We don’t really do summer holidays here at a sense of place, as in getting on a plane and lying on a beach somewhere for a fortnight. But I know many people do and it’s one of the main times people get to read books. So recently the ‘quality’ press here in the Northern Hemisphere has been doing its hardy perennial articles of recommended ‘summer reads’ and it’s made me think ‘Why not? We may not be ‘quality’ round here but I do love to read. And besides, Allerton Road Public Library has been on good form lately, so here goes.
First choice is ‘Mouse and the Cossacks’ by Lancashire writer Paul Wilson. It’s quite a down book with tragedies at its heart, which is nevertheless delicately done and so never becomes a heavy read.
‘Mouse’ is a young girl who goes through various trauma which cause her to lose the power of speech. So she communicates, with the very few people she knows, entirely in writing. Either pages ripped from her Filofax or text messages. In her Filofax she also writes herself messages of things she wants to find out about or do:
“Talking to dead people, Hold my breath for one minute, Stop plum cake sinking in the middle.”
With her mother, Mouse moves to an empty cottage in the country near Bury and finds it still contains some of the previous inhabitant’s possessions. And it’s at this point the novel becomes the interwoven stories of Mouse and William Crosby, as she investigates who he was or is from the evidence of his letters and his vegetable garden.
And the Cossacks? Well that’s part of the great trauma of William’s life from when he was a soldier at the end of World War Two. Based on something that really happened to the wandering, stateless Cossacks and a true incident that reflects badly on the British Army, very badly.
I’ll say no more, because the novel is a real page turner which sneaked up on me. ‘Are you still reading that Cossacks thing?’ Sarah asked me, noticing my unusually slow start with the book. Then for the last hundred pages I could barely breathe. Wonderfully done.
It’s another novel set in The Pennines, this time the eastern side. The story is told through the eyes of Kit, an eighteen year old who describes himself as:
“Strange, odd, socially disabled, on a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at the one end to ‘nutter’ at the other.”
Kit and his father Guy live in a crumbling away house on the edge of a quarry and Guy is in the late stages of dying from cancer. The pain and indignities involved for both of them in this are very finely observed, and it’s hard not to see Guy as a self-portrait by the author.
The story is relatively light compared to others of his books, about all his old college friends coming for one last visit where hilarity, skullduggery and pathos ensue. But it’s well written, as you’d expect, and is a graceful and conscious bowing out by a major writer.
Next, and finally, a gem, an unexpected treat. ‘Letters to a Young Scientist’ by Edward O. Wilson. A shortish book purporting to be advice for young scientists from someone old enough to see himself close to the end of his own career. I found it a genial hour or two hearing about subjects I’d barely thought about – the social life of ants, the fact that most of earth’s creatures communicate by pheromones – from someone very good at explaining huge laws and theories very simply. Always the skill of a great teacher.
I’d never heard of him before, of course, but it turns out he’s both famous and controversial – for a biologist. Still, I enjoyed hearing his reflections on his growing up in Alabama, his life in science at Harvard, and things like this:
“Put passion ahead of training. Feel out in any way you can what you most want to do in science. Obey that passion as long as it lasts. Sample other subjects and be smart enough to switch to a greater love if one appears. But don’t just drift through courses in science hoping that love will come to you. Maybe it will, but don’t take the chance. As in other big choices in your life, there is too much at stake. Decision and hard work based on enduring passion will never fail you.”
And on having an unusual life in pursuing your passion:
“Take weekends off for rest and diversion, but no vacations. Real scientists do not take vacations. They take field trips.”
But if you are about to take off on your summer vacation, take one or more of these to read and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
And a word of thanks and appreciation here to Liverpool City Libraries. All of these books were published this year, and I borrowed them all on the same day, from the New Books section at Allerton Road Public Library here in Liverpool. I was the first person to read these copies of each of the books. This, I feel, represents a very high level of public service. One to be recognised, applauded and protected in these times of so-called austerity.