Category Archives: Book review

When you rip out the roots


Gardeners know that when dividing a plant they have to be careful and quick. They must either gently tease out the roots or administer a quick chop with a sharp blade before immediately re-potting the two halves in a nurturing environment to avoid transplant shock.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante deals with a division that is neither quick nor gentle. It is a quick read, thank goodness, because the subject matter is disturbing, none of the characters is likeable, and the density of the prose often cloying; but it is not a pleasant nor enjoyable read.

The main character, Olga, suffers a breakdown after her husband leaves her for a younger woman – not an unusual premise; however, her suffering escalates until she can no longer manage her life nor her children’s lives. She is a plant in shock, descending into a toxic hell of self-abasement, obscenity, vicious anger, and overwhelming dysfunction in all areas of her life, roots exposed and withering. No plant can possibly survive in such conditions. Continue reading


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Book Reviews

A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion My rating: 4 of 5 stars I haven’t read a novel by Didion, only her essays, and wasn’t sure what to expect. However, her writing style – disj…

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Hardy Musings




Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native is a novel I read many years ago and being an admirer of his work, thought I would re-read it as its premise had long since slipped into the blur of Hardy novels. As any Hardy reader knows- and I don’t know who actually said this but it is very true – if you want a happy ending in a Hardy novel, then read it backwards. Which all sounds rather macabre and miserable, but it isn’t. This is because Hardy uses death as he uses life in his writing, as something that has to be endured and is unavoidable. Which also sounds rather bleak.

OK, so what he does is show us that regardless of the decisions we make, whether they are spontaneous or long deliberated on, makes no difference to the quality of our life and death. Both will occur, and our decisions will only make those occurrences more or less pleasant. The smallest of decisions, the slightest fall from grace or moral behavior can completely ruin or improve our lives. The only snag is that we don’t know when we are making those decisions what the consequence will be. No one can see into the future nor can they know what other people will do or how they will react. So essentially, the fact that all of Hardy’s novels – well, 95% of them – end tragically should act as a warning, a caution for the reader, a kind of flashing red light to check your own behavior and choices before it’s too late. It’s not bleak, it’s cathartic; a ‘thank goodness I’m not that hero/heroine, oops, maybe I should check I’m actually not acting that way.’

That said, my other observation on Hardy has to do with his wordiness, which generally has not ever worried or bothered me. To pick up a Hardy novel is to accept there will be considerable time spent, pages and pages in fact, on descriptions of characters, settings, motivations. Hardy can take six pages quite easily on the description of the interior of a cottage or the walk of a farmer. And this is not a problem. To read Hardy is to sink into his prose and let the imagination conjure up these images he draws  for you with such painstaking clarity. Unlike some other authors, he is determined there should be no mistake about what his readers see when a character enters a scene.

However, I found myself becoming impatient with the descriptions concerning the heath in this novel; Egdon Heath to be exact. The novel opens with a ten page description of the heath at dusk, the colors, the light, the sounds, and if it sounds excessive, it is. But, believe me, you can definitely see the heath by the end of it. But the heath, unusually, is not then left alone now it has been firmly fixed in your mind. No, it keeps on being described throughout the novel; every time someone walks across it, during the day, the night, winter, summer, it’s all there. The heath must be described. And I found myself losing interest in the story, the characters, and most definitely the heath.

Then I realized there is a reason for this preoccupation with an inanimate expanse of unforgiving nature: Hardy is treating it as the main character of his novel. It is the difficult place where the characters must eke out a poor living if they can from furze cutting and livestock grazing, and it rewards them poorly for their labors like a stingy relative. It is the place where characters meet and love and hate using its paths and hollows and ferns to promote or conceal their activities. It hides and reveals sides of characters that would otherwise go unnoticed in more agreeable and easy terrain. It is changeable and uncaring, focused only on its own existence. And once I figured this out, I appreciated the wordiness, the exact descriptions, and the heath’s effect on the other characters.

