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      July Supporter Giveaway   07/01/2019

      It's Christmas in July! The winner of the July Supporter giveaway will receive this beautiful Barnes & Noble edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, as well as a special Charles Dickens tea by  theliteraryteacompany.co.uk .   I've been keeping this book a secret for so long (I couldn't wait until Christmas!) It's actually from a really lovely independent bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, the town of books. I'm so glad I finally get to show you! The picture doesn't even do it justice. A nice feature that you can't see in this image - the page edges are gold and (an extra surprise for the winner) the back is just as beautiful as the front! We also now have twice as much tea as previous giveaways!  (Thank you Literary Tea Company!)   As always, supporters are automatically entered into the giveaway and a winner will be chosen at random at the end of the month. If you want to enter this giveaway but you aren't a supporter, you can join in here https://www.patreon.com/bookclubforum .   Good luck  

Books do furnish a room

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  1. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Loony Bin Trip by Kate Millett Kate Millett is most famous for her feminist text Sexual Politics, she help develop modern ideas of patriarchy. She was also an artist and sculptor and an activist in a number of areas. This book however charts Millett’s battles with mental ill health and the anti-psychiatry movement. In 1973 Millett was committed with the assistance of family and friends who were worried about her and diagnosed with what was then called manic depression (now bi-polar). She ended up on Lithium, which has a number of unpleasant side effects. This book charts a period of time from 1980 where Millett decided to come off lithium. She was living for the summer on a farm she owned with her lover Sophie and a group of younger women who had come to stay and help out for board and lodging. Millett charts the summer from her point of view along with attempts by family and friends to get her committed again. Then there is a trip to Ireland which goes disastrously wrong when Millett ended up being committed to a very unpleasant asylum and had to be rescued by friends. On her return to the US she entered a deep depression and ended up back on Lithium. That is the bare outline of the book which is told from her own perspective by Millett. She came off lithium for good a few years later. Millett argued that conditions like bi-polar and schizophrenia are labels society and psychiatry places on people who do not behave in conventional or socially acceptable ways and that the labels themselves cause many of the problems, "When you have been told that your mind is unsound, there is a kind of despair that takes over”. The self-fulfilling part of the psychiatric infrastructure is well described when Millett is in the asylum in Ireland: “Imagine anything at all, for after all one is free to do it here. That is the purpose of this place; it was made for you to be mad in. And when you give in and have a real fine bout, they have won. And then they have their evidence as well. But the temptation in the long hours is hard to resist, and it comes over you like the drowsiness of the powders. . . . The moments of clarity are the worst. You burn in humiliation remembering yesterday's folderol, your own foolish thoughts. Not the boredom of here, the passive futility of reality, but the flights of fancy, which would convict you, are the evidence that you merit your fate and are here for a purpose. The crime of the imaginary. The lure of madness as illness. And you crumble day by day and admit your guilt. Induced madness. Refuse a pill and you will be tied down and given a hypodermic by force. Enforced irrationality. With all the force of the state behind it, pharmaceutical corporations, and an entrenched bureaucratic psychiatry. Unassailable social beliefs, general throughout the culture. And all the scientific prestige of medicine. Locks, bars, buildings, cops. A massive system.” This is a disturbing account and a good advertisement for the anti-psychiatry movement. I have long thought there is a good deal to say for the movement and mental health services today still hold many of the same assumptions they did at the time this book was written. Millett describes depression as dread and not mania and argues her depression was more about grief and brokenness, not “madness”. This is powerfully written and difficult to read at times, but the point Millett is making through her own experiences is valid and I agree with her. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna
  2. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell This biography illustrates how we often sanitise history for our own purposes. Kitty Marion was born in Germany in 1871 and left for England when she was fifteen following years of abuse from her father. She did a variety of jobs before becoming a music hall performer. In music hall she discovered the nineteenth century equivalent of the casting couch and how often bookings could depend on performing favours for the manager or agent. Marion fought and spoke up against this and found work hard to get. She joined the burgeoning suffragette movement and became one of their leading activists and joined a more radical group called the Young Hot Bloods. She was imprisoned many times and force fed over 200 times. Being of German origin she had some problems during the First World War and moved to the US. There she linked up with Margaret Sanger and started promoting and arguing for birth control: seeing it as an extension of her work for the suffragettes, also assisting Marie Stopes. Yet Kitty Marion is hardly remembered. The suffragettes are well remembered for civil disobedience, for Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself in front of the king’s horse. What isn’t clearly remembered is the depth and extent of the suffragette campaign. It was a violent campaign involving arson, bombs (including nail bombs) and acts of terrorism. Politicians and opponents were directly targeted and may of their homes were burnt down. There were literally hundreds of these attacks and there was panic and opprobrium in the press. The violence has been painted out, but Kitty Marion was in the middle of it and Riddell has painstakingly researched her life and told her story: “As conservative feminism took a vice-like grip of our history and the suffragettes began to sanitise their own history, the women who saw sex, freedom and independence as a universal right were ignored, as were the real lives and experiences of the women who had fought so hard and risked so much. We need to understand that those who have sought to be in control of our history of women decided to only tell one story and to exclude those voices, those women’s lives that did not conform. These are stories that need to be told.” This leads to the polemical part of the book. Riddell looks at two strands of feminism: one she describes as conservative and tending towards purity and morality and seeing birth control as just giving men another means to abuse women. On the other hand she describes a sex positive feminism which believed in birth control and giving women freedom and control of their own bodies. Riddell puts Marion firmly in the second category. This is a very good account of a too little known suffragette and an interesting account of some less well known (read forgotten) events. It also gives a good account of part of the birth control movement. There is polemic as well, which is interesting whichever side of the argument you are on. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting The Railway Accident and other stories by Edward Upward
  3. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    I think A View from the Harbour is also my favourite Willoyd Period Piece by Gwen Raverat This is a memoir of a Cambridge childhood in the 1890s and early 1900s. Gwen Raverat was an artist and wood engraver and also a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Much of this memoir recalls her large and eccentric family, especially her many aunts and uncles and her mother’s rather odd ideas about parenting. All the art work in the book is done by Raverat. The memoir is themed, so each chapter covers a different topic: Education, propriety, childhood fears, religion, clothes, uncles and aunts, theories, Newnham Grange (the family home), Down House (the Darwin family home), sports, society, ladies and a chapter about her mother’s early life. Raverat writes with humour and a sharp wit: “The first religious experience that I can remember is getting under the nursery table to pray that the dancing mistress might be dead before we got to the Dancing Class.” Her upbringing was not that of a conventional late Victorian child, as she found out at school: “Not that I wanted to leave school; I wanted to stay on, if only I could manage to bear it; for I was very curious about the extraordinary habits of the girls. For instance, that first day, they were all singing: 'I am the Honeysuckle, You are the Bee.' Why? What on earth was it? (I had never heard a popular song in my life.) And they were all busy making hat-pin knobs out of coloured sealing-wax. Now why in the world did they like doing that? Nearly everything they did mystified me. ” Raverat’s mother was American and had strong views about bringing up children who were independent, but there were plenty of relatives and cousins and of course the shadow of Charles Darwin: “My grandfather said once: ‘I have five sons, and I have never had to worry about any one of them.’ Well, that is not quite right. One ought to have to worry sometimes about young people, because they ought to be growing out in new ways and experimenting for themselves. But my grandfather was so tolerant of their separate individualities, so broad-minded, that there was no need for his sons to break away from him; and they lived all their lives in his shadow.” The account mixes affection with sharp observation, some ridicule and clarity. It was a privileged upbringing, upper middle-class and the deprivations of the commonality of humanity are mostly absent. There are lots of points of interest. Within the current debates about trans issues I often hear arguments about this being a new or modern thing. It isn’t, here is Raverat talking about her feelings as a child: “Of course I wanted still more, more than anything in the world, to be a man. Then I might be a really good painter. A woman had not much chance of that. I wanted so much to be a boy that I did not dare to think about it at all, for it made me feel quite desperate to know that it was impossible to be one. But I always dreamt I was a boy. If the truth must be told, still now, in my dreams at night, I am generally a young man!” Another point of interest is the subject of eugenics. Raverat’s uncle Lenny was president of a Eugenics society: “Uncle Lenny used to shock me when, in talking about Eugenics, he maintained that a money standard was the only possible criterion in deciding which human stocks should be encouraged to breed” This is a selective memoir though. There is no mention of her brother Lenny who died when Raverat was fourteen, nor of her nanny who died from cancer. There is a certain level of censorship here and a good deal of privilege. There are anecdotes and amusements, but the backdrop is a rather enclosed society, cut off from the life of much of society. The chapter on clothes is interesting, as is Raverat’s description of sharing a room: “This is what a young lady wore, with whom I shared a room one night – beginning at the bottom, or scratch: Thick, long-legged, long-sleeved woollen combinations Over them, white cotton combinations with plenty of buttons and frills Very serious, bony grey stays, with suspenders Black woollen stockings White cotton drawers, with buttons and frills White cotton “petticoat-bodice”, with buttons and frills Rather short, white flannel petticoat Long Alpaca petticoat, with a flounce round the bottom Pink flannel blouse High, starched, white collar, fastened with studs Navy blue tie Blue skirt, touching the ground, and fastened tightly to the blouse with a safety-pin behind Leather belt, very tight High button boots. “ There’s not much to say after that! There are some interesting insights into quite a narrow life and it is illuminating. 7 out of 10 Starting The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall
  4. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Certainly both of those are true Hayley, but we have a female Oedipus, but the story of the myth is followed. Fen is wonderful in my opinion! Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont This is Elizabeth Taylor’s penultimate novel and with this one I have read all of her eleven novels. The plot is very simple. Mrs Palfrey has lost her husband; she does not want to be a burden to her daughter (nor does her daughter). She decides to take residence in a London hotel, The Claremont, who takes older persons on a residential type basis as well as their normal trade. This type of arrangement was quite usual in the upper middle classes in the early to mid twentieth century. The hotel is a little shabby, the food passable, but not good and the wines pretty grim. However it is all many of them can really afford now they are alone in the world. There is a rather wry comic element to this, which there needs to be as Taylor addresses some difficult and rather heavy themes. The themes include the role and fate of older people, isolation, the end of empire, death, friendship, falling in love and family. As always Taylor’s descriptions are sharp, as she describes Mrs Palfrey: “She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.” The end of empire theme isn’t so obvious, but Mrs Palfrey’s husband was a servant of the Empire (Burma). He is now dead and she is alone, but the attitudes and tone remain. Taylor manages to portray this well and also to make Mrs Palfrey somewhat sympathetic as well. When I grew up there were no old Empire hands to be found. However, when training to be a priest, I had a placement in a rather well to do area of Birmingham and came across a few; out of place and time, longing for a lost world, replete with tiger skins and stories of uprisings in India: it was all rather bizarre. Taylor captures very well the behaviour of older people forced by necessity to live in institutions and hedged around by loneliness, neglect, boredom and apathy: “It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost...” Mrs Palfrey is alone, her daughter is in Scotland. She has a grandson, Desmond, in London, but he never visits her. Then one day, she falls in the street and is rescued by a rather down at heel writer called Ludo. He helps and a friendship develops. She even has him visit her at the Claremont and introduces him as her grandson. Of course, things get complicated when her actual grandson turns up. And even Ludo has an ulterior motive: “He helped her up the steps and into the taxi and when it had driven off, he returned to his room and leaning over the table, wrote in a notebook 'fluffy grey knickers... elastic ...veins on leg colour of grapes...smell of lavender water (ugh!) ...big spots on back of shiny hands and more veins - horizontal wrinkles across hands.” Ludo’s novel is to be about The Claremont. It is to be entitled “They weren’t allowed to die there”, after something Mrs Palfrey had said. The residents of The Claremont are a varied bunch and Taylor manages to capture their vicissitudes rather well, as with Mrs Burton, who is very partial to a drink: “Mrs Burton felt as if she were swimming along the corridor towards her bedroom, glancing off the walls like a balloon... she pulled up at number fifty-three, steadied herself, made a forwards movement with the key. Calmly does it. Miraculously, she hit the keyhole first time...” Taylor describes the increasing frailty of Mrs Palfrey very well adding an edge of bleakness, as here where she is taking a gift to Ludo: “She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach. Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed. I can have a little rest when I get there, she promised herself. And perhaps he will offer me a cup of tea.” The Guardian put this novel in its top 100 (number 87). I don’t see that, I enjoyed a couple of Taylor’s other novels more, but it is sharp, perceptive and very prescient. After all medical science has enable us all to live longer: this perhaps shows us where we are all headed. 8 out of 10 Starting Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
  5. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Everything Under by Daisy Johnson This is Johnson’s first full length novel and it was well worth waiting for. It is a modern telling of the Oedipus myth with a good deal else thrown in. Of course there is a twist and the setting is Oxfordshire and Oedipus is female. The main protagonist is also a lexicographer. The start of the novel sets the tone: “The places we are born come back” As does the end: “There are more beginnings, than there are ends to contain them.” As in her short story collection there is a proximity to nature and particularly water, a magic realist sense, but in a very English way. It is also very much set within the lower reaches of society. There is a spot of Hansel and Gretel, adoption, a river monster (sort of; named the Bonak, but really it stands for everything we are afraid of ) and a good deal of gender fluidity. The exploration of dementia told through one of the main characters is very effective and well described (I know, I work with those living with dementia). Freud introduced his concept of the uncanny, the placing of something rather every day in an odd, eerie or taboo setting. Lacan’s contribution was to argue that this concept captures the anxiety of not being able to make a distinction between two everyday opposites like good and bad, love and hate, pleasure and displeasure. The Oedipus myth has this sense of the uncanny and brings it into family relationships and this sense of the uncanny runs through the whole book; but it also feels every day. Johnson herself talks about the importance of getting the right setting and deliberately choose the canals after spending some time on one: “I was taken with this landscape and with the people who populated it. I think the most interesting thing I learned about it was how isolated from the normal structures we take for granted these people are. They inhabit their own system of rules and structures and would never, for example, ring the police.” She also speaks eloquently about her exploration and use of transgender characters: “The first reason that I wanted to write about transgender characters was because of the place gender change has in myth. There is a character I was thinking of in particular called Tiresias, a prophet who was born a man but lived for seven years as a woman. I knew I wanted to magpie this part of myth away. Another aspect of gender change I was interested in was the Shakespearean sort where characters change gender out of fear or necessity.” Johnson has said that she tries to give types that have been silenced a voice and you can very much see this in Fen, but also here. There is at the centre a mother/daughter relationship which is difficult (“You’d made me and I wanted nothing more than to cut you out, cut you right out of my insides…. You populated me; you ran the spirals of my thinking. I went to work, at at the same desk every day, dreamed of something swimming in the River Isis, dreamed of your mouth moving around words I could no longer hear”), but a lot of myth and symbol as well, however as Iris Murdoch said, we live in myth and symbol all the time. I enjoy Johnson’s writing and her descriptive powers are very good: “She crawled as far as she could into the bush. There was a slime of leaves, beer cans cut open, a white-filmed balloon that skidded under her bad leg. Through the hedge she could see the canal, lit by the oil-spill throw of street lights, the surprise exclamation of car headlights rising and then lowering over the bridge…In the first inch of waking she had forgotten. Then it came back to her. She could not sleep after that. There was a crease of frost on the ground and the sleeping bag was wet. She watched the dirty morning descend over the water.” Taking on the Oedipus myth is always risky and as Foucault says: “Everything concerning and around Oedipus is too much, too many parents, too many marriages, fathers who are also brothers, daughters who are also sisters, and this man, so excessively given to misfortune and who ought to be tossed into the sea.” However Johnson’s take on it worked well for me. Did I enjoy this as much as Fen, not quite, but then Fen is one of my all-time favourites. 9 out of 10 Starting A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
  6. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor This is one of Taylor’s later novels, written in 1968. The Wedding Group of the title refers to a Wedgewood ornament of a wedding group which plays a symbolic role in the novel. The main protagonist is Cressida (Cressy) who lives in an artistic community called Quayne. It is run by her grandfather Harry Bretton (he self-styles himself as “Master”), who is loosely modelled on Augustus John. It is a Roman Catholic community with a priest. Taylor rather revels in her novelist’s power to send up such communities and the satire is effective. Cressy (who is seventeen) has decided to renounce religion and move out of community. She has also been asked to leave her school: “Cressy had not been allowed to finish her last year. Not exactly expelled, but the suggestion was that, all the same, it would be better if she did not remain. She had broken bounds, was often missing for hours at a time, and had had some strange notions, which younger girls were all too ready to listen to” She gets a job in an antique shop in the local village and moves into the flat above it. David is a journalist who has written about Quayne and who lives with his mother Midge. He is much older than Cressy but befriends her and they eventually marry. There are well drawn minor characters as well. There is a bleakness to the novel along with the wry humour. There are some interesting explorations of relationships including the mother son relationship between Midge and David: “Serious matters they had always approached lightly. There had not been so very many of them. But the worries that had occurred had been treated in an off-hand, amused manner. It will all come out in the wash. Indeed they had no other manner with one another. For this reason, she had talked of Cressy’s visit and her confession, as if it were rather absurd; entertaining, certainly. Intuitive though she usually was with him, it had been a little time this evening before she realised he was not smiling, might even be angry at her flippancy. He thought the subject should not have been broached – there had been too much talking altogether – and he wished that Cressy had kept her mouth shut, had stayed away, in fact. Midge could not coax him into laughter.” Silence and avoidance are the order of the day, all very English! As are Cressy’s ambitions for her life: “It was to that world beyond the beech woods that Cressy was looking. She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them. In that world she might find a place for herself.” Taylor as always writes really well and her powers of observation are excellent; she also periodically slips in comments which reflect her own views, especially about writing: “The sandwiches they had ordered were now put in front of them, and Nell lifted a corner of one of hers and peered short-sightedly inside – hard-boiled egg, sliced, with dark rings round the yolk, a scattering of cress, black seeds as well. “The reason, they say, that women novelists can’t write about men, is because they don’t know what they’re like when they’re alone together, what they talk about and so on. But I can’t think why they don’t know. I seem to hear them booming away all the time. Just listen to this lot, next to me.”” Taylor also makes some points about the Harry Bretton figure, who doesn’t come out of this too well: “For all our precious ideals, our inventiveness it’s the essential, instinctive mother-wife we crave at last. We return, after our escapades or great deeds, to her, for forgiveness and healing and approval.’ Rachel [his wife] tried to look forgiving and healing and admiring, but had an abstracted air. He just makes me want to vomit, Cressy thought” Marriage and loneliness seem to go together and most of the time the characters really struggle to communicate with each other. Life is bleak and without meaning. Religion has failed to deliver, the generations are in conflict and death is on the way. It’s good stuff!! 7 out of 10 Starting Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
  7. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy Reviewing a novel like this is not easy: Kandasamy organises the raw material of domestic abuse and coercive control and uses her own experience to express it in novel form. Her new husband was outwardly radical, left wing, sensitive and caring. The reality was very different: “No one knows the peculiar realities of my situation. How do you land a job when: you end up somewhere in the middle of the teaching semester? you have no contacts in a strange city? your husband has forced you off social media? you have no phone of your own? your husband monitors and replies to all messages addressed to you? you do not speak the local language? you have the wifely responsibility of producing children first? That’s a long list already. These are not the regrets of an unemployed person. These are the complaints of an imprisoned wife.” That’s just the coercive control part. The brutal violence and nightly rape were in addition to that. The buildup is slow and the factual narrative is interspersed with other thoughts, analysis, day dreams and possibilities. Class, society and politics are all interwoven and there is a good deal of analysis of how a man who is left-wing can justify his brutality using his beliefs to justify his violence. This, though, is a middle class tale: male violence is not just linked to one class, one culture or one country. The violence escalates towards the end: “I have watched him play all the roles. The doting husband in the presence of his colleagues, the harassed victim of a suspicious wife to his male friends, the unjustly emasculated man to my female friends, the pleading son-in-law to my parents. The role of would-be-murderer, however, is new.” The writing overall is imaginative and sometimes playful with an element of humour. The humour is necessary to alleviate some of the sheer awfulness of the situation. But Kandasamy is very eloquent at making her point: “Violence is not something that advertises itself…As long as a woman cannot speak, as long as those to whom she speaks do not listen, the violence is unending.” The book is well put together by someone who writes well, she considers the sociology of violence, she links abstractions to a real story: “Marriage has ruined my romanticism, by teaching me that this thing of beauty can be made crude. Bitch. 'lady of the night'. Slut. And yet, for every insult that has been flung in my face, language retains its charm. English makes me a lover, a beloved, a poet. Tamil makes me a word huntress, it makes me a love goddess.” The gradual build up makes it more powerful and it rings true. Kandasamy was asked, when she was talking about the book, why the unnamed narrator would not just have left, but this is to misunderstand the nature of coercive control. The viciousness of it comes across as does the way male perpetrators manage to persuade themselves that want they are doing is not only justified but necessary and right. The unnamed narrator does escape, she does run: “In the eyes of the world, a woman who runs away from death is more dignified than a woman who runs away from her man. She does not face society’s stone-throwing when she comes away free. In the quest to control the narrative, I shall have to endanger my own life.” “In place of a firing squad, I stare down the barrels of endless interrogation. (…) Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shame is being asked to stand to judgement.” Masculinity and patriarchy are repositories of violence: every man should read this. 9 out of 10 Starting A Measure of Time by Rosa Guy
  8. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Salt on your tongue: women and the sea by Charlotte Runcie This is a real eclectic mixture of prose, poetry, myth, stories, personal recollections, the journal of a pregnancy, superstition and much more. Charlotte Runcie has turned her obsession with the sea into a fascinating memoir come collection of anecdotes. It is very much structured and based on Greek myth. But most of all this is about women and the sea: “The call of the sea is the call to the absolute strength of women,” And within the structure of the book is an account of Runcie’s own pregnancy. It’s also very informative. The reader learns about St Elmo’s Fire, cocklewomen, Grendel, Grace Darling (inevitably), the saltpans of St Monans, sea shanties, sea silk, sea eagles, a brief history of childbirth at sea, the Odyssey, Our Lady Star of the Sea and much, much more. Periodically Runcie talks about geography as well: “There is no easily exact difference between the river and the sea; no invisible line where the freshwater ends and saltwater begins. The sea is a gradual process of becoming, of widening and ageing and growing into more. There’s a human scale to an estuary. Settlements cluster around them, growing into industrial heartlands over the centuries because they’re so useful for transport and trade and connection to the world. Even before industry, though, people were drawn to them to build their homes. They are poised on the edge, but still connected to home, to land, and to life-giving fresh drinking water as it turns to the salt of the sea.” Then she turns to contrasts between men’s and women’s relationship with the sea: “There is a pull, an understanding between women and the sea that has fascinated and scared men for thousands of years.” The book is erudite and well researched and there is plenty to fascinate. It is split up into small chunks. It does jump around a bit. The drawing together the story of pregnancy and childbirth and weaving that story in with musings and stories about the sea works well. The seven chapters (each split into smaller subchapters) are named after the Pleiades. There are references to Plath and Woolf as well as Turner and his painting, Shakespeare (The Tempest) and many more. It reads easily and anyone who feels the lure of the sea is likely to enjoy this. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Death in ten minutes by Fern Riddell
  9. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor This is Taylor’s last novel, I seem to have got a bit out of order in my reading of her, because there are still a couple left! Taylor knew she was dying whilst she wrote this and it was published posthumously in 1976. The plot, as always with Taylor, is fairly straightforward. Nick and Amy are a married couple in late middle age and on a cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. They meet a rather awkward young American writer named Martha and spend some time with her. Nick dies suddenly (not a spoiler, it’s the point of the book). Martha helps Amy to get back home and they sort of become friends, although Amy is reluctant. We then meet Amy’s son and daughter-in-law and their two young children. There is also Ernie, who is a sort of live in housekeeper, who is something of a comic turn and Gareth, a friend of Amy’s and the local doctor (also a widower). Jenny Diski summarizes the novel rather well: "Everyone in this book lacks a talent for friendship. People either avoid connection or impose themselves. Taylor's acerbic talent is in pitting the power of social cohesion against a nagging individualism. The style is economical and elegant as well as horridly funny." All the characters are rather lonely and isolated, but there is an underlying humour here. However the novel is bleak. There are two events at the end, one is tragic one is happy. Both feel tragic. The conversations with the two young children are brilliantly done and you can tell that Taylor was comfortable with children and spent time with them. “To the children, first thing next morning, Maggie said, “I’m afraid dear Grandpa has died.” “And gone to heaven,” Isobel said, as if her mother had left something out. Maggie slightly inclined her head, not to be caught telling a lie by the God she did not believe in. “And-Gone-To-Heaven” Isobel shouted, standing up, outraged, in her little bed. “Yes of course.” “Not everyone goes to heaven,” Dora, who was older said, “Egyptian mummies didn’t go. Or stuffed fishes.” “No fishes never go,” Isobel agreed “sometimes I eat them. Chickens can’t go nor” “I don’t really know about heaven,” Dora said in her considered way. “We haven’t done that at school yet. But I know they must go somewhere, or we’d be full up here. People coming and going all the time” It’s an interesting and rather poignant and fairly brief novel with a distinct edge of humour. 7 out of 10 Starting The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor
  10. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Thank you Chrissy Hayley, I did enjoy The Miller of Angibault, and Midnight's Children, which I think will stand the test of time. Uncentering the Earth by William Vollmann This is one of a series of books on science written by non-scientists. The series includes David Foster Wallace writing on infinity, amongst others. Vollmann has got Copernicus and seminal work “The Revolutions of the Heavenly Speres”. One of the works which began to place the sun at the centre of the universe, rather than the earth. The subject is not a straightforward one and you really have to be a fan of astronomy to be captivated by it, but Vollmann throws himself into it with gusto and a good deal of vigour. He examines the links between Copernicus and the classical writers who tackled the same subject, especially Ptolemy. He also examines the role of the Church and the scriptures in all this. Vollmann is quite self-deprecating at times and throws in a few good one-liners, mixing exegesis of the text with the technical stuff. Some of the technical stuff was beyond my mathematical and astronomical competence: "Now, if we uncenter ourselves in obedience to the compelling circles and angles of 'Revolutions,' we'll come to see that the eccentric radius of any planet equals its relative mean distance from the Sun, while the epicyclic radius corresponds to Earth's relative mean distance from the same point. Never mind the fact that Ptolemy's eccentric radii for all four planets (and the Sun) equal 60 units while the epicyclic radii vary; this is simply an artifact of observations taken from a moving Earth rather than a relatively motionless Sun. The important fact is the ratio itself. For Mars, then, the ratio is 60 divided by 39*, or 1.518, a number which differs by less than 1 percent from the currently calculated mean Martian distance from the Sun of 1.524 astronomical units." The exegesis is more interesting and typically Vollmann. Who else would check Calvin’s collected works to see if he mentions Copernicus? The discussion is the most interesting part of the work, if you’re interested in the subject. There is some interesting historical analysis too. 6 and a half out of 10 Starting Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell
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    Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie “I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? . . . Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds . . . I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate—at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And couldn't even wipe my own nose at the time. “ One of my reading threads is of “classics” that I have never read (and possibly shouldn’t!) and Rushdie’s 1981 work has been on my shelves for a while. It won the Booker prize and the Booker of Bookers. It charts the Partition of India and the end of British colonial rule through the eyes of Saleem Sinai born on the exact stroke of midnight as modern India and Pakistan were born. You can harvest a few of the important words applied to fiction when you analyse this one: postcolonial, postmodern, magic realist. It is set in the context of actual historical events, although it weaves a fictional path through them. The path starts before Partition as the reader follows Salem’s origins (as early as 1915). Over time the story ranges all over India and Pakistan. The title refers to a group of children born at or just around midnight who as a result have a sort of telepathy and particular powers. It is a gripping ride as we follow Saleem and his family around the subcontinent: “I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow a lot as well. Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me…” Comparisons to Tristram Shandy are apt and have often been made. The plot is fabulous in the magical sense of the word and complex. There is also a multiplicity of characters which reminded me of Dickens as well, with an emphasis on the odd and unusual: “..here, near the top, she sees dark light filtering down on to the heads of queuing cripples. ‘My number two cousin,’ Lifafa Das says, ‘is bone-setter.’ She climbs past men with broken arms, women with feet twisted backwards at impossible angles, past fallen window-cleaners and splintered bricklayers, a doctor’s daughter entering a world older than syringes and hospitals; until, at last, Lifafa Das says, ‘Here we are, Begum,’ and leads her through a room in which the bone-setter is fastening twigs and leaves to shattered limbs, wrapping cracked heads in palm-fronds, until his patients begin to resemble artificial trees, sprouting vegetation from their injuries ... and on the parapet, the silhouettes of large birds, whose bodies are as hooked and cruel as their beaks: vultures. ‘ ... But the birds? ...’ ‘Nothing, Madam: only there is Parsee Tower of Silence just near here; and when there are no dead ones there, the vultures come. Now they are asleep; in the days, I think, they like to watch my cousins practising.” The swapping at birth motif also adds to the whole, as does the importance of pickle. There are so many byways in the novel and the scope is immense. Inevitably it has spawned a whole academic analysis industry. The politicians certainly don’t come out of it well, especially the Ghandi family and there is a particular focus on the state of emergency. Feminist analysis has acknowledged Rushdie’s questioning of patriarchy, but then some of the women who take leading roles in family or nation (like Reverend Mother, Indira Ghandi, Padma) tend to fit into the roles vacated by men with little change in effect or function. You see there are so many avenues to follow if you want to look at it in depth. It’s a great read and ride and worth the effort. There are flaws, but the whole is a great modern novel. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
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    Claiming Breath by Diane Glancy Diane Glancy is a poet and writer of part Cherokee heritage. She teaches English and creative writing. In her younger years following a divorce she spent a long time on the road teaching. This book charts a year on the road and is part poetry and part prose. Glancy describes herself as being on the middle ground between two cultures. The journey of the book follows the course of a year, although essentially it is non-linear. The feel of the book is one of movement rather than permanency. There is cultural crossing (transveillances as Glancy says) and a claiming of open space. Race, class and gender are all addressed in Glancy’s particular way: as are matters of spirituality. Words are central: “The word is important in Native American tradition. You speak the path on which you walk. Your words make the trail.” “Writing is the hammer & chisel that breaks down the established way of thinking. A concrete event, then an abstraction. An image, then a thought. Finally, writing builds another establishment with the fragments.” With all the words, it is poetry that is central: “Poetry saves what is human in this world going gaudy & insane. In exploring small truths, something larger might turn up, adding dimension, insight, vision, recognition to our lives. We just might be more complete, more aware after a poem.” “20th century poetry is a piñata. Images break from the earth when the poet strikes it.” Writing about it is one thing: reading it is another. 7 out of 10 Starting Up the Country by Emily Eden
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    The Miller of Angibault by George Sand George Sand was the pen name of Armantine Lupin and this is the first of her work that I have read. It was written in 1845. It is one of Lupin’s pastoral and socialist novels with a focus on the rural poor. There is a varied cast of characters. Madame de Blanchemont (Marcelle) is married to an aristocrat and has a son called Edouard. Her husband has recently died and she has been left with a country estate, the state of which she is unaware of. Lenor is an educated Parisian working man. He and Marcelle have been in love for a while. It would seem that Marcelle’s husband’s death would free them to marry. However Lenor feels that on principle he cannot marry someone who has inherited wealth, even though it is not known how much. This is the conundrum at the start of the book. Marcelle travels to her estate and that is where we meet the rest of the cast. The estate is rather run down and debt ridden and needs to be sold. We now meet Monsieur Bricolin a wealthy farmer local to the estate who wants to buy it. Bricolin is the villain of the piece as his focus is entirely on money and increasing his wealth. He lives with his wife, his daughter Rose and his aged parents. There is another daughter who has a serious mental health problem, apparently as a result of her parents not allowing her to marry the man she loved. On her travels Marcelle meets Grand-Louis, the miller of Angibault as per the title, who helps her and allows her to stay with him and his mother before she goes to stay with the Bricolins. Grand-louis is in love with Rose Bricolin, but her parents do not approve. Add a local beggar called Cadouche and a variety of locals and you have the cast. It is well written and the plot rolls along merrily with some twists and turns. Lupin looks back on the legacy of the Revolution and what it has and hasn’t achieved, it also looks at human greed and the nobility of the human spirit. Most of the socialists at the time were focussing on urban poverty, but Lupin turned her gaze on the rural poor probably because of her own upbringing in the countryside. The outworking has a communitarian edge to it. In terms of gender Lupin does explore the control of men over daughters and wives. It is a good read, a bit too neatly tied up at the end, but nevertheless it’s a good introduction to Lupin. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting When I hit you by Meena Kandasamy
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    Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward This is the first Jesmyn Ward I have read, although as a little of it appeared familiar, I may have read an extract in a collection. It is set in Mississippi at the time of hurricane Katrina, in fact the twelve days leading up to it. It follows an African-American family who are desperately poor and living in the rural backwoods. The main protagonist is Esch, a girl of fifteen who lives with her three brothers and her alcoholic widowed father. Esch discovers she is pregnant at the start of the book. Her sexual experiences started at twelve with her brother’s friends and as she explains, "it was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop". Esch is literate and she is reading Greek mythology and there is a mythic quality to the story: a sensuality and physicality and some haunting descriptions. There is a good deal of pain and sorrow which is built up to be anything other than something to be got through and survived. There are several strands running through the novel. There is the preparation for the hurricane, family dynamics and Esch’s interactions with the unborn child’s father. One of Esch’s brothers, Skeet, owns a pit bull dog, which gives birth to a litter of puppies. Dogs and dog fighting are another theme and one which I struggled with as the descriptions are graphic and sickening. It is a powerful description of family life and all of the characters feel realistic and you end up caring about them, despite their lack of prospects and hopelessness. Despite the violence and oppression there is a humanity about the characters, particularly Esch and her linking her life to that of Medea: “I wonder if Medea felt this way before she walked out to meet Jason for the first time, like a hard wind come through her and set her to shaking.” The descriptive passages are excellent and Katrina is also almost one of the characters: “The murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl.” There are issues and problems, but the whole is a powerful portrayal of those living at the edge of society. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting The Loony Bin Trip by Kate Millet
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    The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor I enjoyed this particular outing of Taylor’s. It’s subtle and satirical. It is slow moving and I can imagine for some readers it will be like watching paint dry. There is a wedding, a birth, an attempted suicide, a bit of tension in relationships and a lovers tiff or two. Taylor is good at observing minutiae and life’s tiny sadness’s. As is often the case with Taylor, the cast of characters is not huge. These centre on Flora, the soul of kindness of the title, and her husband Richard. Flora has everything she wants, loyal and adoring friends and relatives, a lovely home, a baby, a housekeeper she has turned into a friend and everyone protects Flora from herself. Flora only sees what she wants to see and hears what she wants to hear. Richard’s father, Percy contemplates his cat: “Flora, in fact had given it to him and he had been obliged to take it in. In four years, he had found that Flora was not biddable after all. Although good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine.” Flora’s mother had brought her up to have a rosy view of life and human nature and she has been shielded form a good deal of life’s unpleasantness. Her husband Richard contemplates why he has kept a little secret from her, a chance encounter with a neighbour Elinor when they went for a drink and a chat: “To have kept quiet about it, had given it the significance of a secret arrangement. Now it was too late, and if Flora came to hear of it, as more than likely she might, a little puzzled frown would come between her brows – the expression she wore when she was bewildered by other standards of behaviour than her own. But we’ve preserved the face pretty well, between us, Richard thought; not fearing ageing lines, but the loss of innocence. So far, and by the skin of his teeth, he felt. The face was his responsibility now and it would surely be his fault if it were altered, if the Botticelli calm were broken, or the appealing gaze veiled.” Flora has a lack of awareness and little sense of the effect her actions have, a good example being a letter to her mother just after her wedding, near the beginning of the book: “Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me.” This is all I think, a variation on an Austen plot. If you take the character of Emma and remove her wisdom, you pretty much have Flora. The satire is on point as the reader realizes that this kind and caring character is actually a monster. Inevitably someone near her will suffer, and they do. They only one who really sees through Flora is someone who has never met her, Liz, a painter, who knows a number of Flora’s friends. There are some comic moments as well. Although this was not one of Taylor’s most critically acclaimed books it was one I appreciated, although it was like looking at a slow motion car crash. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor