Thursday, 11 November 2021

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.