Reading Challenge – December choice

And so, the final month of the year begins and it’s time for the last book in my 2021 reading challenge. I usually choose a theme for each month, but this year I picked a very specific book for December- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I almost always select something short for December because it is such a busy month, and this novella fits the bill perfectly at less than 100 pages, which should be easily achievable. I have an almost complete collection of vintage Dickens editions, bought in secondhand bookshops in the 1980s, as I did a special study of the author for my English literature degree. Strangely, A Christmas Carol is not in my library so I will have to acquire a copy. I quite fancy one of those lovely clothbound editions, even though they are quite pricey, to match all my other Dickens hardbacks.

We all know the story but how many of us have actually read this 1843 Dickens novella?

I love Dickens and A Christmas Carol might be one of the only books of his that I have not read. Honestly, I cannot remember if I have because of course most of us will know the story and all the main characters – Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim. Published in December 1843 it was an instant best-seller. It has never been out of print and has been adapted for stage and screen many times. It was Dickens’s sixth work to be published; his well-known classics Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop had already been serialised to great acclaim. My own personal Dickens favourite, Barnaby Rudge, came out just before A Christmas Carol.

November was a very busy month for me so after my Booker Prize reading marathon, I have not actually managed to read very much this last month and have only just started my reading challenge choice (Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying). I don’t expect it to take me very long, however; it’s quite a page-turner! My day job has kept me very busy, my kitchen renovation drags on and my youngest child had an operation (a routine procedure) so life has been pretty hectic. I am expecting December to be quieter and I am looking forward to a gentle build-up to Christmas. With the Covid Omicron variant threatening to alter everyone’s plans in the coming weeks, I will most likely be hunkering down at home with the family and not doing too much in the way of partying. My Christmas shopping will be largely local and outdoors, no bad thing, as I await my booster jab.

So, I hope to be able to get back to regular posting in the coming weeks and will be sharing my usual thoughts on bookish Christmas gift ideas, so look out for those.

Happy reading!

Book review – “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver

I chose this book for October in my Reading Challenge, the theme for which was a ghost story. There were quite a few that I fancied, including many classics that I have long wanted to get around to, but I liked the sound of this one and Paver is an author I have always wanted to try, having read some great reviews of her work. She mostly writes stories for young people and this novel was one of her early ventures into writing for adults, although I am loathe to make that distinction.

The book has a tantalising opening; it is a letter from one Algernon Carlisle (‘Algie’) in response to an enquiry from a Dr Murchison, who is researching ‘phobic disorders’, applying for information on an Arctic expedition he was part of. Algie’s reply is cool; he seems somewhat affronted by the suggestion that the events of the Arctic expedition were a result of a ‘phobic disorder’ and writes that, since one of his friend’s died and the other was deeply damaged by the experience, he therefore does not wish to be reminded of it.

Set in 1937, the book’s narrator is Jack Miller, an educated but lower class civil servant who is bored with his job and rather bitter about his situation in life. He meets a group of upper class Oxbridge-educated young men who are setting up a year-long expedition to the Arctic and are seeking a wireless operator. After meeting Jack they invite him to join them and it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, as well as taking Jack away from his repetitive and uninteresting existence. He has mixed feelings about the group but he gradually develops a close friendship with one of them, Gus.

When they set off on the trip in midsummer, they are full of enthusiasm, but the first alarm bells ring when the captain of the ship commissioned to take them to the abandoned mining settlement known as Gruhuken in Spitsbergen (which sits between Greenland and Norway in the Arctic Ocean), is anxious about travelling to the place. He is unspecific about his reservations but it is clear that something deeply untoward happened there at the time when the place was populated by miners.

When the three arrive at this strange and desolate place they are initially energetic and keen. They have their team of huskies and even though it is challenging coping with the 24 hour daylight they manage well enough. Jack finds ALgie trivial and annoying but his friendship with Gus deepens. After a few weeks, Gus becomes very ill and appendicitis is suspected. He must be removed to the mainland and it is agreed that Algie will accompany him. Jack will be left alone, although it is hoped for no longer than two to three weeks. It soon becomes clear that this is unrealistic and Jack finds his situation increasingly difficult. This is especially so when the daylight gives way to constant night and the disturbance to his body clock begins to have mental repercussions. He begins to see and hear things. Jack is visited by a trapper who also lives in Spitsbergen, though far too distant to be any sort of regular companion. Jack welcomes the company, but the trapper tells him the story of what happened years previously in Gruhuken, when a man was killed. It is said that his ghost stalks the area. Jack wants not to believe the story and declines the trapper’s invitation to join him at his own settlement. Jack is determined that he will get through this period, and prove his worth to Gus.

The rest of the book is about Jack’s mental decline as he loses all sense of time and the physical isolation leads him to become increasingly fearful and desperate. He becomes close to one of the huskies in particular, but this is also indicative of a kind of decline in his essential human-ness. The weather deteriorates, equipment breaks, the physical environment begins to collapse. The degeneration of the fragile physical set-up is a metaphor for the mental and emotional breakdown.

What is so clever about this book, and with all really good ghost stories is that the author lets the reader decide whether there really is a ghost or whether it is a ‘phobic disorder’. Algie’s view is clear from the opening of the book.

This was a real page-turner and I loved the Arctic setting which is brilliantly evoked. Paver apparently has a deep affection for this part of the world but it is clear from the book that she is also aware of its treachery and its power.

I really enjoyed this book. Recommended.

Booker book review #6 – “A Passage North” by Anuk Arudpragasam and my prediction for the winner

My final review from this year’s Booker shortlist, and just getting in under the wire, since the winner is to be announced at 7.15 this evening in a live broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre. You can listen on Radio 4’s Front Row programme, This is the first time, in the four or five years that I have been setting myself this challenge, that I have managed to read all six books in the six or so weeks between the publication of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner. I have really only managed it by being able to listen to some of the books (four of them) on audio while I was out walking or running and, in recent days, while cooking, shopping or drying my hair!

I hope that my appreciation of the last couple of books I read has not been compromised by my having read them quickly. I particularly regret this in relation to this last book that I tackled A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam. It is by far the most meandering, langorous and philosophical of the six books and I would rather have read it at just such a pace than at speed. The author is a young Sri Lankan Tamil who recently completed his PhD in philosophy at Columbia University in the US. This is his second novel. His first, The Story of a Brief Marriage, was published in 2016 and widely acclaimed. Both novels draw heavily on Arudpragasam’s background and his home country’s troubles during and after its three decades-long civil war.

Sri Lankan Tamil author Anuk Ardpragasam’s has a philosophy PhD and A Passage North is his second novel

A Passage North takes place some time after the end of the civil war, which concluded in 2009 when government forces finally defeated the insurgents (known as the ‘Tamil Tigers’) who had fought to establish an independent Tamil state in the north of the country. The UN estimated that as many as 100,000 deaths may be attributable to the war, including about 40,000 civilians, and the Sri Lankan Government has often been accused of war crimes. The civil war pervades every aspect of this novel.

The central character of the novel is Krishan, a young man who works for a non-governmental organisation in Colombo, the nation’s capital. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom are widowed. His father was killed in an explosion during the war. The novel opens with the death of Rani, his grandmother Appamma’s private carer. She was engaged by the family when Appamma’s health deteriorated, and Krishan and his mother needed help with caring duties due to their work commitments. It is Rani’s daughter who comes to the house to inform them of Rani’s death; she had been discovered in a well, her neck broken, and it is assumed that a tragic accident has occurred and that she fell in. We soon learn, however, that Rani a refugee from the north, had lost both her sons in the war and suffers from depression and anxiety.

This is a novel about relationships conducted in the context of the aftermath of a civil war. Krishan has known nothing but war in his life and yet, as a resident of Colombo, he has not been as directly affected as others. Life, its meaning, the impact on society and on individual citizens of protracted conflict and wartime atrocities are explored by young Krishan. He is on various journeys in this novel, whether it is an evening walk through the city or a train journey to the north to attend Rani’s cremation and during these travels he contemplates his relationships. All are considered in the context of whether the person is more or less affected by the war. For example, he considers at length, his relationship with his girlfriend Anjum, a young Indian woman who works as a political activist. But her distance from the Sri Lankan civil war makes him feel distant from her. When he considers what Rani has gone through, he seems to feel that he can never fully connect with Anjum because they lack an essential experience in common. There is so much suffering, whether it is Rani’s or his grandmother’s whose health is declining rapidly, that he cannot take seriously what he sees as Anjum’s more trivial preoccupations.

This is a powerful novel that deserves a slower and more considered reading than I have given it. It has been described as ‘Proustian’, with its long meandering passages. It is beautifully written and the audiobook was wonderfully read by Neil Shah.

So, who is going to win the Booker?

Last year, I read four of the six novels on the shortlist before the winner was announced. Of those, the standout book for me was Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, so I was delighted when it won. Having read all six books on the shortlist this year, the one that I have most enjoyed has been Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead and I also think this is the standout work. Its scale, its scope, its concept, characters and the quality of the writing are superb. It simply has everything you want from a book, including a cracking story. This was also the case with Shuggie Bain, which is why I wonder whether the Booker judges will, for the second year running, award the prize to such a novel. A case could be made for all the nominees actually, but I will stick my neck out and say that if it’s not Great Circle I think it will be The Promise. Like A Passage North it explores the impact of national trauma through the lens of individual crises. I loved all the books this year, any one of them would be a worthy winner.

Booker book review #4 – “The Promise”

The fourth of my reviews of this year’s Booker shortlist – they are coming thick and fast now! This novel is by South African author Damon Galgut, a writer who I’m ashamed to say I had not heard much about before picking up this book, and certainly someone whose work I will turn to again after reading this. This is his eighth novel and the third to be shortlisted for the Booker (he was shortlisted previously for the The Good Doctor in 2003 and In A Strange Room in 2010). He has also written several plays and a collection of short stories.

South African writer Damon Galgut and his novel The Promise, his third to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize

The novel centres on the white South African Swart family and spans the early 1980s to contemporary times. More specifically, it charts the decline of the family and the deaths of most of its members, all of them in difficult, tragic or insalubrious circumstances. Their gradual decline, from affluent landowners with servants and status, through corruption and addiction to decay is a metaphor for the country itself, making a tottering transition from apartheid to immature democracy and majority rule and the many and various challenges that presents.

The novel begins with the death of ‘Ma’, Rachel Swart, and the family gathering at the homestead near Pretoria. Her husband Manie (‘Pa’) is grief-stricken, though it is clear that he was a weak husband and in many important ways he was neglectful of his wife. He finds a new devotion now she is dead, although the primary cause of his grief seems to be that she will be buried in the Jewish cemetery, her family having sought to reclaim her in death, and thus he will be unable to lie with her in eternity. Rachel and Manie had three children, Anton, Astrid and Amor, who is only a teenager at the time of her mother’s death and is recalled from boarding school to attend the funeral. Only Amor seems capable of acknowledging and articulating ‘the promise’, the dying wish of her mother that their lifelong servant, Salome, should be granted ownership of the property that she occupies on the family’s estate with her son Lukas. Amor’s concerns are repeatedly dismissed; the family has more important issues to grapple with they insist, but really they are in denial about the direction of travel for South Africa.

Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It’s just the living part we still have to work out.

“The Promise” by Damon Galgut

There are deep tensions within the family and in this first part of the novel, the scene is set for conflicts that will re-emerge and intensify. Each part of the novel is centred around a death; the second part is the death of ‘Pa’, and the third and fourth, the deaths of Astrid and Anton, Amor’s two elder siblings. After the trauma of her mother’s death Amor becomes increasingly estranged from the family, disappointed by their continual dismissal of her efforts to ensure her mother’s promise to Salome is fulfilled, and feeling increasingly separate from them and their narrow-minded selfishness and bigotry.

But Anton can see once more inside his sister, cold and clear as the clapper of a bell, that it’s her own death she’s feeling. If it can happen to our father, it can happen to me. This nothing, this state of Not. She mourns herself in terror.

Death and the fear of it pervade this novel, yet death also stalks all of them.

The characters make this novel and the author explores each member of the Swart family deeply. He probes their motivations, their neuroses, their most-private thoughts and fantasies. They are all profoundly flawed and their ends are inevitable. In addition to the main members of the Swart family, there is a strong supporting cast, from Manie’s overbearing sister, Marina and her husband Ockie, always inappropriate, which would be laugh out loud if it were not so tragic, and Alwyn Simmers, the lacklustre, half-blind priest who manages to persuade Manie to build a church on the farm land. Plus of course there is Salome, almost-invisible, always ignored and yet who remains loyal to the family and outlives them all.

I loved this book, with the twists and turns of events that befall the family, the insightful portrayal of character and the parallels drawn between the rotten centre at the heart of the Swart family and the governing authorities of South Africa who continually let the people down.

Sometimes it’s South Africa that disappoints her. Who could have foreseen that her daddy, who everybody used to respect and fear, would have to go in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and admit to doing those horrible and necessary things? The problem with this country in her opinion, is that some people just can’t let go of the past.

The thoughts of Desirée, Anton’s wife, and daughter of an apartheid-era government minister

This book is highly recommended and surely a strong contender to win.

My month in pictures

This is a new monthly post where I aim to do very little writing (!!!) and tap into some visual creativity (which I always feel I don’t really have). So, this was September for me, in a few pictures and very few words.

Sheltering under a tree during a sudden shower, while the sun still shone

Reading challenge, August choice

I am just back from my holidays; that is a rarer thing to type than I could ever have imagined. My family and I usually get away a couple of times a year and have at least a couple of trips a year to Ireland to see my husband’s family. Like so many around the world, separated from loved ones, we had not seen them for eighteen months, since Christmas 2019. Even up to the last minute it was not certain we would be able to go, due to travel restrictions. My two daughters were both at school right up until two days before we left, and there was a lot of Covid around , so we might at any moment have been ‘pinged’ or the girls told they had to isolate. A neighbour of mine was ‘pinged’ within an hour of setting off for her holiday and had to turn back. We were on tenterhooks.

I am delighted to report that we did get away, and it felt very exciting indeed to drive onto the ferry and then finally to arrive in Dublin. My association with the city goes back a quarter of a century now and it feels like my second home. We wondered how we might fill a whole fortnight there – we don’t usually stay quite so long – but the time sped by and when we drove back onto the return ferry yesterday, it seemed like we had only disembarked the day before! Time with family felt precious indeed.

I’ll write more about my trip later in the week, but for now, since it is the 2nd of August, it is time for this month’s reading challenge. Lat month the theme was ‘a book to travel with’ and I chose Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This book is a an account of the author’s epic 1,100 mile solo hike on the notoriously challenging Pacific Crest Trail which begins at the border with Mexico and winds through California, Oregon and Washington. I read this book on my holiday and it is highly compelling. Look out for my review later in the week.

This month’s theme is quite different – ‘a book to rest with’. I had a couple of choices, including a book by popular broadcasting psychologist Claudia Hammond called The Art of Rest: How to find respite in the modern age, which I might get anyway. But I have decided to go with something less science-y and more spiritual – The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim. If the last year has taught me anything it is the value to my own personal wellbeing of being less busy, spending more time in nature really noticing the world around me, instead of rushing through it. It has been painful being disconnected from friends and family and I know that for many people the isolation has been terrible, but for me I can honestly say that the slower pace of life has had its upsides. I would like to use the opportunity of reading this book to find the balance that works for me going forward.

I am rejoicing that my diary is quite literally empty for the entire month or August. I am looking forward to continuing the air of serenity that I have brought back with me from my holiday, and to spending the month reading, writing, walking and being a little more spontaneous than life usually allows.

I would love for you to join me on my reading challenge this month.

Some sad news from the home front

He often kept me company when I was working on the PC

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I posted a couple of months ago about our cat Ziggy who went missing in April. After blitzing the neighbourhood with posters and flyers we had lots of calls from people who said they were familiar with him and would look out for him. It was lovely that people reached out when we were so anxious and everyone I spoke to said what a charming cat he was. Very sadly, we received confirmation last week that he had been found, long since passed away. As we suspected, he was not very far from home and had somehow got into an outhouse (locked and unused), probably through a hole in the roof. We are absolutely gutted. The person who found him was brave enough to come and tell us and to return him to us – many people would not have done – and so we at least have him home and have buried him in the garden, where he spent so much of his time.

I am surprised at how upset I have been. My kids are all older teens now, so they are able to put it in perspective. They also have more knowledge and experience and have lost a person or two. Part of me feels bad to be upset about a pet when so many have lost so much in the last year. A loved pet is part of the family, however, I think most pet owners will agree, and I miss him terribly. He was only about twelve so I just felt he would be with us for many more years yet. It has all come as a bit of a shock.

Of course, I keep asking myself if I could have done more – knocked on neghbours’ doors and asked if I can personally check their sheds, perhaps? It is easy to blame myself, but it doesn’t bring him back. Cats will be cats, and the old adage is true, curiosity is often their downfall.

So we mourn our beloved Ziggy, our sweet handsome boy, and are thankful that we had him for so many happy years.

Facebook Reading Challenge – July choice

Last month’s reading challenge book, Murder in Midsummer, a collection of short stories by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers and Ruth Rendell, was the perfect bit of light-hearted escapism for me. Nothing too challenging, great entertainment. Look out for my review next week.

This month is going to be completely different! The theme is “a book to travel with”. Since travel as we know it, is pretty much off the agenda at the moment (the UK government’s new list of green and amber countries was announced last week, and, guess what, most of us are going nowhere!) we are all having to think a little laterally at the moment. Perhaps you booked your caravan in Torquay months ago, in which case congratulations, but those less organised among us, waited. I thought we were being organised by booking the ferry to Ireland back in March, assuming we would be out of this pandemic by the summer, but alas, it does not look as if Ireland will have us and our potential Delta variant, not for the moment at least, without stringent quarantine restrictions that make the trip impractical. So, it’s back to the drawing board for us and yet more months before we see family again. I’m sure many of you are in the same boat.

What does it mean to ‘travel’ anyway? Many of us will have at least a few far-flung destinations on our bucket lists, but if we look back, the trips that mean most to us are usually the ones which involved some sort of mental or emotional journey, or spiritual transformation too. So, rather than choose a book about A N Other’s fantastic trip to Paradise, that makes me too jealous to read, I’ve chosen a book which is about travel as catharsis or recovery. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was published in 2012 by American writer Cheryl Strayed and was the first choice of Oprah’s book club when it was launched the same year.

Strayed wrote this memoir during a particularly difficult time in her life; her mother had died prematurely, when Cheryl was only 22, she and her husband divorced and she became a drug user. She undertook the punishing 1100 mile hike through California, Oregon and Washington as a form of therapy.

Okay, so it’s not going to be a barrel of laughs, maybe even triggering for some, but I think it is possibly a journey worth taking. And I get the sense that it is ultimately uplifting.

So, I would love for you to join me in the challenge in July. Hop on over to the Facebook group and join if you would like.

Happy reading everyone, however and wherever you will be travelling this month.

The end is nigh!

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I was all set last week to post a couple of blogs, including a book review of Kiley Reid’s international bestseller Such A Fun Age, a super book which I devoured in a few days. There was no devouring of anything last week, however, as ‘life got in the way’ somewhat. I expect life will get a bit more ‘in the way’ in the coming weeks as Coronavirus restrictions begin to ease. It doesn’t look as if we’ll be packing for holidays any time soon but I can already feel a return to my pre-pandemic busy-ness.

Yesterday, the first anniversary of the start of lockdown in the UK, felt like a sombre and reflective moment for the whole country and there was much radio and television time devoted to thinking about what we have lost in these last twelve months. Interestingly, there was also a lot of space given to people talking about what we have gained – a new sense of perspective and appreciation of others, a re-calibration of wants and needs, a desire to live our lives in a different way. My daughter said at the dinner table the other day that she “misses” the lockdown from last spring, when, for her, the pressure of school was taken away, when we started doing more together as a family, and there was time to walk and appreciate nature more. Plus the weather was lovely, which helped! I know what she means. For me, the days have not been ‘lazy’ by any means, but I will miss all that white space in my diary.

I had my Covid vaccination last week, for which I feel enormous gratitude to scientific endeavour. The ease and smoothness of the process from booking to queuing, to the actual procedure was very humbling and the one bright spot in what has been an otherwise very bleak Covid picture in the UK. I was also deeply aware of my white, western privilege in getting the vaccination and only wish it was being rolled out in other parts of the world that need it just as much as we do. The vaccination left me feeling completely wiped out for a couple of days and my arm is still very sore but it was a small price to pay.

So, that’s my excuse for not posting for over a week. The good thing about being a blogger is that you don’t HAVE to do it (unless it’s also your main income source, of course). I don’t need another thing is my life that I HAVE to do frankly! But I do miss it when I don’t post. The last year has been patchy for me in terms of frequency of posting and I set out at the beginning of this year to be much more disciplined, particularly around my social media (which is a Disaster!), so I am disappointed to have let a week slip by.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

I love writing, and I particularly love writing my book reviews; the very act of it, especially when I’m sharing my passion about something I’ve read, is a cathartic and joyful exercise and a little corner of creativity in the midst of life’s more prosaic activity.

So, hello again fellow bloggers and readers, I missed you last week! Let me ask, how do you keep up with the demands of regular blogging? Some of you write fantastically in-depth and thoroughly researched pieces and I am in awe!

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