Blog Archives

From beauty myth to family jealousy in six steps

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation where the idea is to create a chain of book connections. This month we begin with a non-fiction title from 1990: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

beauty mythThere is in a clue in the subtitle  “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” about the primary message of this book. Wolf argues that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media.  Amongst her evidence she cites a rise in cases of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the rapid growth of plastic surgery.

The Beauty Myth became a best seller and generated considerable debate. I remember thinking when I read it that, though interesting and thought-provoking, it wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I’ll give Wolf  a lot of credit however for bringing the topic out into the open. Sadly, we see evidence regularly that the issues she saw then haven’t gone away.

PygmalionLet’s stay with myth and beauty for my first link: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, is a play about a professor who trains a poor, uneducated girl to act and speak like a lady. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor unable to find any real woman who fitted his idea of the perfect female. He carves a statue out of ivory that is so beautiful and so perfect that he falls in love with it and wants to give it life.

 

 

Nora WebsterPygmalion is of course a story about transformation and change; a theme which is central to my next book; also by an Irish writer. In Nora Webster Colm Toibin gives us a deep and penetrating portrayal of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. She returns to the office work she thought she had left behind forever, begins listening to the classical music her husband never liked and starts making new friends. One of the most significant signs that she is moving on comes when she visits the hairdresser and emerges with a radical new style.

 

I could link to another work about transformation,  Educating Rita by Willy Russel, in which a young uneducated hairdresser enrols for an Open University degree course because she wants more from life.  I’ve seen the stage version and watched the film multiple times (it’s one of my all time favourites) but I can’t really use it for this chain since it would mean breaking my rule that I select only texts I’ve read.

AmericanahSo let’s go down a different path and to another book which uses hair styles as part of a theme about identity. The main character in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only begins to feel truly free and true to her Nigerian roots when she decides she will no longer spend hours and vast sums of money on having her hair ‘relaxed’.  Hair, she comes to realise, is a political issue in America with black women expected to relax their natural curls with strong chemicals in order to conform to comfortable white norms. Before she makes her first return home to the Nigeria she left 15 years earlier, she visits a salon to have her hair braided.

portrait of a lady

I’m sticking with the issue of identity for my next book. A Portrait of a Lady is one of Henry James’ most respected novels. It wasn’t one I enjoyed at first reading – I found it incredibly slow (page after page where nothing much happens except someone opens an umbrella)… I must admit I skimmed many passages. It wasn’t until I re-read the book that I began to fully appreciate this tale of a young American woman who insists that she must be free to write her own plot and then to live with the unfortunate consequences of her decisions. Still not sure I understand the ending however….

 

God - of-small-thingsConsequences takes me to India and to a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1997. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy  has two captivating characters in the form of  Rahel Kochamma and her brother Esth. They’re used to being the centre of attention so when their new cousin arrives to spend Christmas at the family home, their noses are put out of joint. Their jealousy has tragic repercussions that don’t become apparent until the final chapters of the novel. Until then we’re treated to some tremendous comic scenes involving these effervescent twins.

 

Lives of OthersThe family rivalries depicted in Arundhati Roy’s novel remind me of Neel Mukherjee’s  novel The Lives of Others which is set in India during the second half of the 1960s. In it we meet three generations of the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who live together in one house, their rooms allocated on a strictly hierarchical basis. The  patriarchal Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor., the widow of their youngest son is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. Inevitably there are tensions over saris and wedding jewellery.

 

And with that I’ve reached the end of a chain which has moved from notions of beauty through female identity to familial disputes. If you’re interested in how other bloggers created their chains, take a look at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and also find out how to join the meme hosted by Kate.

 

 

 

Top ten Tuesday: book club recommendations

The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.

This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.

If I had my wishlist it would include:

book-club-recommendations

I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).

  1. The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
  2. Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here 
  3. The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here 
  4. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness.  Reviewed here 
  5. From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom  by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here 
  6. Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
  7. Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times  days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here 
  8. L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
  9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
  10. Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances?  Who deserves to die?  And who has the right to make those decisions?  Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here 

Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?

#20booksofsummer wrap up

20booksof summerYes I know it’s no longer summer but better late than never I suppose. So here is the outcome of the first reading challenge I have ever completed (drum roll and applause please….)

I knew I would never get through 20 books so took advantage of the flexible choices offered by Cathy at 746books.com and went for 10 books. When I made the list I was trying to be clever by doubling up on titles that could also count for three other projects: Women in Translation month, AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) and my own Booker prize project.

I’m a bit behind on the reviews but am slowly catching up. So here’s what I accomplished – there were some hits, some also rans and some down right failures..

  1. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Excellent Read –review posted here 
  2. NW by Zadie Smith Read it – Dazzling in some ways but not sure I saw the point of it review posted here
  3. High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – Read but not a great choice for me review posted here 
  4. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford Thoroughly enjoyed this – review posted here Counted this for AllAugust/All Virago
  5. Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read and enjoyed in parts review posted here  I double counted this for my Booker project
  6. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Read and enjoyed the humour – review not yet written. I double counted this for my Booker project
  7. Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read but review not yet written because I haven’t made up my mind what I think of it.  I double counted this for my Booker project
  8. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimimanda Adichie Read – enjoyed the style, left me wanting more Review posted here 
  9. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – Enjoyable take on Japanese culture review posted here  Double counted this for Women in Translation Month
  10. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde: Read it but it was a bit of a slog. Review posted here Also counted towards Women in Translation month

I had a few back up titles on my list originally so I could change my mind if needed. The back ups were:

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. A dud – did not finish review posted here 

Frost in May by Antonia White never got around to reading this but it was a re-read anyway

An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah Started to read it but ran out of time 

Overall  I enjoyed the experience. Because I chose the entry level I never felt overwhelmed by what I still had to read. So I’ll be back again next year assuming Cathy decides to continue the venture that is.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie #20booksofsummer

TheThingAroundYourNeck

The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of 12 stories published by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in various journals in the mid to late nineties.  They therefore  pre-date the novels that brought her to public attention, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), but you can see many of the same themes and ideas.

Set variously in Nigeria and America these stories depict the clash between those cultures and between the expectations and the reality of the experience of those who leave Nigeria for a ‘better life’ in USA just as Adichie did herself.  These are stories that are told principally, thought not exclusively, through the eyes of women who get caught up in political or religious violence or suffer the disappointment and feelings of alienation of being a stranger in a foreign land.

In Imitation the narrator is a woman living in New Jersey whose art collector husband visits her for only two months in the year. Just before his next visit she learns he has acquired a mistress and installed her at their home in Lagos bringing fears that she will be supplanted and her new life will crumble. Another wife finds in The Arrangers of Marriage that her arranged marriage to a Nigerian doctor in America is not all it appears to be. Arriving at her new home in the USA she discovers not the large house of American television programs she watched in Nigeria, but a barely furnished run down apartment. Her husband, who is actually still a student, is so eager to fit in that he has even changed his name from Ofodile Emeka Udenwa to Dave Bell. Their marriage may not even be legitimate she discovers when he reveals a previous relationship from which he has not yet been dis-entangled.

The title story The Thing Around Your Neck features Akunna who arrives in America via the ‘visa lottery’ to live with her uncle. The plan is for her to complete her studies and then get a job enabling her to send half her earnings back to her parents. But when the uncle abuses her, she escapes to Connecticut where, while working in a restaurant, she experiences the invisibility of acute loneliness

 At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.

A love affair with a restaurant customer seems to offer the dream of a happy ending and she finds “The thing that nearly choked you before you fell asleep, started to loosen, to let go”. But the power of what she has left behind is strong and in the end it a death back home that forces her to reassess her life.

One story stood out above the rest for me. A Private Experience depicts a chance encounter between two women whose lives would not normally connect. One is Chika, a medical student and a Christian member of the Igbo ethnic group, the other is an unnamed poor Muslim woman of the Hausa group. On a day when violence between these two ethnic groups breaks out in the market they take shelter in a tiny shop. When the Muslim woman complains about her dry, cracked nipples, Chika draws on her medical training to give the woman advice and false comfort. For her part, the Muslim woman takes a pragmatic approach to the shocking violence they can hear outside and by a glimpse of a dead, burned body. The dignity of the Muslim woman impresses itself on the younger woman and the hours they spend together enable them to form a bond that transcends sects.  Not only was this a perfectly constructed story but the key theme is one that resonates far beyond Nigeria  – on the day I read this story a Catholic priest was murdered in France by people who adhered to a different faith.

Overall these are stories tinged with regret and disappointment but they also speak of the love of Nigerla and the place called home. Most of Adichie’s characters are people who travel far and wide but Nigeria is the place for which they yearn. Although not strictly autobiographical, it’s possible to see aspects of Adichie’s own life and experiences reflected in this collection – particularly in Jumping Monkey Hill  where authors from across Africa gather at a writers’ retreat in Cape Town and the young Nigerian narrator feels objectified and humiliated by the lecherous, white, male academic who leads the workshop.

Adichie’s writing has an immediacy that made me feel I had dropped straight into the lives of these women and immediately absorbed in their worries and concerns. But as is my experience with short stories in general, they left me feeling unsatisfied, wanting more time with these narrators and to know what happens next.

Footnotes

Title: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Published by: Fourth Estate in Oct. 2009

Part of my 20booksof summer challenge 2016

In this video on You Tube you can hear Adichie talk about her collection and which of the stories means the most to her personally.

Snapshot August 2016

 

sun-flower-1536088_1280

July came and went in a blink of the eye. August will likely go just as quickly and then all we’ll hear about for the next few months is that dreaded word Christmas. I’ve already seen promotions from a hotel and a local restaurant even though some people have only just headed off for their summer holiday. I know retailers in the UK have been moaning about low sales because of the crap summer weather so far but it’s depressing how the commercial world seems intent on pushing the Christmas season earlier and earlier. I’m going to turn a blind eye to it all and just focus on the month ahead.

So as a new month begins this is a bit of a  wrap up of what’s I’ve been reading recently and what I’m planning or the month ahead.

Just Finished

July readingJuly was a good month during which I managed to read 4 books for the #20booksofsummer challenge and make a little space in the TBR pile.

It’s taken me a few years to get around to reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial.(reviewed here)The subject matter made it challenging but it was worth the effort – the issues raised by Fink about medical ethics during times of disaster have made for some heated discussions among friends and relatives. I also read the wonderful Bel Canto by Ann Patchett -my first experience of her writing but I know it will not the be the last. July saw the completion of two Booker prize winners – Last Orders by Graham Swift and The Life & Times of Michael K by J. M Coetzee.  I had planned to read to short story collections but so far have managed just one of them – The Thing Around My Neck by Chimamanda Adichie with the help of advice in response to my question on how to approach a collection of short stories. Most people recommended I read them in bite size pieces  which helped hugely.

Reading Currently 

I have two books on the go at the moment. Tree of Life: A Novel of the Caribbean is a 1992 novel by the Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Condé. It’s the story of three generations of  one family and their rise from poverty against a backdrop of racial tension and world events like the construction of the Panama Canal and World War 1. It’s my choice for #womeninliterature month. I’m about a third of the way through and finding it OK but not that engaging. Certainly not as riveting as my other read which is Moskva by Jack Grimwood. Set in the 1980s it features  a British intelligence officer sent to Moscow to avoid an investigation over his actions in Northern Ireland. Shortly after his arrival he gets roped in to help find the Ambassador’s daughter who has gone missing. This is a page turner that was highlighted by the Daily Telegraph as one of the best crime novels of 2016. 

On the Horizon  

If it’s August then it has to be AllAugust/AllVirago of which I’ll be reading A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford and posting a few reviews for Viragos I read earlier in the summer but haven’t got around to reviewing yet.  I have a  few NetGalley review copies requiring my attention including  The Sleeping World by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes which is set in 1970s post-Franco Spain and The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke. What comes after that I haven’t yet decided since I don’t like making detailed plans which feel constraining. There’ll certainly be a Booker title in the mix but I know I’m not going to get around to making much of an impression on the 2016 longlist other than reading some samples of each title.

How to read short story collections?

20booksof summerMy list of titles for 20booksofsummer includes two short story collections. The Thing Around my Neck is a collection by Chimamanda  Ngozi Adichie that I picked up in the Oxfam stand at the Hay Festival.  At a library sale I found a copy of An Elegy for Easterly by the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah which earned her the Guardian first book award in 2009.

Both have been on my ‘to read’ pile for about three years so I thought it was time to pay them some attention. Problem is that I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I’ve read only one other collection so I don’t know how best to approach reading these two books. I’m hoping those of you who are more regular readers of this form can come up with some recommendations on how to get the most out of reading the collections.

Do I start at the beginning and just work through the stories in the order in which they appear? Or do I begin with the titular story on the basis that this could have special significance – was it chosen because it sets the tone for the collection perhaps? Or do I just choose randomly?

Is it best to dip in and out of the collection, mixing it up with another book? If I do that I’m concerned I might lose the flow but then if I just read one after the other will they start to blur into one?

So far I’ve just glanced over both of these books and have liked what I’ve seen so far. I don’t want to spoil the experience. All advice will be welcomed.

%d bloggers like this: