Reading from my Shelves: October

Books started: 9

Books finished: 6

Books abandoned: 2

Books kept on the shelf: 6

October was a bumper reading month due to my much-needed two weeks of half term. I spent a wonderful week in Devon, relaxing by the seaside, going on lovely country walks, eating a lot of fish and chips and cake, and generally taking life slowly. It was just what I needed. I then had an equally lovely week at home in London, making the most of my time off to visit museum exhibitions and the cinema. I saw the fascinating Arctic exhibition at the British Museum, which explores the lives of the various Arctic peoples and how they have coped with the challenges of living in such an extreme environment over several hundred years to the present day. Aside from environmental concerns, it is also focused on cultural and religious traditions, the roles of men and women, their relationships with the landscape and the animals they share it with, and how they have adapted to modern living standards and increased interaction with neighbouring, non-tribal communities. I loved watching videos of modern Arctic dwellers, who showed how to perform traditional crafts, how to make clothing from fur and skin, and how to prepare the foodstuffs that have to be so carefully preserved to last them through the winter. I also found it so interesting to see how communities are adapting to changing environmental conditions, but also how they are assimilating elements of more Western, modern culture into their own. It was so lovely to be back in a museum and enjoying learning about something new; I was very lucky to make it into the exhibition before London closed for its second lockdown. I am also very grateful that I went to see the British Library’s new exhibition on the women’s rights movement in the 20th century, entitled Unfinished Business (isn’t it just!), which was brilliant and I will be going back to see again when the Library reopens. It’s so rare to have an exhibition solely focused on women – and wonderful to see so many examples throughout twentieth century history of ordinary women coming together to affect change in their communities as well as on the wider world stage. There was even a small display about the influence of Virago publishing on the women’s movement! I can’t recommend both exhibitions highly enough once these spaces reopen to the public, but they do have fantastic websites and exhibition catalogues should you not be able to make it in person.

On to the books! I spent the first couple of weeks of October slogging my way through On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I’ve been meaning to read this classic of the American Beat generation for years, and as someone with grand ambitions to one day drive across America, I thought I would find it inspiring and evocative. Instead, I found it repetitive, self indulgent, and after a while, just plain boring. I made it three quarters of the way through before deciding life was too short, I had got the gist of it after the first chapter – nothing new really happens after that! – and did I really need to spend any more time than I already have to on a daily basis listening to a man talking endlessly about himself?! No thanks! So on the charity shop pile it went, and I can at least now say with conviction that Jack Kerouac is not for me. However, what it did give me was a renewed longing for the wide open roads, motels and diners of America…oh, how I can’t wait to travel again!

The exciting new publication of the month was Marilynne Robinson’s long-awaited fourth book in the Gilead series, Jack (interesting side note – I thought the UK edition was so ugly I ordered from the US – I wonder if anyone else hates the UK cover as much as I do?!). Focusing on the disgraced son of Reverend Boughton, who we are first introduced to as the wayward prodigal son in the second volume in the series, Home, Jack looks at what happens to him before he slinks back into the family home in the earlier novel. A beautiful, sensitive and incredibly moving portrayal of a damaged, despairing man, who can’t seem to ever do right for doing wrong, and whose life lurches helplessly from one disaster to another, Jack once again reveals Robinson’s wonderful ability to write completely three-dimensional, painfully real characters. Largely told in dialogue between Jack and his lover, Della, an ambitious, intelligent young African American teacher, whose compassion and affection for Jack quickly blossoms into love, the novel explores the slow flowering of their relationship, as Jack learns how to allow himself to be loved. Irrevocably complicated by the ban on interracial relationships in their state, Jack and Della have to cope with Della’s family’s fierce opposition to their relationship, and the very real fear of Della losing her teaching job if they are discovered. Their bravery in sticking together despite the odds against them is a powerful avowal of how perfect love casts out fear, and I devoured every single word of this beautiful paean to the eternal possibility of human redemption.

Another standout read of the month was one of the summer’s new Persephone books, The Oppermanns, by Lion Feuchtwanger. Written in the 1930s, during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, but before WWII, it is a rare contemporary viewpoint of the horrors of what took place as Hitler gained power, and the ease at which so many Germans were willing to become complicit in these. Told through the story of two generations of the sprawling Oppermann clan, Jewish Berliners who have had a prosperous and well respected family furniture business for several years, it reveals how suddenly and humiliatingly Jewish people were persecuted as Hitler’s party began to dominate German politics. It starts with small, and seemingly insignificant indignities, such as young Berthold’s Nazi teacher’s insistence that he apologise for criticising a legendary German hero in a speech. Indignant, Berthold refuses. The dogged campaign against him by his teacher, determined to prove that this Jewish student is a traitor to the Fatherland, will have horrific consequences, despite his family’s belief that it will all blow over. Gustav, his uncle, thinks that his wealth and status will cushion him from any of the unpleasantness he is hearing is happening to Jews on the streets of Berlin – surely no one would dare to treat him with such disrespect. Soon, to his utter dismay, he will find out the reality of the stories of concentration camps for himself. The family’s prosperous business, their leisured, fulfilling lives, their friendships, romantic partners and trusted associates, will all, in a matter of months, come crumbling down, the price paid for the whole family’s complacency in the face of the horrors that are coming. Feuchtwanger portrays brilliantly how easy it is to think ‘that could never happen here’, until it does, and the here is your country, your city, your house, and it’s too late for you to do anything about it. I was so utterly absorbed in this that the pages flew by; it’s a terribly difficult, challenging and emotionally charged read, that certainly makes for uncomfortable reading in our current, increasingly rightwing political climate. Everyone should read this, and everyone should understand – what happened in the 1930s happened because everyone thought it couldn’t. We must never allow ourselves to become so complacent again.

7 comments

  1. When I read On the Road, and others books by or about that group of authors, what stood out to me was how women were treated.

  2. I sure get it about Kerouac. Maybe a man’s writer. I’ve not read him, but what little I’ve read about him, I sure don’t care!

  3. As the antidote to Kerouac, I recommend Joyce Johnson’s memoir Minor Characters. It’s about her relationship with Kerouac and much more.

  4. I like William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley on America. Also Nabokov writes a good deal about traveling in America in the Fifties in Lolita. Uncomfortable as the subject relationship is, America is a character that didn’t make me cringe constantly.

    1. Also Phyllis Bottome’s The Mortal Storm on Germany in the Thirties. I haven’t gotten to the Oppermans yet but its certainly high on my TBR list.

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