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review 2019-02-22 23:08
"Travels With My Aunt" by Graham Greene - An amusing entertainment that becomes something more ambiguous
Travels with My Aunt - Graham Greene
My wife and I both had vague but positive memories of having read "Travels With My Aunt" way back in the last century so we decided to give the audiobook version a try and refresh our memories.

 

Tim Pigott-Smith is the narrator and he gives a wonderful performance, providing just the right voices for the very wide range of characters in the book and getting the comic timing absolutely right.

 

The book has a strong, humorous start, as our hero encounters his septuagenarian aunt for the first time at his mother's funeral. She makes quite an impression, her larger than life unashamedly Boheme style serving to highlight the dreariness of her nephew's I-used-to-be-a-bank-manager-but-they-made-me-retire-in-my-fifties-and-now-I-tend-dahlias-and-try-not-to-go-quietly-insane way of life.

 

It's such a long time since I read this that I'd remembered some of the incidents from Aunt Agatha's life as short stories, without associating them with this book. She has some great stories and has had much practice in telling them. They reminded me of sherbet lemons, brittle and shiny on the outside but with a sugary-yet-bitter centre that leaves you wanting more.

 

I suspect my (much, much) younger self also failed to work out what exactly our hero's aunt did for a living until much later in the book than it became apparent this time. I was probably as slow as her somewhat dense nephew to work it out.

 

The first couple of journeys with his aunt, physical journeys and journeys into her remembered past, sparkled. Then we hit the 1960s version of the Orient Express and took a trip to Istambul. The train was drab and dreary and seemed to sap the energy from the chapters describing it.

 

The pace picked up again in Istambul but the novel never really recovered its sparkle. It is from this point on that our hero starts to lose his innocence.

 

In the hands of another writer, this stripping away of innocent assumptions and conclusions could have been joyous for everyone involved, with our hero being liberated from a conventional life by a life-affirming aunt. It seemed to me that Graham Greene decided to story in a different direction. Our retired bank manager has always followed the path of least resistance. Once this meant living up to the expectations of his employer and his clients, now it means living up to the expectations of his Aunt. His level of agency remains the same.

 

While I found the ending quite credible, I also found them dispiriting and slightly sleazy. It's as if Greene couldn't help adding the perception of sin to what could have been innocent fun.

 

I'm glad we re-read the book. I enjoyed listening to Tim Pigott-Smith but I found the book a bit patchy and slightly disappointing.
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review 2019-02-07 09:47
"Excellent Women" by Barbara Pym - the rehabilitation of spinsterhood
Excellent Women - Barbara Pym,Jayne Entwistle
 

 

A tale of gentlefolk in early 1950s London

 

In "Excellent Women" Barbara Pym lets us see London, immediately after World War Two, through the eyes of Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman's daughter of modest independent means, who works mornings in a charity for aiding impoverished gentlewomen, is active in her local High Anglican church and is, at a little over thirty, on the cusp of becoming a spinster.

 

Mildred is a bright, public school educated woman who spends large portions of her life doing things for other people. She has a well-developed sense of the absurd and a, mostly compassionate, insight into the peculiarities of expectation, habit, manners and introspections that shape her own behaviours and the behaviours of the people around her.

 

The plot is largely a series of opportunities to explore the lives and choices of the, often ignored or patronised, "Excellent Women", who make lives for themselves that aren't centred around marriage and children.

 

No man steps into the same book twice: two re-read surprises

 

I re-read "Excellent Women", after a gap of forty years, as part of a buddy read on BookLikes. Since my last read, the post-war years, with their rationing, their high levels of divorce and accelerating social change, have receded from being the years that my parents married in and have become History and in the process become a foreign country where taken for granted things like living in bedsits with a shared bathroom, need to be explained. Over the same period, my age has nearly tripled and my experience has broadened. Consequently, my reactions to the text this time were very different from last time. It confirmed to me that no man can step into the same book twice.

 

The first surprise I had was that Mildred Lathbury, was stronger and wittier than I remembered her. I suspect my twenty-something self mistook some of Mildred's politeness for acquiescence. Now I see that much of it was controlled anger.

 

The second surprise was how clearly I heard echoes of a slightly more acerbic and world-weary Jane Austen in Pym's writing. The novel opens with Mr Mallet ( a name to conjure with) rivalling Mr Collins in his ability to be simultaneously pompous and patronising.  It prompts a self-assessment by the Mildred that is an inverse echo of "It is a fact universally acknowledged etc" in the opening of "Pride and Prejudice" but with Mildred declining to let go of her pride (self-respect) and bridling at Mallet's prejudice:

 

"I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business and if she is also a clergyman's daughter, then one might really say there is no hope for her."

 

The relatable Miss Lathbury

 

One of the comments that was made most frequently during the buddy read of "Excellent Women" was how relatable Mildred Lathbury was. We see the world through Mildred's eyes and find that the view from there is honest and kind but also filled with rueful humour and questions about her own place in the world.

 

The first impression that Mildred makes is often of being a very conventional woman. As we get to know her better her wit, often expressed only inside her head, comes to the fore and we realise that acknowledging convention isn't the same as being conventional.

 

For example, in her first meeting with her new neighbour, the married but very independent, I'm-an-anthropologist-Darling-so-I-don't-have-time-to-cook Helena, Mildred sounds conventional when she asks herself:

 

"Surely wives shouldn’t be too busy to cook for their husbands? I thought in astonishment, taking a thick piece of bread and jam from the plate offered to me."

 

and then shows her dry wit when she adds some thoughts about Rockingham, Helena's husband: 

 

"But perhaps Rockingham with his love of Victoriana also enjoyed cooking, for I had observed that men did not usually do things unless they liked doing them."

 

I think part of what makes Mildred relatable is that she's not always sure of how she sees herself or how others see her. Even with access to Mildred's inner voice, I was sometimes unsure of whether Mildred was a prisoner of her manners or simply has a deep acceptance of who she is.

 

For example, is she accepting or rejecting the label given to her when Helena says:

 

" 'Of course you’ve never been married,’ she said, putting me in my place among the rows of excellent women."

 

As I got to know Mildred better it seemed to me that she was someone who sees too accurately to comfort herself with anything but the truth and who is instinctively kind but still sometimes feels the weight of duty and carries it anyway. When she considers her future, she most often sees herself living out her life as a spinster who is seen by others as an eccentric but excellent woman.

 

Here are a couple of quotes that illustrate the quiet economy with which Pym gets these ideas across

 

“I forebore to remark that women like me really expectedvery little –nothing, almost.”

 


“Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”

 

Perhaps Mildred is relatable because, although she likes herself, she recognises that she lives on the margins of a society that expects things of her that she isn't able to provide?

 

At one point, Mildred tells the story of her younger self attending a dance where she feels out of place and finds herself waiting in the toilets in the hope that the dance for which she didn't have a partner would be finished before she returned, but knowing that it wouldn't be.

 

That brought me back to the heart of all those times when I've found myself surrounded by people who expect certain social skills or talismans of competence from me that I can't provide

 

I think it's a mark of her strength of character that she describes the experience as "deep" rather than mortifying. It's not unexpected or unbearable merely bleakly familiar. She seems to use it to reflect on how own connection or lack of it to society.

 

Another thing that makes Mildred relatable is how clearly she sees life and yet how much compassion for those of us living it she sustains. I love this quote, giving Mildred's reaction to her best friend, Dora's battles at the school she teaches at:

 

"I wondered that she should waste so much energy fighting over a little matter like wearing hats in chapel, but then I told myself that, after all, life was like that for most of us –the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction."

 

She's perfectly right. Life is like that. But it's rare to find fiction that is honest enough to say so and still be engaging enough not to be a chore.

 

Rehabilitating Spinsterhood

 

It seems to me that one of the main themes of "Excellent Women" is spinsterhood. Not whether it's good or bad or whether it is a state that should be ended as swiftly as possible, but about what it means to live a full and valued life as a single woman.

 

Spinster has become pejorative and unfashionable. It is so unlike bachelor that we've had to invent bachelorette to capture the equivalent expectations of women.  

 

But what if spinsters were not just referred to as "excellent women" by way of disguising the extent to which their services were taken for granted but in true acknowledgement of a way of life, either chosen or accepted and lived well?

 

As an introvert living in a very extrovert world, I have found myself constantly having to explain, defend, or disguise my need for solitude, the volume and variety of noise in my head when I am alone and my lack of pleasure in so many of the things that are meant to signify having a good time. 

 

It seems to me that creating a space to live a full life as an introvert in a society of extroverts has a lot of parallels to creating a space to live a full life as a spinster in a society built on the expectation of marriage/coupledom.

 

During the buddy read, we discussed a couple of articles that explore Pym's rehabilitation of spinsterhood. If it interests you, take a look at: "Barbara Pym and the New Spinster." and "Marvelous Spinster: Barbara Pym at 100" 

 

 

Boy Men and whether or not to marry them

 

The women in this book may be excellent but I found all of the men to be irritating. None of them seem to have grown up. They manage an offensive combination of neediness, entitlement and disregard for others that I find staggering.

 

I'd write it off as Pym having a go except very similar, if somewhat more worldly, men appear in Lessing's writing of the same period.

 

It would be nice if there was at least one man who knew what he wanted and didn't need a woman to look after his poor helpless self.

 

Pym places a fine selection of men in Mildred's life. The charming, charismatic but facile Rocky (what a name) provides an example of complacent, lazy, selfish sex appeal. Everard Bone (another wicked name) with his often mentioned meat that he is willing to share but unable to cook, provides an example of a more reliable but equally self-absorbed and emotionally distant man. Then there is the tedious, pidgeon-feeding civil servant, Dora's brother, who Mildred meets out of habit once a year for a lunch where he is always more engaged with the wine waiter than with her. Finally, there is the nice but weak Vicar that everyone except Mildred assumes Mildred would like to marry one day.

 

With this set of men before her, Mildred reflects on what would be added to her life and what would be lost if she were to marry.

 

I think her most unguarded reaction, which speaks to her heart rather than her sense of duty, is the White Rabbit reaction that she'd already mentioned to Bone and raising again when discussing the love of a "good woman" with the Napiers. Rocky with the ungracious thoughtlessness that only the truly charming are forgiven for, compares the love of a good woman to an army blanket, dull but useful. Mildred, her tongue loosened by wine, offers:

 

"‘Or like a white rabbit thrust suddenly into your arms,’ I suggested, feeling the glow of wine in me. ‘

Oh, but a white rabbit might be rather charming.’ 

‘Yes, at first. But after a while you wouldn’t know what to do with it.'"

 

I think that the possibility, however imaginary, of a relationship with Rocky, charmer of awkward WREN officers, was like a White Rabbit to Mildred.

 

Later, as we near the ambiguous close of the novel, Mildred considers the ways, dull and dutiful, in which a woman might be of use to a man and asks herself:

 

"Was any man worth this burden? Probably not, but one shouldered it bravely and cheerfully and in the end it might turn out to be not so heavy after all."

 

I can't decide if this is Mildred sense of duty or sense of humour talking. I suspect the latter. I believe her sense of self is so strong that neither being wife nor spinster would change her identity. Perhaps the power of the book and the charm of Mildred lie in the fact that I'm unsure of the answer but I care what choice she makes.

 

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review 2019-01-24 11:28
"My Sister The Serial Killer" by Oyinkan Braithwaite - more than the title suggests
My Sister, the Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite
 

"My Sister, The Serial Killer" both is and is not what the title and the cover would lead you to expect.

 

It is a book set in Lagos about two sisters, the younger of whom, Ayoola, has, by the start of the novel, already killed three men and the older sister, Korede, has always helped clean up the mess.

 

It is not a "normal" serial killer book. This isn't a who did it and how were they caught mystery, nor is it a voyeuristic gorefest. The emphasis on sister is much stronger than the emphasis on serial killer in this story.

 

The story is told from Korede's point of view. She's the big sister: organised, cool-headed, deeply protective of her younger, more attractive, more impulsive, sometimes lethal sister.

 

Korede is a nurse, good at her job and slowly, timidly falling for a Doctor in the hospital she works in. Ayoola is stunningly beautiful, the jewel of her mother's heart, who designs and sells dresses over the internet. Men don't tend to notice Korede and they can't look away from Ayoola. Korede is compulsively tidy and constantly alert for threats. Ayoola leaves clutter everywhere and is almost totally self-absorbed. Yet the bond between these two is strong.

 

It seems to me that the book is about taking sides. Korede has to decide whether to side with the men who have or who are going to, fall prey to her sister's need to kill or with her sister. It explores the bond between them, the family history that forged that bond and the society that both stresses and strengthens it.

