Tag Archives: Normal People

Eight Days in Portugal and Two Books

It’s been quite some time since H and I went to Portugal even though we love it there. After skirting around the southern Alentejo, years ago, we’d promised ourselves we’d visit the area properly one day and this year we finally got around to it. I rarely write about the places we stay but the lovely Monte da Fornalha is so idyllic it deserves a sentence or two. Its gorgeous garden alone, full off artfully placed divans and comfortable seats in which to lounge, lit by lamps and candles at night, would be enough mark it out as special but the rooms – both public and private – are absolutely delightful, too, decorated with originality and flair. The overall effect is of casual, boho elegance thrown together with ease although a great deal of careful thought has clearly gone into it. Breakfasts were a treat, too. There’s nothing like being offered a persimmon ripe off the tree, carefully chosen by Fornalha ‘s generous owner, Orlanda. A blissful place.

Just as well as with temperatures in the low 30s on the first day we weren’t up for anything much beyond loafing, reading and a slow amble through cork and olive groves, looking at the fading vines whose fruit went into the delicious wines we drank with supper. I’ve always loved Portuguese wines but they’re hard to track down in the UK.

Our nearest town was Borba, the smallest of the three marble towns as they’re known. Marble is mined in the area and, despite its lack of grandeur, Borba is almost entirely built from the stuff. Even the kerbing stones are made of it. Close by is a second marble town – Estremoz, whose Saturday market we visited before nipping up to its pousada which incorporates the castle’s marble keep. For those who don’t know Portugal, pousadas are hotels sited in historic buildings, usually quite grand but happy for nosy tourists like us to enjoy a coffee which we did in the lovely cloistered garden. Vila Viçosa is the third marble town. Its palace, built by Jaime IV, Duke of Bragança in the sixteenth century but now a pousada, is quite breath taking in its splendour for what is essentially a small mining town, although its grand facade fronts a building just one room deep.

We did manage to drag ourselves away from Orlanda’s beautiful garden for a few days out further afield., My favourite was a trip to the pretty spa town of Castelo de Vide, its hill crowned with a carefully restored castle as are so many in this area close to the border with Spain. It’s also home to the oldest synagogue in Portugal, deep in the maze of streets of the medieval town, now a beautifully presented museum. After a steep climb up to the old city walls, we were rewarded with impressive panoramic views. At the much smaller and even prettier Marvão the views were just as spectacular, well worth the scramble up to the top. We drove back to the guesthouse through back roads, many lined with trees sporting autumn colours against a background of green, very different from the parched countryside surrounding the marble towns.

My other favourite day out was spent in Évora, a substantial hill town, topped by the remains of a Roman temple, quite busy with tourists like us but nevertheless unspoilt. Close to the temple, the Sao Joao Evangelista church has a magnificent tiled interior, mostly blue and white, some arranged to tell biblical stories but, interestingly, those close to the altar were more abstract, suggesting a Moorish influence. We wandered around the cobbled streets then into a park filled with peahens and their chicks. On the drive back to what I was beginning to think of as home, I spotted some black pigs rooting around in a cork grove no doubt looking for acorns.

And the books? More reading than usual on this holiday, but only two really stood out for me. I first spotted Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn on Naomi’s blog, Consumed By Ink. It’s the occasionally funny, often poignant story of the ups and many downs in a seventy-year marriage which begins just before the Second World War when Harry goes off to the North African front leaving Evelyn in London. It reminded me of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack. Sally Rooney’s Normal People is also about a relationship, both different and similar to Harry and Evelyn’s. Rather like Conversations with Friends, I began it unsure whether I’d like it, not least because it kept popping up on almost every prize list going, but I grew to love this story of two young people from very different backgrounds whose on-again off-again relationship begins when they’re at school. Both Connell and Marianne seem as incapable of leaving each other alone as they are of  articulating their feelings to the other.

It was raining the day we left the lovely Monte de Fornalha which made our departure a whole lot easier not to mention preparing us for real life back home here in the UK. No more persimmons for breakfast for us. It’s back to muesli.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2019: Part Two

Cover imageBack from Genoa – of which more on Wednesday –  with the second batch of May paperbacks starting with the only one I’ve read. Lena Andersson’s Acts of Infidelity features the same sharply observed protagonist as her witty novella, Wilful Disregard, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago. Once again Ester is in the grips of monomania, this time for Olof who is performing in her play, Threesome, about a man trapped in an unhappy marriage who becomes involved with another woman. Given the novel’s title, it doesn’t take much to work out how things play between Ester and Olof. Andersson shows no mercy in skewering Ester’s deluded conviction that Olof is as besotted with her as she is with him despite his obvious indifference which may sound like a rerun of Wilful Disregard but its more sombre tone makes Act of Infidelity sadly credible.

I suspect Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love will share that tone. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution just outside Stockholm where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but Stridsberg’s book has been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends won both prizes and accolades when it was published in 2017. Her second, Normal People, has met with a similar response. It follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly. That synopsis remindsCover image me a little of Belinda McKeon’s wonderful Tender setting the bar very high for me.

In Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion a young student is taken up by a prominent feminist and finds herself treading a very different path from the one she’d expected to travel. ‘Expansive and wise, compassionate and witty, The Female Persuasion is about the spark we all believe is flickering inside us, waiting to be seen and fanned by the right person at the right time, and the desire within all of us to be pulled into the light’ according to the publishers. I’ve long been a fan of Wolitzer’s novels, reviewing The Interestings here way back in 2013.

I could have said the same about William Boyd’s work had it not been for a string of thrillers which failed to hit the mark for me. His last novel, Sweet Caress, saw a return to form that I hope will continue in Love is Blind. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, it follows Brodie Mancour from Edinburgh to Paris where he conceives an obsessive passion for a Russian soprano with dangerous consequences. ‘At once an intimate portrait of one man’s life and an expansive exploration of the beginning of the twentieth century, Love is Blind is a masterly new novel from one of Britain’s best-loved storytellers’ say the publishers which makes me hopeful.

I’m finishing May’s paperback preview with two short story collections the first of which, Lauren Groff’s Florida, I’ve picked not because, as the publishers trumpet, it was one of Barack Obama’s books of 2018, although it has to be said that the man has excellent literary taste, but because Rebecca over at Bookish Beck rated it her favourite fiction of the same year. ‘In these vigorous stories, Lauren Groff brings her electric storytelling to a world in which storms, snakes and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats are of a human, emotional and psychological nature’ according to the blurb. Sounds great.

Cover imageCatherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval which must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, raising stratospheric expectations. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for May. A click on Acts of Infidelity will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the other six titles. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of paperbacks, it’s here. The month’s new titles are here and here.

Books to Look Out for in September 2018: Part One

Cover imageMy heart sings with joy at the prospect of several books in September’s publishing schedules. You’ve probably already heard of at least one of them: Kate Atkinson’s Transcription whose announcement made my literary year. Wartime spy, Juliet Armstrong, has moved on from MI5 to the BBC ten years after she was recruited in 1940 but finds herself confronted with her past. ‘A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence. Transcription is a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy’ say the publishers and, having already read it, I’d say they’re right. Still mystified as to why Atkinson didn’t win all the prizes for A God in Ruins.

Hard to follow that, I know, but I’ve learned to prick up my ears when a new Sarah Moss is announced. In Ghost Wall, Sylvie is spending the summer with her parents in a Northumberland hut where her father is intent on re-enacting Iron Age life. ‘Haunting Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a young woman sacrificed by those closest to her, and the landscape both keeps and reveals the secrets of past violence and ritual as the summer builds to its harrowing climax’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Bodies of Light and The Tidal Zone.

Sally Rooney’s quietly addictive Conversations with Friends was a surprise inclusion on my 2017  books of the year list. The more I read it the more it grew on me. Her new novel, Normal People, follows Connell and Marianne, both from the same small town but from very different backgrounds, who win places at Trinity College Dublin. ‘This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel’ say the publishers promisingly.

Nihad Sirees’ States of Passion sees a Syrian bureaucrat seeking shelter in an old mansion where he hears stories of an all-female society, passions and subterfuge set against the backdrop of the golden age of Aleppo. ‘Sirees spins astonishing literary beauty out of this tangled web of family secrets, and he writes with great humour and warmth about the conflict between past and present in this surprising and unique novel about a lost world’ according to the publishers.

Catherine Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, came with Margaret Atwood’s seal of approval Cover imagewhich must be both a blessing and a curse for an author, setting the bar a tad high. She’s followed it with Certain American States, a collection of twelve short stories which explore loss and longing, apparently. The Answers was stuffed full of smart writing so I’m hoping for the same with this collection although perhaps not the caustic humour given those themes.

That’s it for the first batch of September’s goodies. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye. Part two also anticipates some stonkingly good titles although perhaps none to equal Transcription