Third strike and you’re out…

Third strikeWe’ve got an ongoing thing in our household, where I ask a question and Daisy says “Told you that yesterday, third strike and you’re out”.  I spend so much time concentrating on the daily grind that I can’t be sure if it’s a genuine lack of concentration or the start of something more ominous, but one thing’s for certain – the months creep by, the crow lines round the eyes get deeper and you’d be pushed to call them laughter lines any more…and meanwhile the list of the number of books unread seems to be getting ever longer not shorter.

Since picking up that blogging gauntlet just 12 months ago and dauntingly plunging into WordPress, a whole new world has opened up before my very eyes and it has been a true joy to share in this innocent yet oh so deeply fulfilling passion that is to be found in the written word with so many fellow minded bibliophiles.  Daisy is keen to go off and study History in 18 months, and that has attuned us all the more here on the home front to words and wordsmiths every which way past, present and future. Watching a seventeen year old develop an equally almost obsessive love of literature will forever be an unbridled thrill.

It’s a funny old thing with this baring of souls to a known and an invisible public, though. At 53 I’m not sure I’ll ever get my head around the momentary whirl and instant fix of Instagram or all this social media, sigh. It’s obviously not an age thing, and maybe it is in someway related to the poor old brain feeling addled by not being able to hold onto something or retrieve it at a later stage as an aid to memory (a brief flirtation with Snapchat left me bristling with palpitations – my version of hell on earth, truly). So blogging does feel like a good compromise – it’s sort of a lasting way to set something temporary on the plate, if that makes any sense?

IMG_1334The downside to it is of course the time factor. Went to Shakespeare and Company to meet (well, not personally) Sebastian Faulks last week and hear his take on his latest novel. Love physically meeting the People who are in Print and can never resist an opportunity for an autograph – another blast from the past, and will ever regret not going up to join the endless queue when Zadie Smith was at the same famous bookstore last summer.

Faulks’s “Where My Heart Used to Beat” was not a standout for me in the way that “Birdsong” definitely was (although whether the abiding memory is of his text or the vision of a dashing Eddie Redmayne remains to be decided), but it does deal a lot with the importance of memory, and that reminded me a great deal of the excellent but harrowing “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, so recently read, where Flanagan pontificates a lot over everything that just gets lost when a person’s memory of something is lost or the individual no longer exists. Tricky stuff.

Sebastian F. explained that the title of this new book was inspired by Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” and a thing of beauty it is too :

… Where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, not as one that weeps
I come once more; the city sleeps
I smell the meadow in the street;

I hear a chirp of birds; I see
Betwixt the black fronts long-withdrawn
A light-blue lane of early dawn, 
And think of early days and thee,

And bless thee, for thy lips are bland,
And bright the friendship of thine eye;
And in my thoughts with scarce a sigh 
I take the pressure of thine hand.

Wendy has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers and is raising awareness all around the UK and cataloguing her journey on her “Which Me am I Today” blog. My eyes misted over this morning reading Alison Bolas’s guest post, the piece is so beautifully written. She concludes that “one day at a time is just fine with me” and I’m joining her on that one in every way. Most of my days are spent haring around dreaming up ways to ensure people on holiday here in Paris have a perfect stay, and despite the sometimes frantic, Last Minute Dot Com nature of the job, it gives great satisfaction when you can really make people’s day. It’s hardly the most altruistic job in the world, but a little kindness goes a very long way in this mad world, I hope.

So many funny tales that will sadly get lost in the swirls of the memory, from managing to hunt down a ridiculously expensive but very significant bottle of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2006 for a granny in remission bringing her grand-daughter for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to her favourite city, to leaving surprise bouquets of flowers and little misty-eyed-guaranteed messages for partners to discover on Valentine’s Day, to getting stuck in a cranky lift between the fourth and the fifth floor at midnight one evening never to be forgotten, delivering something for an early arrival next day… But whether that particular book will ever get written only time will tell.

In the meantime am practically suffering from Tsundoko * Syndrome, read about in one of Lucy’s always hilarious posts with Sarah at Hard Book Habit, and have realised it’s time to redress a few balances and get on with some actual reading rather than the constant niggling compilation of list upon list. Found myself spending a couple of very pleasurable hours a couple of weeks ago collating a line-up of books based in Paris. Had to stop and pause for breath when it went the other side of a hundred titles.

So that led me full circle to something I read a very long time ago. Susan Hill decided back in 2009 that she would take a sabbatical year and revisit her own bookshelves, resulting in her work “Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home”. She starts by confessing “I buy too many books, excusing impulse purchases on the vague grounds that buying a new paperback is better for me than buying a bar of chocolate”. So far so good, and it’s the quiche that always tempts me more than the M&Ms, but not to digress. Still on the choccy front, Ms Hill goes on to say, “Some people give up drink for January or chocolate for Lent, others decide to live for just a pound a day, or without buying any new clothes… I decided to spend a year reading only books already on my shelves… I wanted to stand back and let the dust settle on everything new, while I set off on a journey through my books”. Many of us did this with James’s three-month-long “Triple Dog Dare” challenge at the beginning of this year, and I can’t thank him enough for stemming my flow on the book-buying front.

Time being so much of the essence at the moment, I have decided that I am going to stem the flow on blogging about ‘what I thought of this book’ front too, and take a sort of variation on the Susan Hill Sabbatical. Will continue to follow everyone’s blogs with rapture, and will update my many lists compiled on Literary Ramblings over this past year with the compulsive habit of needing to give my reads marks out of 10 as always, but will concentrate on the sheer reading of old and new, and take these next twelve months to see how well I can do on simply making my way through those Classics and those Baileys’ shortlisted novels between now and the Spring of next year.

