Happy New Year!
This time last year I made the best new year’s resolution ever and I am going to share all the gory details with you.
In January 2011, I decided to read all the books on my bedside table. At that stage, it looked like this:
In the last 12 months, I’ve read 37 books from the pile and now it looks like this:
I know, it’s like a makeover show for bookworms. OK, I didn’t read all the books but the sense of achievement is tremendous.
My resolution for 2012 is to finish the remaining books. And, oh yes, to move house.
Here’s a summary of my adventures in reading:
Best books: “The Jane Austen Book Club” by Karen Joy Fowler; “Old School” by Tobias Wolff and “Broderies” by Marjane Satrapi
Most worthwhile book: Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Most disturbing book (by some distance): “Dei Bambini Non Si Sa Niente” by Simona Vinci
Worst book: “Jane Austen Ruined My Life” by Beth Patillo
And here’s a detailed list of what I read to get from Exhibit A to Exhibit B with the reviews I wrote at the time (yes cut and pasted for YOU):
1. “JPod” by Douglas Coupland [New Year’s Resolution Pile]
Sitting on my bedside table since 2006 hasn’t done this book any favours. It’s supposed to be bang up to the minute and I’m sure it was in 2006 but putting technology at the centre of your book turns out to be a problem. One of the characters describes kodak photo share as like being transported back to 1999. Hmm, but this book has no twitter and no youtube and it features game designer nerds who would presumably use all these things. Catastrophically dated. Also, annoyingly self-referential. These characters talk about Douglas Coupland a lot and he has a bit part.
I used to really like his books and I have read a lot of them but this book lands on the wrong side of the line between pretentious and original. Disappointing.
2. “Una Bambina e Basta” by Lia Levi [New Year’s Resolution Pile]
This is really a novella and the fact that I took two years to finish it is more a reflection of the fact that it is in Italian than the content itself. It’s about a little Jewish girl who ends up hidden in a convent during World War II and about how she and her family get through the war. It’s autobiographical and I find the author’s childish voice a little tedious. I suspect although it has merit, it’s the kind of book I wouldn’t have particularly enjoyed even had I read it in English. Rather annoyingly, my mother-in-law is reading it also and she loves it. My mother-in-law sits Leaving Certificate courses for fun and this book is on the Italian course. Which reminds me of a rather amusing anecdote she once told me. Regular readers will recall that my husband’s next door neighbour when he was growing up is now a well-known novelist. My mother-in-law decided to sit the Leaving Certificate English paper for fun and she relied on the young pre-novelist, then a Leaving Certificate student herself, to supply details of the syllabus. This worked very well until the night before the examination when the pre-novelist admitted to my mother-in-law – “Oh dear, I forgot to tell you, we had to do a play as well.”
3. “Jane Austen Ruined My Life” by Beth Patillo [New Year’s Resolution Pile]
I cannot tell you how dire this book was on every level. I received it as a present from someone who has never previously failed to deliver. Which, of course, makes it worse. Good title though.
4. “Decca, The Letters of Jessica Mitford” edited by Peter Sussman [New Year’s resolution list]
Lads, this is a massive book. 700 odd pages. Why, oh why are American books so bloodly long?
Once you are sucked into the world of the Mitfords, you never really leave. Last summer I read “The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters” which was a collection of the sisters’ letters edited by Diana Mosley’s daughter-in-law Charlotte Mosley. I enjoyed it very much.
What this book suffers from by comparison is that it is all one voice. Only Jessica Mitford’s letters. The early letters are pretty dull but as she gets beyond her 20s, they are a lot more interesting. She becomes a much more compassionate and appealing person (I suppose we all do). And although she was doing very interesting things in her 20s, somehow she fails to convey much. I feel that she was probably putting up a brave front and that makes for a dull read.
If you are steeped in Mitford knowledge, then you will be aware that Jessica (or Decca – the nicknames, Lord, the nicknames – here’s a selection of the sisters’ nicknames for each other – Sooze, Cord, Honks, Bobo, Woman, Hen) is the second youngest, that she eloped to Spain with her cousin, Esmond Romilly; moved to America; stayed there when he died; married a radical lawyer and wrote about the American funeral industry. What I found really interesting was her life after Romilly’s death. This doesn’t really get a great airing in most of the accounts I have read. She was a committed communist, very happily married to a radical lawyer for the rest of her life. And she knew EVERYONE. Random example – Hillary Clinton was an intern in her husband’s office. They really were an extraordinary family. Each of the 6 daughters, other than Pam, did very, very unusual things. Jessica fell out with them all when she eloped with Romilly. As a dedicated communist, she was peeved with her sister Diana who married Oswald Mosley and didn’t see her for 34 years. There is a rather funny letter where she describes meeting Diana while weeding in her sister Nancy’s garden. When Diana asks what she is doing, she says that she refrained from saying that she was giving the irises lebensraum.
For someone so unconventional, she does seem to have been unhappy about her daughter living in sin. Not so much for the sin but because, I think, she felt that it made for a somewhat unstable relationship. She was a veteran of many anti-racism campaigns. She used to front to buy houses for black families in white neighbourhoods. In response to the regularly asked question “Would you let your daughter marry a negro?” she answered “Rather!” Her daughter’s partner was black.
I find myself veering wildly in my opinion as to whether I would like to be around her. At times her letters are so funny and loving and she bore all sorts of deprivations very cheerfully. But, my goodness, she was quarrelsome and not at all inclined to just let things go. In the end, I think this made her what she was but she could be difficult, I feel.
I did enjoy this book but it was just too long and I am already steeped in Mitford knowledge (though considering re-reading Nancy’s novels and “Hons and Rebels” after this). If you fancy getting into the Mitfords, and there’s plenty of material to go around, Charlotte Mosley’s book is just much better. If you’re there already, then this is worth a read. Perhaps more fun for an American audience than a European one as dramatis personae presumably better known.
5. “A Soldier for Eden” by James Congdon [New Year’s resolution list]
There is potentially excellent material here. This is the story of a young American boy who ends up joining the fedayeen by accident and proves himself an outstanding recruit. Unfortunately, the author has a gift for making everything dull. Not recommended.
6. “Free Agent” by Jeremy Duns [New Year’s Resolution]
This is not my kind of book at all but it was written by a friend from Brussels and my loving husband bought it for me for Christmas. I must say, it was quite thrilling and I was dying to get back to it even though I did get somewhat confused between agent and counter-agent. It’s set in the 1960s and our hero is a spy. Any further details might ruin it for you.
What is hilarious, at least for me, is that the author is so utterly unlike his anti hero. I was emailing him back and forth about the book and he commented that his daughter was sitting near him watching television while eating a jam sandwich and refusing to get dressed while he was mentally preparing for another day of researching secret weapons.
7. “Mothers and Sons” by Colm Toibín [New Year’s Resolution]
A collection of short stories on this theme. Some are better than others. I think this collection suffers somewhat from the William Trevor phenomenon where all the stories feel like they are from the 1950s regardless of when they purport to be set. He’s a good writer though. He really is.
8. “The Shadow in the North” by Philip Pullman [New Year’s Resolution]
More of Ms. Lockhart, Victorian London’s most liberated young lady. I am now officially tired of Mr. Pullman hectoring me about the rights of women.
9. “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain [New Year’s Resolution]
10. “Letters from a Lost Generation” Edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge
It turns out that Vera Brittain and Vera Lynn [Blue clouds over the White Cliffs etc.] are completely different women. You knew that didn’t you? I read these two books in tandem. “Testament of Youth” is far superior as it has a voice from the 30s, a surprisingly modern voice, describing the events which are covered in the collected letters and frankly, some of those letters deserve to be cut as Vera Brittain has done in her book. For example, as far as I can see, the bulk of Vera’s brother Edward’s letters in 1918 deal with his lost valise and lost luggage was about as interesting then as it is now.
What is interesting about the letters book is that it quotes from letters which Vera Brittain did not have access to for copyright reasons and includes photographs and copies of original documents. So, we see Victor Richardson’s application for a commission in the Territorial Army which asks – question 1 “Are you a British subject by birth or naturalization?” followed by question 2 “Are you of pure European descent?” Other less vital matters follow. The letters book also provides more general information that Vera Brittain’s clearly could not, for example it states that “In 1934, the year following the publication of Testament of Youth, Vera made the discovery that, shortly before the action in which he was killed, Edward [her brother] had been faced with an enquiry and, in all probability, a courtmartial when his battalion came out of the line because of his homosexual involvement with men in his company.”
Both books do convey the misery of war, particularly the dreadful uncertainty but to me the startling thing is how the first world war seems to have really ushered in the modern age. Apparently, it’s true, wars do speed up social change. Early in her book, Brittain comments on clothes for young women before the war:
… all girls’ clothing of the period appeared to be designed by their elders on the assumption that decency consisted in leaving exposed to the sun and air no part of the human body that could possibly be covered with flannel. In these later days, when I…watch the lean brown bodies of girl-children, almost naked and completely unashamed, leaping in and out of the water, I am seized with and angry resentment against the conventions of twenty years ago, which wrapped up my comely adolescent body in woollen combinations, black cashmere stocking, “liberty” bodice, dark stockinette knickers, flannel petticoat and often, in addition, a long-sleeved, high-necked, knitted woollen “spencer.”
At school, on the top of this conglomeration of drapery, we wore green flannel blouses in the winter and white flannel blouses in the summer, with long navy blue skirts linked to the blouses by elastic belts which continually slipped up or down, leaving exposed an unsightly hiatus of blouse-tape or safety-pinned shirt band. Green and white blouses alike had long sleeves ending in buttoned cuffs at the wrist, and high collar covering the neck almost to the chin and fastening tightly at the throat with stiff green ties. For cricket and tennis matches, even in the baking summer of 1911 we still wore the flowing skirts and high-necked blouses, with our heavy hair braided in pigtails..
Meanwhile, her family have gone from a large house full of servants to a flat where it is impossible to find help and her brother Edward finds himself doing the dishes when the maid is ill – mind you this is still so odd that it’s worth commenting on in a letter.
By the end of “Testament of Youth” I do begin to feel really sorry for Vera. The world has changed utterly and the people she loved most are dead. Unfortunately I find it very difficult to relate to her in her letters as she sounds a bit of a prig. There is a huge difference in the narrative which, is, for the most part, more reasonable and self-deprecating but, also, by definition, written for publication. I think she’s patronising throughout about her parents but she had a difficult time with them, I suppose.
At the end of the book, there is quite a hefty bit on after the war. The author was an early feminist and she talks with considerable enthusiasm about carving out a career for herself. Then, she met another man
Marriage, for any woman who considered all its implications both for herself and her contemporaries, could never, I now knew, mean a “living happily ever after”; on the contrary it would involve another protracted struggle, a new fight against the tradition which identified wifehood with the imprisoning limitation of a kitchen and four walls, against the prejudices and regulations which still made success in any field more difficult for the married woman than for the spinster and penalised motherhood by demanding from it the surrender of disinterest intelligence, the sacrifice of that vitalising experience only to be found in the pursuit of an independent profesison.
Are you listening Oliver James?
She goes on to say:
Today, as never before, it was urgent for individual women to show that life was enriched, mentally and spirtiually as well as physically and soically, by marriage and children; that the experiences rendered the woman who accepted them the more and not the less able to take the world’s pulse; to estimate its tendencies, to play some definite, hard-headed, hard-working part in furthering the consturctive ends of a political civilisation.
Would you say that this has been achieved? No, really?
