Rebeki reads on in 2018
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Hello fellow Club Read-ers, and a belated Happy New Year!
This will be my seventh year in Club Read and, while I'm pleased I managed to keep last year's thread going throughout the year, I wasn't a very sociable member of the group. I'm hoping that I'll find time in 2018 to participate more actively.
Life and politics conspired to make 2016 a poor reading year for me, but, towards the end of it, I began to rediscover my enjoyment of reading, so that 2017 was possibly the best yet in this respect: I read 18 books with my son and 39 "grown-up" books, among which there was barely a dud. Conversely, I'd be hard pushed to single out one or two favourites. With my son, I enjoyed (re)discovering Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch series, while completing Miklós Bánffy's Transylvanian Trilogy and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels brought me pleasure and satisfaction. Other memorable reads were I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, Autumn by Ali Smith and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
I hope that my 2018 reading will be just as good!
I don't make plans for my reading, or, rather, I keep any plans I may have in my head, since putting them in writing seems to guarantee they won't come to anything! However, I'm hoping it's not too risky to say that I'd like to continue my (gradual) chronological re-read of Margaret Atwood's novels so that I can (i) finally watch the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale; (ii) eventually move on to her Maddaddam Trilogy and beyond. Obviously I could do both these things without the re-read, but that's too easy!
More than anything, though, I want to reduce my TBR pile significantly. I had some success with this last year, after joining the ROOTs group. Through a combination of reading from my shelves, culling books that no longer interested me and getting to new acquisitions more quickly, I managed to get my TBR total down from 220 to 195. I know this isn't a large number by LT standards, but it's still overwhelming to a slowish reader like me and I would prefer to acquire and read books as they take my fancy, instead of stockpiling them. I used to enjoy trawling second-hand bookshops to see what treasures I could find, but these days I would rather buy a carefully-selected full-price new book. I'd therefore like to cut drastically the number of books I buy and, if I do give into temptation, to read any newly acquired books more or less straight away. Wish me luck!
Books read in 2018
1. Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel (TBR, bought in 2013)
2. Matilda by Roald Dahl (re-read, read with my son)
3. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (TBR, bought in 2017)
4. Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (TBR, bought in 2010)
5. Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood (re-read)
6. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell (read with my son)
7. Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa (TBR, 2017 birthday present)
8. Revolution Baby by Joanna Gruda (bought in 2018)
9. Harry the Poisonous Centipede's Big Adventure by Lynne Reid Banks (library book, read with my son)
10. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (TBR, bought in 2012)
11. Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (TBR, bought in 2016)
12. Le Fait du prince by Amélie Nothomb (TBR, bought in 2015)
13. Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood (re-read)
14. The Handsome Man's Deluxe Café by Alexander McCall Smith (TBR, bought in 2016)
Harry the Poisonous Centipede Goes to Sea by Lynne Reid Banks
Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto
Billy Bunter and the Blue Mauritius by Frank Richards
The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith (bought February 2018)
The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (purchase of a book previously read but unowned, bought March 2018
Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto (bought March 2018)
Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty (bought March 2018)
The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (Mothering Sunday present)
Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother's Ruin Became the Spirit of London by Olivia Williams (bought March 2018)
just stopping by and waving hello. Love that you and your son read so much together.
>4 dchaikin: Hi Dan, thanks for stopping by. I plan to venture out and visit other threads later!
Rather excitingly, my son has recently started reading independently, but I'm hoping that won't mean he loses his enthusiasm for listening to me read to him.
Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel
This sequel to Every Day is Mother’s Day is set 10 years later, in the mid-eighties. While Muriel remained a somewhat opaque character in the first book and ultimately under her mother’s control, here we have access to the inner workings of her mind as she takes charge of her life – with horrifying results.
Her sights are set on the Sidney family, older, even more chaotic and occupying Muriel’s old home, and Isabel Field, her brittle former social worker. Old connections are revealed between the characters and new ones emerge, with Muriel poised at every moment to turn the situation to her advantage.
Muriel is simultaneously awful, fascinating and pitiful and it is impossible not to admire her cunning and her ability to slip into different guises. The events of the first novel prepared me for the fact that things would not end prettily, but this is a humorous novel above all, so I sat back and enjoyed the ride.
It goes without saying that Mantel’s writing and observations are razor-sharp, and I enjoyed the shift in decade. Both books featuring Muriel Axon read like period pieces in terms of their cultural references – the DHSS and the three-million unemployment figure crop repeatedly in this novel – but feel as fresh as if completed just last week.
Thinking about Wolf Hall, the only Mantel I've read, Muriel seems like a character Mantel could pull off wonderfully. Noting this book and Every Day is Mother's Day...which I now see are her first two books.
