A Trio of Quick Fixes

Somehow, sometimes, one feels the need for a quick fix – be it a shopping spree, a sugar rush or, in my case, a couple of quick-to-read, non-angsty, non-existentialist romance novels. I admit to my guilty pleasure and here are three of the finest I have read recently: Gabrielle Donnelly, The Little Women Letters, Barbara J. Zitwer, The J. M. Barrie Ladies Swimming Society and Carole Matthews The Chocolate Lovers Club. Feel free to stop reading now if you don’t fancy any ruminating discources on what appear to be three trivial novels. In fact, I’ve been thinking about writing a post like this for some time – about Donna Douglas’s series about the Nightingale hospital, the first of which is The Nightingale Girls. So perhaps I should just rename this post as ‘A Series of Quick Fixes’.

Perhaps, one might have thought, studying literature means acquiring a sort of snobbery about what precisely constitutes literature. However, I have always vehemently opposed any attempt to divide the world of books into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature. I believe that instead any distinctions should be renamed as ‘books I liked’, ‘books I didn’t like’ and ‘books I didn’t understand’. The latter category perhaps deserves a post of its own, including as it does, I think, ideas such as ‘books whose point I didn’t understand’, ‘books which I want to re-read because I think they may become books that I like’ and ‘books which seemed to have no point at all but which are apparently incredibly important’. The category ‘books I liked’ can also be subdivided into ‘books I will re-read again and again’ (such as, in my case, The Lord of the Rings and Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer), ‘books which I really enjoyed but which I doubt I’ll be able to re-read’ (such as The Bone People perhaps?) and ‘books which are enjoyable, light, fluffy and much better than any RomCom Chick Flick but have about the same effect on my life as a piece of good chocolate. Or an ice cream. Or a bit of music from Hairspray. They cheer me up, they make me want to read again and they remind me of a few home truths (such as ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you may be writing this post sitting next to the love of your life’). And that, precisely, is why I think that such light literature should never ever be disparaged.

Preachy bit over, here are the details!

 

Gabrielle Donnelly, The Little Women Letters

I first picked this book up about 18 months ago. I was waiting for my partner in a charity shop, browsing the book bin (uh-oh!) and picked up this little gem. Now Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series has belonged to my list of ‘books I want to read again and again’ for years and like any devoted fan I was slightly concerned by any attempt to tamper with Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Marmee and, above all, the lovely Professor Bhaer. However, Donnelly does not really tamper at all. Instead, she invents a modern Meg, Jo and Amy, a contemporary Marmee and even a new Professor Bhaer – showing that characters from classical fiction are still relevant to contemporary readers. In a sense, the novel’s protagonist discovers this connection herself; Lulu, her older sister Emma (or Josephine Emma) and her younger sister Sophie, are young women living in London. That their mother Fee happens to be the great-great-granddaughter (or something) of Jo March is negligible. Lulu finds Jo’s letters which she wrote to Marmee, Beth, Meg and Amy and these letters fit in so well with what the reader probably already knows about the March family that they do not compromise or jar any treasured opinions. The exception is the last letter which is a little too convenient (well, even more convenient than the whole series of plot devices already is) but I will leave that up to the reader to decide. Ultimately, though, this novel is a story about young women trying to find their place in life, to find out who they are and what they want and these women realise that love and family is at the heart of everything – just like the March sisters did.

 

Barbara J Zitwer, The J. M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society

This is exactly my kind of barmy read. Lots of strong women with their own troubles and concerns, who find strength in their companionship with other women. Yes there is a love story and yes it’s immediately obvious which man the young female protagonist is going to end up with (hint: it’s probably not the one she started with!) but the centre of the novel is, again, a journey of discovery about identity and family. The start of the novel, however, is the Swimming Society – a group of older women who go swimming in a lake near Stanway House (where J. M. Barrie stayed) come rain or shine. Or snow. Or ice. All these women have their own personal tragedies and all of them are inspiring. It’s only a short novel so I don’t want to give any more details away. Suffice to say that the novel made me smile and laugh out loud a lot.

 

Carole Matthews, The Chocolate Lovers’ Club

Now here is a mixed box of characters (pardon the chocolate-scented pun there). Quirky chocoholics appear to promote the mantra that chocolate and a close group of friends can solve all problems. I’m not sure what to make of this novel. I did enjoy it but I’m not sure I’d have the patience or the stomach for the sequel; there was entirely too much gluttonous consumption of chocolate and, after however many pages, the protagonist did start to grate a little. Her friends were all more interesting because from the start the main character was set up as the one with the cheating boyfriend who eventually leaves him for someone else who still isn’t really worth it. A bit too Bridget Jones for me I’m afraid. I found the woman who was disinherited by her family for marrying for love but found herself with a gambling husband much more interesting. Or the independent, opinionated and sexual American woman who gave up her career to marry an aristocrat, only to find herself in a sexless and lonely marriage. Or even the gay couple who run the chocolaterie the girls meet in. And especially the aristocrat-turned-hippie for whom I was rooting the whole way through. So then. I enjoyed the novel for the supporting cast rather than the main character and, of my trio for today, I think this was my least favourite but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make me smile.

 

I think this post is already long enough without Donna Douglas’s novels, so I will devote a separate post to them. Good night all and get reading!

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Shan Sa, Empress

I started Empress a while ago and from the first it gripped me. It was not gripping in the style of a thriller (which I usually find too gripping) or a sensation novel or a fantasy novel. Rather, it was captivating in its descriptions, the imagery the novel presented and the flow of the language. The language was precisely what made the book so powerful.

The story itself is fairly simple; the novel presents a fictionalised biography of Empress Wu, China’s first and only ruling empress (as far as my information goes anyway). Even though rulers like the Empress Ci Xi, the last empress of China, were supreme rulers, it appears that only Empress Wu became Empress in her own right. The novel begins before the birth of the empress; the narrator’s story begins in the womb which is a powerful passage of writing. It chronicles the empress’s life as a child, her destitution after her father’s death and her entry into the Forbidden City as a potential concubine to the Emperor. But her life does not really begin until the emperor’s heir falls in love with her. After the emperor’s death this son eventually takes Wu as his concubine and later sets aside his first wife to marry her. Wu has become empress and from now on her life is one of intrigue, power play and poetry. After her husband’s death she becomes the Supreme Empress, officially ruling for her son but, after a short time, ruling in her own authority. Just before her death, as her mind loses its astonishing presence, the empress is forced to abdicate. The regression and the descent into hallucination is just as powerfully written as the first scene in the womb.

Sometimes the novel becomes convoluted with names, names which are often transcribed or transliterated from the Chinese. I often found it hard to keep Purity, Moon, Wisdom, this general, that general and the King of something apart. However, most of the time it does not matter that much because the centre of the narrative is the empress and her impressions paint a vivid picture of imperial China. I do not know if it’s a historically correct picture but it was definitely a fascinating read.

Christopher Isherwood, from Goodbye to Berlin

I suspect that there will be more than one entry on Christopher Isherwood, mainly because the volume of his writing that I have is an anthology with excerpts from different works. It seems rather silly to wait until I have finished the whole anthology before writing up my thoughts because, by the time that I have read the concluding story I will most probably have forgotten everything I thought when I read the first.

And so we begin with the first extract which, as the title says, is from Goodbye to Berlin. This collection of short stories is an autobiographical, but fictionalised, account of Ischerwood’s stay in Berlin during the 1930s. The short stories included in my anthology are A Berlin Diary (Autumn 1930) and Sally Bowles. The latter introduces the reader to the eponymous character and is the story from which the play I Am a Camera and later Cabaret were adapted for stage and screen. I had read Sally Bowles before; I know this because I recognised the Prairie Oyster – a drink, consisting apparently of a raw egg and a generous amount of Worcester sauce, which Sally drinks because she ‘can hardly afford anything else!’ And according to wikipedia this is often served as a hangover cure. I think I’d prefer the headache.

Anyway, I am straying off topic. In a similar way to the cinematic adaptation (I confess I have seen neither the stage play nor the musical) is concerned with the rise of Nazism, anti-Semitism and Communism, the two short stories are fascinating eye-witness accounts of 1930s Berlin. The point of view is interesting; as an outsider, an Englishman, a writer and a gay man Isherwood’s perspective on the Nazis is most unusual. He is not in Berlin as an official journalist to report on Herr Hitler; instead, he lodges in the flat of a formerly wealth elderly lady, who lost everything in the Great Depression. His fellow lodgers are from the lower echelons of society, including poor professors and ladies of pleasure. Yet the novel still refers to even those despised or ignored by society as ‘Frau’ and ‘Herr’, a mode of address which equalises the characters the narrator describes.

The narrator is interesting; whilst the stories are autobiographical, the characters are only based on real people. Therefore, to call the narrator the author would be incorrect, even though the narrator is also called Isherwood. I suppose this is another case of ‘Isherwood the author’ as opposed to ‘Isherwood the narrator’ – much as literary critics distinguish between, for example, ‘Chaucer the poet’ and ‘Chaucer the pilgrim’ in the medieval Canterbury Tales.

I can see that this is a rather rambling post but I am determined to let the words flow rather than to edit it like an essay. There is a time and a place for order but somehow not here. Still, I will keep myself brief, even though there is so much to say! Isherwood somehow manages to convey a complete picture of Berlin – from the rich to the poor, the political, the cultural. The film portrays the image through picture but Isherwood’s stories have no winding descriptions or exposition. Everything is conveyed through speech and character. The characters introduced tell a story and each, the narrator suggests, could tell more than one. Even if you have seen the film, the musical, the play or all three, the novel, I think, paints a more vivid picture of Berlin. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book although I will pace myself. For now, perhaps, I will finish the other books I have to read.

Keri Hulme, The Bone People

This is another ‘pre-written’ post but I only finished the book last week so it’s still practically a new post.

Two things made me pick up the book. The first was an impulse to do with the title; it seemed strange, enigmatic and compelling somehow – was it science fiction or fantasy or myth? All three are genres which I often enjoy and as I haven’t been enthralled by a novel in a while I thought to give it a go. The second reason, the main reason I started reading the book, was the fact that it won the Booker Prize in 1985. Now if that makes me sound like a literary snob then so be it. However, I conjectured that a book which had won this prestigious prize must be quite good – even if ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are always in the eye of the beholder or, in this case, reader. Having researched the novel after reading it, it does seem as if this novel has divided critics and the average reader alike. Some say it is fantastic, others that it is weird, too self-consciously mystical and that the end is too simplistic and ‘convenient’. Be that as it may, The Bone People was exactly my kind of book. Part poetry, part prose and often the two were practically indistinguishable. Even if I did find some passages rather too forced and there were many obvious cliches, the book was, on the whole, a lovely venture into something quite different.

Kerewin Holmes, Joe Gillayley and Simon are three people who are thrown together by chance. Simon washed up on a beach in South New Zealand after the ship he was on was wrecked on a reef. He was taken in by Joe and his wife, Hana, who dies shortly after. Simon proves to be a difficult child, mute but not deaf, wilful, stubborn and independent. Joe often finds it hard to cope and, despite his obvious love for the child, sees violence as the only way of educating Simon. Some of those passages make very difficult reading as the omniscient narrator includes both Simon’s and Joe’s thoughts during the confrontations, during the beatings and during the scenes where both characters display the obvious love they have for each other. The novel begins when Simon first meets Kerewin. Despite the fact that the boy is attempting to break into her house, Kerewin takes care of him and nurses the wound in his foot – symbolic, perhaps, of the way the boy is shackled, hindered by something. This moment of tenderness leads to a deep friendship between the three main characters, a friendship marred by the revelation of Joe’s method of punishment. Unlike the State, who perceives only the beating not the love, Kerewin perceives Joe’s anguish at his anger and attempts to help the two men. She helps Joe take care of Simon, reaching out to the child patiently and trying to understand the motivation behind some apparently erratic actions. Simon’s past remains a mystery to both Kerewin and Joe, even though they finally realise that his family is Irish and that he understands some French.

The crisis point is reached when Kerewin’s patience snaps. Simon breaks her guitar which is the only way Kerewin expresses emotions. After she bitterly tells him to get out, the boy proceeds to smash every shop window along a street in town. Joe’s subsequent beating, for once apparently condoned by Kerewin, leads to Simon’s hospitalisation with potentially life-threatening wounds. During the beating, Simon stabs Joe with a shard of glass, injuring Joe in his first attempt to fight back. In the aftermath of the crisis, Joe is sent to prison for beating a child, Simon remains in hospital for months and Kerewin disappears. Then follows the part of the novel most criticised by the readers – the section in which all three characters go through some sort of spiritual journey of discovery and healing.

The end of the novel is obviously carefully constructed, perhaps too carefully to be fully plausible, and the mystery of Simon’s heritage is implied and hinted at but never fully explained. I did find the end slightly disappointing because it appears rushed. The rest of the novel builds up tension and then the denouement takes place within a couple of pages. However, I suppose, that by the end of the 600-odd pages of the novel an end had to be reached sooner rather than later. I think I will reread it some day but I also think that it is a novel which needs to ‘sit’ with the reader for a while before re-reading it. I don’t know the other novels in the running for the Booker Prize but I would compare the novel to Mantel’s Wolf Hall which (except for Hulme’s poetry interpolations) is written in a similar style. The Bone People did make me want to read other Booker Prize winners, though, to which end I have now borrowed Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and Beryl Bainbridge’s The Dressmaker (only a nominee but still) from the local library. Watch this space!

Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means

Ok – here is a long one to start with. This post is actually an amalgamation of two posts written about a year apart. I read Jean Brodie about this time last year (I think) and Girls is one of my recent reads. However, it makes sense to post them both together so here goes!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I read Spark’s novel because she converted to Catholicism and it’s my area of study. Now that that’s out of the way I can say that, while it was an interesting book, I’m not sure I liked it very much. However, I think that was intended. None of the characters are very sympathetic. One might feel for them or understand their way of thinking but they were hard to like.

The story centers around primary school teacher Miss Brodie and six of her pupils from the all-girl school: Monica, Rose, Eunice, Sandy, Jenny and Mary. The scene is Edinburgh in the 1930s, during the rise of fascism throughout Europe, even in Britain. Miss Brodie becomes almost an antagonist for the postwar reader when Spark begins to describe the extent of her fascist convictions. Similarly the girls are all ‘known’ for something but none of them are known for their intelligence or wit or even beauty in a positive way. Monica is know for her genius at maths and for her anger. The aptitude for maths seems to be negated by the tendency to almost irrational rage; this is repeatedly emphasised throughout. Rose is know for sex – an ambiguous description because she is intended to become the lover of a young man but does not. Instead, it is Sandy, known for her ‘small eyes’, who has the affair. Eunice and Jenny, known for gymnastics and being pretty respectively, are comparatively minor characters. Even Mary is a minor character but she is the scapegoat, the stupid, clumsy girl who, it is said in the very first chapter, dies in a fire.

All attributes are repeated and expanded upon in the course of the novel. Its sjuzet-form is interesting because time becomes almost irrelevant. Everything seems to be happening at once, although the story takes place over the course of about 30 years. The other interesting repetition is the word betrayal. One of the girls ‘betrays’ Miss Brodie’s fascist interests to the headmistress, which results in Miss Brodie’s dismissal. Following the incident Miss Brodie becomes almost obsessed with trying to find out who betrayed her.

The book is not complicated. In fact the denouement occurs a few chapters in. However, there is always something more to be found out and then a little more. The whole story plays with the curiosity of the reader. Surely, with another 100 pages to go, there will be something more, another incident. But at the end of the book I was left still restless and curious about the characters.

The Girls of Slender Means

The Girls of Slender Means is a short novella, set between VE Day and VJ Day 1945. The frame story, however, is actually set a couple of years after that when the original protagonists are older – a style very similar to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The novella concerns the May of Teck Club, a sort of hostel for young girls without much money who are living and working in London. These girls feel some affection for each other, but their relationships are tinged with jealousy, egality and more than a little boasting. At the centre of the novel is the Club’s relationship with the young men who come to visit. The men are clearly alien, set apart from the world of the Club, just as the narrator is standing apart – as if reviewing a scene. From a stylistic point of view the novella is very interesting. However, the novella did not grip me – and neither did The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Whilst I am interested in Muriel Spark as a Catholic author, I have yet to find a way into her so-called Catholic novels. Unlike the novels of, say, Sara Maitland or Alice Thomas Ellis these two novels do not engage with Catholicism directly. Instead, there are one or two Catholic characters in the text and the distant narrator appears to judge Catholicism as much as the other characters do. In the novella, Nicholas becomes a Catholic priest and is eventually martyred in Haiti; this episode forms the frame story. Yet his conversion is only alluded to and reasons are never given. Similarly in Miss Jean Brody, the title character is betrayed by the girl who later becomes a Catholic nun. Again there is judgement on the side of the narrator – neither for nor against the religion but towards the character and, it appears, the motives for conversion. Having just re-read what I have typed I can see that there is a Catholic element to the novel – the problem of conversion and its motive. Perhaps I will persevere with Muriel Spark, although I have other novels to finish first.

Mainly a disclaimer

I used to blog at bookworm.blogsport.de For various reasons, none of which are currently important, I am now changing to this site. However, I will repost some of my older ramblings in a potentially edited form.

Other than that, I hope that somebody might actually read this and pick up a few ideas of what to read next. More than that I can’t really ask for.

And now, everybody, SMILE! There is a whole wide world of books out there, just waiting to be explored.