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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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I would agree with you pretty much the whole way, including not really seeing why it made the top 100. I haven't read all of her books yet, being about half way through, but even so have certainly enjoyed others more.  Best to date, for me, has been A View of the Harbour.

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I think A View from the Harbour is also my favourite Willoyd

Period Piece by Gwen Raverat

This is a memoir of a Cambridge childhood in the 1890s and early 1900s. Gwen Raverat was an artist and wood engraver and also a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Much of this memoir recalls her large and eccentric family, especially her many aunts and uncles and her mother’s rather odd ideas about parenting. All the art work in the book is done by Raverat. The memoir is themed, so each chapter covers a different topic: Education, propriety, childhood fears, religion, clothes, uncles and aunts, theories, Newnham Grange (the family home), Down House (the Darwin family home), sports, society, ladies and a chapter about her mother’s early life. Raverat writes with humour and a sharp wit:

“The first religious experience that I can remember is getting under the nursery table to pray that the dancing mistress might be dead before we got to the Dancing Class.”

Her upbringing was not that of a conventional late Victorian child, as she found out at school:

“Not that I wanted to leave school; I wanted to stay on, if only I could manage to bear it; for I was very curious about the extraordinary habits of the girls. For instance, that first day, they were all singing: 'I am the Honeysuckle, You are the Bee.' Why? What on earth was it? (I had never heard a popular song in my life.) And they were all busy making hat-pin knobs out of coloured sealing-wax. Now why in the world did they like doing that? Nearly everything they did mystified me.

Raverat’s mother was American and had strong views about bringing up children who were independent, but there were plenty of relatives and cousins and of course the shadow of Charles Darwin:

“My grandfather said once: ‘I have five sons, and I have never had to worry about any one of them.’ Well, that is not quite right. One ought to have to worry sometimes about young people, because they ought to be growing out in new ways and experimenting for themselves. But my grandfather was so tolerant of their separate individualities, so broad-minded, that there was no need for his sons to break away from him; and they lived all their lives in his shadow.”

The account mixes affection with sharp observation, some ridicule and clarity. It was a privileged upbringing, upper middle-class and the deprivations of the commonality of humanity are mostly absent.

There are lots of points of interest. Within the current debates about trans issues I often hear arguments about this being a new or modern thing. It isn’t, here is Raverat talking about her feelings as a child:

“Of course I wanted still more, more than anything in the world, to be a man. Then I might be a really good painter. A woman had not much chance of that. I wanted so much to be a boy that I did not dare to think about it at all, for it made me feel quite desperate to know that it was impossible to be one. But I always dreamt I was a boy. If the truth must be told, still now, in my dreams at night, I am generally a young man!”

Another point of interest is the subject of eugenics. Raverat’s uncle Lenny was president of a Eugenics society:

“Uncle Lenny used to shock me when, in talking about Eugenics, he maintained that a money standard was the only possible criterion in deciding which human stocks should be encouraged to breed”

This is a selective memoir though. There is no mention of her brother Lenny who died when Raverat was fourteen, nor of her nanny who died from cancer. There is a certain level of censorship here and a good deal of privilege. There are anecdotes and amusements, but the backdrop is a rather enclosed society, cut off from the life of much of society.

The chapter on clothes is interesting, as is Raverat’s description of sharing a room:

“This is what a young lady wore, with whom I shared a room one night – beginning at the bottom, or scratch:

  1. Thick, long-legged, long-sleeved woollen combinations

  2. Over them, white cotton combinations with plenty of buttons and frills

  3. Very serious, bony grey stays, with suspenders

  4. Black woollen stockings

  5. White cotton drawers, with buttons and frills

  6. White cotton “petticoat-bodice”, with buttons and frills

  7. Rather short, white flannel petticoat

  8. Long Alpaca petticoat, with a flounce round the bottom

  9. Pink flannel blouse

  10. High, starched, white collar, fastened with studs

  11. Navy blue tie

  12. Blue skirt, touching the ground, and fastened tightly to the blouse with a safety-pin behind

  13. Leather belt, very tight

  14. High button boots. “

 

There’s not much to say after that! There are some interesting insights into quite a narrow life and it is illuminating.

7 out of 10

Starting The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall

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Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

This biography illustrates how we often sanitise history for our own purposes. Kitty Marion was born in Germany in 1871 and left for England when she was fifteen following years of abuse from her father. She did a variety of jobs before becoming a music hall performer. In music hall she discovered the nineteenth century equivalent of the casting couch and how often bookings could depend on performing favours for the manager or agent. Marion fought and spoke up against this and found work hard to get. She joined the burgeoning suffragette movement and became one of their leading activists and joined a more radical group called the Young Hot Bloods. She was imprisoned many times and force fed over 200 times. Being of German origin she had some problems during the First World War and moved to the US. There she linked up with Margaret Sanger and started promoting and arguing for birth control: seeing it as an extension of her work for the suffragettes, also assisting Marie Stopes.

Yet Kitty Marion is hardly remembered. The suffragettes are well remembered for civil disobedience, for Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself in front of the king’s horse. What isn’t clearly remembered is the depth and extent of the suffragette campaign. It was a violent campaign involving arson, bombs (including nail bombs) and acts of terrorism. Politicians and opponents were directly targeted and may of their homes were burnt down. There were literally hundreds of these attacks and there was panic and opprobrium in the press. The violence has been painted out, but Kitty Marion was in the middle of it and Riddell has painstakingly researched her life and told her story:

“As conservative feminism took a vice-like grip of our history and the suffragettes began to sanitise their own history, the women who saw sex, freedom and independence as a universal right were ignored, as were the real lives and experiences of the women who had fought so hard and risked so much. We need to understand that those who have sought to be in control of our history of women decided to only tell one story and to exclude those voices, those women’s lives that did not conform. These are stories that need to be told.”

This leads to the polemical part of the book. Riddell looks at two strands of feminism: one she describes as conservative and tending towards purity and morality and seeing birth control as just giving men another means to abuse women. On the other hand she describes a sex positive feminism which believed in birth control and giving women freedom and control of their own bodies. Riddell puts Marion firmly in the second category.

This is a very good account of a too little known suffragette and an interesting account of some less well known (read forgotten) events. It also gives a good account of part of the birth control movement. There is polemic as well, which is interesting whichever side of the argument you are on.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Railway Accident and other stories by Edward Upward

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The Loony Bin Trip by Kate Millett

Kate Millett is most famous for her feminist text Sexual Politics, she help develop modern ideas of patriarchy. She was also an artist and sculptor and an activist in a number of areas. This book however charts Millett’s battles with mental ill health and the anti-psychiatry movement. In 1973 Millett was committed with the assistance of family and friends who were worried about her and diagnosed with what was then called manic depression (now bi-polar). She ended up on Lithium, which has a number of unpleasant side effects.

This book charts a period of time from 1980 where Millett decided to come off lithium. She was living for the summer on a farm she owned with her lover Sophie and a group of younger women who had come to stay and help out for board and lodging. Millett charts the summer from her point of view along with attempts by family and friends to get her committed again. Then there is a trip to Ireland which goes disastrously wrong when Millett ended up being committed to a very unpleasant asylum and had to be rescued by friends. On her return to the US she entered a deep depression and ended up back on Lithium. That is the bare outline of the book which is told from her own perspective by Millett. She came off lithium for good a few years later.

Millett argued that conditions like bi-polar and schizophrenia are labels society and psychiatry places on people who do not behave in conventional or socially acceptable ways and that the labels themselves cause many of the problems, "When you have been told that your mind is unsound, there is a kind of despair that takes over”. The self-fulfilling part of the psychiatric infrastructure is well described when Millett is in the asylum in Ireland:

Imagine anything at all, for after all one is free to do it here. That is the purpose of this place; it was made for you to be mad in. And when you give in and have a real fine bout, they have won. And then they have their evidence as well. But the temptation in the long hours is hard to resist, and it comes over you like the drowsiness of the powders. . . .

The moments of clarity are the worst. You burn in humiliation remembering yesterday's folderol, your own foolish thoughts. Not the boredom of here, the passive futility of reality, but the flights of fancy, which would convict you, are the evidence that you merit your fate and are here for a purpose. The crime of the imaginary. The lure of madness as illness. And you crumble day by day and admit your guilt. Induced madness. Refuse a pill and you will be tied down and given a hypodermic by force. Enforced irrationality. With all the force of the state behind it, pharmaceutical corporations, and an entrenched bureaucratic psychiatry. Unassailable social beliefs, general throughout the culture. And all the scientific prestige of medicine. Locks, bars, buildings, cops. A massive system.”

This is a disturbing account and a good advertisement for the anti-psychiatry movement. I have long thought there is a good deal to say for the movement and mental health services today still hold many of the same assumptions they did at the time this book was written. Millett describes depression as dread and not mania and argues her depression was more about grief and brokenness, not “madness”.

This is powerfully written and difficult to read at times, but the point Millett is making through her own experiences is valid and I agree with her.  

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

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Thank you itsmeagain!

Up the Country by Emily Eden

Emily Eden was the seventh daughter of Baron Auckland, one of her descendants was Anthony Eden, the Tory prime minister. Her brother George was the Governor-General of India from 1835-1842; he was responsible for the First Afghan War (1838-1842), which was a total disaster and the start of European meddling which still goes on. Emily and her sister Fanny accompanied George and Emily kept a journal which she sent in letter form to another sister in England. This virago volume covers the period from October 1837 to 1840 when George went on tour in the upper provinces meeting local rulers and potentates with a caravan of staff, followers and soldiers which often numbered up to 20,000 people.

The book is extracts form Emily’s journal/letters of this tour. It is an interesting look at life in the English upper classes in India before the mutiny and before Victoria was proclaimed Empress. Eden is an artist and sketcher as well, so she has good descriptive powers and spent a good deal of time looking for scenes, architecture and ruins to sketch. There is little political analysis as this didn’t interest Eden, she was entirely uncritical of her brother: there is though plenty of gossip and descriptions of what Eden saw as the oddness of local rulers. Social functions, durbars, balls and the like are covered in detail as is the interminable exchange of presents when they meet another local ruler.

Her brother’s prosecution of the war is not covered and it wasn’t until 1858 when it was discovered that the beloved George had totally misrepresented the case against Dost Muhammed Khan, the incumbent ruler in Kabul. The daily movement of the caravan across the plains and into the hills is described in detail as is the climate: the heat of the plains and the much milder hill country. Eden is quite witty about those around her and has quite a sharp tongue and seems to matchmake quite a bit (she never married). Eden also spends quite a lot of time waiting for letters and news from home and for the latest Dickens instalment. Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist are mentioned.

All this is very well and illuminates a life and times long gone (thankfully). There are also however relationships and interactions with Indian servants and the local population. Whilst I am sure there were much worse examples of the British in India, Eden appears fond of most of her servants. Her feelings are based on a sense of superiority and an underlying contempt. At one point Eden noticed a mother with a starving child (there are occasional hints of famines). For a couple of days this has novelty value and Eden speaks of providing food and support; then she seems to get bored and there is no further mention of the child. There are periodic oddities when they come across ex-soldiers or members of the British community who have taken on local culture and married local women: Eden struggles to know what to make of them. Eden often writes of missing England and disliking India. She doesn’t want to be there, but it doesn’t occur to her that she (and the rest of the British) shouldn’t be there.

5 out of 10

Starting Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

One of the things I liked about this book is the fact that the protagonist is a woman in her late 50s. This is a prequel to Evans’s novel Crooked Hearts and continues the story of Mattie Simpkin a former suffragette. The time is 1928 and Mattie Simpkin tours the country giving talks about the suffragette movement and women are about to vote for the first time. Mattie lives in Hampstead in a house called The Mousehole. A reference to the Cat and Mouse Act, one of the pieces of legislation used to deal with the suffragettes. She lives with Florrie Lee, known as The Flea and together they make a formidable couple. The stirrings of fascism are in the air and there is a good deal of admiration for Mussolini around. A group for young people called the Empire League, based on Mussolini’s teachings are flourishing. Mattie decides that something must be done and starts a weekend group for young women called the Amazons. There are strong female characters in this and all the men are peripheral. The point of the book is to reflect on what happens when a struggle is over:

“What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”

Of course there are always fresh struggles and new challenges and Mattie begins to find these. The character of Mattie Simpkin is well drawn:

“Miss Simpkin by contrast, had a face as readable as a penny newspaper, enthusiasm and exasperation, encouragement and the odd gust of rage chasing across her features. ‘Thar she blows!’ some of the bolder girls would whisper, as Mattie sounded off about Mussolini, or dogs with docked tails, or vegetarians.”

Mattie is very human, makes mistakes (one in particular resonates). Florrie is the calming influence and her relationship with Mattie is central to the book. There is a great deal of humour in the novel:

““I have no party affiliation, merely the aim of encouraging the girls to take their rightful places in the modern world. Knowledge, confidence, ready laughter and a strong overarm throw will equip them for many arenas.”

She was watching the teams as she spoke: why on earth Jacko had chosen to clothe the League in garments the colour of a municipal drainpipe was quite beyond her. By contrast, the Amazons, aligning themselves for a photograph, were a frieze of splendid non-conformity.”

There isn’t a great deal of plot, but the novel is character driven and full of what Mattie would have called splendid non-conformity, making serious points about aging and fighting against injustice.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting A Hero for High Times by Ian Marchant

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The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall

I wanted to like this book and there are many parts of it that I enjoyed and which resonated with me. The essential theme being life is for living. There are two main plotlines. This is well written, slow paced and has a good sense of place and it’s sort of a mystery novel as well. It is billed as a story of people on the margins and to an extent it is, but it is also full of tropes which are sometimes rather leaden and the focus on identity becomes rather trying. However, for me, there is a significant problem, more of that later.

The plot revolves around two brothers Nick and Johnny Greenwood. They live in a field in two adjacent railway carriages that their father furbished and set up with water and electricity. They haven’t spoken for a number of years. There is a tragedy in the past. Almost fifty years ago their older sister Debs disappeared along with her best friend Bev; Debs was 22 at the time. Only one body was found and this was identified as Debs because of a tattoo. However a letter arrives from Canada from someone claiming to be Debs and she is coming to visit and subsequently does.

The letter was delivered by the postwoman Zohra Dasgupta and here we have the link to the second plotline. Zohra belongs to a group that are renovating a railway line and steam train in the local area. Zohra lives with her parents who run a local shop. She is troubled by events which occurred just as she left school (A levels) a few years ago. She was the victim of a Facebook bullying campaign. There are a few twists to this which are revealed as the novel progresses. The railway station and line are on the land of a member of the aristocracy with an old decaying house; named Perry (where are all these decaying aristos? I never seem to meet them). His son Crispin is the driving force behind the restoration. There is also Nathan, who is portrayed as being very literal and emotionally immature. There is no real explanation but Morrall is clearly pointing towards the autistic spectrum. There is also Mimi and her husband Freddie who live on Zohra’s post round. Mimi is one of those who may or may not have been involved with what happened to Zohra. Add to this a romance that may be developing between Zohra and Crispin.

Morrall has good powers of description:

“The carriages, linked end to end on an old rusty track, are almost submerged by trees. Clearly, no one here is familiar with the concept of pruning: the trees are spreading wildly – up, out, down – embracing the carriages with passion, wrapping them in vigorous greenery. Branches tumble on the roofs, lean over the sides and take advantage of the light breeze to make their presence felt, tapping against the windows with a mischievous glee.”

I think Morrall was aiming at a sweet heartwarming story with unusual and quirky characters: but the writing does wander a little. The ending doesn’t have a lot of resolutions and that generally does not bother me: life is like that. However, for me, there is a serious problem with the ending which many reviewers seem to have ignored. Morrall introduces a generally positive character which what appears to be autism (the lack of character development means the reader has to put the pieces together) and some mental health difficulties. But then what does she do? With almost no warning the character becomes a monster, a villain with no feelings or concern for others. The condition is used to push the plot along in a negative way and the character becomes a total caricature. For me it ruined the whole thing.

3 out of 10

Starting The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

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The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

A hefty slice of Victorian gothic which builds atmosphere very well; a ghost story very much in the Susan Hill mould. It is set in three different times. The first is a Victorian asylum in 1866. Mrs Elsie Bainbridge is being held, she is implicated in several deaths and a fire. She is also unable to speak and a sympathetic doctor is trying to get her to write her story. The second and primary setting is a crumbling country house called The Bridge in 1865. Elsie Bainbridge recently married the owner Rupert, but he has died and she is pregnant and has come to The Bridge to stay until the child is born. The house is neglected as her late husband didn’t live there and the servants seem to be an uncooperative bunch. The final setting is also The Bridge in 1635 and earlier generations of the Bainbridge family where superstition and fear of witches is strong and anyone with a disability is suspect. One thing to note in this world: don’t be a servant, they tend to meet with grisly ends.
There are lots of things going bump in the night, weather in abundance, surly locals, doors that won’t open and then open, furniture that moves, old diaries, written messages in dust and on windows and most of all the silent companions. Silent companions were made of wood and were a sort of painting/sculpture combination. They were made of a piece of wood shaped like a person and painted as realistic, almost life size depictions of men, women and children. They were popular in the seventeenth century, especially in the Netherlands. There were several of these in The Bridge and they make ideal tools for horror and gothic and Purcell uses them very effectively to link past and present:
“‘It’s not a painting.’ Sarah said. ‘That is – it’s painted, but it is not a canvas. It seems to be free-standing.’ She put her book down, pushed forwards and poked her head around the back of the figure. ‘Ah, no. It is flat. But it has a wooden prop, you see?'”
The diaries of Anne Bainbridge in the 1630s link the past and the present and explain the presence of the silent companions. They reminded me of the weeping angels in Dr Who. Purcell also manages to put across that is women who are labelled by society as hysterical, “mad”, witches and responsible for much evil. The men in the book are generally weak or easily led, but mostly bullying. There is still the question of the reliability of the two main narrators. The whole works well, there are some niggles. The prose is from the 1630s certainly not authentic, but I don’t think that matters much in this context. There are a few unresolved loose ends, but on the whole if you enjoy gothic you will enjoy this. The scariest thing of all, of course is the ability of human beings to inflict pain on each other.

8 out of 10

Starting A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns

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Great review of The Silent Companions, the most informative I’ve seen! I’ve been trying to decide whether I should buy this for a while (after enjoying The Corset by the same author) and you’ve convinced me that I need to try it :)

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Thanks Hayley. Yes Madeleine, I think a TV adaptation would be effective as well.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The novel is split into five sections with each looking at the point of view of a particular character. It has been nominated for a few prizes and won one of them. The themes are difficult ones, involving a Muslim family and the attraction of Isil, linking in to the nature of family, love and being British. Shamsie based the whole on Antigone, the Greek tragedy; this indicates that things really aren’t going to go well for those involved!

Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz are three siblings (Aneeka and Parvaiz being twins). Their father had been a jihadist in the 1990s and early 2000s and had died in American custody. This is set at the time when the attraction of going to Raqqa was there for some Muslim youth and the family are being watched because of their father. The other two primary characters are Eamon (Ayman) Lone and his father Kamarat. Kamarat Lone is the Home Secretary, brought up a Muslim he has been very critical of British Muslims, saying they are not British enough. Shamsie characterises his views when he gives a speech:

You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours. And look at all you miss out on because of it.’

His son Eamon meets Isma when she is studying in the US and later he meets Aneeka in the UK. Parvaiz seems like an ordinary youngster, into tech and helping out at his local library. However he meets a couple of people who talk to him about the Caliphate and about his father and he ends up going to Raqqa in Syria. He doesn’t like what he finds and wants to return home. Shamsie makes an interesting point in an interview when she says that Parvaiz was groomed rather than radicalised, given that he was only eighteen/nineteen. The ending is shocking and credibility is a little stretched, but the whole is powerful and an interesting exploration of identity, loyalty and family. I felt the novel would have been better at twice the length as this would have given more time for character development, which was necessarily a little limited. Apart from that it is well written and the tension builds well. There are no solutions as to how society gets out of these cycles of hatred and violence, but Shamsie poses the question well.

7 out of 10

Starting All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes by Maya Angelou

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A Measure of Time by Rosa Guy

Rosa Guy was born in Trinidad and moved to New York in the early 1930s with her parents. She worked in a variety of jobs and then studied at the American Negro Theatre. In 1950 with John Killens she started a workshop which became the Harlem Writers Guild. Its many members included Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde. She wrote novels and plays and for adults and children. She was also an activist and had a long and varied career.

This novel was published in 1983 and follows the life of Dorinne Davis, an African American woman born in Alabama (Montgomery) and moving to New York with her boyfriend Sonny in the late 1920s. Robert Lee’s description of Dorinne (who is a remarkable literary creation) in his book: “Gothic to Multicultural: Idioms of Imagining in American Literary Fiction” sums her up:

“… sassy Dorinne Davis who comes up from the Jim Crow South of her youth in the 1920s to be a survivor in the Harlem of the 1960s. At successive phases in the novel she is one of the jazz age’s black glitterati, a booster pulling off spectacular store heists, a Depression era hustler and a prison inmate who emerges to a world where Malcolm X and Martin Luther King offer the touchstones, and throughout she serves as a carrier of Harlem at its ambiguous best and worst.”

The main bulk of the novel covers the 1920s to the 1940s and comes to an end with the bus boycott in Montgomery. The joint star of the story, apart from Dorinne is Harlem itself. As Guy herself says:

“What I write about in large part is the state of mind of the Harlem community. My concerns are the actual, everyday existence of is people: the hostilities, the anger and the small snatches of happiness.”

Dorinne is a flawed character, which, for me, makes the novel more believable. Her attempts to survive are often misconceived and sometimes illegal and her taste in men dubious and often disastrous. The minor characters play their part, but Dorinne is the real star and she has a big heart, even when she is wrong. Through her the reader sees the nuances of opinion in the black community, the differences between those from the South and those from the Caribbean.

This is well worth looking up.   

8 out of 10

Starting Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

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The Railway Accident and other stories by Edward Upward

I first came across Edward Upward’s writing in the late 70s. He was a contemporary and friend of Isherwood (in particular), Auden and Spender. Like many intellectuals of the thirties he was attracted by the rise of communism; Upward actually joined the communist party in the thirties. He left in 1948 (it wasn’t revolutionary enough!), but remained active in left wing politics; campaigning for CND, the anti-apartheid movement, against the Vietnam War and so on. His opposition to war was particularly vehement. Upward became and remained a Marxist. I was reminded of him on his death in 2009 at the age of 105. The excellent essay by Christopher Hitchens in “Arguably” also sparked my interest. I hadn’t realised how influential Upward was; Isherwood called him “the judge before whom all my work must stand trial”. Upward appears in some of Isherwood’s work as the character Allen Chalmers. At times Upward has also written some of his short stories as Allen Chalmers.

This collection contains one novella (Journey to the Border) and five short stories. The first story is “The Railway Accident”, which is a very early work and is firmly in the British surrealist tradition. Isherwood and Upward created an imaginary world called Mortmere and both wrote about it. This is Upward’s only published Mortmere story. It was written in the mid-20s and not published until 1949. Isherwood described Mortmere as:

“A sort of anarchist paradise in which all accepted moral and social values were turned upside down and inside out and every kind of extravagant behaviour was possible and usual. It was our private place of retreat from the rules and conventions of university life”.

This is the only piece of Mortmere work published. Upward destroyed the rest in the early 1950s, feeling such fantastical works did not belong in a post holocaust world. In it there is an odd abundance of fantastical incidents described by the fevered mind of the narrator. It is an oddity.

Journey to the Border is about a tutor working for a middle class family he despises. It concerns a search for meaning set in a day and involving a trip to the races. The tutor meets a variety of people, all representative tropes of a way of thinking, including a completely hideous fascist/racist/imperialist type. All the types lead the tutor to the conclusion that he needs to join the class struggle on the side of the workers. The other stories have a similar sort of message.

The writing style is steady, thorough and careful rather than exciting. Upward is trying to ally his Marxist beliefs with his concept of literature. It is an interesting collection, but it does feel like a rather dated period piece.

6 out of 10

Starting Reflecting Rogue: Inside the mind of a feminist by Pumla Dineo Gqola

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Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

This is a sort of autobiographical fiction: written in 1979 when Hardwick was 63. It is a series of vignettes linked together (sometimes very tenuously) by the author. It is a memoir, novel, letter, essay and as one reviewer says: a poetic chronicle. It is inventive and perceptive. There is originality and a complete lack of plot, more like a piece of music than a novel. Elizabeth, the protagonist of the novel is hardly seen. The fragmentary nature of the novel and the steady narrative voice has led many to argue that Hardwick is developing a female narrative mode as opposed to the usual masculine tropes. Hardwick also spoke about writing Sleepless Nights:

“Without using my own name I could not have written the book. I wanted to be free to reflect, to see in my own language, without disguise. I didn’t want to say I was a writer, either, and make up unwritten tomes for myself. Obviously the Elizabeth is writing the book and is therefore some kind of writer. Most of all, I wanted to accommodate my reading, to compare, without clumsy explanation, a New York woman to the old lady mentioned in Herzen’s memoirs, the one who blamed Napoleon for the death of her favorite cow. It is very difficult in fiction to create a narrator who is not oneself and yet one who must somehow express one’s ideas and feelings.”

Most of the recollections are about women, such as this one about her mother:

“round, soft curves, her hair twisted into limp curls at the temples, her weight on the stepladder washing windows, her roasts and potatoes and fat yeast rolls; and her patient breathing in the back room as she lay sleeping in a lumpy old feather bed.”

Many of the women here are adrift, but tend to link themselves to men of bad character and there is little contented romance here. There are lots of colours, mainly pastels. Some of the visitors are brief: we are introduced to a flatmate on one page and say goodbye on the next following death in a car crash. Billie Holiday makes a brief appearance and there is an absence of her ex-husband Robert Lowell. Hardwick’s descriptions of Holiday are powerful:

‘The sheer enormity of her vices. The outrageousness of them. For the grand destruction one must be worthy. Her ruthless talent and the opulent devastation. Onto the heaviest addiction to heroin, she piled up the rocks of her tomb with a prodigiousness of Scotch and brandy. She was never at any hour of the day or night free of these consumptions, never except when she was asleep.’

It is stylish, modern, and possibly even post-modern and is so New England that it almost feels European. It could have been set in Paris. There is a self-awareness and lightness of tone, but it is so well written and heartfelt:

‘Oh, M., when I think of the people I have buried, North and South. Yet, why is it that we cannot keep the note of irony, the jangle of carelessness at a distance? Sentence in which I have tried for a certain light tone – many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child.’

The sharp observations and minimalist description make for an easy read, but not always comfortable:

“A woman’s city, New York. The bag ladies sit in their rags, hugging their load of rubbish so closely it forms a part of their own bodies. Head, wrapped in an old piece of flannel, peers out from the rubbish of a spotted melon. Pitiful, swollen sores drip red next to the bag of tomatoes. One lady holds an empty perfume bottle with a knuckle on top of it indistinguishable from her finger. They and their rubbish a parasitic growth heavy with suffering; the broken glass screams, the broken veins weep; the toes ache along with the ache of the slashed boot. Have mercy on them, someone.”

All in all this a good novel.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

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A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns

Comyns is still not as well-known as she should be, this novel being a case in point. Published in 1967 it is semi-autobiographical and covers one woman’s life from the 1920s t0 the 1960s, through three marriages. As always Comyns’s women are buffeted by circumstance, often by poverty and usually by men. There is a bleakness as there always is with Comyns:

“where had love led me? To poverty and overwork, with only the old age pension to look forward to.”

Childhood is always rather perilous with Comyns and this is no exception for the main protagonist Victoria and her sister Blanche as Victoria provides an account of her mother’s periodic issues with alcohol:

“Our mother rather lost interest in us after the thirst got hold of her and, although our grandfather was vaguely fond of us, he certainly wasn’t interested. Edward was sent to a second or perhaps third-rate school recommended by the vicar and Blanche and I had to make do with ever-changing governesses who seemed to know they were doomed as soon as they arrived and hardly bothered to unpack their boxes. The last one was a Miss Baggot, who was old and finding it difficult to get work; although she was frequently in tears, she stayed for nearly a year. Mother finally hit her with a parasol and she left after that.”

The novel is mainly set in London, apart from a brief and rather grim period in Amsterdam. Most of the time Vicky is poor and struggling to make ends meet. She attends a sort of art school and periodically works drawing and illustrating. We follow her through three marriages, a child, an abortion, several deaths and a few lovers backed up by a whole range of jobs. Despite some of the rather bleak material, there is a lightness of touch to the whole. It is a sort of coming of age novel, but it’s also a coming of middle age as well. This feels very British and Camilla Grudova describes it as “Panto realism”, but describes Comyns as “the unrecognized British Nabokov”. There is a shabby gentility, but the poverty is real enough. There are some good descriptions of life in Second World War London, in fact London life in general at a certain level. There is a matter of fact-ness about the trials and tribulations.

There is a pleasing oddity to this as there is with all Comyns’s novels. She does note however that once you reach forty there is no sense looking for love, settle for companionship instead!

8 out of 10

Starting The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis

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All God's Children need Travelling Shoes by Maya Angelou

This is the fifth volume of Angelou’s autobiography and covers the time when she lived abroad, mainly in Ghana. It is set around 1963/1964 and begins when Angelou is 33. Colonialism and Empire is ending and African states are taking over their own affairs. A number of Black Americans felt the draw of Africa, Angelou was among them:

“Our people had always longed for home. For centuries, we had sung about a place not built with hands, where the streets were paved with gold and were washed with honey and milk. There the saints would march around wearing white robes and jeweled crowns. There, at last, we would study war no more, and, more important, no one would wage war against us again.

The old Black deacons, ushers, mothers of the church and junior choirs only partially meant heaven as that desired destination. In the yearning, heaven and Africa were inextricably combined.”

As always Angelou is not afraid to address difficult issues, tensions and mistakes that she has made. There were tensions between Ghanaians and the new US community and a level of distrust and Angelou is not afraid to explore this.  The group from the US called themselves the “Revolutionist Returnees”. The Ghanaian people come across as warm and welcoming to what must have seemed quite a puzzling group.

Angelou describes a protest organized in front of the American embassy to coincide with Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. The protest gained extra meaning as W.E.B. DuBois, who was living in Ghana, had died the night before. Angelou also describes her struggles with coming to terms with the fact that her ancestors had been sold into slavery with the help of some of the ancestors of modern day Africans.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the visit of Malcolm X to Ghana. He spends a good deal of time with Angelou and her friends and the reader gets a sense of his charisma and persuasive powers. It was just after he had broken with the Nation of Islam and there was a telling description of a chance meeting with Muhammed Ali at an airport in Ghana.

There is as always plenty of humour and Angelou is very good at mixing humour with sad and difficult issues. A case in point is Angelou’s reaction when she discovers her son (who is about 18) is dating someone as old as she is.

The community of US citizens in Ghana moves on. Angelou goes briefly to Europe to act in a production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks (with James Earl Jones and Lou Gossett Jr.). Before she leaves Ghana to go and work for Malcolm X Angelou visits a part of the country she hasn’t visited before. It is a very moving part of the book as Angelou thinks she has found the area of Ghana her ancestors originated from; an argument for collective memories perhaps, but it is a fatting ending to a powerful book.

9 out of 10

Starting The Story of the Treasure Seekers by Edith Nesbit

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The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

This is one of those novels which is described as a must read, it won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel committee said it was one of the main reasons Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Then there is the 1940 film starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.

There is no sense in going over the details of the plot as it is so well known, set in the time of the Great Depression and charting the economic hardship and changes in the nature of agriculture, the dustbowl and the movement of poor tenant farmers forced of the land, travelling to California. One of the book’s strengths is that the reader is made to live with the Joad family and has some investment in their struggles to find food and work. There is no subtlety here and the book is certainly sentimental. It is also laced with religious imagery. There is no mistaking the similarities between the ex-preacher John Casy and Jesus Christ.

There were also controversies and the book was as much hated as loved, it was even burnt because it was felt to be socialist or even communist. The landowners and farmers of California in particular felt that they had been unfairly portrayed. Steinbeck talks about ownership thus:

“This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from "I" to "we". If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into "I", and cuts you off forever from the "we".”

“And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression.”

“Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow. ...and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Given the above it is hardly surprising that there were accusations of socialism. There is a whole industry of writing about the book. It is worth noting that the role of female characters is significant and they become more central as the novel progresses; at the end only Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon seem to remain. As the novel progresses Ma Joad seems to transform from a housewife to the leader of the family and there is a clear difference between the ways of the men and the ways of the women.

This is one of those “classics” that I am glad I read (Unlike Catcher in the Rye) and I enjoyed the strong political message. The Great Depression and the Dustbowl led to the migrations depicted here. Similar problems mean we have issues with migrations today and we don’t seem to be any better at handling them. Lesson not learnt!

