Friday, 12 November 2021

I read it in the Daily Mail so it must be true

We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent This week saw yet another report of university students banning a speaker for remarks made during a debate. It was a perfect opportunity for John Cleese (Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star) to gain some publicity for his upcoming documentary on "cancel culture". Many other outraged voices condemning "woke rules" use such instances for their own advantage too, and we should take care to question what the motives are. We Need New Stories shines a light on a number of such assertions often made in the media.

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Latin, cockney slang, and teenage argot

The Emperor's Babe Bernardine Evaristo's The Emperor's Babe mixes Latin phrases, cockney slang, and teenage girls' argot. It's also written in verse form.

Zuleika, a black teenage girl who lives in Roman London tells the story. She wants to be an artist, but is married off after catching the eye of the much older Felix. The husband makes regular solo trips to Rome, leaving his young wife to entertain herself in London with her best friends Alba and Venus.

Revolutionary deaths

Tu montreras ma tête au peuple (Folio) Tu Montreras Ma Tete Au Peuple is a gem of a book, but as yet only available in French, the language of its author François-Henri Désérable. It contains ten bite-sized stories, myths and legends of the French Revolution.

The title of the book is taken from the supposed last words of Danton who is the subject of one of its fictionalised accounts. These are based on a variety of reported last moments, some apocryphal, some invented, of the unfortunate souls who were guillotined during the Terror (generally from 1793 to mid-1794). Each is told from a different perspective, jailers, onlookers, relatives, friends, and even an executioner.

Take back control of your town

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too After "forty years of neoliberalism having gone unchecked and unchallenged" in the UK, what can people living in depressed areas do to counteract "post-industrial neglect and its deeply damaging social and economic impact"? Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones have some suggestions in this book.

Beautiful princesses and handsome princes

The Swans of Fifth Avenue Is the The Swans of Fifth Avenue a fairytale? In the Preface Melanie Benjamin describes the eponymous swans as if they really are talking birds floating on the water, rather than a group of rich American women who spend all their time buying clothes, having their hair done, or just doing nothing in expensive properties. Primarily tho', the book is about the relationship between writer Truman Capote and socialite Babe Paley - the other characters play supporting roles.

Mostly an entertaining story

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared Oh dear! This is the first book I've seriously considered not finishing, yet it started so well.

Allan Karlsson, never "given to pondering things too long", steps out of the window of his ground floor room in an old people's home, and sets in motion a series of tragic yet comic events. By chapter five we know a little about Allan's childhood, and his philosophy of life, "Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be. That meant, among other things, that you didn’t make a fuss, especially when there was good reason to do so".

The result of idle speculation

Hamnet Hamnet is Shakespeare's son who died aged 11, but the book is not really about him, it's about his mother Anne, or Agnes as she is known in the novel. It begins in 1596 with the boy home alone. The narrative follows him through the house, setting the scene, introducing us to the players. In the second chapter we go back in time to 1582 or thereabouts and meet Agnes Hathaway and her family.

Truth or fiction?

The Book of Evidence In John Banville's The Book of Evidence, Freddie Montgomery sits in prison, awaiting his trial and sentencing for the murder of Josie Bell. The unfortunate maid came across her killer as he was stealing a painting, and one thing led to another. In Freddie's account he imagines he's standing in court, talking to the judge. "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Don’t make me laugh".

A generous and wise aunt

Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen How brilliant it would be to have an aunt like Fay Weldon in her epistolary novel, Letters To Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen. She not only dispenses advice to her niece Alice on literary criticism and the art of writing, but she's also generous with her money; £500 for a word processor, and covering the cost of studying at UCLA.

The first of sixteen letters explains that Alice is "doing a college course in English Literature, and ... obliged to read Jane Austen" Alice finds Austen boring, petty and irrelevant and sees no purpose in reading her books, but Weldon attempts to persuade her niece otherwise.

Can you trust your memory?

Burnt Sugar Sometimes you'll be watching a movie or TV series that portrays the ideal family, one where problems are discussed and resolved, where mothers dispense hugs and wisdom to daughters in equal measure, and you think to yourself, "what a crock of sh*t". This is what I imagine Antara, the protagonist of Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar would think. Age 36, she's resentful of the way she has been raised, despises her mother who has recently developed Alzheimer's, but can't cut the ties.

The story is set in Puna, India, and narrated by Antara who intersperses scenes of her current life with episodes she remembers from her upbringing. Tara, her mother, didn't conform to the life society expected her to lead. She left her husband and his overbearing mother to live in an ashram, the source of Antara's first memories.

Memory is a key theme of the novel. In one scene Antara tells her grandmother she remembers the time her mother added chilli to her food. "Your mother didn’t add the chilli to your khichdi. I added ginger to it because you had a very bad cold", says Nani. Later, Tara's doctor explains, "memory is a work in progress. It’s always being reconstructed". The daughter tries to mitigate the effects of her mother's dementia by trying to keep the memories alive, but whatever Antara relates is her own truth (although she admits to telling lies) and not Tara's.

As the story unfolds the daughter seems to morph into her mother and you sometimes wonder whose thoughts are being spoken. No matter how much Antara wants to be her own woman, live her own life, she cannot escape her mother: "I understood how deeply connected we were, and how her destruction would irrevocably lead to my own". In the end, you have a great deal of sympathy and admiration for the woman who has lived her own life. As for Antara, you can't help thinking that she'd be better off living in the present, rather than continually picking over the past.

You're better off without him, love!

A Cat, a Man, and Two Women According to the Wikipedia page Cats and the Internet, "images and videos of domestic cats make up some of the most viewed content on the web". It goes further: "viewing online cat media is related to positive emotions, and ... it even may work as a form of digital therapy or stress relief".

Can the same be said for feline-centric literature?

A grim and fiercely joyless old lady

Great Granny Webster These days it's impossible to read a book without the gloomy cloud of Covid looming above me. Unfortunately Caroline Blackwood's Great Granny Webster filled me with a despondency and ennui that might not have been so bad if I'd read it before 2020.

The eponymous matriarch is a "grim and fiercely joyless old lady". Her 14-year-old great-granddaughter is sent to live with her for two months in the hope that the girl will benefit from the sea air in Hove, where Mrs Webster lives. As the teenager is leaving she discovers that her father, who died when she was nine, regularly enjoyed visiting the old woman.

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

A modern day Beowulf

The Mere Wife Maria Dahvana Headley's The Mere Wife opens with a female soldier, Dana Mills, "facedown in a truck bed, getting ready to be dead." It's a powerful beginning which draws the reader in, written in the present tense with short, punchy sentences. It hints at an optimistic future too, as Dana's only comfort is the memory of "a line I read in a library book. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

I thought LA was a sunny place

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1) There are not far off 6000 reviews of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep on Goodreads. Can there be anything more I can add to the pile?

I'll try to keep it brief. Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by millionaire General Sternwood to find out who's blackmailing him. The wealthy old man has two strong-willed and wayward daughters, "Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat". They both have links to crooks and gangsters, and the book follows Marlowe's investigation of this seedy underworld in Los Angeles.

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement?

The Loved One Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One is a short novel which often appears in best-of lists of humorous literature. It's an Anglo American tragedy according to the subtitle, about an American girl called Aimée who can't decide which of two suitors she should marry: British expat poet Dennis Barlow, or her respected American work colleague Mr Joyboy.

Waugh wrote the book during an all expenses paid visit to Hollywood, where MGM was hoping to obtain the film rights for Brideshead Revisited.

Monday, 1 November 2021

Heavy themes, light touch

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World "Her name was Leila. Tequila Leila, as she was known to her friends and her clients." Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is the story of Leila and the five friends who loved her.

The story is in two parts: part one The Mind, part two The Body. In The Mind, we discover the events in Leila's life that led to her leaving home and becoming a sex worker in Istanbul. It's narrated in flashback during the brief time between her heart stopping beating and her brain ceasing to function; the 10 minutes 38 seconds of the title. I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Leila and her mother, being female, have little control over their lives. There's a particularly disturbing scene that takes place when Leila is six, but in spite of the dark subject matter it's not a bleak tale because Leila is a fighter.