This year marks 100 years since (some) women were able to vote for the first time in the UK, and 90 years since full voter equality was achieved here, and Lissa Tremain’s novel covers both these developments with gentle humour.
It is the start of 1928 and Mattie gives regular lectures about her suffragette past. She is widely admired for her history and her oratory but she can’t seem to get people interested in the ongoing struggle for equality. There is a popular assumption that the partial enfranchisement that women won in 1918 should be enough. It also begins to become clear that, while she is well-intentioned, she is blind to the reality of life for working-class women.
This is in stark contrast to her best friend and housemate The Flea, who works as a health visitor in some of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The Flea smooths out Mattie’s problems before Mattie notices she has them, which has the unfortunate effect of meaning that Mattie rarely learns that she is getting it wrong.
“’Your memoir?’ The Flea was astonished. ‘I had no idea!’
‘Started long ago and never completed.’
‘But why ever not?’
Mattie hesitated. ‘I found the task…counterproductive.’ She could remember the precise moment that she had stopped writing…She had written about that accident…but now, she realized, now, she could recall it only from the single angle of her prose; in a moment of horrid clarity, she saw that each memory she had pinned to the page had become fixed and lifeless, the colours already fading. She was narrowing her past to a series of sepia vignettes.”
Man, Nora Ephron was funny. Sadly this was her only novel, but as it is the thinnest veneer of fiction over autobiography, I guess it’s not so far from her brilliant essays. This beautiful new edition from Virago Modern Classics was the centrepiece of a Waterstones window display and tempted me into the shop to buy a copy, then also led me to buy three other books because, you know, I was in a bookshop.
It’s the story of Rachel who, seven months pregnant with her second child, discovers that her husband is not only cheating on her, but has fallen in love with the other woman. She must now figure how to move on with her life while protecting her toddler son Sam. And she has to reassess her marriage to Mark, which turns out to have been on rocky ground from the very start.
“When Mark and I married we were rich and two years later we were broke. Not actually broke – we did have equity. We had a stereo system that had eaten thousands of dollars, and a country house in West Virginia that had eaten tens of thousands of dollars, and a city house in Washington that had eaten hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we had things – God, did we have things…now, of course, I understand it all a little better, because the other thing that ate our money was the affair with Thelma Rice. Thelma went to France in the middle of it, and you should see the phone bills.”
Lately I’ve read quite a few books but I haven’t found time to review them, partly because I’ve been prioritising other things in my evenings and weekends. (Partly because I have been exhausted from working a lot of hours.) And reflecting on that has got me thinking about the choices I make.
I know that the ways that I spend most of my leisure time – watching TV, hanging out in pubs, doing crosswords, playing computer games, reading books – might be considered time-wasting, particularly the TV. But another way to look at is it that most of that time is spent with Tim and he’s my partner, my family, so surely that’s quality time. Yes, even watching TV together. Perhaps especially that – we laugh together, discuss plot points, get annoyed or scared or sad together.
This weekend we had intended to go to on a couple of day trips but I was tired, so instead we have mostly been playing games, or rather one specific game: Civilization VI. Civ has been part of our relationship since the start, in its various iterations. When I was a student we would lose days on end to playing it but it has been several years since we last did this. We are effectively telling a story together, making decisions that are both life-or-death and completely meaningless. It’s really a lot of fun.
I don’t usually review books that I don’t finish, but I find I have a lot to say about this book. I know there will be people who disagree with me because Paul Theroux is much lauded for his travel writing, and at a sentence level I would have to agree that he’s a great writer. But there was something about this book that made me deeply uncomfortable, and it was not the non-revelation that there is serious poverty in the southern United States, or that racial tensions continue to exist there.
Theroux has a high sense of self-importance and takes great pleasure in displaying how well read and well travelled he is. He repeatedly makes sweeping generalisations that are designed to demonstrate his open-mindedness or liberal politics but actually serve to make the opposite point. He keeps presenting the reader with terribly nice southern black men who turn out to have street smarts but little education, and then white men who are hideously racist and gun-crazy. He’s over-simplifying complex issues, and not in a particularly interesting way.
