37. ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt.

The Secret History

I have enjoyed this weeks main read so much. I bought this copy for Mum, and another for myself, at Waterstone’s on Trafalgar Square in 2002 – we were so excited to finally read Ms. Tartt’s much acclaimed debut novel, first published ten years earlier.  And we were not disappointed – it’s magnificent. It still is, as a re-read.

Written by, in both Mum’s and my opinion, one of the most accomplished authors of modern times, this is a dramatic and compelling murder mystery, laced with references to ancient cultures and veering away from the usual sex drugs and rock n roll towards a far darker world. It tells the story of a small group of American college students, extremely clever but eccentric misfits who come under the influence of their charismatic Classics professor.

The opening lines of the prologue – ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation’.

In the course of recreating a Bacchanalian rite, a man dies. Eventually, one of their own must be killed to maintain the secret. I’m really not giving away the plot telling you this, as we find all this out right from the start.  It is the brilliantly written drama of how, why, who, when that is the captivating heart of this novel, and which keeps you turning the pages, wanting to discover how they got to that point, and why.

The central narrator is Richard Papen, an outsider to begin with, coming from a bland, sun drenched Californian suburban environment to study at an old Vermont college, where he falls in with a tightly knit group of five rather unappealing, snooty, and deliberately ‘different’ Classics major students. They are obsessed with the ancient Greeks, in an elitist and unpleasant manner, flaunting the fact that they care little for modern life, funded by family money, and fuelled by whiskey. It’s set in the 1980’s and is a world away from the Wall Street type novels of that era, in the same way that the group of characters strives to be apart from the general blandness of 1980’s college life.

Richard is the only member of the group with no money, a fact he tries very hard to conceal. He only gains membership of the group through solving a Greek problem, and then spends most of his time trying to maintain his friendship with the group – it’s hard to see why sometimes, as most of them are seriously un-likeable, and behave with complete disregard for the feelings of others – a deliberately contrived element of the book that works brilliantly. During the 600 + pages we are led through both the before and the after of the murders, and I warn you now there are a lot of controversial topics; incest, homosexuality, and suicide attempts all feature. But we are led through them with such beautiful prose.

I have read this at least three times. It is a novel that cannot be read fast, occasionally, one has to just stop and breathe. I have read parts of it on a beach, but it is not what you’d call a beach read; it is deep, dark, and magnificently written. For me, it is the fragility of friendships and relationships with ones peers, and the need to be ‘more’ than them, (very Nietzsche), that ‘drives’ the book, and Ms. Tartt drives this one impeccably.

I shall be sorry to see this one go, but as always, should you like to add this marvellous debut novel to your own collection, please get in touch either here or on the Facebook page, and I shall be delighted to gift it forward to you, (with a BeckyandVince Signature book thong!) If you have never read it, a spot of good news for you is that Ms. Tartt has since written two more astonishing books, and unlike Mum and I, you won’t have to wait years for her to publish something else!

Here is an Amazon link for you to purchase a copy of your own if Mum’s has already been claimed…it is, in my humble opinion, a true classic, and not to be missed.

//ws-eu.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=GB&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=mumsbooks-21&marketplace=amazon&region=GB&placement=0140167773&asins=0140167773&linkId=17245fe87926f35e44f3e7821c80956b&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=false&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffff

19. ‘Gladys Revisited’ by Sandi Toksvig.

I’m a big fan of Sandi Toksvig on the TV, as was Mum. She is fast and funny, with a wicked sense of humour, and last year did a marvellous job becoming one of the new hosts of Bake Off after Mary Berry’s departure. This is the first of her books that I have read, and I did enjoy it, chuckling aloud occasionally, but it wasn’t long before I began to wonder if an American reader would find her frequent swipes at their culture and way of life quite as entertaining!

In short, Ms Toksvig spent what she later came to believe was the best year of her youth attending a high school in America and becoming a member of the drama group there. That years play was ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ by Thornton Wilder, and, enraptured by the charismatic drama teacher, she auditioned for and gained a part as the youngest of the three incarnations of Gladys Antrobus. The other two Gladys’ and she formed a club, The Gladyses, which eventually expanded to a group of twelve friends. (I feel as if I have typed ‘Gladys’ far too many times already, and trust that no one reading this is now at a loss as to the significance of the title of the book? No? Good!)

