It’s time for another round of Six Degrees, a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.
This month we begin with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which follows the experience of an unnamed man who joins an underground fighting club to help him deal with insomnia. Since I find boxing and bare knuckle fighting abhorrent, I’ve not read this book and have no intention of doing so in the future.
But let’s stick with sleep disorders and move onto a novel I have read.
The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens won the Booker Prize in 1970. She pulls back the curtains of a seemingly respectable Jewish family to show the misery of drug addiction. Infant prodigy; brilliant barrister; the apple of his parents’ eyes… Norman Zweck appeared destined for even greater things until at forty-one he becomes a drug addict, confined to his bedroom, at the mercy of his hallucinations and paranoia.
Though its more than seven years since I read this book I still recall some of the first scenes which described the hallucinations Norman experiences when he tries to sleep. The worst are shimmering silvery creatures that he sees crawling towards him from the skirting boards in his bedroom.
Bernice Rubens hailed from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales (thought I’d just slip in that patriotic bit of info). Though highly regarded in the seventies, she’s largely forgotten about now, much like the author of my third title: fellow Booker winning author Stanley Middleton.
Middleton wrote 44 novels before his death in 2009. You’ll have a hard job finding any of them in bookshops today which is a terrific shame.
Holiday, his Booker winner takes place largely in the head of Edwin Fisher, a university teacher in his mid-30s, who has taken a solitary holiday in an east-coast resort town after the collapse of his marriage. Like so many people in the early 1970s, he stays in a boarding house. If you want a glimpse of how the Brits used to holiday before the advent of the package tour to Spain, this would be a great book to read.
Mention of boarding houses takes me to Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch. This novel is a brilliant evocation of Hull in the period when the poet Phillip Larkin was head librarian for the university. Tulloch’s central character, Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) arrives at the library to begin a new job, moving into digs run by Miss Glendenning, occupying a tiny room furnished with narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper. Miss Glendenning believes firmly in “keeping up appearances”, running her establishment with strict rules about mealtimes though she seems blissfully unaware that some of her tenants are not all that fine and upstanding.
Miss Glendenning is typical of the predicament experienced by many middle class women in post war Britain, particularly those whose husbands had died in the conflict.
In book number four of my chain, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, we encounter one such genteel household whose members are driven by necessity to let out rooms in their over-large house. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances didn’t bargain on having to share their home with a working class couple. They find the Barbers rather gaudy and lacking in the finesse that they are accustomed to within their own circle of acquaintances. But Frances finds her life becoming dangerously entwined with that of the Barbers.
The Paying Guests is a novel about actions, taken in the spirit of friendship, that have far reaching consequences.
For my fifth book in the chain I’m moving forward a few years to the time of the Cold War, a period when your friend, neighbour, or partner, could turn out to be a spy. In Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, suspicion falls on the father of a rather ordinary middle class family, living in an ordinary terraced house. All he did was to help a friend, but now he is under arrest. To escape public attention and humiliation his wife Lily spirits the children to a small village on the English coast. But before she leaves, she buries a briefcase, believing that she is protecting her family. What she will learn is that no one is immune from betrayal or the devastating consequences of exposure.
Trains are a recurring theme in Exposure. The novel opens with a man taking a train to a home he’s never been in before, Lily, experiences fear every time she hears the whistle because it brings up a past that she has hidden while for her husband, the sound makes him think of escape.
Let’s stick with novels in which trains play a key role for the last link in my chain. I could easily have chosen Anna Karenina or Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m going with. Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine. (The Human Beast). This contains a brilliant realisation of the world of railways and railwaymen, with a high octane scene involving a runaway train. But it’s also a novel which depicts uncontrollable passion, leading to murderous intentions, – a fitting way I thought to end a chain that began with passion, although one hopes that a bout in the boxing ring doesn’t result in death.
You may have seen this meme doing the rounds recently. It originated as a tag on a book vlog apparently ( I don’t watch these so rely on other people highlighting interesting content).
- The last book I gave up on
Earlier this week I decided to part company with The Librarian by Salley Vickers. It’s the choice for the book club meet up in January. I wasn’t that excited by the selection because I wasn’t very enamoured by her earlier book The Cleaner of Chatres. But I hoped the fact that this plot involves books might prove more interesting. For anyone who doesn’t know this book, it concerns a woman who begins a new job as a children’s librarian and embarks on a mission to get more children enthused about reading. Right from the first few pages I knew I was going to have a problem with this novel. The writing style just jarred on me. In part it read like a synopsis of a story, with lots of telling, and very little showing. It also was very laboured and overly detailed. I lasted to about 60 pages and then decided it was a waste of time to go further when I had many other, greatly superior books awaiting me.
2. The last book I re-read
I’ve done very little re-reading in the past year. The last book I re-read was Peter Pan by J M Barrie – and that was only because it was a set book on a children’s literature course I was pursuing.
3. The last book I bought
The end of 2018 was signalled by a flurry of book purchases. Some were gifts for various family members but I also took the opportunity to acquire a few new items for myself. They included Winter by Ali Smith which is second novel in her Seasonal Quartet collection. I had planned to hold off reading this collection until all four had been published, but this was on offer at the bookshop and seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
4. The last book I said I read but actually didn’t
I’ve never said I’ve read a book when I haven’t. I usually have the reverse problem – always involving a crime novel – where I discover just after starting a new book that I had already read it even if I can’t recall the details of the plot.
5. The last book I wrote in the margins of
I do this only for books I’m studying for a course or where I am trying to get more knowledgeable about a particular topic in order to share the knowledge with other people. interest, as well as ordinary bookmarks.
6. The last book I had signed
This would be Katherine of Arragon by Alison Weir, the first in her Tudor Queens series. I took my copy along when she was in Penarth to talk about the second in the series —about Anne Boleyn. She kindly signed both books for me.
7. The last book I lost
My copy of Voss by Patrick White has disappeared without trace. If anyone finds it please let me know. It’s a rather sad looking paperback edition which I purchased via e-bay.
8. The last book I had to replace
I’ve been trying to think of circumstances in which this would happen and I’ve drawn a blank. I don’t tend to borrow books from other people , I always return books borrowed from the library and I’m not in the habit of losing my own books over a cliff edge or in the bath. If the case arose that the book club chose a book I no longer owned, I’d either get a library copy or go to the meeting relying on my memory.
9. The last book I argued over
I’ve had a few ‘spats’ over the years and a few ‘differences of opinion’ but arguments – never as far as I can recall. The last ‘difference of opinion’ was two days ago when my mum, who was spending Christmas with us, was engrossed in Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat. We often chat about the books we’re reading even if we have very different tastes. My mum thought The Greatcoat was superb, whereas I was underwhelmed by it and found the plot implausible beyond belief. We are still on speaking terms though….
10. The last book you couldn’t find
I know without any doubt that I have How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman on my shelves. I started reading it at the beginning of the year so I know it’s in the house somewhere. I can even remember that it’s a bright red cover with just the book title in block letters but no other artwork. Can I remember where I put it though? I can blame no-one other than myself. I have a semi alphabetical system but when I run out of space, books get shoved in anywhere……..
I owe Helen Dunmore an apology. She’s been a writer I’ve been aware of for years but though I knew she had a strong following, it wasn’t until last year that I got around to reading her myself. My mistake was to make The Greatcoat my first experience. In my review I described this as a novel in which Dunmore did a superb job of creating the atmosphere of post World War 2 Britain but I found the plot implausible. What I didn’t realise was this was not her usual genre. How fortunate then that the publication this year of her new novel has given me a chance to see where I went wrong.
Exposure is set a few years after The Greatcoat but the view of England it conveys is of a country still suffering from the deprivations of the war years. We’re in 1960. Rationing has been lifted. London is no longer blighted by yellow smog thanks to the Clean Air Act. But the country is still in a make do and mend mentality and just as suspicious of ‘foreigners’. For the inhabitants of this small island, suspicions about ‘foreigners’ morph into anxieties that there may be spies lurking in their midst. This is the time of the Cold War and tension between the West and the Eastern Bloc.
Dunmore brings domestic and political concerns together through a plot in which the life of a seemingly ordinary middle class family living in a very ordinary terraced house in London is thrown into turmoil when the father is arrested. Simon Callington is an insignificant figure. Every day he dutifully heads off to his civil service job at The Admiralty, returning home to listen to a play on the radio or spend time with his railway-mad son. He becomes an innocent bystander in a plot to cover up a spy ring when all he did was to help out an old friend (who turns out to be the real spy).Yet he is the one in jail awaiting trial. Meanwhile his wife Lily gives up her teaching job and escapes public attention and humiliation by spiriting the children far away to a small village on the English coast.
