In the last week or so of the month, I usually start to give some thought to the book that I am going to choose next for my Facebook Reading Challenge. I will remind myself of the theme. Sometimes, I already have a title or two in mind. And sometimes I have to do a bit of searching. This invariably throws up two or three choices and I will spend a few days ruminating before making a decision and posting on here.
Last month’s theme was “something that had been adapted for screen” and I had two titles in mind. I chose John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because I had just seen the 2011 Gary Oldman adaptation and had enjoyed it. After a few opening doubts (the plot of the book seemed much more complicated than the film), I really got into the book and loved it. I finished it quite quickly, so I decided to try and read my February reserve choice as well, Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 classic Rebecca. I had seen the trailer for the new film version starring Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas and Armie Hammer, which looks really good, but I wanted to read the book first. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but, oh my, HOW have I not read this before!? I cannot put it down. Look out for my reviews of both books soon.
This month’s theme is “something for spring” in keeping with the fact that meteorological spring started yesterday on the 1st. In the three years or so that I have been doing this challenge, I have never had more difficulty choosing a book. There are a couple of obvious choices – Ali Smith’s Spring or Karl Ove Knaussgard’s Spring – but they were too obvious for my liking. I brainstormed: growth, renewal, uplifting, Mother’s Day, World Book Day, International Women’s Day, Mars, gardening, baby birds… But, alas, this bore very little fruit. There is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, but, hmm, set in Russia in 1913…this does not feel sufficiently optimistic to me, and I feel we need some positivity at this point.
So, my choice has only a very tenuous link to spring – Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. My rationale? Well, it’s World Book Day this Thursday (4th March). Books can be found in libraries. It has been described as ‘uplifting’. Tick. Plus I really like Matt Haig. The central character is Nora, whose life is not going well. On the stroke of midnight of her last day on earth she finds herself transported to a library where she is given the opportunity to explore all the alternative lives she might have lived. If nothing else, one good thing that has come out of this pandemic is that many of us have reflected on our lives and thought about what we might want to change. And spring is a great time for change.
So, I think that’s a wrap! Looking forward to this one.
Here in the UK, the government announced last week a so-called ‘roadmap’ out of the Covid restrictions. They are emphasising the need to be guided by ‘data not dates’ so nothing is guaranteed of course. Like most people, I am looking forward to being able to see family and friends again; my own parents are both dead, but I have some elderly aunts and uncles I am anxious to visit, and my in-laws are in Dublin and we have not seen them for fourteen months. I am well aware that there is always someone worse off, and I am so sorry for all those who have lost loved ones in this pandemic, in so many cases, without having had the chance to say goodbye.
Yes, like many, I am looking forward to booking a holiday, but it’s actually the smaller things I miss more: seeing friends, going to the cinema or an art gallery, a concert or a play. I want to eat in a restaurant again, cheek by jowl with other diners, and go shopping without a mask. I want to get in the car and drive to the coast for the day, or walk up a mountain, or visit my son at university. I would even be happy providing a taxi service to my daughters, ferrying them around to meet their friends. I want to get on the tram and go into town, or go for a swim or browse in a bookshop or the library. All those things I took for granted and sometimes sighed at having to do. I want them all back.
But there is a prevailing narrative that I feel I must challenge; my daughters will return to school sometime after the 8th of March (when the Department for Education gets around to clarifying how schools should implement rapid Covid testing). Yes, they need to get back, see their friends and be in a classroom again, but they are apprehensive. Working from home has been quite good for them – they do not have to contend with the naughty and disruptive kids. We seem to have forgotten that these things cause anxiety in normal times and that some children get bullied or suffer in a crowded classroom or playground. This is going to be worse when they all return, because so many children will have forgotten how to behave in the classroom and I feel for teachers having to manage discipline once again.
And I am a bit sick of hearing people on television, radio and my neighbourhood telling us how bored we all are and how they have been forced to take up macrame, or whatever. To those people I say, try home-schooling, or working from the kitchen table! I never seem to have the time to be bored! I am rushing around less, that is true, and I will miss this pace of life actually. I know that once restrictions lift life will speed up again.
I will also miss the time that we are sharing as a family – we watch films together, play board games, go out for a walk together every Sunday, and my husband, who used to be away several nights a month for work, has been home all the time. Everyone has time to cook, bake, chat, run, walk, and play. We have grown closer as a family and there is less pressure in life, having to be somewhere by a certain time for a given activity.
I will miss barely using my car. My car is quite old and for a while there I fancied something newer, less scratched, that didn’t scream ‘Mum’. Now I don’t care. It’s been weeks since I put fuel in it and that feels great. I bought a new coat in the sales, but apart from that, I haven’t desired any new clothes. I’m sorry for the fashion industry I suppose, but I’ve learned to be very happy with the wardrobe full that I already have, re-discovered some things I haven’t worn in a very long time and learned to love comfortable.
So, though I will not mourn the end of the pandemic (we have lost too much for that) I hope that we will all reflect a little and think about what we learned was important.
Most of my reviews recently seem to have been of quite high-brow books. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m any kind of snob when it comes to reading it’s just that it has all been quite literary of late. I’m currently reading Claudia Winkelman’s Quite in the crevices of my life (when the complex plotting of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starts to make my head hurt!), my book club’s choice and which one of my friends described as ‘hubba bubba’! If you are old enough to remember what that is, well, it is describes the book perfectly! Look out for my review of that soon.
A novel I read recently, which was at the more popular end of the spectrum (no judgement intended), was Queenie, the debut novel by Candice Carty-Williams. It was shortlisted for a number of prizes, including the Waterstones Book of the Year and the Costa First Novel Award, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize last year and won in two categories of the British Book Awards in 2020 – Book of the Year and Debut Book of the Year. So, it was quite a sensation, and its thirty-two year old author seemed to be everywhere!
Rightly so, because it is a super book, very readable. In my head I thought it was a YA novel, the cover and the marketing scream YA, but it’s really quite adult; I’m not sure I’d be giving it to my 16 year-old for another year or so, for example. Lots of quite graphic sex.
Queenie Jenkins is a twenty-something Londoner of Jamaican origin and the novel begins with her break-up from long-term (white, middle-class) boyfriend Tom. He initially tells her it is a “break” but it becomes quite clear that he is simply trying to let her down gently. Or failing to be honest with her, depending on your perspective.
Queenie’s life soon spirals out of control. She has to move out of the apartment she shared with Tom into a much more shabby and smaller room in a house. She also finds herself engaging in a series of brief and bruising sexual encounters. Some are literally bruising – one affair with a junior doctor leaves her with a physical damage and a STD. Almost worse, however, is the work colleague who seems nice, approaches her with sensitivity and understanding, but, guess what? He just wants the sex and turns out to have…other commitments!
This is more than just a break-up novel, however. The book has been described by some as the ‘black Bridget Jones’, but it is far more complex than that. Queenie experiences gaslighting of the nastiest kind, and you can’t help but notice the racial dimension to that. But it’s not exactly a ‘race’ novel either…it is more complex than that too! It is a novel about sisterhood because it is friendship that gives Queenie the leg-up she needs to get her life back on track, her relationships with ‘The Corgis’ – the title of the Whatsapp group she invites her three closest confidantes to join.
This book is a good read. I don’t want to say ‘fun’ (like Bridget Jones) because it is at times deeply harrowing, although the author has a deft comic touch that quickly lifts you out of the gloom. It’s snappily written, with a style that a younger readership will recognise and engage with, but which is not too beyond the comprehension of this middle-aged reader either!
So, proof – I’m not just into classics and high-brow!
I have probably spent more time listening to audiobooks in the last twelve months than in all of the previous four years of subscribing to an audiobook service put together! There were in fact times in those previous four years when I suspended my membership because I was building up so many credits. I mainly listened to them on long drives alone and these were relatively infrequent. Last year, however, I found myself, like many people, going out for a walk or run daily. I haven’t walked more in the last twelve months than I did before, but my walking these days is less about purpose (going somewhere to get something) and more about pleasure, nature and exercise, and, well, let’s be honest, because when something is rationed you realise how important it is to you.
I’ve reviewed a number of my particular favourite audiobooks on here: Andrew Taylor’s Ashes of Londonseries (I listened to three out of the four last year), Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain, and of course David Sedaris’s Santaland Diaries. I have yet to review the audiobook that was the absolute standout for me in 2020, though, and which I listened to in the autumn – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I can only put my reticence in posting a review down to being in complete awe of Tartt’s genius as a writer, and the feeling that I could never write anything that would in any way do justice to the mastery on display in this book.
