‘Stay With Me’ by Ayobami Adebayo

Stay-with-Me imgThis was April’s choice for my book club and one of the members described it as the best book we have read – she consumed it in virtually one sitting in the middle of the night when she was wide awake with jet lag! A fine endorsement indeed. It really is a marvellous book and, as I so often say on this blog, totally unfair that one so young should exhibit this much talent in a debut novel! It has also been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year (winner to be annonced on 7 June), so it’s hot.

 

 

 

 

The blurb on the jacket is cryptic:

“There are things even love can’t do…if the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

It’s hard to provide a review without giving away too much, because the twists and turns of the plot are a joy. It’s also a very tough read at times, so be prepared for some challenging parts.

The first chapter is set in 2008 but only makes sense once you have finished the book, so do come back to it. The book starts proper in 1985 when we first meet Yejide and Akin, a young married couple living in Ilesa in Nigeria. They are a thoroughly modern couple enjoying a happy middle class life, he a successful banker, she a beautician with her own business. Their relationship is placed under severe strain, however, because they are infertile. They themselves are very much in love and seem quite happy with their lot, but their respective families have high expectations of children. Thus they come up against powerful cultural forces; both are children of polygamous households and this contrasts forcefully with their much more enlightened outlook.

There is superstition and witchcraft here too. Quite early on, under unbearable pressure, Yejide turns to traditional quackery to conceive and ends up developing what can only be described as a mental illness where she develops a phantom pregnancy that lasts nearly eighteen months. Akin, on the other hand, is under pressure from his own side to take a second wife, as it is considered the priority is to produce a child not to have a happy marriage. The tussle between modern and traditional ways of thinking create mistrust and betrayal in Akin and Yejide’s relationship where previously there was only love and passion.

This is all played out against the backdrop of social and political unrest in Nigeria in the 1980s. I was hoping this would play a bigger part in the novel having enjoyed so profoundly Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimimande Ngozi Adiche) a few years ago, but it’s not that kind of book. The political upheaval going on in the background is there more as a metaphor for transition, what happens when society is forced to evolve out of its traditions. It also helps with the plot later on.

The pace of this book is fast, but it loses nothing in quality for being so. It’s a brilliant plot, jaw-dropping even. The writing is breathtaking and at times deeply moving. So, I must say no more, only go and read it and enjoy!

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it?

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‘East West Street’ by Philippe Sands

I’m going a bit highbrow this week – any lawyers in the room? I’m not a big reader of non-fiction, so a few months ago I set myself the task of reading a couple of books from the shortlist of the Baillie Gifford Prize, one of the most prestigious non-fiction awards in the world. I read Negroland by Margo Jefferson, which I really enjoyed and reviewed here back in February. East West Street actually won the prize; I enjoyed this a little less than Negroland, I have to say, but it is a remarkable work and it wasn’t what I was expecting.

East West Street img

These days we take for granted the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’; they are used fairly frequently, especially since the Balkan war in the 1990s, and fairly interchangeably, it seems to me. But did you know that these were only established as legal terms at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War? The gravity and scale of the crimes committed by the Nazis is largely undisputed, but when it came to actually bringing individuals to justice at the court of law in Nuremberg in the post-war atmosphere, charges had to be specified and evidence had to be considered. In many ways, it seems to me, it was a piece of theatre, but the legal minds at the time were severely exercised. And I guess if you are on the winning side, both militarily and morally, the pressure to maintain the moral high-ground is immense. The victors had to be seen to be following a path of rectitude and adherence to international standards of law.

“Jackson [presiding judge at the Nuremberg trial] crafted each word with care, signalling its significance. He spoke of the victors’ generosity and the responsibility of the vanquished, of the calculated, malignant, devastating wrongs that were to be condemned and punished. Civilization would not tolerate their being ignored, and they must not be repeated. ‘That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengenace and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgement of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to reason.'”

(p.288, quote from Judge Robert H. Jackson, opening the Nuremberg trial)

This book provides a historical account of the intellectual tussle between two of the finest legal minds of the time: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Lauterpacht fought for the term ‘crimes against humanity’ whereas Lemkin wanted ‘genocide’. To most of us the differences between the two might seem inconsequential, but the differences are in fact, as is discussed in the book, fundamental to the basis of international law. This is not the place for me to rehearse the arguments (even if I could!). I did struggle with the legal minutiae of the book, though I was able to grasp the broad concepts and it certainly made me think about an issue which I can honestly say I have never thought about before. And it was interesting, honestly!

So far I have probably made the book seem dry and dull to the average reader (though perhaps sexy to any of you legal eagles!), but prizes are not won by being dry and uninteresting and the author is far more successful than that; by far the more engaging aspects of this book are the human stories. East West Street is a thoroughfare in the city of Lviv, in modern day Ukraine, but which has previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Poland. It is also a town with which both Lauterpacht and Lemkin were linked. Lviv plays a central role in the book because it provides a snapshot of the Nazis’ ambitions and methods.

The heart of this book, however, is the author’s own quest to find out about his grandparents, Leon and Malke Buchholz, a young Jewish couple from Lviv who were forced to leave their home with their baby daughter Ruth, the author’s mother. Leon and Malke have revealed little about their early life and the author has many unanswered questions. Now dead, he sets about researching his grandfather’s early life, the circumstances of his marriage and how it was he came to be in England with Malke and Ruth. The author becomes a detective investigating his own family history and confronts some difficult truths, as is often the case. He conducts this search alongside his research into the legal basis of the Nuremberg trials and finds links and parallels.

The book is broken up into distinct parts: for example, the opening chapter is about Leon and his early life and then there are similar chapters on Lauterpacht and Lemkin. These were the chapters I found most engaging and most moving. Towards the end is a very long chapter about Nuremberg itself which was fascinating as it was not something I knew very much about before. Some parts of the book were for me overly detailed and I skimmed through some of these.

Unquestionably, however, there lies at the heart of this book a deep and terrible tragedy about which it is always worth being reminded: how prejudice, ideology, lies and propaganda, stupefied a nation, and, combined with power and determination, saw the murder of millions of people and displaced or traumatised many millions more and the consequences are still being felt down the generations today.

This is a powerful book which I recommend if you have an interest in history or the law, or if you just like to read about uncovering family stories. It looks daunting but it’s actually a quicker read than you might think.

Have you read any non-fiction books that recently that you recommend?

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‘Holding’ by Graham Norton

You’ve got to admire Graham Norton; he started out as a stand-up comic, first came to prominence in the classic TV comedy show Father Ted, making a handful of appearances as one of the many random priests on Craggy Island, and has since built a very successful career as a broadcaster on both radio and television, mostly in the UK. He has previously written three autobiographical books, but Holding is his first novel. People like Graham Norton are so annoying; they are really good at their chosen vocation, then they write a book…and they’re really good at that too! Most of us are just trying to be good at the one thing!

 

I do love Graham Norton, though, and this book does not disappoint. I listened to the Audiobook, which is narrated brilliantly by Graham himself, and I am certain this added to my enjoyment. He performs each role with such distinctiveness and brings the characters to life. The plot of the story is a straightforward whodunnit, but it has twists and turns which Norton handles deftly. The story is set in the seemingly sleepy town of Duneen in County Cork, Ireland, but beneath the surface, there stir unaccountable passions which have been and continue to be suppressed by culture and tradition.

Our central character is Sergeant PJ Collins, the local police officer, who is overweight, unmarried, and carries about him the burden of knowing that his life has been little lived. The small-town torpor is completely shaken up, however, by the discovery of human remains in a field which is being developed for a new housing estate. It is widely suspected to be the body of Tommy Burke, a young man who disappeared many years earlier in mysterious circumstances. Suspicions are immediately thrown upon two local women with whom he had romantic links: Brid Riordan, to whom he was engaged, but only, we learn, because she was set to inherit a farm when his own family’s fortunes were somewhat in decline. Brid is now middle-aged, unhappily married and an alcoholic. The other main suspect is Evelyn Ross, a spinster who lives with her two unmarried sisters in one of the largest houses in the town, who was Tommy’s true love at the time, but the relationship was largely unrequited.

