Rainy weekend reads in brief

Last weekend we had lots of fun plans but we were feeling a little under the weather, so when it pretty much rained non-stop we took advantage and just stayed at home. For Tim that meant playing computer games (mostly Elite: Dangerous). For me it meant reading. I got through four and a half books. Which sounds like a lot for two days, but it includes two graphic novels and a very slim collection of short stories, so I think that reveals how much time we actually spent watching TV (mostly Legion, which is nightmarish but also excellent, and confusing). As reading lots in quick succession makes it harder to write in-depth reviews, I’ll do brief ones instead.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which began with My Brilliant Friend, and that means I now only have one instalment left to read in the saga of Elena and Lila. With recent(ish) revelations about the true identity of Ferrante (a nom de plume) it’s more tempting than ever to confuse her with narrator Elena, who begins this book as a successful author about to get married. Her childhood best friend Lila, meanwhile, is at a very low ebb, working her hands to shreds in a sausage factory owned by a rich friend of the Solara brothers, who have terrorised the neighbourhood since they were boys. As with every part of their story, Elena and Lila switch fortunes and switch from close, regular contact to spending long months apart.

The writing is, as ever, beautiful. I marked so many great quotes as I read. This book explores marriage, motherhood, family and whether or not anyone can, or should, escape their roots. Elena is torn between the cultured elegance of her new in-laws and the promise of a life far from Naples, and the importance of telling the truth and siding politically with the family and friends of her childhood. Lila is, as ever, fierce and demanding, making life decisions that Elena sometimes struggles to understand. I am looking forward to, and also sad already about, reading the final book in the series.

“How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled…The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same. The low grey houses endured, the courtyard of our games, the dark mouths of the tunnel, and the violence. But the landscape around it had changed. The greenish stretch of the ponds was no longer there, the old canning factory had vanished. In their place was the gleam of glass skyscrapers, once signs of a radiant future that no-one had ever believed in.”

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Words, dropping on her like millstones

siegeThe Siege
by Helen Dunmore

After thoroughly enjoying Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter for my old book club, I added a random handful of her other books to my Christmas wishlist and this was the one my Mum picked out. I’m sure they would all have worked out equally well, as I’m starting to think I might be a Dunmore fan.

This is the story of the 1941 siege of Leningrad. Which sounds like a tough, war-heavy subject, and this book is certainly all about how tough it was, but Dunmore also makes it compulsively readable. 23-year-old Anna, her father Mikhail and her 5-year-old brother Kolya are settling into summer life at their dacha, in the countryside just outside Leningrad, when news of the German army’s advance reaches them. Instead of spending the brief northern summer growing their usual store of food for winter, they must instead hurry back to the city and help to build defences before the Germans arrive.

“Even the trees in the parks have become something else. Now they are defensive positions, behind which a man can crouch, watching, alert, his cheek pressed against bark which is carved with lovers’ initials. Each prospect of stone and water yields a second meaning which seems to have been waiting, hidden, since the city was first conceived.”

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Mid-winter reading round-up

Hands up: I finished reading two of these books weeks ago and have therefore forgotten almost everything about them. They all deserve full reviews but I’d have to reread the books for that to happen and, let’s face it, that’s not happening. So here are some woefully brief thoughts on the last few books that I’ve read. (Incidentally, my 2015 reading has started slowly. Goodreads tells me I am already behind. Stupid reading challenges.)

Dear LifeDear Life
by Alice Munro

Munro writes beautiful short stories about everyday life in Canada, often set in or starting from the mid-20th century, and even the more modern settings have a timeless quality to them. There was a bit of a theme of passing through, of the people who are important to you for a while and then move on, which is not an easy theme to create satisfying endings from, but this never bothered me. I really liked the story “Amundsen”, about a woman who goes to a remote village to teach at a school that’s part of a tuberculosis sanatorium. It’s somehow very ordinary and very strange at the same time.

“The building, the trees, the lake, could never again be the same to me as they were on that first day, when I was caught by their mystery and authority. On that day I had believed myself invisible. Now it seemed as if that was never true.”

First published in Great Britain 2012 by Chatto & Windus.

Source: Foyles, Bristol.

The Dead Lake
by Hamid Ismailov
translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield

This strange short book started out with so much eerie promise but it got a little boring in middle. In fact, I put it down for a month and wasn’t sure if I would pick it up again, but I’m glad that I did. The language is beautiful and the story almost a fairy tale. It’s about Yerzhan who lives in a remote part of Kazakhstan where the Soviets test atomic weapons. As a young boy he fell in love with the girl next door and one day, to impress her, he dived into a forbidden (and almost certainly radioactive) lake. The consequences of this action are odd and fantastical, which is fitting for such an empty, unsettling landscape.

“Yerzhan stood there with his heart pumping hard, pounding its rhythm against the wall – or was that the heavy passenger express that pounded on the rails with a rhythm that pulsed through the ground? Whatever the cause of the pounding, Yerzhan just stood there nailed to the floor, more dead than alive. And once again that same implacable, visceral fear rose up from his trembling knees to his stomach, where it stopped like a hot, heavy, aching lump.”

Published 2014 by Peirene Press.

Source: Peirene gave this away as a free e-book to newsletter subscribers.

Rivers of London
by Ben Aaronovitch

This had been recommended to me by basically everyone and we accidentally ended up with two copies of it, so I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. It’s the story of Peter Grant, constable for the Met, who at the start of the book is at the end of his probation, waiting to be assigned to a department, so his whole career could hinge on how he handles guarding a crime scene in Covent Garden. Which would be easier if this particular murder case didn’t appear to involve ghosts and all manner of strangeness. This book is a lot of fun. It explores fantasy, magic, policing, class, race, history and death, doing so with great humour and plenty of action. There are already four sequels, which I know people rave about as much as this first book.

“Rush hour was almost in full flood when I got on the train, and the carriage was crowded just short of the transition between the willing suspension of personal space and packed in like sardines…I was sending out mixed signals, the suit and reassuring countenance of my face going one way, the fact that I’d obviously been in a fight recently and was mixed race going the other. It’s a myth that Londoners are oblivious to one another on the tube: we’re hyper-aware of each other and are constantly revising our what-if scenarios and counter strategies.”

Published 2011 by Gollancz.

Source: Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge.