Ancient Light by John Banville 2012 Pub. Penguin ISBN 9780241955406
Another mouth-watering treat from John Banville, whose novel, The Sea, knocked me sideways with the beauty of its prose. I found that I needed to read this book in small chunks then take the time to pick over each sequence and savour fully its place in the grand scheme of things. Neither the events nor the characters are to be taken lightly and I found I was asking myself many questions and coming up with various answers with various degrees of satisfaction. The protagonist, Alex, is at once telling the story of his present involvement in the filming of a biographical picture, while remembering a magical summer when he was fifteen and involved in a passionate affair with Mrs Grey, the mother of his best friend. Fifty years is a long time, and Alex’s memory has the habit of confusing or embellishing the facts, to the point where the reader,and also the narrator, is unsure where reality ends and fantasy begins. This also brings into question the accuracy of other occurrences in his life, especially concerning the aftermath of the tragic suicide of his daughter, Cass.
Only after finishing Ancient Light did I discover that it is the final part of a trilogy which began with “Eclipse” (2000) and continued with “Shroud”(2002). Reading these two books may have given me a fuller backstory, but the novel does stand alone without the need of prequels.
I loved the fine detail of some of Alex’s memories, mainly concerning the sights, sounds and textures from his youth, but found the idea of an intimate affair between a mother and a boy twenty years her junior a little distasteful. Probably no worse than had it been a “Lolita” relationship. In the final chapter when Alex meets up again with his ex-lover’s daughter, we realise that things did not unravel in quite the way we have been led to believe, and the reader begins to understand a little more about Mrs Grey and her bizarre choices.
Union Street by Pat Barker 1982 Pub. Virago ISBN 9780860682837
Classic novel about the lives of women in the industrial north in post-war Britain, in its 25th. reprint! This book has been on my radar for almost 25 years, but I had never read it until now. Set in an unnamed city in the north-east of England in the very early 1970s, the book documents a short time in the lives of seven women and girls, all residents of Union Street. These are tough, gritty, independent (mostly) women who have learnt the hard way how to survive in their environment.
Seven chapters tell the story from the perspective of each of the seven characters; sometimes their tales overlap as the women interract in each others lives. From 11 year old Kelly, traumatised after a hideous encounter with a stranger and withdrawing from a community which has no idea how to help her, to young mother Lisa, struggling to bond with her newborn, to ancient and frail Alice almost giving up the fight to remain living independently in her own home, but finally having the last word. These are women who have worked hard all their lives, struggled to feed their children, had to suffer at the hands and feet of violent men, and survived against all odds.
Pat Barker does not mince her words. Nothing here is softened or prettified for the reader. Life is harsh, the women are hard as nails and the prose tells it all just as it is. There is anger and bitterness by the bucketload and don’t we know it.
I definitely regret not reading this book earlier in my life – I think it would have done me a lot of good to read it in my twenties; after a stress-free upbringing in the rural south, I was blissfully ignorant of any other kind of life. This is a powerful and important novel, set in a time of great uncertainty as Britain’s manufacturing industry is on the wane, and people are starting to realise that jobs are no longer necessarily for life.
The 1990 film “Stanley and Iris”, starring Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro is loosely based on this book; having read through the plot summary, I would say VERY loosely.
Purple America by Rick Moody 1997 Pub. Flamingo ISBN 9780006551027
The first five pages of this book contain a total of three full-stops. It is a lengthy outpouring of emotion and love, but calm and controlled like an epic poem. This prose is quite unlike any novel I’ve read before, and I can feel it’s going to be great. Chapter four was so explosive and heart-wrenching that, rather than being a page-turner, it made me close the book and take a long few minutes to reflect on what I had just been witness to. This is what I want from a book…. beautiful prose, a palpable mood and something to really make me think and feel.
So, what does Purple America mean? Wikipedia tells me it is a truer colour of US voting preferences, being all the shades between pure red (Republican) and true blue (Democrat). The book’s blurb says it describes the metaphoric bruises inflicted on American families in crisis. I have yet to make up my mind, but it is a colour that features strongly in the life of Billie, the mother in the story. Purple is the colour she chose for her interior decorating and her clothes; it is the colour of her towels, and lavender the scent of her toiletries;it’s the colour of the glow of the accident her husband witnessed at the nuclear power plant; it is the colour of war and black eyes; it’s the colour of the sky over the Pacific on a certain morning in 1946 when a coral atoll had just been obliterated in a nuclear test; it is the colour of the end.
This is a book to be savoured, mulled over and remembered. Some passages were so mind-blowing or pulled such a punch that I actually had to stop reading, stunned. 298 pages contain the story of 24 hours in the life of the Raitliffe/Sloane family and a few others, and not a minute goes by without the reader feeling the full anguish and pain of those characters; but this book is not without humour (of the black variety), occasionally becoming farcical, but there is always a grim and sinister undertone threatening to eclipse all this human drama.
This is a great book. I rarely, if ever, read a book twice. I’m already thinking about when I might re-read this one.
Purple is a difficult word to analyse in this context. For me purple signified all the extremes of the human condition. It’s rich, lustful, scary, orgasmic, doom-laden, full-bodied, powerful, joyous, domineering, cloying, luxurious, claustrophobic, viscous……….. and final.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn 2012. Pub. Phoenix ISBN 9780753827666
U.S. Bestseller and The Observer’s thriller of the year, this was recently given to me by a friend and is certainly a page turner. Centred around a wife discovered missing by her husband, this book paints conflicting pictures of two quite unpleasant sounding people “trapped” in a dysfunctional marriage. Alternate chapters from the perspectives of both wife and husband offer versions of life so at odds with each other that it’s a wonder these two managed to stay married for five minutes let alone five years.
I’m sure there will be plenty of twists and turns before I get to the end of this book; I just hope the revulsion welling up in me doesn’t prevent me finding the solution to the many questions posed in the first few chapters….
Well, having read to the end, I was right; things certainly turned out to be somewhat different to the reader’s initial analysis. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone considering marriage or commitment, as it may put them off for life! Seriously, though, all human beings have their flaws and failings, but the husband and wife from Gone Girl have the whole gamut. They are psycho freaks of the first order and probably deserve their life, and I think they know it too.
The first part of the book has chapters narrated by the husband in real time, alternating with past diary entries from the wife. So by the time I reached the midway point, I thought I knew what was occurring and with whom my sympathies lay. Part two quits with the diary, and alternates the husband’s and wife’s real-time activites, causing the reader to re-evaluate. At this point I was beginning to lose credulity and couldn’t think of a satisfactory ending, when along came part three and the full-blown crazy culmination of this surreal and scary story.
This was an easy read (apart from the distasteful personalites involved), but entertaining enough for a rainy weekend when I was suffering from a headcold. From a psychological perspective it was briefly interesting, but the caricatures of the protagonists were extreme enough to be Hollywood ‘B’ material, but lacking longevity as brain-fodder.
The Hungry Self by Kim Chernin 1985. Pub. HarperPerennial ISBN 9780060925048
First published when the second wave of Women’s Lib was firing on all cylinders in the UK, this book explores the psychology of eating disorders which were becoming frighteningly prevalent in the 80s, especially amongst young women and adolescent girls. From her experience in counselling many of these women, Kim Chernin highlights cultural aspects of the mother daughter relationship, changing female expectations and ambitions through the generations and the historical exclusion of women from culture worldwide.
I found the text rather highbrow at times and the psychology rather hard to swallow, probably because I’m a middle-aged cynic, but there was a lot that made sense to me. I’m still not sure about the mother/daughter theory, but I felt the book became more relevant and accessible in the final few chapters.
The Ebony Tower by John Fowles 1974. Pub. Vintage ISBN 9780099480518
Comprising the “novellete” The Ebony Tower along with four short stories, this book has been sitting on my bookshelf for some time. Perhaps the rather unattractive front cover from the mid-seventies was what repelled me. After reading the book, I don’t feel much different I’m afraid. The book is usually described as five stories with a common theme, but I have yet to discover it. I found it very dated in parts, which was a disappointment, especially as the thing that dated it was its sexist attitude towards women. In The Enigma, an allegedly left-leaning and liberated young woman refers to some lesbians in her community as “lezzies”,a negative aspect of the neighbourhood; in The Cloud a young actress on holiday with her boyfriend and his son is described thus “bell-bottomed and pert-arsed…she has long blond hair which she tosses too often…..she invites regiments and rape” and is never developed as a character in much the same way as she is “much cast as the trendy girlfriend”. In The Ebony Tower there is much bottom-smacking and crude sexual innuendo from one male character, and uncomprehending disbelief from the other as the object of his sexual desire locks her bedroom door to him. I’m pretty sure that if she hadn’t, he would have raped her anyway.
There were no strong female characters in the book. One woman, called Mouse by her elderly male benefactor because of the appearance of her vulva (which he explained with relish to the visiting male who narrates and who had met neither of them before) does get a certain amount of dialogue and personality but ultimately exists only to facilitate the existence of the elderly male she looks after.
I expect you can tell that I was quite irritated by this book, but there were some things about it that I really enjoyed. The Cloud was super atmospheric and transported me into the midst of that sultry French afternoon with language that described the scene perfectly. Poor Koko was interesting from a psychologiocal perspective, dealing with fear, violence, senseless destruction and anger. The Enigma looked at responsibilty and the pressure to conform and how someone could escape from all that. Nestled amongst these stories is Eliduc, the retelling of an ancient Celtic tale set in France and Devon about a soldier unable to stay faithful to the wife who loves him.
Empire of the Sun by J.G.Ballard 1984. Pub. HarperPerennial ISBN 9780007815449
The book begins in 1941 Shanghai, where 11-year-old Jim lives with his father, an entrepreneur, and mother in the International Settlement. It’s a life of privilege and parties; large cars, swimming pools, Chinese servants, chandeliers and cocktails are de rigeur amongst the expats. Born in Shanghai, Jim knows no other life, so when the foreigners are rounded up by the Japanese Army and interned in huge camps there is no longing for the gentle past-times of a green English homeland for him. Having been seperated from his parents in the bustle and terrifying confusion of the city streets, Jim really has to live on his wits, and occasionally put his trust in the most dubious of characters who don’t necessarily have Jim’s best interests at heart.
Once again, I have learnt so much from a novel. I hadn’t really spent much time considering the wider effects of WWII; in Europe, we have heard so much about the Holocaust, the French Resistance and the D-Day landings, often forgetting that the war raged in Asia too. In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour bombings, the Japanese moved in to occupy Shanghai and its wider surroundings. As well as the brutal and heartless treatment of the Chinese population, thousands of British, American, Dutch and Belgians were imprisoned in the most desperate and deprived conditions for up to four years, starved, allowed to die from various illnesses linked to poor sanitation and diet, then, in the very last days of the war, marched to death into the countryside.
Jim’s youth, vivid imagination and inquisitive nature stand him in good stead in the camp, and he makes himself useful to some, while being a source of irritation to many others. Probably the most painful part of this book was reading how so many people failed to show any love or kindness to this small boy on the brink of adolescence who was without parents.
Empire of the Sun is not exactly an autobiography; at the back of my edition is an interview with the author and an account entitled The End of My War. Here Ballard reflects on his wartime experience as the time when, bizarrely, he felt happiest and most at home. For me, one of his most profound statements is:- “Lunghua Camp was a huge slum, and as in all slums the teenage boys ran wild. I sympathise now with the parents in English sink-estates who are criticised for failing to control their children.”
(Note – a sink-estate is an area of housing where there are high levels of unemployment, social and economic deprivation and often crime.)
Empire of the Sun has affected me deeply. Jim has witnessed things no child should have to deal with, yet his strength of character has seen him through a horrific war and out the other side. He has seen people die, dug their graves, been used as a gambling chip by ruthless bandits, come face to face with dangerous enemy soldiers and fought for every scrap of food he could lay his hands on. I would like to think that I too would be strong enough to endure and overcome, but, in all honesty, I very much doubt it.
NW by Zadie Smith 2012. Pub. Penguin ISBN 9780141036595
Four young Londoners all attended the same school, but their lives have followed different paths since leaving. Zadie Smith’s writing has the unique power to transport you into her characters’ world so completely that you are not just observing from the periphery but feeling each agonising emotion, smelling and seeing each moment, with crystalline clarity. Short, sharp prose with no superfluous detail perfectly describes London life.
I was about to visit London for the weekend when I chose this book from my shelf; it just seemed fitting. I read the first few chapters sitting on a third floor roof terrace overlooking Islington with the air full of the sounds of London waking up to a sunny Sunday morning. Perfect.
Of the four main characters, it’s Leah and Natalie (Keisha) who we get to know best. Friends since Keisha saved a four-year-old Leah from drowning in the park’s paddling pool, their lives have gone in opposite directions but the bonds are still strong. While Natalie is apparently happy in her marriage to a rich and successful man, and bringing up two beautiful children, Leah is hanging on by her fingertips desperately trying to maintain her marriage. While her husband is desperately keen to start a family, Leah is doing all she can to remain child-free. We also meet Felix, trying to put some space between himself and his previously unsavoury existence since falling blissfully in love with a woman alongside whom he can see himself starting a new life; and Nathan who has many secrets, but is, “at the very least, a person of interest.”
I love how the writing style differs between the various characters. Leah’s part is in the present tense and full of anxiety and confusion. The image in my head was a bright, bright sun casting a glaring light over everything, a soundtrack of disjointed notes on a glockenspiel. Natalie’s part is in short paragraphs like snapshots of the past and distant past in random order. Determined to escape the housing estate where she grew up, Keisha studies hard, changes her name, qualifies as a barrister and makes the perfect marriage with the glamorous but slightly goofy Francesco. Against the backdrop of Carnival weekend, the lives of our protagonists begin to unravel in alarming ways. Sprinkled with characters from all walks of Northwest London life, this book is by turns gripping, fascinating, charming and terrifying. I loved it.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki 2013. Pub. Canongate ISBN 9780857867971
In Tokyo, Nao is skipping high school and writing a journal, partly about her miserable existence since returning from ex-pat life in California, but mostly about her great grandmother, an anarcho-feminist buddhist nun of one hundred and four years.
Some months after the Tohoku tsunami, Ruth picks up a plastic wrapped package washed up on her local beach in Vancouver Island, and discovers inside it Nao’s journal.
I lived in Tokyo for two years in the early nineties and am a bit of a nihongophile, so this book is really interesting for me. As well as lots of descriptions of Japanese culture, such as the hot communal baths and an obsession for all things European, the written language plays a big part in this book. Footnotes at the bottom of each page explain usually two or three terms, often with their kanji characters. All kanji have two ways of reading, onyomi and kunyomi, but the same meaning; with the knowledge of around 2,000 characters you can read a newspaper, but to understand a technical document or ancient buddhist text you need to know around 8,000. There was a time when I could read and write a couple of hundred, but that has dwindled to very few. I used to have a dictionary and was able to look kanji up – they are listed according to the number of penstrokes used to write them – and it’s a fascinating study.
I raced through this book, always eager to read the next development in first Nao’s then Ruth’s story. I loved it, but the quantum mechanics/time-shifting towards the end just took the shine off a little bit. Visits from dead ancestors I can deal with, but dream sequences changing history was a little difficult to get my head around. There are a few appendices at the back which I have yet to read, and they are titled Zen Moments, Quantum Mechanics and Schrödinger’s Cat (among others). Perhaps I will be more open/enlightened/accepting when I have got through those pages.
Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd 1985. Pub. Penguin ISBN 9780141042015
Set in the eighteenth century, much of London has been destroyed in the Great Fire. Brilliant architect, and protegé of Christopher Wren, Nicholas Dyer receives a Royal Commission to design and build seven new parish churches in London.
Before I get into the book, I think it’s worth mentioning that this was one of the books chosen by Penguin as “the books that helped shape modern Britain” to celebrate its 75th Anniversary. The books, five each from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, were given new cover designs; the cover for Hawksmoor was designed by John Squire (more here).
This is a dark and, frankly, quite disturbing book. With stories from different centuries, but dealing with characters of the same names, running concurrently throughout, it’s as though a cyclical nightmare is running around the reader’s brain, warping and transforming in subtle ways. The paranoid Dyer is charging around London knocking people off in the name of the devil; Christopher Wren is trying to enlighten him; in the mid twentieth century Detective Chief Superintendant Hawksmoor is tasked with solving current murders which mirror those of the early eighteenth century; the victims themselves also have a voice. A recurring theme through the book is children’s verse, the kind that children chant in the playground and have little or no apparent meaning. This gives an even more sinister feel to the book. As Hawksmoor is sucked deeper into the murder investigation it’s as if his being aligns itself with the architect. The churches become major characters in Hawksmoor’s London, creeping up on him, looming out of shadows and creating optical illusions.
Kiss me, kiss me if you can
I will put you in my pan
Kiss me, kiss me as you said
I will fry you till you’re dead
This book has definitely made me want to learn more about the Hawksmoor churches in London: Christ Church, Spitalfields; St. George’s, Bloomsbury; St. Alfege’s, Greenwich; St. Anne’s, Limehouse; St. George in the East, Wapping; St. Mary’s, Woolnoth; St. Luke’s, Old Street; St. John’s, Horsleydown (mostly destroyed). An excellent tour of five of the chuches is described here.
Disobedience by Naomi Alderman 2006. Pub. Penguin ISBN 9780141025957
New York career woman, Ronit, returns to her orthodox Jewish roots in north London after the death of her father, a chief Rabbi (Rav). Ronit’s life in New York has been quite different from that in London. In NY the Jewish community is brash and vocal; Jewish customs are mainstream and embraced by the wider population. In London, things are altogether different. The Jewish community is insular and secretive; unless you are an orthodox Jew you really have little idea of their culture and customs. Ronit’s religious practices have lapsed in America; she no longer worries about dressing demurely; she doesn’t recognise the Sabbath; she doesn’t keep her kitchen utensils used with meat separate from those used with milk. Her hometown of Hendon is going to prove challenging for her when she goes back to take care of her father’s possessions, not least the fact that her childhood best friend, Esti, has gone and married Ronit’s devoutly religious cousin without breathing a word.
I am really enjoying this book so far. With alternate passages telling the story from Ronit’s then Esti’s perspective it is both humorous and touching. Each chapter begins with a short excerpt from one of the sacred Jewish texts such as the Mishnah Tamid, or the Old Testament or the Shacharit, and a short lesson or story which explains many Orthodox Jewish customs and beliefs. So by the time you get to the end you have had a basic education in the type of upbringing Ronit and Esti received, and the community’s expectations of them. There are also a handful of recipes for Jewish staples such as Chicken Soup and Gefilte Fish, and a list of recommended kosher restaurants in London. I love to have learned some new things whenever I finish a book, and I really feel like I have a far better understanding of Orthodox Judaism than before.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink 1997. Pub. Orion ISBN 9780753804704
An extraordinary Holocaust novel, exceedingly painful but not without beauty. Split into three parts, part 1 deals with a chance meeting between the narrator, Michael, a fifteen year old schoolboy, and Hanna, a tramline worker in her thirties. The two embark on an intense and passionate affair, giving Michael a chance to feel equal or even superior to his peers, and letting Hanna into the world of literature which has hitherto been closed to her. Michael’s sexual awakening is described beautifully; the smell of his lover’s skin and the strength of her body are major triggers of his passions. However, it’s not all plain sailing, and Michael must learn how to appease and take responsibility when faced with Hanna’s sometimes cruel and unfathomable behaviour.
Part 2 documents Michael’s life after Hanna’s unexplained departure, while in part 3 the two again come face to face in very different circumstances. Intertwined with the personal lives of our protagonists are horrific and moving reports from the death camps and enforced marching of the prisoners. Michael and his peers, as students in the early sixties, come to believe that their parents must bear some blame for the Holocaust, if not as Third Reich officers, then often as those who watched it all happen or who did not try to stop it. The sixties and seventies must have been a terribly difficult time to live in Germany. Trials for war-crimes were taking place and it seemed like everyone born before about 1920 needed to justify their action and inaction to the younger generation.
My feeling as I finished this book was mostly sadness. It showed me that things are not always as black and white as we tend to portray them. And there are more questions to which I still need to figure out the answers; questions about guilt, shame, pride, hope and forgiveness.
Persuasion by Jane Austen 1817. Pub. Wordsworth Classics ISBN 978-1853260568
I haven’t read any Jane Austen since I was in the last days of pregnancy just over nineteen years ago. That was Pride and Prejudice and thankfully I got to the end just before labour started, otherwise it would have been forever unfinished. We have recently heard that an image of Jane Austen will be printed on our £10 notes from 2017, so in celebration of that I decided to pick up this novel which has been gathering dust on my bookshelf for some time. Austen is well-known and well-loved by her fans who see her novels as bright, breezy, charming and romantic. Others, however, including the literary critic, Frances Wilson (in a recent post on MailOnline), see her as the chronicler of all that was nasty, boring and superficial in 19th century England. I think that the fact she is still widely read and her books are still being adapted for film and TV, and still inspiring new writers and filmmakers (Helen Fielding et al) almost 200 years after her death is pretty awesome. It must have been incredibly difficult to get a publisher to take her work seriously and get it into print all that time ago; perhaps the subjects of her novels were boring, nasty and superficial, but she wrote about them so well, and her writing has survived the test of time.
Austen’s observations and characterisation are excellent, and the story moves along at a good pace. With the heavy use of clauses and sub-clauses, I have sometimes been forced to re-read particularly long sentences, but that is probably more due to my wandering mind than any flawed writing. Persuasion has the usual cast of flapping, fickle females and moody, mysterious males, though the heroine, Anne Elliot, is level-headed and intelligent. As eight eligible young people stalk around one another trying their best to give nothing away of their true feelings, Jane Austen keeps us guessing until well into part 2. We kind of know all of them will hook up by the final page, it’s just a matter of who with whom.
Persuasion is something of a deviation for Jane Austen. Her heroine, far from being a weak girl still to learn about life, and who makes girlish mistakes but with the right guidance eventually chooses the best path , is a mature woman in her late twenties (verging on middle-aged back in the early nineteenth century) who sees herself rightly as the moral equal of men, and who is not afraid to speak her mind. In the final chapter Anne shares her views on education and male privilege, and we must surmise that Jane Austen was a feminist and probably influenced by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft. Imagine what she may have gone on to write if it weren’t for her untimely death soon after the completion of this novel.
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson 2006. Pub. Penguin ISBN 9780099552765
From the start this novel reads like a dark mystery from the early twentieth century, but it soon becomes clear that this is very modern indeed, set as it is in 2004. After an introduction which would not be out of place in a classic Conan Doyle, we get to the testament itself, written by the late Rev. Gideon Mack, a somewhat unorthodox churchman who, before meeting his death in the Highlands, had miraculously survived a drowning. In the three days between falling in the river and being washed up further downstream, Mack professes to have been saved by Satan himself.
His tale begins with the discovery of a large standing stone in the woods he goes running through every day. It has never been there before and its presence is quite sinister and frightening. Keeping the tension high, we are continually being taken back to witness Mack’s austere and occasionally brutal upbringing. The boy Gideon immediately struck an empathetic chord with me as the child struggling to keep everyone happy and avoid ridicule from his schoolmates, while learning everything he could about the adult world from books borrowed from the local town library and furtively read in private at home. However, the lack of love given to the child Gideon seems to have far reaching consequences in his future choices and relationships.
Within a year of discovering the stone, Gideon’s life has unravelled and his congregation and most of the townsfolk have turned against him. Exploring themes of faith, guilt, mortality and the whole purpose of our existence on earth, this is a truly thought-provoking and heart-wrenching novel. Almost 400 pages long, I read the last two hundred in a single sitting, so gripping did I find it. Highly recommended.
Titus Awakes by Maeve Gilmore 2011. Pub. Vintage ISBN 9780099552765
Working on a fragment left by her husband, Mervyn Peake, on his death in 1968, Maeve Gilmore brought his vision to life here in this fourth book in the Gormenghast series. It follows the fortunes of Titus Groan our young protagonist who was born at Gormenghast Castle in the first, eponymous book. Alone once more, who knows where, Titus is again brought back from the brink of death by the kindness of strangers and forms a relationship of sorts, only to leave it all behind him when the panicked feeling of entrapment gets to him. The plot and action is very slow moving but I do feel that small insights into Titus’ thought processes make this an accessible read. I wouldn’t say his is a character that I have warmed to, but he seems more human than in the previous book, perhaps because he has a dog…
Titus continues on in a kind of dream state, meeting various characters and being drawn into bizarre and random situations, never really being in control of where he ends up. He starts to believe that he will forever be an outsider; observing but never able to be fully integrated in any kind of society or community. Twice on his travels Titus meets a character who I’m sure is Mervyn Peake himself, obviously a creative genius who draws and writes, but who is locked inside himself by some awful and crippling illness. It may be Titus’ deep compassion for this man which finally allows him to feel he will find somewhere he can settle and perhaps be content. I felt just a glimmer of hope for Titus as he reached the terminus of his journey.
Hope:A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander 2012. Pub. Picador ISBN 9781447207665
Eternal optimist, Solomon Kugel, cannot stop thinking about dying. He’s also struggling with the guilt he feels regarding his son and the guilt he feels regarding his wife. There’s also the fact that his ageing mother is living in the downstairs room he should be getting rent for, not to mention the uninvited, and non-rent paying, tenant he discovers living in his attic.
All in all Solomon Kugel is a living, breathing knot of anxiety; the world is against him and he doesn’t know if he can stomach the fight. This is an hilarious and light-hearted (unless you are Solomon Kugel) look at the tortured existence of one harangued Jewish husband, father and son. He has so many hang-ups and so many responsibilities, his life has become almost farcical, in the most painful way imaginable. Things can surely only get worse.
It may come as no surprise that things really do go from bad to worse for Kugel, as, one by one the constants in his life dissolve away and in the end it really is just himself and his hope. Throughout the book, Kugel ponders his own mortality and how he might be remembered after his death. With the help of his psychoanalyst, Kugel loses all faith in the importance of happiness; of much more pressing import is that one’s final written message should contain no typos.
This is really a very funny book, but also very touching. Kugel, in trying to do the best thing for everyone in his household, finally loses everything. Perhaps his most fitting epithet would be SOLOMON KUGEL He meant well.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel 2012. Pub. Fourth Estate ISBN 0007315109 MY TOP PICK OF 2013
Sequel to Wolf Hall, this is the continuing story of Thomas Cromwell, right hand man of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall dealt mainly with Henry’s struggle to obtain a divorce from Katherine to enable him to marry the object of his obsession, Anne Boleyn. At the beginning of this second installment Jane Seymour has caught the eye of the king as his ardour for Anne begins to wane. Thomas Cromwell must find a way to help Henry achieve his desires if he is to keep his position of Chief Minister.
Both books have won the Man Booker Prize as well as many other literary accolades. The writing is in the present tense which makes it somehow more relevant and vital because it’s as if you, the reader, are witnessing and reporting all the action. This makes it extremely readable, and hard to put down.
In our history lessons and in literature and film, Thomas Cromwell has always been depicted as a scheming, unlikeable and ruthless man. In Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel showed us a different side; he was a family man who loved his wife and children and thought deeply about things. In Bring Up The Bodies Cromwell is a middle-aged widower, his wife and two daughters having died of influenza. He is not well-loved by the church because he has destroyed many abbeys and monastries. He is not popular amongst the nobility because he has worked his way up from lowly beginnings to the high position he holds in the King’s inner circle. But he is generous, bringing up and educating many orphaned boys in his household; sponsoring young men through university; bringing in laws to force wealthy bishops to do the same. With so many dependent on him, of course he needs to keep hold of his job and that means keeping the King happy.
I admit that I do not dislike Thomas Cromwell. After a tough childhood, he travelled abroad independently, learning skills and languages, returned to England, raised his family then used his knowledge and experience to achieve the powerful position he held at court. I think it’s a mistake to judge him by today’s standards. Times under the Tudors were hard; those in positions of power were unforgiving.
In a recent documentary on BBC2, “Henry XIII’s Enforcer:The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell”, Diarmaid MacCulloch became probably the first popular historian to broadcast his belief that TC was not the conniving and evil piece of work we have always been led to believe he was. Hilary Mantel tells us how Cromwell was a religious and social reformer who believed that every man wanted to work and it was the state’s job to create that work. Honest labour, perhaps helping to make the country’s infrastructure of roads, harbours and bridges, would benefit the whole country. Unfortunately, the landowners who made up the House of Commons were not sympathetic to this view in 1535.
I have always had an interest in social history, but, until now, have never really been gripped by political or royal history. I would wholeheartedly recommend this excellently researched and brilliantly written book to any reader. The third part of the trilogy should be published in 2014.
The Promise of Light by Paul Watkins 1992. Faber and Faber ISBN 0571169430
It’s 1921 in Rhode Island, USA. The aftermath of a tragic accident forces young Ben Sheridan to seriously question his true ancestry, and so he sets forth on a voyage of discovery to Ireland, the country of his birth.
Even before he has touched dry land Ben is aware of a barely concealed menace amongst the crew members of his ship, but this is nothing compared to the terror he is plunged into on the shore, for Ireland is gripped in a bloody war and Ben is in deep, albeit unwittingly. Dubbed The Black and Tan War after the many hued and mismatched uniforms of the British soldiers, many of whom had returned from the Great War to something less than a land fit for heroes and joined a recruitment drive initiated by the then Secretary of State for War, one Winston Churchill, the War of Independence pitted the Royal Irish Constabulary (bolstered by the British) against the IRA (Irish Republican Army).