That year, the year of the Gladyses, and her subsequent removal to an English boarding school are not the main focus of this book however. It’s more a conversation about Ms Toksvig’s personal struggles, whether she made the right choices in relationships, career, location; whether she should apply for a British passport even though she has lived in the UK for thirty years on her Danish one, mainly because despite being a politically aware individual, she cannot vote. It’s about how she views America, coming to it again after many years and with a roseate view engendered by her reminiscences of that golden high school year. And it’s about organising to meet up with the other eleven Gladyses. And whether they are as plump as her – we read a fair bit about her tummy!

The opening is really quite hilarious as Ms Toksvig tries her hand at rodeo-ing in Arizona, which ends rather badly, and she maintains a light, easy pace throughout – it is not a hard book to read at all. One by one, across a series of visits to the USA, she does manage to catch up with the Gladyses; some are as plump as her, others are not. Most are suburban wives who refuse to discuss international affairs and thus gain Ms Toksvig’s scorn at the insular nature of Americans. During the course of the book, the terrible event of 9/11 happens, and Ms Toksvig finds herself in New York very shortly after, with the smell of the burning buildings still thick in the air. She describes what and who she sees, the general atmosphere, in a sensitive and moving way, but then complains that the Red Cross Disaster Relief centre has no toilets.

The book becomes Bill Bryson-esque at times, there are nicely written descriptions of visits to strange attractions, meandering drives, and some history and geography thrown in to boot. And by the time she is flying home to England, Ms Toksvig has decided that England is indeed home, and she’ll get the passport, apparently mostly due to the terribly British humour of the pilot of her plane.

Mum hasn’t initialled and dated the flyleaf of this book although I know she read it, and I wonder if it’s because she felt lukewarm about it in the same way I do. Yes, it’s funny, easy to read, interesting in some ways. But my over-riding impression is that most of the Gladyses probably won’t want another reunion after what she has to say about them and their lives, and that reading this has not spurred me to look for more of her books, although I look forward to her presenting this summer’s Great British Bake Off!

So. Not a big thumbs up from me on this one, but if you would like to read it yourself, please let me know where to send it to and it will become yours!

POST SCRIPTUM; Thoughts while in the shower. I find a long hot shower so conducive to thinking.

Our lovely Ma was also in New York a very short time after the Twin Towers attack, with my stepfather Brian to visit Brian’s brother, and she too found it deeply moving. Mum loved America, which she visited several times, never failing to marvel at the size of everything – dinners and domestic appliances in particular. She was tremendously impressed by the white goods! I also had one of the most fabulous holidays of my life when I took a solo road trip across the South from San Diego to Savannah in 2012, in a Toyota Yaris of all things. We both agreed that Americans in general were so friendly and polite and pleasant, not to mention the generally awesomely spectacular landscapes; and the reflection I had in my shower was that while it is extremely easy to poke fun at a population that has managed to elect an orange misogynist muppet to the White House, is it nice to do so?

This is the land that gave us Henry James and Steinbeck, Donna Tartt and Arthur Miller. I have only to think of the way Bill Bryson writes about Britain to recognise that Americans think we are weird too. Many years ago, I emigrated from the UK to Australia, and before I left, I was told to remember that although they speak the same language, it is a different, foreign country. The same applies to the USA, and I think my main issue with this book and possibly Mum’s also is that the poking fun is a little too pointed at times, it’s not kind. And above all else, Mum was unfailingly kind.

18. ‘Sea Glass’ by Anita Shreve.

I’m going to start by saying that I have never read any of Anita Shreve’s books before. My personal taste tends to run on a different course, but that said, I did enjoy this novel, which I discover with interest is the third volume in a trilogy based around a house on the New Hampshire Coast. It started with ‘Fortunes Rocks’, continued with ‘The Pilots Wife’, and then this. I read it in one sitting, curled up in an armchair and wishing I was on a beach occasionally getting up to walk and look for sea glass and shells, because it is undoubtedly a perfect beach holiday read; nothing too challenging, nothing overly thought-provoking, just a nicely written, enjoyable and relaxing read. I bet Mum bought this for one of her holidays with my lovely sister in Spain, and enjoyed it by the pool!

A synopsis. The central character is Honora, and the story begins just before the Wall St crash in 1929 which will colour the entire story. Honora works in a bank, and one day meets a customer named Sexton Beecher who falls for her, (he is attracted initially by her hands, beautiful hands apparently. I did take especial note of this, as I am the possessor of a pair of hands a bricklayer would be proud of – I have large and very un-ladylike hands. I should add that I’m not particularly bothered by this, these hands have served me well over the years, but I do have ‘hand envy’ occasionally!).

After a brief courtship, they marry. He is a travelling salesman, as shifty as you would expect, and in a burst of hubris he pulls a fast one on a client and buys a ‘do-upper’ house they can’t really afford on the beach for them.  Would have been fine…but the crash happens, and he loses his job. Honora, who, seriously, appears to hardly know the man she is married to, has by this time found joy in walking the beach collecting sea glass – and here I can completely relate to her – Sexton however finds her habit ridiculous and frustrating. He just drinks. So does Vivian, the bored, promiscuous wealthy socialite to a tee, who enters our story by way of moving in with a friend at the top of the beach. Also reduced in circumstance by the Crash.

Eventually Sexton finds work at a textile mill inland. Here we meet the last major characters; McDermott, who although young is already almost deaf from the noise in the mill, and Alphonse, the eleven year old son of an illegal French Canadian immigrant widow working, again illegally, in the same mill to support his family. McDermott and Alphonse form a mutually advantageous bond;  other characters less so, and thus our story is set.

Ms. Shreve has obviously done some solid research into the strikes of the era, and the horrid working conditions that provoked them. She writes convincingly about the grey misery of abject poverty, the terror of having nothing to feed your children, the desperation the working class felt at this time in this place. Honora finds, somehow, food for people who knock on her door, and she and Vivian through their mutual concern are drawn together and become involved in the strike.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say this; it has surprises, sudden deaths, revelations and a fairly upbeat ending. I would choose this to read on a plane – it is well written and constructed, thoroughly researched and therefore very plausible, and has characters you can find commonality with. (If I come across one of the prequels in a charity shop I may buy it.) But, if I had finished it by the time I reached Changi I would leave it there on a seat for another traveller to find with not a qualm. And I think they would enjoy it too.

As always, it you would like this, Mum’s copy of ‘Sea Glass’, please get in touch with me either here or through Mums Books facebook page, and I will send it to you with love X

 

 

 

 

16. ‘The heart goes last’ by Margaret Atwood.

I can’t help it – I see a Margaret Atwood and I simply have to read it! And I think that since the TV adaptation of the Handmaids Tale, more and more people are realising what a wonderfully twisted, dystopian world this author is capable of creating. And none more so than in this book, which started life as an e-book series. It explores desperation, sex, corporate control, sex robots, humiliation and rebellion, with lashings of dark humour and self deception, and does so at a cracking pace.

Welcome to a post financial crash America. Charmaine and Stan are victims of the downturn having lost their jobs and thus their modest home;  living in their car, scavenging food, selling blood, and just surviving on the tips Charmaine makes working in a bar where drugs and sex are top of the menu.  They didn’t fall into this impasse through any fault of their own – they are simply victims of fate, like so many ‘normal’ people are these days when they find themselves on the sharp end of economic circumstances beyond their control. Charmaine worked as an entertainer in an old peoples home, Stan worked for a robotics company, making self serve checkouts more ‘user friendly’. As they struggle to eke out an existence and avoid even more desperate people who have turned to crime, they console themselves with the thought that they still have each other. It’s a situation which is, alarmingly, not far-fetched in today’s world.

Stan’s brother, Conor, makes an early appearance – he’s doing well for himself, having successfully turned to crime, but Stan and Charmaine still yearn for a normal life, and when they see an advertisement for the Positron Project, despite Conor’s advice, they sign up.

The Positron Project offers ‘lucky’ applicants a job and a home in the basically walled town of Consilience, where the ambience is decidedly 50’s – the decade when apparently most people identified as being ‘happy’. Whats the catch? They have to ‘share’ a house with another couple, their ‘Alternates’, spending a month in the house and then a month in the on site prison facility, so they and the Alternates never actually meet – in fact there is a company imposed ban on inter-Alternate communication. They must perform the tasks set for them by the Corporation, Stan on the chicken farm, and Charmaine administering lethal injections to the ‘Misfits’ of this closed society.  Initially, they delight in the house, the security, the society, but as they become more comfortable, sex rears its head (of course!) and while Charmaine launches into a steamy affair with ‘Max’, Stan becomes obsessed with Max’s ‘partner’, Jasmine, after finding a steamy note from her under the fridge.  Can you guess who Jasmine really is?

From here on the novel really picks up speed. The dark truth behind the Positron management and what they are really doing. The sex robots they manufacture, alarmingly including the Kiddybot, neatly packaged in a white nightie with an accompanying teddy ‘for realism’. The harvesting of babies blood, the ‘wiping and imprinting’ of peoples brains to create sex slaves, daring escapes, difficult choices. A posse of gay Elvis impersonators, and a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who’s in love with a soft toy.

Self-deception, infidelity, spies, escapes, this book has it all. As with the Handmaid, it’s alarming in its plausibility at times. The characters are drawn well and appropriately – despite Charmaine’s undeniably steamy affair, what she really wants are Stan, a comfortable, neat clean house, a baby, a garden – all very Fifties and Stepford Wife-ish. What Stan seems to really want is to take care of Charmaine. And all this is cleverly exploited at the conclusion….but I’m not going to spoil it for you!

It’s a big thumbs up here, no surprise to anyone who knows my predilection for Ms Atwood’s work. And, despite the undeniable worry that ‘this could happen’, I know Mum’s view was the same as mine – one always hopes that there are enough ordinary, decent people out there to prevent situations like this really happening….one hopes.

As always, if you would like to have Mum’s copy of this marvellous book to add to your own bookshelf, please contact me and I will happily post it off to you to read and enjoy!

 

 

7. ‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx.

Wow. What an epic, enjoyable, and thought provoking read this was. Mum gave me this book last summer; she had bought it as she loved Annie Proulx’ other work, but had not managed to make head roads into it. In retrospect, I suspect this was because she was beginning to feel the effects of her final illness, and was looking for lighter material – this is a big, big novel, both in volume and scope. I also felt there was a slight change in style at about the point she had reached; the beginning is classic Ms Proulx, richly worded and atmospheric, plunging you into the damp darkness of the forest; the latter half speeds up the passage of time somewhat, but I suppose if what you are writing is a tale of greed and the destruction of the great forests over some three hundred plus years, you need to economise on time somewhere.

The story opens in the late 1600’s in New France, which will become Canada. Colonists are chopping down trees that the local Indians hold in deep respect; mindless of the medicinal and other values of a virgin forest, they see it only in terms of personal gain. This theme continues throughout the novel as we follow the descendants of two Frenchmen, one path taking us along Charles Duquet’s American dream with the creation of a logging empire, the other thread following the mixed race and less fortunate descendants of Rene Sel. An often grisly tale unfolds, covering deforestation and its effects, the brutal world of logging camps and the erasure of rich cultures – the river work, rafting the felled logs, is the most dangerous part, and therefore the Indians do it. Some characters appear for mere pages before meeting their ends, many of them hideous yet richly deserved; only the un-touched forests continue until the loggers reach them, vast and mysterious, and one senses this is what Ms Proulx wants to convey, that the environment is as important as any one within it, if not more so. This book took Ms Proulx five years to write, and according to her publishers she had been thinking about it for long before that. For someone who more often writes with the economy of a short story writer, this is colossal, and very moving, ending as it does with speculation into the logging of the Amazonian rain forests.

We travel the world in this book, visiting the great kauri forests of New Zealand (they get logged), the (managed logging) European forestries, the redwood forests of the American west coast (they get logged), the South American rain forests (a ‘green’ character becomes fascinated by their diversity, studies them, sends his notebooks to a family member…who looks into logging the rainforest). It’s a vibrant, timely reminder that natural resources are not infinite, that thoughtless destruction for short term profit is not and has never been viable, which living as we do in a time when climate change is accelerating beyond belief is quite terrifying. At the close of the book we are with a descendent of Rene Sel working to repair the damage, who cries, “But what if it was already too late when the first hominid rose up and stared at the world?”.

Greedy creatures, we humans. Will we ever learn? I loved this book, give it a massive thumbs up as much for its thought provocation as for its qualities as a novel. As always, let me know if you’d like to add this gem to your library!

EDIT; On it’s way to a new home with a fellow blogger, the Travelling Hippy. I met the lovely Helen some years ago in Gujarat, and recommend her blog, link to the right under blogs I follow!