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What's it Like Out by Penelope Gilliat

This is a collection of nine short stories written in the mid-1960s when Gilliatt was married to the playwright John Osborne. Gilliatt also wrote a few novels. Interestingly, one of them was about London during a pandemic. The stories were originally published in the New Yorker magazine. Gilliat picks up on the odd and unusual and has a good eye for dialogue. The characters are portrayed warts and all and often communication and connection are the key and character is crucial.
Gilliatt is also very good with one liners. An older couple who have ceased to speak to each other:
“No one understands loneliness if they haven’t been married,”
The Redhead covers a whole life and Harriet is the redhead of the title. She is very tall and does not look conventional and her mother doesn’t like her:
"Mrs. Buckingham's dislike gave Harriet a sort of bristling resilience. She had from the beginning an immunity to other people's opinion of her, which isn't a characteristic that is much liked in women."
And also when she was an orderly in the First World War:
“Boadicea with a bedpan”
A review in the New York Times noted:
“All the stories deal with separation and disintegration: marriages break up, partnerships split; people grow away from each other, even as they fear the pain of parting.”
On the whole the stories are enjoyable. There were some tropes which were too obvious and a few issues with language. The novel about the pandemic looks interesting, but only because we are in one!

6 out of 10

Starting Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson

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Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson

This is the third novel I have read by Jessie Kesson. It tells the story of an isolated community in rural Scotland over a period of 30 years, mainly through the eyes of the head dairyman on one of the farms, Hugh Riddell. The novel does periodically switch to other points of view: to Hugh’s wife and daughter and other local residents. The community of Caldwell seems unchanging and insular, but modernity is creeping up. The setting is post Second World War, but the narrative is not really linear. There is a particular incident referred to near the beginning of the book and taking place near the end round which the whole thing revolves. There is a social hierarchy which the War has begun to loosen, but it is still there and Kesson is charting the start of its downfall.

At times the book feels as bleak as the landscape. There is the occasional flash of humour: for she was a tight woman and had she been a ghost she would have grudged giving you a fright”. And the character of Sue Tatt brings a certain humour, but her portrayal is as poignant as it is amusing.

There are times when the dialect is a little difficult and for me I enjoyed Kesson’s other two novels I have read more. But if you like bleak then this may be for you!

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Shorts and Thoughts by Maggie Fogarty

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Red Shelley by Paul Foot

Of all the upper and middle class white boy poets of the early nineteenth century: Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Southey, Coleridge etc, for me there has only really been one that mattered: Shelley. Paul Foot has eloquently reminded me why. It was Marx who allegedly said that if Byron had lived he would have become a bourgeois reactionary (like Wordsworth), but if Shelley had lived he would have remained radical and been in the vanguard of socialism and revolution. This may come as a surprise to some who may be used to reading the Shelley they find in the anthologies and peddled by the Shelley society. Foot looks at all of Shelley’s writing and shows that his prose is as important as his poetry and that his views were truly radical for the time. He also expressed his anger eloquently. Take the beginning of The Mask of Anarchy, for me his most important poem, where he reacts to the Peterloo massacre. Castlereagh is the prime minister of the time and Shelley was in Italy:

I

As I lay asleep in Italy

There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

II

I met Murder on the way -

He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

 

III

All were fat; and well they might

Be in admirable plight,

For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Foot deals with a number of aspects of Shelley’s thought. His atheism is pretty straightforward and stayed with him throughout his life. Those who have tried to tame Shelley have tried to argue he moved towards religion in later life, but Foot deals with this effectively. His republicanism is again incontrovertible. Foot also deals with his attitude to women and his attitudes to reform and revolution. Shelley was always aware of injustice. This is from a pamphlet called “Address to the people on the Death of Princess Charlotte”:

“Thus much the death of the Princess Charlotte has in common with the death of thousands. How many women die in childbed and leave their families of motherless children and their husbands to live on, blighted by the remembrance of that heavy loss? How many women of active and energetic virtues—mild, affectionate, and wise, whose life is as a chain of happiness and union, which once being broken, leaves those whom it bound to perish, have died, and have been deplored with bitterness, which is too deep for words? Some have perished in penury or shame, and their orphan baby has survived, a prey to the scorn and neglect of strangers. Men have watched by the bedside of their expiring wives, and have gone mad when the hideous death-rattle was heard within the throat, regardless of the rosy child sleeping in the lap of the unobservant nurse. The countenance of the physician had been read by the stare of this distracted husband, till the legible despair sunk into his heart. All this has been and is. You walk with a merry heart through the streets of this great city, and think not that such are the scenes acting all around you. You do not number in your thought the mothers who die in childbed. It is the most horrible of ruins:—In sickness, in old age, in battle, death comes as to his own home; but in the Season of joy and hope, when life should succeed to life, and the assembled family expects one more, the youngest and the best beloved, that the wife, the mother—she for whom each member of the family was so dear to one another, should die!—Yet thousands of the poorest poor, whose misery is aggravated by what cannot be spoken now, suffer this. And have they no affections? Do not their hearts beat in their bosoms, and the tears gush from their eyes? Are they not human flesh and blood? Yet none weep for them—none mourn for them—none when their coffins are carried to the grave (if indeed the parish furnishes a coffin for all) turn aside and moralize upon the sadness they have left behind.”

I could add similar quotes on Ireland and on other subjects: Shelley’s prose surprises. So does his poetry. This is called A Ballad and wasn’t published until 120 years after his death. I wonder why?

A woman came up with a babe at her breast

Which was flaccid with toil and hunger-

She cried- “Give me food and give me rest

We die if I wait much longer-

 

The poor thing sucks and no milk will come;

He would cry but his strength is gone –

His wasting weakness has left him dumb -

Ye can hardly hear him moan.

 

The skin round his eyes is pale and blue –

His eyes are glazed – not with tears –

I wish for a little moment that you –

Could know what a mother fears.

 

Give me a piece of that fine white bread;

I would give you some blood for it –

Before I faint and my infant is dead –

O give me a little bit.

Shelley didn’t stop at the observation of poverty, he wanted to know why people are poor and what could be done about it. He even developed a form of what became known as The Labour Theory of Value and talked about liquidating landed wealth and privilege in his notes on Queen Mab. This is Shelley asking what freedom is from The Mask of Anarchy:

 

“Thou art not, as impostors say,

A shadow soon to pass away,

A superstition, and a name

Echoing from the cave of Fame.

 

                              

`For the labourer thou art bread,

And a comely table spread

From his daily labour come

In a neat and happy home.                                            220

 

              

`Thou art clothes, and fire, and food

For the trampled multitude--

No -- in countries that are free

Such starvation cannot be

As in England now we see.”

 

Although Shelley argued for universal suffrage, he also warned that the granting of it would not solve the problems we faced as power and privilege would remain. How right he was.

 

His approach to marriage was clear. This is from The Revolt of Islam:

 

“Well with the world art thou unreconciled;

Never will peace and human nature meet

Till free and equal man and woman greet

Domestic peace; and ere this power can make

In human hearts its calm and holy seat,

This slavery must be broken”

 

And this:

 

“Can man be free if woman be a slave?

Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air,

To the corruption of a closèd grave!

Can they, whose mates are beasts condemned to bear

Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish, dare

To trample their oppressors? In their home,

Among their babes, thou knowest a curse would wear

The shape of woman--hoary Crime would come

Behind, and Fraud rebuild Religion's tottering dome”

 

His approach to society is clear in Men of England:

 

 

Men of England, wherefore plough

For the lords who lay ye low?

Wherefore weave with toil and care

The rich robes your tyrants wear?

The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps;

The robes ye weave, another wears;

The arms ye forge, another bears.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:

Find wealth—let no imposter heap:

Weave robes—let not the idle wear:

Forge arms—in your defence to bear.

 

There is much more in this and similar vein in The Revolt of Islam, Queen Mab, The Mask of Anarchy, Swellfoot the Tyrant and Peter Bell the Third.

 

Foot does not hero worship or idolize Shelley; he delineates his faults and inconsistencies. What he does do though is show that at heart he is a radical who believed in radical solutions (for the time) to society’s problems. Some of those solutions would still be radical for our times sadly. For me there is only one of that group of poets who stays with me and that is Shelley.

9 out of 10

Starting Seahenge by Francis Pryor

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Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I read this in conjunction with Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz. The second is a reaction to the first and I found reading them in conjunction very helpful. The publicity blurb for the book is helpful:

“Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov.”

This is primarily a memoir. Nafisi describes her experience in Iran from the Revolution until she left for the US in 1997. For some of that time she taught literature at Tehran University. The class described above took place in the last two years before she left. The memoir jumps around a good deal and ranges around the 1980s and late 1970s. The discussions around books mainly revolve around Nafisi’s lectures. The Thursday meetings seem to revolve around more mundane matters like food, relationships, and issues around wearing the veil.

Much as I disapprove of the Iranian regime, as I disapprove of any regime based on religion, I found many of Nafisi’s criticisms rather short-sighted and simplistic whilst not minimizing the problems she faced. I could also have done without the teaching on James and Fitzgerald! There are more important concerns. Much of the criticism of this book centres on what is called New or Neo Orientalism. Hamid Dabashi accused Nafisi of playing the role that Thomas Macaulay had asked of the class of Indian civil servants in the Raj:

'We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.'

It is based on Said’s original concept which examined European justifications for being involved in the Eastern Hemisphere. New Orientalism scapegoats Islam for many ills and negates all nuanced interpretation. It has a tendency to prefer Western culture and politics. Keshavarz argues that often this New Orientalism is cloaked in an insider perspective as in this narrative. She names a number of others as well. There is a danger that books like this feed into the vehemently anti-Islamic and anti-anything but the West narratives and feelings in Western culture. There is a hostility in our culture to otherness and I think this is in danger of feeding that. That doesn’t negate the author’s experience, but reading the two books together was illuminating. Reviewing them separately is trickier! Keshavarz seemed much more sympathetic to the Iranian people and I learnt more from her account (review to follow).

5 and a half out of 10

Starting Mean Little Deaf Queer by Terry Galloway

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Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz

Keshavarz wrote this as a response to Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT) and I have read the two books together. She was concerned that Nafisi had misrepresented Iran and Iranian culture, but especially Iranian women. As Keshavarz says herself:

“The greatest omission in the content of Nafisi’s book is that it overlooks the agency and presence of Iranian women in the social and intellectual domain.  That is ironic particularly because the book’s main claim is to tell the untold story of women in post-revolutionary Iran.  If Reading Lolita in Tehran is the only book you have read about Iran, you would not be able to imagine that vibrant Iranian women writers such as Shahrnush Parsipur, Simin Behbahani, and Simin Danishvar ever existed, let alone imagine that they wrote during the same period that Nafisi’s book covers.  You would not guess that post-revolutionary Iranian cinema has women writers and directors as outspoken as Tahmineh Milani and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, or that women activists such as the Peace Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi spoke and wrote about women and children’s rights during the same period.  And these are only a few examples.”

This is not a negative book. Keshavarz looks at Iranian culture and literature pre and post revolution including poets and mystics. There is a close reading of Shahrnoush Parsipur's Women Without Men (1989), she describes the effect on her classmates of the early death of the poet Forrough Farrokhzad. There are poets, mystics, novelists, film makers, philosophers and many more.

The arguments are convincing and she goes through RLT in detail pointing out inconsistencies and the flatness of many of the players. Keshavarz draws on New Orientalism perspectives to make her point; she also points to the Westernization of goodness in RLT, an unqualified attribution of good things with the West. One of the problems is that readers, especially in the West, tend to bring many preconceived ideas with them about Islam and the situation in the Middle East and RLT just reinforces them with no thought or analysis.

Keshavarz sets the record straight and as a result my to be read list has suddenly grown a little longer!

8 out of 10

Starting  The long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

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Shorts and Thoughts by Maggie Fogarty

This is a set of short stories designed to make you think and to have an edge, creating a little disturbance with a twist along the way. The themes are obsession, life changing decisions, growing old, loss, life changes and the lonely and isolated. There are eight in all. What drew my attention to the collection was the fact that the author is donating half the profits to the Social Work Benevolent Fund. Being a social worker myself, how could I resist! Maggie Fogarty worked for Social Work Today in the 1980s and has reported on social affairs issues for many years. She has worked as a TV producer and journalist, but also writes. She has written a novel and some novellas. This collection was put together to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the British Association of Social Workers.

The stand out story for me was Two Doors, partly because it resonated for me personally. It is about a Child Protection social worker who has a decision to make; there are two urgent visits that need to be done, but which one does she prioritise. Inevitably she prioritises the wrong one and a child dies. She is vilified in the press and has to leave her job and change her identity. The story is brief and looks at her new life whilst reflecting on her old one. Although I work with adults and not children I face decisions like that several times a week. Although I manage a team of social workers I make sure the buck stops with me. I have more work to allocate than people to allocate to. So I have to decide who gets seen and when. It is difficult and often there are no right answers, just the lesser of the evils and no one notices when we get it right.

Other stories of note involve a woman finally confronting her father who was responsible for a childhood trauma, a woman with an acquired brain injury who wakes up every day with no memories of the day before and relies on notes and diaries to start again (yes, I know this has been done before, but this is shorter and more effective). There is a man recalling his life with his wife, a radio agony aunt who gets very involved in a domestic abuse situation. A woman who was an ex surveillance officer in the police force carries on what she did as work into her daily life without work; she researches the lives of those she comes across and “tries to help” with somewhat disturbing results. Unravelling Freddie is about a group of council workers whose job it is to dig into the lives of people who die alone and try to find family friends and connections. Deadline is about a woman who sits on a government committee whose task it is to think the unthinkable. Her area is end of life.

This is a good collection of stories which grew on me because they stay with you after reading and they do make you think. You may find things to question ore disagree with, but you do have to react. Recommended and cheap (at £3.99) with enough edge to satisfy.

9 out of 10

Starting A Lost Lady by Wi;;a Cather

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A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

This is a fairly brief work by Cather; written after the Plains trilogy and before her more reflective later works. It is set in a western town called Sweet Water built on the Transcontinental Railway. It tells the story of Captain Forrester and especially his younger wife Marian. It is mainly told by a young man Niel Herbert. His uncle Judge Pommeroy is the local lawyer. The centre of the book is the character of Marin Forrester who might be described as a socialite somewhat stifled by an older husband and the limited local society. The novel is a study in change and decline.

One of the themes in the novel is the harking back to a better and more noble times. Men like Captain Forrester were amongst the original pioneers of the west:

“One day was like another, and all were glorious: good hunting, plenty of antelope and buffalo, boundless sunny sky, boundless plains of waving grass, long fresh water lagoons yellow with lagoon flowers, where the bison in their periodic migrations stopped to drink and bathe and wallow. “An ideal life for a young man,” the Captain pronounced.

There is an idealized nostalgia in the novel as new and younger men (like Ivy Peters in the novel) came along and took over from the old pioneers. It is a common trend: the English do it as well. There is a golden age in the past, ruined by the nastiness of the present. In this case, what is missed is the fact that the pioneers had taken land that was already owned and settled by Native American peoples. Whilst Cather looks back with warmth:

"He had seen the end of an ear, the sunset of the pioneer. He had come upon it when already the glory was nearly spent. So in the buffalo times a traveller used to come upon the embers of a hunter's fire on the prairie, after the hunter was up and gone; the coals would be trampled out, but the ground was warm, and the flattened grass where he had slept and where his pony had grazed, told the story."

The reality was very different.

The novel is well written and is really a study of character. Hermione Lee in her introduction identifies three parallel plots. Firstly Captain Forrester’s gradual decline, secondly Marian Forrester’s story with its passion and contradiction and finally the framing story of Niel Herbert. Marian’s story is also clearly a narrative of female sexuality, in this case a pathologized sexuality. This is the point where Niel realises that Mrs Forrester has taken a lover following her husband’s stroke:

“In that instant between stooping to the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life. Before the dew dried, the morning had been wrecked for him; and all subsequent mornings, he told himself bitterly. This day saw the end of that admiration and loyalty that had been like a bloom on his existence. He could never recapture it. It was gone, like the morning freshness of the flowers.

Niel is a rather prim and irritating young man, who has a particular view of women and what they should be. Take his recollection of when he first saw Marian Forrester:

“He could remember the very first time he ever saw Mrs Forrester, when he was a little boy. He had been loitering in front of the Episcopal Church one Sunday morning, when a low carriage drove up to the door. Ben Keezer was on the front seat, and on the back seat was a lady, alone, in a black silk dress all puffs and ruffles, and a black hat, carrying a parasol with a carved ivory handle. As the carriage stopped she lifted her dress to alight; out of a swirl of foamy white petticoats she thrust a black, shiny slipper. She stepped lightly to the ground and with a nod to the driver went into the church. The little boy followed her through the open door, saw her enter a pew and kneel. He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognised her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known.”

There is also an example of racist language in a comment from Judge Pommeroy to Mrs Forrester. He is talking about the contrast between modern business and the pioneers:

“By God Madam, I think I’ve lived too long! In my day the difference a business man and a scoundrel was bigger than the difference between a white man and a n****r”

It isn’t just a casual reference, it’s a comparator.

This is meant to be one of Cather’s better works: I hope not! I understand the nostalgia industry and the portrayal of a decline of mores and standards and some of the characterisation is interesting, but the whole was problematic for me.

5 out of 10

Starting A Clear Stream by Marion Shaw

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The Tale of Genji

I read the Royall Tyler translation and the Folio Society edition. One of the bonuses of the edition I read is the marvellous art work. Well over a thousand pages long and over a thousand years old (written between 1000 and 1012). I can well understand how people can spend their whole lives studying this and around this. Sadly I didn’t discover this in my youth but nevertheless it was a wonderful reading experience. Not easy to follow all the time as there is a myriad of characters and it is most important to remember that they are identified by rank or role rather than by name as a rule. It has a claim to be the first novel and was written by a woman.

The tale is primarily about Genji and his doings (and misdoings), although he does die about two thirds of the way through, but there are also strong female characters. Woolf was a fan and she noted that it was originally meant to be read aloud:

“listeners ... were grown-up people ... absorbed ... in the contemplation of mans nature; how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; ... how beautiful the falling snow is, and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy.”

I will avoid the controversies (and there are many) and just say it is well worth taking out time to read this. Read a version with explanations and footnotes, these are very necessary.

9 out of 10

Starting Call me Ahab by Anne Finger

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That's a monumental read - well done.  I've been intrigued by this for some time.  I was put off actually reading by several reviews from people whose judgement I respect, who said that it was like a lot of myths/legends, telling what happened without much development of character or much else.  But then, I respect your reviews too - they've so often been right on the nail in how I think.  Several doorstoppers to tackle - better make a start soon!

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On 19/07/2020 at 10:39 AM, Books do furnish a room said:

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

 

This is meant to be one of Cather’s better works: I hope not! I understand the nostalgia industry and the portrayal of a decline of mores and standards and some of the characterisation is interesting, but the whole was problematic for me.

5 out of 10

 

That comment suggests this is your first Cather book?  If so, I'd suggest reading My Antonia or O Pioneers, both books in the Plains trilogy, before coming to a conclusion.If, however, part of the problematic issue is the exclusion of Native Americans, then they probably won't help, as the focus is completely on the pioneer settlers, and Native Americans simply don't feature.

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I've been thinking about getting a copy of The Tale of Genji once I finally finish with 1001 Arabian Nights so thanks for your review.

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The Tale of Genji isn't easy and I would suggest a copy with plenty of notes and explanations it makes a huge difference.

Willpyd, I've read Shadows on the Rock, which I enjoyed more, but I will read more at some point.

 

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

If you are looking for cheerful and uplifting, don’t start here: the title gives it away. The main protagonist is Stephen Gordon, named Stephen because her father wanted a boy and stuck with the chosen name when a girl arrived. This is a very English novel:

“Not very far from Upton-on-Severn–between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills–stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramberly; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.”

Stephen is upper class and whatever else she suffers in the novel, she is never poor.

It’s impossible to avoid mentioning the trial for obscenity in 1928. The impetus came from the tabloid press and the obscenity?

"she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover" and "and that night, they were not divided"

It was really about the depiction of a lifestyle, especially the sections set in Paris after the First World War. However battle lines were drawn and writers like Shaw, Eliot, the Woolfs, Forster, Smyth, Jameson and Wells amongst others. Although only a limited number (such as Woolf and Forster were prepared to testify). The outcome was a foregone conclusion and the novel was not published in the UK until 1949, after Hall’s death.

