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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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It's a good read Hayley, and is based on some historical fact, so it is certainly worth reading

Anna, Duchess of Cleves by Heather Darsie

A proper history book, which sets the record straight about Anna of Cleves. There are many myths around Henry VIII’s fourth wife which Darsie debunks. There is a good deal of dry political stuff which sets the background in the German and Dutch states of duchies. The two superpowers were the French and the Holy Roman Empire led by Francis I and Charles V respectively. The political situation in the various German states and the Schmalkaldic League was complex and Charles and Francis vied for influence with a combination of bribes and threats. England was on the edge of all this, but had influence. Henry has broken with Rome and moved towards the increasingly Protestant states on the continent. However Henry was at this time backpeddling in terms of religion. In actuality Cromwell was pushing the wedding with Anna and this would have alienated Charles V as it would put England more firmly in the Protestant camp. It had taken some time to set the wedding up and by the time it happened Henry’s sense of what was wise in relation to continental relations had changed and he was aiming to be friendlier with Charles. Annulling the marriage with Anna achieved this.

Darsie gives a good account of Anna’s life and she remained on good terms with Henry, even after the end of the marriage. She was also on good terms with Edward VI and Mary and was eventually buried in Westminster Abbey. There was no portrait by Holbein exaggerating her beauty and the term “Flanders Mare” was a seventeenth century addition to the tale. The story about Henry and Anna’s first meeting being a disaster is also incorrect.

All of what you thought you knew about Anna of Cleves is probably wrong. Darsie has done some meticulous research and has pieced together what we really do know. It is a bit dry at times, but it’s an important counter to the story handed down.

8 out of 10

Starting My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

A slice of Victorian true crime. In 1840 Lord William Russell, an aging aristocrat was murdered in his bed in his London home. His throat was cut. There was a police investigation and sensational press coverage. Lots of people were interviewed and it was concluded that it was an inside job. Russell’s valet Francois Courvoisier was arrested, tried, convicted and executed with a public hanging watched by an estimated fifty thousand people. It all sounds fairly unremarkable but Harman picks out some unusual aspects to the case.

At the public execution were Dickens and Thackeray. Thackeray was not yet well known. It had a profound effect on both authors. Thackeray had nightmares for weeks and both began to campaign against such public spectacles. Their influence had an effect on the debates and eventually led to the end of public executions. Thackeray wrote an article called “Going to see a man hanged” and here is an sample of it;

“This is the 20th of July and I may be permitted for my part to declare that, for the last fourteen days, so salutary has the impression of the butchery been upon me, I have had the man’s face continually before my eyes: that I can see Mr Ketch at this moment, with an easy air, take the rope from his pocket; that I feel myself ashamed and degraded at the brutal curiosity which took me to that brutal sight: and I pray to Almighty God to cause this disgraceful sin to pass from among us and to cleanse our land from blood.”

It took until 1868 to end public executions.

The other interesting aspect of this was the debate at the time about the effect of a book and whether it could lead to copycat crimes and criminality. In the early 1830s William Ainsworth had written a book about the highwayman Dick Turpin. It was a runaway success and it is where we get most of our myths about Turpin from. In 1839 Ainsworth wrote a follow up about another eighteenth century outlaw entitled “Jack Sheppard”. It was again highly sensationalised and the villain of the piece was mostly heroic, despite being hanged at the end. Officialdom was generally badly portrayed. The book was again a sensation and was very cheaply reproduced. It was also turned into a play, or rather lots of plays. Each theatre put on its own version and added more sensation and pathos. Very cheap theatre versions meant that very wide sections of the populace were able to attend and not just the middle classes. A debate was started by those who felt the populace should not be subjected to this sort of thing. The newspapers soon found people who claimed to have committed crimes as a result of seeing the play. There was a particularly gruesome murder in Jack Sheppard where a throat was cut during a burglary, similar to William Russell’s death. After the conviction Courvoisier made several varying confessions. One of them indicated he had been influenced by Jack Sheppard. This was seized on by the press and Ainsworth found himself attacked on several sides for causing crimes. There are parallels with a number of modern books.

This is well researched and outlines some problems with the investigation as well as some of the debates that arose around popular fiction and public hangings

6 out of 10

Starting A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa

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The Book of Not by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This is the second in Dangarembga’s trilogy and it follows on closely from the first. I hope to read the third later in the year. It is semi-autobiographical and follows Tambu from the ending of the first novel when she gains a place at a Catholic Girls boarding school, one of a handful of African girls to do so. The backdrop is still the war of independence (during the first three quarters of the book).

The effects on Tambu are profound: her sister has lost a leg to a landmine. Her uncle, with whom she lives out of term time has an uneasy relationship with both sides. It affects all the girls at the school:

“What is the matter?’ Sister was very anxious.
‘I’m fine,’ I told her. My favourite teacher was anxious. But my sister lay first in the sand and then in a hospital bed without a leg. What would Sister do if I told her? What would the other girls do if they heard? They all had their little boxes tight in their chests for their memories of war. There was too much grief here for a room full of girls. Thinking this, I did let go. I forgot about not letting anything out. I kept on wiping so that my tears fell on the cloth sleeve. It was like that when people were kind to you. Sometimes you forgot.

Of course the backdrop is still colonialism and the struggle against it and its effects are especially clear in the hierarchy of the school. The book also envisions decolonisation and what it might mean. Dangarembga skilfully shows Tambu’s alienation, not only in relation to her education, but also to her family. She is stuck between two worlds. She gains the highest O level grades in the school and yet a white girl with lower grades wins the attainment prize.

“As I liked to be good at what I did, I was not afraid of hard work. I would put in what was required to reach the peak I aspired to. It was especially important to be at the top, as it was quite clear to me and to everyone I had to be one of the best. Average simply did not apply; I had to be absolutely outstanding or nothing.

This isn’t really a stand-alone and you need to read the first novel. This doesn’t quite have the impact of Nervous Conditions, but it is a good follow on.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting A Bit of Difference by Seffi Atta

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The Doctor's Family by Mrs Oliphant

The second part of the Carlingford Chronicles, published by Virago as a single volume with the first part, The Rector. 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 plot is fairly straightforward. Edward Rider is a doctor in Carlingford. On the lookout for a wife. His brother suddenly arrives from Australia with his wife, three children and his wife’s sister Nettie, who looks after them all. Brother Fred is a drunk and does very little apart from drink, smoke and lie on couches. Dr Rider sets them up in a rented cottage and manages to fall in love with Nettie. She is having none of it as she has three children and their parents to look after and has no time for romance or marriage. Dr Rider feels strongly about his brother and family who are keeping him from his beloved:

“Edward Rider stared at his brother, speechless with rage and indignation. He could have rushed upon that listless figure, and startled the life half out of the nerveless slovenly frame. The state of mingled resentment, disappointment, and disgust he was in, made every particular of this aggravating scene tell more emphatically. To see that heavy vapour obscuring those walls which breathed of Nettie – to think of this one little centre of her life, which always hitherto had borne in some degree the impress of her womanly image, so polluted and vulgarised, overpowered the young man’s patience. Yet perhaps he of all men in the world had least right to interfere.”

There follows a couple of years of ups and downs before it is all worked out with a bit of melodrama. The characters are not particularly sympathetic. Nettie, is a heroine who seems determined to sacrifice herself and her role is all she is, as is evidenced when the role ceases:

“The work she had meant to do was over.  Nettie’s occupation was gone.  With the next act of the domestic drama she had nothing to do.  For the first time in her life utterly vanquished, with silent promptitude she abdicated on the instant.  She seemed unable to strike a blow for the leadership thus snatched from her hands.”

There are plenty of traditional tropes here and I found the whole rather unsatisfactory, particularly the ending where loose ends are tied up and everyone is happy. However I think it is the ending that those who love this appreciate. Maybe I am just perverse.

5 out of 10

Starting Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Braddon

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Women in Thirteenth Century Lincolnshire by Louise Wilkinson

Does what it says on the cover, Wilkinson uses a variety of sources, including court records, manorial rolls, charters and government and church records. The book is split into sections which cover noblewomen, gentlewomen, townswomen, peasant women, criminal women and religious. She looks at the interaction between gender, status and lifecycle and examines female identity. Wilkinson doesn’t make the mistake of treating women as a single group and there are lots of interesting discussions. A few of the noblewomen held real power, one was Sherriff of Lincoln and another led the defence of the castle during a siege.

The section on criminality shows a very stark statistic. The conviction rate for rape is pretty much the same now as it was then.

There is a great diversity of roles, I was surprised by the number of women who were brewers! Another fascination for me was reading about women going about their lives walking the streets I walk (named in the book) eight hundred years ago.

Wilkinson touches on the development of political and religious thought in relation to gender. There were a particularly large number of female religious houses in Lincolnshire, many of which played an active role in society. Society and religion were still very male dominated.

Anyone interested in social and gender history would appreciate this. It is the first regional study of women in the thirteenth century and was particularly interesting to me as I recognised many of the places mentioned.

9 out of 10

Starting Frances Power Cobbe and Victorian Feminism by Susan Hamilton

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My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

“Femi makes three, you know. Three and they label you a serial killer.”

A title that takes the eye always helps sell a book and this certainly has that, and it is Braithwaite’s debut novel. It is set in Lagos where she lives. The chapters are short and this is a quick read.

The plot revolves around Korede, a nurse and Ayoola, her younger sister who is also conventionally beautiful. The novel opens with Ayoola calling Korede asking for help as she has just killed her boyfriend Femi with a knife, in self-defence she says. This is the third boyfriend she had dispatched and as Korede points out, that technically makes her a serial killer. They dispose of the body together. Korede does not feel appreciated by her sister, but she is her sister after all. The nub of the rest of the plot is as follows. Korede works in a hospital. She is looking after someone in a coma. She talks to the man in the coma and tells him her troubles, including her sister’s habits. Korede is also in love with Tade, a doctor she works with who hasn’t really noticed her. The inevitable happens: Tade meets Ayoola, falls for her and they start to date. Meanwhile the man in the coma wakes up and seems to recall some of what Korede said to him.

This is more about sisters than serial killing, although of course there is a body count. There is a certain humour to this: Korede and Ayoola are moving the body:

“Ayoola darted to the lift, pressed the button, ran back to us and lifted Femi’s shoulders once more. I peeked out of the apartment and confirmed that the landing was still clear. I was tempted to pray, to beg that no door be opened as we journeyed from door to lift, but I am fairly certain that those are exactly the types of prayers He doesn’t answer.

These two, as a twist on sisterly dysfunction, have been compared to the Dashwood sisters Elinor and Marianne, although I don’t remember much serial murder in Austen, although in many ways this is a comedy of manners. It’s certainly not a mystery and there is no real exploration of why Ayoola does what she does.

There is also a thread running through relating to Korede and Ayoola’s father (now deceased). He was also violent and abusive. Korede muses:

“More and more, she reminds me of him. He could do a bad thing and behave like a model citizen right after. As though the bad thing had never happened.”

The book is difficult to categorise. Braithwaite says she got the initial idea from the Black Widow spider. After mating with the male, the female gets peckish and eats him. It could, of course be another way of surviving the patriarchy!

