Top Ten Tuesday: Autumn TBR

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we’re looking at upcoming books on our To Be Read lists…

My last To-Read list was made back in March. Since then I’ve read two of the books I listed. Just two. This means that almost all the books on this new list will sound annoyingly familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with this blog. It also means I’m going to have to work harder at reducing my TBR pile to stop this happening EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. It’s pointless to keep listing books that I then don’t read and then having to keep relisting the same ones each time there’s a Top Ten Tuesday theme like this. So, decision time: between now and the end of the year I’m going to have a serious go at some of my unread books, even if it means all my other reading plans get neglected in the mean time. These are dire times and they call for desperate measures.

Here are some of the books that I really hope will get read soon:

1. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. Still on the list nearly a year after its first TBR appearance, this is proof (if it was necessary) of all the things I’ve just said.

2. Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson. This one hasn’t been on the list for quite as long as it was a present on my last birthday. I’ve not read any of Jacobson’s other books but I’m intrigued by the subject.

3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Andichi. Yes, I know I’m the only person who hasn’t read it yet.

4. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. I bought this in a tiny but brilliant bookshop in Ironbridge. I keep forgetting I have it.

5. The Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury. I bought this in my first year at university. Thirteen years later it’s still lurking on my shelf, making me feel guilty.

6. Katherine by Anya Seton. I made such a fuss about how much I wanted this book.

7. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. I’d feel more optimistic about reading this one if it wasn’t so bloody huge. I seem to have read a lot of big books this year.

8. The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I had every intention of reading loads of Trollope novels last year. It never really happened.

9. The Plague by Albert Camus. I’m just put off by the title. I expect it’s going to be a little bit grim.

10. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I don’t know why I haven’t read this yet. 

There’s a lot for me to be getting on with here. Wish me luck!

The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante

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I surprised myself with how much I was looking forward to jumping back into Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. My Brilliant Friend, which I read back in April, is still one of my favourite books of the whole year and I’ve been desperately impatient to get my grubby little hands on the follow up. It took a while – mainly because of that whole changing jobs/libraries thing – but it finally appeared on the reserve shelf, with its little white label marked with my name, last week and I was over the moon about it. I did a silent dance right there and then in the library. I finished the book in a week (not bad at my current reading pace) and I’m already thirsty for book three so I’ll be back there later this week to add my name to another reservation list.

“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done. 

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there.

 

The Story of a New Name begins almost precisely where My Brilliant Friend left off: with Lila’s marriage and Elena’s growing acceptance that her best friend is finally escaping the poverty and the violence of the neighbourhood they’ve known since childhood. I’ll let you guess whether that actually happens. In this novel Lila has chance to adjust to her new life as Signora Caracci while Elena reluctantly continues her studies, pining for Nino and quietly envying her old friend’s glamorous new existence. This is a surprisingly long (and tumultuous) novel; a lot happens and all I can really say, without giving too much away, is that the friendship between the two becomes increasingly complicated and troubled.

The weird thing about this novel is that my feelings towards Lila evolved almost in time with Elena’s, which almost proves how utterly convincing Ferrante’s writing is. You can completely understand the fascination Lila holds for those around her and why they all seem to love her and hate her in equal measure. She’s at her most ferocious here; she lashes out at others to compensate for her own humiliation and sometimes she seems to do it with real relish. On the other hand you also get a real sense of how terribly afraid she is. You never doubt that she’d happily claw your eyes out to get what she wants, to prove everyone wrong and to salvage some sense of herself from her unhappy existence. Now that I think it over fully I wonder whether she might be one of the realest characters I’ve ever come across. Elena never manages to be quite so compelling but I think that’s probably the whole point. In her reluctance to dwell too much on the details of her own life away from the neighbourhood we get a very clear message that without Lila there’s not much worth dwelling on. Their relationship is frequently exasperating but it’s also engrossing and, at times, horribly distressing to witness. You wish that they weren’t quite so quick to push each other away when times get tough.

Ferrante’s writing, as I’ve now come to expect, is like nothing I’ve really read before. It’s brutal, intense, fierce even, and somehow quite urgent. It really emphasises the volatility of the relationships and the stark realities of life in this violent but rapidly changing neighbourhood. I find it emotionally exhausting at times but in a strangely positive sort of way, almost like I can’t read fast enough to satisfy my hunger to know what will happen next. There aren’t many authors who have that ability to provide such a brilliantly nuanced insight into a relationship or who leave you quite so emotionally drained afterwards.

Bring on book 3🙂

The Hollow (1946) by Agatha Christie

This book was ringing alarm bells in my memory from the start. It was only when I got to this scene…

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…that I remembered having watched the TV adaptation a few years ago. Bummer. I very nearly gave up right then – who wants to read a murder mystery when you already know who committed the dirty deed? – but I decided to continue and, with hindsight, it was absolutely the right decision. This isn’t a bad book at all.

At first glance, The Hollow is a pretty typical country house murder mystery; a group of friends gather at the home of a mutual acquaintance only for one of the party, the dazzling Doctor John Christow, to get bumped off near the swimming pool just before lunch. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? When famous detective Hercule Poirot stumbles on the murder scene moments after the shot rings out he’s immediately convinced that things are not all they appear. Is this a carefully staged scene arranged by the guests as part of the afternoon’s amusements? Or is there something more sinister at play here?

What I haven’t yet said, of course, is that by the time Poirot arrives on the scene the story has really been underway for quite some time already. It’s unusual for Christie to leave the arrival of the famous detective to such a late stage in the novel. I think I’d almost expect it of Miss Marple but for Poirot it seems quite out of character. Apparently – according to Wiki – Christie herself was irritated by Poirot’s tardiness and felt that his sudden appearance out of nowhere was jarring for the reader and spoiled the flow of the plot. I can’t say I agree but it did have the odd effect of making Poirot seem almost superfluous to his own story.

In spite of this, I have to say that I think this is one of the best Agatha Christie novels I’ve read in a little while. All the usual ingredients are here – the red herrings, the witty dialogue, the double bluff – but this time there seems to be an extra layer of character development and a more careful set up. The philandering Doctor Christow who, I suspect, would usually be condemned to only the briefest of introductions, is given a good few chapters of background story and there’s a reasonably thorough analysis of his relationships with some of the other characters. When they describe the late doctor as the most ‘alive’ man they ever knew, you can almost believe them.

The character development isn’t limited to just the victim and I was surprised to find that I really quite liked a few of the suspects. Usually Christie peppers her stories with some thoroughly nasty characters; people you can easily believe would be capable of committing the crime. But she doesn’t really do that here; on the whole they appear pretty harmless. I was particularly pleased with the victim’s mistress, the sculptress Henrietta Severnake, and the scatter-brained hostess, Lady Angkatell. They made me almost hope that there wouldn’t be a murderer after all, that whoever it was would somehow end up getting away with it.

It’s all very odd and not what I was expecting at all. But I enjoyed the twists and turns of this novel and wish there were more like it.

The Truce (1960) by Mario Benedetti

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A weird thing happened with this book. For the first two thirds at least I was fairly ambivalent about it: I liked the diary format, the intimate tone, the protagonist’s careful, measured approach to his affair with a colleague… but there was something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. At times I think I felt a bit frustrated with the self-indulgent soul searching of the main character; he was selfish, I thought, and his concern for the delicate feelings of his new lover seemed to be a front, a way of protecting himself from pain and embarrassment. A selfish, unlikeable protagonist shouldn’t usually bother me but I found it especially hard to get on board when he kept saying things like this:

I’ve never trusted women with numbers… During their menstrual period and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if they are normally a little silly they become complete imbeciles.

And this on his gay son:

I would have preferred that he turn out to be a thief, a morphine addict, an imbecile. I would like to feel pity for him but I can’t.

And later:

When a person is rotten there is no education that will cure him or any amount of attention that will straighten him out.

I know it’s absolutely unfair to judge 1950’s anywhere by the moral standards of Britain in 2016. I get that. And usually I do a pretty good job of ignoring this sort of thing when it crops up, which it inevitably does when you regularly read books that were written fifty years ago. But still, this time, for some reason I can’t explain, I found it really jarring. Maybe it’s just me being a bit sensitive.

Anyway, as I said, my feelings for this novel at first were pretty lacklustre and I didn’t feel that this was going to be a particularly memorable read. That’s until Benedetti reached through the pages and punched me in the face with a plot turn that I probably should have seen coming. When I reread the blurb afterwards I realised, Oh yeah, of course that was always going to happen, it had to happen. It was at this point that I finally understood why he’d put us through all that moral wrangling, all that painful reminiscing and pondering on the future. It made sense. I knew now just how much Martin had staked on this relationship and why its sudden conclusion was so absolutely devastating. He’d been given a glimpse at a new happiness, a chance to feel really alive for the first time. But it had all been a dirty trick.

So, it’s a weird review this one. Can I say I liked it? I think so, but I’m not sure. Despite my initial reservations I closed the book feeling quite moved by it and wishing there was a happier ending for Martin Santomme. I was rooting for him in the end.

Top Ten Tuesday: Oldies and Newbies

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme asks participants to look at some of the unread books that have been on their shelf for the longest. I’ve decided to give you the five oldest books as well as the five newest unread books. 

Here are the oldest:

1. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. A throwback to the old BBC Big Read days.

2. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Oh my stars. I’ve started this and given up again more times than I can remember. It’s embarrassing.

3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. One day, Bulgakov, one day.

4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Officially the oldest unread book on my shelf. It’s been there years and years and years.

5. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Another BBC oldie but one that I hope to get round to fairly soon.

And the newest:

6. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie. Purchased entirely based on the recommendations of the blogging community!

7. Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy. A lovely birthday present but one that will probably have to wait until a holiday when I can laze around reading for days at a time.

8. Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson. Another birthday present but one that I’m looking forward to jumping into quite soon.

9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Purchased for a whopping 19p from the British Heart Foundation shop in town.

10. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. Another birthday present but not for me (sadly). I bought it for a friend last week and am having to resist the urge to read it before I hand it over!

A very quick and easy TTT this week!

A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot

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I might have finished this a bit sooner if it hadn’t been for the Olympics. I’m definitely not complaining – after the dramas of the last few months it’s nice to turn on the TV to something that’s worth getting excited about, isn’t it? But it does mean I’ve been squeezing reading time around sports events. Much of this book was read in between gymnastics and cycling heats!

It’s not the ideal way to read anything, especially A Very Long Engagement which, I found, demands quite a bit of attention if you’re to follow it thoroughly. The novel opens in early January 1917 with five wounded soldiers sentenced to a barbaric punishment for cowardice in the line of duty. Two years later Mathilde Donnay, fiancée of one of those men, discovers that her lover may not have been killed in the fighting that day as she’d been led to believe and so she begins a quest to uncover precisely what happened to those men and why it was covered up.

I’m not able to write today, so a fellow Landis is writing this for me. Your face is all lit up, I can see you. I’m happy, I’m coming home.

As I said, it isn’t the kind of book you can only pay half attention to, in part because Japrisot frequently refers back to small details hidden in earlier parts of the novel, details that didn’t seem worth noticing at the time. Mathilde hounds witnesses and compiles hundreds of statements so over the course of the novel you essentially end up reading varying accounts of the same story from different points of view, again and again and again. Many of these stories are garbled, third hand and half forgotten. Some witnesses are helpful; others are evasive. You might think that it’d make for a repetitive, slow narrative but really I quite enjoyed this meticulous combing over of the details. Mathilde is a much more conscientious investigator than me: I forgot every detail within a page or two but you can bet your ass she was lodging them in her brain for safe keeping.

It’s with Mathilde, in fact, that I think Japrisot really excels here. I love her pig-headedness, her refusal to be pitied, and her shrewd ability to sum up others. Without her at the helm I think this novel could easily get bogged down in all that detail but with her it becomes an intensely compelling journey. Japrisot gets her tone of voice just right so that she’s sarcastic without being alienating, single-minded without becoming utterly exasperating. He also subjects the reader to all of her whims; sometimes you feel like she’s sharing her journey with you but at others she keeps the reader at arm’s length. By the end of this novel I cared about Mathilde enough to not mind the fact that the solution to the mystery rests on a rather unlikely coincidence; I was just glad she’d found some answers.

Given the subject matter I was relieved that A Very Long Engagement never strays into mawkish territory and again I think that’s something to do with Japrisot’s portrayal of the clear headed Mathilde. I also think credit lies with the writing; it’s intimate in its depiction of France before, during and after the war but without ever becoming overly sentimental about the effects of that war. It’s an emotional journey both for Mathilde and for the reader but there are moments of real beauty and humour among the horrors. It’s absolutely worthwhile.

Top Ten Tuesday: Novels set in France

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is along the lines of Top Ten Books with [XXX] Setting

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There’s a lot of scope with this topic, which probably accounts for the fact that for the first time in ages I’m actually sticking with the original TTT theme and not rewriting it to suit my own whims. I’ve chosen Top Ten Novels set in France because I’m reading one at the moment and there are several others on my mental TBR list.

Also, I love France.

1. A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot. I’m so close to the end of this book and I’ll be sorry to finish it. I’ve enjoyed it hugely. Set in 1919, this is the story of Mathilde, her love for Manech and her quest to uncover the precise circumstances around his disappearance in the war.

2. The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas. This was hands down one of the best books I read last year. Edmund Dantes is falsely imprisoned, escapes and then plots his revenge on those responsible. Brilliant. Full review here.

3. Chocolat (1999) by Joanne Harris. I read a whole swathe of Joanne Harris books about fifteen years ago and this was by far the best (and the only one I now remember in any detail). Vianne sets up a chocolaterie in a small town in the middle of Lent and causes a stir amongst her new neighbours.

4. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens. Dickens’ only historical novel and one of my favourites. Dr Manette is released from the Bastille at the start of the novel but must return to revolutionary Paris years later when his daughter’s husband faces the guillotine. Full review here.

5. Suite Francaise (2004) by Irene Nemirovsky. Beautifully written but unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 1942 Suite Francaise was intended to be a sequence of novels about life in France immediately after the German invasion. 

6. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustav Flaubert. The scandalous tale of a doctor’s wife who seeks escape from her provincial life in the arms of other men. Flaubert perfectly captures all of Emma’s contradictions so you don’t know whether to hate her or sympathise.

7. Tender is the Night (1934) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This book is becoming something of a TTT regular. Tender is the Night is a powerful account of the disintegration of a marriage (based on Fitzgerald’s own experience) and told against the backdrop of the French Riviera.

8. The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas. A ridiculously entertaining adventure story featuring D’Artagnan and his friends, this is much better than you might expect.

9. Charlotte Gray (1999) by Sebastien Faulks. Not one of my favourites but I loved the subject matter, if not the characterisation (or, in fact, the writing). I could write a whole book about how much I hate Charlotte – and why I don’t think Faulks does a good job of honouring the real female agents who parachuted into occupied France during the war – but there’s no denying the fact that I devoured this book whole in 24 hours. It can’t really have been that bad.

10. Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo. It’s long, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but if you can get through all the filler there’s a lot of good stuff here about an orphan, a criminal, love and redemption. Just don’t go in expecting it to be like the film (it’s better).

On my TBR I also have: A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbary) and about a hundred others….

Can you recommend any? Suggestions always welcome!

Seeking books from Latvia….

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Just a quick call out for book suggestions…

We’re off to Riga for a short break later this year and I’m desperately trying to find books set in Latvia or written by Latvian authors (and readily available in English translation) to read before we go. Fiction would be ideal but all I’ve really found so far are war memoirs.

Any alternative recommendations would be very gratefully received. Thanks!

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher (1996) by Ahn Do-hyun

Last week I went to a library for the first time in three months. I’ve been meaning to join a new one ever since I changed jobs but it’s taken a while, partly, I think, because I’m still in denial about leaving my lovely old library behind (I know I just need to get over it and move on with my life). This new library is fairly close to my new office. It’s slightly smaller, definitely a bit shabbier, but it seems to be well stocked and the books are much more varied than at the old place. Now that I’ve got a card – and now I know I can definitely get there and back on my lunchbreak – I’m going to try to get back into the habit of going regularly. Maybe once every couple of weeks while the weather’s nice.

I came away with five books on Monday, this being one of them. I was actually looking for an Elena Ferrante book – the mythical Holy Grail of library books of course – but inevitably it was out and the waiting list was huge so I ended up browsing elsewhere. The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher caught my eye. It’s short, has a pretty cover, an intriguing name, and it’s by an author I’ve never heard of. It brings us to the next stop on my Around the World in 80 Books tour: South Korea.

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This is the story of Silver Salmon, so called because of his sparkling scales, who asks difficult questions that make him unpopular with the rest of the fish in his shoal. He wonders why it’s so important to make the perilous journey up river each year, why they must avoid the humans who lurk along the banks with their nets and whether this is all there is to the life of a salmon. It feels a little like a gentle bedtime story, told very simply and openly like a children’s book. Some of the language is quite beautiful but I have to say that I got a little distracted by the fact that the narration often seemed to change tenses in the middle of a sentence. I couldn’t decide whether this was deliberate, and if so what purpose it served, or if it was just one of those weird quirks of the translation.

On the whole I was really a little underwhelmed by this book but that just seems to be my standard response to any book that I think I’m supposed to engage with on a philosophical level. I very rarely come away from books like this feeling like I’ve learnt an important life lesson and in this case I think I’d have preferred a simple story about some fish. Maybe the profundity about seeing through the eyes of the heart or whatever was just laid on too thickly… or maybe I’m just a cynical, cold hearted person with no soul. I won’t say that I disliked it, because it’s actually quite nicely written, but I will say that it was just not my cup of tea.

I got four other books out at the same time as this so I’m hopeful that I might enjoy one of those a little more. In the meantime I’m slowly working my way up the waiting list for that Elena Ferrante book…. !

Top Ten Tuesday: My Literary Dinner Party

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week we were encouraged to visit/revisit some old TTT themes from months and years past… 

Top Ten Literary Dinner Party Guests is not (as far as I know) an old TTT theme. It’s one that I’ve just made up but it sounds like the real deal. The idea came about because of one of those silly late night conversations about which famous people, dead or alive, you’d invite to dinner. Except, last time we had this conversation I had a complete meltdown over it because I realised that a) I had too many guests I wanted to invite and b) the men far outnumbered the women (because ‘history’ is mean like that). In an effort to address the balance someone was going to get bumped off the guest list to make way for Eleanor of Aquitaine and I had a horrible feeling that it would end up being Rick Mayall and that, my friends, would have been a bloody travesty. Wouldn’t Mayall be more fun at a party? But wasn’t a strong female presence needed to balance out Oliver Reed? I agonised over my guest list for so long that P eventually turned out the light and went to sleep.

This, then, is a revised list made up of only authors, poets and playwrights. No Rick Mayall. No Queen Eleanor (I know they both wrote books but let’s just not go there, ok?). Here goes:

1. Oscar Wilde. I bet Oscar gets a lot of imaginary invites to imaginary dinner parties. He’d keep everyone entertained with his witty, entertaining conversation but I wonder if it’d wear a bit thin after a while?  

2. Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith is probably the coolest person I can imagine. I’d turn into the worst kind of grovelling fan if she came to my party.

3. Lord Byron. This could be the worst decision ever. Sure he’d be fun and I don’t particularly mind if the party descends into drunken debauchery under his influence since it’s an imaginary one and I won’t have to clean up afterwards…. But, what if he brings his bear? Or fires his pistols during the starters? Or tries to seduce Zadie? Byron’s a risk. But it might pay off.

4. Mikhail Bulgakov. Purely because I read A Country Doctor’s Notebook last week and I’d like some more of those stories please.

5. Mary Shelley. I’d like to hear all about her  elopement with Percy Shelley, those months in self-imposed exile on the continent, that evening creating horror stories with Byron and Polidori in Italy…. I imagine she’d have some brilliant (but possibly quite sad) stories.

6. Christopher Isherwood. Just because I love every book of his that I’ve read (which, admittedly, isn’t many) and I think they’re all beautiful. Plus, he was a very well travelled man so he’d have some great tales to tell.

7. George Eliot. I like reading about Eliot’s crazy life and her intense relationships with others and I’d happily spend a night hearing about it straight from the horses’s mouth. I bet she and Byron would get on pretty well.

8. Agatha Christie.Maybe Christie would use my party as inspiration for one of her stories, one in which an eclectic group of writers are mysteriously gathered together for no apparent reason and then they all start getting bumped off, one by one… hmm. No. Maybe not a good idea at all.

9. Terry Pratchett. Every good dinner party needs an opinionated, slightly mad (in a good way) guest.

10.  Zelda Fitzgerald. By all accounts, when Zelda was at her best she was intelligent, creative and high spirited; the perfect dinner guest. I’d try to invite her before the marriage though, when she was still Zelda Sayre, and had fewer cares in life.

There are some notable exceptions here: Austen (too prim), Dickens (he might bring everyone down by talking about social reform or something), Hemingway (Byron’s enough for one night)…. What do you think? Have I missed anyone vitally important?!