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), 10/10
  • “Did You Ever Have a Family” by Bill Clegg (Man Booker Prize 2015 Nominee), read, 9/10
  • “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 Jackson (recommended by Shoshibookblog)

Up and coming :

  • “In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri (this month)
  • March : “Hot Milk” by Deborah Levy, read, 4/10
  • “Some Rain Must Fall: Book 5” by Karl Ove Knausgaard (this month) , read, 7/10
  • 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) – read, 7/10
  • “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 (read “The Turn of the Screw” for the Classics Challenge), 6/10
  • 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 (revisited with joy “Olive Kitteridge, still 10/10)
  • 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, read, 7/10
  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. “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner
  29. “Pereira Maintains” by Antonio Tabucchi
  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), – now read, 10/10
  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

“War & Peace” by Leo Tolstoy (1869) – whatever am I going to do with myself now?

All good things, so so sadly, must come to an eventual end. It’s been a roller coaster of a ride trying to gallop alongside the heinously cropped 6-hour adaptation of this epic novel, and I almost came out of the saddle half way through, as I fell dangerously Russian-roulette-like behind with my reading. Spots have been dancing before my mazurka-dancing eyes as I’ve been studiously working out how many pages a day I needed to devote to the very small print into the very small hours in order to finish the 1,636 page book by the time the BBC had done with it.

Well, I’ve jolly well gone and done it, and now I seriously don’t know how am going to account for my time for the foreseeable; there is going to be aching loss, and not just from carting this weighty tome around with me constantly.

Came across a very funny piece by the ever riveting Tim Dowling who recounts attempting an even more ambitious feat, and oh, how I have loved reading the weekly article written by Viv Groskop that appeared in The Guardian straight after each current instalment. With titles like “Heroes, leeches and a cast of thousands”, her writing is irreverent, straight-to-the-bone and laugh out loud funny (if she published a book I’d buy it in a flash – aye aye, see she has, temptation on a plate), but she is also clearly a self-confessed ‘fangirl’, loving the series as much as the next man. Just done the usual spot of sleuthing and see that not only has Ms Groskop got a distinction for her MA in Russian Studies, so all power to that elbow, but she is also the Artistic Director of the Bath Literature Festival which will take place shortly between the 26th February and the 6th March. Agony not to be able to attend the shindig and mingle with the illustrious likes of Celia Imrie and Sebastian Faulks.

Neither of whom are, of course, even remotely linked to “War & Peace”, which had enough dazzle of its own to self-ignite.

There was much well-deserved talk about the far from salubrious and often slightly salacious translation made of this six-hour romp, but by golly did it make for spellbinding viewing. Forget the fact that for a crowd of Russians everyone acted and sounded so very British, and Jim Broadbent still looked like Bridget Jones’s dad in a Shuba. Ignore any semblance of vague irritation at certain passages from the novel being cut short or bumpfed up. For there were so many frankly show-stopping moments : Tuppence Middleton is breathtakingly nefarious as the sometime survival-of-the-fittest champion Hélène, even if she comes across as far more intelligent than Tolstoy portrays her character in the text, Stephen Rea is matchless as the society-pirouetting father – and that scene with him and Rebecca Front in Episode One is just terrific… could go on and on at ridiculous length… oh yes, let’s not forget heartthrob James Norton, but beware, the edible Tom Burke as the villainous scamp Dolokhov is snapping at his heels – he was pretty great in “The Hour”, but gosh he almost steals the show outright here. It’s not often I get the urge to quote the faintly outraged Daily Mail, but “Whoar and Peace” really does just about cover it.

The thing is, quite frankly, what was not to love? I so enjoyed reading Shoshi’s blog post at the half way post, and agree with her comments – she is way ahead of me as she had already read the book before, but I do know that if this New Year had started any other way there’s a good chance the book would have been left untouched for many a moon – and what a travesty that would have been.

