I have been, as is my unwise habit, reading four very different books, if not simultaneously, then turn and turn about.
Of these the one that gripped me most was Sarah Hesketh’s The Hard Word Box – a poet’s exploration of dementia and ageing. In a mixture of poetry and verbatim interviews, Sarah tracks the 20 weeks she spent visiting people living in a residential care home. In spite of their struggles with words, individual personalities emerge strongly. You understand that even as the brain fades, life experiences remain, such as the bullying Angela suffered at the hands of the brothers she adored. This slim volume takes you into worlds that most of us imagine to be impenetrable. There is a deftness and grace about the way she has done this that I admire greatly.
More poetry, this time the 27th anthology of the Highgate poets. This collection is varied, entertaining and often moving. Among the many poems that I enjoyed are Paul Stephenson’s Feel Good (Gone Viral) for instance, or Robert Peake’s The Knowledge, these gave me exactly that kick of recognition good poetry gives with a delicious last line. Mary Hastilow’s poems, By the Lea with Clio, To My Brother and Thin Skin, took me to emotional places I could recognise very well.
My third book is a novel, it is fiction and has an engaging story about family relationships, yet the wonder of this book is not the narrative, but the setting. Cinda MacKinnon’s, A Place in the World takes us to Columbia in the latter part of the last century (which feels like yesterday to me). The story follows a young American girl with a peripatetic childhood who marries a Columbian coffee farmer. It is the life on this remote coffee farm in the cloud forest that kept me turning the pages, as the weather, the volcanic ash, the market and the politics of the region during those volatile years played havoc with the crop. The intricate, natural beauty – and the dangers – of the cloud forest, the slow pace of modernisation and the cultural differences between the Columbian and the American outlook make for absorbing reading.
Finally Richard Flannagan’s, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, also a novel, also fiction, is a book of two worlds. The life and romantic relationships of a man before and after the WW2 and his incarceration during WW2 as a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma-Siam railroad. For me there was an imbalance not so much between these worlds, as within each one. The scenes on the railroad were shockingly believable (and this is an area I have researched and read many first-hand accounts), and I could also accept the after-effects of this experience on the man. However, the brave attempt to get into the mind-set of the Japanese guards on the railroad and of their life afterwards, I found unconvincing and overdone in places. Similarly, the pre-WW2 romance left me unimpressed, and although I could readily believe the stresses on the postwar marriage, I could not believe in the thoughts and outlook of either of the women involved. Finally, I found the endless ruminations of several characters just a little… overindulgent? However this is a marathon of a book in terms of content.
I am always curious what others are reading so enjoyed these reviews. “A Place in the World” sounds intriguing. I am such an unsuccessful “simul-reader”, Hilary, capable only of reading one book after another. When reading a book of poetry, do you dip in occasionally for one or two poems or read cover to cover?
I’m a serial book-reading sinner and have at least one down and one upstairs. Poetry – I sometimes dip and sometimes read cover to cover – but never front to back. With the Highgate poets, I read a few, then came back a couple of times, then started in the middle and read both ways to the end. Illogical? I read The Hard Word Box in the same way.
Interesting. I too found The Narrow Road to the Deep North not as good as I had been hoping. I found it difficult to believe that main character’s family wouldn’t have heard [anyone who doesn’t want a spoiler stop reading now] that his cousin’s wife was still alive, which was critical to the ending of the book. And it spoiled it for me.
I agree, style is according to the writer’s personality, but plotting flaws are avoidable and someone must surely have muttered about this.
Hmmm. I have started buying ‘real’ books again from Waterstones in the high street. I have a copy of Pevsner to browse through, a new moth guide and Simon Barnes’ book Ten Million Aliens. Only three unless you count the 3′ high pile of home renovation magazines and catalogues. I shall be looking for the Idiot’s Guide to Bankruptcy soon.
Pevsner is all you need for the time being. Enjoy. Grow your own vegetables, keep chickens?
I am re-reading old stuff, including children’s books. Right now a delightful little boek callled “Kattekwaad en Poppenrommel by Margriet Heymans. A tale of what cats get up to during the nights and days. Amazing adventures, well written and glorious illustrations. Magic really.
If I go near the children’s shelves I am lost for hours.
I shall look out for ‘The Hard Word Box,’ Hilary. I started ‘The Narrow Road…’ and stopped, but must give it another try. I really don’t like sad war stories. Thanks for these reviews, I do love getting the thumbs up, it gives me inspiration when I get to the library. 🙂
The Hard Word Box is fascinating, don’t know if you will be able to get it in Oz. Hmm, The Narrow Road is definitely a sad war story, so if you didn’t take to it, you might want to give it a miss. I am very excited today as a new book Our Endless Numbered Days (Claire Fuller) has just arrived. This will be available worldwide eventually. I love her short story writing and I have been looking forward to this.
A Place In The World is the one I would pick. Right now my nose is buried in two books – The Book Thief and The Path of The Swan. But reading the former most of the time.
Yes, The Book Thief is on my list too, but it’s a fearsomely long list.
Yes…with your four current read on hand and many more in the queue 😉
Oh – music to my ears! I do so hope you enjoy it. (The Book Thief is in my to-read queue too – why are all the books I’m reading so long?!)
😀 I am sure you will love The Book Thief!
I’ve just downloaded ‘A Place in the World’ by Crabbe Mackinnon on to my Kindle. Very interested in anything Latin American at the moment, as my son is in Ecuador at the moment.
Enjoy! My daughter is in Costa Rica… they get about don’t they.
My son is in Costa Rica right now too -he was born there but hasn’t been back for some 15 years. He’s attending a wedding so should have a great time.
This sort of exchange cheers me up. The next generation are moving happily around the world and perhaps we will all become a little less nationalistic and more curious and open to other cultures.
Charlie – what a pleasure to read this note on Hillary’s blog. You’ll find ‘ A Place in the World’ has a lot about Latino culture as well as the natural history. Thanks for being a reader – I hope you enjoy it.
Hilary you read my novel! And even reviewed it on your website. Thank you, thank you for this lovely surprise!
I’m really looking forward to “Writing to a Ghost.” (“Unseen Unsung” is also on my to-read list.) Cheers!
I really enjoyed the atmosphere of a place in the world. I only wish Writing to a Ghost was near to publication. Still this time last year Border Line was only a manuscript.
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When I start reading four books simultaneously, I tend not to finish them. I forgot that your daughter was living in Costa Rica. She must like it a lot there.
I usually get there in the end, I have a sort of Puritan conscience about finishing tasks (not necessarily a good thing). My daughter was only in Cost Rica for a month. She is at home now, but is liable to set off for other parts at any time.
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