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At the start of 2020 I am currently reading

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Winter by Ali Smith

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Folk by Zoe Gilbert

The Pinecone: the story of Sarah Losh by Jenny Uglow

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

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This year the target is 80 books. Also in this is a women related reading goal. A friend on GoodReads is doing a reading women Bingo which goes as follows:


1 1900s (year of publication)
2 sci fi
3 Latin America (author country of origin)
4 queer (theme/author)
5 potential classic (published after 1969)

1 translation (not from English)
2 play
3 disability (theme/author)
4 pre-1800s (year of publication)
5 novella (less than 200 pages)

1 2000s (year of publication)
2 long read (600+ pages)
3 free space
4 less than 1,000 ratings
5 fantasy

1 1800s (year of publication)
2 nobel prize laureate
3 Africa (author country of origin)
4 less than 5,000 ratings
5 mystery/thriller

1 Less than 10,000 ratings
2 Asia (author country of origin)
3 poetry
4 nonfiction
5 short story collection


So I am attempting this. In terms of the ratings: less than 1000 would be not very well known, less than 5000 would be moderately well known and less than 10000, well known.

Of the books I have started:

The House of the Spirits is B3

Newfoundland is N2

Winter by Ali Smith is O1, less than 10000 ratings

The Five is O4 

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The rest of my selections for the above are:

G3 Africa: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
I5 Novella: Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy
O2 Asia: Women Who Blow On Knots by Ece Temelkuran
B4 Queer: Mean Little Deaf Queer by Terry Galloway
I4 Pre 1800s: The Tale of Genji 

O5 Short Story Collection: Isobars by Janette Turner Hospital
O3 Poetry: Say Something Back by Denise Riley
N4 Less than 1000 ratings: The Three Sisters May Sinclair
G2 Nobel Laureate: The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
G1 1800s: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen    

N5 Fantasy: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
N1 2000s: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
I1 Translation: Disoriental by Negar Djavadi
B5 Potential Classic: Liza's England by Pat Barker
B1 The 1900s: The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall    

B2 Scifi: The long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers
G5 Mystery/thriller: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
I3 Disability: Call me Ahab by Anne Finger
G4 Less than 5000 ratings: Jubilee by Margaret Walker
I2 Play: For Colored who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
N3 Free Space: I want to read two books in conjunction and one of them will fit into this free space. They are:
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz       

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On 01/01/2020 at 3:42 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

At the start of 2020 I am currently reading

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Winter by Ali Smith

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Folk by Zoe Gilbert

The Pinecone: the story of Sarah Losh by Jenny Uglow

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles


Wow, that's a strong selection.  Recently read The Five, non-fiction runner-up and third overall for the year in my awards.  The Pinecone did similarly well a couple of years ago - I think this is one of my favourite Uglow books (herself a favourite author of mine), although I know that's not a universal opinion.  Hope you enjoy them as much as I did.  Haven't read others, but there's several with very strong reviews behind them.  Will be interested to see what you make of them.

Edited by willoyd

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Thank you Willoyd; will keep you posted!

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

The premise is straightforward. Raynor Winn and her husband Moth are in the early 50s. A poor finance decision has put their home in Wales at risk: it’s a small farm/smallholding and they have been there for about twenty years. They lose a court case and lose their home and it’s all pretty brutal with bailiffs and all. Two days later Moth is diagnosed with a terminal degenerative illness, Corticobasal degeneration:

“..a rare degenerative brain disease that would take the beautiful man I’d loved since I was a teenager and destroy his body and then his mind as he fell into confusion and dementia, and end with him unable to swallow and probably choking to death on his own saliva. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing they could do about it.”

What to do? Especially as they have very little money and although they can rely on friends for a week or two it isn’t a long term solution. They decide to spend their last money on some basic camping equipment and to walk the coastal path between Minehead and Poole. A total of 630 miles around the coast of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset. The book recounts their journeys and how they managed with only £48 per week.

One interesting issue raised by this account relates to homelessness. Urban homelessness is obvious and clear to see. Rural homelessness is different and not so obvious and often does involves backpackers with their lives on their backs. Seasonal work often means people do not have the means to keep a roof over their heads. Winn describes coming across all sorts of people who were homeless, often overlooked by society:

“They were hidden away, communities living together in the woods going out to work every day. They lived in horse-boxes, sheds, all sorts of ways that people find to live if they don’t have a house.”

Winn also makes some very important points about perception and attitude about homelessness:

“When people asked how we had so much time to walk so far, we’d explain we lost our home. They’d almost physically recoil — that reaction came as a shock. We learned how to deal with it — to say we’d sold our house, we were having a mid-life moment, going where the wind took us. And they’d say: ‘Oh Wow! That’s inspirational’. There’s a huge difference between how people perceive selling and losing one’s home.”

The beginning of the book is traumatic as Winn and Moth lose everything and losing a home is always more than just bricks and mortar:

“Every stone we had carefully placed, the tree where the children played, the hole in the wall where the blue tits nested, the loose piece of lead by the chimney where the bats lived,”

She doesn’t minimize the difficulties they faced:

“The very beginning was especially difficult, not just because Moth was finding it so physically hard, even getting out of the tent in the morning and putting his boots on — but because of the transition from the normal life we’d led a few weeks earlier to now finding ourselves homeless on the cliffs.”

One of the surprises was Moth’s physical state. The doctor’s had said it would be a downhill path, but over the walk he gradually improved and became stronger. The illness remained, but the trajectory was different.

As you might expect there is a bit of travelogue and a good deal about food or lack of it. A diet of fudge and noodles isn’t to be recommended. Some of the travelogue bits are rather basic and feel like they’ve been taken out of guides. There is also a danger of being a little preachy. This clearly worked for Winn and Moth, but there is no guarantee that this could be a universal panacea. It is however inspiring and very moving at times and Winn makes some very pertinent points about homelessness.

8 out of 10

Starting For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange



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Great first review! I've been really intrigued by The Salt Path ever since I heard about it so it's nice to see such a detailed review. I'm particularly looking forward to your reviews of The Five and Winter for the same reason!

I'm also very interested to hear what you think about Folk. I really liked it, but it's not quite like anything I've ever read before. 

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Thanks Hayley

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

“A novel of alienation and existential despair” written just after the Second World War. I think I was supposed to like this: I didn’t.

It is essentially about three Americans wandering around North Africa and the Sahara just after the war. Kit and Port Moresby are the centre of the book, a married couple travelling; their friend Tunner is with them for part of the journey. Bowles is very caught up with the difference between a tourist and a traveller, he spent his later life living in North Africa:

“He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America”

There is a very early indication that the whole is not going to be a cheerful travel romp or a clear-sighted cultural analysis or even a critique of colonialism when Port talks about “infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness”. Yep, we’re going to be navel-gazing and reflecting on how tragic we travellers are. To give Bowles his due, there is no sense of romance about the travel, it’s all pretty grim.

There is a sort of love triangle between Port, Kit and Tunner which is partially hinted at (especially between Port and Tunner).

One of the problems with this is attitude towards the general population. Bowles in his writings shares his feelings about Moroccans, “The Moroccan, educated or otherwise, simply does not believe in germs”. There is an underlying racism. There are plenty of colonialist clichés. Even some of the minor western characters have interior lives, the French colonial soldiers and administrators. The Moroccans are not given that privilege.

As for the attitude to women; Kit is a collection of stereotypes based on some rather disturbing male fantasies (spoilers ahead). The rape scene is an example: Kit immediately falls in love with her rapist (cue tropes about handsome “dusky” males and no really means yes). So in love is she that she allows some other bloke to rape her as long as the first bloke is there. I’m probably missing some irony here, but this was just awful.

Bowles was frequently derogatory about his adopted country, “thought is not a word one can use in connection with Morocco”. He frequently uses words like “purely predatory”, “essentially barbarous” and “childlike”. He also was very influenced by the “Hamitic hypothesis” that everything of value in Africa came from the Hamites, a Caucasian race who were superior to all the races to the south (nothing to do with skin colour of course!!!). These sort of ideas permeate this book.

I haven’t even touched on the attitudes to mental health! How does this stuff become so revered?

2 out of 10

Starting The Futurist Cookbook by Filippo Marinetti

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For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange

This is a choreopoem and is a series of twenty poems for a cast of seven principals: they are Ladies in Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple and Brown. It expresses the struggles and problems that African-American women face; and amazingly it’s 45 years old now. The poems are linked by music. Subjects addressed include rape, domestic violence, loss, abortion and being abandoned. This is based on Shange’s own experience.

I have read this rather than seen a production of it and obviously it would be much more powerful on stage. There is a film as well which I also haven’t seen, but will look out for.

There is so much in this and Shange dissects the relationship between black women and black men as well as looking at how black women are portrayed:

“ever since i realized there waz someone callt

a colored girl an evil woman a bitch or a nag

i been trying not to be that & leave bitterness

in somebody else’s cup”

Shange’s candour has been criticized for highlighting this issue, but she is clear what her focus is:


“sing a black girl’s song

bring her out

to know herself

to know you

but sing her rhythms

care/struggle/hard times

sing her song of life

she’s been dead so long

closed in silence so long

she doesn’t know the sound of her own voice

her infinite beauty”


Shange also says what she has to say with a deal of humour as well:


