Lovers communicate not inside sentences but between them

post-birthday-worldThe Post-Birthday World
by Lionel Shriver

I have to try very hard to separate the prose of this book from its politics – and those of its author – because I quite liked the book but it was decidedly tainted for me by the occasional political comment. There was one short section of what can only be described as lies about the NHS that got me so mad I very seriously considered stopping reading then and there, despite it being more than 400 pages in.

Politics aside, this is an enjoyable enough, reasonably well written story that kept me interested and got me looking at my own life through a new filter, which is generally a good sign. I don’t find its central conceit as mindblowingly original as those reviewers quoted on the cover (it is, after all, straight out of Sliding Doors, a film I’ve watched many many times) but it is done well and I like that Shriver didn’t make obvious choices but kept it subtle.

Irina and Lawrence are an American ex-pat couple living a comfortable, if bland, life together in London. After nine years, and now in their 40s, they are very much set in their ways and their future seems obvious. But one night, Irina finds herself unexpectedly attracted to another man almost the opposite of Lawrence. Whether or not she kisses Ramsey is the question on which the rest of the book turns – because both answers are given, with two stories told from that point on.

Continue reading “Lovers communicate not inside sentences but between them”

Sunday Salon: A literary pilgrimage

The Sunday Salon

This weekend during a trip to London to visit my friend H, we randomly decided to visit Highgate Cemetery. I had no idea who was buried there, I just thought it would be a historically interesting place to visit. So imagine my surprise at finding it was such a rich trove of literary history.

We went on a tour while we were there, which I’m really glad we did as it added lots of interesting details about Victorian superstitions and fashions as well as stories about colourful characters who are mostly now forgotten. Though of course there were sad stories as well. (The giant tomb built by Julius Beer, owner of The Observer, for his eight-year-old daughter is a heartbreaking symbol of grief.)

Writers buried at Highgate include Douglas Adams (which was probably the grave I was most moved to see), Beryl Bainbridge, George Eliot, John Galsworthy, Stella Gibbons, Radclyffe Hall, Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who shares a grave not only with his sister but also with his wife Lizzy Siddell), Anthony Shaffer, plus Karl Marx might arguably be called a writer (along with his many other titles). There’s also Charles Dickens’ wife Catherine, Julian Barnes’ wife Pat Kavanagh and William Foyle, co-founder of the Foyles chain of bookshops.

Untitled Untitled

But of course even without the famous names, a cemetery is a rich trove of stories. Whether it’s just an interesting name, or a detail in an inscription, or a place and date of death, or two apparently unrelated people buried together, there are so many stories, real or that you can invent. Which is why I’ve always liked walking around cemeteries.

Untitled Highgate ramble

It wasn’t courage that freed him from fear so much as loneliness

The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear
by Graham Greene

Once upon a time I read a couple of Graham Greene books and really enjoyed them, then I promptly forgot about him as an author. Fast-forward several years and I have finally come back to him thanks to Simon of Savidge Reads, who is running a challenge called Greene for Gran,in honour of his recently departed grandmother, as Greene was her favourite author. It’s such a nice way to pay respect to someone for whom books were important.

This book has one of the greatest opening chapters I have read in a long time. Arthur Rowe goes to a vicarage fête, which sounds like a pretty dull unpromising beginning, but not so. For starters it’s in London during the Blitz, so there’s immediately a surreal atmosphere surrounding the attempt at normality, with some dark humour about the limited prizes on offer. But even beyond this, there are sinister undertones, foreshadowing the shadowy spy novel that this is going to turn into.

“There was something about a fête which drew Arthur Rowe irresistibly, bound him a helpless victim to the distant blare of the band and the knock-knock of wooden balls against coconuts. Of course this year there were no coconuts because there was a war on; you could tell that too from the untidy gaps between the Bloomsbury houses.”

Arthur wins a cake, but there appears to have been some mistake, and first a series of people try to get the cake off him, then mysterious forces appear to be coming after him. It all seems a bit farcical at first, but never annoyingly so. The humour always has a dark undertone. The depiction of the Blitz is scarily believable (which makes sense for a book published in 1943) and the thriller elements genuinely had me on edge, but the book never gets too dark.

“‘Have another piece of cake?’ Rowe asked. He couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man: it wasn’t courage that freed him from fear so much as loneliness. ‘It may not be…’ he waited till the scream stopped and the bomb exploded – very near this time – ‘…much.’ They waited for a stick to drop, pounding a path towards them, but there were no more.”

Arthur is a great character. There is something bad in his past, which both explains why he is not fighting in the war and why he is how he is – saddened and distanced. I love that the back story is given in pieces, so for a long time we are left to wonder whether the bad thing in Arthur’s past was justified or not. (Incidentally, this part is completely given away in the blurb on the back of my copy, which thankfully I didn’t read before starting the book. Also, I’ve realised that my favourite passages, highlighted while I was reading, relate to this reveal, so I won’t quote them here.)

“Blast is an odd thing; it is just as likely to have the air of an embarrassing dream as of man’s serious vengeance on man, landing you naked in the street or exposing you in your bed or on your lavatory seat to your neighbour’s gaze.”

There is a big switch in pace halfway through the book and it shows how good a writer Greene was that he gets away with this. The one thing that doesn’t change, but just keeps building up throughout the book, is the fear. It’s so cleverly done, beginning with little more than a spine tingle of a warning at the vicarage fête.

I greatly enjoyed this book and am now eager to read the other Greene I had left sat on the TBR for too long – The Heart of the Matter.

Published 1943 by William Heinemann.

Source: I really don’t remember. I have a 1972 Penguin edition so it was clearly secondhand but there’s no pencil-written price or stickers anywhere that I can find. Charity shop?

See also: Simon’s review over at Savidge Reads.

Sunday Salon: Keeping busy

The Sunday Salon

I feel like I have done a lot of stuff in the last fortnight, possibly because today has been busy and isn’t over yet! But looking through my recent photos I actually do have some things to tell you all about.

Last Saturday I met up with my dear and lovely friend H in London and we went to the Natural History Museum, then to a super tasty meal at organic vegetarian Italian restaurant Amico Bio. However, I almost didn’t get to enjoy the meal because I managed to catch a touch of sunstroke despite it being only 15 °C with skies looking like this:

Untitled

Last Sunday H and her husband introduced me to world of British basketball, which is not something I ever expected to be saying, but it was actually a lot of fun. It was the BBL Play-offs Final so there was a lot of spectacle and fun around the match itself. If all basketball is like that I am a total convert.

Warm-up

I had Monday off work so I treated myself to a trip to the British Library before heading back to Bristol. I went to the temporary crime fiction exhibition, which was fun but a bit small, and then spent hours browsing the Treasures of the British Library. That is one amazing room – First Folio Shakespeare, 1000-year-old manuscript of Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, two original copies of the Magna Carta, plus a bunch of gorgeous illuminated books from all over the world and author manuscripts from some of the greats from centuries ago up to the present day. Truly amazing. And free!

This weekend I’ve spent mostly cleaning and doing chores (including unloading three bookcases, moving them an inch to the left, and then reloading them – that was fun) but I also had a nice visit from my Mum. She came to run the Bristol 10k this morning, so earlier than I would usually be awake on a Sunday, I was out in the sunshine cheering on all the runners and trying to spot my Mum.

Run run run

That picture doesn’t make clear how lovely and warm and sunny it is here today. Mum and I certainly made the most of my having a garden this weekend (though after last week I made sure I was wearing a hat and suncream).

And tomorrow’s a bank holiday! Is it a holiday weekend where you are? What are you up to (holiday or not)? Happy Sunday!

She believed in the worst and knew herself to be imagining the best

Saplings
by Noel Streatfeild

This is one of those books that I wished didn’t have to end, though in a way I was glad that it did because it’s the tale of a downward spiral. It’s also a beautiful book physically, being my first (finally!) read from Persephone Books.

End paper gorgeousness

Streatfeild is famous for her children’s books, especially Ballet Shoes, but she also wrote books for adults, though they never sold as well. This may possibly be the pick of the bunch but Saplings is so wonderfully good that I am saddened it’s the only one of Streatfeild’s novels for adults currently in print.

It’s a clever, sharply observed book about children, family and war. The Wiltshires are a happy, comfortable middle-class family, with two parents, four children, a nanny and a governess, a home in London and holidays to the seaside. But from the first pages the potential cracks are there. The adults are worrying about the inevitability of war and whether London is a safe place for children. The father Alex worries that war will take him away from his family. The mother Lena worries that she will have to go with the children when all she wants is to be at Alex’s side. The baby of the family, four-year-old Tuesday, frets because the adults are clearly worried, while 11-year-old Laurel mixes together war-time fears with more mundane worries about school:

“She believed in the worst and knew herself to be imagining the best. As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions…It didn’t matter being the plain one at home, people were used to it. If only she had managed to be super at something, then she could have gone to the Abbey School carrying her ability like a screen.”

The story follows the family from summer 1939 until summer 1944, such a short time but of course one of huge change for Britain as a whole. Streatfeild never tries to extrapolate the wider changes going on, she simply illustrates them through the Wiltshires and their extended family and friends. Things do not just suddenly fall apart, the descent from happiness is gradual. Some of it is unavoidable – evacuating the children to their grandparents’ house and then to boarding school, for their own safety. But a lot of what happens is far more subtle. Things aren’t said that should be, expressions are misunderstood, situations are mishandled. It is a heartbreaking study of avoidable unhappiness. And I thought this passage a very good description of a panic attack:

“He saw the attacks as if they had shape. Huge, black and soft, ready to fall on him…First he felt a tenseness in his diaphragm, which got steadily worse til he was hard in front, as if he were made of wood. Then he had a sinking sensation. The people around him were still there but on a different level, beyond reach…he had to get away alone and let the attack reach its climax. Then everything swam before his eyes, his heart beat quicker and quicker, there was thumping in his ears…”

The prose in insightful rather than poetic but once I realised that the slightly irritating idyll of family life at the start of the story was both part-facade and about to break apart anyway, I was carried along by the momentum of the story. Streatfeild does not keep surprises or mysteries up her sleeve, the narration is open in a way the Wiltshire family never can be. If anything this lesson may be repeated a little too often, but it is such a realistic one, touching on both the stoicism of wartime and the very English habit of keeping one’s emotions to oneself. She does allow herself a few characters who know the children well enough, or are just observant enough, to see what other adults don’t, but the wartime setting keeps these saviours away for long periods.

And without wishing to give anything away, everything is not alright in the end. Bad things have happened and those who are in a good or safe place know that it may not last. This was, after all, published while the war was still going on, and after several years of “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” optimism had faded, even when things were finally going well for the Allies. But also, the two oldest children, Laurel and Tony, have grown up over the course of the story and are 16 and almost 15 at the novel’s close, so they are seeing the world differently in more ways than one.

This is a story full of heart, and completely on the children’s side. Even the best of the adult characters gets thing wrong from the children’s perspective, and Streatfeild shows how a thoughtless word or imagined slight can lead to months of real misery. I wanted so badly for things to suddenly be all good, but of course life isn’t like that.

I chose this book after reading Liz’s review and it was bought for me by my very loveliest friend H who took me on a special trip to Persephone Books a few months ago. Thanks to both of them!

First published 1945 by Collins.
Published by Persephone Books in 2000.

The defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest

NW
by Zadie Smith

A couple of days after finishing this book I am still uncertain of my reaction to it. I don’t mean whether it was good or bad, exactly – I definitely enjoyed the read – but trying to dig deeper than that I am full of uncertainty.

The narrative slips between stream of consciousness, first and third person, and what I suppose you might call soundscape. This sounds like it would be hard to follow and it occasionally is, but for the most part the story is clear. Inasmuch as there is a single story, that is. I am still wrestling with that.

The novel follows three characters in turn, two of whom are much more closely linked than the third. All live in north-west London, in the NW postcode area, hence the title. This is an area I know a little, having friends there, so it was interesting to read a “native” (Smith is herself from NW) description of places such as Kilburn that I know as a frequent visitor.

NW seems preoccupied by wealth, class and the attitudes of people toward each other, both within and outside their social groups. It examines aspiration, ambition and the lack of those things. But it also looks at identity, how we see ourselves and how others see us and how those things rarely match up, even between partners or best friends.

“To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia lounge…Shadows had been passing over the walls of this house since 1888 sitting, living, lounging. On a good day Natalie prided herself on small differences, between past residents, present neighbours and herself…At other times…she had the defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest, and to the house next door, and the house next door to that.”

