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 others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
This month we’re starting with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six which I haven’t read although it’s on my TBR list. I do know it’s about a ‘70s rock band which implodes at the height of its fame.
Leading me to Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, set in working-class Dublin, which sees two friends put a band together singing ‘60s soul numbers. Despite their success on the Dublin circuit, tensions run high and the band splits. A very funny book which was made into a thoroughly enjoyable film.
Not at all funny but also set in Dublin, Belinda McKeon’s lovely novel, Tender, follows the story of a young woman who falls in love with her gay male friend.
Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant is about Sabine, married to a man she’s always known to be gay, trying to cope with her grief after his death and finding comfort in an unexpected place.
Ann Patchett runs a bookshop in Nashville – Parnassus Books – and I have to say it looks wonderful. Fellow author Jeanette Winterson also turned her hand to retailing with a delicatessen, no longer open, which also sold fruit and vegetables. Her debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit tells the semi-autobiographical story of growing up in an evangelical household.
That title leads me to Kathryn Harrison’s eighteenth-century set A Thousand Orange Trees, which sees Louis XIV’s niece abandoning the trees she’d hoped to take to Spain whose king she’s to marry.
Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, features another sort of tree, collected by the father of a beautiful young woman whose hand in marriage he plans to give to the first man who can name each of the five hundred eucalypts in his collection.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from hedonistic LA in the ‘70s to an isolated New South Wales estate and a rather unusual competition. 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.
The heading for this post could just as easily be 10, 15 or even 50 Irish books I’ve read. So much of the quietly elegant, understated writing I admire turns out to be by Irish authors. Their work is often tinged with more than a little melancholy, perhaps only to be expected given their country’s history. Below are five of the best Irish books I’ve read, just one with a link to a full review on this blog.
William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault begins in the troubled year of 1921. Three men appear in the grounds of Lahardane to burn the house down. Springing to the defence of his English wife and their daughter, Lahardane’s Protestant owner Everard Gault fires his shotgun meaning only to frighten the trespassers but wounding one of them. The young man’s family will have nothing of Everard’s pleas for forgiveness. For their own safety, the Gaults must leave Ireland, an idea that eight-year-old Lucy finds unbearable. She runs away, determined to make her mother and father stay. Believing Lucy to be dead, her heartbroken parents turn their backs on their beloved home. When Lucy is found alive, they can’t be traced and her life becomes one of atonement for the wrong she feels she’s done them. Infused with an aching sadness, The Story of Lucy Gault typifies Trevor’s novels: slim, elegant, often spare, each word carefully chosen.
John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun is a little cheerier, unlike much of his fiction. Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small Irish lakeside community on a farm subsidised by Joe’s writing. The small dramas and quiet satisfactions of everyday life fill their world: visits from their neighbour and dear friend the incorrigibly inquisitive Jamesie; lambing and selling their calves at the cattle mart; trips to town to pick up supplies and local news. This gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, capturing both place and time beautifully. The quiet restraint that characterises much of McGahern’s writing is a delicate counterpoint to the sometimes lyrical sentences that bejewel his work.
I was going to pick a different Colm Tóibin novel from Brooklyn which has received so much exposure thanks to the excellent film adaptation but it’s my favourite of his and I kept coming back to it. Unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, Eilas Lacey emigrates having heard of the many employment opportunities on offer in New York. She gets a job in a department store, takes up evening classes and tries to keep her desperate homesickness at bay. Shortly after she becomes involved with Tony Fiorello, she’s summoned back to Ireland by news of a family tragedy, hastily agreeing to a secret marriage before she leaves. At home, egged on by her mother, she finds herself falling in love with Jim Farrell, ignoring Tony’s letters and telling no one about him. The Irish American world is a small one, however, and it’s soon clear that Eilas must make a choice. Written in Tóibin’s spare yet eloquent prose, Brooklyn is a triumph, one which I didn’t expect to be matched by the film until I saw Saoirse Ronan as Eilas. She seemed born for the part.
Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday takes place during the space of one day, as you might expect from its title, but it encapsulates decades of memories as a successful Northern Irish playwright thinks of her friend Molly whose Dublin house she has borrowed while Molly is in New York. Molly is a celebrated actress, feted for her stage performances. As our unnamed narrator struggles with writer’s block she remembers shared times with Molly, her thoughts often returning to their mutual friend Andrew. We know it’s Molly’s birthday from the book’s title but the full significance of the date slowly becomes apparent as our narrator muses on writing, friendship and identity, while wondering why Molly never celebrates her birthday. Madden’s writing is beautifully honed, as elegantly understated as all three of the previous writers.
Belinda McKeon’s Tender begins in 1997 and ends in 2012, three years before the resounding referendum vote in favour of equal marriage in Ireland. Catherine and James instantly click when James returns from Berlin to reclaim the room Catherine has been renting for her first year at Trinity. He’s tactile and outgoing, loudly pontificating on everything and everybody yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long everyone is convinced they’re a couple but eventually James tells Catherine he’s gay. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told with unhappy results. Tender is a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate, and extraordinarily intense at times. Another Irish triumph.
Any books by Irish authors you’d like to recommend?
Two of May’s second batch of paperbacks made it on to my 2015 ‘books of the year’ list, my favourite of which was Belinda McKeon’s Tender which I’d hoped to see on the Bailey’s Prize longlist. Catherine and James meet in Dublin in 1997 and almost instantly click. He’s tactile and outgoing, yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long everyone’s convinced they’re a couple. When James tells Catherine he’s gay, she basks in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told. Then things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. The novel ends in 2012 with Catherine and James established in their adult lives – one happy, one not. It’s a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one.
There’s a good deal of compassion in William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, a welcome return to Any Human Heart territory after one thriller too many for me. 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. Like so many of his generation, her father returned from the First World War a changed man, unable to show the affection Amory craves. Her Uncle Greville’s gift of a camera offers solace, setting Amory off on a path which leads her across the world. Boyd is a masterful storyteller with a magpie-like eye for bright period detail. There’s even a bit of the thriller in it, but essentially this is a book about war and its consequences. A fine novel, both entertaining and enlightening.
Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children follows on from her previous novel, picking up Ally and Tom’s story from where Bodies of Light left off. Newly married, they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum – albeit unpaid – and Tom travels to Japan to advise on building lighthouses. Lonely and still mourning the sister she believes drowned nine years ago, Ally gives in to her mother’s demands to put her skills to better use in Manchester, briefly suffering a relapse in her own mental health before returning to Cornwall. Meanwhile, Tom’s loneliness is exacerbated by plunging into a culture of which he knows nothing. Slowly, he comes to understand the beauty of this endlessly puzzling country, forging a friendship with the man assigned as his guide. It’s a beautifully executed novel which asks big questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were in Ally’s time. Shame about that jacket, though. The hardback edition’s lacked the female figure which appears to be stuck-on.
I’ve not read either of the next two titles. Kathleen Alcott’s Infinite Home is about the tenants of a Brooklyn brownstone – each very different from the other and each challenged in some way – who come together when their home is threatened. It’s billed as ‘a poignant story of how a community is built and torn apart, and how when lives interweave a beautiful and unusual tapestry is made’ which could be interpreted as sentimental schlock but it’s an attractive premise and I’ve enjoyed novels based on apartments blocks as communities before.
My last choice for May is Elizabeth Day’s Paradise City which follows four Londoners –an asylum seeker, a self-made millionaire, a recently widowed woman and a young journalist – ‘each inhabitants of the same city, where the gulf between those who have too much and those who will never have enough is impossibly vast’, apparently. An ‘inexcusable act’ uncovers connections between these four in what could be a nice bit of state of the nation fiction. We’ll see. And, once again, the hardback jacket was so much more attractive
That’s it for May. A click on the first three titles will take you to my review if you’d like to know more, and to Waterstones website for the last two. And if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment of paperbacks it’s here. Hardbacks are here and here.
Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed. What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:
I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.
What about you? I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.
My 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 Nightwas 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 twentieth 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.
This 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.
Regular readers may have noticed that I’ve taken to reviewing short stories recently but this is my first anthology. Previous reviews have all been of collections by a single author, one whose novels I love. Two things brought me to A Kind of Compass: firstly it’s edited by Belinda McKeon both of whose novels – Solace and Tender–captivated me, and secondly it includes a story by Sara Baume whose gorgeously poetic, Costa Prize shortlisted debut Spill Simmer Falter Witherrates alongside Tender as one of my books of this year. I should say that there’s a common theme to this collection, subtitled ‘Stories on Distance’, which McKeon discusses in her introduction, describing ‘distance’ as an obsession that she had hoped to ease by commissioning seventeen others to write about it for her, ranging far and wide to find them. It didn’t work, apparently. Hard to review an anthology without the whole thing becoming a list so please forgive my cherry picking four favourites from those I’ve read so far.
Yoko Ogawa’s ‘Six Days in Glorious Vienna’ (translated by Stephen Snyder) covers the distance between Japan – from where her two characters travel – to Vienna, one to celebrate her twentieth birthday and the other to visit her dying lover, now a very old man. These two are strangers to each other but by the end both have covered more emotional miles than they have physical. It’s a beautifully expressed story with a wonderful twist at its end.
Kevin Barry’s narrator has taken fifteen years to travel from Ireland to Spain in ‘Extremadura (Until Night Falls)’. Ignored by all but the village mutt, the narrator watches the evening’s comings and goings, thinking of home and whether his family is still waiting for him, watching the local heartbreaker and nursing his own broken heart which has led him from a settled life to a tramp’s ostracism. Barry was awarded this year’s Goldsmiths Prize just a few weeks ago for Beatlebone and if the almost casually lyrical style of this story is anything to go by, it’s well deserved.
Sara Baume’s ‘Finishing Lines’ opens with the kind of image that I loved in Spill Simmer Falter Wither,comparing homing pigeons to ‘tiny, shaved-headed men in high collars, their arms shoved down inside their shirts’. Leaving her nine-month-old baby and her boyfriend behind, Baume’s narrator travels to London to rescue one of her great-uncle’s pigeons who has lost her way from St Malo and landed in Bethnal Green. Staying with an old friend overnight, our narrator realises quite how far she’s travelled since her old student days.
In E. C. Osondu’s ‘The Place for Me’, Tochi wonders why his brother parties so hard when he comes home to Nigeria from his job in London. Tochi’s determined to join his brother in what he and his friends see as the land of opportunity, managing to finagle a visa and finally arriving in Peckham where the gulf between what he’s seen on TV and the actuality becomes horribly clear.
I’ve leant not to gulp collections down whole so can’t vouch for all seventeen stories but what I have read suggests that McKeon has a sharp eye for talent, although I’d guessed that after reading the Amy Bloom quotation in her introduction. Now, there’s a woman who knows how to write a short story.
Just 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:
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.
There’s always a moment of worry when you’re about to plunge into a book you’ve been looking forward to for some time. I remember Belinda McKeon’s Solace being surrounded by a great deal of pre-publication buzz, lots of well-known names singing its praises one of whom was Colm Tóibin which made me pay more attention than usual. It turned out to be one of my favourite books of that year, hence the slightly apprehensive anticipation for Tender. In some ways, we’re back in the same territory: young people leaving rural Ireland for the city, both with strong ties to their families, both about to stretch those ties to snapping point.
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. He’s tactile and outgoing, loudly pontificating on everything and everybody yet tender-hearted, while she’s self-conscious, buttoned-up and naïve. Before too long they’ve accumulated all the trappings of intimate friendship, everyone convinced they’re a couple. Eventually, James tells Catherine he’s gay: readers will be far from surprised but it comes as a shock to her. Soon she begins to bask in the glamour of this new sophisticated status, spilling the beans to those James has not yet told. For all his apparent confidence, he’s unable to act on his sexuality, pouring out his misery in his letters to Catherine when he returns to Berlin, letters which she guiltily neglects given her newly busy social life. When James comes back unexpectedly, her attention is elsewhere, but then things take an altogether different turn towards obsessive and impossible love. The novel begins in 1997, continuing through to 1998 when the Good Friday talks appear on the horizon, then ends in 2012, with Catherine and James established in their adult lives – one happy, one not.
Impossible not to read this novel without thinking about the resounding vote in favour of gay marriage passed in Ireland just last month. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, a ‘yes’ vote seemed certain for Dublin but voters in rural Ireland might have tipped the balance the other way despite those heart-warming scenes of people disembarking from boats, planes and trains, coming home to have their say. In the event, those fears were unfounded. Set eighteen years before the referendum, Tender portrays the pain of being gay in a country that had only decriminalised homosexuality five years before. McKeon is particularly good at capturing Catherine’s social awkwardness, her proud excitement at having a gay friend and the self-absorption which blinds her to James’s pain. It’s an extraordinarily intense novel at times: at one point the narrative fractures into short paragraphs as if to allow its readers gulps of air. There’s a long section in which McKeon explores Catherine’s relationship with James through The Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes’ collection of poems to Sylvia Plath, which forms the basis for Catherine’s essay. I’m sure it works if you know the poems well, but it’s a little confusing at times for those of us who don’t. That said I found Tender a profoundly involving novel – raw yet compassionate – and a very moving one, particularly in the light of that referendum vote. Clever title, too!
Such 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.
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
Churlish 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.