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.

Final Thoughts about The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Gravedigger's DaughterI finished The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates last week and parts of it have remained in my mind. Mainly I think it’s the general atmosphere of its world. It’s 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. A rent-free “cottage”, which is a stone hovel of four cramped rooms,  goes with the job. Jacob, once a maths teacher is reduced to a troll-like figure, harassed and tormented by schoolboys and young men: “Gravedigger! Kraut! Nazi! Jew!”.

It’s this first section of the book recounting Rebecca’s childhood that has stayed with me; the effect of the suppressed anger, prejudice and resentment on the whole family. Her mother Anna, retreats into a world of her own, hiding away from other people “the outsiders”. It’s only through through listening to music on Jacob’s radio when he is out of the house that she can communicate with Rebecca. Briefly the family have their hopes raised with the news that Anna’s sister and family are fleeing Germany and will come to live with them. Rebecca is excited and entranced by thoughts of her cousin Freyda and imagines playing with her, whilst Anna does her best to ‘fix-up’ the cottage. Alas, they never arrive. Jacob is sickened by his inability to protect his daughter and exhorts her to hide her weakness:

He told her solemnly as if she were of a age to understand such words, “Humanity is fearful of death, you see. So they make jokes about it. In me, they see a servant of death. In you, the daughter of such a one. But they do not know us Rebecca. Not you, and not me. Hide your weakness from them and one day we will repay them! Our enemies who mock us.”

Eventually, Jacob’s rage at his desperate life erupts into violence and life is never the same for Rebecca and her brothers.

More violence and despair follow as Rebecca falls in love with Niles Tigor, a man whose moods alternate wildly, one moment tender and passionate towards Rebecca and then cruelly indifferent and brutally agressive. Rebecca has a miscarriage, brought by Niles’s violent attack. She stays with him until she can no longer bear his cruelty and in fear of her life and that of her son Niley she turns on him and flees thinking she may have killed him.

The third section of the book follows her life with Chet, his desire to marry her and her increasing anxiety and fear that Niles will discover where she is. Chet is a musician and helps Niles to become a pianist. Chet is from a wealthy family in contrast to Rebecca, now Hazel and she lives a life of luxury, still haunted by the fear of Niles. Music is a motif that runs through the book. Niley has inherited his musical talent from Anna, who used to play in the ‘old country’ and stifled by Jacob she still listened secretly to music on the radio and introduced Rebecca to Beethoven’s Appassionata; a memory that Rebecca cherished throughout her life, culminating in Niley’s triumphant performance of the sonata. I read the account of his performance with increasing tension as Hazel (Rebecca) can hardly breathe in her dread of a catastrophe.

History and how we perceive it is a thread running through the book. Here are two quotes that struck me:

History has no existence. All that exists are individuals, and of these, only individual moments as broken off from one another as shattered vetebrae.

and

History is an invention of books. In biological anthropology we note that the wish to perceive “meaning” is one trait of our species among many. But that does not posit “meaning” in the world. If history did exist it is a great river/cesspool into which countless small streams and tributaries flow. In one direction. Unlike sewage it cannot back up. It cannot be “tested” – “demonstrated”. It simply is. If the river dries up, the river disappears. There is no “river-destiny”. There are merely accidents in time.

But it’s the final section for me that stands up to the story of Rebecca’s childhood and in some ways completes the story. And yet …

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I’ll just say the ending did surprise me and touched me enormously. It made a great ending for this melodramatic and memorable book. There is an interview with Joyce Carol Oates at the back of the book and I was not surprised to read that this part of the book had the power to bring tears to her eyes, even though she had written it herself. It brought tears to my eyes too. The favourite parts of the book for her included the scenes in the gravedigger’s house and the exchanges between the father and his children, which I think are very powerful.

I’ve also written about this book here and here. It qualifies for my second book for the RIP III Challenge.

The Sunday Salon – The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Last Sunday I wrote that I’d started The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates. I’m still reading it. I really shouldn’t write much about it as I haven’t finished it and I’m wondering how it is going to end. I thought I could predict the ending but then something happened which made me think, maybe I was wrong, but maybe not. It’s a dark book, quite violent in parts which I don’t really like, but then I don’t have to visualise all the violence – not like watching something on TV or film such as Wire In the Blood, which is just gross. I’ve decided not to watch any more in the series, having turned it off during the first programme.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is very much a book of two halves, split between Rebecca’s life as a child, living with her father, Jacob Schwart, a troll-like figure of a man and Anna,  her mother and her two brothers. They are a Jewish family who emigrated to America before the Second World War, fleeing from the Nazis. Her father, originally a maths teacher can only get work as a gravedigger and as the story unfolds we see the effect this has on him and inevitably on his wife and children. Denying they are Jewish, Rebecca grows up to be fearful of the others and after a terrifying and vividly described episode full of blood and gore in which her parents both die she eventually meets Niles Tignor. Life with Niles is full of danger and sickening violence towards her and her son Niley. It was with some relief that I found the second half of the book is a lot lighter in tone as Rebecca, now Hazel Jones makes a life for herself and her son, now known as Zack.  She at last meets a man, Chet Gallagher, a jazz-playing journalist from a wealthy family, who wants to look after her and Zack, encouraging his musical talent, and she uses all her cunning to make the most of her life with him.

So this is a book about prejudice, poverty, humiliation, suffering, and hiding your identity/creating a new personality for yourself, denying the past yet seemingly unable to escape from its consequences. The male characters are all unattractive, even repulsive and I found it hard to feel much sympathy for Rebecca/Hazel as she suffered and struggled to escape the tragedy that seems to follow her. Only Chet and Zack aroused my sympathy. Just occasionally I could see in Zack the inheritance of his father’s violence simmering just below the surface. The parent/child relationships are never easy in this book! I always find Oates’s books compelling reading despite the pessimism. Is there hope for Rebecca/Hazel – so far I can’t see it?

The questions I had on reading the opening chapters have mainly been answered – I only have about 50 pages left to read. I do have one little niggle about the way Oates writes sometimes in short, abrupt incomplete sentences, which break up the flow of reading too much.

Mainly, I suppose, The Gravedigger’s Daughter is about life and how we live it. Just a couple of quotes to end on. The first is Hazel’s thoughts about life and movies (for a while she worked as an usherette):

Stories looped back on themselves. No one got anywhere. She knew beforehand what actors would say, even as the camera opened a “new” scene. She knew when an audience would laugh, though each audience was new and their laughter was spontaneous. She knew what music cues signalled even when she wasn’t watching the screen. It gave you a confused sense of what to expect in life. For in life there is no music, you have no cues. Most things happen in silence. You live your life forward and remember only backward. Nothing is relived, only just remembered and that incompletely. And life isn’t simple like a movie story, there is too much to remember. 

“And all that you forget, it’s gone as if it had never been. Instead of crying you might as well laugh.”

And finally I think this quote sums up the novel succinctly:

Throwing off the shackles of the past.

The Sunday Salon

I thought I wouldn’t manage to write a Sunday Salon post today but find I do have a little time just to write a short post. Yesterday I finished reading Old School by Tobias Wolff, one of the best books I’ve read recently. I’ll write a post about it later in the week.

I’ve not done much reading today, but I did manage to start reading The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates. a massive 581 pages that will see me busy for several days – if not weeks. So far I’ve met Rebecca, haunted by her dead father. She hated him  and could see no resemblance to either her mother or her father. She is alone in the world, apart from her three year old son, Niley, as she doesn’t where her husband is or if indeed he will return.

The story starts as Rebecca Tignor (formerly Schwart) is walking home from work along a canal towpath followed by a mysterious stranger – a odd looking man in a panama hat. Quickly she experiences a quivering malevolence and trying to escape him in her panic she falls. He approaches and asks if she is Hazel Jones.  After her denial she eventually goes on her way home. I have many questions – it appears that Schwart was not her real name anyway – so who is she, why did she hate her father, the gravedigger, why is her husband absent and who is the man in the panama hat?