Orwell’s England

orwell I was delighted to pick up this copy of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier in an antiquarian bookseller’s today. I’ve never seen this particular edition before, which is published with some of Orwell’s diary entries, letters and journalism. It even has some contextualising black and white photographs, for those who’ve never seen working class people before.

I love The Road to Wigan Pier and read my previous copy until it fell to pieces.  I used to live ‘up north’ and so have a familiarity with many of the places mentioned, as well as a residual sense of what it was like to be working class in the 1930s, from my own working class upbringing in the industrial heartland of the West Midlands.  My grandmother even lived next door to an old fashioned chimney sweep, who looked like he’d stepped straight from the pages of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

As I now live ‘down south’, I get a sense that the world described by Orwell will be alien to many English people.  Few of the people I work with have ever been to Wigan, Manchester or Leeds.  Not that these places are now anything like the cities described in this book.  However, I would say that this is more of a reason to read it, not less.  I feel it is more important than ever to get a sense of what England used to be like, before it is altered beyond all recognition.

My fascination with the British class system is probably evident to anyone who has read this blog before.  Although, the class structure, as it was taught in my ‘O’ level Sociology lessons thirty years ago, now seems very different.  The Upper, Middle and Working Class system has divided and proliferated to include new terms: the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, new affluent workers, emergent service workers, traditional working class and precariat.

Not that I think it’s an exact science – according to this calculator on the BBC Website, I am now a Precariat, which would mean that I have dropped down a rung on the ladder from the Traditional Working Class family I was born into.  I would contest this categorisation – I now have a degree and I’m definitely posher than I used to be!  Although, I did yesterday buy a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, thinking it would be white, so I have a long way to go before I’m middle class.

Anyway, I’m not sure what the point of this blog post is really.  Apart from to encourage everyone to read Orwell.  I think we need a modern George Orwell, actually.  Is there anyone to inherit his mantle?  Unfortunately, I read the Guardian (purely out of habit) and they seem to hate the working classes, while repeating a brainless mantra of ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ from their metropolitan bubble.

There is a sort of read-a-thon happening next Tuesday, 6th June, 9am until 10pm at Senate House, London WC1E 7HU.  Where those who wish to, can read Orwell’s 1984, from beginning to end.  Followed by a ‘two minutes hate’ (I made that bit up).  It sounds like a wonderful event.  See here for further details: 1984 LIVE.

 

What have you missed?

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I haven’t blogged here for such a long time, though you’ll be pleased to hear that I have still been reading books during my absence.  I think I’ll do a quick recap of the year so far, to get the ball rolling again.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read twenty-six books in 2017, though I have actually read more than this, as I’ve re-read certain books either in full or just a few chapters for research.  One book I read again recently, was ‘How to See the World’, by Nicholas Mirzoeff.  I find the chapter on cities particularly interesting and I would recommend it for a stimulating discussion of the peculiar times in which we live.

In a similar vein, I also read ‘How to Think Like an Artist’ by Will Gompertz.  I wouldn’t say it was life changing, but it was definitely encouraging, and if, like me, you’re a bit chaotic, then you may find it a helpful way of approaching creativity in a more structured way.

I haven’t read many novels this year.  Those I have read have been pretty average in the main: The Silver Linings Playbook, Apple Tree Yard and The Girl on the Train.  They were entertaining enough, I liked the use of an unreliable narrator in The Girl on the Train, although I think it became increasingly implausible towards the end.  One book absolutely loathed was The Girl with all the Gifts by M R Carey.  In hindsight, I’ve no idea why I thought I would enjoy a zombie novel, but my expectations were raised by some Booktubers’ enthusiastic reviews.  The best novel I’ve read in 2017 is Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, which probably shows that I should stick to the classics, rather than listening to what other people rave about.

Sticking with Brontës, I also read the anthology of short stories called Reader, I Married Him, taking the famous line from Jane Eyre as their inspiration.  Or so I was led to believe.  In actual fact, very few of the stories seemed to have anything to do with Jane Eyre at all.  My favourite was by Tracy Chevalier, who also edited the collection, and so perhaps was the only author who stuck to the brief!

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing is an examination of loneliness through the art work of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz.  Now this was quite fascinating actually, when she was talking about the artists instead of herself, that is.  I can’t deny that she is a very good writer, but I found the discussion of her own mental state a bit boring and felt she was someone trying to make herself seem more interesting by piggybacking on other people’s hardship.  Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, but I’ve had enough of self-indulgent moaning from a Feminist perspective.