I will try and summarise the plot as briefly as possible. We first meet the main character Theodore “Theo” Decker when he is thirteen years old. He lives with his mother, who works on an art journal, in New York City, his alcoholic father having left the family some years earlier. Theo is in some difficulty at school and he and his mother have an appointment with the Principal. To kill time before the meeting, Theo’s mother takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A terrorist bomb explodes while they are there, killing Theo’s mother and many others, and devastating the building. In the middle of the wreckage Theo spots an elderly man, whom he had noticed earlier on in the visit because he was accompanied by a sullen, but ephemeral looking young girl of about Theo’s age, carrying an instrument case. Theo goes to the old man, who is dying from his injuries. The old man gives Theo a ring from his finger and a curious message which it will later transpire refers to an antique shop that he Welty Blackwell, ran with his partner James “Hobie” Hobart. During their brief time together, in what was a room devoted to Dutch paintings from the 17th century, Theo finds himself captivated by a tiny picture by Carel Fabritius called The Goldfinch. Welty notices Theo’s fascination and with his dying breath seems to encourage Theo to take it. The explosion scene is compulsive listening, jaw-dropping.
Theo takes the painting and manages to find his own way out. He takes cover back at home, not knowing if his mother is alive or dead. Eventually, the authorities track him down and he is placed in temporary care with the family of a school friend, Andy Barbour, a slightly sickly, precociously intelligent boy, who, like Theo, does not quite fit in at school. Andy’s family is from the Upper East Side – wealthy, formal, slightly odd, and more than a little dysfunctional. But after a period of adjustment Theo and the family gradually get used to one another, until, at the point the Barbours announce that they would like formally to adopt Theo, the boy’s life takes a dramatic turn.
I wish to say nothing more of the plot, because it is simply too delicious and too clever and if you have not read the book yourself and are tempted to do so, I want you to enjoy every single moment of shock and drama.
Theo does not reveal that he has the painting for many years. And it burns in his conscience, influences almost all his actions and decisions. The plot is a joy, an absolute roller-coaster, and the character of Theo is complex and brilliantly-drawn. He is in turns damaged and damaging through the book, but all the while the two things that constantly influence his life are the catastrophic loss of his beloved mother in such traumatic circumstances, and the concealment of the painting, an extremely valuable internationally renowned piece, which becomes the subject of a worldwide search. Theo’s increasing paranoia in relation to the painting, has echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In addition to Theo there are a clutch of other superb characters: Boris, his Nevada schoolfriend who becomes a major influence on events in his life; Hobie, the business partner of the old dying man in the museum who Theo tracks down; Pippa, the young girl with the music case, Welty’s granddaughter; and, of course, Theo’s mother, who, although she dies early, is a constant presence in the narrative.
This book has everything: brilliant characters, brilliant plot, action, reflection, literary merit. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Donna Tartt in 2014 (my second Pulitzer Prize-winner reviewed in a week!) and was adapted for screen in 2019. I’m not sure I want to see the film. There is surely no way it could do justice to the book? Although I note that it has Nicole Kidman and Sarah Paulson among the cast so I’m tempted.
I have no idea why I have not read this before; The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s debut novel, published in 1992, is one of my favourite books of all time, a masterpiece, so you would have thought I’d be hanging on everything she has ever written. She is hardly prolific though – her second book, The Little Friend, did not come until ten years after her first, in 2002. That was the start of my childbearing, aka reading wilderness, years, so I’m not really surprised I didn’t get around to that one. Tartt’s books are long – The Goldfinch is 880 pages, or 32 hours of listening joy, and The Little Friend is almost 600 pages – there was no way I would have got through that with a two year old!
The Goldfinch is highly, highly recommended. And the painting, a fragment of which is shown on the cover of the book, is utterly beautiful. That’s it, I’m out of superlatives.
I announced my February choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge last week. I also mentioned how much I loved January’s choice, The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The theme was an American classic. I had chosen that theme to celebrate the inauguration (at last!) of President Joe Biden and his Vice-President Kamala Harris. I can tell you I breathed a huge sigh of relief on 20 January! The Color Purple was a particularly fitting choice, given its feminist themes and exploration of racial segregation and discrimination. It was a book I had considered a couple of years ago for a previous reading challenge when the theme was a feminist novel. Back then, I chose Jeanette Winterson’sOranges Are Not the Only Fruitand I feel quite glad now that I left The Color Purple until 2021.
I feel slightly embarrassed to be calling this post a ‘book review’; embarrassed because it is surely a book that I (everyone!) should have read long before now. How had I not?! You don’t need me to tell you that it’s brilliant – the Pulitzer Prize judges did that back in 1983. The book was made into a film in 1985, directed by Steven Spielberg, and won a clutch of Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Whoopi Goldberg in the lead role of Celie, and Best Supporting Actress awards for both Oprah Winfrey as Sofia and Margaret Avery as Shug.
Because both the novel and the film are so well-known, I believe I actually thought I knew the story and what it was all about, but I am ashamed to say I really did not. Set in Georgia in the early twentieth century (and going up to the early years of the second World War), segregation, racism and black poverty of course provide the backdrop, but the book is so much more than this. Firstly there is the sisterly love between Celie and Nettie, which endures even though they are separated for decades; Celie remains in Georgia, while Nettie goes to Africa as a missionary. The book is brilliantly structured as a series of letters, initially between Celie and her ‘God’, and later between Celie and Nettie, when the two women are separated. I think this is a difficult format to pull off- it may look easy but could become tired or pedestrian in a weaker author’s hands, but Walker pulls it off in masterclass fashion and it gives the book a surprising amount of pace.
The second somewhat surprising theme for me was the resilience of the African-American woman, not just Celie and Nettie, but also Shug Avery (who becomes Celie’s lover, best friend, and is the former lover of Celie’s husband “Mister”), and Sofia, Celie’s step-daughter-in-law. The men in the book are largely feckless, cruel, violent and controlling, but somehow these women rise above them, not only surviving, but thriving.
Thirdly, there is the theme of love; I have already mentioned the intense sisterly love between Celie and Nettie (and the ending will have you weeping), but many other different kinds of love are explored here – the sexual love that Celie enjoys with liberal bohemian Shug, who shows her another way of being a woman in America at that time, and opens up whole new worlds for her. There is also love that is turbulent, between Sofia and Harpo, and love between different age groups, as with Nettie and her husband. It is a tribute to open-mindedness and the joy of love in all its forms.
Finally, there is a difficult theme, which is that of violence, including sexual violence, within the African-American, former slave, community. Celie is basically a victim of child rape, perpetrated by her stepfather, by whom she has two children who are given away to another family. She is married off to a wicked man (“Mister”) who also rapes her, and treats her as his own slave when it is clear he only wanted her to cook and clean for the family that the death of his first wife has left him with. We are left wondering whether the treatment of the black community by their former slave-owner masters has been the cause of this social dysfunction, particularly as it relates to the lowly position that women occupy. Readers are left in further turmoil, however, by the descriptions Nettie provides in her missives from Africa about the tribe amongst whom she lives, where she refers to the widespread practice of ‘cutting girls’ (female gential mutilation). Nettie admires the tribe and learns a great deal from them, but she cannot accept this practice. When the tribe is displaced by white colonial settlers wishing to exploit the natural resources the land offers, Nettie is appalled and foretells the devastating consequences of western industrial expansion on the natural world and the people who have lived in harmony with it for generations. Nettie is further disillusioned when, travelling via Europe (specifically, England) to report back to the authorities of the church to which she and her husband belong, on their work and the horror of the practices they have witnessed by the colonialists, their protests are met with indifference.
It is really extraordinary how the author does so much in a relatively short book and with such a simple format.
So, at last, I can say that I have read this book. If you have not done so, then it really needs to go on your TBR list. And though I will now watch the prize-winning film, I truly doubt whether it can cover everything that the novel encapsulates.
