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Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

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Starting the year with the following on the go

 

Felix Holt by George Eliot

Coercive Control by Evan Stark

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Cullum by E. Arnot Robertson

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Fat Black Woman's Poems by Grace Nichols

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That is a lot of books to have on the go. I think I would get confused between them! :o

 

I recently read The Long Song. From what I recall, I enjoyed it but thought it tapered off towards the end. Is this your first Levy? I can also recommend Small Island if you haven't already read it.

 

Have a great reading year in 2017. :smile:

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Happy Reading in 2017 ! :D

 

I have The Finkler Question in my TBR ; looking forward to that review and - as Anna says - all your other great reviews. :) 

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Thank you Anna, Bobbly, Pixie, Frankie and Athena. I hope you all have great reading years as well.

 

The Fat Black Woman's Poems by Grace Nichols

 

I do make periodic efforts to read more poetry and I’m already a fan of Grace Nichols, having read another collection of her poetry and a novel. Nichols is Guyanese and her poetry reflects Caribbean culture and rhythms. These poems have more playfulness and humour than some of Nichols other works. Nevertheless they make serious points:

“Shopping in London winter
is a real drag for the fat black woman
going from store to store
in search of accommodating clothes
and de weather so cold
Look at the frozen thin mannequins
fixing her with grin
and de pretty face salesgals
exchanging slimming glances
thinking she don’t notice
Lord is aggravating
Nothing soft and bright and billowing
to flow like breezy sunlight
when she walking
The fat black woman curses in Swahili/Yoruba
and nation language under her breathing
all this journeying and journeying
The fat black woman could only conclude
that when it come to fashion
the choice is lean
Nothing much beyond size 14”

Nichols is obviously questioning the traditional aesthetic concerning female beauty and creating a non-conforming heroine. The title of the book immediately raises three social stereotypes; fat, black and female. Nichols also considers the role of female labour as the poems move between Britain and the Caribbean;

 The daily going out

and coming in

always being hurried along

like like ... cattle 

In the evenings

returning from the fields

she tried hard

to walk like a woman 

(...) 

O but look

there’s a waterpot growing

from her head

 

These portrayals of women are not monolithic and there is a nuanced exploration of female identity, but all of the poems have a great vitality about them because of the way Nichols expresses herself. She describes her own purpose in writing this:

“Although The Fat Black Women's [sic] Poems came out of a sheer sense of fun of having a fat black woman doing exactly as she pleases, at the same time she brings into being a new image--one that questions the acceptance of the "thin" European model as the ideal figure of beauty. The Fat Black Woman is a universal figure, slipping from one situation to the other, taking a satirical, tongue-in-cheek look at the world”

 

And

 

“The fact that, I mean, all of our cultural "things" were denigrated and looked down upon while the European "things" were the ones celebrated in every way, even in terms of physical beauty. So there is always going to be that tension because some of these things still exist even today. So some of your writing will be a kind of reaction against that, impacting against it and at other times there is synthesis.

 

The fat black woman

    remembers her Mama

    and them days of playing

    the Jovial Jemima

    tossing pancakes

    to heaven

    in smokes of happy hearty

                        murderous blue laughter

    Starching and cleaning

    O yes scolding and wheedling

    pressing little white heads

    against her big-aproned breasts

    seeing down to the smallest fed/

    feeding her own children on Satanic bread

    But this fat black woman ain't no Jemima

    Sure thing Honey/Yeah

 

Again here there is a warmth, but it is also satire as it reflects on a US advert for pancakes from the mid-century.  

 

This is a good collection of poetry and Nichols makes her points with great grace and humour.

9 out of 10

Starting Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

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frankie   

What an interesting poetry book! Something I would find easily approachable and entertaining! I'm Caucasian but I can certainly relate to some of the things, not being a thin beauty in any general terms :D Thanks for the review, I'll keep an eye out for this :) 

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Thanks Frankie and Pixie; she's well worth looking out for; I read another of her collections about a year ago.

 Cullum by E Arnot Robertson

 

This is Robertson’s first novel and was published in 1928 when she was 24 and is another virago read. The theme is obsessive love; the sort that happens the first time someone falls in love and finds it all-consuming. The protagonist is 19 year old Esther Sieveking, a country girl who lives in rural Surrey with her father and sister. Her father trains difficult horses and Esther is also a keen rider and hunter; with aspirations to write and be literary. Esther is a bright, intelligent and initially likeable character and her beloved object is Cullum Hayes a writer a little older than she is. He is charming, attractive and intelligent and treats Esther as his equal. He is also unable to help himself moving from one woman to next; completely sincere in announcing his undying love as he had to the previous.

Cullum was considered by some reviewers to be a little risqué and outspoken and Robertson’s powers of observation are quite sharp at times, such as when Esther first meets Cullum at a dinner party and she manages to outrage her hosts:

“Mrs. Cole enquired with a simulated shudder of horror whether that huge dog of mine had ever bitten anyone. "I was petrified when the creature rushed for me," she said. "Simply petrified, I was!"

"Justice is too old and fat and good-natured to hurt a fly," I told her, "unless she sat on it by mistake."

"What a curious name for a dog," Mr. Cole observed. "Why do you call him 'Justice'?"

"Justice isn't a 'him,' but a bitch," I answered without thinking. "Originally her name was Sheila, but she's called Justice because she has had so many miscarriages."

There was a moment of heavy, tense silence, before Mrs. Cole said, "Oh, really?" in a forced voice”

There are several contradictions which are reflected in Robertson’s own life; she was a writer, film critic, radio and early TV personality and yet she felt a woman had need of a man; taking her own life following her husband’s death. The end of the novel is very melodramatic, overly so and I found it unconvincing.

The novel does have psychological depth and Robertson’s exploration of first, obsessive love is interesting. She pushed boundaries and this description of Cullum was, for the day, unusual:

“Cullum, stripped, was an unusually fine human creature. His body was one of those entirely beautiful things whose loveliness hurts. He was lithe, and the moulding of the long arms, lean and muscle-grooved, was splendid. Wide shoulders tapered down to narrow hips, set over narrow, deep thighs, and his fair skin held an almost transparent sheen.”

One reviewer comments:

“It is all very well to be outspoken, but there are some things which are better left unsaid and Cullum is full of them.”

There are discordant notes, which remind you of the class system in 1920s England, such as the scene where Esther is determined to ride one of her father’s more dangerous horses and threatens the groom (who she has known all her life) with the sack unless he helps.

There are parts of this which irritate and delight in equal measure.

 

6 and a half out of 10

Starting She Done Him Wrong by Mae West

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Thank you Chrissy

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

 

 

This is a series of lectures by Toni Morrison focussing on literary criticism and American literature. Morrison discusses the “Africanist” presence in classic American literature. She analyses how the sense of whiteness, freedom, individualism and manhood depends on a black presence and population and also reacts to it; and projects fears and emotions onto it.

Morrison turns her eye onto Poe, Twain, Cather, Melville and Hemingway and does it very effectively. She looks at Jim in Huckleberry Finn, Wesley in To Have and Have Not and Nancy in Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, amongst others. The silent unnamed figures are also considered.

Her considerations are very telling and the analysis of To Have and Have Not sheds new light on what Hemingway was doing and how he perceived maleness and whiteness. Morrison has talked about the pervasive influence of race:

“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There is always one more thing.”

The focus here of course is on the white literary imagination and how it manages, controls and silences anything that is other, but particularly African Americans. Morrison provides a way of critiquing the literary canon. The arguments are succinct and nuanced, but this is an easy read and quite focussed. The scope is narrow, but these are lectures and have that feel about them. Morrison’s insights are original and interesting. This is worth reading for the analysis of Hemingway alone.

8 out of 10

Starting Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera

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In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

 

This is my first foray into Bruce Chatwin. I have always been wary of travel writing of a certain type when it drifts into literary colonialism. It is too easy for wealthy white travellers to go to foreign lands in search of the interesting and exotic.

There is a good deal of myth surrounding Chatwin and even this book. The whole books starts and finishes with a fossilised piece of skin which Chatwin says he remembers from his childhood. Family myth said it was from a dinosaur, but in actuality it was from a Giant Sloth. It was found by a relative of Chatwin’s in Patagonia and he had always wanted to go there. The book is divided into very short chunks, 97 of them in total; Chatwin described the structure in artistic terms as cubist. It isn’t a traditional travel narrative as it is quite disconnected. Chatwin gave up his job with a newspaper to go to Patagonia and left in 1974; allegedly sending a telegram of explanation to his editor simply saying “Gone to Patagonia”.

A recurring theme of Chatwin’s writing is the nomadic life and this is no exception. What Chatwin does do is spend a good deal of time recounting tales of those who have left their mark on Patagonia; mainly European types who settled there in the nineteenth century. He visits the Welsh community and remnants of communities from other European nations. Chatwin chases up those who remembered these characters, now often very old. He also has an interest for significant events like strikes and riots and those who recall them. This leaves the reader wondering about the Patagonia of the time which Chatwin appears to neglect. He does have the ability to describe the backdrop well and there are compelling accounts of the landscape.

What we don’t know is whether this is meant to be fact or fiction. Many of those Chatwin spoke to complained bitterly that he had misrepresented them or even lied; Chatwin admitted that he rearranged events and conflated characters. There is a little travelogue, but there is as much myth and history. This makes the whole less easy to define. The reader discovers very little about Chatwin himself and how he relates to those he meets. There are plenty of cowboy myths (Butch Cassidy et al) and tall tales and I did wonder what was the point of travelling just to look for traces of people from Europe and the US.

This is not really about the people of Patagonia and especially not about the indigenous peoples who Chatwin ridicules in numerous stories. Their oppression and persecution seemed of little moment to Chatwin. I was left wondering what the point of it all was and on reflection I much preferred Patrick Leigh Fermor.

5 out of 10

Starting Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf

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The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

 

What to make of this? It was a Booker winner in 2010. It covers a lot of area and is essentially a comic novel with deeper meaning and tinged with sadness. There are three main protagonists; Sam Finkler (a journalist and TV pundit), Julian Treslove, an old school friend and former BBC employee (now Brad Pitt lookalike) and Libor Sevcik; a former teacher and friend. Finkler and Treslove are about 50; Finkler and Sevcik are Jewish. Treslove thinks of all Jews as Finklers, hence the title.

The book is about what it is to be Jewish in 21st century Britain, but it is also about the great debates about Israel and the holocaust; not to mention being male and having a mid-life crisis, bereavement and losing a partner, fidelity and betrayal and friendship. Finkler and Libor have recently lost their wives, although Finkler has always had mistresses and continues in this mode. Treslove has a somewhat chequered history with women and cannot work out why women never seem to want to stay with him. The book takes as its starting point a dinner the three have to mark that they are all now alone. On the way home Treslove is mugged by a woman. She says something to him whilst relieving him of his valuables, which sounds to him like “You Ju”. Treslove then becomes obsessed with being Jewish and all it entails.

Although there are moments that are quite funny and Jacobsen does have a mordant wit and a good line in satire and self-deprecation, the whole did not work for me. One of the problems is that sometimes Jacobson does not know when to stop; he stretches an idea out until it is overdone, this is a description of Treslove:

He was a man who ordinarily woke to a sense of loss. He could not remember a single morning of his life when he had woken to a sense of possession. When there was nothing palpable he could reproach himself for having lost, he found the futility he needed in world affairs or sport. A plane had crashed—it didn’t matter where. An eminent and worthy person had been disgraced—it didn’t matter how. The English cricket team had been trounced—it didn’t matter by whom. Since he didn’t follow or give a fig for sport, it was nothing short of extraordinary that his abiding sense of underachievement should have found a way to associate itself with the national cricket team’s. He did the same with tennis, with footballers, with boxers, with snooker players even. When a fly and twitchy south Londoner called Jimmy White went into the final session of the World Snooker Championship seven frames ahead with eight to play and still managed to end the night a loser, Treslove retired to his bed a beaten man and woke broken-hearted.

There is a streak of nastiness present as well. The character of Tamara Krausz is a very thinly disguised Jacqueline Rose (a feminist psychoanalyst who is very critical of Zionism, whilst being Jewish herself). This is how she is described;

never appeared in public looking anything other than an executive of a fashion consultancy, at once businesslike and softly feminine…a woman whose quiet authority commanded respect not only in England but in America and the Middle East, wherever anti-Zionists—Finkler would not have gone so far as to say anti-Semites—were gathered. “

Finkler imagines what would happen if they ended up in bed together;

“He knew what would happen if by some mischance or mutual misunderstanding they ended up in bed together and she screamed the dialectic of her anti-Zionism in his ear—he would come into her six or seven times and then kill her. Slice off her tongue and then slit through her throat. “

I know this is imagination, but it still feels like Patrick Bateman territory.

There are other examples, as when Finkler is out with a mistress, here is a description of her;

“Other than her décolletage, which was bigger than she was, there was little to observe on Ronit Kravitz’s person. Under the table she wore high-heeled shoes with diamantes on them, but these were not visible. And though her hair was a beautiful blue-black, catching light from the chandeliers, it too, like every eye, fell into the boundless golden chasm which she carried before her as a proud disabled person carries an infirmity. The Manawatu Gorge was how Finkler thought of it when he wasn’t in love with her, as he wasn’t in love with her now. “

There was too much of this, to go along with the philosophizing and the debates about what it is to be Jewish today. There is plenty to spark debate;

How dare you, a non Jew -- and I have to say it impresses me not at all that you grew up in awe of Jewish ethics, if anything your telling me so chills me -- how dare you even think you can tell Jews what sort of country they may live in, when it is you, a European Gentile, who made a separate country for Jews a necessity? ... Only from a world from which Jews believe they have nothing to fear will they consent to learn lessons in humility. Until then, the Jewish state's offer of safety to Jews the world over -- yes, Jews first -- while it might not be equitable cannot sanely be construed as racist

Jacobson reflects all sides of the debate, but there is a certain irony about reflecting on Anti-Semitism whilst perpetuating stereotypes about gender and disability. This was also too long and the last couple of hundred pages wandered a little. Despite most of the critics raving about this I really didn’t like it.

3 out of 10

 

Starting The Drowned World by J G Ballard

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She Done Him Wrong by Mae West

 

I never realised Mae West was a writer, but she wrote several novels and plays. This started life as a stage play, then became the film of the same name (co-starring a very young Cary Grant) and also this novel; now republished by virago. West’s life is well documented as is her persona and the famous one-liners (and there are plenty in the novel). West started on the stage from an early age and left school at 12. Her experience was gained in Vaudeville and music hall performing all sorts of guises including a male impersonator. Eventually West began to pen her own material, which was often risqué and frequently got her into trouble and even jail (ten days for “corrupting the morals of youth” in 1927 for the content of her first play). Her first play was entitled Sex and later she wrote The Drag which considered homosexuality and cross-dressing; West was a long standing supporter of gay rights.

West was renowned for her one liners (“Climbing the career ladder wrong by wrong”, “Between two evils I always pick the one I never tried before” to name two that are not quite as well known) and the novel is full of them. The plot is very similar to the 1933 film when West played the main character Diamond Lil. Diamond Lil is a woman who measures her men by how many diamonds they can give her. The physical description of her very much matches that of West herself. Her lover has been jailed for theft and she has moved her attentions to Gus Jordan (this is set in New York in the 1890s) who is well off, owns a bar and has a number of shady business interests. Jordan also has political ambitions, but a toxic secret in that he is part of a group who sends (sells) women into prostitution in South America. There are plenty of others around who would like to depose Jordan. In all of this mix is a Salvation Army captain; Captain Cummings who Lil finds that she is rather attracted to. The police are also alleged to have someone undercover and Lil’s ex-lover breaks out of jail vowing revenge. Stage set for lots of mayhem.

This is not what you would call a literary masterpiece, but it reads very easily. Although there is a certain neatness and predictability about it, there are some twists along the way. West writes quite openly about Lil’s motivations. She isn’t in love with any of her man; she uses them for what they can give her without sentimentality. Even when she seems to fall for the Salvation Army captain, you can sense her winking over her shoulder. When she briefly enjoys a fling with a young Brazilian paramour she quite happily writes about a moment of “exploding stars and bursting suns”. The is a down to earth zest for life here which is refreshing; West and her protagonist both had to learn how to make their way in a very masculine world.

7 out of 10

 

Starting Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker

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Felix Holt by George Eliot

 

One of the least read of Eliot’s novels; sitting in the middle of her output. I found it had a surprising resonance for today. It was published in 1866 but was set in the time of the Great Reform Act in 1832, when the vote was extended (not by much, the electorate increasing from about 500,000 to just over 800,000). As Eliot was writing the Second Reform Act was being promulgated. The landed classes and aristocracy were bringing on board some of the wealthier middle classes.

The plot centres around an election in a Midlands town in 1832; probably modelled on Eliot’s home town Nuneaton; the riot in the book is very like the one in Nuneaton in 1832. The voices of the Tory side are as you would predict. On the other side is Harold Transome, a wealthy landowner just returned from abroad a widower with a son. He returns to find his estate is causing some concern and shocks his mother and friends by announcing he is standing as a Radical. Felix Holt is an educated, but poor Radical who has also returned from journeying (in Scotland) to stay with his mother and work as a watch repairer. Meanwhile the Rev. Rufus Lyon (a dissenting minister) and his step-daughter Esther make up the other main protagonists. There develops a sort of legal and electoral thriller with some twists relating to birth and inheritance and a significant riot on Election Day. Inevitably there is a love triangle involving Esther, Felix and Transome and Eliot works it all out in an interesting way. All the lawyers are corrupt and self-serving and true to type. The working class characters are a little less convincing.

There are some interesting lines of thought. Eliot looks at the situation of older women in the form of Mrs Transome and Mrs Holt, the mothers of the male protagonists. Both feel helpless in the face of their strong-minded sons who barely tolerate them: Contrast the very sympathetic relationship between Esther and her father, Rev. Lyon.

Another major theme is of course political change and the book (often in the form of Holt) asks difficult questions. Does the electorate always get things right? That brings us straight to the US and UK today! The political landscape in the novel is out of joint and all are aware of it and there is a good deal of anger at the grassroots level, often without direction. Holt himself is not arguing for extending the franchise; he believes in gaining power for the working class by building a movement from the bottom based on education. Partial change at the top was no change. Holt, of course was right, as there was now a larger electorate to bribe, so you had to be even richer to enter politics.

Of course there is a love story going on, but I was much more interested in the parallels with Trump and Brexit.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Albertine by Jacqueline Rose

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Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera

 

I read The Stone Virgins last year and was so impressed that I decided that this one should not be too far behind. I think Vera is an important and under read writer; for a bit of background, follow this link;

https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writers/

This novel is set in Bulawayo; Vera’s home town, in the late 1940s. It concerns a young woman called Phephelaphi who lives with an older man, Fumbatha, a construction worker. They live in one room; concrete and asbestos. Phephelaphi, however, is not satisfied with just being and has ambitions to be a nurse; this is beyond Fumbatha’s comprehension. The language is lyrical and poetic, the whole is beautifully written. It could be argued that the poetic language makes some of the difficult and challenging passages less sharp. However I think the poetic language adds to the power of the writing.

It is important not to forget that this is set within the context of colonialism and an Imperial power occupying Zimbabwe. We see early on a hanging in 1896; Fumbatha’s father and the effects of this can be charted throughout the book. Vera, though, focuses on gender because women have to fight for their own space and bodies; but there is a backdrop of a lack of employment and social cohesion. Portraying the African nation as feminine is not new; as Grace Musila points out:

nationalist discourses constituted the African nation as the feminine victim of an aggressive colonial master; the prostitute’s body became a convenient index for the degraded postcolonial nation

Vera is reacting against this; Phephelaphi resists the appropriation of her own body. Vera is concerned in all her work about the role of women in colonial and post-colonial contexts; looking at “women in the shadows”. At one level we are looking at the outworking of a universal storyline. A possessive man unable to allow his partner to develop and be herself for fear of losing her. Vera refracts the story through the prism of colonialism. This is clear from the beginning;

“In the air the sound of a sickle cutting grass along the roadside where black men bend their backs in the sun and hum a tune, and fume, and lullaby”; and its Kwela music—”Kwela means to climb into the waiting police Jeeps. This word alone has been fully adapted to do marvelous things. It can carry so much more than a word should be asked to carry; rejection, distaste, surrender, envy. And full desire.”

And in relation to the setting, Bulawayo;

“Bulawayo is not a city of idleness. The idea is to live within the cracks. Unnoticed and unnoticeable, offering every service but with the capacity to vanish when the task required is accomplished. So the black people learn how to move through the city with speed and due attention, to bow their heads down and slide past walls, to walk without making the shadow more pronounced than the body or the body clearer than the shadow. It means leaning against some masking reality—they lean on walls, on lies, on music”

Indeed Fumbatha feels that Phephelaphi’s need for more than him is a compromise with colonialism;

“Fumbatha does not encourage her, instead, he reminds her of what they share. “We are happy together. I work. I take care of you. It is not necessary for you to find something else.” He insists on her unwavering loyalty. He mistrusts the city which does not understand the sort of triumph a man and a woman can find and share in their solitude. Does no one know that he is willing to die on the palm of Phephelaphi’s hand?”

The backdrop of the rhythms of Kwela music link to the rhythms of liberation. The shocking ending embodies another type of liberation. There is a cathartic quality about it all and this is a powerful novel.

8 out of 10

Starting One Hundred Shadows by Jung Yewon

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The Long Song by Andrea Levy

 

Following on from Small Island; this is another historical novel and this time Levy looks at her Jamaican roots charting the last days of slavery on the island. It is narrated by July, a former slave, and starts about 1831 the time of what was known as the Baptist revolt and goes to the end of slavery in the late 1830s. July is telling her story in old age whilst she is living with her son Thomas. The novel is the story of her early life on a plantation called Amity. Although narrated by July, it is edited by Thomas and there is a periodic interplay between the two which sometimes gives the story a slightly odd feel.

July describes herself as a mulatto; her father was white, an overseer and raped her mother. She was taken from her mother whilst still young to become the pet and then lady’s maid to Caroline Mortimer, the vapid and foolish sister of the plantation owner. A new overseer, Robert Goodwin, arrives with good intentions and a Christian upbringing. He intends to show that following slavery the plantation can be managed on humane lines. The charting of his downfall on several levels is fascinating. He ends up being just as cruel as his predecessors. The story is weaved around actual historical events.

The telling of any story of slavery is going to be difficult and will contain horrors; and this certainly does. However, the character of July is irrepressible and injects a strong comic element into the novel. There is always a question here as to whether July is an entirely reliable narrator. This and the humour counterpoised with the background of slavery makes for an unusual feel. The humour is Pythonesque at times; at the same time reviewers have also described it as a Comedy of Manners. There is also a touch of Upstairs/Downstairs about it as we see the two worlds; slaves and masters running parallel.

The Jamaican setting gives a rather different feel to the American novels about slavery. In Jamaica the white population was very small and relative newcomers. This led to relationships on the plantations shifting in different ways; with both sides having the ability to harm each other.

This is a good novel with some well-drawn characters (especially July); it doesn’t, for me have the power of books like Beloved and there are irritations with the structure. Nevertheless it is well worth reading for its particular focus on the women in the story.

7 and a half out of 10

 

Starting The hope Chest by Rukhsana Ahmad

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I enjoyed The Long Song when I read it last year, thought I felt the ending went off in a different direction to the rest of the story. Is this the first Levy you have read?

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Bobbly; I've read Small Island, and I enjoyed this one better I think.

 

The Drowned World by J G Ballard

 

Ballard wrote this dystopian novel in the early 1960s, but it is still resonant today and it deals with a drastic increase in temperature on the earth; it is set in 2145. The premise is fairly simple; temperatures have greatly increased and the polar icecaps melted; temperatures around the equator can reach well over 150 degrees. Most life is centred on the polar areas. Jungle proliferates and evolution has goes into overdrive with some insects, reptiles and plants developing and changing very quickly. Great banks of silt have also developed with great lagoons surrounded by jungle. At the start of the book a team of scientists and military personnel are studying a series of lagoons set in jungle over what was the city of London; which is many feet below the lagoons.

The main character is Robert Kerans, a biologist. He has moved up from the makeshift camp to the top floor of the Ritz, the top floors being above water. He spends time with two others in particular; Dr Bodkin (a scientist) and Beatrice Dahl who is rather reclusive and has taken the top floor of another hotel. There are plenty of descriptions of heat and exotic wildlife. A number of members of the staff start to get dreams which seem to draw them to the sun and the south and which seem to point to a collective unconscious and impulses which go back to prehistoric times. Obviously Ballard is playing with Jungian ideas about the unconscious.

Kerans, Bodkin and Dahl remain when the main party leaves and they continue to lead a fairly solitary existence. This is disrupted when a large boat arrives captained by Strangman; a white man, dressed all in white, with an all black crew. Strangman is dangerous and unpredictable. Some high jinks ensue, but the primeval instincts are strong. I thought I had laid Heart of Darkness to rest last year; but here we are again!! Ballard has denied being influenced by it, but it’s clearly there for all to see. It is also possible that the influence is early H G Wells, as Conrad was also influenced by Wells; novels such as The Time Machine. The main characters are also like time travellers transported back to primeval times. Although the contrast here is different to Heart of Darkness where the jungle is threatening and other. Here the impulse is to return to the jungle, the primeval home.

There are links to Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe and Strangman can be seen as a parody of Crusoe. Strangman is looting the treasures of the submerged city. Water and the sea are potent symbols here and Ballard puts words from Eliot’s The Waste Land (Death by Water) into Strangman’s mouth;

There's nothing much left now—I can tell you, I sometimes feel like Phlebas the Phoenician. Though that's really your role, isn't it?

A current under sea

Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell

He passed the stages of his age and youth

Entering the whirlpool."

Strangman also quotes Donne (Eliot was a great promoter of Donne) and alludes to the following;

“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

Ballard makes reference to a number of other works; Camus, Kierkegaard, Ulysses and Homer to name a few. There are elements of the Grail Quest as well. There sometimes seems to be an element of, to adapt a rather British saying, throwing in everything including the kitchen sink.

It’s clever stuff and Ballard’s vision is very prescient. It is also well written and the impulse is to move back into the Darkness as if going back to the womb or back to primeval impulses. However we still have a white man in charge of a ship with a crew of black men dancing to his tune. Perhaps we have not moved on so far after all. That really irritated me.

5 and a half out of 10

Starting Philip Larkin by Andrew Motion

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One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun

 

My first foray into Korean literature, and a very positive one from tilted axis press (look them up). It is set in Seoul in a rundown electronics market which is scheduled for demolition. The book revolves around Eungyo and Mujae; who have both dropped out of school and are working as repair shop assistants. They develop a friendship which the novel follows. This is a novel about the underside of modern life and about the urban poor. The prose is spare and lyrical, but doesn’t fall into the trap of heavy realism that this type of tale can be prone to. As one reviewer says:

“Hwang perceptively portrays the pain of those living in a space that cannot possibly be represented by the word “slum,” a space always in danger of falling into ruin. She illustrates the fiery trace of lives that cannot be compensated for, and life’s suffering that cannot be converted into money.”

Eungyo and Mujae take centre stage and the dire social conditions are illustrated by their surroundings. Hwang often focuses on the minutiae of everyday life, little details which tell the reader a great deal. Added to this is a touch of what might be described as magic realism. The workers in the market have begun to notice that their shadows have started to rise and to act independently of their owners, tempting them to follow. This is generally seen as a bad thing and if you start to follow your shadow then things will not go well:

“If you spot someone who looks just like you, it’s your shadow, and once your shadow rises it’s over for you, because shadows are very persistent, because you can’t bear not to follow your shadow once it’s risen.”

The symbolism here seems to revolve around people being at the end of what they can endure. Some reviewers have noted a connection between the shadows and the merciless post-industrial society with its barrenness and fragility. It is set in a recognizable world and there is humour here as well; the description of the beaten up old care that Eungyo and Mujae go for a drive in and the descriptions of travelling in it are very funny and did remind me of some of the old wrecks I used to drive!

Hwang also describes the food being eaten with great care and precision and some of the run down cafes serving it. But we still come back to the shadows:

“I saw a shadow in the woods. I didn’t know it was a shadow at first. I saw it slip through a thicket and followed it in, wondering if there was a path there, and thinking how familiar it looked. The woods grew more dense the deeper I went in, but I kept on going deeper and deeper because the deeper I went, the more the shadow drew me in.”

Although there is an air of the fantastical about it, it is balanced by realism. Hwang resists various temptations; Eungyo and Mujae remain as friends and the book is the stronger for it. Hwang holds the reader’s attention and the whole is rather good with no easy answers or platitudes.

 

8 out of 10

Starting Ship Shape by Dorothea Smartt

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Thanks Bobbly

 

Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker

 

This is one of Pat Barker’s earlier novels written early in the 1980s. Barker does not shy away from difficult subjects and tackles two in this novel and takes an essentially Marxist approach to her subjects. It is set in the North-East of England and centres on the lives of a group of prostitutes and their lives. There is another aspect to the backdrop; there is a serial killer at work who is killing prostitutes (this is based on the Yorkshire Ripper murders). In other hands this sounds like the worst type of crime novel; but this is Pat Barker and this is a powerful piece of writing and she focuses strongly on the strength of a community of women.

The first part of the novel focuses on Brenda and later an older prostitute called Kath, who befriended Brenda when she was younger. Kath is murdered at the end of the first part. Part two is about the growth of a climate of fear and considers Jean. Jean’s relationship with her lover Carol, another prostitute is explored. Carol is also murdered by the serial killer operating in the area. Jean develops the idea that she can stop the serial killer by picking him up and killing him herself and this idea develops in part three. The final part explores some loose ends and tells the story of a woman who survives an attack, but is seriously hurt, Maggie, a worker at the local chicken factory. She is not a prostitute, but is treated as one by the police at first. The book ends by describing her period of recuperation.

Barker’s approach is not a traditional one. There are lots of layers and meanings. It is important to know that chicken is slang for prostitute as the local chicken factory is the backdrop for the whole novel and most of the women have worked there at one time or another and Maggie, whose story is told at the end of the book is a worker at the factory. Barker takes the time to describe what happens to the chickens in the factory; blood, feathers, evisceration and the general messiness; with the chicken ready for the shops at the end. The fate of the chickens is linked to the fate of the women and there is a cyclical pattern to both; women’s live being bounded by class, gender and place.

The decision to be a prostitute here is purely economic; Barker puts these words in Jean’s mouth;

“I like this life. I’m not in it because I’m a poor, deprived, inadequate, half-witted woman, whatever some people might like to think, I’m in it because it suits me, I like the company, I like the excitement. I like the feeling of stepping out onto the street, not knowing what’s going to happen or who I’m going to meet. I like the freedom. I like being able to decide when I’m going to work. I like being able to take the day off without being answerable to anybody.”

It is not about sex; that is a necessary chore. Prostitution is portrayed as just another job, like working in the factory. They know the nature of the men they deal with and know they will get no support from the police. There is a point in the book when the women realise the police have stopped bothering them and are using them as bait for the killer.

Barker is not afraid to look at the darkness, the unlit corners and the horror facing her characters. In doing so she also creates very strong, complex and believable women who resist society’s patriarchal assumptions. This is as much about female identity as anything else, from a particular viewpoint. It works well and makes it arguments very powerfully. The ending is left a little open and there is a couple of plot lines which the reader may be uncertain about, but that adds to the whole. Not for the squeamish, but Barker creates characters that the reader cares about and delineates the ways in which they struggle for identity and agency.

 

9 out of 10

Starting Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

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Ship Shape by Dorothea Smartt

 

A well written and put together book of poetry. Dorothea Smartt has been dubbed as a “Brit-born Bajan International” and is a well-known poet and literary activist. She reworks narratives and historical events in a distinctive way. This collection started as a commission from Lancaster Litfest and concerns a black child who was brought to Lancaster at the height of the slave trade. Lancaster was one of the slave trade ports in the west of England. The child, who was named Samboo was given by a sea captain to his wife as a gift and he subsequently died very quickly and was buried locally. This is what Smartt says about the collection:

“I was commissioned by Lancaster LitFest to write a contemporary elegy for “Samboo’s” Grave, on Sunderland Point. I felt a strong obligation to use my craft to speak for someone who could not. I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions, including anger, resentment and despair. I was determined to give him a name, I’ve called him Bilal. I explored aspects of Bilal’s voyage – from the Caribbean up, and through the North Atlantic. I hope this will offer the reader a further understanding of the life-changing impact of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

Smartt sees this history as part of the unconscious of the modern city in a poem called Bringing it all Back Home:

“Here I lie. A hollow

Samboo. Filled with your tears

 

and regrets. The tick in the eye

of Lancaster pride. The stutter,

 

the pause, the dry cough, shifting

eyes that cannot meet a Black man’s

 

gaze. Questions, questions from either

side that foul us for answers. The how

 

and the why ultimately defeating us

with shame, with anger, with the defensive

 

voices of those who lived and enjoyed

the benefits, who did not question too

 

deeply the source that enriched

all of Lancaster life.

 

Who will heal and elevate to light

the souls of your ancestors if

 

you refuse to remember? If you

cover their incarnations with half-truths?

 

Grocer? You were a Slave Trader!

And everything has its price,

 

and denial is only debt

with interest to be paid.”

Smartt moves across the years and links the story to modern Black British experience weaving together memory and imagination with a great musicality which is based on the blues and has a blues rhythm to it. It is certainly better heard and spoken than read, but it is powerful and moving even when read;

99 Names of the Samboo

 

Bilal ibn beloved son brother husband father grandfather kin elder ancestor

 

Sold livestock cargo chattel property guinea-bird savage enslaved captive servant worker

 

Heathen cannibal beast blackamoor darkie nigger uncivilised wog fuzzy-wuzzy coon negro

 

Tamed eunuch pet uncle tom minstrel golliwog survivor mirror mask chameleon creole

 

Signified dehumanised damned vilified debased silenced invisible camouflaged trickster Caliban signifier threat animal oversexed terrorizer buck bull breeder raper lynched rhygin rebel

 

Warrior bussa cudjoe leader Toussaint revolutionary guerrilla Cimarron subversive cuffy duppy-conqueror

 

Outsider illegal other criminal refugee foreigner exile uprooted immigrant sojourner hyphenated

 

prodigal son garveyite rasta Nubian Kushite nation Fulani blood progeny family Bilal

 

9 out of 10

Starting The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

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Coercive Control: How men entrap women in personal life by Evan Stark

 

This is a hefty, densely written and well-argued tome that is certainly not a light read. Coercive control is a theory developed by Evan Stark and others as an alternative to and development of more traditional domestic violence models. The book gives a detailed account of the history of domestic violence and the legal system. It is primarily directed at the US, although there is reference to some European countries as well, especially the UK.

The traditional model of domestic violence focussed on isolated acts of violence as the way power is used and sees serious acts of violence as the most important. The theory of coercive control covers a whole series of behaviours, including violence. It covers coercion meant to harm and intimidate, but also behaviour meant to isolate and regulate and to induce shame and embarrassment, helping to keep the abuse secret. Controlling day to day life, access to family, food, money and time. Behaviours like:

 Threats and intimidation

 Isolating/destroying the partner’s outside relationships in the workplace, as well as from friends and family (including restricting normal social activity – shopping, medical appointments, Parent/Teacher events – the list is not exhaustive)

 Controlling access to information and services

 Stalking, whether actual or remote via surveillance

 Unwanted face-to-face, telephone or electronic contact

 ‘Where are you now’ and ‘take a picture and prove where you are now’

 Monitoring of telephone calls

 Dress ‘codes’ and ‘rules’

 Forcing/restricting the consumption of food

 Hacking

 Creating a series of infractions of ‘rules’, whether actual or imaginary, requiring the ‘punishment’ of the partner and/or the children

 Economic control and/or exploitation

 Sexual abuse/violence, to include unwanted pregnancy

 Constant monitoring of movement and criticism

 Emotional hostage-taking

 The causing of fear and confusion

There are many more, including being forced to keep a detailed diary to account for every minute of the day.

 

This is long term behaviour and Stark’s theory seeks to present the whole rather than taking the violent episodes and being able to isolate and minimise them. It is a model of abuse that covers a whole range of behaviours and strategies, some of which may not seem sinister until you think about the context. Stark’s purpose is to move coercive control from a second class misdemeanour (in the US) to a human rights violation, a restriction of liberty and a form of indentured servitude. “Experiencing coercive control is like being taken hostage; the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the partner/abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.”

There are lots of case studies and examples and three chapters at the end of the book provide detailed case studies of three women who killed as a result of coercive control. Stark is very clear that this is a gendered offence and he makes a very clear case for this. He also examines violence by women and violence within same sex and transgender relationships and argues this is different from coercive control.

I found the arguments convincing and it certainly made me think about my own behaviour in day to day life. I read this for work as I quite regularly deal with domestic violence. It is a well-argued book and coercive control seems so obvious that when it is outlined the response is that it is an idea that one already knew about. It is now enshrined in UK law as well.

 

9 out of 10

 

Starting Virginia Woolf and classical music by Emma Sutton

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