Book review – Iris Murdoch – “A Word Child” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Well it was going to happen, wasn’t it … I’ve found so much more to like in some of my less-favoured Murdoch novels and then, having been looking forward to this one, I was a bit, not disappointed as sucb, but surprised that I remembered such a horrible central character so fondly!

I’ve been away on my hols, hence the rather odd selection of reading matter in the last two reviews, so here you have an image of what I’d call “Extreme Iris Murdoch reading” – sat in the middle of a lava field in Fuerteventura (that’s my husband heading off to look for some birds).

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

Iris Murdoch – “A Word Child”

(31 December 2018)

So I remembered Hilary Burde as a gente, slightly shambliing, slight figure, for no discernible reason at all, rather than a big bruiser who keeps bashing women and frightening them. Why, I’m really not sure, as all the information is given to us in the book. We gradually come to realise Hilary is a man who keeps to a strict routine and regime in order to stave off madness, caused partly by his accidental – or not – killing of his friend Gunnar’s wife, with whom he was having an affair. So he has different days for different friends, keeps everything compartmentalised, hates his office-mates, worships his sister, tolerates her suitor Arthur, and puts up with his fey lodger, Christopher. Then a mysterious woman called Biscuit starts following him around and he finds out through office gossip that Gunnar is back … with a new wife.

It is a savagely funny book in that the repetitions and echoings and patterns come with a sort of black irony. The office scenes are brilliant and just right and of course I love Hilary’s circlings of the Circle Line (what a true tragedy it is that the platform bars have long gone and you can’t even go right round on the Circle Line any more!). The theme is set on page 4: “There was nothing here to love” – Hilary has no love in his life and rebuffs any that tries to form. This circles back at the end: “I had almost systematically destroyed his respect and affection and finally driven him away” (p. 387)

Is there an enchanter? Is it Hilary himself, with whom Gunnar and Lady Kitty are obsessed, who he admits three women want him to arrange for them to have children, two with him, and who inspires love? Only Christopher seems to escape him. And surely Christopher is our saint, accepting violence with meekness and being kind (although Jimbo is also an agent of positivity and attention with his taxis and presents. Are we saying the young are going to save the world?). He’s described as being Christ-like at one point. Mr Osmund also gives Hilary his full attention so is perhaps a Saint figure, as is patient and unworldly Arthur Fisch, who absorbs Hilary’s terrible story (although Hilary tries not to pass on his second love to Crystal, she’s still bothered by an atmosphere between them, so it clearly hasn’t worked). Arthur’s is also a “muddler” with a lot of lame ducks, reminding us of Tallis and just as humble: “I think we should just be kind to each other” (p. 87) and, later, “I think one should try to stick to simplicity and truth” (p. 290). Hilary describes him as the perfect IM saint:

Arthur was a little untalented unambitious man, destined to spend his life in a cupboard, but there was in a quite important sense no harm in him. He was kind, guileless, harmless and he had had the wit to love Crystal, to see Crystal, to see her value. (p. 287)

Tommy owns the crowded room full of knick-knacks that has to exist in every book. Clifford has a more refined version with Indian miniatures and tiny bookcases. Hilary gives Biscuit a black pebble which she later flings back at him. For water, we have the endless rain and dripping umbrellas, and of course the Thames as well as the Serpentine and Boating Lake. There’s no pursuit in the dark or standing in gardens looking through into houses, but Hilary does chase Biscuit down the Bayswater Road. In terms of siblings, we have Hilary and Crystal, but Clifford also had a sister, who died. Hair isn’t such a big theme but Laura has an unsuitably flowing grey mane, Biscuit a long black plait Kitty sophisticated brown layers and Crystal a frizzy fuzz last seen in “Sacred and Profane”.

A new theme coming through seems to be the quest, which Hilary talks of on p. 200: “I now had a task. I was like a Knight with a quest. I needed my chastity now; I needed my aloneness”.  The feeling of feuds and owing, when Hilary says, “I owe Gunnar a child” reminds me of “The Green Knight” and brings the patterning into sharp relief. There’s one of IM’s horrible prefigurings when Hilary is talking to Kitty on the jetty – “I felt now as if I were plunging around in the mud” (p. 243) and one that could be from “A Severed Head”: “Powers which I had offended were gathering to destroy me” (p. 323).

The humour is there, but savage as I said: “Not to have been born is undoubtedly best, but sound sleep is second best” (p. 16) feels like a good example. IM is funny about Christopher’s happenings and has Hilary be hilariously vile about Tommy’s knitting, which she does because he once said he liked it, but makes him want to vomit.

In echoes with other books, there’s yet another set of telephone entrails (“The Black Prince” and “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” have them and I’m sure there are more in “The Book and the Brotherhood”). The parks of London of course echo several other books, as does the leap into the Thames at the end. Hilary’s three women demanding babies, echo Edgar’s three women planning to visit at he end of “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”.

What will become of Hilary at the end? Without a set of fake epilogues to contain him, this latest first-person narrator seems to drift away from us in this stranger than I remember book.

Is it shocking that Hilary is only 41? Yes, a bit: this is the first time I’ve been older than quite a few of the characters I’ve always known as being older than me, and maybe this has reduced my tolerance. The sense of place, though, is as I remembered, and eminently traceable. I’ve been noticing bits of running in the books and here we have Hilary in the parks, “I ran, and was cleansed of myself. I was a heart pumping, a body moving. I had cleaned a piece of the world of the filth of my consciousness” (p. 26).


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 – Lisa Tamati – “Running Hot” #amreading @lisaytamati

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I’m very lucky to have the lovely Cari in my book and running life – and the two intersect in a lovely interchange of running books across the Atlantic. This one came with her in person when we finally met, decades after ‘meeting’! I decided it was time to read a running book and had a trip to take so taking a BookCrossing registered book was ideal.

Lisa Tamati – “Running Hot”

(23 Aug 2018 publ 2009 Allen & Unwin)

Nicola McCloy is also credited on the back of the title page and credit is indeed due to her as this autobiography of a New Zealand Maori ultra runner is accessible, fresh and in a great, unique voice. Tamati fell into the sport rather, from doing extreme hiking and biking with her controlling boyfriend from Austria – what a shame such a strong and tough woman spent a lot of years being told she was no good although she did get support later in her relationship career. Also a jewellery maker, she shares how her life works and goes rather than glossing over the details all in a nice New Zealand English narrative.

All the ultra runners I know are pretty tough and she’s amazing: I love how she doesn’t even bother to go into detail on the training she does for the Desert Cup: “a pile of 100-kilometre runs, 2-hour races, marathons and even a triathlon,” is said rather airily (p. 155). I loved her early descriptions of running through Tunisia especially the Chott el Jerid salt flats, where I’ve spent a couple of happy days (having arrived in an air-conditioned coach rather than on a bicycle, I hasten to add). Her enthusiasm for deserts is palpable, and that’s where she runs: good for her!

I also liked reading about how her whole community came together to sponsor her for doing the Badwater Marathon, even inventing a healthy sandwich in her honour!

The story is interspersed with chunks of very useful endurance cycling and running advice. It’s amazing how the sport has come on in terms of fuelling and knowledge since she started racing, and there are some big lessons learned. I liked her comment that learning that with a positive attitude she can do pretty well anything but if she’s negative or distracted, anything is hard has stood her in good stead for future endurance events. Learning points, humility about her mistakes and epic desert runs make this a good and worthwhile read, not as preachy as some running books can sometimes be.

I had a look and it appears Tamati is still running, writing and now coaching and podcasting too – what an inspiration!

Currently reading

I’ve got back into my Iris Murdoch of the month, “A Word Child”, although I’ve changed my opinion on it somewhat since last time!

 

 

Book review – Alan Hollinghurst – “The Sparsholt Affair” #amreading

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I’m glad to say I’m doing a lot better with my reading this month after the horror of only reading five books in February. Not wanting another music one so soon after “Live at the Brixton Academy”, I went rogue and grabbed some literary fiction to get my teeth into. What a great read! But can someone please tell me where to find the key to this roman a clef as there simply must be some portraits in there (there are definitely some real figures, I mean the characters in the story).But it does have a gap, right?

Alan Hollinghurst – “The Sparsholt Affair”

(22 May 2018)

A wonderful, absorbing novel following the lives of a group of men people – two in particular – who meet at Oxford University during World War Two. Divided into sections with titles based on art the first is a very well done piece, purportedly by Freddie, written for a biography club in post-war London that I’m pretty sure is based on a real-life one. It details the appearance of David Sparsholt, a hearty type with a fiancée, who appears in College and mesmerises all of Freddie’s friends (but not Freddie, of course!). A drawing is made at this point which crops up deliciously time and again in a “Dance to the Music of Time” way (the whole novel reminded me of a compressed Dance”, in fact).

After this section, which is read by some of the characters much later on, we move to spend time with the lovely Johnny, son of David Sparsholt, seen in snapshots, first as a teenager obsessed and annoyed by this French exchange partner on holiday in Cornwall, with here a brilliant description of going sailing with his father, the French boy and an odd friend of his father’s, Cliff:

… a looming sense of all the discipline of sailing, the shouting and blaming cutting through the fun. (p. 102)

We then meet Johnny as an adult, working as an apprentice art restorer and by accident thrown into the household of Evert, friend of Freddie and David; he starts to explore the world of London’s gay clubs and encounters.  Another section sees Johnny partly through the eyes of his own daughter, drifting between his household and that of her two mums, a complicated affair for the older generation of their families to understand and explain, if common currency in the world they inhabit.

Because this is basically a history of gay life in Britain from the war, fumbles in the blackout, through wild 70s parties and on to Grinder, selfies and a redeeming International and accepting landscape which is quite moving to read about. Johnny’s a lovely character, shabby and different, persisting in his own channel even though his father’s scandal follows him. We’re not told the details of the scandal, just as Freddie’s extracurricular work during the war is kept hush-hush – some reviewers seem to have disliked this but I enjoyed the ends not being tidied up. Characters come and go, like in “Dance” again and make patterns. It’s carefully crafted and full of echoes across generations, with everyone seemingly obsessed with David Sparsholt. Gay love is told tenderly, elderly gay love even more so, chronicled carefully. But there’s also David’s elderly track through London and the negotiations of valuing a disintegrating art collection (I loved the Barbara Hepworth sculpture which has been restrung).

As an extra touch to this excellent novel, which I didn’t find Murdochian although I read a review before buying it which said it was, Hollinghurst has I believe said he was inspired by Iris Murdoch and he pops in both Johnny’s mum reading “The Red and the Green” and a character called Jack Ducane lightly mentioned. A bonus in an already great read, and I will certainly seek out his other works.

Currently reading

I decided I hadn’t read a running book recently and have very much been enjoying New Zealand Maori ultra runner Lisa Tamati’s autobiography, “Running Hot”

 

 

Book reviews – Ziauddin Yousafzai – “Let Her Fly” and Paul Gallico – “Mrs Harris Goes to New York” plus terrible episodes of wickedness @ShinyNewBooks #amreading

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Well I’ve got a lot to tell you about today, having not blogged since the weekend, so here’s some Shiny Linkiness, a sweet book that wasn’t my Iris Murdoch and some purchases!

First of all, as we know, I read Malala Yousafzai’s wonderful autobiography fairly recently, and that was because I’d won a copy of her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai’s book, “Let Her Fly” from NetGalley (thank you to NetGalley and publisher Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read it). I loved “Let Her Fly” and here’s an excerpt from my review:

Now, we can argue about nature and nurture, can’t we, but what is clear is that the extraordinary Malala would not have got as far as she has without this background and this amazing man pushing her onwards and opening the gates of education for her. They form a great team, and still work together on the Malala Foundation. But he doesn’t idolise her and put her on a pedestal, and he’s very honest on the family dynamic and especially his relationship with his own sons.

