Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Educated, Tara Westover

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Westover was brought up in a Mormon family on a farm in rural Idaho, sitting in the shadow of Buck’s Peak. Her father’s beliefs are extreme – he prepares for the end of the world and goes through a crisis when the clocks tick over into 2000 and nothing happens, he’s so paranoid that the government is trying to infiltrate their lives that Tara didn’t even have a birth certificate, no schooling, and no professional medical attention, no matter how seriously injured. There’s a strong belief that women should be subservient to men, and her mother bowed under the pressure to conform. When her older brother Shawn becomes increasingly violent and jealous, not just with his girlfriend but also his sisters, their parents turn a blind eye, refusing to admit the truth. They prefer disowning their daughter to confronting him and protecting those around him.

She realises that her only way out is through education and despite having never been to school manages to gain a place in college. This proves to be a huge shock – her classmate’s behaviour is as outrageous to her as hers is to them – she doesn’t wash her hands after using the bathroom and leaves food to rot in the fridge. Her studies reveal parts of human history that she has previously been entirely ignorant of – in one class she asks what the word Holocaust means, much to the horror of her fellow students who think she is making light of it. The more she learns the less compatible she becomes with the rest of her family, although she continues to go back and hopes for reconciliation.

This is a remarkable story of academic success against the odds but it is also an honest account of a life punctuated with abuse and the struggles of trying to form a sense of self when your own family tries to stifle your potential and deny your memories. She is completely open about the fallibility of her own recollections, detailing how she pieced together some scenes from the memories of others who were also there, often with conflicting tales.

The scenes of abuse are hard to read but the casual attitude to daily mistreatment depicted is harder to swallow. She lays bare the damage her family life has done to her, making it almost impossible to hold down a relationship and causing numerous mental breakdowns. She also explains the way she can see attempts at rewriting her own story over the years, seeing the way she reimagines events in her journal, denying the true horrors.

The amount of serious physical injuries they all incur is astonishing, although not surprising considering their work practices, but they survive beyond the odds with the application of home remedies. This only goes to further boost her parents’ reliance and belief in their abilities and God’s favour. It can be infuriated reading of the negligent behaviour of her parents, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like living in such a family, even though she does an excellent job at conveying her own experiences.

This is a brilliant, emotional read that doesn’t have a neat happy ending. She is still living with the fallout from her choice to get an education and tell the truth. It is heartening however that she does have moments where she is able to feel free, to be honest about her upbringing with her friends and colleagues. Her tale is a remarkable one of self-preservation and success without ever sugar-coating the reality of what she experienced as a child and continues to have to cope with. At times difficult and infuriating, it is eye-opening and absolutely worth a read.

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Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Tales of Angria, Charlotte Brontë

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It is well known that the Brontë siblings wrote stories in imagined worlds in their youth. The world of Gondal, Emily and Anne’s creation, is sadly largely lost to time, but more of Branwell and Charlotte’s writings on Angria have survived. In this book, Heather Glen brings together the last five of Charlotte’s Angrian tales, written in her early twenties. They were written with an intended audience of her siblings, the knowledge of the history of the characters assumed. Glen helps to bridge the gap with concise introductions to each piece, allowing the reader to jump right in and enjoy the early works of such a well-loved writer.

The tales are mostly narrated by Charles Townshend, a gossipy commentator on the aristocratic lives within. He plays roles of varying importance in the stories and speaks directly to the reader at times. The main male protagonists are ageing former heroes - the Duke of Zamorna, whose many infidelities feature, and the Earl of Northangerland, whose daughter falls under the spell of Zamorna in the final tale. These fading heroes were inspired by Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, the heroics of which were fading into distant memory by the time Charlotte was penning these last Angrian tales.

The female characters at first seem alarmingly subservient – Mina Laury declares herself hopelessly devoted to Zamorna, whose inattention does not weaken her affection. She is, however, also intelligent and able to hold her own. ‘Strong-minded beyond her sex, active, energetic and accomplished in all other points of view, here she was as weak as a child. She lost her identity. Her very life was swallowed up in that of another.’ Zamorna has long lost interest in her but refuses to give her up, leading to a duel with Hartford who has fallen for her.

In the final piece, Caroline Vernon, we see again Zamorna’s lack of morals, leading to a desperate dispute between him and Northangerland in which we see a very different side to the latter. Glen in her introduction highlights the Byronic characteristics of both the men and women as well as Brontë’s tongue in cheek response to Gothic traditions.

A recurring theme is also that of colonisation. Most of the characters are not Angrian natives but have taken control of the land. There are many mentions throughout of discord between the different regions of Angria and the temperaments of the natives. On the surface these may seem like frivolous tales of the upper classes but there’s a lot more bubbling just beneath the surface.

Brontë was not writing mere childish scribbles but informed, intelligent responses to the political and literary world that she inhabited. From the first her character sketches are witty and cutting, concisely setting up characters in their first introduction. She alludes to contemporary trends and issues that her readers would have picked up on but also those closer to home – in Henry Hastings we see a sister’s response to a brother’s disgrace.

The Roe Head Journal fragments are the least easy to read because of the lack of narrative cohesion (that was never intended) but it’s fascinating to see her continual pre-occupation with Angria, the frustration of not having the time to write, and what it was like to have Branwell decide the fate of characters she had created.

A lot of reviews suggest these tales are difficult to get into and are only of interest to scholars. I found quite the opposite to be true. Of course you have to approach them as short stories or vignettes rather than a novel, but they are genuinely absorbing. The characters are not all likeable but they are not designed to be. Their misdemeanours are central to the plot and Brontë’s characteristically rich, clever prose is apparent in these early works. A thoroughly enjoyable, enlightening read.

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Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

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Atwood’s much anticipated sequel to the increasingly popular The Handmaid’s Tale opens up the view of Gilead with three perspectives – Aunt Lydia, Daisy, who has grown up in Canada, and Agnes, a girl who has lived her whole life in Gilead, and although devout does struggle with the restrictions imposed on her. Set roughly fifteen years after the previous book, we are given a glimpse into the fall of the regime, as well as further insight into the early days and the hardships the founder Aunts had to suffer. Aunt Lydia, in her former life, had been a judge and worked with women’s charities, a far cry from the horrors she inflicts in her new role. At her own admittance she chose her own safety over that of others. Her account is written with a future reader in mind that she believes will judge her for the decisions she’s made. She points out though, that they will never know what they would have done in her place. Atwood giving her the compassionate background that she does really hits home that anybody can do terrible things, she wasn’t inherently evil, and any one of us put in that situation may well have chosen the same path.
Lydia shows herself to be cunning and tactical from the moment of her acceptance into Gilead as a founder Aunt, being careful not to give away too much of herself but carefully storing potentially useful facts about the others. This calculated behaviour has made her almost untouchable, the Commanders fear the secrets she knows. With time she seems to have become less willing to dole out unnecessary physical punishments where others still delight in it, she sees herself as quietly looking out for the handmaids. It’s also commented that the new waves of aunts lack the hardness of the founders – they haven’t had lives before Gilead, did not experience the brutal initiation suffered by them, and know of the outside world only in theory.
It is interesting to hear the perspective of a Gilead daughter. Their view highlights how much has been denied them in not teaching them to read. They are taught subservience through ignorance, reinforcing the repeated theme of ‘knowledge is power’. Even in their innocence they know enough to be afraid, are taught to consider the handmaids as sluts, a painful label for women who are repeatedly abused. There is shame of having been born of a handmaid. The girls are taught to fear men and not to provoke them into lust, and they internalise this, becoming overrun with anxiety when marriage is arranged for them, many choosing suicide over life as a wife. It seems nobody is truly happy in Gilead. Men dispose of wives leisurely but even the most powerful Commander lives in fear, constantly on guard. Nowhere is completely private, and nobody is safe.
For Daisy growing up in Canada, Gilead is taught in school but can never be fully understood from the outside. She is shocked that her parents are civil to the Pearl Girls who pass by, sent from Gilead to bring back converts. It seems bizarre that the government allows such migration, but it is made clear that war with Gilead has not gone well for other countries. Self-preservation again plays a role.
A sequel that feels less subtle than The Handmaid’s Tale. The twists are not hard to see coming and everything is laid out in plain sight. The final sections are fast paced but the culmination of the story is over quickly. Everything’s a little too neat and predictable and at times it feels as though Atwood is playing to fans of the TV show. I would have preferred more separation. Not a bad read but not as original or revolutionary as some of her other books. 

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Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime, Claire Harman

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On 6th May 1840, Lord William Russell is found dead in his bed in a quiet Mayfair street, his throat cut so deeply it is almost severed. The house is in disarray, the result of a seeming faked burglary designed to throw the police off the scent. It soon becomes apparent that it was an inside job and all the in-house staff fall under intense investigation.

The culprit is discovered about half way through the book, but their arrest is far from the end of the story as they release multiple, contradictory confessions, in one blaming William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard, in which the notorious criminal is the hero, for giving them the idea. This leads to a discussion of the popularity of ‘Newgate novels’ and the impact they had on criminal behaviour. Books were becoming increasingly affordable and, at a time before intellectual property law, cheap knock-offs and plays proliferated, making these gruesome tales accessible to most members of society. A number of criminals were said to have been influenced by these novels, and division in the literary world emerged.

Dickens’ Oliver Twist could easily have been classified as a Newgate novel, something he was keen to avoid. Ainsworth on the other hand embraced the trend, and although initially it brought him fame and fortune, the specific mention of his novel by the condemned caused an abrupt change in its popularity. He continued writing throughout his life but never regained the status he’d originally garnered from Jack Sheppard.

A book examining the link between fiction and true crime is an interesting concept, but the connection is not as important in this particular tale as perhaps the blurb suggests. It is however, an interesting book that places Lord Russell’s murder in the wider social context of the time. An era where criminal celebrities were emerging and public executions were still a public spectacle that attracted tens of thousands, yet on the cusp of moving toward less barbaric, more private, punishments.

A slightly slow start is worth persevering with as you’re led into the dark underworld of Victorian respectability. Harman closes with comments on some of the unresolved mysteries of the case, suggesting possible answers, but ultimately leaving you wondering what really happened that fateful night.

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Wednesday, 22 January 2020

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose

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In 2010 the performance artist Marina Abramović held a retrospective at MoMA, also staging a new work, The Artist is Present in which members of the public were invited to sit opposite  her while she sat silently staring into their eyes. People really connected with the performance and by the final day they queued overnight for their chance to sit with her. Rose sets her novel around this extraordinary event, creating characters that are all drawn to the exhibition during times of personal difficulty. The two that receive the most attention are Levin, a composer whose wife is seriously ill but has put in place precautions to keep him away from her care home, and Jane, a recently widowed teacher who is travelling alone on a journey she’d hoped to make with her husband. They are both grieving, Levin at times thinking it would be easier if his wife had died - the feelings would be more straightforward, he’d be subjected to less judgment from their friends and family, and he’d know where he stood. Instead he finds himself living in a home that was meant to be theirs but in which Lydia has never lived, not sure that he quite recognises himself without her. Jane is still in the early stages of grief, setting a place for her husband at the table and being unable to concentrate as she’s always listening for him. They find something compelling in the gallery and go to visit every day. They do encounter each other, and the host of characters all have some connection to the art and a sense of loss, but their meeting is fleeting and they ultimately remain on their own separate journey. Rose skillfully weaves the threads of many lives so that they fit together neatly without ever feeling contrived.

Alongside the fictional characters, we also learn about Abramović's strange yet compelling artworks. Her relationship with her mother Danica is difficult, controlling. We see a glimmer of reflection in the relationship between Levin and his daughter Alice, yet the roles are somewhat different. Alice has always longed for more attention and approval from her father, and for him to do better for her mother. Both Marina and Danica, and Levin and Alice, are faced with impossible situations, mistakes are made, but they are doing their best, trying to protect their loved ones.

A thoughtful, beautifully written novel that seamlessly weaves fact with fiction. The characters, even if they appear only briefly, are interesting and complex. A brilliant, absorbing read that will make you think about your own relationships. Through the eyes of the characters we are given a part of the healing and fascination they experience at The Artist is Present.

