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Books do furnish a room

A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

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The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

What to make of so famous a book; Pulitzer Prize winner and Buck went on to win the Nobel Prize, the first American woman to do so. There are study guides galore and Oprah revived interest in the book when she selected it for one of her book club reads. The plot is well known and is set in the early part of the twentieth century in agrarian China. It is a family saga and is the first of a trilogy. It tells the story of peasant farmer Wang Lung from day until his death, covering about 50 years. It tells of famine and hardship and of the rise of Wang Lung to be a wealthy man, all his wealth springing from the land and the soil. The plotlines encompasses many of the evils/problems in Chinese society: famine/plenty, opium, foot binding, the taking of concubines, infanticide (of daughters), but also the daily routines of agrarian life with its ups and downs. Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent many years in China and was a keen observer of life.

For many readers this was/has been an introduction to China, its people and culture and the endless notes provided by study guides illustrate this well. Celeste Ng makes a very good point about this:

“I hate The Good Earth because, all too often, it’s presented not as a work of fiction but as a lesson on Chinese culture. Too many people read it and sincerely believe they gain some special insight into being Chinese. In one quick step, they know China, like Neo in The Matrix knows Kung Fu. Since its publication, the book has regularly been assigned in high schools as much for its alleged window into Chinese culture as for its literary value.”

This raises the issue of whether a novel or work of fiction can ever be a guide or compendium of a country’s culture. Would we go to Zola to find out about nineteenth century France, Dickens for England, Faulkner for the modern US; I could go on. They might be illustrative, but not comprehensive or a cultural guide, a quite narrow perspective even for perceptive observers like Dickens or Zola. So why would Buck’s novel be treated like that? Even Buck points out there is much more to China than she portrays:

“And when on another day he heard a young man speaking — for this city was full of young men speaking — and he said at his street corner that the people of China must unite and must educate themselves in these times, it did not occur to Wang Lung that anyone was speaking to him.”

No book encapsulates an entire culture and it is typical of a western imperialist (or even post imperialist) mentality to begin to consider it can. The novel does clearly illuminate the position of women in Chinese society at that time. The focus on land and soil and personal progress tapped into middle class American values at the time it was written, helping to make it very popular and there is an interesting contrast with the role of Chinese immigrants in America at the time. There is, of course much more to be said, but reading Buck does necessitate an awareness of the society around her at the time. I did enjoy the novel and the character building is very good. It did remind me a little of Gone with the Wind (is that heresy?)

7 out of 10

Starting Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya

A collection of short stories by Tatyana Tolstaya and yes she is a descendant of Tolstoy. The stories are as follows:

Loves Me, Loves Me Not

Okkervil River

Sweet Shura

On the Golden Porch

Hunting the Woolly Mammoth

The Circle

A Clean Sheet

Fire and Dust

Rendezvous with a Bird

Sweet Dreams Son

Sonya

The Fakir

Peters

A wonderful set of stories about ordinary people their hopes, fears, wants and illusions and as one reviewer put it, “bittersweet melancholy”. The stories are atmospheric and reminded me more of Chekov than Tolstoy. There is humour and warmth here as well even along with the disillusionment. The characters are well developed and drawn and there are sagas of the loss of dreams, unspoken love, loss of identity and the struggle to survive. There is also a touch of magic realism suffusing some of the stories, but it is a very Russian variety. In Rendezvous with a Bird a boy is waiting for the death of his grandfather. Death comes in the form of a bird, but Tolstaya’s touch is light:

“The dark garden rose and fell like the ocean. The wind chased the Sirin bird from the branches: flapping its mildewed wings, it flew to the house and sniffed around, moving its triangular face with shut eyes: is there a crack?

The writing style is a delight to read, this is a description of a hairdressers:

“..stiff green sabres grew hilt-down out of large pots, and photographs of bizarre creatures with unpleasant glints in their eyes stared from the walls under incredible hair - towers, icing, rams' horns; or ripples like mashed potatoes in fancy restaurants.”

