Book review – Angela Thirkell – “The Headmistress” @ViragoBooks #amreading

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I started this book last week for the Undervalued British Women Novelists Facebook Group’s Angela Thirkell Reading Week. Unfortunately, the Reading Week finished yesterday and I finished reading this book today, but I’m still going to post it there and I’m glad I read it. This was the book that Ali had posted me to surprise me when I returned from our Cornwall holiday, and she read the book (in a different edition) at the same time as me – see her review here. We had quite similar views (and reservations) about this book, so it’s nice that we’ve reviewed it on the same day, too.

Angela Thirkell – “The Headmistress”

(7 October 2017 – from Ali)

One of the Barsetshire series, read slightly out of order, although that doesn’t seem to matter too much as it didn’t feature characters centrally that I’ve come across in others of her books. It’s set during the Second World War, and I always find it terribly poignant when a book set at that time was published, as with this 1944 novel, before the end of the conflict. Thirkell wouldn’t have known what was going to happen to her characters any more than we do (maybe a Thirkell expert can comment on whether we meet the Boltons again in a later novel).

A girls’ school has finally found a place to live in Harefield Park, and although this means the Bolton family have had to move out and rent it to them, the rent comes in very useful and they actually enjoy living more centrally in the village (although renting from one of their tenants!). The headmistress of the school, Miss Sparling, is an asset to the small community, making friends with the residents and providing a point of interest (is she a perfect headmistress or TOO perfect a headmistress?) and her girls weave their way into society, too, seen on the edge getting up plays or going skating. Miss Spurling also ends up with two special men friends, and I did like the way romance delicately blossomed for this lady in late middle age.

There’s much to like – a reference to Trollope’s own Barsetshire resident, Dr Thorne, early on, the real pathos of Mrs Bolton’s feelings about her sons and daughter, all rushing around doing dangerous war work, and the psychological acuity on relationships between the women of the village, shown up most during their working parties, and the schoolgirls, not to mention the relationships between the Bolton family members, and the lovely eccentrics, most notably the accident-prone but charming Mrs Updike.  The details of life during the war, too, are beautifully portrayed, with the Vicar trying to work out how to paint a line round the bath to keep down his water usage and the make-do-and-mend and trying moments when all the help has gone to the armaments factories.

However, there’s the trademark Thirkell snobbery, most obvious in the tradesman in his bear-like tweeds and his unattractive daughter, Heather (although she has pathos and does show promise and strength) and the servants that still remain (although, again, the one put-upon maid might just prevail and get her moment of romance after all). Unlike Ali, I didn’t mind the new brisk woman doctor with her new-fangled ideas, mainly because I felt she was only made into a female character in order to produce one effect on another character to do with hats, but I did take exception to a moment where Mrs Bolton cheerfully tells her daughter’s fiance that Elsa could do with a good beating: this seemed out of character for both author and character. There’s also some really quite nasty casual racism around the ‘funny foreigners’, the Mixo-Lydians and Slavo-Lydians, OK just about when they’re a pet project of the silly doctor’s wife, but presented in such a way as tiresome refugees with ancient rivalries that feels like what would now be a somewhat Brexity attempt at the time to humour people who were presumably tiring of real refugees from the war. I heartily wished those sections excised.

However, the good outweighed the bad and I certainly enjoyed reading this more substantial Thirkell and will keep reading her others.


I’m still working my way through “The Invention of Angela Carter”, another gift from Ali – I’m just not liking Carter at all (OK, you don’t have to) and have a few issues with the way the book’s put together. We’ll see. I need to start “The Icebreaker” next to review for Shiny New Books, and I have won two more NetGalley books (leaving my reviewed books percentage hovering neatly at 80%!), Tim Ferriss’ “Tribe of Mentors”, which has inspiring stuff from entrepreneurs and other achievers, and Jan-Werner Muller’s “What is Populism?” which claims to help us understand the rise of populist movements around the world, but I fear might be a bit heavy for me.

Book review – Mary Beard – Women and Power @ShinyNewBooks #amreading #books

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I am a bit Behind at the moment: I’ve been reading Angela Thirkell’s “The Headmistress” for the Under-rated Female Novelists Reading Week which ends today, and haven’t finished it, let alone reviewed it, and I have another book to read for Shiny New Books, too (which I will get to soon).

Anyway, I was fortunate enough to be sent this book by the publisher, by the great scholar and avowed feminist, Mary Beard, to review for Shiny New Books. It’s a short read but an impressive and powerful one, and you can read my full review over on the Shiny New Books website.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Under the Net” #IMReadalong

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I noticed I was a little nervous about posting this first review, under the bright gaze of all the people who are joining me in this readalong. So I think it would probably be useful to state here and now that I’m very much not setting myself up as some kind of expert: Murdoch is my favourite author and I get a lot out of reading her, but I am a fan more than I’m a scholar. And these threads and this project welcomes everyone’s opinion: the expert professors and researchers who have read everything multiple times and spent an academic lifetime studying literature in general, Murdoch in particular, the fans like me, the first-time reader and the person who doesn’t get what the fuss is about. While I’d rather keep things positive than inspire a well-spring of anti-Murdoch ranting, I am very clear (and should be, given my own research on the value of the “common reader”) that everyone’s opinions are equally valid. I hope we all approach this project in a spirit of sharing and that dissent, where it arises, is respectful.

By the way, thank you to the people who have kindly shared their book cover images with me. I will use these in my round-up post at the end of the month.

OK, on to the review.

Iris Murdoch – “Under the Net”

(14 October 2017)

It’s always a good sign when you’re rereading a book for the umpteenth time and you STILL can’t put it down, isn’t it (I recall my husband asking me why I was gasping at a point in “Jane Eyre” when I’d clearly read it a million times before). I read this alongside said husband, so tried to keep to an even pace, but really, I could have sat and read and read and READ.

In essence, the thing that really struck me this time (and I think this is my fourth time of reading – once in my teens, once in my 20s, in around 2008 when doing my last readalong and now, and having, I suppose, read all of her other books more recently than I had at each other reading of this one) was that it felt so very much like an overture, a distillation of all her themes. Of course I know that she did not go back in time and write this one last, as composers do with overtures, weaving in her themes, but it felt weirdly like that.

The themes I spotted in this book, recognised with glee, included: London, London vs. Paris, animals, siblings, pairings, opposites, pubs, river/wild swimming, artificial women, coils of hair, hairstyle changes, farce, complicated plans and procedures (the entry into the hospital in particular), stones (OK, one monolith), humans needing to live by “clear practical means”, Jewish people and Irish people, men with massive head, philosophers, “good” people absorbing pain and information (I’m thinking Mrs Tinckham here), Eastern objects and Buddhas, the virtue of detachment, pondering life in front of art works, Hamlet, weird sidekicks (Finn), institutions (the cold cure clinic, the theatre, the hospital), depictions of working life, chaotic rooms. I always felt that Murdoch’s oeuvre revisited many themes over and over: there are few here that are missing (incest, the sea, (although water obviously still figures), country vs city) but it’s really striking how many of them are already here.

Jake reminded me of Charles Arrowby from “The Sea, The Sea”, in his pronouncements, maybe more than Bradley in “The Black Prince”. And his description of Anna very much reminded me of descriptions of Hartley: “She was plumper and had no defended herself against time. There was about her a sort of wrecked look which was infinitely touching. Her face, which I remembered as round and smooth as an apricot, was become just a little tense and drawn, and her neck now revealed her age” (p. 41).

It is also a funny read – with Jake and Hugo arranging “to have the cold alternately” in the cold cure clinic (p. 71), Jake asking himself whether he belongs to the social class that steals tins of foie gras (he does), and having a morbid fear of losing his trousers. I had remembered this but had forgotten some of the concentration on romance, chasing a woman he thinks is Anna through Paris, and falling on Sadie with a whoop (not that romantic, as such), having considered it to be more about male friendship, philosophy and London adventures. Is there another character like Mrs Tinckham in the whole of Iris Murdoch’s novels?

I felt that Jake had accepted the contingent at the end, not knowing the answer and being happy – even amused – not to know. I don’t think I’d have thought that before, as that follows me having done more reading and conference-attending. So it’s very nice to feel that my engagement with the secondary literature and the IM Society have informed my reading. The author of the Introduction to this book (I bought these new copies in part for their introductions) considers this to be her best novel: I’m not sure I agree with that, but I did very much enjoy it, and I can’t wait to read on.

Matthew’s views

My husband is not going to read all of the novels alongside me: he has already read and loved “The Sea, The Sea” and “A Good Apprentice” and not loved “The Book and the Brotherhood”. He read this on audio book (read by Samuel West, as noted by a commenter on my first post – thank you – and had some comments to make, which I summarise below. He’s very much not an Iris Murdoch reader and although he’s read Russian classics prefers sci fi and modern novels to mid-century stuff, to give some background. He states he would not have come across IM, much less read her, without my influence.

Was Finn real? That was a great question I’ve never considered before! And who was the person Jake was considering going to live with at the end? Do they (like Hugo Bellfounder) pop up in another novel? He also thought Jake seemed like Charles Arrowby at the start, but became less self-centred. The book didn’t seem like it was written by a woman (when pressed, he said he didn’t feel the empathy he’d expect from a female writer). They are definitely books that need analysing and you can understand why people want to read them more than once. They don’t give up their secrets or intentions easily. The philosophy and politics went over his head, but then he’s not particularly interested in those for the sake of it.


OK, over to you! Please feel free to either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I will gather these together in a round-up post at the end of the month. If you have a cover image to share, please post it on your blog or email it to me using the email address on the contact form. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this one and what you think of it, and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects.

Book review – Colleen McCullough – “The Ladies of Missalonghi” and some book confessions #AusReadingMonth #amreading

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I’m very excited to be able to take part in #AusReadingMonth for once – hosted by Brona’s Books and she has loads of lists of books, divided by non-fiction and fiction and by state, so do pop over to find out if you fancy taking part. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to join in with this one, even though I have read a fair bit of Australian fiction in my time. She talked about “The Ladies of Missalonghi” a while ago, and when I found out it was about small-town Australia and had a feisty heroine with one chance of escape, well, I had to click and order a copy, didn’t I.

I read this one before “Greensleeves” but that one had to slot in first for reasons of challenge dates. And didn’t I say I wasn’t doing any challenges this year? Hm, see below the book confessions to read how true that is!

Colleen McCullough – “The Ladies of Missalonghi”

(12 October 2017)

This is a fairy tale really, but a lovely one where you really root for the heroine, and you also do get quite a lot of detail about the fate of impoverished genteel ladies trapped in small-town Australia, unable to earn any money in all but the most indirect ways and vulnerable to being preyed on by even their male relatives. As the narrator, speaking in Missy’s internal narrative says,

The Missys didn’t know enough about men, and the smidgen they did know lay in the realm of generality. All men were untouchables, even jailbirds. All men had choices. All men had power. All men were free. All men were privileged.

And of course, just like we’re seeing a bit at the moment with all the sexual harassment scandals, the worst enemies of women turn out to be other, more privileged women, blind to their plights or to the reality of their lives. This is reversed quite satisfactorily here, though, as we hope all the way through the story.

Missy Wright lives with her mother and disabled aunt, and you know she’s going to be a good heroine because she’s a big reader, even though she’s tearing through romances at the moment. She turns out to be over 30, kept in a sense of suspended girlhood, from which the only escapes, literally, are illness and marriage – and it looks like she might have ended up getting sent down the former route. When divorcee Una starts working at the library (and passing her these contraband romances), she gently enlarges Missy’s horizons, and when a stranger shows up in town, Missy determines to grab her only opportunity (it doesn’t harm her plans that he’s both handsome and kind).

There are some great set-pieces with the more wealthy side of the family (basically, the whole town is populated by the Hurlingfords of various branches) which are satisfying, and a great, if fairy-tale, conclusion. There are a few slightly rude bits among the genteel organ-playing and sewing, but they are fitting and amusing in turn as the fates of two spinsters of different kinds are decided in two contrasting ways. A good read I’m glad I picked up.


November has started with some Book Confessions already, oops! My lovely friend Cari sent me a gorgeous parcel of three excellent looking books: another Dean Karnazes (amusingly, in the UK edition, he’s fully clothed!) and a book she’s approved about running faster (I don’t necessarily need to run much faster than I do, but could do with picking up things a tiny bit). The Iceland one looks interesting but is apparently a little patchy – I am a sucker for anything Iceland, so we’ll see with that one.

Then I met my friend Gill to re-stock one of our BookCrossing shelves and there was Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, describing life on and off an American reservation, which had been on my wish list for ages and came recommended by her and two others. So …


Obviously I finished this novel a few days ago and have read “Greensleeves” since. I’m currently devouring “Under the Net” – isn’t it great when you read a book for the fourth or fifth time and you STILL can’t put it down – and I’ve also started that lovely big bio of Angela Carter, to make a bit of room on the poor neglected physical TBR. I have “Radio Free Vermont” to read for NetGalley (published today, oops) and “The Headmistress” for Angela Thirkell Reading Week with the Undervalued British Women Novelists (see what I meant about challenges, but Ali sent me this one so it would be rude not to, right?).

Have you read any of this gallimauphry of books reading and planned to be read? Are you taking part in AusReadingMonth?

