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April in review

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I am a little late with my monthly roundup – but all in all April was a pretty good month for books. One book was something of a let-down, but pretty much everything else was great. The reading challenges seemed to pile up a bit, my own #ReadingMuriel2018, the 1977 club and last weekend’s readathon have kept me busily juggling. What with reading challenges and book group reading, I have found that my ACOB is suffering a little bit. At the start of the year I was happily ticking off years for every book I read, recently more and more duplicate years are creeping in. In May I need to concentrate on ticking off a few more years.

Here, briefly is what I read during April.

Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay, Denham Dobie has been allowed to run wild, growing up abroad in a less than conventional household. After her father’s death, her smart, society relatives take her to London and try to civilise her. In this novel Macaulay highlights the absurdity in conventional society and the so called civilised way of life.

The Montana Stories by Katherine Mansfield – A wonderful Persephone collection of stories and unfinished fragments written in 1921/22 when Katherine Mansfield was in Switzerland attempting to recover from TB.

The Bachelors by Muriel Spark Has something of an unpromising opening, though I ended up really rather enjoying the novel. It is a novel of London in the 1950s, of bedsitting rooms, public bars and spiritualist meetings. Patrick Seton; a medium is the malevolent presence throughout the novel – he is a truly brilliant Spark villain. Patrick is due to appear in court – charged with defrauding a widow; Freda Flower of her savings. The Bachelors of the title are all connected somehow to Patrick or the court case.

Men without Women by Haruki Murakami; Was a collection of short stories chosen by my very small book group. It certainly gave us a lot to talk about. I really couldn’t engage with the book fully – and of the seven stories only two interested me at all. I decided Murakami wasn’t for me.

The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning; my first read for the 1977 club, The Danger Tree is the first book in the Levant trilogy, and gets it off to a fabulous start. We find the Pringles who we first met in the Balkan trilogy, in Egypt, and follow the fortunes of young junior officer Simon Boulderstone, who has just arrived with the draft.

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy is beautifully written novella translated from Italian, it tells the story of a fourteen-year-old girl’s fixation on another girl at their Swiss boarding school.

Dancing Girls and other stories by Margaret Atwood – Perhaps not my favourite Atwood collection of short stories, The Dancing Girls is still definitely worth reading, with at least half the stories being of really stand out quality.

Aunt Clara by Noel Streatfeild; A truly delightful read from the author of many children’s favourites, this is one of Noel Streatfeild’s novels for adults. Aunt Clara is the sixty something niece of curmudgeonly old Simon Hilton. Unmarried, he lives in London with his cockney valet Henry. Simon leaves Clara his house and some unusual instructions in his will – much to the disgust and bafflement of her selfish warring relatives.

Faces in the Water by Janet Frame is an incredibly powerful read. The story of a young woman’s life in two New Zealand psychiatric hospital.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark; The second book for #readingMuriel2018 I read in April was perhaps my least favourite Spark to date – oddly I know many people love it. I still have to review it –I loved the opening chapter and certainly the character of Dougal Douglas is superbly drawn – but I found other aspects of the novel a bit confusing.

Trick by Domenica Starnone; sent to me as part of my Asymptote book club subscription, Trick is translated from Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri a literary novelist in her own right. I loved this story of a grandfather and his grandson.

Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay; another winner from the British Library – I found this hard to put down, which was lucky as I read it during last weekend’s readathon. A woman is found dead on the steps of a tube station, and the residents of the boarding house she lived in begin to try their own theories out to discover what happened.

So, three of April’s books still to review, but I’ll get to them all in good time. Sometimes it’s a bit of a job finding the time and energy for blogging.

cofAfter all my reading last weekend I’m currently experiencing a bit of a slow reading week, juggling two books Writers as Readers, essays about VMC writers by other writers, and Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty. I’m also planning on reading The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark, very soon, really looking forward to it.

A slightly rushed round-up I’m afraid – but I’m pleased that I managed twelve books in April – a little up on my average. I’m looking forward to a quiet-ish May bank holiday – with lots of reading time, and perhaps a trip to the cinema – if there’s anything on.

Today Virago are celebrating their 40th anniversary of beautiful VMC – you all know how much I love them, so it’s quite fitting that I’m reading an old green at the moment.

Let me know what you’ve been reading in April – anything I really need to know about? Happy reading for May everybody.

cof

(Bear with me everyone – I know I should be doing my round-up post for April – but I really didn’t want to do another round-up post so soon, so I haven’t. It may see what I did there – turn up later in the week).

This beautiful anniversary edition of Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was one of those beautiful editions Virago sent me to celebrate the VMC anniversary. This edition and the other anniversary editions are out in a day or two I believe – and they are beautifully produced editions.

This novel completely blew me away. I haven’t read Janet Frame before –  I had heard of her famous autobiography An Angel at my Table – though I can’t say I knew the name of Janet Frame in connection with it. I feel as if I should have done – because Janet Frame’s own story is extraordinary – and rather terrifying. New Zealand writer Janet Frame spent years being admitted to psychiatric hospitals where she was treated with ECT and insulin. While she was still a patient in hospital, Janet Frame’s first collection of short stories was published, and won a prestigious award. The news of the award led to her doctors cancelling her scheduled lobotomy, I just shudder at what would have happened to this wonderfully talented woman had not that news filtered through. Frame was eventually discharged from hospital – and went on to enjoy a long and prolific writing career, she left New Zealand for some years and travelled in Europe and the US. While in London Frame was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and her psychiatrist encouraged her to keep writing.

Faces in the Water, the second of Frame’s novels, takes us to the world of New Zealand’s psychiatric wards. It is really quite dazzling; Frames prose is perfect. This heavily autobiographical novel has difficult themes, telling the painful stories of women like Frame. Yet, somehow, I didn’t find it a difficult novel to read, a lot of it is shocking and rather disturbing – but somehow it manages to be a compelling and even enjoyable read.

Istina Mavers is the narrator of this novel, a young woman and former teacher who has lost her sense of herself, and her grip on reality. Istina finds herself in Cliffhaven – a psychiatric hospital.

“And at times I murmured the token phrase to the doctor, ‘When can I go home?’ knowing that home was the place where I least desired to be. There they would watch me for signs of abnormality, like ferrets around a rabbit burrow waiting for the rabbit to appear.”

Here she is surrounded by other patients, introduced to the often frightening routines and rules and subject to the vagaries of those supposed to be caring for her. Here, Frame reproduces the sense of powerlessness and fear endured by patients on a daily basis, brilliantly.

Each morning Istina and the other patients wait anxiously to see whether they will be called in to breakfast – or instead selected for the terrifying ECT treatment. The fear of this horrific treatment is quite palpable. Almost like a prisoner granted an exercise period, Istina walks in the grounds, glimpsing the world beyond, a world she no longer feels a part of.

“We stood at the gate, considering the marvel of the World where people, such is the deception of memory, did as they pleased, owned furniture, dressing tables with doilies on them and wardrobes with mirrors; and doors they could open and shut and open as many times as they chose; and no name tapes sewn inside the neck of their clothes; and handbags to carry, with nail files and make-up; and no one to watch while they were eating and to collect and count the knives afterwards and say in a frightening voice, ‘Rise, Ladies.’

In time Istina is discharged and she goes North to stay with her sister, brother-in-law and their children. However, it isn’t long before Istina is back in hospital – this time the hospital is Treecroft – with different rules, different ways of doing things, but always the same fear – that you are one of those who will never go home.

“And the days passed, packing and piling themselves together like sheets of absorbent material, deadening the sound of our lives, even to ourselves, so that perhaps if a tomorrow ever came it would not hear us; its new days would bury us, in its own name; we would be like people entombed when the rescuers, walking about in the dark waving lanterns and calling to us, eventually give up because no one answers them; sometimes they dig and find the victims dead.”

Later, following a short period back home, Istina is back where she started at Cliffhaven – years have gone by, and it seems as if her whole world has been that of a psychiatric ward where others make crucial decisions for her. Here Istina first hears that her doctors are considering the operation – the leucotomy (aka lobotomy) – and she is terrified. All around her nursing staff talk brightly of the wonders of the changed personality. She will be able to leave hospital get a job – yet Istina remembers those taken out the back doors to the mortuary, or left shells of their former selves.

Faces in the Water is an extraordinary novel, written in lyrical, luminous prose it is honest, heart-breaking and raw. I think it is wonderful that Virago have brought out this new edition of this novel – I urge everyone to read it.

janet frame

mde

Phase 2 of #ReadingMuriel2018 was all about the 1960s novels written by Muriel Spark. We had six books to choose from this time – and as I had already read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie several years ago, so, I opted for The Girls of Slender Means, The Bachelors and The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) was my final read of phase 2 – and the one I liked least of the three, I have still to write up my review. Lisa at Bluestalking Journal reviewed it towards the beginning of March. She thought it her favourite Spark novel to date, calling it a wickedly delightful novel, and very funny in a dark way. In her review of this novel Monica focuses a lot on the character of Dougal Douglas – a brilliantly drawn character and in my opinion the best thing about the book. Chrystyna reviewed Peckham Rye on Goodreads rating 4 stars and describing how Dougal Douglas sets the people of Peckham against one another. Mary also rated it 4 stars saying it was a social satire, with wonderful character sketches and masterful use of adjectives. Michael from LT is reading all of Spark this year, and he found the conclusion of this novel confusing (I agree Michael). Madamebibliophile has written a wonderful post on three Spark novels including The Ballad of Peckham Rye which she describes as a funny, odd novella.

A Twitter conversation revealed that several readers found The Bachelors (1960) rather a slow burn, That was certainly my experience of it, though once I had got into it, I began to really enjoy it, and ended up enjoying it more than Peckham Rye. Jennifer started reading The Bachelors and found herself having to set it aside for the time being, but I believe intends to go back to it one day. Grant of 1stReading’s Blog also found the start of this novel a bit off putting, calling it perhaps Spark’s most naturalistic novel and seeing it as rather limited compared to Spark’s other novels. Chrystyna also read The Bachelors, but found it tough going too. Michael rated this one with 4 stars seeing it a a satire of human hypocrisy.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) Janet of From First Page to Last reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and had me wishing I had had time to re-read it. Janet calls it a novel that is read quickly but which stays with the reader for much longer. Fictionfan also enjoyed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie calling the eponymous character a wonderfully realised unconventional woman. Christine found re-reading the novel for the umpteenth time an absolute delight. Michael says this one is probably Sparks greatest novel, though his own preference lies with Memento Mori.

The Girls of Slender Means (1963) was the first of my 1960s Spark reads, I had persuaded my very small book group to read it too. I absolutely loved this novel – hugely memorable with a setting that reminded me of A Far Cry from Kensington that I read and loved so much last year. Caroline from Bookword enjoyed reading The Girls of Slender Means every bit as much as I did. She depicts the atmosphere of the book perfectly. Michael found that knowing the ending of this did not spoil his re-read of this novel and he loved it every bit as much as he did the first time. Jacqui shared her review of The Girls of Slender Means from last year. In her review, Jacqui talks about the social hierarchy at the May of Teck club. FictionFan listened to the audio book read by Juliet Stevenson, but was left a little underwhelmed.

Michael also read The Mandlebaum Gate (1965) , – I think it is Spark’s longest book – which he describes as reminding him of Graham Greene and saying it won’t be his favourite.

Michael from LT read The Public Image (1968) – which I must say I think sounds great and I am sure I will read it one day although probably not this year now. Michael describes it as being told in a flat, vapid narration that matches the theme. A husband’s revenge – with a superb ending. Madamebibliophile describes The Public Image as a wonderfully pithy satire on fame, celebrity and how women are forced into certain roles. Kirsty from literary sisters also reviewed The Public Image.

So, thank you very much to everyone who has joined in again with #readingMuriel2018 and it isn’t over yet. Phase 3 is just about to begin. This time it is all about the 1970s and we have another six books to choose from.

The Driver’s Seat (1970)
Not To Disturb (1971)
The Hothouse by the East River (1973)
The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
The Takeover (1976)
Territorial Rights (1979)

I would of course love to hear what you are planning to read for phase 3 if you are joining in.

Of course if you have posted something somewhere and I have missed you, I am very sorry. It is quite hard keeping track of everyone, please let me know and I will edit you in.

