Booker book review #1 = “No One is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood

And thus begins my annual attempt to read my way through the Booker Prize shortlist before the winner is announced. Customarily, the shortlist is announced in mid-September and the winner announced at the beginning of November, giving about six weeks to read six novels. I have never yet managed all six. I think the closest I have come is about four. I am optimistic this year as I have a strategy – a mixture of audiobook, e-reader and actual book – and a plan. So far I have completed one (the shortest), am part-way through another (the longest) and I am the proud owner of a signed copy of a third. With just over four weeks to go I am, if not optimistic, then at least hopeful. I expect kitchen renovations at the end of the month to disrupt all my plans!

The first book I am ticking off the list is Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which has become one of the most talked about books of the year since it was first published in February. This is Lockwood’s first novel; she is better known as a poet and published a memoir in 2017 entitled Priestdaddy which was highly acclaimed. No One Is Talking About This has been compared variously to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I count all three of those among my all-time favourite reads so I should have loved this book.

It is a really difficult book to describe (for me, that’s where the comparison with Ulysses ends). I should also add, by way of a caveat, that I listened to this on audio and may well have been affected by the slightly manic reading of it. It is narrated in the first person by an unnamed character who has an unnamed family but who lives, we can assume, in New York City. The first half of the book is pure stream of consciousness, a portrayal of the wildness of modern life, particularly those parts conducted through ‘the portal’, which is pretty much everything. We see the ridiculousness of life lived out online, where only appearances matter, where substance and empathy and humanity appear to have vanished. Where photographing and documenting your food is more important than eating it. Where how your relationships look is more important than the relationships themselves. I think most of us can recognise this as the way we might all actually be heading if we are not careful. If indeed, we are not already there.

The second half of the book, described by the author herself as ‘autofictional’ centres around a devastating family event. The narrator’s sister becomes pregnant and the journey is duly recorded on the portal, until a scan reveals an irregularity in the baby’s head measurement. The pregnancy and the baby are no longer as photogenic or fit for the portal, but the event will have a seismic impact on the family and on our narrator in particular. She is completely unprepared for the immense love she feels for the severely disabled baby girl her sister delivers, a child whose life expectancy is limited and whose quality of life would usually be described as poor. And yet, the baby, with her rudimentary abilities, her dependency on her loved ones and her complete helplessness, draws out the humanity in those around her, that, because of the evils of the portal, they had forgotten they had.

This second half of the book is based on an event in Lockwood’s own family – her sister gave birth to a child with Proteus syndrome – and knowing there is truth in it, makes it a powerful read indeed. For me, it is not Ulysses, and Lockwood is not yet Woolf or Faulkner. I wasn’t awed or stunned by the book, but it is innovative. Her instincts as a poet serve her well. It reminded me a little of the 2018-shortlisted book Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, which I have recently finished. I have to say I found that book better, but Lockwood has a good chance of winning with this novel.

So, recommended. I’m looking forward to what the rest of the shortlist has to offer.

Book review – “Beautiful World Where Are You” by Sally Rooney

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a work trip to London. I’d bought a copy of the very newly minted Sally Rooney novel Beautiful World, Where Are You which had been published earlier that week amid great excitement (there were queues and bookshops were opened at midnight to enable the keenest readers to get their hands on a copy). Whilst in London I also happened to stumble on a ‘pop-up’ in Shoreditch selling not only the novel, but other books to which there are references in the novel, and some merchandise echoing the design of the book’s cover. This book has surely been the most anticipated of the year, and who can blame the publishers, but it has definitely become a ‘product’. As has the author I suspect. I hope she is okay.

I sort of hoped I might devour the novel on the return train trip to London, but I didn’t and in fact it took me a further week or so to finish it. Rooney’s previous novel, Normal People, was a sensation, not least because of the success of the television series, one suspects, which was brilliantly put together with brilliant performances from the two wonderful new young Irish actors playing the lead parts. It was all a moment of pure serendipity and it was a joy that something so good got the attention it deserved.

Rooney’s follow-up novel therefore was always going to be a challenge and I admire her for just getting the thing out under what must have been intense pressure. It is unmistakeably Rooney – the beautiful prose, the masterful dialogue, the introspective characters, Dublin, the palpable tensions between the characters and the things unsaid. There are four characters: Alice, a successful, famous and thus fairly wealthy author (hmm) who has recently had a nervous breakdown and whom we meet when she is renting a seaside house in the country. Felix, her lover, whom she meets on Tinder, a warehouse worker and cash-strapped under-achiever. Eileen, who lives in Dublin and is Alice’s best friend from childhood. Eileen works for a publishing company in a junior role which pays poorly. She is intellectually and emotionally unfulfilled, and bitter at the hand life has dealt her. Simon is Alice and Eileen’s friend, also from their youth, but a little older, a political researcher he lives in Dublin too. He is single, but seems to have a series of much younger girlfriends, handsome, gentle and compassionate, with a strong Catholic faith.

Much of the novel is an exchange of long and detailed communications between Alice and Eileen. They are more like letters, the kind that middle class people of previous centuries might have exchanged, full of lengthy discourse on the meaning of life, love, sex, career, fame and mental health, cleverly punctuated with much more prosaic gossipy tidbits on their love lives. These of course are emails, though, not letters. In between the letters chapters we follow the various events of the characters’ lives, primarily Eileen’s gradual descent into personal crisis and her relationship with Simon, and Alice’s recovery and unlikely relationship with Felix.

It is some way into the book before the characters collide, when Simon travels with Eileen to visit Alice at her rural retreat. The weekend is a kind of catharsis for them all. Everything must break before it can be reassembled in a meaningful way.

If you are expecting a re-run of Normal People you will get some of the same things – a good deal of sex, middle-class angst and working-class insecurity, and a grown-up exploration of Irish identity in the 21st century. But it is a very different book. There are surely some autobiographical elements. It has a lot less pace and it seems a long time before anything significant happens. This novel is a much slower burn. I liked it but I didn’t love it. I did not care as much about any of the characters as I did about Marianne and Connell. I think it is the book Sally Rooney needed to write though, good enough to follow Normal People but perhaps not quite as good, so that, one hopes, some of the hype around her dissipates and she can get on with being a brilliant author and not have to worry about being a celebrity.

I think it will always be worth reading what Sally Rooney writes, so I have no hesitation in recommending this book.

Autumn is officially here

As I write this, the sun is setting for the day and the moon (a waning one now, since it was also a full one just two days ago) will soon be visible. We are at the precise mid-point between the summer and winter solstices when the sun is positioned directly above the equator, giving equal time to darkness and light. In the northern hemisphere, our nights will now start to grow longer, while in the southern hemisphere it is the day that is lengthening as the spring turns into summer.

Not the view from my window! Rather, beautiful photography from Ingo Jakubke on Pixabay

It is an important time of the year in the literary world too; as we begin to spend more time on home-based pursuits we inevitably read more. The shortlist for the Booker Prize was announced last week and a number of literary festivals traditionally take place in the autumn – I am looking forward to the Manchester Literary Festival in October. And like it or not, some of us will be starting to think about Christmas shopping and publishers are competing to attract our attention in the hope that one of their new releases will make it into your shopping basket as the perfect gift. So, it’s a bumper time of year for new books to be published. I posted on here last week about the furore surrounding the publication of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World Where Are You? It is surely one of the most hotly anticipated books of the year.

But the noise surrounding that book has obscured somewhat the many other big publications of the season. Here are some of those that have caught my eye and which I very much hope to add to my TBR list over the coming weeks.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Powers maintains his Booker-nominated streak with his new novel. The Overstory was shortlisted in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years. Bewilderment is a good deal shorter but continues with similar themes of the environmental damage wrought by humanity. The main characters are a widowed father and his troubled 9 year-old son seeking connection in the face of global, national and personal tragedy. I can’t wait to read this.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Another author whose last work was one of my absolute favourites of recent years (All the Light We Cannot See, 2015). Doerr’s latest novel is a complex interweaving of five characters and three parallel storylines set in the past (the 15th century siege of Constantinople), the present (during an attack on a public library in Idaho) and the future (a community under threat). They might all be separated by centuries, but the author explores the things that connect them.

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

Lost for 75 years, this novel was not published in de Beauvoir’s lifetime as its themes were not considered appropriate. It concerns the friendship between two young girls and how it unravels as they grow up. It is based on a friendship de Beauvoir herself had. The novel’s discovery has caused a frenzy and you can read an extract from The Guardian here.

The Magician by Colm Toibin

I am always wishing I’d read more Toibin, but I never seem to manage it and have only read Brooklyn (after I’d seen the film!). So, I’m determined to read this one as its subject is the great German author Thomas Mann, a favourite from my German A level days.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

I watched a discussion between Burkeman and Guardian journalist Zoe Williams a couple of weeks ago about this book. I have enjoyed Burkeman’s columns in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine for some years and like his take on life. This is not a traditional book about producitivity, apparently, despite what the title might suggest, it sounds more like an ‘anti-producitivity’ book, encouraging the reader to focus on what is really meaningful in life.

Pax, Journey Home by Sara Pennypacker

I make it my business to read plenty of children’s literature. It helps me reconnect with the sheer joy of reading that I felt as a child. I loved Pax, Pennypacker’s first novel, and this is a follow-up. I am keen to find out what happened to the young fox and his human companion Peter.

And yet more…

There are a number of other books out which readers might like to note: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman is the second in his Thursday Murder Club series, and looks to be an equally big success. Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is out – will it continue her run of best sellers, following Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers? I expect so! And in a similar vein, Paula Hawkins’s A Slow Fire Burning looks set to bring the author more success. I probably would not pick up this kind of novel, but I loved The Girl on the Train so I might give it a go. Michaela Coel is everywhere at the moment, deservedly so after the phenomenal success of her television series I May Destroy You. She is an incredible role model and continues to campaign on the issues the series raised. She has now written Misfits: A pesonal manifesto which promises to be a powerful read. Finally, Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, the follow-up to her 2019 success The Silence of the Girls. I found that book difficult to get into, but it was critically acclaimed and shortlisted for The Women’s Prize.

So, plenty to get my teeth into there. Not sure how many of these I’ll actually manage, given that my present TBR pile is toppling, but I am ever the optimist!

What are you reading this autumn? Do enjoy this beautiful time of the year, before the winter kicks in.

I got a copy! (The publication of Sally Rooney’s new novel)

Last week, the books and publishing industry got itself into the biggest lather that I have seen since before the pandemic. In fact, the last time I can remember such excitement was almost exactly two years ago when Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), was published. I did not, like some, form an orderly queue outside a participating bookshop to buy my copy on the stroke of midnight Tuesday, 7 September. I managed to hang on until Thursday before succumbing!

Have you got your copy of the biggest book of the year yet?

I was working in London at the weekend and decided it would be a good opportunity to read the book on the train. I imagined that I would devour it in a couple of sittings. I didn’t and am still only about halfway through. You may be wondering if that tells you something about how I feel about the book, but you will have to wait until I have finished it before getting my full and considered opinion.

Reception of the book so far has been positive, but with acknowledgement of the difficulties of producing work that reaches the same dizzying heights as her first two books: Anthony Cummins in The Guardian senses the difficulties the author has had writing this novel in “the glare of expectation”. John Williams in the New York Times, hates the book’s title, but mostly loves what is inside the covers, especially the author’s partly-ironic exploration of what must certainly be the autobiographical elements. He finds parts of the novel clichéd, but acknowledges the impossible situation this young (Rooney is still only 30) author is in and admires what she has achieved. The Independent gave it three stars out of five.

Sally Rooney has cited Natalia Ginzburg’s Little Virtues as an influence on her work

By chance I heard that there would be a special ‘pop-up’ event in east London, close to where I was going to be working, so I took the opportunity to go along on Saturday afternoon. A huge mural replicating the book’s cover had been painted on the outside of the venue, so it was impossible to miss. That was the highlight really; inside was a sparse,rather bleak windowless room, up some shabby stairs, with the books laid out on a couple of cloth-covered tables. The impromptu bookshop, was a joint venture between Waterstones and Faber, Rooney’s publisher. The super-enthusiastic young staff was selling copies of the novel, plus some books that Rooney had selected based on her influences for the work. I was also told I would get a free canvas bag and some ‘merch’ (badges and bookmarks) if I bought the book there and then. I said this was unlucky as I had already purchased it two days before. This did not generate the desired response; I was not offered a freebie in acknowledgement of my support. Even more disappointingly, I purchased two of “Rooney’s recommendations”, but only the main act entitled me to some ‘merch’. Shame. I would have liked a bookmark.

So, I got a bit caught up in the hype. I went along to the ‘pop-up event’ hoping some sort of magic might rub off on me. Unlike some other customers I saw, all looking like the millennials who are the main subject of the novel, I did not do a selfie with the shop mural in the background. I came away feeling slightly suckered. And hoping that this had been the publisher’s and not the author’s doing, that she had no control over how the book was marketed.

Indeed. The ‘pop-up’ event in Shoreditch, London, last weekend

I hope for her sake, Sally Rooney’s third novel is more ‘moderately’ successful than Normal People, and that she can then get on with what she does best, writing books. Does Beautiful World, Where Are You live up to the hype? I’ll let you know next week!

Literary sightseeing #2 – James Joyce’s Dublin

I have just returned from a couple of weeks holiday in Dublin where we were visiting my in-laws whom we had not seen since Christmas 2019. We spent most of our time with family, naturally, but with two whole weeks to fill (and not wanting to go any further afield on this trip) it was a good opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing in the city. Remarkably, in all the years that I have been visiting Dublin, this is something I have rarely done. I decided to start re-reading Ulysses a few months ago. I had not got very far into my mission so I used the downtime to read, listen and study the book. I took my Ulysses companion with me and at a secondhand book stall in Dun Laoghaire market I picked up a copy of The Ulysses Guide: Tours through Joyce’s Dublin by Robert Nicholson (first published in 1988) which offers several tour options corresponding to the different chapters in the book, in the order that Leopold Bloom takes them.

James Joyce was actually born less than a mile from where my in-laws live in Rathgar, a south Dublin suburb. Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, a red-brick Victorian terraced house in a quiet residential area. The house is very typical of the area, but fairly unremarkable.

The building with which Joyce is most associated, however, and the venue for the first part of Ulysses (Telemachus) is the martello tower at Sandycove. This is now home to the James Joyce Tower and Museum. I visited it many years ago on a trip I once made to Dublin in the ’90s. I would have loved to have gone again this time, but unfortunately, at the time of writing, it has not yet reopened following the pandemic.

Sandymount strand, another site in Ulysses is lovely, really typical Dublin by the sea, with a view of Howth on the opposite side of Dublin Bay, a haven for walkers and dog owners and now also a protected area due to some rare grasses having taken root there. You can reach both the museum and the Strand from the city centre by taking the Dart train at Connolly station (to Sydney Parade for Sandymount Strand, then a 10 minute walk, and Sandycove for the Museum, followed by a 15 minute walk). On the left hand side you can also see Ringsend pier, another site in Ulysses.

Sandymount Strand – a panorama

Chapter six of the book, also known as Hades, covers Paddy Dignam’s funeral procession (an associate of Bloom’s and many of the other characters appearing throughout the book) from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery. The cortege passes through and along many of the city’s most well-known locations – O’Connell Street, the bridges over the Liffey, the Dodder and Grand and Royal Canals (these four waterways represent the four rivers on Odysseus’s journey to the underworld). They also pass through Ringsend and Pigeonhouse Road (Poolbeg Road), where a family member of mine actually now owns a house.

Glasnevin Cemetery, where the funeral cortege ends up, is a Dublin ‘must-see’. It is one of the most important historic sites in the country. Covering 124 acres, it is the final resting place of approximately 1.5 million people. Its inhabitants include Michael Collins, Daniel O’Connell, Eamon de Valera, Charles Stewart Parnell, Maud Gonne, Brendan Behan and Christy Brown. Tours of the cemetery are usually possible and are expected to resume shortly. The cemetery is also adjacent to the National Botanical Gardens, nothing to do with Joyce, but a beautiful place that should be high on the list of any Dublin visitor.

The Round Tower, which stands over the grave of Daniel O’Connell, at Glasnevin Cemetery, as seen from the Botanical Gardens

That’s as far as I got this holiday, both in my reading and my sightseeing. James Joyce devotees in Dublin run a programme of events every year on 16 June, the day depicted in Ulysses. These include talks, tours, readings and dressing-up! It is on my bucket list to participate sometime, but always falls in term time for me so has not been possible yet…but soon! For more detail on all of the above as well as many of the other wonderful things you can do in the beautiful city of Dublin see www.visitdublin.com

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: “Luster” by Raven Leilani

Luster has been causing a bit of a literary storm since it was published in the US late last year. It has won numerous prizes, was a bookshop favourite and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in the UK this year. It’s subject is similar to a couple of books I have already read this last year (Queenie and Such a Fun Age), but it does take a more unconventional journey through the experience of a woman of colour in a mainly white middle-class world. What lifts it above the other two books mentioned above, is the quality of the writing; this is most definitely in the ‘literary’ category and Leilani is a phenomenally talented writer.

Set in New York, twenty-something Edie is working as a publishing assistant, a job she finds boring. She has a very modest lifestyle, just about surviving on her salary, and her life seems without interest or stimulation. There are frequent references to her past, her family background, and, in particular, her mother who died relatively young in unhappy circumstances. Edie is still somewhat grief-stricken, something she expresses through her interest in art.

Fine praise indeed, from none other than Zadie Smith

Edie meets Eric, a forty-something archivist from New Jersey, and they begin a relationship. Eric tells Edie he and his wife have an “open relationship”, but it is clearly not something he is used to. When we meet his wife later on, it becomes apparent that she has, at best, mixed feelings about the arrangement, and it appears more like a compromise to him than something she is wanting to engage in too. Much to Edie’s frustration it takes some weeks before the relationship with Eric becomes sexual, but when it does, the sex is fairly graphic. This is certainly one of the features of the book that critics have commented upon!

One of the boundaries that Eric’s wife Rebecca had set, was that he should not bring his lover to their home. Eric breaks this fairly quickly and this piques Edie’s interest. Eventually, and inevitably, Edie ends up meeting Rebecca, and finds that Eric has a thirteen year-old daughter, who is adopted and black. Rebecca is a pathologist whose job is to carry out autopsies. She too finds she has an interest in Edie, rather like a scab she cannot help but pick. The two women seem drawn together in a mutual kind of hostile fascination. When Edie loses her job (and therefore her income and her home), Rebecca tells Edie that she can move in with them temporarily (while Eric is away at a conference and therefore blissfully unaware!).

The novel changes tack at this point as it becomes about the emotional dance between the two women and the effect this has on Edie. Unemployed and unable to find sustainable employment, she takes up her art in earnest. Edie also latches onto Akila, the daughter, who is at first resentful of Edie, but then grows warmer towards her when she realises what they have in common. Eric is mortified when he returns home and finds Edie has moved in. His sexual interest in her declines rapidly and he nearly becomes irrelevant at this point.

This is not a ‘plot’ novel, though I won’t say any more about what happens. It is a novel about psychological tension and about the growth of a young woman into someone able to express herself through art and not just through her sexual relationship to a white male, and this says something significant about the black female experience.

Recommended.

Book review – “Hot Stew” by Fiona Mozley

Fiona Mozley’s first novel, Elmet, was published in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. Set in Yorkshire, for which ‘Elmet’ is an ancient pseudonym, it is a brilliant, dark portrait of a small somewhat disenfranchised family, threatened both by the authorities and by a shady underworld. I loved it and Mozley was, at the time, the youngest ever shortlisted author, until Daisy Johnson came along the following year and bested her by a couple of years. I wrote recently about the ‘difficult second novel’ when I was reviewing Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy. That novel was a little disappointing, but Fiona Mozley has well and truly cracked it with a stunning follow-up.

Elmet had a close focus on a small family (a father and his two children), but Mozley’s skill for creating a strong supporting cast of characters was being tested out even there, and in Hot Stew she has drawn her view back and created an ensemble of diverse characters among whom she moves with dexterity. The novel is set in Soho and Mozley’s interest in history is brought out once again as she weaves in information about the origins of that part of London, including how its name derived from a hunting cry “So Ho”. The novel opens with a conversation on a rooftop between two sex workers, Precious and Tabitha, the former active and the latter retired. Tabitha, we will learn later, is the assistant, companion and adviser in a relationship that defies convention and definition. The novel is populated by many others residing in the area, sex workers, itinerants, entertainers and those who belong in no other place.

The buildings they occupy and work out of are owned by Agatha, the half Russian, half English sixth daughter of a former property peculator whose last wife (the Russian one) managed to persuade her husband to leave all his wealth to their unborn child, whom she had convinced him was a boy. Agatha was born after her father’s death and so never knew the man to whom she owes all her privileges. She was sent to the finest schools, and has wealth beyond most people’s imaginings, thanks to her father having bought up much of derelict and undesirable Soho after the war. Agatha wants to get the sex workers out so that she can develop her holdings further. This tussle for dominance creates the premise of the novel, but in Fiona Mozley’s hands it is so much more than that.

We explore the many worlds of the full range of characters, while never losing a grip on who is who. Some are more relevant than others, but all have a part to play in the story. The reader is invited to examine their preconceptions about sex workers and sexuality as the different lifestyles are explored and complex moral conundrums are set up. There is a huge amount going on in the 300 or so pages of this book.

As with Elmet, the denouement of the novel is dramatic and just far-fetched enough to make us realise that the world we are in is somehow ‘other’. The catastrophe that brings the novel to its close resolves some of the thorny issues thrown up by the story. This does not make it ‘unbelievable’, however; there is gritty social realism here, contemporary social dilemma (how to deal with capitalism) and the dysfunctionality of attitudes to sex and sexuality.

I loved this book and it is a challenge to review because it is so ambitious in scope and so broad in its content. I listened to it on audio and it wasn’t the best narration I have ever heard – the actress was too young, it seemed to me, and there were a number of mispronunciations which should have been edited – that’s not the actor’s fault, more the producer’s laziness. Such things jar. I would recommend the book highly and will be surprised if this does not find itself on some literary prize shortlists this year.

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.

Book review – “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl

This was the February choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a non-fiction book. I’d had some excellent suggestions from others, but when I walked into the bookshop, this slim little volume with the beautifully coloured bird on the front, jumped off the shelf at me. It was only on closer inspection of the cover that I noticed the barbed wire and the unmistakable image of a watch tower in misty monochrome. This book is written by a Holocaust survivor, a former inmate of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where over a million Jews were murdered; the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated at the end of January.

2020-02-06 12.42.07Viktor E Frankl was a psychiatrist who is credited with developing one of the most important theories in the field human psychology (logotherapy) since Freud. He was developing his theory before he was captured by the Nazis but his time in the concentration camp enabled him to observe human beings in extreme conditions and further evolve his ideas.

The core idea of logotherapy (if I understand it correctly) is that human beings have a ‘will to meaning’ and that is what enables them to survive even the most shocking brutality. To illustrate his point, Frankl writes in the first part of the book (about two thirds of the total) about his day to day experiences in the camp. We all know how terrible, degrading and dehumanising these were, but I certainly never fail to be shocked when I see or hear of them. Frankl suffered terribly, but he was also fortunate, as a doctor, to be called upon to look after sick inmates, and this enabled him to observe others at their most vulnerable.

It often occurs to me that it was a particular torture to keep those rounded up into the camps alive when the ultimate goal was extermination. Prisoners were used as slave labour and Frankl describes the horrific conditions they were expected to work in, digging up frozen ground in sub-zero temperatures wearing only the standard issue striped pyjamas, shoes which injured their feet, and surviving on a thin broth that was barely more than hot water. Frankl writes that horror was so commonplace and exhaustion so total that people became inured to feelings – being insensible was a necessary protection. Some inmates effectively ‘colluded’ with their captors and became mini foremen, acting as wickedly as the Nazi guards at times, but Frankl is philosophical:

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

In the face of absolute degradation, where the prisoner’s life had no value, stripped of all freedoms and autonomy, Frankl observes that the only thing left is ‘spiritual freedom’ – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a situation. And this fragment, he believes, is enough to give one hope and purpose. He also observed that once this is lost, when a person can no longer see a goal or meaning, their physical life ebbs away.

Very few of us will ever have an experience like that of Dr Frankl or the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, though a few experience extreme privation, imprisonment and torture. Dr Frankl carried his theories into his work with normal people experiencing difficult things in their life. He cites an example of a bereaved colleague, devastated after the death of his wife, who felt that there was no longer any purpose to his life. Only once Dr Frankl was able to show him that his loss meant his wife had been spared the grief of being widowed, was he able to find meaning in his life again and thus move beyond his grief. Frankl is clear though that suffering is not necessary in order to find meaning in life, rather, that even through suffering, meaning can be found.

According to logotherapy we can find meaning in three different ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or someone; and by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering. Even when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are able to change ourselves. This for me, was the strongest message that came out of the book – Dr Frankl’s account of his time in the camp is both harrowing and compelling, but he is nonetheless able to draw from it, wisdom that is relevant to us all.

Viktor Frankl died in 1997. The second part of the book was revised and updated in 1962. I was struck by his reference to what he calls the ‘existential vacuum’, the depression people experience when they seem to lose the meaning in their life. He writes of how increasing automation in the workplace could lead to such a state. Retired an ageing people, he writes, can easily be afflicted by this as their once busy lives become seemingly empty. Here in the 21st century many of us have more leisure time than ever, but many of us don’t know what to do with it and may in fact be lonelier and less fulfilled than ever. Perhaps this explains the ‘Blitz spirit’ that older British people often reminisce about – in the suffering they found community and meaning and purpose. Perhaps it also explains the mental ill-health epidemic that seems to be affecting developed nations all over the world.

All of the above may be total gobbledygook, the ramblings of a middle-aged woman trying to work out her own purpose! I hope what will have come across to you, however, is that this is a very powerful book, that we should all read and which, I guarantee, will give you much food for thought.

Highly recommended, maybe even essential.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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