Queen Victoria: A Life – Giles Lytton Strachey (1921)

“Her attitude towards herself was simply regal…”

Seeing as it’s been a while since I’ve indulged my inner Queen Victoria fangirl, I thought I’d dig up a copy of this 1921 biography of Queen Victoria, except this one is a little less reverent than other ones. This one was rather chatty, a bit sycophantic in places, but also had some snark in it every now and then, and even though it didn’t follow more typically “serious” biography format, it was still awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. And it’s a good read.

Who was Strachey? Giles Lytton Strachey was born into a fairly wealthy family, and although college-educated at Cambridge, didn’t quite make it into academia, instead leading a writer’s life (mixed with other dilettante activities) and became part of the Bloomsbury Set. He had lovers of both sexes (scandalous at the time), and seems to have led a pretty quiet life overall.

Strachey had been interested in skewering some of the Old Guard of Victorian times, a period that was not all that far away from when he was writing. And this was the first of quite a few skewerings of Victorian leaders…

To the facts:

Victoria had only died at the turn of the century, and was followed by World War I, a war which rather turned the world on its head in many ways. England was no longer the Imperial Mistress of the world, the Industrial Revolution was turning centuries-old social class structure on its head, and by the 1920s, the Old War was far enough way where it was ok to have a more light-hearted view of things, whereas the Second World War was seen in few people’s headlights at the time. Thus, this biography was published and is said to have changed the world of biographies from then on. (No longer so serious…)

Since the biography was packed with interesting tidbits (esp. if you’re a Victoria nerd), here are some of the more intriguing details, bullet-style. (If you’re not a Victoria fan, you might want to avert your eyes.) 🙂 :

  • Not a big fan of women’s suffrage: “The Queen is most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Women’s Rights,” with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is best, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety…. Lady so-and-so ought to get a GOOD WHIPPING. It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself…
  • Victoria was rather difficult and stubborn throughout her life, but no one was brave enough to say this to her face.  In fact, when Disraeli was prime minister, at one point she was trying to persuade her government (and everything was “hers”) about a foreign diplomatic situation, and when it wasn’t going the way she wanted, she threatened to abdicate the throne …

Her life was pretty typical for a queen once she grew up and married her first cousin, Albert, but when he died, things went a scotch awry.

  • After Albert died, every single bed that Victoria slept in had a photo of Albert in his death-ness taped to the back of the headboard just above the pillow on the right-hand side. (Those Victorians loved a good death…)
  • Victoria believed that all her subjects were naturally as bereft as she was with the death of her True Love….

“The Queen desired that wherever her subjects might be gathered together they should be reminded of the prince. Her desire was gratified; all over the country – at Aberdeen, at Perth, and at Wolverhampton…”

  • Apparently, the Queen was quite a packrat in some ways: she never threw any tangible thing away, but had them scattered throughout her palaces. Almost every surface was covered in objects d’art and photographs, portraits and marble or gold busts of people in her life (or her pets).
  • After Albert died, these things could also never be moved (since she thought Albert had decided many of their locations and thus they were sacred). In fact, she had so many that eventually, her staff took photographs of the things (from several angles) and measured exactly where they were located in each room, so if, by some chance, something got moved, it could be put back into EXACTLY the same place as it was before “darling Albert” died. According to Strachey, she loved looking through the multiple volumes categorizing her things, and would also have an album or two close to hand for when she would have a spare minute.
  • When Albert died, the set of his rooms at Windsor was kept shut away for only a few privileged eyes, but she commanded that her husband’s clothes be set out afresh each evening upon the bed, and water set by the basin as though he was still alive. Kept this up for 40 years.
  • Post-Albert, she was very overwhelmed by official duties, and complained of it frequently in letters. Albert had been a big help to her, getting up early and writing precis of all the complicated correspondence and then putting it in a neat pile in her red boxes for when she got up. In fact, she over-relied on him (and he enabled this) to the point that foreign diplomats and politicians worldwide knew that the only way to get on Victoria’s good side was to overly-compliment Albert and to match their words with her feelings towards him.
  • Despite the age of Victoria being an age of discovery and the Industrial Revolution, Victoria pretty much ignored most of that. (They were really Albert’s interests, and although she was interested when he was there, once gone, no more.)
  • Public view of Victoria vacillated from time to time over the years: she wasn’t very popular when she withdrew from the public eye, but when she gradually came out of mourning (decades later), her public image improved. She fought vociferously with the various prime ministers – about world affairs (esp. going to war with Prussia and/or Russia) but also the smaller things. For example, she recused herself legally from signing new commissions in the army (up until then, new officers had always been approved by the Queen/King), and changed the law for would-be assassins (of which there were more than a handful) so that they would face the death penalty instead of automatically being charged of being insane. (And – get this: lashings would still take place – up to 40 lashes from a birch branch for some unlucky people.)
  •  “From 1840-1861, the power of the Crown steadily increased in England [due to influence from Prince Consort]; from 1861-1901 it steadily declined [due to influence of her Ministers].”

