How sweet it is

How sweet it is

My sister came over for a marriage blessing and another party. There was cake. It was fun.

That’s actually my Dad slicing the cake there, not the groom. My Dad made the cake with his own fair hands and decorated it too. And yes that is a river of blue sparkles and two Lego canoeists. My sister and her husband do a lot of canoeing, you see. It’s a whole family thing.

The drama of revolution

The Glass-Blowers
by Daphne du Maurier

I love du Maurier but she was pretty prolific and sadly I think that her lesser known titles are, well, lesser works than the famous ones. At least, that’s been my experience so far. I enjoyed this book and its still better prose than some writers will manage at their peak, but like I’ll Never Be Young Again this wasn’t the captivating read I had hoped for.

An 18th century family saga of the Bussons and some du Mauriers, with an acknowledgement to people who helped the author do family history research, I am divining that this is loosely based on what du Maurier discovered about her ancestors, though how much of reality was used and how much made up I cannot tell. It is set in France just before and during the French Revolution and covers the politics and social upheaval of the time in some detail for a relatively slim volume. Du Maurier has her family of master glass-blowers thoroughly embroiled in the changing times, with family disputes over politics that at first seem minor becoming life-changing, even deadly, as the revolution progresses.

The story is told by the elderly Madame Sophie Duval née Busson to a long-lost nephew, so there are certain facts we learn early on out of order, such as when she last saw the brother whose son has now resurfaced. But for the most part it’s a linear narrative, starting with her parents’ marriage in 1747. In the early chapters it’s all about the hardworking industriousness of the Busson couple and to be honest I found it a little tedious being told what great people they were. Mme Busson, Sophie’s mother, is modern enough to want to learn alongside her husband how to run a glass-house but not so modern that she ever takes any interest in politics (unlike her children, later on). I found her very idealised as a character, but then I suppose the story is told from the perspective of a daughter who always idolised her so that does fit.

It all gets more interesting when the Bussons’ children start growing up and developing characters that are less perfect than their parents. There’s Robert the eldest son, with his love of frivolity, rich people and grand schemes. There’s Pierre, admirer of the philosophy of Rousseau, who wants to help those less fortunate than himself. There’s Michel who suffers from a terrible stammer and is an ardent republican. There’s Edmé the youngest daughter, tomboyish in her wish to put her country and socialist ideals before all else. And there’s Sophie, who for the most part simply wants to emulate her mother by running a glass-house with her husband and keeping out of politics. Except she doesn’t really keep out of it; for much of the book she comments on the political situation with a tone of “I know better” and I don’t just mean hindsight.

I don’t know a great deal about the French Revolution but I do think du Maurier has done an excellent job of combining facts, dates, names, etc with prose that evokes unease or suspicion or terror or heartbreak at the appropriate moments. I could completely believe in the riots borne out of a whisper campaign based on nothing at all. I could believe in the switches of allegiance based on the mood of the country and the limited evidence available.

However, the revolution is a big subject, as is a family saga, and this isn’t a big book. I enjoyed it but I think the content was squeezed in at the expense of any real description or insight. Some of the human drama is skipped past, such as the many couples in the book falling in love. But there are some moments when du Maurier uses brevity beautifully, such as the deaths of young children, which are handled with few words, but aching sadness.

Du Maurier was such an able writer that I will continue to read all her work that I can lay my hands on in the hope that I will find something that lives up to the promise of Rebecca. To which end I am hoping that nothing will come up to prevent me from taking part in the Discovering Daphne readalong hosted by Savidge Reads this October.

First published 1963 by Victor Gallancz.

Coming soon: Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (25–29 June)

Give Away Blog Hop!

This blog hop with a literary flavour is being run by Judith of Leeswammes and I thought it looked like the perfect opportunity for my first ever giveaway.

I will be giving away at least one book, as well as some book-related bits and pieces so be sure to come back on 25 June and enter!

If you’re a fellow book blogger and you fancy joining in the fun, or you just want to find out more, you can click on the button above or follow this link: http://leeswammes.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/announcement-literary-giveaway-blog-hop-june-25-29/.

The truth is buried in there somewhere

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
by Mary Wollstonecraft

I originally got this book for the Year of Feminist Classics project, but when they actually discussed it back in January I was only about 20 pages in. And then I put it aside for four months. The thing is, while being a hugely important and interesting work, this one is pretty tough to read. Or at least, I thought so.

