Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Tolstoy and the Purple ChairFor my holiday, I treated myself to one of the unread books from my shelf of books about reading. I’m rationing these because they seem all too finite, and I can’t get enough of them. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) turned out to be quite different from most of them, but a very good read.

Nina Sankovitch decided to read a book every day for a year. Each day = one book. And one book review. It sounds like an impossible task, but it’s what she needed to do to help recover from grief at losing her sister to cancer – which happened three years before her year of reading took place, but it took that long to realise that other coping mechanisms simply weren’t working.

Sankovitch wrote about her experience at her Read All Day blog, which I assume was later picked up by a publisher, and the first question has to be: how does she fit it in? Well, she wasn’t in paid work at the time: she’d left her job as a lawyer to raise four children, while her husband did paid work. By the time her ‘year of magical reading’ (overt nod to Joan Didion) began, all four were school age – so she prioritised reading during the day, as setting her on the path of recovery from grief.

The venture is bold and rather beautiful – but how to turn it into a book? We wouldn’t want to read 365 short book reviews in a row – or, at least, it wouldn’t be a continuous narrative. I was super impressed by how Sankovitch managed to make it work – because she manages to turn the experience into a novel. It is about memories of her sister, it is about the quick downhill spiral of the cancer, it is about everyday moments for a mother – and all the while, it is also about the books.

All the great books I was reading were about the complexity and entirety of the human experience. About the things we wish to forget and those we want more and more of. About how we react and how we wish we could react. Books are experience, the words of authors proving the solace of love, the fulfilment of family, the torment of war, and the wisdom of memory. Joy and tears, pleasure and pain: everything came to me while I read in my purple chair. I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much.

There are plenty of books from her reading year which don’t get a mention in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair – except, thankfully, in the complete list at the end. (I’ve read only 22 of the 365, and haven’t heard of most of them – I think quite a lot of contemporary American lit appears, though Sankovitch’s reading tastes are catholic and admirable, and she writes very well about how books have affected her, as well as their literary qualities. And the Provincial Lady features!) But she does weave certain of them through chapters – either grouping, such as several that consider death, or sex, or war, or drawing out moments of beauty and realisation from her reading.

Somehow it all works beautifully together. I don’t think I’d ask for either less or more detail from her reading reflections, and presumably can dig out fuller details on her blog. But she has worked a miracle in making a story about grief and a story about reading 365 books come together into a captivating, moving memoir.

My only real criticism of the book (incidentally, I have a beautiful American paperback edition) is the title. She reads in a purple chair; one of the first books she reads is a Tolstoy novel. The book is emphatically not about Tolstoy, which is surely what anybody would think seeing this title? It’s certainly what I thought – and there are any number of titles that would have crystallised the book far better.

But hopefully you can see past the title, and add this to your own books-about-reading shelf. It deserves a place there.

To The River by Olivia Laing

to-the-riverSomehow it took me months and months to read To The River (2011) by Olivia Laing, having it on the go alongside lots of other books I was reading – and yet it is likely to be on my best books of the year. I think I was enjoying it so much, and realising what an unusually perfect book for me it was, that I didn’t want to read any of it unless I was in exactly the right mood.

I discovered that To The River existed when reading reviews of The Shelf, I think (just in case you’ve missed how much I loved Phyllis Rose’s book, have yourself a merry little read of this) – I quickly ordered a copy, but waited until it felt like the right time to read it. Why was I so excited about it? Well, I have two words: Virginia. Woolf.

To The River plays on the title To The Lighthouse, and it’s inspired by Virginia Woolf – at least partly. The loose structure of the memoir (for such I suppose it is) is that Laing is walking the length of the Ouse – the river in which Woolf drowned herself in 1941, but also (unsurprisingly) one which has a long and varied history before that. Laing mixes the personal and the investigative as she walks along this route – an area she knows fairly well already, but with plenty left to explore and unearth… and all while Woolf comes in and out of the narrative, always a reference point, if not quite the subject of the book.

I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby. “When it hurts,” wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz, “we return to the banks of certain rivers,” and I take comfort in his words, for there’s a river I’ve returned to over and again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy.

I’ve kinda already spoiled which river that is (mea culpa) – and it was a form of grief that took Laing there this time: the break-up of a relationship, which she mentions throughout the book (though not in an Eat, Pray, Love sort of way – more as a series of memories threaded throughout). (FYI, I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love and have no idea what it’s really like.)

