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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 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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The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch

Harry Patch was the last surviving fighting soldier of the First World War. He died in 2009 at the age of 111. He lived a very ordinary life and didn’t talk about his wartime experiences until he reached 100. This is an autobiography put together by Richard van Emden from a series of tape recordings. Patch was quite a regular in documentaries and programmes about the war in the last ten years of his life.

Patch was born in 1898 and the book takes us through his life; there is nothing sensational, it is an ordinary life with its ups and downs. Descriptions of a childhood in the Somerset countryside near Bath and teenage years as an apprentice plumber. Patch was called up and first saw action in 2017 at Ypres during the battle of Passchendaele. He was part of a Lewis Gunner unit, a group of six who all worked very closely together. Patch describes the awfulness of trench life and the experience of being under relentless shellfire. The inevitable happens and Patch’s team are hit by a shell. Three of his friends are killed instantly and Patch is hit in the stomach by a piece of shrapnel. It is worth remembering that the conditions in the medical facilities near the front were also very basic. Patch recalls that the doctor told him that they were going to remove the shrapnel without anaesthetic as they had run out. That was the end of the war for him. He also saw action of a sort in the second world war as a fire fighter as there was a period when Bath was bombed quite heavily and that held its own horrors. The rest of the book simply runs through his life at work and in retirement and finally the very busy last ten years of his life.

There were lots of warm words about Patch from the establishment and the military, but I remember seeing him on TV and listening to him on the radio, against the backdrop of the Iraq war and Afghanistan. His words were not comfortable:

“War is organised murder and nothing else”

“Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder”

“We are two civilised nations – British and German – and what were we doing? We were in a lousy, dirty trench fighting for our lives. For what? For eighteen pence a flipping day”

 “I was taken back to England to convalesce. When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle - thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Herr Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?”

This stands in contrast with some of the hypocrisy shown after his death by the state. Patch had been offered a state funeral, but had declined it. He also didn’t mark Armistice Day, preferring to make his own remembrance on the anniversary of the death of his friends. He was taken to a few commemorations during the last years of his life. He was though capable of ignoring protocol as he did giving a speech at the Menin Gate:

“Let us remember our brethren who fell - on both sides of the line.”

It seems appropriate to finish with some of Owen’s more powerful lines:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the frothcorrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

8 out of 10

Starting Heartbreak by Andrea Dworkin

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Brilliant review. I read the interview with Harry Patch recently, (where he said  “Politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves") and found it really poignant because of Patch's simple honesty. In the same way Owen's poem does, it really highlighted the sheer tragedy and horror of war for every individual involved.  

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Thank you Hayley

Heartbreak; the political memoir of a militant feminist

Dworkin is much maligned as man-hating, too radical, opposed to sexual relations and much more. Her writing and activism opposing pornography has been criticised even by some feminists. Her strong stance and uncompromising views lead many to miss the nuance in her work. This collection of reminiscences in the form of brief essays. Dworkin discusses with Ricki Abrams (a fellow feminist) the origins of her views and some of the women she fought for:

“Sitting with Ricki, talking with Ricki, I made a vow to her: that I would use everything I knew, including from prostitution, to make the women's movement stronger and better; that I'd give my life to the movement and for the movement. I promised to be honor-bound to the well-being of women, to do anything necessary for that well-being. I promised to live and to die if need be for women. I made that vow some thirty years ago, and I have not betrayed it yet.”

The essays outline Dworkin’s love of literature and writing There are asides about a number of writers and more about beat guru Allen Ginsberg who Dworkin initially admired and met a number of times. They were both a godparent of a mutual acquaintance and at the do afterwards:

“He pointed to the friends of my godson and said they were old enough to fudge. They were twelve and thirteen. He said that all sex was good, including forced sex. … Referring back to the Supreme Court’s decision banning child pornography he said, “The right wants to put me in jail.” I said, “Yes, they’re very sentimental; I’d kill you”. The next day he point at me in crowded rooms and screech, “She wants to put me in jail”. I’d say “No, Allen, you still don’t get it. The right wants to put you in jail. I want you dead.””

She meant it.

There is also a very dry humour at times. Dworkin attended Bennington College for a while and talks about her interactions with the composer Louis Callabro, with whom she compared work: her stories, his music:

“I later understood that the all-girl Bennington’s expectation was that the girl, the woman, any female student should learn how to be the mistress of an artist, not the artist herself; this is the college that was the early home of Martha Graham. The equality between Lou and myself, our mutual recognition, was no part of the school’s agenda. This is not to suggest that Lou did not screw his students: he did; they all did. I always thought that I would go to heaven because at Bennington I never slept with faculty members, only their wives.”

Her riposte to a particular grade teacher who was unpleasant to her is also quite forthright:

“I knew I’d get her someday and this is it: eat shhhhhhh, bitch. No one said that sisterhood was easy.”

This is a very readable memoir, quite brief and as always with Dworkin, very to the point. Gloria Steinem once compared Dworkin to an Old Testament prophet who was uncomfortable and spent her time “ranting in the hills, telling the truth”. She is uncomfortable and uncompromising, but you can’t ignore her. She was brave and indomitable and had something to say:

“A few nights ago I heard the husband of a close friend on television discussing antirape policies that he opposes at the university. He said that he was willing to concede that rape did take place. How white of you, I thought bitterly, and then I realized that his statement was a definition of ‘white’ in motion―not even ‘white male’ but white in a country built on white ownership of blacks and white genocide of reds and white-indentured servitude of Asians and women, including white women, and brown migrant labour. He thought maybe 3 percent of women in the United States had been raped, whereas the best research shows a quarter to a third. The male interviewer agreed with the percentage pulled out of thin air: It sounded right to both of them, and neither of them felt required to fund a study or read the already existing research material. Their authority was behind their number, and in the United States authority is white.”

Dworkin battles with her own dilemmas. Inevitably as this is quite brief there is no space to look at ideas in depth. Her impulse to write is always very much to the fore:

“Can one write for the dispossessed, the marginalized, the tortured? Is there a kind of genius that can make a story as real as a tree or an idea as inevitable as taking the next breath?”

She uses words well, this is a description of Bessie Smith’s music:

“tramped through your three-dimensional body but gracefully, a spartan, bearlike ballet.”

Dworkin was immensely widely read and although her public persona can appear one-dimensional, her work is very nuanced. I need to re-read her more detailed work.

 9 out of 10

Starting Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

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Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

This is one of Taylor’s better known novels and one of her least typical. It tells the story of a life from adolescence to old age and death. Angelica (Angel) Deverell is a writer, one of the greatest she believes and is also completely lacking in self-awareness. Taylor is parodying a certain type of late Victorian or Edwardian romantic author (Marie Corelli or Ouida). Her work is overblown and sensational and the critics hate it: however for a time the public loves it.

We get a sense of what Angel is writing at the start of the novel when one of her teachers questions her prose: “into the vast vacuity of the empyrean” asking what it means:

“It means,” Angel said. Her tongue moistened her lips. She glanced out of the classroom window at the sky beyond the bare trees. “It means ’the highest heavens’.”

“Yes, the sky,” Miss Dawson said suspiciously”

The vividness and flamboyance of the prose persists into adult life and into her many novels. She is taken on by a publisher who expect little and are surprised by her popularity. The following exchange with Theo, the member of the publishing house tasked with looking after Angel illustrates the sort of writer Taylor is parodying:

“‘Then you are a great reader, perhaps?’

‘No, I don’t read much. I haven’t got any books, and nowadays I am always writing.’

‘But even so, most authors take some interest in the works of others. Is there no public library you could join?’

A little colour came to her cheeks and she said, ‘I don’t think I should want to.’”

The reader does feel sorry for Theo who is very patient and very put upon:

“He sometimes longed, too, to take a rest from the hazards of her correspondence. Two or three times a week, her letters, carelessly scrawled in violet ink, arrived at the office with her complaints about the insufficiency of his advertising, his lack of chivalry in not challenging her critics, the shortcomings of Mudie’s, the negligence of compositors. She accused him of cheese-paring; her advances, she said, were so niggardly as to be insulting. She mentioned great sums which had been paid by other publishers to other women novelists – to Miss Corelli and Miss Broughton – and suggested that from the fortune her books had provided him he was subsidising the bungled efforts of the other women writers on his list. “As it is by my industry that these poor little books are published at all,” she wrote, “it would merely be civil of you to acquaint me with your future plans for spreading this charity about.”

Angel is thoughtless of the feeling of others, she doesn’t seem to actually notice them. She does marry and her husband and his sister live with her. Esme, her husband, is an artist and a bit of a waste of space and spends most of his time sponging off her. We go through almost the first half of the twentieth century.

