Well, I am only just scraping in this “March – Books set in Ireland” episode of the World Party Reading Challenge by the skin of my teeth – I blame it on St Patrick’s Day on March 17 – it takes forever to recover from such an event!
It is almost impossible to know where to start when discussing books set in Ireland – a country with such a rich literary history.
There are, of course, the classics of Irish literature, like James Joyce and Frank O’Connor, who both wrote works set in Ireland. Or you could go to the other extreme and indulge yourself in the gentle family sagas of Maeve Binchy or the chicklit of Marian Keyes.
I wasn’t quite up for Joyce and wanted something a little more challenging than Keyes this month, so I settled on the lovely, lyrical prose of Sebastian Barry.
Barry’s The Secret Scripture is the story of Roseanne McNulty, the 100ish-year old inmate of a psychiatric hospital in the town of Roscommon who begins writing her autobiography, just as a doctor at the hospital does his own investigation into her past in a bid to determine where she should live once the institution is closed down.
But while this part of the narrative is set in Roscommon, it is the town of Sligo in the 20’s and 30’s we really get to know in this novel, through Roseanne’s memories and Dr. Grene’s exploration of her past.
Sligo is where Roseanne grew up and lived before her institutionalization and the novel gives us a pretty thorough look at both its landscape and character. At times, it is overwhelmingly bleak “as it was raining with that special Sligo rain that has made bogland of a thousand ancient farms” (p96) while at others we experience the tantalizingly brief bursts of sunshine which mirror Roseanne’s life…“Oh yes, the beach at Strandhill, high tide as it was, is good for a little, and then it plunges down, you are suddenly in the big water of the bay there” (p150).
From “the devious roads of Ireland” (p9) to the observations of national character “a hot Irish day is such a miracle we become mad foreigners in a twinkle” (p149), this novel gives an achingly beautiful snapshot of rural Ireland in a particular era. And crucial to this is the country’s political history, which permeates every aspect of the novel.
This was a time of civil war and the fledgling Irish Free State, where a person’s allegiances and politics could determine their fate, and The Secret Scripture reminds us of how brutal such times could be. And then, of course, there is the other huge influence on all who lived in Ireland – that of the Catholic church. The influence of a priest was all it took to determine Roseanne’s future…
I loved this book. While its conclusion may require a bit of suspension of disbelief, it remains a stunningly beautiful novel, and I delighted in Barry’s poetic prose. It is a story of betrayal, survival and redemption, as well as being a mystery, as we question the role of memory in any exploration of the past.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone who fancies delving a little deeper into Irish history, and if after you finish reading it you have a longing for a little more of the McNulty clan, then a look back at Barry’s previous works reveals The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, a prequel of sorts to The Secret Scripture.
If you are seeking a gentle, moving novel set in Ireland, this is an ideal choice. Some complain of a slow start, but I didn’t feel it – perhaps because I was so engaged in Barry’s stunning turns of phrase. But if this is not for you, then there are many other books set in Ireland to explore, and I’d love to hear more about your choices. If you have taken part in the World Party Reading Challenge and have written a review on an Irish-set book, then let us know where we can find it in the comments…
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.
As you know we love to highlight books set in Paris on this blog, but today we thought we’d find out what some of the wonderful bloggers in France recommend as THEIR favorite reads. These are people who live and breath French life – so when they suggest a good book, we listen!
Now, you would think coming up with a favorite novel would be easy – but not for Doni from Girls Guide to Paris who says she has so many favourites it was almost impossible to choose.
Eventually she settled on The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.
“While it doesn’t ooze Paris or France the way some other books may, it is beautifully written and captures a very particular time and a society that largely doesn’t exist anymore. And since reading it, I always feel quite smart when I have a coupe de Champagne at the Café de la Paix near the Opéra Garnier,” Doni says.
Doni couldn’t help also sneaking in a non-fiction book as well — Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer, a book about his bohemian experience living and writing at Doni’s favourite bookshop in the world, Shakespeare and Co.
Shakespeare and Co. is a delicious bookshop – you really don’t want to go to Paris without dropping in!
Martina from Mad About Paris says there is one book you cannot visit Paris without….and that’s Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano. But she warns you will need to be prepared to enter a world of melancholy.
“Modiano is obsessed with one subject: disappearance,” Martina says.
“In all of his books he’s searching for traces of the past. Not any past, but the time when Paris was under German occupation. All his books are a travel through time. Often the starting point is a small fact, something he found in the archives, in old newspapers, and even old telephone directories.
In this case it was 1988 when Modiano found this announcement in a 1941 newspaper reporting that a 15-year old girl, Dora Bruder, was missing: “oval face, grey-brown eyes, wine-coloured jumper, dark blue skirt and hat, and brown shoes. Contact Monsieur and Madame Bruder, 41, Boulevard Ornano for any relevant information.
For more than a decade Modiano was obsessed with collecting any possible information about Bruder, only to discover she had been deported to Auschwitz. This book is his reconstruction of her life.
For people visiting the France, Dora Bruder is an opportunity to discover and immerse yourself in a Paris which has now disappeared.”
It’s a dark choice as well from Kristin Espinasse from French Word-A-Day.
Perfume: the Story of a Murderer is set in Paris, but also has scenes in Grasse, the perfume capital of France.
“The writer, Patrick Suskind, is amazing at description: the scenes of Paris and of Grasse are so vivid. It is a wickedly evil book… but the writing is so engrossing that it is difficult to put down as one follows, with amazement, the megalomaniac main character, who is a scent genius.”
Kristin and I agree you either love or hate Perfume, but there is only one way to find out which category you fall into, and that’s to give it a go!
“It’s a memoir about an American man who lived in Paris as a child and learns how to play the piano,” Richard says.
“He is traumatized by his performance at a recital and vows never to play again. He moves to Paris from the U. S. as a grown man with his wife and young son. On his way to taking his son to school everyday, he stumbles on a piano repair shop and befriends the owner. What later ensues is him buying a piano and getting in touch again with his passion for the piano and overcoming his childhood fear. There’s a wonderful romanticism about his take on Paris and the Parisians and the story is very moving. Also his description of the Left Bank and his neighbourhood and the interesting & warm people he meets is so enticing that it makes you want to move here. It’s a rich and rewarding true tale and a most inspiring ex-pat memoir.”
Ah – a renewal of passion in Paris – how can we resist!
And something quite a bit different from Lindsey of Lost in Cheeseland, whose favourite book set in Paris was actually written for children. It was published in 1953 and presents a thorough history of the city through vibrant illustrations.
“Miroslav Sasek offers the reader a visual tour of Parisian life – from its monuments, transportation system, and parks to its cafés and evens its animals,” says Lindsey.
“This Is Paris is part of a larger collection of “This Is…” city books which includes London, Rome, Venice, New York and San Francisco and although it was written for children, the cultural benefit for adults is just as significant. All of the facts have been updated in recent editions to account for modifications to urban planning and historical sites. Perhaps what is most appealing about the book is how relevant it remains today, vintage aesthetic and all! I offered the book to my young brother this year, it makes a great educational souvenir. “
So there you have it…a few suggestions from the experts. Thanks guys, you have given us some real treats to explore.
So how about you? Why not give yourself a little Paris time….and order yourself a literary trip to the French capital….I think I’m going to start at the top with The Razor’s Edge and work my way down…
And if you’ve read any of these recommendations, we’d love to hear what you think in the comments. Do our bloggers know their stuff?
If you live in Australia, you are used to paying a lot for your books.
I am Australian, and I had no idea I had been paying so much until I moved to the UK and saw how cheap books were here, and that was in the days when it cost you three Aussie dollars for one English pound.
Since then it has got even better. After much reluctance I fell under the Amazon spell resulting in ever more amazing deals, and the exchange rate now means it only costs around $1.60 for one pound sterling.
For a book-lover, it is heaven. Quite often I can buy a book for less than most people’s daily coffee budget. Now the constraints on my book buying are not about money – but more about the lack of space in a one-bedroom London flat.
But in Australia, where the average price for a book is something like $20, I would be thinking twice before every purchase. Buying a book would become quite the luxury.
But bookshops are in trouble…
Despite these high prices – and I understand some of that is due to artificial means to protect someone or other along the way – bookshops are struggling. Staff at two of the largest chains, Borders and Angus and Robertson, are waiting to find out which of their hundreds of stores are to close, as the companies behind them try to cut costs to survive. And people are asking questions as to the viability of bookshops at all.
This is no doubt painful for those who love to read. There is no Amazon in Australia, and like most of us of a certain age, many continue to hold great love for bookshops. So where does that leave the Australian reader? Torn, no doubt. Does this make you determined to support the remaining bookshops to keep them alive? Or are you going to give in to the lure of cheap online bookshops – a category Packabook also falls into, even though we like to consider ourselves a boutique service.
What should you do?
Only you can make that decision. Do you support bookshops by paying up to three times the cost of a book you can buy online? Or do you decide that change is inevitable, and you may as well enjoy a lot more books in the meantime, supporting writers and publishers from a different direction…
If you are considering going down the online route – Amazon UK is making it easy for you. Until May 2011, it is offering free postage to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India if you spend 25 pounds on books. Who knows what will happen after that. If we are lucky it is an experiment which will become a permanent policy, if not, it’s a rare chance for you to pick up some books at a great price.
It got me thinking about what I would buy with my 25 pounds if I was going to take the plunge…
Twenty five pounds is around 40 Australian dollars – for that you can buy 2 to 2.5 books in Australia. (It appears you can get some books for around $17.95, but that was the cheapest I could find.) From Amazon I can buy six books for the same money.
(Apologies to those of you in the US. Due to the nature of this post, the links and prices all refer to Amazon UK, but I have created a US link for each of the books if you would like to check out the titles at Amazon US).
Here’s my list
This is what I would buy with £25 from Amazon. Please note – with Amazon, prices change all the time, so you may not see exactly the same price if you click through – but this was what was on offer at the time of writing.
The Long Song by Andrea Levy – set in Jamaica – £4.00
In this latest novel from the author of Small Island, July is the child of a slave and a slave-master, living on a sugar plantation in the early 19th century. Born into slavery, she lives through the struggle to abolition and the freedom that follows.
“The book cuts deep but the author does an amazing job of keeping the reader gripped from the very first page. Absolute work of art !!! ” – Amazon Reviews. Average of four stars.
Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna – set in India – £4.00
I haven’t heard a great deal about this one, but it sounds like a perfect Packabook book, and I love the cover!
As a child, Devi befriends a young boy whose mother has died in tragic circumstances. Devi and Devanna become inseparable, until Devi meets the man she vows to marry.
“This book immediately grabs your attention with it’s descriptions of landscape and people, with prose of such elegant literary quality that enhances the story and makes the book such a pleasure to read. A veritable feast for the senses. ” – Amazon Reviews. Average of four and a half stars.
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer – The Czech Republic – £4.80
One of my favourite reads last year. Mawer’s book is set in the former Czechoslovakia in the 1930’s – when a Jewish family builds a stunning modern house. (Based on Villa Tugendhat in Brno which is now an icon of modern architecture). We follow the drama of Victor and Leisel’s lives and marriage, as war approaches the country. This amazing house is always central to the novel, and it certainly gave me a new appreciation of architecture along with a great story.
“I suppose the highest praise I could give this novel is that I would like to start reading it again from the beginning.” – Amazon Reviews. Average of 4.4 stars.
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey – Trinidad – £4.19
It’s the mid-1950’s and George and Sabine Harwood arrive in Trinidad from England. George relishes their new life, but Sabine does not. She doesn’t like the heat, feels isolated and is nervous of upcoming political change on the island. But then she falls under the spell of a charismatic political leader…
“This is one of the best books I have read in years. It has everything you want from a novel – incredible use of language, fascinating context (Trinidad’s emerging independence) and wonderful characters who stay with you long after the book is finished.” – Amazon Reviews. Average of four stars.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – Mainly Ethiopia, but other countries along the way – £4.69
The story of identical twins born to an Indian nun and a British doctor in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The book spans spans decades and continents, but reviewers say it gives a very real portrayal of Ethiopia in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Not for the squeamish as there are some very realistic descriptions of surgery!
“An intelligent and gripping story which will remain with you long after the final page has been turned.” – Amazon reviews. Average of 4 and a half stars.
One Day by David Nicholls – England – £3.99
This is the story of Dex and Emma who meet as students in 1988. For the next twenty odd years we get to see what they are up to on July 15th each year – discovering their love and hate for each other, their insecurities, and their inability to tell each other what they really think.
“Nicholls has created two characters that are truly archetypes for the modern generation: the aimless, boy-man who believes he can get by on charm alone, and the woman who refuses to settle for anything, be it jobs, men or ideals…An emotional journey, but not without its gorgeous descriptions of London and truly humorous moments.” – Amazon reviews. Average of 3.7 stars.
What would you choose?
So, if I have done my calculations correctly (and there is definitely no guarantee of that!) the grand total is £25.67 or A$41.52. And until May at least, there’s no cost for sending it to you. If you can wait a few weeks for your books, then this is a great deal.
