I’ve delayed writing this review because I really didn’t know how to describe this book. It’s a strange, repeating, myth-referencing auto-fiction about a young woman. The strangeness and repetition point to the main character’s emotional fragility, but they also reflect her wider character – an intelligent woman well-versed in arts and sciences who can quickly get lost in thoughts and dreams.
It’s the fictionalised memoir of a year in Hilda Doolittle’s youth, 1907–08, when she was 21. She wrote this in 1927 and at the time of her death in 1961 was preparing it for publication, but it then got packed away with all her literary estate and didn’t finally see publication until 1981. This may or may not be related to the bisexual nature of both the author and her fictionalised counterpart.
The story takes a bit of teasing out from the abstract prose, and it helps to learn about HD’s own life to fully follow it (in my copy there is an introduction by HD’s daughter that fills in some gaps), but the actual events aren’t really what’s important here. HD has done an incredible job of finding the words to depict fragile mental health.
Does every month fly by when you get older? I can’t remember the last time it didn’t feel that way. Time passes too fast. Then again, it’s been another reasonably busy month. I’ve kept up the running, on track to run my first 10k in British Science Week as part of Run the Solar System. Once I have the virtual race under my belt, I’ll be all set for the real thing in early May.
On the cultural front, I went to see Othello at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And I went to Bletchley Park, which has left me itching to learn more about life there in World War II, if I can only choose between the hundreds of books written about it over the past 20 years or so since it became public knowledge.
Speaking of science and engineering history that had been relatively hidden, tonight I watched the film Hidden Figures about black women who worked as computers at NASA in the 1960s. It’s a remarkable film, a stark reminder of how recently widespread discrimination not only existed but was the norm, and what a fight it was for talented women such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson to do their work every day. I now really want to read the book behind the film, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, though I understand it’s rather different, taking a wider look at the historical context and less of a personal story of those three women.
This got lots of great reviews when it came out, which is how it came to be on my shelves but it wasn’t until my Twitter stream was full of responses to the recent BBC adaptation that I decided to read it.
I remember the reviews gave me a sense that this was different from the standard crime novel in some way, and they were right, but even now I struggle a little to put my finger on the exact difference. It wasn’t quite what I expected.
For starters, the actual crime is held back until late in the story. The first half of the book builds up tension while filling in the back story. Biologist Dr Yvonne Carmichael has just given evidence to a Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament when she bumps into an attractive stranger who offers to show her the private chapel. Thus begins their affair. But while they are both married, it isn’t clear for a long time exactly what crime this leads to, or why the book’s prologue has Yvonne being questioned in a criminal court.
This is the blog post I intended to write last Sunday night, but I was exhausted from having such a full weekend so I curled up on the sofa with a book and fell asleep. It’s not a bad way to end the week!
And what exactly did I fill last weekend with? Well, I’m going to start with Friday morning because that way I get to mention something I’m super proud of: I ran 8 km before going to work last Friday. That is the furthest I have run yet, and marks the first time I felt actually confident that I will be able to run 10 km by early May, when the Bristol race that I’ve entered comes around. (I tried to repeat the achievement this week and managed 7.5 km, which is not to be sniffed at, but slightly disappointing when I now know I can beat it!)
This is an unusual memoir. It’s heavily stylised, experimental even, but it’s also rather scholarly in its approach to the historical context of Jefferson’s own life.
Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 and raised in a well-to-do black family in Chicago, part of a black elite society with its own specific rules, norms and challenges. And this is what she documents. It’s an unusual subject for a memoir, and in keeping with that, often doesn’t feel like a memoir at all. Jefferson doesn’t bare her soul, or reveal any shocking family secrets. She doesn’t even stick to first person, slipping in and out of referring to herself in the third person.
There is a lot of background information provided about the formation of America’s black elite, which at first felt a little excessive and/or dry until I realised how recent it all was, and in fact most of the people she refers to turn out to be family friends. There is also a lot about physical appearance – how people with different types of hair handled it, how nuances of skin colour and facial shape could affect your place in society. Usually I could not be less interested in hair and make-up, but of course its relevance to this story is rather different. Because even though Jefferson was and is rich, educated and well-connected, she and her friends and family cannot get away from the fact that they are black and therefore different.
Way back in the mists of time – 2005, maybe? – I read The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith for an old book club. I enjoyed it but wasn’t bowled over, so for a long time felt no urgency to try Highsmith again. This is despite one of my favourite films – Strangers on a Train – being based on a Highsmith book, not to mention regular mentions of her work by book bloggers whose taste I often share.
Finally, when the film Carol came out in 2015, based on this novel, the sudden rush of reviews of The Price of Salt persuaded me to give it a go. And I am so glad that I did. I loved this unreservedly and am eagerly adding more Highsmith novels to my wishlist now.
The story is told from the perspective of Therese, a young woman who, when the novel opens, is working in a New York City department store as a temporary Christmas job, though her ambition is to be a set designer. She sees Richard most days – an art student who she thinks of as her best friend and who thinks of her as his future wife. But that disparity doesn’t matter until the day Carol comes into the store. In their brief interaction, Therese is so bowled over that she immediately finds a way to get in touch with Carol, to instigate another meeting.
This is an indie comic about a girl in her final year of high school going through a crisis. It’s hardly an original basis and yet this book feels fresh and new, and above all honest.
Ivy is snarky and difficult with everyone, even her closest friends. The only class at school that she likes is art, but her (single) mother is adamant that she not apply to art schools, only business schools. This comes from a place of love, because Ivy’s mother dropped out of high school, never got a degree and now works long hours in jobs she hates and rarely sees her daughter. But of course Ivy only sees the part where she rarely sees her mother and when she does they fight.
Ivy hates the star of her art class, Charlotte, for “trying too hard”. She hates her maths teacher for calling her out on not paying attention in class. She hates her friends Brad and Marisa for hanging out without her sometimes. She doesn’t hate Josh, the cute guy she meets at a college open day.
A few years back a publisher sent me a book on spec that I completely fell in love with: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I have been meaning ever since to go back to her famously popular debut novel. As her previous writings were spiritual memoirs, she’s not an obvious candidate for my fandom, but this book also really hit the spot for me.
It’s the story of Lily, a 14-year-old white girl who lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her perpetually angry father. She may or may not have accidentally killed her mother when she was four. Either way, there’s not a lot of affection in her life and what little there is comes from her black housekeeper Rosaleen. When Rosaleen spits tobacco on the shoes of white men who are racially abusing her, she is arrested and Lily’s father refuses to bail her out. Lily fears for Rosaleen’s life in police custody so she busts her out and they run away together.
This month had some pretty big ups and downs. I had a lovely birthday. I successfully managed to run three times every week. We had a fantastic weekend in London, looking at art and watching the stage show Lazarus.
I have also despaired at the news even more than usual. On Monday evening I joined thousands on College Green in Bristol protesting against the US “Muslim ban”. These really do feel like dark scary times but I have to hope that continuing to raise my voice against injustice helps.
To distract myself from world affairs, I’ve managed to read a decent amount and I’ve also watched a lot of films. I thought La La Land was a lot of fun in the first half, then kinda bittersweet. Not the best film ever but very good nonetheless. Plus Tim and I have ploughed our way through almost four whole seasons of Dexter. (Speaking of which: has anyone read the book it’s based on, Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay? Would I like it?)
Here’s to February, hints of early spring and escaping into books! In the US February is Black History Month but in the UK it’s LGBT History Month (we do black history in October) so I’ll be choosing some reading based on that. What are your February reading plans?
During Trump’s first nine days in office I have been constantly thinking about civil rights, women’s rights…human rights, basically, and how they are being threatened and outright denied. As well as doing practical things to help – donating to refugee charities and subscribing to newspapers that I feel are doing vitally necessary journalism – I also wanted to base my reading around these subjects. And then I heard there was already a BookTube project to do just that.