This has seemed a long month – looking at the books I read at the beginning of October feels like I read them sooooo long ago. And perhaps it was a different time, a different Prime Minister and all sorts.
Anyway, it’s been a good reading month on the whole, though I did have a couple of did not finishes (not listed here). These were on the whole because they weren’t working for me rather than them being terrible but I could see how they might work for others.
Dominicana – Angie Cruz
This was picked from my ‘been on the shelf a while’ pile, and is from a previous year’s Women’s Prize shortlist. It’s the story of Ana, a 15-year old girl from the Dominican Republic who is chosen to marry Juan from a local hustle family and move to New York. This will be how her family makes their fortune out of the Dominican Republic – she and Juan will make the way easier for everyone else to join them. I quite enjoyed this. It’s set in the late 1960s, when there were troubles in the Dom Rep, and Juan goes home to join the fighting for a while. But there is also trouble in New York; Malcolm X is killed in the theatre across the road from where Ana lives and Juan is very protective of her, not wanting her to go out or mix with the wrong people. Him leaving to go home for a while is her chance to start a business, learn English and, oops, have an affair with his brother. While perhaps predictable, I liked the sense of place and the immigrant story, the swirling mess of New York and the sense of freedom.
House on Endless Waters – Emunah Elon
Once in a while, by coincidence, you pick up and read books that have the same themes or the same storyline. This was the first of two books I read this month with storylines about saving Jewish children in the Holocaust. House on Endless Waters is only about this story – a famous Israeli author, Yoel Blum, has been told by his mother never to visit Amsterdam, the place of his birth. But after her death, he goes on a book tour there and in the Jewish museum he sees film footage of his mother clutching two children, one is his sister Nettie but the little boy with her is not him. What follows is his decision to remain in Amsterdam and research the story of Dutch Jews in the 1930s and 1940s in an attempt to find the truth, and as the source of his next book. This is a very slow book, especially the first half, and the style is sometimes frustrating to say the least. Yoel does a lot of wandering and noting down tiny observations which may or may not have any point to them. Passages from the book he’s writing are interspersed with his own reaction to being in Amsterdam and how he goes about the city, researching and meeting people. As such, you get to see both the slow creep of restrictions on Jewish people and the impact on them and other Dutch citizens – the chilling complicity that many of them display as a way to make their lives easier – as well as the ongoing impact that his origins have had on Yoel himself. Can anyone really escape childhood trauma? There is a small subplot involving him and his grandson, and how the grandson learned as a child that Grandpa wasn’t great at showing his emotions. This is mentioned at beginning and end, and is really how Emon examines the legacy of trauma most effectively. The last half-third of the book is quicker paced and as such, more readable. Having found it frustrating to start, I realised that the book stayed with me once I’d finished it and I found myself thinking about it a lot.
Early One Morning – Virginia Bailey
And so to the other book. This has been on the shelf for a long time and I remember there being a lot of hype about it at the time of publication. This is set in Italy and has a dual timeline featuring Chiara, an Italian woman who witnesses the clearing of the Jewish ghetto one morning and on a whim, grabs a boy from his parents and pretends he is her nephew. Taking the boy, Daniele, home to where she lives with her sister who is disabled, Chiara has to try and look after the boy whose trauma at his family separation has terrible consequences. In later years, Chiara who has lost contact with Daniele, is contacted by Maria, a Welsh girl who has discovered that she is Daniele’s daughter, the product of a brief liaison when her mother was a student in Italy. This book is less about the Holocaust itself and more about the personal ramifications of the impact of trying to save children without necessarily knowing how to help them. I found the later years much more interesting, if I’m honest, and I liked Chiara very much.
Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
I borrowed this from the Diversity and Inclusion Library at work (my organisation is definitely part of the tofu-eating wokerati and anti-growth coalition for containing such things…). It’s a graphic biographical novel set in Iran, set in the last days of the Islamic revolution and the war with Iraq. Satrapi is the granddaughter of Iran’s last emperor and her parents were committed Marxists so it’s all got an interesting perspective, and in the introduction she states that she wants to put forward a point of view about Iran that we don’t see very often. With the current wave of protests making the news, I was interested in reading this and it tells the story of some absolute atrocities through a child’s eye, but with wit and humour too. I know too little about other countries and this is a great way to learn a little bit more.
In The Blink of An Eye – Jo Callaghan
A brief mention for this which isn’t published until next January but I was sent a proof copy and wanted to mention it. Jo is a Twitter friend of mine, who has been writing for years and this is the first book she’s had published in this country. It’s a crime novel and features a female single parent detective whose husband has recently died from cancer. Jo herself wrote this in the months following her own husband’s death and so the exploration of loss and emotion is very raw and true to life as you would expect. The premise of the book is to pair the emotional detective with an AI device that uses data and statistics to analyse crimes, in an attempt to see who can solve them better. As you may expect, they develop a partnership. I’ll review this properly when it comes out but if you do like a good police procedural novel, please consider pre-ordering this as Jo is one of the loveliest people I’ve never met and deserves lots of recognition.
Starling – Sarah Jane Butler
And so to another book by a friend I’ve not met. I was on a writing course with Sarah some years ago and am so thrilled that the book she was working on then is now out in the world. I’ve reviewed it properly here.
Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan
Regular readers of this blog will remember my frequent grumblings about Irish literature is seemingly obsessed with only writing about how dreadful Catholics are to people who don’t conform – including LGBT+ folk and single mothers. Here too, is a story about Magdalen laundries so well in keeping with that tradition. I’m sure there must be an Irish writer out there desperate to write a 17-book fantasy series but who just isn’t allowed unless some nuns turn up halfway through… Seriously, Irish writers, it’s ok to write about something else. Anyway, this is a very short book, shortlisted for the Booker Prize and, despite my intense dislike of the subject matter, is excellent. It’s the story of Bill Furlong, coal merchant, product of a single mother, and father to five girls of his own, who is out and about delivering coal in the week before Christmas. The book adds depth and character to him and his family through small details, small things like these, and these things all lead up to Bill’s delivery to the convent where he discovers something shocking. The action he takes following this discovery closes the book so we never find out what happens to him, though he expects trouble about what he’s done. (apologies for this being rather cryptic but I wouldn’t want to post any spoilers.) My only quibble was that, as the son of a single mother, it was suggested that this gave him more sympathy for what he finds than he would do if he’d been born to a conventional family – which I found annoying. It’s like all those men who post on Twitter after there’s been a famous assault case in the news, about how they would be upset if their mother or daughter had been assaulted, as if they are incapable of noticing terrible behaviour towards a woman just as a human being. You would hope that anyone, finding themselves in the situation that Bill does, would be capable of showing empathy without any extenuating circumstances. Anyway, that aside, this was an excellently written, powerful book which needed nothing more adding to it.
Who Do You Think You Are? Alice Munro
This month’s reading group choice was previously published as The Beggarmaid but I didn’t find that out until after I’d ordered and read this and then realised I had a copy under its previous title on the shelf. FFS. It’s on the Jubilee Reads list and I was looking forward to reading it as I love Alice Munro’s short stories which are usually mini masterpieces. If I’m honest, then, this was a let down. It’s a series of linked short stories but the element that makes Munro’s short stories so masterful was missing somehow and instead it read like a disappointing novel. There were some lovely parts, insight and beautiful sentences, but on the whole I was left cold. Munro can write a story in 25 pages that packs as much punch as a 500 page novel so it was disappointing that she didn’t seem to do that here.
A Heart Full of Headstones – Ian Rankin
A new Rebus is always cause for joy, despite them all centring around a shady network of dodgy scoundrels, drug deals, lock ups and too many descriptions of cars. I really want to discuss the ending with someone so if you’ve read it, please let me know.
Burn Before Reading – Daisy Buchanan
This is a tiny pamphlet produced by The Pound Project who publish limited editions of essays every so often. In it, Buchanan writes about the joy of reading to help cure burnout and the general exhaustion that comes from watching the state of the world right now, and who doesn’t have time for that?
Hello Stranger – Will Buckingham
Will Buckingham is the author of one of our favourite children’s books, The Snorgh and the Sailor (highly recommended for adults as well as children), and in a way, this non-fiction work has similar themes about isolation, the behaviour of guests, connection and companionship. Hello Stranger was written in the aftermath of the death of Buckingham’s partner from breast cancer. Instead of retreating into himself in grief, he decided to try and connect with strangers and this book is the result. It explores conventions of travel, and of being a guest or neighbour or a stranger in a strange town. Buckingham has travelled and worked in a number of different places – Pakistan, Myanmar, Bulgaria, China, among others – and this contains a lot of research into social history and customs. It wasn’t what I was expecting, if I’m honest but fascinating just the same and . the kind of thing I would expect Olivia Laing to write.
Kerry Tucker Learns to Live – Louise Voss
On Twitter last week, Louise Voss wrote that she’d had an email from her editor expressing their disappointment that her book wasn’t doing very well. Publishing is a tough business and she mentioned how much work she’d put into the book and how sad she was feeling. Canny marketing strategy, you might think, as many of us then bought the book in sympathy. But looking at the numbers behind publishing, it is a tough business so anything that helps another writer should be celebrated. Anyway, this is not my usual type of read but it was rather refreshing to have a women’s lit romance with a socially awkward working-in-a-real-job forty-something heroine who messes up everything as a warning lesson to the rest of us.
Moments of Pleasure
I took E to Stratford Upon Avon this half term as a trip for both of us – she had been a Shakespeare ambassador at school (the school works closely with the RSC) and I thought it might be fun. And it was! For a start, I’d inadvertently booked us into a hotel that had recently had a £10million refurbishment and therefore spoiled us for any other hotel stay ever, and it had fantastic staff that made us come away each day “feeling special.” (E’s words) And, while I’m sure it helped that we were there on a quiet October week, I did like that Stratford was not one of those places that’s dependent on tourist trade but that actively hates tourists – we felt very welcome everywhere and our time there was excellent. E came away inspired by the story of Shakespeare’s children, and so is reading Hamnet. If you’re over there, we also recommend the Mechanical Art and Design Museum for an afternoon. The later trip to Warwick not so much (an odd town) but the castle’s dungeon tour is excellent fun.
Having said that, at times you do think how great it would be to be rich enough to eat out in restaurants each night and not have to cook and more importantly, shop for food. But in reality, I found that there was too much to eat and I really am happy with some Bovril on toast once in a while. So it was good to be home too.
Finally, I’ve not seen many people talking about The Old Man on Disney+ which stars Jeff Bridges, John Lithgow, Amy Brenneman and Alia Shawkat as a tangled web of people escaping the actions of forty years ago. It’s a slow cerebral watch, lots of long conversations between characters and I am enjoying it very much indeed.