I was an avid reader as a child and teenager, but my eight years spent as a student and having to read stuff constantly for university largely – and sadly – put paid to the idea of reading for pleasure. However, a couple of years ago I was invited to join an English-language reading group here in Freiburg, set up by a friend together with a colleague of hers, and I’ve grown to love it.
We meet monthly to discuss a book, and the suggestions for books to read come from within the group. We’re fairly international, with three Americans, two Brits (one Scottish, one Welsh), a South African and three Germans (all with absolutely excellent English), and I think all of us come from a background where we have studied, taught and/or been engaged professionally in some other way with English literature.
Here are some brief comments on my six favourites out of the books we have read. NO spoilers here:
What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt
A wonderful tale about two families in New York. The head of one is an art historian, while the other father is an artist whose work has become a source of fascination for the former. The reader explores the interaction between these families over a period of 25 years, which covers triumphs and losses, struggles and success, and it is a wonderful intermingling of personal fate and ways of looking at and living with art.
The Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd
This book explores the complex relationship between the famous literary siblings Charles and Mary Lamb and the well-known forger (of Shakespeare, among other things) William Henry Ireland. It is wonderfully evocative of 19th-century London and contains elements of a love story, deceit, social pressures derived from a factual background.
Headlong – Michael Frayn
Art history and criticism form the main basis for this book, too. A philosopher married to an art historian discovers some paintings in an old house and becomes convinced that he has discovered lost work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s a wonderful detective story about determination, red herrings and someone who is willing to risk everything to prove the discovery of the century. A cast of amusing characters completes the picture.
On Beauty – Zadie Smith
I read Smith’s White Teeth a few years ago and remain convinced that it is the best portrayal of multicultural life in late 20th century Britain that I have read. On Beauty didn’t quite measure up in this sense, but it is a wonderful variant on the campus novel, focusing on a British academic and his American rival. Art history, literary and cultural theory provide the academic strand here (again!), but the interactions and (mis)understandings between the two families are the main source of interest. Since then I have read David Lodge’s Small World, which I found similar in some ways (academic milieu / rivalry, trans-Atlantic differences), though Smith’s take is more serious and intricate, while Lodge’s is more flippant.
Possession - A. S. Byatt
This has to be one of the best books I have ever read. It has an awful lot in common with the other books already mentioned, in that it is a literary mystery, this time spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, intertwining the story of Victorian poets and their 20th century scholars and biographers. Social mores, academic rivalry and the notion of “possession” in the sense of relationships and academic criticism are explored in an extremely intricate work that I found utterly convincing.
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
I have always loved Victorian novels, and this is a modern novel set in the Victorian age. The fate of a poor girl who has grown up among thieves and diverse other “dishonest” types becomes indelibly linked with that of a “poor little rich girl” who has ostensibly been shielded from all of the above. Needless to say, many things are not as they seem initially, and the narrative takes the form of an unusual love story that spans social gulfs, cruelty, fetishism and madness, and which takes numerous unexpected turns in the process. It really makes you wonder about the saying “be cruel to be kind” and its opposite.
In January we will be discussing Kazuo Ishiguru’s When We Were Orphans, which was my suggestion for our next book. We’ll have to wait and see how that goes down…
In the meantime, if any of you have read any of the books discussed here, or books by the same authors, I’d love to receive some feedback on whether you liked them.