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  • Birthday July 18

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    Mr Scarborough's Family by Anthony Trollope
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  1. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Sugar House by Antonia White This is the third in a series of four which started with Frost in May and continues the story of Clara Batchelor, based loosely on White’s own life. As the series goes on comparisons for me are drawn with Richardson’s Pilgrimage series. Whilst White is good, Richardson is exceptional and this one feels a little like a link novel to the final part of the series. The first part of the novel sees Clara acting with a travelling theatrical troupe and in love with another thespian in a different travelling troupe. There is a portrayal of the life of a travelling actor in a variety of digs. Archie turns up again and when her lover betrays her she agrees to marry Archie. Clara and Archie Hughes Follett marry with Catholic pomp and move into a very small house in Chelsea, The Sugar House, because it reminds Clara of the one in Hansel and Gretel. Archie isn’t the person he was previously: “Archie had certainly changed. She remembered him as an odd creature, clumsy and kind, who did not fit into the grown-up world. Often he had sulked like a schoolboy but never had she seen him in this mood of aggressive bitterness. Tonight he had hardly smiled: in repose, his face was set in lines of angry discontent. She felt a pang of guilt.” White weaves a claustrophobic picture of the marriage, Archie is clearly an alcoholic and they run into serious debt very quickly. The marriage is also unconsummated; an important detail if you are a Catholic. This is an account of White’s marriage to Tom Hopkinson and of her attempts to start to write. The second part of the book is a description of the disintegration of the marriage as Archie’s alcoholism becomes a factor as does their increasing debts. I can see why this is seen as the weakest of the four books; it continued the story, I felt it lacked a little focus; but the descriptions of the life of a travelling actor was interesting. 7 out of 10 Starting Beyond the Glass by Antonia White
  2. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Thanks Madeleine; yes very creepy Closing the Book by Stevie Davies I think Stevie Davies is one of the very best English writers at the moment and I am gradually working my way through her novels, whilst trying to persuade others to try her. This is quite an early novel from the Women’s Press. Davies creates believable characters that linger long in the memory. The topics the novel addresses are serious, but there is also a lightness of touch and humour. The backdrop of the novel is the first Gulf War. Ruth and Bridie have been partners for five years, Ruth leaving her husband and children. Bridie is the chief executive of a third world charity. However, she is dying of cancer at 52 and this is the central part of the novel; an exploration of death, grief, loss and bereavement. The subplots and side characters also add a great deal to the whole. Ruth’s former husband Gavin, his new girlfriend and Ruth and Gavin’s two children feature a good deal. The eldest child, fifteen year old Lizzie provides a pivot for the whole novel. She is angry, dislikes the new girlfriend and has hated Bridie for taking her mother, but is now conflicted by her illness and imminent death. Lizzie is also a political activist, protesting against the war and getting involved with animal rights in a very active and not entirely legal way. Sarah, her twelve year old sister copes in an entirely different way. Gavin struggles to understand any of the women in his life and has a gift for saying precisely the wrong thing at any given moment. Ruth and Bridie’s neighbours and the workers at the local charity shop all add to the minor characters. The examination of death and bereavement stands up to any other in literature. Whilst Bridie is in the hospice there is a young mother in the next bed. Her husband is trying to force her to eat, getting angry with the hospice staff for making her ill, generally trying to organise and order. Eventually her picks her up; “a mane of pale hair falling, oddly graceful as the tragic climax of a ballet”. A nurse tells him off as he risks breaking one of her ribs, so he puts her down: "with all conceivable tenderness ... " and in the expression of his red-rimmed eyes "the hell within him seemed to scorch its way to the surface". Davies has the ability to turn someone who seems to be acting in a selfish and rather brutal way into someone who the reader realises is suffering and in the depths of despair. Davies characters are nuanced and have depth and she juxtaposes the pain and suffering of death with the fighting in the Gulf War and with the suffering of animals as Lizzie pursues her animal rights beliefs. This is not an easy read, but it is rewarding and memorable and well worth the effort. 9 out of 10 Starting Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo
  3. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Thank you Pixie! And to you too. Thank you too vodkafan; I certainly enjoyed Thin Air. Breathing Underwater by Marie Darrieussecq This is an unusual novel, rather brief; there is no dialogue, the characters are not named and this gives the whole an underwater feel. Darrieussecq’s descriptive powers are impressive; who would describe a window as being “glossy with sunlight”? Her novels have a recurring desertion theme. In this one a woman leaves her husband, taking her daughter and driving to close to the Spanish border, on the coast. Other characters include the husband, the private detective he hires to look for them, a swimming instructor and the young girl’s grandmother. The reason for leaving is never really explained and the novel itself is very much focussed on the sea. There is a feeling of distortion, like looking through water. The novel begins with a description of the sea: “It's a mouth, half open, breathing, but the eyes, nose and chin are no longer there. It's a mouth bigger than any mouth imaginable, rending space in two, expanding it... The noise - the breathing - is tremendous; you climb up the dune, and space explodes” Darrieussecq resists the temptation to judge or analyse her characters and allows the reader to merely observe and giving a vivid sense of brightness and heat. The setting is the area the author lived in as a child and the reader does get a sense of the familiarity the author has. Darrieussecq says herself: “To the west, the Atlantic, to the north, a forest, the east, Europe, and to the south, a border with Spain. It was very rich for a kid's imagination.” She goes on to say that her work is haunted by a dead brother she never knew. He died before she was born and she didn’t know about him until she worked out for herself he had existed. There is absence and disappearance in her novels, originating from the sense of this she felt as a child without knowing why. It’s interesting and clever stuff and has been compared with Woolf, especially The Waves. I’m not entirely convinced by that but it is an interesting read 7 out of 10 Starting The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
  4. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Lost Wax by Jericho Parms A collection of essays, fragments, thoughts and reflections about life, identity, memory, art, poetry, music, race, family, mental health and the boundaries of the worlds we inhabit. The writing is poetic and split into brief vignettes which make it easier to read but more difficult to get a sense of the author. The whole is a bit like a jigsaw. Each of the four sections borrows names from sculptures (Rodin, Bernini, and Degas). There are stories of an upbringing in the Bronx with a white mother and an African American father, stories about lovers, travel and nature. The writing is thoughtful and original: “Every time I wander through a Greek and Roman sculpture court, a mezzanine of antiquities, a hall of baroque-styles figures, I want to be disassembled: to have my arms up to my shoulders fall off as I’m taken from Florence to Pompeii or maybe end up at the Metropolitan or the Louvre having lost my legs. To be stolen, looted by strangers, and feel the tip of my nose, the cap of my knee, chip and blow away. The phantom pain of dismemberment like the rise and fall of panic and desire, like a drug I once took—a mere dose of it laced with an addictive sadness. And I feel this, not just in the company of over-life-sized statues of gods and goddesses, the late Hellenistic and half-cloaked heroes, but also before the busts of Minerva and Dionysius, funerary stones, engraved papyrus, terracotta kraters, smooth, polished capitals and finials, sarcophagi, and headless torsos. Here, these sculptures reveal nearly all of the materials the ancients had on hand: marble, limestone, bronze, gold and silver, ivory and bone. Above all they are reliefs, fragments, the embodiment of classical idealism—of memory—cast from a mold that no longer exists: only the impression remains.” Parms examines her restlessness and her self-destructive streak; the static nature of sculpture providing a counterpoint. As Parms says: “..the museum galleries are where I learned to reclaim myself. After years of incessant movement, I turn faithfully to the stone-solid silence of statuary, bow like a courtesan before its classical grace and refuse to feel alone.” I liked Parms’s honesty about herself and the way she approaches life; “I fear love for the way it blankets everything it knows. Perhaps that is why I may never stay.” These essays are a journey, almost a pilgrimage of memory and metaphor. The fascination for individual objects, their shape, feel, colour and form and the poignant one-liners that capture a great deal more; “the taillight of a lover driving steadily away can forever burn” I can recommend these essays, they will make you think and reflect. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson
  5. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Collected Poems by Wilfred Owen I make no apology for starting with one of Owen’s more well-known poems Dulce Et Decorum Est Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs, And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of gas-shells dropping softly behind. Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.— Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori. The title is from Horace: It is sweet and right to die for your country. This collection includes Owen’s pre-war poems and lots of fragments of poems. It is easy to see that the really powerful standout poems are all war poems; there is a vast difference between these poems and his early work, hardly surprising. Most of Owen’s poems were published posthumously and those that were published were in an In-house magazine at Craiglockhart hospital. There is a memorial piece at the end by Edmund Blunden written in 1931 which contains extracts from his letters and is fascinating as it shows some of the ways his thought was developing. The passion and compassion of Owen towards the suffering and disenchanted stands out. Owen understands the men he is with; he understands soldiers and their role and he is angry on their behalf with those in power and those who criticise from the side-lines: except you share With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell, Whose world is but the trembling of a flare, And heaven but as the highway for a shell. You shall not hear their mirth: You shall not come to think them well content By any jest of mind. These men are worth Your tears: you are not worth their merriment Owen’s letters show how his political thought was developing in a pacifist direction and he says that his conception of Christianity was incompatible with pure patriotism. He does not shirk addressing difficult issues including the effect of war on mental health in the poem “Mental Cases” and placing blame where he thinks it lies: Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight? Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows, Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish, Baring teeth that leer like skulls' tongues wicked? Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic, Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets? Ever from their hair and through their hand palms Misery swelters. Surely we have perished Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish? — These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished. Memory fingers in their hair of murders, Multitudinous murders they once witnessed. Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander, Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter. Always they must see these things and hear them, Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles, Carnage incomparable and human squander Rucked too thick for these men's extrication. Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented Back into their brains, because on their sense Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black; Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh — Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous, Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses. — Thus their hands are plucking at each other; Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging; Snatching after us who smote them, brother, Pawing us who dealt them war and madness This could easily become a run through of the poems; they are now well known and much studied and still retain their power. If you haven’t read them, do have a look, but I’ll sign off this review with Anthem for Doomed Youth: What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, - The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds. 9 out of 10 Starting The Virago Book of Women's War Poetry and Verse
  6. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Thank you Madeleine; there are similarities between the two. The Lost Traveller by Antonia White This is the second of Antonia White’s series of four novel about a girl growing up in a Catholic family in the early twentieth century. At the end of Frost in May Clara (she was known as Nanda in the first book, White just decided to change her name) has to leave the convent school and start at a local girl’s school. The book opens in 1914 when Clara is 14 and we follow her for the next three years. White captures the usual adolescent problems of love, parents, friendships, what to do in life, religion and so on. It could easily be an average coming of age tale; but it is more than that. White captures the sheer intensity of being 16/17. Clara battles with whether she should continue studying and go to Cambridge, she worries about whether she has a vocation to be a nun and eventually decides to spend a few months being a governess to a boy from an Old Catholic family, away from London in the country. So what lifts it above the mundane? The characterisation of Clara’s parents (based on White’s own parents) is very strong. Her father in particular with his strong emotions; almost wanting to live through his daughter, but there is also a disturbing edge to his character: “Oh thank you, Daddy. You do look magnificent,” she said, pinning on her flowers and gazing at him with admiration. Evening clothes suited him; they set