All things books

With Sarla Langdon

Summer Reading

It has become the fashion with the quality Sunday papers to invite well-known authors with uneven critical faculties to make choices of books for your summer reading. I value my own judgement more highly and present you here with a galaxy of books to keep you completely engrossed, books that will stimulate your intellect and enrich your mind — books that are too intrinsically valuable to be regarded as‘beach reading.’ I have heard a remarkably vulgar saying that it is as easy to marry a rich man as a poor one. It is equally as easy to read a good book as a mediocre one — and much more profitable to your psyche.

Funny Girl

by Nick Hornby (Penguin £7.99)

Now out in paperback, this is one of Nick Hornby’s gentlest and most acutely observed novels, wonderful as a holiday read, swift paced and sophisticated. We meet Barbara, the beautiful provincial teenager who on learning that as winner of the Miss Blackpool crown she would be committing to a further stay in her hometown Blackpool for another compulsory year, abdicates her throne, takes to her heels and heads for London where she dreams of a comedy career as a modern day Lucille Ball.

Nick Hornby’s sense of humour and taste for the ridiculous leads us laughing with Barbara when she finds herself cast as the lead in a TV romcom. Inevitably it is a success, and we see how ‘Funny Girl’ Barbara, despite her youth and inex-perience, finds she is able to assert herself quite confidently when dealing with a faithless fiance, a possessive roommate and professional jealousies.

Nick Hornby has chosen the medium of a charming contemporary narrative to demonstrate how a young girl, if single-minded enough, can refuse to compromise and can be herself very successfully in a strange and complicated world. Funny Girl is the archetypal tough Northern character wittily and humorously portrayed by Nick Hornby.

The Vegetarian

by Han Kang – translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Press £12.99)

I am not so blasé as to hide my pleasure in reading my first South Korean novel, written by Han Kang in Korean and set in Seoul. The rather lurid cover depicts a spray of pinkish lilies, interspersed with pieces of meat and body parts—not unlike the famous Lady Gaga dress. And yet the issues the novel addresses are familiar to us — anorexia, child abuse, fragile marriages, broken families…..

But here the similarities stop. Kang reveals a glimpse of an unfamiliar world peopled with exotic characters whose reactions to the situations presented are not always predictable, created as they are by cultural, historical and sociological diktats strange to us.

The Vegetarian deals with young Seoul housewife Yeong-Hye’s sudden aversion to eating meat and her aggressive expression of this new disgust—she throws all the food out of the house and bans the entry of meat into their home, to the surprise and disgust of her husband Cheong. Hospitalisation for anorexia, torrid sex with her brother-in-law and the Mongolian birthmark that triggers a great deal of lust all add up to a narrative as arresting and bizarre as it is familiar and mundane.

The Vegetarian succeeds in endorsing the commonality of family traumas — and simultaneously, in underlining the ethnic distinctiveness of human responses to the same social stimuli. (No, this is not gobbledygook. Read it slowly and note how strong a thought it expresses)

The Vegetarian is a true reflection of our diverse milieu; I believe each reader will experience mixed feelings of familiarity and utter incomprehension, a duality essential in a work of genuine creative expression.

Introduction to Classical Literature

by Richard Jenkyns (Pelican Books £7.99)

When I approach a book like Professor Richard Jenkyns’ Classical Literature, I metamorphose in strange ways. All aquiver, I am a child again, on the verge of entering the wonderful, fast-moving, wired-up world of ancient Greek and Roman myths, legends and stories.

In this small volume, classicist Richard Jenkyns covers nearly one thousand years of writing, poems and stories we are familiar with, no matter what level of education we have benefited from. We all know the story of Troy, the beautiful Helen and the unforgettable heroes who fought in the Trojan War: mighty Hercules, Achilles and his heel, the powerful Agamemnon, and immortal Ulysses (Odysseus) himself. The Greek and Latin writings of Homer, Ovid and Virgil live on in our cultural conscious-ness as much as the work of Shakespeare or Chaucer – and yet are regarded as mental fodder for the posh, the privately educated toffs, even though everybody knows the stories and all watch the epic adventures of, for example, Jason and the Argonauts, avidly on TV.