The stories are populated by the well-meaning people who often delude and deceive themselves with theirs hopes and dreams, trying to avoid mundane reality. People with bleak lives and rapturous imaginations. There is inevitably sadness and disillusion and some of the stories are in their own way heart-breaking. I really enjoyed these stories; they were moving and very human.

9 out of 10

Starting Reflections on Gender and Science by Evelyn Fox Keller

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The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar

This is a delightful little book, quite remarkable. It is based on a very simple idea and on a simple gift. A friend of El-Mohtar’s gave her a gift of some samples of different types of honey. With this gift she wrote a set of tasting notes and reflections for each honey; 28 in all.  El-Mohtar is a poet and writer of speculative fiction and she puts her talent to good use. This is an example of one of the tasting notes:

“Day 10 – French Rhododendron Honey

Colour: The colour of sugar dissolving in hot water; that white cloudiness, with a faint yellow tint I can only see when looking at it slantwise, to the left of me, not when I hold it up to the light.

Smell: Strange, it has almost no scent at all; it’s also crystallised, so it’s a bit difficult to scoop some out with the wand, but it smells cold with an elusive citrus squirt hovering about its edges.

Taste: There is a kind of sugar cube my grandfather used to give my sister and me every morning when we were small, not so much a cube as a cabochon, irregularly rounded, clear and cloudy by turns. It was called sikkar nabet, which is “plant sugar.” This tastes like it. The honey taste is so pale, so faint, it really is almost sugar water. I’m reminded of maple sap in buckets, right at the beginning of the boiling process that produces maple syrup, where it’s still water enough to be used for steeping tea.”

After each set of tasting notes is a piece of fiction or poetry. These are very varied: poems, gothic and unusual tales, some are very sensual and erotic, some are almost fairy tales and mythical.

 

She drinks the light like lemonade,

Sips it bit by liquid bit,

Until the day falls dark and soft

Licked slow as honey clean

 

Her throat is wide as an open door

Inviting. honest, full of song,

And the light, it wants it, tumbles in

Like a girl after a rabbit

 

She swallows every now and then

Licks her lips, parts them for more.

Every now and then she sleeps

While she does the Moonish man

Builds his nets, chases his dog.

 

She would take him by the hand,

Look into his eyes and say.

Love you should know better now

 

The world is not for catching, love

Not for having, not for keeping.

The world is all for sipping, love

So tilt back your head and drink.

 

But he will never hear her, so

preocuppied with precious plans.

He has no willing ear to lend,

While he mutters on and on.

 

She wakes to quiet loneliness,

Dresses, walks to her windowsill,

And sip by sip, lick by lick,

Draws night back home again.

 

There are nods to Goblin Market, Angela Carter and more, but this is really very original stuff. Temptation, awakening, attraction, seduction and interesting undercurrents abound. The art work and illustrations are excellent. It’s very short and best read in small chunks, but the whole is a delight.

9 out of 10

Starting 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

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84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

This book is a complete delight. It is not a love story or a romance, but a series of letters between two book lovers from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. Helene Hanff is a lively and outspoken New Yorker who is unable to get hold of decently bound books, especially older and slightly more obscure ones. She answers an ad and contacts Marks and Co at 84 Charing Cross Road. There Frank Doel, a very proper English bookseller responds and starts to find and send her books from the lists she sends. Hanff’s friendliness, outspokenness and sheer vivacity gradually breaks down Frank Doel’s reserve and a friendships develops. Hanff sends to London difficult to find items to London which was still in the throes of rationing (mainly foodstuffs, but also nylons for the female employees). Gradually we also hear the voices of some of the other employees, Frank’s wife Nora and their elderly next door neighbour. There is a warmth and humanity here and a solid friendship based on books; something which should warm all our hearts.

There is also, of course, the film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. My edition has a preface by Anne Bancroft (her husband, Mel Brooks, bought the film rights for her, so she could play Hanff) and an introduction by Juliet Stevenson. What is most moving of course is that Hanff and Doel never met and the book came along after his death in the late 1960s and was an immediate hit. There has also been a play and a TV adaptation. There is a new adaptation of the play touring the UK at present starring Stephanie Powers and Clive Francis.

I really did love this, it’s a meeting of bookish minds, something done by letter, which we can now do much more easily on sites like this. Hanff keeps threatening to visit, but never makes it:

“You better watch out, I’m coming over there in ’53 if Ellery is renewed. I’m gonna climb up that Victorian book-ladder and disturb the dust on the top shelves and everybody’s decorum.”

Hanff’s wit and irreverence are a constant delight:

“I have these guilts about never having read Chaucer but I was talked out of learning Early Anglo-Saxon / Middle English by a friend who had to take it for her Ph.D. They told her to write an essay in Early Anglo-Saxon on any-subject-of-her-own-choosing. “Which is all very well,” she said bitterly, “but the only essay subject you can find enough Early Anglo-Saxon words for is ‘How to Slaughter a Thousand Men in a Mead Hall’.”

A comment on the arrival of a new book:

“The day Hazlitt came he opened to “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.”

And on buying books in general:

“It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on.”

One of my favourites!

9 and a half out of 10

Starting The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

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^^ Yes ! Yes !!  :yahoo: Helene Hanff is rtuly wonderful. Hope you enjoy the rest of her books ( I think my favourite was the one about `Q` . :) ).

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Little Pixie; I'm already enjoying the follow up!

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen

This is the first work by Elizabeth Bowen that I have read. Bowen was an interesting character herself, her marriage was companionship rather than passion and she had relationships with both men and women. She mixed with members of the Bloomsbury Group and several generations of writers. As a writer Bowen was interested in change and transformation in ordinary and orderly life, in "life with the lid on and what happens when the lid comes off". Bowen looks at what might be just below the veneer of respectability.

Friends and Relations is a well written novel that revolves around a group of families, the Tilneys, Meggatts, Thirdmans and Studdarts. Bowen examines the complex nature of human relationships. As a result not a great deal happens. The first part of the book charts the weddings of two sisters, Laurel and Janet Studdart. Laurel marries Edward Tilney and Janet marries Rodney Meggatt. A complicating factor is that in time past Edward’s mother Elfrida had an affair with Rodney’s father Considine. The novel then jumps ten years and there are children to both marriages. They all appear to have quietly contented lives, but Bowen explores the undercurrents, especially the ripples from the affair decades ago. It is clear that Bowen is also reflecting her own experience that passion isn’t necessary for a happy marriage and may even get in the way. There is a wry comedy present as well with all the entrances and exits, alongside gaps in the plots and shades of nuance. There is elegance and an understated examination of human emotions.

It is well written and a delight to read, although part of me does wonder whether I really care about the domestic and amatory exploits of the English upper classes. All these drawing rooms, well-kept gardens and country houses are maintained by servants who are barely perceptible in the novel and the sense of entitlement can be an irritant. However it is entertaining and I will make a point to read more by Bowen, especially her ghost stories.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting We Should all be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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We should all be Feminists by Chimamanda, Ngozi Adichie

Very brief pamphlet based on a TED talk and about fifty pages. It is simple straightforward and to the point, a basic plea for gender equality. It outlines the basic problems relating to the way women are treated and how we bring up our children. It does state the obvious, but in an effective and understandable way:

“Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.”

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

“Some people ask: 'Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?' Because that would be ... a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”

“I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.”

It’s all good positive stuff. Those of you who know me will sense a but, and there is one. I did prefer Mary Beard’s recent brief work Women and Power. There is also a point at which Adichie is discussing hypocrisy about losing virginity where she talks about losing virginity being something that usually happens between two people of opposite genders. A couple of points, you can lose your virginity to someone of the same gender and gender is a much more fluid thing than we have recognised. Not two set points, more a spectrum. Working with those who identify as non-binary has certainly taught me that.

Then I come to Andrea Dworkin, one of those writers I have great respect for. Look at these two quotes:

“Male supremacy is fused into the language, so that every sentence both heralds and affirms it. Thought, experienced primarily as language, is permeated by the linguistic and perceptual values developed expressly to subordinate women. Men have defined the parameters of every subject. All feminist arguments, however radical in intent or consequence, are with or against assertions or premises implicit in the male system, which is made credible or authentic by the power of men to name. No transcendence of the male system is possible as long as men have the power of naming... As Prometheus stole fire from the gods, so feminists will have to steal the power of naming from men, hopefully to better effect.”

“A commitment to sexual equality with men is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.”

This is a great polemical pamphlet, maybe I’m suggesting it isn’t radical enough.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Nothing by Hanif Kureishi

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Elmet by Fiona Mozley

A first novel from not too far from where I live and closer still to where I was born and I recognise the landscape. Elmet was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker prize. The title itself is redolent of the area which used to be the old Celtic kingdom of Elmet, which covered much of what is now Yorkshire. The last remnants are now place names such as Sherburn-in-Elmet. There is also a nod to Ted Hughes’s work The Remains of Elmet. For a first novel this is very good and Mozley was also brought up in the area. She wrote the book on her daily commute and admits that it pulls in many ideas that interest her and are important to her, especially in relation to gender and oppression and she dedicates the novel to her partner Megan.

The novel itself has been described by the reviewer in the Guardian as elemental and contemporary rural noir, both excellent summations of the whole. The novel is about a father and his two children. The father is referred to as Daddy throughout and the children are Cathy and Daniel, both early to mid-teens. They live on a patch of land where Daddy has built a house. There is a copse which they work and Daddy catches (possibly poaches) local game, Daddy is a prizefighter, one of the very best and he periodically disappears for a day or two, leaving the children to fend for themselves, which they are well able to do. There are some neighbours at a distance, one of whom, Vivien, occasionally looks after the children. Daddy also helps vulnerable members of the local community when the have problems with debt collectors and the like. The principal antagonist is a local landowner, Price and his two sons. At one time Daddy used to work for Price, but no longer. The whole of the novel takes place under the radar of the police and the established authorities and builds towards a violent climax.

Some of the speech is vernacular, but still easy to understand. Mozley builds the personalities of the two children well. Cathy is very much like her father in approach to life and toughness whilst Daniel simply doesn’t aspire to traditional male roles. Cathy feels as though she is almost out of a Bronte novel and is a force of nature, “I’m angry all time, Danny. Aren’t you?” Her name, perhaps deliberately evoking Wuthering Heights and she becomes the major figure in the book and her role at the end is fascinating and disturbing at the same time. Mozley plays with gender identification throughout the book. Daniel says at one point, “You have to appreciate that I never thought of myself as a man,” and Cathy’s appropriation of some traditional male attributes makes the ending stark and shocking.

The writing about the landscape and nature captures a sense of place and can be quite vivid:

“The dawn erupted from a bud of mauve half-light and bloomed bloody as I woke.”

The narrative is compelling and the prose alive and immediate and Mozley does capture the plight of the downtrodden and disenfranchised in the bleaker areas of northern England. As the Spectator review rather archly points out, it isn’t often a novel combines a spot of Leveller radicalism with a portrayal of gender privilege. As Daniel points out when his sister disrupts a boys football game:

‘Even if she played, and even if she played well, it would always be their game.’

There are plenty of nods to other writers and films here, but the violence at the end is gruesome and truly shocking. I think, despite some flaws this is one of my favourite novels of the year and I will certainly be looking out for more of Mozley’s work.

9 out of 10

Starting Queer City by Peter Ackroyd

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The Nothing by Hanif Kureshi

This is a rather brief novella and Kureshi has managed to create some of the least likeable characters that populate literature! Waldo is an aging film director with a colourful history who now has multiple medical conditions, is confined to a wheelchair and is impotent. His wife current Zee is just over twenty years younger. She seems (possibly) to be having an affair with Eddie, a sort of friend of Waldo. Eddie is an old style, public school, Soho raconteur, somewhat dissolute, debt-ridden and charming. Waldo tries to find out if the affair is taking place and plots revenge.

As always with Kureshi, the first line is arresting:

“One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again.”

Of course Waldo has to decide whether he is imagining his wife’s affair or not:

“It is true that I imagine things for a living, and the imagination is the most dangerous place on earth.”

The New York Times rather aptly subtitles this Requiem for the Male Libido and indeed there is a whiff of Roth, Updike, Marquez, even Edmund White about it. Waldo can no longer be a physically sexual being; it’s the end of an era/eros and Waldo is angry. However there is no real depth to this and most of the book is taken up with plots and counter plots. Waldo’s sex crazed ramblings become boring very quickly. There isn’t a great deal of narrative or plot apart from husband and wife trying to get one over on each other. Even the brief appearance of an old time Soho gangster doesn’t liven it up. Zee can’t decide what she feels about her husband; apart from willing him to die so she can spend the inheritance she veers between being loving and trying to smother him with a pillow.

Waldo may be a tortured soul and Kureshi has lots of fun with different types of male gaze, but it doesn’t really go anywhere and takes over a hundred pages to do it.

5 out of 10

Starting The life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price

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The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

This is Helene Hanff’s follow up to 84 Charing Cross Road and it is an account of her first visit to Britain in 1971, three years after Frank Doel’s death. It is in daily diary form. The visit combined some book promotion of 84 Charing Cross Road, meeting Doel’s wife and daughters and a number of other friends and acquaintances. As in the previous book Hanff’s personality and enthusiasm shine through. Her delight in visiting historical sites where some of those she admires first trod is also obvious, although she can be cutting about things that irritate her:

 “Nothing infuriates me like those friendly, folksy bank ads in magazines and on TV. Every bank I ever walked into was about as folksy as a cobra.”

And this thought when walking in a park and greeting a dog with the owner close by:

” Please don’t do that!” she said to me sharply. “I’m trying to teach him good manners.”

I thought,” A pity he can’t do the same for you”.

And a very perceptive remark about being taken to lunch at the Hilton:

“You look at the faces in the Hilton dining room and first you want to smack them and then you just feel sorry for them, not a soul in the room looked happy.”

Hanff is great at the one liners although I did miss Frank Doel’s dry and reserved responses. This is a delightful tourist’s account of London and its surrounds told with Hanff’s zest for life.

 8 out of 10

Starting The Zealot's Bones by D M Mark

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Yes ! Another great Helene Hanff book. :D I was particularly pleased when she talked about meeting Joyce Grenfell, who I`m a big fan of ( she also has some great memoirs/letter collections ). :)

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On 20/05/2018 at 12:44 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

As in the previous book Hanff’s personality and enthusiasm shine through.

 

I think this is absolutely spot on, and is what is so infectious about all her books (at least the ones I've read) - you really feel she's talking to you directly.  I really enjoyed her Letters from New York a short while ago, for very much the same reasons as you outline here.

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I think you both are right and I will look out for more of her books!

The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price

This is a remarkable piece of work. Sometimes when you read a book it feels so familiar that you think you must have read it before. I felt this about Carr’s Month in the Country and about this book. The beginning of the Guardian review sets the scene:

“In 1964, BBC Wales made a short film about three brothers, blind from birth or infancy, raised on a farm in the lovely and remote valley of Maesglasau, east of Dolgellau in Merioneth. Their genetic fate both closed and opened doors. Special education away from home meant that Gruff went to Oxford and became an Anglican clergyman. William – who returned to the farm – worked as a polyglot Braille editor. Lewis, the Benjamin of the family, would programme computers and, in retirement, become a prize-winning blind artist.”

Rebecca Jones was their aunt and it is her life that is told here: part novel, part history, part portrayal of rural life. Her family have lived in and farmed the valley for over a thousand years and can trace their roots in the valley to 1012. Rebecca Jones was born in 1905. Angharad Price is the great-niece of the siblings, making her Rebecca Jones’s great great-niece. She is telling her own family story. The original is in Welsh. The landscape of the valley and its moods and climate are almost another character. Over the course of the book we are taken through the changes in the twentieth century. Jones is portrayed with great dignity and perception and with a good deal of warmth. If you are tempted to read this don’t read any introductions and don’t turn to the last page!

This work is also profound and reflective. Rebecca reflects as she ages;

“Continuance is painful. It is the cross onto which we are tied: its beams pulling us this way and that. A longing for continuance lies at the heart of our nature, and we lie at the center of those forces which pull us this way and that like some torturer. Our basic urge is toward continuance. Yet, we are born to die. And we spend our lives coming to terms with that paradox.”

The language is poetic, even in translation:

‘This was a reversal of creation.  The perfection of an absence. / Tranquility can belong to one place, yet it ranges the world.  It is tied to every passing hour, yet everlasting.  It encompasses the exceptional and the commonplace.  It connects interior with exterior.’

There is a good deal of prose by Hugh Jones, a hymnodist but it is family and location that matter most:

“Memories of my childhood reach me in a continuous flow: smells and tastes and sights converging in a surging current. And just like the stream at Maesglasau, these recollections are a product of the landscape in our part of rural mid-Wales at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its familiar bubbling comforts me.
It was not really like that, of course. The flow was halted frequently. Indeed a stream is not the best metaphor for life's irregular flow between one dam and the next.
I have not mentioned the reservoirs. In these the emotions congregate. I approach them with hesitation. I stare into the still waters, fearing their hold on my memories. In terror I see my own history in the bottomless depths.”

This novel/history is simple and yet written with great profundity, set within a very specific and limited landscape and seeming to contain the whole world. The history of the family has its sadness’s with the loss of several children over the generations, two world wars, the coming of mechanisation and electricity.

I would recommend this book to anyone who reads; it is quite brilliant.

 9 and a half out of 10

Starting The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis- Stempel

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The Secret Life of Owls by John Lewis-Stempel

I have always had a thing about owls. I have a mug with an owl on it, a few pottery owls, pictures, bookmarks and so on. So I had to have this little book, only ninety pages long. It is a combination of looking at the nature of owls, the different species that live in and visit the British Isles and some of the history and mythology of owls.

The parts relating to anatomy and physiology are fairly brief, but the interesting parts are the mythology, poetry and history.

This is the poet Edward Thomas writing during the First World War:

    Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;

    Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof

    Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest

    Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

 

    Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,

    Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.

    All of the night was quite barred out except

    An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

 

    Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,

    No merry note, nor cause of merriment,

    But one telling me plain what I escaped

    And others could not, that night, as in I went.

 

    And salted was my food, and my repose,

    Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice

    Speaking for all who lay under the stars,

    Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

   The owl reminds the soldier that although he is safe, warm and fed, there are those that are not.

    We Have owls as harbingers of death, wise owls, wol in Winnie the Pooh, owls as a symbol of sobriety (various parts of the owl, eaten, boiled etc were supposed to cure drunkenness), putting the heart and foot of an owl under your arm to cure rabies and other such interesting pieces of information. Owls have been kept as pets, Florence Nightingale had one. But nothing beats seeing an owl gliding across a frosty field at dawn or dusk.

    Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat inevitably gets in there (never really a favourite) as does the old nursery rhyme used to try to keep children quiet:

     A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

    There are stories about owls from around the world, China and a Native American tale and there are records of owls from cave paintings dating back many thousands of years. It’s a mine of owlish information, if a little too short for me. The book starts with The Owls by Baudelaire and it seems a good place to finish:

    Among the black yews, their shelter,
the owls are ranged in a row,
like alien deities, the glow,
of their red eyes pierces. They ponder.
They perch there without moving,
till that melancholy moment
when quenching the falling sun,
the shadows are growing.
Their stance teaches the wise
to fear, in this world of ours,
all tumult, and all movement:
Mankind drunk on brief shadows
always incurs a punishment
for his longing to stir, and go.

 

  8  and a half out of 10

  Starting Sweet days of discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

 

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That's lovely, I have a thing for owls too!

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There are a lot of us around Madeleine!

A Pin to see the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse

This is a powerful and moving representation in novel form of a true crime in the 1920s. Published in 1934 by F Tennyson Jesse (great niece of the poet Tennyson) it is well written and the characterisation is strong. I must say at this point that there are inevitably spoilers ahead, although it is a bit like warning of spoilers at the beginning of a fictionalised account of the Titanic!
The novel is based on the infamous Thompson/Bywaters murder case of the early 1920s. Edith Thompson was a married lower middle class woman having an affair with a younger man (by seven years). The younger man (Bywaters meets Thompson and her husband late one evening as they are returning from the theatre and murders Percy Thompson. Both were convicted of murder as it was felt that it was planned by both and they were hanged on the same day. A case that was notorious at the time and had a significant impact on the debate about the death penalty. It has resonated since: Sarah Waters’ novel “The Paying Guests” is based on the case as was Jill Dawson’s novel “Fred and Edie” and E M Delafield’s novel “Messalina of the Suburbs”. There have been several true crime books about the case, two TV adaptations, at least two plays, several TV documentaries, mentions in Agatha Christie’s novel Crooked House, a number of legal examinations of whether the trial and sentence were valid, a biography of Thompson, a novel by Molly Cutpurse (A Life Lived) speculating about what might have happened to Thompson had she lived, fiction based on the case has come from P D James, Dorothy L Sayers and Anthony Cox and last but not least James Joyce was fascinated by the case and used transcripts of the trial extensively in Finnegans Wake.
The title of this novel comes from an incident when sixteen year old Julia Almond (Thompson in the novel) is looking after a class of younger children at her school. She is shown a peepshow by nine year old Leonard (later to be her lover):
“Then she picked up the box. A round hole was cut into each end, one covered with red transparent paper, one empty. To the empty hole was applied an eye, shutting the other in obedience to eager instructions.
And at once sixteen year old, worldly wise London Julia ceased to be, and a child an enchanted child was looking into fairyland. The floor of the box was covered with cotton-wool, and a frosting of sugar sprinkled over it. Light came into the box from the red-covered window at the far end, so that a rosy glow as of sunset lay over the sparkling snow. Here and there little brightly-coloured men and women, children and animals of cardboard, conversed or walked about. A cottage, flanked by a couple of fir trees, cut from an advertisement of some pine-derivative cough cure, which Julia saw every day in the newspaper, gave an extraordinary impression of reality and of distance. This little rose-tinted snow scene was at once amazingly real and utterly unearthly. Everything was just the wrong size – a child was larger than a grown man, a duck was larger than a horse; a bird, hanging from the sky on a thread, loomed like a cloud. It was a mad world, compact of insane proportions, but lit by a strange glamour. The walls and lid of the box gave to it the sense of distance that a frame gives to a picture, sending it backwards into another space. Julia stared into the peepshow, and it was though she gazed into the depths of a complete and self-contained world, where she would go clad in snow-shoes and furs, and be able to tame savage huskies and shoot bears; a world of chill pallor, of an illimitable white sky, both only saved from a cruel rigour by the rosy all-pervading light.”
This novel is written with great humanity and intensity so the reader understands Julia Almond, despite her flaws and her fantasies. Almond is portrayed as a hopeless romantic wanting the sort of romance she found in novels. Her husband is portrayed as respectable, slow and plodding, expecting the sort of wife a lower middle class chap should expect and being surprised when he didn’t get it. The novel covers Julia’s life for over ten years and does portray how events can take on a life of their own.
The last hundred pages of the novel are horrific, portraying the investigation, trial and time leading to the execution. The actual description of Thompson’s last days and execution are truly awful and should be enough to convince anyone that the death penalty should be opposed. John Ellis, the executioner, was so haunted by Thompson’s execution that he took his own life.
The novel is well conceived and well written and the reader is taken along as events spiral out of control; an indictment of lower middle class values and mores: as one reviewer pointed out had the characters been upper class or working class events would not have happened as they did. It is also a pertinent check to remind one that the jury system is not perfect.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

 

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Sweet days of discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

A fairly short novella set in Switzerland in the 1950s, it begins in a straightforward way: “At fourteen I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzell.” The reader may be tempted to think this is going to be yet another analysis of teenage adolescence and in some ways it is as Jaeggy writes this in a semi-autobiographical way. Brodsky makes the point that:

“Dipped in the blue ink of adolescence, Fleur Jaeggy’s pen is an engraver’s needle depicting roots, twigs, and branches of the tree of madness, growing in the splendid isolation of the small Swiss garden of knowledge into full leaf until it obscures every perspective.”

There are lots of literary references: Walser is invoked on the first page and of course he died in the snow in Appenzell in 1956. The mountain setting are suggestive of TB and Mann’s The Magic Mountain. There are Bronte references and suggestions of Jane Eyre’s boarding school. The plot is a simple description of life in the school and the narrator’s friendships. These are contrasting. There is Frederique, something of an austere relationship with some distance and coldness, yet very profound. Then there is Micheline, more open and spontaneous: “What Micheline wanted from life was to have a good time, and wasn’t that what I wanted too?” The contrast between Frederique and Micheline is central to the book. The narrator encounters Frederique later in life living in austerity:

“I thought of this destitution of hers as some spiritual or aesthetic exercise. Only an aesthete can give up everything. I wasn’t surprised so much by her poverty as by her grandeur. That room was a concept. Though of what I didn’t know. Once again she had gone beyond me.”

The austerity is a reflection of their austere relationship. One of the marvels of this book is that Jaeggy manages to write about the hothouse world of a boarding school in such a cold and austere way. There is a gothic quality to this and the award winning translation is excellent. Reviewers who have attended boarding schools have noted how well Jaeggy has captured the crushes (passiones), the rituals and teachers having favourites. The head of school Frau Hofstetter is reminiscent of Mme Beck in Villette.

Jaeggy writes well and turns a good phrase. School lockers are described as “the dear little mortuary of our thoughts”. Boarding schools: “A boarding school is a strong institution, since in a sense it is founded on blackmail.”

The language is often that of mental illness and there are plenty of premonitions and death and all that surrounds it are ever present. There is the sense that we are all dying, even as children, evoking Rilke who said that we carry our deaths within us. The narrative is intense and claustrophobic and there are gaps which the reader has to fill and mercifully there is no whiney teenage angst.

It is a brief and sparely written novella and there is more to it than meets the eye.

8 out of 10

Starting Mill for Grinding Old People Young by Glenn Patterson

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The Zealot's Bones by D M Mark

This combines historical fiction and crime. It is set in a specific time and place. The city of Hull in 1849 at the time of a cholera epidemic which killed one in forty-three of the population. It also moves to North Lincolnshire as well. This is my area of the country hence the attraction. The plot is a little far-fetched (well quite a lot actually). It is rumoured that the bones of one of the apostles, a rather obscure one, Simon the Zealot, have found their resting place in North Lincolnshire. Seeking for these relics is a Canadian antiquary and academic Diligence Matheson. He has hired as a bodyguard Meshach Stone, an ex-soldier with a very colourful past and enough inner demons to run a small portion of hell.

The search for the old bones becomes rather secondary as Stone discovers a quest of his own. Stone makes a connection with a prostitute in Hull. He returns to try to find her and discovers she has died, most likely of cholera. He goes on to discover that actually she has been brutally murdered and that there is a serial killer at work, murdering women of the lower classes (mainly prostitutes). Would it surprise you to find that the two quests become enmeshed? No, I thought not!

This is not for the faint-hearted and there is certainly a gothic edge with a script that could have come from Hammer Horror. There is also a great deal of brutal violence and torture, quite graphically described. What the novel lacks is meaningful female characters. The women involved are all prostitutes (and most of them are dead) and mentally unwell (and there are only two of them). It’s a man’s world and men have to do what they have to do, usually in inventively gruesome ways.

I like a bit more subtlety in my crime novels and this wasn’t for me. If you like your historical crime violent and brutal then this may be for you.

4 out of 10

Starting Riding Toward Everywhere by William T Vollmann

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