September Reading – a dead sex worker, a not so clandestine affair and Virginia Woolf in Manhattan.

I genuinely thought I had read more than three books this month but the reality is that I have read many chapters of textbooks, several essays and a few books have been started but not necessarily completed. Maybe next month I’ll have more to talk about, but for now the books I read in full in September are as follows:

10 Minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World – Elif Shafak

I really enjoyed this book. It starts with the death of a sex worker in Istanbul and then relays her life story through her memories. What is interesting is that the memories are each triggered by a smell in the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her death, whilst there is still activity in her brain. The first part of the book tells of Leila’s childhood and how she got where she is. Shafak writes in such a way that we care for Leila and her quirky band of outcast friends. The second part is very different but somehow works. I won’t give spoilers but it moves from the perspective of Leila’s memories to how her friends cope with her death. It even manages to encapsulate some black humour. It is simply a really enjoyable read with a structure and idea which feels fresh. If I have to criticise anything it would be the stereotypical (although true to life I’m sure) storyline of childhood abuse, running away and turning to prostitution.

Quartet – Jean Rhys

This is an impressively well-written description of an affair. It is evident that Rhys carefully choses her words and each sentence is meticulously crafted. Not only does this mean that her novel is a mere 144 pages long but she manages within so few pages to pack a punch. Quartet is the story of two couples. One couple is Lois, a well known artist and her husband, Heidler and the other is Stephan and his wife, Marya. When Stephan ends up in prison Heidler and Lois take Marya under their wing and invite her to live with them. This is all very charitable until Heidler decides he wishes to have an affair with Marya. What I found most interesting about the novel was the relationship dynamics between each of the characters. Marya is basically treated as a servant/ prostitute by the Heidlers, with Lois in apparent control of this situation at all times. This is a clever story and one I would highly recommend.

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Maggie Gee

Another novel this month with an original idea. This time Virginia Woolf comes back to life in a library in New York and Angela Lamb, a university Professor, by being in the vicinity becomes her carer for the duration of the novel. Like I said it is an original idea and it is executed fairly well. There are several clever references throughout the text to Woolf and her novels which fans will enjoy, and Gee’s depiction of Woolf’s personality is how I imagined she would have been, e.g. her confident and competent dealings with the bookshop staff. However, and this is a big disappointment, the ending is not good. Suddenly the book goes from a fun romp across New York and Istanbul to a weak philosophical lecture. It really didn’t work for me and Gee’s final treatment of Woolf just doesn’t quite ring true. Read it, it’s fun but please don’t expect too much.

August reading … or feminism, the 1920s and gothic dolls!

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal – I’ve read a few historical gothic novels recently as they seem to be enjoying an increase in popularity. As a result of this I probably expected a bit more from this novel than it was able to give. It’s not very creepy, predictable and I’m afraid I wasn’t captivated by it. I did enjoy the descriptions of the Great Exhibition and felt MacNeal brought that to life but the storyline is too reminiscent of John Fowles’ The Collector crossed with a Charles Dickens novel. Somehow it just didn’t live up to my expectations – the curse of over-hype.

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene – A rather dull bank manager retires and is reunited with his long lost Aunt at his mother’s funeral. She sweeps him into an exciting, fast paced and slightly criminal life. This novel has some really lovely moments but on the whole it wasn’t for me, not because the writing isn’t good but because the time period (1960s) and the setting just aren’t what I normally enjoy.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson – A cleverly written book. Nelson takes us through her relationship break up and the serious injury of her friend. The structure of the book is such that we are given snapshots of her thoughts in 240 numbered paragraphs. There is no normal story telling here but by a clever ordering of these paragraphs we are lead through the events of her friend’s accident, how Nelson cares for her after and also the decline of her relationship. This is good but at times it felt a bit self indulgent. Having said that I’m going back to this one and want to read more of Nelson.

