Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Bell” #IMReadalong

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This is such a funny one for me to review. Because I studied it for half of my research project (find out more here), I know more about what other people think of this book than certainly any other Murdoch, and probably any other book in the world. The thing that surprised me most about the outcomes of getting 25 book groups to read the book is that so many of them saw it through the lens of modern-day events and preoccupations, some describing Michael as a predatory paedophile, with many fewer taking exception to the much more clearly evidenced instance of drunk driving. While there has been writing about Michael (notably by Pamela Osborn) I still push back against his actively predatory nature.

Reader Peter Rivenberg has sent me some fabulous cover images from his copies, including our first French one! The first one has an image from the BBC production, which I’ve never seen. Is that supposed to be Dora and Paul?

Do please share any other cover images you’ve got of your copies of this one – although surely there can’t be any MORE editions? Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form.

Iris Murdoch – “The Bell”

(14 October 2017)

Another delight to read (fortunately – I think I’ve settled in to realising I’m not going to come to the conclusion I’ve stopped loving IM’s novels now). And once again, my allegiances have shifted. I used to think Dora was the heroine, and she is allowed to grow and change and develop into service and perhaps deeper thought and less frivolousness. I’d completely forgotten that she actually had an affair with Noel, and IM is pretty horrible to her, with lots of asides of things like of course she hadn’t bothered to look up the railway timetable. I used to have more time for Michael, but I became annoyed with the way he falls into issues and scenes because of not thinking things through or considering the consequences, surely an example of IM’s keenness on ‘attention’. We see his thought processes over Nick and Toby, changing his mind and bringing himself round to be in the right. But I can’t see him as predatory or an actual paedophile as such, as Nick is 15 (yes, I know, but we’re not talking children) and Toby 18. He is also described as “having no time for philosophical speculation” (p. 118) just as he starts examining what it is to be good. I used to find Mrs Mark amusing, but she’s AWFUL, isn’t she. Coy and passive-aggressive and just dreadful.

Of course I still love the nuns, aquatic and otherwise, with their no-nonsense good humour and firm but simple faith. They pay attention to what’s necessary and step in only when needed.

The Murdoch themes are all there, curly hair, cut hair, twins / siblings, stones, water, complicated arrangements, the contrast of London and the country. There are lots of echoes, from the three sermons (James’, Michael’s and Nick’s twisted one) and Dora loses her shoes twice, there are two bells, and Imber and the Abbey, of course.

There’s humour again, of course, as there always is (isn’t there?). For example, Dora on the train:

She decided not to give up her seat.

She got up and said to the standing lady, ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’ (p. 11)

I find Dora’s reaction to her first sight of the nuns really funny, too:

… she now made out with an unpleasant shock a shapeless pile of squatting black cloth that must be a nun. (p. 28)

The use of the word “rebarbative” was noted by my group of friends who did the last chronological read, and by my study participants. But what I hadn’t realised is that it’s only ever Toby who is associated with this word, which serves to remind us when we’re seeing things through his eyes. This reminded me that certain scenes are also only seen through the eyes of a perhaps more unreliable narrator, Michael. So even though there’s supposed to be an omniscient narrator here, we are constantly in the characters’ heads, meaning that truth shifts and can be doubted.

There are some lovely little nods to other novels. Hugo Bellfounder cast the original bell (cf. “Under the Net”). When Dora leaves Catherine in the garden, picking apricots, she refers to her as “the figure under the net” (p. 70). And we have yet another chase of a women in pale garments in the darkness of a forest, when Dora pursues Catherine.

Who is the enchanter in this novel? Well, the Bell itself certainly enchants Dora,

She had communed with it now for too long and was under its spell. She had thought to be its master and make it her plaything, but now it was mastering her and would have its will. (p. 277)

and Michael seems to attract devotion, but only perhaps from those who are unstable in one way or another (Catherine, about to break down, and Toby, still sorting out his own personality; I don’t think Dora counts as she loves him at the end of the book in a different and perhaps purer way).

The saints are not easy to find, either. Perhaps Patchway is our saint – when we first meet him, he’s described as

A dirty looking man with a decrepit hat on, who looked as if he did not belong and was indifferent to not belonging. (p. 33)

He is described later has having the ability to stand by and say nothing, “and yet existing, large, present, and at ease” (p. 152) and at the climax of the procession scene, stands deliberately in a place where he can’t see.

Perhaps Tallis is shadowing my readings, but dirt and indifference to tend to make a saint. James feels like an early foreshadowing of James Arrowby and other soldiers, but he’s very rigid in his beliefs as well as being humble. Peter Topglass communes with animals and seems to have a magic touch with birds, and also exhibits

… detachment, his absorption in his beloved studies, his absence of competitive vanity … he was a person who, like Chaucer’s gentle knight, was remarkable for harming no one. (p. 124)

Neither Patchway or Topglass do anything but absorb events then pass on through their own lives, not passing on any pain, a sure sign of a Murdochian saint. James has to go back to his vigorous Doing Good in the East End (does he run into Henry or Carel, I wonder?).

AS Byatt’s introduction to this novel in my edition is so long, scholarly and full of references that it would take an essay to write about it itself, so I’m going to leave it here. What a rich, satisfying and memorable read this was.¬† I’m glad it was the one I introduced my book groups to.


OK, over to you! 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 – Jaron Lanier – “Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality” @ShinyNewBooks @RealJaronLainer @TheBodleyHead

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Dawn of the New Everything Jaron LainierI read this fascinating book around my recent Cornwall holiday (alas, the lovely hardback was too substantial to take down on the train) and was racing to get back to it on my return. It’s a personal history, musing and philosophical discourse (but readable and engaging) by a fascinating and well-known founding parent of Virtual Reality, and in the way of these things, I then found myself editing a reference to it in the bibliography of an academic thesis and talking with an air of knowledge about, “Well, of course, even a wire-grid world can be immersive and wonderful if only you get the tracking right and minimise delay” when talking about a friend’s recent VR experience here in my home city!

And, the author is prosopagnosiac, like me! There might have been a small whoop when I read that bit.

Thank you to Bodley Head for sending me a copy to review for Shiny New Books, and you can read my full review here.

Book review – Joanna Nadin “The Queen of Bloody Everything” #amreading #QueenOfBloodyEverything #NetGalley

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A novel I read on the way home from our recent holiday on my Kindle, and it was perfect for that. Thank you to Pan MacMillan for making it available via NetGalley and approving me to read it in return for an honest review. What a fabulous cover, by the way, which really takes in the 70s start of the book and partly hippie ethos.

Joanna Nadin – “The Queen of Bloody Everything”

(Downloaded 12 January 2018; published 08 February 2018)

Dido, originally unwanted daughter of the rackety, fascinating Edie, falls in love at first sight with the conspicuously normal family who live over the back fence of the house they move into upon a sudden and saving inheritance. Edie’s come from a mixed line of conventional and unconventional folk, and I loved that it was an eccentric aunt who lifted them just above the poverty line. While Dido is frantically learning how to fit in, Harry, the daughter of the house, is copying Edie and wanting a mum just like her – and indeed, pretty well the only mother-like action Edie takes relates to Harry and not Dido. Meanwhile unreachable Tom hovers in Dido’s mind as the perfect man who she’s determined but not quite brave enough to capture (and I read him as gay for a little while, actually).

I loved the set pieces in the novel and how they related to the times the characters go through – Dido is a couple of years older than me, so I can remember the events and feelings and things she experiences very well. The best set piece is when some of Edie’s London friends come to visit at a moment where all Dido wants to do is fit in with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee street party – but she’s by turns horrified and exhilarated when an out and proud lesbian and two black guys come striding through their very monocultural neighbourhood to claim her as their own. The reactions of the mothers and other children is so well done. I also love the character of Edie’s best friend, Toni, always there, even in her 60s with purple hair, a fabulous character.

Dido is written so well, her language changing as she grows up, which is very convincing (Nadin was previously a YA author and this shows in her confident command of the early and teenage years – I felt it became a little less inventive in Dido’s 20s, perhaps reading a bit too like novels like “One Day”). The drama and family happenings and character development are set cleverly against nationwide events in the 1970s to 200s, and life in Saffron Walden is contrasted with life in London – I loved the ideas of “going back” which came through here. It feels a little autobiographical, especially near the end, but the relationships are sharply drawn and believable as a novel, making a good, page-turning read.

I also loved the emphasis on reading subtly woven through the book, and the children’s book chapter headings. And when Dido comes to her turning point, she’s cheeringly buoyed by both her favourite female characters from classic literature and her mum’s no-bullshit attitude, to great effect.

A note on the title: I know quite a few readers don’t like swear words in books and might be put off by the title. There’s as much swearing in the book as you’d expect given the context and the title is drawn from a very believable event near the start of the book. I hope it doesn’t lose it readers as I’d be happy to recommend this book.

Book review – Veronica Chambers – “Kickboxing Geishas” plus a DNF #amreading #books

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My last two holiday reads in a bit of a catch-up: I’m horribly aware I did double posts over the last two days (Wednesday’s were at least on two different blogs) so I’m sorry if I’ve bombarded you and can promise you things will be back to normal from now! So here’s a book I enjoyed and one that came all the way over the sea to be skim read and left by the sea!

Veronica Chambers – “Kickboxing Geishas”

(22 July 2017, via BookCrossing, through Sian)

Published in 2007, so a little dated now, this book, subtitled “How Modern Japanese Women are Changing their Nation” takes an interesting look at various facets of Japanese women’s experience, whether of costume, travel and return, dating, work, entrepreneurship or traditional marriage, how these have perhaps changed and the women’s in-depth lived experiences. She travelled to Japan a number of times and subsumed herself into the culture with an anthropologist’s eye, having written other books on women’s experiences in the US: it was reasonably well put together but there were some odd orderings (words used a few chapters before they were explained; repetitions of explanations and comments) which made me think the book had perhaps been constructed out of a series of articles or even blog posts. This did dislocate the reading experience at times, but on the whole it was a good and engaging read.

It’s also fair-minded, and where the Japanese women seem to criticise Japanese men quite heavily for, in effect, not having moved with the times, and the author describes the common “Narita divorce” (a couple get back from honeymoon where the man couldn’t cope and the woman leaves him at the airport) and mature divorce (a salaryman retires and his wife gets sick of him), she does talk to men, too, and argues on their behalf.

The book talks of the Asian bubble and subsequent crash but of course doesn’t reach the most recent financial crisis, and it would be interesting to see how things have changed during and since that time – have conservatism and populism risen there, as they have elsewhere, for example?

Eileen Myles – “The Importance of being Iceland”

(04 November  2017, via BookCrossing, from Cari)

A book of essays on travel, mainly in Iceland, and art which was oddly written and I found unengaging – I skimmed for the bits about Iceland but didn’t read it properly. A shame, as Cari had sent it all the way from New York! It’s from the Semiotext(e) imprint of MIT so I fear maybe a little academic for me.


I’m currently reading “The Queen of Bloody Everything” by Joanna Nadin, a NetGalley book published on 8 February, a coming of age novel about a girl with a rather rackety mum being sucked into the orbit of a fascinating other family. There’s a dual time aspect in that the narrator seems to be telling it to her hospitalised mum, and it’s good and engaging so far. Plus the big book on Virtual Reality, of course! What are you up to with your early February reading?

Book review – Jenni Murray – “A History of Britain in 21 Women” #amreading #books

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I’ve wickedly promoted this one to the top of the pile because so many people seem to have read it recently, or rather so many people I know, because my friends’ Very Small Book Group read it for their January read. Heaven-Ali reviewed it the other week. So i grabbed it from my birthday pile to read OUT OF ORDER (shock). It was a January read for me, too, but scheduling has got a bit complicated!

Jenni Murray – “A History of Britain in 21 Women”

(21 January 2018, from Sian)

This is subtitled “A Personal Selection”, which of course neatly allows Murray to sidestep the inevitable criticism over who she chooses to include and who she leaves out of her 21 chapters; indeed, she does mention other options she had (Shirley Williams, Florence Nightingale) and explains why she didn’t choose them in some of the pieces. She also often mentions her personal connections to the women, from seeing the sculpture of Boadicea as a child to interviewing Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher; this and the fairly informal tone of the book do make it warm and approachable, as if she is indeed telling you about some favourite figures.

Unfortunately, the informal tone of the book is carried over into the feature which has shocked a few readers I know (and was literally underlined in this copy, which made me smile): Murray fairly often references works of fiction when telling the stories of her subjects – a novel I’ve never heard of about Boadicea, fairly famously, a Philippa Gregory novel in the chapter on Elizabeth I, and a drama documentary about Mrs Thatcher. This just seems odd to me, as there has been plenty of well-researched non-fiction written about these people. There are also no references or bibliography at all, but acknowledgements given to people who helped her keep the facts straight. But, after all, its a “personal selection”.

The Fanny Burney, again fairly notoriously, includes vivid primary source accounts of an operation, but this is well-signposted, with an exhortation to “[b]e brave and read on” (I didn’t). It is good in general and I learned about Mary Somerville (her of the college) and at last worked out that Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Garrett Fawcett were sisters, which had always somewhat eluded me. A decent introductory read, but further reading could easily have been enabled with better referencing.


Next up is a book called “Kickboxing Geishas” about women in modern Japan, which was passed to me with slightly mixed reviews …

Bumper book reviews – Ben Fogle – “Offshore”, Nigel Farrell – “An Island Parish” and Gordon Brown – “My Life, Our Times” for @ShinyNewBooks #amreading #books

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I’ve got a bumper package of reviews today – back to the two-book review for one day only, as I’ve had a bit of a break so got to do some more reading (hooray), and also please pop and have a read of my review of the slightly behemothic but entirely necessary autobiography by Gordon Brown, “My Life, Our Times”, which I’ve reviewed for the ever-lovely Shiny New Books: more here.

Now, two books about islands, and they’re both predominantly blue, too! One is off my TBR: it had been on my wishlist for ages and was picked up last year, and the other was one I gave to my husband for his birthday before last, as he’s had a couple of trips to the Isles of Scilly.

Ben Fogle – “Offshore: In Search of an Island of my Own”

(26 May 2017, ex-library copy)

A journey around selected islands of the UK, pinned to Fogle’s apparent need to buy his own island, a plan he refines as he goes along, giving a structure to the separate stories. He puts the islands into groups or themes sometimes, and will then mention others, so our own favourite St Michael’s Mount crops up in the holy islands (so, rather unfortunately, does Caldey, now the centre of a horrible child abuse scandal: this book was written well before that broke and doesn’t feature the implicated people). He visits places large and small, from trying to get to tiny Rockall to spending time on the Isle of Man. It’s all pretty jolly, with a bit of history and Fogle’s trademark posh cheekiness thrown in; it was nice to see him mention his Castaway experience on Taransay and some of his fellow islandmates.

His adventures are mixed: he is mixed up with losing a helicopter (though thankfully no lives) and has some hairy moments, as well as getting banned from Shetland’s Up Helly Aa, but it’s a good adventure during which you learn some interesting facts. A useful epilogue brings us more up to date with some of the characters he’s met along the way. It was unfortunate that it was lacking a map, though.

Nigel Farrell – “An Island Parish: A Summer on Scilly”

(bought October ish 2016, borrowed from Matthew, who hasn’t quite finished it himself yet)

The man who brought us “The Village” (a book I enjoyed) and various other British community documentaries passes a bit less than a year but a bit more than a summer on the Isles of Scilly,¬† accompanied by a BBC film crew, although they’re not mentioned apart from the odd “we” after the beginning of the book. It’s very light and gossipy, although paying respect to the tragedies that have occurred and do occur while he’s there, and structured more like a novel or a soap opera than a straight report of the year, with the tragedies being broadly signposted and the details of people’s lives and loves – and finances – being carefully recorded.

We meet some interesting and resourceful people and particularly follow the arc of the new parish priest (hence the title), and it gives a varied picture of the different activities on the islands (back in 2007; I note the radio station is still going, which is cheering), but I wouldn’t imagine he was hugely popular on the islands once he’d published it. He’s also a bit rude about birdwatchers … An interesting read, though, and lovely to find out more about some places Matthew has spent time.


I’m moving on to Jenni Murray’s “A History of Britain in 21 Women” now. I know a few bloggers I read (and/or know) have read and reviewed this so was keen to get to it while it was still a hottish topic …

Book review – Helen Russell – “The Year of Living Danishly” #amreading #books

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I’ve temporarily abandoned the Big Books I’m reading (the VR and Olympics ones) and naughtily skipped past Bruce Springsteen to pick off some lighter and BookCrossing ones, the latter so I can shore up our BookCrossing Zones with less work. So prepare yourselves for – shockingly – some out-of-order reading! This one, though, was bought along with “Spectacles” and can be seen in the latest TBR pic, near the front!

Helen Russell – “The Year of Living Danishly”

(29 April 2017, The Works)

Helen has a hectic life being a journalist in London, seeing her husband for a few minutes each evening before falling into an exhausted sleep. They’re also trying for a baby, and that’s not happening. But she has her mum nearby, a great group of friends, a social life and all the vibrant capital has to offer. Can she swap all this for a year in Denmark – and not even Copenhagen but seaside, empty Jutland, where the new foodie revolution has certainly not hit and most of her neighbours are retired? When her husband gets offered a job at Lego HQ, she gets the chance to find out – and write a book about it. Going freelance and with a more flexible life, Helen decides to concentrate her research on the “World’s Happiest Country” tag Denmark has apparently earned.

The book is well-structured, funny and honest. The chapters go through their experience month by month, but then also concentrate on a topic, for example food, sexism, education or taxation, as well as asking experts from that field how happy they are. Of course, Helen also talks about her neighbours and the friends she makes as they settle in. We follow their attempts to join clubs, learn the language and not break too many rules (there are many rules) in this engaging and fun but realistic and very readable book. I also enjoyed the bits of Danish included and their similarities to Icelandic, including the words for tax and teddy bear! A very enjoyable addition to the expat/immigrant experience literature.

 


Do you like reading about people’s experiences in new countries? What do you recommend?

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