#6Degrees January 2021: From Hamnet to…

This is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month she chooses a book as a starting point and you have to link it to six other books to form a chain. It doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, merely to the one next to it, although some participants choose a theme for all of the links. This month we start with  Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which was one of my top reads of the year 2020.

So the first link is a very obvious one, namely another favourite read of the year, a book published in 2020, and whose author I got to see in an online literary event: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami.

The second link is the only other book I can think of with ‘eggs’ in the title, namely Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. I not only loved it as a child, but I read it so many times to my own children (during their fussy eating phases) that I know it by heart. As a former fussy eater myself, I could really empathise with the candid cry: ‘I do not like them in a house./ I do not like them with a mouse./ I do not like them here or there./ I do not like them anywhere.’

The more spurious link to my next choice is the name Sam – a marginally less obnoxious character than that insistent, nagging Sam-I-Am is Sam Spade from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The charismatic, brooding, cynical private eye was not the first hardboiled detective but truly defined the genre for all who followed.

Another book with the name of a bird of prey in the title is Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, set in Roman Britain and exploring the supposed annihilation of the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army. I was fascinated by this book when I was a child, but my children never quite got into it.

By way of contrast, one of the series that my older son really got into and which I never quite loved was Harry Potter by JK Rowling. I thought they were quite poorly written and derivative, and much preferred Diana Wynne Jones. But of course I was an adult already by the time they came out, so who knows how I’d have felt about them as a child.

My final link is to the wonderful Tales of Beatrix Potter, which was much loved by all three of us. As a child I was probably most like Tom Kitten getting his clothes terribly mussed up, but nowadays I most identify with poor Mrs Tittlemouse desperately trying to keep her house tidy against a deluge of visitors. (Well, not this year, but you know what I mean…)

This has been a nostalgic little trip down memory lane – and I wonder if that is because subconsciously the theme has been one of motherhood (with the exception of Sam Spade, who perhaps needs a mother to soften him a little). Or maybe my subconscious is troubled by the endless debates about schools reopening safely (or not). Anyway, here is our beautiful edition of the Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, a treasured birthday present for my older son’s second birthday.

Annual Summary: Contemporary Writing

This post was going to be named Contemporary Fiction, but I actually had a very good year of reading poetry and non-fiction, so I wanted to include those, and didn’t know if I (or you) would have the patience for separate blog posts for every single category. So these are books published recently (not just this year, but in the past few years), some of them have been reissued or have only just been translated. There are 59 books that would fit in this category out of my total of 127, so roughly half of the books I read. A higher proportion than I expected, driven partly by my desire to help small independent publishers and bookshops in this difficult year.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Here are the ones that stayed with me:

Fiction

Aoko Matsuda: Where the Wild Ladies Are – a clever, ferocious, fun subversion of Japanese ghost stories and folk tales, made all the more interesting by getting a chance to hear the translator Polly Barton talk about it at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene after lockdown in March

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women – another short story collection with a wry look at the gender gap (I seemed to find short stories more accessible and suitable for my attention span, particularly during the first lockdown). Although these stories were written during the 1950s and 60s, they have been collected and reissued recently… and still have a lot to say about today’s world.

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – two novellas about life as a Jew in the increasingly intolerant Romanian society of the 1930s (and the Second World War) – fascinating initially because of its subject matter, the writing turned out to be truly evocative of its time and place, with a dry, dark sense of humour

Nino Haratischwili (or Haratishvili): The Eighth Life – a mammoth of a family saga, which captivated even me, a reluctant convert to the family saga genre, always balancing between the personal and the historical, the well-trodden and the barely known.

Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet – this book was a case of right time, right subject matter for me, not just as a Shakespeare fan, but also because I read it at a time when I was so worried about the health of my own children; perhaps slightly over-written, but with moments of real beauty, lyricism and psychological depth.

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow… – so clever, such a beguiling voice, a great insight into a person, a way of life and a rural society, both tragic and comic all at once

Sarah Waters: Fingersmith – finally understood what all the fuss was about, just could NOT stop reading this thrilling example of master storytelling; sadly, was not quite as enamoured of the other books by the author that I then borrowed post-haste from the library

Mieko Kawakami: Breasts and Eggs – a strange novel, composed of two parts that don’t really have much to do with each other, and yet I loved the way it explored women, bodies, sisterhood, families and the meaning of parenthood in contemporary Japan

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season – one of the most breathlessly enthralling and difficult stories I’ve read this year or perhaps in any other year, with voices that will leave you shattered – one of those life-changing books

Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest – by way of contrast, a gentle, subtle, utterly charming book about an exceptional man and author, Chekhov – a fictional account of his summers in the Ukraine

Poetry

I read a lot of poetry this year, but as usual haven’t reviewed much. The two that I have reviewed, however, both shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award – and one the winner of this award – were truly unforgettable: Jay Bernard’s Surge and Sean Hewitt: Tongues of Fire. But this year I also discovered Jericho Brown, Safiya Sinclair, Caroline Bird, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Nina Boutsikaris and a new translation of Cavafy by Evan Jones, so it’s been an excellent year.

Non-Fiction

Deborah Orr: Motherwell – not just a family history – and the gap between generations – but also the history of a community, which helped me to understand a lot more about the UK and its working class history

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting – reminded me of just how much I loved certain women authors and introduced me to a couple of new women to admire – a thoughtful recreation of a period and women’s aspiration to be independent of thought (and financially too, if possible). Perhaps forced together into the Mecklenburgh Square concept, but it worked for me and I really regret not writing a proper review of it

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating and Cooling – micro-memoirs, witty, charming, sharp-tongued, experimental – a delight that I discovered thanks to the recommendation of Anne-Marie Fyfe, whose poetry workshop was one of the last things I was able to attend live in 2020

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – an absolute must for literary translators, but for all readers, this is both an insight into the science and art of translation, and throws up all sorts of knotty problems for debate – another of those ‘life-changing’ books, especially since I just started being a literary translator this year.

Six in Six 2020

I saw this on FictionFan’s blog, but it’s a meme started by Jo at The Book Jotter. It’s a pause for reflection at the half year mark:  you select select six categories from the selection Jo provides or create your own categories, and then find six books you’ve read between January and June to fit each category. A great way to procrastinate from either reading, reviewing, writing, translating or working!

 

Six books I have read but not reviewed

Although I loved each of the books below, I somehow didn’t get round to reviewing them – either because I was planning to write something longer and more elaborate, or else because I just lost my reviewing super-power during lockdown.

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting 

Debbie Harry: Face It

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours

Julian Symons: The Colour of Murder

John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

 

Six authors I am looking forward to reading more of

Graeme Macrae Burnet – after reading The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I want to read more of his books, whether set in France or in Scotland.

Ron Rash – although I had mixed feelings about Serena, I certainly want to read more by him and have bought another two of his books

Machado de Assis – a rediscovery

Maggie O’Farrell – I really enjoyed Hamnet but have been told there is much more and better from where that came from

Elizabeth von Arnim – I’ve read her two most famous books a while back, but this year I discovered The Caravaners (which could easily fit into at least two other categories) and I think there’s a lot more there to explore

Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost was so captivating and nuanced and sad that I certainly want to read more (I’ve read The Victorian Chaise Longue as well)

 

Six books that I had one or two problems with but am still glad I tried

Carlos Ruis Zafon: Shadow of the Wind – I got about halfway through and didn’t finish it, which makes me feel guilty, since I was reading this as a tribute to him following the news of his death. I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d read it in my teens, and I seem to remember quite liking Marina, the only other book of his that I’d read. But at least I know now that I haven’t missed anything by not reading more by this author.

Harriet Tyce: Blood Orange – I’d probably not have read it if it hadn’t been the May book for the Virtual Crime Book Club, as the subject matter was quite troubling and the descriptions a little too grotty for my taste. However, it was undeniably a powerful story and led to some good discussions at the book club.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I do like books about writers and about entitled male egos, so it was both fun and quite revealing, but just not quite as good as I wanted it to be

Nino Haratischwili: The Eighth Life – I struggled because of the sheer length of it and because family sagas are not really my thing, but it is undeniably ambitious, fascinating and entertaining

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – the only reservation I had about this is that it requires great concentration to read, you need to stop and reflect after every few pages, but I was completely captivated. Masterful!

