Reading Horizons: November 2019
What I’m reading now
I’ve been digging into my stack of “owned but unread” books in an attempt to bring some order to the chaos of the bookshelves.
A Change of Climate was published in 1994 and is nothing like any of the other books by Hilary Mantel that I’ve read. She never seems to write the same kind of book twice.
This one is focused on a couple living in Norfolk who run a charitable trust for homeless people; drug addicts and problem teenagers. In their early married life they worked as missionaries in South Africa at a time when restrictions are tightening towards the non white population. The couple’s liberal attitudes land them in trouble and they are arrested.
I’m half way through and while I’m enjoying Mantel’s descriptive style I think the book needs to move up a gear now.
By contrast I’m reading The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell, owner of the second largest second hand bookshop in Scotland.
It’s a journal which details the day to day events including the number of books ordered, the number of customers and total sales for the day (horrifyingly low!) Shaun’s comments on his often eccentric customers and his eccentric shop assistant Nicky are wonderful because he has a great eye for the absurd. This should be required reading for anyone thinking of buying a bookshop because while it sounds like great fun, the economic reality is sobering.
What I just finished reading
After a run of three books so disappointing that I abandoned them (one of them after just 5 pages) it was a delight to read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming. From start to finish it gave a fascinating insight into the character of a woman that stamped her mark on the White House. I loved her honesty and her humility – even with everything she achieved, she constantly asked herself “Will I be good enough.”
The Bowery Slugger was an experimental toe in the water of crime noir. Set in one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in New York in the early decades of the twentieth century, it traces the downward spiral into violence of a Jewish immigrant boy. The level of violence was disturbing but the book was redeemed by its depiction of New York gang culture and the Jewish community.
What I’ll read next
A friend keeps raving about the Australian author Jane Harper. I have two of her novels, The Lost Man and Force of Nature, both of which are appealing. But I’m also in the mood for some Trollope so might delve into the next in the Barchester Chronicles – Framley Parsonage.
That should keep me busy for a while.
Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation kicks off with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t yet read but has come highly recommended by a friend who knows more about Australian authors than I do. It’s a crime thriller set in a parched Australian farming community.
The Australian outback was the stamping ground of the legendary Ned Kelly. Whether you view him as a working class hero or an out and out villain, his exploits have proved to be rich material for writers. Peter Carey, another Australian, won the Man Booker Prize with his True History of the Kelly Gang, an is an imaginative reconstruction of Kelly’s life story in his own words. It’s quite a remarkable novel of a man who was in trouble with the law from the age of thirteen, descending from petty crime to robbery and murder. Kelly met his death in 1880 in a shootout despite having fashioned himself a protective iron helmet.
Frank Baum went considerably further than just an iron helmet – he fashioned a character created entirely from metal. The TinMan appeared first in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz but made several appearances in many of the subsequent books in the Oz series. Apparently there was a trend in late nineteenth-century America for advertising and political cartoons to feature male figures made out of various tin pieces. Baum, who was editing a magazine on decorating shop windows when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was reportedly inspired to invent his Tin Man character after he made a similar figure for a shop display.
Baum’s novel was an immediate success but gained even greater popularity once it was made into a film in 1939. I’ll hazard a guess that a large proportion of the millions of people who have watched this film, have no knowledge of the book upon it was based. Still less that this novel, described by the Library of Congress as “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” has been interpreted as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890s. One historian theorised that the Tin Man represented the industrial workers, especially those in the steel industry. Others have claimed the cyclone which sweeps Dorothy to Oz was a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab America into a land of colour and unlimited prosperity.
Since we’re talking political allegory the obvious choice for my next link would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But that’s a bit too obvious. I’m going to play instead with the idea that Baum was writing what’s loosely termed a “state of the nation” novel.
Authors have long used the literary form to examine contemporary society so I’m spoiled for choice. I’m plumping for a novel that was very much a product of the Thatcher years in the UK.
Capital by John Lanchester takes into the heart of London in 2008. It’s a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights. But behind the gleaming office buildings lies an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. In the eyes of the narrator “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.”