For both Lily and Simon, the crisis is a time when both fear the secrets of their past lives may be uncovered. Lily was once Lili Brandt, a Jew taken to London as a small child to escape the fate dealt to so many of her family in Germany. In London she worked carefully to eradicate all traces of her accent and build a new life. But the investigation into Simon’s actions threaten to expose her origins to people who equate all Germans with Nazis.
This character and the atmosphere Dunmore creates through small details of domestic life made this a very satisfying book to read. If this is an example of what she can do, I’ll be making an appointment with her back catalogue soon I suspect.
Thanks to the publishers Random House for providing a copy via NetGalley.
Helen Dunmore is an author whose books I’ve seen around for a long time but never got around to reading until recently when I found a bargain copy of The Greatcoat in a library sale. I wasn’t blown away by it though I have the feeling that this is far from her best work and I would have done better to pick up The Siege or The Betrayal instead.
The Greatcoat features a newly married doctor’s wife trying to get used to her new life in an unfamiliar Yorkshire town and a dark, cold flat where the smell of Brussels sprouts is ever present. It’s 1952 and although the war finished seven years earlier, food and other essentials are still being rationed. Isabelle is lonely, cold and unable to sleep because of her landlady’s relentless pacing in he room above her bedroom. Finding a dusty RAF greatcoat, crammed into the back of a tall cupboard, she spreads it over her bed for warmth.
In the middle of her dreams, she hears a knocking on the window to find a young, handsome Air Force staring in at her from outside the window. Alec becomes an invaluable part of her life. Through him she is transported back to her childhood when she listened to the engines of Lancaster bombers overhead. Their motorbike rides through the Yorkshire countryside give her the sense of freedom she lost with her marriage. But all the time there is a cloud of fear over their relationship as Alec’s next bombing raid draws near.
We’re not far into the story before it’s apparent that Alec is a ghost, one of the many RAF pilots that never made it back to the nearby airfield. He’s not your usual kind of spectre however— he’s not intent on killing her or seeking revenge but he can’t seem to leave Isabelle alone. Actually it’s not even Isabelle he wants, she just reminds him of the girl he loved when he was alive.
Dunmore does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of this novel, manifested in the bleak abandoned airfield and the figure that appears nightly at the window. But overall the implausibility of the story overwhelmed me. Isabelle, for all that she is clearly an intelligent woman, seems oblivious to the fact Alec is not real. She never wonders how he seems to know so much about her, and never questions why he talks about bombing raids over Germany as if the war was still raging but instead completely buys into his accounts of his last raid. The more this nonsense continued, the more I wanted to shout at her “He’s a ghost you stupid woman.”
When Random House published The Greatcoat, they described it as Helen Dunmore’s first ghost story but it’s a pretty gentle one. There’s no evil or malevolence in evidence. Just despair. I would describe it more as a story about the enduring power of love but even then it didn’t thrill me.
I’ve been desperately trying to finish Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in time for the book club discussion tonight. But despite a valiant effort during a three hour stint in the hairdresser’s on Saturday, I didn’t make the end. This is a novel whose name I’ve known for years and years but never had a clue what it was about. If you’d pressed me I would have said it was science fiction. How wrong can one get. It’s a powerful satirical novel about the impact of war on an innocent individual caught up in its snare. I’ve also started Life of Pi by Yann Martel as part of my Booker Prize challenge. This is one I’ve not been looking forward to because it features animals and I seem to have an aversion to those kinds of books (with the exception of course of Black Beauty). So far Martel is keeping my interest – maybe because I haven’t got to the bits with the animals in it yet.
I’ve just started The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore. She’s someone I’ve had my eye on for a while but never got around to reading. This is set in post world war 2 Britain where a young doctor’s wife feels increasingly isolated and lonely as she tries to adjust to the realities of married life in Yorkshire. One night she finds a discarded RAF great coat; sleeping under it to keep warm she begins to dream and to remember her childhood. The book is billed as her first ghost story. No sign of any ghosts yet, just a lot of good period detail about food rationing.
I am no superwoman it is clear. Despite good intentions when I signed up for a Coursera module on Australian literature I have fallen way way behind. I even bought a few books to read along the way (Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, The Short History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey and Voss by Patrick White) but they all lie unopened. The early video lectures on differing perceptions that writers have had of the continent were interesting but then we went into some disconnected lectures on native literature. Interesting individually but I couldn’t see what point was being made other than that we should not forget that literature is not the prevue of the white settler. If I hadn’t been also taking a course on family history at the same time I would have made better progress. Memo to oneself: do one thing at a time.