So … what did lockdown put a stop to for you?

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For me, one of the fortunate ones, lockdown stopped very little.  I travelled to many cities and states in North America as well as cities, towns and villages in Europe, to Argentina, the Caribbean, even the Arctic, and closer to home London and Kent.  All these places were visited courtesy of the wonderful research, words and imaginations of nine very different authors – so lockdown certainly did not stop me reading! 

Having ended my paid working days a couple of years ago, I took to my new life like a duck to water, enjoying the freedom of the pond.  I could pretty much decide where, when and with whom I swam.  The first decision I made was to read for at least an hour before getting out of bed each morning.  What a luxury!  Instead of reading a couple of pages through bleary eyes before sleep, I could read on and on, devouring  books in a way which reminded me of my childhood school holidays.  Lockdown only really changed when I read – not just before I got up, but now anytime I chose – literally morning, noon and night!

So – which books did I choose?

As lockdown began I finished reading My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, which I’d bought in the Barnstaple Oxfam earlier in March, with the intention of giving it to Daughter Number One. Based on the author’s experiences as a naive young woman in her first job – as assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent – the main character is tasked with answering Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. It’s very American!  Well written, at times highly entertaining, and at others highly irritating.  Most interesting is what the reader learns about Salinger!

I’m an eclectic reader – always have been.  I’ll read pretty much anything, although I prefer fiction to non-fiction and I’m not a lover of fantasy.

My next book was A Legacy of Spies by John le Carrée, a hardback copy passed onto me by a friend sometime ago.  (The last le Carré I read was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a book enjoyed with my book group back in 2010!)  It did not disappoint – the writing of a true master at work – although it did take me awhile to get into the flow of it!

I’ve been in my book group since late 2009 and over the years it has evolved with just two of the original six, as members come and go for a variety of reasons.  All of us are mature opinionated women who enjoy each other’s company, feisty discussions, much laughter and a simple supper every six weeks.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan was the first book group read of lockdown that we discussed over ZOOM. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, it’s about slavery, science, adventure and abolition, all inspired by a true story.  The consensus of my book group was that it was an epic tale, often beautifully described although some events took a long time to unfold.  We all loved the central character, Washington Black.

How do you choose which book to read?  My book choices are made in a variety of ways: authors I particularly enjoy, recommended reads from family and friends, book reviews, and – when Covid restrictions allow – a good mooch in an independent book shop, charity or secondhand shop.

Next, I chose The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna, having made her 2018 book, Happiness, my book group choice in February.  If you haven’t read it, do! It was recommended to me, for our group, by Iona at Hunting Raven and I understand that other book groups in Frome are also fans. It’s multilayered, with themes which tackle relationships, wildlife studies and the psychology of trauma; its characters and their intertwined stories stayed with me – I didn’t want it to end.  The Hired Man was published five years earlier. It’s set in Croatia and recalls the conflicts of the recent past, with the key character Duro Kolak as the narrator.  Once again, relationships form central, complex themes, although for me this book shows that Forna’s writing was still developing.  Her research is extensive and reflected with ease in her writing, while her male characters Duro (The Hired Man) and especially Attila (Happiness) are skillfully and sensitively written.       

There are books in pretty much every room of our house. 

‘Are we the only house in Frome to have a copy of The Silver Spoon (the Italian Cookery bible) in the downstairs loo?’ my husband asked at the start of lockdown. 

Bookshelves bursting, stacks of books on windowsills, sideboards, under the bed as well as next to the bed, and yet, as the children born of immigrants in the 1950s both my husband and I come from homes that had very few books in them.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan had been sitting on a shelf of ‘books not yet read’ since 2012!  Trawling the house for my fifth book of lockdown, I was delighted to spot that Edugyan was Washington Black’s author and thus I began … my most disappointing read so far – so disappointing that I didn’t finish it.  It hops between Baltimore, Berlin and Poland in 1992 and the early years of World War II in Paris and Berlin.  This did mean that I could skip to the end and read the final part to discover what happened!  I decided many years ago that life is to short to slog on through a book that I’m not enjoying, as there are so many good and great books to read! In Half Blood Blues a group of jazz musicians escape from Berlin to Paris in war torn Europe, only for their young, talented, German, black trumpeter to be arrested and disappear.  Fifty years later, surviving members of the group search for him.  My biggest disappointment was that the main theme meandered, stuttered and dragged itself along.  I felt it was an opportunity truly missed to tell a thrilling, gritty story.

