Book review – “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

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’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and 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.

Highly, highly recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – February choice

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.

I’d be delighted if you would join me.

In praise of short stories

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.

Highly recommended.

How reading can keep you going right now

Image by cromaconceptovisual from Pixabay

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.

  1. 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.
  2. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce – lovely story, perfect ending, good solid rainy day reading stuff.
  3. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante – if you have not yet discovered Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, you are missing out. Superb, very Italian.
  4. The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant – also Italy, but Renaissance this time. Cracking story and several centuries from here. A reminder that things used to be much worse!
  5. Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor – another brilliant series, also set a long time ago. Edge of the seat reading.
  6. Holding by Graham Norton – brilliantly funny, and a brilliant writer too. Norton evokes rural Ireland with love and with great wit.
  7. 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.
  8. A Whisper of Horses by Zillah Bethel- brilliant uplifting book written mainly for children which I loved.
  9. The Revenant by 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.
  10. Becoming by 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.

Oh and just one more! The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy which is a joy from start to finish and is guaranteed to lift your spirits.

What are you reading to keep yourself sane at the moment?

Audiobook review – “The New Wilderness” by Diane Cook

In my final book review of last year I wrote of my delight that Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain won 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.

Author Diane Cook

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?

Highly recommended.

Book review – “The Girl with the Louding Voice” by Abi Daré

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.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

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.”

Source: Unicef, https://www.unicef.org/education/girls-education

Audiobook review – “Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris

When I posted my new Facebook Reading Challenge earlier 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.

Highly recommended.

Happy New Year! (Must be time for a reading challenge?)

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.

Happy reading everyone!

Book review – “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart *Booker Prize Winner*

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.

Highly recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – December Choice

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.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche wins the Women’s Prize ‘Best of the Best’

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.

Happy reading!