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Wednesday, 15 January 2020

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

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The Mortmain family live in Godsend castle, crumbling and increasingly sparsely furnished as Cassandra’s father continues in a writer’s block that has impoverished his family. When the Cottons, a wealthy American family who have just inherited nearby Scoatney Hall, arrive they see an opportunity to marry Rose off and provide them all with some much needed financial stability.

Cassandra, our narrator, is seventeen and hoping to follow in her father’s footsteps and become an author, believing that writing a journal will help train her in telling stories. The narrative style creates a real closeness with the characters. It is realistically written, her filling us in when she hasn’t had time to write for a couple of days. Both her and Rose seem younger than they are with an innocence and naivety that has presumably sprung from their secluded home. Cassandra is an honest narrator, explaining and questioning her own motives even when they don’t paint her in the best light. She is sweet and willing to do all she can to help Rose succeed in wooing Simon Cotton, even braving a freezing nighttime swim with his brother Neil to give them more time alone.

There are many glimpses of normalcy that feel entirely natural throughout, the awkwardness of the Cottons enquiring whether or not her father will be releasing a sequel to his popular first novel Jacob Wrestling is painfully familiar to all who have ever been subject to questioning on a sensitive topic at a family gathering. The scene also gives extra context to his struggles. His novel was experimental and well received but others have built on and surpassed his work in the interim. He seems paralysed by the pressure and instead of writing spends his days reading detective novels and doing crosswords while his family makes do with what they have.

Stephen, who carries out errands for the family and is utterly devoted to Cassandra, contributes any income he can to make life more comfortable for them, although as Cassandra says, she never feels hard done by in their situation. She is also largely oblivious to Stephen’s affections but tries to rebuff him gently when encouraged to do so by her step-mother Topaz. Former model and a big believer in communing with nature, she completes the bohemian lifestyle and brings some light dramatics. Cassandra’s brother Thomas is largely absent throughout but does play an important role in an unexpected to plot to encourage their father to start writing again.

This is a book I’ve always heard good things about but thought perhaps I’d missed the boat with. I was wrong. This is an enchanting, delightful read at whatever age you come to it. Cassandra’s voice is distinctive and honest, creating such vivid descriptions of their home and lives that you feel you could easily step through into her world. An absolute treat of a book.

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Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano

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Saviano’s bestselling exposé of the Camorra, the mafia that dominates Naples and the surrounding regions, is full of unimaginable violence, ordinary people struggling to make a life for themselves, and teenagers being dragged into this dark underworld that will likely see them dead before they reach forty. He shows how the Camorra hold the lives of Neapolitans in the palm of their hands. Many work in unauthorized factories that legally don’t exist, meaning that they are entirely reliant on them for mortgages and leases. We learn also of the escalating mortality rate from cancer due to the dumping of illegal toxic waste and that they test new guns by shooting at shopfronts. For those living under the Camorra there are reminders of their position at every turn.

It is the individual stories that really hit home. Many knock-off brand clothing is produced in Southern Italy, of high quality but selling at a fraction of the price. The workers are highly skilled yet are paid a pittance. For one, who creates a beautiful suit for Angelina Jolie, the recipient unknown when he made it, is a source of both great pride and sorrow when he sees her wearing it on the red carpet on TV. A couple of months later he is assigned as a truck driver, ruining his circulation and therefore his ability to make fine clothes. Another particularly harrowing scene is that of the guinea pig drug addicts used to test drugs are safe before being put on the market. Abuse of the addicts’ desperation means they know there’ll always be someone willing even though they know there’s a high risk of death.

The book is full of detail and names who appear only briefly before being killed or sent to prison. There is never a shortage of members waiting to become a boss, and violent power struggles are a part of daily life. With so many vivid descriptions of cruel killings and torture it is a stark reminder that even in such acceptance of the dangerous lives they lead there are still some deaths, some brutality, that breaks through and shocks.

An interesting, at time gruesome read that can feel a bit of a slog. A detailed account of the brutality of life in the System by one who places himself at crime scenes and in warehouses to give a first hand account of the Camorra.

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