When going through my posts to make yesterday’s list, I was slightly surprised to discover that I read 37 other books which were not on my bedside table in 2011. It certainly didn’t feel like that. I see a lot more teen fiction in this pile.
Here’s a summary of what I thought was good and bad:
Best books: “Over Sea, Under Stone” by Susan Cooper; “The Memory Chalet” by Tony Judt; “Gone” by Michael Grant “The Summer Without Men” by Siri Hustvedt; “I Shall Wear Midnight” by Terry Pratchett; and “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” by Marina Lewycka
Most worthwhile books: “The Death of the Irish Language” by Reg Hindley; “Another September” by Elizabeth Bowen and Granta 114
Worst book: “Green Lantern: Rebirth” by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver
And here are the details on all 37 with reviews copied and pasted whether you like it or not:
1. “The Death of the Irish Language” by Reg Hindley
Mr. Waffle bought this when he was poor and living in Paris. I think because he is a masochist. The book examines the health of the Irish language in 1985/86 by DED. This is not, in fact, as tedious as it might sound. One of his research methods was to hang around playgrounds listening to the local children to see whether they were really speaking Irish to each other – testing the truth of the census and, more particularly, the deontas returns. I can see this being a quite effective methodology but one probably not open to older male researchers today.
The author can’t help himself from lamenting the fact that women and men from the Gaeltacht have no concern about finding another Irish speaker when looking for love and non-native speakers are constantly marrying in and diluting the strength of the language – not to mention the damage that the television and the roads do. This is gently funny from time to time though not deliberately so.
The author is a linguist and an Englishman from Bradford. He gives a phonetic English pronouciation of Irish place names for the convenience of the English reader, one assumes. I was amused to see him say that Cois Fharraige might be pronounced Cush Arriger in English. It mightn’t. That intrusive final “r” is entirely English. Oh that a linguist should make such an error.
All in all I found it surprisingly enjoyable but a little depressing. I don’t want the Irish language to die. And even though, the other night my loving husband and I sat on the sofa and watched our children sing songs in the first national language and do some Irish dancing (a long way from Riverdance), in a manner that would, I am sure have made De Valera proud- it’s not really much good, if Irish is on its deathbed as a native language. The author points out that in general Irish people are positive towards the language and do not want it to die out but essentially they feel that the duty of saving it falls to civil servants and school children.
On the back of the book is a quote “Oh the shame of Irish dying in a free Ireland.” I do think that this may be our generation’s tragedy, that Irish as a living language will die on our watch. Of course, what with the IMF and that there is a lot of competition for what this generation’s tragedy might be. I suppose we’ll have to see how the recently published 20 year strategy on the Irish language pans out – come back to me in 2030.
2. “Death of a Macho Man” by MC Beaton
Left behind by my sister following babysitting adventure. All her tired brain could face after a day with my children. Undemanding.
3. “Another September” by Elizabeth Bowen
This is set in County Cork at the time of the War of Independence. I found it tough enough going and, for a slender volume, it took me quite a while to read. If you’ve ever read “Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons, you will know that she satirically asterixes descriptive passages which are particularly fine. I can’t help wondering whether this was the very book she was satirising, take this passage selected at random:
“The screen of trees that reached like an arm from behing the house – embracing the lawns, banks and terraces in mild ascent – had darkened, deepening into a forest. Like splintered darkness, branches pierced the faltering dusk of leaves. Evening drenched the trees; the beeches were soundless cataracts. Behind the trees, pressing in from the open and empty country like an invasion, the orange bright sky crept and smouldered. Firs, bearing up to pierce, melted against the brightness. Somewhere, there was a sunset in which the mountains lay like glass.”
I think that is quite dreadfully overwritten, even allowing for the changes in tastes over the 80 odd years since it was published. And there is a lot of this kind of thing to wade through. As I read on, I remembered that I had found “The Death of the Heart” a real struggle. What saved this book for me was the context. It was interesting. Firstly, it was written from the point of view of an Anglo-Irish family. They considered themselves Irish and disapproved very much of the English whom they found vulgar: obsessed by their digestion and by money.