(read the whole review here)

Paul Gallico – “Mrs Harris Goes to New York”

(31 January 2018 – The Newlyn Bookshop)

I bought this on a trip to Penzance from the lovely second-hand bookshop on Chapel Street, a dear old Penguin from 1960.

A charming sequel to “Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris” in which Mrs H, South London daily, plus her doomy friend Violet, ends up in New York and also in possession of a small boy she has liberated from next door. While the introduction of some trendy late-50s culture misses the boat a bit, the return of an old friend and the addition of some super new ones is lovely, and the whole, if slight, is warm and a joy. Partly told in letters, which makes for a very sweet read.

Naughties

So do we remember when I bought some books cheap at The Works because they were Christmas books and it was January? Well of course they were all in series, weren’t they, and not the first in each, and they were about Cornwall and I found second-hand copies cheap and although I left one alone, I now have this.

Oops, not oops.

And then on the Prosopagnosia group (read about proso or face-blindness and me on my business blog here), there was mention of a YA novel with a whole  prosopagnosic hero and so that had to be got, didn’t it?

Yes, it seems it did

So there we go. Currently reading Janet McNeill’s “The Maiden Dinosaur” which is brilliant, then it’s on with the Murdoch, I promise. It’s not as wonderful as I remembered it being, but one’s bound to dip down after all the promotions up the favourites list.

Have you been naughty recently? What do you do if you accidentally buy the middle book in a series? They don’t count, right?

Book review – Laura Kemp – “The Year of Surprising Acts of Kindness” #Dewithon

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I was pleased to manage to find a book on my TBR for the inaugural iteration of Dewithon, or the Wales readathon (hosted by BookJotter here) as I’d promised myself I’d try to do it and Reading Ireland but only if I could do it from the horrendous ranks of the TBR (there should, ahem, be a Reading Cornwall Month, as I appear to have a) bought books that are 2nd or 3rd in a series and then b) filled in the gaps so I have the whole run, twice).

So here we go with a nice and gentle but really well done read with some great positive messages, very firmly and fondly set in West Wales.

Laura Kemp – “The Year of Surprising Acts of Kindness”

(07 August 2018: The Works)

There does appear to be a mini-genre of books about saving small towns or individual buildings (see “The Library at the Edge of the World” and I’m sure I’ve read at least one more). But what’s not to like about a small community pulling together in diverse ways?

Ceri escapes to the West Wales seaside, to the tiny town her dying mother talked about, just to get away for a week from her younger half-sister’s prosaic way of disposing of their mum’s property and the demands of a high-level job and slightly empty life. A series of misunderstandings (done nicely, not mocking the different ways of the inhabitants of the seaside town) mean she ends up staying around, slotting into the community and, with no WiFi to speak of, even forgetting her job as a YouTuber and CEO of a makeup company.

We also meet lovely, scatty Mel, who has the ability to see extra colours but can’t bear to throw anything away, and Rhodri the over-serious council recycling officer who has horrible brothers and a property developer father. When a piece of land that gives the town its nickname of “The Village of Love” looks ripe for development, the community moves together to shore up their lives and businesses, and then a random stranger starts sending the town gifts …

Well written with plenty of meaty plot and character development. Mel in particular is getting through some difficult life stuff but I liked how she was strong and supportive in the community as well as needing help and being a bit stuck. The Welsh way of speaking is woven through the book; I love how Ceri is disabused of the “fact” that popty-ping is Welsh for microwave, and it’s bang up to date as well, with book swap shelves and a repair cafe. A lovely read.


I’ve had to eschew the demands of Iris Murdoch for Paul Gallico’s “Mrs Harris Goes to New York” but I’ll be back with “A Word Child” soon.