 

 

Book review – Eloise Jarvis McGraw – “Greensleeves” #1968club #amreading #books

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I wasn’t going to take part in Simon Stuckinabook and Karen Kaggsysbookishramblings’ #1968 club reading challenge because I’d already read Elizabeth Taylor’s “The Wedding Group” and didn’t want to hop ahead to Iris Murdoch’s “The Nice and the Good”. I had a look at what else came out that year and wasn’t that enthused. But then Simon read and reviewed this book a mere matter of DAYS ago, and I had a look on Amazon and there was the Kindle book for £1 and there was I. And I’m VERY glad I clicked, downloaded and read because this book is utterly charming! I really hope I’m not too late for inclusion with this review, because the week has been up to 5 Nov and it’s 5 Nov right now …

Eloise Jarvis McGraw – “Greensleeves”

(ebook – 04 November 2017)

An absolutely enchanting novel starring 18 year old Shannon Lightley, daughter of a film star and a news anchor but feeling she’s inherited the worst aspects of their looks, and cursed to have no roots or home by living in Europe and America, fitting into neither, and having about seven parental figures, the most useful of which appears to be the lawyer Uncle Frosty.

Shannon just doesn’t know who she is (who does at 18?) and when she gets the chance to escape for a summer, she does just that, adopting a new persona, accent and look, leaving her trusty camel bag behind and adopting a cardboard suitcase. She gets a job at a diner and a room in a boarding house and tries to work out for Uncle Frosty why an elderly lady who lived there previously had bequeathed all sorts of odd legacies to the people of the neighbourhood. While she thinks she’s getting it all worked out, some of the people around her are managing to work her out.

What will Shan make of her life, which doesn’t, as she points out, resemble a well-written play? Will she fall for one of the two men she meets and becomes close to, or will she go off to find herself (or indeed stay to find herself)? And which side of Uncle Frosty’s law case will she come down on? Lovely main and side characters and an utterly charming read that I will be buying for a few people for Christmas.

Simon noted that this feels very modern and could have been written now instead of being published in 1968. There’s a tiny bit of casual violence by the men which probably dates it (nothing bad, just different viewpoints) and it has a freshness and dry tone that reminds me a bit of Margery Sharp’s novels – in fact those who like Sharp will probably love this. I’m glad librarian Nancy Pearl rescued this for her Book Crush Rediscoveries Series (I can only find a LibraryThing page on these, here) and even more glad that Simon reviewed it.


Of COURSE I’m still reading “Under the Net”. But I had to pause it for this, I’m sure you’ll all agree!

 

Book review – Robert Webb – “How not to be a Boy” #amreading #books

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I’m a  bit wary of writing this review, as Mr Liz pointed out, Webb is very active on social media and is having a big old retweet of his reviews at the moment. All I can say is, people who wrote the books that I review do sometimes see them, and that doesn’t mean that I temper them for the audience. Hello if you have popped over from a retweet, and welcome to my world, that’s my To Be Read shelf to the left, and let’s get on with the review.

Robert Webb – “How not to be a Boy”

(29 September 2017)

I read this alongside Mr Liz doing the audio book. He enjoyed it a lot, perhaps more than me, being more used to the slightly ickier “boy stuff” that (literally) appears in the book, and enjoyed the fact that Webb narrates it himself. There are also some amusing extras.

On to my experience. I’ve enjoyed reading Webb’s pieces on the constraints and expectations of masculinity heaped upon men, and his avowed feminism, in the New Statesman, and was keen to see what he was going to do with the memoir format. In fact, although there is theoretical and polemical stuff in here, it can read like a straight autobiography, but he does cleverly work in lots of great messages and explanations among the stories and laughs (and punch-in-the-guts moments).

We get his childhood, adolescence and university and just post-university years, then a hop forward to the present day via some talk of his behaviour during the early years of his marriage. Sleb-fest this is not, although he meets and obviously has huge genuine respect and affection for David Mitchell (phew). I’m not sure that he’s doing the celebrity-memoir-split-in-two thing here, as he does cover later years and also has a book deal apparently for a memoir and a novel. So that’s good, as that’s something that annoys me. He also clearly wrote it himself, which is refreshing these days.

The chapters are rather cleverly labelled by all the things a boy is assumed to be and do – be brave, love sport, not be teacher’s pet, understand women, etc. He then subverts those expectations by showing himself to be either a decent person who doesn’t quite do all those things or a bit of a wally who can’t manage them. He certainly shows the pressure to conform, emanating from society and very clearly from his father, and although there’s a fair bit of comedy, there are some dark and sad moments. He never leaves himself alone though, criticising himself for playing the “My mum died” card when he needs to. I think he could have modelled being a bit kinder to yourself, but he does have points to make.