Angel has an idyll in mind. Local to her as a schoolgirl is Paradise House, the big house where her aunt is in service. Angel has plans for it:

“..she dreamed through the lonely evenings, closing her eyes to create the darkness where Paradise House could take shape, embellished and enlarged day after day — with colonnades and cupolas, archways and flights of steps…. Acquisitively, from photographs and drawings in history books, she added one detail after another. That will do for Paradise House, was an obsessive formula which became a daily habit. The white peacocks would do;… as would the cedar trees at school”

As a successful novelist she is able to purchase Paradise House and live in it. What Taylor does very well is to describe the gradual decline of Paradise House and of Angel herself. Taylor is also making a perceptive comment about the status of women whose life choices were limited:

“At other times she was menaced by intimations of the truth. Her heart would be alarmed, as if by a sudden roll of drums, and she would spring to her feet, beset by the reality of the room, her own face — not beautiful, she saw — in the looking-glass and the commonplace sounds in the shop below. She would know then that she was in her own setting and had no reason for ever finding herself elsewhere; know moreover that she was bereft of the power to rescue herself, the brains or the beauty by which other young women made their escape. Her panic-striken face would be reflected back at her as she struggled to deny her identity, slowly cosseting herself away from the truth. She was learning to triumph over reality, and the truth was beginning to leave her in peace.”

Angel’s escape was of her own making, a delusion created and maintained and the mask rarely slips. It’s a tour de force and whilst Angel is a monstrous character one cannot help feeling sorry for her and those around her.

8 out of 10

Starting In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

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The Slave Girl by Buchi Emecheta

I am surprised that this book and Emecheta are not better known. She was born in Nigeria, but lost her parents young. She moved to Britain when she was sixteen to marry and had five children very quickly. She left her husband as a result of domestic abuse and brought up her children on her own whilst working and doing a degree. She also began to write, about her experiences and about racism.

This novel is set in Nigeria and tells the story of Ogbanje Ojebeta, a young girl   with two older brothers. When their parents die in an epidemic one of her brothers sells her into slavery into the household of Ma Palanga, a cloth merchant and family relative. The plot is linear and tells the story well. On the death of Ma Palanga, Ogbanje Ojebeta is a young woman. She decides to run away from her situation back to her homeland area. There she lives with her relatives until a man called Jacob meets her and decides he wants to marry her, she agrees and she marries. It transpires that the price her brother received for selling her into slavery. Her husband pays this and the book ends:

“Ojebeta now a woman of thirty-five was changing masters.”

A wry comment on the nature of marriage for women. The story is set in the early years of the twentieth century and during the novel the reader sees the increasing influence of the colonial power and the encroachment of Christianity, which is seen as something to be tried; some of its rituals to be absorbed into daily life.  Ojebeta is caught up in a cycle of oppression and is at the mercy of male master:

“All her life a woman always belonged to some male. At birth you were owned by your people, and when you were sold you belonged to a new master, when you grew up your new master who had paid something for you would control you. It was a known fact that although Ma Palagada was the one who had bought them, they ultimately belonged to Pa Palagada, and whatever he said or ordered would hold.”

For Nigerian women, the implication is that freedom is fleeting and becoming independent form one master leads to enslavement to another. The slavery here is of the domestic variety, but physical and sexual abuse are common:

I was bending down sweeping the floor when he came up behind me and jumped on me. He pulled at the small breasts I had then. I was not all developed. It hurts so, I screamed. Do you know what he did? He slapped me hard on both sides of my face.

The women here are the ones enslaved and the whole provides a powerful argument for emancipation, not only of women, but also of children. All that aside Ojebeta is a strong and likeable protagonist, the novel well written and easy to read.  

8 out of 10

Starting Aim High by Tanni Grey Thompson

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Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India by Shashti Tharoor

There are still far too many people in Britain who look back fondly on Empire and who have very little grasp of the real history of Empire. Not understanding your own history leads to delusions and in this country xenophobia and racism.

This is essentially an extended polemical essay based on Tharoor’s speech to the Oxford Union in 2015. He essentially looks at the pros and cons of British rule and addresses the alleged benefits of the Raj. There aren’t any new arguments, it’s more a condensation of those debated over the years. What is disturbing is that although they are not new to me, it certainly not something that I was taught in school. I think that at least three quarters of my fellow Brits know virtually nothing about the history of Empire in India, even the more recent parts such as Partition.

This is not an academic text and there is no way that Tharoor can cover over two hundred years of history in detail in a book this size and nor does he attempt to do so. He does point the reader to where these sources can be found. As can be imagined there were screams of outrage in the British press. One hilarious example is an article in History Today which while recognizing famine and massacre, criticizes Tharoor for not mentioning the British contribution to Indian archaeological studies!