Yokomizu Seishi: The Inugami Curse – very bizarre and somewhat crazy murders in this country manor mystery set in Japan – but lovely to see And Then There Were None transposed to a Japanese setting. Certainly enjoyed it much more than Shimada’s Murder in the Crooked House

 

Six books that took me on extraordinary journeys

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – India (Calcutta) – and the start of a series I really want to explore

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – Naples, Italy

Carol Carnac: Crossed Skis – my favourite sport and one of my favourite countries

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – town nestled amidst the Carpathians in Maramures, Romania

Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting – the French Alps

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – Japan (and ghosts of the past)

 

Six books to read to avoid politics

Nick Bradley: The Cat and the City

Mary Stewart: Airs Above the Ground

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick

Alan Melville: Weekend at Thrackley

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating & Cooling

 

Six books purchased during lockdown but not yet started

All of the below have been purchased following tweets or reading reviews by fellow book bloggers:

Helon Habila: Travellers

Tshushima Yuko: The Shooting Gallery and other Stories (transl. Geraldine Harcourt)

Luke Brown: Theft

Sylvia Townsend Warner: The Corner That Held Them

Michele Roberts: Negative Capability

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight (transl. Peter V. Czipott)

 

#20BooksofSummer No. 5 – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve never been one to NOT read reviews about a book just because I haven’t read it yet. On the contrary, I like to read both positive and negative reviews and then plunge right in, hopefully without bias, and make up my own mind. In the case of Hamnet, I’d been hearing lots of praise about the evocative language and the refreshing perspective of the Bard from the point of view of his family. But I’ve also heard some of my favourite bloggers such as Eric from Lonesome Reader or Rebecca Foster at Bookish Beck that it falls short, either in terms of Maggie O’Farrell’s other work or compared to other recent historical fiction such as Hilary Mantel’s.

So let me lay out my wares perfectly candidly. I really enjoyed the book, but I haven’t read any other novels by Maggie O’Farrell, nor do I read much historical fiction in general. So perhaps I am not best placed to make these comparisons. Although I do have some reservations about the present tense and jarringly modern language at times, I allowed myself to be swept away by the beauty of the sentences, the appeal to the senses, and the way the author conjures up the atmosphere of village life in the late 16th century. I should also add that I was reading it while I was battling migraine and nausea, so I felt I was there in the sick-bed with Judith and Hamnet. Last but not least, I am such a Shakespeare fan, so I enjoyed this additional insight into how other people might have viewed him.

I allowed myself to be swept along in a current of emotion and drama, as a mother wanting to protect her children, as a wife who has grown apart from her husband, as someone who felt stifled by family and small-town life, as someone living through a pandemic currently. On that visceral level the book works extremely well. If I stop to analyse it too carefully, I might find some repetitions and flaws, perhaps an over-emphasis on description and manipulation of our sorrow gland. I might find that there is no real analysis of Shakespeare’s psychology, little hint of his depth in how he handles the grief at the loss of his son. But, as Agnes finds out when she goes to London to watch the play named after her dead son, there is a chasm between life as it is lived and life as it is portrayed in the arts.

As she rode to London, she had thought that perhaps now she might understand his distance, his silence, since their son’s death. She has the sense now that there is nothing in her husband’s heart to understand. It is filled only with this: a wooden stage, declaiming players, memorised speeches, adoring crowds, costumed fools. She has been chasing a phantasm, a will-o’-the-wisp all this time.

This is clearly a book that Maggie O’Farrell has wanted to write for a long time, a subject that she has been obsessed with. I really enjoyed hearing her talk about it as part of the online Hay Festival. It really worked for me, since I am probably equally obsessed with the topic, and I don’t regret getting a Waterstones signed edition hardback. It’s a keeper for me. But for those who tell me that I should read her other novels, that they are better, I wonder if sometimes when you feel too strongly about something, you cannot fully capture what you really want.