First up, why was it hard to read? Well, it’s rambling and repetitive to such an extent that even my abridged Penguin Great Ideas edition of 132 pages felt too long. The language is as archaic as you might expect of 1792 and the society to which it refers is so long gone that it’s only recognisable from old novels. This also means that a lot of her arguments and the things she wishes to change have already changed, the fight has been won, so you could argue that it’s no longer relevant.

And yet, it is also eye-opening and indeed educational to be reminded how different society was, how unequal the sexes, and therefore how much progress has been made. Mary Wollstonecraft was arguing against the assumption that women are inherently weak, incapable, over-emotional beings with a natural love of dresses and pretty things; that men are inherently superior and women their slaves. This is not the view of one or two lone misogynists but that of most people in the western world at the time.

Wollstonecraft addresses herself to men and keeps all of her arguments abstract. She does not single out great women of history to look up to and indeed her comments about queens not being the equal of kings make me suspect that she did not subscribe to the now widely held view that Elizabeth I was a fine example of a woman proving herself in a man’s world. What Wollstonecraft does do is paint a series of caricatures of women who have been ruined by their upbringing or society or both.

This text does not set out any rules for women to follow to improve themselves, besides a brief attack on reading novels (which she distinguishes from literature). The primary point seems to be a plea to the powers that be – all male, of course – to at least try providing equal education for girls as for boys, so that women can prove by themselves that their silliness is a result of lack of education first and foremost.

Though education is her primary goal, there are also social changes to be made that are harder to resolve, and indeed Wollstonecraft does more describing how the current state of things is bad than suggesting how it can be changed. She appeals to what men might want in a woman – when sexual passion dries up, don’t they want an interesting, educated companion to share their life with? Don’t they want their children to spend their formative years with a strong, sensible, intelligent caregiver? Don’t they want to share some interests and hobbies with their life partner, to make marriage more enjoyable?

One point that Wollstonecraft makes is that while men have various hobbies and pastimes, women have only one – their appearance – which has a derogatory effect in numerous ways. And this really rang true for me because from what I remember, though it’s been a while, magazines for girls are about that one thing and basically nothing else – how to attract boys, what celebrities are wearing, how to pluck your eyebrows… How on earth this stuff can be regurgitated weekly astounds me but it was and probably still is. Yet lads mags, between the topless/bikini-clad ladies, have articles about cars, gadgets, films, sport. They’re still clichéd topics, sure, but at least there’s some variety, some looking outward to the world. It’s depressing how little has changed since 1792 when you look at details like that.

The passage that struck me the most was related to the above but not quite making the same point. Wollstonecraft argues that men who encourage women to be flirts who obsess over their appearance create women who are too physically unfit to be of any use in the bedroom or in childbirth. Now there’s a point I can agree with!

I’m glad I ploughed my way to the end and I can see why it’s considered important, but this was too poorly structured and hard to read for me to call it great.

First published 1792.

See also: reviews by Amy Reads and Emily of Evening All Afternoon. If you’re interested in Mary Wollstonecraft, it’s well worth taking a look at the excellent project A Vindication of the Rights of Mary.

Headlines and other titles

This is probably painfully obvious already, but I am a bit rubbish at writing headlines. What’s especially bad is that I also need this skill for my day job. Ah well. There are lots of guidelines to follow, long lists of hints and tips, but in the end it comes down to imagination and, somehow, my imagination generally fails me on this front.

My favourite solution to this problem is to come up with a system, something TV shows in particular go for. The classic is the much emulated Friends “The one with…”. Other recognisable systems include the Scrubs “My…”, Big Bang Theory‘s made-up science stuff (“The spaghetti catalyst”, “The maternal capacitance”) and Life Unexpected‘s plays on its own title (“Bong intercepted”, “Rent uncollected”).

I think the one-word title is often a strong solution. The Good Wife uses this, as does Skins. But it doesn’t tend to work as well for books or articles.

Also popular with newspapers and TV show episode titles is the play on a famous catchphrase, song, film or book title, for instance Sex and the City‘s “Four women and a funeral”, Family Guy‘s “Dial Meg for murder, Veronica Mars‘ “Weapons of class destruction” and almost every episode of The Simpsons.

Slightly less successful is just using the song, film or book title verbatim (Entourage does this a lot), which displays a certain lack of imagination (not that I’m one to talk).

This is something I think about and worry about but, on a blog like this, does it matter? Particularly on a book review?

A break from the norm

Palestine
by Joe Sacco

This is an unusual, interesting, informative but potentially inflammatory work from journalist Joe Sacco. It’s an account of two months spent in Palestine (and occasionally Israel) in 1991–1992, told in graphic novel form.

It’s an interesting idea, this “comic-book journalism” and one that has won Sacco awards, including the 1996 American Book Award for this work. He’s an intelligent man, from what I can tell, and Palestine is a difficult situation that could potentially be too complex or political and therefore dull to many readers. This book is certainly not dull. It’s political, sure, but also moving, graphic, disturbing and compelling.

As journalism goes, this isn’t the third-person, bias-free, author-free account you might expect. The book stars Sacco, following his time in Palestine, his interviewing technique, his thoughts, fears, boasts and worries. Sacco does not do himself favours in his self-depiction. Comic-book Joe is both physically and at times morally unattractive. He admits to craving sordid details that will enliven his journalism. He pushes interviewees for the most disturbing stories and shows little emotional reaction while his translator or host is weeping at what they have heard. He also, unusually for an American, places himself solidly on the Palestinians’ side.

Now I’m not sure if this is a position he took in retrospect, after spending months in Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem. He certainly went there with the intention of getting the Palestinian side of the story, because the US tends to only ever hear the Israeli side. It’s a reasonable background to have for his trip. And he clearly knows that he comes across as biased because toward the end of the book we see him spending time with two Israeli women and failing to engage with their arguments. But it did at times make me feel uncomfortable. Very few of the characters he meets are blameless. Yes, the small man on the street, even the soldiers, are ultimately in thrall to what the politicians do or say, but when everyone is throwing stones…who is innocent?

I don’t know a great deal about this situation, a situation that started long before I was born and continues now. I know a lot more than I did before I read this book and I feel both incensed and helpless. Because so many people are trying, have tried, to help. The events of this book happened 20 years ago and it still goes on; people still die, are thrown in jail, live in abject poverty.

Sacco’s artwork is excellent. He draws in black and white, packing in the detail, with lots of big half-page or full-page scenes. He recounts atrocities without getting too graphic, tending instead to concentrate on what he himself saw – one room after another full of people telling him their stories. Which sounds dull. Luckily his humour, in addition to further details from his trip (hazardous roadtrips, riots, menacing soldiers in the street) and the occasional depiction of a story he is being told ensure that this book never gets boring. It is genuinely gripping, in part because from what we learn it seems likely that some of the people we meet will not survive until the end of the story.

I do have a couple of gripes. In a few places early on, Sacco packs a lot of text in to contextualise. Which is necessary and helpful but it’s visually offputting, because to retain the comic-book feel without having many or any pictures he presents the text in various skewiff, haphazard arrangements, sometimes hard to follow. And these are historical events being described which I felt could have been, maybe should have been, illustrated.

Secondly, there’s no real narrative arc. It’s just Sacco’s time in Palestine start to finish. Except not quite because a couple of times he breaks from chronological order to talk about something thematic. But there’s no lessons learned, no how it affected or changed him, no “this is what I’m going to do now I’ve seen what’s happening for real”. Maybe that can’t be helped. If all the world’s politicians can’t figure out what to do then why should I expect an American journalist to have the answers? But somehow I did. The closest he comes is to quote one (Israeli) man he met in Jerusalem:

“Ultimately I don’t think peace is about whether there should be one state or two. Of course that issue is important, but what is the point of two racist states or one racist state…or one racist state dominating another? The point is whether the two peoples can live side by side as equals.”

Of course, what Sacco did was to write and draw this comic series, to spread the word about what life is like in Palestine, what really goes down day-to-day. That’s what journalism is about and it’s an important role. He actually went back and produced a sequel to this, Footnotes in Gaza, in 2009. I definitely want to read it. And that’s saying something. This is not an uplifting read and I don’t expect the sequel to be, but it’s enlightening and if there’s one thing I read for, it’s to be enlightened.

First published as a nine-issue comics series in 1993–1996. Reissued as a single volume with a new introduction in 2001. Published by Fantagraphics Books.

The trials of being above the rest

Claudine at School
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This was the first novel written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, the result of her entertaining her first husband with stories of her own schooldays. It is a thoroughly charming read that I was reluctant to put down yet wanted to linger over.

Perfect breakfast

Claudine is sassy, bitchy, talented, beautiful and entitled. She attends the local day school because she refused to be sent to a boarding school, with the result that she’s a rich girl surrounded by the daughters of farmers and shopkeepers. She doesn’t need to do well at school but she takes pleasure in achieving more than the other girls whose future livelihoods depend on their test scores. Really, she should be completely unlikeable. But she’s not. She also has a very sweet relationship with her doting but distracted father.

The book takes the form of Claudine’s diary. She confides her own bitchy actions, with the full awareness that she has acted badly. She also confides all the gossip she has learned and her own intimate thoughts. I mean, this isn’t Judy Blume, no-one’s going to learn how to deal with periods or ill-fitting bras from this book, but she does admit to her crushes and flirtations.

The thing that will stand out for a lot of people about this book is the lesbianism. It’s pretty rife. Claudine herself, as well as the headmistress of the school, know how to gain advantage from flirtation and suggestion with men but are only really interested in women. This is never stated outright, but gradually becomes apparent from the actions of both characters. It’s also never clear if this is accepted by the people around them (or indeed known in Claudine’s case). One character does come under criticism for her lesbian relationship but the criticism is based on the fact that she’s engaged to a man at the time. Which is a fair point.

Claudine is aged 16 and 17 in this novel and it feels like a very realistic portrait of being that age. She is confident and brassy around others but alone she experiences doubts and insecurities about her future, her looks and her love life. This may be partly because she has not fully acknowledged that she is gay, or at least bisexual. She talks vaguely about how one day she will do this, that or the other with a man, without any enthusiasm or interest. She does show great interest in her friend Claire’s string of boyfriends but she vacillates between admiration and disapproval of such an active (and yet virtuous) love life. She pretends to know better how to keep hold of a man, and yet admits to never having been in a situation to put her knowledge to the test.

Looking back, very little actually happens in this book. And in many ways that is the point. Claudine can be obsessively excited by, and then deeply bored by, the day-to-day minutiae of school life. Which is precisely how I remember school being. She views herself as worldly and cosmopolitan but actually lives in a small country village where very little happens. Which I suspect leads to all kinds of fun in the next book in the series, Claudine in Paris.

This book was so much fun. It’s the schoolgirl book I wish I had read when I was a teenager instead of all those sappy American ones. I’m so entranced I fully intend to read all of the Claudine sequels.

Claudine à l’école first published in 1900 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1956 by Secker and Warburg

World Lupus Day 2011

Yes, it’s that time of year again. I had forgotten all about it and then Stephen Fry kindly tweeted a reminder. In timely fashion I am struggling to write very much about World Lupus Day because my lupus is flaring a little and stealing all my words. It does that.

You see, when I talk about fatigue I don’t just mean I feel tired; there’s a whole host of fun that comes with the tiredness. I suppose it’s not unlike a bad hangover combined with lack of sleep – there’s the headache, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth, double vision and, of course, the brain fog.

Brain fog? I remember the first time the rheumatologist said the words to me and I felt such huge relief. That bizarre cotton-woolly feeling of not being able to think straight, of losing words, of not being able to answer simple questions – it’s real! And I’m not the only one!

And this is why events like World Lupus Day are so important. Diagnosis is vital even in “mild cases” like mine and, of course it is life-saving in many other cases. But it’s also hugely helpful for other people to know about lupus and what it means for me and others. And a little more support for research into new treatments would also be a good thing.

To brighten up this post, here is a random old picture I took of a butterfly, because they’re the symbol of Lupus UK.

Papilio thoas

Sometimes you shouldn’t probe too deep

Rupture
by Simon Lelic

This was another book club read and it certainly generated a lot of discussion, even if part of that was our cynical reaction to the marketing surrounding this book – a lot of review copies were sent out and the book includes “book club” style questions at the back. I mean, it worked, we all read it!

I really enjoyed this book but I didn’t note down my thoughts on finishing it, as I usually would, because I suspected it wouldn’t stand up to intense criticism. Turns out I was right. The more questions asked around the table, the more I realised that this was a guilty pleasure rather than a class act.

The story follows policewoman Lucia May’s investigation into a school shooting. It seems to be a cut-and-dried case – teacher walked into assembly, shot and killed five people including himself – and May’s superiors urge her to wind up the investigation quickly so that the community can move on. But May wants to know not just what happened but also why, and that’s a complex question.

Lelic certainly has some skill. I was gripped by the story even though most of the facts are revealed early on. Every other chapter is a transcript of an interview from shortly after the shooting, allowing a lot of characters’ voices to be heard. Certain details are revealed in these chapters that you realise Lucia has known all along (because she conducted all the interviews) while we as readers had to wait to get to that interview, which is the opposite way round to how information in a novel usually works, and I liked that.

Without wanting to give too much away, the key theme of this book is bullying, and it wears its mission statement so plainly that the message can get heavy handed at times. Yes, bullying happens among adults as well as children and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, but I’m not sure that this book gave the most accurate portrayal. I’m also not sure how accurate Lelic’s portrayal of the police is (I’m guessing not very) though I did find the school convincing. Our discussion revealed a number of plot holes, many more than I would ever have spotted alone.

I was glad to find I was not alone in considering the killer, Samuel Szajkowski, to be the most compelling character in this book. Even though he is dead before the book begins, and there are no flashbacks, we get to know a little of him through other people and what emerges is a believable, complex man. It’s a shame that no other characters are quite so fully rounded, but then you could argue that the book is really about Szajkowski even though it follows Lucia’s daily life.

It was suggested that there is a certain element of doggedly following writing guidelines evident in this book, which is Lelic’s first novel. But while reading it I was able to completely suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Which is no bad thing, let’s face it.

First published 2010 by Picador.
Finalist for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award 2010.

A gallop through time

One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez
translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

This is one crazy book. I both loved and hated it. I took my time over it, reading just a few pages at a time, but I was never bored. Confused, surprised, shocked, maybe.

It is the 100-year-long story of the village Macondo in Central America and the family at the heart of it, the Buendías. The family found the village and ruin it, save it and destroy it, are worshipped by it and forgotten by it. It’s a family saga with a large and fascinating cast, but it’s not just that. Márquez uses magical realism to give added symbolism to certain moments, bizarrely making things literally happen that might have worked just as well metaphorically.

The timeline is not clear but I would guess it is roughly 1860s to 1960s. From humble beginnings the village gains a railway, motor cars, a pharmacy, a cinema. It plays a central role in wars and uprisings and yet its interaction with the rest of the unnamed country is minimal. Which is just one of the many references to solitude. Another example, and a nice example of the writing style:

“Taciturn, silent, insensible to the new breath of vitality that was shaking the house, Colonel Aureliano Buendía could understand only that the secret of a good old age is simply an honourable pact with solitude.”

A lot happens for 400 pages, and it is packed in largely by using a detached, minimal style. In brief scenes we learn the details of a character’s thoughts and torments, then by the end of the chapter their life will have been summarised and dispensed with. There’s a lot of death, much of it untimely.

With characters pairing off, reproducing and dying quickly, and a tendency to name all the descendants by the same three or four names, it can be confusing sometimes who is who. Handily a family tree is provided at the start of the book. As this shows each child’s parentage, many of whom are illegitimate, it might be considered a spoiler. But then Márquez starts the book by telling us the fate of the first character we meet, and teasingly dripfeeding more details through the early chapters. He repeats this with other characters and even with larger story arcs, but often by the time I reached the actual event I had forgotten the precursor.

Márquez manages to be very descriptive and evocative without using a lot of words or ever getting flowery. He creates a whole world for his characters within but somehow separate from the “real world”. It is an amazing, magical but also sad and suffocating place.

I had a couple of problems with this book. One was the speed at which characters were written out. Except for the odd few long-lifers, I would just be getting to know and be interested in a character and bam they would die. My other problem is the, err, sexual proclivities of this family. I’m not a prude, I’m reasonably open-minded and the adultery and whorehouses are one thing, but bestiality? incest? Too far for me to be comfortable with. And once again paedophilia comes up (the reason I was uncomfortable with Márquez’s other major work, Love in the Time of Cholera, and yes I know that in both cases it’s strictly ephebophilia but that’s still something I’m squirmy about). It’s like he’s trying to push as far as he can, see what he can get away with.

I was genuinely moved by but also disturbed by this book. I can see how it generates a lot of discussion but whether I liked it? I don’t know.

Cien Años de Solidad first published 1967.
This translation first published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape 1970.