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‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift ***

Getting my hands on a copy of this book was rather difficult.  There was a one hundred and twenty-person strong waiting list in my home library system, and I felt guilty trying to procure a full-price copy whilst on a book buying ban.  My patience (yes, for once I had some) paid off, and I was able to borrow it from a Glasgow library by just walking into a branch and locating it on the shelf.  Wonders shall never cease.

9781471155239Mothering Sunday was a choice for mine and the excellent Katie’s Chai and Sheep book club, and both of us very much liked the premise when the book was co-selected.  At the time of picking it up, it seemed fitting; I had just been in a three-hour induction session led by one of my dissertation supervisors, whose current specialism is in daily novels.  This marked my first foray into Swift’s work too; he has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I was unsure as to which book of his I should begin with.  Then this incredibly hyped, very popular (in my home county, at least!) novella came along, and I hoped that it would provide a good introduction to his work.

The novella’s setting is Mothering Sunday in March 1924: ‘It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June.  And it must have been a little after noon’.  Jane Fairchild, ‘orphan and housemaid’, has nothing with which to occupy her time on this, the day in which maids nationwide were allowed the day off so that they could visit their mothers.  The blurb which accompanies the book is rather intriguing, particularly with regard to the questions which it asks: ‘How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?’  It goes on to praise the novel highly, as ‘constantly surprising, joyously sensual and deeply moving’, and declares it ‘Graham Swift at his thinking best’.

Paul, beloved sole remaining son of the well-to-do Cunningham family, has been having clandestine liaisons with Jane for quite some time, but on this Sunday, the pair being the only two in the house after his parents travel ‘to Henley for lunch’, things escalate, and they make love in Paul’s bedroom.  The aftermath of the act is what Swift appears to be interested in: ‘… and she wasn’t going to say, now he was on his feet and the decision all but made, “Please, don’t go.  Please, don’t leave me.”  She was disqualified from the upper world in which such dramas were staged.  She had her lowly contempt for such stuff anyway.  As if she couldn’t have used – but she wasn’t his wife, it was all the other way round – a different, quieter but fiercer language.  Or just the bullet of a look.’

The opening sentence of Mothering Sunday marvellously sets both the scene and the historical period: ‘Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid…’.  Some of Swift’s imagery is just lovely; for instance, when he writes: ‘The shadows from the latticework in the window slipped over him like foliage’.

Whilst I wasn’t blown away by the whole, I did find the class divides which Swift portrayed rather interesting.  His descriptions were largely well evoked, and did work well with the story, but I found some of his prose rather jarring in its style.  I’m unsure as to whether Swift is an author I’ll pick up again; I certainly wasn’t as enamoured with this as I believed I would be at the outset.

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‘Midsummer Night in the Workhouse’ by Diana Athill ***

Diana Athill’s Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was a book club book which Katie and I both agreed had to be part of our revised 2016 reading list.  The short stories collected here were originally written between 1958 and 1962, and were published by Persephone in 2011; we were both understandably rather excited to read it.

9781903155820Many of the stories collected here depict couples, or those destined to become romantically involved, and sex is a strong – and occasionally surprising – theme.  Athill places more emphasis upon the physicality rather than the psychology of the act, and whilst the latter is mentioned from time to time, it feels as though animal urges interested her far more than the thought patterns which they stem from.

The title story here did intrigue.  In ‘Midsummer Night at the Workhouse’, Cecilia Mathers has been sent to the artists’ retreat of Hetherston Hall by her publisher, who ‘thought her pretty and was worried that she could afford to eat only baked beans’.  Being packed off does not have the best of effects upon Cecilia; with five other writers in residence, she feels isolated and unable to perform her craft: ‘For some months she had believed that she did not feel like beginning a second novel, or even a story, because she was so poor and harassed.  Given peace and lamb chops for lunch… but now that she was given peace and not just lamb chops but roast chicken and asparagus, and summer pudding with cream, she could still find nothing to write’.  Athill goes on to describe Cecilia’s issues with writing: ‘Shut in her room, she would look at her typewriter with loathing and would sometimes even cry’.

Cecilia’s situation has been well – and touchingly – wrought.  Hers is a believable dilemma for a writer to face, and one cannot help but wonder if Athill has placed autobiographical touches into the portrait of her creation: ‘It was not for want of trying.  She had now been there for five weeks and in that time she had painfully contrived a synopsis of a novel – a structure of cardboard and glue which would clearly fall to pieces if touched.  She had also rewritten a story once scrapped and had seen why she had scrapped it’.

‘An Unavoidable Delay’, in which an Englishwoman named Rose takes a holiday by herself to Yugoslavia in order to reevaluate her marriage, has merit; there is perhaps more psychology to her character portrait and situation in life when compared to other stories here.  Athill shrewdly displays the way in which: ‘There had been a great quarrel before she started on this holiday alone and she had hoped that now Neville would say that she had gone too far and mean it.  At the beginning she used to think: Oh, why won’t he make up his mind to throw me out?’

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is not my first brush with Athill’s work.  I picked up her memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, in an Oxfam bookshop last year, swayed as I was by the positive reviews on its cover.  Whilst it did contain some interesting ideas, and elegant phrasing, I felt as though it lacked depth in places.  I hate to say, too, that there seemed to me to be a sweeping air of pretension over the whole.  This is exactly the same opinion which I have come away with after sampling her short stories; they are interesting, sometimes shrewd, and often very well written, but they just did not strike me as memorable – or realistic, in some places – slices of life, or character portraits which will sit with me for a long time to come.

There is a strong emphasis upon art here; many of the protagonists, and some of the secondary characters, practice such things as painting or writing as their professions.  This serves to provide a thematic link from one tale to the next, and nicely demonstrates the importance which Athill placed upon the arts.

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A wonderfully mischievous Diana Athill (from http://www.hungertv.com)

Despite very much enjoying the preface to the Persephone edition, in which Athill speaks of her career as editor at a London publishing house, the majority of the stories here just did not grab me as I imagined they would.  I had no real sense that Athill’s works were mini masterpieces in the same way as I have almost immediately had with other Persephone short stories – Diana Gardner and Dorothy Whipple’s collections, for instance.  I found that many of the tales in Midsummer Night at the Workhouse ended rather abruptly, or were lacking in terms of plot.  Similar relationship details and scenes were repeated from one story to the next at times, and there was no real variation to the whole in consequence.  The tales were formulaic; barely a single one jumped out and grabbed me, or surprised me in any way, and I found this a real shame.  I had expected to be wowed by Athill’s writing, praised highly as it is, but have come away feeling more than a little disappointed.

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Book Club: ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood ****

The second book club choice which the lovely Susie at Girl With Her Head In a Book and I have decided upon is Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.    Whilst I have found some of Atwood’s work a little hit and miss in the past, I was very much looking forward to engrossing myself in this, an incredibly appealing-sounding historical novel.  Of all her works, the thread of story within Alias Grace is the one which captured my attention the most.

Alias Grace was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and was the recipient of the Canadian Giller Prize.  The novel has received wondrous acclaim from reviewers since its publication in 1996. It centres around the true story of Grace Marks, a servant who was arrested for her ‘cold-blooded’ part in two notorious murders in July 1843, at the age of sixteen.  Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy farmer in Ontario, and his housekeeper-cum-mistress, Nancy Montgomery, were shot and strangled respectively.  Grace’s co-worker and accomplice, a twenty-year-old stable hand named James McDermott, was hung for his part in proceedings.  Grace, on account of her sex and young age, was committed to an asylum in Kingston, Ontario, where she remained for thirty years.

Atwood is masterful at using a variety of different techniques to set the scene throughout.  As well as the story told in Grace’s own words – or, at least, Atwood’s imagining of them – we also have a narrative based upon a fictional doctor named Simon Jordan, who is researching Grace’s case.  Materials such as newspaper articles and poems have also been used to further shape the historical context.

Alias Grace is beautifully written.  Grace’s voice particularly has been incredibly tautly crafted, and Atwood’s portrayal of her feels realistic from the very beginning: ‘Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: murderess, murderess.  It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.  Murderer is merely brutal.  It’s like a hammer, a lump of metal.  I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices’.  Grace is a captivating protagonist; although we know from the first what she has been convicted of, an awful lot of sympathy is soon created for her on behalf of the reader.  Atwood is empathetic towards her young character, and makes her come to life once more upon the page.

Whilst I didn’t adore Alias Grace, it is certainly an incredibly well-crafted – and even quite moving – novel, and it is my favourite of Atwood’s books to date.  I particularly admired the way in which she tied so many historical elements together – the use of historical quilt designs and foodstuffs, for example.  Alias Grace, despite its length, is a gripping and fast-moving novel, which is sure to appeal to any reader with an interest in crime or general historical fiction.

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Book Club Announcement: ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood

This month, the lovely Susie from Girl With Her Head In a Book and I read Wuthering Heights together, and both blogged about it as part of a new book club venture.  Thanks so much to everyone who took part!  We have decided on Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace as our second book club choice, and hope to both post our reviews of it at the end of February.

To whet your appetite, I have included the novel’s blurb below:

“Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.”

Please let us know if you plan to join in, and we can’t wait to discuss Alias Grace with you!  You can read Susie’s post, which includes links to other Wuthering Heights reviews here.

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New Book Club: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte

I have been corresponding with the lovely Susie at Girl With Her Head in a Book of late about starting a little online book club.  We have decided that our first ‘trial’ book, as it were, should be one which both of us have very much enjoyed in the past, and one which we were keen to re-read.  We have therefore decided that our inaugural book club choice will be Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Susie and I would love as many people to join in with our project as possible.  We have decided upon the first week in January to post our Wuthering Heights reviews, so that we aren’t too bogged down in Christmas things, and to give everyone else a chance to read the novel too.  If you’re planning to join in, please let us know!

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Great Book Club Choices (Part Two)

Following on from last week’s ‘Great Book Club Choices (Part One)’, here are ten more novels which I feel would warrant stimulating and lengthy conversation in a book club environment.

11. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
“Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turns moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007.”

12. The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Double “is a surprisingly modern hallucinatory nightmare-foreshadowing Kafka and Sartre-in which a minor official named Goliadkin becomes aware of a mysterious doppelganger, a man who has his name and his face and who gradually and relentlessly begins to displace him with his friends and colleagues.”

13. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
“When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future. With its sensitive depiction of the wronged Tess and powerful criticism of social convention, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the most moving and poetic of Hardy’s novels.”

14. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
“With neither friends nor family, Lucy Snowe sets sail from England to find employment in a girls’ boarding school in the small town of Villette. There she struggles to retain her self-possession in the face of unruly pupils, an initially suspicious headmaster and her own complex feelings, first for the school’s English doctor and then for the dictatorial professor Paul Emmanuel. Drawing on her own deeply unhappy experiences as a governess in Brussels, Charlotte Bronte’s last and most autobiographical novel is a powerfully moving study of isolation and the pain of unrequited love, narrated by a heroine determined to preserve an independent spirit in the face of adverse circumstances.”

15. The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
“In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, rare-gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested, wrongly accused of being a spy. Terrified by his disappearance, his family must reconcile a new world of cruelty and chaos with the collapse of everything they have known. As Isaac navigates the terrors of prison, and his wife feverishly searches for him, his children struggle with the realization that their family may soon be forced to embark on a journey of incalculable danger.”

16. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
“An elderly artist and her six-year-old grand-daughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. As the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings, a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the very island itself. Written in a clear, unsentimental style, full of brusque humour, and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story.Tove Jansson captured much of her own life and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of her adult novels.”

17. My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young
“A letter, two lovers, a terrible lie. In war, truth is only the first casualty.  While Riley Purefoy and Peter Locke fight for their country, their survival and their sanity in the trenches of Flanders, Nadine Waveney, Julia Locke and Rose Locke do what they can at home. Beautiful, obsessive Julia and gentle, eccentric Peter are married: each day Julia goes through rituals to prepare for her beloved husband’s return. Nadine and Riley, only eighteen when the war starts, and with problems of their own already, want above all to make promises – but how can they when the future is not in their hands? And Rose? Well, what did happen to the traditionally brought-up women who lost all hope of marriage, because all the young men were dead? Moving between Ypres, London and Paris, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a deeply affecting, moving and brilliant novel of love and war, and how they affect those left behind as well as those who fight.”

18. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
“At the heart of this epic saga, set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman. As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races and generations. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of China. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, which makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive – a masterpiece from one of the world’s finest novelists.”

19. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
“Northern Iceland, 1829. A woman condemned to death for murdering her lover. A family forced to take her in. A priest tasked with absolving her. But all is not as it seems, and time is running out: winter is coming, and with it the execution date. Only she can know the truth. This is Agnes’s story.”

20. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
“In this delightful, funny and moving first novel, a librarian and a young boy obsessed with reading take to the road. Lucy Hull, a 26-year-old children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favourite patron, 10-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes. Lucy, a rebel at heart beneath her librarian’s exterior, stumbles into a moral dilemma when she finds Ian camped out in the library after hours, with a knapsack of provisions and an escape plan. Desperate to save him from the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian. The odd pair embark on an improvised road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets and an inconvenient boyfriend thrown in their path. Along the way, Lucy struggles to make peace with her Russian immigrant father and his fugitive past, and is forced to use his shady connections to escape discovery. But is it just Ian who is running away? Who is the strange man on their tail? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?”

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Great Book Club Choices (Part One)

Whilst I am sadly no longer part of a book club, I thought I would compile a list of twenty titles which I think would be wonderful choices for book club discussions.  Whilst not everyone will like these novels (from past experience, selecting a novel which everyone enjoys and admires is nigh on impossible), the conversation which can be built around them is sure to be stimulating.  For each book, I have copied the blurb to give you an idea as to the plot and style of each.

1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
“The devil makes a personal appearance in Moscow accompanied by various demons, including a naked girl and a huge black cat. When he leaves, the asylums are full and the forces of law and order in disarray. Only the Master, a man devoted to truth, and Margarita, the woman he loves, can resist the devil’s onslaught.”

2. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
“Ten-year-old Abdullah would do anything for his younger sister. In a life of poverty and struggle, with no mother to care for them, Pari is the only person who brings Abdullah happiness. For her, he will trade his only pair of shoes to give her a feather for her treasured collection. When their father sets off with Pari across the desert to Kabul in search of work, Abdullah is determined not to be separated from her. Neither brother nor sister know what this fateful journey will bring them. And the Mountains Echoed is a deeply moving epic of heartache, hope and, above all, the unbreakable bonds of love.”

3. Restless by William Boyd
“It is 1939. Eva Delectorskaya is a beautiful 28-year-old Russian emigree living in Paris. As war breaks out she is recruited for the British Secret Service by Lucas Romer, a mysterious Englishman, and under his tutelage she learns to become the perfect spy, to mask her emotions and trust no one, including those she loves most. Since the war, Eva has carefully rebuilt her life as a typically English wife and mother. But once a spy, always a spy. Now she must complete one final assignment, and this time Eva can’t do it alone: she needs her daughter’s help.”

4. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Lacuna is the heartbreaking story of a man’s search for safety of a man torn between the warm heart of Mexico and the cold embrace of 1950s McCarthyite America. Born in the U.S. and reared in Mexico, Harrison Shepherd is a liability to his social-climbing flapper mother, Salome. Making himself useful in the household of the famed Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky, young Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution. A violent upheaval sends him north to a nation newly caught up in World War II. In the mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina he remakes himself in America’s hopeful image. But political winds continue to throw him between north and south, in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach – the lacuna – between truth and public presumption. A gripping story of identity, loyalty and the devastating power of accusations to destroy innocent people, The Lacuna is as deep and rich as the New World.”

5. The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson
“Can a man be maimed by witchcraft? Can a severed head speak? Based on the most notorious of English witch-trials, this is a tale of magic, superstition, conscience and ruthless murder. It is set in a time when politics and religion were closely intertwined; when, following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, every Catholic conspirator fled to a wild and untamed place far from the reach of London law. This is Lancashire. This is Pendle. This is witch country.”

6. Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
“When Joel Knox’s mother dies, he is sent into the exotic unknown of the Deep South to live with a father he has never seen. But once he gets there, everyone is curiously evasive when Joel asks to see his father. Truman Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms is a brilliant, searching study of homosexuality set in a shimmering landscape of heat, mystery and decadence.”

7. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
“Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-racked, miserable. At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut. Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding. Dorothy Baker’s entrancing tragicomic novella follows an unpredictable course of events in which her heroine appears variously as conniving, self-aware, pitiful, frenzied, absurd, and heartbroken-at once utterly impossible and tremendously sympathetic. As she struggles to come to terms with the only life she has, Cassandra reckons with her complicated feelings about the sister who she feels owes it to her to be her alter ego; with her father, a brandy-soaked retired professor of philosophy; and with the ghost of her dead mother. First published in 1962, Cassandra at the Wedding is a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve. Like the fiction of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jhumpa Lahiri, it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind.”

8. The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry
“One morning a librarian finds a reader who has been locked in overnight. She begins to talk to him, a one-way conversation full of sharp insight and quiet outrage. As she rails against snobbish senior colleagues, an ungrateful and ignorant public, the strictures of the Dewey Decimal System and the sinister expansionist conspiracies of the books themselves, two things shine through: her unrequited passion for a researcher named Martin, and an ardent and absolute love for the arts. A delightful divertissement for the discerning bookworm…”

9. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
“First published in Norway in 1890, “probes into the depths of consciousness with frightening and gripping power. Like the works of Dostoyevsky, it marks an extraordinary break with Western literary and humanistic traditions. ”

10. Keepers of the House by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran
“Since the eighteenth century the eccentric and flamboyant Beltran family have ruled their desolate Andean valley. Now they are almost extinct. At seventeen, Lydia Sinclair, newly married to Don Diego Beltran, the last of the line, arrives at the vast decaying Hacienda La Bebella. As her husband retreats into himself, Lydia takes refuge in unearthing his ancestors’ tragic history. Benito, the family’s oldest retainer, relates to her tales of splendour and romance, violence and suffering. From these she weaves a rich gothic tapestry in which the fantastic legends of the past are mingled with the present necessity for survival in a harsh, drought-ridden land.”

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Stay tuned for part two!