off his fairness and made him seem taller. Never, she thought, had she seen him looking so young and handsome. She giggled with sheer happiness. “I never thought I’d go to the opera with you in your opera hat, I do feel grand.” He offered his arm. “Your carriage is waiting.” To her amazement, it was no mere taxi but a hired car with a chauffeur in livery. A hired car was the very greatest of luxuries associated only with the most solemn family feasts such as her parents’ wedding anniversary. Never before had he ordered one just for Clara. “Daddy you are spoiling me,” She said, leaning back on the thick grey cushions.” This is almost a seduction and there is a slightly sinister edge to Claude’s character. There is a temptation for the reader to think they are over-reacting and it is entirely innocent until very near the end of the book when Claude is alone with one of Clara’s friends at a time of high emotion. His behaviour then confirms the previous suspicions. Clara’s mother also has her trials and tribulations and her almost affair is a revelation. The backdrop to it all is the Catholic faith and the restrictions it places on the characters. There is a significant tragedy in the book; the first real tragedy in her life which almost destroys her and will resonate through the rest of her life and the effects will flow through the rest of the novels in this series. Given White’s own history and battles with her own mental health, you can see the beginnings here of what Clara will have to face in the future. Although this could stand alone I think the books are much better read in sequence. 8 out of 10 Starting The Sugar House by Antonia White
  7. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Currently I am reading Mr Scarborough's family by Anthony Trollope Breathing Underwater by Marie Darrieussecq Lost Wax by Jericho Parms The collected poems of Wilfred Owen edited by Cecil Day Lewis Closing the Book by Stevie Davies The Lost Traveller by Antonia White Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  8. First Book of the Year Thin Air by Michelle Paver This is an old-fashioned ghost story, very much in the mould of Michelle Paver’s earlier outing in this genre, Dark Matter. This again involves five men in isolation in extreme circumstances. The setting is a mountaineering expedition in the 1930s to the world’s third highest mountain, Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas. The Guardian review rather neatly sums it up as “Touching the Void” meets Jack London. Central to the story are Stephen, the narrator and team physician who is writing a journal, and his older brother Kits who is a very confident mountaineer. They are following on an earlier disastrous Edwardian expedition where a number of the climbers died. The team have read the account of the expedition and whilst preparing in Darjeeling they visit the last surviving member of the expedition, Tennant, who warns Stephen not to go. The ghost in question is a member of the previous expedition Arthur Ward. He was an outsider, not being upper class like the rest of the team. He fell and was left to die on the mountainside. Paver builds the tension well, piece by piece using the surroundings very effectively. The contrast with the Sherpas is telling. They respect and fear the mountain and display a great deal more common sense than their western paymasters. Freud argues that the writer can achieve the uncanny by; “Promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it”. Paver certainly does that as the narrator, Stephen, gradually perceives that there is someone else climbing with them. The discovery of an old rucksack is significant and Paver manages to make an everyday object like a rucksack very scary indeed. The sheer scale and power of the mountain, which has its own weather systems, add to the feeling of something beyond, as does the cold and the thinness of the air. Then there is the tensions between the two brothers: “I know my brother. A couple of years ago, someone came upon Irvine’s ice axe on Everest’s north-west ridge, and Kits sulked for weeks. Why wasn’t he the one to find it and get all the glory? That’s what he’s after now: relics of the Lyell Expedition; and a chance to complete what the great man began, by being the first in the world to conquer an eight thousand-metre peak—with the added lustre of planting the Union Jack on the summit, and beating the bloody Germans.” Paver develops these tensions very well. Then the gradual development of a sense of haunting, initially denied by the empirical Stephen: “It’s no good, I have to face the truth. There’s something terribly wrong with Camp Two, What do I mean by wrong? Well I don’t mean ghosts. Not in the sense of disembodied spirits, I don’t believe in them. […] But energy, now. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, so isn’t it at least possible that some kind of energy—perhaps magnetic, or even some force of emotion—may have lingered here for years? And perhaps—perhaps there’s something about me that makes me a sort of physical medium for that energy: like a battery, or a lightning rod? It’s a hypothesis, and it makes me feel slightly better. I’ve put a frame around the wrongness. I’ve contained it.” The chills and the horror are very much linked to the characters and their particular sensibilities, which makes the whole more effective. As ghost stories go this was effective. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Breathing Underwater by Marie Darrieussecq