Like Laing, I am very fond of rivers. I grew up in a village called Eckington, in Worcestershire, which is in a bend of the River Avon. That meant that it flooded every year, and two of the three roads that led out of the village would generally be impassable, but it also gave me a lifelong love of rivers – you could walk all the way around the village by river, or you could stroll down to one of the two locks. You could even follow the river for miles in either direction, if you so chose. And in Oxford I have usually lived relatively close to a river – it’s five minutes’ walk from my house now – and it’s where I instinctively go when I’m sad. This week, in fact, I was pretty miserable for a couple of days – and, in the first burst of it, I went and stood by the river, staring into it. Not in a Virginia-Woolf-throw-myself-in, I should add, but because I find rivers calming and beautiful, and somehow reassuringly constant.

Anyway, Laing walks along the river – or as near as she can get to it; a lot of the riverbank is privately owned – and it’s greatly enjoyable just to read about the places she stays, the people she bumps into, and her reflections on her surroundings. I love reading all this sort of thing:

I walked back through fields of sleeping cows as the dusk fell down about me. I was staying that night in an old farmhouse near Isfield church, in a room at the end of a long corridor separated from the rest of the house by a velvet curtain. It smelled smoky and sweet, as if apple wood or cherry had been burning for generations. I’d been lent a torch when I went out, and now, tiptoeing back in, I was given a flask of hot milk and a homemade truffle to take up to bed. It was nice to be coddled. I wrapped the duvet round me and ate my feast while flicking through a book I’d found hidden beneath a stack of Country Life.

But To The River is much more than a travel diary: along the way, Laing discusses all manner of things that happened near her route, or which she is reminded of. And I mean ‘all manner of things’. There is a brief history of the discovery of dinosaurs and the rivalries it entailed; the life of Simon de Montfort; Piltdown man; folklore about dancing nymphs – it’s really all there. And, weaving in and out of all of them: Virginia Woolf. The places she visited, the inspiration she gathered for her novels, and the way she would have experienced the area. To be truthful, I would have loved a bit more about Woolf and about Laing’s history of reading her books – but I can’t fault the exemplary way that Laing brings together all the disparate histories she discusses with the trip she is taking. It’s quite extraordinary. It somehow doesn’t feel disjointed at all – as each thought comes to the surface, naturally, she gives a brief and engaging summary of the topic. It’s conversational and (here comes the river metaphor) flowing.

It was a pleasure to spend time in To The River. Such an unusual premise for a book makes me applaud the good people of Canongate for being willing to publish it – and wonder what other books of this ilk might be out there. Thank you, Olivia Laing, for taking this trip – for being both a brilliant researcher and a vulnerable self-analyser, and for bringing the two elements together so beautifully.

I, Messiah by Donald Southey

I, MessiahI wonder how many of my readers expect me to write a review – and a positive review, no less – of a sci-fi novel-cum-parable? Full disclosure: the author is a friend of the family, but I had resolved not to write about it at all if I didn’t like I, Messiah (2011). Luckily, and rather to my surprise given my allergy to sci-fi, I thought it a really good book.

Even before we get to the title page, we know this is about robots. Indeed, from the title alone you might have spotted the reference to I, Robot and on the first page (and essential to know before going any further) is a paraphrase of Isaac Asimov’s famous laws of robotics, as follows:

First Law: a robot shall never cause any harm to a human being; nor, by his inaction, endanger or allow harm to come to a human being.

Second Law: subject to the First Law, a robot shall obey every direct command of a human being; firstly of his master, then of any other human.

Third Law: subject to the First and Second Laws, a robot shall always endeavour to preserve his own safety and that of other robots.

I, Messiah is set in a world where robots are fairly common as aids, but their development is still very much a matter of scientific research and subject to change. The narrator, John Smith, has recently gone through a divorce and decides to get a Self Instructing Decision Making Intelligent Cyber Servant, version 3 (SIDMICS-3), known as Sid. A scientist, ‘Davy’ Jones, is in charge of customising robots for buyers, and he is the main contact for John throughout.

From the outset, Sid is immaculately helpful and companionable. He not only follows all Three Laws of Robots, but is something of a friend too. John quickly has him charge himself in comfort in the house, rather than isolated outside, and they have conversations rather than simple command/obey exchanges. Lest you’re thinking this is like the film Her, they don’t fall in love – but things do start to develop bizarrely.

