Due to having read hardly any new releases this year, I’ve decided not to do my usual elaborate FictionFan Awards. Not that I didn’t have plenty of great reads – between 1st November 2019 and 31st October 2020 (my usual bookish “year”), I gave a total of 59 books five-star reviews. The majority of them were vintage crime and classics, though, and many of them were comfort re-reads of old favourites, and I never count re-reads when giving out awards.
So I’ve decided to simply pick the best book of each genre (with a few honourable mentions along the way), and then an overall winner. Ready? Here goes…
* * * * *
Classics have been the backbone of my reading and listening this year. Fifteen of them got the full galaxy of stars, including three re-reads. Loads of highlights here – The Go-Between review-along which several of us did together was great fun, and Joseph Conrad became a surprise star of the year. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock blew me away and was a strong contender for the award. I loved some of the lighter ones, like Around the World in Eighty Days and The Prisoner of Zenda. And I found a couple of Scottish greats – The New Road and The White Bird Passes. But two books were so far ahead of all the rest I can’t choose between them, so…
My contemporary crime reading was way down in terms of quantity, with me largely sticking to favourite authors. So there were only ten five-star reads in this category, of which very few were brand new releases and several were re-reads. I loved Val McDermid’s A Darker Domain, Jane Casey’s The Cutting Place and Stuart MacBride’s All That’s Dead. But one stood out clearly above the rest…
My factual reading took a complete dive with the result that only four books made the five-star list. I very much enjoyed Paul Corthorn’s Enoch Powell, but I do feel it would probably only be of interest to British political nerds like me. This one would have a much wider appeal, I think…
My fiction reading was extremely limited and shockingly I only awarded nine five-star reviews, and four of those were re-reads. A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth delighted me as a homage to the science fiction greats, and I found a soulmate in Serenata, the grumpy older heroine of Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space. However, the standout book in this category isn’t a new release but isn’t old enough to be a classic yet, though it will be…
Vintage crime has been my major form of comfort reading this year. A massive fifteen achieved the full galaxy, though three of them were re-reads – all three by Agatha Christie, of course. I continued my love affairs with ECR Lorac and George Bellairs, started a new one with John Dickson Carr, and flirted outrageously with John Bude. But in the end they were all also-rans…
And that only leaves the almost impossible task of picking just one of these. While For Whom the Bell Tolls is equally good, this turned out to be the year when, after decades of avoidance, I finally became a confirmed Joseph Conrad fan. So he has to win the ultimate prize…
The old fisherman Santiago’s luck has run out. For eighty-four straight days he hasn’t caught a fish, and is surviving only with the help of the young boy, Manolin, who once fished with him but whose parents have now insisted he go out with another luckier boat instead. Manolin feels an intense loyalty to old Santiago, and helps him each day with his gear, catching bait, and even buying him food when Santiago’s funds run out.
On this day it will be different. A fish takes Santiago’s bait – a huge marlin, so big that Santiago can’t pull him in. As the marlin sets out to sea, dragging Santiago’s little skiff behind him, Santiago must decide whether to cut the line or run with the fish. And so it becomes a matter of will, as Santiago battles with nature, with his own failing strength, with growing exhaustion and with his pride as a fisherman.
He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.
This is a beautifully written and absorbing short tale – mesmerising, almost, as hour after hour passes and still the fish won’t tire. Although written in the third person, once Santiago is alone on the sea with his fish, the reader is taken directly into his thoughts. He is a simple man, and his mind dwells on great successes and failures of his past, a lifetime’s experience all guiding his actions in this moment. He knows he is at the limit of his physical endurance as the line cuts his calloused hands each time the fish changes pace. He recognises that the pride of youth has given way to the humility of age, and wonders when that happened. But he still has enough pride to want to kill this fish, although he loves it for its strength and will and beauty.
The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.
