Two books that I can’t really link this time – it does happen. They didn’t even come off the same part of the shelf – the Mendelson was in the normal run of the TBR, and the Iris Murdoch book was acquired at the IM Conference, but I couldn’t resist dipping in to it. I’ve just realised that I’ll have to photograph and post my TBR tomorrow – it’s not quite the sleek, svelte thing from this month’s picture, but I’ve got some cracking books to read, so who cares!
Charlotte Mendelson – “Almost English”
(25 Jan 2014 – a Stratford charity shop)
I seem to have read all of Mendelson’s novels so far (this search gives you the post about buying this one, too) and she specialises in quirky family situations, carefully observed and full of humour and pathos. This one was, happily, no exception.
It’s the story of 16 year old Marina, who has a set of embarrassing elderly Hungarian relations and has tried to escape by choosing (instantly regretting doing so) to attend a boarding school for her A-levels. The other main character is her oh-so-English mother, also living in the stifling family flat, having mislaid her husband, and trying to cope with her in-laws while sleeping on the sofa and keeping her clothes in a sideboard. Events are set in motion when the past comes back to haunt the family in particular ways, but it’s also strongly character-driven, and a good, rich read because of these two aspects.
It manages to be fresh, funny and affecting, with shades of Jane Gardam’s “Bilgewater” and Anita Brookner’s flat-dwelling European families in the school and home scenes respectively. The two protagonists are beautifully and sympathetically displayed, yet with an insight into their flaws and the ways in which they manage to make things worse for themselves. The descriptions of the elderly Hungarian ladies’ home life and forays into English society are both hilarious and poignant. First ‘love’ and yearnings for adulthood, and the agonies of both teenagerhood and worries in later life are convincing – a very good read.
Frances White – “Becoming Iris Murdoch”
(12 September 2014 – bought at the Iris Murdoch Conference)
A short biography in the Kingston University Press Short Biography series which covers Iris Murdoch’s life between 1945 and 1956, when her character and life were being shaped in terms of their emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects, as she moved between Europe, Cambridge and Oxford, a succession of relationships and losses, and the first publications of her literary and philosophical careers.
The introduction places the work in the context of the author’s own life, interests, attitudes and theoretical leanings, as well as those of Iris Murdoch, and this personal aspect and voice continue throughout the text, making it appealing and approachable while retaining the necessary intellectual content and rigorous scholarship. I should mention here that I was absolutely bowled over to read mention of my own (unpublished) research into IM and the ‘Common Reader’ (I did check with Frances, and this was a reference to my work!) and I was moved by the book in general, as it takes a generous, clear-sighted and human approach, different in tone, content and concentration from all of the other biographies, and just as valid, of course. Her mention of her only meeting with Iris Murdoch was a lovely treat (even to someone who vigorously champions “reception theory” and is supposed to dismiss the author as almost unimportant in the reader’s encounter with the novels).
In the book, we follow Iris Murdoch from a mass of doubts and uncertainties, poised at the very start of a long and distinguished career, dealing with a chaotic personal life, to the relative calm and stable waters of her late 30s, ready to get on with writing her body of amazing and much-loved work – it proves very worthwhile to look at this period almost in isolation as a forerunner to the much-discussed later life, and it also serves to reclaim Iris Murdoch as a scholar, writer, intellectual and PERSON, rather than the poster-child for Alzheimer’s she has had a tendency to become.
I went to an excellent spoken word event at Brewsmiths Cafe in Birmingham last night to celebrate the Birmingham Reader’s Map, an initiative set up by Pigeon Park Press to record the stories, poems and plays being produced about Birmingham and the Black Country. Author Katharine D’Souza was there with her excellent novels, “Park Life” and “Deeds not Words”, both of which I’ve read and reviewed here, as well as several other writers. We had readings from several books and a poem, Birmingham did its usual thing of showing me that everyone I know knows everyone I know, and I caught up with friends from locally, book groups and BookCrossing.
Of course, there was a tempting table of books, but I only came away with one, “27” by Ryan Davis. It’s a thriller set in Birmingham’s music scene (the title refers to the age at which many rock and pop musicians have died) and looks fun (but hopefully not too gory – I might have to get someone to pre-read it for me). Do have a look at the Reader’s Map, and regular readers, do let me know if you fancy reading about some of these local authors and I’ll see if I can set up some interviews or features …