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…
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY – Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from Norwegian by Donald Bartlett
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.
L’HOMME QUI MENT – Marc Lavoine
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.
EVERYONE IS WATCHING – Megan Bradbury
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.
THE VEGETARIAN – Han Kang, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith
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.
ALL MY PUNY SORROWS – Miriam Toews
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.
VERNON SUBUTEX – Virginie Despentes
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.
I may have time for more but that’s it for now. Read any of these? What are you reading or looking forward to this summer? If you want tips, here are my Summer Reads and Hot Picks 2016 selections.
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!
Where would we be without your poolside selection for people who like pool reads with a punch. How bothered are you by authors who don’t use regular quotation marks for dialogue? Miriam Toews uses none in All My Puny Sorrows, which marred my enjoyment a bit.
Thank you – I do my best to be useful! Re your question – not wild about that but unless it causes actual confusion (which does sometimes happen), I can let it slide. Bit of an affectation really.
A meaty selection of poolside books (barring the Vegetarian, if you’ll forgive the pun! On a serious note, it is an amazing book). I am jealous of your three weeks, and your three weeks of excellent reading.
I’m impressed at how you can get through so many books on holiday — especially when two are in French. I’m currently four days into a fortnight in the Dordogne and I’ve barely read about forty pages of my current book-in-progress — Grace Jones’s autobiography — fascinating (a lot about her time in Paris in the 70s, interestingly) — but not an easy read (probably because Paul Morley is involved with the prose). All the rest of the time I’ve been driving to supermarkets, chopping up vegetables and mediating between squabbling teenagers.
For what it’ swarthes, my own very over-optimistic selection from the TBR pile that I’ve brought includes: Anne Tyler, ‘Patchwork Planet’, Jonathan Coe, ‘Number 11’, John Niven, ‘The Sunshine Cruise Company’, Hanuki Murukami, ‘Norweigian Wood’ and Alexei Sayle, ‘Thatcher Stole My Trousers’ — an eclectic bunch, although there is a WIP connection between most of them.
Ha! Thanks, Mike. I may get started before we leave but once we’re there I really won’t be doing a lot else. We’ve been to the area ten times and this is our 7th stay at this particular gite (originally very rustic and has been heading steadily upmarket ever since) so there’s no pressure to explore unless we want to – I get a lot of pool time while the guys are off doing ridiculous mountain bike rides that would kill me. Your TBR sounds almost as eclectic as mine – Norwegian Wood is gorgeous and one of my favourite novels ever. I even liked the film! Bonne continuation!
Oh… some great choices! Enjoy your break Isabel x
I’ve read Kanusgard’s first book and found it oddly compelling. But I decided I would try the remaining 4. Enough already. I read Bel Canto years back, and really enjoyed it.
I have to confess to giving up on Puny Sorrows, mostly because of the lack of speech marks. I did find it confusing, and jarring. Each time it occurred it annoyed me more and more and as a consequence I couldn’t get into the story at all. Let me know how you get on with it. Happy holidays xx
Thanks, Louise! I’m really intrigued now to see whether the lack of quotation marks bothers me. As a writer I completely don’t get why anyone wouldn’t use them, when they exist to facilitate the reading experience!
I can’t understand it either. Some writers use different conventions, like dashes to introduce dialogue, but what’s gained by that? When writers dispense with any dialogue conventions, it’s presumably because they think the characters’ voices come across self-evidently as dialogue. Some readers will see that as a challenge (are they attuned well enough to identify what’s dialogue and what’s not?). It all asks questions about fiction as a construct and, I guess, questions conventions about the identity of any narrator. But this is all probably more suited to a debate in a university department than by the poolside.
Loved The Vegetarian. I’m going to be looking out for your opinion on The Girls is all I’m going to say for now about that one. And you’re not the only person who hasn’t read the Toews. Enjoy your break.
Interesting discussion about the absent speech marks. This is something I don’t mind at all while I struggle with some textual irregularities (such as quirky fonts and intentionally omitted apostrophes) that others seem not to mind at tall.
Thanks for the heads up that Ann Patchett has another book coming out soon. I’ve read most of her novels but Bel Canto has to be the best. I’ve read it twice, as is the case with The Corrections, so I hope you enjoy your second reading as much as I did.
I’m off to see what Naomi had to say about The Girls, as there’s a hint here that she hasn’t gone along with the adulations. However, it’s one I enjoyed.