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Six Degrees from Christmas to Christmas

Christmas carolIt’s the last Six Degrees of the year hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) and we begin with a book that for many readers is required reading at this time of the year: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was my first experience of Dickens, introduced to him via an abridged version that nevertheless included some lovely line drawings.

Now the obvious path from here would be a link to another Christmas related novel but I’m going to take a different direction. My thread picks up on the word carol. Or rather, the word Carol as in the girl’s name.

CarolCarol is the title of a 1952 novel about a lesbian relationship by Patricia Highsmith. Since you are all astute readers, you’ll see immediately that my sentence is wildly inaccurate.

Highsmith actually used a pseudonym of Claire Morgan because some of the characters and events in the story referred to her own life.  And the book was originally called The Price of Salt but underwent a change of title to Carol when it was re-printed in 1990. This is the title used for the recent film version issued in 2005 and starring Cate Blanchett.

Carol is not the first — and highly unlikely to be the last — novel with more than one title.  I’m almost spoiled for choice with my next book in this link. I’m settling for one that underwent an identity change as a result of a mix up between publishers.

northern lightsNorthern Lights  is an award-winning young adult fantasy novel by Philip Pullman about an Arctic quest by Lyra Belacqua in search of her missing friend and her uncle who has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as “Dust”. Pullman conceived this as the first part of a trilogy. During pre-publication the UK publishers used a working series title of The Golden Compasses — an allusion to God’s poetic delineation of the world. Across the Atlantic however, the US publishers Knopf had been calling the first book The Golden Compass (singular)  mistakenly thinking this related to a device featured on the front cover that looked like a navigational compass.

By the time Pullman decided his preferred name for the trilogy would be His Dark Materials (rather than The Golden Compasses), Knopf had become very attached to their own title., They insisted on publishing the first book as The Golden Compass. This was adopted as the name for the 2007 film version with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

The Golden Compass/Northern Lights has been controversial ever since its publication in 1995, primarily because it was considered to promote atheism and attack Christianity, in particular the Catholic church. Consequently the book frequently appears on lists of books that are banned from a number of public libraries and schools in the United States.

Colour purpleAnother novel that has been fiercely denounced and also banned is Alice Walker’s epistolary novel about racism, sexism and poverty The Colour Purple.  Objectors cited its graphic sexual content and also “troubling ideas” about race relations and religion in arguing for its removal from schools.

While The Color Purple does contain a lot of controversial content, none of this is gratuitous. The attitudes and behaviours portrayed by Alice Walker are ugly but they are nevertheless real. Even more worrying is that in some parts of the world, prejudice continues to exist and is all too prevalent.


The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner’s 2018 novel The Mars Room is a reminder that prejudice takes several forms. In this novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she shows how the legal and penal system in America works against people from the poorest groups in society. Unable to afford a decent lawyer, they have to rely on state appointed legal representatives who are often too over-worked and too underpaid to do more than a superficial review of their client’s case. Consequently people like the protagonist Romy Hall never get to tell their full story in court including any mitigating circumstances.

I seem to have stepped onto a soap box which may not be what you want to read. This is after all, meant to be the time of year when we display charity,  forgiveness and goodwill to each and everyone (and yes that does include the  person who just barged into the back of your heels with a pushchair, and the one who biffed you in the ribs with their overlarge backpack.)

So in that spirit I shall make my final book somewhat more uplifting. I don’t do feel-good books (I find them generally too cloying) but I’m sure I can find a book that is a tad bit more cheerful.

little-womenYep, I have it – a good partner to A Christmas Carol in fact since this is book is also considered a classic. It’s another I read and enjoyed as a child though reading it as an adult a few years ago, was a vastly different experience.

I’m referring of course to Little Women by Louisa M Alcott which was published in 1863 and proved so popular it sold more than 13,000 copies within six weeks of its release.  Against her own preference, Alcott was persuaded to write the sequel Good Wives. Though I still love the tomboy character of Jo March ( I suspect I was not alone in wanting to be just like her), the overall story was too didactic for my tastes now.

But it couldn’t be more appropriate for this last chain of the year since it begins with a very seasonal reference.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And so we come full circle. We’ve come a long way on our journey, from the Arctic to the American deep south. Where has your chain taken you?

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

The Mars RoomShould I be so unfortunate to find myself  detained in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, I will at least, thanks to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, have several survival strategies at my fingertips.

I will know for example that it’s possible to smuggle pills by using peanut butter to attach them to the roof of your mouth.

I’ll know how to send and receive contraband through the air vents and toilet system (making sure of course to wrap everything tightly in plastic).

And, to make up for the absence of real alcohol, I will be able to brew hooch from ketchup sachets, fruit juice cartons and a sock stuffed with bread (necessary to create the yeast) even if the result does look and smell like vomit. The secret is that  “… you got to double decant it ….. It’s got to breathe.”

Kushner displays an impressive knowledge of life inside a women’s correctional facility in California; the strip-searches, shacklings and lock downs and the rules that govern every moment and every aspect of the women’s lives.

There are lists of rules scattered through the book

No orange clothing

No clothing in any shade of blue

No white clothing

No yellow clothing

No beige or khaki clothing

No green clothing

No red clothing

No purple clothing

Wouldn’t it just have been simpler to tell these inmates what they could wear??

There are even rules about rules.

The failure to report a rule violation … is also a rule violation. The failure to report a rule violation of a failure to report a rule violation is another rule violation.

The Mars Room is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. We first encounter Romy Hall as she is taken by bus to the Stanville correctional facility where she will serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son.

She’s already learned not to cry. Two years earlier on her first night in jail after her arrest she had cried uncontrollably, believing her life was over though hoping desperately that it was all a dream. But now she knows there is no point in looking ahead.

 I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

From this point, the novel moves backwards and forwards in time,  tracing her childhood and early years in the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. The city she inhabited is one tourists don’t get to see, a city of brothels, dive bars, casinos and strip joints, the seediest of all being The Mars Room where she worked as a lap dancer.  The man she killed was one of the regulars at the club. When he began turning up at her local supermarket and shadowing her home, she did a disappearing act only for him to track her down. The night she killed him her young son was asleep in her arms.

The Mars Room is predominantly Rachel’s story though there are narratives from two men associated with the penal system. One is a corrupt police officer now behind bars who takes pride in the crimes he committed and the other is a bit of an idealist brought in to teach literature in the prison. Neither of these interludes was anywhere as engrossing as Rachel’s own story and her interactions with fellow inmates.

What a fascinating bunch they are: the resident ultra bully Teardrop; Conan, a trans woman who uses woodwork classes to make dildos; the baby-killer Laura Lipp and, on death row, the former model Betty LaFrance,  chief brewer of the ketchup moonshine. When they’re on stage, the book comes alive.

Unfortunately, while there is much to admire in The Mars Room, it’s attraction began to fade for me in the final section. Up until this point we’d been exposed to the injustice at the heart of Romy’s situation. The court never heard how she was terrified by the man she killed because the lawyer appointed to take her case was incompetent. Once convicted she has no recourse for an appeal and no-one willing to help her when her son is taken into care.

Kushner’s narrative gives full exposure to the way the justice system has broken down. There is a wealth of information to explain how her fellow inmates are also victims; nudged into crime as a result of poverty, drugs and abuse. After a while it feels like we’re being beaten over the head until we understand the point. I found myself skipping paragraphs (never a good sign). And then it ends with a moment of epiphany that simply didn’t ring true. What started as a book that impressed me with its directness just seemed to dissolve without reaching any resolution.

I can see why the Booker Prize judges put it on the shortlist but for me it was a book that was good in parts but ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise.

 

 

 

 

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