Sid starts to see things in his sleep; they realise he can dream. But it is not this which brings him to John’s side several times in the night…

That night, there was another soft knocking at my door.

“Sid, is that you?”

“Yes, John, you called me.”

“Look, Sid, I did not call you. Go back to your room and don’t disturb me again. OK?”

If you know your Bible, you’ll probably recognise an intentional parallel to the account of Samuel and Eli in 1 Samuel, where the boy Samuel thinks that he is being repeatedly called by Eli. Each time Eli denies having called him, and eventually realises that it is God calling Samuel. The same thing is happening here; it is God (or ‘the voice’) who is calling Sid.

Sid takes this in his stride; he is well aware of his human creators, and it isn’t much of a leap for him to accept God as creator. John Smith finds it much more of a struggle, as an avowed atheist. From here (because I don’t want to give away all the plot) things develop in the direction of tragedy, but with a few twists and turns. It’s not precisely a parable of the account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – because it is a world where Jesus exists and where Sid could be considered a representation of Jesus – but it works well without falling neatly in either direction. And it’s quite a poignant and moving story, even without a comparison to the Gospel.

So, I’m as surprised as anybody that I enjoyed this – if you can get me on board with a novel about robots, then you’ve done extremely well. You may not think this sounds like your cup of tea (let’s face it; we’re most of us more at home with novels about 1930s housewives gossiping over tea) (I instantly want to read that hypothetical novel) but, if you fancy dipping a toe into new territory, I very much encourage you to give I, Messiah a go. You can find out more about the book here, and buy it there too, if you’d like.


Diana Athill and Susan Hill

These two books (Midsummer Night in the Workhouse and other stories by Diana Athill and Black Sheep by Susan Hill) have very little in common, other than that (a) the authors have ‘hill’ in their name, and (b) they are the final two books for my Reading Presently project and this is the last day of the year.  So I shall consider them in turn, and only if I’m very lucky will I find anything to link them…

Mum gave me Midsummer Night in the Workhouse as a cheer-up present a few months ago, and a Persephone book is (of course) always very, very welcome.  One of my very favourite reads in 2013 was Diana Athill’s memoir about being an editor, Stet (indeed, I claimed in Kim’s Book Bloggers Advent Calendar that it was my favourite, but while compiling my list I remembered another which beat it – full top ten to be unveiled in January, donchaknow) so I thought it was about time that I read some of her fiction.  Turns out there isn’t that much of it, and she speaks quite disparagingly of the whole process in Somewhere Towards The End (which I’m reading at the moment; spoiler alert, it doesn’t compare to Stet in my mind).

As my usual disclaimer, whenever I write about short stories – they’re very difficult to write about.  But they do seem the perfect medium for the expert editor, depending – as they do, more than any other fiction – upon precision and economy.  And I thought (says he, being very brief) that Athill was very good at it.  My favourite was probably ‘The Return’, about a couple of young women who are taken to an island by local ‘tour guide’ sailors – it was just so brilliantly structured, managing to be tense, witty, and wry at the same time.  But the last line of ‘Desdemona’ was exceptionally good (and you know how I like my last lines to stories…)

My only complaint with the collection is that they are a bit too samey occasionally – which might be explained by the new preface, where Athill explains that she mostly wrote from her own experience.  And her own experience seemed to be observing a fair amount of unsatisfactory marriages, and having a rather casual attitude towards marital fidelity (more on that when I get around to writing about Somewhere Towards The End.)

Her character and voice seem better established in her non-fiction, but this collection is certainly very good – and Persephone should be celebrated for collecting and publishing something which had been largely ignored in Athill’s career.  Hurrah for Persephone!

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Colin (yes, he blogs too, and apparently will be doing so more regularly in 2014) gave me Susan Hill’s latest novella, Black Sheep (which was on my Amazon wishlist) for Christmas, and I read it on Boxing Day while laid up with that cold.  I’m always so grateful that I gave Susan Hill’s writing a second go, after being underwhelmed by the children’s book I read first – and I have a special soft spot for the novellas which have been coming out over the past few years.

Those of you who follow Hill on Twitter, or remember her erstwhile blog, will know that she seems to finish a book in the time it takes most of us to boil a kettle.  Well, more power to her, say I – and I’ve been impressed by The Beacon and A Kind Man.  I hadn’t realised that I read those in 2009 and 2011 – well, time flies, and perhaps Hill does pause for breath between books.  Black Sheep is not only being marketed in a similar way, with equally lovely colours/image/format, but does – whether Hill has done this deliberately or not – belong in the same stable.  The three novellas have definite differences, and possibly started from very different inspirations, but they also share a great deal – all three concern remote, almost isolated communities, the complicated lives of simple folk, and (it must be conceded) a fair dose of misery.  Or perhaps just a dose of hardship, because the three novels all seem to come near to gratuitous misery, and then duck away.

Black Sheep takes place in a mining community in the past… I’m not sure how far in the past, or if we’re told, but definitely an era when people rarely left their village and almost no outside-communication took place.  The village (called ‘Mount of Zeal’) is divided into the pit, Lower Terrace, Middle Terrace, and Upper Terrace (known as Paradise).  We follow the fortunes of one overcrowded family home as the children grow up.  Who to marry, whether or not to get a job in the mine, how to cope with illness and grief – these are the overriding concerns of the different children and their parents – but these topics are less important than the way in which Hill writes about them, and the community they live in.

It is such a brilliant depiction of a village.  Setting the community on the side of this hill, leading from Paradise to the hell of the mine, may seem like a heavy-handed metaphor – but more significant is the claustrophobia of the village from any vantage, whether in the pit or in the fanciest inspector’s house.  We follow perhaps the most important character, the youngest boy Ted, when he emerges from the village into the sheep-filled fields above – a journey seldom made by anybody, for some reason – and there is a palpable sense of narrative and readerly relief.  Even while giving us characters we care about, Hill makes the whole atmosphere suffocating and, yes, claustrophobic.

Of these three novellas, I still think The Beacon is the best – but the setting of Black Sheep is probably the most accomplished.  It lacks quite the brilliance of structure which Hill demonstrates elsewhere, and comes nearest to a Hardyesque piling on of unlikely misery, but that can’t really dent the confident narrative achievement readers have come to expect from Hill.  As a follow-on read from Ten Days of Christmas, it was a bit of a shock – but, if you’re feeling emotionally brave, this triumvirate of novellas is definitely worth seeking out.

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And there you have it.  No noticeable link between the two – but my Reading Presently challenge is finished!  I realise it isn’t as interesting for vicarious readers as A Century of Books, because (presumably) it makes no difference to you whether a reviewed book was a gift or a purchase, but I’ve enjoyed seeing what people have recommended over the years.  At the very least, it has assuaged a fair amount of latent guilt!  I still have at least 30 books people have given me, and I’ll be prioritising a few for ACOB 2014, but I’ll also enjoy indulging my own whims to a greater extent.

Appropriately enough, five of my Top Ten Books were gifts, and five were not – considering this year I read 50 books that were gifts and just over 50 that were not (finishing, because of DPhil, headaches, and new job, rather fewer books than usual).  All will be revealed soon, as promised…

Faulks on Fiction (audio) – Sebastian Faulks

As you see from this post’s title, I didn’t read Faulks on Fiction (2011) in the traditional sense, but rather I listened to it on audiobook.  This was something of a novel (ho ho) experience for me, as I haven’t listened to an audiobook all the way through for more than a decade, perhaps nearer 20 years.  Indeed, for me – when I had trouble sleeping as an undergraduate – audiobooks were basically lullabies.  I’d stick Diary of a Provincial Lady, or Felicity’s Kendal’s White Cargo, or the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham in the cassette player, and go to sleep to the sound of their voices.  Those were the only cassettes I owned, so I got very familiar with first ten minutes of each side…

But I asked for the CD (how times have changed) of Faulks on Fiction for Christmas a couple of years ago, and my parents kindly gave it to me.  I listened to it gradually, mostly last winter on my iPod, because I had daily walks into town of 45 minutes each way (and couldn’t afford to get the bus all the time).  Then I got the job at OUP, could afford to take the bus, and somehow left the final CD of ten until last week…

I haven’t even properly mentioned the author yet, although you’ll have worked it out.  Sebastian Faulks (known for his novels, particularly Birdsong, none of which I have read) presented a TV series looking at selected novels in the history of British literature, and this was the tie-in book.  I only actually watched one of the episodes – on heroes – and didn’t bother with the rest, because it all seemed a bit dumbed down.  Someone told me that the book was better (well, duh) and they weren’t wrong.

Faulks addresses various ‘categories’ – heroes, villains, lovers, and snobs – and tracks each through the history of literature. So he’ll start with a Defoe or a Swift, moving on through Austens, Eliots, Brontes, via Woolf, Lawrence et al, and finally an Amis or an Ali.  It is of course a subjective overview of literature, and the four categories we suggests could only ever be a necessary structuring device (arguably all four appear in most of the novels Faulks chooses), but I liked the idea of picking out these motifs.  With only one or two examples per century for each category, it could hardly be considered comprehensive, and I baulked a bit when Faulks attempted to draw wider conclusions from his chosen examples – but no matter, I suppose it is what is expected of anything with so broad a title.

There is always that main problem with books which summarise books: that you’ve either read the book being summarised or you haven’t.  If you have, you don’t need to be given the outline of the plot (although I found it did often help my faulty memory), and if you haven’t, you don’t want spoilers.  I appreciated the run-through on books I never intend to read, but did end up fast-forwarding through sections on tbr pile candidates.  Having said that, I listened to his thoughts on The End of the Affair by Graham Greene before I read it, and had still fortunately forgotten everything he said.

In either case, my favourite moments were when Faulks was talking about the books, rather than giving summaries.  I didn’t always agree with him – see my post on Faulks and Pride and Prejudice – but I’m a sucker for intelligent, accessible discussion of great liteature.  His groupings are intriguing and his discussion is warm, witty, and well thought-through.  Of course, it’s been so long since I listened to most of it that I can’t really recall what he said, but the CD I listened to last covered Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and I enjoyed hearing what he had to say about the creation of Barbara, and how the novel differed from the film.

As for how the format affected my listening… Well, I found it impossible to separate the speaker from Faulks, even though they were definitely different people (the narrator, incidentally, is James Wilby).  I could definitely have done without his attempts at accents – I can understand the eager actor relishing the opportunity to wander from Russia to Yorkshire and back again, but it was rather distracting.  But, aside from that, I quite enjoyed listening to an audiobook.  There were times when skipping would have been easier than fast-forwarding, or skimming backwards easier than rewinding, but Wilby has an engaging voice and it was the perfect entertainment for walking to and from town, as it could be listened to in discrete bursts without much being lost.

House of Silence – Linda Gillard

The aftermath of A Century of Books definitely seems to be a sudden dash towards 21st century books, particularly those I’ve had on hold for a while.  And few books have hovered more determinedly around my consciousness than Linda Gillard’s House of Silence (2011).  I’d read her first three novels, and enjoyed them all – one to this-is-incredibly-I-love-it standards. Although I’ve never met Linda Gillard, we used to be in the same book discussion list, and we’re friends on Facebook, so I’m putting this kind gift in Reading Presently.  Them’s my rules.  And it’s not even the first time she’s given me a copy of the book.

As many of you will know, Linda Gillard is a runaway Kindle bestseller – we’re talking 30,000 copies of House of Silence here, let alone her other Kindle titles – and has a devoted audience around the world.  And then, lolloping up behind them, wearing too many belts and clearly thinking the calculator in his hand is a mobile phone, comes me.  I don’t have a Kindle, or any of the other-ereaders-are-available.  I don’t want one even a tiny bit.  The only advantage they have, in fact – and this has quite genuinely appeared on my mental pros/cons list – is access to Linda Gillard’s novels.

Yes, yes, I know.  Kindle-for-PC.  I downloaded it; Linda kindly gave me a download of House of Silence.  I tried to read it.  I read the first page every now and then… and got no further.  It was like standing outside a bank vault and not having the combination – because, try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to read an e-book.  It took me months to read the one my good friend had written, which even thanked me in it.

And then – praise be! – Linda published it as a POD paperback, and sent me a review copy of that.  Huzzah!  I read it, and, dear reader, it was good.  Which is just as well, after all that.

(Incidentally, isn’t the cover gorgeous?  Unlike most self-published authors, Linda Gillard goes the extra mile with design and aesthetic, paying a designer for this beautiful look.  What a shame that easily her best novel, A Lifetime Burning, should also have easily her worst cover… but the new cover for the Kindle edition is beautiful.)

House of Silence has been advertised as Rebecca meets Cold Comfort Farm – both traits I could identify, and which can definitely be no bad thing – but, more than that, it felt reliably Gillard to me.  In terms of period, event, and even genre Linda is versatile – but certain ingredients stand out as characteristic.  The most dominant of these is the feel of the book and the characters, vague as that sounds – with Linda Gillard’s novels, you know you’re going to get strong emotions and passionate people, trammeled by everyday experience, but refusing to lie entirely dormant…

Guinevere (known as Gwen) works alongside actors, in the wardrobe department.  Already, I’m sold – you might know how I love books which feature actors, and Gillard uses Gwen’s knowledge of fabrics to ingenious effect as the novel progresses.  It is in this role that she first meets Alfie, who is having some issues with his breeches… one thing leads to another, and they end up dating.  Which, in turn, leads to her spending Christmas with him and his family, at beautiful old Creake Hall in Norfolk.  He’s a little reluctant for her to join him, but eventually is persuaded.

And what a group of eccentrics they find!  Chief amongst them – although appearing very little on the scene – is Alfie’s mother Rae.  Her mind is wandering, and her grasp of time and people is never strong, but she is still regularly producing her series of children’s books about Tom Dickon Harry.  This little chap has made her famous – and is based on Alfie himself, who (in turn) rose to notoriety after appearing in a documentary about the books when he was eighteen.  The irony is, Alfie explains, that he actually grew up with his father, who divorced Rae – and now he only sees his sister and half-sisters once a year, at Christmas.

Those sisters include loveable, scatty Hattie – who is forever making quilts, and babbling away without any real sense of boundaries.  Viv is less open, but still welcomes Gwen into the family.  Throw in two visiting sisters, in varying states of life-collapse, and things are bound to be interesting.  And Creake Hall is a wonderful setting.  Who doesn’t love an Elizabethan manor for a mysterious, slightly unsettling novel?  What makes it most unsettling is that the reader shares with Gwen the feeling that Alfie isn’t telling us everything… why was he so reluctant for her to stay?  What secrets does he hide?  What secrets are hidden by the house of silence?

Gwen is rather younger than Linda Gillard’s previous heroines – she is in her mid-twenties, in fact.  At no point does she come across as that young, though – which I thought might be a failing on Gillard’s part, until I got to the part where she asked Marek to guess her age:

“Older than you look.  Younger than you sound.”
One of the main aspects of Gwen’s personality is that she has had to be old before her years.  I suppose that’s what happens when you lose your entire family during adolescence – to drugs, alcohol, and AIDS – including finding your mother, dead, on Christmas.  Yup, Gwen has had it tough.

Oh, and Marek, you ask?  He is the gardener, known as Tyler to everyone (because every gardener has been known as that) and is warm, a good listener – he used to be a psychiatrist – and generally a safe place for Gwen to retreat.  He’s also (I quote Lyn’s review) ‘gorgeous, sexy, and irresistible.’  I have mental blocks for big age gaps with fictional couples – even Emma and Mr. Knightley is a combination which makes me wince a bit – so I’ll sidestep any potential entanglements here, and leave those quandaries to your imagination.  I will say that Marek reminds me a lot of Gavin from Gillard’s Emotional Geology, that he lives in a windmill (far from the only thing which reminded me of Jonathan Creek), and plays the cello – which led me in the direction of this beautiful piece.  It’s Rachmaninov’s Sonata in G Minor, Opus 17 No.3, Andante.  (Sorry, I have no idea how one is supposed to phrase the titles to music.)

I refuse to give any more of the plot away.  I’ve left it all deliberately vague, because it’s the sort of novel where the plot does matter.  One of the reasons it reminded me of an episode of Jonathan Creek, in the best possible way, is that you’re desperate to find out what happens – and twist upon twist come, so that everything is plausible but unguessable.  The ‘reveals’ are entirely consistent with people’s behaviour throughout the novel; character is never sacrificed to plot – indeed, the explanation of what has happened is also an explanation of why the members of this family are the way they are.

It’s all beautifully, addictively done.  I stayed up far later than I should, devouring the second half of the novel. I was unsure, in the beginning, whether it would match up to the compulsive quality of Gillard’s other novels, and the action doesn’t quite kick into gear until we’ve arrived at Creake Hall – but, after that, hold onto your hats.  It is a mark of Linda Gillard’s talent that her novels are both versatile and identifiable – no matter what genre she turns her hand to (and I believe her next was a paranormal romance), I would be able to recognise a Gillard at a hundred paces.  And, although she may be one of the new wave of successful Kindle authors, thank Heaven she’s found a way for the Kindless to enjoy the dizzying, thoughtful extravaganza that is House of Silence.

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

House of Silence is a compulsively readable book. It’s a compelling story of family secrets & lies, set in a crumbling Elizabethan mansion at Christmas in the depths of a freezing Norfolk winter.” – Lyn, I Prefer Reading

“This is a book in which it is so easy to lose yourself, at once emotional and mysterious.” – Margaret, Books Please

“The book has romance, bubbling away underneath, it deals with mental health issues so effectively and considerately that you actually do not realise until reflecting back on the book.” – Jo, The Book Jotter

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty & William Maxwell

The third Reading Presently book was a really lovely surprise gift from Heather, who reads my blog (but doesn’t, I’m pretty sure, have one herself.)  She saw how much I’d loved the letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and decided (quite rightly) that I should also have the opportunity to read William Maxwell’s letters to another doyenne of the printed word – Eudora Welty.

Although no collection of letters is likely to compare to The Element of Lavishness in my mind, this is still a really wonderful book.  The dynamics are a little different – both are on the same side of the Atlantic (Maxwell can write to Welty ‘And warm though the British are, one needs to have them explained to one, and everything is through the looking glass’) ; both go more or less through the same stages of their careers – with Warner, Maxwell was always the young enthusiast, even when he was essentially her boss.  Here is more a meeting of equals, sharing some literary friends (especially Elizabeth Bowen) and loving and respecting each other without the need to impress (which brought out the very finest of Maxwell’s writing, to Warner.)

It was a delight to ‘meet’ Maxwell’s wife and children again, and to see the girls grow up once more – and fascinating to see how this is framed a little differently in the different books.  For her part, Welty’s relationship with her homeland (Jackson, Mississippi) is really interesting – a definitely conflicted relationship, cross with the attitudes of her neighbourhood, but loving home.  It’s pretty rare that ‘place’ makes an impact on me, let alone somebody’s engagement with their individual city, but this was certainly one of those occasions.

Just as Warner’s letters stood out more for me in The Element of Lavishness, it was Maxwell’s turn to take the foreground in What There Is To Say We Have Said (which is a lovely title, incidentally – a quotation from the penultimate letter Maxwell sent.)  So I jotted down a few Maxwell excerpts, but nothing from Welty – who, though wonderful, turned out to be less quoteworthy.  I love this from Maxwell, about wishing for a Virginia Woolf audiobook:

What wouldn’t you give for a recording of her reading “To the Lighthouse,” on one side and “The Waves” on the other.  It’s enough to unsettle my reason, just having imagined it.  I’ll try not think about it any more.
I mostly love how impassioned (and funny) he is – and I’m probably going to be peppering my conversation with ‘it’s enough to unsettle my reason’.  It rivals that immortal line from the TV adaptation of Cranford: “Put not another dainty to your lips, for you will choke when you hear what I have to say!”  (Note to Self: I must watch Cranford again…)

Maxwell is, of course, a great novelist on his own account – but I think one of his most significant contributions to literature is his panache as an appreciator.  Even when he was turning down Warner’s stories for the New Yorker, he managed to do so with admiration dripping from every penstroke of the rejection.  He so perfectly (and honestly) identifies what the author was hoping would be praised, and describes the raptures of an avid reader.  Here is his beautiful response to Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples:

At one point I was aware that I was holding my breath, a thing I don’t ever remember doing before,  while reading, and what I was holding my breath for is lest I might disturb something in nature, a leaf that was about to move, a bird, a wasp, a blade of grass caught between other blades of grass and about to set itself free.  And then farther on I said to myself, this writing is corrective, meaning of course for myself and all other writers, and almost at the end I said reverently This is how one feels in the presence of a work of art, and finally, in the last paragraph, when the face came through, there was nothing to say.  You had gone as far as there is to go and then taken one step further.
Which author would not thrill to this letter?  Can a better response be imagined?  There is never any sense, in his praise to Welty or Warner, that he is exaggerating or being sycophantic – he simply expresses the joy he feels, unabashed, and the women he writes to are sensible enough to accept his praise without undue modesty.  Welty returns compliments on Maxwell’s writing more than Warner ever did – c.f. again the youthful admirer / fond sage dynamic which was going on there.

If this collection does not match up to The Element of Lavishness, it is because it does not have the magic of Warner’s letter writing.  But to criticise it for that would be like criticising chocolate cake because it wasn’t double chocolate cake.  This is a wonderful, decades-long account of a friendship between literary greats – and is equally marvellous for both the literary interest and the testament (if I may) of friendship.  Thank you, Heather, I’m so grateful for this joy of a book  it, and they, will stay with me for a while.  Now, did William Maxwell write to anyone else…

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

I try to remember sometimes, when I’m waving my arms left and right, dividing books into sheep and goats and making my pronouncements about them, that quality is largely subjective.  We all know this, of course.  When I say a book is good, it’s shorthand for “I thought it was good.”  When I say a book is bad… well, sometimes it’s just bad.  But more often than not, I mean: “I didn’t like this book, and here are the reasons why.  If these don’t bother you, then you might still enjoy it.  Thanks, love Simon.”

I’ll be keeping all this mind when I’m writing about Julian Barnes’ Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending (2011), kindly sent to me by Jonathan Cape.  Because Dame Stella Rimmington and her posse must have thought it the best book published in 2011.  Although I can’t imagine why.

Which is not to say that I thought The Sense of an Ending was bad.  It isn’t.  It is very, very average.  There were probably a thousand other books published in 2011 that were equally good, and many that followed a very similar pattern: lengthy biography of main character(s); twist; twist; end.

Normally I’d give you a brief outline of the plot, but to be honest the first half of the (admittedly short) novel seem to do just that.  It’s Bildungsroman by numbers.  We start with Tony Webster at school, with his friends Colin and Alex.  They’re something of a clique, but do open up to allow the entry of new boy Adrian.  He is very serious and deep etc.; they pretend to be deep, but are mostly Adrian Molesque.  Everything meanders along, we get the sort of coming-of-age stuff which bores me rigid, and Tony meets his first girlfriend – Veronica Ford.  Webster and Ford, geddit?  Ahahahah. *Sigh*

Big event happens, which I shan’t spoil.. fast-forward forty years, and Tony gets an unexpected letter from a solicitor which reopens a can of worms.  Cue all manner of reflection on the past, including trying to get back in touch with Veronica.  Towards the end there comes a few twists, which were executed rather better than the rest of the novel (thought I) and, indeed, the ending is, in general, the best part.  Perhaps that’s why Barnes chose his title; to draw attention to this…  I think The Sense of an Ending would actually have worked much better as a short story; it does all seem to lead to a single climactic moment, and could be condensed much shorter than its 150 pages.

He (Barnes? Webster?) if fond of breaking off into observations which teeter between the profound and the platitudinous.  Here’s one:

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

Quick flick, and here’s another:

We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we?  For instance, that memory equals events plus time.  But it’s all much odder than this.  Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?  And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.  But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help to get on with our lives; so we ignore it.

Hmm.  It does sound a bit like he’s deliberately inserting passages which can be whipped out for the blurb, doesn’t it?  The narrative is from Tony Webster’s perspective, and if these musings come from him, then that’s a legitimate narrative device – perhaps Tony is the sort to make these vague sort of summaries about the world.  But if they’re Barnes’ own pseudo-philosophical moments, then I am a little concerned.  Similarly, I’ve always disliked the “If this were a novel…” line of writing, ever since I read it in Enid Blyton’s stories, and it’s a trick Barnes uses over and over again.  His writing is, in fact, unceasingly self-conscious.  In general I found his writing passable – ‘readable‘ – but nothing more.  I might dip a toe into the readability/excellence debate at some point, but it is a debate already overpopulated with toes.

Perhaps my problem is that I’ve recently read Virgina by Jens Christian Grondahl, and William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, both of which are novellas concerned with the inadequacy of memory, and both of which are rather better than Barnes’ contribution to the field.  I asked people on Twitter yesterday (yes, I know, how frighteningly modern is that?) and consensus seemed to be that Barnes’ win was more of a Lifetime Achievement than anything else.  Since this is my first Barnes novel, I can’t comment – I can only say that I would be astonished if it were the best book written in 2011, under any criteria.  Since I’ve only read two other novels published last year (one of which was by a member of 2011’s Booker panel) I don’t feel qualified to say.  So I’ll hand over to those who might know better… (I picked three from many, many reviews.)

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

“I was immediately captivated by the gorgeous writing” – JoAnn, Lakeside Musing

“Although it is very well-written, I thought it was ultimately an unsatisfactory and frustrating read.” – Mrs. B, The Literary Stew

“The writing is simply gorgeous, and it tackles one of my favourite themes and plot techniques, the human condition and the reliability of our distant memory.” – Bibliophile by the Sea