1976 club part 2: reliable authors let me down

1976 in the UK was notable for a heatwave, drought and hosepipe bans. Many prolific authors of the era did not have a book out in 1976. Did all the authors and publishers have heat exhaustion?

As I termed it during the 1936 Club, I went ‘blundering around the bookshelves’ on a scavenger hunt for books I thought would fit for the 1976 Club, as well as on my Goodreads shelves. I looked up any authors that I considered to be likely suspects for a 1976 book. It was astonishing how often an author I was sure would have published something in 1976, just hadn’t, but did have a book out the year before and/or after. Typical Murphy’s Law.

Wishlist books

First, a few books that did actually appear in 1976, but I don’t happen to own.

In the Heart of the Country – J.M. Coetzee (1001 book list). An experimental novel with numbered paragraphs. Set on a farm in the isolated Karoo in South Africa, Magda slowly goes mad. Earlier this year I read Coetzee’s novella Disgrace (1999) and was impressed. Not a cheery read, but I would definitely read more of his books.

Lady Oracle – Margaret Atwood. A parody of gothic romances and fairy tales, according to Wikipedia. I’ll read anything by Margaret Atwood, but I would have to order this from interlibrary loan, so maybe another time.

Kiss of the Spider Woman – Manuel Puig (1001 book list). This sounds fascinating. Set in an Argentinian prison cell, two men talk. One is a political prisoner, one imprisoned as a sexual deviant; Molina is what would now be called trans and spends the time telling the stories of films. I have just discovered I can order this from my library, but again, not this month.

Ruth Rendell. Both A Demon in my View (psychological thriller) and The Fallen Curtain (creepy short stories) were published in ‘76. Both are on my wishlist, but probably only marked as such because of the publication date, thinking ahead to this challenge.

Lynne Reid BanksThe Farthest-Away Mountain. A teenage girl decides to go forth and meets many challenges along the way when she decides to travel to a distant mountain. Goodreads reviewers seem to love it, even when returning to it as adults, but I won’t go out of my way to find this. The L-Shaped Room was my introduction to ‘problem-based’ teenage fiction and was really my gateway drug into adult themes. I wish I had known back then that there were sequls. I have also read An End to Running, about a man who tries to escape his problems by moving to a kibbutz, which was fascinating.

Likely suspects who failed to publish in 1976

As I mentioned above, there are many authors who seem to have taken a year off in 1976. Of course, they were undoubtedly writing, but it does make you wonder what the publishers were up to that year. Did most of the 1976 books get relegated to the remainder bin in the sky or not make it past the slush pile on the editor’s desk? I have read some of these authors’ other books; the links are to my reviews of those on Goodreads.

The feminists

Maeve BinchyMy First Book (1976). This appears to be a collection of journalism, before Ms Binchy was a force to be reckoned with. Light a Penny Candle didn’t come out until 1982, as did Dublin 4, which happens to be on my TBR shelf later on this month for my numbers/maths theme.

Marilyn French. The neglected women’s lib classic The Women’s Room didn’t appear until a year later, but in 1976, Marilyn French debuted with The Book as World: James Joyce’s Ulysses. As I couldn’t get past the first page of Ulysses, I don’t need a literary companion to it, so this definitely doesn’t appeal.

The travellers, real and fictional

Bruce Chatwin’s first travel book, In Patagonia came out in 1977. Fascinating. I just wish I had read it in English instead of Dutch.

Paul Theroux’s first travel book The Great Railway Bazaar came out in 1975 (on my TBR shelf) followed by the novel The Family Arsenal in 1976; unlikable characters in London. I won’t go looking for that one.

James Clavell. Shogun came out in 1975, another epic I haven’t read. I had been going to pass on all Clavell’s shelf-hogging novels, but when I read King Rat, I changed my mind, so they’re still there. I could fit three or four times as many normal volume volumes in the same space.

James Michener. I’m currently reading a second volume of his factual reports and fictional stories set in the South Pacific and Oceania, Return to Paradise (1951) and intend to finally finish reading Centennial (1974) this month, too. Chesapeake (1978) was the first of his books I ever read. I expect he was doing research in 1976; I could probably read about what he was up to in his autobiography, which I also own and have read. What a man!

Crime, spies, thrillers and horror

Alistair Maclean, though still a bestseller, was past his prime.

John le Carré was between books. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was published in 1975 and An Honourable Schoolboy in 1977.

P.D. James was also between books: The Black Tower (1975, TBR) and Death of an Expert Witness (1977), both in the Adam Dalgliesh series.

Stephen King. Even one of the most ridiculously prolific writers on the planet couldn’t manage a book in 1976. He did, however, write a short story called The Weeds. It was included in the 1982 film Creepshow as The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, starring the author himself. Apparently it’s inspired by an H.P. Lovecraft story, The Colour Out of Space, which was Lovecraft’s favourite of his own short stories.

Children’s and YA

Richard Adams. With Watership Down (1972), Shardik (1974) and The Plague Dogs (1977), Richard Adams was one of the few authors whose books I bought when I was still at school. I own them all, as well as The Girl in the Swing (1980). The only one Adams had published in 1976 was a rhyming picture book along the lines of The Owl and the Pussycat with beautiful illustrations by Nicola Bayley, The Tyger Voyage. I’d read it if I had it, but alas.

A selection of events in 1976

I’m not sure that any of the books I have picked to read were particularly affected by the spirit of the age, with the notable exception of The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin which could have been steeped in the proverbial parsnip wine. The conflict about sea defences described in Oosterschelde windkracht 10 was also front page news in the Netherlands in 1976, but what else did the chattering classes have to talk about?

The first flight of Concorde took place in January 1976. My landlady during my year out was secretary to the British chairman of Concorde, highly pregnant and determined not to go on maternity leave until after the launch. She made it! The USA vetoed a UN resolution calling for independence for Palestine, making The Cactus/Wild Thorns very timely. Later in the year, Palestinian terrorists hijacked a plane, landing at Entebbe airport in Uganda. Israeli troops later rescued the hostages. Morocco and Algeria were at war, something I know nothing about. Cuba ratified its new constitution and the first female president in the world, Isabel Perón of Argentina, was deposed. Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia. The IRA was exceptionally active, with 12 bombs in London; this was the reason we were not allowed to visit London on school trips for years. After three children were killed by a car whose driver had been shot by soldiers in Belfast, women took to the street with prams to protest. Their spokeswomen, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 1976 for setting up the Community of Peace People, campaigning for an end to sectarian violence. The UK and Iceland ended their wrangling over fishing rights, dubbed the Cod War.

The first commercial supercomputer, the Cray-1, was launched. Later that year, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple. Filming of Star Wars began; was it really so long ago? In real life, the Viking 1 probe landed on Mars. Back on Earth, the first Body Shop opened in Brighton and the first Muppet Show aired in the UK. It was both a Winter Olympic and Summer Olympic year, the one where Nadia Comaneci scored perfect tens as the world watched entranced. For Formula 1 it was a terrible year, with Niki Lauda sustaining terrible burns. The first known outbreak of Ebola!

The Booker Prize was won in 1976 by David Storey for Saville, a book of which I have not heard. What is more, I haven’t read any of the other nominees from that year, though I have at least heard of some of the authors. The other nominees were André Brink’s An Instant in the Wind, R.C. Hutchinson’s Rising, Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife, Julian Rathbone’s King Fisher Lives and William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth. No women, I note, but the following two years there were more women than men; I think it was just coincidence that particular year.

I’m going to leave it there. Off to do some reading of the books I did find!

1976 Club part 1: options on my shelves

Time to find some books published in 1976 to read and review for the 1976 Club. I am disappointed at what I initially find, but nothing a trip to the children’s section of the library can’t fix.

When I heard that the next year-based challenge was going to be the 1976 Club, I felt sure that I would have some interesting books on my bookshelves. Alas! Yes, I do have a few, but I don’t really feel inspired by any of them. Even more frustrating about the choice of 1976 is the fact that there are several authors who published books either in 1975 or 1977 but had a year off (or an off year) in 1976. Perhaps they were all too overheated to write. I do remember 1976 being exceptionally hot summer in the UK; it was always the one referred back to if there was a heatwave. It was also the year the seafront was absolutely covered in ladybirds. Horrible! Almost as bad as the time the place was covered with greenfly, but that was another year. I was 13 with a permanent brace and ugly oversized glasses with thick brown frames. I was starting to read books from the adult section at the library as the sum total of the young adult section was two partly filled shelves of books that didn’t appeal.

Books published in 1976, ready for 1976 Club
My TBR books published in 1976

Disappointing books on my shelves

The books on my shelves from the 1970s are mostly books my husband and I bought because we had watched the television show or knew the name from a film. That makes my 1976 options a disappointment for three reasons:

  1. I’ve already read most of them.
  2. They are books I don’t want to reread and I’m only keeping them because my husband believes he will read them one day.
  3. They are the book of the show and I’ve seen the show often enough that I’m not sure the book will add anything

They also fall into three categories, with some overlap:

  1. British humour
  2. Biographies/autobiographies/historical
  3. Children/young adult
  4. Poetry

British humour

The 1970s were a time when sexist, racist and homophobic humour was so rampant that it hardly raised an eyebrow. Perhaps the worst of these was It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, but many of the gags make me cringe on many programmes of the era. Characters who complained about sexism or racism were seen as humourless and figures of fun. Some of the most iconic British comedy series ever were on our television sets in 1976: The Two Ronnies, Dad’s Army, Last of the Summer Wine, Are You Being Served, George and Mildred. The first series of Fawlty Towers had been aired the year before, too. I have the book of one of those unmissable series:

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – David Nobbs. We recently rewatched a couple of episodes and it is amazing how slow-paced it is. It’s a bit of a cheat here because it was first issued in 1975 as The Death of Reginald Perrin, but renamed and reissued in 1976 to go with the television series starring Leonard Rossiter. It really is imbued with the essence of the ‘70s: little woman at home, feminist daughter, wine-making son-in-law, brown decor, the fashions and so on. I think this is a must-read. Cost: 75p!

Wilt – Tom Sharpe. When we were students, my husband bought the entire series of this author’s books with their jam-packed cartoonish covers, very similar to Terry Pratchett’s paperback covers. The illustrator was Paul Sample, though he isn’t credited in my edition of Wilt. He does a magnificent job of incorporating all the scandalous slapstick and smutty details. I do remember thinking when I read it that it was very funny, but also incredibly cringeworthy and utterly vulgar; sometimes you can’t remove an image from your brain. Astrofella has a series of excellent reviews of Tom Sharpe’s books on his website that are worth reading if you are interested, including one on Wilt. If I do return to one of his novels, it’s more likely to be one of the ones set in a university like Porterhouse Blue (1974) or in South Africa like Riotous Assembly (1971); Sharpe was deported from South Africa after his criticisms of the apartheid regime. Nevertheless, I shan’t be rereading this. Cost: £2.50 in 1978

The Alteration – Kingsley Amis. I’m not sure this counts as comedy, but I have a feeling Kingsley Amis thought of himself as a great wit. All I remember about this is that it involves a boy who is destined to become a castrato to preserve his beautiful singing voice. I do know it was a book I really enjoyed. If I have time, I’ll reread it because it’s very short.

Last Seen Wearing (Inspector Morse 2) – Colin Dexter. Except for the odd wry smile, this is definitely not comedy; it is a murder mystery. I have a soft spot for the irascible Morse as played by John Thaw in the TV series. We rewatched some episodes recently, but this book certainly stands a reasonable chance of being read. Cost: £4.50 in 1978 (daylight robbery!).

Biographies, autobiographies, historical

Singin’and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas – Maya Angelou. This is part 3 of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I have only read part 1, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but I see no reason why I shouldn’t read this now, except lack of time. Cost: £3.95 in 1985.

Vets Might Fly – James Herriot. Somewhere in my overflow book storage is undoubtedly a copy of these stories by James ‘Alf’ Wight, who fictionalised his real-life work as a vet in the wonderful books that were adapted into the television series All Creatures Great and Small. I rashly replaced them on my main shelves with an omnibus edition of the first few books and I can’t locate the originals at the moment.

An Unreasonable Man – Henrie Mayne. This is a biography of the author’s father, a man with great organisational talent and little personal empathy for his family who served as an administrator in the Indian Civil Service and helped organise relief efforts for the Red Cross at the end of WWII. I only realised this was a 1976 book when I saw it listed as a suggestion for the 1976 Club on the excellent Neglected Books Page. I read it in February as one of my oldest books, giving it a final chance. It was unexpectedly excellent. I hope to post a review later in the week.

De cactus (Al-Subar) – Sahar Khalifa, translated from Arabic into Dutch by Johan de Bakker and Richard van Leeuwen. Available in English as Wild Thorns. A novel about a Palestinian who returns from abroad intending to fight against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, only to discover that most people have resigned themselves to the inevitable and are carrying on with their lives and the new circumstances. I will definitely try to read and review this one.

Children’s / young adult

It is currently Children’s Book Week (Kinderboekenweek) in the Netherlands (from 6 – 17 October; actually a week and a half). That makes it even more appropriate that I should read a couple of classic Dutch teenage / young adult novels, both of which are historical. I have borrowed both from the library.

Oosterschelde Windkracht 10 [Oosterschelde wind force 10] – Jan Terlouw. The author’s main job was as a scientist and politician, but he published many historical novels for teenagers/young adults, including Oorlogswinter (Winter in Wartime) and this is no exception. This book introduces a farming family on an island in Zeeland, telling us what happened to them during the catastrophic flooding of 1953. We then jump forward to the 1970s when the people who went through the tragedy want a protective sea wall that would cut off the Oosterschelde sea channel from the sea. They face opposition from the younger generation who believe the environmental impact will be disastrous.

Geef me de ruimte [Give me space] – Thea Beckman. I loved Thea Beckman’s Kruistocht in Spijkerbroek (Crusade in Jeans, 1973), which was filmed in 2006. I have borrowed this one from the library and am a little dismayed to discover it is 300 pages long, first of a trilogy about the Hundred Years’ War between England and France; the second part is equally long.

Die rotschool met die fijne klas [That rotten school with that lovely class] – Jacques Vriens. This was the first book by one of the most prolific and well-loved Dutch children’s authors, Jacques Vriens. Many of his books are set in schools and he used to be a primary school teacher, so he brings real-life experience to his stories, which are usually funny. Some of his work has been made into films and he also sometimes tours with a theatre show. My daughter and I went to one of these several years ago and it was wonderful. At the book signing afterwards, he really took time to say a few words to everyone and made me a fan for life; he’s the Michael Rosen of the Dutch book industry, in appearance as well as manner. I could have borrowed this from the library, but didn’t, but I did take photos of the cover and frontispiece showing the characters in the book.

The Peppermint Pig – Nina Bawden. The runt of a litter of pigs becomes the family pet. Childhood nostalgia, though I’m not sure I’ve ever read this before.

Kaft van kinderboek Die rotschool met die fijne klas, van Jacques Vriens
Die Rotschool met die Fijne Klas – Jacques Vriens
Black and white drawings of people inside cover
Sketches of the characters

Poetry

De wijn is drinkbaar dank zij het glas [The wine is drinkable thanks to the glass] – Harry Mulisch. This is a short anthology of poetry by one of the Netherlands’ most respected post-war fiction authors, known for The Discovery of Heaven (De ontdekking van de hemel, 1992). The extraordinary cover is a section of a mural, Namiddag van een faun (L’après-midi d’un faune) in the Dutch Literature Museum by the avant-garde Dutch artist and poet Lucebert.

So much for the books I have been able to acquire. Í wonder how many I will manage to read and review and if anyone else will pick the same books. I’ll write some more about my search for books published in 1976 in part 2.

http://www.stuckinabook.com/1976-club-post-your-reviews-here-1976club and https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/tag/1976club

Book hauls (plural): adding to the TBR

Book confession here: I may have bought some books. It’s not that I needed more, you understand, but… Wishlist books, books from all 4 corners of the world, recommended authors, used and new. See what I brought home with me.

When I ask myself the question, ‘Do I need more books?’, the honest answer is ‘no’. But on a pleasantly sunny September afternoon when I don’t have any work lined up, no inclination to work in the garden or house and a need for some exercise, after 18 months of being unable to go to a bookshop, do you really blame me for cycling 10 km to visit a secondhand bookshop I know to have a good stock of books in English? Surely not. My husband would undoubtedly not approve of my destination, but I just couldn’t stop myself. Or rather, I didn’t. After all, it was the day after my birthday and nobody had given me any books; they try not to act as my enablers. Who needs enablers?

Books4Life book haul

Pile of books bought from a secondhand bookshop
Books from Books4Life Nijmegen

In actual fact, the damage was limited. Partly by the fact that I only had time for the English section, which is pretty large for a charity bookshop in a small Dutch city that is not particularly known for its literary pretensions. I am very happy with what I found, especially as the sum total would probably have bought me less than two new imported English paperbacks or cost about the same as a new book in Dutch, paperback or hardback. Books are expensive here! The secondhand bookshop Books4Life is a joy and a temptation. https://www.books4lifenijmegen.nl

Book haul number 1

Unsheltered (2018) – Barbara Kingsolver. I was impressed by Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and devoured her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. This is about the parallels between the hard times when a family’s dilapidated house was built in the 1870s and the hard times 150 years later. Looking briefly at friend reviews on Goodreads, it seems to divide opinion. Interesting!

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) – Anne Tyler. I nearly missed this in the bookshop because it was on the opposite wall to the majority of the English books. I’m not used to so many riches. There were other Anne Tylers there, too. I must look when next I return, though I should read this first because it is years since I read one of her books. I was delighted to find this, though, because now I can take part in Liz’s Anne Tyler challenge without having to resort to a Dutch translation. I don’t know if her language is part of the enjoyment, but now I can find out for sure. I may return Azijnmeisje (Vinegar Girl) to the library unread.

The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958) – Laurence van der Post. I have a strong memory of listening to a BBC radio programme at school about the Bushmen of the Kalahari. It was fascinating and I have been interested in their lifestyle ever since. Laurence van der Post is also one of those legendary writer-explorers whose work I have never sampled, so I pounced on this when I saw it on a box on the floor.

Conundrum (1974) – Jan Morris. Another legendary travel writer, but this book is about how the author transitioned from a man into a woman; into the body she had always felt she belonged in.

A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor. Another classic travel narrative, this tells of the 18-year-old author’s walking trip from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1933. This is the first stage, as far as Hungary. I already have a copy of the second stage in Dutch; that wasn’t published until 1986, for some reason.

Heroes & Villains (1969) – Angela Carter. There’s a certain mystique about Angela Carter that I’ve picked up from other bloggers. I have read the marvellous and surrealistic Nights at the Circus. This one is dystopian and described as ‘erotic, exotic and bizarre’, including snake worshippers which may well remind me of the Nigerian books I’ve been reading recently.

Good Morning, Midnight (1939) – Jean Rhys. This is on the 1001 Books list, by an author I can count for the Caribbean and it’s short, so home it came with me. Apparently it’s about a woman drinking, smoking and being depressed in Paris; sounds riveting! I was disappointed by Wide Sargasso Sea, but that was partly because I had heard so much about it. It was one of those books which I occasionally think about and suspect I should have read twice.

Still Life With Bread Crumbs (2014) – Anna Quindlen. One of those authors I have heard about, but I couldn’t tell you why. I found the title intriguing, the cover is pretty and an author beginning with a Q is useful for one of my A-Z challenges, so I bought it. If you type ‘Still Life’ into Goodreads, you’d be surprised how many books there are with titles starting ‘Still Life With’: woodpecker, crows, tornado, strings, oysters and lemon… The bread crumb book is about an older woman, a photographer, who finds love in an unexpected place.

A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) – Jennifer Egan. Another 1001 Book List book and I read a lot of buzz about her 2017 book Manhattan Beach, so I was happy to find this book.

Bookshop book haul

Barely a week had passed and I needed a new destination for some exercise, so I combined a cycle ride with the arduous task of buying my next book club book, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. I could have bought it online, but another group member had reported seeing a pile of them in the Nijmegen bookshop, Dekker van de Vegt, so off I trotted cycled. A few years ago, this shop was taken over by a chain which then went bust. It looked like it was going to close down, but it was saved by crowdfunding and by merging with the local branch of the Dutch secondhand and remainder bookshop, De Slegte. Luckily for me, they have a pretty good selection of English books, both new and used, though their secondhand books are rather overpriced in comparison with the charity shops.

Of course I didn’t leave the shop unscathed. Actually, I didn’t even make it into the shop unscathed! Before I even got there, I discovered a book stall nearby and, to my delight, in a box of crime books in English, I found several books by Ngaio Marsh. A friend of mine volunteers at the Ngaio Marsh museum in Christchurch, New Zealand and has shared a few photos on Facebook. I’ve never read any of Marsh’s books, so I chose A Surfeit of Lampreys. I couldn’t resist the blurb: as the policeman holds the suspect’s arm, the girl reaches into the woman’s pocket to find out what she’s holding and feels that she has two hands in her pocket… Creepy.

Book haul number 2

The Long Song (2010)- Andrea Levy. I’ve been hoping to come across this book about slavery in Jamaica ever since it was published. I was impressed by Levy’s Small Island, about a couple from the Caribbean who arrive in a cold and unwelcoming post-war Britain. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2010.

A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018) – Caryl Phillips. I read enthusiastic recommendations of Caryl Phillips’ books on the Guardian’s substitute book group on Goodreads round about the time when everyone was looking for books by Black authors following the murder of George Floyd. I had never heard of Phillips before that, so I snapped this up. Bonus: I’ve just discovered it is set in Dominica and the main character is Jean Rhys! To be read in tandem with Good Morning, Midnight, methinks. I think that must be book haul serendipity.

The Shadow King (2019) – Maaza Mengiste. A friend co-hosts a podcast, The Bookcast Club. The Shadow King was one of the books that appealed after listening to the 2020 Booker shortlist episode, discussing the books with You Tuber Kieran from KD Books. So much so, I splashed out and bought this brand new. It’s set in Ethiopia in 1935 and features women who went to war.

The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003) – Yoko Ogawa; trans. from Japanese by Stephen Snyder. A short novel of mathematics and the genuine affection that develops between a housekeeper, her son and the professor who has no short-term memory due to a car accident in 1975. His memory only lasts 80 minutes. Bought ready for my book club.

The Feast of the Goat (2001) – Mario Vargas Llosa. My book club is responsible for this one, too. A couple of years ago we read Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes, set in the author’s native Peru and I’ve been hoping to find more. This one is set in the Dominican Republic, examining the effects of violence and power.

Waterland (1983) – Graham Swift. Not only is this on the 1001 list, but I loved Graham Swift’s Last Orders. That was definitely influenced by the fact it was about a trip to Margate, my home town, so I’m hoping I’ll enjoy Waterland just as much; it’s about the fens, somewhere I have never been.

Inside Out & Back Again (2011) – Thanhha Lai. Told in the form of poems, a young girl writes about having to leave Saigon as the Vietnam War progresses and escaping as a refugee to the USA. I picked this up from a ‘minibieb’/Little Free Library outside somebody’s house. Books for free; not to be sneezed at!

Library sale – book haul number 3

Finally, two books from the library sale. I nearly got locked in the library overnight because the library assistant didn’t notice me standing looking at the book sale table. Much as I love the library, I would not have appreciated the lack of tea and food.

De bastaard van Istanbul (2006) – Elif Shafak; translated from English (The Bastard of Istanbul) to Dutch by Manon Smits. Having finally borrowed Shafak’s The Flea Palace from the library, wouldn’t you know it, I discovered this on the sale table. It’s about an Armenian-American woman who goes back to Turkey where she meets a community of women and discovers family secrets.

Andere levens [Other Lives] (2010) – Iman Humaydan; translated from Arabic to Dutch by Djûke Poppinga. The front cover says “in a few hundred pages, a novel that tells you about the whole world”. This is about a Lebanese refugee returning to her country after 15 years in Australia.

All in all, not a bad couple of weeks for my book-acquiring habit. Books by authors from all over the world, some from my wishlist, some by authors I wanted to read and some a complete surprise. I want to read them all, now, but that way madness lies. I shall tuck them away on my shelves where they will have to wait patiently to be picked. Have you read any of them? Any I should pick up immediately and read without delay?

The lure of the library – adding to the TBR

The library is a tempting place for a bookaholic. This is the current state of my library TBR.

Why did I go to the library in the first place? Ah yes, I remember; it was to collect the book club’s June choice Corpus Delicti by Juli Zeh (in English, it’s called The Method). It’s not often I can borrow any of our book club picks, either in English or Dutch, not even when I pay for interlibrary loan. So when I can, I jump at the chance. While I was there, I picked up Anne Tyler’s Azijnmeisje (Vinegar Girl) for Liz Dexter’s Anne Tyler project, even though it’s one of her most recent books, so Liz won’t get to Vinegar Girl until later in the year. Perhaps it’s not the best choice as it’s based on The Taming of the Shrew and that’s one Shakespeare play I didn’t study at school. Annoyingly, I couldn’t borrow a single one of Tyler’s books in English, even via interlibrary loan. And once I had been lured into the library, I couldn’t resist borrowing a few other books, of course.

I had been looking forward to reading something by the Turkish author Elif Shafak. I suggested one of her books to the book club a few months ago, but they picked the disappointing essay How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, probably because it’s short. So Shafak is still on my list of ‘authors to read’ and I was delighted to find several of her novels in Dutch at the library. I picked Het luizenpaleis (The Flea Palace) because it is about ten families, many animals and a plague of fleas, all living together in a dilapidated old house in Istanbul. Sounds right up my street.

The Polish author Olga Tokarczuk has been on my radar ever since I heard about her Flights (winner of the Man Booker International in 2018) and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (nominated for the International Booker in 2019); there’s no version with the British spelling of Plough, which bothers me more than it should. In any case, these weren’t on offer at the local library, but Oer en andere tijden (English title Primeval and Other Times) was. While I was at it, I nabbed a tiny novella set in Chile, De filmvertelster by Hernán Rivera Letelier (translated from the Spanish to Dutch by M. Vanderzee; there is no English translation). It tells the story of a young girl who develops a talent for retelling the stories of the films she is sent to watch on behalf of her poverty-stricken family. I couldn’t resist the temptation to read such a slim volume to count towards my Reading the World challenge. I also happened to spot Melmoth by Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent (on my wishlist). Then just before I reached the library checkout, I noticed they had a display of nature-related books and one of them was Sepp Holzer’s Permacultuur. I’ve been longing to read some of theory of what I try to put into practice in my garden, so that had to come home with me too. I need some advice!

As I didn’t want to take library books on holiday with me, they are all still To Be Read. What’s more, when I had to take Corpus Delicti back because it had been requested by somebody else, I couldn’t resist looking at the usually woefully inadequate English section. To my utter delight, they had Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which had mere hours earlier won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

What’s more, another of my wishlist was there on the shelf, in English: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong which has been nominated for virtually every prize it was eligible for. I have just realised that the narrator is known as Little Dog, a young man writing a letter to his illiterate Vietnamese mother. So I will try to read it this month and fit it into my pet theme as well as ticking the Vietnam box. I love it when something like that happens unexpectedly.

Dutch literature blitz

Not content with this ridiculous number of books, I have been feeling the need to read one of Dutch literature’s most famous books, Max Havelaar (1860) by Edward Douwes Dekker, pen name Multatuli. As a result of this novel, reforms were made to reduce the exploitation in the Dutch coffee trade with Java, then a Dutch colony. I have had a copy of the book on my BookCrossing shelf since 2008, but though I’ve tried to read it, I always abandon it due to the outdated Dutch. I am capable of reading it, but it’s hard work. When I happened to mention this on the BookCrossing forum, somebody told me that there was a slightly abridged version available in modern Dutch by Gijsbert van Es, who is listed as the ‘translator’; he is in fact an extreme editor or co-author. Much to my surprise, my local library had a copy but – month after month – it was already on loan. Admittedly, some of this time was in lockdown, when we were only allowed to reserve books that were actually physically in the library, but it was very frustrating. Once the lockdown embargo on reservations was lifted, I decided it was time to wrest it back from whoever was keeping it hostage.

While I was on the library’s site, I also checked on another book that always eludes me at the library. Again, it had been out on loan for months, not necessarily to the same person, but I felt it was time I read it: last year’s Dutch winner of the International Booker, The Discomfort of Evening (De avond is ongemak) by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Now the pressure’s on to read that one, too. In fact, I’ve already started it and it’s – so far – more enjoyable than I had expected.

Another Dutch classic I recently discovered was available in library was De kleine Johannes (1885) by Frederik van Eeden. I had always assumed it was a children’s story or fairy tale, but it is supposedly philosophical and allegorical. To my immense surprise, this is on the 1001 books list. I decided to pick it up from the library before I forgot about it again and, for some not particularly logical reason, I immediately started reading it as a little light bedtime reading. So in this case it will be last in first out which was not the plan at all; I’m supposed to be reading some of my ‘oldest’ books on the TBR, not all these library books, most of which I hadn’t heard of a couple of years ago. Well, as H.E. Bates would have said, A Little of What You Fancy…

#LibraryCheckout
September library books (from De filmvertelster down). I’ve added a few since I took this photo.

#Library checkout

Just after I had started to write this post, I was reading through Bookish Beck’s recent posts and realised she runs a monthly meme called Library Checkout, posting on the last Monday of the month, so I delayed this post to fit in. I have twin bad habits of running up library fines by missing the due date and taking a pile of books and not reading them for months. Bookish Beck makes me feel less guilty about doing this. It’s also worth bearing in mind that, under PLR – Public Lending Rights – authors, translators, etc. usually get paid a tiny amount every time somebody borrows their books (or are paid per copy bought by a library), so you’re paying back the creators every time you borrow. What a great excuse to go to the library!

READ

  • Corpus delicti: een proces (The Method) (2009) – Julie Zeh, Hilde Keteleer (trans.). Read in Dutch. Original German: Corpus Delicti. Ein Prozess. Dystopian. ★★★☆☆
  • De filmvertelster (2009) – Hernán Rivera Letelier, M. Vanderzee (trans.). Original Spanish: La contadora de películas. ★★★★☆
  • De kleine Johannes (The Quest) (1885) – Frederik van Eeden. Read in the original Dutch. 1001 book. Dutch magical realism? Talking animals, elves, death, coming of age. ★★★★☆

CURRENTLY READING

  • De avond is ongemak (The Discomfort of Evening) (2018) – Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Reading in Dutch. Winner of the International Booker Prize 2020.

TO BE READ

  • Het luizenpaleis (The Flea Palace) (2002) – Elif Shafak; Margreet Dorleijn, Hanneke van der Heijden (trans.)
  • Azijnmeisje (Vinegar Girl) (2016) – Ann Tyler; Marijke Versluys (trans.)
  • Melmoth (2018) – Sarah Perry
  • Oer en andere tijden (Primeval and Other Times) (1996)- Olga Tokarczuk
  • Holzer’s permacultuur – Sepp Holzer
  • Max Havelaar (1860) – Multatuli (Edward Douwes Dekker); Gijsbert van Es (translated into modern Dutch)
  • Piranesi (2020) – Susanna Clarke
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) – Ocean Vuong

September selections and ongoing reading challenges

Now that my reading for 20 Books of Summer is officially over, I can start thinking about new reading plans. Of course, I do still have three of my summer books to finish, but that doesn’t stop me lining up more books to read and getting back to ongoing challenges. Not to mention the books I couldn’t leave at the library and the ones I liberated from the secondhand bookshop last week, but I’ll tell you about those in another blogpost.

Ongoing challenges: pet theme, countries, A-Z, 1001 books

Every year I take part in several challenges on the BookCrossing forum, one of which is called The Ultimate Challenge and involves reading books with a (loosely interpreted) theme every month. This September it’s ‘pets and farm animals’, so I have collected together everything that fits the bill, as you can see in the photo below. Upcoming themes are ‘numbers and maths’ (October), ‘school’ (November) and ‘crime’ (December).

The books I’m most likely to read this month are:

  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) by Muriel Barbery because that will fit the 1001 challenge. The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov would too, but I very much doubt I’ll have time for both. On the other hand, Bulgakov was Russian, so I can count that for Asia…
  • The Man Who Spoke Snakish (2007) by Andrus Kivirähk comes from Estonia, not a country whose books I often come across, so it would be ideal for my country challenge. If only I hadn’t already read more than six books for Europe this year! Mind you, I am proposing reading a book set in France, so I’m not entirely sure about my rationale, here.
  • Het lied van de duizend stieren [The Legend of the Thousand Bulls] (1971) by Yasar Kemal is a strong candidate as it is set in the south-east of Turkey, close to the Syrian border, with Turkmen nomads coming into conflict with the settled world. I suspect I won’t get to it, but I have a cunning plan: it will fit perfectly for the November Ultimate Challenge theme, numbers and maths! Het verschil [The difference] (2000) by Monika van Paemel will also be postponed until then.

Challenges galore

Other year-long challenges on the forum include a confusing array of A-Z challenges (titles, authors, 1001 books), my ongoing Reading the World challenge (6 books from 6 countries from each of the 6 continents – the devilishly difficult 666 challenge) and an attempt to read 12 books this year from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.

It’s the taking part that counts

I attempt most of these challenges every year and regularly fail, especially the country challenge. The A-Z challenges are new this year and in January it seemed easy. Now I’m not so sure. At least I don’t have any specific blogging challenges in September, but it’s already halfway through September and my reading progress on pet-themed books is abysmal, so I keep going round in circles. What to prioritise: pets, countries, A-Z? Maybe I should just read some books. Any books! Starting with the half-finished ones from 20 Books of Summer, perhaps. Not to mention other partially-read books that I hope to fit in somewhere before the end of the year. So many books, so little time. And I haven’t even thought about challenges like Novellas in November and the 1976 Club.

One thing’s for sure: I will change my mind many times before the end of the year. Do you have as much difficulty deciding what to read as I do?

Cheats, excuses and promises: #20BooksOfSummer21

20 books of summer? Challenge accepted! Themes: nature, Nigeria, dystopia and the sea. 3 books are still only half-read. Only one book has been fully blogged. Challenge accomplished, with deviations.

Victorious in the face of defeat

Dear Reader, I started to write this summary of my summery reading, facing the jaws of defeat, but I’m going to count it as a victory, anyway, because I have really enjoyed having this challenge to spur me on. I have read some wonderful books and learnt something along the way. Now some of those books I had put off reading for far too long have turned into half-finished books and I have discovered that they are wonderful and I can’t wait to get back to them. I’d call that a win. Skip to my brief reviews below.

#20BooksOfSummer21
16 of my 20 books: Corpus Delicti has gone back to the library. Freshwater was an e-book, The Mermaid of Black Conch was an audio adaptation and Lucifer’s Hammer has… mysteriously disappeared!

Reading time swallowed by real world

Obviously, I was far too ambitious because I haven’t finished all the books I started, though I’ve finished most and made a good start on the rest. I was expecting plenty of reading and gardening time due to COVID travel restrictions. Then my husband discovered that Switzerland’s borders were open and there was no stopping him. We even left early so we didn’t get caught out by the threat of the Netherlands being labelled a ‘red’ country (bearing in mind we’re both working from home and have no social lives, so the chances of us being infected were negligible). If we’re in the mountains, we walk and then I was too exhausted to read. We both had work commitments, so I spent a day and an evening translating ‘on holiday’, then more work turned up when we got back home. By which time, the garden had gone bonkers and was also demanding major TLC. As for blogging, not a lot came of that. I’ve only posted one full review so far, but will attempt to add the rest in the course of September. Promises, promises…

Themed reading, cheats and substitutions

Reading-wise, I started off well, with 5 books from my garden theme, one of which (Perfick! Perfick!), I was going to count as a single book, but it was originally published as five separate books, so as I ran out of time, 5 books it is! I read both books for my tool theme, both of which had been on my shelves for years, so I’m glad to be able to pass those on soon. Predictably, I didn’t read any of the Books I Never Get To, nor either of my Hot/Cold themed books. The only Promised to Read was my book club book, Corpus Delicti. While we were on holiday, I indulged myself and started The Enchanted April, but lack of reading time and exhaustion meant I’m halfway through. As for Reading the World, I made progress but got a little stuck on a particular country…

New theme: Nigeria

At the beginning of August, I had started The Mosquito Coast, but discovered I needed to buy and read Freshwater by the Nigerian-Tamil non-binary author Akwaeke Emezi by my book club meeting on 15 August. When I found out what it was about (spirit children), it sounded like it linked in well with Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, so I switched to that. Then I found spirit children were also mentioned in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the grandfather of Nigerian literature. That is mercifully short and on the 1001 list, so that barged in first, before Freshwater. This leaves me with both The Mosquito Coast and The Famished Road half-read, but I’m enjoying both, so Their Time Will Come. As will Americanah (which is a long-standing half-read book) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who had a falling apart of her own with Akwaeke Emezi, who was mentored by her but then criticised her on Twitter; Adichie was not amused. N.B. I spent far too much time reading online about Nigerian spirits, Emezi’s life and work. Time which might have been better spent reading books, but was good preparation for both my book club and my blogpost, whenever I get to it.

Panic sets in: short novels and the sea/islands

That left me with five days and three books to go to make up my almost-but-not-quite 20 Books of Summer, so I was on the lookout for quick reads. I decided to try to span the Hot/Cold and Reading the World themes (and not just Nigeria) by choosing Birk (I Have You to Love) by Dutch author Jaap Robben, who was nominated for the Booker International this year for his second adult novel, Zomervacht (Summer Brother). As they seemed to have a similar island/sea theme, I also picked the Dutch translation Hemel en Hel (Himmaríki og helvíti/Heaven and Hell) by the Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson. As it looks as if my last day may be swallowed up by work again, I may also have to count an abridged BBC Book at Bedtime book I’ve been listening to on the BBC Sounds app, The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey: more Hot/Cold, Reading the World and sea/islands themes there. Ideally, I would read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, but I think my time will really run out before then as Heaven and Hell is not flowing well for me yet.

P.S. I was right!

Quick stats

  • Setting: 4 in the USA, 6 in England, 3 in Nigeria, 1 each for the Caribbean, Honduras, Iceland, an unnamed northern island, France, Germany, Italy. I would have preferred several different African countries rather than repeats, but never mind.
  • Author country: 6 Americans (two joint authors), 3 English, 3 Nigerians, 1 Dutch, 1 Icelandic, 1 German, 1 Caribbean-British
  • Non-fiction: 4 (Lab Girl, Orchid Thief, Olive Farm; Freshwater is auto-fiction)
  • Dystopian: 2 (Corpus Delicti/The Method, Lucifer’s Hammer)
  • Fantastical, mythical creatures, spirits: 4 (3 Nigerian novels, Mermaid of Black Conch)

20 Books of Summer, brief reviews

  1. Lab Girl (2016) by Hope Jahren (TBR since 2017)

This was a mix of fascinating facts about scientist Hope Jahren’s research into plants, especially trees, and soil, alternating with chapters about her life as a scientist, her personal life and issues and her deep friendship with her lab partner Bill. The plant facts were great, though I knew some of it through own observation and other reading. The personal part was also interesting, up to a certain point. However, I felt she was overdoing the ‘it’s so hard to be a woman in science and academia’ part; perhaps she expected too much before she had proved herself.

  1. De orchideëndief (The Orchid Thief) (1998) by Susan Orlean (TBR for years)

Translated to Dutch by Ineke Lenting. City journalist Susan Orlean headed into the wilds of Florida to investigate a story about a man who had been caught stealing incredibly rare ghost orchids from a nature reserve, assuming she would be able to write about a ruthless, evil man who did something despicable. The more she talked to him, the more people he introduced her to and the more she investigated the weird and wonderful world of plant hunters, breeders and collectors, the more fascinating facts she uncovered. She realised that there are always two sides to a story. This is a book written by someone who fell down the rabbit hole, before internet was what it is today, so she was on the ground, talking to people and getting personal stories. This book is wonderful! In another twist, it was also adapted into a film, not based directly on the book, but on people trying to adapt it into a film, hence called Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze and starring – I kid you not – Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage, not to mention Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton and Maggie Gyllenhaal in supporting roles! This I have to see!

  1. Corpus delicti: een proces (The Method) (2009) by Juli Zeh (library book)

Translated from German to Dutch by Hilde Keteleer, recommended to our book club by a German member. Big Data meets Big Brother meets a psychopathic Big Influencer, with a big dose of Big Pharma. This is what might happen in a totalitarian society ruled by an obsessive health nut.

  1. The Olive Season Farm (2001) by Carol Drinkwater

This was a substitution because I hadn’t read the first book in the series in June, as planned. An enjoyable non-fiction tale of how actress Carol moved to a farm with her French husband. The fact he is French makes this less of a “poor me having to deal with French bureaucracy and annoying builders” than most expat memoirs, including Toujours Provence. Lovely summery reading.

  1. De verdronken tuin (The Drowning Tree) by Carol Goodman (2004)

This had me hooked from the start. Secrets from the past, current danger, suspense, all revolving round a close-knit group of friends who originally met while the women studied at exclusive Penrose College. Who knew so many Greek goddesses turned into trees, plants or birds? Lots of mythological references and information about stained glass. To be honest, I was confused at the end, but that doesn’t matter because I couldn’t put it down.

  1. The Darling Buds of May (1958) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)
  2. A Breath of French Air (1959) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)
  3. When the Green Woods Laugh (1960) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)
  4. Oh! To Be in England (1963) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)
  5. A Little of What You Fancy (1970) by H.E. Bates (in Perfick, Perfick!)

This was a collection of five short novels, all about the Larkin family, a rural soap opera about a large and dysfunctional but loving family. This was adapted as the much-loved The Darling Buds of May, starring David Jason and Catherine Zeta Jones in her debut, another British TV hype I totally missed. It was all rather too slapstick and full of sexual innuendo for my taste and there was too much repetition of the same old shorthand phrases about bluebells and primroses. He definitely ran out of steam. A Little of What You Fancy has an extremely heartfelt description of a heart attack and its aftermath which can only have come from Bates’ own experience. I finished the whole omnibus eventually, in bursts over the whole summer, but with determination rather than great enjoyment.

  1. Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

A gripping page-turner about the devastating effects of a comet hitting the earth. I found this a really absorbing story with a huge cast of characters who will eventually meet up, if they survive long enough. It raises all those survivor questions like how far you would go to save yourself, whether it is possible to be altruistic and cooperative, or if an authoritarian, centrally-organised armed militia is the only way. There are some negative aspects such as token blacks and stereotypes, strong women who suddenly become submissive and/or use sex to gain favour with the men in power. Nevertheless, it was as good as an old-fashioned disaster movie. Good stuff!

  1. The Dearest and the Best (1984) by Leslie Thomas

Set on the south coast of England during the first couple of years of WWII, this was fascinating because it tells the story of what it was like during the Phoney War as people adjust to their new reality. Some people keep calm and carry on, others are already involved as they are in the armed forces, some still based in England. One of the main parts of the book is about the evacuation from Dunkirk, but the whole story is suffused with small details that really brought it to life. Not great literature, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  1. The Enchanted April (1922) by Elizabeth von Arnim

What a delightful summer read! Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to finish it while we were on holiday, but I can’t wait to read the rest and find out what happens to the four women – strangers – who rent a house for a month in 1920s Italy. Lotty Wilkins, with her head in the clouds, persuades the staider Rose Arbuthnot that they should go, finding another two women to take the other two rooms: the socialite Lady Caroline Dester and the authoritarian Mrs Fisher. I left it as they had all just arrived at the house and taken possession of their rooms. Lovely.

  1. The Mosquito Coast (1981) by Paul Theroux

Obsessive American inventor Allie Fox becomes paranoid, rejecting mainstream society, junk food and home schooling his children. One day he decides he will take his family somewhere where his talents will be appreciated and uproots them all to head for Honduras, where he expects to be hailed as a saviour with the ice-making machine he has invented. They had just arrived there when I needed to temporarily abandon the book to start my Nigerian reading spree. I will return soon as I was really enjoying the adventure.

  1. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe (1001 book)

For such a short novel, this managed to pack in a lot of information about traditional Nigerian society. The central character, Okonkwo, is a well-off family man with more than one wife and several children. Life is governed by rituals and the wisdom of the village elders, some of which is extremely harsh. Eventually this strict disciplinarian is banished for several years. By the time he returns, he has lost his influence, but worse than that, the white man has arrived with his Christianity and new behavioural guidelines that leave no room for a man like Okonkwo. I had expected this to be hard going, but apart from confusing characters at times, it was a surprisingly fluid read.

  1. Freshwater (2018) by Akwaeke Emezi

This was chosen by my book club, a contemporary novel set in Nigeria and New York, but based on the idea that some children (ogbanje) are inhabited by spirits whose spirit companions constantly tempt them to return to the spirit world so that they die young and are reborn repeatedly to the same mother. All their life, Ada has felt different and troubled, resorting to controlling behaviours such as self-harm and food restriction. There are many conventionally disturbing aspects to this novel, especially when you discover that Emezi claims it is strongly based on their own life as a non-binary person caught between identities with mixed Nigerian-Tamil background, studying in America. What makes it extraordinary is that most of the story is narrated by one of the multiple spirits inhabiting Ada’s body, a vindictive sexual being who pushes The Ada, as she calls them, to extreme behaviour. Meanwhile, there is a quieter male spirit, Vincent, trying to express himself through Ada’s body. Often confusing, this is a powerful novel that made me wonder if I would have read it if it had been a straight memoir of what the west would probably label mental illness, at best gender dysphoria, the result of internal conflict and identity issues. More traditional societies might describe as the result of spirits, djinns or possession.

  1. The Famished Road (1991) by Ben Okri

After several failed attempts over the years, this book finally clicked with me this time, probably because of the challenge’s added time pressure. Having said which, I still haven’t finished it, but I’m nearly there, halfway through September. Some of the writing is beautiful, some of it written more matter-of-factly in the voice of the narrator, Azaro, a small boy who sees monstrous spirits all around him. The premise is that he was born an abiku (the Yoruba version of the Igbo’s ogbanje), possessed by a spirit who made a promise to his spirit friends to return to the spirit world, i.e. die. Because his parents wanted him so much, Azaro stays with them in the world of the living, but frequently wanders off into the forest or sees spirits in Madame Koto’s bar. The narrative moves at will between hallucination and reality. Azaro’s descriptions of the spirits he sees are colourful, often visceral, dreamlike and also extremely confusing. He also describes the struggle for life in the ghetto and political unrest leading up to an election. Azaro’s mother works hard as a street hawker, mostly unsuccessfully, and puts up with the father’s drunkenness, flights of fancy and boxing exploits, which then result in his inability to work, though most of the time he is simply exhausted from backbreaking work as a load carrier. Madame Koto, a bar owner and witch, frequently features strongly in Azaro’s life, as does a photographer who turns up to record fights and festivities. Read in one go, this book is probably too long and repetitive, but reading it spread out has turned out to be the perfect pacing for me. At one point I was convinced that there was some symbolism behind the colours Azaro uses to describe the spirit world that I could unravel if only I knew more about Nigerian history, but then I decided that wasn’t the case. This is a book to let wash over you without looking for allegories or insights, even into Nigerian traditions, though they are described without further explanation as observations of a small boy.

  1. Birk (You Have Me to Love) (2014) by Jaap Robben

When I saw that Dutch author Jaap Robben’s Summer Brother (Zomervacht) had been nominated for the International Booker Prize this year, I decided to read his earlier Birk, which was already on my shelf. When 9-year-old Mikael returns from the beach one day alone, he doesn’t immediately tell his mother Dora that father Birk has drowned. Stuck on a tiny northern island with only one other inhabitant, Mikael is left to deal with his guilt alone, while his mother is unable to accept the reality and descends into mental illness and unhealthy obsession, isolating her son from the outside world still further. A powerful and oppressive short novel with some interesting imagery and an ominous feel. As I read it in Dutch, I am not sure if the phrase ‘you have me to love’ used as the title in English is something repeated in the book; it’s certainly a more striking title than the original one.

  1. Hemel en hel (Heaven and Hell, orig. Hímnariki og helvíti) (2007) by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Carrying on the theme of living in close communion with the sea, I picked this short novel, first of a trilogy, by Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson, translated to Dutch by Marcel Otten. This is a book of two halves, linked by a single character. The first half is a wonderfully detailed description of the people and preparations for cod fishing in a 6-man rowing boat, when no fisherman could swim, starting as the men wake up in the dark in their communal living quarters. We focus on an unnamed 12-year-old and his slightly older friend Bárdur, bookish boys who are there due to the harsh realities of life after their fathers died, but would rather study and live in town. The fishing trip ends in tragedy due to the distraction of a good book. There are strong themes of friendship, grief and loss that continue into the second half of the book, where one of the boys escapes to the town and is taken in by strangers, where books become an important part of his life. The second half of the book is completely different, with an introduction to many of the townspeople by a meandering drunk captain encountering them as he walks through the small town, recalling anecdotes about their lives. I assume these people will return in the rest of the trilogy, which I am now longing to read.

  1. The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020) by Monique Roffey

This is definitely a cheat! I listened to an abridged version of this on the BBC Sounds app, read in beautiful Caribbean accents by Burt Caesar (from St Kitts) and Marilyn Nnadebe (British-Nigerian), abridged by Sara Davies. Told in diary entries by David, a fisherman, looking back regretfully on the time when he had befriended the mermaid near the island of Black Conch (based on the island of Tobago). This is alternated with the mermaid Aycayia’s own recollections of the time when David saved her from Americans who caught her and wanted to cash in. David hid her and eventually became her lover. This is a wonderful intimate novel, with the tiny community of people who befriend Aycayia, teaching her how to speak and read. One of them is the lonely white woman Miss Rain, descended from slave owners and living in the big house, but who now considers herself a native. Her deaf son Reggie is the first to make a real connection to Aycayia after her capture. But her presence does not remain unnoticed and once again it is a spiteful woman who will lead to Aycayia’s downfall. I’m sure I missed out on a lot of the details that the actual book would have given me about the political situation around independence that forms the background to the novel, but this adaptation uses the author’s own words and style, making it a deliciously atmospheric way to experience it. I will be delighted if I come across a copy of the book itself.

In conclusion

And so ends my 20 Books of Summer 21 (bar any full reviews and blogposts I may eventually manage to post). Hurrah! I now hope to finally take some time to visit some of the other participants’ blogs. Time to finish off the books I had to abandon, too. I’ve really enjoyed the challenge and the flexible rules so I could change my mind without feeling too guilty. Thank you to Cathy at 746 Books for setting the challenge and I look forward to trying again next year.

Lab Girl: a Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jahren #20BooksOfSummer21 no. 1

Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a memoir full of engrossing details about the natural world, particularly trees. But it is more than that, as the subtitle suggests. Hope Jahren is a successful scientist who has had to fight her personal demons and various setbacks, all with someone at her side who has supported her from the very start. With some beautiful descriptions and fascinating details, this will appeal to anyone who likes facts, but has the personal touch that gives us an insight into what it is like to actually work in science.

20 Books of Summer 2021 #1

Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is a memoir full of engrossing details about the natural world, particularly trees. But it is more than that, as the subtitle suggests. Hope Jahren is a successful scientist who has had to fight her personal demons and various setbacks, all with someone at her side who has supported her from the very start. With some beautiful descriptions and fascinating details, this will appeal to anyone who likes facts, but has the personal touch that gives us an insight into what it is like to actually work in science.

“A leaf is a platter of pigment strung with vascular lace.”

A good friend recommended this to me at a book club in about 2017 and the very first time I was back in England, I bought a copy. It was the first of the spate of nature books that friends have recommended in the past few years. Somehow it always takes me a while to start reading non-fiction, but it’s always rewarding when I do. This was one that pulled me in from the start. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the factual chapters, but I found some of Hope Jahren’s conclusions on women in science irritated me, but that’s just me.

The chapters alternate between those telling Jahren’s personal and professional story and those talking about plants, mostly trees. I found many of the tree-based tales obvious because I’m a gardener who observes nature and plants and I enjoy nature documentaries. Of course, her explanations are more scientific than anything most plantsmen could tell you, but the fact that plants in shadier places have larger leaves is something I had already worked out for myself.

Fascinating facts

I thoroughly enjoyed the factual information in the book, though some of her facts had me peering at the world around me and wondering if Hope Jahren was correct. For instance, she tells us that the leaves on trees get progressively smaller, the higher you go. To be honest, I can’t see it myself, looking at my local trees, but I shall have to observe more closely. In smaller plants, it usually works out that way, too, but I had always assumed it was because upper leaves have had less time to grow and, in any case, plants would fall over if they were top-heavy with bigger leaves at the top; it’s what happens if you don’t deadhead your summer flowers and the seed heads pull the plant over. Deadhead them and they stand up straight again.  Nevertheless, she extended my knowledge by pointing out that the leaves lower down a tree are also larger to allow them to photosynthesise in the shade of the higher branches. Jahren has done the scientific legwork to prove it.

Another interesting snippet of information was her comment about the numerical superabundance of seeds produced by a tree. On my very first walk after reading that, I took a photo that perfectly illustrated it. It’s even more obvious in the spring when you see the carpet of shed flowers surrounding flowering cherries and rhododendrons. The Japanese even have a word for it, ochitsubaki, though it is applied specifically to camellia blossoms. 

So many seeds

Platonic love

This isn’t just a book about nature, though. It’s also about self-doubt, overcoming depression with the help of your friends and platonic love. Jahren and her research assistant Bill are locked in a wonderfully supportive, slightly anarchic platonic relationship. They have been going on adventures together for years, taking students to inhospitable places and sharing the sort of escapades and in-jokes that friends usually develop while they are students. I really enjoyed the way they are able to tune in to each other and pull each other out of the mire of despond.

Joy and depression

A spruce tree in her parents’ garden taught her that “being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. […] carefully writing everything down is the only real defence we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more.”

When Jahren does her first piece of novel research on the seed of the hackberry tree, it seems rather odd that she feels so disconsolate. She seems rather melodramatic, saying “as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realisation that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.” It seems so sad that she  felt like that when she was still so young, working toward her Ph.D, with plenty of time to find a partner, have children or anything else she wanted. And her mother would undoubtedly have loved a call. “I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother—or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout, which I could forever point to as my opal.” (p.91)

What we can learn from trees

“The trees were always doing something: when I kept this fact placed firmly in front of me, I got closer to making sense of the problem.”

“A new mind-set became imperative: perhaps I could learn to see the world as plants do, put myself in their place, and puzzle out how they work. […] I tried to visualise a new environmental science that was not based on the world that we wanted with plants in it, but instead based on a vision of the plants’ world with us in it.”

“We don’t resent the audacity of the weed, as every seed is audacious, we resent its fantastic success. Humans are actively creating a world where only weeds can live and then feigning shock and outrage upon finding so many.”

Misogeny or unrealistic expectations?

My only real problem with this book is the repetition of how the men / the establishment / male scientists treat her. She gives the example of feeling ignored at a scientific conference, which surely was not surprising as she was still a very junior researcher at the time and hadn’t yet had the time to build up a network and get to know people. Another of her anecdotes is about her boss deciding that she was not allowed in the building during medical leave because “they don’t know how to deal with a pregnant woman, and you’re the only one who has ever set foot in this building.” This just didn’t ring true in the 21st century, especially as she’s just mentioned the secretaries, who presumably also become pregnant on occasion. And indeed, on the following page she mentions that, in hindsight, it was just a liability issue because she was officially on sick leave (not maternity leave). Nevertheless, the difficulty of being a woman in science is a recurring theme.

Like Bill who thinks that nobody likes him, Hope seems to have her own fully grown persecution complex. It’s not ‘imposter syndrome’ because she is perfectly clear about her expertise and the value of her work, but she is also convinced that she and her work are undervalued because she is a woman. Perhaps paleobotanical science attracts a specific type of man with dinosaur sensibilities, but in the academic areas I have had contact with – electronics, horticulture and medicine – women seem to have perfectly satisfying careers and can stand their ground against any man in the field.

The defensive attitude that Hope Jahren displays in her book reminds me of that Shakespeare quote about the lady protesting too much; it’s something she has convinced herself is true to explain the difficulties that everyone in her situation has of obtaining grants and gaining the respect of more senior colleagues, especially when working in novel fields of research or using unusual methodology. It would be a shame if reading this inspirational book should make young women shy away from working in science and research. After all, she does seem to have an exaggerated vision of what is reasonable. How many other people do you know who think that they should set up her own lab immediately after obtaining their doctorate? Most other people go to work in somebody else’s lab, surely? Unless you come up with some incredibly commercial product during research.

In line with her chorus of ‘I am wise, but it’s wisdom born of pain … I am woman’ (to quote Helen Reddy), Hope Jahren tells us the story of giving birth in unnecessary detail. I wonder why this wasn’t edited to remove the gory details but to still include the story about how nursing and medical staff talked about her while giving birth because I think that part was relevant.

After all her negative stories, it’s not surprising to discover that Hope Jahren has suffered from mental illness, but her hope when she finally agrees to visit a doctor and is prescribed medication, makes you wonder why there is such a reluctance to medicate. “This doctor is so smart and so sure and has seen this so many times that you begin to dare to hope that maybe it’s not too late to finally grow into what you were supposed to be.” I hope it has worked.

P.S.

Speaking of terminology, Hope Jahren is excellent in explaining scientific concepts in words of one syllable. The only words I had to look up were all American slang:

  • gomer (either an idiot – military slang – or a difficult patient – medical slang
  • gimp (disabled)
  • hoosegow (prison)
  • ShamWow (a highly absorbent synthetic sponge/shammy leather)

20 Books of Summer

Is it wise to try to read 20 books in one summer? Who knows? I’ve just decided to take part in the bookish challenge that is 20 Books of Summer: June to August 2021.

I’ve been looking for a challenge that would give me permission to give myself permission to read books that don’t fit the prompts for my normal reading challenges. I think 20 Books of Summer could be it! But choosing 20 books is a challenge in itself. I’ve failed that one already. As you can see, my bookshelf appears unable to cope.

For a few years now, I’ve been reading posts on Liz Dexter’s blog (Adventures in reading, running and working from home) about 20 Books of Summer with a sense of confusion, not realising it was a wider phenomenon. Why 20 books? It seems a lot in a period we normally travel (not this year, folks). On the other hand, it is the whole of June, July and August. That’s a whopping 92 days. I’ve finally worked that it is an annual challenge run by Cathy at 746 books and I can’t resist a challenge. Whether it’s wise or not is another question, but I can combine it with my thematic reading for the summer.

20 Themes of Summer?

Every year, I take part in a challenge with monthly reading themes. This summer the themes are gardens (June), tools (July) and hot/cold (August). I seem to have unlimited books that fit the gardens theme. It may overrun. I am also falling behind on my challenge to read books from or about different countries (the devilishly difficult 666 Challenge: 6 Continents, 6 Countries, 6 Books). It’s an ongoing struggle to read through my 1001 books, so I’d like to read a few of those. Then there are the books that I’ve promised other people or myself I would read, including a book club read. Many of these books have been on my shelves far too long, so one of my themes is Books I Never Seem to Get To to add a little randomness. I’ve also tucked a few tiny tomes on to the end of the shelf in case I need to swap them in. So, without further ado, this is my list of 20 Books of Summer, but who’s counting? (Apparently not me: there are 32 on the list and it’s anybody’s guess how many I’ll actually read or, indeed, review).

20 Books of Summer, the longlist

Garden theme
  1. Wilding (2018) by Isabella Tree. NF. (TBR since 2019)
  2. The Olive Season (2003) by Carol Drinkwater. NF. (TBR since 2018)
  3. Lab Girl (2016) by Hope Jahren. NF. (TBR since 2017)
  4. De verdronken tuin (The Drowning Tree) (2004) by Carol Goodman (TBR for years)
  5. De orchideëndief (The Orchid Thief) (1998) by Susan Orlean. NF (TBR for years)
  6. The Rosemary Tree (1956) by Elizabeth Goudge
  7. Perfick! Perfick! (1958 – 1970) by H.E. Bates. (TBR since 2009)
Tools theme
  1. The Dearest and the Best (1984) by Leslie Thomas (TBR since 2008)
  2. Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (TBR since 2008)
Hot/cold theme
  1. The Song of Wirrun: The Ice is Coming (already read), The Dark Bright Water, Behind the Wind (1984). Australia, myth. (TBR since 2008)
  2. Lange dagen [Long days] (2008) by Pia de Jong
Books I Never Get To
  1. Paladin of Souls (2003) by Lois McMaster Bujold (TBR since 2012)
  2. Jude the Obscure (1895) by Thomas Hardy. 1001. (TBR since 2009)
  3. The Golem and the Djinni (2013) by Helene Wecker (TBR since 2013)
  4. Haar naam was Sarah (Sarah’s Key) (2006) by Tatiana de Rosnay (TBR since 2011)
  5. Neverwhere (1996) by Neil Gaiman (TBR since 1996!)
Promised to Read
  1. Corpus delicti (The Method) (2009) by Juli Zeh (library book for June’s book club, in Dutch)
  2. Utopia for Realists (2014) by Rutger Bregman. NF. (I’ve been promising my son to read this for ages.)
  3. How the Dead Live (2000) by Will Self. 1001. (TBR since 2019) (Somebody commented that nobody they knew liked Will Self’s books and I loved The Book of Dave, so I wanted to read another.)
Reading the World (666 Challenge)
  1. La Prisonniere (1999) by Malika Oufkir, Michèle Fitoussi. NF. Morocco. (TBR since 2009)
  2. The Famished Road (1991) by Ben Okri. Nigeria. (TBR since 1991)
  3. Koning van de barraca’s [King of the Shacks] (2014) by Femke van Zeijl. Mozambique. (TBR since 2016)
  4. Birk (You Have Me to Love) (2014) by Jaap Robben. (TBR since 2018)
  5. Hemel en hel (Heaven and Hell) by Jón Kaman Stefánsson. Iceland. (TBR since 2021)
  6. Achter gesloten grenzen (Dentro do Segredo) (2012) by José Luís Peixoto. NF. North Korea. (TBR since 2019)
  7. Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 1001. Nigeria/USA. (TBR since 2013)
  8. The Namesake (2003) by Jhumpa Lahiri. 1001. India. (TBR since 2013)
  9. The Mosquito Coast (1981) by Paul Theroux. Honduras. (TBR since 2014)
Wouldn’t it be luvverly if I could fit these in too?
  1. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe. 1001. Nigeria. (TBR since 2017)
  2. The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922) by Katherine Mansfield. 1001. New Zealand. (TBR since 2020)
  3. Under the Net (1954) by Iris Murdoch. 1001. (TBR since 2018)
  4. To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf. 1001. (TBR since 2018)

Wish me luck! I can’t wait to get started. Are you joining in the madness?

Beginnings and Endings in January 2021

January”s theme: beginnings and endings. Two books from the 1001 Books list (Middlemarch by George Eliot and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis). Light relief: The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy and some long-neglected books (What Happened at Hazelwood, a whodunnit by Michael Innes plus a memoir of grief by Simone de Beauvoir).

In January I ended up reading two books from the 1001 Books list (Middlemarch by George Eliot and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis), finishing a couple of books which have been on my shelf since I started going to BookCrossing meetings (What Happened at Hazelwood, a whodunnit by Michael Innes and a memoir of grief by Simone de Beauvoir). I finally finished reading Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming and read a lovely story about building a community using the power of libraries and books, The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy, borrowed from my local library before lockdown back in August last year and automatically renewed, given the libraries haven’t been reopened since (until last week, 19 May 2021!).

Every month I tell myself I’m going to write an overview of what I intended to read and what I actually read, but somehow I never do. So I’m going to try to rectify that. If nothing else, it will give me an easy to way to link through to my short reviews on Goodreads and to longer reviews on my blog if I finally get round to writing them. This time round, I’m going to post relatively brief reviews for each book in this blog post. The BookCrossing Ultimate Challenge theme for January was Beginnings and Endings, so I tried to read some books related to that, however tenuous some of the links are; death is a pretty final ending to a relationship and the edge of Europe is another ending. Other books date back to the very beginning of Mount TBR and The Old Devils must be one of the first books I bought as an adult.

What I read in January 2021

What Happened at Hazelwood by Michael Innes

Unfocused distractability with everyone milling about after Christmas made me idly pick this up, then got stuck with it when one of the cats sat on me, so decided to continue reading and I’m glad I did. Mind boggling! This somewhat humorous country house crime novel kept me guessing until the end. It was a cross between Wodehouse, Christie and good old British farce, with people climbing up and down trellises, posing as other characters, dressing up, making hoax phone calls and generally causing confusion and provoking moral outrage.

Once I started reading, I was surprised that the author and book weren’t better known, but it appears that he was more known for his Appleby series of crime novels. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the fact that this story has particularly non-PC aspects. The brothers George and Denzell Simney had been on youthful ‘blackbirding’ raids round the Pacific islands, i.e. they had been involved in small-scale slave-trading, though I’m not entirely sure where this was supposed to have taken place and exactly what it involved. As a result, they were on the run from the Australian authorities, but seemingly more so because one of them had shot at an anthropologist, rather than for the slaving raids themselves. Though this was used as one of the many examples of their appalling behaviour, there isn’t much moral outrage about these exploits. As for the language, not only is there the ‘blackbirding’ itself, but ‘the N word’ is also used. What is more, Mervyn is described as an effete mummy’s boy, Willoughby has aspersions cast upon his manliness because he is an artist and another character has had extensive psychotherapy to cure him of his aversion to marrying his beautiful fiancée Nicolette, a woman every other male character finds totally irresistible. This is definitely not a novel that translates well into 21st century sensibilities. The story, however, does stand the test of time and could be filmed as an entertaining period piece, bar the racism and homophobia.

Oddly enough, I discovered that I had two copies of this obscure whodunnit and, bizarrely, the title is spelled incorrectly on the cover of one of them, even though it is correct inside the book itself! One of them names the country house as Hazlewood on the cover instead of Hazelwood. I have to admit, the more I saw the word, the more I began to doubt my sanity, even though checking that sort of thing is part of my job.

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

A delightful story of a rather stuffy traditional librarian in rural Ireland who is gradually persuaded to become involved in a campaign which could revitalise the local community and the local area in a grassroots initiative, taking back control from centralised bureaucracy and vested interests. Just the thing for a dull January weekend. First in a series, apparently. I borrowed it from my local library, very happy to find a book in English that wasn’t a thriller or romance.

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

It’s safe to say the film version of Diamonds are Forever is more exciting and the dialogue is far more witty than the book. I started reading this for the 1956 Club and wrote a review back then, but I actually finished reading in the New Year.

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1001 book)

I have mixed feelings about this book. Some of it was extremely difficult or confusing to read, yet other sections I flew through. On the whole I enjoyed it, but it was extremely long, with a few chapters which seemed there only to slow down the plot. There was a stage at which I felt sure that Lydgate would have been perfectly justified in snapping and strangling the spoilt, self-centred Rosamond with her self-destructive obstinacy and underhand ways; it could have easily turned into the explanation of a murder, especially if it had started with a beautiful woman’s body. What possessed her husband to commit the crime…? That wasn’t this book, though.

Alternative title: Will and Willfulness? If Jane Austen hadn’t already laid claim to the title, this book might just as well have been titled Pride and Prejudice. So many of the characters assume something about other people because of their background or gossip. Yet more are too proud to actually express what they feel about somebody; Ladislaw and Dorothea being prime examples. There are also numerous occasions where straight talking would have made things a lot easier, not the least between Lydgate and Rosamond, but also Dorothea and Ladislow. Misunderstandings are rife as people talk in coded terms, disguising offers of loans in ambiguous terms (Farebrother), being too modest or high-principled to declare one’s feelings (Dorothea, Farebrother). Straight talking would also have cleared up Dorothea and Casaubon’s relationship. Without all those ‘delicate feelings’ and pre-empting other people’s feelings, much of the gossip would have been quashed. Pride is considered a sin, so why is everyone so concerned to do things their own way, without help; Ladislaw and Lydgate are both victims of their own pride.

It was extremely frustrating that there was such a large number of people who were overly keen to sacrifice their own happiness to avoid anybody else being inconvenienced. Or to insist that they could only prove their worth by making their own way in the world (Ladislaw and Lydgate). So much pride!


Een zachte dood/Une mort très douce (A gentle death) by Simone de Beauvoir

My first Simone de Beauvoir, read in Dutch, and I’m disappointed. I really know nothing about her or her views and this book is definitely not the book to read to find out more. I also wonder why she wrote it. Was it to shock people by breaking the taboo of speaking about dying unpleasantly in general and cancer in particular? Because I suppose it is a relatively recent thing to talk and write about cancer other than in hushed tones. I’d worry about people affected by cancer reading this now and assuming that’s what it’s like, because treatments have progressed immeasurably and become more bearable since 1979, though not all suffering can be eliminated. Would someone read this and decide they didn’t want any treatment? I have heard of someone who said she wouldn’t want to go through the chemotherapy her mother did, but that was 40 years ago and things have (supposedly) progressed. That’s the danger of reading something so dated.

The thing that stands out above all others is the guilt that both daughters feel about lying to their mother about what was happening to her. Nowadays a patient with cancer is told exactly what is wrong with them and told what the side effects of their treatment will be. It is entirely their own choice if they go through with it. And in this case, the mother had little choice because her suffering was due to a wound failing to heal and bed rest due to a broken hip resulting in horrendous bedsores; her suffering was less to do with the cancer itself. Having said which, she didn’t give permission for that operation. She was tricked, then not told what it was for. A surgeon would probably be struck off for that now!

Perhaps what was most unexpected was the lack of depth to the author’s ideas about death and dying; I’d expected more. I was also disappointed by the style of writing. This may have been the translation, which I can only describe as pedestrian. Having read some reviews with quotations from the English translation, it seems more fluid and literary, which is what I had expected. And I did also occasionally wonder what the original French had been because it felt like a phrase had been translated as individual words which didn’t convey the same meaning. Of course, I have no way of checking this, but it was interesting that on the evening I finished reading this, I happened to watch a BBC Storyville documentary about the fire at the Notre Dame, French interviews, subtitled in English. I noticed they translated ‘soulagé’ as ‘relieved’. This was a word I had reverse looked up earlier to find a possible original of something that had felt ‘off’. Suffice it to say it hadn’t been translated as ‘relieved’, which fitted the context better.

To sum up, a disappointing read that has been taking up room on my shelf for far too long with far too little reason.

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1001 book)

Having recently finished the nearly 900-page 19th-century smalltown novel of relationships and social commentary, Middlemarch, The Old Devils didn’t seem like such a struggle any more. Another small town, more convoluted relationships. This has been on my bookshelves for about 30 years. I started it once or twice, but didn’t get far. This was its last chance and only because it is on the 1001 list and I have read one other book by Kingsley Amis which I thoroughly enjoyed, many years ago. No, not that one; I’ve never come across Lucky Jim. The one I read was the infinitely shorter alternate history of The Alteration, read so long ago, all I can remember is that it is about a chorister who is about to become a castrato.

From what I’ve picked up in passing, Amis was considered misogynistic, racist and was an alcoholic and serial adulterer, though a great wit and charming with it. If so, he used it all to good advantage in this, one of his later novels. Not so much the humour, though there is some slapstick in descriptions of the problems of becoming old, overweight and inebriated, some of which is lavatorial. Why do so many British male authors feel the need to revert to 13-year-old level? Like Middlemarch, it feels at first like there are many characters, paired off in mostly unfulfilling marriages, but I kept a cheat sheet and they soon became (mostly) distinct from each other.

On the surface, these middle class retirees have nothing much to offer us. Many pages are spent describing how they are wasting the remainder of their lives, the men at the pub, the women meeting up what seems like every day sloshing back the wine at each other’s houses. Every day is another chance to talk about what’s wrong with the modern world, husbands/wives and each other. Life is boring and stagnant. All changes when old friends return from London where Alun has led the life of a celebrity spokesman for Wales and supposed expert on Dylan Thomas’s fictionalised clone, Brydan. Ironically, the media’s current Welsh representative of choice includes Rob Brydon, though this book predates his rise to fame by many decades. Alun and his attractive wife Rhiannon throw a cat among the pigeons because Alun is a serial adulterer who intends to revisit all his previous conquests and wastes no time in doing so. Rhiannon also has a romantic past with at least two of the other men, but her role is to put up with her husband’s exploits; they still seem to have a connection. She puts up with him because he always returns to her; a very long-suffering woman!

Many reviewers complain that Amis doesn’t fully flesh out his female characters. Indeed, I noticed that he tends to tell their stories in dialogue and descriptions, whereas we get to hear the men’s own thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, the women do play a strong role in this book. Sophie is a shoulder to cry on, the listener of the group and strongly supports her husband Charlie who has nightmares and is scared of the dark. It was another reviewer who mentioned this was probably a result of his alcoholism. Some of these people are terrible people, notably Alun, but also the awful jolly hockeysticks Englishwoman Muriel who verbally tortures husband Peter and drops a bombshell on him on their son’s wedding day, thus ruining the ceremony for him.

In spite of all the ancient history between these couples, Alun’s ability to sweep all the women off their feet just doesn’t ring true. Teenagers and university students in friend groups do tend to exchange partners, but this doesn’t mean the same feelings remain forever, nor do aged libidos miraculously recover once an old flame turns up. Maybe this was the ultimate fantasy for a pre-Viagra generation of men, confronted with the pre-HRT-health-scare generation of women. Nevertheless, I ended up enjoying The Old Devils, however staid their devilry was. The final chapters were poignant, with satisfactory endings for several of the characters and a comeuppance for one that was undoubtedly deserved.

#1936Club – The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson

Which book was more popular than Gone With the Wind, annoyed Hitler but was tolerated by Stalin, was filmed by Disney twice and spawned songs and dances since 1936? Why, The Story of Ferdinand, of course!

This is a children’s book with a story about a little Spanish bull who preferred to sit under a tree and smell flowers rather than fight. It sounded very familiar: was it made into one of those short Disney cartoons? Indeed it was; made in 1938, it won an Oscar and was still being shown on television into the 1970s. In fact, in some countries it is shown every year on Christmas Eve. When they tried to replace it with something else in the 1980s in Sweden, it came back the following year after a public outcry. What a delightful and illogical tradition!

An image from the book, by Robert Lawson

What’s even more surprising than the fact I remember it is that Walt Disney himself voiced Ferdinand’s mother. According to one of the reviews on IMDB, the animated bandilleros and picadors were based on the cartoon’s animators and the matador on Walt Disney himself; he was reportedly Not Amused by that, though surely he must have vetted it, especially if he voiced part of it; that story sounds apocryphal to me.

A surprisingly political book

As it was published at the time of the Spanish civil war, General Franco – the man who led the violent uprising – was definitely not amused at the pacifist bull and banned the book. The ban was not lifted until his death in 1975. Hitler had all copies burned (“degenerate democratic propaganda”, he said, only he said it in German). After the war, 30,000 copies were printed and distributed free to German children to promote peace (source: Illustration Chronicles).  It was the only non-communist book allowed in Poland by Stalin. Even Ernest Hemingway, who fought in Spain, had something to write about it. Perhaps even more surprisingly, in the first year after publication, it sold more copies than Gone With the Wind, also a 1936 book, in America (source: Sothebys). 

It was fascinating reading about all the criticism, serious and tongue in cheek that has surrounded the book over the time since its publication. It’s been criticised and hailed (depending on your viewpoint) as pacifist, fascist, socialist, showing your feminine side, and championing individualism, being true to yourself and encouraging children to be lazy or refuse to stand up to their responsibilities (source: The New Yorker).

The Song of Ferdinand the Bull

Disney also promoted the cartoon well before it appeared by releasing The Song of Ferdinand the Bull that was later covered by various artists. This is discussed in this wonderful blogpost. Do take the time to listen to the embedded videos. The Slim Gaillard jazz version reminds me of the jazz in the backing of Tom and Jerry cartoons and has a wonderful section where the double bass imitates a cow. On the downside, it also has homophobic connotations, with Ferdinand with his hands (hooves?) on his hips and the singer commenting at the end (in a very camp voice, no less) that “Ferdinand’s a sissie!” I’m assuming this wasn’t part of the original. I recommend the Dixieland Swingsters version, which shows various versions of the book’s cover and the ‘bonus video’ showing the pantomime cow version of Ferdinand.

Back to the book

 The best way to read this book if you don’t have a copy is to have it read aloud to you with all the illustrations clearly visible. Try this video. It’s interesting to see that the Disney animators hardly changed a thing except the style. Even the men’s funny hats are virtually the same and you can see that the joke of the wine corks hanging off the cork tree comes from Robert Lawson’s illustrations. Not until the scene in the bull ring is the story changed. In the book, Ferdinand enjoys the flowers in the ladies’ hair. In the cartoon, the matador has been thrown a bunch of flowers and tears his hair out when Ferdinand won’t fight. Thank goodness all those bandilleros and picadors and the matador were so afraid of Ferdinand’s reputation, or the pain would have driven him to his death, given his exaggerated reaction to the bee sting. As it is, its a delightful pacifist tale that infuriated two dictators and that’s a win in my book. Perhaps a more realistic version of events is given in the 2017 full length computer animation film Ferdinand which was nominated for all sorts of Academy Awards, but had the misfortune to come out in the same year as Disney Pixar’s Coco, with Coco having a full month longer at the box office to create a buzz. I haven’t seen either of them.

It’s quite amazing that a little picture book can have such a legacy. After all, Munro Leaf claimed that he only wrote it so his friend Robert Lawson had something to draw.