Monday 29 December 2014

The Road to Middlemarch

I've read two charming biblio-memoirs this year.  The first was Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year and I've just finished Rebecca Mead's The Road to Middlemarch.  Mead is a New York based journalist who has read and re-read George Eliot's Middlemarch and found it resonates at different times in her life. She writes of her English childhood by the seaside, her academic years at Oxford , marriage and motherhood with Middlemarch providing a reliable source of sustenance through life's successes and failures. 

Mead is a perceptive literary critic and there is some delicious detail about the life of George Eliot in this memoir.  I didn't know that Eliot re-read all of Jane Austen's novels before embarking on Middlemarch which may account for the comic skewed dialogue between Dorothea and her sister Celia, particularly Celia's horror that her earnest and beautiful sister is going to marry the 'dried up husk' of an academic Casaubon who has reached the advanced age of fifty.  (Eliot was 52 when she wrote Middlemarch!) Best of all this book will make you want to re-discover George Eliot.

I'll wish you all a happy New Year and leave you with a lovely snowy quote from The Mill on the Floss:
Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy; it lay with the neatliest finished border on every sloping roof, making the dark-red gables stand out with a new depth of colour;  it weighed heavily on the laurels and fir-trees till it fell from them with a shuddering sound ...  The Mill on the Floss, 1860, George Eliot

Friday 28 November 2014


Have you caught Ferrante fever yet? No, me neither. Until last week that is when I was wandering around Waterstones on my everlasting search for well-written contemporary fiction with my birthday book tokens burning a hole in my pocket. I picked up Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend initially attracted by the cover and one of the ladies working in the store highly recommended it and told me a little about #ferrantefever. Elena Ferrante’s three novels, known as the Neapolitan trilogy are becoming something of a literary sensation, partly because they are so readable and partly because the identity of the author is a mystery. I started reading My Brilliant Friend last Friday night and then couldn’t put it down all week.
It’s a coming of age story about the friendship between Lila and Elena which begins when they are eight or nine growing up in a small village in Naples during the 1950's. Their friendship is intense and competitive and life among the poor working classes in their village is pretty brutal. There is a lovely account of the day they decide to skip school and leave their village for the first time to walk to the Napoli coast near Vesuvius. They confidently set out with no concept of time or distance and soon are hungry, tired and wary of a violet light in the sky indicating an impending thunderstorm. When they turn back Elena’s mother has gone to the school to meet her holding an umbrella to shelter her from the rain. When she discovers Elena has lied her mother whacks her with the umbrella while Lila’s parents don’t even notice she has gone! Some readers have found the harsh realism in this novel a little excessive but I prefer to read about life as it is rather than ‘cosy' fiction.
My Brilliant Friend reminded me a little of Lorrie Moore’s Who will Run the Frog Hospital? a highly readable novel which leaves you wondering how much is fiction and how much is memoir.  I’ve already started the second volume The Story of a New Name and I'm going to save the third volume Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay for my Christmas read.  There is more about Elena Ferrante here and here, but I warn you #ferrantefever is infectious!

Saturday 25 October 2014

Return to Gilead

Prairie had come into the fields and the orchards again and there were sunflowers growing in the road between the ruts. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Look forward to hearing Marilynne Robinson talk about her new novel Lila at the Sheldonian in Oxford next month. If any book bloggers are going do let me know and maybe we can meet for a coffee - or something stronger! Lila is the third of three novels set in Gilead a fictional small town in Iowa. Each novel beautifully evokes the light, the trees, the flat landscape and the flora 'bee balm and coneflower and bachelor’s button and sweet pea.’

In Gilead the first novel the narrative is relayed in the form of a letter from minister, John Ames, to his young son to be read after his death. He writes of his cantankerous grandfather, also a minister who was active in the Civil War, his life with his wife, young son and family cat, Soapy, and his fears that he will soon die and leave them. He also writes of his struggle as a Christian to contain his dislike for the troubled son of his friend who resurfaces after twenty years and causes ripples of unease.
A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time can destroy more than you would imagine. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
There is a gentle homespun humour in Gilead. When John Ames’ mother consults a home health care manual advising people not to read when their feet are cold his grandfather replies that if you couldn’t read with cold feet their wouldn’t be a literate soul in the state of Maine!
Lila the new novel is dedicated to Iowa and gives us the story of Lila’s life. From Gilead we know that she is the second wife of minister John Ames and mother to his young son. We know that John Ames fell in love with her after she wandered into his church from the rain. We also know that she is much younger than her husband and deeply self-conscious about her lack of education.
As a child just before Great Depression she is unwanted and abused. Flea-ridden and filthy she is taken from her home by a drifter called Doll who nurses her back to health and names her Lila. The two of them join a band of migrant workers moving through towns and villages, finding work where they can and sleeping under the stars with the Dust Bowl storms making it hard to survive. We know little about Doll other than that she has a scarred face, a knife for protection and she adores Lila. When Doll finally needs to use the knife she has to disappear and Lila is forced to join a brothel. Unable to stand working there she hitches a ride to Gilead.
It’s a beautiful novel. I’m hoping there may be more novels from Gilead, particularly the back story of Glory, daughter of John Ames’ friend Boughton and one of my favourite characters in the trilogy.

Friday 12 September 2014

Greek slant

I loved The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s novel about a group of classics students who take their lessons in antiquity a little too far. I read an interview with Tartt where she recommended Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles so I’ve been sitting in the garden in the last of the summer sunshine completely absorbed in this novel.

It’s the story of the love affair between Achilles and Patroclus, boyhood friends who train under the centaur Chiron and then fight in the Trojan wars. Achilles is the son of the sea goddess Thetis who is a terrifying character with an extreme aversion to Patroclus:

'She was taller than I was, taller than any woman I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as it if drank light from the moon. She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe.. I did not dare.'

The novel is narrated by Patroclus in simple language but it’s a thrilling page-turner so descriptive you can almost see the blue Aegean sea. My knowledge of Greek mythology is patchy to say the least so the sacrifice of the young bride Iphigenia came as a shock and the great river god Scamander rising from Troy’s creamy gold river covered in weeds with water pouring off his back to block Achilles from crossing was brilliantly written.
I also very much enjoyed The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes. It’s the story of Alex, a young woman who has lost her finance in tragic circumstances which gradually emerge as the novel progresses. To ease her grief her kindly former lecturer offers her a job teaching drama therapy to a small group of troubled teenagers who have been excluded from mainstream school because of their behaviour.
Alex is fond of Greek tragedy and introduces the students to the plays Oedipus, Alcestis and the Oresteia. Unfortunately, one the students develops an obsession with Alex and starts to enact a revenge tragedy of her own. To mirror this theme the novel is told in five acts. It’s beautifully written, dark and thrilling and you can’t help smiling at the repartee of the students who may have challenging behaviour but they are as sharp as tacks.
Some new literary fiction to look forward to this month - Outline by Rachel Cusk and Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Let’s hope the September sunshine continues a little longer for us all!

Sunday 27 July 2014

My Salinger Year

This charming memoir begins with scenes of literary young women, dressed in a style ‘redolant of Sylvia Plath at Smith’ catching the morning train from Brooklyn, Queens, to their jobs in agencies or publishing houses. Most are secretaries or assistants, keen to work in close proximity to writers and editors and many are secretly writing novels or poetry of their own.

The agency which employs Joanna Rakoff has the elusive J D Salinger as its most famous client and she is under strict instructions that on the rare occasions he may call she must never engage in conversation with him, tell him how much she admires his work or - worst of all - share her own writing ambitions with him.  

The memoir is brilliant on the rhythms and routines of work. The agency still uses typewriters and all the letters are painstakingly transcribed from ancient tape recorders and typed on thick creamy paper with sheets of carbon beneath. The boss lives on her fading reputation and refuses to drag the agency into the 21st century, thus constantly losing clients. Although the novel is set in 1997 the long-serving staff evoke a glamorous era of Dorothy Parker quips, martini-soaked lunches and little black shift dresses. Only the long-suffering James tries to modernise the agency and has the temerity to introduce a computer into the office.
There are lots of fascinating little details about J D Salinger. For example, he banned the use of images on his book covers, stipulating just text so that readers would come to the work free of pre-conceptions. He also refused to receive or read his fan mail so Rakoff is supposed to read all of his letters and send a standard response, but she finds it impossible not to try to introduce some empathy and warmth into the responses.
It's also a memoir about a young woman making her way in New York.  Rakoff’s low pay and impoverished state means she has to consider carefully whether she can afford to grab lunch or coffee at the Polish bakery or the Greek deli or just go without.  She lives with her difficult boyfriend in a flat which can only be heated by putting on the oven and leaving the door open.
I would highly recommend this memoir, it’s warm and gossipy and literary but never unkind. Best of all, it has made me re-read Salinger. I loved The Catcher in the Rye when I was seventeen and I was worried that a story of teenage alienation wouldn't mean the same so many years later.  I picked up a copy at the weekend (interesting that Waterstones have suddenly re-stocked it) and haven't been able to put it down.  Franny and Zooey next, anyone read it?

Saturday 21 June 2014

Lorrie Moore in London

She knew there were only small joys in life - the big ones were too complicated to be joys when you got all through. Lorrie Moore, Like Life
I went to London with my daughter Kate last month to see Lorrie Moore at the South Bank Centre. Although the weather was not warm there was a summery magic to the evening.  I was impressed with Blackfriars station and its view of the London skyline.  The Thames was gloriously grey and rolling and I finally managed to locate the South Bank's open air book market. 

Lorrie Moore read from Bark her new collection of short stories.  Her deadpan delivery of her story Thank You For Having Me which begins with musings on the death of Michael Jackson and moves on to a wedding where the bridesmaid dresses are described as 'one the light peach of baby aspirin, one the sea-foam green of low-dose clonazepam, the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam ' had the whole audience laughing.  The humour is black but also somehow liberating.

When asked for advice by aspiring writers in the audience she recommended to be in it for the long haul, to read and write what you love and to have separate work to make money so that you can be kind to your writing.  She also spoke about a story she'd written called You're Ugly, Too which attracted a lot of attention and has been much anthologised from her Like Life collection

You're Ugly, Too is indeed a remarkable story but I would highly recommend Joy from the same collection.   It's a story about a woman called Jane who loves to sing and works on a cheese counter in the local mall spreading the crackers with samples for customers to taste.  She takes her cat Fluffers to the vet and meets some tiny children with their cat Gooby.  It's funny and sweet and sad.

I don't think I'm going to get a break from work until at least September so I'm having a little summer staycation in the garden with some Lorrie Moore short story collections - Birds of America, Like Life, Bark and a re-read of Self-Help.  I've also just read her wonderful coming of age novella Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?

Have you read Lorrie Moore?

Saturday 24 May 2014

You Should Have Known

Grace Sachs is a therapist with a thriving New York practice.  Her husband is a paediatric oncologist and her gifted young son is at private school.  Grace is about to publish her first book You Should Have Known based on her theory that women should be able to detect the signs that a man is a womaniser or a debtor or a misogynist early on in the relationship and act accordingly.

The novel opens with Grace's author photo shoot for Vogue magazine.  She is anxious to distance her book from what she considers to be downmarket self-help guides such as The Rules or Relationships for Dummies.  Indeed, Grace is anxious to distance herself from a lot of things, she has let old friendships go and has a fractious relationship with her father and stepmother.  She considers herself and her husband to be conscientious people who work hard for the good of others and are possessed of unshowy good taste.  Grace's wardrobe consists of parchment coloured cashmere sweaters and linen and wool skirts.

Of course, calling a book which captures the zeitgeist You Should Have Known is asking for trouble.  When the mother of a child at her son's school is murdered and her husband goes missing Grace realises she may have missed the cues in her own relationship.  Jean Hanff Korelitz writes particularly well on relationship therapy and queen bee mothers at the school gates (far better than Gill Hornby's The Hive, I thought).  Whether this novel could be called a thriller I'm not sure, but I liked the gradually unfolding revelations and there is some delicious detail.  I loved the part when Grace discovers that the Hermes Birkin bag her husband bought for her is a fake (the bastard!) 

There is an interesting interview with Jean Hanff Korelitz here.  She is a relative of Helene Hanff, writer of 84 Charing Cross Road.  I would also recommend her previous novel Admission, one of my absolute favourites.

