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Top ten Tuesday: book club recommendations

The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.

This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.

If I had my wishlist it would include:

book-club-recommendations

I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).

  1. The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
  2. Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here 
  3. The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here 
  4. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness.  Reviewed here 
  5. From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom  by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here 
  6. Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
  7. Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times  days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here 
  8. L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
  9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
  10. Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances?  Who deserves to die?  And who has the right to make those decisions?  Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here 

Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?

Six degrees: From Year of Wonders

I’ve never tried my hand at the Six Degrees of Separation but the latest chain resulted in some creative linking by a number of bloggers. It got me thinking what connections I could find.

The chain starts with Year of Wonders, a novel that was an international best seller for Geraldine Brooks. Year of Wonders is based on a true-life story of the small Peak District village of the village of Eyam that put itself in quarantine to prevent the spread of the dreaded bubonic plague. If you don’t know this book, I hope my review will persuade you to beg/borrow/buy it soon.

The plague also makes its appearance in an audio book I just finished – Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux  – which features a young servant who goes to work in the painter’s house in Amsterdam and ends up becoming his muse and model. I won’t reveal exactly how the plague fits in because that would reveal too much of the plot but I can recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction set in the seventeenth century.

If you’re thinking the servant/painter’s house/Netherlands combination sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be far wrong because this is also the premise of Girl with a Pearl Earring  the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier set in the Delft studios of the painter Vermeer.Chevalier said she was inspired to write the book having seen the Vermeer painting at the Mauritshuis art museum in The Hague (you can hear her Ted talk on this here).

From the Mauritshuis it’s but a short step to the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This is a key location in   Edna O’Brien’s most recent novel The Little Red Chairs in which a war criminal known in his country as the Beast of Bosnia is found hiding in a remote Irish village. He is captured and taken to the Hague to stand trial for genocide just as Radovan Karadžić was and sentenced earlier this year to 40 years’ imprisonment for atrocities and war crimes.

Violence and crime committed during war also feature large in the novel I’ve just finished reading – Moskva by Jack Grimwood. It’s a page turner of a thriller that begins with the discovery of a young boy’s body at the foot of the Kremlin and the disappearance of the British Ambassador’s daughter. The year is 1985 and Gorbachev is the man who has just taken the hot seat as leader of the Soviet Union with the intent of rescuing the crumbling economic and political system. The plot takes us back to 1945 and the Russian advance on Berlin. What happened then is something the KGB and the Politburo would prefer remain a secret but they have a determined adversary in the form of Major Tom Fox, a man used to going undercover in some of the world’s hottest spots.

Moscow. Snow.  KGB. Bodies. It wouldn’t be a thriller set in Russia without these features and they don’t get much better than Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. The story follows Arkady Renko, a chief investigator for the Militsiya, (the civil police) who is assigned to a case involving three corpses found in Gorky Park, an amusement park in Moscow, who have had their faces and fingertips cut off by the murderer to prevent identification. So realistic a picture did it depict of everyday life in pre-Glasnost era, that the book was immediately banned in the USSR. It’s still one of the best thrillers I’ve read set in Russia.

So in six smallish journeys we’ve gone from plague to political intrigue and from a small village in England to  a Dutch city in its golden years and from painters to men determined to get to the truth.

 

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien: Review

the little red chairsAccording to Philip Roth, The Little Red Chairs is “a masterpiece”; the best novel Edna O’Brien has ever written. I wonder if Edna greeted the accolade with a gleam in her eye and her trademark mischievous smile. It is, after all ironic that her status as a novelist is recognised more on the world stage than in her own country.  Her early years as a novelist were marked by scorn and derision in her native Ireland. It’s taken more than sixty years for the country to take her back into their bosom.  Last year (long overdue) O’Brien was honoured as a Saoithe of Aosdána, Ireland’s highest literary honour, and with it came a presidential apology for the pious disdain which led to a ban on her books for decades and accusations she had a too-favourable attitude to the Provisional IRA.

But O’Brien has never been a lady who sought a quiet life or opted for the safe topics in her books, despite attracting the soubriquet  “a “bargain basement Molly Bloom” at one time. In The Little Red Chairs she turns her attention to the monstrous acts perpetrated by a tyrant and to his innocent citizens who are forced to take flight and become stateless refugees.  It’s a tremendously haunting novel delivered by someone who has a keenly observant eye and understanding of human nature.

You can read my review at Shiny New Books and Ali’s review last year.

End Notes

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien was published in the UK by Faber and Faber in 2015. Thanks to the publishers for providing me with a free copy via NetGalley.

If you’re interesting in discovering why O’Brien came to write this book take a look at this interview with The Daily Telegraph.

Carried away and now counting the cost

It is not a good idea at 5am on a Sunday morning to begin browsing the Net Galley catalogue of titles available for review. Of course that only became apparent a few weeks later when the request approvals began coming through and I realised a) how many I had requested b) how much reading I would need to do between now and mid November.

I’m not complaining however. Having the ability to read books by authors I enjoy or to explore writers I’m not familiar with, is part of the pleasure of the Net Galley program. I don’t always get around to reading everything but if I do read the title, then I make sure to write a review. It seems a fair deal to me.

Awaiting me are the following:

The secret chordThe Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks: this is one I’m not entirely sue about. I enjoyed her novel Year of Wonders which is about a village in the Peak District in England which seals itself off from the world to prevent the spread of the plague. I know she does extensive research into her chosen periods to ensure her novels sound authentic. It’s really that I don’t know whether the subject matter of The Secret Chord, the life of King David from humble shepherd to despotic king,  is to my taste given I have little interest in religious history. But I could be pleasantly surprised and at least I will learn something in the process of reading.

man tigerMan Tiger by Eka Kurniawan is a wild card choice for me. Kurniawan has been named as a rising star from Indonesia and compared (favourably) to Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. Her latest novel, set in an unnamed town near the Indian Ocean,  tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families, and of Margio, an ordinary half-city, half-rural youngster who also happens to be half-man, half-supernatural female white tiger.

the dictators last nightThe Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

I must be one of the few people on the planet yet to read Khadra’s best selling Swallows of Kabul (ok, a bit of an exaggeration I know). I do have it in the bookshelves, just haven’t got around to it yet. The Dictator’s Last Night sounded too good to miss however. It’s focus is a figure whose name has long been associated with authoritarian political leadership and abuse of human rights: the former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. Khadra imagines the leader hiding out in his home town in the dying days of the Libyan civilc war. As he awaits a convey to take him and his advisors out of the danger zone, he reflects on his life, his animosity towards the West and the ingratitude of his fellow countrymen.

the little red chairsThe Little Red Chairs by Edna O’brien: She may be in her 80s now but Edna O’Brien is giving no sign she’s ready to throw in the writing towel. When her memoir The Country Girl came out a few years ago there was much speculation it would be her last published work. She’s proved everyone wrong with The Little Red Chairs, a story of the consequences of a fatal attraction. A war criminal on the run from the Balkans settles in a small Irish community where he pretends to be a faith healer. The community fall under his spell but he proves to be fatally attractive to one local woman in particular.

Paris NocturneParis Nocturne by Patrick Modiano: How could I possibly resist a noir work from the Nobel Laureate? Especially given that atmospheric cover….

This novel begins with a nighttime accident on the streets of Paris. An unnamed narrator is hit by a car whose driver he vaguely recalls having met before and then experiences a series of mysterious events. They culminate  with an envelope stuffed full of bank notes being stuffed into his hand. Libération called this book “perfect” while L’Express described it as “cloaked in darkness, but it is a novel that is turned toward the light.”

the japanese loverAnd finally I have The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende. It’s fair to say that I have not yet warmed to Allende. But she has a huge following and a friend keeps raving about her  so I thought she deserved another chance.  As the title suggests this is a romance. In it we see a young Polish girl meet in San Fransisco and fall in love with the Japanese man employed as the family’s gardner. Their relationship is tested when in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, Japanese residents in the US are rounded up and sent to internment camps. Fast forward to modern day San Francisco and the secrets of a passion lasting seventy years are revealed.

Any of these books appeal to you? or maybe you’ve already read some of them?

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

country girlsThe Country Girls sent shock waves through rural Ireland when it was published in 1960. Across the sea, London was about to enter the Swinging Sixties but in Eire, sex was seldom mentioned openly and especially not when it involved unmarried girls.  Edna O’Brien’s novel about two girls who leave their convent upbringing and small village life in search of life and love in city, was castigated for daring to break the silence.  O’Brien, who was living in London at the time, found her novel banned in her home country and her parents so ashamed that they refused to speak to her.

Reading the book now, the elements that were considered so startling in the 1960s, seem creepy rather than shocking.

This is essentially a coming of age story of Caithleen and Baba, two young country girls on the verge of womanhood who leave the sheltered environment of their convent school for the city in search of life, love and fun. Before they get to Dublin however we learn about their childhood, about drunken fathers, and impoverished families, of convent education and schoolgirl acts of rebellion and misbehaviour..

All of this would make for a novel that is nothing remarkable, those themes and events having been played out in many other works already. O’Brien signals that something is different however when she introduces a figure known only as Mr Gentleman. Although he is decidedly older and also married, he begins to take the 14-year-old Caithleen out in his large black car; first on a shopping trip to Limerick and then dinner where he encourages her to drink wine (she decides she prefers the taste of lemonade). Each time they meet, he edges across the barrier of acceptability, hand holding turns into kisses of her hand then all the way up her arm. By the time she’s in Dublin, they’re  spending the whole night kissing and canoodling in his car watching the sun rise over the sea. Our Caithleen isn’t exactly reliable – there are lots of gaps in her accounts of what really happens between them – but it’s not difficult to fill in the blanks. Is she really as innocent as she seems? She’s an intelligent girl but she doesn’t seem to realise that she is slowly being groomed and that there really is no happy ending possible.

O’Brien brings the spirit of Eire vividly to life through two characters who make you laugh one moment and make you cringe the next as yet another example of their naivety is revealed. On the whole though I found it a bit so-so. The story of how O’Brien actually came to write this book and the repercussions on her marriage (as revealed in her 2013 memoir Country Girl), is far more interesting than the book itself.

Book Review: The Country Girl by Edna O’Brien

One night in their [her sons’] bedroom with all their clutter and paraphernalia, painted soldiers laid out on trays for battle yet to be, Paul McCartney entered.

EdnaO'BrienThis is just one of the wonderful examples of understated prose found in Edna O’Brien‘s memoir The Country Girl, published last year. Many lesser writers would have changed the order of words in the anecdote to put the emphasis on McCartney rather than banal domestic details. But such was Edna’s life while in Swinging Sixties London; a life so replete with encounters with the great and the good that she can treat individual episodes with  nonchalance.

There are many examples of this nature in the middle of the book as famous names from stage, screen and the literary world flit into her world and onto the pages. She cooks dinner for Len Deighton, Richard Burton recites Shakespeare in her kitchen, Lee Marvin is a guest at her son’s birthday party and she dances with the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

The names are not there to impress. These people were simply part of an ever-extending circle of friends and acquaintances who gravitated to her home in Chelsea and more particularly gravitate to this vivacious young woman from southern Ireland. A party girl she may have been but The Country Girl is no kiss and tell memoir. In fact she is remarkably silent on the identity of some of the men who played a part in her life, including someone who seemed to have been an eminent British politician.

The memoir is instead a warm and frank account of a life that was anything but carefree. O’Brien’s early years in County Clare, Ireland were lived in fear of a father who had drunk away the family’s wealth and in the stultifying atmosphere of a strict Catholic community serviced by the church and 27 pubs but no library. “There was only one book in the village apart from the Bible — du Maurier’s Rebecca,” she told an audience at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival. “We used to share it around but you only got one or two pages at a time and they didn’t always come in the right order.”

It wasn’t until she broke away and moved to Dublin to work as an assistant in a pharmacist’s shop that she discovered literature along with pierced earrings and men. Finding T. S. Eliot’s “Introducing James Joyce” in a quayside stall marked the beginning of what she calls the “two intensities”  of her life — writing and reading. Freedom came at a price — her family tried to kidnap her when they learned of her affair with a married man, forcing the pair to flee the country.  In London, married to  a poet and the mother of  two boys, she began to write. The Country Girls was completed in just three weeks. Her tale of two girls who leave their small Irish village and  convent education for the bright lights of Dublin  met with critical acclaim everywhere except in Ireland and by everyone except her mother and her husband.

In Ireland it was considered immoral and its publication banned. “Filth” proclaimed the Archbishop and the Minister of Justice. Even the local postmistress in her home village weighed in – she should be made to run naked through the street as a punishment she claimed. O’Brien was summoned to a public meeting in Limerick to defend her book against accusations that it was little more than hard-core pornography.

Her husband’s response was more personal:

 Yes he had to concede that despite everything, I had done it, and then he said something that was the death-knell of the already-ailing marriage —You can write and I will never forgive you.

What follows is one of the darkest periods of Edna O’Brien’s life. Separated from her children, she finds herself portrayed in a custody battle as a harlot, the writer of obnoxious and obscene literature and an uncaring mother.

