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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

Books do Furnish a Room's Book Blog 2017

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To The River by Olivia Laing

This is the story of the River Ouse in Sussex and the story of a week during which Laing walked the length of the river at midsummer. This, of course is the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself. The walk was prompted by the end of a relationship and a general feeling that rivers gave a sense of direction to those who have "lost faith with where they're headed". The Ouse is not a long river, only 42 miles, and Laing is able to feel generally unhurried as she sets aside a week to complete the journey. Laing enjoys the solitude and chance for reflection and examines the way history and landscape interlink. It also gives Laing reason to follow all sorts of literary, historical and natural leads. That is what makes this book so delightful.

Woolf is obviously a central figure and there is some interesting discussion of Between the Acts as well as a look at her life with Leonard Woolf and her death. Other forays include classical mythology, Bede’s Sparrow, nineteenth century dinosaur hunters, Piltdown man, Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows), Iris Murdoch, a discussion of the various meanings of the word incapable in Gertrude’s description of the drowned Ophelia, the history of the Battle of Lewes in 1264 with discussions about Simon de Montfort and the current location of the armour and bodies, the annul migration of the wheatear and how it ended up in many nineteenth century pies, passages on floods and flooding and a discussion of the architecture of Hades; and much more, all linked together by the Ouse and by Laing’s passionate flights of intuition and inquisitiveness. “How strangely we spend our lives” Laing remarks and affirms Woolf’s comment about the Ouse valley, “this has holiness. This will go on after I am dead.”

Laing talks about her own history a little, about her parents and her recent break up (including the priceless throwaway comment, “For Christmas, Matthew had given me a Hoover”). But mostly we experience her journey and learn a great deal about the Ouse. Laing enjoys her solitude on the walk and sometimes other humans are an irritation. Laing has a sense of humour; encountering a group and loud and rather crass drinkers in a pub, she notes;

“After supper I walked out into the churchyard where Edward Gibbon was buried, who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and died nearby of peritonitis after an operation to drain the massive inflammation of his testicles went wrong and poisoned his blood. In my head the woman’s voice translated: he had fudgeing big rubbish. It was an English voice and it had been going on forever: parochial and incensed, intent on cutting everything down to size.”

Laing is aware of her own frailties and inconsistencies and approaches moments that might have brought forth something Keatsian and poetic in a rather different way;

“..a whole Greek chorus of tits exchanging apprehension and admonition. I could hear them perfectly, but apart from the chaffinch I couldn’t see a bloody thing. After straining through binoculars for twenty minutes I became petulant”

Then a very human reaction to losing the path;

“I burst out, sweating, onto the marsh, but my relief didn’t last a minute. It wasn’t the path I wanted, not at all….I pulled off my rucksack and kicked it.”

And yet Laing can write beautifully and is an accomplished wordsmith, speaking of kestrels “pinned to the sky” and dragonflies “the size of kitchen matches”. The fate of a particular wood pigeon sparks this reverie;

“The present, the present. It never stops, no matter how weary you get. It comes unstintingly, as a river does, and if you aren’t careful, you’ll be swept off your feet. I should have warned the woodpigeon.”

It also links in to Laing’s own experience of depression and makes the book profound in often unexpected ways. As you can tell I liked this book.

 9 out of 10

Starting Blood on the Dining Room Floor by Gertrude Stein

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Show me a Mountain by Kerry Young

This is the third of Kerry Young’s trilogy about Jamaica; the first two being Pao and Gloria. This novel focuses on Fay Wong, Pao’s wife. She has a Chinese father and a mother of African heritage. Fay grows up in the 1930s in a relatively privileged family, but suffering significant abuse from her mother, their volatile relationship continuing throughout the book. You might think that reading the same story from three different perspectives might become repetitive. However it doesn’t and the different perspectives add a depth and richness to the overall story and the history of Jamaica in this period. Show me a Mountain continues some of the themes of the earlier books; sexuality, gender, class and race. It also looks at family history and whether cycles of abuse and family histories have to be repeated.

We see very little of Pao himself in this novel, despite his arranged marriage to Fay and get to know other characters who play much more minor roles. An interesting point about this novel is that it ends when Fay leaves for England, much earlier than the other two novels and we learn nothing of Fay’s life in England. This is fair enough as the focus is Jamaica, but some hints would have been interesting. The development of the three main characters in interesting and obviously the rather negative picture of Fay in the first novel is much changed by the end of this one. Human relationships are complex and each of the novels add layers of complexity which enables the reader to see the positives and negatives in each character.

There is a bit more detail about the structure of the British colonial state and its attempts to control the population. Fay herself is a very different character to Pao and Gloria, she goes a minimal amount of work and spends a good deal of time seeming to get others into trouble; her faults are clear and obvious. Gloria, for me is the strongest character in the trilogy and I think the strongest book. This still does portray an aspect of Jamaican history and taken as a whole the three novels paint a very vivid picture of Jamaica from the 1930s to the 1960s.

7 out of 10

Starting The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

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The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang

Not the sort of thing I usually read, this is a parable/fable which can easily be read by adults or children with line drawings between each chapter. It is the story of a battery hen who has named herself Sprout who dreams of being free and being able to actually hatch an egg of her own. She looks out of her cage enviously at the animals who are free in the farmyard. Events combine so that Sprout does escape. She is not accepted in the hierarchical world of the farmyard because of where she has come from, although one of the male, ducks, called Straggler, does speak not her. He is also an outsider. Not being in the farmyard leaves her in danger from the main predator in the area, a weasel.

Straggler and another duck produce an egg away from the farmyard, but Straggler’s mate is taken by the weasel. Sprout sits on the egg until it hatches, during which time Straggler is also taken by the weasel. Sprout is left to bring up a duckling alone with opposition from the animals in the farmyard and the ducks on the reservoir and Sprout’s struggles with the weasel, the weather and with bringing up a duckling make up the rest of the book.

Of course this works on a number of levels and a great deal could be read into it. One of my GR friends Richard has referred to it as Jonathon Livingston Seagull meets Babe (wish I’d thought of that!). The whole covers racism, liberation, bullying, friendship, marginality (almost reminding me of Wacquant here), parenting (not biologically determined) and struggle. I did have some concern that the message was that Sprout could only be fulfilled through motherhood, but I think there is much more to the tale than this. Sprout isn’t a biological mother; she rears a duckling not a chick and the messages are obvious and very apt for a divided and hierarchical society like the one I live in. It works as a simple fable as well and Sun-Mi Hwang has written something that will capture imaginations of adults and children alike.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka

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Blood in the Dining Room Floor by Gertrude Stein

This is Gertrude Stein’s foray into detective novels; written not long after her success with The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas and at a time when she was suffering with writers block (written about 1934 it wasn’t published until 1948). It is an experimental novel and it is quite apt that the virago edition I have has a Picasso painting on the front. It is a cubist painting and Stein was interested in cubism and this is also her attempt at a cubist novel. Modernism does not sit easily with the formulaic nature of traditional detective novels, but the often fragmentary nature of information in a detective novel does give a modernist author some scope for having fun.

