Happy Halloween! Tim and I have been celebrating the eeriest day by watching Stranger Things, but most years I try to read something a bit on the spooky side. October has been so mild it has barely felt autumnal (though the colours are amazing) so it’s only now that the clocks have changed and the evenings are long and dark that I am starting to yearn for ghost stories.
What I have read this month has been fairly eclectic, not least because I have working on filling out my Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo card. I’m currently three-quarters of the way through two books for that – a popular-science title and a random book picked off the shelf. I even shut my eyes!
How was your October? Did you pick out a special Halloween read?
This is my third Alan Bennett and, honestly, my least favourite. It’s also the first of his non-fiction memoirs that I’ve read, which doesn’t bode well for completing his backlist as that’s the bulk of his work.
This particular story, made into a film last year starring Maggie Smith, is about the decidedly odd Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van on Bennett’s driveway from 1974 until 1989. First published in 1989, this is essentially annotated and edited excerpts from Bennett’s diaries in those years. He is fighting very hard not to judge the elderly “Miss S.” for her eccentricities, and he is certainly extremely tolerant in the face of her difficult temperament. And she is extremely difficult.
“October 1969. When she is not in the van Miss S. spends much of her day sitting on the pavement in Parkway…She sells tracts, entitled ‘True View: Mattering Things’, which she writes herself, though this isn’t something she will admit…She generally chalks the gist of the current pamphlet on the pavement, though with no attempt at artistry…She also makes a few coppers selling pencils. ‘A gentleman came the other day and said that the pencil he had bought from me was the best pencil on the market at the present time. It lasted him three months. He’ll be back for another one shortly.’ D., one of the more conventional neighbours…stops me and says, ‘Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?’ ”
This book has been on my TBR for about 12 years. I knew enough about the subject matter to expect a tough read so I kept on passing over it. It was actually much more readable than I had expected, but that doesn’t negate the difficult subjects covered.
The lead character is David Lurie, a middle-aged university professor in Cape Town whose specialism of modern languages is no longer on the South African syllabus so he teaches communication instead. His is a limp life, teaching without pleasure, amicably divorced, as good as estranged from his daughter. Even his regular trips to a prostitute are without passion.
Indeed, he is impersonal enough with his regular prostitute Soraya that when one day he sees her in a market with her two children, it throws him off balance. He finds he can’t interact with her in the same way any more and she elects to stop seeing him. Here we get the first clue that David is not especially nice or trustworthy, because his reaction to Soraya’s disappearance is to hire a private detective to find her so that he can phone her and disturb her home life.
That’s just chapter one. From there David goes on to have an affair with one of his students, Melanie, a morally troubling affair, and not because of the age gap or university rules. The balance of power is so far askew it’s difficult to read. Their first sex sounds disturbingly close to rape and the second time is actually described as “Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.”
I can’t remember how this book made its way onto my TBR, but I picked it up thanks to the Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo, which for me includes the square “Set in Africa”. If not for that I might have avoided this for a long time, expecting a dark, disturbing read. It’s not quite what I expected.
The book has dark, disturbing moments for sure. It is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, post civil war, pre Ebola, so approximately when it was written (this book was published in 2010 so presumably written in about 2008). The civil war is a scar for the native characters, creating a distance that can never be breached by the primary non-native character, a white British doctor.
Adrian Lockheart is a psychologist on secondment to Sierra Leone. It is his second assignment to Africa, and he spends much of the novel dwelling on his reasons for being there. He has a wife and daughter back home in England, but his marriage is failing and over the years he has lost the feeling that he is actually helping his patients.
Here in the UK, October is Black History Month. For more than 35 years, October has seen a “nationwide celebration of Black History, Arts and Culture throughout Britain”. Locally to me, here in Bristol, events include music, theatre, film, workshops and exhibitions, many of which sound fantastic. The month will end with Bristol Somali Festival, a week-long celebration of Somali identity and heritage.
While I am excited about all the arts and culture events, to me the heart of Black History Month is the history part, and for that I am inclined to turn to books. There are many to choose between, from important people in Black history, to the multitude of stories of Africa, to slave narratives, to the experiences of Black people and communities outside of Africa.
This is a very strange genre-crossing mindbender of a novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though at times I had no idea what was going on.
The plot is difficult to explain. The tale is narrated by Pearl, who wakes up in a fridge in a junkyard with little knowledge of who she is, or indeed what. She has the appearance of a middle-aged tall muscular black woman, but she also has wings in a higher dimension and a strength far beyond human. She might be an angel. In alternate chapters she directly addresses a Dr Kisi Sorle, whose story initially seems to be separate from hers, though they inevitably come together.
Dr Sorle has been experiencing blackouts, after one of which he finds himself in possession of a briefcase. When he arrives at work, where he provides end-of-life care for a billionaire businessman Austen Stevens, whose corporation destroyed his home country, he finds his body taken over again, but this time he remains aware of the other man controlling him. The controlling entity opens the briefcase and the dying Stevens disappears inside it.
It’s about six weeks since I first posted about the Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo and it’s going surprisingly well. I’m currently reading The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna, which could tick off either of two categories: “With a main character over 60” or “Set in Africa”. I have a couple of options lined up for “Popular science” and a few others should be easy enough (“Mentioned on The Gilmore Girls”, for example).
In case you haven’t noticed, Netflix released its latest Marvel TV series, Luke Cage, on 30 September. Like its predecessors Daredevil and Jessica Jones, it is excellent. But what caught my eye in the early episodes is that Luke Cage is not just a big-hearted bulletproof superhero, he’s also an avid reader.
The first clue was early in episode one, when between finishing a shift at one job as a hair sweeper at a barbershop and starting a shift at his other job as a washer-up, he stops by a news stand to buy a copy of the New Yorker. Scenes of Luke’s apartment show stacks of books on every surface and when he’s not fighting baddies he likes to discuss detective novels.
What really made me pay attention was that first clear shot of a book cover. The book in question? Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This seemed like exceptional timing. While on holiday, Tim and I went to the art gallery C/O Berlin where the main exhibition was the work of photographer (and film director) Gordon Parks, including his partnerships with Ralph Ellison, such as Invisible Man. I’ve been meaning to read the book for years, but now I’ve seen the powerful accompanying photographs, I want to more than ever.
So I did what I do. I made a reading list of all the books and authors mentioned or shown in the whole series. Enjoy.
I read a few good books in a row and then went on holiday before writing reviews or even notes on them and now it’s two weeks since I finished the last of them. Oops. So here is my attempt to remember what I enjoyed about them. They’re all great!
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun
translated from French by Adriana Hunter
I loved this book. It is simple and sparse and yet utterly moving. This seems to be a pattern with Peirene books, one that I approve of. The story is told from the perspective of “the child” (she does have a name but it’s rarely used) – a young girl living in Paris during the Second World War. She is the apple of her mother’s eye and despite the Nazi occupation is utterly happy in her little world. Then the father she has never met comes home from the POW camp and the fight for affection begins.
Sizun brilliantly depicts the changing relationships – between mother and child; between father and child; between mother and father; between grandmother and child – against a backdrop of the occupation of Paris ending, and then the war itself ending. Though the child is not the narrator, her perspective filters the story to its essential parts. This at times almost reads like poetry, it’s so distilled. But it isn’t at all abstract in the way that poetry can be. A beautiful, quick read.
I bought some books in Berlin. Because, of course. I feel a little guilty because I read less than half a book while on holiday, but on the other hand, lovely new books! They’re all translations from German and all look great. I only knew of one English-language bookshop in the city before our holiday, but we did stumble across a few more bookshops with small English sections.