What I Read On My Holidays

Our first full day back, and we’ve just been over to Stanley and Margaret’s to collect the carful of pots that Margaret has been watering for us and which, despite the heatwave, are in better condition than when we left them. Stanley, who was 87 on Tuesday, gave us a copy of his new book Mother’s Boy, published today. So that’s the next novel I’ll read. Here, as promised, are the books I’ve just devoured during long days in France (along with, as usual, a vast pile of New Yorkers and TLSs) in roughly the order in which I read them.

E.L.Doctorow – The March I’ve not previously been very interested in the American Civil War, but Doctorow’s one of the handful of novelists who I’ve read everything by, and this is one of his best. It’s an engrossing account of the last days of the civil war from both sides, with a terrific range of characters. His research is clearly superb, but is worn lightly, yet by the end I felt I had a much better understanding of, and interest in, the subject.

Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Bernard Scudder Silence Of The Grave Second novel in the series about Erlundur, the dour Icelandic detective. This won the CWA gold dagger, and it’s easy to see why. A simply told (and superbly translated) suspense story about domestic violence that packs a powerful punch despite some hammy structural tricks. That said, I think I preferred its predecessor, Tainted Blood.

David Mitchell Cloud Atlas I got hold of this when it came out and got bogged down in the first section, but it’s an ideal holiday read, as one has to get through it quickly so that you retain the story in the first and second parts when they reemerge in the tenth and eleventh part. It’s six different stories, carefully structured and tenuously linked. Some are more entertaining than others, but all are engrossing and this was a terrific read. Now I must get round to that copy of his Ghostwritten that I was given when it came out and still haven’t started. But that’s enough true confessions…

E.M.Forster Howard’s End I’d only read A Passage To India before and people tell me this is the other one that’s any good. I may have seen the film, can’t recall, but my interest was aroused by the way Zadie Smith uses many of its plot devices in her On Beauty. Also, Howard’s End itself (at least, the house it’s based on) is in Stevenage Old Town, just up the road from Sue’s dad. And it’s got all that ‘only connect’ stuff. A good read, I finished it cover to cover in a day when I was a bit knocked out by the antihistamine pill I was taking for mosquito bites (mossies love me) so I’m not going to go all intellectual about it. Not quite in the same league as APTI but worth a look, and doubtless uni lecturers all over the counry are currently working out how to tempt students into Forster by dangling a photo of the divine Zadie in front of his ouevre (his Aspects Of The Novel is also well worth a look, creative writing students).

Pietra Rivoli The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade Steve, one of the publishers of my eBay Book, lent me this while we stayed with him and Jan (thanks, both) in Gascony for part of our holiday. The best selling economics book of last year, it follows the tale of a T shirt from the making of the cotton (in the USA, with full industrial history) through to its recycling in Africa. A fascinating book that finds a really good way to tell you how globalisation works in practise, with no easy arguments but plenty to excite debate.

Willy Vlautin The Motel Life The lead singer/songwriter from one of my favourite bands (Richmond Fontaine) looks like Michael J Fox and writes like Raymond Carver – who would have guessed? This was originally described as a book of short stories though Willy assured me earlier this year that it was a novel. The truth is somewhere between – it’s more of a novel than Cloud Atlas probably, but in telling the bleak tale of two ill fated brothers, it slips in a lot of short stories that sometimes add to and sometimes dilute the action. Powerful stuff though, nearer Young Adult than dirty realism at times, and very much in the same vein as his songs. Another one I read straight through while hiding from the hot (35C plus) afternoons.

David Leavitt Martin Bauman My copy of this (the linked one) is subtitled ‘a novel about love, literature and lying’ which it is for the first two thirds, and a thoroughly engaging one. The alternative subtitle (‘or, a sure thing’) is better, and more apposite as much of the novel is a warning to aspiring writers. Leavitt’s a really good writer and I thought this was going to be his best novel. Then it slides into what reads much like a fictionalised autobiography in the style of of Ed White (whose non-fiction memoir ‘My Lives’ I’m currently reading, that guy can really write too). I saw White and Leavitt reading together a few years ago. White was reading ‘The Farewell Symphony’ while Leavitt was reading from a work in progress that became ‘Martin Bauman’, the end of which resembles ‘The Farewell Symphony’. Hmm. Bauman has a powerful last line that you have to reread and I’m still not sure whether it’s profound or just clunky.

That’s about it. Out of politeness I’ll skip the two books I started but decided not to carry on with and, of course, the ones I never got round to at all. Now I’m off to see Emmylou Harris at the Royal Concert Hall.

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