#20booksofsummer: story so far

20booksof summerI don’t have a great track record with completing challenges. It seems the minute I commit to a list of books, my interest in them wanes and it begins to feel like a chore.  So when Cathy at 746books.com launched the # 20booksofsummer  challenge I wasn’t convinced I could achieve even the smaller target of 10 nothing ventured nothing gained eh?  To make success more likely I went for a list longer than 10 titles so if one didn’t fit my mood at the time I had other options.

I’ve done way better than expected  – with just over a month to go I’ve read seven and a half (the half is The Female Detective which I simply couldn’t be bothered to finish). I’m confident I’ll get to 10 by the cunning expedient of doubling up on some of these titles with two other reading projects running in August. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde is going to count for the Women in Translation project while A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford was chosen deliberately with one eye to the AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) . Now if you are struggling with the arithmetic, let me help you out – this means all I need is to read one more and I’ll claim victory. If I manage to bring this off, it will be the first challenge I have ever managed to complete.

Here’s how things stand at the moment.

  1. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Read –review posted here 
  2. The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. did not finish
  3. NW by Zadie Smith Read
  4. High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – review posted here 
  5. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
  6. Frost in May by Antonia White
  7. Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read
  8. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.
  9. Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read
  10. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanda Adichie Read
  11. An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
  12. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – review posted here 
  13. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde

Of the ones I’ve read the stand out has been The Thing Around Your Neck,  a collection of short stories  by Chimanda Adichie. Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place was as enjoyable and readable as everything I’ve read by her previously. Of the two Booker prize winners, Last Orders was fine if not that memorable while Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee was a beautifully written portrait of a man’s passive resistance to the civil disturbances in his native South Africa.

Onwards now to Maryse Conde I think.

Man Booker 2016: highs and lows

Man Booker 2016-LogoFirst there were 155 contenders. Today’s announcement of the longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize brought that down to 13. Come September 13, there will be just six left in the running before the big announcement of the winner on Tuesday 25 October.

When I saw the list initially it confirmed what I’d predicted a few weeks ago – that I wouldn’t be familiar with most of the titles (I’ve read just one of these books –  My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout). After a few hours of reflection, I’m left with some positive reactions but also some niggles about the selection….

 

On the plus side …..

I’m delighted to see so many debut authors featured in the list because there’s always a risk with a prize as prestigious as the Booker that it will be dominated by the big names. Thankfully the judges saw past the great and the good to list four debut authors: Hystopia by David Means; The Many by Wyl Menmuir; Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh and Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves. Getting on the list may not translate into huge commercial success unless they also make it to the shortlist but what a confidence builder this will be. It’s refreshing to see that the list made up of names that always make it to the Booker list. Only 2 of the 13 authors (Coetzeee and Levy) have ever previously been long listed for the Booker. I know this means that big names like Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain and Don DeLillo are missing but every year we get similar comments about ‘such and such a name’ being snubbed or overlooked.

Also good to see smaller publishing houses featured once again. Last year independent publisher Oneworld was cock-a-hoop when Marlon James walked off with the ultimate prize A Brief History of Seven Killings. This year they’re back in contention with Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, described by the Guardian as “a galvanising satire of post-racial America”. Salt – a publisher whose output I’m getting to know slowly – also features on the list with Wyl Menmuir – as does a small independent crime fiction imprint Contraband with Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project

One thing I look to the Man Booker Prize to celebrate and applaud is innovation in narrative styles and storytelling techniques. I love the fact that they have selected a crime thriller this year – it’s a genre that often unfairly gets the sniffy treatment from the establishment as being somehow of a lesser standard than more highbrow ‘literary’ fiction. It’s not the first time a crime story has been selected – the 2013 winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – was essentially in that vein. and it does seem that Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is a cut above your average crime novel

And yet …..

There is  a worrying lack of geographic diversity in this list. It’s so heavily weighted towards UK and US authors (five from each country) that Commonwealth authors barely get a look in and even then 2 of the three hail from Canada. It’s left to J.M. Coetzee to represent the huge geographic swathes of Africa, India and Australasia. The Booker was criticised a few years ago when they changed the rules to allow entries by USA authors from 2014 with alarm bells raised that this would push out authors from the Commonwealth. And so it’s proved to be the case. Are the judges really saying there were no authors from any of those countries that were worthy of listing?? It’s the diversity of previous listed authors that I’ve appreciated, being introduced to writers and cultural perspectives that were completely new to me. I do hope this is a blip and we wont see a pattern emerging in future years.

Author (nationality) – Title (imprint)

Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld): described as a satire of post-racial America

J.M. Coetzee (South African) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker): this will not be published until September 30 so little is known about it other than it is something of a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. 

A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape): a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours.

Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton): described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband): Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869.

Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water (Scribner UK): a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic

David Means (US) – Hystopia (Faber & Faber): the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and returning soldiers have their traumas wiped.

Wyl Menmuir (UK) –The Many (Salt): the novel tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish fishing village. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. Apparently  he wrote this after attending a creative writing course where his tutors were less than enthusiastic about his effort.

 

Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape): set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter.

Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK): Set in rural Alabama in the 1920s, it tells the story of a pioneering electricity engineer sent to prison for manslaughter after a young man stumbles on one of his illegal power lines.

Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking): a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here 

David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape): I’m not clear whether this is genuinely a novel of a collection of stories about a different stage of “man’s” life.

Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books): relates the story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution.

 

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink: A Storm of Ethical Questions

Through the power of 24-hour international news coverage, the world saw the devastation and human tragedy caused when Hurricane Katrina moved ashore over southeast Louisiana and southern Mississippi early on August 29, 2005. It was one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States, causing an estimated 1,833 deaths and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homelessHurricane_Katrina.

What the world didn’t know was that at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital, right in the centre of the maelstrom, life and death decisions were taken that would become the focus of a legal battle. At the heart of the battle lay challenging questions on whether medical practitioners have a duty to protect lives at all costs or whether – in exceptional circumstances – it is acceptable to ease the path of patients to death.

I would have been ignorant of that battle but for an article in The Sunday Times magazine in 2012 (based on Sheri Fink’s award-winning book Five Days at Memorial) which revealed the horrendous conditions at the Medical Centre where thousands of people were trapped for five days without power. Doctors and nurses worked tirelessly in humid, fetid conditions to care for their patients and to get them out as soon as rescue looked possible. But then those very medical staff were arrested and charged with murder when suspicious amounts of morphine were found in the bloodstream of 20 of the 45 patients who died.

Five Days at Memorial grew from a Pulitzer Prize-winning article written by Fink and published in The New York Times Magazine in 2009. She was drawn to the subject because of her experience as a doctor working in areas of conflict and as a journalist reporting on hospitals in war zones. It’s a deeply impressive piece of journalism which draws on more than 2 years of research and interviews with some 500 plus people, from patients to their family members and from hospital staff to legal representatives.

The story she pieces together from emails, phone logs, witness testimonies and floor plans, traces the events from shortly before the hurricane hit land. All her research points to how hopelessly inadequate were the plans of both the hospital, its owners, federal agencies and the city government. Lack of investment in flood water protection and drainage coupled with bad design decisions taken decades earlier meant the hospital quickly lost power for lighting, air conditioning, sewer systems and essential medical equipment. Day after day those trapped in the building waited for rescue by helicopter or boat. Controversially, staff adopted a triage system which saw those with “do not resuscitate” orders placed last in the list for evacuation. What happened on the fifth and final day is clouded with ambiguity. According to prosecutors some medical staff decided to hasten the death of the most critical patients with lethal injections of morphine. Those arrested protested their innocence but for more than two years multiple murder charges were pursued against one doctor and two nurses.

Five_Days_at_MemorialIn part 2 of the book, Fink focuses on the investigation against those staff members (a Special Grand Jury refused to indict the three so the charges were dropped) and then examines the ethical issues surrounding euthanasia and health care in disaster scenarios.

Fink doesn’t pull any punches in her assessment of what went wrong at Memorial, seeing it as a microcosm of the larger failures that assailed New Orleans during Katrina, “with compromised physical structure, compromised operating systems, compromised individuals. And also instances of heroism.” She also points to a broader issue in America at that time with emergency preparations skewed, in the light of post-9/11 fears, towards acts of terrorism, not natural disasters.

By 2005, more than a billion dollars had been made available to the nation’s roughly 5,000 hospitals to promote bioterrorism preparedness. Memorial’s most detailed and by far its longest emergency planning scenario was written shortly after the 2001 attacks. This bioterrorism plan ran to 101 pages, as opposed to the 11 pages devoted to hurricanes.

Nor does she let the owners of Memorial off the hook, showing from email traffic how responded with indifference until the acute nature of the problem was staring them in the face. Staff felt their employer had abandoned them despite the extraordinary dedication they had shown in those five days. They received no thank you letter for their efforts and only partial pay when the hospital was closed for a six month clean up.

What lessons can be learned from the events at Memorial, Fink asks in the final sections of her book. She is in no doubt that some kind of crime took place at the hospital though she tempers this with respect and sympathy for the exhausted medical team and the conditions they endured.  They took action for the best of intentions but in the absence of any agreed protocols to decide how to ration medical aid, how could they be sure those were the right decisions?  “Moral clarity,” she writes, describing the moment the patients were injected with a powerful cocktail of drugs, “was easier to maintain in concept than in execution.”  And therein lies Fink’s key point, ethical questions of this magnitude cannot be resolved in the heat of the moment, under what are effectively war time conditions when judgements can be clouded.

To the extent that protections and plans have been put in place since Katrina, recent events have shown them to be inadequate or misguided. Life and death in the immediate aftermath of a crisis most often depends on the preparedness, performance and decision making of the individuals on the scene.

It is hard for any of us to know how we would act under such terrible pressure.

But we have the luxury to prepare and resolve how we would want to make the decision

Five Days at Memorial is a masterful and compelling piece of journalism though not a comfortable reading experience given its subject matter. It was tough going at times because of the sheer weight of information – I became quickly lost in a fog of names of doctors and patients and the finer points of the responsibilities of each federal agency – but the desire to want to know what happened and why kept me reading.  The reviewer for the Star Tribune in Minnesota exactly captured my reaction when he described it as “an important book that will make your blood boil no matter which side of the issue you support”

End Notes

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink was published in the UK by Atlantic Books in 2013

Flittering here, there and everywhere

lines-636981_1280Ever had one of those days where you can’t seem to settle on anything? After some enjoyable summery days its back to grey skies and rain here in Wales today so the garden is out of bounds. Maybe that’s affected my mood or it could be the signs I might have a cold coming on (I hate summer colds more than winter ones) but I can’t seem to settle to anything this morning.

It’s not like I don’t have plenty of things to do. I have a backlog of about eight reviews to write so I thought I’d give this some concentrated effort but after false starts on two of them I’ve abandoned that. I don’t know how you all approach writing your reviews/thoughts on books but I have to strike the right note from the first paragraph otherwise it becomes  a painful exercise. And today my muse has deserted me.

So then I thought I’d make some progress with one of the short story collections on my 20booksofsummer list but although I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around My Neck, the next story in the sequence didn’t grab me as much. Another abandoned activity.

Right I thought, time for a change of tack. Crime fiction I find is wonderful escapist reading and I’ve been eying the British Library crime classics series ever since they started to be re-released in 2014.  The success of these releases has been astonishing when you think none of the authors are around to help promote the titles in the way we’ve become used to with contemporary novels – perhaps our appetite for nostalgia and the gloriously painterly covers tell us something about the mood of the country right now?  I’d had been hoping someone in the family would think to buy me a few to beautify my bookshelves but no such luck. A recent post over on HeavenAli about The Hog’s Back Mystery –  which sounded wonderful – reminded me that indeed I did have have one of the titles in the series via NetGalley.

Ugh is all I can say about The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester.

Originally published in 1864 it is reputedly  the first novel in British fiction to feature a professional female detective. in the firm of Miss Gladden, also known as ‘G’. The new edition includes an introduction by Mike Ashley and a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith in which he positions Miss Gladden as the forerunner of more modern-day female detectives like his own character Mma Ramotswe. Ashley’s introduction provides interesting context for the significance of this book – apparently there were no female police officers let alone detectives in the British force in 1864 and indeed they wouldn’t materialise for another 50 years. The Metropolitan Police Force was still rather in its infancy having been established only in 1829, Scotland Yard (the plain clothes detective branch wasn’t created until 1842) and the term detective didn’t actually pass into common usage until 1843. So by creating a protagonist with such an unusual role , Forrester was truly pushing the boundaries.

I wish he’d spent more time creating some compelling stories in which she is the investigator. I’e now read three and they’r rather dull, not helped by the dan-pan, colourless nature of the prose. I’ll give it another 30 minutes but if it’s failed to ignite by then it’s going to get abandoned and become the second book this year I couldn’t finish.

Hm, I could always tidy up the sock drawer I suppose…..

Women in Translation month beckons

The third Women in Translation month is about to begin and I’m tempted, so very tempted. I haven’t made much progress on my reading of books in translation this year so this would give me a bit of a much needed nudge. Only question is how to fit it in with so many other reading plans.

But it’s only for one month so I should be able to manage at least one shouldn’t I?

With optimism in mind I trawled through my TBR spreadsheet in search of possible candidates and narrowed it down to three options.

When-the-Doves-DisappearedWhen the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Skansen. This is the fourth novel by the Finnish-Estonian writer and was much lauded when it was published last year for its chilling account of occupation in Eastern Europe in 1940s. I bought it as a Christmas present to myself but haven’t found the time to read it yet. Wish my cover was as stunning as the image above shows.

girl-in-the-photographGirl in the photograph by Lydia Fagundes Telles, translated from Spanish

Although the title says girl singular, this is actually about three young women, all college girls who live in a boarding house somewhere in Brazil. they have formed an intense friendship over the years which is tested by the political upheaval resulting from a coup in 1964. Publishing this was a brave move by Telles since it came out at the height of the country’s military dictatorship and is a strong critique of the country’s political repression.

 

Tree_of_Life,_A_Novel_of_the_CaribbeanMy third choice is a bit of a cheat since it’s already on my 20BooksofSummer reading list. But needs must if time is short. Tree of Life: A Novel of the Caribbean is a 1992 novel by the Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Condé. The novel tells a multigenerational story about the emergence of the West Indian middle class. The Chicago Tribune called Tree of Life “a grand account of the Caribbean, the politics of race and immigration, and the intricate, often sordid legacy of colonialism”.

I’ve you’ve read these do let me know what you thought so you can help me make up my mind which to choose. And if you are also going to join Women in Translation month don’t forget to tell me what books you’ll be reading.

The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch – slaying the dragons

The Sea, The SeaThe Sea, The Sea glared at me from my bookshelf for five years. I glared back. It was a feat of endurance. Who would be the first to break? Well of course the answer is clear, if I was going to complete my quest to read all the Booker Prize winners then the battle of wills between myself and Iris Murdoch would have to come to an end. I did not relish the occasion having tried on more than one occasion to read her work (I still have the scars of The Black Prince which started off reasonably but became more and more confusing with its possible multiple intepretations of the theme of erotic obsession). After a few more false starts I put her into the category of “too damn difficult and obscure”.

And so I embarked on The Sea, The Sea which won the 1978 prize girding my reading loins for more of the same challenge.

What a revelation awaited me.

This was not a book of obscure erudite philosophical meanderings but a darn good read that at many points hilariously ridiculous.

It’s impact comes from the central character of Charles Arrowby,  an esteemed London theatre director who has recently retired to a seaside cottage in the south of England. There he plans to write his memoirs, with particular focus on a woman called Clement who was once his lover as well as his mentor. He doesn’t have a great success in love having toyed with the affections of two actresses believing he has power over them when in fact the reverse becomes apparent.

We get a blow by blow account of his life in a cottage that might come with a Martello tower but is clearly a pretty down at heel property. His days are filled with doing battle with rough waves in the cove near his home ( he sees himself as a skilful, fearless swimmer who can sport like a dolphin) and preparing bizarre concoctions that he thinks of as a product of his “felicitous gastric intelligence” but to me felt rather disgusting.

Here’s one of the more reasonable menu offerings:

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London) …. Then bananas and cream with white sugar (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin). Then hard water-bicscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheeses are the best in the world. With this feast I drank most of a bottle of Muscadet out of my modest celler.

A few days later he is extolling the delights of his dinner:

… an egg poached in hot scrambled egg, then the coley braised with onions and lightly dusted with curry powder, and service with a little tomato ketchup and mustard. (Only a fool despises tomato ketchup). Then a heavenly rice pudding. It is fairly easy to make a very good rice pudding but how often do you meet one?

You get the idea from the asides that Charles is a man who has many foibles, opinions and ideas but not all of them can be relied upon as accurate. That Charles is an unreliable chronicler of his life becomes evident when he discovers that the former love of his life, a girl called Hartley, is living in the village near his cottage. Though she is married with an adult age son this doesn’t stop Charles deciding that now is the time to rekindle that love and that Hartley needs rescuing. She never gives him any real evidence that she needs him to act the knight in shining armour but Charles ploughs on regardless, even to the point of abducting her and keeping her hostage in his home.

Meanwhile his former friends and lovers keep dropping in unannounced to try and talk sense into him beyond his rose-tinted version of a new life with Hartley. Rosina gives him a dose of reality:

She’s timid. She’s shy, she must feel terribly inadequate and mousy and dull… she probably feels ashamed of her dull husband and feels protective about him and resentful against you. … She’d bore you , darling, bore you into a frenzy and she knows it, poor dear. She’s an old-age pensioner, she wants to rest now, she wants to put her feet up and watch television, not to have disturbances and adventures.  … You’ re used to witty unconventional women and you’re an old bachelor anyway, you couldn’t really stand living with anybody, unless it was a clever old friend like me.

Inevitably all his plans unravel.

In Murdoch gives us a tremendous portrait of a man of middle to advancing age subsumed by jealousy and vanity and capable of letting his egotistical self damage those around him. With this novel I might well have slain my Murdoch dragons.

 

 

A dearth of predictions for Booker Prize 2016

Man Booker 2016-LogoAround this time of the year I’m dusting down my crystal and trying to predict what will be announced as the longlist for the Booker Prize. But with only a few days to go (the list will be announced on Wednesday, 27th July) I’m struggling. Mainly the issue is that I’ve been so focused on reading what I already own from previous years that I haven’t devoted much time to contemporary works.

Of the very few I have read, My Name is Lucy Barton is Elizabeth Strout could be a contender now that American authors are eligible. Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place is surely going to be on the list? I suspect Gail Jones A Guide to Berlin won’t make it ( the fact that I couldn’t finish it says a lot though I know others rated it more highly than I did).

Fortunately other bloggers who have their fingers on the pulse more than I do, have come up with their own predictions. Take a look at the lists from:

I’m surprised not to see Dave Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier  on any list. This is a kind state of the nation novel set in contemporary Alaska which has had good reviews so far. I think its not yet out in UK but should make it before the publication cut off date of September 30. Also from the American stable comes Ann Patchett’s The Commonwealth which is a tale of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives. It’s due out in the UK on September 8. I haven’t seen any reviews for it yet but if it’s anything like the standard of Bel Canto which I read recently, it will give many other authors a run for their money.

If you feel any of your favourite authors are likely to be overlooked and yet they deserve attention, you can always put their names forward for the highly popular alternative Booker prize event hosted by the Guardian. Nominations are now open at https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jul/18/not-the-booker-prize-2016-vote-for-your-favourite-book-of-the-year

 

 

Back on the Booker trail

sundaysalonThis year was meant to be the year I completed my self-imposed project to read all the Booker Prize winners. At the start of the year my tally was 28 of the 48 winners and one that I couldn’t finish, leaving me with 19 (I’m not counting the winner of the 2016 prize which has yet to be announced). Since then I’ve read four. so if I keep up this pace I still won’t cross the finishing line by year end. Does that matter? Well not really in the scheme of things. No Booker Prize police are going to come storming my house demanding to know why I didn’t finish by the due date. But equally I don’t want to drag it out for ever.

I put three Booker winners on my list for 20booksof summer as a way of giving myself a kick up the rear end. Which is how I ended up reading the 1996 winner Last Orders by Graham Swift this week. I’m familiar with the story because of the film version featuring Tom Courtenay, Michael Caine and Helen Mirren.  It’s actually a rather simple plot: four men spend a day travelling from London to the coastal resort of Margate to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack Dodds, as he requested just before his death. The book’s title comes from the idea that these men are fulfilling Jack’s final request but it’s also a play on the phrase used to signal closing time in the pub, which is where all these men spend a lot of their time.

Three of the men; Ray, Lenny, and Vic;  knew Jack for most of their adult lives and come from the same working class part of London. The fourth, Vince, is Jack’s son. As they journey to Margate their histories, thoughts and feelings are revealed in a series of short chapters each told from one of the character’s point of view. So far it’s rather easy reading and I’m wondering why this Swift’s novel was considered better than Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance which were on the shortlist.

Here’s what I still have left to read. Some of them are going to be more challenging, then others namely How Late It Was, How Late, Vernon God Little and so I’m likely to leave these to last. Anyone have some recommendations for me from this list of what I should get to earlier?

2015 – A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)

2003 – Vernon God Little (Pierre)

2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Carey)

1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (Kelman)

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

1992 – Sacred Hunger (Unsworth)

1988 – Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey)

1986 – The Old Devils (Kingsley Amis) – on my 20booksofsummer list

1983 – Life & Times of Michael K (Coetzee)  on my 20booksofsummer list

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

1972 – G. (Berger)

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

RoadtoMiddlemarch

I remember vividly the first time I read Middlemarch. It was my second year in university and the reading list for the module on nineteenth century literature was HUGE. They didn’t come much bigger than Middlemarch. With a seminar and then essay looming the only way to get through this text was to lock myself in my room and read – from morning until evening. No time to really absorb the text etc, I just had to get enough of a sense of the plot and themes so I didn’t sit in embarrassed silence in the seminar. I made it but I wasn’t enamoured. And then within a few months had to read the whole thing again in preparation for the end of year exam. I packed it away with a feeling of joy that I’d not have to plough through it again.

Well that wasn’t really what happened. Many years later when I felt the grey cells gathering dust I embarked on a Open University degree  which had a module on nineteenth century literature. Which, guess what, had Middlemarch as a set text. I couldn’t avoid it since it featured in a compulsory question. I gritted my teeth and embarked on my third read.

Whether my more mature self was able to more fully appreciate Eliot’s writing  I’m not sure. Virginia Woolf did describe this as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” so that may well be the case. The development of literary criticism in the intervening years also helped because they opened up new ways of reading the text. To my my surprise I found I was enjoying this chunkster. I enjoyed it even more on a fourth reading. I’ve now read it seven times and my appreciation of Eliot’s masterpiece deepens every time.

Given that experience I opened Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch wondering if she too had gone through the same learning curve. Part biography, part autobiography, part bibliography, it’s a personal reflection on the novel and how it has impacted her life. She first read it as a 17-year-old living in the southwest of England who, each week went to the home of a retired teacher of English literature to talk about books and prepare her for university entrance exams. From the first words she was enraptured,  continuing to read it through her early career years as a journalist and into love, marriage and a family.  Sometimes the connections she makes between an episode in her life and an episode in Eliot’s life or that of one of her characters, feel laboured. As for example when she draws a parallel between her own role as a stepmother to three sons to George Eliot’s devotion to the children of her partner George Henry Lewes.

Mead is conscious however of the dangers of over identification with characters one encounters in fiction:  “such an approach to fiction – where do I see myself in here? – is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism,” she declares. Eliot herself was scornful of women readers who imagined themselves as the heroines and the most admirable character in the novel.She hoped for a more nuanced engagement from her own readers. What Mead argues is that the book is different for each individual reader who makes and re-makes it according to their own experience. So Mead’s Middlemarch is not the same as my Middlemarch or of yours but is no the less valid.

Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader’s engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure and the urgency of reading lies. It is one of the ways a novel speaks to a reader and becomes integrated into the reader’s own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience. and in such recognition sympathy might begin.

As I experienced personally, Mead learned that favourite works can mean different things to us at different stages in our lives. In her twenties she empathised with Dorothea’s admiration of Casaubon as a man of knowledge and experience who could lead her out of the narrow world in which she had lived so far. Bent time she reached her thirties she felt the same scorn towards  Casaubon as do Ladislaw and most of the Tipton community aghast that a young woman like Dorothea should ‘throw herself away’ on this dusty old scholar. As a mature reader however she feels more tender towards a man fearful that the academic work to which he has devoted his life will not be acclaimed by his peers. Moreover a man who feels his wife, in pressing him to publish the work, is deliberately trying to undermine him. Fear of failure seems more tangible as the years advance finds Mead.

 

This is a thoughtful book which argues for the transformative power of art and of reading in particular. For people who know Middlemarch well, the book may not offer then a significant amount of new information but for those relatively new to the book and Eliot well, there is a lot to discover. Mead has done her research thoroughly, visiting houses and other places associated with different points of George Eliot’s life, delving  through archives, holding the pen with which she wrote her novels and letters and reading Eliot’s letters themselves.

One of the lasting impressions for me was a vignette in which Mead asks us to imagine a stout couple waddling along a road in London. To most passers-by they would not have attracted even a glance yet Eliot and her partner Lewes were some of the finest minds of their era and their unconventional lifestyle was considered scandalous. Together this unremarkable looking pair ambling along in suburbia were responsible for some of the most pleasurable moments in my life.

End Notes

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead was published in USA 2014 by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House. 

Rebecca Mead is a staff writer for The New Yorker. My Life in Middlemarch started life as an essay in that magazine.

 

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen: a novel of tension

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s third novel “seethes with sex” according to an article published in the Daily Telegraph to mark the 200th anniversary of the book. Was I reading a totally different novel or was the article’s author overly influenced by Andrew Davies’ determination to fit sex into every one of his TV adaptations of Austen’s work?

Passion and sexual tension were there in abundance in Pride and Prejudice but I could find few indications in Mansfield Park that “… eroticism, danger, illicit love and incest simmer below the surface.” The scene that apparently resonates with sexual undertones is the one where the Bertrams (who live at Mansfield Park) and their lively visitors Henry and  Mary Crawford take a day trip to the country manor of a wealthy, but stupid, young man. Trailing along with them is Fanny Price, a poor cousin of the Betrams who’d been uprooted from her loving but noisy home in and sent to live in a mansion where few of the inhabitants pay her the slightest attention.

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Simmering tension in this 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park

The trip contains plenty of undercurrents as both Bertram sisters compete openly for the attention of Henry Crawford and he plays one off against the other. Apparently we are meant to see as significant that they stroll along a serpentine path until they reach some phallic iron railings that separate the landscaped estate from the wild countryside beyond. Fanny warns Maria against climbing over the railings: “You will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes, you will tear your gown.” which the Telegraph columnist suggests has sexual connotations. Clearly I am a naive reader since I just read that as practical advice..

 

That’s not to say the novel is devoid of tension.

Much of the novel turns on the diametrically opposed attitudes of the Crawfords and the Bertram sisters to how they should disport themselves. The stylish, witty Crawfords arrive at Mansfield Park trailing the glamour of London society life, an aura which proves utterly seductive to Maria and Julia, leading them to  forget decorum to the point where they  stage an erotic play and indulge in some risqué jokes. It’s not the only clash of attitudes seen in Mansfield Park. Running through the novel is an issue of a landowner’s responsibility to manage his estate appropriately. Henry Crawford is an absent landowner who cares little for his duties to the land and to the local farmers, putting him at odds with Fanny and Edmund Bertram who are both sensitive to nature and tradition. Both Bertram sisters are on the side of change, seeing the estates as playgrounds for the wealthy rather than a critical part of the agrarian society of England.

And then we have the thorny question of how these members of the landed gentry earn their wealth. Sir Thomas Bertram, Mansfield Park is a sugar baron whose wealth comes from his plantations in Antuiga. At the start of the novel he sets off for his plantations in the West Indies to sort out a problem of “poor returns” on his investments.  His absenteeism causes him to lose focus on his duties at home, both as a father and a landowner. By leaving Mansfield Park and placing it under the control of a thoroughly inappropriate guardian in the shape of Mrs Norris, he creates an atmosphere in which moral chaos reigns.

These issues kept my attention though Mansfield Park is still not one of my favourite Austen novels. I kept getting confused at the beginning between the Bertram sisters and I also found the opening chapters a bit slow. Once the odious Henry Crawford came on the scene and showed his true colours, the novel perked up immensely. Like many readers I had an issue with Fanny Price. As kind and patient as she is, she still felt rather insipid compared to the feisty Liz Bennett of Pride and Prejudice and the protagonist of Persuasion the intelligent, witty, and considerate  Anne Elliot. I have a feeling though that this is  a novel that rewards re-reading.

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