Give a girl an education

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen

So I’m still not sold on Jane Austen, having read four of her seven novels. I don’t think I will ever be a big fan, but I do increasingly appreciate her smart wit, her irony and sarcasm.

Fanny Price, however, is my least favourite Austen heroine so far. Her fate is predictable, telegraphed from the first few pages, but that’s not so bad if the journey is still enjoyable. However, Fanny is no fun at all. She’s delicate of health, oversensitive, prim, determined to believe that people can’t change, surprisingly impractical and generally a right goody-two-shoes.

Fanny is the oldest girl in a very large, not very well off family. When she is 10 she is adopted by her aunt Maria, who is married to the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram, so Fanny moves from her chaotic but happy home in Southampton to the grandeur of Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire. She is shy, scared of her uncle and badly misses her home and family.

“Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”

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We miss so much when the assumptions we attach to words are all we snatch

occupy-me-by-tricia-sullivanOccupy Me
by Tricia Sullivan

This is a very strange genre-crossing mindbender of a novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though at times I had no idea what was going on.

The plot is difficult to explain. The tale is narrated by Pearl, who wakes up in a fridge in a junkyard with little knowledge of who she is, or indeed what. She has the appearance of a middle-aged tall muscular black woman, but she also has wings in a higher dimension and a strength far beyond human. She might be an angel. In alternate chapters she directly addresses a Dr Kisi Sorle, whose story initially seems to be separate from hers, though they inevitably come together.

Dr Sorle has been experiencing blackouts, after one of which he finds himself in possession of a briefcase. When he arrives at work, where he provides end-of-life care for a billionaire businessman Austen Stevens, whose corporation destroyed his home country, he finds his body taken over again, but this time he remains aware of the other man controlling him. The controlling entity opens the briefcase and the dying Stevens disappears inside it.

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Sunday Salon: Should we judge older books by today’s standards?

The Sunday Salon

This year I joined the Classics Club, with the aim of reading a list of 50 classics in five years. Some of my list are modern classics (okay, a lot) but about half were written before 1930 and, well, those times they were quite different. I’ve only read one book off my list so far (review to follow soon), but I’ve read enough older books in the past to know that the same problem raises its ugly head time and again: the different moral and social standards of earlier times can be upsetting and affect my opinion of the book. Is it wrong of me to let that happen?

The thing is, while in, say, 1860, language (and indeed actions) that were sexist, racist, homophobic and all sorts of other discriminatory were common throughout society, does that really mean that all people then didn’t know those derogatory terms were wrong?

Now, you could argue that, right or wrong, if discriminatory language was common, then a novelist writing a realistic story has a right, or even a duty, to reflect that language in their work. But equally you could argue that a novelist has a duty to make it clear that such language is not morally defensible.

Moralising, however, is another of those things that older books tend to do that can put me right off. Which I know sounds a bit hypocritical after all the above. But it is tedious, right, when you can see a message being driven home from a mile off?

What about you? Do you judge older books by today’s standards? Are there any other things that put you off a book?

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.

Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?

How to be Good
by Nick Hornby

I was feeling a bit ill and not quite up to stretching my brains around the Asimov novel I’m in the middle of reading, so I picked this off the TBR. Somehow that sounds as if I’m disparaging it. I’m not. I really like Hornby. And he is easier to read than Asimov, it turns out.

But how did I like this Hornby novel? Well, it was better than Slam, which is a good start, and generally pretty funny and intelligent, but I do have some bones to pick. And I can’t tell if I’m mostly annoyed with the storyline or with the way it’s told. Some of each, probably.

Kate is struggling with her marriage. It’s not so much that the sex has become mechanical, or that she has started an affair, or that her husband David is constantly in a heightened, bordering-on-caricature, state of anger…but something is clearly wrong and only apathy has prevented the inevitable divorce. Then, out of the blue, David visits a faith healer (largely to spite Kate, who is a GP) and suddenly he is changed beyond all recognition, his whole aim in life is to do and be good, and he’s damn well going to make the whole family join him.

A certain suspension of disbelief is required for this story that, frankly, I didn’t quite manage. Despite the faith healer, DJ GoodNews, being unappealing and having no religion and no oratory skill, he is successful at healing doubters and believers alike. David changes from comically angry and judgemental to painfully earnest do-gooder with difficulty having any other topic of conversation than, well, doing good:
“[David’s] relentless quest for the gag in everything used to drive me potty…some elaborate and usually nasty witticism would come darting out of his mouth…and I would either laugh, or, more often, walk out of the room, slamming the door on the way. But every now and again – say, five per cent of the time – something would hit me right on the end of my funny bone…So now I very rarely walk out of the room and slam the door; on the other hand, I never laugh. And I would have to say that as a consequence I am slightly worse off.”

Kate is, for the most part, pretty believable. As the narrator, it is her head we are inside and her perspective we see. She believes herself to be a good person because she is a doctor, and that the number of pus-filled sores she tends to each day outweighs minor aberrations such as having an affair. She is initially outraged that her husband’s mid-life crisis appears to require her and her children to give up some of their middle class creature comforts but she tries to support David and even begins to see the point of his efforts.

There are brilliantly quotable lines on almost every page but I think this gives a particularly good flavour:
“What is the difference between offering spare bedrooms to evacuees in 1940 and offering spare bedrooms to the homeless in 2000?…do we have a moral right to keep a spare bedroom as a junk room, or a music room, or for overnight guests who never come, when it is February and freezing and wet and there are people on the pavements? Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?…I wish David and GoodNews were interested in starting up an Internet company so that they could make millions of pounds to spend on Page Three girls and swimming pools and cocaine and designer suits. People would understand that. That wouldn’t upset the neighbours.”

The story of a failing marriage is told poignantly and well. It was achingly sad to read about Kate being happy to share a bed with David because they have learned to fit together, but at the same time growing to hate him. And the social issues that David and GoodNews touch on are real ones that people should care about and want to do something about.

But this is a gentle comedy, not a hard-hitting one, so of course it implies that Kate was right to not bother in the first place and David is made to look stupid for having tried. Which is a shame. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think it’s easy to poke fun at middle-class left-leaning liberals. The tone of the book, for all its humour, is actually very bleak – there is no point, no hope. Which is depressing. And not true. There are good people out there who didn’t need a spiritual conversion to make them good and don’t make themselves ridiculous by doing good deeds. Guess I’m just an optimist.

As you can tell, the story does raise interesting questions about faith, “goodness”, charity and family, though it explores them from a fairly limited Christian perspective. There were some irritating non-sequiturs when Hornby switched between David being a hardnosed rational to a science-hating artist. And a GP who doesn’t know basic first aid and includes homeopathy in a list of “proper” treatments preferable to faith healing? Both equally terrifying though sadly the latter is at least believable.

So where does that leave me? I thoroughly enjoyed the read but it also frustrated me and continues to now as I mull it over. Is that a sign of good writing? Perhaps.

First published 2001 by Penguin Books.