Tharoor runs through the history of the East India Company and the British motives in India, the destruction of local industries and argues the industrial revolution in Britain was part funded by money from India (and part from the slave trade). He looks at effects on culture, the massacres, and famines and thanks the English for tea, cricket and Wodehouse.

The British self-image involves fair play, standing up to bullies in WW2 and all that sort of thing. What they don’t teach in school are things like the Bengal famine of 1943, when between three and four million people died. There was enough food/grain in India to feed them, but this was moved to Europe on the orders of the British government. Grain ships from Australia and New Zealand passed throughout the famine. There is a direct line of responsibility here and the lives of those who died can be laid directly at the door of Britain. It isn’t comfortable to contemplate and is not part of the history curriculum and can be laid directly at the door of Churchill, who wasn’t a fan of Indians:

“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion . . . Let the Viceroy sit on the back of a giant elephant and trample Gandhi into the dirt.”

The total death toll from famines over the period of the Raj probably tops thirty million (Tharoor thinks 35); that rivals Stalin and Mao.

The book isn’t without its flaws, after all it’s a polemic. Tharoor is a politician, a Congress Party MP and so has an agenda of his own. There are a few remarks about Jinnah which speak more of today’s political situation perhaps. However the thrust of the argument is clear and this book should be read by those who go on about Britain’s wonderful empire.

8 out of 10

Starting Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington

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Aim High by Tanni Grey-Thompson

I am not entirely sure how I ended up reading this. It is a brief (about 60 pages) attempt at an inspirational call to aspire and achieve no matter what your situation and aims. Tanni Grey-Thompson is a Welsh former wheelchair athlete who had a significant impact on the growth and development of the Paralympics in Britain. Grey-Thompson is now a baroness and sits in the House of Lords as a cross bencher. She is also on a number of boards promoting sport, disability rights and transport.

Grey-Thompson has Spina Bifida and has been a wheelchair user since she was about five. She describes it thus:

“I could walk till about the age of five or six (I don't remember exactly). But as I grew, my legs couldn't support the increase in my bodyweight, because of my condition, and I slowly became paralysed. So I didn't, unlike others, have to suffer some dramatic accident, or spend months on end in a spinal unit. For me, becoming a wheelchair user wasn't an awful experience. Although I had stopped walking I didn't feel that something had been taken away. Having said this, the last few months when I was walking were pretty tough – this was the only time in my life that I have felt really disabled. I couldn't do the things that I wanted to do - like run away from my mum!

Having a wheelchair gave me a renewed sense of freedom. Because many people think that the life of a wheelchair user is pretty miserable, they make judgements about it. But the wheelchair allowed me once again to do the things that I wanted to do, such as trying to run away from my mother, chasing after my older sister, and being with my friends.”

This is a run through of Grey-Thompson’s career, the ups and downs and setbacks with commentary on what motivated her and what can be learnt and applied to one’s own life. There are a few simple pointers; work hard, keep your goals in mind and adapt to the unexpected. It is all common sense and obvious and difficult to disagree with.

I do have reservations though; not about hard work and motivation, but more about the many vulnerable members of society whose abilities and capabilities are compromised. Not everyone can achieve in the way that Grey-Thompson did. Not everyone can achieve a dream of becoming a pop idol or a footballer. This leaves a lot of people with unfulfilled ambitions, perhaps feeling like failures. They need inspiration too.

6 out of 10

Starting The Miller of Angibault by Georges Sand

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Into Suez by Stevie Davies

The idea for this novel came to Davies when she was protesting against the Iraq war in 2003 and was reflecting on colonial history in the Middle East. Davies’s father was in the forces and so she had some insight into the nomadic life of a forces child and had spent a brief period in Egypt pre Suez. She also recalled the famous comment by Anuerin Bevan about Suez:

"The prime minister has been pretending that he has invaded Egypt in order to strengthen the United Nations. Every burglar could of course say the same thing, that he entered the house in order to train the police."

The novel centres on a married couple with a child. Joe Roberts is a Welshman in the RAF, posted in Egypt in the early 1950s. He is a decent chap, but has the values and attitudes of the time when it comes to foreigners and women. His wife Ailsa and young daughter Nia are on a transport ship going to join him. On the ship Ailsa meets Mona: she is a Palestinian Arab married to a Jewish British officer. As Ailsa is not an officer’s wife, they should not be mixing. They start an intense affair/friendship. There are several minor female characters who are also army wives and Davies provides a good description of married quarters and the daily routines of forces life. There is also a powerful account of the occupation of Egypt and the ending of colonialism.

The whole is a mix of tensions, within relationships, between officers and men, between the occupying force and the local population. As always with Davies this is character driven and there are no one-dimensional caricatures. Even those expressing racist and xenophobic opinions are complex characters. The novel is set mostly in the early 1950s, but is wrapped around with a modern update. Nia, now in her 50s is going back to Egypt following the death of her mother to find out what really happened to her father. She meets with a now elderly Mona to fill in some gaps.

This novel works on many levels. It is essentially a historical and political novel looking at the end of the British Empire and exploding some of the myths that surround it. Joe is a complex character, on the face of it the least sympathetic character, he is uneducated, insecure, and susceptible to drink and then to violence, he has a sense of male (and British) entitlement. However, he is moved by Mona’s piano playing and has a strong sense of musicality, he is loyal to his friends and is generally a caring husband. Time and place and external forces play their part. The reader is aware that Joe dies in Egypt from the very beginning of the novel. The how is what is built up to with a couple of neat twists at the end. The political message of the novel is very much a critique of the British state, looking at their part in the messy twentieth century history of the Middle East. Nia coming to terms with some of her visceral childhood memories is also central to the working out of the plot.

This is an excellent novel, a still very relevant analysis of colonialism with a strong feminist backbone: Davies is my favourite novelist.

9 out of 10

Starting Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

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Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

Despite all the write ups saying this is a ghost story, for me it clearly is not. It is certainly a hefty slice of Victorian gothic which reads very easily. Essentially it is the life of William Bellman with some detailed descriptions of the milling business and the Victorian funeral industry. There is also a great deal about rooks and the mythology surrounding them. When he is ten William is playing with three friends. He aims his catapult at a bird at an impossible distance. By some fluke he kills the bird and the reader is left to feel this has far more significance than is realised at the time and there are several descriptive passages about rooks dotted throughout:

“A rook’s feathers can shimmer with dazzling peacock colours yet factually speaking there is no blue or purple or green pigment in a rook. Satin black on his back and head, on his front and towards his legs his blackness softens and deepens to velvet black….His black feathers are capable of producing an entrancing optical effect….He captures the light, splits it, absorbs some and radiates the rest in a delightful demonstration of optics, showing you the truth about light that your own poor eyes cannot see.”

The book is a run through of Bellman’s life. He starts work in the mill owned by his family; he is not in line to own it but shows himself to be very capable; remarkably do in fact. In time he does come to own the mill and turns it into a very prosperous business. He also marries and has a brood of children. As Bellman attends funerals of older members of his family he notices a man dressed in black at the graveside of these funerals. Tragedy strikes and Bellman’s wife and all bar one of his children die. The mysterious man in black is at the gravesides and Bellman becomes obsessed with him. He addresses him at a graveside alone and seems to think they have struck a deal to keep Bellman’s one remaining child alive. Bellman conceives a large emporium which deals with every aspect of the death industry from clothing to grave goods, coffins and so on. It is to be a magnificent edifice and the elusive Mr Black (as Bellman has christened him), is seen by Bellman as a sleeping partner. The business thrives and the descriptions of the business premises are amongst the most gothic parts of the book. Of course the rooks and Mr Black haven’t finished with Bellman yet.

“The rook is a skilled survivor… his cry is harsh and grating, made for a more ancient world that existed before the innovation of the pipe, the lute and the viol. Before music was invented he was taught to sing by the planet itself. He mimicked the great rumble of the sea, the fearsome eruption of volcanoes, the creaking of glaciers and the geological groaning as the world split apart in its agony and remade itself. This being the case, you can hardly be surprised that his song has not the sweet loveliness of the blackbird in your spring garden. (But if you ever get the chance, open your ears to a sky full of rooks. It is not beautiful; it is magnificent.)”

And;

“[there] is a story much older than this one in which two ravens – which are nothing but large rooks – were companions and advisors to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, and the other Muninn, which meant Memory.”

The bits about rooks are the best bits in the book. The descriptions of the mill and the shop and the mourning rituals are all well and good, but certainly not ghostly! The real problem is that the novel is very much focused on Bellman and to be frank he is rather boring. The thought and memory aspects don’t really come into play until towards the end of the book, which is a pity. On the whole a disappointment.

5 out of 10

Starting Loaves and Wishes, writers writing on food edited by Antonia Till

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