A Taste of Summer Reading

At the moment I’m reading Asimov, a Russian born, American sci fi writer of the forties and fifties. He is being read by the rest of the family, and is discussed at the dinner table when we are all together, so, if I want to get a word in edgeways, I have to read him rather than the Man Booker winner. I don’t feel Asimov rates too high in the literary stakes at the moment, so to justify my reading him, this blog reviews the other more literary books that I have read this summer. I come back to him at the end.

Actually, I did read two Man Booker short list books. The first was The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. It was gripping but grim. It leads you into a world of madness, poverty and dreams but there is a dexterity and agility about the writing. It is very male which was interesting for me.  I felt myself being drawn in to the world of boys, fear, courage, honour and ignorance. The only real female character is the mother who goes into the mental asylum (with reason, I hasten to add). Chigozie Obioma moves between the different interfaces of Nigerian/Igbo, Yorba and English and combines the influences of Western Christianity mixed with traditional African spirits. I am intrigued by Nigeria. Super imposed on this is the harsh reality of living in a state which is unstable, corrupt, unjust and chaotic. I found the writing raw and beautiful. I would highly recommend it.

The next was Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg. It reminded me of Ann Tyler epics. Each of the characters is picked up in different chapters. It is based in small East town Connecticut and West Coast Seattle and is about the aftermath of the death. Clegg is great at conveying the deadening nature of grief. The book draws us through the past lives of the characters, through the event and into the future. Occasionally, I got a little confused but generally the different strands coalesced into a web, a rather sad one, glistening with dew. I enjoyed it and became fairly immersed but didn’t feel I came away more informed, excited or in awe.

I also read Sara Baume’s Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither. I had been to hear her talk in Dublin and liked her simplicity. It is an extraordinary book about an isolated older man, who had been reared pretty badly by his father,  and his lonely life with his one eyed, half lipped dog who seemed to be a reflection of him. Both were rejects of society but still living according to their natural instincts. Because of fear (One Eye is threatened with being put down) they take off on a journey and live in the car on his savings and canned food. The detailed description is excellent. The protagonist and Sara Baume know their nature, the wild country flowers, the flora and fauna. She captures the wilderness, its chaos, its grating routine. Come what may, nature tries to conform to its cycle, despite man’s intervention. The protagonist is well read, and well informed by the radio but is unable to make use of his knowledge in any dynamic way. It is incredibly sad. He relates to his dog, his only friend, but nothing else and he realises there is no place for him in this world. He is too intelligent and self aware. The epilogue is the tear jerker, about One Eye. I am not sure how much I liked the book. It was beautifully written, heart rending and an excellent portrayal of the bleak side of society and loneliness. But I’m not sure about it. I found it a little too cloying and repetitive. I’ll be interested to see what her next one is like.

I started the summer with a lighter read, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. It was an interesting book set after WW1 involving grief, passion, murder and trials. It took many unexpected turns so kept me on my toes. It unravelled and picked at the seams of family life, friendship and love. There is some lovely writing and beautiful description. It reflects on the human desire for freedom, love, truthfulness and its capacity for thoughtlessness, greed and selfishness. It portrays the obdurate grinding nature of society’s institutions. It shows how class, poverty, and wealth accentuate and flourishain but occasionally how truth glitters through the dross of dreary daily life. At stages in the book, I hesitated to believe what was happening, but I did enjoy being pitched around between the different scenarios. There was intrigue, suspense, particularly in the second part. I have to say, in the first half,  I did skip a little.

More recently I read Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor (as she named on the cover). For me it began as a series of vignettes: the story of Emily Dickenson (American poet) set against the fictional creation of her housemaid, Ada. I was interested to see how N O’C could write about Emily Dickenson as she was renowned for her privacy and isolation. She didn’t go out, didn’t socialise outside the home. Ada was a clever construct. She complemented Emily and allowed N O’C to delve into Emily’s existence, while at the same time introducing action and movement through Ada’s experience as an Irish emigrant living in a middle class American household. It was an excellent contrast. The book evolved into a beautifully written story with delicious description, evocative, detailed and tangible. I aligned myself with Emily as she wandered the house, perched at her rosewood desk, watching and writing, and with Ada as she churned butter and baked. I really enjoyed the book. It had a gentle, rhythmic flow. She is a beautiful writer.

While reading Miss Emily, I was also reading Alan McMonagle’s collection of short stories, Psychotic Episodes. It is a wonderful mix of quirky (which I love) and poignant. There is a lovely hesitancy and sensitivity in the stories. Each one stands out. With a short story collection, you make forays. Each one of these forays yielded fruit. Short stories are a little like poems. They have to reveal, strike a chord, even if you are not sure what it is. Then you re-read and there is a fresh appreciation of what is there. I found the stories light and nimble although the themes were dark and often suicidal and the characters broken by society. I think that is quite an achievement. I really liked The Story Teller and The Thief, Bloomsday Bus Driver, Elizabeth Taylor and the Tour de France Cyclist and Walking Among Ruins.

So now, as mentioned I am reading Asimov’s The Robot Series. I am only a little way in. My initial thoughts are that he is a perceptive writer. His characters are well drawn, he is good at plot, his dialogue is excellent and his sentences are short. I like the philosophy and it is a page turner. What is so extraordinary is his prescience. It is almost creepy how he has predicted what is today. But the strange thing is, I cannot read it for more than twenty minutes or so. I feel as if the writing is bite sized and I am not getting a full flavour. I don’t know why this is. But I will wait out the meal before I give final judgement. Not sure how the family will feel about this.

Actually, that’s a good analogy for a short story collection, a meal where every bite brings a zest or spice to the tongue. If that’s the comparison, I am giving Psychotic Episodes a 3* Michelin. Asimov, I will persevere with. I like to have something to say at the dinner table.

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