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Books do furnish a room

A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

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Ragnorak by A S Byatt


This is in the Canongate myths series and is a retelling of the Norse myths. Byatt tells them pretty straight but puts them in the context of her own childhood. Ragnorak is the Norse version of Armageddon (Gotterdammerung in Wagner’s Ring Cycle) and the retelling is very much as the original. Byatt uses her experience of being evacuated to the countryside at the beginning of the war. In the book the child is only known as “the thin child” and there is no conversation with anyone else. The myth comes through the child’s reading of a rather scholarly book on it. The child also reads Pilgrim’s Progress as well. Her father is in North Africa and she is convinced he will never return. This retelling has a very personal slant and a clear message. If you don’t get the point during the retelling of the myth there is a chapter at the end on the nature of myth and the difference between myth and fairy tales. Parallels are drawn between what we are doing to our planet and the end of the gods.

There is great energy and power in the writing and the prose is rich and luscious; sometimes a bit too much for me. It’s a bit like drinking a full bottle of Cointreau (trust me, don’t ever do that). The telling is pretty straight with Odin, Loki, Frigg, Baldur, Hel and the rest all doing their stuff. Byatt contrasts the battles in the sky and the war with the doings of the gods. Yggdrasil is described as an ecosystem, a doomed one given the title of the book.

One of the interesting points is how Byatt reacted to the myths. She recognised them as myths and in her mind compared them to the stories she was told in Church which were presented as fact. She came to the conclusion that these too were myths and she preferred the Norse myths because they ended with the end of the world with no happy resurrection like saving of the situation.

For Byatt the myths of the Norse gods are mirrored by what we are doing to our planet:

“The surface of the earth was like a great embroidered cloth, or rich tapestry, with an intricately interwoven underside of connected threads”

Byatt makes her points clearly:

“We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lop-sided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind and a biologically built-in short-sightedness,”

And of the gods are similar to humanity because:

“they are limited and stupid. They are greedy and enjoy fighting and playing games. They are cruel and enjoy hunting and jokes. They know Ragnorak is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world.”

Difficult to disagree with and it was good to be reminded of the Norse myths. I struggled with some of the prose and if the point was to draw parallels with the current state of the planet, the way it was presented led to a bit of a disconnect for me.

 6 and a half out of 10

Starting At Mrs Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor

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The Mill for Grinding Old People Young by Glenn Patterson


Sometimes buying a book because the title intrigues you can lead to serendipitous discoveries, sometimes it doesn’t. This one falls into the probably doesn’t category. The unusual title is the name of a tavern, an actual historical tavern.

This is a historical novel looking at Belfast in the 1830s through the character of Gilbert Rice. Fictional and historical characters mix together and although Rice is essentially middle class there are occasional glimpses of the underside of the city.

The plot itself is fairly minimal. Rice is living with his religious and rather stern grandfather; he starts work at the Ballast Office at sixteen and finds a group of friends. A fall one day led to a diversion to the tavern of the title where Gilbert meets Maria, a Polish refugee, who works there. A relationship develops. Gilbert is still very young and easily led. Maria is rather more worldly and focussed on the revolution in her homeland. The working out of the relationship occupies the second half of the novel.

The architect John Millar pops up as he designs the Third Presbyterian Church and puts a slate with a message in one of the columns. The slate was found in the rubble when the church was bombed in 1941. Patterson also weaves in some of the tensions from the failed uprising of 1798. The reader learns something of the history of the city of Belfast and the growth of the shipping industry. The sectarian divisions are not to the fore, but there are tensions present, especially in relation to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Patterson, Belfast born himself, describes writing the novel as a voyage of discovery. The novel starts and ends in 1897 with Gilbert’s death, looking back to a time before the great shipyards existed. Patterson says the research taught him the importance of the river:

“But in a sense, everything that happened in Belfast’s entire history has revolved around what happens on the waterfront. The city begins at the confluence of two rivers, a place where you can ford from west to east. The shipyards defined it for a number of years, and now we’re reclaiming the waterfront and redefining ourselves as Titanic town.”

I’m afraid this didn’t really grab me. I learnt a bit about the history of Belfast, but the plot meandered too much. The teenage Gilbert irritated me and I didn’t really engage with the whole.

6 out of 10

Starting First in the World Somewhere by Penny Pepper

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First in the World Somewhere by Penny Pepper


This is a marvellous memoir from the irrepressible Penny Pepper. Her description of herself from the front of the book is Scribbler, Siren, Saucepot and Pioneer. She is a disability rights activist, feminist, musician in the punk tradition, writer of short stories and erotica and general thorn in the side of the establishment and inspiration to the rest of us.

A word first about the publisher, Unbound.  Unbound is a publishing house where books are crowdfunded. You pitch a book idea to Unbound, if they accept they put the book idea with information on the site and people can pledge money towards publication. If you pledge money, once the book is published your name is listed in the back. A simple idea, but obviously very effective.

This is a very honest memoir, there is lots of laughter and humour, but sadness as well. Penny was born with Stills Disease, which she refers to as “the lurgy” throughout. It is important to emphasize that this isn’t a memoir about being disabled, but an account of one person’s struggle to be herself and to be independent.

On the surface this is an account of Penny’s life until the early 2000s, but it charts so many changes and developments in society. Music is one strand; like many of us Penny was inspired by punk and she has been referred to as a post punk musician. The story of Penny’s letters to and from Morrissey, meeting with Ian Dury and her own musical career is fascinating. Under the name Kata Kolbert, Penny played gigs and even had an album produced called Spiral Sky (number one in Greece for a week; hence the title of the book).

Another strand is Penny’s writing, liberated since the invention of the personal computer. She writes regularly for the Guardian, is writing a novel and some poetry. She has published two volumes of erotica where the central characters are disabled.

Friends, lovers and relationships figure strongly and like the rest of us there are triumphs and disasters. Penny pulls no punches and the descriptions of family life also took me back to the 70s and life and culture then. She describes a difficult relationship with her stepfather. She meets Tamsin in hospital and the development of their friendship based on music and their attitudes to surviving life develop until they move into a flat together.

There is a thread running through the book focussing on the struggles to lead an independent life. It starts in the old and grim warehouse type hospitals of Penny’s youth and the refusal of many professionals to accept that Penny can ever have any independence. Cringeworthy descriptions of the “there there” pat on head approaches of many of the well-meaning.  Penny also charts the development of the disability rights movement: battles over access to places others take for granted, battles over access to transport, to toilets, to adaptions at home. There are encounters with social workers, slowly improving over years, until the times when money can be available to pay for a PA which is liberating. My own involvement in the social care system has charted these changes. Unfortunately the tide is now going in the other direction with the onset of austerity politics. The sort of budget Penny got for care in the late 1990s is increasingly more difficult to get. Some battles still need fighting.

Penny also writes with great humour and lightness of touch. In the early 1990s Penny received an educational grant from a charity whose patron is Lord Snowdon. She describes the rather posh do:

“I sit next to Freddie at one of the round tables. The cutlery’s too heavy for my small hands and I’m terrified of plopping food into my exposed cleavage. Somehow I get through lunch and then there are speeches, before we’re lined up ready for the presentation to Lord Snowdon.

I’m suddenly angry. This isn’t my natural habitat. I’m punk. I’m anti-capitalist. I’m anti the greedy rich. Yet here I am about to receive a cheque for which I’m not truly grateful. I find I don’t want to call him sir or lord and I’m not going to bow – a difficult movement for me on many fronts and also because I’m certain my tits will fall out.”

Penny is earthy, swears a lot and tells it how it is. She is a remarkable woman, her journalism is sharp and perceptive and this moving memoir charts her life and battles. It is very human and life affirming and it made me laugh and cry in equal measure. It also made me angry and reminded how far we have to go as a society in our struggle for justice and equality.

9 and a half out of 10

Starting Tea and Tranquilisers by Diane Harpwood

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Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty


Set in the American South, published in 1946 and set in 1923. It is about a wedding and revolves around the plantation of the Fairchild family and a family wedding.  There is no real plot and very little happens. This is deliberate and Welty says she picked 1923 because it was a year when very little happened in the delta. The cast of characters is extensive and working out the relationships between the various members of the Fairchild clan isn’t straightforward. There are no skeletons in cupboards, no major family dramas (some minor quarrels), no bitternesses on the surface. The social structure is clear, it is a plantation and the servant class is black, but there are no resentments here either. The shadows of the Civil War, Reconstruction and Slavery don’t seem to exist here. The plantation is thriving and productive and the problems relatively minor. This certainly isn’t Faulkner or O’Neill. What is important to Welty is place and family. She captures place very well. The whole plot is the run up to a wedding, the last few days of preparation and the day itself. The writing does have a depth to it. Some of the novel is seen through the eyes of Laura, a young girl (about 8) who is a cousin to the Fairchild’s. Laura’s mother has recently died and she is going to stay with the family for the wedding:

“Laura from her earliest memory had heard how they “never seemed to change at all.” That was the way her mother who had been away from them down in Jackson where they would be hard to believe, could brag on them without seeming to. And yet Laura could see that they changed every moment. The outside did not change but the inside did; an iridescent life was busy within and under each alikeness. Laughter at something went over the table; Laura found herself with a picture in her mind of a great bower-like cage full of tropical birds her father had shown her in a zoo in a city – the sparkle of motion was like a rainbow, while it was the very thing that broke your heart, for the birds that flew were caged all the time and could not fly out. The Fairchilds’ movements were quick and on the instant, and that made you wonder, are they free? Laura was certain that they were compelled – their favorite word.”

As a reader you do become immersed in the story and the texture of it. That immersion I didn’t find entirely pleasant because of the almost total dislocation from the society around and my inability to connect with the characters. I felt this would have worked better as a short story.

6 out of 10

Starting Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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Tea and Tranquillisers by Diane Harpwood


I found this in a job lot of virago books I picked up very cheap on e-bay. It was published in 1981 and is set in the late 1970s. It is written in the form of a diary covering one year by Jane Bennett, a wife, mother and housewife. It describes her life, or lack of it:

“I start my day the Valium way, at 7:20 am when my departing husband brings me a mug of tea and a Diazepam tablet…I need Valium to numb my rebelling mind into insensibility…I hate taking it but am a dependent, nervous, miserable wreck without it.”

It’s a straightforward account of life in a small East Anglian town. Jane’s life is narrow and constricted and she hates housework. She struggles with her children and keeping the house clean, money is short and cooking is a problem. Jane has a group of friends who are in similar circumstances. She loves her husband David as a man, but not as a husband. He helps her very little, the house is her job. They have the usual rows and make ups and life goes on as seventies life did. It’s in many ways mundane, but illustrates the lot of women and the restrictions on their lives. In parts it is also amusing and poignant. For me nostalgia was also an attraction. I remember those Sundays in the 1970s when absolutely nothing was open and there was nothing to do (apart from read of course). Ford Cortinas, trips to the seaside, fish fingers, TVs and other electrical appliances that often didn’t work and lots more that I recall.

Jane takes the Valium just to cope with daily life, otherwise it overwhelms her, she can see nothing in her future that she wants to do or be. There is a theme running through relating to how fragile mental health can be and how patriarchy can crush and dehumanise women.

7 out of 10

Starting Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

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Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter


This is a brave and quite original angle on grief, which is so much a part of the human condition, something we all experience. The plot is very simple, a mother of two young boys dies very suddenly and this is a poetic record of their and their father’s struggle with grief. The father is a Ted Hughes scholar and the surprise package is Crow from the poem by Ted Hughes, who moves into the family home to help with the grief process. Porter has said that part of the impetus for this was the death of his father when he was six. The title also has a nod to Emily Dickinson (Hope is a thing with feathers).

We all know grief in one way or another. I have encountered it in my work. Taking funerals as a vicar and then as a humanist celebrant. I have probably taken a couple of thousand funerals. I remember all the children, all of them and their parents. Grief isn’t a thing with feathers, it is crushing compressing and all-embracing. I remember one single mother whose eighteen month old child had died of meningitis. As I talked to her she told me about her child, but also about the domestic abuse she had experienced from the father. She railed against the injustice of life, which had taken her little boy away from her just as she and he had started to make something of their lives. I could only listen. I also remember when working as a care assistant in a nursing home and talking to residents, some of the rawest memories were about grief. One women spoke about a child she had lost over eighty years earlier, who she still thought about every day; the grief was still present.

As I said, this is original and very brief; it could easily be read in one sitting. I am not a great fan of Ted Hughes or of the poem that originated the idea, so it didn’t really work for me, but I am glad I read it and I’m sure it will work for some. The individual sections are entitled Dad, Crow or Boys. It is interesting and Crow, as befits the bird is a little unsavoury and crude. At one point Dad thanks Crow for retrieving some of his wife’s memories of her childhood:

“‘Thank you Crow.’

‘All part of the service.’

‘Really. Thank you, Crow.’

‘You’re welcome. But please remember I am your Ted’s song-legend, Crow of the death-chill, please. The God-eating, trash-licking, word-murdering, carcass-desecrating math bomb motherfudgeer, and all that.’

‘He never called you a motherfudgeer.’

‘Lucky me.’”

I think the reader’s reaction to this book will be very much determined by how they react to the idea of Crow. It wasn’t really for me, but it’s a good read.

6 out of 10

Starting The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese

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Fun Home by Alison Bechdel


This is my first proper graphic novel and is part of a reading challenge for this year. It’s by Alison Bechdel and I hadn’t initially realised I knew her name from the Bechdel test. This is a way of looking at the way women are portrayed in fiction and film. The test is whether a work features at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man. This goes back to Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own:

“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. ... And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. ... They are now and then mothers and daughters.”

This is a coming of age tale about Bechdel’s own childhood and adolescence and especially her relationship with her father who died just after she came out as a lesbian whilst at college. The structure of the whole is quite complex and Bechdel has described it as a labyrinth, "going over the same material, but starting from the outside and spiraling in to the center of the story." Bechdel’s father, Bruce, was an English teacher and part time undertaker, who it transpires was gay (having relationships with young men, sometimes his students). The thread running through it all is literature and the way Bechdel uses it in the memoir, this for me, was the strongest part of the book.