Don’t expect clear characters, an obvious crime and any sort of plot; do expect sentences like the following:

“A little come they which they can they will they can be married to a man, a young enough man an old man and a young enough man.”

And

“This much I know that willing to sleep willing to make willing to see water may make a chain may make a lane between which they will not falter. But just when.”

It is set in France and Stein drew on events that had happened in the village she was living in at the time. It draws on reflections and snippets of gossip and fragments of thought. It has been suggested it should be read twice. I read some of it out loud and that seemed to help! It is useful to remember that Stein refers to characters in a generic way as male, female, sister, brother, gardener and so on. But the setting, the country rather than the city is important:

“They said nothing happens in the country but there are more changes in a family in the country in five years than in a family in the city and this is natural. If nothing changed in the country there could not be butter and eggs. There have to be changes in the country, there had to be breaking up of families and killing of dogs and spoiling of sons and losing of daughters and killing of mothers and banishing of fathers. Of course there must in the country. And so this makes in the country everything happening in the country. Nothing happens in the city. Everything happens in the country. The city just tells what has happened in the country, it has already happened in the country.”

There is a “continuous present” here and the whole thing does flow. If you like a bit of a challenge, but not on the scale of some of the more notorious behemoths, this may be for you; it’s just over 70 pages.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

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Indigenous Species by Khairani Barokka

“I am of the same blood as the sanctioned mess of invasion
That was Javanese transmigration,
And I shampoo my hair with oil crafted
From dead-end social experiments
And gargantuan-scale domestication of hectares,
Cemeteries of growth”

Not at all easy to describe or categorize; this is a wonderful production from Tilted Axis Press (if you don’t know them, look them up). It is poetic, but so much more a cry of resistance against destructive forces be they imperialist capitalist or environmental. This work acts on a number of levels and the artwork in the book is striking and very powerful. There is also a braille version where the artwork is embossed and tactile. The poem started as a performance and Barokka explains what she wanted to achieve;

“I liked the idea of a book that was also an art object. Also, considering then-unavailable healthcare, I wanted to step away from performance a bit, find a way to recreate the experience without always having me physically enacting it. And I wanted Indigenous to be a provocation, highlighting sighted privilege and how unequal the publishing landscape is – that’s why there’s a marker of Braille’s absence on every other page of the sighted version, and that’s why it’s explicitly called a sighted version. The poem is always still a performance – it was performed at the book launch”

This is also a reaction to and against the destruction of the environment in Barokka’s native Indonesia. It is about a girl abducted in her own homeland and taken upriver (I have heard this described as a feminist and anti-imperialist version of Heart of Darkness). The artwork and the depth of the language almost makes the language itself a physical thing. The abduction mirrors the theft of resources;

“I bet you, from the raucous
Machinery I’m hearing
And the smell of rashness,
That this is where the grease deals
Are siphoned into miners’ food.
And where they are packing down
Eons of intricacies and strength
From the forest to molecular form
On a woman’s lipstick bottle in Iowa,

I would strongly recommend this work, Barokka is co-editing an anthology of D/deaf and disabled poetry and has a collection of poems of her own due out as well. I will look out for both.

9 out of 10

Starting Corregidora by Gayl Jones

 

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A Piece of the Night by Michele Roberts

This is the first novel Michele Roberts wrote and it tells the story of Julie brought up in a French village where Catholicism reigns supreme and then sent to school in England. The novel moves between present day (1970s) where Julie has gone home to visit her mother who is unwell and her childhood and early years. Julie’s journey from a Catholic upbringing and schooling, through university and marriage and motherhood to coming out and living communally with other women is explored and explained. It mirrors the radical feminist movement of the early 1970s and is what Rosemary White referred to as a “feminist confessional realist novel”; a form of consciousness raising highlighting the social and political situation of women. Woven in as well is a smaller secondary narrative telling the story of Amy Sickart, a late nineteenth century explorer forced to take the veil when her companion and source of financial support marries and no longer needs her friendship.

Roberts explores the nature of motherhood and the relationship between Julie and her mother Claire and the very different relationship between Julie and her own daughter. Through the book Julie comes to terms with her own feelings and relationships and the reader is taken on a journey with her; it is written well enough for the reader to care about Julie and future. As Frankova has pointed out Roberts’s writing is marked by a paradox. The story can be misty and nebulous at times, but there are contrasts of clear detail and poetic descriptions. It is Roberts’s view that;

“The surrealism in the novel will come from details being heightened from the ordinary and the mundane just a little into the bizarre—so you'll still see the connection to the everyday.”

Towards the end of the novel Roberts says that we carry the memory of our childhood like a photograph in a locket and there is a very vivid description of childhood and especially of the role of the Catholic Church, a topic Roberts returns to many times. Roberts says that every novel she writes begins from an image. This one begins with the image of a dead nun in the school chapel. Themes of death, resurrection, loss and reparation mean, as Roberts says, that we are directly in Melanie Klein territory.

I enjoyed this novel and will read more by Roberts.

7 out of 10

Starting The Last Englishman by Byron Roberts

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Autumn by Ali Smith

This is not only the first of four novels based on the seasons, but it has also been acclaimed as the first Brexit novel. This makes it very British in some ways and the feelings in the country and the reactions to the vote form part of the novel, as in this much quoted piece:

“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”

With this backdrop the novel moves easily over the last hundred years through its main characters. Daniel Gluck is a century old, Jewish and in a care home. Elisabeth was born in 1984; during her childhood in the 1990s she lived next to Daniel Gluck and a friendship developed; they are kindred spirits and Daniel helps Elisabeth think in new ways. One of the ways he does this is through art and in particular the art of Pauline Boty, a little known 1960s artist and her art is woven through the book.

The novel is well written and constructed and flits between vignettes and scenes some of which are very pertinent, some amusing, others very sad. The scenes in the post office when Elisabeth is trying to renew her passport are straight out of Monty Python. It feels very current and there are reflections on recent events and the nature of social media. This on the murder of the MP Jo Cox;

“Someone killed an MP,” she tells him. “A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn’t be enough. But it’s old news now. Once it would have been a year’s worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.”