“without any assistance or guidance from you
i have loved you assiduously for 8 months 2 wks & a day
i have been stood up four times
i've left 7 packages on yr doorstep
forty poems 2 plants & 3 handmade notecards i left
town so i cd send to you have been no help to me
on my job
you call at 3:00 in the mornin on weekdays
so i cd drive 27 1/2 miles cross the bay before i go to work
charmin charmin
but you are of no assistance
i want you to know
this waz an experiment
to see how selifsh i cd be
if i wd really carry on to snare a possible lover
if i waz capable of debasin my self for the love of another
if i cd stand not being wanted
when i wanted to be wanted
& i cannot
with no further assistance & no guidance from you
i am endin this affair

this note is attached to a plant
i've been waterin since the day i met you
you may water it
yr damn self”


Shange grew up in the midst of the civil rights movement and the turbulence of the 1960s and it shows in this; she is making a point not just to black men, but to the white feminist movement as well. There is a pattern of frustration as well; an alienation and loneliness because issues with black men. There has been an ongoing debate surrounding this which has been well documented.

It was also interesting to see a walk on part for Toussaint L’Overture.

This is a powerful piece of work with many layers and a powerful and significant message. I hope to see it on stage one day; but in the meantime I will look out for the film.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


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Winter by Ali Smith

This is the second in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. It isn’t a follow on from the first with new characters. There are four principals. Sophia is an aging businesswoman living in a large house in Cornwall which is mostly empty. Her older sister Iris is a child of the protest movements, including Greenham Common. Sophia’s son Arthur (Art) runs a blog called Art into Nature. It is the Christmas season and Arthur is supposed to be taking his girlfriend Charlotte home to meet his mother. Unfortunately he and Charlotte have split up rather acrimoniously. Rather than turn up alone he sees a girl at a bus stop and offers to pay her to impersonate his girlfriend for the visit. Her name is Lux. That is pretty much the whole cast. There are plenty of flashbacks into the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Whilst there isn’t a great deal of plot, there is a lot going in: including some sharp word play. Trump is in the background and is only directly referenced right at the end. But then Smith references the Berlin tune White Christmas linking it to a growing white nationalism. The penultimate line is “God help us every one!” Obviously a play on Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. There’s plenty of this type of word play and references to contemporary events. When Sophia realises that Lux (Charlotte) is from Croatia she refers to her not as Charlotte, but as “that foreign girl”, bringing to mind the “us vs them” mentality of Brexit. There are inevitably Shakespearean references and the plot of Cymbeline is present. Also real things seem fake and fake things real, referencing the current fake news era. There are links to the Arthurian legends and even Woolf’s Orlando. There are also plenty of references of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, linked to Sophia and Hepworth’s use of form:

“a means of retaining freedom whilst carrying out what was demanded of me as a human being… a completely logical way of expressing the intrinsic ‘will to live’ as opposed to the extrinsic disaster of the world war.”

There are plenty of ghosts of Christmases past and a look at loneliness and community at Christmas with some thoughts about Christmas music:

“It gives a voice to spirit at its biggest, and encourages spirit at its smallest, its most wizened, to soak itself in something richer. It intrinsically means a revisiting. It means the rhythm of the passing of time, yes, but also, and more so, the return of time in its endless and comforting cycle to this special point in the year when regardless of the dark and cold we shore up and offer hospitality and goodwill and give them out, a bit of luxury in a world primed against them both.”

Most of the time Smith keeps her own feelings in check, but just occasionally she shows her anger:

“Sophia had been feeling nothing for some time now. Refugees in the sea. Children in ambulances. Blood-soaked men running to hospitals or away from burning hospitals or away from burning hospitals carrying blood-covered children. Dust-covered dead people by the sides of roads. Atrocities. People beaten up and tortured in cells.
Also, just, you know, ordinary everyday terribleness, ordinary people just walking around on the streets of a country she’d grown up in, who looked ruined, Dickensian, like poverty ghosts from a hundred years ago.

It’s the story of a season, a country and two sisters. There are plenty of loose ends and most of them are not tied up (thankfully). It doesn’t have the sharp immediacy of the first in the series, but it’s a worthwhile addition.

8 out of 10

Starting Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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The Futurist Cookbook by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

This is a rather bizarre offering from one of the pioneers of the futurist movement. It provides some of the most strange recipes I have ever read and is primarily a plea/demand for Italians to give up eating pasta because it leads to bloatedness and idleness and is not good for the spirit. There's a great deal that's Avant Garde, and slightly surreal. Unfortunately there is a significant amount of misogyny and racism and as this comes from the late 20s and early 30s, a support for fascism.

It's all about novelty and shock and the setting for the food is as important as the food. There may also be an element of prank about it, but it seemed to be taken perfectly seriously at the time. Let me give you a little flavour:

"A Simultaneous Dish

(formula by the futurist aeropoet Marinetti)

Chicken aspic, half of it studded with squares of raw young camel meat, rubbed with garlic and smoked, and half studded with balls of hare meat stewed in wine.

Eat this by washing down every mouthful of camel with a sip of acqua del Serino and every mouthful of hare with a sip of Scira (a non-alcoholic Turkish wine made with must)"

Raw meat of various types is fairly common in the recipes. There's also quite a focus on flying and some of the meals are supposed to be eaten in aeroplane cockpits.

Here's another example:

"Sicilian Headland

(formula by the Futurist Aeropainter Fillia)

Chop together tuna, apples, olives and little Japanese nuts. Spread the resulting paste on a cold egg and jam omelette."

There's a great deal more like this and certainly some of it reminded a little of what Heston Blumenthal has been doing.

I didn't like the political philosophy and after a while the recipes and settings just become boring, but it is an interesting period piece.

5 out of 10

Starting Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel

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It is good vodkafan and rather positive as well

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

This work finally puts in place what has been missing from studies relating to Jack the Ripper: it focuses on the five women, not on the murderer or the methods of murder. Rubenhold has meticulously done her research and her gaze is directly on the five and not on the Ripper. She dedicates the book to the five. Rubenhold is very clear that the dismissal of the women as "just prostitutes" is entirely wrong. Only one, Mary Jane Kelly, had consistently worked as a prostitute, Elizabeth Stride had periodically, but not for long. In doing so Rubenhold is able to highlight the status of women at the time:

"When a woman steps out of line and contravenes the feminine norm, whether on social media on on the Victorian street, there is a tacit understanding that somone must put her back in her place. Labelling the victims as 'just prostitutes' permits writing about Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane even today to continue to disparage, sexualize and dehumanize them; to continue to reinforce values of madonna/'lady of the night'"

There are no gory descriptions here and the actual deaths barely merit a paragraph. There is a good deal of analysis of the nature of the workhouse, descriptions of the doss houses where the poor often slept and a look at sleeping rough in the capital at the time. A number of the women worked in domestic service and the precariousness of this way of life is made clear. The role of alcohol was key for a number of the women. All of them had been in relationships, four had married and there were several children. Rubenhold has carefully researched each woman and pieced together the stories. The research is so thorough that when she has to fill in gaps, she does so with authority. A fair amount is known about four of them. The fifth, Mary Jan Kelly remains mostly unknown. We don't actually know when or where she was born or what her real name was. Rubenhold follows all the leads and outlines the various possibilities, but she remains a mystery. But she gives them all agency and a voice, taking the focus off the brutality of their deaths. There are clear descriptions of the lives of the working (and non-working) poor and how their lives were lived. One of the issues Rubenhold has said she wanted to highlight relates to childbirth (and death):

“You have these women with horrible birth injuries from repetitive childbirth and really terrible antenatal care… Women just gave birth until their bodies gave out.”

This is a proper history book, well researched and telling a set of stories to put the spotlight on where it  should be in relation to Jack the Ripper; on the five women and their backgrounds.

9 out of 10

Starting The Tale of Genji

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The Five sounds very worth a read. My daughter at school has been researching Annie Chapman for a dramatic play they are doing, I am sure she would also find this interesting.

Just out of curiosity, has the author any connection to Jake Rubenhold?

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It is excellent Vodkafan; not sure if there is a connection though.

Folk by Zoe Gilbert

This is set in the fictional village of Neverness, located on an island loosely based on the Isle of Man. Folklore and tradition is at the heart of the novel and there is a re-working of traditional themes. Although it is billed as a novel, it is really a linked collection of short stories. One of these stories won the Costa short story award in 2014. Interestingly there is no religion and religious imagery in the traditional sense. There is plenty of superstition, which is culturally important and a careful adherence to ritual. These are fairy tales, with no fairies in sight. There is also a strong sense of nature and the natural world. Hares, kites and bees all play starring roles. Neverness is on an island and the narrowness of belief reflects real life concerns. In one tale a woman perceived as a witch and scapegoated.

There is no easy chronology here and some natural rules are suspended. A sentence like "Verlyn Webbe has a wing in place of an arm" will immediately put some readers off. There is a shared geography and some shared characters, although major characters in one tale become minor ones later. The stories do build a sense of place and there is violence in the mythography: nature really is red in tooth and claw. Tradition, ritual and a belief in a story seems to make it true. Gilbert is also good at setting a scene:

 “Listen, for the beat that runs through the gorse maze. It is an early twilight, the opening between last sun and first star, the door of the day closing until, soon, night will seal it shut. There are feet thudding in the gorse’s winding tunnels, hearts thumping in time. Above them the breath of boys hisses. Puffs of their steam are lost in spiny roofs.” 

One reviewer has referred to this as a map rather than a novel or collection of stories (and there is indeed a map of Neverness in the front of the book) and this certainly makes sense to me. A map of British mythic imagination with a core that repels and entices at the same time. It is vaguely reminiscent of Angela Carter.

The boundaries between nature and human life are blurred; there are water spirits looking for female companionship, people able to leave their bodies and soar with the kites (a bird of prey) at night and maybe decide to stay up there forever. It's not a demanding read and if you like myth and folklore you are likely to enjoy it. There is plenty of fluidity of roles, but Gilbert maybe could have extended that fluidity to gender and sexuality as well.

7 out of 10

Starting Liza's England by Pat Barker

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Great review of The Five. I read it around Christmas time, and it was a real standout book (my non-fiction runner-up for the year).  I only managed a brief review, which I hope is of interest, and that you don't mind my copying below.  As you'll see, I pretty much concur with everything you say in yours!  I gave it 5 out of 6 stars ('excellent'); I'm still contemplating upgrading to the full six.


In a field completely swamped by various takes on the murder narrative and/or whodunnit, the author brings a completely different and fresh perspective to the Jack the Ripper story.  In this absolutely fascinating history, Rubenhold focuses on the lives of the five murdered women and brings them vividly to life.  All too often virtually dismissed as 'just' prostitutes and victims, here we see something completely different, that they were just as much victims of prejudice and an ill-informed media (nothing new there then!), and that in reality most had nothing to do with the sex trade, and that whether they did or didn't, they were above all "daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers.  They were women.  They were human beings, and that surely, in itself, that is enough."  What I found almost as equally fascinating was the social history that their varied lives reflected, going way beyond the streets, alleyways and dosshouses of the East End. Of the murders themselves there is very little mention - Rubenhold leaves that for others, concentrating instead on their lives not their death (apparently much to the disgust of quite a few Ripperologists, but IMO absolutely spot on). It was very easy to see why this won the Bailie-Gifford Non-fiction Prize this year, being one of my best reads, fiction or non-fiction, in 2019. 


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Thanks Willoyd, The Five is definitely a stand out book for me too.

Where the Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel

Lewis-Stempel has written books about the natural world and about the First World War. Here he combines these two interests and looks at the natural world and the war. There are chapters on birds, horses, vermin (four legged and six legged), flowers and gardens, pets (dogs, cats and the like) and hunting and shooting. Between each chapter is an interstice, some contain poetry, others lists of mascots, statistics about disease, lists of battlefield birds and lists of naturalists. There is a good deal of poetry in the book. Lewis-Stempel also uses a large number of journals from soldiers and officers.

There’s a lot of what you would expect in this, but there are some interesting observations. The corpses in no man’s land attracted huge numbers of birds like crows and magpies which fed on them. Rats and mice also did the same, which meant there were large numbers of raptors and owls feeding on them. The corpses also accounted for the millions of flies on the western front. Horses were also vital for moving things around, but there weren’t enough in Britain to meet the need and so many were brought across the Atlantic, especially mules, which were better adapted for the mud on the front. Over half a million horses and mules were used throughout the campaign. The soldiers also needed feeding and I wasn’t aware that by the end of the war, most of the fresh food the army needed was grown near the front; celery grew particularly well in trenches!

There are the usual stories about hunting, shooting and fishing. Fishing sometimes supplemented rations. The penchant of the English aristocracy and upper classes to go into the countryside and shoot anything that moves didn’t change at war. There is also a good deal of sentimentality when it comes to pets and animal companions.

The journal extracts and poetry are interesting (some of the poetry is good, some not so). Ivor Gurney stands out and one of his phrases is striking:

“The amazed heart cries angrily out on God”

Note that he is not crying out to God, but “On God”, in a poem about pain: animal and human.

Another thing to remember is the relationship of many people at this time to the countryside. The Church of England, away from its evangelical and Anglo-Catholic extremes had (and has) a tendency to pantheism. The theologian Thomas Traherne said:

“How do we know but the world is that body; which the Deity has assumed to Manifest His Beauty”

The countryside he loves is not the handiwork of God, it is God. There is a good deal of this evident in poetic and journal form. Yearning for home is inevitable amidst the suffering and dying. This poem illustrates the feelings of those who got home, it is by Will Harvey:

“For I am come to Gloucestershire, which is my very home.

Tired out with wandering and sick of wars beyond the foam.

I have starved enough in foreign parts, and no more care to roam.

Quietly I will bide here in the place where I be,

Which knew my father and his grandfather,

and my dead brothers and me.

And bred us and fed us, and gave us pride of yeoman ancestry

Men with sap of Earth in their blood, and the wisdom of weather and wind.

Who ploughed the land to leave it better than they did find,

And lie stretched out down Westbury way, where the blossom is kind;

And lie covered with petals from the orchards that do shed

Their bloom to be a light white coverlet over the dead

Who ploughed the land in the daytime, and went well pleased to bed.”

This is interesting, informative and well researched. There is some sentimentality and some stomach churning moments. There are plenty of lesser known poets and a few of the usual suspects. The glimpses of the front at Gallipoli are also of interest.