Although the pink endpapers might put off the man more worried about his visible masculinity, Webb very effectively weaves in some good messages aimed at the men who will be surely bought this by the women in their lives for Christmas etc. He has a great section on exactly what happens in a therapy session, explains why it’s not “feminists'” fault that men have crappy lives, and, having discussed “The Trick”, which is the tide of gender bullshit that boys and girls have to navigate, has the main mission statement:

If I’ve tried to say anything in this book, I’ve tried to say that it’s dangerous for boys, too. Feminism is not about men versus women, it’s about men and women versus The Trick.

There are some funny and heart-wrenching dialogues with his 15 and 7 year old selves in the early part of the book and I found it odd that they didn’t continue throughout. Apart from this oddity, the writing and editing were pretty impeccable. It must have been a difficult book to write, with his older brothers and sister appearing in it and certainly a very careful account of his brothers’ relationship with each other and him.

As I’ve alluded to above, Webb is pretty scathing about himself, especially when he appears to become the very man he’s fought not to be, and spends a good few years being “a useless arsehole of a husband and father”. He’s obviously reformed himself, but some positive modelling of how to do that could be a welcome addition – I’m sure there was some, but I came away quite sad because we can’t all be perfect all the time.

It’s a very masculine book, with lots of boy stuff that made this lady reader a little squeamy (most people will cope fine, I just don’t like bodily fluids very much) although he is respectful of the women he has what we’ll call relationships with and doesn’t go into detail there. See: nice man. Another theme that came out for me was his move from the working to middle class, which was an interesting echo of that discussed in “Respectable” (there, mentioning that one again!) – I wonder if he and Lynsey Hanley have had any kind of public dialogue about their experiences.

So, a decent book that will do some good: I’m probably not the exact ideal audience, but it was interesting and I’m sure it will open a few people’s eyes.


I’ve finished another book since this one (where will it end, etc.) and have started Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net”. If I still haven’t convinced you to join my #IMreadalong project, read all about it here.

Book review – Danzy Senna – “New People” #NetGalley #amreading #books

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Unfortunately, this is another book I’m slightly shrinking from reviewing, pretty sure I am not going to do it justice (see Lynsey Hanley’s “Respectable“). I don’t THINK I’m having a reviewing slump, more that I’m aware of my privileges, my fairly narrow lived experience and a desire not to impose those things on books where I’m not that knowledgeable about the milieu they discuss. Of course we should read books about other people’s experiences to broaden our outlook on the world, but I think with a book that has many layers and includes what, as I will say, I think is a very satirical edge, there’s always a danger of doing a very, very shallow reading and missing a lot. Having said that, I also believe that the reader creates the book they’re reading, so I will share my impressions with the caveat that I know I have missed an awful lot.

This was the first book I’d read of Senna’s for almost two decades. I loved her “From Caucasia With Love” and have kept it through many a book cull (but haven’t re-read it). I knew this one, too, would be about race and perceptions, but I think (though I can’t be sure) that a lot of it is satirising the earnest people who reclaim their heritage, or a tiny bit of it (there’s certainly a white character who seems to be savaged for revisiting his 1/16 Hispanic heritage and ending up almost fully Hispanic and completely “other” to his starting point). So Maria and her fiance Khalil are kind of poster children for the “New People” who are racially mixed, pleasing to look at, with perfect houses and, in fact, the subjects of a documentary being created by some even more earnest people. Khalil’s sister Lisa is very into her head-wraps and there’s a huge cultural pull between places to get wedding dresses.

When we meet Maria, she’s just become obsessed with a poet, and starts to stalk him in quite an unpleasant way that made me feel uncomfortable. One review suggests she loses her mind, becoming forgetful and lost: I’m not sure about that, but she certainly goes way too far. At first, there are faintly amusing repercussions, as she is mistaken by a white woman who presumably thinks all beige people are the same for her Hispanic maid and gets trapped in her apartment for a while. Things turn a bit nasty later, but not as nasty as I feared.

There’s a lot about notions of community, belonging and conforming – as well as being part of these New People, Maria was adopted and she’s studying the Jonestown Massacre. But when Maria breaks out, it’s uncomfortable rather than exciting, and I’m not sure what the author is saying. It’s left on a cliff-hanger but I found it difficult to care about what happened, especially because Maria is constantly hearing through others that she’s an unpleasant person and she’s made a very poor choice which felt in some way logical but in many ways incomprehensible.

But, as I said, I am pretty sure I have missed layers and layers of satire and skewering, although I’m not sure. For the record, I wasn’t made uncomfortable by the satirising of the people closest to me in colour and lifestyle, it did feel equally balanced. But I’m not sure what I made of this book or if I am able to review it adequately.

Thank you to the publisher, Penguin Group / Riverhead Books for making this available via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

This review on Shiny New Books echoes my difficulties with the book.

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