For the moment I have chosen to read two titles during phase 3 – there’s always time for me to add to these. I have chosen The Hothouse by the East River – mainly for the title – and The Takeover. I read The Driver’s Seat – last year, a hugely memorable dark little novella I loved it, but I can imagine it dividing people. I shall be very interested in seeing what other readers think of it.

dewey24hrreadathon

For the first time ever, I have decided to join in with the #readathon which – I am reliably informed (Twitter) has something like 1500 people signed up to it. With varying start times depending on where in the world you are the UK readathon will be 1.00pm Saturday 28th April – 1.00 pm 29th April. (I believe that’s the official start time – but I am sure it is flexible, so people can do what works for them.)

I have watched the festivities from afar before and had it in the back of my mind to try it. It was Liz who gave me the nudge – she has decided to join in, and as I will be seeing her later today, we can do a few minutes of readathon together. Other friends will be present we might have to do social too. Actually, it is the Birmingham bookcrossing meet up today – so none of our booky friends will turn a hair at our getting our books out. A lovely bookish weekend beckons – in fact I am going to a literary festival event tomorrow (after readathon is finished luckily). Now I have decided to take part, I am quite excited.

Oh, and no I will not stay up all night! – I am frankly incapable of such madness – though I might manage to stay up an extra hour or so.

I know some readathoners post regular updates on their blogs – but I have decided to just come back and update this post. Due to an arrangement to meet friends for lunch and the Birmingham bookcrossing meet up, I won’t get properly started till at least 4 o’clock this afternoon UK time – but that still gives me 21 readathon hours to play with.

mde

So, I have come up with a small readathon pile – small because – terrible admission coming up: I am a fairly slow reader. Yes, I read quite a lot – but in terms of pages read per hour (it depends on what I am reading Agatha Christie reads faster than Virginia Woolf let’s be honest) my stats wouldn’t be impressive. I have chosen Trick by Domenico Starnone my Asymptote book club read. Translated from Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, a literary novelist in her own right. I have meant to get to it for three weeks but kept getting waylaid by other things. I started it last night but was too tired to read very much, by the time 1.00 today comes I should think I will be fifty or sixty pages into it, and it isn’t a long book. Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay – a British Library Crime Classic, that will tick off 1934 in my A Century of Books. I am also hoping to read at least a few of the essays in the Writers as Readers collection from Virago – it is a gorgeous celebration of VMC – and I have been itching to read it. My Persephone biannually has been languishing unread by the bookcase, so I added that to the pile too.

So… happy reading everyone who is joining in with readathon this weekend and come back later to see how I get on.

bookcrossersUpdate 1 : I ended up reading a little more than I had anticipated this morning before the official UK start time of 1.00 o’clock (50 pages – which won’t count). So at 1.00 (just as I was meeting friends) I was ninety pages into Trick by Domenico Starnone.

The bookcrossers helped Liz and I celebrate the beginning of readathon we all got our books out, read for a few minutes, to the amusement of everyone in the cafe I’m sure, and posed for a photo. Liz and I were photographed collapsing into giggles behind our books. lizandme

I left the cafe and my lovely friends at 3.15 and caught the bus home (finally time to read properly) arrived home at 4.10 locked the door, ran upstairs to change into cosy clothes and then sat down to read. Tea was made, snacks taken out and at 5.45 I finished Trick such a lovely book. Total pages read during official readathon period 101.

Time to start book 2.

Update 2.  I started my second book – Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. I do get easily distracted – social media is a terrible draw. Anyway, several short breaks actually helped me to keep going. I had a break of about an hour to watch something on TV and then came back to my book. I haven’t finished the book yet – just under 70 pages to go and I am done in. It is 1.30 am here and I am about to go to bed, having read 205 pages of it.

So in total I have read 306 pages – the readathon doesn’t end till 1.00 pm here so I have set my alarm for 8.00 – I might even wake up earlier – when I will finish Murder Underground and perhaps get a couple of those VMC essays read.

Update 3 Suddenly it’s Sunday and the readathon officially ends in twenty-five minutes time – all that reading certainly makes the hours fly by. As I said I set my alarm for 8.00 am and dutifully rose when it rang, despite having not gone to sleep as quickly as I had hoped. I expect I had something like 5 and half hours and I certainly felt a bit the worse for it when I came down to make that first cup of tea. I read the final 69 pages of Murder Underground – a mystery I found very enjoyable – luckily it really is a hard one to put down.

writers as readers1So I moved on to my third book – it’s a book of forty essays – a little over 400 pages I knew I would only get a bit of it read. Writers as Readers is a wonderful celebration of VMC writers published for the fortieth anniversary of VMC. I read the introduction and six of the essays: Margaret Drabble on Jane Austen, Angela Carter on Charlotte Bronte, Beryl Bainbridge on Emily Bronte, Maggie O’Farrell on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth Jane Howard on Elizabeth von Arnim and A.S Byatt on Willa Carter. Every one of them hugely readable.  That amounted tings learo 76 pages.

I’m off for a shower and to search for paracetemol – I have given myself a headache – as I have to go out in a couple of hours.

Total pages read: 451 – across three books.  (Oh and yes, I may well do this again – although I am frankly staggered and overawed by the stats produced by some readers. I said I was a slow reader though – oh well!)

aunt clara

Noel Streatfeild’s novels for children are among those books spoken of with great affection by many readers. I remember I enjoyed Ballet Shoes when I was a child – though I don’t remember reading any of her others. This week I saw an announcement from Virago books that they will be re-issuing a couple of Noel Streatfeild novels as part of their classic children’s range. Great news, but Noel Streatfeild didn’t just write for children. Persephone books already publish Saplings a wonderful novel for adults, that poignantly chronicles the slow disintegration of a once happy family. Scottish publisher Grey Ladies also publish two Noel Streatfeild novels; I read Parson’s Nine in 2014 a lovely, engaging novel about a clergyman’s family.

So, imagine my delight when Dee from my lovely VMC Librarything group – included Aunt Clara by Noel Streatfeild as part of my Secret Santa parcel. It was a novel I hadn’t heard of, but the cover alone sold me on it. Hadn’t meant to wait quite so long to read it but it turned out to be quite a treat.

The reader doesn’t meet the Aunt Clara of the title straight away, instead we are introduced to curmudgeonly Simon Hilton. Unmarried, he lives in London with his cockney valet Henry (my one slight criticism is that Noel Streatfeild slightly overdoes the cockney rhyming slang) and has no time at all for his family. Simon and Henry are a rather marvellous team, they first met during the war when Henry was an air raid warden with nowhere to live.

“Henry was in no sense a valet, but he had strong views on how the elderly should be treated. You did what you could to make them comfortable. Gave them a share of anything that was going, and when possible let them have their little comforts. Simon was different in many ways from the other old persons Henry had met, but in one way he acted as he expected. Simon might talk in as independent a manner as him, but he was lonely and counted on Henry’s company. He tried to disguise it but Henry was not fooled.”

With his eightieth birthday looming Simon receives letters from his family proposing his birthday lunch should be held on a date more convenient to them all, which is the month before the actual date. Incandescent with fury – Simon sets himself on a path that will teach all the selfish, grasping, plotting family members a hard lesson. The only good one among the lot of them is Clara.

Clara has happily sacrificed herself for her family. First caring for her parents until their death – and now in late middle age, has taken herself out of the way of her selfish family and taken up refuge in a London mission. Her work with the mission has taken her into many homes of the poor and needy in London and everyone calls her Aunt Clara. In addition to this Clara is always on call for her family when needed, when great nieces need to be met off trains, or accompanied to the dentist, Clara will oblige. She is a sixty-year-old innocent – seeing nothing but good in everyone. Following an unexpected visit to Simon’s house while he is confined to bed, Henry draws Clara into Simon’s plans for his eightieth birthday lunch.

The lunch goes off exactly as old Simon had planned – leaving the sick old man laughing happily over it for the last few weeks of his life. All the hints he previously dropped to Henry don’t prepare him at all for what is to come.

Simon instructed the youngest generation of a firm of family solicitors to draw up a new – rather unconventional will. Charles Willis is the solicitor instructed to read the will (like an old Victorian novel) while port is served to the older generation of Simon’s family. Clara is one of five siblings, she along with the others, each married, with children and now grandchildren are summoned to the reading of the will. Here Aunt Clara (and her furious siblings) first hear Simon’s peculiar requests, the charges to her, which Clara can’t help but see as a ‘sacred trust’. In addition, she has Simon’s house, with Henry to look after her. The pair become good friends, and in the company of Henry and Charles, Aunt Clara sets about the tasks she has been set. In this way the psalm quoting, cottage loaf shaped Aunt Clara is thrown into the worlds of circuses, greyhound racing, London pubs and fair ground gambling.