8 and a half out of 10

Starting We by Yevgeny Zemyatin

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A Place for Us by Fatima, Farheen Mirza

This is a family drama. It tracks a devout Shia Muslim family in the years after 9/11 and is set in California. It moves backwards and forwards in time, which can be a little confusing, but on the whole this works well. The book revolves around the wedding of the older sister Hadia. Mirza concentrates on family conflicts and tensions within the family, not outside although these are obviously present. There is really just Layla and Rafiq and their children Hadia, Huda and Amar and most of the focus is on Amar, the one who does not conform.

The focus on faith is strong, but there is also a recognition that there is now a whole other world out there:

“She could hold in her heart a belief in Islam as well as the unwavering belief that every human had the right to choose who they loved, and how, and that belief was in exact accordance with her faith: that it is the individual’s right to choose, and the individual’s duty to empathise with one another. Didn’t the Quran itself contain the verse, “We have created you from many tribes, so that you may know one another””

Although Shia Islam overlays the whole it is really about basic human relationships: love, loss and the joys and grief of being a parent. We see the situation and family life over the years from a number of different perspectives and finally from Rafiq at the end of the novel. That was a good move because it pulls all the threads together. All the characters are flawed and have their weaknesses and the whole is well written and the family dramas could happen to anyone. It is only the lens that changes.

All this is good and the interiority of the novel is one of its strengths, but is also a weakness as some of the harder societal issues are less present. If you like an analysis of family and relationships within families you will enjoy this.

7 out of 10

Starting Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault

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Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

This is quite a hefty tome with a lot going on. Some of the publicity describes it as A Suitable Boy meets The Thorn Birds meets Gone with the Wind. It spans the years1878 to 1936. It is set in the south Indian province of Coorg, in the Sahaydri Mountains. The author comes from this area and it is easy to see that as the landscape is the strongest character in the book. It is also a love triangle (that usually makes me run several miles in the opposite direction, but this is part of a reading challenge), which charts the lives of childhood sweethearts Devi and Devanna and their families.

Unfortunately it is more soap opera than historical fiction and raised a number of issues for me. Does those that are abused automatically turn into abusers? One particular incident plays out through most of the book and for me that just didn’t fit. There also seemed to be an almost total lack of a political context until the last one hundred pages. Even then the nationalists were portrayed as more of a nuisance than anything else. I did learn a certain amount about growing coffee and how to deal with the coffee borer beetle! Despite the beauty of the setting the tragedy is pretty relentless and the use of coincidence stretched my credibility somewhat. Some of the characters lacked a little believability and the last third of the book was much weaker than the rest and felt rather rushed. The descriptions of Coorg are beautifully written and makes up for some of the problems with the human characters.

5 and a half out of 10

Starting 69 things to do with a dead princess by Stewart Home

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Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

This is quite a hefty tome with a lot going on. Some of the publicity describes it as A Suitable Boy meets The Thorn Birds meets Gone with the Wind. It spans the years1878 to 1936. It is set in the south Indian province of Coorg, in the Sahaydri Mountains. The author comes from this area and it is easy to see that as the landscape is the strongest character in the book. It is also a love triangle (that usually makes me run several miles in the opposite direction, but this is part of a reading challenge), which charts the lives of childhood sweethearts Devi and Devanna and their families.

Unfortunately it is more soap opera than historical fiction and raised a number of issues for me. Does those that are abused automatically turn into abusers? One particular incident plays out through most of the book and for me that just didn’t fit. There also seemed to be an almost total lack of a political context until the last one hundred pages. Even then the nationalists were portrayed as more of a nuisance than anything else. I did learn a certain amount about growing coffee and how to deal with the coffee borer beetle! Despite the beauty of the setting the tragedy is pretty relentless and the use of coincidence stretched my credibility somewhat. Some of the characters lacked a little believability and the last third of the book was much weaker than the rest and felt rather rushed. The descriptions of Coorg are beautifully written and makes up for some of the problems with the human characters.

5 and a half out of 10

Starting 69 things to do with a dead princess by Stewart Home

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The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit

I asked myself a few times why I was reading this. The reason of course is that it is part of this year’s reading women challenge; one of the books being a children’s book. Nesbit, of course, wrote The Railway Children and many other children’s books. Nesbit was a follower of William Morris and co-founded the Fabian Society. Her main focus was children’s writing, although she did write some adult novels, short stories, and some horror.

This novel (although it is almost a collection of short stories) is about six siblings, the Bastable children: Dora, Oswald, Dicky, Alice, Noel and Horace Octavius (H.O), set in the 1890s. They live with their father and their mother has recently died. They have all noticed that their father must be struggling with money as there have been economies and there are less servants around! The children are at home and are not attending school as father can’t afford the fees! There is, of course, no question of them attending school in the local area with the lower orders!

The children are aware of their straitened circumstances and decide to find a way to make their fortunes. They all make suggestions and over the course of the book they try most of them getting into various scrapes with adults and other children. That pretty much sums up the whole thing. The children generally mean well and manage to more or less avoid total mayhem. There is naturally the obligatory happy ending. It is worth noting that the children, who are all 12 or under are pretty much allowed to run free in a way that modern children generally are not.

I was expecting a little more of this as Nesbit was a socialist and must have been aware of the growth of feminism. The gender roles are clearly defined and mostly remain intact. The girls do what girls are expected to do and the boys do what boys are expected to do: apart from Noel, who is a poet! There is an example of racist language towards the end and the last chapter was really irritating, but I am going to avoid spoilers. Will I read the other two in the trilogy, probably not.

5 out of 10

Starting The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

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I didn't know Nesbit wrote some horror! I might have to have a look at those for October. It's a shame The Story of the Treasure Seekers wasn't great. I've wanted to read 'Five Children and It' by Nesbit for a long time and I hope that one's better!

