Audiobook review – “Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann

I reached a reading milestone recently – I finished Ducks, Newburyport. This humungous novel, which clocks in at a whopping 1030 pages (paperback) is easily the longest book I have ever read. I listened to it on audio, brilliantly read by Stephanie Ellyne, and it lasted over 45 hours, easily the length of six or seven “normal” books. I started it around Christmas time I think, so it has taken me months. I would probably have got through it more quickly in ‘normal’ times as I would have listened to it while driving, but I have hardly driven at all this last year. Mostly I listened to it while cleaning the house, which seemed very appropriate.

The un-named central character and narrator is a middle-aged American woman living in Newcomerstown, Ohio. She is a mother of four, cancer survivor, former college lecturer, and self-employed baker, who makes pies for a number of local cafes and restaurants which she delivers each day. The novel is a written in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, almost entirely in the present, and many of the sentences begin with the phrase “the fact that…” as she tells us about the various aspects of her life, her family, her husband, her dead parents, their parents, baking, her past career, her cancer and American society. The ‘action’, such as it is, takes place over a short period of time, but, let’s be clear, very little happens in this novel.

A big image for a very big book!

It has been criticised for its length; indeed, I read that Lucy Ellmann’s usual publisher, Bloomsbury, declined to publish it for this reason, so instead she went with a small independent, Galley Beggar Press, which is based in Norwich.

The themes of the novel are emptiness and loneliness in modern American life, the dilemmas of being a woman, motherhood, loss. Our narrator commentates scathingly on Trump, on guns, and on the violence in society. She bemoans the decline of childhood, how young people have been lost to technology, social media and advertising and the inequalities not just in American society, but across the world. Yet at the same time, she is a woman who wants the best for her children and therefore perpetuates those inequalities. The essential dilemma. She laments climate change and the loss of the natural world while also contributing to it with her own lifestyle. (As do almost all of us). Yet another modern dilemma. She loves her children, but has a somewhat estranged relationship with her eldest daughter, Stacey, who has a different father to her three siblings.

Mostly, the narrator is grieving; there are frequent pained references to “Mommy”. Her mother died some years earlier after a long illness and the narrator cannot let go of her feeling that she should have done more for her mother, and, mostly, that she misses her terribly. The loss continues to blight her life, and she feels deeply the lack of nurturing she has in her own life. She seems to have a good and loving relationship with her husband, bridge engineer Leo, but it cannot make up for the loss of mother.

There is a parallel story going on in the narrative; a female mountain lion roams Ohio, creating fear throughout the state and leading to a frenzy of trackers and gun-owners who try to hunt her down. She is simply looking for food for her cubs and the reduced wild territory available to her means she trespasses on human occupied land. Our narrator is aware of the lion and fears for her children’s safety, while also virtue-signalling and taking positions on habitat destruction for wildlife. The cubs are captured and taken to the zoo, but the mountain lion continues to search, ceaselessly. Her drive to mother is all-encompassing.

This novel is profound and if you can stick with it, it will reward you handsomely. There is so much complexity, it is so multi-layered. The length also means we bond quite closely with the narrator, in a way that I don’t think would have happened if it had been shorter.

I recommend this book highly, while recognising that few will have the time and opportunity to embrace it. Take a year, six months at least. Get the audio – it is read brilliantly and you can at least do the vacuuming/ironing/cooking as you do so!

Book review – “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I don’t buy very many hardback books, hardly ever in fact until I started this blog, tending to find them cumbersome and too heavy for a handbag. Most of my reading now, however, is done at home rather than on the fly and I find I enjoy the weight and feel of a hardback and the better quality paper. Perhaps that is also down to my age! There are just some books that are more of an event though – Hamnet, The Mirror and the Light and The Testaments come to mind – and simply deserve the gravitas of the hardback format. Klara and the Sun by literary giant Kazuo Ishiguro is one such book. Plus I just couldn’t wait for the paperback! There was great fanfare about its release on 2 March; a whole episode of Alan Yentob’s BBC arts programme Imagine was devoted to the author, and I was delighted to watch a Manchester International Festival online event where Ishiguro was interviewed by fellow writer and poet Jackie Kay. Kazuo Ishiguro comes across as such a lovely man – confident but humble, respectful and measured, subtly charming. And someone who it would not be too scary to meet, I suspect.

