“One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.” (Jeanette Walls)

A couple of weeks ago the news reported it was the busiest day for holiday getaways. And just in case there was any doubt that this was a British news story, it was delivered by a reporter standing next to a motorway, framed within a narrative context of extreme traffic jams, while the traffic behind her was disappointingly free-flowing. Brilliant. It’s the first bit of news that raised a smile from me after Brexit.

british-summer

Sadly, my finances are as dire as ever so I will have to leave the joys of non-existent traffic jams to more solvent souls. Instead I looked to my TBR for some suitably summery titles and came up with two that by coincidence are both short story collections. So not quite the traditional holiday doorstop reading matter, but highly recommended nonetheless.

Firstly, Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley (2007), whose stories explore desire in various guises, showing how it is both extraordinary and everyday. The titular story looks at old friends Rachel and Janie, married with kids, committed to their lives yet willing to risk it all for a moment’s sexual excitement:

“Neither is exactly unhappy, but what has built up in them instead is a sense of surplus, of life unlived. Somewhere else, while they are absorbed in pushchairs and fish fingers and wiping bottoms, there must be another world of intense experiences for grown-ups.”

Hadley is very good at placing dramatic tension within these ordinary domestic details. Her settings and characters are wholly recogniseable, and it is this that makes her writing challenging: you can’t step away from it as something outside your experience. So even if you’ve never had an affair with your lecturer, tracked down the older woman who got away, or recreated the sexual betrayals of your parents within your own love life, as the protagonists of Hadley’s short stories have, it is difficult to claim that these experiences are entirely alien. Is it out of character behaviour, or is it that someone’s character is sublimated beneath the ordinary? Hadley questions how secure anything is, how sure we can be of the foundations of our lives, when in a moment, something can happen to change the narrative we’ve constructed:

“Even if we were good, if we were perfectly and completely chaste, we can’t control what happen in our imagination. So being good might only be another kind of lie.”

Hadley is a highly skilled writer. Often I found myself on finishing the stories thinking “Oh, that’s clever.” The collection works as a whole and the individual stories are exactly what the genre should be: powerful, contained, strengthened rather than weakened by their limited words. She’s also great at effective turns of phrase:

For a moment he was sure she could smell something on him, see something of the dazzle that was clinging to him, dripping off him, flashing round in his veins. But he saw her deliberately tidy that intimation away, out of consciousness. This was her husband, the man she knew. He was a physics teacher and competition-standard chess player, wasn’t he?”

Duran Duran taking a formal approach to their barging holiday along Birmingham's canal system

Duran Duran taking a formal approach to their barging holiday along Birmingham’s canal system

Secondly, The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr (2002), written 12 years before the Pulitzer prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. Having read this collection, I don’t think it’s too much to say the Pulitzer potential was already evident – this is a brilliantly written collection of stories, spanning several countries: Kenya, Liberia, the US,  Finland, Tanzania. In the titular story, a young boy loses his sight and discovers the love of his life:

“‘That’s a mouse cowry,’ the doctor said. ‘A lovely find. It has brown spots, and darker stripes at its base, like tiger stripes. You can’t see it, can you?’

But he could. He’d never seen anything so clearly in his life. His fingers caressed the shell, flipped and rotated it. He had never felt anything so smooth – had never imagined something could possess such deep polish. He asked, nearly whispering: ‘Who made this?’ The shell was still in his hand, a week later, when his father pried it out, complaining of the stink.”

As an adult, his quiet life collecting on the coast is disturbed by people wanting him to sting them with cone shells, convinced it will cure their various ills. It is a melancholy tale, about a search for meaning in the world, about loneliness and grief. Ultimately though, it is about resilience and love.

“He took the cone shell and flung it, as far as he could, back into he lagoon. He would not poison them. It felt wonderful to make a decision like this. He wished he had more shells to hurl back into the sea, more poisons to rid himself of.”

