Friday, 13 May 2016

Prodigal Summer


Whether she is portraying cereus the night-blooming cactus flower in The Bean Trees or the stupefying heat and exuberance of the African Congo in The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver writes fine literary fiction. I’ve just read Prodigal Summer and fallen in love with the Appalachian landscape of lunar moths and coyotes and wild honeysuckle. Adriana Trigiani’s lovable Big Stone Gap series was set in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia and I think The Hunger Games, too.

Like The Poisonwood Bible, the narrative switches between three characters in Prodigal Summer - newly-widowed Lusa, touchy forest ranger Deanna and Garnett an octogenarian engaged in permanent warfare with his neighbour. Kingsolver wears her extensive knowledge of the wildlife of the mountains and the hardships faced by the rural community lightly and builds a satisfying story with high comedy in a particular incident with a snapping turtle!
 
Deanna doesn’t like people very much and prefers to live in a remote forest cabin tracking the coyotes that are re-populating the area. She does rather like the handsome hunter she runs across and their passionate relationship is echoed by the overblown summer. My favourite character though is former entomologist, Lusa, who is left to put her academic knowledge to practical use on the rural farm she inherits after her husband’s death. It is hinted that her marriage was not entirely happy and Lusa has to face hostility from some of her husband’s sisters while occasionally fending off amorous attentions from some of her husband’s male relatives. The chapters featuring Lusa are called ‘Moth Love’ and her passion for moths is beautifully portrayed.
An Io moth rested on the screen, her second-favourite moth, whose surprising underwings were the same pinkish-gold as her hair.
 It think I may have a prodigal summer of my own with a pile of Kingsolver novels and hopefully some warm weather to sit in the garden!

Saturday, 2 April 2016

My Life on the Road


How do I love campuses? Let me count the ways. I love the coffee shops and reading rooms where one can sit and talk or browse forever. I love the buildings with no addresses that only the initiated can find, and the idiosyncratic clothes that would never make it in the outside world. Gloria Steinem 2016

Got my tickets for the Cambridge Literary Festival next week to hear Claire Harman talk about her new biography of Charlotte Bronte. I’ve been re-reading Jane Eyre and I never tire of Jane’s steely determination to lead a fulfilling life.

From one strong woman to another - born over two hundred years later - I listened to Gloria Steinem talking about her life and work on Radio 4‘s Desert Island Discs a couple of weeks ago and I knew I had to read her memoir My Life on the Road
 
I found it quite inspirational. Steinem makes the point that you do not have to be an intellectual to be interested in promoting equality. It is by talking to taxi drivers, waitresses, lorry drivers and air stewardesses on her travels that she finds out what is going on in the real world from those who live in it and that change can be effected from the bottom up.
 
Her early life with a father who was kind-hearted but a bit of a chancer to say the least and a book-loving mother who suffered a nervous breakdown and required constant care is fascinating and reads almost like a novel. At one point in Las Vegas her father asks her to put his last fifty dollars in a slot machine because beginners are always lucky. She multiplies the money five times. 

After college she travels for two years in India where she learns about talking circles which give everyone a chance to speak and be listened to. She then begins work as a freelance reporter but cites the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston as a life-changing event and she begins to develop her own skills as an organiser.   
She writes of her love of campuses, her fear of public speaking, the controversy and opposition she has encountered for her pro-choice stance, the founding of Ms magazine and her friendships with such strong women as her charismatic speaking partner Florynce Kennedy and Wilma Mankiller the first female chief of the Cherokee nation.
 
Unbelievably Steinem is now in her eighth decade and continues to learn the lessons of the road - and the value of home.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

re-reading Persuasion

I re-read Persuasion almost every year. Usually in the spring although it is very much an autumnal novel. At just over two hundred pages it can be read over a long weekend. Each time I re-read I find new layers of meaning. I was interested in the ending this time.

The letter that Captain Wentworth writes to Anne declaring his love ‘For you alone I think and plan’ is so moving that I’ve overlooked something else in the final pages. Austen envisions a life for her characters beyond the end of the novel. She doesn’t hold out much hope for the chilly and elegant Elizabeth:

‘It would be well for the eldest sister if she were equally satisfied with her situation, for a change is not very probable there.’ Persuasion, Jane Austen

The artful Mrs Clay who absconds with Mr Elliot has either been ruined by him or is about to make him her husband and Austen leaves us guessing whether 'his cunning or hers, may finally carry the day.’

 
We know from her letters that Jane Austen saw the characters from Pride and Prejudice as having their own autonomy because when she went to an exhibition in London with her brother Henry in 1813 she saw Jane Bingley in a portrait there and described her in the present tense:

Mrs. Bingley's is exactly herself--size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow. Jane Austen 1813

I hadn’t noticed that Austen extends the character’s lives beyond the end of the novel in Persuasion before, but then, she was a novelist ahead of her time.
 
Like a lot of book bloggers I’m not buying many new books this year or scouring Waterstones and Amazon for new novels to read. Sometimes, the very finest writing is already sitting on your shelves!

Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie


8 Jan 1947 - 11 Jan 2016

Monday, 4 January 2016

Re-reading A Spool of Blue Thread

So one day we were at Topps Home and Garden because Abby wanted a kitchen fire extinguisher, and while the man was ringing it up she said, ‘Do you mind hurrying? It’s kind of an emergency.’ Just being silly, you know, she meant it as a joke. Well he didn’t get it. He said, ‘I have to follow procedures, ma’am,’ and she and I just doubled up laughing. We were crying with laughter.’ A Spool of Blue Thread Anne Tyler 2015

Literary prizes may come and go but there is no novelist quite like Anne Tyler for comfort, sustenance and the sheer pleasure of good writing. Her novels are all firmly rooted in her home town of Baltimore and feature a cast of underachievers, misfits, delinquents, women past their prime and men whose ambitions have been thwarted. Tyler rarely intervenes in the narrative to judge or comment on the actions of her characters she just lets the story unfold and the characters find their own solutions or compromises.

Denny from A Spool of Blue Thread is one of Tyler’s notorious misfits. Handsome, elusive, virtually unemployable and touchy as hell he is not as lovable as Barnaby from A Patchwork Planet or as wayward as Lindy from The Amateur Marriage, but the kind of person given to snooping into the diaries and personal papers of his family yet can’t bear any scrutiny of his own life. As his father Red says, 'One question too far and he is out the door.’ 

A Spool of Blue Thread is a novel about a family out of step with each other and it’s a brilliant return to form after the Beginner’s Goodbye. Tyler’s gift for comedy sparkles and the telephone rant which Abby’s assertive daughter delivers to brother Denny extends over two pages and is a joy to read. But it is Abby, the family matriarch who is the warm beating heart of the novel. A woman who prides herself on her phenomenal memory which makes what happens to her later in the novel all the more poignant.
 
This article from The Guardian is a fascinating insight into how Tyler and other Man Booker short-listed writers created their novels.
 
Happy New Year! 

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Japanese Lover

The house stood in a privileged position on top of a promontory between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay.  At first light, the thick mist rolling in from the sea like an avalanche of cotton wool often obscured the Golden Gate Bridge altogether, but in the course of the morning it would lift and the elegant red iron structure would gradually emerge against a sky dotted with gulls, so close to the Belasco's garden that it seemed possible to reach out and touch it. The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende

I once read a couple of chapters of The House of the Spirits and decided Isabel Allende was Not My Cup of Tea. I’m now eating my words because her new novel The Japanese Lover is smart and funny with the kind of assurance in the text that only the best writers have. San Francisco’s Lark House residence for the elderly attracts ‘left-wing intellectuals, oddballs and second-rate artists.' It’s also home to the aloof and aristocratic Alma Belasco, a former silk screen artist who goes to yoga class, wears bright red lipstick and a 'masculine fragrance of bergamot and orange blossom.’ Every week she receives a box of three gardenias from a mysterious donor, she owns a cat called Neko (Japanese for ‘cat’) and every so often she disappears on mysterious visits taking an overnight bag.

When Irina, a kind-hearted young drifter finds a job as a care worker at Lark House she befriends Alma and along with Seth, Alma’s grandson who is besotted with Irina they uncover a love story between the young Alma and the son of a Japanese gardener which spans forty years and encompasses the harrowing treatment of the Japanese in America following Pearl Harbour.

This book has a satisfying story, a warm and witty narrative and a rather beautiful cover. An ideal Christmas present in fact.
 
Happy Christmas!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Bronte revisited

We've had some Dickensian fogs in south-east England recently which have provided a suitable backdrop to my Bronte reading this month!  While I was waiting for the publication of Claire Harman's new biography of Charlotte Bronte I re-read Wuthering Heights.  Although I adored it as a student it is harder to read when you are older because the passion between Heathcliff and Cathy seems so overblown.  But in a way that's how it should be because those intense emotions are the preserve of the young.

What doesn’t change when you re-visit Wuthering Heights are Emily Bronte’s beautiful poetic descriptions of the natural landscape. Edgar Linton placing a bunch of golden crocuses on the dying Cathy’s pillow which remind her of the first spring flowers at Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s burial in a corner of the kirkyard ‘where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor and peat mould almost buries it ' and the fantastic scene where the young Catherine puts primroses in Hareton’s porridge to make him laugh.

I was interested to read in Claire Harman’s biography that it was her sister Anne’s Agnes Grey and Emily’s Wuthering Heights which inspired Charlotte to create the story of a governess with a passionate nature and a steadfast refusal to be suppressed which became Jane Eyre. The longed-for literary success of Jane Eyre is of course overshadowed by the loss of Emily and then Anne. Harman’s depiction of Charlotte searching the moor in December to find a living sprig of heather to take to her dying sister is heart-breakingly sad.

It’s a meticulously researched biography and Harman is not over-awed by the genius of her subject. There are some cool asides about the sometimes bizarre behaviour of the Rev Bronte and some excellent analysis of Jane Eyre. However, I’m still not sure that this is the definitive biography of Charlotte Bronte.

Just a word about the stunning cover which is a Chloe Giodarno embroidery commissioned by Penguin. You can see her amazing embroidered animals on her website.