It’s been a busy old start to the month – paid work has kept me Zooming pretty continuously such that sitting in front of the screen has not been top of my list of priorities. I’ve also set myself the goal of finishing the seventh (and, hopefully, final!) draft of the book I have been working for what must be three years now, and that means locking the door of the study for two hours a day and bashing away. Interruptions have abounded, of course, with home-schooling children and a WFH partner sharing my space, but I’m doing okay and feel on course for finishing the revisions by half term at the end of next week. Sometimes you just have to set a goal and go hell for leather for it. I am telling myself I must not let perfection be the enemy of the good and all that, so after this set of revisions, I really am going to draw that line and say enough, and actually do something with it.
So, that is why I am here, a few days later than planned, to my monthly reading challenge post. I LOVED last month’s book, The Color Purple, by Alice Walker – HOW, had I not read this already?!?!? I have not even seen the film – that is definitely going on my lockdown watch-list. Absolutely gripping, did not go at all in the direction I expected, brilliantly conceived and written. Totally un-put-down-able. It’s made me feel that my own creative efforts look a bit rubbish, but hey, you can’t compare apples and tractors – this book did win the Pulitzer prize after all. More on The Color Purple later in the week.
This month’s theme is “Something that was adapted for screen” – The Color Purple could have worked for that too. Last weekend, we watched the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth among others. It was on the BBC iPlayer (only for the rest of this week). I have got quite into spy stories in the last few years – I have now watched all the seasons of The Americans twice over, love them and will probably watch them again, plus we watched the French series Le Bureau de Legendes recently, and I loved that too. John Le Carre died in December last year and I have been intending to read some of his work for a while now, so I thought that would be a good option. I started the book last Sunday, and I’m afraid to say, it’s quite hard work. Maybe the film was just a bit too good? My husband fell asleep during the film, and says the book is better, but I keep falling asleep reading the book, so I’m not sure I agree! The handsome Gary Oldman version of George Smiley from the film, does not concur with the short, plump, tired and ageing Smiley of the book, which jars a bit, and I’m afraid I’d rather be thinking of Gary Oldman! This novel was also adapted for the small screen of course, in 1974, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley. It would be good to watch that too.
I will persevere a little longer, but if I don’t get on with it, I may just abandon it and go for my second option, which is Rebecca, the 1938 Gothic classic by Daphne Du Maurier. There is a new film version out, starring Lily James (who seems to be in just about every other thing I watch at the moment), Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne Dowd and Armie Hammer (wow, what a cast!). There is also of course, the famous Hitchcock version, made in 1940, not long after the publication of the book, and reviews I have read suggest that the new film does not better the old one.
So, a choice of two! Two books, four film and television adaptations, a late start and a short month – quite a challenge! Let’s see if I’m up to it.
Last week, I wrote on here about the difficulties so many of us are having dealing with the pandemic and all its ramifications, and how reading can provide an antidote to that. I had some nice responses to that piece so I’m glad it struck a chord with a few people. This week in the UK we have surpasses the total of 100,000 lives lost to Covid-19 (although some argue that the data show we actually reached it two weeks ago). And it seems there are likely to be many more deaths before the pandemic is over and many more people whose lives will have been altered by contracting the virus.
I don’t know about you but one of the things that I have found most challenging in the last year is a shortened attention span. That has at times included my reading too, and, talking to a friend earlier this week, who shared my feeling on this, I think it’s down to being surrounded by fear and a sense of danger. We are in ‘fight or flight’ mode so much of the time, feeling uneasy in the presence of an unseen threat that could be deadly to ourselves or our loved ones. Our biology is not allowing us to relax into all the spare time we have because we need to be constantly alert.
So, don’t feel guilty if, like me, you cannot focus on anything for very long, haven’t cleared out the loft yet or completed that novel! And if a big chunky novel is beyond you, why not try something more petite? Over Christmas, (which was also crazy busy, for me, felt like I was feeding the five thousand, not five!) I did something I rarely do – I read a load of short stories! It is not a genre I have embraced very much, to be honest, and I realise now what I have been missing. They can be perfect little gems that give you exactly what you need in a small package without weighing too heavily, like one of those lovely little snacks you get in Italian coffee shops.
I read the following and loved them!
