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      Important Announcement!   07/28/2018

      Dear BCF members,   This forum has been running now for many years, and over that time we have seen many changes. Generalised forums are nowhere near as popular as they once were, and they have been very much taken over by blogs, vlogs and social media discussions. Running a forum well takes money, and a lot of care and attention, as there is so much which goes on behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly.   With all of this in mind, and after discussion within the current moderator team, the decision has been made to close this forum in its current format. I know that this will disappoint a lot of our long term members, but I want to reassure you that it's not a decision which has been taken lightly.    The remaining moderator team have agreed that we do not want to lose everything which is special about our home, and so we are starting a brand new facebook group, so that people can stay in touch, and discussions can continue. We can use it for free and should be easier for us to run (it won't need to be updated or hosted). We know not everyone has FaceBook, but we hope that those of you who are interested will join the group. We will share the link, and send invites as soon as we are ready to go. Added: We may as well get this going, find us here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/195289821332924/   The forum will close to new registrations, but will remain open for some time, to allow people to collect up any information, reading lists etc they need to, and to ensure they have contact details for those they wish to stay in touch with.    The whole team feel sad to say goodbye, but we also feel that it's perhaps time and that it feels like the right choice. We hope we can stay in touch with all of you through our new FaceBook group.   I personally want to thank everyone who has helped me moderate the forum, both in the past and the present, and I also want to thank every single person who has visited, and shared their love of books.. I'm so proud of everything we've achieved, and the home we built.   Please visit the new section in the Lounge section to discuss this further, ask questions etc.

Books do furnish a room

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About Books do furnish a room

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  • Birthday July 18

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  1. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Man Who Wasn't There by Pat Barker A rather brief novel from Barker, but cleverly constructed. It is set in the 1950s in the decade after the war and concerns Colin, a twelve year old boy. Colin lives with his mother Vivienne. His father, he knows nothing about and it seems he disappeared in the war. His mother will not tell him about his father which leaves Colin plenty of scope for imagination. His mother works in a night club and is having an affair with her married boss and Colin is on his own a great deal, looked after by an assortment of friends of his mother and neighbours. Colin imagines what his father may have been like and in his imagination he creates a story which weaves in and out of his daily life and is written as a screenplay. The story he creates involves the French Resistance: “Colin plodded up the hill, half moons of sweat in the armpits of his grey shirt. In the distance, lampposts and parked cars shimmered in the heat. All around him was the smell of tar. Gaston jerks himself awake. A sniper is crawling across Blenkinsop’s roof, but Gaston has seen him. He spins round, levels the gun, and fires. The sniper—slow motion now—clutches his chest, buckles at the knee, crashes in an endlessly unfurling fountain of glass through the roof of Mr Blenkinsop’s greenhouse, where he lands face down, his fingers clutching the damp earth—and his chest squashing Mr Blenkinsop’s prize tomatoes. Gaston blows nonchalantly across the smoking metal of his gun, and, with never a backward glance, strides up the garden path and into the house. As he passes through the hall, Gaston taps the face of a brass barometer, as if to persuade it to change its mind. No use. The needle points, as it does unswervingly, in all weathers, to Rain. Madame Hennigan, the landlady, believes in being realistic, and no mere barometer is permitted to disagree. Gaston clatters up the uncarpeted stairs to the top-floor flat. Where he becomes, abruptly, Colin again.” It’s a while since I was a twelve year old boy, but I think Barker captures the time and place well. There are brief glimpses of school and boyhood friendships which rang true. Colin’s longing for a father runs through the whole as he sees those around him struggle. He hears his mother and her boss in the bedroom next to his at night. He sees the adolescent fumblings of his older friends and the petty cruelties of teenagers. It is well written and not sentimental. There are lots of loose endings and nothing is resolved but the whole is compelling. There are messages about identity, adolescence and loneliness. I felt it could have been longer, but that’s a personal opinion, but it’s by Barker, so it’s good! 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Pride against Prejudice by Jenny Morris
  2. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Fen by Daisy Johnson A collection of short stories as a literary debut which are really difficult to classify but are impressive. They are set in the fens. The fenlands cover parts of East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and southern Lincolnshire. I am a Lincolnshire lad: I wasn’t born or brought up in the fens, but I know them fairly well. One thing you do get a lot of in the fens is eels (not quite as many as there used to be). Coincidentally I went to a farmers market this morning and inevitably there were eels (filleted and smoked, whole and smoked and jellied). Although reading the first story in this collection may make you wary of eating any. The fens are flat ad can be bleak depending on the weather. There is a sort of edgelessness to them because of the flatness and there is a real wildness. Daisy Johnson herself uses the word liminal to describe the fens and the stories (look the interview up on you tube). You could describe the stories as surreal, but that wouldn’t quite describe them. They contain myth, a kind of wild magic and metamorphosis. The wildlife of the fens plays a significant role; eels and especially foxes, the lines between animals and people blur. The protagonists are all women and there are interesting explorations of female sexuality, and women’s relation to men. The story about three women living together stands out in this respect; they lure men back home not just for the usual reasons, but to eat them and the analysis of men is interesting: "When we were younger we learnt men the way other people learnt languages or the violin… We did not care for their thoughts; they could think on philosophy and literature and science if they wanted, they could grow opinions inside them if they wanted. We did not care for their creed or religion or type; for the choices they made and the ones they missed. We cared only for what they wanted so much it ruined them. Men could pretend they were otherwise, could enact the illusion of self-control, but we knew the running stress of their minds." The stories totally ditch the idea that the male gaze is what matters and Johnson can write pastoral gothic like no one else I have read; she starts ominous and gets more so. These are modern stories and are unsentimental, as in How to Lose It: "Virginity was a half-starved dog you were looking after, wanted to give away as quickly as possible so you could forget it ever existed. It was the lingo of sales and stocks; what was the best deal, when was the right time to sell it all." And “You do not shave your legs or pubic hair. It is not a wedding night, nor a parade or a party or an invitation. You are not a welcome mat.” Along with some sharp analysis: “You watch yourself pretend you’ve never known anything in your life and never much felt the compulsion to. You want to make him think you have no history or education; that you might have had language once but it’s gone now. You want to make him think you’re so scrubbed clean of any sort of intelligence that he can lay himself out on you and you’ll soak him up.” The stories continue to surprise. The first one Starver seems set up to be a standard teenage anorexia story when a girl announces she is going to stop eating, and does. But metamorphosing into an eel is very much not part of the standard script. And is there a link to the last story where a female lighthouse keeper encounters a fish that seems to have almost human qualities. Look out in that one for the representations of male sexuality which wants to possess rather than enjoy. There are touches of fairy story, myth and magic: a house that falls in love, a woman made of fen clay reading Madame Bovary (“she would not tell him about being more field than human ... On hot days she heard the internal crackings of her baked insides, felt the make-up run from her clay skin.”), a young man who dies tracking a fox whose spirit may now be in the fox and look out for the one with the albatross (not a bird you see on the fens) which comes out of leftfield. Then there is an earthiness about them as well, as in How to fudge a Man you Don’t Know: “When he says he likes your boobs or that your bottom is tight or that you’re pretty fun aren’t you, you tell him words are cheap enough to spit and push his face the place you want it to go.” These stories are inventive, well written and quite brilliant. The writing and language sometimes seem to flatten like the landscape, there is much that is wild and other, but rooted in people we can recognize and places that are real. People brought up in small towns may recognize these reflections from a fifteen year old girl: “There wasn’t anything special about either of them except they thought they didn’t belong there. But didn’t everybody, she’d say while her friends leant back and watched the mudded thighs of the boys playing football on the school field, didn’t everybody want to bloody leave? … We’re boring. It was the truth. In a town where there was nothing to do they did well at doing nothing…they had never gone further than the nearest city; they had never done anything worth doing.” These stories will haunt you. I already have her first novel, just published and on the Booker longlist. 9 and a half out of 10 Starting Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny
  3. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Bishop of Hell and other stories by Marjorie Bowen A collection of twelve tales by Marjorie Bowen, mostly ghostly and supernatural tales. Bowen wrote to support her family and wrote a great number of novels and short stories under a great variety of pen names. She is renowned for her gothic novels and her short stories, but she also wrote crime novels and a wide variety of other genres. These stories are set in the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There’s plenty of melodrama, unhappy marriages, abused women, atrocious men (most of them get their comeuppance), obsessive lovers, marry in haste and repent at leisure, plenty of revenge, a few twists, a bit of clairvoyance and kidnap as a technique for attracting the opposite sex. The Crown Derby Plate is an interesting story, a ghost story based on china collecting. Martha Pym buys a Crown Derby service at a house sale after the death of its occupant, sadly it is missing one plate. Many years later, she is in the area again which is very remote and isolated and hears that the current occupant is a very old woman. She decides to visit to see if the plate is there: “"Do you really do everything yourself here and live quite alone?" she asked, and she shivered even in her thick coat and wished that Miss Lefain's energy had risen to a fire, but then probably she lived in the kitchen, as these lonely eccentrics often did. "There was someone," answered Miss Lefain cunningly, "but I had to send her away. I told you she's gone, I can't find her, and I am so glad. Of course," she added wistfully, "it leaves me very lonely, but then I couldn't stand her impertinence any longer. She used to say that it was her house and her collection of china! Would you believe it? She used to try to chase me away from looking at my own things!" "How very disagreeable," said Miss Pym, wondering which of the two women had been crazy. "But hadn't you better get someone else." "Oh, no," was the jealous answer. "I would rather be alone with my things, I daren't leave the house for fear someone takes them away—there was a dreadful time once when an auction sale was held here—"” The stories are brief and some of the endings are easy to anticipate. The Scoured Silk is one of the best stories, really creepy. Kecksies (a dialect name for hemlock) is particularly nasty. There are plenty of examples of the murkier side of human nature, especially of the male variety! This is a variable mix of stories, not as good as M R James, but for aficionados of classic ghost stories, it’s worth reading. 7 out of 10 Starting The Man who wasn't there by Pat Barker
  4. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor One of my favourite books this year. The novel is set in a village in Derbyshire, the Peak District (the well dressing gives that away). It starts at New Year in the early 2000s with the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl, staying in a holiday rental with her family. The village is a tourist spot close to the moors and the title refers to a series of reservoirs in the hills above and beyond the town. The narrative consists of thirteen chapters, each of them covers a year, the chapters being split into smaller passages covering each month or so. There are snippets from the lives of the villagers, all ages and statuses and the reader gradually gets to know each of them. As a plot structure it is interesting and here’s how McGregor explains it: “As a writer, any time something dramatic happens, your instinct is to spend a number of pages on that incident. But when I was writing, say, February, I kept finding, This couple is going to get married, this couple is going to split up, this boy has fallen off a rock, but I’ve only got two pages to tell those stories. I had to leave it, and wait a year, and see what they looked like a year later. And that became a really interesting way of looking at narrative. These things in our lives sometimes take years to play out, and I hadn’t really thought about that before. I tricked myself into seeing it.” Much of the first year revolves around the disappearance of the girl, inevitably. Over time the reader becomes more focussed on the lives and loves of the villagers. Over the years you see the teenagers in the village grow up, go to university and return again. Some die, some move in, others move on. There are gettings together and breakings up, minor crime and vandalism, an arrest for child pornography, the closing and opening of shops. Some events are set and the year revolves around them; the New Year fireworks, the annual cricket match with a nearby village, the well dressing and so on. All aspects of life are cleverly run together and humour and tragedy sit easily side by side. As the New York Times review says, McGregor mixes “the mundane and the ecstatic”. You also get a strong sense of transition and change: “There were cowslips under the hedges and beside the road, offering handfuls of yellow flowers to the longer days.” It is very much a novel of voices and in that respect it reminded me a little of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. The voices can also be collective and the village itself seems to have a voice at times, for example when the local butcher and his wife break up: “There was talk she was planning on opening a shop of her own. Organics. They went for that type of thing in Harefield. It was noticed that Martin was often away from the house. He was in the Gladstone or he was walking through the village, down the lane past Fletcher’s orchard to the packhorse bridge.” This isn’t a neat novel which ties up all the loose ends, lives are left mid-stream at the end; McGregor does not seem to feel the need to provide that most modern of things, closure. There is a strong sense of the natural world, the seasons and rhythms of nature: “As the dusk deepened over the badger sett at the far end of the woods, a rag-eared boar called out a sow … The woods were thick with the stink of wild garlic and the leaves gleamed darkly along the paths. Jackson’s boys went out to the fields and checked the sheep.” McGregor is also quite at ease employing a little local language and dialect: “Jackson’s sheep had taken the fear and scattered through a broken gate, and he’d been up all hours bringing them back.” There is a great sense of rhythm about this book and I think in its own way it’s a masterpiece (according to the Irish Times, a “humane and tender masterpiece”). There may be those who are irritated by the structure, but for me it carries the book along and McGregor makes the narrative stretch and shift its focus: “There was a fight in the Gladstone, and talk it had something to do with Facebook. On the television there were pictures of explosions, fires, collapses, collisions. Broad beans started coming off the allotments by the carrier-bagful, and were shucked into saucepans from their softly-lined pods. The gentle cushioning of the broad-bean pod was one of nature’s senseless excesses. The work was a tedious delight. In his studio Geoff Simmonds took each newly fired pot from the tray and smashed it against the floor. He worked at a methodical pace. The rhythm was soothing.” The novel starts with a horrifying event, but moves on and documents the life and lives of the villagers and pulls the reader away from the expected focus of the novel (without diminishing the horror) and says look over here at what is happening. Life goes on. 9 out of 10 Starting Fen by Daisy Johnson
  5. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    At Mrs Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor This is Taylor’s first novel, published in 1945 and is a closely observed portrait of family life during the war, although the war is very much in the background. Roddy Davenant, his wife Julia and young son Oliver and Roddy’s cousin Eleanor move from London s Roddy has been posted away from London (he is in the RAF). They rent a house from a widow called Mrs Lippincote (hence the title). It still contains all her furniture and many personal possessions. The novel charts their life in the house. It isn’t a happy marriage: Roddy is a conventional man, however he has realised that Julia isn’t quite what he expected: “She exasperated him. Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women. One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes. Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe. When he had married Julia, he had thought her woefully ignorant of the world; had looked forward, indeed, to assisting in her development. But she had been grown up all the time; or, at least, she had not changed. The root of the trouble was not ignorance at all, but the refusal to accept. ‘If only she would!’ he thought now, staring at her; ‘If only she would accept.’ The room was between them. She stood there smiling, blinking still in the bright light. He was still fanning the air peevishly with his hand.” Eleanor adores her cousin Roddy and rather disapproves of Julia. She is an interesting character as she becomes involved with a group of Marxists and Communists in the town, they provide an interesting counterpoint to the Davenant household. Eleanor is accepted by the group and treated as a person in her own right. All of the secondary characters are well developed and this is one of the strengths of the novel. Roddy and Julia’s son Oliver with his bookishness. The wing commander (Roddy’s boss) with his growing affection for Julia, Eleanor’s various friends and others. Oliver would have loved this site: “Oliver Davenant did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of the words. Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine. The pages had personality. He was of the kind who cannot have a horrifying book in the room at night. He would, in fine weather, lay it upon an outside sill and close the window. Often Julia would see a book lying on his doormat.” Julia for me is still the most interesting character in the book. She knows the situation between herself and Roddy much more clearly than she intimates throughout the book and she begins to show an independence that shocks Roddy, who is shown to be hypocritical and Julia begins to care less about some of the conventions Roddy holds dear: “Julia had a strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly untarnished by preconceived ideas, whether of her own preconception or the world’s. Could she have taken for granted a few of those generalizations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is a woman’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people’s.” Taylor is a sharp and perceptive novelist who dissects her characters and shows their true colours mercilessly but with some affection. This is a character driven novel, very little out of the ordinary actually happens. Everyday life is on show, laid bare. It is everyday life under the stresses of war; hardly on show, but ever present. Oh and there are a few Bronte sidelines as well: “Julia lit a cigarette and picked up Oliver’s books from his chair. “I haven’t read Jane Eyre for years, have you, Eleanor? There’s something about those girls that gives me the creeps.” “What girls? Oh, Brontë girls!”” I’m looking forward to reading more Taylor 8 out of 10 Starting The Bishop of Hell by Elizabeth Bowen
  6. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese A very slim novella which could be read in one sitting. It was written in 1940. It was published together with two other novellas just before Pavese died. Pavese was not only a novelist, but a translator, literary critic and poet. He was also an active anti-fascist and after the war was a member of the Italian Communist Party. Disillusionment and a failed love affair leading to depression resulted in Pavese taking his own life in 1950, he was only forty-one. The English translation in the new penguin edition dates from 1955 and now feels a little out of date. It is a sort of coming of age novel and the main protagonist Ginia is sixteen and living with her brother Severino. As her brother works nights, she is very much left to her own devices. The novella focuses on Ginia’s friendship with Amelia who is an artist’s model. There is plenty of bohemianism and a focus on loss of innocence. There is also a sense of the freedom and vibrancy of youth: “Life was a perpetual holiday in those days. We had only to leave the house and step across the street and we became quite mad.” Her friend Amelia is a little older, more experienced and more carefree and this creates tensions for Ginia who is a little more cautious. Amelia poses nude and tries to persuade Ginia to do so as well: “They argued as far as the tram and Amelia asked her what she thought she had under her clothes to preserve like a holy of holies.” Ginia falls in love with Guido, one of the artists, and has her first love affair. Amelia is bisexual and has affairs with women as well. There is certainly sexual tension between Amelia and Ginia and they do kiss at one point. I did also wonder about the relationship between Guido and Rodrigues. On the surface this is a simple coming of age and loss of innocence tale, but there is always an undercurrent which occasionally breaks the surface, a sense that life is not so simple and hidden dangers lurk. Pavese has many fans and Italo Calvino in particular was one of them: “Pavese’s nine short novels make up the most dense, dramatic and homogeneous narrative cycle of modern Italy, and are also...the richest in representing social ambiances, the human comedy, the chronicle of a society. But above all they are works of an extraordinary depth where one never stops finding new levels, new meanings...Each one of Pavese’s novels revolves around a hidden theme, something unsaid which is the real thing he wants to say.” Very brief, but there is more to this than meets the eye and at some point I will read more. 7 out of 10 Starting Resevoir 13 by Jon McGregor
  7. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Connor A fairly thick slice of Southern Gothic packed with symbolism and religious imagery. The title is taken from the Bible: Matthew 11:12. From the Douay Bible, translated from the Latin Vulgate and commonly used in Catholic churches: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” There are a limited numbers of characters and all of the main ones are male. There are spoilers ahead, necessary to discuss the novel effectively. Fourteen year old Francis Tarwater lives with his great-uncle Mason Tarwater. His great-uncle has a clear vision that Francis, like him, is to be a prophet. He has raised Francis in a backwoods cabin, without outside assistance or school. When the old man dies, Francis travels to his uncle Rayber. He has had no contact with him since early childhood. Rayber is a secularist and he has a disabled son called Bishop. The disability is not made clear, but may well have been Down’s Syndrome. Before his death Mason had charged Francis with baptizing Bishop and so save his soul. The three spend some time together, Rayber and Tarwater both battling with their destinies. Rayber wanting to civilize and educate Tarwater and Tarwater battling with whether he should be a prophet or not. Neither character is likeable and the violent act towards the end of the book confirms this. Tarwater hears a voice which turns out to be the devil. The voice tells him to drown Bishop: he does so, but accidentally baptizes him in the process. The book ends with Tarwater deciding he should be a prophet after all. O’Connor was a devout Catholic and this novel does highlight what she felt about secularism and Protestant fundamentalism. The real message is that secular intellectualism will always fail. There is also the approach to disability and mental illness to take into account. O’Connor weaves together mental illness and a certain type of fundamentalism. Disturbingly neither character is guilt-ridden or concerned about the death of Bishop; Rayber faints because he realizes he feels nothing in relation to the death. There is a lot of ambiguity in the novel, but in that ambiguity the differentness of religion and disability become linked to physical violence and one is left with negative stereotypes. Destiny is also a theme and there is a feel for that you really cannot escape it. The reader also has to consider the attitudes to race, O’Connor documents the white south very well. There is a great deal going on in this novel and it is in turn striking, shocking and disturbing. The strength of O’Connor’s own faith is obvious and I didn’t agree with one of her central messages. I found the use of mental illness and disability as tropes unpleasant, but it was an interesting and challenging read. 6 out of 10 Starting The Little Company by Eleanor Dark
  8. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Poor People by William Vollmann Vollmann is a bit of an enigma, but one thing that certainly can be said is that he has travelled a great deal in his various roles and taken copious notes. This work is told in the first person, so Vollmann manages to keep the focus off himself when he chooses to, but he has a clear focus, poverty. He simply asks people why they are poor and notes their responses. The rather raw photos are all taken by him as well. Vollmann states his parameters well: “Because I wish to respect poor people’s perceptions and experiences, I refuse to say that I know their good better than they; accordingly, I further refuse to condescend to them with the pity that either pretends they have no choices at all, or else, worse yet, gilds their every choice with my benevolent approval. Once again I submit the obvious: Poor people are no more and no less human than I; accordingly, they deserve to be judged and understood precisely as I do myself.” He struggles with a definition of poverty as some of those he interviews do not really perceive themselves as poor, although by most definitions they would be. The United Nations definition seems as good as any: “Poverty: a human condition characterized by the sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security, and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights.” One of the other issues at the start of the book is a throwaway remark by Vollmann, “Poverty is not political”. This clearly isn’t true and Vollmann obviously doesn’t really believe it either as he goes on to show it is entirely political over nearly three hundred pages! Vollmann does equate poverty with wretchedness and concedes that poverty is a series of perceptual categories. It is easy to criticize Vollmann, as many critics have for naivety or for o ver analyzing but one thing is clear. This isn’t reportage from an armchair critic or reporter, Vollmann has really been there. The list of places and people is impressive. He does look very close to home towards the end of the book, but there are interviews and characters from Thailand, Japan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, The Philippines, India, Colombia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Burma, Vietnam, Hungary, Serbia, Congo, Kenya, Iraq, Australia, Bosnia and various parts of the US. He also draws on some historical quotes and descriptions. It’s an impressive list and Vollmann has not been averse to going into difficult and dangerous places. He also introduces the readers to many of those he interviews and paints vivid portraits of them, so that the reader does become engaged. He is also self-critical analyzing his own thoughts, feelings and actions. He gives money to some and sometimes assists where he can, whilst recognizing how ineffective that really is. It is easy to be critical of Vollmann, but unlike the rest of us, he has been there. After looking at the nature of poverty initially Vollmann has his own ideas of what defines poverty and how it is broken down. He has chapters on Invisibility, Deformity, Unwantedness, Dependence, Accident-Proneness, Pain, Numbness and Estrangement. There is even a chapter on dirty toilets. The people interviewed, however briefly, although all poor are quite varied. Some are homeless and living on the streets in varieties of ramshackle shelters (or none at all), others are alcoholic or drug addict, prostitutes (as you would expect from Vollmann), older people, the unemployed, the disabled and the poorly paid and exploited. The answers given vary as you would expect. Some blame the rich or the system, for some it’s Gods will or fate, for some they are at fault themselves, others blame lack of prospects or decent work, and for some it’s their appointed place in society or just mere chance. Vollmann does have a warning for us all: “I have observed the sufferings of human beings, done a little to alleviate them, and left them behind. My sensations in doing so are sometimes as smelly as San Francisco's rainy uriney Tenderloin streets, where in a sunken subway plaza homeless ones are reading, snoring or snarling in sodden sleep bags; infected by misery, I look away, but my eyes meet a man's red-eyed glare on those rainy steps in the dark; I could remember him or I could remember the woman sitting on those steps, singing; her pants and her jacket are soaking wet in that night rain and water runs out of her hair into her eyes; her titanic thighs are blotched with eczema and she keeps scratching them; she reeks, but she is smiling as she sings; of course the only honest thing to do is remember them both -- in my tent. I am a rich man. I'm one with the man in Bogotá who said: I'm scared about the poor people coming to take everything from me.” This is powerful stuff and Vollmann lays it out and leaves it there for us to consider. 8 out of 10 Starting The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland
  9. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi It was all going pretty well until the very end when the author threw in a hand grenade and for me changed the whole nature of the book. It is impossible to review this book effectively without discussing the end and so there are spoilers ahead. A warning in case you intend to read it. It is a retelling of the Snow White story set in the America of the 1950s and 1960s and focuses on racism and passing. In this context passing relates to a member of one racial group passing as a member of another racial group. In this novel as in Passing by Nella Larsen it involves people of an African American heritage passing as white. The plot: Boy Novak lives with her abusive father Frank; he is a rat catcher and is abusive in very cruel and unusual ways. At twenty she leaves home and moves to the small town of Flax Hill. There she eventually marries Arturo Whitman, a widower with a young daughter called Snow. They have a child whom they name Bird. This child is born black and Boy discovers that some of Arturo’s family were indeed African American. There are two main narrative voices. Boy narrates the first (and best) part of the book. Her daughter Bird narrates the second part of the book and Boy the final part. When Bird is born Snow (who is blonde) is sent to live with an aunt. Bird as she grows up becomes aware she has a half-sister. It is really well written and the characters are engaging (apart from Frank the rat catcher). There is humour and a serious examination of racism almost through the medium of fairy tale. The plot is intriguing and who can resist a beginning like this: “Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.” Then there are perceptive comments on Passing: “I may or may not have hated my own face sometimes. I may or may not have spent time thinking of ways to spoil it somehow. (Maybe that answers your question about being “beautiful.”) But I’m slowly coming around to the view that you can’t feel nauseated by the Whitmans and the Millers without feeling nauseated by the kind of world that’s rewarded them for adapting to it like this.” It’s all stimulating and what I would expect from Oyeyemi, but then comes the ending. A journalist friend of Boy’s researches into her past and makes a discovery. Her mother was called Frances and was a lesbian. She was raped and gave birth to Boy. And then: “Her distress had hardened. You know how Frank says he became Frank? He says he looked in the mirror one morning when he was still Frances, and this man she’d never seen before was just standing there, looking back. Frances washed her face and fixed her hair and looked again and the man was still there, wearing an exact copy of her skirt and sweater. He said one word to her to announce his arrival. What he did was, he flicked the surface of his side of the mirror with his finger and thumb and he said: ‘Hi.’ After that he acted just like a normal reflection; otherwise she would’ve felt like she had to go to a psychiatrist and complain about him. Once she’d established he was there to stay, she named him Frank.” Boy’s mother was transgender. At the end of the novel Boy, her friend, Bird and Snow set off to see Frank because they are convinced Frances is still in there somewhere. As one reviewer has rather scathingly summed up the ending and the attitude to someone who is transgender: Transgenderism is the result of trauma. Transgenderism is something that can (and should) be “cured.” Being transgendered causes you to turn into an abusive sociopath and shove starving rats in your child’s face. This may be doing Oyeyemi a disservice, but the ending is problematic and I can see why many (including me) find it offensive. This is a shame because the rest of the book works well. 5 out of 10 Starting Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
  10. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Fun Home by Alison Bechdel This is my first proper graphic novel and is part of a reading challenge for this year. It’s by Alison Bechdel and I hadn’t initially realised I knew her name from the Bechdel test. This is a way of looking at the way women are portrayed in fiction and film. The test is whether a work features at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man. This goes back to Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own: “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. ... And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. ... They are now and then mothers and daughters.” This is a coming of age tale about Bechdel’s own childhood and adolescence and especially her relationship with her father who died just after she came out as a lesbian whilst at college. The structure of the whole is quite complex and Bechdel has described it as a labyrinth, "going over the same material, but starting from the outside and spiraling in to the center of the story." Bechdel’s father, Bruce, was an English teacher and part time undertaker, who it transpires was gay (having relationships with young men, sometimes his students). The thread running through it all is literature and the way Bechdel uses it in the memoir, this for me, was the strongest part of the book. Bechdel weaves in a number of works in a way that does not feel forced or contrived. It is quite likely that Bechdel’s father took his own life and this provides one of the focuses as Bechdel looks at Camus and suicide. She also has a lot of fun with Joyce, Ulysses and the Greek myths, looking at fathers (spiritual and temporal). Colette is inevitably referenced with an exploration of the homosexual milieu, as of course is Wilde. Fitzgerald and Shakespeare figure as does Proust. It’s all clever and interesting stuff and is well written. We learn very little about Bechdel’s mother or siblings, the focus is on her father and their relationship and on her own growing awareness of her own sexuality. At times the young Bechdel does appear a little self-aware, but this is a minor niggle. On the whole I enjoyed this and it was well written and put together and made me think. 7 out of 10 Starting Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
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    Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter This is a brave and quite original angle on grief, which is so much a part of the human condition, something we all experience. The plot is very simple, a mother of two young boys dies very suddenly and this is a poetic record of their and their father’s struggle with grief. The father is a Ted Hughes scholar and the surprise package is Crow from the poem by Ted Hughes, who moves into the family home to help with the grief process. Porter has said that part of the impetus for this was the death of his father when he was six. The title also has a nod to Emily Dickinson (Hope is a thing with feathers). We all know grief in one way or another. I have encountered it in my work. Taking funerals as a vicar and then as a humanist celebrant. I have probably taken a couple of thousand funerals. I remember all the children, all of them and their parents. Grief isn’t a thing with feathers, it is crushing compressing and all-embracing. I remember one single mother whose eighteen month old