Tag Archives: Academy Street

Five Novellas I’ve Read

I’m sure there’s going to be more than one of these posts, particularly  given Madame Bibliophile Recommends’ novella a day back in May 2018 , then this year’s selection lengthened my tbr list. The first task is to define a Cover imagenovella, something which varies from reader to reader, but for the purposes of this post I’m setting the limit at 200 pages which some may think is strict, others over-generous. Here, then, are the first five of my favourite novellas, all with links to a review on this blog.

I’ve sung the praises of Kent Haruf many times here. His writing exemplifies the stripped down yet beautiful style I most admire. Plainsong is the book I often mention when talking about him but for this post I’ve chosen his last novel, Our Souls at Night, a tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow.  Widowed and in their seventies, Louis and Addie have lived on the same block for years although they barely know each other. One day, tired of long, lonely nights, Addie knocks on Louis’ door and puts a proposition to him: she wants him to spend his nights in her bed. As Addie and Louis tell their stories, holding hands in the dark, we learn that neither of their lives has been quite what they’d hoped or expected them to be. Sweetly melancholy, this is one of the loveliest books I’ve read. If you haven’t yet come across Haruf, I hope I’ve persuaded you to get yourself to a bookshop and seek out his work pronto.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street is a fine example of the kind of Irish writing for which I have a weakness: elegant, understated and suffused with a quiet melancholy. Spanning almost sixty years, Costello’s debut begins, and ends, with a funeral. Left motherless at seven, Tess is a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education She longs to leave the family farm, training as a nurse then following her sister to America where she settles in New York City. Always a little outside of things, her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly; Tess’s sudden bright Cover imagemoments of empathy and understanding shine out from it like a beacon.

Towards the end of Academy Street Tess says ‘I could fit my whole life on one page’. The same could be said of Andreas Egger, the subject of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (expertly translated by Charlotte Collins), who leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience.

Like Eggers, the protagonist of Luis Carrasco’s fable-like El Hacho has spent much of his life in one place and is determined to stay there. Curro was born and raised on the Spanish olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He lives in the old family home with his wife, farming the land alongside his brother but this year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. Jean-Marie is determined to escape their arduous life leading Curro to make an arrangement that will cost him dear. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut, strikingly poetic at times yet stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

At first glance, I took Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (translated by Eric Selland) to be one of those books lit on by shoppers at Christmas who can’t think what to get their feline-loving friends but it turned out to be a thoughtful, rather lovely piece of fiction. It’s narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home, leading a quiet life, occasionally seeing friends and helping their landlady. Shy and a little skittish at first, their neighbour’s cat begins to visit them. The couple welcome her, making a little bed for her, and play with her, mindful of her need for privacy, but when their landlady tells them that she plans to sell the house, they know they must move. The beauty of this book is its elegant understatement punctuated by insights into the narrator’s life expressed in prose which is often very beautiful and a little melancholic.

Any novellas you’d like to recommend? Please feel free to quibble with my definition.

My 2015 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logo 2015Just before last year’s Man Booker prize winner announcement I wrote a rather disenchanted post about it so you might think that I’ve cast off my world weariness, given the title above. Not entirely, I’m afraid, but I did have to think about it when the lovely people over at Shiny New Books asked if I’d like to contribute a few punts for this year’s longlist. They only wanted two or three, but it got me thinking about other titles that I’d like to see longlisted. I’ve restricted myself to books that I’ve read and like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Theirs will be revealed on Wednesday 29th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

Academy Street Cover imageCover image

       Academy Street                            Weathering                      A Spool of Blue Thread

Cover imageOur Souls at NightTender

   The Mountain Can Wait              Our Souls at Night                           Tender

Cover imageThe Lives of Women1004

        A God in Ruins                           The Lives of Women                          10:04

Cover imageCover imageCover image

         Some Luck                            The Lightning Tree               Signs for Lost Children

 

I’ve been pipped to the post on this by Jackie over at Farm Lane Books whose format I’ve stolen, not for the first time. Interestingly we only overlap on two although if I’d read Anne Enright’s The Green Road I’m pretty sure it would have appeared here. And if you’d like to see which of the above I came up with for the Shinies plus other contributors’ hopes here they are. Let me know which titles you fancy for this year.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler (transl. Charlotte Collins): Being greater that its parts

Cover imageThere’s something very attractive about a slim novel which encapsulates the life of an ordinary person, someone whose life might well be judged narrow by those who stride across the world’s stage. Mary Costello’s very fine Academy Street springs to mind – I’m still trying to work out why it failed to appear on the Baileys longlist, let alone be shortlisted. Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life is in a similar vein: Andreas Egger leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia where he remained for nine years as a prisoner-of-war. It’s barely one hundred and sixty pages, but Seethaler’s novel reveals a life far richer than you might expect.

It opens in 1933 with an almost fairytale-like passage in which Egger tenderly lifts Horned Hans, a dying goat-herd, from his sodden pallet, strapping him to his back and carrying him down from the mountain. When Egger stumbles, Horned Hans unfastens himself and runs off into the snow, leaving the shaken Egger to try to collect himself at the Golden Goat where a lovely young serving woman brushes his shoulder. Egger first arrived in the valley when he was four years old. His uncle was resentful at the sudden appearance of his sister’s illegitimate child, but Egger was strong, more than earning his straw mattress and keep despite the injury inflicted during one overly enthusiastic beating. Aged twenty-nine, Egger used what little he’d saved to buy a small plot and a barn, just enough for him and the lovely Marie when she joined him. Realising it may not be long before they needed a more secure income, Egger found work with Bittermann & Sons, an engineering firm building the cable car runs that had become so popular with the burgeoning tourist trade. All looked set fair until nature intervened.

Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic, arranging a message spelled out in fire on the mountainside before finally finding the courage to propose to his beloved Marie. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage: ‘the distant mountaintops stood out so clearly that it was as if someone had just finished painting them onto the sky’ vividly summons up crystal clear alpine views. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience. A simple life, then, but well lived: ‘He had survived his childhood, a war and an avalanche… …He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.’ Who can say better than that?

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

It’s that time of year again. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges are putting the finishing touches to their longlist, due to be announced shortly. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2014 and March 31st 2015 qualify for the award. It’s the one prize I pay attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed. What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. A few of the titles are a bit out of the way but I’d like to think a sprinkling of them will appear. I’ve followed the same format as last year with thanks to Jackie at Farm Lane Books for coming up with such a simple but striking presentation. I’ve restricted myself to novels that I’ve read and there’s a link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2015 Baileys Prize:

Ridely Road                                       The Miniaturist                     Academy Street

Cover imageCover imageAcademy Street

Mr Mac and Me                         Our Endless  Numbered Days               Friendship

Cover imageCover image      Friendship

Upstairs at the Party                      Black Lake                                 The Lost Child

Cover imageCover imageThe Lost Child

Bodies of Light                          When the Night Comes In  After Me Comes the Flood

Bodies of LightWhen the Night ComesCover image

A God in Every Stone                         Some Luck                     A Spool of Blue Thread

A God in Every StoneCover imageCover image

Weathering                                  The Lightning Tree                 The Heroes’ Welcome

Cover imageCover imageThe Heroes' Welcome

I’m sure there will be omissions and inclusions that some of you feel passionately about. I’ve heard good things about Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, for instance, which is working its way up to the top of my pile. Do let me know what you think.

Books of the Year 2014: Part 3

The ConfabulistThe last of my ‘books of the year’ posts begins with one of my two September favourites, Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist which tells the story of the man who killed Houdini not once, but twice. Far from a straightforward reimagining of the Houdini story Galloway’s novel is a very clever bit of business which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved. A very different kettle of fish, Matthew Thomas’s richly textured portrait of a marriage We Are Not Ourselves is a fine debut, one of the best I’ve read this year. Don’t be put off by its length – once begun Thomas’s compassionate characterisation and quiet, considered yet compelling writing carries you along without even thinking about its 600 pages.

In October Daniel Kehlmann’s F told the story of a very different family: three brothers, allCover image unhappy in their own way, and their father for whom a hypnotist’s performance turns his life upside down despite his emphatically professed scepticism. There are many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle all of which click snugly into place partly due, of course, to Carol Brown Janeway’s excellent translation. October also saw the second of my non-fiction titles, Phillipe Claudel’s sometimes smelly, often fragrant, Parfums, made up of vignettes of a life remembered through smells. Claudel’s prose has a lovely, elegant expressiveness to it, trimmed of the flourishes and curlicues that some writers indulge in and translated beautifully by Euan Cameron.

Surprisingly, the often dull November turned out to be an excellent reading month. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is another very fine debut written in that pared back elegant style that I admire so much. Suffused with melancholy, it’s a heat-wrenching, beautifully written book in which Tess Lohan lives an attenuated life, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’. Delighted to see this one on the Costa First Novel shortlist. A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920.  It ends in the When the Night ComesCold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written and I’m fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020. And finally Favel Parett’s When the Night Comes surprised me with its captivating story of a crewman who cooks aboard a supply ship for an Antarctic research station and a thirteen-year-old girl recently arrived in Tasmania after her mother’s marriage breaks down. It’s also the story of the Nella Dan which sailed for twenty-six years in the service of the Australian government.  A beautifully expressed book, far more moving than I expected and one I hope won’t be overlooked.

And if I had to choose one out of the twenty-one? Not possible, I’m afraid. Last year it was a tie between The President’s Hat and The Last Banquet. This year it’s a three-way – Shotgun Lovesongs, With a Zero at its Heart and The Miniaturist – with Sedition just a smidgen behind. Waterstones, it seems, are more decisive than me: they’ve plumped for The Miniaturist alone.

Honourable mentions to Amanda Hope’s Wake, Jill Dawson’s The Tell-tale Heart, Emily Gould’s Friendship, Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, and Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party.

If you missed the first two ‘books of the year’ posts and would like to catch up here’s the first and here’s the second.

What about you? What are your 2014 favourites?

Academy Street by Mary Costello: ‘A life fitting on one page’

Academy StreetIrish – and Irish-American – writers seem to specialise in a particular style of pared-back, elegant prose from which shines out the occasional lyrical gem: William Trevor, John McGahern, Colm Tóibin, Sebastian Barry, Jennifer Johnston, Elizabeth Bowen, Deirdre Madden, Alice McDermott… I could go on. Mary Costello joins that (very long) list with her debut novel, Academy Street, which has all those stylistic hallmarks suffused with the same quiet melancholy that characterises so much of the finest Irish writing.

Spanning almost sixty years, it begins, and ends, with a funeral. Seven-year-old Tess Lohan is lying on a rug watching the evening sun play on the walls of the living room of her home. A blackbird flies through the open window, tears a little paper from the wall and carries it off to line its nest. Tess watches in wonder then hears her family upstairs as they struggle to move the coffin. Lost in the moment, Tess has forgotten and now must remember that she no longer has a mother. The Lohan children cope as best they can, their father made irascible with grief. As Tess grows up, a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education, she longs to leave the family farm training as a nurse in Dublin then following her sister Claire to America where she settles in New York City. Friendship is not easy for her, always a little outside of things she aches for the intimacy of connection and thinks, fleetingly, that she has found it. Her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’.

This is a heart-wrenching book. Reading it, you long for joy in Tess’s life, a closeness that will ease her loss and longing. Hers is a life led quietly, never quite making the warm connections that come so easily to her friend Willa. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly, Tess’s sudden bright moments of empathy and understanding shining out like a beacon. The elderly man she tenderly nurses through his last days recognises the ‘essential loneliness’ they both share, telling her that ‘I could fit my whole life on one page. I could write it all down on a single page.’ A fine novel, best read when cheerful.

Books to look out for in November 2014

Cover imageMuch to my surprise there are more enticing books published this November than in October. It’s usually a rather dull month – all the finest jewels in the box put out on display for Christmas already – but some treats have been held back perhaps the most surprising of which is Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first in a trilogy that promises to follow an American family over a century. It opens in 1920 with Walter and Rosanna Langdon beginning their lives together on an isolated Iowan farm. There’s a chapter for each year, apparently, with the next two parts due to be published in 2015. From a writer of Smiley’s calibre this could be a very enjoyable way of exploring the American twentieth century.

Mary Costello’s first novel, Academy Street, also looks at twentieth century American history this time through the eyes of Tess Logan, a shy young woman with a passionate heart. Over four decades, Costello follows Tess from her early years in the west of Ireland to the razzle-dazzle of New York where she makes her home. Costello’s short story collection, The China Factory, was much praised and the quote from the novel on Canongate’s press release looks very promising indeed.

I enjoyed Amanda Coe’s What They Do in the Dark very much. It’s one of those taut, domestic thrillers – very dark indeed, and she certainly knows how to ratchet up the tension. In Getting Colder Sara, who deserted her children to be with her lover – once a much-lauded playwright now whiskey-soaked and blocked – has died. Thirty-five years after she left them, her children have sought Patrick out wanting answers. A little less sinister than What They Do in the Dark, apparently, although it sounds pretty unsettling to me

I know very little about my fourth choice, Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes, but somehow the juxtaposition of its settings alone – Tasmania and Antarctica – makes it worth checking out. In it a young girl and a crewman on an Antarctic supply ship cross paths, each learning something from the other. Not much, I know, but it’s enough to pique my interest.

This one may seem completely out of character to regular readers of this blog – it’s William Gibson’s The Peripheral – but if there’s one SF writer non-genre readers make an exception for it’s Gibson. The prescience of his near-future set novels – Virtual Light and Pattern Recognition, for instance – is uncanny and his writing is excellent. I’m hoping for more of the same in this ‘tale of drones, murder and time-travelling crime’ set in 2020 where a young woman in a video game witnesses a drone strike kill a young child in the Deep South. At the same moment – but one hundred years into the future – a boy is remotely killed in London. Intriguing!

My final choice is Georges Perec’s Portrait of a Man. Years ago I read and loved what is Cover imageprobably Perec’s best known novel, Life: A User’s Manual, about the inhabitants of an apartment block in Paris. It’s quite some time since I’ve read anything else by him but this one caught my eye. Written in the 1950s, it’s the story of a forger and a killer. It’s only recently been discovered – it’s his first novel – which may well mean that it was tucked away in a drawer somewhere, rejected by a long list of publishers but I think it’s worth a try.

That’s it for November. A click on the title will take you to Waterstones website if you want to know more about a book – and if you’d like to see what I’m looking forward to in October click here for the hardbacks and here for the paperbacks.