Hello to May. Before I get into the snapshot of my reading life on the first of this month I wanted to share with you some wonderful news. You’ll have seen from a post t the start of this year that I’ve been dealing with a serious health issue. It’s almost a year now since I was diagnosed with cancer and started the treadmill of treatment. First chemotherapy, then radiotherapy, followed by liver surgery in January and then just five weeks ago further surgery. Going for the post-op check up today I expected the consultant to tell me that I’d need to do yet more chemotherapy but to my surprise – delight I should say – he not only told me that it wasn’t necessary but the recent tests have shown a full recovery and no sign anywhere of malignant cells. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said. Since this month also sees a landmark birthday for me, I am in celebration mode. I might even be able to risk a small glass of wine (my first drop of alcohol since January 26).
On May 1 itself I was nearing the end of The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths, a book I bought late in 2016 as part of my intention to read more work by authors from Wales. It’s her debut novel and has attracted a lot of praise with good reviews in a number of the more popular UK newspapers. My edition includes a lot of quote from bloggers too – from CrimeFictionLover who called it a “cracking debut from an author who shows great promise” and Bibliophoenix who thought it “disturbing, mysterious and quite unpredictable.” I wouldn’t call it ‘cracking’ but I was certainly impressed by Griffiths’ ability to manage multiple narrative threads and bring them to an unexpected ending.
Most of the books I read in April I really enjoyed with the star being The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Unfortunately I also encountered a book which I could not finish – Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It was one of the first books I bought when I decided about four years ago it was time to expand my reading to countries outside of UK/USA. It started off well with the introduction to the two main characters – one is a concierge of an apartment building who secretly conceals her intellectual interests in books, films, philosophy and the other is the daughter of a wealthy family in the building who decides to kill herself because of all the hypocrises she sees in the world. The novelty of Barbery’s alternating narrators soon wore off – by the time I got to page 100 I was finding it tedious. So off its gone to the charity shop.
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. It’s not a book ban as such – I know that if I really, really wanted a particular book I would just go and buy it or borrow from the library. So far I’ve been restrained – I haven’t bought anything and have just two books on loan from the library (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and one about the Wars of the Roses.). Having done a little bit of a clear out of books I realised I would never read my level of ‘owned but unread’ books is now down to 280.
I’ve been rather restrained with my wishlist on Goodreads. In March I added Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout which is a collection of linked stories about one community and also Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera which has been described as one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. I haven’t done brilliantly with Spanish authors until now so I hope that description proves to be true. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the Shadow Panel for the International Man Booker Prize (you can see all their reviews of the shortlisted novels here). The one calling to me most is The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen which is about a family living on a small Norwegian island.
On the reading horizon…
After my recent post about reading books that are out of your comfort zone, I’m ready to take the plunge into my own dark zone of sci-fi. Armed with a list of recommendations from bloggers in response to my question ‘where do I begin’ I went off to the library only to find that most of these titles were not available. Some of them are buried in the basement of the county library (a place where it seems the library staff are not keen to visit) so I shall have to wait for Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series and also for anything by William Gibson to come back from the deep. In the meantime I shall give Station Eleven a go.
There are a few other titles jostling for attention however which might squeak in before Station Eleven. Do I go for A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki? Or Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question? Or All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. As always, when the moment comes to take a book from the shelf, it will invariably be none of these – something else will have taken my fancy.
There was no way I could read all 13 of the long listed titles for this year’s Man Booker Prize in the short time available until the shortlisting is announced on September 13. But I did want to get a flavour of the contenders so read a few of them and then a sample of the rest.
Here are my reactions….
Paul Beatty – The Sellout: described as a satire of post-racial America. I couldn’t get hold of a copy of this or a sample. But having read the review by Mookes and Gripes I’m glad because I doubt I would have appreciated it and probably not been able to finish it.
J.M. Coetzee – The Schooldays of Jesus: Coetzee is a two-times Booker winner so it’s no surprise to find he is being strongly tipped for the shortlist. This novel is a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. It’s set in a nameless country where everyone speaks Spanish and where refugees arrive on boats, are given new names and identities, and are “washed clean” of all their old memories and associations. The plot is rather thin – this is more a novel about ideas than a story. I’ve only just started reading it so it’s hard to give a verdict other than I find the narrative style irritating at times particularly so in the middle of dialogue where we get this clumsy construction of ‘He, Simon …’ repeatedly.
A.L. Kennedy – Serious Sweet : a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours. I read the first two chapters as a sample of this novel. By the end of the first chapter I decided I wasn’t interested enough to read on – it focuses on Jon Sigurdsson, a civil servant who seems to be going through an emotionally disturbed period. He’s in his garden early morning and is trying to free a bird trapped in some netting. The metaphor for his own situation is clumsy and over-blown. The second chapter where we meet Meg Williams, a bankrupt accountant is far more interesting. Will I read it? Probably not.
Deborah Levy – Hot Milk: another novel I sampled. It’s described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters but the first chapter seemed rather banal to me. The narrator Sofia is in a rented beach house in Spain where she is accompanying her mother who is seeking a cure for a mysterious illness that confines her to a wheelchair. Sofia is clearly dominated by her mother so escapes to the beach where she encounters Juan, the beach guard and has a boring conversation with him about jelly fish. Will I read any more of this one – absolutely not. Will it make the shortlist? It doesn’t deserve to but stranger things have happened with the Booker.
Graeme Macrae Burnet – His Bloody Project: Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869. This is an odd choice for the judges, maybe not quite as highbrow literary as many of the choices in the past. The chapters I’ve dipped into have been fast paced and chock full of atmosphere. I have an electronic copy that I snaffled up as a bargain the day after the long-listing so yes, this is one I plan to read. Sometime. I don’t see it making the final list however.
Ian McGuire – The North Water: a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic. This was the second of the Booker list I read and what a scorcher it proved to be. A page turner but one that has more literary merit than most page turning novels. It might make the shortlist – a short while ago it was a favourite with the bookies. But if it makes it to the ultimate prize then I promise to go and read Moby Dick as a penance.
David Means – Hystopia: the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and there is a government initiative to wipe the trauma from the memories of returning soldiers.I read a sample of this and was thoroughly confused. It has multiple editor notes as the preface which supposedly explains the story but I ended up more confused and felt it was just trying to be too darn clever for its own good. Many blogger reviews I’ve seen since then all indicate that the confusion doesn’t go away the further you read. I don’t mind being challenged by a book – its the easy novels that frustrate me – but when someone is just trying to show off their ability and they forget they have a reader, I get annoyed. So no I will not be reading this one. I suspect it will make the shortlist though just because the Booker judges do like novels that try to be be inventive.
Wyl Menmuir –The Many: this a short novel that punches above the weight of its page count. It tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish village whose future is threatened by pollution of their fishing grounds. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. It took me a while to get hold of a copy because the novel is published by Salt who had only printed 1,000 copies and were overwhelmed by demand when The Many got long listed. But oh boy was this worth the wait. It’s atmospheric in a chilling sense because we don’t get to know why the fishing waters are polluted and there is some mystery about the previous occupant of the house. Will it make the shortlist – it deserves a place I think.
Ottessa Moshfegh– Eileen: set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter. The sample I read did intrigue me – it is a first person narration by Eileen who is living a pretty miserable life with her alcoholic father in a squalid home. Her only escapes are the trips she takes in her battered down car to the liquor store and her work at at a correctional facility for boys. I’ve seen mixed reactions to this novel but it might be one that I’m interested to read more about. Whether it makes the shortlist I have no idea, not having read enough of it to judge.
Virginia Reeves – Work Like Any Other: Set in rural Alabama in the 1920s, it tells the story of a pioneering electricity engineer sent to prison for manslaughter after a young man stumbles on one of his illegal power lines. I don’t know what it is about the synopsis for this book but it didn’t encourage me to even get a sample…….
Elizabeth Strout – My Name Is Lucy Barton: a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here. Will it make it to the next round? Maybe.
David Szalay – All That Man Is: This is an odd novel. Actually I’m not even sure that I can call it a novel though that’s the description used by the publishers. It felt to me a collection of stories about nine different men, all at various stages of their lives. There is only one really clear connection between them – and that’s between the young man in story number one and the old man in the final story who turns out to be his grandfather. Some of these pieces have appeared either in full or partially in either Granta or the Paris Review which makes me think that rather than conceived holistically from the start, the author is trying to make connections between each character in retrospect. Not one I expect to see on the shortlist even if Szalay has been named previously as a Granta Best Young British Novelist.
Madeleine Thien – Do Not Say We Have Nothing: relates the story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution. Another case where I had to rely upon a sample since it’s not available through the library system or NetGalley and I refuse to shed out a lot of money on hard cover fiction even though I am a sucker for novels that pull back the curtain on Chinese culture. The first chapter introduces us to the narrator Li-ling lives with her mother in Vancouver. Her father disappeared some years earlier, and subsequently committed suicide. His wife keeps all his papers in boxes under the kitchen table which she pores over to try and make sense of what happened to him. The arrival into the Vancouver apartment of a teenage relative forced to flee China following the suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprising, enables Li-ling to assemble the story of her father and his profound but troubled relationship with his wife’s family. What I’ve read was enough to whet my appetite to this is going onto the wishlist for when I can find a reasonably priced copy. Will it get shortlisted – maybe….
Other bloggers have been far more diligent than I have in reading the longlist so do go and check out their reviews.
When a blogger I respect says a book is “perfect” my antennae begin to twitch. When I then see similar positive reviews by a string of other bloggers, it goes into overdrive. Elizabeth Strout is an author I’ve ignored until now somehow having got it into my head that her work wasn’t ‘deep’ enough for my taste. But Alex at Thinking in Fragments doesn’t do ‘light’ so when she said Strout’s newest novel My Name is Lucy Barton was the best book she’d read all year, it was clear the time had come to cast away my misconceptions.
Appropriately I started reading this exploration of a mother/daughter relationship on the day when the UK celebrates motherhood in the form of Mothering Sunday. Motherhood is a subject that can so easily descend into predictability or saccharin laden prose. Strout avoids these pitfalls to give us a thoughtful and moving examination of a relationship in which the two parties love each other deeply yet cannot bring themselves to say so.
It’s a story told by Lucy Barton as a recollection of the time when she was in hospital for complications after her appendectomy. Separated from her husband and two young daughters she misses them desperately. Unexpectedly, her mother, whom she has not seen for years, turns up at her bedside and hardly leaves it for five days. In between Lucy’s bouts of feverish sleep and regular stream of visits from medical practioners, the two women talk. Mostly they gossip about friends and relatives from her childhood in a rural town in Illinois; a litany of stories about failed marriages and emotional breakdowns.
Her mother’s presence re-ignites painful memories of the desperate poverty of Lucy’s childhood; living with her parents, sister and brother in an unheated garage down a long direct track with nothing in sight except for cornfields. “We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town …” explains Lucy, going on matter-of- factly to relate how other children shunned her and her siblings because they were dirty and smelly. That sense of loneliness has remained with her throughout her life.
“Loneliness was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It is this loneliness, and lack of love and affection from her parents, that prompted her to become a writer: “Books made me feel less alone… I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” Despite all this, the adult Lucy doesn’t exhibit any signs of bitterness. Instead, in her mother’s presence at her bedside and the way her mother calls her by her old pet name she finds consolation: “It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted; what she said didn’t matter.”
It’s what these two women don’t say that shows us the emotional truth of their relationship. They skirt carefully around episodes when her father became very anxious and ‘not in control of himself”; or the times when Lucy was locked in her father’s truck (once terrified to find she was sharing the space with a snake). There’s no discussion about her brother who has remained living with his parents, reading children’s books and sleeping next to pigs in the barn. More significantly over the course of all those hours together, her mother never once asks her about her life now in New York, her children and husband or her success as an author.
There are many moments in this novel where Lucy’s attempts to make peace with her mother’s lack of interest mask the reality of the ache she feels deep down. At one point , Lucy explains: “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.” And yet she tries to get her mother to utter those very words, turning it into a game that it’s clear they have played many times before:
I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands. ‘Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?’
‘Lucy, you stop it now.” I heard the mirth in her voice.
‘Come on, Mom. My eyes are closed.’
‘When your eyes are closed,’ she said.
‘You love me when my eyes are closed?’
‘When your eyes are closed,’ she said. And we stopped the game, but I was so happy..
It’s a small scene but one of many where in just a few words Strout shows how complicated and complex the relationship can be between a mother and her offspring. Light? It’s anything but. Worth reading? Unequivocally so. An award winner? Highly likely if the judges have any sense.
My performance with challenges has proved less than stellar over the years but I’m doing much better with the TBR Triple Dog Dare sponsored by James at James Reads Books. The Dare asks participants to read only books that they already have during January, February and March. With only a couple of more weeks to go I’m feeling rather elated about how well I stuck to this plan. The magic key to why this one works and all other TBR challenges I’ve tried have not, is that I can still buy as many books as I want. I just can’t read them yet.
Of the 12 books I’ve read so far this year only two were not already on my TBR. That isn’t bad going for one who usually has the staying power of a mayfly. And there were good reasons for both misdemeanours.
The first slip from the straight and narrow path came in the form of A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale which was the book club read at the start of the year. I wish I could say that my stray from the path was worth it but this was a lacklustre read. You can see why in my review.
Happily my most recent lapse was all in a good cause. I requested My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout from the library last year. Finally it came through last week and I’m the first borrower. Ideally I would have liked to hold onto it until the end of the dare on March 31 but there are now so many people waiting for it that the library service is blocking any renewal options. So I had to read it. But it was absolutely no hardship. The book is a joy to read and of you havent got to it yet, dont hang around too long.
But it’s read and returned and I am back on track with the dare, reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin as part of Reading Ireland Month. Another beautifully constructed novel which, after a similarly rewarding experience with Nora Webster, is making me want to read more of Toibin’s work. Anyone care to make a recommendation on which of his books to read next?
Emboldened by my success to date I might stretch it for another month.
Usually at this time of the year I’m frantically adding upcoming newly-published titles to my reading wishlist. Maybe I’m in a peculiar mood but this year I’m struggling to find much to excite me among the forthcoming books. It isn’t as if there is a dirth of new stuff coming out but nothing so far that has really lit the fire.
One bright spot on the horizon is news that Maggie O’Farrell will publish her seventh novel in May. Just wish I didn’t have to wait so long. According to the blurb “This Must Be The Place crosses continents and time zones, giving voice to a diverse and complex cast of characters. At its heart, it is an extraordinary portrait of a marriage, the forces that hold it together and the pressures that drive it apart.” With O’Farrell I am certain this will be enjoyable but I’m rather perplexed by the marketing puff on the front cover. How can this be described by the publisher as a “Sunday Times best seller ” if it hasn’t been published yet?? I just checked this weekend’s copy of the newspaper and there’s no mention of it and certainly no appearance in their best seller listing… Supreme confidence in their author or blatant hype??
So far I just have five other 2016 titles on my wishlist.
Olduvaireads pointed me to French Concession: A Novel by the renowned Chinese author Xiao Bai.This is the first of his works to be available in English and is a story of espionage set in 1930s Shanghai.
From The Millions List of Most anticipated books I have taken a shine to
The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun which is about the dissolution of a marriage between a renowned painter and his wife. That synopsis on its own wouldn’t be enough to get my attention but the setting and historical context make it more appealing – its set against the backdrop of Casablanca in the midst of an awakening women’s rights movement.
Am I the only person in the world who hasn’t read Elizabeth Strout’s Burgess Boys or her Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge? Ok so maybe there are a few people who missed out on both of these and I was going to complete the hat trick by giving her latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton a miss. But then I read this description from a blogger whose opinion I value. “… a book that is so close to perfection,” is how Thinking in Fragments described My Name is Lucy Barton. Now it would be utterly foolish of me to ignore perfection wouldn’t it?? Onto the list it’s gone.
I’m not absolutely sure about this next choice. It’s The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel. Like his Booker Prize winning Life of Pi this is described as an allegory, told in the form of three intersecting stories and three different points of time – 1904, 1939 and 1989. Has Mantel produced something as magically bizarre as Life of Pi? One disappointment before I even open the first page “there are no tigers in this fabulous new book” announced the publishers Canongate. I call that mean….
And finally, a debut novel Shelter by Jung Yun, a young author originally from South Korea. I’ve been looking for an author from that part of the world and when I saw that Yun names J.M Coetzee as one of her influences, my interest level shot up. Shelter is about a husband, father and college professor who gets into such deep financial trouble he can no longer afford his home. His parents, whom he hates because they never showed him warmth, move in with him. Tension mounts, anger comes to the surface, deep seated resentment boils over..
So that’s it. Fairly lean pickings unfortunately.
What am I missing? Do tell me if you’ve spotted a gem.