Elisabeth reflects that in her situation as a part time lecturer she has little hope of buying a house, very little money and no job security. She also talks about her students, “graduating with all that debt and a future in the past.” Her mother meanwhile has been on a popular TV antiques programme and has met another woman of a similar age and started a relationship. The part where Elisabeth walks in on them kissing is hilarious.

The novel is powerfully propelled by the narrative voice and despite covering a broad range of topics like art, politics, feminism, literature, the nature of memory, prejudice and Brexit (of course), it is never hard to read. It is a reflection on who we are and what we are made of, As Deborah Levy says:

“Transcendental writing about art, death, political lies, trees and all the dimensions of love.”

And I love the occasional rants:

“I'm tired of the news. I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. I'm tired of how we're encouraging it. I'm tired of the violence that's on it's way, that's coming, that hasn't happened yet. I'm tired of liars. I'm tired of sanctified liars. I'm tired of how those liars have let this happen. I'm tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I'm tired of lying governments. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to anymore. I'm tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Toby's Room by Pat Barker

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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Lantana Lane by Eleanor Dark

Eleanor Dark was an Australian novelist best known for the Timeless Land trilogy. This is her final novel. Dark and her husband were part of the left and had some difficulties with the Menzies government. She was a recluse in later years and suffered from writers block.

The novel is set in an area of Queensland in which Dark lived, in a small rural community. It is essentially a collection of comic portraits of the characters (some human, some animal) that make up the community. The farms are small, the land is not easy with a large portion of it covered by Lantana which is a fast growing shrub, and there are some retirees and some escaping from city life. It is off the beaten track and the road is awful as well:

We have lived round the corner from the world, with not even a signpost to betray our whereabouts… and if the treasure we have accumulated makes no show upon our bank statements, neither is it subject to income tax…”

The often common crop is pineapples, or pines as they are called. Dark clearly knew a bit about pineapple farming:

“He had been grabbing an hour or two here and there to get ready for his new pines, and the patch was rotary-hoed, and ploughed, and fertilised, and prepared for contour planting.  Though Biddy grew tired rather quickly now, she insisted on laying out some of the butts for him when he began to put them in”

The community is poor and times are sometimes difficult:

“We are not affluent people in the Lane.  As primary producers we are, of course, frequently described by our legislators as The Backbone of The Nation, but we do not feel that this title, honourable as it is, really helps us much.  We get by, but with nothing to spare –  and we never know from one week to the next what is going to happen to the Market.

The land and the weather both play a big part in the novel. The climate and the humour are very dry. There is also a sense of an avoidance of the modern world and its ways. It is the 1950s and there is reconstruction going on; the local space is gradually being intruded on, much to the consternation of the community. The threat of nuclear war is there in the distance, pointing to Dark’s political stances.

There is a great warmth about this novel and all the characters are likeable and there are some real comic moments and great characters. The chapter involving the bulldozer is a real masterpiece. I liked it enough to add her to my to be read list.

 7and a half out of 10

Starting The Wedding by Dorothy West

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Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

An unusual and charming story which does not quite make its mind up what it wants to be. It is set in rural Canada in Saskatchewan. Etta and Otto are in their early 80s and have been married for over fifty years. Russell, their neighbour has known them both since childhood and has loved Etta since then as well. Etta appears to be in the early stages of dementia. Etta has never seen the sea and decides one day to walk to the sea alone without telling anyone. She could walk about eight hundred miles west or over two thousand miles east. She chooses to walk east and leaves her husband a note:

"I've gone. I've never seen the water, so I've gone there. Don't worry, I've left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.”

She also leaves recipe cards with instructions so Otto won’t go hungry. James is a coyote who joins Etta as she walks towards the sea.

The story moves backwards and forwards in time, so there is a good deal about Otto and Russell’s childhood, with Otto’s fifteen siblings; the local school also plays a central role. Etta joins the story as the schoolteacher as Russell and Otto reach sixteen. We follow the characters through the Depression and to the Second World War, when Otto goes to fight. There are lots of letters as the timeline goes backwards and forwards. As Etta walks towards the sea, her memory and sense of herself becomes more fragile. Otto (he adopts a guinea pig and starts making papier mache animals) and Russell (he goes in search of migrating caribou) also have adventures of their own whilst Etta is on her journey.

So what is this? It could be described as a fairy story or a fable (albeit a rather long one). James, the coyote, talks to Etta and sings songs. Sometimes difficult situations are minimised. There is a description of a radio broadcast from Europe in the war describing the sufferings of prisoners in a room where the children become light as air and float out of the high windows:

“No one knew, said the radio, where they’d gone, or where or if they’d landed, though it was speculated to perhaps be Switzerland or perhaps Central Africa.”

Of course we all know that the children have died. The novel seems to move between reality and fable in rather unpredictable ways. There is a good deal of poignancy and deliberations on the nature of friendship; there is also some decision making which leans more toward fairy tale than reality. Some of these twists and turns hinder character develops and James at times feels like a plot device to keep Etta going on what would be an impossible task.

There are some touching moments and the description of Etta’s dementia is good, but there is a confusion about what the novels intends to be (for me anyway).

6 and a half out of 10

Starting A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick

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The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

I think this is a remarkable novel and I was captured from the opening sentence:

"On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan."

It is essentially a historical novel which looks at the role of memory and forgetting. The protagonist and narrative voice is Teoh Yun Ling; she is a retiring Supreme Court Judge in the late 1980s. As a young woman, she and her sister were prisoners of the Japanese during World War Two. She survived and her sister did not. After the war she helps to prosecute war criminals, until the early 1950s. The larger part of the story takes place in the early 1950s when Yun Ling seeks to fulfil a promise to her sister to build a Japanese garden. She goes to the Cameron Highlands to stay with a family friend and his family on a tea plantation. Living nearby and constructing a Japanese garden is Nakamura Aritomo, a former gardener to the Emperor of Japan. He refuses a commission to build a garden for Yun Ling’s sister, but instead agrees to take on Yun Ling as an apprentice. Yun Ling begins to learn the complex art of gardening and eventually becomes Aritomo’s lover.

That is the bare bones and the novel gradually reconstructs what has happened to Yun Ling by moving seamlessly backwards and forwards and filling some of the gaps. There is of course much more to it; there is a significant communist insurgency in the early 1950s and the inter-relationships between the minor characters is very significant. There is a good deal of historical and what might be called specialist information relating to tradition and culture. A picture is gradually built as more is revealed and the reader gradually understands Aritomo’s maxim, “Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception”. He is a fascinating character with a balance of strength and flaws and in the narrative his absence is as powerful as his presence.

There was, for me, a haunting wistfulness about the whole, sometimes masking a background of savagery which Yun Ling remembers from the internment camp. She has scars both mental and physical, which are explored in relation to efforts to come to terms with the loss of her sister. Tan cites Ishiguro as an influence and that I can see, and his mission to “capture stillness on paper” is certainly partially fulfilled. There is also a stark picture of the end of Empire and colonialism all woven in. Yun Ling’s need to remember, record and piece together is driven by her own condition:

“I’m losing my ability to read and write, to understand language, any language. In a year — perhaps more, probably less — I won’t be able to express my thoughts. ... My mental competence will deteriorate. Dementia will shortly follow, unhinging my mind.”

This all adds to the reflections on memory and forgetting, and the garden which Aritomo builds (Yugiri) is itself part of the reflections:

“The light in here seemed softer, older, the air sharp with the tang of the yellowing bamboo leaves. The turns in the track disoriented not only our sense of direction, but also our memories, and within minutes I could almost imagine that we had forgotten the world from which we had just come.”

“Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again”

The writing is beautiful whilst exploring atrocity and savagery; the lush greenness of the Cameron Highlands Tan captures very well. All in all a great novel.

9 out of 10

Starting Ladies Please Don't Smash These Windows by Maroula Joannou

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Corregidora by Gayl Jones

This is Gayl Jones’s first novel, published in 1975. It is set in the 1940s, with a brief move forward to the 1960s at the end. It also moves back to Brazil and a Portuguese slave owner called Simon Corregidora. The protagonist is Ursa, a blues singer whose line through her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother goes back to Corregidora. The present day is set mainly in Kentucky.

Jones looks back on the physical enslavement of black women through the generations of one family and draws comparisons with modern cycles of abuse between men and women. Jones makes clear the issues are complex; need, intimacy and violence are entwined and the objectification of women takes many forms. Psychological bondage is also powerful. Ursa hears the stories of her forbears, the brutality, incest and trauma. There is some emphasis on generations following and bearing witness. The focal event of the book is right at the start. Ursa’s husband Mutt throws her down a flight of stairs because of her refusal to stop singing. Her unborn child dies and she has to have an emergency hysterectomy. This means Ursa cannot bear future generations and the novel revolves around her coming to terms with what has happened and the consequences:

“I am Ursa Corregidora. I have tears for eyes. I was made to touch my past at an early age... Let no one pollute my music. I will dig out their trumpets. I will pluck out their eyes.”

Sexuality is a central theme, in the present and looking back. Sexual ownership continues in a form after slavery, but the descriptions of sexual exploitation in slavery are powerful;

“Cause tha's all they do to you, was feel up on you down between your legs see what kind of genitals you had, either so you could breed well, or make a good 'lady of the night'. fudge each other or fudge them. Tha's the first thing they would think about, cause if you had somebody who was a good fudgeer you have plenty to send out into the field, and then you could also make you plenty money on the side, or inside.”

Ursa learns the secrets of the past gradually, over time, whilst she is herself being abused by two husbands. Ursa’s own identity becomes focussed on her identity as a singer and her relationship with her audience and the significant men in her life resent this and cannot accept her sense of agency in this area; they have to have control over every part of her (a different sort of slavery, but the comparisons are obvious).

The novel is difficult and painful and the reader has nowhere to go, but its message is important and it can’t be ignored

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

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Toby's Room by Pat Barker

Somehow I have managed to read the second volume of this trilogy first. Life Class is the first and I will read that next. It is a stand-alone novel though. There is an awful lot going on here. The obvious link is Virginia Woolf’s war novel Jacob’s Room, and, of course, Toby was the name of Woolf’s brother and a brother sister relationship is an integral part of this novel.

Barker has taken a group of artists studying at The Slade to examine what the role of the artist is during wartime. The first novel in the trilogy is set in 1914; this one alternates between 1912 and 1917. The fictional characters are based on a real group of artists at The Slade at the time (Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Christopher Nevinson). Elinor Brooke is Carrington, Kit Neville is a mix of Nevinson and Gertler, Paul Tarrant is a mix of Nash and Spencer. Their teacher Henry Tonks is one of the real life characters in the book Woolf and Ottoline Morrell also turn up). Elinor’s brother Toby is clearly based on Edward Brittain (Vera Brittain’s brother) and based on information that was not known when Vera Brittain wrote Testament of Youth. This is another of the themes, how soldiers who were gay were treated. Anyone who was reported for homosexual activity would be court martialled and could face ten years in prison. This is what happened to Brittain and a “sympathetic” commanding officer basically said “Lead the assault, don’t come back” and he didn’t.

Another theme focuses on how a woman artist should react to the war and we follow Elinor as she makes decisions about what to do. The central mystery of the book is how Toby Brooke dies, he is missing believed killed and Elinor expends a good deal of energy finding out what happens. One of the most powerful parts of the book focuses on men who has serious facial disfigurements and looks at how society reacts to them and what is to be done with them. The Queen Mary hospital in Sidcup is the hospital for those with severe facial injuries. Tonks and the surgeon Gillies are based there. Tonks painted and drew the men who were disfigured and Gilles operated on them, pioneering reconstructive surgery. The drawings that Tonks produced can now be seen online.

The relationship between Elinor and Toby is complex and for a time sexual and her search for the manner of his death is as much a search for an ending and resolution. Barker’s prose is as stark as ever, “Black leafless trees … stencilled onto a white sky” and blue lamps giving faces “a cyanosed look … the first darkening of the skin after death”. There is no flowery wordplay and the novel is direct and powerful. Barker is, as ever, looking at the human response to traumatic events.

There are lots of Woolf allusions scattered around (moths being one of them), but this isn’t an homage to Bloomsbury, it is very much a critique. The portrait of Bloomsbury in the book is as much negative as positive, especially about modernism.

This is another readable and powerful novel by Barker and I’m off to read the first novel in the trilogy.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Life Class by Pat Barker

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Life Class by Pat Barker

This is the first volume of Pat Barker’s second WW1 trilogy. I have managed to read the second volume (Toby’s Room) first, so I have hastily read this to catch up. It revolves around a group of painters at the Slade and starts just before the War. The fictional characters are based on a real group of artists at The Slade at the time (Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Christopher Nevinson). Elinor Brooke is Carrington, Kit Neville is a mix of Nevinson and Gertler, Paul Tarrant is a mix of Nash and Spencer. Their teacher Henry Tonks is one of the real life characters in the book and Ottoline Morrell and Augustus John show up as well.

The beginning of the book portrays the bohemian lifestyles the artists are leading based on the Slade and the coffee houses they inhabit. All is not particularly well for any of the characters; each has their own demons. Elinor struggles to be taken seriously as a female artist, she also has Paul and Kit pursuing her and can’t really decide whether she wants both, one or the other or neither of them. Relationships come and go and there is a purposelessness about it.

The war then intrudes. Elinor, at this point in a relationship with Paul, decides to have nothing to do with the war. Paul is not allowed to fight because of his health and he joins and is a medical orderly near the front line. Kit also joins up and is a stretcher bearer. As always Barker pulls no punches and the medical descriptions are very graphic ranging from piles of amputated limbs and a rather too detailed description of a groin injury. There are interesting vignettes, especially the Quaker medical orderly who works with Paul for a while and Burton, the surgeon. The irony of war is obvious; a French soldier who has attempted suicide by shooting himself, is nursed back to health so he can be shot for desertion (suicide, or attempting it being considered desertion).

This is very much scene setting for the second novel (but having read the second I would say that). The novel moves along at a good pace and I read most of it in a day. Barker seems very at home writing about WW1 and she does it well.

8 out of 10

Starting Noonday by Pat Barker

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The Wedding by Dorothy West

This is Dorothy West’s second novel, published quite late in her life. West was best known for being part of the Harlem Renaissance in the late1920s and early 1930s. She wrote short stories and also briefly edited a magazine. She spent the last fifty years of her life living in Martha’s Vineyard.

This novel is set in the mid-1950s in Martha’s Vineyard and looks at the summer residents of a group of cottages called The Oval. The summer is going to revolve around the marriage of Shelby Coles to a white Jazz musician. The wedding takes up the beginning and end of the book. The middle is a look back at the history of the Coles family. West explained what she wanted to do:

"I wanted to start from the beginning. All these people were slaves once. A black doctor wasn't born a doctor. I don't know whether there's some cynicism or sadness in me but the very first thing I wrote, before I began the book, was, 'From sin, suffering; from suffering, redemption.' I believe there must be punishment in life for people who do evil. Maybe it's the New Englander in me."

The novel is a journey down many roads and there are no saints here. Shelby’s father and mother, Clark and Corinne have each been having discreet relationships and have separate lives. There are tensions between Shelby and her sister. Into the mix in The Oval comes Lute McNeill, something of an outsider, but looking to advance himself.

West explores issues of class and race, looking at the issue of “passing” and tracks how a middle class family have moved from slavery to their current status. The novel is well written and I found it easy to read. For me the middle part of the novel was the most engaging. I found the ending somewhat melodramatic, but that’s a minor quibble.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Frost in May by Antonia White

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A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick

Written in the 70s and set in the 90s this is Dick’s semi-autobiographical description of drug use, abuse and addiction. It’s set in Orange County in California. The main protagonist is Bob Arctor, who lives with a group of drug users. Arctor is also an undercover police agent called Fred. Also central in this book is a drug called substance D (a new, very addictive drug also called D and Slow Death) and Fred is tasked with trying to find a way to the suppliers. Fred/Bob become increasingly blurred as Arctor becomes addicted to D. The periodic battery of tests conducted by Fred’s superiors increasingly show his cognitive fragility. The novel charts the decline resulting from addiction and how a person can become a shell of their former self. Fred/Arctor goes into a rehabilitation unit (he is now called Bruce) and spends his days doing straightforward manual tasks.

There are other characters in the book. Arctor’s housemates, Fred’s work colleagues, Donna (a dealer and friend of Bob) and various characters at the rehab centre. However I found all of them pretty two dimensional. The counter argument is that the real character is the drug, but it also meant some of the interactions were rather stiff. There are vignettes of drug use and psychosis and extended reflections on the type of mental health problems caused by drugs. Anyone who has spent any time with addicts will recognise the chaotic lifestyle and fractured conversations.

Another issue I had with the book was the ending. The descent into madness felt far too precipitate and the whole section at the end was very rushed and would have benefitted from extension. The attitude to women was also an issue to me as most of the female characters are there as sexual foils and the threat of sexual violence pervades. There are lots of questions about identity and the nature of reality.

Interesting as parts of this are the whole felt a bit flimsy and insubstantial to me’ rather than a dystopian future it seemed stuck in a very typical past.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Paradise News by David Lodge

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

The much anticipated follow up to The God of Small Things. I know opinions have been divided about this, but for me it did not disappoint. It is panoramic in scope with a vast range of characters. It ranges across the Indian subcontinent with a special focus on the conflict in Kashmir. The novel’s real focus is the marginalised, the victims of corruption, oppression and prejudice. The novel’s politics is laced with irony and humour. There is also great human warmth amidst the horror.

As always Roy’s writing is lyrical and adds lustre to the everyday. This is how the novel begins;

“At magic hour, when the sun is gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke. When the bats leave, the crows come home. Not all the din of their homecoming fills the silence left by the sparrows that have gone missing, and the old white-backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years, that have been wiped out. The vultures died of diclofenac poisoning. Diclofenac, cow aspirin, given to cattle as a muscle relaxant, to ease pain and increase the production of milk, works—worked—like nerve gas on white-backed vultures. Each chemically relaxed milk-producing cow or buffalo that died became poisoned vulture bait. As cattle turned into better dairy machines, as the city ate more ice cream, butterscotch-crunch, nutty-buddy and chocolate-chip, as it drank more mango milkshake, vultures’ necks began to droop as though they were tired and simply couldn’t stay awake. Silver beards of saliva dripped from their beaks, and one by one they tumbled off their branches, dead.”

The plot is complex and the characterization excellent and for me the standout characters were Anjum and Tilo. The plot is labyrinthine and I’m not going to try to explain it. Roy does try to explain her country:

 “Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labors and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we continue to coexist — continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another.”

It is clear she feels passionately about the plight of those she writes about and her challenges to Hindu nationalism have made her unpopular in some quarters. Roy does see the inherent tension in her position as well as one of the characters writes.

“I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.”

As Anita Fellicelli points out in her review;

“The true measure of a democracy is in how it treats its most marginalized and vulnerable people.”

Roy’s criticisms are pertinent, but in the west it feels to me like we are also guilty of the same, making her warnings just as relevant. This is one of my favourites this year.

 9 and a half out of 10

Starting Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki

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The Last Englishman by Byron Rogers

J L Carr wrote one of my favourite novels, A Month in the Country and so I was interested to read a biography about him. Rogers is not a natural biographer and sometimes the biography is not easy to read. I can imagine it was probably difficult to put together because of Carr’s eccentricity and the way he organised his life. Carr didn’t start writing novels until he was 52 and always said he took up writing to encourage his son to do his homework, so they would sit at the table together and write.

Carr was brought up a Methodist and had signed the pledge by the age of 13. He failed his 11 plus and so his education was rather patchy and he later wrote about his experiences in the school system, both positive and negative. He went on to be a teacher. He was by no means conventional and in 1938 he spent a year in the US as a teacher; nowhere glamorous, but in South Dakota. A place called Huron in the Great Plains. He travelled westwards afterwards and ended up back in Europe as war started. He spent the war in the RAF as a photographer and went back into teaching afterwards. From 1952 to 1967 he was headmaster of a primary school in Kettering. He is still remembered with great affection and he was always getting into trouble with authorities for his unconventional approaches. He was very keen on ensuring everyone who went through the school could read and by his account he only failed once.

He retired early to focus on writing and publishing and published books from his own home. He took up causes, one of which was a redundant church in Newton-le-Willows which was falling into disrepair. Carr took up its cause and spent years battling with authorities to try to save it. He clashed with the local clergy and bishop and took his cause to the Church Commissioners, to the Government and the Crown. Car was like that as his son recalls;

"He had this watch, which, its Swiss makers claimed, was shockproof. He wore it to play squash and the watch stopped. For most of my childhood and well into my adolescence, airmail letters left our house and letters with Swiss stamps came, year after year ..."

Carr published a great deal with his Quince Tree Press, maps, lists (of cricketers, parsons and so on) and selections of poetry. He always had two price levels; the books were always cheaper for children to buy. Carr wrote several novels, two of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He also wrote school text books. There was a breadth to his interests which was illustrated at his funeral, many people attended, some of them had known him for years. The painter Chris Fiddes said that he felt he was a close friend of Carr over a number of years and yet he knew hardly any of the people at the funeral and he could see lots of others looking round clearly thinking the same thing. As the service started a very glamorous woman arrived, leaving as it ended; again no one knew who she was. It is almost the stuff of spy novels.

Carr struck me as being an interesting and decent chap. This biography is a bit workaday and plodding but its subject is fascinating.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

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I read Rogers' biography of Carr a few years ago.  Have to admit I've got memories of it being a stronger piece of writing than you found it to be.  I certainly felt I learned a lot about Carr, who was a fascinating character (especially, perhaps, for me, as I was a primary school teacher too).  I'll have to visit it again! 

Do agree about A Month in the Country though - although it's not just one of my favourite novels, it's number one for me!   I watched the film of it the other day, with rather young looking Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson (it was filmed in 1987).  Even Patrick Malahide looks at the young end of middle-aged!  It was a pretty good interpretation, although I agree with the reviewer who didn't feel it quite had the magic of the book.  Not quite sure why, but it was still enjoyable enough, and worth a view.

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Thanks Willoyd; I must look out the film as well

 

Frost in May by Antonia White

This is an autobiographical novel about life in a Catholic Girls school, quite closely based on White’s own life. Like the protagonist of the novel, Nanda, White was a Catholic convert at the age of nine and was sent to a school very like the one in the book. Nanda wants to be a good Catholic as is shown in her prayer on her first night at the convent:

“Nanda felt a wave of piety overwhelm her as she knelt very upright in her bench, her lisle-gloved hands clasped on the ledge in front of her. "Oh dear Lord," she said fervently in her mind, "thank you for letting me come here. I will try to like it if You will help me. Help me to be good and make me a proper Catholic like the others."”

The novel covers Nanda’s life from the age of nine to fourteen. It is the first of four autobiographical novels. White had mental health problems throughout her life and she referred to them as “The Beast”. When she was twenty-two her mental health was so bad that she was admitted to a public asylum, Bethlem (whose nickname was bedlam). She didn’t really begin to write until her mid 30s.

The novel vividly describes daily life in a convent school. There are no beatings and direct physical abuse, the cruelties are psychological. It is about expectation and not disappointing The Lord (or Our Lady). The little things are cumulative, like putting salt on the stewed fruit as a form of mortification. The girls were expected to sleep on their backs with their arms folded across their chests:

That way ... if the dear Lord were to call you to Himself during the night, you would be ready to meet Him as a Catholic should.”

The whole is about the crushing of innocence and the smothering of the natural instincts of children. Nanda is a convert to Catholicism and so is automatically viewed with some suspicion. The goal of the nuns is generally to break the will of the child to ensure they become the right sort of Catholic. Mother Radcliffe, the Mistress of Discipline is a particularly unpleasant character, the more so as she appears kind and pleasant:

“'You are very fond of your own way, aren't you, Nanda?'
'Yes, I suppose so, Mother.'
'And do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely?  Broken and re-set in God's own way.  I don't think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?'

The ending is very powerful and shocking, describing Nanda’s expulsion from the school. Her distress and her father’s coldness are very well written and it is clear that White is writing form her personal experience.

This is a well written and competent description of life in a Catholic Convent school in the early twentieth century and a great advert for atheism!

8 out of 10

Starting the next in the sequence, The Lost Traveller

 

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Noonday by Pat Barker

This is the last part of Barker’s second First World War trilogy. For this one she moves the story to the Second World War and the blitz. The three main characters from the first two books are still the focus of this one. Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke are now married; Kit Neville has been married and is now divorced. The setting is London in the autumn of 1940 during the blitz. Elinor and Kit are volunteer ambulance drivers and Paul is an air-raid warden.

Barker captures the terror and trauma of the blitz, scrambling through collapsed buildings to find survivors and the effect it all has on those involved. Barker also uses a few literary devices and ideas as well. One of the minor characters is a medium and spiritualist who Barker names Bertha Mason (Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre) and she lives in an attic!

Paul Tarrant’s experiences mirror those of Graham Greene’s. Paul’s lover Sandra is very similar to Dorothy (Greene’s lover) and they meet in exactly the same way. Tarrent is an ARP warden in the same place Greene was and he reacts in the same way when his house is destroyed by a bomb. Elinor has elements of Elizabeth Bowen and Rose Macaulay. One of Elinor’s nights on duty exactly mirrors one that Macaulay describes. Sometimes I felt the historical detail overwhelmed the plot a little.

This novel is more panorama than portrait and the City of London takes a primary role. It almost feels like the city is the main character:

“London has become ‘merely a settlement on a river, lit by guttering candles after dark”

sunshine streaming through a gap in the terrace”

“a clump of bright red flowers growing out of sagging gutter”

“a great pool of forget-me-nots caught in the hollow of a wall”

On the first floor, a green brocade armchair cocked one elegant cabriole leg over the abyss. There was a bathroom with a washbasin and toilet, looking somehow vulnerable, touching even, like a fleeting, accidental glimpse of somebody’s backside. You wanted to cover it up, restore its dignity, but there was no way of doing that.”