Bechdel weaves in a number of works in a way that does not feel forced or contrived. It is quite likely that Bechdel’s father took his own life and this provides one of the focuses as Bechdel looks at Camus and suicide. She also has a lot of fun with Joyce, Ulysses and the Greek myths, looking at fathers (spiritual and temporal). Colette is inevitably referenced with an exploration of the homosexual milieu, as of course is Wilde. Fitzgerald and Shakespeare figure as does Proust. It’s all clever and interesting stuff and is well written.

We learn very little about Bechdel’s mother or siblings, the focus is on her father and their relationship and on her own growing awareness of her own sexuality. At times the young Bechdel does appear a little self-aware, but this is a minor niggle. On the whole I enjoyed this and it was well written and put together and made me think.

7 out of 10

Starting Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

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Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi


It was all going pretty well until the very end when the author threw in a hand grenade and for me changed the whole nature of the book. It is impossible to review this book effectively without discussing the end and so there are spoilers ahead. A warning in case you intend to read it.

It is a retelling of the Snow White story set in the America of the 1950s and 1960s and focuses on racism and passing. In this context passing relates to a member of one racial group passing as a member of another racial group. In this novel as in Passing by Nella Larsen it involves people of an African American heritage passing as white.

The plot: Boy Novak lives with her abusive father Frank; he is a rat catcher and is abusive in very cruel and unusual ways. At twenty she leaves home and moves to the small town of Flax Hill. There she eventually marries Arturo Whitman, a widower with a young daughter called Snow. They have a child whom they name Bird. This child is born black and Boy discovers that some of Arturo’s family were indeed African American. There are two main narrative voices. Boy narrates the first (and best) part of the book. Her daughter Bird narrates the second part of the book and Boy the final part. When Bird is born Snow (who is blonde) is sent to live with an aunt. Bird as she grows up becomes aware she has a half-sister. It is really well written and the characters are engaging (apart from Frank the rat catcher). There is humour and a serious examination of racism almost through the medium of fairy tale. The plot is intriguing and who can resist a beginning like this:

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.”

Then there are perceptive comments on Passing:

“I may or may not have hated my own face sometimes. I may or may not have spent time thinking of ways to spoil it somehow. (Maybe that answers your question about being “beautiful.”) But I’m slowly coming around to the view that you can’t feel nauseated by the Whitmans and the Millers without feeling nauseated by the kind of world that’s rewarded them for adapting to it like this.”

It’s all stimulating and what I would expect from Oyeyemi, but then comes the ending. A journalist friend of Boy’s researches into her past and makes a discovery. Her mother was called Frances and was a lesbian. She was raped and gave birth to Boy. And then:

“Her distress had hardened. You know how Frank says he became Frank? He says he looked in the mirror one morning when he was still Frances, and this man she’d never seen before was just standing there, looking back. Frances washed her face and fixed her hair and looked again and the man was still there, wearing an exact copy of her skirt and sweater. He said one word to her to announce his arrival. What he did was, he flicked the surface of his side of the mirror with his finger and thumb and he said: ‘Hi.’ After that he acted just like a normal reflection; otherwise she would’ve felt like she had to go to a psychiatrist and complain about him. Once she’d established he was there to stay, she named him Frank.”

Boy’s mother was transgender. At the end of the novel Boy, her friend, Bird and Snow set off to see Frank because they are convinced Frances is still in there somewhere.

As one reviewer has rather scathingly summed up the ending and the attitude to someone who is transgender:

  1. Transgenderism is the result of trauma.
  2. Transgenderism is something that can (and should) be “cured.”
  3. Being transgendered causes you to turn into an abusive sociopath and shove starving rats in your child’s face.

This may be doing Oyeyemi a disservice, but the ending is problematic and I can see why many (including me) find it offensive. This is a shame because the rest of the book works well.

5 out of 10

Starting Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

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Poor People by William Vollmann


Vollmann is a bit of an enigma, but one thing that certainly can be said is that he has travelled a great deal in his various roles and taken copious notes. This work is told in the first person, so Vollmann manages to keep the focus off himself when he chooses to, but he has a clear focus, poverty. He simply asks people why they are poor and notes their responses. The rather raw photos are all taken by him as well. Vollmann states his parameters well:

“Because I wish to respect poor people’s perceptions and experiences, I refuse to say that I know their good better than they; accordingly, I further refuse to condescend to them with the pity that either pretends they have no choices at all, or else, worse yet, gilds their every choice with my benevolent approval. Once again I submit the obvious: Poor people are no more and no less human than I; accordingly, they deserve to be judged and understood precisely as I do myself.”

He struggles with a definition of poverty as some of those he interviews do not really perceive themselves as poor, although by most definitions they would be. The United Nations definition seems as good as any:

“Poverty: a human condition characterized by the sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security, and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights.”

One of the other issues at the start of the book is a throwaway remark by Vollmann, “Poverty is not political”. This clearly isn’t true and Vollmann obviously doesn’t really believe it either as he goes on to show it is entirely political over nearly three hundred pages! Vollmann does equate poverty with wretchedness and concedes that poverty is a series of perceptual categories.

It is easy to criticize Vollmann, as many critics have for naivety or for o ver analyzing but one thing is clear. This isn’t reportage from an armchair critic or reporter, Vollmann has really been there. The list of places and people is impressive. He does look very close to home towards the end of the book, but there are interviews and characters from Thailand, Japan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, The Philippines, India, Colombia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Burma, Vietnam, Hungary, Serbia, Congo, Kenya, Iraq, Australia, Bosnia and various parts of the US. He also draws on some historical quotes and descriptions. It’s an impressive list and Vollmann has not been averse to going into difficult and dangerous places. He also introduces the readers to many of those he interviews and paints vivid portraits of them, so that the reader does become engaged. He is also self-critical analyzing his own thoughts, feelings and actions. He gives money to some and sometimes assists where he can, whilst recognizing how ineffective that really is. It is easy to be critical of Vollmann, but unlike the rest of us, he has been there.

After looking at the nature of poverty initially Vollmann has his own ideas of what defines poverty and how it is broken down. He has chapters on Invisibility, Deformity, Unwantedness, Dependence, Accident-Proneness, Pain, Numbness and Estrangement. There is even a chapter on dirty toilets. The people interviewed, however briefly, although all poor are quite varied. Some are homeless and living on the streets in varieties of ramshackle shelters (or none at all), others are alcoholic or drug addict, prostitutes (as you would expect from Vollmann), older people, the unemployed, the disabled and the poorly paid and exploited.

The answers given vary as you would expect. Some blame the rich or the system, for some it’s Gods will or fate, for some they are at fault themselves, others blame lack of prospects or decent work, and for some it’s their appointed place in society or just mere chance.

Vollmann does have a warning for us all:

“I have observed the sufferings of human beings, done a little to alleviate them, and left them behind. My sensations in doing so are sometimes as smelly as San Francisco's rainy uriney Tenderloin streets, where in a sunken subway plaza homeless ones are reading, snoring or snarling in sodden sleep bags; infected by misery, I look away, but my eyes meet a man's red-eyed glare on those rainy steps in the dark; I could remember him or I could remember the woman sitting on those steps, singing; her pants and her jacket are soaking wet in that night rain and water runs out of her hair into her eyes; her titanic thighs are blotched with eczema and she keeps scratching them; she reeks, but she is smiling as she sings; of course the only honest thing to do is remember them both -- in my tent. I am a rich man. I'm one with the man in Bogotá who said: I'm scared about the poor people coming to take everything from me.”

This is powerful stuff and Vollmann lays it out and leaves it there for us to consider.

8 out of 10

Starting The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland

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The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Connor

A fairly thick slice of Southern Gothic packed with symbolism and religious imagery. The title is taken from the Bible: Matthew 11:12. From the Douay Bible, translated from the Latin Vulgate and commonly used in Catholic churches:

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”

There are a limited numbers of characters and all of the main ones are male. There are spoilers ahead, necessary to discuss the novel effectively. Fourteen year old Francis Tarwater lives with his great-uncle Mason Tarwater. His great-uncle has a clear vision that Francis, like him, is to be a prophet. He has raised Francis in a backwoods cabin, without outside assistance or school. When the old man dies, Francis travels to his uncle Rayber. He has had no contact with him since early childhood. Rayber is a secularist and he has a disabled son called Bishop. The disability is not made clear, but may well have been Down’s Syndrome. Before his death Mason had charged Francis with baptizing Bishop and so save his soul.

The three spend some time together, Rayber and Tarwater both battling with their destinies. Rayber wanting to civilize and educate Tarwater and Tarwater battling with whether he should be a prophet or not. Neither character is likeable and the violent act towards the end of the book confirms this. Tarwater hears a voice which turns out to be the devil. The voice tells him to drown Bishop: he does so, but accidentally baptizes him in the process. The book ends with Tarwater deciding he should be a prophet after all.

O’Connor was a devout Catholic and this novel does highlight what she felt about secularism and Protestant fundamentalism. The real message is that secular intellectualism will always fail.

There is also the approach to disability and mental illness to take into account. O’Connor weaves together mental illness and a certain type of fundamentalism. Disturbingly neither character is guilt-ridden or concerned about the death of Bishop; Rayber faints because he realizes he feels nothing in relation to the death. There is a lot of ambiguity in the novel, but in that ambiguity the differentness of religion and disability become linked to physical violence and one is left with negative stereotypes. Destiny is also a theme and there is a feel for that you really cannot escape it. The reader also has to consider the attitudes to race, O’Connor documents the white south very well.

There is a great deal going on in this novel and it is in turn striking, shocking and disturbing. The strength of O’Connor’s own faith is obvious and I didn’t agree with one of her central messages. I found the use of mental illness and disability as tropes unpleasant, but it was an interesting and challenging read.

6 out of 10

Starting The Little Company by Eleanor Dark

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The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese


A very slim novella which could be read in one sitting. It was written in 1940. It was published together with two other novellas just before Pavese died. Pavese was not only a novelist, but a translator, literary critic and poet. He was also an active anti-fascist and after the war was a member of the Italian Communist Party. Disillusionment and a failed love affair leading to depression resulted in Pavese taking his own life in 1950, he was only forty-one. The English translation in the new penguin edition dates from 1955 and now feels a little out of date.

It is a sort of coming of age novel and the main protagonist Ginia is sixteen and living with her brother Severino. As her brother works nights, she is very much left to her own devices. The novella focuses on Ginia’s friendship with Amelia who is an artist’s model. There is plenty of bohemianism and a focus on loss of innocence. There is also a sense of the freedom and vibrancy of youth:

“Life was a perpetual holiday in those days. We had only to leave the house and step across the street and we became quite mad.”

Her friend Amelia is a little older, more experienced and more carefree and this creates tensions for Ginia who is a little more cautious. Amelia poses nude and tries to persuade Ginia to do so as well:

“They argued as far as the tram and Amelia asked her what she thought she had under her clothes to preserve like a holy of holies.”

Ginia falls in love with Guido, one of the artists, and has her first love affair. Amelia is bisexual and has affairs with women as well. There is certainly sexual tension between Amelia and Ginia and they do kiss at one point. I did also wonder about the relationship between Guido and Rodrigues. On the surface this is a simple coming of age and loss of innocence tale, but there is always an undercurrent which occasionally breaks the surface, a sense that life is not so simple and hidden dangers lurk.

Pavese has many fans and Italo Calvino in particular was one of them:

“Pavese’s nine short novels make up the most dense, dramatic and homogeneous narrative cycle of modern Italy, and are also...the richest in representing social ambiances, the human comedy, the chronicle of a society. But above all they are works of an extraordinary depth where one never stops finding new levels, new meanings...Each one of Pavese’s novels revolves around a hidden theme, something unsaid which is the real thing he wants to say.”

Very brief, but there is more to this than meets the eye and at some point I will read more.

7 out of 10

Starting Resevoir 13 by Jon McGregor

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At Mrs Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor

This is Taylor’s first novel, published in 1945 and is a closely observed portrait of family life during the war, although the war is very much in the background. Roddy Davenant, his wife Julia and young son Oliver and Roddy’s cousin Eleanor move from London s Roddy has been posted away from London (he is in the RAF). They rent a house from a widow called Mrs Lippincote (hence the title). It still contains all her furniture and many personal possessions. The novel charts their life in the house.

It isn’t a happy marriage: Roddy is a conventional man, however he has realised that Julia isn’t quite what he expected:

“She exasperated him. Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women. One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes. Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe. When he had married Julia, he had thought her woefully ignorant of the world; had looked forward, indeed, to assisting in her development. But she had been grown up all the time; or, at least, she had not changed. The root of the trouble was not ignorance at all, but the refusal to accept. ‘If only she would!’ he thought now, staring at her; ‘If only she would accept.’ The room was between them. She stood there smiling, blinking still in the bright light. He was still fanning the air peevishly with his hand.”

Eleanor adores her cousin Roddy and rather disapproves of Julia. She is an interesting character as she becomes involved with a group of Marxists and Communists in the town, they provide an interesting counterpoint to the Davenant household. Eleanor is accepted by the group and treated as a person in her own right. All of the secondary characters are well developed and this is one of the strengths of the novel. Roddy and Julia’s son Oliver with his bookishness. The wing commander (Roddy’s boss) with his growing affection for Julia, Eleanor’s various friends and others. Oliver would have loved this site:

“Oliver Davenant did not merely read books.  He snuffed them up, took breaths of them into his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of the words.  Some emanation from the book itself poured into his bones, as if he were absorbing steady sunshine.  The pages had personality.  He was of the kind who cannot have a horrifying book in the room at night.  He would, in fine weather, lay it upon an outside sill and close the window.  Often Julia would see a book lying on his doormat.”

Julia for me is still the most interesting character in the book. She knows the situation between herself and Roddy much more clearly than she intimates throughout the book and she begins to show an independence that shocks Roddy, who is shown to be hypocritical and Julia begins to care less about some of the conventions Roddy holds dear:

“Julia had a strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly untarnished by preconceived ideas, whether of her own preconception or the world’s. Could she have taken for granted a few of those generalizations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is a woman’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people’s.”

Taylor is a sharp and perceptive novelist who dissects her characters and shows their true colours mercilessly but with some affection. This is a character driven novel, very little out of the ordinary actually happens. Everyday life is on show, laid bare. It is everyday life under the stresses of war; hardly on show, but ever present.