Friday 18 April 2014

Oxford Lit Festival

Last month I went to the beautiful Divinity School at Oxford for Kathryn Sutherland's absorbing talk on Jane Austen’s teenage writings. There was an opportunity to view some of Austen's early manuscripts and it was fascinating to see her extremely neat slanted handwriting. Afterwards, I went to to the Festival tent for a much needed cup of tea and a slice of chocolate button cake and then took a stroll down New College Lane (as recommended by Lucy Worsley). Even a spring shower didn't put me off walking around the colleges as a lovely mineral smell came off of the old buildings in the rain. I then took a walk to Blackwell’s and bought the new Ann Patchett and Gabrielle Levin's novel The Collected Works of A J Fikry.

It was sweet and funny and sad.  A J Fikry is a curmudgeonly independent bookshop owner with a passion for short stories and a dislike of mobile phones, Kindles and pretty much all aspects of modern life.  After losing his wife he turns to alcohol until he meets free-spirited book publicist Amelia who tries to pitch him her winter list.

I won't reveal what happens but I did love some of Fikry's inspired ranting:
I do not like children's books, especially ones with orphans and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult.  I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages.  I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items and - I imagine this goes without saying - vampires. Gabrielle Zevon
Enjoy your Easter break!

Saturday 15 March 2014

Still Life with Breadcrumbs

After a hectic week at work it was a relief to spend a whole evening reading on Thursday.  In fact I ended up reading into the early hours of the morning because I wanted to know what would happen next in Anna Quindlen's new novel Still Life with Breadcrumbs (although I'd kinda guessed.)

I read my first Quindlen novel a couple of years ago and I thought it was good but not great.  This one I liked much better.  It's about 60 year old Rebecca Winter (how many novels have a 60 year old heroine?) who was once a highly successful photographer who became something of a cult figure in the art world and a household name after her success with a series of domestic images. 

Now divorced, alone, strapped for cash with ailing parents she can no longer afford to live in her New York apartment and rents a rural isolated cottage.  Enter Jim the roofer who clears a raccoon from her loft, sorts out her firewood and clears her drive with a snow plough during a blizzard.  (Wouldn't you fall for a man who can drive a snow plough?)  Jim is a working man with a kind heart, no pretensions and a habit of saying 'Ah hell.'  He's also 44.  Quite a bit younger than Rebecca and it's nice to see a role-reversal relationship in a novel. 

Well I won't say what happened next but I enjoyed spending time in the company of these likeable characters and this self-assured author.  This novel reminded me a little of Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap an old favourite of mine.

Lots of contemporary fiction I want to read at the moment, Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The new novel from Jean Hanff Korelitz You Should Have Known and Ann Patchett's memoir The Story of a Happy Marriage.  Alas, they are all in hardback and I've pretty much blown my hardback budget for this year and it's only March!

Although I don't knit or make quilts I'm a regular reader of Jane Brocket's blog and I think she writes very perceptive book posts.  I do like her thoughts on the pleasures and freedom of blogging in this post.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Learning to love a hyacinth

You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is as well to have as many holds on happiness as possible.  Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey
I'm afraid The Little Friend was a Donna Tartt too far for me.  Awful people doing awful things to each other and really, if you threw a live king cobra from a motorway bridge, what are the chances it would go through the sun roof of your victim's car at the precise moment it passed below? 

Time to return to Jane Austen.  Northanger Abbey is perfect to dispel the January gloom and each time I re-read Austen I discover nuances unnoticed before.  I was struck this time by how spare Austen is with her physical descriptions yet how much they convey.  Catherine gazing at Henry Tilney with 'sparkling eyes' tells us all we need to know of a blooming young girl falling in love.  Henry may be a bit of a clever clogs but when Catherine tells him that she is 'learning to love a hyacinth' his witty reply that loving a hyacinth is 'rather domestic' but she may in time 'come to love a rose' is very endearing both to Catherine and the reader.

I'm also fond of Mrs Allen, it has to be said, she is not very bright but she is kind to Catherine  and as she is completely obsessed with clothes and fashion she is the go-to woman for advice on sprigged muslin, Mechlin lace and silk gloves.  Then there is the vain and silly Isabella Thorpe who foolishly plays one of her admirers off against the other only to lose them both.

I do like the cloth-bound Penguin editions.  Unfortunately some of the of the pink gothic keys on my copy of Northanger Abbey have rubbed off after I spilled my tea.  Good job I took a picture first. Happy New Year!