And at one level, where else would this Anglo-Irish family be from? There they were in their family home on the site where their ancestors had lived since the 1600s (assumption based on the belief that Danielstown is Bowen’s Court, Elizabeth Bowen’s family home). But yet, they seem very alien to me. Even allowing that everyone from the 1920s would seem very foreign, this is another layer of separation.
Co-incidentally, I went to an exhibition in the National Photographic Archive called “Power and Privilege: The Big House in Ireland”. Mostly these photographs of the landed gentry, their houses and their households dated from the period between 1900-1910. They provided images to go with the text of Elizabeth Bowen’s book. To my surprise, what I found fascinating about the exhibition was not the houses but the staff. Their uniforms, the women’s lace hairpieces and their number; those houses needed armies of servants. Under one picture, there is a comment that all of the servants in the picture are English. The gentry, or this particular family at all events, didn’t want Irish servants; one can only imagine the rancour this must have caused in a poor country where employment was scarce. In England, there was no such thing as the absentee landlord. In Ireland, many Anglo-Irish families never visited their Irish estates at all.
All this by way of saying that the attitude to the Big House (and its inhabitants) in Ireland is ambivalent, some were good landlords, many were not but all of them were different. This book captures that rather well. These people suspended between Ireland and England, neither one thing nor the other. I was fascinated to see that they appeared to be just as terrified of the Black and Tans as any other Irish person despite the fact that they were entertaining British army officers over tea and tennis. In this story, there is an exquisitely awkward moment when Lois, our heroine, inquires of a family (presumably tenants, though possibly neighbours) whether they have any news of their son who both parties know is on the run. I would quote it but it is too bloody long to retype. Bowen is good on interactions between people and all that is implied by silences and unfinished sentences and the half truths which make up polite conversation in difficult circumstances.
In the 60s, the longest Georgian terrace in Europe was in Dublin. It was knocked down for a modern concrete construction. In the face of some outrage (the terrace was pretty, the replacement was not) a government Minister said that he was delighted. He regarded this as one in the eye for the oppressor. This attitude is a very direct descendant of the one which burned down some 200 big houses up and down the country during the war of independence. I think we have made our peace with the big house now, they’re mostly filled with luxury hotels. When Paddy Kelly put up a development near Castletown House, in Kildare, he said, “It was time the Irish went through the front gate.” I’m not sure that he considered the Anglo-Irish to be really entirely Irish.
The introduction is by Victoria Glendinning, an English woman. She says, “I don’t want to spoil the book by revealing the climax. But I would ask you, as you read, to notice the accumalative imagery of fire and burning.” Any Irish person, of any description would not need that – you know, almost from the first chapter that the house will be burned. This picture, “An Allegory”, by Seán Keating should be used for the cover of the book:
4. “At Home” by Bill Bryson
I love Bill Bryson and this is a very readable, entertaining book but I feel that it is, slightly, painting by numbers. He’s done better and he certainly got full value for his subscription to the dictionary of national biography in drafting this tome. There are a couple of places where things are repeated and it could, perhaps, have done with more thorough editing. All that said, I enjoyed it very much and learnt some new things. I found myself itching to get back to it and it was a great Christmas holiday read. Bryson has an infectious enthusiasm for everything and if you ever thought you would like to know more about sewers there is no better man to talk you through them. This is, essentially, a history book. It is organised around the rooms in his house. So, for example, in the bedroom he covers sex, childbirth, illness and death over the years and the changing perceptions and processes from about 1600 to the 20th century. Sometimes one feels that interesting facts he has learnt are somewhat shoehorned into the format but, broadly, it works.
5. “Over Sea, Under Stone” by Susan Cooper
My sister got this for the Princess for Christmas, she didn’t fancy it so I picked it up and read it myself. I really enjoyed it – more for the delightfulness of childhood summers that it evoked than for the plot, it must be said. I went out the next day and bought volume 2 of the series which is really all you need to know.
6. “The Dark is Rising” by Susan Cooper
Volume 2 of the series which began with “Over Sea, Under Stone”. Oh, the disappointment. All dull fantasy (and I don’t object to fantasy, just dull fantasy), none of the lovely seaside holiday feel of the last book and only one character carried over and that one among the least engaging. I think I will be leaving the rest of the series alone.
