Thursday, 15 March 2018

Reading, not writing

A few short notes about some recently read books, which I have written about in my reading journal, but not here on the blog.

Set in Ghana and America, this debut novel by Yaa Gyasi is a really interesting read. The story concerns two African half sisters, one of whom marries an English slaver, the other being taken into slavery. The repercussions of these events continue down through subsequent centuries and succeeding generations, descendants of the two women. For instance, Quey child of James the slaver and Effia the Beauty is educated in London at his father's expense, but returns to the Gold Coast.
There is a good description of the Ashanti wars in the 19th century as well as grim details of the conditions slaves were held in at Cape Coast Castle before they were shipped off to the Caribbean or America.
There is also excellent detail about the power of the Asantahene, the head of the Ashanti ( and whose position still exists today), how he lived in his compound, the customs and complications of dealing with him and his courtiers.
The author, a Ghanaian, doesn't shy away from including the involvement of Africans in selling slaves to the English, but presents an interesting read on a very complicated period in West African history.
I found it particularly interesting as I had spent my early childhood in Gold Coast/Ghana and found the images described by the author had a particular vivacity for me, conjuring up memories of long ago.

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien is an emotionally demanding read, the background to the story being the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990's. The story set initially in a small Irish town, includes several themes about immigration;about how people are affected by events most of us only read or hear about through newspapers or television. Also about how a war criminal attempts to escape the law , but is eventually caught and brought to justice.
Edna O'Brien's writing is as strong as ever in this sometimes harrowing read, but it is also lyrical and

I've read most of Robert Macfarlane's writings since his first book and enjoyed them all. This one is intriguing with its lists of words to describe local landscapes from many parts of the British Isles . There are chapters on various types of landscape, such as mountain, moorland, hill, stream,marshland to name only a few. Each chapter has a glossary of words from many places in the British Isles, from Shetland to Cornwall, Wales to Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex and include words and phrases from dialects which are now unspoken.
He also cites other writers on the land, from Nan Shepherd's book on the Cairngorm, The Living Mountain, Jacquetta Hawkes' A Land and Roger Deakin's books on nature. 

My Book Club recently read A Change of Climate, by Hilary Mantel, and had a fairly lively discussion on its varied themes and locations. 
The novel is set in 1980 in Norfolk, where Anna and Ralph Eldred live in a rambling house, taking in good souls and sad cases as part of their charitable work, and bringing up their children. The story goes back in time to the 1850's , to South Africa, where Anna and Ralph were missionary workers and later to Bechuanaland after their deportation.
There are several themes, such as how religion makes people behave, how can children be protected from some of the awful events that happen around them, how relationships in a fairly long marriage can change. 
Hilary Mantel also gives clear, detailed descriptions of places and houses that the Elders live in. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

Second novels

New Forest in winter

The second novel seems to be regarded with trepidation by many authors, or so we are told, and also with a certain amount of curiosity by readers - will it be as good as the first one. The three I've read recently are all as accomplished as the debut novels I enjoyed when they first appeared.

Claire Fuller's Swimming Lessons is as accomplished as her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. The story is told alternately by narrative and letters. Gil and Ingrid are married, with daughters Nan and Flora. Gil is a writer, apparently typing away in his shed in the garden, while Ingrid keeps house and tidies up the garden of their home, which is the swimming pavilion of a much larger house, Gil's family's former home on the Dorset coast. Ingrid writes letters to Gil, hiding them in apparently random books in Gil's shambolic and vast collection, and whose titles reflect the subjectof the letter, before she apparently disappears in a swimming accident. Many years later,  Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, and has a fall with serious consequences for his health. His daughter Flora comes to help look after him.
Claire Fuller's writing has many nuanced themes within the story: Ingrid considers herself a bad mother, but is she, while Gil's fatherhood is perhaps questionable.

Eowyn Ivey's second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World is another epistolary novel, and also is based on journals of an expedition to explore the Wolverine river in Alaska in the 19th century. The journal was written by Colonel Allen Forrester, and his wife Sophie, left behind, while the letters are apparently written in the present by a relative of Allen Forrester's to a small museum in a former mining town on the Wolverine river in Alaska.  The journals tells of the difficulties of the expedition, and their contacts with the Athabaskan Indians in the area, while also telling of Sophie's experiments in photographing the bird life of the countryside around her. This story gives a wonderful impression of early life in Alaska from the American and Indian points of view, as well as Sophie's experiments in early nature photography.

Cecilia Ekback's second novel is an historical crime/mystery in a similar vein to her successful first tale, Wolf Winter. Set in the same area of northern Sweden, it tells of the difficulties Magnus, a minerologist, has when sent north from Stockholm to investigate the murders of three men and to survey Blackasen mountain during the summer of 1856. He is accompanied by his sister-in-law, Lovisa, who has been rejected by her family for her behaviour. Magnus and Lovisa react very differently to the long summer days and absence of proper night.
   There are several different points-of-view in this complex tale, with different voices telling their own version of events. This is a fascinating read, with much to engage the reader in a very different world to the current one.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Autumn reading

Although I haven't been writing much about my reading recently, I've been steadily reading, so here are my thoughts on a few of the non-fiction I've got through in the last few weeks.

Rebecca Solnit A Field Guide to Getting Lost is not necessarily about getting lost physically in the wilderness, although she does give some examples of this. It is more about losing oneself and changing, becoming someone other, which we all do to some extent as we age and change. Some people do change, having experienced a literally life-changing event. Some examples are people, both children and adults, who were captured by Native Americans in the early days of exploration and pioneering in North America and treated as members of the family. When found by their own kind, they often never returned to their former lives. Several chapters are titled the Blue of Distance, and in one , she discusses the blue pigment used to delineate distance by Renaissance artists.
I couldn't resist picking up a book titled The Art of Reading, by Damon Young in a local bookshop. It discusses how the act of reading, while giving the reader independence also makes certain virtuous demands of the reader, such as curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice.
The book starts with how we all learn to make sense of the words on the page reveal the story they are telling, how most of us are read to by parents and others and then read for our selves. Many of the chapters refer back to the virtues of the Greeks, to the necessity of applying reason, moderation, intelligent criticism in all aspects of life.
The final chapter, called The lumber room, is a gathering together of the books and other items which inspired the author and which he considers may inspire us as fellow readers. As a life-long reader I thought this a useful addition to my shelf of books about books and reading.

Although I didn't manage to see the exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in 2015 on which this book is based, it was nevertheless an interesting read, especially for anyone curious as to how people managed to clothe themselves and their families in a time of hardship.
The needs of the armed forces were paramount, so clothing manufacture was directed to supplying uniforms for the troops, and in contrasting the three main services, the RAF uniform was regarded as smartest, especially if it had wings. Clothing changed to make most economical use of fabric and women were encouraged to rework and refashion clothes for themselves and their families, so that they could have something newer or at least a bit different to wear.
The importance of looking smart in dire circumstances was seen as a morale-boosting activity, so everyone was encouraged to make an effort.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Summer reading

Recently read a right mix of books, some more memorable than others. Some are a considered read, others a bit like a quick snack, enjoyable but not particularly exciting. I sort -of plan a certain amount of reading for when we visit our house in France, as I like to take a few print books, but also have a Kindle, onto which I can download whatever titles I fancy while there.

 I've read a couple of titles by Laurie Graham, A Humble Companion and The Liar's Daughter. Both historical in their setting, but also about people and their complex lives. A Humble Companion focuses on Nellie Buzzard, daughter of brought into the palace  to be a companion to one of George III's many daughters., Princess Sophia. Nellie is the daughter of the Prince Regent's major-domo, so not remotely aristocratic, and she eventually marries a confectioner, and works in his shop, while Princess Sophy leads a very cloistered and contained life. George III's illness and madness form part of the story, giving the reader a different point-of-view on this devastating event.

The Liar's Daughter is set in the early 19th century, and Nan Prunty's mother claimed that Nelson was her lover and Nan his daughter. Few people believed this, and Nan spends a large part of her life trying to find the truth of her mother's claims. Despite her working as an apothecary's apprentice, then being married to an Edinburgh qualified doctor, Nan persists in her search for the truth about her parentage. A story about how much our origins matter to us, and is truth better than not knowing.

I read  and loved Sue Gee's The Mysteries of Glass, a gentle telling of bereavement, loss of faith and change in a lovely, tranquil rural setting. Sue Gee's descriptions of the natural world surrounding the small place, Lyonshall, where Richard Allen is newly appointed curate are lovely. Richard is  but trying to be of service to the parish, but also trying to resist falling in love with Susannah, wife of the vicar. The writing is fairly gentle, but also reflects Richard's inward struggle, which becomes more intense as Susannah's husband draws nearer to his death from tuberculosis.

For a different read, I chose Eve Chase's  debut novel, Black Rabbit Hall, a family story set in a large Cornish house, used as a summer holiday home by the family who owned it. There are two time-lines, one set in the 1960's and the other 30 years later, when Lorna is searching for her ideal wedding venue. The story is mainly told in flashbacks, with the past narrated by Amber while the present, Lorna's, is told in the third person. It 's an accomplished first novel, with engaging characters and dramatic events to keep one turning the pages.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Bird behaviour

We woke up to promised rain this morning,after a fairly mild thunderstorm last night, as thunderstorms go,  and noticed the birds around our house. They looked like young house martins and were flying and darting around the windows, hiding from the rain under the eaves, and perching on the telephone wires. There must have been hundreds of them, we don't usually see them this close up. As the weather slowly improved during the morning, so the birds gradually disappeared.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

A visit to Lyons

View over Lyons

On our way back from our last visit to the Cantal, we visited Lyons as although we have sped through it on the autoroute in the past, we have never actually stayed there. So we booked an hotel in the centre of the city, near the Place Bellcoeur, which was comfortable and easy to to walk to some of the places we were interested in seeing on a quick visit. Although the weather was mixed, we had enough dry spells to making walking round the city pleasant enough.
A street in old Lyon
Fourviere Basilica

We walked up to the Fourviére basilica on Saturday morning, while it was still fairly cool, and met many joggers running up and down the steep, narrow passages that thread their way through this part of the old city. We didn't manage to follow any of the famous traboules routes, but got a feel for those places on our way up and down. We made our way down and wandered towards the Opera, a magnificent mix of classical and very modern extension on top. By lunchtime it was raining so we found a small bouchon, for lunch, and following that walked to the Musée des Tissus, which houses a collection of beautiful examples of Lyons famous silks, many intended to decorate royal palaces, while the adjoining Musée des Arts Decorative contains many room sets, showing beautiful examples of how the Lyonnaise of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries lived and entertained each other. 
We returned to the same bouchon , Aux 3 Cochons, we had lunch in, for dinner that evening, as it was a fairly short walk from our hotel and was very welcoming, and the food was fairly typical lyonnaise, hearty and very tasty, welcome on a cool damp evening. We left with a small book of their recipes, in English.
 After dinner we walked across to the Rhone side of the city and followed the river for a while , passing a beautiful open-air swimming pool on the riverside, and admiring the lit -up upper old part of the city we had explored in the morning.
 We really enjoyed our brief stay in Lyons and would thoroughly recommend it as an interesting city to visit.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Miss Garnett's Angel

I had somehow missed reading Salley Vickers successful first novel Miss Garnett's Angel when it was initially published in 2000, but a good book will always find new readers. A fairly easy read, as Salley Vickers' writing  and story telling flow beautifully, yet there is a lot to think about in this tale of Julia Garnett's stay in Venice after her retirement.   I felt sympathetic towards Julia Garnett, intrigued by her wishing to live in Venice for six months and interested in the people she meets and in several cases, comes to love during her stay.  
 I loved the descriptions of Venice, which made me recall the couple of visits I've made to that amazing place, the little squares with small bars and trattoria where we had lunch of just a snack and a beer, usually with a church on one side, the water buses, the walks alongside the smaller canals, many, many happy memories.
 The story of Tobias, Raphael, Sara and Tobit  I was a bit hazy on, but Salley Vickers re-tells it clearly and had me hunting out a Bible with the Apocrypha in it, to read it for myself. The comparison of the behaviour of modern day Sara and Toby with that of the story from the Apocrypha is fascinating, showing how human emotions and reactions to them don't change much.

  One message I take from this story is to all retired persons: get out of your no doubt comfortable rut and do something -anything - a bit different. I don't think this is the intended message of the book, but it is one that appeals to me, as I am writing this while sitting in our holiday home in the Cantal department of France, listening to an approaching thunderstorm, the house we bought after our retirement from work ten years ago.

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