Highlights from a summer of reading: non-fiction

From my summer reading, here are the non-fiction highlights…

The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi – there are a lot of books in the world and I’ve mostly made peace with the idea that I won’t read them all. But there are some writers that I feel uncomfortable not having read, and Levi was one of them. The Drowned and the Saved was one of Levi’s later works, published for the first time in 1986, the year before he died. It is a collection of essays in which he further explores both the death camps and the people within them. It would be facile to suggest I ‘enjoyed’ reading this. There’s not a lot of enjoyment to be found (wider reading suggests that Levi’s final book is more bitter and despairing in tone than earlier ones, and I still feel like If This Is A Man is a book I must read) but I’m very glad I read it. A great deal has been written about the holocaust and I’ve read the tiniest sliver of it. I’ve never read anything like Levi though. He is understandably angry, although measured, erudite and considered. What he does that was so different to anything I’d read before was remove the easy interpretations, the sense of good people and bad people. He does away with the idea that any part of the holocaust can ever be ‘understood’ in a conventional sense. One of the essays is actually called ‘The Grey Zone’ and it quickly becomes clear that most of Levi’s polemic operates in this half light. It’s deeply unsettling but, particularly in light of recent political events, I came away confident that the unease he made me feel was vital.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, Jennifer Teege – the slightly ‘click-baity’ title worked on me in the library but this was actually an emotional and thought-provoking read. Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth, a fact she wasn’t aware of until, aged 38, she recognised a photograph of her maternal grandmother, Ruth Irene Goeth (Goeth’s mistress while he was at Plaszow) in a library book. The reason for the title is that Teege’s father was Nigerian, and her book was an interesting companion to Levi’s essays. Levi writes about both survivor guilt and the complex guilt felt by many people in the generations that followed. With Goeth’s atrocities so well-known and recorded, Teege has a particularly heavy burden of guilt to bear. The book was her attempt to work through the terrible depression she fell into on discovering her personal history and it has much to say about the responsibility we bear for the events of the past, whether directly related to the protagonists or not.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the remaining highlights – some essays, a memoir and a Christie.

 

Advertisements

Highlights from a summer of reading: fiction

Since I was last here, I’ve read a lot of books but haven’t said very much about them. It occurred to me that they represented most categories on the reading spectrum, so I thought I’d pick out a few highlights.

Some really good fiction:

Euphoria, Lily King – someone somewhere, and I have to apologise for not being able to credit where credit is due, said about this that it’s one of those really good pieces of writing that makes you want to go away and read more about the non-fictional inspiration for the fictional story. Having finished it, I wholeheartedly agree. Euphoria is based (loosely, I understand) on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead and given that truth is often too unbelievable for fiction, I’d love to know where the boundaries lie between Mead and her fictional counterpart, Nell Stone. The story centres on the events of a few months in the jungle of New Guinea, where Stone, her husband Fen and a third party, and fellow anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, become entangled in a complex web of professional and personal interactions, interwoven skillfully with the preoccupations of the indigenous people they are at once a part of and set apart from. There are actually boundaries all over this novel and King poses some lovely meaty questions about the lines between scholarly observation and true understanding, as well as the idea of how we change something by being a part of it, thereby potentially destroying forever our hopes of witnessing something as it truly is. I loved that King managed to be smart about both the intellectual ambitions of her characters and their emotional cores.

The Still Point, Amy Sackville – it’s interesting when you write about books together in an arbitrary way how often you discover links between them that you might not otherwise have noticed. As I set out to describe Sackville’s debut, it strikes me that it too explores the reconciliation of human ambition with human emotion, as well as the potential pitfalls of human nature. The setting couldn’t be more different though. Her beautifully crafted narrative jumps from a rambling Victorian house on a searing summer’s day to the splintering cruelty of an Arctic winter a hundred years earlier. It’s a story about Edward Mackley, charismatic polar explorer, Emily, the young wife he left behind, and his great-great-niece Julia, who is now living in his house with her husband Simon, while attempting to make sense of Mackley’s legacy: a legacy that includes not just dusty boxes of possessions to be itemised, but the meaning of his failed attempt at the pole, and the idealised love that kept Emily waiting until waiting turned into a life to be endured. I loved this book, for its evocative settings and descriptions as much as for the way it muses on the nature of relationships. But I think what most stood out was its narrative voice, which jumps out at you in the opening lines. Rather than listening to a distant omniscient voice, it’s a little like sitting in one of those observational rooms with a two-way mirror, watching over the people in the novel,  while the narrator sits next to you, arm around your shoulder, lots of friendly ‘we’s’ to draw you in. I wasn’t sure whether Sackville would manage to sustain it for the whole book but somehow it becomes like listening to a friend and the first book I picked up afterwards with a more conventional authorial voice seemed a little strange and distant in comparison.