All eight stories in this collection are beautifully written; wise and moving. Even in such company, one of the stories which stood out for me was The Caretaker, about a Liberian refugee. Joseph Saleeby is not a particularly likable man when we first meet him: selfish, spoilt and making a living illegally. Then war breaks out, and he suffers horribly. He arrives in the US to claim refuge, deeply traumatised.  When the bodies of six whales are washed ashore, he takes their hearts and buries them on the estate where he is caretaker:

“He fills the hole, and as he leaves it, a mound of earth and muscle, stark amid a thicket of salmonberry with the trunks of spruce falling back all around it… he feels removed from himself, as though his body were a clumsy tool needed only a little longer. He parks in the yard and falls into bed, gore-soaked and unwashed, the door to the apartment open, the hearts of all six whales wrapped in the earth, slowly cooling. He thinks: I have never been so tired. He thinks: at least I have buried something.”

He starts growing fruit and vegetables on the plot of land and befriends the unhappy daughter of the owners. Things do not go well for Joseph as people don’t realise how mentally fragile he is, but his friendship with Belle endures:

“The girl saws a wedge from one of the halves. The flesh is wet and shining and Joseph cannot believe the colour – it is as if the melon carried light within it. They each lift a chunk of it to their lips and eat. It seems to him that he can taste the forest, the trees, the storms of the winter and the size of the whales, the stars and the wind. A tiny gob of melon slides down Belle’s chin.”

Doerr writes with delicacy but without sentimentality. His view is penetrating and unblinking, but compassionate. Just devastating.

To end, summer = Pimms, and this advert = another chance to acknowledge the enduring genius of Adam Ant:

“Babies don’t need a vacation, but I still see them at the beach…” (Steven Wright)

The rest of that title quote is: “It pisses me off! I’ll go over to a little baby and say ‘What are you doing here? You haven’t worked a day in your life!’” Unfortunately right now I’m working every day of my life and that pisses me off no end.  Being the eternal student means any spare spondoolicks go towards debt repayment, so no holiday for me for the foreseeable future. As a bibliophile, the obvious answer to this is a vicarious holiday via the printed word.  Here I am reading in my local park:

tumblr_myc32nIU7V1t7797ko1_1280

Just kidding – I don’t like Walt Whitman.

Firstly, I’m having a staycation with The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude. I love golden age detective novels, and this is one of the wonderful re-issues under the British Library Crime Classics series.  Set in the coastal Cornish village of Boscawen, the Reverend Dodd and his friend Dr Pendrill are avid consumers of detective fiction, meeting every Monday for dinner and to divide the spoils of their library parcels:

“heaven forbid that the shadow of any crime should ever fall across the grey-stoned cottages, the gorse dotted commons and cliff-girdled seas of his beloved parish. He preferred to get his excitement second-hand and follow the abstruse machinations of purely imaginary criminals”

Reverend Dodd doesn’t get his wish however, as someone murders the dastardly Julius Tregarthen, bringing the pragmatic Inspector Bigswell to the village, in direct contrast to the Reverend’s more idiosyncratic detective style:

“it’s always struck me that the detective in fiction is inclined to underrate the value of intuition. Now, if I had to solve a problem like this, I should first dismiss all those people who, like Caesar’s wife, were above suspicion, merely because my intuition refused to let me think otherwise. Then I should set to work on what remained and hope for the best!”

This approach seems highly dubious to me, but then even the level-headed Inspector has his own prejudices, as he records in his notebook:

“Three shots entered the room at widely scattered points. The garden is fifteen feet in length. This argues a poor shot.  Probably a woman.”

Between the two of them however, they of course manage to find the villain.  The Cornish Coast Murder is not the greatest detective story ever written, but it is entertaining and well-paced, and has a surprising sympathy for the murderer – this is not a clear-cut case of right/wrong. Bude went on to write other cases set in picturesque tourist traps  – The Lake District Murder, The Sussex Downs Murder.  He didn’t change his pseudonym to a local town each time though, disappointingly (John Ambleside? John Bexhill-on-Sea?)  I may take another holiday later in the season to Bude’s other murderous locations…

Secondly, and in direct contrast to the cosy Cornish amateur detecting, The Shore by Sara Taylor. I can’t claim this as a relaxing vacation read, despite the beautiful cover:

006 (3)

The Shore tells the lives of islanders off the coast of Virginia. The chapters are told from the viewpoints of different characters and move back and forth across time from the nineteenth century to the twenty-second, showing how people, bloodlines, events and actions are all interwoven. Taylor’s writing is breathtakingly beautiful but her gaze is unflinching:

“The Shore is flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow…We take the force out of hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say the government doesn’t remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the maps.”