Lanchester was not alone in taking a pop at the money men. Anthony Trollope covered similar ground in The Way We Live Now which was inspired by the financial scandals of the early 1870s. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He satirised this society in the shape of Augustus Melmotte, a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian”. His arrogance, ruthlessness and depth of corruption are traits we’ve sadly witnessed too many times in the decades since Trollope’s time.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a reminder that these corrupt leaders don’t always get away with their actions; occasionally they are called to account. O’Brien’s novel takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s. Her main character – a fugitive war criminal discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland – is modelled on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic.
Just like the people of Sarajevo, the people of Gaza know what it’s like to live in constant fear of attack. The Book of Gaza is a collection of stories by writers from the territory and published by Comma Press. Reading this anthology you can’t help but admire the resilience shown by the people who inhabit a piece of land 26 miles long and 3 miles wide that has been the subject of hostilities for decades.
And so we reach the end of another round of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we’ve travelled from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a besieged nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As always all the books I mention are ones I have read, though not necessarily reviewed. Creating these chains can be challenging some months but the fun lies in seeing unexpected paths they take, and discovering how other bloggers have gone down vastly different routes. You can follow these on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #6Degrees, or checking out the links at Kate’s blog.
Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain. The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.
This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.
It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.
I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.
For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen. Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.
In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.
Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.
John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.
It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party. Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.
The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.
Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.
It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II. Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.
Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.
Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”
Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.
But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.
Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.
For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)
The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.
All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.
Right well it’s just cup a soup then…..
This week’s Top Ten topic (as hosted by Broke and Bookish) is “Ten Series I’ve Been Meaning To Start But Haven’t.” This could turn out to be a very short post in that case since I don’t tend to be a reader of series. Or at least I didn’t think I was until I took a look at my reading over the last few years and the list of books I own but have not yet read. It seems I am already part way through a few series. So let’s talk about those first.
Current Series Reading
The Rougon-Macquet cycle by Emile Zola: a sequence of 20 novels written by the French author between 1871 and 1893. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), the novels follow the lives of the members of two branches of a fictional family. Zola planned in this sequence to “study in a family the questions of blood and environments.” In other words, he wanted to advocate his theory of naturalism by demonstrating how people are heavily influenced by heredity and their environment. So far I’ve read four of the 20 and each one has been excellent. I have another title on my 20booksofsummerreadinglist which will get me quarter of the way through the collection. That’s fine, I’m in no hurry. If you don’t know Zola’s work and want to get more familiar with it, take a look at the superb readingzola blog created by Lisa and Dagny.
Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope: a sequence of six novels set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The novels concern the political and social dealings of the clergy and the gentry but don’t imagine that means they are rather dull – the novels are full of power struggles, social class clashes, financial disasters and frustrated affairs of the heart. They also contain some of the most magnificently rendered characters I’ve come across in literature. I’m half way through the series – next up in my Anthony Trollope project is Framley Parsonage which was published in 1861 and features a young vicar whose aspirations to move up in the social circle make him vulnerable to the machinations of a Member of Parliament with a reputation for debt. More info about Trollope can be found at the Trollope Society website
Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny
We’re now at book twelve in a series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec. Louise Penny’s protagonist is a man of great integrity, a man who refuses to shirk from uncomfortable truths or to turn a blind eye when he senses corruption and wrong-doing even at the heart of the police force. But he’s also thoughtful, gentle and warm – not only to his wife and son in law but to the inhabitants of a small community in the province of Quebec called Three Pines that he discovers during the course of one of his investigations. Three Pines is a superb created fictional place; it’s so small it doesn’t even show up on maps, yet it is home to Gabri who runs the bistro, the acerbic poet Ruth, Myrna who owns the bookstore and the artist Clara Morrow. Each book that takes us back to Three Pines means we get a chance to meet up with these old friends. I’ve read six of the books published so far (a new title is due out this August) but I didn’t read them in sequence. Penny has said each novel is meant to be self-standing but to get the full effect of the character development they are indeed best read in order. So that’s what I’ve now started to do. You can find more about Louise Penny at her website
Series I may not finish
The Shardlake novels by C. J Sansom. I’ve enjoyed a few of this historical crime series which feature a laywer called Shardlake who takes on the role of the ‘detective’. Sansom is a historian by training which enables him to bring the Tudor period to life with all its political machinations, religious upheaval, sounds and smells (he does smells rather well). There are six in the series starting with Dissolution which was the first I read. I’ve read four now – the last one being number 5 in the series; Lamentation (reviewed here) – and though I’ve enjoyed them, the level of enthusiasm has begin to wane. If I wasn’t so close to finishing I probably would give up now, but it seems as Macbeth said
I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Act 3, Scene 4)
Future Series to Read
Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope: Once I finish the Chronicels of Barsestshire I’m planning to move onto the Palliser novels. This is a series of six novels written between 1864 and 1879 which feature a wealthy aristocrat and politician Plantagenet Palliser, and his wife, Lady Glencora (although they don’t play major roles in every title). The plots involve British and Irish politics in varying degrees, specifically in and around Parliament. There is a bit of a cross-over of characters with those in the Barchester Chronicles – Plantagent Palliser has a small role in The Small House at Allington for example and he has an unwise flirtation with the daughter of Dr Grantly and granddaughter of the Reverend Mr Harding, characters who appear in The Warden and Barchester Towers. The Victorian Web considers the Palliser novels to be superior to the Barchester Chronicles
Strangers and Brothers by C. P Snow: This series of 11 novels, published between 1940 and 1970, is one that has been on my radar screen for about 30 years. So keen was I to read them that I made my husband trek from bookshop to bookshop in Hay on Wye just so I could get all of them in the same Penguin livery. All the novels are narrated by a character called Lewis Eliot whose life we follow from humble beginnings in an English provincial town, through to a reasonably successful career as a London lawyer. In future years he becomes a Cambridge don, and sees wartime service in Whitehall as a senior civil servant. They deal with – among other things – questions of political and personal integrity, and the mechanics of exercising power. This series may not be familiar to you but you’ll possibly have heard the expression Corridors of Power – this is the title of book number nine but was referred to in an earlier title in the series. The term went on to become a household phrase referring to the centres of government and power. Its still in use today though the name of its originator has faded from the public’s mind. What constituted ‘required reading’ in earlier decades is barely heard about now. I’m just hoping that when I do start reading the series, that trek around Hay will prove to have been worth the effort.
It’s Mothering Day in the UK today – or to give it its secular name, Mother’s Day. A day when we are asked to show our appreciation for the women who brought us into the world. Mothers in books, just as they do in real life, come in all shapes and sizes. Some epitomise wisdom; love and thoughtfulness; others, well shall we say, reflect less desirable qualities.
To mark this day here’s a list of the good, the bad and the decidedly horrid mothers in literature.
Role model mothers
Mrs March: Little Women by Louisa M Alcott
If you’re looking for a vision of maternal perfection, look no further than Mrs March (also known as Marmee) in Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. She’s left to look after the home and her four daughters while her husband goes off to provide religious comfort to troops in the American civil war. Using a mixture of common sense and homilies she nurtures the girls to adulthood and encouraging them to be fine, upstanding young women of whom their father would be proud. The saccharine levels in this novel are at maximum setting but if you can get beyond that, it’s easy to appreciate a woman for whom there can be “no greater happiness” than to see her daughters happy and fulfilled in life.
Helen Graham: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
The obstacles Mrs March had to overcome to realise her dreams for her daughters, are as nothing compared to the obstacles facing Helen Graham, the mother figure in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Her escape fromArthur Huntingdon, her womanising, alcoholic husband, wasn’t simply going against every standard of behaviour at the time, it was illegal. Bronte’s first readers would have been well aware that Helen, as a married woman had no independent existence in English law. She had no right to enter into contracts unless under her husband’s name; no right to sue for divorce and no rights over the control and custody of her children. When Helen thus decides to leave her husband to protect her son from his father’s corrupting influence, she exposes herself to the threat of arrest as a kidnapper.
Ma: Room by Emma Donoghue
Protection of her son is also foremost in the mind of the mother in Emma Donoghue’s Room. Ma lives in a small space with five-year old Jack, the child born from repeated rape by her abductor. All Jack has ever known is Ma and Room; he has no concept of the world outside except what comes via their television set. It takes every ounce of courage and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her son, making the best of the limited resources at her disposal.
