“If only you knew” by Alice Jolly
This was written by a friend of a friend in Brussels, so it’s a bit difficult to be objective even though I don’t know the author from Adam. I found it a bit unsatisfactory. It’s set in Moscow and it’s all high drama and swooning from the heroine who has “father issues”. I don’t think it was bad but I won’t be rushing back for more.
“Too Close to the Falls” by Catherine Gildner
Again, this was something that I wouldn’t have read by myself. It was recommended to me by a friend. It’s a memoir which is not a genre that I particularly like. It is, however, a cheerful memoir which is well-written and largely unsentimental (with some lapses). I enjoyed it very much. It’s about a little girl growing up near Niagara Falls in the 1950s and it’s lovely: warm and funny. Apparently it was a huge bestseller, I’m not a bit surprised.
“The Lady and the Unicorn” by Tracey Chevalier
This is a dreadful book which I did not like. The writing is pedestrian at best. It is very didactic. If I want to know about weaving techniques, I can go and read up on them. If the characters in a book are supposed to be French speaking, I do not recommend inserting French words every so often in the dialogue. Vraiment, this does nothing to encourage the suspension of disbelief. On the plus side, part of it is set in Brussels and the plot skips along. Also, the print is large. I have read another Tracy Chevalier book (“Falling Angels”) which I thought was only alright but it was much better than this offering which I note was published a year later. They made me do it for bookclub. I tried to stop them.
“A Good Man in Africa” by William Boyd
I have never read a bad William Boyd book and this book is good. It is his first, though, and quite different in style from some of his later work. It is narrated by a hapless British diplomat in Africa and is, in parts, utterly hilarious. It owes a debt to Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” I think and also Kingsley Amis’s “Lucky Jim”. It is a very well written book and enjoyable but not as well plotted as some of his later stuff. There is lots of plot, the book has plot coming out its ears but it doesn’t hang together particularly well. The way he managed the book: starting in the middle, working backwards to that point and then working forwards again was confusing and, for me, didn’t really add a great deal. All very clever though. For a first book, absolutely superb. For a William Boyd book, fine.
“The Sorrows of an American” by Siri Hustvedt
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I think Siri Hustvedt is a brilliant, brilliant author. She combines beautiful writing with interesting plot and, best of all, interesting ideas.
This book is narrated by an American psychiatrist, Erik Davidsen, whose father has just died. It covers many many themes including immigration and loss. It also reflects Hustvedt’s fascination with the mind and how it works. It was this fascination (which I knew about from her previous work) that propelled me towards “Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present”.
Almost every paragraph of this book makes you think in new and unusual ways. The problem with books that make you think is, in my experience, that they are generally not very readable. This is a very readable book. For example, as an Irish person, I used to be very sceptical about Americans who described themselves as Irish. I would smile and nod and ask where their great-grandma was from but my inner dialogue would run “no, you’re not, you’re American.” One of the many achievements of this book is to articulate the sense of loss of the American immigrant community over several generations. Maybe they are Irish too, just a different kind of Irish from me.
Hustvedt seems to put a lot of herself in her books; this book contains excerpts from her own father’s memoirs. They are used as Erik’s father’s memoir. You feel that there is a very thin layer of fiction between the characters in the book and those in Hustvedt’s life. Inga, Erik’s sister, is the widow of a famous author and the book describes living with him and it is clear that Hustvedt is talking about her own experience of living with Paul Auster. Erik’s father and mother in the book are very clearly versions of Hustvedt’s own father and mother and, Sonia, Inga’s daughter, a version of her own daughter. I wonder whether this makes for a better book? I do feel that it is a risky strategy for an author: she puts a lot of herself in her books and, given what we know about her, I wonder how well she bears up under the weight of that exposure for she strikes me as a very private person. That though is her problem, not mine.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough as they say. I give it the ultimate accolade, it is almost as good as “What I Loved”.