Richard Jenkyns, in short, engaging chapters, puts the stories, the plays, the poems and the authors in order for us. He inspires us, the general readers, to realise how much we already know about the most enduring and influential works of the classical world: from the Homeric epics to the golden age of Latin poetry, from rollicking short stories to the tragedies of Sophocles’ Oedipus. He explores their continuing influence in our cultural life, an influence so strong that we don’t even realise we are quoting seriously ancient texts and referring to epic events that were old before Christ was even born.

So don’t dismiss the classical traditions — refresh your world with the mythological heritage that lived on for millenia because the Greeks were masters of invention, pioneering most of the major literary forms and genres that are used today, including epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, myth and history. The Romans, already working in the shadow of Greek literature (to the same extent we do today), recreated and reinforced many of these forms—as we continue to do.

The Wolf Border

by Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber £17.99)

Sarah Hall’s strange and subtle novel How To Paint A Dead Man was reviewed in this column as a Booker Prize contender in 2006 and was one of the best novels in the list. Her latest novel The Wolf Border is a work in the same strain: exotic subject matter, detached treatment, and a singular protagonist who brings her own new perspectives to the pitfalls that face a single mother in challenging circumstances.

Rachel Caine is a world-renowned expert in conservation, with particular reference to wolves. Her lupine obsession finds her in charge of an isolated wolf sanctuary in Idaho.

The realisation that she is pregnant as a result of a drunken encounter with a colleague encourages her to accept a job back in her native England, where she is to set up a turnkey project — a historic return of the English grey wolf — at

a vast Cumbrian estate owned by the Earl of Annerdale.

These events occur post-Scottish referendum and Scotland is now an independent country. This affects the political activities of Rachel’s employer, who is unable to offer the support the project needs. The wolves arrive to a chorus of local disapproval which soon turns into national delight when they mirror Rachel’s fecundity with a litter of their own.

The Wolf Border is a commentary on the dangers of political and physical confinement — the wolves escape and

make their way cross country across the border to Scotland. Their adventures and Rachel’s offer a vision of the irrelevance of political and psychological boundaries. As always, Sarah Hall picks up the contemporary, blends it with

the extraordinary, stirs in her superb prose style and leaves the reader fascinated and enriched.

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TWO tiny TREASURES FROM PUSHKIN

Counter the hideous Kindle with these exquisite little books from Pushkin Press. Each volume is just 16.5cm tall and 12cms wide, beautifully bound in textured paper, handy enough to slip into your pocket or handbag. There are over 85

novels in this ‘Collection’ series. For your holiday reading,I have selected two of their latest titles: ‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ and ‘Dear Reader’

Dear Reader

by Paul Fournel – translated from the French by David Bellos (Pushkin £10.00)

Here is a very modern, very gentle, and absolutely endearing -and enduring- novel written by a publisher about the changing face of book publishing.

Dear Reader is a beautifully conceived novel written in the classic style, yet dealing with the most sign-ificant of modern issues — the  digital revolution that is causing turmoil in the publishing world today.

French writer and publisher Paul Fournel tells the very contemporary story of M. Meunier, the bumptious bean counter installed by the new equity owners of our protagonist and hero Robert Dubois’ traditional publishing house.

Meunier thrusts a ‘Kandle’ e-reader on Dubois, explaining that he has downloaded all the manuscripts received from authors on it so that Dubois no longer needs to be encumbered with heaps of heavy paper. Dear Reader is a truly modern novel, examining the culture clash when Dubois, a gentleman publisher from the world of the sumptuously printed word begins to comprehend the need for a media shift to the age of the digital publication.

Dear Reader is an extremely civilised book, written by a very civilised writer for a highly civilised readership (cue BAY readers). Paul Fournel follows no populist formula and functions very well without using the engines of the blockbuster

— no gratuitous violence, no explicit sex and a complete absence of reference to substance abuse.

Dubois inhabits the cosy world of the big-city professional anywhere, complete with long boozy lunches with his

authors in glorious Parisian restaurants, evoking the bon vivant atmosphere well known to urban sophisticates.

But do read on…Dubois sportingly gives the digital future a try succeeding in not just embracing the new technology

but in harnessing his team of young interns to turn the creative tables on Meunier.

