Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Under the Net” #IMReadalong

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I noticed I was a little nervous about posting this first review, under the bright gaze of all the people who are joining me in this readalong. So I think it would probably be useful to state here and now that I’m very much not setting myself up as some kind of expert: Murdoch is my favourite author and I get a lot out of reading her, but I am a fan more than I’m a scholar. And these threads and this project welcomes everyone’s opinion: the expert professors and researchers who have read everything multiple times and spent an academic lifetime studying literature in general, Murdoch in particular, the fans like me, the first-time reader and the person who doesn’t get what the fuss is about. While I’d rather keep things positive than inspire a well-spring of anti-Murdoch ranting, I am very clear (and should be, given my own research on the value of the “common reader”) that everyone’s opinions are equally valid. I hope we all approach this project in a spirit of sharing and that dissent, where it arises, is respectful.

By the way, thank you to the people who have kindly shared their book cover images with me. I will use these in my round-up post at the end of the month.

OK, on to the review.

Iris Murdoch – “Under the Net”

(14 October 2017)

It’s always a good sign when you’re rereading a book for the umpteenth time and you STILL can’t put it down, isn’t it (I recall my husband asking me why I was gasping at a point in “Jane Eyre” when I’d clearly read it a million times before). I read this alongside said husband, so tried to keep to an even pace, but really, I could have sat and read and read and READ.

In essence, the thing that really struck me this time (and I think this is my fourth time of reading – once in my teens, once in my 20s, in around 2008 when doing my last readalong and now, and having, I suppose, read all of her other books more recently than I had at each other reading of this one) was that it felt so very much like an overture, a distillation of all her themes. Of course I know that she did not go back in time and write this one last, as composers do with overtures, weaving in her themes, but it felt weirdly like that.

The themes I spotted in this book, recognised with glee, included: London, London vs. Paris, animals, siblings, pairings, opposites, pubs, river/wild swimming, artificial women, coils of hair, hairstyle changes, farce, complicated plans and procedures (the entry into the hospital in particular), stones (OK, one monolith), humans needing to live by “clear practical means”, Jewish people and Irish people, men with massive head, philosophers, “good” people absorbing pain and information (I’m thinking Mrs Tinckham here), Eastern objects and Buddhas, the virtue of detachment, pondering life in front of art works, Hamlet, weird sidekicks (Finn), institutions (the cold cure clinic, the theatre, the hospital), depictions of working life, chaotic rooms. I always felt that Murdoch’s oeuvre revisited many themes over and over: there are few here that are missing (incest, the sea, (although water obviously still figures), country vs city) but it’s really striking how many of them are already here.

Jake reminded me of Charles Arrowby from “The Sea, The Sea”, in his pronouncements, maybe more than Bradley in “The Black Prince”. And his description of Anna very much reminded me of descriptions of Hartley: “She was plumper and had no defended herself against time. There was about her a sort of wrecked look which was infinitely touching. Her face, which I remembered as round and smooth as an apricot, was become just a little tense and drawn, and her neck now revealed her age” (p. 41).

It is also a funny read – with Jake and Hugo arranging “to have the cold alternately” in the cold cure clinic (p. 71), Jake asking himself whether he belongs to the social class that steals tins of foie gras (he does), and having a morbid fear of losing his trousers. I had remembered this but had forgotten some of the concentration on romance, chasing a woman he thinks is Anna through Paris, and falling on Sadie with a whoop (not that romantic, as such), having considered it to be more about male friendship, philosophy and London adventures. Is there another character like Mrs Tinckham in the whole of Iris Murdoch’s novels?

I felt that Jake had accepted the contingent at the end, not knowing the answer and being happy – even amused – not to know. I don’t think I’d have thought that before, as that follows me having done more reading and conference-attending. So it’s very nice to feel that my engagement with the secondary literature and the IM Society have informed my reading. The author of the Introduction to this book (I bought these new copies in part for their introductions) considers this to be her best novel: I’m not sure I agree with that, but I did very much enjoy it, and I can’t wait to read on.