Thus the scene is set and the plot thereafter takes on some impressively imaginative twists and turns. Graham Norton’s great talent, however, is clearly for character and he introduces us to a wide cast of individuals, from the swaggering and confident, but equally unfulfilled, Detective Linus Dunne from Cork (brought in to investigate the homicide), who initially patronises and sidelines PJ before gradually accepting and empathising with him, to the meek and mild Mrs Meaney, PJ’s housekeeper, who initially comes across as something of a busybody but who takes on greater depth as the story progresses. Listening to Graham Norton’s narration gave me an even more powerful sense of the cast of characters, I think, than if I had read the book, and, I repeat, he does it brilliantly!

The book is ultimately about what lies beneath, quite literally, in the body that is discovered on the building site, but also in the characters, the lives that go on behind closed doors, until a catastrophe comes along and forces them out into the open. It is also very much about the upending of old traditions (not all good), in a post-Celtic tiger, post-credit crunch world and its being replaced by new ways of being – not all of which are good either.

I loved this book – it had me driving slowly and sitting outside my house in the car, just so I could listen to the end of a chapter! It’s quite an accomplishment for a debut novel. Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your views.

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‘In the Dutch Mountains’ by Cees Nooteboom

As a mother of three, I find it is always a challenge to get back into the swing of things after a school holiday. I am self-employed and work from home so I tend to take the holidays ‘off’ (insofar as one is ever ‘off’ as a parent!), but it always seems to take me a week or so to restore the term-time order of things and get back into my rhythm, including my reading rhythm. The dynamic at home has also been affected by the fact that my eldest is deep in GCSE revision and now on study leave, wanting feeding during the day and everything!

We took a short family holiday to the Netherlands over Easter, a country we know well and have visited annually for many years now. We spend our time either in Amsterdam (a fab city for kids, by the way) or in the far south of the country in Zeeland, a fascinating area for which I have a very deep affection. I’m a bit reluctant to plug it because it’s authentic and unspoilt, but we love the cycling, the beaches, the space, the calm, the beautiful and historic Dutch and Belgian towns and the warm welcome we receive each time we go there.

Despite my love of Holland, its art and architecture and its people, I am ashamed to say that I know very little about its literature, so on this trip I decided to take with me a book called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. He is one of the giants of not only the Dutch but also the wider European literary tradition. I picked up this book at a secondhand stall in a market in Dublin, so this particular copy is well-travelled!

Since starting this blog almost a year ago my reading habits have changed; I now find I am reading much more newly-published work than I have ever done before, which is great, but that has been at the expense of my reading of the classics or other contemporary fiction from recent years which I have wanted to read. There really are only so many hours in a day, after all! So, it felt lovely to be picking up a novel that was first published in 1984 and is widely considered to be a modern classic.

2017-04-26 13.45.25What is so immediately intriguing about the title of the novel, of course, is that Holland is very, very flat. But In the Dutch Mountains imagines a world where the Netherlands extends much further south of its modern borders to northern Spain and the Pyrenees (hence the Dutch mountains). The narrator is himself a Spaniard, a civil servant who not only relates the story, but also philosophises on the processes of writing and story-telling: a story within a story. The main characters in the tale are Kai and Lucia, a slightly other-worldly circus couple, remarkable for their physical perfection, who are relieved of their jobs (because times have moved on and audience tastes have changed) and find themsleves travelling south to look for work. Kai is kidnapped and Lucia sets out on a journey to find him, accompanied by an old woman she meets on the way who agrees to drive her to find her lover.

The book is a vivid re-telling and reinterpretation of an iconic European fairy-tale, The Ice Queen, and explores the boundaries between myth and reality, but as a 21st century reader the strongest themes that came out for me were that of migration (for work), and what it means to be one nationality or another. The author contrasts the orderly, tidy north (what we now know as Holland) and the more chaotic, but freer south. He himself is Dutch but his narrator is part of the Spanish establishment (an inspector of roads), who happens to be a part-time novelist and philosopher. Alfonso, the narrator, is writing in the quiet of a school, empty of children who are on their summer holiday, a middle-aged adult sitting at a diminutive desk and chair. Thus the novel sets up a whole series of contradictions which invite us to challenge our assumptions and expectations.

This is a short novel, but one which merits reading slowly and deeply, and I will probably re-read it at some point. It won the 1993 European Prize for Literature.  It was a curious read and I can’t exactly say I loved it, but I did find it fascinating, and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I think it’s always good to push your reading boundaries and as I read this book I certainly found myself drawn into a very different literary tradition than the one I have become used to in recent years. As a citizen of a nation that has expressed its intention to leave the European Union I feel strongly that European literature has a great deal to offer us in terms of enhancing our understanding of and empathy with our near neighbours, and I intend to read more of it in the future.

What European novels have you read? Do you think they are different in style and tone to English literature?

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Easter holiday reading suggestions

2017-03-30-11-55-53.jpgI’m off on a short holiday to the Netherlands so I’m planning to take some reading with me, of course, and have decided on another book from my ‘to read’ pile (I’m in the groove now!) called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. It looks delightfully weird and I love the Dutch so am very excited to be reading it at last. I’m also taking Roxane Gray’s Difficult Women, a collection of short stories which was a gift from a friend. Looking forward to that and hoping I can get some tips for my own short story writing. I’ll also take North and South which I’m re-reading this month as part of my 2017 reading challenge.

If you’re looking for ideas yourself and would like something light and amusing which you can dip in and out of, you could try Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe. I mentioned this book in a blog a few weeks ago; I read it whilst on a ‘break’ from a book I was finding quite heavygoing (Do Not Say We Have Nothing). It was the perfect antidote: a straightforward jolly read. It’s a series of letters from Nina, to her sister Victoria in Leicestershire and therefore readable in bitesize chunks.

Love Nina imgNina is twenty when we meet her in the early 1980s. She lives with Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her two young sons, Sam and Will, to whom she is a nanny. They live at 55 Gloucester Crescent NW1, an area that was also home to other literary types, among them Alan Bennett and Claire Tomalin, who also make appearances in the book, particularly ‘AB’ who is a great friend of ‘MK’.

Nina’s letters home detail the events of daily life in the household, and are brought alive by her pithy observations on the quirkiness of her employer and the neighbours. It was particularly nice to read this after watching Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van over Christmas, which was also set in Gloucester Crescent and features many of the same people. Nina’s affection for the family shines through and she writes with great fondness of Sam and Will, her young charges. MK is idiosyncratic, but charming, and Alan Bennett leaps off the page. The personalities of the individuals come across strongly; Nina clearly has a talent for this since much of what we learn about them is through the conversations she reproduces in the letters as extracts of dialogue. She manages to pick out the little details or the nuances and word choices that reveal so much.

The letters cover a couple of years, and at the end of the book Nina is part way through her degree in English literature at Thames Polytechnic. By this stage you can see she herself is becoming a more accomplished chronicler, although the later letters, many of which are about her university friends, I found less endearing than the earlier ones.

Nina, now in her 50s, eventually became a writer, and had two children with Nunney, one of the other inhabitants of Gloucester Crescent (though they got together much later), and has subsequently published two novels in addition to this memoir: Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, which I’d be interested in reading. Love, Nina was also adapted for television by Nick Hornby, and starred Helena Bonham Carter. I think that could be fun to watch.

So, a good little read, perfect if you’re going away this Easter holiday.

What are you reading this Spring?

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My ‘to read’ pile is shrinking!

Last week I posted a review on this blog of Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which I’d read as part of my 2017 reading challenge. The challenge for March was to select something from my ever-growing ‘to-read’ pile. I know you have one too! It felt very satisfying to finally get around to something that I’ve been wanting to read for some time but which never seemed to rise to the top of the pile. My ‘to read’ pile bothers me a lot, so much so that I have many “‘to read” piles’ around the house. I’m a compulsive book-buyer so I feel guilty about the money I spend (although it has to be said a great many of the books I buy on impulse are from charity shops or waiting rooms) and about the space taken up, especially since I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying! Clutter, to me, feels like a powerful signal of under-achievement. I bet my tidy, high-achieving friends don’t have large ‘to read’ piles! The psychology of the ‘to read’ pile is clearly very deep.

