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  • Birthday 07/18/1960

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    Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray
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  1. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin My first foray into Le Guin, something I should have done in my teenage years when I read Tolkein. This is different to many of the other fantasy worlds, for a start this is less than two hundred pages long. The principal character, Ged, the apprentice wizard, is a youthful and flawed character. He doesn’t come mature and complete like Gandalf, so inevitably there is a coming of age element. The world building is pretty competent and I’m sure that will develop as the series continues. The world is an archipelago with many and varied islands and races. There are also dragons! There are a variety of themes apart from the obvious coming of age. Balance is an important concept in the magic of Earthsea. As Ged is taught at mage school: “But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow” The wizard school idea has been taken up by others, I don’t need to mention who! Naming is also important and to know someone’s true name is to have power over them. Ged is generally known as Sparrowhawk. One thing Le Guin does under the radar is to make most of the cast non-white. There are very few white characters, most are various shades of copper, brown and black. Le Guin doesn’t play with the gender dynamic in the same way she does with race. There is no primary villain, Ged’s real opponent is himself and the consequences of his actions. The world is secular, there is no priest caste. Wizards have to work mostly and most towns have one. This is told in epic style. On the whole there are positives and negatives, the pace and style are good and a mostly non-white cast was unusual for the 1960s. It all seems a bit rushed sometimes and that may be the shortness of the whole. There are plenty of well used tropes form fantasy literature, but many of them stem from this series. This is the first fantasy I’ve read in a while. It was enjoyable rather than memorable. 7 out of 10 Starting Zami: A new spelling of my name by Audre Lord
  2. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste An account of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s, very loosely based on the experiences of the author’s grandparents. Mengiste focuses on the role of women soldiers. Haile Selassie plays his part as does a look alike. This is about the importance of memory. It starts and ends in the 1970s, although most of it is set in 1935-7. Mengiste’s characters are powerfully drawn, even the two primary Italian characters. The story of war is often masculine, but this was not true for Ethiopia in the 1930s. As well as portraying women at war Mengiste also shows that being a woman in the world can be a type of warfare in itself. We are guided through the novel by Hirut. She is a servant who has been orphaned and has a complex relationship with her employers Kidane and Aster. Another significant character is Ettore Navarra, an Italian soldier who takes photographs of everything, including prisoners and executions. The photographs take on symbolic meaning. Ettore is Jewish and the increasingly difficult situation for Italian Jews becomes obvious as the novel proceeds: “The boundaries of bodies are the least of all things” This has been called a modern day Iliad, and I get that, this is an often forgotten struggle and there are now Ethiopian voices addressing yet another European imperialist past. This is a very good historical novel which gives some life and agency to those who have been written out of history and their past is being reclaimed. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting The Reef by Edith Wharton
  3. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Once upon a time in the East by Xiaolu Guo This has been compared to Wild Swans, unfairly I think. Guo is a Chinese born writer now living in the West and she has won awards for her fiction. This is an account of her early life. She lived with her grandparents for the first six years of her life in a fishing village in great poverty. Her grandfather was abusive and eventually killed himself. She met her parents when she was six and moved with them to a growing town inland where she lived in a compound. She later moved Beijing, winning a place in a film school. She then worked as a scriptwriter for a while before winning a scholarship to come to Britain. The whole, as many reviewers have pointed out, reads like a fable. Guo had always wanted to be an artist and she recalls a day when she was very young and met, on the beach near her home, a group of student artists from a nearby town: “Those young artists had snatched my heart. I knew I could no longer stay in the village… That afternoon, an hour after they left, a sunset danced above the kelp-tangled beach. The colours had been taken out of the girl’s picture, a scarlet red on a deep blue sea. I stood on the sand and watched as it trembled almost imperceptibly above the contours of the lapping waves. It was astonishing. Those art students has seen what I was unable to, even though I knew the village and the sea much better than they did.” Guo is angrier than some of her forbears who have written about China. She describes the poverty, the routine sexual abuse from men and the often impossible task of being an artist or writer within the constraints of what is permissible. The anger stretches to the rapid development changes she saw in China. This was following a visit to her father in hospital (he had throat cancer): “The sheer number of patients was shocking… women and children who had never smoked in their lives were dying of lung cancer. Most likely because of the pollution – Zhejiang was a fast-developing industrial province with countless large-scale factories… So much of what the ‘New China’ is about is getting rich at any cost. And what’s waiting for us? Cancer on a national level.” Guo’s account is gripping and it is clearly written from the heart. She is just as hard on the West when she arrives! This is an absorbing account of her journey by a talented writer 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Sounds and Sweet Airs by Anna Beer
  4. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Oh Happy Day by Carmen Callil Carmen Callil here charts her ancestry and how her forbears ended up in Australia. Her family tree consists of people from Lebanon, Ireland and the Midlands of England. The sections on her Lebanese and Irish ancestry are very short and Callil choses to focus on her English ancestors. These ancestors are from Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. This gives Callil the scope to analyse and research a number of issues. These include the textile industry and its decline because of industrialisation, the resulting unrest and riots, the role of the workhouse, the effects of religion, the nature and types of work, infant mortality, the courts and the justice system, the nature of punishment, transportation, conditions on the hulks where prisoners waited to be transported, the conditions on the passage, flogging amongst others. Once in Australia Callil looks at how convicts were treated, the growth of the settlements, tensions between convicts and settlers, relations with Indigenous Australians and how they reacted to settlement, various gold rushes and the growth of modern Australia. There is an epilogue which considers the evils of colonialism, the effective genocide/ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Australians, the nature of Empire, class and industrialisation. Callil covers an awful lot of ground and provides a fair amount of detail about her English ancestors. Inevitably she is unable to cover every issue comprehensively and there is a bit of a dash through industrialisation and the decline of traditional industries and all the rest. Nonetheless it is interesting and there is a good bibliography to follow up on specific topics. 8 out of 10 Starting A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
  5. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor This is a follow up to Reservoir 13 and was originally commissioned for radio as a series of fifteen monologues. You do need to have read the original novel, this is not a standalone. Here is a brief precis of the novel from my review: The novel is set in a village in Derbyshire, the Peak District (the well dressing gives that away). It starts at New Year in the early 2000s with the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl, staying in a holiday rental with her family. The village is a tourist spot close to the moors and the title refers to a series of reservoirs in the hills above and beyond the town. The narrative consists of thirteen chapters, each of them covers a year, the chapters being split into smaller passages covering each month or so. There are snippets from the lives of the villagers, all ages and statuses and the reader gradually gets to know each of them. This follow up as a less collective feel to it as we get inside the heads of some of the main players in the original. The monologues cover the time period before and after the disappearance. The girl who disappeared, Becky, is present in some of the monologues and the reader gets a sense of her as a presence rather than an absence. There are also sinister twists and undertones to some of the monologues which are in the form of interviews (without an interviewer). McGregor again resists the temptation to explain the disappearance. This is just an extension of the layers of ambiguity, the reader is no clearer about what really happened. You do get into the minds of the fifteen but on a few occasions you wish you hadn’t. There are secrets, abuse, brutality and quite a few surprises. The portraits of the men are much starker and there is real menace. McGregor uses humour well and has a way of starting the monologues that draws in: “The important thing to remember, Graham always said afterwards, was that no one actually died.” “If he’d known the day was going to end with blood and fire, Liam would probably have got up earlier.” “It wasn’t even a llama, for starters.” The whole does work, even the one sided conversations and this does add rather than detract from the original novel. 9 out of 10 Starting Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith
  6. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich This is Erdrich’s debut novel. It follows three interlinked families the Lamartines, Morrisseys and Kashpaws and is set on fictional Ojibwe reservations in North Dakota and Minnesota. The narrative focusses on the points of view of a variety of characters (all interlinked) from the 1930s to the 1980s. The characters are presented sympathetically with real human warmth and with humour. The quote from Toni Morrison is telling: “The beauty of Love Medicine saves us from being completely destroyed by its power” The book is about identity, loving and surviving. The prose is wonderful and there is an element of magic suffused with tradition, history, injustice and betrayal. The reader needs a level of alertness to follow the narrative and put it all together, but it is worth the effort. Erdrich is mixed race Native American and her own experiences have obviously influenced her writing: “It is where I’m from; literally there’s no other way than this that I can write. I’m writing out of the mixture of cultures. Knowing both sides of my family really infused my life with a sense that I lived in many times and in many places as many people. It was never just me. I was always filled with the stories, the humor, the loss. Because, of course, we are all part of this great loss that occurred.” Erdrich has the ability to write about the natural messiness of life and make it feel real and radiant. The whole is suffused with memory and metaphor, including the love medicine of the title: “Like now. Take the love medicine. I don’t know where she remembered that from. It came tumbling from her mind like an asteroid off the corner of the screen. But when she mentions them love medicines, I feel my back prickle at the danger. These love medicines is something of an old Chippewa specialty. No other tribe has got them down so well. But love medicines is not for the layman to handle. Before you get one, even, you should go through one hell of a lot of mental condensation. You could really mess up your life grinding up the wrong little thing.” Erdrich’s portrayal of her people is thoughtful and considered and yet has humour and passion. It’s a novel with a great deal of heart, but which does not shy away from making its point about the history of a people and the injustice therein. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting The Saga of Gosta Berling by Selma Lagerlof
  7. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens Boyce usually writes about imperialism in Australia, but here he turns to imperialist ventures in England itself and specifically the fens which stretched through South Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and bits of surrounding counties. He also includes the Isle of Axholme in North Lincolnshire. Boyce explains his approach: “A more direct source for this book was my research on the Australian frontier…When I began to read histories of the Fens, I was struck by some largely unacknowledged similarities with the colonial frontier. Here too was a multi-faceted defence of country, a transformation of the land, the introduction of foreign settlers and a confrontation between two worlds. While researching Australian history, I began to wonder, did the fact that the Fens was part of England justify such a radically different approach to writing its past?” It is not easy to be precise about the extent and borders of the fens as streams and masses of water ebb and flo. Boyce identifies the Fennish (as he terms them) as an indigenous people: “All cultures undergo times of upheaval as well as long periods of evolution. What characterises an indigenous culture is neither its uniformity nor immutability, but that it remains rooted in country as it experiences continuity and change.” Boyce goes back about four thousand years and tracks the various invaders, who all tried to manage the fens and its people. It also describes why the fens were so unique. The common lands, as the fens were, provided so much food for its inhabitants that even in years of poor harvests food was plentiful. There was a great variety of fish and most especially eels. The wildfowl and bird life of the area was also very plentiful and edible. People raised geese for eating and eggs. The grass was always lush and provided fodder the year round for cattle and sheep. Sedge and turf-cutting provided livelihood for some. Of course the area was very wet and flooded regularly, but that was part of the deal. The very geography made it difficult for outsiders to tame the land and its inhabitants. The Romans mainly avoided them. Dio Cassius tells how the Romans “wandered into the pathless marshes and lost many of their soldiers”. The Vikings just went round them and avoided them. William the Conqueror made more of an effort and hence grew legends like Hereward the Wake. It is also true to say that cavalry don’t do well in mud! The Church was more pragmatic and tried to move in by creating small monastic houses. Tis had some partial success but the Fennish have never been very religious. After the dissolution of the monasteries the Church lost its foothold for several centuries, until the advent of non-conformity and particularly Methodism which based its structure on local people and imposed less from the outside. John Wesley’s father Samuel was a Church of England Rector in the Isle of Axholme, he estimated that only about 2% of his flock actually attended Church. As I said the Fennish were not a religious lot. There is also an interesting strand in Fennish history related to the Roma people, who were able to use the fens as a refuge, a place to get food, replenish stocks and be safe with support from the locals. That seems to be a little told story in itself. The real threat to the fens came from the early seventeenth century onwards and the advent of enclosure when there was a determined attempt to take over common land. It is here that Boyce perceives that colonization was a process wielded in Britain as well as by Britain. The battle to tame the fens lasted over two hundred years. Enclosure succeeded in the southern fens in the seventeenth century. However in Lincolnshire (south and north) it failed. There was violence, persecution by the law, destruction of new ditches with similarities to the later Luddite and Captain Swing unrest. South Lincolnshire and the Isle of Axholme held out until the late eighteenth century when the industrial revolution provided steam driven machines much better at drainage. “The Fennish story is an integral part of the troubled history of the imperial age. As elsewhere in the empire, an indigenous people fought the land grab through every means available to them, including force, until the subversive power of the modern state and the technological power of the Industrial Revolution achieved what seemed to be a final victory.” Boyce turns on its head the idea that the draining of the marshes was a triumph of engineering and progress, but was rather the dispossession of an indigenous people. Many of the dispossessed took to poaching (hence songs like The Lincolnshire Poacher), which still thrives today. What can be noted is that the result of drainage is that much of the resulting farmland is slightly below sea level and any rises in sea levels would have some interesting results. This is an interesting and innovative history which spoke to me because one strand of my family history goes back into the fens. 9 out of 10 Starting The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor
  8. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Pornography by Andrea Dworkin Dworkin was a radical and uncompromising feminist. Her views are clear. This is from a speech in 1983: “The power exercised by men, day to day, in life is power that is institutionalised. It is protected by law. It is protected by religion and religious practice. It is protected by universities, which are strongholds of male supremacy. It is protected by a police force. It is protected by those whom Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: the poets, the artists. Against that power, we have silence.” The most common approach to Dworkin’s arguments have been abuse and ridicule. She has been variously called a man hater, anti sex, ugly, overweight, hating sexual freedom, insane and following her death, a “sad ghost” that feminism needs to exorcise. I have read a few reviews of this book and can confirm this. Dworkin believed that pornography led to violence against women: “a celebration of rape and injury to women.” “Pornography incarnates male supremacy.” Dworkin manages to draw from literature and art in this analysis. Here is a quote from D H Lawrence: “And it is this that makes the cocksureness of women so dangerous, so devastating. It is really out of scheme, it is not in relation to the rest of things. So we have the tragedy of cocksure women. They find, so often, that instead of having laid an egg, they have laid a vote or an empty ink-bottle, or some other absolutely unhatchable object, which means nothing to them.” Dworkin spends a whole chapter looking at De Sade. She shows he is still much admired by all sorts of thinkers, male and female. Dworkin portrays him as an Everyman type: “Sade’s importance, finally, is not as dissident or deviant: it is as Everyman, a designation the power-crazed aristocrat would have found repugnant, but one that women on examination, will find true. In Sade, the authentic equation is revealed: the power of the pornographer is the power of the rapist/batterer is the power of the man.” She also analyses Sade’s writings and the sort of things he ended up in prison for. Here is De Sade defending himself to his wife in relation to five fifteen year old girls whom he abused. He had procured them from a woman of his acquaintance: “I go off with them: I use them. Six months later, some parents come along to demand their return. I give them back {he did not}, and suddenly a charge of abduction and rape is brought against me. It is a monstrous injustice. The law on this point is …. As follows: it is expressly forbidden in France for any procuress to supply virgin maidens, and if the girl supplied is a virgin and lodges a complaint, it is not the man who is charged, but the procuress who is punished severely on the spot. But even if the male offender has requested a virgin he is not liable to punishment: he is merely doing what all men do. It is, I repeat, the procuress who provided him with the girl and who is perfectly aware that she is expressly forbidden to do so, who is guilty.” For De Sade raping a fifteen year old virgin was not an offence. Dworkin draws the links to modern pornography and provides examples in passages of descriptive analysis. The availability of pornography has changed since the advent of the internet, but maybe not its nature. For Dworkin pornography stems from patriarchy and the nature and role of men and this is also from the 1983 speech: “Equality is a practice. It is an action. It is a way of life. It is a social practice. It is an economic practice. It is a sexual practice. It can’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t have it in your home if, when the people leave the home, he is in a world of supremacy based on the existence of his cock and she is in a world of humiliation and degradation because she is perceived to be inferior and because her sexuality is a curse.” Dworkin is also very critical of the left: "The most cynical use of women has been on the Left—cynical because the word freedom is used to capture the loyalties of women who want, more than anything, to be free and who are then valued and used as left-wing 'ladies of the night': collectivized cunts" Ultimately I think that Dworkin is right in her assertion that until the fundamental inequality and injustice between men and women is addressed, nothing else is sorted out. 8 out of 10 Starting Black writers in Britain 1760-1890
  9. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe A hefty slice of eighteenth century gothic famously satirised by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. It is set in the late sixteenth century and follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Emily St Aubert. It is set in southern France and northern Italy and there are lots of descriptions of majestic landscapes, all of which came from travel books as Radcliffe never went to the areas she described. Here’s a description of a castle, which looks, well, very castley: “Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni’s; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapour crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendour. From those, too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely, and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers were alone seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to ascend.” There is a significant cast of characters with suitably villainous villains and the noble and good are very much so. There are plenty of crumbling castles with hidden corridors and tunnels, gloomy tombs aplenty, a few humble cottages (populated by humble cottagers), sinister portraits, nuns, a touch of what might be the supernatural (although as Radcliffe herself says it is more terror than horror). Theses bits I am afraid reminded me a little of a cartoon series from my youth called Scooby Doo. Emily’s servant Annette provides the comic relief. There is a bit of redemption for the villainous female characters, but most of the male villains meet nasty ends. There are strong female characters here, even though Emily spends a significant proportion of the novel crying and fainting away and as always good triumphs, eventually. The male lead Valancourt is certainly the most irritating character. It has often been said that it is easy to create flawed characters and difficult to create convincing good ones. One piece of advice, skip the poetry. Although if you do you will miss the immortal line: “Hail! Mildly pleasing solitude!” There is a certain entertainment value to this, but it is very long. I recognise that it was ground-breaking and there were strong female characters, but I do understand why Jane Austen parodied it. 5 and a half out of 10 Starting Emma by Jane Austen
  10. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Genius and Ink by Virginia Woolf A collection of articles by Woolf, all published in the Times Literary Supplement anonymously (as all articles were). They range over twenty years and some have appeared in other collections. There are essays on Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Conrad, Hardy, Marryat, James’s letters, Montaigne, Elizabethan plays, re-reading novels and a few others. Inevitably there is some variability and things to disagree with; I don’t have Woolf’s appreciation of Conrad’s earlier novels for example. But there is much to ponder and comment on: “There is one peculiarity which real works of art possess in common. At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season. To write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments upon what we know.” This also contains her brief and now rather famous assessment of Ulysses: “a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster” She can also be sharply perceptive, looking at Eliot and issues relating to gender and women writers: “In fiction where so much of personality is revealed, the absence of charm is a great lack; and her critics, who have been, of course, of the opposite sex have resented, half-consciously perhaps, her deficiency in a quality which is held to be supremely desirable in women. George Eliot was not charming; she was not strongly feminine; she had none of those eccentricities and inequalities of temper which give to so many artists the endearing simplicity of children.” Her criticisms are generally balanced, she talks about Hardy’s uncertain genius and focuses on his early novels. She also suggests his rural scenes and minor characters are his real strength, warning against sentimentality. She clearly sees Jude the Obscure as problematic (an understatement I think), but glosses over the problem pretty briefly. Nevertheless she made me think I ought to revisit Hardy’s early works. The essay on the ridiculousness of Elizabethan plays is very funny and well worth reading. All in all a pretty good collection and it’s interesting to see the development over twenty years 8 out of 10 Starting Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens James Boyce
  11. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Good Behaviour by Molly Keane Molly Keane had two careers as a writer. She took up writing out of sheer boredom at seventeen when she was confined to bed with an illness in the early 1920s. She wrote as M J Farrell, a name she had seen over a pub door. She wanted to keep her writing secret as it would have been disapproved of in her social circle in Ireland: "for a woman to read a book, let alone write one was viewed with alarm: I would have been banned from every respectable house in Co. Carlow." Keane was part of the decaying Anglo-Irish aristocracy/middle class. She wrote until 1946 when her husband died, and didn’t start again until 1981 when this novel was published and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. When this came out Keane spoke about her upbringing in an interview: “Mother’s father governed various little islands like Mauritius and she came back from there to marry my father. She loved her sons but she didn’t love me. I was jolly hard to love. Totally disobedient. She feared for me as she would if I had been a hippy and taken drugs. She never stopped being a Victorian. It was a class thing I grew up with, good behaviour. Don’t whine and don’t make a fuss. If you broke your neck you must pretend you hadn’t.” This novel at its heart has conflict between mother and daughter and starts with murder by rabbit mousse! It concerns the St Charles family and particularly the daughter Aroon. This is the 1920s and Aroon is tall, clumsy and by societal norms unlovely. It is narrated by Aroon and has one reviewer has said: “..everything is explained and nothing is said.” So there is sex, murder, suicide, pregnancy, masturbation, nannies, class, queer characters and much more. But nothing is directly named. The satire is sharp as is the dissection of emotional relationships: “Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete. Although they feared to speak, Papa and Mummie spent more time together; but, far from comforting, they seemed to freeze each other deeper in misery.” The title is important and Kean has a way of using words effectively to put across a feeling with sinister undertones: “I had time to consider how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave –believe me, because I know. I have always known. All my life so far have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives. I have lived for the people dearest to me, and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.” I was pleasantly surprised by this one as I am always wary of books portraying impoverished aristos these days, but there is an edge to this. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Once upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo
  12. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Eva Luna by Isabel Allende Set in an unnamed South American country with the usual magic realism, an assortment of generals and dictators, a good dose of sensuality and an eclectic cast of characters, the novel moves from the 1950s to the 1980s. It is told in the first person and is the story of Eva Luna, told in parallel with the much less detailed story of Rolf Carle. It is the story of a storyteller and has lots of twists and turns. It has been described as picaresque. Allende challenges the usual male hegemony she finds through her storytelling. The characters do jump off the page and even the less sympathetic characters have some humanity. But it is the women are strong: “I stopped examining myself in the mirror to compare myself to the perfect beauties of movies and magazines; I decided I was beautiful for the simple reason I wanted to be. And then never gave the matter another thought.” There are elements of Scheherazade in Eva and this is followed up particularly in the volume which follows this, The Stories of Eva Luna. I didn’t love this as much as The House of the Spirits. The ending felt rather rushed and forced and somewhat melodramatic. The opening is certainly strong: ‘My name is Eva, which means “life,” according to a book of names my mother consulted. I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of these things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory’. Eva combines fiction and life and through the section on the escape of the guerrillas from prison towards the end Allende illustrates a device often used in oppressive regimes, telling the truth in a work of fiction. Allende charts the birth of a writer: “I awakened early. It was a soft and slightly rainy Wednesday, not very different from others in my life, but I treasure that Wednesday as a special day, one that belonged only to me. I took a clean white sheet of paper-like a sheet freshly ironed for making love-and rolled it into the carriage. . . . I believed that that page has been waiting for me for more than twenty years, that I had lived only for that instant.... I wrote my name, and immediately the words began to flow, one thing linked to another and another. . . .1 could see an order to the stories stored in my genetic memory since before my birth, and the many others I had been writing for years in my notebooks” Memory sustains life and this is certainly a life enhancing novel, despite the loss of focus at the end. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
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    Merle and other stories by Paule Marshall This consists of a novella (Merle), an essay and a few short stories. The essay is “From the poets in the kitchen”. Here Marshall talks about her influences, the women who raised her and taught her the power of words. The short stories range over her whole career and although interesting are overshadowed by the novella. The protagonist, Merle, also appears in Marshall’s novel The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. This is in fact a condensed version. It is set on a fictitious island in the Caribbean. Merle is the daughter of one of the last plantation owners, a servant who is a bit of an enigma. She has some English education, a husband and child estranged and in Africa. She is a victim of colonialism and is bitter, having experienced the racism of England. She meets a Jewish anthropologist (Saul) who has come to Bourne to survey and to look at ways of improving the lot of the inhabitants. An affair follows. This sounds trite but isn’t as Marshall creates complex characters and interesting juxtapositions. Marshall creates a tension between the shadows and inheritance of colonialism and the very present threat of dollar imperialism. Marshall also conveys Merle’s voluble support for those who are poor and oppressed and her own problems with her mental health; holding the tension between the two well. It also gives the sense of the radicalism of the late sixties and early seventies, which is destined to fail. Marshall in her own expositions of Merle says she does intend the juxtaposition of black and white feminism as portrayed by Merle and Harriet. She also admits to using the Prospero/Caliban trope and extends it to illuminate how the tensions within feminism are linked to issues of white supremacy. This is certainly worth reading and for myself I am convinced that I ought to read the longer version (over four times as long). 7 and a half out of 10 Starting The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
  14. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    It seems to have created some discussion and I have found that there are varying opinions about it. I do think I wanted to like it better than I did. My name is why by Lemn Sissay Lemn Sissay is a poet, author and broadcaster. He was the official poet of the London Olympics. He is fairly regularly seen on British TV. He now also advocates for children in care and is involved in a number of organisations concerned with their welfare. This is a memoir of his childhood in the care system: in a foster home until he was 12 and then in a series of children’s homes. Coincidentally as I write this he is on Mary Beard’s culture show talking about memory. Sissay’s mother was from Ethiopia and had come to Britain to study. After he was born, his mother had to go back to Ethiopia to see her dying father. Sissay was taken into care and his name changed to Norman Mark Greenwood. His mother wrote to try to get him back, but to no avail. He was 16 before he discovered his real name. Sissay only managed to get hold of file from social services in Wigan n 2015, after thirty years of asking. He used what was in his file to help tell his story and there are extensive quotes from it in the book. Sissay also intersperses the book with poetry: “I am not defined by darkness/Confided the night/Each dawn I am reminded/I am defined by light” This is a searing indictment of the care system and the way children are treated. Of all the professionals in the book, there was only one who really tried to help Sissay and he was usually over-ruled by his superiors. There is a history of neglect and racism. The foster family were very religious and initially things went ok until they had children of their own and things went gradually downhill. Sissay also records how the care homes he lived in affected his mental health and identity: “Memories in care are slippery because there’s no one to recall them as the years pass. In a few months I would be in a different home with a different set of people who had no idea of this moment. How could it matter if no one recalls it? Given that staff don’t take photographs it was impossible to take something away as a memory. This is how you become invisible. It is the underlying unkindness that you don’t matter enough. This is how you quietly deplete the sense of self-worth deep inside a child’s psyche. This is how a child becomes hidden in plain sight.” Race obviously played a central role in Sissay’s upbringing and he charts how he was affected by it, even it subtle ways: his foster family nicknaming him Macavity (after Eliot, Macavity was quick, dark and a thief). Some of this is heartbreaking and difficult to read, but it clearly shows how a child can be lost in the care system. Read it and weep. 9 out of 10 Starting Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read
  15. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry The setting is the 1890s and it moves between Victorian London, Colchester and the Essex marshes. The title indicates something of what the novel is about. There is an old seventeenth century Essex legend about a leathery sea serpent in the marshes and Perry adapts this. The book revolves around Cora Seagrave, who is a new widow, relieved of an abusive husband and with an interest in palaeontology. Her son Francis was perceived to be eccentric, but would now be described as on the autistic spectrum. Francis has a sort of governess, Martha, who is a socialist and as much a companion to Cora as a governess. The other touchstone in the novel is the Rev William Ransome the vicar of the village of Aldwinter on the Essex marshes. He has three children and his wife Stella is developing consumption. There is also Luke Garrett, a friend of Cora, who is a very talented surgeon and who is in love with Cora. There are a few other significant characters, including some rather colourful villagers. Cora goes to stay in Aldwinter with a letter of introduction to the vicar. She is a sceptic and he is rather worried about the rumours of the serpent and the tendency of his parishioners to revert to pagan superstition. Cora and Will meet and there is an attraction (inevitably) and Cora and her son become friends of his family. Rumours of the serpent and the toing and froing of relationships move throughout the book. There is an interesting intersection between religion, scepticism and pagan superstition and also a side plot about slum housing in London. This reads easily, but I felt the characters felt 21st century rather than 19th. There are plenty of loose ends at the end, which I didn’t mind. Perry does send characters in interesting directions, but doesn’t quite take them where you think she is going to (Cora and Martha, Spencer and Luke). Perry sets her scene well: "Since the discovery on New Year's morning of a drowned man down on the Blackwater marshes - naked, his head turned almost 180 degrees, a look of dread in his wide-open eyes - the Essex Serpent had ceased to be merely a device to keep children in check, and had begun to stalk the streets." and she can write descriptively: "Autumn's kind to Aldwinter: thick sun aslant on the common forgives a multitude of sins. The dog-roses have gone over to crimson hips, and children stain their hands green breaking walnuts open. Skeins of geese unravel over the estuary, and cobwebs dress the gorse in silk." There are lots of ideas and hints. Socialism and women’s issues as well as the religion/science debate. I didn’t dislike this at all, but I was left feeling the ideas could have been taken further. I appear to be sitting on the fence a bit. I liked Perry’s grasp of the religious mind-set but the periodic letters were a bit irritating. The gothic tension surrounding the alleged serpent comes and goes with the fog. This is a good read and is atmospheric, but a little muddled: a bit like this review. 6 and a half out of 10 Starting My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay