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Books do furnish a room

A Book Blog 2022 by Books do Furnish a Room

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Well here is the first of this year

The Holiday by Stevie Smith

I like Smith’s poetry better than her prose.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

This novel was published in 1949, although it was written mostly before the war, Smith inserted the term post-war to update it. The character of Celia is based on Smith, even to the extent that she lived with her aunt and like Smith struggled with her mental health. Celia works for “The Ministry” along with a loose group of friends and relations. Towards the end of the rather brief novel there is a holiday to the depths of the countryside (rural Lincolnshire) to stay with Uncle Heber, a country vicar. The main protagonists are Clem and Tiny (twins who don’t get on), their sister Lopez and Caz (Casmilus), who appears to be Celia’s cousin and with whom she appears to be in love. There is little actually going on, but there is a great deal of talk about a wide variety of subjects; often politics, relationships, death and the meaning of life.

There are interesting descriptions of life and customs: ever heard of whale oil cake (I hadn’t and don’t have any desire to try it!) and as you would expect Smith’s prose does feel poetic. However there is often a twist:

 “I left the kitchen and walked all over Heber's house, looking into the old rooms and trailing the dark passages.  It is empty, it is very old and musty.  The furniture is simple, it is what one wants and no more.  There is a dagger over the fire-place in the hall.  There is an old chest where Uncle Heber keeps his clean surplices.  I go up to the back stairs where the servants used to tread, bringing trays and coal.  I am glad we have got rid of them.  I detest the servant class, they are the victims and the victimizers, there is no freedom where they are.”

In the London part of the book there is an Indian character. It was not entirely clear to me what Smith was trying to do with the discussions on India:

"The conversation now got into politics. Caz gave me a malicious look and said: We should quit India that is what we should do, there is nothing else for us to do but that; we should quite India.

It is not so simple as that, I said ... the rest of the world is very unanimous to say the English should quit India, Palestine, Malaya, the Antarctic and South Africa; but why, please? Why should the world, with none too clean a forefinger, point out the path of Sainthood for England to follow, while they go quite another way themselves? … And their social habits, these Indians, they are so pretty I suppose and so practical, eh? Burn the widows, rape the kids, up the castes, and hurrah for Indian legal probity ... The English law is above the world, I said, it is not to be bought, it is strong, flexible and impartial"

Other views are expressed and discussed, but there is a distinct aura of British superiority, even in leaving. Ambivalence about imperialism sloppily expressed I can do without.

There were positives and the writing is impressive, but it was too self-absorbed and sometimes too knowing.

4 out of 10

Starting The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangaremba



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The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye

Shon Faye has written an analysis of the current debate about transgender issues, particularly about the debate in Britain. Her solutions are broader though because she believes that there is a need for an economic and social liberation based on socialism. Faye is transgender herself and lays out the issues and problems of transgender life in Britain today.

“The demand for true trans liberation echoes and overlaps with the demands of workers, socialists, feminists, anti-racists and queer people. They are radical demands, in that they go to the root of what our society is and what it could be. For this reason, the existence of trans people is a course of constant anxiety for many who are either invested in the status quo or fearful about what would replace it.”

Faye covers class, housing insecurity, healthcare, sex work, prisons, the role and attitudes of the police, education and the current debates within feminism (terfs and all). A good deal of research has gone into this, but it was written during the first lockdown. The writing is clear and passionate, exposing significant levels of hostility to trans people, especially in the media. The focus is on liberation as much as rights. There is a fair amount of statistics and information but this doesn’t get in the way.

This isn’t a memoir, but Faye does draw on her own experience:

“Ever since I was a child, I have had to learn to keep on going in a world which signalled to me at every turn that I was mad, bad, sick, deluded, disgusting, a pervert, a danger, unlovable,”

She is also honest about some of her dilemmas, for instance when Trump banned transgender people from serving in the military she felt “supreme discomfort” arguing against the ban because of her opposition to US imperialism and military power.

Faye reminds feminists who have issues with transgender rights and liberation that the real problem is actually patriarchy, capitalism and shared experiences of male violence.

On the whole I found this convincing although my views matter little as a cisgender male, but I do wish we could all be kinder to each other and more tolerant of each other.

There is a good quote from Andrea Dworkin which is now forty years old:

“Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory) work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex similarity. That is not to say there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words “male” and “female”, “man” and “woman” are used as yet there are no others.”

The reactions to the book have been fairly predictable, but it really is worth reading because it covers a good deal of ground: the sections on healthcare and mental health are particularly good. As Faye points out poverty and homelessness and the other issues of an inequitable society hold back all sections of society and the plea is unity against a common enemy. But the levels of injustice Faye points out are significant and the struggle continues.