Matthew’s views

My husband is not going to read all of the novels alongside me: he has already read and loved “The Sea, The Sea” and “A Good Apprentice” and not loved “The Book and the Brotherhood”. He read this on audio book (read by Samuel West, as noted by a commenter on my first post – thank you – and had some comments to make, which I summarise below. He’s very much not an Iris Murdoch reader and although he’s read Russian classics prefers sci fi and modern novels to mid-century stuff, to give some background. He states he would not have come across IM, much less read her, without my influence.

Was Finn real? That was a great question I’ve never considered before! And who was the person Jake was considering going to live with at the end? Do they (like Hugo Bellfounder) pop up in another novel? He also thought Jake seemed like Charles Arrowby at the start, but became less self-centred. The book didn’t seem like it was written by a woman (when pressed, he said he didn’t feel the empathy he’d expect from a female writer). They are definitely books that need analysing and you can understand why people want to read them more than once. They don’t give up their secrets or intentions easily. The philosophy and politics went over his head, but then he’s not particularly interested in those for the sake of it.


OK, over to you! Please feel free to 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 will gather these together in a round-up post at the end of the month. If you have a cover image to share, please post it on your blog or email it to me using the email address on the contact form. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this one and what you think of it, 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.

Book review – Stuart Maconie – The Pie at Night plus MORE books in #amreading #books #bookconfessions #IMreadalong

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I seem to have been talking about reading this one for absolutely ages, I’m not sure why it took me so long to read, apart from the fact that it’s got quite small print so had more text than I expected. Anyway, it’s done now, and was a good read, acquired via BookCrossing and going back on a shelf soon (note: I spent some time doing BookCrossing admin today, as I found I had five pages on the site of books marked Available which are clearly not in the house. Oops. Next step: registering and releasing some of the books I do have here). Read on for one book confession (which I’ve ALREADY READ) and some Iris Murdoch Readalong news.

Stuart Maconie – “The Pie at Night”

(BookCrossing, 28 January 2017)

Subtitled “What the North Does for Fun”, this is an affectionate look at leisure, as partaken in by the Northern (mainly) working classes, taking in the Midlands and upwards and starting and finishing in two of his favourite pubs. It has themed chapters which start with one on museums of working life and moves on through other more standard activities, along with potted histories of bank holidays, the rise of workers’ rights, etc. Mixed sports, football in its own chapter (including a section on a completely grass-roots, crowd-funded team called FC United of Manchester which was formed as a protest against the commercialisation of Manchester United), walking, art, music and food are main themes, and he meets a lot of interesting characters, noting these often include “the kind of bloke you find often in our urban working communities: genial, matey but with an edge that means you are never fully at ease in case the handshake turns into a headlock”.

I liked the list of things he doesn’t cover: “orienteering, amateur dramatics, go-karting, the growing of prize leeks, raffia work, home brewing, civil war re-enactment or the tango” although he also doesn’t cover running, in fact (which is a shame as the Great North Run is iconic and fell-running a well-known terrifying sport in the North). It’s a genial look around which highlights the cultural centres of Wakefield, Huddersfield, etc. and I loved the mention of Huddersfield’s contemporary music festival and the band Henry Cow: it’s amazing how topics I’ve worked on in my job do pop up in my reading now and again.

A decent read with a nice laugh and no sloppy sentimentality: I’m afraid I agree with Sian, who passed it to me, that it could have done with a final edit / proofread as there are some dodgy sentences or wordings which undermine it a bit.


I was sent Mary Beard’s “Women & Power: A Manifesto” to review for the lovely online book magazine Shiny New Books, and will link to my review when it’s published there. A good and powerful read which packs a lot into its 100-odd pages and would be a good Christmas present for the person in your life who’s interested in gender politics and power.

A quick reminder of my Iris Murdoch Readalong which starts on Wednesday 1 November with “Under the Net”. You can read about the project here and I will be doing a little post on Tuesday with information about the book and how I will be keeping up with the project on this blog. Exciting!

Book haul #amreading #books #bookconfessions #AusReadingMonth #IMReadalong

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Yesterday I wasn’t happy with my book review and didn’t want to tag on fun-packed book haul stuff. So here’s what has arrived in Dexter Towers over the last week or so.

So, first off, we have Colleen McCullough’s “The Ladies of Missalonghi”. Look at its cute bookmark! I ordered this one second-hand because the lovely Brona’s Books is having an Australian Reading Month in November – I never seem to manage to join in with this, and Brona is going to take part in my Iris Murdoch challenge, so it seemed only fair to take part! It’s a slim volume and looks like a good read – I think a few of us will be reading it in the first week of the month.

Talking book challenges, I’ve ordered brand new copies of the first five books for my Iris Murdoch Readalong. I was a tiny bit disappointed to see that they’ve all been made out of the original text blocks, so they don’t match and some of the text is pretty small. But they do have lovely new cover illustrations (and, let’s face it, some over the years have been seriously odd: I’m going to want participants to share their cover art as we do each book!) and each has a new Introduction, something that’s missing from all of my original paperbacks.

Now for two that took a while to come.

I feel like I ordered this AGES ago. “What Editors Do: The Art, Craft and Business of Book Editing” edited by Peter Ginna would be an interesting read anyway. But there’s a chapter by my edibuddy Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, so how could I not buy? Except it’s published in the US, they’ve all had their copies forever, and Amazon kept sending me upset little emails saying it was having trouble ordering it until they all of a sudden produced it and gave it to my next-door neighbour while I was otherwise engaged running a marathon!

I won “Running the Smoke: 26 First-Hand Accounts of Tackling the London Marathon” by Michael McEwan in a Runners’ Bookshelf Facebook group I’m in, quite a while ago. Now, I’m not one to complain about competitions being run slowly, because it took me an age to sort out the one I ran recently, not to mention some BookRings for BookCrossing. It could have been bad timing that it arrived two days after my own (second) marathon, but I’m all enthused and ready for the next one (Manchester, in April) so it’ll be a nice inter-marathon read. And the author signed it, which is nice.

A few naughties crept onto my Kindle via NetGalley when I was away, too. It’s when they send you those emails!

Debbie Macomber – “An Engagement in Seattle” – I can’t resist her, basically. Published 26 Dec 2017.

P.Z Reizin – “Happiness for Humans” – a woman with an AI assistant find it’s giving her tips on finding a man. I’m always interested in how novels absorb new world events and technologies: is this the first “Alexa” novel? Published 04 Jan 2018 and there’s a reviewing embargo until 2 weeks before the publishing date.

A.J. Pearce – “Dear Mrs Bird” – set in 1940, Emmy answers an advert to become assistant to an agony aunt as bombs rain down in London and kindness is needed. Looked cute. Published 05 Apr 2018.

Georgette Heyer – “Snowdrift and other Stories” – short stories by Heyer? I  had no idea until I read about it on She Reads Novels‘ blog, and I just had to seek out and request it. Published 03 Oct 2017 and next to read, I just can’t wait!


Fortunately, because of my great swathe of reading done while resting up before the marathon, my TBR shelf is looking pretty much the same as it was at the start of the month. Oh, and the Murdochs and MacCullough haven’t gone on the actual shelf as they will be read out of order.

Have you read or acquired any of these? How is YOUR TBR looking?

Iris Murdoch Society Conference 2017 – University of Chichester @IrisMurdoch #IMGandT

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Last night I got back from the marvellous Iris Murdoch Society Conference and I thought I’d share my experience of it here. I hope you enjoy, and sorry if I left anyone out.

Thursday – getting there / guided tour

I set off from Birmingham after an exhausting three days of hard work and long hours and doing all my invoicing. The train down was fine, I just had to pop from Euston to Victoria, then I got the train to Chichester. It’s one of those dividing trains so I spent the whole time worrying I was in the wrong carriage when I knew I wasn’t. Everyone does that, right?

I arrived at Chichester railway station at a quarter to three to find my friend Pamela waiting for me as planned. We walked through the very pretty city to the university – about 20 minutes’ walk – as we were both staying on campus. We checked in to our student accommodation and I sorted out the important things …

and did a little bit of work.

My room was perfectly serviceable – we certainly never had en suites when I was a student!

I met up with Pamela in the lobby of our building and we bravely found the Main Gate and met up with various other Murdoch scholars known and new, including blue-haired Shauna who has just got a first in her undergraduate degree and is preparing to do her Master’s on Murdoch. I might have wittered auntily about being glad Young People are studying our favourite author. We set off across the park to the Butter Cross to meet our guides for the guided tour that had been arranged for us.

More people to greet and old friends to catch up with, then off we set, in two groups, taking in the Cathedral and the lovely streets. A charming city with lots of lovely Georgian and older buildings and interesting sites.

Our guide is in the foreground, Frances and her lovely dad and a selection of international scholars. Here’s the cathedral:

and two views of St Richard, one statue by a modern artist which was very powerful, and one stained glass window within the cloisters, “Given by a vagabond” in 1908 (the year our house was built):

We joined the other group and had a convivial dinner at Carluccios, then wended our weary way etc. I discovered my room window was still stuck open but a Nice Young Man from reception was still there and sorted it out for me.

Friday 1 September: Conference Day One

Breakfast was from 7.30 in the refrectory across the courtyard, past the chapel.

Poor Daniel had to take charge of me, doing the doddering aunt thing, busily adding coffee to my teabag and being unable to find a tray. I didn’t risk the toast machine. We sat with new and old colleagues including David from Hungary and got straight into the academic/historical chat – a bit of a context switch for me but usual for everyone else. I found a lightness and freedom in not having a paper to present.

We checked in at the desk outside the chapel, and were given a fabulous tote bag and programme:

and went in to find … the book stall. At which I had a ‘moment’, as there was my book, on the table with all the ‘proper’ books.

Yes, that’s my book.

Thank you again to Miles Leeson for encouraging me to get a box of books sent to him to put out.

We were in the rather amazing chapel for the big sessions on this day.

There was an introduction by Professor Catherine Harper, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, about the history of the university and strong tradition of women taking senior roles. Then Miles officially welcomed us. I’d found my fellow Alternative Approaches to Iris Murdoch ladies and we sat together for the first plenary.

Rivka (pink hair) is a research scientist who writes wonderful papers on Murdoch’s books and aspects of science, and Carol is an amazing artist who’s done a truly astounding project on Iris’s books – more on that below. It was lovely to see them again: we presented on the same panel at the last two conferences.

Anne Rowe presented on teaching Iris Murdoch as she ran a module at Kingston University for 25 years. It was fascinating to hear about the triumphs and difficulties and moving to hear the feedback from various students. So many of her students were there on the day, too, and she’s had a huge influence on lots of people.

After coffee, it was time for the first panel. I went to one where Wendy Jones Nakanishi discussed IM’s Letters (slightly horrified to find the editors of such letters in the audience), Fiona Tomkinson talked about IM’s Japanese foxes, which was absolutely fascinating, and my friend Rebecca Moden talked about IM’s relationship with the artist Harry Weinberger and the work there is still to be done on colour and synaesthesia in IM’s books.

I became briefly troubled when Anne Rowe mentioned how our reading of IM’s letters and journals will affect our reading of her novels (Reception Theory again!) and also got emotional when she described how Iris’ last letters, when gripped by Alzheimer’s, consisted of the same repeated phrases, born of the long-lasting need to still be writing letters. This reminded me of a gentleman who used to run at a local run, running almost the only thing left to him – I blurted this out then felt a bit teary. But a fascinating panel.

Popping across the lovely campus was always a delight and I made sure I took photos for Gill, who studied there a few years ago.