A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
This was a revelation! Of course, I knew about Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of my favourite books, seeing the film for the first time years ago gave me a lifelong girl-crush on Audrey Hepburn, and I loved also the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the biopic Capote, which covers the period during which the author wrote In Cold Blood. I have learned the term ‘Southern gothic’ which Capote is said to write, and the stories in this volume are superb! An absolute joy to read any time of the year. My favourite was Jug of Silver, written in 1945, about a poor young boy from the wrong side of the small town of Valhalla in Alabama, who takes part in a competition at a local drugstore to guess how much is in a glass jug. The boy pays his fee to take part and tension builds over several weeks as he sits and stares at the jug, his little sister convinced he is going to win the prize. I won’t tell you what happens, but it will warm your heart! There are four other stories in this collection and they are all excellent.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
I’m not a huge murder-mystery fan (though I am a recent convert to Agatha Christie!) so have never got around to reading any Conan Doyle, but I loved these. Perfect little nuggets to sit down with if you have a spare half hour. You can get lost in the Victorian setting. There are twelve stories in this collection and you can pick volumes up very cheaply (particularly on Kindle). Some of the scenarios are very contrived, but that just makes them fun. The best part of them is the development of the characters of Holmes and Watson and their relationship. I am minded to move onto one of the full-length novels now, to see how this plays out in a longer form. I have also lined up the television series Sherlock on my streaming list!
A Maigret Christmas & Other Stories by Georges Simenon
My husband is a French speaker and a Simenon fan, and I have read many reviews on the Red Lips and Bibliomaniacs blog which have piqued my interest. There are three stories here, all set around Christmas-time, evoke brilliantly a seamier side of Paris, especially one cold and deserted for the festive season. Simenon explores the dark underbelly of society in these stories. Only the first of the three is a Maigret story and I would like to read more, though this wasn’t my favourite in the volume. I liked Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook where the central character is a rather geeky loner, under-estimated, but whose vigilance solves a crime where his own nephew is a missing person and his brother is accused of murder. It’s clever, portrays the characters and their relationship really empathically, and has a nice ending.
After dabbling with these, I will definitely read more short stories. It was nice to be able to sit and read something quite short, without it being a huge commitment and feeling a sense of both achievement and satisfaction at completing a story in one sitting.
I started the new year with hope and positivity. Yes, further tight restrictions were being imposed, but the vaccine was being rolled out and the Christmas decorations were still up. I even wrote about my feelings of optimism on here!
Since then, my mood has fluctuated wildly. I’ve had some domestic stresses in the form of day-job demands and administrative wheels turning incredibly slowly at the moment which have had some knock-on effects (too boring to talk about here). The Covid death toll is breaking new grim records every day it seems and I truly fear for the mental and physical health of NHS and care home staff at the very sharp end. If you are lucky enough to be untouched by Covid now, we are all going to be impacted by its ramifications somehow in the coming months. The weather is currently awful – torrential rain here in suburban Manchester as I write, making it incredibly dark even in the middle of the day. But despite this terrible backdrop, I don’t think it fully explains my mood. I think everything is just very frightening right now. Inside each of us is a little child who just wants to be told that it will all be okay. At this point, my adult self does not feel quite up to the job of providing the necessary reassurance.
I think there is also something about spiritual resources. Perhaps if you have a faith of some sort, you can get spiritual nourishment through prayer and your god. If you do, I hope sincerely that it is working for you. I don’t have that, so I find myself turning to books. Over the last couple of weeks, for one reason and another, there have been days when I have not had a chance to read, and that has been a mistake. Reading is my escape, my antidote to worldly anxieties, my source of wisdom and my assistant to sleep!
I am frequently asked for reading recommendations. I always give them with the caveat that taste is such an individual thing. Looking back over my reading since I started this blog, I thought it might be useful to post some suggestions here of books that have nourished me, as they might help if you are feeling anything similar to my ups and downs at the moment. The following are not all ‘cheerful’ (I don’t read many cheerful books!), but they should all enable a degree of escape and/or entertainment, which I think might just about be enough for many of us at the moment.
Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig – published just before the pandemic struck, but with plenty of analysis and tips on the challenges of modern life which apply perfectly in 2020/21.
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce – lovely story, perfect ending, good solid rainy day reading stuff.
My Brilliant Friendby Elena Ferrante – if you have not yet discovered Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, you are missing out. Superb, very Italian.
The Birth of Venusby Sarah Dunant – also Italy, but Renaissance this time. Cracking story and several centuries from here. A reminder that things used to be much worse!
Ashes of Londonby Andrew Taylor – another brilliant series, also set a long time ago. Edge of the seat reading.
