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Posts Tagged ‘British Literature’

I first read Sarah Moss‘s memoir about living and teaching in Iceland, Names for the Sea, and then her novel Night Waking. I really like Moss’s writing, and admire the research and connections with history that go into her books as well as the recurring theme of gender roles. So when I saw she had a newish (I thought it was new, but it turns out it came out in the US in January 2019, and in 2018 in the UK) short novel set in the north of England, Ghost Wall, I got on the eBook waiting list at my library.

Ghost Wall has the characteristics I cited above. It’s really creepy and tense, however, which I didn’t realize, and which isn’t a) what I’m looking for these days — no more tension, please! nor b) my cup of tea, normally. Still, I stuck it out to the end, which is still pretty tense, but slightly hopeful. Kind of like real life.

The story centers around Silvie, a teenager in 1970s England whose dad is a self-taught prehistory buff (for reasons, Moss implies, that are not entirely academic, but possibly xenophobic). He’s also an opinionated bully who controls what Silvie and her mother do. Including accompanying him on a field trip with a college professor and a handful of his students to live as if they are in the Iron Age. They wear scratchy tunics, forage for nuts, berries, roots, and mushrooms, butcher rabbits, gather mussels, and cook what they hunt and gather in a cauldron over a fire. Silvie and her mother do, that is. The men make plans for further reenactment activities.

Silvie admires the only female student, Molly, and even possibly develops a crush on her. Molly is strong, educated, and comfortable stripping down to her lacy — and matching! — undergarments to go swimming. Silvie, repressed, afraid, without any idea of her future, is enchanted. Her father’s disapproval manifests itself in a belting, and from there, the plot centers around his and the professor’s darker reenactments, Silvie’s inability to extricate herself from their plans, and Molly’s interference.

In between, you may learn a thing or two about subsistence (which Moss does not romanticize a bit), bogs (which you don’t want to fall in), and the depressing idea that mankind has always been nationalist (or at least tribal) and pretty brutal (especially to women). It’s a gripping story, that would provide plenty for a book club to discuss and is a quick read. Just be ready for tension.

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Remember when I said (in my last post) that I don’t usually like novels with multiple viewpoints? Frankisstein not only tells the story from different characters’ views (primarily Ry, a trans doctor in contemporary England and Mary Shelley) but also fictionalizes real people (besides Shelley and her friends and family, Ada Lovelace, I.J. Good) and even a fictional character (Victor Frankenstein, imagined as an inmate of Bedlam, and later a guest at a party where he approaches Mary Shelley).  Jeanette Winterson even plays with Shelley’s characters’ names, naming her modern characters Dr. Mary Shelley (Ry) and Victor Stein, an AI researcher.

The book weaves (veers?) between the 1800s, starting around the time Mary Shelley is writing Frankenstein while staying in Switzerland with her husband Percy Blythe Shelley, Lord Byron, her stepsister Claire and a doctor, Polidori, and the present, when Victor Stein is predicting (and working towards) a future when brains can be scanned, and “Once you are pure data you can download yourself in a variety of forms.” Ron Lord, a Welsh man who sees his Sexbot business as a public service, and Claire, an evangelical American who convinces him that a line of Christian companions is just what his business needs, join Ry in helping Victor bring his plans to fruition, even as they have no real understanding of what those plans will entail, while a dogged reporter, Polly D, tries to uncover whatever he’s up to.

The name play alone would ordinarily be enough to make me give up, but this book was pure fun, clever without being cute, and full of interesting ideas about how humans have viewed each other’s natural gifts, physical and intellectual, over the last two centuries, and how we use our own gifts to get what we need. The book also explores perceptions of gender, class, beauty, intelligence, sanity, and sex appeal. Its really hard to explain, but as Mary Shelley creates her story, and her countercultural life, and Ry, Victor, and Ron create their stories and countercultural lives, the ideas converge: that who we are is our hearts and minds, our spirits, not our frail physical shells. Or as Victor tells Ry, Ron, Claire and Polly: “And from here follows the story that we all recognise in some form or another. The story told by every religion in some form or another; the earth is fallen, reality is an illusion, our souls will live forever. Our bodies are a front — or perhaps more accurately, an affront — to the beauty of our nature as beings of light.”  Or as he said earlier, “pure data.”