7 out of 10

Starting The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

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Once upon a River by Diane Setterfield

This is the third novel by Setterfield that I have read. I liked the first and disliked the second. This one, as might be guessed has a fairy tale quality. It is set in the nineteenth century and the centre of the novel is the River Thames. The folklore surrounding the Thames plays a great part in this and the plot meanders and eddys along. 
“A story ought to go clearly in one direction, then, after a distinct moment of crisis, change to go in another,”
There is a touch of magic realism about this but there is less of a gothic element than in Setterfield’s last novels it is more Dickens than Bronte.
The novel revolves around a riverside inn called the Swan, a public house where people tell stories. One wild night an injured man staggers into the pub almost drowned, carrying what seems to be a doll, but is actually a lifeless child. The child appears to be dead. The local midwife checks the child and confirms the child is dead and patches the man up. After a few hours the child returns to life. The man awakes and confirms the child is not his and that he pulled her out of the river. The child does not speak. There follows a story with three strands; three possibilities for the identity of the girl. Nearly all the characters are fundamentally good whilst the two antagonists have almost no redeeming features. The mystery is who is the girl? 
There is a lot of water mud and marsh. There is also a mystical ferryman called Quietly who takes you from this life to the next, turning the Thames into a latter day River Styx.  Quietly had lost his child to the river and had gone to search for her. He came back a year later and returned the child to her mother, but could not go into the house:
“since that day any number of people on the river have met Quietly on the river. There was a price to be paid for the return of his daughter, and he paid it. For all eternity he must watch over the river, waiting for someone to get into difficulty, and then, if it is not their time, he sees them safely to the bank; and if it is their time, he sees them safely to that other place”
The man who rescues the child is a photographer loosely based on an actual photographer called Taunt (subtly changed to Daunt here) who photographed the Thames in the nineteenth century. There is also a prescient and rather intelligent pig.
Setterfield is a good storyteller as is illustrated here:
“So it was that after the impossible event, and the hour of the first puzzling and wondering, came the various departures from the Swan and the first of the tellings. But finally, while the night was still dark, everybody at last was in bed, and the story settled like sediment in the minds of them all witnesses, tellers, listeners. The only sleepless one was the child herself, who, at the heart of the tale, breathed the seconds lightly in and lightly out while she gazed at nothing and listened to the sound of the river rushing by.”
This was ok, well told, undemanding which is sometimes what I need!

7 out of 10

Starting Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry
 

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Once upon a River by Diane Setterfield

This is the third novel by Setterfield that I have read. I liked the first and disliked the second. This one, as might be guessed has a fairy tale quality. It is set in the nineteenth century and the centre of the novel is the River Thames. The folklore surrounding the Thames plays a great part in this and the plot meanders and eddys along. 
“A story ought to go clearly in one direction, then, after a distinct moment of crisis, change to go in another,”
There is a touch of magic realism about this but there is less of a gothic element than in Setterfield’s last novels it is more Dickens than Bronte.
The novel revolves around a riverside inn called the Swan, a public house where people tell stories. One wild night an injured man staggers into the pub almost drowned, carrying what seems to be a doll, but is actually a lifeless child. The child appears to be dead. The local midwife checks the child and confirms the child is dead and patches the man up. After a few hours the child returns to life. The man awakes and confirms the child is not his and that he pulled her out of the river. The child does not speak. There follows a story with three strands; three possibilities for the identity of the girl. Nearly all the characters are fundamentally good whilst the two antagonists have almost no redeeming features. The mystery is who is the girl? 
There is a lot of water mud and marsh. There is also a mystical ferryman called Quietly who takes you from this life to the next, turning the Thames into a latter day River Styx.  Quietly had lost his child to the river and had gone to search for her. He came back a year later and returned the child to her mother, but could not go into the house:
“since that day any number of people on the river have met Quietly on the river. There was a price to be paid for the return of his daughter, and he paid it. For all eternity he must watch over the river, waiting for someone to get into difficulty, and then, if it is not their time, he sees them safely to the bank; and if it is their time, he sees them safely to that other place”
The man who rescues the child is a photographer loosely based on an actual photographer called Taunt (subtly changed to Daunt here) who photographed the Thames in the nineteenth century. There is also a prescient and rather intelligent pig.
Setterfield is a good storyteller as is illustrated here:
“So it was that after the impossible event, and the hour of the first puzzling and wondering, came the various departures from the Swan and the first of the tellings. But finally, while the night was still dark, everybody at last was in bed, and the story settled like sediment in the minds of them all witnesses, tellers, listeners. The only sleepless one was the child herself, who, at the heart of the tale, breathed the seconds lightly in and lightly out while she gazed at nothing and listened to the sound of the river rushing by.”
This was ok, well told, undemanding which is sometimes what I need!

