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.
There 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.
Let’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.
Pygmalion 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.
So 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.
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….
Consequences 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.
The 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.
Yes 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..
- This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Excellent Read –review posted here
- NW by Zadie Smith Read it – Dazzling in some ways but not sure I saw the point of it review posted here
- High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – Read but not a great choice for me review posted here
- A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford Thoroughly enjoyed this – review posted here Counted this for AllAugust/All Virago
- Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read and enjoyed in parts review posted here I double counted this for my Booker project
- The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Read and enjoyed the humour – review not yet written. I double counted this for my Booker project
- 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
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimimanda Adichie Read – enjoyed the style, left me wanting more Review posted here
- Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – Enjoyable take on Japanese culture review posted here Double counted this for Women in Translation Month
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
The in/out debate over UK’s membership of the European Union is nothing compared to my own debate on whether to join the Twenty Books of Summer Challenge. I’ve been in a quandary ever since Cathy at 746 books announced the challenge is about to begin. “Out” says the rational part of my brain which knows that a) I have no hope in hell of reading 20 books in three months and b) I don’t do all that well with reading to a list. “In” screams the emotional side of my brain which argues that it sounds like a lot of fun.
Maybe it was the influence of today’s sunshine but the two sides seem to have reached a point where they agree to disagree and have signed a compromise pledge allowing me 50% participation. Step forward the “BookerTalk not the 20 books of summer list” whereby I read just 10 books. Which means I join in with the fun but have none of the angst if I don’t make it. And just to give further protection, right brain has allowed me to pick more than 10 books so I don’t feel the need to go off piste.
My list is a mixture, mainly of Booker Prize titles (still trying to get that challenge completed by year end), short story collections and Viragos. With the exception of the first two, they are all part of my TBR collection.
- This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Read –review posted here
I’ve loved O’Farrell’s work ever since a friend gave me The Disappearing Act of Esme Lemmox so of course when I learned she had a new novel out (that the Guardian newspaper called “technically dazzling”, I immediately got my name on the library reservation list. Good news is it’s arrived just in time for me to make this the first one I read for the challenge.
- The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. did not finish
This is a new title in the British Library Crime Classic series. I have an advanced copy via NetGalley. It was first published in 1864 and is said to be the first novel in British fiction to feature a professional female detective.
- NW by Ali Smith Read
Smith is someone I’ve long felt I should get to know better. Her last novel “How to be Both” was stunning so I’d like to read some of her back catalogue. I just happen to have NW on the bookshelves.
- High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – review posted here
Thirkell’s name keeps cropping up amongst bloggers but I’ve never read her. This is probably one of the least demanding of the books on my list.
- A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
A Virago copy I picked up in a charity shop. Should be good for the All August All Virago themed reading month.
- Frost in May by Antonia White
Another Virago. In fact the first Virago I ever read. I was fairly young at the time. Will it hold my attention as much the second time around?
- Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read
Swift won the 1996 Booker Prize title with this tale of a group of friends who set off for the seaside to scatter the ashes of one of their members who just died. I enjoyed the film. Mr Booker Talk tells me I’ll enjoy the books just as much
- The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.
Another Booker winner – this time from 1986. It’s set in my home country of Wales
- Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee. Read
My third and final Booker winner, from 1983. This will be the third Coetzee book for me to read. The previous two have been superb. Hope this makes it a hat trick.
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanda Adichie Read
I’m guilty here of the ‘save if for a rainy day’ syndrome. I am eking out Adichie’s work because it’s so good but now I have only Half a Yellow Sun left to read. I somehow don’t want to start it because then it will be over. Stupid I know. In the meantime I shall enjoy this collection of her short stories that I picked up on my first visit to the Hay Festival Oxfam shop.
- An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
Another short story collection, this time from a Zimbabwean author. Gappah made the 2016 Baileys Prize longlist with her novel, The Book of Memory, becoming the first author from her country to reach this stage of the award.
- Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – review posted here
I regularly ask work colleagues for recommendations of authors from their home country. For Belgium, the name of Amelie Northomb was mentioned regularly and was recommended in the View From Here feature on Belgium. Fear and Trembling is actually set in Japan but is the only one of her works I have.
- Tree of Life by Maryse Conde
Conde is a French (Guadeloupean) author who was a finalist for the Man Booker international award a few years ago. Tree of Life is a multigenerational story about the emergence of the West Indian middle class and tells the politics of race and immigration, and the legacy of colonialism in the Caribbean. It will be the first book I’ve read by an author from that part of the world.
So there you have it. 13 titles that should keep me quiet over the summer months. If I do make it to 10 I’ll consider it a miracle but the fun isn’t really whether I make it – it’s the getting there.
A monthly round up of what I’m reading, watching etc on the first Sunday of each month.
I know, I know this is late. We’re halfway through June and here I am writing a post that should have been done on the first of the month. I did start it, honestly – but things just got in the way. I’ve had one of those months where I have seen the insides of too many airport terminals and hotel rooms. And despite best intentions, I’ve found that being away from home is just not conducive to writing book reviews and blog posts (as much as I love my iPad, it’s not really set up for lots of typing). Enough of the excuses, here’s what I was doing on the first of the month.
Reluctantly, June 1 saw me reading Wind in the Willows for the June book club meeting. This was a book I enjoyed when I was knee high to a grasshopper and I loved the National Theatre stage version I saw in the late 1990s. But my tastes have changed and I just couldn’t get enthused by this book at all. Maybe it was just the passage of time, maybe it was the fact that the story was just too familiar or the fact I don’t like books featuring talking animals. Whatever the reason, I found I got to page 50 and simply had no appetite for reading any further. I was also reading Americanah by Chimimanda Adichie, an absolutely exquisite novel.
The MOOC course I started (though never finished) on Roman architecture whetted my appetite for more insights about the Empire. One of my birthday gifts was a collection of DVDs featuring Professor Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University. I’ve started on the three part series Meet the Romans with Mary Beard in which she looks at how ordinary people lived in Rome. Her presentation style is informal (not for her the serious look to camera approach beloved of academic presenters in years go by) as she cycles along the Appian Way or sweeps some of the mosaics in Osteria. It’s a style that takes a little getting used to but well worth doing so because, boy does she know her stuff and how to put it across in a way that you can understand even without the benefit of years of classical education. I wish I had her with me some years ago when we walked around the Forum in Rome, impressed by its scale but clueless as to the significance of what we were actually seeing. Prof Beard can look at an inscription on a tomb or a monument and make the people it commemorates come alive. I’m now looking forward to the next DVD which is about Pompeii.
Prof Beard has a very good blog at http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/ .Even if you are not interested in history it’s worth looking at since she talks often about reading and the study of literature.
On the iPod to accompany me in the gym or in the car is a novel by an author I’d not encountered until a few months ago and even then it was purely via audiobooks. Peter James is a British film producer and author of crime fiction including the detective Roy Grace series set in his home town of Brighton. I’ve listened to two so far, and am now part way through a third – Dead Tomorrow. I like the way he uses multiple narrative strands which run in parallel initially but converge over time. The plots also seem a cut above a lot of crime fiction because they raise some social issues – so for example, Dead Tomorrow deals with the sensitive issue of the shortage of organs through donor programs which forces some severely sick people to take drastic, and illegal action. The one thing I don’t like is the romance interest between the detective and his fiancé which always seems to feature some less than credible dialogue. Stick to the crime please Mr James!
This year’s Hay Literary Festival kicks off in Wales next weekend. Last year was my first experience of this event which started with a few people around a kitchen table and is now one of the biggest events of its kind in the UK. I’ll be heading for the festival site nestling in the Welsh hills on the final Sunday of the event. Anyone else planning to be there??
There are just so many tempting speakers on offer again this year, it was hard to decide between them but there was one stand out speaker on the program for me – Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I heard a talk with her on BBC Radio 4 last year, not long after her third novel Americanah was published to great acclaim which made me wonder why it’s taken me so long to get to read her work. Her appearance at Hay is just the impetus I need to rectify that situation.
I’ve also persuaded my book group to make Americanah our choice for July. Quite a few members were very keen having enjoyed her Orange-prize winning second novel Half a Yellow Sun but a number of others were not that enthusiastic when they saw how many pages they’d have to read. There seems a reluctance to read anything longer than about 350 pages – I don’t know whether that’s just this group’s preference or whether it happens with other groups also where people think they won’t have enough time to read a long book by the next meeting.
The other event I’ll be attending is a discussion with the theatre and film director Richard Eyre who, amongst his many credits, is the man responsible for the magnificent Hollow Crown series of filmed versions of Shakespeare’s history plays. He’s going to be talking about the significance of the plays from Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy, Richard II, Henry IV, Part I and 2 and and Henry V within the overall body of the Bard’s work and their role in our understanding of Britain’s identity.
I’m hoping I can squeeze in a third event if possible as well as a little mooch around the tea shops and second hand shops in Hay itself. I may even get tempted enough to buy a few new books ……..