Have you found yourself yet?

I Am, I Am, I AmHave you found yourself yet? And if so, how?

Maggie O’Farrell, author of seven very successful novels, has worked out who she is using her seventeen (that is correct) brushes with death, and has put it all together for us in her memoir: I Am, I Am, I Am.  And it is very good.

O’Farrell has had a truly amazing life. Seventeen times she very nearly died (think attacks on lone walks, aeroplane near misses, medical blunders and and and and), but seventeen times she came back to live another day. These experiences have taught her a lot about herself, and she has assembled each episode into this uniquely structured memoir. After reading this book, it is almost impossible not to compare, to think back on one’s own life to times of danger or to those fleeting moments when guiding forces seem to have  intervened and prevented something truly awful from happening. I have not had a life like O’Farrell’s. And I come from Africa.

The ImmortalistsBut what if you did know the exact day when you were destined to die? Is this something you would want to know? And how might it affect your life?  The Immortalists explores this option after four young siblings consult a travelling fortune teller who predicts the exact death date of each of them. Half way through this novel I wouldn’t have minded if all four Gold siblings had died at the same time, like immediately, but it is worth it to hang in there as it’s a book that gets better in the second half.

Could it be instead that some of us live lives that have been shaped by the small, by a huge number of minor chords, by repetitive everyday attrition, by little tests that slowly reveal who we are?  Personally, I love to be told about myself by answering a gazillion questions (think the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs). I also suspect my birth date has subliminally influenced me. And this has been all well and good, until the library poster for the Lunar Year of the Dog arrived at work. To my dismay I see I am an Ox: steady, loyal, determined, blah blah blah. Just say “plodding” and be done with it why don’t you? I love my western Astrology sign of Sagittarius, but I am not a happy Ox.

Then I happened to glance at the top of this draft page and saw that this is my 200th library blog post.

I am indeed doggedly bullish. But I like to think of myself as an Ox armed with a Sagittarian bow and arrow with which to optimistically shoot my ideas all over the place. Maybe this is how I have found myself. Maybe it is with this kind of action I prove to myself: I Am, I Am, I Am!

Where have all the middle-aged gone?

There have been no middle-aged folk in any of my recent reads. It is as if they have been spirited away to a far-flung galaxy at the end of the reading universe where they beaver away at earning the cash to put food on the table, or spend their weekends repairing the gutters and ferrying kids to sports matches. But no on seems to be writing about them any more.

The Story of Arthur TruluvInstead there has been a veritable deluge of books where the very old become all matey with the very young. Books in which the middle-aged, (for a variety of reasons) barely feature. Books like:

The Story of Arthur Truluv: Maddy pals up with Arthur after they meet in a cemetery. Maddy’s father, although still alive, is a remote, unhappy figure who is next to no help to her at all.

A Man Called Ove: OK, let’s be honest here, initially Ove hates everyone, but by the end of this sensationally successful novel, his redemption comes from his relationship with his new, young neighbours and their children. All the middle-aged people are idiots of one stripe or another.

The Lost For Words BookshopThe Lost For Words Bookshop: Loveday’s world changed in one unspeakable night of horror. She is left with no family. Elderly Archie takes her in as an assistant in his quirky Lost For Words Bookstore. There are hardly any middle-aged people in this book at all.

Our Souls at Night: Addie and Louis, two lonely small-town-America pensioners, form an unusual relationship that is complicated by the arrival of Addie’s 6 year old grandson. Gene, the father of the child, has issues that relate to the death of his sister. He just can’t get his act together. So Addie and Louis need to pick up the slack.

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises: Elsa’s Granny is eccentric (to put it mildly), but Elsa loves her. Even after her granny dies, Elsa’s relationship with her granny remains more important than her relationships with any of the other adults in her life.

Raising our children's childrenAnd real life reflects this trend as well. Two Stuff articles this year have revealed the extent to which grandparents are having to raise their grandchildren. In one remarkable case a granddad  is raising two sets of twins for his step-daughter who has drug addiction problems.

Where is the help should this happen to you? In New Zealand the organisation Grandparents Raising Grandchildren is your starting point. Where is the research on this social phenomenon? Raising our Children’s Children is a good place to start with its many stories about how other families have coped.

But, in at least half of the novels I have read on this topic, the young people are completely unrelated to their older mentors. So this could happen to any of us. Don’t get too hooked on that luxury cruise to Vancouver is all I can say.

If you’re interested in more stories about the older generation, try our If you like … Older adults behaving badly and other quirky characters list

The many confusions of a new year

At the start of every new year I feel a certain sense of confusion. How will this year be for me? How will I be for this year? I feel very receptive to signs and portents at this time. Here’s what I’ve garnered so far:

Breakfast is a Dangerous MealWhat will I eat? Not breakfast as it turns out! The very latest foodsy trend knocks on the head the old notion that brekkie is the most important meal of the day, and does so with one of the cleverest cover designs so far this year! Terence Kealey’s Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal is a very well researched diatribe against early morning eating for diabetics, the overweight and those with blood pressure problems. How does he cope? “On waking I resort to a strong cup of black coffee; then I go for a run, a swim or a cycle ride. It helps that I have a job that I love.” Oh and Kay.

Goodbye ThingsWhat will I do? More tidying I’m afraid. Goodbye Things by Fumio Sasaki (who is quick to point out that he is no Marie Kondo) is just a regular messy guy who changed his life by getting rid of absolutely everything he did not need. The effects were remarkable: “Sasaki gained true freedom, new focus, and a real sense of gratitude for everything around him.” Sounds good – and there is no folding of clothing required.  If you can’t handle that, try Bohemian Residence instead which bills itself as being witty with: “lavish possibilities for contemporary city living”. There’s something about that word “lavish” that fairly screams “Bring Me My Eggs Benedict Now!”

I actually Wore ThisWhat shall I wear? Years ago I loved Trinnie and Susannah because they helped us work out what to wear by ruthlessly telling us what not to wear (everything we had in our wardrobes, as it turned out). I Actually Wore This (Clothes We Can’t Believe We Bought) is a happy reminder of that time in my life. Arty types and fashionistas reveal those items they bought and then never wore (or hardly ever). It is comforting to realise that we have all done this – bought an item for a New Year’s do, worn it once, then only dragged it out again as a kind of fancy dress item for Halloween. This book is visually pleasing and very wittily written. I now know that I must NEVER AGAIN be tempted by ethnic clothing while on vacation to exotic shores.

So there you have it: the all new, possibly snappy (no brekkie) 2018 Roberta. Neat and tidy, but whatever is that she is wearing?

Happy New Year!

Serial killers

Face facts, life has bad patches. I’m in one right now: post Italy holiday blues; Skype meltdowns in the middle of calls to the grandies; and Pneumonia.

GormenghastTime was I would have bounced back from all of this, but now it feels more like I am seeping. Seep-back requires that you do nothing. This is so much harder to do than one might have thought.

What I really needed was a good book. And the best books for holidays and dark times are serials. The first serial I ever read was way back in my twenties – The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake – a cultish read at that time. I loved these books and I remember, in particular, that my understanding of the importance of setting and naming in a novel stems largely from these reads. Ah Steerpike, Titus Groan and Fuschia!

DissolutionForty years passed before I read another serial: The Dissolution series by C.J. Sansom. Far surpassing anything else written about the time of King Henry VIII, these books get down and dirty with England at the time of Henry’s reign and they do this through a hunchback lawyer – Shardlake – as the main protagonist. If you’ve read Hilary Mantel and have tired of Philippa Gregory, do yourself a favour and try Sansom’s clever murder mysteries set in Cromwell’s time.

My Brilliant FriendAnd that was it for me and serials. Until we went on holiday to Italy, and right at the last minute I remembered that I’d been given the first book of The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend. I popped it into my hand luggage, and what a wise move that turned out to be.

Written in Italian and translated into many other languages, I have become a Ferrante groupie. I now know that this is the pseudonym of an author who wanted her real identity kept secret (but who has just been outed by a nosy journalist). I’m also now aware that there are actual Ferrante tours of Naples  which visit all the main locations mentioned in the books. And I’ve learnt that a TV series on the Neopolitan Novels is currently being filmed in Italy.

But mainly I fell onto the couch, and into another world of family and friendships and fall-outs. A world that does not stop after one book. A world peopled by characters so real you want to slap them, or as said by reviewer John Freeman writing for The Australian:

Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.

I’m saving the fourth and last book for my Christmas read, my not-so-Secret-Santa gift to myself!

Any suggestions for other very readable series?

“What will you be reading in Italy?”

By the time you read this blog, I hope to be on the receiving end of the gracious services of airline personnel as we wing our way to Italy on a long-awaited trip.

This trip has been four years in the making, starting with my husband learning Italian (thanks Mango Languages!), followed by library colleagues making all sorts of wonderful suggestions on what to do and where to stay (whilst others provided terrifying horror stories of things that could go wrong), and one dear colleague who helped my husband get conversation practice by meeting us for coffees and setting him up with an Italian pal for chats. Thanks one and all.

But now for the really important question on everybody’s lips: “What will you be reading in Italy?”

The Music ShopA friend’s suggestion: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. “For your trip” she said sliding it across the café table. From the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I thought I’d get home and just read the first couple of pages. Within two days I had read the whole book. It is every bit as good as Harold Fry, with the same complex characterisation, the same zingy dialogue, the same fullness of heart. But with a more complex resolution of plot. All that this book is missing is a soundtrack list. I loved it, but now it can’t come to Italy with me.

A Florence DiaryA book from my must read list: Dianne Athill is a favourite author of mine – she is one of that breed of really old women (she is now aged 99) who still writes. If you’ve not done so yet, read her book Alive, Alive Oh! which asks the question, should you live to be 100 years old, what will you remember? One of the things Diana hopes to remember is sex! I’ve had her A Florence Diary on one of my must-read lists, and it’s time has almost come. It is a small book on her trip to Florence with her cousin when she was a young woman. I shall read it in that city. Into my case it goes.

The LoversA serendipitous find: How could I resist The Lovers’ Guide to Rome by Mark Lamprell. This one crossed my path in the course of a day’s work and it felt as if it were meant to be. What I love about the first few pages is that they include quite an arty little map of Rome. My husband and I both love maps, they form part of the early folklore of our relationship. It turns out that  “the Eternal City has secrets only lovers can glimpse.” This one is coming with, and as an eBook on my iPad!

JohannesburgA book which has nothing to do with Italy at all: A possible antidote to all this Latin charm is the in-your-face 2017 novel entitled Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose. Here were my first thoughts: Nobody writes novels about Johannesburg. No-one even calls the city by its full name any more. The library won’t have this book, and even if they did no one in New Zealand would read it. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Set in Joburg in the twenty-four hours after Mandela’s death, the first few pages convinced me that this is a brilliant book.

And if I do read this book in Italy, I think we can safely say I will be the only person in the whole of that country reading an English novel set in South Africa and with the title Johannesburg. And there is something about that which I find perversely appealing!

Goldilocks and the three book club books

The very best thing about belonging to a book group is the variety of new reads to which one is exposed. And if, like moi, you belong to not one but five book groups (two in Christchurch, one online, and with connections to two in South Africa as well), there will come a month when you encounter the bookish version of the Goldilocks Syndrome:

The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book ClubAs in This book was too soft: The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club. Books about book groups run the risk of being quite formulaic. Take a group of women, vary their life stories, get them to meet up about once a month and toss some favourite reads into the mix. This has been done before. So what does Sophie Green do to lift her book club book out of the ordinary? She sets it in the 1970s in the Northern Territory of Australia. All that this really means is that the reads are dated and the women have vast distances to travel to get to Fairvale for a  natter and a plate of buttery scones. Look, it’s sweet and it will have a bit of a following. But it was too soft for me.

The Ministry of Utmost HappinessThis book was too hard: It’s Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It’s been a long wait for a novel from Roy whose The God of Small Things was published in 1997 and is one of my favourite books of all time. Of course this latest offering is beautifully written. Of course I can hear, see and smell India. Of course there are fascinating characters. But it is so sad, so cruel, so political, so jumbled, so devoid of storyline. I put it down intending to return and never did. I am aware that this says more about me than it does about the book, but I was a receptive reader and I got lost. Moving on.

The Keeper of Lost ThingsThis book was just right: The Keeper of Lost Things is a first novel by Ruth Hogan. Anthony Peardew has spent half his life lovingly collecting lost objects. These lost objects and their possible return to their owners give this novel the structure that holds it together. And what beautifully descriptive writing it is too, with phrases like: “an unfolded paper-clip woman”; “an old-woman-shaped vessel of vitriol” and “the tinnitus of technology”. You will have worked out that the people are more lost than the things, but this is a hopeful book, one in which we are reminded how important it is just to be kind to one another.

The best thing about any book group is that you don’t have to love every book you read, but you do develop a vocabulary for talking about even those books that have not worked for you. I know in my bones that there will be readers who will react completely different to my Goldilocks choices. And to be honest, that’s what book groups are really all about. Over to you!

Men without women

When Haruki Murakami came out of his study earlier this year and said to his wife: “I’m going to call my latest collection of short stories ‘Men Without Women’“, I wonder if she thought to say to him: “Hasn’t that title already been used darling?”

Men Without WomenBecause it has. Ninety years ago in fact, when none other than Ernest Hemingway named his latest offering of short stories Men Without Women. I’m sitting looking at both these books right now as I write this blog. Hemingway’s with its pugilistic cover and tribute by Joseph Wood Krutch (The Nation) – “painfully good”. And Murakami’s book, beautiful to behold, the hard cover version that I have bought (yes, I know!) strokable and with a satisfying heft.

Men Without WomenI love Murakami’s writing, that deft thing he does where you are simultaneously drawn in and kept at arms length. And this book of  seven stories about men and their complex relations with women is no exception. It is a long time since I have read Hemingway, but it is resolutely muscular writing. In his fourteen stories you are pulled right into the fray, be it in the boxing ring or in a touching dialogue on a railway siding.

There are no books in Christchurch City Libraries with the title Women Without Men. To be frank I was so taken aback that I checked several times. The nearest I got to it is a book by Virginia Nicholson Singled Out (How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War).

Something about all of this is niggling me. Why did Murakami give his book this name?

Two such brilliant writers. Two great works – 90 years apart. Both made up of short stories. One title. I fear that Murakami, in this one act, has doomed himself forever-more to endless queries about his choice of title at writers’ festival after writers’ festival in the up-and-coming year.

I almost feel sorry for him.

The well-mannered read

In this world of alternative truths, acts of terrorism, online dating and climate change, sometimes what one really needs is a well-mannered book. In well-mannered books there is no gratuitous swearing, sex is private, and war (a sometimes necessary evil?) is viewed from a big picture perspective. These are books in which Mr Please and Mr Thank-you have not yet left the building.

A Gentleman in MoscowAnd if you are thinking the descending scale “Boring”, you could not be more wrong. Take A Gentleman in Moscow as an exquisite example of a well-mannered read. Count Rostov (an unrepentant aristocrat) is placed under house arrest for life in 1922 in The Metropol Hotel opposite the Kremlin. The book is 462  pages long and almost all of the action takes place in that grand old hotel.  Count Rostov is an urbane, witty, positively likeable character – what is more, the book is peopled by a fascinating array of eccentrics.

As time passes, the world outside of the hotel changes and in a conversation with his lover Anushka, Count Rostov gives his view on the conveniences of modern life such as remote garage door openers:

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute…….To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest conveniences Anushka – and at one time I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

Hector and the Search for HappinessAnother contemporary author who writes in a very well-mannered way is Francois Lelord. In his novel Hector and the Search for Happiness, a young French psychiatrist (Hector) surely knows about love, sex, anxiety and behaviour problems. Indeed, this novel touches on all manner of problematic topics like prostitution and drug dealing, but in a very polite way.

You will be on a spectrum with your opinion of these books: from charming, to naïve, to patronising and worse. But I myself was charmed. So much so, I was delighted to hear that a film has been made of the first book. Imagine then my dismay when I learned that the film had turned its back on its French origins, been cast with a British psychiatrist, and set in the USA. How rude, not at all well-mannered. This would not have happened had Hector and Count Rostov met and formed a political party and taken over the world!

In the end Hector comes up with 23 “Life Lessons on Happiness” from all his travels. It seems appropriate to end with lesson no.5

Sometimes happiness is not knowing the full story

Just read the books!

