It’s the end of March and time to be thinking about the reading challenge for April. The theme this month is travel writing and I’ve picked Colin Thubron, who is said to be one of the finest living travel authors. It’s not a genre I am very familiar with, although I love and have read quite a few of Dervla Murphy’s books (her book On a Shoestring to Coorg featured on my reading challenge two years ago). So, I thought it would be good to aim high and go for one of the best!
The title I have chosen is To A Mountain in Tibet, partly, I’m afraid, because it is one of the slimmer volumes; I’m struggling to keep up with all my planned reading at the moment…where did March go? Ah yes, I know, I spent a lot of time with my mouth open glued to the news and political analysis programmes (the less said about that the better!). Reading the blurb and the reviews of this book, I also feel it encapsulates what I am looking for in a travel book, which is not only the author on a physical journey, but also on some kind of process of learning. In To A Mountain in Tibet Thubron is undertaking a pilgrimage well known to Hindus and Buddhists, but is also a story of him coming to terms with loss and bereavement.
It seems appropriate to be reading this book in April, when Easter falls, and when many people will be undertaking journeys of their own. I will be on a family holiday later in the month and this book will be in my suitcase.
I will be posting my review of the March reading challenge book next week, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, so look out for that. This was a re-read for me; I last read it nearly thirty years ago and it has been one of my all-time favourites – find out if I loved it as much second time around!
This month’s theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge is a European novel. I confess that I did have the “B-word” in mind when I set the theme, feeling the need to assert that there is more that unites us than divides us, to paraphrase the late Jo Cox. The B-word has at this stage, however, become synonymous with something altogether more sinister – something very worrying is happening to our concepts of democracy, statehood, nationality, political representation and society. No-one really knows where we are or where we’re going.
However, that does not change my belief that we would all do well to push our personal horizons from time to time, literary and otherwise, and engaging with books originally written in other languages is one way of doing that, even if you have to read them in translation. So, the book I have chosen for this month, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, is an absolute classic, and one that I consider to be one of my all-time favourites.
Perfume was first published in 1985 in German, and then in English in 1987. This was also my first year at University, studying English, and I spent those three years reading continuously. Sounds great (it was!) but by the end of it I could hardly even lift a book! Perfume was one of the first books I read after my hiatus, and I was completely blown-away. The novel is set in 18th century Paris and concerns a perfumier Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, his talent for and obsession with all things olfactory, and his descent into a murderous lifestyle – the sub-title of the book is “the story of a murderer”.
I am excited to be reading the book again, although slightly apprehensive – what if I don’t love it as much as I did before? Context matters, so it will be an interesting experience either way.
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This was my January pick for my 2019 Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme for this month being a humorous novel. I hadn’t read any Bainbridge before and had read that this was considered a comic masterpiece and was in fact shortlisted the Booker Prize in 1974 when it was first published (Bainbridge had no less than four novels shortlisted). This book also won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
So, the book has a pedigree and I had high expectations. I enjoyed it, but I’m afraid to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. Perhaps it’s partly timing; I posted a review last week of The Overstory, a book which I found breathtakingly good, and which I completed just before starting this one and I fear that it suffered somewhat in comparison. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for humour after that! I seem to remember having similar feelings about the books I read immediately after completing Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life a couple of years ago. There are some books which just need a little more time to sit with you before you launch into something else.
In summary, this book is set in the late ‘60s, early 70s and is about Freda and Brenda, two young women who work together in a London factory where Italian wine is bottled. They also live together in a pokey bedsit, and share a double bed at nights. Freda is blonde, buxom and outgoing, sexually frustrated and of a romantic inclination. She has the hots for Vittorio, the nephew of the factory’s Italian owner, and fantasises about being seduced by him, contriving situations to enable this. Brenda is a redhead, but mousey in personality, timid and sexually repressed. She has left her drunken husband Stanley in the Yorkshire farmhouse which they shared with his domineering mother. Freda and Brenda met after Brenda had a tearful outburst in a butcher’s shop. Freda took her in and got her a job at the factory. Freda can be kind but also cruel and the book is as much about the complex nature of relationships between women as anything else.
Almost all the other factory workers are Italian, expect Patrick, an Irishman who seems to be quite protective towards Brenda. The first quarter or so of the book is spent setting the scene before the ‘outing’ takes place. The outing, which was supposed to be by coach to a stately home, was Freda’s idea and was simply one of her plots to try and get Vittorio to declare his passion for her. Inevitably, things start to go wrong when the expected coach does not arrive and some workers have to go home while others pile into cars, and the outing turns into farce. It is a cold and bleak October day, so Freda’s fantasy of a sunlit picnic and strolling through romantic gardens with her hoped-for lover were never going to be realised. The other side-plot is that Brenda is being relentlessly pursued by the (older and married) Rossi, manager of the factory. At work he is always trying to get her into compromising situations.
