Favourite Books: September 2007 – 2010

Each month I’ve been looking back at some of my favourite books I read during the years 2007 – 2010. These are some of my favourite books I read in September in each of those years. September seems to have been a great month for books as I rated so many 5/5, but I’m highlighting just one for each month in this post. Revisiting these books makes me want to re-read all of them.

Click on the titles to see my original reviews.

2007


Crow Lake by Mary Lawson – this tells the story of a family of four children living at Crow Lake in the north of Canada in an isolated house miles away from any town, with just a few other families in the vicinity. The narrator is Kate Morrison and the story unfolds as she looks back on her life, triggered by an invitation to her nephew’s 18th birthday party.

When she was seven her parents were killed in a car crash, leaving her, her baby sister and two teenage brothers, orphaned. The trauma of their parents’ death affects the children in different ways and as Kate looks back on the events that followed she begins to see that not everything was as it seemed to her at the time.

Convincing characters combined with beautiful descriptions of Crow Lake and its ponds make this a memorable and lyrical novel.

2008

The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates made a great impression on me in 2008 and I wrote three posts about it – see here and here for the first two and here for my final thoughts.

This is a melodramatic and memorable book depicting a grim, dark world, a violent and pessimistic world, gothic and grotesque. In some ways it reminds me of Hardy’s novels ‘“ you know something terrible will happen whatever the characters do to try to avert tragedy.

The main character is Rebecca Schwart, born in New York Harbor, the daughter of Jacob and Anna escaping from Nazi Germany in 1936. They live a life of abject poverty whilst Jacob can only find work as a caretaker of Milburn Cemetery, a non-demoninational cemetery at the edge of the town.

Soon the town’s prejudice and the family’s own emotional frailty results in unspeakable tragedy. In the wake of this loss, and in an attempt to put her past behind her, Rebecca moves on, across America and through a series of listless marriages, in search of somewhere, and someone, to whom she can belong.

The ending both surprised and touched me enormously.

2009

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear – the third book in her Maisie Dobbs series. This one is set in 1930 when Maisie is asked by Sir Cecil Lawton to prove that his son, Ralph really did die in 1917 during the First World War. Sir Cecil’s wife, who had recently died, had been convinced that Ralph was still alive and on her deathbed made him promise to search for their son. This takes Maisie on a traumatic and dangerous trip to France ‘“ to the battlefields where she had been a nurse.

I like the Maisie Dobbs books. They’re easy to read, but not simple, the plots are nicely complicated and Maisie’s own story is seamlessly interwoven with the mystery. They give a good overall impression of the period, describing what people were wearing, the contrast between the rich and the poor and the all-pervading poisonous London smog. The horror of the War is still strong, people are still grieving for friends and relations killed or missing, visiting the battlefields and working to improve life for the soldiers who had returned home injured, and for the homeless children forced into life on the streets.

2010

The Fall by Simon Mawer – beautifully written, I was enthralled by this book. This is the story of Rob Dewar and Jamie Matthewson from their childhood up to Jamie’s death 40 years later and also the story of their parents and how their lives are interlinked.

The narrative moves between the two generations beginning in the present day, when Rob hears on the news that Jamie, a renowned mountaineer has fallen to his death in Snowdonia. No one is sure whether it was an accident or suicide. Then it moves  back 40 years to the time when the two boys met, both fatherless ‘“ Jamie’s dad, Guy went missing when climbing Kangchenjunga and Rob’s parents are divorced, and back yet further again to 1940 when Guy Matthewson met the boys’ mothers ‘“ Meg (later calling herself Caroline) and Diana. And so the drama unfolds in the mountains of Wales and the Alps, culminating on the North Face of the Eiger.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates: a Book Review

Blonde is a work of fiction, not a biography of Marilyn Monroe. I had to keep reminding myself of that as I was reading, because it was so easy to believe in the characters.

Joyce Carol Oates makes it crystal clear in her Author’s Note:

Blonde is a radically distilled “life” in the form of fiction, and, for all its length, synecdoche is the principle of appropriation. In place of numerous foster homes in which the child Norma Jeane lived, for instance, Blonde explores only one, and that fictitious; in place of numerous lovers, medical crises, abortions and suicide attempts and screen performances, Blonde explores only a selected, symbolic few.

… Biographical facts regarding Marilyn Monroe should not be sought in Blonde, which is not intended as a historic document, but in biographies of the subject.

As you would expect it’s a tragic story, intense and shocking in parts. It begins with a Prologue – 3 August 1962 with Death hurtling along towards 12305 Fifth Helena Drive, Brentwood, California. It then follows Norma Jeane Baker’s life in chronological sections from The Child 1932 – 1938 to The Afterlife 1959 – 1962. It switches from one narrator to the next, and from third person to first person perspective throughout. It’s brutal, tender and both lyrical and fragmented.

