February reading round up

February. Like January but shorter and with more people trying so very hard to call it spring and blithely ignoring the Arctic windchill factor. Fools. Bring on March.

I’ve read a lot this month! Here’s the rundown:

Hotel Milano – Tim Parks

I always look at Tim Parks books thinking I like them and then remember I mean either Tim Pears or Tim Binding (Tim Lott? Tim Clare? Tim Winton?). But this is, I think, the first Tim Parks book I’ve read and it was an interesting read. It’s set mainly in a – wait for it – hotel in Milan, called the Grand Hotel Milano, where the protagonist Frank has gone to the funeral of his old friend and editor Dan. He was called there out of the blue by Dan’s assistant because others are having trouble getting to Milan due to the onset of Covid restrictions. Frank doesn’t appear to live in the real world, gets on a plane and travels to Italy at the beginning of March 2020. Of course, you realise, he can’t then leave. The flights are cancelled, and he can’t leave the hotel. What happens next is the main focus of the book. Frank is old and focused on looking back over his life, and gives very little thought to the pandemic. What we do see though is how difficult it is for everyone else and the impact of this global event on a tiny number of people.

Left on Tenth – Delia Ephron

Delia is Nora Ephron’s sister and sometime collaborator, and this book is a memoir of her recent years. Named after the route she has to take to get home, Left on Tenth covers two-three seismic years for Delia where her life changes. First her husband of many years, Jerry, dies and she has to deal with the impact of grief, and the practical matters too – writing an article about the trouble she had getting his internet account closed (“Everything is copy”) attracts the attention of Peter, an old boyfriend of hers, also widowed, and they fall immediately in love. Then Delia gets leukaemia – of course, Nora died of this, so she’s immediately terrified. The bulk of the book is about her subsequent treatment, the advances in medicine since Nora’s death and it is a brutally frank account of a bone marrow transplant. Ephron reconstructs the past by building up a series of accounts from her emails to and from friends, and she spares no detail about the cancer treatment and how it impacted her – how scared she was, how she sunk into depression and how she made it out with the help and support of her friends and Peter, who she marries in hospital. It is, at times, a difficult book to read – especially if you’re used to Delia’s light hearted style from other things she’s written (in many ways similar to Nora’s). But perhaps we need this reminder of the wonders of medicine and good doctors and hope and bone marrow donors and the small things in life that make it work.

This Green and Pleasant Land – Ayisha Malik

I have a horror of living in one of those perfect English villages, the chocolate box kind where everyone knows you, your business and your personal lives and doesn’t hesitate from commenting on any of them or interfering if they want. I realise most people watched the film Hot Fuzz as a comedy but to me it was a searing piece of social realism. This Green and Pleasant Land is very much written from my point of view. It features Bilal, a British Asian man, who lives in one of these villages with his wife and stepson and whose dying mother extracts a promise from him that he will build a mosque to help a godless people. As you can imagine, this goes down like a bucket of cold sick at the council meeting and the result is an incredibly predictable of English passive aggression, racist micro (and sometimes macro) aggressions and hostility. While it is meant (I think) to be a gentle satire, I confess that I would have enjoyed it more if it didn’t feel all too familiar from the pages of the right wing press. It was also a little flabby in its writing, with a convenient ending that felt a touch contrived.

100 Voices: 100 Women Share Their Stories of Achievement (ed Miranda Roszkowski)

This is a book of women’s achievements, compiled from a podcast about the same subject. Each story is no more than a couple of pages long and many are quietly inspirational and positive. Having said that, I would have preferred fewer stories in greater detail as I think most of them were less than a magazine article and could have benefitted from much more time and space to make a real impact. I realise this would have been beside the point but there you go.

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi

This is Gyasi’s second novel, following her excellent debut Homegoing, and I think I was expecting something similar in tone or subject matter. But Transcendent Kingdom is an introspective exploration of a family – a Ghanaian American family whose lives are blighted when the son Nana becomes a drug addict and ultimately dies of an overdose. The book is narrated by Nana’s little sister Gifty who has grown up to become a neuroscientist, to understand the workings of the brain and find out why some people are prone to addiction and others aren’t. While this sounds perhaps predictable, the book itself is not, and instead is a deep exploration of seeking transcendence, of where our ideas around science and religion and family can all help sustain or help us. I really enjoyed this.

Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver

This month’s reread and one where Kingsolver’s interest in the environment very much comes to the fore. Later books, such as Flight Behaviour, have similar themes and structure but this is a good read, if a little too detailed in some of the science research – how much do I need to know about vaccinating goats, or the eco system of American mountain ranges? It features three sets of loosely interrelated characters living in farmland near a mountain: Deanna is a park ranger who lives in the woods, protecting and conserving the eco system, including a new family of coyotes; Garnett Walker, a grumpy old man who has an ongoing feud with his neighbour; and Lusa, a recent widow who finds herself needing to adjust to living without her husband but near his family. Like Transcendent Kingdom, it asks questions of how we want to exist with each other, with nature and grapples with huge ideas about religion in modern life, science being as much of a hindrance as a help, and love and sex and preservation and survival.

Looking for Jane – Heather Marshall

Subtitled: What a tangled web we weave when first we limit women’s reproductive choices. (Not really, but it could have been) This is an interesting, if convoluted, debut novel, set in Canada over a period of fifty years from 1961 to 2017, and explores the consequences of criminalising abortion and stigmatising sex outside marriage. As in so much modern fiction, the Catholic church’s laundries for unwed mothers gets a chunk of this story, but fortunately there is a wider tale to be told, based loosely on true events, about a network of women offering free, safe abortions to anyone who needed them. The story starts with Evelyn and Maggie giving birth to their babies in a Catholic home for unwed mothers and having their babies taken away. Years later, a lesbian woman, herself an adopted baby, is trying to get pregnant with IVF and finds a letter to another adopted baby containing a confession. This leads her to track down the aforementioned Evelyn, who is now an abortion doctor and well-known activist and find out more about how she worked to look after women, often putting her life and work in danger to do so. This is an interesting book, well written and well researched, and has just been made into a film.

Missing Words – Loree Westron

This is part of Fairlight Modern Classics series, which are lovely little novellas in smart packaging. Missing Words is about a postal worker, Jenny, who is in a slump – since her youngest daughter Sophie was killed in an accident, her marriage, job and family life have been difficult. One day at work, she finds a postcard that is unable to be delivered due to an incomplete address – it contains a passionate message of love – and Jenny takes it, determined to try and find the address and deliver the message. As she cycles around the Isle of Wight, we learn more about her past and her current situation, and Jenny finds the time and mental space to make up her mind to move on with her life. I really liked this, it’s a short, well written book with layers packed into its short pages. It also doesn’t have the ending you might expect, which was refreshing.

Rootless – Krystle Zara Appiah

This is out next month and will be reviewed on this website on 16 March. Spoiler: I enjoyed it.

Voting Day – Claire O’Dea

Another from the Fairlight Moderns Series (as novellas they’re short reads) and this is set in Switzerland on the day of the failed referendum for women’s suffrage in 1959 (women did not get suffrage in Switzerland until 1971, pub quiz fans.) The novella is divided into four chapters, each told from a different point of view of four women whose lives interchange on this single day. It’s a story that looks at women’s agency and how each woman realises that it’s when they help each other that they will get anything done, that none of them can rely on men. I really like this series of books, they’re a really varied bunch of stories.

Moments of Pleasure

It’s been half term this month, and I found deep nerdy pleasure in having a massive clearout and redecoration of E’s room, as well as of some of my own books and spring clean. But more enjoyably, we also had a brief trip to London where we visited Greenwich, the Cutty Sark, the Observatory and the Park, and the following day we went to see ABBA Voyage at the Olympic Park. It was a busy 48 hours, involving trains and crowds and a lot of walking but it was good to be out somewhere different to normal, and then to have such a lovely time singing and dancing away with ABBA. The technology was really amazing, and it felt like such a generous show with the wide backdrop, light show and the crowd involvement. There was always the potential for the shows to be more like watching a film, or to cram in as many people as possible as a money spinner and I was so glad that this had been put together with care and such attention to detail. Really immersive, impressive fun.

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