Friday, 7 August 2015


Such a gorgeous thing to do.  Some of these are real genius.  Simple but so creative and funny. There's only two minutes of Friday left, but I'm going hunting through my shelves to see what I can find anyway... #bookfacefriday

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Judging Go Set a Watchman by its cover...

Here are the UK (orange, left) and American (blue, right) cover designs that Penguin eventually decided on:

Personally, I prefer the American design.  It seems relevant - the bird on the front of the UK edition harks too obviously back to To Kill a Mockingbird.  There is no mention of a bird in Go Set a Watchman.  Call me literal...

However, here are some of the designs that were rejected.  I like to consider the conversations that were had about each.

"Nah, looks too much like a Tony Parsons novel."

"Definitely not.  Too chick-lit.  Looks like something on sale in an airport."

"Haruki Murakami?"

"Is it 1946?  Are we publishing this before it was even written?  Is it a Noir thriller? I don't think so."

"Yawn.  We do want to sell a few, you know."

"You've taken the "watch" bit too literally..."

"Enough with the cartoon women already."

"Finally, we're getting close.  But research shows that Brits like orange books, so change that for the UK, and Americans prefer railway lines to birds, so change that for the USA.  There, both markets covered.  Job done."

Go Set a Watchman

WARNING:  There are potential spoilers in this review.  I recommend you do not read it until you have read the book.

As a book lover, how could I not wade in on this one?  Not only did I study To Kill a Mockingbird myself when I was young, but as a high school English teacher, I have also taught it many times, and it never, never grows tired.  So I was nervous when the news came that this missing manuscript had 'turned up', and that Go Set a Watchman was imminently to be published.  Nervous of what?  Of it being badly written.  Of it being boring.  Of it repeating everything in TKAM (as my students call it) but less well.  Of it being pointless.  It never once occurred to me that what I should be nervous about, was the collapse of our idealistic view of Atticus.  And I read that Atticus is revealed as a closet racist before I read the book, which has probably been the case for many readers.  Did it colour the way I approached Go Set a Watchman?  Probably, because I read it - almost to the end - ready to find a defence for whatever it is he says or does that implies this racism.  I say almost to the end, because the last forty pages leave no room for defence.  I'll come to that chronologically.

The novel opens well.  Scout's voice is there right from the start, written into the first few lines.  The voice-over from the film (is it possible to separate that piece of celluloid perfection from the book any more?) floated through my head, its soft southern drawl telling me a new story.  I was excited to read on.

I liked Scout immediately.  I had read that she wasn't fully rounded, that she was flat, not the sparky little firecracker she'd been as the child we know so well.  But I disagree.  She fairly quickly, through dress and patter, appeared to me as a fifties beat girl, hopped up on Kerouac and New York living, still tomboyish, still not quite towing the line.  She says to her back-home boyfriend, Hank, not long after her return to Maycomb, that she is used to "living in sin" in the Big Apple: "I learned it from sleek, Madison Avenuey young marrieds - you know that language, baby?"  An image sprang into my mind of her leaning against a department store window, all in black, smoking and watching Sylvia Plath and her Bell Jar friends sashay into their secretarial jobs and their middle class family lives, and knowing that she would never be one of them.  Scout is my kind of young woman.

Politics soon rears its head, and it is far broader here than in TKAM.  Within the first fifty pages, we have had talk of the NAACP and the Montgomery bus strikes.  We realise that this isn't going to be the story of one small-town incident of racism, as TKAM is, but that this book is about the wider fight for civil rights.

Minor characters from TKAM are mentioned, some very fleetingly, others are given a couple of pages.  Dill is very different, now living in Europe somewhere, and never the sickly little boy of Mockingbird.  Uncle Jack is not so much different, as more fleshed out.  Indeed, he is more Atticus in this book than Atticus is.  He is the voice of reason, the intermediary, the family saviour.  He has a larger part in this novel than Atticus does, and it is he, not Atticus, who utters the phrase that gives the book its title: "Every man's watchman is his conscience."   In Lee's re-write, much of Uncle Jack seems to have become the Atticus of TKAM.

There are some interesting sections: Scout's (I can't call her Jean Louise) internal argument with herself at the 'Coffee' given by Aunt Alexandra to allow the young women of Maycomb to welcome Scout back, is unusual, but I like it: it is an insight into Scout's personality, and the originality of the style reflects that depth of character.  Critics have argued that TKAM's strength lies in its first person narrative, and that Watchman, being in third person, loses some of that power.  But actually, much of Watchman is in first person.  Lee skips from third to first effectively, and it serves to highlight Scout's aloneness, as there is a constant first person commentary on the third person action.

The plot is minimal.  Scout returns to Maycomb for a visit, finds an offensive flyer in the house, follows her father and boyfriend to a racist meeting, and realises that everything she had thought was true and safe and right, isn't.  There are various flashbacks to her childhood, none of which repeat the stories in TKAM (how edited is Watchman, or was it published as found?) but all of which have that same note of parable to them as those in TKAM,  and none of which, other than a half page mention of her father's defence of a black man accused of rape (the incident that becomes the Tom Robinson case), touch on the central theme of racism.

I find it interesting that few critics have mentioned the penultimate chapter.  For me, this is central to the book.  Scout confronts her father, and they argue, both of them cleverly, as we might expect.  And it is here that I stopped comparing Watchman with Mockingbird, because here, Watchman becomes a separate entity.  Whilst TKAM is easily accessible for children (although it is not quite a children's book), this chapter of Watchman is adult, through and through.  Scout's language is unimaginable in Mockingbird, as is protracted anger of this vehemence.  I confess I had to read it with a tablet next to me, so that I could look up aspects of the American Constitution and Supreme Court rulings, none of which are explained, but all of which are central to an understanding of this chapter.  It feels raw, which to Lee, at the time she wrote this, it would have been.  Is the exchange between Scout and Atticus, Lee's own internal debate?  Or is she trying to show the world  the South's argument?

As I said at the beginning, there is a strong temptation to try to defend Atticus, simply because to lose that role model is too painful, but at page 242, I gave up.  There is no defence of his views.  None. I felt Scout's frustration and fury.  I gripped the back of that chair with her.  I echoed the names she called him.  And I never thought I could agree with someone who says, " You're a coward, as well as a snob and tyrant, Atticus", but I do, wholeheartedly.  He cannot be forgiven.  Even his defence of the here-unnamed Tom Robinson is given a darker, more selfish spin.  Atticus is the worst type of man, the type who will fight change with nonsensical pseudo-science because he does not want his own position threatened.  He is deplorable.

Is the ending satisfactory?  No, I don't think so.  Whilst she doesn't forgive her father, Scout accepts him.  After her outrage in his office, I found this unlikely, and even Uncle Jack's rather odd and out of place confession in the final pages does not save the denouement from feeling lacklustre and disappointing.

So, let's address the questions everyone is asking: is it a good book, and should it have been published?  Yes, is my answer to both. I really enjoyed Go Set a Watchman, and whilst its flaws are writ large, and whilst I agree that TKAM is by far the superior book, this shouldn't be dismissed as lightly - or as quickly - as I feel some people have done.  It needs TKAM in order for it to make sense - if you haven't experienced the Atticus of Mockingbird, you cannot possibly understand Scout's horror in Watchman.  The two books seem to me symbiotic: TKAM is narrative driven, it tells a story, indeed, many stories, and the story is what pushes it from page to page.  But Watchman is like its older sibling, explaining and developing the big ideas as the story moves forward.  It adds depth to Mockingbird.  It invites a viable re-reading of Mockingbird.  It asks questions about the naivety of Mockingbird as a story.  It probably needs time to be assimilated into the legend of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think that, in years to come, it will prove an apt partner.

The Jewel in the Crown

Every so often, I crave a book about India.  I think that subconsciously I'm trying to re-live A Suitable Boy, for me the most perfect novel ever written.  I loved that book, from the opening scene to the last.  And it gave me a thirst for more about that extraordinary country, although I have yet to find another novel that comes even close to Vikram Seth's.

I remember my mother watching the television series of The Jewel in the Crown when I was small, though I never saw it myself.  And despite the almost offputtingly hideous new covers Random House have seen fit to dress Paul Scott's Raj Quartet in, I decided to give it a go.

It started well, despite its sordid subject matter: the rape of a white woman by a gang of Indian men, at a time when Ghandi's actions were throwing the politics of Indian rule into chaos.  These two tenets parallel each other throughout the story, which is told in various voices, each chapter being a different characters' version of the same events.

I loved the first chapter, Miss Crane's story.  I came close to 'feeling' India in the pages, as I did when I first read A Suitable Boy, although this is a more British India, and one less rich for that.

The second chapter, however, lost me a little.  It was all over the place, and hard to piece together. Was this an intentional evocation of Lili Chatterjee's character, or simply a mis-written section of the book?

Sister Ludmila saved it for me though - the third chapter, her story, was wonderful.  The plot skipped along in her short, clipped sentences, and again, one of  the many Indias breathed with life in her words.

From here, it came and went in waves.  The military side of it bored me a little, though it picked up again for the final, and most pertinent, narrative, that of the young woman, Daphne Manners, who was raped.

It's a clever book, political yet plot-driven, exciting yet didactic.  I have not, however, been compelled to read the second book in the quartet, though I'll not altogether count out a return to its world.  I might sum it up as inconsistently excellent.

Monday, 20 July 2015


Persephone number 4 is a strange book.  I enjoyed it immensely and yet, at the same time, I found it rather boring.  How can this be?  Well, to start with, it follows a well worn plot path: woman is shunned by society after social misdemeanour.  This is not enough to bore me, however.  Indeed, far from it.  I love books that fought for the position of women to be better understood in times when the female voice was little more than a whisper.

Is the book well-written?  Certainly.  It has the emotional intensity, in places, of Emily Dickinson.  It explores what love is, what it feels like, what it does to you, what you will do for it.  And Susan Glaspell seems to revel in that knowledge.  Her descriptions of falling in love, for example, capture the details of those early stages in a way that only someone who has loved intently could do: "At first, it was just the faintest little breath; but it stirred something, it grew, it became a great wind that there was no force anywhere to combat."

Is it thought-provoking?  Yes, absolutely. It takes the idea that love is all, that love will conquer, that happiness can only come from love, that to follow one's heart will lead to fulfilment... and it turns it on its head.  It proposes that actually, without society, without friends and routine and expectations and gossip, we are nothing, and that two people in love - however deep and true that love - living alone in the wilderness, will never truly find peace or contentment, that they need a social circle to feel a part of.  One of the characters says that "just taking one's happiness is thorough selfishness. Society as a whole is greater than the that individual, isn't it?"  I would add, simply: discuss.

Are the characters likeable and well drawn?  Again, yes.  At least, those with whom we are supposed to sympathise are likeable - the least likeable is Amy, the spoiled young woman who moves to Freeport with her new husband, a young doctor who many years before had been best friends with the woman, Ruth Holland, who has so outraged society by running away with a married man.  (Note that it is not the married man, a pillar of said community, who has outraged Freeport, but the woman who fell in love with him.)  Amy. who will not even meet Ruth, returning to see her dying father, is the epitome of the stuck up, insular, rich young woman for whom 'society' works so well.  She is judgemental and cruel, and her life seems empty and, quite frankly, miserable.  One cares little for her.

And Ruth herself?  I think this may be where my problem with Fidelity lies.  I like her, don't get me wrong. She is incredibly modern in her attitude, and I'm sure I'd enjoy an evening in the pub with her, but she has two faults I find it hard to get over: firstly, she changes her mind too much.  She veers wildly from one minute defending her actions and not giving two darns what Freeport thinks of her, to repenting and lamenting what her choices have done to others, and to herself.  This is perhaps realistic, and shows the on-running battles and discussions she has with herself, but it happens too often.  Let the pendulum swing once or twice, and let that be enough.

Secondly, she really does lament.  At length.  There are pages of it.  Glaspell has an unusual style - it is flighty and high-minded (old-fashioned words like "sorrowing" are frequently used), slightly more formal than we might expect, even from the early years of the twentieth century.  And sometimes, I'm afraid that too often, my mind wandered and I prayed for the lament to end, and for the story to advance.

Fidelity does not conclude the way I expected.  It forced me to question the title: Fidelity to what, to whom, is most important?  To society?  To family?  To one's lover?  Or to oneself?  This is an interesting novel, and one I'm glad - as with so many others - Persephone are refusing to let be buried, but it's not my favourite from this publisher by quite a long chalk.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I love Victorian Lit.  I love stories with female protagonists.  I love female writers.  I love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.  And yet, an ill-timed - and ultimately deeply unsuccessful - attempt to broach Villette whilst on a road trip through Andalucia a few years ago prevented me, until recently, from attempting any of the other of the lesser known of the Bronte oeuvre.   A schoolgirl error, I now concede.

Firstly, I must address the fact that though the book is set - of course - largely in a secluded little mansion in the northern wilderness, Anne does not have that same talent as her sisters for making the landscape a character in its own right.  She tries.  And sometimes, she comes close.  But there is none of the primitive cruelty of Emily's heathland, nor the savage romance of Charlotte's.  No, the horrors of Anne's world spring entirely from the hearts of men.

A widow, Helen Graham - a pseudonym, we correctly suspect - arrives unannounced in a society familiar to anyone who has read Austen: one where the sexes "must fall each into [their] proper place", as Mrs Markham, the mother of our 'hero' Gilbert, reminds us continually.  She tells her son, in a discussion of marriage, that "you'll do your business and she, if she's worthy of you, will do hers; but it's your business to please yourself, and hers to please you."  And yet, this mysterious newcomer to the area, with whom Gilbert quickly becomes enamoured, seems not to abide by these proper laws.  Indeed, she shuns society at any available opportunity, and rumours soon begin to chase her.

Anne uses, rather clumsily, it has been said (and I'm tempted to agree), the Chinese Box method of narration here, as we move into Mrs Graham's diary, whereupon we learn her true history: she had married, unwisely and against advice, a man who can no better be described than as a veritable rogue, a dissolute gambler and, to use the modern vernacular, party animal.  As her marriage drags through years, our heroine, we discover, now a new mother, accepts all that is thrust upon her - humiliation, violence, neglect, imprisonment, for the very reasons Mrs Markham has outlined above.  Because it is her business to do so. Because that is a woman's lot.  Because one belongs to one's husband and a man may treat his property however he sees fit.  But when this awful man starts to ruin her son, Helen will take no more.  In order primarily to protect her child, she escapes, changes her name, and moves to an empty Hall in the middle of nowhere, where she earns a meagre living as an artist.

This is a remarkably modern story.  Exactly such things may happen now.  And that is where the story's power lies.  This is a feminist tale - so much so, that even Anne's own sister Charlotte tried to prevent publication as she saw it is a step too far - and as such, still has much to teach us.  The fear with which an abused wife lives has not changed in 150 years, and it is evoked here in all its horror. The sadistic husband, who delights in the torture he inflicts on his powerless wife, is enough to drive the reader to distraction.  One roots for Helen all the way through, and although I found her piety a little wearing, her lioness-like protection of her son cannot help but draw one to her.

Gilbert, on the other hand, is rather unlikeable, hence my use of inverted commas around the word 'hero'.  He is dangerously impetuous, has a tendency to violence himself, and is arrogant to the point of extreme vanity.  But then, what man in that society would not be all of those things?  Perhaps he is merely a realistic portrayal.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a strange mix of modern manners and outmoded mores.  In places it touches a Mills and Boon-esque sensibility - but perhaps that now clich├ęd romance was exactly what these Bronte girls imagined and dreamed of.  Whilst this novel's hair does not blow wild, like that of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, it is more compact, more restrained, more rooted.  I loved it, and consider that it sits proudly and rightfully alongside its better known siblings as a more political, if less fanciful, equal.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

I read this purely on the strength of  Life After Life, which I read last year and absolutely loved.  I was declaiming its virtues in work one day, when a colleague asked if I'd read Behind the Scenes at the Museum.  At my negative response, she raved lyrical for a good while, and I was convinced. Having now read it, however, I'm not quite as convinced as I was...

Let me start by saying that it is well written, cleverly plotted, and that the characters are both intricate and real: Ruby is a brilliantly realised voice.  Like Life After Life, the story switches between time frames, but in no way does it do so as cleverly as in Life After Life - but then, it's not the over-arching plotline in Behind the Scenes, whilst in Life After Life, that revisiting of the past is the very raison d'etre of the book.  Behind the Scenes is funny, heartbreaking, unputdownable (don't you just love an adjective that exists only for book lovers?), and yet...and yet...

I think it's me, not the book.  I have a kind of aversion to books that are set too predominantly in the real world, in a world I recognise. Although Behind the Scenes takes place largely in the decade before my own birth, it is a world that still exists (with a few technological additions) and I'm very much someone for whom stories are escapism, rather than a confirmation of one's own position.

I did enjoy this book, and I can see why people love it, and why it set Atkinson on the path to glory, but for me, mundanity got in the way of genius.  (If, however, I have put you off Behind the Scenes, don't let that sway you from Life After Life: that one really is brilliant.)