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      Important Announcement!   07/28/2018

      Dear BCF members,   This forum has been running now for many years, and over that time we have seen many changes. Generalised forums are nowhere near as popular as they once were, and they have been very much taken over by blogs, vlogs and social media discussions. Running a forum well takes money, and a lot of care and attention, as there is so much which goes on behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly.   With all of this in mind, and after discussion within the current moderator team, the decision has been made to close this forum in its current format. I know that this will disappoint a lot of our long term members, but I want to reassure you that it's not a decision which has been taken lightly.    The remaining moderator team have agreed that we do not want to lose everything which is special about our home, and so we are starting a brand new facebook group, so that people can stay in touch, and discussions can continue. We can use it for free and should be easier for us to run (it won't need to be updated or hosted). We know not everyone has FaceBook, but we hope that those of you who are interested will join the group. We will share the link, and send invites as soon as we are ready to go. Added: We may as well get this going, find us here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/195289821332924/   The forum will close to new registrations, but will remain open for some time, to allow people to collect up any information, reading lists etc they need to, and to ensure they have contact details for those they wish to stay in touch with.    The whole team feel sad to say goodbye, but we also feel that it's perhaps time and that it feels like the right choice. We hope we can stay in touch with all of you through our new FaceBook group.   I personally want to thank everyone who has helped me moderate the forum, both in the past and the present, and I also want to thank every single person who has visited, and shared their love of books.. I'm so proud of everything we've achieved, and the home we built.   Please visit the new section in the Lounge section to discuss this further, ask questions etc.
Books do furnish a room

2016 Book blog by Books don't furnish a room

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I'm starting with my last 2015 read (missed the deadline)

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

 

Jean Rhys provides an atmospheric backdrop to Jane Eyre, asking some obvious questions and posing some difficult questions. The slave trade and its profits are behind much of the nouveaux riches of the eighteenth century and their country houses; especially in the west of England and around the port cities of Bristol and Liverpool. The novel addresses the aftermath of the end of slavery and juxtaposes another sort of slavery; marriage. The link is an obvious one; the marriage is arranged by Antoinette’s family with Rochester, not with her consent. She is treated as property and her name is changed; there is little to distinguish her condition from slavery.

Rhys does manage to capture the breathless heat and sense of decay and disintegration very well. The political point that slavery was not replaced with a racial, political and gender independence. Rhys pretty much throws everything into the mix; race, class gender and mental health. Of course the symbolism of the Sargasso Sea and all the myths surrounding it is significant; on the surface marriage offers Antoinette many opportunities, in reality the waters are treacherous.

The juxtaposition of the Byronic hero Rochester in Jane Eyre and the same man as callous villain here is a sharp one. Part of the strength of the book is giving a marginalised character voice. As Rhys herself said; “She seemed such a poor ghost, I thought I'd like to write her a life”. The problem now is that I read Jane Eyre forty years ago (that makes me feel very old) and I need to read it again.

The changing narrative voices can be a little confusing and though I think I prefer Rhys’s early stuff is better, but this is an important adjunct to Eurocentric nineteenth century novels.

8 out of 10

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So now currently reading

The Ice-shirt by William T Vollmann

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

The Web of Belonging by Stevie Davies

The Railway Station Man by Jennifer Johnston

The ghost stories of Edith Wharton

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Gather together in my name by Maya Angelou

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Happy reading in 2016! I love your reviews and look forward to reading many more.

 

I must say, I really didn't care for Wide Sargasso Sea.

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Happy New Year! I hope you have a fantastic reading year, I always look forward to your reviews even though we rarely choose the same books to read. :)

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Happy reading!  :readingtwo:   I always look forward to your reviews.

 

Years ago I started Wide Sargasso Sea, and put it down.  It impugned my hero, Rochester!    Heh!  But seriously, that book typifies my ordinary dislike of modern books based on older classics and/or previous books.  However some of your remarks in your review cause me to rethink and possibly pick it up again, from the beginning with a more open mind. 

So, thanks for that. :)

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Thank you for all your good wishes and they are warmly reciprocated. Wide Sargasso Sea is worth a look Pontalba.

 

Web of Belonging by Stevie Davies

 

I have rapidly become a great admirer of Stevie Davies; she is a great and under-rated novelist. In many ways this is a comic novel, but it is much more than that because in reality it deals with tragic matters. It concerns Jess and Jacob, both in their forties, who have been married for twenty years and are childless. They have taken in three of Jacob’s relatives; his mother May, his aunt Brenda and his uncle Nathan (not married to Brenda). To manage their needs Brenda has given up her work as a librarian (that’s another thing I like about Davies, the heroine is a librarian!). Jess is a pillar of the church and community (its set in Shrewsbury on the river Severn). Jess and Jacob has previously fostered and on the surface seem a devoted couple and very happy. At least that is what Jess thinks. Fate has other ideas and Jacob disappears on page five, only to reappear in nearby Ludlow with a younger woman and ready-made family; and she is pregnant. Jess is left caring for Jacob’s relatives and Jacob seems to think she will continue to be the “saint” she has always been.

It is in the first person, so Jess tells her own story and you can see her own internal thoughts and reasoning throughout. It is painfully honest and charts how Jess’s conflicting emotions progress. The characterisation is brilliant; the three older people Jess cares for all are very distinctive as are the friends who support Jess; each with their own agendas. Jess has to question the whole basis of the life she has led and the man on whom she felt she was totally reliant and to ponder some of life’s mysteries. As Davies puts it;

"Higgamus hoggamus,

woman's monogamous,

hoggamus higgamus,

man is polygamous"

The reader becomes very attached to Jess as she goes through the agonies of separation and cheers her on as she begins to break free from her old self. She goes through the mood swings and moves from despair to anger to hope and back in a short space of time. She also does some wonderfully odd things as she begins to break free from her old self.

The implications of the title are also cleverly used. Belonging sounds cosy and safe and part of a bigger whole. However a web is also a place where you can be caught and stuck, as in a spider’s web. What to do about Jacob’s relatives becomes a theme and we listen in on Jess’s internal dialogue. Why should she continue to care for them? But she likes them and they aren’t responsible for Jacob’s actions and where would they go?

The whole is a beautifully written exploration of the end of a relationships and its outworking; it is also very funny and that is how Davies slips in some of her most difficult conundrums (should Jacob’s relatives be put into care homes as a result of his behaviour). It’s good stuff and the web is complex.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Borrowed Body by Valerie Mason-John

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Gather Together in my Name by Maya Angelou

 

This is the second volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography and covers four years from 1944 to 1948, ending when Angelou was 21. It covers a period pre civil rights and just after the war. Angelou was remarkably resourceful in relation to the things she turned her hand to and did well. She cooked and waitressed in a number of establishments, managed a restaurant, sold clothes, learned to dance to become a professional dancer, ran a brothel, worked in a brothel ( her “pimp” or “daddy” was an Episcopalian preacher!) and almost joined the army. All this whilst being a single mother. Angelou is remarkably open and honest; clear about her mistakes, as she said herself:

 

“I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, “I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.” They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, “Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.” They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name”

 

What is obvious throughout is Angelou’s strength of character and resilience and it is written with great clarity and passion. The importance of family is central, as in the first volume and we see vignettes of Angelou’s mother, brother and grandmother and what bound them together was stronger than what tried to pull them apart.

At the end of the volume is a brief look at the world of drug addiction and the degradation and horror of it made a deep impression on Angelou. A man she was working with at the time had given her a glimpse of the world he inhabited:

 

“The life of the underworld was truly a rat race, and most of its inhabitants scurried like rodents in the sewers and gutters of the world. I had walked the precipice and seen it all, and at the critical moment one man's generosity pushed me safely away from the edge.”

 

Angelou said that writing this book was very difficult and painful; it is more fragmentary than I Know why the Caged Bird Sings. Race and racism is still very much there as part of daily life and the book is very much about what it is to be a black woman in the 1940s. There is a note of hope at the end;

“I had no idea what I was going to make of my life, but I had given a promise and found my innocence. I swore I'd never lose it again.”

I know many readers and critics don’t rate this as highly as I Know why the Caged Bird Sings, but I do because of Angelou’s honesty and passion.

 

9 out of 10

Starting Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

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The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

 

Edith Wharton may be an unlikely ghost story writer, but she does it rather well. As you would expect they are well written and have subtlety and nuance and don’t have the gore and bludgeoning of some modern horror. There is a sprinkling of the gothic, a few rambling and creepy houses and a variety of settings: England, the eastern US states, France and the desert in an unspecified Middle Eastern country.

Some of the tales aren’t really ghost stories, but explore everyday moral dilemmas and human conflicts in an innovative way. Most of the stories take place in daylight (or even artificial light) amidst modern technology (modern for when they were written). Several of the stories do explore the relationship between servants and their employers and the tensions between the two. Locks and keys play a significant role.

All Souls is an interesting Halloween story that makes more sense when you know it was written at the end of Wharton’s life, the last story she wrote before her death. The sense of helplessness, collapsing competence and fear of the unknown are very telling. There are some interesting explorations of the nature of marriage (Pomegranate Seed in particular) and relations between the sexes, although Bewitched has an interesting take on the sexual motivations of men and their ability to control them.

Wharton herself said that she did not believe in ghosts, but she feared them; and what is needed here is imagination rather than belief. What makes Wharton’s stories interesting is the usual supernatural dread filtered through scepticism. These ghost stories often follow a familiar format but Wharton does manage to subvert the genre in unusual ways.

8 out of 10

Starting The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera

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The Railway Station Man by Jennifer Johnston

 

This is the first time I have read anything by Jennifer Johnston; she is a good writer and I should have read her before now. Johnston is Irish, born in Dublin and so, as you would expect The Troubles are a theme she works and reworks in a number of her novels. There is a good deal to interest in this novel, despite the fact it may seem at first quite slight. It is, in fact a romance, but between two protagonists in their 50s (I know, I’m in my 50s, but that isn’t the reason I read it!), both of whom have suffered significant losses. Helen is an artist who has moved to a remote seaside cottage since her husband was shot dead by the IRA, mistaken for someone else. Roger is English, a war hero who lost an arm and an eye at Arnhem. He has bought an old railway station and signal box, which he is restoring with the help of local lad Damian Sweeney. He has fled from his family who feel his mental health is unstable and want him locked away somewhere. The other main character is Helen’s son Jack who is studying in Dublin, but mixing with members of the republican movement.

On the surface the main theme of the book is the relationship between Roger and Helen, but the romance part of it occupies only the last third and even then Helen strongly resists any possibility of commitment, wanting her own space. Helen espouses an individualism which says that the received wisdom that marriage is the best fulfilment for women is wrong. The whole is very much bound up in the landscape of the remote west of Ireland, which is almost the most significant character in the book.

There is, underlying all this, a sense of division; despite what appears a serene surface there is menace underneath, which only surfaces at the shocking and explosive finale of the novel. Peace and tranquillity are transfigured by violence.

At the beginning of the book Helen sets the tone;

“Isolation.

Such a grandiose word.

Insulation.