Holding by Graham Norton – brilliantly funny, and a brilliant writer too. Norton evokes rural Ireland with love and with great wit.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – a trip on the Orient Express is on my bucket list, so this one was perfect escapism for me, but Death on the Nile would do just as well.
A Whisper of Horses by Zillah Bethel- brilliant uplifting book written mainly for children which I loved.
The Revenantby Michael Punke – if you think it’s a bit chilly out…. Nothing like someone else’s life-threatening terrors to make you feel gratitude for central heating and supermarkets.
Becomingby Michelle Obama – I write this blog on a historic day, and am gratefully reminded that American presidents can and will be so much better.
And if that isn’t enough to be getting on with may I recommend a book I bought just before Christmas, which I haven’t reviewed on here yet, but which I am thoroughly enjoying dipping into, The Book of Hopes edited by Katherine Rundell.
In my final book review of last year I wrote of my delight that Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bainwon the 2020 Booker Prize. It was one of only two of the shortlisted books I managed to complete before the prize winner was announced (the other one I read, Burnt Sugar, I liked somewhat less and have also reviewed here). I had another of the shortlisted books ‘in progress’ at the time the winner was announced, The New Wilderness by first-time author Diane Cook, which I listened to on audio. It was utterly compelling and was beautifully read by Stacey Glemboski. It reminded me very much of a previously shortlisted book, The Overstory, by Richard Power, which was nominated in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years.
The New Wilderness is set in what seems, frighteningly, a not too distant future in America. Environmental decline has wreaked havoc on ordinary life, such that urban living is barely sustainable, and there are few alternative spaces left for citizens to inhabit. The government has authorised a research project to allow a small group of twenty people to inhabit one of the last remaining wild areas, but there are strict rules that they must observe, including having no contact with the outside world, and leaving no trace of their habitation on the environment, which means not staying in one place too long or building a camp. (The irony is not lost.) The group is closely monitored by Rangers, who enforce the regulations, and the group is required to attend stations every few months to register births, deaths and significant events. The story is told through the eyes of the leading character, Bea, whose partner Glen was one of the academics leading the research. Bea had volunteered for the project in order to remove her daughter Agnes from the city which was killing her slowly. Agnes suffered from a range of unnamed conditions which have been cured by life in the wilderness. Agnes is about ten or eleven when we meet her although no-one has really been keeping track; time is marked by seasonal change not the calendar.
When the book opens the group has already been living in the wilderness for some years. It opens dramatically with the deaths of two members of the group in a hazardous river crossing, in which a valuable rope is also lost. What is immediately striking to the reader is how the loss of the rope is mourned nearly as much as the loss of the companions, indicating how the group has become more focused on survival than finer human emotions. Further death occurs early on when Bea gives birth, alone in the forest, to a dead baby, which she buries quietly and away from the rest of the group. The dead child will be a recurring motif throughout the book; Bea left the city to save her daughter, and lost another because she was in the wilderness.
Life is extremely challenging and there are clearly tensions in the group, which the author takes great care to illustrate in skilful detail, particularly over ‘leadership’ – Glen, as one of the project’s initiators, was once looked to as a kind of informal leader. Glen becomes sick, however, and another of the group members, the strong more dominant alpha male-type, Carl, sees an opportunity to weigh in. Bea has also emerged as a strong leader in the group and Carl, in an attempt to fully oust Glen from his unofficial position, goes about bringing her to his side as well. Here the community is disintegrating; it’s like Lord of the Flies with grown-ups. Further chaos ensues when a small group of newcomers – city refugees who were on a ‘waiting list’ to join the original group in the wilderness – is encountered. To anyone who knows anything about group psychology – forming, storming, norming and all that – this is fascinating. It is also fascinating to see the way the two distinct groups spar with one another, with whom individual members place their loyalties, and how readily the original population integrates with the ‘immigrants’. There are also more young people among the newcomers, teenagers, and Agnes, now a teenager herself, has the opportunity the develop relationships with people her own age for the first time. But the differences between them in terms of their life experiences to date makes it difficult for Agnes to navigate her way among them. With the teenagers a further faction in the group emerges.
What the author creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of our problematic human society, where Utopia cannot exist, where the human condition leads to inevitable decline. The wilderness is not the ideal society that the participants hoped it would be; yes, it is ‘natural’ and (mostly) unpolluted, but it is also brutal, and even the most idealistic among them hanker after a shower, some easy food, a haircut. Most strikingly however, is the failure of the community, socially, although the strict policing of the rules by the overweening and power-drunk Rangers (some more than others) does not help.
I have only scratched the surface of the book in this review – it is a highly complex novel and I fear I have not done it justice. It is a dystopian novel, which predicts a bleak future (do not read this if you want something uplifting!) where the opportunity to influence climate change has passed. It is also a novel about motherhood; Bea left the city to save her daughter’s life. In the middle of the novel she also flees the wilderness for a time (abandoning her daughter) when she learns that her own mother has died. The mother who begged her not to go.
All of the Booker-shortlisted novels I have read so far are about mothers or motherhood. Is that a coincidence?
I chose this book for my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge in November and totally forgot to post my review! What happened to me just before Christmas, I don’t know! The theme in November was a book from the new decade (we had something from the last decade in January) and I chose this book because it had caught my eye a few times and because it has been an international success for its first-time author. Abi Daré was born in Lagos, but now lives in the UK having studied for her degree here. The book is dedicated to her mother, the first professor of taxation in Nigeria, whom she thanks for the sacrifices she made for her daughter’s education. The importance of education for girls is a theme that dominates the novel. (If you read no further please go to the stats at the end of this post.)
The book is narrated by Adunni, a fourteen year old girl from a small village. She lives with her father and two brothers (one older, one younger), their mother having died from an unnamed illness, but is likely to have been tuberculosis. Adunni still grieves for her beloved mother, who always promised her daughter that she would receive an education. Adunni’s father does not think the same way; the family is poor and, in order to pay their rent, he decides to sell his daughter to an older man in another village, who seems to have a penchant for young wives. Adunni will be his third wife and her job is to produce a son for him as soon as possible. The elder wife bore the first daughter and is wicked and jealous and beats Adunni. The second wife, Khadija, is also very young and has already borne three daughters and is pregnant with her fourth child, whom she hopes will be a boy. Khadija is kind to Adunni and helps her to manage the advances of their lecherous husband.
Tragedy strikes, however, when Khadija dies in premature labour. Adunni, who was the only one with her at the time, fears she will be blamed, so she decides to run away. She tracks down an old friend of her mother’s who introduces her to her son, the mysterious Mr Kola, who the woman says can find her work as a housemaid and that the owner will pay for Adunni to be educated. This is everything that Adunni wants and so she goes with Mr Kola. He takes her to a rich household in a Lagos suburb. Adunni has never been to Lagos before and she is overwhelmed by the size of the city and its chaos.
‘Big Madam’ is a successful entrepreneur, owner of a company selling luxury fabric, and she lives in a gated property with fancy cars, servants and her (also lecherous) husband. Adunni is treated badly – she has effectively been sold into slavery by Mr Kola. She is never paid for her work, is beaten by Big Madam and it looks as though the hoped-for education is never going to happen. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers so will cease my plot description there.
Adunni’s journey and her wide-eyed and innocent commentary on the events that befall her is at once charming and horrific. The courage and ingenuity she shows in the most testing of circumstances are truly heroic, that is the uplifting bit, but the brutality of the treatment she receives, from rape, to physical abuse, to theft and exploitation, are out and out shocking. If it were not for Adunni’s charm the book would be barely readable. Adunni’s ‘louding voice’ refers to her growing courage, her determination to speak up and speak out against her abusers.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author has tackled some truly grave themes with creativity and humour. We are reminded throughout that we are talking about present day Nigeria, not something from a bygone era before feminism and human rights; no, this is still happening. References are made to Boko Haram and the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014. This book reveals the reality of life in the 21st century for too many girls and young women in this vast country of over 200 million people.
It is a sobering read, but a good one and I recommend it highly. Please note the statistics below.
“Around the world, 132 million girls are out of school, including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower-secondary school age, and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age. In countries affected by conflict, girls are more than twice as likely to be out of school than girls living in non-affected countries.
Only 66 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education. At the secondary level, the gap widens: 45 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in lower secondary education, and 25 per cent in upper secondary education.”