This is a place where a man can be arrested for standing around with his hands in his pockets, and once in custody it’s unlikely he will come out alive; the Irish police have turned informers, but can still be bought by their countrymen; the rebels are reliant on guns smuggled from America. It is an increasingly dangerous situation. Ben’s arrival is seen as something akin to the second coming of christ, something he can’t quite understand at first, but as he finds out more details of his father’s previous life in Ireland the parts of the puzzle begin to form a clearer picture.
This is a rather out of the ordinary coming of age story; there is no extended summer of blissful adventure, no boyish high jinks or blossoming romance. This is a boy being forced to grow up fast in the most brutal of circumstances, taking on responsibilites beyond his previous imagination and learning a lesson in solidarity which might just save his life. The language is quite sparse and matter of fact which fits perfectly in the setting. The blurb on the back says it is a style reminiscent of Hemingway, with which I would agree.
This is a powerful and emotive read, which manages to remain objective without being detached from its subject and characters. I was very impressed whilst also learning a fair bit about a part of British history that wasn’t taught in school.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter 1979. Pub. Vintage ISBN 0099588115
This slim volume comprises ten short stories of various length, featuring a variety of characters both new and traditional; or so you thought. Angela Carter is a supreme storyteller; her language is rich, sensuous and full of imagery, yet at the same time completely timeless and so the stories refuse to date. Within these magical pages we meet re-imaginings of Bluebeard, Red-Riding Hood, Puss-in-Boots and Beauty and the Beast. Each is familiar but at the same time fresh and modern. I felt it possible that all these tales are set in the modern era but would equally be at home 150 years ago, such is the cleverness of the writing.
I think my favourite story is “The Tiger’s Bride”. With similarities to Beauty and the Beast, we are jolted into a different reality when, instead of the beast becoming human, here Beauty’s skin is dissolved away by the beast’s abrasive tongue to reveal her lustrous fur pelt.
Puss-in-Boots is depicted as a feline Lothario who not only has a way with the female of his own species, but also fixes it for his human master to charm his way into the hearts of ladies both eligible and married. I got the strong feeling that here was the inspiration for Antonio Banderas’s performance in the Shrek movies!
Many of the stories have a twist in the tale, just in case you were lulled into some kind of a sense that you knew what was going on. Angela Carter always has the ability to surprise the reader. For me, one of her major strengths is her depiction of female sexuality; sometimes there is no logical explanation but she just knows the way it is. Simply brilliant!
Haweswater by Sarah Hall 2002. Pub. Faber and Faber ISBN 0571209309
Set in post WW1 Cumbria in the far North West of England, the story begins with the difficult birth of little Janet Lightburn in a tiny rural village of only twenty or so families. As Janet reaches adulthood, the arrival in the village of a smiling stranger in a shiny car brings news that will change all their lives forever. Industrial Manchester needs water, and this remote valley with its bedrock of compacted shale and lava is the perfect location for a dam.
This is the first novel by Sarah Hall, who was born and brought up in Cumbria and whose beautiful prose absolutely does justice to that visually stunning part of the country. She obviously has enormous love and respect for the fells and mountains of the Lake District and the hard life of the agricultural workers who lived on it in the earlier part of the 20th century.
As the land emerges from the long and bitter winter of 1935-6 and signs of spring start to appear, so we are witness to the beginnings of a passionate and almost animalistic love affair, lived entirely in the stunning woods, waters and moors of the Cumbrian dales. While news of a sinister power starting to take hold on mainland Europe filters through to the village, the residents have their own big issues to deal with much closer to home.
This book could not be a better advertisement for the English Lakes; I certainly now have a burning desire to visit. And also I will be looking out for more titles by this wonderful author. I can’t recommend her highly enough.
Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman 2010. Pub. Sceptre ISBN 0340998410
Celebrated first novel by this young Londoner. Sent on an errand by a dubious (possibly gangster) employer, computer geek and collector (though not, as far as we know, sympathiser) of Nazi memorabilia, Kevin Broom, accidently happens upon a letter written by Chancellor Adolf Hitler in October 1936 and addressed to a Dr. Philip Erskine in London.
We are then transported back in time to the London of 1934 where we begin to follow the fortunes of teenage boxing sensation Seth “Sinner” Roach who is balanced on the cusp of super stardom on both sides of the Atlantic. A chance meeting with Erskine, erstwhile entomologist and eugenics enthusiast, sets the story galloping on. I don’t know if his surname or his unique physical appearance is what first brings Sinner to the attention of Erskine, but I’ve got a feeling insects are about to feature a lot more in this book. Still early days!
Something I found quite interesting is that there have already been mentions of Nicholas Hawksmoor, architect and subject of another book on my To Read pile (Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd), and the 19th century anthropologist Augustus Pitt-Rivers, whose collection of objects was the beginning of the museum bearing his name at Oxford University, subject of my blogpost back in September 2012. It’s curious how you can be totally unaware of a person or place for years and years, then as soon as you learn about them they start popping up in all sorts of situations.
We travel back and forth in time from the 1930s pre-Third Reich to the present day, from a weekend of fine living at the country pile of budding English fascists to the culinary delights of breakfast at a roadside Little Chef. This is a whodunnit peopled with eccentrics from all walks of life; a thoroughly entertaining and unique read, somewhat reminiscent of Iain Banks.
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton 2012. Pub. Penguin ISBN 0141046310
A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion. This paperback book is made of the most lovely paper: – smooth, lustrous and a pleasure to handle. Just thought I’d mention it as it is an unusual phenomenon.
This book looks at the positive aspects of organised religion, and religious practices and examines whether they can be useful to us in a secular world in order to improve as individuals or as a society. Divided into 10 chapters, Wisdom without Doctrine, Community, Kindness, Education, Tenderness, Pessimisn, Perspective, Art, Architecture and Institutions, the author explains that we can find meaning in many areas of our lives by taking a lead from some of the good ideas that religions sometimes have about how we should live. He is mainly looking at Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism and Buddhism, and shows just how much wisdom there really is in religious tradition if we care to look. For instance in the large chapter on education, De Botton suggests that the repeated reading of religious texts and repeated prayers really does serve to reinforce our learning. This, opposed to the overload of information we get from speed reading the newspaper or watching TV news bulletins. Does any of it really sink in? “..we are presented with infinitely more material than we can ever assimilate and we struggle to hold on to what matters most.”
