Thursday Reading Notes

Looking back over the past month or so I see that my reading has been all over the place, rather like the golden rose in our back garden that will suddenly shoot two or three long suckers out in random directions. There have been distinct obsessions lately and quite a lot of books read that I haven’t mentioned here.

eva dolanAs ever, once we’ve finally put an edition of Shiny out, I take a fortnight’s vacation in crime. Of several titles I read, the standout was Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. I picked it up because it was set in Peterborough, a town not far from where I live, and which does seem to have featured on the news lately as a Place Where Bad Things Happen. Eva Dolan’s novel was brilliant, focusing on the large immigrant population in Peterborough and the dangerous drudgery of their lives. Although it was a much darker book than I usually read, the writing was excellent and the situation so fresh and contemporary I almost expected to read about the crime in the local papers. Gripping and pacy, I really rated this one.

the telling errorI also read my first Sophie Hannah, The Telling Error. I’m late to this particular writer and initially I wasn’t at all sure I’d like her. The murder was committed in a ludicrous way, which I could have forgiven had her main detective not rushed in with a series of interpretations that were even more implausible. However, as the story got into its stride and the complexities of the plot unfolded and were ironed out, I was lost in the story in a wholly good way. I’m not going to say anything about this one – Mr Litlove was driving me to lunch in Saffron Walden, and I spent the entire half hour recounting the plot in a way that even confused me long before we reached our destination, and I like to think I can make a reasonable job of a synopsis. I was left with even greater respect for Sophie Hannah’s powers of narrative organisation. Heaven only knows this story was complicated, but I followed it perfectly at the time.

Interestingly enough, I was at a book event in town on Tuesday where Sophie Hannah and her mother, Adele Geras were both speaking. Sophie Hannah was talking about her new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, and how it came into being. Apparently her agent had a brainwave that she would be the perfect person to write a continuation novel for Agatha Christie, and by strange coincidence, the estate actually felt the time was ripe for one (having shuddered at the prospect for many a year). The Christie family is apparently delighted with Sophie’s book. Amusingly, Sophie said that usually when you publish a novel, you have to brace yourself for some moaning, but the good thing about this novel was that she was inundated with complaints on twitter as soon as it was announced she’d be writing it. So the publication had been fairly uncontentious by comparison.

I was actually there, though, for her mother. I’m interviewing Adele Geras for Shiny New Books towards the end of the month, and trying to zip through a portion of her huge back catalogue before we meet. This means unusually for me, I’m reading YA fiction – her rewrite of Greek mythology in Troy – as well as more romantic novels. Her latest, Cover Your Eyes, and one from a few years back, A Hidden Life.

TheLastAsylumMy real obsession at the moment, however, is with memoirs. I’ve been reading some utterly brilliant ones. A few weeks back I finished Barbara Taylor’s account of her psychotic breakdown in The Last Asylum, where she was put for want of anything better to do with her. Barbara Taylor writes so engagingly and so honestly about her mental collapse, I properly could not put the book down. I am never quite sure why reviewers so often praise a lack of self-pity in memoirs, when quite often those writing them have a great deal to be sorry about. But in this book, Taylor’s powerful, straightforward and lucid voice is just wonderful. Throughout this time she was seeing a psychoanalyst – indeed the implication is that therapy forced her to confront her problems without being able to prevent her lapse into psychosis – and essentially this relationship becomes the spine of the story. Taylor is mean to her therapist in an eye-watering way, but he hangs on in there for her and eventually becomes her route to sanity.

Also utterly, breathtakingly brilliant was Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost. I’d better not say much about this other than I loved it and hope to review it properly soon.

zeno's conscienceFinally, I am plodding through Zeno’s Conscience, an Italian Modernist hit from the early part of the 20th century. I’m reading it because it has such a good story behind it. It was the third self-published novel by its author, Italo Svevo (whose real name was Ettore Schmitz), and each of his books had appeared to an indifferent critical reception before sinking without trace. He’d given up trying to publish anything for 25 years before writing his last, and he believed his best, book. When it, too, looked like it would disappear unnoticed, he sent a copy to his old friend and one-time English tutor, James Joyce. Joyce was enthusiastic and told him to send copies to prominent French critics that he knew. They took it up with excitement and the novel then catapulted Italo Svevo to brief, late fame. He absolutely loved it, all his dreams had come true, but he only lived a few more years to enjoy it. Generally I can get into any book if I make the effort, but this one is resisting me quite stubbornly. I think it’s a gender problem, as the novel is the story of a lazy, cowardly, morally dubious man who spins everything to put himself in a better light. He is the Homer Simpson of the early 20th century, a man who may not always be right, but who is never wrong. I know he’s meant to be unsympathetic, but his torturous meandering thoughts do sometimes grate upon my nerves. Still, I will plod on.

I shouldn’t really ask, but if you have recommendations for excellent memoirs, just whisper them in the comments below.

49 thoughts on “Thursday Reading Notes

  1. There is a new Eva Dolan due out some time after Christmas. I’m interested to see how she takes the series forward as I think it possible that the parameters she’s given her detectives might be limiting.

  2. I loved Giving up the Ghost – wonderful writing and a fascinating explanation of how Mantel came to be the writer she is. I’ll look forward to your review. I think it was the ‘ghost’ bit that triggered the memory leading to this recommendation: Jennie Erdal’s Ghosting on being Naim Atallah’s ghost writer, something she kept under wraps for many years. Along with Diana Athill’s Stet, it’s a great insight into the publishing world and a riveting psychological study.

  3. I’m whispering … about Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk. If you haven’t read it, buy or borrow it (and a box of kleenex) and curl up for a couple of days with her poetic language, her ability to weave three different stories seamlessly together and her raw, poignant honesty. (The book just won the Samuel Johnson prize – so deservedly.)

  4. I can’t remember whether I’ve already recommended this here, but for reasons that will be obvious, I’m recommending it now: Antonia White’s novel “Through the Looking-Glass,” which is an only-barely-fictionalized account of her psychotic break and incarceration in an insane asylum in the 1920s. Some part of her mind remained intact, and remembered almost everything about the experience…it is an immensely powerful book. It’s the third book of a trilogy, but can be read on its own, as well…although the other two books are equally astonishing.

    • Ooh I do in fact have Antonia White’s trilogy on my shelves and I’ve been wanting to get to it for ages. Thank you for the recommendation, David! I’m definitely adding this one to my list.

  5. I recently read Kathryn Harrison’s book The Kiss (can’t remember if you’ve written about that one), which was intensely uncomfortable and amazing. Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians was good, as was Justin Hocking’s The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld. Those are some recent ones I’ve enjoyed, at least!

    • I have read The Kiss (a while back now) and I agree it’s amazing and very, very disquieting. I’ve actually ordered the other two you mention as they both sounded really good and I know our tastes are so similar when it comes to creative non-fiction. Really looking forward to them!

  6. All Diana Athill’s work is worth reading especially ‘Instead of a Letter.’ Completely different, Candida Lycett Green’s account of travelling via horse through the middle of England. Quoting Susan Hill:
    ‘A brave, lyrical account of childhood, riding horses through England, ideal marriage, friends – everything that matters – oh, and breast cancer. But it’s life Betjeman’s daughter is celebrating’
    My other never-to-be-forgotten memoir is ‘Into the Whirlwind’ by Evgenia Ginzburg. I read it in the late 60’s but i know it’s since been republished. She tells of being imprisoned by Stalin, a great woman who endured the unendurable.

    • Carol, such interesting choices, and several here I haven’t heard of. I should read more Diana Athill as I do love her style. The others are new to me and I will be looking into them, thank you!

  7. I’m hesitant about the Sophie Hannah Poirot because I love Christie so much – and I too have read very mixed reviews. Fascinated to hear what you think about Zeno’s Conscience as I have this knocking about somewhere – I *will* read it eventually!🙂

    • I’m hesitant for exactly the same reason! As for Zeno, it was a most interesting experience. I can’t say I *enjoyed* the novel enormously while I was reading it, but by the end, I had a great deal of admiration for it. It’s a clever book, though it pretends to be dumb, and a powerful if oddly skewed perspective on life. Apparently, Svevo is supposed to have said that philosophy and literature are like a married couple; they don’t understand one another but produce splendid children nevertheless. Which is cute and certainly applicable. So I’m really glad I read it. A book that leaves you with a lot to think about, despite itself!

  8. Yes, I loved Giving up the Ghost, too, but mostly I prefer diaries and letters to memoirs (unwittingly or not people’s memories are so faulty as any detective will tell you). MY all time favourites are the diaries of James Lees-Milne: a dreadful snob, but a man of immense culture.

    • But I love that about memoirs – they’re one person’s perspective, which is never going to agree with any other person’s, even if (especially if) they went through the exact same experience. Plus, as you say, memory is often faulty with regard to the past, but unwittingly very truthful to the feelings about that past in the present. I do like these distortions though I understand they may well irritate others! I hardly ever read diaries because I imagine they must have lots of dull days when not a lot happened, which is entirely based on any diaries I might have kept – I should try some proper published ones and see!

  9. I’d recommend The Book of Hours by Kate Morville & A Border Passage by Leila Ahmed as fabulous memoirs. And now I want to read the Mantel & Taylor thanks to you.🙂

    I’ve tried a couple Sophie Hannah books and given up on both, so I think she’s just not my cuppa. Which is sad, because the plot summaries always seem right up my alley.

    • Funnily enough, someone passed Telling Error onto me. The dull police procedural (watching an Audi travelling back and forth on CCTV!) and the hysterical behaviour of the protagonist was weak and allowed to go on for too many pages. This meant that I almost gave up before I read this review, especially as I went to Amazon to see whether the reviews said it was worth finishing and in the main they said not. I think the dull, overlong opening tells me that more Sophie Hannahs are not for me, but I might have a go at speed reading this one to the end now.

      • Denise, I’ve heard quite a few people say now that her earlier novels were much better. I am definitely going to try one. It did take me quite a while to get into this (those scenes with the Audi!) but I enjoyed it in the end. That being said, there are a lot of books and life is short.🙂

    • Oh I completely understand, Eva, about Sophie Hannah. In crime fiction it’s all about the way you get taken through the story, so even the most enticing crime can’t keep you engaged if you don’t like the process of detection! Thank you so much for the memoir recommendation and I’d love to know what you think of the other memoirs! Do let me know.

    • Oh she does, she does. It came out a few years ago, 2011, 2010, something like that. I would love to know what you think of it! As for Svevo, yes, I did enjoy it in the end, or rather, I found it a very intriguing and provocative book that made me think a lot by the time I’d finished it. So I’m glad I read it!

  10. What a coincidence. I’ve been tempted to read Zeno’s Conscience this week. I’ve only read short works. That memoir has been on my radar as well. But I’m also grateful for any crime suggestion.

    • Caroline, oh do read Zeno, I’m longing for someone to discuss it with. I found it a very intriguing novel by the end, and was glad I stuck with it. If I have an intelligent day next week, I might try to write something about it!

  11. “I was tired of the lazy and turbulent life led at Paris, of the multitude of Petit-Maitres, of bad books printed with the approbation of censors and the privilege of the King, of the cabals and parties among the learned, and of the mean arts, plagiarism and book-making which dishonour literature.”

    Memoirs of Voltaire

    • Ahh, Voltaire. I have a choppy relationship with him. I read him as a sleep-deprived first year in college and could never keep my eyes open. I was very young, though, and not really ready for him. I don’t doubt I’ve got my old books lurking about somewhere!

  12. I can’t remember if you’ve already read May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep.If not, I think you’d love it (and maybe also its darker counterpart, Journal of a Solitude).

  13. Yes, if you haven’t read any of May Sarton’s journals/memoirs, you absolutely should – Journal of a Solitude is justly the best known. I expect you’ve read Virginia Woolf’s diaries – if not, the Selected Diaries is really wonderful. Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story – as much the whole story of her life and marriage as of the period immediately after her husband’s death – gripping and moving. A new book: Philippa Comber’s Ariadne’s Thread – ostensibly a memoir of her friendship with W G Sebald, also gives a good picture of her own life trajectory and preoccupations, as a linguist and germanophile, phychotherapist and now, after retirement, a very fine writer.

    • Jean, I always trust your choices absolutely. I’m particularly intrigued by the Philippa Comber, but will be checking all the others out, too. I have never read Woolf’s diaries – I’ve never really been much of a diary fan, but I should definitely give them a go.

  14. Oh oh Jean’s suggestion’s are excellent. May Sarton a superb one off. I’ve never warmed to her poetry though, maybe I should try harder. Has anyone enjoyed her novels? I have several in my oldest TBR place.

    • A while back, I read one of her novels with our online reading group, Slaves of Golconda. It was called The Small Room, and I really loved it. If you know Simon from Stuck in a Book, I’ll bet he can advise you much better than me, and would be happy to!

  15. I’m shuddering at the mention of Adele Geras. I read one of her books in middle school (Watching the Roses, I think?), and it upset me so much I had to put it outside before I could get to sleep. One of those cases where you don’t realize a book’s too old for you until you’re too far in to stop.:/

    In memoirs, I recommend Joan Wyndham’s delightfully insane journal about living in the London Blitz (Love Lessons), and then any of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s books (though I love the middle one rather less than the surrounding two), and also Catherine Gildiner’s excellent and very funny Too Close to the Falls. Your insanity memoir sounds fascinating! Adding that one to my list, as you know I like to read about madness.

    • Heh, I had Agatha Christie taken away from me when I was what, 10? 11? and it was giving me nightmares, so, yup, know just what you mean! I am delighted to say that I always take your recommendations seriously and own copies of Love Lessons and Too Close to the Falls already, after reading your posts. Yay! I will definitely be reading both, and must now check out Jennifer Finney Boylan too. Thank you!

    • I made the large mistake of trying to read it in French, where it is written in a sumptuous, ornate, complicated style that did my head in. I should try the English translation, as I have heard others agree with you that it’s an excellent book!

  16. Another person here who loved ‘Giving up the Ghost’… Hm, memoirs. If you like gentle eccentricity, then Diana Holman-Hunt’s ‘My Grandmothers and I’ is great fun, and it’s not just the grandmothers who are bonkers. I’m also partial to Lesley Blanch’s ‘Journey into the Mind’s Eye’, and you might enjoy Lorna Sage’s ‘Bad Blood’ too

    It’s perhaps not your cup of tea, but Cellini’s enormously boastful Autobiography, stuffed with goldsmithery, murder and general swaggering is good fun.

    • Helen, if it made you laugh, I’m right on it. Bonkers grandmas sounds right up my street. I’ll be checking out the other suggestions too – they all sound wonderful! Thank you!

  17. Oh, so many good books–why are you doing this to me? I had no idea that Sophie Hannah was Adele Geras’s daughter! How interesting. I have read neither author though I have a number of books by both authors. You’ll have to tell me which one you like best by Adele! I think I have ‘avoided’ (not really avoid just don’t seem to get around to) reading Sophie’s books for the same reason. I suspect that once you begin, you really can’t put the book down–I have certainly heard that attached to her name. I’m reading a really excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane, but you are looking for memoirs so I’ll have to think on that. I love them as well so will have to read through the comments to see which are mentioned. Good for you for the Svevo–I have often looked at his books, but then quietly slid them back onto the shelves…..

    • Ooh I think I may have heard about that biography of Jane Franklin, I will definitely look into that. And I seem to remember you reading and loving Paula Fox’s memoirs a while back. She’s on my list via you, too, I’m sure! We will speak more and further about Adele Geras and Sophie Hannah, although I will say that I’ve heard from several people since writing this post that Sophie’s earlier crime novels are a lot better than the later ones. I’m curious to try now and will let you know! As for Svevo, I thought it was really interesting by the end, but I confess it was quite the plow. For fun, I’d definitely choose something very different!🙂

  18. I’ve only read Sophie Hannah’s “Little Face.” I found it a good page-turner, though as you noted with the book you read by her, there are elements of implausibility. But I remember when I posted my review of “Little Face” and searched other blogs for reviews of it, that book too had divided reviews. Very like-it or hate-it.

  19. Pingback: Best Books of 2014 | Tales from the Reading Room

  20. More thoughts after reading the great comments. I really like Border Passage, by Leila Ahmed, less psychological than some but about how an Egyptian woman studied at Oxford [?] and eventually became a feminist. She views writing the book as a time to rethink how she has previously understood her life.

    And yes, do read Jill Lepore’s biography of Jane Franklin and her new one on Wonder Woman. She frequently writes history for a general audience and deals with questions of how we know. And she is great fun.

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