Summer Reads

I’m not one for compiling lists of what I am going to read ahead of time, because I value too much the freedom and spontaneity of a vast sea of choices each time I finish a book, and often the reading experience will lead me on to the next thing.

Like reading Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Prodigal Summer’ straight after ‘The Namesake’. How could I know that after listening to the group discussing the book I would have a conversation with a local poet about the beauty of sentences and Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay and that she would tell me I must read Kingsolver’s book.  It was sitting on the shelf unread and thus I abandoned all other reading ideas and jumped straight into it.

100 years on, Titanic Belfast Museum

But I do love looking at the lists, always feeding into the mental TBR list, noting books I might wish to read or to keep an eye out for.

I could say I have intentions for summer, like the two Titanic inspired books I bought on a recent visit to Titanic Belfast, the excellent museum opened in March this year.

‘A Night to Remember’ and ‘And the Band Played On’ also seem appropriate companions to Charlotte Rogan’s ‘The Lifeboat’ which I have on kindle.

To help you decide, I wanted to share this excellent flowchart designed by Teach.com to encourage students to find a book of their choice, there are 101 books shown, inviting readers to consider fiction versus non-fiction, classic or contemporary and many other options.  I keep coming across it and there’s something appealing about viewing images of covers rather than just a list of titles, so enjoy and I hope you find something for your own summer read!

 

So do you plan your reads or are you open to the spontaneous?
Summer Reading Flowchart

Via Teach.com and USC Rossier Online

Gogol, The Namesake

I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s first collection of short stories ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ from the library recently, I seem to have read her work in reverse order, starting with her most recent collection ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ a collection of stories of the experience of second generation immigrants and moving eventually to the book that won the prize.

As I mention in one of my first (and most read) blog posts ‘Why People Don’t Read Short Stories’, it is not my habit to read a short story collection straight through, I stop and start and read them at random and so it has been with both these enticing volumes.

I noticed the bookshop book club was reading ‘The Namesake’ this month and I had just read an excellent essay by Lahiri in the New York Times called ‘My Life’s Sentences’ relating to her love of certain paragraphs in books and the construction of a sentence, so I decided to read her only novel ‘The Namesake’ which had been on the shelf since seeing the Mira Nair directed film a few years ago, which I loved.

‘The Namesake’ refers to Gogol, the Bengali son of the Ganguli family who immigrate to America, a consequence of Ashoke’s (Gogol’s father) changed outlook on life following a serious train accident, a catalyst for change that impacts and shapes the lives of all his family, an event that he does not speak of to his son until he is an adult.

The train is used as a metaphor for change in the novel, many of the significant turning points in the lives of the characters take place during a train journey, which in itself transports people physically from the familiar to a less familiar location and is an environment that one usually cannot escape from.

Not speaking about things is common among these characters, aided by the distant third person narrative which skips from the present to the past, in particular the most dramatic events are seen through the prism of the past, drawing the reader into this protective shield from potentially harmful events.

Gogol, is American, but his Russian name, his Bengali family and their culture mark him as different to many in his community. His home life is different to the average neighbourhood child and he finds himself like many children of immigrants and third culture kids, living between two worlds.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all grow up seeking to affirm our sense of personal and group identity, absorbing those questions of Who am I? Where do I belong? Traditionally, the family and the community reflect that notion and it is not until we step outside those comfort zones that we might question it. But for children growing up among worlds and between cultures the awareness comes much earlier.

For most of his life once he becomes aware of the differences, Gogol does what he can to minimise them, seeking out the ordinary, trying to blend in. He tries to suppress his cultural links, portrayed through his choice of girlfriend and change of name.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Like Lahiri’s short stories, which portray composites of life for immigrants of first or second generations from India, this book highlights one family’s experience, the dilemmas that each generation face which will mould their characters. We follow Gogol’s journey, try to understand it, imaging ourselves in the shoes of another, witness to the culture clash within this one family.

I consider briefly the clash of cultures within my own small family and understand the inclination to put it toward the back of mind. Writing is a good option for expressing the pathways of these experiences. I wonder if the presence of a large community from the parent culture assists or hinders integration. I find these stories leave many more questions than answers; there is no guide, just individual experience and the necessity to persevere, to survive.

The Crossing

This is the second in the ‘The Border Trilogy’ series after ‘All The Pretty Horses’, that book being my first read of a Cormac McCarthy novel which turned me into a fan. The first book follows two young boys on their way toward Mexico to find work where they endure numerous perilous adventures including prison, first love, betrayal and death. Quite possibly the least bleak of McCarthy’s work, which may account in part for why I enjoyed it so much, but even his more downbeat work has much that I admire linguistically.

In ‘The Crossing’ we meet 16 year-old Billy who doesn’t intend to set out on an adventure, it happens almost by accident, he feels the need to put things right; three times he does so, each effort requiring him to cross the border into Mexico on a personal mission.

The first trip he attempts to return an injured, pregnant wolf he has trapped. Rather than kill her, he tries to return her to the mountains where she came from. The second journey with his brother Boyd is an attempt to retrieve stolen horses and the final crossing Billy makes alone to find his missing brother and bring him home.

To read McCarthy is to take a long, sometimes grim journey; a voyage that traverses rough terrain and encounters more evil than good ,while observing the character moulding experiences of its young male protagonist. But worthwhile for the linguistic pleasure of his descriptions and dialogue (some of it in Spanish).

What does the corrido say?

Quijada shook his head. The corrido tells all and it tells nothing. I heard the tale of the güerito years ago. Before your brother was even born.

You don’t think it tells about him?

Yes, it tells about him. It tells what it wishes to tell. It tells what makes the story run. The corrido is the poor man’s history. It does not owe its allegiance to the truths of history but to the truths of men.  It tells the tale of that solitary man who is all men. It believes that where two men meet one of two things can occur and nothing else.  In the one case a lie is born and in the other death.

McCarthy is no optimist, to take a journey into his imagination is tough and if this novel embraces anything, I think it is futility, the shadow that neutralises youthful exuberance and withers righteous intentions, that lingering threat that will keep an older, wiser man within reach of his homestead and away from the troubles that lie in wait of the restless, idealistic man on a dubious if well-intended mission.

But it is in his nature to make that attempt to set things right, not to let things be, to provoke a response and assert his rights, no matter how foolish they appear or dangerous they become.

I really enjoyed taking my time reading this novel, it is written in language I like to be immersed in and is thought-provoking along the entire journey and long after, I don’t need more than that from a good read and leave you with another favourite passage from near the end.

You look like you might have been down here a while, the man said.

I don’t know. What does that look like?

Like you need to get back.

Well. You probably right about that. This is my third trip.  It’s the only time I was ever down here that I got what I come after.  But it sure as hell wasn’t what I wanted.

A Piece of the Mosaic

Thank you to inspirational talent Kimberly Sullivan who lives in Rome and has written ‘In the Shadow of the Apennines’ set in the mountains of Abruzzo. She tagged me in the ‘Be Inspired’ blog hop hosted by ‘Page After Page’:

All of our stories come from somewhere, whether it be a dream, another book, a life event…So, I thought why not give people the chance to talk about their inspirations as well as their stories?

To participate, I should answer 10 questions about my novel and then tag 5 writer’s:

1. What is the name of your book?

‘A Piece of the Mosaic’

2. Where did the idea of your book come from?

It started with a prompt in a creative writing class at the Groucho Club in Soho; the tutor asked us to spend 5 minutes writing about a character. It was the scariest part of the class, that compulsory, time limited plunge into the unknown with others furiously scribbling away.

Paralysed, I had a vision of the back of a young man standing on a pier smoking a cigarette, gazing out to sea . He was wearing black trousers and a black leather jacket, observed by two schoolgirls giggling on a bench. After the class finished, I could not get that man out of my head.

3. In what genre would you classify your book?

I hate labels, I hope this book crosses as many genres as possible, but if I had to guess I would say it is contemporary, cross cultural fiction.

4. If you had to pick actors to play your characters in a movie rendition, who would you choose?

I don’t know any current Italian actors, so I would suggest a young man of Mediterranean origin to play Alfredo and because this question is too hard, I’m going to adapt it and say I dream of music composed by Ennio Morricone and the film directed by Giuseppe Tornatore director of Cinema Paradiso and Ba’aria. Authentic it must be.

5. Provide a brief synopsis.

Alfredo’s home village – Liguria

Angry with his father after his mother’s death, young Italian chef Alfredo, abandons the fishing village he has lived in all his life and travels to England, eventually finding a job in the seaside town on the South Coast. In return for low rent, he agrees to an unorthodox request from his spinster landlady Claudette, to help her find the sister she has not seen for 30 years since she and her husband immigrated to New Zealand.

Alfredo discovers more than a long-lost sister and the search soon becomes his own, to find Claudette’s niece Amber; the journey leading him towards everything he has tried to avoid in order to learn the truth.

6. Is your book already published/represented?

The synopsis and first three chapters have been read by 3 agents in London, with encouraging responses but declining representation and the full manuscript was requested by the fiction editor at Penguin NZ, who enjoyed it and suggested I seek representation in the UK.

 In order to establish some credibility with my writing, I decided to write a blog before I send it out again, so here I am blogging away, sharing my passion for the written word.

7. How long did it take you to write your book?

The actual writing part probably took about a year, but I wrote it in two bursts, the first half when I lived in London and on a whim travelled to Liguria to spend a week in a fishing village imagining and writing of lives other than my own.

I finished it in the first six months of arriving in France unable to speak French – the best excuse in the world not to have a proper job and to finish a first novel.

8. What other books within your genre would you compare it to? Or readers of which books would enjoy yours?

There are many books about people from the English-speaking world going to live in a non-English speaking country, both fiction and non-fiction, Alfredo isn’t leaving to see the world, he is escaping.  It is a story that questions identity and confronts issues of adoption and family.

I think it will appeal to people who like books that take them to places they dream of visiting and that introduce them to issues from different cultural perspectives, if anyone has any suggestions as to any other book this sounds like, let me know.

9. Which authors inspired you to write this book?

Two authors come to mind immediately, ironically Stephen King influenced this book, because I read his excellent slim masterpiece ‘On Writing’ midway through writing.  After reading it I changed a few things, I stopped writing longhand, I set a 1000 words/day word count (his is 2,000 words/day) and I stopped editing as I was writing, I just wrote it out until the end – terrified it would be crap, but discovered how to create pace.

The other author who spent some time residing in my subconscious was Italo Calvino, it took me a while to figure out what he wanted; now I know – but it’s a secret.

10. Tell us anything that might pique interest in your book?

Here are two extracts that survived that very first writing exercise, sitting in the Groucho Club in London, searching the recesses of my mind for inspiration.

Looking out over the swollen sea, Alfredo smiled knowingly at how her moods changed, one moment bright and sparkling in her refinery, phosphorescence glittering like sequins in the moonlight, the next as she was now, irascible, dark and brooding, like a young lover scorned, beauty transformed into bitterness. He watched a fish jump momentarily from her clutch, as if trying to escape her volatile and uncompromising mood, then witnessed the force of gravity, the sea’s ever-trusting accomplice, toss the cold-blooded vertebrae back into the maelstrom from which it had tried valiantly to escape.

He threw his half-finished cigarette into the sea and she hissed at him in reply. He had never been a regular smoker in Italy and wished he could kick the habit, cigarettes had become a comfort since he came to England, he liked to roll them as much as he liked to smoke them, it gave his hands something to do when his mind was restless. Thoughts extinguished, he walked down the length of the pier, eyes front, not looking at two giggling teenage girls to his right but sensing their eyes following his footsteps, over the wooden planks, where if one’s gaze was concentrated enough, you could see the pregnant swell of the waves below, as the tidal ebb carried them to and from the shore.

And now to tag 5 writers, all of whom are an inspiration to me:

  1. Brenda Moguez – Passionate Pursuits
    – Brenda is a prolific, unique and inspirational blogger with a rich family and personal history to draw on, not to mention a gigantic imagination, it’s just a matter of time before we will be reading her novel, now doing the rounds of agents.
  2. Juliet GreenwoodJulietGreenwoodAuthor – Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh cottage between the romantic Isle of Anglesey and the majestic mountains and ruined castles of Snowdonia, she is living the dream, a published writer and avid gardener; she is an inspiration.
  3. Patricia SandsEveryone Has a Story to Tell
    – Patricia has published a book about friendship, fun and the complexities of relationships among women, drawing inspiration from her own experiences. Every Friday she blogs about France and her current WIP (work in progress) is set here.
  4. Julie Christine Chalk the Sun
    – Julie is a Francophile, she is a reading writer, travels often and writes a fantastic book review. Just waiting for her to plunge right into writing that novel, a WWII star-crossed romance between a young French girl and a German POW, inspired by true events.
  5. Jen ThompsonChronicles of Jen
    – Jen is another writer who loves to read and shares her thoughts when she does, she’s a talented writer, lives in a caravan and is out there observing characters and seeking inspiration while serving hotdogs and popcorn. She may not be able to participate because her idea is so great, someone might steal it J
  6. Nelle NelleWritesI’m going to add one more, because I couldn’t have a list of writers without including Nelle, who not only is a great writer, but is a loyal follower and comments on all my reviews, even though her book budget is severely restricted.

The Pearl

I am content as my first foray into the work of John Steinbeck reveals that he too loves a fable, and like the best of them, lets the story speak for itself.

His short novel ‘The Pearl’ is based on a Mexican folk tale about Kino and Juana, a young couple who live a basic existence, their joy of a first baby threatened when it suffers the sting of a scorpion.

Kino is a pearl diver and on the day he most needs a miracle, the discovery of a large pearl appears at first to be the answer to the couple’s prayer. However, its discovery disturbs the community’s tranquil equilibrium, it seems too much to embrace and while it is in their possession, it wreaks only havoc.

There is a sense of inevitability with this kind of tale, we know the pearl is symbolic, and we recognise that desperate grasping, clutch of desire, laced with fear and stalked by paranoia, the fleeting hope it inspires is stifled by the more pervasive greed and jealousy which quickly degenerate into suspicion and violence.

Despite the inevitability, I read with the wilful hope of an optimist, always searching for some altruistic sign, an indication of man’s humanity, the charitable gesture of an honest person. Steinbeck leads us along on this journey, as we develop our own understanding bathing in his glorious prose.

Now Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea on anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people – every song that had ever been made, even the ones that had been forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino…

Taking the pearl from its natural habitat changes its symbolism, for in nature it is pure, lustrous, a thing of splendour and inspiration, it represents the transformation of something irritable (the grain of sand) into something of divine beauty (the pearl). But removing it from the sea will corrupt everything that sees, hears of, imagines or touches it; it becomes representative of greed and avarice, the longer it stays in their possession, the greater its destructive power. But will returning it to nature undo its curse?

In addition to this enjoyable story, the book opens with a foreword which reads like a letter from Steinbeck’s wife Elaine. She shares something of the joy of his writing life, his impulsive and creative attempts to construct the perfect writing environment (including building a writing room in the back seat of his Ford Station Wagon) all of which for me, created an almost familiar context from which to begin reading the great man’s work.

Onward to his next oeuvre, Tortilla Flat awaits.

The Smile

He wrote more than 27 novels and over 600 short stories and somehow his work has never crossed my path.

As I read the Culture and Book pages of The Guardian daily, I have been reading some wonderful tributes to the writer Ray Bradbury who died recently at the age of 91. ‘Margaret Atwood on Ray Bradbury: the tale-teller who tapped into the gothic core of America’ was interesting, Atwood celebrates the author, known for his science fiction but who has shown remarkable scope and influence throughout his career. He was a story-teller; he had an active and far-reaching imagination and rejected the limitation of labels.

After a quick trip to our local French library yesterday, I stopped at a display table honouring Ray Bradbury and came home with his prophetic short story ‘The Smile’ the only English language work left on the display.

Set in 2061, the story is set in a square in Rome, where the boy Tom waits with an angry crowd to view the ‘Mona Lisa’. Joy has vanished from this world and people are filled with hate for everything that represents the past. Except Tom. He remembers. He represents hope. Perhaps love. Certainly appreciation.

Tom stood before the painting and looked at it for a long time.

The woman in the painting smiled serenely, secretly, at Tom, and he looked back at her, his heart beating, a kind of music in his ears.

Demi-God reawakens Classical Myths

It wasn’t the bookies favourite, but it was the bestselling book of the Orange Prize shortlist and as I discovered, Madeline Miller’s
‘The Song of Achilles’ had much to entice a multitude of readers, being a contemporary narration of an age-old tale drawn from the Greek Myths, published in the lead up to the Olympic Games and touching on issues that echo President Obama’s recent stand on equality for same-sex couples. Very 21st century then.

Inspired by Homer’s classicThe Iliad‘, Miller focuses on Achilles, the half God, half mortal son of Peleus and Thetis and his friend, the young exiled Prince, Patroclus, about whom little is known. Achilles’ mother Thetis is a sea-nymph and fears for her son’s future; she will do everything she can to protect him given his fate as the greatest warrior of his generation, and to avoid his death which it the oracles say will follow his killing of Hector.

The friendship between Achilles and Patroclus fires Miller’s imagination and the first half of the book beautifully depicts this at first distant relationship, blossom into a feverish loyalty. Not surprising to learn the author has been listening to and reading the Greek myths since she was 5 years old, a passion that carried her into studies of Greek and Latin, which comes across in this oeuvre.

Though I have only cursory knowledge of the Greek heroes, I have long been intrigued by their stories and archetypal symbolism, much in the same way I loved to learn about Maori myths and legends during my childhood; the legendary Maui, a demigod from Hawaiki, fished up New Zealand from the ocean.

I am reminded too of the child in A.S.Byatt’s ‘Ragnarök’ who relates to the Norse myths more than anything else anyone teaches her. So too, in my imagination do these legends of childhood come back to me and explain nature and humanity in a more primal way than anything else I was later taught – what we learn and how it affects us isn’t so much chosen as absorbed into our being when we are very young.

So ‘The Song of Achilles’ inspired me to pick up my ‘Myths of Greece & Rome’ by H.A.Gueber and read all the references to Achilles, Patroclus, Thetis, Peleus, Hector and more. Within its pages I found this reference to a word and metaphor we all know to refer to the tendon in the heel, but whose origin is much less known.

Thetis loved this only child so dearly, that when he was but a babe, she had carried him to the banks of the Styx, whose waters had the magic power of rendering all the parts they touched invulnerable. Premising that her son would be a great warrior, and thus exposed to great danger, she plunged him wholly into the tide with the exception of one heel, but which she held him, and then returned home.

In the original story an oracle foretells that Achilles will die from a wound in his heel after his dispatch of Hector; ultimately he will be remembered and perhaps even more renowned for this insignificant but fatal weakness, than for his epic courage and strength.

I liked this book as much for its inspiring me to look at other books and references to find out more about the legend as I did for the story itself. I came to it without much knowledge of its content and found the first half totally intriguing, reading it in one sitting. It did slow and almost lose me once they set sail for Troy and the ensuing battle scenes were a little two-dimensional, but when Patroclus found his healing abilities and tended to the wounded soldiers, the story refocused on the lead characters.  The action played off the battle field was more captivating and I was gripped throughout the last quarter.