It seems only right to go out with one more list though – not sure if our choices will coincide, but Susan Hill concludes her book with her Final Forty, a very British list of its times if ever I saw one. Will aim to produce one of my own this time next year – in the meantime, it’s been and it’s going to be a lot of fun…

Susan Hill’s “The Final Forty” :

  1. The Bible
  2. The Book of Common Prayer
  3. “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens
  4. “The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy
  5. “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare – 9/10
  6. “The Ballad of the Sad Café” by Carson McCullers
  7. “A House for Mr Biswas” by V.S. Naipaul
  8. “The Last September” by Elizabeth Bowen
  9. “Middlemarch” by George Eliot – 10/10, a favourite read
  10. “The Way We Live Now” by Anthony Trollope
  11. “The Last Chronicle of Barset” by Anthony Trollope
  12. “The Blue Flower” by Penelope Fitzgerald
  13. “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf
  14. “A Passage to India” by E.M. Forster
  15. “Washington Square” by Henry James – 10/10
  16. “Troylus and Criseyde” by Geoffrey Chaucer (read at school, this would never ever make my Top 1,000)
  17. “The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene
  18. “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton – 9/10, (Lily an abiding vision in my mind’s eye)
  19. “The Rector’s Daughter” by E.M. Mayor
  20. “On the Black Hill” by Bruce Chatwin
  21. “The Diary of Francis Kilvert”
  22. “The Mating Season” by P.G. Wodehouse
  23. “Galahad at Blandings” by P.G. Wodehouse
  24. “The Pursuit of Love” by Nancy Mitford
  25. “The Bell” by Iris Murdoch
  26. “The Complete Poems of W.H. Auden”
  27. “The Rattle Bag”, edited by Seamus Heaney & Ted Hughes
  28. “Learning to Dance” by Michael Mayne
  29. “Flaubert’s Parrot” by Julian Barnes
  30. “A Time to Keep Silence” by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  31. “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler
  32. “Family and Friends” by Anita Brookner
  33. “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë – 10/10
  34. “The Journals of Sir Walter Scott”
  35. “Halfway to Heaven” by Robin Bruce Lockhart
  36. “The Finn Family Moomintroll” by Tove Jansson – 8/10, read to Offspring a lifetime ago
  37. “Clayhanger” by Arnold Bennett
  38. “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky – after “The Brothers Karamazov” fills the heart with dread, but Daisy says is brilliant, so should gird the old loins…
  39. “Amongst Women” by John McGahern
  40. “The Four Quartets” by T. S. Eliot – 10/10.

For now, over and out, and happy reading to one and all.

 * Images taken from herehere and here, thanks to Hard Book Habit for the Tsundoko image shamelessly copy and pasted…
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“Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt (1997) – a blistering if controversial tale of an unforgettable childhood

That was the month (of March) that was, and ‘Tis an understatement to say how frustrating it was that reading had to take such a back seat. Have relished following so many stories of everyone’s Irish Reading Month adventures and will know to get a crack at this one ahead of time when the gauntlet is hopefully thrown down again next year. Thanks again, though, to Cathy at 746books and Niall at Raging Fluff for proposing the wonderful Begorrathon… have only just launched myself into it but am really looking forward to plodding on and discovering many more Irish novels, albeit belatedly, over the forthcoming months.

The first read on my arm’s length list was the one everyone has heard about and so many have read and rated so highly. Have still yet to see the film (which many say is not a patch on the book?), but having finally sat down and been swept along by the narrative, I can see what all the fuss is about.

I suppose a guileless infancy with a cotton wool upbringing and nothing undue to write home about would make for a very dull tale, but from the very second paragraph on page one it is clear that this is going to be a no-holes-barred depiction of a traumatic and unforgettable start in the world:  “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood”.

Survival is the word for it: very early on in the book his newborn sister perishes after just days in the world, then both of his twin brothers successively die at a point in the story where you fear there is little hope for anyone in the family to overcome the obstacles life is throwing at them. Talk about the bare necessities.

The story has had its silver lining: having moved back to New York at the hardened age of 19 for adventures that am keen to read about in the successive books of “’Tis” and “Teacher Man”, Frank McCourt went on to be awarded the Pulitzer the year after this first work was published and became a millionaire during his lifetime as a result of his writings. The story told was not without its controversies – this fascinating obituary suggests that the author took quite some licence in depicting the family’s destitute state and garnered outrage and ill-feeling among those who felt their “city’s reputation was besmirched by stories of the scabby-eyed McCourt children reduced to living on bread dipped in tea and feeding the fire in their damp-sodden home with wooden furnishings and coal picked off the streets”. An uncompassionate and sometimes stony Church comes directly under fire and so do the drinking habits of the feckless father, who is absent throughout most of the book because he’s in the pub on one side of the sea or another.

Frank McCourt talked very candidly about the hardships he and his siblings faced in this short interview where he described being a “connoisseur of poverty”, and this book is a scathing account of privation. Whether the truth has been aggrandised or laced with an inflated version of the reality or not it makes for breathless reading, and the facts of his early circumstances are clearly firmly lodged in fact. The descriptions of their perpetually experiencing hunger and a near obsession with food and where the next meal is coming from are harrowingly portrayed. Never has an egg been more reverently described:

Did you hear that? Our own egg of a Sunday morning. Oh God, I already had plans for my egg. Tap it around the top, gently crack the shell, lift with a spoon, a dab of butter down into the yolk, salt, take my time, a dip of the spoon, scoop, more salt, more butter, into the mouth, oh, God above, if heaven has a taste it must be an egg with butter and salt, and after the egg is there anything in the world lovelier than fresh warm bread and a mug of sweet golden tea?”

Class and the pride attached to problems of long-term unemployment are constant: I wept at Frank’s mother’s plight as the book progressed and at her sometimes desperate attempts at finding even short-term solutions to assuage the next drama likely to beset them. The tale is very much told from young Frank’s vantage point, for he is the boy-turned-man who becomes the father figure for his younger brothers and feels the weight of responsibility almost from the get-go, yet who also determines very early on to do everything in his power to leave for greener pastures at the earliest opportunity.

“Angela’s Ashes” is a profoundly moving read. You live and breathe these children’s daily lives: you can see and hear the leaky floods swirling downstairs that lead the family to need to ‘move abroad’ and decamp to the upstairs floor (“Dad says it’s like going away on our holidays to a warm foreign place like Italy. That’s what we’ll call the upstairs from now on, Italy”), just as you can visualise the fleas jumping and the lice crawling. You can smell their unwashed bodies and you can see their soles flapping as they trail the streets with the wonky wheel of the dilapidated pram clunking as they head back to the Dispensary to plead their case for welfare.

Yet despite it all, right through this book there are moments where you smile and even laugh out loud: the young Frank is irreverent, moving and resilient, and the author’s touch is often very, very funny in the face of imminent disaster.

“The next Saturday there’s no telegram nor the Saturday after nor any Saturday forever. Mam begs again at the St. Vincent de Paul Society and smiles at the Dispensary when Mr. Coffey and Mr. Kane have their bit of a joke about Dad having a tart in Piccadilly. Michael wants to know what a tart is and she tells him it’s something you have with tea”.

Off he has gone to London in search of gainful employment, yet the writing is on the wall even before he sets off:

“In the pubs around the railway station the men are packed in drinking the money the agents gave them for travel food. They’re having the last pint, the last drop of whiskey on Irish soil, For God knows it might be the last we’ll ever have… The women stay outside the pubs talking. Mam tells Mrs Meehan, The first telegram money order I’ll get I’ll be in the shop buying a big breakfast so that we can all have our own egg of a Sunday morning”. Back to those ambrosial eggs…

I loved the parts where Angela would remonstrate with her husband on better days, clearly with affection and sarcasm. Frank’s dad, on the rare occasion when he is there, is full of misplaced good intent and proud concern for the way things could be – except of course he does very little to improve their situation: “Dad says a factory is no place for a woman. Mum says, Sitting on you’re a*se by the fire is no place for a man”. There are also brilliant passages where the lot of men and women is recounted from their different ‘perspectives’ –

“In fine weather men sit outside smoking their cigarettes if they have them, looking at the world and watching us play. Women stand with their arms folded, chatting. They don’t sit because all they do is stay at home, take care of the children, clean the house and cook a bit and the men need the chairs. The men sit because they’re worn out from walking to the Labour Exchange every morning to sign for the dole, discussing the world’s problems and wondering what to do with the rest of the day”.

At the end of the day, I thought it was interesting that McCourt also dedicated this first book to the women in his life in his Acknowledgements : “This is a small hymn to an exaltation of women… I am blessed among men”. He went on to marry three times, but does not, however, specifically mention his mother in these words, and I read in The Telegraph (so it must be true) that she categorically denied the veracity of “Angela’s Ashes” before her own death. I had mistakenly thought the title referred to her ashes at the time of her demise before embarking on the story, but understand by the end of book one that it alluded to the tip of her burning cigarettes and her time spent gazing at the embers of a dying fire. I’ve only read the prologue to “’Tis” so far, but see that Frank’s mother is mentioned on this very first page, so will eagerly take up the tale now as he arrives safely in New York and the sequel unfolds. I hope she continues to figure in this second tome: she’s a fighter and a survivor and I’m as keen to know more about her as I am to read more about him. Onward and upward.

Rating : 10/10

Pulitzer Prizewinner for Biography/Autobiography 1997, National Book Critics Circle Award 1996, etc

Images taken from here and here, here and here.
Posted in Book Reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction – Longlist (and shortlist) 2016

Everything But The Girl takes on The Apprentice! It’s a pretty stellar judging panel over at the Baileys awards this year, with Margaret Mountford, Elif Shafak and Tracey Thorn taking to centre stage. Every year this prize just keeps on getting better, so hopes are high for this year’s vintage. Voici the 20 contenders culled down from over 170 titles, announced today and hoping to make it to the final six on the 11th April (see update below), before the grande finale on the 8th June:

A God in Ruins” by Kate Atkinson, 10/10, top, top book and even better than “Life After Life”

“Rush Oh!” by Shirley Barrett

“Ruby” by Cynthia Bond – SHORTLISTED 11th April

“The Secret Chord” by Geraldine Brooks

“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

“A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding” by Jackie Copleton

“Whispers Through a Megaphone” by Rachel Elliott

“The Green Road” by Anne Enright – SHORTLISTED 11th April

“The Book of Memory” by Petina Gappah

“Gorsky” by Vesna Goldsworthy

“The Anatomist’s Dream” by Clio Gray

“At Hawthorn Time” by Melissa Harrison, read April 2016, a good read but suspect sadly forgettable over time, 8/10

“Pleasantville” by Attica Locke

“The Glorious Heresies” by Lisa McInerney – SHORTLISTED 11th April – read Aug ’16 – utterly fantastic and so far most worthy WINNER, 11/10…

“The Portable Veblen” by Elizabeth McKenzie – SHORTLISTED 11th April

“Girl at War” by Sara Novic

“The House at the Edge of the World” by Julia Rochester

“The Improbability of Love” by Hannah Rothschild – SHORTLISTED 11th April, read July 2016, 6/10, very disappointing

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout, read August 2016, 7/10, not a patch on “Olive Kitteridge”

A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara, 10/10 – SHORTLISTED 11th April, wonderful and a book that stays with you indefinitely.

Now in the 21st year of the competition, this year’s theme seems to hone in on domestic issues, and Elif Shafak comments in The Guardian’s article this morning that many dealt with the past, “and how the past continues to live in the present”, with family also “a very important theme … Many of the books we read were taking a very complex look at family relationships, how complicated it all is, how children and the younger generations take on the burden of the past.”

I recognise but 6 of the nominees, so is going to be interesting when the shortlist is revealed, and truly hope to do as last year and have read all six of the Chosen Ones by June. Continue to be thrilled that women’s writing is celebrated in this way – bring on the next decade of Baileys and their quest to bring writers to ever wider audiences.

Image taken from here.
Posted in Book Prizes | Tagged | 7 Comments

Wish List old and new : March 2016

Well over half way through the self-imposed 3-month or so long book-buying ban, and so far it’s proving to be a lot less arduous than expected, although it’s a bit like avoiding food shopping on an empty stomach, and I only go anywhere near bookshops once the loin has been girded or have sternly reminded myself that I can look but I can’t touch.

The idea is to famine not feast till April and that has turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the twice-annual Parisian bun fight, sorry SOS English second hand book sale, takes place a bit later this year on the very first Sunday of that lovely month. With nary a charity shop in sight in this enlightened City of Light, getting hold of English paperbacks usually involves carting a ton of bricks back in an all-too-small suitcase after an all-too-brief weekend trip to the UK – fine on the Eurostar, but fraught with anxiety if flying and trying to sneak past the attendees to hoik your bulging case into the overhead lockers of the plane, squash squash.

Everyone looking very reserved, secretly it’s ‘no holes barred, every man for himself’

The SOS helpline book sale has therefore become an event of almost mythical proportions. Along we trundle religiously, determined to be the first in the queue and with fashion statement wheelie caddies in tow, usually containing a stash of outgoing books to optimistically donate and make up for the inevitable cartload that ends up coming back home again to clog up the shelves and the literary arteries.

Wouldn’t miss it for the world – row upon row of books with possibly every English-speaking person in the capital inching their way along and trying to be patient with people who tenaciously move against the current and those who are so darned slow that you don’t know whether to risk stepping out of line past them or not, for fear of not being able to slot back in again. A fair bit of British restraint is often required not to stretch out and rudely swipe a treasure of a find spotted just ever so slightly out of reach, not to mention the very ‘non-cricket’ casual loitering by the entrance after a while to try and get our hands on new donations as they come in and before they get dispatched to the front line. It’s a laugh a minute.

Whichever books are hauled back home and lovingly placed on the To Be Read shelves, there are still quite a number of new tomes due to be published this year that are definitely going onto a brand new Wish List. The challenge will be succeeding in holding off from trying to buy them all the minute they appear in print. Hot off the press and up and coming temptations include:

Out already:

  • “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes 
  • The Fox and the Star” by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Waterstones Book of the Year 2015) (V&A William Morris room), read July 2016, 10/10
  • “Did You Ever Have a Family” by Bill Clegg (Man Booker Prize 2015 Nominee)
  • “Pure Juliet” by Stella Gibbons (previously lost book)
  • Our Souls at Night” by Kent Haruf (thanks to Kay at Whatmemead), read July 2016, 9/10
  • “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackman (recommended by Shoshibookblog)

Up and coming :

  • “In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri (this month)
  • March : “Hot Milk” by Deborah Levy (this month)
  • “Some Rain Must Fall: Book 5” by Karl Ove Knausgaard (this month) – mind you, not read book 1 yet, huh
  • This Must Be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell (May), read July 2016, a cracking 10/10
  • The Gustav Sonata” by Rose Tremain (May), read October 2016, absolute understated gem of a read, 10/10
  • “Vinegar Girl” by Anne Tyler (June) – although thought the last one was announced to be the final one?
  • “Autumn” by Ali Smith (August)
  • “Angel Catbird” by Margaret Atwood (September) – first foray into the graphic novel
  • “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue (Sept)
  • “Here I Am” by Jonathan Safron Foer (Sept)
  • “The Lesser Bohemians” by Eimear McBride (Sept)
  • “The Dark Flood Rises” by Margaret Drabble (November).

Plus how to resist these two as described so temptingly by The Independent’s Katy Guest :

“But my tips for 2016 are two books about Paris. “Les Parisiennes; How women lived, loved and died in Paris from 1939-49” by Anne Sebba (W&N, July) is about the resisters, collaborators, spies, jewellers, writers, housewives and singers who were left in a war-time city almost empty of men.

And it’s not often that you miss your bus stop because you’re so engrossed in reading a book about existentialism, but I did exactly that while immersed in Sarah Bakewell’s “An Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails” (Chatto & Windus, March). The story of Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger et al is strange, fun and compelling reading. If it doesn’t win awards, I will eat my proof copy”.

The literary calendar is also looking nice and plump already. No doubt decidedly inexhaustive, the first half of the year stacks up a little like this :


  • Sun 28th Feb was the 100th anniversary of Henry James’ death in 1916 (reading “The Turn of the Screw” for the Classics Challenge),
  • Tues 8th March – Baileys’ 2016 longlist announced (holding off for the shortlist but on tenterhooks as always)
  • Mon 28th March – anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death 75 years ago (reading “A Room of One’s Own” for Heavenali’s Woolfalong)
  • Sun 3rd April – 25th anniversary of the death of Graham Greene (read “Brighton Rock” (9/10) for Kaggsysbookramblings’ 1938 event)
  • Mon 11th April – Baileys’ 2016 shortlist : let battle commence !
  • Fri 15th April – World Night books
  • Wed 20th April – Pulitzer Prize lists finalists declared (revisiting with joy “Olive Kitteridge)
  • Thurs 21st April – Bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth (reading “Shirley”), nearly and perhaps aptly overshadowed by…
  • Sat 23rd April – Shakespeare’s 400th Anniversary…
  • Mon 25th April – Welcome prize winner
  • Sun 1st May – International Man Booker prize winner
  • Wed 8th June – tantara, winner of the Baileys’ prize announced
  • Thurs 9th June – IMPAC prizes awarded.

Blink, and you miss it. The Oh Need To Buy list moves into the danger zone in April, then – and that’s even without reckoning on the Ones That Got Away and are still standing present and correct and unread on last year’s wish list.

 WISH LIST 2015 :

  1. “I Giardini dei Finzi-Contini”/“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” by Giorgio Bassani
  2. “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter
  3. “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton
  4. “Collected Short Stories” by Anton Chekhov
  5. “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke
  6. “Harvest” by Jim Crace
  7. “Nervous Conditions” by Tsitsi Dangarembga
  8. “The Garden of Evening Mists” by Tan Twan Eng
  9. “The Green Road” by Anne Enright
  10. “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides
  11. “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George
  12. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  13. “The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene
  14. “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah
  15. “The Silent Wife” by S.A. Harrison
  16. “The Talented Mr Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith
  17. “The End of Alice” by A. M. Homes
  18. “When We Were Orphans” by Kazuo Ishiguro
  19. “The Trial” by Franz Kafka
  20. “A Death in the Family: My Struggle – Book 1” by Karl Ove Knausgaard, read Oct 2016, 9/10, hastening onto Book 2…
  21. “TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann
  22. “The Woman Who Waited” by Andreï Makine
  23. “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx
  24. “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson
  25. “The Stone Diaries” by Carol Shields
  26. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot
  27. “The Complete Maus” by Art Spiegelman
  28. “Pereira Maintains” by Antonio Tabucchi
  29. “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner
  30. “The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler.

Now all that is needed is a cosy spot to nestle down with a good book….and a couple of extra hours in every day…

Images taken from herehere, here and here, here, here and here, here and here, also here.
Posted in Book Lists, Wish List | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

“L’Amica Geniale” / “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante (2011) – taking the world by storm

One of the expressions I heard time and time over while living those ten years in the north of Italy was “Quando vieni al Sud piangi due volte; quando arrive e quando te ne vai” – the great North/South divide took great joy in bouncing off each other (and still does) and I can remember a Milanese taxi driver telling me with genuine concern as I plonked my heavily pregnant self down on the back seat on route for the airport for my mother-in-law’s sixtieth celebrations, dangerously close to my due date : “be careful, stai attenta, Signora, you don’t want the bambino to arrive while you’re in Roma”… The south has always held great fascination for being less ordered, less orderly, more subject to the secret laws that govern it – and the further south you go the more pronounced this becomes.

Naples particularly has always been considered a law unto itself; I remember stories being bandied about of people having very enterprising strangers offer to help park their car in a very tight spot for them, only to have their knight in shining armour promptly disappear literally into the night behind the wheel of their vehicle, leaving them stranded (!). I also witnessed with great amusement the local reaction to the introduction of the law making the wearing of seat belts obligatory: a whole new cottage industry was born overnight, as the Neapolitans enterprisingly printed car-loads of T-shirts with a fake seat belt carefully printed and emblazoned on the front, and blatantly left the real belts hanging and unused as per usual. Sheer madness, totally irresponsible yet somehow engagingly creative all at the same time.

Driving by taxi down from the Capodichino airport to catch the ferry to take us over to Ischia to where la Mamma spent three months every summer was always a heart-in-mouth experience, as the drivers weaved ferociously and highly dangerously along busy double-carriage highways, gesticulating and taking their eyes off the road and generally giving me a bit of a heart attack every time, especially when the kids were little. Never in all those years did we encounter a single scrape, but it was inevitably a hairy half hour, despite the nonstop chattering and cheery inquisitiveness of our chauffeur, and always a relief to stumble out of the airless car into the heatwave down by the boats taking us over to the island.

We were so lucky. We actually got married on Ischia all that time ago in the most beautiful church imaginable at Forio, la Chiesa di Santa Maria del Soccorso, so at the opposite end of the island to where Elena Greco spends that summer in Book 1. Talk about an Anglo-Italian culture shock. Not really of any interest here, but it was a whole chapter of its own, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

By the by, for the wedding weekend and still on the taxi front, for instance, we sent all our non-Italian guests printed sheets to show at the airport, stating in beautifully typed Italian, “Please take us by taxi to the port at Beverello where our friends are meeting us – we know it costs about 60,000 lira”, simply to avoid everyone foreign being ripped off, and knowing full well that the taxi drivers would find this quite comical and would rise to the occasion – which to a man they did, and the tales are still told today of everyone taking their watches and any nice jewellery off, just to avoid arriving with less than they had set off with…. Even back then, and even for the Roman contingency, where the then other half’s family lived most of the year, Naples has always had an air of potential skullduggery and this has always added to its utter charm : more scoundrel than terrible crook, but always best to err on the side of caution.

And always, always, the sprawling city holds a unique place in Italy’s history. I can already feel the magic of Ferrante’s compelling writing after reading just the first quarter of this particular story. She so faultlessly depicts such an authentic atmosphere, very much of its times, and above all you feel as though her protagonists are flesh and blood individuals walking the streets, and they are living and breathing every step of the way. Vendettas are commonplace, violence is a constant: slaps at home are customary, brawling is a nightly occurrence, just as the over-exuberant competition over whose firework display can last longer is only moments away from becoming a potentially dangerous attack on the opposition.

The sense of claustrophobia pervades throughout: everyone knows everyone, and all dirty washing is hung out very publicly for everyone to see and comment upon. It’s a very tight, very crowded community and we’re frequently reminded of how these two women who are already so strong and passionate in their individual ways are constantly aware of their geographical limitations. It seems unthinkable that the sea is just down the road, yet for them it might as well be oceans away. The two of them are insatiable readers, yet their library borrowing does not stretch as far as reading newspapers and having much access to or interest in the outside world. 

The relationship between the two friends as related by Elena is fascinating: you share her sense of acute competition with Lila, you feel her emotion from the moment that dolly gets knocked down the shaft at the beginning, every bit as much as you share her discomfort when she questions her own morals set against people’s perceptions and preconceived ideas about her friend much later in the book. And you know that this friendship is going to be enduring, not only but also because of the cliff-hanger at the very start of this first book. It’s rare that a ‘slice of life’ story manages to pull off closure the way Ferrante does: the wedding scene and the narrator’s thought processes in the final chapters are quite simply brilliant, leaving the reader avid to instantly pick up Book 2 to continue finding out what happens next.

The world that Elena Ferrante has created is as real as anyone could dream an imaginary world would be. You can’t help but wonder how much is based on the writer’s own experiences, and to what extent. It’s quite a help having the index of characters at the start too, as it gets very easy to confuse your Antonio’s with your Alfonso’s, and I confess to having had a moment when the Sarratores practically reappear on the beach at Ischia and I couldn’t for the life of me remember who they were for a brief second of panic.

Spiaggia dei Maronti

From the start, though, whether you’ve physically been there or not, in your mind’s eye you can clearly envisage the rione her characters live in, you can see the dilapidated homes and the smell the mothers’ cooking, just as you’re aware of the possibility of encountering cockroaches and rats from the very first pages of the recounting of Lenù and Lila’s climbing of the stairs to the ogre of fairy tales Don Achille’s apartment. As Ann Mah comments in her article in the New York Times about “Elena Ferrante’s Naples, Then and Now”, the expression of bursting into tears twice in the South – once when you arrive and once when you have to leave – comes into its own here: the city has become a character itself: “dirty, dangerous and seductive, the place everyone yearns to leave behind, and the place they can’t shake”.

There’s apparently been a huge upturn in literary holidaymakers mad keen to visit Napoli and see this brave new world for themselves. The Guardian’s Tracy McVeigh reported on Valentine’s Day that ‘Ferrante fever’ is bringing hordes of fresh tourists to the ‘Spaccanapoli’ area and that there is even more interest now that a 32-part series by the producers of “Gomorrah” will shortly be underway. ‘Ferrante pizzas’ now feature on many menus, and some cobblers have resourcefully put up their own printed sheets in the shop windows, claiming their particular calzolaio is the one that the infamous pair of shoes were shaped in.

I loved reading some of the 74 comments responding to Mah’s article, many from Neapolitan locals, in particular this heartfelt one by Michela Caudill:

“Naples astonishes: with its many wonders. To dismiss the City as dirty and riddled with the Mafia is to put blinders on. Naples offers to its visitors so much since it is a setting of singular beauty. A city that saw occupation after occupation plus the wreckage of war, and yet it arose like a phoenix out of it all, and embraces life. As one walks its streets and observes its crowds, it is impossible not to reflect upon the complex history of this extraordinary city. Accept that the streets are not the cleanest and delight in the treasures that the city has to offer. They are many and they await discovery for the patient observer. Naples reveals itself slowly and it unwinding is rather like its narrow streets. Go down any one and discover what lays beyond”.

Does that not also want you to just up sticks and hop on a plane too?

I’m dead certain that the big mystery surrounding the identity of the owner of the hand that writes also plays its own little part in conjuring up even more of the much-justified hype of these latest four novels (s)he has penned. Whereas J K Rowling’s nom de plume was leaked out so ignominiously, no-one seems keen to burst the bubble on this one for the time being, although maybe it can only be a matter of time before one of the paparazzi get a photo of him/her on set if (s)he is to be so closely involved with the prospective TV adaptation. On the acting front, suspect that unlike the much-loved “War & Peace” it will be a very Italian affair this time round (so no Jim Broadbent playing Nino Sarratore’s dad then?). Can’t wait. In the meantime, need to crack on and dive into Book 2. How wonderful to be at the stage still where’s there more ahead than behind me…

Rating : 10/10

Shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year 2015 

Images taken from here and here, herehere, and here and here.
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Literary Trail IV: “Shamrocks, St. Patrick and leprechauns” – The Begorrathon Reading Ireland month – March 2016

Dear All,

It can’t just be a happy coincidence.

