“The Book and the Brotherhood” round-up and “The Message to the Planet” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s the last day of the month, so time to round up our reading of “The Book and the Brotherhood” and turn our attention to “The Message to the Planet”.

Our usual lovely suspects have posted comments on my review, but I’ve also received notes from another reader on “Henry and Cato” and “The Sea, The Sea” recently, and I hope to collect more and more over the coming months and years. Comments on any of the posts gladly welcomed! Jo has also done her usual perceptive review on Goodreads and Brona has a great review up on her blog.

If you have any juicy paperbacks or alternative covers, do send me covers to include as I love seeing all the different ways the books are interpreted. I always welcome reviews after the month I happen to have read the book, so do comment away if you’re coming to this at some other time! It’s always good to talk about Iris Murdoch!

“The Message to the Planet”

Now on to this one. Hm. This is the one I’m a bit nervous of reading, as it’s traditionally been the one I liked least. I hope to change my mind on it a bit this time, though!

I have three copies and this is the last one I can say that about, as Vintage didn’t re-issue “The Green Knight” or “Jackson’s Dilemma”. I picked up a first edition quite cheaply and I have the same edition in paperback from when it came out, plus my new Vintage one.

Blurb wise, we have a mottled inside flap from the First …

Not too different on the Penguin paperback …

… and we get more of the A.N. Wilson quote before the same stuff again on the Vintage.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Message to the Planet” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite? Do you have a photo to share of you reading one of the books, or where you read it?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book Review – Joanne M. Harris – “The Testament of Loki”

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I’ve got a little scattershot in my reading recently, abandoning my “one from the beginning, one from the end” policy. Not sure why completely, and I will get back to it, but I picked some quick wins between potentially harder reads and then just fancied catching up with this sequel, which you might spot half way along the front shelf in the TBR pic (you might be shocked by the pile I’ve pulled off to read next, which you’ll get to read about on Tuesday!)

Joanne M. Harris – “The Testament of Loki”

(June 2018 – from Annabel)

Annabel from Annabookbel sent me this one after I expressed interest on reading her blog post¬†about DNF’ing it, and it’s fair to say I enjoyed it more than she did. The sequel to “The Gospel of Loki“, this one starts out with our narrator, Loki just after Ragnarok, chained in a terrible prison with the World Serpent and trying to work out how to escape. Using humans’ ‘dream’, which now includes the Internet, he makes it into a multiplayer online game called Asgard! and thence into the body of Jumps, a 17 year old woman who has various issues that might or might not be made worse by sharing her body with an ancient Norse god. It’s a nice, inclusive book with same sex relationships and different ethnicities plus a wheelchair user all treated as completely normal and not existing as plot points, just being there (the love interest being used as a human shield is a plot point but it doesn’t matter who that love interest is, if you see what I mean).

Harris has her plot worked out carefully and it seems to work, hinging on working out just who has come through the portal into which bodies, and although I did get a bit confused when the plot got hectic, I enjoyed the worlds-collide theme involved in Loki learning about modern human culture and the infiltration of kindness and empathy into his mind.

I’m not sure I’ll worry about any further sequels, but did enjoy this quick read. Thanks, Annabel!

 

 

 

Shiny Linkiness and incomings @shinynewbooks @thamesandhudson #amreading

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The lovely folk at Thames & Hudson have been keeping me topped up with super books to review for Shiny New Books magazine, and I’m sharing one from their Spring 2019 catalogue and one from their autumn one, plus I did some online ordering and have some lovely – and very worthwhile but not po-faced and worthy – buys to share, too.

I sprang at “Futurekind: Design by and of the People” by Robert Phillips because in my previous London incarnation, I worked in a New Deal for Communities project in South London, and one of our remits was doing community-led initiatives, which included designing a new medical centre with the community. There was talk of all sorts like WiFi in the tower blocks which was a bit ahead of its time, but it would have greatly profited from some of the great projects here, like the Community Fridge. Design ideas from around the world are shared, with information on their beginnings, design and implementation stages and lessons learned. Some are just so simple – like a pack supporting recovery from diarrhoea which was originally shipped in Coke boxes or the one-piece water filter that screws onto a plastic bottle, and there are local UK ones as well as international projects. Great pictures in a lovely book; really inspiring.

Read my full review here.

The Pursuit of Art” by Martin Gayford (which is the most beautiful object, mouth-watering to look at with cheeky little details on the dust jacket and end-papers) is international, too: we follow the well-travelled art critic around the world, learning what goes on behind those glossy images from press jaunts to artists’ studios. He goes from Japan to the American South-West, seeing art installed where it was made or where it’s been brought, from cave paintings to the most modern pieces (and yes, for the sharp-eyed among you, including one of Yayoi Kusama’s amazing pumpkins. He doesn’t spare us the horrors and frustrations of travel, including describing the horror of chasing down a set of wonderful pieces in situ, only to find they’ve been loaned elsewhere … He’s a friendly and avuncular companion, not fancy or pretentious at all and a great companion as we find out just how going to where an object or painting just IS and standing in front of it can have a profound effect.

Read my full review here.

Thank you to Thames & Hudson for these great books for review, the ones that have come and been reviewed and the ones I have still to finish reading!


And some more treats, just because I don’t have QUITE enough books already … I’ve not had the best month or so and watching Queer Eye has been a lovely escape: who that watches the show wouldn’t want to grab Karamo’s book, especially on special offer? “Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing and Hope” (and crediting his ghost writer on the title page: well done!) looks just lovely. I’ll be buying Jonathan Van Ness’s book when that comes out, too, as he’s made the brave step of disclosing his HIV+ status.

“I Will not Be Erased” edited by the redoubtable gal-dem collective (they did a takeover of the Guardian Weekend magazine a few months ago) shares stories women and non-binary people of colour tell of their past lives, giving advice to their younger selves from a position of knowledge and strength. “The Good Immigrant” edited by Nikesh Shukla also shares stories of growing up Black Asian or of another minority ethnicity in Britain. Both promise to be powerful: I’ve been resting on my privileged laurels for long enough, claiming to be a socialist feminist anti-racist, but not actually doing enough to embrace intersectionality and learning about my brothers’ and sisters’ different experiences growing up, and my record of my reading this year has been way too white-orientated, so it’s time to branch out and do some learning.


Have you read any of these? I know a few of the bloggers I follow have read “The Good Immigrant” and I’ll be picking up the US one when it’s in paperback. What are you reading RIGHT NOW? Me? Oh, a very light novel about a Cornish beach cafe. We can’t be doing design, art, intersectionality and powerful stuff all the time now, can we?!

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Book and the Brotherhood” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I’ve finally finished this one – the longest of her novels, surely, with my Vintage edition coming in at a round 600 pages. Yes, it’s baggy, and that’s about all the introduction really says, but I do so love this one and thank goodness it didn’t disappoint this time around. This book is notable for including the best animal in the whole of Murdoch’s oeuvre, and my favourite character in Murdoch. One of these is Grey the parrot, one of them isn’t.

There are spoilers in this review because there can’t not be, so don’t proceed unless you’ve read the book (please save it and come back to it, though!).

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “The Book and the Brotherhood”

(31 December 2018)

The premise is such an excellent and strong one, isn’t it. A circle of friends, all Left-leaning, decide to pay into a fund to keep one of them, Crimond, while he writes The Big Book of … well, of what? As the years wear on, everyone moves to the right, as it’s claimed that people do (maybe not Jenkin) and as Murdoch herself is recorded as doing, Crimond has messed with Duncan and Jean’s marriage twice now, most recently at the start of the book, when he claims her in a wild dance, an enchanter indeed, and the original circle wonders if they should keep supporting him. Meanwhile, several incidental cousins and aunts and hangers on are in orbit around the gilded circle, who are themselves linked by ties of sex, love and death. Yes, everyone seems to have a couple of houses and they don’t really have jobs as such, but their emotions are real and the book has a lot to say about friendship as well as love and lust.

Our themes are all here. We have an ancient scholar with a large head and wrinkly face in Levquist, and Duncan also provides us with a bear-like man with hunched shoulders. There is various mop-like women’s hair and of course the horrible dust bunny of Crimond’s red hair. Shockingly, we have a finished book with Crimond’s great work (which we never see except in the form of notebooks). This is only the second finished book in the oeuvre, I think, after Harry Cuno’s novel. Of course Gerard comes up with ideas but no book, and Levquist doesn’t appear to complete his “interminable book on Sophocles” (p. 20). There are stones scattered through the book, including Sinclair’s collection at Boyars, but individual ones, too, one of which is a present from Rose to Jenkin. Gerard has a soapstone seal and there’s a standing stone near Boyars.

Doubling is all over the place: two fathers die (Gerard’s and Crimond’s), Crimond runs off with Jean twice, the snails of course. Gerard makes two proposals, both of which are laughed at. Crimond puts people through two trials or duels, and causes Duncan to fall twice. Jenkin and Father McAlister both do a weird and non-standard blessing over Tamar. Echoings in Violet and Tamar’s access to abortion. We don’t have anyone staring in a window, but we have Gerard, “who disliked being looked in at by hypothetical entities in the garden” (p. 152). The only night time chase is when Rose tries to go over Crimond and nearly falls over on the frosty pavement. Water in all its forms is of course there, from ice to rain, and the pool in France where Duncan disposes of the bullet blanks.

Contingency looms large here – if Tamar hadn’t come round to see Jean … in fact about four characters have reasons to blame themselves for Jenkin’s death through long strings of causality and Rose says, “How accidental everything was” (p. 533). Being good is more shown than told, but I do love Rose’s simple statement when she at last displays actual emotion to Gerard:

Our lives are quite long enough to have some fun, do some work, love a few people and try to be good. (p. 562)

Crimond is fairly obviously the enchanter, having a weird effect on women other than Jean, with Lily drawn to prostrate herself embarrassingly in front of him and Rose so disturbed by his announcement that she has to hold herself firmly in check. Gerard thinks of him as a demon who comes around like Halley’s Comet. Who is the saint? Jenkin is the prime candidate here, isn’t he, absorbing everyone’s stories and emotions and not passing them on unless absolutely necessary, and even effectively giving his life for the group. It’s interesting that he’s looking into new branches of spirituality, and is also aware of a big change or challenge coming – these forebodings and portents were distressing, reading the book knowing what was coming. When crises hit, he doesn’t get involved but sends off postcards and is there to run to. His passivity reminds me of Tallis:

I think we shouldn’t wonder so much … sometimes we try to think in too much detail about other people’s lives. Other people’s consciousness can be so unlike our own. One learns that. (p.127)

Crimond says he’s the only person worth anything, “and he’s a fool” (p. 338) and Gerard’s view of him is so touching: “Gerard, seeing his back, the set of his shoulders, the particular way that the tail of his jacket was always so hopelessly crumpled, felt a wave of emotion which almost made him exclaim” (p. 357). And a vitally important point about him, remembered by Gerard, is that he was always giving people his attention, so key in Murdoch:

Jenkin always walked the path, with others, wholly engaged in wherever he happened to be, fully existing, fully reael at every point, looking about him with friendly curiosity. (p. 579)

Gerard’s father is yet another (portrait of IM’s father?) kind, saintly and self-effacing person, like Charles Arrowby’s, so another upper-generation saint.

Gerard in fact respected and approved of his father, saw the simplicity and truthfulness of his nature, but was used to finding these qualities invisible to others. His father was not brilliant or erudite or witty or particularly successful, he could seem mediocre and boring, yet Levquist, who despised mediocrity and ruthlessly refused to allow himself to be bored, had at once met Gerard’s father upon the ground of the latter’s best qualities. (p. 21)

… he began to think about his father, and what a gentle, kind, patient, good man he had been, and how he had given way, out of love, to his wife, sacrificing not only his wishes but sometimes even his principles. (p. 583)

Gerard himself has Japanese pictures which is usually a sign of saintliness, but he’s unfortunately become egocentric with the passing of the years (he’s very cross with himself when he assumes Tamar has run to find him, not Jenkin), and can’t be an enchanter really, more someone who connects people. Tamar has made a decision between being a saint and being a demon (p. 108) but in the end she’s an ordinary confused student, isn’t she, and she very much does not absorb people’s problems, however much they think she can and project their need onto her. Maybe she’s an enchanter in that aspect.

There isn’t much humour in this, apart from Gulliver’s social embarrassments (“Skating is a ruthless sport …” (p. 252), although I like the wryness of the little recaps, “As x was doing y, and a was doing b …” There’s also a wry bit about who knows what about whom out of Duncan and Jean. But it’s more a deeply ironic than a funny novel, I think.

The feminist notes I’ve been noticing this time round are there again. Lives are changed by legal access to abortion (even though Tamar has a private one, it’s legal now) and the right to choose, mentioned specifically. LIly gives an impassioned speech on the still-bad position of unmarried women in society (p. 329). Jean is said to have wasted her considerable power with Duncan (she doesn’t do much when she’s with Crimond, in fact being reduced to sewing in a corner):

She would go away and work and think, take counsel with her powerful father in America, discover some world to conquer, go to India or Africa, run some large enterprise, use up elsewhere all that restless clever power which, as his wife, she had wasted on happiness. (p. 76)

Tamar seems to experience sexual innuendo at her publisher’s office. And Duncan’s night with her seems very unpleasant this time round, especially as he indulges in a bit of victim blaming when going over his guilt: “Of course she started it … what a minx, what a temptress” (p. 232)Interestingly she doesn’t concentrate so much on women ageing now as men, with Gerard getting haggard and Duncan fat like a gross baby.

Reminders of other novels come in the influence of Levquist on his pupils, reminiscent of Rozanov in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”. Duncan goes through the ordeal of almost losing his eyesight, and physical ordeals have been prominent since “Nuns and Soldiers”. Gerard’s soapstone seal resembles Hattie’s in “The Philosopher’s Pupil” and Crimond likes to see Jean sewing in a corner, like Thomas and Midge in “A Good Apprentice” and someone else, I’m sure. There’s a stone in the wood near Boyars, like in “A Good Apprentice”, though no one goes to visit it. There are more birds, this time redwings with “little demonic faces and sharp probing beaks” (p. 277) and I feel I’ve missed a big bird theme (one for the next read!). There are foxes mentioned, too. Father McAlister joins a small coterie of priests without God. Rose is one of the several women who have had a servant in a big house since the servant was a girl. And finally, Gulliver, in the tradition of wanderers in London in IM, finds himself by the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens when he’s trying to put the snail down somewhere kind.

Pleasingly, there are lovely actual overlaps with other novels, coming in very early on. Robin Topglass, an original member of the circle at Oxford, is stated to be “son of the birdman”, who must be Peter Topglass from “The Bell”. And the band playing at the opening party is The Waterbirds, which is the band formed in “A Word Child”. It would be hard to love these little mentions more! Marcus Field isn’t of course Marcus Vallar from “The Message to the Planet” but he has a “shocking conversion” and you do wonder if that’s the seed for the next book.

On re-reading this one, I didn’t as usual have so much sympathy with the younger generation as with the older one, although I felt more compassion for Tamar than I recall previously and certainly the detail of her disordered eating is presented very accurately and affectingly. Gulliver seems a really annoying fop this time round, with his over-described outfits (the introduction writer seems to think the outfit descriptions are a failing of the book, but I think they, as usual, show facets of characters). I really loved Rose this time round and very much cheered when things worked out as they did for her, a tiny detail I hadn’t recalled. Good for her, steadfast and keeping herself controlled.

A happy re-read, just as good as I remembered, baggy, yes, but satisfying as anything.


Please 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’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book 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, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

Book review – Cy. A. Adler – “Walking the Hudson” plus lovely incomings for @ShinyNewBooks review from @ThamesandHudson

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When I met up with my lovely friend Carianne last August, it was inevitable that we would swap some books – although we’re book-and-running-and-running-book friends now, we started off as BookCrossing friends wayyyyyy back. So she very kindly brought me over some books and I gave her some and may have caused her to buy some I recommended from the charity shops of Stratford Upon Avon. She’s an inveterate New Yorker, and has actually participated in this guy’s walks, so it was a great one to have and I’ll keep it for when I eventually do go there. Lovely incomings for Shiny below!

Cy A. Adler – “Walking the Hudson: From the Battery to Bear Mountain”

(23 August 2018 – BookCrossing)

An interesting guidebook covering the first reaches of a proposed longer walk up the Hudson River through a series of “greenways” which will run alongside it to it source, from New York (or vice versa, of course). As well as the usual guidebook stuff of maps, explanations, points of interest and a thorough coverage of toilet stop opportunities, it includes background information on how it was formalised so far, Adler’s letters to the papers, etc. I got much more of an impression of New York around the river than I formerly had.


Lovely Thames and Hudson generously allowed me to pick some books from their autumn catalogue to review for Shiny New Books. Even though I do have piles of books at hand sometimes, I love my privileged spot as one of Shiny’s non-fiction reviewers, and these are great.

