Book review – Tayari Jones – “Silver Sparrow”

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Lovely fellow-book-blogger Bookish Beck kindly sent me a lovely box of books just before Christmas – ones I’d expressed an interest in on her blog or ones she thought I’d like. They’ve been working their way slowly up my TBR, but then my friend Meg told me she’d just spent the book token I gave her for Christmas on some books, including this one, and I thought I’d do a little offline readalong with her (amusingly, she’s been reading “The Girl with the Louding Voice” this week so we’ve been busy swapping thoughts on both).

Tayari Jones – “Silver Sparrow”

(24 December 2020 – from Bookish Beck)

“Love is a maze. Once you get in it, you’re pretty much trapped. Maybe you manage to claw your way out, but then what have you accomplished?” (p. 116)

This is Jones’ third book set in Atlanta and was originally published before her international break-out novel, “An American Marriage“. I really want to read her earlier two, “Leaving Atlanta” and “The Untelling” although they don’t seem to have been republished in the UK yet. Anyway, I like reading about Atlanta as I have actually spent a few days there myself, including a walk around the old traditionally Black area and a visit to the wonderful APEX Museum.

In this novel, we start off by meeting Dana Lynn Yarboro and in the first line we know her father is a bigamist. We’re rooted straight away in Atlanta life:

When most people think of bigamy, if they think of it at all, they imagine some primitive practice taking place on the pages of National Geographic. In Atlanta, we remember one sect of the back-to-Africa movement that used to run bakeries in the West End … (pp. 3-4)

So we know early on that Dana’s father has another family, who don’t know about Dana and her mum, and none of them know that Dana and her mum go and “surveil” (language is important in their side of the family) the others as well as passing by Dana’s maternal grandfather’s house once a year.

There’s Dana and her mum and then Laverne and Chaurisse, the other mum and daughter, plus James’ best friend Raleigh (“I drew him with the crayon labeled ‘Flesh’ because he is really light-skinned” (p. 6)) who it turns out has enabled the situation and its continuation. Throw in uneasy proximity, overlapping school districts and a boy who skips around in both worlds and you’ve got a situation that’s ready to explode: “This was just the beginning. Some things were inevitable. You’d have to be a fool to think otherwise” (p. 48). Or does it?

As in “The Vanishing Half” but more believably perhaps when you’re in one ethnic community in one city, there are a few encounters between Dana and Chaurisse as they grow up. Chaurisse always seems to be in the background of Dana’s mind and we get almost to college when … we swap narrators and get a run-down of Chaurisse’s earlier life then the stories intersect after the end of Dana’s section when Chaurisse makes an intriguing new friend … In this section, more than the first, there are some real gasp-out-loud, heart-in-mouth moments.

It’s not all about plot, though. The characters are so well and carefully drawn and there’s also, as you might have gathered from the mention of flesh-coloured crayons, a commentary on race. When Dana is looking for colleges to attend he’s told by her best friend, who has moved to Atlanta from further north:

“Are you sure you want to live up there with all those white people? … living here, you don’t know anything about white people. Where I’m from, everything is mixed. In Atlanta, at least out where where we stay at, everything is so black that y’all do’t know what it feels like to be black.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said.

“You’ll see,” she said. “You get out to Holyoke with those white people and you will see exactly what I mean.” (p. 150)

It’s a shame we don’t see her go to college – I’d love a sequel!

I’m glad this one has been reissued and hope her other books will be, too – I also can’t wait for her next novel. And reading praise in this ARC from writers like Tina McElroy Ansa draws me back to earlier Black women writers I have loved reading in the past, as well.

Book review – Isabella Tree – “Wilding”

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This is the third book my best friend Emma and I have read together – we tend to do our Reading on a Thursday night, but it sometimes slips to the next Saturday if we have something we need to do. And we will be continuing this even after lockdown finishes, as we really enjoy it. We read “Rewild Yourself” first and followed it with “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” and for the last few months we’ve been working our way through this one, a chapter at a time, and very much enjoying it.

I bought this book at the Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance the last time we went down to Cornwall – I always buy a few books there when I’m down, usually local or nature-y ones.