I did get put firmly in my place by a History prof just the other day, who raised more than a disapproving eyebrow at my confessing to loving this 2016 rendition. He’s advised us to purloin a copy of the 1967 Sergei Bondarchuk masterpiece, which apparently won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 1968 and which am sorely tempted to hunt down, despite the challenge of many hours of subtitles or a crash course in Russian. Have also got my eye on the 20-hour marathon of the BBC’s not-so-prehistoric version from the early seventies – Anthony Hopkins apparently a stouter, less rumpled and not-such-a-Mr-Darcy type hero… One thing is for sure, I do feel a bit disappointed in the 1956 film with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn. I’m just over half way through it and keep expecting Natasha to burst into a heartfelt rendition of “I Could have Danced All Night”…

The book itself has blown my cotton socks off. No great shakes in noting that “War & Peace” is nothing short of epic, in fact there is nothing short about it at all. I did get completely wrapped up in its sweeping saga, and it would have been far more ambitious to tackle it as a first-timer without the visual props. Reading it one step behind the series may have hindered things slightly, by forcing the admittedly wholly flawless features of Gillian Anderson’s face into my mind’s eye when stepping into Anna Pavlovna’s social whirl, but it saved all the head-scratching over Who is Who and made the book even richer when new, more peripheral characters were introduced on the written page.

Everything is just that much more – many more incidents are covered, so many more details of the times and the social mores are identified and explored, the characters do take on much fuller roles than Andrew Davies can portray – and as a reader, you are so much more taken in by Tolstoy’s cheeky use of unlikely coincidence than you can be on the screen. I know they all move in the same hallowed circles, but considering it’s such a big country Prince Andrei and young Rostov and co do have a unerring knack for being in the right place at the right time when it suits the narrator.

It’s a pretty thankless task being a pleb in Tolstoy’s world, and we observe the masses mainly as faithful servants to the main characters whose every move we follow, or as the nameless horde who by and large gets killed off in such great numbers during the lengthy battle scenes. Much time is given to portraying the dreadful conditions of the walking wounded, and we do get a sense of the larger public as the mass exoduses are described near the aptly named Bald Hills and as Moscow empties, but most of the time we tend to forget about the hoi poloi because we are concentrating so hard on the swirl of life at the top end of the social scale.

Vyacheslav Tikhonov, dashing 1920s Prince

Andrei is not just any old Andrew, he is aristocratic Prince Bolkonski, haughty heir presumptive to the last, and when push comes to shove he goes straight to the front of the queue : as he enters the VIP lounge on a stretcher,

Murmurs arose among the wounded who were waiting. ‘It seems that even in the next world only the gentry are to have a chance!’ remarked one”. Hmph.

Anthony ‘Pierre’ Hopkins sporting a fine set of sideburns

Pierre likewise is not just your regular bloke Pete, he just happens to also be the illegitimate son of wealthy Count Bezukhov and makes a rags to riches leap in one foul swoop when his dad helpfully pops his clogs at the very start of the yarn, fortuitously recognising him as heir to that throne just in time with a dying breath that is intensely observed by all in sundry. Some boys get all the luck.

One of the characters I loved the very most throughout the story, though, falls dangerously close to the wrong side of the blanket, as it were. Sonya, the “sterile flower”, does not have an exotic relation ready to transform her existence and is very much dependent upon the Rostovs for maintaining her tenuous situation in life, and it is utterly fascinating to accompany her through the book. In another tale she could be the Jane Eyre heroine of the story, but here she is relegated to eternally stoic poor relation, and my heart just kept gently breaking for her.

“He’s all mine…” – Dream on…

There is a memorable scene when the family finally decides to take to its collective heels and retreat from Moscow. The Countess is in one corner practically having a fit of the vapours, the Count is as usual wandering around ineffectually wondering how all this could actually be happening, Natasha is frisking about with her younger brother (including a reference to their playful behaviour being outright “lover-like”, who says Tolstoy keeps a hat on it here, eh?) – meanwhile, Sonya just quietly and conscientiously gets on with the practicalities while the others twitter on about her beloved Nick’s prospects elsewhere. “It was very bitter for her. But despite her grief, or perhaps just because of it, she took on herself all the difficult work of directing the storing and packing of their things”. Sigh. For let it not be forgotten that if it weren’t for Sonya’s timely intervention, pal Natasha could well have been in Very Hot Water if the alarm hadn’t been raised and she’d managed to slip the loop and slope off with old you-know-who earlier on in the book, causing no end of intrigue… Just as likewise it is unsung heroine Sonya who spots Prince Andrei when further into the book he comes trundling along in a calèche quite undetected by everyone else (“‘But who is it? What’s his name?’ ‘It’s our intended that was’ replied the maid with a sigh”). Three cheers for Jane Eyre. Except when she turns Dolokhov down early on, mind you. Now that was just plain daft. Other than that, I found her to be a very vivid character who does not, unlike plain but equally stoic Mary-with-the-silver-spoon, get her just desserts. I realise this all fits in with Tolstoy’s philosophy on (wo)man’s free will and predestination and don’t know if it’s any small consolation, but Sonya would be the first one I’d pick to join my team any time.

I can tell Tolstoy has definitely got a soft spot for her too, though, and I read somewhere that Sonya is also the fictional representation of his beloved Aunt Tatyana Aleksandrovna Yergolskaya (try saying that after a drink), one of the most important influences in his life. She indeed would have married Tolstoy’s own father had the grandfather not, a little like the overly generous Count Rostov, succeeded in mismanaging the finances to such a pitch that his Offspring was duty bound to seek marriage to a wealthy heiress to resolve the family’s plight… aha…

Well, the ‘badaptation’ has succeeded in wrapping the whole huge tome up in 6 neat episodes, and I can only imagine how having the opportunity to study this book would be totally all-consuming and completely enthralling, just as a delving into a world of times gone by has been. It’s been an adventure and a race against the clock, and I am sorely going to miss Pierre pushing his spectacles up his nose or enjoying a baked potato to such a degree, just as I will miss observing the Countess’s slow decline and loss of her waspishness in her dotage, and Rebecca Front, sorry, Anna Drubetskaya lording it over everyone when her son finally lands his millionairess. It shouldn’t have come as any surprise, mind, for as Anna Mikhaylovna (that’s the same Anna, naturally confusingly by using of course yet another name) describes early on in the book, “‘God grant you may never know what it is to be left a widow without means and with a son you love to distraction. One learns many things then… When I want to see one of those big people I write a note and then I take a cab and go myself, two, three or four times – till I get what I want”.”

I will miss reading about the superstitions of the time when the same countess “spat a little for luck as she returned to the drawing-room”, when the whole family literally sit it out to fit with tradition before they set off on their journey, and as Napoleon tweaks his officiers’ ears as a sign of favouritism. I even feel nostalgic already for the page upon page of chit chat while eye-popping General Kutuzov pontificates about the next strategic move during the occasionally ever-so-slightly interminable battle scenes. So I don’t think it’s going to be that long before a mammoth viewing of “Война и мир” complete with sub-titles is on the cards.

The only faintly jarring note is the overtly bucolic nature of the whopping great Epilogue that portrays idyllic life in the Rostov and Bezukhov households a good seven years after Napoleon has stuck his tail between his legs and rolled off home on his trusty sledge. Not only do we find Sonya acting “like a cat… she had attached herself not to the people but to the home”, doing endless good and “rendering the small services for which she had a gift, unconsciously accepted with insufficient gratitude“, but Natasha!!!! oh Natasha! What has happened to Natasha? I suppose in this Tolstoy is reflecting the times he lives in, but I rather wish he hadn’t. Be a bit much to expect a streak of feminism or a bout of equality for women back in the 1870s, I suppose. As for the rest, it’s absolutely bloody marvellous. And, do you know, I already can’t wait to read it all over again.

Rating – a rousing, epic 10/10

Images taken from here, here and here, here and here, here, herehere and here.
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“A Place Called Winter” by Patrick Gale – almost hits the spot

A departure from the norm for this much-loved author, in the sense that this time he places his protagonist in a historical setting and the farming moves across the waters from Cornwall to Canada. Based in a context that follows the timing of the trials and tribulations of Oscar Wilde, it delves into a world when love between two people of the same sex was not only illicit, but in many cases involved ostracism from the world and an abandonment by everyone around him.

Harry is married and a father when an amorous liaison leads to him finding himself obliged by friends and foe – and family – to opt for a new life the other side of the globe, in order to save face above all for his allegedly nearest and dearest. As the tale unfolds, much adjustment and hard toil results in our main man not only forging a future for himself, but in the event embracing a real possibility of personal happiness.

Following Harry Cane’s travails came as a good foil to having just finished the literary assault that is “A Little Life”, for while he had not endured the terrible abuse that Jude reveals to us, there are nevertheless parallel tracks with the potential hopelessness each character feels at certain times of their lives. Patrick Gale’s treatment is however a very different one. While Yanigahara’s work is relentlessly excruciating and painful and in some ways our focus looks backwards constantly, Harry’s transportation to Winter is far more action-packed with adventures as he learns how to become a homesteader, the hard way, and the author employs (slightly unsuccessfully) a series of flashbacks along the way to spice up the journey.

Gale explains that his inspiration for the book came from unconfirmed family stories handed down and shadowing his own emigrated great grandfather, and I think his ambition works – to a degree. The tale is credible and well recounted and I did enjoy it reading it very much, just as it was fascinating to explore this unknown territory and little-reported territory, but I was a little disappointed overall and didn’t find the author to be as at ease with this historical context. It seemed a slightly surprising nomination for the Costa novel of the year, actually, although have read many ecstatic reviews of this shortlisted book, so maybe I am in the minority. I just felt that his characters came over as less nuanced and a tad two-dimensional here and there, and the structure is nevertheless less convincing and had a strongly fictional almost fabled feel at times. Along the way, we are even introduced to a tyrannical character called (rather memorably) Troels Munck, whose reprehensible actions seem a far stretch and whose frequent reappearance feels very much a narrative convenience. Maybe there are just too many themes knocking around in this place called Winter…

Overall: thumbs up for the lyrical writing, and quite a cracking yarn, but hope the next novel brings a return to the present, where I feel Patrick Gale is much more at home.

Rating : 8/10

Shortlisted for the Costa Award 2015

Images taken from here and here
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Colm Tóibín – a man for all seasons? – the jury’s out…

Having spent a not inconsiderable amount of time over previous days proposing wildly romantic things for people to do in Paris over the Saint Valentin period, it struck me that the main character of Colm Toibin’s recent novel “Nora Webster” could really do with someone to sweep her off her feet and transport her down the Seine on a bateau mouche, or to knock her socks off with an inappropriately large bouquet of roses and a bottle of Moet-Chandon awaiting her as she flings open that luxurious hotel door… but then couldn’t we all…

Reality all too often checks in, and what happens in Toibin’s books is in fairness really more likely and realistic than any flurries of extravagance coming out of left bank. Yet as with the other novels by this author that I have read (and there’s still a little way to go), there is a constant air of ambivalence which makes it hard to decide whether I unequivocally admire his work and love his writing, or feel just slightly short-changed without being able to put a finger on quite why I don’t get swept away by it either.

I confess also to regularly confusing Colm Tóibín with Colum McCann for some reason and much to my chagrin – their writing style is completely different, so it must be the similarity of their Christian names, but even seeing “TransAtlantic” on the shop bookshelves the other day made me think instantly of “Brooklyn”. Wrong chap, although they certainly both know how to coin a phrase …

I first came to Tóibín via “The Master”, which won no end of accolades and was shortlisted for the Man Booker back in 2004, losing out to “The Line Of Beauty”.  I don’t know if I am the only person in the world not to have been bowled over the ‘factionalised’ story of four years in the life of Henry James, but confess to now barely being able to remember much more than the bare bones of the tale that was told. I do recall being irritated by a repetitive use of a phrase like “I can imagine” and there being, I believe, a series of indeed imaginary conversations. I know the writing was beautiful and possibly poignant, yet my own imagination was not captured at the time and unlike several other books I feel I’d like to revisit and give a second shot, somehow this isn’t one of them. Have I missed the plot completely here?