7. “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance” by Atul Gawande
When I was at my parents’ house in Cork over the weekend, my father said to me, “I’m sure you gave me a Christmas present, just remind me, what was it.” It was this book and a companion volume “Complications”. My father is impossible to buy for and we almost always end up giving him books. This is guilt inducing as he has a huge pile of worthy books which people think he might like to read (mostly they tend to cover sailing boats, steam engines, medicine and Cork usually with a dash of photography thrown in) and which only serve to unnerve him at every turn as he tries to polish off his daily crossword. However, I was delighted when he said, “Oh I thought that they came from your aunt, they were very good.” I was delighted also to clarify that I was the brilliant donor. I found this volume on the couch and, on the basis of his recommendation, read it. It’s an interesting read and a very easy one, the author has a very accessible style and seems to be as much a writer as a doctor which is an unusual combination. He writes about medical matters in a very insightful way and certainly gives the lay reader a number of new perspectives. One of the essays in this series is about cystic fibrosis – my father particularly recommended it and it stuck in my mind also. I think one of the reasons for this is that, in Ireland, cystic fibrosis rates are high. A girl in my class in school died from it. The author used CF as an example of the finding that medical success rates are in the classic bell curve shaped graph. He said that we expect the graph to be fin shaped with good results bunched towards the right of the graph but this is not actually the case. He then goes on to discuss how to use this kind of information to improve performance. In the best performing case in the US, there is someone who is 67 who has cystic fibrosis. When you consider that my former classmate died in her 20s that seems amazing. Gosh, I am making this sound quite dull but it’s really not. I recommend it and, what’s more, I’m going to find the companion volume to read when I go to Cork next.
8. “Greenwitch” by Susan Cooper
9. “The Grey King” by Susan Cooper
10. “Silver on the Tree” by Susan Cooper
So, I persisted with “The Dark is Rising” series – it’s alright, I suppose, but I think that there was something deeply appealing about the first book that is missing in the others. The author does have a great sense of place and that comes across in the settings of all of the books. I also like the way that she inserts Welsh phrases into “The Grey King” without translation or much by way of explanation. Nice touch. But for me, I think I am just too old to enjoy these properly. The nice thing about children’s books though, is how they respect the rules. In Greenwitch, the children are fighting the dark for the survival of mankind but they can only do it in the Easter holidays and our hero is worried that the week provided by the school authorities won’t be long enough. Well, rules are rules, even if evil is about to take over.
I thought the last book which was largely set in fantasy land was the weakest of the bunch. When she talks about England and Wales and an idealised landscape she is really quite unbeatable. The “Lost Land” is just tedious. But maybe not if you’re 13 which is probably when I should have read them.
11. “The Memory Chalet” by Tony Judt
A series of autobiographical essays, vaguely reminiscent of W.G. Sebald, except that I enjoyed them. The essays are full of nostalgia for the 40s, 50s and 60s which I found very appealing. They are very readable though about hard ideas so they make you feel clever. Always welcome. The one about French intellectuals is the best.
12. “Wait for Me” by Deborah Devonshire
How many Mitfords can one girl take? The sane sister gives her take on her upbringing and relationships with her sisters. A bit like seeing how the magician’s tricks are done. She has a style that tends slightly towards listing things. There’s a whole chapter at the end devoted to all the great parties she’s been to which, frankly, could have been left out. She’s also much too sensible to be nasty about anyone so that side of her personality, which was visible in her letters, is left out. Which, though worthy, is, alas, dull. Only for the hardcore Mitford enthusiast.
13. “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell
I am coming to this somewhat later than everyone else on the planet and maybe because the internet has changed so many things in the past ten years or maybe because the ideas are now mainstream, I am distinctly underwhelmed. There’s a lot about Sesame Street for aficionados. There’s a whole chapter about smoking that was clearly written for something else and is shoehorned in at the end. It’s alright, I suppose.