There is a lot of detail about the early days of the League of Nations which the author ardently supports. However, it makes for heavy going especially when the events are not as clear as they would have been to a contemporary reader – the following paragraph is typical:
“In the opening days of the Assembly, Mr. MacDonald and M. Herriot…had made “Arbitration, Security and Disarmament” the triple slogan of the hour; they had wrung one another’s hands in public, had been photographed together, and now had left Geneva to simmer pleasantly in a consoling atmosphere of peace and goodwill very different from the hectic antagonism aroused by the Corfu dispute of the previous Spetember.
You need to be strong to get through a lot of this stuff.
Anyhow, I think that both these books are too long. In my view, by far the best book I’ve read on the first world war is Robert Graves’s “Goodbye to all that” [in college at the same time as VB and rates a couple of mentions] which I think I will reread and which, if memory serves me, is also quite a bit shorter.
11. “The Tin Princess” by Philip Pullman [New Year’s Resolution]
Slightly tedious fable set in a doomed statelet in Mittel Europa with the now familiar cast of Lockhartian characters (Jim’s turn to star). All action but it never really leads anywhere. The conclusion is feeble and gives the impression that the author just ran out of energy and couldn’t be bothered tying up the loose ends.
12. “Georgette Heyer’s Regency World” by Jennifer Kloester [New Year’s Resolution]
This was a present and one which I might have been imagined to like but I found it very tedious until about three quarters of the way through when I stopped trying to read it as a kind of narrative and started reading it like a dictionary. I finally know what “boxing the watch” really means.
13. “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden [New Year’s Resolution]
Can’t see what the fuss was about really. I suppose, culturally, a bit interesting though hard to know how accurate it is. I met the only Irish person I know who speaks fluent Japanese for lunch today and asked her whether it was true and she said, as far as she knew, yes and also, it’s pronounced gaysha not geysha [this information is free to you, I had to buy her lunch]. Also, I had to explain to my daughter what a geisha was, as she saw the book around the house. And in the same breath, she said, “And what’s a lesbian?” Parenting is very tiring.
14. “Pilules Bleus” by Frederik Peeters [New Year’s Resolution]
This “graphic memoir” [term dug up from trawling the internet] describes the relationship between the author and his girlfriend and her young son. His girlfriend and her son are HIV positive and the book focuses on how this affects their lives together. For me, the part about the small boy was particularly touching. I wasn’t convinced, however, that this memoir worked well in graphic format. Easy read though and thought provoking.
15. “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” by Amy Tan [New Year’s Resolution]
This is a bit forgettable and the heroine is very annoying. There is a framing device – a 20th century American daughter and you become engaged by her concerns – and then she disappears for 100s of pages. Very annoying indeed. But you know, lots about upheavals in 20th century China, if that’s your thing.
16. “Broderies” by Marjane Satrapi [New Year’s Resolution]
Another French graphic novel. I preferred this one. The author is Iranian and this is a series of stories told by nine Iranian women to each other. The stories are all about sex but the effect is, generally, not salacious but more about the relationship between the women in the group.
17. “Chance Witness” by Matthew Parris [New Year’s Resolution]
This is a book by a very odd man. Mostly, the book is about his life in politics under Margaret Thatcher and his views on this are interesting. But what I found more interesting was how awkward a person he still seemed to feel in his late 40s. Constantly tormented by guilt about all kinds of things especially whether he had stood up for gay rights sufficiently. It makes him tortured but interesting, I suppose.
His description of the interview he had with Mrs. Thatcher when resigning as an MP [she was not pleased – he was causing a by-election] is hilarious – he feels honour bound to tell her he’s gay and he thinks that lots of gay men are natural conservatives and perhaps the party might be friendlier. Her response? “There, dear,” she breathed. That must have been very hard to say.”
And I’m also going to include his best anecdote which arose in the context of his laudable efforts as an MP to stop prostitution being an imprisonable offence for women.
‘Are you the prostitutes from Birmingham?’
