Tag Archives: Book review

A Letter to Persephone Books

Dear Persephone Books,

 These last few days, my time has not been measured in hours and minutes, but by pages and chapters, so deeply has Emma Smith’s ‘The Far Cry’ absorbed me. The vivid, multicoloured, extraordinary description of the sudden flight of a young girl and her father to India is a delight to read. The sense of place is sublimely evoked by a gift for listing unparalleled in modern literature!

 Oh, Persephone Books, you spoil me! For it is not just this gem that you’ve excavated from the annals of women’s literary history; you have collated and curated a stunning collection of neglected and out of print works from the early to mid-twentieth century.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’ by Julia Strachey is another triumph. This close, sardonic deconstruction of a family on a single day makes for a pacey novella worth reading.

 I feel as if I could hole myself up in a grey, paperbacked fortress and be merry for a good long time with only your beautiful wares for company. Never before have I been so enchanted by the endpapers of volumes, so carefully selected from archives and museums to illustrate the era and subject matter of the texts. For Susan Glaspell’s ‘Fidelity’, for example, the image of 19th Century quilting beautifully echoes the scenery and content of the novel. This is such a marvellous story of a woman running off with someone else’s husband. Its moral depth and compassion are admirable.

 I must also mention ‘The New House’ by the brilliantly named Lettice Cooper. This is an intimate portrayal of a single day in the lives of a family moving from a grand house with beautiful gardens to a smaller property overlooking a council estate. The characters are believably complex and their relationships acutely naturalistic. Persephone Books, your choices are exceptional, and I haven’t even got around to mentioning the non-fiction works, or short story collections (‘Tea with Mr Rochester’ by Frances Towers was a particular joy).

Thank you, Persephone Books, for finding and reprinting these wonderful examples of women’s literature. You have made me very happy. 

 with love and admiration,

 Eve

 

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Bodies by Susie Orbach

Thirty years after the bestselling ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’, Susie Orbach returns to the concept of culturally constructed ideas of the body. She argues that we no longer accept our bodies as they are, but see them as projects to be remade and perfected in line with mutable ideals propagated by the media and industries. Cosmetic surgery, diet pills, TV makeover programmes and other procedures are all advertised as means for ‘self-improvement’, but is this ethical? Orbach argues: 

 ‘The clash between the new imperative to be beautiful and the limited and limiting aesthetic of beauty we imbibe means that bodies in our time are constantly in need of our attention. They have become less where we live from and more what we can personally manufacture…a fit body, a lithe body, a healthy body and a beautiful body have become both the ambition and the obligation of millions. The supersized, digitally enhanced images of airbrushed and photoshoppped individuals which penetrate into our public and private spaces…makes us super-aware and hypercritical of our own bodies. This has created a cultural climate in which improving the way the body looks and functions is seen as a crucial personal responsibility.’

 Her global perspective and cultural knowledge reveal the idiosyncrasies of each culture’s beauty ‘ideals’, tellingly exposing how constructed and transient they can be. Her exposition of the changes wrought by globalisation and the dominance of Western images is particularly interesting and provides the most clear examples of the impact images can have. For example, she describes the normalisation of plastic surgery in Korea as over 50% of women have had their eye shape altered. She uses fascinating individual case studies to show how the body is experienced by different people and affected by their lives. I was shocked by the single-minded rejection of part of his own body that led a man to force doctors to amputate his legs. I was touched and compelled by the stories of children who had been physically hurt learning to gradually accept touch as potentially positive.

 Susie Orbach’s argument has a clear evidence base and is academic in structure and foundation, but stylishly remains clear and readable. There is no need to know anything about the issues or the field of psychology before reading it: topics are introduced with accessible examples. Though I was less keen on the parts where she discusses her clinical experiences with clients, particularly when she writes about ‘wildcat sensations’ and ‘unconscious transmissions’ from her patients. I feel that she is strongest when discussing the issues as a whole.

 She provides strong conclusions and sound recommendations, something some academics fail to do. I think this is definitely worth reading as it destroy myths around dieting, beauty and the body. However you feel about the issues, it gives a great deal of information worth considering. Essentially, she argues that physical beauty should not be the sum of our human worth. 

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NW

Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, surprised me. I was expecting something like White Teeth or On Beauty, but the complexity and intense poetry of this created something strong and unexpected. It primarily charts the lives of best friends Leah and Keisha who grow up together on the same estate. Though it initially focuses on Leah, I preferred the later section, ‘Host’, that adopts Keisha’s perspective in brief scenes, told with the senses of memory, that bring them from childhood to adulthood. It explores whether Keisha can successfully negotiate a class transition.  She chooses a new name, Natalie, for her new life as she succeeds professionally and marries wealthy Frank, who looks like ‘he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’. Zadie Smith’s characters are, as always, multifaceted and very authentic. I loved her description of Keisha’s teenage angst:

 ‘It did not strike Keisha Blake that such feelings of alienation are the banal fate of adolescents everywhere. She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness that she now knew to be the one and only true reality in this world.’

 The lives of two men are also introduced in this anthropological consideration of an urban landscape. Felix and Nathan have both struggled to establish functional lives after their beginnings on the Caldwell estate. Poverty, failure and distress are never far from the lives of NW’s people; there seems to be a sort of inevitable tragedy about this novel. The moment that struck me the most was when Natalie and Nathan meet for the last time in the text. She tells him, ‘It’s weird to me that you can be so vital to another person and never know it. You were so…loved’. Yet that can do little for him.

 There are moments that show Zadie Smith’s clever humour. Cultural references ground the chronology realistically, though some were rather lost on me. I struggled a little with some of the prose as semi-sentences often tailed off, as if I inherently knew what she was getting at. I’m afraid I didn’t. Unfortunately, my professional brain also initially interfered with my enjoyment; I kept thinking how difficult it would be to proofread! Once I got past my grammatical fixations, I found the creativity of form refreshing.

 NW is just right in some ways. Reading it feels like a trip to London: a city sometimes dense, stressful and un-cohesive, but ultimately it provides a chance to see a cross-section of life in glimpses. It is sometimes beautiful or brutal, but it is always vital and feels essentially real and alive. 

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Dubliners

James Joyce’s fifteen short stories, originally published in 1914, are an insightful portrait of Dublin’s middle-class in the early twentieth century. Joyce creates instantly believable characters; his gift for description let me accept them immediately as alive in their tales. It’s lines like the following that show his ease of style:

 ‘His conversation, which was serious, took place at intervals in his great brown beard.’

 This is from ‘The Mother’, a story in which hints of humour describe a controlling mother whose expectations are disappointed as the tale unravels. Another of my favourite lines came from this piece:

 ‘She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed; though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as male.’

 Other highlights for me came with ‘Eveline’, ‘Little Cloud’ and ‘The Dead’ which share a depth of emotion. All the stories share the common theme of epiphany, I feel that the moments of revelation in these three are the most affecting.

Joyce’s dialogue is a thing of beauty. He skilfully crafts authentic voices for each speaker in varying dialects. The extraordinary vocabulary is another reason to read this; it was a joy to be reminded of words that I hardly ever see like ‘equipoise’ and ‘lugubrious’.     

I had the preconception that Joyce was going to be hard going, but that really wasn’t the case at all. I tended to read just one story at a time when I had a moment as each stands alone. It wasn’t one of those books that once I’d started, I had to finish immediately, but the stories stayed in my mind for a long time afterwards and I periodically found myself drawn back to it, compelled to re-enter Joyce’s Dublin. 

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Backwards in High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female

Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. This famous assertion is the headline of Tania Kindersley and Sarah Vine’s modern guide to life as a woman. The tone is friendly and the advice is cheering. It was a supreme joy to read. It is the antidote to all the women’s literature and magazines that proscribe strict beauty regimes, career plans and parenting perfection that amount to an implausible, and frankly tiring, way to live. By drawing from their own life experience, they provide a guide that is sensitive to the complexities of modern life and celebrates a range of female achievements and lifestyle choices.

The wittily titled chapters are brief enough to dip in to, but still retain impressive depth of insight and understanding. For example, ‘The Art of Reconciling the Fantasy World of Work Painted for Your Younger Self With the Mundane and Often Alarming Adult Reality’, ‘How To Call in the Perspective Police’ and ‘How To Read a Fashion Magazine Without Wanting To Cut Your Head Off With a Penknife’ were particularly pleasing and heartening.

It covers multiple facets of life including love, loss, philosophy, friendship, finance, age and politics. Additionally, the ‘Practical Chapter’ has everything from recipes to how to deal with a bore. As well as being thoroughly useful, it is a beautiful book. The illustrations throughout are charming and it even comes with a ribbon to keep your page! They really have thought of everything.

Every woman should read this book. It is honest, helpful and ultimately reassuring. Their positive spin on old age has me rather looking forward to it!

‘Things you can do as you get old.

–          Never again have to go to the gym and do physical jerks while an idiot in a leotard shouts things like, ‘Yeah, ladies, take it to the max!’

–          Admit that you like going to bed at 9.30 with a good book…

–          Never have to sit at a bus stop in a very small skirt at 3am waiting for the N70…

–          Take as long as you damn well need to pull out at junctions…

–          Stop making excuses.

–          Keep the radio permanently tuned to Radio Four.

–          Pretend selective deafness.’

Buy it, find it, borrow it; it is wise and liberating.

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Toby’s Room

Booker Prize winning author, Pat Barker, deserves her acclaim; she skilfully creates the believable world of Toby’s Room. Beginning in 1912, this dark novel explores the horror and loss of the First World War, largely through the thoughts of Elinor, an artist whose brother and close friends leave for the front line. The mystery of her beloved sibling’s cause of death is her obsession through the latter part of the text. Barker’s clever narration follows the musings of her characters, allowing occasions of ellipsis to reveal uncertainty and ambiguities of feeling, mirroring the secrets and enigma in the plot.

Elinor is interesting, but I preferred the scenes between her friends, Paul and Kit. The discussions of art provide a visual frame of reference and expression. Kit is particularly compelling as his morphine-induced flashbacks gradually reveal life on the front line and the truth about the eponymous Toby.

I found parts of the book too gruesome for my taste as dissections and facial injuries feature heavily. I can see, however, that it builds the intended atmosphere of horror and shock; the author is pushing for a visceral realism that gives the novel its emotive power.

Although some of the plot choices didn’t sit right with me (I’m afraid I can’t elaborate without spoilers) it is a vivid and honest portrayal of the era, of grief and destruction.

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The Meaning of it All

So here it is, the greatest puzzle of all, life, the universe and everything, as discussed by the genius, Richard Feynman. The Nobel Prize winning physicist is often quoted in popular science; I thought it was about time I read him in his own words. This book contains three public lectures given in 1963. The first, entitled, ‘The Uncertainty of Science’, addresses the importance of doubt in science as the catalyst for ideas and progress and introduces his views on the remarkable process of scientific discovery.

He counters the misconception that science is dull with rich imagery:

‘The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun…But see that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. No one who did not have some inkling of this through observations could have imagined such a marvel as nature is.’

The themes of freedom and discovery remain in his second lecture on values, illustrated through an impressive employment of philosophy and ethics. His confident rhetoric shows in places a sensitive balance that allows the audience to consider his statements without pressure. I really enjoy reading lectures because so much of the speaker’s personality comes across. Watch the video below to get a sense of his brilliance.

I found the final lecture, ‘This Unscientific Age’, the most entertaining. His personal anecdotes, metaphors and allegories display his wit and intellect. The range of topics covered in the book mean there is never a lull. I was interested to read about the atomic bomb and Soviet Russia from a scientist’s perspective.

I could quote practically any line from the book and it would be wise and sensible, but I’ll finish with this as a nice example: ‘I think that we should have a more abject honesty in political matters. And I think we’ll be freer that way.’

I highly recommend the book and http://www.feynman.com/ to learn more about this amazing man. Did you know that as well as playing a key role in the development of quark theory by developing a new model of high energy proton collision processes he was an accomplished bongo player?

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Mrs Bridge

Evan S. Connell’s portrait of conservative housewife, Mrs Bridge, cleverly exposes the instabilities of domestic life in the interwar years. A series of brief chapters, that feel more like sub-headings, direct the reader through telling chronological vignettes that map her social relations and the upbringing of her three children.

In terms of realism, it is a success. Her quiet struggles are compelling and human. It says much about the pressures and constraints on women at that time. The limited list of acceptable conversation topics is telling:

‘…the by-laws of certain committees, antique silver, Royal Doulton, Wedgewood, the price of margarine as compared to butter, or what the hemline was expected to do.’

The Telegraph’s review calls it ‘very funny’; the well-pitched irony and some of the  more comical, absurd scenes are testament to this. However, humour doesn’t figure largely in my lasting impression of the novel.

Mostly, I found it saddening. Mrs Bridge is trapped by her own limited ideas and experience, the expectations of her social group and control of her husband. I found her relationship with Mr Bridge very affecting. He memorably says to his son, ‘You’ll express yourself when I say you can.’ This could easily have been levelled at his wife. Her complete deference to him is shown starkly when she feels like she’s about to faint at church and he tells her not to until afterwards. She complies.

The author’s great success is in creating a moving and engaging novel around an essentially unlikeable, prejudiced character. It moves between the tragic and the ordinary in an understated and stylish manner.

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The Uncommon Reader

I’m not a natural royalist, but who doesn’t love a good bit of bunting, novelty hat-wearing and uncomfortable live broadcasts where ex-Blue Peter presenters stand in the rain waxing lyrical about bridges for hours on end? Good times. I also like it when John Barrowman is in things for no obvious reason and a man just gave me a free balloon animal in the shape of a monkey.

So, to celebrate these jubilant times, here is a quick review of my favourite work of fiction about the Queen. In Alan Bennet’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’ the Queen follows a wayward corgi round the back of the palace and discovers the mobile library that her staff use. Out of politeness she borrows a book, then becomes drawn in to literature, even learning to read one-handed whilst waving to crowds.

The dialogue, too, is very pleasing:

‘Do you know,’ she said one afternoon as they were reading in her study, ‘do you know the area in which one would truly excel?’
‘No ma’am?’
‘The pub quiz. One has been everywhere, seen everything and though one might have difficulty with pop music and some sport, when it comes to the capital of Zimbabwe, say, or the principal exports of New South Wales, I have all that at my fingertips.’

The passage on the Queen’s opening of parliament is my favourite.

”My government will do this…my government will do that’ It was so barbarously phrased and wholly devoid of style or interest that she felt it demeaned the very act of reading itself.’

Alan Bennet is, as always, funny, satirical and insightful. The characters are written beautifully, particularly the scheming equerries. The ending is just right.

I like how it shows the impact that reading can have on a person and how transformative good literature can be. Long live the lady in the shiny hat, especially Alan Bennet’s version of HRH.

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Bad Science

Nonsense is one of my favourite words and Ben Goldacre uses it with vim as he exposes media hoaxes, suspect statistics, fake doctors and pill peddlers. He expounds the misuse and misrepresentation of science in a truly compelling way. Always accessible, he explains the detailed science and statistics progressively and logically so that his evidence is easy to follow. I also liked his use of graphs. I would contend that there are few non-fiction texts that could not be improved by a scatter-graph.

Instantly recognisable issues, including the MMR vaccine ‘hoax’ and the de-doctoring of the notorious Gillian McKeith, are well chosen to provide a narrative that necessitates the reader’s engagement with the bad science behind the issues. I was particularly interested in his comment on the media’s role in the dissemination of bunkum. The following exemplifies this nicely:

‘The Daily Mail in particular has become engaged in a bizarre ongoing ontological project, diligently sifting through all the inanimate objects of the universe in order to categorise them as a cause of – or cure of – cancer.’

Well observed and neatly put by Ben Goldacre.

My only criticism of the book is that at times I felt that some of his examples and pronouns suggested that he expected a male audience. Also, he uses ‘humanities graduates’ like it’s a swear-word.

That aside, I definitely recommend it: I’ve learnt a lot from it. Make sure you get the updated 2009 edition for the extra chapter on the unbelievably awful (and surprisingly litigious) Patrick Holford. It really sums up why it’s important that real, evidence based medicine is not undermined by dangerous, self-promoting nonsense-peddlers.

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