20 Books of Summer

From now until 6 September I will be trying to read my 20 Books of Summer. Why not join in, read along or just cheer me as I try to get the 746 books down into the 600’s by September!

 

 

20 books of summer - master image

 

  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Sheteyngart
  • Nights At The Circus by Angela Carter
  • Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
  • Let The Right One In by John Avjide Lindquist
  • Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • Caught by Harlan Coben
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead
  • The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
  • The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Black Watch by Gregory Burke
  • An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
  • The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
  • Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins
  • Wonder by RJ Palacio
  • The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Don’t forget to check out these other fabulous bloggers who are also taking part, there is such a great range of reading going on!

The Things We Read

Cedar Station

Read The Gamut

Lost Generation Reader

A World of Books

My Book Strings

Behold The Stars

Check my Books

No 704 The Buddha in the Attic

buddha

Now, I know I said my next read was The House of Mirth. It was, I’ve read about 100 pages of it. But here’s the thing. I thought I would take a quick look at the books I had left in the 20 Books of Summer Challenge just to plan my reading and I made the mistake of reading the first page of The Buddha in the Attic. Fast forward an hour and I haven’t moved and I’m half way through. Another hour and I was finished this short, haunting prose poem of a book.

The story is narrated in the first person plural, a veritable chorus of voices, the ‘we’ being the Japanese women who arrived in California by boat following World War 1 in 1919, clutching photographs of their prospective husbands whom they have agreed to marry sight unseen. Sentences are written like incantations, listing the individual experiences with no central focal point.

This is a beautiful kaleidoscopic manner of telling, with sentences and stories shimmering and catching the light making patterns and layering on top of each other to create a moving collective image. Some moments shine more than others and Otsuka’s brilliance is that she is able to make us care about this group of women precisely because we are only glimpsing individual stories through the subtle layering of their collective experience.

The opening chapter, entitled Come, Japanese! sets the scene on the boat as the women make their crossing to America, clutching photos of the handsome young men they believe to be their new husbands.

This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong

When they arrive, they are disillusioned by

the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock… the photographs we had been sent were 20 years old.

Their story is split into seven more sections, each reflecting a time in these women’s lives, from their first night with their new husbands; child birth; working life in lowly posts of servitude; watching their children grow up and grow away and through to an eventual acceptance and assimilation of a kind. Some will be lucky, more not. Some may even be happy.

Photo: William Lee

Japanese brides arriving in California in 1919 Photo: William Lee

The rhythmic, repetitive flow of the prose combined with the starkness of the details relayed, means this intensely lyrical prose verges on the edge of poetry. It is both intimate and expansive. I can understand how some readers have found the plurality of the voice distancing and hard to empathise with, given that there is no individual character to latch on to but I felt the opposite. The book is depicting the plight of the immigrant, and more importantly the immigrant woman and the collective nature of the experience brings it in to sharper focus. When Otsuka does allow a single voice to break through, the effect is therefore more startling;

They took us by the elbows and said quietly, ‘It’s time.’ They took us before we were ready and the bleeding did not stop for three days. They took us with our white silk kimonos twisted up high over our heads and we were sure we were about to die. I thought I was being smothered.
 

It is the rhythm and the beauty of the prose that pulls the reader through, the small stories we hear snippets of that are in their own way heartbreaking.
 

On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee
 

In the chapters Traitors and Last Day, Otsuka examines the experience of the Japanese internment of 1943 – not through descriptions of it, but through the women’s preparations for it. In these sections the women are given their names and their stories become more personal, just when they are being seen by political powers and the American people more as a group than as people.

Yasuko left her apartment in Long Beach with a letter from a man who was not her husband neatly folded up inside her compact at the bottom of her purse. Masayo left after saying goodbye to her youngest son, Masamichi, at the hospital in San Bruno, where he would be dead of the mumps by the end of the week… Sachiko left practising her ABCs as though it were just another ordinary day. Futaye, who had the best vocabulary of all of us, left speechless.

Instead of following the women to the internment camps, Otsuka switches attention to the Americans left behind and in the final chapter A Disappearance, the collective voice becomes theirs as they deal with, process and finally come to terms with what has happened to their Japanese friends and neighbours. I can understand why Otsuka did this, to provide a different point to view on the plight of the interned Japanese but it jarred a little with me, the final section lacking some of the depth and mystery of the previous chapters. I wanted to follow these women whose names I had just learned, not stay with the American neighbours who begin by forgetting their names and talking about them less to buying up their businesses and looting their homes.

Did the Japanese go to the reception centers voluntarily, or under duress? What is their ultimate destination? Why were we not informed of their departure in advance?… Are they innocent? Are they guilty? Are they even really gone?

All too soon, the traces of the all these lives begin to disappear and only small things remain,

A tiny laughing brass Buddha up high, in a corner of the attic, where he is still laughing to this day

It is the small things from this book that will remain with me, the finely crafted sentences, crystallising recognisable instances of a woman’s life, any woman’s life, which made me catch my breath with their haunting lyricism.
A beautiful and moving book indeed.

 

Read On: iBooks

Number Read:43

Number Remaining: 703

Top Ten Tuesdays – Books I Want to Read But Don’t Yet Own

Top ten tuesday

Oh boy was this week’s theme made for me! Top Ten Tuesdays is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish and this week’s theme is the Top Ten Books I Want to Read But Don’t Own Yet. Or as I have alternatively titled it The Books That Cathy’s Husband Will be Buying Her for Her Birthday.

Given that I haven’t bought a book in 8 months (the longest I have gone without book buying in my adult life) this was a pretty easy list to compile. I could have even done a Top Twenty. Hell, a Top Fifty wouldn’t really have been a stretch at this point.

But 10 it is. So here they are. The books I have been coveting the most for the last 8 months….

1. The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin
I mean really. Who places a book-buying ban on themselves just before the publication of the last instalment of the greatest series of books ever? I really, really regretted not buying this before I started my blog, but I didn’t. So it is top of my wish list. I am dying to find out what happens to Anna Madrigal and that lovely bunch of Barbary Lane residents.

 

2. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
This is a no-brainer. I’ve read and loved all his books. So far he hasn’t put a foot wrong. The Guardian has called The Bone Clocks ‘a globe-trotting, mind-bending, hair-raising triumph’ which is good enough for me.

 

3. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
The moment I started my challenge, it seemed to me that all my favourite authors decided to announce publication of their new books, out of spite. Just to test my resolve. This is another period drama from the superlative Ms Waters, exploring the lives of a mother and daughter forced to take in lodgers after the War ends. I anticipate sumptuous page-turning drama shot through with that trademark tenderness and intelligence.

 

4. The Fifty-Year Sword by Mark Z Danielewski
What’s this you say? A new book from House of Leaves author Mark Z Danielewski? A prose poem? With five different narrators looking back on one terrible night? That comes in its own box? With drawings and an unusual layout? Remind me again why I haven’t failed my challenge on this book alone?

 

5. The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
The fantastic Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith won…take a deep breath here….. the International Thriller Writer Award for Best First Novel, the Galaxy Book Award for Best New Writer, the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, and was long listed for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the inaugural Desmond Elliot Prize. High pedigree indeed and enough to make me want to read The Farm even if I didn’t know anything about it. I know this though:

Daniel believed that his parents were enjoying a peaceful retirement on a remote farm in Sweden, the country of his mother’s birth. But with a single phone call, everything changes.

Your mother…she’s not well, his father tells him. She’s been imagining things – terrible, terrible things. In fact, she has been committed to a mental hospital.

Before Daniel can board a plane to Sweden, his mother calls: Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad… I need the police… Meet me at Heathrow.

Now that is a premise. And I really, really want to read it.

 

Books not bought collage

6. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell
I have been known, in the past, to buy books based solely on their title. You’ll all find that hard to believe I’m sure, but there it is. I’ve been intrigued by the sound of this book since I heard of it. By all accounts bizarre, dense and dreamlike, this tale of a couple who go to the wilderness to make a new life and raise a family but are thwarted by failed pregnancies, sounds just odd enough for me.
 

7. The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
Did I hear someone (quite a lot of people) saying that this was a return to form from Amis and akin to Times Arrow? That’s enough for me.
 

8. Orfeo by Richard Powers
I wanted to read this before it was long listed for the Booker Prize as Richard Powers The Time of Our Singing would be on my Top Ten Books of All Time. Anything new he writes is a must-read for me and this tale of an avant-garde composer labelled a terrorist by Homeland Security and forced on the run sounds really intriguing.
 

9. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

Sometimes I think the reason I’m drawn to a book about a world where hundreds of thousands of people have lost the ability to sleep but can be gifted sleep from healthy people is because I have twins and I didn’t sleep more than 3 hours a night for at least 2 years. I would have sold my soul for some sleep donation…..
 

10. The Friedkin Connection by William Friedkin

I’m a sucker for anything relating to 1970s cinema – Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is one of my favourite books about cinema, so an autobiography from the man who made The Exorcist, The French Connection and Killer Joe is right up my street. If he is as forthright and abrasive as his movies, this is going to be a great read.
 

So, are any of these on your list? What books are you really looking forward to buying?

No 705 An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray

long goodbyes

If there is a downside to writing a Booker shortlisted, critically acclaimed, best-selling, universally loved book like Skippy Dies, it may be that readers come to your first, lesser known novel and find themselves disappointed in it by comparison. This seems to be the online consensus and if I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting to like Paul Murray’s first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes as much as Skippy Dies.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to like it more, but I did.

This is a big, funny, warm-hearted hug of a book. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It drove my husband to distraction as I followed him round the house quoting lines I found hilarious. It has an unforgettable narrator who is a rich, smug, self-centred, lazy snob but who I would give anything to go drinking with. It has a plot that is a thing of madness featuring faked deaths, dodgy private detectives, socialist builders, amateur theatre, greyhound racing, heroin addicts, refugees hiding in a Folly and a comatose sojourn to Cuba with WB Yeats. It has endlessly quotable lines, unforgettable characters and an ending that is sweet, sad and perfect. It’s absurd and unrealistic and I love it for that.

Have I sold you yet??

Charles Hythloday is a 24 year old university drop out who lives in Amaurot, his family mansion by the sea outside Dublin. His distaste for the outside world of shopping centres, mobile phones and the Celtic Tiger mean he spends his days watching old black and white Gene Tierney movies, worrying about his beloved actress sister Bel’s unsuitable boyfriends, and depleting his deceased father’s wine collection. When we first meet Charles, he tells us,

I’d been out the night before with Pongo McGurks and possibly over done it a little, insofar as I’d woken up on the billiard table with a splitting headache and wearing someone else’s sarong

He sees himself as living by the Renaissance code of ‘sprezzatura’, which dictates that everything you do, or in Charles’ case, don’t do should be carried out with effortless grace and a focus on beauty and not results.

To the casual observer it may have looked like I was living a life of indolence. It was not true, however, to say that I did nothing…. I saw myself as reviving a certain mode of life, a mode that had been almost lost: the contemplative life of the country gentleman, in harmony with his status and history. The idea was to do whatever one did with grace; to imbue one’s every action with beauty, while at the same time making it look quite effortless.

Unfortunately for Charles there are a few obstacles in the way of his life of luxury. Firstly the bank want to repossess the house as the labyrinthine finances of their father’s estate are murky to say the least. Then there is Bel’s new boyfriend Frank, a man with a van and totally unsuitable in Charles eyes. Finally, his mother, who, like an upper class Lucille Bluth has returned from rehab, still drinking (‘they are very progressive about that at the Cedars’) but determined that her layabout son move out and get a job while she turns Amaurot into a commercial Centre for the Arts to save the family fortunes through grants and sponsorship.

Evening Collage

Charles is a narrator with no sense of self-awareness, in the manner of Bertie Wooster or Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces and while he can be a sharp eyed commentator on the outside world, he is less reliable about his own situation and emotions. This narrative voice works wonderfully well both in terms of sheer comedy value and in allowing us, the reader, to stay one step ahead of Charles as he misses clues and important events through his complete inability to see things from anyone else’s point of view. His relationship with his sister Bel is also complicated by the fact that he is clearly in love with her, their cloistered childhood of distant parents and shared secrets fostering an unhealthy obsession in Charles with her parade of unsuitable partners. Making Charles the narrative voice is a clever touch by Murray, we may have nothing in common with him, but we come to realise that we have the same fears and flaws. Like Charles, we come to realise that we are all human.

He also gives us a different point of view on the world of the Celtic Tiger. The cut and thrust of modern life is something to be resisted and there are some very funny scenes when Charles ventures out to a recruitment agency looking for work to find his knowledge of black and white movies and one year of a Theology degree to be sadly lacking in this brave new world. For Charles, the boom is ‘not exactly Scott Fitzgerald’ and his friend Hoyland sums the whole thing up quite succinctly,

‘I’ll tell you what it’s like’, he said glumly. ‘It’s like being in Caligula’s Rome, and everyone around you is having an orgy, and you’re the mug stuck looking after the horse’. He pulled heavily on his cigarette. ‘The whole thing’ll come crashing down,’ he said bleakly, ‘and all anyone’ll have done is eaten a lot of expensive cheese.’

Don’t get me wrong, An Evening of Long Goodbyes is by no means perfect. It’s a little too long and the middle section where Charles moves in with Frank in Bonetown and gets a job at the Cherry Orchard bread factory don’t have quite the sparkle of the rest of the book. Murray has a weakness for literary allusion – Chekov, Yeats, Wilde, and Shakespeare – there’re all here and the references are sometimes laboured. But I will forgive him all of this because of the joy of the writing. Murray writes with such confidence and bravado that it is impossible not to be swept along with wondrously named characters like Bunty Chopin, Fluffy Elgin, Boyd Snooks and Patsy Olé.

 

Photograph of Paul Murray by Cormac Scully

Photograph of Paul Murray by Cormac Scully

His prose is laugh out loud funny. A city centre pub is ‘the sort of place Egon Ronay must have nightmares about’, a dodgy character has ‘all the restraint of a Thessalonica street walker’ and a dying father’s last words to his son are ‘Always…..moisturize’
Take this description of Frank, Bel’s latest love interest:

He was very large and, in some unplaceable way, lumpy. His head, however, was what really fascinated me. It resembled some novice potter’s first attempt at a soup tureen, bulbous and pasty, with one beetling eyebrow, a stubbly jaw and less that the full complement of teeth. To describe his ears as asymmetrical would be to do asymmetry a disservice

When it is time to get serious though, Murray has a light touch. Before we know it, laughter turns to tears as the reality of the life Charles is struggling to hold on to appears much darker than he has allowed himself to remember. His love for Bel and his attempts to keep them suspended in time at Amaurot are all the more poignant when we realise that their childhood was irreparably damaged. Charles’ keen ability to lie to himself means he has also been lying to us and we realise we have been looking at two damaged adults, trying to make sense of an unusual and often painful childhood as best they can. It takes Frank to point out to Charles that

To live in the present….we must first atone for our past and be finished with it…

In the end, thanks to Frank, a greyhound literally on its last legs and a (potentially) faked death, this is what Charles learns to do. He discovers that riches in life come from the people in it and he manages to continue to live in the present without apologising for who he is.

So, curl up on your chaise long, in your (or anyone else’s for that matter) best sarong, pour a fine glass of burgundy and enjoy An Evening of Long Goodbyes at your leisure. It’s worth it.
Read On: Book
Number Read: 42
Number Remaining: 704
From posh Irish to posh Americans, next up is Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

House of Mirth preview

No 706 Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

black water

 

In the 1985 classic John Cusack movie ‘The Sure Thing’ (humour me here) there is a great line when serious, straight-laced Alison comments on her scantily-dressed bikini-clad nemesis, ‘She has beautiful skin. And so much of it’.

This line kept springing to mind while I was reading Black Water Rising (I did say humour me….). It has such great plot. And so much of it. Reading this debut thriller from Attica Locke was like wading through the black water of the title, plot line upon plot line vying for attention, the action as murky as the Bayou of the bravura opening chapter.

It has to be said though, that the opening chapter is outstanding. It is 1981, Houston. As a treat for his pregnant wife’s birthday, black lawyer Jay Porter charters an evening boat trip which ends in drama when gunshots and a white woman in the water put Jay in a situation he’d rather not be in. It is the wrong place, wrong time yet again for Jay, who was a veteran of the Black Power Movement and narrowly escaped a jail sentence on a government frame-up while a student. Not keen to be involved in any one else’s problems, let alone a white woman’s, he drives the silent victim to a police station and leaves it at that. Only it doesn’t leave him and he finds himself caught up in a conspiracy that goes far beyond the events of that night.

The brilliance of the opening chapter sets a tempo and pace that isn’t maintained in the rest of the book. While skilfully constructed and sometimes thrilling, the tangents of the plot never come together as a cohesive whole. There is a dock workers union strike – a sub-plot that is given a lot of time for little return; there are corrupt politicians; the involvement of Big Oil; an ex-girlfriend of Jay’s who is now Mayor and may or may not be trustworthy and a prostitute trying to cash in on a politician’s indiscretions. Pile on to this the narrative back story of Jay’s student days in the Black Power movement; his past relationship with Cynthia, the mayor; the racially motivated death of his father and his continued paranoia over race relations and you have a lot of information to process.

 

For me this meant that the core of the thriller got a little lost in the murkiness. The Black Water Rising of the title is, of course, oil and the corrupt practices of the large petroleum companies, but even this conspiracy theory, when it is finally brought to light, is a little tame. What Locke does do well though is in her depiction of race relations in Houston in the 1980’s, that sense that while oil is flowing again and money is there for the taking, there is still a lack of trust and a divide between the haves and the have nots. Paranoia over race has replaced the cold war paranoia and there is a crisis of identity for everyone, both black and white, rich and poor. Money is now the dividing line and Jay Porter, as a black lawyer is well placed to see both sides. Jay is a strong and compelling character, torn by his moral obligations in the present and the political obligations of his past.

They were fools back then, Jay thinks. Young and naive to believe they could raise voices and guns against a superpower and get away with it. Weren’t they always meant to pay…someday, some way? Hasn’t he, deep down, been waiting for this very moment? The day when they would come for him again?

The exploration of how Jay’s small, cumulative decisions become large, threatening mistakes, as much because of outside forces and because of his own prejudices and fears, is skilfully handled . His paranoia, his attempts to make good on his life and his mistrust of authority make for a fascinating central focal point, so it’s just a shame that all the other characters in the book are stock and sketchily drawn.

Attica Locke, photographed by Mel Melcon for the Los Angeles Times

Attica Locke, photographer by Mel Melcon for Los Angeles Times

 

This mix of social commentary and crime action has been done better by George Pelecanos and Denis Lehane but Locke does use her milieu to elevate thriller conventions like the car chase, the ransacked apartment and the conflicted but honest journalist which might otherwise have come across as clichéd.
It’s telling that Attica Locke has worked as a screenwriter, as there were times when Black Water Rising was reminiscent of a good season of The Wire. The ending certainly seems to be a set up for ‘season 2’ of Black Water Rising, but as a standalone book, the abrupt and open ended final chapters are less cliff-hanger more let down.

I feel like I’m being quite harsh on Black Water Rising. The skill, plotting and tension of the opening chapters suggests to me that a little less back story and some more even pacing would have ratcheted up the tension and made for a more gripping read.

However, if you are going to take one thing away from this review, it’s that I can always be counted on to shoehorn in a reference to an 80’s teen movie when it’s called for.

Or even when it’s not…..

Next up in the 16 sorry 20 Books of Summer Challenge? An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Skippy Dies author Paul Murray.

long goodbyes 20

Read On: iBooks

Number Read: 41

Number Remaining: 705

No 709 – 707: Wives, War and Wonder

Oh dear. My 20 Books of Summer challenge is not going to plan. Is there some kind of book blogger punishment if you can’t even complete your own challenge??

An ear infection (mine) and a stabbed hand (the hubbie’s) have put paid to a lot of reading time this summer. So far I’ve read 12 of my 20. Which leaves me 8 to read in a mere 26 days. I don’t want to be pessimistic but I don’t think it’s gonna happen!
In order to maximise reading time, my reviews are going to get shorter. So apologies to all who were looking forward to my in depth character analysis and narrative structure thesis on Hollywood Wives, there just aren’t enough hours in the day……

No 709 Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins

hollywood

There really isn’t much to say about Hollywood Wives. What did I expect?

Thinly drawn characters? Check.

Badly written sex scenes? Yep.

Women who say things like, ‘she remembered the day well, because he had climaxed all over her new Sonia Rykiel skirt’? Well, maybe not…..

What I also didn’t expect was for the first half of the book to be so, well, boring. Jackie has a lot of characters to introduce us to and it takes a long time for the book to get going. By the time I’d met a myriad of characters including the pneumatic movie star trying to be taken seriously, the good looking aging actor trying to balance his affairs with his failing movies and the young stud, trying to build his Hollywood career whilst hiding his nefarious past I was gasping for a bit of drama (pardon the pun). It is there eventually, murder, death, sex and a rather marvellous case of vaginismus – but thirty years on, it’s all a bit tame. There is a serial killer plot line that comes good at the ridiculous end, but takes up way too much time at the start and quite a few totally superfluous plot lines and characters that distract from the main action. Had I sneaked my Mum’s copy and read this at 16, around the time I was reading Flowers in the Attic, I’m sure I would have loved its soapy distractions, but now? Not so much.

Read On: iBooks
Number Read: 38
Number Remaining: 708

 

No 708 Black Watch by Gregory Burke

I’ve reviewed plays before and it’s a tough one, because, obviously, plays are written to be performed, not read. If ever there was a play that needed to be seen, not read, it is Black Watch. I know, because you can watch the entire original production on You Tube.
Do yourself a favour, watch it.

 

 

Black Watch is based on interviews with soldiers who have fought in this historic squadron after a tour of Iraq. The play is both an indictment of the foreign policy that sent these men on such a meaningless mission and it is a celebration and a tribute to the familial, almost tribal aspect of military life. It could have been a clichéd anti-war manifesto, but the humour, horror and emotive strength of this piece of work elevates it to a different league. Burke does not sentimentalise these soldiers, rather he honours them, while not honouring the cause they were fighting for. At the same time lovable and crude, the soldiers make it clear that they are fighting for each other and nothing more. A mingling of physical performance, poetry and even dance in a play about tough Scottish soldiers really shouldn’t have worked, but Burke and the National Theatre of Scotland created a piece that reminds us of what it is to be human, even in the midst of war.

Read On: Book
Number Read: 39
Number Remaining: 707

 
No 707 Wonder by RJ Palacio

 

wonder

I bought this book with no knowledge of what it was other than the story of a boy with a disfigured face. I have since seen it described as Young Adult Fiction, pre-teen Fiction, or a Book to Make Grown Men Cry. But let’s face it – Wonder is very much a children’s book which has been deftly marketed to reach a wider audience. Now, I have no problem with people reading YA or kids books. Read what you like, I don’t care. But I don’t normally read YA or children’s books and while this is a lovely, heart warming, emotional tale that it is really hard to criticise, it had little to tell me. August Pullman is going to middle school for the first time which is harder for him than most kids due to his craniofacial abnormality. Wonder tells the story of Auggie’s first year at school, the hardships and bullying alongside the moments of friendship and acceptance.

It is told from several different viewpoints (which all sound pretty similar) and as you go along with its irresistible pull you are reminded that it is better to be kind, you shouldn’t judge people by how they look and that we are all just trying to fit in and be loved. It builds to an uplifting, moving finale which I’m sure has made grown men cry. It made me cry. Bad guys got their comeuppance, Auggie got his happy ending (for now) and mostly everyone was lovely. It’s like A Prayer for Owen Meany written for kids. I can see why it’s a phenomenon, why there have been 2 spin-off books and why it’s being made into a film. It’s a book that is hard to criticise, so what I will say is that while I look forward to reading it to the twins when they are older, at 42, Wonder contains life lessons that I’ve already learned and learned again. The hard way.

Read On: Kindle
Number Read: 40
Number Remaining: 706

 

It may be going slow, but the Challenge continues with Black Water Rising by Attica Locke.

black water 20

No 710 The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

Last year we went to a holiday house in Donegal. There, on the shelves, I found a copy of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, about an unconventional woman wrongly put into an institution which is about to close, harbouring secrets of the past that will ultimately change the lives of all involved. It was a wonderful, heartbreaking book.
This year, we went to another holiday home in Donegal and I happened to bring The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a novel about an unconventional woman wrongly put into an institution which is about to close, harbouring secrets of the past that will ultimately change the lives of all involved.
There must be a pattern here because this was also a wonderful, heartbreaking book.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

 

How do we define sanity? That is the question at the heart of this elegant, spare and ultimately horrifying novel.
Esme Lennox has been in a mental institution, forgotten and silent, for 60 years. The hospital is about to close and her niece Iris, is charged with her care. Esme has been wiped from the family history. Iris did not even know she existed such was her expunging. Iris cannot even ask her remaining relative, her grandmother Kitty, about this sister as Kitty is lost to a fog of Alzheimer’s.
Through Esme’s memories, we learn that she was a headstrong girl, living in India with her family in the 1930s. She is found during a cholera epidemic in their empty house, clutching the body of her dead baby brother and from here on, her problems begin. Taken back to Scotland, her behaviour is seen as odd. She reads books at parties, is caught dancing in her mother’s dress and wants to stay on at school. Not things expected from the daughter of a highly respected family. Another traumatic incident at a New Year’s Eve party seals Esme’s fate. A doctor is called, her beloved sister Kitty mentions a hallucination Esme had and she is committed. Unvisited and intentionally forgotten for 60 years.
Is it possible that this kind of thing would really have happened? It seems unbelievable but at the same time, all too real. One signature was all that was needed and difficult family members (often women) were gone. Iris reads the admissions records of the institution that has been housing Esme for most of her life and finds,

A Cockenzie fishwife who showed signs of libidinous behaviour. A youngest daughter who eloped to Ireland with a legal clerk….Jane, who had the temerity to take long solitary walks and refuse offers of marriage

So, that covers any woman who deviates from society’s norms. Esme’s own admissions record shows how little it could take to have your life pulled from under you,

Aged sixteen….Insists on keeping hair long….Parents report finding her dancing before a mirror, dressed in her mother’s clothes

O’Farrell deftly reveals the tragic story through the voices of these three women, Iris, Kitty and Esme. With a subtlety and delicacy, she teases out the knots of the past and ironically, it is through Kitty’s masterful confused and fractured stream of consciousness, her brain addled by dementia, that the truth is revealed to us. The reader is being challenged to decide who is actually mad and who is sane, Kitty or Esme and their story is so beautifully told, that sometimes the present day plot of Iris and her love for her step brother is a distraction. But Iris is the one who is filling in the gaps, finding sound in the silence of Esme’s life and coming to realise the truth at the heart of her family.

 

And what a terrible truth it is. The character of Esme is wonderfully feminist – not understanding why she is expected to care about clothes, unconcerned about marriage, with dreams of continuing her education.

Her grandmother keeps announcing that Esme will never find a husband if she doesn’t change her ways. Yesterday, when she said it at breakfast, Esme replied “Good” and was sent to finish her meal in the kitchen.

She is headstrong, intelligent and nonconformist. She recognises herself in Iris, who owns her own business, refuses to marry and is engaged in several affairs, one with her step-brother. The contrast between the depiction of the young Esme, so full of life and spirit with the same woman 60 years later is heartbreaking.

She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her speciality. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish

It takes Iris to finally see Esme; with no past judgements to go on they become tentative friends. Esme sees a lot of herself in Iris and Iris in turn recognises her own traits in her great-aunt. As Esme notes,

We are all….. just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents

 

The book is beautifully written. Birds pass ‘through trees like needles through fabric’; wearing an ill-fitting dress is ‘like being in a three legged race with someone you didn’t like’, but also has the pace and plotting of a psychological thriller (it is impossible to put down).

 

Photo: Murdo Macleod for the Observer

Photo: Murdo Macleod for the Observer

 

I don’t want to reveal the outcome of the novel, suffice to say, I cried solidly through the last 100 pages, shocked by the hypocrisy, cruelty and almost Gothic horror of Edwardian propriety. The final passages of this beautiful book encapsulate all the disloyalty, suffering and painful love that has gone before as these three very different women, Esme, Iris and Kitty come to realise what they have done and what has been done to them and a stolen life is reclaimed.

She moves towards her sister’s chair. She looks at Kitty for a moment, then reaches out and touches her hair, as if to smooth it in to place. She puts her hand to the silver blue waves at Kitty’s temple and holds it there. It is a strange gesture and lasts only for a moment. Then she removes it and says to the air around her, ‘I would like to be left alone with my sister please.

 

Read on: Book
Number Read: 37
Number remaining: 709

No 711 Just Kids by Patti Smith

just kids

I don’t know a lot about Patti Smith and I haven’t listened to a lot of her music. Horses is fine, but I’m not a fan.

I think it is important to say that at the start, because I imagine that your reaction to Just Kids will depend entirely on your position on Patti Smith.

On the other hand, I like Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. I know, I know, not necessarily the S&M shots he’s famous for, but his flower photographs are stunning and often overshadowed by his reputation and his lifestyle.

flowers

Image courtesy of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

So really, I was reading this book to learn more about Mapplethorpe rather than to learn more about Patti and throw in the juicy details about the Factory and the residents of the Chelsea Hotel and the book becomes very appealing.

Now, it’s not that I want to take the piss out of Patti, but I’m afraid she’s giving it away. This book is so easy to parody that it is frightening. Here’s my attempt.

It was Joan of Arcs birthday. Sitting I was, in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel writing a prose poem on Rimbaud when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see Salvador Dali/ Jim Morrison/ Allen Ginsberg (delete as appropriate) admiring the French fisherman’s cap that I was wearing as part of my Godard ensemble. We discoursed on everything from Tibetan throat singers to the notion of perspectivism in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. I gave him a handmade leather bracelet and he gave me a feather, which Robert later included in his latest installation about Verlaine’s symbolism. He recited some Walt Whitman to me as he left and his words made me feel like my work mattered. Later that evening I took a lock of hair from Robert and sang him to sleep with his favourite Jacques Brel song and while he slept I created Art and thought about Rimbaud some more

In Patti’s world, men recite William Blake, everyone gives everyone else talismanic gifts of silver skulls and coloured stones, locks of hair are cut with abandon and there is always, always a famous person around the next corner. There are no less than 35 references to Rimbaud (she’s a fan you know) in this book. I tried to keep a track of all the poets/ philosophers/ artists/ writers/ musicians that are mentioned, but there are often as many as 5 – 10 per page. Patti wants you to know she’s artistic. And I’m sure she is, it’s just that the constant reinforcing of her intellectual and artistic bent is exhausting and often frustrating.

 
There is also a real sense that this book has been written in the glow of rose-tinted glasses. Don’t get me wrong, the book is mythic tale as it follows the young and desperate poet who, after giving up her baby for adoption, moves to New York with nothing, meets Mapplethorpe by chance and they embark on a life of artistic endeavor, hunger and the search for immortality and beauty before finding incredible success in their respective fields. But there is little of the pain in Just Kids. Patti and Robert worry about money, yes, but never seem hungry. Patti never mentions the baby she had and gave up again. When men let her down, and for that matter, when Robert ‘discovers’ he is gay, Patti is always magnanimous and gracious and never hurt and I just found this all a little hard to believe.

 
Patti Smith said she promised Robert she would write their story, but there is little of Robert in the book. He is an elusive presence in these pages. His struggle with his sexuality and his immersion into the world of S&M and prostitution is given scant detail. Undoubtedly theirs was a strong and loving relationship, both emotionally and artistically but it cannot have been an easy one and by the end of the book, he still comes across as a romantic enigma.

 

Having said all that, I still enjoyed reading the book because, let’s face it, who isn’t compelled by the bohemian artistic lifestyle of the Chelsea Hotel and the Factory in the late 1960’s and early 70’s? It was a heady, intoxicating time and Smith is clever enough to focus almost the entire book on a period of a few years when she and Robert were building their careers and meeting the right people.

Patti & Robert at the Chelsea Hotel

Patti & Robert at the Chelsea Hotel

Whether Smith means to or not, there is a sense that they were two people in the right place at the right time, in the centre of the storm, with Patti in particular working out which part to play to gain advantage. Poet? Artist? Musician? She gives everything a try until something works, all the while honing her image to her best advantage. On meeting Tom Verlaine from the band Television she says,

Divining how to appeal to Tom’s sensibilities, I dressed in a manner that I thought a boy from Delaware would understand; black ballet flats, pink shantung capris, my kelly green silk raincoat and a violet parasol

Patti plays a lot of dress up and it seems to me that of the two of them, Mapplethorpe was the one that artistically and personally really came to know and express himself. Even Patti acknowledges it when Mapplethorpe is taking the famous image of her for the album cover of Horses,

I flung my jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style. I was full of references. He was full of shadows and light.

Even more tellingly she says

Robert was concerned with how to make the photograph, and I with how to be the photograph.

 

Mapplethorpe's iconic cover of Horses

Mapplethorpe’s iconic cover of Horses

She has the knack for a great turn of phrase, but for a poet, some of the writing is overwrought, clunky and sometimes just nonsensical.

He was holding a carton of milk, as if he were about to pour it in the saucers of his eyes

Yet when she writes about Robert’s battle with AIDS and his subsequent death, the book comes in to its own. The writing is moving, elegiac and for the first time, the real love and devotion between these two artists is clear.

The light poured through the windows upon his photographs and the poem of us sitting together a last time. Robert dying; creating silence. Myself, destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express.

The end comes quick. Patti tells us little of her time as a successful punk singer and little about Robert’s meteoric rise in the art world. She marries and has children. That’s about as much as we get, and while the lack of detail during the latter part of the book can be a little frustrating, it’s understandable. That is not their story. It is not the story of their life together. Their life was centred on the exciting world of New York in the 1970s – the pain and poverty, the artistic process and the sense that one was still connected to a whole history of great artists in the past. It was the moment New York was becoming the cultural capital of the Western world and they were there. Playing their parts.

Ours were ragtag days and nights, as quixotic as Keats and as rude as the lice we both came to suffer, each certain they originated from the other as we underwent the tedious regimen of Kwell lice shampooing in any one of the unmanned Chelsea Hotel bathrooms

Personally, I could have done with less of the Keats and more of the lice…..

 

Read On: iBooks

Number Read: 36

Number Remaining: 710

 

Top Ten Tuesday – Most Owned Authors

Top Ten Tuesdays

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created over at The Broke and the Bookish and this week the theme is the top ten authors I own the most books from.

Now, if I was being really honest, the top two would probably be Enid Blyton and Francine Pascal (I was OBSESSED with Sweet Valley High when I was young!) but since those books are all packed up somewhere safe and cannot be counted, I thought I’d go for the more grown up options! I’m not sure this list is indicative of my favourite authors of all time, but they have all been my favourite at some point in my life!

I’m also glad that the title for this week says ‘own’ and not ‘read’ because, as we all know, I have quite a few unread books in my collection!

So here goes.

 

1 - 5

1. David Mamet – 28
He’s in at the top spot with a grand total of 28 books/ plays read. I adore Mamet’s work, including his essays and novels, and although his latest plays haven’t been just so exciting, I will forgive all for the wonders of Speed The Plow, Oleanna and American Buffalo
Favourite Mamet? Glengarry Glen Ross

 

2. Joyce Carol Oates – 24
I’m actually surprised that Joyce here was pipped to the post for the Number 1 slot as she is my favourite author ever and incredibly underrated in my opinion. A wonderful, accessible and incredibly prolific writer.
Favourite JCO? Blonde

 

3. Don DeLillo – 17
I first read Underworld 15 years ago and it totally changed what I felt fiction could be. From the epic to the intimate, DeLillo explores the American way of life like no other author.
Favourite DeLillo? Underworld

 

4. Martin Amis – 14
I was surprised to see Martin Amis in my top five, as it has been a long time since he has written anything I have enjoyed, however I studied his work at University and his early novels are astonishingly clever. Lionel Asbo is waiting in the 746 so we’ll see if he can have a return to form.
Favourite Amis? London Fields

 

5. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 13
The wondrous, magical world of Gabriel Garcia Marquez has enthralled and astounded me since reading Love in the Time of Cholera as a romantically inclined twenty year old. His was a true loss this year.
Favourite Marquez? One Hundred Years of Solitude

 

6 - 10

6. Chuck Palahniuk – 13
I know I posted a rather scathing review of the last Chuck Palahniuk I read, but his earlier books really are unique. And scary. And hilarious. And often disgusting. But I’ve read 13 of them, so he didn’t manage to put me off!
Favourite Palahniuk? Survivor

 

7. Margaret Atwood – 13
A joint entry with Chuck, I actually thought Margaret Atwood would have been higher on my list. While I’ve read most of her novels, I’ve yet to try her short stories and poetry. From science fiction to historical, Atwood never misses.
Favourite Atwood? Alias Grace

 

8. Henning Mankell – 12
Forget Steig Larsson, for me the Master of Scandi Crime has always been Henning Mankell with his Wallander series. Never just straight crime novels, his books examine issues of immigration, international politics and economics and feature one of the most interesting lead characters in Kurt Wallander.
Favourite Mankell? One Step Behind

 

9. William Faulkner – 11
In my final year at University, I took a course in the Literature of the American South on a complete whim and my love affair with William Faulkner began. The use of form in books like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay dying has been often imitated but never bettered.
Favourite Faulkner? Light in August

 
10. Paul Auster – 11
Joint last place goes to that magician of reality Paul Auster, with his beautiful cover jacket photograph and his tales that mingle existentialism, detective stories, magic realism and coincidence. Always questioning the nature of identity and always hitting the spot.
Favourite Auster? The Music of Chance

 

So there we have it, my top ten. Special mention should also go to John Irving and Armistead Maupin, both with a score of 10 who nearly made the cut.
Do any of these authors appear on your lists? Who is your number one?

Ireland. You really haven’t seen the half of it!

There was a Tourist Board television advertisement for Ireland in the late 1970’s and 80’s, which had the tagline ‘Ireland: You Haven’t Seen The Half of It’.

 
My Dad took this as a direct challenge and vowed that we would see the half of it and more! Every weekend, bank holiday and summer, myself, my Mum and Dad and the dog, were crammed into the car, touring caravan hitched on the back and set off, often with no particular destination in mind to every corner of this beautiful country.

 
I like to think I’ve seen a lot of Ireland and was sure that there wasn’t a spot in Donegal where I hadn’t been, but I was proved wrong. On holiday in Rathmullan on the north-west coast of Ireland last week, we discovered the stunning Portsalon beach. Who knew that a mere three hour drive from my house is the world’s second most beautiful beach, as voted by The Observer and beaten only by a beach in the Seychelles!

 

 

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Sometimes you don’t see the beauty on your front door and with temperatures reaching a blistering 30 degrees last week we could have been anywhere! We paddled in the sea, ate too much, found the greatest junk shop I have ever seen, took a boat trip round Lough Swilly, watched Frozen every day and, of course, had the obligatory pints of Guinness.

 

So the smoke went up from Rathmullen;
And beyond the trail of the smoke
Was a great deep fiery abyss
Of molten gold in the sky,
And it set a far track up the waters
Ablaze with gold like its own.
Over the fire of the sea,
Over the chasm in the sky,
My spirit as by a bridge
Of wonder went wandering on,
And lost its way in the heaven.

The ship is out on the lake,
The fisherman stands on the deck.
Rosy and violet sea;
Delicate haze in the distance;
Woodlands softer than summers;
Great golden eye of intense,
Concentrated, marvellous light

From A Fine Day on Lough Swilly by Archbishop William Alexander

 

The weather was so lovely that we got to sit out every evening with a glass of wine and a book, so my 20 Books of Summer Challenge got a much needed boost as I read the sublime (The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell), the ridiculous (Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins) and the downright perplexing (Just Kids by Patti Smith)!

Reviews will follow in the next week but for now I’m still basking in a little bit of that holiday glow!