Tag Archives: Colm Tóibin

Six Degrees of Separation – from Lincoln in the Bardo to Villette #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.

This month we’re starting with the 2017 Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders set against the backdrop of the America Civil War with the president grief stricken by the loss of his son. I still haven’t got around to reading it.

The titular bardo is a Buddhist term for the transitional state between death and rebirth.  Siddartha, the title of Herman Hesse’s retelling of the Buddha’s story, is often pronounced ‘Sid Arthur’ which provided a challenge in my very early days as a bookseller. I’ve also hear The Glass Bead Game referred to as The Glass Bidet, but that’s another story.

The eponymous Arthur in Julian Barnes’ novel Arthur and George is Arthur Conan Doyle whose path crossed with George Edjali’s, a Birmingham solicitor convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Conan Doyle became determined to clear Edjali’s name and ensure that the true culprit was brought to justice.

Which brings me to Sherlock Holmes by my old friend and colleague Nick Rennison who took on the challenge of writing the biography of one of his favourite fictional characters cleverly blending fact with fiction at great risk to himself given the many Holmes fans with very strong views about their hero.

Colm Tóibin’s The Master also blends fact with fiction in a fictionalised account of a period in Henry James’ life. In the final years of the nineteenth-century James retreated to Rye, crushed by the humiliation of his failure as a playwright and his inability to embrace intimacy. Tóibin’s novel explores the writer’s mental turmoil.

James’ gothic novella, Turn of the Screw, is one of the most polished ghost stories I’ve read. It’s about a governess who becomes determined to save the two children in her charge from their apparent possession. Renamed The Innocents, it was made into a terrifying film starring Deborah Kerr.

Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is about another governess who finds herself in trouble. Lucy Snowe travels to Belgium where she struggles to control her pupils and becomes embroiled in her feelings for a dictatorial teacher. Brontë drew on her own difficult experience as a governess in Brussels for this novel which was an A Level text for me, more years ago than I care to remember. I have to admit that I haven’t read it since

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a bereaved American president to a troubled governess in a Belgian city but kept me, mostly, in the nineteenth-century. 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.

Books to Look Out for in May 2017

Cover imageFewer treats than usual in May for me but three of them are from some of my favourite authors. It was a toss-up as to which one of them should lead this preview but in the end it had to be Elizabeth Strout. Anything is Possible is a novel told in stories linked to Lucy Barton, familiar to readers of last year’s very fine My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a successful writer living in New York but these stories explore the lives of those she left behind in the small town of Amgash, Illinois. ‘Writing these stories, Lucy imagines the lives of the people that she especially remembers. And the people she has imagined that, in small ways, have remembered her too. For isn’t it true that we all hope to be remembered? Or to think in some way – even fleetingly – that we have been important to someone?’ say the publishers. Such an interesting device to have a character playing the role of the author of a book.

Colm Tóibin’s House of Names comes a very close second to Anything is Possible but I’m slightly put off by its premise. It’s a retelling of the story of Agamemnon whose shocking sacrifice of his daughter in an effort to secure the gods’ approval for his battle plans plunges his family into a terrible and violent chaos. ‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams’ quotes the publisher assuring us that it’s ‘a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers’. I won’t argue with the last point.

Even before my short story conversion I would have read Haruki Murakami’s Men without Women. These seven stories bear many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ promises the publisher who also quotes the author on writing short stories in the Cover imagebook’s blurb: ’I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’ I’d still prefer a novel.

I’m particularly fond of the idea of an apartment block portrayed as a microcosm of a city – Alaa Al Aswany did it beautifully in The Yacoubian Building as did Manil Suri in The Death of Vishnu but my favourite has to be Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Fran Cooper’s debut, These Dividing Walls, is set in a Parisian building whose inhabitants live their separate lives, barely aware of their neighbours’ existence. Enter Edward who seems to be about to change all that. ‘As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…’ say the publishers somewhat melodramatically. Maybe I’ve set the bar too high having Perec in mind but it sounds worth investigating.

I tend to shy away from dystopian fiction, particularly at the moment. My optimistic world view has taken such a bashing over the past year that I’m looking for a little comfort. Megan Hunter’s first novel, The End We Start From, is set against a backdrop of an environmental crisis which sees London under water. It follows a couple desperately seeking sanctuary for themselves and their new-born baby. This all sounds a little familiar, a well-worn dystopian trope, but what’s caught my attention is the promise of beautiful writing and this quote from the blurb: ‘though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love’. Let’s hope so.

I’m finishing this preview with a novel which, unusually for a new title, I’ve already read – Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell. TwoCover image people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Marc has been kidnapped while on business in Pakistan and finds himself caught up in the web of stories the woman he comes to know as Josephine weaves around his murdered daughter. These are the bare bones of Lowe’s cleverly structured, subtle debut which I found utterly engrossing. Breathes new life into that hoary old cliché ‘unputdownable’. Review to follow next month.

That’s it for May’s new books. A click on any of the titles that takes your fancy will give you a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks to follow soon…

Books to look out for in October 2014

There’s already a nip of autumn in the air in the UK – a bit unexpected but there it is – so it seemed appropriate to take a dekko at a few books to look out for in October. It used to be one of my favourite publishing months but if you’ve read my August and September posts you’ll know that schedules seem to have shifted a little, spilling over into earlier months rather like the summer sales. As a result, this is going to be a shorter post that I’d expected with only four novels that really push my literary buttons. As ever, a click on the link will take you to Waterstones synopsis should you want to learn more.

Cover imageLet’s start with the cherry on my particular cake: Colm Tóibin’s Nora Webster, set in the late ‘60s in the same small Irish town which Ellis Lacey left in Brooklyn. Left alone with four children, the fiercely intelligent Nora must start again after the premature death of her husband, returning to work and slowly building a life of her own. Brooklyn is one of my favourite novels. Written in gorgeous, elegant prose it’s a quiet masterpiece that will wring your heart. I caught wind of a new Tóibin novel some time ago and am delighted to see it in the October schedules. Lovely nostalgic jacket, too

Next in line is  If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, a fine confident title that will no doubt be mangled when requested in bookshops. It’s a debut set in close-knit ’70s Long Island (that’s sold it to me immediately) and follows a group of young working-class people wrestling with life and all it brings in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Sounds right up my alley and I plan to review it here nearer publication.

My third book’s title is the antithesis of Judy Chicurel’s wordy but enticing debut: Daniel Kehlmann’s F tells the story of three brothers – one a faithless priest, one an artist without integrity, the third a poverty-stricken banker – all of whom are about to take a fateful step. I’ve read and very much enjoyed Kehlmann’s work before. Measuring the World is about two eighteenth century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long-suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border. Very different from the playful, episodic Fame which satirises celebrity and is also immensely enjoyable.

Last but far from least – the second cherry if such a luscious cake exists – is Michel Faber’s Cover imageThe Book of Strange New Things. Fans of The Crimson Petal and the White won’t need any persuasion and if you shied away from that because of its doorstep proportions, please think again. It may be over 800 pages but it’s a rollicking good read which flies by. This one is literally a world away from the grimy nineteenth century slums of Crimson. Funded by a shadowy multinational, Peter is leaving his beloved wife behind, sent to a colony on another planet where he is to spread the word of God. It’s a book that addresses big questions, apparently, and has been described as ‘compelling and brilliant’.

That’s my somewhat abbreviated October post. Are there any authors whose next novel you’re eagerly anticipating?