Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Post 61: If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need!

Off on holiday tomorrow (I know, far too decadent a summer this year!), I really wanted to finish my current read and blog about it before I slammed the car boot down on my suitcases.  This is the 27th read of the year and so I might just squeeze in the magic number 40 by Christmas.  I've packed optimistically, taking 4 books with me, but I don't imagine I'll be so antisocial as to read them all! But we are staying in an apartment overlooking a lake with mountain maybe sitting still and reading is exactly what we'll all want to do.

Recommended by hubby and child 2, I picked up the first of the roman trilogy by Robert Harris,  As you will remember, I read and enjoyed Conclave relatively recently and I have also read Pompeii  in the past. I like Robert Harris.  He is erudite without being pretentious and he can weave a good story. He is also very personable.  He spoke at Henley Literary Festival last year and he came across as friendly, open and modest. (By the way, ticket sales are now open for the 2017 event. It is a well-organised and varied programme; I highly recommend it, even though I am defecting to the North Cornwall Book Festival this year instead...more of that craziness in a later blog!)
I struggled with this novel to begin with.  Based on highly factual content, it didn't have enough story to grip me at first. The narrative voice however, is endearing.  Written from the point of view of Tiro, Cicero's private secretary (slave), his characterisation is convincing.  He conveys his own lack of freedom ably, but without resentment.  It is clear that he is loyal and trustworthy and highly intelligent.  Indeed, he is famous in his own right as being the forefather of modern shorthand. Envied by other lawyers and aristocrats for his slave who could write as                                                            fast as anyone spoke, Cicero refused all offers to sell Tiro.

The novel opens with a contextual introduction to Tiro and Cicero and quickly develops to centre on a legal case where Cicero is prosecuting a notorious but well-connected Roman aristocrat, Verres. Charged with many cases of corruption and bribery, only Cicero is brave enough to put him through the Roman courts.

Despite my slow start with the novel, I became absorbed in this case.  Harris writes succinctly, which I like, but I was a little wrong-footed when part one ended at the close of the Verres court case.  It seemed as though that marked the natural end to the novel.  I felt as though I had to take a deep breath to enter part 2 where Cicero campaigns to become consul and we follow the progress of his career through two further prominent plots and cases.  In fact, there are three identifiable story arcs. Cicero's career development is the key factor that holds the book as a single story, but it was not as cohesive as I would have liked.

This is largely because the book is written from evidence of Cicero's speeches and other Roman scholarly texts.  I loved the way Harris used this primary evidence.  The authenticity of Cicero's words are undoubted, as the author weaves the Roman statesman's phrases and language seamlessly with his own narration.  As the author states in his afterword, "Although Imperium  is a novel, the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened."  He goes onto state that it is widely acknowledged that Tiro did write a biography of Cicero which has long since been lost. This gives the novel a sniff of romanticism amongst the realism as Harris creates a voice and temperament for this master of shorthand.

As an introduction to the great Roman families and politics of the time, this is excellent.
I am certainly interested enough in Cicero and Tiro to read the other books in the trilogy, but not yet. Don't judge the book harshly by this decision; I rarely read all the way through a series, preferring to read other titles in between for greater breadth and variety. And I am certainly enamoured of Cicero,as you can see from the quote opposite, he really did have his priorities right!

I do think that this is more of a history than a novel; but it is a palatably written history that gives insight into the players and fleshes them out as characters.  Further titles are described as thrillers, so perhaps the storytelling will dominate the history in the rest of the series.  I will wait and see.

So, suitcases are full and I've been optimistic about shorts and sunglasses!  I've packed re-reads of Patrick Gale's, Notes from an Exhibition and Anna Funder's All That I Am and new to me are Ian McEwan's Black Dogs and the non-fiction text, Zoo Station, the story of Christiane F.  There are some back-ups on my Kindle if I want them, and I always like to see the selection in a holiday cottage before I fully make up my reading mind.

Thanks for reading. I'll update you again once term is under way.  My challenge this autumn is to enthuse 16-17 years olds with Macbeth and Hamlet.  I have a feeling David Tennant might come in handy!

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Post 60: Where the Place?

I'm going to start with moments of pride.  Since I last blogged, child 1
has graduated and is in the process of renting her first house in readiness for the job that starts in September.  Although it doesn't have quite the same Seuss-like ring to it, I suppose this means she is now adult 1! Graduation day was uncharacteristically warm and sunny for Sheffield and it was a wonderful way to celebrate her achievements.

We have also completed our Macmillan Marathon Cotswold Challenge.  That was not a day of unadulterated sunshine!  Hubby taught me the delights of being a middle-aged baseball cap wearer. Despite our slightly questionable fashion sense, the ability to shield one's specs from the torrents of rain was very welcome.  We made it the 26 miles and we are proud owners of a challenge medal. We've raised £845 for Macmillan and the JustGiving page is still open if you have a last-minute desire to boost our total. All I need now is a new right hip and I'd do it all again tomorrow!

But this is a reading blog, not a what-have-I-been-doing-with-my-life blog, so let's get down to business.  I have finished The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, The House on Bellevue Gardens by Rachel Hore and This Must Be The Place by Maggie O'Farrell.  I am going to dismiss the middle read quite quickly.  It is an easy read with a good central premise.  The house is a large London property surrounded by its contemporaries which have all been converted into modern apartments. Resisting such change and still in its original state, the Bellevue House is home to a number of folk, all brought under the wing of the resident landlady.  Everyone there is a bit lost, a bit of an outsider and the plot revolves around revelation of their individual stories and how each occupant finds contentment.  It is a simple book, and somewhat predictable, but an easy holiday read for anyone who doesn't want to have to think too hard about what they are reading.

Image result for The Shipping NewsThe Shipping News is far more complex.  It was the Pulitzer Prize winner in 1994 and it was the association with Radio 4's shipping forecast that drew me to the copy I picked up in a charity bookshop. It is however, nothing to do with the strange-sounding shipping areas intoned on a regular basis on the radio, (but maybe there is a novel idea in there somewhere!). It is about a man named Quoyle, who, on the death of his wife (plot device only, so no need to be too empathetic here), decides to leave New York and head to the remote Newfoundland peninsula where an old aunt still owned a long-neglected property.

Together with the Aunt and his two children, Quoyle re-starts his life in a hostile climate.  He gets a job as a journalist reporting the shipping news, hence the title, and succeeds in making the role more interesting than his predecessor.  The story is comic and intelligent. Each chapter begins with the definition of a shipping term and each episode can be seen to bear some relation to its epigraph. Unable to swim or navigate a boat, Quoyle nonetheless lives on a barely accessible point on the peninsula, making sea travel a necessity.  The track to his house becomes impassable in the winter and the family is forced to move out almost as soon as they have improved the place enough to move in.

The novel communicates naive optimism and real human hope.  It celebrates the human condition at the same time as exposing its folly.  I really enjoyed this book.  It is original, intelligent and quirky.

My favourite of the trio will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been reading my blog for a while.  Maggie O'Farrell is my favourite author and This Must Be The Place did not disappoint. I had indulged in elongated delayed gratification with this title.  I heard the author discussing her new novel last year on radio 4 and I listened eagerly to the discussion of a story about a household celebrity who walked away from fame and constant media attention to live the life of a recluse on a remote Irish farmhouse.  I decided not to buy on Kindle, as I love to collect books, and especially those by my favourite writers.  I also decided to be patient and wait for the paperback.  I watched the hardback version in bookshops become the large paperback version (what is that all about?) and then I heard the hearty plop of a book-shaped package land on my doormat a few weeks ago. I kept it in its wrapping for a while as I didn't want to consume it as soon as it arrived.  Then I decided I would wait until my holiday to indulge.

Reading Maggie O'Farrell is a delight to be savoured.  She creates characters that are rounded and empathetic.  This novel is no exception.  Written in the third person, it is constructed in an ambitious structure where O'Farrell focalises on a specific character from her riotous cast. Daniel Sullivan is the protagonist; all the other characters have some bearing on his life at some point.  The novel sweeps time and place, and the title of the book is open to interpretation.  Donegal is the geographical location that roots the novel, but there is a deeper meaning to the sentiment. The use of the modal form, "must" has semantics of a need to have a place, a place where we feel that we can belong.  This is more than geography and O'Farrell explores family life and all its permutations in a tender and honest way.

Daniel is flawed. He can be selfish and self-absorbed. Claudette is vulnerable.  She has run away from celebrity, has absolute need for secrecy and she demands trust from those she chooses to let into her life.  She home-schools her children and lives in a house that is separated from the nearest road by numerous five-bar gates. No taxi will go up there.  It is isolated and isolating.

The novel turns around the relationship between Daniel and Claudette, but to understand them means that we have to understand their past.  Maggie O'Farrell creates this through multiple points of view. These voices are as intimate as their offspring and as random as a woman met on a weekend tour of salt flats in Bolivia.  If this isn't complex enough, she also uses disassociation at times.  She opens the novel with "There is a man.He is standing on the back steps... There is a man and that man is me."  I wasn't sure about this at first, but the technique is used sparingly and to good effect.  It explores moments when the characters are not entirely sure of their reactions or options and are a little outside of their own lives.

I loved the afterword to this novel when the author explains how she had organised the complex geographical and anachronistic structure by a myriad of post-it notes on her bedroom wall. A third of the way through, a toddling child decided to pull down all those within reach and force Maggie O'Farrell into further rethinking and planning.  Real life is complicated and this is fully communicated in this novel.

It is a story of love, of families, of siblings and of parenthood.  And like no other author I know, Maggie O'Farrell can communicate what is feels like to love, to belong and to need to belong.

I read This Must be The Place in Guernsey.  This is a special place
for us as we honeymooned there 25 years ago, returning only last week to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary.  It was fitting that the geography I was in as I read the novel was significant to our story.  It was also fitting that the book centres around what makes a marriage and what might threaten its stability. I am proud to have been alongside hubby for a quarter of a century.  Despite making me feel a tad past-it, it also gives security and time for contented reflection as we look forward to hiking our way into the next 25 years.