Oh and there are a few Bronte sidelines as well:

“Julia lit a cigarette and picked up Oliver’s books from his chair.  “I haven’t read Jane Eyre for years, have you, Eleanor?  There’s something about those girls that gives me the creeps.”

“What girls?  Oh, Brontë girls!””

I’m looking forward to reading more Taylor

8 out of 10

Starting The Bishop of Hell by Elizabeth Bowen

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Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

One of my favourite books this year. The novel is set in a village in Derbyshire, the Peak District (the well dressing gives that away). It starts at New Year in the early 2000s with the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl, staying in a holiday rental with her family. The village is a tourist spot close to the moors and the title refers to a series of reservoirs in the hills above and beyond the town. The narrative consists of thirteen chapters, each of them covers a year, the chapters being split into smaller passages covering each month or so. There are snippets from the lives of the villagers, all ages and statuses and the reader gradually gets to know each of them. As a plot structure it is interesting and here’s how McGregor explains it:

“As a writer, any time something dramatic happens, your instinct is to spend a number of pages on that incident. But when I was writing, say, February, I kept finding, This couple is going to get married, this couple is going to split up, this boy has fallen off a rock, but I’ve only got two pages to tell those stories. I had to leave it, and wait a year, and see what they looked like a year later. And that became a really interesting way of looking at narrative. These things in our lives sometimes take years to play out, and I hadn’t really thought about that before. I tricked myself into seeing it.”

Much of the first year revolves around the disappearance of the girl, inevitably. Over time the reader becomes more focussed on the lives and loves of the villagers. Over the years you see the teenagers in the village grow up, go to university and return again. Some die, some move in, others move on. There are gettings together and breakings up, minor crime and vandalism, an arrest for child pornography, the closing and opening of shops. Some events are set and the year revolves around them; the New Year fireworks, the annual cricket match with a nearby village, the well dressing and so on.

All aspects of life are cleverly run together and humour and tragedy sit easily side by side. As the New York Times review says, McGregor mixes “the mundane and the ecstatic”. You also get a strong sense of transition and change:

“There were cowslips under the hedges and beside the road, offering handfuls of yellow flowers to the longer days.”

It is very much a novel of voices and in that respect it reminded me a little of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. The voices can also be collective and the village itself seems to have a voice at times, for example when the local butcher and his wife break up:

“There was talk she was planning on opening a shop of her own. Organics. They went for that type of thing in Harefield. It was noticed that Martin was often away from the house. He was in the Gladstone or he was walking through the village, down the lane past Fletcher’s orchard to the packhorse bridge.”

This isn’t a neat novel which ties up all the loose ends, lives are left mid-stream at the end; McGregor does not seem to feel the need to provide that most modern of things, closure.

There is a strong sense of the natural world, the seasons and rhythms of nature:

“As the dusk deepened over the badger sett at the far end of the woods, a rag-eared boar called out a sow … The woods were thick with the stink of wild garlic and the leaves gleamed darkly along the paths. Jackson’s boys went out to the fields and checked the sheep.”

McGregor is also quite at ease employing a little local language and dialect:

“Jackson’s sheep had taken the fear and scattered through a broken gate, and he’d been up all hours bringing them back.”

There is a great sense of rhythm about this book and I think in its own way it’s a masterpiece (according to the Irish Times, a “humane and tender masterpiece”). There may be those who are irritated by the structure, but for me it carries the book along and McGregor makes the narrative stretch and shift its focus:

“There was a fight in the Gladstone, and talk it had something to do with Facebook. On the television there were pictures of explosions, fires, collapses, collisions. Broad beans started coming off the allotments by the carrier-bagful, and were shucked into saucepans from their softly-lined pods. The gentle cushioning of the broad-bean pod was one of nature’s senseless excesses. The work was a tedious delight. In his studio Geoff Simmonds took each newly fired pot from the tray and smashed it against the floor. He worked at a methodical pace. The rhythm was soothing.”

The novel starts with a horrifying event, but moves on and documents the life and lives of the villagers and pulls the reader away from the expected focus of the novel (without diminishing the horror) and says look over here at what is happening. Life goes on.

9 out of 10

Starting Fen by Daisy Johnson

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The Bishop of Hell and other stories by Marjorie Bowen

A collection of twelve tales by Marjorie Bowen, mostly ghostly and supernatural tales. Bowen wrote to support her family and wrote a great number of novels and short stories under a great variety of pen names. She is renowned for her gothic novels and her short stories, but she also wrote crime novels and a wide variety of other genres. These stories are set in the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

There’s plenty of melodrama, unhappy marriages, abused women, atrocious men (most of them get their comeuppance), obsessive lovers, marry in haste and repent at leisure, plenty of revenge, a few twists, a bit of clairvoyance and kidnap as a technique for attracting the opposite sex.

The Crown Derby Plate is an interesting story, a ghost story based on china collecting. Martha Pym buys a Crown Derby service at a house sale after the death of its occupant, sadly it is missing one plate. Many years later, she is in the area again which is very remote and isolated and hears that the current occupant is a very old woman. She decides to visit to see if the plate is there:

“"Do you really do everything yourself here and live quite alone?" she asked, and she shivered even in her thick coat and wished that Miss Lefain's energy had risen to a fire, but then probably she lived in the kitchen, as these lonely eccentrics often did.

"There was someone," answered Miss Lefain cunningly, "but I had to send her away. I told you she's gone, I can't find her, and I am so glad. Of course," she added wistfully, "it leaves me very lonely, but then I couldn't stand her impertinence any longer. She used to say that it was her house and her collection of china! Would you believe it? She used to try to chase me away from looking at my own things!"

"How very disagreeable," said Miss Pym, wondering which of the two women had been crazy. "But hadn't you better get someone else."

"Oh, no," was the jealous answer. "I would rather be alone with my things, I daren't leave the house for fear someone takes them away—there was a dreadful time once when an auction sale was held here—"”

The stories are brief and some of the endings are easy to anticipate. The Scoured Silk is one of the best stories, really creepy. Kecksies (a dialect name for hemlock) is particularly nasty. There are plenty of examples of the murkier side of human nature, especially of the male variety! This is a variable mix of stories, not as good as M R James, but for aficionados of classic ghost stories, it’s worth reading.

7 out of 10

Starting The Man who wasn't there by Pat Barker

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Fen by Daisy Johnson

A collection of short stories as a literary debut which are really difficult to classify but are impressive. They are set in the fens. The fenlands cover parts of East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and southern Lincolnshire. I am a Lincolnshire lad: I wasn’t born or brought up in the fens, but I know them fairly well. One thing you do get a lot of in the fens is eels (not quite as many as there used to be). Coincidentally I went to a farmers market this morning and inevitably there were eels (filleted and smoked, whole and smoked and jellied). Although reading the first story in this collection may make you wary of eating any.

The fens are flat ad can be bleak depending on the weather. There is a sort of edgelessness to them because of the flatness and there is a real wildness. Daisy Johnson herself uses the word liminal to describe the fens and the stories (look the interview up on you tube). You could describe the stories as surreal, but that wouldn’t quite describe them. They contain myth, a kind of wild magic and metamorphosis. The wildlife of the fens plays a significant role; eels and especially foxes, the lines between animals and people blur. The protagonists are all women and there are interesting explorations of female sexuality, and women’s relation to men. The story about three women living together stands out in this respect; they lure men back home not just for the usual reasons, but to eat them and the analysis of men is interesting:

"When we were younger we learnt men the way other people learnt languages or the violin… We did not care for their thoughts; they could think on philosophy and literature and science if they wanted, they could grow opinions inside them if they wanted. We did not care for their creed or religion or type; for the choices they made and the ones they missed. We cared only for what they wanted so much it ruined them. Men could pretend they were otherwise, could enact the illusion of self-control, but we knew the running stress of their minds."

The stories totally ditch the idea that the male gaze is what matters and Johnson can write pastoral gothic like no one else I have read; she starts ominous and gets more so. These are modern stories and are unsentimental, as in How to Lose It:

"Virginity was a half-starved dog you were looking after, wanted to give away as quickly as possible so you could forget it ever existed. It was the lingo of sales and stocks; what was the best deal, when was the right time to sell it all."


“You do not shave your legs or pubic hair. It is not a wedding night, nor a parade or a party or an invitation. You are not a welcome mat.”

Along with some sharp analysis:

“You watch yourself pretend you’ve never known anything in your life and never much felt the compulsion to. You want to make him think you have no history or education; that you might have had language once but it’s gone now. You want to make him think you’re so scrubbed clean of any sort of intelligence that he can lay himself out on you and you’ll soak him up.”

The stories continue to surprise. The first one Starver seems set up to be a standard teenage anorexia story when a girl announces she is going to stop eating, and does. But metamorphosing into an eel is very much not part of the standard script. And is there a link to the last story where a female lighthouse keeper encounters a fish that seems to have almost human qualities. Look out in that one for the representations of male sexuality which wants to possess rather than enjoy.

There are touches of fairy story, myth and magic: a house that falls in love, a woman made of fen clay reading Madame Bovary (“she would not tell him about being more field than human ... On hot days she heard the internal crackings of her baked insides, felt the make-up run from her clay skin.”), a young man who dies tracking a fox whose spirit may now be in the fox and look out for the one with the albatross (not a bird you see on the fens) which comes out of leftfield. Then there is an earthiness about them as well, as in How to fudge a Man you Don’t Know:

“When he says he likes your boobs or that your bottom is tight or that you’re pretty fun aren’t you, you tell him words are cheap enough to spit and push his face the place you want it to go.”

These stories are inventive, well written and quite brilliant. The writing and language sometimes seem to flatten like the landscape, there is much that is wild and other, but rooted in people we can recognize and places that are real. People brought up in small towns may recognize these reflections from a fifteen year old girl:

“There wasn’t anything special about either of them except they thought they didn’t belong there. But didn’t everybody, she’d say while her friends leant back and watched the mudded thighs of the boys playing football on the school field, didn’t everybody want to bloody leave? … We’re boring. It was the truth. In a town where there was nothing to do they did well at doing nothing…they had never gone further than the nearest city; they had never done anything worth doing.”


These stories will haunt you. I already have her first novel, just published and on the Booker longlist.

 9 and a half out of 10

Starting Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny

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The Man Who Wasn't There by Pat Barker

A rather brief novel from Barker, but cleverly constructed. It is set in the 1950s in the decade after the war and concerns Colin, a twelve year old boy. Colin lives with his mother Vivienne. His father, he knows nothing about and it seems he disappeared in the war. His mother will not tell him about his father which leaves Colin plenty of scope for imagination. His mother works in a night club and is having an affair with her married boss and Colin is on his own a great deal, looked after by an assortment of friends of his mother and neighbours.

Colin imagines what his father may have been like and in his imagination he creates a story which weaves in and out of his daily life and is written as a screenplay. The story he creates involves the French Resistance:

“Colin plodded up the hill, half moons of sweat in the armpits of his grey shirt. In the distance, lampposts and parked cars shimmered in the heat. All around him was the smell of tar.
Gaston jerks himself awake. A sniper is crawling across Blenkinsop’s roof, but Gaston has seen him. He spins round, levels the gun, and fires.
The sniper—slow motion now—clutches his chest, buckles at the knee, crashes in an endlessly unfurling fountain of glass through the roof of Mr Blenkinsop’s greenhouse, where he lands face down, his fingers clutching the damp earth—and his chest squashing Mr Blenkinsop’s prize tomatoes.
Gaston blows nonchalantly across the smoking metal of his gun, and, with never a backward glance, strides up the garden path and into the house.
As he passes through the hall, Gaston taps the face of a brass barometer, as if to persuade it to change its mind. No use. The needle points, as it does unswervingly, in all weathers, to Rain. Madame Hennigan, the landlady, believes in being realistic, and no mere barometer is permitted to disagree.
Gaston clatters up the uncarpeted stairs to the top-floor flat.
Where he becomes, abruptly, Colin again.”

It’s a while since I was a twelve year old boy, but I think Barker captures the time and place well. There are brief glimpses of school and boyhood friendships which rang true. Colin’s longing for a father runs through the whole as he sees those around him struggle. He hears his mother and her boss in the bedroom next to his at night. He sees the adolescent fumblings of his older friends and the petty cruelties of teenagers. It is well written and not sentimental. There are lots of loose endings and nothing is resolved but the whole is compelling. There are messages about identity, adolescence and loneliness. I felt it could have been longer, but that’s a personal opinion, but it’s by Barker, so it’s good!

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Pride against Prejudice by Jenny Morris

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Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

This is a dystopian science fiction novel set in the Toronto of the future, where the centre of the city has been isolated and abandoned following riots and is now ruled by a crime lord whilst the rest of society has moved out of the city. The inhabitants of the city get along by barter and people grow things and there is still some trade with the outside world. There is little law and order, plenty of violence and feral children roam the streets, some of whom periodically disappear. The novel revolves around Ti-Jeanne and her lover Tony who is a henchman of the crime lord Rudy. The plot is a little far-fetched and involves the harvesting of organs. Central to the plot though are strong female characters, all of whom are Caribbean Canadian. Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother have the skill of healing passed through the generations, they also have contact with the spirit world and practice Obeah.

The novel is effectively a struggle between good and evil and the tension between use of Obeah powers for good or evil. This is Hopkinson’s first novel and was recommended by Octavia Butler, which drew me to it. There is some local and Caribbean idiom present, which isn’t off putting and isn’t difficult to understand. Hopkinson argues that science fiction is a good way of portraying the lives of outsiders and can provide hope because it suggests paradigm shifts which other genres may not so easily do. She feels science fiction offers hope of change:

 “I tend not to read what I would call ‘mimetic’ fiction or fiction that is imitating reality. In mimetic fiction the world is not reflecting me back to myself.… I grew up so depressed, I felt there was no room for me in the world. Reading mimetic fiction just feels to me like more depression.”

It can be noted that Ti-Jeanne is a female version of Walcott’s Ti-Jean from his play Ti-Jean and his Brothers, but instead of a fraternal trio, there is a maternal trio. The women throughout are striving to make things better and are coming up against male violence and male structures. This is certainly a feminist reworking of Obeah, used for the good of society and in direct conflict with evil. There is some graphic violence and the ending is a little too well tied up, but this is a first novel. I have to ask, would I read more by this author and yes I would. She does interesting things with myth, reworking in a feminist way.

7 out of 10

Starting The Windeater by Kerri Hulme

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The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland

This is the first Maitland I have read: it’s a piece of historical fiction set in the 13th century. The plot is quite convoluted and certainly rather gothic, focussing on the practice of alchemy, very prevalent at the time. The story involves three protagonists whose destinies gradually intertwine. The narrative voices are written in different ways (first person, third person etc.) and this doesn’t always make for smooth reading and makes the whole a little disjointed. The three voices are all young, Vincent (later Laurent) is an apprentice librarian in France (although he is English) he comes upon a secret which he tries to use to his own ends with disastrous consequences and he finds himself on the run with an intricate silver raven’s head. He ends up in a town in Norfolk, where we find Gisa. She is the niece of an apothecary who helps her uncle prepare his potions and to find unusual things for the local lord. She is then charged with going to the local manor every day to help Lord Sylvian with his alchemical experiments. The third narrative voice is Wilky, a young boy who is given by his parents to the White Friars to pay off a debt, in the same town. Wilky, now called Regulus, discovers that the boys who are there have a purpose, at night the head of the order carries out alchemical experiments on one or two of them. Sometimes those boys don’t return. The three lives are drawn together as the alchemists’ experiments become more sinister.

The plot runs along fairly well, but Vincent is not easy to like or relate to as a main protagonist. The background is well set and I did like the writing. The twists and turns at the end take some suspension of belief and the twist on the last page didn’t feel right to me at all. I enjoyed it and will read some of her more well-known novels at some point. However it did send me off to sleep at night.

6 out of 10

Starting A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

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Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

One of Woolf’s non-fiction works and a follow up to A Room of One’s Own, published in 1938. This essay is structured as a response to a letter from a man asking Woolf to join him in trying to prevent the looming war and asking how war can be prevented. Woolf’s response centres on a number of things. She refers to two other letter: a request for money to help support a women’s college and a request to assist an organisation to help women enter the professions.

This enables Woolf to take a close look at women’s education and women in the professions in constructing her response about war. She does not pull her punches in her assessment of the situation:

"Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed."

Woolf’s arguments are at times subtle and detailed but she focuses firstly on the difficulty that women have entering the professions, with mention of the lack of equal pay for men and women and secondly on the problem of education for women. It is certainly an anti-fascist polemic, but it is also a polemic which denounces imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy. Woolf goes as far as to argue that the roots of fascism lie in the patriarchal family. Three guineas is certainly an angry book.

The original publication contained five pictures, not of fascist dictators, but of people Woolf felt represented patriarchy, people well respected and part of the establishment: former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Gordon Lang, Lord Chief Justice Gordon Hewart, founder of the scouting movement and war hero Sir Robert Baden-Powell and finally the state trumpeters of the Household Cavalry. There is a photograph of each juxtaposed with their image from the back of cigarette cards which were very popular in the 1930s. The implication is that each of these are implicated in the perpetuation of war. The oppression of women in Britain is linked quite clearly to the perpetuation of war and to Continental fascism. Woolf, in talking about war speaks about photographs of dead children and ruined houses, photographs you might expect to see in a book opposing war. However they aren’t there and their absence is significant as is their replacement by the photographs included. It is almost as though Woolf is saying they are responsible for all this. Many editions of Three Guineas don’t include these pictures and that is a significant loss; they give the book an extra dimension.

This is a powerful and well-argued polemic which is more radical than it first appears with a clear call for the destruction of patriarchy and its link to private property. There are reflections on religion and education as well as war and a close look at how their exclusion of women have contributed to the perpetuation of war. Powerful stuff.

9 out of 10

Starting Racism 101 by Nikki Giovanni

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Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny

A collection of essays and writings from the ever interesting and stimulating Laurie Penny. These are short pieces, collected from a variety of sources. They are grouped under several topics: the American election and Trump, love, violence, culture, agency, gender, backlash and violence. As always Penny passionately champions feminism, patriarchy and what she sees as the current move to the right in the US. Her remit is wide-ranging:
“You cannot separate issues of gender and identity from issues of political and economic struggle. They are the same struggle.”
What I do like about Penny is that she is prepared to tackle difficult issues, including the debate within feminism about transgender issues. Her radicalism though is a caring variety and she acknowledges that what needs doing will be difficult, “Rapid social change is uncomfortable, even for people who like to see themselves on the right side of history”. She is clear though about where she is coming from:
“I understand that a great many people are aggrieved that women, migrants and people of colour no longer seem to know their proper place. I understand that a great many otherwise decent human beings believe that more rights for black, brown and female people means fewer rights for ‘ordinary people’, by which they mean white people. But just because you’re angry doesn’t mean you’re right.”
She is also clear that the future won’t be easy:
"I have no hopeful messages to convey, like ‘Go home and chill out. Everything will work out,’ because nothing works out on its own. There is a lot of effort awaiting us,”
"Although patriarchy is a structural problem, a lot of people believe it is about many individual incidents that have nothing to do with each other. To me, living in this world as a woman means experiencing all instances of violence or sexism in ways that are always interlinked.”
Penny is cogent and as you can see, very quotable and she illustrates difficult arguments very well:
“Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalized people, to be spoken frankly. They are the opposite of censorship.”
There is a great deal of humour as well as anger in these essays. My only real frustration was that because these are essays/journalistic pieces there is no extended analysis, but that is a minor point. This is well worth reading.

8 out of 10

Starting The Coffin Path by Catherine Clements

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Racism 101 by Nikki Giovanni

This is a collection of essays by the poet and writer Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni is old enough to remember the segregation of the 1950s and she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. This collection is from the mid-1990s.
The subjects covered are very varied and include racism, education, writing as a profession, family life, food, Christmas, a critique of Spike Lee, identity, Toni Morrison, her childhood, Star Trek and much more. Although there subject matter is often serious, there is a lightness of touch, “Life is far too serious to take seriously.” Giovanni is thoughtful and passionate and there is a great variety here which is refreshing. She makes some good points about education:
“It is called education because it is learned. You do not have to have had an experience in order to sympathize or empathize with the subject. That is why books are written: so that we do not have to do the same things. We learn from experience, true; but we also learn from empathy.”
But she is just as easy talking about Malcolm X, getting annoyed with Spike Lee or talking about food. The writing is warm and vivid, Giovanni makes her very serious points elegantly, and she is a shrewd observer of people. As Virginia Fowler’s forward says:
“These pieces are artistic expressions of a particular way of looking at the world, featuring a performing voice capable of dizzying displays of virtuosity.”

