Monday, September 29, 2014

september 2014 books

more book stuff:
Silence (Shusaku Endo): Our latest Book Group book. It’s a profound, disturbing, harrowing novel about a 17th century Portuguese priest in Japan at the time of great persecution of the small Christian community. Superbly-written and hugely thought-provoking… at various times, I felt as if I was reading extracts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prison letters or Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (compelling, tragic and unrelenting?). Tough, but brilliant!
The Leavetaking (John McGahern): I’m a great lover of McGahern’s writing and this novel simply re-affirmed such a view. It’s about a young schoolteacher in Dublin and is set during his last day in the school (he was about to be formally fired for having married a divorced non-Catholic woman during a leave of absence year). The book is in two parts – both, essentially, flashbacks. The first covers the teacher's childhood up to the moment of his mother's death and the second to how he met his wife, and how the church authorities terminate his employment. The book is apparently a close reflection on McGahern's own experiences of being dismissed from his teaching post in the early 1960s.
Birthday Letters (Ted Hughes): This book of poems was published in 1998, 35 years after his wife’s (Sylvia Plath) suicide. Up until that time, Hughes had said/written virtually nothing about their life together. I started reading this a little time ago and, frankly (as with much poetry!), struggled to come to terms with it. By chance, my great friend Bob Fieldsend had been reading the book in conjunction with Erica Wagner’s “Ariel’s Gift” (see below) and had found it very helpful. He duly lent me his copy… and it’s been a revelation (which probably says an awful lot about some of my previous endeavours to appreciate poetry!). I came to really love Hughes’s eloquence in expressing his emotions, frustrations, fears, sadness and tenderness about his life with Plath. The result is a simply beautiful, intimate, dark, painful book of poems, published 35 years after Plath’s death (and just before he died in 1998) and (mainly) addressed to her… and dedicated to their two children, Frieda and Nicholas. Many critics, it seems, chose to believe that Hughes’s previous reluctance to write or talk about his wife’s death was an admission of his guilt in their relationship… but it seems that the reality is far more complex.
Ariel’s Gift (Erica Wagner): See above! I think Wagner’s book is absolutely excellent – an academic commentary that provided me with both information and insight about Hughes’s and Plath’s lives and their writing. Sylvia Plath only really received recognition as a poet following her death by suicide in 1963. Plath had first attempted to kill herself in 1953, in the USA before she knew Hughes; this was followed by a breakdown and subsequent electro-convulsive therapy.  Her life seems to have been hugely tormented (even haunted?) by her domineering father who died in 1940 (it seems that Hughes became her father figure in the early years of their relationship), when she was eight and by her resentment of her mother.
Note: tragedy seems to have marked Ted Hughes’s relationships, indirectly or directly – he’d begun an affair with Assia Wevill, not long before he and Plath separated, and she too committed suicide in 1969 (she gassed herself along with her daughter by Hughes); and his son Nicholas hanged himself in 2009, aged 47.
Bundle! (Mark Fieldsend): The author is the son of great friend Bob Fieldsend (and Christine!) - who, somewhat bizarrely, I’ve already referred to above. It’s a book about young twenty-somethings, it’s set in Thame (where we used to live) and, at least in part, it’s about celebrity status. Of course, me being a grumpy old man, I rather detest anything related to the word “celebrity” these days (not to mention some twentysomethings!). I have some reservations about the way the story unfolded - I anticipated the way the book might end about three-quarters through it, but convinced myself that that would be too predictable. I was wrong, my initial thoughts proved correct! But this sounds far too negative – the book’s very readable, frequently ridiculous and funny.

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