I love September – it’s the start of a new year for me in every sense, when I’m full of plans and energy (horrible depressing January, you can’t compete). It’s great to be back on the Sofa after my almost-month away from the blog and if you missed it last week, I started the new season with a travel piece on our two-week trip to northern Spain – the pictures alone will explain why I fell in love with places that had been on my wish list for decades.
Sometimes I read more than usual on holiday, sometimes less – it depends on the kind of trip. This was a fairly relaxing one which gave me plenty of reading time. I would usually have posted my holiday TBR here before shutting up shop for the summer and report back now but this year I was so busy I didn’t have a chance to think about it. You still get my honest and, since I was as ‘off-duty’ as I ever can be, unreservedly subjective verdict today.
A special thanks to the many Twitter followers who replied to my request for recommendations of contemporary Spanish titles available in translation – that was a really interesting conversation and although I only managed three of these on holiday, I’m hoping to read some of the others at a later date.
I know very little about Spanish fiction but I had often heard of Javier Marías and considering how many of my book friends love his work, it’s surprising it took me so long. Well, he’s got himself a new fan; I was in my element both with the writing and the ideas. Despite a dramatic and gruesome opening and the fact there is a story here, the story is not to the fore of this very ‘interior’ novel. Through his long unnamed first person narrator, a man recently married to a fellow interpreter, Marías examines a number of questions of intense interest to me. I found it fascinating, illuminating and at times painfully insightful on marriage, chance, family and the potential of language (and translation) to promote and obscure meaning and connection between people. This would be worth reading simply for the extraordinary scene in which Juan first meets his wife when they are interpreting for two heads of state, and has extra resonance for anyone who speaks more than one language.
Sharing my thoughts on this hugely lauded, award-winning novel is uncomfortable, not least because the decision to feature any given book on this blog normally starts with having read and strongly connected with it, and that’s not how this post works. Having loved previous novels by this author I was disappointed not to get more than a third of the way through, despite efforts to persevere. On three previous holidays I regretted a lengthy struggle to finish something and although I can see what others have admired so much in this – there are some stunningly good lines, and it is powerful stuff – I just didn’t feel involved. In saying this, I’m outing myself as someone who (not often, but in this case) feels guilty or inadequate about not enjoying a book others have raved about. I know how irrational and ridiculous this is, but that voice saying maybe you are just too shallow/heartless/dim to get this can be hard to ignore. I’ve just noticed (it gets worse) that I am especially reluctant to be defeated by a book written by a man. Coincidentally there was a thread on Twitter at the weekend started by Richard Ashcroft in which people piled in with great excitement nominating the books they hated (note: I did not hate this book) which ‘everyone’ else loved. Needless to say, a couple of my favourite novels were cited!
This one was mentioned over and over when I asked for novels set in Galícia – and it turns out there are plenty of them. I really enjoyed reading it in situ, which for me often adds to the pleasure. There’s a wonderful rural sense of place and a playful warmth and wit in this short novel full of eccentric characters including the two sisters returning to their roots in a remote village and customs and beliefs anchored in the traditions of the region.
Domingo Villar was recommended if I fancied some ‘Galician noir’ and I did. This book has a good premise with the particularly horrific torture/murder of a professional saxophonist living in a luxury high-rise in the town of Vigo, but I do now wonder if Pierre Lemaître has ruined me for this kind of thing. I only picked this title because it seemed to be the first in the Leo Caldas detective series – it’s actually a prequel to Death on a Galician Shore which may have been a wiser choice (I don’t read reviews in advance). Both the plot and the writing of this very short novel felt underdeveloped but there were aspects which would make me seek out the next book: Caldas and his heavyweight sidekick Estévez make for an entertaining good cop/bad cop dynamic and I absolutely loved the rich sense of place – not just geographically but in its reflection of local life and atmosphere. When I go back to Galícia , as I’m sure I will, Vigo will be on the itinerary.
I bought this 500 pager in hardback when it first came out but it’s just as well I didn’t dip in then as once I got started I wanted to immerse myself. I am a big Springsteen fan, to the point where two of the eight songs in my Undercover Soundtrack on Roz Morris’s blog are by him. There I explain my admiration for his ability to tell a complete story in a few minutes, and it says a lot about this autobiography that I can’t reveal many of the surprising things I learned about Springsteen without spoiling what is one heck of a good story. With this book he continues on a larger scale what he has done all along as a chronicler of American life, on both a political and very intimate level. Of everything I read this summer, this made the deepest impression on me. It can’t be easy to be this honest when you are a global icon, knowing that people will be left with a different view of you. Turns out he is as fragile and mistaken as the rest of us, and in addition to being inspired by his thoughts on creativity, I was moved by his perseverance and resilience in confronting demons who make no exceptions for fortune and success. On a very personal level, I identified strongly with his ‘once a Catholic’ streak, which for me represents damage that can never be fully undone. His hard-won wisdom about a painful parental relationship – we honor our parents by carrying their best forward and laying the rest down – is something I also took a long time to arrive at – it was striking to see it written down in such simplicity. Best of all, perhaps, was the way this book had me listening to his catalogue, especially the earlier stuff which is some of the best.
Somebody suggested this new release when they saw me mention The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst as one of my all-time favourite novels. I don’t actually think the two have a great deal in common beyond the obvious but I’m grateful for the recommendation as it was a cracking read. I ripped through it last week in under 24 hours and couldn’t not mention it, even though I had already returned from Spain to my piles of laundry and a To Do list from hell. Across the board, the fictional treatment of ‘love to hate’ posh, rich and powerful people is groaning with clichéd scenarios and stereotypes which invariably boil down to how shallow, conniving and despicably decadent they are – I usually prefer the American version of this as it at least has the novelty of the less familiar (although when I finally read The Great Gatsby, often regarded as the origin of this phenomenon, it bored me to death). Anyway, despite some audible echoes, Elizabeth Day’s novel pulled me in with its witty, elegant writing, some chilling and subtle strokes of characterisation and suspense culminating in a few surprises without resorting to sensational twists. A cut above.
Have you read any of these? Would love to hear you enjoyed reading this summer…