These are some big ideas and it’s to Smith’s credit that it reads like a beautifully written story of modern life, not a philosophical treatise. Smith somehow even gets away with writing in dialect, which I usually hate. It’s sharply observed and occasionally very funny.

“Outside he tried to calm himself and realign with the exuberant mood in the street. The sun was an incitement, collapsing day into night. Young bluds had stripped to their bare chests as if in a nightclub already.”

The characters are wonderfully real, complex bundles of contradiction, with interesting flaws and believable back stories, most of which lead back to the same Willesden council estate. Certainly, for a novel preoccupied by ideas of class and self-improvement, there are few scenes of wealth, with the bulk of the story following those who struggle for money (and by that I mean the lower middle class style of money struggles as well as true hand-to-mouth difficulties). In fact, there were a couple of dinner party scenes that seemed so anti-middle-class that I actually cringed.

So the novel is not without fault. The stream of consciousness is perhaps too occasional, the book is divided into very short sections, speech is indicated in different ways in different places (quote marks, no quote marks, dashes, transcript) and there are a couple of complete breaks such as a chapter typeset in the shape of a tree, which between them smacked a little of trying to be literary. It’s also perhaps a little disconnected. I felt there needed to be a more even degree of overlap between the stories.

I haven’t let myself peek yet, but I hear this novel has had some controversial reviews in the press, so I’m now off to check what the Observer had to say… Any of you read this already? Managed to bag yourself an advance copy or rushed out on publication day to buy it? Did it meet your expectations?

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published September 2012 by Penguin.

The person you thought you knew

The War of the Wives
by Tamar Cohen

I was intrigued by this book from the synopsis and I am left feeling very smug that I know myself well – because I loved it. It isn’t perfect but it is gripping and thought-provoking, and story and character are equally strong.

To save you even having to read the blurb, the tagline on the front of this book tells you all you need to know (when did books start having taglines? Is that a thing now?): “At your husband’s funeral you don’t expect to discover his other wife.” So it’s about grief, lies, family, bigamy, but also modern life in London and how change can make you realise what kind of person you are.

The storytelling is narrated alternately by the two wives, Selina and Lottie. Initially there’s a little bit of stereotyping. Selina is well off, uptight, a kept woman who keeps her very nice, very big house in Barnes in impeccable order and doesn’t check the price tag before buying yet another cashmere coat. She was married to Simon for 28 years, they have three children, aged 17 to 26, and while there’s not really any passion left she still loves her husband. She worries about ageing, her children’s choices of partner and why her youngest son insists on eating junk food.

Lottie is artistic, but illustrating children’s books isn’t making her a living so she also has a job she dislikes in a hotel. She lives in a flat in North London with her and Simon’s daughter Sadie, who is 16 and very difficult. She and Simon were married 17 years and they were still very passionate about each other, though they had money troubles and they fought a lot.

Cohen takes as her structure the five stages of grief. So the wives’ hatred of each other and what Simon did really comes to the fore in the “Anger” section. And the book inevitably wraps things up in the “Acceptance” section. Which was where, looking back, I feel a little disappointment. A lot of mysteries turn out to have been red herrings, which I should have seen coming when a potential major storyline just didn’t go anywhere. But what this does is keep the focus on the families, which is definitely Cohen’s strength. That and her fantastic turn of phrase that can combine urbanity and sentiment in clever, often comic, ways:

“I know how you can think you know someone, really know someone, only to find the person you thought you knew turns out to be a hollow timber structure with someone entirely different inside – a plastic wheelie bin of a someone.”

I liked the depiction of the children through their mothers’ eyes. I liked the way the women developed from the stereotypes they saw each other as being into complex, interesting characters. I liked the ultra-current setting – not just Twitter and Facebook but also preparations for the London 2012 Olympics – but I do worry that it will date the book quickly. I suppose that’s a decision the writer and her editor have already made.

The main flaw, I would say, are the prologue and epilogue, which is a shame because they are the first and last impressions. I found the epilogue especially jarring and completely lost my hold on the fictional world I had until then been enjoying thoroughly. But the rest of the book is good enough to forgive the slight lapse.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Sunday Salon: Holidaying

The Sunday Salon

It’s been a busy busy week. Amazing how much more you can do when you don’t go to work! Okay, so I’m on holiday for a week and a half, which we are filling with three short breaks in a row. We seem to have managed once again to coincide our plans with glorious sunshine, which is not strictly good for me but I love how happy it makes everyone.

Part 1: London
In London, we went to museums with Tim’s parents, watched fox cubs playing from a friend’s balcony and sat reading in royal parks.

Urban fox

Part 2: Bristol
Then we came back to Bristol and enjoyed our city at a slower pace, took in a film at the excellent Watershed and went on a day trip to see the amazing sand sculptures in Weston-super-Mare.

Grumpy

Part 3: Melton Mowbray
Finally, we hopped on a train to Leicestershire to chill with friends in the countryside, which is where we are now.

Red

I am relaxed, I have done lots of reading (you can read my reviews of Enduring Love and Mr Fox, posted earlier this week) and I didn’t have to dip into my savings. Who needs fancy foreign holidays? (I’m not saying I never want one again. Just to be clear, I still want to see the world. But this has been a good holiday. That is all.)

Happy Dickens Day!

Night Walks

Night Walks
by Charles Dickens

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dickens, so in preparation I thought I should read at least one of his works that have been sat on my TBR far too long. This is a collection of his essays, most of them from his journal Household Words, which I have a beautiful old boxed set of in my library. They give great insight into Dickens the man, as well as Dickens the writer.

The essays are mostly about Dickens’ forays around London, particularly poorer areas. His social conscience comes through strongly. In fact, he almost seems to be a bit of a busybody, inviting himself into workhouses and people’s homes, dragging children out of the gutter and throwing accusations at the police and government. But in the context of the time, writing such as this was hugely important. He described the real, actual conditions that people in London lived and worked in to spread the word, to spread awareness.

The writing is the Dickens familiar from his novels but with a single theme at a time making him a touch more accessible. There’s a definite sense of humour and a love of people in all their variety, as well as a need to know London thoroughly, at its best and worst. I found myself touched, amused, surprised and informed. Anyone interested in Victorian London would find something here for them.

Dickens Day

Some Dickens Day reading

First published 1850–1870.
This collection published 2010 by Penguin Books in the Great Ideas series.

The perils of social mobility

Pygmalion
by George Bernard Shaw

For some reason, despite loving the film My Fair Lady, I was convinced that this, the play it is based on, would be a bit stuffy and clever-clever. I had no idea how close the film is to the original script, with many of its funniest lines being Shaw. If anything the play is even funnier.

I read this book very carefully, because I was reading a 1947 Penguin edition printed on Bible-thin paper that felt as though it might disintegrate any moment. Though produced cheaply for a mass audience, it is still a thing of beauty, with illustrations by Feliks Topolski, extra scenes written for the 1938 film, a prologue and epilogue by the author, not to mention lengthy interjections from him at the start of most scenes. This is definitely not what reading a play usually feels like.

Bernard Shaw’s tongue is firmly in cheek from the start, with an attempt to write Eliza’s accent abruptly stopped partway through the first scene with the interjection “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London”.

Professor Higgins is, of course, lovably eccentric, bad tempered without realising it and single-minded to boot. He and his friend Colonel Pickering are confirmed bachelors who deliberately ignore all raised eyebrows at them taking a young pretty girl under their wing. Eliza is an impressively strong female character. She has been supporting herself by selling flowers and calculates that if she submits to the professor’s tutelage she can earn a little more in a flower shop. She gets angry when she realises that they have made her appear too refined for such work and only suitable for marriage. She doesn’t want to rely on a man to look after her.

I don’t usually like reading plays; I find it difficult to lose myself in mere dialogue, but in this case Shaw’s interjections/scene settings are so long and descriptive that I almost forgot it was a play. As a bonus, there is an epilogue in which Shaw explains what comes next for Eliza and the rest of the cast, and why it is not the ending that many fans of the play and film might expect. It’s a very nuanced, interesting conclusion.

In short, I loved this and now want to watch the 1938 film, though mostly I want to watch My Fair Lady again.

The play first produced in Berlin, 1913; in London and Paris, 1914.
The film first produced 1938.
First published 1916.
Film version published by Penguin Books 1941.