Tag Archives: Our Souls at Night

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.

Blasts from the Past: Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999)

Cover image Back from sunny Split – more of which later in the week – with the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog you’re probably aware that I have a weakness for stripped down prose – each word carefully chosen, not one wasted. Kent Haruf’s novels are such shining examples of this style that his name appears on my About page for those who might be wondering whether the blog is worth their time. I’ve been delighted to introduce several readers to his work over the years and I hope that this post might tempt a few more. As with all his novels, Plainsong is set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. It’s not the first in the Holt series – there’s no need to read them in order – but I’ve chosen it because it’s first Haruf novel I read.

The aptly named Plainsong is about a mere handful of characters: Tom Guthrie bringing up his two young sons alone; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother and taken in by the elderly Macpheron twins, and Maggie Jones who introduces the twins to Victoria. These are ordinary people living in a small American town coping with whatever life lobs at them but Haruf’s writing is so quietly compassionate, his characters so simply yet sharply drawn that Holt comes vividly to life, entirely convincing in its prosaic sometimes heroic daily life.

Haruf wrote only a handful of novels – his first, The Tie That Binds, was published in 1984 and his sixth, Our Souls at Night, came out in 2015, the year after he died. All of them exemplify a humanity and empathy that few writers attain; all of them are expressed in elegant, beautifully  pared-back prose. I’ve yet to meet a reader who’s visited Holt and not fallen in love with it. If you haven’t read him yet, please do.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Paperbacks to Look Out For in May 2016: Part 1

Cover imageLots of paperbacks to look forward to in May, most of which I’ve already read and reviewed including several that made it into my 2015 ‘books of the year’ but the jewel in the crown has to be Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. I’ve long been a champion of Haruf’s beautifully pared back, elegant novels set in Holt, Colorado and so was very sorry to hear that Our Souls at Night was to be his last. Haruf died in 2014, a sad loss at only sixty-nine. This final novel is also set in Holt – how could it not be? – and feels like a fitting end to the series: a beautiful, tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow. Haruf’s insightful writing is clean and simple, stripped of ornament and all the more powerful for it.

Hopping over Wyoming from Colorado to Montana, Malcolm Brooks’ Painted Horses is set in the mid-1950s. More used to sifting her way through the ruins of bombed-out London, archaeologist Catherine Lemay has a summer to excavate a canyon before it’s flooded as part of a new dam project. Meanwhile John H, a U.S. Army cavalry veteran and fugitive, has made his hideout in the canyon. I think we can guess the rest. ‘Painted Horses sends a dauntless young woman on a heroic quest, sings a love song to the horseman’s vanishing way of life, and reminds us that love and ambition, tradition and the future often make strange bedfellows’ is the publisher’s lyrical summing up. I’m hoping for striking descriptions of the gorgeous Montana landscape.

Heading east to West Virginia, Glenn Taylor’s A Hanging at Cinder Bottom is a rip-roaring tale of Cover imagesmall town life in the coal rush where powerful men make their own kind of law and corruption is the name of their game. The city of Baltimore comes up once or twice which is perhaps why The Wire popped into my head but a more appropriate comparison would be with Boardwalk Empire. Whichever, in the right hands, it would make a corker of a film. It begins in August 1910 with the town of Keystone all agog as Abe Baach and Goldie Toothman face execution. Stuffed with colourful characters, goodies, baddies, gambling, cheating, a fantastically elaborate con and a monkey, the rest of Taylor’s novel is the story of how Abe and Goldie arrived on that gallows platform.

Scooting across to Seattle, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists is billed as ‘a smart, fresh tale for the millennial generation’ – not me, obviously but I need to keep up. Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy have been hosting outrageous parties throughout the summer. Real life catches up with them when Mickey’s National Guard unit is sent to Baghdad and Hal heads for college in Boston, the only legacy of that summer a Wikipedia entry they’ve written dubbing themselves The Encyclopaedists. ‘Razor-sharp, urgent and authentic, this is the story of a generation at a crossroads, staring down the barrel of adulthood and trying desperately not to blink’ say the publishers, which does sound up my street although it may make me feel very old.

And finally, giving up on the American theme altogether, Haruki Murakami’s first two novels Cover imageHear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 both follow the fortunes of their narrator and his friend, the Rat. The first sees the narrator in college drinking and listening to music in J’s bar with Rat, and pursuing a relationship with a nine-fingered girl while the second moves our narrator on three years leaving Rat behind for life in Tokyo working as a translator, living with twin girls and searching for a replica of the pinball machine at J’s. It sounds as if many of those hallmark themes familiar to Murakami fans were already in place when the novels were written. As with the hardback edition, both will be published in the same volume.

That’s it for May’s first instalment of paperbacks. As ever a click on a title I’ve read will take you to my review and to Waterstones website for those I haven’t. If you’d like to catch up with May’s hardbacks they’re here and here. Second batch of May paperback goodies to follow shortly…

Books of the Year 2015: Part 3

Our Souls at NightMy third batch of 2015 favourites starts off on a note of sadness. I’ve long been a champion of Kent Haruf’s beautifully pared back, elegant novels set in Holt, Colorado and so was very sorry to hear that Our Souls at Night was to be his last. Haruf died in 2014, a sad loss at only sixty-nine. This final novel is also set in Holt – how could it not be? – and feels like a fitting end to the series: a beautiful, tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow. Haruf’s insightful writing is clean and simple, stripped of ornament and all the more powerful for it.

My second June choice is also notable for its gorgeous writing. Beginning in 1997, Tender portrays the pain of being gay in a country that had only decriminalised homosexuality five years before. Catherine and James meet in Dublin when James returns from his Berlin stint as a photographer’s assistant to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. Entirely different from each other, they almost instantly click. Eventually, James tells Catherine he’s gay and soon she‘s basking in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those he’s not yet told. Eventually things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. It’s a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one, particularly as I read it at the time of the June referendum on gay marriage in Ireland which answered the question with a resounding ‘yes’. Good enough for me to include on my Man Booker wish list but, once again, the judges thought otherwise.

Entirely different, Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook took me on a romp through Cover imagetwentieth century history. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ a credo that’s got her through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband. Rose is a fabulous character and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters.

Andreas Egger, the protagonist of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, is the antithesis of Rose, leaving 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. 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’s a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. A lovely novel whose setting reminded me of holidays past.

It’s always a joy when a favourite author returns to form after a string of disappointments. William Boyd’s new novel has its feet firmly planted in Any Human Heart territory after several dalliances with thrillers. I’d all but given up on him but the synopsis for Sweet Caress was hard to resist. It follows the life of Amory Clay whose photography takes her from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. Boyd at his best is hard to beat. He’s a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail, seamlessly threading historical bits and pieces through his narrative. Critical reception was a little mixed, apparently, but I thought this was a fine novel, both entertaining and enlightening.

Cover imageThis summer selection ends with Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family which appeared on the Man Booker longlist – at last we agreed. The night before her daughter’s wedding June’s house burns to the ground with her daughter and her fiancé, her ex-husband and her boyfriend inside. In a state of shock and grief, unable to bear the endless stream of condolence, she flees the small Connecticut town where she’s been living for three years in the holiday home she once rarely visited. The bare bones of what happens in Clegg’s carefully assembled novel hardly do it justice: at its heart is the human condition and what that means to us all.

That’s it for summer favourites. A click on a title will take you to my review. Just one more short post for the rest of the year before it’s time to look forward to 2016, and the delights on offer in January. If you missed the first two posts they’re here and here.

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.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Holt’s last hurrah

Our Souls at NightFor those of us who’ve come to know and love Kent Haruf’s quietly brilliant novels set in the small town of Holt, Colorado, news of a new one is cause for celebration but this time the joy is muted. Haruf died last year and this is his last book. His insightful writing is clean and simple, stripped of ornament and all the more powerful for it. This last novel feels like a fitting end to the series: a beautiful, tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow.

Both widowed and in their seventies, Louis Waters and Addie Moore have lived on the same block for many 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. Somewhat taken aback, Louis ponders her proposal then decides to take her up on it. Packing his pyjamas and his toothbrush in a paper bag, he approaches Addie’s back door but Addie wants none of that. Tired of living her life by other people’s rules, she wants things out in the open. Tongues are soon wagging but Addie and Louis bat away the tittle-tattle: what they’ve discovered is too precious for small-town gossips to ruin. When Addie’s six-year-old grandson comes to stay, his parents in the midst of splitting up, the threesome go on day trips together but while the gossips can be ignored the concerns of grown up, resentful children cannot.