Frankissstein defies easy description. Literary and yet full of shtick, cerebral but sexy, brimming with poetry and yet rooted in the notion that everything is 0s and 1s. It’s a story, on the one hand, of two Mary’s two centuries apart, both defying their roles as women, both loving men who respect their brains but also long for their bodies, both sure that in the end these men will leave them. On the other hand it’s the story of human hubris, of our certainty that we can manage whatever we create, and that we are capable of thinking our way out of anything.

In short, it’s a hoot.

 

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This is the last of the seven books I downloaded so that I wouldn’t have to take any physical books with me on vacation. Unless you don’t follow book news at all you probably know that Bernardine Evaristo was co-winner, with Margaret Atwood, of the Booker prize this year. As with “best of the year” lists I have a love-hate relationship with literary prizes. Sometimes I just don’t get the winner at all. Sometimes I think the whole system is rigged and under-appreciated books are further under-appreciated when prizes pass them over, all because of the limited number of giant, wealthy media companies who dominate publishing.

Sometimes I just think the whole idea of picking “winners” is silly. That said, some readers I respect liked Girl, Woman, Other and the reviews I read made it sound appealing. Plus, one of my reading goals is to read work by diverse authors, so, conflicted feelings about literary prizes aside, I wanted to read this.

I’m not always a fan of the multiple viewpoint narrative. Girl Woman, Other features twelve different main characters, and spans several decades. So, I had some difficulty because in eBook format, there is no easy way to flip back to previous chapters about a character, which for me is helpful when a book changes viewpoint several times.  And that is one of the reasons I prefer print books — they are not a technology that needed to be improved upon (paraphrasing Robert Darnton in The Case for Books) and for this reader, work better! Anyway, I think I would have been able to manage the changing perspectives more easily — key when you read in snatches of time during breaks at work, before bed, etc. rather than sitting down to read for a long time — if I’d had the book in print.

Still, Girl, Woman, Other is excellent, and any issue with the multiple viewpoints was my own. The narrative brings these women’s very different stories and lives together, showing how, when, and why they intersect, and where they diverge. The connections grow as you read, so that eventually you get how they all relate to each other. Evaristo writes with warmth and humor and where she examines social issues she is both smart and compassionate. Even though this is fiction, I feel like I learned a good bit about modern British social history, or dusted off what I may have learned in college in some cases, and I appreciated that Evaristo wasn’t afraid to examine feminism’s evolution and divisions.

My favorite characters had slightly less air time than the others (or so it seemed to me): Dominique, because by the end of the book she is feeling a little irrelevant but still wants to keep learning (I can identify), Morgan, because she genuinely cares about her gran and because she is almost an accidental influencer but is trying to use that power well, and Hattie, because she just kicks ass and anyone who sees contemporary Christmas as “Greedymas” and embraces her nonbinary trans grandchild even though she admits she cannot fully wrap her 93 year old mind around “they” is my kind of lady.

The writing is lovely, and there are so many beautiful musings on parenthood — and how painful it is to love children — that killed me. Also so many gorgeous conversations.  And thoughts, like this one: “Bibi replied that dreaming wasn’t naive but essential for survival, dreaming was the equivalent of hoping on a large scale . . . .” Which is helpful, just now in this world. Also, the ending of this book, which brings a few of the characters together in a way I didn’t really anticipate but when it happened made complete sense, absolutely slayed me. I love a book that makes me laugh AND cry, teaches me to be a better human, and enlarges my world.

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This was an impulse buy — I saw The Towers of Trebizond at my local independent bookstore and immediately thought I’d always intended to read it, so I should get it (it was a nice used copy, so I even felt virtuous about my purchase). Little did I know the devotion some readers, such as Joanna Trollope, feel towards this book and its author, Rose Macaulay. I am still reeling from the ending, which I read a couple of hours ago. I can see why this book might bear re-reading well, because I am so caught up in the end that I’m struggling to describe my overall feelings about it.

Essentially this novel is the story of Laurie, a young woman (Probably? I struggled to find any gender reference and Laurie can be male or female. The only indication I find is that when Vere, Laurie’s lover, comes to stay, her Aunt Dot’s servant Emily is not shocked, because Laurie’s sister is also at Aunt Dot’s house. Regardless, I think it doesn’t matter which gender Laurie is.) traveling with Aunt Dot, a woman in her fifties, and Father Chantry-Pigg, a recently retired Anglo Catholic priest. The trio are in Turkey in the fifites, where Aunt Dott and Father Pigg want to convert people to Anglicanism and bring attention to the plight of Turkish women (Aunt Dot’s special interest is the condition of women). They seem to be losing the opportunity to convert people because Billy Graham’s people precede them by a week or so as they travel.

Laurie is along to help Aunt Dot with a book she is working on. Most of the their circle of friends are working on some version of a book about traveling in Turkey, and Macaulay pokes gentle fun at this tendency of a certain class of British traveler to write about their journeys. At a certain point, Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear — I’ll leave the details for you to find out yourself — and Laurie is left with their gear and luggage and the camel Aunt Dot has brought along from England for the journey. (Again, would a young woman be left to travel alone? I’m not certain.)

So — eccentric British people, a lot of musing on and analysis of Anglicanism, subtle humor, exotic locales. So far, so good. But this book goes way beyond being a funny send-up of British travelers and missionaries. Laurie struggles deeply with “adultery” — Vere is Laurie’s lover, and Laurie refers to not wanting to give that up, but clearly feels it would be right to. Father Pigg seems to know of Laurie’s struggle, even counseling that a return to church would be a solution. So readers have an incomplete picture, but understand there is something forbidden about Laurie and Vere’s relationship.

As the book unfolds, Laurie thinks a great deal about faith, religion, and the state of each in the mid twentieth century. That part of the novel is interesting — Laurie is curious and well spoken about various Christian denominations, and learns more about Islam. There is a lot of reflection on why church and faith diverge and while claiming not to know much, is actually quite wise. Laurie tells a friend who thinks Christianity odd, “The light of the spirit, the light that has lighted every man who came into the world. What I mean is, it wasn’t only what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, it wasn’t just local and temporal and personal, it’s the other kingdom, the courts of God, get into them however you can and stay in them if you can, only one can’t. But don’t worry me about the jewish Church in Palestine, or the doings of the Christian Church ever since, it’s mostly irrelevant to what matters.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one reply, and it sums up Laurie’s crisis — Christian faith is everything, but is at the same time beyond reach. Readers (at least this one) might pass this off as troubled youth (Laurie is young, although how young is also unclear) in a post-war world, where communism and baptists both draw off Church of England members, until the shattering end of this novel, when the enormity of Laurie’s struggle comes into focus.

I loved The Towers of Trebizond. It’s neither a quick nor a simple novel, and I suspect I’ll be mulling it over for some time.

 

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My church is offering a 19th century British literature book club. The first choice is Adam Bede and I figured I’d give it a try — summer is a good time to take on a thick classic. I didn’t realize this was George Eliot‘s first novel. I’ve read both Middlemarch and Silas Marner each a couple of times.

Eliot really dives into the time and place of her her novels — when Adam Bede opens, she tells us, “With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.” And then with a great deal of evocative detail, she describes to us exactly what the room looked, smelled, and felt like, who was in it (including our hero, Adam Bede, and his brother, Seth) and what they were doing and saying.  “A scent of pinewood from a tent-like pile of planks outside the open door mingled with the scent of the elder-bushes which were spreading their summer snow close to the window opposite; the slanting sunbeams shone through the transparent shavings that flew before the steady plane, and lit up the fine grain of the oak paneling . . . . ” And so on.

Throughout the novel this level of detail enriches the story and takes modern readers into Hayslope and its environs. Adding to the clear view of Adam Bede’s world are the  asides from the narrator filling in views on the Methodist church, realism in Dutch paintings, the annual harvest dinner at Hall Farm and the society found there, the loss of leisure as best exemplified in “a sunny walk through the fields from ‘afternoon church,” lost in a world where “Even idleness is eager.” Eliot’s dialogue, from the local gentry Arthur’s “. . . dip my cravat in and souse it on my head” to Adam’s mother Lisbeth’s patios, “An what wut do when thy mother’s gone, an’ nobody to take care on thee as thee gett’st a bit of victual comfortable i’ the mornin’?” Gorgeous. Hard to read, though, which is why it took longer than a contemporary book.

The story itself is a dramatic one, based partially on real people in George Eliot’s life and a story her aunt told her. Adam loves Hetty, a silly young woman living with aunt and uncle, the Poysers, at Hall Farm and helping in the dairy. Hetty and Arthur fall in love, even though Arthur can never marry down. Adam demands Arthur quit toying with her, and believes Hetty will recover and might eventually love him. A dramatic twist to the story, a tragedy, and time lead Arthur eventually to care for Dinah, a young Methodist preacher, also related to the Poysers, who is as smart and kind as Hetty is selfish and shallow. But, Seth also loves Dinah, and Dinah only wants to care for the poor and the godless. I won’t give away how it all works out, but it’s a satisfying tale, with a great variety of characters.

While none of the women ends up defying convention quite as much as their author, several of them have their say, which I enjoyed. There’s a scene where Mrs. Poyser tells off Arthur’s grandfather, the Squire, who is her landlord on the estate, and then tells her husband (who Eliot describes as “a little alarmed and uneasy, but not without some triumphant amusement at his wife’s outbreak”) ” . . . I’ve had my say out, and I shall be th’ easier for ‘t all my life. There’s no pleasure i’ living, if you’re to be corked up for ever, and only dribble your mind out by the sly, like a leaky barrel. I shan’t repent saying what I think, if I live to be as old as th’ old Squire. . . . ” Between Hetty’s ignorance of what is happening to her and Mrs. Poyser’s tart truth, Eliot seems to sum up the polar extremes of women’s positions in nineteenth century society.

I also love Mr. Irwine, the local rector, and Eliot’s description of how he’d been the subject of some criticism for being a little too comfortable to be a good clergyman. She allows that he has no “theological enthusiasm” and “felt no serious alarms about the souls of his parishioners” but “He was one one of those men, and they are not the commonest, of whom we can know the best only by following him away from the market-place, the platform, and the pulpit, entering with them into their own homes, hearing the voice with which they speak to the young and aged about their own hearthstone, and witnessing their thoughtful care for the everyday wants of everyday companions, who take all their kindness as a matter of course . . . .” That’s an apt description as we see Mr. Irwine care for both Adam and Arthur, Hetty, and his own elderly mother and ailing sister.

Adam Bede is a wonderful read, and I’m looking forward to discussing it next week.

 

 

 

 

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A memoir about the postwar London childhood of a Labour party politician doesn’t necessarily sound like a page turner, but Alan Johnson‘s charming and moving tale, This Boy, was indeed just that. Johnson’s mother Lily, a Liverpudlian who moved to Notting Hill (at the time not posh at all) with her husband after the war, was a hardworking and sickly woman whose heart was damaged irreparably by a bout of rheumatic fever as a child. She grew up with a cold and irritable father who refused to let her accept a scholarship to further her education.

Lily wanted more for her children and raised them to be polite, caring, studious and hardworking despite numbing poverty — Alan recalls being permanently hungry, and notes that he and  his sister Linda did not have an indoor toilet until 1964. Linda is the real heroine of the story, as she cared for Alan almost exclusively during their mother’s hospital stays, and became the family breadwinner at age 16 during Lily’s final illness. Her fierce love and support of both her mother and brother are inspiring.

That Alan remembers his childhood with any fondness at all is remarkable; more than that, he is generous in his recollections of friends and neighbors who were kind to them. He manages to credit his father with a few highlights in an otherwise despicable fatherhood. And he lavishes praise on his mother, his sister, and the closest friends who made his life bearable. As well as on two pastimes that soothed his soul: reading and music.

It’s amazing to read about how very different the world was only about half a century ago. I was absorbed in the detailed descriptions of 50’s and 60’s London, its war-scarred buildings and racial tension, neighborhood grocers and nearly car-free streets. From his work assisting a neighbor with paraffin oil delivery to his obsession with Queens Park Rangers, Mod style, and the Beatles, Johnson evokes his childhood in small stories that illuminate a time and place, as well as a particular life.

If you like well-told stories of love overcoming hardship, like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or James McBride’s The Color of Water, you’ll enjoy This Boy.

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Longtime readers of bookconscious know I’m an Anglophile. I’ve loved English novels since childhood, and when I visited (Twice! Thanks, Mom & Dad) during the winter mini-term in college with a favorite English professor, it felt like all the literature I’d absorbed came alive as we traveled and talked about books.

But despite reading a lot of British literature, I still come across writers I haven’t yet read. Over the weekend I read A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark. Spark is one of those authors I’ve always intended to read. I picked up this book because Maria Popova at Brain Pickings quoted from the book in October in a post titled “How a Cat Boosts Your Creativity.”

Spark is considered one of the best British writers of the 20th century but her books are “slim” (according to her New York Times obit) and for some reason not widely taught, at least not in the United States. Perhaps because her sharp humor and her matter-of-fact illumination of moral issues is so subtle?

Anyway I’m glad to have finally read her. A Far Cry From Kensington features the indomitable Mrs. Hawkins, a smart book editor known for her good advice. She’s a loyal friend and no nonsense woman. In her postwar London boarding house, we meet her Irish landlady and a zany cast of neighbors, and in her various publishing jobs we see Mrs. Hawkins capably handling nutty bosses, fragile co-workers, and obnoxious authors. She’s kind and empathetic to those who are suffering and firmly critical of those who are mean or even evil. I adored her. And I want to go on and read more Spark.

Ruth Hamilton is a writer from Bolton in northern England, where Teen the Elder spent his gap year. I was using a “reader’s advisory” tool at the library called NovelList, helping a patron find books like one she’d just finished, when Parallel Life came up. I noticed it was set in Bolton and made a note to look for it later. Hamilton reminds me a bit of Maeve Binchy — this novel has a large and varied cast of characters, from different walks of life, facing issues straight out of the headlines.

The women in Hamilton’s novel stick together. When Lisa Compton-Milne ends an affair with a dicey alarms installer, his wife, Annie Nuttall, confronts her in a posh restaurant. A few pages later they are becoming friends, and by the end of the book Annie and her children are practically part of Lisa’s family. Harriet, twenty-one when the book opens and Lisa’s elder child, is holding her dysfunctional family together, and her grandmother, who has MS, rules over all of them from her attic suite. By the end of the book these two tough ladies have settled into new understandings and purpose as well.

I got a kick out of the strong women, the plot twists, and the setting, and this was a nice read over the busy Thanksgiving weekend. Some parts of the story were a bit repetitive, but overall it was interesting and kept me turning pages. For me the references to Bolton were especially interesting, since I recognized places my son had visited.

Next up I have books checked out by two American authors I’d been intending to read: Lauren Groff and Ben Ryder Howe.

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