Book review – Anne Tyler – “A Slipping-Down Life” #AnneTyler2021

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Book number three in my Reading Anne Tyler in 2021 project is here already! 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.

I am convinced that my first copy of this book came free on the front of a magazine but I can’t find a note of that one in my reading journal index: I know that I bought the copy I read this week in the UK on 20 July 2002 and read it in October that year. Interestingly, having poked around in my index, I see that I read many of her books in the late 90s, so I wonder what chance I have of remembering them! I’m enjoying coming to all of these like new books, though, and at least I am still enjoying her work!

Anne Tyler – “A Slipping-Down Life”

(20 July 2002)

We’re still in North Carolina and in a small town, maybe a little bigger than the one in “The Tin Can Tree” and certainly living more centrally at first. I remembered that this was about a small-town rock star and the girls who carves his name onto herself, but I’d assumed the slipping-down life is hers and it turns out to be his. I’d also forgotten all the detail and other characters.

I really like how Tyler picks up ordinary characters, angular and bony or, here, awkward, pudgy and unfocused – until she has to be – with constantly slipping straps and waistbands which I’m sure she carries on with in later works. I also like the side characters – especially here unashamedly fat and colourful Violet, who likes to organise things and is a good friend to Evie (the good friend). I also liked Clotelia, Evie and her father’s housekeeper, who is nicely and affectionately observed – at one point thanks to her own boyfriend, she starts to define herself as Black and grow out her hair into an Afro, but she’s her own person and sticks with the family when told to leave her job. She’s also awkward and, unlike her mother, who’s a professional mourner, doesn’t provide a warm hug when things go wrong, and I like that about her.

The book has its funny moments, especially early on when Drumstrings Casey unenthusiastically does a radio interview with an equally unenthusiastic DJ. But it’s also poignant, of course, with Tyler catching tiny shifts in relationships and drawing them finely:

He never apologised. For several days he treated her very gently, helping her with the dishes and listening with extreme, watchful stillness whenever she spoke to him. It was the most he could do, Evie figured. (p. 131)

So the boy lets fate decide his life but takes an interest in home-making (and I loved the details of how they set up home, more of Tyler’s absorbing domestic details) and it’s Evie who claims her own agency, getting a job at the library, doing “Something out of character. Definite. Not covered by insurance” (p. 27) and finally …

Evie felt something pulled out of her that he had drawn, like a hard deep string, but she squared her corners as if she were a stash of library cards. (p. 152)

Like in “Tin Can Tree” and its three households, Evie has created her own family around her; like in “If Morning Ever Comes” we see one decision that changes everything and a hasty wedding, but this time view the aftermath, too. It’s a small book but a beautifully drawn and affecting one, as we watch a young woman find a meaning in life and creating something out of not very much.


Do let me know if you’ve read along, joined me for this one or any others at any time, or come to this later and have thoughts on it. All comments welcome at whatever time, no pressure! Do visit the project page to see how it’s all going!

 

Book review – Kenya Hunt – “Girl” #Girl #NetGalley

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Kenya Hunt is Fashion Director of Grazia UK and has worked in the magazine publishing industry for many years, including being Deputy Editor of ELLE UK. In this book she presents essays by herself but also with contributions by Candice Carty-Williams, Jessica Horn, Ebele Okobi, Funmi Fetto and Freddie Harrel.

Kenya Hunt – “Girl: Essays on Black Womanhood”

(03 November 2020 – from NetGalley)

This book of essays, including slightly randomly inserted ones by other people, sharing the authors’ direct lived experiences, Kenya herself a Black woman who was raised in the US but moved to the UK to take on a different challenge and to a large extent protect her family. The essays range over various topics, from settling into British life and finding a circle of friends to healthcare, entertainment and religion.

Some topics familiar to me from my other reading of Black writers came up here again, building a tipping point of information that people should pay attention to: the importance of the film Black Panther to the Black community; everyday microaggressions; the expectation that she will somehow stand for ALL Americans / Black Americans / Black women / Black American women; issues around hair and societal expectations of it; the innovative power of Black Twitter and the differences between British and American racism; and cultural appropriation, here of the hashtag #Blackgirlmagic, which got separated from its initiators by big business. It’s important to hear these points from different voices and viewpoints to make sure it sinks in.