>3 Rebeki: I see you are reading Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Did you know this about the author and genesis of the book?
Hans Fallada, the alias for Rudolf Ditzen, wrote his last novel, Every Man Dies Alone, in 24 days and died of a morphine overdose before it could be published. A man tortured by substance abuse and his ambivalent relationship with the Nazis, Fallada wrote prolifically but with few successes. After stints in hospitals and even an insane asylum, Fallada was shown a Gestapo file by a friend and told it would make a good story. The file was on a German couple who resisted the Reich by dispersing hand-written postcards denouncing Hitler and the war throughout Berlin. Fallada uses the basic plot suggested by the file to create the novel.
I'll be curious to see what you think of the book.
>9 labfs39: Hi Lisa, I knew that the novel was inspired by the actions of real people, but not that much about Hans Fallada himself - how sad it all sounds. There are sections at the end of the book about the author and the real-life Quangels, although I'll save those for when I've finished the novel proper.
I'm "enjoying" it so far, though dreading what is to come. Although the book is very readable, I'm progressing at a slow pace, because I can no longer read anything depressing/disturbing before bed, so I always have a "daytime" and "night-time" book on the go! I expect to be able to do a bit more daytime reading in the coming week...
>10 Cait86: Hi Cait, I'm about to start Lady Oracle as my night-time book (see above!) and then it'll be Life Before Man for me too. I'll be having a break between books though. I recall enjoying Lady Oracle but not being so sure about Life Before Man. However, I think I've changed quite a bit since I read them, so it'll be interesting to see how I respond to them this time.
Oops, Colleen's post has made me realise I missed some comments upthread.
>7 dchaikin:, >12 NanaCC: I came to Mantel through Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies too, and I certainly found the latter a tighter, more gripping read (inevitably, I suppose, since it covered a shorter timespan). The books of hers I've read since - An Experiment in Love, Beyond Black, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Every Day is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession - have all had a definite darkness and edginess to them, and often a supernatural element. Each book is quite different, but I can't get enough of her writing.
>8 ipsoivan: Hi Maggie, good luck with your efforts to reduce your TBR. I hope we both have a successful year!
>14 japaul22: Hi Jennifer, that's good to hear! I was thinking to try that one next, although I may read her memoir, Giving up the Ghost first.
I remember your reading A Place of Greater Safety a few years ago, after some diligent preparatory reading. Inspired by that, I went out and bought a book on the French Revolution. Needless to say, both that book and Mantel's novel remain on my shelves unread!
>12 NanaCC:, >13 Rebeki: I've only read Wolf Hall, and was thinking I would, leave it at that. I mean I enjoyed it, and I have mild interest in reading more, but there are a lot of books. But thinking through what was she did with Cromwell and how she could apply that to how Rebecca describes Muriel in her review of Vacant Possessions - cunning and maleable and dark - has my imagination going.
Catching up on January's reads:
Matilda by Roald Dahl
A re-read of a childhood favourite for me and a new read for my son. It’s definitely the most grown-up of the Roald Dahls we’ve read together and my son (6½) was a little upset by the tricks Matilda played on her father, even if he wasn’t a very nice person. However, he seemed to have got over the darker nature of the book by the time the horrendous Miss Trunchbull appeared, and enjoyed the story.
I was older than him when I first read Matilda, but I think my son experienced the same longing as me to be as advanced in reading as Matilda and started asking me about Charles Dickens. I assured him that Matilda was exceptional (and not real) and that he’d be better off waiting a few years! However, I did promise to make a start myself on Great Expectations, which has been sitting on my shelves for nearly six years, and then tell him about it :)
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
I started this book as something light to read alongside Alone in Berlin and ended up racing through it.
The elderly and recently widowed Mrs Palfrey arrives one gloomy Sunday to take up residence at the Claremont Hotel. She is not at all sure she is going to enjoy this change of lifestyle, but, being a resilient woman, determines to make the best of it. While the majority of guests are tourists or other short-term visitors, Mrs Palfrey soon gets to know a handful of other elderly long-term residents. Their routines and personal quirks and foibles are described to great comic effect but are also very believable. In this isolated existence, a visit from a relative confers great status and, feeling at a disadvantage on this point, Mrs Palfrey is pleased to make the chance acquaintance of a charming (and penniless) young man.
This novel is funny and warm-hearted and easy to read, but is also matter of fact about the loneliness of old age and the unwitting cruelty of younger generations towards their elders. A poignant, bittersweet read.
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
I have had this book for almost eight years, but it has taken me this long to summon up the courage to read it. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, it concerns an unremarkable middle-aged couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who decide, in their own small way, to take a stand against the Nazi regime by distributing anti-Hitler postcards. Based on the real-life case of Otto and Elise Hampel, it is clear how things will end, but, for all that, I found it a surprisingly enjoyable read.
With its curious mix of past and present tense narration, which took a little getting used to, the writing feels very immediate, and although at first events seem to unfold slowly, as we are introduced to a cast of secondary characters and the cautious Otto decides on his plan of action, the pace picks up as the first postcards are found, and a cat-and-mouse story ensues.
Most books I’ve read that touch on life under the Nazis have tended to deal with the situation for Jewish people, with people attempting to escape to other, safer countries or with people who are part of an organised resistance, so it was interesting to see what life was like for “ordinary” Germans, decent and otherwise, under this oppressive and poisonous regime. Through the character of Inspector Escherich, the Gestapo officer initially in charge of the investigation into the mysterious postcard distributor, we can see that no one was exempt from the poison and terror.
In spite of the inevitable conclusion and the limited impact of the Quangels’ campaign, there is a feeling of redemption, that the Quangels, and others like them, have won because they have kept their integrity. Through one of the purely fictional plotlines, Fallada also chooses to end the novel on a hopeful note, which, from an author who clearly had plenty of troubles in his own life, I very much appreciated.
I am now interested to read more of Fallada’s work. At times I found the down-to-earth writing and the flawed characters reminiscent of Patrick Hamilton, a favourite author of mine and another troubled soul, and I imagine this similarity may come through even more strongly in some of Fallada’s other novels.
Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
I continued my (slow) chronological re-read of Margaret Atwood's novels with this, her third novel. I remember enjoying it when I first read it in 2006, but could recall little of the plot. This is not surprising, considering the constant movement back and forth through time and the narrator's multiple lives and identities.
Joan Foster has faked her death and fled Canada for a remote Italian town. As she looks back over her life thus far, this drastic step starts to seem to the reader less unhinged than it first appears. There are some heartbreaking childhood incidents, reminiscent of Cat's Eye, but with the addition of a troubled, cruel mother, and, as in The Edible Woman and Surfacing, Atwood's two earlier novels, a sense of woman pursued and not permitted simply to be.
However, there is also a great deal of humour, some eccentric yet somehow believable characters, some unintentionally funny intellectuals, including the dreadful Arthur, and a heroine you can't help but root for, even if she's incapable of telling the truth. And, along the way, some carefully placed extracts from the pulp historical romances Joan excels at writing, which come to mirror the developments in her own life.
It was all such good fun that I'm feeling slight trepidation about the next Atwood I'll be reading, Life Before Man, which I remember being far less warm and humorous an affair.
Three great posts. Love that your son is eyeing Dickens. And this last post is the kind that makes Fallada sound more appealing and less like an assignment, if that makes sense. (ETA - posted before I saw the Atwood review. Wondering if more is coming)
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell
This was a quirky book about a girl called Ottoline, who lives in a city that looks remarkably like NYC and has been left in the care of a hairy Norwegian creature called Mr Munroe by her travelling parents. When Ottoline and Mr Munroe notice that a series of dog thefts and burglaries have been occurring on their street, they decide to investigate.
Appealingly laid out and full of illustrations, this would make a good book for a child getting to grips with reading by themselves, but I insisted on reading it to my son, because it looked too good to miss out on! Actually, I was concerned the humour might be a bit quirky for him, but that seemed not to be the case. For my part, I was deeply envious of Ottoline, whose absent parents had arranged all manner of services to make sure she was looked after: home-cooked meals, pillow-plumping, cleaning, lightbulb-changing etc. Sounds great!
>22 dchaikin: Hi Dan, just the one above for now! Yes, I had felt that Alone in Berlin would be a worthy but difficult read, but it was a genuinely enjoyable experience. After not being able to face this sort of subject-matter last year, I feel I now have the courage to start some other books I've been putting off.
Interesting reviews. Like you I read Lady Oracle years ago, and also don't remember much about it. Thanks for the refresher.
>25 janeajones: I'm actually hoping the details don't stick too well this time either, so that I can have fun rediscovering it all over again!
I've enjoyed catching up with your reviews. Particularly interested in Lady Oracle, which I didn't really know anything about before, but now I feel I need to check out.
Such a variety of reading. I miss reading aloud to my daughter or even co-reading the same book. Now she's off on her own and frequently reading online. It's fun to hear about the books you read your son and his reactions.
Hi Rebeki! We must have been in another group together before, because I recognize your name. I have put the Mantel books on my wishlist as I have already read her book Bring up the Bodies.
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont sounds delightful. I'll stay away from Alone in Berlin for the same reason I can't bring myself to watch "Schindler's List". But I appreciate your review of the Fallada book. It's good to be aware of people who have the courage to hold on to their integrity, something I always hope I would do in such a situation.
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