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 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?
When I posted my new Facebook Reading Challengeearlier this week, I completely forgot to mention the final book of my 2020 reading challenge, which was The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris. I chose it because I just felt a bit of a laugh was in order at the end of what had been a challenging and intense few months. I decided to go for this one on audiobook because I love Sedaris’s unique style of delivery; he is mostly quite deadpan, but that just gives his occasional bursts of comic energy all the more impact.
The book is a series of sketches loosely based on Christmas themes. The longest of these, and the one which opens the book, is an account of the author’s time working as a Christmas elf at Santaland in Macy’s department store in New York city (the veracity is disputed, but who cares?). I made the mistake of starting to listen to this on one of my morning runs. I have to tell you that I had to stop several times, doubled over with breathless laughter and my chuckles got me some strange glances from passers-by! In the caricatures of ghastly parents, children, his fellow elves and the mostly overly self-important ‘Santas’ we can all recognise tiny little bits of ourselves. These pieces were first aired on various media in the early 1990s, but it is extraordinary how much of it remains punishingly accurate today. In the awful, domineering parents bullying their kids into posing for photos with Santa bearing gleeful smiles (regardless of their true feelings) he foreshadows instagram parenting which values the posting of an experience more highly than the experience itself. You could easily believe that Sedaris had been made completely cynical by his seasonal work experience but he ends the piece with an uplifting account of one of the truly magical Santas who really did enchant the children who came to see him.
The next couple of essays I found more clever than funny- one is a woman reading out her round robin Christmas letter in which she gives an account of her husband’s illegitimate Vietnamese daughter turning up at the family home, and ends very darkly when her own daughter’s baby dies, it turns out, at the hands of the narrator, who has tried to pin the blame for the crime on the Vietnamese ‘interloper’. Macabre humour indeed.
My favourite essay was called ‘6 to 8 Black Men’. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard. It sounds very un-PC, but it is actually extremely self-deprecating and pokes fun at north American Christmas customs and the culture more generally (including the systemic racism), as compared to their European counterparts. I have had a couple of repeat listens of this piece and watched it on YouTube and it made me laugh just as much second and third time around. Sedaris’s humour is edgy at times, but I think the best comedy tends to makes you slightly uncomfortable.
This was a wonderful little collection, suitable for any time of year, and a perfect introduction to Sedaris, if you have not come across him before.
Hello, happy new year, happy Epiphany! I am late to the new year party this year. 2020 caused many of us to look at our lives somewhat afresh and ask what on earth we are doing and what is really important. One of the smallish things that I identified was an attachment to making Christmas something a bit more meaningful, in the absence of a religious faith, and I found myself taking an interest in some of the ancient secular traditions of the season. I tried not to do anything that looked too much like work between the winter solstice on the 20th/21st December (I watched the live sunset over Stonehenge broadcast on the English Heritage Facebook page and it was amazing) and twelfth night on 5th January (yes, I know many say it’s the 6th- depends when you start counting).
It was an odd period this time around for so many people. I was lucky; I collected my son from university in mid-December and with my husband and two daughters the five of us hunkered down, watched films, cooked, ate, walked, relaxed and generally had one of the nicest Christmasses ever. I’m not trying to be smug, especially if, denied the company and contact of loved ones, yours was s**t (and I know plenty of people for whom it was), I suppose all I’m saying is that we felt freer than usual of many of the normal Christmas pressures. And it was really very nice.
Our tree will come down today after a sterling four weeks of service. I switched off my Christmas lights for the last time yesterday night and I will miss them. I switched them on every morning when I came down to breakfast, still in the dark, and they were enormously cheering. I’ll need to find an alternative I think until the mornings are light again. I also lit candles in my front window every evening at dusk. That was nice too and I’m going to keep doing that until the evenings get a bit lighter.
So, today it’s back to work. My son scooted back to university at the weekend, relieved I think to have made the break for the border before Lockdown 3.o and the new travel restrictions came into force. My teenage daughters have diligently embraced the opportunities of online home learning – no more battling on public transport every day, no going out in the cold and dark, no school uniform and no classroom distractions from the handful of kids whose learning loss over the past few months has been so grave that they have forgotten how to behave in a classroom or towards their teachers. Sad, distressing and deeply worrying. Teachers, you have my utmost utmost respect for what you have done, achieved and had to put up with in 2020. I am lucky to have motivated children, old enough not to need supervision, able enough not to need much support and a household with enough tech and enough broadband to support a family of four online for most of the day. I am very very aware of my good fortune. It is a scandal that so many do not enjoy the last two things in order to cope with the first three.
I spent a lot of time reading over the Christmas break (goodness is it really four weeks since I last posted?!), but not my usual fare. I read a load of short stories; I bought most of my Christmas gifts in my local bookshops, one of which is a chain with a loyalty scheme. I built up quite a nice bunch of points so on Christmas Eve I treated myself to the following books:
I’ve been working my way through these and it was a joy to dip in and out. More on these soon.
Now it is time to look forward, and 2021 promises much. The vaccine, oh the vaccine. Surely the scientific miracle of our age. Let us hope governments deliver. The inauguration of a new President in the United States, whom we hope will, alongside his stellar Vice-President-elect, lead the world, as only his country can do, in paying long overdue serious attention to climate change, and addressing social injustice in all its forms. Only fourteen more days to go. I think the rest of the world is counting.
Plus of course, there are the dozens of wonderful books we are due, and lots of cultural events coming up. And, on a more parochial note, there is of course my 2021 Facebook Reading Challenge! It’s been tough this time, coming up with themes (I’ve done the genres and I’ve done countries and continents), so I’m just doing a hybrid of previous years and re-using most of the themes in a different order or with a twist! Why not? It has thrown up some really wonderful reading choices that I would not otherwise have made so what is not to like?