 

I'm very interested to hear what you think of 'The Wicked Cometh.' I have it on my 'want to read' list but then saw some reviews that made me unsure whether I'd like it. Although I think I did partly want to buy it just because of its beautiful cover :lol:

 

 

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Yes, the cover is rather good. And I'm also intrigued by the idea of Nesbit writing horror!

The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis

This is a rather complex and convoluted novel that defies easy description. It is certainly a detective novel without a detective, there is a gothic edge and it is reminiscent of a Victorian novel. The setting is 2010-2011 but the novel jumps back in time, starting in the 1930s and then onwards but not sequentially. Margaret Penny is in her late 40s and is returning to a cold grey December Edinburgh to see her mother (Barbara), after many years absence. Her life in London has fallen apart. She is now looking for a job/something to do. She ends up taking a job researching the recent death of an elderly woman in an Edinburgh flat. Mrs Walker died alone with few clues as to her identity and origins:

“Everyone leaves something behind, if you only know where to look.”

 The search takes her back to London and as you might guess the outcomes are closer to home than might be realised. The journey starts in the 1930s and centres on the London of the Blitz. The history is rather grim and involves abortionists, child abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and asylums, missing documents, a very crooked and seedy firm of solicitors and much more.

The plot is slow moving at times and information is teased out slowly. This is a book about secrets, their keeping and disclosing. It is also about family ties, close knit and loose. The various bits of narrative come together at the end, but the ending is rather contrived. There are also too many hints as to the solutions during the narrative to make this a real detective story. However what this also turns out to be is a history of the lives of the women of a family. A struggle for survival in a brutal world where children die, men abuse and society constricts. There is a bleakness to this and secrets are central to it:

‘And somehow shed always known that she would end up like this. In a small square room, in a small square flat. In a small square box, perhaps. Cardboard, with a sticker on the outside. And a name.

What was that name? Lost, along with everything else she’d ever owned’

There are significant objects and documents scattered throughout and each of these has a story to tell, whether it be orange pips, a small piece of jewelry or other trinkets. There is lots of imagery and the reader has to put it together. The timeline can be confusing and the ending is unsatisfactory, but the narrative held my attention and portrays a picture of some of the hidden horrors of wartime London. More positives than negatives, just.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

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We by Yevgeny Zemyatin

This is an early dystopian novel from the early 1920s and Zamyatin was Russian. We has inspired many other writers including Orwell, Vonnegut, Nabakov, Le Guin, possibly Huxley (he disputed this) amongst others. However Zamyatin in turn was influenced by H G Wells and especially by When the Sleeper Wakes. The novel takes place hundreds of years into the future in a society called One State. The citizens are known by numbers and the protagonist is D-503. He is the chief engineer building a spaceship called The Integral. One State is a glass city where the whole of life is regimented on strict principles. Zemyatin applied the principles of Taylorism which were popular at the time (still are in some areas!) to depict a highly monitored society. D-503 meets a woman called I-330 who seems to break the rules and he begins to have feelings for her. She shows him aspects of the society that he isn’t aware of and even that there is a world outside of the glass city. There is a movement to overthrow One State called Mephi and a revolution is attempted in which I-330 is involved. The results play out at the end of the novel.

These days novels about highly regimented societies are not unusual. Zemyatin was using lots of allusions and there are numerous biblical references and the novel is as much a critique of organised religion as military atheism. There is an interesting conversation between D-503 and I-330:

“Do you realise that what you are suggesting is revolution?” “Of course, it’s revolution. Why not?”

“Because there can’t be a revolution. Our revolution was the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.”

“My dear, you’re a mathematician: tell me, which is the last number?”

“What do you mean, the last number?”

“Well, then, the biggest number!”

“But that’s absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can’t be a last one.”

“Then why do you talk about the last revolution?”

 

There are several other messages; one is that you can’t extinguish human imagination. Another is that you really should not trust technology. This is a multi-layered novel with a focus on forbidden knowledge, especially in relation to science and art. But the goals of One State mean spreading their knowledge, even into space, which is what the Integral is designed to do:

“A thousand years ago your heroic forebears subjugated the whole of planet Earth to the power of OneState. It is for you to accomplish an even more glorious feat: by means of the glass, the electric, the fire-breathing INTEGRAL to integrate the indefinite equation of the universe. It is for you to place the beneficial yoke of reason round the necks of the unknown beings who inhabit other planets – still living, it may be, in the primitive state known as freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically infallible happiness, we shall be obliged to force them to be happy. But before taking up arms, we shall try what words can do.”

Reminded me a little of the Borg in Star Trek.

It is also interesting to see D-503’s internal struggle as he writes his journal:

"I am completely bewildered. Yesterday, at the very moment when I thought that everything was already disentangled, that all the X's were found, new unknown quantities appeared in my equation."

"Of course, it's clear: in order to determine the true value of a function it is necessary to take it to its ultimate limit ... Hence, if we designate love as 'L' and death as 'D,' then L = f(D). In other words, love and death --- yes, exactly, exactly."

"Every equation, every formula in the surface world has its corresponding curve or body. But for irrational formulas, for my square root of -1, we know of no corresponding bodies, we have never seen them ... But the horror of it is that these invisible bodies exist ..."

I found a fascinating website about mathematics in literary fiction which discusses We in depth! Nerds of the world unite!!

There’s acres of print about We and it is an interesting dystopian novel which is worth reading. The comparisons with 1984 are interesting. I haven’t read much of Wells’ dystopian stuff to compare, but it is certainly firmly within a tradition which stretches to some of the modern YA dystopias. There are a couple of examples of racist language. The chapters are brief and it is easy to read, although D-503 is irritating at times!

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

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