Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

My first review for #DiverseDecember is The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga it is the story of the author’s mother, Stefania; a Tutsi woman – telling the story of how she raised her children and protected her family during the Rwandan genocide. It is a poignant gentle memoir.

There are times when a book comes in our way, and we think I cannot read that now – it will be too hard, too harrowing, too sad etc. I admit that was something like my reaction when I first received The Barefoot Woman with my Asymptote book subscription (which I have let lapse but may go back to). There is clearly a privilege in being able to choose to look away – while not overwhelming ourselves with things we are not in the right place for. So, I am very glad I held on to this – and I need not have feared the story would overwhelm me either – because it does not. It is very clear – poignantly so – early on what happened to the author’s mother and other members of her family: –   

“Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words – words in a language you didn’t understand – to do as you asked. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.”

Yet the majority of the book – does not concern itself with violence and horror – although we know they are not far away. Instead this is a story of memory, of love – bringing back to life a woman who did all she possibly could to keep her family safe. This story is a testament of a mother’s love and determination – a very personal memorial to a woman whose story stands for so many others, who despite everything, through this book cannot be erased from history.

Stefania’s family – like so many other Tutsi families spent several years living in exile – in villages away from the majority Hutu population. For the author and her siblings as they grew up, this place was more of a home than it ever could be for their mother who felt her displacement intensely. Mukasonga recalls the constant fear they all lived with, of the soldiers who might suddenly come through the door – and her mother’s ingenious ways of creating escape routes and hiding places for her children.

“But we had to be ready for anything: sometimes the soldiers were too quick even for my mother’s sharp ear. And so, for those times when we wouldn’t be able to reach the brush, she left armloads of wild grass in the middle of the field, mounds just big enough for her three little girls to slip into when the alarm was sounded. She kept a mental catalogue of what she thought would be the safest hiding places in the bush. She discovered the deep burrows dug by the anteaters. She was convinced we could slither into them, and so with Antoine’s help she widened the tunnels and camouflaged the entrances under piles of grasses and branches.”

However, this is also – and mainly – a book about a way of life, a childhood. It is the story of the sorghum harvest, the ceremony involved in the planting, harvesting, and eating of sorghum – the hope for rain at just the right time. Mukasonga recalls in some detail the rites and traditions of a Rwandan village – which knowing so little about Rwanda (aside from the news headlines) I found particularly fascinating. It is a warm, affectionate portrait of a village in exile – where the village ‘doctor’ a former nurse only has two medicines he can prescribe – cough syrup and aspirin – but Stefania created her own botanical pharmacy with which to treat her children and others. Marriages are arranged for local women and the author’s brother – in which Stefania plays her part. Rwandan ideas of beauty are fixed and hard to live up to – but how does a young woman know what she might look like to others living in a village with no mirrors?

“If you wanted to be elegant and refined, you had only to follow Mama’s advice and example: imitate the village ladies’ lazy, swaying walk (with every step they took they seemed to be standing in place), let a slightly vacant gaze drift over the people around you, and above all, when someone speaks to you, always keep your eyes lowered…”

This novella sized memoir published by Archipelago books is a beautifully lyrical tribute, revealing and personal telling an important story from recent history. Scholastique Mukasonga has written another memoir and a novel both published in English which also portray childhood and schooling in Rwanda in the years before the genocide of the Tutsi people. I am keen to read them both.

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My third read for this year’s #MARM was MaddAddam the final book in the trilogy of the same name. I have spaced out the three volumes quite widely – so I was pleased to see a little rounding up of the main points of each of the first two books in the front of this. It helped to refresh my memory a bit – although I have to say Year of the Flood has really stayed with me and remains my favourite of the three books.

While the events in Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood run parallel to each other – MaddAddam moves the story of characters like Jimmy, Toby and Zeb forward.

It’s really hard to review the final book in a trilogy that other people may not have read – as a whole it’s a trilogy that is extraordinary in its scope and imagination. Saying that though – in her acknowledgements Margaret Atwood states that…

“Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory.”

I think that gives us much food for thought – Margaret Atwood is often lauded for her astute, keen eyed view of the world – she seems to have her finger on the pulse of the world and its myriad issues. In this trilogy – she shows us how we could end up – reminding us, should we need it – what destruction we have wrought on our planet.

The ‘waterless flood’ (a plague) has swept the earth – there are a few ragged human survivors – and the children of Crake – the perfect, innocent species he created to take the place of human beings. Jimmy (or Snowman) befriended the Crakers – telling them stories of Oryx and Crake. Meanwhile, Toby, Adam One and the God’s Gardeners who we met in The Year of the Flood were scattered by the plague – prey to the evil Painballers – who attack, abuse, kill and rape with impunity. The Year of the Flood ends with Amanda being rescued from the Painballers and Toby observing the Gardener forgiveness feast. This novel picks up exactly where that one ends.

The Children of Crake move toward the group of human survivors, singing their endless song. The Painballers are tied up, but Toby hesitates to kill – and they escape – to pretty much everyone’s dismay. For me Toby is a recognisable Atwood heroine – she cares for others, has a powerful connection to the natural world, feeling things deeply – she harbours a secret love for Zeb and is jealous of one of the younger women who she thinks might cast her eye at Zeb. As Toby and the MaddAddamites settle themselves into the cob-house enclave – the Children of Crake – settle themselves nearby. Jimmy-the-snowman is in a Coma and the Crakers await his recovery by finding a new hero in Zeb.

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

Toby starts to tell stories – stories of the world before – the chaos – and stories that will help move this new world forward. The Crakers – are innocents – they love the stories Toby tells – they ask questions continually – like children – why, how – tell it again. One of the most attentive listeners is Blackbeard a young Craker – keen to learn it’s to him that Toby reveals the secret of writing when he catches her writing in her journal.

“It had helped to keep her sane, that writing. Then, when time had begun again and real people had entered it, she’d abandoned it here. Now it’s a whisper from the past.”

Through Toby’s stories – we finally learn about Zeb and Adam and how they came to the God’s Gardeners. Zeb tells the stories to Toby and Toby relates them to the Crakers in a way they can understand. Atwood has always been a wonderful weaver of tales – stories within stories.

However, this new world is a difficult often hostile place. As the clever, wild pigoons attack the precious garden that Toby and the others tend with care – and with the lingering threat of the Painballers return – it’s clear that this small band of survivors will need much more than mere stories.

“Glenn used to say the reason you can’t really imagine yourself being dead was that as soon as you say, “I’ll be dead,” you’ve said the word I, and so you’re still alive inside the sentence. And that’s how people got the idea of immortality of the soul – it was a consequence of grammar. And so was God, because as soon as there’s a past tense, there has to be a past before the past, and you keep going back in time until you get to I don’t know, and that’s what God is. It’s what you don’t know – the dark, the hidden, the underside of the visible, and all because we have grammar …”

I hope it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that there isn’t a big cymbals crashing kind of finale to this book – which I found especially fitting. There is a sense of things carrying on in this new world that humans have created – which for me was a little more comforting than a big drama. That said – there is a poignancy to the ending too for those of us who have followed certain characters through three instalments. There is also hope – which as a species we are clearly in need of.  

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With thanks to Virago for this stunning review copy.

I don’t often re-post old (slightly edited) reviews – but I felt compelled to do so when Virago sent me this simply delicious new hardback edition of Black Narcissus. This sumptuous new edition is released to coincide with the new BBC adaptation. I read it a little too recently to re-read it just yet – plus you know – too many books! However, I do love Rumer Godden’s writing and this one is rightly judged to be a classic. This new edition comes with a lovely new introduction by Amanda Coe – which I really enjoyed reading. Coe’s introduction sets Godden’s novel in context – exploring the complexities in it. She reveals how when she was adapting the novel for the new BBC miniseries she was able to be more faithful to the context of the book than that classic 1947 film.

“Godden’s wonderful book sets out a complex vision of the variety, necessity and danger of desire, rendered into a story that is completely pleasurable. I envy anyone reading for the first time.”

(Amanda Coe – Introduction)

The film of Black Narcissus was released in 1947 in Technicolor, which not all films were in those days. It was quite the melodrama starring Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons and was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

This is a novel of unsettling passions that have been repressed set against an extraordinary landscape.

The novel opens as Sister Clodagh prepares to leave her religious community in Darjeeling for Mopu in the Himalayan mountains to the north. Here Sister Clodagh will take on the role of Sister Superior to a small group of nuns who will be helping to set up a convent school community in an abandoned palace. The palace was once known as ‘the House of Women’ built for a harem of the General who leased the land from the British rulers. Now the General’s son, another General has given the palace to the Sisters of Mary – believing a school and hospital just what the poor local people need. Before they leave, Mother Dorothea lets Sister Clodagh know that she has some reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for this responsibility. Clodagh is certain she is ready for the challenge, and leads her fellow sisters; Sister Ruth, Sister Briony, Sister Honey and Sister Philippa – confidently towards a new adventure.

The group of sisters begin the long trek up the hills to their new home, a palace wreathed in scandal, set against a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Mopu is home to tea growers, snow-capped mountain peaks and the glorious flora and fauna one associates with India. As always Rumer Godden portrays the landscape and people of India, beautifully and with obvious affection.

“It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn; across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on a hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.”

 The sisters have a lot of work to do to make the old palace ready to use as a school and dispensary, and they set to work as soon as they arrive. An elderly Chinese woman Angu Ayah has had caretaking responsibilities at the palace and she stays on to help the sisters in their duties. One of the first people the sisters meet is local British agent Mr Dean – who they have been told will be on hand to help the sisters should they need it. Mr Dean is an informally dressed whisky drinker who rather shocks the sisters with his relaxed laid-back attitude and teasing humour. Mr Dean exudes a strength the nuns will have need of in the months ahead, and later, as they come to know him better they discover in him an ability to great sympathy and understanding.

The General’s nephew and heir, the young General Dilip Rai comes to the sisters to learn French, and a beautiful young girl Kanchi – who the locals have gossiped about wildly – has been placed with the sisters at the request of her uncle. Kanchi is soon surreptitiously keeping a close eye on the handsome young General – who, himself has an unusual effect on Sister Clodagh. Something in the character of the young General reminds her of her ill-fated romance with a neighbouring boy; Con – back in Ireland before she took holy orders.

“As he walked he kicked the stones away from him and slashed at the bushes; he looked pretty and naughty as a child, though he was nearly a full man; tall and beautifully built, not like a hill man but like a young Rajpit.

He slashed with his cane at the bushes, and she was suddenly back, walking down the Wishing Lane at home with Con; the green damp lane that led from the House gates past Skinners Farm to the lake, and Con was slashing at the hedge to show his temper.”

Mr Dean’s promise that the sisters will fail in their mission look set to come true as the nuns show time and again a lack of understanding for the people they are living among. The people have their own traditions and long held superstitions – and these are soon at odds with the inflexible attitudes of the sisters. Other troubles, passions and little jealousies play a part in causing the community difficulties as one of the sisters starts to show signs of mental illness. The magical landscape seems to beguile each of the sisters – distracting them from their purpose and allowing them, at times, to dream. Throughout the novel there is an air of forbidden passions rising to the surface, which Godden explores with wonderful subtlety.

Despite the drama and tragedy towards the end, the novel is much quieter than that old film, which I remember as being quite melodramatic.

I am looking forward to the new adaptation – which I believe airs next month. Will you be watching?

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

My love for Barbara Comyns never seems to diminish – and her books are all ones I know I will re-read. In fact, I am planning on re-reading …Spoons.. one day soon, because it’s so long since I read it. So, when Turnpike books announced they were bringing out two Comyns novels I was delighted. They were kind enough to send me both – The House of Dolls and Mr Fox. I read Mr Fox in an old edition – toward the beginning of last year, probably too recently to re-read it. I loved it though and you can read my review here.

I was glad to have a new edition of The House of Dolls however as my old 1970s paperback has quite small print, and it was the last of the (more easily) available Comyns novels that I had left to read. There are two more Comyns novels which seem impossible to find – and a couple of the others were hard enough to find. (I shall never completely give up looking)

My expectations of this one weren’t high I don’t think, as I had seen it described as being a more minor Comyns – however I thoroughly enjoyed it – and while it may not be quite up there with the likes of The Vet’s Daughter et al – it is still well worth reading. Here we still have Comyns unique voice, her sharp wit and while her world here is less strange than in some of her earlier novels her characters are deliciously peculiar in their own way. Always there is a stream of something a little darker which exists beneath the surface – the knowledge that her characters act the way they do because of poverty, tragedy or plain bad luck in their past.

The setting is a small boarding house in Kensington, the house is run by Amy Doll – who lives in the basement of the house with her daughter Hetty. Upstairs reside four middle aged or elderly ladies who between them and under the direction of two; Berti and Evelyn have established an eccentric kind of bordello for elderly gentlemen – finding a little prostitution on the side really helps to pay the rent.

“‘Amy Doll, are you telling me that all those old girls upstairs are tarts?’

‘Well, not tarts exactly tarts, Doris, but they have gentlemen friends who pay them, you know. It’s not very nice, but they say they couldn’t manage the rent otherwise. I simply had to put it up, with the expenses rising all the time. …’”

Amy is rather concerned at finding herself almost in the position of an unwilling madam – dreading the police will come knocking at the door one day.

Her tenants Evelyn and Berti are both really quite elderly and don’t get along well at all they wear tight trousers, have tightly cropped hair and rather like their drink. Their squabbles are petty, spiteful and all too frequent. The Senora (aka Augustina Puig) – originally from Spain; inhabits the best room and was first to encourage Evelyn and Berti to follow her example of financial management. Ivy Rope is a little younger than the other women and only has one gentleman to make ends meet – she is also in love with a dentist – who she hopes will marry her and take her away from Amy Doll’s house. Berti – who needs to know everything is desperate to find out about the dentist – and takes steps to do so – to poor Ivy’s terror.

The women host little parties in their living room – from which Amy Doll ensures her daughter is barred by locking the door from their part of the house to the upstairs. Hetty is growing up and resents her mother accompanying her to school – and is rather fond of the peculiar old dears in the upstairs part of the house. While Amy is worrying about what to do about her troublesome tenants Hetty plays truant and with the help of a local misfit she calls Glover is making a mosaic in the garden of a derelict house. One day a policeman does knock on Amy’s door – though not for the reasons she fears – and soon he is making himself useful around the garden.

“The policeman looked at the closed little face and smiled. ‘Sorry to disturb you again, but you mentioned you were on your own and I wondered if you’d like any help in the garden. It happens that I’ve been given a few bulbs and rose-bushes and, having no garden myself, I was wondering what to do with them. It’s my free day tomorrow and it’s be a kindness if you’d let me put in a few hours here.’

Amy gave him a quick look, then lowered her lids while she considered his proposition. ‘If he wants to spy on us,’ She thought ‘nothing will stop him, so he might as well make himself useful while he’s about it. I could get him to take down those rusty bells for a start and the lino in the scullery wants re-laying.’ She smiled.”

With The Senora talking about leaving and Ivy maybe getting married Berti and Evelyn are concerned about what they will do. Existing on their small family annuities and their gentlemen callers is hard enough. Now one of their regular gentlemen suddenly dies and Amy is making signs of asking them to vacate their rooms. Berti – hopelessly impractical and a stranger to an oven decides she will sign on at an agency and become a daily cook – asking Amy to help her learn. The results are about what you might expect and beautifully portrayed by Comyns with her perfectly balanced savage wit.

So, unless someone decides to re-issue Birds in Tiny Cages and Out of the Red, Into the Blue – this was the last Comyns I had to read. In one way I am quite bereft – but thankfully I have acquired all the others so I have them to re-read. I envy anyone who has yet to discover the brilliance of Comyns. This was another gem, a little quieter than some of the others but really very good indeed for all that.

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So, this MARM I have found myself reading more Margaret Atwood than I thought I would manage – and as always it has been a joy. I am currently into the last seventy pages or so of MaddAddam – the third book in that trilogy of the same name. Last week I read Moral Disorder – and I absolutely loved it – a definite candidate for my book of the month. A collection of short stories – although that isn’t really an accurate description – as the stories though non-chronological feature the same character throughout. Moral Disorder can be read almost like a novel – in a similar way to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I enjoy short stories a lot – and Atwood’s Stone Mattress had been my favourite of her collections until I read this one.

In these stories of the life of one woman – who is could easily be said, bears more than a passing resemblance to Atwood herself – the reader is taken on a journey across several decades. As well as not being entirely chronological – the tense changes too – many of the stories are told in the first person – others in the third person. While this might prevent us confusing Moral Disorder with being a novel – what does emerge is a wonderfully complete portrait of a woman’s life – the ups and downs of family life – from childhood through to late middle age. While we can see these stories as being very autobiographical – which I sense they are – the view is actually much broader – for me there was a sense of an entire generation represented through one woman, and her family.

The collection opens with Bad News in which a woman (who we come to know as Nell in subsequent stories) in late middle age reflects on age and what it means – how tenses define our lives – and this extract perfectly summing up how the rest of the book can be seen.

“These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we’ve only recently come to think of as still, and really it’s no smaller than anyone else’s window.”

This view of past, present future is one I love in fiction as it highlights how connected everything is – how we as human beings are strongly connected to our pasts – and how the now we are in is so transitory.

In the second story The art of cooking and serving – we return to the summer when Nell was eleven – waiting anxiously for her mother to give birth to her new sibling. The anxiety come from the snatches of adult conversation that she has overheard – how her mother is getting a bit old for pregnancy – something might go wrong. Nell is knitting a layette for the baby to keep her busy – her father has made her responsible for looking after her mother while she is in this dangerous condition, the weight of responsibility is heavy – for the girl doesn’t really understand what it is that might happen. During the summer Nell and her mother go to the lakeside cabin where the family frequently holiday in summer – Nell’s father is away – and so the responsibility for her mother’s welfare rests on Nell’s young shoulders. They are a long way from a doctor – and Nell works out a plan for getting help should she need it.

The next story – The Headless Horseman – takes place about three years later – and now Nell is helping her mother look after her baby sister a lot. The child is a sensitive little thing, cries easily but adores her big sister following her around and wanting to be involved in everything she does. When Nell makes a headless horseman costume for Halloween – the result is a predictable scream fest – the toddler is terrified. What I loved in this story is how it switches between two time periods – the one in which the teenage Nell makes a Halloween costume that is less than successful – and one in which the adult siblings driving together to see their mother reminisce about the headless horseman costume. Anyone with a sibling must recognise that – those stories we keep and tell each other over and over – all those remember whens.

 In The Last Duchess – she recalls a high school teacher Miss Bessie – as Nell and her school friends edge nearer the possibility of ‘going on’ – ie university.

In The other Place – Nell is a young woman, having grown up in one time – the social landscape around her has changed considerably.

“At the time I’d set out, all women were expected to get married and many of my friends had already done so. But by the end of this period – it was only eight years, not so long after all – a wave had swept through, changing the landscape completely. Miniskirts and bell-bottoms had made a brief appearance, to be replaced immediately by sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts. Beards had sprouted, communes had sprung up, thin girls with long straight hair and no brassieres were everywhere. Sexual jealousy was like using the wrong fork, marriage was a joke, and those already married found their once-solid unions crumbling like defective stucco. You were supposed to hang loose, to collect experiences, to be a rolling stone.”

Through subsequent stories, like Monopoly, White Horse and the title story all told in the third person we watch Nell as she negotiates her relationship with Tig, the man she falls in love with. He is separated but still married with two boys – all of which her parents deeply disapprove. They live for a time on a farm, it’s not quite a rural idyll, there are difficulties to be negotiated and the locals think the barn is haunted. There are some chickens, then a few cows and an old white horse called Gladys and Nell’s sister comes to visit.

Moral Disorder is both touching and funny, keenly, and wisely observed – I’m surprised this collection isn’t talked about as much as some of Atwood’s other works. It really is a masterclass.

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Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

This week is the novellas in translation week of novellas in November and A Girl Returned is a novel by an author I have read before during Novellas in November – I believe this is the third of her books to be translated into English.

So many of the books in my house have been bought because I have seen other people online talking about how good they are. This novel is one of them, a novella I saw Claire from Word by Word talking about on Twitter, and as I had read two books by the same author previously I knew I wanted it immediately. I bought it in October so that I could read it during Novellas in November – it slips in just under the 200 page limit at 170 pages – and manages to be both heart-rending and brilliantly compelling at the same time. It is a novel about mothers and daughters, family secrets and the nature of belonging.

“There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.”

As the novel opens a girl drags a large suitcase up the stairs to an apartment she has never been to before – the door is opened by her younger sister – the two girls have never met before. With no warning, and virtually no explanation a thirteen year old girl is taken from the people she has always believed to be her parents and sent to live with strangers. This is her birth family, mother, father, and siblings of whom she had no previous knowledge. They turn out to be relatives of her adoptive father – an arrangement had been made between the two families when she was a baby. Now she is thrust into a totally new world, where they even speak differently, in a town a long bus ride away from the coastal city where she had previously grown up, gone to school, and made friends. The woman she thinks of still as her mother having retreated from her in the weeks before her departure – had become something of a shadowy figure spending more and more time in bed. The girl numbed by shock hopes that when her mother is well, she will ask for her to go home.

“I was the Arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.”

The household the girl arrives in is one utterly different to the one she left behind – where she was an only child growing up in sight of the beach, with her own room. Here there are a number of noisy, squabbling siblings, Adriana is a few years younger than her, they connect almost immediately – though the girl is shocked that she must share a bed with her sister – while her older, teenage brothers occupy the other side of the bedroom. Not all the siblings are kind and welcoming. Adriana wets the bed constantly – there is an awful lot to get used to straight away. There is a kind of loneliness here that is terrible, I’m sure most of us could imagine ourselves thrust into an unfamiliar environment like this – and know how destabilising that would feel.

She thinks of the woman who bore her as ‘the mother’ – unable to call her that by name – she finds ways around ever using the word. She stands out in the family, a curiosity to people from outside the family – and treated differently by those within it. Her eldest brother Vincenzo is drawn to her in a way that’s not altogether appropriate – all in all it is a time of readjustment and confusion. She doesn’t feel like someone who was wanted – she feels her return was forced upon this family who are clearly struggling financially.

“I wasn’t acquainted with hunger and I lived like a foreigner among the hungry. The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family.”

She also stands out by virtue of her scholastic abilities – soon marked out by the teacher as someone who should go on to high school in the city she has just left. This possibility a beacon of hope on a shaky horizon – though as Adriana comes to rely on her new older sister’s presence, clinging to her and reacting with jealousy to anything she thinks might take her sister away, the girl has a new responsibility to consider for the first time. Adriana’s fierce love for her sister is one of the few joys for the girl – and while it has the potential to be a little destructive – the narrator is clearly looking back on it from a distance of years with a lot of affection.

As time goes on, the girl’s assumptions about the reason for her return are shaken – it is something she is keen to get to the bottom of.  Her sense of self having been so severely rocked is gradually re-built amid the tension and conflict of a new family.

Of the three novellas by Donatella Di Pietrantonio I have read to date, this is undoubtedly my favourite.

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I managed to tick off two challenges with one book again with this read. A novella sized non-fiction book for non-fiction November and novellas in November. It was the non-fiction week for novellas in November last week – and while I am not keeping up with the schedule completely I’m not too far off.

Popcorn is a collection of autobiographical essays by Cornelia Otis Skinner – an American writer and actress whose memoir Their Hearts were Young and Gay I read a staggering five years ago. I bought Popcorn and Nuts in May by her around the same time and they have been lingering on the tbr ever since. I am finding it very hard to settle down to non-fiction these days – and have only read a couple this entire year – in 2020 I have needed to lose myself in fiction more than ever.

This collection however struck just the right note with Skinner’s sparkling humour and deliciously wry observations. This lovely old edition comes with a preface by F. Tennyson Jesse and quirky illustrations by Alajalov and Soglow (whoever they were).

The America that Skinner is writing about is not the America of 2020, that is immediately obvious. In fact, it was almost certainly the America of just a certain class – here is the reasonably well off America, the America of the stable family. It is also never serious – there is very little mention of the war at all – presumably, these pieces were meant as an escape from reality. The collection opens with ‘The Defense of Long Island’ in which she is compelled by patriotic neighbours to do her bit.  Even before we get to this first essay, F. Tennyson Jesse immediately dates this collection as she states in her preface how Skinner is making good natured fun of America – and claims that

“…they stand, in their light-hearted way, for the very principle for which we are all fighting. There could not be a German Cornelia Otis Skinner – outside of a concentration camp.”

(F Tennyson Jesse – Preface to Popcorn)

In pieces that may well resonate still with many women – Cornelia Otis Skinner regales us with the tortures she endured in the name of beauty. In ‘The Body Beautiful’ – and ‘The Skin Game’ – she encounters so called experts who regard her with a mixture of pity and dismay and shames her into spending a lot of money. We witness her attempts at learning to dance, ice skating, horse riding and flower arranging. She describes her triumphs and more usually pit falls with a tone reminiscent of our own beloved Provincial Lady. She is never less than a warm and amusing companion, self-deprecating and delightfully observant of the world around her.

American family life comes under some wry scrutiny in this collection too – although it is all pretty tongue in cheek of course. These pieces about her child and family life in general were the ones I liked the best. She highlights the pitfalls of parenting – and the social life of a New York child. Convinced that the children are all rather more understanding of the unwritten rules than their hapless parents. In ‘It’s a Wise Parent’ she goes on to describe a children’s party she gave in New York – after which her son retired to bed in a foul temper, a lolly pop stick is found jammed into the piano strings and a parent rings up to inform Cornelia that her daughters band (a brace for teeth) is missing and could she look for it. She describes it thus…

“A repellent contraption of wire and silver, it looked like a surrealist exhibit or some part of an alarm clock. I wrapped it tenderly in cotton and placed it in a box from Cartier’s. Cynthia lives on Park Avenue in a penthouse I shall never see (although my child informs me he has been there). I left the box with the doorman, requesting him to see that Cynthia’s mother got it immediately. I had it well timed and as I drove away I prayed with fervor that she’d open it at the table.”

She recounts shopping with her very reluctant young son for new clothes in Youth’s Furnishings – and it recalled to me, my own similar shopping trips in the 1970s and 80s. Each generation of child I am sure, lives through this particular loathed ritual

She also recounts the dreaded ‘Business Party’ – in which none of the attendees wish to be there – yet everyone is going through the motions all the same.

I had already decided that I liked Cornelia Otis Skinner when I read – Our Hearts… however she did let me down a little when she says..

“I am no feminist. I don’t for one second think woman is man’s equal and the mere idea of a brave new world in which we all work shoulder to shoulder, even cheek to cheek, with those admirable creatures fills me with boredom and dismay. I don’t want to do man’s work. I don’t even want the vote.”

In this piece called ‘Allow Me, Madame’ she goes on to complain that while she is happy for men to do most things she would rather like to be allowed to lay a fire or tune a radio by herself – despite men not believing she can manage either of these complex procedures. I know feminism was a dirty word in the 1940s – but still – really Cornelia I was disappointed.

Still, pushing that to one side this was a lovely little collection to spend time with – and I need to try and rad that third Skinner book that I have before another five years have elapsed.

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With thanks to the British Library for the review copy.

The progress of a Crime with its vibrant cover showing a bonfire against a pitch black background, seemed like it would be a perfect easy read in the run up to fireworks night. I tend to find I can hear fireworks where I live for most of the winter – and they have been particularly noisy the last few days – I suppose its one thing people can still do.

Julian Symons was a new name to me – yet he was an enormously prolific writer. As well as many crime fiction novels and a great many short stories Symons wrote books of political and military history, biography and poetry. This novel from 1960 won the Edgar award for best novel in 1960.  If I am being totally honest, I was expecting more of a mystery than I got with this novel. There is plenty to appreciate in the novel – but little for the armchair detective to get stuck into.  

The first thing fans of golden age/vintage crime etc should be aware of is that this is not really a mystery novel in the usual sense. Actually the title is in itself a big clue to the kind of story we get here – at first I had thought it might be a police procedural and it is up to a point – however this isn’t a mystery where someone must discover the culprit of a crime. Instead this is much more a novel that shows how the police bring their suspects to book and prepare for the court case. One of the things I liked the most, was what a strong sense of period there is throughout the book – from the treatment of suspects by the police – to the working class home of one particular character – it has a strong early 60s vibe. I couldn’t help but think what a good dramatisation it would make – most of what little tension there is comes from the people and their relationships rather than from the crime.

Symons also shows us how the crime is seen from the perspective of a group of journalists – a couple of local reporters and a London journalist who arrives to cover the case. This is an unusual angle, showing how involved the London press could get with a case – going as far as paying legal costs in return for interviews and photographs that would grace the pages of the paper for several days after the case is finished.

On bonfire night there is a fatal stabbing on the village green in the village of Far Wether – local reporter Hugh Bennett had driven the twelve miles from the (unnamed) city to find out about the village tradition of burning an effigy of the local squire – instead of Guy Fawkes – which has been going on for generations. While talking to the locals he hears about some trouble with a group of city Teddy Boys the previous week – and how they were sent off with a flee in the ear. Notes made – Hugh decides to stay and watch the spectacle for himself.  Things begin as they are meant to – the locals standing around watching – but soon the sound of motorcycles can be heard in the distance.

The group of teenage boys arrive – it’s dark and the air is full of bonfire smoke – it becomes difficult to be certain what exactly happened. A child is knocked to the ground, someone is heard calling ‘get him King’ a man is stabbed – but which one of the gang did the deed?

“There followed a cry, a long wailing animal cry. Dark figures ran over the green. There was the sound of motorcycles starting up and roaring away down the road. And after that, in spite of the fire’s crackle and the spit and bang of fireworks, there was what to Hugh Bennett, seemed very much like silence.”

Superintendent Langton is a stolid, cautious kind of man, who unfortunately does not have the full confidence of his Chief Constable – so the chief calls in Detective Superintendent Twicker from Scotland Yard to work with him on the Bonfire night stabbing. Langton has already identified the boys on the motorcycles – knows where they all work together – now they need to bring them in – separate them and try and break the story they will have cooked up between them. There is something of a cloud over Twicker too – something which went wrong a few years earlier – he’s a man who needs to prove himself. With Twicker comes Detective Sergeant Norman, a younger ambitious man. It becomes fairly obvious early on – which of the boys is likely to be the real culprit – and soon the police have two suspects who they are able to charge with the crime and bring to trial. The police’s methods of questioning a long way from what would be appropriate today – although possibly in real life they may have been even worse.

“This also was routine, something that had been done and said ten thousand times in a hundred police stations, and Twicker, as he looked at Norman’s fleshy face set in its mask of good humour, and at Garney’s, in which fear was beginning to replace arrogance, felt nothing at all. Lies and tricks, threats and promises, these were the methods that brought results.”

Hugh Bennett becomes drawn into the case in his role as a local reporter – although he is also a witness – which his horrible boss at the paper is rather glad about. The story gets sent out to the London papers – and soon enough a London reporter is working alongside Hugh. They set their sights on the family of one of the suspects – a family living in Peter Street – the name adopted by the gang. The sister is Jill – a young primary school teacher – who Hugh is clearly drawn to – and their father a local councillor and long time member of the Labour movement. The London paper offer to pay the legal costs in return for a series of interviews and photographs. It’s an offer that goes against everything the boy’s father believes in – but he needs to help his son.

As I said, there is little work for the armchair detective to do – but in the atmosphere of the early 1960s the conflict between different generations and its portrayal of police methods The Progress of a Crime paints a vivid picture.

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One of November’s reading events is MARM (Margaret Atwood reading month) which I have enjoyed joining in with before. For months my intention had been to finally read MaddAddam the third book in the trilogy of the same name, and to re-read Cat’s Eye which I read many years ago but can’t remember too much about. Both those are fairly chunky, and I am still reading fairly slowly, so I had a re-think. I decided to re-read Surfacing – which I remembered absolutely nothing about and would also count towards novellas in November.

This is a beautifully written short novel – there is a subtle complexity in the narrative – and several layers to be explored. There is a lot that is metaphorical and a good deal of introspection as the narrator explores her past and present self, and her past and present relationships. This is a novel about human behaviour, identity, personal and national, grief, loss and memory.

Surfacing was Margaret Atwood’s second novel published in 1973, a young unnamed divorcee returns to the remote Quebec island of her childhood to look into the disappearance of her father. She is travelling with her lover Joe, and another couple, David and Anna. David and Joe have been making an odd sort of film during the journey, filming anything that takes their fancy on a rented camera – the film is to be called Random Samples – because that is essentially what it is.  

Our narrator left the rural community where she grew up, to live a different kind of life. Her childhood home was a remote place on the side of a lake where she remembers her father taking the boat out on to the water, going off on expeditions with his friend Paul who lives nearby still, her mother invariably ill. This is the place where her brother almost drowned once. She had left, married, and never returned – her parents never knew about the divorce – she never told them the truth about her marriage or why it ended – she had sent them a postcard once and that was that. She had felt unable to return, unable to explain.

“They never knew, about that or why I left. Their own innocence, the reason I couldn’t tell them; perilous innocence, closing them in glass, their artificial garden, greenhouse. They didn’t teach us about evil, they didn’t understand about it, how could I describe it to them? They were from another age, prehistoric, when everyone got married and had a family, children growing in the yard like sunflowers; remote as Eskimoes or mastodons.”

Now her mother is dead, and her father appears to have vanished from his lake side cabin. Contacted by her father’s old friend Paul – she has come to try and find out what happened but has no intention of seeing her father if he should show up.

Now returning to the place where she grew up, she is overwhelmed by memories, glimpses of her mother sat on the sofa in the cabin by the lake – which after several years away looks smaller than it once did. She and Joe, David and Anna – opt to stay in the cabin, the men decide they should stay the week – enjoy the lake while they have the chance. The women undertake the domestic tasks, Anna we learn tries never to appear before her husband without make up on. There is a lot of feminist themes here, ideas of gender and identity explored by Atwood in her portrayal of these two couples. The lake is an important metaphor for all that is going on beneath – those memories that immediately start to surface – those things that lie hidden away unseen. The lake dominates the landscape here and the story.

“I learned about religion the way most children then learned about sex, not in the gutter but in the gravel and cement schoolyard, during the winter months of real school. They would cluster in groups, holding each others’ mittened hands and whispering. They terrified me by telling me there was a dead man in the sky watching everything I did and I retaliated by explaining where babies came from. Some of their mothers phoned mine to complain, though I think I was more upset than they were: they didn’t believe me but I believed them.”

Gradually we come to see that all is not well in either of these relationships, Anna and David’s apparent married idyl – hiding a really problematic, disturbing relationship. Our narrator is not happy, she is clearly psychologically scarred by things that happened in the time before she returned to the island. She and Joe want different things, and he seems unable or unwilling to see things from her point of view, and there is still so many things she has not talked about to him. She is a classic unreliable narrator – as the novel progresses we wonder how much of her perspective we can really trust.

“I leafed through all the men I had known to see whether or not I hated them. But then I realized it wasn’t the men I hated, it was the Americans, the human beings, men and women both. They’d had their chance but they had turned against the gods, and it was time for me to choose sides. I wanted there to be a machine that could make them vanish, a button I could press that would evaporate them without disturbing anything else, that way there would be more room for the animals, they would be rescued.”

There is quite a strong anti-American vibe throughout the novel – our narrator sees the Americans that come to the area as a disease – she wants nothing to do with them. This seems to be some sort of paranoia – as gradually we begin to see this fragile young woman’s mental state deteriorate – the narrative becomes more fractured.

I thoroughly enjoyed this re-read- and at the same time understand why after about thirty years I had remembered nothing about it. It was like reading it for the first time, which was a treat – as reading Margaret Atwood almost always is.

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The November choice for my book group is Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth – and we meet next Monday evening (still by Zoom) to discuss it. When the book was first suggested by another member of the group, I hadn’t heard of either the book or the author. A novel about huge American chicken farms and animal rights activists I wasn’t sure really what I would make of it. I have to say, I enjoyed it enormously.  The novel is never too serious, nor is it preachy or patronising, despite ringing with the passion the author clearly feels for these issues, Barn 8 is comic and inventive. There is though an honesty about the reality of battery farming in the US (and elsewhere I believe) that comes from a lot of research.  Told in an array of voices – we even get to see things from the point of view of the chickens on one or two occasions.  

“In the wild, chickens have complicated cliques and distinct voices. They talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen twitters and sings to her eggs and the chicks inside answer, peeping and burbling and clicking through their shells. Adult chickens have over thirty categories of conversation, each with its own web of coos and calls and clucks and struts. Chickens gossip, summon, play, flirt, teach, warn, mourn, fight, praise, and promise.”

The main premise is that two auditors for the US egg industry go rogue and plot to liberate an entire farm’s chickens – almost one million hens. However, the story starts long before we get that far.

The novel opens as Janey, a fifteen year old arrives in Iowa from New York to visit the father she has never met and only recently found out about. Her dreams of what her father might be like are almost instantly shattered, but Janey is far too stubborn to admit defeat and go home. Events conspire against her, and the years pass, and Janey remains living with her father – the two have a combative, uneasy relationship. Throughout the narrative Janey thinks of herself as two people – the Janey living the life she should have lived in New York (old Janey) and the one living the life she has in Iowa – the life she got by mistake. I found this element particularly well done, and quite poignant, that, what if thing that we all do sometimes.

When she finally leaves school, Janey needs to get a job – and her father enlists the help of a friend of Janey’s mother, Cleveland who is an auditor for the US egg industry. Janey happens to turn up at a time when Cleveland is having something of a crisis about what she is doing – which all started when she found an escaped hen wandering round the yard where she was parked. Janey is twenty by now, still quite angry – dreaming of that life she should have had – and she and Cleveland don’t get off to the best of starts. When Cleveland was a child, Janey’s then teenage mum had babysat for her, Cleveland had loved her – and from time to time, Janey hears things in Cleveland’s speech, sayings or little bits of wisdom that remind her of her mother. There’s an awkwardness between the two women, but there is just enough understanding to bring them together. Slowly, Janey starts to find herself, Old Janey is fading, new Janey is emerging – there’s a gradual letting go of the past.

Unbeknownst to Janey, Cleveland has been sneaking out at night, leaving her husband asleep and liberating one or two hens at a time; leaving them on the doorstep of the local animal rights group – the animal rights group are more than a little irritated. When Janey catches Cleveland red handed – so to speak – the seeds of a most audacious heist are sown.

This is clearly not something that Janey and Cleveland can pull off on their own, they will need help, lots of it, and trucks, lots of trucks. We meet Dill, whose been living with his boyfriend in an old farmhouse, but the relationship is on the rocks. Dill has had some involvement with animal rights in the past, he’s been lying low more recently, fallen out of favour, but people at least know who he is, and may agree to join him.

“He took it all in, the rows of cages, each so long you couldn’t see the other end, the woo woo of the birds, like a hundred thousand kazoos, and the low-base pulse of the fans. An extreme density of music, a concert, a long song. Grime covered the cages and hung off them in icicles. He almost allowed himself to think, this is obvious-ass impossible, but he didn’t. He laughed. Well let’s get on with it. He unlatched the first cage with a gloved hand and reached in.”

There’s Annabelle, a farmer’s daughter – a former leader in an animal rights group leading undercover investigations, she has been living a reclusive life in an area cordoned off from the rest of the world due to toxic waste. Annabelle was married to Jonathan – and calls on him now to help, Jonathan a man as lost as Dill is and Janey has been – five fractured people, who with hundreds of other activists (once the call has gone out) attempt something which may or may not be possible.

This is a really excellent novel – I loved the array of viewpoints the way the narrative moves back and forth in time. Oh, and if you want to understand the point of the title – you will have to read the book. Barn 8 has an important message at its core – about the egg industry in the US and the treatment of hens in battery farms. It’s inventive and funny and I look forward to discussing it with my book group on Monday.

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