Reading is by far the cheapest way to travel. And it often beats the real thing. This summer I spent a lot of time in the United States, including an action-packed week in New York and pleasant stays in Southern California, Connecticut and Virginia. I enjoyed several days in a nineteenth century resort on the North Sea, and also travelled to a made-up Portuguese province called Barba.
I read two tragic memoirs, abandoned one novel in exasperation and finished two that I really didn’t enjoy. But overall, it’s been a happy journey with most books ending up on the ‘liked’ and ‘loved’ shelves. Maybe you’ll find something here for your autumn reading list.
Starting with the best: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a phenomenal piece of work. This book was apparently the sensation of 2015. Not sure how I missed that. Two central drivers make the story totally gripping – one is the resolution that the reader craves for the main character, our wish for him to find inner peace; the other is the wait for the full revelation of what terrible thing(s) happened to him to cause so much misery. The latter is dragged out to the nth degree but it didn’t matter because the writing was so good. Besides, I just wanted to stay in that world.
I don’t know how a book about a man in extreme physical pain and emotional torment is so enchanting but, trust me, it is. The novel supposedly follows the friendship between four young men who meet in university and form a bond for life, but there is only one star in this show and that’s the ever-suffering Jude. Many other intellectually and artistically brilliant characters (all of whom adore Jude) allow us to vicariously enjoy all the possible ways one can live life to the full. There is a fair amount of repetition in the book along with lavish descriptions of luxury lifestyles. But it was fine. Even the bottomless goodness of the good characters versus the bottomless evil of the bad characters was acceptable in this operatic book.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good old-fashioned American family drama told over several decades. Two marriages in Southern California break up when the father of one family starts an affair with the mother of the other family at her baby’s christening party. The opening party scene is brilliant. We are left to follow the destinies of the six children of these two couples who become step siblings. The children’s anger and confusion fuels anarchic behaviour which ultimately leads to them being bound together for life by tragedy.
In I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice, the writer charts her family’s struggle since her husband was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease. A free-spirited Irish couple with young children, they were living a charmed life before the disease knocked everything down. Not quite everything. The pair went on to have twins, choosing to fight death with life. Simon Fitzmaurice wrote and directed a film relying on eye gaze technology to communicate. And Ruth has produced this brave book. There is so much to take from her in extremis perspectives on friendship, motherhood, love and marriage, pain and loss, and of course illness.
Fitzmaurice writes with eloquence and rage. The realities of caring for a loved one with a paralysing illness are familiar to me which made the memoir resonate all the more. I will remember this book for a long time. Ruth Fitzmaurice talks a lot of the joys of swimming in the cold Irish Sea, something I was happy to have the chance to do again this summer (in real life), hence the photo above.
In an effort to broaden my German literature horizons, and inspired by a chapter in Padraig Rooney’s The Gilded Chalet, I decided to take on the challenge of reading the classic doorstopper Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann.
It tells the story of four generations of the wealthy Buddenbrook family. I plodded through the 850 pages (in English, don’t worry) in increasing admiration, especially as the author was so young when he wrote it. A brilliant depiction of a family, a class and a town, written with an enjoyable helping of satire but also compassion.
Mann recreates a century in the life of a community. At times we view group scenes from a distance as a set piece, while at other times the action is painfully intimate. I’m amazed at how many moments rang true for me as a modern reader. What he does with the internal life of the main characters is astounding. Maybe unsurprisingly, the men are the more complex and interesting characters, with the women presented more as simple or enigmatic creatures. But that fits the era, sadly. How Mann so perfectly understood and was able to capture the ennui and awful weight of respectability of generations of the Buddenbrooks is simply amazing.
From 1890s Germany to 1980s Britain, and the debut novel by Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon. A lovely story about a lonely foster child, beautifully and convincingly told. De Waal knows the care system inside out and it shows. But she is also a wonderful writer who has created a sweet and true character in Leon. The sympathetic adult characters are really well observed, the women in particular. Maybe we spend a little too much time at the allotments but that’s OK. I’ll be saving this one for my children’s must-read shelf when they are a little older (thirteen plus would be fine). I’m really looking forward to seeing de Waal at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival next weekend in Morges.
The Children by Ann Leary was a quick, satisfying read, recommended by one of my favourite book blogs, A Life in Books. It provided entertaining family dynamics with a little mystery and menace thrown in. Despite some of the heavy themes, the book manages to remain light and pacy. I would definitely like to read more of Ann Leary.
The other memoir I read was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, in which the author describes his career as a surgeon, up to and including his terminal cancer diagnosis. An extremely interesting examination of medical matters and ethics, Kalanithi held back so much emotionally that I almost forgot to be moved. The chapter written by his widow at the end made up for that.
If you’re curious, the book I gave up on was The New Republic by Lionel Shriver, the one partly set in a fictional province. I enjoyed the opening in New York but the plot became increasing silly and the writing too forced when we landed in Barba. The satire on terrorism with lots of echoes of the IRA was too clever for its own good. As a die-hard Shriver fan, I was quite taken aback.
Finally, a reminder that I will be appearing at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges (near Lausanne) on Sunday September 3rd at 4.30 pm. I will be participating in a panel discussion with fellow Swiss-based authors Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney on the subject of Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality. For some of the weekend I’ll be sitting at my table in the writers’ tent signing books and meeting people. The festival runs from Friday to Sunday and features Ireland as guest country of honour this year. There are many fantastic talks, readings and workshops for fans of Irish literature plus a hugely impressive roll call of Irish and international writers to meet (full programme). Hope to see you there!