Well, I’m doing quite well for reading at the start of this near year … which is a good job, because the TBR has got slightly out of control, and I haven’t even had my birthday yet. More about that later – for now, here are two reviews of books which are both actually re-reads (even though my official Month of Re-Reading this year isn’t until February) of great favourite authors, pleasurable in the extreme to revisit.
Eric Newby – “The Big Red Train Ride”
(21 June 2014 – book stall in the Kings Heath Village Square)
Regular readers of this blog will know that Newby is one of my favourite travel writers – or even writers, full stop. So I was pleased to find a copy of this read-but-not-owned book on a book stall, and had been greatly looking forward to reading it – I started this at the tail-end of December, but didn’t want to rush it.
This is the story of his journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, accompanied by his doughty wife, Wanda, Otto, a German photographer who isn’t allowed to take many photos, and Mischa, their guide, seemingly mainly there to ensure that they speak to as many mayors as possible and visit a wire factory (there are a very amusing couple of paragraphs on Wire Factories I Have Known in the book).
The journey was made in the 1970s, so it was obviously very different to the Russia of today, still being the Soviet Union and a fascinatingly closed society, where people without a permit were simply not allowed to visit certain places, and there was a strong suspicion that people were still being sent to Siberia as a punishment for crimes or speaking out against the administration.
Newby is his customary mix of drily funny and serious where he needs to be about history and horror. Very much of his time, some of his language is couched in very Cold War terms, and he describes people’s behaviour as being ‘mouldy’ or ‘not quite the thing’, but he’s far from being stuffy, of course, and you can’t fault his commitment to the journey or his powers of description.
Although the actual journey only takes a couple of weeks (with stops at some towns), the book does not feel padded out, and the comparisons to the descriptions made by previous travellers are very interesting. A good read.
This book would suit: Newby fans, travel writing fans, people who have read Paul Theroux and Colin Thubron’s more po-faced books on Siberia and fancy a change.
John Galsworthy – “The Man of Property” and “Indian Summer of a Forsyte”
Although these books are based on a satirical view of the aspirational upper middle classes of the late Victorian period, they can’t help being warm, entertaining page-turners that are eminently readable, otherwise they wouldn’t have the life they have now in e-books, republished sets of trilogies, etc. In this, the first of the nine novels and its accompanying Interlude, we meet the elder Forsyte generation – ten brothers and sisters, the offspring of the majority of them, and then their offspring, too – a wonderfully diverse cast, from Aunt Ann with her unchanging grey curls pinned to her front hair every morning to the artistic grand-daughter who writes melodramatic songs.
It centres at first around the patriarch of the family, Old Jolyon, and his grand-daughter June, who has just got herself engaged to the thrusting young architect, Bosinney, who the family find to be not quite the right sort. It broadens out into the story of Old Jolyon’s nephew, Soames, and his estrangement from his wife, Irene – their marriage has never quite ‘taken’, and she’s obviously dissatisfied and distressed, a situation which no one can understand except June, who is repelled in the end by what she then understands to be happening.
There’s quite a shocking scene in Irene and Soames’ marriage at one point; this is cleverly seen only from Soames’ point of view, with his human frailties clearly struggling with his outward persona as a Man of Property, both human (in the form of his wife) and architectural (in the form of a country seat he is having built). Galsworthy gives us a detailed psychological portrait of Soames’ own suffering, and I found it interesting that I found myself identifying far more with Old Jolyon and Soames than I remember doing when I read this as a much younger woman (I last read this in 2009 but don’t recall if my allegiance had switched by then).
As Soames appears to over-reach himself financially and emotionally, the family flows around and into the developing scandal, commenting, putting two and two together, and always working to balance individuality against the class hegemony which demands conservative obedience to the laws of property. Old Jolyon’s estranged son is even dragged into things. It can’t end happily, and it doesn’t, although the Interlude, while again holding some carefully sign-posted tragedy itself, speaks of happier and more settled times.
Galsworthy does an excellent job of keeping a large cast of characters fresh and delineated in our minds and holding our attention. It was tempting to plunge into the next book and the next, but I must attack the growing TBR, too.
This book would suit: People who like a family saga, Hardy fans, fans of Edwardian literature before all that funny Modernism came through, people who like a thumping good read.
Now to the horrors of the TBR. First of all, the lovely Karen/Kaggsy, having seen my E.H. Young acquisitions over Christmas, offered me another one to read – I felt I was helping her weed some books out of her house, so was able to say yes without feeling bad about not offering one in return. We have a large overlap in our book taste, so I’m sure a swapsie will be winging its way in due course. This looks another good read, although I have to say that I won’t get to that stage in the TBR for a little while yet …
Then, through a rather circuitous route, these Rosie Rinkstar novels by Janet Rosina West made their way to me. It’s a lovely series about a teenage ice skater and her trials and tribulations on the way to ice-dance stardom, really nicely done and I’m almost the whole way through them now, so look out for reviews coming soon.
And then, well, this is a justification and a half … I picked up a lovely book about designer Orla Kiely (you know, her with the lovely stylised leaf and flower patterns that look a bit 70s and Swedish) for my best friend for Christmas. I thought about getting myself a copy, but didn’t. Fool! So, long story short, in order to get free click-and-collect delivery, I had to order some more books to make up a certain total.
So, I was tempted by Omid Djalili’s autobiography (although seemingly only up to his early days in showbiz – what it is about these showbiz types eking out their memoirs into two or more books? They never used to, but now you only get the bits about other famous people in Book Two, don’t you!) and also Ken Livingstone’s (which is satisfyingly substantial and certainly doesn’t stop when it’s only just got started, from the look of it).
Just what I needed: more books. And I’ve borrowed the latest Marian Keyes from my friend Linda, and it would be RUDE not to dive into that soon, right?
How’s your year with books going? Have you got off to a flying start or are you still finishing stuff from the end of last year? Anything good coming up? Doing any challenges and managing to get on with them? Do share!