 

Men do not come off well in this book. There are some who are kind and gentle, one of the doctors and one of the patients, but only by comparison to the aggressive, patriarchal, entitled men around them. As Ayoola says of one of them: "He is not deep. All he wants is a pretty face." Except these men want and expect more than that. They expect submission and they want devotion.

 

I know nothing about Nigeria, but the Lagos of this book is vividly evoked as a modern, vibrant city with a culture very different to my own, from the attitudes of the bribe-me-or-I'll-arrest-you traffic cop, through the I-am-a-chief-so-you-girl-are-mine-if-I-wish-it, to the I-enforce-my-will-with-this-cane father and head of the household.

 

This is the backdrop against which Korede has to choose sides. Personally, I think the choice is not a hard one but the road to it is difficult and beautifully described.

 

 

Weruche Opia

I strongly recommend listening to the audiobook version, performed by the British-based Nigerian actress, Weruche Opia.

 

Her performance is flawless. She gives each character the perfect voice and reads the text in a Nigerian middle-class accent that brings its richness to life.

 

I went looking for a sample on SoundCloud and found only a version read by Adepero Oduyewhich I did not like as much as it sounded too American to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oyinkan Braithwaite

If you'd like to know how Oyinkan Braithwaite went about writing "My Sister, The Serial Killer", I recommend this in LARB article "Stuck with Them: An Interview with Oyinkan Braithwaite"by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

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review 2019-01-16 12:19
"Ways To Hide In Winter" by Sarah St. Vincent
Ways To Hide In Winter - Sarah Vincent
 

 

From the start, "How To Hide In Winter" is strong on atmosphere: isolated - cold - damaged and with more damage to come - a history like a shadow beneath the ice on the lake.

 

The story is told through the eyes Kathleen, a young woman working alone in the only store still open in the National Park on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania in the depths of winter. She spends most of her day alone, reading and thinking.

 

Then "The Stranger" arrives, a lone Uzbekistani man, not dressed for winter, not sure of where he is or why.

 

She's trying to pretend she doesn't limp and isn't in pain from her injuries. He's scrupulously polite and unaggressive, trying hard to be invisible. Both of them are tantalisingly unexplained.

 

What follows is a powerful, beautifully written, deeply thoughtful novel that tackles raw emotions and complicated ideas without ever becoming dry or self-consciously literary.

 

On the surface, "Ways To Hide In Winter" could be seen as one of those woman-with-dark-secrets-in-her-past thrillers. If that's what you're looking for, this book will disappoint you. It's not a thriller nor a simple narrative about discovering the dark secrets in the pasts of the two main characters. It's a deeply meditative book, filled with the cold silence of winter and the slowly thawing emotions of rage and compassion of a woman who has been abused and traumatised.

 

Winter is central to the feel of this book. The physical winter in the Appalachians in Pennsylvania is almost a character in its own right: bleak but beautiful, familiar but deadly, ubiquitous and inescapable. It is also an extended metaphor for the emotional state of the two main characters, each with their own story of abuse, betrayal, secret shame and physical and emotional trauma that have left them scarred, isolated and trying to hide from their futures as much as from their pasts.

 

Like water beneath the layer of ice on the lake, Kathleen's emotions run deep, slow and cold. Her rage is fierce but struggling to find expression. It is the fevered heat experienced by the hypothermic as they struggle to survive the cold.

 

She is consumed with a quiet, barely contained rage. She rages at how her community is treated by the government:

 “They sold us pain and said it was fine... They had such contempt for us, and they thought we didn’t see it. Just because we lived where we lived and were who we were.”

Rage at those in power, in Uzbekistan and in the US, who use torture, pain and humiliation to punish their enemies.

 

Rage at her recently deceased, violently abusive husband. Rage at all those who failed her: her parents, her priest, herself.

 

There is the possibility of hope, of support from her best friend and from men who are interested in her but she finds hope hard to trust, partly because she is not sure that she deserves it.

 

There is guilt and shame: her addiction to painkillers, her belief that everyone holds her accountable for her husband's death. There is responsibility for her sick grandmother. And there is, eventually, compassion, initially for The Stranger and finally for herself as she slowly and carefully considers what a person deserves.

