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Reading Snapshot September 2016

poole quays

Poole, Dorset. Building in the background is Booker Talk’s ‘home’ for a few days

BookerTalk is on a little holiday in the UK – what apparently we now supposed to label as a ‘staycation’ and feel proud that we’re doing our bit for the UK economy instead of jetting off to far climes. When the sun is shining the British coast is indeed a wonder – especially around Dorset which has spectacular cliffs and hills rolling down to the sea. This is Thomas Hardy country (it’s the Wessex in his novels) but though I should really be re-reading one of his books I forgot to bring one with me.

 

Just Finished

I managed to squeeze in a third Virago title just before the end of AllVirago/All August which also enabled me to complete the #20booksofsummer challenge (or 10 in my case). A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford more than made up for the disappointing The Ice House by Nina Bawden. With a name like Bedford you’d imagine she was a British author but not a bit of it – she was born in Germany to an aristocratic family,  fled to USA to escape the Nazi regime of which she was vocally critical and spent most of the post war years living in France and Italy. A Favourite of the Gods is her second novel – I’ll get around to reviewing this soon but if you haven’t read it, its a wonderful portrait of three generations of strong women.

Reading Currently 

I’m deep into the Booker prize 2016 longlist at the moment. There’s no chance of reading all – or even most – of the 13 titles before the shortlist is announced mid September but I wanted to try a few just to get the measure of what’s in contention. I know many people are anti-Amazon but I do like the option to download a free sample of an ebook. It’s meant I’ve been able to get a feel of some of the longlist without having to fork out too many pennies to buy hard copies. I do have full versions of three to read yet though: J.M. Coetzee’s  The Schooldays of Jesus; Graeme Macrae Burnet’s  His Bloody Project and David Szalay’s All That Man Is.  But first I need to finish the rather wonderful  The Many by Wyl Menmuir. This is a short novel but the atmosphere of foreboding he creates is superb. Hope this one makes it to the shortlist – it deserves to be on it.

On the Horizon

Probably I’ll be opening the J.M. Coetzee  The Schooldays of Jesus shortly. I’ve enjoyed the two other novels I’ve read by him so expecting a lot from this one. After that it will be a case of head down to read the titles on the syllabus of a course on children’s literature I start in October. Hoist the sails for Treasure Island and (sigh) Swallows and Amazons…..

 

Adultery in Islington: Nina Bawden’s The Ice House #Virago

the-ice-houseWhen asked in an interview for The Independent newspaper how she would describe her novel The Ice House was about, Nina Bawden answered:

Asked what The Ice House is ‘about’, I would probably say ‘adultery in Islington’. But that would be to speak dismissively, protectively, as a parent in a superstitious culture might cover a child’s face and call it plain and stupid. In fact, it is a novel about love and friendship; in particular, the friendship between two women who have been close since a dreadful episode in childhood when one of them was viciously beaten by her father.

Friendship is the theme that runs through the four sections of this novel. It begins in around 1951 with two fifteen year old girls Daisy Brown and Ruth Perkins who live in London. Their different backgrounds and characters make them rather unusual friends. Daisy lives within the warm embrace of a loving modestly well-off family who take a relaxed, open attitude to their domestic situation.   Ruth Perkin comes from a wealthy family who live in a turreted house hidden behind large gates complete with a disused ice house in one of the corners of the grounds. She’s a quiet child who says little about her family and her father’s rather strict form of upbringing. She explains this by his years spent as a prisoner of war in Japan. No-one else that Daisy knows has ever been invited to the Perkin’s house before so an unexpected invitation to tea gives her a thrill. it will give her a chance maybe to discover information about Ruth’s family that Ruth has never shared with her friend.

The real explanation for Ruth’s reticence becomes abundantly clear soon after Daisy enters the Perkin household and encounters her father Captain Perkins. Daisy is a bit of a flirt but even she is surprised at the forwardness of the Captain’s comments

“Captain Perkin said, ‘I daresay you have lots of boyfriends, Daisy,’ and she was conscious that her last year’s summer dress was too tight across the chest. … ‘I hope your mother knows what she is doing,’ Captain Perkin said. ‘I am careful with Ruth. But I have seen a bit of the world, you understand. I know what men are, with ripe young girls.’ He spluttered as he laughed, as if his mouth was full of juice. And, with a gloating emphasis, ‘I know what girls are, come to that!’ His eyes were on her breasts.”

The experience of that afternoon, though never spoken about between the two girls, cements their relationship, Thirty years later, they live on the same street in the Islington district of London, they are still friends though married and with families of their own. They live nearby, keep in regular touch. When Luke, Daisy’s husband, is killed in a road accident which may be a suicide, secrets are revealed that shock Ruth. Instead of a the loving marriage she thought her friend had she finds Daisy  launches into a series of diatribes against her husband and reveals she’d been bored with her marriage.

The development comes at a time when Ruth is also experiencing some difficulties with her own marriage. Her husband Joe becomes more distant having taken his friend’s death very hard and Ruth fears what he is keeping hidden from her. Eventually he comes clean and discloses there has been someone else in his life for some time.

The two friends move onto a different phase of their lives in which they contemplate life without a partner or with only a semblance of a relationship. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way over the next few years as the different personalities of the friends shape their responses. And Ruth’s previous experience as a child plays a significant part in her own ability to deal with life.

I wanted to enjoy this rather more than I did. I didn’t warm to either character and found the rather tedious at times. I just wanted the book to be over. It’s the third title I’ve read by Nina Bawden. The first A Little Love, a Little Learning was wonderful, the second The Solitary Child left me cold – you can see my reactions here . My most recent experience hasn’t left me with a feeling Bawden isn’t for me but I need to chose the next one more carefully it seems.

Footnotes

Author: The Ice House by Nina Bawden

Published: 1993 by Virago Modern Classics

Length: 236 pages

My copy: Bought from a charity shop in Oxford. Read as part of AllVirago/All August month in 2016. Also counts towards my Classics Club challenge and the #20booksofsummer challenge for 2016

 

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

Devoted Ladies by M.J. Farrell #Virago

devoted ladiesWhen I spotted a Virago copy of Devoted Ladies by M.J. Farrell in an Oxford charity shop, I knew precisely three things about M. J Farrell:

  1. She was Irish.
  2. She also wrote under the name of Molly Keane – a name popular among bloggers who are avid readers of Virago Modern Classics.
  3. Her work was characterised by a sharpness of wit that was directed at the Anglo Irish landed gentry of which she was a member.

About Devoted Ladies I knew next to nothing. The back cover blurb told me it was her fifth novel and was unusual in that the elements which characterised her first four publications – namely, horses, romance and snobbery – were replaced by something rather more sensational and gritty. Rather more up my street in other words.

This is a tale of two women who live together within the fashionable London society circle of the 1930s. Farrell avoids any mention of a physical relationship between them but drops enough hints for us to detect this is a lesbian couple; a daring topic for a novel given that only a few years earlier Radclyffe Hall’s  novel on the same theme, Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity.

It doesn’t take long to further establish that far from being ‘devoted’ Jessica and Jane have a rather stormy relationship. Jessica is butch, domineering and sharp-tongued; Jane is softer, a bit silly, and a drinker. She is easy prey to the cruel possessive behaviour of her ‘friend’.

Her cohort of friends don’t care for what they witness – particularly when things turn nastily violent – and fear for her safety. But they’re also rather tired of what they consider Jane’s histrionics. One of them, the playwright Sylvester Browne, is too wrapped up in his own world and anyway doesn’t see it as his business to intervene. It’s left to a newcomer among this group, George Playfair, an Irish gentleman of the hunting class, to come to Jane’s aid. When he finds Jane recovering from a bout of alcoholic poisoning he takes pity on her and persuades her to leave her London home and visit Ireland to aid her recovery. Since he doesn’t really comprehend the nature of her relationship with Jessica he’s oblivious to the way she will interpret his invitation as a challenge to her own control over Jane. The battle is set with Jane caught in the middle.

It took a while for me to warm to Devoted Ladies. I enjoyed the first scenes which lay out a world which has so few cares it can devote itself entirely to hedonistic pleasures. Jane isn’t a particularly likeable character – in the early chapters she plays a lot on the little girl lost act but is essentially a drunk much given to plaintive requests to her guests to”fix me a brandy and soda, I feel horrible.” when she feels she is being ignored. The first chapters set in Ireland didn’t set me alight either since much of this revolves around Sylvester and the Hester and Viola (Piggy) Browne, two cousins with whom he stays in Ireland and who struck me as rather pathetic initially.

Piggy is a charmless character when we first get to know her; lacking self knowledge and consideration for Hester, spending money on frivolous presents ye nothing that would make the house they share more habitable. But then Piggy began to get a hold on me the more I saw how Farrell  made her silliness and self centred nature a mask. Piggy is so desperate to be loved and valued, that she goes to quite extraordinary lengths to gain the approval of her so-called friend Joan though their every encounter uses her hours of anxiety. How to time her arrival at Joan’s house so as not to appear too eager yet not lose a precious moment of time with Joan? And then the vexed question of what to wear, requiring a delicate balance between looking good and yet not looking as if she’d gone out to buy something new especially.

How To Look One’s Best in Old Clothes was a question that fevered Piggy to her very soul. The passion that was on her to look her very best on these lovely days was set about miserably by the knowledge that her appearance in Castlequarter in any clothes not in rags would be met by a cold scrutiny, and Joan’s faint ridiculing voice would examine the matter, saying “Why are you so grand today Piggy?” or “i did mean to take the children ratting in the manure heaps this morning but it seems a bit severe on your nice new clothes.

Poor Piggy resorts to deliberately cutting holes in perfectly good clothes, wearing clothes stained with a dog’s footprints and an odd ensemble, just to try and pass muster. This is a woman whom Farrell shows, is not living – and has never really lived – but merely existed; a victim to stronger characters who know exactly how to pull her strings. Though Devoted Ladies is meant to be comic – and indeed it has its witty moments – my overwhelming feeling when I learned Piggy’s fate was of profound sadness for a life wasted.

What started as a novel I was ambivalent about – and at times considered abandoning – became by the end a moving experience. It’s apparently not Farrell/Keane’s best work (that seems to be considered Good Behaviour which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981) but it’s given me enough of a taste to read her other novels.

Footnotes

Author: Devoted Ladies by M. J Farrell

Published: 1934. Re-issued as Virago Modern Classic number 138 in 1984

Length: 303 pages

My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until All August/All Virago month and #20booksofsummer 2016

Opinions about this novel differ considerably according to some of the reviews on Goodreads. For another fan take a look at the review by heavenali

 

 

The 20 Books of Summer Referendum

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.

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.

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.

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.

Stocking and restocking the shelves

I love this time on a Sunday when all the chores are done and I can snatch some relaxation before getting ready for our Sunday evening ritual of a trip to the local pub followed by a pasta meal and a movie.

I can do this in the warm glow of satisfaction that I’ve achieved one of my projects for this weekend – a long overdue tidy up of my bookshelves. One thing led to another and what started as a project involving shelving in one room quickly morphed into a sort out of all bookshelves dotted around the house. The result are two very large bags waiting to be donated to a local charity. They were enjoyable reads but realistically I am never going to read them again so I’d rather they brought pleasure to someone else instead of gathering dust in my home.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, I decided it would be easier if I organised the books alphabetically instead of grouping them project (all Booker winners on one shelf, classics club reads on another). Alphabetical would make it much easier to see what I have and thus avoid falling into the trap of buying the same book more than once (I’ve ended up with two copies of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and two of Frog by the Nobel Laureate Mo Yan).

The tidy up couldn’t have come too soon because I needed room for some recent purchases.

Viragos

 

Devoted Ladies is the fifth of Molly Keane’s novels but will the first by her that I will have read. Published in 1934 this novel moves Keane out of the world of the Irish landed gentry for the first time and into the world of fashionable, chic London living. It was a bit of a shock for readers used to her previous works to discover in the early pages that the romantic interest this time would be a stormy relationship between a lesbian couple. The novel is a satire on a hedonistic 1930’s world and has apparently a rich, dark humour.

I was actually looking for a reasonably priced and good condition copy of All Passion Spent when I came across Family History. This is the novel Vita Sackville-West wrote immediately after the highly successful and lucrative All Passion Spent. According to the introduction by Victoria Glendinning. Family History did reasonably well when it was published in 1932 it wasn’t a best seller and has since been largely neglected. Glendinning comments that her own feelings about the book have changed – in her biography of Sackville-West she called it a “not very distinguished novel” reflecting the authors own confused personal life at the time but now sees Family History has more depth and complexity than first appreciated.

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall would have been a good choice for The 1924 Club run by Stuck in a Book and KaggsysBookishRamblings in October. But I didn’t get organised in time. But who needs an excuse to read a Virago anyway? This is Radclyffe Hall’s second published novel although it was the first she actually wrote. It’s the story of Joan  Ogden a girl growing up in a stuffy town in England in the 1930s but desperate to break free and become a doctor. On her side is her governess but opposing her ambition is Joan’s mother, a gentle tyrant who knows how to wind Joan around her little finger. Which of these women will ultimately win? I’ve had a glance of the first chapter and love how quickly the battle is set between Joan and her stultifying retired middle class parents.

Any of you read these yet? Which would you suggest I read first?

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