Posts Tagged H G Wells
*Disclaimer – there are a lot more than ten books. I don’t automatically have a problem with compliance, but to attempt to distill 57 years of reading into just ten books would be just silly. Far harder, in a way, than the Ten Albums thing I did a while back.
Anyway, despite all of that, reading other people’s selections on Facebook did get me thinking about the books that have had the greatest impact on me, made me the person I am. So I’ve devised a plan. I’ve picked some of the books I read as a child or in my early teens, during those years of eager discovery, every book a new world to explore. I’ve grouped them not into genres (I have no truck with categorisation by genre) but in terms of ten themes and ideas that these books encapsulated and which set me on quests that I’m still pursuing today. Secondly, I’ve picked ten(ish) of the books that I’ve read as an adult that have inspired me and that have informed my politics. Neither of these lists represents The Best, but all the books here have been truly significant.
A Childhood with my Head in a Book
How to Be a Girl
The books I read as a child gave me some interesting and contradictory models for how to be a girl. It’s something I was never very good at – my Christmases and birthdays always brought cookery books, dolls and sewing kits, none of which inspired anything other than indifference in me. I only ever completed one bit of knitting – my treasured Forest scarf. You can tell which end I started at, from the loose, uneven stitches. I tired rapidly of the pious and/or relentlessly cheerful heroines that an earlier generation of writers so often presented to me, but found among that generation nonetheless the likes of Anne Shirley and Jo March who gave me the notion that being a girl might involve reading a lot, using your imagination, defying convention, being contrary, not being Good (at least not all the time).
I read Jane Eyre – another awkward girl – at a young age. (This was one of a number of classics which were technically too old for me, but which, because they began with the protagonist as a child, were accessible even if their full depth and complexity were only revealed through later re-reading – see also Great Expectations, David Copperfield.) Jane Eyre led me to read the rest of the Brontes (though only recently in the case of Anne, I’m ashamed to say), and the Dickens I read as a child led me to read all of his work, and to explore the world of the nineteenth-century novel, particularly George Eliot, who I read as a teenager but whose Middlemarch vies with Bleak House for the title of Greatest Novel in the English Language (spoiler – BH wins. Just).
And I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom. Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her.
L M Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables; Louisa May Alcott – Little Women; Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre; Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle
Travellers in Time
I was always entranced by the notion of slipping from now to then, from present to past. And these three books all share something in common – that the slippage is related to a very specific and real place, a place in which the past is still very present. Dethick, in Derbyshire, is the real counterpart of Alison Uttley’s Thackers (A Traveller in Time); Philippa Pearce’s Victorian house (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is based on the Mill House in Great Shelford, near Cambridge, and Lucy Boston based Green Knowe (The Children of Green Knowe and its sequels) on her home, The Manor in Hemingford Grey, also near Cambridge. My very talented friend Clare Trowell now lives in Hemingford Grey, and this gorgeous linocut is her tribute to a book that is as magical for her as it is for me.
In each of these novels, the present-day protagonist encounters past inhabitants of that house, and there is both a sense of magic and a deep sadness that comes from the knowledge that those people are in today’s reality long gone. Although in Tom’s Midnight Garden, there is an encounter between the boy and the elderly woman who was/is the young Victorian girl who had become his friend, which brings about one of the most poignant endings in children’s literature (yes, up there with the final pages of The Railway Children about which I cannot even speak without choking up). I found Dethick in my early teens and will never forget the sense of magic, just out of my reach, when I stood in the Tudor kitchen of the old house, where Penelope had stood, where she had encountered the Babingtons. And I still get that same feeling when I see the ruins of Wingfield Manor on the skyline.
I’ve read many books since then that play with time travel (the most powerful is probably Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, whose ending made me sob like a baby), and it’s a staple of the sci-fi I watch on screens large and small, but the magic these books hold is different. It’s not about the intellectual tease of time paradoxes, or parallel dimensions. It’s about a place, and the people who inhabited that place, and whose joys and sorrows still inhabit it long after they’re gone.
Alison Uttley – A Traveller in Time; Philippa Pearce – Tom’s Midnight Garden; Lucy M Boston – The Children of Green Knowe
Thresholds to Other Worlds
And then there are the books in which the protagonists slip not just out of our time, but out of our world and into another, or into a version of our world where magic is real, if invisible. Harry Potter was obviously not a part of my childhood, so the first doorway into myth and magic that I encountered was a wardrobe door, and it led to a place of permanent winter, always winter but never Christmas. I know there are issues with the Narnia books – and when reading them aloud to my own children I did skip one or two sentences of egregious sexism or racism. But they are a part of me, read and re-read, fuelling my imagination and my curiosity, still shared reference points with family and friends.
