We had fun in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Hot weather, lemon Martinis, shopping at J Crew & Anthropologie, Hollywood, Venice Beach, a spin on the roulette wheel, Aunty Ann's Pretzels, the Pacific Ocean and the end of Route 66. Good times indeed.
Summer is finally here, my daughter's A levels have finished and she is now a'school leaver'...gulp!
'The Interestings' by Meg Wolitzer was one of those books I didn't want to end. Six teenagers meet in an American summer camp in 1974, they dub themselves ' the interestings' as they feel they will never be boring but all have dreams and promise. The novel then traces their lives which are intertwined, until the present day. Wolitzer writes beautifully and all the characters feel so well rounded. I really identified with Jules, who always felt like the uncool outsider. I shed a tear at the end, but this was not an overly sentimental story, in fact it was very believable and realistic. It described the inevitable slide into compromise ( in relationships and careers) we all tend to share as we grow into middle-age, and how friendships are tested by envy and betrayal. I highly recommend it and am now eager to read some more of Wolitzer's books.
I bought 'The Financial Lives of the Poets' by Jess Walter after his, 'Beautiful Ruins' was one of my favourite reads of last year. This is a very funny book that has shades of 'Breaking Bad' about it. Matthew is in all sorts of financial trouble, in danger of losing his home and family, after he loses his job as a financial journalist. After a random meeting with some youths, he gets hold of some dope and is soon hatching a plan to restore his finances. Of course, things do not run smoothly and what happens next is very entertaining. Matthew's father has dementia and his character in particular, is drawn with great bathos. Jess Walter is a very gifted writer, very contemporary and his characterisation is wonderful.
Our book club read this month was 'And the Mountains Echoed' by Khaled Hosseini. I did enjoy his previous two books, but I was a little underwhelmed by this one. It begins in Afghanistan in 1952 as brother and sister Abdullah and Pari, are separated when their father agrees to let Pari be adopted by a rich couple. The story then encompasses many characters in many countries, up to the present day. I won't give away the ending, but I was disappointed with it, I thought, 'was that it'? I thought the story was diluted by too many sub-plots, themes and characters. It might have read better as a series of short stories. Hosseini does write beautifully and his descriptions of Afghanistan's countryside are quite lovely. Maybe because I loved his first two books so much, I'm being rather unkind, most of the book group really enjoyed it!
Finally, I thought 'Big Brother' by Lionel Shriver was excellent. Pandora's brother, Edison, comes to stay with her family as the jazz pianist is down on his luck. She hasn't seen him for a while and when he arrives at her home in the Mid-West, he is morbidly obese. How everyone reacts and deals with this situation is written about with huge skill and wit. It made me laugh and cry and has a real 'Atonement'-like twist to it that made me gasp. Apparently Shriver's real-life brother died of an obesity related condition, she really writes from the heart at how helpless Pandora feels as Edison refuses all help and is eating himself to death. I really couldn't put this down and I think this is Shriver's best book to date.
I really enjoyed all my reads this month, so here goes..
"Love, Nina" by Nina Stibbe was just delightful. Nina goes to London from Leicester in 1982, to work as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers and her two sons. The book takes the form of letters she sends to her sister who is back home and training to be a nurse. Mary-Kay is the ex-wife of director Stephen Frears and the household is a magnet for the bohemian literati such as Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. Nina is blithely unaware of the fame of the frequent visitors, her accounts of Alan Bennett fixing the washer, for example, are hilarious. This is a very sweet book, recounting several years in the 1980s as Nina goes to Polytechnic but remains living amongst an eccentric, but warm and funny family. Highly recommended, it's a happy read.
Talking of happy reads, "The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin was a bit different. Rubin contemplates what it means to be happy and how to go about achieving it. Her mantra is " the days are long but the years are short" and this recounts the year she gave herself to maximise her happiness levels. Some parts were a tad too 'new-agey' for me, but some of the issues tackled were very interesting and I've tried to follow a few tips. I'll let you know if I become significantly happier!
I was really sad to hear of Sue Townsend's death recently, her Adrian Mole books never lost their ability to make me laugh out loud. I bought 'The Public Confessions of a Middle-Aged Woman ( aged 55 3/4) as I wasn't middle-aged when it was first published....but I am now! This is a series of short articles written for a magazine and in true Townsend style, are warm and funny. She reminds me in a way of an English Nora Ephron, clever, funny women who write pithily about ageing and its absurdities. She will be much missed.
I borrowed 'Into The Trees' by Robert Williams from the library as he was appearing there reading from this novel and I wanted to have some idea of what it was about before I went. From the blurb it sounds as if it is going to be a supernatural tale, the parents of a baby girl can only stop her incessant crying when they enter a forest near their home. However, the story than veers off into something else completely. I liked the characterisation and the setting, based on the beautiful countryside past Clitheroe. The book was certainly a page-turner and I thought the recounting of events from three different characters was a good device. I wouldn't have chosen to read this book myself as the blurb definitely makes it sound a bit Stephen
King-y ( not my cup of tea at all) so I'm glad I did and Williams was a very interesting person to listen to.
Finally, 'Frances & Bernard' by Carlene Bauer was an intelligent, elegant novel. Set in New York in 1950s and 1960s it takes the form of letters, primarily between Frances and Bernard, writers whose characters are loosely based on Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell. Their musings on religion, literature and love are beautifully written and the period atmosphere is effectively evoked. It is deeply moving at times, with one of the characters grappling with a serious mental health issue, and the ending is not what I hoped for, but is realistic.
My big read this month was "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt which I was really looking forward to. Theo Decker faces a catastrophic life event at the age of thirteen, and the novel deals with the aftermath and it's effects on Theo as he grows to adulthood. At almost 800 pages long, this was a lengthy book but I was enthralled from the very beginning. Tartt is a wonderful writer, intelligent but immensely readable and it is little wonder that prizes have been bestowed on this, her third novel. It seems churlish to have a quibble but I did think some bits could have done with a bit of an edit, the parts set in Las Vegas dragged a bit as did the Amsterdam gangster scenes. However, on the whole, this was a great big meaty read and I am so thrilled that a WOMAN is getting the plaudits usually reserved for the likes of Jonathan Franzten et al.
Any book I read afterwards was going to suffer in comparison. I read Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie" on a friend's recommendation. It was "alright" I suppose, but felt like an essay stretched out to a book. Albom's old college professor is dying of a progressive neurological disorder and now, largely wrapped up in his career, Albom starts to visit Morrie every week in the months leading to the old man's death. It is full of platitudes and I just felt a bit 'meh' afterwards. I liked his "Five People You Meet In Heaven" but wasn't hugely impressed by this one.
This month I had a bit of a Sylvia Plath-athon. Our book club choice was a biography of Plath by Andrew Wilson, 'Mad Girl's Love Song'. It covers, in great detail, her early life up until she met Ted Hughes at Cambridge. I liked this book, it was informative and the author had obviously researched the subject very well. Views were mixed ( as ever!) at book club, many felt Plath was such a dreary character and this book was TOO detailed. I disagree, Plath was fascinating, a deeply troubled but tremendously gifted girl who wanted to kick against the path that was still expected of young women of a certain class in America in the 1950s. Wilson's book gave me a real insight into her early life and made me want to re-read her novel, 'The Bell Jar'.
I first read Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar' when I was a teenager, full of Mancunian angst. I may not have shared many of Sylvia's life experiences but, as with 'Catcher In The Rye', the book captures that feeling of alienation and suffocation that is universal to most young adults. Reading it now, after the biography and as a middle-aged woman, it is still powerful but rather than identifying with Esther (Sylvia) it was fascinating to read Sylvia's thinly veiled autobiography of her slide into clinical depression. The book is over fifty years old now, yet the writing seems still so original and fresh.
Our next book for book club is 'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley. I have never read this, I'm not a fan of futuristic dystopia ( struggled with 1984 to be honest, so depressing) but it was a fascinating read. Even though it appears very dated at times, it also appears contemporary at others. It was bleak but strangely believable and had powerful points to make about religion, mass consumption and what it means to be happy. Not a easy/simple read but I'm glad I finally tackled it and look forward to the lively debate it will cause at book club night!
Finally, I have heard Natalie Haynes on Radio 4 a few times, she is a comedienne and classicist and 'The Amber Fury' is her debut novel. It was a page-turner, telling the story of a bereaved young teacher who works at a unit for troubled teenagers. She enacts Greek dramas with them and we know that something catastrophic has occurred from the beginning. I could see where the plot was going but I thought the writing was very lively and fresh, with all the characters being effectively depicted.
I've suddenly realised all my reads this month were on the depressing side! I'm currently gripped by ' The Goldfinch' but maybe some light relief is in order afterwards!
'The Shock of the Fall' by Nathan Filer won the Costa Book prize recently, and for a debut novel, it really is excellent. Matthew narrates an account of his descent into mental illness caused by a great loss. That may sound incredibly depressing, and while it is bleak and sad, it is also very warm, funny and filled with believable characters. It is very contemporary and Filer, who was a mental health nurse, writes with confidence about that world and the effect that cuts in services are having on vulnerable people like Matthew. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, my book club unanimously loved it, a rare occurance!
'The Great Lover' by Jill Dawson has been sitting on my shelf for a while now and I did enjoy it. The book is a fictional account of Rupert Brook and his time staying in Grantchester just before the Great War and the effect he has on a young maid, Nell. Dawson has obviously researched the subject meticulously and the whole 'fin-de-siècle' atmosphere is captured perfectly. I felt inspired to re-read my collection of Brook's poems afterwards.
'Midwives' by Chris Bohjalian is another book that has been on my shelf for quite a while. Sibyl is a midwife working, often against the wishes of the health authorities, in Vermont. A birth she is attending goes tragically wrong and this novel charts the effect on her family and community. I enjoyed the characterisation in the novel, particularly Sibyl's teenage daughter, and I couldn't really predict the ending. In a country where birth is so medicalised due to omnipresent fears of litigation, Sibyl's plight is entirely believable and will have you thanking the NHS for the midwifery-led services we ( on the whole ) enjoy in this country.
'Bedsit Disco Queen' by Tracey Thorn is a highly enjoyable ( for us a certain age) account of Thorn's life as a pop star. She writes in the same style she sings, wry, dryly humorous and understated. She comes across as an honest, intelligent woman who finds herself in the middle of a crazy time as one part of the successful duo, 'Everything But The Girl'. This autobiography is a complete contrast to the Morrissey book, but I enjoyed both.
'Sweet Tooth' by Ian McEwan is a highly intelligent novel, post-modern and a delight for lovers of literature. It is set in the 1970s and Serena Frome graduates from Cambridge, is recruited by MI5 and is given a mission, to recruit a novelist. This doesn't go entirely to plan as Serena falls in love with her quarry. The atmosphere of London in the 70s is captured perfectly and I did enjoy McEwan's writing, as I always do. His are never 'easy reads' but I like books that make me think...once in a awhile!