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan

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A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

This is the third novel by Taylor I have read and I think this is the best so far. It is set in a small seaside town in southern England. It is a quite claustrophobic piece focussing on a small group of the town’s residents. Not much happens, but the whole is nuanced and there is a tension between the artistic and domestic. But don’t let Taylor deceive you: she’s sharp, she makes her point at a time when women novelists were expected to fit a certain role. The rather creepy librarian says to the owner of the waxworks museum, Lily Wilson:
“That’s a fine and powerful story. ...No need to be prejudiced against lady novelists. In literature the wind bloweth where it listeth. ...Ladies – and you notice I say “ladies” – have their own contribution to make. A nice domestic romance. Why ape men?”
One of the main characters, Beth (a variation on Elizabeth maybe), is a writer and this gives Taylor a chance to reflect on the trials of being a writer:
‘This isn’t writing,’ she thought miserably. It’s just fiddling about with words. I’m not a great writer. Whatever I do someone else has always done it before, and better. In ten years’ time no one will remember this book, the libraries will have sold off all their grubby copies of it second-hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And, even if I were one of the great ones, who in the long run cares? People walk about in the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James were never written. They could not easily care less. No one asks us to write. If we stop, who will implore us to go on? The only goodness that will ever come out of it is surely this moment now, wondering if “vague” will do better than “faint”. Or “faint” than “vague”, and what is to follow; putting one word alongside another, like matching silks, a sort of game.’
The characters are well developed, not too many for confusion and we have an affair, a local gossip who monitors comings and goings, a local public house and its denizens, a doctor and his wife (the doctor having the affair with wife’s divorced best friend who lives next door, a rather dashing but slightly aging artist who is definitely a hit with the ladies, various younger elements who are discovering what life is about and a few minor characters.
The themes are not new, intimacy and betrayal, art and life, the masks we all wear. All the characters are well drawn, very flawed. All of the characters feel very alone, but brush up against the others in their aloneness. There is also a death bed scene and having been at a few death beds, this is very well written and resonated with me, the best part of the book as far as I was concerned, along with Edward’s letters to his mother.

9 out of 10

Starting A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

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Infidel by Hyaan Hirsi Ali

This is a fascinating autobiography describing a Muslim childhood and upbringing in Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. Ali has had a fascinating life and one of the strengths of this book is her descriptions of her childhood. The book goes on to cover Ali’s avoidance of an arranged marriage and her move to Holland, her gradual learning of the language and customs. She went into Dutch politics and later became well known for her collaboration with Theo Gogh to highlight the situation of Muslim women. His subsequent murder and the threats to her life are well documented and the book ends at this stage of her life.
The autobiographical sections relating to Ali’s childhood are gripping. There are descriptions of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and accounts of life in three different countries. Family is a constant as are regular beatings. Ali focusses on the role and position of women in Islam, including arranged marriage and FGM.
Ali argues passionately about the role of women in Islam and their need for liberation. She has been criticised for adopting Western attitudes and mores and becoming an apologist for the west, calling for the defeat of radical Islam. Writing here, Ali is pessimistic about the possibility of Islam changing and reforming and she argues that there is no hope for Islam as the Islam she experienced cannot change. It’s an interesting argument and having been brought up in a fundamentalist Christian sect I do understand how she feels. Like her I am now an atheist. However to argue that the extremists and fundamentalists are the only face of Islam and that deep down all Muslims are like this I think goes too far. It would also be going too far to say the deep down all Christians are the same as the hellfire breathing fundamentalists. It is certainly not my experience. I disagree fundamentally with the concept of religion but I acknowledge the right to freedom of thought and I can distinguish between the many fundamentally good people who practise religion and the extremists.
This is a challenging and interesting account of a difficult childhood which illustrates that patriarchy does not just exist in the west. However I do disagree with some of the conclusions Ali draws and her too easy acceptance of some western values.

6 out of 10

Starting Winter in the Morning by Janina Baumann

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The Windeater by Keri Hulme

A collection of short stories by Keri Hulme. Having enjoyed The Bone People I decided to try this collection and wasn’t disappointed. The stories are certainly experimental and at times could be described as having elements of magic realism. A wide variety of styles makes this feel like a collection by several writers. Hulme is part Maori and the culture and influence comes through. This collection has been criticised for being negative, violent and even horrific. Well guess what: this isn’t sanitised culture for the rugby field, it speaks of oppression and injustice and of the many Maoris at the edge of society in New Zealand. Hulme’s voice is strong and her feminism shines through as well:

“I remember the words and I remember the sting, and I still hate all that shhhhhhh, men being tapu, and women being noa. Don’t eat here; don’t put your head there. Don’t hang your clothes higher than the men’s; never get up and talk on the marae. ‘Our women don’t talk out front,’ you said. ‘Arawa women speak only from behind their men.’ And you wonder why I went city?”

Themes of death, dying and maiming may seem bleak but there is a very strong and physical connection to the natural world which feels very much like a character in many of the stories.

Inevitably the writing has a strong poetic content as Hulme is also a poet:

“What can I say to you?

That is clean, new, untrammeled,

Free from smears and fresh from mother tongue?

         and the rain is all around

       a pin to skewer a cloak of flesh.

“solitary tall hills,

Sometimes walk, sometimes meet”

   {Sacred knob/holy top/Puketapu}

And from ancient halls mounds vestibules

Spinning out of the golden past

Sommmetimes the resonance of words,


Isolation and alienation are also important themes.

I may not seem to be selling this too well but these are remarkable and haunting stories which stand well with some of the greatest short story writers.

8 out of 10

Starting The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

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Pride against Prejudice by Jenny Morris

This is one of the seminal works of the disability rights movement and so it is surprising that it appears to be so little read. It approaches the subject of disability from a feminist perspective. This was written in the early 1990s and much has changed since then (for better and worse). The book covers debates about quality of life, the representation of disability, institutionalization and care homes, debates within feminism, the politics of disability and community care.

There is an interesting look at disability and its representation in western culture. This includes a look at the Third Reich, but also at modern film and TV. Films like My Left Foot and Born on the 4th of July which Morris argues portray how awful dependence is for a man, wheelchairs making the dependency more vivid. She argues disability is used as a metaphor for dependency. She also reminds the reader of the portrayal of the disabled as villains (Captain Hook for example). Morris also analyses the way disabled women are represented in literature and film, which is often very passive and helpless (for example Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark) with a heroic non-disabled person as rescuer.

In contrast Morris describes at the end of the book being part of a protest against Children in Need by a disabled activist group called Campaign to Stop Patronage. They were on the pavement outside Broadcasting House and Morris, with some relish describes the reactions of people queuing to go in: initially thinking the group in wheelchairs were supporting the charity and then reacting with shock and disbelief when they realised it was a protest against it.

Morris writes with great clarity:

“Our disability frightens people. They don’t want to think that this is something which could happen to them. So we become separated from common humanity, treated as fundamentally different and alien. Having put up clear barriers between us and them, non-disabled people further hide their fear and discomfort by turning us into objects of pity, comforting themselves by their own kindness and generosity. It is this response which lies at the heart of the discrimination we face – in employment, in housing, in access to all the things that non-disabled people take for granted.”

There are harrowing descriptions of life in various types of institutional care and a look at the assumption that disabled lives are lives that are not worth living. This is particularly prescient following the developments in genetic engineering. Morris looks closely at the debates within feminism, especially in relation to community care. She goes on to make a distinction between “organisations of” disabled people and “organisations for” disabled people.

Morris covers a wide range of arguments and this is a comprehensive analysis of why society treats disability in the way it does and is really a must read for all of us.

9 out of 10

Starting Courage calls to Courage Everywhere by Jeanette Winterson

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