My first book of the year, on the theme of an American classic, is a re-read for me, and not too long, since we are already nearly a week into the month – The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I would love for you to join me on my Facebook Reading Challenge this year. You can print out and keep my reading challenge pro forma below (:D) if you’d like to get involved, and join my Facebook group.
I was delighted when it was announced in November that Shuggie Bain had won the Booker Prize. I had only read two of the shortlisted books, and this was one of them, which made me feel very ‘on top of literary events’! I had chosen this one to tackle first from the shortlist purely because it was the longest and I planned to listed on audio so I thought I’d have a good chance of getting through it. I have not done well with previous Booker nominees who have written very long books – it took me weeks to finish The Overstory by Richard Powers (shortlisted in 2018), although I absolutely loved that book and slightly preferred it to the winner (which was Milkman); I never finished Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 from 2017; and I haven’t yet even got around to buying Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, nominated last year. I really want to read it, but I’m not sure I have space in my life for over 1,000 pages of unbroken prose at the moment (45 hours on audio!)!
Anyway, back to Shuggie Bain. It is brilliant. It is conventionally written (which, actually, is quite nice) and it is a cracker of a story with beautifully drawn characters, a wonderful sense of place (the rougher ends of 1980s Glasgow) and the most real, colourful and vivid passages of dialogue I have come across in a long while. The audiobook was read brilliantly by Angus King – the range of voices he conjures is quite exceptional.
Shuggie, short for Hugh, is the third and youngest child of Agnes Bain. She is married to Shug (also Hugh) Bain, a philandering taxi driver, and has two other children, Catherine and Leek, from her earlier marriage to a safe and steady Catholic. Agnes left her first husband because he never excited her enough. Agnes is beautiful and vivacious and her guiding philosophy in life is always to present her best face to the world. This remains true for her even in the darkest of times, of which there are many.
When we first meet the family they are living with Agnes’s parents in a tower block. Shuggie and his mother are extremely close. He adores her. Shuggie himself is something of a misfit in this part of the world. He is delicate, sensitive and effeminate and has inherited his mother’s fastidious attention to outward appearance, her attraction to beautiful things. Agnes loves to dress Shuggie in smart new clothes from the catalogue, which she can ill afford, and, knowing that her boy is ‘different’ to his peers, she encourages him to at all times hold his head high and to rise above the jealousies of others.
It becomes clear from quite an early stage that Shug has become uninterested in a future life with Agnes and the children. He promises to organise a new home for the family, which he does, in a pleasant suburb of the city, which they are all excited about. For Agnes, this will be to live the dream she had always imagined for herself. As they are driving through the streets of the new suburb, however, the car fails to stop at any of the neat little houses with their manicured gardens. Instead, they continue through to a far-off collection of dreary run-down properties around a declining coal pit. The gap between expectation and reality could not be greater and the high-tension scene is brilliantly written. As the family enters their new home, Agnes realises that it does not have enough bedrooms for them all, which is what Shug had promised. Shug also chooses this moment to announce to Agnes that he is leaving her. The realisation that they are on their own, they have been abandoned, dumped in a grimy hell-hole, is shocking.
From here on in we observe Agnes’s ‘drink problem’ develop into full-blown alcoholism. Her ‘man problem’ becomes equally demeaning and self-destructive. Her older children leave her eventually too. Only Shuggie, much younger though he is, stays. Shuggie has his own problems, and we explore this too – in our more diverse and open-minded society (mostly) we forget what it was like for children like Shuggie, children who were a bit different, to be growing up in these brutalised, deprived, closed communities. The violent bullying he endures is shocking, but he somehow learns a kind of resilience to this from his mother. It is the agony of the relationship he has with Agnes that is actually much harder for him to bear.
This novel is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. It is beautifully constructed and written and I cannot think of a better one I have read this year.
I am thoroughly enjoying November’s reading challenge choice – The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. I have not yet completed it (nothing new there then!), but it is reminiscent of our June choice, which was of course The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. That’s not a problem as I loved that one too. The Girl with the Louding Voice is a slower read because it is narrated by Adunni, the fifteen year old central character, and therefore written very much in the natural style of her speech. A non-African reader may find this takes a bit of getting used to, but the richness of the narrative is very rewarding.
Both the above novels are set in Nigeria and it is great to see that country at the head of literary news at the moment, with voters in the Women’s Prize for Fiction awarding the prize of prizes to Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (it got my vote – one of the best novels I’ve ever read). I have a complete girl crush on this woman – she is incredible! For many fiction readers she has put Nigeria on the literary map, but of course that nation has a rich literary history in the likes of Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ben Okri. I feel sure that Abi Daré will be adding her name to that list in the near future. But more of that next week when I finish and review the book.
What of this month’s choice? Well, the theme is a book for winter. I wanted to avoid the theme of a book for Christmas. I don’t know about you but by the time we get to the middle of December I am sometimes a little bit ‘over’ Christmas already. Christmas this year, however, has felt somewhat on hold up to now, due to Lockdown 2.0, and definitely lower key. We have had some very serious books recently so I think it’s time for a bit of a Christmas laugh. I’ve chosen a humorous seasonal book by North American comedian David Sedaris. You may have heard him on his occasional Radio 4 show. He is extremely funny.
I’ve chosen Santaland Diaries (some editions called Holidays on Ice), which is a slimmish volume of six essays about his experiences as ‘Santa’ working in Macy’s. I think I’m going to go for this one on audio – I could do with a chuckle as I head out on my morning runs this month! I love Sedaris’s deadpan delivery and it will take my mind of the cold and wet!
I hope you will join me on the challenge this month. I think it will be a fun one.