And before I wrap up, I thought I’d give a quick shout-out to Martine Bailey’s An Appetite for Violets, a historical novel with a pleasing foodie slant. I probably won’t still be thinking about this one in a few months – as I more than likely will in the case of The Still Point – but this 18th-century tale of aspiring cook Biddy and her journey across Europe in the wake of a mistress who, from the off, is clearly embroiled in a ‘plot’ of some sort, is an absorbing read. I really want to use the word ‘rollicking’…you know what, I just will. It’s a touch rollicking. While some bits are very much  on the darker side, there’s a sense of adventure about the whole thing that keeps you turning the pages.

Hmmm. On the subject of unexpected links, it’s just occurred to me that all three of these books present their stories from the point of view of more than one of their main protagonists. Both Bailey and King use letters and diaries to present viewpoints. And both King and Sackville jump around in time (although only a little in the case of King). I do like unexpected links. Anyway, tomorrow night – non-fiction!

 

Finding inspiration in words and pictures

I feel like I’ve been adopting a slightly scattergun approach to reading recently but it’s been fun and unexpected. I did go on to re-read Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne Du Maurier as I sort of thought I might when I was last here, and I’m still reading Oriel Malet’s collection of letters from Menabilly in Portrait of a Friendship. But in the meantime I discovered some unspent money in my Amazon account (a bit like the happy heart skip you get when you find a tenner in a bag you haven’t used for a while) and of course this little lapse of memory meant that it was bonus money and therefore could immediately be spent on books. By and about Daphne Du Maurier in keeping with my current bent.

However, while they were winging their way my-wards, I found I couldn’t quite commit to anything else and, since collections of letters are often best dipped into rather than ploughed through, I picked up a couple of books that have been in my house for donkeys years but which I’ve never considered actually ‘reading’. They are: National Geographic’s The Photographers by Leah Bendavid-Val and Phaidon’s The Photo Book. My husband is the photographer/image man (by passion and by trade) and although an arresting image will make me stop and look, just like everybody else, I’ve never really studied photos or thought very much about them as pieces of art, composition or, indeed, narrative.

Words are still very much my thing – after a sometimes perfunctory glance at the image, my eye was always pulled to the lengthy captions to find out more – but I’ve been so interested by what’s happened to my perspective in the last few days of being immersed in this avalanche of images.

One of my great obsessions, in both reading and writing, is the way in which everyday things can be completely changed in an instant. Sometimes that’s whimsical or fantastical, which explains my love for books about magic, magic realism and stories like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which have the power to transform the mundane into the exotic. Other times it’s the touch of tragedy, where the shock of a life-altering event casts a transfiguring film over things that yesterday were so workaday as to be almost invisible.

Some years ago, I found out over the phone that one of the people I am closest to was potentially very, very ill. I don’t remember much about that phone call and I remember almost nothing else about what I did that day, but not long after I took a shower and I remember every single thing about that shower. It was an action that I performed thousands of times but this time it was as if someone took my shower and pulled it into another dimension. Like showering on Mars. Or inside someone else’s body. It was such a strange and alien experience despite taking place in a familiar room in my own flat. With a bit of distance, I think that’s fascinating. It’s entirely about a subtle shift in perspective and it’s something that I like exploring in the written word (alongside many other people who I think have done it just brilliantly).

And that – thank you for bearing with me – is what the photos have been doing for me over and over again. I think it was necessary to look at a few hundred for that to start happening. Unless it’s a particularly powerful and timely image, it’s a rare event when one picture can just stop you in your tracks. But after a few days of looking and reading, and sometimes looking again and again when an image resonated, I’ve started looking at the world around me a little differently. There’s so much unspoken story in the pictures, whether it’s what’s happening in the photo itself, the extra layers added by the context given in the caption, or the glimpses of what the photographer’s experience and commitment might look like on the other side of the lens.

About 50 photos in, I started making little scribbly notes and squirrelling away ideas. And I feel all fired up to explore some of them.

I am by no means the first person to discover that pictures can be inspirational, and I feel almost silly for writing it down as if it was some kind of revelation. But I think my personal lesson learned is that one of the reasons I love books so much, alongside my love for the shape and sound of language itself, is my passion for stories. And I could do with a reminder now and then that there’s more than one place to look for them.

[If you click on the pictures, which are credited to the National Geographic, the link will take you to their best pictures of 2016.]

Seeing double with Flavia Leng’s ‘A Daughter’s Memoir’

After lining up my library pickings, I went and left them all downstairs the other night and found myself tucked up in bed without a library book in reach, and too lazy to go downstairs. So, instead, I rifled through the TBR pile of charity shop findings by my bed, which I’ll show you sometime. Now that it’s as tall as my bedside table, it’s in danger of becoming a reserve bedside table.

A while ago I was thrilled to stumble on a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, growing up Daphne Du Maurier’s middle daughter in the eponymous Menabilly. So thrilled in fact, I forgot all about the last time I was thrilled to find a copy of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her childhood, and so on. So I have two, both with distinctive red spines, side by side in the leaning tower of TBR.

I figured it was high time to read one of them.

Daphne DM is one of my reading obsessions. Like the Mitford sisters, the Brontes and a few others, I will happily squirrel away any and every book I come across that even mentions them in passing. I have Forster’s chunky and well-researched DM biography and somewhere, as yet unearthed in the book boxes that remain sealed while house renovations happen, is a copy of Letters from Menabilly, a glorious collection of correspondence between Daphne DM and her friend, the writer Oriel Malet. Growing Pains, Daphne’s own notes on her life, features in my new header image. I found that in Hay-on-Wye and a patient bookseller had to climb into the window display to retrieve it for me.

I’ve tried before to explain to people the attraction of reading about the same thing over and over again. I suppose it’s a little like visiting a much loved garden. If you go in the spring, it’ll look quite different to how it does in the blaze of autumn. Picnicking by the flowerbeds and listening to the thrum of the bees will be quite a different experience to hiking up to a high vantage point and looking out over the whole.

I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. And I’m really drawn to the idea that, whether you’re talking about a person, an event or a whole historical period, there are really just multiple truths. Reading around the topic will allow you to see a bigger picture or colour it in a little more vividly, but it can (and should) never be definitive.

Forster obviously says a lot more than Leng in her book. If you want an analysis of Du Maurier’s works in relation to her life, then it is to Forster you should turn (although with a weather eye always to the influence of how interpretation is a mirror that reflects both author and subject). Leng, understandably, really only mentions the books in the sense of their having been written at particular times and omits much of the exploration of DM’s more private motivations. Leng’s book is ultimately about how Daphne DM’s life pertains to Flavia Leng herself, which is exactly as it should be. But it’s no less valuable an insight for that. It’s often what each writer chooses to emphasise or leave out entirely in their respective books that speaks about both them and Daphne Du Maurier herself. I love the whole process of reading in this way; it’s almost like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle only to find that pieces from two different pictures have been mixed up in one box. But it’s not at all frustrating; more fascinating. Each book adds a little more detail but the final image is mine to determine. I kind of want to go for the full immersion now, re-read Forster and Letters, then read Growing Pains for the first time.

In fact, hang the potential library fines. I might do just that.

There’s a bit more space in my local library

When questioned by my husband about the new book stalagmites on the living room floor, I’m going to claim they’re a kind of public service. After all, there’s no way the library would manage to fit in all the books if I didn’t help them out.

Sometimes it’s fun to see them all together as a snapshot of where my reading mind is currently at. This little formation represents the combined fruits of about three trips and indicates that I’m still fairly evenly split between fiction and non-fiction with a leaning towards books about books and writers, stories by people with quite different lives to mine, and a smattering of history.

I’ve also spotted this year that I tend to choose books (both fiction and non-fiction) with a largely unconscious bias towards women writers. I can’t say I’m that all that bothered, more interested. Most of the men on my ‘read’ list this year crop up in particular genres too (I re-read some Dahl and Morpurgo earlier in the year, and reached book 7 in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries). I might have a browse through my TBR list too. I’d quite like to see whether the bias comes through there as well… [Update: it sort of does. Oops.]

Anyway, on to the books.

Recent late-night adventures with Daddy Love aside, I’m not afraid to tackle darker topics and I’ve been meaning to read Primo Levi for just ages. Jennifer Teege’s book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me was a recent find and is a good example of my preference for reading history via the perspective of individuals with a particular connection to the events in question (in this case, Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth who needs, and perhaps deserves, little introduction).

There’s a Christie, because there’s always a Christie. I’d kind of like to have read them all one day.

Gods Behaving Badly sounds like fun and I can see how much I remember about my Greek myths. I’m looking forward to Euphoria because I’ve heard good things in the blogosphere. And Pym’s autobiography via letters and diary entries sounds like a perfect read.

 

David Lodge’s Lives in Writing [not pictured as accidentally pushed under the coffee table, sorry David] features Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Alan Bennett and H G Wells, amongst others.

And just to round it off, there’s Georgian England, witches and some fairly committed messing around in boats.

Now, which one first??

p.s. If, like me, you looked again at the pictures and noticed that Gods Behaving Badly is the wrong way round and is the ONLY ONE, and you were bothered by it, let’s be friends? 

 

New look, new books, plus some Joyce Carol Oates

I haven’t much fancied writing about books recently, although I’ve been reading a lot of them.

Then suddenly, last night, I was reading a Joyce Carol Oates book and becoming gradually more horrified. And all I could think about was how much I wanted to talk to someone about it. Writing structured reviews has been putting me off a bit; it had started to feel like a ‘job’ that I had to do after finishing a book. So I’m going to try something a little different. More like a journal of books; more fluid and open-ended than reviewing in the conventional sense.

So this what I wanted to say at nearly 2am this morning: “I really really wish I’d known that this book (Daddy Love for those of you who’ve been there and done that) was about an abducted child but I didn’t really get that from the blurb, which is superbly brief and ‘hooky’ without actually saying much of anything at all, but it turns out that it is and now it’s slowly getting darker and darker than anything else by Oates I’ve read recently, or perhaps ever, and there is no way on earth that I can possibly go to sleep and leave this child in this situation and these parents going through this unspeakable thing, so the only option left is to just keep reading until it’s done and hope with all my might that the ending is more bearable than what I’m reading right now.”

So I did. Until such time as I was guaranteed to be woolly-headed and unfocused today.

Then I lay there in the dark thinking that the ending was just about the meanest thing. I’m not sure what Oates intended to do with the ending, other than perhaps take the knife and give it a sharp twist to drive the blade in a little further.

Would I recommend the book?

To someone who isn’t a parent, perhaps, or to parents who are made of robuster stuff than me and didn’t cry every time the recent Pampers ad was shown. But if you want to be unsettled to typhoon level, then Oates doesn’t disappoint.

Where do stories come from? Neil Gaiman and Kate Mosse

The genesis of stories is endlessly fascinating to me and I particularly love those that end up being a bit ‘so I was on a bus…’ or ‘I was staying in an old house in the middle of nowhere…’. For this reason, I’m always drawn to short story collections that include notes from the author on the origin or history of each story; the how, where or why they came to be written. Usually they’re relatively brief, but they do provide an enticing peek behind the curtain.

Two such collections that I ploughed through in January were Kate Mosse’s The Mistletoe Bride and other Haunting Tales and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things – Short Fictions and Wonders. Both of them include author notes on each story and, while pretty different in style, they each reflect their author’s dominant passions and share more than a few themes, such as ghosts, myths and legends, and a sense of homage to existing tales.

594625

To quote from Mosse’s introduction, her stories:

‘…have in common…a protagonist in a state of crisis, someone whose emotional state makes them more susceptible to experiences or happenings outside everyday life. They are women and men who, for a moment at least, have slipped between the cracks of the physical world we can see and understand and into a shadow world that may not even exist.’

Given that most of Gaiman’s oeuvre and many of the protagonists in Fragile Things reside in the ‘shadow world’, they do make good companion pieces. Nicely creepy, they’re also a perfect gloomy January read.

Those author passions I mentioned are pleasing to unpick. In Mosse’s case, there’s the influence of the surroundings in which they’re set (in many cases her beloved Languedoc and Brittany regions of France), the folk tales that endure in local stories and the way that personal and emotional history affects the present, often via ghostly visitations or visions. In Gaiman’s case, there’s a strong sense of the Gothic and the darker regions we inhabit, where the line between this world and the next becomes blurred, as well as a regular seam of tongue-in-cheek jibing at convention. Mosse’s ‘Duet‘ was a clever play on perspective and ‘The Revenant‘ pleasingly spine chilling. Gaiman’s ‘Feeders and Eaters’ was terrifying as much for what it doesn’t explain as what it does, and ‘Other People’ is a bit of a masterclass in short story craft.

21185389

I’m a fan of both authors and, in particular, of the fact of that they both have such obvious writing obsessions if you read around their various works. To quote Mosse again, much of the enjoyment of these kind of collections is as a direct result of the way they help you get to know them as writers.

‘Any collection of work written over many years must, by its very nature, tell another story too – of how the author came to be the author she or he is.’