I suspect people may have read all sorts of symbolism into this over the years and maybe there is lots and I just missed it. But for me, this is simply a tale well-told, by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. As usual with Hemingway, there’s a degree of pondering on the meaning of masculinity, though less overtly than in the couple of longer novels of his I’ve read. It’s an old theme, man against nature, and Hemingway brings nothing new to it except his wonderful prose. And that alone makes this well worth reading.
Another drop in the TBR this week – down 2 to 203! At this rate I’ll soon be below the magical 200 figure for the first time in centuries… millennia, even!!
Here are a few more that should make me wag my tail soon…
The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill
It tends to be assumed that Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature mostly as a gesture of gratitude for his wartime leadership. However, apparently his histories are very readable and give an insightful insider account of events. This first volume covers the lead-up to the Second World War and therefore the period of the Spanish Civil War, so it might fit loosely into my challenge.
The Blurb says:This book is the first in Winston Churchill’s monumental six-volume account of the struggle between the Allied Powers in Europe against Germany and the Axis during World War II. Told from the unique viewpoint of a British prime minister, it is also the story of one nation’s heroic role in the fight against tyranny.
Having learned a lesson at Munich they would never forget, the British refused to make peace with Hitler, defying him even after France had fallen and it seemed as though the Nazis were unstoppable. What lends this work its tension and power is Churchill’s inclusion of primary source material. We are presented with not only Churchill’s retrospective analysis of the war, but also memos, letters, orders, speeches, and telegrams, day-by-day accounts of reactions as the drama intensifies. We listen as strategies and counterstrategies unfold in response to Hitler’s conquest of Europe, planned invasion of England, and assault on Russia. Together they give a mesmerizing account of the crucial decisions made as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
The Gathering Storm covers the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Adolf Hitler, the capitulation of Munich, and the entry of Britain into the war. This book makes clear Churchill’s feeling that the Second World War was a largely senseless but unavoidable conflict—and shows why Churchill earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, in part because of this awe-inspiring work.
* * * * *
Classic Science Fiction
Earth Abides by George R Stewart
Hmm… when I chose this one for my Classics Club list back in 2016, I had no idea that it would seem so relevant by the time I got to it. Not sure that reading about plagues is a good idea at the moment, but we’ll see…
The Blurb says: In this profound ecological fable, a mysterious plague has destroyed the vast majority of the human race. Isherwood Williams, one of the few survivors, returns from a wilderness field trip to discover that civilization has vanished during his absence.
Eventually he returns to San Francisco and encounters a female survivor who becomes his wife. Around them and their children a small community develops, living like their pioneer ancestors, but rebuilding civilization is beyond their resources, and gradually they return to a simpler way of life.
The Blurb says: The last novel Ernest Hemingway saw published, The Old Man and the Sea has proved itself to be one of the enduring works of American fiction. It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.
* * * * *
Maigret and the Reluctant Witness by Georges Simenon
Another for my 20 Books, and another Maigret. I had actually put Maigret and Monsieur Charles on the list but when I looked up the blurb I discovered it’s the last in the series, and since I’ve only read a few I’m not sure I want to read the last one yet. So I’m swapping it for this one…
The Blurb says: When the head of a powerful Parisian family business is murdered in his bed, Maigret must pick apart the family’s darkest secrets to reveal the truth.
Maigret is called to the home of the high-profile Lachaume family where the eldest brother has been found shot dead. But on his arrival, the family closes ranks and claims to have heard and seen nothing at the time of the murder. Maigret must pick his way through the family’s web of lies, secrets, and deceit, as well as handle Angelot, a troublesome new breed of magistrate who has waded into the case. And it’s the estranged black sheep of the family, Veronique, who may hold the key to it all with her knowledge of the depths to which the family will sink to protect their reputation.
* * * * *
NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
In the pine forests high in the Spanish Sierra, a small band of Republican guerrillas is holed up, waiting instructions. Robert Jordan, an American who has volunteered, is sent to lead them in the blowing up of a bridge to prevent Franco’s Nationalists from bringing up reinforcements during a Republican offensive scheduled to begin in a few days time. The guerrilla band is ostensibly led by Pablo, who was once a feared warrior but is now an untrustworthy drunk. The real leader is his woman, the gypsy Pilar, on whose strength and courage Robert will quickly learn to rely. Also in the group is Maria, a beautiful young woman whom the guerrillas rescued from the fascists, but not before they had abused her cruelly, raping her repeatedly and cutting off her hair to advertise her shame to the world. Over the next few days as they prepare for their mission, Robert will learn the stories of these people and we will learn his, seeing what drives a man to participate in a war in a country not his own, and the effect it has on him. And we will see Maria and her Roberto fall in love – a love made more urgent and profound by the uncertainty of the future. As the group sit in the evenings in the cave where they are living, they tell each other stories they have told many times before – stories of the days before war, of atrocities they have seen and participated in, of bullfighting and politics and love.
At first the writing seems odd – Hemingway uses thee and thou and a stylised sentence structure in the dialogue throughout, as a way, I assume, of reminding the reader that in fact the participants are speaking in a language which Robert knows well but is still foreign to him. He also replaces the infrequent swear words with euphemistic replacements, so that one gets sentences like: “And when thou comest to the camp, order that someone should relieve me because I have indescribable and unprintable hunger and I have forgotten the password.” However, he does it so well and consistently that very soon the reader’s mind becomes attuned to it, and it begins to add to the sense of place and time. (It also meant this reader spent way too much time guessing which swear words were being bleeped out…)
Book 60 of 90
The main story, of the plot to blow up the bridge and of the love affair, is wonderful in itself, full of drama and tension, brutally savage at times followed by scenes of tender beauty. Regulars will know that I have mercilessly mocked other male writers’ attempts to write sex scenes, but boy, Hemingway knows exactly how to make something erotic without any explicit description of body parts or bodily fluids! (I was amused to discover that this is the book from which the famous question “Did the earth move for you?” originated, although in the book it is a moment of real emotion rather than the naughty wink-wink joke it had become by my teen years.)
“I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry. I love thee as I love Madrid that we have defended and as I love all my comrades that have died. And many have died. Many. Many. Thou canst not think how many. But I love thee as I love what I love most in the world and I love thee more.”
Maria, admittedly, is little more than a beautiful sex object, the idealised submissive female rather typical of the time. But she is strongly counter-balanced by the depth Hemingway brings to Pilar – for me, the real central character of the book. It is Pilar who tells us about the tragic life of the matador she once loved, a wonderfully told and absorbing tale which shows the importance of bullfighting as part of the culture both as it happens and as a basis for the tradition of oral storytelling and mythologising which feeds into the camaraderie and fellowship of the band. It is Pilar, too, who tells us of the time that she and Pablo took back her village from the fascists, repaying atrocity with atrocity, and showing the reader how easily good people can become a vicious mob, each afraid to stand out and goading each other on to ever worse barbarity. One of the things I most appreciated about the book was Hemingway’s refusal to make one side all bad and the other all good. Here motives and affiliations are murky and, as in most forms of guerrilla warfare, somewhat tribal in that most participants are following strong local leaders rather than fighting for deeply held convictions of their own. Here too we see how the peasants, told by the Communists that God no longer exists, struggle with a sense of loss for a religion that has been so deeply embedded in their culture.
….“You have killed?” Robert Jordan asked. ….“Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even fascists whom we must kill.” ….“Yet you have killed.” ….“Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.” ….“By whom?” ….“Who knows? Since we do not have God here anymore, who forgives, I do not know.”
Hemingway doesn’t delve into the minutiae of politics in Spain, but instead treats fascism as a universal threat. He has Robert talk to the other characters about his own country, America, suggesting it is not immune to the forces ripping Spain apart. Much of what he says about that aspect sounds depressingly like the current political state of the US, giving the book a feel of contemporary relevance. Robert does not consider himself a Communist – he is fighting for love of the Republic – but he knows that when he goes home he will likely be branded a Red and be barred from pursuing his career in teaching. He tries to imagine life in America after the war, with Maria as his wife, but there’s a pathos to these scenes because we also see that he doesn’t expect them ever to come true. Robert has killed men and is willing to kill more, but he knows that when it is over, if he lives, he will be changed forever by what he has experienced.
Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.
So much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. A book of this stature doesn’t require a recommendation from me but it has it anyway – my highest. What a great start to my new challenge!
Oops! A tiny little increase in the TBR this week – up 1 to 215. But it’s not my fault! It’s all these politicians! How is a girl to concentrate when the “civilised” world is going into meltdown?? Still, they might all be useless, but at least our new PM is more entertaining than the last one…
Here are a few more I’ll be putting to the vote soon…
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
I surprised myself by loving my introduction to Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, a few years ago, so am hoping he works the same magic with this one, which actually sounds more like my kind of thing…
The Blurb says: High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels…
* * * * *
Vintage Sci-Fi Shorts
Menace of the Monster edited by Mike Ashley
I thoroughly enjoyed the other volume I’ve read in this series of vintage sci-fi from the British Library, Menace of the Machine, so I have high hopes for this one. I’ve already dipped into it to find a Tuesday Terror! story and the porpy and I were both cowering behind a barrel of ant spray after reading De Profundis– we’re hoping they’re not all quite as scary as that one!
The Blurb says: The field of classic science fiction is populated with bizarre and fearsome creatures, be they lifeforms from other worlds, corrupted beasts from our own planet or entities from unimaginable dimensions.
Collected within is a diverse host of these otherworldly beings, from savage prehistoric revenants to nightmare predators encountered in the dark of space; from alien visitors on trial under US law to unfamiliar species under the knife in an intergalactic hospital; and from warlike Martians to the peaceful creatures for whom Man might be the monstrous invader…
* * * * *
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
This has been on my TBR since 2014, mainly because I’ve only read one ghost story of Hill’s and it was bland, unscary and derivative. This one is of course much praised, so hopefully it will be better, but my expectations are low. I did see a theatre adaptation of it many moons ago and, hmm, well, let’s just say I snored more than I shrieked… but the book is always better, right? Right?
The Blurb says: The classic ghost story by Susan Hill: a chilling tale about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town.
Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford—a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway—to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow’s house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images—a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black. Psychologically terrifying and deliciously eerie, The Woman in Black is a remarkable thriller of the first rate.
* * * * *
The New Road by Neil Munro
I know nothing about this one other than it regularly appears on lists of Scottish classics. The blurb might be short but it still sounds intriguing…
The Blurb says: The New Road tells the story of Aeneas McMaster – a young man haunted by the disappearance of his Jacobite father 14 years earlier. It is also the story of the Highlands at the time when General Wade’s road was carving its way between Stirling and Inverness into the traditional strongholds of the Clans.
* * * * *
NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.
So here are my favourite August reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…
Teddy Daniels, US Marshall, is a capable and attractive hero, a decorated veteran battling with memories of the horrors he saw during WWII and the more recent memories of the death of his beloved wife in a tragic fire. Sent to investigate the escape of a patient from a high-security asylum for extremely violent and insane offenders, Teddy and his new partner Chuck Aule come to believe that the break-out would only have been possible with the help of one or more members of the staff. From this promising start, the book then spirals through ever changing conspiracy theories, which buffet and batter the reader much as the asylum is being battered by the hurricane that has cut off communication with the mainland. As the book progresses, it becomes harder and harder to know what is true and who is sane. An excellent and disturbing psychological thriller that reminded me a little of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in its questioning of the nature of sanity and madness. The cause of some lost sleep…
The second in Lexie Conyngham’s fine historical crime series, this one sees Charles Murray of Letho, estranged from his father, taking work as tutor to the young sons of Lord Scoggie. Lord Scoggie’s domain is divided between hill farmers and fishermen between which communities there is a long-standing feud. And when old India hand Major Keyes comes a-wooing the Scoggie daughter, simmering resentments come back to the surface…
Set in 19th century Scotland, Conyngham does her usual excellent job in combining a look at aspects of post-Enlightenment Scottish society with a decent murder mystery. In this one, Charles’ interactions with his young pupils give scope for a good deal of humour which lightens the tone, and his position as tutor gives him an entry into the worlds of both masters and servants. This has been one of my favourite series for a while now, despite a little disappointment with the most recent one. Although each book works as a standalone, to get the full benefit of the characterisation I would recommend they should be read in order, starting with Death in a Scarlet Gown.
Kalfus lived in Russia during the period 1994-1998, when his wife was appointed Moscow bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing him to get to know the country and its people. The result is this collection of six short stories and a novella, all based in the Russia of the USSR era. Overall, he gives us a grey and grim depiction of life under the Soviet regime, but leavened with flashes of humour and a great deal of humanity. In each of the stories Kalfus personalises the political, creating believable characters struggling to find a way to live under the Soviet system. He doesn’t take the easy option of concentrating on dissidents and rebels; instead, he shows us ordinary people, often supporters of the regime, but living under the constant fear of stepping out of line. As a collection, these are insightful and thought-provoking, and Kalfus’ precise language and compelling characterisation make them an absorbing read.
If the sign of a great book is that it takes up permanent residence in the reader’s mind, then this one must be great. It’s one of those books that I appreciate more in retrospect than I did during the actual reading of it. This tale of the feckless ‘lost generation’ drinking their way across Europe while taking turns to have sex with the ever willing Lady Brett irritated me intensely with its constant descriptions of drunkeness and long passages of tediously banal dialogue. But as I stood back after finishing it, I realised what a stunning depiction of machismo and masculinity it actually is, while the beauty of some of the descriptive writing has left indelible images in my mind – of the dusty streets, the restaurants and bars, the bus journey to Spain, and most of all of the rituals surrounding the annual bullfighting fiesta and running of the bulls in Pamplona. The characterisation is patchy, often using cheap racial stereotyping, and the structure is messy but, despite all its flaws, in the end the picture that emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all.
When young actor Lysander Rief gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. The book is about lies, deception and self-deception and, despite some dark moments, has a layer of wit bubbling beneath the surface which keeps the overall tone light. Lysander has been visiting a psychiatrist who introduces him to the concept of ‘parallelism’. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. When Boyd is on form, as he is here, then there are few more enjoyable authors.
I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!
For the runners-up!
* * * * * * * * *
So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in
Regrettably, this has been the worst year I can remember for new literary fiction. In the entire year, only a handful of books achieved five-star status, and a couple of them already appeared in the FictionFan Shadow Booker Awards 2013. Of course, there might have been hundreds of brilliant books published that haven’t come my way, but I don’t get the impression from around the blogosphere that there are absolute must-reads out there that I’ve missed. Fortunately this dearth has been more than compensated for by the books I’ve read as part of the Great American Novel Quest, the vast majority of which have been superb – presumably that’s why they’re classics. As you will see, this year’s nominees reflect that…
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I’m a little surprised to be including this bleak dystopian novel as a runner-up. It is the tale of a man and a boy travelling through a landscape devastated by some unspecified disaster – probably a nuclear winter. At the time I was somewhat ambivalent about it, finding the writing style a little irritating, and feeling that the book thought it was more profound than it actually was. However I also found it “thought-provoking and full of imagery that will stay with me for a long time – images both of horror and the ugliness of mankind, and of goodness, truth and a stark kind of beauty.” And indeed, it has stayed with me ever since I read it, and I find the images have become part of my literary landscape. It’s a book I find myself thinking about and referring to time and again, with the result that my opinion of it has continued to grow, to the extent that I would now count it as a great novel.
Despite his lack of inches, Arzee is on the verge of achieving the two things he most wants out of life – to become the head projectionist of the Noor Cinema and to find a wife. But, as the poet tells us, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. And Arzee’s dream is about to be shattered when the owner of the run-down cinema decides to close it. This is the story of two weeks in Arzee’s life as he faces a future that has suddenly become dark and uncertain.
I loved Choudhury’s prose in this deliciously bittersweet comedy – there’s some beautifully phrased imagery, while the dialogue between Arzee and the various other characters provides much of the humour. Bombay is vibrantly portrayed – the Bombay of ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Though there is depth and even some darkness in the story, the overall tone is light with almost the feeling of a fairytale to it. I found I became more and more enchanted with the book as I read and by the end was fully invested in Arzee’s hopes and dreams. This was truly an unexpected delight of a book and it still, ten months on, makes me smile each time I think of it.
Another entry that surprises me, and for the same reasons as The Road – I have found this one has stayed in my mind and my appreciation of it has continued to grow. By all rights, I should have hated it – a macho tale of men being men, drunken quarrels, bullfighting and the ‘lost generation’ of feckless wasters. But…some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting. In the end I found that the picture that eventually emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all. And, with the benefit of a little more distance, the book has settled into a permanent place as an unforgettable read, fully justifying its inclusion as one of the best books I’ve read this year…or perhaps ever.
The last literary fiction novel I read in the period covered by the awards and so nearly the winner. When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Set in time and place between two of Tóibín’s earlier books, Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship, it seems to me that the three can be seen as a loose trilogy, giving a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And, of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. The only book published this year to make the shortlist….
Frank and April Wheeler have the perfect 1950s lifestyle – the nice house in suburbia, the two children; he with the daily commute to a good job in the city; she, a home-maker, beautiful and decorative – the middle-class, mid-20th century American Dream made real. But strip away the superficial and we find two people who have failed to be the people they expected to be, who are living every day with the disappointment of what they and each other have become. There is a desperation at the heart of this book – the desperation of rats caught in a laboratory maze.
When I reviewed it, I described this book as a masterpiece, and I hold to that opinion. Yates captures the language of the time so well that I could hear the dialogue being spoken in my head. These words could have been spoken at no other time and in no other place. And yet for all the talking in the book, there’s no sense of communication – each character is ultimately alone, desperately trying to hide behind the image they project. There are moments of quiet beauty in the writing, and an integrity in the characterisation that leads the reader to empathise even when we see them stripped down to their worst flaws and insecurities. And perhaps we empathise most because he makes us fear that we recognise ourselves in there somewhere.
A book that encapsulates a certain time and place, at a moment when the traditional American Dream was about to be shattered and made anew, when roles were changing in the family and in the workplace, when both men and women were trying to figure out how to forge new ways of living in a world where increasing technological advances were rendering the old ways obsolete – this comes close to rivalling The Great Gatsby as my favourite American novel of all time.
A worthy winner indeed – however since, due to being dead, Mr Yates is unlikely to be producing any new novels in the near future, the prize will be that I will read something from his back catalogue – A Special Providence, I think.
When I started looking for the Great American Novel, I expected to be inundated with people telling me I must read Hemingway. Oddly, rather the reverse happened – the general consensus seemed to be I should skip him. So obviously I grabbed the first chance I could to find out why…
Written in 1926, Hemingway’s characters are part of the ‘lost generation’ – those young people so emotionally damaged by WW1 that they are left drifting and purposeless, leading lives of dissolute recklessness. We first meet our narrator, Jake Barnes, in Paris, where he works as a journalist. Jake and Lady Brett Ashley love one another, but Jake has been left impotent by a war injury, and Brett is not the kind of woman who could be happy in a relationship that didn’t offer her sexual fulfilment. So Brett embarks on a string of sexual adventures, usually with friends of Jake’s, while Jake drinks. And drinks. And drinks. Actually, so does Brett. And by about a third of the way through the book, I was toying with the idea of knocking back three bottles of wine, a couple of brandies, and an absinthe or two myself. (But then the ‘lost generation’ usually has that effect on me – privileged, feckless wasters living off Daddy’s money, and blaming their dissipated lifestyles on the war. Poor ex-soldiers, of course, just had to go home, get a job and get on with things – they couldn’t afford to get ‘lost’ in Paris or Spain. Poverty is such a great sat-nav.)
“This is a good place,” he said. “There’s a lot of liquor,” I agreed.
When Paris begins to run low on alcohol, Jake and a loose group of friends and acquaintances, including Brett and her fiancé, make their way to Pamplona in Spain for the annual bull-fighting fiesta. There is a lot of alcohol available in Spain, of all different kinds, and this, together with the fact that every man in the party has either slept with Brett or wants to, leads to lots of macho posturing – not unlike the more formalised posturing that takes place between the matador and the bull. Surprisingly enough, Lady Brett seems to quite like matadors…
Hemingway’s writing style is an odd mix of sometimes overly simplistic prose with occasional passages of real beauty. Some of the dialogue is mind-numbingly trite – repetitive and dull – and he gets fixated on details from time to time, like how much a bottle of wine cost or what each person ate. I tired very quickly of the endless descriptions of binge-drinking and drunken quarrelling. But some of the descriptions are excellent – the dusty journey to Pamplona, the passengers met by chance en route all merge to become a strikingly vivid picture of a particular place and time. As they all sit around drinking in Pamplona, I felt I could see the various cafés and bars clearly, almost smell them. The interactions between the ex-pats and the natives are brilliantly portrayed, particularly the growing disapproval from the real aficionados when Brett’s behaviour begins to threaten the traditions of the bullfight. And as for the arena itself, I found I was unexpectedly fascinated by his depiction of the rituals around the running of the bulls and the bullfighting.
The bull who killed Vicente Gironés was named Bocanegra, was Number 118 of the bull-breeding establishment of Sanchez Taberno, and was killed by Pedro Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon. His ear was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero, who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.
The same patchiness applies to the characterisation. I’m not at all sure what he was trying to achieve with Lady Brett’s character – but I’m pretty sure he didn’t achieve it. She didn’t come over as a real person to me at all. Her permanent drunkenness and ridiculously promiscuous behaviour may have made many men want to sleep with her, but the idea that they all fell in love with her was a stretch too far. I felt as if she was a puppet rather than a character, her behaviour merely a device to provide reasons for strains and tensions to develop amongst the group of men.
I’m sure screeds have been written about the blatant anti-Semitism in the book and I must say I wasn’t overwhelmingly thrilled by his stereotyping of his Scottish character either. But honestly both characterisations seemed to me more like lazy regurgitations of racial caricatures than any kind of active racism, and it was the 1920s, so no doubt they seem more shocking to us now than they would have been then. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure that he wasn’t attempting to gently ridicule the prevailing anti-Semitism of his time – but if that was his intention, by leaving it ambiguous, again I feel he failed.
However, I feel we get to know Jake well and some of the others come over as fairly well-rounded. There is a good deal of subtlety in the way he slowly reveals Jake to us as the most resilient of them all – the one who is physically damaged, but with the most emotional strength in the end. The whole ‘there’s more than one way to be masculine’ message may seem obvious in retrospect but it’s actually fed through in a gradual and almost understated way, and I felt I only really saw what Hemingway was doing as I looked back at the book after finishing.
Everything was fresh and cool and damp in the early morning. Nurses in uniform and in peasant costume walked under the trees with children. The Spanish children were beautiful. Some bootlblacks sat together under a tree talking to a soldier. The soldier had only one arm. The tide was in and there was a good breeze and a surf on the beach.
I’m going to confess that in the end the book impressed me considerably more than I expected. Despite my many criticisms, I found it an absorbing read that drew me into the world Hemingway was describing and made it a believable one; and my appreciation for it actually grew in the few days after I had finished reading it. I feel that it needs to be approached like an impressionist painting – when you’re close enough to see the detail it all looks a bit messy and it’s hard to make out the picture. But stand back a bit and the details recede – the constant descriptions of drunkenness, the repetitiveness, the banality of the dialogue – and the picture that emerges of a damaged man metaphorically rising from the ashes through a kind of examination of maleness is really quite compelling after all.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.
Oh dear! 107 – need I say more? And I seem to be spending so much time adding books to the TBR that I’m not really managing to read many! Oh well (she said despairingly) better to have too many books than too few, eh? The only thing I can hope is that all the pre-Christmas books have been announced now. But (gulps!) the Booker shortlist is due to be announced next week…
Meantime, here are a few more that have risen close to the top of the list…
* * * * *
A totally new departure from Gordon Ferris, following the conclusion of the great Douglas Brodie series. I’m excited to see how he deals with a modern setting…
The Blurb says “MONEY TREE is a modern-day thriller set among the glittering canyons of New York and the seething alleyways of New Delhi. At its heart is the story of Anila Jhabvala, a destitute woman in a dying village in central India, and her struggle against the daily embrace of usury. Into her fraught existence blunder two westerners: Ted Saddler, a has-been American reporter living off the faded glory of a Pulitzer Prize, and Erin Wishart, a hard-bitten Scottish banker with a late-developing conscience. As the tension mounts, their three storylines interweave and fuse in a thundering and moving climax.
In pointing up the gulf between rich and poor, and the misguided efforts of western institutions to meddle in developing countries, Gordon pays homage to Professor Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Peace and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.“
* * * * *
Courtesy of NetGalley, I’ve been enjoying reading some of the early books in the Joe O’Loughlin series, which have been made available in advance of his forthcoming new one, Life or Death, due out in August in the UK. My review of the first in the series, The Suspect, will appear tomorrow. This second one has also been particularly recommended to me by the blogosphere’s own Queen of Crime, Margot Kinberg, so I have high expectations…
The Blurb says “Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz doesn’t know who wants him dead. He has no recollection of the firefight that landed him in the Thames, covered in his own blood and that of at least two other people. A photo of missing child Mickey Carlyle is found in his pocket—but Carlyle’s killer is already in jail. And Ruiz is the detective who put him there.
Accused of faking amnesia, Ruiz reaches out to psychologist Joe O’Loughlin to help him unearth his memory and clear his name. Together they battle against an internal affairs investigator convinced Ruiz is hiding the truth, and a ruthless criminal who claims Ruiz has something of his that can’t be replaced. As Ruiz’s memories begin to resurface, they offer tantalizing glimpses at a shocking discovery.”
* * * * *
Again courtesy of NetGalley (who really have a lot to answer for concerning the state of my TBR), I was persuaded to request this one by this great review from Raven Crime Reads (who really has a lot to answer for concerning the state of my TBR)…
The Blurb says “A young black attorney is thrown headlong into controversial issues of race and power in this page-turning and provocative new novel.
Martin Grey, a smart, talented. young lawyer working out of a storefront in Queens, is taken under the wing of a secretive group made up of America’s most powerful, wealthy, and esteemed black men. He’s dazzled by what they have accomplished, and they seem to think he has the potential to be one of them They invite him for a weekend away from it all – no wives, no cell phones, no talk of business. But what he discovers, far from home, is a disturbing alternative reality which challenges his deepest convictions…”
* * * * *
Hemingway’s name hovered around the Great American Novel Quest list but didn’t quite make it on – and then that dratted NetGalley offered this one…and of course I couldn’t resist…
The Blurb says “The Sun Also Rises is a classic example of Hemingway’s spare but powerful writing style. A poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation, the novel introduces two of Hemingway’s most unforgettable characters: Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. The story follows the flamboyant Brett and the hapless Jake as they journey from the wild nightlife of 1920s Paris to the brutal bullfighting rings of Spain with a motley group of expatriates. It is an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love and vanishing illusions. First published in 1926, The Sun Also Rises is “an absorbing, beautifully and tenderly absurd, heartbreaking narrative…a truly gripping story, told in lean, hard, athletic prose” (The New York Times).“
* * * * *
NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Amazon.
* * * * *
So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?
(And please don’t write any enticing reviews for at least the next 3 weeks…)