Inevitably there has been a great deal of debate about this book over the years with views and opinions changing and ebbing to and fro. One ongoing discussion is whether Stephen as she is described was transgender. As she says to her mother: "All my life I’ve never felt like a woman, and you know it."

There is a particular use of language as well. The use of the term invert stems from the work of Havelock Ellis. It is not, thankfully, a term that has survived.

Hall covers a good deal of ground in the 450 pages and the depiction of the bars and sub-culture of Paris in the 1920s are well drawn. France did not have the laws against homosexuality that some other countries had.

On particular aside, some of the minor characters are very strong. Puddle, one of Stephen’s later governesses, who is clearly lesbian is well portrayed. The animals in particular play an important role and are well written.

Reactions to this novel have been strong in both directions, for many it was the only lesbian novel they had heard of. Mary Renault, who read it in 1938 recalls it as being earnest and humourless. However one Holocaust survivor noted:  "Remembering that book, I wanted to live long enough to kiss another woman."

The ebb and flow go on. Hannah Roche has recently reassessed The Well:

“Was Hall cleverly turning to a Victorian mode in order to critique the politics of modernism, challenging the value of aesthetic experiment and obscurity? I argue not only that The Well was stylistically as impressive as the most celebrated of ‘difficult’ 1920s novels, but also that, by boldly appropriating an accepted (and heteronormative) genre, Hall makes a statement about the rightful position of lesbian writing that dares to strike its readers in ways more direct and profound than the audaciously avant-garde.”

For me, I understand its importance and I wasn’t expecting a happy ending (I wasn’t disappointed in that). Puddle’s advice to Stephen is powerful:

“You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet–you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely. Have courage; do the best you can with your burden. But above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind. Let your life go to prove this–it would be a really great life-work, Stephen.”

There’s still an element of apologizing for who you are and carrying a burden, but then even today the struggle continues.

Many problems in the novel arise from a lack of communication, but nothing has changed there! You can see the ending coming from a long way off, although the means is not obvious until late in the book. It’s not that well written and doesn’t stand up well to Orlando, which was published in the same year. Another point is that pity is not the best way of trying to get people on your side.

The interesting contrast between Stephen and Valerie Seymour is also illustrative. Seymour hosts a salon and is a pagan, no rleigion and has no problems with ethical dilemmas as a result of her lesbianism. Stephen holds onto the structures of Catholicism (on and off) and can’t manage to square her sexuality with her faith. Stephen’s relationship with her mother (who rejects her) also runs through the novel.

I can understand the importance of this novel at the time, but that time has gone and it feels more like a historical document, but I am glad I read it. The story is unbearably sad, but you can’t always have happy ever after.

7 out of 10

Starting Disoriental by Negar Djavadi

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The boy with the perpetual nervousness by Graham Caveney

This is a memoir of adolescence and of abuse by a Catholic priest/headmaster. Caveney was born in 1964 into a working class Catholic family in Accrington. He describes a typical adolescence of an intelligent working class boy and obsessions with music, girls, friends, drink and literature. He attends a Catholic school and his headmaster Father O’Neill takes an interest in him and his adolescent ramblings and takes him to theatre, cinema and concerts. Caveney describes the grooming process very well and the sexual abuse. He also charts the effect it had on him:

“The abuse leads you to f**k up your life, and a f****d-up life means that you’re a less credible witness to the abuse that f****d you up in the first place. It’s an ironic trick of memory and survival: abuse makes you want to forget the abuse.”

Most of the descriptions of Caveney’s adolescence are pretty typical for the time. As he says himself “bad poetry, Beckett and dread”, music by Joy Division (with him there), The Fall, Patti Smith and so on. Left wing politics, the SWP, Marx, Wilde, Shelley, Paul Foot, Tom Robinson, Sartre and so on. It all sounds very familiar. However I was lucky enough not to go to Caveney’s school.

The abuse is a dominant theme inevitably and Caveney has plenty of questions:

“Was it me or simply my youth that gave the priest the hard-on? It’s a stupid question isn’t it? How can I possibly separate out who I was from the age I was?”

There is a powerful passage in the book which examines the music industry and its penchant for glamourizing young women in inappropriate ways. Mentioning the treatment of Lena Zavaroni, Don’t stand so close to me by the Police, Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Schoolgirl (covered by Van Morrison, ZZ top, The Yardbirds and the Grateful Dead, Fourteen by The Vandals, Young Girl by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Jailbait and I am a Predator by Ted Nugent. We haven’t even mentioned Gary Glitter, Bill Wyman, Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry.

Caveney also talks a great deal about coming to terms with the abuse and some of the contradictory processes this involves:

“In disclosing my experiences of sexual abuse I am bound to sell myself short. The available language is inadequate and so I have to cut my experiential cloth accordingly. I tidy it up or minimise it. I may ironize, or dramatize, or contextualize and yet after each statement what I want to shout is: But it’s not that. Not really. It’s something else.

This is, I think, one of the many reasons people are reluctant to come forward. There is not only the shame, the fear, the guilt, but there is also the sense that what they have to say is so deeply embedded (and embodied), that talking about it would be failing to do it justice. Each statement or revelation would in a sense be just one more injustice, another thing stolen from you, just another way the inner world and the outer world fail to connect. “

Caveney did eventually report O’Neill in the early 1990s (following a suicide attempt). He was still headmaster at the time. He did admit it with the comment “it takes two to tango”. He was allowed to retire with honours and was sent to the US for “therapy”. He was never charged with any crime and died in 2011. At his and Cavaney’s old school there is now a wing named after him. The Church still has a long way to go.

One of Caveney’s friends in the SWP made a pertinent point:

“Our society is organised violently or has violence at its core. All of our transactions and interactions are conducted from a place of inequality, which means there is someone who has got the power and someone who hasn’t.”

This memoir is told with brutal honesty and Caveney is clear about his own faults and shortcomings, talking a little about his therapy and his struggles with alcohol and drugs. But the real villain here is a priest in charge of a school who abused a fifteen year old boy (and who knows who else) and who essentially got away with it thanks to the Catholic Church.

9 out of 10

Starting Black Teeth and a brilliant smile by Adelle Stripe

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Having read The Well of Loneliness, I found your review particularly interesting. I can't disagree with any of it, other than, perhaps, the score at the end!  I have to agree with Mary Renault - I found it very earnest, utterly humourless, and (although she doesn't say this?) as dull as ditchwater; I can't say I can describe myself as actually glad to have read it.  Your description of it as more like an historical document rather nails it for me.  I gave it 2/6.

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Mean Little Deaf Queer by Terry Galloway

This memoir by Terry Galloway is brutally honest, an account of her life and struggles with deafness. Her mother was injected with an experimental drug when she was pregnant. This caused problems in Galloway’s childhood and at the age of nine she began to lose her hearing and see visions:

“Until they turned menacing, I kept my visions strictly to myself.  I took to thinking of them as fragile wonders…  If I didn’t keep them private, shield them from idle prying, ridicule or disbelief, they’d wither into dust, the same way my own secret heart would wither if I ever admitted aloud the longing for other little girls that was growing there.” 

She records the way other people changed towards her, trials and tribulations at school and having to go to summer camp with those described as “special”. Her struggles with sexuality are equally hilarious and heartrending. One of Galloway’s passions is theatre and her theatrical adventures are worth reading. She has been a theatre artist and an advocate of disability rights. Galloway charts the history of the way she experienced discrimination for her disability and her sexuality. Galloway admits at various times having desires for both men and women and switches between masculine and feminine gender identifications.

Galloway is very frank and not afraid to outline her own mistakes and deficiencies. There is humour as well as controversy. She also talks about her sexual escapades:

 "One side effect of my deafness is that I'm always presuming a physical intimacy, usually where there is none. … I can't tell you the number of ill-conceived affairs I've had as an adult that started with me putting my hand on someone's collarbone ( which conducts sound like a hollow reed ) and fastening my gaze on their lips as if it were all I could do not to bite. It was an inadvertent pickup technique I ought to have found (but didn't) shameful and misleading."

Galloway does ramble off the point sometimes, but this is well worth reading and she is thought provoking.

7 out of 10

Starting Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

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