When “Brooklyn” came along X years later remember leaping at the chance to read it after it scooped up the Costa Award and the author got nominated one more time for the Booker. We read it with our wondrous Monceau book group that I still have such waves of nostalgia for, especially now we are all scattered round the globe and so many of you flew the coop and waved goodbye to Paree, not unlike the heroine of the book herself. Not all of the group were utterly enamoured with the tale, as I hazily recall, although I enjoyed it much, more more than its predecessor. What I did rather like was the gentle, understated tone, but this too risks leaning over into an odd one-dimensional bent here and there so it’s well nigh impossible to empathise with Eilis, because we can’t really get into her head at all.

Consequently, throughout the reading I didn’t feel particularly involved or hopelessly caught up in our main girl’s plight – her homesickness when she arrives so far from home is very tangible, and her dilemma is real enough, but in a funny sort of way I was far more intrigued by wondering just what was really going on in her Mammy’s mind while all the repressed emotion was kicking in during the final chapters of the novel.

Having said that, without this book there could never have been the film, and having now seen it am still reeling from just how good it is. Much has to do with the filming and the capturing of the times in ways that seem much more fluid than the written word in this instance. It’s just like stepping back in time, and Saoirse Ronan, she whose-name-I-wish-I-could-pronounce, is Sheer Perfection in this role. She seems to have so much more oomph than the character she represents from the book, and while I spent much of the time wishing Eilis would not be so darn passive while turning the pages, on the big screen she comes across as far stronger and somehow more dignified than I expected. Maybe I was mis-reading Tóibín and this was how he too saw her in his mind’s eye – so maybe once again have fallen short.

And now I’ve just finished “Nora Webster” – and here we go, all over again. We’re back in Wexford, Ireland, and Eilie’s Mammy even makes a speedy appearance at the very beginning of this story, telling us more in two lines than she imparted in the whole of the previous novel: “‘And I couldn’t face her or speak to her, and she sent me photographs of him and her together in New York, but I couldn’t look at them. They were the last thing in the world I wanted to see’…May Lacey began to rummage in her handbag”. But this story is all about someone who stayed the course – Nora Webster finds herself widowed in her early forties, raising the two children who remain at home on her own, and facing demons of necessity she had not expected to encounter at her age (“Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that”).

Contrary to Eilie, the grown-up Nora, while still verging on the compliant at times, does seem to exercise much more welly and determination, and my understanding of the book was a validation of her starting to come to terms with taking ownership of her life and beginning to peel back the layers, as the opinions of those around come to matter less and less. “They would all see it now, all of her visitors, Nora thought, and they would think her extravagant. She would have to steel herself, no matter what comments they made, not to care. She had wanted this and now she had it”.

I quite admire Nora. I liked the bits that weren’t said out loud and the parts where she realized she was a far from perfect parent. I enjoyed the passages when a rebellious streak manifests itself, such as “‘Here we are again, Nora, then’ Peggy said, speaking like a doctor to a patient who had come to have her bandages removed or her blood pressure taken. Nora looked at her coldly”. I was as thrilled as I think she was when she was entranced by the music pouring out of the stereo record player in Cloake’s electrical shop in Rafter street where’s buying, of course, a new iron.

I managed this time to sink much more deeply into the restrained language and subtle depiction of a claustrophobic existence that I am learning the author portrays so well – but once again, I wanted to love Nora and wanted to love the book wholeheartedly, and found that I couldn’t. Grrrr.

I listened to Colm Tóibín on Desert Island Discs just the other day. His recounting of having a stammer and of being shipped off for a while like the two boys in “Nora Webster”, his tales of a household full of woman chattering on while he was growing up and the fact that “nothing they said escaped me” have made me all the more curious to read more rather than abandon ship just yet. “The Heather Blazing” could well be the next venture – mind you, on the back cover, we are entreated to the snippet that “Eamon Redmond is a judge in Ireland’s high court, a man remote from his wife, his son and daughter and, at last outwardly, from …” Do we spot a bit of a recurring theme here? I suppose there’s only one way to find out …

The Master: 6/10, Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2004, Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, etc 

Brooklyn: 8/10 – Costa Book Award Winner 2009, Longlisted for the Man Booker, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Nominated 

Nora Webster: 8/10 – Costa Book Nominated 2014, Folio Prize Nominated 2015

Images taken from here, herehere and here, here and here.
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