Friday, 18 November 2016

Lloyd Jones

Wandering through my local branch of Waterstones, I picked up a copy of Lloyd Jones latest book, A History of Silence, on sale for £1. Never one to refuse a bargain, this one provided me with several days of slow, contemplative reading. I'm a fan of Lloyd Jones writing, having read a few of his novels, such as The Book of Fame, Mister Pip and most recently Hand Me Down World. This last was borrowed from my local library and was quite different to his other books, in that the story is about a young African woman, working in a hotel, who becomes pregnant and has her child stolen from her. Her story is told mainly through the eyes of those who she comes into contact with on her terrible journey as she  searches to find her son again. Many people help Ines, as she is called, not all of them willingly. Eventually Ines reaches Berlin, where her son is living with his father, but her difficulties do not end there. She is homeless, without money, but manages to find work and help from other people from time to time. This story gave me an insight into the horrendous difficulties people overcome in their search for a better life when they choose to migrate across the Mediterranean sea and across Europe to their destination, and how they may be helped along the way, or treated unkindly, or worse.

A History of Silence is a family memoir and a reflection on the earthquakes in New Zealand in 2011. The family memoir tells of Lloyd Jones growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, his early life there, his brothers and sisters and his parents. His mother's life seems to have been complicated,, but her story is gently teased out from the silence and dissimulation that seem to have surrounded it.
I enjoyed this memoir, which is not a traditional linear story, as a gentle, discursive read, as the writing is clear yet imaginative. It occasionally goes off at surprising tangents, but these are usually linked back to the family story or the authors reflections on it. The visit to Pembroke in search for the sailor who "died at sea" was unproductive, but gave Lloyd Jones a chance to consider his family connections with Wales.

Monday, 31 October 2016

All the light we cannot see

A recent read I really enjoyed is Antony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See.  The title comes from the radio waves and other forms of electro-magnetic communication waves which we cannot see with our eyes, yet which surround us everywhere. Apparently Antony Doerr saw someone on a train beating his mobile phone on the armrest of his seat when the train entered a tunnel, thus losing connection, and thought how we take such communication for granted these days. This was one of our Book Club choices and I was really glad to see it on the list. ( We usually choose 5 -6 months worth of titles at a time, and meet every three weeks for discussion along with coffee and cake)
I hadn't read anything by this author before, and will now seek out some of his other titles.
Set during, before and after World War Two, this is a complex book, with many different themes, yet is so beautifully written that despite its length it seemed to be an easy read. Each chapter is fairly short, so there is time to really grasp the flow of the story. Partly a coming-of-age story, as both main characters, Werner and Marie-Laure, are very young during the story and only teenagers when they finally and briefly meet; partly about the impact of radio communication, Werner is a young German radio whizz; partly about blindness -  Marie-Laure has been blind since the age of six; partly about the Nazi's hunt for  art treasures in the countries they invaded; despite these varied themes the story combines them in elegant, lyrical prose. The discussion we had during our book Club meeting ended with a desire to have a group outing to St Malo, a place which some but not all had visited, and which is also an important character in the book.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Last of the summer reading

Autumn is definitely here now days are getting shorter with darker mornings and evenings and I need to catch up with comments on some of my late summer and early autumn reading.

  Having read Lila, the last of Marilyn Robinson's trilogy set in the small rural town of Gilead first, I thought I'd better catch up with the others. Gilead is the first and a beautiful read. Written as a letter to his young son by John Ames who is now aged and recalling his past life. He often refers to "your mother" but never mentions her name when talking to his son, yet it is apparent that he loves and values her. The letter explains John Ames' whole life, his close friendship with the Presbyterian minster the Rev Boughton, his father and grandfather, who was an abolitionist and eccentric in his behaviour. The reflections on life in a small mid-western American town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are eloquently described and the theology by which John Ames lives is almost more humanistic than Calvinist, although he frequently mentions the grace of God throughout his reminiscences.

       Beloved by Toni Morrison is a book that escaped me when first published, but the beauty of a trip to my local library and a browse along its shelves is that it reveals several titles that I feel like reading; this title was one such. Beloved won the Pulitzer prize in 1988 and Toni Morrison the Nobel prize for literature in 1993. This is a complicated story about slavery and its consequences in the Southern states of America. Sethe and her daughter Denver are living in a house which previously belonged to Sethe' mother-in-law and which is haunted. Paul D arrives, a former slave and friend of Sethe's husband who has disappeared, and manages to expel the ghost, but a real life girl appears, called Beloved, the name of the infant whom Sethe killed when she was found after running away from the plantation on which she was a slave. Beloved is welcomed into the household, and gradually seems to take over. Sethe loses her job which provided the only income to the household but still spends money on providing beloved with whatever she demands. Eventually matters come to head; Denver asks a group of local women to help. When the group arrive to visit Sethe, Denver's employer, a white man arrives to collect her for work, but Sethe thinks this is a re-enactment of a past event when she was escaping slavery. However a tragedy is prevented, but in the comings and goings of this event, Beloved disappears.  There are  a number of themes running through this novel, as well as slavery and its consequences for both black and white people America is shown at a time of change, just after the Civil war. Memory and how past memories are repressed for fear of what remembering might bring is another theme, as is the relationship between mother and daughters.

Yet another novel set in America, in the west as it was being opened up by pioneers is Willa Cather's "O Pioneers". I found this while browsing the local brocante fair in France and paid one euro for it.
Set in the underdeveloped prairie lands of Nebraska, this is the story of Alexandra Bergson, who is sixteen at the beginning  of the  tale, and her family. Her father, a Swede who left his native land for a new life in America, is dying and leaves the farm to Alexandra, realising that she has the intelligence and ability to make it successful. Her two younger brothers each inherit shares in the land, while the youngest Emil is set to go to university and study law. The descriptions of family life on the farms, the social lives of those who have chosen to make their lives in this hard land are drawn from Willa Cather's childhood in Nebraska. There was a mix of immigrants from many European countries, all searching for a better life for themselves and their families, along with the Native Americans, original inhabitants of the prairies. Alexandra is friendly with another Nordic family, the Linstrums and their son Carl. However the Linstrums leave Nebraska during a prolonged drought. Sixteen years later, Carl returns, meanwhile Emil has fallen in love with Marie, who they have known since childhood and who is now married to Frank. this affair is ended brutally. Despite being written over 100 years ago, the descriptions of human behaviour show that we haven't changed very much. I have read the last in this trilogy, My Antonia, but have yet to catch up with the second.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Summer reading mixture

A bit of a mixed bag of books have been read this summer ( but my winter reading is just as much of a mixture as well)
Marilyn Robinson's Lila was a book club read, and provoked quite a bit of discussion on and around the story. Several others in the Book Club had read the author's other two books in this trilogy, Gilead and Home, although I hadn't at the time. I'm slowly reading Gilead at the moment. Marilyn Robinson' s writing beautiful, spare prose is a delight to read, with not an unnecessary word, but sufficient to build a picture in one's mind of the people and places she delineates.Lila is the focus of the story and sometimes the narrator in a sort of stream of consciousness. Lilais rescued from a traumatic and neglectful situation in early life by Doll, who is a drifter. Both Doll and Lila are taken and looked after by an old woman who cares for them both, helping to bring Lila back to normal health. Lila and Doll live a drifter sort of life, along with a group of others, finding work where they can and living rough. Doll does find settled work for a while, and sends Lila to school for a year, during which Lila learns to read and write and impresses the teacher with her innate intelligence. Doll kills a a man, possibly Lila's father and is put in jail,.Lila, after a job in a brothel in St Louis where she quickly prefers to do the cleaning, drifts away and finds shelter in a small abandoned cabin in Gilead. Eventually she meets the Reverend John Ames  almost by chance, while he is preaching a sermon in his church- she takes shelter in the church during a rainstorm. I loved the writing and the thoughts about theology that the Reverend John Ames displays, as well as Lila's reactions to him and the people in the town.

Rachel Johnson's Winter Games was a completely different read. Set in the 1930's and 2006, it is a family story, of a sort. Daphne is the heroine of the earlier period, which is set mostly in 1936 and in Germany, where Daphne is sent to be "finished", aged 18. Francie, Daphne's granddaughter goes to Germany in connection with her job as a feature writer for a glossy magazine, and discovers a picture of her grandmother there. Francie is wildly attracted to her boss, Nathan and has a brief fling with him, despite being married to Gus. The story goes back and forth between past and present, although not in a confusing way. A good, light read with some very amusing comments about modern urban life, although given the subject matter of Daphne's part of the story, not too light -hearted.

Julian Barnes' Nothing to be frightened of is an interesting meditation and exploration of the fear of death and dying, combined with a sort-of family memoir. (review here )Although the subject of death and dying is serious one, this book is very funny in places, and I mean laugh-out-loud funny, especially some of the family memories and how truthful they actually are. Various family members of the author's family make their appearance, notably his brother, a professor of philosophy. There is also some discussion about the reliability of memory ( Julian and his brother often recall the same event quite differently) and the contrast between memory and imagination.

The last of this mixed bag of reading is Esther Freud's Lucky Break, a story of a small group of actors who meet for the first time at drama school. We follow their lives through their college days and their early acting careers. The group is mixed in many ways. Sita is Asian, Charlie has a Nigerian father and an Engkish mother, while Nell, Dan, Pierre and Jemma are all English. nell and Sita join together to do some work, Sita gets offered "Asian girl being forced into arranged marriage" parts too often for her liking. Nell eventually gets offered a lead part in a film, the premiere involves meeting Royalty. Charlie seems to be headed for success as soon as she leaves the drama school, but her career later apparently founders. Dan and Jemma marry and have 4 children; by the end of the story, he seems to be successful.  An interesting look at behind the scenes of actors lives, the highs and lows, and the many and varied links they have with each other, those who mange to stay in the profession and those who leave for their own varied reasons.

Monday, 5 September 2016

A reading medley

I've read a mix of books recently, but not yet blogged about any of them. Two of them were very interesting non-fiction , Coastlines by Patrick Barkham and The Edge f the World: how the North Sea made us who we are by Michael Pye.

Patrick Barkham's Coastlines, subtitled The Story of our Shore  is a ramble round those parts of the English coast which are owned by the National Trust under Operation Neptune, which was set up in 196, to protect those same parts from development - places such as Brownsea Island in Dorset, part of the Isle of Wight from the Needles, Tennyson Down and Blackgang Chine, part of the Durham coast, where coal mining took place. Many are popular spots for visitors, while others are small, less significant places, known mainly to local residents. 
A bit of a rag-bag of stories, but an interesting read, especially if one has visited any of these coastal areas. The writing usually flows well and each chapter ends with references to walks in the area, relevant maps and further readings. Should one want to follow these up, they would provide a lifetime of excursions and reading.

The Edge of the World : how the North Sea made us who we are by Michael is an historical look at the development of Northern Europe after the Romans left, about AD 400 up to the latter part of the 17th century. The author's premise is that the North Sea was at least as important in the cultural, political, social and any other development of Northern Europe as the Mediterranean sea. He has chapters on the Book Trade, Fashion, the Invention of Money,  and the Plague laws, all containing interesting anecdotes, and documented examples of how individual people or  groups took part in these activities or helped develop them. But much of what he quotes is fragmentary and although the author puts a lot of emphasis on the sea and the development of trade and shipping, it is not very detailed. A very interesting read but at times frustrating, as for me it raised almost as many questions as it purported to answer.  I think that most people with some interest in history and what happened after the Romans left Britain will enjoy it, but may also want to read more detail elsewhere.

Sarah Dunant's Blood and Beauty is one of her historical novels set in the Renaissance about the Borgias, specifically Pope Alexander Vl and his children Lucrezia and Cesare. Although a novel, obviously much research has been done, but this does not impinge too much on the story, as Sarah Dunant tries to concentrate on the thoughts and feelings of the characters which are may not necessarily be part of recorded history. Lucrezia comes across in this tale as a more sympathetic person than the myths that have come down to us would make us believe, but Cesare and his father the Pope seem to be as bad as they have been described by history. An interesting and enjoyable  read despite  or because of the scheming , mayhem and numerous murders for which the Borgia papacy was famous.

I picked up The Parasites by Daphne DuMaurier on a visit to my local library, as it was one of her novels I hadn't read. It is the story of the Delaneys, Maria, Niall and Celia and their talented parents. Maria is a talented actress, Niall a composer of popular songs, Celia cares for her increasingly frail father, a renowned singer. Their mother was wonderful dancer, their childhood one of touring with their parents. It is Maria's husband Sir Charles Wyndham who describes them as parasites. This comment cause the three Delaneys to reflect on their lives, their relationships to each other and their parents. Maria and Niall are not actually related to each by blood, as each is the child of Pappy and Mama by previous relationships. Celia is half-sister to both. The novel moves back and forth in time from their reflections of the past to the weekend which changes all their lives.  

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Recent Doings

 Two concerts and a visit to an abandoned medieval village have been part of the entertainment recently while in France. The concerts, both held in small village churches were both delightful though very different from each other. The first concert  we attended  together with about 60 other people, local residents, second home owners and their visitors was in the church at Le Vaulmier, was part of a series organised by the Festival of Baroque Music in the Auvergne with Cantica Sacra. Concerts  are usually held in some of the many Romanesque and other churches in the Auvergne region. The two women musicians making up  a part of Cantica Sacra, Bogumila Gizbert-Studnicka (harpsichord)and Paulina Tkaczyk (flute and harpsichord) were excellent and played a variety of Baroque music. The second concert was by a solo pianist, Jean Baptiste Mathulin  and was superb. This took place in the church in Trizac, a large village a few miles away, under the auspices of  Les Hauvergnales,  a local organisation holding a series of events celebrating the village and its area.
I also visited the site of Cotteughes, an abandoned village on the plateau de Trizac. The abandonment took place during the latter part of the 14th century, possibly due to a variety of causes, including the Plague, the I00 Years War, which affected the Auvergne quite badly, and a change in the climate for the worse, making life up on the plateau which is over 1200 metres above sea level, that much more difficult. The site has been excavated, but few articles of interest have been found. 

The guides to the visit were a lady who was very knowledgeable about the history of the site, and a gentleman who explained the local plant life, of which the former inhabitants  made good use. Cotteughes is situated close to the Marilhou stream, which also has a small waterfall not far away through a pretty woodland path.
The Marilhou cascade, September 2015.

 This year the waterfall may not be so full of water, as this region  has had no rainfall for several weeks now, and the local farmers are beginning to move their cattle down from the high summer pastures,  they are now so dry the grass is insufficient to feed for the animals.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Anna of the Five Towns

Anna of the Five Towns is the first novel by Arnold Bennett that I have read. Quite how I 've managed to avoid reading him, one of the more prolific writers of the 20th century, I don't know. This tale was published in 1902. Arnold Bennett seemed to fall out of favour later in the 20th century, but is apparently having a bit of a revival at the moment.
Anna story is of a young woman who inherits a large sum of money from her  long dead mother, having been brought up in a life of drudgery and plain living under her father's thumb. The setting is the Potteries, where Bennett himself grew up and used a setting for several of his stories. Anna is wooed by a young Non-Conformist minister, Henry Mynors, but she also has feelings for Willie Price, son of Titus Price, who runs a pottery business in a building owned by Anna. Titus is behind with his rent, and eventually becomes bankrupt and commits suicide. Anna realises she loves Willie, who plans to leave for Australia, but she marries Henry, to whom she has become engaged, while Willie also kills himself.
Bennett evokes the grimy atmosphere of the Potteries, and contrasts it with a holiday Anna takes with friends, a family with a daughter about her age.Beatrice, who is a lady of leisure compared to Anna, whose life is one of much domestic drudgery, despite her newly gained wealth. Women are not portrayed as being capable of business, yet many of the women of the period and place worked in the potteries, often of painters of the wares used in the home, cups, saucers, plates and so on.
Considering that this was first published in 1902, Bennett probably reflects the attitudes of the time, only for them to at least begin to change after the First World War, a few years in the future from the setting of this book.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Some recent reads

I've neglected this blog for a while, but have still been reading, both for personal interest and for the book club I belong to, the reading for which is still usually enjoyable.

One of the latter reads was The cellist of Sarajevo by Stevan Galloway, describing the cellist who sat outside his apartment in Sarajevo during the nearly four year long siege of that city and played for 22 days to remember the 22 people killed in a mortar attack on a queue for bread. There are only 4 main characters, including the cellist; two men one of whom has to collect water for his family, an older man who meets a long lost friend while out searching for bread, and a young woman who is sniper and is given the job of protecting the cellist while he plays. The privations of life in a modern city under siege are carefully made clear, while the characters show us the courage of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. Although desperately sad  and moving at times, nevertheless a great and uplifting read.

Another intriguing read was a debut novel by Cecelia Ekback, Wolf Winter. Set in Sweden in 1717, a time when Sweden was involved in several wars, taking away many of the male population. Maija and her husband and two daughters move from Finland to northern Sweden to take over a relative's small farm on Blackasen mountain. Shortly after arriving, the two girls find a dead body and run home to inform their mother. Maija wants to know how he died and who killed himwhen it is revealed he didn't die a natural death. The story follows Maija's search for the truth, while also managing the farm on her own while her husband goes away. The winter she and her daughters endure is very hard, made more difficult by the failure of the summer harvest. 
A well researched historical novel and also very accomplished writing for a debut novel. The sense of menace both from other people and nature itself is very successful.

For a complete change of reading material, I picked up Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside. Philip Hoare is a local author to me, as he lives in Southampton. He swims daily in Southampton Water. This book is about the sea, not just the local part of it but the wider oceans and their inhabitants, particularly whales and dolphins, our nearest marine cousins. His descriptions of whale watching in various parts of the world and of visiting Tasmania and finding that the Tasmanian devil may not be extinct are fascinating. A discursive and interesting read.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Brexit thoughts

On Friday morning I woke up in our holiday home in the rural Cantal to the news on French radio that Britain had voted to leave the European Union. My immediate feeling was one of immense sadness and despair.
I'm also getting a bit tired of the vote to leave being blamed on the older generation. As an over 65 year old, I'm of that generation, but voted to remain along with 40% of fellow over 65's, and as I had voted to stay in Europe in the vote held in 1975, two years after we joined what was then called the Common Market.
Britain has always been a part of Europe, geographically, politically and culturally. Our history has been European since before the waters rose after the last Ice Age and cut us off from the continent of which we were part. The world  and Europe now is even more interconnected than has been in the past, with the Internet and more efficient transport links - are we going to demolish the Channel tunnel, a physical link to the continent? between Britain and the rest of Europe
French news media is full of constant opinions as to what happens next between Britain and the rest of Europe.
We live in interesting times, as the saying goes and time will tell whose predictions about the future of Britain will be realised.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Spring reading

It is well and truly spring, despite the fact that I'm still wearing layers of clothes.With variable weather and chilly winds, it seems that spring is here to stay a while. But at least when the sun does appear, it now has some actual warmth in it, rather than just looking good. Out on a walk yesterday, through some woods, I saw violets and wood anemones, as well as some pulmonaria and a few orchids just appearing.

Wood anenomes

Wild violets

 In the cooler and wetter spring days, I've been doing some reading .Rosie Thomas' Daughter of the House, set in London just after World War One was an enjoyable read Nancy Wix is the daughter of Devil Wix and his actress wife Emily, and has no desire to act on stage, in the theatre owned by her father.After the war the men returning from the fighting want their old jobs back .However, Nancy has a gift which will help save the theatre now fallen on hard times, as the variety shows of the past are no longer popular with audiences. Nancy's gift is a sort of clairvoyance, developed with aid of the mysterious Mr Feather, which proves very popular with the post First World War audiences. Nancy has an affair with a wealthy businessman who sets her up in her own flat. I found this tale , with its descriptions of the lifestyle of the "bright young things" of the twenties and as the tale progresses, hints of more disruption in Europe to come, an engaging read. I have enjoyed several of Rosie Thomas's novels, and this one was well up to standard.
Another recent read was The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. This novel is set in early nineteenth century Charleston and is about slavery. The two main characters are Sarah Grimke and her personal slave Hetty, also called Handful.. The story alternates between Sarah and Hetty's points of view. Sarah's family were rich, her father a judge and plantation owner, but while Sarah's brothers are sent away to be educated, Sarah herself receives little in the way of education, although she can read anything in her fathers extensive library. She even teaches Hetty to read, although this was against the law. Sarah Grimke was a real person, a abolitionist in the early to mid nineteenth century, at a time when slavery in America was seen as necessary in the southern States and when women had few if any rights nor expectations of education or work, other than marriage.
Cecelia Ekback's Wolf  Winter is a debut novel and a very accomplished one. Set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, the story tells how Maije and her husband and two daughters settle in a small place on Blackausen mountain. The atmosphere of menace starts early in the story with the discovery of a dead body by Maije's daughters. Maije's search for the truth behind this killing leads to all sorts of discoveries among  the people of the small settlement and the local townspeople, despite their efforts to cover things up. Well-researched and well-written with a very successful sense of atmosphere and menace, this was a very interesting read.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

A few quick thoughts

I've been doing some reading, but haven't posted my thoughts for a while. One book I found an interesting read was Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which was 2014's Booker prize winner. The story of Darrigo Evans, a Tasmanian who becomes a doctor just before the Second World War. He joins the Australian army , becomes an officer and is eventually posted to the Asian theatre of war, where he becomes a prisoner of the Japanese and one of the many men who were forced to build the notorious Burma railway. A large part of the book describes the appalling conditions of that situation, but also tells of Darrigo's attempts to make life easier for the men. In contrast to the horror of war, Darrigo's experiences with women, his wife and others are tenderly narrated.

I actually enjoyed Niall Williams The History of the Rain more, although it was only (!) longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker prize. Narrated by Ruth Swain, lying in her attic bedroom under a skylight streaming with rain, surrounded by her father's library.Although it seemed a little slow to get into, when Ruth begins to tell her family story, I became absorbed in the book. We all have family stories behind us, as well as making our own. Ruth tells of how her father grew up, how his family first came to Ireland, how her parents met and her father's attempts at farming on their 14 aces of unsuitable land. Ruth's comments on the events around her are delightfully sharp and funny, and the writing is lovely. Ruth's descriptions of her father's books and her relationship to a huge number of individual titles is fascinating, as is the importance of actual physical books to her, her father and grandmother.
A wonderful story of lives as they are being lived, about human failings and sadness, but also about hope and persistence.

D J Taylor's The Windsor Faction starts from the assumption that Wallis Simpson died on the operating table and that Edward VIII carries on as king. It's a "What if history had been different" story, which makes for interesting fiction, especially as in this tale, several of the characters are real. The extracts from the diaries of Beverly Nichols are a nice touch - I've only read a few of his gardening books in the past, and Edwards behaviour seems to be based on the many biographies and memoirs that are about him. We also get a different point of view, that of Cynthia Kirkpatrick, who returns to England from Ceylon as World War Two breaks out. Cynthia becomes a secretary at a literary magazine, and also is involved with Tyler Kent  and eventually is asked to work for MI5. The atmosphere of what is called "the phony war" is evoked very well, and the whole story is enjoyable, especially as we know the eventual outcome of the war in real life, but is not apparent at the end of this story.

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