There was the connection in the dictionary staring me in the eye”

Helen has isolated herself deliberately and tried to insulate herself from what is going on around her; not really seeing what is happening around her, even to her son. Johnston emphasises all this with the way she tells the story. The first and last chapters are told in the first person, but for the bulk of the novel the third person is used and this makes Helen seem more detached.

The whole is a delicately balanced novel; something of a rural/seaside idyll, with a background of The Troubles (under the surface all the time), a fragile and unlikely romance and a strong and interesting main character in Helen. The reader knows something is coming at the end, as a number of threads begin to wind together. There is a 1990s film starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. A well-crafted novel with many layers.

8 out of 10

Starting Shades of Greene by Jeremy Lewis

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The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

 

This book and its writer are a bit of an enigma and I found myself liking and disliking Robert Byron in equal measure. The Road to Oxiana tells of a journey Byron made with Christopher Sykes to explore the architecture of what is now Iran and Afghanistan. If you want well written descriptions of Islamic architecture then Byron is your man; illustrated below;

“I have never encountered splendour of this kind before. Other interiors came into my mind as I stood there, to compare it with: Versailles, or the porcelain rooms at Schönbrunn, or the Doge's Palace, or St Peter's. All are rich; but none so rich. Their richness is three-dimensional; it is attended by all the effort of shadow: In the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah, it is a richness of light and surface, of pattern and colour only. The architectural form is unimportant. It is not smothered, as in rococo; it is simply the instrument of a spectacle, as earth is the instrument of a garden. And then I suddenly thought of that unfortunate species, modern interior decorators, who imagine they can make a restaurant, or a cinema, or a plutocrat's drawing-room look rich if given money enough for gold leaf and looking-glass. They little know what amateurs they are. Nor, alas, do their clients”

Byron was a fairly typical product of the English public school system. A snob and an aesthete with some strong opinions; he hated western art and was a champion of El Greco and he once famously described Shakespeare’s plays as “exactly the sort of thing a grocer would write”. Byron survived the era of the Bright Young Things and grew up to oppose Nazism and fascism. Having been a good friend of Evelyn Waugh, they became estranged. On Byron’s death in 1941 (he was on a boat that was torpedoed) Waugh said;

"It is not yet the time to say so but I greatly disliked Robert in his last years & think he was a dangerous lunatic better off dead."

Byron was a little too left leaning for Waugh.

Byron is a relatively detached narrator who mostly ignores the obvious dangers his party were often in and there is an amused acceptance of the hardships. His writing about architecture appears to be first rate, but he is not a good observer of people and nor does he appear very interested in them. There is the arrogance of the travelling Englishman who is apt to treat anyone as a servant.

There are some quirks in the book. It is in diary form and there were sensitivities about talking about the Shah in Iran and so he is referred to as Marjoribanks throughout. There was a poignancy in the travels in Afghanistan as the names mentioned are well known names in today’s context, for very different reasons.  This is a very male book. The women are anonymous and absent. It is also possible to see the fault lines that are much sharper today and of course it is illuminated by western arrogance. Byron was an Eton and Oxford man; as is our current prime minister. Byron’s ideas come from Spengler and Clive Bell and if you want to read a travel book from the 1930s then read Patrick Leigh Fermor. However Byron does write about Islamic architecture very well, at a time when it was not fashionable to do so   

5 out of 10

Starting Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

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Borrowed Body by Valerie Mason-John

 

This is Valerie Mason-John’s debut novel and a remarkable one it is. The summing up on the back says;

I could have been born and raised in Africa. But my spirit was in too much of a rush to be reincarnated... At six weeks I was chucked out into the new year of 1965 which wasn't prepared to welcome an African baby, abandoned on a harsh English winter's day”.

As Bonnie Greer says in her review this is about growing up black and female in the care system. Pauline Charles is a child of Nigerian descent growing up in foster homes, children’s homes, a brief time with her mother and then more restrictive placements, living on the street and finally borstal. This is biographical and Mason-John was brought up in the care system. She has had quite a varied career covering being a performance poet, acting, journalism (for The Guardian, Feminist News, the Pink Paper to name a few), an artist in residence, playwright, artistic director of the London Mardi Gras, director of Pride Arts Festival and there is much more. In 1997 she was named Britain’s Black Gay Icon.

This book is in turn moving, funny, shocking, heart rending and always extraordinary. It is ultimately about surviving against the odds and in the face of abuse, humiliation and horrendous attempts at parenting. There is a little magic realism (as I would interpret it); Pauline has imaginary friends/entities/spirits she communicates with/relates to. There is Sparky, Annabel (a child who Pauline knew who died) and The Snake (an angry spirit who died too young). They help Pauline cope with and understand the world, but sometimes get her into trouble. I interpreted these as being a form of transitional object. Many children have cuddly toys or comfort objects through which they interpret and react to the world (mine was a teddy bear which I still have); Pauline’s transitional objects did not have physical substance.

The first part of the book deals with Pauline’s time in Dr Barnardo’s Homes, form about four to twelve. The fact that the time at Barnardo’s can be seen as a good time despite incidents of racism (mainly at school and in the community) and variable and sometimes eccentric attempts at parenting, illustrates how desperate band difficult the rest of Pauline’s childhood was.

At the age of 12 Pauline is sent to live with her mother in London and here the descriptions of physical abuse become very difficult to read. Pauline has become too English in her accent and her mother’s remedy is physical violence. Pauline also has to avoid children of West Indian origin at school and gets a number of beatings as a result of making the wrong sort of friends. Eventually even the rather slow and unresponsive authorities of the 1970s notice how regularly and severely Pauline is being beaten by her mother that they remove her. There is an attempt to return Pauline to a children’s home but she is now too damaged and out of control and there are a series of placements interspersed with periods living on the street with all that went with it. Eventually Pauline is arrested for shoplifting and ends up in a borstal and this takes up the last part of the book.

Throughout all this we have Pauline’s voice which is clear and brave with no self-pity. You can see her almost reaching out to well-meaning professionals, but realising they really have nothing to offer her and if she is going to survive she is going to have to find the resources within herself.

I am very surprised that this novel is not better known and more widely read, because it really should be.

9 and a half out of 10

 

Starting Strange Music by Laura Fish

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The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera

 

This is the first work I have read by Yvonne Vera; indeed I had barely heard of her. I periodically look at the list of writers on the British Council website;

https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writers/

and I found Vera on here and decided read some of her work. I’m glad I did because this is a remarkable book. The prose is so lush and poetic and so very powerful. What makes the work even more powerful and chilling is that it is based on actual events. Vera was Zimbabwean and she has chosen to focus on the power struggle post-independence between the forces of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe’s forces were operating in the Matabeleland area. Many thousands of people died (probably over 20,000), many of them women. Vera choses to tell the story through the lives of two women, sisters, who were victims of the violence; one of whom survives. A certain level of knowledge of historical events is assumed, but even without it the novel is still coherent. Vera faces the most difficult subjects head on using a poetic and modernist approach. This doesn’t make the violence any less shocking, but the structure of the novel around it makes the impact very different to graphic violence written in a different way.

The first section of the book is about the lead up to independence and sets a sense of place as Vera carefully describes Bulawayo. The sense of place is very strong and the characters in the novel are really secondary to the nation itself and Vera’s critique. The pace of the novel is slow and is reminiscent of stream of consciousness; but its roots are in African, not western culture. The second and main part of the novel tells the story of Thenjiwe and Nonceba; the death of one and the rape and mutilation of the other. Nonceba survives;

 

She holds on. Has she lived before this moment of urgency and despair? Is there something whispered before a cataclysmic earthquake, sleep, before a frightful awakening to death? Is life not lived backwards, in flashes, in spasm of hopeless regret?”

 

What Vera does as well is to take the reader into the mind of the killer to show his thoughts and reasons; to ask why a young idealistic university student should do this. Writing about this sort of horror runs the risk of making the violence too central or too acceptable; but Vera manages this my minimizing the factual and the realist and the history is engaged in a different way. It is an examination of male violence and perhaps poses the question of why men have taken on the attributes of their former colonial oppressors rather than finding a new way. The woman’s perspective and voice is central to the novel. But there is hope in the last section of the book as Nonceba recovers and a male character enters the novel and provides a different and more redemptive perspective for the future. Vera constructs a powerful argument about turning an honest gaze on her country’s history and the reasons for what happened.  Again a novel which ought to be better known and really should be part of the canon.

9 out of 10

Starting Conrad's Congo edited by J H Stape

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Conrad's Congo edited by J H Stape

 

I’ve decided to re-read Heart of Darkness this year, but not to read it as a stand alone or in a vacuum. Firstly I’m going to read some contemporary material, from Conrad himself and from Henry Stanley. I also intend to read Chinua Achebe’s critique of Heart of Darkness. This book is a collection of writings and letters relating to Conrad’s own trip down the Congo in 1890.

It contains letters to family and friends relating to the trip and some family matters. There are later letters relating to his trip and his writing about the Congo; most interesting are some letters to Roger Casement concerning his ground-breaking report on conditions in the Congo. Casement, before the English hung him for treason in 1916 (for supporting and working for Irish independence) spent time as a diplomat and consul and did a good deal of work to expose colonial abuses. One thing Conrad recalls about Casement is him walking about in the jungle in a white linen jacket and white tennis shoes and a walking stick; one of the few Europeans to travel unarmed. There is Conrad’s Congo diary and his up-river book. The latter is a technical diary about how to navigate the Congo River and might be interesting if you know how to pilot a river steamer. There is also an early short story set in the area called “An Outpost of Progress”

In an Appendix there are recollections of Conrad by some of those who knew him. The most interesting part of the collection is the final Appendix which contains information from Roger Casement’s 1903 report on conditions in the Congo. Conrad had met Casement during his time in the Congo and they shared a room for a brief period.

The last part of the nineteenth century saw colonialism concentrate on the African continent and there was a scramble to claim territory. The Belgian King, Leopold, decided he needed to be part of this and claimed a very large tract of land around the Congo River (it was more complex than that) and instead of it becoming a colony of Belgium, it was his own personal possession, a fiefdom to exploit for rubber and ivory. Casement’s report, which foreshadows much of today’s reportage outlines some of the types and nature of what occurred and what can only be called genocide. Casement estimates that over three million people were victims of Leopold’s regime; it is likely to have been many more.

Conrad is rather elusive, even his biographer admits this. It must be remembered that English was Conrad’s third language and he himself was an orphan. He felt he had been adopted by English and had found a home in the British merchant navy. It is clear that a sense of belonging was important to him and he developed an attachment for which he seems to have been seeking.

Conrad was profoundly affected by his time in the Congo and he later referred to the scramble for Africa as;

“the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”

He saw the brutality of Leopold’s regime and decided not to see out his full contract, leaving the Congo disillusioned and with malaria. This is the background to the writing of Heart of Darkness. However what becomes clear reading this is that Conrad was critical of colonialism as he saw it in the Congo, not of colonialism per se. He felt the British did it better and more humanely (oh dear).

Bertrand Russell made a perceptive comment about Conrad. Russell felt that Heart of Darkness reflected Conrad’s philosophy of life;

“he thought of civilised and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths. He was very conscious of the various forms of passionate madness to which men are prone, and it was this that gave him such a profound belief in the importance of discipline… subduing wayward impulse to dominant purpose.”