Life on The Shore is not easy – the people are brutal and brutalised, violent and destructive – particularly towards women. At times the unrelenting harshness of the lives depicted made this a tough read, but Taylor’s writing is so original, so tight and accomplished, that I felt myself drawn onwards, like one of her characters unable to stop themselves:

“[I] have been easing back into the landscape like putting on a favourite coat. I hate this place and I love this place and I don’t know if I want to go as far away as possible or ever leave.”

The Shore is its own place, with its own rules.  There are ‘witches’ – women bearing the scars of domestic violence who medicate those in need with traditional remedies from the land – and storm bringers, young girls with gifts inherited from their grandfathers:

“She finds a breeze, gives it a twist, and pulls the particles across the bay like teasing knots out of her sister Lilly’s hair.  It is a gradual process, and her pace slows as she waits. The ambient moisture begins to bead and grow heavy , a million pregnant bellies.  Then, she brings it down.”

The Shore is truly astonishing. It’s definitely one to read only when you’re feeling robust enough to take it, but I wholeheartedly recommend it.

 “The stars are smeared across the sky, not the pretty scatter that most people imagine, but a crush of millions in the beautiful, pure darkness”

For me, this sentence sums up The Shore.  It is striking, unsettling, the imagery is unexpected and there is a hint of violence – all from the point of view of an individual who knows how powerless they are but still carries hope.

To end, the obvious choice of Madge (who appeared in Desperately Seeking Susan, as did Steven Wright who started the post – this was, of course, complete coincidence brilliant planning on my part) in a video where the budget appears to have been maxed-out on matching bangles for all concerned…these were simpler times, people.  All together now: “Holidaaay! Celebraaaate!” :

 

“Summer, summer, summertime.” (Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince)

On Monday this week the weather forecasters seemed fixated on the fact that it was the start of something they called ‘meteorological summer’.  If you live in the UK & looked out of the window at that point, there was only one sane reaction to such news:

531

Because frankly, even by British standards, the weather’s been a total washout. (btw, this week’s GIFs are dedicated to fellow book blogger Lady Fancifull 🙂 )  However, it has brightened up considerably throughout the week and as I write this I can smell my neighbour’s barbeque, so it looks like maybe the weather forecasters’ optimism wasn’t so misplaced after all. I like to imagine the meteorologists are now running round the studio thusly:

tumblr_inline_n3h730aMNJ1s5jo86

So here is a post to celebrate the start of the meteorological summer. Which in the UK should be good for at least, ooh, another 5 days or so 😉

Firstly, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (1972, my edition 2003 Sort Of books trans.Thomas Teal) which I won from a giveaway hosted by the lovely bookarino at Dawn of Books.  Apparently this was Jansson’s favourite of her novels for adults (she is best known for the Moomin series) and it’s a wonderful read.  The premise is simple: a series of vignettes detailing how a grandmother and her granddaughter Sophia spend a summer together on an island in the gulf of Finland.

“When the southwest wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind.. ..They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy.  It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.”

Nothing hugely dramatic happens, but Jansson evokes real meaning through the layering of small moments to create fully realised portraits of two complex, stubborn, loving, life-embracing women.

““Listen,” Sophia said. “I don’t have time to stay here with you – I’ve only been swimming twice today.  You won’t be sad now, will you?”

“I want to go too,” Grandmother said.

…They helped each other climb out of the canyon, and then they circled around the hill…off to one side of the channel marker, there was a large, deep pool.

“Is this alright?” Sophia sked.

“It’s fine,” Grandmother said.  She bared her legs and stuck them in the pool.  The water was warm and pleasant.”

There is a wonderful gentle humour running through the book, and also sadness  – Sophia’s mother has died, the elderly grandmother is aware her time is short.

““What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered.  “That is to say,” she added angrily, “I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda.  “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother.  “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.”  They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk, Move over.””

Bookarino’s enthusiasm for Jansson is infectious, as is Kaggsy’s, and I definitely plan on reading all her books for adults (and maybe a Moomin or two too…)

tumblr_no2vy7RJ1p1u8pg83o1_500

If, like me, you live in a city, summer may not immediately bring to mind the heady waft of night blooming jasmine and the soothing chirp of crickets.  So I’m eschewing pastoral evocations of summer in favour of a short poem about London in summer, ‘August’ by Tobias Hill (from Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow, 2007):

when pigeons like dei ex machina

descend improbably out of the air

 

wobble like airships skimming through the tops

of trees which sink under their tea-pink weights

 

until each grandee bungee-jumps or bellyflops

downwards in great soap-operatic terrifying swoops

 

into the sweet dark shining feather-bedness of the fruits

When the first sunny days appear, those of us used to greyer climes seem to behave with the mania of the pigeons in this poem.  It’s a glorious sight to behold, as city-dwellers sunbathe on patchy grass verges next to dual carriageways, pale blue skin gradually glowing vermilion; lager and sausage rolls sweating in plastic carrier bags beside them. Ah, the summer idyll….

I got my hair cut today (moulting in the warm weather) and the titular song from this post started to play on the radio.  My hairdresser pronounced it a classic but said her favourite summer song was this:

“Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” (Mark Twain)

Being a Brit, I love talking about the weather.  Seriously.  I love the fact that it’s the usual conversation opener for the stranger next to you in the queue (another great British past time). I never tire of it.  There’s always something to say.  At the moment, that thing is: “Will this never end?  I’m melting. I’m honestly melting.  Look, my feet are fusing with the tarmac.  Look.” Yes, we are having a heat wave.  And my usual refrain in hot weather of “At least it’s not as bad as 2006” won’t work, because it is as bad as 2006. It’s too hot.  I live in London.  Over 30C is fine by the coast, but in a city that is ill-equipped to deal with it (there’s not exactly an abundance of air-conditioning; the Tube is like some sort of medieval torture oven masquerading as public transport; the shops are selling out of water, and people are leaving huge chunks of their own scorched skin in their wake) it’s truly revolting.  We had respite of one blissfully grey day and then that blistering ball of fire was back in the sky.  So I’m afraid there was only one choice for a theme for this week’s post, and it has to reflect my current obsession with all things meteorological (I’m checking the BBC weather pages every few hours in the delusional hope the forecast changes to gale-force winds and squally showers.  Not that I know what squally showers are but I’m pretty sure I’d welcome them right now. Although last night there was a thunderstorm & all that’s done is make the humidity worse.) I’ve chosen two novels that use stifling hot weather to further the oppression felt by their protagonists. For those of you suffering a heat wave, I hope it helps in the way CS Lewis identified: “We read to know we are not alone.”  For those of you in colder climes, I hope you feel a reflected warmth from the stories, you lucky, chilly people.

Firstly, A Crime in the Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne (Penguin,1997).  This was Suzanne Berne’s first book and was pretty well-hyped, winning the Orange Prize and being compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m sure the comparisons were well-intentioned, but who can live up to that?  To Kill a Mockingbird is about as perfect a piece of writing as you’ll come across.  It’s hardly a major criticism if I say this isn’t as good; few books are.  But A Crime in the Neighbourhood is still a well-written, atmospheric and insightful novel with plenty to say.

Set in 1972 with the Watergate scandal playing out in the background, 10-year-old Marsha tells the story of her suburban neighbourhood, where the  body of a 12-year-old boy has been found, raped and strangled.  Marsha has broken her ankle and so is somewhat confined, and her father has left the family for his wife’s sister.  As both her family and the wider community try to deal with the acts of violence that have been perpetrated, Marsha watches and tries to make sense of it all.

“It had been wet in March and early April, then suddenly it got very hot.  In just a few days, our big front yard went from a brown mat to a seething tangle of colour […] Blooming saturated the air, seeping in through open windows and under doors and into the sofa’s upholstery […] A kind of lawlessness infected everything.  Next door, eight-year-old Luann Lauder decorated herself with toothpaste one Sunday morning and ran across the lawn in only her underpants.  Boyd Ellison appeared on the playground one afternoon with a ten-speed bicycle he said was a birthday present but which looked just like our neighbour David Bridgeman’s bicycle, which had recently been stolen.  Blue jays screamed all day long. Even the grass looked unearthly green, as it does right before an electrical storm, when the air starts to hum and your hair stands on end.  And yet our neighbourhood was anything but lawless.”

The atmosphere in the neighbourhood becomes stifling both physically and psychologically.  Berne creates a sense of things quietly building towards a denouement, but not an outcome that can be trusted to bring resolution (we know from the start that the boy’s killer is never found).  When Marsha’s mother says “I sometimes think the suburbs are a distortion.” she picks up on the way human beings can warp what they see when emotions are heightened, and how dangerous this can be when it happens as a group.  Within this atmosphere, Marsha builds her notebook of Evidence:

“Among the details I overheard from my post on the porch, all of which I printed in my notebook with Julie’s Bic pen, are the following: Boyd Ellison was alive and had told the police everything. A man on a motorcycle had attacked him. A man with a beard attacked him. It was a bearded man with a foreign accent, maybe Dutch or Turkish. It was a hippie on drugs. Boyd was in a coma. Boyd had called out his mother’s name. He didn’t know who his parents were.  He was dead. He was alive. He was alive but just barely. He was dead.”

Marsha’s distortions will have a cataclysmic effect when she decides to voice them.  Although taking a single crime in the neighbourhood as its starting point, the novel actually concerns itself with many types of violence human beings can enact on each other, almost with indifference. However, the tone is realistic rather than downbeat, and so the novel is thought-provoking without being depressing.

A very different tale takes place within the sultry weather of The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi.  Now, this is a slight departure for me because generally I’ll only write about books I really rate, whereas I think The Mango Season is…OK.  It’s not a terrible book by any stretch, but it’s quite pedestrian in its language and the story is somewhat slight. However, I decided I would write about it as generally “summer reads” are usually something light by definition, nothing too taxing while you’re roasting your body by the pool.  And as a summer read The Mango Season fits the bill fine. Priya is living in the US, engaged to an American.  She returns home to India to meet her family for the first time in seven years, to try and deal with the fact that they want to arrange a marriage for her.  She returns in mango season, the hottest time of year:

“It was overpowering, the smell of mangoes – some fresh, some old, some rotten.  With a large empty coconut straw basket, I followed my mother as she stopped at every stall in the massive mango bazaar.  They had to taste a certain way; they had to be sour and they had to be mangoes that would not turn sweet when ripened. The mangoes that went into making mango pickle were special mangoes. It was important to use your senses to pick the right batch.”

The story plays out as you’d expect – Priya struggles to adjust to being back at home and the differences between America and India, and between her and her family. This is a light book and the dramas play out comfortably, The Mango Season is a comforting read. Malladi writes about India evocatively and with affection:

“Yellow and black auto rickshaws drove noisily on the thin, broken, asphalt road as I walked on the dirty roadside, sidestepping around rotten banana peels and other unidentified trash.  […] I stopped in front of a small paan and bidi shop where they sold soda, cigarettes, bidis, paan, chewing gum and black market porn magazines, the covers of which you could only see through shiny plastic wrappers. They were hidden, but not completely; you could once in a while catch a naked thigh or dark nipple thrusting against the plastic wrap. A man sat in a hole in the wall and looked at me questioningly.

Goli soda hai?” I asked.”

The Mango Season is a pleasant read, and when it’s this hot, that’s enough.

Here are the books basking:

Image