The Limit – Ada Leverson (1911)

book393

Owing a review to the great Mike Walmer who had sent me a copy of Ada Leverson’s The Limit last weekend, I read this title. Mike is an excellent promoter of under-estimated and under-read authors, had sent an irresistible taste of this novel, and although I wasn’t familiar with either the title or the author, I plucked it off the pile at the end of last week. And what a fun read!

Leverson was a British writer who is known for her friendship with Oscar Wilde and as a turn-of-the-century witty novelist. Her friendship with Oscar Wilde was tested when he was accused of being gay (at the time, a crime) and when no hotel or inn would accept Wilde as a guest, Leverson and her husband opened up their home as a place to stay, a generous gesture which would lead to “serious challenges” for the Leversons’ other friendships in the future.

So – to the plot: Valentia and Romer are a happily married couple, but Valentia is slightly dismayed that Romer isn’t quite as interesting as she had hoped he would be. For excitement, she turns to Harry de Freyne, her dashing artist cousin, much to the consternation of others in her social circle. Daphne, Valentia’s younger sister, needs to find a husband and a visiting American millionaire seems to fit the bill for the family, but Daphne would much rather marry a young professional soldier. And then there’s Miss Luscombe, Mrs. Wyburn, Miss Westbury, and a young man covered in tattoos with a hobby of collecting theater programs.

So – tons of characters to keep track off, but as with any social commentary in the vein of Jane Austen, you get the hang of who is who and after whom, and by the midway point, you can clearly follow the various machinations of the social system in this small world.

I mentioned Jane Austen, and this narrative is reminiscent of her characters and their struggles to meet and marry the right people. I did at times get a tad confused, but a quick check of the back cover sorted that out in a jiffy. Lots of rather funny repartee between the characters, and loads of strong description of life in London at the fin-de-siècle, this was a quick and rather fun read.

Thank you to Mike!

Advertisements

Catch Up Time…

catch_upWork has been a bit nutty in terms of workload, so my reading has had to slow down a bit. With my bad eye and being in front of a computer screen all day, I’m kinda tired when I get home. That plus I’m wearing contacts which means I can see great far away, but middle distance and close up are terrible. (Thus the not-much reading situation.) Hoping that will get sorted out as the days go by, but there’s quite a bit of fiddling around at the moment.

I spent a lot of today working on website issues which is, surprisingly, great fun and I really enjoy it immersing myself in HTML and other puzzles. There’s always something to do with a large website (such as work has), and I can get completely sucked in at times. I just put some tunes on in the background, and have at it. Rather fun.

Reading seems to have taken a back seat for the last few days. We’ve been catching up with some TV: Better Call Saul (irresistible sidekick series to Breaking Bad), a Netflix series called Case, we’ve started Planet Earth (BBC/David Attenborough), and then saw the Dave Chappelle special the other night. (Mostly funny, but way too many “rape jokes” for my liking. [It’s never ok.]  Dave – you can do better than that.)  ETA: I am completely off Dave Chappelle now, especially since I’ve seen his transphobic rant. Grr.) Oh, and the regulars: Bill Maher, Samantha Bee et al. I’m constantly amazed at what comes out of the White House every day, but only three and a half years to go.

Oh, and I lucked out and got Garth Brooks tickets for this Sunday afternoon’s concert when he comes to town with Trisha Yearwood. (Heehaw. Very excited as he puts on quite a show, I’ve heard. Squeee.) Slightly strange to be going to a big concert on Sunday afternoon, but there you have it. Them’s the breaks sometimes. I’m dragging SuperHero DH with me, which means that I’ll owe him a concert in return. Slightly concerned that this might entail a Disturbd or Korn concert, but I’m crossing my fingers that it’s something a bit more palatable than that.

We also bought Daniel Tosh (comedian) tickets for later this month. He’s got some hilarious set pieces with some questionable pieces in between. He’s more good than not, so we’re going. Rather looking forward to him as he has no mercy for anything or anyone. Ever. You just sit there and cringe while you’re laughing and hope that he doesn’t pick on you. :-]

The outdoor pool on campus just opened this week. Naturally, the temperatures have plummeted to the 40’s since then, but there are plenty of sunny days ahead. Looking forward to messing around at the pool soon. It’s got a curvy lazy river which is awesome to float in after a long day at the office. Speaking of office, I actually now have air conditioning. I’ve spent the last two years sweating in my office year round, and now? It’s truly great to have a nice temperature at work. Thank you, lovely hard-working campus Physical Plant people!!

So – quite a busy weekend ahead and it’s busy-fun! Great combination to have!

better-call-saul

Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

book377a

Chosen off the TBR for being a classic, Beloved was a good read although quite challenging in some ways. The beginning of a trilogy* set by Toni Morrison, the book is based on the history of an African American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, although I’m not sure how much creative license has been taken by anyone. I haven’t read any of Morrison’s work before, so had little idea of what to expect but loved it in the end. It’s not the easiest work to read and you have to concentrate on the plot and the characters (or at least I did), but the effort is so worth it at the end of the day. Just be prepared for quite a ride, reading-wise.

So – to the story. It revolves around Sethe, an African-American woman born into slavery and who has now escaped that life. However, eighteen years later, she is still not free from the ramifications of her prior slavery life at a plantation called Sweet Home, an idyllic name for a ghastly place and one that still maintains a tenuous hold on Sethe, despite her best efforts at unshackling herself and her family. The book plot delves into her life so readers can better understand the choice that she makes, and how that choice impacts her days for the remainder of her life. (I can’t really tell you any more about the plot without giving spoilers, and it’s the plot that makes this book such a good read. Well, the writing too, but the plot definitely plays a role.)

There is a dreamy gauzy quality to this narrative, and it’s not a logical or chronological retelling, mainly because the events that occur are of the most terrible kind and hurt where it hurts the most – the heart. There is a lot of poetry in this novel in terms of how it’s been written and how it flows, but once I gave up trying to impose order on it, it was a much better read. You will need to let go of the typical structural expectations, but if you do, what was once surreal and puzzling becomes more understandable and predictable. (Well, I’m not sure about predictable, but at least one can see some rationale for why the characters behave as they do.)

It’s a good read, and all the more powerful for not being written or structured in a straight-forward narrative style as that fits the story being told: unreliable narrators, this dream-like quality, the nightmarish events, the resilience of the human spirit…

It’s a super book (obvs since it’s won loads of accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), but it plays with reality and with dreams, it plays with time and space, and it can all get a tad confusing if you’re not paying close attention. (This was my situation. I was picking up and putting down this book all over the place, and in retrospect, I think the book is best read in huge long chunks of time for immersion into the narrative and characters. I bonded with the story much better when I could dedicate some time to it.)

This is one of those books where the reader may need to work a bit at the story, but in this case, it’s so worth it. If I was going to compare it, I would pair it with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved this on its own rights though, and I think you will as well.

  • I had no idea that Beloved was part of a trilogy. In case you’re wondering, # 2 is Jazz (1992) and #3 is Paradise (1997).

Homecoming – Yaa Gyazi (2016)

book386

“Homecoming” is a debut novel that has set the interwebs and reviewers into a bit of spin about how fantastic it is, and so when I spotted it on the shelf, it leaped (leapt?) into my little grubby hands. It’s been hailed as one of the newest darlings of the literary world and as a new tour de force in African-American (or African?) literature.

However one chooses to describe it, it’s a good read. The narrative arc follows the fortunes (or not) of a family in Ghana tracing how slavery impacts its path over the centuries starting back in the 18

Ghana_africa-map Told from an omniscient point of view and traveling through time and across continents, the story starts with two half-sisters who follow very different paths through life unknowingly, one living a life of relative wealth after marrying a white man and one who ends up on the opposite side of the coin, but both affected by the slave trade. The location common to both is that of Cape Coast Castle, one sister living on the upper floors in safety and comfort whilst her sister suffers on the dungeon floor in terrible cramped conditions with the others waiting for their travel on the ships to America or other colony elsewhere.

So it’s not that new a narrative structure or in how it’s presented, but it is well written. I am wondering if many of the other reviewers out on the web are inexperienced with slavery stories and perhaps that is how it’s had this great reception. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but not completely unlike others out there. (Am I being mean? I’m trying not to be. I just wasn’t so wowed to quite the same extent as others.)

British_Empire_1897

(So, I’ve only just now realized that the patriotic English song, “Rule Britannia!”, contains a reference to the slave trade. Partway through, the line goes “And Britons never…shall be slaves”, and growing up hearing this song, I had always thought this to be a call of maintaining national independence etc., when, as I think about it now, it’s more likely a reference to the slave trade. (D’oh.) The song was written in the 1740’s which was slap bang in the middle of slave industrial years for England so it makes sense. Hard to believe that I’ve only just put this together…)

In researching that song, it turns out to have a strong link with the Royal Navy who played a vital role in maintaining the independence of England, the island nation, and over time, the lyrics were edited from being an exhortation (“Britannia! Rule the waves!”) to more of a statement (“Britannia rules the waves!”) and which reflected the historical changes over time as England became more of a nautical powerhouse. This links with the Victorian phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” which refs the fact that a lot of the world was pink on the world map (signifying British territories or colonies) and the colonies were spread out in such a way that regardless of whatever the time was, it was daylight somewhere in a colony at the time.

