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The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell

I'm really not sure how to rate this book. On one hand, it led to some fantastic discussions in my book club, and raised some very disturbing questions about society's perception of individuals. On the other hand, the book isn't the best written I've read, which is a real shame.

Let me give you the gist of the story. Iris is a contemporary working girl, with serious relationship issues (in love with her step-brother and involved with a married man...don't ask!) who one day receives notice that her great-aunt is being released from a mental institution into her care. The problem is that Iris has never heard of this great-aunt as her family never even mentioned her. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that the great-aunt is Esme Lennox, who was a bit of a rebel in her youth and was committed to a mental asylum for the sins of wanting to study beyond basic schooling and not wishing to be married. Iris (and the reader) is shocked by the fact that in the early 1900s, women could be incarcerated for life if their father or husband wished it, and they only needed a GP's signature to do so. In Esme's case, the evidence against her is simply her refusal to conform, and her sister's witness given in spite and jealousy.

Such an interesting storyline, so much potential, but none of them are realised. O'Farrell gives her best, but the story just isn't gripping enough. Her description of the inhuman conditions in the asylum are heart-wrenching, but it has been done better in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Sebastian Barry's A Secret Scripture. I will not lie, I was very interested in the book while reading it, but when I finished it my only thought was "Is that it?"

The best thing about the book was the fantastic evening I had with my book club, discussing the moral issues. Esme was normal by modern standards but spent her entire adult life in a cell, while Iris lives a precarious life and doesn't have to face any censure. It made me feel glad I was born in the 20th century.


R.I.P. IV Challenge

I'm coming slightly late to this challenge due to real-life taking over my reading time, but I have been mulling over my choices for the challenge for well over a week now. That was fun enough, I imagine actually reading the books will be even more fun.

During my teen years, I went through a very intense period when I read only horror/supernatural/dark thriller genres. But my over-active imagination resulted in this phase ending badly. I often dream about the books I read, which is bad enough when you're reading The Time Traveller's Wife, but how much worse when you're reading The Stand. When I moved to my own place, I stopped reading scary stories to spare myself the usual nightmares. Carl's R.I.P. Challenge (now in its fourth year) is the perfect excuse to return to the genre.

I'm going to indulge in Peril The First which is to read FOUR books from the "scary" genrre. My choices are:

Out by Natsuo Kirino - This is an overlap with the Japanese Literature Challenge. I read Real World by the same author last month and I'm eager to get started on this book. This should give me the added impetus.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe - No, I've never read this short story/novella and yes, I've always regretted it. Poe is considered the father of the suspense/thriller genre, and this book will fill in a huge gap in my reading list.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter - I've never read Carter and I think it would be best to ease myself in gently into her world and what better way to do it than with her subversive version of Grimm's fairy tales.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis - An odd choice perhaps. But I have my reasons. Fact 1 - this is an acknowledged classic. Fact 2 - it is known for its graphic description of violence aand is actually banned in some countries. Fact 3 - I would never pick up this book voluntarily unless I had an ulterior motive (book group, challenge etc etc). I'm still not sure if I'll get through this book, but I'll give it my best shot. Then at the very least I can say I tried and it wasn't for me.

As the nights draw in and Halloween approaches, this challenge is pitch-perfect. I'm off to light the fire and heat up some mulled wine


A Literary Life

This is a fun quiz that I've seen on several blogs and thought it would be enoyable to try. The trick is to answer the questions only using titles of books you've read in the last year (2009). It's much harder than it sounds!

Describe yourself: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

How do you feel: All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West)

Describe where you currently live: The House At Riverton (Kate Morton)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Cranford (Elizabeth Gaskell)

Your favorite form of transportation: Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson)

Your best friend is: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Steig Larsson)

You and your friends are: Until It's Over (Nicci French)

What's the weather like: When Will There Be Good News (Kate Atkinson)

You fear: Dark Fire (C J Sansom)

What is the best advice you have to give: Mercy (Jodie Picoult)

Thought for the day: The Unbearable Lightness Of Scones (Alexander McCall Smith)

How I would like to die: One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

My soul's present condition: Love Over Scotland (Alexander McCall Smith)


They Knew Mr Knight - Dorothy Whipple

This was my first Dorothy Whipple; the first of many to come I think. They Knew Mr Knight is the story of the Blake family, an ordinary middle-class family. The father, Thomas, is a salaried engineer working in a factory that used to be owned by his father. His only ambition is to re-purchase the works. His wife, Celia, is mild-mannered, with no burning ambition, and generally content with her domesticity. This difference is made clear in the very first chapter, with their contrasting attitudes to a new morning. Their three children are also ordinary and their lifestyle is, erm, ordinary. Into this ordinary world enters Mr Knight, a financier from the City, who drags Thomas up into a richer world.

This is a very simple book, so simple that the plot is perfectly transparent from the minute Thomas bumps into Knight (literally). What makes it different is Whipple's attention to detail. I loved Whipple's descriptions of Celia, and her thoughts. Celia is the only person in the family to be less than enthusiastic about their sudden rise in the world, and suspicious of Knight's motives. Her bafflement at the speed at which the rest of her family adapt to their new lifestyle is endearing.

As expected, Knight ruins Thomas Blake financially, and the family is thrown back into circumstances more dire than they had ever had to endure. They cope with this turn of fortunes in different ways, and in the end the family emerges stronger than ever.
The characters are all brilliantly drawn. With the exception of Mr Knight, there is no obviously good or evil character, everyone has their moments. Even Freda, the eldest daughter, comes across as flawed rather than unpleasant. I felt terribly sorry for her when she rushes into a less-than-satisfactory marriage. Whipple makes it clear that one of the reasons of the tragedy is Celia's detachment from the outside world. She knows nothing of finance or office, "a man's world". Hence she can neither warn Thomas, nor realise when he's falling in over his head. Nor can she financially support the family when their new world comes crashing around them. This is a lesson on why female empowerment is so important.

Thomas and Mr Knight are second-hand figures, seen through their wives and children. We very rarely get to hear their thoughts, and surely not in the depth we know, say, Celia. I wonder if this is because Whipple didn''t want to attempt a man's voice? I have not read anything else by her, so cannot be sure. Celia's moment of religious fervour was a bit far-fetched in my opinion, but that is probably a sign of the times. Perhaps readers contemporary to Whipple were nodding their heads and approving of Celia's moment of communion with God! My favourite characters were Celia and Mrs Knight. They very rarely interact with each other, but when they do the effect is very comic. My favourite scene is Mrs Knight showing off Field Hall to Celia who wants to buy it off her.

A must-read! I would recommend this to anyone looking to buy a new Persephone.


Goodbye Bank Holidays

I'm back (that is, if anyone noticed I was gone in the first place). After spending the entire bank holiday weekend on the M4 in back-to-back traffic (well, it felt like the whole weekend) I am so glad to be home. Even an overflowing laundry basket and an empty refrigerator cannot cool my enthusiasm. The only thing worse than standstill traffic is standstill traffic when you're supposed to be on holiday!

One good thing that came out of it was that I got to extend the fabulous Persephone Week for myself. I packed They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple with me, and it was the most amazing read. I will be posting the review shortly. Just as soon as I've finished kissing all the door frames in the house. Yes, I am THAT happy to be back.


Round About A Pound A Week - Maud Pember Reeves

I'd chosen Persephone books to read this week that came from different genres. So I had The Victorian Chaise Lounge which was a very short thriller and the soon-to-be-reviewed They Knew Mr Knight which is a quite thick but quite funny story by Whipple. And the book I will be talking about today is Round About A Pound A Week which is a non-fiction title.

Coincidentally, co-host Verity has just reviewed this as part of her Virago Venture (review here) while I was reading the Persephone version.

A few weeks ago, I had a spirited discussion with a friend on the benefits system, and if it should be scrapped. I'm not going to go into the argument as I'm sure you're all familiar with both sides of this much-debated topic, but I do think that everyone who thinks the poor should receive no help at all from the state should read this book. In 1909, the general consensus was that the poor were poor either because of indulgence in vices like drinking, or because of poor management. The impression is that some middle-class men undertook an experiment to survive on about a pound a week and found that it could be done comfortably. To shatter the myth, some Fabian women undertook a study of about 40 women in Lambeth in London, living on the poverty-line. These were not even the poorest of the population as the men had steady jobs, and even they lived precariously.

Among other things, the study found that the men could not indulge in drinking or gambling because they had no money to spare. And the women were astonishingly good managers, as they must be to make a pound pay for all the bills, clothes, boots and food!

The insight into the life of the Lambeth families is heart-breaking, mostly because of the quiet pride of the women interviewed. None of them seem to complain or sound bitter, preferring to just get along with things. The fact that the Lambeth children never tasted milk once they were weaned off their mother's breast was a shocking statistic. Well-meaning officials went around these communities advertising the benefits of milk, completely overlooking the fact that the children did not get milk because their mother could not afford to buy it, not because she was ignorant of its importance. It is this well-meaning, but ignorant, middle-class interference that provide some dark humour. For instance the mothers are encouraged to give their children porridge, which the Visitors consider a cheap and filling staple food, and they are baffled when the mothers ignore their advice. Finally one woman says that porridge made without milk or sugar is so horrid that even starving children turn their nose up at it, and sugar and milk is beyond their means!

It is impressive how far the women of Lambeth make their pound go. It is, of course, at the expense of the nutrition of her own children and herself. And even one unexpected expense, like a doctor's bill, or a sudden employment can throw them into disaster. There is a very sad example of a mother who pawned her only pair of boots to buy work clothes for her daughter, and stayed indoors for months till she could afford to get back her boots. It is a life on the edge of a knife.

It is a very sad read, shocking at times, but it brought about a huge change in public awareness and led to the State exploring more effective methods of helping the poor. Three cheers for Maud Pember Reeves and the Fabian women.


Architects in works of fiction

This week is promising to be a very busy one, with work deadlines colliding headlong (as usual) with my daughter coming down with a D&V bug. I was imagining myself curled up in the garden for long stretches reading Persephone books (aren't they like a comforting chilled milkshake in book form) but reality is going to be much more chaotic.

I may not be making much headway with reading, but I am enjoying reading everyone's reviews of various Persephone books. Verity at The B Files reviewed Bricks And Mortar yesterday; this caught my attention since it "tells the story of an architect over 40 years of his life in the 1890s". For those in the know, I'm an architect, and this book would hold great interest for me especially as Verity felt that Ashton got into an architect's way of thinking. One for my TBR list!

This, though, got me thinking about the paucity of architects in fiction. The only book I can think of is Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. This is a beautiful book and a classic, and also one of those books that every student of architecture must read. I think we all go through an idealistic phase of imagining ourselves as Howard Roark before real life and commercial pressures force us into turning into Peter Keating. I honestly cannot come up with any other book.

There are many more architects in films. Off the top of my head, there's Michelle Pfeiffer in One Fine Day (struggling to find childcare and present a design on the same day), Tom Selleck in Three Men And A Baby, Doug Roberts in Towering Inferno (who must bear the public's scorn even though it is the developer's cost-cutting that caused the inferno), David Murphy in Indecent Proposal (who auctions his wife because of financial difficulties), and Healy and Tucker in There's Something About Mary (both pretend to be architects to get the girl).

It's strange that authors rarely choose to make their protagonists architects although they are more popular with film-makers. Does anyone have any architect-centric books to recommend to me?

A Persephone Teaser Tuesday

"The question of vermin is a very pressing one in all the small houses. No woman, however clean, can cope with it. Before their confinements some women go to the trouble of having the room they are to lie in fumigated. In spite of such precautions, bugs have dropped on to the pillow of the sick woman before the visitor's eyes. One woman complained that they dropped into her ears at night."

Round About A Pound A Week
Maud Pember Reeves


The Victorian Chaise Longue - Marghanita Laski

This was the first Persephone book that I've read, and it was a fabulous introduction. I read this book in one sitting (nearly), which isn't as impressive as it sounds because (a) the book is very slim, and (b) I could not have put the book down midway for anything short of a nuclear holocaust.

The Victorian Chaise Longue is the story of Melanie Langdon, a spoilt upper-class woman who has recently had a baby and is also recovering from tuberculosis which she contracted very early in the pregnancy. The obviously sad situation did not evoke any sympathy in me because of Melanie's flippant and flirtatious attitude. But this attitude is central to the character; the others mollycoddle her like a precocious child. For the first time in months, Melanie is allowed to leave her bedroom and rest on her as-yet-unused chaise-longue, where she falls asleep and....

....wakes up in Victorian England! Yes, that's how sudden and shocking the time-shift is. No blinding light, or spinning Tardis. Just a woman waking up in a time not her own. And that's when the terror starts. Melanie is now Milly, who also suffers from tuberculosis and has recently gone through a terrible experience, the details of which are revealed in the final pages.

The horror of being trapped in a body not your own, in a time not your own, surrounded by people you don't recognise is the stuff of nightmares. Laski has evoked the fear that Melanie experiences superbly. Of course, in a world that has read Stephen King and Dean Koontz, this book will be tame, but it must have been terrifying in the 1950s when it was originally printed.

Adelaide said wearily, '[It is] the twenty-second of April, eigheen hundred and sixtyfour.'

For an instant, for ever, Melanie was bound in timeless fear. Her eyes were forced open, rigid and unblinking, her mouth hung open, the rigid lips stretched in a terrible grin, all her being was rigid with unimaginable terror...only from her mouth there came incoherent dribbling whimperings.

The ending is ambiguous, and I liked it that way. What was more important was Melanie’s realisation that she and Milly are more than just superficially similar, what is different is how society views them.

Persephone Week starts

The Persephone Week is up and running! The hosts, Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files have already started the show with quizzes. I've attempted both (one with more success than the other) and I've also started reading the Persephone books that I'd kept aside for this week.

I chose to start with The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski for a variety of reasons; it was a gift by my husband and if he sees me wnjoying a book he's bought he's more likely to buy me more (that's my theory anyway, it never hurts to try!), and because the story is a psychological thriller. From the reviews I've read it seems to border on supernatural horror as well, with a fair bit of time travel thrown in. As a life-long fan of Doctor Who, anything to do with time travel is pushed right up on my TBR list.

I've only just started on it and am still in the scene-setting part of it, with all the characters being introduced. Melanie, the protagonist, comes across as a spoilt rich woman who's making suffering from TB into an art form. I do love the way she swans and moans at the doctor and her husband, who are both more than a little enamoured of her. I'm looking forward to getting more into the story and see how Melanie's character develops.

Now that my own little brat is having her nap, I'm going to settle down with this book and a hot cup of tea. Oh yes, I also have to take the phone off the hook and put up a huge "Ring the doorbell at your own risk" sign up on the front door.