Saturday, 10 August 2019

Summer Reading to Whet Your Appetite, with a bit of Climbing and Graduating Thrown In.

Top of Scafell Pike
Lots has happened since I last posted: we've climbed Scafell Pike, Child 2 has graduated, Hubby has changed his role at work and Child 1 has secured a permanent job. Daughter and son-in law have spent a week on New Wine radio whilst Son has begun battle with Teeline shorthand for his next venture into journalism. Meanwhile I have painted my parents' hall, stairs and landing and this week, I submitted the last piece of writing for my MA.  

Studying at Warwick University has been a great privilege— a year of incredible opportunity and learning. I have met many wise and talented people, and been greatly encouraged by my fellow students. My next step is to complete a full-length piece. Writing this intention publicly is a very scary thing!  Taking more time to write feels indulgent, as I had only given myself a year out of "normal" life to concentrate on writing and study, but it also feels that it would be a waste of all that learning if I don't give myself a chance to develop further. I see myself as a person who is writing, rather than a writer.  To be a writer, I need a book with my name on the spine.  That has been my dream ever since I was a little girl.  I will allow that dream to breathe a little over the next twelve months—whilst acknowledging that it may never happen, it certainly won't if I don't try.
At Blackwell's for Dorian Gray
with a post-purchase glow!
One result of the MA has been an exponential growth in the number of books on my bookshelves. The words "it's for my course" may have justified some purchases only tenuously connected with my subject matter!  So I began the summer by taking stock, counting the titles in my “to be read” section. least eighteen months-worth of reading just waiting to happen right there in my lounge. I vowed not to buy any more books, when I happened to find myself in Blackwell's in Oxford with my sister-in-law for a bookshop theatre event. Those going to the play had free run of the shop for the best part of an hour. Bliss. I don't think I can blame her for the resulting purchase, though in my defence, I only bought from the three for two section…

Passing her audition for
bookshop cat
Other than that, I have stuck to my summertime policy of reading from the "tbr" shelves—and the great thing about the summer is that, as if by some unspoken permission, once the temperature goes above 20 degrees we bibliophiles allow ourselves to read with less guilt than at other times of the year.

One of my favourite things to do whilst away on holiday is to get up before anyone else and curl up, undisturbed with a good book.  I began on the balcony overlooking the ghyll, (I learnt lots of northern dialect words for water and hills whilst in the Lake District), but the morning temperatures in Ambleside are not quite the Riviera, and I settled for an expansive armchair next to an open window.  There, I finished Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss, and read Grace by Paul Lynch from cover to cover.

This was the second novel I have read from Sarah Moss, and I am hooked! I do however, need to issue a no-spoiler apology to loyal readers.  I reviewed Signs for Lost Children in my last blog post but hadn’t realised it was the second book in a sequel.  Having read them out of order myself, I don’t think I lost anything from the experience.  Both books were compelling, compassionate and resonating. The characterisation is wholly convincing, and the time period subtly and accurately evoked. Bodies of Light provided context for the second novel, but both really do stand alone. If I spoilt book one for you by beginning with book two, then I apologise.  

Bodies of Light focuses on Ally, and begins with her childhood under the stern and uncompromising jurisdiction of her mother. Schooled to believe herself highly privileged, she suffers deprivations of food and warmth so that her mother can teach her to have empathy with the poor.  Her artist father is more generous to his children, but he is also self-absorbed, and doesn't appreciate the anxiety felt by Ally as she strives to please her parents.  She and her younger sister May are educated first at home and then in a private house where the teacher encourages women to believe in their own abilities. Her mother aspires for Ally to be one of the first university-educated women in the country, and she wants her to use her talents to become a doctor so that she can help to alleviate the suffering of the inner-city poor.

This is a beautifully-evoked story of two sisters and their responses to their upbringing.  It tells of pioneering education for women, and the specific difficulties associated with being a trailblazer. It explores family life and attitudes, and is utterly convincing in evoking people and place in a specific time.  

It's not just me who is enthusiastic about Sarah Moss—the publishing world is also getting increasingly excited—her latest book has created waves when it became the subject of a 9-way bid, reported on in The Bookseller. Hopefully, such a stir will make her more of a household name for those who love good, well-written fiction. Success that is well-deserved.

Grace, by Paul Lynch, is set in Ireland during the potato famine.  It is a lyrical, poetic text, that conjures up ghosts of the past. Indeed, the line between the living and the dead is blurred throughout the story, as the central character, Grace, continues to hear echoes of voices long-dead and recently-passed, as she strives to find work and stay alive in perilous circumstances.  Turned from her own home, disguised as a boy, her mother exhorts her to leave and find work, telling her, "You are the strong one now." It is an act of love, a protection from violation, but this is not something her mother can say, nor is it something Grace can yet understand.  

Winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the year 2017, selected as a best book of the year 2017 by The Guardian, and shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize for Historical Fiction, the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and France's Prix Litterature Monde 2019, it is evident that Grace has received wide critical acclaim. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but recommend that it is read as a book should be—in sweeping hours rather than punctuated pre-bed chapters.  The haunting beauty of the writing and the winding, changing circumstances that frame the plot, need to be experienced and contemplated.  

July reading also saw me complete Rivers of Ink by Paul M.M. CooperAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.

Rivers of Ink is set in Sri Lanka in the thirteenth century. Asanka has risen to wealth and status as poet to the king, but when the regime is overthrown by an invading monarch from the mainland, he is left vulnerable. The new king is keen to utilise Asanka's talents to translate the lengthy poem "Shishupala Vadha into Tamil [for] the people of this land." Magha, the new Maharajah, wants to give his conquered people the great poem in their own tongue to unite them under his reign.  Asanka finds himself compelled to do the new King's bidding, despite the horrors that he witnesses, and the revulsion he feels at Magha's violence.  He begins the novel thinking that poetry "is just my trade... it makes us forget  our lives for a few minutes - but that is all." His courageous lover, Sarasi, feels differently, and is appalled at Asanka's narrow view, "Is that what you've always thought? All the time you have been teaching me?"

The novel works on many levels—opening an ancient culture to a reader, exploring the possibilities and limitations of translation, the beauty and power of the written word, and creating a plot that weaves through traditional literature, oral culture and relationships.  It is a hopeful book, characterising the bravery of ordinary people in the face of oppression, and showing how someone who perceives themselves to be weak and without influence can discover that they are much more than that.

American Marriage won the Women's Prize for Fiction this year, and it is easy to see why. Set in Georgia, the backdrop of racial tension is apparent throughout. The central characters are newlyweds Celestial and Roy, and a miscarriage of justice puts Roy at the mercy of a court that finds it too easy to convict him of a crime he did not commit. Finding herself on her own when she had expected to be part of a couple puts strain on Celestial as her uncle battles with appeals on Roy's behalf. 

The plot is compelling, but it is the characters who make the story.  Written from various first person points of view through narrative voice and a series of letters, readers gain empathy with both key characters and the third wheel in their relationship, Andre.  A close friend of Roy's from college, he is also a longtime ally of Celestial, having grown up as her boy-next-door. Faced with twelve years alone, Celestial turns to Andre for the friendship she has always had from him.  

The opening section of the novel is written in the forms of letters between prison and the outside world.  They trace the hopes, fears and suspicion that incarceration breeds, and Tayari Jones is very skilful in communicating the state of relationships through these necessarily one-sided missives. Without giving any spoilers (the blurb on the novel reveals this bit), the second half of the novel is narrative in form; Roy has been freed and thus is able to communicate more fully than the more restrictive letter form allowed. He is ready to pick up his marriage.  His life has been on hold, but Celestial's has not. They are starting again from very different points.

This forms the heartbeat of the novel—how to rebuild lives when they have been broken. It is full of warmth, compassion and gritty realism.  The author has created characters that you will care about, against contemporary issues of racism and justice in modern America. This is a truly excellent read. 

My final read of last month was Nora Webster. This is another example of fine character work. The book is essentially an exploration of how Nora, recently widowed, copes with her new identity.

We all have labels.  Immediately we are born we are someone's son or daughter, we are grandchildren and nieces or nephews. As we grow we are students, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives. These labels define us in very real ways. When Nora Webster has to swap wife for widow then her life changes.  She has to work, she has to parent on her own and she has to learn to understand her place in a community where she is no longer part of a couple, no longer Maurice's wife.

This is not a morbid book, nor is it depressing.  It is more about the the resilience of Nora, and her resounding ordinariness.  She is not heroine material, she is not an archetypal eponymous hero, and yet readers will be rooting for her as if she were. Like American Marriage, this book has characterisation with soul. Colm Toibin invites you into Nora's home, into her life, and you take residence, walking alongside her, urging her on. He is also unafraid to insert the political—a book set in Ireland in the early seventies cannot avoid the Troubles.  References to Charles Haughey and gun-running to the paramilitary organisations in the north forms cultural background to Nora's life. Increased unionisation is also apparent, alongside quiz nights and close-knit families, and communities which make reinvention of oneself impossible to achieve without scrutiny.

I am certainly going to be buying more Colm Toibin and Tayari Jones... but I will endeavour to resist waving my credit card until I have dented my tbr shelves a little more. 

Thank you for hanging in there, and reading to the end of this long post.  Hopefully, I've whetted your appetites for your late summer reading—there's still time!