More book stuff:The Razor’s Edge (W Somerset Maugham): I’d never read anything by Somerset Maugham until the end of last year and, after this book (first published in 1944), I think I’ve become a bit of a fan. It’s the story of an American pilot, traumatised by his experiences in WW1, and his rejection of a conventional life and search for meaningful experience allows him to thrive while his more materialistic friends and acquaintances suffer reversals of fortune. I found it fascinating from a number of a viewpoints – comparing the circumstances/attitudes following the 1929 stock market crash with the 2008 financial crisis and also the main character’s search for life’s meaning through Eastern philosophy (well before the Beatles made such exploration popular!). I really liked Maugham’s writing style and his role in the book as a minor character (a writer who drifts in and out of the lives of the book’s key individuals). Really enjoyable.
Behind The Scenes At The Museum (Kate Atkinson): Yes, I realise I’m a bit late getting round to reading my first novel by Kate Atkinson (some 18 years after it was published). It’s narrated by Ruby (born in 1952) and tells the story of her family from the end of the nineteenth century up to the mid-1990s… and constitutes a repressed-memory story. It’s both poignant and funny, and death and the bizarre never seem far away. Ruby’s not far off my own age and so it was good to be reminded of things from my own youth. Although I struggled at times trying to remember various family members (Ruby’s own current story is interlaced with tales of her family from the end of the nineteenth century/first+second world wars), I found it a very worthwhile read – confidently and skillfully written.
The Life And Death Of St Kilda (Tom Steel): St Kilda is the remotest of Britain’s offshore islands – lying some 40 miles west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides in the North Atlantic Ocean. People have lived there for over 2,000 years (but the population has never exceeded 200), cut off from the rest of the world. The book tells the moving story of the last St Kildans. In August 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants were finally persuaded to evacuate the island by the British Government – a decision the community reluctantly accepted due to sickness and the lack of enough able-bodied men to continue working on the land. A truly fascinating and humbling story.
Empires Of The Dead (David Crane): You might think that a book about war graves would be pretty boring… but, actually, you’d be SO wrong! The book tells the extraordinary (and forgotten) story behind the building of the British+Commonwealth war cemeteries – largely due to the efforts of one visionary, 44 year-old, volunteer ambulance commander called Fabian Ware. He’d been horrified by the ignominious treatment of the dead in 1914 and began to record the identity and position of each grave. From arbitrary and adhoc (and purely voluntary) beginnings, Ware was able to become a driving force in the origins of the Imperial War Graves Commission. I have to admit that, whilst I’ve always been impressed and rather humbled by the images of immaculately-kept war cemeteries, I hadn’t actually given any thought to how they came about. But then you (suddenly, in my case) realise that, of course, there were thousands of soldiers dying and someone had to organise things in a proper and appropriate manner (in the event, there were over 580,000 British dead and the Commission had more than 23,000 burial sites under its control!). A brilliant book.
Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (Billy Collins): I really adored this book of poetry… we’d had it on the bookshelves for some time, but I just hadn’t got round to looking at it (Moira had loved it and recently suggested that I might like it too). It’s absolutely beautiful, funny, poignant, stimulating… all the boxes are ticked as far as I’m concerned. Michael Donaghy has described Collins’s work as “a rare amalgam of accessibility and intelligence. I’d follow this man’s mind anywhere. Expect to be surprised”. Yes. Indeed.