Isabella Tree – “Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm”

(05 October 2019)

Somehow, nature had found us, homing in on our tiny patch of land from unseen distances, the momnet these few acres had become hospitable again. (p. 44)

This is the story of how Tree and her husband Charlie finally give up trying to farm his family property, Knepp, profitably, and decide to “Rewild” it instead. I read all about the theory of rewilding in a book fairly recently (review here) and now we have the detail of the practice. There is quite a lot of detail in this book and a lot of biology, so you learn about the way trees’ roots join them up underground and protect trees from danger, and about the way different plants colonise empty spaces, about giant herbivores and how they’re the most useful thing to reintroduce and the economics of farming and setaside subsidies. But the detail is broken up by very direct descriptions of their experiences (sometimes a little red in tooth and claw, but you can’t gloss over the icky bits of course) and lovely sections about the animals and plants that recolonise their little corner of Sussex.

After a timeline and an introduction that sets a positive tone for the book, we’re straight into measuring oak trees and not tidying them up, meeting one in a long succession of experts who help them to understand their land and what they’re doing. It’s not an easy process – some of the things they so are met with scorn and complaints by their neighbours, and some (allowing “weeds” to grow right to their boundaries and letting large animals die off and be left there to be used) are unconscionable and simply not possible. There are also hoops to jump through with the authorities – fencing off this land to keep animals in, etc., doesn’t come cheap and support should be available …

Having started with roots in the soil, we return to soil for the end of the book, showing how enriched everything is and the astounding number of animal, bird, insect and plant species that have re-established themselves. The final chapter is a call to “land sparing”, allowing the land to rest and water to clear, and not setting people in opposition to one another. A positive but practical and clear-eyed book which was a joy to read slowly.

One for Bookish Beck’s synchronicities: of course there are loads of overlaps with other wilding / rewilding books but I noted that both this, finished last Thursday, and Mike Pitt’s “Digging up Britain”, which I’ve been reading and reviewing for Shiny New Books, and which is about archaeology, mention the fact that 99% of human history has been spent as hunter-gatherers.


Have you tried doing a readalong with a friend – offline, not a blogging challenge? Would you consider it? Em and I think it’s great fun and a lovely connection – we chat about the book on messenger as we go but it’s mainly knowing the other one is sat there, too, having a Nice Read!

Incoming books – a pile so big it had to have its own post! #bookconfessions

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I have, thankfully, been reading quite a lot and quite quickly recently. Because although only a few physical books have come into the house, the e-book pile has grown quite horribly. And while they don’t seem to really EXIST somehow, do they, not forcing their way into your peripheral vision as you get ready for bed by a bulging TBR, they are there and they do need to get read.

Shall I do the paper books first?

These two beauties have arrived from the lovely folks who produce the British Library Women Writers series. They’re their two new ones – “Mamma” by Diana Tutton, which looks at the relationship between a woman who was widowed when her daughter was a baby and her new son-in-law, nearer to her than her daughter in age, and “Tension” by E.M. Delafield, which puts into opposition a woman of the old guard, titled and secure and a new professional woman, looking at women’s roles in public life and gossip and reputation. I’m on the blog tour for “Tension” so will be reviewing it later on in May – there’ll be a blog tour for “Mamma” too and I’m sure you’ll see lots of familiar names on both.

Then two I’ve bought for myself recently. When I was reading Adharanand Finn’s “The Rise of the Ultra Runners“, Damian Hall popped up a few times, a man who’d gone from unfit to fit and was running ultras and setting Fastest Known Times (the time it takes to run a big known route which isn’t a race, basically your own timed run). Then I saw Damian’s book, “In it for the Long Run”, was coming out on the indie publisher Vertebrate Publishing (they always have good discounts, by the way) so I pre-ordered a signed copy. And “Pandemic Solidarity“, edited by Marina Sitrin and Collectiva Sembrar, came about because I had a Waterstone’s voucher calling to me, I spent that on another book entirely, which isn’t coming out until August, on world feminisms, but bought this one to get the free postage (I know, I know). It’s a collection of positive stories of community action on the pandemic from around the world.

Now here are the NetGalley wins just from April. Fortunately, they will be published across the upcoming months!

Bernice McFadden’s “Sugar”, published 05 August, is a novel set in 1950s Deep South America, where a growing friendship between an incomer treated with suspicion and a resident changes their lives and the small town’s they live in. “Fit for Purpose”, Richard Pile looks at the physical, mental and spiritual well-being we need to build to cope with modern life (I’m more interested in the physical and mental side and hope they’re the emphasis, as I’m not a spiritual person though I do have strong principles I live by. That’s out on 25 May. That one comes out on 24 June. “My Mess is a bit of a Life: Adventures in Anxiety” by Georgia Pritchett is a memoir about living with anxiety by a TV writer and producer which has had praise from Miranda Hart and Sara Pascoe among others. It’s published on 01 July.

In the novel “The Mismatch”, Sara Jafari writes about two very different people falling in love, with the setting the lives of Iranian people in the UK. That one comes out on 24 June. “Ms. Adventure” by Jess Phoenix is the memoir of a vulcanologist (that’s one of those ones you have to read in the Shelf app which is slightly annoying) and came out on 02 March. “Conversations on Love”, out on 15 July and edited by Natasha Lunn, caught me with its mentions of Candice Carty-Williams and Philippa Perry and is a collection of musings and essays on love of all kinds. Dany Asaf’s “Say Please and Thank You and Stand in Line” is the story of four generations of Canadian Muslims and looks at both history and hope for the future as multiculturalism is strained and is published on 10 May.

And my Amazon book (one) ebook purchases. I try not to buy books on Amazon these days: I use Bookshop.org and divert the profit to one of three independent bookshops I use in real life, but the first one in the image is published by the US Editorial Freelancers Association and I couldn’t get it any other way. I don’t really like ebooks at full price but will pay a couple of pounds for them – I love a book! But sometimes there’s a special offer and then I click away!

“Respectful Querying with NUANCE” by Ebonye Gussine Wilkins is a book for work which helps editors working with people from different cultures to their own to keep the author’s voice and experience centred while working on their text and understand when and how to raise a query on matters of content or explanation. I was alerted to this book by a fellow editor and it looks like a useful resource. I will review this on my work blog when it’s arrived and I’ve read it.

A.I. Shoukry mentioned his memoir about running in Egypt, “It’s not Just About Running”, in the Runners’ Bookshelf group I’m in and a few of us bought it: it sets running in the country against the backdrop of its political and social change. Elizabeth Acevedo’s “Clap When You Land” is the two countries / two families novel-in-verse that’s been talked about a lot and was on my wishlist then popped up for 99p. A.M. Blair (a fellow book-blogger) has written several novels taking Jane Austen as her inspiration – “A Case of First Impressions” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Nothing but Patience” “Sense and Sensibility”. The latter at least is set against a backdrop of the author’s own background, the Sri Lankan community in America, and while apparently some have criticised this (WHY?), I am looking forward to this twist on the classics. And Ritu Bhathal‘s (who hails from my city of Birmingham) “Marriage Unarranged” is a novel about a woman turning down her arranged marriage and going on the pre-wedding shopping trip to India anyway.


So, volcanoes, at least seven different ethnicities, novels, non-fiction, running, editing, physical and mental health – I’m missing nature but apart from that I’d say … these conform to my collection development policy, amiright?

What have you acquired this month? Have you read any of these?

Book reviews – Jeffrey Weeks – “Between Worlds” and Greg McKeown – “Effortless” #NetGalley

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Between Worlds and Effortless front covers

I’m actually all caught up with my April NetGalley releases, although I have been clicking away and requesting more (post coming this week!) so hope I can stay caught up. These two are quite different, sharing only the features that they’re non-fiction and from NG, however I could either write everything or a very short review, so here are round-ups on both of them.

Jeffrey Weeks – “Between Worlds: A Queer Boy from the Valleys”

(08 April 2021)

I requested this one because I’ve been working on a project about Wales featuring many people of Weeks’ generation, and it also ties in with my interest in LGBTQI lives and history. Weeks is a well-known sociologist and historian of LGBTQI sexuality, in particular, and here presents his autobiography.

The most lively and interesting part of the book is the description of his childhood in the Welsh Valleys, part of a close community that also imposes a very strict and regimented, gender-based, hegemony on all the inhabitants. Men are super-masculine, women are the matriarchs who run it all from home, and there’s no room for difference or gender non-conformity. He gets out as soon as he can, discovering himself and the gay liberation movement in London.

From then on, autobiography is mixed with history in a useful way, applying the changes in legislation and attitudes to his own life and experience. There is useful reflection on the ways in which the original gay liberation movement wasn’t inclusive of GMP* folk and people along the line of initials from the L and G, especially transpeople. There’s also acknowledgement of friends and comrades and a few shots at others and evening of scores. There is a lot of detail about Marxist magazine publishing collectives and the intricacies of academic life which did, I’m afraid, get a little tiring. It’s a shame, as there’s a great story and good work on linking the personal and the political which gets slightly lost.

*GMP = Global Majority Peoples – I encountered it in “Loud Black Girls” as an alternative for BAME and took to it. Thanks to Laura for pointing out this wasn’t a hugely well-known acronym yet.

This book was published on 01 April – thank you to Parthian Books for making it available to me via NetGalley.

Greg McKeown – “Effortless: Make it Easier to do What Matters Most”

(31 March 2021)

McKeown made his name with another book, “Essentialism” but when he found himself burning out on book tours and other work, unable to pare down his to-do list any further (the basic point of Essentialism). So he decided to look at how to simplify your life and make things easier and smoother to deal with. It’s not until the Conclusion, which is pretty moving, that he reveals the other reason why he wrote the book, when faced with an almost unbearable family issue, and I wonder if this would have been better moved to the front, though it is mentioned early on.

The book is really suitable for people on the way to burn-out or already there. Much like “Brave, not Perfect“, it addresses mainly workplace situations – trust in teams, not pulling all-nighters, being organised, etc. – although it does cover household tasks, too (make things fun by ironing while listening to podcasts!). So it probably wasn’t massively aimed at me, as having got through the initial working-two-jobs-when-building-my-business phase, I’ve made a big effort to get enough rest etc. (I start early and finish later than a standard work day, but usually have a big slab of exercise or, in The Before Times, a coffee with a friend in the middle, for example), set manageable expectations (I underpromise and then overdeliver without destroying myself) and not overwork, and I’ve managed to maintain that more of the time than less. So it’s a good confirmation to me about doing the right things and would be useful for a burning out executive or similar.

I very much liked his enthusiastic thanks to his editor in the acknowledgements!

This one comes out on 27 April. Thank you to Random House / Virgin Books for making this available to me via NetGalley.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Morgan’s Passing” #AnneTyler2021

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The second of my two April reads in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and an older copy again (this is the last tatty old US copy in the pile you can see to the left, then we go to the more modern UK copies) which I bought in April 2000. I did remember this – although I fear I remembered enjoying it more in those days than I did this time around – insofar as I remembered it was about a deeply eccentric man who went for walks around his neighbourhood.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Morgan’s Passing”

(11 April 2000)

“Um … what do you do for a living, Mrs Gower?”

“I’m Morgan’s wife for a living.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Yes,” Bonny said, “but do you see that it’s a full-time job? It keeps me busy every minute, I tell you. Oh, from outside he seems so comic and light-hearted, such a character, so quaint, but imagine dealing with him. I mean, the details of it, the coping, stuck at home while he’s off somewhere, wondering who he thinks he is now. Do you suppose we couldn’t all act like that? Go swooping around in a velvet cape with a red satin lining and a feathered hat? That part’s the easy part. Imagine being his wife, finding a cleaner who does ostrich plumes. Keeping his dinner warm. Imagine waiting dinner while he’s out with one of his cronies that I have never met – Salvation Army bums or astrologists or whatever other awestruck, smitten people he digs up.” (pp. 157-158)

This rant from the central character’s wife comes during a scene in which she expresses surprise that his friend Emily, the first speaker, doesn’t think he’s a rabbi or a Greek shipping magnate. Because Morgan’s modus operandi is to stride around in various costumes, pretending to the people on his circuits that he is someone very much other than who he is. This is amusing, as is the realisation that he’s not the doctor he appears to be in the exciting childbirth scene that opens the book. However.

I know we need to read books with an eye on when they were written and published – otherwise we’d never read all those early to mid 20th century novels full of casual racism and anti-semitism. And I’m certainly not into cancelling or censoring. However, Morgan is basically a liar (OK, fantasist, OK, the lies are not particularly dangerous except for one, a Chekhov’s gun that is never fired) and a stalker, and he basically persuades a young woman into something by repeatedly telling her she’s going to do it until she gets worn down. That’s not a very “now” concept and it does feel uncomfortable these days (however, he does get his comeuppance – in what I feel is a link to Tyler’s idea that you just have to “do you” whoever and however odd you are, the chaos and people that Morgan runs away from seem to follow him and weigh him down yet again).

Looking at the positives, it’s an inventive and clever book, and good technically, too. Tyler is doing her thing of looking at something from another angle, so here we have the father of the big family trying to deal with a sea of girls, and we also, while having an omniscient narrator, see things from shifting viewpoints – we look at Morgan helping the young couple as in a film, then we’re in his life, then in theirs, and then, in a clever shift, we find Morgan telling the young woman, Emily, about events in his life when his sister’s beau returns (the returning beau is another Tyler theme, though not in every book; we also have Morgan picking up different hobbies every year, in addition to his habit of dressing to copy someone he’s noticed, outside his general dressing up, which is something a few male characters have done so far, and the big, rambling and multi-generational house, seen notably in The Clock Winder and If Morning Ever Comes) Bonny is one of those “infinitely expandable” and capable, if shabby, women that Tyler delights in.

It’s also of course minutely observed. Morgan has his moments of depression and inability to cope, and things often seem insurmountable for several of the characters.

He could hear bare feet pounding upstairs, water running, hairdryers humming. the smell of percolating coffee filled the kitchen, along with the crisp, sharp smoke from his Camel. Oh, he was hitting his stride, all right. He had managed it, broken into another day. (p. 33)

Morgan’s an odd one (in more ways than one) – we don’t get a complete interior picture of him like we do of the eccentric Jeremy in Celestial Navigation, seeing him from the outside through various other characters and through his actions in an almost filmic way.

So a decent read and a good story, but I couldn’t help feel uncomfortable reading Morgan stalking the young couple he becomes obsessed with (there’s also a kiss when one participant has a cold – the most shocking thing in the whole book!). Still worth a read as part of her oeuvre and for her obvious delight in creating Morgan’s different personas as he lopes down the street, greeting his acquaintances, shifting persona as he goes.

Book review – C.L.R. James – “Minty Alley” #1936Club

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I wasn’t going to take part in Stuckinabook and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings’ 1936 Club (they do a year-themed read twice a year) as I didn’t have anything from 1936 on my TBR and I’ve been being really careful to only do book challenges from my TBR. But then I realised that this book, which has been republished this year in the list Bernadine Evaristo has curated for Penguin, “Black Britain Writing Back“, I had to go and buy a copy and read it. And I’m very glad I did!

Simon’s page here and Kaggsy’s here explain everything and hold the lists of what everyone has read this week.

C.L.R. James – “Minty Alley”

(2 April 2021)

This was the first novel by a Black Caribbean author to be published in England, and as Bernadine Evaristo points out in her introduction, he came as a lone figure in the 1930s, way before the Windrush generation and their chroniclers, pointing out the debt Sam Selvon owes to this work of social realism (I re-read and reviewed his “The Lonely Londoners” recently (in fact for the last Year Club, the 1956 Club!). It’s the fairly simple story of middle-class Haynes, 20 years old, his mother dead, who needs to move into a working-class boarding house for complicated financial reasons. In Minty Alley he grows a spine and allows himself to get involved with the various characters who live there, all seen in comparison to him, brighter and more colourful.

The sea of life was beating at the walls which enclosed him. Nervously and full of self-distrust, he had been fighting against taking the plunge, but he would have to sometime. (p. 6)

While a lot of the details of living in 1930s Trinidad are of course specific to the time and place, there is a real universality about this book, too. It reminded me of works by R.K. Narayan set in India, and also Patrick Hamilton’s “The Slaves of Solitude” set in a wartime London boarding house – the petty quarrels, the issues of food, poverty and its genteel hiding, the problem of rubbing along with others. Haynes is fortunate in that he has the mother figure of his old servant Ella, always keeping an eye on him, even if it’s from a distance. The town of Port of Spain is almost another character, providing a web of gossip and almost a chorus. Nothing can happen in one street without the whole town knowing.

Haynes tries to stay out of the arguments and issues among his landlady, her niece, the irrepressible Maisie, her wandering-eyed and -handed common-law husband, her faithful servant Philomen and the other residents, but soon finds himself getting drawn in, in a number of different ways. He’s seen as a gentleman and thus is able to have a positive and/or calming influence on the rest of the house, even Maisie, although she gets one up on him too on occasion.

There was scarcely an occasion Haynes could remember in which Maisie either through inadvertence or malice, or both, did not with infallible instinct say or do the thing most calculated to ignite Mrs Rouse. (p. 168)

Of course events can’t just jog along and must come to a head, with a hilarious scene which is once again both specific and universal. It’s the kind of book you can’t stop reading, and I do wish James had written more than just this one novel (he wrote a lot of books of biography and politics, but no other novels).

