Soon, we’ll be driving to Tuscany for a couple of weeks on the beach and the best thing, apart from sun, sand and Italian food, is that I can pack the boot of the car with as many books as I want to. I don’t have to worry about weight or select a few – I can take the whole damn lot. While I’m there I also intend to complete my novel outline for the first meeting of my writing group in September, flesh out some of my characters and maybe compose some offline posts about Tuscan beach culture (Are hoop earrings de rigeur?/ Is there such a thing as too little bikini?/Sandcastles I have known).
I realise I’ve been remiss about reviewing my recent reading. When I have big work projects on and house-guests, as I do now, I don’t stop reading but I don’t really have time to write in-depth reviews. While I await comment from my editor, and while my charming house-guests entertain my children, here’s an overview of the reading that’s been going on chez Charlotte recently.
Two Lives by Vikram Seth
I love Seth’s novels. He writes them big and fat and packed with characters, which is my favourite kind of book. Two Lives is a memoir and biography, and it is just as large and satisfying as one of his novels. It details the lives of Seth’s great-uncle Shanti and his wife Henny. Shanti moved to Berlin from India in the 1930s to study dentistry, and found rooms with Henny’s family. Henny managed to escape to England from Germany in 1939, but her mother and sister were unable to leave and eventually were murdered in a concentration camp. Seth researches the memoir after Henny’s death, so he pieces her story together through Shanti Uncle’s memories and Henny’s vivid correspondence. What was fascinating for me was the vibrant picture of Thirties Berlin, and Shanti and Henny’s glamorous and various group of friends. After the war, the group is of course shattered, with some members dead, others shamed by their Nazi connections and others trying to survive the depredations of postwar Germany. Henny’s Berlin friends were always deeply grateful for her care packages of chocolate, stockings and cigarettes. At one point, Seth travels to Israel to research state records of the Holocaust in order to find out how and where Henny’s family were killed, and is overcome with horror at the understated cruel efficiency of official German as it describes the removal of people from society. He writes, “I grew to hate the verbs”. That resonated so strongly with me. The German that I use every day is the same German that wiped out millions of people with its cruel deathly verbs. While parts of this book are difficult to read, Two Lives is written with sensitivity, affection and humour. I loved it.
The Memory-Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. This is apparently a bestseller, but that hadn’t crossed my radar when I picked it up. I suspect I may have read about it on someone’s blog – my usual method of collecting recommendations. The storyline was intriguing: a couple have twins but when the husband, who is a doctor, sees that his daughter is a Downs baby, he hands her to a nurse with directions to remove her to a home. He then tells his wife that her daughter has died. The nurse takes the baby to the home, but when there, changes her mind and decides to raise the child herself in another city. The novel tells the parallel stories of these twins growing up in different circumstances. It was well-told and the characters were well-drawn and believable. I felt compassion for the wife who mourns her dead daughter, compassion for the husband living with his terrible secret, and admiration for the nurse who loves the little girl as her own. It’s a competent story and well-told. I think it would make a good beach book.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walsh. This is also a memoir and a gripping one. Walsh is one of four children raised by a pair of completely feckless parents. The father is a dreamer and and an alcoholic, and the mother is an artist who doesn’t see the point of cooking a meal, because it only lasts 15 minutes, while a painting lasts forever. Walsh’s first memory is of standing at the stove at the age of three cooking hotdogs because she is hungry. The boiling water spills on her, and she has to spend six weeks in hospital, from where her father “saves her” because he doesn’t want to pay the bills. This is only the beginning of a litany of stories about her parents which I read with my mouth hanging open. Despite neglect on a spectacular scale, three of the four children manage to survive relatively intact – Walsh herself becomes a successful journalist in New York. She writes of her childhood without bitterness and of her parents with affection. As a reader, I followed her trajectory of warmish feelings towards this astonishingly unconventional couple – until the scene where the children are picking through the bins at school for something to eat and when they get home, the mother dives under the comforter on her bed (where she spends most of the day) to take large bites of a chocolate bar she’s secreted there. I lost patience with the father even earlier. I think Walsh wants to present a non-judgmental picture of her parents, but merely by telling her story she does invite her readers to judge. I judged, and I found them guilty of extreme neglect.
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. This is the second mystery story by the writer of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and the second featuring grizzled detective Jackson Brodie (the first was the acclaimed Case Histories). Atkinson is at the top of her game. One Good Turn is an excellent read, with a host of superbly-drawn characters, a great mystery and a wonderful twist at the end. If anyone’s looking for the perfect summer book, I’d say this is it. I seldom re-read, but I’m tempted to take this on holiday with me because I’d like to pay more attention to her style. She is so damn talented.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I’m not going to write too much about this book, as there are many acres of text on the Web already, but I loved it. It was beautiful. It’s terrifying portrait of a country, a poignant study of family and a testament to loyalty.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody. I saw Ang Lee’s superb film a few years ago, so it was his images that were in my head when I read the book. Perhaps my slight disappointment stems from the disjunction between the film and the book, but I found the book’s preoccupation with male masturbation and overly knowing teenage girls a bit tiresome. It’s not intended to be comfortable reading, and it isn’t. Let’s just say that Moody draws a particularly unappealing portrait of the American male and his preoccupations, circa 1973.
Right now, I’ve got two books going on. For fun, I’m reading Jed Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder, a great thriller set in early twentieth-century New York. For intellectual challenge, I’m reading Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a bold and fascinating book and it’s sure to spawn a blog post or two.