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Six degrees from San Francisco

Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book.

tales of the cityThis month our master Kate wants us to begin with Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, the first of his books in a saga based in San Francisco. This isn’t a book I’ve read though I did start to read the first in the series once. I know its hugely popular but it wasn’t to my taste.

Beauty and Chaos

So I’m switching to a different city for my first book.Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life is a collection of articles in which journalist and university professor Michael Pronko reflects on the character of this city.  He considers the idiosyncracies of its inhabitants and their predilection for maps, drink vending machines, noodles and posh shopping bags. It’s a fascinating exploration of facets of a city that tourists would be unlikely to see or understand.

Norwegianwood

From there it’s an easy leap to a different representation of Toyko, this time seen through the eyes of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami.  Norwegian Wood takes us into the world of the city’s nightclubs, bars and even a porn cinema, a world that provides a wonderful contrast to the books other setting of a sanitorium in Kyoto surrounded by snow-clad hills. It was my first – and to date only – experience of Murakami’s work and as far as I can tell isn’t typical but I was so glad a colleague recommended it to me.

Greenwood tree

But enough of the Japanese landscape, let’s move to somewhere closer to home which also boasts some fine specimens of trees though I’m not entirely sure what kind of tree Thomas Hardy had in mind with his novel Under the Greenwood Tree. An English oak I suspect. This novel is a celebration of the pastoral life in the Victorian era but although Hardy shows this in terms of continuity and harmony there are points at which the plot involves a confrontation between the old and new orders. The Mellstock choir, for example, which provides one of the two plot lines, are threatened by the vicar’s attempt to replace them with a new mechanical church organ.

middlemarch

The clash of new and old also figures in the novel that is probably the finest example of mid nineteenth century realist fiction: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is novel that teems with ideas, about relationships, ambition, social mobility, integrity to name just a few. But Eliot also showed a new spirit of the age with political reformers going head to head against the established gentry, how ambitious young doctors with their antipathy to blood-letting were seen as upstarts and how the new railway age was feared by rural workers. You won’t find a finer novel…..

HarvestI wonder what Hardy and Eliot would have made of my next book? Harvest by Jim Crace is also about disruption to the rhythm of the countryside. Crace isn’t sentimental about rural life but he show that the pursuit of  “Profit, Progress, Enterprise” is dangerous. The threat in his novel comes in the form of enclosure of common land where, for generations, villagers have tended to their flocks. But their lord and master decides they’ll be more profitable if he turns them over to crops – throwing the villagers out and leaving them without a source of income. This is a novel which verges on poetry at times when it speaks about the connection of man and his environment. I don’t understand why the Booker judges overlooked this for the prize in 2013.

madeleine thein

They also (equally unbelievably) overlooked my final book in this chain. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes us to China in the build up to the protest and subsequent massacre at Tianenman Square, Bejing in 1989. This is the background against which she sets her tale of three highly talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the Communist-led government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order. This is a novel that is breathtaking in its scope. If you enjoyed Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, then I highly recommend Thien’s novel.

And with that we’ve returned to a city landscape though one that couldn’t be more different than San Francisco. We’ve also had a little sojourn in English woods and fields. Where would your chain have taken you?

 

10 under rated books

10gemsThis week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.

Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.

Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.

From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.

By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.

And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.

If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.

Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.

I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character.  Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.

The Spinning Heart  by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.

And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker  in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make  a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.

 

That’s my list – now it’s your turn  

What books have you read that you’d consider to be under-rated or hidden gems?

Review: Harvest by Jim Crace

…. rain or shine, the earth abides, the land endures, the soil will persevere for ever and a day.

That quote from Jim Crace’s latest book Harvest might lull you into thinking this novel is a homage to the timeless quality oHarvestf the countryside.  It isn’t any more than it is a sentimentalised evocation of England’s green and pleasant land or even a tribute to the symbiotic relationship between the land and the generations of dwellers for whom the land has provided a means of existence.

Instead it’s a deeply thoughtful story that examines the human consequences of a rupture in a  traditional way of life resulting from a pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.

The setting is a small rural English community known simply as The Village where life follows the ceaseless cycle of sowing,planting and harvesting  required to eke out even the barest of subsistence living.  The Village exists in a bubble where the regular routine is seldom troubled by anything beyond the ancient oaks and dry stone walls that mark the reaches of the settlement.

Even if the inhabitants are not fully aware of it, this is a way of life that is threatened. As the novel opens, smoke wisps are still rising from the ruins of a stable at the local manor house,  – the result, the villagers believe, of an arson attack. Barely have they recovered from that shock when there is a further signal of a disturbing nature.  New comers have arrived, taking advantage of a law that gives them the right to settle within the village’s boundaries as long as they can put up a rudimentary shelter and send up smoke before they are caught. The events become conflated in the minds of the villagers fearful that the year’s disastrous harvest will have to stretch even further.

What the villagers do not know is that there is an more profound change on the horizon. The manor lord Master Kent has always taken a paternalistic attitude towards his tenant but now his claim to the estate has been revoked.  The new lord intends to enclose all the fields, turning them from crop growing to the more profitable venture of sheep grazing. The villagers who have tended these fields for generations will be forced out when the land they farm in common is enclosed for sheep. When he arrives to take stock of his new estate complete with his entourage of strong- arm men, aggression, violence and death soon ensue.

Our guide to these events is one Walter Thirsk, an old boyhood friend and former servant of Master Kent. Although he’s lived in the village for a dozen years or so after marrying one of the villagers, they still view him as an outsider. Walter has a deep and abiding affection for the fields and oaks around him, viewing them as a form of Eden.  But he has no illusions about the way nature can be inflexible and stern, presenting hardships for those who make their living from the land. He is a realist who knows that the world around him is changing and that it will be to the detriment of his community. For all the new master’s talk of a new order “to all our advantages” and the prospect of a life without hard work and where uncertain grain harvests will be swapped for the predictability of sheep farming,  The effects of enclosure for him will be  “to throw a halter around our neck.”

Walter sees the economic and human consequences of enclosure. But he also sees it as a rupture of man’s connection to his past.

We’re used to looking out and seeing what’s preceded us, and what will also outlive us. … Those woods that linked us to eternity will be removed… That grizzled oak which we believe is so old it must have come from Eden to our fields will be felled and routed out. That drystone wall put up before our grandpa’s time …. will be brought down entirely ….until there is no trace of it. We’ll look across these fields and say, ‘This land is so much younger than ourselves.”

Crace relates this story in language that at times borders on poetry. There is a close attention to detail – we get many names of hedgerow plants for example which might enable some experts to actually pinpoint the location or even the era. And some wonderfully evocative phrases such as the Turd and Turf,  an area which does double duty as both latrine and burial ground.  Crace has a real feel for the landscape – its shape, its sounds and its smells  – but even more powerfully rendered his is appreciation for man’s relation to the land.

My Verdict

A superb novel, one of the best I’ve read all year. Immediately on finishing it, I wanted to start it all over again. If there is any justice it will be named as the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

September reading wrap up

sundaysalonSeptember 2013 will go down in history in the BookerTalk household.  It’s  the first time since I started reading the Booker Prize listed titles, that I read only Booker nominees.  Nothing from my Classics Club list, nothing from my World of Literature challenge list, nothing from my TBR mountain (will it ever get any smaller???).

It wasn’t planned that way. I’m not one of those people brave enough to embark on reading all the longlisted titles  as soon as they are announced. Nor even brave enough to attempt to read all shortlisted titles before the final.  I could do it if there wasn’t the  inconvenient matter of having to go to work each day which does rather cut into ones reading time. There is also the rather practical issue that these are titles are all in hardback so it gets expensive to buy the lot.

So I threw myself on the mercy of the local library and requested whatever they had thought to acquire – and as I said in an earlier Sunday Salon post, they all came into stock more or less the same time so had to be ready pretty quickly.

Which is how I spent September reading four Booker nominees and starting a fifth.  In no particular order, I read

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore was a  thoroughly enjoyable novel from the 2012  shortlist that I never got around to reading last year. I remember hearing the synopsis and thinking that a whole novel about a man walking to a lighthouse didn’t exactly sound wonderful. How wrong I was.

Conversely, I’d heard such good things about Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, one of the 2013 longlisted titles that I felt sure I would enjoy it. Sadly I did but only in part – or to be more precise I enjoyed only the first half.  The remaining 200 plus pages were disappointingly ‘just ok’. I can understand why it never made it onto the shortlist.

unexplodedjpegLikewise, my third read, Unexploded by Alison MacLeod, didn’t move from longlist to shortlist status this year.  This is a novel set in the seaside resort of Brighton in the first year of World War 2 when Britain is gripped by a fear that they will be invaded by Hilter’s forces any day. MacLeod looks at the repercussions of the war at a very human level, focusing on just one couple and how the conflict ignites elements in their marriage that have simmered for years. She does a wonderful job of re-creating the confusing atmosphere of dread and excitement. Well worth reading though, again, I didn’t think it was shortlist calibre.

Which brings me to the cream of the crop —the novel that turns out to be the bookmaker’s favourite for the prize, Jim Crace’s Harvest. I can’t compare it to the other nominees since I haven’t read any of those but should Crace walk off with the prize then he will have richly Harvestdeserved the accolade.  It’s set in an un-named village in rural England at an unspecified date but likely to be fifteenth century. This is a community whose way of life is under threat from an absentee landlord who believes the future lies in sheep not arable farming and if that means a few dozen families lose their livelihoods and their homes, well tough luck. This green and pleasant land is further threatened by some ominous newcomers who have come to claim their rights of settlement.  There is drama but the power of the novel lies more in the way Crace gets you to reflect on the past and on the question of the ability of humans to endure change.

This is one of the best novels I have read yet this year.

So now September is over, what lies ahead in October? I’ve started reading another Booker longlisted title – TransAtlantic – Colum McCann’s first novel following his National Book Award success with Let the Great World Spin. Very shortly I shall be relinquishing contemporary fiction for some older texts as I start preparing for the Plagues, Witches and War course on historical fiction delivered via Coursera.  The course will be looking at historical novels from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, some classic, others less well known. It looks as if its going to go at a very fast pace so for the next 8 weeks I won’t have much time to spare on anything other than historical fiction.

 

 

Sunday Salon: Seasonal Reading

sundaysalonListening to one of the recent episodes of the Readers Book Based Banter podcast got me thinking about my own reading habits. The co-hosts for the show were chatting about whether the type of books they read changes with the seasons. Simon’s interests get darker as the evenings draw in  apparently —so lots more of the  big Victorian classics it seems are on his horizons as we go into Autumn and Winter.

This isn’t something I’ve ever thought about before. I do make mental lists of books I want to read in the few months ahead but I’m not conscious that I choose them based on the season.

Only recently we were seeing promotions for ‘the perfect summer book’ and ‘summer reading recommendations’ but it’s a concept I’ve never really understood. What does that phrase ‘a summer book’ mean anyway? Something that is set during a summer period for instance or does it denote a particular subject matter or something that is light and frothy so you can read it on a sun lounger with eyes half closed?.

My reading habits don’t really change through the year – I read what I feel like reading at the time, regardless of what the calendar says or the thermometer. So if I feel like reading a novel set at Christmas but the sun is shining and officially it is summer, then I’ll read it rather than save it up for later in the year.

But my current reading experience has shown that there are times when reading within the season has its advantage. By absolute co-incidence I just happen to be reading a novel that couldn’t be more closely matched to this time of the year – it’s Harvest by Jim Crace (shorlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize). It’s a wonderful evocation of country life sometime before the industrial revolution, marking the cycle of growing, reaping and sowing. Right now that cycle is also in evidence in the lanes around my home with farm vehicles of all description brought into service as the farmers gather in the last of this year’s crops.  A  delightful confluence of fiction and reality.  I might not change my reading habits radically as a result but just enjoy it when it does.

What about your reading habits —do you read different books depending on the season? Did you have a summer reading summer plan – if so, on what basis did you choose the books?

PS: If you want to hear the Book Based Banter discussion, it’s episode 82 – you can download via ITunes or the webpage – http://bookbasedbanter.co.uk/thereaders/

 

Sunday Salon: Book pressure

sundaysalonMy bookish experience of the last few weeks has a distinct resemblance to a saying I remember from my childhood:   You wait hours for the number 11 bus and then three come along at the same time…

Late in July, shortly after the Man Booker prize long list was announced I trotted off to my local library clutching my list of the contenders for the 2013 title.  Silly me. I had forgotten that when I did the same thing last year I came away empty handed. I was too early it seemed and the books were not even on order within the library system. This time wasn’t much more successful. Yes there were some copies of one or two of the books in the county system but ….. they were all on reserve for the reading groups. So individual punters like myself wouldn’t get a look in until these groups were done with them.  Protestations about the  inequity of this approach proved to no avail.

Luckily these groups didn’t seem to linger long over their chosen novels.  Yet come August when these treasured works began to be released for us  plebs, there was not surprisingly a long waiting list. So I waited … and waited for one to come my way. Then suddenly last week my name made it to the top of the list. Not just of one but of three books.  You’d have thought there would much jubilation in the Booker Talk household at this news. Well yes and no – because although the books are now in the house, because there is still a waiting list, I have to read them within the stipulated three weeks and no, it was made clear, I could not renew them.

Which poses something of a difficulty. Because though I can read relatively quickly, there is no way I can read three books in three weeks. Particularly when one of them is the 832-page The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.  I did manage to read the shortest one – Alison Macleod’s Unexploded . But now I am up against the clock to finish Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire which has 500 pages within 7 days. I hate rushing through books – I want to linger and savour them not gobble them up. But if I send this back heaven knows when it will come my way again.

I should vow that next year I will be more disciplined. But somehow when the moment comes I have  a feeling that good intensions will have all evaporated.

How about you – do you ever get over enthusiastic when buying or acquiring books and then find yourself with a mountain to climb??

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