Yes, this is indeed called Christmas Day, and was painted in about 1938 by the American artist Francis Criss (1901-1973). I hope your day was as enjoyable as hers seems to have been -- the house must have been nice and warm if she was able to wear so little with snow outside on the hills.
I'm really not sure what's happened to my reading of late. Where are all the Viragos and Persephones that used to be my daily fare? For the last few months I have been straying about all over the place and venturing into areas I never thought to explore before. Here's the latest -- spy fiction. Some of this is owing to the availability, or lack of it, of much in the way of literary fiction here in the depths of rural France. But I belong to a sort of Anglo-French association, and go to art and photography groups in a nearby village. There's a bookshelf there where people leave books they don't want any more, and I trawl through them from time totime hoping somebody might have left something I could bear to read. This rarely happens, I'm sorry to say. But this one caught my eye the other day and so it came home with me and I read it with a surprising degree of enjoyment.
You might think that spy fiction would be full of drama and intrigue, and there certainly is some of that, but this is a remarkably quiet and thoughtful story. The prodigal spy of the title is Walter Kotlar, an American government official who, in 1950, defected to Moscow, abandoning his wife and small son. She remarries, and the boy Nicholas takes his new father's name. Twenty years later Nick, now a post-grad student in London, gets a message -- his father, now living in Prague, wants him to come for a visit. Nick is unwilling, but is persuaded by his beautiful new friend Molly. When he gets there he finds his father old, sick, dying -- and also desperate to return to the United States. But before Nick is able to help, or even to be sure if he wants to help, Walter dies in mysterious circumstances and Nick is flung into a messy world of intrigue and suspicion -- will he ever find out the truth?
This is, in fact, a really good story, and has plenty of interest to say about father-son relationships. The historical background (yes I'm always a sucker for that) is very well done, both 1950s America and 1970s Prague and London. But what struck me above all was how extremely well written it was. My snobbish remarks about literary fiction should really be edited out, or at least I must say that it's good to have your horizons broadened and to discover that there is some really good and readable writing going on in genres way outside the work of women writers of the twentieth century. I shall be looking out for more novels by Joseph Kanon.
I wanted to find a nice picture to wish you all a happy Christmas but couldn't decided which one, so here's a selection to chooose from, ranging from the jolly to the bizarre. Take your pick of the pics, and have a wonderful Christmas.
This is 'Grace Reading at Howth Bay', by Sir William Orpen, painted c.1900. I found it on Virago Modern Classics Readers Facebook page and could not resist sharing it with you. A lovely reminder of brighter days to come.
I can't actually answer this question, which is interesting in itself because it shows how much my blogging habits have changed since 2009. That year I said I'd read 90 books and I must have reviewed them all. This year, I've reviewed about 60 books but have read, or listened to, a good many more. Audiobooks have become a big feature of my life this year, but I don't write about nearly as many as I listen to. So my answers here will relate mainly to the ones I did review.
How many fiction and non fiction?
I only have on record three non fiction books -- Bill Bryson's A Short History of Private Life (though I see that I didn't actually finish writing the review of that one), DJ Taylor's What You Didn't Miss, and Jonathan Croall's Gielgoodies. And the second two were review copies. So clearly non-fiction is not very important to me.
Male/Female author ratio?
Only about twelve male authors got reviewed this year, which shows that as always I consider my preference to be for women writers. However, the male authors included Henry Green and Patrick Hamilton, both of whom I would count among some of my favourite novelists of all time.
Favourite book of 2012?
This is really hard, as I've read some terrific novels this year -- after all, we had Muriel Spark Week and Beryl Bainbridge Week, and either of them could have provided a winner. But I'm going for Henry Green's Living -- though not my all time favourite of his novels (that would be Loving, read the previous year) it is a truly remarkable piece of writing.
Not sure exactly, but I was very disappointed with Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book, which had come highly recommended by a friend but didn't at all live up to her enthusiastic description.
Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?
Sadly, that has to be Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End. I was so much looking forward to it -- his The Good Soldier is one of my top rated novels of all time, and I had very much enjoyed the TV adaptation of Parade's End so I was very pleased to get the novel for my birthday. But I just couldn't get into it. I suspect I'll give it another go sometime -- I think perhaps I tried to read it too soon after seeing the TV adaptation?
How many books from the library?
Easy to answer this one -- none, much to my sorrow. It is in fact my only regret in moving to France -- in Oxford, I used to potter round the corner on a regular basis to visit my dear little local library, or plunge into the great Central library in town, which seemed to have everything I ever had a fancy for and much more besides. This lack may possibly change next year as I'm told that the libraries in neighbouring towns do have a selection of English books, though I'm not getting too excited about the probable choice.
Any translated books?
I have to mention here something I'm rather proud of -- I read Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd translated into French -- Le Meutre de Roger Ackroyd. But I've also consumed quite a lot of Scandinavian crime, of which the 'Martin Beck' novels of Maj Sjohwall and Per Wahloo have to be the best. I've also read Jo Nesbo's Headhunters, and probably one or two other authors I've now forgotten and didn't review.
Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?
That would be Beryl Bainbridge, I think, whose novels I absolutely loved and was very happy to read as part of BB week. I think I read five of hers, and they were ace.
Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?
Probably all of Beryl Bainbridge, as, though I'd of course heard of her I'd never been tempted to try her. So Annabel's launch of BB Week was a brilliant idea, and the first of her novels I read, the aptly named Harriet Said, was a terriific read, as were all the others I then plunged into.
Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?
Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies. I've got it as an audio book and really meant to listen to it but have not done so. Of course I still might get to it before the end of the year...
Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?
I've always meant to read Clayhanger, by Arnold Bennett, and finally got around to it in the early part of this year. I think he is a much underrated novelist, not in fashion at the moment, and I liked the novel a lot.
Anything not covered by these questions?
Yes. I very much enjoyed Kathryn Stockett's The Help, and I've read some superb crime novels this year including Laura Wilson's 'Stratton' series, Sophie Hanna's brilliant Kind of Cruel, and two novels by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, neither of which I appear to have reviewed for some strange reason as they were extraordinarily good. And last but by no means least, Elizabeth Taylor's Short Stories, which gave me hours and hours of pleasure.
Why do we love pictures of people reading so much? I think it's often because of the expressions of total absorption the artist captures. This lady reading the newspaper was painted by the Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920). It may be a detail from a larger painting? I like it ,anyway.
I started this novel a year or more ago, but quickly got irritated with it and put it aside. Why I picked it up again this week I can't say, but this time I read it to the end and was quite rivetted by the story it tells.
Reader, how can this be? as our narrator, July, would say. And therein, I'm afraid, lies the problem, for me at least. As I'm sure everybody knows, because I suspect I'm the last person ever to have read this novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2010, the story is mainly narrated by an 80 year old woman who was a born into slavery. She has been urged to write it by her son Thomas, a wealthy and well-educated printer, with whom she has been reunited, having given him up soon after his birth. In fact the story is framed by explanations from the son, and throughout the narrative there are interruptions for July to recount her arguments with him about the writing. And, of course, July writes in her native patois, except when she is reporting the speech of her white superiors, when she is perfectly able to reproduce their grammar and vocabulary.
Now, I suppose there's nothing wrong with all this, but I'm afraid it got rather on my nerves from time to time. I find any dialect writing rather hard going, and I could have done without the interruptions, which didn't seem to me to add much, and I wasn't entirely sure why Levy decided to include them. But as there's quite a lot of to-ing fro-ing through various time periods, perhaps they are there to support that? Anyway, the story is a long and complex one, and it could, of course, have been told in a straightforward third person narrative. But that would have lost what I think is one of the most successful aspects of the novel -- the fact that July herself, if not an entirely unreliable narrator, is filtering events through her own sometimes skewed perception.
Anyway, enough of all that for the moment. I read one review on Amazon that said something like "this is not a novel about racism or slavery". Well, of course, it is just that. It's set in Jamaica and the main events take place in the 1830s, so the abolition of slavery, in 1834, is central to the events of the plot. We learn of July's birth, the result of her mother's rape by a white overseer; of her early years working in the fields beside the other slaves; of her catching the eye of the woman who owns the plantation, who takes her in, changes her name to Marguerite, and trains her up to be her companion. Then there's the conception and birth of her son, her decision to leave the baby on the doorstep of the enlightened Baptist minister, who takes him in and brings him up as his own. And later there is July's love affair with her mistress's new husband, the birth of a second child, and the terrible circumstances under which the child is stolen from her. All of this is painful enough, but the story's context is sometimes almost unbearable in its revelations of what happened after abolition. Although initially this event is greeted by the slaves with great jubilation, this soon turns to anger and despair as they discover that their masters still expect them to work as hard as before for very little pay. Presumably based closely on real events, this is a shameful passage in the history of the island and indeed of the British in general, whose behaviour towards the freed slaves is really shocking. Even Thomas's story is quite upsetting, for though he comes out of it OK in the end, he meets the most appalling prejudice both in London and Jamaica on account of the colour of his skin.
A few years ago I read and loved Andrea Levy's earlier novel, Small Island, which was also very well televised on the BBC. This one is much more ambitious, and though I have a few quibbles I am really glad to have read it and it's left me with lots to think about.
Here's a nice painting with some literary connections -- it's called Girl Reading, by Vanessa Bell, who as I'm sure you all know was Virginia Woolf's sister. I suspect it's a picture of her daughter Angelica Garnett, who died earlier this year. Angelica's father was not Vanessa's husband Clive Bell, though she did not discover this fact till she was 18, when she learned she was the daughter of the painter Duncan Grant. When she was 24, Angelica married the 50 year old David Garnett, who had been her biological father's lover, and who had been present at her birth, after which he declared his intention of marrying her when she grew up. Phew.
You can read her own version of these events in her memoir, Deceived with Kindness: A Bloomsbury Childhood (1984). And among David Garnett's novels is his 1922 Lady into Fox.
I've not been very well this week -- nothing serious, just an annoying virus that has me running a temperature and completely off my food (this latter being not at all a bad thing). You'd think this would have been a perfect chance to catch up with my reading, but the first couple of days I didn't feel like it at all, though I have struggled through a rather less than wonderful novel by Robert Goddard called In Pale Battalions. I've read practically all Goddard's intelligent historical crime novels and generally enjoyed them, but this 1988 offering -- set partly in WW1 -- seemed to me old-fashioned, over-written and predictable.
I'm having more luck with an audiobook -- The Fire Engine that
Disappeared, by Maj Sjohwall and Per Wahloo, and the 5th of the brilliant 1960s Martin Beck series, of which I've written before. Beck doesn't actually figure very much in this novel, which is mostly about the other officers in his police station, who -- as usual -- bicker, bumble about, go off and do things which are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, and somehow manage in the end to stumble on the solution. Lots of sharp left-wing comments on Swedish society and the state of the world in general -- brilliant stuff.
Mostly, though, I've been watching movies online. Hooray for YouTube which has loads of them, and lots of free ones. Interestingly enough they were all based on true stories. But I've given up on several because I didn't like them -- one, the name of which I can't remember, about a rather nice and pretty housewife in Texas who started working in a massage parlour and became a successful prostitute -- one, with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, called I Love You Phillip Morris, which I was surprised to find quite distasteful -- I am far from homophobic but thought they hadn't managed to strike the right note at all -- and one recent one, On The Road, which I was looking forward to but got tired of all the drugs drink and e
ndless sex. Oh dear -- I sound like a real prude -- maybe I am.
However I discovered an absolutely brilliant film I'd never heard of -- Temple Grandin. Starring the wonderful Claire Danes, who is so great in Homeland, this is a biopic of a truly amazing woman who has overcome autism to become a Professor at a prestigeous American unversity. Inspiring, uplifting, informative -- one to watch if you haven't already.
This afternoon I am set for My Week with Marilyn, which I've seen before. I'm rather sorry I seem to be getting so much better -- watching films in bed is not a bad way to spend your life.