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The 20 Books of Summer Referendum

The in/out debate over UK’s membership of the European Union is nothing compared to my own debate on whether to join the Twenty Books of Summer Challenge. I’ve been in a quandary ever since Cathy at 746 books announced the challenge is about to begin.  “Out” says the rational part of my brain which knows that a) I have no hope in hell of reading 20 books in three months and b) I don’t do all that well with reading to a list. “In” screams the emotional side of my brain which argues that it sounds like a lot of fun.

Maybe it was the influence of today’s sunshine but the two sides seem to have reached a point where they agree to disagree and have signed a compromise pledge allowing me 50% participation. Step forward the “BookerTalk not the 20 books of summer list”  whereby I read just 10 books.  Which means I join in with the fun but have none of the angst if I don’t make it. And just to give further protection, right brain has allowed me to pick more than 10 books so I don’t feel the need to go off piste.

My list is a mixture, mainly of Booker Prize titles (still trying to get that challenge completed by year end), short story collections and Viragos. With the exception of the first two, they are all part of my TBR collection.

I’ve loved O’Farrell’s work ever since a friend gave me The Disappearing Act of Esme Lemmox so of course when I learned she had a new novel out (that the Guardian newspaper called “technically dazzling”, I immediately got my name on the library reservation list. Good news is it’s arrived just in time for me to make this the first one I read for the challenge.

  • The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. did not finish

This is a new title in the British Library Crime Classic series.  I have an advanced copy via NetGalley. It was first published in 1864 and is said to be the first novel in British fiction to feature a professional female detective.

  • NW by Ali Smith Read

Smith is someone I’ve long felt I should get to know better. Her last novel “How to be Both” was stunning so I’d like to read some of her back catalogue. I just happen to have NW on the bookshelves.

Thirkell’s name keeps cropping up amongst bloggers but I’ve never read her. This is probably one of the least demanding of the books on my list.

  • A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

A Virago copy I picked up in a charity shop. Should be good for the All August All Virago themed reading month.

  • Frost in May by Antonia White

Another Virago. In fact the first Virago I ever read. I was fairly young at the time. Will it hold my attention as much the second time around?

  • Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read

Swift won the 1996 Booker Prize title with this tale of a group of friends who set off for the seaside to scatter the ashes of one of their members who just died. I enjoyed the film. Mr Booker Talk tells me I’ll enjoy the books just as much

  • The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.

Another Booker winner – this time from 1986. It’s set in my home country of Wales

  • Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read

My third and final Booker winner, from 1983. This will be the third Coetzee book for me to read. The previous two have been superb. Hope this makes it a hat trick.

  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanda Adichie Read

I’m guilty here of the ‘save if for a rainy day’ syndrome. I am eking out Adichie’s work because it’s so good but now I have only Half a Yellow Sun left to read. I somehow don’t want to start it because then it will be over. Stupid I know. In the meantime I shall enjoy this collection of her short stories that I picked up on my first visit to the Hay Festival Oxfam shop.

  • An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

Another short story collection, this time from a Zimbabwean author. Gappah made the 2016 Baileys Prize longlist with her novel, The Book of Memory, becoming the first author from her country to reach this stage of the award.

I regularly ask work colleagues for recommendations of authors from their home country. For Belgium, the name of Amelie Northomb was mentioned regularly and was recommended in the View From Here feature on Belgium. Fear and Trembling is actually set in Japan but is the only one of her works I have.

  • Tree of Life by Maryse Conde

Conde is a French (Guadeloupean) author who was a finalist for the Man Booker international award a few years ago. Tree of Life is a multigenerational story about the emergence of the West Indian middle class and tells the politics of race and immigration, and the legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean. It will be the first book I’ve read by an author from that part of the world.

So there you have it. 13 titles that should keep me quiet over the summer months. If I do make it to 10 I’ll consider it a miracle but the fun isn’t really whether I make it – it’s the getting there.

How to be both by Ali Smith

Howtobe bothIn How to be both, Ali Smith provides a masterclass in how to play with the form of the novel and stuff it with layers of meaning and yet still make it highly readable.

Most of the advance publicity for this novel focused on the fact that there would be two versions of the book on sale. The reader wouldn’t know until they started reading which version they had purchased since both had identical covers.  Some readers would open it to find the spirit of the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa awakening to discover a teenager scrutinising one of his frescos. Others would begin with the story of that teenager, a 21st century Londoner known as George, who is subsumed by grief over her mother’s death.

Two stories, both labelled part one, that can be read in any order. I imagine many people would decide this book was not for them based on that description, maybe thinking Smith had really written just two short stories rather than a full novel. Or worse still,  querying whether this approach was simply a marketing gimmick.  Neither reaction would be doing justice to this book. It isn’t a book of two distinct and separate halves. Still less is this a gimmick. Instead what we have is a finely constructed  dual narrative in which each story dovetails with and reflects the other and where the very duality of structure is fundamental to a key theme in the novel — how the meaning of images and words change when looked at from different perspectives.

Many of the scenes, particularly in the George part of the book, pose questions about ways of seeing. The questions come from George’s mum, a freethinking and subversive woman who challenges her two children to consider art and history in new ways. At one point George recalls a visit with her mother and young brother to the Palazzo die Diamanti in Ferrara, near Bologna.  Although entranced by del Cossa’s frescos, George is less than enamoured with her mother’s detailed explanation of how art restorers sometimes discover under drawings that are significantly different than the finished work.

Which came first? her mother says. … The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?

Francesco del Cossa becomes the thread that connects George to her dead mother, helping her to come out of her cloud of grief, to interpret life in a new way.   Finding del Cossa’s painting Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery  her first reaction is that’s it’s nothing special,  that it’s looks just like any other religious painting, featuring a severe faced monk who seems to be admonishing anyone who has the audacity to stop and look at the painting.

But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is. …

And what is it that has attracted the attention of the monk? Could it be the spectre of the artist himself who watches George (mistaking her for a boy).  The two are inexplicably connected:

…it is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don,t

This is just one of the playful, puzzling aspects of the book. It’s a book that probably should be read one and a half times if you want to truly understand how cleverly it has been constructed I read the medieaval part first and having got to the end of part two, immediately returned to part one looking for the patterns and connections. If I’d read George’s story first, would my experience have been any different? Something I’ll never know  but I have a feeling that whichever way you read it — whichever part you encounter first, you’ll be dazzled.

 

End note

How to be both is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. And if this doesn’t win I will be astounded.

 

 

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