We That Are Left

There are few greater delights than a book that draws you in from the very first pages and immediately makes you care about what happens next, that demands your attention in every free moment you can conjure until the end.

We That Are Left (2)Juliet Greenwood, while painting a world that is far from one that we might imagine living ourselves, one that takes place in an enormous stately home on a hill overlooking a village in Cornwall – manages to imbue in the reader a kind of aspiring fantasy that those who prefer an episode of Downton Abbey to Twilight will be more than happy to immerse themselves within.

Two years ago I read her novel Eden’s Garden also set in Cornwall and Wales and adored it. That book was a dual narrative of two women, one in contemporary time, the other in the Victorian era, whose lives we follow and as the novel progresses reveals what connects them.

Now Juliet Greenwood has written a timely novel, chronicling the lives of a group of young women, focused on Elin Helstone, a young wife living in Hiram House, a country estate that has been her family home since birth.  Now run by her increasingly distant husband Hugo, he has become consumed by dark thoughts he is unwilling to share connected to events of the Boer War and is now likely to be called up in yet another war. Elin tries to anticipate her husbands needs until the onset of war provides the circumstance  that will propel her towards asserting an independence she will find difficult to relinquish.

Elin’s unmarried cousin Alice lives with them, though Hugo pursues every opportunity to introduce her to eligible company in the hope that she too might exit his orbit. Then there is Mouse, Lady Margaret Northholme, whom the two young women meet in the opening pages and become firm friends, their lives will become forever entwined as war descends upon the country and everything as they have previously known it changes forever.

The opening pages possess an air of excitement and potential, young people meet at their big houses, conforming to social convention and can’t quite believe the rumours of pending war.

‘It will most likely blow over. War is such a medieval occupation. I can’t imagine any modern state embarking on such barbarity.’

War Draft

However, war does arrive and strips the village bare of men, plunging those who stay behind into an alternative way of living, they must live with the fear of not knowing what will happen, of the risk of attack and the dread of a telegram bearing tragic news.

That fear of the unknown will become less significant in comparison with the experience awaiting Elin and her gardener Jack as they depart on their own dangerous mission.

‘Nervous?’

‘Terrified,’ I replied.

‘So you should be. There’s no point in being brave from now on. Forget what anyone ever told you about heroes. Once we reach the other side, it’s fear that will keep you alive.’

Juliet Greenwood creates believable characters, putting them in credible but challenging situations where they fulfill our suspicions of their true natures, while her trademark elements of mystery and intrigue run on continuously throughout the narrative.

She does the same with country locations, we inhabit Hiram Hall and the Welsh farmhouse as if we had known them for years, the author invokes the reader’s imagination bringing the outdoor landscape and its associated elements into the page like fog creeping in from the bay. As Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift reminded us “The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.’

Port Issac Cornwall

We that are left begins in 1914, a mere five years before Michel Déon’s The Foundling Boy (reviewed here) in 1919 and yet the contrast couldn’t be greater.

Here we become immersed in the war years (Déons novel set in the interwar years) where the absence of so many men advanced opportunities for women like no suffragette initiative yet had, though they certainly paved the way for women like Elin, Lady Margaret, Kitty, Alice and others to be able to take the initiative and get involved in the war effort. They learn to drive, volunteer in hospitals, grow food and distribute it to those with little or nothing. Women of the upper classes who were used to being waited on found themselves with few staff and having to manage like common people. Servants experienced the shift in equality between the classes.

Having complained about the lack of female role models with redeeming features in Michel Déon’s coming of age novel, I find them in abundance here and can’t help but observe the contrast in the female characters portrayed here versus those we met across the channel.

The actions of these women were no doubt inspired from Juliet Greenwood’s research into women and the war effort and she mentions the Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow in the bibliography.

!!!!Car

Gertrude Stein With Auntie and war supplies, 1917

I was reminded of the incredible and courageous efforts of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as portrayed in Diana Souhami’s excellent biography Gertrude and Alice; Gertrude having sold her Matisse Women with a Hat she and Alice initially decamped for the French Riviera abandoning Paris, but after some time became bored and returned deciding they too wanted to help with the war effort.

After meeting with an organisation that distributed supplies to hospitals, they were informed it would be most useful if they could provide a truck and do the same. So Gertrude took driving lessons, wrote to a cousin in New York asking for a van to be sent, had it converted and named Auntie and off they went road tripping around the country, becoming known at the garages throughout France, distributing the hospital supplies, writing letters to soldiers whom they referred to as their military godsons and collecting recipes along the way. But that’s another story!

We That Are Left is an enthralling read that sets a compulsive pace from that first intriguing landing and doesn’t let up until the final pages. It  is a moving contribution to contemporary WWI fiction and an enlightening exposé on how perceptions and the role of women experienced a complete and irreversible paradigm shift during those years, from which we have benefited more than we realise.

Highly recommended.

Note: Thank you to the author Juliet Greenwood for providing the photos of Glynllifon Hall above, and to her publisher Honno Press for providing me with a copy of the book to read.

Of Mice and Men

A book that has been read by so many and is such a tour de force that I wasn’t sure if I had anything to add to the millions of words already said and written and of much more critical depth than I plan to cover, so I waited until I was sitting in the airport yesterday and just decided to write whatever came to mind.

CIMG5356Steinbeck narrates a simple story that reads like a play, which it did indeed become. It was a time when Steinbeck believed the novel to be dead and his work seemed to sit on the cusp of genre, able to swing both ways.

“The work I am doing now, is neither a novel nor a play but it is a kind of playable novel.”

Lennie likes to keep a mouse in his pocket, he gains pleasure from the soft caress of fingers on a smooth pelt, the feel of silky hair, new-born puppies. He is a simple man and a hard worker, however his strength is fallible and his appreciation of the sense of touch incompatible with it.

The story is a short but life-changing episode in the lives of two friends George and Lennie, itinerant labourers on the Californian seasonal workers trail, trying to avoid trouble and dreaming like others of one day having their own plot of land, a few animals, vegetables, a working life yes, but one that would not be lived at the beck and call of those who claim superiority.

They meet others like them, they meet sceptics, they meet a man who would never have dared dream of what they pine for and they encounter those who have it already. Without needing to tell or describe, Steinbeck presents through sparse narrative and dialogue: friendship, cruelty (with and without intention), jealousy, indifference and fear. He uses the colloquial language of men of the time giving it a raw, frank boldness that requires no embellishment (the book was written in 1937, though perhaps inspired by his own experiences in the early 1920′s).

Crooks interrupted brutally.

“You guys is just kiddin’ yourself. You’ll talk about it a hell of a lot, but you won’t get no land. You’ll be a swamper here till they take you out in a box. Hell, I seen too many guys. Lennie here’ll quit an’ be on the road in two, three weeks. Seems like ever’ guy got land in his head.”

Candy rubbed his cheek angrily.

“You God damn right we’re gonna do it. George says we are. We got the money right now.”

Steinbeck himself spent time working as an itinerant agricultural worker in the Salinas Valley for nearly two years in the 1920′s after dropping out of university, so had first-hand observations of the kinds of men whose lives were entrenched in these routines and their familiar aspirations.

“Lennie was a real person” he told a New York Times reporter in 1937.

MenHis own experiences, observations, his compassion, perhaps born of a certain humbleness having left the hi-brow corridors of Stanford University where he would have brushed shoulders with another kind of person, lend the narrative authenticity and empathy.

An exceptional novella, told mostly through dialogue where every word is made to count without losing its beauty or power. We sense the inevitability of the outcome which unnerves the reader while we encounter a brilliant, sensitive portrayal of two friends with a similar dream, who if the world was a kinder place, should have been able to achieve it with the genuine camaraderie and work ethic they possessed .

Previous Steinbeck Reviews – A Pearl

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett MarriageAs a metaphor for a collection of essays that pays tribute to a life of writing, it’s an apt title, though as the title of a book that lures me towards picking it up to read the blurb and buy it, I admit to being slow to respond to this collection. It is actually a very beautiful minimal cover, the fact that it has a white background and contains only text proof it is a book targeted at existing fans of Ann Patchett, no need for seductive images or clever marketing to lure readers, this cover has the mark of confidence and attitude.

It also contains something of an illusion, the author’s name is embossed in a shiny aquatic blue, which depending on how much light you expose it to, either appears blue or black. It occurred to me while reading, that this might not be an accident, I played around with the cover, watching letters I would swear were shiny blue disappear and become matt black. Appearances are not always the truest guide, looking at things from a slightly different angle, can significantly alter perceptions. Even this title is not all that it seems and now that I have finished the book, I find it most apt.

Many of the essays have been published in other publications, as Ann Patchett describes how she grew to become a writer of fiction, something she always wanted and knew she would do, but that necessitated a slew of other jobs as well as writing non-fiction articles for magazines that would pay. As she points out in the very first lines of the book:

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novel have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was.”

Grace PaleyWe read about the memorable story her father read to her over the telephone one Christmas, her fiction teacher Allan Gurganus who made them write a story every week for two semesters, turning them into musicians of language who learnt that a habit of regular practice leads to improvement and classes with Grace Paley, for whom support of human rights sometimes trumped attendance at class, whether that meant her disappearing to protest in Chile or being absent from a scheduled appointment having given her attention to a tearful tale from another student.

“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story.”

It is perhaps not until she opens her own bookstore, Parnassus Books that the influence of Grace Paley rises, as Ann Patchett becomes something of an activist herself for the plight of the independent bookstore, which she writes about ni the essay The Bookstore Strikes Back.

Parnassus Books

She writes about a legacy of separation and divorce stretching back generations, not so much present in the genes, more like evidence that we all need to experience those natural life stages that often mean a significant relationship or marriage doesn’t survive. Finding it hard to accept and taking advice from her mother to heart, she vows never to remarry. She is wedded to her work. And she has a dog. She loves.

She shares a growing love of opera, a late bloomer having discovered it almost by accident while researching her novel Bel Canto she discovers what becomes a lifelong passion, which living in Nashville, known for another type of music altogether wasn’t so easy to foster, until The Met realising that thousands of people would love to see opera regularly but couldn’t, came up with the idea of bringing it to the masses via cinema – live high-definition opera performances.

Met Opera“We watch the patrons in New York, people who have paid ten times more for tickets, and some more than that, as they make their way to their seats. Like us, the audience members on the screen stop to greet the familiar people around them, and like the audience in New York, we clap for both arias and curtain calls. We call out Brava! And Bravo! The rational mind understands the singers can’t hear us, and yet we are living so completely in our high-definition moment it is easy to forget.”

“There, in a comfortable fold-down seat with a whiff of popcorn in the air, I watched Anna Netrebko lie on her back, dangle her head down into the orchestra pit, and sing Bellini like her heart was on fire.”

And The Story of a Happy Marriage? Yes, it is an essay in the collection and one that she was endlessly encouraged to write and in the end becomes the cover title of this book, because the metaphor is all embracing of a woman who always knew what she wanted, never straying from that despite the numerous obstacles and even finds time now to give back to those who helped set her out on the path early on.

The essays stand on their own but equally form a cohesive narrative and are written as if Ann Patchett is writing to that one true friend, one of the reasons that many readers and reviewers have commented on this collection by saying they could imagine being friends with
her. And as she says in one of her books, Truth and Beauty:

“Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2014

Baileys logoOverjoyed to see the Baileys (nee Orange) Women’s Prize for Fiction come out early this morning and to recognise a few books that I have actually read and really enjoyed. And even more pleasure in the fact that there is now a list from which I am sure to find more that I might not have been aware of, to add to the ever-growing list.

It may be a women’s prize, but it celebrates diversity across generations, genres, countries and cultures, something that blogging has certainly encouraged as the recommendations and access to what is available out there is no longer limited by geographic borders and what’s on display in bookshops.

BaileysThe 20 titles are selected for excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women (in English) from throughout the world.

The judges had this to say:

“The judges feel that this is a fantastic selection of books of the highest quality – intensely readable, gripping, intelligent and surprising – that you would want to press on your friends, and the judges have been doing just that,” commented Helen Fraser, Chair of Judges. “There was a great deal of talent and exciting writing in the books that were submitted this year and we hope that between now and the announcement of the shortlist on 7th April many readers will want to share the enjoyment we have had with these 20 terrific novels.”

And the longlisted titles are:

Baileys1Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieAmericanah –  Nigerian – My review here 

Margaret AtwoodMaddaddam – Canadian

Suzanne BerneThe Dogs of Littlefield – American

Fatima BhuttoThe Shadow of the Crescent Moon – Pakistani - My review here

Claire CameronThe Bear – Canadian

Lea CarpenterEleven Days – American

M.J. CarterThe Strangler Vine – British – 1st Novel

Baileys2Eleanor CattonThe Luminaries  – New Zealand/Canadian – my review here

Deborah Kay DaviesReasons She Goes to the Woods – British

Elizabeth GilbertThe Signature of All Things – American – my review here 

Hannah KentBurial Rites – Australian

Rachel KushnerThe Flamethrowers  – American

Jhumpa LahiriThe Lowland – Indian/American

Baileys3

Audrey MageeThe Undertaking  – Irish

Eimear McBrideA Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Irish

Charlotte MendelsonAlmost English – British

Anna QuindlenStill Life With Bread Crumbs – American

Elizabeth StroutThe Burgess Boys – American – my review here

Donna TarttThe Goldfinch  – American

Evie WyldAll the Birds, Singing  – British - my review here

So, one month to read a few more from the list – I will definitely be reading Evie Wyld, I have The Goldfinch, but that’s my summer chunkster, so I’m saving that for August, I’d like to read Hannah Kent’s novel Burial Rites set in Iceland and based on a true story, I have mentioned that numerous times to people and not got around to reading it myself yet. I am curious about The Flamethrowers and Fatima Bhutto’s book sounds interesting.