So that’s the pick of the year so far.  I’m reading Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot at the moment, though it’s too soon to say what I think of it.

Review of 2016

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halls-bookshop1Well, it’s nearly over and I’ve decided to do my review of the year while my Goodreads Reading Challenge is at a nice round figure of one hundred books.

I’ve read some fantastic books this year, but my reading has tailed off slightly since the summer.  This is because I’m making art in the evening, rather than reading.  Time is precious and unfortunately something has to give.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that 2016 has been a dreadful year, which has made reading even more important to me as a means of escape.  It’s wonderful that there still many books and authors out there for me to discover, and this year I have found a new favourite author and a new favourite book.

Looking over my year of reading, I’m slightly ashamed that I haven’t read more modern fiction.  Perhaps this is because I’m so often disappointed by contemporary literature, falling for the hype and then feeling completely out of touch when I haven’t enjoyed it.  I also haven’t read much poetry in 2016, because I haven’t been writing poetry.  However, A Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe stands out for me, as does anything I’ve read by Selima Hill.

A year of non-fiction

img_20161016_163721This year I have enjoyed Paul Theroux’s travel writing and Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography.  However, my particular favourite has been Simon Garfield’s To the Letter.  Not only is it an accessible and fascinating history of letter writing and the postal services in England and America, it has actually proved life-changing for me.  To the Letter inspired me to start making mail art and I now have penpals in the USA, Canada and Germany as a result.  I owe my friend Ray a big ‘thank you’ for introducing me to this book and for rekindling my interest in the art of letter writing.

A year of women writers

owls hier resI haven’t made it a mission to read so many female authors in 2016, it just seems to have happened that way.  This year, I have acquired a taste for the novels of Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark, have finally got round to reading something by the incredible Janet Frame and have ‘discovered’ the short stories of Lucia Berlin.  Janet Frame’s books aren’t readily available in the UK and so I intend to track down more of her work in 2017, via AbeBooks and other secondhand sources.  Having read Some Tame Gazelle and Excellent Women, I’m saving Barbara Pym’s other books for a rainy day, as there’s something so cosy and cheerful about their world of curates, middle-aged spinsters and cauliflower cheese.

 

My favourites of 2016

voyage dark2016 is the year I fell in love with Jean Rhys and read all of her novels, apart from After Leaving Mr MacKenzie.  I also read her short stories, letters and a biography.  It would be impossible to pick a favourite of her books, as I think they’re all wonderful.  However, I don’t think that everyone will read her work and feel the same way about her as I do.  I just relate to her bitterness, misery and loneliness on a really personal level and she articulates it all so beautifully!

Having said this, after careful consideration, I think my favourite book of 2016 is Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.  I’m old and jaded and it’s difficult to excite me, but this novel made me sit up and take notice.  It is grim and violent, though beautifully written and strangely uplifting.

Didn’t quite make it

The first book I read this year was The Blue Fox by Icelandic author, Sjon, and this deserves an honourable mention – the stark poetry of this novella has sustained me all year and I may well re-read it in 2017.

Death and the Seaside

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Death and the Seaside
Alison Moore

I can’t possibly review this book, as I am yet to finish it.  However, it is a very stimulating novel and I want to get a few thoughts down about it, while I have the time…

If you’ve read this blog, then it will be no secret to you that I’m not a fan of modern life, and this novel highlights one of the things I hate about being alive in the 21st Century: everything is so bloody clever nowadays.

This is a very clever novel: it is full of literary references, packed with nods to Behaviourism, semiotics and postmodern theory.  It has a story within a story – Bonnie writes Susan into being and the fictional character, Susan, is very much like the fictional character, Bonnie, who created her.  Only, they were both created by Alison Moore, who perhaps bears no resemblance to either of them.  So this in itself is a reference to The Death of the Author, an essay by Roland Barthes.  Can you see how clever it all is?

And yet… it is really badly written – full of horrible similes and clumsy chapter endings.  But it can’t really be badly written, can it?  Even this is Alison Moore being clever.

In the same way that Les Dawson must have been an excellent pianist to play the piano so badly; Alison Moore must be a very good writer, who knows exactly what she’s doing.

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!).