Jump to content
Books do furnish a room

A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

Recommended Posts

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I've got Thin air lined up as my next read - great review!  I can see the similarities to Dark Matter, which I loved.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thin Air sounds great!  Added to my wishlist. Good luck with your reading this year, Books Furnish :readingtwo:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

That's a great review of Thin Air, and you're so right about the rucksack, who'd have thought a simple old rucksack could be so creepy?!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

 

This is an ambitious first novel with great historical scope and sweep, set over almost three centuries; it is also a set of 14 short stories. It starts in Ghana when it was known as the Gold Coast in the eighteenth century. The novel follows two strands of the same family. One strand remains in Ghana until the twentieth century and the other is in America in the slavery system. Each chapter looks at one character, seven from each strand from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century. That does mean that the reader only spends twenty or thirty pages on each character, although there are threads that run through the whole. Whether this works or not has been debated and I suspect it very much depends on the reader. If you want to relate to characters over the length of a novel, then this may be a problem. However the characters tell a story over time and Gyasi has stated her reasons for the structure:

“At some point during the course of writing Homegoing I realised that one of the things that I was most concerned with was time itself, or more specifically, the ability to feel as though I was watching slavery and colonialism move and shift over a very long period of time. In order to do that, I felt that I need a structure that could accommodate the weight of as many years as possible, so I decided to tell the story generationally.”

The issues covered obviously include the history and conditions of slavery and there are snapshots of Ghanaian history (Anglo-Asante wars, the introduction of cash crops). The growth of Harlem, Pratt City, civil rights and a range of other issues are covered, but necessarily not in great depth. Gyasi puts into the mouth of one of her characters, her own feelings about writing to this sort of history:

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?”

There are some areas that for me provided illumination, I knew almost nothing about convict leasing and communities like Pratt City. I enjoyed the breadth of the book and it is a story that is very powerfully told and illuminates aspects of the history of slavery and colonialism that are not often examined. The rather neat ending was maybe a little too neat, but that is a minor quibble. There is also a brief bibliography in the afterword which looks rather interesting.

8 out of 10

Starting The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Mr Scarborough's Family by Anthony Trollope

 

One of Trollope’s very last novels and this still has many of the elements of the usual Trollope recipe. The usual convoluted plot, chapters to introduce the major characters, ends well tied at the conclusion, strong female characters, male characters who are generally weak, bad or bumbling and a strong cast of supporting characters.

The plot revolves around Mr Scarborough and his two sons. The older son, Mountjoy is an inveterate gambler who owes a great deal of money. The younger son, Augustus is a lawyer. Old Mr Scarborough has a terminal illness and will not be around long and when he dies the rather grand estate will go to the moneylenders. Scarborough announces to his lawyer Mr Grey that he and his late wife were unmarried when Mountjoy was born and produces paperwork to that effect. This means that Augustus will inherit everything and the moneylenders will get nothing. This plot and it’s working out meanders through the whole book and has a King Learish feel about it.

The inevitable romantic turmoil revolves around Florence Mountjoy, cousin to the two Scarborough brothers. She has the misfortune to be fallen in love with by almost every single male in the book, most of whom seem reluctant to take no for an answer. Her decision is in favour of Harry Annesley, much to the horror of her mother and for reasons that would probably take the length of the book to explain. Annesley is heir to his uncle’s minor estate. It must be said that even though he is meant to be the most positive male character and is portrayed as rather likeable, he is completely useless when it comes to making a living.

There are several groups of minor characters. The lawyer Mr Grey and his daughter Dolly (one of the strongest and most likeable female characters) and their extended family. The Annesley family and their uncle Peter Prosper whose run ins with Harry provide another plot line. The Thoroughbung family also provide interest and some comical moments. Another group are the moneylenders and this is problematic as Trollope portrays them as being Jewish and there is a good deal of caricature here.

This is a later novel and the role of women was beginning to change and this is reflected in the female characters. Matilda Thoroughbung is very clearly demanding a pre-nuptial type agreement relating to what she expected from the marriage and how she is to retain her own money. Dolly Grey is very clear in deciding to remain unmarried, especially as she says she has met no man who she respects enough to marry; making a clear and positive choice for solitude and independence. At this time women’s property rights were being improved and the New Woman movement was gathering momentum.

Not one of Trollope’s best and the caricature of Jewish moneylenders is unpleasant, but there are interesting moments and strong characters.  

6 out of 10

Starting Silas Marner by George Eliot 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Have a great reading year in 2018.

 

I read Thin Air last year and enjoyed it. Not quite as much as Dark Matter, but it was still pretty good. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 hours ago, bobblybear said:

Have a great reading year in 2018.

 

I read Thin Air last year and enjoyed it. Not quite as much as Dark Matter, but it was still pretty good.

Me too, they're quite similar in structure, but I thought DM was much creepier.  Still enjoyed TA though.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you bobblybear and Madeleine and I agree Dark Matter was creepier!

 

Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson

I am certain that this is not the best biography of Owen around, but it is interesting despite a number of irrelevant by-lines and lines of thought. The book takes the reader through Owen’s life well enough; the influences, the unremarkableness of his early life, his relationships with his parents and so on.

I think there are some interesting points to draw out. If you read Owen’s pre-war and early war poetry it is clear that without going to the front Owen would not have been a major poet. The early poems have nothing of the passion, anger and gut-wrenching in your face power of his late poems. Cuthbertson speculates that when Owen was wounded and concussed it may have sparked his poetic muse into life. I am not quite convinced by that, but his best poems were written at this time and whilst he was recovering from shellshock at Craiglockhart.

Another interesting point is Owen’s sexuality. It is fairly clear that Owen was attracted to men; once he found his muse his friends included Sassoon, Robert Ross (one of Wilde’s lovers), Osbert Sitwell and C K Scott Moncrieff; all of whom were gay (or in Sassoon’s case bisexual).  Cuthbertson argues that Owen was attracted to women as well but was essentially chaste. Again there is no real way of knowing, but I wasn’t convinced and his poetry is certainly homoerotic. His relationship to his mother was very important to him. Also significant was his relationship with his father. Owen’s father was impatient of his son’s poetic leanings and was always urging him to be more “manly”.

Whatever there is to say about Owen, and there are better biographies (Hibberd) the poetry stands out; this is Disabled:

 

    He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,

    And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,

    Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park

    Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,

    Voices of play and pleasure after day,

    Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

 

                           

 

    About this time Town used to swing so gay

    When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees, 

    And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—

    In the old times, before he threw away his knees.

    Now he will never feel again how slim

    Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,

    All of them touch him like some queer disease.

 

                           

 

    There was an artist silly for his face,

    For it was younger than his youth, last year.

    Now, he is old; his back will never brace;

    He's lost his colour very far from here,

    Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,

    And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 

    And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

 

                           

 

    One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,

    After the matches carried shoulder-high.

    It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg,

    He thought he'd better join. He wonders why.

    Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts.

    That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,

    Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,

    He asked to join. He didn't have to beg;

    Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.

    Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,

    And Austria's, did not move him. And no fears

    Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts

    For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;

    And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;

    Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.

    And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

 

                           

 

    Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.

    Only a solemn man who brought him fruits

    Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

 

                           

 

    Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,

    And do what things the rules consider wise,

    And take whatever pity they may dole.

    Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes

    Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.

    How cold and late it is! Why don't they come

    And put him into bed? Why don't they come?

 

     6 out of 10

     Starting Women and Power by Mary Beard

Edited by Books do furnish a room

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Beyond the Glass Antonia White

 

This is the final novel in White’s quartet about her early life, covering her life when she was 22/23. The last book ended with Clara’s marriage to Archie coming to an end and Clara returning to live with her parents. Moving back to her parents leads her to difficult times with her parents. Clara’s relationship with her father and her religion are still central but the real heart of the book is Clara’s increasing mental fragility and this is woven in with a doomed love affair.

White herself spent time in a public asylum, Bethlem (known as bedlam) and so the descriptions of Clara’s breakdown, subsequent certification as insane and time in different parts of the asylum system are powerfully written and feel very personal:

“She lost herself again; this time completely. For months she was not even a human being; she was a horse. Ridden almost to death, beaten till she fell, she lay at last on the straw in her stable and waited for death. They buried her as lay on her side, with outstretched head and legs. A child came and sowed turquoises round the outline of her body in the ground, and she rose up again as a horse of magic with a golden mane, and galloped across the sky. Again she woke on the mattress in her cell. She looked and saw that she had human hands and feet again, but she knew she was a horse.”

White does employ a good deal of imagery relating to glass and mirrors throughout Clara’s breakdown, incarceration and gradual recovery and there are links to Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to describe the world Clara enters. That world also involves force feeding, hot and cold baths and long periods of incarceration in padded rooms. Clara still has the stigmatizations of the day as indicated by the following quote from her time in the asylum:

“In vain Clara tried to explain the rules of croquet…But it was hopeless. No-one could understand. In the end she left them running gaily about the lawn, hitting any ball they saw and usually all playing at once…the next moment, it came to her. These women were mad. All the women she saw at mealtimes were mad. No wonder she could make no contact with them. She was imprisoned in a place full of mad people”

Clara’s reliability as a narrator can also be questioned. Interestingly there is a certain sort of mentality that must follow the rules of a game and Clara with the religious structures that she lives within is of that ilk. The women she is with have the freedom to not follow the rules and to just enjoy the experience.

This is a good depiction of the asylum system in the 1920s and a fitting end to the quartet

8 out of 10

Starting A Pin To See The Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Women and Power by Mary Beard

This brief book is based on two lectures, one from 2014 and one from 2017 by Mary Beard. Beard is a classicist and historian, a very good one. The primary subject is female voice and silence and is very much concerned with misogyny and links to the abuse Beard and others have experienced on social media. Given the recent revelations relating to Harvey Weinstein and the current social media landscape it is a much needed wake up call.

Beard looks at the origins of misogyny and being a classicist she takes as her starting point Greece, Rome and the Ancient world. In fact the starting point is Telemachus telling his mother Penelope to shut up in the Odyssey. It is essentially an analysis of the silencing of the female voice and the humiliation of those few females who dared to speak out. Beard knows her stuff and the examples from the classical era are penetrating and very apposite. She looks at the way the female voice is characterised, for example by the word whine. Beard also focuses on the famous Punch cartoon by Riana Duncan about “Miss Triggs”. It shows a woman at a meeting with five men in suits. The chairman is saying: “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” Which neatly caricatures a particular attitude of mind. Beard throws in an analysis of Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Amazons myth.

The first lecture is an analysis of why culture silences women and the second looks at how culture prevents women from achieving equality and looks at the nature of power. Beard expresses herself frustrated at gradualist solutions, although she does admit some progress has been made. She does make some very prescient points about what needs to happen:

“I would like in the future to think harder about how exactly we might go about re-configuring those notions of ‘power’ that now exclude all but a very few women, and I would like to try to pull apart the very idea of ‘leadership’ (usually male) that is now assumed to be the key to successful institutions.”

She is right about leadership theories and we need to look at more “feminist” ideas about leadership. Of course men need to get used to the idea that they need to give up power and think differently about public space. My only niggle is that these were lectures, I would like Beard to follow up with something longer and more detailed.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzu

This book was quite a mixture, but despite some reservations I did enjoy it. There is a warmth and humanity about it and it tells a good story. Onuzo is still only 27 and is clearly a talented writer. The story concerns a group of misfits travelling to Lagos. Chike is an officer in the Nigerian army; he is serving in the Niger delta and fighting militants in the area. He is disillusioned and not sure he is on the side of right. He and his subaltern Remi desert and set off for Lagos. They soon come across Fineboy, one of the militants who also wants to travel to Lagos and become a DJ. Isoken, a sixteen year old girl who is fleeing from an attempted rape by militants (possibly including Fineboy) joins them. On a bus they meet Oma, who is fleeing from domestic abuse. They somehow become a rather motley unit travelling together to Lagos.

The city of Lagos is another character almost and is drawn very vividly by Onuzo with its bustling busyness, sounds and sights, severe poverty and great wealth:

“Lagos is no different from anywhere, except there are more people, and more noise, and more.”

There is a richness and complexity to the story which could be described as Dickensian. The five survive on the streets and eventually find an abandoned apartment which they take over. The owner, a former Minister of Education turns up one day, on the run with a suitcase of money. They detain him and debate what to do next. Eventually they decide to use the money for its original purpose and start to find out what local schools need and purchasing it for them.

At this point the plot takes a rather odd direction with the introduction of a local journalist, the BBC and a reporter in London, the last part of the novel doesn’t have the same power and vibrancy of the first two thirds.

There have been criticisms of the novel that say it has too much of a feel-good factor and minimizes some of the issues it addresses by its instinctive faith in human nature. I think this may be something of a misreading as Onuzo does not shy away from challenging the effects of colonialism:

 “The whole of Nigeria’s fortunes rose and fell on what foreigners would pay for her sweet crude”

The corruption, the death squads and the censorship are all there interwoven with the plot and the very likeable main five characters.

I did really enjoy this novel, there are flaws and I struggled with the last third, but it is life-affirming and rather touching.

 7 out of 10

Starting On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Rather brief and pertinent little book about the history, nature and future of masculinity wound around Grayson Perry’s own struggle with his masculinity. There are no references and Perry can be repetitive, but there is some great artwork as you would expect from one of our foremost artists.

The best part of the book is when Perry talks about his own life, the abuse from his stepfather, his teenage self as a skinhead and skateboarder, his passion for motor biking and mountain biking, his transvestitism and his own struggles with masculinity.

His analysis of the problem is pretty much spot on as you would expect; nearly all crime and violence can be laid at the door of men as can wars and the way societies are run. Men are often emotionally closed and distant. Perry writes all this pretty well:

Examining masculinity can seem like a luxury problem, a pastime for wealthy, well-educated, peaceful society, but I would argue the opposite: the poorer, the more undeveloped, the more uneducated a society is, the more masculinity needs realigning with the modern world, because masculinity is probably holding back that society. All over the globe, crimes are committed, wars are started, women are being held back and economies are disastrously distorted by men, because of their outdated version of masculinity.”

Perry argues that genetics plays a very small role in this and conditioning and society’s expectations are the central problems and will hinder any solutions:

We need to firm up what it is to be a man in the 21st century, because other retrograde forces are happy to promote a seductive, familiar, easy-to-assemble package.

Perry’s solutions though tend towards self-reflection, men meeting in groups and talking: the solution being inside men’s heads. This may miss the point that our economic system depends very much on competition and division; all very much part of the male psyche. Interestingly Dave Ramsden’s review in Socialist Review makes the following point:

The author says he hates to use the word revolution. Instead he advocates individual self-examination rather than the therapy of mass engagement. The miners did not remove page three from their magazine during their strike following a process of intellectual introspection. They removed it because they were supported unceasingly and without preconditions by the women of the pit communities and beyond.”

The analysis of the problem by Perry in the first half of the book is very much better than the solutions in the second half which is quite rambling. Perry is however quite funny and incisive; his musings about clothing are particularly funny; he refers to ties as “colourful textile phalluses” and “Men are into frippery as much as women, but they cloak it under spurious function.” (“pseudo-functional zips and buckles”).

Perry’s new list of men’s rights at the end are fairly uncontroversial:

The right to be vulnerable
The right to be weak
The right to be wrong
The right to be intuitive
The right not to know
The right to be uncertain
The right to be flexible
The right not to be ashamed of any of these

But his solutions are not radical enough.

7 out of 10

Starting Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Silas Marner by George Eliot

I didn’t read this at school and so managed to avoid the residual hatred that some have for certain classics as a result of poor teaching. The storyline and plot are well known. Silas Marner is a weaver in a Northern town and part of a religious congregation. He is falsely accused of stealing and his life falls apart. He moves to the village of Raveloe in the Midlands and lives alone on the edge of the community doing his weaving. Over time he builds up a substantial amount of money which becomes for him a purpose in life. One evening the dissolute younger son of the local squire steals the money and disappears. A while later on New Year’s Eve there is a party at the local Squire’s home. A woman with a young child makes her way through the snow towards the party with a view to making herself known as the wife of the squire’s elder son (unacknowledged wife). She collapses in the snow outside Marner’s cottage and dies. The child crawls into Marner’s cottage where he discovers her in front of the fire. Marner determines to keep and bring up the child. This alters his relationship with the local community and inevitably proves to be redemptive:

"Since the time the child was sent to me and I've come to love her as myself, I've had light enough to trusten by; and now she says she'll never leave me, I think I shall trusten till I die."

One thing that marked this novel out at the time it was published was the realism and the way Eliot made ordinary working class characters rounded parts of the novel. This was quite revolutionary at the time. Marner and the characters in Raveloe are not caricatures or walk on parts.

Eliot mentions a number of issues current in mid-Victorian society; the rising use of opium, a crisis in religion centred on the conflict between strict religious practice and human ethics, the stirrings of a change in the role of women. The reader gets a sense of this with Molly Farren, mother of Eppie and unacknowledged wife of Godfrey Cass just before she dies in the snow.

As this novel has been a school set text it has been analyzed and pored over ad infinitum. For me though it was a simple and rather touching parable of redemption which subverted traditional notions of parenting and gender roles and for once I didn’t really object to a happy ending.

9 out of 10

Starting The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm intrigued by the Mary Beard book . :) I watched Bettany Hughes' docu on Venus/ Aphrodite a few months ago, which has some similarities to Women and Power, I think. 

 

Great reviews, as always. :D

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you Pixie; the Mary Beard is worth reading.

The Virago Book of Women's War Poetry

This is a combination of two volumes; one about women writing poetry about the First World War and the other relating to the Second. There are brief potted biographies at the end which are illuminating, if a little too focussed on who they were married to. Many of these writers and poets are almost unknown now, unless one is interested in the area and well read. The only really well known writer here is Vera Brittain. That says something about the way women’s writing is perceived perhaps, especially in relation to the male war poets. The poetry, as you would expect, has a much broader scope than the male variety. There is lots about loss of loved ones and the fighting, but there is also the horror of air raids, rationing and food, the changes in the countryside, patriotism and pacifism and much more. Much of the poetry is protest against the war, particularly in relation to the First War (less so the second). Indeed poets like S Gertrude Ford, Winifred Letts, May Herschel-Clark and Mary Gabrielle Collins were writing protest poetry before Sassoon and Owen.

This is from Winifred Letts:

You gave your life. Boy.
And you gave a limb:
But he who gave his precious wits,
Say, what regard for him?

One had his glory,
One has found his rest.
But what of this poor babbler here
With chin sunk on his breast?

Flotsam of battle,
With brain bemused and dim,
O God, for such a sacrifice
Say, what reward for him?

This from S Gertrude Ford (Poet, feminist and suffragist; have you heard of her?)

“Fight the year out!” the War-lords said:
What said the dying among the dead?

‘To the last man!’ cried the profiteers:
What said the poor in the starveling years?

‘War if good!’ yelled the Jingo-kind:
What said the wounded, the maimed and blind?

‘Fight on!’ the Armament-kings besought:
Nobody asked what the women thought.

“On!’ echoed Hate where the fiends kept tryst:
Asked the church, even, what said Christ?

And in contrast also from Ford, Nature in War:

The banished thrush, the homeless rook
Share now the human exile’s woe.
Mourns not the forest felled, which took
Three hundred years to grow?

Grieve not those meadows scarred and cleft,
Mined with deep holes and reft of grass,
Gardens where not a flower is left,
Fouled streams, once clear as glass?

And yon green vale where Spring was found
Laughing among her daffodils…
Wind sweep it now; a battle-ground
Between two gun-swept hills.

And brief, but powerful from May Herschel-Clarke, entitled Nothing to Report:

One minute we was laughin, me an' Ted,
The next, he lay beside me grinnin' - dead.
'There's nothin' to report, ' the papers said.

There is much more like this, very few poems/writers who feel out of place and it strikes me that there are writers here who should be ranking alongside the best of the male war poets. Some of it is heart breaking: these two poems from Vera Bax about her two sons illustrate that well:

To Richard, My Son
(Killed in action, 17th August, 1942)

I hide my grief throughout the weary days,
And gather up the threads of life again,
Remembering you ever gave your praise
To those for whom fate’s hardest thrust was vain.
Now, when I feel my courage flicker low,
Your spirit comes to breathe it into flame,
Until I lift my head, and smiling go,
Whispering softly your beloved name.
And yet to me it seems but yesterday
You were a child, and full of childish fears;
Then I would run to you and soothe away
The loneliness of night, and dry your tears;
But now you are the comforter, and keep,
From out the shadows, watch, lest I should weep.

To Billy, My Son
(Killed in action, May 15th, 1945)

Now comes, indeed, the end of all delight,
The end of forward-looking on life’s way,
The end of all desire to pierce the night
For gleam of hope, the end of all things gay;
The end of any promise Spring might hold,
The end of praying and, O God, the end
Of love that waited to be shared and told;
Now, evermore, shall life with sorrow blend;
That sorrow whose dark shape the months had fought,
And strictly kept in confines of the will;
Had held quiescent while each conscious thought
Searched far horizons where joy lingered still;
But, my beloved, fearless, gallant, true,
Here is fair end of sorrow, now, for you.

 

This last poem is by the much underread Ethel Mannin, written during the Spanish Civil War:

 

I am purely evil;

Hear the thrum    

Of my evil engine;

Evilly I come.

The stars are thick as flowers

In the meadows of July;

A fine night for murder

Winging through the sky.

Bombs shall be the bounty

Of the lovely night;

Death the desecration

Of the fields of light.

I am purely evil,

Come to destroy

Beauty and goodness,

Tenderness and joy.

This collection is well worth looking out for and highly recommended.

 

9 out of 10

Starting Elmet by Fiona Mozley

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

I don’t remember buying this, but it found its way into the house somehow, given the subject matter perhaps there’s a more mysterious explanation! This isn’t horror, gothic may be a good description (nonsense may be another!). It deals with superstition and myth and is set in the mid nineteenth century. Albie Mirralls (the narrator, a rather irritating and pompous young man) meets his cousin Lizzie only once in 1851 at the Great Exhibition. Ten years later Lizzie is burnt to death by her husband who believes she has become a changeling. Albie travels to the Yorkshire village of Halfoak to arrange her funeral and try to find out what happened to her.

A brief note to say the premise is that Lizzie may have been taken by the fairies (faeries or some other variation) who live under the hill near the village and a replacement put in her place. They live under the hill where it is always summer with lots of music and dancing. Now it is true to say that stories of fairies and changelings are part of English mythological tradition. Even when I was a child I was told such stories and the traditions go back a long way.

The scene is now set so cue superstitious and surly locals, a wise woman living in the woods, Albie staying in the cottage where Lizzie was murdered (isolated and close to the fairy hill), midnight music, Albie’s wife turning up as a surprise, a secret journal, Wuthering Heights (remember the changeling themes in that and there are parallels), lots of mysterious doings with herbs, disappearing babies, marital strife, mysterious flutterings seen from the corner of the eye, a squire’s son who is a rake, jealousy, a hot and seemingly never ending summer in Halfoak and lots more written in a Victorian gothic style.

There are some issues, the plot seems to lose its way during the second part of the book. The ending is not difficult to guess despite a couple of neat twists. The plot kept misdirecting in a particular direction which led this reader to look in the opposite direction. The dialogue and writing at times can be ponderous. Albie is annoying, but I am sure he was meant to be and it is clear that most of the time he has little clue what is going on. The atmosphere of a superstitious village is well captured as is the sense of unending summer heat. There are nods towards a number of genres, but no real satisfaction in any one of them. I think following the Wuthering Heights theme might have been more satisfying. I wanted to like this more than I did and I would read more by Littlewood as there were plenty of ideas here and the clash between rationalism and superstition is one aspect of the novel that does work well.

6 out of 10

Starting The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×