This book is easy to pick up for short periods, as the chapters are split into smaller sections, and the language is not overly high-brow or difficult to grasp. There are many illustrations of subjects as diverse as a Japanese tea ceremony to Madonna out with her husband, the art of Richard Long to the paraphernalia on Sigmund Freud’s desk.
This book is quite different to my usual reading material and I must admit it has been a refreshing change. Here is one of my favourite quotes: “To answer our longing for calm, Western consumer society has over the last fifty years refined the concept of sunbathing; Buddhism has taken over a thousand years to perfect the art of meditation.”
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy 1997. Pub. Flamingo ISBN 0006550686
This book is like a jigsaw puzzle; whilst working on a particular section you come across a piece which you can see belongs in another area, so you find its home. Once there, you browse for more of the same until something different catches your eye and gets you working on yet another part of the picture. This is not a book that follows a chronological order. We are taken back in time, then further back, then forward again; all the while the complete picture is starting to emerge, piece by piece.
Rahel and Estha live a charmed childhood in the rural backwaters of Kerala with their mother, uncle, grandmother and baby great aunt; their vivid imaginations, intelligence and daredevil spirits are brilliantly portrayed. I think (hope) every reader will recognise elements of their own childish thought patterns, recklessness and rebellion here. A trip to the airport to meet their cousin from England sets in place a chain of events that will change their lives forever.
I loved this book and the beauty of the writing; it brings the reader into an almost trance-like state with the repetition of certain phrases and ideas. A deep-rooted and hideously unjust caste system is at the foundation of this tragic tale. Pure love lifts it from the depths of doom.
The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives by Sebastian Faulks 1996. Pub. Hutchinson ISBN 0091792114
A book about three extraordinary lives: Christopher Wood, painter; Richard Hillary, Spitfire pilot; Jeremy Wolfenden, Cold War journalist. It’s not without a sense of relief that I closed this book after the final chapter. It’s not that it was poorly researched or written or that the three men named above did not indeed live short but noteworthy lives. I think it’s that I failed to connect with their lives or really care much about them as people, with the exception of Wolfendon who I did feel something for although the extremely complicated spy/double-agent/KGB/SIS story was somewhat difficult to grasp.
So, who were these fatal Englishmen? The first, Christopher (Kit) Wood contracted polio as a boy and spent his teenage years in a long and painful recovery. He left England aged 19 after the first World War and arrived in France with a fierce determination to become Britain’s greatest ever painter, and so began a decade of living amongst the beau monde, making acquaintances and working with some of the great artists in France and going to all the best parties. Unfortunately for Wood, the opium habit he picked up was to be his ultimate downfall, but not before he did indeed claim his place in the history of English painting. He died, tragically, under the wheels of a train at Salisbury Station aged just 29.
Richard Hillary graduated from Oxford University and trained as a pilot of Spitfires. He flew in the Battle of Britain but was badly burned and endured many operations to restore the use of his eyes and hands. During his recuperation, Hillary wrote and published an account of his flying experiences, The Last Enemy, which made him famous both here and across the Atlantic. Hillary was determined to fly in action again although he was never completely physically competent to handle a plane after his severe injuries. He died in a night-training flight in 1943, aged just 23.
Jeremy Wolfenden was hailed as the brightest scholar of his generation in the 1950s after an education at Eton and Oxford, from where he graduated with a congratulatory first. A glittering career in politics was probably what was expected of him, but Wolfenden chose journalism and secured a position at The Times. A posting in Paris was followed by him being head-hunted by The Telegraph and sent to Moscow. The reporting of life in Moscow came with unbelievably tight restrictions, and an undercurrent of surveillance, espionnage and danger tainted all aspects of the ex-patriots’ lives. Wolfenden embarked on a lifestyle of hard-drinking and illicit sex and was soon caught up in circumstances beyond his control. Eventually he managed to escape Moscow and settled in New York and then Washington, but was still of interest to the FBI so was never able to be totally free from menace in his life. He died from the effects of alcohol in 1966 aged just 31.
What these men had in common was a flawed sense of self-preservation. Each was brilliant in his own way, but each was destined to live a foreshortened life.
A Taste for Death by P.D. James 1986. Pub. Faber and Faber ISBN 0571145706
I don’t generally read murder mysteries, but am reading this one for a change (and because P.D. James is one of their greatest practitioners). Two dead bodies have been found in a church; one a homeless man and the other a government minister. Police Commander Adam Dalgliesh (detective and poet) is in charge, ably supported by Kate Miskin local girl from the council flats made good, and Insp. Massingham “posh” boy trying to overcome the stigma of a privileged upbringing.
This is not your average crime novel. Dalgliesh is obviously a cultured man and his appreciation of art, music and literature is evident. We get a little bit of a side story about Kate; her desperate start in life and her pride in hauling herself out of it and into home ownership albeit with the responsibility of an ageing grandmother who makes plenty of demands on Kate’s scarce time.The investigation turns up all sorts of scandals and intrigues, as well as a good handful of suspects each with a credible motive but also each with an alibi.
The last eighty pages are nail-bitingly tense as twist follows twist until the perpetrator is finally cornered. There is not a moment here when I felt that I could put this book down and do something else for half an hour.
There is a lot to ponder still, and I think this book will stay with me for some time. Touching on the politics of the right and extreme left, old age, love, pride, loyalty, responsibilty, guilt and fertility amongst other themes, this is truly a modern crime novel and will keep any bookworm enthralled.
The writing is brilliant; James’ power of description is second to none and she also gives an insight into the psychological aspect of policework which I find very interesting. This kind of crime fiction is often brought to our TV screens; A Taste For Death is a great example of why the book is always better. We read what the characters see, feel and think in minute detail. Most of this can never be translated to the screen.
This is no light read and will need a few good chunks of serious concentration to get through the 450 pages of small font. I think it’s well worth the time.
A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt 1960. Pub. Heinemann ISBN 0435233204
This play is based on the life of Thomas More, or, rather, that short period of his life which coincided with King Henry VIII’s desire to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Cardinal Wolsley dies near the beginning of the play, and More becomes Chancellor. He is torn between his conscience as a man of God and his loyalty and duty to the crown.
A character known as The Common Man narrates and fills us in on all the bits we might be confused about. His job is to draw the audience into the play, and he takes on several minor roles such as steward, boatman and jailer. There is a certain amount of humour in the play; King Henry is portrayed as something of a buffoon. I particularly like the scene where he is trying to show off his Latin to Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret, and is put to shame by her fluency and quick wit.
The story is well-known. More refuses to acknowledge King Henry’s radical changes to the Church, including the split from Rome and his installation as head of The Church of England (thus enabling him to divorce Katharine and marry Anne Boleyn). For this More loses his head (as, in time, does Anne) – the charge, High Treason.
This play was made into a film of the same name in 1966 which won 6 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for Paul Schofield who played Thomas More brilliantly.
Out of This World by Graham Swift 1988. Pub. Picador ISBN 0330518277
Set in Britain and America in the early 1980s this is a tense novel full of bitterness, betrayal and unfulfilled expectations. Harry and Sophie look back on the tragic and violent death of their father and grandfather respectively within the context of their own two very different lives.
Robert Beech Snr. was chief executive of Beech Munitions Company and the timing of this enterprise couldn’t have been better. On the back of both World Wars Beech amassed incredible wealth but this could not stop the profound disaffection which was to plague his family for subsequent generations. His son, Harry, spurns the family business in favour of a career in photojournalism and his daughter-in-law dies tragically in a plane accident. As the story unfolds we learn that the apparent charmed life of the Beech family may not be all it seems.
Sophie’s story is told from the psychoanalyst’s couch while Harry looks back on his life while enveloped in a totally unexpected but most welcome new relationship with a woman less than half his age. As Harry seeks the courage and the words to tell all to his daughter, she needs to look deep within herself for a benign acceptance she thought was not there.
I loved this book, as I did Swift’s Waterland. The deeper you go the more you understand. At the end there was a feeling of great sadness but also great hope.
Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski 1997. Pub. Virago ISBN 1844081516
Last year I read Jenny Diski’s American train travelogue, Stranger On a Train, a tale of smokers and smoking carriages around the rail network of the USA. I enjoyed it immensely and have been looking forward to getting my teeth into another of her books. Skating To Antarctica doesn’t disappoint. It’s the story of Jenny’s trip to Antarctica interspersed with her harrowing memories of growing up in London in a dysfunctional family with parents who literally drove her mad. Alongside these, Jenny tells us how she was persuaded by her daughter to seek out the mother she left behind, and finally, begrudgingly, returned to the neighbourhood where they last lived together and spoke to some fellow residents of their old block of flats.
She looks back on her mother with a certain ambivalence; she knows that her mother (and father) adversely affected her childhood and adolescence in a major way, but shows little bitterness nor apportions blame. She is resigned to the fact that her mother has made little in the way of a positive impact on her life, and the same goes for her father.
In the whiteness of Antarctica we experience with Jenny the hours of nothingness on the boat voyage, awe-inspiring icebergs, penguins, seals and of course, her fellow passengers on the ship, all with their own reasons for making this journey to the extreme south of the world.
This book is beautifully written; it reads like a fairytale, but is all true.
The Forgotten Children:Fairbridge Farm School and Its Betrayal of Britain’s Child Migrants to Australia by David Hill 2007. Pub. Random House ISBN 1714666144
Set up by and named after the unscholarly but well-connected Kingsley Fairbridge, the Fairbridge Farm Schools were designed to be the single solution to two major problems: how to extend white settlement of the British Empire’s colonies, and what to do with Britain’s poor and destitute children (way before the days of the welfare state). The idea was to send poor children out to Australia (and to a lesser extent Canada and Rhodesia) and train them to be farmers and farmers’ wives. In 1912 the first Fairbridge Farm School opened in Western Australia and shortly afterwards received its first shipment of boys from Britain. Other sites duly followed at Northcote, Victoria, Vancouver Island and Molong, New South Wales. Although Kingsley Fairbridge himself died in 1924, the Fairbridge Society he had set up in London continued to gain the support of scholars, nobility and royalty and the shipping out of children continued apace.
Many children came from orphanages, children’s homes and foster homes. Many were given up by parents too poor and destitute to continue caring for them, but who believed they would be able to get their children back when times got better. The author was one of the lucky ones. He was sent out to Australia at the age of twelve along with his two brothers on the Single Parent Scheme which allowed for the parent to follow his or her children out to Australia after an interval of two years and so be reunited with them. The promise of a wonderful new life with education and employment opportunites far exceeding those they could hope for if they stayed in Britain turned out to be wildly exaggerated. In truth the children, some as young as four years old, were brought up in a brutal regime of unpaid hard labour with poor nutrition and education and an almost complete lack of love, emotional support and preparedness to live an adult life. When Hill’s mother finally made it out to Australia and visited her boys at the farm she was horrified and distressed at what she saw there. “What have I done? It’s like something out of Oliver Twist“, she was heard to say.
This book is extremely well researched, drawing on Fairbridge Society archives, letters, reports and minutes as well as dozens of transcripts of verbal accounts from the child migrants themselves. We learn all the details of the history of Fairbridge, particulars of the children’s journeys out to Australia by ship, the day to day life on the farm, the systematic and institutional cruelty and abuse the children were subject to, the eventual closing of the farms, the struggles the ex-Fairbridgians went through on entering the wide world and how the governments of both Britain and Australia tried to make amends.
I found this book compelling reading and hard to put down. I think part of that is due to the fact that I was born in Adelaide to a migrant family and I think “that could have been me; and thank goodness it wasn’t”. The book is written with great empathy but manages not to be over-sentimental. I needed a hanky in the final chapter.
See also my blogpost Children Need Love.
Please visit my other books page too.