Not long after discovering Narnia, I found in the pages of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen the gates to Fundindelve on Alderley Edge and stories that were not only magical but genuinely spinechilling. Like the time-slip stories mentioned previously, Garner’s stories are absolutely rooted in the landscape he knew, and steeped in the multilayered mythologies of the British Isles – Celtic and Norse and Saxon. Many of the places referred to in The Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath can be found not only on the frontispiece map provided (I do like a story that comes with a map) but on the OS map of the area.
One can go on a pilgrimage – as I did – and find these locations and feel that frisson of magic again.
Whereas Lewis’s protagonists are largely unencumbered by adults, as is so frequently the case in children’s literature, in Garner’s narratives the adults can be allies, however reluctantly roped into the struggle between good and evil that is being played out around them, or they can be obstacles or enemies. Those encounters with evil are all the more terrifying when they encroach upon the ordinary, everyday world – something that Stephen King knows very well. Garner’s approach is similar to that of Susan Cooper in her marvellous The Dark is Rising series, which is only not included here because I didn’t encounter those books until my late teens. I grew up with Garner’s books – in the literal sense that the transition from Weirdstone/Moon to Elidor and thus to The Owl Service and Red Shift was a gradual transition from childhood to young adulthood in terms of the themes and the sensibilities of the protagonists.
C S Lewis – Chronicles of Narnia; Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
Whilst Narnia could be accessed from our world, via a wardrobe or a painting or a summons, Middle Earth exists outside our world altogether. I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child and was utterly terrified by the Dark Riders, and Shelob. Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea was another other world that I came to late in my teens – it led me to her adult science fiction novels which are beautiful and profound and which make the reader think and question. Lord of the Rings doesn’t really do those things but it catches you up in the archetypal quest narrative with the archetypal quest hero, not a warrior or a king but someone (literally) small and naive, someone whose resolve is strong but yet falters and who needs other people (friends and enemies) to achieve his goal.
J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
Some of the books I read took me into the past, unmediated by a present-day interloper. Rosemary Sutcliff illuminated the Roman period and its aftermath, and Henry Treece the Vikings. Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s romantic take on the Wars of the Roses and, particularly, the mission to clear the name of Richard III (see also Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time) captivated me. Leon Garfield’s protagonists weren’t real historical figures but inhabited a richly drawn eighteenth-century world. And Joan Aiken introduced me to the notion of alternative history, with her splendidly Gothic Wolves of Willoughby Chase set in the reign of James III. I loved Edith Sitwell’s studies of Elizabeth 1 in Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive. I loved Margaret Irwin’s take on the same period in her Queen Elizabeth trilogy, as well as her accounts of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Minette (sister to Charles II). All of these writers fed my fascination with history and led me to contemporary writers such as Hilary Mantel and Livi Michael.
Rosemary Sutcliff – The Lantern Bearers; Leon Garfield – Smith; Joan Aiken – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Henry Treece – Viking’s Dawn; Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason; Edith Sitwell – Fanfare for Elizabeth; Margaret Irwin – Young Bess
Displaced and Endangered
Whilst it’s far from unusual that the protagonists of novels for children are parentless, either permanently (a heck of a lot of orphans) or temporarily, some of the novels I encountered as a child took that trope of children pluckily dealing with perils of various kinds, and gave it a much darker context, and a much more real peril.
The children in Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword escape occupied Warsaw and after the war is over have to try to find their families amidst the chaos and mass displacement, as well as the emerging tensions between the former Allies. It’s tough and powerful, whilst also being a cracking adventure. The protagonist of Ann Holm’s I am David escapes (with the collusion of a guard) from a prison camp in an unnamed country and crosses Europe to try to find his mother. The novel does not flinch from the ways in which David has been affected by his life in the camp and how difficult he finds it to trust given his early experiences. An Rutgers van der Loeff told the story of a group of children who found themselves on the Oregon trail alone, after their parents died on the journey (based to some extent on the true story of the Sager orphans). It was often a harsh read, and again did not shy away from the emotional effect of having to assume adulthood at 14 and take responsibility for the safety of younger siblings in a world full of natural and man-made threats. Meindert de Jong’s The House of Sixty Fathers is set during the Sino-Japanese war, and again tells of a child separated from his parents in the chaos of war, but in this case finding care and love from a unit of American soldiers (the titular Sixty Fathers).
All of these books pull their punches to some extent. They don’t present their child readers with the full, unmitigated horror of war or of genocide. And they are right, in my view, to hold back. What they do is to open that door, just enough, so that readers can choose to find out more, and are prepared (to some extent) for what they may discover.
Ian Serraillier – The Silver Sword; Ann Holm – I Am David; An Rutgers van der Loeff – Children on the Oregon Trail; Meindert de Jong – The House of Sixty Fathers
There’s another kind of magic, that doesn’t tap into myth and legend but imaginatively imbues ordinary life with something extraordinary. Here, the extraordinary is very small. So small that it can be hidden from prying eyes, it can live alongside us but without us knowing. Mary Norton’s Borrowers series was both magical and mundane – the prosaic details of the Clock family’s life beneath the floorboards, appropriating household objects – cotton reels, hairpins, old kid gloves – and using them to create a miniature version of the life of the human beans above, was somehow so easy to engage with. What did happen to all those tiny things that mysteriously go missing – could this be the answer? The fascination with things miniature – dolls’ houses, miniature villages (both of which feature in the narrative) is widely shared and Norton taps into this. The small people in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are actual bona fide Lilliputians and our heroine, Maria, an orphan (natch) finds her own salvation linked to theirs, in the face of callous and exploitative adults.
Mary Norton – The Borrowers; T H White – Mistress Masham’s Repose
Myths & Legends
As well as novels in which myth and legend intruded into contemporary life, I read various versions of the originals. Roger Lancelyn Green was one of the best, bringing me retellings of Greek, Norse, Celtic and Egyptian legends. He was one of my original sources for the stories of King Arthur, which entranced me and continue to inhabit my imagination to this day (they’ve inspired the names of both of my children). Reading both Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, which sets the tales in a medieval world of chivalric valour, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s interpretation of Arthur as Celtic warrior drew me into the complexity of the myth.
Roger Lancelyn Green – Tales of the Greek Heroes; Rosemary Sutcliff – Sword at Sunset
Fantasy and myth led me into proper sci-fi. The dividing lines between the two are often blurred and disputed but I guess at its simplest it relates to an interest in causes and process to ‘explain’ the phenomena that myth might simply present to us as a given. My first introduction was probably reading a volume of H G Wells’ science fiction, and it was The Invisible Man that had the most impact upon me (slightly surprising, perhaps, in view of my interest in timey-wimey narratives). From my parents’ bookshelves I scavenged John Wyndham’s novels, and his first three in particular (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Chrysalids). These prepared the ground for so many dystopias and disaster movies to come…
H G Wells – The Invisible Man; John Wyndham – The Chrysalids
Reading the Detectives
As my current reading is often dominated by crime fiction, I was interested to explore the origins of that interest in my childhood reading. I was lucky enough to encounter Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in the volumes of the Strand Magazine that my mother had inherited. Also through my parents I discovered Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, which I re-read happily today, because whether or not one can remember who did it, one can relish the writing, the dialogue, the wit. And linking in with my historical interests, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time introduced the idea of a review of a very cold case, of challenging accepted views of history through radical reinterpretation of sources.
Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time; Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes; Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison
If anyone notices the preponderance of Puffin logos in the images above (which are where possible the covers of the very books over which I pored), that’s very apt. I relied upon regular dispatches of Puffin books to our various homes in West Africa to keep me supplied with enough quality reading matter.
Adult Life with my Head in a Book
I’ve divided this group of books into fiction and non-fiction. Again, I must repeat that these are not necessarily the Best, but they’re all books that had a huge, often visceral, impact on me, that changed me.
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things/Reservoir 13
For my money, Jon McGregor is one of the finest contemporary novelists. If Nobody… was the first and still has the power to floor me emotionally, however many times I read it. Reservoir 13 is the most recent, and having read it the first time, I could only turn back to the beginning and read it again, to immerse myself in the turning of the seasons and the warmth and humanity of the writing and the characterisation.
I’ve written previously about how my prejudices were overcome once I actually read a Stephen King novel. No matter how schlocky the cover (these days the cover art tends to be rather subtler), the narrative was so compelling that I had to keep reading, hunger and tiredness were irrelevant, I had to keep turning those pages. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, but this was the one that got me started – having read it cover to cover, I re-read it almost immediately, being conscious that the compulsion to find out what happened next had made me rush through the pages. King is a consummate storyteller, and there’s a moral focus too. Whilst he doesn’t avoid the gross-out, he always retains that sense of the distinction between good and evil, the choices that confront ordinary, flawed human beings. And he can make those ordinary flawed human beings who confront evil believable, lovable, not just admirable.
L’Emploi du Temps/The Emigrants
Obviously I had to include these two, since the first, Michel Butor’s 1956 novel set in a fictionalised version of Manchester, has been the focus of my research during my part-time French degree, and now my PhD, which explores the connections, the dialogue, between Butor and W G Sebald. Many of my blogs, particularly the earlier ones, talk about Butor and/or Sebald in various contexts (music, maps, labyrinths, Manchester, Paris, the Holocaust…). Butor made me read Proust, Sebald made me read Kafka (I think of the two I’m more grateful to Butor, but both are essential to understand twentieth-century European literature).
Half of a Yellow Sun
This is a brilliant, powerful novel. For me it had a personal, visceral impact, in its account of the massacres carried out in the north of Nigeria, during the bloody prelude to that country’s brutal civil war. Because I was living at the time in Zaria, in the north, and whilst my parents shielded me (I was 9 years old) from the horrors, I nonetheless knew that there were horrors, and learned as a teenager and an adult more about what my parents had witnessed, about the context and the history, and about what came after, too. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a splendid writer and a clear and strong voice, drily humorous and perceptive.
The Womens Room
Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room isn’t one that would make the list solely on its literary merits. It’s well enough written, but its presence here is because I read it just at the point when I was not so much becoming a feminist, but realising that I was one. I read everything I could get my hands on – Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone (best name ever!), Sheila Rowbotham, Simone de Beauvoir and more. But there are things that only fiction can do, and The Women’s Room illustrated and encapsulated so many of these arguments in the story of Mira and her friends. French herself said that it wasn’t a book about the women’s movement, rather a book about women’s lives today. And because there isn’t just one voice here, but many, we are free to disagree with the most extreme viewpoints without rejecting the whole thing. The novel was accessible in a way that most of the feminist writers listed above, frankly, aren’t. And whilst it attracted plenty of criticism, it changed hearts and minds, it made so many women feel that they weren’t alone in the way they felt about the way the world worked.
Fiction can do things that non-fiction, however well-written, however accessible, can’t. But very often fiction leads me to non-fiction – I want to know more about the place, the period, the events that the fiction describes. The next list is of books that illuminated what I read in the newspapers and in novels, and what I watched on TV and at the cinema. They may not be definitive works, they may have been overtaken by subsequent research, and for various reasons they aren’t books that I will read again and again, but they were my way into topics which have preoccupied me over very many years. If the overall impression is that, well, it’s all a bit grim, I can only acknowledge that as a true reflection of what I read. I don’t immerse myself in grimness for the sake of it but from a deep need to understand and the sense that as privileged as I am in so many ways I have no right to look away, to choose not to know. I still believe in humanity, despite everything.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
I read the newspaper reports coming out of Rwanda in 1994 but it took me a long time to seek out the full story of what had happened there. Perhaps that’s partly because I knew how powerfully it would connect emotionally with what had been happening around me in Northern Nigeria in 1966. Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book is not a definitive history of Rwanda, and arguably lacks some of the context that is necessary to understand why the genocide happened. But it’s clearly unreasonable to expect every book on a complex issue to cover everything, to be everything. Gourevitch’s focus is on the testimony of survivors, and thus on the accounts of specific atrocities. It’s vital and horrifying and heartbreaking.
The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945
My introduction to the Holocaust was, as for so many, reading Anne Frank’s diary. But her diary can only raise questions, not provide answers. She knew so little of what was happening to Jews in Amsterdam and across Europe, only what the adults with whom she shared the Annexe themselves knew and allowed her to hear. When we read her words we are encountering a real person, a child on the verge of adolescence, a bright child, who might have been ordinary or extraordinary, who knows, but whose circumstances were so extraordinary that we read her words weighed down by our own knowledge of what was happening around her, and what would happen to her. The simple questions – why did they have to hide? why did they have to die? – require answers not to be found within the pages of the diary. My next step was the TV series Holocaust – controversial and flawed but hugely valuable to a generation who suddenly saw how what happened to Anne Frank fitted within this huge picture, in which the members of one Jewish family between them encounter Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, Terezin, Auschwitz…
Holocaust led me to Lucy Davidowicz’s 1975 account of the war against the Jews. This is not the definitive study – as if there could be such a thing – and has been harshly criticised by Raul Hilberg in particular, for its lack of depth and rigour. But it got me started, it gave me an overview and led me to read extensively amongst the vast literature on the subject, exploring not just what happened, but why and how and who, and the implications for the generations since (Middle East politics and international law in particular).
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1980–1985)
I remember during the mid-1980s the first newspaper articles about a ‘gay plague’, and the emerging moral panics, the information leaflets and the ‘tombstone’ advert on TV. Randy Shilts’ 1987 book was what made sense of that mess of misinformation, prejudice and ignorance. It’s a work of investigative journalism, particularly in relation to the response and actions of medical researchers, but it’s also, always, personal. As a gay man in San Francisco, Shilts was not writing about something that was happening to ‘others’ but something that was happening to his own community and, ultimately, to him (he was confirmed to be HIV positive in 1987, having declined to find out his status whilst writing the book in case it skewed his approach, and died in 1994, aged only 42). It’s an often shocking book, heartbreaking and as compelling a page-turner as any detective novel.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
James Michener’s massive, sweeping novel based on the story of a Colorado town, Centennial, was my introduction to many aspects of American history. Michener transposed many historic events, in particular the Sand Creek massacre to his fictional location so that through the lives of people in that one town (more or less) the great themes of US history could be touched upon.
I was fairly well-versed in the Civil Rights movement, having read not only about Martin Luther King but about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and George Jackson. But my knowledge of the story of the Native Americans was patchy, to say the least. I knew enough to be sure that the portrayal in the westerns I’d watched as a kid was at best simplistic or romanticised and at worst racist, but Centennial made me want to know much, much more.
Dee Brown’s book is explicitly an Indian history (published in 1970, when presumably that terminology was still felt to be OK….) in which the Native American peoples are at the heart of the story of their own land. It’s a brutal story – they were lied to and stolen from, they were forced into dependency and then vilified for that dependency, and they were murdered in huge numbers. Brown’s history takes us up to 1890 and the Wounded Knee Massacre (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Wounded Knee which gives a rather false impression) which is seen as marking the end of the ‘Indian Wars’ – though not the end of conflict or of killing.
I found out recently about a series of murders of Osage people in Oklahoma in the early 1920s, motivated by the discovery of big oil deposits beneath their land and involving legal trickery to secure the inheritance of the victims (whose deaths were initially seen as being from natural causes). David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating read, a true-crime account which takes the story of the genocide a generation onwards, a small-scale version of what happened to the indigenous peoples across the continent.
All the President’s Men
This could scarcely be more pertinent, as Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters responsible for this account of the Watergate break-in and the scandal that brought down President Nixon has just published Fear: Trump in the White House… At the time it was all happening I followed events avidly, finding it hard to credit that such a plan could have been dreamed up, executed (incompetently) and then covered up (incompetently) at such high levels of government. The intervening years have made it easier to believe such things… This book, which appeared as the story was still fresh and new, was a brilliant piece of journalism, with all of the tension of a detective story. There was a follow-up, The Final Days, describing the end of Nixon’s presidency, and many other books, including from some of those implicated (such as John Ehrlichman, whose account was the basis of the 1977 TV mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, in which an all-star cast portray President Richard Monckton and his aides, associates and accomplices).
So, that’s my ten books… Ten themes in the books I devoured as a child, ten books (five – oh, OK, seven if you’re going to be picky – fiction, five non-fiction) that I read as an adult that have in one way or another stayed with me. I was never going to be able to pick just ten, was I?
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:
So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September. This is the second instalment of my reading diary, with the third to follow on 10 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.
The list will include all brows, high to low, but everything I read will, I hope, have real merit and will bring real pleasure, over and above the satisfaction of achieving the challenge.
14 August. Day 15 – reading Kate Atkinson is, as always, a delight. My 2016 books blog said:
And my novel of the year is Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. I knew several of her other novels, but this one was just dizzying, overwhelming, enthralling. I read it twice, I had to, and will read it again. Its sequel, A God in Ruins, was a different experience and a troubling one, about which I can say nothing except to urge you to read on because somehow it all comes together in a most remarkable way.
Case Histories is obviously different, it’s crime fiction if one has to pin a genre on it, featuring Jackson Brodie (PI) who was played by Jason Isaacs in a TV version a few years back. Not sure why I’ve never read Atkinson’s detective fiction since I’ve loved her other books and – as must be fairly obvious – I love crime/detective fiction. OK, it wasn’t strictly necessary to illustrate this with the DVD cover but, well, Jason Isaacs.
The Le Carré memoir is fascinating. It’s years since I read any of his books, but I have read a lot of them (and watched the recent adaptation of The Night Manager). Le Carré introduces The Pigeon Tunnel with a caveat:
These are true stories told from memory – to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life?
But he says that nothing is consciously falsified – merely disguised where necessary.
His account of his friendship with Yvette Pierpaoli (the inspiration for Tessa in The Constant Gardener) is a highlight – an extraordinary woman who lived and died in the pursuit of a mission to help people who needed it, in particular refugees, in war zones around the world. Coincidentally, le Carré’s (or more accurately Cornwell’s) world overlapped with Alan Bennett’s (anecdotes about Alec Guinness, and Lindsay Anderson, for example). And another coincidence – Cornwell senior was a fairly monstrous (if sometimes pathetic) figure, a crook and a swindler, and monstrous fathers have cropped up a number of times in the books I’ve read so far.
Now reading Jane Casey’s The Last Girl, her third Maeve Kerrigan thriller.
I’ve read the previous two, and Casey’s stand-alone novel, The Missing, all of which I’ve enjoyed very much. I might have slipped up, however, in reading two crime novels concurrently – will try to avoid that in future, so I don’t get my corpses mixed up…
15 August. Day 16 – I think the occasional sense of familiarity I’m getting from Case Histories must be déjà vu rather than déjà lu. There are multiple narrative threads – too early to see if/how they come together – but not all of them evoke that feeling, which is probably because the TV series simplified things and some story-lines and/or characters were excised. As always, I revel in Atkinson’s writing. She can set you up to find a character ridiculous or unlikeable and then suddenly, wham, you’re weeping or cheering for them.
