Monday, 29 September 2014

Beautiful books

Weekend newspaper supplements

The best parts of the weekend newspapers are the reviews.

This fits with Saturday and Sunday as a time to escape from news and current affairs.   
The reviews that appeal to me are those in the supplements of Saturday’s Times, the same day’s Belfast Telegraph, and Sunday’s Observer.  
Reviewing has become an art form.

Everything is reviewed and previewed from holidays at home and abroad, the latest releases in music, films, theatre, art galleries, festivals, walks to try out, family things to do, wines to buy, and of course books.

Work life balance

I have to admit that before I retired, reading novels was not my number one pastime. The pursuit was limited to occasions away from the usual routine such as being on holidays or perhaps at a conference.

Preoccupied with work, raising a family, paying bills, running marathons, organising community projects – there just were not enough hours in a day.

In retrospect, these excuses for self-deprivation are feeble.  Compared to my wife who has always been a voracious reader – she recently raced her way through the 1300+ page Tolstoy classic War and Peace – I have little claim to being a bibliophile.

What I did read were the national and local newspapers, athletics magazines, and easy to read novels by authors like Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham.  Textbooks to do with work also made an occasional appearance.

Books – the hobby

Now, however, that has changed.  A peripheral activity has become a hobby.

Having discovered the satisfaction of always having a book or two on the go, I have become aware of what I was missing.  
Buoyed by a regular fix of being enthralled and sometimes overwhelmed by a great narrative, I now set a modest objective to read a minimum of one book a month.  
Among the results is that every year the objective is surpassed, new authors are discovered, as different styles of writing emerge like wonderful discoveries.

There is no better feeling when being so involved with a story-line that impatience compels the reader to catch up with the plot and characters without delay.   
The more absorbing the book, the more I am carried to another world.  The experience is similar to that achieved by beautiful music.

Books add to variety and colour to daily life.  Each different story creates its own mood and place.  Every tale presents a new subject matter and style. Whereas most of my selections are fiction, a number are factual.  Some of the most convincing are fiction but based on the real world.

Books are also a diversion and a distraction from daily routine.  It is a moot point that burying the imagination in stimulating literature can benefit participation in activities like work, volunteering, family events, keeping fit, evening classes, attending concerts, and even holidaying.

Book choices

The big question is how to pick the next book.

I suspect that most people avail of a range of influences.  Apart from the weekend supplements, I rely on recommendations made by friends and family.  
It is also easy to be seduced by the lure of titles advertised on and off-line, perhaps best-sellers listings, or by the very presence of books sitting on bookshelves that catch the eye.

Here are a few examples selected from my literary liaison.

Book choices - fiction

One of the best novels I have read is “The Conductor” written by a New Zealander, and which was the best selling fiction book in New Zealand in 2011.   
This is a story about the siege of Leningrad which lasted from 1941 to 1944, Shostakovich and the composition of his gigantic seventh (or Leningrad) symphony.

Bella Bathurst’s review[1] quotes Hitler’s line that “St Petersburg must be erased from the face of the earth”.  She enthused that:-

“The Conductor reads like a proper up-all-night-page-turner, but it also goes deeper conveying the extraordinary life-saving properties of music and hope.”

War is not a subject that I would expect to capture my interest.  If, however, the story is well-written and researched, then novels set in the context of real and awful conflict can stir and shake the emotions.

One of this year’s highlights was “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusa, a novel recommended to me by my wife.  This is an innovative and moving story about World War 2 from the perspective of a German family and a nine-year-old girl.

A discovery from an earlier year was “Exile” written by Richard North Patterson (formerly a US trial lawyer including Watergate).  
The author had been recommended by a work friend as a superb exponent of legal thrillers, which he is.  
The beauty of Exile was that it combined the suspense of courtroom drama with the most lucid explanation of the interminable Arab/Israeli conflict.

The other stand-out American author (also drawn to my attention by a friend) is David Baldacci.  Like North Patterson, he writes powerful riveting legal political thrillers.  The most recent that I have read is “King and Maxwell.”

On the subject of trouble spots, two enjoyable books deliver very different and unexpected stories of everyday life in modern Afghanistan.  
One is “The little coffee shop of Kabul” by Deborah Rodriguez.  The other is “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad.   

The former is a novel about the coming together of five women in the war-torn city; the latter is a non-fictional journalistic reportage portrait of an Afghan family in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban.

Before dealing with non-fiction, one particular aspect of fiction deserves special mention.

Book choices – fiction - Nordic Noir

This reader has not been immune to the seemingly countless novelists from Scandinavia who have invaded our literary attention like latter-day Vikings.  In the words of one journalist[2]:

“Crime fiction has now overtaken Abba and flat-pack furniture as the most influential Scandinavian export.”

Few have not been charmed by Stieg Larsson’s millennium trilogy, Henning Mankell’s compelling stories of Inspector Kurt Wallander have been successfully transferred from book to small screen by a number of rival television companies in Sweden, Norway’s Jo Nesbo is never out of the bestsellers charts, and others including Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason and the Swede Lars Keplar all vie for our attention.

The enigmatic atmosphere of illness, death, insanity, and betrayal has been transformed into the art of Nordic Noir.  It was invented for cinema by Ingmar Bergman half a century ago and has become a twenty-first century literary phenomenon.   
Never has bleakness been so entrancing.

So, it was with pleasant surprise that a couple of books from the other end of the emotional spectrum thrust themselves into my line of vision earlier this year, courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph[3].  Here were two interesting titles occupying the upper echelons of the best-sellers lists.

Swedish author Jonas Jonasson has proved that northern bleakness is by no means the only style for which his nation should be famed.

Since his approach is the polar opposite of angst, I describe his two international political stories “The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared” and “The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden” as nordic blanc (even though the term is not alliterative).  
They are original, entertaining, funny, and (for added realism) provide a tour of twentieth century world history.

Book choices – non-fiction

Non-fiction can evoke the same strong feelings in readers’ minds especially if the story is narrated by expert journalists.

I attended an event in Belfast a couple of years ago when an experienced journalist and Channel 4’s international news editor Linsey Hilsum was interviewed about her experience in reporting from the front-line of war zones.   
She had just published a book called “Sandstorm - Libya in the Time of Revolution.”  

This is an account, often in harrowing detail, about the history of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, to the shocking massacre at Abu Salim prison and continuing through to how the Libyan people overcame fear and found the strength to rebel.

By happy coincidence, a few weeks later, a review by the Observer[4] critic Chris McGreal confirmed my favourable impression.   
He described Hilsum’s book as a 

“masterful account” from “an eyewitness to the revolution....
“Hilsum’s disgust shines through as she recounts how the West embraced Gaddafi...”

Another non-fiction book that I was persuaded to buy based on good reviews was “The 33” by Jonathan Franklin.   
This gripping episode the survival and the eventual rescue of 33 Chilean miners had held the world transfixed for days on end in the manner of a major fictional drama.   

The swift and exclusive reportage of the author was praised in a review by Robert Crampton[5] in The Times. The newspaper headlined it as its Book of the Week.   
In similar vein, reviewer Janine di Giovanni[6] from the Observer praised the telling of “the story of a miner miracle.” 

Both newspapers clearly love headline puns and transform book reviews into an art.

On which subject, there is another genre of book that I would not have considered without newspaper acclamation – the graphic novel.  

This summer, the Observer’s Rachel Cooke recommended a couple of “graphic novels of the month” (essentially comics for adults) that caught my attention.   
One was about cycling, the other about ageing.   
Words and fine art in perfect harmony. 

"Legends of the Tour" by Jam Cleijne is an artistic history of the Tour de France between 1903 and 2013. The Observer's review [7] sums it up perfectly as
"this exquisite comic book...  Not only is it a wonderfully concise history of the Tour, its competitors stoicism and skulduggery displayed to compelling effect, it is quite ravishing to behold.”

Cycling has become such a growth industry that book sales on the subject seem likely to have probably risen in response.   
A friend from my gym has recently recommended a book entitled “Faster” by the cyclist and Cycling Weekly journalist Michael Hutchinson.   
It is about the science and techniques used by elite cyclists in the quest for microcosmic improvements to race faster.  
It’s waiting in my slipstream, geared up for a hopefully impressive performance.

Cooke’s other graphic novel of the month was "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir" written by Roz Chast.   
Chast is a cartoonist in the New Yorker magazine.  

The review [8] describes it as
“a memoir about decrepitude specifically of her batty parents...her brilliant new book is honest, plangent, and thoroughly ghoulish....and wake-you-up-your-sleeping-husband hysterical.”

Sounds like another must-have book.

One very special book stands above all of the rest.

Two years ago the keeper of manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, Bernard Meehan, published “The Book of Kells.”  
It features more than 80 actual size reproductions of pages from the original historic masterpiece.  
Written in Latin close to 800 A.D., the original book of Kells is an illuminated version of the four gospels, a national and international treasure.

The Belfast Telegraph’s 7 books feature by Waterstone’s Michael Conaghan called the new book “surely unique.”  
A full page review in the Observer[9] by the acclaimed author Colm Tóibín headlined Meehan’s book as

“The medieval treasure that shows God in all his glory”

Among other insights, he explained that this 

“scholarly new edition of the Book of Kells reveals why it meant so much to James Joyce.”

Not only is it a magnificent replica, but the presentation inside a hard box-cover adds to its gravitas.  
I suspect that already it has become a collectors’ item based on receipt of two or more invitations to sell it back.

Writing about reading, I have no words left. I am almost breathless.   
Such is the power of great literature, beautiful books.

©Michael McSorley 2014

[1] Observer New Review 15 July 2012 “The symphony that silenced the Nazis”
[2] Observer 12 Sept 2010 Vanessa Thorpe “After Wallander a new generation of Scandinavian detectives takes over”
[3] Belfast Telegraph weekly Saturday feature “7 books you should own”
[4] Observer New Review 1 April “In the crucible of Libya’s uprising”
[5] Times Review “Light at the end of the tunnel” 19 Feb 2011
[6] Observer New Review 6 March 2011
[7] Observer New Review 22 June 2014
[8] Observer New Review 13 July 2014
[9] Observer New Review 9 Dec 2012