After lunch (our special diets were catered for after checking and I had a nice chat with a lady from the IM book group), the next session I attended was Traumas in The Sea, The Sea. Norwegian Elin Svenneby talked of the gender trauma in the book and shared her own struggles to read it, Adela Branna from Brno did a very interesting reading of The Sea, The Sea based on concepts introduced by Camille Paglia, including reading Rosina as the sea monster, and chair Cheryl Bove read a paper on female ageing as trauma, centring on Clement Makin, that was interesting and moving (the lady who was meant to present couldn’t attend). There was a good discussion afterwards.

After tea, we were lucky enough to experience A.N. Wilson in conversation with Miles, talking about his book “Iris Murdoch as I knew her” with lots of little details about their friendship. As he had spoken about the sad lack of IM on school syllabuses, I bravely rushed up at the end and told him I’d made 25 book groups read “The Bell”. “Ah, jolly good,” said he, and I rushed away. BUT I found out later that he bought a copy of my book! Shocking!

Third panel time and it was Rivka Isaacson on the liver, detoxification and “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”, Gillian Dooley talking about music in “Message to the Planet” and Carol Sommer with an update on her Cartography For Girls art project.

I’d already bought Carol’s book so could leaf through it – she manually extracted all of the sentences in all of the novels illustrating women’s experiences of consciousness in the novels. One result is this book, listing all those sentences in an arbitrary but controlled manner.

seen here with a copy of one of the postcards she used in her exhibition. You can read more about the project here, and I need to work out an arbitrary but controlled way of reading the book now! I was able to thank Rivka and Carol publicly for having me in their sessions and supporting my alternative perspective on IM with my book group research.

To continue quite a long day, there was a wine reception to launch the new Iris Murdoch Review, which members of the Society collected as part of our membership. I had a lovely chat with new friend Tania, from Russia, now living in Buckinghamshire. I really love the international aspect of the conference. We then went to dinner at Bill’s, which was a  bit chaotic but jolly, and I chatted with Chris and Ruth, who I’ve met a few times before, and other folk. A bit late to bed after walking back – I don’t have conference stamina!

Friday 2 September – Second day

Breakfast again on another clear and bright morning.

Tania and David had been for a 6am swim and collected pebbles (there was also the transfer of a root of ginger) – very Murdochian.

The first plenary was by Gary Browning, who is a philosopher, therefore should be terrifying (only joking, philosophers!). He’s actually so lucid I can understand him (if not the questions) and his talk about Iris Murdoch and history, including mention of the relevance of her refugee characters as well as the politics in “The Book and the Brotherhood” were very interesting. Talking to Jan about first reading “A Severed Head” in our teens and about my book groups made us almost late for the session she was presenting in – oops!

The Iris Murdoch and other Women Novelists panel was superb. Pamela Osborn discussed the influence of IM on Sue Townsend – I knew Adrian Mole mentioned her but in fact Townsend’s work was full of her novels and name, and the paper was so interesting, and funny, of course.

Jan on George Eliot, IM and intention and guilt was equally fascinating, drawing parallels between two authors I love but had never really compared. Great stuff and a good discussion afterwards about who has been influenced by IM, with Paul Magrs’ name being bandied around as he includes her as a character in his novel “Aisles”.

Lunch and a big chat with the leader of the U3A Iris Murdoch Book Group and then it was straight into that session. Joined by a select few, including Tania and Kent Wennman, who charmingly claims to read only books by and about Murdoch and about Elvis, and the Czech ladies and one more, we had an amazing discussion, led by the U3A ladies and their leader. It was fabulous, a real highlight. I blabbed on about my research, but they were interested in it of course, and we also met a friend of theirs who was taught by IM herself (not pictured below – they all started rushing around and it was hard to pin them down).

Then it was back to the Academic Building ground floor for a final cuppa and look at the book table (all of my books had sold! I was still being overwhelmed by people asking me to sign them: I had not expected that and was very unprepared). Then it was the final plenary, given by James Jefferies, who in his spare time and as a labour of love has produced an app which maps the London locations of IM’s novels and characters, using Cheryl Bove’s walks book and character list as a basis and using technology and coding to make this amazing website.

His enthusiasm for IM came over beautifully, he felt (as another alternative type) very welcomed by us all, and I urge everyone to go and have a look at it here.

As I’ve finished my project, I’m hoping to be able to provide some typing/checking support for this amazing project in the future.

Miles said a final piece, and it was goodbye – oh no! Always sad, and you can never find everyone to say goodbye to. I thanked the students who’d run the book stall, said goodbye where I could and took one last photo of the chapel:

and a cheeky selfie with Rebecca.

She and I headed back up to the railway station, buying our dinner in Marks and Spencer’s (the man at the till had read “The Bell”) and then getting trains in opposite directions to end up about 20 miles away from each other. I had a brief chat with Cheryl on the platform (mainly about how many of IM’s books our respective husbands had read), and then it was train-tube-train-bus, home, enlivened by my breaking up a fight and talking about IM so persuasively to  my seatmate that he felt compelled to write her name in his phone.

A lovely, lovely time, thank you to Miles and Frances and the students and the university people for the organisation. One exciting thing that’s come out of it – I’m going to read IM’s novels chronologically from next January. Anyone in for a group read? Just watch this blog or I’ll announce it on the IM Facebook page.

You can find other people’s comments and photos under the Twitter hashtag #IMGandT.

(And in case anyone wanted to buy my book but it had run out, you can find it on all varieties of Amazon, just search for Liz Dexter.)

New acquisitions and some excitement of my own … #bookconfessions

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I’ve had another little burst of book-buying and I don’t always like mixing that up with Persephone reviews or Shiny New Books links, so I thought I’d do a post about those. And I’ve got some exciting book news of my own – I know some of my readers will know this already, as I shared it on my work blog, but this is where I have kept details of my Iris Murdoch project and I wanted to share with you, too, that I’ve finally finished my research project.

Four pretty books that seem to go together first (I could have taken the labels of those two, couldn’t I – but they’re shelved now! “Proust and the Squid” is about the science of reading, it was passed to me via BookCrossing by my friend Sian and I know just the friends in Cornwall who will find it interesting, so will take that down to read on my autumn trip and then pass it along. “Adventures at Black Pony Inn” was bought last week because I was basically sick of seeing “FURTHER Adventures at Black Pony Inn” sitting on my Extra Pile, waiting for its forebear (excitingly, this was listed as a paperback but is a nice substantial hardback). Clare Balding’s “Walking Home” is not exactly an update on her autobiography (“My Animals and Other Family“) but about walking and her life in general, apparently. And Robert MacFarlane’s “The Old Ways” is one of those books EVERYONE has read, isn’t it, and I really should, again about walking, and the old tracks of the countryside (I’m assuming this is like Roger Deakin’s “Waterlog” and you’re all going to tell me you’ve read it).

Now, I do like a nice walk although I’m a complete wuss when it comes to “undulations” and scree slopes and business like that. Give me a road to run down and I’m happy, though, the longer the better. There are almost infinite numbers of running-related books out there, and I’m even in a running readers Facebook group, but this one was mentioned by my friend Cari (old BookCrossing friend, now a happy new runner) as something she thought I’d recommended to her – nope, and then I looked, and then I clicked and now I’ve got a copy, too. How did that happen? Anyway, it looks rather good, all about running round at the back of marathons, with cartoons and everything. I have a few running books I need to dig out to read before I do my next marathon in October – although I’ve already got another booked for the spring (NOT London, not yet) so there’s plenty of time, I hope. Anyway, one more running book on the shelf, and it looks like a quick read.

A little bit of self-congratulation now. For seven years – yes, SEVEN YEARS, I’ve been doing a very part-time, very unofficial research project on what I would call (Virginia Woolf’s) Common Readers but might be called Ordinary Readers – you and me, really, and Iris Murdoch. First I compelled a group of friends to read all her novels in chronological order (this was the start of our various enthusiasms for doing the same with Hardy, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, etc., all ending up with Dorothy Richardson!) and then I managed to persuade 25 book groups to read “The Bell” and fill in a questionnaire for me. Imagine! Anyway, I tried to write it up as well and as academically as I could, various ideas about doing official research or approaching a publisher were posited, but all of that seemed too formalised and deadline-bound for what I could manage between paid work, volunteering, reading and running, so I ploughed my own furrow right to the end and have produced a write-up myself.

