Summer season

On Sunday, an old friend and his wife came to lunch at short notice, bringing with them his 85-year old mother, Doreen, who has recently been diagnosed with the early stages of dementia. To get to our house, they had to drive for an hour and a quarter: a regular outing for the young and not-so-young amongst us, who spend our days zipping from place to place. For Doreen, though, it was quite an adventure, as she has only recently started to go out again after a spell in hospital and being cared for in her own home.

My plan for the afternoon had been not to roast a chicken (without garlic and with stuffing, in the English way), but to savour the prospect of BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub and listen to it live, having learnt the previous day that Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was the book to be discussed.

An afternoon in the company of a frail 83-year old who spends most of her time alone provided a timely prelude to the podcast I downloaded just before 5 o’clock, shortly after the visitors had headed back south. The last of Taylor’s 11 novels to be published in her lifetime, it tells the story of the widowed Mrs Palfrey and the new life she creates for herself in a genteel hotel in west London. With the precision and economy that is Taylor’s hallmark, she depicts life in the Claremont, drawing us into the routines of domestic life lived under a roof not one’s own and sketching Mrs Palfrey’s fellow residents with their quirks, tastes and opinions in ways which are as poignant as they are humorous.

The discussion with the audience, of which the grandson of the writer was a member, was led by John Humphries. It held no surprises for listeners familiar with Taylor’s work. Are the characters convincing? Should the reader see the relationship between Mrs Palfrey and her fantasy grandson and writer Ludo as a love story? What might the characterisation of Ludo tell us about Taylor’s views of herself as a writer?
What was a surprise, though, was the choice of studio guest as the guide through the book. For a novelist who gets pigeon-holed (wrongly, in my view and that of many of admirers of her work) as a 20th century Jane Austen, the choice of novelist and comedian David Baddiel – Jewish, American, middle-aged and male – made me sit up on the sofa in astonishment.

From his first comment, though, it was evident that he was a wise choice. He elaborated on his view that Elizabeth Taylor is the missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike, a comment he first made (and was criticised for) in The Independent when he was the subject of the Cultural Life feature in 2010. He pointed out that Elizabeth Taylor’s timing was, through no fault of her own, poor: she was a woman writer putting middle-class life in the south of England under the microscope at a time when the working class, macho writing of John Osborne and his fellow angry young men was fashionable.

It set me thinking about books to read when I go on holiday later this month, something I start to think about in earnest every year when July arrives. Heading the shortlist at the moment is the second volume of Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn (my Winter reading project was the Palliser series but I only got as far as Can you forgive her? and then Christmas came and other reading took over); Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, set in Jackson, Mississippi on the eve of the beginning of the African-American civil rights movement (I saw a special screening of the film on International Women’s Day which brought it to my attention); and The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2009 fictionalised account of the household of muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo (because she’s a writer I admire and I picked up a copy in my local Age UK for £1.99).

To add a new dimension to this annual ritual, I have been amusing myself thinking about which writer I would invite to review each of my choices if I were the producer of Bookclub. For Phineas Phinn, I choose Jonathan Franzen, for his unruly families and broad-brush painting of our own age, which could provide an intriguing perspective on Trollope’s more measured social customs at a time of political turbulence. For The Help, Owen Jones, who knows a thing or two about how stereotyping works and what its consequences can be. For The Lacuna, Brian Sewell, not just because he knows about painting but because he is one of the most unlikely writers I can think of to review a successful and serious woman writer. (Martin Amis would be another, but as far as I am aware, he doesn’t have anything original to say about art.)

So here’s your challenge, OCA students and tutors: tell us your top three Summer book choices and pick a writer to review each one.


  1. Gareth 4 July 2012 at 11:46 am

    I loved The Lacuna – really recommend it

    I think it is highly unlikely that I will get to read all of my three choices but am aiming to tackle:

    Bring up the Bodies, because I loved Wolf Hall
    The Chemistry of Tears, because I have read everything by Peter Carey since being knocked out by Oscar and Lucinda years ago
    Capital (the John Lanchester version) because I rather doubt we are all in it together

  2. Elizabeth 4 July 2012 at 12:48 pm

    That’s two recommendations for ‘Lacuna’ is as many days – both from men, incidentally.

    I would recommend ‘Bring up the Bodies’. Wolf Hall made such a powerful impression on me – the content and the style – that I approached its successor quite fearfully, just in case it fell short. It doesn’t, although it’s different.

    By the way, who would you pick as reviewer for your choices? How about Boris Johnson for ‘Capital’?

  3. Jennifer Wallace 5 July 2012 at 8:22 pm

    ‘Summer’ by Edith Wharton – to be reviewed by Fay Weldon.
    ‘The Pesthouse’ by Jim Crace – to be reviewed by Brian Aldiss
    ‘White Ravens’ by Owen Sheers – to be reviewed by Simon Armitage

  4. Liz Cashdan 10 July 2012 at 10:56 am

    Lacuna is a great novel but I wouldn’t choose Brian Sewell, mainly I think because I don’t see it so much as a book about art, as a book about politics and people.
    I’ve just been trying to read The Sisters Brothers but I had to put it down last night because the killing and blood just got to be too much of a bad thing! I’ll try it again in daylight when I’m less scared!
    I’ve just read two Israeli novelists: Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and a Boy set during the War of Independence. Who better to review it than Stephen Kelman who wrote Pigeon English? In fact, I wonder if Kelman had read the Shalev,not that the books share a similar plot, but the main character’s love for and dependence on pigeons comes out clearly in both books.
    The other Israeli book I’ve read is David Grossman’s Someone to Run With, about the drug scene among street kids in Jerusalem. A great novel with interesting time shifts between the boy’s story and the girl’s story linked by them both having the same dog which leads the reader to wonder how on earth they are going to meet up in the end without the novelist cutting the dog in two! I think Mark Haddon could review this one.
    Back to the Sisters brothers to see who they’re going to kill next.

  5. Joanna Ezekiel 17 July 2012 at 5:41 pm

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I am picking up some good book recommendations here…
    This August I’ll be reading poetry magazines ‘Obsessed with Pipework’ and ‘Envoi’. I’d like an acclaimed singer-songwriter to give me their take on the poems. Perhaps Thom Yorke, or P.J. Harvey.
    I’m also reading ‘The War and Uncle Walter’ the wartime diary of Walter Musto, which, like Nella Last’s wartime diary, wasn’t intended for wider publication. As Musto is bound to mention food shortages and rationing, I’d like the chef and writer Nigel Slater to review this book.


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