Reading Thirkell’s Barsetshire Series in Order: #17 Love Among the Ruins + #16 Private Enterprise Wrap-Up

I know I’m losing participants, but thanks to those who are keeping up or made comments about Private Enterprise, the first post-war book in the series. Those who participated were

Our book for October is Love Among the Ruins. I will be posting my review on Monday, October 31. I hope that one or two people will read along with me, as I am getting into completely uncharted waters.

And here’s our little emblem.

If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Little Life

With my review of The Year of the Runaways, I have finished reading the shortlisted books for the Booker Prize of 2015. So, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. My reactions to the shortlist of that year were really mixed. There were a couple books I intensely disliked, one that I thought was pointless, one that was interesting but didn’t really pull me in, and two that were excellent.

The winner for the year was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, about an assassination attempt on Bob Marley and its ramifications years later. I found it brutal and sexist and couldn’t even figure out which of many dead people the seven killings referred to. Though it was the first book in this shortlist that I read, I knew even then I wouldn’t be picking it as my favorite.

My next least favorite book was The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, about what happens between brothers after a prophecy. I found this book interesting because of its insight into Nigerian village culture and life, but I also found it extremely and graphically violent. Worse, I found Obioma’s writing immature, with unusual metaphors that often didn’t work well and his love for long, overblown sentences.

I didn’t see any point at all in Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, about U, a corporate anthropologist, whose job is to observe, connect, and deconstruct all known human activity. I’m sure it is meant ironically, but the novel seemed an exercise in Absurdism to me. It almost had a plot, but then it petered out at the end.

I liked The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota a little bit better. Written as if it was 19th century social realism, it is about several young Indian men who illegally immigrate to England with unrealistic expectations of their job prospects. It’s pretty grim, though, and it gets worse before it gets better. Its social realist style leaves you detached from its characters.

Cover for A Spool of Blue Thread

Now, we get to the good stuff. I just loved A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. About a family that gathers to decide what to do about their aging and faltering parents, I found it to be a lovely story about family stories and secrets, loving and forgiveness.

Finally, however, there is A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara. A beautifully written novel, it centers around four young men who were roommates in college. Slowly, we learn the secrets of one mysterious character, Jude, around whom everything seems to center. This was a powerful and deeply touching novel.

So, I pick A Little Life, with strong recommendations for A Spool of Blue Thread.

My latest haul (finally) from the British Library Press

After several requests, I finally got another package of review copies from the British Library Crime Classics and Women Writers series. I’m not sure what went wrong with the first few requests, as each time they said they would send some books. Unfortunately, I got more Crime Classics than Women Writers books, when I thought it would be the other way around. However, I am looking forward to some delicious reading.

If I Gave the Award

Cover for Bring Up the Bodies

Now that I have reviewed the last shortlisted book for the 2012 Booker Prize, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. This shortlist is another mixed bag of genres, two historical, two set in the 1970’s, and two contemporary. One is experimental enough to render it almost incomprehensible while another sometimes reads as if pages were taken from a textbook.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I liked least. My least favorite of the nominees was Umbrella by Will Self. With an idea that should have been interesting, based as it is on Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, this novel is so concerned with its devices that it is very difficult to read. It shifts point of view in mid-sentence, sometimes in mid-word, and uses stream-of-consciousness confusingly.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil is set in late 1970’s or early 80’s Bombay, about a young man exploring the city’s opium dens and brothels. Although I found some of the characters interesting, I was not interested in the overall subject matter, and when the novel became philosophical, it read as if it came out of a textbook.

My main objection to Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is that I found the situation unbelievable. When vacationers find a disturbed girl occupying their vacation house, they invite her to stay even though she is clearly a fangirl of the poet husband. The entire atmosphere of the novel is foreboding, and the placement in time of an initial scene is confusing.

Cover for The Garden of Evening Mists

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore is another menacing novel, about a sad, gray man who goes on a hiking trip out of nostalgia for happy times with his father. He unwittingly gets into a situation between a woman and her jealous husband. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, I found this novel oddly compelling.

I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng about post-World War II Malaya. It immersed me in the story of a Malayan judge suffering from aphasia who is revisiting her memories.

That leaves the winner of that year’s prize, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantell. This novel was the second installment of Mantell’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, dealing with Anne Boleyn’s frantic attempts to hold onto her throne and her life. It is an absolutely enthralling story of Tudor politics and intrigue. So, this time, yes, the judges got it right.

If I Gave the Award

Having reviewed the last book from the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction shortlist, it’s now time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Frankly, 2020 was an odd year, with several books that, while interesting, really didn’t do it for me. In fact, quite a few of them cultivated distance between the reader and the work.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I liked least. One is The Parisian by Isabella Hammad. This novel covers the beginning of the fight for Arab nationalism and the First World War, so it should have been interesting. However, Hammad writes it from the point of view of a man who distances himself from the action by the persona he invents for himself.

Another distancing book was The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, which was the winner for 2020. It is about the relationship between the artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo. It is slow moving and mostly a character study about a self-absorbed man who seemed to live his life in the interior of his own mind. I felt that although Jo was depicted as jealous and demanding, she was upset about something understandable—her career coming so much secondary to his and in fact his disdain of her work.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek is a little more experimental than the other nominees. It is about a 14th century journey from the Cotswolds to Calais, and it is written only in words in use at the time. It also reflects, in tone and plot, its medieval inspirations. However, Meek doesn’t do much with his characters, so I had difficulty becoming involved in the novel.

The Redeemed by Tim Pears was the third book in his West Country Trilogy, and it is set during the last years and the aftermath of World War I about a man who has to make his own way after becoming homeless as a boy. Having spent three books with these characters, I found the conclusion of the trilogy anti-climactic. I actually thought the first book was best.

Joseph O’Connor has written a novel about 30 years in the life of Bram Stoker, with Shadowplay. I found this novel involving and interesting. It’s about Stoker’s work with the Lyceum Theatre and his relationship with two famous actors, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. It even has just a bit of a supernatural influence.

Although it took me a while to get into A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland, I found it absolutely heart-rending by the end. It is based on the life of a native Anglican missionary to South Africa, about a man whose upbringing sets him apart from his own people as well as his English white patrons. This novel is my choice for the 2020 award.

My Third Classics Club List

With The Sea Hawk I have finished my second Classics Club list. By some marathon reading, I finished posting my last reviews exactly a week later than my original deadline, owing to my neglect of the list for a couple of years. I was reading a lot of classics, just not the ones on my list, and I forgot to notice my deadline until six months ago.

In any case, it is time for a third list. Here it is. I am posting this list on July 7, 2021, and setting myself a deadline of July 6, 2026. As usual, I am attempting to read some classics from different centuries. I am also picking books from a few more countries than just England and the U. S. In some ways, this list seems more imposing than my previous ones.

BC

  • The Aeneid by Virgil (30 to 19 BCE)

15th Century

  • The Book of Dede Korkut by Anonymous (14th or 15th century)

16th Century

  • Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe (1598)
  • Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare (1598)

17th Century

  • The Fair Jilt by Aphra Behn (1688)
  • Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford (1633)
  • The Princess of Cleves by Madame de La Fayette (1678)

18th Century

  • Cecilia, Memoirs of an Heiress by Frances Burney (1782)
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)

19th Century

  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
  • The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins (1856)
  • Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1865)
  • The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
  • Belinda by Maria Edgeworth (1801)
  • The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)
  • The Saga of Gosta Berling by Selma Lagerloft (1891)
  • The Prophet’s Mantle by E. Nesbit (1885)
  • Merkland, A Story of Scottish Life by Margaret Oliphant (1851)
  • A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova (1848)
  • The Bride of Lammermoor by Walter Scott (1889)
  • The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
  • Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope (1867-1869)

20th Century

  • Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953)
  • Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (1929)
  • The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (1938)
  • The Methods of Lady Walderhurst by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1901)
  • The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos (1962)
  • Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie (1976)
  • Weatherley Parade by Richmal Crompton (1944)
  • The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût (1955)
  • The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1933)
  • The Moorland Cottage by Elizabeth Gaskell (1950)
  • The Woods in Winter by Stella Gibbons (1970)
  • The Mayor’s Wife by Anna Katherine Green (1907)
  • The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer (1950)
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)
  • Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston (1942)
  • Much Dithering by Dorothy Lambert (1938)
  • The Tavern Knight by Rafael Sabatini (1904)
  • Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp (1930)
  • A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (1950)
  • The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair (1917)
  • Miss Plum and Miss Penny by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (1959)
  • Music in the Hills by D. E. Stevenson (1950)
  • The Moon Spinners by Mary Stewart (1962)
  • Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo (1963)
  • Father by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1931)
  • Miss Mole by E. H. Young (1930)
  • We by Yevgeny Zemyatin (1920)