Posts Tagged Caitlin Moran

60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 43-56

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.    This is the third instalment of my reading diary, with the fourth to follow on 24 September.    I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.

Rules?  To summarise:

  • No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
  • Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
  • Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
  • I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author.  That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge.  So, sixty books, by sixty writers.

 

11 September. Day 43  Finished Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water. Brilliant, fascinating, moving.  The narrative was labyrinthine, moving around from Before (before her father was arrested) to After (what happened to the rest of the family after his arrest) but only towards the final pages coming to that terrible truth at the heart of it all – what happened to him  and ultimately how and why he died.  Extraordinary.

On to Livi Michael’s Succession.  I have read most of her adult novels (Inheritance, All the Dark Air, Their Angel Reach) and read to my daughter at least one of her stories about an intrepid and resourceful hamster called Frank.  This one is historical fiction, the first in a trilogy set during the Wars of the Roses.

michael

As a child and a teenager I devoured historical novels.  Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, Leon Garfield – each of them in my memory evokes a particular period of history.  Later on I read Margaret Irwin, Edith Sitwell’s books on Elizabeth I (Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive), and Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak no Treason.

This last is particularly relevant to the Livi Michael trilogy, and I’m quite excited about reawakening my earlier fascination with this period of history, and rediscovering a writer who I know through novels with a very contemporary setting.

I’m also about to start on Philip Roth’s The Plot against America.  From fictionalised real history to an ‘alternative’ history, in which Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 and Lindbergh becomes President. Intriguingly, it’s an alternative personal history too – the history of the Roth family had events turned out in this way.  I think my first encounter with alternative history was in Joan Aiken’s terrific, gothic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, set in the reign of James III, when a channel tunnel has been built, via which wolves have migrated into Britain in large numbers.   Probably the majority of works in this genre, however, have taken World War II as their setting, positing some crucial moment at which everything changed, allowing a Nazi victory in Europe (and beyond).  The more one knows of the ‘real’ history, the more fascinating (and potentially contentious) this is.

Also on my reading pile (though probably not as part of this project) is Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, and positing the rise of a far-right demagogue to the Presidency…  That title was echoed in a film I dimly recall watching, and being horribly chilled by, It Happened Here, subtitled ‘the story of Hitler’s England’.

The Plot… will also, as it happens, be my first Roth.

roth

Caitlin Moran’s piece ‘Reading is Fierce‘ seems especially pertinent in light of this project.*  I allowed myself an unseemly moment of hubris when she mentioned the ‘challenge’ of reading fifty-nine books in five months as a judge on the Baileys Prize (ha!  Try sixty books in under three months, you lightweight!).  But then, there’s this.

And so to read is, in truth, to be in the constant act of creation.  That old lady on the bus with her Orwell; the businessman on the Tube with Patricia Cornwell; the teenager roaring through Capote – they are not engaged in idle pleasure.  Their heads are on fire.  Their hearts are flooding.  With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss –  you are the mathematical calculation that plots the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin.  You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head, which will remain with you till the day you die.  These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone.  And when your guts fail and your bones break, Narnia, or Jamaica Inn, or Gormenghast will still be there: as pin-sharp and bright as the day you first imagined them – hiding under the bedclothes, sitting on a bus.

That’s my life she’s writing about, my life with my head in a book, from a four-year-old just graduating from Janet & John to real stories (never ‘just a story’, stories matter, stories can make you fly), to a sixty-year-old powering through novels and memoirs and poems for some daft challenge, reading on buses, in waiting rooms, last thing at night and first thing in the morning.  Singing that ‘unseen, life-changing duet’ with each writer I encounter.  Glorious.

Oh, and I can’t ever ever read Moran’s piece ‘To Teenage Girls on the Edge’ without having quite a big cry. It’s everything I wanted to, tried to, meant to say to my own teenage girl when she was in that place, but said so much better than I ever could.

Ooh, this Livi Michael is good.

12 September. Day 44

A difficult day but in what free time there was, I progressed mightily with Succession. Once one has got one’s head round the Dukes of This and Earls of That (another disadvantage with a Kindle, BTW – Livi Michael kindly provides a cast list at the front of the book, but it’s far more faff to refer to it in an electronic book than in a real one) the narrative is compelling, the characters fascinating (especially the two Margarets) and the writing beautiful.

I’ve always taken the view that any hierarchy of literary merit must ignore the notion of ‘genre fiction’.  There’s good writing, and there’s bad.  There are literary prize winners that are unreadable, ‘classics’ that are turgid and dull, and crime or horror or historical novels that are written with such power and depth that they stay in the mind and the heart long after the last page is turned.  Of course many novels refuse to be categorised, but there are fine writers who are not only unashamed to be part of a genre, but also exploit and transcend the constraints of that genre.  Historical fiction as a genre includes plenty of dross, some of which I read (and quickly tired of) in my teens – but there’s plenty of excellent writing too, and this is a great example.

13 September. Day 45 – Finished Succession.  Obviously given my self-imposed rule about not reading more than one book by the same writer, I can’t go straight on to the next title in the trilogy, but I will look forward to it immensely once this challenge is complete.   Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, those of major players in the events and those of very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles.  And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us.

The Plot against America is splendid.  And chilling.  Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism  in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame.  We’ve seen that very recently on the streets of the USA.

On now to another writer who I’ve loved for many years, and who very sadly died only a few months ago, far far too young, Helen Dunmore.  It’s another historical novel, but much more recent history.  The Betrayal is the sequel to The Siege, set in Leningrad after the Second World War, and I’m looking forward to it, and glad that there are still a few of her novels – and all of her poetry – for me to enjoy.

Dunmore

14 September. Day 46 – The Betrayal takes us into the world of Stalin’s oppressive dictatorship, where everyone has learned to speak quietly because there’s always someone listening, where everyone lives in fear of a denunciation or just of coming to the notice of the powers that be, for good or bad reasons.  It reminds me in that respect of another recent read, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter which evokes this atmosphere very powerfully.

15 September. Day 47 – Finished The Betrayal.  Brilliant, beautiful and sad.  It really does evoke that world where ‘they’ can do whatever they want, regardless of truth, regardless of sense, regardless even of self-interest, and you – the ordinary citizen, even the Party official, should the wind change direction – can do nothing to prevent it.   The central characters (who carry over from The Siege) are (as one of the reviews pointed out) perhaps unrealistically beyond reproach.  However, they are vividly and sympathetically drawn, and what Dunmore shows is how their integrity, their courage, their dignity is of so little use to them in the face of paranoid tyranny.   It shows also how hope survives, just.  They told themselves after the siege was over that things would get better.  And despite the betrayal of that hope, there is still a glimmer at the end of the novel.

Next up, from Stalin’s USSR to present-day Turkey, for Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve.  

shafak

Also finished The Plot against America.   A couple of the reviews give a spoiler-free flavour of the book:

I called the book ‘astonishing’, but what astonishes is not this wild counter-history – it is presented too plausibly for that – or any fireworks in the prose, which is uncommonly sober, though always elegant. What’s astonishing is the way Roth puts together the stories of the shaken Jewish family and an America that can’t see what’s happening to it, that isn’t shaken enough. ‘They live in a dream,’ Philip’s father says, ‘and we live in a nightmare.’ (Michael Wood, London Review of Books)

Roth … dramatizes two vast and contradictory principles simultaneously: on the one hand, the susceptibility of American individualism to the cult of celebrity, and of American faith in democracy to a tyranny of the majority, leading to a particular vulnerability to unscrupulous politicians who win widespread popular support and gain a grip on the three branches of government; and, on the other, the distinctively American sense of freedom, stiffening the will to resist such political depravities, a will that’s integral to the country’s values, heritage, and history. The novel’s great tragic power lies precisely in the clash between the two. (Richard Brody, The New Yorker)

The New Yorker piece, notably, is recent (February 2017, whilst the book was actually published in 2004).  It valiantly avoids spelling out the all-too-evident contemporary parallels (particularly given that the current incumbent of the White House drew explicitly on America First rhetoric in his campaign and in his inaugural speech).

16 September. Day 48 – Started two new books.  Three Daughters of Eve has already captivated me.  Its protagonist, Peri, is engaging and fascinating.  We meet her first in the present day, a woman in middle age, attempting to hang on to her self-confidence in the face of an eye-rolling teenage daughter.  Yes, I think we can identify…  But the narrative gets very dark, very quickly.   The setting is not familiar to me – of course I know a little of Turkey’s history and recent events, but not enough, and I look forward to deepening my understanding.

The second new one is The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley.  That’s been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for ages, and I’m still not 100% convinced it’s ideal bedtime reading, so if it gives me nightmares I might have to swap.  So far, so undefinably creepy.  We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why.  Not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from Stephen King who is the master of unease (he also does full-on gross-out grue, of course, but it’s the unease, the uncanny, the sense of a place being just a bit wrong, that I think he does best).

hurley

17 September. Day 49 – Finished Three Daughters of Eve.  Whilst it’s not short on action, it is preoccupied with questions of spirituality and faith (not only religious conviction but feminism), exploring them through Peri’s ill-matched parents, and through her encounters as a student at Oxford, where she becomes one of the eponymous ‘three daughters’.  Peri is introspective and constantly questioning – she characterises herself as ‘confused’ because she cannot resolve the contradictions she has either inherited or acquired.   Shafak weaves the philosophical debates into personal and political crises as she moves between the different time frames – the present day, unfolding almost real time at a posh Istanbul dinner party, childhood, and student days.  Fascinating.

Treating myself to the new Lesley Glaister, The Squeeze.  Another writer who I’ve enjoyed enormously over the years (along with Livi Michael, Glaister was involved with the MA Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, during the period when I worked there).

18 September. Day 50 – Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets.

Glaister’s territory is suburban Gothic, but unlike Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood, she’s not interested in folkloric excursions into fairy tale forests or the thornier thickets of feminist irony. Her stories, couched in humour and social observation, are firmly rooted in the domestic and mundane. Babies are dropped on floors, young women locked in attics and fathers murdered in their beds, but they are usually polishing off a Pot Noodle in between last breaths.

This novel is no exception.  It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman.  But connect they do.

glaister

Excellent as always, and makes me want to revisit her earlier novels.

Off to Ghana now, where I spent some of my childhood.   Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash.  So this one ticks two boxes, one for genre and one for setting.

parkes

And it’s a delight.  The storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories.  Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends.  He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.

19 September. Day 51 – Finished The Loney.  The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith.  There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides.   Is it a horror novel?  It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative:

“you knew something had happened, but quite what it was or why, you weren’t entirely sure.”

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/11/andrew-michael-hurley-there-is-no-place-more-terrifying-than-your-own-mind

Hurley suspends the story in a limbo between the supernatural and the merely strange: it is not clear whether the fantastic has occurred, or whether characters are mad, or which of these would be worse.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/28/the-loney-andrew-michael-hurley-review-gothic-novel

Now reading The Silent Wife, by A S A Harrison.  This is a psychological thriller, and it’s both Harrison’s debut and her final novel as she died before completing her second.   It was greeted by the inevitable, tiresome cries of ‘this year’s Gone Girl/Girl on the Train‘ – I enjoyed both of those enormously but it’s irritating that we need to pigeonhole everything so that Amazon can tell us that, if we liked x, we will like y.  Not necessarily so.  Anyway, so far it has drawn me in very neatly, so that although I don’t exactly like either of the main characters, I do very much want to know how (as we’re told from the start will happen) Jodi becomes a killer.

harrison

Also reading Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints.  The origins of this collection of short dialogues are interesting, as all of the entries appeared on Facebook before being gathered together in a book.  Doyle ‘used the social network as a home for a series of conversations between two middle-aged men, perched at a bar, analysing the news of the day and attempting to make sense of it.’

doyle

20 September. Day 52 – Finished The Silent Wife.   I didn’t end up liking either Joni or Todd any more by the end of the book than I had at the beginning but contrary to popular wisdom that isn’t essential (did anyone like either of the protagonists in Gone Girl?  Really?), though I was certainly rooting for her rather than him.  Unlike Gone Girl, this isn’t a narrative that depends upon twists – rather it builds its characters and its plot little by little, and whilst both narrators are unreliable, they’re only unreliable in the way that anyone is in recounting their own life.  It’s a very clever, subtle portrayal – we see, little by little, below the beautifully arranged surface of their lives, see the fault lines in their relationship, and in their own pasts, fault lines which open up and engulf them.  Susan Harrison only ventured into fiction in her 60s.  She died of cancer, aged 65, just before her debut novel was published.

Just started another debut novel, Caryl Phillips’ The Final Passage.  Published in 1985, it’s set in the late 50s, and tells the story of one family who made the journey from the West Indies to the UK in the hope of a better life.  It’s similar territory to that explored by Andrea Levy in Small Island, published twenty years later, though her immigrants arrived here in the immediate postwar period,  rather than the late 50s.

phillips

Finished Two Pints.  Wickedly funny, very rude and sweary, and surreal (check out young Damien’s scientific researches…).  The two drinkers talk about all the things that two blokes in a pub might talk about.  The missis, the kids, the football, politics, religion, sex – and they mark the passing of various notable people who’ve just died, in ways that manage to be funny, rude and sweary, and often very poignant.  I’ve read lots of his more recent ‘obits’, and I particularly remember the Two Pints tribute to Bowie…

-I remember once, I was havin’ me breakfast. An’ I saw me da starin’ at me. So, I said, ‘Wha’?’ An’ he says, ‘Are yeh goin’ to work lookin’ like tha’?’ I still servin’ me time and, like, I was wearin’ me work clothes. An’ me overalls were in me bag. So I didn’t know what he was on abou’. ‘Get up an’ look at yourself in the fuckin’ mirror,’ he says. I was still wearin’ me Aladdin Sane paint. Across me face, like.
-You were ou’ the night before.
-Not really. Only down the road. Sittin’ on the wall beside the chipper, with the lads. Sneerin’ at the fuckin’ world. But that was what it was like. Bowie was our God.

Off to Italy now for a spot of crime and detection, with Inspector Montalbano.  Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat will be my first Montalbano (and I haven’t seen the TV series either), so I’m looking forward to discovering another new crime writer.

camilleri

21 September. Day 53 – Enjoying The Final Passage.  I keep having to remind myself how young Leila is, when I get frustrated with her for getting entangled with Michael who is so so obviously a wrong ‘un, feckless, faithless and by and large useless.  But she’s hardly more than a child herself, and girls and even grown women who should be old enough to know better do fall for feckless, faithless and useless men. I dare say the reverse is true but surely to a lesser extent – there’s a whole culture of women standing by their men, when the sensible thing would clearly be to kick him out or walk away.  It’s rarely that simple and in many situations – particularly where there’s a child involved – neither of those options may seem possible.  Of course the relationship between Leila and Michael is only one aspect of the novel – the passage from Jamaica to England is what drives it, and that’s powerfully done.  The contrasts are both obvious – from heat and humidity that saps the energy to cold that gets into the bones – and less so. Even though they come from what we would see as poverty, the squalor of living conditions in London horrifies them, the dirt and the broken things that no-one bothers to mend.  It’s a desperately sad account, and hard to see much hope for the future, given where the narrative leaves Leila, so profoundly alone in a strange land.

22 September. Day 54 – Montalbano is delightful.  Despite the heinous nature of the crime being investigated, there’s a great deal of humour in the characterisation and the dialogue.  But there’s another thread running through it, of political commentary:

How had Papa Dante put it?

Ah, servile Italy, you are sorrow’s hostel,

a ship without helmsman in terrible storms,

lady not of the provinces, but of a brothel!

Italy was still servile, obeying at least two masters, America and the Church, and the storms had become a daily occurrence, thanks to a helmsman whom she would have been better off without.

Montalbano cares about justice.  And meantime he spends much of this particular novel stripped to his underwear in the office, with only a small hand-held fan to keep him cool as he navigates witness testimonies, police bureaucracy, corruption and protection rackets.

Two new books to start now:  Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and Ali Smith’s Hotel World.

23 September. Day 55 – Neither O’Connor nor Smith is totally new to me.  I’ve read A Good Man is Hard to Find, and The Whole Story and other Stories – strangely both collections of short stories, which I tend not to favour.  O’Connor is fascinating – Southern Gothic if one has to pigeonhole her, but she herself responded to those who called her writing cynical or brutal that:

The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. …When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

Smith’s short story collection was terrific, and I’ve wanted to read one of her novels for some time (especially since hearing and falling rather in love with her on Desert Island Discs a while back).  And Hotel World is glorious.  It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity.  She reminds me in a way of Jon McGregor, whose work I love.  Note to self: read more Smith, and read McGregor’s  latest, Reservoir 13.

 

24 September. Day 56 – Just finished Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow. I’ve taken my time over it – each poem needs to be savoured, not just consumed and then on to the next. There are some astonishing moments here:

From ‘Firewood’:

then we rouse in it

a thing with breath to rage against dim,

to syncopate our undertones, rid the roomscape

of straight edge and flickered repeat.

Or this from ‘Last night’:

             mist rolled in –

a settlement of pale net layered itself

on the hillside opposite, and sagged

into gardens and lanes, bleared terraces

of gable-ends, nestling in to stifle all

but its own rumour, letting only the pin-glow

of street and window lights poke through.

It flattened valleys, lagged farm and woodland,

swallowed Dark Peak and Bradfield’s mound

into a sky white with it, tasted our tongues

as we talked of it, beaded our hair and lashes

Finished Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.  Billed as ‘A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption’, it’s also a comic novel, as O’Connor herself insisted, adding ‘and as such, very serious, for all comic novels must be about matters of life and death’ …  It is certainly very dark comedy, violent and bizarre.  I’m not sure that I would want to immerse myself too often in that world view but it’s brilliant, strange and fascinating.

Just starting two new books, Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality, a collection of pieces he wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and  Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, described in a Guardian review as ‘a minor masterpiece of death and delusion in a Nordic land’.  Hmmm, neither would seem to offer much prospect of cheeriness.   Will have to ensure that my final tranche of reading includes some lighter fare.

My final reading challenge blog will probably appear a week today, to allow me to reflect on the project, and on what I’ve read (and to catch up on sleep/eating/other activities which may have to be postponed whilst I read the last few books…).

I can’t believe the end is quite so nigh.  I read 15 books this fortnight, which would obviously be fine if I’d done that well in the previous few weeks, but I fell behind and haven’t fully caught up.  My total now stands at 52, so in the next four days I need to read 8 books.  Of course I can do that.  No worries.  Piece of cake.

 

 

* See also this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/02/mary-oliver-upstream-staying-alive-reading/  and this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/13/rebecca-solnit-faraway-nearby-reading-writing/)

 

 

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60 Books in 60 Days: Reading Challenge, days 29-42

Well, someone forced me to do it.  In so far as they challenged me to do it.  Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on.  Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:

Challenge Accepted.

So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September.    This is the third instalment of my reading diary, with the fourth to follow on 24 September.    I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.

Rules?  To summarise:

  • No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
  • Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
  • Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
  • I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author.  That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge.  So, sixty books, by sixty writers.

 

28 August. Day 29 – just started these two:

Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found Her, Restoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). I’m not far into The Gustav Sonata but it is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written.

I haven’t previously read anything by Tom Rob Smith, though we did watch and enjoy London Spy.  So far, so intriguing.

29 August. Day 30 – I’m halfway through!  And more or less on target.

Finished The Gustav Sonata, which is wonderful.  I can’t say too much – except to urge everyone to read it – but this quote, which comes towards the end, gives nothing away of the plot:

We have to become the people we always should have been.

The novel shows us, subtly and movingly, all the ways in which we fail to be the people we should be, fail or are prevented, by our own flaws or by circumstances or by other people.  And gives us along the way some hope.

The Farm  is compelling stuff.  The question the reader is asked from the first page onwards, is who to believe.  Now, for me, this is complicated because we are hearing the voice of a woman whose husband has tried to have her committed, a woman with a disturbing story to tell and who people seem to be trying to silence.  I’m programmed to believe her, given the tragic history of women who have been silenced, or who people have attempted to silence, using claims that they are ‘mad’, gaslighting techniques.  But maybe it’s not that straightforward – if one transposed elements of that narrative to a male voice I would be much more likely to read it as evidence of paranoid delusion.

Started Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, in which he ‘discusses ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things and two people together, and about tearing them apart.’

barnes quote

30 August. Day 31 – I must admit that I went for the Barnes because it was the shortest book within arms’ reach.  I’d read his A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, which I enjoyed rather than loved, and so I wasn’t eager for this one in the way that I have been to read something new by an author that I’d really fallen for already.  But I’m so glad I read this, and I will read it again, and again, I think.  It’s about the death of Barnes’ wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, and it’s beautiful and quietly devastating.

barnes

The Farm was excellent.  A story about stories, and about secrets.  Read it and be repeatedly wrongfooted, as one narrative is undermined and another established, until in turn that too is shown to be unreliable…

Just started David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a historical investigation into the systematic murder of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma.  Kate Atkinson called it ‘a fiercely entertaining mystery story and a wrenching exploration of evil’.

grann 2

31 August. Day 32 – just started reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto – ideal to read at night when I’m getting tired and concentration dips.  V v v funny as always, whilst being clear-sighted and righteous.

Moran

More laughs are promised in The Rosie Project.  Now, the words ‘romantic’ and ‘heartwarming’ are usually guaranteed turn-offs for me but the reviews make this one sound worth pursuing, and so many of my other reads have been dark and/or sad.

Simison

1 September. Day 33 – Enjoying The Rosie Project.  The protagonist has a touch of the Sheldon Coopers, it must be said.  It’s odd that, having spent so many years working with physicists and mathematicians, I have met so few full-on Sheldons in real life.  Most of those I have worked with have had bags of humour, self awareness and social skills, not to mention creativity (a remarkable number of musicians, artists, writers).  Nonetheless, Don (the protagonist and narrator) is engaging and the interactions with the decidedly unsuitable Rosie are delightfully funny.

Meantime, Killers of the Flower Moon is as compelling as the best detective novel, and indeed one might be inclined to think the plot a bit overwrought were it not a true story. And a shocking one, even when one is fairly knowledgeable about US history.

2 September. Day 34 – Caitlin Moran in full-on righteous indignation mode is magnificent.   And still extremely funny.  Just been reading her pieces on media treatment of benefits claimants, in the context of Benefits Street, and of the Mick Philpott case.  It might seem incongruous that these pieces originally appeared in The Times, but actually that is absolutely right since her point is that she – as someone who grew up in a family that relied on benefits to get by – is an anomaly in the circles in which she now moves, and in the media to which she now has access, and that most media coverage treats benefits claimants as ‘other’ , whether it is vilifying or pitying them.

3 September. Day 35 – Finished The Rosie Project.  It was delightful – very funny, and touching.  Most of its reviewers were entirely won over but the Daily Telegraph demurred:

For those unaware of Asperger’s syndrome and its foibles, The Rosie Project could serve as a gentle and funny introduction. Those who already understand the condition may object to the moral that mental difference can and must be erased.

Thing is, I don’t think that was the moral.  The moral, surely, was that both parties in a relationship need to accept the other for who they are, quirks and all.  And this was supported by a couple of reviews from knowledgeable sources.  Cees Kan, a Dutch psychiatrist specialising in ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders in adulthood, said that:

The great value of this book is its positive message about the possibility of experiencing romantic love despite of autism. Of course it is a challenge to overcome the autistic difficulties, which requires a willingness to think out of the box about how it is still possible to intimately relate to one another. However, I am convinced that it can be done, as I have met many couples that have shown me that they had managed to do so. Patients and their partners often tell me that in treatments too much emphasis is being put on the negative aspects of autism spectrum disorders, while they actually feel more supported and helped by messages which provide them with a positive perspective on their potential possibilities.

And Benison O’Reilly, the co-author of The Australian Autism Handbook, concurred.  She acknowledges several points in the narrative where she was concerned that the reality of Aspergers would be sanitised or erased, but believes that Simsion avoids these pitfalls.

I loved it.  And for my money, Rosie was at least as annoying as Don.

Have found a Hilary Mantel that I never got round to reading.  No idea why, since I’ve never read a Mantel that I haven’t enjoyed.  Anyway, The Giant, O’Brien is up next.

mantel

4 September. Day 36 – Can’t think why I left an unread Mantel to gather dust on my shelf.  Only just started it but am already captured.

As I was, entirely, by David Grann’s extraordinary account of the Reign of Terror visited upon the Osage people in the 1920s by those who wanted access to their oil wealth. Shocking, and moving.

Just started an Australian crime thriller, Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry.  

harper

5 September. Day 37 – The Dry was a terrific read.  The parched landscape, the oppressive heat, the constant awareness of danger from the natural world, and from the inhabitants of the small town, tested almost to destruction by the drought, all are vividly evoked.  The initial explanation of the crime recalls Dylan’s ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ but that’s only the first attempt to unravel what happened, and Harper gives her readers lots of twists and turns, memories recovered, clues uncovered, and a heart-in-mouth finale.

A change of location now, from the Australian outback to Sierra Leone for Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water.   It’s a memoir of her West African childhood, and of the murder of her dissident father.

forna

6 September. Day 38 – Finished The Giant, O’Brien.  It’s a fictionalised account of historical characters from the late 18th century: the eponymous giant (a poet, a teller of tales, who towers over his contemporaries but spends his life crammed into spaces too small to hold him) and surgeon John Hunter (an experimental scientist who finds his profession and its legal and ethical constraints too small to hold him too), and how their paths converge.    John Mullan described this as ‘something more like a fable than a conventional historical novel. The Age of Reason is a time of monsters.’  Mantel’s use of language is extraordinary – from lyrical to brutal in a sentence’s length.

About to start on a permitted re-read (see The Rules, above).  Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which I think I read in sixth-form.

7 September. Day 39 – I was sure I’d read A Farewell to Arms, albeit several decades ago. Yet it rings no bells (oblique reference to another Hemingway, which I’m even more sure I’ve read).  Anyway, I am reading it as if for the first time, coming to it afresh.  It’s a powerful depiction of the futility and brutality of war, told in a spare prose and with an immediacy and directness that does not manipulatively demand an emotional response from the reader but is all the more devastating for that.  I admit to a degree of prejudice about Hemingway because I’ve read so much about him being a bit of a dick, but that obviously doesn’t preclude him being a splendid writer!

Meantime am captivated by Aminatta Forna’s memoir.  It triggers so many of my own memories of a West African childhood whilst telling a compelling story of corruption and state oppression.

8 September. Day 40 – I’ve always felt slightly awkward about ‘claiming’ Ghana as part of my heritage.  But it feels as if it is part of me, that childhood spent in Kumasi, and I hope that in using my Ashanti day name, Abena, as part of my Facebook name, I am honouring rather than appropriating that early encounter with a rich culture and history, and a beautiful land and people.  It’s the little details that are the most powerful in my memory.  Aromas, colours, sounds.  The rain hammering on the corrugated iron roof, the red dust of the laterite roads, the ant lions creating their whirlwinds in the sand, the sound of highlife music wafting over from the student residences near our home.

Ghana

Forna’s memoir keeps bringing these details back to me. It’s a lot more than that, of course, but I get emotionally derailed by these madeleine moments.  None more so than Aminatta’s encounter with a fawn, rescued when its mother was killed, which her father brings home.  It was beautiful, and it died.  As was ours, and as did ours, a Duiker.

9 September. Day 41 – The personal connections with The Devil that Danced on the Water extend to the political context too.  We arrived in Ghana early on in Nkrumah’s presidency, and left around the time that his growing paranoia and authoritarianism led to opposition and his overthrow.  Our new home was in Northern Nigeria, where coups and counter-coups led to pogroms and ultimately civil war.  Like Forna, we were too young to understand what it all meant, and have pieced together the history of those turbulent times, seeing our childhood fragments of memory differently in that wider context, understanding things that were baffling at the time.  Of course, I’m not suggesting a true equivalence of experience.  We, as expats in that time and place, were not ourselves at risk.  Forna’s father and his political allies were targets, and he and thus the children too were in real danger.

10 September. Day 42 – Having a(nother) rubbish night’s sleep had the benefit of giving me a bit more reading time this morning, so I finished the Hemingway.  The ending broke me a bit, even though I knew what was coming.  And this bit:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.  There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.  Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.

Weeks 5-6  I’ve only completed 8 books this fortnight. I’m still partway through The Battle for Spain, Contraflow, Moranifesto, and The Devil that Dances on the Water. I am thus falling behind on the project – largely due to the necessity of spending significant portions of each day travelling and/or hospital visiting, time when I cannot read.  Things may get easier from now on, and if all else fails I will forego sleep altogether for the last few days and just read, read, read.  I’ve accepted this challenge and I will succeed.

My next bulletin will be on 24 September, covering days 43-56.

Onwards!

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Books of the Year 2014

Inexplicably, the quality press has not yet invited me to name my top reads over the last twelve months, but no matter, I’ll do it anyway.

There is no attempt to rank or compare, or to identify one top title – just to share some of this year’s reading pleasure.

First, Taiye Selasi’s gorgeous Ghana Must Go. Drawn to it at first just for the title, I was blown away by the opening chapter, and as the narrative pulled back from that minute detail, that moment by moment evocation of a man looking out at his garden, realising that he is about to die, the breadth of the locations and the expanding cast in no way diluted the power of the writing. I did not realise at first that I was reading it aloud in my head, the way I read a novel in French, rather than hoovering up a page in one go as I normally do. In this case it wasn’t in order to understand it, but in order to feel the rhythm of the text. This is a poem as much as it is a novel.

.ghana must gostonercomber heshel staincliffe letters    diamond star halo moral compasspierced heartnorthup

 

 

 

John Williams’ Stoner had massive word of mouth before I got round to reading it. I was not disappointed – of course the academic milieu that it describes is very familiar to me and that helped to draw me in. But the emotional punch it pulled was unexpected and I rather regretted reading it in public.

I’ve written elsewhere about the final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness, from John Harvey. I read a lot of detective novels – it was a year of long train journeys – and discovered new writers, notably Ann Cleeves, Laura Lippman, Louise Doughty, Belinda Bauer and Anne Holt, as well as enjoying new stuff from existing favourite Cath Staincliffe. Her Letters to my Daughter’s Killer is powerful stuff.

