Yes 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..
- This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Excellent Read –review posted here
- NW by Zadie Smith Read it – Dazzling in some ways but not sure I saw the point of it review posted here
- High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – Read but not a great choice for me review posted here
- A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford Thoroughly enjoyed this – review posted here Counted this for AllAugust/All Virago
- Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read and enjoyed in parts review posted here I double counted this for my Booker project
- The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Read and enjoyed the humour – review not yet written. I double counted this for my Booker project
- 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
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimimanda Adichie Read – enjoyed the style, left me wanting more Review posted here
- Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – Enjoyable take on Japanese culture review posted here Double counted this for Women in Translation Month
- 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.
High Rising, Angela Thirkell’s debut novel in her Barsetshire series, was born out of adversity. Having left her husband in Australia on the pretext of taking a holiday in England, she resorted to writing chiefly through the need for money. She went on to write a further 28 novels all set in the fictional county created initially by Anthony Trollope.
This is the only Thirkell I will ever read. I wasn’t sure even before opening it that it would be my cup of tea but I’d heard her compared favourably to Barbara Pym to whom I have taken a shine this year. Pym’s writing is however a lot more sharp and insightful than Thirkell’s and it’s that edginess I was missing here. Reading High Rising was an experience about as substantial as eating an enormous meringue; it looks impressive but once you get your teeth into it, it dissolves into a sugary tasting nothingness.
High Rising rests on the reactions of a female author Laura Morland and her chums in a rural village when a dear friend George Knox (an author of historical biographies) acquires a new secretary. Morland and co decide the secretary Una Grey, or as they nickname her The Incubus, is a schemer who is out to get her claws into George using devious means such as poison pen notes. They set out to rescue their friend from sleepwalking into an inappropriate marriage. In parallel, there are some other budding romances that need to be nurtured and brought to a happy conclusion.
It’s all related in a light, amused tone by a narrator who exudes warmth and tenderness towards the main characters and their little foibles. Most of the time I found the gentle humour cloying though I did enjoy a few laugh aloud moments with the characterisation of Morland’s son Tony. This young boy is a force of super energy, totally absorbed in his own world and his obsession with motor railways.
‘I could get a Great Western model engine for seventeen shillings, but there is a much better LMS one for twenty-five shillings. Which do you think? ‘
‘I should think the Great Western, if it only costs seventeen shillings and the other is twenty-five’
‘Yes, but Mother you dont see. The Great Western would only pull a coal truck and one coach but the LMS would pull three coaches quite easily.’
‘Well what about the LMS one then?’
‘Yes but Mother then I’d have an LMS engine and Great Western coaches. Didn’t yiu know my coaches were all Great Western?’
‘Well Mother considering I was telling yiu all about them I thought you would know. mother which would you say?’
‘Look Tony’ said his mother,mystifying a desire to kill him, ‘there’s Mr Reid’s shop. we shall be home in a minute.’
‘But which do you think Mother? A Great Western to go with the coaches or do you think the LMS?’
And so on. You get the picture….
His incessant chatting is only one reason why his mother’s patience is tested to the limit:
She had sent him to school at an earlier age than his brothers, partly so that he should not be an only child under petticoat government, partly, as she remarked, to break his spirit. She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries. But not at all. He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly. Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive.
I’m glad she didn’t break that spirit because as irritating as he is, he at least feels more like a real personality than anyone else in the novel. The rest didn’t engage my attention at all, even his mother with her frequent disastrous moments involving hairpins and the typewriter ribbon and her frustrations with people whose grasp of grammar is fragile, didn’t raise much of a titter.
I know there are plenty of people who love this kind of novel, and are great fans of Thirkell. They obviously have far greater appreciation of gentle humour than I possess. I’m off in search of something more edgy; a salted caramel brownie rather than a meringue I think.
When you have some time to spare and it’s a cold, dark November afternoon, then the warm interior of a really good book shop is the ideal place for any avid reader. Which was my excuse for popping into Blackwell’s in Oxford while on a visit to the city this week.
I have no excuse for the fact I emerged with three new books to add to the two I’d already picked up in the Oxfam shop (thanks to Ali and Liz for directing me there). It wasn’t as if I was running short of books to read. But it is hard to resist when you’re in the flagship store of a book seller in the heart of academia and faced with an extensive array of authors and titles. So of course I succumbed. But I did something I have not done for a very long time – I didn’t take out my wish list and head straight for those authors. I just browsed. My only ‘rule’ was to find authors I had never read before and, ideally, from countries whose literature I know little about.
I could have come away with a suitcase full but since I didn’t happen to have one with me at the time I had to curtail my enthusiasm.
Four of the new acquisitions will go a long way to helping me venture into more world literature but the fifth is very firmly rooted in England.
Diego Marani: New Finnish Grammar
The title was what caught my eye initially but the synopsis also appealed.
“A wounded sailor is found on a Triest quay. Amesiac, unable to speak and with nothing to identify him except a name tag pointing to Finnish origins. A passing doctor resolves to teach him Finnish to restore his memory.” Apparently this was shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Yukio Mishima: After the Banquet
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by an author from Japan. I picked this one up without knowing that Mishima is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century and was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. After the Banquet is about a middle-age proprietress of a fashionable restaurant that caters to politicians. She falls in love with one of her clients – a retired ambassador – but conflicts arise between them and she is forced to choose between marriage and her independence. The New Yorker called it “the biggest and most profound thing Mishima has done so far.”
Nadeem Aslam: Maps for Lost Lovers
This is set in an unnamed town in England where a close-knit Pakistani community is disturbed by the murder of two lovers and then the arrest of a brother of one of the victims. It’s a portrait of an immigrant family over the course of 12 months during which their culture, nationality and religious beliefs are tested.
And from the Oxfam shop I picked up the first of Angela Thirkell’s novels High Rising. I’ve never read any of her work but there seems to be such a buzz about her on various blog sites that I thought I’d give her a go. I also found The Hour of the Star, a novella by Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian author whose name I came across while researching authors for my Reading the Equator challenge.