We’ve returned from a shopping and lunch trip to the nearby island of Benbecula (we’re joined together by causeway … that’s the islands, not … ) with an armful of books (and a few DVDs) from the thrift shop in Baile a Mhanaich [Balivanich].
A Thousand Years of the English Parish – Anthea Jones
Jonathan > This was my top selection today. Published in 2000, and apparently a first impression, yet clearly unread. Page layout, typography – the very format of the book, reminds me of quality non-fiction books from the 1980s, of which we have many on our selves – many of those authored by the then renowned and learned experts in their fields. A coffe-table book it is not! I’m not expecting a page-turning wide-eyed addicted read, but to learn, to think, to wonder – and to synthesize into the part of my brain dedicated to creating and maintaining mental maps. In this case, a mental atlas of national identity and values – covering geography, history, arts, science, social and economic change … I’ve quite a reading pile building up (more on which later), so I have reluctantly slipped this onto the bookshelves – between WG Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape, and The Industrial Archaeology of Shropshire by Barrie Trinder.
Denise > I suppose it’s the cover picture that caught my eye. Also that the paperback was in nice clean condition – the pages not yet browning. And of course there’s the blurb on the back. It made me think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but set half a century later – at the brink of the Russian Revolution. In the course of three novels and seventeen years, Montefiore’s writing progressed from ridicule to acclaim. That background may well explain the upwards-and-onwards trajectory: formerly he was a BBC war correpsondent covering the break-up of the Soviet Union, and since then has mastered the art of making history interesting, both on TV and in print. Novels too, it seems.
And Quiet Flows The Don – Mikhail Sholokhov
Jonathan > Now that is a coincidence! D was surprised when I pointed out that Sashenka is set in exactly the same period and events as the book I’ve been reading since early January. Russia – the Revolution. What’s more this book too is reminiscent of a Tolstoy novel – in this case War and Peace (but set a full century later). It’s not just me: Solokhov was for many years accused of plagiarism in writing this book, an accusation that, apparently, was eventually rejected on the basis of detailed literary and forensic analysis. This book is not as long as War & Peace, and frankly (though I do read Tolstoy gladly) it’s a great deal easier to read. Nonetheless, it is a long book, and is (quite literally) one part peace to two parts war. To be honest I’ve found the narrative of War and Revolution difficult to follow – and the host of tertiary characters impossible to keep tabs on. Yet Sholokhov made such a good job, in Part One – Peace, bringing to life the principal characters and their homeland, that I’ve been carried through all their tribulations with concern and hope for their well-being – indeed their very survival, right up to the end.
The recent conflicts in eastern Ukraine have not endeared me to the people of the Donbass regions, but as this book reveals, they are for the most part not those who inhabited those lands a hundred years ago. This book has endeared me to those – the Don Cossacks – who lost this land to the Communist homegony. That this book brings to life the people and a way of life based on farming the interminable steppe and fishing the waters of the Don itself, that it does that so vividly, is surely due the fact that Sholokhov was himself brought up in a village on the left bank of the Don,. Sholokhov was born into a family and amongst neighbours just as like those he puts at the heart of this novel. And Quiet Flows The Don was celebrated in both the Soviet Union and the West almost as soon as it was published, and never out of print since, even in English-language editions. It’s been adapted for the big screen too, again in both East and West. Sholokhov won the Nobel prize in 1961. But have you ever heard of him, or of this novel?
Denise > I’m sorry, J – I didn’t know the length of our reviews – or our sentences would be proportionate to the length of the book! This’ll be shorter … !
The Help – Kathryn Stockett
This, too, has just been added to the reading pile. My reading pile. J says he’ll read it too. He’ll have to wait!
Just in case the front cover doesn’t lay out the context clearly enough, there’s the back-cover blurb: The Help is about black maids working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s. I suppose there’s a parallel there with the two Russia-themed books!
J now says he thinks he’s seen ten minutes or so of a film that may have been based on this book … and yes, a quick check on the internet reveals there was indeed a film. He says it made him feel uncomfortable with the simmering conflict, and annoyed with the apparent attribution exclusively to race what should at least in part be attributed to class. So, J, maybe you don’t want to read this after all? No? Then if you don’t mind, leave me to draw my own conclusions!
Tuk Tuk to the Roads – Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent and Joanna Huxster
Jonathan and Denise > Now this is a book that neither of us know anything about – nor the amazing journey it’s about. Two young women travel overland from Bangkok to Brighton – by Tuk-Tuk. Yes, really, Thailand to England on three wheels, powered by a motorcycle engine, across 12 countries, raising money for mental health charities. Just three countries – China, Uzbekistan and Russia – account for more than half the distance. Fun, funny and fascinating. What’s not to like? Denise has finders-first rights, but this is definitely one we’re both going to love!
Oh, and by the way, a great deal of the journey is through Russia.
On the Go
Jonathan > I’m nearing the end of And Quiet Flows The Don.
Denise > A Street Cat Named Bob. Bought at GLA on my way back from Lanzarote. A stray ginger cat changes the life of James Bowen, a homeless London street musician and recovering drug addict. Ghost-written. ‘Now a Major Film’. Hmmm. Let me think. It’s okay. [J > I just love that expression ‘damned by faint praise’!] D > No to be fair it is well written, and an eye-opener regarding life on the streets.
Er, um … And Quiet Flows The Don. And for so long now, I can’t remember what I was reading before it! Oh yes – Labrador – Ben Fogle 2005. Yes, that’s Ben Fogle as in numerous BBC TV programmes. I like Ben. Mr Nice Guy! More than just a TV presenter. And both Denise and I love Labrador dogs – and of course we love Tilly! So The Story of The World’s Favourite Dog was a book I loved to read? Hmm. No. No, you really can have too much of a good thing. Even two good things.
Two Degrees West – Nicholas Crane 1999. That’s Nick Crane of BBC Coast fame. Berwick on Tweed to the Triassic Coast – on foot. A fantastic prospect. A dreary read. Stick to the TV presenting, Nick!
Next Up ?
Jonathan > St Kilda, Island on the Edge of the World – Charles MacLean 1972. A bit like The Life and Death of St Kilda by Tom Steel. But hopefully not too like. That’s the trouble with books on St Kilda.
Denise > Not sure yet. Tuk-Tuk Or perhaps The Help ? Or maybe …