Sunday, 7 April 2019

Phylogeny


Barbara Kingsolver came to the Manchester Literature Festival last year and it was my most anticipated event. She commented at the beginning of the chat how enamoured she was with the british version of her book, because the publisher had commissioned this wonderful edging to the pages, a continuation of the wallpaper pattern in the cover image. It's not really a book to read when you are about to lose your house because it's all about two people who's houses are falling down around their ears.

I started writing this back in January and no longer have strong impressions of the book (nor a memory of why I entitled the post Phylogeny). I so wanted to do it justice because the story spoke volumes for me about how important it is to have a home, to feel you belong somewhere. I loved it also because of the inclusion of real people in the narrative, the way she did with The Lacuna. She made a comment in her discussion about working on her sentences and I wished I had been able to say how much I appreciate writers who take that much trouble; how when you read you can tell they have cared about each sentence and what it says.

Again, much reading has gone on recently as I have battled my impatience with the vendors and the solicitors, and waited, and packed books, and waited for the contracts to be exchanged. Quickest of quick summaries of some enjoyable reads:

'Bitter Orange' by Claire Fuller: a dark tale of Frances, who just yearns for acceptance, and is sucked in to the mixed up lives of Peter and Cara. A beautifully related tale of a long hot summer where hidden things are revealed and secrets come back to haunt her.
'Foucault's Pendulum' by Umberto Eco took me a long time to read, it was ponderously slow and detailed. I kept waiting for something to happen, and it didn't. It is like 'The Da Vinci Code' but ramped up by several notches. It covers much of the same ground; the templars and all that historical stuff about secret societies, but the young men involved seem to be inventing it as they go along, creating false connections to ingratiate themselves with their publisher, and then finding things are more real than they imagined. I loved the depth in 'The Name of the Rose' and was hoping for something as engaging but just found myself utterly bogged down by it.


'The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden' by Jonas Jonasson: I had packed most of my books so Monkey took this off her shelf for me. I loved The 100 Year old Man and settled down to this one with relish. It follows something of the same format, though this time we have a young South African girl as our heroine making her way doggedly through a life that seems determined to thwart her. Similarly resourceful and pragmatic you can't help but like her, and again the story is a mixture of real life events and characters artfully blended with fictitious ones. 


'Travelling in a Strange Land' by David Park was recommended by Dove Grey Reader a few weeks ago and I loved it, and happily he has quite a list of other books for me to seek out. A father battles through the snow to collect his son from university, and while he drives he cogitates over their family history, and all the ways in which he feels he has failed his children. It is beautifully understated book, just my kind of read. Isolated in his car Tom allows himself hours of introspection, interrupted by moments of connection to people he encounters along the way. A gentle and sympathetic study of the human condition with all its strengths and weaknesses. 


'Rings of Saturn' by W.G. Sebald is from my 101 Books list. I loved Austerlitz and was looking forward to reading this, having started and stopped several times because I was distracted and wanted to give it my full attention. I wanted to like it but I didn't. The style felt so familiar with meandering digressions, but the central premise of the book, a travelogue by the narrator of a journey around Suffolk, did not engage me the way the character and story of Austerlitz did. The narrator himself did not seem to have much enthusiasm for his journey and the places he stopped were lifeless and bleak. I found much of the digressing to be dull and there were few of the intense moments that I encountered in Austerlitz. I will give you just this, a description of his garden in the spring following the hurricane in 1987:

"Now, in the truest sense of the word, everything was turned upside down. The forest floor, which in the spring of last year had still been carpeted with snowdrops, violets and wood anemones, ferns and cushions of moss, was now covered with a layer of barren clay. All that grew in the hard-baked earth were tufts of swamp grass, the seeds of which had lain in the depths for goodness knows how long. The rays of the sun, with nothing left to impede them, destroyed all the shade-loving plants so that it seemed as if we were living on the edge of an infertile plain. Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows, where larks had risen on the morning air above the fields and where, in the evenings, we occasionally even heard a nightingale in the thicket, its pure and penetrating song punctuated by theatrical silences, there was now not a living sound." (p.268)

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