Books Read in 2021 – 4. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Genre: African-American, Masculinity, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person Omniscient Narrator. Moves between 1960s and 2010s.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2019

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Archeologists find a secret graveyard behind an old reform school. They soon realise that they have the bones of many boys. The story then moves to tell the story of Elwood Curtis, a boy who is sent to the Nickel School for Boys for the sheer bad luck of hitchhiking and being picked up by a black man in a stolen pick up. Life for all boys at Nickel is hard but it is considerably worse for the black boys as Elwood is soon to discover.

Time on shelf: Another fairly recent purchase. As lockdown has seen me unable to potter around second hand book shops like I would normally do, I’ve been getting my book buying kicks from Amazon for my kindle. This has seen me buy a lot more recent novels than I would normally.

This is a raw angry book that never lets up. The prose is pared down and details are given in an almost factual manner. It is a tragic story but also one of hope as we are given some post-Nickel story for one of the boys. It isn’t merely an account of the abuses that Elwood and the boys face at Nickel but is also about why it seems that for all the progress made, we are still seeing horrific racist abuses on the news today.

The novel begins with the modern day archeologists finding the secret graveyard at the back of Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida. This is based on the finds at the Dozier School for Boys n 2014, also in Florida. The fatality count from the digs at Dozier has reached eighty but could easily be much much higher. While this is clearly horrific, Whitehead gives the tragedy a very human face.

The action then moves to the life of Elwood Curtis, in Jim Crow era Florida. Elwood is a serious, sensible boy who listens to Martin Luther King’s speeches and works in the kitchen at the same hotel as his grandmother. There seems to be a gap between what King says in his speeches and what Elwood feels in his life. His parents left him with her when he was six. It is the small details of Elwood’s history that are particularly painful. One of his grandfathers died in jail after a white women accused him of not getting out of the way on the street, the other was killed in a bar brawl with some white men over who was next on the pool table. His father had been in the army but when he came home, he found white men lynching black men in uniform so he and Elwood’s mother runaway, leaving Elwood without a word. Because these details are passed on in such a matter of fact way, you know that these are not facts that are unique to Elwood’s life but common to many.

Elwood is aiming high. He starts to go to protests, inspired by a new teacher at his high school. He works in a neighbourhood shop but refuses to let other boys shoplift. (This earns him a beating.) On the morning he is arrested, he is trying to make his way to college where it has been arranged that he will take some classes. He waits for a black driver and is sat in the passenger seat when the police stop them for being in a stolen car.

The rest of the novel deals with the brutality of Nickel. The school is terrible to all the boys but the black boys fair worse than the white. So many of them, like Elwood, have no parents, there is no one to care should they disappear. Elwood learns early on the horrors of perceived disobedience when he is taken to the Ice Cream Factory and beaten brutally. This is what keeps the boys in line – the threat of violence. There is also sexual abuse. Whitehead doesn’t go into details. He doesn’t need to. The mention of Lover’s Lane is horror enough.

And there are deaths and disappearances, for example when one of the boys, Griff,, the champion of the black dorms, put up to fight against the best white boy. He is asked to take a fall in the third by the supervisor who has bet on the match. When he doesn’t – he claimed to have muddled what round it was – he quickly disappeared. Supposedly he has run away but, of course, we know this is not the turth. Griff has been a bully, an unpleasant character but no one deserves his fate.

One of the things that Whitehead portrays very well is the friendships that develop between some of the boys – particularly between Elwood and Turner who get to do some work off the grounds – usually labouring in various ways for important white people, presumably to keep them on side so they don’t investigate Nickel too closely. The friendship with Turner is the one positive thing to come out of Nickel.

We are also given Elwood’s life in the future. He has managed to set up his own business. He is doing well – within a certain definition of doing well. But he can’t quite move beyond Nickel in his mind. And having your own removal company comes nowhere near the future that Elwood should have had. Through this, Whitehead shows us the continuing effect of trauma and the way it stops lives in their tracks.