Tiffany Murray’s Diamond Star Halo rocked my world, and Sugar Hall chilled my spine. I read the whole Game of Thrones series, and am eager for more. Other favourites from writers new to me were John Lanchester’s Capital, Patrick McGuiness’s The Last Hundred Days, and Sue Eckstein’s Interpreters. I will seek out more by all of them, though very sadly, Sue Eckstein’s early death means that there is only one more from her to look forward to.

Danny Rhodes’ Fan inspired me to reminisce and ruminate about my relationship with the game of football, and with Nottingham Forest in particular, and Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl both made me laugh uproariously, and moved me to tears. It prompted a blog too.

As well as discovering new writers, I had the delight of reading more by some great favourites. Lesley Glaister’s Little Egypt, Stevie Davies’ Into Suez, Liz Jensen’s The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, all very different, and all on top form.

Lynn Shepherd’s latest literary mystery, The Pierced Heart, played beautifully with the Dracula myth, and the set up – a young man travels into the heart of Europe, an older, darker Europe, is welcomed by a mysterious Baron in a castle full of alchemical texts and other, more troubling collections – not only echoes Bram Stoker but reminded me of Michel Butor’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape, about which I hope to write something in due course.   And oddly there were echoes of other aspects of The Pierced Heart in Stephen King’s excellent Revival, despite the very different setting. My most recent Doctor Who blog touched on these themes.

I didn’t expect Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to be such a page-turner. I expected it to be enlightening and stimulating, sure, but it’s a huge achievement that it was genuinely difficult to put the book down. I wanted to find out ‘what happened next’, how through the centuries and the continents the human race grappled with the big questions of what it is to be good.

Other non-fiction that had an impact on me included Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, which I read before I saw Steve McQueen’s harrowing and viscerally powerful film, and Dan Jacobson’s Heshel’s Kingdom, to which I was led by W G Sebald (in the final pages of Austerlitz).  There was also Philippa Comber’s fascinating memoir of her friendship with Sebald, Ariadne’s Thread, another future blog, I hope.

 

 

Belinda Bauer – Blacklands, Darkside, Finders Keepers

Ann Cleeves – Dead Water, Red Bones, Silent Voices, Burial of Ghosts

Philippa Comber – Ariadne’s Thread

Stevie Davies – Into Suez

Louise Doughty – Apple Tree Yard

Sue Eckstein – Interpreters

Lesley Glaister – Little Egypt

John Harvey – Darkness, Darkness

Anne Holt – Blessed are Those who Thirst

Dan Jacobson – Heshel’s Kingdom

Liz Jensen – The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

Stephen King – Revival

John Lanchester – Capital

Laura Lippmann – The Innocents, Life Sentences, Don’t Look Back

Patrick McGuinness – The Last Hundred Days

Kenan Malik – The Quest for a Moral Compass

Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl

Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo; Sugar Hall

Solomon Northrop – Twelve Years a Slave

Danny Rhodes – Fan

Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart

Cath Staincliffe – Letters to my Daughter’s Killer

John Williams – Stoner

 

 

 

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Just be Kind

As I get older, I haven’t moved to the right, politically, not a millimetre. I haven’t reneged on the feminism that I embraced in my early twenties, or the anti-racism that I learned from my parents as a young child.  I’m as idealistic as I ever was, despite all that I know, have seen, have learned in over half a century.  But I’m less likely than ever to subscribe to any hard-line view on anything.  I don’t reject all -isms – I have no hesitation in declaring myself as a feminist and as a humanist, but both (to me) are pretty broad churches (if you’ll pardon the expression). 

One reason for this is empathy. I suspect that the more empathetic one is, the harder it is to sign up wholeheartedly to any ideology, because sooner or later one finds oneself looking into the eyes of another human being, signed up just as wholeheartedly to a different ideology, but yet with whom one feels affinity.

That isn’t to say that all values are relative and that ‘everyone’s entitled to their own opinion’ or any such vacuous non-thought.  Just that all moral and political questions, every issue that rears its head and demands that one take a view and take a stand, must be viewed through that lens, the one that allows you to feel what the people on the other side might be feeling.  You might not shift an inch, you might be confirmed in your own convictions but they will be tempered and informed by that insight. 

In Caitlin Moran’s marvellous and deliriously rude novel How to Build a Girl, her protagonist says:’Perhaps I haven’t yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable.  So just be kind.’

Just be kind.

I know, I know.  Far too simple. But as a starting point, as a touchstone, it’s actually pretty radical. 

Everything I’ve learned in my working life has suggested to me that departments, organisations of whatever kind, run better for a bit of kindness.  A recognition that all of us, whether we’re the cleaner or the VC, are breakable, and that for all of us the world is difficult.  That if people aren’t achieving what we expect them to, a bit of kindness, a bit of empathy,  may unlock the reasons and enable us to see a way to help them.  It’s not always going to work, and sometimes what the person needs and what the organisation needs is not reconcilable.  But I absolutely believe – and this is based on thirty years experience of managing people, fifteen years of dealing with harassment cases, and nearly forty of being managed myself – that we have nothing to lose by being kind.  

I’ve seen, and have been on the receiving end of, styles of management that pride themselves on being tough, that hide behind procedures rather than engage with people, that imagine that tacking the mantra ‘we recognise that this is a difficult time for you and that you may wish to ring this helpline…’ on to a message is sufficient to fulfil a duty of care.  And I know how counter-productive these approaches are.  They destroy trust, they batter confidence, they damage health. 

Beyond the world of work, I see the  viciousness of some of the current internecine struggles within the feminist movement, and I despair, because so much energy seems to be being expended on being unkind, on attributing the worst motives to the other side, and – or so it seems to me, from the sidelines – doing anything other than look into the eyes of another human being and recognising that they, like you, are breakable, and just being kind. 

Of course I’m not daft enough to imagine that this approach will end the horror in Gaza, or in Iraq. It’s too late for kindness alone.  But in the worst places, the most appalling situations, in the face of real evil, kindness can still do something powerful.  In occupied France, the citizens of Le Chambon sur Lignon took it upon themselves, inspired by their pastor Andre Trocmé, to provide a hiding place for refugees, most of them Jews. 

There does not seem to have been any coordinated discussion of whether or how they would do this.  It seems to have developed organically – as people arrived, initially more or less at random, and then increasingly as word spread that this was a place where they might be safe, the community found space for them, worked out systems for alerting everyone to impending raids, trained up forgers and guides to prepare false IDs and to escort people over the border to Switzerland.   Around 3,500 people were saved.  A drop in the ocean, obviously, but there were others – in Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, the inhabitants resolved that every household would hide one Jewish family or at least one Jew. 

Even where the rescue of Jews was supported by governments and/or organised resistance movements, or inspired by an influential and charismatic leader within a community,  it was hugely dependent on individual acts of kindness, on individuals choosing to help people rather than to obey orders or save their own skins. When there was no such structured support, individual acts of kindness were all that kept many people alive.  Ronald Rosbottom’s recent account of occupied Paris says – rightly – that there is no record of individual police officers protesting or refusing to cooperate with the Vichy government’s plans to arrest and deport Jews.  However, given that the police had detailed records, knew where all the Jews were, and had planned the raid meticulously, how is it that the total arrested and deported was so far below target?   How is it that resistance groups were able to circulate flyers around the city warning of the impending raid?  That can only have been because individual police officers decided to do what they could, discreetly, and pass on what they knew, and even as the round-up progressed, to create opportunities for people to hide or escape.  What made them take this risk?  Their actions don’t amount to much in the scheme of things, when compared with other acts of heroism, they’re compromised and limited in their effects, but it seems to me that they are examples of people trying, in an impossible situation, to be kind,   In Yolande Mukagasana’s compelling account of surviving the Rwandan genocide, it’s striking how some people that she might have expected would help her turned her away, and others, who had no particular reason to help, did what they could, from choosing not to see or recognise her, choosing not to alert the interahamwe, to hiding and feeding her, whilst the killing went on all around them. 

What made the difference? I find myself far more interested in what makes people do the right thing, what prompts those acts of generosity and kindness in situations where such things are dangerous, rather than what makes people do evil.  We know that hatred is infectious, that it can be taught, that when it is fed insidiously into the language and images that we absorb without even realising, it can begin to seem normal.  But generosity and kindness can be taught too, and can be just as catching. 

Just as the people who go along with evil are not monsters, those who won’t aren’t saints.  Some of them have religious faith, others don’t.  Some have strong political beliefs, others don’t. Whilst those things may provide motivation, and may provide a rationale for doing the decent thing, I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation, as this behaviour crosses all such divides, just as evil does.  They may have a more strongly developed sense of fairness, that instinct that makes one feel ‘that is not right’.  They may be more empathetic and find it impossible not to feel what it would be like to be hunted, threatened, vilified.  But these are not purely innate qualities – we start off identifying unfairness when it is unfair to us, and as we mature we learn to extrapolate that to others, if we’re encouraged to do so.  And empathy can be nourished, if it’s seen as something valuable, something powerful.

We need to nurture those qualities.  We need people who give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, who care about other people because they are people, whichever side they’re on.  And we need idealism, because that opens us up to the possibilities of hope, and joy, and people being the best they can be.  To go back to Caitlin Moran,  ‘when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. … Cynicism is, ultimately, fear.  Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour.  This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to walk.  You cannot dance, in this armour.’  And you can’t love either.  

When we empathise, we can’t be deliberately cruel, because it hurts us to hurt someone else.  That may not in itself be morality, but it teaches us morality.  We know that harsh words cause other people pain because we feel that pain.  We may cause pain in anger, but we regret it, it haunts us if we have done so.  That doesn’t mean we’re always nice, that doesn’t mean we can’t have hard conversations with people, and tell them things that we know will hurt them, but the way we do that will be informed by our understanding of what it will feel like to be them, hearing this. 

I’ve quoted this before, from Joss Whedon’s Angel:

If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.  … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

So it’s not daft, soft, or naive.  It’s vital, it’s difficult and it can be dangerous.  

Just be kind. 

 

Peter Grose – The Greatest Escape: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives from the Nazis (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2014)

Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl (Harper, 2014)

Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)

Ronald Rosbottom – When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation (Little, Brown & Co, 2014)

https://cathannabel.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/you-are-now-in-bedford-falls-2/

 

 

 

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