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2016 Book blog by Books don't furnish a room

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MrCat it is very much about race and gender and about culture. Of course all works are set within their historical contexts that's a given. However the odds are stacked against a person if they are born female/ non-white/ not English speaking and that isn't at all controversial in terms of getting into the literary canon. I think your linking of being a feminist with not being smart is an insult and has no rational basis.

Storytelling is part of being human in most languages and cultures and there are many great stories to be found all over the world. Limiting our intake to the literary canon  and what is available in the "west" is rather narrow-minded.

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Walter Sickert: a conversation by Virginia Woolf

 

This is a pamphlet/essay on the painter Walter Sickert. It is in the form of a dinner party conversation. It is a discussion about painting, about colour and about the links between painting and writing; most specifically about Sickert’s painting. The conversation implies that Sickert is a literary painter and the painting now in the Tate Gallery entitled Ennui is given as an example;

“You remember the picture of the old publican, with his glass on the table before him and a cigar gone cold at his lips, looking out of his shrewd little pig’s eyes at the intolerable wastes of desolation in front of him? A fat woman lounges, her arm on a cheap yellow chest of drawers, behind him. It is all over with them, one feels. The accumulated weariness of innumerable days has discharged its burden on them. They are buried under an avalanche of rubbish. In the street beneath, the trams are squeaking, children are shrieking. Even now somebody is tapping his glass impatiently on the bar counter. She will have to bestir herself; to pull her heavy indolent body together and go and serve him. The grimness of that situation lies in the fact that there is no crisis; dull minutes are mounting, old matches are accumulating and dirty glasses and dead cigars; still on they must go, up they must get.

Painting as realist novel. Sickert described himself as a realist painter. Woolf draws some parallels between the two;

“Let us hold painting by the hand a moment longer, for though they must part in the end, painting and writing have much to tell each other; they have much in common.”

Woolf looks at the strengths of each medium. As Hermoine Lee points out;

“…there is a ‘silent land’ which painters go into where they are talking about blocks of colour and textures and shapes, where the writers can’t follow. She is wistful about that silent land. She’d quite like to go there, but she has to use words.”

Woolf goes on to argue that painting (colour) is more transient and primitive than writing (narrative).

It is an interesting essay and I assumed at first, an insubstantial one, but interestingly when Hermione Lee was asked by one interviewer to recommend five works by Woolf she picked this along with To The Lighthouse, The Years, On Being Ill and Selected Diaries.

8 out of 10

Starting Cullum by E. Arnot Robertson

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Frankie I love how you argued the authors I named but did not mention Simone. She's also European and white by the way but it seems that because she is a woman, she was given a pass. Thx for proving my point.

 

Oh, that's only indicative of the fact that I'm not a great debator. That's not to say that I've proven any point of yours. Simone de Beauvoir was a white female European who was in the right circle of people. Many of her friends were literary figures and academics, which I'm sure helped her in her career. That's not to say she wasn't an accomplished author in her own right. I've not read any of her works so I don't profess to know much about them. 

 

Also, it's not really relevant how many authors that write in Arabic I can mention. Replace "that write in Arabic" with "that write in Vietnamese" or Korean or "how many native american authors that are universally known and celebrated do you know" and you more or less get the same answer.

But that's my point exactly. Arabic and and Vietnamese and Korean languages all use differerent alphabets and not the Latin alphabet system. That alone, and the fact that they're not writing in English, Spanish, French or German, will make it harder for them to reach a wider reading audience. The canon audience.

 

Again, it's not about being white, black, male, female, European or African. Stop this, it's getting pathetic. It sounds like something I'd hear from a feminist on tumblr and not what I assume to be, read and smart people.

 

I don't mind discussing literature or other things and disagreeing with someone in general on here, but I don't like the way you get personal in tone when you're disagreeing with someone. 

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Again, it's not about being white, black, male, female, European or African. Stop this, it's getting pathetic. It sounds like something I'd hear from a feminist on tumblr and not what I assume to be, read and smart people. 

 

 

But that's exactly what it is about!

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Singin' and swingin' and gettin' merry like Christmas by Maya Angelou

 

This is the third of Maya Angelou’s series of autobiographies. It covers the years 1949 to 1955 when Angelou was in her 20s. It covers her forays into the world of work to support her son. Angelou marries a Greek sailor and she charts the course of the marriage until its end. There follows Angelou’s development as a singer and dancer, working in a variety of night clubs. Finally she tours Europe with a production of Porgy and Bess. It is well written and easy to read.

Race is still a central subject. Angelou recounts how she came to mix with whites who did not come from the South and her difficulties in trusting them. She notes the different forms racism takes in continental Europe where African Americans are welcomed and feted but Africans are treated in a similar way to African Americans in America.

Angelou’s love of music and dance shines through and is the thread that holds the whole together. The descriptions of bars and night clubs and those who work in them give a flavour of the times. The writing has a musicality to it; rooted in the blues. The touring company with Porgy and Bess provide some lively and amusing moments; amorous encounters, problems with hotels and travel and cultural misunderstandings.

Maya Angelou is immensely engaging and this is an autobiographical series well worth reading.

8 out of 10

 

Starting Daddy was a number runner by Louise Merriweather

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A pleasure Pixie!

 

The Ventriloquist's Tale by Pauline Melville

 

This won the Whitbread Award for first novel in 1997 and is set in Guyana. The narrative is in three parts; beginning in contemporary Guyana and then moving back for the major portion of the novel to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the final portion is back in modern day Guyana. The book follows one family over this period; there are elements of magic realism, not over-used. The novel is broad in scope and the themes are suitably sweeping, centring on the clash between Native American civilisation and culture and European culture. There is also the tension ever present between city (in the form of the capital Georgetown) and the bush, the jungle and savannah. There is also their colonists and their relationships with the Native Americans. In the early twentieth century the colonists are a Scottish freethinker, Alexander MacKinnon, who settles in a savannah village with two local women and begins a family; a Catholic priest, Father Napier determined to convert all the villages in the area and likes a coterie of young men around him; Evelyn Waugh, the novelist, visited Guyana and greatly disliked the Guyanese wilderness, writing a story and a novel using his experience. Melville does a bit of revenge taking here. The colonizers in the late twentieth century are a different breed. They tend to be academic researchers like Rosa Mendelson, in Guyana to research Waugh’s visit, who has an affair with Chofy MacKinnon, a descendant of Alexander and whose aunt Wifreda met Waugh. They are also represented by oil company operatives who are prospecting.

The novel is character driven and there are doomed love affairs, a long running battle between the superstitious and the rational, which neither side wins. The narrator is Macunaima, a ventriloquist and shape-shifter, who is not easily categorised:

“As for my ancestry, it is impeccable. I will have you know that I am descended from a group of stones in Ecuador. Where I come from people have long memories. Any one of us can recite our ancestry back for several hundred generations. I can listen to a speech for an hour and then repeat it back for you verbatim or backwards without notes. Writing things down has made you forget everything.”

“Grandmother swears by the story of the stones in Ecuador, although sometimes she might say Mexico or Venezuela for variety's sake -- variety being so much more important than truth in her opinion. More reliable, she says. Truth changes. Variety remains constant.”

The narrator is also located in the modern world:

“Rumbustious, irrepressible, adorable me. I have black hair, bronze skin and I would look wonderful in a cream suit with a silk handkerchief. Cigars? Yes. Dark glasses? Yes -- except that I do not wish to be mistaken for a gangster. A black felt fedora hat worn tipped forward? Possibly. A fast-driving BMW when I am in London? A Porsche for New York? A Range Rover to drive or a helicopter when I am flying over the endless savannah and bush of my own region? Yes. Yes. Yes.”

The narrator’s elusiveness is seen to be part of the cultural backdrop and I noted the influence of Wilson Harris, although Melville goes her own way and uses a basically linear sequence. The western interventions; even those with benign intentions, are disruptive. Harris has argued that the religious and cultural practices of Caribbean colonized peoples have been suppressed by colonial and post-colonial discourses and calls for a counter-discourse. In this novel Melville answers that call.

The novel is intoxicating and very well written. Salman Rushdie wrote;

“Pauline Melville writes with an unusually dispassionate lushness that is both intellectual and sensual … I believe her to be one of the few genuinely original writers to emerge in recent years”

There is a great deal to this novel, much more than one review can cover.

9 out of 10

 

Starting In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

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Fenwomen by Mary Chamberlain

 

History has always been my first love and so this book has a great appeal. It falls within the tradition of oral history and concerns the lives of women in the remote fenland village of Isleham. The fens are a very flat area of Eastern England, the part in Lincolnshire I am familiar with, this area in Cambridgeshire, much less so. This book also has the merit of being the first book published by virago in 1975.

It is a series of interviews with village women split into chapters about girlhood, school, marriage, work, religion, politics, recreation, outsiders and old age. The edition I have was published in 2009 with an updated introduction and some stunning photography. Mary Chamberlain was a member of the Women’s Report Collective and she had moved to Isleham in 1972. The idea was to look at the lives of women living in a fairly remote rural area and produce a feminist version of Akenfield. At the time it was felt that women’s history really did not exist and feminist historians had to pursue new courses and use new methods.

The result is a fascinating picture of the life of rural women in the early twentieth century. There is no rural idyll here; the women describe the poverty and isolation, the lack of opportunity in a harsh landscape. It is an excellent piece of work and if you are interested in this sort of history, a must read. Chamberlain lets the women speak for themselves and pulls the whole together very expertly.

9 out of 10

Starting Murder in the Dark by Margaret Attwood

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Murder in the Dark by Margaret Attwood

This is a collection of Attwood’s shorter fictions and some of it is very short pieces indeed; prose poems, or as one critic put in; flash fiction. There is quite a variety of fictions; childhood reminiscences, gender, men, some speculative fictions and food and cookery! These are more clearly feminist than some of Attwood’s other work.

There are several recurring motifs, one being; “Is this the man through whom all men can be forgiven?” The title piece “Murder in the Dark” is based on the childhood game and Attwood plays with it in quite a clever way. “Simmering” is a brilliant twist on gender relations where the men stay at home and do the chores and cooking and women go out to work. Inevitably the kitchen becomes the domain of men who become competitive about their recipes and the sharpness of their knives. So perhaps the issue with gender isn’t roles but rather the nature of men!

“Women’s novels is a clever analysis of the nature of male and female novels done in a satirical and amusing way in a series of brief vignettes;

“Men favour heroes who are tough and hard: tough with men, hard with women. Sometimes the hero goes soft on a woman but this is always a mistake. Women do not favour heroines who are tough and hard. Instead they have to be tough and soft. This leads to linguistic difficulties. Last time we looked, monosyllables were male, still dominant but sinking fast, wrapped in the octopoid arms of labial polysyllables, whispering to them with arachnoid grace: darling, darling.

“Happy Endings” takes a sideways look at plot and the problems and limitations the novelist has and is a delight to read. It starts from the simple premise “John and Mary meet. What happens next?” Then there are six outline plots which cover most of literature and finally a limiting end point: “John and Mary die?” Death being a limiting factor for most plots.

It’s clever and enjoyable and I think I like Attwood better in short form than long form.

8 out of 10

Starting The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

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Daddy was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether

 

This is Meriwether’s first novel and chronicles the lives of a poor black family in Harlem during the Depression in the 1930s. It is written from the point of view of Francie Coffin, the twelve year old daughter of the family. Although it is a novel there are elements of autobiography and the virago edition has an introduction by James Baldwin.

Meriwether is still active and has received an award for social activism in 2011, this is a flavour of her speech;

“I am a writer, and also a dedicated activist and peacenik. In New York City in my twenties I was chapter chairman of my union, marching in May Day Parades and having rotten eggs thrown at my head. In Los Angeles I was arrested in a sit-in against the racist Birch Society and sentenced to five years’ probation. In Bogalusa Louisiana I worked with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); back in New York I was instrumental in keeping Muhammad Ali, then world's heavyweight champion, from fighting in South Africa and breaking a cultural boycott. In Washington, D.C., I was arrested in 2002 in a protest against the disastrous policies of the World Bank and the IMF. Back in New York I was active in several forums breaking the silence about the rampant rape in the Congo and the multinational corporations and countries involved. Last year I helped set up a forum at Riverside Church on the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons.”

It takes place over the period of about a year, 1934-1935, it is located in a particular time as the Joe Louis/Max Baer fight takes place during the novel. Francine is a very engaging narrator, which is just as well because the story is one of an unremitting struggle against poverty and injustice. Francie has the usual twelve year old concerns about family, friends and school. But there is the backdrop of little work, occasional riots and the humiliation of welfare. There are also the numbers, an illegal type of lottery and Francine’s father is a small cog in this, being a number runner. Francine also has to cope with routine sexual harassment from assorted adults; shopkeepers, men in the cinema and others. There is little choice for any of those growing up; for the boys it’s either gangs or poorly paid menial work if there was any work, for the girls prostitution, marriage and babies or laundry/cleaning work.

It is a powerful and brilliant evocation of a time and place; portraying the ups and downs of everyday life; the characterization is also very good. Baldwin sums it up well:

shhhhhhh, says Francine, sitting on the stoop as the book ends, looking outward at the land of the free, and trying, with one thin bony black hand to stem the blood which is beginning to rush from a nearly mortal wound. That monosyllable resounds all over this country, all over the world: it is a judgement on this civilization rendered the more implacable by being delivered by a child. The mortal wound is not physical, the book, so far from being a melodrama, is very brilliantly understated. The wound is the wound made upon the recognition that one is regarded as a worthless human being.”

Well worth reading.

9 out of 10

 

Starting The Long Song by Andrea Levy

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The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

 

I have a sort of annual ritual at this time of year, when I read Susan Hill’s latest ghostly offering and this year is no exception. This time Hill has produced four short stories; The Travelling Bag, Boy Number Twenty-one, Alice Baker and The Front Room. Hill is a ghost story writer in the traditional mode; she concentrates on the psychological aspects of those involved rather than blood, gore and non-stop action. They concern everyday life and everyday occurrences.

In my opinion the quality of these stories is variable. The second two being better than the first two.

The title story concerns a psychic private investigator spinning a yarn at his London club and is set in the Victorian era. An eminent physician develops a debilitating illness and his assistant steals his work. The tale concerns betrayal, revenge, a travelling bag, a few moths (well, a lot of moths) and the upshot of the revenge with a nice twist. It is a bit of a pastiche of other stories in the genre, but betrayal and revenge are universal.

Boy Number Twenty-One is the least convincing story. It is about a solitary boy at a boarding school who finds a friend when a new boy arrives. The boy’s sudden disappearance and reappearance are not really explained and the plot becomes rather clunky.

With Alice Baker we move into more modern territory and the setting is an office and we are in the 1950s or 1960s. A new office worker sets in motion an unusual chain of events. Part of the building tension relates to an olfactory illusion/phenomenon. There is a small twist towards the end which doesn’t really fit with the rest of the story, but the tension does build well and there is an interesting exploration of someone at the margins of society.

The Front Room is set in modern times and is pure wicked stepmother fairy tale with wicked stepmother well in the ascendant. The “let’s be good to everyone liberals” don’t come out of this well; an act of kindness is repaid in a way which is very unpleasant and goodness does not overcome evil. A rather pessimistic reflection on our own times.

This collection was certainly better than last year’s offering and a couple of the stories are pretty good.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting The Fat Black Woman's Poems by Grace Nichols

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