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Books do furnish a room

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  • Birthday July 18

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    The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
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  1. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark Eleanor Dark was an Australian novelist best known for the Timeless Land trilogy. This is her final novel. Dark and her husband were part of the left and had some difficulties with the Menzies government. She was a recluse in later years and suffered from writers block. The novel is set in an area of Queensland in which Dark lived, in a small rural community. It is essentially a collection of comic portraits of the characters (some human, some animal) that make up the community. The farms are small, the land is not easy with a large portion of it covered by Lantana which is a fast growing shrub, and there are some retirees and some escaping from city life. It is off the beaten track and the road is awful as well: “We have lived round the corner from the world, with not even a signpost to betray our whereabouts… and if the treasure we have accumulated makes no show upon our bank statements, neither is it subject to income tax…” The often common crop is pineapples, or pines as they are called. Dark clearly knew a bit about pineapple farming: “He had been grabbing an hour or two here and there to get ready for his new pines, and the patch was rotary-hoed, and ploughed, and fertilised, and prepared for contour planting. Though Biddy grew tired rather quickly now, she insisted on laying out some of the butts for him when he began to put them in” The community is poor and times are sometimes difficult: “We are not affluent people in the Lane. As primary producers we are, of course, frequently described by our legislators as The Backbone of The Nation, but we do not feel that this title, honourable as it is, really helps us much. We get by, but with nothing to spare – and we never know from one week to the next what is going to happen to the Market.” The land and the weather both play a big part in the novel. The climate and the humour are very dry. There is also a sense of an avoidance of the modern world and its ways. It is the 1950s and there is reconstruction going on; the local space is gradually being intruded on, much to the consternation of the community. The threat of nuclear war is there in the distance, pointing to Dark’s political stances. There is a great warmth about this novel and all the characters are likeable and there are some real comic moments and great characters. The chapter involving the bulldozer is a real masterpiece. I liked it enough to add her to my to be read list. 7and a half out of 10 Starting The Wedding by Dorothy West
  2. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Autumn by Ali Smith This is not only the first of four novels based on the seasons, but it has also been acclaimed as the first Brexit novel. This makes it very British in some ways and the feelings in the country and the reactions to the vote form part of the novel, as in this much quoted piece: “All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.” With this backdrop the novel moves easily over the last hundred years through its main characters. Daniel Gluck is a century old, Jewish and in a care home. Elisabeth was born in 1984; during her childhood in the 1990s she lived next to Daniel Gluck and a friendship developed; they are kindred spirits and Daniel helps Elisabeth think in new ways. One of the ways he does this is through art and in particular the art of Pauline Boty, a little known 1960s artist and her art is woven through the book. The novel is well written and constructed and flits between vignettes and scenes some of which are very pertinent, some amusing, others very sad. The scenes in the post office when Elisabeth is trying to renew her passport are straight out of Monty Python. It feels very current and there are reflections on recent events and the nature of social media. This on the murder of the MP Jo Cox; “Someone killed an MP,” she tells him. “A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn’t be enough. But it’s old news now. Once it would have been a year’s worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.” Elisabeth reflects that in her situation as a part time lecturer she has little hope of buying a house, very little money and no job security. She also talks about her students, “graduating with all that debt and a future in the past.” Her mother meanwhile has been on a popular TV antiques programme and has met another woman of a similar age and started a relationship. The part where Elisabeth walks in on them kissing is hilarious. The novel is powerfully propelled by the narrative voice and despite covering a broad range of topics like art, politics, feminism, literature, the nature of memory, prejudice and Brexit (of course), it is never hard to read. It is a reflection on who we are and what we are made of, As Deborah Levy says: “Transcendental writing about art, death, political lies, trees and all the dimensions of love.” And I love the occasional rants: “I'm tired of the news. I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. I'm tired of how we're encouraging it. I'm tired of the violence that's on it's way, that's coming, that hasn't happened yet. I'm tired of liars. I'm tired of sanctified liars. I'm tired of how those liars have let this happen. I'm tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I'm tired of lying governments. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to anymore. I'm tired of being made to feel this fearful.” 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Toby's Room by Pat Barker
  3. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    A Piece of the Night by Michele Roberts This is the first novel Michele Roberts wrote and it tells the story of Julie brought up in a French village where Catholicism reigns supreme and then sent to school in England. The novel moves between present day (1970s) where Julie has gone home to visit her mother who is unwell and her childhood and early years. Julie’s journey from a Catholic upbringing and schooling, through university and marriage and motherhood to coming out and living communally with other women is explored and explained. It mirrors the radical feminist movement of the early 1970s and is what Rosemary White referred to as a “feminist confessional realist novel”; a form of consciousness raising highlighting the social and political situation of women. Woven in as well is a smaller secondary narrative telling the story of Amy Sickart, a late nineteenth century explorer forced to take the veil when her companion and source of financial support marries and no longer needs her friendship. Roberts explores the nature of motherhood and the relationship between Julie and her mother Claire and the very different relationship between Julie and her own daughter. Through the book Julie comes to terms with her own feelings and relationships and the reader is taken on a journey with her; it is written well enough for the reader to care about Julie and future. As Frankova has pointed out Roberts’s writing is marked by a paradox. The story can be misty and nebulous at times, but there are contrasts of clear detail and poetic descriptions. It is Roberts’s view that; “The surrealism in the novel will come from details being heightened from the ordinary and the mundane just a little into the bizarre—so you'll still see the connection to the everyday.” Towards the end of the novel Roberts says that we carry the memory of our childhood like a photograph in a locket and there is a very vivid description of childhood and especially of the role of the Catholic Church, a topic Roberts returns to many times. Roberts says that every novel she writes begins from an image. This one begins with the image of a dead nun in the school chapel. Themes of death, resurrection, loss and reparation mean, as Roberts says, that we are directly in Melanie Klein territory. I enjoyed this novel and will read more by Roberts. 7 out of 10 Starting The Last Englishman by Byron Roberts
  4. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka “I am of the same blood as the sanctioned mess of invasion That was Javanese transmigration, And I shampoo my hair with oil crafted From dead-end social experiments And gargantuan-scale domestication of hectares, Cemeteries of growth” Not at all easy to describe or categorize; this is a wonderful production from Tilted Axis Press (if you don’t know them, look them up). It is poetic, but so much more a cry of resistance against destructive forces be they imperialist capitalist or environmental. This work acts on a number of levels and the artwork in the book is striking and very powerful. There is also a braille version where the artwork is embossed and tactile. The poem started as a performance and Barokka explains what she wanted to achieve; “I liked the idea of a book that was also an art object. Also, considering then-unavailable healthcare, I wanted to step away from performance a bit, find a way to recreate the experience without always having me physically enacting it. And I wanted Indigenous to be a provocation, highlighting sighted privilege and how unequal the publishing landscape is – that’s why there’s a marker of Braille’s absence on every other page of the sighted version, and that’s why it’s explicitly called a sighted version. The poem is always still a performance – it was performed at the book launch” This is also a reaction to and against the destruction of the environment in Barokka’s native Indonesia. It is about a girl abducted in her own homeland and taken upriver (I have heard this described as a feminist and anti-imperialist version of Heart of Darkness). The artwork and the depth of the language almost makes the language itself a physical thing. The abduction mirrors the theft of resources; “I bet you, from the raucous Machinery I’m hearing And the smell of rashness, That this is where the grease deals Are siphoned into miners’ food. And where they are packing down Eons of intricacies and strength From the forest to molecular form On a woman’s lipstick bottle in Iowa,” I would strongly recommend this work, Barokka is co-editing an anthology of D/deaf and disabled poetry and has a collection of poems of her own due out as well. I will look out for both. 9 out of 10 Starting Corregidora by Gayl Jones
  5. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Blood in the Dining Room Floor by Gertrude Stein This is Gertrude Stein’s foray into detective novels; written not long after her success with The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas and at a time when she was suffering with writers block (written about 1934 it wasn’t published until 1948). It is an experimental novel and it is quite apt that the virago edition I have has a Picasso painting on the front. It is a cubist painting and Stein was interested in cubism and this is also her attempt at a cubist novel. Modernism does not sit easily with the formulaic nature of traditional detective novels, but the often fragmentary nature of information in a detective novel does give a modernist author some scope for having fun. Don’t expect clear characters, an obvious crime and any sort of plot; do expect sentences like the following: “A little come they which they can they will they can be married to a man, a young enough man an old man and a young enough man.” And “This much I know that willing to sleep willing to make willing to see water may make a chain may make a lane between which they will not falter. But just when.” It is set in France and Stein drew on events that had happened in the village she was living in at the time. It draws on reflections and snippets of gossip and fragments of thought. It has been suggested it should be read twice. I read some of it out loud and that seemed to help! It is useful to remember that Stein refers to characters in a generic way as male, female, sister, brother, gardener and so on. But the setting, the country rather than the city is important: “They said nothing happens in the country but there are more changes in a family in the country in five years than in a family in the city and this is natural. If nothing changed in the country there could not be butter and eggs. There have to be changes in the country, there had to be breaking up of families and killing of dogs and spoiling of sons and losing of daughters and killing of mothers and banishing of fathers. Of course there must in the country. And so this makes in the country everything happening in the country. Nothing happens in the city. Everything happens in the country. The city just tells what has happened in the country, it has already happened in the country.” There is a “continuous present” here and the whole thing does flow. If you like a bit of a challenge, but not on the scale of some of the more notorious behemoths, this may be for you; it’s just over 70 pages. 6 and a half out of 10 Starting Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
  6. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang Not the sort of thing I usually read, this is a parable/fable which can easily be read by adults or children with line drawings between each chapter. It is the story of a battery hen who has named herself Sprout who dreams of being free and being able to actually hatch an egg of her own. She looks out of her cage enviously at the animals who are free in the farmyard. Events combine so that Sprout does escape. She is not accepted in the hierarchical world of the farmyard because of where she has come from, although one of the male, ducks, called Straggler, does speak not her. He is also an outsider. Not being in the farmyard leaves her in danger from the main predator in the area, a weasel. Straggler and another duck produce an egg away from the farmyard, but Straggler’s mate is taken by the weasel. Sprout sits on the egg until it hatches, during which time Straggler is also taken by the weasel. Sprout is left to bring up a duckling alone with opposition from the animals in the farmyard and the ducks on the reservoir and Sprout’s struggles with the weasel, the weather and with bringing up a duckling make up the rest of the book. Of course this works on a number of levels and a great deal could be read into it. One of my GR friends Richard has referred to it as Jonathon Livingston Seagull meets Babe (wish I’d thought of that!). The whole covers racism, liberation, bullying, friendship, marginality (almost reminding me of Wacquant here), parenting (not biologically determined) and struggle. I did have some concern that the message was that Sprout could only be fulfilled through motherhood, but I think there is much more to the tale than this. Sprout isn’t a biological mother; she rears a duckling not a chick and the messages are obvious and very apt for a divided and hierarchical society like the one I live in. It works as a simple fable as well and Sun-Mi Hwang has written something that will capture imaginations of adults and children alike. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka
  7. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Show me a Mountain by Kerry Young This is the third of Kerry Young’s trilogy about Jamaica; the first two being Pao and Gloria. This novel focuses on Fay Wong, Pao’s wife. She has a Chinese father and a mother of African heritage. Fay grows up in the 1930s in a relatively privileged family, but suffering significant abuse from her mother, their volatile relationship continuing throughout the book. You might think that reading the same story from three different perspectives might become repetitive. However it doesn’t and the different perspectives add a depth and richness to the overall story and the history of Jamaica in this period. Show me a Mountain continues some of the themes of the earlier books; sexuality, gender, class and race. It also looks at family history and whether cycles of abuse and family histories have to be repeated. We see very little of Pao himself in this novel, despite his arranged marriage to Fay and get to know other characters who play much more minor roles. An interesting point about this novel is that it ends when Fay leaves for England, much earlier than the other two novels and we learn nothing of Fay’s life in England. This is fair enough as the focus is Jamaica, but some hints would have been interesting. The development of the three main characters in interesting and obviously the rather negative picture of Fay in the first novel is much changed by the end of this one. Human relationships are complex and each of the novels add layers of complexity which enables the reader to see the positives and negatives in each character. There is a bit more detail about the structure of the British colonial state and its attempts to control the population. Fay herself is a very different character to Pao and Gloria, she goes a minimal amount of work and spends a good deal of time seeming to get others into trouble; her faults are clear and obvious. Gloria, for me is the strongest character in the trilogy and I think the strongest book. This still does portray an aspect of Jamaican history and taken as a whole the three novels paint a very vivid picture of Jamaica from the 1930s to the 1960s. 7 out of 10 Starting The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
  8. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    To The River by Olivia Laing This is the story of the River Ouse in Sussex and the story of a week during which Laing walked the length of the river at midsummer. This, of course is the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself. The walk was prompted by the end of a relationship and a general feeling that rivers gave a sense of direction to those who have "lost faith with where they're headed". The Ouse is not a long river, only 42 miles, and Laing is able to feel generally unhurried as she sets aside a week to complete the journey. Laing enjoys the solitude and chance for reflection and examines the way history and landscape interlink. It also gives Laing reason to follow all sorts of literary, historical and natural leads. That is what makes this book so delightful. Woolf is obviously a central figure and there is some interesting discussion of Between the Acts as well as a look at her life with Leonard Woolf and her death. Other forays include classical mythology, Bede’s Sparrow, nineteenth century dinosaur hunters, Piltdown man, Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows), Iris Murdoch, a discussion of the various meanings of the word incapable in Gertrude’s description of the drowned Ophelia, the history of the Battle of Lewes in 1264 with discussions about Simon de Montfort and the current location of the armour and bodies, the annul migration of the wheatear and how it ended up in many nineteenth century pies, passages on floods and flooding and a discussion of the architecture of Hades; and much more, all linked together by the Ouse and by Laing’s passionate flights of intuition and inquisitiveness. “How strangely we spend our lives” Laing remarks and affirms Woolf’s comment about the Ouse valley, “this has holiness. This will go on after I am dead.” Laing talks about her own history a little, about her parents and her recent break up (including the priceless throwaway comment, “For Christmas, Matthew had given me a Hoover”). But mostly we experience her journey and learn a great deal about the Ouse. Laing enjoys her solitude on the walk and sometimes other humans are an irritation. Laing has a sense of humour; encountering a group and loud and rather crass drinkers in a pub, she notes; “After supper I walked out into the churchyard where Edward Gibbon was buried, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and died nearby of peritonitis after an operation to drain the massive inflammation of his testicles went wrong and poisoned his blood. In my head the woman’s voice translated: he had fudgeing big rubbish. It was an English voice and it had been going on forever: parochial and incensed, intent on cutting everything down to size.” Laing is aware of her own frailties and inconsistencies and approaches moments that might have brought forth something Keatsian and poetic in a rather different way; “..a whole Greek chorus of tits exchanging apprehension and admonition. I could hear them perfectly, but apart from the chaffinch I couldn’t see a bloody thing. After straining through binoculars for twenty minutes I became petulant” Then a very human reaction to losing the path; “I burst out, sweating, onto the marsh, but my relief didn’t last a minute. It wasn’t the path I wanted, not at all….I pulled off my rucksack and kicked it.” And yet Laing can write beautifully and is an accomplished wordsmith, speaking of kestrels “pinned to the sky” and dragonflies “the size of kitchen matches”. The fate of a particular wood pigeon sparks this reverie; “The present, the present. It never stops, no matter how weary you get. It comes unstintingly, as a river does, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll be swept off your feet. I should have warned the woodpigeon.” It also links in to Laing’s own experience of depression and makes the book profound in often unexpected ways. As you can tell I liked this book. 9 out of 10 Starting Blood on the Dining Room Floor by Gertrude Stein
  9. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Nothing of Importance by Bernard Adams Another war memoir which doesn’t start in a promising way and there was certainly a temptation to give up about half way as it seemed very like many other memoirs of its type. However I’m glad I finished it. The title comes from a phrase commonly used in dispatches; nothing of importance happened on the front today; when in reality men had died and been wounded. It describes the time Adams spent with a Welsh battalion (eight months) from October 1915, until he was wounded and sent home to recuperate. This is where the account ends. This was written during that time of recuperation and published in 1917 and one of the very first accounts of war and the trenches to be published; years before the more famous accounts. Adams went back to the front in January 1917 and was killed in February 1917. As I said the book starts slowly and Adams is a bit of a geek when it comes to measurements and topography; several early chapters are spent describing and drawing trench systems and their relation to each other and the landscape. He even suggests at one point that those not interested in this sort of thing should skip a chapter or two. Then Adams is able to do this with his description of a deserted village: “A few steps off the main road had brought me into what had formerly been a small garden belonging to a farm. There had been a red brick wall all along the north side with fruit trees trained along it. Now, the wall was mainly a rubble heap, and the fruit trees dead. One sickly pear tree struggled to exist in a crumpled sort of heap, but its wilted leaves only added to the desolation of the scene. An iron gate, between red brick pillars, was still standing, strangely enough; but the little lawn was run to waste and had a crater in the middle of it, about five feet across, inside of which was some disintegrating animal, also empty tins and other refuse. Trees were broken, weeds were everywhere. I tried to reconstruct the place in my imagination, but it was a chaotic tangle. I came across a few belated raspberries, and picked one or two; they were tasteless and watery. Rubbish and broken glass were strewn everywhere. It was a dreary sight in the grey rain; the only sign of life a few chattering blue-tits. The house was an utter ruin, only a ground room wall left standing; some of the outhouses had not suffered so much, but all the roofs were gone. I saw a rusty mangle staring forlornly out of a heap of debris; and a manger and hayrack showed what had been a stable. The pond was just near, too, and gradually I could piece together the various elements of the farm.” Gradually Adams’ account becomes starker and the anger seems to build and he begins to let his feelings show: “As I write I feel inclined to throw the whole book in the fire. It seems a desecration to “tell of these things”. Do I not seem to be exulting in the tragedy? Should not he who feels deeply keep silent? Sometimes I think so. And yet it is the truth, word for word the truth; so I must write it.” There is death throughout the book, but as the account goes on Adams becomes more affected; the death of a particular colleague is described vividly after a shell burst: “In the trench, half-buried in rags of sand-bag and loose chalk, lay what had been a man. His head was nearest to me and at that I gazed fascinated; for the shell had cut it clean in half and the face lay like a mask, its features unmarred at all, a full foot away from the rest of the head. The flesh was grey, that was all; the open eyes, the nose, the mouth were not even twisted awry. It was like a sculpture. All the rest of the body was a mangled mass of flesh and khaki. “Who is it?” whispered a stretcher bearer, bending his head down to look at that mask… “It is Lance Corporal Allan” said I. …. I leaned my face on my arm against the parados. Oh, this unutterable tragedy! Had there ever been such a thing before? Why was this thing so terrible? Why did I have this feeling of battering against some relentless power? Death. There were things worse than death… What made war so cruel was that force compelled you to go on. “Oh God! I shall go mad!” I thought in the agony of my mind. I saw into that strange empty chamber which is called madness; I knew what it would be like to go mad. And even as I saw, came the thought again of those glittering eyes, and the ruthless answer to my soul’s cry: “The war is utterly indifferent whether you go mad or not”” The end of the account sees Adams writing this and then giving an account of what he believes war is and why it is: “For I have seen the real face of war. I have seen men killed, mutilated, blown to little pieces; I have seen men crippled for life; I have looked in the face of madness and I know that many have gone mad under its grip. I have seen fine natures break and crumble under the strain. I have seen men grow brutalised and coarsened in this war. (God will judge justly in the end; meanwhile, there are thousands among us – yes and among our enemy too – brutalised through no fault of theirs). I have lost friends killed (and shall lose more yet), friends with whom I have lived and suffered so long. “ Adams is eloquent, hence the quotes. He hoped religion and pacifism might lead to the end of war. The fact he was wrong does not negate the power of the second half of the book. 9 out of 10 Starting The Hen who dreamed she could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang
  10. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    The Eyrie Stevie Davies I think Stevie Davies is one of the most underrated novelists and certainly one of my favourites. This novel is quiet and understated, but there is much on every page and the messages are powerful. As the philosopher Alfred Whitehead said, “We think in generalities, but we live in detail”. The novel is set in the mid-2000s in South Wales (Oystermouth). The Eyrie is a mansion which formerly belonged to a copper baron. It has now been split into flats and the story revolves around the inhabitants of the flats; three in particular. Dora, also known as Red Dora is in her 90s and is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a Scottish communist and unrepentant activist for many causes. She is still very sharp and very much opposed to the war in Iraq, which is a backdrop. She is learning how to use a computer effectively with the intention of hacking into government websites and letting them know what she thinks. But there is a sense of considering her past: “Such a fighter she was. And as far as Dora was concerned, all the battles she cared