Photo credit: Nicola Jones
June was one of those months when I hardly read anything. I can blame some of my reading slump on the fact that I signed up to Netflix and started watching Mad Men. I’d heard a lot about it but I hadn’t seen a single episode…until now. I’m mid-way through season three (out of seven seasons).
While it’s easy, relaxing viewing, I’m also enjoying watching how the characters develop as society changes. For me, Peggy is the most interesting character as she evolves from a timid young secretary to a confident working woman. I’m intrigued to see where all the characters will end up in season seven. No spoilers please! Are there any Mad Men fans among my readers?
When I wasn’t watching Mad Men, I read a couple of books in June: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien and The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is set among two generations of a Chinese family and it alternates between Canada in the early 1990s and China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
I was looking forward to reading it, but I struggled with this book. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and although it didn’t grab me from the beginning I felt that I should carry on reading it because it’s a ‘worthy’ read. It’s a multi-generational family saga, and I learned a lot about China’s history and cultural background. Many of the chapters are emotionally heavy to read, describing the violence during the Revolution and, later, the horrific massacre in Tiananmen Square.
However, it was difficult to keep track of characters and timelines. The timeline jumps around, not just between the 1990s and the 1960s, and a lot of the characters have multiple names. I felt like it needed a ‘cheat sheet’ at the front — as many Russian novels do — listing character names, diminutives and how they are all related. The confusing structure didn’t engage me and towards the end, I trailed off and stopped reading. I thought it was just me, but I’ve read a few reviews which said the same thing.
My other June book — The Durrells of Corfu — didn’t meet my expectations either. Naturalist Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is one of my favourite books, and I’m interested in finding out more about the Durrell family.
Detailing his life as a young boy in Corfu with his eccentric family, My Family and Other Animals is a charming book which makes me laugh no matter how many times I re-read it. It reminds me of the time I spent in Greece when I was ten (the same age as Gerald Durrell in the book).
However, The Durrells of Corfu is a slim biography which didn’t leave me feeling like I knew the Durrells much better than before. In this critical review from The Guardian, the reviewer calls Haag’s book “pointless” — it rehashes old material but doesn’t shed any light on the real Durrells.
Haag spends a lot of time pointing out the inaccuracies of My Family and Other Animals and where the story differs from the facts, like the omission of Larry’s wife. Larry, far from being the grouchy but ultimately tenderhearted Bohemian bachelor living with the family and bashing out his novels on an old typewriter, actually moved to Corfu with his wife and lived on the other side of the island.
Everything seems idyllic in My Family and Other Animals. But the truth was quite different and there is a darker side to the story, like the fact that lovably absent-minded Mother was actually an alcoholic who took to drinking to cope with the grief from her husband’s death. I’m still looking for a good biography of the family.
After two underwhelming books in a row, I was ready for something that would really engage me, that would make me feel impatient to pick it up again when I had to stop reading. And I found the solution to get me out of my literary apathy: Elena Ferrante’s brilliant Neapolitan Novels.
Public domain photo of Naples — photo credit: Montse Monmo
The four-part series is set in Naples and follows two close friends, Elena and Lila, from childhood to their sixties. I’m currently reading the second book: The Story of a New Name. I’ll be sad when I finish the series!
Please note: book cover images in this post are from Goodreads and are used under ‘fair use’ (for illustrative, non-commercial review purposes only).
What are you reading at the moment? Have you read the Neapolitan Novels?