This is one of my favourite posts of the year to write because I go completely off-piste. For me, summer is a chance to catch up on things I’ve missed because getting hung up on new releases can become a treadmill – being fresh out doesn’t confer extra qualities, after all. This is also the only time I mention books I haven’t yet read and part of the fun is coming back in early September to share my verdict.
My three weeks in the south of France are still some way off but this feels like a good time to start my break from the blog. It’s been a pretty crazy year so far (although I always seem to say that). Next week both my kids will be away and I’m itching to write some new short stories, which I haven’t done in ages. I also want to see how my idea for a new book might develop when I have some uninterrupted time to think. When I finally get back to ‘my’ vineyard in Provence (it isn’t, of course), all I plan to do is read and swim and drink chilled rosé in the sun, with all the family together. I’ve read dozens of books over the years in this heavenly spot!
In no particular order, here are the books I have in mind and why. There might be others. We’ll see…
I’ve belonged to the same book group for about 13 years, and in addition to spending time with fabulous women who are now some of my closest friends, I get the usual benefit of reading books I might not have chosen. We have concluded that ‘Marmite books’ (with very mixed reviews) make for the best discussions, as recently with Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island. Many people I respect rate Knausgaard. Until now I was put off by the idea of any writer thinking his own life merits five volumes, but there must a reason he’s won so many readers over. I’m genuinely looking forward to this and am approaching it with an open mind.
During the writing of my novel, I read a lot in French and if I didn’t run this blog, it’s something I’d do even more. Contemporary French fiction seems to operate within wider perameters of form and content and authors given more freedom. That’s actually irrelevant to this book, a memoir by the well-known French actor and singer Marc Lavoine, about his relationship with his father. Now in his 50s, Lavoine topped the charts in 1985 with his song Les Yeux Revolver, to which many French people of all ages know the words. I’m not surprised – it’s a stunning example of how to write character and touch an audience. This song has inspired practically every word of fiction I’ve written, so naturally I’m interested in the man behind it.
I heard the author read from this book at an event last winter and was captivated by an excerpt which involved the development of Long Island, a place I discovered only last October when a friend moved there. I love New York (especially Brooklyn) – can’t get enough of the place or books set there. Clearly the writing is excellent, the structure sounds interesting and with Walt Whitman, Edmund White, Robert Mapplethorpe and planner Robert Moses as characters, it’ll be a welcome change from the over-familiar group of friends or tortured middle-class family template.
I know nothing about this novel except that it won the Man Booker International Prize 2016 and that tons of people have raved about it. Given my innate suspicion of blurbs and press releases (land of spoilers, hyperbole and red herrings), coming to a book with no expectations is often a good thing. I’ve also never read a book translated from Korean and as this is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), now’s the time!
We all have different ideas of what makes a good time and although it surprises me that some choose to relax with a 1000 page biography of Stalin (my eldest son, for example), beach reads aren’t my cup of tea either. Of the books on the Summer Reads selections appearing all over the place, this is the one that most caught my eye. I love California and the sixties, the things that shape women’s lives – again, I’ve deliberately avoided finding out too much about it.
THE CORRECTIONS – Jonathan Franzen
This is one of the novels that first sparked my interest in contemporary American fiction – I could read nothing but that and be perfectly happy. I’ve been meaning to re-read The Corrections for ages and it was hearing a friend enthuse over it for the first time recently that made me decide to. Always a risk; I was going to re-read The Secret History until several friends in their forties told me they wished they hadn’t. With this family saga, however, I’m expecting to see more in it after 15 more years on the clock that have placed me firmly in ‘sandwich generation’ terrain. Hoping this is a worthwhile investment – Franzen’s subsequent work hasn’t done it for me, still less the loose cannon remarks he comes out with such regularity.
Speaking of American fiction, I have belatedly discovered Ann Patchett the wrong way round (perhaps), having read and absolutely loved her forthcoming novel Commonwealth (out 8 September in the UK). It’s such a joy discovering a new-to-you author and having their back catalogue ready and waiting. Bel Canto is where I’ve decided to start. It’s set in an unnamed South American country; I’ve travelled a lot but am always curious about places I haven’t been as shown by this list (Norway, Korea, the Americas south of Mexico..). That’s one of the things I love most about reading and it’s inspired many of my travels.
I can just picture many of you going ‘What? You haven’t read this?’ Or maybe that’s just my Twitter crowd. Sometimes it gives a false impression of what’s selling/going down well. This does sound like my kind of thing. There are reasons I didn’t read it when everyone else did, and no, I’m not going to tell you what they were.
The eponymous protagonist of this novel is designated an ‘urban legend’, a description equally applicable to author Virginie Despentes, whose biography might seem OTT in a fictional character. I’m drawn to her work because ‘in your face’ writers – Houellebecq and Tsiolkas are another two – are refreshingly provocative and some of the most intelligent people putting pen to paper. They don’t care what we think (how liberating must that be?!) as long as they make us think. Also, this book sounds a bit like a French Visit to the Goon Squad and I loved that one.
If you’re in the mood for something readers are describing as ‘classy’, ‘sexy’ and ‘grown-up’, check out my novel Paris Mon Amour.
Happy reading and see you back here on the Literary Sofa in September with a great programme for the autumn!