It had been idiotic to put the question like that – I realized this the moment I said it. But there seemed little doubt they were. Before daring to make such an inquiry in the Central Lobby of the House of Commons I had hung close by to listen in, and all these women had strong Birmingham accents. They were overdressed, mutton dressed as lamb, and more than a few appeared to have hit the lipstick with a vengeance. They had to be of doubtful virtue.
There was an awful pause. They were temporarily too affronted to reply. ‘No,’ said their leader. ‘We’re a Catholic women’s group and we’ve come to lobby for the rights of the unborn child.’
18. “Old School” Tobias Wolff [New Year’s Resolution]
I think Tobias Wolff is a great writer. This is a story about a smart boys’ school in America in the early
60s. All the boys are obsessed with writing and with Hemmingway. There are some small tragedies and these are beautifully resolved.
19. “The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap” by Susan Pinker [New Year’s Resolution]
This book suggests that women’s and men’s brains are different and this is why women tend not to be as successful as men in their careers. Despite seeming like a cop out there are some interesting ideas here. And, really, why is it that a majority of those who suffer from Aspergers are men?
20. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer [New Year’s Resolution]
This is about a clever, slightly weird, child whose father died in the Twin Towers. It’s also a hymn to the wonderfulness of New York and the huge variety of odd people who live there. It left me cold. The child is supposed to be winsome but I just found him really, really annoying. I thought that the whole thing was a bit cloying and over-sentimental. That’s just me, there were two pages of critical plaudits at the start of the book.
21. “Last Orders” by Graham Swift [New Year’s Resolution]
My husband said I wouldn’t like this but I did, in the mildest possible way. It’s about a bunch of older working class men who go to throw their friend’s ashes off the end of a pier. That’s it. It’s a gentle, easy book. Very nicely written though and the author is great at drawing characters which is good because plot is not his long suit.
22. “The Jane Austen Book Club” by Karen Joy Fowler [New Year’s Resolution]
This book was such a surprise. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it but I found it very clever and immensely enjoyable. The story is about a group of people (all women, bar one) who meet to talk about each of Jane Austen’s books in turn. The characters and their stories are entertaining in themselves but if you know Jane Austen’s books reasonably well, then you can see how in each chapter there are events which echo events in Austen’s books. Absolutely terrific on a range of levels.
23. “Park and Ride: Adventures in Suburbia” by Miranda Sawyer [New Year’s Resolution]
It turns out Miranda Sawyer likes the suburbs after all. I started this expecting to be smug about my urban life and getting a chance to look down on the suburbs. Fortunately enough, Ms. Sawyer starts with exactly the same perspective. By the end she is singing the praises of suburban life and I can see where she’s coming from. I’m not quite ready for the long commute yet though.
24. “The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai [New Year’s Resolution]
Another Booker prize winning book set in India. For my money, every bit as dull as “The God of Small Things”. Yeah, I know, you loved it. But, it just did not work for me at any level. There is no real plot. There are lots of interwoven stories only two of which interested me slightly. I found the our heroine’s character slight and under-developed. It is well written I suppose but exceptionally good writing would be needed to make up for the shortcomings of character and plot in my view. No more Booker winners for me.
25. Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu [New Year’s Resolution]
I have been curious about Lady Mary for a long time and I picked up this volume of letters. It’s a bit of a con. There is an unreadable academic introduction and then what folllows is an unchanged bowdlerised 1906 version of the letters – interesting, the academic tells me, in itself for socio-cultural reasons. Letter editors in 1906 do not feel the same need to hold your hand as more recent scholars. That leaves a lot unexplained. We start out with her early letters to Mr. Wortley Montagu. She was in her late teens and was enjoying a will we/won’t we relationship with him. Though the register of language is clearly different, in essence a lot of these letters say: “UR dmpd. Nvr cll me agn.” The sequence begins with a letter from March 1710 which finishes thus:
I don’t enjoin you to burn this letter. I know you will. ‘Tis the first I ever writ to one of your sex, and shall be the last. You must never expect another. I resolve against all correspondence of the kind; my resolutions are seldom made, and never broken.