2017-03-30-12-10-56.jpgSo, it gives me great pleasure to announce that I completed the March challenge and the pile is one volume smaller. I really enjoyed Just Kids and I’m pleased I finally got around to it. I’ve also given up book-buying for Lent so hopefully I will be better able to resist temptation in the future and tackle the unread books before buying new ones. Sometimes.

April’s challenge is to re-read a book I have enjoyed in the past. I’m not a big re-reader and yet I know this can be hugely rewarding, especially if you’re in a quiz or something and the name of the central character from that really famous book you read years ago is on the tip of your tongue! My husband is a good re-reader and he finds that he is able to get something new out of a book each time he goes back to it. I’ve decided to re-read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I read this many years ago, whilst studying English Literature at university and I’m afraid I remember very little about it, but I do know that I enjoyed it.

2017-03-30 11.25.47I am fortunate to live in Manchester, northern England, the setting of this book. It’s also where Gaskell spent much of her early life. You can visit Gaskell’s house in Plymouth Grove, Ardwick (and then stroll over to the Pankhurst Centre nestled in amongst the buildings of the Manchester Royal Infirmary) which I did last year. It’s still a work in progress, so well worth supporting, but has a fascinating collection of her possessions and is set out as it would have been when she and her family lived there. I moved to Manchester relatively recently and have become fascinated by the city’s history and culture. It will be interesting to read the book now, with that new knowledge and awareness.

My copy of North and South is a slim little thing, perfectly innocuous-looking, but the text is tiny and it has over 500 pages! I’m looking forward to immersing myself in 19th century northern industrial poverty. I also note that the Introduction to my edition is written by one of my former Professors, so it will be a trip down Memory Lane altogether.

Did you start a reading challenge this year? If so, how are you getting on?

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Just Kids

JUst kids imgI’ve been an admirer of Patti Smith for a number of years now. I’m a bit young to have been a fan of hers when she first broke onto the music scene in the mid-1970s. I became aware of her much later when I picked up a sale copy of her debut album Horses. I was also aware of Robert Mapplethorpe, the late artist-photographer who was her lover and then close friend when they were both very young. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 and it must have been in the 1990s that I saw an exhibition of his work in London (I had an interest in photography at the time). Later on again I learned about the connection between the two and how Patti had been, if you like, Mapplethorpe’s ‘muse’ when he was first discovering his art.

I’d known about this book for a while, having heard Patti Smith talking about it in a radio interview, but I picked this up, ironically, in New York, when I was there on holiday last summer, from the famous Strand Bookstore. I’d hoped to read it whilst there (and perhaps visit some of the places she mentions in the book) but that didn’t happen. I decided to read it as part of my 2017 reading challenge; March’s challenge is to read something from my ‘to read’ pile, which, as I have written here recently, is substantial! And it has been a real pleasure to read.

The book is an account of her and Mapplethorpe’s early artistic development. They found each other by accident in New York City in the late 1960s when they had both arrived there in search of a more meaningful life. Their early life together was marked by poverty and the struggle to be recognised. In many ways their life was pretty ordinary, were it not for all the incredible people they meet and hang out with – Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs – and if you are familiar with New York City, particularly the lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village areas, you will enjoy the mentions of different places, particularly the infamous Chelsea Hotel where many a star has risen and fallen.

But the book is so much more than that; it is an account of how artists find their voice and their medium, but it is also a love story. Patti writes tenderly and affectionately of her love for Mapplethorpe and the profound mutual respect that lay at the heart of their relationship. You don’t need to be admirers of them to appreciate this. It is also an account of how love changes; Mapplethorpe loved Patti deeply but he eventually came out as homosexual. He had been brought up a Roman Catholic and this was a long and difficult process for him. Patti later married a musician Fred Smith, and they lived a happy humdrum family life together in Michigan with their children until he died at the age of 45 in 1994. To that extent the book is also about what happens when love moves on, and how former lovers can evolve their relationship and grow as a result.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, particularly the escape into bohemian New York in the 1970s. Some books you read of this nature can make you feel your own life is rather dull and insignificant, but at the centre of this book is not glamour and sensationalism, but the day to day human love that we all need and hopefully most of us experience at some point in our lives. To that extent it is a story we could all identify with.