Jenny Strickland’s notes on novels and authors 

Notes from the Literary Talk by Jenny Strickland at the Fish Hoek Library in the Scenic South , Feb 2011,

Beryl Bainbridge was shortlisted five times for the Booker Prize but never a winner. She will finally be honoured with a special “Best of Beryl” award. Her shortlisted books were: The Dressmaker (1973), The Bottle Factory Outing (1974), An Awfully Big Adventure (1990), Every Man for Himself (1996) and Master Georgie (1998).

Bainbridge, who died last year, came to be known as the “Booker bridesmaid” for her string of near misses, and now the public is being invited to choose a favourite from the five shortlisted novels via the Man Booker website.

Barbara Kingsolver won the Orange Prize  2010 award for The Lacuna, (which we spoke about last May.)

The Lacuna beat Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction Wolf Hall, which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

Both available at CNA for R33!

David Grossman: To The End of the Land

The lives of Ora, Ilan and Avram have been intertwined since childhood. Ora’s younger son Ofer, is in the tank corps, and there is ‘an incident’. She decides that if she is not available to hear any bad news he will be safe. In Israel its title is Woman Flees Tidings.

She leaves her Jerusalem home and compels Avram to join her in a taxi ride to Dan (far north of Israel). Together they walk south, talking – and through their talking we learn the tale of all their lives. 

Th NY Times accurately described his fiction as “discursive and internal”.

A recent local reviewer stuck his neck out and said it was ‘the best book of the decade’ – in Jan 2011!

When he turned 50, DG walked from the border of Lebanon to his home outside Jerusalem. The detail of the trees, wild flowers, mountains and encounters with wild dog, a boar and other hikers are clearly based on his own experience. Poignantly, as he was about to start the final draft of this book, officials came to his door to say that his younger son, Uri, had been killed when a missile hit his tank.

 Susan Abulhawa: Mornings in Jenin is written about the same conflict from the Palestinian point of view.

 The story begins with the Abulheja family at home in the village of Ein Hod, near Haifa, marrying, squabbling, trading and harvesting olives. It’s a touching and sometimes funny portrait of rural life.

It is narrated mainly through the eyes of Amal, a small girl when the story begins.

Then comes the nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948. Driven from their shelled village, the family suffers loss and humiliation, ending up in a camp in Jenin, throughout the Israeli occupation — the naksa or disaster of 1967, the Lebanese refugee camp massacres, the 2002 Jenin massacre. This massacre is still controversial. Was it only 54 dead (says Israel) or more than 500 dead?

I’ve read several books by Uris, Wouk etc, glorifying the establishment of Israel. It’s good to read something from the Palestinian side. The author Susan Abulhawa was herself born to refugees of the 1967 War.

A S Byatt: The Children’s Book.  

Byatt won the Booker Prize for Possession in 1990 and was on the Booker Prize short list for this book.

This is a detailed (Very!) re-creation of the period between the end of the 19th century and the First World War. It overflows with people.

The narrative centres on two deeply troubled families of the British artistic intelligentsia: the Fludds and the Wellwoods.

The Wellwood’s rambling farmhouse on the Kentish Weald is always swarming with people – children; rebels ranging from politely insistent Fabians to fugitive Russian anarchists; unstable artists, and with ideas and projects.

Olive Wellwood’s work as an author of magical tales stands at the centre of the novel, and extracts of it run throughout – e.g. the baby prince whose shadow is stolen from his crib – These provide Byatt’s imitative commentary on the children’s literature of the time. JM Barrie, Edith Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame all appear on these pages,

Byatt is brilliant on the gathering forces of England and Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. That her novel closes with the first world war, with its arbitrary culling of so many of the now grown children whose “book” the novel purports to be, feels entirely appropriate.

I thought it was terrific but you might agree with The Publishers’ Weekly:

“ Byatt’s overstuffed latest wanders from Victorian 1895 through the end of WWI, alighting on subjects as diverse as puppetry, socialism, women’s suffrage and the Boer War, and suffers from an unaccountably large cast.”

Nicole Krauss: The Great House

Should have been called ‘The Great Desk’.

This huge 29-drawered desk was left with a reclusive American novelist, by a Chilean poet, who later disappeared in Chile under Pinochet.

An antiques dealer in Jerusalem covets the desk because it was plundered by the Nazis from his father’s study in Budapest. His children live in London in a house whose furnishings change constantly as he sells and buys them -Furniture i.e.

There is also a dying woman, who came to England with the ‘Kinder transport’ in WWII. Among her papers, her husband finds a mysterious lock of hair.

All these stories are drawn together by the desk.

It’s a soaring and powerful novel about memories and inheritance.

Kathryn Stockett: The Help

The Help is set in Stockett’s native Jackson, MS, in the early 1960s and is about blacks and whites living in a segregated South. A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, black maids raised white children and ran households but were paid poorly, often had to use separate toilets from the family, and put up with rudeness and bad treatment from the people they looked after.

Sound familiar?

The story is narrated by maids Aibileen and Minnie, and a naive young white woman who wants to write & publish their stories. They are 3 memorable women.

