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October 2017 Snapshot

October snapshot (1)Let’s get the good news out of the way first. Last month you may remember I said that, because I’d broken my upper humerus, I had limited movement in my arm. Good progress has been made in the past month and I no longer walk like a penguin. I can do pretty much most domestic and social activities unaided now, including drive my car. Freedom at last!!! I even managed a three hour baking class last week where we were throwing around a heavy batch of bread dough (I did it left handed just to be on the safe side).

Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on October 1, 2017?

 Reading now

Vernon_god_little I’m not one of those people who makes a habit of simultaneously reading multiple books. Two I can manage providing they are in vastly different genres (a crime novel say and a more literary novel, or a novel and a short story collection) but unusually I have three books on the go at the moment.

The first is my 44th Booker Prize winner – Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre which won the prize in 2003.  This is not one I was looking forward to read and it seems I am not alone. Although some reviewers thought it highly comic, others hated it and didn’t feel it deserved to win the prize. It’s set in a town in Texas in the aftermath of a mass shooting of students at the local school. One student, Vernon Little, is taken in for questioning and gets caught up in the legal and media circus. I’ve not yet read far enough to judge whether this will be one I enjoy but it certainly has a unique style.

By contrast on my e-reader is a psychological story that became a cinema classic when it was adapted  by Alfred Hitchcock with the leading roles taken by James Stewart and Kim Novak. The film was Vertigo and the book was D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It was published in English as The Living and the Dead in 1956 and now re-issued under the new Pushkin Vertigo imprint. Apart from re-locating the action from Paris to San Francisco, Hitchcock seems to have stayed fairly close to the original story of a former detective asked to help an old schoolfriend who is concerned about the increasingly strange behaviour of his wife.  Interest in his quarry becomes a dangerous obsession however.

My third book is a re-read. It’s a novella which has become a stable of the school syllabus in the UK for 14-16 year olds. I’d never read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck until four years ago when it was chosen by the book club I belonged to at the time but loved it (my review is here). Now I’m re-reading it to help coach a young girl in my village who is being bullied at school so studying on her own until a solution can be found.

Reflecting on the 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’m holding steady to last month’s total at 274. I bought just one book in September:  The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) by Emile Zola published in 1883 as part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle. This one focuses on the world of the department store, a form of retail outlet that is very familiar to us today but was an innovative concept in the mid-nineteenth century. Until then, shoppers had to visit separate establishments for different items but with  Le Bon Marché (the model for Zola’s store) they could find all their purchases under one roof. The book was adapted by the BBC for a costume-drama series The Paradise broadcast in 2012 and 2013.

Thinking of reading next…

I don’t know what I’ll be reading later in the month other than one of the remaining six Booker prize titles from my list. It’s a long time since I read any of the Louise Penny novels I bought on my last trip to the USA ( I much preferred the covers of the US editions to the British ones) so a return to her fictitious village of Three Pines could be on the cards. I also found a little collection of Penelope Lively books when I was hunting through the shelves recently and its ages since I read anything by her. As always there are too many choices!

Watching:  I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time at the time it was published which is now about 30 years ago and went on to read and enjoy many more of his novels (his early output is, with the exception of the magnificent Atonement, superior to his more recent work.). The recent BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch was a reminder of just how powerful a study of loss and grief The Child in Time is and of McEwan’s versatility as an author.

Required viewing in our house at the moment is The Great British Bake Off.  I’m frustrated by the intrusions of the commercial breaks but other than that the series hasn’t seemed to have suffer much by it’s move away from the BBC ( I never did like the Mel and Sue double act). There’s a new series of The Apprentice starting I think this week – this is a show that is probably on its last legs. The last few series they seem to have scraped the barrel and found the most inane and useless candidates possible. They talk a lot about how great they are but I wouldn’t let them anywhere near any business of mine. It’s good for a laugh though.

And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.

10 (or more) books on the horizon

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday invites us to list the books on our reading horizons for autumn. I had intended to say that I don’t have an Autumn reading plan because a) I’m no good at sticking to these kinds of plans b) I haven’t long finished working through the 20booksofsummer list so am suffering a little list fatigue and c) I’m a hopeless prevaricator so can never make up my mind in advance what I want to read.

But then of course I remembered that I have a little unfinished business with my Booker project. So by default I seem to have a plan of sorts because I want to finish this project by the end of the year. That means I know there are  seven Booker Prize winners I will be reading in coming months.

7 Booker titles

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)

2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

1972 – G. (J Berger)

Based on the insight from several bloggers I’m saving The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end. The order in which I read the other five will be down to the mood I’m in at the time I’m ready to start a new book.

What else is in the offing?  

Reservoir 13From the library today I picked up a copy of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and – according to many comments I’ve seen – deserved to be on the shortlist but was overlooked by the judges.  In it, he depicts the aftermath of the disappearance of a 13 year old girl during a New Year’s holiday in a village in the Peak District. Over the course of 13 years, McGregor shows how life goes on in this community after the initial shock of her disappearance. To get the best idea of this book take a look at Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

I’ve already started reading this it being a perfect day to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read. And so far it’s turned out to be a remarkable book…

I have a few novels I’ve agreed to review including a crime story in the style of the Golden Age of Crime, a historical fiction book set in Versailles and a new work by Richard Flanagan called First Person which is apparently a story about a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject.

And then there are a few Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Lively novels that are calling to me, and it’s time I revisited some of my classics club list. which has a few Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola titles I fancy. But wait a moment, what about all the Louise Penny titles I bought on my last trip to the USA? And the authors from Wales that I’m trying to highlight….

Even with my less than stellar arithmetical skills I realise I’m way over 10 books. Better get reading hadn’t I????

September 2017 Snapshot

September snapshotProgress of a kind has been made on the health front. Two weeks after surgery to repair all the breaks in my upper humerus I can now take the arm out of the sling. I’m still pretty much confined to doing daily activities single-handed but at least I can now begin physiotherapy. It’s going to be slow progress I fear because I have little range of movement at the moment. Imagine a penguin walking and you have the image of how much I can move the damaged arm. Four weeks from now I hope I can at least drive.

Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on September 1, 2017?

 Reading now

kelly gangI’m currently reading another Booker Prize winner – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.  This is book number 43 from the list of 50 titles in my Booker Prize project. It’s a fictionalised autobiography of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly,  a historical figure about whom I know very little.  Carey imagines Kelly writing a journal to the daughter he would never meet, in which he traces his life as the offspring of a poor family of Irish origin and how his many encounters with the law. The style is distinctively vernacular with little punctuation or grammar, emulating the pattern found in the Jerilderie Letter, a letter dictated by Kelly to one of his gang members in 1879.  I thought that might make it hard to read but not a bit of it. This is a book so mesmerizing that after a few pages you cease to be concerned with the mode of telling and just get swept along with the story.

I’d hoped to finish this before #20booksofsummer2017 comes to an end (September 3) but I don’t think I’ll make it.  Not to worry, I will still have read 11 by then which is one better than 2016.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

We Don't Know What We're DoingOne 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’m now down to 274. I was remarkably restrained with purchases in August -just one bought. A collection of short stories by Thomas Morris called We Don’t Know What We’re Doing.  I don’t tend to read many short story collection but this one caught my eye because Morris happens to have been born in the town of Caerphilly ( about 5 miles from where I grew up ) and all 10 stories in this book are based in the town.  It won the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award within the Wales Book of the Year award in 2016. So I get to ride a little wave of nostalgia and support a local author at the same time.

Thinking of reading next…

I think I’m going to avoid making too many plans for September. It was fun to do the #20booksofsummer reading but I feel more like reading as the mood takes me for the next few weeks. I know there will be a Booker Prize winner in the mix – I will have just six remaining to read once I’ve finished with Mr Ned Kelly and his exploits but whether it’s How Late It Was, How Late or Vernon God Little or even A Brief History of Seven Killings I tackle next I will decide on the day. I might read Owen Shears’ I Saw a Man which I collected from the library today. I’ve read only one of his novels until now (Resistance) and wasn’t all that enamoured with it but this one has had very strong reviews. Oh and did I mention he is Welsh? Another good reason to get to know him better.

Watching: Now The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK has come to an end I am somewhat bereft. I have no interest in Game of Thrones (sorry to the millions of its fans), was bored by Poldark and cannot get the Channel 4 catchup service to let me watch The Good Fight, the spin off to The Good Wife. I’m hoping that the end of summer means there could be a few good series coming soon. Until then I’m relying on some old favourites like Inspector Morse (I’ve seen them so many times I can practically recite the lines but still find myself confused by a few of the plots.)

And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.

Snapshot of August 2017

As a  new month  begins I’m sitting here feeling very sorry for myself . After a year of being stuffed with chemicals and radiation before three rounds of surgery to remove nasty tumours, I thought I’d  had my quota of medical treatments. Life was beginning to look up with a holiday even being planned. All of which I scuppered by falling over while helping to set up a community event, breaking my humerus in three places. So now my dominant arm is in a sling making it extremely difficult to do basic things like eating and dressing (I dare you to try fastening a bra one handed). My blogging is curtailed because it’s so slow to type one-handed so if you find I’m not commenting much on your posts it’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with you.  Reading is about all I’m good for but even that begins to lose its appeal after a few hours. Sigh…

Apart from nursing my damaged paw, what else was I up to on August 1, 2017?