14. “Pigeon Pie” by Nancy Mitford
I thought that this might be another name for “Wigs on the Green” which is a roman à clef and given my doctorate level knowledge of the Mitfords due to incessant reading over the past couple of months, I think I have the clef. Alas, it is not and, I realised, as I read, that I had read this before and not enjoyed it much. On re-reading, I wasn’t overly impressed. It’s alright but just a bit slight. Very mildly amusing in places. Sigh.
15. “Noblesse Oblige” edited by Nancy Mitford
It contains the famous “U and non-U” essay. If you need to know who said mirror and who said looking glass in 1955, this is the book for you. Oh, it’s alright and of mild historical interest, I suppose but it’s not worth a re-read.
16. “The Ruby in the Smoke” by Philip Pullman
This is a detective novel for teenagers set in Victorian London. It was seriously recommended to me by someone at a party before I was married and I have been meaning to read it ever since. It probably wasn’t worth storing up for 11 years but it’s perfectly acceptable aside from the author’s tendency to lecture about the rights of women. I am all for the rights of women and I would describe myself as a feminist but I feel slightly hectored by Mr. Pullman.
17. “Gone” by Michael Grant
Very enjoyable sci-fi teenager thing, if that’s you’re thing. Everyone over 14 disappears. Everyone left is trapped in an area with a diameter of 20 miles. And there are mutants. Great stuff.
18. “Hunger” by Michael Grant
Three months later and the kids in book 1 are running out of food. Not as good as volume 1 but there you are – still very pacy.
19. “Lies” by Michael Grant
Volume 3, very put downable.
20. “Plague” by Michael Grant
Volume 4 and we’re back on form – nasty illnesses strike the abandoned children. Not for those who don’t enjoy reading about parasitic insects.
21. “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” by Edward De Waal
A bit of a slow start. Lots of art history, and I like art history but there is only so much of Paris in the late 19th century that I can take. “Persist until he gets to Vienna,” said my friends. I persisted. The story follows the history of small carved Japanese figures called netsuke from when they came into his family in the 1870s. This device is used to tell the story of his family, the Ephrussis, an extremely rich banking family of Russian, Jewish extraction. Vienna works better for a range of reasons. Paris is too long ago and the author’s link is too indirect. His grandmother grew up in the Viennese family and it is much more immediate and, of course, over this fin de siecle Viennese tale hangs the reader’s and the author’s knowledge of what happens to European Jews over the following 50 years. It’s fascinating and very direct and moving. Also, I now really want to visit Odessa.
The author was in Dublin a couple of weeks ago and I went to hear him speak but he only spoke of pots. Alas. He is a famous potter as well as an author.
22. “I Feel Bad about my Neck” by Nora Ephron
This book is sinful. The publishers and the author pulled together a couple of slight, previously published essays from a variety of sources, added a couple of new ones and foisted them on an unsuspecting public. Or maybe I’m just bitter because I have only three years before my neck collapses. Very mildly funny in places.
23. “The Tiger in the Well” by Philip Pullman
For my money the best of the Sally Lockhart novels. The author is still concerned about women’s rights but this time he’s showing how married women had a very raw time when they fell out with their husbands. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. And also quite exciting in spots.
24. “The Water Beetle” by Nancy Mitford
I’ve been reading/re-reading Nancy Mitford novels although, annoyingly, both Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love have, unaccountably, disappeared from the shelves. I quite enjoyed this series of essays, though I have now had three versions (Decca, Deborah and Nancy) of the sisters’ story of how their Nanny said to Diana on her wedding day (when she complained something was torn), “Who’ll be looking at you?” And really, one version would probably have been enough. These essays are very readable but a bit forgettable. One of them features “Eire”. Her views are as might be expected.
25. “The Blessing” by Nancy Mitford
It has to be said that a strong element of sameness runs through the work of Miss Mitford. I wouldn’t read three or four in a row, if I were you. That said, I enjoyed this story of an eight year old boy who tries to keep his parents’ marriage on the rocks as new potential partners woo him to get to his parents. Last time I read it, I didn’t have an eight year old of my own at home.
26. “The Summer Without Men” by Siri Hustvedt
I love Siri Hustvedt, I love the way she thinks and the way she writes and I did enjoy this book. However, it is packaged as a novel and it’s not really a novel. She would have done better, I think, to have bitten the bullet and turned it into a series of prose pieces and short stories. Only for hardcore fans, I feel.
I met my friend R while I was reading this and showed it to him. R is always recommending books to me that I really find tough, tough going. R, recoiled in horror, “I hate her,” he said with unusual vehemence. You might like to know that following years of recommendations both ways, the only book we both liked was “Havoc in its Third Year” by Ronan Bennett. You may wish to rush out and buy it as it clearly has immensely wide appeal.
27. “The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel” by Michael Scott
28. “The Magician” by Michael Scott
29. “The Sorceress” by Michael Scott
Books 1-3 in a teenage fantasy series written by an Irish author pretending to be American (our heroes are American twins). Drags somewhat but I’m on volume 3. I’m not exactly dying to check out volume 4 though.
30. “I Shall Wear Midnight” by Terry Pratchett
Another Tiffany Aching novel. Terry Pratchett is reliably excellent. What greater praise can one give?
31. “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” by Marina Lewycka
I resisted reading this as I did not enjoy “Two Caravans” by the same author. This is much better. Very, very funny. And lots of Ukrainian history for free.
32. Granta 114
I borrowed this from a cooler friend. Really, who subscribes to Granta? Honestly. But it was a feminist issue and I am interested in feminism. And it was excellent and very easy going [not to be confused with easygoing, which it wasn’t]. Who would have thought?
33. “Green Lantern: Rebirth” by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver
I include this for the sake of completeness. I know you care. Daniel spent all of our holiday in France reading and re-reading it. As we took it out of the library, I felt a twinge of guilt as the librarian said, “You know that this is an adult graphic novel.” Eventually, in France a combination of a shortage of books and mild interest in what my then 5 year old was consuming made me turn to this. I am fond of science fiction and I like to think of myself as able to follow a plot, but I had no idea what on earth this was about and had to turn to Daniel for advice and guidance which he very willingly gave. I was pleased to note, however, that unlike the X-men graphic novels which he has also been perusing with interest, there were no scantily clad women; this was somewhat offset by the random violence, of course. Not recommended.
34. “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin
We went into the library in Marino, round the corner from Bram Stoker’s house and they had an enormous gothic section. I was suitably impressed. They had a number of Ann Radcliffe books but when I asked for “The Mysteries of Udolpho” they said it had just been taken out. I took this instead. And a little quiz to check if anyone is reading along. Ann Radcliffe and Ursula Le Guin are linked in my mind by having been read by a fictional character in a book I read over the summer. If you identify it, you may be my husband.
Anyhow, this seemed appealing. Look, gender and science fiction, my key interests in one handy package. It starts off fine. Slightly underwhelming but fine. And that’s how it continues. The big item of interest is that she tries to imagine a world without gender. It’s not that interesting; and I’m a feminist.
35. “A Life of Contrasts” by Diana Mosley
I was reading this in tandem with Doris Lessing’s book and I have to say that I found it by far the more enjoyable read. I couldn’t help feeling that Doris Lessing was a much worthier person but far less entertaining than Diana Mosley.
This is, of course, more Mitfordia as Diana was born Mitford and became, briefly, Guinness and then Mosley. I know most of the stories and the cast of characters already. And Diana was probably the most interesting sister of them all. She defends Mosley at every turn and despite myself, I find some of the questions she raises interesting. She seems a charming and lovely person despite her beliefs – sorry, but there it is. She glosses over, as I suppose might be expected, the less pleasant aspects of her husband’s activities and she must have been the only, somewhat sane, (her comments on the deaths of the Goebbels children make me wonder whether she was entirely so) person defending Hitler in 1977. Definitely worth a read. But, if you are going to tackle only one Mitford book this year, make it the six sisters one.
36. “Snuff” by Terry Pratchett
Not vintage Pratchett but not bad by any means. Involves smuggling and slavery.
37. “Death Bringer” by Derek Landy
The latest Skulduggery Pleasant offering and very acceptable, if you like teenage fantasy novels set in Dublin. Go on, you know you do.