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      Something Wicked This Way Comes...   10/09/2019

      The Autumn Supporter Giveaway!       Welcome to the very first of the seasonal BCF supporter giveaways! This month also marks one year since I took on the forum, so I want to say an extra huge thank you to all of you for keeping this place going. I have a little bit more to say about that later but, for now, let's get to the giveaway!     The Autumn Giveaway winner will be getting two Penguin Little Black Classics, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe and To Be Read At Dusk by Charles Dickens. Both of these little books contain three atmospheric short stories, perfect for autumnal evenings. The winner will also get Mary Shelley tea (a lavender and vanilla black tea) from Rosie Lea Tea's Literary Tea Collection (https://www.rosieleatea.co.uk/collections/literary-tea-collection) and a chocolate skull, to really get that spooky atmosphere .   and...   A special treat for a special month. The winner will choose one of the following recent paperback releases from the independent bookshop Big Green Bookshop:       The Wych Elm by Tana French A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan Melmoth by Sarah Perry The Familiars by Stacey Halls  The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White   The winner will be chosen via the usual random selection process in one week. Patreon supporters are entered automatically. If you aren't a patreon supporter but you'd like to join in with this giveaway, you can support here: https://www.patreon.com/bookclubforum.   I really hope you're all going to like this introduction to the seasonal giveaways. It's been a lot of fun to put together. Other chocolate skulls may have been harmed during the selection process…     
Books do furnish a room

A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

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Great review of Bellman and Black, I agree completely. I really can't understand why so many synopses refer to this book as a ghost story, and even make out that it's tense or scary, because it just isn't. Very little actually happens and it's very metaphorical. I think if I'd known that when I started reading I would have liked it more. 

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Thanks Hayley

Loaves and wishes edited by Antonia Till

A collection of writing about food, all from female writers and published by virago to commemorate Oxfam’s fiftieth anniversary in 1992. There is a brief history of Oxfam at the end.

This is a very varied collection from writers like Woolf, Germaine Greer, Attia Hosain, Kathy Lette, Sara Maitland, Susie Orbach, Shashi Deshpande, Doris Lessing, Sohaili Abdulali to mention a few. There are great contrasts here, Greer talks about the difference between hunger and starvation whilst Hosain recalls the foods of her childhood linked to feast days and times, such as Eid.

Till asserts in her introduction that women:

“are burdened with the necessity of providing food for their families, day after day, week after week, year after year … any failure to do this with good grace is readily equated with a failure of love.”

Maitland admits to hating cooking and compares the kitchen to the Gulag whilst Susie Orbach talks about the restorative power of chicken soup and provides a recipe. There’s a passage from To The Lighthouse and The Golden Notebook and a couple of short stories, some nostalgia and a look at the more negative side of the kitchen on the Indian subcontinent.

It isn’t very long and each contribution is brief. There is a good variety and a couple of writers who I was not familiar with for me to follow up

7 out of 10

Starting Salt on your Tongue by Charlotte Runcie

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Tripticks by Ann Quin

This is the first time I have read anything by Ann Quin: she was a British experimental artist who took her own life in 1973 following years of mental ill-health. She wrote four novels and this was the last and most experimental. She was part of a very loose group of experimental writers including B S Johnson, Eva Figes, Alan Burns and Rayner Heppenstall.

She is not much read today but she has influenced many other writers, including Kathy Acker, Juliet Jacques, Stewart Home, Deborah Levy and Chloe Aridjis.

The plot is very loose and the narrator is male with three ex-wives. He is taking a sort of road trip across the US. He keeps coming across his ex-wives in all sorts of locations: usually his first ex-wife and she crops up most often. Various older family members also pop up in odd places and there are epistolary episodes as well. This has been compared to Burroughs and Quinn’s landscape is just as surreal. If you didn’t know the date you could easily date it by the references to fashion, TV, by the language and attitudes to sex and sexuality. The account is rather scattered and broken, jumping around a great deal. When a phrase like pre-punk aesthetics is applied to a work you pretty much know what you are going to get! It certainly wasn’t liked by the critics, look at what the TLS had to say:

“The technique, which must be even more laborious to employ than it is to interpret, cannot perform what it aims at. The thing is still physically a book, we must still turn over its pages, we still have to remember from one page to the next what has accumulated. The effort of doing so through the thickets of frustration that the method and layout interpose is too much, and draws fatal attention to the powerful underlying humourlessness of the whole thing”

However there are other views:

"a savage assault on an America obsessed by commerce, advertising and media, a road novel from hell, written as if it is the frenzy of one last gasp"

Of course it is a road novel of sorts and a pursuit narrative, but in some ways these aspects are almost asides to the encounters with various aspects of early 1970s American culture. There is also a good deal of free association and stream of consciousness digressions. This isn’t light bedtime reading, it is quite hard work. The more perceptive will also notice the influence of Marcuse. Quinn expects a lot of the reader, but she was the same in real life as her friend Alan Burns recalls a public literary meeting:

“she did her Quin thing, that is to say she came onto the stage and she just sat and looked at people, she wouldn’t say a goddamn word! She just stared, she either implied or she actually stated that … we can communicate more in silence than with someone actually putting the words across.”

Quin chops things about pop-art style and there are lots of illustrations from Carol Annand. You get the words of Nixon or Johnson juxtaposed with ads for erotic underwear or inserted into family history as in this instance where the narrator is talking to an ex father-in-law:

He was all for reconciliations, and while slicing through a neatly tiered 3-layer cake – more like a marble cake full of unexpected whorls and inseparable blendings – he exclaimed: “I do not think that those men who are out there fighting for us tonight think we should enjoy the luxury of fighting each other back home.”’

The quote at the end is from a TV broadcast by Johnson in 1966.

I can’t say that I was passionate about this and I think I would enjoy her first novel Berg more, but it is memorable and I know people on here who would love it. It is an acquired taste.

6 out of 10

Starting What we talk about when we talk about rape by Sohaila Abdulali

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In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

It has been an interesting experience reading Taylor’s novels one after the other. This is Taylor’s eighth novel and it is about love, but don’t let that put you off, it is an interesting examination (and very English). It is set over a single summer. The title being the opening lines of Piers Ploughman. It revolves around a middle-aged woman called Kate. Her husband has died and she has remarried to Dermot, a man ten years her junior. Her son Tom has started working in the family firm and her daughter Louise is sixteen and home from school for the summer.