child had died of meningitis. As I talked to her she told me about her child, but also about the domestic abuse she had experienced from the father. She railed against the injustice of life, which had taken her little boy away from her just as she and he had started to make something of their lives. I could only listen. I also remember when working as a care assistant in a nursing home and talking to residents, some of the rawest memories were about grief. One women spoke about a child she had lost over eighty years earlier, who she still thought about every day; the grief was still present. As I said, this is original and very brief; it could easily be read in one sitting. I am not a great fan of Ted Hughes or of the poem that originated the idea, so it didn’t really work for me, but I am glad I read it and I’m sure it will work for some. The individual sections are entitled Dad, Crow or Boys. It is interesting and Crow, as befits the bird is a little unsavoury and crude. At one point Dad thanks Crow for retrieving some of his wife’s memories of her childhood: “‘Thank you Crow.’ ‘All part of the service.’ ‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’ ‘You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math bomb motherfudgeer, and all that.’ ‘He never called you a motherfudgeer.’ ‘Lucky me.’” I think the reader’s reaction to this book will be very much determined by how they react to the idea of Crow. It wasn’t really for me, but it’s a good read. 6 out of 10 Starting The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese
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    Tea and Tranquillisers by Diane Harpwood I found this in a job lot of virago books I picked up very cheap on e-bay. It was published in 1981 and is set in the late 1970s. It is written in the form of a diary covering one year by Jane Bennett, a wife, mother and housewife. It describes her life, or lack of it: “I start my day the Valium way, at 7:20 am when my departing husband brings me a mug of tea and a Diazepam tablet…I need Valium to numb my rebelling mind into insensibility…I hate taking it but am a dependent, nervous, miserable wreck without it.” It’s a straightforward account of life in a small East Anglian town. Jane’s life is narrow and constricted and she hates housework. She struggles with her children and keeping the house clean, money is short and cooking is a problem. Jane has a group of friends who are in similar circumstances. She loves her husband David as a man, but not as a husband. He helps her very little, the house is her job. They have the usual rows and make ups and life goes on as seventies life did. It’s in many ways mundane, but illustrates the lot of women and the restrictions on their lives. In parts it is also amusing and poignant. For me nostalgia was also an attraction. I remember those Sundays in the 1970s when absolutely nothing was open and there was nothing to do (apart from read of course). Ford Cortinas, trips to the seaside, fish fingers, TVs and other electrical appliances that often didn’t work and lots more that I recall. Jane takes the Valium just to cope with daily life, otherwise it overwhelms her, she can see nothing in her future that she wants to do or be. There is a theme running through relating to how fragile mental health can be and how patriarchy can crush and dehumanise women. 7 out of 10 Starting Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
  13. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty Set in the American South, published in 1946 and set in 1923. It is about a wedding and revolves around the plantation of the Fairchild family and a family wedding. There is no real plot and very little happens. This is deliberate and Welty says she picked 1923 because it was a year when very little happened in the delta. The cast of characters is extensive and working out the relationships between the various members of the Fairchild clan isn’t straightforward. There are no skeletons in cupboards, no major family dramas (some minor quarrels), no bitternesses on the surface. The social structure is clear, it is a plantation and the servant class is black, but there are no resentments here either. The shadows of the Civil War, Reconstruction and Slavery don’t seem to exist here. The plantation is thriving and productive and the problems relatively minor. This certainly isn’t Faulkner or O’Neill. What is important to Welty is place and family. She captures place very well. The whole plot is the run up to a wedding, the last few days of preparation and the day itself. The writing does have a depth to it. Some of the novel is seen through the eyes of Laura, a young girl (about 8) who is a cousin to the Fairchild’s. Laura’s mother has recently died and she is going to stay with the family for the wedding: “Laura from her earliest memory had heard how they “never seemed to change at all.” That was the way her mother who had been away from them down in Jackson where they would be hard to believe, could brag on them without seeming to. And yet Laura could see that they changed every moment. The outside did not change but the inside did; an iridescent life was busy within and under each alikeness. Laughter at something went over the table; Laura found herself with a picture in her mind of a great bower-like cage full of tropical birds her father had shown her in a zoo in a city – the sparkle of motion was like a rainbow, while it was the very thing that broke your heart, for the birds that flew were caged all the time and could not fly out. The Fairchilds’ movements were quick and on the instant, and that made you wonder, are they free? Laura was certain that they were compelled – their favorite word.” As a reader you do become immersed in the story and the texture of it. That immersion I didn’t find entirely pleasant because of the almost total dislocation from the society around and my inability to connect with the characters. I felt this would have worked better as a short story. 6 out of 10 Starting Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  14. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    First in the World Somewhere by Penny Pepper This is a marvellous memoir from the irrepressible Penny Pepper. Her description of herself from the front of the book is Scribbler, Siren, Saucepot and Pioneer. She is a disability rights activist, feminist, musician in the punk tradition, writer of short stories and erotica and general thorn in the side of the establishment and inspiration to the rest of us. A word first about the publisher, Unbound. Unbound is a publishing house where books are crowdfunded. You pitch a book idea to Unbound, if they accept they put the book idea with information on the site and people can pledge money towards publication. If you pledge money, once the book is published your name is listed in the back. A simple idea, but obviously very effective. This is a very honest memoir, there is lots of laughter and humour, but sadness as well. Penny was born with Stills Disease, which she refers to as “the lurgy” throughout. It is important to emphasize that this isn’t a memoir about being disabled, but an account of one person’s struggle to be herself and to be independent. On the surface this is an account of Penny’s life until the early 2000s, but it charts so many changes and developments in society. Music is one strand; like many of us Penny was inspired by punk and she has been referred to as a post punk musician. The story of Penny’s letters to and from Morrissey, meeting with Ian Dury and her own musical career is fascinating. Under the name Kata Kolbert, Penny played gigs and even had an album produced called Spiral Sky (number one in Greece for a week; hence the title of the book). Another strand is Penny’s writing, liberated since the invention of the personal computer. She writes regularly for the Guardian, is writing a novel and some poetry. She has published two volumes of erotica where the central characters are disabled. Friends, lovers and relationships figure strongly and like the rest of us there are triumphs and disasters. Penny pulls no punches and the descriptions of family life also took me back to the 70s and life and culture then. She describes a difficult relationship with her stepfather. She meets Tamsin in hospital and the development of their friendship based on music and their attitudes to surviving life develop until they move into a flat together. There is a thread running through the book focussing on the struggles to lead an independent life. It starts in the old and grim warehouse type hospitals of Penny’s youth and the refusal of many professionals to accept that Penny can ever have any independence. Cringeworthy descriptions of the “there there” pat on head approaches of many of the well-meaning. Penny also charts the development of the disability rights movement: battles over access to places others take for granted, battles over access to transport, to toilets, to adaptions at home. There are encounters with social workers, slowly improving over years, until the times when money can be available to pay for a PA which is liberating. My own involvement in the social care system has charted these changes. Unfortunately the tide is now going in the other direction with the onset of austerity politics. The sort of budget Penny got for care in the late 1990s is increasingly more difficult to get. Some battles still need fighting. Penny also writes with great humour and lightness of touch. In the early 1990s Penny received an educational grant from a charity whose patron is Lord Snowdon. She describes the rather posh do: “I sit next to Freddie at one of the round tables. The cutlery’s too heavy for my small hands and I’m terrified of plopping food into my exposed cleavage. Somehow I get through lunch and then there are speeches, before we’re lined up ready for the presentation to Lord Snowdon. I’m suddenly angry. This isn’t my natural habitat. I’m punk. I’m anti-capitalist. I’m anti the greedy rich. Yet here I am about to receive a cheque for which I’m not truly grateful. I find I don’t want to call him sir or lord and I’m not going to bow – a difficult movement for me on many fronts and also because I’m certain my tits will fall out.” Penny is earthy, swears a lot and tells it how it is. She is a remarkable woman, her journalism is sharp and perceptive and this moving memoir charts her life and battles. It is very human and life affirming and it made me laugh and cry in equal measure. It also made me angry and reminded how far we have to go as a society in our struggle for justice and equality. 9 and a half out of 10 Starting Tea and Tranquilisers by Diane Harpwood
  15. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Mill for Grinding Old People Young by Glenn Patterson Sometimes buying a book because the title intrigues you can lead to serendipitous discoveries, sometimes it doesn’t. This one falls into the probably doesn’t category. The unusual title is the name of a tavern, an actual historical tavern. This is a historical novel looking at Belfast in the 1830s through the character of Gilbert Rice. Fictional and historical characters mix together and although Rice is essentially middle class there are occasional glimpses of the underside of the city. The plot itself is fairly minimal. Rice is living with his religious and rather stern grandfather; he starts work at the Ballast Office at sixteen and finds a group of friends. A fall one day led to a diversion to the tavern of the title where Gilbert meets Maria, a Polish refugee, who works there. A relationship develops. Gilbert is still very young and easily led. Maria is rather more worldly and focussed on the revolution in her homeland. The working out of the relationship occupies the second half of the novel. The architect John Millar pops up as he designs the Third Presbyterian Church and puts a slate with a message in one of the columns. The slate was found in the rubble when the church was bombed in 1941. Patterson also weaves in some of the tensions from the failed uprising of 1798. The reader learns something of the history of the city of Belfast and the growth of the shipping industry. The sectarian divisions are not to the fore, but there are tensions present, especially in relation to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Patterson, Belfast born himself, describes writing the novel as a voyage of discovery. The novel starts and ends in 1897 with Gilbert’s death, looking back to a time before the great shipyards existed. Patterson says the research taught him the importance of the river: “But in a sense, everything that happened in Belfast’s entire history has revolved around what happens on the waterfront. The city begins at the confluence of two rivers, a place where you can ford from west to east. The shipyards defined it for a number of years, and now we’re reclaiming the waterfront and redefining ourselves as Titanic town.” I’m afraid this didn’t really grab me. I learnt a bit about the history of Belfast, but the plot meandered too much. The teenage Gilbert irritated me and I didn’t really engage with the whole. 6 out of 10 Starting First in the World Somewhere by Penny Pepper