The Last Girl was thoroughly enjoyable. Maeve Kerrigan is a convincing and intriguing protagonist, and there is a host of persuasive characters – colleagues, suspects, victims – with whom she interacts. Her two key relationships – with her partner, Derwent, and her boyfriend, Rob – have layers of ambivalence, insecurity and uncertainty which make them interesting. This wasn’t my favourite Casey – it’s a wee bit talky, and a bit baggy in the middle, perhaps. Nothing that stopped it being a grand read, nor will it deter me from devouring the rest of the Maeve Kerrigan series.
Something a bit different now, Michelle Paver’s Thin Air.
Finished Case Studies. Right to the end, it was funny, and terribly sad and utterly engaging. Did I mention I love Kate Atkinson?
16 August. Day 17 – alongside the Michelle Paver (which is gripping stuff), I’m about to start Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Here I anticipate incredulity and outrage – what do I mean, I’ve never read this? How can I possibly claim any credibility as a feminist and a booklover and a leftie and, well, anything else, if I haven’t read it? Well, I don’t know, I just somehow never got round to it. I did read a couple of hers many years back, The Edible Woman, for sure, and possibly Cat’s Eye. But not this one. I have seen the TV series, which was outstanding, powerful, extraordinary and harrowing. Time I read the book then.
17 August. Day 18 – if I was concerned that having seen the TV adaptation so recently, reading The Handmaid’s Tale would be a let down, I need not have been. The TV series does, I know, depart significantly from the book in plot terms later on (there are already aspects which are interestingly different and I will be fascinated to see how they pan out). But the book can do things that the TV series cannot, even with June/Offred’s narration to help us out, in the description of places and things that go so far beyond the literal and the visual. It’s been said that the best books make the worst screen adaptations, and there are many I’ve seen that would bear that out, although plenty also to disprove it – in this case both the book and the TV adaptation are immense, and horrifyingly pertinent, and will stay in the mind and the heart long after they have been read or watched.
Thin Air is an excellent read – it’s about an ascent, some time between the two world wars, of Kanchenjunga. I don’t know the historical basis for it, and will (by a considerable and commendable effort of will) not Wikipedia it. It’s billed as a ghost story, and so far, so atmospheric.
Finished Thin Air. It’s an old-fashioned sort of ghost story – partly that’s created by the narrator’s voice, he’s very much a man of his time and class, partly because there is always a degree of ambiguity about the haunting, whether it is the product of fear, guilt, altitude sickness – or whether there really is something terribly wrong on Kanchenjunga’s south-west face. There’s a chill in the air, in every sense.
Now reading Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, the true story of Second World War double agent Eddie Chapman. A fascinating character, Eddie. And the story is told with a dry humour that promises well:
Which is how Eddie Chapman came to be pounding down a Jersey beach, leaving in his wake two plain-clothes policemen, a distraught young woman, and half a sherry trifle.
18 August. Day 19 – The Handmaid’s Tale is astonishing. I am trying not to focus too much on the differences between the book and the TV series, just to take in the book for what it is. What strikes me is the sense of time stretching out for these women, whose lives have been essentially reduced to one function, waiting for the moments when they have to perform, waiting each month to see whether they will be able to fulfil that function, or whether some other, worse, future threatens. The other thing is the sheer physicality of the descriptions. As the Handmaids have been reduced to their biological function their bodies become paramount, the sensations of their (modest and hygienic) clothing on their skin, their memories of desire and of a loved person’s arms around them, or a child in their arms. The other thing of course is that the book is entirely from June/Offred’s point of view – we know only what she knows, whereas the TV series tells the stories of some of the other characters, showing events which June did not witness or learn about. This makes the book even more brutal and gives huge power to her statement about why she is setting down her account, why she is bearing witness, without knowing that that there is anyone to bear witness to:
It hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in Heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
Just finished The Handmaid. I fear I’ve rushed it, which was always going to be a risk with this exercise, but I will look forward to a re-read at some later point, when I can savour it properly.
Agent Zigzag often seems a less plausible tale than Atwood’s dystopian fantasy. As with so many books I’ve read about espionage and counter-espionage in WWII, what strikes one quite often is that the Allies’ success is due to a mix of brilliance (breaking codes, turning German agents), the incompetence of the Abwehr (sending agents who could barely speak English and/or were utterly unfamiliar with the culture – for example the one who tried to pay for a pint with £10 and 6 shillings, when he’d been charged 10 & 6 ….), and sheer luck.
On now to M L Stedman’s The Light between Oceans. I haven’t seen the film (the trailer looked a bit maudlin for my taste), but the book got some good reviews, and has been recommended by my daughter.
19 August. Day 20 – Finished the extraordinary story of Agent Zigzag. Brilliantly told by Ben Macintyre, who sees his subject clearly and without sentimentality, but with justifiable respect and warmth.
About to start Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth. Billed as an ‘apocalyptic chiller’ – I haven’t yet read anything by Sarah Moss but seem to have several stored up on the Kindle so will be interested to try this one.
20 August. Day 21 – Cold Earth gets off to a thoroughly intriguing start. Set in Greenland on an archaeological dig, Moss juxtaposes the narrator’s voice (Nina, who travels a lot but hates being anywhere she’s not within walking distance of bookshops and good fairtrade coffee, and who worries about everything) and another darker voice from a distant past, along with hints of something bad happening back at home … No idea how this will play out but can’t wait to read on.
21 August. Day 22 – Finished Cold Earth. Interesting how it links in with two of the other books I’ve read as part of this challenge – All the Little Children, and Thin Air. I can’t think of any way of fully explaining what I mean by this, without risking major spoilers, so will limit myself to saying that there are elements of (possible/threatened) apocalypse in common with the first, and of hauntings (possible/imagined) with the second. And they share a prickly unease, a sense of the uncanny, and of growing dread. I mentioned the narrator as being Nina, who gets the first section of the book to herself, but in fact each of the protagonists is given their own voice, so each sets the events, and the other people, in a different light.
Also finished The Light between Oceans. This was emotionally gripping, not so much the story of a moral dilemma, but of a moment when a choice was made – the wrong choice – and events unfolded inexorably such that ‘putting things right’ meant making everything wrong. This could have been a specious exercise in manipulation – it is much better than that, because the characters are beautifully drawn, and the setting too. We are drawn in to the life on the island and the responsibilities of the lighthouse keeper, so that we understand how that terribly wrong choice was made. Yes, it’s melodramatic, at points, and yes it is a weepie. Nothing wrong with that, if it’s well written. It sounds as though the film may tip things over into an excess of heart and tear-duct wringing, though….
22 August. Day 23 – on to a sci-fi classic now, H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. It’s of particular interest since this 1896 novel inspired the brilliant TV series, Orphan Black (whose final series we are currently watching). This edition has an intro by Margaret Atwood which is heralded with spoiler warnings so I will read it after rather than before I read the story.
In parallel with H G, I’m reading a thriller which is very much of the moment. Startlingly so. Sam Bourne’s To Kill the President is not about past conspiracy theories (no grassy knolls here). It’s about what happens when the unthinkable happens, and the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger is a ‘volatile demagogue’, an ‘increasingly crazed would-be tyrant’:
When a war of words with the North Korean regime spirals out of control and the President comes perilously close to launching a nuclear attack, it’s clear someone has to act, or the world will be reduced to ashes.
Obviously any resemblance to real persons or situations is entirely uncoincidental… It was written, presumably, during the election campaign, but must have been finished by or very shortly after the inauguration. It’s right now, in other words. Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, who’s always worth reading anyway, and this thriller really does thrill.
The Island of Dr Moreau is fascinating – it sits in a way with Frankenstein as a study of man taking on the role of god, in the context of Darwinian theory and with elements of social satire. It’s uncomfortable, in its depiction of white men manipulating and dominating the humanoid creatures who are in the main black or brown, and are described as brutes and savages (however, this is not simplistically a reflection of the racial views of the time, but is justified – to a degree – within the narrative in terms of what defines humanity.
Crikey, To Kill the President was a cracking read. If I’d read it before last November, I would have dismissed it as implausible, but now…. Some of what it talks about has certainly happened, some has nearly happened, and some, well, who knows but it seems an awful lot less fanciful than a few months ago. The crucial thing is that the ethos of the current White House comes across so powerfully – the very question that causes us libtard /snowflake/antifa/alt-lefties so much puzzlement, which is how this administration, this President, can lie, and lie, and lie, without its supporters losing faith, feeling betrayed and fooled, how anyone can look at him and his cronies and not feel revulsion and fear at what they may be capable of. I can’t say reading this made me feel better about what’s happening over there and its potential implications for not only the US but the rest of us, but it was exhilarating nonetheless and we have to believe that there are people like the good guys in the book still working for peace and democracy within the institutions of the State, as well as on the streets of Charlottesville and Boston and so forth.
From a (slightly) fictionalised portrayal of a politician without political convictions or a moral compass, to the autobiography of one of the few Tory politicians I can stand (and not only because he’s a Forest supporter), Ken Clarke.
Finished off the day with a few poems from Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection, Contraflow, published by the estimable Longbarrow Press, whose books are always things of beauty and whose customer service is second to none. These poems are all inspired by the Rivelin Valley, which we can see from our dining room windows, and have often walked in over the years.
The tales that rivers tell have tangled with our own for millennia: before, through, and after the industrial age. Humans’ rapid migration to towns, often along the course of these waterways, has left many of us bewildered and ill-equipped in an environment at odds with the natural world we depend on. Rivers, bringing the relief of nature to the centres of cities they grew, confront us with forces bare-faced and ancient, seemingly unmoved by our regard. Malleable in their youth, prone to messing about before finding their groove, many were harnessed for mill-work as they matured, and then, like us, after centuries of valuable industry, were abandoned, left to lick their wounds.
