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      February Supporter Giveaway   02/07/2019

      February already! And with February comes the next supporter giveaway. This month, with great thanks once again to www.thestorygift.co.uk , we have a brilliantly bookish set of 'storyteller' pencils (featuring famous first lines) and a retro library card notebook!      As always, you'll be automatically entered into the giveaway if you support the forum on patreon, or if your pre-patreon membership is still active. If you want to be involved in the giveaway but don't currently support, you can join the patreon at any point in February here:  www.patreon.com/bookclubforum . 
Books do furnish a room

A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

Recommended Posts

Currently I have in progress

Colour Me English by Caryl Phillips

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Let's talk diabetes with owls by David Sedaris

Butterfly Stories by William T Vollmann

Snow and Roses by Lettice Cooper

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Why be happy when you could be normal by Jeanette Winterson

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

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Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

This set of essays/musings is typical Sedaris. The collection is variable. Some of it is brilliant observational comedy, often at Sedaris’s expense, there are also recollections of childhood and its dysfunctionalities. He sends up his own liberal values and his own obsessions (litter for instance). There are some fictional pieces as well, usually from the point of view of racists or conservatives, which are pure satire, although I felt that these were the weakest parts of the book. The random conversations overheard are very funny too. Sedaris records all these musings in a diary, which must take up an inordinate amount of his time. "It's not lost on me that I'm so busy recording life, I don't have time to really live it....Even if what I'm recording is of no consequence, I've got to put it down on paper." There are also tender and moving moments as well.

Sedaris’s own frailties are well highlighted:

“There’s a short circuit between my brain and my tongue, thus “leave me the fu** alone”, comes out as “Well. Maybe. Sure. I guess I can see your point.””

Losing a laptop with a year’s unbacked up work in a robbery:

“There are only two places to get robbed, TV and the real world. On television you get your stuff back. In the real world, if you’re lucky, the policeman who responds to your call will wonder what kind of computer it was. Don’t let this get your hopes up. Chances are he’s asking only because he has a software question.”

The travel sections are fascinating and tend to show Sedaris at his most curmudgeonly; the comparisons between Japan and China in relation to public hygiene and toilets are not for the squeamish. He also refers to Australia as “Canada in a thong”. Sedaris does tend to dismiss whole groups of people in this way, sacrificing integrity for humour at times. But his rants against racism are also refreshing.

The essay about trying to buy a stuffed owl for his partner Hugh is one of the most bizarre. He managed to find one in a taxidermy shop in London, but the owner thought it appropriate to offer him some human remains from the nineteenth century and earlier: I wasn’t even aware that was legal. It worries me that Sedaris didn’t seem to realise how fundamentally wrong that was, especially as the remains in question were those of what Sedaris described as a “pygmy”, a pejorative term used to describe a number of central African tribes who are still persecuted today.

On the whole there is good and funny stuff in this, but there are also areas I found problematic as well.

6 out of 10

Starting Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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I am really looking forward to your review of Midnight's Children its been on my TBR for years now.

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I've been meaning to read Midnight's Children for years as well Brian!

Why be happy when you could be normal by Jeanette Winterson

This is a remarkable memoir, honest and very moving; beautifully written and there is a passion for reading and books that runs through it. Winterson describes books as her hearth and home and I know exactly what she means. As well as being a moving memoir, it is a memoir that will resonate with every lover of books. This is also a follow up from the fictionalised version of Winterson’s childhood: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. The first half of the book outlines the real story of Winterson’s childhood, including the less palatable parts. The second half takes a few snapshots from her life, her time at university and her breakdown at the end of a relationship: the descriptions of the breakdown are very painful and difficult to read. The last part of the memoir relates to Winterson’s search for her birth mother and what happened when she found her.

Some parts of this certainly resonated with me as I was also brought up in an Elim Pentecostal Church and recognised some of the character traits and apocalyptic beliefs (and the exorcism). The telling title comes from the moment Winterson told her mother she was leaving home because she was in love with a girl and was happy. Her mother’s response was “Why be happy when you could be normal.” Winterson’s mother (throughout referred to as Mrs Winterson) is a monstrous character, regularly locking her daughter in the coal shed or locking her out of the house so she had to sit on the doorstep. “Love was not an emotion. It was a bomb site between us.” Winterson used to hide the books she bought under her mattress, when her mother found them, she burnt them. Another thing that really resonates with readers.

Winterson’s adventures in the library are interesting as she discovers new authors and there are touches of humour throughout. “The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection.” The passages relating to Winterson’s breakdown are difficult to read, but the presence of Susie Orbach as Winterson begins a relationship adds some light and a fixed point. Winterson also manages throughout to show even her mother as human and severely damaged herself as well as the monster she undoubtedly was. Winterson is very honest about herself:

“I have big problems around home, making homes, making homes with someone.”

Love, loss and longing are central to her writing as is adoption:

“Adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you — and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something is missing.”

This is a memoir well worth reading and has reminded me I need to read more by Jeanette Winterson

9 out of 10

Starting The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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I am also looking forward to your review of Midnight's Children. Reading your reviews is such a delight. 

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I read Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping and found it a beautifully lyrical and moving book. One of my all-time favourites. I've watched the mini-series Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and your wonderful review makes me want to read the sequel. I did try Sexing the Cherry but found it a little too odd and quite weird.

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Thank you Chrissy. Poppy, I think Winterson is good and I need to read her more

Annie John by Jamaica Knicaid

This is an interesting coming of novel set in Antigua in the 1950s, when it was still under British rule. It concerns Annie John and takes us from when she is ten until she is seventeen and is leaving the island to go to England. Kincaid covers a wide range of issues, but in particular mother/daughter relationships, education, the tension between local indigenous beliefs and those imposed by the colonial power (especially in the realm of health), teenage sexual exploration, poverty and the effects and misdiagnosis of depression.

Kincaid says that her fiction usually has an element of autobiography and clearly the relationship with her own mother is partly reflected here. Kincaid writes Annie’s ambivalence about leaving home very well, there is an honesty about the protagonist and she does feel like any number of teenagers one might have met with the sense of rebelliousness and experimentation. Also the sense of a child beginning not to understand her mother and to wrestle with starting to grow up:

“I immediately said how much I loved this piece of cloth and how nice I thought it would look on us both, but my mother replied, ‘Oh, no. You are getting too old for that.  It’s time you had your own clothes. You just cannot go around the rest of your life looking like a little me.’  To say that I felt the earth swept away from under me would not be going too far.”

The reader follows Annie’s internal feelings and struggles as she begins by loving her mother and then feelings develop which feel more like hatred and even fear as she talks about her mother’s shadow:

“It was a big and solid shadow, and it looked so much like my mother that I became frightened. For I could not be sure whether for the rest of my life I would be able to tell when it was really my mother and when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world.”

There is a description of the development of depression when Annie is fifteen which is very powerful:

“In the year I turned fifteen, I felt more unhappy than I had ever imagined anyone could be. It wasn’t the unhappiness of wanting a new dress, or the unhappiness of wanting to go to cinema on a Sunday afternoon and not being allowed to do so, or the unhappiness of being unable to solve some mystery in geometry, or the unhappiness at causing my dearest friend, Gwen, some pain. My unhappiness was something deep inside me, and when I closed my eyes I could even see it. It sat somewhere–maybe in my belly, maybe in my heart; I could not exactly tell–and it took the shape of a small black ball, all wrapped up in cobwebs.”

It’s a vivid description and the whole works well as a description of the pains of growing up and becoming a separate person to one’s parents.

7 out of 10

Starting A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

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The Jeanette Winterson book sounds very interesting. I have added it to my wishlist. :)

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It is good bobbly.

A raisin in the sun by Lorraine Hansberry

I don’t often read plays and find them difficult to read, the live experience is obviously much better. However this is a remarkable play and is well worth the effort. Hansberry was a talented writer who died far too young. Nina Simone wrote the song “To be Young, Gifted and Black” about her. This play debuted on Broadway in 1959 with Sidney Poitier playing Walter; a role he reprised in the film.

The play is about the Younger family: mother Lena, brother and sister, Walter and Beneatha, Walter’s wife Ruth and their son Travis. Lena’s husband has recently died and some insurance money is due. The play revolves around what should be done with the money, about hopes and aspirations and differing views about the future. It is about the desire progress, to get on; in this case to get out of that particular part of Chicago. The insurance pay-out is ten thousand dollars and so it is also about whose dreams should be funded. Although it was written in the 1950s it is still relevant and has meaning. It is about dreams and whether they will in the words of Langston Hughes “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun”.

Hansberry once said that, “In order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific” and that is why this resonates over the years in relation to those in poverty, suffering from injustice and specifically about the black experience. There is a balance in the play between hopes for the future and what might be possible and a sense that nothing will change and it is hopeless to try. James Baldwin commented:

“Never before, in the entire history of American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on stage.”

The play highlights issues about segregation, dignity and respect. It’s powerful to read and there is an excellent film rendering as well.

9 out of 10

Starting Into Suez by Stevie Davies

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The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Another cleverly wrought novel by Taylor. It is loosely based on the fairy tale, but with rather a flawed prince. It is mainly set in the seaside town of Seething (really?). Isabella’s husband has recently died in a boating accident and an old friend comes to stay to provide support.   Vinny Tumulty is that friend. Taylor sets up Vinny’s Character early on:

“Nearing fifty, Vinny felt more than ever the sweet disappointments only a romantic knows, whose very desires invite frustration; … Past and future to him were the realities; the present dull, meaningless, only significant if, as now, going back along the sands, he could say to himself: ‘Later on, I shall remember.’ To link his favourite tenses in such a phrase was to him the exhalation of romance, and the fact that such phrases had preceded all his disappointments, heralded all the counterfeit and treachery he had worked or suffered, could not detract from its magic. He disdained to learn from so drab a teacher as Experience”

The reader also knows from early on that Vinny is married, something he does not tell others. He has never lived with her and rarely sees her, but nevertheless the marriage remains and no one else (apart from the reader) knows.

Whilst supporting Isabella, Vinny meets Emily. She lives with her sister Rose who runs a boarding house. Emily has had a sheltered life and is the sleeping beauty of the title. She looks after Rose’s daughter, who has developmental difficulties. Emily has had a car accident in the past, which has affected her. Vinny falls in love with Emily.

There is a good set of minor characters. Isabella’s son Laurence has just left school and has joined the army. He has a tense relationship with his mother and has just started dating. Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty is a strong character and Taylor knows how write an entrance for a character:

“Vinny and the gardener brought in the most curious weather-beaten luggage – an old leather hat-box; a round-topped trunk with labels of countries which no longer existed, hotels which had been shelled in 1916 and never risen again; a Gladstone-bag; a wicker hamper. There were also Mrs Tumulty’s bird-watching glasses and a black japanned box in which she collected fungi; for she was a great naturalist.”

This isn’t my favourite Taylor novel, but as always it is well written and easy to read. I’m not sure that the fairy tale element works as there is a rather middle aged prince with a secret wife and a rather soporific princess. There are a number of comic moments, often involving Isabella and her friend Evalie, look out for the scene with the face packs and their surreptitious betting on horses. The Tillotson family and their unruly children also provide comic relief at the boarding house.

This is an attempt by Taylor to write a romance, not a conventional one as the reader is aware of Vinny’s secret. Taylor also leaves the reader to make (or not make) moral judgements at the end.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

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Butterfly Stories by William T Vollmann

A series of vignettes go to make up this novel and this is Vollmann at his most troublesome. This is one in a trilogy of novels Vollmann wrote about prostitution. It’s grim, depressing, comic, a parody of romance and a romance, the sex scenes are not erotic, but sad and desperate. As one reviewer says, this is the death of modernity, but it is also a devastating indictment of western civilisation.

There is also a fairy tale feel to the bleakness:

“Once upon a time a journalist and a photographer set out to 'lady of the night' their way across Asia. They got a New York magazine to pay for it. They each armed themselves with a tube of coll soft K-Y jelly and a box of Trojans. The photographer, who knew such essential Thai phrases as: very beautiful!, how much?, thank you and I’m gonna knock you around! (topsa-lopsa-lei), preferred the extra-strength lubricated, while the journalist selected the non-lubricated with special receptacle end. The journalist never tried the photographer’s condoms because he didn’t even use his own as much as (to be honest) he should have; but the photographer, who tried both, decided that the journalist had really made the right decision from a standpoint of friction and hence sensation; so that is the real moral of this story, and those who don’t want anything but morals need read no further.”

The journalist is a very fictionalized version of Vollmann and the setting is around the time of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The main section and of the book involves the travels of the journalist and the photographer in south-east Asia: Thailand and Cambodia primarily. It is a third person narration that drifts along through the journalist’s childhood (when he was bullied) and into the bars of Thailand. Vollmann periodically asks pertinent questions:

“..interesting that the photographer, who wanted to break as many hearts as possible. And the journalist, who wanted to make as many happy as possible, accomplished the same results...! Does that prove that the journalist was lying to himself?”