There are some strong minor characters. Dermot’s mother Edwina lives in London. Living with Kate and Dermot is a relative, Ethel who is an ex-suffragette. Mrs Meacock is the cook who dreams of other things. Halfway through the novel an old friend of Kate’s returns to the neighbourhood; Charles and his daughter Araminta (Minty). There are also, in the first half several female acquaintances of Tom. Louise manages to fall in love with the local curate Father Blizzard.

The novels revolves around the relationship of Kate and Dermot and she analyses rather well, positives:

‘Separated from their everyday life, as if in a dream or on a honeymoon, Kate and Dermot were under the spell of the gentle weather and blossoming countryside. They slept in bedrooms like corners of auction rooms stacked with old fashioned furniture, they made love in hummocky beds, and gave rise to much conjecture in bar parlours where that sat drinking alone, not talking much, though clearly intent on each other.’

And negatives:

‘On the way home they quarreled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarreling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it.’

There is a dry comic element:

“Aunt Ethel descended the stairs wearing her beaded jersey and a touch of talcum powder… – a concession she made in the evenings. She had the ample, maternal, bosomy looks to be found in so many elderly spinsters….Living in her niece’s house involved her in all sorts of problems that no one else knew existed… Ethel had a way of bending her head at closed doors, not listening, as she told herself, but ascertaining.”

 and some rather wry observations about the English middle class. The persecution of Father Blizzard for being too high church is an interesting side plot. The buildup and development of relationships is done well and the reader does wonder where it is all headed. The ending is interesting and has been speculated about. It felt to me like Taylor thought “let’s crash the thing and see what happens”, it’s all so sudden, but interesting none the less.

7 out of 10

Starting The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

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What we talk about when we talk about rape by Sohaila Abdulali

A book every man should read, written with compassion and power and managing to maintain balance. Abdulali describes herself thus:

“A brown bisexual middle-aged atheist Muslim survivor immigrant writer without a Shame Gene”

She knows of what she writes having survived a gang rape by four men when she was seventeen and living in India. One of the strengths of the book is that it draws on the stories of women throughout the world, not just from Europe and the US. Abdulali talks about the #MeToo movement, which took off while she was writing:

“I’m not qualified to talk about whether it has the capacity to revolutionize society, since I’m a complete social media misfit. But of course it should! Anything, in any medium, that connects women and helps amplify their voices on this issue, is fantastic, as far as I’m concerned. If one lone woman spoke out for the first time about sexual abuse, that’s already a success.”

Abdulali has worked for a rape crisis centre and with rape survivors for many years and draws on her experience with many women and some men. She talks about the complexity of rape and the feelings related to it. This is illustrated by an extended quote:

“In the fall of 2017, the international news was suddenly full of women who were abused and terrorized by men, who stayed in relationships (personal, professional) with their abusers and have said they had conflicting feelings. This may sound confusing, and I’ve had friends express doubts to me about how severely these women were really victimised.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad?

No, no, no. This is a tough one to grasp, I know, so I repeat: no, no, no. How you act with your rapist afterwards, and even how you might feel about your rapist afterwards, doesn’t indicate the seriousness of either the crime or your trauma.

In the midst of my own shock and pain all those years ago, I felt a fugitive pang for the people who raped me. I had no history with them. They were strangers full of hostility and rage and I had nothing in common with them. I looked into their eyes and felt sick with panic. But I also felt a weird compassion.

I think calling it Stockholm Syndrome and labelling it a pathology or a dysfunctional response is too simplistic. I didn’t like them, or sympathise, or understand. But I did see that in some odd way they were fellow human beings.

And they were not happy. They were not having a fine old time, out for a jolly gang-bang. Maybe some men have fun committing rape, but these men weren’t. It was all terrifying for me, but they were also tormented, and I couldn’t help noticing that and feeling a tiny chord of empathy.

Oddly enough, this might have been what saved my life that day. Their plan was to kill us, my friend and me. I talked and talked and talked—I’ve never talked that much before or since. I forgot that I was supposed to be a shy kid. I talked about how I knew they were good people, we were all brothers and sisters, blah blah ...

Let me be very clear, I did not think they were good people or that we were brothers and sisters. I thought, and still do, that they were extremely bad people. They were malign, brutal, and vicious. But it was the only way I could think of to get them to see me as someone they couldn’t destroy. Or themselves as people who couldn’t kill. And perhaps the only way I could do that was to believe it a tiny bit myself.

If the world were different and I had seen them in court, would I have felt sorry for them? I have no idea. I’m just pointing out that it makes perfect sense to me when I see photographs of famous women smiling and hugging men whom they later point out as rapists. The fact that you have confused feelings about the person who hurt you doesn’t make you guilty. It makes you human.”

Abdulali asks a lot of relevant questions; Is rape always a life-defining event? Does rape always symbolize something? Is rape worse than death? Is rape related to desire? Who gets raped? Is rape inevitable? Is one rape worse than the other? Who rapes? What is consent? How do you recover a sense of safety and joy? How do you raise sons? Who gets to judge?

This should be required reading, it is well written, very important and analyses the culture and attitudes around rape with anger, cold calm humour and humanity.

9 out of 10

Starting Voyages Out and Voyages Home edited by Jane de Gay and Marion Dell

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Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington

A bit of a detour from the hallowed halls of literature into one of my other interests: owls! This very much does what it says on the tin, it is about owls. Miriam Darlington is a bit of an obsessive. She spent a year tracking and trailing otters in the UK and wrote about that. She is also a poet. Here it is owls and an attempt to see all of the British and European owl species in the wild which meant trips to Serbia, Finland and France. There are chapters on the Barn Owl, Little Owl, Tawny Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Pygmy Owl, Snowy Owl and Eurasian Eagle Owl. There is a bit of owl lore and its history present and an acknowledgement that a recent surge of interest owes much to Harry Potter.

There is a good deal of detail about the habits and behaviour of owls, both savoury and unsavoury. However Garlington does fix the owls within the landscape and terrain:

“And when it did fly off I saw, or rather heard, its display flight; as the sun flashed like brass on those long slender primary feathers and it clapped its wings together the sound echoed sharply back to us; the brightness of it rang out, as if those wings had been mined from deep out of the moor, their surface forged from metal”

Darlington weaves into all this the problems she had with her teenage son at the time and an undiagnosed illness which seriously affected the family (eventually diagnosed as Non Epileptic Seizure Disorder).

This is also part entertaining travelogue and Darlington is good at painting a verbal portrait of her journeys and the eccentricity of the people she meets. There ae plenty of facts and figures and on the whole the writing is good. There is a bit of preachiness at times and if you don’t like owls it won’t be for you: but I enjoyed it.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Uncentering the Earth by William T Vollmann

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Voyages Out, Voyages Home edited by Jane de Gay and Marion Dell

This is a selection of papers from the eleventh international conference on Virginia Woolf in 2001. It was published in 2010 to mark the death of the Woolf scholar Julia Briggs. Some of the scholars add an afterword updating their essays with developments between 2001 and 2010. There are nineteen papers in all and they are all relatively brief.

  • The first paper is the only one not from the original conference, but is an analysis of the contribution of Julia Briggs to Woolf studies

  • The second looks at voyages and travel in Woolf’s fiction, contrasting the state of flux in the characters with the travel motifs in the fiction.

  • The third continues the theme of travel and movement and looks specifically at two of Woolf’s essays which focus on air flight: “Flying over London” and “America which I have never seen”. The essays focus on the way women can escape the limitations of urban space and on women and travel in general.

  • Cheryl Mares looks at identity and difference in Woolf and the problems of reading across cultures, with a specific look at America and reference to gender.

  • Su Reid entitles her paper “Walking Down Whitehall” and is interested in comparisons between real places and their representation in fiction, specifically in Mrs Dalloway.

  • “Orlando’s Othello” looks at the links between Orlando and Othello and at some of the iconography in Orlando.

  • The seventh paper examines the character of Peter Walsh in Mrs Dalloway with special reference to Empire. Nancy Knowles uses a debate between Mannoni and Frantz Fanon to locate the argument. There is also a comparison between Walsh and Septimus Smith.

  • Janet Manson looks at Leonard Woolf’s role as an architect of The League of Nations.

  • Beth Daugherty looks at Virginia Stephen’s reading and Virginia Woolf’s writing: contrasting what the younger Virginia read with what the older Virginia wrote. There is also a brief analysis of women’s education and writing in the nineteenth century.

  • The tenth paper looks at Virginia Woolf and the end of domestic fiction, with a focus on The Voyage Out.

  • Diane Gillespie looks at the Hogarth Press and Detective Fiction. The Hogarth Press published a couple of detective novels and this looks at why and at the nature of detective fiction at the time.

  • The next essay examines the film culture of the 1920s and the role of the Hogarth press, Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and Clive Bell. It examines a point in time when cinema threatened to be radical and subversive, but did not and we got Hollywood

  • Loretta Stec examines Woolf’s journalism in general and especially with the feminist publication Time and Tide.

  • “Woolf and the Unsayable: The Roar on the Other Side of Silence” looks at looks at some of Woolf’s more experimental work from “The Mark on the Wall”, “Kew Gardens” and “Monday or Tuesday”. It looks at passages like the one where Woolf tries to describe the sensations of a tree.

  • The next paper looks at the contested area between the private and public realms with particular reference to Between the Acts.

  • Joyce Kelly’s essay contrasts The Voyage Out with Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, looking at the nature of illness in literature and at Woolf’s essay On Being Ill.

  • Kathryn Harvey compares the reviews and essays of Woolf with those of Rebecca West

  • Christine Sizemore looks at contested cultural territories in Mrs Dalloway and Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day.

  • The final paper looks at the mind/body split in Between the Acts and Helen Dunmore’s Talking to the Dead.

 

This is a good collection of essays, many of which later led to books. I think you have to be seriously into Woolf to appreciate these and to have read a fair amount of her work. I found them interesting and well worth reading and they certainly did deepen my understanding of Woolf’s work.

9 out of 10

Starting Dolly Sen's manual of psychiatric disorder

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Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh

This is not a book I would have noticed or read without my current reading women challenge. It is set in Pennsylvania in the imaginary mining town of Bakerton, well, ex mining town. It focusses on a community in decline suddenly faced with the possibility of new riches in the form of fracking. Inevitably someone has had to label it “the best fracking novel ever” (Washington Post). This is a character driven novel and Haigh has set up a good cast of characters which are well drawn, human, flawed and believable. There are no real heroes or villains; apart from perhaps the CEO of the fracking company. Haigh portrays a declining small town with the inevitable problems with drugs and unemployment. Then there are the roughnecks who come in to do the drilling, each has their story and Haigh maps interactions with locals and families back home. She also notes the irony that Bakerton is an immigrant town in its roots, but there is a resent of workers from outside. You can tell Haigh is writing about what she knows, being brought up in Pennsylvania.

Haigh describes her characters well. Geologists are described as “rumpled, whiskery men, palpably uncomfortable in polite society, like farm animals brought indoors.”

Fracking, of course, is at the centre of it all and one of the characters describes visiting a drilling rig:

“It’s as though the giant machines are running themselves…the noise is epic and surprisingly complex, layered like music: a low grinding he feels in the base of his spine, a shrill whine like the world’s largest table saw.”

“An immense truck, larger than any he’s ever seen, is climbing the access road, or trying to. The thing moves at the speed of a cruise ship, enveloped in a cloud of diesel fumes. . . . In stunned silence they watch the hulking machine inch up the ridge. That it moves at all is a straight-up miracle. It’s as though an aircraft carrier has run aground in Rich’s back yard.”

But the past is also present as the shadow of Three Mile Island is referenced as is the history relating to coal mining. There is actually quite a bit related to Three Mile Island and Haigh has clearly done some research on the issue, although she retains a level of cynicism about what happened, here talking about the reactor:

“It is a work of genius, alive as a human body, the dream of a scientist with the intellect of God. But the scientist himself did not design it. The engineers who designed it have never run it. The operators can’t, themselves, maintain it. The maintenance crew has no idea what they’re maintaining. They perform procedures outlines in the Handbook, written by someone. They follow the schedule and complete the checklist and hang the yellow tag.”

 

Haigh has spoken about writing the soul of a place and she manages it rather well in Heat and Light. I enjoyed this novel, learnt a little about fracking and would certainly read more by Haigh given the opportunity.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Claiming Breath by Diane Glancy

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You read some edgy tough books!  I have read some Winterson and found her great (I particularly like the way she chops and mixes up time), and the Dworkin book sounds like a must-read.

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I try to  vary my diet vodkafan and I agree with you about Winterson (and about Dworkin).

Dolly Sen's Manual of Psychiatric Disorder by Doll Sen

This is a small pocket sized book, which, as it says is taking a subversive look at psychiatry through art and mischief. Dolly Sen has been in the mental health system since she was fourteen. Sen has an Indian father and a Scottish mother, adding the extra disadvantage of race to gender when it comes to navigating the mental health system. The title is a skit on The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It is supposed to be the book on the classification of mental disorders, but as Sen says it:

“reads much more like an Argos catalogue, where you may or may not get what you ordered, handed to you in boxes by people who don’t know you, and are just waiting for the next person in line to be a 'person of dubious parentage' to. The only difference is there is no warranty when they break your soul. … The DSN is a diagnostic tool that aims to pathologies all things human.”

This is easily read in an hour or two and contains cartoons, poems and posters (the Adopt a Nutter poster is hilarious, as is the You know you’re normal when) as well as the written word. Sen’s satire is caustic and biting and pulls no punches.

 

Some of it is uncomfortable and close to the edge, but it makes the links between mental ill-health and poverty, it is a social rather than medical model of mental ill health. The poetry is also hard hitting:

“Being labelled, pathologised and medicated,

I cannot claim my mind for myself

I cannot claim my life for myself

So how can I even have dignity?

 

Medicine does not heal

But seals the scream

Is that dignity?

 

Dignity is never in the side effects.

Weight gain – my arse is getting bigger than my dreams.

Too tied to reach for the day, let alone the sun.

Try having sex without coming – dignity?

 

Love with a lot of going – dignity?

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but

Try it with the largactyl shuffle.

Constipation does not feel like dignity

How can I sing the song of dignity drooling?”

 

There is a section on mad culture and some interesting discussion on the labelling of disabled minds. The section on recovery contains a very telling critique of the recovery movement, making the point that recovery is treated as point where a person is left to fend for themselves, “Is recovery about being well enough to be thrown into the world of sharks?” Sen reshapes the recovery star (a tool used in mental health services to encourage and measure recovery) to provide different destinations which include stigma, poverty, poor housing, racism, sexism, the loss of the welfare state, inequality, loss of rights and so on. Sen argues mental ill health is as much about society and the way people are treated as it is about medical models.

Sen is engaging and passionate and asks basic questions about the mental health system and the way it treats people.

9 out of 10

Starting Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

I enjoyed this particular outing of Taylor’s. It’s subtle and satirical. It is slow moving and I can imagine for some readers it will be like watching paint dry. There is a wedding, a birth, an attempted suicide, a bit of tension in relationships and a lovers tiff or two. Taylor is good at observing minutiae and life’s tiny sadness’s. As is often the case with Taylor, the cast of characters is not huge. These centre on Flora, the soul of kindness of the title, and her husband Richard. Flora has everything she wants, loyal and adoring friends and relatives, a lovely home, a baby, a housekeeper she has turned into a friend and everyone protects Flora from herself. Flora only sees what she wants to see and hears what she wants to hear. Richard’s father, Percy contemplates his cat:

“Flora, in fact had given it to him and he had been obliged to take it in. In four years, he had found that Flora was not biddable after all. Although good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine.”

Flora’s mother had brought her up to have a rosy view of life and human nature and she has been shielded form a good deal of life’s unpleasantness. Her husband Richard contemplates why he has kept a little secret from her, a chance encounter with a neighbour Elinor when they went for a drink and a chat:

“To have kept quiet about it, had given it the significance of a secret arrangement. Now it was too late, and if Flora came to hear of it, as more than likely she might, a little puzzled frown would come between her brows – the expression she wore when she was bewildered by other standards of behaviour than her own. But we’ve preserved the face pretty well, between us, Richard thought; not fearing ageing lines, but the loss of innocence. So far, and by the skin of his teeth, he felt. The face was his responsibility now and it would surely be his fault if it were altered, if the Botticelli calm were broken, or the appealing gaze veiled.”

Flora has a lack of awareness and little sense of the effect her actions have, a good example being a letter to her mother just after her wedding, near the beginning of the book:

“Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me.”

This is all I think, a variation on an Austen plot. If you take the character of Emma and remove her wisdom, you pretty much have Flora. The satire is on point as the reader realizes that this kind and caring character is actually a monster. Inevitably someone near her will suffer, and they do. They only one who really sees through Flora is someone who has never met her, Liz, a painter, who knows a number of Flora’s friends. There are some comic moments as well. Although this was not one of Taylor’s most critically acclaimed books it was one I appreciated, although it was like looking at a slow motion car crash.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

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Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

This is the first Jesmyn Ward I have read, although as a little of it appeared familiar, I may have read an extract in a collection. It is set in Mississippi at the time of hurricane Katrina, in fact the twelve days leading up to it. It follows an African-American family who are desperately poor and living in the rural backwoods. The main protagonist is Esch, a girl of fifteen who lives with her three brothers and her alcoholic widowed father. Esch discovers she is pregnant at the start of the book. Her sexual experiences started at twelve with her brother’s friends and as she explains, "it was easier to let him keep on touching me than ask him to stop". Esch is literate and she is reading Greek mythology and there is a mythic quality to the story: a sensuality and physicality and some haunting descriptions. There is a good deal of pain and sorrow which is built up to be anything other than something to be got through and survived.

There are several strands running through the novel. There is the preparation for the hurricane, family dynamics and Esch’s interactions with the unborn child’s father. One of Esch’s brothers, Skeet, owns a pit bull dog, which gives birth to a litter of puppies. Dogs and dog fighting are another theme and one which I struggled with as the descriptions are graphic and sickening.

It is a powerful description of family life and all of the characters feel realistic and you end up caring about them, despite their lack of prospects and hopelessness. Despite the violence and oppression there is a humanity about the characters, particularly Esch and her linking her life to that of Medea:

“I wonder if Medea felt this way before she walked out to meet Jason for the first time, like a hard wind come through her and set her to shaking.”

The descriptive passages are excellent and Katrina is also almost one of the characters:

“The murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl.”

There are issues and problems, but the whole is a powerful portrayal of those living at the edge of society.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Loony Bin Trip by Kate Millet

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The Miller of Angibault by George Sand

George Sand was the pen name of Armantine Lupin and this is the first of her work that I have read. It was written in 1845. It is one of Lupin’s pastoral and socialist novels with a focus on the rural poor. There is a varied cast of characters. Madame de Blanchemont (Marcelle) is married to an aristocrat and has a son called Edouard. Her husband has recently died and she has been left with a country estate, the state of which she is unaware of. Lenor is an educated Parisian working man. He and Marcelle have been in love for a while. It would seem that Marcelle’s husband’s death would free them to marry. However Lenor feels that on principle he cannot marry someone who has inherited wealth, even though it is not known how much. This is the conundrum at the start of the book.

Marcelle travels to her estate and that is where we meet the rest of the cast. The estate is rather run down and debt ridden and needs to be sold. We now meet Monsieur Bricolin a wealthy farmer local to the estate who wants to buy it. Bricolin is the villain of the piece as his focus is entirely on money and increasing his wealth. He lives with his wife, his daughter Rose and his aged parents. There is another daughter who has a serious mental health problem, apparently as a result of her parents not allowing her to marry the man she loved. On her travels Marcelle meets Grand-Louis, the miller of Angibault as per the title, who helps her and allows her to stay with him and his mother before she goes to stay with the Bricolins. Grand-louis is in love with Rose Bricolin, but her parents do not approve. Add a local beggar called Cadouche and a variety of locals and you have the cast. It is well written and the plot rolls along merrily with some twists and turns.

Lupin looks back on the legacy of the Revolution and what it has and hasn’t achieved, it also looks at human greed and the nobility of the human spirit. Most of the socialists at the time were focussing on urban poverty, but Lupin turned her gaze on the rural poor probably because of her own upbringing in the countryside. The outworking has a communitarian edge to it. In terms of gender Lupin does explore the control of men over daughters and wives. It is a good read, a bit too neatly tied up at the end, but nevertheless it’s a good introduction to Lupin.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting When I hit you by Meena Kandasamy

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Claiming Breath by Diane Glancy

Diane Glancy is a poet and writer of part Cherokee heritage. She teaches English and creative writing. In her younger years following a divorce she spent a long time on the road teaching. This book charts a year on the road and is part poetry and part prose. Glancy describes herself as being on the middle ground between two cultures. The journey of the book follows the course of a year, although essentially it is non-linear. The feel of the book is one of movement rather than permanency. There is cultural crossing (transveillances as Glancy says) and a claiming of open space. Race, class and gender are all addressed in Glancy’s particular way: as are matters of spirituality. Words are central:

“The word is important in Native American tradition. You speak the path on which you walk. Your words make the trail.”

“Writing is the hammer & chisel that breaks down the established way of thinking. A concrete event, then an abstraction. An image, then a thought. Finally, writing builds another establishment with the fragments.”

With all the words, it is poetry that is central:

“Poetry saves what is human in this world going gaudy & insane. In exploring small truths, something larger might turn up, adding dimension, insight, vision, recognition to our lives. We just might be more complete, more aware after a poem.”

“20th century poetry is a piñata. Images break from the earth when the poet strikes it.”

Writing about it is one thing: reading it is another.

7 out of 10

Starting Up the Country by Emily Eden

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Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

“I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? . . . Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds . . . I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate—at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And couldn't even wipe my own nose at the time. “

 

One of my reading threads is of “classics” that I have never read (and possibly shouldn’t!) and Rushdie’s 1981 work has been on my shelves for a while. It won the Booker prize and the Booker of Bookers. It charts the Partition of India and the end of British colonial rule through the eyes of Saleem Sinai born on the exact stroke of midnight as modern India and Pakistan were born. You can harvest a few of the important words applied to fiction when you analyse this one: postcolonial, postmodern, magic realist. It is set in the context of actual historical events, although it weaves a fictional path through them. The path starts before Partition as the   reader follows Salem’s origins (as early as 1915). Over time the story ranges all over India and Pakistan. The title refers to a group of children born at or just around midnight who as a result have a sort of telepathy and particular powers.

It is a gripping ride as we follow Saleem and his family around the subcontinent:

“I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow a lot as well. Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me…”

Comparisons to Tristram Shandy are apt and have often been made. The plot is fabulous in the magical sense of the word and complex. There is also a multiplicity of characters which reminded me of Dickens as well, with an emphasis on the odd and unusual:

“..here, near the top, she sees dark light filtering down on to the heads of queuing cripples. ‘My number two cousin,’ Lifafa Das says, ‘is bone-setter.’ She climbs past men with broken arms, women with feet twisted backwards at impossible angles, past fallen window-cleaners and splintered bricklayers, a doctor’s daughter entering a world older than syringes and hospitals; until, at last, Lifafa Das says, ‘Here we are, Begum,’ and leads her through a room in which the bone-setter is fastening twigs and leaves to shattered limbs, wrapping cracked heads in palm-fronds, until his patients begin to resemble artificial trees, sprouting vegetation from their injuries ... and on the parapet, the silhouettes of large birds, whose bodies are as hooked and cruel as their beaks: vultures.

‘ ... But the birds? ...’

‘Nothing, Madam: only there is Parsee Tower of Silence just near here; and when there are no dead ones there, the vultures come. Now they are asleep; in the days, I think, they like to watch my cousins practising.”

The swapping at birth motif also adds to the whole, as does the importance of pickle. There are so many byways in the novel and the scope is immense. Inevitably it has spawned a whole academic analysis industry. The politicians certainly don’t come out of it well, especially the Ghandi family and there is a particular focus on the state of emergency. Feminist analysis has acknowledged Rushdie’s questioning of patriarchy, but then some of the women who take leading roles in family or nation (like Reverend Mother, Indira Ghandi, Padma) tend to fit into the roles vacated by men with little change in effect or function. You see there are so many avenues to follow if you want to look at it in depth.

It’s a great read and ride and worth the effort. There are flaws, but the whole is a great modern novel.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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I always read, enjoy and am often inspired by your reviews BDFAR, but I was very much looking forward to reading your thoughts on Midnight's Children. It is a favourite of mine. I have both read it and listened to the extraordinary audio version read by Lyndam Gregory. 

 

You have summed up the reading of the book so well, and I love the parts you have chosen to share. 

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‘Midnight’s Children’ is on my to read list. I’m always sceptical of whether modern classics will live up to expectations, but your review makes me feel that I really will like this one!

 

Im adding The Miller of Angibault too, which is one of those books I’ve heard of but never really knew what it was about. It sounds like it has some interesting themes :) 

 

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Thank you Chrissy

Hayley, I did enjoy The Miller of Angibault, and Midnight's Children, which I think will stand the test of time.

