The only part of Little Women that struck a chord with me was Joe’s lament that ”Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without any presents”. Substitute the word ‘books’ for ‘presents’ and you’d have my sentiments expressed exactly. Giving and receiving books is a fundamental part of Christmas for me, starting with the shiny new Bunty or Jackie annual I looked forward to all year when I was a very young teenager.
This year I asked Santa kindly for a few novels that are either on my Classics Club challenge or my Booker prize winners challenge. Santa must have decided I already had plenty of Classics to get on with reading so he ignored the appeal for Trollope’s Palliser novels (I can always hint again when my birthday comes around) but I did end up with a few surprises in the shape of the Barnes and Mullan collections of essays.
These are some of the books in the package:
- Richard Burton’s diaries
- The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas
- Pure by Andrew Miller (I loved this when I read it earlier this year)
- A Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
- Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
- Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco
- Restless – William Boyd
- David Copperfield – Dickens
- The Land of Painted Caves – Jean Auel
- Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
- The 100 year old man who fell out of a window – Jonas Jonasson
- Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton
Finally got to finish Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (only taken me 2 months or more). And managed to get the review done Also read one from my Classics Club list – Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means – still means I’ve only read 3 classics this year so will need to get my skates on to complete the 50 in 5 years challenge. The Spark review is here. I’m ending the year by reading C. J Sansom’s Dissolution for my book club meeting in early Jan. First time I’ve read anything by him and so far its a pleasure.
‘The most gifted and innovative British novelist of her generation’. (David Lodge). “One of the greatest British writers since 1945” (The Times). When Anthony Burgess, created his list 0f The 99 Best Novels in English since 1939, he singled out The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark’s 1963 novelette, calling it “Brilliant, brittle, the production of a fine brain and a superior craft.” Reading these accolades created high expectations in my mind that The Girls would sparkle with the kind of comic, waspish style of prose for which Muriel Spark was renowned.
The novel was indeed clever. It appears to be a simple story about a group of women who live in The May of Teck Club, a rather shabby but genteel boarding house in central London. It’s 1945 and the war in Europe is over but the girls who live in the club still struggle suffer with clothing rationing and shortages of basic food items like tea. Jane is the brainy one, forever using her work in a publishing house as an excuse for eating; the elocution teacher Joanna is the cultured voice of the community, whose voice can be heard throughout the house as she recites poetry with her pupils, while Selina is the beautiful, wilful inhabitant who cares little for the men she sleeps with beyond the fact they give her entry to parties.
There is much larking about; swapping of lipsticks and dresses and merry escapades including smearing their naked bodies with butter in order to squeeze through a narrow bathroom window and get onto the roof to sunbathe (inevitably one of them gets stuck). But as we get to know them and their eccentricities, the darker sides of their lives become more apparent. Joanna’s devotion to her work is the product of an unrequited love for a curate while Jane’s much vaunted ‘brainwork’ involves writing letters to famous authors to try and wheedle money out of them.
Burgess’ review of this novel talks of Spark’s ability to look at human pain and folly. While there is a darker side to the novel (particularly in the ending), the pain and violence that Burgess saw in The Girls of Slender Means wasn’t as obvious to me. This maybe because the darker tone is masqued by the way that Sparks uses the omniscient narrator to constantly undermine any pretensions these girls have about themselves. Jane for example, becomes attracted to Nicholas Farrington (a man who seems to be something in British Intelligence yet professes to be an anarchist).
She felt she had a certain something to offer Nichols, this being her literary and brain-work side. This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own prference for men of books and literature their proference for women of the same business. And it never really occured to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women but girls.
The difficulty I experienced was that the novel was too short to really see the main characters developed fully so by the end I didn’t feel particularly engaged with their lives and experiences. The novel structure also worked against my engagement – it’s comprised of very short scenes which switch the focus of attention quickly from one girl to another in a mix of dialogue with prose and snatches of poems and told in a non linear chronology.
Overall, I enjoyed reading it but wouldn’t consider it as a particularly remarkable book.
The two books I’ve been reading this past week couldn’t be more different. In one corner of the bedside table sits Claire Tomalin’s award winning biography of Samuel Pepys The Unequalled Self. And in the other corner is The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark, an author I’ve known of for years but never got around to reading.
I loved Tomalin’s book – my review is posted here. Much of the information she presents was a revelation for me since all I really knew of Pepys was that he lived through the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London and captured his thoughts for posterity in his diary. I had no idea he was a key figure in government or that he was an avid reader and collector of books while also being somewhat of a rogue. Now I really want to read the diaries themselves.
It’s too early to give any thoughts on Muriel Spark’s novel. It’s set in ‘The May of Teck Club’, a kind of ladies rooming establishment opposite Hyde Park, London, ‘For the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London”. It concerns the lives of its residents in the immediate aftermath of VE Day in Europe. So far all that’s happened is that we’ve been introduced to some of the main characters but there isn’t really any sense of a plot as yet.
Both of these texts are diversions from the book I should really be reading – Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I’ve been reading this now for at least six weeks and the progress is painfully slow. I have about 80 pages left but try as I might I can’t read more than about 5 pages at a stretch. My husband simply can’t understand why I don’t give it up but having slogged my way through more than 500 pages I’m not going to give in now. Besides which, finishing it will mean I have made further progress on my personal challenge to read through all the Man Booker prize winners. I’m determined to finish it before year end so I can begin reading some of the stack that’s built up in the last few weeks. Going into a bookshop to buy gifts for the family was fatal – for every two I bought as presents to give away, I seem to have bought one for myself. Perhaps I should wrap them in Christmas paper and pretend they are a surprise present from a friend??