I read seven books in March.
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
Read for book group. What I like about Helen Dunmore, apart from her fabulous writing, is that she never writes the same book twice. Her previous one, Exposure, was a spy novel set in 1960. This one is set in Bristol in 1792 but it also has the background of the turmoil in Europe and the French revolution. Lizzy’s family are Radicals (her pamphlet-writing mother is based on a real person) but her new husband, a property developer of what are now Bristol’s grandest houses, has everything to lose from the reality of social upheaval.
I enjoyed it but was puzzled by the first chapter which is contemporary and involves <spoiler alert>an interesting narrator we never hear of again. And there was a major aspect to the plot that I would prefer not to have known about so early on. But it was a fascinating period (‘bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven’ as Wordsworth said) and Helen Dunmore shows us a different side to it through the resourceful Lizzy.
How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster
Knowing I was going to be reading Margaret Forster’s schoolgirl diary for the book group at the beginning of April, I went on a little MF jag after seeing this and Isa and May in a charity shop.
Tara/Sarah has moved from London to the north of England, changing her name after a shocking event in her life. Although determined not to get involved with anyone she does find herself sort of friends with her rather lonely, older neighbour (who was brought up on a farm, hence the title). I thought it petered out towards the end and wondered if I’d got to know Tara any better than I had at the beginning.
Isa and May by Margaret Forster
Isa and May are the narrator’s two grandmothers: Isa is the posh one and May is plain speaking and working-class. The narrator, Isamay, is called after both of them. She is trying to write a thesis on grandmothers in history but as she talks to her own two she begins to find out family secrets.
Relationships are Margaret Forster’s big thing and although I like her novels I prefer her non-fiction on the same theme such as Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir.
This book made a stir when it came out last year, with some reviewers claiming that it ‘explained’ why the current president of the United States got elected. The author (in his early thirties) was brought up in Ohio, in ‘hillbilly’ country. His mother, although alcoholic and changing husbands frequently, instilled a love of learning in him. For day-to-day parenting though he relied on his maternal grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw). But while there was real love and the feeling that family, however dysfunctional, always had your back, there were also physical and verbal fights of the most ferocious nature between any combination of people, and Mamaw’s gun was never far from her hand.
Joining the Marine Corps changed Vance’s life and he ended up studying law at Yale University. But it seems you can take the boy out of hillbilly country but not all the hillbilly out of the boy. Despite his extreme change in lifestyle his loyalty to his roots is unwavering. He is clear-sighted about the problems in what is known as ‘rust-belt’ America, acknowledging, for example, the issues that some of the population have in sticking to a job when they have one, and bemoaning the disappearance of the industries that once were major employers.
Whatever your Democrat/Republican preferences are, do read this book – because it’s terrifically written and as gripping as any novel.
My (not so) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella
Katie, from deepest Somerset, is determined to make a life for herself in London. But the glamorous photographs she puts on Instagram do not reflect her ghastly commute, the tiny room she rents and her weird flatmate, and the lowly admin job she has in a PR company. When she is ‘let go’ she has to slink home to her dad’s farm and try to pretend that it’s just a temporary measure.
Sophie Kinsella is the absolute best at mixing serious with spluttering hilarity and this is no exception.
Diary of an Ordinary Schoolgirl by Margaret Forster
Margaret F died two years ago. Although they never read them while she was alive, her family knew she kept diaries as they were referred to, to check events or dates. But they didn’t know that the diary keeping had started early until they found ones she’d kept as a schoolgirl, including this one in 1954 when she was fifteen. It’s been reproduced most beautifully. There were no big revelations – she was a very enthusiastic scholar, with no interest in boys or make-up (‘soppy’). Brought up in a council house in Carlisle, she helped a lot with the housework; made some of her own clothes; went on long walks, sometimes by herself; loved listening to radio plays and going to the library. Ordinary stuff maybe, but a glimpse into someone else’s life is always of interest to me.
But you won’t ever read my teenage diary.
A Colonial Experience by David Allison
As the author says: a ‘colonial experience was the somewhat derogatory term that was given to young men who made their way from the UK to Australia in order to gain worldly and practical experience working on remote sheep and cattle stations.’ David Allison had his ‘colonial experience’ in the 1970s, going out from Scotland to work in the Australian outback – and then as an overseer on a coconut plantation in Papua New Guinea, a time full of drama to say the least.
David is my cousin and I was spellbound when I heard him talking about his Papua New Guinea adventures; he is a great storyteller. Much of that verve has been transmitted to the written word here.
It was interesting too, to read the last chapter in which he tells of a recent visit back to Papua New Guinea, finding much that was changed and much that was the same.