It focuses on need, on Norma/Marilyn’s need for love and acceptance – to be loved as a person and acknowledged as an actress. She wanted to be good. ‘Marilyn Monroe’ was a role she had to play:

A light must have shone in Norma Jeane’s eyes. An electric current must have run through her supple, eager girl’s body. She was “Marilyn” – no she was “Angela” – she was Norma Jeane playing “Marilyn” playing “Angela” – like a Russian doll in which smaller dolls are contained by the largest doll which is the mother … (pages 256-7)

She took drugs to help her sleep, and drugs to give her energy.She couldn’t cope with ordinary life, it baffled her without a script to follow and no guidance about what was happening, or why. She was driven, desperate to have a baby, desperate to know her father, calling her husbands ‘Daddy’, moody, childlike, fragile, always wanting to do and be better.

Joyce Carol Oates has got really inside this character, so much so that I could believe she’d had access to Norma/Marilyn’s thoughts and feelings. The other characters are intriguing, sometimes just given initials, Mr Z, W, C and so on, others are recognizable through their nicknames – The Ex-Athlete, The Playwright, The Prince and the President for example. But Marilyn is the star. In the Author’s Note Oates lists the sources she has consulted, not just biographies but also books about American politics, Hollywood and books on acting. Marilyn had kept a journal and also written poems, two lines of which are included in the final chapter; the other poems apparently by her are invented. Some of the text is taken from interviews and some is fictitious. But it’s all woven together so skilfully that it’s hard to tell what is from real life and what is not.

For me this ranks as one of Joyce Carol Oates best books, although I have by no means read all her books. The ones I’ve read have all had the power to move me. In addition to the ones I’ve written about on this blog I’ve also read The Tattooed Girl, Middle Age, Solstice and The Falls.

Teaser Tuesday – Blonde

Currently I’m reading Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve been reading it for a while as it’s a long book of over 700 pages. I’m about a third of the way into it. It’s a fictionalised account of Norma Jeane Baker – also known as Marilyn Monroe and it is absolutely fascinating.

No doubt I’ll be writing more about this book. For now here is a little teaser quotation:

Her problem wasn’t she was a dumb blonde, it was she wasn’t a blonde and she wasn’t dumb. (page 232)

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly event hosted by MizB of Should be Reading.

Book Beginnings

There came Death hurtling along the Boulevard in waning sepia light.

There came Death flying as a children’s cartoon on a heavy unadorned messenger’s bicycle.

There came Death unerring. Death not to be persuaded. Death-in-a-hurry. Death furiously pedalling. Death carrying a package marked *SPECIAL DELIVERY HANDLE WITH CARE* in a sturdy wire basket behind his seat.

These are the opening lines of the Prologue, ‘Special Delivery’ in Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde. The date is 3 August 1962 – the date of Marilyn Monroe’s death. It doesn’t give anything away – Marilyn’s death has been well documented even if it still remains under suspicion and speculation. Blonde tells the fictionalised story of Norma Jeane Baker, who became the beautiful ‘Fair Princess‘ of the movies.

The only difficulty I have in reading Blonde is the weight and size of the book – not ideal for reading in bed. And it has 738 pages – and I’m only on page 52.

Book Beginnings is hosted by Katy at A Few More Pages, where you can leave a link to your own post on the opening lines of a book you’re currently reading.

Book Beginnings

This morning I finished reading Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, a fantastic book, which I’ll write more about soon. And as I’m nearing the end of the other books I’m currently reading I’m thinking about what to read next.

One, of course, will be the next book in the Gormenghast trilogy – Gormenghast. The opening paragraph is:

Titus is seven. His confines, Gormenghast. Suckled on shadows; weaned as it were on webs of  rituals: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other – other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and foremost he is child. (page 7)

This sets the scene, following on from Titus Groan, which began with his birth and ended with his second birthday. Five years have passed since the ending of Titus Groan and this book promises to develop his story as evil spreads throughout Gormenghast. I just know it’s going to be good.

But I like to have more than one book on the go. As well as my own books, I’ve got a fair number of library books out at the moment all vying for attention and some are due back soon. So I was thinking of reading one of those next. But out shopping today I went into the British Heart Foundation charity shop and bought We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve been looking for this book for several years as I read somewhere it’s one of her best books. I was so pleased to find a good copy in the shop. It begins:

We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?

You may have thought our family was larger, often I’ve met people who believed we Mulvaneys were a virtual clan, but in fact there were only six of us: my dad who was Michael John Mulvaney, Sr., my mom Corinne, my brothers Mike Jr. and Patrick and my sister Marianne, and me – Judd. (page 3)

That’s a good start – introducing the family. I like family sagas. Described on the back cover as a ‘book that will break your heart, heal it, then break it again‘, it may be a roller-coaster ride and I’m anticipating it will be very good.

Book Beginnings is hosted by Katy at A Few More Pages, where you can leave a link to your own post on the opening lines of a book you’re currently reading.