I had a wobble when I tried to decide what to read for this category. Firstly, I’m in the UK, so I had to decide how I would ‘translate’ the word state – home county? home town? Then, I had the usual problem that I’ve never really known where home was. I spent the longest period of my childhood, I suppose, in Oxford. A small village outside the city centre, which was both quaint and dull and -it’s beginning to dawn on me – I’ll miss it bitterly when my parents finally leave there next summer. But I’ve lived for nearly as long in London, now, and Crystal Palace has begun to feel like a forever home for me.
So, I thought I’d see if there were any novels set in my little part of South East London. Sure enough, Deborah Crombie (who lives in Dallas, Texas of all places) has set one of her Duncan Kincaid / Gemma Jones detective novels not 5 minutes from my house. The first murder happens in a hotel at the top of my hill, the characters frequent my local pub. The police spend hours of their time trying to navigate Westow Hill and the Triangle. It’s great. One character spent his teenaged summers playing his guitar under one of the sphinxes, something I would love to be able to do. That this character then got as far as he could from Upper Norwood because it was so scummy did nothing to quell the magic.
It’s not a bad little crime novel, either. I’ll certainly consider reading some of the others in the series, perhaps on my next holiday (I love a good crime series by a sunny swimming pool; or on a cold, English campsite). It also has the unusual quirk of being a novel about the Met where women detectives are in the majority. I’m not sure how true to reality that is, but it made a nice change.
It makes me a little nervous to say: I first read this book over 20 years ago. Ouch. I’m pretty sure it was a GCSE text and, after devouring it and loving the curious language, I went on to read as many Thomas Hardy books as I could find. Does anyone else remember those ‘Classics’ you could buy for £1 in The Works? I lived off them as a teenager.
‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ doesn’t fail to excite and amuse as it did on the first read (perhaps one of the perks of a terrible memory). I do wonder, however, how much of it I could have really understood as a 15 year old. The story, sure, but some of the comments about men, women, and the torture of unrequited love I probably only imagined I had experienced.
I highlighted a whole bunch of quotes this time round, with the intention of producing them at dinner parties when an appropriate time arose. This is the sort of thing a good book does: makes you imagine you go to dinner parties where someone might appreciate you quoting classic literature (when you know you’d be better off learning lines for Anchorman). So I’ll reproduce a couple here… they’d make good Marriage Advice, perhaps.
“Perhaps in no minor point does a woman astonish her helpmate more than in the strange power she possesses of believing cajoleries that she knows to be false – except, indeed, in that of being utterly sceptical on strictures that she knows to be true” (p.149)
“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs” (p.276)
And this (which I like to think is a description of why The Husband and I have such a good relationship, after being housemates first): “Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best until further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality… Where… the compound feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death” (p.310)
The next book on my reading challenge was a Young Adult Bestseller. “Hurrah!”, thought I, “This will be a nice, gentle book – a real treat after Sophie’s Choice”.
Of course, I was falling into that trap that adults create for themselves, the one I wrote about in this book. Adults lie about childhood, or else they’ve forgotten. Being a young adult is far from nice and gentle. Especially when you have cancer.
I’ve not seen the film (she says, again… I wonder if this will be a pattern in my reading challenge?), but I imagine it’s quite a tear-jerker. It’s a great book, full of reminders about how we should be living our lives, given none of us really know how long we’ve got. And a beautiful glimpse into that all-consuming first love of adolescence, the sort that gives you goosebumps, and makes you believe that there has to be an afterlife, because when someone so young, so beautiful, dies they can’t simply cease to exist.
My first love died young. He wasn’t quite as romantic, or intellectual, as Augustus, but (to me) he was perfect. And there’s no way he isn’t still around somewhere.
The second book in my reading challenge was written in the year of my birth, and won the National Book Award the following year, 1980. I should start by saying that I’ve never (to my knowledge) seen the film but somehow, perhaps through that strange way that the fact of having lived for a while gives you, I already knew what Sophie’s terrible choice had been. But this book is about so much more than that one moment… it would have to be: it’s nearly 600 pages long.
The beauty of an eBook is that you can carry it around with you without worrying about how heavy the book is. The danger is that you can start a book without really knowing how long it will take you to read. My eBook kindly pointed out, as I started page 1, that the average reading time for this book was nearly 13 hours. I haven’t timed how long it actually took, but there were at least two day-long reading marathons, where I forgot to eat.
It’s not an easy read. The characters, whilst magnetic and seductive, aren’t really very likeable. The writing is dense, and sometimes veers off into pages of historical non-fiction that is depressing and dark. In one chapter, alone, I noted down all the words I didn’t recognise, or couldn’t quite place: mucilaginous, vermiform, badinage, coprolalia, probity, … not to mention a reference to a “doughty love-muscle”. At 34% into the book, my Kindle tells me I still have nine hours to go…
It’s worth it, though. A fantastic insight into the North-South divide in America, the social situation in the 194os (particularly in regard to what one should or shouldn’t say in front of the ladies), the universal, timeless horror of what humans can do to people they see as different, and therefore inferior. It’s also beautifully evocative of what it is to be young, in a new city, with dreams of becoming a writer while you realise you really know nothing about the world at all.
The first book in my 2016 reading challenge turns out to be one I have read before. I suppose it isn’t surprising that, having read as much as I have, and having such a poor memory, I would end up rereading some books. I don’t regret it: this one’s worth reading again.
The Robber Bridegroom is a fairytale I wasn’t really aware of, collected by the Brothers Grimm. I’ll confess I’ve only read the wiki page, but maybe I’ll scout it out later this year. How much Atwood’s book is ‘based on’ this fairytale, I’m not sure. But it’s still a damn good read.
I don’t intend to write book reports on all of these – it feels too much like holiday homework… but I want to jot down a few things that I learned. Firstly, all those ‘How to Write’ books I’ve read are wrong when they lay out how a story should be plotted. As Atwood proves time and time again with her books. Second, I’d like to grow old with a small group of women around me, who have held me though some tough times, and who I know how to laugh with. (Maybe my NY resolution should be to cultivate the relationships I already have to this end). Thirdly, I want to grow old and dotty and have chickens, and believe in crystals and all that stuff The Husband hates. I went to yoga for the first time this morning and, already, I can feel my aura growing stronger and all that.
I’ve read a few of Margaret Atwood’s books and I recommend them all. Along with Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch, she makes me prouder to be a woman… and more intent on writing one day.
I hate New Year’s resolutions. I find it almost impossible to believe I can make lasting change (especially when I wake with a pretty nasty hangover) just by writing down a few well-intentioned cliches. That said, I do have a few – though I’m not going to share them here.
One thing I do intend to do in 2016, however, is to read more. So, I’ve signed up to Goodreads and printed off a copy of the popsugar reading challenge. Perhaps I’ll add a few book reports here on my blog.
Any recommendations for books that relate to ideas on the list will be most welcome!
Happy New Year, all.