Oof. I have not read much this month. Or at least, I haven’t finished many books. I have started at least three books I haven’t finished and possibly won’t ever finish. Maybe I’ll blog about those another time.
We had two fab weekends away in London, enjoying sunshine, music, art, time with friends and some spectacular thunder and lightning. This month’s highlight was seeing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform last Friday. I love them so much and they were on top form.
We also visited the South Bank Book Fair under Waterloo Bridge for the first time in years. I used to go there fairly often. It was always pricey and skewed towards maps and antiquities, but books! Tim found a collection of SF short stories edited by Harry Harrison. I found a novel by Yukio Mishima. We went to a bar on a balcony over the Thames and cracked open those books over a drink and a snack. It was beautiful.
This is a strange tale told in a strange way, and I loved it. Sometimes a bit of originality is just what I hanker for.
It’s the tale of a commune in 1970s Norfolk. Beth owns a big farmhouse, which she has opened up to a raggedy crew of hippies from around the UK and the US. She and her partner are raising their two daughters in true New Age style: no school, treated like adults when it comes to chores and conversation topics, encouraged to be artistic in every way.
The novel is told from the perspective of the older daughter, but it is not narrated by her. The narration is in the 2nd person, addressing the older daughter. It’s also told in mostly incomplete sentences, a sort of stream of consciousness. It’s never quite clear if this is meant to be the 12-year-old girl addressing herself from the future or an unusual take on the omniscient narrator.
Once again this year, my Mum talked me into running the Bristol 10k, so I have been training since mid-January. It did not go smoothly. There was snow and ice, injury, busy periods at work tiring me out and then before I knew it my old enemy reared its head: summer.
There is a good reason that May is Lupus Awareness Month in the USA. These long hours of daylight and higher UV levels can come as a surprise, especially on cloudy or wet days. I always have a lupus flare-up in May. Which made me wary of the Bristol 10k’s date of 13 May.
Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai
I picked up this novella primarily because it’s Japanese and I am still excited about all things Japan. And the title is intriguing.
The story is narrated by a young man who, over his summer holiday, becomes slightly obsessed by the sandwich server at his local supermarket. She is aloof, never smiling, never engaging with customers, precise in all her movements. When he starts back at school, he hears rumours about his beloved “Ms Ice Sandwich” and they upset him.
“Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer. There’s one more awesome thing about her – if you watch when she looks down, there’s a sharp dark line above her eyes, as if when she closed her eyes, someone started to draw on two extra eyes with a felt-tip pen but stopped halfway. It’s the coolest thing.”
This month I also went to the Bristol Old Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I had never seen a stage production of this play before, only the Vivien Leigh film, and it was terrific. Funny, disturbing, full of heat in every sense. Many thanks to my friend T for inviting me along.
As always happens with those first glimmers of summer, my lupus is flaring a little, so I am watching a lot of films and TV and not reading many books. But it will pass. And the month’s reading started off strong.
I remember reading Oyeyemi’s debut novel The Icarus Girl in 2005. I was simultaneously highly impressed by her writing, and jealous that someone so young was so talented. (I was at the time trying to sell my own debut novel. It was terrible. I do not blame the publishers and agents who rejected it.) Icarus Girl and Oyeyemi’s 2011 novel Mr Fox both received a rare five-star rating from me, and Boy, Snow, Bird followed suit. Oyeyemi is truly brilliant.
Boy, the lead character, runs away from her abusive father in 1950s New York and sets up home in a small New England town called Flax Hill. She takes a series of short-term jobs, never really fitting in until she marries a local man. Finally she has found safety and security. Boy finds herself stepmother to the beautiful, delicate Snow, a young girl she loves dearly until she finds herself pregnant with her own daughter, Bird.
“I was on shaky terms with [Flax Hill] for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner.”