Country Girl was a book O’Brien swore she would never write.  She did so at the age of 78 in order to set the record straight about this and other episodes in her life including a published interview with Gerry Adams the Sinn Fein leader which led to accusations she was promoting the cause of the IRA.

There is a sense though there is much more to this memoir than simply recording the truth for posterity. There is a sense that in turning to the past, she found a reconciliation not just with the land of her birth, the land that never rated her as greatly as Joyce or Yeats and fought her attempts to build a home on its shores, but with herself. After a return visit to her childhood home  that is now in ruins behind a screen of ivy and bramble she reflects on

“… for ever the need to go back,the way animals do, the way elephants trudge thousands of miles to return to where the elephant whisperer has lived. We go back for the whisper.”

My verdict

Elegaic, moving and funny.  A perfect example of how memoirs should be written.

Wowed by Hay

hay2013

It took me years to get to the Hay Literary Festival but the wait was definitely worth it. There was always a risk that my expectations were too high but my day proved better than anything I could have imagined.

Of course the sunshine helped enormously. Hay on Wye is a delightful town at the best of times but under an almost cloudless blue sky and bedecked with banners, it fizzed with festive spirit. Everywhere you looked there was something happening – a craft fair in the market square, pop up food stalls and music in the castle grounds and some earnest discussions in the parallel philosophy festival.

This sign caught my eye… you can understand the sentiment in a town which thrives on people buying real books.

hay photo

mattchairOn the festival site itself, the grassy areas were packed with picnic groups and families or people lounging and reading (not a Kindle in sight!) in one of the special deck chairs; a welcome break from all that queuing at the book shop to get a personally signed copy.

But the real highlights for me were the four sessions I attended. Not a dud among them though they were vastly different in topic and style. I ‘d never expected the audiences to be so big – 700 people for Edna O’Brien; about 500 for a discussion on the experience of women in Lebanon and Egypt. Every event was a sell out apparently.

I loved the low key conversational tone of the interview with John Banville who came on stage clutching a glass of wine rather than the pint of Guinness you’d have expected from a true born Irishman.  Edna O’Brien was in superb form, one moment teasing her editor who was conducting the interview; tantalising us with stories of parties involving copious amounts of champagne and film stars and the next, revealing the dark experience of her LSD therapy. And the discussion hosted by Dame Joan Bakewell introduced me to two truly remarkable women authors— Joanna Haddad from the Lebanon and Sereen El Feiki from Egypt who have both fought to be heard and to express the unthinkable in societies which place enormous pressures to conform on its women citizens.

I’ll be posting about these events separately since each speaker had so many interesting insights that I couldn’t possibly do justice to them in a general article.

Will I go back to Hay? Absolutely – and if you can’t get to this event, don’t feel too disappointed. The festival has spread its wings enormously since its first year in 1988 when it was a few people gathering in a local bookshop and a local school. Now it has events in places as far afield as Segovia, Mexico; Turkey, Bangladesh and Kenya. There’s sure to be one not too far away from you…..so get booking.

 

Sunday Salon: Hay Festival beckons

sundaysalonPosting this early so I can set off in good time for my first ever visit to the Hay Literary Festival.  A day talking about books in a town which boasts more second hand book stores than anywhere else in the world. It’s in an idyllic spot too – on the banks of the Wye River in the heart of the Golden Valley, one of the most glorious parts of Wales. Luckily the forecast is for sunny skies which will make the drive through the valley even more delightful.

There are so many sessions it’s been really tough making a choice but in the end I plumped for four,

Sex and the Citadel: Joanna Haddad and Sereen El Feiki in conversation with Joan Bakewell. 

These two authors have both published novels which look at how patriarchal attitudes are entwined in all aspects of life in the Middle East.  I chose this one as part of my quest to read more world literature. And also because I am a fan of Joan Bakewell who was a superb interviewer and host of some flagship cultural programs on the BBC for many years.

John Banville : the 2005 Booker Prize winner discusses obsessive young love and the power of grief as portrayed in his novels. We get to see some early clips from the forthcoming film of The Sea (his winning novel).

Edna O’Brien : the Irish-born novelist, playright and poet talks about her autobiography. She’s seen plenty of drama in her life . Her first novel  The Country Girls, is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War 2.  The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, causing O’Brien to leave her native land.

Google Debate: The Future of News: in a digital world of instant information, what and who is the future of news. This is a debate between senior editors from BBC World and the Daily Telegraph, an expert on China and some Google executives.

It will be a packed day but I may just be able to squeeze in some time to buy a few books….

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