Books Read in 2021 6. Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

Genre: Music, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of points of view.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2020

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Utopia Avenue are a band put together by Levon Frankland. They are an unlikely bunch, mixing folk, psychedelic, rock and jazz influences. The novel follows their rise to fame and how they deal with their personal issues.

Time on shelf: Not very long. I’ve read four Mitchell novels before so I was excited to read this one.

Well, this was a disappointment. From very early on, it was clear that this was not going to be the usual Mitchell tour de force that I normally enjoy so much. The first character we are introduced to is Dean Moss, a gullible, uneducated bass player whose life is falling apart. Cue entrance of Levon Frankland who is putting a band together. They then proceed to pull together the other members of the band, all of whom are at crisis points in their musical careers. So far so predictable. The band suffer the usual setbacks in the start of their career – bad gigs, sinking singles and so on. Until, of course, things start to go well.

There isn’t much in the way of overarching story here. There is the story of the band and each of the members have a personal crisis. Dean had a troubled childhood with an abusive father, Elf Holloway thinks she may be gay but is unable to accept it (at least at first) and Jasper de Zoet has mental health issues. However, none of these things really have any momentum. There is no pace. In one chapter (the only one he gets) drummer, Griff is in a car crash which kills his brother. He doesn’t want to stay in the band. And then suddenly he is back in the band again. Because he gets no other chapters, we do not know his motivation. (Incidentally, Griff was a badly drawn stereotype of a Yorkshireman whose one trait was to say fook all the time. It made me question whether Mitchell had ever met someone from the North.)

The most interesting – and the most Mitchell like – of these storylines is Jasper’s. He has an interloper in his head who wants control of his body and briefly gains it. This is more like the Mitchell we all know and love and is the sole reason this didn’t get one star. Jasper is cured by horology, one of Mitchell’s trademark ideas. This is the only part of the story that isn’t straightforwardly realistic. I could have stood a bit more of it.

It isn’t only the plot that is problematic, however. It is the constant cameos of dead pop stars. Okay, so a band in London in the 1960s would meet some other pop stars, of course but these appearances are so frequent and are so blandly written that they quickly become tedious. Mitchell seems to think that the insertion of the name is enough and so does little to flesh out Brian Jones, Keith Moon or David Bowie (to name but three). They get there full name every time they are mentioned as if the reader is going to be as tickled by their appearance as Mitchell clearly is. I was familiar with some of these people but not all of them. A little more work at characterisation might have been helpful.

The one time Mitchell does expand his powers of description, it is quite successful. In a chapter set in the Chelsea Hotel, Elf fails to recognise Leonard Cohen so Mitchell has to describe him properly so the reader can work it out. Leonard comes across as wittily flirtatious, urbane and charming. Much as you might imagine really. By comparison, the other cameos felt lazy and self-indulgent. In fact, the one chapter from Levon’s point of view seems to have been included solely so that Mitchell could include an extended (and completely cringey) cameo from Francis Bacon which made me question which came first, the story or the star turns.

So overall, a disappointing read which saw me begin to anticipate the cameos rather than what might happen in the plot. A chapter in the Chelsea Hotel, I guess we’ll be meeting Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin then. It was tedious and didn’t feel like it had been written by a writer as good as Mitchell. What a shame.

Books Read in 2021 6. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway.

Genre: Classics, Masculinity, Adventure

Narrative Style: Third person, Chronological

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1952

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of Santiago, an aged fisherman who is having the worst run of luck of his life. It is eighty four days since he has caught a fish. On the eighty fifth day, he catches a huge marlin which pulls him out to sea.

Time on shelf: A long time. I’m not sure where this one came from. I think it may have been my husband’s and so it arrived when we moved in together some 20+ years ago. I have made one attempt to read this – in about 2005 – as it was one the GCSE syllabus – but I failed to finish it. As it is not a long book, this should give you some indication of how much I was enjoying it.

This was one of the first books my husband mentioned when he suggested that he would come up with a reading list for me. He has read it and he really enjoyed it. He wasn’t impressed that I didn’t finish it last time I decided to read it early in the year so that it was out of the way.

So what to say about this book. My main problem is that I wasn’t interested in the story. Partly, I suppose, because the plot of the novel is so well known there wasn’t much tension. I knew he wasn’t going to get the fish home. So there was very little tension. Not that Hemingway can be blamed for this.

I quite enjoyed Hemingway’s pared down style. There is nothing excessive about it. nothing extraneous to the plot. So I think I would like to read another Hemingway novel even though this story didn’t particularly grab me. I also enjoyed the relationship between Santiago and the fish he has caught. He is fully aware of the fish’s power and beauty and as such, treats it with a level of respect you might reserve for another human.

I understand that this is an allegory. The sea represents life. The battle with the fish represents life’s ultimate futility. And so on. Very clever and all but it didn’t make it a more interesting story for me.

Books Read in 2021 5. Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (Contains Spoilers)

Genre: LGBT, Bildungsroman, romance

Narrative Style: Third Person, Moves from present day to childhood

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2018

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Fifty something Eustace is facing a number of potential changes to his life. He is beginning a new romance and has just discovered he has to have treatment for cancer. Time in hospital gives him time to think about the past and his childhood in particular.

Time on shelf: I bought this at the same time as The Testaments with birthday vouchers in November. I’ve read four other of Gale’s novels and loved them all particularly A Place Called Winter. This was never going to sit on the shelf for long.

This was an absolute joy to read. Gale’s style flows beautifully and the characters, right down to the smallest, are well rounded and convincing. The plot trots along at a nice pace and I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I could have carried on.

The novel starts with Eustace in his fifties and just beginning a new romance albeit online rather than in real life. The exchanges between Eustace and Theo, a younger man in the army are tender and sweet. Eustace is cautious having recently had been involved in a difficult relationship but he starts to let his defences down. Then he discovers that he has cancer and he has to go into hospital to be treated with a large dose of radiotherapy. In fact, he has to stay in a lead lined room while it destroys his tumour. This gives Eustace the chance to think back over his childhood and past relationships.

Eustace is a bit of an odd child who doesn’t really fit in at home – where his parents run an old people’s home – or at school where he stands apart from the noise and chaos of the other boys. As he grows, he starts to understand some of the things that make him different – his developing knowledge of his sexuality and also his love of music.

The descriptions of Eustace learning to play the cello are a particular joy. Gale clearly has a real love for music and for playing an instrument. His cello teacher, Carla Gold, is unconventional and opens Eustace’s eyes to a whole new way of living. Especially when he starts to visit her at her flat in Bristol which she shares with a gay couple. He comments that he isn’t just getting cello lessons but also lessons in being gay as well.

Carla not only changes Eustace’s life but also that of his mother. Eustace watches her come out of her shell when she starts to go out for lunch and spend more time with Carla. Eustace never really understands the exact nature of this relationship and it is never made explicit but it is clear that his mother has fallen in love with Carla.

I felt a bit sorry for Eustace’s mother. His father is old-fashioned and they are ill-matched. When Carla appears, she falls head over heels for her. However, she is not allowed any real joy as when she and Carla run away together, their car crashes and his mother ends up in a coma. When she comes round, she has had a religious experience and she slowly transforms into the villain of the piece.

All this is seen through Eustace’s eyes and as he doesn’t completely understand what has happened, the reader has to piece it together. At the same time, we also see his first experiences with other boys, something else he doesn’t always fully understand. Gale moves easily between comedy and sadness. His descriptions of Eustace’s experiences are heartfelt and authentic.

Eustace’s childhood builds to a dramatic conclusion and then we move back to the present day and his return home, ready for his new romance and the first real life meeting with Theo. I could have happily read more about this relationship but it was a good place to stop, on such a hopeful note. Any further and we’d be into the reality of whether the cancer treatment has worked and whether or not his relationship will actually work. Instead, we are left with the pair of them desperate to go to bed but unable because Eustace is still radioactive. A lovely ending to a lovely book.

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.

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.

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.

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.

2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge – Author Edition – Stoner by John Williams

Genre: Literary fiction, Classic, College

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1965

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Stoner tells the life story of William Stoner from the moment he starts agricultural college to his death some fifty years later. It covers his marriage, the birth of his first child, his affair and his sometimes painful relationships with his fellow lecturers. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

This was a reasonable read. It is certainly well-written. A lesser writer probably couldn’t have pulled off writing such an ordinary story. But for all that, I didn’t always find the life of William Stoner captivating. Like most lives, there were ups and downs, times of excitement and times of quiet, so the story wasn’t always that interesting.

Stoner wasn’t exactly captivating either. He was a hard character to love. He was reserved, finding little in the way of joy in anything other than his work as a teacher. His marriage is difficult and his wife outright unpleasant. Although he clearly loves his daughter, Grace, and spending time with her, he finds himself constantly out-maneuvered by his wife so much so that he gets to spend little quality time with Grace. He rarely fights back and I found myself wishing he would stand up for himself more.

There were a couple of moments when I found the novel more compelling. When Stoner fails a student with some physical disabilities because he has failed to do any of the work, he clashes with one of his fellow lecturers, Hollis Lomax, who also has physical disabilities. Stoner finds things he has said and done come back to bite him and make him seem like he wanted the student to fail because he was disabled when really Stoner was holding him to the same standards that he held all his students. This leads to lifelong hatred between the two professors which was never less than interesting to read about.

Also, some of the most beautiful prose comes about when Stoner has an affair with a younger teacher at the university. This feels like the one true moment of happiness for Stoner – perhaps the life he should have had if he hadn’t been so hasty in his marriage. Of course, this relationship does not last, largely due to Lomax and his need for revenge on Stoner. Even then, Stoner does not fight for the relationship but lets it slip from his grasp.

Ultimately, this is a novel about the fulfilment of work and literature. In fact, Stoner’s love of literature and of teaching would seem to be the things that lift his life beyond the ordinary. Everything else in his life ends up being a failure.

I can understand why this has had a resurgence in popularity recently. It is beautifully written and it really isn’t anything like a modern novel with its simple tale of one man’s journey through life but, in the end, it just didn’t quite thrill me enough.