She makes an important point about activism which I’ve also seen elsewhere and which we also need to remember: the value of activism likes in actually being active. This takes many forms here, but a large part is mentoring, and she shares stories of her own mentors and mentees:

Woke is at it s most powerful, and valuable, when it is lived and not performed.

Kenya and her guest essayists raise an important point I hadn’t realised that when a Black person is murdered in the US, a whole system of support and protest swings into action; here in the UK the organisation is not so much there. I’m guessing the smaller Black / BAME community as a percentage of the population might be the issue here: she doesn’t specify, but it was interesting. Other new points included the value of interacting with London taxi drivers because:

how often do we really engage outside of our bubbles of chosen friends and content?

The piece on the Black Church in the US was new to me and very enlightening, and her exploration of women’s healthcare provision in the US and UK through the lens of her reproductive history compelling and shocking.

Of the guest articles, I most enjoyed Candice Carty-Williams’ piece, “On Queenie”, a great exploration of identity and the author’s life outside writing.

A good and provocative collection in which everyone will find something new.

Thank you to HQ Publishing for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review

Book review – Madness – “Before We Was We”

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I received a copy of this book back in November 2019 and I’ve been itching to pick it up but allowed it to make its way to the top of the TBR before I did. I have to say right here and now that it’s one of the best music books I’ve read – and I’ve read a fair few – entertaining and unputdownable and telling the really rather sweet (amongst all the admitted petty criminality) story of seven North London lads who came together to become a long-lasting band, and are still playing the first three songs they recorded today. I will also say here that I was fortunate enough to be the transcriber* for this project, something I thoroughly enjoyed.

Madness – “Before We Was We”

(November 2019 – from the author)

So, here then are the ragamuffin early days of Madness, 1970-1979. Strap yourself in. No arms outside the car, please. They’re taking you for a ride and they don’t call them the Nutty Boys for nothing. (p. xi)

It’s all in their own words, apart from the Foreword by Dave Robinson of Stiff Records and the Prologue by Tom Doyle; Tom is credited with a “with Tom Doyle” on the title page, so all is as it should be there, and he did an absolutely sterling job of stitching those blocks of words together to make a coherent whole. It was my job (shared with permission) to transcribe* the many hours of interviews Tom did with the seven members of the group, and I’m really proud of how the book shows my contribution to capturing the individual voices of the interviewees – important in any ghosted or otherwise supported book, and vitally important in a multiple autobiography. It’s something I enjoy doing, pride myself in and am known for, but it’s lovely to see it sitting there on the page, too.

The book is funny, charming and moving. I didn’t really have an opinion either way on Madness at the start of the project but came to love the warmth of their relationships as a band and their honesty, good humour and generosity, and I think the non-fan as well as the fan could get a lot out of this book, as it showcases a London in 1970-79 that just doesn’t exist any more – bomb sites and youth clubs, music venues, some long-lost, kids running around all day and night … It doesn’t romanticise it, either: crimes are shown for what they are and there’s a point at which each band member realises things are going too far and they’d better reel themselves back in, shared trajectories moving towards each other.

We see the band members spotting each other at school, knowing each other’s friends and brothers, moving to whistling for them outside their windows or starting to form bands with shifting pools of members until they eventually coalesce into Madness. We see the same experiences and events from different perspectives, just as if they were sitting chatting about them, and there’s so much humour as they compare their lives: Here’s Mike:

I was always interested in drawing … from my mum, i suppose. Lee’s dad was a burglar, so he was interested in burgling. My mum was an aspiring artist, so I was into art. (p. 32)

But it’s moving, too. Mike and Chris find out, 40 years after the fact, and seem genuinely surprised, that Lee was touched by them visiting him at remand school in their mid-teens. There are amazing links that could have been near-misses, for example when Cathal stops to mock Suggs’ new coat – “it’s a bird’s one!” and casually drops into the conversation that he’s playing bass in a band called The Invaders …

The theme of the book could be this, said by Suggs near the end as they’re getting more serious about their music:

You had two choices – the criminal activity and all that, or maybe being a bit more creative. (p. 136)

In reality, the book has a lot to say about class, education and chances: the only opportunities to break out of the world of petty criminality and a gig economy similar to today’s employment in a lot of ways (except most people probably don’t nick their painter’s bucket and overalls from Woolies on the day they start work!) were through creative activities.

