Friday 30 December 2011

It's usually a fair bet that I'll have read hardly any of the books touted in the Sunday papers as 'books of the year' but I've surprised myself this year, as for once I have read the most talked-about novel of 2011, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan which won the Pulitzer prize. True to form, I didn't bother reviewing it here as it was a book group choice that I'd never have read except under duress. Consoling myself all the while by plotting the epic 19th century revenge I would wreak next time it was my turn to choose a book.
Those tricksy post-modern novels are not for me and I've just remembered Charlie's wonderfully succinct definition that encapsulates why they don't appeal.
But I read 88 books in 2011 ... so here's some that I did enjoy. I'm standing by my choice of Sebastian Barry and On Canaan's Side for best novel but my number one book of the year is actually non-fiction and it's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which left me reeling in admiration at Rebecca Skloot's skill in telling a story. (My non-fiction runners-up are Sky Burial, a heartrending, gripping account of a Chinese woman's 30-year search for her lost husband; and Just Kids, Patti Smith's very moving autobiographical memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe.)

My reading list this year has been rather top-heavy with books from Persephone ... only because I staggered home with a huge bag of them from a library that I rarely visit. Susan Glaspell is now among the front-runners for my favourite Persephone author and if I hadn't been so bowled over by Sebastian Barry, Fidelity could easily have been my novel of the year. Closely followed by Brook Evans. Hard to believe that Fidelity was actually written in 1915.

I don't read all that many books in translation but the most powerful novel that I discovered this year was the highly unsettling Brodeck's Report. From the French, as was my most chilling read of 2010.

As I've been compiling this list, I've realised that some of my best reads of the year have been very evocative of place. Willa Cather is one of my all-time favourite authors so, of course, I'm including My Ántonia. I was also engrossed by Corrag and, quite recently, The Blackhouse, both set in Scotland (perhaps no surprise, as both were recommended by Cornflower up in Edinburgh).

Hurtling through some other titles that I'd highly recommend: So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell; Hostages to Fortune, another Persephone; and Mrs Parkington, which I discovered thanks to Rachel who wrote a much better review than I did.

I've also been re-reading some old favourites ... I don't know how many times I've read The House of Mirth but Lily Bart was as captivating this year as ever, and so was The Age of Innocence. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes was even better second time round. And life is quite long enough to read The Woman in White as many times as you please.

If anybody's interested, these were my books of the year for 2010.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

I don't read a lot of crime fiction and the Scottish detective with tragic past usually makes me think heigh-ho, been here before ...
But Cornflower's review of this book intrigued me.
Detective Fin Macleod returns to the Hebridean island of Lewis, where he grew up, to investigate a particularly gristly murder that appears to be a copy of another recent murder in Edinburgh.
It is the first time he has been back to the island since he escaped to go to university and his journey back, as he encounters those who never got away, excavates uncomfortable skeletons from his past. At the heart of it all lies the traditional slaughter of the guga - young gannets - on an even bleaker, rocky islet out in the North Atlantic. Once this had been a vital source of food for the islanders but now the guga are a threatened delicacy and the annual slaughter has become a testing rite of passage for the island's men. Macleod has participated once during his last teenage summer on Lewis ... but whatever happens on the rock, stays on the rock. I got off to a slow start reading this but then the grey, barren island got to me, along with its god-fearing population, and by the end - despite a few minor quibbles - I was as gripped as Karen was. I can't remember when I last read a book that conveyed such a deep sense of place. And the description of the brutal culling of 2,000 guga on stinking, slippery An Sgeir rock is completely riveting (but not for the tender-hearted). Despite the gore, I'm now intrigued to know what it tastes like. No surprise that Peter May used to live on Lewis although he never participated in the closed-shop of the gannet slaughter. What did surprise me is that this brilliant book was initially rejected, and it was published in French - under the rather better title L'Ile des Chasseurs D'Oiseaux - before it was published in English. I kept thinking that it would make a brilliant television series and must say that I'm looking forward to the second book in the Lewis trilogy, out very soon.
The Christmas cake went into the oven 10 minutes ago.

Mrs Miniver's daughter realises that she cannot condone feeding copious amounts of alcohol to an underage cake. Before Sunday.

Mrs Miniver's daughter's friend says stick a layer of marzipan on top and call it a Simnel cake and you'll be ahead.

Mrs Miniver's daughter says B..... St Delia and her ***@!** Christmas cake kit.

Which doesn't even include the ***@!** marzipan.

And hopes the cake will be out of the oven in time to put tonight's dinner in.

Monday 19 December 2011

David Hockney described it as a great operatic experience.
For years, I have been meaning to visit Dennis Severs' house at 18 Folgate Street. One day soon, next time I have visitors, and really, shouldn't I book in advance, all those excuses that meant yet another year passed - and Dennis Severs died - and I still hadn't got round to doing something that I really, really wanted to do, that is less than a hour's tube ride from home.
And today, at last, I put on my coat, queued for half-an-hour in the icy-cold drizzle ... and stepped back in time into one of the most strangely moving historical experiences that I have ever had.
This house made me shiver. (There are pictures here and links here and here will take you to two beautifully-written accounts by the author of Spitalfields Life.)
You are asked to imagine that this is the house of a fictional family of silk weavers ... you are just too late, because they have just stepped out of the room. Leaving a crumpled napkin and a glass of wine, half-a-cup of tea, a half-eaten breakfast, a child's shoe on the stair, tumbled beds and a chamber-pot that needs emptying. (I didn't investigate too closely.)
Indeed, if you investigate too closely - as if you were in a museum - you will find yourself peering at sardonic little notes from Dennis Severs, pointing out that if you are looking too hard, then you are missing out on the essential experience. This is not a house that needs a guidebook.
Fires are glowing, candles flicker, stairs creak, footsteps pass on the pavement outside and the clock on Hawksmoor's nearby Christ Church strikes the hour ... until you're hard put to say what is real and what is theatre and what is your own imagination. I caught myself looking into a tarnished mirror for a glimpse of what might be happening behind me.
I warmed my hands at the fire in the basement kitchen, where somebody really had been baking for the last two days ... there was bread toasting in front of the fire, Welsh cakes on a griddle, jellies glistening on the dresser, a scent of oranges and cloves and mincemeat. If there were ghosts here, they were cheerful and busy.
But up in the icy-cold garret, where ragged, grey shirts were strung on a line to dry in front of a fireplace of cold ashes ... that's where I really shivered because the walls seemed to exhale the misery of generations of poverty. I don't know who really lived here. It doesn't matter. There are streets of houses like this in Spitalfields, layer upon layer of history. (In the cellar you can see the real remains of a medieval leper hospice.)
I dawdled until I was the last one there and wandered through the house in silence on my own. Then chatted for a few minutes to the custodian who told me that for several months he had actually lived in that attic. There is always somebody living here. Take your time, he said, as he moved around the front parlour, trimming candle wicks, you're not in anybody's way ...

Friday 16 December 2011

A time-waster for when you can't face writing another Christmas card. If you want to join in, complete the sentences with the title of a book that you've read this year.

I began the day with A Visit from the Goon Squad.

On my way to work, I saw Fattypuffs and Thinifers

and walked by The House of Mirth

to avoid Nemesis

but I made sure to stop at A Place of Greater Safety.

In the office, my boss said, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

and sent me to research Brodeck's Report.

At lunch with Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary

I noticed Some Tame Gazelle

under The Pattern in the Carpet (and The Hare with Amber Eyes under Flowers on the Grass),

Then went back to my desk Alone in Berlin.

Later, on the journey home, I bought The Dolls' House

Because I have Family Values.

Then, settling down for the evening I picked up Letters to Monica

And studied How to be Alone,

Before saying goodnight to My Ántonia.

I'm always amazed that, no matter what the sentence, there's always a book title on my reading list that fits.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking? It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.

Could you imagine having the skill to craft a sentence like that? And what a beginning to a novel. From those first few words, I was completely and utterly drawn in.

I'd been wondering for a few days about compiling a list of my 'books of the year.' More in the spirit of postponing writing the Christmas cards than because I think that anybody else cares ...

But I certainly wasn't expecting to discover my out-and-out best read of 2011 now in the last couple of weeks of the year.

I've only just finished On Canaan's Side and I'm still reeling from the breathtaking quality of Sebastian Barry's writing. And sad because, if my mum were still here, and she'd have been 89 this year, I'd surely be buying this for her Christmas present. She'd have read it more slowly - and it should be read slowly, but I couldn't help myself and now I'm feeling bereft that it's finished.

Sunday 11 December 2011

'Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea. The most feminine and most domestic of all occupations imparts a magic harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance. The floating mists from the boiling liquid in which she infuses the soothing herbs, whose secrets are known to her alone, envelop her in a cloud of scented vapour, through which she seems a social fairy, weaving potent spells with Gunpowder and Bohea. At the tea-table she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable. What do men know of the mysterious beverage? (Lady Audley's Secret)

Fast forward 150 years and this particular social fairy is sitting here with her Yorkshire teabag still swimming in a mug that only got rinsed under the tap after the last brew. (I know I'm common, but I do like it good and strong. And constantly flowing.)

'It's all women's work from one end to the other. He marries a woman, and his father casts him off penniless and professionless. He hears of the woman's death and he breaks his heart - his good, honest, manly heart, worth a million of the treacheous lumps of self-interest and mercenary calculation which beat in women's breasts. He goes to a woman's house and is never seen alive again ... And - and then,' mused Mr Audley, rather irreverently, 'there's Alicia, too; she's another nuisance. She'd like me to marry her, I know: and she'll make me do it, I dare say, before she's done with me. But I'd much rather not; though she is a dear, bouncing, generous thing, bless her poor little heart.'

Bless my heart, I think I need another cup of tea ...

Saturday 10 December 2011

Mary Elizabeth Braddon began writing when she was eight; abandoned by her feckless father, she went on the stage to help support her family and made her debut as Fairy Pineapple in panto. She had six children by the Irish editor who published her sensational serials but couldn't marry him because his wife was in an insane asylum in Dublin.
So as you can see, she wasn't going to be short of ideas for penny-dreadful fiction.
I've just finished Lady Audley's Secret. (I'm sure I read Aurora Floyd years and years ago - it's here on the shelf - but I can't remember a single thing about it.)
Lady Audley has all the ingredients ... a wicked lady with the looks of an angel - a besotted husband - a suspicious nephew - blackmail, arson, attempted murder - oodles of secrets and aliases - a gloomy shrubbery where something horrible has happened ...
But even though I love a bit of Victorian melodrama, I didn't find myself quite as engrossed as I expected to be. Braddon isn't anywhere near as accomplished a writer as Wilkie Collins (to be fair, she was only in her 20s when she wrote this) and whereas I've read the Woman in White at least three or four times, I can't imagine wanting to revisit Lady Audley. It was originally published over 13 weeks and I do think that I'd have enjoyed it much better in smaller doses. Thanks to Cornflower, though, for providing the nudge because I've been meaning to read this for years. And I'm sure that she's right and that Lady Audley is a Victorian prototype for Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel. Now that was really gripping ...

Friday 9 December 2011

The lift was broken at the Royal Academy this afternoon ... which lent authentic ambience, as their exhibition of Soviet architecture is - gasp - right - gasp - at the very top. At least I wasn't hauling a shopping bag full of cabbages. There was something very poignant about Richard Pares' stunning photographs of factories and workers' housing, built with such high ideals and so many of these strikingly elegant buildings are now crumbling and derelict. But I couldn't help laughing at the top picture of a workers' club in Moscow - because, if you look carefully, you can see that the human urge for flouncy knicker-blinds can never be suppressed. When I got home I discovered a couple of interesting interviews with Richard Pares here and here. And was sorry that I hadn't read them before I went. But I'd only gone in to oil the wheels of capitalism by buying some Christmas cards.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

If Celia Johnson's bored housewife had run off with Trevor Howard, this is the fate that would have befallen her. (Telegraph)

This was an England scarred by war, a world of blistering paint and shillings for the gas, and redundant heroes.
You could almost smell the brown-ness of 1950, the whiff of tweeds that are hardly ever dry-cleaned.
I emerged from the cinema feeling wrung out by the heart-wrenching music, which is exactly right, and by Rachel Weisz's emotionally-shattering performance.
My only criticism is that she is too beautiful (and doesn't look old enough) to be Hester, the married woman who stakes everything on her all-consuming love for a younger man.
(I'm sure I saw The Deep Blue Sea years ago in the theatre, with Penelope Wilton more convincingly careworn and battered.)
The film ends, literally, on a flicker of hope. That could easily be blown out. It's had mixed reviews, but I loved every heart-breaking, miserable moment.