March reading round up

How’s your March been? I have given up buying books for Lent which I hoped would start to make a dent in my shelves (it hasn’t) but there are still lots to get through. Here’s what I read this month:

Women and Love – Miriam Burke

A collection of short stories by indie publisher Renard Press, this is a strong collection. Burke has looked at very modern circumstances and different kinds of love experienced by women, set mainly in London.

Galatea – Madeline Miller

Another short story, this time bound in its own little hardback. This is a retelling of the original Pygmalion myth – originally told by Ovid and retold many many ways, including the basis for a lot of makeover movies and My Fair Lady. I never liked My Fair Lady as I thought Henry Higgins was a boar and a bore and emotionally manipulative (even George Bernard Shaw said he and Eliza should never be together) and so I was absolutely here for a retelling that put the woman front and centre taking control. This is a short but powerful retelling, as you might expect from Miller.

No 91/92 Notes on a Parisian Commute – Lauren Elkin

Elkin is better known for her book Flaneuse which was all about women walking around cities, so this is a variation on a theme: it is a series of notes she makes on her phone while commuting on buses and later the metro across Paris. It is bound in a shape to echo the shape and size of a smartphone, to emphasise the idea. Elkin notes her fellow commuters, her own feelings about both her personal life and the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks which occur during the life of the book. It is a sweet intriguing little slice of everyday life in one of the most glorious of cities.

A Last Gift for my Father – Antonia Honeywell

Indie publisher Massive Overheads have started a subscription service for chapbooks (short, I believe, for chapter books- ie very short volumes of a complete story). Their marketing tweets were so effective I subscribed twice by mistake (luckily they kindly pointed this out) and this is the first volume they have produced. It’s a daughter talking of her relationship with her father over the years and begins: “I have given my father many gifts. The first was my birth, and as soon as I realised this wasn’t what he’d wanted, I resolved to take it back.” It is a beautifully written, exact exploration of dysfunctional family dynamics (aren’t they all) and covers a lot of sharp insight in few words. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

After I finished the Patchett book of essays last month I turned immediately to this, her latest novel. It’s the story of Maeve and Dan, siblings whose mother leaves them to go and join a commune in India, so their father marries again. His new wife is clearly out for everything she can get, including their enormous Dutch House, and she installs her daughters in Maeve’s bedroom, and slowly drives the siblings away. After their father’s death, Maeve forces Danny to go to medical school and become a doctor, the best way she can think of to get their hands on as much of their inheritance as possible, which is bound up in a trust for their education only. This is the very barest of bones of the story, which is detailed on all kinds of different relationships, in a slow burning plot. I loved it.

Miss Aldridge Regrets – Louise Hare

I really enjoyed Hare’s debut This Lovely City, about the Windrush generation, so I was looking forward to this, a story of a showgirl sailing to make her fortune in New York in the 1930s, sailing alongside a killer. I confess I was a little disappointed. The book is narrated by Lena Aldridge herself, except for the occasional chapter told by the killer, letting us into their plans. Lena seemed hopelessly naive, and she and her agent get involved with a large rich unpleasant family on the voyage. Sadly I guessed who the killer was before the end, which always bothers me – I like to be surprised.

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

When you’re not buying books for Lent, don’t forget your local library can help supply them! Or mine can only for a short time, as it is threatened with closure. (Nottingham folk – you can protest this decision here and here – please do sign, these are libraries in the poorest areas of the city and the libraries are used.) Anyway, I spotted Commonwealth on the shelves and read it – this is why I’m not making a dent in my tbr pile… Having read another Patchett novel this month, you can see similarities in her style, the meandering details of ins and outs of relationships, the sparse plotting that focuses more on characters than anything else. Commonwealth is about two sets of children who are forced together each summer after their parents break up their respective marriages and get together after a brief affair. One summer, something happens which changes all their lives and this is the story of how. Again, I really enjoyed it, she is a deft storyteller.

Watling Street – John Higgs

Another month, another travel book. John Higgs travels the length of ancient road Watling Street, which begins at Dover and ends in Anglesey, exploring the history and myth of each area. It’s a more detailed and thoughtful book than travel books can often be and tries to give an understanding of the national character, as much as anybody can, but without sounding like a prick.

Queenie – Candice Carty Williams

I’m a few years late to this but the 2020 Book of the Year is a good read, an entertaining but painful account of one woman’s downward spiral after a bad breakup with her tosspot of a boyfriend. It’s not always an easy read, especially when Queenie does so many silly thing to mask her lack of self esteem, and many criticisms of the book have concentrated only on Queenie’s promiscuity. However, while it may start out light, especially as Queenie is a fun protagonist, it has a dark side and as you read on the history of abuse, the painstaking detail of everyday microaggressions and daily racist and sexist interactions that she experiences, all contribute to her lack of self esteem and confidence. It’s a really strong voice in modern fiction and a welcome blast in the land of white publishing.

Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford

One of the more tedious arguments from anti-abortionists is that the foetus you may abort could have grown up to be the person who cured cancer. And so they might. But as an argument, it’s rubbish. It’s as if life only matters when it achieves great things. An everyday life, the person who just does normal things, makes mistakes, has a job and a family, is as valuable but this rarely seems to be acknowledged. So hats off to Francis Spufford for looking at it in Light Perpetual. The idea for the book came when Spufford walked past a memorial to 178 people who were killed by a blast during the Second World War, including 15 children. Light Perpetual gives the life back to five of those children and offers us a snapshot of what their lives may have been like. None of them go on to do anything heroic. One goes to prison, one is a property developer who cons people out of money, there are several broken marriages, heartbreaks, depression and so on. All of it unremarkable, perhaps, but nevertheless, not something any of them did actually experience. It’s a nice idea, however, I wasn’t entirely sure if it worked for me. As you know, I’m less bothered by plot and I like character driven books but although I liked the second half more than the first, I wasn’t sure exactly what the book was trying to say.

Free Love – Tessa Hadley

Our library has had so few new books in it recently that I assumed they were engineering reasons for us not to go in to justify them closing it. So I was pleasantly surprised to see this in there, published in the last couple of months. Free Love does nothing new in terms of plot – woman leaves stuffy husband to run off with a much younger man and everyone has to deal with the consequences. What is different, I think, is the attitudes contained. So many stories carry such moral weight with them – I’ve lost track of the number of times you see an hysterical woman in literature who has an affair and ends up killing herself or languishing in misery and guilt. This does not do that, thank goodness. Even better, the wife, Phyllis, does not spend the whole book hanging on everything that her new lover does or says. She has an affair as much with his local community, his friends and part of London as much as she does with him – finding the freedom to be herself, to shake off her old dull life and do what she wants. Perhaps fewer people of her acquaintance judge her because they all seem to be having affairs themselves, but whatever the reason, it was at least refreshing. I thought perhaps it was rather slow in parts, though, it’s very detailed in each person’s inner life but Hadley is a good writer and it’s a minor gripe.

Dear Life – Alice Munro

Sometimes, when people are talking about writing short stories, they will say that it can be a postcard of a moment, that flash or short stories don’t have to tell a story. This is wrong, they do. But when you read Alice Munro you realise that this advice comes from reading her. Munro is the master of short stories but many of them are so cleverly constructed that you don’t immediately see the story, what she is trying to say, that perhaps it comes across as a snapshot. She makes you do a little bit of work to find the story part but she does it so well and with such engaging writing that you don’t mind. These stories are her standard fare, tales of everyday folk doing everyday things in Canada, but there are four autobiographical pieces at the end which, she says, is the closest she ever came to writing about her own life.

Moments of Pleasure

Rhubarb fool. This recipe makes gallons of it but is excellent.

Endurance is found. I was thrilled at the pictures of the Endurance, found deep under the Weddell Sea this month. I always liked the Shackleton story and it was amazing to see how the boat has survived under the water.

I finally got round to watching Booksmart – I rarely get to see grown up movies at the cinema so wanted to see it but missed it – and loved it. Really enjoyable coming of age, inclusive, fun movie. And as someone who didn’t have fun in high school, I sympathised, while nevertheless not regretting a single one of my choices.

Following our foray into short films earlier this year, I’ve been keeping up with Short of the Week’s site and I loved Dawn in the Dark which is a brief piece about a little girl whose Dad is in hospital. She wants to see him and is being cared for by her uncle, not that much older in truth. It’s a lovely piece of work.

If you’ve enjoyed this round up, please do consider subscribing to my newsletter. It’s a (usually) monthly riff on reading and writing for wellbeing, and how to juggle everything when you have a job and a family. There are journal prompts and recommends and all sorts. You can sign up here.

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