7 out of 10

Starting Who was changed and who was dead by Barbara Comyns

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I really want to read The Five, I've only heard great things about it!


Folk vaguely reminded me of Angela Carter too, I think maybe the main difference being that Angela Carter (I'm thinking specifically The Bloody Chamber) is inspired by fairy tales, while Zoe Gilbert really focuses on the folk tale (and I think she captured the essence of the folk tale really well!)


Where the Poppies Blow sounds really interesting (although also very sad), I've never heard of it before. 

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Hayley, The Five is really good. I enjoyed Folk and as you say it is more about folk tales.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Although this was published posthumously it is one of Austen’s earlier works and it is a satire of the contemporary gothic novels. Do I need to outline the plot, probably not? Suffice to say that Catherine Morland is seventeen and has led a very sheltered life. She goes to Bath to see something of society and she has adventures (well, in an Austen kind of way). Particularly “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe. It was published in 1794 and Austen was writing Northanger Abbey about ten years later. Catherine Morland was obsessed by the book as is evidenced by her conversation with Isabella Thorpe:

“But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning? Have you gone on with Udolpho?

‘Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.’

‘Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are you not wild to know?

‘Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? – But do not tell me – I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it, I assure you; if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.

Catherine’s obsession continues into her daily life:

“Oh, that we had such weather here as they had at Udolpho, or at least in Tuscany and the South of France! – the night that poor St Aubin died! – such beautiful weather!”

And, of course there is the famous Austen quote:

“The person ... who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”

The plot is fairly limited, but the satire is sharp and clever and Austen has a purpose in her satirical barbs, but we also see Austen at her most parochial:

“Charming as were all Mrs Radcliffe’s works and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for.

But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist.”

Austen’s England is primarily middle and upper class, we see very little of the servants, the producers of food, the poor. And, of course we also know that given the location of Bath (close to Bristol), then a significant part of the wealth was based on the slave trade.

That being the case, this is still an easy read and makes some interesting comments about the role of middle class women and the marriage market and Catherine is an engaging protagonist.

7 out of 10

Starting Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

by Susanna Clarke

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The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow

This is a competent biography of the little known Sarah Losh who lived from 1786 to 1853. She spent most of her life in Wreay in Cumbria. She is now remembered for her design and construction of Wreay church which she managed and oversaw in detail. This was at a time when women could not be architects. She built other buildings and monuments in her local area which she designed herself. Her upbringing was unusual in that she was educated, her father believing in the education of women. She was fluent in French and Italian and translated Latin. She was allowed to travel and she and her sister Katherine travelled on the continent for a couple of years. Losh never married and lived with her sister. She inherited the family property and improved it. She was undoubtedly middle class, but like others of her class she provided for the poor in her area and built a school.

Losh was brought in a radical household, excited by the French Revolution, her family were friends with Wordsworth and the other romantic poets, including Coleridge. It is likely that she was one of the first people to hear “The Ancient Mariner”.

Losh’s Church is remarkable in that most of the traditional symbolism is completely missing or discretely hidden (on the backs of chairs for example). Instead the decorations are from the natural world, ammonites, ferns, butterflies, flowers, lotus flowers, pinecones (the universal symbol for fertility), a stork, eagles and much more. There are no saints in stained glass. As Uglow says:

“The gargoyles are turtles and dragons. Instead of saints and prophets, the window embrasures are carved with ammonites and coral, poppies and wheat, caterpillar and butterfly. Inside, the light is filtered through strange stained glass, bright leaves on black backgrounds, kaleidoscopic mosaics, alabaster cut-outs of fossils. The pulpit is a hollow tree trunk made from black oak, dug from the bog. An eagle and stork of ferocious energy hold up the lectern and reading desk and on the altar table, instead of a cross, are two candlesticks in the shape of the lotus, immortal flower of the East.”

Uglow takes note of the roots of the designs Losh employed and it also indicates the breadth of her reading and scholarship:

“Like a geologist demonstrating the strata of belief, she decorated the church with symbols that looked back to the earlier religions, myths and cults that lay buried beneath Christian imagery and ritual, as the wheat of Demeter and the grapes of Dionysus lay behind the bread and wine of the sacrament.”

Rossetti, when he saw it in the 1850s found it remarkable as did Pevsner many years later. Losh was influenced by her travels on the continent and the simpler architecture she found in Lombardy. She was very much not a fan of gothic architecture. Her family were also friendly with prominent Unitarians, which may have also influenced the lack of iconography. Another puzzle were several arrows stuck into the walls. Much has to remain a puzzle as Losh’s journals have not been found, so Uglow has to work around that gap.

This is also a story of sisters and Uglow draws a parallel with the Austen sisters. She also compares Losh to Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. It is clear to me that had Losh been born later she would have been a remarkable and world renowned architect. We do have her church and some other buildings local to her and Uglow does a good job of charting herlife and accomplishments.

8 out of 10

Starting Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

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When you said 'competent', I thought you were going to damn a bit with faint praise, but a score of 8 out of 10 suggests otherwise!  I must admit I generally love Jenny Uglow's books, and this for me was one of her better ones - gave it a full 6/6.  I like her mainstream biographies, but prefer her slightly off beat efforts, such as this and Thomas Bewick, Nature's Engraver, etc (actually, her Hogarth was a stonker - must reread it sometime).  I'm hoping to get stuck into In These Times soon - another promisingly interesting angle.


Looking forward to hearing about Black Tudors.

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I enjoyed it Willoyd, got my eye on her biography of Edward Lear as well.


Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns

This is set in an English village in the early 1900s, written in 1954. It has the wit and sharpness of Cold Comfort Farm with added corpses. Central to it all is the Willoweed family. A tyrannical grandmother, a son, Ebin who appears to do very little apart from try to avoid his mother and sporadically teach his two younger children, three children Emma, Hattie and Dennis, two maids (Norah and Eunice) and the gardener and handyman Ives who is determined to outlive Mrs Willoweed senior. Hattie is dual heritage, but this does not seem to be an issue and is hardly noted, apart from Ebin wondering where his late wife managed to find a black lover in the middle of rural Warwickshire.

The novel opens with a flood:

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. Old Ives stood on the veranda steps beating his red bucket with a stick while he called to them, but today they ignored him and floated away white and shinning towards the tennis court…..

Strange objects of pitiful aspect floated past: the bloated image of a drowned sheep, the wool withering about in the water, a white bee-hive with the perplexed bees still around; a new-born pig all pink and dead; and the mournful bodies of the peacocks. It seemed so stark to see such sorrowful things under the blazing sun and blue sky – a mist of rain would have been more fitting.”

The characters are overdrawn and larger than life and some of the action rather surreal. Comyns draws her little community and then throws in something incendiary. The baker introduces a new line of bread made from rye and people in the village become unwell, some have hallucinations, some commit suicide and there are a whole range of other symptoms and quite a number die. Ergot, a fungus which grows on rye, turns out to be the culprit, but everything is changed by the time the source is identified: hence the title.

There is a sort of fairy tale feel to this, albeit refracted via a cracked mirror. The descriptions are vivid:

“As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only the cocks alive. The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered in water. The squawked a little; but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared.

The river running through the village is at the centre of it all and a certain amount of the action takes place on it, especially as grandmother Willoweed insists on travelling on it. There is a figure who is blamed and sacrificed, a sort of Christ figure, but Comyns often does this in her novels

It is not as shocking today as reviewers found it at the time, although some of the laugh out loud moments really shouldn’t be. I was slightly irritated by the ending and I don’t think it’s as good as The Vet’s Daughter, but it is Comyns and is a good read.

8 out of 10

Starting But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

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Oooh, sound good.  I've never read Comyns before, but you obviously rate her.


I have a hardback copy of Mr Lear - as trade books go, it's a gorgeous production.  Looking forward to reading it too.



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Comyns is well worth a try Willoyd

But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

This is a brief novella written in the form of a letter written by Loridan-Ivens to her father. Loridan-Ivens is a French Jew and in 1944 when she was fifteen she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau with her father. She returned from the camps, he did not: hence the title. As you would imagine the descriptions of the camps are difficult to read. This describes the arrival of a group of Hungarians:

“They undressed them, sent them to the gas chamber – the children, babies and old people first, as usual”

The very ordinariness of the phrase is what is chilling, it becomes normal. Loridan-Ivens takes her father through her life, in the camps and afterwards. One thing she does return to again and again is that whilst she was in the camp her father did manage to send her a note starting, “to my darling little girl”. However, apart from that one phrase she cannot remember the rest of the note and cannot understand why.

The description of the difficulties of life after the camps is telling, as is the guilt of those who were not sent to the camps (her brother and sister who escaped the camps, both committed suicide). Loridan-Ivens vividly describes her struggle to make any sense of her life:

 Why was I incapable of living once I’d returned to the world? It was like a blinding light after months in the darkness. It was too intense, people wanted everything to seem like a fresh start, they wanted to tear my memories from me; they thought they were being rational, in harmony with passing time, the wheel that turns, but they were mad, and not just the Jews — everyone! The war was over, but it was eating all of us up inside.”

With her second husband Joris Ivens, she made documentaries looking at issues of oppression. As she writes this she is in her late eighties and laments the rise of Anti-Semitism again and in particular in France. Her film work is significant and especially “A Little Birch Tree Meadow” from 1973 which follows the life of a survivor of Birkenau. She was very much involved in the intellectual ferment of the left bank in Paris in the 50s and 60s and in the struggle for Algerian independence.

A brief and powerful account of one survivor of the Holocaust with a passionate defence of humanistic values.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis

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The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

This is an account of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London and of the work of John Snow who through his scientific investigations managed to establish that cholera was waterborne and that the source of this outbreak was the Broad Street pump. This was going against the scientific opinion of the time a miasmic theory which argued that air, small and conditions were responsible. The book covers a variety of areas: history, biography, detective work, epidemiology and scientific investigation. Johnson uses a Victorian novelist’s trick and takes a chapter to introduce each player. The first chapter introduces the city of London and then the main players, John Snow, Rev Henry Whitehead, Edwin Chadwick and William Farr. The account of Snow’s investigations is fascinating. The descriptions of the conditions in London before the sewer system was built was pretty stomach churning. I never realised that most basements/cellars were used as cesspits. Also the descriptions of the myriad citizens who in varying ways made a living out of the waste has its own fascination.

It’s a great story and I knew a bit about Snow, but I was less aware of the role of Whitehead. He was working as a vicar in the area and knew and visited many of those who died. He did a good deal of the detective work that supported Snow’s thinking. Snow, of course, was already known for his work on chloroform and anaesthesia and would have had a place in the history of medicine just for that. Johnson’s introduction to the book is a good summation:

“This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. One dark week a hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of great terror and human suffering, their lives collided on London’s Broad Street, on the western edge of Soho.

This book is an attempt to tell the story in a way that does justice to the multiple scales of existence that helped bring it about: from the invisible kingdom of microscopic bacteria, to the tragedy and courage and camaraderie of individual lives, to the cultural realm of ideas and ideologies, all the way up to the sprawling metropolis of London itself. It’s the story of a map that lies at the intersection of all those different vectors, a map created to help make sense of an experience that defied human understanding.”

The book is somewhat repetitive at times: and then there is the epilogue, which leaves the subject of the book and is much more speculative. Johnson looks at increasing urbanization, arguing we are becoming a city planet and looking at what might put this at risk. He focuses on various types of terrorism, individual with weapons and explosives, portable nukes, chemical and biological. Here Johnson is in a more reflective mode, but it is very speculative and not really on the mark with too much painting terrorists as pantomime villains and not enough analysis. Skip the last chapter.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

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Liza's England by Pat Barker

This was originally called The Century’s Daughter, because the main character was born in 1900. Barker wrote this in the 1980s and it is her third novel. Barker’s first three novels can be seen as a trilogy in themselves. They all concern working class women in the north of England and the toughness of their lives. This is about the life of one particular woman, Liza. The themes are familiar for those who know Barker’s work: mental health, the effects of war, family relationships and great structural change.

The novel is set in the 1980s when Liza is living alone (apart from a parrot called Nelson, who has been with her since the local pub closed in the 1960s) and in one room in the downstairs of her house. The houses are being knocked down and she is the only one remaining, all of the rest of the houses in the street are now empty, but Liza is refusing to move. During the novel we see Liza’s life as she looks back. In the present she is visited by Stephen, a social worker and we follow his story a little as well as he tries to come to terms with the local disaffected youth. He is gay and has his own problems to contend with as well. He visits Liza for the first time:

“He saw how time had moulded, almost gouged out, the sockets of her eyes, how two deep lines of force had been cut into the skin between nose and lip, how the hand that came up to grasp the scarlet shawl was brown-speckled, claw-like, but finely made. He saw, too, that her neck was grained with dirt, that there was dirt in the lines of her face, that the scarlet shawl was stained with parrot shhhhhhh. None of this mattered. Like a rock that wind and sea have worked on since the beginning of time, she needed to apologize for nothing, explain nothing.”

On one occasion Stephen takes her out to look at the local landscape:

“The wind keened across the brown land, and it seemed to Liza that it lamented vanished communities, scattered families, extinguished fires. Mourned the men who’d crowded to the ferry boat, at each and every change of shift, their boots striking sparks from the cobbles as they ran.
She saw her father among them, and his voice echoed down the road that was no longer a road. Ginger-black, afraid of nobody. Men spilling out of the pubs to watch him race”

Barker is very accurate in her descriptions of industrial decline and alienation which marked Thatcher’s Britain. The themes of violence, poverty, class and ambivalent community weave in with the nature of aging. We see Liza throughout her life as a strong woman, but in older age she is still at the mercy of cultural constructions of aged bodies and identities. Liza, who has been strong and vocal throughout her life is becoming silent, invisible and powerless. The powers that be are trying to prove she is “senile” to making moving her easier.

The men in this novel are as powerless as the women, but they express their frustration and find relief in drinking, fighting and f**king.

This is Barker at her sharpest when it comes to telling the story of class and alienation. Liza is a likeable character, with flaws but a good representation of strong working class women in the north of England. Barker is always worth reading!

8 and a half out of 10

Starting The Three Sisters by May Sinclair

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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