Klara and the Sun is Ishiguro’s eighth novel (in a forty year career), proving that you don’t have to be prolific to be great; he has won just about every major literary award going, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. I knew that Artificial Intelligence was the subject of the novel and knowing that Ishiguro is never afraid to try out new things, I feared this would be a ‘dystopian future’ book – not the kind of book I tend to enjoy. It is not such a book, however. Rather, it is an exploration of what it means to be human.

Klara is an “AF” – Ishiguro leaves us to work out what this stands for – an AI robot produced for the specific purpose of acting as a companion to young people. The pre-supposition here is that human beings have reached a point of evolution where teenagers need a robot to accompany them at this stage in her life. We first meet Klara when she is in a shop window, waiting to be purchased. Poor Klara always seems to be overlooked in favour of newer models, despite the special qualities that the shop’s manager believes she possesses. From her vantage point in the shop, Klara watches the sun each day, its rising and setting and computes that it has special powers. For Klara the sun is almost god-like; a futuristic AI robot that sees the sun in a similar way to some of our ancient ancestors. Klara is also given energy by the sun – her batteries are solar.

Klara is eventually chosen by a young girl, Josie. Josie and her mother take Klara away to their home outside the city in an isolated rural setting and Klara is at last given her task. It is interesting how the reader gets drawn into having feelings about Klara. Klara is the narrator and we see the world through her rather childlike eyes, except she is not childlike; there are just some bits of data she has not processed and stored yet. But it is hard not to feel for Klara when, for example, the maid at Josie’s house is suspicious and a little hostile towards her, perhaps because she fears for her own job. And when Klara stands silently in the corner with her back to the room because her presence is not required we cannot help but see her like the child who has been left out. Klara is not human and yet she is the closest thing to it.

It soon becomes apparent that Josie has special needs. She has a kind of ‘elevated’ academic status which seems to mean that her parents have given her some sort of treatment which means that she receives a different kind of education to children who have not had this done to them. One such child is Rick, Josie’s nearest neighbour and childhood best friend. It is clear that Rick’s mother would never be able to afford the special status that Josie and her peers have and so his chances of succeeding academically and professionally are slim. The reader can see that there is a very short hop between this world and the selective nature of modern education we have in real life (both as a matter of policy and a matter of social determinism), and indeed between this world and Huxley’s Brave New World. A warning has been fired across our bows here.

In order to attain this special status, however, something had to be done to Josie (we are not told exactly what) and this has put her in some danger – for parents, the decision whether to give their child an academic leg-up is not risk-free. Hmm. Klara is capable of some rudimentary feelings and feels protective and fond of Josie. When she realises that Josie’s life may be in danger, she sets about trying to save her, utilising the sun’s enrgy. What Klara has not worked out, however, is how this AF is being groomed for something very different altogether.

The plot of this novel is pure genius and Ishiguro has conjured some contemporary themes out of a futuristic premise. What he has also done, very cleverly, is create a world that does not seem very different to our own and yet presents some prospects that we should take care we don’t stumble into. AI is a fact of our present life and will be a fact of our future. Stephen Hawking believed we should be careful as it had the potential to be the “worst event” in human civilisation. It is not clear which side Ishiguro comes down on, indeed, Klara is one of the most likeable characters in the book, but perhaps that is the point; it is not necessarily what AI will become that is the threat, but what it will cost us in human terms to get there.

A brilliant, engaging, complex novel, I recommend this highly.

Audiobook review – “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

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 London series (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.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius dated 1654

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.

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 – “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.

Booker Prize 2020 – winner announced tonight!

In previous years I have set myself the task of trying to read the Booker Prize shortlist between the time that it is released, usually mid-September, and the announcement of the winner. This is usually a month or so later in mid-October, so it is a tall order – six books in a little over four weeks. I have never succeeded in this endeavour – I’m usually still working my way through the list at Christmas. How do the judges get through so many books in the time that they do? I doubt they are even paid much to do it!