about had been lost. There was nothing left for Red Dora to do. Just being an old person with failing health was not enough.” Dora is not aging quietly or peacefully, not even in the rather peaceful setting of The Eyrie, or as Davies describes it; “this subdued, murmurous antechamber to a final quiet.” Dora also reflects on those she lost: her lover Lachlan, father of her only child, who died in the Spanish Civil War. Her daughter Rosa, who died in prison (as a result of opposition to Franco). Along with Dora there is Eirlys, a retired, middle aged social worker. She bakes for everyone and likes to look after people; coming across as warm and caring. Yet she also has a past as a Welsh language activist and also spent time in prison. Davies has a wonderful way of building characters, this is Eirlys thinking about her history: “Parents growing elderly and becoming gentle living wraiths, to whom she had been able to offer the care of the unattached daughter. Their gratitude. The knowledge upon which she rested after they joined one another in the earth: that she had done her best by those who had done well by her. Eirlys would not say that she had had an unfulfilling life, no. The marvellous chatty weave of family. She practised an ethic of feeding, or so Dora said. Feed my sheep, said the Bible. Christ had cooked up something wonderful out of five loaves and two small fishes. In that case, though, you’ll have to explain, Eirlys pointed out to herself, why you left your vocation in social work and dodged up here where no one speaks the language you would have died for! Your nearest and dearest have to make an excursion to find you, rather than popping in, yet here she was, stuffing strangers with goodies. It must be pathological. Never mind.” The third central character is Hannah, a twenty something who has been brought up in a commune and is escaping a dull marriage. Hannah looks remarkably like Dora’s late daughter and this leads to a close friendship between the two women. There are lots of interesting, irritating and eccentric minor characters who populate the pages. The novel is well written, elegant and evocative with themes of love and loss, power and control. The reader does have a little work to do as what is left unsaid and what doesn’t happen is important. Davies sees herself as a historical novelist and is interested in addressing the gaps in history which denote women’s lives. This novel charts the history of a revolutionary spirit after the failure of many of the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century. The decline and failure of the left is symbolised here by Blair, although unnamed in the novel, he is frequently referenced by Dora as the epitome of everything that is wrong with the modern age. There is much to ponder here and Davies is a consistently good writer. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Autumn by Ali Smith
  11. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald This book covers a number of genres. Macdonald wrote this to chart how she coped with the loss of her father and so in many ways it is an account of a bereavement. As a response to her father’s death Macdonald also decided to train a goshawk. She had been obsessed with falcons and hawks since childhood and had trained falcons, but a goshawk is a whole different matter. So this is also an account of the hawk and its training and a history of falconry going back centuries. It is also a description of the natural world around Cambridge which is keenly observed by Macdonald as she takes Mabel the Goshawk out to train and fly. Finally it is also part biography of T H White, writer of the Arthurian romances, starting with The Sword in the Stone. He also wrote a book about training a goshawk (originally titled Goshawk). He was a difficult character who generally spurned the company of other people and Macdonald explores his rather difficult character through his writing about training his hawk. It helps that Macdonald writes well; “The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent. It was about to begin” And she has a way with words; “Maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.” There is also a poetic feel to parts, not surprising as Macdonald is also a poet and her poems encompass her love of nature and falconry; “To state the discovery of a country & be in a time without rage, keeping wings near yourself, as barred as buried in the day, crossly. Some present results; a tree, a quail, a rock, a hawk rousing one's mind from safety and tameable illness to beautiful comprehension in the form of a hunch…” The passages about bereavement are inevitably very personal to Macdonald, as she says, “It happens to everyone, but you feel it alone.” Macdonald does provide the reader with a significant amount of technical detail about training a hawk as well. There is also a good deal about T H White; he was not very good at training hawks and his book seems to be a description of what not to do. This is a powerful memoir which I enjoyed. There are some writers whose company the reader can enjoy and Macdonald is one of these 8 out of 10 Starting A Piece of the Night by Michele Roberts
  12. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Thank you Pixie! Bid Me to Live by HD This is in actuality a roman a clef; a novel involving real people who have been given invented names. HD was the pen name of Hilda Doolittle, an American Imagist poet and novelist who moved to London in 1911. Doolittle is a fascinating character. Initially she was part of a group centred on Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington. This novel is set in the First World War (about 1917), after Doolittle had married Aldington and it charts the disintegration of the marriage. Doolittle was bisexual and later lived with the English novelist Bryher (Annie Ellerman). From the early 1920s until 1946 they lived together. They both also had male partners/husbands, sometimes sharing the same one. HD had a lifelong struggle with her mental health and in the 1930s travelled to see Freud for psychoanalysis. She has written a memoir of this. Bid Me to Live, as well as being a roman a clef is also a war novel, charting the experiences of wartime London and the community of writers who revolved around Doolittle. Julia is Doolittle herself and Julia’s husband Rafe Ashton is Richard Aldington. Rafe’s mistress, Bella Carter (who lived on the floor above Julia and Rafe) is Dorothy Yorke. Vane, with whom Julia goes to Cornwall towards the end of the novel is Cecil Gray, father of Doolittle’s only child. Rico is DH Lawrence and Rico’s wife Elsa is Frieda Lawrence. There was a period in 1917 when Lawrence and Frieda shared Doolittle’s flat in Mecklenburgh Square. The creative spark of the novel centres on the relationship between Lawrence and Doolittle. They were close friends, but very different and ideological opponents; attracted and repulsed at the same time. It is a complex relationship which Doolittle explores very effectively. There is homage as well as love/hate. Lawrence wrote about the relationship in Aaron’s Rod. Bid Me to Live was not published until 1960 and was rewritten many times. The naming is interesting. Julia is the name Lawrence gives to his caricature of Doolittle in Aaron’s Rod and here Doolittle reclaims it for herself. The name Rico, given to Lawrence is also significant. In Lawrence’s novel St Mawr, Rico is the name of the artist-husband of the heroine Lou Witt; he fails her and she abandons him to find her true self. Doolittle also takes the opportunity to look at the way Lawrence writes; “Rico could write elaborately on the woman mood, describe women to their marrow in his writing; but if she turned around, wrote the Orpheus part of the Orpheus-Eurydice sequence, he snapped back, “Stick to the woman-consciousness, it is the intuitive woman mood that matters.” He was right about that, of course. But if he could enter so diabolically, into the feelings of women, why should not she enter into the feelings of men.” Julia has rescinded this concession to Lawrence by the end of the book. Rico “had shouted his man-is-man, his woman-is-woman at her; his shrill peacock-cry sounded a love-cry, death-cry for their generation.” Julia responds, “that was his problem. It was a man’s problem, the man-artist. There was also the woman, not only the great mother-goddess that he worshipped, but the woman gifted as the man, with the same, with other problems. Each two people making four people. As she and Rafe had been at the beginning.” Julia concludes: “So, Rico, your puppets do not always dance to your pipe. Why? Because there is another show!” The focus is on female creativity. This is a modernist novel where all the action takes place in the consciousness of the central character. There is an experimental feel to it and the opening paragraph illustrates this; “Oh, the times, oh the customs! Oh, indeed the times! The customs! Their own specifically, but part and parcel of the cosmic, comic, crucifying times of history. Times liberated, set whirling outmoded romanticism; Punch and Judy danced with Jocasta and Philoctetes, while wrestlers sprawling in an Uffizi or Pitti flung garish, horizon-blue across gallant and idiotic Sir Philip Sidneyisms. It was a time of isms. And the Ballet.” The frame of the action; the first eight of the eleven chapters is the room where Julia and Rafe lived (Rafe only when he was on leave). Doolittle muddles genres and genders. The influence of Freud is clear and there is a fascinating couple of pages about Van Gogh. The whole is a well-crafted account of a time and place and a good corrective to some of the myths around Lawrence Not sure why this isn’t on any of those 1001 lists, it should be! 9 out of 10 Starting Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark
  13. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Gloria by Kerry Young This is the second of Kerry Young’s trilogy of historical novels about twentieth century Jamaica. The first novel, Pao, focussed on race and colour. Gloria deals with the same story and characters, but deals with gender and sexuality. Young is on record as saying that she wants to show there are many Jamaicas and showing the political and social issues and their impact (including slavery and colonialism). “A hundred years ago they free the slave, but they nuh free the woman” The novel opens in 1938 when a sixteen year old Gloria beats to death a man who has abused her and has started to abuse her younger sister. They both move to Kingston to get away and start a new life and the story begins to intersect with Pao. Stretching over several decades and covering recent Jamaican history. Gloria also looks at what is happening to Cuba, comparing it to Jamaican politics. As in the first book prostitution and racketeering are part of the background; the novel takes us through the end of colonial rule and through the changes of the sixties and seventies. The role and place of women is central and Young explores sexuality; relations between men and women and also between women and women. I really enjoyed this novel, I didn’t find the dialect problematic and Young writes with zest and humour. The characters are engaging and not at all two dimensional. It does help to have read Pao and Gloria fills in a few gaps in the first novel. Seeing the same events from two points of view is also very illuminating. I’m looking forward to the final novel in the trilogy. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Show me a Mountain by Kerry Young
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    The Bone People by Keri Hulme This was twelve years in the writing and was rejected by many publishers. It defies easy description and is very much set in the interface between Maori and western culture. There is complexity in the structure and a dose of magic realism at the end. The character of Kerewin Holmes is a remarkable creation who jumps out of the page. The novel revolves around three characters. Kerewin Holmes is a solitary woman living in a tower, a painter who does not paint and who is estranged from her family. Joe is the adoptive father of Simon, a boy washed up on the beach, who isn’t able to speak and who has considerable behavioural problems and no sense of personal property. Joe has relatively recently lost his wife and child and he is now bringing up Simon alone. In this he is struggling and he is physically abusive and violent towards Simon. Hulme is a great storyteller and her descriptions are vivid; ''watching the blood sky swell and grow, dyeing the rainclouds ominously, making the far edge of the sea blistered and scarlet'' There is a musicality and rhythm to it all; Hulme switches perspectives between her characters and mixes poetry with prose, also mixing English with indigenous Maori language. There are lots of themes. All of the main characters are isolated. A sense of home and family life is often seen as something to be strived for as Simon thinks; “He had endured it all. Whatever they did to him, and however long it was going to take, he could endure it. Provided that at the end he could go home. ……if he can’t go home, he might as well not be. They might as well not be, because they only make sense together. We have to be together. If we are not, we are nothing. We are broken.” Hulme has said that interwoven threads is one of her favourite images in the novel. Hulme has taken two elements of postcolonial literature, language and magic realism and uses them to good effect. One issue that cannot be avoided is the violence by Joe towards Simon. When Hulme writes the violence she strips back the language and makes it very stark. Hulme herself is very clear about why she did this; to address an issue in New Zealand. Hulme has stated that violence towards children was a “pervasive social problem in New Zealand, among Maoris and Pakeha . . . and she had written the bone people in part to draw attention to it” Hulme gives the reader nowhere to go with this; Joe by being violent loses his Maori language and sides with the Pakeha, the western colonizers. His attempt to destroy Simon seems linked to the destruction of Maori culture. His redemption is linked to his rediscovery of his roots and culture. I only found this partially convincing; male violence is male violence, wherever it is found. I must admit that I did struggle with some aspects of the ending, but the writing and language is captivating. 8 out of 10 Starting The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
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    In Flanders Fields by Leon Wolff This is a history of the 1917 third battle of Ypres (also known as the battle of Passchendaele). What is somewhat different about this history is that it tries to cover not only tactics and the views of the generals and politicians, but also the soldiers on the ground. Although it must be said that the majority of the discussion centres on Haig and his battle with Prime Minister Lloyd-George, who opposed Haig’s tactics. I’m not really interested in military tactics, but it is fascinating and horrifying to read the arguments of generals as they play dice with the lives of men. When he puts his mind to it Wolff can capture scenes and give a glimpse of life at the front, as with this description of the aftermath of a battle; “As the fighting simmered down, the waste products of the battle, like the precipitate in a cloudy glass, moved rearward - the walking wounded and the stretcher-borne wounded ('very cheery indeed,' according to Haig's diary), soaked, bloody, haggard with pain; the shrouded dead; the vague and stumbling shell-shocked. One artillery lieutenant had been struck in the throat by a bit of shrapnel. As the blood gushed, he walked 100 yards to a dressing station near Zillebeke, gasped to a doctor, 'My God, I'm going to die!' and immediately did so. The stretcher-bearers worked all day and night, helped by German prisoners, who had also begun to filter back early in the day - surprisingly young boys and older, grimmer veterans - all with sunken eyes, sodden clothing, boots full of water that squished at every step.” There are vivid descriptions of the terrain and especially of the mud, which was so deep that men drowned in it. When one officer was asked to consolidate his advanced position, his response was; "It is impossible to consolidate porridge. Trenches full of liquid mud. Smelt horribly. Full of dead Frenchmen too bad to touch. Men quite nauseated." It is difficult to comprehend the full horror of that statement. Wolff is probably trying to do too much with this book, but parts of it are interesting. There is a good deal of analysis of the characters of those in leadership roles, which has its place, but doesn’t sit easily with the descriptions of the front. Personally I prefer the literary explorations of the war. 6 out of 10 Starting Nothing of Importance by Bernard Adams