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  • Birthday 07/18/1960

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    Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray
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  1. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The boy with the perpetual nervousness by Graham Caveney This is a memoir of adolescence and of abuse by a Catholic priest/headmaster. Caveney was born in 1964 into a working class Catholic family in Accrington. He describes a typical adolescence of an intelligent working class boy and obsessions with music, girls, friends, drink and literature. He attends a Catholic school and his headmaster Father O’Neill takes an interest in him and his adolescent ramblings and takes him to theatre, cinema and concerts. Caveney describes the grooming process very well and the sexual abuse. He also charts the effect it had on him: “The abuse leads you to f**k up your life, and a f****d-up life means that you’re a less credible witness to the abuse that f****d you up in the first place. It’s an ironic trick of memory and survival: abuse makes you want to forget the abuse.” Most of the descriptions of Caveney’s adolescence are pretty typical for the time. As he says himself “bad poetry, Beckett and dread”, music by Joy Division (with him there), The Fall, Patti Smith and so on. Left wing politics, the SWP, Marx, Wilde, Shelley, Paul Foot, Tom Robinson, Sartre and so on. It all sounds very familiar. However I was lucky enough not to go to Caveney’s school. The abuse is a dominant theme inevitably and Caveney has plenty of questions: “Was it me or simply my youth that gave the priest the hard-on? It’s a stupid question isn’t it? How can I possibly separate out who I was from the age I was?” There is a powerful passage in the book which examines the music industry and its penchant for glamourizing young women in inappropriate ways. Mentioning the treatment of Lena Zavaroni, Don’t stand so close to me by the Police, Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Schoolgirl (covered by Van Morrison, ZZ top, The Yardbirds and the Grateful Dead, Fourteen by The Vandals, Young Girl by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Jailbait and I am a Predator by Ted Nugent. We haven’t even mentioned Gary Glitter, Bill Wyman, Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry. Caveney also talks a great deal about coming to terms with the abuse and some of the contradictory processes this involves: “In disclosing my experiences of sexual abuse I am bound to sell myself short. The available language is inadequate and so I have to cut my experiential cloth accordingly. I tidy it up or minimise it. I may ironize, or dramatize, or contextualize and yet after each statement what I want to shout is: But it’s not that. Not really. It’s something else. This is, I think, one of the many reasons people are reluctant to come forward. There is not only the shame, the fear, the guilt, but there is also the sense that what they have to say is so deeply embedded (and embodied), that talking about it would be failing to do it justice. Each statement or revelation would in a sense be just one more injustice, another thing stolen from you, just another way the inner world and the outer world fail to connect. “ Caveney did eventually report O’Neill in the early 1990s (following a suicide attempt). He was still headmaster at the time. He did admit it with the comment “it takes two to tango”. He was allowed to retire with honours and was sent to the US for “therapy”. He was never charged with any crime and died in 2011. At his and Cavaney’s old school there is now a wing named after him. The Church still has a long way to go. One of Caveney’s friends in the SWP made a pertinent point: “Our society is organised violently or has violence at its core. All of our transactions and interactions are conducted from a place of inequality, which means there is someone who has got the power and someone who hasn’t.” This memoir is told with brutal honesty and Caveney is clear about his own faults and shortcomings, talking a little about his therapy and his struggles with alcohol and drugs. But the real villain here is a priest in charge of a school who abused a fifteen year old boy (and who knows who else) and who essentially got away with it thanks to the Catholic Church. 9 out of 10 Starting Black Teeth and a brilliant smile by Adelle Stripe
  2. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Tale of Genji isn't easy and I would suggest a copy with plenty of notes and explanations it makes a huge difference. Willpyd, I've read Shadows on the Rock, which I enjoyed more, but I will read more at some point. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall If you are looking for cheerful and uplifting, don’t start here: the title gives it away. The main protagonist is Stephen Gordon, named Stephen because her father wanted a boy and stuck with the chosen name when a girl arrived. This is a very English novel: “Not very far from Upton-on-Severn–between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills–stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramberly; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.” Stephen is upper class and whatever else she suffers in the novel, she is never poor. It’s impossible to avoid mentioning the trial for obscenity in 1928. The impetus came from the tabloid press and the obscenity? "she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover" and "and that night, they were not divided" It was really about the depiction of a lifestyle, especially the sections set in Paris after the First World War. However battle lines were drawn and writers like Shaw, Eliot, the Woolfs, Forster, Smyth, Jameson and Wells amongst others. Although only a limited number (such as Woolf and Forster were prepared to testify). The outcome was a foregone conclusion and the novel was not published in the UK until 1949, after Hall’s death. Inevitably there has been a great deal of debate about this book over the years with views and opinions changing and ebbing to and fro. One ongoing discussion is whether Stephen as she is described was transgender. As she says to her mother: "All my life I’ve never felt like a woman, and you know it." There is a particular use of language as well. The use of the term invert stems from the work of Havelock Ellis. It is not, thankfully, a term that has survived. Hall covers a good deal of ground in the 450 pages and the depiction of the bars and sub-culture of Paris in the 1920s are well drawn. France did not have the laws against homosexuality that some other countries had. On particular aside, some of the minor characters are very strong. Puddle, one of Stephen’s later governesses, who is clearly lesbian is well portrayed. The animals in particular play an important role and are well written. Reactions to this novel have been strong in both directions, for many it was the only lesbian novel they had heard of. Mary Renault, who read it in 1938 recalls it as being earnest and humourless. However one Holocaust survivor noted: "Remembering that book, I wanted to live long enough to kiss another woman." The ebb and flow go on. Hannah Roche has recently reassessed The Well: “Was Hall cleverly turning to a Victorian mode in order to critique the politics of modernism, challenging the value of aesthetic experiment and obscurity? I argue not only that The Well was stylistically as impressive as the most celebrated of ‘difficult’ 1920s novels, but also that, by boldly appropriating an accepted (and heteronormative) genre, Hall makes a statement about the rightful position of lesbian writing that dares to strike its readers in ways more direct and profound than the audaciously avant-garde.” For me, I understand its importance and I wasn’t expecting a happy ending (I wasn’t disappointed in that). Puddle’s advice to Stephen is powerful: “You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet–you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely. Have courage; do the best you can with your burden. But above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind. Let your life go to prove this–it would be a really great life-work, Stephen.” There’s still an element of apologizing for who you are and carrying a burden, but then even today the struggle continues. Many problems in the novel arise from a lack of communication, but nothing has changed there! You can see the ending coming from a long way off, although the means is not obvious until late in the book. It’s not that well written and doesn’t stand up well to Orlando, which was published in the same year. Another point is that pity is not the best way of trying to get people on your side. The interesting contrast between Stephen and Valerie Seymour is also illustrative. Seymour hosts a salon and is a pagan, no rleigion and has no problems with ethical dilemmas as a result of her lesbianism. Stephen holds onto the structures of Catholicism (on and off) and can’t manage to square her sexuality with her faith. Stephen’s relationship with her mother (who rejects her) also runs through the novel. I can understand the importance of this novel at the time, but that time has gone and it feels more like a historical document, but I am glad I read it. The story is unbearably sad, but you can’t always have happy ever after. 7 out of 10 Starting Disoriental by Negar Djavadi
  3. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Tale of Genji I read the Royall Tyler translation and the Folio Society edition. One of the bonuses of the edition I read is the marvellous art work. Well over a thousand pages long and over a thousand years old (written between 1000 and 1012). I can well understand how people can spend their whole lives studying this and around this. Sadly I didn’t discover this in my youth but nevertheless it was a wonderful reading experience. Not easy to follow all the time as there is a myriad of characters and it is most important to remember that they are identified by rank or role rather than by name as a rule. It has a claim to be the first novel and was written by a woman. The tale is primarily about Genji and his doings (and misdoings), although he does die about two thirds of the way through, but there are also strong female characters. Woolf was a fan and she noted that it was originally meant to be read aloud: “listeners . . . were grown-up people . . . absorbed . . . in the contemplation of man’s nature; how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; . . . how beautiful the falling snow is, and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy.” I will avoid the controversies (and there are many) and just say it is well worth taking out time to read this. Read a version with explanations and footnotes, these are very necessary. 9 out of 10 Starting Call me Ahab by Anne Finger
  4. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    A Lost Lady by Willa Cather This is a fairly brief work by Cather; written after the Plains trilogy and before her more reflective later works. It is set in a western town called Sweet Water built on the Transcontinental Railway. It tells the story of Captain Forrester and especially his younger wife Marian. It is mainly told by a young man Niel Herbert. His uncle Judge Pommeroy is the local lawyer. The centre of the book is the character of Marin Forrester who might be described as a socialite somewhat stifled by an older husband and the limited local society. The novel is a study in change and decline. One of the themes in the novel is the harking back to a better and more noble times. Men like Captain Forrester were amongst the original pioneers of the west: “One day was like another, and all were glorious: good hunting, plenty of antelope and buffalo, boundless sunny sky, boundless plains of waving grass, long fresh water lagoons yellow with lagoon flowers, where the bison in their periodic migrations stopped to drink and bathe and wallow. “An ideal life for a young man,” the Captain pronounced.” There is an idealized nostalgia in the novel as new and younger men (like Ivy Peters in the novel) came along and took over from the old pioneers. It is a common trend: the English do it as well. There is a golden age in the past, ruined by the nastiness of the present. In this case, what is missed is the fact that the pioneers had taken land that was already owned and settled by Native American peoples. Whilst Cather looks back with warmth: "He had seen the end of an ear, the sunset of the pioneer. He had come upon it when already the glory was nearly spent. So in the buffalo times a traveller used to come upon the embers of a hunter's fire on the prairie, after the hunter was up and gone; the coals would be trampled out, but the ground was warm, and the flattened grass where he had slept and where his pony had grazed, told the story." The reality was very different. The novel is well written and is really a study of character. Hermione Lee in her introduction identifies three parallel plots. Firstly Captain Forrester’s gradual decline, secondly Marian Forrester’s story with its passion and contradiction and finally the framing story of Niel Herbert. Marian’s story is also clearly a narrative of female sexuality, in this case a pathologized sexuality. This is the point where Niel realises that Mrs Forrester has taken a lover following her husband’s stroke: “In that instant between stooping to the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life. Before the dew dried, the morning had been wrecked for him; and all subsequent mornings, he told himself bitterly. This day saw the end of that admiration and loyalty that had been like a bloom on his existence. He could never recapture it. It was gone, like the morning freshness of the flowers.” Niel is a rather prim and irritating young man, who has a particular view of women and what they should be. Take his recollection of when he first saw Marian Forrester: “He could remember the very first time he ever saw Mrs Forrester, when he was a little boy. He had been loitering in front of the Episcopal Church one Sunday morning, when a low carriage drove up to the door. Ben Keezer was on the front seat, and on the back seat was a lady, alone, in a black silk dress all puffs and ruffles, and a black hat, carrying a parasol with a carved ivory handle. As the carriage stopped she lifted her dress to alight; out of a swirl of foamy white petticoats she thrust a black, shiny slipper. She stepped lightly to the ground and with a nod to the driver went into the church. The little boy followed her through the open door, saw her enter a pew and kneel. He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognised her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known.” There is also an example of racist language in a comment from Judge Pommeroy to Mrs Forrester. He is talking about the contrast between modern business and the pioneers: “By God Madam, I think I’ve lived too long! In my day the difference a business man and a scoundrel was bigger than the difference between a white man and a n****r” It isn’t just a casual reference, it’s a comparator. This is meant to be one of Cather’s better works: I hope not! I understand the nostalgia industry and the portrayal of a decline of mores and standards and some of the characterisation is interesting, but the whole was problematic for me. 5 out of 10 Starting A Clear Stream by Marion Shaw
  5. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Shorts and Thoughts by Maggie Fogarty This is a set of short stories designed to make you think and to have an edge, creating a little disturbance with a twist along the way. The themes are obsession, life changing decisions, growing old, loss, life changes and the lonely and isolated. There are eight in all. What drew my attention to the collection was the fact that the author is donating half the profits to the Social Work Benevolent Fund. Being a social worker myself, how could I resist! Maggie Fogarty worked for Social Work Today in the 1980s and has reported on social affairs issues for many years. She has worked as a TV producer and journalist, but also writes. She has written a novel and some novellas. This collection was put together to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the British Association of Social Workers. The stand out story for me was Two Doors, partly because it resonated for me personally. It is about a Child Protection social worker who has a decision to make; there are two urgent visits that need to be done, but which one does she prioritise. Inevitably she prioritises the wrong one and a child dies. She is vilified in the press and has to leave her job and change her identity. The story is brief and looks at her new life whilst reflecting on her old one. Although I work with adults and not children I face decisions like that several times a week. Although I manage a team of social workers I make sure the buck stops with me. I have more work to allocate than people to allocate to. So I have to decide who gets seen and when. It is difficult and often there are no right answers, just the lesser of the evils and no one notices when we get it right. Other stories of note involve a woman finally confronting her father who was responsible for a childhood trauma, a woman with an acquired brain injury who wakes up every day with no memories of the day before and relies on notes and diaries to start again (yes, I know this has been done before, but this is shorter and more effective). There is a man recalling his life with his wife, a radio agony aunt who gets very involved in a domestic abuse situation. A woman who was an ex surveillance officer in the police force carries on what she did as work into her daily life without work; she researches the lives of those she comes across and “tries to help” with somewhat disturbing results. Unravelling Freddie is about a group of council workers whose job it is to dig into the lives of people who die alone and try to find family friends and connections. Deadline is about a woman who sits on a government committee whose task it is to think the unthinkable. Her area is end of life. This is a good collection of stories which grew on me because they stay with you after reading and they do make you think. You may find things to question ore disagree with, but you do have to react. Recommended and cheap (at £3.99) with enough edge to satisfy. 9 out of 10 Starting A Lost Lady by Wi;;a Cather
  6. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz Keshavarz wrote this as a response to Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT) and I have read the two books together. She was concerned that Nafisi had misrepresented Iran and Iranian culture, but especially Iranian women. As Keshavarz says herself: “The greatest omission in the content of Nafisi’s book is that it overlooks the agency and presence of Iranian women in the social and intellectual domain. That is ironic particularly because the book’s main claim is to tell the untold story of women in post-revolutionary Iran. If Reading Lolita in Tehran is the only book you have read about Iran, you would not be able to imagine that vibrant Iranian women writers such as Shahrnush Parsipur, Simin Behbahani, and Simin Danishvar ever existed, let alone imagine that they wrote during the same period that Nafisi’s book covers. You would not guess that post-revolutionary Iranian cinema has women writers and directors as outspoken as Tahmineh Milani and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, or that women activists such as the Peace Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi spoke and wrote about women and children’s rights during the same period. And these are only a few examples.” This is not a negative book. Keshavarz looks at Iranian culture and literature pre and post revolution including poets and mystics. There is a close reading of Shahrnoush Parsipur's Women Without Men (1989), she describes the effect on her classmates of the early death of the poet Forrough Farrokhzad. There are poets, mystics, novelists, film makers, philosophers and many more. The arguments are convincing and she goes through RLT in detail pointing out inconsistencies and the flatness of many of the players. Keshavarz draws on New Orientalism perspectives to make her point; she also points to the Westernization of goodness in RLT, an unqualified attribution of good things with the West. One of the problems is that readers, especially in the West, tend to bring many preconceived ideas with them about Islam and the situation in the Middle East and RLT just reinforces them with no thought or analysis. Keshavarz sets the record straight and as a result my to be read list has suddenly grown a little longer! 8 out of 10 Starting The long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers
  7. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi I read this in conjunction with Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz. The second is a reaction to the first and I found reading them in conjunction very helpful. The publicity blurb for the book is helpful: “Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov.” This is primarily a memoir. Nafisi describes her experience in Iran from the Revolution until she left for the US in 1997. For some of that time she taught literature at Tehran University. The class described above took place in the last two years before she left. The memoir jumps around a good deal and ranges around the 1980s and late 1970s. The discussions around books mainly revolve around Nafisi’s lectures. The Thursday meetings seem to revolve around more mundane matters like food, relationships, and issues around wearing the veil. Much as I disapprove of the Iranian regime, as I disapprove of any regime based on religion, I found many of Nafisi’s criticisms rather short-sighted and simplistic whilst not minimizing the problems she faced. I could also have done without the teaching on James and Fitzgerald! There are more important concerns. Much of the criticism of this book centres on what is called New or Neo Orientalism. Hamid Dabashi accused Nafisi of playing the role that Thomas Macaulay had asked of the class of Indian civil servants in the Raj: 'We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.' It is based on Said’s original concept which examined European justifications for being involved in the Eastern Hemisphere. New Orientalism scapegoats Islam for many ills and negates all nuanced interpretation. It has a tendency to prefer Western culture and politics. Keshavarz argues that often this New Orientalism is cloaked in an insider perspective as in this narrative. She names a number of others as well. There is a danger that books like this feed into the vehemently anti-Islamic and anti-anything but the West narratives and feelings in Western culture. There is a hostility in our culture to otherness and I think this is in danger of feeding that. That doesn’t negate the author’s experience, but reading the two books together was illuminating. Reviewing them separately is trickier! Keshavarz seemed much more sympathetic to the Iranian people and I learnt more from her account (review to follow). 5 and a half out of 10 Starting Mean Little Deaf Queer by Terry Galloway
  8. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Red Shelley by Paul Foot Of all the upper and middle class white boy poets of the early nineteenth century: Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Southey, Coleridge etc, for me there has only really been one that mattered: Shelley. Paul Foot has eloquently reminded me why. It was Marx who allegedly said that if Byron had lived he would have become a bourgeois reactionary (like Wordsworth), but if Shelley had lived he would have remained radical and been in the vanguard of socialism and revolution. This may come as a surprise to some who may be used to reading the Shelley they find in the anthologies and peddled by the Shelley society. Foot looks at all of Shelley’s writing and shows that his prose is as important as his poetry and that his views were truly radical for the time. He also expressed his anger eloquently. Take the beginning of The Mask of Anarchy, for me his most important poem, where he reacts to the Peterloo massacre. Castlereagh is the prime minister of the time and Shelley was in Italy: I As I lay asleep in Italy There came a voice from over the Sea, And with great power it forth led me To walk in the visions of Poesy. II I met Murder on the way - He had a mask like Castlereagh - Very smooth he looked, yet grim; Seven blood-hounds followed him: III All were fat; and well they might Be in admirable plight, For one by one, and two by two, He tossed them human hearts to chew Which from his wide cloak he drew. Foot deals with a number of aspects of Shelley’s thought. His atheism is pretty straightforward and stayed with him throughout his life. Those who have tried to tame Shelley have tried to argue he moved towards religion in later life, but Foot deals with this effectively. His republicanism is again incontrovertible. Foot also deals with his attitude to women and his attitudes to reform and revolution. Shelley was always aware of injustice. This is from a pamphlet called “Address to the people on the Death of Princess Charlotte”: “Thus much the death of the Princess Charlotte has in common with the death of thousands. How many women die in childbed and leave their families of motherless children and their husbands to live on, blighted by the remembrance of that heavy loss? How many women of active and energetic virtues—mild, affectionate, and wise, whose life is as a chain of happiness and union, which once being broken, leaves those whom it bound to perish, have died, and have been deplored with bitterness, which is too deep for words? Some have perished in penury or shame, and their orphan baby has survived, a prey to the scorn and neglect of strangers. Men have watched by the bedside of their expiring wives, and have gone mad when the hideous death-rattle was heard within the throat, regardless of the rosy child sleeping in the lap of the unobservant nurse. The countenance of the physician had been read by the stare of this distracted husband, till the legible despair sunk into his heart. All this has been and is. You walk with a merry heart through the streets of this great city, and think not that such are the scenes acting all around you. You do not number in your thought the mothers who die in childbed. It is the most horrible of ruins:—In sickness, in old age, in battle, death comes as to his own home; but in the Season of joy and hope, when life should succeed to life, and the assembled family expects one more, the youngest and the best beloved, that the wife, the mother—she for whom each member of the family was so dear to one another, should die!—Yet thousands of the poorest poor, whose misery is aggravated by what cannot be spoken now, suffer this. And have they no affections? Do not their hearts beat in their bosoms, and the tears gush from their eyes? Are they not human flesh and blood? Yet none weep for them—none mourn for them—none when their coffins are carried to the grave (if indeed the parish furnishes a coffin for all) turn aside and moralize upon the sadness they have left behind.” I could add similar quotes on Ireland and on other subjects: Shelley’s prose surprises. So does his poetry. This is called A Ballad and wasn’t published until 120 years after his death. I wonder why? A woman came up with a babe at her breast Which was flaccid with toil and hunger- She cried- “Give me food and give me rest We die if I wait much longer- The poor thing sucks and no milk will come; He would cry but his strength is gone – His wasting weakness has left him dumb - Ye can hardly hear him moan. The skin round his eyes is pale and blue – His eyes are glazed – not with tears – I wish for a little moment that you – Could know what a mother fears. Give me a piece of that fine white bread; I would give you some blood for it – Before I faint and my infant is dead – O give me a little bit. Shelley didn’t stop at the observation of poverty, he wanted to know why people are poor and what could be done about it. He even developed a form of what became known as The Labour Theory of Value and talked about liquidating landed wealth and privilege in his notes on Queen Mab. This is Shelley asking what freedom is from The Mask of Anarchy: “Thou art not, as impostors say, A shadow soon to pass away, A superstition, and a name Echoing from the cave of Fame. `For the labourer thou art bread, And a comely table spread From his daily labour come In a neat and happy home. 220 `Thou art clothes, and fire, and food For the trampled multitude-- No -- in countries that are free Such starvation cannot be As in England now we see.” Although Shelley argued for universal suffrage, he also warned that the granting of it would not solve the problems we faced as power and privilege would remain. How right he was. His approach to marriage was clear. This is from The Revolt of Islam: “Well with the world art thou unreconciled; Never will peace and human nature meet Till free and equal man and woman greet Domestic peace; and ere this power can make In human hearts its calm and holy seat, This slavery must be broken” And this: “Can man be free if woman be a slave? Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air, To the corruption of a closèd grave! Can they, whose mates are beasts condemned to bear Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish, dare To trample their oppressors? In their home, Among their babes, thou knowest a curse would wear The shape of woman--hoary Crime would come Behind, and Fraud rebuild Religion's tottering dome” His approach to society is clear in Men of England: Men of England, wherefore plough For the lords who lay ye low? Wherefore weave with toil and care The rich robes your tyrants wear? … The seed ye sow, another reaps; The wealth ye find, another keeps; The robes ye weave, another wears; The arms ye forge, another bears. … Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap: Find wealth—let no imposter heap: Weave robes—let not the idle wear: Forge arms—in your defence to bear. There is much more in this and similar vein in The Revolt of Islam, Queen Mab, The Mask of Anarchy, Swellfoot the Tyrant and Peter Bell the Third. Foot does not hero worship or idolize Shelley; he delineates his faults and inconsistencies. What he does do though is show that at heart he is a radical who believed in radical solutions (for the time) to society’s problems. Some of those solutions would still be radical for our times sadly. For me there is only one of that group of poets who stays with me and that is Shelley. 9 out of 10 Starting Seahenge by Francis Pryor
  9. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson This is the third novel I have read by Jessie Kesson. It tells the story of an isolated community in rural Scotland over a period of 30 years, mainly through the eyes of the head dairyman on one of the farms, Hugh Riddell. The novel does periodically switch to other points of view: to Hugh’s wife and daughter and other local residents. The community of Caldwell seems unchanging and insular, but modernity is creeping up. The setting is post Second World War, but the narrative is not really linear. There is a particular incident referred to near the beginning of the book and taking place near the end round which the whole thing revolves. There is a social hierarchy which the War has begun to loosen, but it is still there and Kesson is charting the start of its downfall. At times the book feels as bleak as the landscape. There is the occasional flash of humour: “for she was a tight woman and had she been a ghost she would have grudged giving you a fright”. And the character of Sue Tatt brings a certain humour, but her portrayal is as poignant as it is amusing. There are times when the dialect is a little difficult and for me I enjoyed Kesson’s other two novels I have read more. But if you like bleak then this may be for you! 6 and a half out of 10 Starting Shorts and Thoughts by Maggie Fogarty