(Strachey writes that in the first years, she was a “mere accessory”; in the second, since there was no Albert, her Ministers rather took over a bit more when she checked out for her decades of mourning.)

  • She never allowed any divorced lady to come into her courts. (Not sure about divorced men, but that was probably ok.)  She frowned upon any widow who married again (see Victoria’s own life) – even though she was the daughter of a widowed mother who had married again. Hmm.

Victoria died on January 22, 1901. For many of her subjects, they had never known any other queen, and this death, although not a huge surprise, did rock the world in a number of ways. 

So, this was a rather fascinating read for me, seeing as it was the first royal biography that was a bit more gossipy (and even sarcastic) in places. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

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The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London – Christopher Skaife (2018)

Having heard a mention of this book on NPR, I happened to come across it in the New Books section at the library, and immediately picked it up to check out and read. It was close to perfect for me and reminded me of just sitting down to a cup of tea with this charming author.

Being a ravenmaster (or person in charge of the ravens at the Tower) is quite a new job title, despite the long history of the location. People have only been given the title since the late 1960’s – before that, staff (i.e. the Beefeaters*) would look after the ravens, but it was put under the responsibilities of the quartermaster (or similar).

And it’s the little (and surprising) tidbits that really drew me into this read. Skaife is the perfect guide to this small but prestigious world of people who live within the grounds of the Tower of London. (And the Beefeaters and their families really do live inside the castle. The drawbridge is pulled up every evening around 11 or so, and then the inhabitants are cut off from the rest of central London for the night.) The Tower is still an official royal palace and yet, despite having lived inside its confines for more than a decade, Skaife still retains his wonder and curiosity which is communicated to the reader throughout the pages.

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Despite the cachet of being a Beefeater (also called the Yeoman Warder), each person who holds this position has at least 24 years of unblemished service with the British military, and then once in this position, warders usually stay there for the rest of their lives until they retire.

Skaife has been doing the Beefeater-ing for the past 15 years or so, and the Ravenmaster-ing for the past eight (or more?) years after completing 24 years as an infantryman (and drum major) in the British Army. He knows his stuff and reports that most of his deployment time as an active soldier was in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles (1970s/1980s), which means that he was frequently at risk from the IRA.

So Skaife came to this position legitimately and having paid his dues. Despite being an infantryman and despite having a patchy formalized education, he succeeded when he joined the army at the (young!) age of 16 and a half. (Good for him, I say.) He’d been veering down the path of trouble in his early years, and his parents were happy to see Skaife doing some honest labor under army discipline.

His time as a full-time professional soldier was spent immersed in military life, but he’d maintained a lifelong interest in history despite his early attitude to formal education. When coming to the end of his army career, there was an opening to be a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and he applied and was selected.

His job as the ravenmaster (its real job title!) came after years on the job as a Beefeater, and his main job duty now is to look after the seven HUGE ravens who inhabit the castle. Tradition holds that should the ravens ever leave the castle, it will lead to the destruction of the Tower and great harm will come to England, and Skaife’s recollections of how he looks after these birds (and how they look after him) is incredibly interesting. (Luckily, the ravens are happy with the food and the set-up that they have at the Tower, although every now and then, one of the birds tries to make a break for it.)

The day-to-day routine provides a general structure for the narrative, but interspersed is related information to do with the history of the Tower, its ravens and his own life. It’s a fascinating mix, mainly because Skaife seems to be one of the most charming raconteurs in addition to being a self-taught raven expert. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and modest, all of which combine to make the book read experience come across as though you’re having a cuppa tea with one of your friends.

Skaife pulls together mythology and facts about the Tower and about the corvids (name for ravens), and as he recounts his life with the birds, you can’t help but join in with his enthusiasm for his life. (As it turns out, Skaife learns during his research on the job that the ravens haven’t actually been at the Tower for centuries (despite the legend). He thinks that the ravens arrived around the 1880s, and have just stuck around since then. They have a safe living situation for the most part, a steady supply of food and water, and Skaife works to keep the flock as wild as they need to be whilst they’re there at the Tower. He doesn’t clip their wings to force them to stay there (although he does trim their feathers every now and then)…

Skaife honestly seems to be one of the most genial people that I’ve ever read – he’s both convivial and authentic, and so both the reader and the ravens are in good hands with him. Plus – he has an Instagram account as well (ravenmaster1) if you’re interested.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.

In Search of England – H.V. Morton (1936)

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In a conversation with my lovely mum the other month, we were talking about books (I know – shocker!), and she happened to mention that one of her favorite travel books when she was growing up was “In Search of England” by H.V. Morton.

So – with my mum coming out to the U.S. for a visit in a couple of weeks and with the intention of passing this edition on to her, I pulled this title off the shelf to have a look at. (As an aside, this particular book was also published in the year that my mum was born, which is a nice overlap, I think.) Anyway, I’m always up for some armchair traveling…

This volume is one of several in Morton’s sweetly old-fashioned “In Search…” series, and it’s a narrative that was written as Morton takes a leisurely drive around England in the 1930s.

Published in 1936, it’s been twenty years since the scars of the Great War were cut, and England has mostly recovered from the trauma that the war engraved on the national psyche. Another war seems to be out of sight, and it’s really a much more innocent England than it is now. Few realize that World War II is really just around the corner, and so life seems to be pretty cheery for the most part. (It’s only in looking back that you realize that the spectre of the second war was on the horizon…)

Morton takes a circuitous driving route starting out from just below Scotland, going south down the left-hand side (touching Wales and the West Country), swings across the bottom, and then loops up on the right-hand side of the country to return almost to where he started from.

It’s a gentle journey, and as Morton travels, the reader gets to meet some of the people and some of the places that he stops at. It’s a very charming book, and was a perfect read for me after the latest frazzling national news. It definitely calmed the nerves.

If you’d like a really lovely read of an England in the 1930’s, then I think that you would not go wrong with this enjoyable journey with Morton. It’s a product of its time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I bet you will too.

 

Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess – Sally Bedell Smith (1999)

diana.jpgSince there was a rather large English wedding that occurred the other day, my curiosity was triggered to learn more about one perspective of another former royal: Princess Diana.

(Especially after reading two of Bedell Smith’s other books: Prince Charles (good but no blog post for this one) and The Queen.)

(I know, I know… I’m English and typically we tend to rather roll our eyes with respect to the monarchy and the American obsession with them, but it was still an interesting read. Besides, loads of Americans frequently ask me (as the only English person they may know) to explain some of the finer points of this, so I was also just curious. I’m doing it for the people, man. 🙂 )

Bedell Smith is an American writer who is good at her craft and seems to approach her subjects with a pretty well researched and balanced perspective. They’re not academic tomes, to be sure, but they are readable and seem balanced for the most part. Sort of like an in-depth People magazine article of a kind.

So, this title was about the life and death of Princess Diana in respect of how she ended up marrying Charles and then all the drama that came with that. (And there was a LOT of drama.)

After reading this book, the feeling that I end up with is one of pity for everyone involved, really. (Keep in mind that I didn’t know any of the parties though… 🙂 )

And so it seems that most of the drama was actually created by Diana herself most of the time (at least according to this author). Diana seems to be mentally fragile for the majority of this book. Barely educated (no thanks to her parents) and then probably mentally ill on top of that.

If this book is true (and I don’t know that it’s not true, TBH), then the match between Charles and Diana was a mess from the beginning and then stayed that way throughout their lives. I think that the initial impression that many Americans had of Diana immediately after she died was that she was a golden and angelic woman who was stuck with a boring old codger, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

(Whether she was mentally ill or not, she does come across in this read as a particularly high-maintenance personality in a very unhappy relationship that probably should have never happened.)

Bedell Smith uses source after source to show the reader that Charles as not, perhaps, the evil monster that he was portrayed as in the 1990’s, and the end result was that he was just doing his best with a slightly unbalanced wife who he shouldn’t really have married.

I’m not sure what to think really, and since I don’t know them in any way, there’re probably few out there who really do know the events. This was certainly one perspective that doesn’t apologize for either of them in the end.

By sticking to her journalistic sources, Bedell Smith seems to give a fairly balanced view of this messy marriage and I have enjoyed the read.

If you like a fairly chatty tone to your non-fiction, but one that’s also supported by annotated facts and a large bibliography, you might like this author. It’s certainly not rocket science, but it’s still a pretty good read for when it’s hot outside and you don’t want to think too much about anything in particular.

So, not a bad read. Not a great read. Just somewhere down the middle.

Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidante – Shrabani Basu (2010)

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I’d been wanting to jump back into some Victorian history lately, so dug out this book about the slightly strange friendship between Queen Victoria and a young Indian man who rose in the ranks to become one of the most powerful people at the end of the nineteenth century.

Called “Victoria and Abdul”, this is a solid non-fiction narrative that describes how a 24-year-old man from the Indian city of Agra ends up meeting and developing an almost inseparable friendship with Queen Victoria, the Empress of India.

Honestly, if you didn’t know this was fact, you’d wonder about the veracity of the story, but it’s a true one.

It’s also true that one can view the storyline through various perspectives, and I’m curious about how others have viewed this history, but for now, I am swayed that Basu, the book’s author, has done her homework and told a factual story.

If you’re not a fangirl or fanboy of Queen Victoria, there’ll be some gaps for you to fill in, but Basu does a good job of giving the reader the necessary background to comprehend what’s going on, and she writes in a straightforward manner which the reader will need as there is a huge cast of characters. Not a book to daydream through, but not difficult. (Plus there are lots of footnotes and citations to back all the information.)

(The only negative that I had for the actual writing was that it was a little simplistic in places, and Basu repeats some information several times (things an editor would have/should have caught, methinks.) But that’s really minor in the big scheme of things.)

Queen_Victoria_and_Abdul_Karim

This photo was seen as blasphemous since the Munshi is starting right into the camera lens instead of staring at the Queen….

So – to the story. Queen Victoria, now the Empress of India, was gearing up to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, and with her queendom spreading across the world, she wanted to include some of her far-distant subjects in the event.

Abdul Karim was a young medical assistant in Agra’s prison and living a non-eventful life when his name was given to the ruling British diplomats as a possibility for traveling to England for the year prior to the Jubilee celebrations.

Abdul was ecstatic (as one would be) and travelled to England to meet the Queen and to work in her household. After an initial misunderstanding about what the job would actually entail, Abdul ends up serving meals to the royal household.

As time goes on, Abdul impresses the Empress (sorry – couldn’t resist), and his duties start to evolve. Queen Victoria is older now, 50 years on the throne, and it was unlikely that she would travel to India to see her subjects there.

Instead, she bought a group of Indian subjects to England to learn about their country. Abdul starts to give Victoria one-on-one private lessons on the Urdu language, and through their developing friendship and amid much consternation from the Royal Household, Abdul becomes closer and closer to Her Majesty.

Victoria names Abdul the Munshi, which means “clerk” or “teacher”, and over the next fifteen years, the Queen develops a very close maternal relationship with the Munshi (Abdul). He starts to advise her over Indian affairs, over-riding the Queen’s other more seasoned advisors, and Victoria starts to rely on him more and more, over more than just the India question.

He, for his part, pulls strings with Her Majesty to help his family, including giving a healthy pension to his father, and for Victoria’s household staffers, the whole thing is rather alarming.

This relationship causes endless friction throughout the staff at the Royal Household, especially as the Queen hands more power to the Munshi. He travels everywhere with her and spends all day with Her Majesty. She adores him, and does not tolerate any ill will towards him, despite what her advisors tell him.

And so the book goes on: the Munshi ends up with more and more power; one of his friends is thought to be an agitator and staffers delve into his background on suspicion of that. They delve into the background of his father, they try to rein the Queen in, they join forces with other government representatives…

However, Victoria was stubbornly protective of him until she died, and so for fifteen years, the Munshi and his royal friend ruled the roost.

It’s a really interesting story that is hard to believe. However, when you look at Queen Victoria’s personal history, you can see a pattern of behavior. (See this interesting detail about Victoria’s other male friend, Mr. John Brown. Did they get married?!)

Albert died quite young and Queen Victoria never really got over his death, wearing black mourning clothing every day until she died.

So, Victoria was lonely and heart-broken. The stage was set for someone to step up to the plate to fill that hole that Albert had left behind.

If you think about it, Victoria really seemed to need someone close to her for most of her life. For example, once her children had left the palace for their own lives, she partially adopted an African princess, she had a close friendship with another man from India, she had a close friendship (?) with John Brown, and when he died, there was the space for her to make a close friendship with the Munshi.

So it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that she would be open to having another friend, unsuitable though the Royal Household may have thought.

In the end, when Victoria dies in January 1901, the Munshi’s life comes to a stop with regard to royalty. King Edward VIII is swift to send the Munshi back to India to live on his land that Victoria had given to him. Edward, not a fan on the Munshi, tracks down and then destroys most of the correspondence between Abdul and the Queen (even sending staffers to the Munshi’s house in India to knock on the door of his family home to see if they had any more letters that had been missed before). No one in the Royal Household wanted the Munshi to use that personal correspondence for money…

It’s all rather sad really. Despite the official background checks, Abdul didn’t have any nefarious goals (apart from some self-serving ones), and so when I turned that last page, I was left wondering what to think about all this.

Were the Royal Household unpleasant (and bullying) to the Munshi out of spite and jealousy? Why did Victoria dig her heels in to protect Abdul so much? As the years have passed, the general consensus seems to be that the Munshi was harmless and a good friend to the lonely Queen.

Being an Indian, he must have stood out in the royal residences, and surrounded by the Queen’s personal and long-employed staffers, it must have been lonely for him at times as well. He knew that he was not well liked.

The staffers’ long campaign to get rid of him failed, perhaps through a combination of racial prejudice and snobbery, and Victoria stuck to her guns for the last fifteen years of her life. The Munshi was actually, through design or otherwise, the last person to see Victoria before the lid of her coffin was put on…

Anyway, it’s an amazing story and I highly recommend this read.  Incidentally, there is also a movie of this book with Dame Judi Dench, which I am interested in tracking down sometime. I read that it takes some fictional liberties though…

I’ll have to see.

By the way, the Smithsonian magazine has a good article on this topic.

And here’s a link from the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, about a new view of the Munshi and Victoria (from the Munshi’s diaries).

Celia’s House – D. E. Stevenson (1943)

miCGYCEhFXfj911XXhSZ29gIn the library the other day, I found myself in the “S” section and cruising around, happened upon a D. E. Stevenson title, Celia’s House (1943). I’d been hoping for a Miss Buncle title or perhaps a Mrs. Tim Christie, but no dice on those. Instead, they did have this one and after having heard so many good things about Stevenson as an author, I took it home with me. Even more impressive: I picked it up the next day and then read it!

(You know how sometimes library books get shuttled home and then sit on a shelf for weeks unread until they need to go back, primarily because there’s little accountability for the books? No? Might just be me…!)

This title, Celia’s House, traces the history of a Scottish mansion through its owners via inheritance, and so the start of the novel introduces us to Celia, who’s actually an old lady by now. Celia is planning her will and decides that instead of the eldest son of her son inheriting the house (as would be more traditional in them days), she wants a not-yet born daughter called Celia to inherit the land.

This puts rather an onus onto the immediate family to actually go ahead and then produce this daughter, name her “Celia” (as the grandma expected), and then for this young Celia to grow up and get old enough to inherit. In the meantime, the old Celia dies,  and few others are told about the arrangement – neither the young Celia nor her elder brother (who would be the one more typically to inherit). And so, it’s a complete surprise to young Celia when she’s told at the end that she will inherit the mansion.

So, pretty basic story, pretty basic read, but saying that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. I did, for the most part. It’s a quiet domestic mid-century-ish novel that was pretty fun and fast to read. The only parts where I had trouble (in terms of not rolling my eyes) was in the early part of the novel where Stevenson matches her narrative style with the talking style of an 11-year-old boy. (That was a bit painful, but it stopped after a while.)

So, pretty straightforward read and would be up your alley if you’re searching for a domestic not-very-demanding novel about a fairly upper class family and their manor house. Lovely descriptions of the Scottish scenery and an overall pleasant way to spend a summer’s afternoon and evening.

Sometimes fluff is enough! 🙂

 

 

Whotcha reading?

61NR514KCRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_So, although there is some significant messing around in my schedule right now, I’m also doing plenty of reading (naturally), and when I don’t have my nose working through the reading-through-the-whole-AP-style-book project, I’ve also been reading some fun stuff as well.

I tackled Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience (Chandra Prasad, ed.) another collection of short stories, this time from the perspective of living a multiracial experience, and this was pretty good. It seemed a stronger collection than my earlier short story experience, and it was so interesting (to me) that the one common concern for the authors in this collection was the life-long question of identity. If one is of a multiracial family, where does one really belong? It seems to be a very frequent and real challenge for people who have different parents from different ethnicity groups, primarily because (I think) people feel like they have to pick “sides” in terms of a racial identity.

So, some great stories in this collection from writers with all kinds of backgrounds, POC and otherwise. I enjoyed this read.

51RcFw8xmTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I did a fast (and very funny) read of Nina Stibbe’s novel, A Man at the Helm (2014). Such a hilarious book, primarily because the author seems to have lived a lot of the same experiences as I had as a child, and so she cracks me up. I’ve enjoyed her other book, Love Nina (2013), a fiction (?) collection of letters that she sent to her parents when she was doing her first nanny job, and there’s one more fiction title out there somewhere that I’m going to track down. I just love Stibbe’s writing. (Ooh. Just found another  title (An Almost Perfect Christmas (2017)…) I’ll add it to the list…)

I tried to read Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise but wow. It was so confusing, and even though I got about halfway through the book, I still hadn’t the foggiest idea who some of the characters were, so I admitted defeat. Strange as I’ve loved Morrison’s other work: Sula (1973), Beloved (1987), and Jazz (1992), but there you go. Can’t have a home run every time.  (Actually, this title (Paradise) was the last title in the Beloved trilogy (consisting of Beloved, Jazz and Paradise), so I’m not quite sure why I found it to be so confusing… It might have been my Monkey Mind to blame.  🙂 )

And then, non-fiction-wise, I’m close to finishing By the Lake of Sleeping Children, a non-fiction read of work by Luis Alberto Urrea (whose work I tend to adore as can be seen here (review of The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004], here (review of Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexico Border) [NF 1993} and here (review of novel Into the Beautiful North [F 2009]). This particular title is about the time Urrea spent getting to know the people (and the society) who end up living in this huge rubbish dump on the border of Mexico and the U.S. near San Diego.

Stuck between two different countries and with no way out, Urrea shows how hard their lives can be, as well as how they can find some small joy throughout their time. It’s an astonishing read as you know these folks have the same goals of life as anyone else: good health, worthy employment, happy relationships but how to achieve those goals when you are the poorest of the poor? What would be your escape?

The good thing about Urrea’s writing is that he doesn’t write down about these families, and he doesn’t pity them. He treats everyone with equal respect and although their lives may be very very hard, there is no sentimental approach to his descriptions of their day-to-day activities. It’s very neutral and balanced, and I really appreciated that.

So that’s the summer so far… I hope you’re having an awesome summer as well. 🙂

Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s been a while since I’ve had the need to do a “swabbing the decks” kind of post, but it’s come around again. This type of post is just for me to catch up with some of the titles that I’ve been, the titles that perhaps don’t really warrant an individual post of their own. It doesn’t mean that these particular titles are not good. Au contraire. Most of the time, it’s because the books haven’t triggered any great thoughts or debate for me, but they are still good all the same.

I’ve just finished two quick but enjoyable reads of a couple of the Miss Read books, Friends of Thrush Green (1987) and The School at Thrush Green (1991). I do enjoy these rather mellow narratives where the most vexing thing is usually that the tea was luke-warm and perhaps a newcomer arrives in the village.

They’re just enjoyable chillaxing kinda books and ideal for very hot days (as we have been having) where you’re taken over by lassitude and end-of-the-semester fatigue and don’t really want to think that hard. I don’t know if I could plough through all the Miss Read novels one after the other, but as a refresher between books, they work a treat.

TV-wise, we’re finishing up the latest season of “Better Call Saul”, the spin-off of “Breaking Bad”, which we have loved. It’s probably going to lead to us re-watching the “Breaking Bad” series now that we have learned this prior (and parallel) storyline. So good…

The big thing is what to read next? The eternal question for any reader….

 

Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson (1972)

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(Apologize for the earlier distribution which had no text in the post. I’m not sure what happened, but trust me, it had the text when I pushed the publish button.)

Not having read that many Australian reads, I was mooching around for some Aussie titles the other day and came across a mention of Jessica Anderson’s novella “Tirra Lirra by the River” on Eva’s blog, A Striped Armchair (now not updated but still a fascinating source of info).

This title has been on several “Best Novels” lists from various sources and was awarded the Miles Franklin Award when it was published back in 1972. And, in fact, I think it’s quite commonly read by high schoolers for their English curricula. (Poor things. I wouldn’t consider teenagers to be the best target audience for this type of narrative.)

The protagonist is Nora Porteous who is, TBH, one of the more unlikeable characters that I’ve come across in quite some time. I was looking for a fairly optimistic domestic novel, but I wouldn’t call this one “cheerful”. It’s a domestic novel that focuses on one woman’s life, but cheerful it ain’t (cf: back to unlikeable character mention). 🙂

Nora has a rather stifling existence when she is a young married wife. Her husband is yucky, and she is not attracted to him at all which leads to sexual dysfunction which leads to more problems. Unable to sort them out, the unhappy couple divorce and Nora leaves Sydney bound for a new life in England by herself and on her own terms.

Now at seventy, Nora decides to leave England where she’s been living for thirty years or so, and returns to her hometown, gets pneumonia, and then is nursed back to health by some compassionate neighbors who remembered her from her early days in the ‘hood.

So, there’s not a ton of “action” in this novel, and some reviewers have said that “not much happens” which is spot-on if you’re looking at the external piece of this novel. But it’s very much an “interior” novel based on a character’s ideas, memories and perceptions more than the physical moving around. (Nora spends most of the second half of the book lying in bed sick… so not a lot of action on the outside.)

But you know. Nora is not easy to like. She’s rather a grumpy old sod, and she has come back with the idea that her childhood home will be an easy fit for her, despite her age. However, as with anything fraught with the dangers of memory and nostalgia, it’s a mixed bag for her. Things have changed, and yet they are still similar, but Nora is now a completely new person from just getting older and living in a different country.

She’s been fairly content in England, living with two friends and earning a living of a kind by being a seamstress. She’s no good at the cutting out” piece of sewing, where one cuts out the pattern with scissors and requires detail and accuracy. I’m trying to think of how this might be a mirror of something in her life: perhaps her ragged edges of the material reflect the uneven edges of her foggy memory? Not too sure though.

The whole of this novel is based around memory and how one can remember events in one’s life through different lenses that evolve over time. Maybe it’s linked with the metaphor of “stitching” the different memories together to create a new and different picture…?

Jessica_Anderson_(Australian_author)

Jessica Anderson, author.

What’s actually more interesting to me is the author Jessica Anderson. In 1972, when Anderson was awarded the Miles Franklin Award, most of the previous awardees — up until then — had been male authors. Australian fiction was rather dominated by males, and so in 1972, Helen Garner (Monkey Grip) was awarded the National Book Council Award and when Anderson received her recognition, it seemed to mark a turning point for the industry. (It was also slap-bang in the emergence/continuation of feminism as well for Commonwealth countries, and so the occasion seemed to mark the turning of the tide.)

In addition to both writers being Australian women, the protagonists in each book are also called Nora (what are the odds, right?), but as I haven’t read the Garner book, I’m wondering if her Nora also goes through the bloom of independence in the way that Anderson’s Nora does. (Anyone know?)

Anderson herself seems to have her life on her terms. Born in 1916 in rural Queensland, she seems to have chosen to live as she chose, and not necessarily as that of societal conventions and mores. Like Nora, she traveled to England at the start of her adult life, and lived with her partner, a man, without getting married. (Shock! Horror!)

She returned at the start of WWII to Australia and started writing “commercial” stories for magazines under an assumed name. (Wonder what “commercial” stories are/were?) She also separated from her partner, and only during her second marriage did she feel secure enough (artistically and financially speaking) to write in an “art for art’s sake” fashion (instead of what would sell). (Perhaps that is what is meant by “commercial stories” – stories that she wrote that sold which may not have really been what she wanted to write seriously?)

When I first starting writing this and after having finished the read, my overall opinion was that it wasn’t one of the best reads I’ve had this year. However, now that I’ve put some more thought into this, it’s certainly a novel that encourages you to delve into it deeper, and perhaps this is why so many Australian schools put it on the curriculum? It does seem to lend itself very well to further ideas once you’ve finished reading it. (At least for me.)

As a side note, the title is a line taken from the old poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shallot, but as I’m not that familiar with the poem, I can’t say whether I can see the link to the actual plot (apart from Nora’s frequent mentions of Camelot?)

Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers – Shyam Selvadurai (ed.) (2005)

book416After having fully immersed myself in authors and writing by African-American writers during February, I thought it would be fun to continue reading other POC authors and writings from around the world, so browsing through the TBR shelves (go me!), I came across this title and thought it would fit the bill perfectly.

I’m not sure where I ended up hearing about this title, but the stickers on the book lend credence to the fact that it’s probably used as a textbook in a world literature class somewhere or other, and regardless, this was great fun to read.

As the whole book title reads, Story-Wallah: A Celebration of South Asian Fiction, this was an anthology of writings and authors from Southern Asia and featured a wide range of writers from the well-known (such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith) to the slightly less well-known (at least to me). They were all originally written in English (I think) and all fiction, and the range of the short stories was quite astounding. I loved it. It was like eating candy in a pick-n-mix as you (I) never really knew what was coming once I’d finished a story. There wasn’t a bad one in the whole anthology, and I adored almost every page that I read.

As Shyam Selvadurai writes in his introduction, “The stories jostle up against each other . . . The effect is a marvelous cacophony that reminds me of . . . one of those South Asian bazaars, a bargaining, carnival-like milieu. The goods on sale in this instance being stories hawked by story-traders: story-wallahs.”

Edited by Selvadurai, it’s a perfect read for a monkey mind (comme moi right now), and I thoroughly enjoyed almost every story, even taking notes of a few favorite authors to dig into at a later date as their included short stories were so strong.

Authors ranged from locales across the Southern Asia diaspora, from Sri Lanka, India, Great Britain, USA, Trinidad, Fiji and others, and explored (as GoodReads says) universal themes of identify, culture and home. I fairly gobbled this read down, and am going to keep it on the shelves for another read at another time. Yes, it was that good.

Naturally, some authors were more favorite than others (as is typical in a wide-sweeping anthology), and I made notes to make sure that I track down more work by Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Farida Karodia, Hanif Kureishi, and Shani Mootoo, but there are loads more from which to choose.

It’s a big book (>400 pages), but it’s extremely readable and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Highly recommended in almost every metric. 🙂

southern-asia

(Above) – This is what is generally accepted as Southern Asia, but the book travels more widely than this…