Conclave

by Robert Harris

A fantastic book; I don’t know when I was last so gripped by a book, and so keen to keep on reading.

True, I read it (or started to read it) on holiday, having picked up my copy in a charity shop in Sherborne, Dorset.  The setting doesn’t sound too promising: a conclave to elect the next pope.  But as the characters of various of the cardinals become exposed to the reader through the eyes of the Dean, Cardinal Lomeli, the reader gets swept along with a story which has several twists and turns.  The final twist is astonishing and sublimely satisfying.

It would be hard to say more about this book without spoilers.  Suffice to say that you warm to Lomeli from the start, but also begin to understand that although most (all?) of the papal candidates have flaws, they are ultimately human beings.

The world outside the Vatican does not obtrude through much of the story – but when it does, it is in the most dramatic way.

Harris has, as always, thoroughly researched the background to his story. He describes in some detail the process of the ballots, and even the clothing of the cardinals and the care and reverence with which they don each garment. Too much detail?  Probably not; to understand the thinking of these men it is perhaps necessary to get to grips with the minutiae of their lives.  Prayer takes a central place in this story.  Lamely is finding it difficult and this causes him some distress.  Others are observed praying at various times and in various ways.  You get the feeling that whatever their flaws, these are all pious men.

I can recommend this book unhesitatingly.

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Hard Times

by Charles Dickens

It is not that I have read nothing over a month.  But this is the first novel I have read for quite a while.  Instead I have been reading some of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, and also some non-fiction, notably Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men.

I have read Hard Times within the past six years (since purchasing a Kindle and promising myself that I would read more nineteenth-century novels, given that they are cheap, if not free, to download, and that I enjoy them!  So it was somewhat disconcerting, when this book was selected by our book group, that I was able to remember little more about the story than the rather improbably fate of Stephen Blackpool, a downtrodden but honest working-class hero, shunned by his own fellow workers and by management alike.

The characters are memorable, if somewhat exaggerated – as indeed is the story.  Professor Belinda Jack argues (in Charles Dickens:  Hard Times and Hyperbole) that the use of hyperbole in this novel serves a serious, rather than a comic purpose, and underlines the author’s outrage at the conditions of the working poor.

Professor Jack recommends the story synopsis on Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat it here, but refer my readers (and my future self) to that summary.  The story is compelling, and after grinding my way through the first couple of chapters I fairly flew along – helped perhaps by the fact that I am on holiday and so have more time than usual to devote to reading.  Through all its twists and turns, some of them unlikely or barely believable, it is still a good story.  The ending is satisfactory: the ‘good’ characters (Louisa, Sissy) go on to lead worthy lives; the ‘bad’ characters (Bounderby, Mrs Sparsit, young Tom “the whelp”) get their come-uppance, and the misled character (Mr Gradgrind) leans the error of his ways.  The circus folk are seen to be loyal as well as resourceful, if mischievous and devious.  The poor remain poor, and the reader is surely well aware that they will continue to suffer.


An unusual choice for book group, and one that will, I hope, yield some interesting discussion.  I read it too early – the meeting to discuss it is not for another seven weeks.  So it is just as well I am writing up my thoughts straight away, lest I forget this book for a second time…!

 

Belgravia

by Julian Fellowes

A quick pick from the library, just before I went on a walking holiday.  Though I didn’t take it along – perhaps partly because I didn’t expect to do much reading.

The story is rather forgettable and pretty predictable.  Set in the 1840s, after an initial scene at a party just before the battle of Waterloo which reminded me of Vanity Fair.  The story shows the etiquette and morals of an earlier age, presented through the prism of a 21st century viewpoint.  Fellowes acknowledges the assistance of no less than two historical researchers, but I suppose we should not think the worse of him for not doing his own research.  And yet I feel that by not doing so, he is unable to capture an authentic feeling for the age he is writing about.

The bad guys get their come-uppance, and the good guys come our on top.  What more can you wish for?

I don’t think I will read anything else by Fellowes.  Downton Abbey was a triumph, not of scripting but of a pacy story, believable characters and gorgeous costumes and settings.  Fellowes deserves to be celebrated for that achievement.  Let’s leave his novels well alone.

The Discomfort Zone

by Jonathan Franzen

My second foray into Franzen’s writing, ordered by mistake from the library but hugely enjoyed nonetheless.  I love this author’s use of language, perceptions and indeed the topics and settings he chooses.  In this case, the book is a series of autobiographical essays from Franzen’s childhood and youth.

He is a contemporary of mine (about two years younger) so the era he grew up in, and the Zeitgeist of his life, is something I can relate to. Even though his experience was in the US and mine in the UK, there is a freedom of movement and expression that permeates his youthful experiences and this resonates to quite an extent with what I remember of my younger years.  I don’t think my own children, or the children of today, had this amount of freedom.  Perhaps they are safer as a result – but at a price.

I have another volume of Franzen essays to look forward to (this time purchased, so I can take my time with them).  And then I will savour (I hope) his other novels, and hope that he has a few more in him!

