Class commentary

The Pursuit of Love
by Nancy Mitford

The cover of this book is disturbingly pink and in her introduction Zoë Heller describes it as an “unassuming bit of mid-century ‘chick-lit’” but then she also calls it “spiky and intelligent” and that, I think, comes closer to my experience. Do not be fooled by the bright pink – here be politics, acute observation of human life and some tragic events.

The infamous Mitford sisters had never really been on my radar until last year when a friend mentioned reading a volume of their letters to each other and I became instantly fascinated. That letters compilation is still on my wishlist but in the meantime this loosely disguised autobiography has provided my first insight into the Mitfords’ colourful world.

Colourful is certainly the word. A quick search on Wikipedia reveals that if anything this novel tones down the reality somewhat, but the fictional Radlett family are engrossingly colourful. Narrated by cousin and confidante Fanny, the novel follows the lives of the many Radlett children, particularly the irrepressible Linda. From teenage crushes to marriage, divorce, infidelity and loss, the pursuit of love is ever central to Linda, but gradually less so to the novel. Like everyone living through such times, the Radletts’ world becomes increasingly preoccupied by politics and the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Radletts are thoroughly upper class, with an estate in Gloucestershire, a seat in the House of Lords and a love of hunting. As such it is good that Mitford does not make much effort to endear them to us, but instead lovingly picks apart their language, ideals and ideas. Linda has some fantastically flippant lines comparing the parties of Conservatives to those of Communists and insists on classing everyone as Hons or counter-Hons. In many ways I really wanted to dislike her but she was just so funny…

This small book packs a lot of historical and social observation between the comic lines and yet is still an easy, fun read. I look forward to delving further into the Mitford world.

First published in 1945

Down time

All of two days back at work and it feels like we didn’t have a holiday at all, but the photos say otherwise! Here are a couple of snaps I took during our chilled not-quite-a-week in France. (I took more but mostly on film, which I will probably get developed in several months’ time.)

There were chilled walks in town,
Jumbled

and chilled walks in the country.
Mood lighting

Mostly, though, we sat around a log fire doing nothing much at all. That was great.

I read to open up my world

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a book that you know from the start is going to be hard in terms of subject matter, but worth it. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and it was completely deserved.

There is a fairly long build-up before the horrors, a window into “normal” life in Nigeria following independence from Britain. I was charmed by the cast of characters – largely well-off middle-class people – and their lives that were familiar (jobs in universities, trade, journalism) and yet unfamiliar (different clothes, different foods, the politics of tribes and postcolonialism).

But this is ultimately a book about war. The dates are given and I know only a very little about Nigeria, it’s that they had a civil war in the late 1960s, a war that was brutal and involved genocide and other war crimes. So I knew this book was going to some dark places, but I let myself be lulled by the peacetime stories of love, family problems and – yes – politics.

At the centre of the book are twin sisters Olanna and Kainene. Their father is a Big Man, a tribal chief by name, a successful international businessman by trade. The twins were raised in luxury in Nigeria’s main city, Lagos, had an expensive education and travel to England often.

Beautiful Olanna is drawn by revolutionary ideals and moves to Nsukka to work at the university and be near her lover Odenigbo, a revolutionary who gathers like-minded people in his house every night to discuss social and political problems over dinner and brandy. Plain Kainene is ever-practical and takes over part of her father’s business to support herself. She can’t believe any man could really love the ugly sister, but Richard falls for her at first sight. He is an Englishman who came to Nigeria to study ancient pots and has fallen for the country and is frustrated that he can never be truly Nigerian, with his white skin and the advantages it confers.

The other central character is Ugwu, Odenigbo’s house boy. Ugwu comes from a small village with very limited education but knows that being a house boy is his chance to prove himself worthy of the girl he likes back home. Odenigbo, unusual as he is, shows kindness to his servant and educates him, even gives him his own room and a bed to sleep in.

When war does come, its effect on their lives is gradual. Everyday life is still about love, friendship, trust and betrayal. As the war worsens/gets closer it gets gradually more central to the characters’ lives.

There is a sense, inevitably, that this is about how rich (or at least reasonably well-off city-dwelling) people are affected by war, which is not necessarily how poor country folk are affected, but Adichie does try to show through minor characters how different people experience both war and the build-up to war, and also how war, when it gets really bad, is a great leveller of rich and poor. When money is no longer worth anything, when everyone has fled their homes with a handful of clothes and little else, are rich people really any better off than anyone around them? Perhaps, in that they are more likely to know people – useful people who can things, messages, news. And even when money is supposedly worthless and there’s supposedly nothing to buy with it, there is always someone who can be bribed.

There is a surreal sequence at the height of the war when Richard goes to meet a pair of American journalists, to act as their guide and translator. Of necessity he takes them only to relatively safe places and feeds them decent food paid for by the government. They complain that it doesn’t seem that bad. Then Richard goes home to a place where even rice is a rare luxury, where children catch and roast lizards to fend off starvation.

The title, by the way, refers to the flag of the short-lived nation Biafra, the south-eastern region of Nigeria where all the main characters live. Their anthem was “Land of the Rising Sun” and their motto “Peace, Unity, Freedom” – which sadly never came. The region still suffers from ethnic and religious violence.

This book is brilliant and sad and warm and heartbreaking. It’s an important reminder of the best and worst of humanity. Thank you once again to Amy Reads for recommending it to me.

First published 2006 by Fourth Estate.

UPDATE: See also this review by Amy of Amy Reads. Plus you can listen to an episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to June 2009.

War novels do not necessarily glamourise war

Slaughterhouse 5
or, The Children’s Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death
by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

Slaughterhouse-Five

This is a book I had been meaning to read for a long time. I bought it, some people recommended it, and I got excited and lined it up for the recent 48-hr TBR read-a-thon. Then someone else told me it was really hardgoing and I got scared of it. Then some lovely people on Twitter encouraged me to give it a go anyway so I did. Yes, it’s a little crazy but it is a great great book.

There are no surprises in this book. Everything is laid out in chapter one, which is actually a sort-of prologue, or a “Why I wrote this book”. Vonnegut’s style takes a little getting used to. It’s chatty in a realistic kind of way, by which I mean that it’s not always fluid, jumping around between subjects, but not in a stream of consciousness way.

The central story is that of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier, prisoner of war, optometrist and time traveller. At least, he says that he was kidnapped by aliens on the night of his daughter’s wedding and ever since has been able to travel around in time the way they taught him to. This allows his life story to jump around in time, only dealing with the horrors of war in small chunks. I was never entirely clear how seriously we’re supposed to take the time travel thing, or whether Billy himself really believes it. But it makes sense for a person whose whole life has been coloured by the awfulness of witnessing the Dresden firebombing, who was institutionalised and became a fan of cheap science fiction, to latch onto this coping mechanism.

Vonnegut gives Pilgrim a lot of his own wartime experience, often stating things like “I was there too”. It is unclear how much Pilgrim is himself or how much Pilgrim is other people he observed during the war. Despite the awfulness of what both men observed, Vonnegut doesn’t linger on gruesome details. Though they are there, this book is primarily about the emotional impact of war. He states early on that this is an anti-war book and that is undeniably true. There is a very telling quote directed at his publisher: “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Despite the tough subject matter and obscure manner of storytelling, this is a tender, funny book. It is moving and also oddly innocent – Vonnegut’s subtitle is certainly apt. He shows great sympathy for dogs, horses and children, which challenged my assumption that a war veteran would be hardened emotionally.

First published 1969.

A reader reads

Inspired by Wallace of Unputdownables‘ lovely post about how her mum was her biggest reading influence, I got thinking about people who were important to me in that respect. One of my big reading influences was my third-year infants teacher, Mrs Barkley.

She quickly cottoned on to the fact that I was not only way ahead in reading the official school reading scheme books, but I was bored and unchallenged by them. So she introduced me to her special book cupboard. That place was amazing! A lifetime’s worth of children’s books, mostly suitable for kids in exactly my situation. That’s where I discovered Mrs Pepperpot and Supergran and countless others.

She retired at the end of that year and we held a special assembly for her, with lots of ragtime classics, including “Any old iron”, “She’s a lassie from Lancashire” and the specially written masterpiece “Knees up Mrs Barkley” (to the tune of “Knees up Mrs Brown”, if you didn’t get that). I remember that for “Here am I waiting at the church” we dressed up in bridesmaid dresses (or the closest equivalent we had) and I discovered to my horror on returning to the classroom to change for the next number that I’d gone out on stage with my ordinary dress unzipped and hanging around my waist, underneath the frilly frock. I was lifted by the success of playing Jennifer Eccles in “Lily the Pink”, particularly because I was deemed not freckly enough and had huge freckles drawn on my face. (At the age of seven I was a little self-conscious of my freckles.) But the highlight was when we sang Mrs Barkley’s favourite song “When you’re smiling” and she cried. It may have been the first time I saw someone cry with happiness.

My parents also, of course, had their part in my love of reading. I am fairly certain I could read before I started school, which must have been down to them, mostly my Mum, but I also fondly remember Dad reading us to sleep (for some reason the only title I remember specifically being read to us is Danny the Champion of the World). They also read for themselves, though not voraciously, and there were always lots of books in our house. In later years I took to reading to my older sister when we went to bed, because I wanted to share my favourite books with her. I have no idea if she actually liked this or was just indulging her little sister.

In fact, my whole family reads. But there is a definite step change between them and me. I was always the bookish one, even if everyone had a book on the go. I would read while walking to school, while eating my meals, with a torch under the bedcovers after lights out. I would read the same book a dozen times and make a diagram of the characters’ relationships or a timeline of events. And for some reason I attribute this extra level of obsessiveness, this need to devour every book in sight, to my favourite primary school teacher. So thank you Mrs Barkley!

One day in the life

Saturday
by Ian McEwan

I have read a few of McEwan’s books, and have had a pretty variable response to them. This one kept me so thoroughly hooked (staying up until 1 a.m. to finish it) and had such masterful language that it is definitely my favourite so far (oh, except maybe A Child in Time, which was heartbreakingly beautiful).

The story is about one particular Saturday, a day that is both ordinary and extraordinary for main character Henry, a brain surgeon in a wealthy part of London. McEwan goes into a lot of detail in this book, not something I remember particularly of his previous writing, so I suppose maybe it’s intended as a reflection of Henry’s precise nature. There are pages and pages detailing medical procedures, for example, both adding authority to the story and revealing how very much the job is a part of who Henry is.

Henry wakes early, unable to sleep, and by chance sees a plane burst into flames from his bedroom window. This is how his Saturday begins. It goes on to include a squash game, a minor car crash, food shopping, a family reunion and his observation of the Don’t Invade Iraq protest march. Yes, it’s set on that particular Saturday.

It’s an interesting set-up and is executed extremely well. The impending Iraq invasion pervades the whole day. Henry can’t get it out of his mind. He is completely torn on the subject. Not ambivalent – he definitely cares – but he is honestly not sure whether it’s the right thing to do. He’s not concerned about WMDs but he has met Iraqi intellectuals who tell awful tales of Saddam Hussein’s regime, tales that make him think that removing such a man from power could only be a good thing. But Henry’s an intelligent, astute enough man to know that it’s not that simple. For one thing, war is always to be avoided. There’s also the question of what happens next – does the UK suffer from reprisals? Does Iraq get another terrible dictator who inflicts unspeakable crimes on his own people? Does the US try to rule Iraq, causing a much bigger, longer-drawn-out war? Does this give us licence to go invade every other country with a despotic leader who we think is doing bad things?

I think this is part of why I liked the book so much. I relate very strongly to this in Henry. It’s easy to say in hindsight whether something was good or bad, whether it was done well or badly. But at the time I was so uncertain. A lot of my friends went on that protest march through London and a few people were surprised that I didn’t. I’m a pacifist – I could never be for war – but there was a strong argument for removing Saddam from power. It would be wonderful if this sort of thing could be managed through the International Court of Justice, but it’s never that simple.

But back to the book…Henry is in some ways an irritating, smug, well-to-do character who is so far removed from war zones and human rights violations that it could have been hard to care about what he thinks. He certainly has money, a comfortable lifestyle, a loving wife and children, a job he thrives on. His difficulty relating to his creatively minded children could have been clichéd. At a party I might not be inclined to speak to him. But McEwan manages to both find the humanity of this man but also write his story in a way that does not ask you to care. In a way, the whole point is how comfortably middle class Henry is because he epitomises the capitalist consumer, he is the person Al Quaeda despises and wages hate campaigns against. And he is very close in type to the people who actually made the decision about whether or not to go to war. You imagine that he was probably classmates at public school and later university with key cabinet members.

In his favour, Henry is a thinking man and McEwan gives him a believably erudite turn of phrase. For instance, when considering his difficulty with reading poetry, his thoughts run:

“…it cost him an effort of an unaccustomed sort. Even a first line can produce a tightness behind his eyes. Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time…But to do its noticing and judges, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling.”

(Incidentally, I’m not sure if I somehow had an American edition but I did get a little annoyed that this well bred Englishman was using American terms like “airplane” and “movie” rather than the British English equivalents, but that’s the sub-editor in me coming out.)

This was a very well executed novel that held me in its thrall and I am very grateful to Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…] for recommending it.

First published 2005 by Jonathan Cape

The line between life and death

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman

Yet again looking for a quick, undemanding read, I picked up another of Gaiman’s children’s books. Once again I was reminded that not all children’s books work as easy adult reads.

Gaiman’s prose is beautiful, expertly bringing to life each scene. The story is original, with lots of twists and turns. The characters tread a fine line between over-the-top grotesque and real-life normality; definitely believable. But somehow…I wasn’t kept interested.

The story is that of Bod (short for Nobody), a boy who is raised in a graveyard after his family are murdered. The ghostly inhabitants of the graveyard club together to provide him with education and support, but his main guardian is Silas, not a ghost but some other creature who is neither alive nor dead. Bod is discouraged from leaving the graveyard because Silas is convinced that the man who killed his family still wants Bod dead.

The book opens brilliantly with the murder of Bod’s family, from the perspective of the killer. The pages are illustrated evocatively by Dave McKean and I genuinely thought from that first chapter that I would love this book. Certainly I love that this is a children’s book unafraid to talk about death – murder even – and from the interesting perspective of having ghosts be, for the most part, friendly or at least benign creatures. I also like that not every mystery raised is solved.

However, whether it was too vague an overarching story (each chapter is a separate adventure, a year or two after the last one) or something else, I wasn’t engrossed. Maybe I’ll switch back to Gaiman’s adult books now.

Published 2008 by Bloomsbury.

See also reviews from Col Reads, Farm Lane Books Blog and Girls Gone Reading.

48-hour TBR read-a-thon – it’s a wrap

48-hour TBR read-a-thon

It’s now roughly 48 hours since I turned off the TV and started reading on Friday evening. I’ve got a lot of reading done – two full books, the last quarter of one and the first half of another – and I’ve been thoroughly reminded of the pleasure of putting reading before everything else, of spending hours on end absorbed in the pages of a book, so thank you to Wallace of Unputdownables for the challenge.

I haven’t read entirely solidly, of course. Besides a couple of long nights’ sleep, I also did some housework, ran some errands, met friends for lunch. And I’m not stopping right now either, though I do have evening plans that will prevent me getting much more reading done this weekend.

In total, I finished off Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, read Saturday by Ian McEwan (on the back of a recommendation from Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…]), read Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut (as recommended by Gusset and several others on Twitter) and made a good start on reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (recommended by Amy of Amy Reads).

All the books I’ve read this weekend were really good, excellent even, and full reviews will follow when I get a chance to write them out! I hope all my fellow read-a-thoners have enjoyed/are still enjoying their weekend reads.

(If you missed my previous posts and are wondering what all this is about, Wallace of Unputdownables challenged her readers to join her for a 48-hour TBR read-a-thon this weekend. I look forward to the next one!.)

48-hour TBR read-a-thon – halfway point

48-hour TBR read-a-thon

So, an update on my progress so far in the 48-hour TBR read-a-thon. Yesterday I started well, finishing off Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (which I was already three-quarters through) before reading Saturday by Ian McEwan, on the back of a recommendation from Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…]. That turned out to be an excellent choice, keeping me so absorbed that I was awake until 1 a.m. when I finished it.

Today I decided to tackle Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, which I’ve been eager to read for a while but then I mentioned this to a friend on Thursday who said she thought it was horribly hard-going, so that put me off. Some encouragement via Twitter put me back on track and I am definitely liking it so far. I’m only halfway through, partly because it’s not a quick read despite its short length, but also because I wasn’t able to entirely ignore the rest of the world today.

I’ll write proper reviews at a later point, but for now some quick summaries:

The Graveyard Book is an evocative, imaginative adventure with intriguing characters and, in true Gaiman style, doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter. However, I just wasn’t absorbed by it and kept putting it aside to read other things instead.

Saturday, on the other hand, was all-consuming and brought together politics, self-discovery, brilliant characterisation and outstanding writing. My only complaint would be that the main character is so irritatingly, snobbishly upper middle class; but that’s part of the point of course.

And now I’ll get back to the reading. I hope all my fellow read-a-thoners are enjoying their weekend reads!

(If you missed my last post and are wondering what all this is about, Wallace of Unputdownables challenged her readers to join her for a 48-hour TBR read-a-thon this weekend. I am still intending to read the Southland Tales books by David Kelly, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Double Fault by Lionel Shriver. Or at least, that’s the slightly unrealistic aim.)

48-hour TBR read-a-thon – the plan

48-hour TBR read-a-thon

Wallace of Unputdownables has challenged her readers to join her for a 48-hour TBR read-a-thon this weekend. Because clearly I have nothing else I should be getting on with (like decorating or building bookcases) I have decided to join in.

(I know, I know, I am all about the challenges lately, which is a little unlike me. Thing is, I’ve been struggling a little to read much but these mini challenges from wonderful fellow book bloggers have helped me enormously, so thank you to everyone who takes the trouble to run these things.)

Anyway, the point of this particular challenge is to make a dent in the TBR, which in my case is more than 130 books. That’s a lorra lot. We’re supposed to pick out a few that we intend to read, but I’m a bit lost as to where to start so I thought I’d ask for recommendations. My TBR is here. Please do take a look then come back and tell me what you both recommend and think I stand a chance of getting through in a weekend.

I was thinking of queueing up Half of a Yellow Sun, Slaughterhouse 5 and the Southland Tales books. Any advances on that?