They address the unpleasant racist followers, keen on their look and not understanding the reggae-based nature of their music and love of Black music in general, and the youthful mistakes some of them made back then trying to explain that. There’s a huge amount of affection for The Specials, who they toured with just before going to America (their experiences there are hilarious), which is where the book ends, as their audience shifts to being younger and more female with the release of My Girl.

As well as the excellent introduction and foreword there are loads of pictures, black and white plates, crowdsourced endpapers and a set of photo booth poses commented on by the band members. Lovely for the fan, collector, music fan or person interested in social history.


* What’s transcribing? I’m sent the audio file of the interview and load it into my transcription management software. Like the old audio typists’ pedals, this allows me to play, rewind and fast forward the tape using the F keys at the top of my keyboard. I type out the transcription to the requirements of my client (do they need me to note the time by every question or every 5 or 10 minutes, do they want their questions in full, do they want the interviewee completely verbatim with all ums and ers or tidied up a bit) and annotate any parts I can’t make out or am unsure of, check spellings and names as I go along so it’s as easy for them to use as it can be and send it back in a Word document. The client then uses the text I’ve produced from their interview as the basis for the text of the book.

Book review – “The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories” @PersephoneBooks #ReadIndies

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Interestingly, out of this pile of Christmas books, I still have three left to read (“The Twelve Birds of Christmas” was given to Matthew and I haven’t read that, either …). So that’s not great for someone who wanted to finish 2019 acquisitions by the end of 2020. Anyway, I decided last week to treat myself to reading “The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories” which Ali kindly gave me for Christmas and has read and reviewed herself here. And as she mentions in her review, some of the stories had been printed in the lovely Biannually newsletter, but all fitted well together in the collection and most could certainly stand a re-read or two.

“The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories”

(25 December 2019 – from Ali)

I will admit that I would have liked some editorial comments about how the selections were made here, or how the stories were found, but we plunge straight in and continue in date order, from Victorian Evelyn Sharp to the more modern Rosamund Pilcher (both excellent stories). I particularly liked those in which downtrodden women flourished or surprised, although Pilcher’s piece about a man getting used to his new stepdaughters was very affecting.

As always, you’re not going to adore all the stories. It’s an impressive collection and we have some playing with the form and one decidedly odd one about sibling rivalry. The war stories of course are challenging to the fainter-hearted and I will admit to not doing very well with the Rose Macaulay, but I surprised myself by becoming immersed in Irene Nemirovksy’s  tale of a wealthy man’s privileged falling away as he flees the incoming invaders through France. There were some old favourites (Dorothy Whipple twice – and both very good, of course, and a Katherine Mansfield I thoroughly enjoyed even though I must have read it before) and some new names to me, too. The opener, Evelyn Sharp’s “In Dull Brown” had a delightfully combative heroine who tells the flirty man on the bus exactly what’s what:

You should keep to the women who don’t work; they will always look pretty and smile sweetly and behave in a domesticated manner. (p. 7)

but in this bittersweet story we find the prophecy might be self-fulfilling when he encounters another woman. I loved Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s “The Bedquilt” with a ‘spare’ woman in the family rising from drudgery to celebration of her crafting talent; but she’s only able to express herself through her needlework. “Safety Zone” by Dorothy van Doren, with its man fleeing from the Nazis to New York was both devastating and hopeful, and so finely crafted, and the relationship between a very English spinster and a German POW in Elizabeth Berridge’s “The Prisoner” is also finely crafted in a deeper-woven way and brings up issues of who exactly is the prisoner.

Moving to the more modern works, Kathleen Warren’s “To Open a Door” was a perfect story of the successful film star sister returning to visit her dowdier married sibling, and Dorothy Whipple’s “Sunday Morning” is both delightful and workmanlike, in a good way. For Good” by Alice Adams with its careful observation of a young girl’s own observation of her elders

Nell smiles politely. She is the sort of child to whom adults often talk, perhaps in some (erroneous) belief that innocence prevents her understanding. She is by now used to nearly incomprehensible remarks that later make considerable sense … (p. 355)

made me want to explore more by this author.

A big and satisfying collection that will have something for everyone who likes a Persephone, or a short story in general! I loved the fact it has two bookmarks, one for each different endpaper.

State of the TBR February 2021 and Book Confessions #AnneTyler2021 #ReadIndies

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I completed ten books in January, not too bad, as I certainly had a lot of work to do (I mean, hooray, Brexit hasn’t scuppered my business, but I’m hoping I can rein the hours in a little bit this coming month). Two of those I haven’t reviewed yes, so watch for notes on those this coming week. I also managed to continue my trend of running just over 100 miles in the month, something I was really pleased with given the snow and ice we had in the second half of the month. And I had a lovely birthday.

I have had some incomings (see later) so the TBR is looking like this at the moment, no real proper piles but a small one on the back shelf of the newest books. Some have come off the pile that was in the oldest part of the TBR last month so all good progress I feel, and my NetGalley review percentage is back over 80% again.

I do have a slight issue in that a few books at the start of the TBR aren’t really suitable for reading over meals, so I’m darting around in the order a bit. Also, it’s all a bit monocultural at the front end so I’m hopping between the older and newer ones on the front shelf (and into the Kindle) to maintain some diversity. I’m currently reading “Girl” by Kenya Hunt, which is a set of very interesting essays by a Black woman who has lived in both the US and the UK, on the Kindle.

Next up

Next up I have these lovelies.

I’m already reading Isabella Tree’s “Wilding” a chapter a week with my best friend. Some of the chapters are proving quite “chewy” and full of theory and biology, but others are simpler to get through and we’re certainly enjoying and learning. Two review books: “Digging up Britain” by Mike Pitts is an examination of British archaeology through the lens of new techniques and theories, and I’m reading it for Shiny New Books, and I’ve been asked to read Peter Whitfield’s “Iris Murdoch: A Guide to the Novels” for the Iris Murdoch Society Review as it’s a book about her novels by someone just outside academia, as I am and was when I wrote my book about Irish Murdoch and the Common Reader.

Then, I have my next Anne Tyler 2021 project read, “A Slipping Down Life” – and I do actually remember reading this one first time round! If you’re interested in joining in with my Anne Tyler (re) reading project, do have a look at the project page and join in when/where you can – no pressure but I’m loving chatting about her novels and seeing what other people think of them! And the next book from the shelf is Danny MacAskill’s “At the Edge”, which is the story of his life as a trials cyclist and adventure / trick cyclist extraordinaire.

I also intend to read some books by independent publishers to join in with Kaggsysbookishramblings and LizzySiddal’s “Read Indies month“. So many of my books AREN’T by independent publishers, but just on the front shelf, I have one from Lonely Planet, a reprint from Jane Badger Books, three Persephones, a Dean Street Press, a British Library Publishing book and an Unbound book, plus a self-published one that came in recently, so hopefully I’ll be able to get to a few of those. Are you taking part in this challenge?

New books in

These four books rather bizarrely arrived on the same day! I have mentioned the Iris Murdoch one already. “Grayson’s Art Club” is Manchester Art Gallery’s catalogue of the Grayson Perry’s Art Club exhibition which was put together in association with his TV programme during Lockdown 1 – unfortunately I don’t think it ever went live but this lovely book details the pieces there and reproduces the conversations he had with various artists and arty celebrities during the show and is a lovely memento.

Paul Magrs has a new novel out, “Hunky Dory” about a cafe in Manchester and the diverse folk who haunt it and I cannot wait to read it, and lovely Ali gave me Dorothy Whipple’s “Random Commentary” from Persephone Books, which is a slim volume suitable for those who have read all her novels and need more – it took its time arriving but was very much appreciated.


Did you have a good start to your reading year? Doing any fun challenges?

Book review – Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff (ed.) – “Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children” @CharlieBCuff

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I bought this book as a result of reading “I Will not be Erased” by the gal-dem collective, for whom Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is deputy editor. As I read the pieces in that book, I mined the authors’ bios and anything mentioned in the text for more to read about People of Colour’s experiences in the UK. It formed part of the lovely book token splurge I indulged in in July last year. I had read several books about migration into the UK, and indeed about Windrush before (for example “Windrush” by Mike and Trevor Phillips, read but somehow not reviewed on here), which it turns out was more than a bit male-experience skewed). I pulled it off the end section of the front shelf of my TBR after feeling I’d had quite a surfeit of mid-20th-century White women’s writing for quite a lot of the month and wanting to redress the balance a bit, and I’m so glad I did.

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff (ed.) – “Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children”

(20 July 2020, from Foyles with a book token)

Published in 2018, this collection of biographical pieces reflects both the life stories of original, second and third generation migrants to the UK from the Caribbean and their reactions to and interactions with the Windrush Scandal and the hostile environment engendered around it (as part of a ‘cracking down on illegal immigration’, the Conservative Government instigated a system in which people who had lived in the UK for most of or all of their lives were denied healthcare, employment, benefits and safety through absolutely no fault of their own, asked to prove identity that most White people probably couldn’t prove (can YOU prove where you went to primary school?), many of them being either driven to their graves or deported before it was uncovered by the Guardian newspaper among others, protests were made and some sort of redress is being tardily and shoddily sorted out. You can read more on the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants website here).

David Lammy MP provides a moving and passionate Foreword, in which the personal is very much the political, where he runs through the workers, thinkers, creatives and sportspeople who have contributed so massively to British society and a careful outlining of how slavery and institutional racism in the Caribbean and the UK have fed into the current scandal, as well as giving a great summary of the book, paying special attention to the nuances of it:

The story of Windrush must not be sterilised, or overly simplified. It is not only a story of successful integration, sport and cultural icons, or even everyday heroes like my mother, any more than it is only a story of Home Office failure, of systemic racism, or the consequences of slavery. The story of Windrush is, like any other, a story of humanity. Of life, love, struggle, hope, misery, success and failure. But it’s one that is too often neglected in our media, which, I’m sad to say, is often whitewashed. This volume acts as a remedy to that failure of story-telling, which I ask you to both savour and share. (p. xxi)

Brinkhurst-Cuff’s Introduction makes the scope of the book clear: it’s not just one ship of people, but many, before and after Windrush; and it’s not just people of African heritage, but the descendants of Indian and Chinese indentured workers, too. I hadn’t completely gathered that before and the narratives around those people were fascinating and informative. She also contributes a piece on women of the Windrush era, seeking to balance the primarily male narratives and even images and restore the women made invisible – the balance is noticeable and appreciable in the texts that follow.

The stories that follow are mostly told to Brinkhurst-Cuff, some written by others. They are stories of incredibly diverse and rich heritages, of the importance of knowing where you come from and asking before it’s too late, of finding your place, of not being Black enough in communities in the UK, or not being Caribbean enough when you go back ‘home’ (or of being mistaken for a deportee when owning an English accent on a Caribbean island). Working class, female, LGBTQ and Black identities intersect and we are introduced to communities and families all over England in this powerful and important book which should be required reading. There is joy here as well as struggle, fulfilling the call in “Loud Black Girls” for joy to also be shared, and there are indeed both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants given space here, showing and celebrating a huge range of experiences and behaviours.

Book review – Dorothy Evelyn Smith – “O, The Brave Music” #BLwomenwriters @BL_Publishing #bookbloggers

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This is one of the British Library’s new, beautiful Women Writers reissues, which I was fortunate enough to be sent by the publisher – I need to apologise for the gap between receipt and read / review but here it is now for you to hear about. And what a super book it was. Quite a few bloggers have reviewed it already and I’ll be off to read those reviews when I’ve published this one! Another pretty cover, too, with a pattern I’d be pleased to have as curtains or a feature wall! I’ve only read one other D.E.S. novel so far (“Miss Plum and Miss Penny”, reviewed here) and on the basis of these two I will hastily gather in any more that I encounter!

Dorothy Evelyn Smith – “O, The Brave Music”

(29 August 2020)

A super coming-of-age novel which reads like a wonderful autobiography equal to the London Child of the 1880s and other similar ones. The essays around it make it clear that some parts are drawn from the author’s life, especially her love of the moors, similar to but more positive than that of the Brontes.

Our heroine, Ruan, is small and seven with bad hair and a lively imagination – and an imaginary friend – loves literature and travel and poetry and is potentially too big a personality for the cramped life of a Non-Conformist manse – like, indeed, her beautiful mother, who’s very much beating her wings against a very much not gilded cage. We see things through Ruan’s innocent eyes, gradually realising or having the truth revealed to her, sometimes not fully.

Tragedy strikes again and again, but Ruan always has her friend Rosis, Rosie’s adopted son David, the home farm of their rather soullness nouveau riche home and the moor. Later she has the local vicar as a friend, and Uncle Alaric, his library and the ancestral home – although not a Mallinson by looks, she certainly is by spirit, and that spirit remains with the books. In her bookish pursuits and refusal to follow feminine convention she reminded me of Vita Sackville-West and her “Orlando” persona, and the book is also reminiscent to me of “The Go-Between” and several of Winifred Holtby’s novels. Oh, there is a dog, and the dog is OK; there are horses, and likewise. Phew!

There’s a very interesting depiction of attitudes towards Black people and the hypocrisy that lies therein as concerns the Chapel. I found this quite unusual in a novel of this period, especially the close observation of how the character Hally reacts to the racism he encounters, knuckling down to keeping being kind but more quietly.

The writing is often beautiful and lyrical as well as observant of human nature and relationships, with nature depicted gorgeously and often. There are wonderfully closely observed scenes such as a bittersweet evening with Ruan and sister Sylvia’s mother. There are moments of wistfulness and nostalgia and by the end we are overshadowed a little by the threat of World War One – the book was written as partly a comfort during the days of World War Two (it was published in 1943) as the Preface explains.

A lovely long book and very satisfying – highly recommended and a real classic.

There’s a timeline of the 1940s, a biography of Smith and an afterword discussing clothes and differences between the period covered and the date it was written to round off this lovely book.

Thank you very much to British Library Publishing for sending me a print copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Book review – Stella Gibbons – “A Pink front Door” @DeanStPress

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As well as a lovely lot of Margery Sharps (including “Rhododendron Pie”, reviewed here) Dean Street Press have republished a batch of novels by Stella Gibbons in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. You can see all the delights that have just come out on the Furrowed Middlebrow blog. And another pretty cover, getting across the nature of the Hampstead setting beautifully!

Stella Gibbons – “A Pink Front Door”

(01 November 2020)

Marcia and Ella are elderly cousins who live together in a large house now divided into flats, always the protector and the protected, loved more than they know, and ruled by a tyrant of a maid. Marcia has past glories and Ella continues to go out every day to paint miniature scenes of the neighbourhood. Their cousin/niece Daisy is a collector and organiser of lost souls, always with a new one to flit to if one doesn’t quite come up to scratch, and these lost souls and their various housing solutions form a sort of loose network around North London and especially Hampstead, somewhere Gibbons loved living herself and which she writers about in several others of her novels. But is the little house with the pink door, on whom you’re never sure who will be knocking, really the perfect family home?

We get caught up in the lives of the people Daisy is trying to help, not always noticing her poor, long-suffering husband James in the background. There is a strong feminist commentary, with the waste of a good scientific mind when the babies come, the punitive attitude of employers when they do, the need for poor women to coast from man to man to keep themselves off the streets, the lack of servants leading to a double shift for working women, and the older, single woman’s

wonder that anyone could prefer the state of marriage to that of celibacy, which offered one so many more opportunities for solitude.

There’s also a commentary on

This howling mid-century wilderness – without domestic service, enough house room or well-defined social customs

which the older generation find so difficult – Daisy’s father in particular seems stuck between two ways of life, not sure what the right thing is to do and knowing that really he used to meddle as much as Daisy does, and a woman slightly connected to him frets about renting out her top floor, but clings to views of servants that are sadly outdated. But younger women are also having to choose between the new sexual freedoms and being safe, and the expectations that they will manage both.

The perspectives shift between an overarching one and the internal narratives of certain characters, so we really understand them from the inside, and this is done to particular effect in the final parts of the book. Three quite shocking events advance the plot quite quickly and those shifting narratives come quickly, letting us deep into observation of the characters’ lives.

A very interesting and readable novel and I will undoubtedly be picking up more of this crop of reprints.

Thank you to Dean Street Press for sending me an ebook of this novel in return for an honest review.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Tin Can Tree” #AnneTyler2021

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The second book in my Reading Anne Tyler in 2021 project. 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.. All the reviews I am alerted to will be added to the project page when I can, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Like “If Morning Ever Comes,” I bought this in April 2000 and read it in the May and like that one, I recalled absolutely nothing of this book upon re-reading it!

The cover makes more sense than the last one but isn’t hugely interesting, so enjoy my pile (not including the newest one, arriving this April 1st apparently!).

Anne Tyler – “The Tin Can Tree”

(11 April 2000)

This is another novel of small-town North Carolina, and another book with a small cast of characters observed over a few days around an upheaval in their lives.

Opening at a funeral, with the central character stumbling home down a hill, the book is set in a three-family home (I suppose like a small terrace, three separate families in a row but they can all hear each other practically breathe) on the outskirts of Larksville, the kind of town where people leave and then only ever come home for Christmas:

Whoever built their house must have been counting on Larksville’s becoming a city someday, but Larksville was getting smaller every year. (p. 8)

so the house is a way away from the town and the three families are thrown upon their own and each other’s resources, while you get the sense of the weeds and farmland encroaching on all sides.

The funeral is that of Janie Rose, the youngest inhabitant of the houses, and it’s a finely drawn portrait of the reactions and process of grief of all the characters. We mainly take the viewpoint of James, who cares for his brother Ansel, also in his 20s but seemingly an invalid by choice (he’s anaemic but won’t have his injections). At some point in the past they ran away from home, perhaps suddenly, with a family rift that’s not talked about, and running away is the other theme of the book alongside grief. The elderly sisters in their cluttered home in the middle of the row are perhaps a warning to James and Ansel of how they might get set in for life. James is rather trapped – he likes Joan, the niece of the other family, the Pikes, trying to work through their grief and keep the house going, but he can’t make Joan and Ansel like each other.

James does escape to do his photography as a job and hobby, but once again there’s a gap between the photos he wants to take and the ones he ends up taking. There are deep themes here below the surface.

There’s a brief almost reconciliation, two almost escapes and a joyful gathering at the end, but will everything settle back into its dusty patterns when they all return to their own houses?

I found a lot to enjoy in this quiet and absorbing novel, with such tight observation again.


Do let me know if you’ve read along, joined me for this one or any others at any time, or come to this later and have thoughts on it. All comments welcome at whatever time, no pressure! Do visit the project page to see how it’s all going!

 

Book review – Catrina Davies – “Homesick” plus book serendipity

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This is the last of the books I bought in Cornwall in October 2019; this one I bought from The Edge of the World Bookshop (gladly still going strong) and if you pop any of the other titles in the search box, you’ll find my review. I’m a bit sad I’m still reading 2019 books but I “just” have a couple more plus my Christmas ones to go, honest. And I’ve been reading books on Kindle and books to review for Shiny New Books, too.

Below my review, some book serendipities, some of which appeared in this book. I don’t usually find so many overlapping mentions or themes in just a few weeks, so thought it was worth recording!