Here’s all the details on how to get the free postage.
What about you? What would you put in your £25 basket? Or are you eschewing Amazon and sticking to supporting your local bookshop despite the cost? Let us know in the comments….
This month we turn to England for our World Party Reading Challenge – and I have to admit that for me, a country like England is more of a challenge than just about any other country we have looked at.
I mean where do you start? There must be hundreds of thousands of novels set in England to choose from.
If you don’t actually live in England yourself, you may very well have quite a romantic view of the country. You might be considering a bit of Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters for your choice of novel. And why not? Reading Austen is a delight, and I am in awe of the ‘art of conversation’ which is revealed through her writing. I could never imagine being that witty in my day-to-day discussions with people. But then again, I guess in those days young ladies had a lot more time to develop their witty turns of phrase than those of us battling commuter traffic each day in the modern age. If you are hankering for a bit of England from days gone by, then this is ideal.
You could go for some war-time drama, definitely one of the defining periods of English history. Books like The Night Watch by Sarah Waters or Andrea Levy’s Small Island give us quite a picture of what it was like to be in London when German bombs were falling from the sky.
And then there is a novel that has been recommended to me many times, but which I have not yet got around to reading, and that is the 1889 classic Three Men in a Boat, which I am reliably informed is one of the funniest books on earth. It is about three hypochondriacs (and a dog) who decide to head up the River Thames in a rowboat for an adventure in rough living. Not only is it bound to make you laugh, you will get a lovely glimpse of English river life.
There is high praise indeed from John Neville on Amazon.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you read it. This is quite simply the funniest book ever written in the English language. Yes, it’s based in an age long gone; but it’s great to know that self-effacing, typical British humour hasn’t changed one iota.”
Amanda Craig’s Hearts and Minds is not an easy read.
It is the story of a group of people who live in contemporary London – a Zimbabwean taxi driver, a South African teacher, an American journalist, a British human rights lawyer, a Russian au pair and a young Ukrainian girl who is trafficked to the UK to become a prostitute. It may seem a motley crew of characters, but it is probably far more representative of London than in most other novels you will read.
The story begins with the dumping of a body near the ponds at Hampstead Heath (an old stomping ground of mine – so I was immediately hooked), which in the end, connects all these characters together.
What is challenging about this novel is that it forces us to see that while we all go about our generally middle-class British lives, there is an underworld on which the whole city depends. Most of London’s middle-class could not exist in its current state without its Polish cleaners, East European nannies and African and Middle Eastern taxi-drivers. But with that comes exploitation, personified here at its very worst with Anna, the 15-year old Ukrainian who travels to England in search of a better life and a job as a chambermaid or a waitress, only to be thrown deep into the sex-trade.
Some people have criticized this novel for being too preachy – but if it makes any of us take a little closer look at London, and the people that gravitate towards it, then it has done its job. Yes, it’s a city of high-fliers — city-bankers, pop stars and foreign millionaires fill the newspapers with their exploits — but this is also a city in which those on the minimum wage cannot afford to take the train, relying instead on two-hour bus journeys to travel to work each day as cleaners at the Houses of Parliament. And that is the world we know about. There is plenty more that we do not.
Hearts and Minds was an eye-opener for me. We all like to believe that others have lives which are as good as our own, especially when we live in one of the richest cities in the world. And while you hear about such things as the human ‘slave trade’ in London, we are rarely actually confronted with it. This novel makes it all too real.
This will not be for everyone, and if not, there is an endless list of books set in England available, many more than we have cataloged here at Packabook. Which ones have you been reading? Let us know in the comments below, as we explore this tiny island together…
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.
As people take to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt, it is impossible not to compare the situation with Iran. (PLEASE NOTE – THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN EARLY FEBRUARY, 2011)
While there are many differences – perhaps one of the most important being that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have so far not been driven by Islamist movements, though this will most certainly be an element in the aftermath – there are also similarities. In all three countries we are looking at autocratic leaders who have been in place for decades, and populations who are fed up with economic hardship, cronyism and corruption.
And whenever there is dramatic political change like this (as I write Egyptians are gathering for a massive protest in Tahrir Square and President Hosni Mubarak is still clinging to power) there is huge uncertainty, as well as the risk of retribution and suffering to follow.
I loved this book, despite its dark subject matter. It is Tehran in 1981, a couple of years after the Revolution, and Isaac Amin is not popular with the new guard. He is a successful businessman, a Jew, and is perceived as having had a life of privilege. Things don’t bode well for Isaac and he is arrested by the Revolutionary Guard. (I am not giving anything away here, as it happens on page one!) For the rest of the novel we follow Isaac and the members of his family as they attempt to deal with his imprisonment and decide what they must do to protect their own safety.
There is a beautiful light touch to Sofer’s writing which immediately drew me in. From the opening scene I delighted in the detail. As Isaac is being arrested he “looks down at his desk, at the indifferent items witnessing this event – the scattered files, a metal paperweight, a box of Dunhill cigarettes, a crystal ashtray, and a cup of tea, freshly brewed, two mint leaves floating inside.“ And as the story develops, I became increasingly fascinated by the world Sofer presents.
This novel does not focus on the Revolution itself, but on the aftermath – and the chaos and confusion that takes place in uncertain times. Given that we know what lies ahead it is easy for us to look in from the outside and silently beg the characters to just get up and leave the country, but at the same time we can understand their unwillingness to leave everything they have worked for over a lifetime. And would you go if it meant leaving someone behind? An ageing parent? An imprisoned spouse?
There are many occasions in Septembers of Shiraz in which we are taken back to times before the Revolution, giving us a glimpse of what life in Iran was like then, for those with money. This was a ‘Westernized’ Iran in which women had far greater freedoms and religion was a choice, quite different from the country it is today.
We get some idea of the landscape around Tehran “…when the snow-covered Elburz Mountains slowly unveiled themselves in the red-orange light” as well as some brief visits to other places such as Isfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis. But this is a novel which concentrates more on Iran’s history than giving specifics about the locations themselves. And Sofer manages to bring the history alive with detail such as “Farnaz walks through the narrow street, framed on both sides by short brick walls, along which is a row of bloody handprints – a common site, nowadays – the stamp of revolutionaries displaying their sacrifice and their willingness to die.”
My only disappointment with this novel was the ending. It felt rushed after the gentle flow of the rest of the book, and did not hold the tension it needed. But other than that I would highly recommend Septembers of Shiraz for anyone wanting to know a little more about the changing face of Iran.
Having survived the aftermath of the Revolution, I turned to Yasmin Crowther’s The Saffron Kitchen, set in contemporaryish London and Iran, with extended flashbacks to what is likely to be the early 1950’s (I don’t think dates are actually mentioned in the novel but some of the historic events date back to that time).
This novel did not work quite as well for me, there was some bothersome issues with the plot and Crowther does not have as elegant a turn of phrase as Sofer.
From a Packabook perspective it does not really give as much of a view of modern Iran as I would have liked, as the bulk of the contemporary scenes take place in a very small village which, like villages just about everywhere, cannot be seen as an accurate representation of the country as a whole.
This is the story of Maryam, the teenage daughter of one of the Shah’s generals, who is desperate to escape the fate of her mother and older sister, refusing to marry the man her father has chosen for her. She wants to be “useful”, to train as a nurse and see something of the world – all of which she does, but not quite in the way she had hoped.
Some 40-odd years later we find Maryam in London, with an English husband and a grown-up daughter of her own. Without giving away too much of the plot, she has lived most of her life away from Iran, disowned by her father and disconnected from her culture – and when an argument with her daughter leads to tragedy, she makes her way back to Iran to reconnect with her past.
While the young Maryam is sympathetic, her older incarnation is less so – I found myself annoyed with her self-obsession while at the same time understanding her desire to find the great love of her youth. And you cannot help feeling that Maryam doesn’t quite appreciate just how good she has had it compared to what would have been her likely fate had she stayed in Iran.
Much of the action takes place in Iran’s second largest city Mashhad, far off to the east of the country, close to the borders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. And from there we move to what I imagine is a fictional village – Mazareh. I enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape around Mazareh – it truly felt remote, and it was not hard to imagine the snow-covered mountainous terrain.
This is a far more insular novel than Septembers of Shiraz, much more about Maryam’s relationships, both with real people as well as her culture and past than actual events. While it did not engage me as much as I’d hoped, it did give me yet another perspective on a country I still feel I know so little about.
So how did you go with your own exploration of Iran in January’s challenge? I’d love to hear what you have been reading – so why don’t you head over to the main January post and leave a note in the comments. It is also the best place to find a bit more history of the Iranian Revolution and to give us a link to your own review…
For February, we are in much more familiar territory for many of us – England!
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.