Book reviews: Jonah’s Gourd Vine, To Bed With Grand Music (Persephone), Making Conversation (Persephone), The Devil Rides Out

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Zora Neale Hurston – “Jonah’s Gourd Vine”

(25 December 2011, LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa gift)

Note: this is part of a volume of Collected Works (you can see in the photo: the blue book with white lines to the left of “Sun City”. I will be reading the individual novels within the volume interspersed with other books, as they are quite an intense read and I don’t want to gulp them all down too quickly)

I have to admit that, when I opened this volume, I was a little intimidated by the dialect, but I was soon wrapped up in this engrossing story of a preacher and town councillor in an all-black Florida town, and his inevitable downfall and surprising redemption. Set a generation or two after slavery has ended, and examining the effects of this on both the black and white communities, this is a universal story in many ways, of one man’s weakness and his eventual destruction by it. But the specificity is fascinating, too: it is a journey into another world that isn’t so far in time and space from our own (part of the book is set in Alabama, where I have spent a little time), in some respects, and amazingly far in others. The dialect and general use of words is powerful and affecting. A fascinating book, and it’s not even supposed to be her best one!

Marghanita Laski – “To Bed With Grand Music” (Persephone Books)

(25 December 2011 – from Sorcha)

For some reason, I had this down as being short stories, so I was pleasantly surprised to find I was at Chapter 2, not a new story, already involved in the characters’ lives. A highly detailed psychological study of how one might go about going to rack and ruin in a wartime situation (the excellent foreword points out that the book was not based on Laski’s own experience, but on some direct observation, and I think this shows). It opens with Deborah and Graham having a somewhat uncomfortable marital discussion while preparing for wartime separation, then, under the influence of Deborah’s rather marvellously portrayed mother and housekeeper, and all in the best interests of her small son, Deborah is encouraged to take up some work, being the type of woman who can be seen as being a wife, rather than a mother, type. She moves to London, where she gets involved with some rather racketty women and situations, and embarks upon a series of affairs, each one a little seedier than the last. It is marvellous on the details of how it is done – she is shocked when something is presented as payment for services rendered, but keeps herself in perfume and stockings through “presents”, and her hats change as her situation does. Also, a brave book to publish in 1946, giving a very different side to the keeping the home fires burning narrative that to an extent still stands today.

Christine Longford – “Making Conversation” (Persephone Books)

(25 December 2011 – from Gill)

This is one of those delicious books that doesn’t have a plot as such – OK, our heroine progresses through her youth, but it’s more a collection of exquisitely observed scenes and – yes – conversations than a plot-based narrative. Martha, our heroine, never quite fits in or understands the sub-texts (or, often, texts) she encounters. There is a glorious acceptance of all the different people who one might just about encounter in life – from spinsters and vicars to revolutionaries, Japanese gentlemen and slightly odd boys … all almost equally bewildering. A clear eye and a deadpan voice reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym make this a delight to read.

Paul O’Grady – “The Devil Rides Out”

This second volume of his autobiography takes us from late teenagerhood and fatherhood (his adventures with girls are never fully explained, but just accepted – fair enough!) to the tentative birth of Lily Savage. Lots of scurrilous activity and details on how to work in a pub, become a female impersonator and put on an act, but also lots of details about his jobs in social services, which have obviously had a huge influence on him, and has, I would imagine, made him into the person we now warm to behind the brassy exteriors. Well written and engaging: there were just a few too many icky social services stories, maybe, which felt a bit jammed in at the last minute and struck a slightly odd note. But a good read in general.

Good Things About Working From Home in the Summer

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This is not my garden

I was slightly bemoaning the fact that when it was cold and rainy the other week, I didn’t have much work on, whereas now, when the weather is glorious, I am busy, busy, busy, slaving away at 8 -10 hour days up in my study … but actually, compared to people working in offices, with other people, or both, I’m pretty lucky.

– It doesn’t matter what I wear (within reason – I do have windows in my office) and I can change part way through the day if I want to

– No window / fan / blinds wars – it’s just me and the cat, and the cat doesn’t really have a say in which windows are open. Every office has window open/closed, fan on/off and curtains or blinds open/closed wars and it’s liberating to be able to do whatever I choose

– If I really want to, I can start at 5 am and have a siesta after lunch

– I can have lunch in the garden. I perched on the garden bench today, Denis Healey autobiography in hand, washing ready to peg on the line, just for 15 or so minutes, but it was lovely

So I might be busy, but I’m lucky to be busy … and I’m lucky to be able to keep comfortable in the heat and to be able to do what I need to do in order to keep comfortable. No more bemoaning for me!

Book reviews: Sun City, The Corinthian and The Wedding Wallah

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Tove Jansson – “Sun City”

(25 December 2011 – LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa gift)

Set in a hotel where one goes to retire in Florida, and examining the routine lives of the residents, including cattines, repressed emotions and one annoying old man, yes, it was very reminiscent of “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont”. The young people, the cleaner and her boyfriend, who works at a tourist attraction in the town, seem as trapped as the older inhabitants, and are somewhat ironically waiting for God (too?), in Joe’s case the Jesus Army, and for Linda, the Virgin Mary in a more abstract form. An ageing celebrity is thrown into the mix and there are some very poignant and painful scenes as a result, and there is a rather odd trip at the end, in which all the cast can be seen to be exhibiting their underlying characteristics. Not a particularly comfortable read, and maybe suffered from the comparison with the superb “Mrs Palfrey”, but an interesting one, especially as M was in Florida himself at the time!

Georgette Heyer – “The Corinthian”

(11 August 2011 – BookCrossing)

The last in my first Heyer omnibus (I have another one lurking in the TBR: you can see it in the photo next to Tony Blair!) and another classic, with an adventure, a journey, a Corinthian (man of fashion) and a cross-dressing heroine, plucky but annoying to the hero. Many delicious confusions ensue!

Farahad Zama – “The Wedding Wallah”

(31 December 2011 – Amazon)

This series, while mainly inhabiting a somewhat cosy world of front porch marriage arranging, has never fought shy of the seedier, political or just generally more challenging aspects of Indian society, still loosely, but not always, centred around human relationships. In this installment, as well as the usual visitors to the porch, we have Naxalite kidnappings, ‘unlucky’ children, homosexuality, the need for widows to remarry and battles between agricultural workers and biotech corporations over land rights. But all of this is worked into the story, and it is never worthy or preachy, always a good read. I hope the author continues to write this series, as I am sure there is more to come.

Home alone

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I’ve been Home Alone for the past just-over-a-week. Not only that, but it’s been the longest Matthew and I have been apart since we got together over 10 years ago!

I thought it would be harder because I work mainly at home now, mainly on my own. I was a bit worried about turning “feral”: you know, not obeying my rules for Home Workers, eating odd things at odd times, sleeping through the alarm, waking up at 6pm and thinking it was 6am and getting my days inside out, all that.

Actually, it was OK.

I think that, because I’m used to being on my own in the house during the day, it was easier during the evenings. Because it’s lighter later, I was just up here in my study a lot, and when it did get dark, it was nearly bedtime, whereas I’ve been up here in the dark before Matthew’s even due home in the winter.

I also made doubly sure that I had something planned to do every day. Thanks to my super friends, this worked really well, and I was out of the house, spending time with different people, or having them round. I slept OK, I ate fine, and although I did miss Matthew, we “talked” every day via email, googlechat or Skype, so we were never that far apart.

So if you’ve started working from home and you’re worried about that inevitable “home alone” time when it comes … here’s the report from the other side of it: it’s not too bad!

Book reviews: It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty and The Hand of Ethelberta

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Judith Viorst – “It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty”

(25 December 2011 – from Sorcha)

I have given this slim volume of poems to several people over the years, and leafed through the easy-to-read verses – in fact I read about half of this on Christmas Day when I unwrapped it! Deceptively simple but poignant and perceptive as well as funny, the poems chart the often startling disconnect between young love and young and not-so-young marriage with children. Firmly rooted in the 1960s, with some cultural references that are not as immediately accessible as they would have been at the time of first publication, they also have a timeless, rueful quality that makes them eminently readable today.

Thomas Hardy – “The Hand of Ethelberta”

(Kindle)

A lesser-known work, published between “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “The Return of the Native” (and read late because I didn’t fancy it but then couldn’t bear to miss one of the books as I’ve joined Ali’s scheme to read them all in order!). Enjoyable and with a plot that can be engaging and fast-paced. Widowed young, Ethelberta must use all her resources to support her ailing mother and nine siblings, while her father supports himself in a job as a butler. In some ways, this is a very feminist book, highlighting with some sympathy the plight of the unsupported female who must maintain her delicate reputation. In Ethelberta’s case, this involves distancing herself from her family in appearance, while remaining close to them in fact, and negotiating her way around a quartet of suitors, making the right choice for economics and her family:

Somebody in the family must take a practical view of affairs, or we should all go to the dogs.

But Hardy also seems bitter about women’s methods of negotiating these minefields, which is interesting, and I wonder where this comes from. He is very perceptive about male-female relations, for example:

New love is brightest, and long love is greatest; but revived love is the tenderest thing known upon earth.

‘We don’t need to know a man well in order to love him. That’s only necessary when we want to leave off.’

Not the lovers who part in passion, but the lovers who part in friendship, are those who most frequently part forever.

And also on life in general: I loved this little point:

‘The deuce, the deuce!’ he continued, walking about the room as if passionately stamping, but not quite doing it because another man had rooms below.

There are also some interesting points made about the cult of celebrity which seem quite modern. The novel gets quite gothic towards the end, with chases, near-shipwrecks and horrible surprises, but holds the attention. Surely, though, the chilling quotation:

But ten of us are so many to cope with. If God Almighty had only killed off three-quarters of us when we were little, a body might have done something for the rest.

surely presages the horrors of Jude? Anyway, I am glad I read this, for completeness’ sake, and it was an interesting read on its own merits.

Book reviews: The Grand Sophy, The Perfect Horse, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park and Creatures of Habit

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Georgette Heyer – “The Grand Sophy”

(12 December 2011 – from Heather) (April read)

When I left my library job last year, I was kindly given a book token by my colleagues, and then my friend Heather also gave me two Georgette Heyers, as we’d often talked about this marvellous author and I was always saying I wanted to re-read her. Although I had come across the omnibus I’ve been reading and read a couple from there, it was a real treat to read a lovely paperback edition. I first read Heyer in those hardbacks with the mint green covers, from various libraries – anyone else remember them?

Anyway, this is one of the best Heyers – of course. Motherless Sophy is lodged with her aunt and cousins while her father is off in Brazil. Not the shy and retiring girl expected, and seeing the parlous state of her relatives’ various finances and emotional entanglements, she rolls up her sleeves and gets to work, to the consternation of her cousin Charles, and the glee of his younger siblings, especially when a monkey makes an appearance! With her pistol and her amazing horsewomanship, Sophy could easily become too good to be true, but she is given a rounded character and her own faults, and it’s a very funny book, too.

Gillian Baxter – “The Perfect Horse”

(BookCrossing, 29 August 2010)

The last unread pony book on my Pile (which now comprises books in series I haven’t got up to yet and – the horror – books in French!) so not sure what I’ll do next time I need a comfort read. An excellent portrayal of a riding school / livery stables getting back on its feet after a difficult time, and the horsey community around it. Heroine Bobby’s somewhat jealous when her cousin, Ellen, is bought a perfect horse that even an average rider can do well on. But what will happen when he – or more likely Ellen – makes the inevitable mistake. A bit of light romance, but well done horses and people and good illustrations too.

Sinclair McKay – “The Secret Life of Bletchley Park”

(BookCrossing, 10 December 2011)

A really well done book on the code-breaking establishment, mixing chapters charting its historical progress with themed chapters on romance, recruitment, security breaches, etc. Much more the story of the people than of the equipment, and occasionally a little more “breathless” than non-fiction books I am accustomed to reading (of course a memo written in the 1940s is still in the archives today) and slipping into the odd typo, this is in general pitched well and very engaging. Having a few key characters from the general workers as well as the bosses popping up throughout the text give it a joined up sense of unity. Well worth reading, and it’s amazing, in this day and age, just how secret it was all kept, even when it didn’t really need to be any longer.

Jill McCorkle – “Creatures of Habit”

(08 January 2012 – from Gill)

I discovered McCorkle about 14 years ago, but she’s very hard to find in the UK, so I was thrilled when Gill presented me with this US-sourced copy at Christmas. McCorkle’s usual takes of small town life feature nothing very much out of the ordinary: that’s their joy. The stories in this collection are pinned on the human life story, from being a child cycling after the town mosquito truck to old age, memory loss and death.¬† There’s also a distinct and interesting animal theme, with even a stepfather taking the role of a rather dull pet in one story. Beautifully observed and heartbreaking as well as funny: extraordinarily written stories about ordinary families, and just, satisfyingly, as I’d expected.

State of the TBR – May 2012

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State of the TBR shelves 1 May

Inspired by my friend Ali’s book blog, where she has a regular post talking about what’s coming up in her reading for the next month, I’ve decided to post a State of the TBR post every month. So: here’s a photo of my TBR (To Be Read) shelf as of today. One shelf full at the back, half a shelf at the front, and a Pile (the pile is made up of books in series where I haven’t got there in the series yet, comforting pony books, and books in French I claim I’m going to read one day). The ideal shelf is just one shelf full and a Pile, so not doing too well so far.

Current reads (Kindle not pictured)

Here’s what I’m reading at the moment:

  • Denis Healey – “The Time of my Life” – excellent autobiography, but it’s my Downstairs Book (large tomes I can’t carry around in my handbag or comfortably read in bed) so by its very nature is being read quite slowly. I like to have a big book on the go, and the next one will be the fat collection of diary entries to the left of my TBR shelf.
  • Sinclair McKay – “The Secret Life of Bletchley Park” – a BookCrossing book passed to me by Ali. Really interesting so far, and a lively, well-researched read; I’m getting through this quite quickly.
  • Thomas Hardy – “The Hand of Ethelberta” (not pictured: on Kindle) – this is (was) the March-April read for the All The Novels of Hardy readalong I’m taking part in (that’s Ali again). I didn’t get round to starting it until yesterday and there are some annoying locals at the start, but it’s getting good now.

Coming up ...

And finally, a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to make the books look like they’re in a pile … this is the beginning of my TBR and I’m hoping to get through some of them this month. The bottom one is the big book of diary entries that will replace Mr Healey when he’s done. Then we have a Georgette Heyer, a Tove Jansson that’s been raved about on the LibraryThing Virago group, some Zora Neale Hurston and lots of Persephones – “To Bed With Grand Music”, “Making Conversation”, “It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty” (I’ve read some of these poems already), “Hostages to Fortune” and “The Children Who Lived in a Barn”. So it should be a grey May in a GOOD way!

With my newly added Home Worker’s Resolution to read more, hopefully you will see a number of these reviewed by the end of the month …