Apologies for Sept and Oct being lumped in together. I can only blame A Little Life which took me pretty much all of September and a little bit of a October to get through! Can’t say I regret it…..I think this book will be one of my all time favourites!!
- Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje. 3⭐️.
- Michael Ondaatje born 12th September 1943.
In 1900, the Storyville district of New Orleans had some two thousand prostitutes, seventy professional gamblers, and thirty piano players. It had only one man who played jazz like Buddy Bolden. By day he cut hair in a barber shop and at night he played his cornet, which he’d polish up until it glistened like a woman’s leg. Then, at the age of thirty one, Bolden went mad. Obsessed with death, addicted to whisky, and in love with two women, this jazz legend’s story is beautiful and chilling, like a New Orleans funeral procession where even the mourners dance.
Coming Through Slaughter was published in 1976 and won the First Novel Award in Canada. Until this point Ondaatje was primarily a poet and this is very clear in the writing of Coming Through Slaughter. The language is so lyrical and the plot so meandering it felt like an improvised piece of Jazz. Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry calls each section a riff. I had a hard time for the first 20 or so pages trying to get to grips with the structure. I kept putting it down which was easy to do as it seems to be written a paragraph/chunk at a time. It almost seems like Ondaatje would write a section and then return a day later. This would make the novel seem quite disjointed. However, as soon as I stopped looking for a story and just allowed Ondaatje’s words to wash over me I really enjoyed it. I think this is a really useful discipline as a reader. I find I often approach books with my own assumptions on how the story should play out. This is definitely down to the control freak in me. Reading a novel like this which challenges me to just enjoy the ride is so satisfying.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. 5⭐️.
- Hanya Yanagihara born 20th September 1974.
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an inspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel painter pursuing fame in the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as a centre of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realise, is Jude himself; by midlife a terrifyingly talented lawyer yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by a degree of trauma that he feels he will not only be unable to overcome-but that will define his life forever.
In a novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart,Yanagihara has fashioned a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark and haunting examination of the tyranny of experience and memory.
Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.
This book was the reason I didn’t post last month….it took me ages to read. A Little Life is an epic work not just in terms of scale (720 pages) but also in emotion. I have lived with these characters for 4 weeks and now they are well and truly ingrained in my little life!!! I finished this book a couple of days ago and I feel bereft. Usually, I try to read as many books as possible in a month and that number combined with the fact that I have a clean bathroom (god I am a sad case) makes me feel like I have achieved something!!! However, when I started this book I knew my monthly book number was going to be LOW. That being said, this book is INCREDIBLE and without sounding like a bit of an idiot, reading A Little Life has changed me for the better.
A Little Life was written in 18 months which is incredible when you see the size of it. Reviewers have described it as ‘harrowing’ and ‘brutal.’ It is both of those things and then some. Yanigahara does not shy away from scenes of sexual abuse, drug abuse and self harm. The book is also impossible to put down, partly because you are desperate to know Jude’s story and also because Yanigahara has created some beautiful characters.
The characters are what drive this novel. Set mainly in NYC there is no mention of any major world events including amazingly 9/11. Nearly all the characters are male and you would think that such a long book would become tedious. Nope, not at all. This is a book that made me really question what I would do to help Jude. I went through great chunks being angry that that people were enabling Jude’s self harming. Then I started to wonder if some people are just too damaged to save. 3 weeks after finishing and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Definitely one of my all time faves.
- Lowborn by Kerry Hudson. 3⭐️.
Kerry Hudson is proudly working class but she was never proudly poor. The poverty she grew up in was all encompassing, grinding and often dehumanising. Always on the move with a single mother, Kerry attended nine primary schools and five secondaries living in B&Bs and council flats. She scores eight out of ten on the Adverse Childhood Experiences measure of childhood trauma.
Twenty years later, Kerry’s life is still unrecognisable. She is a prize-winning novelist who has travelled the world. She has a secure home, a loving partner and access to art, music, films and books. But she often finds herself looking over her shoulder, caught somehow between two worlds.
Lowborn is Kerry’s exploration of where she came from. She revisits the towns she grew up in to try to discover what with being poor really means in Britain today and whether anything has changed. She also journeys into the hardest regions of her own childhood, because sometimes in order to move forward we first have to look back.
This was a book club pick and our second non-fiction having read Educated by Tara Westover the previous month. I mention Educated because I think this book had a real impact on how Lowborn was enjoyed. Both books tell of the author’s difficult childhood and the impact that childhood had on their adult life. The majority LOVED Educated whereas Lowborn left every member of our book club a little unmoved. It just seemed a little, well, lacking. We couldn’t work out if it was a memoir or a social commentary. We felt that Hudson’s writing was incredibly detached. Hudson had such traumatic and sad childhood but we felt that if as an author you choose to write a memoir, you have to let the reader in. A lot of her stories were left unresolved and as a reader I was left feeling frustrated and a little cheated. We were all shocked by the section about the STI but also confused by the fact that Hudson mentions it and then moves on. I have to say that this book prompted the best discussion we had had in ages. We were all slightly baffled why this book got such incredibly good reviews. We wondered if when a book has such contentious and emotive subject matter, do reviewers avoid criticism? Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad book, we just felt that this book offered Hudson a platform to really comment about poverty and maybe promote change but unfortunately she didn’t take up that particular gauntlet.
- The Gathering by Anne Enright. DNF.
- Anne Enright born 11th October 1962.
The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan gather in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam. It wasn’t the drink that killed him-although that certainly helped-it was what happened to him as a boy and his grandmother’shouse, in the winter of 1968.
The Gathering is a novel about love and disappointment, about thwarted lust and desire, and how our fate is written in the body, not in the stars.￼
This was the winner of the Man Booker in 2007 but unfortunately it was one I didn’t finish. I persevered up until page 100 and then decided that I had spent the last week trudging through the pages and it was all feeling like a bit of a chore. So why wasn’t it for me??? I think there was potential – a complicated family, a hushed up secret etc but it was all a bit too vague. Veronica, the protagonist delivers the story as a stream of consciousness. I admired Enright’s ability to write Veronica’s memories as fuzzy, disjointed and unreliable as real memories often are but as a reader I just found it a little frustrating and hard to get my teeth into.
- The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein. 3 ⭐️ .
- Elena Ferrante born 18th Oct 1943.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table…”
This compelling novel that shocked audiences in Europe with its unsentimental and unyielding depictiom of motherhood, marriage and solitude, tells the story of one woman’s headlong descent into what she calls an “absence of sense” after being abandoned by her husband.￼ Olga’s “days of abandonment” become a desperate, dangerous freefall into the darkest places of the soul as she roams the empty streets of the city that she has never learnt to love. When she finds herself literally trapped inside the four walls of her apartment in the middle of the summer heat wave, Olga is forced to confront her ghosts, the potential loss of her own identity, and the possibility that life may never return to normal again.￼￼
Rarely have the foundations upon which our ideas of motherhood and womanhood rest been so candidly questioned. Some readers have found Ferrante’s depiction of an abandoned woman scandalous and reprehensible, others relentlessly honest. But readers and critics alike agree: The Days of Abandonment demands serious attention. First published in Italy in 2002, it went straight to the top of the bestseller lists and stayed there for almost a year. It has been translated and published into over a dozen languages.￼
I feel I have read some pretty hard-hitting stuff over the last couple of months. I’m definitely due a comic read.
If I had to use one word to sum up Ferrante’s novel it would be ‘uncomfortable.’ I think perhaps reading this book at this time of my life made it particularly poignant and affecting. I am currently 17 weeks into my maternity leave with my third child. My days consist of looking after my children which I do love but I miss my work and my colleagues. My children are my world but I do think that since becoming a mother I have lost a bit of my identity. Being on maternity leave makes me feel particularly vulnerable. Olga’s situation in the book resonated with me a lot. How would I feel if my husband left me? Right now, as a mother with young children and without my job, I know my life would fall apart. As a mother of three girls I am a little mortified at how ‘un-girl-power’ this is but right now, more than ever before I rely on my husband. In the words of the great Phoebe Buffay, he truly is ‘my lobster.’ We are united in this roller coaster world of bringing up our children and if he were to leave, I am convinced I would fall apart.
‘I had put aside my own aspirations to go along with his. At every crisis of despair I had set aside my own crises to comfort him … I had taken care of the house, I had taken care of the meals, I had taken care of the children, I had taken care of all the boring details of everyday life…’
Abandoned by her husband, Olga’s life spirals and she essentially has a breakdown. She neglects her kids and dog and seems to abandon all sense of propriety. She hits her husband and his new girlfriend on the street, uses awful language and also embarks on one of the most awkward sexual encounters I have ever read.
Ferrante’s writing is brilliant. Reading this book is like watching a film that makes you feel uncomfortable but you can’t look away. It has been a while since I have read a book that has depressed me quite so much….2 weeks after finishing it, I am still thinking about it.
Thanks for reading.