 

The Stranger gives Kathleen another focus, someone as damaged and as vulnerable than she is. Someone quiet and indirect who may have done shameful things but who shows her only gentleness. Someone who makes her think about what living means. Through her contact with him, she starts to understand that by continuing to hide she is refusing to live. Staying where she is just a slower death, not survival.

 

The language is simple, beautiful and powerful. The pace is slow but in a way that builds tension, grabs attention and makes you focus on what's really happening. It demonstrates a nuanced understanding of abuse and powerlessness and their impact on identity and will.

 

The ending of the book doesn't offer any easy solutions. It seems to say that we all of us go through more than one winter. We move between light and dark. Perhaps being alive is about keeping moving. Perhaps compassion for others can help thaw our personal winters. Perhaps compassion just mitigates our guilt. Perhaps staying hidden is unsustainable because it is an extended act of abnegation.

 

"Ways To Hide in Winter" is Sarah St, Vincent's first novel. I'll definitely be reading her second.

 

I listened to the audiobook version which was performed brilliantly by Sarah Mollo-Christensen. To hear a sample of her performance, click on the SoundCloud link below.

https://soundcloud.com/audiolibrary-a/ways-to-hide-in-winter-by-sarah-st-vincent-audiobook-excerpt
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review 2018-12-14 11:35
International Day of Tolerance Book - "The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr" by Francis Maynard - highly recommended
The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr - Frances Maynard Maynard

"The Seven Imperfect Rules Of Elvira Carr" is one of the best books I've read this year and is the best book I've read about how neuroatypical people make a place for themselves in the world.

 

The main joy of this book is that Elvira Carr, Ellie to her friends, is a wonderful person. Not a saint. Not perfect. But someone who is fully engaged with her own life. She's curious, honest to a fault, wants to help others and is capable of great joy. I fell in love with her immediately.

 

Elvira knows she isn't the same as everyone else. Her mother has told her this time and time again as she grew up and there have been "incidents" that reinforce Elvira's mother's view that Elvera's "condition" means she's not equipped to deal with the world.

Only when her mother is hospitalised does Elvira discover, at the age of twenty-seven, that her "condition" has a name and that she is not alone.

 

Elvira is neuroatypical. This means she perceives and thinks about things differently than neurotypical people. As she uses the internet to connect to others like herself, Ellie comes to understand that her "condition" is not an illness. She's perfectly capable, not just of looking after herself but of contributing more widely to her community. She has a job at an animal sanctuary. She helps provide old people at the nursing home with contact with small animals who lift their spirits.  She looks after her neighbour's young granddaughter.

 

Ellie's problems are caused by the often incomprehensible and contradictory expectations and behaviour of neurotypicals, some of whom she believes have the power to "send her away".

 

To help navigate the strange ways of the neurotypicals and to prevent her freedom to live an independent life being taken away from her, Elvira with the help of her neighbour develops seven rules. She writes the rules on a spreadsheet and then tests them against her experience, ticking boxes when she uses them, adding examples, guidelines and acceptance criteria to make these imperfect rules work better.

 

By telling the story entirely from Elivira's point of view, the author has produced something that is neither a saccharine cliché nor a disturbing freakshow.   The thing is that Elvira is much nicer than most people you'll meet. She has no malice. She's always honest. She gets angry and afraid, especially when she makes mistakes and misreads the neurotypicals, with there attachment to figures of speech and their habit or saying one thing and meaning another. She's also capable of joy so overwhelming that, when she's alone and neurotypicals can't see and send her away,  she has to run around the room with her arms out to let it flow through her.

 

Ellie faces a series of challenges in the book: her mother's incapacity, a mystery around her dead father and his frequent trips to Japan, conflicts with members of her neighbour's family, predatory males and lots and lots of NEW things that create stress.

Ellie's struggles and her limitations are ones we can all empathise with and perhaps share to some degree which means that her triumphs make us happy.

 

I found myself wondering how neurotypical I was and whether there was really any such thing. Putting the labels aside, I found myself wishing that I could meet Elvira and hoping that I would overcome some of my neurotypical habits for long enough really to see her.

 

"The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr" is beautifully written and perfectly narrated. I strongly recommend listening to the audiobook version. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear Charlie Sanderson bring Elvira to life.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/361476302" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

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