Reading Down the House – January

Following Dar’s idea of Reading Down the House, I set a list of books to read. Books that had even hanging around the house, patiently waiting for me. Problem is I keep acquiring new books, bought or borrowed. The longer a book stays on my shelf, the less tempting it is to read. Don’t understand why, that’s just the way it is.

Of course, I had to read a book not on the original list. I am a clubber – hip, groover that I am – OK, can’t fool you. I’m down right daggy and staid and in a book club. Our next book is A History of Silence, a memoir by Lloyd Jones. Quite apposite to my holiday this! Jones is a Kiwi and his memoir intertwines the Christchurch earthquake and his family’s history. His family is fractured and all that he has is fragments – are those fragments factual or just false memories and myths? As he traces his family he finds that nothing remains the same forever. (The links to the earthquake clear here.)

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I enjoyed this book – both for what I learnt about NZ and the take of his mother and father’s dislocation from other family members. Quite heart-wrenching!

I really liked Jones’ style, though the narrative structure is a bit disjointed (reflecting the way memories work). Can I share some bits that resonated with me?

…a dash of stoicism that began with a line of sea mariners and farm labourers arriving on the far side of the world to emerge in the from of my father. The stoicism seems to have stopped with him. It wasn’t passed on to his children, and in any case we would have shrugged it off like some foul and soiled garment. No, we don’t waste a moment if we feel our own situation can be made better by screaming and shouting about it.

Yep, that’s me. Pain and suffering is all the better if I can whinge!

Jones’ imagery is original and beautiful. When he visits his father’s home in Wales solitary houses appear “like breakaway republics”. He accurately captures how we see the world at different stages of our life. He describes himself as a pre-schooler whose boundaries were limited by the rubbish bins at the end of the drive when another pre-school aged neighbour broke out of his house across the road. A huge woman appears at the end of his drive. An enormous woman, hair on fire, eyes big and wide. As soon as she shouts the kid starts running on his short chubby legs. I love the ending to this escape: “It’ll be another year before he shows his face again.”

This month I did manage to read several from my list.

Maggie Joel’s The Second-last Woman in England is the tale of a woman hanged for the murder of her husband on the day of Elizabeth II’s coronation. I thought it was based on a true story, but it was entirely fictional. Don’t know why I found that disappointing? What is it about true stories that resonate with us? Even though we know that there are many sides to a story, and novels based on fact can be more fiction that fact, it still has that pull.

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Anyway, despite that, this was a brilliant read. Let me start by saying that except for Agatha Christie, I hate suspense. It is an artificial construct that stops me enjoying the tale, the character development, the language. Just wanting to know what happens in the end makes you read faster and miss so much. This novel solves all of that by telling you the central character is hanged for the murder of her husband. Then retraces why. What had happened to the nanny, the husband, the wife, the wife’s brother, the husband’s sister… Why did the murder happen? And why on the day of the coronation? Great tale! Barrels along at a cracking pace. Don’t be a bore, fetch me another glass of champers. Can’t abide this ghastly sherry.

Opps! Sorry. Stuck in the language of the novel.

Also read Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen, second in the Sword of Honour trilogy.

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I read the first one here. Paradoxically, I found Book 2 less bleak but also without the humour of Book 1. It still points out the futility of war and the machinations of military life and the hierarchy of English society. Reading this it is easy to see Waugh’s brilliance. (Reading Waugh always reminds me of Clive James’ first book of memoirs when as a first year at uni he kept thinking, “What is this War that they keep talking about?” And if you haven’t read Unreliable Memoirs do so now!) Although I read this before, it was definitely worth revisiting (but will still be leaving my shelf as I declutter old paperbacks). Serendipitously, Waugh makes mention of the New Zealanders in Crete which prompted me to google their input – serendipitous because of my recent visit and new affection for all things Kiwi (except the accent – sorry and opps, no real place for this in a book review.) .

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a suspenseful thriller. An original story and a thrilling tale except I don’t do suspense. No, really, I can’t stand the point of a novel being to work out what happens. I want to enjoy why it happens, the language and style of writing, the character development. But if we are reading for what happens, all this is missed. I made it ’til page 75 before I looked on the Internet to what happened to the girl who had gone, Amy, the wife. Then I became frustrated waiting until they arrested the husband. You know, it is always the husband, don’t you? I can see why this has been a best seller and is being made into a movie, but it is just too Hollywood-movie-unbelievable plot line for me. I can see why most people will, and do, love it. It is a riveting read. If you like suspense. And unbelievable twists. And unbelievably clever but evil and revengeful characters.

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12 thoughts on “Reading Down the House – January

  1. Thanks for the link, L! I will read the occasional mystery book that is character-based like Kinsey Millhone or Precious Ramotswe, but I don’t care for the suspense genre – like you, I appreciate character and language rather than plot twists and turns. I have a whopping list of books to read, so I won’t get to him any time soon, but I will be adding Evelyn Waugh to my reading “life list.”

    • Waugh can wait. But anyone with a love of English, and who is in the Empire and shares a Queen and history, should read him. His style is original and his themes endure and are universal.

      • That is a great recommendation. I have never heard anyone refer to themselves as still being in the empire, though, LOL! I do think that Australia and Canada have uncanny similarities, both from our colonial history and from our vast underpopulated geographies.

  2. I was also annoyed by the characters and plot twists in Gone Girl. And the ending? I ranted about that for days (to my poor husband who hadn’t even the thing).

    The Second-Last Woman sounds good! I added it to my to-read list. 🙂

    • Oh, Amanda, I was the same. I became more annoyed afterwards! It could/should have had a better ending. And I don’t mean all poetic justice and loose ends tied ending. There were so many loop holes. The guy they lumbered with the crime, didn’t he have an alibi? Don’t they have speed cameras and the like to trace cars? And mobile phone records to show who was where? And even the changed mobile number with the de unity firm! I harangued my poor husband who also didn’t read the book. Definitely won’t be seeing the movie. Even if it is on free to air TV.

  3. I also prefer character and language not so much the plot twists and turns. That said, the Maggie Joel sounds like something that would be great as a page-turner and a good read! I love Evelyn Waugh. Had a giggle at Unreliable Memoirs: that was one of our English texts in Year 11 and it caused a stir at the time about ‘inappropriate content.’ I’d have to re-read it because I can’t remember what the fuss was! Hope you are settling back in to regular life after the holiday. I will keep daydreaming about visiting New Zealand…I think it will be on the list in the not-so-distant future!

    • It is funny the “inappropriate” bits we find as young people, we often don’t see as older people. If you read the essays of a Yr11 class I taught one year, I would have sworn we watched a totally different film. Clove James said he revisited the hill he wrote about in Unreliable with the billy-cart train that destroyed a neighbour’s flowers. As an adult it looked like a slight and short slope. He remembered a mountain!

  4. Howards End is on the Landing is an excellent book by Susan Hill, which I am sure you would enjoy. She decided to do exactly what you are doing, read the books she already had on her many many bookshelves. A fascinating read, especially as Susan Hill is an accomplished author and has a fabulous literary knowledge. Happy reading!

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