At the end of the novel, Elwood finally agrees to meet with other Nickel boys, something he has always refused to do. He has things he needs to tell, and there are some twists which I don’t want to reveal but which I would never have seen coming. Like the bodies being removed from the ground, Elwood needs to bring some things out into the open from the deeper reaches of his mind. Similarly, Whitehead suggests, we as a society need to look at these traumatic events head on and deal with them. Maybe then we can stop repeated these terrible, traumatic patterns.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books written before I was born

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week’s Top Ten is 10 books written before I was born – either that you have read or on your TBR. I have decided to list 10 books that I have read. I was born in 1972 so I started with the sixties and worked backwards. I tried to make it a varied list – both in time and in genre. I could easily have picked 10 science fiction books. Writing this list has made me want to read some of these again.

  1. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (1868) I first read this when I was about twelve. My mam gave me her copy from when she was a child and it always felt a bit special to be reading it. Jo is still one of my favourite literary characters and was a huge influence on me as a young tomboy.
  2. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov. (1967) I first read this in the early nineties. It was one of the first books I read at university. Bulgakov rewrites Faust and the story of Judas as well as accurately depicting Russian life in the 1930s. This is my favourite novel which surprises me every time I reread it.
  3. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) I read this at university as well. It’s a disturbing tale which describes the mental breakdown of the narrator when she is forced to rest and not allowed to write or work. Her mental state deteriorates and she becomes obsessed with the wallpaper in the room where is staying. One of the first feminist classics I read.
  4. Diary of a Madman and other stories – Nikolai Gogol (1835) The best stories in this collection are probably the title story which highlights the mental disintegration of a petty official who is struggling for the attention of the woman he loves and The Nose where a colonel wakes one morning without his nose. Later, he finds that his nose has achieved higher rank than him. Excellent satire.
  5. The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith (1955) This was quite a recent read – it had been on my TBR list for quite a long time. A very enjoyable thriller although it was impossible not to imagine Jude Law and Matt Damon as the two leads.
  6. A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood (1964) This is my favourite Isherwood novel. A very moving story about a gay man, George, trying to come to terms with the death of his partner. The action takes place over the course of a single day and we get to see George’s emotional struggles.
  7. Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes (1959) This is a surprisingly emotional read considering it is essentially science fiction. Charlie, a mentally disabled young man, and Algernon, a mouse are given a operation that allows them to become extremely intelligent. This allows Charlie to see exactly how badly people treated him before. Then Algernon’s intelligence starts to deteriorate and we see the tragedy of Charlie doing the same.
  8. The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger (1951) This is another of my favourite books. I’ve read it a couple of times and I’ve taught it as a GCSE text to very nonplussed teenagers. I could reread this book over and over and not get bored.
  9. Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut (1969) Another science fiction classic here. Also quite an emotional read. Vonnegut takes us from the bombing of Dresden to the story of Billy Pilgrim who has come unstuck in time. Funny, satirical and anti-war, this is an excellent read.
  10. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (1890) One of the best of the gothic novels that I’ve read. Another rewriting of the Faust legend, Dorian wishes for eternal youth, while his portrait grows old and ugly. A beautifully written moral tale.

Books Read in 2021 3. Autumn – Ali Smith

Genre: Literary fiction.

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of points of view. Non linear.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2016

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: It’s 2016. The UK has just voted to leave the EU. Daniel is 101 years old and lying asleep in a care home bed. Elisabeth, who was his next door neighbour when she was a teenager, visits him. The novels shows Daniel’s past and Elizabeth’s present.

Time on shelf: About a year. I bought it because I was curious to read a novel that was such a quick response to Brexit.

I’m genuinely not sure what to make of this novel. On the one hand, it is a realistic rendering of Elisabeth’s life after Brexit. It also gives some details of Elisabeth’s and Daniel’s conversations. On the other, it is an account of Daniel’s memories and dreams that are often absurd and non linear. I found it hard to pull these two very different styles together.

The novel begins with a dream like chapter where Daniel believes that he has died. He is naked and his body returns to its younger state and he seems to be in some sort of woodland with some other naked people. It isn’t made clear what is happening. The action then switches to Elisabeth who is trying to renew her passport and has opted to have the post office check it before she sends it off. This leads to a frustrating and very funny episode where Elisabeth’s photos, and consequently her whole head, are deemed wrong.

The whole novel shifts around like this and there are also chapters dealing with Christine Keeler and the artist Pauline Boty who Elisabeth writes about for her dissertation. It is a bit disorientating and pretty far from a traditional narrative. Not that this is a problem necessarily but it didn’t seem to add up to much.

I’m guessing it’s about time and the different ways we experience it. Daniel’s dreams are as real as any of Elisabeth’s experiences. He sleeps – the care home assistants say that he is near to death – and who can say that his sense of time is less accurate that Elisabeth’s as she sits reading to him. But again, I found it hard to see the overall point that Smith was trying to make or what pulled the whole thing together.

Maybe you need to read the whole series for it to completely make sense but after being so nonplussed with this one, I can’t imagine I will bother.

Top Ten Tuesday – New to me authors I read in 2020.

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This weeks topic was New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2020, I wasn’t sure whether I’d read 10 new authors last year but when I looked on Goodreads, I realised that I had actually read 18 new authors. Here are ten of them.

  1. The Book of Evidence – John Banville – This has been on my long list of things I’d like to read for a long time. it sounded exactly like the sort of thing I like to read. Criminal, not particularly likeable narrator, murder of a completely innocent person – it sounded ideal. However, this did not live up to my expectations or all the praise heaped on it. Disappointing.
  2. Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams – I saw this on a BBC programme The Novels that Shaped Our World and it sounded interesting. And it was, in terms of race and how black women are treated, but I did find the narrator’s voice a little irritating. I’m too old now to be able to relate to the issues facing twenty somethings.
  3. Faggots – Larry Kramer – This has been on the TBR for a long time. It describes the lives of gay men in the seventies before the AIDS crisis. Although the novel is about the search for love, there is definitely a lot of sex and bondage. Definitely not for the faint hearted.
  4. A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin is another author I’ve been meaning to read for a while but on the basis of this I’m not sure I’ll read any others. This was well written but I didn’t really take to the main character or his quest. Not enough tension for me.
  5. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov – This was a strange read. Humbert was a unpleasant and irritating narrator always justifying his heinous behaviour. It was interesting and clever rather than enjoyable.
  6. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah – This was an excellent read about Noah growing up in South Africa where his birth is considered a crime as the relationship between his white, Swiss father and his black mother is punishable by five years in jail.
  7. The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell – O’Farrell creates two very different timelines in this novel and at first they seem to have very little in common. There is Lexi, living in post-war Soho, having left the suffocating morality of her parents house and Elina, and her husband, Ted live in present day London with their new child. As the novel progresses, Ted starts to remember long forgotten events and it becomes clear that there are more links between him and Lexie than were first apparent.
  8. Normal People – Sally Rooney – I decided to read this before the TV programme last year and I can’t say I understand why it has been quite so popular. It’s not badly written but it left me a bit cold.
  9. Contact – Carl Sagan – This was an interesting read because it was such an unusual angle on the subject. As this was written by a scientist, it was a very calm, sensible read with much close detail. A little lacking in emotion maybe but generally enjoyable.
  10. Miss Chopstick – Xinran – I needed to read a author starting with X for last year’s reading challenge. This detailed the lives of three sisters who move to Nanjing at the turn of the 21st century. An interesting look at recent history.

Top Ten Tuesday -Books I Meant to Read In 2020 but Didn’t Get To

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week’s topic is ‘books I meant to read in 2020 but didn’t get to’. Having had a look back through my blogs, I only posted one Top Ten Tuesday seasonal TBR list which was in the autumn. I decided not to do it much last year because I never keep to them so they become slightly pointless. As proved by the fact that I only read four books from the autumn one. I’m easily distracted – particularly by books on deal for my kindle and also, I received a lot of book tokens for my birthday, which is in November so again, new books distracted me.

Here is what is left of the Autumn TBR list:

  1. Five Quarters of the Orange – Joanne Harris – Not sure why I didn’t read this one. I have intentions of reading more Harris. A couple of years ago I read Different Class which was excellent and I vowed I would read more so I bought three titles for my kindle. However, as I didn’t read them straight away, they will probably sit on the kindle for ages.
  2. Live by Night – Dennis Lehane – I really meant to read this. I allowed myself to be distracted by The Book of Evidence by John Banville (and that wasn’t as good as I’d expected.) Definitely high up the list for the near future.
  3. The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing – I added this to the list in the hope that it would make me read it. I really feel I should read some Lessing but I didn’t really enjoy the one book I have read by her (The Third Child) so who knows if it will ever happen.
  4. Shakey – Jimmy McDonough – I mistakenly thought this was an autobiography by Neil Young (rather than the biography that it is) and added it for Y for last year’s alphabet challenge. When it turned out not to fit I still made an attempt to read it. The style irritated me, however, so I put it back on the shelf.
  5. The Notebook – Nicholas Sparks – I’m curious to know what all the fuss is about but part of me knows I’m not going to love this so I keep bypassing it.
  6. Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee – Meera Syal – I’d like to keep this fairly near the top of things to read. It promises to be funny and I’m sorry I haven’t got to it yet.

Books Read in 2021 – 2. The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

Genre: Alternate History

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2005

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In Roth’s alternative America, Roosevelt doesn’t win his unprecedented third term in 1940, instead heroic aviator and rampant isolationist Charles Lindbergh wins and immediately signs an understanding with Adolf Hitler and refuses to get involved with the war in Europe. He then embarks on a program of policies which will change the future for America’s Jews. The Roth family live in New Jersey in a Jewish neighbourhood and they immediately find themselves on the sharp end of a new wave of anti-Semitic persecution.

Time on Shelf: I’ve been meaning to read some Roth for a while. He has been on the long list of greats that I need to read for a long time. I watched the mini-series of The Plot Against America last year and really enjoyed it so when it came up on my kindle deals email I jumped at the chance to read it.

This is the fourth alternate history book based on the second world war in some way that I’ve read and it is easily the best, probably because it was the most believable. Unlike the others, this isn’t a story of spies or policemen (like Fatherland by Robert Harris or Dominion by C. J. Sansom) but the story of an ordinary family trying to cope with the changes to their world. You could say The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick is about ordinary people but it is too strange to be a realistic read. It also helped me to understand why this is a topic that novelists – and readers – seem drawn to. The ultimate in what if questions, it helps us to understand what might have happened in order to ensure that we never let it happen again.

The novel starts slowly. We get to know the Roths and their life. They are expectant of a Roosevelt win. Their elder son is a keen artist and has many drawings of Lindbergh of whom he is a great admirer. Philip, the younger son, is a keen collector of stamps. They are living a fairly ordinary life. They are not rich, they work hard but they have a small amount of happiness. The way this changes is slow and sometime subtle but no less sinister for that. In fact, it allows Lindbergh’s supporters to ignore the complaints and continue in their support of the president.

The master class policy in this case is the setting up of the “Just Folks” scheme, a part of the Office of American Absorption which sees Jewish children sent away to stay with Christian families for “Apprenticeships”. The Roth family view this as a sinister attempt by the government to drive Jewish families apart but some view it – including the powerful Rabbi, Bengelsdorf – as a positive way for middle America to learn that Jewish people are just like them. It is this duality that I found particularly disturbing – that the clear discrimination of the Jewish people was turned around by the government and its supporters as nothing of the sort. It was like two roads which had been running next to each other and which start to move further and further away from each other until the two viewpoints are poles apart and completely irreconcilable. And it works. When Sandy is sent away for the summer to work on a tobacco farm, he returns having absorbed the Christian values of the family he was sent to and is quickly in conflict with the rest of his family.

The novel is written from the point of view of “Philip Roth” a Jewish boy growing up in New Jersey, no doubt with some of Roth’s actual childhood memories (when he and a friend follow Christians home on the bus for example). This gives it a sense of realism that it may not have had was it was narrated through an adult’s eyes. Philip watches these events but he does not always understand them, a feeling that is somewhat shared by the reader. Finally, that Philip is narrating these events from some point in the future gives hope that this will not be forever.

At the novels end, the Roths are in pieces, all still alive but much damaged by events. There has been rioting, violence and they have lived in fear of their lives. Lindbergh has disappeared and the country is in a state of martial law. Although things look grim for them, we know from the news story style of the previous chapter that their ordeal will soon start to be over. Although, as has been seen in current America, things do not immediately change just because a new person has been elected into the White House.

Finally, reading this book at this point in time made it very easy to imagine this happening. It didn’t seem impossible that it might happen in the US because it was happening in the US. A reality star who was popular for all the wrong reasons, who constantly shouted about fake news, who had a very clear list of whom he viewed as Un-American; the parallels couldn’t be clearer. And while the US now has hope for the future, in the shape of Joe Biden, the story is far from over. We just have to hope that it will start to get better when he is inaugurated, in a few days time.

Books Read in 2021 – 1 The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. (Contains spoilers.)

Genre: Dystopia, Feminist.

Narrative Structure: First person from three separate points of view

Published: 2019

Ratings: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: More than fifteen years after then end of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood takes up the story of Gilead once more. Three narrative voices move the story forward – Aunt Lydia, secretly writing an explosive narrative that will help bring Gilead down, Daisy, a teenager living in Canada with her adoptive parents and Agnes, a child living within Gilead and brought up to never question its truths. This novel answers the questions left open at the end of the Handmaid’s Tale.

Time on Shelf: I bought this with an Amazon voucher I got got my birthday this year in November so not very long. I was keen to read it as the Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favourite books and Atwood is one of my favourite authors .

I did enjoy this book. Let’s start by saying that. Atwood is a masterful storyteller and the three narratives hang together nicely. It was interesting to see Gilead from the inside – Agnes’ narrative showing what it was like to be brought up within Gilead’s value system added interesting detail to Offred’s earlier narrative. Aunt Lydia’s narrative – the most interesting and convincing of the three – gave an alternative origin story for the start of Gilead and how she came to be in such a position of power. After she is brutalised into confirming Gilead’s regime, she vows to herself that she will revenge this treatment, no matter how long it takes and no matter what she has to do. In the end, she has to become a monster and wait a long time for this to happen. I’m not sure whether I liked that she becomes more ambiguous – does it justify what she did? True, it makes you think about the nature of power and what you might do yourself in such a situation. Would you choose death over having to be a part of the regime like Lydia’s friend, Anita or would you take a role? Important questions, of course, but I think I preferred it when she was an out and out foe.

I found Daisy’s narrative less convincing. As with the recent TV series, being able to see Gilead from the outside, knowing that the outside world existed, somehow made it less believable for me. I’m not sure why. All the way through, this narrative seemed contrived – from the death of her adoptive parents, to her being picked up by Gilead’s Pearl Girls., to her (possibly hallucinated) vision of her mother at the end. And at the end of the day, she didn’t need to be the real baby Nicole. They could have tattooed anyone and sent them in.

It was a nice touch to have both Agnes and Daisy be the daughters of June / Offred but if this was meant to be a big twist, it certainly wasn’t. It was apparent who the girls were right from the start. Maybe that was intentional. It was a very effective way of answering the questions about what happened next. Offred is like a shadow throughout. Her survival is implied by the fact that Daisy was brought up outside of Gilead.

Atwood has said that this book was meant to answer all of the questions that readers have asked her over the years. The Handmaid’s Tale ends ambiguously and I can understand that people want some sort of closure over that. However, one of the main things that I like that about Atwood is the open ended nature of her endings. Of course, you have questions but the reader is free to answer them however they feel. So the ending can be hopeful or otherwise. It leaves the options open. And I like that because it encompasses both – the reader can hope for the best even while they know it may not be. Once it is laid down a certain way, all ambiguity disappears.

Finally, it all just seems a little easy. It comes together seamlessly. Agnes (now Aunt Victoria) and Daisy (now Nicole) make it into Canada with very little trouble. Gilead starts to fall in a less than convincing way. (Really was that all it took?) But maybe Atwood wants an end to it. I’m honestly not sure I would read on if there were any more.

2021 Reading List

As mentioned in my last blog, I am not doing an online reading challenge this year. The main reason is I really want to clear my TBR pile and most challenges seem to require me to buy at least one or two new books. I usually buy any such books on my Kindle because at least they don’t take up physical space but I have a ridiculous amount of unread books on there now so I really need to reign it in a bit.

Last year, I attempted an alphabetical challenge and while I didn’t quite manage it (I missed Y) I did enjoy it and was tempted to do it again. However, that would require me buying a book for Q, X and Y and I don’t want to have to do that. While I was bemoaning the fact that I like to have a list of what I will read for the year but I couldn’t find challenge I wanted to do – and probably to shut me up – my husband suggested that I let him choose a list of possible books to read this year – from our shelves and my kindle. I agreed. Possibly foolishly as he seemed to get a lot of glee out of putting things on the list that he knows I’ve been avoiding.

Anyway, here is my list. Although there are no requirements, I’m going to try to write a review for each one. I want to blog more this year anyway so it will help with that as well. There are a lot more classics here then I would normally read so we’ll have to see how it goes. As I don’t usually make a list of all the books I will read and as I am terribly bad at sticking to a list, there may be additions over the year.

  1. The Girl in a Swing – Richard Adams
  2. The Testaments – Margaret Atwood Finished 8/1/21
  3. Emma – Jane Austen
  4. The Coral Island – R. M. Ballantyne
  5. Peter Pan – J. M. Barrie
  6. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernières
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  8. Kindred – Octavia E. Butler
  9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John le Carre Finished 2/4/21
  10. My Antonia – Willa Cather
  11. The Long Call – Anne Cleeves
  12. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  13. The Burning Page – Genevieve Cogman – Currently reading
  14. Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe
  15. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  16. Lake of Dreams – Kim Edwards
  17. Middlemarch – George Eliot Finished 9/3/21
  18. Charlotte Gray – Sebastian Faulks
  19. A Passage to India – E. M. Forster
  20. The Collector – John Fowles
  21. Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale – Finished 11/2/21
  22. Pincher Martin – William Golding
  23. England Made Me – Graham Greene
  24. Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  25. Mysterious Skin – Scott Heim
  26. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway Finished 19/2/21
  27. The Problem with Men – Richard Herring – Finished 7/4/21
  28. The Aspern Papers / Turn of the Screw – Henry James
  29. The Institute – Stephen King
  30. The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi Finished 22/3/21
  31. Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence
  32. Tishomingo Blues – Elmore Leonard
  33. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
  34. No one Writes to the Colonel – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  35. Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan – Finished 19/4/21
  36. Moby Dick – Herman Melville – Currently reading
  37. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell -finished 3/3/21
  38. Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng – finished 9/5/21
  39. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens Finished 13/3/21
  40. Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
  41. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin
  42. All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque Finished 28/4/21
  43. The Plot Against America – Philip Roth Finished 17/1/21
  44. Austerlitz – W. G. Sebald
  45. Autumn – Ali Smith Finished 25/1/21
  46. On Beauty – Zadie Smith
  47. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
  48. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
  49. Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
  50. Bech at Bay – John Updike
  51. Candide – Voltaire
  52. The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead Finished 4/2/21
  53. A Streetcar named Desire – Tennessee Williams
  54. Green River Rising – Tim Willocks
  55. The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham

2020 Reading Catch Up 2021 Reading Plans

One of the good things that 2020 has been is a good reading year for me. I met my target of reading 40 books on Goodreads. While this might sound like very many, some of them were quite difficult – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, for example or John Updike’s Rabbit Run. However, I didn’t quite manage to read an author for every letter of the alphabet for my reading challenge, having mistaken Shakey as a Neil Young autobiography rather than a biography. Having no unread Y authors in the house and this being mid december, I decided that I didn’t have time to try and procure another Y and read The Book of Evidence by John Banville as my last book of 2020 instead.

Top Five Reads of 2020

  1. Bridge of Clay – Markus Zusak – This was one of the first books I read last year and I could not put it down. I was worried it might not live up to The Book Thief but, in fact, I enjoyed it more. It was the story of Clay and his brothers, their relationship with each other and with their father. It was emotional without being sentimental. The storyline was non-chronological and needed some unpicking but I like to have to work a bit and not have the answers handed to me on a plate. Definitely recommended.
  2. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah – I’ve always admired Noah. He has a reasonable and sensible view on things that always just seems to cut through the bullshit. This memoir about his South African childhood is both tragic and comic and never less than enthralling. Noah was a naughty child and he starts by telling about his mother chasing him and how he learned to run so fast. Pretty quickly we are into more serious territory, given that Noah’s very existence was considered a crime. Noah’s mother came across as a fantastically strong woman who has clearly been a huge influence on him and seems to be responsible for his attitude to life.
  3. The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell – There are two main storylines in this novel – Ted and his wife, Elina, in the present day, and the story of Lexi Sinclair set some time in the past. I admit I did manage to work out some of the twists to this one but it was beautifully written and I still felt compelled to read on.
  4. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro – I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this or not. I’d read Ishiguro before and I hadn’t been massively impressed but this was so different to the other two, I was quickly taken with it. The story of Stephens, the butler at Darlington Hall and his unrealised love for Miss Kenton, the housekeeper is a subtle and clever joy from start to finish.
  5. No is not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need – Naomi Klein – This is a call to arms. Klein’s political observations were on the money as were her solutions to the current political situation in the US. Klein argues that Trump is not an aberration but the logical conclusion of recent policies on both the left and the right. She then suggests ways of working together in order to make sure it never happens again. Even with Biden now about to take over the white house, we shouldn’t be complacent and allow the same issues that caused it to happen before to resurface so it happens again.

Of course, there were also less good reads although none warranted a one star on Goodreads. The three I liked the least, I expected to like better – No Surrender by Constance Maud was recommended by a BBC program on women’s fiction and I thought it sounded interesting, being about the fight for suffrage but it was tediously dogmatic. P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley was also tedious. James never managed to quite pull off her imitation of Austen and the style spoiled the story for me. Finally, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain was not the first world war memoir I was expecting and I felt that it talked too much of things outside of her nursing career and I did not find that particularly interesting. (I just realised that all of these were by women. I’m not sure whether that is important but I do often find it hard to bond with female authors.)

And for next year, well, I’m not yet sure what my reading list will look like. I’m not following a online challenge because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. My husband has volunteered to give me a list of books and I have agreed to this although I admit that I’m feeling a little worried. There are certain books on our shelves that he feels I should have read and I think there is a good reason why I haven’t. The Lord of the Rings is one, anything by Hemingway is another. So we shall see. I’ve started reading The Testaments by Margaret Atwood just to ensure that I’ve at least one good read over the next twelve months.

Alphabet Soup – Author Edition – Miss Chopsticks by Xinran

Genre: Historical Fiction, Bildungsroman

Narrative Style: Third person from three different points of views.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2007

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Three, Five and Six are country girls who move to Nanjing to try and get jobs in order to help their family and to prove that girls can be more than mere chopsticks. The novel details their difficulties in coming to terms with the different ways of the city and the various jobs they end up doing.

Reading Challenges: Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

The Li Sisters are from a poor rural area of China where girls are not valued. They are considered chopsticks – abundant and not that strong or important – compared to boys who are room beams – able to hold up the world. As such, they do not even have proper names, being called Three, Five and Six. Their father is a failure as he has only daughters. Apart from six, they do not have much education as the family could not afford it. They go to Nanjing to try and get jobs, to help their families and prove that girls can be important.

This novel was set in the early 2000s and based on interviews that Xinran conducted with various country girls working in Nanjing. I kept having to remind myself that it was so recent. It seems hard to credit that China was so cut off from the rest of the world and only just seeming to be coming to terms with technology and capitalism. The difference between the cities and the country is enormous. Probably the last time there was such a big difference in the UK was before the industrial revolution.

The three girls all end up with jobs that seem to represent the possibilities of the new China – one working in a restaurant which is aiming to take on the the American giants Kentucky Fried Chicken, one in a bookstore serving tea to intellectuals and foreigners and one in a Chinese water therapy centre. The girls are astonishingly naïve which is to be expected, given that they have never been further than their village but again gave the novel a much older feel.

Xinran tells their story simply and without melodrama. The girls are charming and their experiences are interesting. They learn to deal with the city, with the ways that Chinese society is changing and their story seems emblematic of the new society. It seems a largely hopeful picture.

The story ends with the girls triumphant return to their village, full of the knowledge that they have made friends and made a life for themselves. Their uncle was picked up by the police for sleeping in a doorway when he came to find them to take them home and all the new friends and associates the girls have made pull together to try and get him out. Although, in the end, it is sheer luck that he is released rather than anything that they do.

In her afterword, Xinran explains the inspiration for the stories and what happened when she tried to trace the three girls that the story is based on. It seems that the future wasn’t quite so rosy. For example, the bookshop that Six worked in had been closed down for selling banned books and it was unknown whether her dreams of education came to fruition. China’s progress towards freedom of thought and action has clearly not been straightforward and while I knew that already, I found that I had been caught up in the gentle optimism of the three girls and their successes.