A wonderful, book full of wry humour and surprising twists. A perfect holiday read.

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

by Ivan Repila – translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Pushkin £10.00)

Two brothers, Big and Small are trapped at the bottom of a well. Reduced to subsisting on worms and grubs, they still do not touch the bag of food ear-marked for their mother, adhering to Big’s master plan to escape from their

prison.

So far Repila’s narrative has all the hallmarks of a fable, a local myth—but we know that this novella has political

significance because of the two quotes by Margaret Thatcher and Bertholt Brecht that act as a preface. Indeed, the novel is set in an era which after decades still labours under the historic aftermath of the oppression and brutality of

General Franco’s regime.

“For people like you and me, the first thing is anger,” says Repila “…There are other people …who have grown up around unimaginable violence and look at you from inside caverns that you cannot even imagine. For those people, living is the well.”

Thus Repila leads us to his allegorical representation of the plight of the siblings, a plight replicated today in barbaric aggression around the world.

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is a warning, a highlighting of the horrors perpetrated by man against man that should have been a dreadful memory, but remain instead part of our life today, brought closer to every one of us by

the speed and immediacy of digital communication.

Utterly fascinating is the unravelling of Repila’s subversive story as we begin to understand how Big means to deal with their incarceration, his patient pursuit of the means to escape their intolerable situation, and the revenge he plans on

the instigators of their nightmare in the well.

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is a dream-like novel with metatags of tension and desperation — a novel with a message that cannot be ignored.

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WINNERS ALL!!

LITERATURE WALES ANNUAL AWARDS

Last month Literature Wales announced its awards for the best Welsh books of 2015

The winner of the Wales Arts Review PEOPLE’S Choice Prize 2015 was Jonathan Edwards with his poetry collection My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren). Jonathan’s debut collection (reviewed in BAY last year) also won the Costa Poetry Prize 2014.

The winner of the 2015 FICTION CATEGORY is Wales’ finest novelist, the brilliant Cynan Jones whose winning title The Dig was reviewed in this column in May 2014. I said then and I never said a truer word:

 “Cynan Jones is a writer of extraordinary ability. This little novel is a powerhouse of emotional scenes playing themselves out in a familiar Welsh setting. Jones’ prose is perfection, capable of drawing blood from a stone with its diamond hard lucidity and overweening understatement.”

The Dig (Granta £7.99) is a must for your summer list and for your bookshelf. I salute the judging panel for having the perspicacity to make so laudable a choice. (Let us hope the dreaded Booker Prize judging panel shows half the good sense in the 2015 awards, and does not select the most mediocre entry as is their wont.)

Other People’s Countries by Patrick McGuinness won the NON-FICTION CATEGORY. This is the second time Patrick has won the Wales Book of the Year Award, having been awarded the main prize in 2012 with his unmatchable Booker long-listed novel The Last Hundred Days (Seren) also reviewed in this column.

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Other People’s Countries

by Patrick McGuinness (Vintage £8.99)

Patrick McGuiness is a true international. Born in Tunisia, he was brought up in Belgium, educated in England and has a home in Wales. As an Oxford Fellow teaching French, he is famously bilingual like the celebrated novelist Julian Barnes – and for that matter, like Oscar Wilde.

Other People’s Countries is a memoir of McGuinness’ life as a child in the Belgian border town of Bouillon. He recaptures the people, the buildings, the food and the history of this quiet Wallonian backwater in a series of short essays, written almost as an ode to memory. Each

little vignette introduces us to another street, another character or family member, another delicious monochrome photograph of the town by the River Semois: ‘Remembering makes things real — it’s the only guarantee that they have actually happened. Events owe their existence to memories…’ he says as he shares his recollecttions of ‘Marie Bodard’s Sweetshop.’

Bouillon was famously visited by litterateurs Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire and we are taken to see the commemor-ative plaques, the cottages and the streets they strode. McGuinness’ memoir is powered by his towering intellect and his acute observation of bygone events written in sparse prose with a kind of distilled beauty that is the peak of literary achievement.

‘Here in Belgium,’ he says, ‘even a Trappist must choose a language in which to keep silent.’

We ask Patrick McGuinness not to keep silent. We want to hear a great deal more of his poetic voice.

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