic dysentery or the sulphurous yellow piss of incontinence! When I see you, yes, I can’t help it, it’s all that I see. … Filthy stupidity, stubborn arrogance, pettiness ….. Alas thats how it is and neither you nor I can do a thing about it.

Tree of Life is a meandering novel that starts well but then seems to get bogged down in detail when Arthur Louis returns to Guadeloupe and the next generation grow up. The detail is clearly important to Coco and to Condé herself but I don’t see them as interesting to us just as my family’s history is precious to me but I know few other people care what my great great grandfather did. So for all the references to the troubled history of Guadeloupe and its people, ultimately this felt like a very long story about a set of individuals who once inhabited the planet.

Footnotes

Author: Tree of Life by Marys Condé

Published: as La Vie Scélérate in 1987 by Editions Seghers

Translated: from French by Victotia Retter and published in English by Ballantine Books/Random House in 1992.

Length: 368 pages

My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016

 

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester: new life for old crime #20booksof summer #crimefiction

female_detectiveFor those of us brought up to believe that Wilkie Collins wrote the first detective novel in English,  it comes as a surprise to find he was actually beaten to the post by Andrew Forrester with The Female Detective. Published in 1864, four years earlier than The Moonstone, this has now been brought back into print as part of the British Library Classic Crime series.

Forrester’s detective is a Miss Gladden or G (though that’s not her real name) who often uses the guise of a dressmaker to  unravel mysteries and track down killers. Sh’s rather shy about her identity and ambiguous about the reasons why she took up what, for a woman, would have been a highly unusual occupation.

Who am I? It can matter little who I am. It may be that I took to the trade, sufficiently comprehended in the title of this work without a word of it being read, because I had no other means of making a living; or it may be that for the work of detection I had a longing which I could not overcome. It may be that I am a widow working for my children – or I may be an unmarried woman, whose only care is herself.

Whatever her true identity, Miss G is a woman who is proud of her expertise and of the profession she adopted and fearless in her desire to right injustices.   She has embarked on writing her memoirs as a way of documenting what she considers the highlights of her  work. The Female Detective is in essence a set of short stories in which Miss G reviews cases in which she was involved plus a few that she heard about though did not personally have a role. Her motive for writing she declares is:

… to show in a small way, that the profession to which I belong is so useful that it should not be despised I am aware that the female detective may be regarded with even more aversion than her brother in profession. …  But,without going into particulars, the reader will comprehend that the woman detective has far greater opportunities than a man of intimate watching, and of keeping her eyes upon matters near which a man could not conveniently play the eavesdropper..

Most of the stories are designed to show her methods and approaches. One of them ‘The Unravelled Mystery’  struck me as being rather in the vein of Sherlock Holmes’ methods. With a minimal of information about a headless corpse found in the River Thames she makes some startling deductions about his identity and the reasons for his death. But in the opening story Tenant for Life her desire to get to the truth meant a despicable wastral got to claim a fortune and an innocent young girl was left adrift. Along the way we get some digressions and comments about the particular merits of female detectives versus male and the failings of the English police force: ‘I venture to assert that the detective forces as a body are weak; that they fail in the majority of the cases brought under their supervision.’

Ultimately I found these stories disappointing if not to say rather dull. Once I’d got beyond the novelty of the idea of a female detective and got into the cases themselves, the interest level waned significantly. I got halfway and simply decided I’d had enough.

The book isn’t entirely without merit. An introduction by Mike Ashley provides interesting context for the significance of this book – apparently there were no female police officers let alone detectives in the British force in 1864 and indeed they wouldn’t materialise for another 50 years. The Metropolitan Police Force was still rather in its infancy having been established only in 1829, Scotland Yard (the plain clothes detective branch wasn’t created until 1842) and the term detective didn’t actually pass into common usage until 1843. So by creating a protagonist with such an unusual role , Forrester was pushing the boundaries. What a pity he didn’t put as much effort into the plots of the stories related by Miss G as he clearly did in creating such an unusual figure.

Footnotes

First published in 1864, The Female Detective was written by Andrew Forrester,  the nom de plume of James Redding Ware, a writer and editor who produced books on a diverse range of subjects from card games to dreams, famous centenarians, English slang and the Isle of Wight.

The Female Detective was re-issued by The British Library in conjunction with Poisoned Pen Press.

My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie #20booksofsummer

TheThingAroundYourNeck

The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of 12 stories published by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in various journals in the mid to late nineties.  They therefore  pre-date the novels that brought her to public attention, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), but you can see many of the same themes and ideas.

Set variously in Nigeria and America these stories depict the clash between those cultures and between the expectations and the reality of the experience of those who leave Nigeria for a ‘better life’ in USA just as Adichie did herself.  These are stories that are told principally, thought not exclusively, through the eyes of women who get caught up in political or religious violence or suffer the disappointment and feelings of alienation of being a stranger in a foreign land.

In Imitation the narrator is a woman living in New Jersey whose art collector husband visits her for only two months in the year. Just before his next visit she learns he has acquired a mistress and installed her at their home in Lagos bringing fears that she will be supplanted and her new life will crumble. Another wife finds in The Arrangers of Marriage that her arranged marriage to a Nigerian doctor in America is not all it appears to be. Arriving at her new home in the USA she discovers not the large house of American television programs she watched in Nigeria, but a barely furnished run down apartment. Her husband, who is actually still a student, is so eager to fit in that he has even changed his name from Ofodile Emeka Udenwa to Dave Bell. Their marriage may not even be legitimate she discovers when he reveals a previous relationship from which he has not yet been dis-entangled.

The title story The Thing Around Your Neck features Akunna who arrives in America via the ‘visa lottery’ to live with her uncle. The plan is for her to complete her studies and then get a job enabling her to send half her earnings back to her parents. But when the uncle abuses her, she escapes to Connecticut where, while working in a restaurant, she experiences the invisibility of acute loneliness

 At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.

A love affair with a restaurant customer seems to offer the dream of a happy ending and she finds “The thing that nearly choked you before you fell asleep, started to loosen, to let go”. But the power of what she has left behind is strong and in the end it a death back home that forces her to reassess her life.

One story stood out above the rest for me. A Private Experience depicts a chance encounter between two women whose lives would not normally connect. One is Chika, a medical student and a Christian member of the Igbo ethnic group, the other is an unnamed poor Muslim woman of the Hausa group. On a day when violence between these two ethnic groups breaks out in the market they take shelter in a tiny shop. When the Muslim woman complains about her dry, cracked nipples, Chika draws on her medical training to give the woman advice and false comfort. For her part, the Muslim woman takes a pragmatic approach to the shocking violence they can hear outside and by a glimpse of a dead, burned body. The dignity of the Muslim woman impresses itself on the younger woman and the hours they spend together enable them to form a bond that transcends sects.  Not only was this a perfectly constructed story but the key theme is one that resonates far beyond Nigeria  – on the day I read this story a Catholic priest was murdered in France by people who adhered to a different faith.

Overall these are stories tinged with regret and disappointment but they also speak of the love of Nigerla and the place called home. Most of Adichie’s characters are people who travel far and wide but Nigeria is the place for which they yearn. Although not strictly autobiographical, it’s possible to see aspects of Adichie’s own life and experiences reflected in this collection – particularly in Jumping Monkey Hill  where authors from across Africa gather at a writers’ retreat in Cape Town and the young Nigerian narrator feels objectified and humiliated by the lecherous, white, male academic who leads the workshop.

Adichie’s writing has an immediacy that made me feel I had dropped straight into the lives of these women and immediately absorbed in their worries and concerns. But as is my experience with short stories in general, they left me feeling unsatisfied, wanting more time with these narrators and to know what happens next.

Footnotes

Title: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Published by: Fourth Estate in Oct. 2009

Part of my 20booksof summer challenge 2016

In this video on You Tube you can hear Adichie talk about her collection and which of the stories means the most to her personally.

Snapshot August 2016

 

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July came and went in a blink of the eye. August will likely go just as quickly and then all we’ll hear about for the next few months is that dreaded word Christmas. I’ve already seen promotions from a hotel and a local restaurant even though some people have only just headed off for their summer holiday. I know retailers in the UK have been moaning about low sales because of the crap summer weather so far but it’s depressing how the commercial world seems intent on pushing the Christmas season earlier and earlier. I’m going to turn a blind eye to it all and just focus on the month ahead.

So as a new month begins this is a bit of a  wrap up of what’s I’ve been reading recently and what I’m planning or the month ahead.

Just Finished

July readingJuly was a good month during which I managed to read 4 books for the #20booksofsummer challenge and make a little space in the TBR pile.

It’s taken me a few years to get around to reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial.(reviewed here)The subject matter made it challenging but it was worth the effort – the issues raised by Fink about medical ethics during times of disaster have made for some heated discussions among friends and relatives. I also read the wonderful Bel Canto by Ann Patchett -my first experience of her writing but I know it will not the be the last. July saw the completion of two Booker prize winners – Last Orders by Graham Swift and The Life & Times of Michael K by J. M Coetzee.  I had planned to read to short story collections but so far have managed just one of them – The Thing Around My Neck by Chimamanda Adichie with the help of advice in response to my question on how to approach a collection of short stories. Most people recommended I read them in bite size pieces  which helped hugely.

Reading Currently 

I have two books on the go at the moment. Tree of Life: A Novel of the Caribbean is a 1992 novel by the Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Condé. It’s the story of three generations of  one family and their rise from poverty against a backdrop of racial tension and world events like the construction of the Panama Canal and World War 1. It’s my choice for #womeninliterature month. I’m about a third of the way through and finding it OK but not that engaging. Certainly not as riveting as my other read which is Moskva by Jack Grimwood. Set in the 1980s it features  a British intelligence officer sent to Moscow to avoid an investigation over his actions in Northern Ireland. Shortly after his arrival he gets roped in to help find the Ambassador’s daughter who has gone missing. This is a page turner that was highlighted by the Daily Telegraph as one of the best crime novels of 2016. 

On the Horizon  

If it’s August then it has to be AllAugust/AllVirago of which I’ll be reading A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford and posting a few reviews for Viragos I read earlier in the summer but haven’t got around to reviewing yet.  I have a  few NetGalley review copies requiring my attention including  The Sleeping World by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes which is set in 1970s post-Franco Spain and The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke. What comes after that I haven’t yet decided since I don’t like making detailed plans which feel constraining. There’ll certainly be a Booker title in the mix but I know I’m not going to get around to making much of an impression on the 2016 longlist other than reading some samples of each title.

#20booksofsummer: story so far

20booksof summerI don’t have a great track record with completing challenges. It seems the minute I commit to a list of books, my interest in them wanes and it begins to feel like a chore.  So when Cathy at 746books.com launched the # 20booksofsummer  challenge I wasn’t convinced I could achieve even the smaller target of 10 nothing ventured nothing gained eh?  To make success more likely I went for a list longer than 10 titles so if one didn’t fit my mood at the time I had other options.

I’ve done way better than expected  – with just over a month to go I’ve read seven and a half (the half is The Female Detective which I simply couldn’t be bothered to finish). I’m confident I’ll get to 10 by the cunning expedient of doubling up on some of these titles with two other reading projects running in August. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde is going to count for the Women in Translation project while A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford was chosen deliberately with one eye to the AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) . Now if you are struggling with the arithmetic, let me help you out – this means all I need is to read one more and I’ll claim victory. If I manage to bring this off, it will be the first challenge I have ever managed to complete.

Here’s how things stand at the moment.

  1. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Read –review posted here 
  2. The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. did not finish
  3. NW by Zadie Smith Read
  4. High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – review posted here 
  5. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
  6. Frost in May by Antonia White
  7. Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read
  8. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.
  9. Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read
  10. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanda Adichie Read
  11. An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
  12. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – review posted here 
  13. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde

Of the ones I’ve read the stand out has been The Thing Around Your Neck,  a collection of short stories  by Chimanda Adichie. Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place was as enjoyable and readable as everything I’ve read by her previously. Of the two Booker prize winners, Last Orders was fine if not that memorable while Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee was a beautifully written portrait of a man’s passive resistance to the civil disturbances in his native South Africa.

Onwards now to Maryse Conde I think.

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