Yes I know it’s no longer summer but better late than never I suppose. So here is the outcome of the first reading challenge I have ever completed (drum roll and applause please….)
I knew I would never get through 20 books so took advantage of the flexible choices offered by Cathy at 746books.com and went for 10 books. When I made the list I was trying to be clever by doubling up on titles that could also count for three other projects: Women in Translation month, AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) and my own Booker prize project.
I’m a bit behind on the reviews but am slowly catching up. So here’s what I accomplished – there were some hits, some also rans and some down right failures..
- This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Excellent Read –review posted here
- NW by Zadie Smith Read it – Dazzling in some ways but not sure I saw the point of it review posted here
- High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – Read but not a great choice for me review posted here
- A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford Thoroughly enjoyed this – review posted here Counted this for AllAugust/All Virago
- Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read and enjoyed in parts review posted here I double counted this for my Booker project
- The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Read and enjoyed the humour – review not yet written. I double counted this for my Booker project
- Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee. Read but review not yet written because I haven’t made up my mind what I think of it. I double counted this for my Booker project
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimimanda Adichie Read – enjoyed the style, left me wanting more Review posted here
- Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – Enjoyable take on Japanese culture review posted here Double counted this for Women in Translation Month
- Tree of Life by Maryse Conde: Read it but it was a bit of a slog. Review posted here Also counted towards Women in Translation month
I had a few back up titles on my list originally so I could change my mind if needed. The back ups were:
The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. A dud – did not finish review posted here
Frost in May by Antonia White never got around to reading this but it was a re-read anyway
An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah Started to read it but ran out of time
Overall I enjoyed the experience. Because I chose the entry level I never felt overwhelmed by what I still had to read. So I’ll be back again next year assuming Cathy decides to continue the venture that is.
I’m beginning to wonder if I have an issue with multi-generational family sagas. They do tend to go on for far longer than the story can sustain – and my patience endure. Or perhaps Tree of Life by Maryse Condé had been on my ‘to read’ shelf for well past its ‘best before’ date and the initial impetus for buying it had long disappeared. Either way, this was my first read for Women in Translation month 2016, and I was disappointed.
Tree of Life is a very personal story of multiple generations of one family from poverty in Guadeloupe to a comfortable existence with the trappings of a middle class life. It’s told by one of the descendants Coco although it is not until the end does she understand why she is telling this story. She is ‘the child of our tomorrows’ a family acquaintance tells her, the keeper of the flame of memory not just of her family but of her country’s history.
Coco begins by relating the history of her great grandfather Albert Louis, a man of determination who resolves to be slave to no man and to forge a new life for himself.
..on that day, Albert Louis, … looked at the handful of coins he had just received from the over-seer, raised his eyes to Heaven as if asking courage of the sun, and thundered:
It’s over. This is the last time I come here to get my pay like a dog.
And with that dramatic flourish he prepares to leave his native island and head to to America where he’d heard there was money to be made building the Panama Canal. After years of hardship and a few personal setbacks he rises above the level of a drudge and in doing so lays the foundation of a dynasty whose members travel far and wide from Guadeloupe. The lives, loves and tribulations of his descendants become the focus of the rest of the book tracing their rise to wealth from around 1904 to the 1980s as they move variously between cane plantations in Guadeloupe, poor settlements in Harlem and Haiti and the excitement of the streets of Paris. They try their hand at commerce, experience the joy and heartache of love and dally with politics.
This sweeping narrative is appealing in part. Arthur Louis is very much the patriarch who rules his life and those of his children with passion and stubbornness. There is more than a tinge of moral ambiguity to this figure. He gets swept along by the teachings of the Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey, placing huge faith in Garvey’s statement “I shall teach the Black Man to see beauty in himself.” Yet back home in Guadeloupe the native workers he employs to run his import-export warehouse and business fare little better than Albert Louis did in his plantation days and he squeezes everything he can from the impoverished black families who rent his shoddy tenement houses.
Equally well drawn is the troubled relationship of Coco and her mother Thecla. The latter sees herself as rather a free spirt, which seems to involve having a love affair and then ditching the resulting mixed race daughter in France, never to see or make contact with her for 10 years.Then when she’s shacked up with some other guy she drags the poor child first to Guadeloupe and then to Jamaica, exposing her to bulling and ridicule as not racially pure. If I had a mother like that I’d be hell bent on putting as much distance as possible between me and her.
Woven through the life stories of the generations is the emergence of black consciousness and the struggle for equality. Individuals within each generation develop their own approaches to the issue with varying degrees of success but despite the growth of mixed marriages, there is still a feeling of animosity between white and black populations. It’s left to Coco’s mother to make the most impassioned statement about discrimination that can ranges from verbal and physical attacks to prohibiting children playing together and forming friendships across colour. Yet what Thecla also sees is how racial attitudes may to always be stated – they just exist.
Thecla explains to her daughter that her origins as the child of a white family, make it hard to relate to her daughter because all she sees is the whiteness of her father and
… his mother … on her high horse, asking me who my family was and sniffing in disgust at the salt-cod smell of our name. For no one ever said a word about my colour which fundamentally was the real problem. They never talk about colour even if its right there before their eyes: It’s not done. It’s dirtier, color is, than the green diarrohea of amoebic dysentery or the sulphurous yellow piss of incontinence! When I see you, yes, I can’t help it, it’s all that I see. … Filthy stupidity, stubborn arrogance, pettiness ….. Alas thats how it is and neither you nor I can do a thing about it.
Tree of Life is a meandering novel that starts well but then seems to get bogged down in detail when Arthur Louis returns to Guadeloupe and the next generation grow up. The detail is clearly important to Coco and to Condé herself but I don’t see them as interesting to us just as my family’s history is precious to me but I know few other people care what my great great grandfather did. So for all the references to the troubled history of Guadeloupe and its people, ultimately this felt like a very long story about a set of individuals who once inhabited the planet.
Author: Tree of Life by Marys Condé
Published: as La Vie Scélérate in 1987 by Editions Seghers
Translated: from French by Victotia Retter and published in English by Ballantine Books/Random House in 1992.
Length: 368 pages
My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016
July came and went in a blink of the eye. August will likely go just as quickly and then all we’ll hear about for the next few months is that dreaded word Christmas. I’ve already seen promotions from a hotel and a local restaurant even though some people have only just headed off for their summer holiday. I know retailers in the UK have been moaning about low sales because of the crap summer weather so far but it’s depressing how the commercial world seems intent on pushing the Christmas season earlier and earlier. I’m going to turn a blind eye to it all and just focus on the month ahead.
So as a new month begins this is a bit of a wrap up of what’s I’ve been reading recently and what I’m planning or the month ahead.
It’s taken me a few years to get around to reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial.(reviewed here). The subject matter made it challenging but it was worth the effort – the issues raised by Fink about medical ethics during times of disaster have made for some heated discussions among friends and relatives. I also read the wonderful Bel Canto by Ann Patchett -my first experience of her writing but I know it will not the be the last. July saw the completion of two Booker prize winners – Last Orders by Graham Swift and The Life & Times of Michael K by J. M Coetzee. I had planned to read to short story collections but so far have managed just one of them – The Thing Around My Neck by Chimamanda Adichie with the help of advice in response to my question on how to approach a collection of short stories. Most people recommended I read them in bite size pieces which helped hugely.
I have two books on the go at the moment. Tree of Life: A Novel of the Caribbean is a 1992 novel by the Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Condé. It’s the story of three generations of one family and their rise from poverty against a backdrop of racial tension and world events like the construction of the Panama Canal and World War 1. It’s my choice for #womeninliterature month. I’m about a third of the way through and finding it OK but not that engaging. Certainly not as riveting as my other read which is Moskva by Jack Grimwood. Set in the 1980s it features a British intelligence officer sent to Moscow to avoid an investigation over his actions in Northern Ireland. Shortly after his arrival he gets roped in to help find the Ambassador’s daughter who has gone missing. This is a page turner that was highlighted by the Daily Telegraph as one of the best crime novels of 2016.
On the Horizon
If it’s August then it has to be AllAugust/AllVirago of which I’ll be reading A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford and posting a few reviews for Viragos I read earlier in the summer but haven’t got around to reviewing yet. I have a few NetGalley review copies requiring my attention including The Sleeping World by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes which is set in 1970s post-Franco Spain and The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke. What comes after that I haven’t yet decided since I don’t like making detailed plans which feel constraining. There’ll certainly be a Booker title in the mix but I know I’m not going to get around to making much of an impression on the 2016 longlist other than reading some samples of each title.
The in/out debate over UK’s membership of the European Union is nothing compared to my own debate on whether to join the Twenty Books of Summer Challenge. I’ve been in a quandary ever since Cathy at 746 books announced the challenge is about to begin. “Out” says the rational part of my brain which knows that a) I have no hope in hell of reading 20 books in three months and b) I don’t do all that well with reading to a list. “In” screams the emotional side of my brain which argues that it sounds like a lot of fun.
Maybe it was the influence of today’s sunshine but the two sides seem to have reached a point where they agree to disagree and have signed a compromise pledge allowing me 50% participation. Step forward the “BookerTalk not the 20 books of summer list” whereby I read just 10 books. Which means I join in with the fun but have none of the angst if I don’t make it. And just to give further protection, right brain has allowed me to pick more than 10 books so I don’t feel the need to go off piste.
My list is a mixture, mainly of Booker Prize titles (still trying to get that challenge completed by year end), short story collections and Viragos. With the exception of the first two, they are all part of my TBR collection.
- This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Read –review posted here
I’ve loved O’Farrell’s work ever since a friend gave me The Disappearing Act of Esme Lemmox so of course when I learned she had a new novel out (that the Guardian newspaper called “technically dazzling”, I immediately got my name on the library reservation list. Good news is it’s arrived just in time for me to make this the first one I read for the challenge.
- The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. did not finish
This is a new title in the British Library Crime Classic series. I have an advanced copy via NetGalley. It was first published in 1864 and is said to be the first novel in British fiction to feature a professional female detective.
- NW by Ali Smith Read
Smith is someone I’ve long felt I should get to know better. Her last novel “How to be Both” was stunning so I’d like to read some of her back catalogue. I just happen to have NW on the bookshelves.
- High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – review posted here
Thirkell’s name keeps cropping up amongst bloggers but I’ve never read her. This is probably one of the least demanding of the books on my list.
- A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
A Virago copy I picked up in a charity shop. Should be good for the All August All Virago themed reading month.
- Frost in May by Antonia White
Another Virago. In fact the first Virago I ever read. I was fairly young at the time. Will it hold my attention as much the second time around?
- Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read
Swift won the 1996 Booker Prize title with this tale of a group of friends who set off for the seaside to scatter the ashes of one of their members who just died. I enjoyed the film. Mr Booker Talk tells me I’ll enjoy the books just as much
- The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.
Another Booker winner – this time from 1986. It’s set in my home country of Wales
- Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee. Read
My third and final Booker winner, from 1983. This will be the third Coetzee book for me to read. The previous two have been superb. Hope this makes it a hat trick.
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanda Adichie Read
I’m guilty here of the ‘save if for a rainy day’ syndrome. I am eking out Adichie’s work because it’s so good but now I have only Half a Yellow Sun left to read. I somehow don’t want to start it because then it will be over. Stupid I know. In the meantime I shall enjoy this collection of her short stories that I picked up on my first visit to the Hay Festival Oxfam shop.
- An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
Another short story collection, this time from a Zimbabwean author. Gappah made the 2016 Baileys Prize longlist with her novel, The Book of Memory, becoming the first author from her country to reach this stage of the award.
- Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – review posted here
I regularly ask work colleagues for recommendations of authors from their home country. For Belgium, the name of Amelie Northomb was mentioned regularly and was recommended in the View From Here feature on Belgium. Fear and Trembling is actually set in Japan but is the only one of her works I have.
- Tree of Life by Maryse Conde
Conde is a French (Guadeloupean) author who was a finalist for the Man Booker international award a few years ago. Tree of Life is a multigenerational story about the emergence of the West Indian middle class and tells the politics of race and immigration, and the legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean. It will be the first book I’ve read by an author from that part of the world.
So there you have it. 13 titles that should keep me quiet over the summer months. If I do make it to 10 I’ll consider it a miracle but the fun isn’t really whether I make it – it’s the getting there.