It’s so long since I have written anything about what I’ve read this year! Last summer in fact. So here is my autumn and winter reading. First, remembering our sojourn in Paris last March, I read one of the few non fiction / non memoir books for this year.
I suspect I should have read it before our stay in Paris but I enjoyed it anyway. Michael Steinberger is an American food critic. Not that I am so immersed in the food world to know many of the chefs and restaurants he talks about. And the title, Au Revoir To All That is misleading. He doesn’t think French cuisine is done for, though he charts the changes in fine dining that are occurring. He was interesting talking about the Michelin star system – plenty of flaws in that. Our man in Paris, Bertrand at Septime gets a small mention in passing.
Then I commenced, by accident rather than design, a series of books about grief. First was Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats by
Roger Rosenblatt. This was nice and just what it says – reflections on love and grief while he paddles his kayak in the morning. It follows an earlier book by the author called Making Toast about his daughter’s death which I have not read but would like to. This was lovely. Meditations as he kayaks in the early morning to and from the household where he and his wife are caring for their grandchildren. Not too sad. Elegiac rather and contemplative. He remembers his daughter, notices birds, the tides, houses beside the waterways he paddles in and talks about the science of kayaking.
I really enjoyed this memoir. Which was not one of my sad books – rather an amazing romp through high society in England in the 20s and 30s and the aftermath. Great title the Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother And Me by Sofka Zinovieff. Doesn’t the mad boy (the one in the middle holding the baby) look like Benedict Cumberbatch?! The baby is the author’s mother. Her grandmother is the woman in the photo and Lord Berners is the chap on the sofa. A mad household if ever there was. A great story well told. I really liked the author, a contemporary and clear sighted woman. She has an interesting story herself. She inherited the house and you feel for her trying to have an ordinary life while attending to her inheritance. The only flaw really is that you don’t get a grip on the grandmother at all. How she came to be mixed up with these two men and what she made of her life. And not much about the baby – the author’s mother. However, there were plenty of others to write about – many well known like Nancy Mitford – and it’s all quite gripping. Reading this took me to Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (who was in Lord Berner’s circle) which I’ve been meaning to read for a while but which I found just so-so. Hasn’t aged well I fear. Then I read Miriam Toews
All My Puny Sorrows which I liked very much. A novel that appears to have been drawn closely from the author’s own life (I discovered through Google after finishing the book). Listing the subject matter it sounds grim but it wasn’t – two sisters brought up in a religious cult, father commits suicide, they move out into the world where one becomes a successful concert pianist but is overwhelmed by thoughts of suicide. It’s about how a family deals with such a thing – a loving, and lovingly described, mother, caring sister who’s juggling what she considers a less successful life and a loving and bewildered but very supportive partner. It’s the ordinariness of the characters and their daily lives that resonates. The sister/narrator has to juggle caring for two teenage children as she responds to her sister’s medical crises. The conversations she has with them are conversations I’ve had with mine. So true to life. As are her interactions with friends. And the medical fraternity. The hospital and mental health system get skewered. It provides real insights into mental illness and what it’s like trying to help someone you love who is affected. Overall a very beautiful telling of a sad story.
Another sad story beautifully told was Marion Coutts who is a creative artist and was not a writer before this book. Which is astounding as the writing is wonderful.
The title, The Iceberg is not referred to in the book itself, but I suppose is a reference to the brain tumor that killed her husband. It is extraordinarily beautiful writing, drawing you into her life completely. It’s as though you are sharing this journey with close friends who are very familiar, living lives just like yours. This is accentuated by the short emails she includes between chapters that she sends to friends updating them on treatment, encouraging them to keep visiting, bring food, keep in touch and so on. Heartbreaking missives. You want to talk to her, give what tiny comfort you can to help her through this terrible experience. Because she grounds it so well in the familiar activities of domestic life it doesn’t overwhelm you although it’s very sad and you know how it’s going to end. It starts on their little boy’s first day at crèche. An emotional day for all mothers. Her husband comes ambling up. She thinks “how nice, he’s come to share this important day”. But he’s come with other news. While it’s her skill in describing how dealing with such an illness has to be managed alongside carrying on normal living that is the book’s great strength, she’s also great at actually describing the effects of the cancer. He’s an art critic with a regular newspaper column and loses his capacity to form words. Her description of a column being written is quite gripping. I googled and read the article which gives his side of the experience, after finishing the book. Throughout she draws a vivid picture of the effect on her, on them as a couple, on them as a family. It’s hard to describe how this is achieved. She doesn’t dwell on physical descriptions. It’s in the selection of moments and incidents and things that she describes. Compelling and moving.
