We’re almost halfway through the twenty-first year of the 21st century, a good point I think to take stock of my reading. Goodreads tells me I’ve read forty books of my modest goal of sixty-six titles this year, and I’ve reviewed them all here as well as on Goodreads.
Regular visitors here will know that I have broad tastes, though that doesn’t mean I don’t have favourite genres. To help me occasionally burst out of my comfort bubble I take on reading prompts as various as specific countries or more generally European countries, also non-fiction and crime fiction, graphic novels and science fiction.
While many of the titles read overlap a couple or so categories, there will be categories that I could, maybe should, visit more. I wonder what they may be?
My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon. Translated by Nigel Ryan (1956). Penguin Red Classic 2006 (1949)
The bells were still sending their circles of sound into the air.
A petty crook has been shouting his mouth off about mon ami Maigret in a popular hotel bar on one of the Îles d’Or off the southern French coast. The next day he is dead, shot first and his body mashed. Chief Inspector Maigret, shadowed by a colleague from Scotland Yard, is despatched to Porquerolles to investigate, leaving a drizzly late spring Paris for a balmy Mediterranean island.
Feeling his investigative style cramped by the English detective observing his famous methods Maigret finds himself additionally seduced by the sounds, smells and sights that assail his senses. Can he make progress in solving the mystery of who on the island would want Marcellin dead, and why?
As is familiar from many Maigret stories Simenon gets the reader to figuratively sit on the detective’s shoulder, sharing his thoughts and overhearing his quickfire questioning; the reader also has time to get caught up in descriptions of locale and prevailing atmospheres before Maigret’s final suspect or suspects are fingered.
The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena | Stories and songs by Ursula K Le Guin, edited by Brian Attebery. Library of America 2016.
I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to be that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.
Introduction, ‘The Complete Orsinia’
A land-locked country somewhere in Europe. Known as Orsenya to its inhabitants and as Orsinia to the outside world. A land with its own language, culture and history but not so dissimilar to those of its neighbours. Yet beyond the writings of its only chronicler little is known about it. Although that chronicler is sadly no longer with us, she has nevertheless provided us with glimpses into lives lived at various points in its history; a few lives are those of the powerful but most are of ordinary people, though that’s not to say they’re not extraordinary in their own ways.
Containing Orsinian Tales(1976) and Malafrena(1979) you might, if you already have copies of both, wonder what the advantage of acquiring this compendium could be. Well, apart from the convenience of having the two titles in one volume there are the additions: two extra short stories published subsequently, in 1979 and 1990, and three short Orsinian songs, plus supporting material. That material — Le Guin’s 2015 introduction, an extensive chronology of the author’s life up to 2014 (she was to die in early 2018) and notes by the editor on the texts — renders this one-volume edition well worth the outlay.
New Penguin Parallel Text: short stories in Italian / Racconti in Italiano. Edited by Nick Roberts, Penguin Books 1999
A volume of nine short stories by nine 20th-century Italian writers has been with me for a score of years, not exactly studiously ignored but still incomprehensibly remaining unread. I’m not too sure why I hesitated because in translation they’ve been very satisfying, and although I’ve only read a selection of paragraphs from each story in the original the experience has been equally enlightening. At a time of pandemic only virtual travel is possible, so these brief narratives have evoked Italian life and lives really well when physical travel has been out of the question.
The authors whose names were familiar to me were Italo Calvino and Primo Levi, so it was interesting to comes across Leonardo Sciascia, Goffredo Parise, Stefano Benni and Antonio Tabucchi, while the female contributors who were included were Dacia Maraini, Susanna Tamaro and Sandra Petrignani. Nick Roberts (who translated a couple of the pieces) has done a great job selecting a variety in terms of subject, tone and style; and English versions by Avril Bardoni, Sharon Wood, Ruth Feldman, Tim Parks, Edward Williams, Charles Caroe and Chris Roberts have — as far as I can tell from my very limited command of Italian — have been very readable without being departing from the originals.
And what of the stories themselves? Here are psychological portraits, tales with a sting in the tale, insightful social narratives, reported conversations, a youngster’s stream of consciousness piece, even a satire, all very different and, like courses at a dinner, each needing a little time to savour and digest before moving on.
After I posted a review of Katherine Langrish’s excellent From Spare Oom to War Drobeone blogger expressed the thought “how wonderful a group read of the Narniad followed by Langrish’s book would be!” She teasingly added “Host it, Chris, host it next year!” And then another blogger joined in… Thanks so much, Laurie and Sandra, I hope you’re not offering me what could turn out a poisoned chalice!
Well, as leery as I am of potentially onerous commitments here I am actually contemplating it. Who knew? So what form should it take? When should it start? Which of the Chronicles of Narnia should a readalong begin with? And would any bloggers be interested in joining in?
I haven’t run a poll in quite a while so you lucky people will be treated to a short series now. To get you focused I’m borrowing a title previously used on social media (for, I think, watching screen adaptations of the series), namely Narniathon — short, precise and hopefully memorable.
Too Good to be True by Ann Cleeves. Pan Books, 2016.
“Do you think Anna Blackwell committed suicide?”
Maggie answered straightaway. “Not in a thousand years. She adored her daughter. There was no way she would have killed herself and left Lucy without a mother.”
Chapter 7, ‘The School’
Shetland detective Jimmy Perez is urgently invited down to the Scottish Borders village of Stonebridge by his ex-wife Sarah, who wants to get to the bottom of the circumstances surrounding a young teacher’s death. Was the prescription drug overdose fatally administered by Anna herself, unable to cope with gossip about her supposed relationship with Sarah’s second husband, or by persons unknown? The local police think there are no suspicious circumstances but what could Jimmy discover with a bit of judicious sleuthing over a couple of days?
Taking care not to step on the toes of a colleague in the local police force, Jimmy begins a methodical but quiet investigation, witnessing the rumours, half-truths and intrigues common to small communities. A number of suspects suggest themselves to him, but it isn’t until an attempt is made on his life that he gets a real inkling of what really happened on the night Anna died.
“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”
The strength of a book, sometimes even its worth, lies often in its resonances, like the echoes in a cavernous space rebounding back to the caller. It’s a poor work, I feel, that gives nothing back to its reader. In my immature youth I avoided much fiction in the mistaken belief that it would unduly cramp any creative impulses I aspired to; I now see that a great work of fiction frequently borrows freely from its predecessors while transforming and transfiguring the material, and that wider reading of fiction then may well have been to my advantage.
In my continuing read of The Lord of the Ringsfor my series Talking Tolkien I have been revisiting the Council of Elrond chapter in which the back history of the One Ring is openly shared and discussed. At one point Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur is quoted as unwittingly but significantly describing the Ring as “precious”, a description which we may recall was Gollum’s own name for his “birthday present,” taken violently from his cousin. Isildur wrote:
“But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”
Isildur, quoted in ‘The Council of Elrond’
And I recall some apparently unrelated reading I did some years ago and more recently which amplified the resonances set up during another of my rereads of LOTR, resonances which, with your usual kind indulgences, I’d now like to share.
From Spare Oom to War Drobe: travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self, by Katherine Langrish, introduction by Brian Sibley. Darton, Longman & Todd, 2021
C. S. Lewis changed my life. He certainly influenced the way I thought, though it didn’t quite work out as you might imagine.
From the Afterword.
In a way that doesn’t quite apply to Middle-earth, Narnia’s magic seems to affect adults and children quite differently. And adults who only read C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia in childhood tend to report a nostalgic delight, unlike readers like me, who only became acquainted with them in later life, and whose visits have proved rather more troublesome and even disturbing.
Katherine Langrish has done both, the initial visits and the later return, and this (along with being an accomplished writer herself) puts her in a good position to provide this guide for readers of more mature years. She began honing her skills as a writer with what we’d now call fanfic, eagerly writing her own Tales of Narnia, so when she subtitles her book ‘travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self’ she attempts that difficult balancing trick of simultaneously imagining herself at that impressionable age while observing from her adult perspective.
That she succeeds is of huge benefit for her readers if, like me, one is persuaded to both see with the eyes of one of the target audience and also observe with the mind of the adult critic. Like before and after photos placed side by side of a slightly decrepit house in the process of restoration one is able to see the details of the original building as well as the work done in revealing its materials and structure, all before it’s reassembled into an edifice fit for purpose and a new lease of life.
I’ve now resumed my reread of The Lord of the Rings with Book II in The Fellowship of the Ring and it’s time to talk about another aspect of the saga: morality. Not in a theological sense, however, but related to Latin mores (in the sense of social norms) — and then I want to link everything to the so-called just world hypothesis or, if you prefer, the just world fallacy.
As I will try to argue, the narrative in The Lord of the Rings can be seen to operate on these two levels: from the viewpoint of the hobbits different social norms (or the lack of them) apply to the different peoples of Middle-earth, but Tolkien also implies that his secondary world is also a just world, chiefly through the sayings and counsels of individuals like Gandalf and Elrond but also in the way that events pan out.
As is fitting I shall be referencing some established scholars who’ve covered this ground before me, but will also attempt to give my own spin on it all; whether I’ll have anything really new to say remains to be seen.
Seeing somebody who used their popularity on social media to sell skincare products described as a skinfluencer I wondered if I could reinvent myself on the interweb thingy using a suitably catchy portmanteau term. Here are some roles I came up with.
The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissanceby Paul Strathern. Pimlico 2005
Despite their name (medico means physician in Italian) the Tuscan de’ Medici family rose to prominence as bankers in the 14th century beginning with Cosimo the Elder. With money comes power, and by 1531 the family became hereditary Dukes of the powerful city state of Florence, then Grand Dukes of Tuscany.
Two centuries later, however, the Grand Duchy became bankrupt and then sputtered out with the death of the last Duke, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, in 1737. Over some four hundred years the family had held sway in Tuscany as monarchs in all but name.
Paul Strathern’s chronicle of the rise and fall of the Medici family charts the characters who made it as merchants, dukes, popes, queens, scientists, patrons and villains from Medieval to Enlightenment Italy.
A Palace of Strangers by Sam Youd. The SYLE Press 2019 (1954)
When I have read novels chronicling family life over years, over generations, I think the thing I have most admired has been the way the incidents were set, in time. It is not until one rises to tell such a story that one realizes the art involved — the art, and the artifice. For events do not fall out as conveniently as one would like.
‘A Palace of Strangers’ Part Two, Chapter V
Hinted at by its quote from the prophet Isaiah in the title, A Palace of Strangers explores the disconnect between two of the Abrahamic religions as it affects one particular family, the Rosenbaums. But there are other disconnects too, between siblings and between cultures during times of piece as well as war. And there are those who inhabit a No Man’s Land — agnostics and atheists, and second generation immigrants — who find neutrality is often no different from being regarded as in opposition.
Though it covers barely a half century Sam Youd’s family saga is intense, absorbing and believable, all the more impressive for its apparently accurate portrayal of religious cultures — Catholicism and Judaism — which he wasn’t himself a part of. Though at times the author’s and the narrator’s lives may have overlapped I didn’t get a sense of the latter merely being a mouthpiece of the former; in fact I was largely unaware of the ‘art and artifice’ that Youd has his narrator admire in real memoir writing.
Now that you’re back by A L Kennedy.
Vintage 1995 (1994)
Opening a collection of short stories is a little like getting into a lift (or elevator, if you prefer) — you never know who’ll get in, for how long they’ll ride, whether you’re likely to engage with them or what relationship, if any, they are likely to have with each other. Your curiosity may or may not be piqued, you may wrinkle your nose at the smell or be embarrassed at the enforced intimacy, however transient.
What you do know is that, like any passenger in the lift, you’re unlikely to be vouchsafed someone’s life story, that your experience will only produce brief and probably blurry mental snapshots of your fellow travellers.
And so it is with this collection of A L Kennedy vignettes. In virtually every tale the reader arrives in medias res — you pass through gates straight into the midst of the action (such as it may be), trying to guess at characters, motivation, context, relationships, tone; and as each story concludes you never quite know if you’ve got a handle on it all, if your grasping at the situation attains something substantial or merely thin air.
Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal by G Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, artist. Marvel Collected Editions 2014
Presenting the international sensation, the All-New Ms. Marvel! shouts the back cover of this collection of numbers 1-5 of the comic book giving us this origin story. “Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City — until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts”: and while we’re given some answers to how this came about, like many such origin stories it’s just the start of much more.
What distinguishes the new Ms. Marvel is that she’s not only a Muslim American with Pakistani parents but also just 16 years old; this means that all the usual teenage anxieties and challenges have then to manage different cultural expectations — in addition to the unexpected acquisition of powers undreamt of.
Luckily she has the mental resources to help her deal with her powers, aided and abetted by (a) her addiction to writing Avengers fanfic and (b) her friend Bruno whose interests in biochemistry may lead to a university scholarship. But whether these will be enough for her to cope with the kind of emergencies her Avengers idols have to routinely manage is another matter.
“Books to the ceiling, Books to the sky, My pile of books is a mile high. How I love them! How I need them! I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.”
Between now and 1st September I shall be joining in Cathy’s activity 20 Books of Summer — except I’m going for a less strenuous fifteen books. I’ve already indicated a few of the books I’m hoping — nay, intending — to enjoy so I won’t repeat them here but, if you’ll humour me, I do want to advert to my mile-high pile of books.
During our Covid winter lockdown — longer in Wales than in, say, England — I found it relatively easy not to acquire new books: with most “non-essential” retail shops shut (though I’d argue, along with the French government, that books were in fact essential items) and with not being a great online shopper I found it gratifying to watch my shelves get a little more bare and cardboard boxes filling up with completed books for the Red Cross charity shop.
Now, however, to my shame and horror I am starting to requisition replacements faster than I’m consuming them. I blame retail outlets, ‘non-essential’ bookshops and charity shops once more being open for business. Because of course I can’t really put the blame on my weak-willed self, can I?
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.