7 out of 10

Starting Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry
 

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

What on earth to say about Pride and Prejudice. Well, I think it’s the best Austen I have read and like many I have memories of Colin Firth in that wet shirt! Austen covers her usual themes of class, wealth, marriage, upbringing and also self-awareness as Elizabeth reflects:

"How despicably have I acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself."

There is a level of humour here as well, as illustrated by Mr Bennett’s reaction to Mr Collins proposing to Elizabeth:

“An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see to you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

There is of course a whole industry around the analysis of this and a myriad of follow-ons, sequels, in the manner ofs; not to mention zombies! Austen does challenge the mores of her day. It is worth remembering that this was written after Wollstonecraft. Elizabeth’s first refusal of Darcy was certainly unusual for the time as he was offering a way out of poverty and spinsterhood. Darcy is in a position of power and expects to be accepted. As Woolf said:

“Austen is…mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface.”

She did ask questions about the fundamental balance of established middle class society of the time. There are some interesting vignettes, such as the relationship between Charlotte and her husband. There are shades of A Room of One’s Own as Charlotte manipulates the space in her home so that she has her own space.

One interesting aside relates to the title. The phrase “pride and prejudice” was in common use in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, particularly amongst those opposed to slavery and the phrase symbolized opposition to slavery. I didn’t know that, but it’s an interesting fact.

9 out of 10

Starting Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

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On 12/02/2022 at 1:53 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

Once upon a River by Diane Setterfield

I loved that one! 

 

On 12/02/2022 at 1:55 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

The phrase “pride and prejudice” was in common use in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, particularly amongst those opposed to slavery and the phrase symbolized opposition to slavery. I didn’t know that, but it’s an interesting fact.

I didn't know that either! I remember reading last year that there was some research going on into Austen and slavery but I never did see the outcome.

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Most people I think would agree with you about P&P being the best Austen, or at least their favourite, but personally I prefer Emma and S&S. S&S has been at the top of my pile for years, but I recently reread Emma for the first time since studying it for A-levels, and was blown away.  I think I pefer the extra bit that Austen incorporates into it!

That's not to say I don't love P&P!

Edited by willoyd
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I think I prefer S & S as well, slightly over P & P.  Like Will, I studied Emma for A level and hated it, also Persuasion which I liked a tiny bit better!  It would be interesting to see how I felt about them if I read them now.

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I prefer Emma and Persuasion, though I enjoyed P & P studied at O level. Emma & Persuasion just seem to have more mature characters, that’s why I loved them more. 

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I haven't read S and S yet, it's on the list! I did like Persuasion and Emma, but not as much as P and P.

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This is the first major work by James that I have read. It reflects a number of James’s preoccupations, freedom, betrayal, responsibility, destiny and the contrasts between the old world and the new (with the new coming off worse).

The central character in the book is the lady in question Isabel Archer, an American who comes to Europe at the invite of her aunt who lives in England. The novel is set in England and Italy. Inevitably it is beautifully written with lots of interiority and reflection. I don’t propose to detail the plot although it appears to be mostly about who Isabel is going to marry and how, when she does, it all goes horribly wrong. Like many books of that time (1881) it concerns “the woman question”. James wrote this in reaction to Middlemarch saying he wanted his works to have “less brain than Middlemarch, but they are to have more form”. James also writes about the upper classes pretty much exclusively. (Unlike Eliot).

I really didn’t like this and I am aware that I am in a minority as this novel appears to be well loved. It felt to me like James was saying that women like Isabel Archer could not be trusted to make decisions about who they should marry as they were bound to make poor choices. Of course, having made those choices they were bound to stick with them. Here is Isabel reflecting near the end:

“She had a husband in a foreign city, counting the hours of her absence; in such a case one needed an excellent motive. He was not one of the best husbands, but that didn’t alter the case. Certain obligations were involved in the very fact of marriage, and were quite independent of the quality of enjoyment extracted from it.”

Of the men Isabel had to choose from, and there were a few, she rejects the one who loves her passionately, she rejects position and opts for someone who is cruel and abusive. What she doesn’t do is opt to stay unmarried even though that is the position she starts from. There is a disconnect between the initial characterisation and behaviour. James also portrays Isabel as passive and essentially a parasite. She is left money and she does nothing with it. She doesn’t get involved in anything political (suffrage for example) and doesn’t seem to pursue any intellectual pursuits, she seems to be an empty shell. I could go on. I beginning to think I might even prefer Dickens to James!

4 out of 10

Starting Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

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On 18/02/2022 at 12:41 AM, willoyd said:

 but personally I prefer Emma and S&S. S&S has been at the top of my pile for years, but I recently reread Emma for the first time since studying it for A-levels, and was blown away.  I

 

Emma is the only one of JA's novels that I haven't ever wanted to reread. ¨Persuasion is my favourite even though I want to shake Anne occasionally for being such a wet drip.

 

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On 20/02/2022 at 5:29 PM, France said:

Emma is the only one of JA's novels that I haven't ever wanted to reread. ¨Persuasion is my favourite even though I want to shake Anne occasionally for being such a wet drip.

 

Funny that. I know it's many people's favourite, but it's actually well down my list, 4th at best, probably 5th behind Mansfield Park and in front of Northanger Abbey. 

It took me 40 years to get around to rereading Emma, longer than any others, but when I did, I couldn't believe it took me that long! But it is rather an acquired taste I know.

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A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

This novel is set in Lagos, London and Abuja. The central character is Deola, she is 39 and single working for an international charity in London. The novel has a strong cast of characters and Atta is very good at writing interesting, flawed and human people, even if they only have walk on parts. The central character, Deola, is well drawn and her flaws are as endearing as her strengths. The plot revolves around Deola’s discontent with her job, her varied and chaotic family, a man she meets in Nigeria and leads to a situation where she has to make decisions. She also has to contend with her mother’s constant reminders about her biological clock and the need to get married. Deola has her own thoughts about this;

“Lanre once called her a manhater, but she genuinely liked men. Her friction with Lanre began when he sensed she no longer looked up to him, but it wasn’t personal.  It was only a part of [his] boyishness she stopped admiring. She never favoured girls. She just gave the impression she did. It was clear when she reached puberty that she had to choose what team she was on… It wasn’t that her team always played fair, but the older she got, the less tolerant she was of [men]’s unfair tactics. Was it simply their way? Or did the rules condone them? She didn’t know but she had to develop her own method of defence fast, especially as her team seemed less unified and prepared,”


There are interesting contrasts between the Nigerian community in London and in Lagos. Atta also makes some perceptive comments about the charity sector. She is in an interview in a room full of souvenirs and carvings:

 “she couldn’t stop looking at them during the interview and she was not sure if they calmed her down or put her off. Even back then she knew Graham would prefer the most European of African countries, like South Africa and Kenya. She knew she would stand a better chance with him if she presented herself as an African in need.”

The time is the early 2000s and the novel takes place over several months. Identity is a strong theme and in many ways this can be compared with Americanah, although it isn’t as good as Americanah. Nevertheless it is worth reading.

There is a strong musical undercurrent and Atta considers herself an Afrobeat author. There are dialogues about African and African diasporic music. Atta also writes strong female characters and themes such as sexual health, mental health and marital infidelity are woven through the narrative.

8 out of 10

Starting The Fall of the Imam by Nawal El Sadaawi

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Close to the knives by David Wojnarowicz

Not a cosy or easy read as the subtitle indicates: A memoir of disintegration. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS at 37: he was an artist, writer and photographer. There is a memorable photo of him wearing a jacket with the following on the back:

“If I die of AIDS – forget burial – just dump my body on the steps of the FDA”

This is a memoir, it’s autobiographical in a variety of forms, including essays. It reflects Wojnarowicz’s own childhood with an abusive and violent father, his living on the streets, hustling, selling his body, the lives (and deaths) of his friends

(“piece by piece, the landscape is eroding and in its place I am building a monument made of feelings of love and hate, sadness and feelings of murder”.)

 and of course his sex life, which is fairly prominent. As a gay man he charts the beginning of AIDS and the reactions of politicians and those in power, including Christian fundamentalists (there are some quotes from them which are particularly vile).

The whole is visceral, violent, tender and very angry:

“I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly and politely make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder, and I’m amazed that we’re not running amok in the streets and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.”

There is a good deal about the reactions of society and particularly the silence of the government during the 1980s and attitudes towards those with AIDS:

“Dismissal is policy in America. … If there is homelessness in our streets it is the fault of those who have no homes — they chose to live that way. If there is a disease such as AIDS it is somehow the fault of those who contract that disease — they chose to have that disease. If three black men are shot by a white man on a subway train — somehow they chose to be shot by that man. … Most people tend to accept this system of the moral code and thus feel quite safe from any terrible event or problem such as homelessness or AIDS or nonexistent medical care or rampant crime or hunger or unemployment or racism or sexism simply because they go to sleep every night in a house or apartment or dormitory whose clean rooms or smooth walls or regular structures of repeated daily routines provide them with a feeling of safety that never gets intruded up on by the events outside.”

This quote relates to being at the death bed of a close friend:

“We all turned to the bed and his body was completely still; and then there was a very strong and slow intake of breath and then stillness and then one more intake of breath and he was gone. … I tried to say something to him staring into that enormous eye. If in death the body’s energy disperses and merges with everything around us, can it immediately know my thoughts? But I try and speak anyway and try and say something in case he’s afraid or confused by his own death and maybe needs some reassurance or tool to pick up, but nothing comes from my mouth. This is the most important event of my life and my mouth can’t form words and maybe I’m the one who needs words, maybe I’m the one who needs reassurance and all I can do is raise my hands from my sides in helplessness and say, “All I want is some sort of grace.” And then the water comes from my eyes.”

Wojnarowicz is impossible to categorise and does not fit easily into any boxes. The early part of the book is part travelogue, part the journal of an active and diverse sex life. There is a vitality to this writing, but it is also heartbreaking. It isn’t just those with AIDS who have been isolated and persecuted, we continue to do it to all sorts of groups.

I make no apology for closing with an extended quote from near the end of the book:

“David … you know that friend of mine in Kentucky? Well, I got a call from a friend of mine who just got back from being down there. She said he was getting way out of it … I mean like … he had lost about fifty to seventy-five percent of his body weight and they were having to transfuse him once a week. He was down, he couldn’t walk at all. He was being carried around by his family, in a wheelchair, and he had to go to hospital every day also because of DHPG transfusions, because he was becoming blind from C.M.V. retinitis. So … uh … he would spend most of the mornings in the hospital and then the afternoons he would spend resting at this house they had. Then he had a grand-mal seizure … and he was just like – you know – convulsing like crazy … I never seen one of those: I only heard … and uh … you know – he became all different colors … and …uh … was just gasping for breath and finally they were able to sedate him somehow so that the seizure ended … and … uh … I think after being there just one or two nights, he was deteriorating – his fever went up very high and he was really kind of delirious all of the time. They were giving him a lot of morphine. They had sent him home from the hospital; they stopped all the treatments and everything like that because they felt that this was just like … “Why torture him any more?” And … uh … at one point – finally these two people – a friend and a family member – after he had a small seizure and was in a semicoma – they just decided to put a pillow over his face … you know … do that … and there was no resistance or anything that they could tell … and … uh … I think they made a very courageous decision.”

This is an important and vital book.

9 and a half out of 10

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