Catrina Davies – “Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed”

(03 October 2019)

In my innocence, I originally thought this was about one of those younger people who set up in their parents’ large back garden or on other family land – like they sometimes do in Grand Designs and similar TV programmes, because of housing precarity among the young. But the context for this is far darker and the precarity more insidious.

Davies is 31 and living in a horrible room in a house in Bristol when she loads a few bin bags of possessions into a decaying car and sets up house illegally in the shed that used to be her dad’s office. That’s the office for his failed business; the reason the family lost their house. This shed is the only single piece of property her parents own, and she has to track down her dad to the pub he now works in to ask permission to use it (she’s very very careful about permission and legality, interestingly, while living slightly outside the law; she’s punctilious about paying her taxes for instance). Her mum has lived with mental health conditions and moved from short-term let to short-term let and the sister who does have a house moves out of it every summer with husband and children in order to make some money renting it as a holiday let.

It’s not just Davies and her family, either: there are people all over Cornwall living in tents and cars, renting somewhere their landlord kicks them out of for the summer, and mainly because of the economy of the county, the land and housing owned by a few huge rich landlords and the rest of the people clinging to the jobs and housing they allow them.

Yes, Davies is choosing, to an extent, to leave the endless cycle of having to earn enough to pay for a soulless living space that might be taken away a few weeks later. But the hardship she encounters, staying somewhere that is only a degree or so warmer than outside, washing under a cold tap in a broken shower tray, etc., is a powerful deterrent to the fantasy of getting off grid and out of the rat race. And the fragile nature of her life is highlighted very early on in the book when her shed is broken into and all her few possessions stolen.

This blow early on nothwithstanding, I read on: I really enjoyed all the detail of how she made her shed more comfortable and arranged things, and the community support – although it’s eventually probably a neighbour who reports her once she has a wood-burning stove going, so many more are quietly supportive of her. You read more about that in the conclusion, including the kindness of some of her gardening customers.

Davies talks about solutions, mainly in her case the idea of a land tax rather than a property tax, and also people considering not having second homes / holiday homes. It’s certainly made me think hard about where we stay when we go to Cornwall (although maybe renting from a family who needs the income is OK rather than perpetuating things? It’s hard to work out) and how to make arrangements if we end up finding somewhere in Spain to help with certain health needs. Of course I already considered these matters, but this made me think more carefully still. I also realise how lucky we are to have friends in the area of Cornwall we visit, as reading this book hit the fact home that there is usually a complete divide between residents and visitors, even though she freely accepts some of the visitors will be nice people.

There are positives in the book as well as solutions. Coming from a life of poor mental health and disordered eating, Davies finds that taking control of her life, even in this unorthodox way, brings a lot of improvement to her lot in many ways:

There was such a thing as self-determination. I realized that the shed had already started to alter the way I felt about myself, and the way I responded to things. (p. 137)

Her descriptions of the visceral and meditative nature of surfing were vivid and interesting, and the way her anxiety made everything terrifying, so she ended up doing ‘brave’ things as they were just as terrifying, not more or less, than phoning the bank. She also shares lessons that she’s learned, realising that money and power can be used for good when, having removed herself from circles that produce those things, if her life had gone another way she could have saved the wild land across the road.

A powerful and often upsetting, but necessary, read.


I have a few serendipities (a la Bookish Beck, her latest serendipity post here) to start the year. I read two first novels in a row by people who went on to write 20 plus (“Rhododendron Pie” by Margery Sharp and “If Morning Ever Comes” by Anne Tyler”). Two books read at the same time were set in Sussex (“Rhododendron Pie” and Isabella Tree’s “Wilding”) and two read concurrently (this one here, “Homesick” by Catrina Davies and “The Natural Health Service” by Isabel Hardman (I didn’t finish that one)) feature an author who has had a severe mental health breakdown, and two (“Wilding” and “The Natural Health Service”) included the information that trees’ and other plants’ roots are linked by almost invisible skeins of fungi into one living organism. That’s just the books I’ve read or started this year or at the very end of last year!

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