My monthly snapshot of what I’m reading, watching etc on the first Sunday of each month.
I’m reading two books at the moment that could not be further apart in setting, theme or style.
On my e-reader is The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee which is due to be published by Random House in the UK on May 22. It’s set in 1960s Calcutta and is the story of a large Bengali family that is falling apart under the strain of poisonous sibling rivalries, adolescent drug addition and instability in the family business. The fractures in the family mirror the cracks that are appearing in the society around them with the rise of political activism in rural areas. Mukherjee has created some wonderful characters, especially the matriarch of the family and her only daughter, a girl whose venomous nature has ripened over the years of rejection by successive marriage suitors turned off by her swarthy complexion and turned eye.
By my bedside is Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. This is only the second work by Taylor that I’ve read. My first experience of her novels was A Wreath of Roses which I didn’t care for very much asI explained in this post. But so many other bloggers whose opinion I trust rate her highly so I thought she was worth a second chance and I am so glad I picked this up when I spotted it in the library. The collection of characters she assembles at the Claremont Hotel are beautifully crafted and Taylor does a wonderfully job of delicately balancing the humour of their various foibles with the note of sadness at the recognition that these residents are people who are approaching the twilight of their years. Forced by circumstances to live in a second class hotel instead of with family members, and with their resources dwindling, they are still determined to keep up appearances. The novel started lightly but it didn’t take long for more deeper ideas to come through, in particular the theme of loneliness in old age to develop. If this is a truer example of Taylor’s writing prowess than A Wreath of Roses, then I’ll be looking forward to reading more by her.
The BookerTalk household has been working its way through the entire series of Foyles War, staring Michael Kitchen who is an actor so accomplished I don’t understand why we don’t see more of him. In this series he is a Detective Chief Superintendent based in Hastings, a seaside resort on the south coast of England, during World War 2. He gives a masterfully understated performance as the policeman with high moral standards and a very shrewd understanding of human nature but with many a twinkle in his eye. No doubt there are people who have spotted anachronistic items of clothing, household goods or army equipment) but the period setting seems pretty convincing to me. We’re almost at the end – just two more episodes left unfortunately.
I’m a little behind with my favourite radio program — the daily episode of The Archers. For those of you who live in the UK you’ll know this radio program is a national institution with around 5 million listeners some of who are extremely devoted and get very passionate about some of the story lines. It’s set in the fictional English village of Ambridge, featuring the daily trials and tribulations of the local families, many of whom have been farming the land for generations. Which means we get plenty of info about seasonal activities like lambing mixed in with the drama of family life and village events such as the annual pantomime and the quiz in the village pub. The story lines do dip now and again which is to be expected for a series that’s been running since 1950 but I still miss it when I’m away. Actually, many years ago on holiday in France, we managed to pick it on the car radio and so sat in a field somewhere in Normandy, eating our Camembert and munching on a baguette, listening to a people talking about sheep shearing or potato planting and the price of milk. Quite bizarre.
The Future Learn on line course about Shakespeare’s World is now coming to an end. It’s sustained a high level of quality throughout and introduced me to new interpretations of his plays which I’d love to explore further when I have some time. It’s likely to be on offer again so keep an eye out for it.
Bedazzled; bemused; baffled: reading Salman Rushdie’s 1991 Man Booker Prize wining novel Midnight’s Children is a roller coaster experience. It’s a novel on a grand scale both physically (weighing in at more than 600 pages) and thematically; covering more than 60 years in the turbulent history of India and Pakistan. It demands a great deal from the reader with its abrupt and extreme changes in narrative flow, its multiple digressions and contradictions, its 100 or so characters and a style that blends comedy with history; Christian with Islamic and Hindu references and almost an encylopaedia’s worth of facts.
In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them. Under Saleem’s instigation the children unite in a Midnight Conference during which they telepathically discuss options for their country’s future governance. Saleem believes his destiny is inextricably linked with that of India or, as he puts it:
I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.
Every twist and turn in India’s history he therefore reads in terms of his the vagaries of his own life and the fortunes and misfortunes of his family. A bomb raid by Pakistan on Bombay he sees as a deliberate attempt to wipe out his entire family while Indira Gandhi’s repression and round up of undesirables, he re-interpretes as a systematic campaign to eradicate all the Midnight’s Children who are viewed as de-stablising forces in society.
But there is a huge gulf between the expectations he believes are placed on his shoulders as the first child of a new nation, and the reality of his life. He is acutely aware of this gulf even at a young age.
Already at the age of nearly nine, I knew this much: everybody was waiting for me … had created around me a glowing and inescapable mist of expectancy…… I became afraid that everyone was wrong – that my much-trumpeted existence might turn out to be acutely useless, void and without the shred of a purpose.
As unreliable as Saleem proves to be as a historian, we still warm to this man labouring with the burden of history on his shoulders as well as multiple nicknames that draw attention to his enormous nose (Snotnose and Sniffer are just two of his sobriquets). Impossible too not to be bemused at the bizarre nature of some sections (an arch enemy who kills people by squeezing them with his knees; a married couple who live secretly in a cellar of a house, entering and exiting through a trapdoor). And equally impossible not to admire Rushdie’s creative imagination or the vividness of his writing.
Despite all of those factors, I still did not enjoy reading Midnight’s Children. The moments of pleasure were sadly too few to outweigh the times when I felt I was ploughing my way through the reading equivalent of treacle. Too much detail (particularly towards the end when Saleem is fighting a war in Pakistan), too many different allusions to keep track of and too many twists and turns. So I admire the ingenuity and appreciate how Rushdie pushed the boundaries of literature but ultimately I was bored.
Why I read this: One of the titles in my Booker Prize project