Last year, the Booker Prize was far from the forefront of my mind as my mother died in mid-September and her funeral coincided with the week of the announcement of the winner. I did subsequently read both of the books that won the prize jointly (remember that extremely unusual outcome?) – Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – as well as Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. I still have Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport on my TBR list.

This year the announcement of the winning book is a month later than usual. I assume this is all down to ‘the pandemic’ though I’ve heard of no official reason being given. Perhaps the committee has decided to be a bit kinder to the judges this year. Once again, I decided against trying to get through the shortlist, but have in fact read two of the books, one of which I loved and one of which has left me wondering if I missed something!

The book I loved was Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, a superb debut novel. Set in early 1980s Glasgow it is a visceral account of a young boy growing up in an atmosphere of poverty and his beloved mother’s alcoholism. The working-class community in which he lives is being ground down by the searing devastation of the Thatcherite era. Shuggie is ‘unusual’ – he is effeminate and naive, but his relationship with his mother is an portrait of love stretched to its very limits by the strain of addiction. I plan to write a longer review of this book so I will say no more at this stage. Let’s see if it wins!

The other book I read, and which I’m afraid I didn’t love, was Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. It is the story of a strained mother-daughter relationship. The mother, Tara, has dementia and her daughter, Antara, is finds she is forced increasingly to care for the woman who failed to care for her properly as a child. Tara left her husband with her daugher to join an ashram when the child was still very young. Their ‘bohemian’ lifestyle included some time spent begging, and also living with an artist who it is clear did not really care for either Tara or her young child. Antara experienced a degree of neglect as a child, for example receiving very little formal early education, and her mother’s attitude to her has been one largely of indifference.

As a mature woman, Antara struggles with the demands placed upon her by her mother. Tara can be cruel – is that the disease or is that how she has always behaved towards her daughter? She is engaged to be married to Dilip, an Indian-American, who cannot fully empathise with Antara’s dilemma. This book reminded me a little of Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, which has a similar storyline and which I also struggled to enjoy (though I think it was a better book). Everything Under was shortlisted for the Booker in 2018. Burnt Sugar has also been compared to Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk – I cannot concur . I loved that book. I’m afraid that, for me, what Burnt Sugar lacks is a story. Even after reading it, I’m afraid I’m not sure what it is really about, or what it is trying to say, apart from dementia is a horrible disease that throws family relationships into turmoil. Even the ending leaves you hanging. There is no narrative question that is resolved, which, for me, is one of the fundamentals of fiction.

I don’t like giving negative reviews and I have seen so many positive statements about this book; am I missing something? This one just did not do it for me. And my fellow book club members seem to agree – a pretty resounding thumbs-down! Perhaps it is just that Shuggie Bain is such a fabulous story, that this book felt wanting.

I am about to start another book on the shortlist – The New Wilderness by American author Diane Cook, another novel about motherhood, but this time in the shadow of climate change.

We will see what happens at the announcement tonight. One thing is for sure, it will not be the usual black-tie dinner!

Book Review – “The Mirror and the Light” by Hilary Mantel

The big excitement in the literary world recently was, of course, the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist. In past years I have set myself the task of trying to read the whole shortlist before the award is made, but I have never yet managed it. I think I read five out of the six one year, but last year I think I only managed two or three and abandoned the intention somewhere around Christmas-time. The Booker Prize seems like less of a landmark than it once was, though; one of the criticisms is that it is now dominated by US-published books, since it was opened up to writers in English from outside the Commonwealth in 2014. One of the fears was that it would “homogenise” literary fiction, although it is curious that this year’s prize nominees constitute one of the most diverse I can remember with it having a majority of women and a majority of people of colour. I would like to read all of the novels on this year’s shortlist, they all sound fascinating, but if there is one thing the past twelve months have taught me it is that I should not be too goal-orientated. My world feels like it has been on shifting sands and most of my plans have had to be abandoned, with the consequence that I have often felt like I was failing at every turn. At this point in time I am just trying to be kind to myself, recognise that things change and give myself a pat on the back for things done rather than admonishing myself for things still to do. And keen readers will know that that TBR pile NEVER shrinks!

The brilliant finale to the Wolf Hall trilogy

The big shock of the Booker Prize shortlist was that Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the third and final part of her Wolf Hall trilogy, was not even nominated. This followed hard on the heels of not winning the Women’s Prize a week earlier (that award went to Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – my next read!). Hilary Mantel has spoken of these twin ‘failures’ as being something of a relief – there had been so much talk of whether she could ‘do the treble’ (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies having won in 2009 and 2012, respectively), but remember this is literature not football! I don’t think Hilary will be suffering too much of a crisis of confidence! As an artist, I hope her feeling of achievement is from the work itself. And what a work it is!

Talking of goals, I wrote on here back in March, when we all first went into ‘lockdown’ (I really, really hate that word), that one of the things I was planning to do with all my spare time was to both read The Mirror and the Light and re-read Ulysses (so much endless time), but of course I did not. Both books are enormous. It took a concerted effort during August to finish The Mirror and the Light. One of the reasons it took me so long was because it is so brilliantly written I wanted to savour absolutely every word. Also, with such a huge cast of characters, it was not always easy to follow who was conspiring with whom.

We all know the ending – Cromwell falls out of favour with Henry, following a fairly concerted campaign by his enemies at court, and is eventually executed. Knowing this, rather like re-reading a good book, helps you to track how events are unfolding. This is a really outstanding book, a fine achievement, and one which rewards the hard work, the investment the reader has to put into it. It is much longer than the first two parts of the trilogy, and at times, especially at the beginning, I felt it could have been edited down a bit, but, now I’ve finished it, I’m not so sure. There is no doubt that, as a reader, you get your money’s worth – less than £1 per hour of reading is pretty good value! And the craft, the authorship, the writing skill, and the research, not to mention the years of her life Ms Mantel has put into this book, make it, in my view, a true literary landmark. It seems above prizes.

Hilary Mantel has also given us all a lesson in politics and a lesson in history. It was an interesting time to be reading the book. The name Dominic Cummings (most famous breaker of lockdown rules) will be familiar to most people in the UK. Not just in the UK but in other countries too, there is a culture war going on between an establishment ‘elite’ and ‘upstarts’ perceived not to belong. I do think this is an element in some of the hostility that is expressed towards people perceived to be outsiders. I should add quickly that I do not think this is undeserved (I’m thinking Cummings, but also Trump), but there is undoubtedly self-interest in the hostility coming from some quarters and some people seem to be piggy-backing on legitimate criticisms. Waiting for their moment to strike, perhaps.

Cromwell, as painted by Hans
Holbein the Younger

Thomas Cromwell (according to Mantel) was a schemer, self-interested and a manipulator, but he was also (and I should add that my comparison with the contemporary examples of outsiders mentioned above ends right there!) a brilliant tactician and a man of extraordinary talents with an unmatched intellect. His chief ‘crime’ in the eyes of his enemies at court, though, was being low-born, he son of a blacksmith; he dared to ascend to the very highest roles at court, the chief confidante of the king, but he paid the price, ultimately, for that daring. His enemies eventually succeeding in getting rid of him.

I recommend The Mirror and the Light very very highly.

Facebook Reading Challenge – March choice

Has another 1st of the month come and gone already? It certainly has! Meteorological spring has sprung, though I’m struggling to believe it here in my very damp corner of north west England. It must be time for a new book in my Facebook Reading Challenge 2020. Last month’s choice was a non-fiction title, and I chose Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, a short book for a short month (though we had Leap Day of course), but one which I read slowly and deliberately, such was the importance and impact of the subject matter. I’ll be posting my review of this very powerful little book next week, so look out for that.

This year, I am scanning the globe with my reading themes, conscious that my reading is generally quite western and written in English, so this month’s choice is “Something from Asia”. In truth, it’s hard to quite know what that means these days – must the author live in Asia? Should the book be first published in an Asian language? Asia is also pretty big and covers a vast range of cultures and languages, so it is, I admit, a massive generalisation. However, choices must be made.

Please Look After MotherI was tempted to go for Haruki Murakami – after reading Norwegian Wood a couple of years ago, I am really keen to discover more of his work – but that would be a but too easy. So, I have put a pin in the haystack also known as the internet and come up with Please Look After Mother by Korean author Kyung-Sook Shin. This book won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.