 

The Children Act

by Ian McEwan

A short but brilliantly executed novel.  The story is gripping, the plot believable, disturbing, and so tightly told that you don’t need to read ahead or try to second-guess what will happen (though I did both).

The story opens with the main character Fiona Maye, who we are told in the first paragraph is a High Court judge, experiencing some kind of trauma in her emotional life.  We gradually find out what is the cause of her distress, and the novel takes us through Fiona’s analysis of the cases she tries and the unfolding of her own marital problems.  At no point does the reader feel compelled to take sides with either Fiona or her husband Jack.  They are, like the couple in another compact McEwan tale On Chesil Beach, caught up in the cause-and-effect drama of almost any relationship.

Fiona’s work is an important part of the story, and the reader is left to work out to what extent her work influences her personal life (a lot, probably) and to what extent her personal life influences her work (can she be impartial in her judgments when her marriage is in crisis?). McEwan has clearly done his research, and I found the descriptions of family law cases that reach the High Court, and the factors influencing the judgments, fascinating to learn about and also to reflect upon.

I could come back to this novel again and again.  I think McEwan’s best work inhabits a part of one’s consciousness – perhaps because the issues he addresses are both personal and troubling, and encourage us to reflect on our own life decisions.

Grace and Mary

by Melvyn Bragg

I picked this book up in the library, having had it on my ‘ to read’ list a while ago while reading up about dementia (but then let it drop off).

There are two stories here, loosely connected.  One is the story of Mary towards the end of her life, and the memories that she is able to evoke vividly with the help of her son John, who sees reminiscing as a valuable way for Mary to experience brief moments of pleasure in her increasing dementia.  I have the feeling that this is a thinly-disguised autobiographical story of Bragg and his mother.

The second story is that of Grace, who, as we later learn, is Mary’s mother.  We follow Grace’s birth, her childhood under the care of grandparents (her mother having died in childbirth), her relationship with her father and jealous stepmother, and her seduction by an injured solider in WWI which ends in Mary’s illegitimate birth.

Whilst both stories are well told, it is Mary’s (and John’s) story that grabbed my attention.  Bragg writes well but his prose does not sparkle; he writes, I would say, popular rather than literary fiction.  Nothing wrong with that!  But then the story, setting and characters must be interesting enough to make the book worth reading.  For me, Grace’s story was sad but predictable, and hers was the only character in this story that really came to life.  Mary and John, on the other hand, have a present-day story that is meaningful, and there characters held my interest.

I would not read more Bragg in a hurry, though I have huge respect for him a presenter and scholar.

Freedom

by Jonathan Franzen

What got me started on Franzen?  It was in fact a FutureLearn course that I have started but not progressed very far with – Literature in the Digital AgeI’m still not sure whether I will continue with this course, but a photograph of the cover of this novel was shown alongside another cover page – of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – on one of the course videos.  I don’t remember the point that was being made, but it encouraged me to look up Franzen and Freedom, and download a sample.  I liked what I read, and immediately ordered this book from my local library.

On my next visit to the library, I saw a copy of Franzen’s Purity on the shelf, and borrowed it.  But I hadn’t started to read this before Freedom arrived, so I turned to my first choice and returned Purity to the library.

I love Franzen’s writing style and the stories, and especially the characters, that he is able to bring to life.  I feel as if I know Patty and Walter Berglund, their son Joey and Walter’s best friend Richard at least as well as I know my own family members.  Perhaps it helps that three of the four main characters are contemporaries of mine, so I can see their lives and choices in the context of my own life.  Growing up in the seventies; raising a young family in the eighties; being interested in matters of global concern while still trying to create a comfortable and warm home environment; nurturing and encouraging one’s children but being unsure whether you have done it right.  There are so many freedoms that the book’s title may refer to.  Fundamentally, I think this novel is about choices and their consequences.  Patty fancies Richard but chooses to live her life with Walter.  Richard chooses the lifestyle of a rock musician but values (and secretly envies) Patty’s and Walter’s  home life.  Patty has achieved success as an athlete but is insecure and has never met her parents’ aspirations for her.  Walter and Joey choose to become involved with what turns out to be a corrupt organisation – and subsequently choose to distance themselves from it.

We are, perhaps, the ‘freedom generation’.  Our parents and grandparents had far fewer choices.  And, in some ways, we had more choice than our children, who are more financially constrained than we were.  I chose, like Patty, to stay at home with my young children.  Few new parents these days have the freedom to make that choice.

The novel seems to me to be asking the question: “Does freedom of choice make you happy?”  The answer appears to be a qualified “No”.  You make mistakes, not all of which can be remedied.

This novel also contains plenty of humour, and some stupendous images and accomplished writing.  An brief example:

Patty felt like she was dealing with a huge ball of Bazooka that she couldn’t get unguided from her fingers; the strands of Veronica’s logic were boundlessly elastic and adhered not only to Patty but to themselves.

Or the often-quoted observation by Walter Berglund:

People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.

I’m about to read some of Franzen’s non-fiction, and will definitely return to his other novels at some point.  He is a couple of years younger than me – and so I hope that he has a few more novels in him!