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      April Supporter Giveaway   04/01/2019

        "If you look the right way you can see that the whole world is a garden."   In honour of spring, the April giveaway is a print of this wonderful quote from The Secret Garden (thanks, once again to www.thestorygift.co.uk) along with a Secret Garden tea (Victoria Sponge flavoured!) from the  Literary Tea Company! (You can find them both at their own website theliteraryteacompany.co.uk and at their etsy store www.etsy.com/uk/shop/LiteraryTeaCompany ).   As always, patreon supporters will be entered automatically and if you don't support but want to be included in this month's giveaway you can join the patreon here: www.patreon.com/bookclubforum A winner will be chosen at random on the last day of the month!
Books do furnish a room

A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

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Courage calls to Courage Everywhere by Jeanette Winterson

On the same line as recent shorts by Mary Beard and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is an adaption of Winterson’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture and also commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of some women getting the vote. The cover has a pattern in the colours of the Suffragettes. As well as the lecture there is a transcript of a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst called Freedom or Death, delivered in Hartford Connecticut in 1913.

There is a brief look at the suffrage movement and an assessment of how things have progressed (or not). There is also an outline of the current state of women’s issues with a look at the #MeToo movement, education and medicine. Winterson also looks at the future and argues that more women need to be in technology and IT.

This is not theoretical analysis or closely argued and reasoned, it is polemical and passionately argued as you would expect from Winterson. It is a call to arms and action and a timely reminder that we have a long way to go.

Pankhurst’s speech at the end is well worth reading and is also a call to action and revolt and it ends thus:

“So here am I. I come in the intervals of prison appearance. I come after having been four times imprisoned under the “Cat and Mouse Act”, probably going back to be rearrested as soon as I set my foot on British soil. I come to ask you to help win this fight. If we win it, this hardest of all fights, then, to be sure, in the future it is going to be made easier for women all over the world to win their fight when their time comes.”

One wonders what Pankhurst would have made of today’s situation.

7 out of 10

Starting After me comes the flood by Sarah Perry

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Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan

A tragi-comic satire on the mental health system in this country that pulls no punches. If you are going to write about mental health and mental illness you’d better not be an outsider writing about what you haven’t experienced. Clare Allan is not an outsider, not at all. She spent ten years inside a variety of the mental health institutions of the 1990s and has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. In an interview she lists some of the things she has been diagnosed with:

“..paranoid psychosis, psychotic depression, developing schizophrenia, manic depression, major psychotic disorder and borderline personality - a list which she claims was "about as much use as covering a parcel with 'fragile' stickers."”

The lists of medication Allan has been on is equally impressive, including medications to counteract the effects of other medications. She explains the humour in the book by saying that:

“It was just a case of doing the patients justice. The longer I stayed there the more I realised how people use humour to cope with completely desperate situations.”

The novel itself revolves around the Dorothy Fish hospital, and especially the day care units, whose attendees live in the run down council estates surrounding it. The story is told by N, who is tasked to show round a newcomer called Poppy Shakespeare. Unlike most of the denizens of the hospital Poppy is insistent that she is sane and does not want to be there. However she needs legal aid to help her prove she is sane and to get legal aid she has to be on “MAD money” (the term Allan uses for welfare benefits and she creates a complex system of assessment) and to get “MAD money you need to have a mental illness. This is the catch 22 the novel revolves around.

One of the characteristics of the book is N’s narrative voice, it does not conform to any linguistic rules and punctuation and grammar are also casualties of N’s distinctive train of thought. She starts the novel:

“I’m not being funny but you can’t blame me for what happened. All I done was try and help Poppy out”

At a monthly assessment N is asked a question:

"Do you find it hard to make decisions? I seen the trap straight off: if I said I strongly agreed they could say I was lying on account of I just made one, and if I said I disagreed they could say there were nothing the matter. So in the end I gone with neither agree nor disagree."

Those who attend the day centre are called “dribblers”. The sane are known as “sniffs” and full time residents who live on the higher floors of the hospital are known as “flops”. The supporting characters can appear cartoonlike because of the names Allan gives them: Middle Class Michael, Astrid Arsewipe, Slasher Sue (so-named because of her self-harming), Brian the Butcher, Verna the Vomit (bulimic), Marta the coffin (so depressed that, "hearses used to toot her as they gone past down the street") and so on. This is close to the bone and would be unacceptable from the so-called normal but Allan pulls it off and her insights into the systems and its inhabitants make the novel terribly sad as well as funny. All of those involved with Dorothy Fish are desperate to stay there and not be discharged because it is the only life they know. However we are in the 1990s and there is a drive to improve outcomes and improve the system and so discharges begin to happen and those discharged are cast out with no support and often disintegrate. This I know to be true as in my work I still come across ex residents of some of these institutions. They are invariably socially isolated, often self-neglecting and have been totally abandoned by the state which is no longer interested in them.

This isn’t a novel looking for sympathy for the mentally ill, it isn’t a memoir or autobiography, but it is a satire on mental health policy. N is a spectacularly unreliable narrator, but she has some insight into her life and that of her friend Poppy. It illustrates many of the concerns of the recovery movement. It is easy to get sidetracked by the language but the message is a powerful one. As the quote from Chekov at the beginning says:

‘Since prisons and madhouses exist, why, somebody is bound to sit in them’

9 out of 10

Starting I write what I like by Steve Biko

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Winter in the morning by Janina Bauman

This is an autobiographical account from a teenage girl of life in Warsaw from just before the war until its end. It covers the period of the Warsaw ghetto, which, as Jews Bauman and her family were confined to. We follow Bauman and her extended family through ups and downs via memory and some diary excerpts. Initially the family are quite well off, but once the Nazis invade Poland all that changes and Bauman, her mother and sister spend much of their time in hiding or on the run. Throughout the account the reader also sees Bauman grow up into a young woman.

From a middle class life the reader is taken onto the streets of the ghetto where dead bodies lie in the street. Bauman is honest about her account, honest about her own failings and those around her. She is trying to live an ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances and trying to find her own identity. The second half of the book is increasingly tense as after the destruction of the ghetto the family hide on the “Aryan” side of the city. They have to move regularly as hiding places are discovered or blackmailers find them: there is a thriving trade in blackmailing Jews in hiding. There are loses as friends and family are caught, some killed, some sent away to camps. With the destruction of Warsaw in the last few months of the war the family end up in a country village.

This is the first of Bauman’s autobiographical writings, she has been referred to as a sociologist of modern life. She writes with poignancy and warmth and even with some humour. Bauman finds the hiding frustrating, but it can’t entirely hide her teenage thoughts and fantasies:

“Perhaps we’ve been wasting the last bits of our lives not even trying to find out what love is”

Bauman was still obsessed with books, boys and romance and there is still that spark there despite the horrors. She is able to reflect at a distance:

“During the war I learned the truth we usually chose to leave unsaid: that the cruellest thing about cruelty is that it dehumanizes its victims before it destroys them. And that the hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions”

This is a moving and very human account of Warsaw and its Jewish community and Bauman is an excellent narrator.

8 out of 10

Starting Butterfly Stories by William T Vollmann

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The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

This is a novella which can easily be read in one sitting; sparse would be a good way of describing it. The little paragraphs are rarely more than one or two sentences and they are well spaced out. The novel is dystopian and relates to an environmental disaster in the very near future involving water, lots of it. It illustrates how quickly our comfortable lifestyles and communities can disintegrate. It is narrated by an unnamed and heavily pregnant woman. All the other characters are referred to be initials. Her partner is R and the baby when he arrives, Z. There are some similarities with The Road as the family have to leave their home because of flooding and move to higher ground. The narrator is quite reflective about the situation:

“Home is another word that has lost itself. I try to make it into something, to wrap its sounds around a shape. All I get is the opening of my mouth and its closing, the way my lips press together at the end. Home.”

This is also a reflection on motherhood as much of the interaction is between the narrator and Z:

“This is how his body curls: like a shrimp, like a spring, like a tiny human yet to straighten out “

This is as much a prose poem as a novel and the review in The Independent makes this point:

“This isn’t a novel in which exposition is a problem; it’s more Virginia Woolf does cli-fi, impressions of a scene rather than detailed depiction”

Cli-fi is not a term I was familiar with, but I suspect it won’t be the last time I hear it! I am less sure about the Woolf comparison, although I see the point stylistically:

“After the flood, the fire. I am losing the story. I am forgetting.”

However for me it doesn’t have the depth and solidity of Woolf. There is a sense of movement though as the narrator moves from London and ends up on a remote Scottish island and then back to London again as the waters settle. R disappears on some vague quest about halfway and the focus centres even more on the mother/baby relationship:

“Z is real, with his tiny cat skull and sweet-smelling crap. The news is rushing by. It is easy to ignore.”

We follow Z through his first year, movements, steps, crawls and so on.

Inserted into the text are brief italicized sentences. These are based on various creation myths:

“The first one’s bones were made of branches, his blood of rivers, his eyes of moons, his spirit of fire.”

“The otherworld will be beneath the ocean, forty thousand fathoms below. In that place there will be no pain, nor death, nor mourning.”

Those two were picked at random. I think they are meant to act as counterpoints to the destruction, but they tended to blend into the whole. This was interesting but ultimately the insubstantialness of it meant there was a lack of potency. The film rights have already been sold, so I wonder if the visualization of it will add to the power. Nevertheless it was interesting, especially for the reflections on motherhood rather than the dystopia.  

7 out of 10

Starting Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

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A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

This is the fourth novel I’ve read by Taylor and it is interesting to compare with the others. This is set in 1949 and has a more disturbing feel to it than the previous and there is a twist at the end which is significant. The novel revolves around three women: Camilla, Frances and Liz. Frances is an older woman who was formerly Liz’s governess (but is now an artist), Liz now has a husband who is a vicar and a baby son. Camilla is a friend of Liz, who is an unmarried teacher. Every year they spend a month time with Frances as a form of holiday. Frances lives in a village in the south of England. The setting is a middle class English village, but this isn’t all lace curtains, jam making, summer fairs and cream teas. Taylor is exploring other aspects of human nature:

“Whereas in the centre of the earth, in the heart of life in the core of even everyday things is there not violence, with flames wheeling, turmoil, pain, chaos?”

There is the stifling heat of a hot summer and tension runs through the whole. Most of the way through this I was wondering whether this novel was as strong as some of her others, but it is and quite bleak too. The novel opens with a suicide at a railway station:

“The station-master came out of his office and stood in the doorway. The three of them were quite still in the shimmering heat, the plume of smoke nodding towards them, the noise of the train suddenly coming as it rounded a bend, suddenly sucking them up in its confusion and panic. All at once, the man on the footbridge swung himself up on the parapet and, just as Camilla was putting out her arms in a ridiculous gesture as if to stop him, he clumsily jumped, a sprawling jump, an ill-devised death, since he fell wide of the express train.”

This brings Camilla and Richard Elton together as they wait on the platform, Camilla on the way to vacation with Frances. This brings me to the three men in the book. There is Arthur, Liz’s husband, a vicar who is rather pompous and self-important.  Morland Beddoes is visiting to look at Frances’s artwork, he is lonely and quite thoughtful. Richard Elton is a different matter, he preys on lonely women, and he lies and is perpetually broke. He is also dangerous as the reader (though not Camilla) soon realizes. He has seen action in the war and is at a loose end. He starts to spend time with Camilla. He writes in his diary:

“And because she is the last thing that will ever happen to me, it shall be different from all that went before. More important. I shall make it different and perfect. And I shall never touch her or harm her or lay hands upon her.”

When a man starts to think like that it is not difficult to guess his past.

All the women are struggling with some aspect of life, as Beddoes notes to Frances:

Liz is unhappy about her baby. Camilla – that’s a lovely name. It has the smoothness of ice – she’s unhappy about her life; embittered, waspish. You’re unhappy about the world.”

Frances is feeling her age and questioning the meaning of her life:

“For was I not guilty of making ugliness charming? An English sadness like a veil over all I painted, until it became ladylike and nostalgic, governessy, utterly lacking in ferocity, brutality, violence. Whereas in the centre of the earth, in the heart of life, in the core of even everyday things is there not violence, with flames wheeling, turmoil, pain, chaos?

Her paintings this year, she knew, were four utter failures to express her new feelings, her rejection of prettiness, her tearing-down of the veils of sadness, of charm. She had become abstract, incoherent, lost.”

There is little action and village life meanders on with a funfair and a picnic. Taylor explores the lives of the three women, all of whom are coming to terms with something: Frances with old age and loneliness, Camilla with being alone and without someone she can love, Liz with her new baby and her husband (a mixed blessing).

All in all this turned out to be rather good, and there is a definite sinister edge to the ending.

9 out of 10

Starting A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

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The Little Company by Eleanor Dark

Fascinating novel by the Australian writer Eleanor Dark. It is set in the Second World War covering 1941 to 1944 and focuses on the Massey family. They live between Sydney and a nearby town in the Blue Mountains. The main characters are Gilbert Massey, a middle-aged writer, socialist, rather boring: his wife Phyllis, conservative, religious and profoundly disturbed by her husband’s left wing views. Gilbert’s sister Marty is also a writer with a sharp wit, also left of centre, her husband Richard is older and a liberal. Gilbert’s brother Nick is a Marxist and member of the Australian Communist Party. Victoria and Prue are Gilbert and Phyllis’s daughters.

This, although it is a family drama, is also serious fiction written in wartime and the characters reflect the tensions of those who don’t know who will be victorious. It also reflects the sudden change in the political landscape when the Soviet Union joined the Allies. The novel is also a complex analysis of how intellectuals of the 30s and 40s responded to the changing political landscape. This is partly also biographical as Dark and her husband were going on the same journey. The debates are interesting as Nick takes the party line and the others debate around his viewpoint. The title comes from the Song of Roland and the last stand of two of Charlemagne’s knights, reflecting the imminent threat to Australia from Japan. Every character is complex and well-drawn. It is interesting that Dark pours much of her ways of thinking, beliefs and challenges into the central male character Gilbert and all of the conservative and traditionalist beliefs into his wife, who descends into mental illness. The reader does feel an instinctive sympathy for Gilbert, but it is clear that he can only be who he is because of the support of his wife. The complexity revolves around the frailty and uncertainty of social relationships.

There are interesting reflections on the nature of writing, the meaning of war, shifting perspectives in the country, critiques of capitalism and militarism and struggles for meaning. Dark does not forget her own feminism and Gilbert daydreams the following:

“Some disembodied voice of composite womanhood said to him dryly: In the past we have been grateful for the shelter of your strong right arm against tigers, spears, swords. But can you shield us from the weapons of your scientific warfare – this precious ultimate bloom of your masculine inventiveness? Forgive us if we feel that our children now need a more reliable guardianship – our own”.

This is as radical as any 1960s feminist, written in the 1940s. Dark believed that one of the things she had to do in bleak times was to continue writing and this is the result. A very interesting and thought provoking novel: not an easy read and much subtler and more complex than it initially appears.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

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The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Billed as an atmospheric and chilling ghost story. This is set in the Yorkshire Moors, very much Bronte country. The descriptions of the terrain and weather are well written and capture the barren bleakness and danger of the moors. Clements employs some of the standard tropes of the genre: locked rooms with noises coming from within, family secrets, a cursed location, isolation, suspicion, treacherous landscape, ancient standing stones, a previous tragedy and lots of sheep (well it is on the moors).

The location is Scarcross Hall on the moors. It is owned by Bartram Booth and mostly managed by his daughter Mercy and the year is 1674. It is a sheep farm and extra help is always needed. Stranger, Ellis Ferreby is taken on to assist with the shepherding. He arrives as strange things have begun to happen. Lambs have been found ritually slaughtered. The old coffin path which runs past the Hall seems to have become more sinister and Mercy starts to sense a malevolent presence on it and sometimes in the Hall. The pace is steady and there are romantic elements as well. It is 1674 and to add spice, in 1574 a family at the Hall were cut off in the winter and died horribly, it is said killed by the Devil. Inevitably there is a hypocritical local preacher in the Puritan tradition and there are accusations of witchcraft.

Clements builds the tension well and the writing is convincing, as are the descriptions of the moor. The effects of the recent civil war are written into the plot and Clements uses modern knowledge of PTSD to flesh out some of her characters. All of the characters are flawed, and more believable for it. Clements is the first to admit this is an homage to Emily Bronte, although in its gothic style it is as much Du Maurier. If you like a good spine chiller, this may be for you. I had some issues with the ending, but thinking of Wuthering Heights, I do understand the force of it. Make up your own mind, as any attempts to explain would be spoilers.

7 out of 10

Starting A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

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I Write What I Like by Steve Biko

A collection of writings by Steve Biko, remarkable, perceptive and articulate. Biko was an icon for those of us on the left when I was at university and developing my political thinking. Killed whilst in custody at the age of thirty, he is often regarded as one of the foremost thinkers about racism and was influential in the development of the Black Consciousness Movement. Biko was an anti-apartheid activist and African socialist. In 1968 he helped to found the South African Students Organisation (SASO). He was also involved in the founding of the Black People’s Convention (BPC). His life is depicted in the film Cry Freedom, Denzel Washington playing Biko.

Biko outlines the development of SASO and the BPC and the need for black people to organise themselves without the help or support of whites:

"Blacks are tired of standing at the touchlines of a game that they should we playing ... They want things for themselves and all by themselves"

 He analyses white racism in the South African context and is critical of the role of white liberals in these terms:

"expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master's son to remove all the conditions leading to the former's enslavement"

He rejects white values as being inextricable from the culture of domination, exploitation and oppression and he argues the type of integration the liberals wanted was flawed:

"an integration based on exploitative values ... in which Black will compete with Black, using each other as rungs up a step ladder leading them to white values ... in which the Black person will have to prove himself/herself in terms of these values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation, and in which the poor will grow poorer and the rich richer in a country where the poor have always been Black"

He also articulates the philosophy and rationale of Black Consciousness. The most powerful parts of the book are the two chapters at the end which are transcripts of Biko’s cross examination in court where he very clearly outlines his philosophy and political aims:

‘There is no running away from the fact that now in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless. The white have locked up within a small minority of themselves the greater proportion of the country’s wealth. If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday. So for meaningful change to appear there needs to be an attempt at reorganising the whole economic pattern and economic policies within this particular country.’

Those who knew Biko reflect on how intelligent and articulate he was and how keenly his loss was felt.

It has been noted that Biko did not really see a role for feminism in the Black Consciousness movement. I am sure his views would have developed had he lived, but nevertheless it is worth bearing in mind.

His reflection on death at the end is telling:

 “You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead you can’t care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicizing thing. So I said to them, listen, if you guys want to do this your way, you have got to handcuff me and bind my feet together, so that I can’t respond. If you allow me to respond I’m certainly going to respond. And I’m afraid you may have to kill me in the process even if its not your intention.”

9 out of 10

Starting The Dead House by Billy O'Callaghan

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

A brilliant little novella that can easily be read in one sitting. For a brief story with a simple plot, there is so much going on. It is set in Northumberland, in a hot summer in the early 1990s, in an Iron Age re-enactment camp. There is Professor Jim Slade and three of his students: Pete, Dan and Molly. Then there is the narrator, seventeen year old Sylvie (named after Sulevia the Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools) and her mother and father (Bill). Bill is a bus driver who is obsessed with history and spends all of his spare time researching the past, especially the Iron Age. He is also a violent bully and personifies the phrase coercive control. He beats his wife and daughter and feels that is entirely appropriate. History seems to show him that women should know their place. The title comes from the ghost walls built in the Iron Age; wooden with skulls on the top. Another central theme is a girl found in a bog who had been sacrificed by her community, hands and feet tied with a rope round her neck.

There are numerous themes here. Domestic abuse is obviously one of them and this illustrates that abuse isn’t a modern phenomenon. Bill is also seeking an “England” which never existed, a people who were purely British and who were fighting off alien invaders: shades of Brexit of course, the ghost wall being symbolic of attitudes to and fear of outsiders. Ironic, that as the Berlin Wall has just fallen, there is a symbolic reconstruction here. There is a growing tension between Sylvie and her father, she is seventeen and will soon be out of his control and he doesn’t want this.

The writing is excellent, especially in relation to the landscape and the heat and there are interesting descriptions of foraging and living off the land:

“I saw a bog myrtle bush leaning over the water downstream, pewter leaved, and picked my way towards it, rubbed a leaf between my fingers and inhaled the scent of eucalyptus and sandalwood. I squatted for a little while on the bank and listened to the sounds of the night, no birds now but the stream hurrying over stones it had worn to roundness, small lives rustling somewhere within reach, a distant owl and a nearer response.”

Of course the students soon discover the location of the local Spar shop. The naming of Sylvie assumes more importance and the plot builds towards a possibly brutal climax. Along the way Sylvie and Molly have built a bond which becomes significant.

This is a perceptive and telling reflection on our current times (Moss started writing it just after the Brexit vote). It shows just what “us and them” divisions really lead to.

9 out of 10

Starting Weird Stories by Charlotte Riddell

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Great reviews, as always :) Ghost Wall sounds very interesting, I have 'Bodies of Light' by the same author on my wish list but hadn't heard of Ghost Wall before. 

 

'Weird Stories' is one I want to read too so interested to see what you'll think! 

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Thanks Hayley, yes Ghost Wall was good and very brief as well!

Delta of Venus by Anais Nin

This is a collection of short stories written in the 1940s. It was written for a private collector and was not intended for publication. We now know the “collector” was Roy M Johnson of Healdtown Oil. He was also paying others to write erotica including Henry Miller. Nin later explained why she had participated:

“At the time (1941) we were all writing erotica at a dollar a page, I realized that for centuries we had only one model for this literary genre — the writing of man. I was already conscious of a difference between the masculine and feminine treatment of sexual experience.

I know that there was a great disparity between Henry Miller’s explicitness and my ambiguities — between his humorous, Rabelasian view of sex and my poetic descriptions of sexual relationships in the unpublished portions of the Diary. As I wrote in Volume Three of the Diary, I had a feeling that Pandora’s box contained the mysteries of women’s sensuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate.”

 

Nin’s language is literary but the collection has the feel to me of a let’s throw everything in, including the kitchen sink! By which I mean that Nin covers most angles of erotic writing available including some that I find unacceptable (paedophilia for example) presumably with the notion that there is something for everyone to like. The debates around consent and ages of consent are complex and have changed over time and are not for this review. There is certainly a richness to the language and as Nin didn’t intend that they be published, she experiments with the language and with literary devices. As a result, although many work, some are rather clunky. What Nin does is to examine human life through the lens of erotica and from a woman’s point of view and she creates a sense of sexual possibility.

The main problem I have with erotica per se (and it’s taken me a while to work this out) is that for me it has to have a context other than an erotic story where the point is the erotica itself.

This is however, is an assertion of feminine identity and is lyrical and confessional; not just focusing on the action itself, but also on the internalizations of the characters.

Like this review my feelings about this are mixed and I certainly think I need to read much more Nin to put it in context.

5 out of 10

Starting The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Great reviews! I like the sound of The Coffin Path and Ghost Wall. I also enjoyed your review of Poppy Shakespeare which I've wanted to read for a while. I've seen the film with Naomie Harris which I thought was great, if a little confusing.

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Thank you Andrea

Weird Stories by Charlotte Riddell

A collection of six Victorian ghost stories. This is from a publishing house called Victorian Secrets which publishes books from and about the nineteenth century, some of which might otherwise be difficult to find. This collection certainly fits into the gothic category with rambling old houses recalcitrant furniture and apparitions. It isn’t always a house that is haunted, in one it is a farm. The hauntings are often linked to past injustices.

Charlotte Riddell was a prolific Victorian writer, producing over fifty novels and a number of short stories. Five of her novels are also ghost stories. She wrote for the popular market and was the first pensioner of the Society of Authors. The Victorian readership was very interested in supernatural tales. Riddell liked to write haunted house tales, usually houses that were cheap with local reputations, rented or purchased by the narrator who then discovers why said house was cheap. Many of the ghosts are female, sometimes (but not always) women who have been wronged. In her introduction to the collection Emma Liggins points out that the two Married Women’s Property Acts had recently been enacted and there was increasing debates about the rights of women. Ghost stories can give the author licence to push the boundaries of fiction by exploring female sexuality, property ownership and the strangeness of others. Riddell shows the influence of the Bronte’s (particularly Jane Eyre in the last story).

Although these are ghost stories, there is little horror, the ghosts often point and try to correct past wrongs rather than shriek and howl. There are often economic issues at stake and Riddell points to the futility of both miserliness and overspending. Financial volatility and risk are at the centre of a number of the tales. For many Victorian readers, uncertain finances were as scary as the ghosts and Riddell weaves the two together. Riddell can turn her hand to description as well:

“I looked at it over a low laurel hedge growing inside an open paling about four feet high. Beyond the hedge there was a strip of turf, green as emeralds, smooth as a bowling green - then came a sunk fence, the most picturesque sort of protection the ingenuity of man ever devised; beyond that, a close-cut lawn which sloped down to the sunk fence from a house with projecting gables in the front, the recessed portion of the building having three windows on the first floor. Both gables were covered with creepers, the lawn was girt in by a semicircular sweep of forest trees; the afternoon sun streamed over the grass and tinted the swaying foliage with a thousand tender lights. Hawthorn bushes, pink and white, mingled with their taller and grander brothers. The chestnuts here were in flower, the copper beech made a delightful contrast of colour, and a birch rose delicate and graceful close beside.”

Pure Victoriana, if you like that sort of thing, as are the ghosts and the plots. But you can also see the changing role of women reflected in the tales as well.

6 out of 10

Starting Why be happy when you can be normal by Jeanette Winterson

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Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

One of Orwell’s earlier novels and one he didn’t really like, as he declined to have it reprinted in his lifetime. There are elements of Orwell’s life in this, rather than his personality. This is a biting satire written and set in the mid-1930s. The satire covers what might be called the “rat-race” and the god of money. It is a bitter demolition of lower middle class values as Orwell perceived them. The prose is great, but it is difficult to read, mainly because of the main protagonist Gordon Comstock, who is really not at all likeable, and very irritating. Orwell does seem in his early work to have the ability to write unsympathetic male characters.

Comstock leaves a good job as an advertising copywriter because of his principles and his desire to make war on the good of money, failing to realise if you are in poverty money becomes much more important. He takes a low paid job in a bookshop and lives in a bedsitting room and struggles to make ends meet. He does have friends. Ravelston is an upper class socialist who publishes a magazine and sometimes publishes Comstock’s rather awful poetry. Ravelston always offers extra support to Comstock in terms of loans, gifts or food, but Comstock’s pride and principles mean he resentfully refuses. There is also Rosemary, Comstock’s girlfriend, whom he treats very badly, feeling resentment towards her as well and not willing to contemplate her paying her own way when they go out. Comstock, despite professing socialism is unable to leave his middle class values behind when it comes to his relationships with women, although he continues to pressurize Rosemary to sleep with him. When he does sell a poem and has a little money he insists on taking his friends out, gets very drunk, assaults Rosemary and gets arrested. He loses his job and ends up in an even lower paid job. The ending is interesting as for me it has a double edge. Is it redemptive? Or is it an indication that there is no escape from the god of money. Orwell writes Comstock’s angst well:

“Before, he had fought against the money code, and yet he had clung to his wretched remnant of decency. But now it was precisely from decency that he wanted to escape. He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered; to cut the strings of his self-respect, to submerge himself—to sink, as Rosemary had said. It was all bound up in his mind with the thought of being under ground. He liked to think of the lost people, the under-ground people: tramps, beggars, criminals, prostitutes… He liked to think that beneath the world of money there is that great sluttish underworld where failure and success have no meaning; a sort of kingdom of ghosts where all are equal. That was where he wished to be, down in the ghost kingdom, below ambition. It comforted him somehow to think of the smoke-dim slums of South London sprawling on and on, a huge graceless wilderness where you could lose yourself forever”

Orwell in real life wrote mostly reportage and this is the best way to read him, the early novels were experiments. Comstock does nothing with his principles and seems apolitical. As Orwell says:

“There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.”

Comstock is an angry young man before his time, but vents his anger on those that care for him rather than the capitalist system. Orwell also makes the point that poverty is in no way romantic, a point he makes much more eloquently in his reportage. An aspidistra by the way is a hardy, long-lived house plant, much beloved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in middle class British homes. Orwell is using it to symbolize a certain middle class set of attitudes. He does the satire very effectively, so effectively and makes Comstock so unlikeable that the novel is difficult to read.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Colour me English by Caryl Phillips

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Thank you Brian

The Dead House by Billy O'Callaghan

This is quite an effective modern ghost story, which is many layered and interesting. It is primarily set on the west coast of Ireland and is Billy O’Callaghan’s first novel (he has previously written short stories). Michael is an art dealer in London who has looked after Maggie’s art career over many years and helped her when the men in her life have abused her. She finds a ruined cottage on the west coast of Ireland and renovates it. It is a wild spot, quite isolated, in an area where “the past always holds sway”. Maggie invites Michael over for a weekend with two other of her friends: Liz, a poet and Alison a Dublin art dealer (Maggie intends to match make with Michael and Alison). Liz knows the area and its stories:

“History haunted the present in places like this, the incessant closeness of so much storied past tended at times to skew the definition of reality.”

Liz has brought an Ouija board which after some alcohol they try. Contact seems to be made with an occupant of the cottage during the potato famine, someone who starved to death there. He speaks about the time and tells some horrific stories. He calls himself the Master and asks if he can enter. He also points to a pre Christian belief system and way of life which is still just under the surface. Things go a little downhill from that point. There is also a Woman in Black type twist at the end.

The descriptions of the light and landscape around the cottage are well written:

“Dusk suited the ocean. The sun slipped away, having burnt the sky with the colours of heat and turning the water to blood and blackness

But:

“The dead refuse to rest, or even to lie still,”

This book is also partly about what is at the edges of the mind, the corner of the eye, the frayed boundaries of reality and very much about how the past seeps into the present. If we lose a sense of the past it can take us by surprise. The English re very good at losing a sense of their past, especially in relation to Ireland (and much else besides).

Whether you can accept the supernatural side of the story or not, this is worth reading for the sense of place and history: a history which is still very much alive in ways that are not always comfortable. This is a rather good ghost story, but much more besides.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Let's Talk Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

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After me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

A slightly odd one this, somewhat short in the plot department, but very nuanced, with more going on than meets the eye. It is set in a scorching hot summer: John Cole decides to leave his bookshop and visit his brother. His car breaks down on the way and he looks for help (the setting is Norfolk). He finds a rambling old house, the inhabitants appear to know his name and to be expecting him, inviting him in and showing him to a room. This is the weakest part of the book as most people at this point would have explained the mistake, John just goes with the flow. The members of the household are Hester (in her 60s and described as maternal and ugly, something else I had a problem with), Elijah (an ex-preacher who has lost his faith), Clare and Alex (red haired twins, who act and behave younger than they are), Eve (plays the piano passionately) and Walker (chain smoker who appears attached to Eve). It is not clear what sort of community it is and there is a sort of suggestion that it may be related to mental health.

There is a lot more going on here and it is worth remembering that Perry comes from a very strict religious background and she is using some of her knowledge. The book is set over seven days and if you were wondering whether there was a link to the creation myth:

“On the morning of the sixth day …”

Opens day six! There is a reservoir and dam very close and at the end of the book the heatwave ends with a heavy storm, throwing in the flood myth as well. There is also a running reference through the book to the Anglo-Saxon poem “Wulf and Eadwacer”, always difficult to interpret, but here basically love is a cage and nothing is what it seems. There is a sense of impending doom, but throughout John appears to be rather confused, not surprisingly as he is with a group of strangers. But John just goes with the flow:

‘I know. And I don’t know which would be worst. Isn’t it odd,’ she said, smiling: ‘You turned up and I never for a minute thought it might be you, though even as strangers go, you’re fairly strange.’ Much later John was to remember that phrase, and wonder why it had felt so like an unexpected touch on the arm. Pressing her hands against the dip in her spine and turning her face to the sun she said, ‘Let’s not talk about it anymore.’ Then she ran to peer at the shadow on the broken sundial, swore beneath her breath, and vanished into the cool dark house. Clare stood, examining a bitten-down thumbnail, while the sound of a piano played in intricate swift patterns reached them across the lawn.
‘How did she know the time,’ said John, when the sundial’s broken?’

The book is full of scenes like that and the whole does seem to be a little out of time. There are no mobiles or computers, in fact it could be past, present or future. It is soon clear that John has been mistaken for someone else, Jon Coules, but it is still rather Kafkaesque. The other inhabitants met at a psychiatric convalescent home called St Judes and sort of migrated to their present spot.

The description of Elijah’s loss of faith resonated with me, as I went through a similar process almost thirty years ago. There is also a sharp analysis of the issues surrounding paedophilia current today with a well-constructed incident, all adding to the sense of impending doom. Perry focuses on odd character traits and each character has depth. John is very much an observer but he also affects events as well. This is an interesting novel, confused at times, but a lot to think about.

7 out of 10

Starting Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

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A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark

One of Spark’s later novels (late 1980s, but set in the mid1950s), this takes a look at the publishing industry of mid 1950s London. The analysis is sharp and well written, as is usually the case with Spark. The protagonist is Mrs Hawkins, a war widow in her late 20s. Spark portrays her as being obese with a strong physical presence. It appears that because of her size people come to her for advice and support, which she is happy to give, sometimes rather acerbically. She lives in a bedsitting room and throughout the novel the reader gets to know the other residents of the house as well. She works in a struggling publishing house. Spark satirizes (often in an affectionate way) the industry she worked in at the time. She meets Hector Bartlett, the hanger on of a famous novelist:

 “A great many people fell in love with Hector’s pretensions, a surprising number, especially those simple souls who quell their doubts because they cannot bring themselves to discern a blatant pose; the effort would be too wearing and wearying, and might call for an open challenge and lead to unpleasantness.”

Clearly a type Spark despised. She refers to him (to his face) as a “pisseur de copie”, or put just as colourfully:

''Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it. . . . His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.''

Mrs Hawkins loses her job and moves to another publishing house. The phrase follows her around and crops up in the book with monotonous regularity. Mrs Hawkins eventually decides to lose weight by the simple expedient of eating exactly half of what she previously ate. There is an ongoing plot line relating to radionics, a 1950s fad with no scientific basis, linked to another resident of the house in which Mrs Hawkins lives. Religion is inevitably present given Spark’s own leanings.

It is told in the first person with the advice thrown in free:

“It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on. Then you can relax and it comes as a pleasant surprise.”

“Insomnia is not bad in itself. You can lie awake at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think? - Yes, you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time...for who lives without problems every day? Why waste the nights on them?”

The whole is witty and amusing as Spark often is. However it is witty and amusing sometimes at the expense of the marginalised. The figure of Wanda, a Polish woman who has a room in the same house as Mrs Hawkins is central to the plot and I was uncomfortable with the way she was used. At the end of the book when the slimmer Mrs Hawkins and her new boyfriend move into a basement flat, there is a gay couple in the flat above. It’s the first time in over thirty years I’ve heard (read) the word Jessie used in relation to gay men, also:

“Perhaps it was the fact that homosexual practices were still against the law that made homosexuals in those days much more hysterical than they are now. The screaming emotions from upstairs were far worse than usual tonight …”

No excuse for that and it soured quite a witty and clever book. Some of the tropes were over the top and I certainly didn’t enjoy this as much as Spark’s better known novels.

5 and a half out of ten

Starting Snow and Roses by Lettice Cooper

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

For some reason I didn’t connect with this novel in the same way as I have with the other novels by Taylor I have read. The two main protagonists are Harriet and Vesey. They have known each other since childhood and have always had feelings for each other. Their feelings as teenagers are intense and innocent and Taylor is good at highlighting hidden fears, disappointments, griefs and longings that everyone has and then show how odd and absurd it all is. Harriet is shy: so is Vesey, but in a different way and also has a cruel and destructive/self-destructive streak. They lose touch when Vesey goes to Oxford (he doesn’t stay in contact from distance). Harriet marries an older man and has a daughter, safety and security. Vesey drops out of Oxford and becomes an actor. They might again when Harriet’s daughter is fifteen. Feelings are still strong and the second half of the novel is the working out of the situation.

There are plenty of minor characters, some better drawn than others. The portrayal of Harriet’s daughter Betsy is well drawn in its capture of teenage angst, rebelliousness and obsession. Taylor also has a sharp sense of humour as this passage shows. Harriet is young and working in a shop with her co-workers:

“Miss Lovelace removed her chicken broth from the gas-ring so that Miss Lazenby could heat the little pan of wax...
We spread it on and tear it off, ' Miss Brimpton directed.
'Then we'll have the chicken broth,' Miss Lovelace put the pan back on the gas-ring.
'On the upper lip first dear,' Miss Brimpton advised Harriet, 'Slightly downy if I may say so.'
'Anyone else would be insulted,' Miss Lazenby said dreamily. 'I call mine a bloody moustache.' 
'Well that's up to you dear, what you call it...'
Harriet obediently spread the melting wax around her mouth.
'I'm doing my beard as well,' Miss Lazenby said recklessly... “

The tenor is set from early on and the story itself is poignant: love which endures but never really works out and the differences between the two are clear:

“Vesey, whose next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world, wished to go without any backward glances or entanglements. He was not one to keep up friendships, never threw out fastening tendrils such as letters or presents or remembrances; was quite unencumbered by all the things which Harriet valued and kept: drawers full of photographs, brochures, programmes, postcards, diaries. He never remembered birthdays or any other anniversary.”

Taylor highlights the mundanities of everyday life, marriage and convention as well:

“When she married Charles, she had seemed to wed also a social order. A convert to it, and to provincial life, and keeping house, she had pursued it fanatically and as if she feared censure. […] But now she flouted what she had helped to create – an illusion of society; an oiling of the wheels which went round but not forwards; conventions which could only exist so long as emotion was in abeyance.”

As always Taylor is very quotable and this is a nuanced novel and it is clear that if Vesey and Harriet had been together that things would not necessarily have been better. In that way it is also rather bleak: but Taylor does insert humour, even about her own trade:

“The novel is practically finished as an art form,” he replied.

“I suppose it is,” said Harriet.

“Virginia Woolf has brought it to the edge of ruin.”

“Yes,” said Harriet.

“But it was inevitable,” he added, laying no blame”

As I said I didn’t connect with this one in the way that I did with A View of the Harbour, but it is an interesting exploration of love and convention.

 7 out of 10

Starting The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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On 31/12/2018 at 12:41 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

As I said I didn’t connect with this one in the way that I did with A View of the Harbour, but it is an interesting exploration of love and convention.

 

I think A View of the Harbour is the best Elizabeth Taylor I've read to date, joining my favourites list earlier this year.  Somewhat parallel to you, I recently read Angel, and equally found that it didn't quite match up either.  Maybe we were both spoiled a bit?

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