Huh. So now I know… Cool.

Back to the book: So, this is a multi-thread narrative from both the perspectives of the enslaved (or soon to be enslaved) and those who run the slave industry, so there are interesting power/powerless dichotomies to look at. It also covers some of the early Ghanaian tribal warfare which also adds another complex layer as humans (especially women/brides) also had a price, but in a different way. How is this way more acceptable than another way…?

So lots to think about. This was a quick read and a good one. Not quite sure why it’s getting all the hoopla vs. other authors out there, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, here you go.

Carol – Patricia Highsmith (1952)

book385

I was pondering what to read next when I remembered that I had seen the movie, “Carol”, when it was released earlier in the year and loved that so therefore was interested in reading the book itself. I wasn’t disappointed as it was a very good read.

It’s the story of a young shop girl in 1950’s New York City who meets an older richer woman and how their relationship develops. It’s pegged as an early lesbian book, but after reading it, I would argue that the story covers human relationships more than a lesbian one. However, as it was written in 1952 when same-sex issues were extremely undercover (out of necessity) and seen as morally wrong, there’s no denying that the two women have to have a more complicated relationship than would otherwise be seen in those times. (Ahhh. Those judgy 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s….)

Anyhow, the two women are attracted to each other, but is it authentic? Or is one more authentic than the other? And then who’s to say, anyway?

patricia highsmithThere are other issues involved as well: One of the women is older, more experienced, and very rich (the other the opposite in those ways). One of the women is married with a child (and the other is not), and so there is a lot at stake here if the relationship went public (e.g. probable loss of parental rights, loss of money/support etc.) It’s the 1950’s when women still were seen as property (culturally speaking) – women didn’t tend to work (so no $$), property was probably in husband’s name (so women had few assets) and all that jazz. Divorce is frowned upon and if you add in a same-sex relationship, you end up with an explosive mix.

Plus – who is in love with whom? Is the relationship equal in terms of how one feels for the other or there other reasons involved? And there’s the power issues…

It’s a complex novel (as you can tell), but it reads very quickly. It’s one of those books where you read it and then do most of your thinking about it after you’ve finished it. I loved it.

It’s interesting that I think the novel’s complexity also reflects the author’s own complexity as, according to several people, she could be a rude and misanthropic person who preferred animals (particularly snails*) to people. There were also addiction issues, and her personal life was a bit rocky, relationship-wise. (She had an unsettling childhood life as well which probably played a role.) Add to this the fact that she refused to let people put her into any categories of any kind (at a time when *everyone* was put into a category of one sort or another), and you have one very interesting person.

Regardless of how you pin this novel genre-wise, it’s well regarded and Highsmith described it as one of the first same-sex relationship novels where the protagonist and the lover had not killed themselves by the end due to being gay in a homophobic culture. (The two women in this novel are not happy per se in this story, but at least they are alive and breathing at the end. Baby steps, people.)

Anyway, this was a fascinating read for both the narrative and the cultural meaning that surrounded it at the time so I do recommend it. It’s a passionate love story but then it’s also so much more. I really enjoyed it (especially in combination with the film of the same name) and I think you’d like it.

(Highsmith is well known for her other novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on the Train (neither of which I’ve read yet). Has anyone else read anything by her? What did you think?)

Extra for you: An interesting article from The Guardian (05/13/15) about more background behind the book and film.

* Highsmith once took a handbag full of 100 snails and some lettuce to a dinner party. I’m not sure what to say about that, apart from perhaps it reflects her view of being true to herself. Go her. If you want to bring a  bag o’ snails to a dinner party, then you bring them. More power to you.

French Milk – Lucy Knisley (2007)

book367

Another good graphic novel title from Lucy Knisley written with the same trademark sense of humor and feel as her other autobiographical books. This particular title covered Lucy’s trip to France with her mom when they both rented an apartment close to the center of Paris. (Who are these people who do such things? Do they not have to work? Are they independently wealthy?)

Anyway, it was a pretty fun light-weight read one evening (although there were times when I wanted to bonk Lucy on the head for complaining about things every now and then. Appreciate what you have, my friend.) I do adore her artwork and am looking forward to whatever she publishes next. (That’s the sign of a good author!)

If you like Knisley, try her other reads here:

The Country Girls trilogy – Edna O’Brien

The last title in the trilogy.

The last title in the trilogy with this great 1960’s book cover.

 

Wow. This was quite a reading ride with two Irish young women who travel through life with nary a plan except to marry some handsome bloke and have a few gins along the way. This trilogy, written in the early to mid-1960’s, is a wonderful and very gritty look back at Baba and Caithlynn as they manage to leave their small worlds in rural Ireland chasing their own dreams for their lives. It’s very kitchen-sink drama, and there were times when I wanted to just sit them down and have a few choice words with them, but I really did enjoy this read.

Hmm. “Enjoy” is not the word I’m searching for. Perhaps “observe” the two is the more precise verb. I veered from being annoyed with them to feeling sorry with them, so perhaps it’s more than “observe”…

Both the two girls grow up in a small rural village in Ireland, Baba with a more stable and financially comfortable family situation, and Caithlynn with a horribly alcoholic and abusive father and a mother who cannot/will not leave but protects the young girl from her father. (Not many choices available to good Catholic girls who are unhappily married with children at that time of the century.)

Both the girls have an uncomfortable relationship with each other that veers from being good friends to one bullying the other (Baba bullies Caithlynn and gets away with it. Unequal power in a friendship is not a good sign especially in children.)

Stuck with each other due to their small village and school, their friendship changes from day to day (depending on how mean Baba is to Caithlynn) and I found this part of the trilogy very hard to read about. I can’t stand it when someone bullies someone else, and I just wanted to step into the novel and help poor Cat, but I couldn’t.

So – I just had to read and watch as Baba did some despicable things, but it was also with a sense of fascination as you just knew that somewhere along that narrative arc, Cat would get her due. She’d have to after taking all that viciousness for that long. But would she? So my fingers were crossed as I read…

Baba and Cat are both good young Catholic girls (with everything that went along with that in the 1960’s) and they both knew what happened to girls who weren’t good: hellfire, family exile, on the streets… The pair are sent to middle school at a convent a few miles away from home, but having no transportation options that were affordable, they were boarders. Cat had been offered a scholarship (thankfully as there is no way that her family could have afforded it otherwise) and had been relieved at such a good escape from mean Baba, but then Baba decides to apply as well and her family can afford even if there is no scholarship for her.

And this seems to be how it was throughout the whole trilogy: Cat struggling to escape home life and Baba; Baba always somehow beating Cat to the punch whether it’s getting a bicycle or a bedsit. It was really annoying for me to suffer through this, as I can so relate to how mean children and teens can be. This was tortuous.

So why did Baba stick so tenaciously with Cat? Baba needed her to bully and to feel powerful? Cat needed Baba as she had no other friends? They both needed each other as they navigated the rocky shores of adolescence?

This sounds a dreadfully depressing and grey book, and it’s certainly not rainbows and unicorns, but if you like reading kitchen-sink dramas (which I was in the mood for), this is a great read.

The first book covers their childhood and adolescence, the second their escape to a small town with equally tiny jobs and sharing a bedsit, and then the third – had they both escaped their dreary worlds and each other? Do they find their own Mr. Rights? You’ll have to read it to find out, but please do. This was a riveting if uncomfortable read at times. (Rather reminded me of Atwood’s Cat’s Eye in some ways in that both feature young girls getting bullied by their “friends” and yet no one doing anything about it. Gaah.)

Not always the easiest titles to get hold of, but worth the trial. I’m glad I met Cat – perhaps not so much about meeting the other one!

Plus my edition of the final book in the trilogy was great. It had been published in 1965 and had the perfect cover (see above), along with this titillating cover copy:

And then inside was this:

Oooh la la. You can just imagine women reading this under cover. Shocking stuff!

Letter from New York – Helene Hanff (1992)

book357

What a complete joy this little read was. It almost popped my socks off in its charming-ness, and I’d like everyone who reads this blog post to leave right now and get yourselves a copy somehow. It’s that lovely.

It’s a very quick read, understandable as it’s a collection of some five minute radio broadcasts that Hanff did on the BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour during the 1980’s (after the publishing success of her earlier book, 84 Charing Cross Road. (Again, if you haven’t read the Charing Cross Road book, this epistolary true story of the friendship between Hanff and an English bookseller is super, and I highly recommend that you do.)

Anyway, each of these brief radio broadcasts tells about Hanff’s life in New York City, where she lived in a block of apartments, a place that she calls “community living” as many of the other tenants were also her friends and make appearances in her columns here. (Oh, and don’t forget the friends’ dogs. There are lots of dog stories in here, but not enough to cross it over into Crazy Dog Person Land.)

If you’re familiar with any of Hanff’s writing, you’ll know that she writes in a breezy optimistic style about the minutiae of living in New York as a self-employed writer. (Interestingly, there is not a lot of talk about her actual writing. Lots more focus on her life and what Hanff notices around her, which to me is a lot more fascinating in this particular case.) She’s very down-to-earth, has an interesting group of friends (with their dogs), and lives a full life of museum visits, concerts, and stories about her own particular neighborhood.

The columns are organized month by month and cover about three or four years, so the reader is taken through the seasons. She is such a good writer and really engages her reader in her slice-of-life descriptions as she recalls them here. I bet that this could fall into the epistolary category as well, as each column reads as though it is a letter from a favorite auntie (or similar) just to you. As you can probably surmise, I adored this quick read and think others of you might as well.

Seriously – one of my favorite reads so far this year.

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey (2014)

book352

One really good book I recently finished (and haven’t really reviewed here) was called “Elizabeth is Missing” by Emma Healey. Called a “darkly riveting debut novel, a sophisticated psychological mystery…”, this was a really enjoyable (and quite challenging) read. Expectations were also raised with a cover blurb from Deborah Moggach (whose work I usually love) who wrote “I read it at a gulp.” And you know what? I did “read it in a gulp” (or at least what counts for a gulp in my reading life). This was great.

It’s a novel (combining itself with these other genres) about one elderly woman called Maud who suffers from dementia who is convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing. But when you have dementia (quite advanced, it seems), how do you convince your family that your friend really IS missing and that it’s not just part of your illness speaking? (Or is she really missing?)  Who is to judge what is reality and memory, and how to portray that? It was a fascinating and complex read.

To try to solve this and to check on her friend’s well-being, Maud visits Elizabeth’s house – but is she there? Or not there? Maud tries to track her steps with a system of notes and of spotting rocks on the pavement, but that leads to complications: did someone move the rock? Was that the same rock as she had spotted last time? Was this the right street? Which note has the right and most recent information? Did she need to get peach slices from the corner shop? (Peach slices get some mentions in this book.)

With an unreliable memory as a leading part of the narrative, the reader remains puzzled as well. Maud’s family are helping her with her day-to-day life, but there are struggles on both sides: Maud fighting to retain her freedom and to solve this mystery about Elizabeth, her family fighting to keep Maud “safe” by getting her moved to an assisted care home. Kudos to her daughter (Maud’s caregiver) for being so kind and patient.

As the novel progresses, the reader gets enmeshed into this complex maze where past and present fuse together, where reality and dreams are intertwined, and where it’s just plain hard to know what is what.

And then, to add a third string to the narrative, a third story is added of a vague memory of Maud’s about something that happened 70 years ago. It’s in the flashbacks to the past where Maud gets to shine as she has no trouble recounting her earlier life when she was a child and her sister Sukey went missing. Was Sukey murdered? Did she run away?

This intriguing interplay of time and reality, between clear details of the past and murky details of the present creates a tension of sorts for the reader, and I loved it. It was very hard to put the book down, and when I did, I ended up thinking about Maud and her life.

I think that you’ll love this if you’re ok with unreliable narrators and books that have multiple strings going on with their plots. I’d suggest reading this one in big chunks to keep up, but don’t worry. It reads very quickly due to some excellent writing. Healey is an expert with using language at its best and making Maud someone who you care about.

Loved it.

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead – Sheryl Sandberg (2013)

book448With this new work promotion comes leadership, and as a reminder to myself, I decided to read Sandberg’s Lean In book. This was really a pretty good book with the usual chapters covering the role of women in the workplace (although it’s hard to believe that “women in the workplace” is still an issue in the U.S. in the twenty-first century as we are).

So, there was some treading of familiar ground but there were also some new pieces of information which I picked up. Here are some of the notes I made whilst I was reading if any of you are in a similar situation:

  • About young women choosing to leave the workforce in such high numbers: “My generation fought so hard to give all of you choices. We believe in choices. But choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make.” Judith Rodin, President, Rockefeller Foundation and first woman to serve as President of an Ivy League university.
  • Opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.
  • Increasingly, opportunities in the workplace are not well defined, but instead, come from jumping in to something. That something (if done well) then becomes her job. (True that.)
  • You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way round.
  • The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.
  • Employees who concentrate on results and impact are the most valuable team players. Teams need goals to aim for.
  • Being risk averse can lead to stagnation. An analysis of senior corporate management appointments found that women are significantly more likely than men to continue to perform the same function even when they take on additional new duties.
  • Women only apply for jobs if they meet 100% of the criteria listed. Men apply if  they think that they meet 60% of the criteria listed…
  • Women need to shift from thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that and I’ll learn by doing.”
  • Lean in at the conference table. Lean in and be counted among the players.

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any.          Alice Walker