  10. At the start of 2020 I am currently reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray The Salt Path by Raynor Winn Winter by Ali Smith The Five by Hallie Rubenhold Folk by Zoe Gilbert The Pinecone: the story of Sarah Losh by Jenny Uglow The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
  11. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    The Eyrie Stevie Davies I think Stevie Davies is one of the most underrated novelists and certainly one of my favourites. This novel is quiet and understated, but there is much on every page and the messages are powerful. As the philosopher Alfred Whitehead said, “We think in generalities, but we live in detail”. The novel is set in the mid-2000s in South Wales (Oystermouth). The Eyrie is a mansion which formerly belonged to a copper baron. It has now been split into flats and the story revolves around the inhabitants of the flats; three in particular. Dora, also known as Red Dora is in her 90s and is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a Scottish communist and unrepentant activist for many causes. She is still very sharp and very much opposed to the war in Iraq, which is a backdrop. She is learning how to use a computer effectively with the intention of hacking into government websites and letting them know what she thinks. But there is a sense of considering her past: “Such a fighter she was. And as far as Dora was concerned, all the battles she cared about had been lost. There was nothing left for Red Dora to do. Just being an old person with failing health was not enough.” Dora is not aging quietly or peacefully, not even in the rather peaceful setting of The Eyrie, or as Davies describes it; “this subdued, murmurous antechamber to a final quiet.” Dora also reflects on those she lost: her lover Lachlan, father of her only child, who died in the Spanish Civil War. Her daughter Rosa, who died in prison (as a result of opposition to Franco). Along with Dora there is Eirlys, a retired, middle aged social worker. She bakes for everyone and likes to look after people; coming across as warm and caring. Yet she also has a past as a Welsh language activist and also spent time in prison. Davies has a wonderful way of building characters, this is Eirlys thinking about her history: “Parents growing elderly and becoming gentle living wraiths, to whom she had been able to offer the care of the unattached daughter. Their gratitude. The knowledge upon which she rested after they joined one another in the earth: that she had done her best by those who had done well by her. Eirlys would not say that she had had an unfulfilling life, no. The marvellous chatty weave of family. She practised an ethic of feeding, or so Dora said. Feed my sheep, said the Bible. Christ had cooked up something wonderful out of five loaves and two small fishes. In that case, though, you’ll have to explain, Eirlys pointed out to herself, why you left your vocation in social work and dodged up here where no one speaks the language you would have died for! Your nearest and dearest have to make an excursion to find you, rather than popping in, yet here she was, stuffing strangers with goodies. It must be pathological. Never mind.” The third central character is Hannah, a twenty something who has been brought up in a commune and is escaping a dull marriage. Hannah looks remarkably like Dora’s late daughter and this leads to a close friendship between the two women. There are lots of interesting, irritating and eccentric minor characters who populate the pages. The novel is well written, elegant and evocative with themes of love and loss, power and control. The reader does have a little work to do as what is left unsaid and what doesn’t happen is important. Davies sees herself as a historical novelist and is interested in addressing the gaps in history which denote women’s lives. This novel charts the history of a revolutionary spirit after the failure of many of the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century. The decline and failure of the left is symbolised here by Blair, although unnamed in the novel, he is frequently referenced by Dora as the epitome of everything that is wrong with the modern age. There is much to ponder here and Davies is a consistently good writer. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Autumn by Ali Smith
  12. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    A Woman's Place; An Oral History of Working Class Women 1890-1940 by Elizabeth Roberts This is an interesting study of the lives of working class women in the North West of England in the early twentieth century. It focuses on the towns of Preston, Lancaster and Barrow; all primarily weaving areas. It was published in 1984 and Roberts interviewed 160 older women about their early lives and the communities in which they lived. This is the strength pf the book; the voices of the women interviewed. One woman comments generally about the lot of women; "They had babies and worked like idiots. They died. They were old at forty." Themes explored include childhood, childbirth, work, family, neighbours, living conditions, poverty, pay, food, death and much more. Life was difficult and often brutal. Women usually had many babies and infant and childbirth mortality were still quite high. Roberts argues that she found plenty of evidence of the problems of class, but not of patriarchy; an interesting conclusion, which the evidence doesn’t really (for me), bear out. Evidence can always be used in more than one way. This is one woman talking about her father; “He always had that little wallet at the back that wasn't ours. On a Saturday night he would get ready and put his jewelry on, his gold chain and rings, and what not. He would turn with his back to Mum, like this, to count his money. He had an eye for the ladies when he were out. He used to go to what they called the Long Vaults... Well, we have come a long way since then. “ There are plenty of accounts of stories about drink. There are also of course, stories of strong women working and running households with numerous children. The interviews chart changes in society, there was a decline in drinking over the period in question; mainly brought about by the introduction of licensing hours in the First World War. This was a period of time before accessible birth control, but there was a decline in the size of families over the period. There is a serious academic debate about the reasons, which Roberts addresses. I’m not qualified to enter into the complexities of the debate, apart from to say that one review of this book points to the unwillingness of demographic historians to take into account what many early feminists clearly knew; women’s resistance to frequent childbirth and the beginnings of a refusal to accept it. The frequent reports of crude and dangerous attempts at abortion outlined by the women interviewed also seems to support this. This history of women’s lives is well worth reading and the voices we hear are powerful. I didn’t agree with some of the conclusions Roberts reached, but that often adds to the enjoyment. 7 out of 10 Starting H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
  13. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    Another time, another place by Jessie Kesson A brief novella, set in rural Scotland late in the Second World War. Born in 1916 Jessie Kesson was Scottish and born in Inverness in the workhouse. She never knew her father and was brought up in by her beloved mother. Her early childhood was spent avoiding the rent man and the Cruelty Inspector (who had the power to remove children to the orphanage if they were being neglected). There is an autobiographical element to this as Kesson lived and worked on a farm in her early adulthood. The setting is a farm and the main protagonist is a young woman married to a farm worker. She lives in a row of three cottages on the farm and there are other cottages scattered nearby. It is quite an enclosed community. Into this community come three Italian prisoners of war who are billeted on the farm. The story illustrates the role of women in a rural community and the stresses and pressures. The young woman narrator married to an older (though good) man, has ambitions and desires which she is unable to fulfil; she is in prison, though the jailor is kind. However the arrival of the Italians changes things; “The young woman felt a small surge of anticipation rising up within her at the prospect of the widening of her narrow insular world as a farm worker’s wife, almost untouched by the world war that raged around her. She always felt she was missing out on some tremendous event, never more so than when she caught a glimpse of girls of her own age, resplendent in uniform, setting out for places she would never set eyes on. Or when she caught their laughter-filled whispers of a whirling social life, the like of which she had never known” The isolation of the small community is illustrated when the three women from the farm go to a local fair in the nearby village; “It hadn’t been imagination. The young woman realised that the moment she stepped inside the marquee. For, although the village lay little more than a mile away from them, the cottar wives had no real part in its integral life. They could have ‘dropped in’ from another planet, to find themselves invisible, in a marquee. Huddling closely together, they began to wander round the different ‘sections’, their voices rising loud in praise of each and every exhibit on show. As if the sound of themselves could merge within that of the folk who surrounded them.” The writing is quite sparse and episodic with some sharp descriptions of the daily round of life on the farm. The narrator earns a little extra money by doing odd jobs for the Italians. The young woman develops feelings for the men which worry her as she realises she is as much of a prisoner as they are; probably more so. An inevitable affair ensues. However there is a twist at the end and the ending is complex and open. It’s a good novella, which for me would have benefitted by being longer with more time for character development. Kesson makes some powerful points about the role of women in rural communities and the restrictions on them. 8 out of 10 Starting Bid me to live by H.D.
  14. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    All Change Here by Naomi Mitchison This is the second book of autobiographical writing from Naomi Mitchison and follows on form the first, starting around 1912. Naomi Mitchison lived from 1897 to 1999 and the range of things she did was breath-taking. She was a feminist who campaigned for birth control, helping to establish the first birth control clinics. Mitchison was a committed socialist and Scottish Nationalist as well as being a renowned historical novelist. A friend of Tolkien, she proof read Lord of the Rings. She also wrote fantasy and science fiction and a series of memoirs. Her early training was in science and with her brother she published the first demonstration of genetic linkage in mammals in 1915. She travelled a great deal and wrote a number of travelogues. Along the way she also had seven children. This charts Mitchison taking a place at Oxford in 1914 to study science and spending time with her older brother’s friends. She captures a time of innocence and optimism in the summer of 1914 very well. The war intruded inevitably, although for the first few months there was no real sense of what was to come. That changed when members of her group of friends did not return from war. She married one of her brother’s friends, Dick Mitchison, in 1916. In 1915 Mitchison became a VAD at St Thomas’s Hospital; “In 1915, with Dick away I became more and more impatient with Oxford and my own non-involvement. Girls I knew had gone to do 'war work'; one or two were even in munitions factories. And at least I had passed first aid and home nursing examinations and what was more Sister Morag Macmillan had chosen me as the one to whom she could teach massage, feeling the hands of half a dozen girls and rejecting them before taking me on. Whether she knew I had some capacity as a healer which might be brought out is something else again; had she sensed that she would wisely have said nothing about it. I nagged and nagged and finally went off to be a VAD nurse at St. Thomas's along with May Douie, an Oxford friend whom I did not know very well. I had no idea what a hospital was really like; I doubt if I had ever been inside one. Our friends and relations would never find themselves in a hospital; they went to nursing homes, especially the Acland at Oxford, though there might well be arrangements there for almost free treatment in certain cases. Some nursing homes or small, special hospitals were quite well endowed. So St. Thomas's was something of a shock; the size, the long, clattering corridors and staircases and the huge, undivided wards. Everything was, no doubt, sanitary, but there were no frills. Of course I made awful mistakes. I had never done real manual household work; I had never used mops and polishes and disinfectants. I was very willing but clumsy. I was told to make tea but hadn't realised that tea must be made with boiling water. All that had been left to the servants. Once when lifting a heavy patient my collar stud flew out and my stiff collar opened. Oh, dear! At that time we all wore stiff white cuffs, collar and belt into which we stuck our scissors, so much needed for bandages, dressings and sewing. One's blue skirt was ankle length with a long white apron over it. I ought to have had a proper uniform coat to go out in, but my mother had economised on that, thinking my own old one would do as well, but again I got an official scolding.” Mitchison’s time as a VAD was ended when she caught scarlet fever. She also talks about nursing her husband after he sustained a head injury in a motorbike accident in France. The account ends with the birth of Mitchison’s first child. Mitchison is an engaging narrator, not underestimating her naivety and how she had been sheltered from many aspects of life. She also charts the beginning of her move away from the beliefs of her childhood and the seeds of the political and feminist radical she became are clear. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting To The River by Olivia Lang
  15. Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

    The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou This is the fourth volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, the title comes from a poem by Georgia Johnson: “The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn, As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on, Afar o'er life's turrets and vales does it roam In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home. The heart of a woman falls back with the night, And enters some alien cage in its plight, And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.” This volume follows from Angelou from 1957 to 1962, starting in San Francisco and covering Angelou’s time in New York working for Martin Luther King’s organization. After meeting freedom fighter Vusumi Make she moves with him to London, then Cairo. The book ends when Angelou is living in Accra (Ghana). The list of people she meets and works with is impressive and she is very involved with the Civil Rights movement. The book starts with a meeting with Billie Holiday. Her civil rights work in New York leads her to meet and work with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, James Earl Jones, Paule Marshal and Cecily Tyson to name but a few. Malcolm X’s oratorical power comes across; “Malcolm stood at the microphone. ‘Every person under the sound of my voice is a soldier. You are either fighting for your freedom or betraying the fight for freedom or enlisted in the army to deny somebody else’s freedom.’ His voice, deep and textured, reached through the crowd, across the street to the tenement windows where listeners leaned half their bodies out into the spring air. ‘The black man has been programmed to die. To die either by his own hand, the hand of his brother or at the hand of a blue-eyed devil trained to do one thing: take the black man’s life.’ ” Angelou consciously writes in the slave narrative tradition, speaking in the first person singular, talking about the first person plural. As you would expect the issue of race is central as Angelou is involved in active political protest. As always Angelou has a focus on relationships; with her son, with lovers and friends. She wrestles with how to bring up her son and on the nature of motherhood for a single black woman; “The black mother perceives destruction at every door, ruination at each window, and even she herself is not beyond her own suspicion. She questions whether she loves her children enough- or more terribly, does she love them too much? Do her looks cause embarrassment- or even terrifying, is she so attractive her sons begin to desire her and her daughters begin to hate her. If she is unmarried, the challenges are increased. Her singleness indicates she has rejected or has been rejected by her mate. Yet she is raising children who will become mates. Beyond her door, all authority is in the hands of people who do not look or think or act like her children. Teachers, doctors, sales, clerks, policemen, welfare workers who are white and exert control over her family’s moods, conditions and personality, yet within the home, she must display a right to rule which at any moment, by a knock at the door, or a ring in the telephone, can be exposed as false. In the face of this contradictions she must provide a blanket of stability, which warms but does not suffocate, and she must tell her children the truth about the power of white power without suggesting that it cannot be challenged.” One of the things I like about Angelou is her honesty about herself, her actions and motives. She admits mistakes freely and openly. It has been noted that there is also a sense of journey about the book and comparisons are made by Angelou to On the Road by Kerouac. Angelou emphasizes the sense of journey by quoting a line from spiritual that refers to Noah’s Ark; “The ole ark’s a-moverin.” The journey includes time in Africa and Angelou makes some pointed comparisons with the US. This on landing in Ghana: “Three black men walked past us wearing airline uniforms, visored caps, white pants and jackets whose shoulders bristled with epaulettes. Black pilots? Black captains? It was 1962. In our country, the cradle of democracy, whose anthem boasted ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave,’ the only black men in our airports fueled planes, cleaned cabins, loaded food or were skycaps, racing the pavement for tips.” Angelou never loses her sense of humour: “If more Africans had eaten missionaries, the continent would be in better shape” I always find Angelou inspiring and am continuing to enjoy her autobiographical excursions. 9 out of 10 Starting Heartburn by Nora Ephron
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