9 out of 10

Starting Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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The Mercies by Karen Millwood Hargrave

I have been reading a lot of historical fiction recently and this is another example. It is based on an historical event in 1617 in northern Norway. A sudden and violent storm hits the village of Vardo whilst the men of the village are at sea fishing. They all die and the women of the village are left to fend for themselves. The first part of the novel is the story of how they pull together and survive. The world begins to encroach again with the influence of the church. We are in the period of the witch trials: in 1618 the then monarch of Norway introduced laws against witchcraft, based on those of Scotland. James VI set an example in this area. The laws in Norway were also directed against the Sami people whose culture was not based on Christianity.

A commissioner is sent to the village with his new wife to bring the women back to Christian ways. The novel revolves around two women: Ursa, the commissioner’s new wife and Maren, a woman from the village. The novel focusses on patriarchal fear of women’s strength and how that fear acts out in violence and repression. The historical note sets the scene:

‘Lensmann Cunningham, or Køning as he came to be known, oversaw no fewer than fifty-two witch trials, leading to the deaths of ninety-one people: fourteen men and seventy-seven women. But Cunningham had gone further than the King had planned: of these, the men were all Sami, but the women were Norwegian. In a region where there had previously been only a handful of such cases, and only two resulting in executions, it was a stark and telling change.’

This is a novel about power, desire, loss, otherness, female friendship and community in the face of hardship and there is an element of a love story. It is certainly atmospheric and lyrical and this is Hargrave’s first adult novel. If you are looking for a positive happy ending then you will be disappointed. The story is powerful and well told, the ending I thought was a bit of a let-down, the book sort of fizzles out and it feels as though it could have gone several other ways.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting  The Rector and The Doctor's Family by Mrs Oliphant

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The Rector by Mrs Oliphant

This is the first in a series of five works called The Carlingford Chronicles. The Rector is barely a novella, more a short story. It is available combined with the second in the series published by Virago (who else). The author, Mrs Oliphant, was a prolific Scottish born novelist who produced over 120 works in her lifetime; novels, literary criticism, ghost stories, biographies and historical works. She was born Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant and married her cousin, also called Oliphant. Her husband died young and left her with three young children and she wrote to earn a living. She also took in various other family members who had fallen on hard times.

The story is a simple one; Mr Proctor is a theological academic of about fifty who decides that his aging mother needs to be supported and takes the job of Rector of Carlingford (based on the town of Aylesbury), so she can live with him.

“His mother was, let us say, a hundred years or so younger than the Rector…Mr Proctor was middle-aged, and preoccupied by right of his years; but his mother had long ago got over that stage of life.  She was at that point when some energetic natures, having got to the bottom of the hill, seem to make a fresh start and reascend.

Unfortunately the rector doesn’t have a clue how to do his job. His sermons are dry and boring. He isn’t a social animal and has to relate to women, a new experience (apart from his mother) following a male dominated academia. Some of them also seem to see him as a potential life partner, horror of horrors. He finds himself at a death bed where he is expected to say prayers and utter some useful words and discovers he does not have a clue what to do. He is further discomfited when the curate of another church arrives and does the job properly. The Rector has a crisis of conscience and wonders whether he is cut out for this work.

There is a bit of moralising, but enough to interest to make me carry on with the next one in the series.

6 out of 10

Starting The Doctor's Family by Mrs Oliphant

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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

My first read of Colson Whitehead and this one won the Pulitzer Prize. It is a based on a true story and is set in Jim Crow Florida of the early 1960s in a Reform School. The novel jumps between the 2010s and the 1960s. It follows two boys in the Reform School, Nickel Academy (based on Dozier School), Elwood Curtis and Jack Turner, but particularly Elwood. The two boys are very different and Whitehead describes them as two different parts of his personality. Curtis is:

"the optimistic or hopeful part of me that believes we can make the world a better place if we keep working at it"

Whilst Turner is:

"the cynical side that says no—this country is founded on genocide, murder, and slavery and it will always be that way."

Whitehead manages to keep the two sides in balance.

In the recent present the site of the academy is being cleared:

“The discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place would be razed, cleared and neatly erased from history…”

This triggers memories in the present for one of the boys and the story is narrated. There is a certain predictability in the racism and brutality, but it is a story that still needs to be told as we have yet to learn the lesson. The power of hate and injustice is well illustrated:

“There was no higher system guiding Nickel’s brutality, merely an indiscriminate spite, one that had nothing to do with people. A figment from tenth-grade science struck him: a Perpetual Misery Machine, one that operated by itself without human agency. Also, Archimedes, one of his first encyclopaedia finds. Violence is the only lever big enough to move the world.

It is a difficult read because of the violence and brutality and there is a little twist at the end, but it is a tale that still needs to be told.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

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On 09/01/2022 at 12:13 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

The Mercies by Karen Millwood Hargrave

I have this on my shelf and am now hoping that I don’t find the ending to be too much of a let down! Your review makes me think that it has a stronger link to actual historical events than I expected though, which is nice. 

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