Tag Archives: Ann Patchett

Six Degrees of Separation – from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to Prodigal Summer #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.

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This month we’re starting with Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, yet another book I haven’t read but I know it’s set in Botswana and that’s its author was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

As was Petina Gappah, author of The Book of Memory in which a young black albino woman tells her story from the prison in which she’s detained for a brutal murder she insists she didn’t commit.

The title of which leads me to Margaret Forster’s The Memory Box about a woman whose mother died when she was a baby leaving her a box of mementos – clues as to who her mother really was. Naturally, dark secrets are revealed

Randal Keynes’ Annie’s Box is the story of Charles Darwin’s eldest daughter who died aged ten. The eponymous box contains keepsakes from Annie’s short life, shedding light on Darwin, his work and his family.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s first novel, The Signature of All Things, tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a botanist, and her relationship with Alfred Russel Wallace who published a paper on evolutionary theory with Darwin in 1858. While Whittaker was a figment of Gilbert’s imagination, Wallace was not, although his achievement has been eclipsed by Darwin’s reputation.

Gilbert wrote a book about her struggle to accept the idea of marriage despite being deeply in love with her partner. Ann Patchett wrote of a similar experience in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage which is very much more than that. It’s made up of a set of essays, an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work as well how she came to finally marry.

Patchett wrote what you might call an eco-novel, State of Wonder, set largely in the Amazonian rainforest. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer could also fall into that bracket. It follows a park ranger, a recently widowed entomologist and an old man hoping to find a way to bring an extinct American Chestnut tree back to life. Not one of her best for me – I preferred The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven – but worth a read.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a Zimbabwean prison to small-town Appalachia. 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 May 2017: Part One

Cover imageAll but one of this first selection of May paperbacks is about marriage, family or both, and the one that isn’t appears to touch on it in some way. Top of my list has to be Ann Patchett’s superb Commonwealth, one of my books of 2016 and a hoped for Baileys Prize contender. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed narrative and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, this is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

Jane Rogers’ Conrad and Eleanor also made an appearance on both my books of 2016 list and my Baileys wishlist. Sadly, neither Commonwealth nor Rogers’ novel was successful. Authors may well start putting in requests to be omitted from my prize wishlists soon, given their lamentable performance. Conrad and Eleanor is a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is engaged in medical research as is Conrad but while she’s a star in her particular sphere, his work has stalled. When Conrad fails to return from the conference he’s supposed to be attending, Eleanor is forced to take a long hard look at their marriage. Rogers resists any hint of a fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing novel.Cover image

As, I’m sure Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place will be too. There was a time when I cheerily dismissed O’Farrell’s novels as chick lit – not for me – until I was finally persuaded to read After You’d Gone. This one’s about Daniel, a New Yorker who lives in a remote part of Ireland, with what sounds like a somewhat complicated life: children he never sees, a father he detests and a trigger-happy, ex-film star wife. News of a woman he knew long ago is about to further spice things up.  The novel ‘crosses continents and time zones, giving voice to a diverse and complex cast of characters. At its heart, it is an extraordinary portrait of a marriage, the forces that hold it together and the pressures that drive it apart’ say the publishers. Sounds unmissable.

I’m hopeful that the same can be said of Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers which has an appealing bad boys and girls facing middle age and their own teenagers’ rebellion theme. Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe once played in a band together but now they’re married with kids and mortgages, staring fifty in the face but still clinging to whatever shreds of coolness they can. They all live in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood and their kids are friends, some a little too friendly for their parents’ liking. Straub showed herself to be a sharp, witty social observer in her enjoyable The Vacationers, qualities that sit very well with her new novel’s premise so hopes are high

Cover imageMy last choice, Mike McCormack’s Goldsmith Prize winning Solar Bones, follows the thoughts of Marcus Conway as he stands in his kitchen ‘deconstructing with his engineer’s mind how things are built to consider them better: bridges, banking systems and marriages. In one of the first great Irish novels of the 21st century, Mike McCormack captures with tenderness and feeling, in continuous, flowing prose, a whole life, suspended in a single hour’ say the publishers. I like the sound of this one.

That’s it for the first instalment of May’s paperback preview. If you’d like to know more, a click on a title will take you to my review for the first two and to a more detailed synopsis for the others. If you’d like to catch up with May’s hardbacks they’re here. More paperbacks shortly.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

I tend not to get caught up in literary prize fever these days but there is one for which I make an exception – The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist is due to be announced next Wednesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2016 and March 31st 2017 qualify for the award. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably to predict who the judges will select but truth be told I much prefer to indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might favour. This year there will be fewer titles on the judges’ list – they’re restricted to twelve – but given that this is my indulgence I’ve allowed myself three more. I’ve followed the same format as 2016 and 2015, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog apart from one yet to be posted. In no particular order then, here’s my list of wishes rather than predictions for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017:

Idaho                                              The Cauliflower                          Sweetbitter

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The Gun Room                               The Crime Writer                       The Lauras

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Conrad and Eleanor                        Commonwealth                     Harmless Like You

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Our Magic Hour                                Swimming Lessons                 Another Brooklyn

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First Love                                          A Line Made for Walking           Birdcage Walk

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Who knows which of these, if any, will appear on next week’s list but for what it’s worth they’ve they’ve earned their place on mine. A click on a title will take you to my review for all but Birdcage Walk which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. Next year, of course, the prize will be called something else as it’s in search of a new sponsor: let’s hope they find one soon.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, predictions or wishes welcome.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Four

Cover imageThis final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman. The story is structured in brief chapters, Cover imageeach one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.

Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.

Cover imageThis year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .

And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: The many stories of a family

Cover imageI have something of a chequered relationship with Ann Patchett’s writing: I loved The Magician’s Assistant but couldn’t see what all the fuss was about with the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto. I was a little wary of becoming too excited about Commonwealth, then, despite an engaging blurb and a particularly attractive cover, but it completely won me over. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. It’s also about the stories families tell themselves and how those stories can become more public than we might wish them to be.

In 1964 Fix Keating opens the door to a guest at his daughter’s christening party to be met by a face he barely recognises. It belongs to a district attorney, not someone that a policeman like himself would count as a friend. Clutching a bottle of gin, Bert Cousins walks through the door as if he’s been invited when all he’s doing is avoiding Sunday with his own family. Gin at a christening party turns it in to something else entirely, sparking drunken encounters that will change lives irrevocably. A few years later Bert has married Fix’s beautiful wife Beverly and moved from Los Angeles to Virginia. His four children spend their summers with their father: Calvin, who likes to steal his father’s gun and tuck it into his sock; Holly the sensible one; otherworldly Jeannette and troublesome Albie, kept quiet by ‘tic-tacs’ fed to him by his siblings. Together with Caroline, furious at her mother’s desertion, and Franny, whose christening party Bert gate-crashed, these six form a tribe allowed to run wild by Bert and Beverly who would far rather look the other way until tragedy changes everything. As the years pass connections become tenuous, then are renewed. Marriages are made, children are born and Franny meets one of her literary heroes, blocked and in need of inspiration.

Patchett’s intricately constructed novel crisscrosses the years from Franny’s christening party to the present day, telling the stories of the Keatings and the Cousins but always returning to Franny, the novel’s linchpin. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: stories are told and re-told as family members share them with each other – sometimes with illuminating differences. As the family extends itself over a half-century, new characters make an appearance but Patchett never loses her focus on Franny. Points are made but never laboured – both Leon’s exploitation of Franny’s story and Bert and Beverly’s negligent parenting are crucial to the novel’s development but lightly drawn. There’s a vein of gentle wry humour running through the novel: the scene in a hotel lift when Franny is frantically trying to extract the drunken Leon’s room key from him is downright comedic. It’s all beautifully done, loose ends neatly stitched in. Pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling – no need for wariness with this one whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

Books to Look Out for in September 2016

Cover imageI like to kick off these previews with a novel that I can hardly wait to get my hands on. Sometimes there’s more than one, sometimes nothing that entirely fits the bill, but this month there’s no contest – the prospect of Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days has me almost slavering in anticipation. Brightness Falls was one of my favourite novels of the ‘90s, summing up the heady days of 1980s New York through the lives of Corrine and Russell, a glittering couple in love with each other and pursuing successful careers in a world where anything seemed possible if you were young, bright and fearless until the Wall Street crash of 1987 when the bubble finally burst. Of course, we’ve since been buffeted by a much more damaging financial crisis but Russell and Corrine have that yet to come. Obama and Clinton are still rivals, Lehman Brothers have not yet crashed as the couple go about their lives, Russell running his own publishing company, still hankering after the bohemian life, while Corrine manages a food redistribution programme, longing for more than just a loft to live in for their twelve-year-old twins. ‘A moving, deeply humane novel’ say the publishers which exactly summed up Brightness Falls for me although I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed in its sequel, The Good Life.

Still in New York for Tom Connolly’s Men Like Air which is described by the publishers as ‘a glorious love letter’ to the city, sealing the deal for me. It’s about four men and their relationships with each other: nineteen-year-old Finn, fresh from the UK; Jack, the brother Finn’s determined to track down; Leo, lonely and envious of his best friend’s life and William, not only Leo’s oldest friend but also his happily married brother-in-law. The lives of these four interconnect in unexpected ways, apparently. The ‘love letter to New York’ may have been the hook for me but male friendship is an unusual theme which gives Connolly’s novel an added draw.

We’re off to city far less celebrated than New York in American fiction for Christopher Hebert’s Angels of Detroit. Hebert’s novel explores what was once a beacon of America’s industrial success, now bankrupt and on the point of dereliction, through the lives of a wide Cover imagerange of characters, from activists intent on saving it to an old woman trying to establish a community garden, from a carpenter with an idea for regeneration to an executive who remembers Detroit in its bustling prime. ‘Driven by struggle and suspense, and shot through with a startling empathy, Christopher Hebert’s magnificent second novel unspools an American story for our time’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket to me.

I have something of an on again, off again relationship with Ann Patchett’s fiction – I loved The Magician’s Assistant but couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about with the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto . Commonwealth sounds tempting, though. Deputy District Attorney Bert Cousins falls for the mother of the baby whose christening party he’s crashed in 1964. Twenty-four years later Franny meets her literary idol and tells him her family’s story unaware of the far-reaching consequences she’s setting in train. It’s described by the publisher as ‘a powerful and tender tale of family, betrayal and the far-reaching bonds of love and responsibility… …a meditation on inspiration, interpretation and the ownership of stories’. I’m particularly interested by the ‘ownership of stories’ idea.

Georgia Bain’s Ester in Between a Wolf and a Dog continually listens to the stories of others. Ester is a family therapist, helping clients to navigate their way through misery to happiness on a daily basis. However her own life is far from a delight. Lonely and estranged from both her ex-husband and her sister, each of whom have their own problems, she’s about to face the consequences of a choice made by her mother that will affect them all. Sounds right up my street.

Cover imageAs well as starting with a much-anticipated novel I like to end with one, too, and Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival fits that slot beautifully. Picking up the performance theme of the marvellous Jamrach’s Menagerie with its Victorian East End setting, Birch’s latest novel has one foot in nineteenth-century Europe with Julia Patriana, known as much for her physical oddity as her singing and dancing talent, and one in present-day London with Rose who collects lost treasures. These two share ‘a wonderful and terrible link’ according to the publishers in what they describe as a ‘haunting tale of identity, love and independence’. If Orphans of the Carnival is only half as good as Jamrach’s Menagerie it will be well worth your time.

That’s it for September. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett: Which is very much more than that

Cover ImageI’m a huge Ann Patchett fan and when I spotted her memoir in Bloomsbury’s catalogue it seemed the next best thing to a new novel. When it arrived I was a little disappointed as it turns out to be a collection of essays rather than continuous prose but after gobbling them all down I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a better form than straightforward linear autobiography. Together they offer an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work. The introduction explains how Patchett used newspaper and magazine gigs to fund her fiction before earning enough from it to give up her day job, so to speak, although she chose not to do this having come to enjoy the discipline of the essay and the excitement of finding out about new things. As her stature grew she was able to get commissions which tied in nicely with research for her novels – trips to Italy to review opera for Bel Canto which resulted in an abiding passion, a boat trip up the Amazon for State of Wonder.

As anyone who knows her fiction will tell you she writes extraordinarily well. Her essays are clear, often incisive and pull no punches, particularly when describing the sheer hard graft of writing when addressing prospective writers who want a magic formula in The Getaway Car. We learn a great deal about Patchett’s life – the pleasures and otherwise of a large extended family, how she found her dog Rose her most constant companion for sixteen years, the sadness of looking after a beloved grandmother afflicted with dementia, the excitement of helping to set up an independent bookshop and, of course, last but not least the long eponymous essay on how she overcame her reluctance to marry based on a family history chequered with divorce and embarked on a very happy marriage to her husband Karl. Vivid images leap out from some of these essays – the Ku Klux Klan marching down the street of the small Nashville town where she lived as a child, pushing her ancient beloved dog in a buggy because she can no longer walk, determinedly struggling through the most taxing part of the LAPD entry programme. There isn’t a dud essay in this collection and somehow it feels more honest as a reflection of a writer’s life than a straightforward autobiography written with the gloss of memory. If you’re a fan, it isn’t a novel but it’s surely the next best thing, and if you’re an aspiring writer it’s worth the cover price just to read the advice in The Getaway Car.