Russell is a more dispassionate observer, coming for a very different part of the political spectrum to Conrad.

This is a diverse and variable collection, very much rescued by Roger Casement’s report, but what does become clear is that Conrad’s experiences in the Congo had a profound effect on him. However he perceived the problem to be with the way colonialism was done rather than arguing colonialism was the problem.

6 out of 10

 

Starting Into the Dark Continent by Henry Morton Stanley

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Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

This is a delightful and quirky play with a variety of myths and tropes. Primarily the Bluebeard myth; which is, as the Guardian review reminds us is “the usual – wooing, seduction, then – the discovery of a chopped-up predecessor". There is a fairy tale element running through; the main antagonist is writer St John Fox (Reynard the Fox runs through fairy tales going back for centuries).

The novel is set in the 1930s and St John Fox is a novelist whose novels usually end in the main female character dying horribly. In the trenches in the first war he dreamt up a muse, Mary Foxe. This muse has begun to take substance and has begun to critique his writing and tries to push him into writing a different way. Then there is Fox’s longsuffering wife Daphne. Fox has his approach to her thought out;

“I fixed her early. I told her in heartfelt tones that one of the reasons I love her is because she never complains. So now of course she doesn't dare complain.”

Fox is an unpleasant character, but we do hear the voices of the two women in his life as well and interspersed are stories of a very varied nature; fables metafictions, impressions with nods to Poe, Dickinson and traditional fairy tales. All these combine to take a closer look at relations between men and women. Some are very funny; Madame Silentio’s academy which turns the finishing school idea on its head by taking “delinquent ruffians” and turning them into “world class husbands”. An eccentric curriculum includes:

“Strong Handshakes, Silence, Rudimentary Car Mechanics, How to Mow the Lawn, Explosive Displays of Authority, Sport and Nutrition Against Impotence”.

As Mary Foxe, the muse becomes ever more real, she also becomes more independent and strikes up a friendship with Daphne, encouraging Daphne to try writing. The tables are gradually turning and Oyeyemi in an interview about her book recalls Muriel Spark’s quote;

“She wasn’t a person to whom things happen. She did all the happenings”.

She is also very clear about why she is exploring the Bluebeard story;

“Women are constantly being killed by their husbands, lovers, brothers, and fathers—it’s reported every day, and in a way, the frequency of the reporting normalizes the murders. Terror and anger and helplessness come when I think of all that goes unreported, either because it’s not known to the media or because it isn’t quite murder yet. When I first started writing Mr. Fox I was interested in something that’s coded into the way these stories are reported: the ever-present potential for violence that seems to lurk within the love men have for women. Is it real? If so, how can we survive it? Can the violence be overcome once and for all, or is it something that dies down and has to be renegotiated every time it flares back up again?”

Oyeyemi fulfils her purpose using magic realism and magic tales set firmly within a real landscape interwoven with stories to illustrate the points she has to make. This isn’t linear and the whole is a little like finding your way through a maze. It’s well written and funny, in a serious sort of way and Oyeyemi makes her points with a lightness of touch and with great perception. This is well worth reading.

9 out of 10

Starting We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

 

This ought not to work on a number of levels and ought not to be as good as it is. A historical novel about the Romans (there is so much temptation to go into Life of Brian mode at this point), indeed about one of their emperors. Hadrian dominated Marguerite Yourcenar’s life for many years with rewrites, abandonments, acres of notes and thoughts, and an immense amount of research (including travel to places Hadrian had been). The novel is in the form of a letter from Hadrian to his adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius. It is in the first person. Hadrian is in his final illness and is looking back over his life. If you are looking for snappy dialogue then this is not the book for you, nor is there any “action”. It is a series of musings, reflections, philosophizing and making comment as Hadrian works through his life.

The novel is essentially interior and Yourcenar does say why she selected this particular interior to focus on. It stems from a quote she found by Flaubert;

“Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone”

This seems to have been the attraction of Hadrian. The novel was published in 1951 and there may also be some connection between the post Second World War situation and Hadrian’s time.

Hadrian’s musings are wide ranging and cover love (especially Antinous his teenage lover), administration (managing and empire), war, religion, philosophy (especially Greek), food, marriage, pastimes (hunting et al), politics, friends and enemies, travel and much more. Hadrian is a great liker of things and generally quite positive, not afraid to compromise to get things done.

Yourcenar puts into Hadrian’s mouth all sorts of aphorisms and wise words. For example;

"Men adore and venerate me far too much to love me,"

"Meditation upon death does not teach one how to die."

“Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.”

“I am not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry.”

“The technique of a great seducer requires a facility and an indifference in passing from one object of affection to another which I could never have; however that may be, my loves have left me more often than I have left them, for I have never been able to understand how one could have enough of any beloved. The desire to count up exactly the riches which each new love brings us, and to see it change, and perhaps watch it grow old, accords ill with multiplicity of conquests.”

 

There are dozens more like that, usually making the book a joy to read, occasionally irritating or provoking. You can tell this novel has really been polished and honed, worked on over and over again.

This is so good a novel that it is easy to forget this isn’t real history. Mary Beard’s Guardian article explodes some of those myths;

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jul/19/history

This is fiction, but its great stuff and a great novel. I am also interested in reading more by Yourcenar, her life was also very interesting.

9 out of 10

Starting The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

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Thank you Little Pixie

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

 

This is the first work I have read by Willa Cather and it is a historical novel set in Quebec in 1687-8. It is told from the point of view of 12 year old Cecile Auclair and her father Euclid, an apothecary. It covers one year in the life of the city with an epilogue set 15 years later to tie up loose ends. Cecile’s mother has died two years previously and she now looks assists her father and keeps house. Euclid serves the aging Count and has followed him to Canada. The Catholic Church dominates the story and the structure of the year with a plethora of nuns, priests, bishops and stories of saints and martyrdom. There is no real plotline and the novel drifts along gently. The descriptive passages about the weather and the changing of the seasons are well written and easy to read.

Willa Cather herself is a bit of an enigma; she seems very conservative and traditional, in politics and writing; influenced by James, Dickens, Balzac, Flaubert, Thackeray et al and appearing to be somewhat critical of women writers. Yet all her significant relationships (apart from her brothers) were with women and she lived with the editor Edith Lewis from 1908 until her death in 1947. There has been debate about her sexual identity and sexuality with opposing scholarly camps seeing her work with entirely different lens.

The novel has some interesting points. Cather wrote this not long after the death of the father and the centre of the novel is the relationship between Cecile and her father, which is one of great respect. For an seventeenth century father Euclid is rather enlightened; tolerant of his daughter’s religious thoughts and expressions, adding a mildly sceptical note and pushing her to ask questions. Another theme is the idea of the civilising effect of the Catholic Church (this is not so long after the excesses of the Inquisition) and the Native American tribes are portrayed as savage and in need of the civilising influence of the Church.

In the midst of this there are also some strong female characters, especially some of the nuns who are far more formidable that most of the male characters and it is possible that Cather is seeing the Catholic Church as a female entity and there is a bringing of old gods to new places. Thrown into the mix is the character of the trapper Pierre Charron. It is certainly no coincidence that he shares a name with the sixteenth century French philosopher and friend of Montaigne. This Charron comes from a humanist and sceptical tradition.

If this review feels a little contradictory, it is because that is how I feel about the book. The writing and description is good and the portrayal of the everyday life of ordinary people is very perceptive, especially in relation to the minutiae. Yet there is a complete acceptance that Catholic culture should be the dominant culture and is a civilising culture; even if there is an a gentle questioning of that culture. I think I need to read more Cather and this may not have been a good place to start.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hossain

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The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

 

Quite an oddity for Eliot; a novella that can be read in one sitting and a first person narrator. It also has a distinct gothic edge and feels in the tradition of Mary Shelley and Poe. The themes are not so much supernatural as pseudo-scientific. It concerns the narrator Latimer who believes himself to have extra sensory powers; the ability to see the future and read the thoughts of others. There’s also a spot of mesmerism and the idea that a blood transfusion on death may temporarily raise someone from the dead (you can always practice this sort of thing on the family servants).

The narrator Latimer is certainly and unreliable narrator one feels. His seeming ability to forsee scenes and see thoughts start in his teenage years and is something he keeps quiet. He becomes fascinated by Bertha, his brother’s fiancée. He has a premonition of them marrying and being unhappy (to say more would invite spoilers). Latimer’s brother dies very suddenly, and indeed he marries Bertha.

What is consistent with Eliot’s other works is the importance of morality. If we were able to see into the hearts of others we would be horrified. The plot devices allow Eliot to explore a deep cynicism about human nature and it is rather gloomy. Latimer’s gifts are really a curse and there is a strong misanthropic element in his character. I think Eliot is playing with plot devices; Latimer has no choice but to be an omniscient narrator as the author gives him the ability to see the future and the thoughts of others. The title is interesting and the obvious conclusion is that it could be the veil between life and death or the veil between one consciousness and another; but this quote is illuminative as Latimer describes his vision of a Bridge in Prague, a city he has not yet visited;

“I could not believe that I had been asleep, for I remembered distinctly the gradual breaking in of the vision upon me, like the new images in a dissolving view, or the growing distinction of the landscape as the sun lifts up the veil of the morning mist.”

Latimer had hoped his abilities would be the birth of a poetic sense, he was disappointed and he struggles to cope with his abilities. There is a deep narcissism in Latimer and there is no altruism. It is all about using the gift to find out what others think of him and seeing himself mirrored in others. It doesn’t occur to him to use the gift for the good of others. This may also be Eliot’s reflections on the Victorian Spiritualist phase which she had some interest in. It is also interesting to note that Latimer is described as weak and sickly and he is mostly reactive rather than proactive; Eliot places him in what would have been a traditionally female role in Victorian fiction.

All in all it is an oddity, but I enjoyed it and although the tale is rather bleak, I do think Eliot is having a little fun with the institution of marriage. It is worth looking out for and won’t take up much of your time.

 

7 out of 10

Starting Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover

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Spanking the maid by Robert Coover

This is my third Coover. I enjoyed Noir, I thought Briar Rose was a little limited in its scope and lacked imagination; but what to make of this one. For once the title does say it all and this is a very claustrophobic novella. It is set in two rooms, the bedroom and bathroom. There is a garden with doors from the bedroom opening out onto it, but the characters don’t go there. There are only two characters. Neither characters are named, there is the maid who is female and the master who is male. One assumes the rooms belong to the master, but it is an assumption, for all we know it could be a hotel. The timescale is always morning/afternoon; we never see any other time of day. The maid is there to clean the rooms, she has a uniform and the tools of the trade (mop, bucket, duster, cleaning products etc.). The master is usually in bed, or getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. Something is always wrong with the maid’s work or with her appearance. The towels are damp, the bed not properly made, something gets broken; always something is wrong. This is inevitable. Even when the maid makes the bed, the sheets become rumpled and unmade; her uniform goes awry in some way, things seem to break on their own. There is always something odd or unusual in the bed in the morning as the maid draws the covers back; broken glass, assorted articles of clothing, a frog (I kid you not); something designed to startle and make the maid scream. There is always the inevitable punishment, as per the title and the master makes use of a wide variety of implements. The punishments are always brutal and seemingly out of proportion to the office. The descriptions of the punishments are comic book almost straight from the 1960s batman TV series.

So, what is it all about? I have read that it is a parody of nineteenth century pornography. The amount I know about nineteenth century pornography could be written on the back of a small postage stamp, but I think not; it isn’t the least erotic. When the master does have an erection, Coover is scathing about it and it disappears very quickly. In fact the whole is boring and repetitive. It isn’t really a parody of bdsm either. Neither side enjoys the rituals. The master seems to hate/get tired of what he has to do and the maids hates it as well. There is a compulsion that drives them both and it has nothing to do with enjoyment. Presumably the master could hire a more efficient maid and the maid find a better job, but they are bound together and neither can escape. The whole is also bound by the master’s manuals. There is a manual for the cleaning and manuals for the corporal punishment and for all the implements the master uses and he is bound by the manuals; the rules.

The problem is you can do a lot with this. A Marxist perspective could be applied whereby the master/maid relationship can be seen as a class relationship of exploitation of the means of production. From a feminist perspective the maid symbolises all exploited and abused women. The abuser is as trapped as the abused but holds onto the power in the relationship. Jenny Diski made the link between the type of relationship portrayed here and a real life one. Betty Maxwell wrote a book about her husband, the late media mogul Robert Maxwell and said this about his attitude to her;

He would constantly revert to the same old theme – that I did not look after his material needs to a standard he considered acceptable and was therefore incapable of ensuring his happiness. Sometimes there would be a button missing on a shirt, or I would forget his evening shirt studs or black tie when I packed his bag. He would complain that his cupboards were not impeccably tidy or that I hadn’t got his summer clothes out early enough ... What he wanted me to do was ‘assist, bolster and serve him and the children”

That struck me as exactly the kind of relationship Coover creates here.

There are obvious questions about the nature of transgressions and guilt and as one reviewer asks “Whose obsession is this?” Not the maid’s or master’s certainly; the author, possibly; but then there is a lack of imagination (deliberate?) in the “action”.  Some reviewers bring Barthes, Lacan and the nature of language and communication. It must also be said that some reviewers have done the same for Winnie the Pooh. Justifiably? Who knows?

Like Briar Rose this is a writing and rewriting of the same scene over and over again. It is narrow and limited and rather boring if it is taken just as a parody of a genre; not to mention the objectification of women. The question then seems to be; is it a metaphor for something else? A critique of class relationships, of gender relations; a philosophical, even Lacanian look at human relations?

Well, for me the jury is out. It may just be a clumsy parody. It’s certainly well written, but not a great deal of fun. Coover is a bright chap, so there may be a lot more to it than the surface appearance (there are some sly allusions to fairy tales and Greek myths). As for me; I’m still to be convinced by Coover.

 

5 and a half out of 10

Starting Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood

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Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood

 

A brief novella with no chapters published in 1945; Isherwood is as good as ever. It is autobiographical and the main character is called Christopher Isherwood. It describes Isherwood’s time as a screenwriter on the film Little Friend in 1934. The central character is a film director Friedrich Bergmann (based on Berthold Viertel). It is set at the time of the rise of Nazism, just before the Anschluss; Bergmann is an Austrian Jew. It is a satire of the film industry, but it also depicts a time and place and captures the general indifference to the rise of Nazism. Isherwood explores the tension between creative artists and the insidiousness of commerce.

Friedrich Bergmann is the stand out character, dominating the novella, a typical demanding and outrageous director; often self-important and unpredictable, but also charming and generous. Bergmann’s family are in Austria and this adds to the tension. The ongoing human tendency to avoid reality is at the centre. But for Isherwood the future was clear:

“Like all my friends I believed a European war was coming soon. I believed as one believes one will die … It was unreal because I couldn’t imagine anything beyond it; I refused to imagine anything: just as a spectator refuse to imagine what is behind the scenery in the theatre, The outbreak of war, like the moment of death crossed my perspective of the future like a wall; it marked the instant, total end of my imagined world.”

Isherwood’s description of life in a film studio is also telling;

"It will interest you, as a phenomenon. You see, the film studio of today is really the palace of the sixteenth century. There one sees what Shakespeare saw: the absolute power of the tyrant, the courtiers, the flatterers, the jesters, the cunningly ambitious intriguers. There are fantastically beautiful women, there are incompetent favourites. There are great men who are suddenly disgraced. There is a most insane extravagance, and unexpected parsimony over a few pence. There is enormous splendour, which is a sham; and also horrible squalor hidden behind the scenery. There are vast schemes, abandoned because of some caprice. There are secrets which everybody knows and no one speaks of. There are even one or two honest advisers. These are the court fools, who speak the deepest wisdom in puns, lest they should be taken seriously. They grimace, and tear their hair privately and weep."

The novel drifts along at a good pace, very enjoyable until the last ten pages and they are brilliant; Isherwood at his best. There is a coded description of his love life and then there is this;

"There is one question that we seldom ask each other directly: it is too brutal. And yet it is the only question worth asking our fellow-travellers. What makes you go on living? Why don't you kill yourself? Why is all this bearable? What makes you bear it?
Could I answer that question about myself? No. Yes. Perhaps ... I supposed, vaguely, that it was a kind of balance, a complex of tensions.”

This is a little gem of a novel.

 

9 out of 10

Starting The Temple by Stephen Spender
 

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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

I had read mixed reviews of this novel with comments focussing on it being disjointed or running through a ticklist of African problems to squeeze in them all. Some have taken issues with the first half of the book, some with the second half.

It is the story of Darling; she is born in Zimbabwe and in the first part of the book she is ten years old. Darling and her gang of friends Chipo, Godknows, 'person of dubious parentage', Stina and Sbho, do pretty much what children left to their own devices will do in terms of games, adventures and getting into trouble. They live in a shanty town called Paradise and each day has its own particular adventures. They often venture into the wealthy white area to steal guava and enjoy a transient sense of importance. They all dream of a different life, some at home, and some in other places like the US. The second half of the book follows Darling as she moves to live with her aunt in Detroit, Michigan or Destroyedmichygen as she calls it. We follow her as she grows up and moves on to more adolescent adventures.

It has taken me a while to pin down what I think of the novel. The writing is unusual and idiosyncratic; English is not Bulawayo’s first language. This, I think, means she takes some liberties with the language and takes it to some different places. This is refreshing. The novel describes difficult experiences, but there is an honesty and humour about it which carries it along.

The chapters take snapshots of events, which has led to accusations of disjointedness; I didn’t find this a problem and for me the book flowed well and was easy to read. There were little niggles but not the major problems I was expecting form some of the reviews.

Bulawayo describes very well Darling’s growing sense of disillusion and alienation as a migrant in America. There is a brilliant chapter towards the end of the book entitled “How they lived” which describes the migrant experience in a heartfelt and angry way which really hits home. I have seen reviews which describe the novel as nihilistic; I really don’t get that at all. It describes poverty and alienation. It moves from Zimbabwe where conditions were difficult and there was great poverty, but Darling and her friends seemed full of life and often joy, to the US where there is much greater material wealth, but it is not home. Home is an important concept as Bulawayo explains;

“There are three homes inside Mother’s and Aunt Fostalina’s heads: home before independence, before I was born, when black people and white people were fighting over the country. Home after independence, when black people won the country. And then the home of things falling apart, which made Aunt Fostalina leave and come here. Home one, home two, and home three. There are four homes inside Mother of Bones’ head: home before the white people came to steal the country, and a king ruled; home when the white people came to steal the country and then there was war; home when black people got our stolen country back after independence; and then the home of now. Home one, home two, home three, home four. When somebody talks about home, you have to listen carefully so you know exactly which one the person is referring to.”

If you want to read a more interesting and balanced review than those you will find in the western literary press read the one by Nkiacha Atemnkeng. I have attempted a link here;

http://munyori.org/essays/nkiacha-atemnkeng-on-we-need-new-names/

The book portrays through the eyes of a child/adolescent the effects of Imperialism and colonialism and highlights the difficulties of the migrant experience. It is also a simple human/family story of how life goes on in the face of different types of adversity and oppression. I found it refreshing and thought provoking.

8 out of 10

 

Starting The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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Strange Music by Laura Fish

 

A bit of background helps with this novel. It is a historical novel set in 1837 to 1840 and moving between England and Jamaica. It is the story of three women. One of these is the poet Elizabeth Barrett. Her family made all their wealth from sugar plantations and the ownership of slaves and had lost a good deal of money following the abolition of slavery in the Empire in 1833. Barrett herself was a confirmed abolitionist, which led to strains with her family, especially her dictatorial father who eventually disinherited her. Another of the strands involves Sheba, a black plantation worker whose lover is murdered by and overseer; she is raped by an overseer and is pregnant as a result. Kaydia is a maid at the Cinnamon Hill estate owned by the Barrett’s. She is trying to protect her daughter Mary Ann from the predatory attentions of Elizabeth’s Brother Sam. Years of rum and debauchery are catching up with Sam and he is slowly dying.

Fish’s fascination with Elizabeth Barrett is an interesting one. She was born in England to Caribbean parents and adopted. When, years later she sought her biological parents, she found her father in Jamaica, living in a house previously owned by the Barretts and still containing their possessions and papers. The starting point and pivot of the novel is Barrett’s poem “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”. The poem is told from the point of view of a plantation slave who is raped by plantation overseers. She gives birth to a child who reminds the mother of the men who raped her and she kills the child.

There have been a number of negative reviews of the novel. This negativity seems to stem from difficulties reading/understanding the novel. It is true that the author does demand some alertness and thought from the readers. The chapters which move between the three main characters are not always time consecutive. Two of the characters use dialect and concentration is required to follow the narrative. This isn’t a reason for criticism, it means the reader has to concentrate and think; no bad thing.

This is a novel which does examine black women’s experiences of slavery and Fish’s second starting point for the novel is another poem; Easton Lee’s “Strategy” where an older slave woman advises a young female slave to have a child with a white man as a means of obtaining power and security.

Each of the women in the novel are trapped in a different way. Barrett is suffering from ill-health and suffering more from the attentions of her doctors, whose idea of medicinal treatment seems more like refined torture and she is banned from writing poetry (versifying) because it is bad for her and stirs the emotions too much. She is also trapped by her tyrannical father. Sheba has lost her lover Isaac and is trapped in the plantation system and her pregnancy means difficult times are ahead. Kaydia desperately tries (and fails) to protect her daughter from Sam Barrett and goes as far as to offer herself as a substitute; by the time of Sam’s death she is pregnant with his child. The other men in her life inevitably blame her rather than Sam or the system of oppression they are trapped in.

As you may have guessed the novel of wreathed in tragedy and despair and paints a powerful picture of the life of the three women. Sam, the brutal manager and philanderer, behaves impeccably when he is back in England. Barrett is horrified as she begins to understand how the men in her family behave in Jamaica and struggles to fit this into her world view.

This is a really powerful and hard hitting novel about slavery and its effects, illustrating how the pernicious effects it had did not just end with its abolition. There is a deep tragedy and poetry in the writing which rewards those prepared to persevere.

8 out of 10

 

Starting Orange Laughter by Leone Ross

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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