The costs of desire are high and unrelenting, even apart from the inevitable sexually transmitted diseases (described in a little too much detail), and the journalist falls in love with a prostitute called Vanna and spends much of the book trying to find her again. He manages to cause her pain even for the little time he is with her, despite his best intentions and he is aware of her tears:

“..were snailing their accustomed way down the furrows in her cheeks which all the other tears had made, so many others, and so many from him-- why not be conscientious and say that those creek-bed wrinkles were entirely his fault?"

There is the element of parable here too and there is a sense of suicide by sexual intercourse as the journalist discovers he is HIV positive, a situation the journalist embraces his condition. Vanna is most likely dead, but the journalist still cuts the ties with his life back in America and tries to raise enough money to return to Thailand and Cambodia to search for her. There is a very driven feel to it and that is because Vollmann is driven. When he was nine he was looking after his six year old sister. He lost concentration briefly and she drowned in a pond. This has haunted him since, as he said in an interview:

"I had nightmares practically every night of her skeleton chasing me and punishing me, pretty much through high school,"

Vollmann’s driveness has lead him to focus on the most exploited and deprived in society and here is no exception. For many authors this would not have worked and it would have felt paternalistic or tainted with misogyny. Vollmann manages to avoid that and despite the degradation and sleaze this is a moral tale. As David Foster Wallace says, it’s “what it’s like to be a f**king human being.” Especially one at the very bottom of society, prey to those above.

8 out of 10

Starting Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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Snow and Roses by Lettice Cooper

Lettice Cooper lived a long life which might seem unremarkable to some. As well as being a writer and penning a number of novels, she wrote reviews for a local newspaper, worked for the ministry of food for the Second World War, founded the Writers Action Group, wrote a ground-breaking novel about PTSD and spent a lifetime fighting for libraries and Public Lending Rights. Her novels examine class with Cooper coming from a leftist perspective.

This is the second of her novels I have read. The main protagonist is Flora, a young woman lecturing in English at an Oxford college for women. She is in a relationship with Hugh, a married fellow lecturer and vainly hoping he might leave his wife for her. She is also expending a lot of effort with a particular student called Nan who is very talented and is from a working class mining area.  There is a good cast of supporting characters, including Lalage, a close friend and colleague of Flora.

Flora’s life begins to fall apart: her relationship with her married lover ends in tragedy, she falls out with Lalage and Nan starts to act like a teenager. A friend suggests a stay in Italy with his sister, Miranda. Flora and Miranda also have an affair which ends badly. Things do start to pick up and the last section of the novel is the strongest. This is when the setting switches from Oxford to South Yorkshire and the miners’ strike of the early 1970s. There are a few loose ends too quickly tidied up.

I enjoyed this, it was written well, but I found it difficult to connect with the characters. The very last section of the book which addresses the issues surrounding the miners’ strike is much the best part of it.

6 out of 10

Starting Tripticks by Ann Quinn

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The Song of Achilles by Medline Miller

This novel has split opinions with strong feelings on either side. It is a retelling of an aspect of Homer’s Iliad, the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. In this version (as in some others) they are lovers and we follow them from adolescence to adulthood and the battlefields of Troy. The story is narrated by Patroclus until his demise towards the end of the novel. The shift of narrator is a little clumsy, but parts of the novel do stick quite closely to the original. The re-imagining of the character of Patroclus is one of the more interesting parts of the novel.

The reviewer in the New York Times commented:

“The result is a book that has the head of a young adult novel, the body of the “Iliad” and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland.

Amusing, if cruel, as are the references to “fifty shades of wine dark sea”. Miller tells a good tale and weaves together a narrative that is coherent and holds the reader. There are also times when the twenty-first century creeps in. When Priam goes to Achilles to beg for the body of Hector, Miller has him say “I am sorry for your loss” in relation to Patroclus, making him sound like a modern undertaker. There are a few clumsy moments like that and the sex scenes are a little melting and soft porny, although I am difficult to please in this area! Mary Renault made a perceptive comment about this:

“If characters have come to life one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn’t matter. Inch-by-inch physical descriptions are the ketchup of the literary cuisine, only required by the insipid dish or by the diner without a palate.”

Casting Thetis as a sort of grumpy mother-in-law to Patroclus I think was a clever move and Miller handles this part of the story well, the scenes with Thetis are always well wrought:

“The waves were warm, and thick with sand. I shifted, watched the small white crabs run through the surf. I was listening, thinking I might hear the splash of her feet as she approached. A breeze blew down the beach and, grateful, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again she was standing before me.
She was taller than I was, taller than any women I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as if it drank light from the moon.  She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe. I did not dare.
‘You are Patroclus.’ I flinched at the sound of her voice, hoarse and rasping. I had expected chimes, not the grinding of rocks in the surf.”

Miller writes well and the story holds the reader; at its most basic it is a simple love story, tender and moving. Personally I never quite understood why Achilles initially fell in love with Patroclus, but then the ways of love are mysterious (apparently). It is a good retelling of myth and after all that is what myth is there for; we reinterpret it for our own age and we learn from its stories and are moved by them.

8 out of 10

Starting The Slave Girl by Buchi Emecheta

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I have had mixed feelings about Lahiri in the past, but I enjoyed this novel whilst being unsure of what Lahiri was trying to do with it. There isn’t a cast of thousands, but it is a family drama starting in India and moving to the US. The focus of the novel is two brothers Subhash and Udayan. They are born in Calcutta fifteen months apart, just after the Second World War. There is a patch of land near where they live in Tollygunge with two ponds and close to the exclusive Tolly club. The brothers are close and the reader is taken through childhood and into the mid-1960s towards college. Udayan is always the leader.

The two brothers begin to drift apart. Subhash goes to college in Rhode Island to study. Udayan becomes involved in radical politics and joins the Naxalite movement, Maoist in politics and potentially violent. Udayan also marries Gauri, in secret, only telling his parents afterwards. Udayan is shot by the police on the patch of ground hear his home. Gauri is pregnant. Subhash returns for the funeral and marries Gauri, although they do not love each other. They return to the US. This all takes place in the first quarter of the book. The rest of the book follows Subhash, Gauri and her daughter Bela up to the present day.

Lahiri captures the immigrant experience in America through the eyes of Subhash:

“The difference was so extreme that he could not accommodate the two places together in his mind. In this enormous new country, there seemed to be nowhere for the old to reside. There was nothing to link them; he was the sole link.”

The first section of the novel is gripping, however the rest is much more evenly paced and is really about living life and dealing with the past. There is a focus on family relationships. There is a sense of destinies displaced and the grinding mundaneness of life. There is a reality to this rather than elegance. And a story of fraternal bonds that linger beyond death. There are niggles, the relationship between Gauri and Subhash, for me didn’t ring true in the way it played out, especially in relation to Bela. The novel does play out the universal nature of human hopes and fears, it is well written and I enjoyed it. But it didn’t really do any more than that. I’m not sure what more I wanted, more of an edge perhaps.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh

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Colour me English by Caryl Philips

This is a varied collection of essays which focus on race, identity and the nature of writing. Philips was born in St Kitts and came to Britain with his parents, being brought up in Leeds in the 1960s and 70s:

 “Leeds is the place I learned to read, write, play football, the place I was first called a nigger, the place I had my first kiss.”

He writes eloquently about the racism of those days and makes a case for writers leading in the fights for justice:

"There is a directness about storytelling, involving as it does human beings as the central players, which means that we often look first to our writers for news of who and what we are. Words cohering into language form the bedrock of our identity, and explain our human condition."

There is a lot of variety here. Philips moved to America in 1990 and he writes about his time there and contrasts with Britain. He was in New York on 9/11 and writes movingly about that. There are essays on other writers, including Achebe, Baldwin, Ha Jin, Braithwaite, McKay amongst others: a reflection on the death of Luther Vandross: some historical reflections including a piece on African American sailors prior to the civil war: a number of reflections on the slave trade in its many forms and on the African Diaspora: essays on Ghana, Sierra Leone, France and the far right in Belgium, not to mention one on Philips and another writer climbing Kilimanjaro: and a variety of others. All in all it’s an odd fit and there were one or two things that irritated me, particularly a comment on an encyclopedia about there being some women in there just to make up the numbers.

On the whole this is a very good collection of essays. I was pointed towards writers I had limited knowledge of and the reflections on race, immigration and belonging are very telling.

8 out of 10

Starting Harry Patch, the last fighting Tommy by Harry Patch and Richard van Emden

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