Sunday, 27 February 2011

(Miserable) Consequences

Endpaper for the Persephone edition - 'Thistle' sold in Liberty's in 1896
I finished Consequences (EM Delafield) last night - or actually about 1am this morning. I picked it up in the Lambs Conduit St shop when my book group met there, and held on to read it as part of the Persephone Reading Weekend.

What a sad book - although the blurb and introductory essay had drawn out a sense of wryness or irony in the portrayal of a conventional and comfortable family at the end of the nineteenth century, I found it profoundly sad. 

I felt for Alex, so uncomfortable in her own skin, unable to 'read' other people - except for their disappointment in her - and so ill equipped to be happy in any of the circumstances and societies she lived in. I liked the complexity of the characters - for example the layers of Alex' relationship with her sister felt human and real, with the mixture of guilt, love, frustration, incomprehension, a desire to dominate and be the best mixed with awareness and envy of Barbara's greater social skills. I'm not sure that I agree with readers who draw out lesbian subtext, to me Alex' attachment to Queenie, Mother Gertrude et al was about idolising someone she wanted to imitate, and about her desperate loneliness and response to anyone who would accept her, take an interest in her and behave as if they cared about her.

I wondered how much to read into the title and the opening (vulgar???) game of consequences - it would be easy and maybe interesting to draw out a thread in which what happens to Alex is often the result of someone else (and different people each time) taking their turn to decide what happens next. And there is a refrain through the book about waiting for things to pass and for the next thing to happen...

In terms of how it's written, I'm obviously going through an anti-narrator phase. As with a couple of late-19th/early 20th century books I've read recently, I found the authorial voice irritating as it set the context or drew out inferences. My only other criticism is that I found the wrapping up of the book a bit too quick - it felt a bit bish-bash-bosh as one thing happened after another, and then slammed into the final scenes.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Ten years ago - what have I learned?

Ten years ago - February 2001 - and I was in my second year at university. I'd come out of 4 months with the women's lightweight rowing squad and was back in my college crew, as a 53kg powerhouse (!). I was the college welfare officer - in charge of coffee, condoms and chat. I was very into my boyfriend. And I was studying hard - a fortnightly translation from French to English and weekly translations the other way; and 3 essays a fortnight on 'general history' and 'nineteenth century French' with loads of library time. 

Ten years on - February 2011 - and I'm in my eighth year at work. I'm nothing like as fit as I was, and do much less condom distribution - but I still am often a source of coffee and chat. I'm very into my man. And I work pretty hard, although now it's about slide packs, submissions and evidence... 

What've I learned?
  1. I've learned about who I am and got comfy being myself in my own skin. I'm still not fully there - faced with some people and places I find myself distinctly out of my saucer - but I'm much better at knowing and being myself, including my dorky bits. I know what I think is important - in my life and in my morals. And I'm a lot happier and healthier for it.
  2. I've learned to to read for pleasure again - it took me a while to get back into books after 4 years of serious immersion and 'doing' an author each week (3-6 novels plus biography and plenty of lit crit) - but I can't imagine a life without books, or a week without fiction. And though I know some of its rusty, I know that everything I did at uni has helped me to appreciate better, deeper and more richly the books that I read now.
  3. I've learned what it's like to think in another language - I couldn't do it until my year abroad, but the moment I caught myself dreaming in French, or walking down the street thinking about a conversation and realising it was in French was amazing. It comes less easily now, but listening to a French podcast or reading an easy novel and it can take me a few seconds to emerge and switch back into English.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Sisters (not) doing it for themselves

Yesterday's book club saw one of the best discussions (and venues) we've had in a long time - well done Rachel. We met at Persephone Books on Lamb's Conduit Street - and talked about They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple.
'Pattern of Anemones', a 1935 printed cotton crepe dress fabric 

We all thought it a good book, though didn't all like it. Geoffrey is awful and destroys Charlotte; Vera is vapid and exploits Brian - and the cruelty to children (and dog) is shocking. Lucy is good, marries a good man, and does her best to help her sisters and nieces. Although the outcomes can be predicted from early in the book, this isn't a classical tragedy - all of the characters are culpable for failing to act when they have moments of insight and self-awareness. I think it would have been better with a bit more light and nuance, and a bit less authorial commentary, but it's eminently readable and very human - we follow the narration through each character's viewpoints and gain insight and empathy for their position. And the more I reflect on the book, the more internal echos and structural patterns I see. 

And we talked - about families, telling the truth to siblings and looking after children; about problems in relationships and whether we'd express concerns to friends, or see any echoes in our own lives; and about blame and responsibility.


And we made it to the British Museum to see the Rosetta Stone, the Lion Hunt and the amazing table of pills in the Living and Dying room. Superb.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Fictional FLOTUSes...

So here's the real and long-mulled-over post on American Wife and Primary Colours. It's the first time I've written at any length about novels since I left university, and I'm definitely out of practice.

Primary Colors
- I've wanted to see the film for ever, but never tracked it down. Finally saw the book in Waterstones and lashed out.

It's a roman a clef, about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign in 1992 - but the similarity comes through characters and situations rather than through the specific features of the plot. It's told through the voice of an idealistic 'pol' (Henry) who joins the campaign at an early stage and follows his arc from his initial inspiration by an idealised candidate (Jack) with a real love for and commitment to 'real voters', through difficult debates as he confronts the candidate's constant cheating of his wife and low skulduggery to improve his chances, and on to exhaustion and exasperation as Henry plans to leave the campaign.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Fictional FLOTUSes...

Finished American Wife (a recommendation from the man, who'd read it for his book club) about 30 hours ago, and now half way through Primary Colors (which I bought for myself during the how-to-buy-books lesson a week and a bit ago).  Both very enjoyable and will aim to say more imminently - including about coping with the fact that the West Wing colours everything I read about American politics.

And actually Marbury took his name from the West Wing's British ambassador and is also insightful on US politics... his coverage of the last presidential run makes me look forward to the next.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Ten different jobs I might like/do/have done

What would I do?

- I'd be a doctor - not quite sure what kind of doctor because I don't think I'd like too much gore, but not sure I'd fancy the breadth of being a GP either. I'd be good at it too (I think). It really is a shame I didn't do any science after the age of 16 - I wish I had listened to my dad on this one.

- I'd be a ballet dancer - or actually I would have been a ballet dancer. I loved it and miss it terribly except for shaking muscles and skinless toes. But it's such a beautiful discipline, so good for body and soul.

- I'd do corporate law - and if I'd not passed the civil service exams I probably would be a lawyer now. Arg. Quite glad I'm doing what I am doing.

Saturday, 5 February 2011


Like nothing before - Thursday night, Friday night - gusting and whirling and banging the windows in their frames. Yet again I'm glad for walls and a roof, and that they are mine is an extra bonus. 

Today I made our bedroom curtains - that's all the red out of our bedroom, and loads of extra thermal blackoutness...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

How to browse a bookshop

So, lesson one happened earlier this week - and my lovely pupil didn't buy anything but did pronounce herself very happy and said she'd found it quite exciting (?!?)

What did we do?
1) Homework in advance - I suggested she should read the weekend papers for a couple of weeks, obviously focussing on the review section. I'm an Observer reader by habit, she tends to the Times and I think (but haven't checked) that whatever paper you normally read, it's likely that their review section will reflect your tastes.

2) Getting to the bookshop - we went for the big Waterstones on Piccadilly. I know it's obvious and corporate, but it's big with lots of choice and open late into the evening, which seems far more civilised than late-night opening by other shops. And 15 mins walk from work, which is also good.

3) Let the browsing commence - so we mooched, floor-by-floor. Ground floor not so good - it's more like a WHSmith with all sorts of random tat; but 1st floor upwards is brilliant. 

We talked about how important book covers are (massively, and I think helpfully - but I'm not such a fan of every book by an author having the same design of cover) and about how you choose what to pick up. I love beautiful books - the Virago classics hardbacks with beautiful covers spurred me to buy loads that I wouldn't have picked up otherwise. But I won't even touch pastel-covered chick lit, and have a fairly strong prejudice against books that have the author's name (or a sword) embossed in silver or gold on the cover.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Just a quickie

So today I found out that someone I know from work knows 'Paddy' Hennessey of Junior Officers' Reading Club fame, and has been for posh and boozy lunch with the guardsmen at St James' Palace. Wow. 

On ending a book...

Just finished reading Alone in Berlin - I've whompfed through it in about 3 days and loved it. It's not one of those books that leaves you needing to think and reflect (unlike, say, Room which needed a good few hours of quiet to digest). But I am thinking about what to do next, because it seems a bit disrespectful to treat it like any old commodity and pile straight on into the next. 

And the afterword and endnotes drew out a whole set of literary ideas that I'd only just about been aware of about the fact that all the rebels were such obvious failures, but also presented as parents of the future and as decent humans etc. So I'm thinking vaguely that I should probably pause a bit after books that have any literary merit to think about them a bit, because I really do find my appreciation and enjoyment is improved by some analysis and insight, even post hoc. Hmmm. Maybe it's time to start adding reviews to by LibraryThing - though for now I'm also quite psyched by having read more than six books so that my widget can finally start doing its thing.