Its central character is So-nyo, an ageing matriarch who has lived a life of nurturing and self-sacrifice, caring for her husband and children. She becomes separated from her husband on a train journey. So-nyo’s family undertake a desperate search for her and as they do so, they recall the influence she has had on them all. It is said to be about family, about mothering in particular, and about what it means to love.

This book has been an international bestseller, though I’m ashamed to say I had not heard of it, or its author.

Please feel free to join me on my reading challenge this month.

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Book review – “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker

I was very excited at the prospect of reading this book. For my sins, I have never read a Pat Barker, not even the Regeneration Trilogy, the third volume of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995. I knew about it, of course, and I think I bought it at some point (though I have moved so many times in my life that I cannot lay my hands on it now!) What I also knew about Pat Barker was that she was born and went to school in Stockton on Tees, a much-neglected part of the country, where I also lived for 12 years and where all my three children were born, and where I still have many friends. She was born to a young single mother but was brought up by her grandparents and lived a stereotypically working-class life until her academic ability set her apart and she was selected to attend grammar school. Barker started writing at a young age but her first novel was not published until she was forty. She is the same age as my mother, who died shortly before I started reading this book a few months ago. I love the ‘Pat Barker story’, feel a deep admiration for her (even though I had not hitherto read any of her books) and felt in some ways a connection with her; the working-class girl made good.

The Silence of the Girls imgThe Silence of the Girls has been critically-acclaimed and was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I really, really wanted to love this book, but I’m afraid I didn’t. It could be that the timing was wrong – December for me was mad busy so I read the book in short bursts over a longish period when I was quite stressed. I don’t think I gave it the time and attention it deserved. But then, neither did it really grab me when perhaps it ought to have done.

The book is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad but from the perspective of some of the women involved, primarily that of Briseis, the wife of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, the Trojan city sacked by the Greeks, led by Achilles. As a reward to the victors, the women of the city are given out to them, essentially to live as their sexual slaves. Briseis is given to Achilles and narrates the story, although it is very much her internal reflection as she plays almost no verbal part in the proceedings she observes – the banquets, the post-battle analysis by Achilles and his fellow warriors, the political machinations, primarily between Achilles and Agamemnon, and the mental strife of Achilles – hence the concept of ‘silence’. Her perspective and her account veer between the lofty, primarily Achilles’ self-doubt, his longing for the reassuring presence of his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, and his conflict with Agamemnon, and the brutal visceral reality of war. At one point, Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon, although their relationship is not consummated and because of this Achilles later accepts her back.

Briseis fantasises about escaping, even comes close to achieving it at one point, but she is all too aware of her very precarious position. Even though her life is demeaning and not secure, she will always be an outsider and therefore a threat, she grows strangely close to Achilles, seeing his vulnerability and, eventually, the fragment of care he appears to have for her.

There is something of a fashion for retelling tales from the ancient classics at the moment; Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a modern take on the Oedipus myth (I was not mad about that either), and Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I haven’t read, also takes Homeric mythology as its subject. The ideas are interesting, but somehow, for me, The Silence of the Girls just doesn’t quite work. I loved how ‘down and dirty’ it was, giving us perhaps the real insight into life at the time of the Trojan wars, rather different to the heroic presentation we get from Homer. But that ‘realism’ then jarred with, for example, Achilles’ seeking out his mother in the sea. These were parallel universes that collided in the novel, but there was no bridge between them, nothing to help me imagine that great myth and brutal, visceral reality could co-exist.  Perhaps that was a failure of my imagination! I also just could not get inside the author’s head in some of the scenes she created. The small domestic scenes, in Achilles’ quarters, the bedroom, even the hospital wards and the buildings where the women worked, were well-drawn, but I couldn’t quite see the bigger scenes, the ships at anchor, the battles, the idea of going to war as a daily job of work, from which combatants return, minus a few casualties, just did not quite ring true. And this lack of, for me, authenticity, clashed with the hyper-real scenes of blood, guts, mud and sex (for which read rape, because that’s what it was).

I’m not sure where I’m at with this book. Perhaps it was a grand ambition that just didn’t quite come off for me. I will read Regeneration and Union Street. I will delve deeper into Barker’s work, but as an introduction to her, this one, for me, was a bit disappointing.

Recommended if you’re a fan or a classicist.

What did you think of The Silence of the Girls?

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Book review – “Winter” by Ali Smith

This was the first book I started in the new year and I am delighted to have read it in January, the deep British midwinter, when the light is scarce but the days pass by at what seems like a snail’s, or at least a hibernating creature’s pace. That seems about right to me – I can’t really understand the wave of bloggers and columnists who are currently bemoaning the slow passage of January; I don’t really want my life to flash by me! Whilst Winter is a complex and multi-layered novel, it does seem to me to be one of the dominant themes, that is, our tendency to be propelled ever faster (I’m deliberately avoiding the term ‘forward’) on to the next thing. This might mean that we fail to notice what is in front of us, the life we have and are in right now, and we are in grave danger of losing something precious as a result.

In the same way that the first part of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, the Man Booker-nominated Autumn, was a highly political book, written in 2016 and described as the first post-Brexit British novel, so the ‘winter’ of this book refers to the perilous times in which we find ourselves. For many of us, these are indeed dark times where the alienation of anything ‘other’ seems to be a movement gaining traction. Bernardine Evaristo explored similar themes in her Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other.

Winter imgIn Winter, Ali Smith examines the ideas through the dynamics of a family thrown unwillingly together at Christmas. Sophia lives alone in a large house in Cornwall. She was a successful businesswoman but, now late in life, finds herself alone, estranged from her sister, not knowing what is going on in the life of her only son in London, and navigating with despair some of the dehumanising aspects of modern life. When we meet her at the start of the book, she is communicating with what I can only describe as a hallucination of a child’s head, which floats about with her. To the reader, this seems surreal at first, but it gradually becomes merely a manifestation of Sophia’s mental state – her deep loneliness and her disconnection from normal life and society. Arthur, Sophia’s son will have similar hallucinations later in the book. Sophia goes about her Christmas Eve business in the town with sadness, recalling the once vibrant high street that is now a series of boarded-up shops, frustrated at being unable to withdraw money from her own bank account and the inability of the young man in the bank to appreciate or meet her needs as a customer – she has nostalgia for the days of the friendly bank manager.

Arthur, Sophia’s son, living in London, seems to have a similarly depressing existence. He works as a researcher for a legal firm, but has very little human contact with anyone there as all his work is done remotely. He also writes a blog, ‘Art in Nature’, but this has been sabotaged by his estranged girlfriend, Charlotte, who has also stolen his laptop, forcing him to work out of the local library, where he has to negotiate queues of others wanting to use the computers there. Arthur, or Art, is due to be spending Christmas in Cornwall with Charlotte and his mother, but Charlotte has now left him, and, unwilling to reveal this to his mother, he pays a young woman, Lux, whom he meets at a bus stop, £1000 if she will go to Cornwall with him and pretend to be Charlotte.

The third member of Sophia’s family to join the party is Iris, Sophia’s estranged sister. Whilst they were close growing up, they grew apart as Iris became more of an activist, involving herself at Greenham Common, living in squatting communities with artists and outsiders, going to Greece to help with the refugee crisis, all of which straight-laced and ‘proper’ Sophia despised.

Lux, the heavily pierced, highly educated non-British outsider, takes on the role of objective observer, reflector, and questioner, and becomes the catalyst for what is initially, a breaking down of the fragile family relations, which then makes way for a greater empathy, between siblings and between generations, and an opening up of previously taboo conversations. In Lux, we see how the outsider is in fact the one with the under-valued talents, with the insights which help everyone to drop their guard and open their hearts, and with the intelligence and knowledge which enables them to understand their own cultural inheritance.

There are times when I found this book challenging and disjointed – Sophia’s floating child’s head at the beginning was puzzling – but the more I read the more absorbed I became in its complex layering of themes and ideas. For one reason and another I read it quite slowly over a couple of weeks, but that was exactly the right pace because the sensation was completely in line with the long slow stretch of winter. I am looking forward to reading part three of the seasonal quartet Spring, which was published last year, and to the publication of the final novel in the series, Summer, due in July.

This is a challenging book but one which I recommend highly.

What sort of books do you like to read at this time of the year?

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