It is well worth reading.

More Male Authors


Jonathan Franzen: Freedom.  This has also been touted as “best book of the decade” – particularly by Americans. Franzen leapt to fame with his novel The Commitments, when he turned down an invitation to appear on Oprah’s Book Club. (He didn’t know who she was!)

The blurb says “Told in the expansive tradition of Dickens and Tolstoy” !?

The story centres round Patty & Walter Berglund living in a nice home which they have worked hard to renovate. Idealist Walter strives to support his good housewife and two children. The only discordant note is struck by Walter’s off-the-wall rock-guitarist philandering friend Richard,  who is attracted to Patty because she is Walter’s.

Of course, the perfect family life gradually disintegrates and Walter battles to maintain his ideals in the face of corporate politics.

Perhaps it’s me – but I battled with the length of this book esp., as the chapters are about 60 pages long. I could have borne to know rather less about the details of Walter’s struggles with big business finagling and his assistant’s longing looks, Patty’s depression and unfaithfulness, Richard’s low self-esteem and fornication, son Joey’s unwarranted high self-esteem and fornication – in fact – less detail!

 I think my main problem with it, is that I don’t actually like any of the characters.

However , I did enjoy the last half of the book more than the first.

But I seem to be in the minority – and may well have changed my mind after the discussion at Kalk Bay Books on Monday.

David Mitchell: the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Very good writer. Two of his books, number9 dream and Cloud Atlas, were shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

This Book set on tiny island, Dejima, near Nagasaki – an outpost of the Dutch East India Company, in 1799. There is very little contact with the Japanese but Jacob manages to fall for a Japanese midwife, Orito.

A British ship, sailing under a Dutch flag, attacks Dejima. Jacob’s courage and loyalty impress all, incl. Japanese.

Dejima and attack by Br. factual.

Michael Cunningham: By Nightfall (The Hours)

Peter, the narrator of By Nightfall, is a forty-four year old New York gallery owner. He’s married to Rebecca, an arts editor and they live, comfortably, in a SoHo loft. Art is a focal point in the novel. The plot often hinges on moments spent in front of artwork both real (a Rodin, the Damien Hirst shark) and invented (a classically inspired urn inscribed with obscenities, wrapped canvases enclosing secret paintings).

Literature, particularly Thomas Mann, also features prominently in the book.

By Nightfall is driven by self-awareness. The narrative is entirely in Peter’s head; every detail of every event is mediated by his memory, his self-consciousness, his motivations and emotions. It is low-action, high-contemplation, yet is still dramatic.

David Nicholls: One Day

Confusion with David Mitchell (of Cloud Atlas & Black Swan Green). Not as literary!

In 1988, the day after commencement, two college graduates briefly, romantically collide. The girl has pined for the boy for years; the boy is more aware of the girl than he lets on. She’s an earnest, outspoken lefty, he a handsome, apolitical bourgeois toff. Their chemistry is as inarguable as their differences, but because of the pride, carelessness and misplaced optimism of youth, they let time and distraction separate them. Yet they never lose track of each other. One Day checks in on their intersecting lives once a year, every July 15, from 1988 through 2007.

More Women

Attica Locke: Black Water Rising – Short-listed for the Orange prize

This taut, fast-paced novel heralds an exciting and powerful new voice in fiction. Big oil and its twin, corporate corruption, meet their match in Jay Porter, a struggling personal injury attorney down on his luck, who suddenly finds himself in a situation spiralling out of control.

Jay knows a boat ride in a rundown boat on won’t measure up to his wife’s expectations of a birthday celebration, but it’s all he can afford. Once a man of virtuous ideals, he is now just waiting for a break, then midway through dinner, gun shots and sharp cries for help ring out. When he fishes a woman out of the Bayou, his sixth sense tells him this charitable act will lead to no good. .

Barbara Trapido: Sex and Stravinsky.  3 of her novels have been nominated for the Whitbread Prize and Frankie and Stankie was long-listed for the Booker.

Who knew that she was born Barbara Schuddeboom in Cape Town?!

Brilliant Australian Caroline can command everyone except her own leech of a mother, which means that things aren’t easy for Josh and Zoe, her husband and twelve year old daughter. Josh was born in a small South African mining town, but now teaches mime in Bristol. Zoe reads girls’ ballet books and longs for ballet lessons; a thing her mother emphatically denies her. 
Meanwhile, in Durban, Hattie Thomas, Josh’s first love, is desperately trying to reclaim her life from the forceful presence of her husband and children. They’ve just taken in an enigmatic and beautiful boarder variously known as Jack/Jacques/Giacomo. He claims his origins are European, but we learn that they are much closer to home.

I enjoy books like this where the characters are interesting & many of the settings are familiar.

Marjolijn Februari: The Book Club is set in Holland in an “affluent village where dark secrets lurk beneath the tranquillity of rural life” (TLS). A girl has had an international bestseller published, based on her own experiences of mental illness. Victor, an investigative reporter who grew up in the village, realises that she was at school with him and digs into her family background. He views the book club as symbolising the whole venal network of capitalism – “all this filth…. masked by a love of culture”. Something different.

Olga Grushin: The Concert Ticket (The Line). She wrote The Dream Life of Sukhanov.

In an unnamed country, in the depths of winter, in the snow and cold, people stand in line at a kiosk. When it opens, will they be selling stockings or cakes or….?

It’s months before they discover that it will be tickets for a classical concert in a year’s time – maybe.

As they take turns to stand there, day after day, we get to know the people, their sadnesses, their loves, their dreams.

Rebecca Hunt: Mr Chartwell.

Esther, recently widowed, advertises a room to let. Mr Chartwell arrives to view it. Mr Chartwell is a big black dog who is keen to move in with her.

He also lives permanently with Winston Churchill.

It is parable of depression – living with it or fighting it.

Kalk Bay Books recommend it.

Gin Phillips: The Well and the Mine – Debut Novel- winner of a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great new Writers” Award.

Phillips’ poignant novel goes to the heart of the Depression with a coal-mining family in 1931 Carbon Hill, Alabama, focusing on the lives of Albert, Leta, and their three children: Virgie, Tess and Jack.

Tess is only nine the moonless night she watches a stranger step upon their back porch and drop a baby into the covered well. No one believes Tess, until a baby blanket pulled up in the bucket confirms her story.

The children cannot let the mystery rest until they have determined who the desperate mother is.

We are introduced to a cast of characters that comes vividly alive in all their humour, grace, and humanity – and , unlike Franzen’s people, I liked these very much!

Roma Tearne: Bone China

Her literary debut Mosquito,  was shortlisted for the 2007 Costa First Novel award. Her  second novel also deftly reveals the corrosive effects of civil strife on private lives and the redemptiveness of art, though in the more conventional, if highly readable, form of a family saga over four generations. It probes loss and memory amid violence and displacement. Both books are set mainly in Sri Lanka where Roma Tearne was born.

Other Detectives


Donna Leon: Question of Belief

I didn’t think this was as good as her previous books, but the Venetian setting is delightful and I do enjoy series where we grow to know more and more about the investigator and his family and friends as we read them.

Susan Hill: Vows of Silence

Susan Hill has written several ‘literary’ novels, such as the Gothic Woman in Black. You may remember Shirley recommending that and The Beacon. An enjoyable good writer.

This series started with the Various Haunts of Men and follows the investigations of Simon Serrailler in Lafferton, a Cathedral city in the south of England.

Worthwhile reads.

Incidentally, Susan Hill has been chosen as one of the panel of judges for the 2011 Man Booker Prize – chaired by former MI5 Director, Stella Rimington.

Faye Kellerman: The Hangman – Again we learn about the development of the detective and his family. In this case we also learn quite a lot about Orthodox Judaism as the detective’s wife, Rina, is living on a Yeshiva when we first meet them in The Ritual Bath.

Nicola Upson: Angel With Two Faces  follows An Expert in Murder. Nicola has become an expert on the life and writing of Josephine Tey, who wrote ‘Golden Age’ detective stories e.g. Man in the Queueand several plays E.g. Richard of Bordeaux.

 Many of the characters in Upson’s books are based on real friends of Josephine. In Angel, Josephine Tey joins with her friend, Detective Archie Penrose, to investigate deaths which are disrupting their holiday with family in Cornwall. Lovely descriptive writing and characters who draw one in to their lives.

Inger Ash Wolfe:  The Taken. It is said that Inger  A W is a well-known Canadian literary author. I rather enjoy the fact that her detective is a 61-year-old woman – with a back problem.

Her previous book was The Calling

Kate Atkinson: Started Early, Took My Dog  

It is interesting to note that several ‘literary’ writers are now writing ‘Who-dun-its’. KA won the Whitbread Book of the year with ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum.  This is the 4th of her stories about cop turned P.I. Jackson Brodie.

Graham Moore: The Holmes Affair (called The Sherlockian overseas)

Two threads run through this book. In one – a murder is committed during a meeting of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts in NY.

What would Sherlock do? asks new member, Harold And then ‘the game’s afoot’ as he sets off to London to track down the killer – and the missing manuscript.

In the other thread, we’re in 1900’s London with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is assisting the police to solve the mystery of young brides found dead in a bath. He, in turn is helped by his friend Bram Stoker, author of the book about “Count What’s-his-name?”

Great fun to read, particularly if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan.

Well-written Candyfloss

Ali MacNamara: From Notting Hill With Love – Actually

Light-hearted charming story about a girl who is crazy about movies – especially those starring Hugh Grant or Colin Firth

Marisa De Los Santos: Love Walked In & Belong to Me

Cornelia, Piper and Dev are in both books, so it’s probably a good idea to read them in the correct order – though I didn’t.

They are books about the connections between people. Why do we connect with some, yet shut ourselves off for others? And why do we seem to depend on the people we least expect to? It’s all about reaching out to others, trust, love, and what it really means to belong.

Enjoyable reads.