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

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

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

(09 September 2019)

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

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

Stella Gibbons – “Conference at Cold Comfort Farm”

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

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


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

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

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

Margaret Atwood – “The Handmaid’s Tale”

(1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of the TBR – September 2019 #20BooksOfSummer #WITmonth

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Much like August’s shelf, we’re chock-full, with one space for a single paperback or thin hardback. However, I did actually manage to read 12 books this month (although only five came off this physical bookshelf) so the turnover is going up.  If you haven’t counted twelve reviews, one is for Shiny New Books and I will share my review there when it’s published.

A few new acquisitions. I popped into our local Acorns shop to look for bookshelves (one day the perfect narrow tall Billy will come in and I can replace the small shelf by the bathroom door with a taller one) and then looked ON their bookshelves and the paperbacks were 50p each and I’ve been doing a fair bit of comfort reading recently so it would have been rude not to bring these home.

“Power of Three” is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ standalones, and looks like a good read in one of her believable worlds – I left her dog one there as I’m not really up for heartstring-tugging at the moment. Then Joanna Trollope, always a reliable read, seems to have published a few since the last time I looked, and “City of Friends” takes the always-interesting theme of a set of friends made at university and how they’ve changed over time (amusingly, there’s a much more highbrow version of this theme coming up and I might just have to read them next to each other.

Then I’ve got into what turns out to be a silly habit of spotting books I like on book websites and leaving them in my shopping cart, and that led to me ordering some cat litter and accidentally placing an order for “Iris Murdoch: a Centenary Celebration” edited by Miles Leeson (you can buy this in person from the amazing Second Shelf bookshop as well as the standard outlets – I’m not going to get to Second Shelf any time soon so did it the clicky way.

This is full of reminiscences from people who knew Iris Murdoch and there appear to be quite a few photographs I haven’t seen before, so it’s well worth having.

I’m going to slot it in after my final read in my Iris Murdoch readalong, “Jackson’s Dilemma” in December – that’s a short book and a sad one, so hopefully this will be a cheering read to go for after that. I have already shared about this picture on my latest Murdoch update but it seemed good to share it now, too.

I’m currently reading Angela Thirkell’s “Before Lunch” which is a nice bit of frivolity published in 1939. It’s weirdly reminding me of lap counting for a long-distance race at the moment – all the characters have been set in motion and we’ll watch them all unwind, some of them lap others, and then they’ll all come good at the end and everything will be tidy. I sort of know what’s going to happen already but not how they get there, and that’s all fine! Her massive snobbery is on show here with her portrayals of the maid classes, but no funny foreigners as yet.

I have quite a few Thirkells which arrived around last Christmas and I’m reading them all in order, even though I’ve got some gaps still in the ones I have read – then I have a load I haven’t got hold of at all yet (see the bottom of my Wish List for details).

Even though this is a Virago, it doesn’t come into All Virago / All August as I had barely started it yesterday. I did do a few books for that among the ten books I ended up reading for x Books of Summer – although I have probably read 20 books during the time period it seemed a bit wrong to do a retrospective swap-out, so I left it at 10 for this year and I’ll try for 20 again if it runs next summer. Here’s my final list.

And what’s up next? Well, as Ali has said today in her August round-up post,  reading has felt a little constrained in the last month or so, with all these challenges (she also did several for Women in Translation Month and a Robertson Davis; I did one Woman In Translation) so apart from the next two known reads, I’m letting myself have the run of my bookshelf. I think some more easy reads will be coming along.

First off I have my Iris Murdoch for September, “The Book and the Brotherhood”. This has always been a real favourite of mine, and I hope it still is. It’s a big one, too, so I hope to get it started early in the month. Then Robert Philips’ “Futurekind” is a lovely glossy and heartfelt book about real design for the people, by the people. It’s a review book for Shiny New Books and the last one I have left. Then … who knows!

What are you reading in September? Are you doing any juicy challenges?

 

 

Book reviews – two easy escapist reads #am reading

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Two nice easy reads that allow you to escape into a nice world of seaside and friendship when the world outside is looking a little grim. And yes, sometimes I do allow myself to read a book I’ve just brought home or pluck one from the middle of the front shelf! Shocking!

BTW, about to photograph my TBR shelves for Sunday’s post, I note they are still absolutely full, but with slightly different books. So that’s OK (right?)

Debbie Macomber – “Cottage by the Sea”

(20 August 2019)

One of the books I picked up on my way home from a dental check-up, this had to be grabbed and read immediately. Annie has lost all of her family in a mudslide tragedy (that really happened, in 2014, assuring us that this is not one of DM’s recycled novels but a proper new one), and we follow her grieving and renewal process as she moves to a small community where her family used to spend the summer. She meets Keaton, a painter and man of few words, and tries to win the friendship of her unfriendly landlady, all the while worrying about a family abuse issue in the town. So it’s not short of issues, plus Keaton and his friend Preston do animal rescue, which worried me – there is in fact only one animal loss and that’s not dwelt on and is not an animal we meet more than slightly and once. A good restorative and positive read.

Clara Christiensen – “Hygge and Kisses”

(07 August 2018)

Bought almost exactly a year ago, of course the hygge trend of latter years had to come up in a novel at some point, and here it is. Bo (not actually Danish) discovers the concept of hygge through a trip to her half-Danish friend’s summer house. The usual job loss / manky boyfriend takes a while to get going, the Danish middle section is nicely paced and subtly done, then the ending seems a bit rushed (and amusingly overlaps with another 2018 easy-read trend which I won’t spoil). But a nice escapist read with some good positive moments.


I’ve bought some more comfort reads and one intellectual one, which you’ll hear about on Sunday, and I’m about to start “Humankind”, my last Shiny review book (for now) which is fascinatingly all about inventions that help society and are inspired by actual need.

How are you doing?

Book review – Josephine Kamm – “Peace, Perfect Peace” @DeanStPress #FurrowedMiddlebrow

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I’m glad to  have been able to fit in another review of an interesting mid-century novel, kindly sent to me by Dean Street Press from their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint for review. Scott reviewed it on the Furrowed Middlebrow blog back in 2016 and it’s part of the summer offering from Dean Street Press – you can read about them all here.

I actually received Barbara Noble’s “The House Opposite” along with Verily Anderson’s “Spam Tomorrow” (reviewed by me earlier in the month) and asked to swap it as I was worried that one might be too horribly detailed about the Blitz – if anyone has read it, can you let me know (dead or injured pets or massive horror detail are not for me usually or even more so right now). Anyway, this is a novel of peacetime, just post-war, and very interesting indeed.

Josephine Kamm – “Peace, Perfect Peace”

(17 June 2019)

A book with a slightly odd structure: it starts off being about Clare, middle-aged at 35 and suffering an unhappy affair with a married man while she tries to write a second novel, but when she goes to visit hr friend and ex-landlady Joanna by the sea, the author seems to get more interested in Joanna’s battle with her daughter-in-law, Frances, over the soul of Frances’ son, Giles. Although we return with Clare to depressing London and her gas ring and dusty room, and also witness her betrayal of Joanna (it’s on a small canvas but has some gasp-out-loud moments), it’s this relationship that’s explored in huge detail, as resentment builds in Frances, all the while trying to make a home out of a slightly bomb-damaged and pretty manky flat. Poor old Clare is given a rather hastily sketched-in plot resolution, although she’s used for the author’s main theme.

Frances’ daughter June is a caution, and brings levity and hilarity to the proceedings, and post-war winding-down office life is well-portrayed, too, and the gathering of itself of a seaside town, but the main value and I think the author’s real main interest lies in its minute detailing of the privations, annoyances and humiliations of post-war life, from visiting an empty road house for not much fun to forgetting there’s no blackout any more or going into a lottery for a Christmas turkey. Published in 1947, it’s a fresh record which serves as an invaluable documentation of that time in British history, as well as being a perfectly readable and enjoyable novel.

Well done, Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press: another triumph!

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Good Apprentice” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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It’s funny what you remember and don’t remember about books you re-read, isn’t it? I’d remembered very clearly Stuart being described as a white grub, and scenes at Seegard, and I recall finding Middge an attractive character (something of which I’m less sure this time round) but I had no memory of most of the actual plot as such! Anyway, a bit of a late review and I hope my regulars are poised to share their thoughts, and anyone else happening along feels moved to share theirs, too.

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

Iris Murdoch – “The Good Apprentice”

(28 December 2018)

Edward and Stuart are brothers-but-not-brothers. Edward has just been instrumental in the death of a friend and wants to blot out all experience and stop living in hell  “How does one live after total wickedness, total failure, total disgrace?” (p. 10). Stuart is inexperienced but wants to do good in the world. Their father/step-father is one of a group of super-Murdochian middle-class characters (the analyst, the doctor, the academic, the “women’s lib” writer) and their offspring who circle the boys, trying to help. Meanwhile, near the sea but seemingly distanced from the sea, Seegard sits with its colony of weird women, waiting for whoever ends up visiting.

This is one of the books where you definitely have to draw a diagram of the relationships, pretty well as soon as you discover that Stuart and Edward are brothers only in vague name, having different mothers AND fathers. Add in a few aunts and cousins and you can easily get very lost. And then everyone’s mothers seem to know everyone else’s mothers! I found my diagram from last time and added to it – dotted lines are links not by marriage or birth and I imagine it’s incomplete!

There are little feminist bits again which I’ve never (how?) noticed before. Sarah Plowmain’s mother is into “Women’s Lib Journalism. She’s a fire-eater” (p. 6) and later writes a piece decrying Mother May’s position as a little woman serving a great man and being spiteful about his conquests. We don’t have the horrible ageing women we’ve had in other books, Mother May’s network of fine lines being attractive and Midge, for all of her weight gain, being very attractive and well-dressed. Thomas has been doing a lot of thinking about the menopause in a rather startling passage, with a very modern conclusion: “In fact, he thought, there is no typical menopause, there are as many menopauses as women” (p. 387) so although he’s been complaining about women pinning their neuroses onto this time of life, he is humane about it. Harry is seen grabbing and shaking Midge until her head cracks against a chair (but he doesn’t get to keep his relationship with her).

In our usual themes Willy is trying to write a book on Proust but has been unable to finish it. Harry HAS finished a book but it’s a novel (“a terrible shameful secret”) and it’s being rejected by publishers. Red curly hair is a theme at Seegard (and Midge has a many-coloured mop that is also familiar) and not only Ilona but Bettina chops her hair off. There are stones throughout: the “lingam stone” of which Edward knows the meaning and Ilona claims not to, the stones around the country cottage and the paperweight stone Thomas has from Scotland. Spiders appear as Bettina teases one at Seegard, and Edward claims his head is full of poisonous ones. There are not many people seen out of windows or through them, but Harry enters Midge and Thomas’ house via a “tree-shaded back alley through a gate into the walled garden” (p. 181). Stuart chases Meredith in London but there’s no one flitting in a white dress. Water is there in the form of the sea by Seegard, not accessible by Edward until he trusts his own sense of direction, and mists.

There’s lots of doubling – Stuart and Edward / Mark and Brownie, with Edward and Mark the favoured children. Two locations, London and Seegard. Two families for almost everyone. Two hot air balloon appearances. Two fingers on lips expressions for Midge and Meredith. Two sightings of Jesse drowned, one real, one a vision. Two encounters with the Tree Men. Willy’s father is killed camel riding, Harry’s sailing. Jesse and then his old friend Max die, probably on the same day, and the two deaths are seen in the papers. Ilona can dance in the glade and then can’t dance in the strip club (is this Seegard as enchanter again? see below).

Of course the theme of religion hangs over the whole book – or precisely what to do when religion has faded from the world, Edward can’t take absolution from a priest and Stuart can’t become a monk, so what are they to do to make their way through the world? The introduction by David E. Cooper makes much of this, and is right to.

There is humour in this big and very sad book. The “Willy and the camel” thing is pretty weird, his father having been killed by one – Harry mentions someone “drinks like a camel” and Willy leaves suddenly and later when Midge wants to get rid of him, she comments “What a fine coat … it’s camel-hair, isn’t it?” (p 432). This is such an odd one it does feel like something – a dare? – that has worked its way in from real life. Some of the descriptions of discomfort – Edward in his wet clothes at Mrs Quaid’s (“His trousers were wet and seemed to have shrunk, he felt cold, a smell of damp wool arose from the collar of his jacket” (p. 64)

