Wednesday 14 December 2016

Seasonal reading

Next year will be the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen and there are one or two events which have caught my eye.  In January The British Library will be putting on an exhibition of her teenage writings and opinions on her books from friends and family.  It's a wonderful opportunity to see her exquisite handwriting.  2017 will also be the bicentenary of Persuasion and if I was in North Carolina I would love to go to this.  I was also interested in the news this week that the attractive Rice portrait, said to be of Jane Austen, went on display to members of the Cambridge Jane Austen Society.  I must either join a Jane Austen society or start one in my area!

I've just read Rachel Cusk’s Transit which is the second volume of a trilogy which began with Outline in which a writer travels to Athens to teach a creative writing course following a relationship break-down. Beyond the fact that she is a wife and mother and her name is Faye we are told little about the narrator and Transit is relayed in the same spare style:
In that time I studied the cafe’s interior. With its bookshelves and aubergine-painted walls and antique furniture, it gave an impression of age and character while being, in fact, both generic and new.
The writer has now moved back to London with her sons and she begins the process of renovating a London house but has to contend with a deeply unpleasant couple who live in the basement of the property.  Episodes in her daily life - some sad, some funny - are relayed in a deadpan style.  She participates in a literary festival where the guest writers get soaked running to the tent in the rain and later gets propositioned by the Chair. A visit to the hairdresser where the brilliantly lit opulent interior of the salon contrasts with the dark winter’s day outside and the heavy traffic on the streets rattle the hair products on the glass shelves. Conversing with her Albanian builder, meeting a friend for coffee who seems to thrive on chaos and is actually exhilarated when the sprinkler system accidentally comes on in her apartment and soaks all her belongings. In the final chapter, amidst a nightmare dinner party, we get some insights and reflections on the ending of the narrator’s own marriage.

I would recommend this beautifully written novel and I look forward to the third volume.  To escape the seasonal commercialism I think I will re-read Emma.  What are your reading plans?

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Austen's unsung heroine

Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it won’t turn a small income into a large one. The Watsons, Jane Austen

We don't know why Jane Austen didn’t finish the novel later known as The Watsons but she had certainly thought it through because she told her sister Cassandra how the story would develop.
Reading the remaining early chapters we get a tantalising glimpse of Emma Watson who could have become one of Austen’s great heroines. Raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle she is educated and refined only to be sent back to her impoverished family when her uncle dies and her aunt hastily remarries.
Back in her own family with a dying father, two younger sisters desperate to get husbands and the 'hard-hearted prosperity’ of her brother and sister-in-law (reminiscent of John and Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility) Emma’s only comfort is her stoical and kind elder sister Elizabeth. There is a charming scene in a ballroom where a ten-year old boy is desperate to dance and Emma offers herself as a partner.
There has been much speculation as to why the novel was never completed. Some have suggested that the death of Austen’s own father meant that she couldn’t continue and others that the grim realities of the marriage market for women of no means too closely resembled the circumstances of Jane and Cassandra. The fragment that remains is unmistakeably Austen and just as you find yourself getting drawn into the story it ends.
In her 1948 biography of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Jenkins refers to the way her characters in The Watsons ‘grown into life before our gaze as she makes her magic passes too rapid for the eye to follow.’ Wouldn’t it  be wonderful if we had a seventh completed novel?

Saturday 3 September 2016

Amy and Isabelle

Someone has been clever with the design of these Elizabeth Strout novels.  Plain cream covers with red and black text and a red spine.  Very simple and effective.  While Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton are very accomplished novels my favourite is still Amy and Isabelle.

Teenage Amy has abundant hair and a sensitive nature which attract the attention of her charismatic maths teacher who quotes the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millay while beginning a slow seduction of Amy which takes place over the course of a long New England winter and spring. 

Isabelle, unaware that her daughter is being dazzled by her maths teacher, has her own troubles.  Raising Amy alone and forced to take a job at the Mill which she feels is beneath her she yearns to fit in with the middle-class wives of Oyster Point and is unable to see the solid worth of Fat Bev and the other women who work at the Mill.   

Set in Shirley Falls, Maine, the river which divides the town marks both geographic and social divisions.  The yearnings and tensions of the inhabitants of Shirley Falls come to a head under a burning white sky during the hottest summer the town has ever known.

This novel has likeable central characters in Amy, Isabelle and Fat Bev who will have you routing for them.  (I never could route for Olive Kitteridge)  There is a side story involving Amy's vulnerable best friend Stacy (who can't construct a sentence without the f word) and a recurring motif of a missing girl.  Elizabeth Strout is always good on landscape and the river and weather brilliantly reflect the events of the novel.  A great late summer read.

Monday 25 July 2016

The Portable Veblen

I did enjoy The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. It’s dark and funny with a biting wit and compassionate heart. 

It features a likeable heroine who is named after the economist Thorstein Veblen. Like her namesake Veblen abhors conspicuous consumption. When her doctor boyfriend Paul buys a humane trap for the squirrel in her loft which keeps him awake at night Veblen is appalled:
‘... she began to think bitterly about how phenomena in the natural world no longer inspired reverence and reflection, but translated instead into excuses for shopping sprees. Squirrels=trap. Winter’s ragged hand=Outdoor World. Summer’s dog days reigned=Target.’
Paul is lovable too, but his ambition causes conflict in their relationship particularly when he enters the corporate world of big pharma. The passages on the clinical trials at the war veterans hospital are harrowing and heartbreaking but tempered by a recurring squirrel motif, a charming love story and a deliciously described Palo Alto landscape.
What’s on your summer reading list? I’m thinking Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies which is out in paperback and I’m looking forward to reading LaRose by Louise Erdrich.

Sunday 12 June 2016


Even if her mother couldn’t recognise it, the shorts she had on were extremely stylish, as were her sleeveless white blouse and straw sandals. Curtis Sittenfeld
Despite my reservations about Austen prequels, sequels and re-imaginings I have to say I quite enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible. Sittenfeld has re-worked Pride and Prejudice so that Mrs Bennet is a social climbing shopaholic, Jane a yoga teacher, Liz a journalist, Kitty and Lydia are glamourous vain, crude and addicted to CrossFit and pseudo-intellectual Mary is as unappealing as in the original.

If you know Pride and Prejudice it’s fun to spot the similarities and differences. The novel begins with Chip(!) Bingley, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, arriving in the neighbourhood having reluctantly appeared on a reality show called Eligible to find the perfect partner. Mrs Bennet, of course, is keen for him to meet her daughters as ‘she wouldn’t mind a doctor in the family.’ At a barbecue, Liz meets the aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy a neurosurgeon and overhears him saying that he is ‘not surprised’ she is single as in this town as ‘they grade their women on a curve.’ Rather than laugh as his ungallant behaviour as Lizzy does in the original novel our heroine immediately challenges him.

I think the problem with the novel is that there is no spark between Liz and Darcy. Even after they begin a sexual relationship while superficially hating each other there is not the wit and humour of the original novel. What does work well is the Wickham character, the affection between Jane and Liz and the awfulness of the two younger sisters.

OK it’s not Jane Austen, but it kept me turning the pages. Have you read it?

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!