There are startling moments, Elinor finds herself in a darkened street when suddenly she is faced with a group of dray horses charging towards her terrified with manes on fire. The real power in the novel are the descriptions of the blitz and those volunteers trying to rescue the trapped, treat the wounded and their sheer bravery. The plot moves between the three characters almost in the background. It makes for a good ending to the trilogy and there are a couple of interesting twists. Not as good as her firs6t trilogy, but worth reading.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Vertical Motion by Can Xue

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Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki

The Tokyo Times calls this “A masterful look at loneliness and malaise in Tokyo”. The article notes that the history of twentieth century Japan is partly one of migration from the countryside to the city. It has also been frequently stated that urbanisation leads to alienation and this is a study in isolation and obsession.

The novel revolves around an apartment block which is due to be demolished to be replaced by something more modern. The flats are named after an animal in the Japanese zodiac. The main protagonist is Taro who lives in one of the flats. He works in some unexplained administrative capacity. In many ways he is quite a two-dimensional character on the surface; divorced and living alone, he takes the path of least resistance and spends his time doing very little. Also in the block are the Mrs Snake and Nishi. Mrs Snake is so named by Taro because she lives in the snake flat. Nishi is a single woman and she has an obsession; an obsession with a house they can all see from their balconies. A couple of decades before it had featured in a photography book called Spring Garden when a couple of relatively well known celebrities had been living in it. Nishi has a copy of the book and gives a copy to Taro. For about half the novel it is empty and for the second half of the novel a family move in and are befriended.

The novel drifts along and meanders around the area of Tokyo in which it is set. It is true that on the surface very little does happen. Although there is a sudden and surprising change of perspective very late in the novel.

It is a narrative of urban living for those alone in a soulless landscape. However these is note taken of aesthetics and architecture in a displaced sort of way. Nishi and Taro are dreamers whose dreams never quite come true, although Nishi does get to see some of the inside of the house.

Shibasaki does have an eye for occasional intricate detail, especially of plants and insects (the potter wasp for example). There are some odd moments as well; Taro grinding his father’s ashes in a pestle and mortar so they are fine enough to scatter. The changing urban landscape is the backdrop to the whole:

“Every day, [Taro] walked over culverts with rivers running inside them. There were water pipes and gas pipes underground too, and maybe unexploded bombs, for all he knew. If there were unexploded bombs still underground, then there must also be bits of the houses that were burnt down then, items of their furniture. Before that, this area had been fields and woods, and the leaves and fruits and berries that fell every year, as well as the little animals, would also have formed layers over time, sinking down deeper under the ground.

And now Taro was walking on top of it all.”

I did enjoy this novel, sometimes I prefer mood over plot. A city in flux, the inevitability of progress and superficial relationships:

“Taro was about to say that he wouldn’t feel the cold when he was dead, but it suddenly struck him that Numazu wasn’t actually wanting a conversation.  He was just voicing the thoughts passing through his mind, and not looking for an answer.  There were two other people in the office at that point, and they were without a doubt listening to what was being said, but neither of them uttered a word.”

And the end of modern life and progress, well:

“The only option available was to go on doing the same things endlessly, wondering why everything had to be such a pain, about how good it would be if you could eat leaves or fruit from some other kind of tree instead of the one you’d landed on.  Once you could no longer go on repeating those actions, then you and your species, at least in its current form, would disappear.”

It has been described as a novel of dislocation and regret, but I found it enjoyable. It was easy to read and the writing was poetic and sparse, a combination I enjoyed.

8 out of 10

Starting Thin Air by Michele Paver

 

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Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

What to make of David Sedaris, this is my first venture into this territory. Quite simply this is a collection of essays about Sedaris’s life and times and could be termed observational comedy. The essays are split into two parts, the second focussing on his time living in France with his partner Hugh. The move to France provoked a number of these essays, especially attempts to learn the language.

There is a good deal of focus on Sedaris’s family, especially his father. Sedaris is also adept at employing an outsider perspective as he expresses his bafflement at aspects of life. A good deal of vitriol is reserved for Americans abroad and in general:

 “Every day we're told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it's always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it's startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are 'We're number two!

Sedaris’s humour and wit is often directed at individuals he knows and sometimes groups. He is equally able though to turn it against himself and his own frailties:

“For the first twenty years of my life, I rocked myself to sleep. It was a harmless enough hobby, but eventually, I had to give it up. Throughout the next twenty-two years I lay still and discovered that after a few minutes I could drop off with no problem. Follow seven beers with a couple of scotches and a thimble of good marijuana, and it’s funny how sleep just sort of comes on its own. Often I never even made it to the bed. I’d squat down to pet the cat and wake up on the floor eight hours later, having lost a perfectly good excuse to change my clothes. I’m now told that this is not called “going to sleep” but rather “passing out,” a phrase that carries a distinct hint of judgment”

Sedaris is so quotable that it would be very easy to fill the rest of this with witty one liners. I suspect this is not Sedaris’s best work and there have been recent debates about whether what Sedaris writes is fiction or non-fiction. Sedaris argues they are both true and exaggerated. It is easy to read, but I still find myself not entirely convinced and I’m not sure why, but it is funny

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

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Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

Nadifa Mohamed’s first novel is an homage to her father and is based on his life and wanderings around North East Africa in the 1930s and 1940s. Mohamed explains the title as being related to something that happened to her grandmother:

“When my grandmother was heavily pregnant with my father, she was following her family’s caravan and she got lost and separated from the others. She sat down to rest under an acacia tree and a black mamba snake crept upon her belly before slithering away, leaving her unharmed. She took this as a sign that the child she carried would always be protected, and that’s how the title of the book came about.”

Mohamed also has a specified purpose as well as telling her father’s story:

“Much has been written about how Britain's Jamaican community celebrated Usain Bolt's charge to gold. But British Somalis, who have been here in numbers for over two decades, are not so firmly placed in the national consciousness. And often when we are written about it is with the worst connotations: violence, terrorism, gangs …young Somalis' sense of identity seems more powerfully formed by the persistently negative representations found in the media.”

The novel starts in Aden, in Yemen in the 1930s when Jama is living with his mother; it is narrated in the third person. Mohamed explains the structure is based on African “praise poetry”:

“Griots are wandering praise-singers who are also the historians and storytellers of their societies. Even though it is a West African tradition, I thought it suited perfectly my father's story; I wanted a style that would celebrate his life with great literary flourishes rather than objectively describe it. The griot tradition also shares similarities with Somali poetry in their methods of composition and dissemination, and was a natural fit to the wandering, exploratory life of my father.”

When Jama’s mother dies he decides to go and search for his itinerant father in Somaliland. We have a geographical tour of the area and a historical one as Jama becomes involved with the Italian army invading Ethiopia in the Second World War. Jama, as he is growing up lives on the streets and life can be tough as he is often hungry. His voyage is an Odyssean one around North Africa and ending up in Britain. Jama experiences famine, war, illness, loss, racism and homelessness. He also finds kindness from Somali communities around the area of his travels and sometimes in unexpected places.

Mohamed writes well and her descriptive powers have lyricism and power:

“At the darkest hour of night, the sky cracked and revealed a blue and white secret kingdom. The high heavens and low earth were joined by a sheet of conquering raindrops, followed by a thundering marching band that seemed to be playing drums, cymbals, violins, and reedy flutes whose notes fell down and smashed against the gasping desert earth, battering down an angry song of life.”

The novel is easy to read and also provides an account of colonialism and its effects. Towards the end of the book Jama is working as a stoker on a British ship, The SS Exodus with a cargo of Jews purportedly being taken to safety, in actuality prisoners; an illustration that it was not just the Nazis who persecuted the Jews. Mohamed challenges the western narration of these events, but also provides hope for the beleaguered communities of Northern Africa.

There are irritations at times, but this is an accomplished first novel which engages the reader and makes its points effectively. 

 8 out of 10

Starting Closing the Book by Stevie Davies

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Ladies Please Don't Smash These Windows by Maroula Joannou

Illuminating and thought provoking analysis of women’s writing between the wars. As Joannou says:

“There is, I would argue, a particular need for scholarly analysis of writers – Antonia White and Stevie Smith are obvious candidates but there are many others – which uncovers the mutinous structures of feeling that often lie beneath the deceptively decorous surface of women-centred texts.”

The title of the book comes from a poster in the window of a London Jewellers during a Suffragette March in 1912. It read as follows:

“Votes for Women; Ladies, if we had the power to grant, you should have the Vote right away. Please don’t smash these windows, they are not insured. Sidney Marks, The jeweller”

Posterity does not record whether the said windows survived.

Joannou takes a close look at a number of writers and texts and the issues surrounding them and also looking at texts in a different way coming from the socialist-feminist critical tradition. A quote from Annette Kuhn is illustrative:

“What we see through our feminist spectacles will of course inform what we choose to analyse, and perhaps also to some extent how we choose to analyse it. Feminist theory involves taking up a distinct stance or position in relation to its object, therefore, and thus in this sense cannot be regarded as politically neutral.”

The first chapter is an examination of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. It is a questioning of its iconic status. Joannou argues that the literary perspective is one of dominant memory rather than popular memory (there is a brief comparison of Testament of Youth with I Know why the Caged Bird Sings which is fascinating) arguing that the perspective is “war from above” with no questioning of nation or the ideology of Englishness. She also illustrates Brittain’s attitude towards working class women (very different from her friend Winifred Holtby), which is patronising and naïve.

Chapter Two looks at the tradition of socialist-feminist novels between the wars with a particular emphasis on Leonora Eyles and her first novel Margaret Protests. For those interested in buried novels, there are lists of them here, many of which look interesting. There is an interesting discussion about class and feminism.

The third chapter takes a look at literary spinsterhood in the 1920s, including some fictional ones. Again there are works here that are little known and look interesting, but Joannou focusses on two in particular: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner and The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor.

Chapter Four concerns lesbian representation and is an analysis and comparison of The Well of Loneliness and Orlando. This reminded me what a remarkable and radical text Orlando is, as Joannou notes:

“For Orlando is the text in which Vita herself is displayed, the text in which lesbian consciousness is linked to a feminist awareness of women’s disabilities. It is the text which may be read, Nigel Nicholson suggests, as a “unique consolation” to Vita Sackville-West for having been born a girl and thus forfeiting her inheritance of Knole. It is the text which, as Sandra Gilbert has put it was “designed to prove to Everywoman that she can be exactly who or what she wants to be, including Everyman.” Woolf’s celebration of love for women and between women in Orlando reveals a radical and courageous determination to expose patriarchal expectations of women’s sexuality.”

The fifth chapter looks at three novels of the 1930s, examining their approaches to gender and class. The novels are The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West and The Weather in the Streets by Rosamund Lehmann. Perceptive points are made about each book and inevitably I will get round to reading all three at some point.

Chapter Six looks at anti-fascist writings by women in the 1930s, looking at two texts in particular: Swastika Night by Katherine Berdekin and Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf. Swastika Night is a dystopian novel imagining a distant future where the Nazis are in power, written in 1938. It looks interesting and is on my list for next year. The analysis of Three Guineas is excellent; it’s one of Woolf’s works I haven’t read and I must remedy that next year.

All in all it is a fascinating run through women’s writings between the wars and is well worth looking up if this is an area of interest. The sections on Woolf are particularly good.

9 out of 10

Starting The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen

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Paradise News by David Lodge

This is the first David Lodge I have read for many, many years and it was a somewhat mixed return. Lodge can write, make no mistake about that and his plots hang together well. It reads easily and the whole runs along smoothly; it is a comic novel (so I am informed). The novel revolves around Bernard who works as a lecturer in theology at the University of Rummidge (Birmingham). He is an ex-Catholic priest who has lost his faith. He has an uncomfortable relationship with his father and sister, knows very little about sex and relationships and is generally quite isolated. He has an aunt in Hawaii; she has been separated from the rest of the family for many years but is now dying and she would like to see Bernard and his father before she does. She persuades Bernard to take his very home loving father to Hawaii to visit. The cheapest way to do it is to join a package tour. This gives Lodge an excuse to set up a whole series of characters and caricatures of the British abroad and numerous minor plotlines, most of which are irritating and pointless.

Inevitably the trip to Hawaii has its ups and downs after a rather excruciating description of a long plane journey. Bernard’s father steps out in front of a car (foreigners drive on the wrong side of the road) and breaks his hip, ending up in hospital (cue storylines about medical insurance). Bernard then manages to fall in love with the driver of the car, Yolande and to discover that Aunt Isabel is actually much richer than everyone (including Isabel) realised.

 This leads to one of the most cringe-making sex scenes I have read in a number of years and a rather interesting and perceptive analysis of why Bernard lost his faith. Lodge seems very at ease and familiar with twentieth century theologians, tripping through Tillich, Kung, Bultmann and Rahner with a fair amount of dexterity whilst discoursing on the teleological argument and debunking the possibility of an afterlife. Moving the setting for all this to an “earthly paradise” was an interesting move and like Henry James, moving your main characters to foreign shores can be fruitful.

There is lots of renewal and transformation at the end and Lodge seems to like to tidy up his plotlines like a gardener trimming a hedge. Most of it irritated me and Lodge creates characters who slide nicely into his world view, which is really quite English and traditional. However the extended look at how and why Bernard lost his faith and the nature of the Catholic Church was certainly worth reading and saved the whole from being a total disaster. A word of advice, skip the sex scene (trust me on this!!)

5 and a half out of 10

Starting Lost Wax by Jericho Parms

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