Mothers and daughters

Fierce AttachmentsIt’s a long time since I have read a happy Mothers and Daughters book. Honestly, decades. How can this be? Most of the mothers I know have great relationships with their daughters. Yet current fiction does not support this view, and I have the books to prove it:

Let’s start with Vivian Gornick’s biographical account of life with her mother – Fierce Attachments. Well, the title says it all really. Two lippy women living in the Bronx without the balancing household presence of any y chromosomes. The daughter: sharp-tongued and sexually adventurous, the mother: conservative and grieving the loss of her husband. Their best moments come when they walk the streets of their beloved New York.

Hot MilkMoving right on to Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, where things become that bit more curdled. Take one controlling, difficult-to-please mother, add a “finding herself” daughter and a dodgy medical practice. Transport them all to foreign soil, leave to simmer in the heat, stir occasionally – then prepare to dodge the fallout. Deborah Levy was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2016 for this very readable novel.

My name is Lucy BartonMy Name is Lucy Barton also has ill health as a trigger point for a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. It’s a small novel, set almost entirely in a New York hospital room, in which Lucy and her mother attempt to nut out their history. This book made me the most sad, because the real culprit in their story was poverty and its effect on families. It also makes one aware that sometimes, even when great efforts are being made, things do not always work out. In fact Elizabeth Strout is something of a specialist on the theme of strained mothers and daughters. Her highly acclaimed first novel Amy and Isabelle also tackles this topic.

A family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member

said George Bernard Shaw. This may well be true, but I won’t know for sure until I have reacquainted myself with some good strong Happy Families books. Does such a thing even exist?

Feeling festive, out of Africa!

So I missed WORD Christchurch Autumn Season but just up the drag from Cape Town, in the beautiful Western Cape lies Franschoek, where every year (in May) the Franschoek Literary Festival (FLF) takes place. I was curious to see how Africa festivates*, so my daughter and I offloaded the kids and headed into the mountains.

At Franschoek with Mohale Moshigo

What is it about festivals that I love? Is it the books, the authors, the coffee, the vibe? In fact a better question might be: What’s not to love? The event that we booked for at FLF was entitled On Being A Book Club Writer, with three world renowned authors: Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame), Lesley Pearse (books like Belle and Tara) and Sophie Hannah (murder mystery writer of books like Closed Casket). The event was chaired by an ebullient Mohale Mashigo who thoroughly enjoyed herself, and worked the festival miracle of getting participants to interact with one another.

Here’s a selection of some gems that I gleaned:

Lesley Pearse:

I’ve never belonged to a book group, but I am glad they exist. Basically I am a storyteller – I think everything I write is rubbish until I’m told otherwise. My most bizarre reader interaction came from a young Korean man who proposed marriage. To this day I think he mistakenly thought the beauty selected for the cover of the book was me! All my writing is kept in my head, I make no notes, I seem to have no control over my characters. If I get Alzheimers, that will be it. You’ll be on your own!

Joanne Harris:

I’ve attended many book clubs and spoken at quite a few of them. I love it when people come to blows over my writing. That coupled with wine and pizza, what’s not to love? It certainly feels to me that Book Club members care about books and reading. But I don’t write for book club members,  I write for me. I too have very little control over my characters, I am more attracted to the Voodoo of writing, the making of little marks on the page. I once got a Valentine card from a Japanese man made from his hair – that’s the weirdest correspondence I have had. I firmly believe that you can’t express anything in writing unless you have experienced that feeling (OK so you can’t murder everyone, but you must have felt murderous at some point in order to write about it).

Sophie Hannah:

I did belong to a dysfunctional Book Club once, it had nine members, all women. Two of them spoke constantly, the other seven never spoke at all. I walked out one day saying I was off to fetch Chinese takeaway and I never returned. I don’t have a single weirdest correspondent. Bizarre correspondence is so regular, weirdness is so normal. I keep very detailed notes. I adore buying beautiful little notebooks. You might as well work in a canteen if you don’t like writing in a notebook! I work on a battered laptop, for at least a year the letter “p” didn’t work and I had to cut and paste it. I was writing a Poirot novel at the time!

Happy Festival Faces!
Happy Festival Faces!

This was my first festival coverage out of New Zealand. I loved it just as much as all the home fests I have covered. When I am old and very, very rich (one of those things has yet to happen!), I intend travelling the world from festival to festival … by train.

Sawubona from Africa!

* You are allowed to create new words when you blog about festivals!