  9. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    You would be amazed at some of the interpretations! I did think that the others were not as compelling
  10. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Goblin Market and other poems by Christina Rossetti Goblin Market is a narrative poem written by Christina Rossetti in 1859, eventually being published in 1862, along with the rest of the poems in this collection. Goblin Market has been much argued over and there are numerous interpretations; the themes of temptation, salvation and sacrifice and the seemingly sexual imagery have ensured the debate will continue. The plot is simple; two sisters (Laura and Lizzie) live together (their age is never specified). They hear the call of the goblin merchants and are tempted by their wares: Apples and quinces, Lemons and oranges, Plump unpeck’d cherries, Melons and raspberries, Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches, Swart-headed mulberries, Wild free-born cranberries, Crab-apples, dewberries, Pine-apples, blackberries, Apricots, strawberries;— Laura yields to temptation and pays with a lock of hair and “a tear more rare than a pearl”. She then enjoys the fruit in a scene vaguely reminiscent of the food scene in the film of Tom Jones. She returns home satiated and soon desires more. However although her sister can still hear the call of the goblins, she cannot. Laura begins to pine and decline and is becoming weaker, dying. Lizzie, in desperation goes to the goblins to buy fruit for her sister. She means to pay with money and that angers the goblins with attempt to force the fruit into her. They cannot and Lizzie leaves covered in the juice and she gives some drops to Laura, who after an initial paroxysm recovers. There is a moral about the power of sisterly love! The poem has waxed and waned in popularity, but the interpretations are worth listing: Marxist, Freudian, a warning about the free market economy, a tale about anorexia, an early feminist text, a Christian parable about sacrifice and salvation, a warning about the prevalence of food adulteration in the Victorian era (I kid you not), an exploration of incestuous yearning, “a parable of female resistance and solidarity” and inevitably an article in Playboy portrayed it as “unambiguously pornographic”. Some of the interpretations are more convincing than others! The rest of the poems are very Victorian; a great deal about death, the beloved rotting away under a carpet of grass, plenty of lost loves and changing seasons, a good deal of religious nonsense and quite a lot about nature and the seasons. One of the rescuers of Rossetti from obscurity was Virginia Woolf, who wrote about her on the one hundredth anniversary of her birth: “Yours was a complex song. When you struck your harp many strings sounded together … A firm hand pruned your lines; a sharp ear tasted their music. Nothing soft, otiose, irrelevant cumbered your pages. In a word, you were an artist.” She was also rediscovered by feminists in the 1970s. I enjoyed Goblin Market and I recognise that it is open to a lot of variable interpretation. There is very definitely an intensity of delight in the material world; “I'll bring you plums tomorrow Fresh on their mother twigs, Cherries worth getting; You cannot think what figs My teeth have met in, What melons, icy-cold Piled on a dish of gold Too huge for me to hold” 7 out of 10 Starting Mr Scarborough's Family by Anthony Trollope
  11. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Vertical Motion by Can Xue This is my first foray into the work of Can Xue (real name Deng XiaoHua). She grew up in the Cultural Revolution and did not have a high school education and so is largely self-taught. Her adopted name is a play on words because it means the dirty snow which cannot melt and also the pure snow on top of the mountain. The stories have familiar settings in China but they are by no means simple. They are often surreal and disturbing, everyday settings and relationships are subverted. Words like magic realism and experimentalism have been thrown around. The themes are old ones, but addressed in new ways with the unusual, a disappearing staircase, flowers that grow underground and a very large and sinister owl. Xue says that her work is soul literature: “I do not tell plane stories; I tell stereoscopic stories. …. when we are reading, we should regard a work as a medium that can start the a priori ability—an ability for prior direct-viewing in our soul. We use the work to stimulate that ability, and let the structure of time and space in our heart appear. Then we use the direct-viewing to watch the beautiful scenery in the work that belongs to oneself at last.” There are themes, the subterranean is one, as is moving away from the city, exploration