Sunday, November 22, 2015

october-november 2015 books

More book stuff:
A Place Called Winter (Patrick Gale): This novel, set in the early years of the 20th century, tells the story of a gay Englishman who was ostracised by his family after an illicit affair and forced to make a new life for himself on the harsh Canadian prairies. It’s actually loosely based on the life of Gale’s own great-grandfather and compiled after he’d read a huge hoard of letters+papers inherited from his maternal grandmother). In the notes that accompanied my copy of his book, Gale readily accepts that, while he respected the “known facts, keeping real names, and houses and dates”, his story “inevitably… moved further and further away from reality”. As someone who has long struggled to come to terms with fiction (per se), I found the mix of fact and storytelling a little difficult to take at times. Nevertheless, it’s tender, compelling and beautifully-written book and one that I enjoyed reading.
Helena (Evelyn Waugh): I really should know better by now… when it comes to historical fiction (see Patrick Gale’s book above!). Evelyn Waugh is a favourite writer of mine and so I thought I’d “give it a go”. The novel’s protagonist is the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. In his introduction to the book, Waugh stresses that “this is a novel” and freely admits that “The Age of Constantine is strangely obscure” and that her life “begins and ends in surmise and legend” (we don’t actually know where Helena was born or when). History tells us that she was in Rome in 326 and that she went soon after to Jerusalem (by which time she’d become a Christian) and associated herself with building the churches at Bethlehem and Olivet. Frankly, I do struggle with historical novels (even if I did enjoy “I Claudius” on television all those years ago and, a little more recently, Melvyn Bragg’s brilliant book “Credo”!) and, although Waugh reckoned that there was nothing in the book contrary to authentic history or tradition, I found it all rather too picturesque and, at times, rather absurd. Predictably well-written… although, for me, lacking in Waugh’s normal wit and satire.
A Rose For Winter (Laurie Lee): I’d forgotten just what a brilliant writer Laurie Lee was. This book, written in 1955, tells of his return to Spain’s Andalusia (15 years after his last visit – Lee first travelled through Spain as a 19 year-old, in the mid-1930s, when he was trapped by the outbreak of the Civil War) to find a country still broken by that war. To say that Lee had a way with words would be a pathetic understatement… but he had a way of conveying a place and the people he met in a wonderfully warm and eloquent manner. Incredibly evocative and telling the story of a forgotten life (for instance: “There are bars in Algeciras where a glass of wine and a plate of shrimps cost only twopence; where it takes an hour spend a shilling; where a bootblack has only to see you to press drinks upon you; and where processions of strangers are forever offering you glasses of coƱac with proud gestures of courtly friendship”). The Sunday Times described the book thus: “He writes like an angel and conveys the pride and vitality of the humblest Spanish life with unfailing sharpness, zest and humour”… and, for me, that describes the book EXACTLY. A simply wonderful book.
Sour Sweet (Timothy Mo): This is our book group’s next book. It’s initial setting is London’s Chinatown of the 1960s and tells the story of a family of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong. The book’s chilling, dark side recounts husband’s reluctant involvement into the dangerous underworld world of the notorious Triads. However, the book’s shining feature for me was the resourcefulness of the family (especially his young wife), their domestic arrangements and their often comic dealings with British officialdom. Fascinating, scary, entertaining and frequently funny. I enjoyed it.
To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf): First published in 1927, this ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novel tells the story of a holiday at a family’s summer home on the Isle of Skye – Mr and Mrs Ramsay, their eight children and a few friends+colleagues. It’s initially set in the years just before WW1 and concludes ten years later. The book begins with a projected trip, via sailing boat, to the near-by lighthouse and although this is a recurring focus for the book, all this is secondary to its philosophical introspection – of thoughts, observations and perceptions. The book contains almost no dialogue and very little action, but flitters around the thoughts and emotions of its principle characters (especially Mrs Ramsay). I found it a little confusing at the start of the book (somewhat difficult to keep up with “whose thoughts are whose?”!), but eventually warmed to the task. A beguiling, rather beautiful, book.    

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