“Charles was enchanted. Who else but Clara Hilton would choose to recite a hymn to a circus owner she had only just met, and who else, in that confident way, would talk about the power of prayer?”

Aunt Clara is unfailingly cheerful, her view of the world is never dimmed – and she immediately embraces all the people she meets in her non-judgemental, unselfish love.

Aunt Clara is an excellent antidote to the times in which we find ourselves living. Warm, engaging and very readable it was a real treat spending time with these characters.

noel streatfeild

sweet days of discipline

Translated from Italian by Tim Parks

I read this slight novella between my two 1977 club reads, and that feels oddly long ago now as I sit here trying to find something to say about it. I had seen so many tantalising reviews of this one that I found myself buying it just a few weeks ago. I love a tightly controlled novella – and this is certainly that, written in beautifully spare prose, it is enigmatic and dark. I had expected to love this more than I did, I certainly enjoyed it – if that is the right word, but something about this story left me feeling quite low. In many ways there isn’t a lot to say about this novel – so you may be relieved to know that this review will be quite short.

“At fourteen I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzell. This is where Robert Walser used to take his many walks when he was in the mental hospital in Herisau, not far from our college. He died in the snow. Photographs show his footprints and the position of his body in the snow. We didn’t know the writer.”

Set in post-war Switzerland; the narrator of Sweet Days of Discipline is a fourteen-year-old girl at a boarding school in the Appenzell. The opening of the novel has a deceptive feeling of innocence – our narrator looking back on the days of her schooling reveals herself as quite knowing, well versed in the world of the boarding school – having attended others before this. A child of separated parents she receives her instructions from her mother in Brazil and writes long letters to her father that are only briefly and infrequently answered. The narrator describes her life as a boarder – a life she sees as being that of a captor – always looking for a freedom she can’t find.

“The wind wrinkled the dark lake and my thoughts as it swept on the clouds, chopped them up with its hatchet; between them you could just glimpse the Last Judgement, finding each of us guilty of nothing.”

A new girl arrives at the school named Frédérique, who is immediately noticed by our narrator – who sees her disdain and her high forehead, and that she has ‘no humanity’. Frédérique is fifteen, seemingly perfect and perfectly obedient, and the younger girl is determined to conquer her. As she vies for Frédérique’s attention and friendship she muses on the nature of control and how close to madness it can come.

Dazzled by Frédérique she seeks to understand her, seeking ways to spend time with her and in time to emulate her.

“It was as though she talked about nothing, Her words flew. What was left after them had no wings. She never said the word God and I can barely write it down myself when I think of the silence she surrounded it with.”

The discipline and control represented in the character of Frédérique, is contrasted with that of another girl Micheline. Our unnamed narrator is torn between these two different girls, Frédérique’s cool, poised perfection and Micheline’s chatty exuberance. Having rejected a younger girl’s request to be her protector, and almost immediately seeing how she will regret this, our narrator puts all her energies into winning favour with the object of her (almost) obsession. Frédérique who can play piano and whose handwriting is so beautiful our narrator works hard to copy it. As time passes so does the unsettling nature of these relationships gather pace.

“There is a mortuary look somehow to the faces of the boarders, a faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractive girls. A double image, anatomical and antique. In the one the girl runs about and laughs, and in the other she lies on a bed covered by a lace shroud. It’s her own skin has embroidered it.”

School days end and eventually we get some glimpses of these girls grown up – beyond the confines of their politely controlled world.

There are many strikingly beautiful passages and within them some extraordinary images. While I loved the quality of the writing of this delicately nuanced novella, the narrative left me feeling rather flat as I said before – but I definitely want to read more by this author – and I suspect I would get a lot from reading this again one day, as such prose deserves to be reread.

fleur jaeggy

men without women

Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Chosen by my very small book Men without women is a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami. An author I would probably never have read without my book group – and I suspect will never read again. He gave us (my book group) lots to discuss – Overall, I didn’t like this book very much, and that worried me initially, I wondered if I had prejudiced myself against the book before I read it. I don’t read many modern male writers – you may have noticed – and Murakami seemed to sit somewhere outside my comfort zone. Still, it was a book group read, not especially long, I was on holiday from work so able to grimly plough through it a bit more than a day, (an attitude I accept may not have helped). I didn’t find the book unremittingly without merit – there were several things I liked – though out of the seven stories in the collection, probably only two I really engaged with; these were Kino and An Independent Organ.

The premise of the book was the first thing I liked, stories of loneliness, of men struggling in a world, forced to live their lives for whatever reason without women. It was this premise I think which sold it to my small feminist book group – only the second book written by a man we’ve read. It was those questions of how men and women live with or without one another and how men see women that interested us all. Occasionally I came across passages that made me stop and reread – they were so beautifully written – yet most of the time I found Murakmai’s writing to be nothing special. There was a distance in his writing style that I didn’t like – I am usually fine with a writer who stands back from their characters. The sense of loneliness in some of these stories is well done, the men finding it hard to engage with the world or the people around them. The relationships are stunted and awkward even between male friends the relationships are flawed – presumably because they are men without women.

In these stories we have as the title and the premise suggest men living without women. Sometimes it is a strange, slightly unexplained world – where different rules apply. In the opening story ‘Drive My Car’ A man banned from driving hires a woman chauffeur and proceeds to tell her about his odd friendship with the man who was his late wife’s lover. In ‘Yesterday’ we meet a young man who loans his girlfriend to a friend. In ‘An Independent Organ’ A plastic surgeon who finally and fatally falls in love having lived his life enjoying casual and meaningless relationships with women. In this story we learn that women have an independent organ which allows them to lie with ease hmmm!!

“Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie. This was Dr. Tokai’s personal opinion. It depends on the person, he said about the kind of lies they tell, what situation they tell them in, and how the lies are told. But at a certain point in their lives, all women tell lies, and they lie about important things. They lie about unimportant things, too, but they also don’t hesitate to lie about the most important things. And when they do, most women’s expressions and voices don’t change at all, since it’s not them lying, but this independent organ they’re equipped with that’s acting on its own. That’s why – except for a few special cases – they can still have a clear conscience and never lose sleep over anything they say.”
(An Independent Organ)

A housekeeper/mistress nicknamed ‘Scheherazade’ in the story of the same name tells stories of her teenage house breaking in pursuit of a boy who didn’t notice her. In ‘Kino’, a man gives up his job when his marriage breaks down and buys a bar with its enigmatic resident cat, and meets a woman bearing the scars of terrible abuse. In ‘Samsa in Love’ – Murakami turns Kafka’s Metamorphosis on its head – Samsa  wakes in confusion to find himself a man. The title story ‘Men without Women’ is the final one in the collection. It seems to be less of a story and more of a series of thoughts about the overarching theme of the book.

“A deep gulf separates the second and the first loneliest on earth. Most likely. Deep, and wide, too. The bottom is heaped high with the corpses of birds who have tried, and failed, to traverse it. Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you’re already there. But by then there’s no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called “Men Without Women.” Always a relentlessly frigid plural.”
(Men without Women)

As a book group we were interested particularly in the representation of women and the way women were portrayed by the author or viewed by his characters. It was here I think that my problems started. Now in all these stories the perspective is that of a man or men, and so only through them do we see women. We have women who cheat on the men in their lives, women judged in terms of their attractiveness – others who seem to hold power over a man. In each case these women seem horribly stereotypical and very two dimensional. Is this because Murakami is trying to show us how it is women are perceived by men? Is he making an important point? – I preferred to think so – or does this come from the author himself?

I was nervous about reviewing this book because Murakami is one of those writers with a legion of fans, he seems to enjoy a cult like status and I wondered – does everyone love him but me? Well no, in my book group one other member hated it so much she could see nothing positive at all, a couple of others while not hating it seemed under whelmed. I have seen the g word applied fairly liberally to his work, and I just wasn’t getting it. True, we can’t all like the same thing – still, as someone who appreciates good literary writing, I felt a bit sad that I didn’t get it.

murakami