Earthly Remains

by Donna Leon

I have only read one of Leon’s novels prior to this one, but she is a firm favourite with my aunt Wendy, who left this book at our home after her Christmas visit.  It seemed like a good, undemanding read for our holiday; and indeed, having finished it halfway through our five days away, I think it was an excellent choice.

Commissario Brunetti fakes a heart attack while interviewing a suspect, in order to save the career of his junior colleague who, he is sure, is about to assault the man.  He is urged to take some time off, and arranges to spend two weeks at the villa of a distant relation of his wife Paola, on the island of Sant’Erasmo.  So begins a friendship between Brunetti and the caretaker of the villa, a retired factory worker by the name of Davide Casati.  Cast is a skilled boatman who, it transpires knew Brunetti’s father, also a good rower.  Brunette finds his relaxation in accompanying Casati each day as he rows around the lagoon checking up on his beehives.

When Casati goes missing on the night of a thunderstorm, Brunetti joins the search, and his connection with the family makes him want to follow up on Casati’s story and try to find out what really happened to him.  What did happen is only revealed, darkly, at the very end of the book – though there are more than enough hints along the way.

As a thriller, this was not as fact-paced or breath-holding as many.  But it is a well-told story with a satisfactory, if not satisfying, conclusion.

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The Diary of a Bookseller

It is not often that I give up on a book.

I had ordered this from the library on a whim – possibly recommended by a friend on Facebook, reinforced by a conversation with an actual bookseller in St Davids who was reading it at the time of my visit a month ago.  It sounded worth trying;  I am always fascinated by what makes other readers tick, what books writers read, and in this case, what a bookseller actually thinks about books and the people who read them.

As far as the people are concerned: not much.  The diary recounts episode after episode of rude, arrogant, slovenly, greedy or self-obsessed people coming into the shop. Many of them don’t buy anything (and I am guilty of this, though I generally do try to make a purchase from an independent bookseller, out of principle).  Most of those who do buy expect a discount, and are disappointed or even offensive when they don’t get one.  You might feel that the author has a very low opinion of his fellow mortals; but then, he tolerates the whacky and at times antisocial behaviour of some of his regular customers, not to mention his part-time assistant Nicky, very well.

I read the first half of the book quite quickly, through some bouts of insomnia as well as morning and afternoon reading time.  But still, I just don’t think I need any more.  I get what the life of a bookseller might be like (and in this case, a reasonably successful one in the bookish town of Wigtown, which appears to be a Scottish Hay-on-Wye – please excuse my ignorance).  Do I need to hear more of the same kind of anecdotes?  It is one of those books where you think “anyone could have written this”.  But of course, only one person DID.

The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love

by Per J Andersson

This book was recommended to me, I think, by a fellow Bahá’í.  I can see why it would appeal: the story is one of hope, a journey to self-knowledge and to realising a dream in the face of adversity.

PK is an Indian, born in an Orissa village to a father of the ‘untouchable’ caste and a mother from a jungle tribe.  In his childhood and youth he is constantly ostracised, bullied and pushed aside because of his low birth. Despite these setbacks, PK establishes himself as a successful portrait artist, earning his keep (although living from hand to mouth) and earning also the attention and respect of people in elevated positions.

It is while sketching in Connaught Place in New Delhi, and mixing with the many European hippies who have trekked across Europe and Asia to experience what they perceived to be a less materialistic culture, that PJ meets the Swedish girl Lotta in 1975.  They fall in love; she returns to Sweden; and PK embarks on a journey, mostly by bicycle, to rejoin her in her home country.  They marry, raise a family, and live on in Sweden to this day.


In general, I am not attracted to books with long titles such as this one.  It strikes me that the author can’t be bothered to think of a catchy, short phrase.  But maybe the short phrases have mostly been used already!  In any case, I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did.  PK’s optimism (in general – though he experienced some very low episodes in his life) and his self-belief are heart-warming.

Per J Andersson has embellished PK’s narrative (based, we are led to assume, largely on his diaries) sensitively and with grace.  There a short descriptions of place that help to bring the story to life, as well as insights into PK’s feelings at various points in the story.  Lotta’s character is not developed much. The accounts of PK’s early life are interspersed with short passages telling the reader of Lotta’s fascination with India from an early age and her determination to travel there.  But we learn little if anything about who she is.  That she loves PK and is prepared to wait for him is evident from his story; and there is a touching episode, shortly after his arrival in Sweden, where the two of them meet a Swedish admirer of Lotta’s who almost succeeds in putting PK off, until Lotta reassures him that she wants to be with him and not Bengt.

Other characters, too, are just sketched in.  PK believes in fate and in karma, though he also recognises that you have to make your own way in life and seize opportunities.  He comes across as sensitive to others but also driven to achieve what he has set out to do, when his circumstances permit it.  He meets powerful and influential people, some of whom help him in his personal life (e.g. by allowing him to move from his shabby room and use a comfortable apartment), but he appears to take these encounters as steps along the path of life, and has few expectations of further assistance from any quarter.

This is most definitely a ‘feel-good’ book, but one which does not shy away from depicting the treatment of lower caste Indians and arguing, passionately, their cause.

 

The Heat of the Day

by Elizabeth Bowen

The story begins in 1942.  Stella is a divorcée and widow living in London, whose lover Robert, she learns, is suspected of being a spy for the enemy.  Her informant is the slightly unnerving Harrison (we never learn his first name) who has also pulled a bystander, the naïve ‘good time girl’ Louie, under his spell.

Stella’s son Roderick has, a year previously, inherited the Irish estate of a cousin of his father.  Since Roderick is not yet 21, Stella also takes an interest in this estate and goes to visit it.  On another occasion, she and Robert visit his mother, sister and the children of another sister, who live in a house that is far too large for them but from which they cannot tear themselves away.  Other than these two episodes, most of the action takes place in London: a London that has been bombed and is about to be so again, and where the war is never far from the consciousness of the actors in this story.

The atmosphere is tense and charged.  Bowen’s prose is not at all easy to read and I found myself re-reading several paragraphs – and discovered, from other reviews, that I am not alone in this!  Yet she gives a vivid and very real atmosphere of place and, in particular, emotion.  Stella is her own person, making her own decisions though surrounded by people who seem to want to run her life or at the very least, advise her.  She does not know whether she can trust either Robert or Harrison.  They cannot both be who they seem to be.

This is a taut and quite unusual story.  I don’t think I will rush to read more of Bowen’s work, but if the opportunity presents itself in a year or two, I may well come back to her.


I chose this book because it was on the Guardian‘s list of 100 Best Novels.  Oh dear, I am a sucker for lists!  But I’m pleased that I read this book.

Middlemarch

by George Eliot

Can it be that I have never yet written a post about one of my favourite C19 novels?

The last time I read it was, I suppose, early 2011 after I first acquired a Kindle.  I promised myself that for every new(ish) book that I downloaded at full price, I would read a (cheap or free, because out of copyright) ‘classic’ novel.  There are enough to choose from!  Since then, I have read most of Eliot’s works, a good few of Trollope‘s (plenty left to read), a few Dickens novels and some Hardy.  I’ve read one Conrad novel and begun, but got bogged down in, Heart of Darkness.

I first read Middlemarch on holiday in 1994, after seeing the BBC TV production.  The book grabbed me then, and I think I have enjoyed it at least as much on the two subsequent readings.  I have also read a little bit around the book, and was partly prompted to re-read it this time after an episode of Radio 4’s In Our Time on this topic.

Why do I like it so much?  Initially, I was struck by the open and honest way in which Eliot exposes marriage as being far from an ideal state for at least two of the couples whose stories thread through the book.  Dorothea chooses her husband for all the wrong reasons, and soon sees the error of her choice.  Lydgate and Rosamond both have unrealistic expectations of the married state and of each other.  How these couples resolve their problems and conduct their relationships with each other and other characters makes the book exciting and edgy.

There are, of course, many more characters, relationships and storylines, and a convincing and historically interesting political setting in the country town of Middlemarch.  What can I write here that has not been said by others, far better qualified than myself?

Although there are so many books on my ‘to-read’ list, I think it fairly likely that I may return to Middlemarch someday for a fourth sitting.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye

by Muriel Spark

This is only the second book I have read by Muriel Spark, the first being the rather lightweight The Abbess of Crewe.  Well, perhaps I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie when I was a teenager – I’m a bit hazy about that. This novel certainly has more about it than that did The Abbess.

The story: a young Scot named Dougal Douglas (alter ego: Douglas Dougal) moves to Peckham and takes a white-collar job in a factory.  He appears to have no relevant experience, other than an arts degree.  He is given the freedom to define his own role, which appears to be a mixture of what would today be called HR, process engineering and marketing.  He talks a lot about psychology, and wins over his management and the people he encounters with his apparent understanding of human nature.

The narrative develops through his encounters with his colleagues and the girls and men who work in the factory. He spends more time out and about than in his office.  We learn at the very start of the book that he has left Peckham, leaving a trail of human devastation behind him.  Douglas is not a likeable person – more than this, he is depicted, and perhaps believes himself to be, some kind of devil –  but the way he behaves and the behaviour of others towards him are beautifully observed and described with a black humour.

This book would encourage me to read more by Spark, whereas The Abbess of Crewe left me cold.

I am, I am, I am

by Maggie O’Farrell

Why do I get Maggie O’Farrell and Margaret Forster mixed up?  I suppose the names are somewhat similar, and perhaps their writing styles bear some resemblance.  Anyway, this book – a memoir – is definitely by the younger writer, who is about 15 years younger than me (whereas Forster is almost 20 years older).

I’ve read at least one of O’Farrell’s novels.  She has an easy style, and I think I will read more now.  So that is at least one positive effect of reading this memoir.  Actually, it is probably the only one.  I read the book very quickly but I can’t say I enjoyed it.

The chapters are named for parts of the human body: Neck, Cranium, Abdomen etc.  Each chapter purports to describe a ‘near-death experience’.  I would prefer to call these ‘near misses’. There are 17 chapters, and at the outset I thought “surely one person can’t have had so many brushes with death”.  Well – brushes perhaps, but in most cases these are not what I would call near death.  Two (or three?) of the stories are of swimming exploits in which the author might have drowned – but didn’t.  One is a case of amoebic dysentery contracted and treated in China.  A couple of the experiences, it is true, are quite scary, involving people of evil intent who don’t manage to murder Maggie, but of whom the reader can well believe – as she does – that they might have done so.  To my way of thinking, the only two experiences which are serious medical emergencies that could easily have resulted in the author’s death are the mishandled birth of her first child, and her childhood encephalitis.

OK, so much for the hype and my response to it.  Now for the stories themselves.  They are well told, and reveal (or appear to reveal) quite a bit about the author.  She is engaging, often funny, sometimes tragic.  But I still find myself thinking: so what?  I could have written this kind of thing about my own life.  OK, I wouldn’t have written so well, and I wouldn’t have found many readers, even assuming I could find a publisher (I wouldn’t).  It seems to me that only the already-famous can write this kind of memoir.  Plenty do, and sometimes it packs a punch(*).  For me, this just doesn’t.

 


(*) For instance, John Updike’s Self-consciousness