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? I’m not sure we have a saint. Stuart, though, is striving like mad to be one, suppressing all urges, absorbing people’s emotions and trying to find his place to do good in the world. However, Meredith says he’s not messy, so he can’t be a saint yet. Maybe a saint in waiting. Interestingly at very least Midge tries to turn him into an enchanter, making out he’s sat there in the back of the car with a monolithic disapproval of her and Harry’s affair and has made her fall in love with him, while he says, “I don’t think I did that” (p. 353). Edward is trying to find his own redemption, although he does manage to “take a pain away from her into himself” when Brownie tells him what people have been saying about Mark’s death (p. 334). Thomas has been moving behind the scenes, as we discover he was behind Edward’s invitation to Seegard and also sends Brownie to find him in his old room by letter, and has been busy reading letters between Harry and Midge. He knows Edward is going to run and that he will know where to (but that’s because he’s instigated it!). But he’s more like N from “The Philosopher’s Pupil”, moving things around to help, and he’s not set up as an enchanter by anyone. He also thinks he should give up “this ingenious skill, this power, bending and contorting people’s lives like a Japanese flower arranger” (p. 390). He does, however, avoid “inflicting my suffering on [Midge] in the form of rage” (p. 437). Jesse is a sex god and attracted many women, but doesn’t really seem to have used his powers much, and Mother May is more like the controlling nun in “The Bell” and a wardress.

However, there is a source of enchantment in Seegard, appearing and disappearing in the landscape, acting as a place out of time where no one ages, and described as starting to fall apart as Edward leaves it for the last time. Nature also has some kind of guiding or enchanting role, from the murmuration of starlings Edward sees on the way to Seegard to the robin that interrupts Harry and Thomas.

In links to other books, Stuart is described early as “a plump white grub with a big head emerging from an apple” (p. 28) and we remember that I noted in my review of “The Philosopher’s Pupil” the description of George post-stones as “weak and pale like a grub in an apple” (p. 547). The Post Office Tower pops up, for Edward when he’s walking out of Mrs Quaid’s and everything is glittering and lovely. When Edward is in counsel with Thomas, a demon looks through his eyes reminding Thomas of flayed Marsyas, who crops up a lot. Thomas himself is another psychoanalyst who believes he’s a fraud, like Blaise from “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”. Midge describes Harry as living in a “net” and she is in one of lies (p. 99). Thomas says he likes to see Midge sewing and someone else in a book a few ago said that – anyone remember? The idea of ordeal, which came up in “Philosopher’s Pupil”  and “Nuns and Soldiers” and will be more prominent in “The Green Knight”, is mentioned here – “[Edward] has gone upon a pilgrimage to face an ordeal, his very own. He will be alright” (p. 225).

And in a link to quite another book, we have a little Lord of the Rings mention, when Edward, very near the end of the book, considers wearing Jesse’s ring on Ilona’s chain “round his neck, like Frodo” (p. 554). This greatly cheered me!

Thoughts on re-reading – I don’t remember Stuart and Thomas being my favourite characters last time but they are this time. Poor old Thomas, trying to be logical and being accused of being cold, and poor lost Stuart, not his father’s favourite and patiently running around trying to help!


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 – Sayaka Murata – “Convenience Store Woman” #WITMonth

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I’ve finally managed to read a book for Women In Translation Month – hooray! I’ve always been really bad at doing this, as I do try to do challenges from my TBR shelf and never seem to have one. But I got hold of this from my friend Meg back in June and here I am managing to have read and now review it. I can’t say I’m able to say an awful lot about it, but I have at least had a go.

Sayaka Murata – “Convenience Store Woman” (trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

(09 June 2019, Bookcrossing)

Keiko has worked in the convenience store since she was 18, and she’s now in her mid-30s; she knows its every way and lives and breathes it, sharing in her narrative how she works out the minute fluctuations in what she can expect to sell and to whom. She’s clearly different in some way, and her family and friends pressurise her to be more conforming, but she doesn’t know how to do that. She feels she has to adopt her colleagues’ mannerisms and ways of speaking in order to construct her own personality (while noting that her friends tend towards matching each other over time and with new trends, too, so maybe she’s just a more extreme or self-aware example).

Keiko adopts a colleague and immediately sees she has more of a place in the world – but she does think/speak of him and treat him a bit like a stray dog. I can’t work out whether their relationship is funny or depressing, to be honest.

With a deadpan first-person narrative which is reminiscent of other Japanese writers I’ve read (e.g. Banana Yashimoto), you find yourself rooting for this strange girl who is just trying to live her life and not make too much of a mark on the world, while trying to serve the convenience store world the best she can. I have a horrible feeling there’s some massive message or metaphor that I’ve missed, but anyway, I did enjoy it, and would read more by this author/translation pair.

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