Friday 24 June 2011

The Summer without Men

I'm a sucker for any book that says 'By turns, funny, moving and erudite, playfully reminding us of a contemporary Jane Austen' on the cover. Does Siri Husvedt's writing remind us of a contemporary Jane Austen? I'd say not. Austen's genius was very rare. Did I like this book? Well yes, with some reservations.

It's a depressingly familiar story. Husband leaves ageing wife for younger colleague. Wife goes briefly crazy and then takes herself off for the summer to teach poetry to teenagers and visit her elderly mother. Mia engages with the adolescent girls she teaches, her mother's sparky elderly friends and a young woman with a family and troublesome husband who live next door.

There are lots of literary diversions - discourses on the nature of mental illness, directly addressing the reader a la Charlotte Bronte and experiments with the narrative. I really liked the creative writing class and I thought the novel was excellent on newly teenage girls and the bullying, competitiveness and vulnerability of that age group.

Three contemporary novels in a row. Now I really am ready to go back to my beloved vintage literature.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Summer reading

I remember listening to an archive Radio 4 interview with the writer Storm Jameson. I can't quote her words exactly but she said the while many intelligent, articulate and perceptive people can write a good book it is not the same as writing a great book.

This is how I felt about Every Last One by Anna Quindlen. Good but not great. It starts off as a portrayal of family life. Middle-aged mother Mary Beth Latham runs her own gardening business. Three teenage children, reliable husband, nice house in New England and comfortable finances. Quindlen is good on the conflicts between work and motherhood and the difficulties of maintaining a relationship with teenagers.

About half way through the novel there is a completely unexpected event which this reader certainly did not anticipate. Again Quindlen is very good at writing about the fractured nature of a crisis and the grief, guilt, gossip and small-town claustrophobia that follows. I think it was the continuous present tense that irked me - 'I'm sitting on the screened porch, I'm at the garden centre, I pull into the driveway ...' That said, I would read more Quindlen.

Having read two contemporary novels in a row I now need some Austen. Mansfield Park is on my mind ...

Sunday 5 June 2011

Beach Read

Last week we had a family holiday in beautiful Polperro, Cornwall. I took Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky after a good review in The Sunday Times caught my eye.

Loosely based on the ballet Pulcinella it is a story of family life with lost identities, coincidences and lovers re-united. I did enjoy it. I particularly liked ballet-mad Zoe who desperately wants to dance, begs her mother for lessons and devours ballet stories for girls. I also liked her mother, Caroline, a remarkably resourceful woman who makes a little money stretch a long way. Caroline's complete personality change after discovering a secret her own mother had kept from her was a little far-fetched but it kept me turning the pages. There is also the fascinating backstory of Josh and Ida Silver, humanists and activists in South Africa and parents of Zoe's father, Josh.

If you are looking for a superior holiday read, you may like this.