of secret spaces and there are often animals playing a significant role. The characters often are struggling with life and with the situations they find themselves in; “The person was on the stairs, which is to say he was in midair. Judging by his voice, he must be hanging in midair. I couldn’t bear to shout again, because I was afraid he would fall. Maybe the one facing danger wasn’t he, but I. Was he saying that I was in danger? I didn’t dare shout again. This was Uncle Lou’s home. Eventually he would have to return. Perhaps he had simply gone downstairs to buy groceries. It was a nice day. The sun was out, so it was a little hot in the room. So what? I shouldn’t start making a fuss because of this. When I recalled that someone outside was hanging in midair, I started sweating even more profusely. My clothes stuck to my body; this was hard to endure.” The familiar slides into unfamiliarity. There is enough information to set the imagination going, but interpretation is very much up to the reader. This is from Red Leaves: “After finishing the cigarette, Gu thanked the worker and stood up, intending to continue up the stairs, when he suddenly heard the worker beside him make a cat sound. It was very harsh. But when he glanced at him, he looked as if nothing had happened. No one else was here. If he hadn't made the sound, who had? Gu changed his mind; he wanted to see if this person would do anything else. He waited awhile longer, but the worker didn't do anything, he just put his cigarette butt in his pocket, rose, and went back to the water cart. He pushed the cart into the ward. Gu subconsciously put his hand into his own pocket, took out the cigarette butt, and looked at it, but he saw nothing unusual. In a trance, he twisted and crushed the butt. He saw an insect with a shell moving around in the tobacco shreds. The lower half of its body had been charred, but it still didn't seem to want to die. Nauseated, Gu threw the butt on the floor and, without looking back, climbed to the eighth floor.” The usual precis and description of the stories would be superfluous; these stories need to be read. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  12. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Paradise News by David Lodge This is the first David Lodge I have read for many, many years and it was a somewhat mixed return. Lodge can write, make no mistake about that and his plots hang together well. It reads easily and the whole runs along smoothly; it is a comic novel (so I am informed). The novel revolves around Bernard who works as a lecturer in theology at the University of Rummidge (Birmingham). He is an ex-Catholic priest who has lost his faith. He has an uncomfortable relationship with his father and sister, knows very little about sex and relationships and is generally quite isolated. He has an aunt in Hawaii; she has been separated from the rest of the family for many years but is now dying and she would like to see Bernard and his father before she does. She persuades Bernard to take his very home loving father to Hawaii to visit. The cheapest way to do it is to join a package tour. This gives Lodge an excuse to set up a whole series of characters and caricatures of the British abroad and numerous minor plotlines, most of which are irritating and pointless. Inevitably the trip to Hawaii has its ups and downs after a rather excruciating description of a long plane journey. Bernard’s father steps out in front of a car (foreigners drive on the wrong side of the road) and breaks his hip, ending up in hospital (cue storylines about medical insurance). Bernard then manages to fall in love with the driver of the car, Yolande and to discover that Aunt Isabel is actually much richer than everyone (including Isabel) realised. This leads to one of the most cringe-making sex scenes I have read in a number of years and a rather interesting and perceptive analysis of why Bernard lost his faith. Lodge seems very at ease and familiar with twentieth century theologians, tripping through Tillich, Kung, Bultmann and Rahner with a fair amount of dexterity whilst discoursing on the teleological argument and debunking the possibility of an afterlife. Moving the setting for all this to an “earthly paradise” was an interesting move and like Henry James, moving your main characters to foreign shores can be fruitful. There is lots of renewal and transformation at the end and Lodge seems to like to tidy up his plotlines like a gardener trimming a hedge. Most of it irritated me and Lodge creates characters who slide nicely into his world view, which is really quite English and traditional. However the extended look at how and why Bernard lost his faith and the nature of the Catholic Church was certainly worth reading and saved the whole from being a total disaster. A word of advice, skip the sex scene (trust me on this!!) 5 and a half out of 10 Starting Lost Wax by Jericho Parms
  13. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Ladies Please Don't Smash These Windows by Maroula Joannou Illuminating and thought provoking analysis of women’s writing between the wars. As Joannou says: “There is, I would argue, a particular need for scholarly analysis of writers – Antonia White and Stevie Smith are obvious candidates but there are many others – which uncovers the mutinous structures of feeling that often lie beneath the deceptively decorous surface of women-centred texts.” The title of the book comes from a poster in the window of a London Jewellers during a Suffragette March in 1912. It read as follows: “Votes for Women; Ladies, if we had the power to grant, you should have the Vote right away. Please don’t smash these windows, they are not insured. Sidney Marks, The jeweller” Posterity does not record whether the said windows survived. Joannou takes a close look at a number of writers and texts and the issues surrounding them and also looking at texts in a different way coming from the socialist-feminist critical tradition. A quote from Annette Kuhn is illustrative: “What we see through our feminist spectacles will of course inform what we choose to analyse, and perhaps also to some extent how we choose to analyse it. Feminist theory involves taking up a distinct stance or position in relation to its object, therefore, and thus in this sense cannot be regarded as politically neutral.” The first chapter is an examination of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. It is a questioning of its iconic status. Joannou argues that the literary perspective is one of dominant memory rather than popular memory (there is a brief comparison of Testament of Youth with I Know why the Caged Bird Sings which is fascinating) arguing that the perspective is “war from above” with no questioning of nation or the ideology of Englishness. She also illustrates Brittain’s attitude towards working class women (very different from her friend Winifred Holtby), which is patronising and naïve. Chapter Two looks at the tradition of socialist-feminist novels between the wars with a particular emphasis on Leonora Eyles and her first novel Margaret Protests. For those interested in buried novels, there are lists of them here, many of which look interesting. There is an interesting discussion about class and feminism. The third chapter takes a look at literary spinsterhood in the 1920s, including some fictional ones. Again there are works here that are little known and look interesting, but Joannou focusses on two in particular: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner and The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor. Chapter Four concerns lesbian representation and is an analysis and comparison of The Well of Loneliness and Orlando. This reminded me what a remarkable and radical text Orlando is, as Joannou notes: “For Orlando is the text in which Vita herself is displayed, the text in which lesbian consciousness is linked to a feminist awareness of women’s disabilities. It is the text which may be read, Nigel Nicholson suggests, as a “unique consolation” to Vita Sackville-West for having been born a girl and thus forfeiting her inheritance of Knole. It is the text which, as Sandra Gilbert has put it was “designed to prove to Everywoman that she can be exactly who or what she wants to be, including Everyman.” Woolf’s celebration of love for women and between women in Orlando reveals a radical and courageous determination to expose patriarchal expectations of women’s sexuality.” The fifth chapter looks at three novels of the 1930s, examining their approaches to gender and class. The novels are The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West and The Weather in the Streets by Rosamund Lehmann. Perceptive points are made about each book and inevitably I will get round to reading all three at some point. Chapter Six looks at anti-fascist writings by women in the 1930s, looking at two texts in particular: Swastika Night by Katherine Berdekin and Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf. Swastika Night is a dystopian novel imagining a distant future where the Nazis are in power, written in 1938. It looks interesting and is on my list for next year. The analysis of Three Guineas is excellent; it’s one of Woolf’s works I haven’t read and I must remedy that next year. All in all it is a fascinating run through women’s writings between the wars and is well worth looking up if this is an area of interest. The sections on Woolf are particularly good. 9 out of 10 Starting The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen
  14. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed Nadifa Mohamed’s first novel is an homage to her father and is based on his life and wanderings around North East Africa in the 1930s and 1940s. Mohamed explains the title as being related to something that happened to her grandmother: “When my grandmother was heavily pregnant with my father, she was following her family’s caravan and she got lost and separated from the others. She sat down to rest under an acacia tree and a black mamba snake crept upon her belly before slithering away, leaving her unharmed. She took this as a sign that the child she carried would always be protected, and that’s how the title of the book came about.” Mohamed also has a specified purpose as well as telling her father’s story: “Much has been written about how Britain's Jamaican community celebrated Usain Bolt's charge to gold. But British Somalis, who have been here in numbers for over two decades, are not so firmly placed in the national consciousness. And often when we are written about it is with the worst connotations: violence, terrorism, gangs …young Somalis' sense of identity seems more powerfully formed by the persistently negative representations found in the media.” The novel starts in Aden, in Yemen in the 1930s when Jama is living with his mother; it is narrated in the third person. Mohamed explains the structure is based on African “praise poetry”: “Griots are wandering praise-singers who are also the historians and storytellers of their societies. Even though it is a West African tradition, I thought it suited perfectly my father's story; I wanted a style that would celebrate his life with great literary flourishes rather than objectively describe it. The griot tradition also shares similarities with Somali poetry in their methods of composition and dissemination, and was a natural fit to the wandering, exploratory life of my father.” When Jama’s mother dies he decides to go and search for his itinerant father in Somaliland. We have a geographical tour of the area and a historical one as Jama becomes involved with the Italian army invading Ethiopia in the Second World War. Jama, as he is growing up lives on the streets and life can be tough as he is often hungry. His voyage is an Odyssean one around North Africa and ending up in Britain. Jama experiences famine, war, illness, loss, racism and homelessness. He also finds kindness from Somali communities around the area of his travels and sometimes in unexpected places. Mohamed writes well and her descriptive powers have lyricism and power: “At the darkest hour of night, the sky cracked and revealed a blue and white secret kingdom. The high heavens and low earth were joined by a sheet of conquering raindrops, followed by a thundering marching band that seemed to be playing drums, cymbals, violins, and reedy flutes whose notes fell down and smashed against the gasping desert earth, battering down an angry song of life.” The novel is easy to read and also provides an account of colonialism and its effects. Towards the end of the book Jama is working as a stoker on a British ship, The SS Exodus with a cargo of Jews purportedly being taken to safety, in actuality prisoners; an illustration that it was not just the Nazis who persecuted the Jews. Mohamed challenges the western narration of these events, but also provides hope for the beleaguered communities of Northern Africa. There are irritations at times, but this is an accomplished first novel which engages the reader and makes its points effectively. 8 out of 10 Starting Closing the Book by Stevie Davies
  15. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris What to make of David Sedaris, this is my first venture into this territory. Quite simply this is a collection of essays about Sedaris’s life and times and could be termed observational comedy. The essays are split into two parts, the second focussing on his time living in France with his partner Hugh. The move to France provoked a number of these essays, especially attempts to learn the language. There is a good deal of focus on Sedaris’s family, especially his father. Sedaris is also adept at employing an outsider perspective as he expresses his bafflement at aspects of life. A good deal of vitriol is reserved for Americans abroad and in general: “Every day we're told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it's always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it's startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are 'We're number two!” Sedaris’s humour and wit is often directed at individuals he knows and sometimes groups. He is equally able though to turn it against himself and his own frailties: “For the first twenty years of my life, I rocked myself to sleep. It was a harmless enough hobby, but eventually, I had to give it up. Throughout the next twenty-two years I lay still and discovered that after a few minutes I could drop off with no problem. Follow seven beers with a couple of scotches and a thimble of good marijuana, and it’s funny how sleep just sort of comes on its own. Often I never even made it to the bed. I’d squat down to pet the cat and wake up on the floor eight hours later, having lost a perfectly good excuse to change my clothes. I’m now told that this is not called “going to sleep” but rather “passing out,” a phrase that carries a distinct hint of judgment” Sedaris is so quotable that it would be very easy to fill the rest of this with witty one liners. I suspect this is not Sedaris’s best work and there have been recent debates about whether what Sedaris writes is fiction or non-fiction. Sedaris argues they are both true and exaggerated. It is easy to read, but I still find myself not entirely convinced and I’m not sure why, but it is funny 6 and a half out of 10 Starting Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti