Sunday, 7 February 2016

re-reading Persuasion

I re-read Persuasion almost every year. Usually in the spring although it is very much an autumnal novel. At just over two hundred pages it can be read over a long weekend. Each time I re-read I find new layers of meaning. I was interested in the ending this time.

The letter that Captain Wentworth writes to Anne declaring his love ‘For you alone I think and plan’ is so moving that I’ve overlooked something else in the final pages. Austen envisions a life for her characters beyond the end of the novel. She doesn’t hold out much hope for the chilly and elegant Elizabeth:

‘It would be well for the eldest sister if she were equally satisfied with her situation, for a change is not very probable there.’ Persuasion, Jane Austen

The artful Mrs Clay who absconds with Mr Elliot has either been ruined by him or is about to make him her husband and Austen leaves us guessing whether 'his cunning or hers, may finally carry the day.’

 
We know from her letters that Jane Austen saw the characters from Pride and Prejudice as having their own autonomy because when she went to an exhibition in London with her brother Henry in 1813 she saw Jane Bingley in a portrait there and described her in the present tense:

Mrs. Bingley's is exactly herself--size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow. Jane Austen 1813

I hadn’t noticed that Austen extends the character’s lives beyond the end of the novel in Persuasion before, but then, she was a novelist ahead of her time.
 
Like a lot of book bloggers I’m not buying many new books this year or scouring Waterstones and Amazon for new novels to read. Sometimes, the very finest writing is already sitting on your shelves!

Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie


8 Jan 1947 - 11 Jan 2016

Monday, 4 January 2016

Re-reading A Spool of Blue Thread

So one day we were at Topps Home and Garden because Abby wanted a kitchen fire extinguisher, and while the man was ringing it up she said, ‘Do you mind hurrying? It’s kind of an emergency.’ Just being silly, you know, she meant it as a joke. Well he didn’t get it. He said, ‘I have to follow procedures, ma’am,’ and she and I just doubled up laughing. We were crying with laughter.’ A Spool of Blue Thread Anne Tyler 2015

Literary prizes may come and go but there is no novelist quite like Anne Tyler for comfort, sustenance and the sheer pleasure of good writing. Her novels are all firmly rooted in her home town of Baltimore and feature a cast of underachievers, misfits, delinquents, women past their prime and men whose ambitions have been thwarted. Tyler rarely intervenes in the narrative to judge or comment on the actions of her characters she just lets the story unfold and the characters find their own solutions or compromises.

Denny from A Spool of Blue Thread is one of Tyler’s notorious misfits. Handsome, elusive, virtually unemployable and touchy as hell he is not as lovable as Barnaby from A Patchwork Planet or as wayward as Lindy from The Amateur Marriage, but the kind of person given to snooping into the diaries and personal papers of his family yet can’t bear any scrutiny of his own life. As his father Red says, 'One question too far and he is out the door.’ 

A Spool of Blue Thread is a novel about a family out of step with each other and it’s a brilliant return to form after the Beginner’s Goodbye. Tyler’s gift for comedy sparkles and the telephone rant which Abby’s assertive daughter delivers to brother Denny extends over two pages and is a joy to read. But it is Abby, the family matriarch who is the warm beating heart of the novel. A woman who prides herself on her phenomenal memory which makes what happens to her later in the novel all the more poignant.
 
This article from The Guardian is a fascinating insight into how Tyler and other Man Booker short-listed writers created their novels.
 
Happy New Year! 

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Japanese Lover

The house stood in a privileged position on top of a promontory between the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay.  At first light, the thick mist rolling in from the sea like an avalanche of cotton wool often obscured the Golden Gate Bridge altogether, but in the course of the morning it would lift and the elegant red iron structure would gradually emerge against a sky dotted with gulls, so close to the Belasco's garden that it seemed possible to reach out and touch it. The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende

I once read a couple of chapters of The House of the Spirits and decided Isabel Allende was Not My Cup of Tea. I’m now eating my words because her new novel The Japanese Lover is smart and funny with the kind of assurance in the text that only the best writers have. San Francisco’s Lark House residence for the elderly attracts ‘left-wing intellectuals, oddballs and second-rate artists.' It’s also home to the aloof and aristocratic Alma Belasco, a former silk screen artist who goes to yoga class, wears bright red lipstick and a 'masculine fragrance of bergamot and orange blossom.’ Every week she receives a box of three gardenias from a mysterious donor, she owns a cat called Neko (Japanese for ‘cat’) and every so often she disappears on mysterious visits taking an overnight bag.

When Irina, a kind-hearted young drifter finds a job as a care worker at Lark House she befriends Alma and along with Seth, Alma’s grandson who is besotted with Irina they uncover a love story between the young Alma and the son of a Japanese gardener which spans forty years and encompasses the harrowing treatment of the Japanese in America following Pearl Harbour.

This book has a satisfying story, a warm and witty narrative and a rather beautiful cover. An ideal Christmas present in fact.
 
Happy Christmas!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Bronte revisited

We've had some Dickensian fogs in south-east England recently which have provided a suitable backdrop to my Bronte reading this month!  While I was waiting for the publication of Claire Harman's new biography of Charlotte Bronte I re-read Wuthering Heights.  Although I adored it as a student it is harder to read when you are older because the passion between Heathcliff and Cathy seems so overblown.  But in a way that's how it should be because those intense emotions are the preserve of the young.

What doesn’t change when you re-visit Wuthering Heights are Emily Bronte’s beautiful poetic descriptions of the natural landscape. Edgar Linton placing a bunch of golden crocuses on the dying Cathy’s pillow which remind her of the first spring flowers at Wuthering Heights. Cathy’s burial in a corner of the kirkyard ‘where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry plants have climbed over it from the moor and peat mould almost buries it ' and the fantastic scene where the young Catherine puts primroses in Hareton’s porridge to make him laugh.

I was interested to read in Claire Harman’s biography that it was her sister Anne’s Agnes Grey and Emily’s Wuthering Heights which inspired Charlotte to create the story of a governess with a passionate nature and a steadfast refusal to be suppressed which became Jane Eyre. The longed-for literary success of Jane Eyre is of course overshadowed by the loss of Emily and then Anne. Harman’s depiction of Charlotte searching the moor in December to find a living sprig of heather to take to her dying sister is heart-breakingly sad.

It’s a meticulously researched biography and Harman is not over-awed by the genius of her subject. There are some cool asides about the sometimes bizarre behaviour of the Rev Bronte and some excellent analysis of Jane Eyre. However, I’m still not sure that this is the definitive biography of Charlotte Bronte.

Just a word about the stunning cover which is a Chloe Giodarno embroidery commissioned by Penguin. You can see her amazing embroidered animals on her website.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

febbre Ferrante

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity. I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore. Elena Ferrante
Spent yesterday afternoon in the cafe pavilion at my local park enjoying the last of the summer sunshine and re-reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I’m re-reading the first volume of the Neapolitan series because I’ve just finished the newly published fourth volume The Story of the Lost Child and fallen in love with it all over again - the sea, the stradone, the island of Ischia, the siren call of Naples and the brooding shadow of Vesuvius.
 

The Story of the Lost Child covers the late seventies and early eighties. Elena and Lila are now in their mid-thirties and resume an uneasy friendship. Elena has had considerable success with her writing career and left her husband for her lover, Nino, causing her mother-in-law who is highly influential in publishing circles to ostracize her and her mother to react with her usual fury. Lila is having considerable success in business in the early days computing and has regained some power and status in Naples.

The writing is intense and relentless. I found myself routing for Elena when she stands up to her mother-in-law while simultaneously condemning her for putting her lover before her daughters. Lila remains enigmatic and Elena always has the feeling that she is one step ahead of her. Both women become pregnant and there is a traumatic incident where Vesuvius erupts which triggers a nervous breakdown in Lila. The volcano seems to serve as a metaphor for Lila’s mental health. Bringing their daughters up together and sharing their care the two friends become close again until the traumatic event at the heart of the novel which changes everything and the quatrain ends as it started with the disappearance of Lila.

Have you caught Ferrante fever yet?

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Euphoria


Just back from a bright and breezy weekend in Brighton and Hove. One of the pleasures of Brighton is the big Waterstones which has five floors and a nice coffee shop on the top floor where you can glimpse the sea.  I bought Lily King’s Euphoria which has been top of my wishlist for a while. I knew when I read the reviews and blog posts that a 1930's love story set on the Sepik river based on the early life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead would be just the kind of literary novel I enjoy.

Christmas Eve, 1932.  Fen and his wife Nell, anthropologists studying the river tribes of Papua New Guinea, board a boat intending to leave the country. Wearing filthy clothes, suffering from tropical sickness and nursing cuts and bruises they contrast with the other couples on the boat, the ladies in stiff party dresses and men in dinner jackets passing around gin. From a conversation with the women on the boat Nell learns that a book she has published has caused quite a stir in her home country.

At the clubhouse they meet Bankson another renowned anthropologist who has been working with the Sepik river tribes for many years. Lonely and traumatised by the loss of his brothers Bankson is drawn to Nell and tends her wounds and persuades them both to stay on and work with another tribe. Thus begins a bitter love triangle between Nell, her handsome and manipulative husband Fen who ‘smells of Cambridge and youth’ and the kind-hearted and vulnerable Bankson. 
 
I should say that the character of Nell is only loosely based on  Margaret Mead and she is attractively drawn as a perceptive, methodical and hardworking scientist with an affectionate heart. I loved the description of Nell re-telling the story of Romeo and Juliet to the Tam tribe who find it hysterically funny.   
 
When a talented writer breaks away from ‘domestic fiction’ there a huge creative possibilities. I’m thinking of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood BibleEuphoria is the best novel I've read this year.  There is an excellent Vogue interview with Lily King here if you can get past all the ads.  Cluttering literary interviews with fashion ads is sooo last year dahling!