Paula Hook: Tomorrow by Graham Swift
Late at night a mother mentally rehearses a conversation that will take place the following morning when her husband will reveal a secret that’s been kept hidden for sixteen years. Paula traces the history of her marriage, from the time when as students in Sussex she first met the biology student Mike. She holds nothing back – tomorrow will be a revelation that might destroy their family so she believes her children need a full understanding of the background. Her marriage has been a very physical relationship she imagines telling 16-year-old Nick and Kate. And then goes onto provide the kind of details I suspect most teenagers simply don’t want to know about their mother.
Austen portrays Mrs B as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper”. She’s made a comic figure, a gossip who has a habit of putting her foot (or in her case her mouth) in it to the detriment of her elder daughter’s hopes of marrying an eminently desirable wealthy young man. But despite her flaws, it’s difficult to be too harsh on this woman. Her actions, as crass as they are on times, are driven by economic necessity. She has five daughters and lives in an age where, if they do not secure a good marriage, they will be reduced to earning their own income as seamstresses or governesses. Faced with that precarious existence, even marriage to a scoundrel like George Wickham is better than spinsterhood in her eyes.
Lady Arabella Gresham: Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope
Another mother who plots and schemes to get her offspring married. Lady Gresham is married to a squire whose estate is in a precarious state so it’s imperative that the heir Frank Gresham, marries a wealthy woman. It matters not to his mother that his heart is set on a sweet young lady from the village. She will do everything possible to see that Frank comes to his senses and puts his own family’s needs ahead of his own interests. This is a woman who risks alienating her son, her husband, her medical adviser as a result of her determination.
Emma Bovary: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Does Emma deserve sympathy or condemnation? Is she simply a hopeless romantic who yearns to escape marriage to one of the dullest men on earth? Or a manipulative little minx who runs up debts because she can’t stop spending money on frivolities? Whichever way you choose to look at Emma’s character, the reality is that her frustrations with the banalities and emptiness of her provincial life have a long term impact on her daughter Berthe. Left an orphan, the young girl is taken into the care of her grandmother. But when she in turn dies, Berthe is despatched to live with an impoverished aunt who forces her to work in a cotton mill; exactly the kind of life Emma was desperate to avoid.
Pity the girl who has this woman for a mother. Ostensibly a devout woman of her fundamentalist religious community, this is a woman whose zeal disguises a lack of compassion and goodness. Having adopted Jess she plans to make her a servant of God. But when the girl doesn’t conform to the required behaviour is locked in her room without food and subjected to physical assault. Later when the girl discovers she is a lesbian she is publicly condemned by her mother and forced to go through two lengthy exorcisms.
Few readers get to the end of this novel viewing Mrs Corrine Dollanganger as anything but a horror figure. Ok so she is left in debt when her husband, the father of her four children, is killed in a car accident. Understandable that, with no skills of her own to help her get a job, she moves in with her estranged wealthy parents. But when her mother Olivia, insists the children must be hidden from their grandfather, and confines them to an attic wouldn’t you think any self-respecting mother would say no way? Not Corinne. But then what mother would abandon her children for weeks and then poisons them so she can keep her inheritance.? And what kind of grandmother is this that no only colludes in this horrific behaviour, but is one of the main perpetrators?
If only Corinne and Olivia were the worst models of motherhood it would be possible to imagine. But we have only to look back a few centuries to find a figure of equally horrific proportions. I wonder if William Congreve had Medea in mind when he wrote:
“Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” (The Mourning Bride)
When Medea discovers her husband Jason has abandoned her for a younger model, she unleashes her fury on his new bride, sending her a dress soaked in poison. Jason reproaches her but she’s having none of it and in revenge kills their two sons. Medea’s rationale is that when a woman “is wronged in the matter of love, no other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood.” Now you’d think this would be the kind of behaviour guaranteed to make the Gods extremely angry with her. What they actually do is to send a chariot to pick her and and transport her to a new life in Athens. I wonder what the Greeks in the audience thought of this benevolent outcome?