 Reading now

I’m gradually making my way through the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list.  After a diversion to read The Monster’s Daughter, a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius) I was looking for something from my list that promised to be equally well constructed and thought-provoking. Sacred Hunger ( joint winner of the Booker Prize in  1992) by Barry Unsworth gets that bill perfectly. It’s set in the eighteenth century when the slave trade was in full flow. The action takes place on a ship sailing from Liverpol to pick up a human cargo in Africa and sell it in the sugar plantations of Jamaica. It makes for grim reading understandably though Unsworth doesn’t wallow in details of the inhumane conditions under which the captured Africans were kept on board. His theme is  the lust – the hunger –  for money which drives men to extraordinary actions.

You couldn’t get more of a contrast between this and a book I just started today – What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullen. It’s a collection of twenty essays about different aspects of Austen’s work. One deals with the names  characters call each other and how this is often used to denote not just their different social status but their changing relationships to each other. Another looks at the question of the age at which its deemed appropriate for people to marry. I’ve read three essays so far as part of my participation in Austen in August and am impressed by how thoroughly Mullen knows these novels. He deals with details and nuances that escaped me when reading Austen but know I can see add new perspectives. Fascinating stuff.

Reflecting on the 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’m now down to 278 ( it would have been lower except I indulged with four new purchases and two ARCs in July).  I had been thinking to buy a few more once the judges chose the Booker long list but when the announcement came last week I was underwhelmed. I’m sure there are many fine books on that list but with one or two exceptions it felt rather predictable. So I’m just going to get some samples and se if anything sparks my interest.

Thinking of reading next…

This month is All August/All Virago month so I have Good Behavior by Molly Keane lined up. This is the first novel she  published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

I also have Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch which was recently published by Seren ( a Welsh publishing house based about 45 minutes from my house). It’s part mystery, part biography, part romance set in 1950s Hull and recreates the world of Philip Larkin. Larkin makes an appearance in the guise of librarian Arthur Merryweather and through his poems which are woven into the narrative.

Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK is coming to an end. I ddo nt enjoy the one episode which showed the backstory of Offred’s husband but everything eelse about this series has been first class.

Listening: Since I stopped commuting to work I’ve not listened to anywhere near the same number of audiobooks this year. I did try one in the Aurelio Zen series about a fictional Italian detective but the narration was really off putting so I gave up after an hour. A pity because this series written by Michael Dobdin is meant to be excellent.

And that is it for this month. Lets hope by the time of the next snapshot I’ll be feeling more perky. A Chinese friend tells me that this is the year of the Roster which is my animal sign. According to Chinese traditional beliefs, you may face big challenges in your animal year. However once those are overcome good fortune will come. It can’t come too soon for me! I’m advised that wearing red ( especially red underwear) will help. Time to get the credit cards out I think.

Summer reading 2017 #20booksofsummer

Twenty Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books is about to begin so I can’t procrastinate much longer about the books I’m putting on my list to read.  This is about the third version I’ve created.  I’ve gone for a mix of classics from my Classics Club project, some Booker prize winners (only nine more to read in this project), some translated fiction and a few by authors from Wales.  All of these are on my ‘owned but not read’ shelves.

I know I’ll never manage to read 20 books between June 1 and September 3 (that’s 7 books a month) so I’m going for the 15 books of summer option. But since past experience tells me the minute a book goes on a list its appeal for me diminishes, I’ve listed 20 books anyway in the hope that this, plus the mixture of genres/styles I’ve chosen will give me plenty of choices to suit all moods.

Here’s my  20 Books for summer 2017 list – click on the titles to read the description on Goodreads:

Update as of August 17, 2017: 11 read. One abandoned.

1. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf Read August 2017

room of ones own-1

One that featured on my post about books that have been on my ‘to read’ list for many years. Following several comments from bloggers about how good this is, I’m persuaded it’s time to just get on and read this.

2. We Have Always Lived In the Castle by Shirley Jackson Read July 2017

always lived in the castle-1

I’d not heard of Shirley Jackson until I started listening to some book podcasts and kept hearing about this but since it’s considered  Jackson’s masterpiece it feels like the right place to begin exploring her work.

3. Good Behaviour by Molly Keane Read August 2017

good-behaviour -1

I bought this in a library sale (unfortunately my edition has a less attractive cover than this one but I couldn’t find that image).  It’s the first novel Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of M. J Farrell. I’ve read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. I’m hoping Good Behaviour comes up trumps because so many other readers seem to love her work.

4. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (Read June 2017)

jamaica inn-1

Inspired by the real life Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor at which du Maurier stayed in 1930, this is a tale about a  group of murderous wreckers who run ships aground, kill the sailors and steal the cargo. I was disappointed by the last du Maurier I read (My Cousin Rachel) so am hoping this proves more enjoyable.

5. The Finkler Question  by Howard Jacobson (part read)

finkler question-1

This won the Booker Prize in 2010, becoming the first comic novel to win the prize since Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils in 1986. Opinions are greatly divided on this book amongst the blogging community.

6. The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

the conservationist-1-1

Another Booker winner that remains on my list to read. I started reading it last year but found it rather dull at the time.  I see that the Guardian reviewer described it as “a portrait of a dangerous man lent dangerous power by apartheid is great writing, but not brilliant reading.”  Based on what I’ve read so far I’m not convinced that it really does constitute ‘great writing’ but I know I’ll at least be able to finish it (unlike the appalling The Famished Road by Ben Okri which remains the only Booker prize  that I absolutely could not finish.)

7. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth Read August 2017

Sacred hunger-1

Joint winner of the Booker prize along with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient in 1992, this is likely to be a grim read because of its subject.  It is set on an eighteenth century slave ship called The Liverpool Merchant which is bound for Africa to pick up its human cargo. Much of the book apparently deals with the issue of greed.

8. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

kelly gang

Peter Carey is one of the few people to win the Booker prize more than once. His other award winner — Oscar and Lucinda — is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year. The True History of the Kelly Gang, a fictionalised biography of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly,  won the prize in 2001, and also the Commonwealth Writers Prize in the same year. Since it’s written in a distinctive vernacular style, with little punctuation or grammar, it could be tough going.

9. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (read June 2017)

the vegetarian-1

Han Kang’s novel features a rather ordinary South Korean housewife who decides to throw away all the meat from the freezer and announces that henceforth she is going to be a vegetarian. Her action is completely counter to South Korean culture so the book examines the reaction of her family, husband and friends.  This will be only the second Korean author I’ve read and if it’s as good as my first experience – with Please Look after Mom by Shin Kyung-sook – I know I’m in for a treat.

10. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Read June 2017)

A tale for the time being-1

Ruth Ozeki’s novel got my attention when it was shortlisted for the 2010 Booker prize but I never got around to reading this story which has two narrators. One is a sixteen-year-old Japanese American girl in Tokyo who keeps a diary, the other is a Japanese American writer living on an island off British Columbia who finds the diary washed up on shore some time after the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan. 

11. Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis

twilight in djakarta-1

I put this on my list of books to read this Spring but it fell by the wayside so I’ve resurrected it for summer. The novel was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest. It depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.

12. The Kill/La Curée by Emile Zola

the kill-1

My plan to read all the books in the Rougon-Marquet cycle stalled last year but I’m looking to The Kill to give it a kickstart. The Kill is book number 2 in the series is set against the background of the massive redevelopment of Paris and the birth of the modern city.

13. Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran read July 2017

good women of china-1

Xinran is a former radio journalist from China who, over a period of 10 years in the 1990s, collected stories of women who endured child child abuse, rape, gang rape, abduction and the forced parting of parents and children. The 15 stories in this collection lift the lid on Chinese society at a time when prohibitions against discussion of feelings and sexuality were relaxing.

14. Three Days and a Life by Pierre Lemaitre

three days and a life-1

I wanted something in my list that fell into the genre of thriller, for those days when I just crave a fast paced narrative. Three Days and a Life which will be published in July, fitted that description perfectly. It begins in a small provincial town of Beauval, France with the accidental killing of a young boy. More than a decade later the killer returns to the town and discovers there was a witness to his crime,  a person who has the power to destroy his life. [note I corrected this synopsis based on the comment by Words and Peace that I had the gender of the victim incorrect).

15. Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto (Read July 2017)

goodbye tsugumi

I’ve enjoyed my explorations of Japanese fiction so far but have never read Banana Yoshimoto. I know little about this book other than it’s about relationships between two cousins in a small Japanese seaside town.

16. An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah

elegy for easterly-1

This is on my list to assuage my feelings of guilt that it was on last year’s 20 books of summer list but I only got half way through the collection of short stories.

17. What I Know I Cannot Say/ All That Lies Beneath by Dai Smith

what I know-1

One of the books by Welsh authors that I bought at the end of 2016, this is actually a combination of a novella and a linked section of short stories that reveal life in the South Wales Valleys during the twentieth century.

18. Ghostbird  by Carol Lovekin

Ghostbird

From another author living in Wales, Carol Lovekin’s novel was the Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops Book of the Month in April 2016.

19. Anglesey Blue by Dylan Jones (read June 2017)

angleseyblue-1

The first in a crime fiction series featuring a Welsh Detective Inspector based on the island of Anglesy in north wales. The colour in the title has nothing to do with the colour of the sea around the island but a powerful new drug which is being ruthlessly introduced to the island community. There is trouble in this paradise with drugs, disaffected youth and brutal murders.

20. The Hogs Back Mystery  by Freeman Wills Crofts Read August 2017

Hogs Back Mystery-1

There are times when my brain cries out for a good yarn about crime. The Hog’s Back Mystery is on my list in case that need arises over the summer. A crime story from the past this has been given new life via the British Library Classic Crine series. It’s the fourteenth title written by Freeman Wills Crofts and begins with the disappearance of a semi-retired doctor from the North Downs in Surrey. He apparently simply walked out of the house in his slippers.

 

So that’s my 20 books of summer list. Whether I’ve made the ‘right’ choices is debatable – I have a feeling that I’ll come across a book on my shelves over the course of the next few months and wish I’d put it on my list.

If you want to join the fun, Cathy will put up a post on June 1 to mark the official start of the challenge and will tweet regularly using the hashtag  #20booksofsummer.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien #Bookerprize

madeleinetheinI’m surprised there hasn’t been much on line chatter about Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Amidst the chatter about the contenders for the 2016 Man Booker Prize she seems to have been overlooked and yet this is one novel that deserves to be read more widely.

This is a novel about what happens when a political regime flex its ideological muscles and dictate how individuals should live their lives. The regime in question is the Communist Party of China under the direction of Chairman Mao and his successors. If you’ve read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, you’ll already have a good grounding in the history of the People’s Republic of China and the disastrous consequences of projects like The Great Leap Forward.

Thien’s novel covers some of the same historical period as Chang’s account but is more contemporary since it includes the build up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians  whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.

This is an astonishingly ambitious novel not only because of the vast swathe of history that Thien covers but because of the large number of characters she introduces and the blend of fact and fiction. Her characters are people who are who leap off the page and in whose company you delight.  – from the wonderfully named Big Mother Knife and Swirl to the unassuming Sparrow (one of the musicians) and his talented daughter Zhuli. They have to manoeuvre every subtle change in ideology, trying to make sense of their world and all the time longing to keep hold of the western music they revere.

The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.

I know some bloggers thought some sections the book dragged but that wasn’t my experience. It’s definitely a book that you have to read with full attention because of its dual time narrative which switches between and the vast array of ideas woven into the text. Thien seems to have constructed her narrative along musical principles. She introduces a motif or a theme; explores it, expands it and then lets it fade away only to return to it at a later stage though in a slightly different note. So compellingly does she write about the music adored by Sparrow, his daughter and his mentee that I felt compelled to get a copy of some of the key pieces – especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations whose recordings by Glenn Gould with whom the trio feel a particular affinity.

There is another musical reference which I didn’t discover until reading a few other reviews of the novel. The title is an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”

 

Footnotes

Author: Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Published: 2016 by Granta Books.

Length: 473 pages

My copy: Provided by Shiny News Books for whom I wrote a  more detailed review 

 

 

 

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis: A book to divide a nation

old-devilsIt was a surprise to many when Kinglsey Amis won the Booker Prize in 1986 for The Old Devils for this was an author who, according to the wisdom of the masses, was long past his prime. I don’t know what the reaction was in Wales but I suspect the commentary there may have concentrated on his portrayal of the country than the quality of his writing. My countrymen do tend to get a bit huffy about how our nation is represented. But then we are known for our hot tempers (not for nothing is our national symbol a fire breathing dragon) and we do tend to take offence at implied slights to our national pride….

What in The Old Devils would have got the Welsh feathers ruffled? This is a tale about a bunch of old university mates who are mostly retired and, having been regular drinkers in the past, naturally gravitate to a pub called The Bible to while away the hours chewing the fat and carping about anything and everything. The drinking seems to begin well before lunch (not too long after breakfast in fact) and lasts as long as they can keep going into the night.  Not to be outdone, their wives gather in one or other’s homes to neck down a few bottles of vino.

Your average Celt wouldn’t turn a hair about heavy drinking, gossipy characters. They’re the kind of people who can be spied propping up the bar in many a grimy establishment throughout Wales. What would really get them hot under the collar however is how Amis tackles a theme about Welsh identity.

This largely centres on the character of Alun Weaver. He prefers this spelling of his first name to the more Anglicised ‘Alan’ since it’s an easy way to emphasis his Welsh credentials. He’s the only one of the old gang to leave Wales, making a career for himself in London as a writer and an expert on a poet called Brydan (a thinly disguised Dylan Thomas). But now after a 30 year absence he’s announced his return to his old stamping ground in South Wales intending to set up home with his wife. Cue lots of anxiety from those wives of the Old Devils who indulged in affairs with him and are either hoping for  a re-run or mortified with embarrassment about meeting him again.

Alun is what is often labelled as a “professional Welshman”, (or as one of his friends describes him “an up-market media Welshman”) the kind of person who gets trotted out whenever the BBC or its ilk need someone to comment on Welsh culture and society.  They don’t actually live in the country but feel compelled at every opportunity to parade their Welshness and love of ‘the old country’. Amis makes him a figure of ridicule, an ageing lothario with questionable literary skills, who essentially wants Wales to remain in some kind of time warp.

That was the whole point, to stress continuity, to set one’s face against anything that could be called modernism and to show that the old subject, life in the local villages, in the peculiar South-Wales amalgam of town and country, had never gone away…

The Old Devils probably wouldn't appreciate the gentrification of a boozer like this

The Old Devils probably wouldn’t appreciate the gentrification of a boozer like this

The last thing the local soaks want is to bottle Wales in aspic; they want change but they recognise a balance needs to be struck. A balance between the kind of Anglicised ubiquity which means  “Everywhere new here is the same as new things in England, whether it’s the university or the restaurants or the supermarkets or what you buy there. … Is there anything in here to tell you you’re in Wales?”  and the Disneyfication that Alun would seem favour in his books. One of the braver Devils  confronts him head on, accusing him of ruining Wales.

Turning it into a charade, an act, a place full of leeks and laver-bread and chapels and wonderful old characters who speak their own highly idiosyncratic and often curiously erudite kind of language.

Such carping doesn’t disguise the fact that between these men there does exist a close bond that approaches love and affection. Nor does Amis’s satire come without a degree of affection and understanding for these characters. He makes us laugh but there is a poignancy for these guys whose brains don’t want to acknowledge their best days are over though their bodies tell them otherwise. There are some wonderful cameos of the gang dealing with the infirmities that come with age including the difficulties of getting dressed when an expanding girth gets in the way of something as simple as putting on a pair of socks.

At one time this had come after instead of before putting his underpants on, but he had noted that that way round he kept tearing them with his toenails. … The socks went on in the bathroom with the aid of a particular low table, height being critical. Heel on table, sock completely on as far as heel, toes on table, sock round heel and up. …. Pants on in the bedroom, heel and toe like the socks but at floor level, spot of talc around the scrotum, then trousers two mornings out of every three or so. On the third or so morning he would find chocolate, cream, jam or some combination from his bedtime snack smeared over the pair in use and he would have to return to the bathroom specifically to its mirror for guidance in fixing the braces on the front of the fresh trousers, an area which needless to say had been well out of his direct view these many years.

It’s passages like this that show clearly how insult and ridicule can be transformed into high comic art. and how Amis,  is a master of that art. Even if there is a segment of the population that takes umbrage at his depiction of Wales, they surely have to acknowledge that with The Old Devils, there is clearly old life in that old devil Amis.

Without doubt one of the most enjoyable of the Booker prize winners I’ve read. And no, you don’t even need to be born in Wales to appreciate its humour.

Footnotes

Author: The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

Published: 1986  by Hutchinson. Now available as a Vintage Classic imprint

Length: 384 pages

My copy: A rather battered orange coloured Penguin version that in fact belongs to my husband and has stayed with us through more than one house move because he loves it so much.

Why I read this: This links to my Booker prize project so I was always going to read it but was given a nudge by the 20booksofsummer challenge.

Holiday week catch up

Suitcase is unpacked and laundry is in the washing machine. I’ve done a walk along the coastal path taking advantage of a dry morning. Raspberry and white chocolate muffins are cooling off ready for a little afternoon tea indulgence. So now I needn’t feel guilty about spending some time with a catch up on the blog about the last week.

travelcompanionI expected to get a lot of reading done while we took a mini holiday in Dorset but it didn’t quite work out that way because the weather was much nicer than expected. Lucky us for picking one week when the clouds parted and we saw the sun. Everywhere looks more attractive under a blue sky but this part of England certainly knows how to sparkle in sunshine. So we got out our walking shoes and explored. Of course I took a book with me in my sturdy rucksack but darn it, my eyes kept getting diverted by all the scenery around me. That was when they were not closed for a quick nap due to the effects of all the fresh air.

One book I did read was the rather odd but mesmerising Booker long listed title The Many by Wyl Menmuir.  It’s set in a fishing village somewhere in Cornwall so not far along the coast from Poole, a harbour town and fishing port where we were staying.  It was rather sobering reading about the fictitious village whose livliehood is threatened by pollution and then to look out onto the lobster pots and fishermen in Poole who are still trying to make a living from the sea. Beyond the dangers posed to our coastal heritage I’m still trying to think what what the message of this book is, but an exchange with Jen at The Readers Room pulled me up short. I thought of a dream sequence as a foretaste of what happens to Timothy one of the two main characters in the future. Jen suggests it’s actually a recollection of what happened to him and provides the reason why he  moves into a derelict house in the village. It just shows how elusive this novel can be ….

I also read Harry Potter and The Philosophers’ Stone ready for the Open University course on children’s literature that I’ve signed up to take in October and got a quarter of the way through The Sleeping World, a debut novel from the Spanish author Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes. I had planned this to be part of my Women in Translation month reading but though the theme and setting of 1970s post-Franco Spain was something that interested me, the book was so poorly written I simply couldn’t get through to the end. I’ve now moved on to the far more intriguing All that Man Is by David Szalay which is on the Man Booker longlist this year. He takes nine different men, all at a different stage of their lives, and puts them into a situation in which they have to make a decision that will affect the rest of their life. It’s described as a novel though each story is entirely separate from the rest so they read more like a collection of short pieces to me. It’s a book that slips down very easily so I’ve already got to the half way mark.

In between walking, eating, reading I’ve been playing around with the Feedly feedreader that many people mentioned when I asked for recommendations on a better option than Bloglovin. Feedly is set up to make it easy to find a site, follow it and then group it with other similar blogs into ‘collections’ that you can review as a block. I’ve been migrating some of the feeds I have on Bloglovin over to this new site so you may find an ‘unfollow’ message from me – it’s not that I don’t love you, just moving you into your new home. I’m going to give it a month and then will share with you all how the new tool is going.

So that was my week – no time to catch up on reviews unfortunately so the backlog is creeping up once again. Expect to see a flurry of those next week including my final book for All Virago/All August which also got me to the end of #20booksofsummer.

An Embarrassment of Riches

This was the week where my reading life went out of control.

newbooksI’ve been doing reasonably well with my attempt to read more from the books I already own this year, and consequently buy less. But the plan started to go south when I wandered into the library on Monday where they had a sale and found a reasonably good copy of Ruth Ozeki’s Booker shortlisted A Tale for the Time Being which was a novel I meant to read when it was shortlisted but never got around to. Only one purchase – not disastrous by any means but a few minutes later as I was passing a Pound store  I remembered Karen at Kaggsy’sBookishRamblings had uncovered a few choice books among the acres of cheap shampoo and bathroom cleaner, there might be a few books).  It had frankly never occurred to me this kind of shop might offer any intellectual stimulation so it was a surprise to find two gems.

The first one, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was much talked about when it was published in 2011 but I wasn’t sure I was that interested in a novel set around the time of the Trojan War. But having been following a Coursera module on Greek and Roman myths for the past few weeks, my interest level as increased – so of course how could I resist a pristine copy at £1???  And then another much-discussed novel Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood – this was even more of a bargain since it’s a never-opened hardback. Not sure its worth adding Poundstretcher to my regular shopping haunts but a peek every few months might be in order.

So Monday came and went with three new books added to the shelf. I knew I wouldn’t be reading these for a while since I’m still trying to finish the #20booksofsummer reading and get to read a few Viragos for All August/AllVirago month.

By Tuesday that plan was thrown a bit off course when the library called to say two of my reserved items were now available. I’d even forgotten about one of them (Don Delillo’s Zero K) since the waiting list was so long and when I looked at the blurb I was mystified when I’d even requested this. Science-based stories are not usually my thing so why had I reserved a novel about a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. In a spirit of generosity to other readers who do enjoy those kinds of stories, it was returned immediately.

Which left me with the ManBooker 2016 long listed novel All That Man Is by David Szalay. I have no intention of trying to read all 13 long listed novels before the Man Booker judges announce the shortlist on September 13. But I do like to read samples of them and read a few in full just to get a flavour of what’s in contention. This one picqued my interest because its essentially the story of nine separate individuals so can be read as a short story collection or as a novel.

Wednesday’s post brought another Man Booker title – The Many by Wyl Menmuir which is one I really, really wanted to read but couldn’t get my hands on a copy anywhere. The publishers Salt had printed only 1,000 copies initially so were rather overhwhelmed by the interest when the longlist was announced. A new print run was rushed through to satisfy the hungry appetites of readers like me….

If you’re keeping track so far you’ll have seen that it’s just midweek and already I have 5 new titles all demanding my attention. Some rapid re-thinking of the reading plan for the next few weeks ensued.

But like all the best laid plans, that too got thrown in the bin when NetGalley sent a batch of emails telling me I’d been approved for two other Man Booker Prize long listed titles: The Schooldays of Jesus by J. M Coetzee  and Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. Now I absolutely do want to read the Coetzee since the two novels I’ve read by him previously have been outstanding but having seen a review of Eileen on the Readers’ Room blog earlier today I’m not as convinced I will get on well with this.

Do Not DisturbSeven new acquisitions in four days is going some for me. But that wasn’t the end of the story because yesterday a box arrived from some kind colleagues in the USA containing – guess what? Books!

Am I complaining? No not a bit of it. I just have to get my head down and start reading through this stack and all the ones piling up on the e-reader including another of the Man Booker long listed titles Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. Expect me to be a bit quiet for a few weeks………Shhh

Last Orders by Graham Swift #Bookerprize

Last ordersLast Orders  is a tale of four men who embark on a day trip to the seaside. Actually there are five people in the car that takes them from London to Margate though one of them is not in a position to contribute much to the conversation, he being recently cremated and present only in the form of a box of his ashes.

Jack Dodds, a butcher by trade, may not be alive but he is very much the focal point of this trip. It was his dying request that his son Vince and his three best mates Ray, Lenny and Vic – scatter his ashes from the jetty at Margate where he spent his honeymoon. As they journey from Bermondsey to Margate with detours to the  Sailors’ Memorial at Chatham and Canterbury Cathedral, each of them reflects on his friendship with Jack and their own lives. Their stories are revealed in short chapters told from one or other of the characters, stories which intertwine and build gradually to a picture of men who are in denial about their lives.

There’s Ray, an insurance clerk whose wife dumped him for another man. He gets sympathy from the others because for many years he hasn’t heard from his only daughter who lives in Australia. Actually the breach is Ray’s fault – he is the one who stopped writing, unable to find a way to tell his daughter about key events in her life.

Vince, the chauffeur for the day, had a troubled relationship with Jack throughout his life. It stemmed from his resentment that he wasn’t really Jack’s son but taken in by him and his wife Amy as a baby when his own family were killed in a bombing raid during World War 2. Vince was in effect a substitute for their real child who was born severely retarded and whom Jack could never accept. As Vince grew up he railed against the presumption that he would become a butcher just like Jack. Instead he turned his hand to car mechanics, much to Jack’s dismay even though the business proved successful.

And then there’s Lenny, a fruit-and-veg stallholder who has good reason to be angry with Vince. Having got Lenny’s daughter pregnant Vince disappeared into the Army instead of doing the decent thing and marrying the girl.  It suits Lenny to blame Vince for the fact his daughter is now shacked up with a guy who is serving a prison sentence. What he doesn’t admit even to himself is how much he played a part in her unhappy life by forcing her to have a backstreet abortion.

margate

Margate: the final destination in Last Orders

All these undercurrents rise to the surface as the quartet make their circuitous pilgrimage to the coast. It’s left to Vic, an undertaker, to act the peacemaker though even he cannot prevent a standoff fight between two of the other men.  All four of these men have experienced disappointments and frustrations but they won’t admit it to themselves or to their companions. They draw a discrete veils over many events like Ray’s affair with Jack’s  wife. Only the reader can see the truth by piecing together what the men say – but even more significantly what they don’t say. For this is a novel where despite the multiplicity of voices it’s the silences that tell the real story.

In some ways Last Orders is quite a simple book about rather ordinary people, the kind you can meet every day. It’s very much a male world – Jack’s wife Amy is the only female character of note – dominated by the pub and the armed forces in which all these men served (the title Last Orders has connotations of military orders as well as Jack’s instructions). It’s a little bleak in some parts but lightened with the occasional moment of black humour when the guys became resentful they were not getting their fair share of time carrying the plastic bag containing Jack’s ashes. By the end they are beginning to look to the future and the possibilities remaining in their own lives: Ray for example thinks it’s time he visited his daughter in Australia while Amy who has visited her daughter in her institutional home every week for 50 years, decides it’s time for a parting of the ways.

It was hard to feel much connection with these characters initially because the narrator kept changing so often with only subtle changes in their speech patterns.  I found I had to keep checking the chapter headings to make sure I knew whose story was being told. But as the book progressed it became clear that this lack of clarity was by design – just as I couldn’t sort out their lives neither could each of these men. Maybe everyone of us has a jumbled life. We’re too close to it to make sense of it ourselves so we just relate the pieces and let others put it together to make a cohesion.

Footnote

Last Orders by Graham Swift is published by Picador. It won the Booker Prize in 1996 though true to form, not all the critics thought it was a good choice. One Australian professor pointed to the similarity of the plot with William Faulkner’s As I Lay DyingSwift responded to the critique by saying his book was an “echo” of Faulkner’s but nothing more.

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