September is one of my favourite months and having just returned from a glorious fortnight in Provence I’m all fired up for a busy autumn with a big writing goal (to finish my first draft by Christmas), a stellar line-up of guests here on the Literary Sofa, an avalanche of titles for Hot Picks 2015 and to judge by my inbox, loads of lovely book parties!
As you can probably tell, I’ve never really mastered the art of relaxing and doing nothing, but after a hectic few months it was bliss to unwind with my family and spend the days alternating between pool and sun lounger, with a few walks, bike rides and scenic lunches for good measure.
As I’ve written about the Lubéron area before, today’s easing-myself-back-in post is a round-up of the books I read on holiday, which you may recall seeing recently on my Poolside TBR list. I managed seven out of eight and since my critical radar was – in theory – disengaged, these are just a few personal observations.
Humour me a minute when I say this ‘story of an East German family’ is the first book I’ve read in German in 25 years and I was thrilled (amazed, actually) not to find it difficult. It’s an unusually intimate and eye-opening look at 20th century European history as experienced by one ordinary and yet complex German family, as Maxim Leo’s parents, and specifically his grandfathers, were the product of opposing ideologies. A lot of the narrative takes place during World War Two rather than the DDR years, but it is consistently engaging and satisfied my strange obsession with things and places that are abandoned or no longer exist.
Maybe I came to this novel with my expectations too high as it appeared to have a lot of ingredients I normally enjoy (East Coast, the Seventies, friendship) but somehow it didn’t altogether work for me. After a strong start my interest in the characters flagged – the title is intentionally ironic or this would be doubly unfortunate. Their various relationships were rather spelled out and repeatedly so – it seemed far too long. Nonetheless I did really like the author’s witty and intelligent writing style and that makes me want to read another of her novels. Maybe this just wasn’t the right one.
I tore through this mighty 550 page tome in two days flat and as always with Sarah Waters, was hooked from the very start – I enjoy her writing as if it were some kind of illicit pleasure. Her ability to recreate an era, in this case the desolate years following World War One, in vivid and visual detail is exceptional. It was a special treat for me because when I first moved to London I was a ‘paying guest’ in a similar house in the next street in Camberwell – what are the chances? To my mind, the story isn’t as strong as some of her other novels (tempting, but I can’t say more) but gosh, the sex is good (ditto).
This modern American classic was chosen by my book group along with To Kill a Mockingbird for our meeting later this week. Beloved was a challenging novel on just about every level – it is a book I am glad to have read, and which deserves to be as well known as it is, but I was relieved to reach the end. Much of the writing, particularly on nature and place, is poetic and beautiful but I found the handling of timeframes, voices and frequent ellipsis confusing and hard to follow. The content is unsurprisingly brutal and traumatising and even as a white person from another continent and another century, I felt deeply ashamed of the abuses perpetrated under slavery. I won’t forget it, that’s for sure.
This is a stand-out title in the year that I discovered how much I enjoy memoirs (I’d always suspected they were boring – clearly not when written by the right people!) There was something very uplifting about the resourcefulness of New York journalist Jeannette Walls and her three siblings in surviving – the term is justified – their chaotic, itinerant and in many ways deprived childhood. I was moved and captivated by this portrayal of rural poverty in the Southwest and West Virginia and often enraged by her feckless bohemian parents, despite recognising that alcoholism is an addiction, not a choice. My 16 year old son is now enjoying the book too – it’s one to put many people’s childhood gripes into perspective. It certainly did mine.
I must confess that I read the opening pages of this novel currently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in sheer dismay – it was not at all what I was expecting from the author of Netherland, which I really loved and admired. But this idiosyncratic first-person satire on ex-pat life in Dubai, American society, money, relationships, masculinity, you name it, soon pulled me in – it was very entertaining. In both thought and deed the narrator X exists in a state of moral ambivalence and is by turns baffling, endearing and repellent, but often funny. I was astounded by the similarities of tone and theme between this and Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour –I’d be very surprised if they both make the Booker short list but I hope one of them does.
I saved this until last, hoping it would get me in the right frame of mind to continue work on my novel set in Paris. Time will tell on that score, but I enjoyed it hugely and if like me, you love Paris, foreign literature and cinema and are interested in (or indeed living) the writer’s life – which when examined so often sounds akin to mental instability, as here – there’s a strong chance you’d like this book too. It alternates between elegant and (deliberately) pretentious nonsense and blinding insights, many quoted from the likes of Hemingway and Marguerite Duras, who’s also one of the characters. Half the fun is working out which is which. Inspiring.
What did you read over the holidays? Have you read any of these, or do you want to? Summer may be nearly over, but the twelve titles on my Summer Reads 2014 have no expiry date if you’re looking for more recommendations…
Speaking of fabulous memoirs, I’m delighted that Kate Mayfield, author of The Undertaker’s Daughter, will be joining me on the Sofa later this week to share her experiences of writing about Life and Death.