Friday, 22 August 2014

Holiday Reads

Just before I went on holiday I posted a picture of my "Books are My Bag" bag crammed filled with books on Facebook. It got a lot of "likes" and a request for recommended reads. So I thought I'd nick the format of Nick Hornby's wonderful book about reading - "The Polysyllabic Spree", and tell you what I brought, read and thought...

What I brought

As usual I was completely over-ambitious and brought far too many books with me. But that's OK, because I always find myself quite contrary on holiday, and sometimes need several attempts before I get the book that totally absorbs me...But anyway  for the record, this was what was in the bag:

"The Goldfinch" Donna Tartt (which I'd been reading for 6 weeks and was about 100 pages in)
"The Whistling Season" by Ivan Doig  (birthday present from my dear friend Oli, which I'd started)
"Let The Great World Spin" by Colum McCann(ditto)
"The End of your Life Book Club." by Will Schwalbe (unbirthday present from same friend)
"Leaping"by Brian Doyle (ditto - very generous friend!)
"The Short Stories" Jane Gardam (birthday present from my lovely Chris.)
"Bleeding Kansas" by Sara Paretsky (which I'd picked up in Albion Beatnik, thinking it was a VI Warshawski book & bought because it intrigued).
"The Master and Margarita" Mikhail  Bulgakov (which I started years ago, put down and then lost, so bought at AB)
"Jezebel" by Irene Nemirovsky (bought at AB because I loved Suite Francaise and wanted to try out some more.

What I read.

"The Goldfinch", "The End of Your Life Book Club", "Jezebel". Plus one of Chris' books, "The Pesthouse" by Jim Crace, and two Agatha Christie's that Beth picked up, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "A Murder is Announced". Also "The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene which I found in a second hand bookshop in Laugharne.

What I partially read.

Got halfway through, "The Master and Margarita", three stories of the Jane Gardam collection, made a start on "Bleeding Kansas" and "Let the Great World Spin". I didn't start the others. (You see...over-ambitious) Oh and most of Seamus Heaney's "Beowulf" which Chris picked up (somewhat surprisingly) at a car boot sale

What I thought.

"The Goldfinch" Donna Tartt. Ah, "The Goldfinch", I so wanted to love "The Goldfinch" as much as I loved "The Secret History". Donna Tartt is a wonderful writer and seems to be a great human being. But, I just couldn't love this book. It starts off so well too, with Tartt's protagonist, Theo, holed up in a room in Amsterdam, hiding from the police, possibly having committed a serious crime. We then flashback to his adolescence, to the shocking death of his mother (the only person who truly loved him) in an explosion at an art gallery. Theo survives but witnesses the death of an old man, who asks him to take a picture ("The Goldfinch" of the title) - perhaps out of confusion, or to protect it from further harm.  So far, so absolutely wonderful, but after that, for me it went downhill. The grieving Theo keeps the painting hidden, first (I think) as a connection to his mother, and then because he realises he has committed a criminal act as he travels from New York to Las Vegas and back. And the story, for me, becomes bogged down in far too much detail about the next couple of years of his life, before suddenly leaping forward to his adulthood and the events that lead his Amsterdam hotel room. It is beautifully written, and there are some fine descriptive passages, and maybe it's just that I don't really get that interested in books about art or music, but the whole thing left me a little underwhelmed...Looking at the reviews it seems to have divided critics, and same goes for my twitter timeline, so if you love Donna Tartt, it's definitely worth a go (and if you enjoy it, it would be great to hear why, because I really really wish I had.)

"The End of Your Life Bookclub" Will Schwalbe I'd heard about this book, and was intrigued, but probably wouldn't have bought it. So I'm glad my friend Oli gave it to me, as it was a real treat. The book describes the  "End of Your Life Bookclub" formed between Scwalbe and his mother, Mary Anne, as she completes  a bout of chemotherapy, and continues over the next two and a half years till the end of her life. It's a wonderful portrait of a loving relationship between mother and son, how it is possible to live well with cancer, to have a peaceful death and of course the sheer joy that books bring.  It didn't matter that I hadn't read half the books they did, and sometimes disagreed with their conclusions, I just loved their discussions. And it was great how the books they read sometimes reflected the reality of their experience, sometimes were an escape, but always filled both their lives with purpose. Mary Anne leaps off the page as a passionate, political feminist, loving mother, friend, grandmother, wife.  Which makes her inevitable death at the end extremely poignant. It had a particular resonance for me as my own mother died of cancer this year (like Mary Anne, she was brave, funny, and lived her last days with optimism and love) but you don't need to have had that experience to appreciate this book. It's superb and is highly recommended.

"The Pesthouse" Jim Crace I wasn't planning to read this book, because post-apocalyptic fiction is Chris' thing not mine, but he was raving about it so much that when he'd finished, I had to pick it up. And with one fell swoop, I have become a Jim Crace fan, because this book is terrific. It takes place in a future America that for unexplained reasons has lost its technology and fragmented into small rural communities. The novel starts with Franklin and his brother who are embarked on a journey East to escape the continent for the dream of a better life overseas. Franklin's swollen knee means he needs to rest, whilst his brother goes on to the town below. Meanwhile Margaret is infected by a possible deathly disease and is confined to the local "pesthouse" to die or recover. When Franklin comes across her, trying to escape a storm, he is first wary, and then as he realises she is getting better and he is in no danger he helps her recuperate. Slowly they begin to form a tentative friendship, returning to the town when she is feeling better. But it has been swept away in a flash flood that has killed everyone. So they journey east together, encountering fellow travellers, violent slave traders,  devout Baptists and  a houseful of prostitutes on the way. This is a marvellous novel, which captures perfectly the desperation of the travellers trying to escape to a better life, the developing relationship with Franklin and Margaret and the ever present fear of disease and "the pesthouse". It's excellent, and another recommend.

"Jezebel"  Irene Nemirovsky took a while to get into, but it was really worth the effort. The book opens with a quite mundane account of a court case of the  trial of a beautiful rich woman, Gladys who is accused of killing her younger lover. Within the first few chapters the trial is over, and we are then allowed in to the real story of Gladys's life, and the truth behind her relationship with the victim. It's an absorbing picture of a monstrously selfish woman, whose fear of losing her youth and looks drives every decision of her life. It's also a quick read, so a good one for a train journey or when you've a few hours to kill. So yes, that's another thumbs up from me.

"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "A Murder is Announced" Agatha Christie. I hadn't been intending to read these either, but since Beth picked them up, they were a good diversion from the heavy stuff. I'd read Roger Ackroyd years ago, and though I knew what was coming, it was still a good old fashioned murder mystery and it was fun to meet Hercule Poirot again. The second was a Miss Marple adventure I hadn't come across. It was a rollicking read, though you had to blip over the stereotypical jolly upper middle class cast. I didn't see the end coming and as with most Christie's it was quite clever, though Miss Marple's role in the uncovering of the murderer was pretty far fetched.  I was surprised that one female character  turned down a marriage proposal to go on the stage, which was quite heartening really, but generally (as with most Christie novels) the characters were fairly two dimensional. But then you don't read Christie for her character insights but for her tantalising murder mysteries. She's never a challenging read, but always a pleasure, if you like that sort of thing.

"The End of the Affair" Graham Greene. You may remember from reading previous posts that I adore Graham Greene, and this was one novel I'd always intended to read. (I say novel, but actually it's a novella. It's less than 200 pages and I finished it in a less than a day.) So I was very excited to pick it up in Laugharne. Though for once, it didn't quite live up to my expectations. It tells the story of Maurice Bendrix, who is still feeling the effects of the end of his affair with Sarah, a married woman, two years after she abruptly broke it off. When he encounters Sarah's husband, Henry, who believes Sarah is seeing another man, Bendrix hires a private detective to find out, only to discover the truth of the matter is far more complex than he imagined. As usual, in a Greene novel, the characters struggle with their fallibilities (in this case Bendrix' extreme jealousy) and beliefs. And he portrays the triangle between Sarah, Maurice, and Henry, and their various failings very well. What was less convincing for me was the nature of Sarah's growing relationship with God and what that meant for everyone else. It was quite similar, in places, to "Brideshead Revisited", by fellow Catholic, Evelyn Waugh and both novels reflect the way Catholics felt about God, love, marriage and divorce at that time. My Catholicism comes from a different era, so a lot of it I found unnecessarily overwrought, and unlike Brideshead, I wasn't left with much hope at the end. I can't say it's my favourite Greene novel, but it's got an intensity about it that's worth sticking with. And if you can live with the anachronistic approach that runs through it, it is, on balance worth it.

As for the ones not quite finished, "The Master and Margarita" is brilliant and I am really enjoying it (though I have put it down again, so mustn't lose it this time round). "Bleeding Kansas" is a surprise from Sara Paretsky, who I know as the writer of the gritty VI Warshawski crime novels. This book is centred on an isolated mid west farming community, and already has the feel of a tragedy slowly building. It has quite a similar setting to "The Whistling Season", though I'm sensing that's a more optimistic story. I'm keen to finish both to see if I'm right.  The three Jane Gardam stories I've read are excellent, and it's too early to tell what "Let the Great World Spin" is about (though it seems to feature a tight rope across the twin towers). And the Beowulf, though dense in places, and far longer then I imagined (the Grendel story is only part of it), is rich in drama and wonderful language, a nice contrast to the more modern writers.

There you have it. Hope it's whetted your appetite and there are some here that you might read for yourself.

In the meantime I'm heading off for the bank holiday with several of the unfinished books with me. I'll report back when I'm done.

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