Uncentering the Earth by William Vollmann

This is one of a series of books on science written by non-scientists. The series includes David Foster Wallace writing on infinity, amongst others. Vollmann has got Copernicus and seminal work “The Revolutions of the Heavenly Speres”. One of the works which began to place the sun at the centre of the universe, rather than the earth.

The subject is not a straightforward one and you really have to be a fan of astronomy to be captivated by it, but Vollmann throws himself into it with gusto and a good deal of vigour. He examines the links between Copernicus and the classical writers who tackled the same subject, especially Ptolemy. He also examines the role of the Church and the scriptures in all this. Vollmann is quite self-deprecating at times and throws in a few good one-liners, mixing exegesis of the text with the technical stuff. Some of the technical stuff was beyond my mathematical and astronomical competence:

"Now, if we uncenter ourselves in obedience to the compelling circles and angles of 'Revolutions,' we'll come to see that the eccentric radius of any planet equals its relative mean distance from the Sun, while the epicyclic radius corresponds to Earth's relative mean distance from the same point. Never mind the fact that Ptolemy's eccentric radii for all four planets (and the Sun) equal 60 units while the epicyclic radii vary; this is simply an artifact of observations taken from a moving Earth rather than a relatively motionless Sun. The important fact is the ratio itself. For Mars, then, the ratio is 60 divided by 39*, or 1.518, a number which differs by less than 1 percent from the currently calculated mean Martian distance from the Sun of 1.524 astronomical units."

The exegesis is more interesting and typically Vollmann. Who else would check Calvin’s collected works to see if he mentions Copernicus? The discussion is the most interesting part of the work, if you’re interested in the subject. There is some interesting historical analysis too.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

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Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor

This is Taylor’s last novel, I seem to have got a bit out of order in my reading of her, because there are still a couple left! Taylor knew she was dying whilst she wrote this and it was published posthumously in 1976. The plot, as always with Taylor, is fairly straightforward. Nick and Amy are a married couple in late middle age and on a cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. They meet a rather awkward young American writer named Martha and spend some time with her. Nick dies suddenly (not a spoiler, it’s the point of the book). Martha helps Amy to get back home and they sort of become friends, although Amy is reluctant. We then meet Amy’s son and daughter-in-law and their two young children. There is also Ernie, who is a sort of live in housekeeper, who is something of a comic turn and Gareth, a friend of Amy’s and the local doctor (also a widower).

Jenny Diski summarizes the novel rather well:

"Everyone in this book lacks a talent for friendship. People either avoid connection or impose themselves. Taylor's acerbic talent is in pitting the power of social cohesion against a nagging individualism. The style is economical and elegant as well as horridly funny."

All the characters are rather lonely and isolated, but there is an underlying humour here. However the novel is bleak. There are two events at the end, one is tragic one is happy. Both feel tragic. The conversations with the two young children are brilliantly done and you can tell that Taylor was comfortable with children and spent time with them.

“To the children, first thing next morning, Maggie said, “I’m afraid dear Grandpa has died.”
“And gone to heaven,” Isobel said, as if her mother had left something out.
Maggie slightly inclined her head, not to be caught telling a lie by the God she did not believe in.
“And-Gone-To-Heaven” Isobel shouted, standing up, outraged, in her little bed.
“Yes of course.”
“Not everyone goes to heaven,” Dora, who was older said, “Egyptian mummies didn’t go. Or stuffed fishes.”
“No fishes never go,” Isobel agreed “sometimes I eat them. Chickens can’t go nor”
“I don’t really know about heaven,” Dora said in her considered way. “We haven’t done that at school yet. But I know they must go somewhere, or we’d be full up here. People coming and going all the time”

It’s an interesting and rather poignant and fairly brief novel with a distinct edge of humour.

7 out of 10

Starting The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

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Salt on your tongue: women and the sea by Charlotte Runcie

This is a real eclectic mixture of prose, poetry, myth, stories, personal recollections, the journal of a pregnancy, superstition and much more. Charlotte Runcie has turned her obsession with the sea into a fascinating memoir come collection of anecdotes. It is very much structured and based on Greek myth. But most of all this is about women and the sea:

“The call of the sea is the call to the absolute strength of women,”

And within the structure of the book is an account of Runcie’s own pregnancy. It’s also very informative. The reader learns about St Elmo’s Fire, cocklewomen, Grendel, Grace Darling (inevitably), the saltpans of St Monans, sea shanties, sea silk, sea eagles, a brief history of childbirth at sea, the Odyssey, Our Lady Star of the Sea and much, much more.

Periodically Runcie talks about geography as well:

“There is no easily exact difference between the river and the sea; no invisible line where the freshwater ends and saltwater begins. The sea is a gradual process of becoming, of widening and ageing and growing into more. There’s a human scale to an estuary. Settlements cluster around them, growing into industrial heartlands over the centuries because they’re so useful for transport and trade and connection to the world. Even before industry, though, people were drawn to them to build their homes. They are poised on the edge, but still connected to home, to land, and to life-giving fresh drinking water as it turns to the salt of the sea.”

Then she turns to contrasts between men’s and women’s relationship with the sea:

“There is a pull, an understanding between women and the sea that has fascinated and scared men for thousands of years.”

The book is erudite and well researched and there is plenty to fascinate. It is split up into small chunks. It does jump around a bit. The drawing together the story of pregnancy and childbirth and weaving that story in with musings and stories about the sea works well. The seven chapters (each split into smaller subchapters) are named after the Pleiades. There are references to Plath and Woolf as well as Turner and his painting, Shakespeare (The Tempest) and many more. It reads easily and anyone who feels the lure of the sea is likely to enjoy this.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Death in ten minutes by Fern Riddell

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When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

Reviewing a novel like this is not easy: Kandasamy organises the raw material of domestic abuse and coercive control and uses her own experience to express it in novel form. Her new husband was outwardly radical, left wing, sensitive and caring. The reality was very different:

“No one knows the peculiar realities of my situation.
How do you land a job when:

  • you end up somewhere in the middle of the teaching semester?
  • you have no contacts in a strange city?
  • your husband has forced you off social media?
  • you have no phone of your own?
  • your husband monitors and replies to all messages addressed to you?
  • you do not speak the local language?
  • you have the wifely responsibility of producing children first?

That’s a long list already. These are not the regrets of an unemployed person. These are the complaints of an imprisoned wife.”

That’s just the coercive control part. The brutal violence and nightly rape were in addition to that. The buildup is slow and the factual narrative is interspersed with other thoughts, analysis, day dreams and possibilities. Class, society and politics are all interwoven and there is a good deal of analysis of how a man who is left-wing can justify his brutality using his beliefs to justify his violence. This, though, is a middle class tale: male violence is not just linked to one class, one culture or one country. The violence escalates towards the end:

“I have watched him play all the roles. The doting husband in the presence of his colleagues, the harassed victim of a suspicious wife to his male friends, the unjustly emasculated man to my female friends, the pleading son-in-law to my parents. The role of would-be-murderer, however, is new.”

The writing overall is imaginative and sometimes playful with an element of humour. The humour is necessary to alleviate some of the sheer awfulness of the situation. But Kandasamy is very eloquent at making her point:

“Violence is not something that advertises itself…As long as a woman cannot speak, as long as those to whom she speaks do not listen, the violence is unending.”

The book is well put together by someone who writes well, she considers the sociology of violence, she links abstractions to a real story:

“Marriage has ruined my romanticism, by teaching me that this thing of beauty can be made crude. Bitch. 'lady of the night'. Slut. And yet, for every insult that has been flung in my face, language retains its charm.

English makes me a lover, a beloved, a poet. Tamil makes me a word huntress, it makes me a love goddess.”

The gradual build up makes it more powerful and it rings true. Kandasamy was asked, when she was talking about the book, why the unnamed narrator would not just have left, but this is to misunderstand the nature of coercive control. The viciousness of it comes across as does the way male perpetrators manage to persuade themselves that want they are doing is not only justified but necessary and right. The unnamed narrator does escape, she does run:

“In the eyes of the world, a woman who runs away from death is more dignified than a woman who runs away from her man. She does not face society’s stone-throwing when she comes away free. In the quest to control the narrative, I shall have to endanger my own life.”

“In place of a firing squad, I stare down the barrels of endless interrogation. (…) Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shame is being asked to stand to judgement.”

Masculinity and patriarchy are repositories of violence: every man should read this.

 9 out of 10

Starting A Measure of Time by Rosa Guy

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The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

This is one of Taylor’s later novels, written in 1968. The Wedding Group of the title refers to a Wedgewood ornament of a wedding group which plays a symbolic role in the novel. The main protagonist is Cressida (Cressy) who lives in an artistic community called Quayne. It is run by her grandfather Harry Bretton (he self-styles himself as “Master”), who is loosely modelled on Augustus John. It is a Roman Catholic community with a priest. Taylor rather revels in her novelist’s power to send up such communities and the satire is effective. Cressy (who is seventeen) has decided to renounce religion and move out of community. She has also been asked to leave her school:

“Cressy had not been allowed to finish her last year.  Not exactly expelled, but the suggestion was that, all the same, it would be better if she did not remain.  She had broken bounds, was often missing for hours at a time, and had had some strange notions, which younger girls were all too ready to listen to”

She gets a job in an antique shop in the local village and moves into the flat above it. David is a journalist who has written about Quayne and who lives with his mother Midge. He is much older than Cressy but befriends her and they eventually marry. There are well drawn minor characters as well. There is a bleakness to the novel along with the wry humour.

There are some interesting explorations of relationships including the mother son relationship between Midge and David:

“Serious matters they had always approached lightly. There had not been so very many of them. But the worries that had occurred had been treated in an off-hand, amused manner. It will all come out in the wash. Indeed they had no other manner with one another. For this reason, she had talked of Cressy’s visit and her confession, as if it were rather absurd; entertaining, certainly. Intuitive though she usually was with him, it had been a little time this evening before she realised he was not smiling, might even be angry at her flippancy. He thought the subject should not have been broached – there had been too much talking altogether – and he wished that Cressy had kept her mouth shut, had stayed away, in fact. Midge could not coax him into laughter.”

Silence and avoidance are the order of the day, all very English! As are Cressy’s ambitions for her life:

“It was to that world beyond the beech woods that Cressy was looking. She dreamed of Wimpy Bars and a young man with a sports car, of cheap and fashionable clothes that would fall apart before she tired of them. In that world she might find a place for herself.”

Taylor as always writes really well and her powers of observation are excellent; she also periodically slips in comments which reflect her own views, especially about writing:

“The sandwiches they had ordered were now put in front of them, and Nell lifted a corner of one of hers and peered short-sightedly inside – hard-boiled egg, sliced, with dark rings round the yolk, a scattering of cress, black seeds as well.

“The reason, they say, that women novelists can’t write about men, is because they don’t know what they’re like when they’re alone together, what they talk about and so on. But I can’t think why they don’t know. I seem to hear them booming away all the time. Just listen to this lot, next to me.””

Taylor also makes some points about the Harry Bretton figure, who doesn’t come out of this too well:

“For all our precious ideals, our inventiveness it’s the essential, instinctive mother-wife we crave at last. We return, after our escapades or great deeds, to her, for forgiveness and healing and approval.’

Rachel [his wife] tried to look forgiving and healing and admiring, but had an abstracted air.

He just makes me want to vomit, Cressy thought”

Marriage and loneliness seem to go together and most of the time the characters really struggle to communicate with each other. Life is bleak and without meaning. Religion has failed to deliver, the generations are in conflict and death is on the way. It’s good stuff!!

7 out of 10

Starting Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

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Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

This is Johnson’s first full length novel and it was well worth waiting for. It is a modern telling of the Oedipus myth with a good deal else thrown in. Of course there is a twist and the setting is Oxfordshire and Oedipus is female. The main protagonist is also a lexicographer. The start of the novel sets the tone:

“The places we are born come back”

As does the end:

“There are more beginnings, than there are ends to contain them.”

As in her short story collection there is a proximity to nature and particularly water, a magic realist sense, but in a very English way. It is also very much set within the lower reaches of society. There is a spot of Hansel and Gretel, adoption, a river monster (sort of; named the Bonak, but really it stands for everything we are afraid of ) and a good deal of gender fluidity. The exploration of dementia told through one of the main characters is very effective and well described (I know, I work with those living with dementia). Freud introduced his concept of the uncanny, the placing of something rather every day in an odd, eerie or taboo setting. Lacan’s contribution was to argue that this concept captures the anxiety of not being able to make a distinction between two everyday opposites like good and bad, love and hate, pleasure and displeasure. The Oedipus myth has this sense of the uncanny and brings it into family relationships and this sense of the uncanny runs through the whole book; but it also feels every day.

Johnson herself talks about the importance of getting the right setting and deliberately choose the canals after spending some time on one:

“I was taken with this landscape and with the people who populated it. I think the most interesting thing I learned about it was how isolated from the normal structures we take for granted these people are. They inhabit their own system of rules and structures and would never, for example, ring the police.”

She also speaks eloquently about her exploration and use of transgender characters:

 The first reason that I wanted to write about transgender characters was because of the place gender change has in myth. There is a character I was thinking of in particular called Tiresias, a prophet who was born a man but lived for seven years as a woman. I knew I wanted to magpie this part of myth away. Another aspect of gender change I was interested in was the Shakespearean sort where characters change gender out of fear or necessity.”

Johnson has said that she tries to give types that have been silenced a voice and you can very much see this in Fen, but also here. There is at the centre a mother/daughter relationship which is difficult (“You’d made me and I wanted nothing more than to cut you out, cut you right out of my insides…. You populated me; you ran the spirals of my thinking. I went to work, at at the same desk every day, dreamed of something swimming in the River Isis, dreamed of your mouth moving around words I could no longer hear”), but a lot of myth and symbol as well, however as Iris Murdoch said, we live in myth and symbol all the time. I enjoy Johnson’s writing and her descriptive powers are very good:

“She crawled as far as she could into the bush. There was a slime of leaves, beer cans cut open, a white-filmed balloon that skidded under her bad leg. Through the hedge she could see the canal, lit by the oil-spill throw of street lights, the surprise exclamation of car headlights rising and then lowering over the bridge…In the first inch of waking she had forgotten. Then it came back to her. She could not sleep after that. There was a crease of frost on the ground and the sleeping bag was wet. She watched the dirty morning descend over the water.”

Taking on the Oedipus myth is always risky and as Foucault says:

“Everything concerning and around Oedipus is too much, too many parents, too many marriages, fathers who are also brothers, daughters who are also sisters, and this man, so excessively given to misfortune and who ought to be tossed into the sea.”

However Johnson’s take on it worked well for me.

Did I enjoy this as much as Fen, not quite, but then Fen is one of my all-time favourites.

9 out of 10

Starting A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

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I have Fen by Daisy Johnson on my to-read list, she definitely sounds like my kind of writer. I have seen Everything Under before, but the synopsis confused me because I couldn't work out what relation it had to Oedipus. The famous, and shocking, parts about Oedipus are obviously

Spoiler

the incestuous relationship with his mother and her subsequent suicide.

 Is that the part of Oedipus that Johnson is using, or is it just 

Spoiler

the concept of the curse of bad luck, and the way that the knowledge of the curse sort of prompts the unfortunate actions?

 

I like that it has a really good portrayal of a character with dementia, that's something I've never read before. 

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Certainly both of those are true Hayley, but we have a female Oedipus, but the story of the myth is followed. Fen is wonderful in my opinion!

 

Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont

This is Elizabeth Taylor’s penultimate novel and with this one I have read all of her eleven novels. The plot is very simple. Mrs Palfrey has lost her husband; she does not want to be a burden to her daughter (nor does her daughter). She decides to take residence in a London hotel, The Claremont, who takes older persons on a residential type basis as well as their normal trade. This type of arrangement was quite usual in the upper middle classes in the early to mid twentieth century. The hotel is a little shabby, the food passable, but not good and the wines pretty grim. However it is all many of them can really afford now they are alone in the world.

There is a rather wry comic element to this, which there needs to be as Taylor addresses some difficult and rather heavy themes. The themes include the role and fate of older people, isolation, the end of empire, death, friendship, falling in love and family. As always Taylor’s descriptions are sharp, as she describes Mrs Palfrey:

“She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.”

The end of empire theme isn’t so obvious, but Mrs Palfrey’s husband was a servant of the Empire (Burma). He is now dead and she is alone, but the attitudes and tone remain. Taylor manages to portray this well and also to make Mrs Palfrey somewhat sympathetic as well. When I grew up there were no old Empire hands to be found. However, when training to be a priest, I had a placement in a rather well to do area of Birmingham and came across a few; out of place and time, longing for a lost world, replete with tiger skins and stories of uprisings in India: it was all rather bizarre.

Taylor captures very well the behaviour of older people forced by necessity to live in institutions and hedged around by loneliness, neglect, boredom and apathy:

“It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost...”

 Mrs Palfrey is alone, her daughter is in Scotland. She has a grandson, Desmond, in London, but he never visits her. Then one day, she falls in the street and is rescued by a rather down at heel writer called Ludo. He helps and a friendship develops. She even has him visit her at the Claremont and introduces him as her grandson. Of course, things get complicated when her actual grandson turns up. And even Ludo has an ulterior motive:

“He helped her up the steps and into the taxi and when it had driven off, he returned to his room and leaning over the table, wrote in a notebook 'fluffy grey knickers... elastic ...veins on leg colour of grapes...smell of lavender water (ugh!) ...big spots on back of shiny hands and more veins - horizontal wrinkles across hands.”

Ludo’s novel is to be about The Claremont. It is to be entitled “They weren’t allowed to die there”, after something Mrs Palfrey had said.

The residents of The Claremont are a varied bunch and Taylor manages to capture their vicissitudes rather well, as with Mrs Burton, who is very partial to a drink:

“Mrs Burton felt as if she were swimming along the corridor towards her bedroom, glancing off the walls like a balloon... she pulled up at number fifty-three, steadied herself, made a forwards movement with the key. Calmly does it. Miraculously, she hit the keyhole first time...”

Taylor describes the increasing frailty of Mrs Palfrey very well adding an edge of bleakness, as here where she is taking a gift to Ludo:

“She realised that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach.

Her fall had deepened her uncertainty. And there was no husband to take her arm across a road, or protect her from indignity when she failed. I can have a little rest when I get there, she promised herself. And perhaps he will offer me a cup of tea.

The Guardian put this novel in its top 100 (number 87). I don’t see that, I enjoyed a couple of Taylor’s other novels more, but it is sharp, perceptive and very prescient. After all medical science has enable us all to live longer: this perhaps shows us where we are all headed.

8 out of 10

Starting Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

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