All these tales converge in the Rivelin, which rises from peat moorland north-west of Sheffield, and descends 80 metres as it approaches the city. This fast-flowing river, and the valley it etched out, is the setting for many of the poems in Fay Musselwhite’s first collection. Contraflow harnesses these energies to carve its own rugged course, with its bottlenecks, bends and counter-currents: tales that slant, swell and spill.
23 August. Day 24 – also reading T C Boyle’s Talk Talk, a thriller about identity theft. It’s intense, all the more so because one of the three main protagonists is deaf, and her struggles with both hearing and speaking, in her attempts to find out who has appropriated her identity and to set things right, are compelling. Very hard also not to feel a twinge of paranoia and the need to check and re-check one’s bank statements rather carefully, whilst reading about this sort of crime.
Ken Clarke’s memoir is packed with detail (perhaps a tad too packed) but fascinating to read his insights into the Heath and Thatcher governments, the EU referendum (the 70s one, though I think I know where he stands on the recent one too), and many of the political controversies and upheavals with which I am familiar but not from a Tory POV. (One does gain the distinct impression that most MPs were at least mildly pissed most of the time during the 60s and 70s.) Also fascinating to read of his Nottinghamshire childhood and education (he was a Nottingham High School boy, as was my husband a few years later). Every chapter borrows its title from a jazz number, another reason for my fondness for Ken.
24 August. Day 25 – Talk Talk was excellent. It’s billed as a thriller but there’s no neat resolution, and it’s about – obviously – identity, but even more than that, about communication and the gaps and dislocations on which relationships and one’s sense of who one is can founder. Another writer who’s new to me but who I will read more of anon.
Ken continues to entertain. I’m up to the John Major government now, Black Wednesday looming. Fascinating to read his perspective on Thatcher: as a longstanding ‘wet’, ‘not one of us’, and a passionate European, he was never an uncritical supporter but he portrays her, not so much sympathetically on a personal level, but somewhat positively in some respects on a political one, at least until her hubris and the sycophancy of her inner circle brought her down.
25 August. Day 26 – Just about to start Patrick Gale’s The Whole Day Through. I’ve read several of Gale’s novels, and loved them, so I’m looking forward to this one.
Very little progress today. Mother in law in hospital after a fall at home, all is reasonably ok but a day spent waiting around (for consultants, paperwork etc) without access to reading matter.
26 August. Day 27 – The Patrick Gale is every bit as engaging as I hoped it would be. I was interested to note that amongst his top ten books, along with Proust (yes!), Middlemarch (obv) and Persuasion (my favourite Austen, as it happens), was Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – there’s something in common I think between Gale and Tyler, who I’ve always loved (I think my favourite Tyler would be Saint Maybe, or Breathing Lessons, but Homesick Restaurant is fab too).
Managed to read a few pages of the Ken Clarke autobiog whilst doing hospital visiting (Mum had nodded off, so I wasn’t really neglecting my duties…).
27 August. Day 28 – Finished The Whole Day Through. Gale’s protagonists are both engaging and infuriating, they want and try to do the right thing, but they’re flawed and awkward and muddled. One of his other novels is called A Perfectly Good Man, which is a brilliant title because the man in question is quite explicitly not perfect, not in the Aristotelian sense that his goodness is complete, could not be better, and has attained its purpose. These perfectly good people could always be better, and their goodness often fails to attain its purpose, thwarted by their own flaws. In a way the title reminds me of the way we say ‘its perfectly OK’ which is an odd phrase, but is used to reassure, where ‘OK’ alone could seem grudging.
Also finished Ken Clarke’s autobiography. Of course I disagree profoundly with him about many things, but he does seem to me to be a man of integrity and sense, and his passionate commitment to Europe gives us substantial common ground. One of the really interesting things to emerge is the way in which, from John Major onwards, PMs and Cabinets were in hock to the media, desperately trying to play the (mainly right-wing) press. Ken was persuaded to hold a meeting with Rebekah Brooks at one point and was quite withering about the notion that he, as a lawyer and one of the most experienced government ministers in that Parliament, should listen to and take seriously policy suggestions from an unelected newspaper editor, whose grasp of ethics was decidedly shaky.
About to start Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. I’ve read several of her novels, and have enjoyed them all.
So, where am I up to now? I completed 13 books this fortnight, and am midway through 2 (Musselwhite and Beevor). Total completed at the end of the fourth week is 25.5 (allowing the Andrea Levy I read in the first tranche as only 0.5 as it was a short story).
I have been somewhat stymied by events, but am pleased to be as close as this to the target. Allons-y!