The English Department, St Columba’s College, Dublin 16, Ireland
Reading Recommendations for Parents, Summer 2011
ast year we produced our first adult reading list for the summer, based on books we read during the academic year. This was well-received, both by parents in the school and by many others round the world via our blog (www.sccenglish.ie) and Twitter (@sccenglish). And so here’s Issue 2. All these books are available in paperback, and most of them have been recently published, though there is also a short section on classics. Despite the occasional ‘I’ in these paragraphs, this is a collective endeavour. This is our second book-list in 2011. Back in March, for World Book Day, we surveyed our readers via the blog and Twitter with the starter “If I had to recommend one book it would be…”. The result was 79 Great Book Recommendations: see it on the blog on March 24th 2011, or click http://bit.ly/fEsPOz. Now for last year’s disclaimer again:- we can’t guarantee that you’ll like these books, just that one or more of us did. Happy reading, and enjoy the summer. Julian Girdham, Liam Canning, Evan Jameson, Kate Smith, Ronan Swift, Tom McConville (Librarian). .
FICTION *In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (Atlantic, 2011) Shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize for fiction, this book is actually almost impossible to categorise. Three apparently autobiographical stories tell the stories of three real journeys in Africa, Europe and India made over the years by ‘Damon’, during each of which he becomes defined by his relationship with three very different characters. This is brilliant, subtle and suggestive story-telling by a fine South African writer.
Foster by Claire Keegan (Faber and Faber, 2010) This short novella compellingly tells the tale of a girl who spends the summer with a childless couple in Co. Wexford. The characters and their surroundings are rendered with subtle power. The ending is quietly intriguing and can be viewed from a number of angles; it's difficult not to revisit the final lines a number of times. Foster’s Walk the Blue Fields is a rich and varied collection of short stories and is also highly recommended.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury, 2011) This is an exuberant book, as funny and original as its 11 year-old narrator, Harrison Opuku. He has recently arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, leaving his father and baby sister behind ‘to sell the shop.’ Harri quickly picks up the ‘language’ of the sink estate tower block he lives in, with all the verve and curiosity of the smart kid he is. He goes to school, makes friends with a pigeon, and, secure in the strength of his mother and sister, observes - and accepts - the dysfunctional world around him. But in that external world of juvenile gangs, drugs and knife crime, his understanding of some important realities is imperfect. This is a super book for teenagers or adults - all the way to its moving ending.
Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor (Vintage, 2011) O’Connor skilfully imagines the life of Molly Allgood, former lover of the Irish playwright John Millington Synge, as she ends her days in poverty and loneliness in London in the 1950s. She thinks back to the transforming relationship of her life, and her times acting at the Abbey Theatre. O’Connor’s writing is supple, and he continues to experiment with different styles and themes in his fiction. Ghost Light was the One City, One Book choice for Dublin this year.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber and Faber, 2010) The Lacuna follows the life and times of Harrison Shepherd through some of the seminal events of mid-20th century America, north and south. For all that, it is a quiet, reflective book - Shepherd is an observer, a companion to stronger wills than his own. He works for Mexican artists Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the exiled Leon Trotsky, witnessing his assassination, and later lives in post Second World War McCarthyite America where, now a writer, he comes under threat for his communist associations and unrevealed homosexuality. The women are the vibrant characters in this book - his husband-chasing Mexican mother, Frieda Kahlo herself, and his American amanuensis, Violet Brown.
Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon (Random House, 2011) The latest in the ever-pleasurable Inspector Brunetti series, which we recommended last year too, all set in Venice and its hinterland. Perhaps the most unusual element of these detective stories is that the hero is not a troubled alcoholic middle-aged man with a catastrophic family life. He is indeed middle-aged, but is still deeply in love with his wife Paola (understandably, given what she cooks), and his vision of life is humane rather than cynical.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Sceptre 2010) Much of this novel's wide scope takes place on the tiny Dutch trading outpost of Nagasaki in the 1799 Edo era of Japan: a world then closed off to the west, and a world that is almost lost to us now. A patchwork of characters (including the protagonist Jacob, a flame-haired Dutch man), cultures and languages intricately weave to create what is a finely balanced triptych of a novel. There is much to stay abreast of when reading this novel - but to do so is ultimately rewarding.
*Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (Penguin, 2011) This big ambitious novel is, simply, very funny. Set in a South Dublin boarding school (no, not us, honestly), it tells the stories of a group of young boys in a bravura manner, through a series of brilliant set-pieces. It will sweep you along, and wash away any minor doubts (the adults are caricatured, the teachers absurd – they are, aren’t they?). A great holiday read.
*Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin (Faber and Faber, 2011) This is surely as good as contemporary fiction can get: the heartbreaking story of Charley Thompson, a 15 year-old boy who moves to Portland, Oregon with his father. Left alone to fend for himself, he becomes drawn to the Portland Meadows racetrack, a seedy venue for hopeless horses and even more hopeless jockeys and trainers. It certainly is not an uplifting read, but curiously not depressing either: the narrative voice is compelling, and Vlautin’s vision of humanity can be terribly tender. Just brilliant.
*The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (Abacus, 2010) This is beautifully written with excellently drawn characters. It opens up a place and a perspective in World War 2 Europe that is an unusual one. Reading this is a strongly visual experience but all the other senses are also challenged to grasp the sense of space and light integral to this place. What is even more interesting is that is a building that exists as a national architectural treasure to this day on the edge of the city of Brno.
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan, 2011) The latest in the hugely entertaining Jackson Brodie ‘mystery’ series (recently televised by the BBC), following Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will There be Good News? Again it’s a mixture of detection, coincidences, and multiple plot-lines. The Brodie series is one of the most enjoyable ones in contemporary popular fiction.
The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (Vintage, 2010) A literally chilling whodunnit from the first page, and a harrowing end that gets the heart thumping. Unfairly bracketed with the stodgy and silly Stieg Larsson, Nesbo’s Harry Hole books are the real thing as thrillers. One for that long plane-journey: then get on to the beach and unfreeze yourself.
NON- FICTION Ship of Fools and Enough is Enough by Fintan O’Toole (Faber and Faber, both 2010) These two books form a pair, the first documenting the unravelling of Ireland’s economy and how our political class and regulatory provisions failed us utterly. The second attempts to suggest ways that Ireland might re-invent itself as a ‘true’ republic and so salvage something positive from our recent economic demise. Few will agree with all O’Toole’s points but now more than ever it seems vital to engage with the issues he raises. 3
Human Chain by Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber, 2011) And on a less depressing note, the Nobel Laureate’s latest book of poems: a beautiful series of meditations on the past, on childhood, on friends and family. It is coloured with Heaney’s own brush with mortality after his (minor) stroke: read the marvellous ‘Miracle’. Accessible, moving and richly-rewarding, this is one of the poet’s best collections.
The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (Vintage, 2011) De Waal is a distinguished ceramic artist. He inherited a large collection of netsuke (tiny sculptures used by Japanese men to fasten pouches or containers hanging off their robes), and embarked on a journey to investigate the history of this inheritance. This book is the result: the story of the Ephrussi family, from Odessa to Paris to Vienna to modern-day Japan. It has been a surprise but deserved bestseller, combining fascinating historical detail with the dramatic story of a family caught up by historical forces. The scenes set in Vienna under the Nazis are particularly moving.
*Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (Penguin, 2011) It is 2005. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a hard-working decent family man who runs a house-painting business in New Orleans. Zeitoun came from Syria after ten years as a merchant seaman, and worked ferociously hard to build up his business with his wife Kathy. He is a living embodiment of American values. And then Hurricane Katrina strikes. He stays behind in the city as his wife and children escape for their own safety, initially to look after his business interests, but then increasingly as a knight in shining armour (or, rather, in a canoe) helping people in his flooded neighbourhood. Then something truly dreadful happens. Zeitoun is a model piece of story-telling, being restrained, empathetic and un-showy. It is studded with extraordinary scenes.
The Big Short: inside the doomsday machine by Michael Lewis (Penguin, 2011) Michael Lewis’s book covers the US subprime mortgage collapse that provoked the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. In it he explains how not very clever people make, and lose, billions of dollars, and get paid an awful lot either way. Wall Street profits totalled $27.6 billion in 2010, second only to the all time record of $61.4 billion in 2009 when the industry benefited from federal bailouts and low interest rates. Cash bonuses fell to $20.8 billion, ‘reflecting the new environment’. Lewis makes the complicated business as accessible as a thriller, and, as in a thriller, you don’t necessarily need to follow every twist and turn - sheer bewilderment will get you through. Here, for example, is my understanding of “shorting”: you ‘borrow’ shares you think are going to fall in value from an institution. You sell them (even though you don’t own them) to another institution. When they drop in value, you buy the same number of shares you ‘borrowed’, now at the lower rate, and hand them back to the original owner, pocketing the profit. Neat trick, huh?
Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo by Michael McCarthy (John Murray, 2010) This is a beautifully written tribute to the ‘spring-bringers’, those birds that herald the coming summer with their arrival from Africa. From warblers, swallows and swifts to the cuckoo of the title McCarthy’s sense of awe is palpable. His warning for the future if current declines persist needs a wider airing.
& FINALLY, FOUR CLASSICS The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Penguin Classics, 2000) Parents of pupils in the coming V and IV forms will be aware that their children are studying this great short novel for the Leaving Certificate. Beautifully written, it tells the story of Nick Carraway’s months in New York in the summer of 1922, and his entanglement with his wealthy neighbour, Jay Gatsby, whose mansion on ‘West Egg’ looks across the water towards the house of the love of his life, the now-married Daisy Buchanan.
The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth (Granta Books, 2003, translator Michael Hofmann) It's certainly the best novel I've read about the decline of the AustroHungarian Empire and it contains a lot of rich descriptive passages. It is one of those books in which the hero shambles his way through life while momentous events in the world at large whirl about him.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe (Penguin Classics, 2011) Fans of Mad Men, the peerless TV series set on Madison Avenue – here’s a fix while you wait for Season 5. This reprint of a novel originally published in 1958 follows the book’s appearance in the series (Don Draper admired it) and tells the stories of young women in a New York publishing house in the 1950s. The Observer calls it ‘the perfect summer read’.
The Lost Estate / Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier (Penguin Classics, 2007, translator Robin Buss). First published in 1912, this short novel is one of the great evocative novels about being a teenager. 15 year-old François Seurel tells the story of Augustin Meaulnes, his odd disappearance, and his account of a mysterious ‘lost estate’ where he falls unbearably in love. There are echoes of The Great Gatsby, written 10 years later in a very different society.
(Dates are usually for paperback publication in Ireland/UK. *Reviewed on the blog, usually at greater length)