EVERYTHING UNDER – Daisy Johnson

 

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In the course of a life-long reading career I’ve read many fictional and true accounts based on the theme of identity, family and belonging, but I can unhesitatingly say that I’ve never read anything like Daisy Johnson’s novel, from the perspectives of plot, structure and writing quality. I can quite see why it’s made the 2018 Man Booker Prize shortlist.
The narrator is Gretel, who has finally tracked down her mother Sarah after years of searching. Sarah is suffering from the onset of dementia. So far , so clear; but thereafter events and people become confusing: who is Marcus? Who is Margot ? who is Fiona? And yet again, where is Sarah ? Sarah not only wanders away from Gretel’s cottage, but her mind and her sanity wander with frequency, making the story fluid, just like the River which serves as a connecting thread to the story, as well as a somewhat ominous backdrop.
For thirteen years Gretel and Sarah lived on a barge moored on The River, and we are introduced to Charlie and also to the creepy Bonak. Who or what is the Bonak? at the end of the novel we discover the answer via a detour into magical realism. I’m happy with magical realism as a writer’s tool, but in this instance, it didn’t sit comfortably with me.
The basic premise of the novel is a re-imagining of the Oedipus myth  but Daisy J took the bold step of feminising the myth: the protagonists are all women – apart from the slain father, that is. The book also introduces the element of transgenderism.
It would be fair to say the novel is complex in plot and structure. You need to have your wits about you when you read it – well, I certainly did! And I’m glad I’d read a number of reviews before I tackled the book.
I loved the writing. Daisy J writes with a primal energy about The River, and about the natural world, and for me, The River was as much a character as the human actors in the tale.
I know the book will remain with me, I nearly wrote ‘haunt me’ for some time to come, but that’s an over dramatic statement in my case, although other reviewers found the book ‘disturbing’. In fact, the more I think about it, there’s a dark undercurrent to the story which is what makes the book so powerful.

I can’t wait to see what Daisy Johnson comes up with next!
Highly recommended and Not to Be Missed.

 

 

 

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CORONATION – Paul Gallico

I haven’t read a Paul Gallico novel in I don’t know how many years. Coronation was first published in 1962 and referred to the enormous event of 2 June 1953 when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned queen of Britain and the Commonwealth. At the time I recall receiving a souvenir tin of toffees with a colour portrait of the new Queen, glittering in a jewelled crown, and looking oh so beautiful! I would have been 11 years old at the time. Rhodesia – where I was then living – was still a member of the Commonwealth and I have a dim memory of the excitement and the local festivities, but, obviously, the events were very far away.

 

 
Paul Gallico makes it immediate and personal in his short novel. He focuses on the momentous events of Coronation Day in London, as experienced by a working class family who make the journey from industrial Sheffield in the North to watch the procession go by and see their new young Queen. Burly Will Clagg, a foreman at the steel-works, his wife Violet, mother-in-law Granny Bonner, plus their two kids: Johnny aged 11 and 7 year old Gwendoline. The family sacrifice their beloved two- week seaside holiday in favour of the London trip to see the Queen. There’s a long train trip down to London, and of course, it’s raining – this is England, remember.
The day does not turn out as expected, but by the end of it, each family member has gained a precious memory of the event, that is meaningful to them. Even grumpy old Granny Bonner.

 
Despite the shortness of the novel, Gallico packs in an enormous amount of emotion ranging from excited anticipation, through disappointment and despair, and ends with an unexpected bouquet of wondrous enjoyment and satisfaction. Gallico was a prolific novelist, and has the experienced skill to make his characters come alive on the page, and in the reader’s memory. The story is heavily patriotic, so imagine my surprise when I Googled Gallico, to discover he was an American! And, initially, a sportswriter! He had me fooled. I assumed he was a true-blue Englishman, patriotic to the core. Such is the power of a talented storyteller.
To my surprise, I discover the book is still available, on Amazon. The only reason I came across the battered old copy was that a friend found it in a box of charity donations, fished it out, and asked if I would like to read it. It languished on my shelves until I was looking around for a short read, and picked it up.
Years ago I was enchanted by Gallico’s hit novel: The Snow Goose, and his cat themed books Jennie and Thomasina . All his writing tugs at the heart strings. If you are able to track down some of his books then give them a try. Despite his (by now) old-fashioned attitudes to women and families , he always writes a good story and as I said, you may need a box of tissues by your side.

SEPTEMBER 2018 READING ROUND-UP

 

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September has been an excellent month, in terms of a holiday, a Family Visit and other diversions but it has not been a good reading month, as you can see below. But it has been an excellent month for buying books, due to a windfall, plus birthday book vouchers.

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I’m eagerly waiting for  the courier van to bring me two of the 2018 Man Booker Short List  nominations, plus a quirky book of postcard stories; consisting of short-short stories written on the back of postcards. I’ve been involved in a similar project for the past year, with a lovely Dutch lady called Gonny, in the Netherlands (but that’s a story for another day). I’m keen to see what the originator of the postcard story format, Jan Carson, wrote.

Plus two non-fiction books on order. Another recipe book with beautiful photos and text, from the Buddhist Retreat Centre at Ixopo  – and a local columnist’s hilarious hunt through the outer shores of the Self-help universe.
Quiet Food – A Recipe for Sanity
John Strydom, Antony Osler, Chrisi van Loon, Angela Shaw, Claire Clark

Self-Helpless – A Cynic’s Search for Sanity – Rebecca Davis

I am gingerly exploring the vast world of Amazon’s Kindle, cautiously ekeing out my dollar gift voucher. Thus far I have succumbed to Exit West – Mohsin HamidTBR.
Currently I am reading Less- Andrew Sean Greer, 72 pages in,  I am vastly amused and enjoying the story enormously.
And I won’t even begin to list the downloaded Samples on my Kindle – devilishly devious those Amazon marketers. Resisting these goodies is worse than turning away from chocolate. On to more mundane matters , like my monthly reading report.

I’ve decided to continue the revamped monthly review format, no star ratings, but divisions into Fiction/Non-Fiction/YA, books listed in my order of enjoyment. The star rating was a continuation of the Goodreads system and like all systems, it had its pros and cons. So often a book hovered between rating categories, or presented other dilemmas, e.g. the writing quality was excellent, but I hated the storyline, etc.
I’ve been reading cookery books again. I get hungry in winter, what can I say? And I find the genre extremely relaxing.

FICTION
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles. Reviewed on this blog, 15 September. What a wonderful, satisfying read. Highly recommended. P.S. I’m in love with Count Rostov. Why have I never considered adding a charming, elderly Russian aristocrat to my life ? the Towles novel has pointed me in a new direction!

NON-FICTION
Packing my Library – Alberto Manguel. Books, reading and literature. See review on this blog: 8 September. A slender book, elegantly written and not to be missed for book lovers. I shall be re-reading it many times in the future.

Return to Corriebush – Lynn Bedford Hall. Illustrations by Tony Grogan. The sequel to Fig Jam and Foxtrot, our introduction to Karoo life, people, love and food. Life’s necessities. Four delightful stories, some very boozy recipes – who knew rum featured in Karoo cookery? Old Brown Sherry, yes: a perennial Cape Winter standby, but the rum came as a surprise.

 

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW – Amor Towles

 

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Count Alexander Rostov is everything we’d like a Count to be : a tall and imposing build, elegant moustachios, impeccably dressed,  an expert marksman, an  aristocratic cosmopolitan, charming, beautiful manners, a refined palate in wine, food and women, but above all – he is the quintessential gentleman. But alas, in Moscow in 1922 he is declared persona non grata, and exiled. He becomes, in Communist-speak, a Former Person.

 

However, the unflappable Count adjusts to his new situation with fortitude, grace and a healthy dose of guile. We follow his changing fortunes right up until 1954, where the book ends. En route we follow the path of Russian history as it slowly changes into the powerful and feared Communist Russia of Nikita Kruschev.

 

Towles skilfully gives us a 30 year history of modern Russia, but in a painless way, and often with a patina of wry humour, skilfully weaving the information into the background of the  story.  I would love to know if he actually met and talked to any of the exiled  Russian aristocrats who decorated Paris and Prague in the 1930s. I suspect they are long gone, but  Towles gets the tone exactly right, whatever his sources.

 

But the book really is the story of the marvellous Count Rostov and the many people who cross his path in the years of transition. And what a varied assembly they are: hotel staff, Party officials, friends, writers, children, lovers , providing a rich novel that never falters . I read the book slowly, savouring the story. In fact, I didn’t want it to end.
What a rich, satisfying read. On the whole, I am not a huge fan of Historical Novels.But, this said:  I loved the book and wholeheartedly recommend it.

P.S.  I realised, in retrospect, how very clever the jacket photograph was. Kudos to whoever designed it.

 

 

PACKING UP MY LIBRARY – ALBERTO MANGUEL

 

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I have been spending brief periods with that most charming of men, Senor Alberto Manguel. Brief, because he’s a busy man: he’s obliged to move from his French home and this means he has to pack up his private library of thirty-five thousand books. And do not for one minute think the books were chucked any old how into packing cases. Oh no. Au contraire, as he would doubtless say.

 

The books are individually wrapped and carefully packed in a specific order in categories in labelled packing cases. This is state of the art  packing of his treasured library.
Senor Manguel can and does write endlessly about books . They are his passion. I own two of his books*, and recently bought a third, Packing My Library. I love reading books about books, and that’s his niche.

 
How I wish I could have dinner with the man. He’s erudite, without being stuffy; cosmopolitan; always entertaining. A reviewer described his love of books as : He is a Don Juan of libraries. Manguel loves books, and I love his books.

 
* A Reading Diary
*A History of Reading

 

AUGUST 2018 READING ROUND-UP

 

 

 

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Another varied reading month. I was away on a 12 day break, and had the time to read more than I usually do. What a pleasure! As ever, my print input during the month has been wildly varied. I’ve decided to revamp my monthly review format, no star ratings, but divisions into Fiction/Non-Fiction/YA, books listed in my order of enjoyment.
I rashly visited the Kloof SPCA Bookshop and emerged with five wonderful bargains, one of them being Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, a book I’ve long wanted to read. Plus two Carl Hiaasen crime novels. He is, without a doubt, my favourite crime writer. Why? Because he’s entertaining and makes me laugh. All that gloomy, bleak Scandi Crime genre leaves me stone cold (pun intended).

 

I know this is heresy, but after reading my first full length Ali Smith novel, I’ve decided she’s not for me. She’s awarded and applauded , but not all writers are to every reader’s taste, and that’s the way life goes.

DNF – did not finish; YA – Young Adult

FICTION

The Power – Naomi Alderman. Dystopian feminist novel. Great premise, gender roles are reversed, women have the upper hand. Off to a cracking start; a confusing, disappointing ending. Regardless of which gender has the upper hand, humanity manages to muck it up. A disturbing and challenging read.
Shampoo Planet – Douglas Coupland. Published 1992 – on being 20 years old and dealing with life in the USA, the gap between hippie 60s parents and their wannabe cool cynical 80s kids. Funny, social commentary. I enjoy Douglas Coupland. You either do or you don’t.

How to be Both – Ali Smith . This was almost a DNF , I skimmed through the last fifth at King Shaka Airport, whilst waiting for my flight. I didn’t enjoy the novel’s fragmented writing style or it’s two part story structure.
DNF – City of Saints and Madment – Jeff Vandermeer. After reading three quarters of the book, I gave up. Consulting Wikipedia and Goodreads reviews I discover JV is at the forefront of the Weird writing movement and post-modern metafiction. I enjoyed the first section for its lush descriptive writing but the remainder of the book: no. Too fragmentary, too clever by half. On the one hand, I can admire JV’s startling imagination, his inventiveness and his output but on the other hand, I prefer a more conventional narrative form. To each their own!

YA
Flush – Carl Hiaasen. Another Florida crime romp. A brother & sister combo succeed in bringing an enviro-wrecking greedy businessman to justice. Good fun. A quick easy read on a 2 hour flight Cape Town/Durban.
NON FICTION
Wabi Sabi for Writers – Richard R Powell. An invaluable resource for writers who want to write about the natural world, or compose Haiku. I shall be re-reading the book for many years to come. Highly recommended.

Working with Karma – Gill Farrer-Halls. Another Kloof SPCA bargain. Big format, glossy paper and plenty of pics; informative content. A useful book to work through, and keep for reference.

 

A MID-WINTER BREAK

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I don’t think I’ve got the mid-winter blues, but I’m feeling very pap, as we say in South Africa. ‘Pap’ means listless, deflated, without energy.

 
So I’ll be taking a blogging mini-break in August. I won’t publish any reviews or recommendations, but will post the usual monthly reading roundup , for those who are wondering: what should I read next?

 
In my case the answer is: oh! the agonies of choice! There’s my TBR pile simmering on the shelf, plus the monthly Book Club offering, and … and … Perhaps it’s fortunate that I’m going away on a mid-month family visit, because the airline charges the socks off you for over weight baggage, so I’ve included only one novel How to be Both by Ali Smith which I’m struggling to read. Let’s hope a change of altitude and scenery will make it more approachable.

 
I recently bought an Amazon Kindle device, as an aid to travel reading, but alas! our South African rand is even weaker than ever, so that is a big disincentive to buy dollar-priced books. On past family visits I’ve ransacked the bookshelves, hunting for something – anything – to read, which means I’m striking out into my daughter’s territory of Africana, animal/bush related memoirs and novels, Rhodesian history. Well, it makes a change, if nothing else.

See you at the end of August. Meanwhile: happy reading!

JULY 2018 READING ROUNDUP

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I started the month by reading RL Stevenson classic “Travels with a Donkey”, reckoned to be one  of the first Travel Books written. Stevenson undertook his 12 day , 200 kilometre solo journey through the Cevennes mountains in south-central France in 1878. His book was published the following year, and remains a classic to this day.

I enjoyed the rather old fashioned English, the vivid descriptions of the French countryside, and Stevenson’s  battle of will with Modestine, the donkey who carried his camping gear. For the first part of the journey the donkey  definitely had the upper hoof, but Stevenson finally established who was boss. And, I was able to tick it off my TBR list, which always creates a warm glow of satisfaction.

Purely by chance this month’s reads include two books with Birds in the title:  books which could not be more different. One about life and writing, the other a  charming account of a year’s bird-watching in Britain.

Whilst I was ill, I cheered myself with my favourite Sheriff, Walt Longmire. He’s laconic, resourceful, brave, principled and a hundred other good things: I’m adding him to my Christmas Wish List. If only!

And then Ruth Ozeki’s novel – a rich assortment of cultures and lives.  A book not to be missed. Definitely a contender for my Book of the Year list.

My other 5* read was Christopher Boucher’s Golden Delicious. If you want to try something out of the ordinary, something utterly different: then try Boucher’s crazy novel.

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding!  4*+  –  Good to very good;  3* – average;  2* – run-of-the-mill;  1* –  dismal;  zero * – no comment.   DNF – did not finish;  NF – non-fiction  

5* Golden Delicious – Christopher Boucher. Wildly original, dazzlingly inventive; growing up in the imaginary town of Appleseed. A Must Read. Reviewed on this blog.

5* A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki . Reviewed on this blog.

5* Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott. Advice on writing and life.  A keeper to relish and refer to. Reviewed on this blog. NF

4.5* Why do Birds Suddenly Disappear?  200 birds. 12 months. 1 lapsed birdwatcher – by Lev Parikian. An absolute delight.  Entertaining and charming. Review to follow  on this blog. NF

4*Dry Bones – Craig Johnson.Sheriff Walt Longmire rides again, sorting out politicians, bureauocrats,  baddies and bones  with his usual courageous  aplomb.

4* The Dark Horse – Craig Johnson. Walt Longmire goes undercover (not very successfully) to solve the mystery of a ranch fire, charred equine and human  remains, and a witness protection programme baddie.Justice triumphs in the end.

 

3.25* Travels with a Donkey – RL Stevenson.  One of the earliest travel books in modern Western literature. Quaint and enjoyable.

3* The Highway Man – Craig Johnson. We have a ghost, a 30 year old robbery, a falsely accused Indian Highway Patrolman ; an explosive finish.

3* Visit Sunny Chernobyl  and other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places –  Andrew Blackwell.  Well written, interesting and timely.  But a bleak read.NF

 

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING – Ruth Ozeki

 

 

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Amazon synopsis:

“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine. Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.

 
What I like about Ruth Ozeki’s books are the unusual themes she pursues. Her first novel A Year of Meats made a huge impression on me, as did this book.

 
The story is multi-faceted covering very different strands e.g. a Japanese kamikazi pilot ‘s life & letters, WWII; the dilemma of Schrodinger’s cat which takes us into the Quantum world.; the whereabouts and identity of Nao the schoolgirl diarist; the narrator’s life on a small island off the coast of BC,. Canada; how Island life demands self-sufficiency and a willingness to deal with the unpredictable, and dangerous.
The sections I enjoyed most were those about Nao’s great grandmother , Jiko, a Buddhist nun. We hear Jiko’s story, and details of her life in a tiny traditional Zen temple, in modern times. Old Jiko used to tell Nao: only now. In other words: stay focussed on the present moment. Jiko also said: Up/down, down/up, all the same. A challenging statement for modern Western readers.
The book is rich in detail and characters, themes and ideas. I will definitely re-read it in a year or two. If you’re looking for an unusual, engrossing read, then this book will not disappoint.

GOLDEN DELICIOUS – Christopher Boucher

 

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I’m rating the book as a 5 star read, without hesitation. Where I am hesitating, is trying to frame a review of the contents. Why? you ask; you read the book didn’t you? Yes, I did, saucer-eyed and jaw droppingly speedily.

 
The dazzlingly original, wildly inventive contents knocked me sideways. I can commit to saying it is the story of a boy (nameless, he’s never named but always referred to as : ———- in the text) growing up in a regular family of Dad, Mom and sister in America. So far so good. Uh-huh: what’s so extraordinary about that? You’re probably thinking.

 
What I wrote about the narrator’s family circumstances is just about the ONLY regular ingredient in the tale. The wild, wacky craziness is in the setting , the life style, the society. I’m not even going to try to describe it. I couldn’t, without sounding crazy. This is a book you have to read for yourself.

 
I can confidently assert that you have never, in your wildest dreams, read a book like Golden Delicious. Unless you read Christopher Boucher’s acclaimed first novel How to Take Care of your Volkswagen. Another excursion into the altered universe of Boucher’s imagination and talent.

 
Read Golden Delicious . You’ll never look at life – or books and words – the same way again. Do not miss this book. P.S. Plant more trees, especially apple trees.