“The Pursuit of Art” by Martin Gayford (and isn’t that a gorgeous cover, and yes, those amazing pumpkins are featured) is essays about his travels to and encounters with both works of art and artists. I’ve read this already and it’s a great, unpretentious read, intelligent but without the pomposity and jargon that can accompany writing on art.

Simon Armstrong’s “Street Art” is in their fab “Art Essentials” series and looks marvellous, a good study of the topic with plenty of pictures and an expert to link themes together.

“How to Read a Photograph” is a lovely hefty tome which takes a long journey through all those photographers you’ve heard of, from the very earliest to the ones operating now, and shows you how their photographs are good and why. I’ll be wrestling Matthew for possession of this one!

What lovely incomings this week, and fun reading once I’ve finished my Murdoch. Now to write 800-1000 words on the first one …

Book review – Margaret Atwood – “The Testaments” #amreading

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I will start by saying that I almost never let myself get carried away by book hype. The last time I did anything like buying a book on purpose on pre-order to arrive on the day of publication, apart from style guides for work, was probably when I bought Harry Potter Five from a bookshop in the evening of the day of publication and read it through. And that wasn’t brilliant. I remember falling for the hype over “Girl with a Pearl Earring” but not reading it in hardback, and I didn’t even buy my beloved Iris Murdoch on the day she came out in hardback when I was old enough to know of her. But “The Testaments”, the long-awaited sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” that I knew loads of other friends and book bloggers would be pouncing on? It had to be done.

I wasn’t actually able to start reading it that day. I had a Terrible Cold and didn’t want to sneeze near my pristine copy, and I was waiting for Matthew to finish reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” which I’d finished the night before in a bit of a reading frenzy (see my review of that one here).

Margaret Atwood – “The Testaments”

(10 September 2019)

So we knew the general premise of this, that it was a follow-up, but not a straight sequel, to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and it was going to be in the form of the testaments or writings of three witnesses to the flowering and fall of Gilead. And you know what, that’s all I can really say without spoilers. Although it’s a work of literary fiction, beautifully written with not a single error I could spot, beautifully produced, an object of joy with its woven green bookmark, it is, essentially, a book you’re going to read for the world-building, commentary on modern life and plot. And you can’t really talk about those without spoilers, and it’s just too soon.

I will say that this book was all that I wanted it to be. Re-reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which I do urge people to do before reading this) gave me a good few things that I wanted to see in this book (and I don’t think that’s introducing spoilers, because I’m guessing different people would want different things). Not every mystery from that book is answered; not every mystery in this book is answered, but I was a happy, satisfied reader by the end.

There were plenty of twists and surprises, some wanted, predicted from tiny clues and then given, others a shock (there was an actual gasp at one point). It’s a coherent world that makes sense, and we get a much more 360-dgree view of Gilead this time, rather than the narrow view seen through the blinkers of a veiled Handmaid who is trying to negotiate her new life and remember her past life: we see it from within and outside, from before, during and after.

It’s a fascinating investigation into how you can be a normal person and become a mid-range power in a hostile regime, keeping power and gaining it, trading it. It looks at how different personalities might take that power differently, and just what you might do to keep it (the book I would say is as graphic and violent as “The Handmaid’s Tale”, in similar ways: it’s the psychological considerations that creep into your mind). It also looks at how you might feel you were able to redeem yourself by working from the inside in various ways – but do the ends justify the means?

In echoes of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, done nicely, we have one narrator who is addressing an audience they do not even know will read their testimony. The mentions of tulip flowers are another nice touch. Books have an effect again. Female solidarity helps again, and might form a network for revolution, although women still work against each other, too. I found myself sucked into the world, believing it almost as reportage, enthralled by a small mention of what has happened in Europe and England, as if I was reading reality.

I highly recommend this. It will give you a lot to think about. Read “The Handmaid’s Tale” first (or re-read it). There’s no need to watch the TV series if you don’t want to: Atwood has talked publicly about her relationship with that and its with the writing of this book, though, and that makes interesting reading.


Read Ali’s review here. Of course we read it at the same time. Her review is longer but doesn’t have spoilers, although details of The Handmaid’s Tale are mentioned so you might want to save it if you haven’t read that one yet.

Book reviews: A fox and a gibbon – two easy wins between Atwoods #amreading

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I didn’t start “The Testaments” on the day it arrived, as Matthew was still finishing “The Handmaid’s Tale” plus I had a bit of a cold and wanted to come to it lively and alert. I’m happy to say it’s on the go now, and unputdownable and just as good as I’d hoped it would be, but I fitted these to in between and although they have nothing in common apart from the animal names, they’re popping in here together because I have other things to write about over the weekend.

Jason Fox with Matt Allen – “Battle Scars: A Story of War and all that Follows”

(09 September 2019)

Although I’m probably not the target market for this biography of a Special Forces chap, this account of Foxy’s life in the Special Forces, detailing his breakdown, diagnosis with PTSD, depression and burnout and his attempted cure by the military and actual cure working with a psychotherapist was really well written, authentic and gripping on both sides of the narrative. There are some gory bits, as there really have to in a book about active service on the front line, but that’s not dwelt upon and I coped fine.

The most important thing about this book is the good advice to men about dealing with mental health issues and great resources at the end from his and Jamie Sanderson’s Rock2Recovery initiative, exhorting men to get help, talk about their mental health and not just “soldier on”. As Mental Health Week and the associated Run and Talk session is supposed to concentrate on men’s mental health, I’m going to use this as a resource, as it’s a great way of getting this information in front of people who might not reach out for it normally.

Stella Gibbons – “Conference at Cold Comfort Farm”

(20 December – from Lorraine for my BookCrossing Birmingham Not-So-Secret Santa)

Firmly from my wish list but when I started reading this (in the middle of the night, sucking a cough sweet and with a temperature) I did wonder if it was me or the book that had gone peculiar! An almost entirely bewildering novella in which Flora Poste from the wonderful “Cold Comfort Farm”, now a solid matron and mother of five, returns to the Farm to help run a very modern conference. The male Starkadders have all left for South Africa so most of the Webb/Hardy satire is replaced by just-post-war finger-wagging and fun-poking at a group of artists (OK, understandable) and thinkers (including administrators I didn’t understand at all – maybe a comment on sociology and time and motion studies?) that Libby Purves in her introduction to my Vintage edition helpfully identifies as Picasso, Moore, Britten, Kafka, Anouilh and Sartre. And the National Trust has its own punishment, too. There’s a good bit when the Starkadders rise resplendent again at the end, but the administrators and scientists remain baffling and so it has dated.


So I’m nearly finished with “The Testaments” and can’t wait to discuss it with people – Matthew will only get the audio book finished next week but I should review it on Monday. Then it’s on with trying to get through all of “The Book and the Brotherhood” which I think is the longest Iris Murdoch, and reviewing that before the end of the month catches me. How are you getting on with “The Testaments” if you’re reading it?

Book review – “Once Upon a Time in Birmingham: Women who Dared to Dream” @TheEmmaPress plus @ShinyNewBooks and @EburyPublishing lovely links

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In the middle of my plumbing dystopian issues in my Margaret Atwood reading / re-reading, I temporarily ran out of book, as I speed-read “The Handmaid’s Tale” TOO speedily and had it done the night before “The Testaments” was due to arrive. What could I read as an antidote to dystopia? Ah, yes. A lovely book about women born in 1816 through to women who are right now daring to dream in my adopted home city of Birmingham (UK).

I bought this book excitedly in November 2018 and it’s been sitting on my desk ever since. It was perfect to pick up at this time in the world and my reading life, giving lots of positivity and hope. Published by local independent publisher Emma Press, you can find a direct link to the book here. Buy it for anyone from a young teen upwards, and especially to share our lovely city at home and further afield.

“Once Upon a Time in Birmingham: Women who Dared to Dream”

(bought direct from the publisher, November 2018)

With text by Louise Palfreyman and illustrations by Jan Bowman, Yasmin Bryan, Amy Louise Evans, Saadia Hipkiss, Farah Osseili, Chein Shyan Lee and Michelle Turton, published by small independent women-run Emma Press and supported by Birmingham City Council, this really did feel like a collective work of love and celebration.

The Birmingham Remembers campaign celebrated and commemorated both the end of World War One and the partial achievement of the vote by women, and it launched a social media drive to source public nominations for this book. The nominations were then whittled down by a jury of young female writers from Writing West Midlands’ Spark Young Writers groups before the book was produced and then launched at the Birmingham Literature Festival (which must be how I heard about it). I’m glad the introduction by three female local councillors explained the process.

We have all sorts of women among the 30 featured, from suffragettes and suffragists to academics, campaigners and leaders of social movements. Hannah Sturge goes furthest back – born in 1816, she founded a group in the anti-slavery movement, one of the first examples of organised female activism. We have examples of both suffragettes with their direct action (Bertha Ryland, who slashed a painting in the Art Gallery) and suffragists with letter-writing campaigns, and plenty of academics, including scientists and mathematicians, with Denise Lewis representing athletes and Kit de Waal writers. Did you know that one of the structural engineers who made the New York 9/11 site safe was Asha Devi, who grew up in Handsworth and works as an ambassador exhorting girls to choose engineering subjects?

Closer to home, I was interested to read about Dame Ellen Pinsent, Birmingham’s first female councillor and pioneer in education provision, after whom a local school is named, and proud to find Imandeep Kaur, who is celebrated for co-founding Impact Hub which puts people at the heart of solving the city’s problems, who I actually know!

The back of the book features ideas on interviewing your own heroes, a list of helplines and support, biographies of the writer and artists and of the young women who chose the selection. I also noted my friend Debbie in the acknowledgements. So a lovely local read which stretches far further.


My latest Shiny New Books review is up and features the rather wonderful “Rough Magic” by Lara Prior-Palmer (yes, she’s Lucinda’s niece and Aunt Luncinda comes into the book). Dismissed as scatter-brained and better at plunging into things than thinking them through first, Lara takes on the Mongolian Derby in this exciting and engaging read. I am grateful to Ebury Press for sending me the proof copy, and you can read my full review here.

Book review – Margaret Atwood – “The Handmaid’s Tale” @ViragoBooks

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I don’t often get swept up in the excitement over new book releases, especially in fiction, but so many people couldn’t resist pre-ordering Margaret Atwood’s sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “The Testaments” that I got into the whole thing, too. It’s publication day today and I’m eagerly awaiting, etc., but even though I a) am self-employed and can arrange my work to an extent, b) read fast, I won’t have a review out before Thursday at the earliest. However, having believed myself not to have re-read “The Handmaid’s Tale” for a while, here’s my review of my re-read of my dear and battered old copy (complete with post-it note inside: “Liz’s, please return” AND “Liz Broomfield English II” in faded ink inside the front cover!

Margaret Atwood – “The Handmaid’s Tale”

(1990)

Here’s a confession. I was convinced I had re-read this before, between my first reading aged 18 and my reading now, aged 47. But if I had, it certainly hasn’t been during the lifetime of this blog, or the book review journals that stretch back to 2007. I remembered the central premise, the idea, but not really many of the scenes. So maybe I hadn’t.

I remember when I first read it and why. I was taking Peggy Reynolds’ Women and Literature in the 20th Century course at university, an optional D period course in my second year. I have always had it rather fatally mixed up with Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve” (which I’ve tried and failed to re-read recently: too MUCH!) and of course the landscapes of both would mesh together. I can only assume we had a week on dystopias.

Anyway, my goodness, if I’ve only read it at 18 and now, what a gulf separates those two reads. I knew so little of the world, its ways and its troubles then, though we were in the middle of the AIDS crisis and starting the First Gulf War. Then, if I’d imagined myself into the book, I’d have thought of arranged marriages or assignment to a sterile wife and her Commander husband to try to produce a child. Now, childless at 47 (although in a first marriage, white and of Christian birth, not as bad off as some), where would I be in that book? I dread to think.

We probably all know the premise – in a warring and fragile state, the birth-rate has dropped and women such as our heroine, ‘Offred’ are assigned to live with married couples and copulate coldly with the husband, hoping to produce a baby. She remembers the time before, her husband and daughter (and pet: oh dear. Be careful at Chapter 30), and their attempted escape from the increasing privations of the regime, as women are slowly denied money, jobs, freedom, and she hopes there is an underground force at work, resisting. She remembers the wonderful, testing Moira, her best friend (please please please let Moira pop up in the new book) and longs for even a few words to read. When her Commander makes an odd request, what is she to do?

It was the very small details that bothered me this time. Women have taken to the old handicrafts. Plastic has been banned and groceries are once again wrapped in paper. It’s well-known that all the details Atwood put in had happened somewhere in the world (by 1985!!!) and those just seemed too familiar. The rounding up and sending away of first the “Children of Ham” and Jewish people and then the concentration on anyone who wasn’t a white Christian in a first marriage screamed at me of that poem “First they came for …”

A powerful and of course sublimely well-written book. Unlike some modern dystopias, the violence is usually off-screen. I love the epilogue featuring a conference paper on the reliability or not of the narrative – something I’d forgotten.

I can’t wait to read “The Testaments” and can only hope it comes up to the hype.

Have you re-read “The Handmaid’s Tale” recently and are you waiting by the door for the new one to drop through?

Book reviews – Angela Thirkell – “Before Lunch” and “Northbridge Rectory” @ViragoBooks #amreading

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Two lovely gentle reads today before I plunged into a lovely big book about design for Shiny New Books then embark upon a Margaret Atwood double (re-reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” tomorrow; “The Testaments” arrives on Tuesday and will be gone into immediately (not sure what I’ll read on Monday!) – anyone else starting reading “The Testaments” on publication day apart from Ali, who I already know about?

Slightly annoyingly, Virago republished these two in time for lovely LibraryThing Virago reader Cate to buy them for me for Christmas 2018, but the one between them, “Cheerfulness Breaks In”, doesn’t come out until next spring! So I decided to just read on through them – after all, I read “The Headmistress”, which comes way after these, in November 2017, slightly by accident.

Angela Thirkell – “Before Lunch”

(25 December 2018)

A delightful novel with excellent characters, ‘low’ characters who are only slightly patronised and no funny foreigners. The Middleton’s find that Jack’s widowed sister and her two stepchildren are planning to rent the house next door for the summer. They draw close to the Bonds, as Denis charms Lord Bond with Gilbert and Sullivan evenings on the sly and Daphne charms his son and heir. Lots of characters I should recall from previous books pop in and out, especially at a load of meetings to discuss endlessly and never resolve a problem with a jumped up nouveau riche chap trying to build on a bit of land and the Agricultural show, but there is also real pathos in the growing ‘understanding’ between Denis and Mrs Middleton, and I must watch out for mention of her (Jack Middleton is much older than his wife) in the corners of later novels. Charming.

Angela Thirkell – “Northbridge Rectory”

(25 December 2018)

Just as light really as the previous one, but maybe the wartime setting gives it a higher value in terms of the atmosphere and daily life (amusingly, quite late on in the book a lady author who writes boring novels about day to day life is mentioned). I hugely enjoyed this, which was reminiscent of the Mrs Tim novels, and there were not too many Mixo-Lydians, even though the odd refugee is mentioned and they crop up in the chatter of the dreadful Mrs Spender.

The general atmosphere of early wartime in the village is summed up by Verena Villars, who has only been in the village for a year with her husband, the Rector:

The two ladies plunged into the intricacies of Mrs Gibbs’s household and Mrs Turner’s camp-beds, while Mrs Villars sat idle and wondered if she ought to have brought some knitting. It seemed unfair that a war, besides wrecking everyone’s summer holidays and devastating their evenings and mornings with blackouts, should give one a serious guilt-complex if one did nothing for a few moments

It’s not quite as dismissive of the privations of war as this implies, however: there are good solid naval and army characters and planes overhead. But also there’s this incisive remark which could be found in any book written about the home front:

In every war, however unpleasant, there are a certain number of people who with a shriek of joy take possession of a world made for them.

You have to love Thirkell for that, and for her exposure of the situations single women got left in, especially those managing difficult parents or aunts, for all her snobbery and indelicate phrasing around the less sharp characters.

The Villars have army high-ups billeted with them and one of them gets a pash on Mrs V – her marriage, however, asserts itself in a very sweet way. Laura Morland is mentioned, with Tony at Oxford, and there’s a cheeky mention of the next book to be read aloud at the working party being Trollope’s “The Warden” [both series of novels are set in Barsetshire, a century or so apart]. There’s some real pathos as well as humour in the complex relationships among some of the older characters, and even though the humour around Old French is a little laboured, this is a very good read.


Finally, a quick Confession – I have had a copy of this in the past but sent it out a-wandering and never claimed it back. As it’s by a favourite author AND features Iris Murdoch as one of the characters, I had to pick up a copy of Paul Magrs’ “Aisles” when I found a cheap one on Abe Books and it arrived today – hooray! Will be read early in the New Year.

 

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