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!

The chameleon reader

I am a chameleon reader. This is someone who takes on the personality of a character in their current read. In other words, a person who has porous boundaries between their real and their imaginary worlds.

The person most affected by this is my husband – who has taken to tentatively entering the house at the end of the day while he works out which persona is going to greet him. Here are some recent examples of my chameleon reading:

CommonwealthCommonwealth by Anne Patchett made me all envious of big families and large gatherings – resulting in an unexpected desire to entertain at home and devise menus for dinner parties. Just like  the beautiful Beverly who did exactly that, and ended up causing the mother of all family upheavals in the terrific family saga that is Commonwealth. We sank happily back to our two-person suppers when I finished reading this book.

Fierce AttachmentsHowever I bet my man preferred Commonwealth to the effect of my next read, Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments. Reading Gornick makes me want to be a feisty, intellectual Jewish woman from the Bronx. It must have been a terrifying experience to come home to find me transformed into a sharp-tongued feminist with acute mother issues. But that too passed.

 

The satanic mechanicAnd in its place came the altogether more malleable Tannie Maria in The Satanic Mechanic. Along the lines of Mma Ramotse in Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series, this South African Karoo novel comes with a lovelorn closet detective who is a terrific cook (this is one of those books interleaved with recipes – and the odd Afrikaans word). My husband was very happy with this turn of events. But, it was a short, easy read and I moved quickly on to…

Olive Kitteridge Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Well here is a character who Takes No Prisoners. Who reaches rapid conclusions, holds onto them come hell or high water, who only once in her entire marriage apologised to her truly lovely, all-patient husband. We watched the DVD. My husband thought Olive was a total witch. But she is not, so I put him right about that in a Kitteridgy way. Still, I bet he is praying that I do not read the book.

And that’s what chameleon reading is all about. You should try it – it’ll really keep your partner on his or her toes!

Your history, my history, our history

The Penguin History of New ZealandWhen you emigrate, it takes time to get your histories all in a row.

First up all you are aware of is loss, the huge gaping and unfillable loss of who you were. It takes all your energy just to keep your head above water. At least that was how it was for me.

But then I rallied and joined the library where one of the first books ever issued to me was Michael King’s The Penguin History of New Zealand. Feeling very virtuous I carried it back on the bus to Brooklands. There I took it on little jaunts from room to room and finally bussed it back (unread) a month later. It was too much too soon. I pulled in my horns.

Time passed and I started to look out for books that related to my interests: art, architecture and the stories of women. Beautiful books drew me in and fed my soul. Books like: Māori Architecture by Dierdre Brown; books about New Zealand Art, and A History of New Zealand Women by Barbara Brookes. I am unapologetic about the fact that sometimes I just looked at the pictures. I had a lot of catching up to do.

Cover of Maori Architecture Cover of a A history of New Zealand women Cover of Mauri Ora

Then, just recently, I came upon my best New Zealand book thus far – Mauri Ora: Wisdom From the Māori World by Peter Alsop. This is a lovely book to look at, a satisfying book to hold and a profound book to read.

Fiona and chalkboard at Central Library ManchesterAt much the same time as I was reading this book, I arrived at Central Library Manchester one day to work. On the sandwich board outside the library (see the photo at right with Fiona – its creator) was a te reo quotation with its English translation. I could almost understand the reo and I was enchanted by its translation – so appropriate for the library in question.

A small group of us stood outside the library looking at the quotes on the board. We had an engaging conversation about language and place and thought. Like planets, I felt all my histories line up and I was finally (albeit briefly) at peace. A quote from the Mauri Ora book says it all:

Ko te pae tawhiti, whāia kia tata;

ko te pae tata, whakamaua kia tīna

(Seek out distant horizons and cherish those you attain.)

Sick leave and my personality change

Winter ailments are striking early. In library after library staff are succumbing to lurgies and being booked off work. When it happened to me, my first thought was: Goodie, now I will read all the books on my shelves that I’ve not had time for.

I started with My Name is Lucy Barton. This was the wrong book at the wrong time. Lucy is sick in hospital having a disjointed trip down memory lane with a truly dysfunctional mother. It is beautifully written, but a Get Well Soon read it is not.

Cover of The life changing magic of not giving a f**kUnfazed, my hand reached out for The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. I needed a life change, and heaven knows the cupboards were long overdue for a bit of attention. After one chapter I lost the will to live. There is only so much origami-like folding of underwear that an invalid can handle. Instead I selected The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k (How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do With People You Don’t Like.) That’s more like it!

HyggeNext up Hygge. This is a Danish word for the concept of Happiness. I soon realised that I had been mispronouncing it for months. Irrationally, this kind of wrong-footing really annoys me. I still call it Higgy*. Anyway, it is the trend du jour. I was feeling quite ho-hum about it all until it got to the bit where you feel all higgy because you do generous things. I had my usual perverse reaction to this. Who exactly is feeling good here? The giver or the givee? Just for the record I would be enraged if people  kept leaving little containers of home-made jam on my doorstep and hung freshly baked bread rolls from my front doorknob. Clearly I was not in a good mental space.

And that’s when I realised that I was going about this Sick Leave reading all the wrong way. What I really wanted to do was rip out my lungs and have a go at them with a meat cleaver. I wanted violence. I was after blood. In quick succession I read two wonderful murder mysteries (The Fire Maker by Peter May and I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill) and followed them up with my first Literary Western (The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt). I felt better almost immediately.

Cover of The Fire maker I shot the buddha The Sisters Brothers

We may have put an end to blood letting and the use of leeches in modern medicine. But that doesn’t stop it from being the way to go when you are feeling enraged by ill health. Give it a try!

*[Ed: For the curious it’s closer to “hoo-ga”. You’re welcome]