I then took some time out for lighter reading with Us, by David Nicholls.
He’s written another book, One Day that was wildly successful and made into a film. But I’d never heard of him. I liked this a lot. Deceptively light really. About a man trying to save his marriage and his relationship with his son. During By taking a tour of Europe, booked and paid for before his wife told him she was leaving him. There are flashbacks to their meeting, courtship and life together. In between the trials and tribulations of foreign travel. Especially with a sulky teenager. Gently humorous it eschews a predictable ending which was quite perfect.
Time out then for a couple of detective stories. First, The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins which I quite enjoyed. I’ve read two critical reviews since that I don’t really agree with. The first was cross it was compared to Gone Girl and the reviewer kept waiting for the sting that never came. Another that claimed it was misogynist which I don’t agree with. I did guess who the villain was which is unusual and means it is glaringly obvious. A woman going back and forth on a train imagines she sees evidence of a murder. Or did she? An alcoholic still not over her failed marriage. Ordinary writing but it rattled along. The other was one I found via Twitter, Traitor’s Purse, by Margery Allingham (1904-1966). She was a popular detective writer in her day. I really enjoyed this. Set in England on the eve of the second world war. Our hero has amnesia and spends the story trying to remember who he is, what he’s been doing and what it is the crucial thing that he has to do to avert catastrophe. An attractive side-kick. One could see it filmed with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the main roles.
Then I spent some weeks re-reading Anthony Powell’s wonderful A Dance To The Music Of Time. Three books each in four separate volumes – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. I loved it. Especially the first two volumes – six books. Amazing the way the small accretion of details, often offered obliquely, builds to a complete picture. Characters that are authentic and psychologically true. Events – parties, chance encounters, holidays, country excursions all described in fascinating detail. Domestic life – across different classes. Working life. Army life. Artistic life. Boys and girls grow up – some to achieve their hearts desire – more that do not. It’s like an enormous jigsaw puzzle with different bits slowly being put together until finally the whole picture is revealed. I was a bit frustrated, having had the narrator’s childhood circumstances filled in, not to have some background given to his marriage. And by the end some elements, frigid women, mad quasi religious types, were wearing a little thin. But overall a wonderful, fully realized world of real men and women unfolds in these books. I was half sad to leave them.
Finally, Ive been reading the famous Neapolitan tetralogy by Elena Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay and The Story of The Lost Child. I hate the covers on each of them – so won’t display them. There’s been some comment about these designs with others critical too. As there has been comment about the author choosing to be unknown. She wants the books to speak for themselves. They certainly do. Although I got off to a slow start with them. I was quite uncertain about the first one. I didn’t much like either of the two girls – Lenu the narrator, or Lila her brilliant friend. But the friendship rang true, the description of the neighbourhood – full of poverty and violence- was so vivid that I kept kept going and I’m so pleased I did. I loved them. Particularly numbers two and three I think. Cliff hanger endings – a little soap opera-ish it must be said – made me start on numbers three and four straight away! Well not four because there was a break in it being published. But I went on the waiting list straight away. The over arching story set against the political turmoil happening in Italy in the 1970s draws you in. You want to know what happens next to these two young women, their families, their friends and their enemies. It’s compelling. Fiction overlaps with fact – political demonstrations, violence and corruption, an earthquake in Naples. The friendship between the girls waxes and wanes. Lenu, despite her success in life remains in thrall to the fierce Lila. Who, within the constraints imposed on her has managed to take control her life – but at great cost. Through marriages, births, deaths, lovers their lives cross cross. Lenu too, swayed by her past, makes poor choices at critical times. No-one understands her as well as Lila. Their families and friends are intertwined. We watch as the lives of the people in the neighbourhood – parents, siblings, authority figures, school friends – develop and change over time. There’s the ever present poverty and threats of violence. The four books have rightly been hailed as masterpieces. I liked this review from the New Yorker.