Am tickled pink, having just recently spent a truly joyous evening up at Montmartre as a very thrilled guest of the Global Nomads book group.

Like Lucy and Sarah at Hard Book Habit who I am vicariously following as they travel around the world in 80 books, and Jen and Bookworm’s read around the planet at The Reader’s Room, the Nomads read authors literally hailing from all over the globe, from Canada to China, via Capri – and last night they dipped their toes in the Gulf of Naples, discussing Ferrante’s blow-away phenomenon that is “A Brilliant Friend” and the Neapolitan Novels.

Having tried and largely failed to get cracking on a read of all things New Yorkish after that marvellous trip there last June (Shoshi’s Book Blog did a much better job of that), I keep pontificating about downing tools to read French/Paris-based works only for a given chunk of time, but somehow something else just keeps coming in to sway me off course – and now it has happened again, and I am seriously excited about a foray just across the Channel/the Irish Sea to take part in Cathy at 746books’ and Niall at Raging Fluff‘s “Reading Ireland Month” event – bring on “The Begorrathon” !!

As Cathy comments, “Ireland is about so much more than shamrocks, St. Patrick and leprechauns. For a country the same size as South Carolina, it packs a hefty cultural punch. Ireland has produced four Nobel Prize winners; five Booker Prize winners; some world dominating musicians; a host of Oscar winners (and several nominated for this year’s awards) and a leading action hero from Ballymena”.

After revelling in the Bafta awards earlier in the week, where Irish talent came to the fore so strongly and “Brooklyn” was named British Film of the year, and having recently reviewed Colm Tóibín and Emma Donoghue, just can’t wait to get going. Am spoilt for choice by what is already sitting here on the groaning shelf and feeling like I’m killing two birds with one single stone too, for no book-buying is going to be involved at all for this challenge, so this is going to carry me through oh so very nicely from the end of February to the end of March – by which time should have been successful in not falling off the proverbial perch with the three-month book-buying ban that began at the beginning of the year, ha.


Just like for the Baftas, then, the contenders on the magnificent Irish writer shortlist are (and for this you have to imagine Stephen Fry reading the titles as a voice-off) :

  1. “The Sea” by John Banville (2005, Man Booker prizewinner, 1001 Books)
  2. “Shroud” by same John Banville (2003, appeared in penultimate version of 1001 Books’ list but knocked off it in latest)
  3. “The Secret Scripture” by Sebastian Barry (2008, Costa winner 2008, shortlisted for the Man Booker, film coming hopefully soon and starring Rooney Mara)
  4. “Spill Simmer Falter Wither” by Sara Baume (2015, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and The Guardian First Novel Award)
  5. “The House in Paris” by Elizabeth Bowen (1935, on my Classics Challenge list, so keen to read first novel by her)
  6. “Reading in the Dark” by Seamus Deane (1996, shortlisted for the Booker, winner of The Guardian and Irish Times fiction awards, a NY Times Notable book…)
  7. “Frog Music” by Emma Donoghue (2014, film in the making)
  8. “The Sealed Letter” by Emma Donoghue (2011, longlisted for the Orange prize)
  9. “The Barrytown Trilogy” by Roddy Doyle (1992, previous One City One Book choice)
  10. “The Green Road” by Anne Enright (2015, longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the Costa Award)
  11. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce (1916, only relieved that “Ulysses” was not sitting on any shelf in the flat, phew)
  12. “The Butcher Boy” by Patrick McCabe (1992, nominated for the Booker, winner of the Irish Times Literature Prize, recommended by Trish!)
  13. “Dancer” by Colum McCann (2003, also partially set in Paris…)
  14. Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt (1997, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and not sure how have never read it) – now read, 10/10
  15. “‘Tis” by Frank McCourt (2000) and
  16. “Teacher Man” by Frank McCourt (2005) to complete the trilogy
  17. “The Glorious Heresies” by Lisa McInerney (2015), glorious indeed Winner of the 2016 Bailey’s Prize and an unqualified 11/10
  18. “The Doctor’s Wife” by Brian Moore (1988, nominated for the Man Booker, also set in Paris)
  19. “The Country Girls” by Edna O’Brien (1960, 1001 Books)
  20. “Girl with Green Eyes” by Edna O’Brien (1962, 1001 Books) – now read (admittedly in the wrong order), 7/10
  21. “The Third Policeman” by Flann O’Brien (1967)
  22. “Best Love, Rosie” by Nuala O’Faolain (2009, recommended an age ago by Céline!)
  23. “After You’d Gone” by Maggie O’Farrell (2000, a re-read)
  24. “My Lover’s Lover” by Maggie O’Farrell (2002, ditto)
  25. “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” by Maggie O’Farrell (2006, ditto, all 3 in anticipation of her new novel out later this year)
  26. “Dracula” by Bram Stoker (1986, on my Classics Challenge list)
  27. “The Blackwater Lightship” by Colm Tóibín (1999, shortlisted for the Booker and the IMPAC Award)
  28. “The Empty Family” by Colm Tóibín (2010, short stories)
  29. “The Heather Blazing” by Colm Tóibín (1992, early work…).

As Mr Fry might well say (or words to that effect) – “what a splendiferous, fortuitous, jolly fine plan you have hatched, madame”.