Lockdown also took me to sourcing books online.  Second-hand and directly from World of Books, which has proved to be extremely reliable and efficient.  This is where I came across Mr Darwin’s Gardner by Kristina Carlson.  It was a true delight, much needed after my previous read.  At only 122 pages it was my shortest read, but will remain one of my lasting lockdown favourites. Its described as ‘A postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs.’  It is set in the late 1870s in Downe, the village of Darwin’s home where the church holds the power – or does it?  Grief and rumour abound.  The descriptions of the natural world are beautiful and the observations of humankind profound.  It’s witty too.  I hold a genuine admiration for the ability of a Finnish writer to produce such a book about a very, very English subject.  I also have to thank the mother and daughter translation team for bringing this book to the English reading world.

My bookshelves display an array of translated fiction, as the previous and this next book show.  My Name is Light by Elsa Osorio came to me as a belated birthday gift from a special friend.  It’s an award-winning novel which tells about the blackest period of Argentinian history, the ‘Dirty War’ from 1976 to 1983, during which tens of thousands of Argentinians disappeared. It was not an easy read, on many levels.  The subject is monstrous, narrated in a potentially engaging way by Luz, a young mother searching for her birth parents.  Yet for me, Luz’s recounting of numerous past events and conversations, to explain things to Carlos (her birth father who didn’t know that she existed) was clunky, repetitious and at times dull.  Or maybe this was down to the translation?  I know that translating Italian into English can be tricky as the Italian language is extremely descriptive.  Italian phrases and sentences might seem over the top or even ridiculous when written in English – maybe Spanish is similar?  As it was a gift I am sorry not to have enjoyed (if that’s an appropriate word for a book on such a challenging subject) it more.

I discovered the American author and poet, Paulette Jiles by fortunate accident.  Back in 2016, as manager of Hunting Raven Bookshop, I was sent a proof copy of News of the World, which I duly placed on my ‘books to be read’ shelf.  It was the first book that I read at the beginning of my non-working life and I consumed it in two days – it is a wonderful read!  Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles was published during lockdown, I ordered a copy from Hunting Raven and it was posted to me from Winstone’s at Sherborne – true indie service!  It’s the third of Paulette’s books for me, and yet another delight.  A very much more gentle story than News of the World and The Color of Lightning, and thoroughly engaging as she is a true wordsmith who is able to both capture and captivate the reader.  Simon and his wife Doris make an appearance in News of the World, and this new book is their story beginning in March 1865 just before the civil war ends.  Simon and Doris meet briefly on the eve of the Confederate surrender, only to go on separate journeys until, against the odds, they are able to be together.  I now have a secondhand copy of Enemy Women (2002) waiting for me.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (the top of my ten lockdown books) was flagged-up to me by Daughter Number One. It’s the second book by this very young, very talented American author.  Having read her first book, The Mothers (2016) I was hoping that this new publication wouldn’t fall short – it doesn’t!  Bennett is an extremely skilled weaver of stories.  She takes the reader along with her characters on unexpected journeys.  In the 1950s, identical twins run away from home, aged sixteen.  A decade later, Desiree returns (with her own daughter). As the story unfolds we learn how and why Desiree and Stella ran away, then separated to forge very different paths, relationships and racial identities.  Intrigued?  Read it!

The final book of this lockdown post is The Giver of Stars by JoJo Moyes (paperback published late July 2020). Book number ten (or nine-and-a-half as I didn’t read the whole of Half Blood Blues), was loaned to me by another reading friend with the caveat ‘Like me you probably wouldn’t choose to read this author but give it a go as it really is an easy, entertaining read.’ 

On all three counts she was right. I wouldn’t have chosen to read this writer, but the book is both easy and entertaining to read.  It begins in late December 1937 in the Appalachian Mountains, Kentucky.  The story focuses on a group of women who become Horseback Librarians, employed by the US government to go into the mountains after the Great Depression to take books, magazines and comics to remote families.  Based on rigorous research, Moyes describes it as ‘big, bold, funny and sad’. Well it sort of is, but it could have been oh so much more – but then I reckon she is writing for ‘her’ readers!  Five women are at the centre of the story but for me Margery, Alice, Sven and Fred are the glue that holds it all together.  In my opinion, it would make an enjoyable beach lounger read, sadly not possible for many of us this year, so you could try it as an easy, entertaining summer read … maybe?

Obviously I am continuing to read.

Meg Rosoff’s newly published The Great Godden is my current choice; next will be An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma, for my book group later this month,   and – of course – I have more books on my ‘not yet read’ shelf!

© Karin Campagna July 2020

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