To Mr. Wortley Montague. I have this minute received your two letters etc.
Clearly Wortley Montagu was a bounder because her confidence that he would burn her letters appears to have been entirely misplaced. At least he responded to her letters though.
So, not a strong start. She elopes with Wortley Montagu – a mistake. This does lead to a number of interesting letters to him about how to get elected.
I hope you are convinced I was not mistaken in my judgment of Lord Pelham ; he is very silly, but very good-natured. I don’t see how it can be improper for you to get it represented to him that he is obliged in honor to get you chose at Aldburgh, and may more easily get Mr. Jessop chose at another place. I can’t believe but you may manage it in such a manner ; Mr. Jessop himself would not be against it, nor would he have so much reason to take it ill, if he should not be chose, as you have after so much money fruitlessly spent. I dare say you may order it so that it may be so, if you talk to Lord Townshend, etc. I mention this, because I can not think you can stand at York, or any where else, without a great expense. Lord Morpeth is just now of age, but I know not whether he ‘ll think it worth while to return from travel upon that occasion. Lord Carlisle is in town; you may, if you think fit, make him a visit, and inquire concerning it. After all, I look upon Aldburgh to be the surest thing. Lord Pelham is easily persuaded to any thing, and I am sure he may be told by Lord Townshend that he has used you ill; and I know that he ‘ll be desirous to do all things in his power to make it up. In my opinion, if you resolve upon an extraordinary expense to be in Parliament, you should resolve to have it turn to some account. Your lather is very surprising if he persists in standing at Huntingdon; but there is nothing surprising in such a world as this.
But the letters really come into their own once she finally goes abroad. Her letters from her journey to Turkey are fantastic: interesting, engaging, funny and still very, very readable.
One of her many correspondents was Abbé Conti and in her letters to him, she is regularly very scathing about catholicism in general and transubstantiation in particular. I was fascinated by this and wondered how the correspondence could possibly continue in those times of religious turbulence.
She also corresponds with her sister who is married to a leading Jacobite and I can’t help wondering how that works when she is also corresponding enthusiastically with the English court. Truly a modern edition with a guide through these mazes would have been very welcome.
Lady Mary quotes from Roman poets, in Latin. My edition believes translation is for wimps so I did my best with my school Latin but it is challenging. Oh for a modern edition.
Childbirth is not the centre of her life in the way it might be to a modern mother. Here is how she announces to her sister that she has had a daughter. Below is the entire reference to the event. Note that her sister is not informed of the baby’s name. Those were clearly more robust times. No epidural either.
In the first place, then, I wish you joy of your niece; for I was brought to bed of a daughter five weeks ago. I don’t mention this as one of my diverting adventures; though I must own that it is not half so mortifying here as in England; there being as much difference as there is between a little cold in the head, which sometimes happens here, and the consumption cough, so common in London. Nobody keeps their house a month for lying-in; and I am not so fond of any of our customs as to retain them when they are not necessary. I returned my visits at three weeks’ end ; and, about four days ago, crossed the sea, which divides this place from Constantinople, to make a new one, where I had the good fortune to pick up many curiosities.
About 1739, I found myself thinking (in the middle of letters to the Countess of Pomfret and others), oh no, she was born in 1689 – how much longer has she got?
Quite a bit longer – what do you think of this extract from a letter to her daughter in 1749?
I was quietly reading in my closet, when I was interrupted by the chambermaid of the Signora Laura Bono, who flung herself at my feet, and, in an agony of sobs and tears, begged me, for the love of the holy Madonna to hasten to her master’s house, where the two brothers would certainly murder one another, if my presence did not stop their fury. I was very much surprised…However, I made all possible speed thither…and was directed to the bed-chamber by the noise of oaths and execrations; but, on opening the door, was astonished…by seeing the Signora Laura prostrate on the ground, melting in tears, and her husband standing with a drawn stiletto in hand, swearing she should never see tomorrow’s son I was soon let into the secret. The good man, having business of consequence at Brescia, went thither early in the morning; but as he expected his chief tenant to pay his rent that day, he left order with his wife that if the farmer, who lived two miles off, came himself, or sent any of his sons, she should take great care to make him very welcome. She obeyed him with great punctuality, the money coming in the hand of a handsome lad of 18; she did not only admit him to her own table, and produce the best wine in the cellar, but resolved to give him chère entière. While she was exercising this generous hospitality, the husband met midway the gentleman he intended to visit…he returned to his own house, where…he opened his door with the passe partout key, and proceeded to his chamber, without meeting anybody, where he found his beloved spouse asleep on the bed with her gallant. The opening of the door waked them; the young fellow immediately leaped out of the window, which looked into the garden, and was open, it being summer, and escaped over the fields, leaving his breeches on a chair by the bedside – a very striking circumstance. In short, the case was such, I do not think the queen of the fairies herself could have found an excuse, though Chaucer tells us she has made a solemn promise to leave none of her sex unfurnished with one, to all eternity.
Later on she offers advice to her daughter about the education of her granddaughters and she really struggles to justify what she believes to be worthwhile (the education of girls) and what she knows to be socially inappropriate (the education of girls).
I really cannot recommend the letters strongly enough, although I would steer clear of this edition unless your knowledge of the period is excellent. To be honest, I can’t see that the bowdlerising did much harm but then I don’t know what I’m missing. My next mission is to get hold of Lytton Strachey’s “Biographical Essays” which features our heroine. Since the edition I have, disapprovingly omits all letters to her lover whom she spent quite a while junketing around the continent with/after, I feel there is more to learn.
26. “Daughters of Britannia” by Katie Hickman [New Year’s Resolution]
I thought that this would provide more background on Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu but, alas, it largely quotes from the Embassy letters which I have just read. For the rest, it is a mildly entertaining description of the set-up of British embassies abroad over the centuries and the travails of diplomatic spouses. There is one chapter, “Dangers” which describes kidnappings and being caught in the cross-fire of civil wars and uprisings. The author covers in some detail the domestic aftermath of the assassination of the British ambassador to Ireland. The author’s father was a counsellor in the embassy at the time and her mother was up at the house trying to comfort the ambassador’s children. Their mother was in England and heard the news on the car radio which must have been dreadful. I vaguely remember the event myself (I was 7) but to read about it from someone who saw the domestic fall out at close quarters was really surprisingly distressing.
27. “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer [New Year’s Resolution]
This is Mr. Waffle’s edition. I’ve never read it before. It was interesting in places, still, alas, current in some, very dated in others. Her chapter on work is of historical interest only. Her chapter on romance could not be more relevant. Except she has a dig at Georgette Heyer, which I resent while acknowledging the fairness of her argument. I don’t think I’ll be able to look at advertising in quite the same way in future. She has completed for me a process begun by women laughing alone with salad. On the other hand, I think she is fundamentally wrong about violence against women; largely wrong about children; and mistaken about marriage. I wonder what she thinks now?
28. “9th and 13th” by Jonathan Coe [New Year’s Resolution]
Very short book of 4 short stories. Jonathan Coe is always worth reading but this is slight in every sense.
29. “Accordion Crimes” by E. Annie Proulx [New Year’s Resolution]
A history of the new world told through the travels of an accordion (or possibly several, I got a bit confused). Beautifully written and engaging enough but each individual vignette stood on its own and the overarching theme of immigration to America and accordions did not turn it into a novel.
30. “The Factory of Facts” by Luc Sante [New Year’s Resolution]
This was a present on one of the many occasions when I left Belgium definitively. It’s a memoir by a Belgian/American and has an insider/outsider view of Belgium. It’s interesting enough in its own right, I suppose, but for someone who lived in Belgium for many years, it’s very appealing. I have pressed Mr. Waffle to read it, but I’m not entirely sure that I would press it on everyone.
31. “Great Irish Lives” ed. Charles Lysaght [New Year’s Resolution]
This is a collection of obituaries from the London Times, starting with Grattan and Daniel O’Connell and covering many major figures thereafter. It was a present and it isn’t the kind of thing I would have bought it myself but I found it entertaining and mildly interesting. Although, you would need to know a lot about the ins and outs of 19th century politics for most of it.
32. “Under My Skin – Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949″ by Doris Lessing [New Year’s Resolution]
I loved chapter one – lots of ancestral history. I will love this book, I thought to myself. OK, you know where this is going. It was ok, but my fundamental problem was that I found the author very annoying and difficult to relate to which is a problem for autobiography. I found myself sympathising deeply with her much loathed mother. And she lives so much in her inner life, it can be a bit difficult to follow what is happening in her outer life. She assumes that you know a lot about her novels and her life already which, I suppose, is not unreasonable but it is a false assumption, in my case anyhow. She has lots of affairs, she leaves her husband and two small children, her second husband, possibly, becomes an East German spy. But yet, it is dull, for my money because she’s so enormously earnest.
33. “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” by Rebecca Miller [New Year’s Resolution]
I finally persuaded my book club to read one of my new year’s resolution books when I had them trapped in my house recently. It covers the descent into nervous breakdown of the perfect wife – something of a theme for Americans, I often think. It’s a reasonable page turner. The characters are not very believable; maybe people like our heroine do exist but I think it is doubtful. But lots of things happen to her and they are well-described and the book is well-written also. Entertaining.
34. “Abyssinian Chronicles”by Moses Isegawa [New Year’s Resolution]
I bought this because it got good reviews. It sat beside my bed for years. Picking it up and reading the back did not fill me with enthusiasm. It’s by a Ugandan who moved to the Netherlands. Funnily enough, this first novel is also about a Ugandan who moved to the Netherlands. And it was going to feature magical realism. I hate magical realism. Whenever I think of Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road”, I feel mildly ill. However, good news – there was no visible magical realism. In fact it zooms along with lots of plot and incident. Our hero spends about 100 pages in a catholic boys’ boarding school and though the time, context and many other things were different, I was very surprised how much the mood reminded me of the school in Paul Murray’s “Skippy Dies”. That book features a Dublin boarding school which is a very thinly veiled description of a school run by Holy Ghost fathers – a missionary order, I do wonder whether our hero also attended a Holy Ghost seminary and could that explain the atmosphere or are all boys’ boarding schools, in some ways, the same? It drags though. 460 pages is a good 200 too many. But, you know, it could have been a lot worse. Author is very keen on lush adjectival use which is tiring. But let those of us without sin etc.
35. “Des Histoirs Vraies” by Sophie Calle [New Year’s Resolution]
More art than literature. A series of pictures about her life taken by the artist and her commentary on them. Mildly disturbing.
36. “Dei Bambini Non Si Sa Niente” by Simona Vinci [New Year’s Resolution]
This got good reviews and I thought it would be good for my Italian. It is a good book and it was good for my Italian. Unfortunately, it is also a deeply unpleasant and disturbing book. Not recommended if you are at all sensitive.
37. “Ladysmith” by Giles Foden [New Year’s Resolution]
I read and disliked “The Last King of Scotland” by the same author. Why would I torture myself this way? I suppose I was curious about the Boer War. “The Last King of Scotland” is a very literary book about Idi Amin in Uganda. This is not literary. In fact, it’s pretty clichéd in many places. It begins with an eviction in the West of Ireland. It has a distinct whiff of shure and begorrah. The action then moves to South Africa where anyone who turned up at all at the Boer War puts in a cameo: Churchill, Gandhi, MacBride (one for Irish audiences) – you name them, they’re there. It’s alright, I suppose and, mercifully, a very easy read, but mostly underwhelming. And also, I still didn’t know who’d won the Boer War at the end.
If you’ve got to here, congratulations. Tomorrow I might tell you about the 37 books I read that weren’t from the bedside table. There’s something to look forward to.