A summer batch

Books I’ve read whilst the sun has (largely) been shining…

PLAYTHINGS – ALEX PHEBY: A mesmerising and compelling story about Paul Schreber, and aspects of his madness hitherto overlooked. Pheby has crafted the story so finely that the suffered unreality of Schreber can be observed at enough of a distance that the fantasy doesn’t overwhelm the senses. The environment is painted vividly – both the present and the remembered childhood – leading my mind to work overtime trying to line up cause and effect. Unsettling in the extreme and yet utterly captivating. I think my second read will be even more intoxicating!

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT – KENT HARUF: Simply lovely. A story of finding love in advancing years – platonic, romantic and neighbourly. A story about taking chances, and speaking your mind. A story about acceptance and tenderness. Read it, then read how the book came into being. It’ll warm the cockles.

LETTERS HOME – ADICHIE, MILLER, SHAMSIE & TSIOLKAS: Four epistolary shorts, later turned into plays. I didn’t understand the final set of letters, between Eve and her Son, except as an exercise in cruelty. Adichie’s correspondents come to life economically, with a suppressed longing and a reverberating affection. Miller’s investigative missives express friendship, loyalty and a sense of ‘what you ought to know’. Shamsie’s soldier-writers remember shared experiences and hope to bridge the gap of time and space between them, whilst a gap of understanding widens. A smart and affecting collection.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE – ANTHONY DOERR: On the Prez’s summer reading list, no less. It’s a book that’s surprisingly spry for its size, despite the weight of its luminous prose. It is perhaps slightly too beautiful, slightly too neat at the end, but it’s still admirable: the marvel that is radio – invisible waves sharing sounds and thoughts; the blindness of Marie-Laure illuminating the blindness of many other characters; the sumptuous care and dedication between father and daughter. Maybe the problem with all the light, though, is that it seems to float away, as if into the sky.

HUNTS IN DREAMS – TOM DRURY: Concentrating on Charles (Tiny) Darling – the least captivating character from The End of Vandalism for me – Hunts in Dreams spans a single weekend and orbits the Darling family. There’s a wonderful balance between individual preoccupations and the strange bonds that tie families together, and the relationships are painted evenly with both love and strife being textured and nuanced. Drury employs his signature humour in the chapter about goat husbandry to sublime effect.

DIVISION STREET – HELEN MORT: This book of poetry will henceforth go wherever I go. It’s my time – 1980s/90s, my place – Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and captures a sensitivity and bravery that I aspire to. There’s a subtlety and an earnestness that coats everything, and Mort’s blend of awareness and sense of openness means she’s a lass you’d want to furnish with a pint in a cosy Peak District pub.

LEARNING TO TALK – HILARY MANTEL: A terrific companion piece to Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel takes us back to childhood and adolescence, to northern towns and open doors. The texture of it is what I love – texture that’s slightly abrasive, or smooth in the way a scab stretches over broken skin. Like Division Street, it speaks to me of things familiar…

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS – GOHRING GABRIELSEN: Possibly my favourite Peirene yet. Two sisters – warlike, worn-down – share the same house. From the perspective of the sickly and cared-for sister we witness a life of toil and external pressures that the narrator skews into formidable plots. Revealing the epitome of desperate isolation – being dependent, being ‘head’-ridden – the story nonetheless revels in spirit, verve and not a little spite. Potent!

AMERICANAH – CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: Pitching this as a love story, when the interaction between the two lovers amounts to less than 20% of the book is a bit of a stretch, but maybe I should take that up with the blurb writer. Adichie prose is elegant, and her characters are terrifically opinionated. I’d have liked more material from the blog that the main character writes about coming to realise she is black.

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