Category Archives: TBR list

The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve [review]

the-eveningsThe Evenings by Gerard Reve focuses on something we’ve all experienced – wasted days.  They’re the ones where you get up buzzing with plans to make the most of the day.  But you can’t get going until you’ve had breakfast and at least one cup of tea/coffee, and a thorough read of the newspaper. Maybe even an attempt at the crossword. Meanwhile your mobile phone keeps pinging to let you know  emails or text messages are awaiting your attention. Better deal with those first you think, they might be urgent. What’s happening on Facebook you wonder? An hour later having exhausted the stock of cute cat photos and pithy sayings, you migrate to Twitter and post a few of your own witticisms. Time to shower and get ready to face the world. Except everything you pull out of the wardrobe just looks naff. By the time you’ve sorted something that will pass muster it’s almost lunchtime; not really worth starting anything now. And so the pattern is established that will mean by bedtime, not a single thing from your list will have been completed. And you wonder what happened to all that time…..

For Frits van Egters, the central character in Gerard Reve’s debut novel The Evenings, most of his days disappear into this kind of nothingness. In the final days of 1946 he wakes one Sunday morning determined that this day will be different; that this “will be a day well spent.   This will be no wasted and profitless Sunday.” But what happens? Nothing much. He drifts through the day, one minute listening to the radio and the next taking books from his shelves and flicking through them without reading a word. In between he looks out of the window, idly observing the passers by and ducks waddling on the canal, and makes a minute examination of his mouth in the mirror. By then it is afternoon and “all is lost, everything is ruined. But the evening can still make up for a great deal.” Except his visit that evening to a friend also turns out to be a waste of time. And so one day turns into the next and the next. His life in fact is an endless cycle of monotonous days.

The Evenings follows Frits as he wanders aimlessly through the house he shares with his parents and out into the streets of Amsterdam. By day he is at work – what he does exactly we never really discover except that it too involves repetition: “I take cards out of a file,” he responds to a friend’s question. “Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again.” It’s the evenings that hang heaviest on his mind. How to get through them without descending into a black hole of despair? For the 10 consecutive evenings upon which the book is based, we observe the stultifying mundanity of his life.

evenings-dreamingFrits is ever conscious of time and how to make best use of it. During visits to ‘friends’ and even when he is at home with his parents, he is forever looking at his watch, calculating how long before he can move on without seeming impolite. How to avoid long pauses in conversation is his constant dilemma. One strategy he adopts is peppering his conversation with disturbing jokes and anecdotes about death. Another is to ask questions. The questions he asks at home are ones to which he already knows the answer because he’s heard his father’s stories many times over. He likes to think the questions he asks of his friends are philosophically deep and meaningful though it doesn’t matter if they are not because for Frits “Even if a question is entirely pointless it is better than no question at all.“. His questions often baffle people or are inappropriate to the occasion. A night out with Frits is not one to relish. He’s hard work. “Do you people believe that it is right for one to live in moderation?”, he throws at his companions on a night out at a dance hall. They barely have time to respond before he casts another question into the ring: “Are you not of the opinion that eating meat, if not a sin, should in any case be denounced as being unhealthy? ”  

He’s also very direct, not hesitating to point out signs of their ill health or their advancing age.

Oh but you are becoming quite bald,” he tells one man. Listen Joop, without meaning to be nasty your scalp is really almost bare. It will not be long before you can count your hairs on the fingers of one hand… Do you count the hairs in your comb each morning? If you did you would see that there are more of them each day. Slowly but surely. I would be horrified to know that I was going bald. I would lose all desire to live. But please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean to discourage you.

With such low levels of interpersonal skills it’s not surprising Frits doesn’t have many friends. His sole true companion is a stuffed rabbit.

Most of this humdrum life takes place in a small quarter of Amsterdam. It’s here that Frits shares an apartment with his half-deaf father and his well-meaning mother. He disdains their eating and hygiene habits (his father comes in for particular contempt for his tendency to walk around the flat half-dressed and slurp his food) and scorns the tedious predictability of their conversation. But he also demonstrates some grudging affection towards them. On New Year’s Eve his mother is distraught to find she was duped into buying not wine for a celebratory drink, but apple-berry juice. To salvage the occasion, Frits dutifully drinks his quota, making encouraging noises about how much nicer it is than wine.

If this sounds dreadful let me assure you that The Evenings is – at times – highly comic. It’s impossible to read Gerard Reve’s portrayal of the battles between father and son for control of the radio or Frits’ paranoia about is body, without laughing out loud. Impossible too not to find some vestiges of sympathy for this hapless, down-trodden specimen of a man. My one difficulty was that a novel about the mediocrity and tediousness of a life did, after a time become rather tedious. The joke wore itself out for me in the middle of the novel. Fortunately I pressed on to the masterful finale where Frits, having failed to find anything remarkable to do to celebrate the new year, invokes a prayer for divine mercy on behalf of his parents, seeking understanding for all their faults. And then contemplates his own situation:

I am alive. I breathe and I move, so I live. Is that clear? What ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.

It sounds as if he is reconciled to his life but what kind of a life is that exactly. Reve doesn’t give us an answer but leaves us to wonder.

I haven’t read enough Dutch literature to know whether The Evenings deserves the accolade given by the Society of Dutch Literature of “the best Dutch novel of all time.” It’s different and memorable but I expect a stand-out novel to maintain quality throughout whereas this one sags in the middle.

Footnotes

The Book: The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve was published in Amsterdam as De Avonden in 1946. It’s taken more than 60 years for the novel to become available in English via Pushkin Press. Translation from the Dutch is by Sam Garrett.

The Author:  According to Wikipedia, Gerard Reve is considered one of the “Great Three” of Dutch post-war literature. He declared that the primary message in his work was salvation from the material world but his work is also notable for its themes of religion, love and  his intense hatred of communism. He died in 2006.

Why I read this book:  I’ve seen The Evenings described as a masterpiece of Dutch literature and since this is a part of the world whose literary output is largely unknown to me, I was delighted to see it available via NetGalley in 2016. Pushkin Press Fortnight orchestrated by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog galvanised me into reading it. 

Other Reviews: For a different perspective on The Evenings, here are links to some other reviews.

Want to explore Dutch literature further?

There is a good article on Dutch literature in translation over at Expatica.com where the managing director of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch literature provides a guide to authors to watch.

Dominion by C.J.Sansom [review]

dominion-collageC.J Sansom took a gamble with his political thriller Dominion in which he imagines a world where, having failed to defeat the Nazi regime, Great Britain becomes one of Germany’s subject territories.  The idea wasn’t entirely new – Len Deighton based his 1978 novel SS-GB (shortly to become a BBC drama series) on a similar premise so Sansom needed to come up with an additional sparkle.

He did so with a further gamble – using some historical figures as members of the new puppet regime and thus effectively positioning people like Lord Beaverbrook, Marie Stopes and Oswald Mosely as collaborators. Although he was never at risk of defamation claims needless to say his approach proved controversial when the novel was published in 2012 and readers saw how Stopes had been portrayed as a contributor to the Ministry of Health’s programme for eugenic sterilisation and the newspaper tycoon Beaverbrook as a meglomaniac  Prime Minister.

Sansom sets his adventure in 1952 when Britain has been subjected to Nazi rule  for 12 years. Some aspects of life have changed – Lyon’s Corner Houses have been rebranded for example to remove vestiges of their Jewish origins,  an enormous picture of Hitler hangs in the lobby of the National Portrait Gallery and critics of the regime such as W.H. Auden and E.M. Forster, have been silenced. Though Britain is not an occupied country, the Gestapo and the SS are evident, working closely with Special Branch and the new Auxiliary Police to rout out members of the growing Resistance movement led by Winston Churchill. Sansom doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that there is a considerable level of anti-Semitism in the country though the moderates are distressed when British Jews are rounded up in preparation it is believed for deportation to German camps.

It’s a very credible scenario due largely to Sansom’s credentials as a trained historian – he meticulously documents his extensive research at the back of the novel with his bibliography  detailing all the books which have influenced the final novel.  The result is as believable as the world of the Tudor monarchy he created for his Shardlake series of historical crime fiction.

But Dominion isn’t purely an alternative history novel;  it’s a thriller based on that old chestnut of a man with a secret who is on the run from various factions who either want him silenced or want the secret for themselves. The man on the run in Dominion is an unlikely hero figure – an unassuming geologist by the name of Frank Muncaster who is incarcerated in a mental asylum near Birmingham after learning a secret that the Germans and Americans dearly want because it will give them the edge in the race for a nuclear weapon. The Resistance deploys their extensive network of resources to spring him from the asylum, and get him to the east coast for a rendezvous with an American submarine. One of Frank’s university friends, David Fitzgerald, a civil servant acting as a spy for the Resistance, is despatched in a race against time. Will he save Frank before the Gestapo’s ace man-hunter Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hothform reaches him?

Much of this novel is a pretty typical thriller of co-incidences, chases, narrow escapes and unlikely plot devices. I lost track of the number of times characters declared it was unsafe to share information except on a need to know basis yet seemed very lax with details about their own identities when it suited the plot.  I could tolerate most of these as par for the course with this genre but I was more concerned by the clunky characters and uninspiring dialogue. David Fitzgerald and Gunter Hothform are two of the few fully-formed characters (the women are less fully realised than the men) but they are surrounded by characters who seem to exist primarily for the purposes of exposition or to enable Shardlake to show a point of view. Fair enough to want to illustrate how the British population was divided in their attitudes but much of the resulting narrative reads like a summary of a pamphlet. Discussions about the Jewish situation are natural given the setting and topic of the novel but Sansom also introduces a key theme of nationalism and the merits of giving independence to members of the British Empire like India. Sansom’s own view becomes evident when at one point he has a character declare:

Whenever a party tells you national identity matters more than anything else in politics, that nationalism can sort out all the other problems, then watch out, because you’re on a road that can end with fascism.

That Sansom is using Dominion to make a political point becomes ever more evident and is reinforced by his historical note at the end of the novel. In it he expresses deep concern about the growth of nationalist parties like UKIP and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP is, in his view, a threat to all of Britain with their tendency to shift political ground in favour of whatever policies will bring independence regardless of the consequences. He was writing of course on the eve of the 2016 Scottish Referendum but makes no secret of his own views on how the Scottish population should vote.

If this book can persuade even one person of the dangers of nationalist politics in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, and vote ‘no’ in the referendum … it will have made the whole labour worthwhile.

One wonders what he makes of President Trump. Somehow I can’t seem them becoming best chums……

Footnotes

The Book: Dominion by C. J Sansom was published by Mantle in 2012. My edition is a paperback from 2013. 

The Author:  Christopher John Sansom hails from Scotland. He read history at Birmingham university and, after a PhD thesis on the British Labour party’s policy towards South Africa between the wars, left academia for a career in the law. His first novel – Dissolution which introduced the hunchback detective Shardlake – was published in 2003.

Why I read this book:  I’ve read and enjoyed four of the Shardlake novels and knew this was an author who could be relied upon to bring the past to life.  I was curious whether he could be as effective when portraying the twentieth century as he has been with the sixteenth. 

My reviews of Sovereign, Dissolution, Dark Fire and Lamentation  can be viewed by clicking the links. 

 

Snapshot February 2017

february-2017

Another episode in my series where I take a snapshot of my reading life on the first day of each month. It’s a way of keeping track of the year though there is little chance I will forget February 1, 2017. It’s the day I came home from hospital to begin a 12 week program of recovery from liver surgery. The next few months are going to be rather challenging. Either I will throttle my husband because he’s such a bad nurse or he will throttle me because I am a totally impossible patient. Joking aside though, despite the excellent care from the medical and nursing teams at the hospital, it is wonderful to be home  and in my own bed.

Reading

dominionOne of the essential tasks for my hospital stay was to select the books I would take with me. Note the plural there. I fully expected to be spending hours unable to do anything other than have my nose in a book so of course needed several options. Since hospital wards are not known for their storage space I constrained myself to two initially – the 600-plus page alternative history thriller Dominion by C. J Sansom and A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. But I put aside a pile of another 8 books for my husband to bring with him on his daily visits. What was I the-time-travelers-guidethinking of??? Hospitals are no more suited to reading than jet aircraft. Just when you’ve recovered enough to even feel like picking up a book there’s always someone with needle/thermometer/ blood pressure monitor in hand clamouring for attention. After seven nights I hadn’t even got half way through Dominion. Ian Mortimer’s re-creation of the smells and sounds of fourteenth century England was despatched home without being opened.

State of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. I was doing extremely well up until the end of January, finishing six books from my shelves and managing to resist the temptation of a local library sale and daily promotions from booksellers. But then my sister turned up in hospital having bought me three books so now as of Feb I, the personal library stands at 315 – a net improvement of just 3. Of the books I read in January, the stand out was Narcopolis by Jeet Thayli, a Booker prize shortlisted title that was an intense experience.

Wishing for…

My self imposed restriction on book buying hasn’t stopped me from adding new titles to my Goodreads wishlist. Additions in January included a biography: Charlotte Bronte: a Fiery Heart by Claire Harman; Human Acts by Han Kang (though I have yet to read her earlier novel The Vegetarian) and a Japanese crime thriller The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino and a book I keep seeing reviewed in a very positive way:  A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

 

 

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon [review]

angels-gameShadowy benefactors, corrupt policemen, ghostly figures, tortured love: the elements that made Shadow of the Wind such a commercial success for Carlos Ruiz Zafon, make their return appearance in his prequel The Angel’s Game.

Zafon takes us once more on an adventure through the twisting streets of early-20th-century Barcelona where the fading grandeur of bourgeoisie homes mingle with Gaudí’s strange and surreal constructions and a maze of dark passages created in Roman and medieval times. The city’s back alleys, parks and cemeteries provide the perfect setting for a story of mystery, death and devilment. It’s the city’s darker side that the narrator David Martin has to navigate in order to save his life, win back the love of his life and solve the mystery of the abandoned tower in which he lives.

David is an unhappy soul. Robbed of his mother at an early age, he is raised by his illiterate, brutish drunkard father. The boy’s only joy is reading, particularly his favourite novel, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. David gets his own chance of betterment when he begins writing a weekly newspaper serial. His stories, written in ‘penny dreadful’ style, feature a glamorous murderess who kills with a kiss made deadly by her poison-impregnated.  Though readers love them, David is less than enthused. Nor does his mood improve when he gets a contract with some dubious publishers which requires him to produce a monthly pseudonymous series of books entitled “City of the Damned,” a pace of writing which brings him to the brink of exhaustion and a medical diagnosis of an incurable brain tumour.

The answer to his prayers may lie in an approach from Andreas Corelli, a suave and civilised man who describes himself as a publisher from Paris. He offers David a lucrative deal – 1000,000 French francs to write a sacred text that will create a new religion and a legion of believers.  As attractive as the money is, the stronger enticement for David is Corelli’s promise that in return for writing the book he will live. But who is Corelli? And what was his connection with Diego Marlasca a former lawyer who once owned David’s house but who died in mysterious circumstances. Is it simply a coincidence that Diego was also occupied in writing a book and his initials are also those of David’s?  The more David encounters Corelli, the more suspicious he becomes and the more convinced that he has made a pact with something evil. But then the sense of selling one’s soul goes is part and parcel of the writer’s life according to David.

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that if he succeeds in no letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal … and what he coverts most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.

What we get with The Angel’s Game is a spirited, fast moving adventure story full of the conventions of pulp fiction and the Gothic mystery.  It’s absurd in parts (David evades police, survives gun shots and almost near death from being thrown out of a funicular) but then it wouldn’t be an adventure story without those absurdities.  The narrative is also of patchy quality in places – cliched conversations between David and his lost love and tedious conversations between David and Corelli about the nature of belief and religion slow the pace down. The denouement also felt rushed with many elements and sub plots not completely resolved.

But for all that I enjoyed re-visiting the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – the secret labyrinth of texts by authors doomed never to be remembered. I loved the way Zufon made Barcelona seem almost a character in the novel, using very cinematic techniques. And I laughed at the tongue in cheek way he portrays the life of a writer.

“Normal people bring children into the world, we novelists brings books,’  says David at one point and then goes on to bemoan the consequences of that birth:

We are condemned to put our whole lives into them, even though they hardly ever thank us for it. We are condemned to die in their pages and sometimes even to let our books be the ones who, in the end, will take our lives.

I’m not aware of that many authors who have died because they’ve written a book but it would certainly make for an interesting ’cause of death’ in an inquest report.

Footnotes

The Book:  The Angel’s Game is part of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series which began with Shadow of the Wind.  The Angel’s Game was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2009. Translation from the Spanish is by Lucia Graves. 

The Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon was best known in Spain as the author of young adult novels until Shadow of the Wind (his first adult novel). His newest novel The Labyrinth of the Spirits will be published in 2018. 

Why I read this: I bought this from a charity shop having enjoyed Shadow of the Wind in 2012  (see my review here). But I never got around to reading it until this month when I started digging into the shelves of my personal library in pursuit of one of my 2017 goals. 

Narcopolis – see Mumbai through a haze of cannabis

narcopolisNarcopolis by the Indian author Jeet Thayil is a tale of obsession told through the blue haze of opium smoke and the white lines of and heroin powder. It’s a strange, often confusing, yet compulsive debut novel that largely revolves around the owner and clients of an opium house on Shuklaji Street in Bombay.

As the book opens we’re introduced to the owner Rashid and his assistant Dimple who it transpires has been a eunuch since early childhood. She’s an expert in the art of preparing the pipes for clients, an expertise acquired through a friendship with Mr. Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and ended up in Bombay.

As the years pass Rashid’s business thrives as its reputation grows, and not just among the local population. Western travellers make a bee line for the shabby joint once word gets around about the quality of the opium on offer and the meticulous care with which Dimple prepares her pipes. Thayil makes life in this joint all very cosy sounding. To enter through the door in a narrow street is to be insulated from shoddy brothels and beggars, and “roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags.” The gentleman’s club atmosphere changes however when heroin arrives, grabbing both Rashid and Dimple in its savage claws. They begin the rapid descent into a life governed by the ever increasing need for stronger doses – their descent mirroring the disintegration of the city into riots and aggression.

Narcopolis is a dazzling novel, as seductive as the drugs that permeate every page and told in a way that destabilises the reading experience. So many times as I read this novel I was unsure whether the events described were ones the characters experienced for real or were the hallucinatory results of their close acquaintance with opium and heroin. For much of the book this narrator is high on drugs so it’s probably not surprising that the text is full of long rambling multi-clause passages like the single sentence running over seven pages with which Narcopolis opens.

It’s a world Thayil knows intimately having spent two decades of his life as an opium addict. He treats his people with sympathy and understanding :

An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Reading Narcopolis is an intense experience that is best approached by following the advice Dimple gives her clients when they first bend their lips to her opium pipe “pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop …”

Footnotes

The book: Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2012.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.

The author: Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. Narcopolis is his debut novel. It apparently took him 5 years to complete.In this You Tube video you can hear him talking about the novel and how he navigated the tricky subject of writing about drugs without glamourising them.

Why I read this: The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by The Readers Room required me to read something associated with India. This happened to be number 113 on my shelf of unread books having bought it at very low cost in 2013.

2017 goals: my breakthrough to guaranteed success

A few days ago I was bemoaning the lack of progress on my 2016 goals. It’s now well into 2017 and high time I set my goals for this year – in an attempt not to repeat the same mistakes I’ve turned for guidance to some experts.

In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that the key to success is in regular and extensive practice. Whether you want to get your golf handicap into single figures, become a chess master or perfect your language skills, it takes effort. In Gladwell’s view success would require 10,000 hours of practice in your chosen discipline or task. To support his argument, Gladwell cited the Beatles, who amassed over 10,000 hours of playing time during their club days in Hamburg, and Bill Gates, who spent a similar amount of time on computer programming.

Sadly I don’t think even if I were to find that much time I think it a bit late for me to become the net computing guru, nor am I likely to top the music charts, become principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet or become the winner of the new-look Great British Bake Off. But Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is still a good piece of over-arching advice for anyone setting a goal: to make any progress requires time and effort. There is absolutely no point spending hours crafting a goal and then doing little to achieve it. If I’m not 100% committed, then it shouldn’t be a goal……

Another influence on this year’s plan is an article I found in Harvard Business Review written by Dorie Clark a marketing strategist and the author of Reinventing You – a guide to how you can identify and change your professional ‘brand’. Clark says two of the biggest mistake corporations – and individuals make – when goal setting are attempting to do too much at once and then trying to stick too rigidly to the plan.

clocks-1098080_1920Goal setting Tip 2 : use a shorter planning time frame 

Dorie Clerk’s advice is to build in more flexibility to goals on the basis that research by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath shows that the best companies plan on a quarterly basis not annually. This shorter time frame means they can be more responsive to changes in their environment.

For individuals, says Clerk, it means that if part of the way through the year you discover your original goal is unworkable or you no longer have an interest in it, you don’t feel compelled to press on regardless. A goal that seems desirable at the beginning of the year like learning to play Mah Jong, or reading the entire sequence of A Dance to the Music of Time might seem like a terrible idea after four months. If you press on regardless it means you might miss out on an even more attractive opportunity that comes along later in the year.

goal_settingGoal setting Tip 2: Be realistic 
The other key mistake is to be too ambitious, spreading the energy over too many projects and activities. Many of us fall into this trap where the only way to manage all the activities is to keep a To Do list – and then end up frustrated because instead of crossing stuff off, the list just seems to grow … and grow…. and grow. We’re not alone – research by a others fail to generate meaningful accomplishments because they spread their energy too thin and attempt to accomplish too much at once. A startup called iDoneThis analyzed their users’ data and discovered that 41% of the to-do list  users created were never accomplished. Why? Too many items were included so the list looked overwhelming and there was little attempt at prioritisation. It was easy to knock off some things – ‘send email to xyz’  for example or ‘buy milk for tonight’ but by spending all the effort on the easy things, the harder, more rewarding activities simply never got done.
Understanding these two challenges helped me reach a decision on my 2017 goals. My mantra is encapsulated in this image….

enjoy-2017

 

Booker Talk’s 2017 Goals

Instead of creating an annual goal I am going for a six month plan. I’ll re-assess it at the end of June and decide on the plan for the remaining six months.  And instead of a long list of goals for each half-year, I am limiting myself to just two.

Goal 1: Relish the books I own but have not yet read

I’ve lost track of the number of blog posts I’ve seen over recent weeks about the ever-expanding size of people’s ‘to be read’ collections. Mine has grown enormously since I started this blog. It’s now around the 295 mark as a result of far too many indulgent purchases last year (69 I think) and there simply isn’t enough room left to stack them all.  I could see this as a problem but thats not the relationship I want with my books. So henceforth my TBR is re-named as ‘my library’ and I am going to make the most of it this year.

My goal is: Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months. 

Yes it does mean in effect a ban on buying anything new but it sounds much more positive stated this way doesn’t it? Especially since I’m the kind of person when told I can’t do something, I immediately want to begin doing that very thing. My get out clause is that I have the right to borrow from the public library if anything strongly takes my fancy but I will not be requesting anything from NetGalley for a while or succumbing to deals from publishers no matter how attractive.

Goal 2: Unleash my creativity on the blog

I’ll be coming up to the fifth anniversary of this blog next month and it’s time to up the stakes. I’m bored with the way I use images on the site – there isn’t often anything very unusual about them, just a basic cover image of whatever book I am reviewing for example or a photo of the author. There’s surely more I can do…

My goal is: Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images. 

And there you have it – a plan that I think is so realistic I’m confident it will be successful.

Anyone feel like joining me in this new breakthrough with your own goals?

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

piajuul-montageBy the time they’ve reached the end of the novel, most readers of crime fiction expect to find the author has answered the key questions: who , committed the crime, how and why.

The Murder of Halland doesn’t turn those expectations of the genre completely on their head but it certainly shakes them out. This is  novel that starts with a murder. It features a detective and various suspects. It also includes a mystery about the dead man’s life.  But that’s the extent of any resemblance between your typical Nordic thriller and this short novel by the Danish author  Pia Juul. The pace is slower; the detective in charge of the case doesn’t have any of the personal flaws or family issues that so many of his literary profession seem to labour under. There isn’t any sense of urgency exhibited by the forces of law and order in fact and there is no revelatory scene at the end which draws all the threads together. One thing this novel does have in abundance is the feeling that like the dead man’s wife, we too are crawling our way towards understanding what happened and why.

The dead man’s wife is Bess, a writer who lives in a small Danish town with her second husband Halland. One morning she wakes to discover he is not in the house – she’s not particularly alarmed but shortly afterwards learns that he is lying dead in the market square not far away.  In the absence of other ideas, she becomes the prime suspect. In the course of 167 her life is opened up to examination and not just by the reader. The experience causes her to re-evaluate her marriage, her relationship with friends and with her estranged daughter from her first marriage. In the process she uncovers some mysteries about Halland – why was he visiting Bess’s pregnant niece and keeping paperwork and his laptop there? Why did he agree to pay the rental for this girl’s apartment ? Why did he transfer a substantial amount of money into Bess’s bank account shortly before his death?

Bess uncovers these mysteries through a series of chance encounters with neighbours, with her ex husband who turns up announced on the doorstep and declares he wants to sleep with her  Bess moves as in a dream through these encounters. Getting drunk on aquavit and ending up at a party kissing a neighbour doesnt get her any further towards the truth. Nor does watching any of the detective programs on television:

All I needed for happiness was a detective series. And there were lots to choose from. Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life. I watched one thriller, then another. But as soon as the penny dropped I lost interest. The puzzle attracted me – the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life.

We are no nearer an answer to making sense of all of this by the time the book ends. The mysteries are not solved, the culprit is not uncovered though there are hints as to who it might have been. But that isn’t really the point for this isn’t a novel about a crime or the hunt for a killer. It’s about bereavement and the feeling of loss and regret about failed relationships and the way that, while we can live with someone daily sharing a house with them, there are still parts of their lives that can remain a closed book.

 

This was a book that was hard to put down. The writing style was short and direct with an enigmatic overtone and a strong sense of the bewilderment that is recognisable to anyone who has suffered the bereavement of a close relative or friend and keeps asking Why…..

Footnotes

The Book: The Murder of Halland was published by Pereine Press in 2012 as part The Small Epic series. Translated from the Danish original by Martin Aitken.

The Author: Pereine describes Pia Juul as one of Denmark’s foremost writers. Not knowing very much (if anything) about the Danish literary scene I can’t really judge if that’s true or a little bit of marketing hype. According to a website on the history of Nordic women’s writing I see that she is described as a poet, prose writer and translator. She has received several prizes for literature in Denmark. This is the first of her works to be translated into English

Why I read this: In the Chutes and Ladders challenge run by the Readers’ Room blog I ended up on a square which required me to read a debut novel. A trawl through my TBR uncovered this one – it had the added advantage I could add another country to my world literature reading list.

Other reviews: A number of other bloggers have read The Murder of Halland. Here a few I’ve come across.

Reading Matters review can be found here,

For Winstons Dad blog’s review  click here

David H’s blog’s review is here

HeavenAli reviewed the novel here 

Best laid plans go awry

I’ve been taking advantage of the Autumn sunshine with a mini break in Wiltshire (I refuse to pander to marketing folks who want to brand such trips as staycations).  I persuaded Mr BookerTalk that a visit to Bookbarn International (which claims to be one of the largest used book sellers in the UK) wouldn’t mean too much of a detour on our path to the renowned cathedral city of Salisbury. Actually I had no clue where this bookish heaven was located other than somewhere vaguely south of Bristol. But good old sat nav got us there easily enough and I prepared myself for a good couple of hours of mooching and buying.

What a disappointing experience. I’d sifted through my TBR and found a good armful of non fiction books I no longer wanted and thought I could sell. Their website promises this service but when I asked, the response was that I could donate but they don’t buy.

Further disappointment came once among the shelves. Filming for something or other was in progress so a good quarter of the place was shut off. The crew wasn’t actually using all the space for the film but if you’ve been around production teams you know they like to spread themselves and their equipment just about everywhere. And of course the area they had commandeered included the shelves I wanted. So it was fine if you wanted fiction by authors whose names were in the first half of the alphabet. But of no use for me in my quest for Zola or for any Virago Modern Classics which were also shelved in the restricted area.

The layout of the place wasn’t all that helpful either. The printed sheet detailing which shelf numbers contained which collections didn’t match the chalkboard descriptions on the end of each aisle. So looking for classics I found myself in ‘wine and cookery’. After much huffing and puffing I learned that they have recently reorganised the place but hadn’t got around to changing the blackboards. Not very impressed……

Did I buy? Yes but not anything I was desperate to get. I think I bought on the basis that everything was ridiculously cheap (£1 a book no matter how big and fat) and I’d got that far so I may as well buy something. I ended up with this collection.

bookbarn

Tony Morrison’s Beloved I’ve been meaning to read for some years. Cousin Bette is considered to be Balzac’s last great work with its themes of vice and virtue and the influence of money. Tigers in Red Weather got a lot of visibility when it was published two years ago – not sure if I will read it or just pass straight to my niece. I haven’t read a lot of Rose Tremain’s work so this pristine copy of The Road Home, a story of an immigrant from Eastern Europe, caught my attention. It was selected for World Book Night in 2013.

And finally, a book that I suspect most readers of this blog will not have heard of previously. Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones. Jones, the son of a Welsh coal miner,  was a trade union official and politician as well as a novelist and playwright in the mid 1940s and 1950s. The novel gives a fictional picture of the early career of the composer Joseph Parry (who came from Jones’ home town of Merthyr Tydfil) as they move from the poverty of south Wales to the hardship of industrial America. Parry gained a reputation through his composition of Myfanwy (a song you’ll still hear today) and the hymn tune Aberystwyth, upon which the National anthem of South Africa, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is said to be based.  The book was an instant success – a highly successful TV film followed. I wish I’d bought this a week earlier and then I could have used it for the 1947 reading club run by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. Maybe they’ll let me sneak it in???

Topping up my library

Some of the smaller libraries in my area are being converted to ‘community libraries’ which means that local people have to fund them. It’s a trend that’s happening all over the UK sadly. It’s meant to be a way of helping the local authorities to meet their budget targets but in effect it means that I, as a local contributor to their funds, end up paying twice. Once through what in the UK we call council tax (a yearly payment to fund local services, the level of which is determined by the size of your home) and then through local fundraising. The library in my village is one of those targeted to be a community library and despite significant opposition from local residents and two court cases, it’s likely to be in place within a month.

It’s going to be a big challenge to get the money needed for even basic things like heating and lighting of the libraries. In the interests of seeing what other community libraries are doing to raise funds, I toddled off to a book sale run by one of them yesterday. All in the interests of market research you understand – I had no intention of buying anything 🙂

Well of course you all know what happens in these events. It was inevitable I came away with something. It was all in a good cause anyway – the new library gets a much needed boost to its coffers and I get to enrich my private library. A win-win…  Here’s what I bought.

book-purchases

I’ve never read anything by George Meredith so this rather pristine copy of The Egoist called to me as a way of enhancing my knowledge of Victorian writers.  Looking at the back cover I see it’s considered “the most dazzlingly intellectual of all his novels” in which he turns the spotlight on the pretentiousness of a powerful social class. Virginia Woolf rated him highly apparently.  Maybe the fact that this copy looks as if its hardly been opened tells me that the previous owner was not of a mind with dear Virginia.

Elizabeth von Arnim is someone whose name has cropped up recently as a result of HeavenAli’s review of her novel Love which triggered many comments recommending another of her works – The Enchanted April. The copy I snaffled is a Virago modern classic, number 222, though sadly not in the green livery of other Viragos I have on my shelf. I guess I have to live with the fact that this new purchase spoils the colour scheme of my bookshelf.

Molly Keane is a newish discovery for me though not for people who are avid Virago readers. This summer I read Devoted Ladies which she wrote under her other pen name of M.J. Farrell and while not wowed by it, I enjoyed it enough to want to try her again. Good Behaviour is the first novel published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

What can I say about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours other than I don’t know why its taken me so long to get a copy. The film adaptation starring Meryl Streep is superb but I’m told by those who know such things, that the book itself is even better.

How could I resist anything by Anita Brookner, especially a hardback in such good condition as A Private View. Its focus is George Bland, a 65-year-old bachelor who has just retired from a worthy job in a dull office. Into his rather lacklustre life storms Katy, a young squatter who takes up residence in a flat opposite. She’s abrasive, self-assured and into crystal therapy and other New Agey kinds of things. She awakens some strange sensations in George.

And finally, one I needed to buy to help me reach the finishing line in my Booker Prize project. Vernon God Little by D. C Pierre caused a hoopla when it won the Booker in 2003 because it contains a high proportion of profanities and because the author is a former drug addict. Neither of those are showstoppers for me – if the profanities are an integral part of the story and how it needs to be told I can live with that, its the gratuitous use by authors who think they are being ‘hip’ that irritates me. As for the author’s background, I don’t see how that has a bearing on whether he is a good writer.  Will Vernon Good Little be worth reading? Only time will tell..

Given the low prices I think I was remarkably restrained with this little collection. Have you read any of these or plan to in the future?

Adultery in Islington: Nina Bawden’s The Ice House #Virago

the-ice-houseWhen asked in an interview for The Independent newspaper how she would describe her novel The Ice House was about, Nina Bawden answered:

Asked what The Ice House is ‘about’, I would probably say ‘adultery in Islington’. But that would be to speak dismissively, protectively, as a parent in a superstitious culture might cover a child’s face and call it plain and stupid. In fact, it is a novel about love and friendship; in particular, the friendship between two women who have been close since a dreadful episode in childhood when one of them was viciously beaten by her father.

Friendship is the theme that runs through the four sections of this novel. It begins in around 1951 with two fifteen year old girls Daisy Brown and Ruth Perkins who live in London. Their different backgrounds and characters make them rather unusual friends. Daisy lives within the warm embrace of a loving modestly well-off family who take a relaxed, open attitude to their domestic situation.   Ruth Perkin comes from a wealthy family who live in a turreted house hidden behind large gates complete with a disused ice house in one of the corners of the grounds. She’s a quiet child who says little about her family and her father’s rather strict form of upbringing. She explains this by his years spent as a prisoner of war in Japan. No-one else that Daisy knows has ever been invited to the Perkin’s house before so an unexpected invitation to tea gives her a thrill. it will give her a chance maybe to discover information about Ruth’s family that Ruth has never shared with her friend.

The real explanation for Ruth’s reticence becomes abundantly clear soon after Daisy enters the Perkin household and encounters her father Captain Perkins. Daisy is a bit of a flirt but even she is surprised at the forwardness of the Captain’s comments

“Captain Perkin said, ‘I daresay you have lots of boyfriends, Daisy,’ and she was conscious that her last year’s summer dress was too tight across the chest. … ‘I hope your mother knows what she is doing,’ Captain Perkin said. ‘I am careful with Ruth. But I have seen a bit of the world, you understand. I know what men are, with ripe young girls.’ He spluttered as he laughed, as if his mouth was full of juice. And, with a gloating emphasis, ‘I know what girls are, come to that!’ His eyes were on her breasts.”

The experience of that afternoon, though never spoken about between the two girls, cements their relationship, Thirty years later, they live on the same street in the Islington district of London, they are still friends though married and with families of their own. They live nearby, keep in regular touch. When Luke, Daisy’s husband, is killed in a road accident which may be a suicide, secrets are revealed that shock Ruth. Instead of a the loving marriage she thought her friend had she finds Daisy  launches into a series of diatribes against her husband and reveals she’d been bored with her marriage.

The development comes at a time when Ruth is also experiencing some difficulties with her own marriage. Her husband Joe becomes more distant having taken his friend’s death very hard and Ruth fears what he is keeping hidden from her. Eventually he comes clean and discloses there has been someone else in his life for some time.

The two friends move onto a different phase of their lives in which they contemplate life without a partner or with only a semblance of a relationship. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way over the next few years as the different personalities of the friends shape their responses. And Ruth’s previous experience as a child plays a significant part in her own ability to deal with life.

I wanted to enjoy this rather more than I did. I didn’t warm to either character and found the rather tedious at times. I just wanted the book to be over. It’s the third title I’ve read by Nina Bawden. The first A Little Love, a Little Learning was wonderful, the second The Solitary Child left me cold – you can see my reactions here . My most recent experience hasn’t left me with a feeling Bawden isn’t for me but I need to chose the next one more carefully it seems.

Footnotes

Author: The Ice House by Nina Bawden

Published: 1993 by Virago Modern Classics

Length: 236 pages

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

 

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