A wet Saturday afternoon of book buying

First off let me apologise for not updating this blog for over a week. In my defence it has been an incredibly busy week. On Monday I started a brand new temping job which has been incredibly demanding and taken up most of my time. But now that the weekend is finally here I can sit down and update you on the books I’ve been buying and reading.

Today the boyfriend and I went for lunch in a restaurant in Wilmslow, Manchester and as I came out I saw a Oxfam stocked full with books. An hour later we both came out with over £40.00 worth of books! For charity shop prices that’s a hell of a lot of books. Here’s a look at some that I picked up:

I managed to pick up two separate book sets, one from Virago published authors that includes the likes of Pat Barker, Angela Carter, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Dodie Smith. The other, entitled The Swinging Sixties are full of novels I’m less familiar with from giants in the world of literature from the Beat writers of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, to the fantastic Joan Did ion and J G Ballard.

Book sets aside I also managed to pick up novels by three of my all-time favourite novelists Margaret Atwood and her lesser known Life Before Man, Jeanette Winterson’s Sexting the Cherry and the ever mind-boggling genius of Haruki Murakami with South of the border, West of the sun. Finally I took a chance on a book I’ve heard a lot about much of which is surrounded in controversy. I’m talking about Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands. I’ve no doubt her novel will be a real eye-opener based on the passages I read at random.

When I’m actually going to find the time to read all these books is anyone’s guess but I  get leave the shop and not get them so they’ll all have to go on my top-to-read shelf for when I have the time to give them the full attention they deserve.

 

Strange & Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers

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Photograph by Bruce Gilden, Factory in the Midlands 2014

Yesterday I decided to pay a visit to one of my favourite places in Manchester. Sitting on Mosley Street, Manchester Art Gallery holds a collection of some of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings. But it wasn’t the Rossetti’s or the Holman Hunt’s I was there to see but the galleries newest exhibition, Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. Curated by Martin Parr, the exhibition celebrates the work of leading photographers, including Henri Cartier Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Rineke Dijkstra, Bruce Gilden and Evelyn Hofer. From the 1930’s onwards the photographers capture the social, cultural and political identity of the UK, according to the Manchester Art Gallery website.

I was intrigued by how ‘outsiders’ view the country I love and so I made a special trip to see the photographs. The first thing that struck me was how utterly and completely these photographers had captured a sense of ‘Britishness’, whatever you take that to me. For me it means exploring the lives not just of those we see most often in films and literature but groups that tend largely to be ignored, the working-classes for example. The reason I was so taken with many of the photographs was because they seemed to capture the conditions of my childhood or speak to my experiences growing up in a working-class family in the Midlands.

The photographs vary from portraits to street photography and social documentary and are a fascinating insight into how others view the UK. In turn they seem to reflect back to us, our own experiences and that was certainly true for me. I’d like to show you just some of my favourites and explain why.

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boy-with-pram
Photograph by Bruce Davidson, Wales, 1965

I was drawn to this photograph because of the way it challenges notions of masculinity and femininity. Here we have a boy pushing a pram with a doll and teddy inside and in the background the smoke is billowing from the factories.This boy from a small Welsh village is not ashamed to be playing with ‘girl’s toys’, the shame comes later when boys are socialised to behave ‘like men’ and reject the feminine. What’s also interesting is the way the boy stands in stark contrast to his surrounding, with his softness and childlike gaze. For now he can play with toys but with the factory looming in the background, it implies that this will be his destiny, to work in the factories, I suspect like much of his family members .

ladbrokes

This was another photograph that I found gut-wrenching and yet eerily familiar. Many working-class communities find themselves plighted by gambling. When work is short many try their hand in the bookmakers or slot machines. These places seem to shoot up like viscous weeds whenever there’s a downturn in the economy it seems to me and they strip people of what little money they have. Here two men stand in the doorway of Ladbrokes as another man is passed out in front of them. It’s not that these men don’t care but that it can become an all too familiar sight, especially when work is scarce and men (usually) have little else to do but wile away the hours drinking and/or gambling.

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What consistently annoys me about representations of the working-class are the recurring stereotypes, either that of the salt-of-the earth worker or the down-trodden proletariat. Neither one fully captures what it means to be working-class and for me, this picture about highlights the joy and sense of community so many feel. There’s something slightly cheeky about this photo that I love, as if the men are in on some private joke that the viewer can only guess at.

4 faces.jpg
Photographs by Bruce Gilden

There was something utterly shocking and yet mesmerizing about these four portraits. I noticed a lot of people spending quite some time staring at them, shocked yet unable to look away. It was as if their entire lives were written all over their faces, for all to see.

 

marching-to-factory

There’s something slightly disconcerting about this one. The rows of near identical men falling in step with one another heading to work, a factory I presume. Their almost-robot like with a military feel to it. They could almost be soldiers heading off to battle. The photograph captures

woman-cleaning-pavement
Photograph by Bruce Davidson

I hate to perpetuate the stereotype of the put-upon working-class woman but the reality was and still is that many working-class women bear the brunt of domestic household tasks. The monotonous, endless work is typified here by a woman on her knees cleaning the path from her doorstep.

revolution

What’s so provoking about this photograph is that the revolution has literally and metaphorically been shut down. This is a familiar sight in many working-class areas with whole rows of shops closed down and boarded up. At times the city centres can take on the feel of ghost towns.

multi
Photograph by Candida Hofer, Liverpool XV

Whether you like the term of not, this photograph highlights the multicultural nature of British society and how diverse our communities are. However, I would have liked to have seen more like this and if I had any complaints it would be that many diverse communities including LGBT ones appeared to be absent from the exhibition. But on the whole this was an excellent exhibition and I would highly recommend you pay a visit.

The exhibition is on display until the 29th May 2017.

Book review – The Marble Collector by Cecelia Ahern

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Published May 2016

HarperCollins

I love talking about books. I love doing this about as much as love reading them so the first thing I did when I moved up North here to Manchester was to find out about local reading groups. I discovered that my local library runs two groups once a month. This Tuesday was my first visit.

I’ll admit to being something of a book group virgin so I arrived prepared with pages of notes on the book the lovely librarian gave me to read in preparation. The novel is called The Marble Collector and it’s written by Cecelia Ahern author of the P.S. I Love You which was turned into a film starring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler with a terrible Irish accent. As I wrote some weeks ago in this blog, Cecelia Ahern is a novelist I’m familiar with but had certain preconceptions about, in particular what I thought her books were about. But it took a book group to get me to read one of her novels and this is undoubtedly one of the benefits of taking part in these kinds of groups because they introduce to books you’d never have considered reading otherwise. This was certainly the case with The Marble Collector. The blurb didn’t do it much justice either so it was with some surprise that I found myself finishing the book in two days. The Marble Collector is the kind of comforting read that wraps you up in a warm blanket on a cold, wet afternoon and leads you into a family drama that is both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

When Sabrina Boggs stumbles upon a box of her father’s belongings, she discovers a marble collection that her father, a man she thought she knew well, had hidden from her family. This discovery turns Sabrina’s uneventful life upside down as she begins to hunt for answers to the secrets he’d kept hidden his entire life. The events in the novel take place within a single day and are told from the perspective of both Sabrina and her father Fergus.

The novel looks at the nature of memory and opens with Sabrina admitting to remembering what others forget. This makes for an intriguing premise. The memories that the novel explores are largely those of her father Fergus. Looking back on his childhood we quickly begin to glimpse the world he was brought up in and the significance the marbles will play in his life, for better or for worse. After learning how he was first introduced to marbles as a young boy, the narrative switches and we meet Fergus’ daughter Sabrina, a lifeguard at a nursing home, for the first time. It’s clear that’s she’s restless with her life and despite having the husband, the family and the job she always dreamed of, finds something is still missing from her life. There was a line I found particularly beautiful when she says, “It is always above the water that I struggle, that I can’t breathe. It is above the water that I feel like I’m drowning.” (p.24)

Why doesn’t Sabrina just ask her father about the marbles you may ask? Her father has suffered a stroke causing memory loss and the story is a far more interesting one when it allows Sabrina to go on this journey of discovery. This is as much about Sabrina metaphorically saving herself from drowning as it is about Fergus’ marbles.

This isn’t a perfect novel by any means. At times the story falls into the realm of melodrama and the Fergus chapters are more absorbing than Sabrinas. But it’s an easy read that doesn’t require too much energy or brain power to invest in it and I don’t mean to be critical when I say that. Sometimes a mindless read is precisely what I need, especially after I’ve read something heavy and time-consuming. So if that’s the kind of read you’re looking forward, the give The Marble Collector a try.

3 stars

A short review of Transit by Rachel Cusk

transit-jpg

Jonathan Cape

Published 2016

Transit follows writer Faye and her return to London after the break-up of her marriage. She buys a dilapidated flat in an up-and-coming area and attempts to renovate it, much to the annoyance of the neighbours in the flat below. Intertwined with this are the stories of various people she comes in contact with; a former flame who reminisces about their old life together, her hairdresser and builder, a friend who works in the fashion industry and a visit to a male cousin and his dysfunctional friends and family. The novel deals with such themes as the break-up of relationships and marriages, responsibility, sense of place, art and literature.

I am going to be honest in my review and say that I really didn’t know what to make of this book. That does not happen often. Usually I have a clear idea in my mind, when a I review a book, what I want to say about it, but this one I had a hard time with.

I have been trying to decide what it is about this book that has left me so puzzled. Partly it is has to do with the lack of any real plot-line. At times it felt, during the reading of this book, as if I was wading through mud with no clear end in sight.

Partly it was the detached voice of the narrator, not part of the story but seemingly outside of it, a passive receiver of other’s tales. She’s almost a blank canvas onto which others are painting their stories and we only really know her in relation to others.  Ultimately I found her to be something of an enigma.  Faye acts almost like a counselling allowing others to unburden themselves all the while attempting to deal with her own sense of alienation and loneliness.

Most of the characters that the narrator meets, feel invisible or are involved in the service economy providing services to people who never really see them such as the hairdresser, the builder and his assistant. Everyone in the novel is trying to form connections with others and are struggling.  It is very much a character driven rather than plot-driven novel. But what also left me slightly puzzled was the disjointed nature of the stories she’s told that felt only marginally related to the title of the novel. These are people in transit, that much was clear but the novel really didn’t go anywhere. Perhaps that was the point of the novel but it felt unsatisfying to read.

3 stars

Edouard Louis & Andrew McMillan in discussion

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Last night I attended a truly fantastic event at Waterstones in Deansgate Manchester in which the poet Andrew McMillan discussed the debut novel The End of Eddy with its author Edouard Louis. I’d received a galley copy of the book but rather naughty of me I know I didn’t get around to reading it in time for event. What attracted me to this talk was the buzz I’d heard around Edouard Louis and his book. He’s become something of a celebrity in his home country of France and his debut novel had won the English PEN award.  I’d heard that the novel explores notions of social-class, masculinity, homosexuality and violence and as someone with a personal and academic interest in the intersectionality of class, gender and sexuality, I knew this was a talk not to be missed. I woke up extra early to start reading the End of Eddy and as soon as I’m finished I’ll review it right here. Instead, I thought I’d write about the discussion that took place between McMillan and Louis last night.

 Edouard Louis kicked off by reading a short extract from his novel. It was wonderful to hear the story read with a French accent. It made it seem more real and immediate somehow. Once Louis had finished reading McMillan began by talking about his love of the book, how beguiled he was by it. McMillan described it as the pivotal text of our age – high praise indeed.

His first question to Edouard Louis was about the form of the book. The novel is a fictionalised account of his childhood in a small town in Northern France and Louis described how important it was to write about true facts and experiences and the pain they caused. This partly explained why he read such a short extract from the book. It’s clear that this is still something painful and visceral for him. He mentioned Chelsea Manning and Snowdon and their pursuit of truth and how important that was. Referring to the characters in the book based on his own family, Louis talked about the negative reception of the book from some critics in France who didn’t believe such lives existed. “The people were dismissed as fiction. We felt it. No one cares if they think we don’t exist. Journalists have said it can’t be true.” Other journalists, thinking they were defending him and his book have written that they don’t care if it’s true because it’s literature. But both sides miss the point which is that truth-telling is a political act. By telling the truth about his experiences Louis is trying to reveal the lives of the people of his childhood, those that represent the working-classes or as is now more accurate, non-working-classes, those from former industrial places that can’t find work. McMillan agreed that placing those kinds of people at the centre of literature isn’t done enough.

edouardlouis

Edouard stated that “my first question when I started to write was who is excluded from literature today? All the big revolutions in literature were writers who wrote about people who was excluded.” He added, that he was always fascinated by the likes of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and de Beauvoir because they wrote about those that are excluded from society and written out of literature, I would argue. “The people of my childhood were not there so I put their lives in my book and people hate it sometimes,” he said. McMillan asked if there was resistance to the book? Edouard, in response, once again mentioned de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison and also Pierre Bourdieu as individuals who told the truth. “The truth is difficult to reach because it’s covered by lies.” I guess people have a hard time hearing the truth, especially when it runs counter to what they already believe.

edouad-louis-2

McMillan followed this up by talking about the austere style of the language that’s very straightforward as a means of truth-telling. In response Edouard referenced Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and a scene where one of the characters is spat on. It’s described as being like a flower and Edouard said that kind of language was the opposite of what he wanted to use because he didn’t want to make beauty out of violence. Eddy was being spat on because he was gay and literature shouldn’t make beauty out of violence. 

The subject of Eddy being bullied in the book also came up and McMillan remarked that it was almost as if the other kids knew he was different before he did. Edouard agreed and discussed the word ‘faggot’. He said, “faggot was waiting for me before I was born. Why this word would define my life, my fate. Eddy’s not a different child, he didn’t feel different it was others forcing him to be different.” Instead, as a writer he wanted to break the narrative. The book is about struggling to fit in and his own dream was to be normal and confirm. It was others that defined him as different before he did. McMillan agreed adding that Eddy’s narrative was all about him resisting what others think he’ll be. Edouard mentioned the film Billy Elliott as one example as well as writers he admires such as Baldwin and Stendhal.

McMillan then brought up the issue of agency and the lack of agency poverty gives people.  He talked about the cycle of violence in the book and about how poverty can trap people in a cycle they can’t break. They’re forced to assume certain roles; that of the macho husband or dutiful wife. Edouard said that, “the will of doing something isn’t something you’re born with. The will of fleeing for Eddy took a long time.” He mentioned his mother and her lack of freedom and that freedom was a lie. By saying everyone is free you’re putting the onus on the individual to then create a space of freedom. Instead, he said, we all belong to a context. McMillan expanded on this by stating that, “it was telling people in your village they were worthy of being in literature. There’s a need for people who are disenfranchised to make their own story, narratives they can pass down.” He refers to the mother in the story and her sense of humour. It’s as if she’s saying, ok if no one else tells our story then I will. Referring to his mother and father, Edouard said that he wanted to put in the centre of the novel the language his parents spoke. He also talked in detail about the masculinity of his father and brothers and how every day they would go to the cafes and because his father was ashamed of him, he would stay at home with his mother and sister. So he became attuned to women’s speech, the kind of speech that’s built on exclusion because she didn’t finish school and his father didn’t want her to work because she’s a woman. He described how his mother was very literary in the stories she told, likening her to Antigone.

McMillan brought up the issue of performed or heightened masculinity in the book, something that was also the subject of many of the audiences questions afterwards. What I found insightful about Edouard’s response was when he said that when the working-classes are excluded from cultural capital they only have their bodies so of course they rely on their masculinity. But he added that all the male characters in the book as failing when it comes to masculinity especially his father. “We live in a world where there are strong rules and norms and we continue to reproduce them again and again and it only ends up causing us shame because we don’t fit into the norms”, he said. As we all know, no one respects these norms and yet they’re all so imbedded in the way we behave that when we don’t live up to those norms, I agree with Edouard, it produces feelings of shame.

I took a lot away from the talk and the issues raised are something I’ve been thinking about all morning.  The first thing I did when I woke up was to start reading Edouard’s Louis book because I was so anxious to read an author that was willing to reveal the severity and violence of the small town he came from and how important I feel it is that we move towards self-representation o working-class communities. What I took away from McMillan and Louis talk was the authors willing to be self-reflexive and self-critical about the people of his childhood and locate all the problems he faced within a Marxist analysis.

I did wonder, as I was sitting listening to the talk, whether a lot of the problems in the novel were class-based and Edouard was keen to add that traditionally representations of the working-classes has veered from wither despising them or mythologizing them, there was no middle ground. You either had, what he called, good savages vs. disgusting savages. He said he hated both ways of seeing the working-classes. I was in agreement with Edouard in seeing class in relation to gender. “Social class is as much economic as it is to do with masculinity because it’s about when people can’t choose.” What I also liked was his response to one audience member who wanted to know why he didn’t write about what happened to Eddy afterwards when he got to the high school and Edouard was clear that he had no interest in writing about how we/he becomes bourgeois. He wanted it to be about the working-classes. He’d learnt to be suspicious of book from his mother and father so it took a play he was studying at high school to fire his love of literature. His book seems not to be about his journey out of class, as so many working-class novels are, but about representing with truth and honesty the people of his childhood. I applaud him for that and personally I can’t wait to see what he writes next. 

 

 

Apple Tree Yard: sex and double-standards

Spoiler Alert!

Trigger warning!

The last episode of Apple Tree Yard, based on the book of the same name by Louise Doughty, aired on BBC One last night and it treated audiences to a thrilling climax.

Speaking of climaxes, lets talk about sex and in particular the portrayal of sex in Apple Tree Yard. It’s great to see on mainstream T.V., a woman in her 40’s who has both a  successful career and enjoys sex, a woman many women may aspire to. On the surface at least Yvonne played by Emily Watson, appears to have it all, the perfect house, a loving husband and family and a job she is passionate about. But as we all know, appearances can be deceptive and Apple Tree Yard effectively plays on this to reveal a woman who wants not just to be noticed but also to be wanted. Enter the tall dark stranger in the form of Mark Costley played by Ben Chaplin. As his name implies, her liaison with him will prove costly for them both.

When she starts her affair with Costley they have risky sex in public or semi-public places, Apple Tree Yard being one of them. She’s seen enjoying sex and the thrill of her covert liaisons. But a woman can’t have an affair and not be punished for it. It’s a trope we see again and again in literature and in films, the double-standard when it comes to sex. Men can have affairs and not be punished for it, women usually are. Clearly Yvonne hasn’t read the Scarlett Letter or she’d know that she’s crossed the boundaries of what is permissible for a woman. You either have sex within the sanctity of marriage, remain in a loveless/sexless marriage or you end up a lonely spinster, those are your options we’re told.   God forbid you desire more. At least that’s what society repeatedly tells us. and Yvonne becomes a symbol of the fallen woman, one who will soon learn to “know her place”.

When Yvonne is raped by a colleague, George Selway the scene is brutally visceral, shot almost like an out-of-body experience. Selway’s justification for doing so is that “everyone knows you’ve been fucking someone else”, the implication being that she must therefore be “up for it” with anyone and has brought this on herself.

What I found particularly telling was during the scene when Yvonne reveals the rape to Mark Costley, she apologises. She says, “I’m sorry, you didn’t sign up for this.”  She’s been through a horrific experience and yet feels the need to apologise for it, a smart woman who is essentially attempting to lessen the burden of the rape on her lover. This kind of response is telling. Yvonne thinks of the impact it will have not only on him but on others.

Later when her husband’s affair with a student is confirmed we yet again witness the burden of a man’s actions rested firmly on a woman’s shoulders when he blames their lack of a sex life for his affair, on her not “needing him”. Once again Yvonne is punished for seeking sexual and emotional fulfilment. If it seems like I’m condoning adultery I’m not. But what I am questioning are the assumed we make about those that do, especially women.

This is taken to the extreme when Yvonne is then accused of conspiring to murder George Selway. This is what happens when a woman steps beyond the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable. Here we see the long arm of the law reinforcing this.

There was a scene that was particularly difficult to watch when Yvonne testifies about the rape in a courtroom. Here we begin to understand the reasons why Yvonne chose not to report the rape when she is crossed-examined by a barrister. The suggestion is that this is exactly what she would have had to have gone through if she had taken the rape case all the way to court. It was a poignant moment, one I’m sure many woman who’ve experience sexual assault found hard to stomach. Yvonne is hounded by the barrister into admitting that she lied about her sexual relationship with Mark Costley and that, as a result she cannot be trusted when it comes to the rape and the subsequent murder.

What is also interesting that Yvonne’s fall occurs on multiple levels. Her indiscretions are used as an excuse by George Selway to rape her but it’s consequences stretch still further when she is forced to leave her successful career and is shunned by her daughter. Yet her husband who also had an affair experiences none of the same stigma. Towards the end of the final episode Yvonne and her husband are talking in the bedroom and Yvonne wants her husband to reveal his affair to their daughter who isn’t speaking to Yvonne because of her affair with Mark Costley. Here we see the double standard in play once again. He refuses to do so.

Yvonne is eventually found not guilty of the manslaughter of George Selway but Mark Costley is and justice, we believe has been served. But it doesn’t end there. The final twist in the tale comes at the very end when Yvonne goes to visit Costley in prison and we discover that she did in fact ask him to murder Selway. In a flashback we hear her tell him, “I want you to kill him – I want you to smash his fucking face in,” only then for her to add when she’s face-to-face with Costley in prison, that  “People can say anything – you really can’t tell the difference can you?”

What was interesting about this T.V. drama was that here we have a three-dimensional, complex character in Yvonne Carmicheal. Yes she is presented as a fallen woman but it’s the way the drama explores this that made it worth watching as was the way she went from being a victim to the final scene when we discover that she instigated or at least put the idea of murder into Costley’s head and someone who fights back. Did she use Costley t murder to Selway? That’s the question we’re left with and this final piece of information certainly changed the way I thought about Yvonne’s character. Some may see her affair with Costley as reckless or implausible but the drama did a good job in showing how sometimes one mistake can have dire consequences.