So an engaging, charming and funny book with a sharp edge of racism (especially against the Chinese origin population) and colourism (before colourism was talked about, according to the introduction but something I’d also noticed). I really recommend it as a lovely read in itself, but with historical and sociological interest, too.


Other books from 1936 I’ve read and reviewed here (I know I’ve read others, e.g. the Agatha Christies, George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but before the book blog!) …

Daphne du Maurier – Jamaica Inn

Winifred Holtby – South Riding

Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind

Angela Thirkell – August Folly

Francis Brett Young – Far Forest

Book review – Reshma Saujani – “Brave, Not Perfect” #BraveNotPerfect #NetGalley

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I am slightly ashamed to say that this book was published in February 2019 – as well as reading the up to date books in my NetGalley account I am making an attempt to pick off the older ones as I go. So I’m sorry that it took me so long to get to this and I am doing better at keeping up now, I think.

This book exhorts women to give up seeking perfection to the point of their own exhaustion – whether that’s in the home, their own body, at work, in their child-raising, and to have the bravery to not go out looking tip-top, to try something we don’t already know we’ll be good at, or to say no, for example.

There’s a useful initial discussion of how people get like this, highlighting social conditioning of gender roles – nothing that earth-shattering but useful to have in a book like this so people can consider the example they’re setting. She shares experience of her own life, whether that’s failing to become an elected official or, during that campaign, noting girls’ avoidance of STEM subjects and setting up the non-profit Girls Who Code organisation. This book itself came out of a TED talk and she’s obviously both passionate and well-placed to share her passion.

Saujani brings in examples from other women’s lives, too. She talks early on about how this isn’t just a problem of the 1% (she was in a hated but high-flying corporate career before changing things around) but affects women in all stratas of society; although there is a section featuring some young women from working-class roots in Harlem, most of her examples feel a little more middle-class. She does succeed in emphasising that the descendants of immigrants, such as herself, have it a lot harder as there are very high parental expectations.

Although there were lots of practical examples, I did feel like this book would perhaps be more useful in the workplace or social justice organisation environment rather than personal spheres. However it’s a good, strong read and advocates and stands by women rather than scolding them.

This book was provided to me by HQ via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Stella Martin Currey – “One Woman’s Year” @PersephoneBooks

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PIle of birthday books

My last Persephone book from my 2020 birthday, and again from Ali; we do love buying these super grey volumes for each other and have been doing so consistently for years! This is one of their domestic non-fiction volumes, which I enjoy just as much as their reprinted novels, even though I am far from domestic myself (“How to Run Your House Without Help” did set me off planning room-by-room housework, temporarily …).

Stella Martin Currey – “One Woman’s Year”

(21 January 2020, from Ali)

Like other reviewers I’ve read, I set off reading this compilation volume, first published in 1953 (and dedicated to her friend, Tirzah Garwood) with an eye to reading a chapter a month, enjoying matching the seasons and preoccupations with my modern ones, etc. And of course it’s so charming and easy to read that, as well as dipping in and out of it as I did again while writing this review, it’s all-too-easy to just keep on going until you’ve consumed the whole lot!

Each month has a beautiful woodcut as an opener, then an excerpt from The British Merlin, 1677, with gardening, cooking and health tips. Then you have a longer essay (for example, “Books for the Family” which included many classics of my own childhood: do children read the actual classics any more?), the Most Liked and Most Disliked Jobs of the Month (getting one’s hair cut when the children go back to school versus getting the sand out of sandwiches), a recipe, an excursion (the Tower of London or, more prosaically, a modern telephone exchange), and then a couple of linked excerpts from novels or poems.

It’s a jolly read with plenty of domestic mishaps and disasters, from buying a piece of furniture slightly too large to go up the stairs comfortably (we donated ditto after trying to move it up a floor a little while ago) to having a sticky kitchen moment when attempting to make brandy snaps:

If you have never tried to clean stalactites of brandy snaps out of an oven it is one of the experiences of life you can afford to miss. The pale golden sticky substance hangs everywhere, and on the oven sheet is a thin, heaving, unworkable volcanic mass. By the time you have cleaned the oven, cleaned the sink, cleaned the cloth that cleaned the oven, cleaned the trays, burned the toffee-like remains in the boiler, washed your hands, you have decided on scones for tea, and hardly have strength to make those. (p. 210)

It’s gentle and sweet, quietly acerbic about rudeness and chores, quietly perceptive about England seen through a French schoolboy’s eyes, and obviously a period piece but also comforting as the months roll round and things aren’t maybe quite so different as one would imagine. Another Persephone triumph.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Earthly Possessions” #AnneTyler2021

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It’s time for the first April read in my Anne Tyler 2021 project and a slim volume that I yet again didn’t remember. I must have bought this with birthday book tokens.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Earthly Possessions”

(25 January 2004)

Although I didn’t believe in God, I could almost change my mind now and imagine one, for who else could play such a joke on me? The only place more closed-in than this house was a church. The only person odder than my mother was a hellfire preacher. I nearly laughed. (p. 84)

I’m definitely starting to see patterns in Tyler’s preoccupations and themes as I work my way through them – a very pleasing aspect of reading all of an author’s works in order. Here we have the tropes of multiple siblings, each with their oddity, the woman alone with her odd family, photographers, the runaway wife, the young and seemingly attractive but pretty useless drifter guy, and the small town (not Baltimore again), as well as the house full of STUFF.

Charlotte is on her way to leaving her husband (again) and in particular their great mass of joint family possessions, which seems to have a life of its own and just won’t go away, just getting added to by full-size and other furniture. But as she tries to get some money out, she is taken hostage by an inept bank robber and ends up going on a road trip with him (as you do). She narrates the novel’s current happenings and also her past life that has got her to this point, and it’s another finely observed narrative in which not much happens (even a roadtrip with a criminal turns out not to be that exciting) and repeatedly considers shucking off her earthly possessions and running more freely upon the earth.

It’s a short novel but a fun one and very readable. Do we agree with the ending? Well, it’s very Tyler-esque, at very least.

Book review – Elizabeth von Arnim – “Expiation” @PersephoneBooks

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PIle of birthday books

Another of my birthday 2020 books, this one from Ali, who has also read this fairly recently (read her review here), and by an author by whom I’ve read a fair few books over the years. Von Arnim is always pretty clear-eyed on human behaviour – maybe especially marriages – and makes a point of discussing the plights of those women who have to exist outside marriage, too, as she does here in this rather bold and brave book for 1929 which had drifted out of print until Persephone rescued it.

Elizabeth von Arnim – “Expiation”

(21 January 2020, from Ali)

Dove-like, plump and comfortable Milly has just lost her husband at the start of this engaging novel. The rather dreadful Botts gather around her in their prosperous South London suburb but then recoil with horror when the details of the will come out: her husband has disinherited her in favour of a charity for loose women, leaving her only £1,000 – and “she will know why”. And she DOES know why: she has been conducting an affair for the last decade or so, which has actually left her in a position to be a better wife, but of course that’s not really the common belief about such things.

The sad thing is that the affair, which did begin passionately, has slipped into a sort of second marriage, a comfortable state – All Passion Spent indeed.

They settled down, that is; settled down to sin. Too awful, she saw. But there it was. (p. 32)

So she needs expiation, she feels her state bitterly, and she tries to work out if it would be better to run away to her sister’s in Switzerland or stay and throw herself upon her lover’s mercy. That’s the sister who herself went off in disgrace as a young woman … and who has not represented her subsequent life that truthfully in the (forbidden) letters back to Milly. But then her sister returns from Switzerland to London and her lover returns from his holiday in Rome and each of them bears a story that is likely to throw a spanner in the works …

Milly starts to realise that the brave thing that would get her forgiven would have been not to run away in the first place – and run away she has – and she should steel herself to go back to the Botts, shouldn’t she? The Bott husbands are maybe more forgiving of her than their wives, and her presence in their households shows up in sharp relief the nature of those wives – it’s a pretty damning indictment of the institution of marriage as well as a slightly bitter musing on the perilous position of the unprotected woman, amongst the amusing descriptions of hypocritical wealthy London lives. Only one sensible character remains, knowing how time smooths out the bumps in life, but she has a side-part, too, and seems unlikely to prevail.

My heart was genuinely in my mouth at times as I read through this – you can’t see how Milly can manage and she seems both trapped and flying too free. It’s a very absorbing novel and one I would recommend. There’s an interesting introduction by Valerie Grove in this Persephone edition, which relates the book back to von Arnim’s own life, something that’s not entirely necessary for enjoying the book but does give it an added piquancy.

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