So, here it is, and I’m going to put the Amazon links up so you can go and have a look at it if you want to, but no one should feel compelled to (I’ve stopped making people read things now!). It’s funny to have it all out of my system and to be going to the Iris Murdoch Society Conference next month without quivering about doing a presentation on my Work in Progress, and not having it hanging over me, unfinished, lurking in the corners, but I’m quite proud that I saw it through to the end.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon US Buy from Amazon CA Buy from Amazon AU Buy from Amazon FR Buy from Amazon ES


Have you read any of these books (not my one, the other ones!)? Am I last to the pile with “The Old Ways” yet again?

Book review – “Living on Paper” (ed. Avril Horner and Anne Rowe) #amreading

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jan-2017-tbrThis, like the last one, but for different reasons, is an intimidating book to review. Published in 2015, not only has it thus been reviewed fairly recently in the Serious Papers, but it and those reviews have been discussed by much greater and more academic minds than mine in the Iris Murdoch studies community. In addition, I know not only the two editors, but also those who keep the archive and who consulted on and even proofread the volume, to varying degrees. On top of all that, it’s also the letters of my much-loved favourite author; indeed, I once received a letter from her myself (not so surprising, given the volume  of her correspondence), alas lost decades ago in a house move. So I hope I do it justice, and I’m responding to the book here in a personal, not critical way (which does fit in with my use of Reception Theory in my research, right?!).

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (eds.) “Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995”

(Bought from Foyles, 2 July 2016)

Murdoch’s collected correspondence at last (or at least a small proportion of the huge amount that must be out there), boosted by the acquisition by the Archives at Kingston of several important runs of letters in recent years.

My main reaction to this was that she was so darn busy. She often writes to the same person on consecutive days, and these are big, meaty, handwritten letters. She does say she can’t act without speaking in one letter, and indeed she works out thoughts, feelings, reactions and relationships through the letters. On any one day she appears to be answering letters (for up to 4 hours per day, apparently), carrying on affairs, often simultaneously, being married, making, breaking and remaking friendships and relationships, doing philosophy and then writing – no wonder she and John Bayley let the housework slide a bit!

The other massive point this made to me was the difficulty of making arrangements in a pre-digital era. I remember this – of course I do – but it’s quite shocking to see the amount of time and energy that has to go into, for example, letting people know which address to write to; making silent phone calls to alert people that she needs to speak to them; sending stamped addressed postcards for people (mostly Canetti) to use to let her know if they can meet her (I really don’t like the way she debases herself in front of some people, primarily him, however much he inspired her to create her wonderful fictional monsters); and trying to recall the names of pubs, outside which she will be at 3.40 on 4 March, for instance. I couldn’t help wondering how many more novels we’d have had if she’d lived in the age of the Smartphone, although given her propensity for writing in longhand into the 90s, I wonder if she’d have taken to it. Surely, she’d have loved the intrigue of Facebook Messenger, though?

I was struck by how interwoven Iris and John were into her mother’s mental decline, and this was distressing, imagining how she might have felt as her own brain started to skip words and lose things. Indeed, the final letters show this – or discuss it – hard things to read but I felt just the right representative examples were included, and nothing too intrusive.

On a lighter note, although the novels are not much discussed, save the odd research trip to, for example, Lot’s Road Power Station to research the location of “Bruno’s Dream” and some discussion of points raised in people’s letters, her reading does come up quite a few times, and I was regularly entranced by finding favourites there. She reads Ada Leverson’s “The Little Ottleys” in 1966; I bought the first volume late last year and of course had to download the whole lot; she enjoys Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Lolly Willowes” in 1967. She demonstrates a good working knowledge of Tolkien, mentioning his magic metal, mithril, and falls in love with Widmerpool from Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” in 1971. She discovers Trollope at the age of 54, a decade and a bit older than my discovery of him, but finding him more conducive to a good solid read than she did at a younger age. I smiled as she struggles through having to (re) read the whole of Virginia Woolf in a short space of time for a lecture, and was surprised to find her not discovering John Cowper Powys (who I knew somehow to be a favourite author) until 1984 – I have yet to explore him but really want to, as he apparently affected her later novels.

I was very pleased to find her in Iceland at one stage, although she does claim there aren’t any trees – maybe they’ve grown since then. But it’s always nice when your interests overlap. She even meets Halldor Laxness, “a very nice old bean”!

Of course it goes without saying that the introduction to the book, the introductions to the sections, the captions to the letters and the notes are impeccably done. The introductory pieces set the letters in their contexts and also discuss the novels in some detail, which is useful for the reader coming to this book from those. It’s an excellent read, the product of a busy but overwhelmingly warm, attentive and caring person, sometimes very cross indeed but always human and thoughtful.

 

Book reviews – Desperate Romantics and Estates (April reads)

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TBR April 2015Oh dear – I’ve got all behind and confused with my book reviews! These are the two books I read on holiday in early April, between the last two sets of reviews. I seem to have forgotten about them when I posted my poorly reading. And then I discovered I hadn’t written up the two reviews before that in my reading journal, either! Nightmare. So, I think I’m sorted out now, and you’re going to get a few reviews over the next week as I catch up on here.

What I did find on holiday was that if you have a friend join you for a few days in the middle of a holiday, you have wifi in the place you’re staying so you check social media all the time AND you only go on a couple of trips and with both of those the scenery is so amazing you don’t read on the coach, you don’t read much. I took my Kindle with me as well as these two books (one for each flight) and only read a bit of one book on the Kindle. I need to redress this situation next time we’re away!

Franny Moyle – “Desperate Romantics”

(02 January 2015, via BookCrossing)

A book about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their art and women, apparently accompanying a TV series. Pretty well done, drawing links, keeping who was who clear and clearly written, using multiple sources to reflect on the bitter scandals and clarifying them. Decent notes and an index, and didn’t seem too full of conjecture, or when conjecturing was done, it was marked as such.

I think the book was originally written in the present tense and then changed to the past some time in the editing and revision process, because quite a few instances of “has” and “are” had managed to cling on, which made it a bit confusing at times. But it was nicely and competently done and interesting, with an Epilogue that tied up all the loose ends and good illustrations of the central characters and artworks.

Lyndsey Hanley – “Estates”

(30 November 2014, charity shop)

A book about English council estates, covering their history, treatment, policies and current state. The author grew up on a huge housing estate near Birmingham and talks about that time in detail and revisiting the estate to visit her parents and consciously explore it for the book, as well as the London estate where she lives now, actively struggling with policy-makers and the local authority.

Woe about sink estates and policies that work against community spirit, as well as about the shoddy construction and corner / budget cutting that degraded the original grand architectural plans and the lack of maintenance which is really damaging, is balanced by some positive stories about community action. A strong case is made against the ghettoization of the poor and disenfranchised and the way estates have worked to hide the poor from the eyes of the rich, and also against the way in which people growing up on estates are not encouraged to have any ambition or belief in themselves.

It was a little chaotic at times, sometimes confusing me as to the general principle or aim of the book, but it was a valuable and useful read.

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Those were read a month ago, but I’ll catch up quickly with what I’m up to now. I read two more non-fiction books at the end of my illness, then two sagas (a very dense book on Dolly Parton and my Forsyte for the month) and now I’m finally reading Trollope’s “Barchester Towers”, and am half-way through it and loving it, and have started reading Gillian Dooley’s excellent “A Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction”, which is a collection of interviews by various luminaries with Iris Murdoch. That one needs a set of post-it tabs to be kept close by in case of anything of relevance to my research, but I’m glad I seem to have regained the cognitive / intellectual capacity to manage the two current reads. More reviews to come …

 

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