The outing occupies most of the rest of the book. Inevitably, not all goes to plan and there is a dramatic and unexpected twist, which I won’t spoil by sharing with you. There is definitely humour, but it is very dark. By coincidence, there was a BBC radio broadcast of the story (abridged of course) in mid-January, where the wonderful Maxine Peake and Diane Morgan took the parts of Freda and Brenda, respectively, and Sue Johnstone (masterful) narrates. They drew out both the humour and the tenderness very effectively. In fact I enjoyed the broadcast slightly more than the book! I think this was because the ironic interpretation came across more strongly (the process of abridging perhaps?) and that felt more satisfying for a 21st century reading. Clearly we still have quite a way to go when it comes to gender equality, but you forget how bad things were only 40-50 years ago. In the context of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment of women in the workplace is more difficult to find funny. Perhaps I am being far too earnest!
I enjoyed the book, but must confess that reading it did at times make me a bit uncomfortable. Which is a shame because I think it is a far more complex novel than a first (post-Overstory) reading allows. I think I need to read it again!
Hmm, what do you think?
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I hope you all had a good break and got plenty of reading done. My holiday was a rather different one this year. Straight after Christmas I was with family in East Anglia, so there was very little reading time. We then went on a family skiing trip to a very beautiful and very snowy Austria for New Year. (We love skiing, but I am always relieved when we all come home injury-free!)
It was probably our best family ski trip ever, in an area we have never previously visited, Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis in the South Tirol. There were very few British accents to be heard and fellow skiers were overwhelmingly Austrian, German or Dutch so it seemed to us to be well-kept secret. It was stunningly beautiful and we enjoyed the unusually bountiful snowfall, even if that caused us some problems getting back home.
Despite being outside skiing all day I did get a fair bit of reading done and managed finally to break the back of a book I have been reading for some time now – The Overstory by Richard Powers, the final one of the Man Booker Shortlist 2018. It’s a wonderful and brilliant novel, but it’s very long and quite hard work. The prose is a joy so much so that you simply have to read every word, which makes it doubly time-consuming. So, it was the perfect holiday choice. I’ve still not quite finished!
Over the holiday I also completed Michelle Obama’s Becoming. This is a much faster read and very different, though also thoroughly enjoyable. Look out for my reviews of both books over the next couple of weeks.
I’ve been putting some thought into my reading plans for 2019 this last few days and have just launched this year’s Facebook Reading Challenge. If you’d like to join us do pop over to the page to have a look at the list of themes for the year. The title for January is Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing, which I gather is very funny so I’m looking forward to starting it.
I’m also planning to visit the Hay Festival again this year, which I attended for the first time in 2018. I loved it so much that I now intend to make it a regular part of my annual calendar. I am lucky enough to live in Manchester where we have a fantastic literary festival every Autumn. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make any of the events last year (the speakers I wanted to see all sold out very quickly so I need to be more on the ball this time) so that will also be a priority for 2019.
My other big goal this year is to attempt to get my own book published. I’ve been working on it for about 18 months now and finally finished the revisions to my second draft in December. I feel it’s now time to put it in front of someone else for feedback – a terrifying prospect, but a necessary one. I feel sick even thinking about it!
I hope the year ahead will be joyfully book-filled. What a wonderful hobby we share!
What are your literary plans for 2019?
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I loved listening to Matt Haig read his wonderful book Notes on a Nervous Planet. I downloaded the audiobook in the Summer and blogged about it here in October. I decided that it was definitely a book I wanted to have on my bookshelves, to dip into occasionally, to read certain chapters at specific times, and to be able to jot notes down. I also decided that it would make a great gift for a few people I know.
I set it as the November book for my Facebook Reading Challenge and so far the feedback seems to be positive. Apart from a handful of my very favourite books (eg Wuthering Heights) I seldom re-read books. I always feel I should; my husband is a great re-reader and says he gets different things out of a book each time he returns to it, and he is right of course. For me, though, there seem to be just too many books to read first time around!
I have made an exception and decided to read Notes on a Nervous Planet again. I’m surprised at how different the reading experience is versus listening. Firstly, the author has a wonderful reading voice and I suppose because it is non-fiction and is very much about his experiences of anxiety and depression, you can sense that it comes straight from the heart. I really think that the narrator of an audiobook plays such an important role in the experience. For example, I loved Hilary Huber’s narration of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but I struggled with the reading of 1984 by Andrew Wincott…who is Adam in The Archers. I just couldn’t get Adam out of my head!
The second interesting difference is the speed. I read quite fast, and I am aware that this means I don’t always take in every detail. With listening, however, I listen at the natural pace (I dislike the 1.25 and 1.5 speeds). It does mean that you absorb a lot more of the text. I was surprised reading Notes on a Nervous Planet how many passages I remembered virtually word for word.
The third difference for me may be a very subjective one, but it’s about the way the content of the book organises itself in my head. Here, my preference is for the tangible book. Listening to this book I found it more of a continuous narrative, but reading it is more useful to me in terms of taking forward some of the ‘recommended’ actions – I use the term loosely as it’s not a smug, instructional just do as I say and your life will be perfect, sort of book! For others who are more aurally oriented the experience may be different.
Audiobooks are great, especially for long car journeys (if you have the appropriate technology), or, my particular preference, walks into town. I have found with this book, though, that reading again has brought me some extra insight, and that can’t be bad.
Are you a fan of audiobooks? Have you ever both read and listened to a particular title?
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The theme for July in my Facebook Reading Challenge was an American novel. It was a tough choice as I wanted to select something that captured the American ‘story’. I at first thought about The Color Purple, which had been on my shortlist for February (a work by a feminist writer) but I felt it was too similar to June’s choice of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I also thought about The Bonfire of the Vanities, but decided it was a bit long and my fellow readers on the Challenge would not thank me! So, I finally alighted on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which seemed appropriate in terms of both subject matter and timing, since Roth died just a couple of months ago. I’m not sure how other readers on the challenge got on, but I’m afraid I failed to complete it within the month – it’s not overly long at 423 pages, but the writing is so rich that it was almost impossible to read at any pace. I had to (and wanted to!) savour every word. That gives you an idea of my overall feeling about the book – it is tremendous, epic, glorious and tragic. If you want to understand anything about the American experience, especially the immigrant experience over the last hundred years or so and the effect that has had on the mindset of American-born second and third generation immigrants, it is essential reading.
The plot is not complicated: ‘Swede’ Levov is a third generation Jewish immigrant whose grandfather came to America from Europe. He was a glovemaker and set up a business in Newark, New Jersey which became highly successful. Swede’s father continued the business, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s when glove-wearing for respectable women was the norm and most would have several pairs. (There is more information on gloves in this book than you will ever need to know, but it’s fascinating!) Swede inherited the business from his father, while his more wayward brother became a cardiac surgeon.
Swede Levov pursued the quintessential ‘American dream’ – he excelled in sports at school, served in the military, followed his father into the business, and learned the glove trade, married an Irish-American Catholic former beauty queen, with whom he had a daughter, Merry. From the outside everything seems perfect except for one small flaw – Merry has a stammer, which no amount of expensive medical or therapeutic treatment seems to be able to fix. This is the first indication that Merry perhaps represents some flaw which will undermine the Levovs and all that they represent.
Slight spoiler alert (though not really because you learn of the event quite early in the book): as a teenager Merry becomes obsessed with opposition to the Vietnam war. She becomes increasingly frustrated and rebellious. Her parents lose control and it culminates in her planting a bomb in the general store of Old Rimrock, the solid New Jersey semi-rural idyll in which the family has settled. The bomb kills the local doctor.
Swede’s world begins to fall apart; he cannot accept that his daughter has committed this crime, believing that she must have been put up to it by others, or indeed that others did it and are allowing her to take the blame. For a number of years Swede lives in the hope that he will be able to find his daughter, that the truth will come out and that she will be exonerated, and that their life will return to ‘normal’. For a time, it appears that he might find be able to find Merry, when a woman known as Rita Cohen contacts him saying she knows Merry’s whereabouts. Swede becomes convinced that she is in fact the real bomber because she is cruel and threatening and extorts money from him.
The Rita Cohen thread is all part of Swede’s self-deception, however, and this is the central theme of the book – Swede, his wife and his family, represent the ‘American dream’, which is in fact, just that, a fantasy, a mirage. Merry’s actions put Swede on a path where everything he held dear, which he believed to be real, unravels and is exposed as a sham.
As I have already said, the plot is not complex because it is not a novel so much about events as it is a deep exploration of the American psyche. The structure of the book is quite complex, however, but so brilliantly done that it is not hard to follow. It flits effortlessly between different stages, between different characters and their individual stories and the handling can only be described as masterful. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize (1998)! It explores notions of religion in America, particularly the Jewish experience as told through the Levov family, and through the eyes of our first narrator, former schoolmate of Swede’s and now author Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman, the Catholic experience (through Dawn Levov) and the American Protestant experience through the residents of Old Rimrock. The decline of the glove industry and its craft, and also the city of Newark where the Levov family business was based, is a metaphor for the gradual collapse of the concept of the American dream which now seems to lie degraded and in ruins. A further metaphor is the Garden of Eden story, itself Old Testament fiction. The book is written in three parts (Paradise Remembered, The Fall and Paradise Lost) echoing Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, because for Swede Levov the experience is truly a destruction of all that he once understood to be real and to be good.
This is the longest review I’ve written in a while and yet I feel I have only scratched the surface in telling you about this book. I have only just completed it so I may write more in a few weeks once it has had a chance to sit with me! Truly, as I savoured the last few pages I was open-mouthed at the unravelling. It is truly an American tragedy (the title is a kind of oxymoron), and it reminded me of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf similar examples of the collapse of an American dream happening in slow motion before our very eyes. The final dinner party scene is quite spectacular.
Needless to say I recommend this book highly. It’s not an easy read but it rewards in spades.
If you have read this book I would love to hear your thoughts.
When Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86, she was one of the towering figures of American culture and politics. Poet, author, civil rights activist, speaker, friend and advisor to figures of national and international importance, her career was, by any standards, glittering. And yet, her start was a decidedly inauspicious one. In the late 1960s she was persuaded to begin writing an autobiography and she went on to publish it in seven volumes, the latest one appearing in 2013, just a year before her death. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume and covers her childhood and coming of age. Her early life in Arkansas featured parental abandonment, overt racism, sexual abuse, discrimination and poverty. It is a sobering tale, and a testament to her immense ability, that someone with that kind of background could become such a great and important figure, well-known not just in the United States, but throughout the world.
I chose this book for my 2018 Facebook Reading Challenge. The June theme was an autobiography, a tricky category since enjoyment can often depend on your feelings about the author. I also wanted to avoid titles that would most likely have been ghost-written. After thinking about it for some time, I chose this, the first volume in Angelou’s memoir series, and the one which is often considered to be the best. It can be read as a stand-alone.
I had read it myself many years ago; I have written on here before that at some point in my teens, I resolved to work my way along my local library bookshelves starting at ‘A’! I read the first five volumes (the fifth was published in 1986 when I would have been 18, so I imagine I did not read them all consecutively). I remember I enjoyed the book at the time, and parts of it were familiar, coming back to it so many years later, not least the horrific scene where she is raped by her mother’s lover. This aspect of Maya’s story, like all the other terrible instances of injustice she experienced, is told without self-pity (apart, perhaps from the toothache!) or sentimentality, and this, I think, is the mark of her greatness as a writer.
I loved also, the evocation of the setting – 1930s Arkansas is set out vividly before us, particularly the evangelical Christianity of the black community, the tense relations with their white neighbours on the other side of town, and the poverty of the community, scraping a meagre living in the most challenging of circumstances, from cotton-picking, domestic service or, in the case of Maya’s grandmother “Momma”, from running a small business.
I also loved the language – the Deep South comes across so profoundly in the words and phrases used by the author, such as the wonderful term “powhitetrash” to refer to the prejudiced white townspeople of Stamps who blight the lives of the black community with their bullying, their cruelty and their vulgar behaviour. And I loved the characters, from the young Maya, to her elder brother Bailey, whom she adored, to Momma, the starched Christian woman of steadfast values and brilliant business acumen. The author brings them alive so skilfully that they walk the pages of this book.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must-read. I trust that it is on academic reading lists throughout the United States, but it should also form part of the historical context for any student of American history. It is not an easy read and the nature of the language definitely slows the pace (it took me twice as long to read as any other book of this size), but you would do well to read it slowly as the pace draws you into the languid lifestyle of the setting. Someone on the Facebook group listened to the audiobook, narrated by Angelou, herself, which sounds like a must-listen. Coincidentally, the book was also abridged for Radio 4’s book of the week recently, and that should still be available online. It was very good.
Highly recommended, should probably even be on everyone’s books bucket list.
If you have read Maya Angelou’s memoirs what impact did they have on you?
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