To The Letter

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My reading has a postal theme at the moment, as one of my friends has rekindled my interest in writing letters.

To the Letter, by Simon Garfield is a fascinating history of postal services in the UK and abroad, combined with wonderful examples of correspondence from famous people, such as Ted Hughes, and not so so famous, such as a couple who fell in love via letter during the Second World War.  It also mentions a great English eccentric, W. Reginald Bray.

Bray’s story can also be found in The Englishman Who Posted Himself written by John Tingley, a philatelist and collector of postal ephemera.  It is a slight, but nicely illustrated book about man who set out to test the Royal Mail to its limits by posting himself (with his bicycle) and other strange objects, such as a carved turnip and a rabbit’s skull.

I am also about to read the correspondence of the famous Mitford sisters; surely one of the most interesting families of the twentieth century?  They included Hitler and J.F. Kennedy among their acquaintance, so I am prepared for lots of name-dropping.

Bartleby, the Scrivener

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zizek-would-prefer-not-toBartleby, the Scrivener
Herman Melville

Melville’s short story is set in a Wall Street legal office and provides us with a wonderful array of characters.  Namely the narrator, the owner of the business, and his three clerks: Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut.  The titular character,  Bartleby, arrives at the offices unexpectedly and is engaged as a scrivener.  At first, Bartleby shows a great flair for his work of copying legal documents, almost ‘devouring’ the work given to him, but not with relish: his method is almost machine-like and he resembles a pale, passive automaton.

Then one day, Bartleby simply refuses to work any more, using what will become his famous catchphrase of passive resistance: “I would prefer not to”.  The rest of the tale sees the Lawyer attempt various means of coaxing, bribing and cajoling Bartleby to industry.  However, Bartleby would rather spend all day stationary: standing in the middle of the room and staring at a blank wall.

I really enjoy reading about work and have found Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym particularly good on workplace dynamics.  My favourite sections of A Confederacy of Dunces are when Ignatius J Reilly is employed as a filing clerk at Levy Pants.  Unlike Bartleby, his rebellion is belligerent, chaotic and obvious – he files all of his work in the trash and stirs up his fellow workers to noisy protest (one of the funniest things I’ve ever read).

The story of Bartleby is entirely different.  It is fascinating psychologically, but also seems to be symbolic in some way.  The narrator keeps referring to Bartleby’s pallor, his dislike of change, and at one point calls him an ‘incubus’; he haunts the story and the narrator is unable to shake him off.  I can’t help wondering if he is in some way a reference to Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.  There are probably many ways of reading the story and I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to do so.

All Passion Spent

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all-passion-spentAll Passion Spent
Vita Sackville-West
Vintage Classics

What draws you to a particular book?  Are you seduced by an attractive cover?

I am, but have learned that it really isn’t the best way to select a novel.  Not that this knowledge ever stops me wasting money.  All Passion Spent was part of a lovely display of novels from the 1930s in my local Waterstones and something about the cover art led me to choose it, rather than any other.  Also, I’d just been reading about Vita Sackville-West’s personal life and how she inspired Virginia Woolf’s wonderful Orlando, so had high hopes for her writing.

This is a novel about the elderly Lady Slane whose eminent husband, Lord Slane, has just popped his clogs, leaving her with very little money to live on.  Lady Slane confounds her children’s expectations by asserting her independence and going off to live with her housemaid in a rented Georgian house in Hampstead.  There she rejects the company of her family for three new and rather eccentric characters: the owner of the property, a builder and an art collector.

I won’t spoil the plot by saying any more, but it is rather an interesting little tale.  Lady Slane’s children are pretty loathsome, money-grabbing types and we learn something of her deceased husband from her reflections on her life with him.  Although, it seems to me that she considers it somewhat wasted.

And I think this is where the novel starts to lose momentum and become boring for me.  Vita Sackville-West meanders off on a Feminist path, bemoaning the loss of a woman’s identity within a marriage, while I was left wanting more of the interesting characters and Lady Slane’s new independent lifestyle.

I found it a shame, that a fascinating collection of people are only sketchily drawn out by Sackville-West, and wish that she’d been told to flesh it out more.  There is the odd line, which goes right to the heart of the matter, but there is also a lot of unnecessary tangential stuff about the lot of married upper-class women, which spoilt it for me.

“I do believe it,” said William, working himself up. “Mother is like a child who treats rubies as though they were pebbles. She has never learnt; she has merely wandered through life.”

This sentence is All Passion Spent in a nutshell, and I can imagine this would make a good radio play, as the bare bones are really quite engaging.  Someone who is interested in Feminism would probably find this fascinating, but the novel wasn’t quite my cup of afternoon tea.

Try a Chapter

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I don’t have a YouTube channel but often watch BookTube vlogs for background noise while I’m cooking.  A tag which is currently doing the rounds is ‘Try a Chapter’ where people read just the first chapter of five books and review them: saying how they feel about continuing with the novel, and so forth.

As you have probably guessed, I have a large pile of books ‘To Be Read’ and I thought the Try a Chapter tag would help me to either prioritise reading them, or decide whether to discard them to the charity shop once and for all.

I chose five books completely at random:

Home by Marilynne Robinson
All that is solid melts into air by Darragh McKeon
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Home

This doesn’t actually have chapters! Which proves that I really did choose the books randomly. I read the first thirteen pages until there was a break in the narrative.  The language of Home seems very convoluted. I think I would probably get into the rhythm of Marilynne Robinson’s prose, but at first I found it confusing.  This starts very gently, but the first section ends on an interesting dispute between the main protagonists and their neighbours over the ownership of a field. The neighbours are nicknamed Mr and Mrs Trotsky and seem to represent ‘un-American’ values and Godlessness, compared to the Broughtons who have a family background of Christianity. I would probably carry on with this novel, but find it very slow paced so far.

All that is solid melts into air

This starts with the date April 1986 and the first chapter is written from the point of view of a young boy called Yevgeni, a child piano prodigy, who is being bullied by other children at a train station. I see that the next chapter is from another character’s viewpoint and I am interested to see how this works. The subject of the novel is the Chernobyl disaster and I am keen find out how this is handled by Darragh McKeon. The writing is not bad so far.

The Vegetarian

I have heard many positive reviews of this book on YouTube over the past year and know that it won the Man Booker Prize. It’s another novel without chapters and so I read the first twenty-six pages. It reminds me of The Yellow Wallpaper, in that it is an ambiguous description of an oppressive relationship, in which the wife is portrayed as having mental health issues, but which could also be her rebelling against social expectations. It mixes ordinary domesticity with disturbingly dreamlike elements. I shall continue to read this.

Edit: I read this and found that I didn’t enjoy it at all. The book is in three parts, told from different characters’ points of view.  All of them have a relationship with, Yeong-hye, the mentally ill woman at the centre of the story.  However,Yeong-hye is never given the opportunity to tell her own story. I found this, and the way she is sexualised by her husband and brother-in-law, to be dehumanising – which is perhaps the point of the novel?  This is not really about a vegetarian – Yeong-hye seems to want to become a tree. Not my thing at all.

Mr Pip

Oh dear. I don’t think much of this. I read two chapters to get a more accurate view of the novel (the chapters are very short) and I don’t feel that the voice of main protagonist/narrator seems authentic at all.  She is a young girl, a black native of the island of Bougainville. This is apparently part of Papua New Guinea, but I had no sense of that from how she speaks.  She introduces us to the only white person on the island, Mr Watts, who seems quite eccentric. There is nothing so far to give me a sense of geographic place or ambience.  Unlike, for example, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, in which the island and the main character have a distinct identity and are beautifully described.

The Name of the Rose

I was very surprised by this. I know Umberto Eco by reputation as an intellectual.  I also know that he was a great lover of books. I read the Prologue of this novel and was astounded by the lengths to which he had gone in order to make this seem like an authentic manuscript. However, because I also know that he was interested in postmodernism, I can see that it is also somewhat playful: like an intellectual puzzle. I thought that it would be too high brow for me, but I can’t wait to start reading it in earnest.

Well, there you go. I think this is a useful exercise for anyone who wants to downsize their TBR pile or is stuck to know what to read next. I would probably save a lot of money if I read the first chapter of novels before I bought them!

Child of God

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child_of_god-largeChild of God
Cormac McCarthy

I’m afflicted with some sort of brain fog at the moment, which makes it difficult to express myself. However, I have just finished Child of God and would like to get my thoughts down on paper, as quickly as possible, before they evaporate.

This novel grabbed me from its first carnivalesque paragraph, but didn’t follow in the direction I expected it to take.  It tells the story of Lester Ballard, a loner and outsider in every sense of the word. The story unfolds as a sort of descent into hell, with Lester’s actions becoming increasingly depraved.

He lives a feral existence on the outskirts of a rural community, which gives McCarthy scope to include some beautifully poetic descriptions of Lester’s environment. This stands in extreme contrast to Lester’s lifestyle, which sees him progress from voyeur to murderer to necrophile.

Lester cannot relate to other human beings in any conventional sense and so apes romantic relationships in a grotesque manner.  He has no conversation, he is seemingly repulsive to other people, especially women, and seems driven by loneliness and sexual frustration to mimic courtship behaviour in a shocking and perverse way.

This was McCarthy’s third novel and is sometimes described as his ‘southern gothic’ or ‘Tennessee gothic’ period.  However, having read his later post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, I can see an obvious development and similarity in themes.

The Road has survival as its focus, but pivots on a loving relationship between father and son. The difference between them, and the others who are also trying to survive in their dystopian environment, is their unwillingness to descend into animalistic behaviour or to lose their sense of goodness.  Lester Ballard, on the other hand, seems to have no empathy or moral compass, unable to sustain any form of loving relationship, his life is solely about gratification of basic needs and physical survival.

And yet, McCarthy tells us very early on in the novel, that Lester Ballard is just like us: he is a Child of God.

The implications of this, take this novel way beyond a simple murder story, into the realms of metaphysics and spirituality, which makes it a far more interesting read than I expected.

A Manual for Cleaning Women

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lucia berlinA Manual for Cleaning Women
Lucia Berlin
Picador

Unless you live in a media-free bubble, you’ve probably now heard of Lucia Berlin, as this collection has just been published in paperback. However, until recently her work has existed in relative obscurity.

I’m sure there are many reasons for this, such as the lack of popularity of the short story form and her focus on memoir-based writing.  I’m not sure if the fact that she’s a woman is to blame, although I’m sure some people will be quick to cite sexism in publishing as a reason.

Perhaps now is her time.  Short stories seem to be gaining in popularity and writers who choose to focus on them, rather than novels, such as Alice Munro, are gaining accolades.

I much preferred Lucia Berlin’s short stories to the ones I’ve read by Alice Munro and there were very few stories in this collection that I didn’t enjoy.  Berlin wrote from her own life, which fortunately for her, was varied and fascinating.  She lived in South America and all over the  United States, experienced both poverty and affluence, dealt with personal grief, alcoholism and a series of dead-end jobs as a single parent.  All of which made for interesting raw material.

I’m not generally a touchy-feely sort of person, but Lucia Berlin had a human warmth and passionate nature, which makes her writing very moving.  Many of her stories deal with her sister’s terminal illness and I found them very affecting.  There is also the odd shock factor in there which gives the collection an edge.  For that reason I’d say that this collection bridges the gap between literary fiction, ‘dirty realism’ and (dare I say it) chick lit. (Sorry!).

The Endless Steppe

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endless steppeThe Endless Steppe
Esther Hautzig
Penguin

Esther Rudomin was ten years old when, in 1941, she and her family were arrested by the Russians for being ‘capitalists’ and transported to Siberia…

First published in 1968, Esther Hautzig’s memoir has been given a modern makeover by Penguin, as part of their ‘The Originals’ YA series.  My own daughter is around the same age as Esther was when she was exiled, which gives this story an added poignancy for me.  I desperately want her to read this book, as I think she has very little understanding of how fortunate we are here in the UK, living a life of relative affluence and peace.

I found this a very uplifting story, due to Esther Hautzig’s lack of self-pity, her fortitude and resilience. As the child of a cultured and affluent Jewish family, in what was then Poland and is now Lithuania, her wartime years of forced labour and harsh poverty in the Russian Steppe came as a bitter blow. On top of this, she had to contend with separation from her extended family, the death of her grandfather and a life of uncertainty and hardship, in what was essentially an open prison.

Geographically, Siberia has a real pull for me, as I am fascinated by its vastness. I have flown over the Russian Steppe a few times and, even in an aeroplane, it really did seem endless.  After weeks of travelling in a windowless cattle truck, Esther must have felt that she had been sent to the ends of the earth when she finally reached the remote village of Rubtsovsk.

I’m not sure why, but I find myself drawn to books about the former USSR, particularly life under Stalin’s regime.  I found this an interesting companion piece to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Solzhenitsyn.  A more obvious comparison could probably be made to Anne Frank’s Diary, though I kept thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, while I was reading it.  All of these are books which make me value my current freedoms and hope for a lasting peace; as these books show, war* really is a scourge on humanity and the cause of immense suffering.

*extreme ideologies and dictators?!

Prisoners of Geography

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geographyPrisoners of Geography
Tim Marshall
Elliot & Thompson Ltd

This was an impulse buy, largely based on its prominent display in my local Waterstones.

I hated geography at school, but this is mostly because it was taught in a smelly mobile classroom, by a scruffy teacher we nicknamed Mr Ball-scratcher, because he seemingly found it impossible to get through a lesson without handling his bollocks.  He would spend much of his time in the stationery cupboard (most probably masturbating, we conjectured) having set us a boring essay to write on the topic of rice farming in Burma.

We hardly ever looked at maps – and, although I detested geography, or so I thought, I have always loved looking at maps.

I’m only on chapter two of this book, but already I want to recommend it to everyone who isn’t already an expert on geo-politics and military history.  If you find the current proxy war in Syria confusing, or don’t understand all the military posturing in Eastern Europe by Nato allies, then this will open your eyes.

We are sold by the media, the idea that all wars are fought on the basis of ideology or religion.  For some reason, this is what they would prefer you to believe.  However, it seems to me, from reading this book, that most wars are about territory.  They are, and have always been, about protecting your country’s economic and strategic interests.

Suddenly, the world is a less confusing place for me.  To misquote Jessie J, “it’s all about the money, money, money”.  Well, you know – the gas pipelines and cheap oil.  Same thing, really.

An Abbreviated Life

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An Abbreviated Life
Ariel Leve
Harper

I’ll come straight out and say that I didn’t enjoy this memoir at all.  However, this doesn’t mean that I would discourage anyone else from reading it.  I am a little sensitive to what I think of as ‘pity porn’; it is a genre I steer well clear of, as I’m not sure what I can gain from reading about other people’s abusive childhoods.

I can, however, understand what the writer gained from spilling out their hurt and anger onto the page: there is something very cathartic in writing about one’s upbringing.  It’s just that it can only ever be one-sided.  Memory is not a video tape that a person can rewind and examine.  For that reason, I would never write an account of my own childhood, while I do gain an emotional release by discussing it obliquely in my poetry and short stories.

I don’t believe that Ariel Leve has deliberately distorted her childhood here, it’s just that she has selected the aspects of it that show her mother in the worst light possible and transforms her (mostly absent) father into some sort of godlike figure (although I kept thinking that her idolisation of him is probably undeserved).

I recently read Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs which seemed a grotesquely distorted view of his childhood, and in his case, it resulted in a lawsuit against him by his ‘adoptive’ family.

Ariel Leve does not name her famous mother in this book, but it is fairly easy to work out who she is: the poet, Sandra Hochman.  From Leve’s account she comes across as histrionic, abusive, narcissistic and emotionally unstable.  However, she was also talented, vibrant, interesting, rich and successful: surrounding herself with fascinating people from the world of art and literature.  She provided Ariel Leve with a privileged upbringing in materialistic and intellectual terms, but failed to provide her with the stability and nurturing a child needs and deserves.

Leve says that her childhood has resulted in ‘brain damage’ and there is probably no worse accusation a child can throw at their mother.  However, this book seemed like character assassination and I didn’t really feel comfortable reading it.  I wonder if Ariel Leve will one day regret publishing it?  It felt very much like revenge, rather than a laying to rest of past events.

Chernobyl Prayer

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chernobylChernobyl Prayer
Svetlana Alexievich
Penguin Modern Classics

On 26 April 1986, 01:23 hours and 58 seconds, a series of blasts brought down Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, near the Belarusian border. The accident at Chernobyl was the gravest technological catastrophe of the twentieth century.

In Chernobyl Prayer, journalist Svetlana Alexievich, brings together voices from Chernobyl in a very beautiful and moving collection of oral history testimonies.  Reviewers have made the comparison to musical composition in the way she uses ‘monologues’: “She […] developed her own non-fiction genre which brings together a chorus of voices to describe a specific historical moment”. It is certainly a well-orchestrated piece, with a skillful blend of factual information and personal recollection.

The saddest thing about the particular ‘historical moment’ described in Chernobyl Prayer, is that it hasn’t yet ended: the effects will last for centuries.

I don’t want to say too much about it, as it is a book which needs to be read in order to absorb the full emotional impact and horrific consequences of the disaster.  It is a collection I would urge everyone to read, because Chernobyl is now largely forgotten and we continue to show the same complacency towards atomic weaponry and nuclear energy as the trusting citizens of the former Soviet Union did.

The story of Chernobyl is one of lies, cover-ups, negligence, injustice and secrecy.  It is also one of death: horrific death unlike any other.  It is a story of heroism and duty, with many people showing incredible bravery in tackling the initial fires and fall out caused by the disaster.

I found its subtext, the death of the USSR, also fascinating:

What is he dying for? In the newspapers, they’re writing it’s not just Chernobyl but Communism that has blown up.  The Soviet way of life is finished.

The faith that these loyal people had in ‘The Party’, in their government and in the technology itself, is frightening, because it was so abused by those in power:

At that period, my idea of a nuclear power station was quite idyllic. At school and in college, we were taught that these were fairy-tale ‘factories making energy out of nothing’, in which people in white coats sat and pushed buttons. Chernobyl exploded in minds which were completely unprepared…

This book is full of betrayal.  In the same way that ‘Hibakusha’, the survivors of nuclear warfare in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were shunned and discriminated against, people refused to go near those affected by Chernobyl: unwilling to bury their own dead next to the graves of those who died from radiation.  This fear and prejudice even extended to some medical professionals, who withheld proper care to clean up workers and soldiers dying of radiation poisoning.

I wish that I could give a copy to every MP who voted to keep Trident yesterday, but the sad thing is, I don’t think this collection of heartbreaking stories would have any effect on them.  Like the people of the Soviet Union, before Chernobyl’s meltdown, their faith in nuclear power is absolute.