Reading round up – including confessions of a horrible snob (me)
I have just read two books which, to paraphrase something I read on Twitter said by some author I can’t remember, involved a people ‘running up and down ladders inside themselves’. This is not an easy thing to get right. It can be a illuminating view into another’s mind, or like the third hour of listening to your friend debate with herself whether or not to leave her husband while the waitress hovers. She’s wondering if you’ll free up a table soon, while you’re wondering what would happen if you went to loo and never came back.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is about a woman called Lucy, who is looking back on her experience of laying in a hospital bed and for lengthy but not life-threatening illness. A visit from her mother churns up her childhood and family, as does her later career success. Not a lot happens, but characters are drawn so sensitively and honestly, it’s a living, breathing book. It honestly examines the complicated, bitter-sweet nature of being related to other human beings. It also shows how being given extended time to think and reflect can be a potential mine field. If this was a long book I’d have probably wandered off, but it neatly says what it needs to, while still feeling like a fully rounded experience.
A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume is my favourite book in a long time. Set in Ireland, Frances is having a bit of a breakdown, and is using it to reflect on her weird family. She stays in her dead granny’s bungalow under a wind turbine, fixes up an old bike, and take pictures of dead animals. It chimed with me, chime after chime in a never-ending full-on campanology fest. Everything from her feelings about times of the day, to a preference for slightly shabby furnishings. The weirdest one of all was her tendency in troubled times to chant I want to go home to herself, even when she is home, a default phrase to revert to. I now presume it’s a quite common, as it’s exactly the phrase that comes to my mind when I want to escape, especially when what I want to escape is my home. With all this depth and beauty, I’m going to sell this book to you in one quote –
‘A hare is a rabbit crossed with a horse. All limb and no fluff…’
Damn right it is! I’ve thought that, too!
After all that up and down ladder running, I wanted to read about someone whose issues were rather more external and preferably involved shady bar keeps, cut-purses and people getting teeth knocked out, so I went to the library for a good old thriller. I often pick up books according to their captioned reviews, putting stock in things Hilary Mantel or other authors I like have said, trying to avoid what the Daily Mail or Richard and Judy’s book club thinks. The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson, a highly entertaining few days of murder and betrayal in a debtor’s prison in the time of tricorn hats and open sewers. There were enough good reviews from trusted sources to ignore the Daily Mail. The author of The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova loved it, as did The Guardian, and Jeffery Deaver. He said –
‘Historical fiction just doesn’t get any better that this’
Which I heard in this man’s voice –
‘Cooking historical fiction doesn’t get any tougher than this!’
I read the book in a day, completely sucked into the perils of a debtor’s prison rife with murder, corruption, and vintage swearing. But what’s this I see in the back pages? Evidence that even though there’s no sticker, this book was in fact in the Richard and Judy book club! Stealth internal stickering! Dammit! I’ve gone and really liked a book Richard and Judy liked. Gah! Foiled. I can’t even succeed at snobbery. ‘Surely anything that encourages books sales and reading is a good thing?’ said my daughter, when she caught me taking this picture and obviously wondering why a grown woman would care. And I obviously had no decent argument. How can I explain I consider myself too edgy in a retro-spectacles-frames-wearing-way to conform with the tastes of a sterile mass-book club, and she’ll never understand the black shadow of agonising boredom the This Morning theme music casts over my soul. For my generation it meant illness (ditto Pebble Mill). Or, your bunking-off experience was pointlessly lame and you may as well go back to school. And why are there kisses after their signatures? I don’t want your kisses! Argh!