Book review – Simon Parkes with J.S. Rafaeli – “Live at the Brixton Academy” #amreading

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I’ve got out of the reading desert I was in last month (hooray!) with two books finished already and a third well on the go. Today we’ve got the newest book from my shelves, following my new pattern of oldest – newest – Kindle which is turning out not to be a very organised pattern after all and which was loosely inspired by discussions with various blogging and general reading friends but done in my own way (I can’t predict everything that I’m going to read in the month like the very organised Grab The Lapels does, and like Booker Talk I wonder if I’ll ever get to the books in the middle!)

Simon Parkes (with J.S. Rafaeli) – “Live at the Brixton Academy”

(28 January 2019, Acorns charity shop)

When I started reading this I will admit I kind of took against the protagonist, as he comes from a very well-off family and is public school educated and seems about to use all this to his great advantage. However, I will admit again that, while he understands that he got certain privileges from his accent and family, he does realise this, and he also plays the role of token posh bloke in good spirit and shows himself to be pretty decent, supporting small upcoming bands and promoters and laying on gigs to support the striking miners in the 1980s. So we’ll forget that bit and just enjoy this tale of owning the iconic music venue, the Brixton Academy – unfortunately, while the narrative seems to just above overlap with my early gigs there (I saw Green Day there with my best friend Emma before either of us moved to London, so in the mid-90s), he’d gone by the time I was going there regularly.

So Parkes’ outsider status in the gang- and gun-ridden environs of Brixton seems to stand him in good stead, leaving him with a reputation for being odd but not a threat. He has some good people around him and is generous in his praise of them, and it’s a lively narrative full of gangsters and shady deals and all the musicians and stories about them you could ask for. You can’t but enjoy a book by someone who clearly did fall in love with the venue at first sight, who doesn’t like the man in suits and has unorthodox ways of doing things, and there are some brilliant stories and explanations – like the gang truce that meant punters could walk back to the Tube safely.

There’s outrage and anger at the racism experienced in 80s and 90s Brixton (London, the UK …) and a good assessment of the various subcultures and genres that came to the venue, from the early reggae stars who were the only ones who’d touch the place to the refreshingly laid-back US alt-rock musicians and their gentler crowds. Lots of good photos, only slightly undermined by being printed amongst the text, so a bit fuzzy. The ghostwriter does a very competent job at telling the story while letting Parkes’ voice shine through. An interesting read.

State of the TBR – March 2019 #readingirelandmonth #dewithon19

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Well, I read FIVE books in February. How dreadful, and something that must be addressed. The TBR only has that gap really because I have taken some books off it for challenges!

But it does have a gap, right?

Currently reading

I am enjoying my new policy of reading one from the oldest end, one from the newest end and one from the Kindle in a cycle. So I’m currently reading this one, “Live at the Brixton Academy” by Simon Parkes, which is fascinating, especially as I went to quite a few gigs there myself in my London days. I haven’t really warmed to the author, but it’s an interesting read so that’s fine.

 

 

 

Next up

Very excitingly, I’ve managed to find books for two nice challenges this month: Reading Ireland Month (read about that one at 746 Books here) and Wales Readathon (the first ever one, hosted by BookJotter here).

Cathy always generously lets me use Iris Murdoch as an Irish writer, so the wonderful “A Word Child”, which is up next after the Brixton one, will count towards it, and I also have Janet McNeill’s “The Maiden Dinosaur” which I think I won in her giveaway during this month last year.

For the Wales Readathon I have the light novel, “The Year of Surprising Acts of Kindness” which is set in West Wales; the author, Laura Kemp, lives in Cardiff. So I’m hoping that counts!

Both of these were off the middle of the front of the TBR, so a win all round!

Coming up on the TBR

Here’s the beginning of the TBR – fortunate that I have a Kindle book to come between the two music books, unless I chose Dave Grohl’s mum’s one about rock mums. Some good travel, novels, language, memoir and Norse gods here.

… and at the end, some nice birthday books with a bit of National Trust and Alabama and a lovely Persephone. Let’s hope I get to more than five books this month.

Have you read any of these? Any ones I can look forward to particularly enjoying? Are you taking part in any challenges this month?

 

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