Even if I only get a decent handful under that belt in March that will be something to celebrate, and will no doubt spawn a whole new list of Desirables. I now see that the Dublin One City One Book choice for 2016, for instance, is Lia Mill’s “Fallen”, and am already coveting McCann’s “TransAtlantic” and anything at all by Flann O’Brien, but reining in till all the above are done and dusted. To Be Continued…

Yours, abstemiously…

Images taken from here, herehere, here and here.
Posted in Book Lists, Literary Trails, Reading Challenge | Tagged , | 14 Comments

“Room” by Emma Donoghue (2010) and “The Collector” by John Fowles (1963) – giving ‘small but perfectly formed’ a whole new dimension

The brilliant Baftas were just upon us again, and another baby star is coincidentally born, with the heart-stopping performance of Jacob Tremblay as five year-old Jack. When I read “Room” for the first time, my own daughter was 12 and we were still pretty well joined at the hip for any out and about-ing that was going on after school. Revisiting the story now with her the same age as Brie, sorry Ma, was when she was lifted out of her world and restrained in a 10×10 ft space at the age of 17 is almost too chilling to contemplate visually – which is of course what the film has now done so graphically.

The more time passes the less enthusiastic I sometimes feel about seeing the written word translated to cinema, but I’m getting better at setting them apart. It was that way for “Brooklyn” and “War & Peace” and it was very much the same for “Room”. While reading the book, which I thought was staggering and oh so very memorable, I remember feeling a bit frustrated by the second half of the book.

I believe Emma Donoghue captures the tone and vocabulary and mindset of a five year old quite fantastically, and I’ve enjoyed watching her interviews where she cheerfully admits to ruthlessly observing her own son at the time of scribing the book to really coin those phrases and attitudes. It works. What would have made “Room” a perfect read for me (and even if not everyone has read the book am sure am spoiling nothing by revealing that the two do escape, thank God) would have been to have Ma take over the tale once the release from capture has happened and we follow their equally challenging times out in the real world. I did tire a little of Jack’s voice three quarters of the way through (maybe like in real life we all know we did on occasion with our own chattering Offspring at that age, dare I say it?) and very much wanted to be inside Ma’s mind and get a fuller sense of her experience. This is where I think the film is perhaps even more powerful than the closing chapters of the book. Towards the very end of the film there is a moment that absolutely knocked my socks off. No words involved, but it has stayed branded on my brain.

Brie Larson, have to say, who was such a cracker in “States of Grace” and who I see is going to portray Jeanette Walls in “The Glass Castle”, is so terrific in this role of the girl-turned-mother, and couldn’t be more ecstatic that she has just won the Best Actress Award at the said Baftas. You get a very acute sense of her portrayal of the all-encompassing love for this child born in such extraordinary circumstances, plus there are little electrifying jabs during the film, such as the realisation of what the red marks under the threadbare carpet are, and her feral protection of her little boy when she sends him to Wardrobe. Good on Emma Donoghue for transforming her words to the big screen and doing the screenplay herself – it was a courageous thing to do and I think she pulled it off effortlessly. By the by, I read that she is now adapting her more recent novel “Frog Music” for a forthcoming feature film, so will be intrigued to read this book in the not too distant, although the reviews are very ‘love it or hate it’, hmmm.

In my late teens, I had a big John Fowles phase and got very carried away with Meryl and Jeremy and was proudly swept away by “The Magus” (now that is a book I do need to revisit). In the light of the revival of “Room” just now couldn’t resist re-reading his first book “The Collector”. If you haven’t read it, it’s a good one to add to any list. It’s a very quick read and it will stay with you, scout’s honour. Frederick Clegg is an obscure little clerk and collector of butterflies who within the very first pages of his story nets his first human specimen, fresh and full of life 20 year old Miranda Grey, who finds herself pinned down if not literally then geographically in an almost as constrained and no less prison-like situation.

These two books have much in common despite their own forty-year-old age difference. Both involve the unimaginable and the stealing of a young person’s innocence in their prime years; both explore the awfulness of being totally dependent upon a malevolent predator, who literally holds their lives in his hands – and indeed both books are divided into two main complimentary parts. The opening spiel on my copy of “The Collector” states boldly that “rarely does a publisher introduce a novel of such devastating power” and goes on to “invite you to open to the first page – we believe you will be compelled to read on”. They do not exaggerate. Fowles’ writing guarantees a jaw-dropping, skin prickling, discomforting read, and once you have started it you need to clear the decks to be able to push through to the very last page – and beware of reading reviews on it for fear of spoiling anything. It’s disquieting, it’s plausible (if now a tiny bit dated) and it’s utterly gripping. I see that a film was made in 1965, and once the book and dvd buying ban is over I will be sorely tempted to try and get my hands on a copy, as I cannot imagine anyone better than Terence Stamp to represent this Caliban character.

Meanwhile, general health warning : keep a wide berth of any dodgy characters who end up winning preposterously large sums on the Lottery or any perfectly innocuous looking individuals who seem as though they fit the bill but ask you to peek in the back of their van because they’ve just knocked a dog over – it didn’t augur well for the girl in “Silence of the Lambs” either, and manages to put even the Child Catcher from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in the shade – if in doubt, call a friend or ask an audience to join you…

“The Collector” – 9/10

“Room” – 9/10 : Man Booker nomination 2010, Shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2011, etc etc etc.

Images taken from here, here, here and here
Posted in Book Reviews, Books on the Big Screen | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments