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One From the Archive: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson *****

The Haunting of Hill House was my second Halloween read of 2013, and is certainly one of my favourite books of 2013.  I have wanted to read it for years; more so after very much enjoying Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  I hoped that this novel would be just as good, and I was overjoyed to find that it was both better and creepier.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson begins the story by telling the story of Dr John Montague, who goes to live in Hill House when he finds out that it is purported to be haunted.  He invites a few select people along to Hill House in rural America to stay there with him, whom he feels are interested enough in hauntings to warrant a place in the experiment of sorts which he is conducting.  One of the characters who accepts the invitation is Eleanor Vance, a spinster of sorts, who becomes the one whom Jackson places the most focus upon.

One of the primary things which I love about Jackson’s fiction is the way in which she makes the houses in which her protagonists live characters in themselves.  I love the way in which Jackson introduces her characters too – for example, ‘Luke Sanderson was a liar’.  I admire how matter-of-fact she can be, but how she also leaves many elements up to the imagination of the reader, and the way in which she weaves in loose ends at times in which they are not expected.  The entirety of The Haunting of Hill House is beautifully written, and the prose works marvellously with regard to her unfolding of the plot.  Some of the passages which Jackson crafts truly made me swoon.  For example, when describing Eleanor’s journey to Hill House, she writes:

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson (Penguin)

She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden.  I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step.  No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road.  I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth.  I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread.  People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin…

The novel, as it gains momentum, is marvellously creepy.  The atmosphere which Jackson builds is powerful and rather oppressive.  Her pace is perfect, and the conversation between characters is fabulous.  Jackson never lingers into the field of mundanity, but is instead original in all that she writes and crafts.  The relationship which she builds between Eleanor and another of those who has accepted the invitation to stay at Hill House, Theodora, is believable and so well structured.  I read this novella almost in one go, as I struggled to tear myself away from it.

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Holiday Reading: The Cruise Edition

I am yet to finalise my holiday reading lists this year, but as part of my boyfriend and I’s trip to Florida in September, we have also booked a Caribbean and Latin American cruise.  I have read very little literature set in and around the countries and islands we are visiting, so I thought I would create a little list to hopefully pick from when it comes to choosing my holiday books.  I have tried to only choose two or three books per place so as not to make the list unmanageable, but for the Cayman Islands particularly, very few of the books set there personally appealed.

1. Cayman Islands

Founded Upon the Seas: A History of the Cayman Islands and Their People by 2533820Michael Craton
‘This book is the first comprehensive history of the Cayman Islands. Researched and written by the noted Caribbean Historian Michael Craton and the Cayman Islands New History Committee, it explores in detail the social, economic and political history of all three islands.  Researched, written edited and designed over a 6-year period, this book is in several respects a national history. The text and illustrations encompass the most important subjects, facts and events in Cayman History and its analysis of the main currents in Cayman’s past is addressed to the reader from a standpoint that is simultaneously modern, scholarly and Caymanian. Based on a wealth of information drawn from archives and libraries in the Caribbean, Europe and North America, the text is illustrated with rare maps, facsimile documents and numerous historical photographs.’

 

2. Roatan (Honduran island)

130520The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
In a breathtaking adventure story, the paranoid and brilliant inventor Allie Fox takes his family to live in the Honduran jungle, determined to build a civilization better than the one they’ve left. Fleeing from an America he sees as mired in materialism and conformity, he hopes to rediscover a purer life. But his utopian experiment takes a dark turn when his obsessions lead the family toward unimaginable danger.

 

Clementina Suarez: Her Life and Poetry by Janet N. Gold 2948768
Clementina Suárez (1902-91), the legendary matriarch of Honduran letters, scandalized Central American society with her bohemian lifestyle, her passionate woman-centered poetry, and her dedicated and unconventional promotion of art and literature.  This first biography of the notorious poet follows her life from the family home in an isolated rural province of Honduras to New York, Mexico, Cuba, and El Salvador, placing her in the company of some of the major figures of twentieth-century Latin American cultural and political life.  Using layers of rich sources–interviews with Suárez and her daughters and sisters conducted during a year’s stay in Honduras, recollections and written tributes of friends and artists, and archival material from public and private collections in Central America–Janet Gold weaves together the story of a writer who stubbornly chose to live as she pleased, with a well-balanced discussion of the social and cultural climate of twentieth-century Central America.  In Gold’s words, she paints a portrait of “haciendas and cantinas, mule trips to Tegucigalpa, and poetry recitals in the National Theatre. . . . posing for Diego Rivera, partying with Pablo Neruda and Miguel Angel Asturias, writing poems about sexuality and political commitment.”  In the Honduran psyche, Suárez has played the roles of liberated woman, fallen woman, femme fatale, prostitute, broken-hearted lover, muse, revolutionary poet, and respected woman of letters.  The process of reconciling the conflicting stories about Suárez with her personal response to this extraordinary woman enriched Gold’s task as a feminist biographer and led her to examine and appreciate the complex nature of “life writing.”  The result is this portrait of a woman poet that brings to life the person yet leaves the legend intact.

 

9780801477294The Broken Village: Coffee, Migration, and Globalization in Honduras by Daniel R. Reichman
‘In The Broken Village, Daniel R. Reichman tells the story of a remote village in Honduras that transformed almost overnight from a sleepy coffee-growing community to a hotbed of undocumented migration to and from the United States. The small village–called here by the pseudonym La Quebrada–was once home to a thriving coffee economy. Recently, it has become dependent on migrants working in distant places like Long Island and South Dakota, who live in ways that most Honduran townspeople struggle to comprehend or explain. Reichman explores how the new “migration economy” has upended cultural ideas of success and failure, family dynamics, and local politics.  During his time in La Quebrada, Reichman focused on three different strategies for social reform–a fledgling coffee cooperative that sought to raise farmer incomes and establish principles of fairness and justice through consumer activism; religious campaigns for personal morality that were intended to counter the corrosive effects of migration; and local discourses about migrant “greed” that labeled migrants as the cause of social crisis, rather than its victims. All three phenomena had one common trait: They were settings in which people presented moral visions of social welfare in response to a perceived moment of crisis. The Broken Village integrates sacred and secular ideas of morality, legal and cultural notions of justice, to explore how different groups define social progress.

 

3. Belize

Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet 10955031
Hal is a mild-mannered IRS bureaucrat who suspects that his wife is cheating with her younger, more virile coworker. At a drunken dinner party, Hal volunteers to fly to Belize in search of Susan’s employer, T.—the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s much-lauded novel How the Dead Dream—who has vanished in a tropical jungle, initiating a darkly humorous descent into strange and unpredictable terrain.  Salon raved that Millet’s “writing is always flawlessly beautiful, reaching for an experience that precedes language itself.” In Ghost Lights, she combines her characteristic wit and a sharp eye for the weirdness that governs human (and nonhuman) interactions. With the scathing satire and tender honesty of Sam Lipsyte and a dark, quirky, absurdist style reminiscent of Joy Williams, Millet has created a comic, startling, and surprisingly philosophical story about idealism and disillusionment, home and not home, and the singular, heartbreaking devotion of parenthood.

 

213258Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve by Alan Rabinowitz
In 1983, zoologist Alan Rabinowitz ventured into the rain forest of Belize, determined to study the little-known jaguar in its natural habitat and to establish the world’s first jaguar preserve. Within two years, he had succeeded. In Jaguar he provides the only first-hand account of a scientist’s experience with jaguars in the wild. Jaguar presents an irresistible blend of natural history and adventure; intensely personal, it is a portrait of an elusive, solitary predator and the Mayas with which it shares the jungle. Strong and sensitive, the book excitingly describes the rewards and hardships of fighting to protect this almost mythical cat.

 

An Anthology of Belizean Literature, edited by Victor Manuel Duran 13774118
This unique anthology utilizes the predominant themes of western literature to chronicle the prose and poetry of Belize. For this text, the editor has selected the original works of Belizean writers written in the four principle languages of the country: English, Creole, Spanish, and Garifuna. Via the many genres of Belizean literature, the work is able to recount in depth the history, struggles, colonial exploitation, and myths of the Belizeans as they strive for freedom and as they search for their identity. This anthology is a unique and important addition to the canon of Latin American Literature. It provides a greater understanding of the culture, history, and people of this small but linguistically diverse country in the heart of Central America. This anthology is essential to any course in Latin American literature.

 

4. Cozumel (Mexican island)

56899Aura by Carlos Fuentes
Felipe Montero is employed in the house of an aged widow to edit her deceased husband’s memoirs. There Felipe meets her beautiful green-eyed niece, Aura. His passion for Aura and his gradual discovery of the true relationship between the young woman and her aunt propel the story to its extraordinary conclusion.

 

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea 5970496
Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the United States to find work. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn’t the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village–they’ve all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men–her own “Siete Magníficos”–to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.  Filled with unforgettable characters and prose as radiant as the Sinaloan sun, Into the Beautiful North is the story of an irresistible young woman’s quest to find herself on both sides of the fence.

 

25517Malinche by Laura Esquivel
This is an extraordinary retelling of the passionate and tragic love between the conquistador Cortez and the Indian woman Malinalli, his interpreter during his conquest of the Aztecs. Malinalli’s Indian tribe has been conquered by the warrior Aztecs. When her father is killed in battle, she is raised by her wisewoman grandmother who imparts to her the knowledge that their founding forefather god, Quetzalcoatl, had abandoned them after being made drunk by a trickster god and committing incest with his sister. But he was determined to return with the rising sun and save her tribe from their present captivity. When Malinalli meets Cortez she, like many, suspects that he is the returning Quetzalcoatl, and assumes her task is to welcome him and help him destroy the Aztec empire and free her people. The two fall passionately in love, but Malinalli gradually comes to realize that Cortez’s thirst for conquest is all too human, and that for gold and power, he is willing to destroy anyone, even his own men, even their own love.

 

Women With Big Eyes by Ángeles Mastretta 2008413
Women with Big Eyes is Mexican novelist Ángeles Mastretta’s most widely read work, now available for the first time in an English translation. Each of the stories in Women with Big Eyes reveals a different woman, yet they are linked by a single thread: the uniting revelation that women share an unnamed force, whether it comes in the form of iron resolve, flaming passion, or simply the knowing and mystical ways to nurture a soul.   Mastretta’s women are vibrant, sly, wise, earthy, and full of life, with stories that mesmerize. From these pages, they gaze at you, into you, each representing an aspect of what it means to be a woman with big eyes-able to see the world for what it is, to wink at it, and to make an uncompromising life within it.  Ángeles Mastretta is a delightful storyteller, and these tales are shot through with sex and laughter. Women with Big Eyes makes a perfect, exquisite gift for any woman with a passionate heart and radiant eyes.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which would you recommend?  Are there any other books set in any of the places above which you feel should be on my list?

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A Wishlist from The Strand

The Strand Bookstore in New York City is my favourite bookshop in the world.  I have only visited once, but I am hoping to be able to go again in no more than a few years time.  I am very lucky to be heading off to the States next month, but will be visiting Florida, so no trips up to Manhattan for me.  I’m just hoping that there’s a similar treasure trove somewhere in Miami!  Regardless, The Strand has a wonderful website, from which I have compiled a wishlist of wonderful looking books.

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating by Charles Spence 9780241270080
‘Why do we consume 35% more food when eating with one more person, and 75% more when with three? Why are 27% of drinks bought on aeroplanes tomato juice? How are chefs and companies planning to transform our dining experiences, and what can we learn from their cutting-edge insights to make memorable meals at home? These are just some of the ingredients of Gastrophysics, in which the pioneering Oxford professor Charles Spence shows how our senses link up in the most extraordinary ways, and reveals the importance of all the “off-the-plate” elements of a meal: the weight of cutlery, the colour of the plate (his lab showed that red is associated with sweetness – we perceive salty popcorn as tasting sweet when served in a red bowl), the background music and much more. Whether dining alone or at a dinner party, on a plane or in front of the TV, he reveals how to understand what we’re tasting and influence what others experience. Meal-times will genuinely never be the same again.’

 

9780141981772Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
‘Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV—everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.’

 

Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems by Tom Hennen 9781556594045-1-zoom
‘In his introduction, Jim Harrison tellingly likens Hennen’s work to that of former poet laureate Ted Kooser. Hennen writes simply and affectingly of rural life in the heartlands, where “Night doesn’t fall/ It rises out of low spots.” He’s been publishing since 1974 but is receiving national distribution only now; many readers will appreciate this evocation of a life not as commonly portrayed in contemporary verse.’

 

0142004952-1-zoomHow I Became Stupid by Martin Page
‘Antoine is too smart for his own good-or so he thinks. He spends his days considering life rather than actually living it. He sees other people who seem perfectly happy in their ignorance, and he wants to be one of them. To achieve this end, Antoine decides that he needs to become stupid and tries various methods without success. Then his doctor prescribes Happyzac, which changes Antoine’s life. He really does “get stupid,” accidentally earns millions, indulges himself, and generally enjoys being one of the masses. Then, with his company’s collapse, the bubble bursts. Antoine returns to an intelligent life when he meets a like-minded girl in the park. Page’s first novel deftly combines biting satire and hilarious slapstick. His characters are highly introspective misfits, and the story makes for insightful commentary on life in the “developed” world.’

 

The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke 1594485666-1-zoom
‘Much like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay (2008), O’Rourke makes fine use of a strong voice and hyperawareness to recount a terribly painful tale. The author spares the reader no detail, revealing the deconstruction of a human being in the simplest terms imaginable. “I was stunned by the way my mother’s body was being taken to pieces,” she writes, “how each new week brought a new failure, how surreal the disintegration of a body was.” While there is no dearth of grief memoirs, O’Rourke’s candor allows her work to far transcend the imitators. She is fully conscious of the trappings of her genre, often admitting, “I know this may sound melodramatic,” and remaining wholly dedicated to combating the convenience of cliche, even acknowledging when she uses it. While the death of O’Rourke’s mother takes place midway through the book, her presence lingers. The author provides many seemingly insignificant details that provide a much-needed humanizing effect, sparing the victim from functioning as little more than a stand-in for her illness. Equally successful is O’Rourke’s ability to navigate beyond the realm of sentimentality, much preferring to render the drama with firm-lipped frankness.’

 

0822963310-1-zoomCatalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a sustained meditation on that which goes away—loved ones, the seasons, the earth as we know it—that tries to find solace in the processes of the garden and the orchard. That is, this is a book that studies the wisdom of the garden and orchard, those places where all—death, sorrow, loss—is converted into what might, with patience, nourish us.’

 

Letters, Summer 1926 by Boris PasternakMarina Tsvetaeva and Rainer Maria Rilke 9780940322714
‘The summer of 1926 was a time of trouble and uncertainty for each of the poets whose letters appear here. Boris Pasternak was in Moscow, trying to come to terms with the new Bolshevik regime. Marina Tsvetayeva, exiled from the Soviet Union to France with her husband and two children, was struggling desperately to get by. Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland, was dying. Chance put them in touch with one another, and before long they found themselves engaged in a complicated correspondence in which questions of art and love were ever more deeply implicated, and where every aspect of life and work was discussed with passionate intensity.’

Have you read any of these?  Have any piqued your interest?  Which is your favourite worldwide bookshop?

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‘Flesh of the Peach’ by Helen McClory ***

Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision.  Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’.  Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’

9781911332251Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne.  In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother.  She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with.  The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.

When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:

‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.

The question was vague because she herself was vague.  It becomes a lyric in a city like this one.  Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties.  Kennedy had been everything for a while there.

… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing.  Finally, after a slow dance with cancer.  And long after their relationship had died.’

She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.  You are outside and you can go no further.  And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’  Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.

Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences.  The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times.  These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange.  The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative.  This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.

The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her.  The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been.  There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.

Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms.  Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people.  With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together.  Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.

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Book Haul: July 2017

All of the self-restraint which I have demonstrated rather well this year has flown out of the window.  I welcomed twenty six new books into my life over the course of July, and whilst that sounds relatively ridiculous, I have already managed to read several of them, and therefore don’t feel (quite) as bad as I could have done about it.  As ever, I shall split this haul into physical books (ones which I have purchased in person, and then a secondhand book haul thanks to the Internet), and Kindle books.

At the beginning of the month, I was browsing in Urban Outfitters, and found an absolute gem – a Taschen copy of Photographers A-Z, which was marked down to £3.  I then got student discount on top, and couldn’t have been happier with my bargain.  I started to read it immediately, and have added a few new photographers to my favourites.

I then came across a charity shop selling four books for 99p.  I wasn’t expecting great things, as the rest of the shop had rather a jumble sale air to it, but on my first trip, I ended up finding eight books.  I chose rather a rare travelogue by Freya Stark entitled 9781845029821The Lycian Shore, which I hadn’t been able to find very cheaply beforehand, as well as a second printing hardback of Pamela Frankau‘s The Willow CabinThe other novels which I hauled are The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne by Andrew Nicoll, which is set in the gorgeous Scottish town of Broughty Ferry; The Nanny Diaries by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin, which was purchased solely for my love of Mary Poppins, and was actually better than I was expecting; Have the Men Had Enough? by Margaret Forster; Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman, which I am about to begin reading; Iris and Ruby by Rosie Thomas, an author I’ve heard good things about; and The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which looks right up my street.

When one of my best friends came to stay, we popped into the same charity shop, and I found four more books to add to my shelf: Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty, which I have wanted to read since my parents praised the television adaptation a few months ago; The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Fry, which looks like a sweet 9781860496929and amusing choice for summertime reading; Daughter Buffalo by Janet Frame, whose novel Faces in the Water I very much enjoyed; and my final Sarah Waters novel, Affinity, which I’ve heard mixed things about, but appeals to me regardless.

We then had an hour-long browse in Waterstone’s on a bright Sunday evening, and I picked out the following from the sale racks: Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov, which was a lovely single-sitting read; An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender, which I am very much excited for; and Ariel’s Gift by Erica Wagner, which is a Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes biography I’ve not yet read.  I picked up all of them for £5, which I am very impressed with.

9781594634888I succumbed and purchased six tomes for myself online after writing 10,000 words of my current thesis chapter.  I realise that this is something I could repeat ten times over by the time I’ve finished my PhD, but will certainly try not to!  Regardless, I am incredibly excited to be united with all of the following: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel, which is coming all the way from the USA; Reading the World by Ann Morgan; May We Shed These Human Bodies by Amber Sparks; Malinche by Laura Esquivel, which I am going to read whilst in the Caribbean in September; The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen; and The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan.

With regard to new books for my Kindle, I have been relatively restrained, downloading just four.  I chose The Wonder by Emma Donoghue because it sounded fascinating; 9781509818402whilst historically it was rather interesting, I did find a few issues with it, and only gave it three stars overall.  Merlin Bay by Richmal Crompton, however, was absolutely darling, and the perfect choice to read in bright sunshine.  The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking was a lovely book to curl up with on a raining evening, with candles lit; it certainly did add something to the slew of hygge books which I have read over the last year or so.  Finally, I have yet to pick up Why the Dutch Are Different by Ben Coates, which sounds like rather an inspired travelogue.

I am hoping that August will see no new books added to my TBR, and will give me the chance to actually get through some of these!

Which books did you purchase in July?  How many of these have you read, and which would you suggest that I start with?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Squire’ by Enid Bagnold ****

Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, first published in 1938, is one of Persephone’s two new additions for Autumn 2013. The novel’s preface has been written by Anne Sebba, and is both informative and well constructed.  The Squire was written over a period of ‘some fifteen years’, and was informed by the births of Bagnold’s four children between 1921 and 1930.  As Sebba states, ‘she [Bagnold] realised that she wanted to write not only about birth but also to explore in detail the intimate and growing relationship between the mother and her family.  This, she believed, had never before been attempted in a novel’.  She goes on to say, ‘most importantly, she wished to describe her own attitudes towards middle age with respect to sex and the family’.

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The squire of the book’s title is the middle aged mother of a family, whose position within it whilst her husband is away on his yearly jaunt to Bombay is as an omnipotent matriarch.  She is ‘both the dispenser of punishment, and the provider of fun’, which draws parallels with Bagnold’s own life.  The squire, Sebba states, has been ‘cast in the same mould’ as her creator.

Bagnold sets the scene marvellously from the first.  The opening line paints an incredibly vivid picture: ‘From the village green where the Manor House stood, well-kept, white-painted, the sea was hidden by the turn of the street.  The house’s front, pierced with windows, blinked as the sun sank…  Sunset and moonrise were going on together.’  The house itself is like a character, and Bagnold treats it with the utmost respect throughout.  She sets the scene further when she writes the following: ‘The house, now masterless for a month, was nearly, too, without a mistress, for she, its temporary squire, was heavy with child, absent in mind’.

In her confinement, the squire spends much time with the four children she already has – Jay, Lucy, Boniface and Henry.  The house is staffed and the children have their own nurse, who ‘felt pride in her heavy squire, her argumentative, provoking squire’.  Bagnold marvellously demonstrates the hierarchy of the house, even showing the disparities between the wealth of servants who are sent about the house on the merest whim.  The characters are described realistically and rather originally.  The squire, for example, ‘who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving’.  Caroline, the squire’s neighbour and friend, is ‘lovely and restless, victim and adventurer’.

Throughout, Bagnold’s writing is beautiful and full of power.  It is even haunting sometimes – for example, within the description she gives of the unborn baby: ‘its arms all but clasped about its neck, its face aslant…  secret eyes, a diver passed in albumen, ancient and epic…  as old as a pharoah in its tomb’.  The novel is a quiet one in terms of the events it describes, and the little action within it is very focused upon the confines of the house.  The strength of it lies in Bagnold’s writing and characters, as well as the way in which she portrays relationships so well, particularly between the young siblings.  She is an incredibly perceptive author, and this is a marvellous book with which to begin reading her oeuvre.  Its complexities are great, and Bagnold is a master in things left unsaid.  Some of the scenes which she captures, particularly those which involve the new baby, are incredibly vivid.  It goes without saying too that the Persephone edition has been beautifully produced, endpapers and all.

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The Ministry of Utmost Disappointment

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on a journey of many years-the story spooling outwards from the cramped neighbourhoods of Old Delhi into the burgeoning new metropolis and beyond, to the Valley of Kashmir and the forests of Central India, where war is peace and peace is war, and where, from time to time, ‘normalcy’ is declared. Anjum, who used to be Aftab, unrolls a threadbare carpet in a city graveyard that she calls home. A baby appears quite suddenly on a pavement, a little after midnight, in a crib of litter. The enigmatic S.Tilottama is as much of a presence as she is an absence in the lives of the three men who loved her. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once an aching love story and a decisive remonstration. It is told in a whisper, in a shout, through tears and sometimes with a laugh. Its heroes are people who have been broken by the world they live in and then rescued, mended by love-and by hope. For this reason, they are as steely as they are fragile, and they never surrender. This ravishing, magnificent book reinvents what a novel can do and can be. And it demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts.’9780241303979

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was one of my most anticipated novels released this year. I found Roy’s debut novel, The God of Small Things, breathtaking in its beauty, and sweeping in its descriptions. I was expecting much of the same thing with her second novel, published two decades after the first. I wanted to be startled, to be amazed. My interest was piqued even further when I read the novel’s blurb for the first time.

Sadly, I was left feeling rather disappointed. Roy undoubtedly discusses a plethora of important and relevant issues within The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, from gender and the effects of living as a transgender person, to politics and terrorism, but it felt to me as though she was perhaps trying to do too much. Rather than seamlessly tie together, as the themes do in her debut novel, they are often a little disjointed, and create an almost chaotic jumbled effect in one or two places.

The writing, too, did not live up to my expectations. I found it a little lacklustre on the whole; yes, there are some stunning descriptions, but the prose did not dazzle me. The omniscient narrative gave a detached feel to the whole, making me feel less invested in the individuals and their plights. The characters too posed a problem for this reader. I admire the sheer scale of how many persons Roy crafted here, from all walks of life, and with different problems occupying them within the wider scale of Indian society. However, I would go as far to say that some of them never really came to life, and were not as well-developed as they perhaps could, or should, have been. Several of them seemed to lurk in the shadows of the novel, and despite the time devoted to them, remained secondary.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an ambitious novel, but I cannot help but think that it has attempted to achieve too much. It is not at all straightforward, and I can imagine even the most patient reader getting a little frustrated at junctures. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness sadly failed to grip me.

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