Tag Archives: Alison Anderson

Six Degrees of Separation – from Tales of the City to The Book of Salt #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.Cover images

 

 

This month we’re starting with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the first in a series of books beginning in the ‘70s about a group of young people – some gay, some straight – and their adventures living on Barbary Lane in San Francisco under the wing of the wonderful Mrs Madrigal, just the kind of landlady you’d want. I’ve read the whole series many times. It’s a joyous treat although it becomes darker as AIDs rears its ugly head. It was Tales of the City that made me determined to go to San Francisco which I did in 1995.

Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room also played a part in my holiday plans when we went on our central European railway jaunt a couple of years ago. It’s about the construction of very beautiful modernist house in the Czech Republic town of Brno, and the families who live in it.

Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-year House also tells the story of a house and its inhabitants, working backwards through its century long history. I enjoyed it but not as much as Makkai’s debut The Borrower which is about a librarian and a little boy she takes on the run.

Hard to imagine Sophie Divry’s slightly waspish librarian in The Library of Unrequited Love extending her hand to a ten-year-old. When she finds a young man who has been locked in overnight she treats him to a passionate soliloquy about her colleagues, the Dewey Decimal system and bookish conspiracies while unwittingly spilling the beans about her yearning for a young researcher.

Divry is also the author of Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, a tribute to a much-loved classic as is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern take on Pride and Prejudice. I’ve yet to read it but given the acute observation and acerbic wit on show in her recent short story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It, I’m sure she’s a fitting writer to take on the task.

Sittenfeld wrote American Wife based loosely on Laura Bush. Amy Bloom’s White Houses also features an American First Lady telling the story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s affair with Hick, a journalist who came to live in the White House, giving up her job as a Washington reporter.

Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt is also about a lesbian relationship between two historical characters, this time Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Troung tells her story through the voice of their Vietnamese cook who regales us with descriptions of the delectable food he serves to them in their Parisian apartment.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from San Francisco in the ‘70s to Paris in the ‘30s. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in July 2018

Cover imageTwo titles were in tight competition for the top of this short list of July paperbacks, so tight that I’ve decided to take them in alphabetical order. Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists is one of those books surrounded by the kind of social media brouhaha that so often promises the world but delivers a pale imitation. This time, however, the hype is entirely justified. Benjamin hangs her glorious, engrossing story on a very clever hook: how would you live your life if you knew which day you were going to die? Her book follows four siblings each of whom deals with the knowledge in very different ways having gained it from a fortune-teller when they were children. Exploring themes of family, love, religion and grief, it’s an entertaining, compassionate and satisfyingly immersive novel.

Runner-up by an alphabetical whisker is Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home which follows the Bobs family, who have moved to Bacchus Marsh in an effort to escape Titch Bobs’ overbearing father, and their neighbour Willie Bachhuber who finds himself navigator in the Bobs’ attempt to win the inaugural 6,500-mile Redex Trial in 1953. Carey tackles themes of identity, racism, sexism and Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people, all framed within the context of a riveting piece of storytelling with a rich vein of humour running through it.Cover image

Zipping over to France for the next two novels the first of which is Sophie Divry’s Madame Bovary of the Suburbs. It’s always a risky business when an author writes their own version of a much-loved classic but Divry acquits herself beautifully with this story of M.A., born in the 1950s to parents who’ve lifted themselves up a notch in the world. Hers is an unremarkable life – college, career, love, family, adultery, retirement then a fall – but Divry delivers it in perceptive and insightful prose, laced with a gentle humour.

Jane Delury’s The Balcony is set on a small estate just outside Paris and explores the lives of the people who have lived there over the last century, from a young American au pair who falls for her boss to the Jewish couple in hiding from the Gestapo. ‘The stories of those who have lived within the estate have been many and varied. But as the years unfold, their lives inevitably come to haunt the same spaces and intertwine, creating a rich tapestry of the relationships, life-altering choices, and fleeting moments which have kept the house alive through the last hundred years. . .’ say the publishers rather long-windedly but it’s an interesting idea.

Cover imageMy last July paperback choice is Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body about a daughter’s attempts to understand her mother’s life after she’s found dead at the foot of her stairs. It’s structured along the lines of a medical report, apparently. ‘What emerges is a picture of life lived in the shadows, as well as an attempt to discover how and why her mother died. To make sense of her own grief Laura must piece her mother’s body back together and in doing so, she is forced to confront a woman silenced by her own mother and wronged by her husband’ according to the blurb which sounds intriguing.

That’s it for July’s paperbacks. A click on either of the first three titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the last two, and if you’d like to catch up with July’s new titles they’re here.

Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry (transl. Alison Anderson): A Flaubert homage

Cover imageIt’s been a very long time since I read Flaubert’s tale of a doctor’s wife, bored to tears by provincial life and seeking diversion in adultery, but not so long since I read Sophie Divry’s slightly eccentric debut, The Library of Unrequited Love which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s always a risky business when an author writes their own version of a much-loved classic but Divry acquits herself beautifully with this story of M.A., born in the 1950s to parents who’ve lifted themselves up a notch in the world.

M.A. begins life on a housing estate on the outskirts of a small town near Lyon. She’s a bright student, if shy and given to bouts of ennui. She takes up a course of business studies in the city where she meets and falls in love with François, an anxious young man who fails at his studies but later discovers a talent for selling insurance. She finds herself a management position, then the puts a foot on the property ladder. Before too long the couple have two children and are settled into a detached house, enjoying occasional dinner parties and annual holidays when M.A. at last relaxes, for it is she that carries the domestic burden. Boredom inevitably rears its head resulting in a passionate affair with a colleague, ending only when he is transferred. A different phase of life begins – a new child, then the departure of the older children. Soon a realisation of ageing hits home bringing with it therapy, yoga lessons and endless phone calls to her best friend. Solace arrives in the form of grandchildren, then retirement must be dealt with together with the gradual winding down of mind and body, then widowhood. M.A.’s unremarkable life ends, as it does for many, with a fall. Now it is her children who are first in line.

The idea of following a life from cradle to grave in fiction is very appealing. Robert Seethaler did it exquisitely in A Whole Life and Divry also manages it beautifully. Her writing is perceptive and insightful, laced with a gentle humour. Many readers will recognise M.A.’s experiences: the longed-for freedom of student life then the misery of loneliness before making friends; the conviction that one’s relationship is uniquely special and what child hasn’t indulged in the revenge of imagining their distraught parents at their funeral when sent to their room? Throughout it all, Divry quietly emphasises the cyclical nature of life, frequently foreshadowing M.A.’s future and her repetition of her mother’s admonishments to her own children who will later help her through her old age just as she helped her mother. This is an expertly executed novel, vividly capturing the stages of a life each of us can’t help thinking of as exclusive to ourselves as we pass through them. As with Flaubert’s Bovary, M.A. is bedevilled by her expectations, deftly summed up in her feelings of anti-climax after a meticulously prepared dinner party:

‘M.A. had failed to understand that what fills a life is a way of being, the present tense of the sentence in which one is breathing, not an event situated in the future which, after consumed, will leave us standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.’

Many of us could learn something from that as we feverishly anticipate the next big thing.

Books to Look Out For in November 2015: Part 1

Cover imageWell, knock me down with a feather! I would never have expected to be posting a two-part November hardback preview. Often it’s a rather dull publishing month but here it is: part one of two starting off with a new Jonathan Coe. I’m treating this one with caution as after many years of Coe fandom I’ve gone off the boil with his last few novels although Number 11 apparently features members of the loathsome Winshaw family, characters from the wonderful What a Carve Up!, in what sounds like a lacerating satire on the state of the nation ‘where bankers need cinemas in their basements and others need food banks down the street’. Sounds very promising.

Rupert Thomson’s inventive fiction wanders about all over the place which is part of its charm for me. His last novel, the excellent Secrecy, was set in seventeenth-century Florence but Katherine Carlyle jumps forward four centuries to the twenty-first. The product of an IVF embryo, frozen then implanted into her mother’s womb eight years later, nineteen-year-old Katherine decides to disappear after her mother dies from cancer and her father becomes increasingly distant. A ’profound and moving novel about where we come from, what we make of ourselves, and how we are loved’ say its publishersCover image.

Despite frequently proclaiming that I’m not a short story fan I’ve reviewed several collections here this year and am about to recommend another short story writer – Helen Simpson whose smart, witty collection of linked stories Hey Yeah Right Get a Life had me hooked. The link for Cockfosters is Tube stations which should appeal to London commuters and seems tailor-made for a Transport for London advertising campaign although it does venture outside of the confines of the metropolis, apparently. She’s very funny – sharply observant of human foibles but compassionate with it

cover imageMy last choice for this first batch is Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better, two novellas published in one volume. In one a twenty-four-year-old woman changes her life entirely after a man returns the bag she thought she’d lost and in the other, dinner with a neighbour spurs on an unhappy young man to start afresh. I loved Breaking Away with its bright red 2CV adorning the jacket. We used to own one just like it before seeing a distressing number with engines smoking or, once, in flames.

That’s it for the first batch of November titles. You may have noticed a common thread running through this selection, all by authors of books I’ve already read. All but one of the next lot will be entirely new to me. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis, and if you want to catch up with either October’s hardbacks or paperbacks they’re here and here.

Books to Look Out For in October 2015

Golden AgeBit of a lean month for those of us who tend towards the more literary end of fiction. The novel that stands out above all others for me is Golden Age, the final part of Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy. Some Luck followed the Langdon family from just after the First World War, when Walter established the family farm, to the beginning of the ‘50s where the appropriately named Early Warning picked it up, beginning with the Cold War years and ending in 1986 with a new twist in the family story. Golden Age takes the Langdons into the twentieth-first century and I can’t wait to catch up with them. Smiley’s microcosm of an American century reflected through the fortunes of one family has been a triumph so far. Highly recommended.

A volume of short stories seems the antithesis of Smiley’s hefty endeavour. I’m a reader that likes to get my teeth into something hence the Smiley fandom but Colm McCann is one of my favourite writers and we’re promised a novella as well as three short stories in his new book. In the eponymous work an elderly man is attacked after meeting his son for lunch. Detectives must piece together what has happened based on any information they can glean. ‘Told from a multitude of perspectives, in lyrical, hypnotic prose, Thirteen Ways of Looking is a ground-breaking novella of true resonance, exploring the varied consequences that can derive from a simple act’ say the publishers. I can vouch for that ‘lyrical’ prose based on my reading of McCann’s novels.

Amélie Nothcomb’s Pétronille might be a handy counterbalance to what sounds like a somewhat serious read, even if it is distinctly post-modern with its friendship between Pétronille Fanto, a woman who refuses to drink alone, and a writer called Amélie Nothcomb. According to the publishers it’s a ‘literary Thelma & Louise, with a little bit of French panacheCover image and a whole lot of champagne thrown into the mix’ which makes it sound well worth a read. This is Nothcomb’s twenty-third novel, and she has quite a following.

Naomi J. Williams’ Landfalls is a debut set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785, on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery, returning four years later. It’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay where tragedy hits to St Petersburg. The structure sounds an ambitious but very attractive one and if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.

Finally, Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is here partly because at a stonking nine hundred and sixty pages it can’t be ignored. Set in New York, it explores the interconnections between a multitude of people surrounding the shooting of a young girl in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1976. It sounds immensely complicated so I’ll let the publisher’s blurb speak for itself: Cover imageFrom the reluctant heirs to one of New York’s greatest fortunes, to a couple of Long Island kids drawn to the nascent punk scene downtown. From the newly arrived and enchanted, to those so sick of the city they want to burn it to the ground. All these lives are connected to one another – and to the life that still clings to that body in the park. Whether they know it or not, they are bound up in the same story – a story where history and revolution, love and art, crime and conspiracy are all packed into a single shell, ready to explode. Then, on July 13th, 1977, the lights go out in New York City.’ A similar theme to Colm McCann’s book, then, but with considerably more pages. This is the kind of novel I get all excited about when I see it in a catalogue then watch its progress up my reading pile with a sinking heart. I have a copy and so I will be sampling it but whether a review will materialise or not remains to be seen.

That’s it for October. As usual a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, although in the case of the Hallberg there’s not much more to say. If you’ve not yet caught up with my September previews, here are the paperbacks and here are the hardbacks, parts one and two.