Women and Power by Mary Beard – Just a little book of two of Beard’s talks ( ‘The Public Voice of Women’ and ‘Women in Power’) but it packs a punch. I really enjoyed reading this and was impressed by her use of the classical world to show how we are no better now than we were then. I agree with several of her feminist theories discussed here and Beard is another author I fully intend to read more of.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – It’s been a while since I last read this novel but it is one which I have reread several times. It is just perfect and each time I read it I find more in it. I know I’m biased as my Masters dissertation was based on 1920’s fiction as will be my PhD thesis but I really can’t recommend it enough. Once you have read the book, watch the film with Leonardo DiCaprio. I was impressed by how closely they stuck to the original novel and it looks gorgeous.

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley – Another 1920’s novel about dysfunctional young people at a country house party. It doesn’t achieve the same level of cynicism that Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies does but it still displays a certain feeling of futility and a lack of purpose in the protagonists, representative of that period. It is an interesting read in that the main story of the weekend is interspersed with completely random stories about loosely related matters e.g. a distant relative. This is what makes it a bit different and fun to read. This is another one I’m going back to.

Overall, a good reading month although I started with a couple that didn’t really impress me. I’ve got a few more on the go at the moment that I am really enjoying so more on them later. They are The Trials of Radclyffe Hall by Diana Souhami, The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield and 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak. A special shout out to an amazing independent bookshop I discovered on holiday in Santorini – Atlantis Books – it has been described as the best bookstore in the world by The Guardian and I agree. It was perfect.

The Corset by Laura Purcell

Here’s a mini review simply because I am a little busy at the moment but had to say how much I enjoyed this book.

The Corset by Laura Purcell

This is such a clever story. It twists and turns, smoothly and abruptly. You think you know what is happening, then you don’t and THEN we have the last few pages which I guarantee you will read more than once.

I really enjoyed this book. It is an historical murder with a distinctly gothic supernatural twist set in the nineteenth century. Ruth is a young seamstress accused of murdering her employer and Dorothea is the upper class lady who visits her in prison listening to her story and in some way being her benefactor.

The historical setting is excellent, the motley crew of characters is extremely well written and I highly recommend this.

Little – Edward Carey

I have gradually heard more and more about this book over the past 6 months through book tube and reviewers and it kept catching my attention. Even after listening to an excellent review of it on the Tea or Books? podcast I still don’t know why I delayed in reading it, but that has been remedied now.

Little is the fictionalised story of Madam Tussaud’s life, originally Anne Marie Grosholtz; being born in Switzerland, growing up in revolutionary Paris and then finally moving to London. It is fantastic. Little’s (i.e. Marie’s) voice throughout the novel is perfect. Her unsentimental narration feels realistic and convincing.

In a way this is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age narrative for Marie.We read about her lack of independence, how she slowly takes control of her life and escapes her low standing in society, through hard work and dedication. The novel explores a couple of very interesting themes; the boundary between life and death and how close they are in these characters lives and the concept that we can change how we are perceived by others by changing our clothing, whether to ensure conformity and therefore safety or to transcend class boundaries. Never forgetting that ‘under the skin’, whether literal skin or clothing, we are all the same; the essential self does not change.

I really, really, enjoyed this book and read it in one sitting, something I haven’t done for a long time. Special mention also goes to the illustrations of body parts which Edward Carey drew himself, they really add something a little different to the book.

After Me Comes the Flood – Sarah Perry

I had no intention of reading another Sarah Perry book so soon after Melmoth but I accidentally picked up After Me Comes the Flood, Perry’s first novel, then put it back down again. Two weeks later it was still niggling at the back of my mind so I decided just to read it, it didn’t take too long.

The story starts with John driving to his brother’s to escape the city heatwave, his car breaks down and he goes to ask at the nearest (creepy) mansion if they can give him some water for the engine. There is something a bit Scooby Doo about the story line already. John is mistaken for a visitor the household is waiting for but instead of enlightening his hosts he decides to stay for the week. Not a normal course of events.

Here we have a host of mentally unstable characters, who appear to have escaped from an asylum, living together in a rather peculiar fashion. They are thrown at us en masse at the start and it takes a little reading to become clear who is who. I started the book not entirely sure what was going on and finished only slightly more enlightened. In truth, I would have liked more depth to the characters, however, there is something about it that is sticking with me and makes me curious. I can see why it caught a publisher’s attention and if I had read this novel first, it would have made me curious to look at more of Perry’s writing.

And so I did. This book of Short stories looks interesting. It is published by English Heritage and has the interesting premise that eight authors were allowed after hours entrance to their choice of English Heritage site and then used that experience as inspiration to write ghostly short stories which have been collated in this volume. Apart from Sarah Perry, the book also includes work from Kamila Shamsie and Jeanette Winterson.

After listening to Perry on the Bookseller podcast (she has a lovely voice and this is an excellent new podcast) I’m interested in her next book, currently in the making, even though it is supposed to be a Romance. An interesting genre jump from Gothic to Romance. Will it work? We shall see.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk

I think this may be the best title for a book I have seen in a long time. Tokarczuk is a Polish writer and was the recent winner of the Man International Book prize for her novel Flights but I decided to start reading her work with this one after listening to a podcast where the speaker couldn’t sing her praises enough. Sorry I can’t remember the podcast but I think it may have been Vintage books or Guardian books. Anyway, I thought this was excellent.

Essentially, on the surface, this is a murder mystery involving a little, old, eccentric lady who has an interest in astrology. Underneath, it is so much more than that. It looks at fate, our lives being predestined i.e. written in the stars, and it looks at man’s cruelty to animals including eating them.

The little old lady tries to see patterns in everyday things, trying to understand why things happen using astrology, but she just seems to be surrounded by death. She has even calculated the date of her own death. Then her neighbours start to die and she has some interesting ideas as to who murdered them.

Given the depth to Tokarczuk’s writing the genre of Murder mystery felt unusual but I did enjoy it. Although I think we all kind of know who the murderer is from early on. Credit must also be given to Antonia Lloyd – Jones, the translator, she has done a fantastic job. Since this was so enjoyable I really want to read Tokarczuk’s new book Flights. It looks much more experiemental and hopefully will be something to get stuck into.

The World Broke in Two – Bill Goldstein

If you are even remotely interested in Modernist writers then this book is a gem. Goldstein has researched the lives of Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, D H Lawrence and E M Forster in the year 1922 and he has done an absolutely excellent job of it.

There is not a single stone left unturned and we move through the year, month by month, learning about the authors’ work, personal lives and health. The crafting and structure of this is excellent, each chapter focusses on one author and each one moves us through the year, month by month.

The whole book is fascinating but there are some details about the authors which particularly made me smile. One of my favourites is that of T S Eliot wearing green face powder to make himself look ill and therefore live up to the idea of a suffering artist and his reputation. The face powder was something Virginia Woolf noticed at a dinner party and later commented on.

One result of Goldstein’s excellent research is the further reading I now want to do. I need to find a Virginia Woolf story called Byron and Mr Briggs, where apparently Mrs Dalloway is at a dinner party with other Virginia Woolf characters. I am going to finally read The Waste Land by T S Eliot and D H Lawrence’s Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Trust me, there are many more.

I am going to highly recommend this book but I’m also fully aware that many people are not remotely interested in these writers. Therefore, read it, it’s great, but only if you like Modernist writers and the 1920’s.

Difficult Women – David Plante

Rather than a memoir, I would say this is a collection of notes about the time Plante spent with three difficult women; Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell and Germaine Greer. I picked it up because of Jean Rhys. I find her writing unique and have been suspicious that it was very much based on her own life experiences. I knew she was an alcoholic and had lost a child due to neglect but I wanted to learn more about her. It appears in her later life she was self centred and unpleasant but at the same time fragile and reliant on others. Sonia Orwell (George’s wife for only 14 weeks before he died) is also hard work and I am pretty sure that Germaine Greer would not be at the top of my list for a dinner party invite. In fact, all of these women are portrayed as being particularly tiring to spend any time with. They demand attention, have emotional swings and whether consciously or not, dictate the mood of any conversation or party.

This is not a complementary memoir, in fact when the book was first published in 1983, Plante made himself very unpopular in literary circles with other writers and friends of the women in question. He talks frankly about this in an article in The Paris Review, written in September 2017. He doesn’t apologise as he feels he was merely describing their relationships as they were. I find his writing a little arrogant and as self centred as his subjects.

Even so, I did enjoy this book and raced through it in 24 hours but I can’t help feeling that in some way it is a breach of confidence. Plante is telling stories about his friends and I agree with Parul Sehgal in his review in The New York Times when he says,

“Difficult Women” is creepy, it is cruel, it is morally indefensible – and it is exhilarating.

Seghal, Parul, ‘With a Friend Like Him, They Didn’t Need Enemies’, The New York Times (September 2017).

Was Plante truly their friend or did he commit ‘literary treachery’ as Sehgal suggests? However you feel about this does not take away from the fact that he brings these women to life. If you are at all interested in Rhys, Orwell or Greer, give it a go. They are perfect little character studies and a fascinating read.

Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Every now and then something catches my eye, I buy it and read it straight away. There is no rhyme nor reason. Friday Black is one such book. It is a book of short stories by a debut author and comes in at just under 200 pages. It is a very interesting little book of short stories, all are dark and all deal with current important issues, for example, racism, poverty, violence and a post nuclear war, apocalyptic world (hopefully not a pressing concern at the time of writing this!).  The difference with these stories over others is that they are told in the form of science fiction, an alternative reality or a supernatural basis. Probably the best comparison for them is with the TV series Black Mirror, which I love. Apparently there is a new four part series on Netflix this Christmas.  Can’t wait!

I know I don’t do spoilers but I want to try and explain the genre a little better. The story ‘Friday Black’ (of book title fame) is very clever. It looks at the ugly side of capitalism through the phenomenon of Black Friday in an American store but, and this is what I like, it is written as if it is a Hunger Games or zombie movie. Which in itself is a very apt metaphor and describes the madness and crowd mentality perfectly.

Short stories must be hard to write as the author needs to engage the reader right from the very start, fortunately, these stories manage to do that perfectly. I would like to say that I enjoyed every single story and I did to an extent but there are a couple that aren’t as strong as the others.

 I had no idea what to expect when I started reading this book and I haven’t been disappointed. I look forward to seeing more from Adjei-Brenyah as I think he has a lot to say and is saying it from a very clever, new angle. 

The Changeling – Joy Williams

Reading this book I had a very strange sense of deja vu. Not because it is a 1978 book republished for its 40th Anniversary and I have read it before (which I haven’t) but because the setting is almost identical to another excellent book I have read, We were liars by E. Lockhart. The similarities are interesting, The Changeling  is set on an island owned by a very rich American family.  There is a main house on the island which is ruled over by a patriarchal figure and there is a large number of children living on the island as well, some related, some not but all running wild and free. Maybe Lockhart was inspired by The Changeling but even if she was, the similarities end there.

I enjoyed the first few chapters of the book; Pearl has run away from the island and is sitting in a Florida bar getting drunk with her baby, Sam, until her other half turns up to take her back. Then something pretty horrendous happens and we see Pearl back on the island several years later. This is where it slowly spirals into madness and frankly weirdness.

What follows is an alcohol fuelled, delirium narrative. In other words, it is completely unreliable and seems to slip into fantasy and myth regularly. Who are we to believe? Is Pearl speaking the truth or is she hallucinating? Can we believe the children and what are they? Or even Thomas, her brother-in-law? There is something very magical and mythical about this book with serious dark undertones and mental instability. 

The second last chapter is key and since I don’t do spoilers I’m just going to say it really hits the jackpot on the ‘what the hell is going on’ scale. Suddenly, everything you thought was real might not be and it made me rethink the whole book. I have a suspicion that if you are interested in recreational drugs then you may well enjoy this or at least understand more of what is going on. There are moments of brilliance and because of that I liked The Changeling. The flashes of brilliance overcame the weirdness and the unsettling and dark tale sparked my imagination.