So now I like Hardy all over again – for his preoccupation with death and setting both. For portraying them as inanimate characters which have enormous influence on every one of us, whether we realize it or not.

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Forgiveness and Forgetting

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is outwardly a fantasy story of a quest involving a knight, a Beowulf-type hero, a dragon, mythology and various other Medieval markers such as monks and monasteries, and tribal enmity between Britons and invading Saxons.

Strangely, the idea is that the Saxons and the Britons live  side by side during a long time of peace after the ‘good works’ of King Arthur in ensuring this peace. Some, however, have faint memories or instinctual hatred or fear of the other tribe but can’t clearly remember why. There is a mist, a fog of forgetting that has worked its way into every person’s memory and all they can remember is short term and only vague shadowy long-term memories. Therefore, peace prevails.

On a whole other level, this novel posits the notion that forgiveness can only ever be achieved by forgetting what has occurred; that humans hold onto their hatreds and fears and suspicions regardless of how hard they try to forgive, that the only way to live in peace with those who have committed crimes against you is to actually forget their crime against you. On a large scale this is depicted through the Britons and the Saxons, both of whom have committed atrocities against each other in their search for land and supremacy: on a smaller scale, the elderly husband and wife in the novel have both committed sins against each other in their early marriage. Because of the fog of forgetfulness, peace reigns in the country, the villages, and the homes.

For those who have read Beowulf, or Arthurian Legends and know something of the time period, this is a very cleverly-written book just from that aspect. Being able to identify the tropes and characters is very satisfying: for those who haven’t, this is still an engaging book along the lines of Lord of the Rings and the heroic quest. The mythology referred to, especially the idea of death and the boatman who will only take one person across the lake or the sea to the ‘island’ in his boat, brings home the idea that everyone must face up to mistakes they have made during their life and meet their death alone, regardless of how attached a couple might be to each other or promises they have made to take that last journey together.
Read on this deeper level, The Buried Giant is a very thought-provoking read even if, like me, fantasy is not usually your genre of choice.

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The Art of Literary Conversation: Travel to a Literary Destination

[With acknowledgment to the creators of this ‘card game’ Keith Lamb and Louise Howland.]

100_1108Q: Have you, or would you like to, travel to a destination important for its literary connections?”

A: Ever sine reading A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute (Norway) as a thirteen year old, I had always wanted to visit the great red heart of Australia: Uluru – Ayers Rock – Alice Springs. The very names sent a chill through my bones  and the image of red earth, vast landscapes, looming monoliths and Aborigine paintings was enough to make me decide there and then that I would some day, some how, live on a desolate and inhospitable ranch in the middle of the outback fending for myself and my family against the ravages of the weather and the climate and the suspicions of the tough settlers of the outback towns of any soft-born city-bred outsider who dared to try to pit her wits against such a foe.

Please bear in mind that I am from the north of England, and at that point in my life had no chance of being any closer to Australia than the moon, and my future should have held only the echoes of the life of my parents. But still I had this dream, this thrumming in my ears, these visions every time I read this book – and I read it many times – the sound of the Australian twang, the buzz of the flies in the bank, the slow way of life came through the pages and captivated me. And I never considered for a moment the other half of the book that is set in Malaysia at the start of World War II. There was no compulsion at all to travel there, perhaps because the most unpleasant sides of humanity are presented in that section of the novel, and suffering and hardship and loss. I don’t know, but it was always Australia for me.

And then, many years later, I got to go! And it was just as amazing as it had been in my imagination; actually, even better. Until you have been, you can have no concept of the word ‘vast’. To drive from Alice Springs, now a modern, fully-fledged town quite unlike its literary counterpart, to Uluru takes about six hours; six hours of scrub and other surprising vegetation – it’s not all desert out there. There are trees and enormous termite mounds and rather large lizards that keep you company during your visit to the roadside facilities, clinging to the bathroom wall in a rather precarious and threatening manner. When it rains – it RAINS – and floods, explaining the reason for the signs warning of low-lying areas of road; frightening but also a pleasing reminder of the flooded rivers that occurred in the novel; and the lightning lights up the entire area for miles around, and you feel very, very small in such a landscape in your little tin box careening along a road that you hope will not be flooded around the next bend. And then there are the camels – real live ones not mentioned in the novel but surprising enough to stop the car and watch and they lollop away into the vegetation; and the dingoes who are not dogs although they lie in the road and pretend they are for any unsuspecting traveler who might get the urge to pet them.

I would go back there in a heartbeat; back to Uluru, back to Alice Springs, back to the Outback. This was one time when the setting of a novel was completely and utterly surpassed by its physical reality. I felt awed, excited, terrified, and strangely at home. I envy those who do call it home.

Anyone out there have a literary destination they have visited?

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The Art of Literary Conversation: Biographers vs. novelists

[With acknowledgment to the creators of this ‘card game’ Keith Lamb and Louise Howland.]

Q: ‘Where biographers fear to tread, novelists can rush right in.’ Example?

A: I certainly do have an example. I have just finished reading a novel called Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold and it answers this prompt perfectly.

It is the fictionalized account of the private life of one of the world’s most revered authors – Charles Dickens – told from the point of view of his estranged wife living in what amounted to solitary confinement for the twenty years after he decided to publicly take up with his mistress. The names have been changed and, I am sure some of the facts of the affair, but it remains rather a sordid and sad account. The reader has no difficulty in becoming very angry on the wife’s behalf since she, sad creature, still loves her husband and remains in her apartment so that he is not embarrassed or annoyed by her ineptitude in dealing with his increasingly public life and fame.

I am sure that there are several biographers of Dickens who have lionized his triumphs and literary successes – indeed it would never have occurred to me that there could be anything else to be said about such a great writer – and quietly ignored the despicable manner in which he cast off his wife and the mother of his ten children, convincing them to cut off all ties with her as well. Apparently, if the book is to be believed, he forced them to choose between living with him or their mother, a very usual situation in the Victorian Era; there could be no compromises.

Very often we tend to idolize public and successful people, we want to have someone to look up to, to dream about becoming, but as is so often the case, the saying ‘look how the mighty have fallen’ can be applied. For some of them, being so adored inflates their view of themselves and they begin to believe the hype and adoration that surrounds them everyday; and so it was with Dickens, evidently. He did not wish to be lumbered with a fat, boring, lazy, stupid wife anymore (his opinion of her; not her actual character), and decided that he deserved better and more interesting company in the form  of a beautiful young actress who would make him feel young again whilst hanging on his every word.

The fictionalized biography begins on the day of Dickens’ funeral, the day that his wife feels able to break her self-imposed solitary lifestyle and leave her apartment to face her demons, and in very short order she discovers that her children still love her, and that the actress is also living an enforced solitary lifestyle in a house in the country with her mother. The actress’s whole life revolves around wondering if today would be the day that Dickens would honor her with his company. The wife discovers, as is often the case, that her imaginings have been far worse than the actual fact, and ends up feelings quite sorry for her old nemesis.

The aspect of this novel that makes it so interesting and allows the writer to tread very heavily over Dickens’ good name and flawless reputation is its foundation in truth, based as it is on the man’s actual behavior as displayed through his and his wife’s letters, but it is an aspect that few biographers would want to dwell upon. It is not in their interest to reduce their subject’s worth in the reader’s eye.

Which makes me very glad that novelists are not as bound to the truth as are biographers, because they are expected to, and do, tell a damn fine tale around thinly-veiled truth without repercussions.

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The Art of Literary Conversation: ‘Taking a writer from national to international readership’

[With acknowledgment to the creators of this ‘card game’ Keith Lamb and Louise Howland.]

Q: ‘What is needed to take a writer beyond the limits of a national framework to an international readership?’

A: Very little. I don’t believe that readers have ever been so insular as to only read writers from their own country: the British only reading British authors; Americans only reading American authors. Readers, as a very general statement, read to discover new worlds and different people and behavior. Yes, often we tend read about topics with which we are familiar, about settings and characters  we can identify with, but  because people are people, the world over, whether their problems are set in California, Birmingham,  Alice Springs, or Crete they will all show similar hopes, dreams, motivations, or depravities, and so it matters very little where the story is set.

Of course, it is always very interesting to read about other countries and the differences in their daily routines as depicted by the characters. I would never have known that it is very common to have cheese for breakfast in Norway if I had never read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; I would never have understood the terrible hardships suffered  by the migrant farmers in California if I had never read The Grapes of Wrath; I would never have known that in Japan the city is broken up into prefectures if I had never read Kafka on the Shore. So, while I am sure the national readership of these novels were delighted to read about events set close to home where they could envisage the scenery and the everyday lives of the characters with ease, to read these from an international point of view only increases the enjoyment in learning about different ways of life.

I think the difference between being a national and an international writer lies not in the content of their novels, but with  the acquisition of a very good publicist.

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The Art of Literary Conversation: ‘Why Read?’

[With acknowledgment to the creators of this ‘card game’ Keith Lamb and Louise Howland.]

Q: ‘Why Read?’

A: This is an question frequently asked by disinterested students, students who are so busy with their online presence they can’t conceive of spending time, by themselves, with their only distraction being their own imagination. And this seems to be true for certain adults, also. There is not enough time in the day to do everything, and so, an hour spent immobile – seemingly doing nothing – is considered an hour wasted, especially when there could be instant gratification from engagement online or TV.

But reading is, of course, central to every human being, even if that reading does not extend to an entire novel. We read all the time and have to, to survive. We read notices, signs, directions; we read facial expressions and body language; we read advertising and newspaper headlines; email and Yahoo sound-bites. We read to learn, to understand, to explore a world that is not always in our direct path, but affects us nonetheless. If we do not read the signs and signals, then we are in possible danger or ignorant of events over which we may have no control but will educate us somehow for the future. We do not need to experience every trauma, accident, or mistake but reading about such experiences enables us to formulate how we would respond should we need to and educates us on the best way to survive. Reading allows us to live vicariously through the experiences and decisions of others without any actual suffering on our part.
And so it is with reading fiction, which, I assume, is the main point of the question. Just as with learning through real-life readings, fiction has the same ability to teach life lessons and allows the reader to understand different ideals, morals, motivations, disappointments and judge their own responses to those of the character.
Why read? is not a good question: Do you dare not to read? is a far better one.

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The Art of Literary Conversation: questions to answer

With acknowledgment to the creators of this ‘card game’ Keith Lamb and Louise Howland, I have decided to use their questions as prompts for my blog. Call it mental exercise; call it delaying tactics before returning to my W.I.P; call it ‘write something everyday’, I don’t mind what it’s called as long as it gets me writing and thinking.
And, shuffling at random, the first question is … ‘do you have stories in your mind that are spoken, not read?’

A: Well … I have lots of stories in my mind; little snippets of things that hopefully won’t disappear before I get the chance to jot them down; stories that I want to remember so as to tell them to colleagues tomorrow; stories that stand out from the mundane everyday because they are only slightly different. Such as why were several well-dressed Asian business-men filling their shopping cart with baby formula at four pm today? Did they have several starving babies at home? were they intending to take them back home as gifts from their trip? were they going to take it to their laboratory and do extensive testing on said milk powder to copy the formula used? were they Asian competitors trying to sabotage the local market? Any and all of these responses passed through my head as I trundled past, and I liked all of them because they allowed my mind to wander and wonder away from the drudgery that is food shopping. And I told that story: to my husband; to my colleagues; to my daughter. Nothing great or earth-shattering but incongruous enough to make it a little note-worthy and conversational. However, I am sure that any of you reading this are deciding right now that this story was probably much better being spoken than read, and you would be absolutely correct. I apologize for taking up your time.

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