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: tragedy, infidelity and loneliness have marked their marriages. Louis had wanted to be a poet but had settled for teaching the town’s children; Addie had thought to be a teacher but had become a secretary. Both have quietly got on with their disappointments. The tender intimacy they share now is as wholly unexpected as Addie’s approach had been to Louis. Both characters are beautifully drawn as is their eighty-two-year-old neighbour Ruth who labels the town’s gossips ‘small-town small-minded pissants’ making you want to clap your hands in applause. It’s a lovely book. You can feel filled with regret that such quiet happiness has come to Addie and Louis so late in life, or you can delight in them finding it at all when many people never do. I know which route they’d take. If you haven’t yet read Haruf get yourself down to a bookshop as soon as you can: his novels are absolute gems, the sort you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.

Books to Look Out For in June 2015: Part 1

TenderSuch are the many and varied splendours of the June publishing schedules that I’m going to spread them over two posts. Hard to choose which of the first two I’m looking forward to most – both authors are notable for their understated yet lyrical writing but I’ve been waiting four years for Belinda McKeon’s second novel. Her much-lauded debut, Solace, was one of the finest novels I read in 2011, the year it was published.  Set in the late 1990s, Tender is the story of Catherine and James who meet in Dublin, both fresh from rural Ireland. While Catherine welcomes life with open arms, James retreats into himself and their friendship founders. If it’s only half as good as Solace, Tender will be a very fine book indeed.

Hard to follow that but for me Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night is equally to be anticipated. Haruf’s elegant, small town novellas set in his home state of Colorado are an absolute joy to read. He died last year and I wondered if knowledge of what was coming might have coloured the melancholic Benediction. This final novel takes us back to Holt where Addie Moore, widowed for twenty years and lonely, pays the equally bereft Louis Waters a visit and puts a proposition to him. If you haven’t yet discovered Haruf please do try him, particularly if you’re a fan of that pared-back style I’m always banging on about.  

Both a poet and a novelist, Owen Sheers has quite a reputation for lyrical prose, too. His new novel, I Saw a Man, is about Michael Turner who has lost his wife and is now living in London next door to the Nelsons with whom he has become close friends. For Michael, the Nelsons represent everything he has lost but their friendship is a solace to him until a catastrophe changes everything. The synopsis sounds a little trite but Sheers is a fine writer and I suspect his book will be worth reading for that alone.Cover image

Julia Rochester’s debut, The House at the Edge of the World, also involves a death in the family. John Venton’s drunken spree lands him at the bottom of a cliff when Morwenna is only eighteen. The family scatters – Morwenna’s twin in one direction, she in another, while her mother happily turns her back on years of miserable marriage. Only her grandfather stays on in the family home. Seventeen years later they all meet again in the eponymous house and, as in all the best family stories, dark secrets begin to surface. I like the sound of this –  the family secret trope can be riveting if handled well.

Last year I read and enjoyed Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, her account of the time she spent as an assistant to the eponymous reclusive’s literary agent. Bloomsbury are publishing her first novel A Fortunate Age off the back of her memoir’s success. A coming-of-age novel, it revolves around a group of college friends who are just starting out in late ’90s Brooklyn. I’d like to think it will be one of those absorbing novels played out on a small canvas: lots of opportunities for rivalries, domestic crisis, friendships made and broken – you know the kind. However a glance at Goodreads suggests it’s not an unalloyed joy. No doubt I’ll read it anyway

Cover imageChurlish as it may sound, after last year’s seemingly endless parade of titles about the First World War, I’ve been avoiding anything war-related – with the honourable exception of Catherine Hall’s The Repercussions – but Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook sounds like an unusual take on the subject. Cook to Himmler, confidante to Hitler and Simone de Beauvoir’s pal to boot, Rose has not only managed to survive the Armenian genocide, the Nazis and the horrors of Mao Zedong’s regime but has maintained her zest for life throughout. Now 105, she’s recounting her life in what sounds like a thoroughly entertaining tale, tall or otherwise.

That’s it for the first batch of June titles. A click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis. Look out for the second instalment sometime in a week or so, and if you’d like to catch up with May titles you’ll find hardbacks here and paperbacks here.