So what titles are you considering?

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is a prolific and engaging storyteller known for the occasional touch of magical realism and an ability to transport her reader into the worlds she creates.

She wrote one of my favourite books Blackbird House, referred to by some as a collection of short stories, the connecting thread running through each story being an old Massachusetts house, the narrative tracing the lives of its various occupants over a span of 200 years. The house bears witness to change through each family’s loved ones and the lives they live inside Blackbird House.

Since that haunting book I have kept an eye out for her work and when I read the premise of this new novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I was more than intrigued. It is set in 1917 New York, when things of a freakish nature fascinated and amusement parks were becoming bigger and bolder in their scope, trying to outdo each other with what they offered the public.

Museum of Extraordinary Things

Professor Sardie is an eccentric French scientist and magician, who came to America seeking his fortune and when we meet him, he has opened a museum of extraordinary living oddities in a room connected to his home on Coney Island, New York. He lives there with his daughter Coralie and Maureen, the woman he has hired to take care of his daughter, herself an extraordinary being, a loving and devoted carer and the victim of disfiguring burns over her face and body.

In addition to the museum, he is constantly thinking up new exhibits and working on bizarre projects in the basement cellar, a den that no one but he has access to.

The story has a dual narrative, firstly from the point of view of his daughter Coralie who becomes part of her father’s exhibit alongside performers including the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. She has been trained since a small girl to withstand extreme cold and secretly swims along the Hudson River to build up her strength.

The second narrative is from the perspective of a young Russian-Ukrainian immigrant, Eddie Cohen, who has drifted away from his father and the Lower East Side Orthodox community where they lived, having fled persecution in their homeland. Leaving his job as a tailor’s apprentice, he first works for a psychic investigator finding missing people and then attaches himself to a photographer leading eventually to work for a newspaper. He too has a fascination with the Hudson River and it is here that Coralie will catch her first glimpse of the young man, she will become fascinated by.

“A motherless boy is hardened in many ways yet will often search for a place to deposit his loyalty and devotion. Eddie had found this in the city he saw as one great and tormented beauty, one ready to embrace him when all others turned away.”

Dreamland Circus, Coney Island, New York  1917

Dreamland Circus, Coney Island, New York 1917

Hoffman writes the story of the lives of these two characters and others, eventually bringing them together, while sharing two significant tragic events in New York’s history in 1911. During one of these events a young woman goes missing and it is this mystery that will ultimately bring the young couple together.

The city and the river are themselves like characters, struggling to live in harmony, with the knowledge that one will eventually encroach on the other and destroy its peaceful surrounding. For now the river is like a refuge and the city a menace that threatens to overthrow its flanks, bringing dark elements to its shores.

Wolf Hudson

The Museum of Extraordinary Things brings New York City and the conditions of 1911 alive. The river, the streets and the changing landscape between them are sketched using all the senses as we step into the lives of characters living on the edge of society trying to survive. We observe those for whom it comes naturally to exploit the weak while witnessing the compassionate few who will risk everything including life itself to do the opposite.

It is a riveting read, transporting us to an era when fantasy and the imagination were sought as a literal means of escape and we look behind the scenes of an extraordinary, freakish world. Spellbinding!

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Write A Book Review, Anyone Can Do It

GyannA little while ago I received a request from Corinne, an inspirational blogger from Mumbai in India, who shares her thoughts on keeping life simple, authentic and holistic at Everyday Gyann.

She recently started another blog called Write Tribe – Motivation and Support for Writers and Bloggers.  Write Tribe sometimes offers books for review to its followers and as Corinne is a loyal follower of Word by Word, she asked if I could write a post on How to Write a Book Review.

Write Tribe

I’m not a rule follower myself, but I decided to share my thoughts on this habit I have been practising for the last two years, as when something becomes a regular habit, there develop patterns. So I wrote 10 tips on writing a book review and then added number 11 which is to ignore the rules!

The Review Notebooks!

The Review Notebooks!

If you would like to read my thoughts on writing a book review, you can read them in Corinne’s three-part series over at Write Tribe, just follow the links below.

How To Write A Book Review – Part 1

How To Write A Book Review – Part 2

How To Write A Book Review – Part 3

Thanks again Corinne for the invitation and I hope this might encourage readers of this blog who might have been considering it, to go ahead and write a review too.

Claire

The Missing One

The Missing OneFellow French resident Rosemary who blogs at Aussie in France, mentioned this book after reading my review of Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo, a novel written in letters, which is also an unravelling of a mystery, where a woman seeks to understand who her mother really was in those years before she was born.

GesternIn Gestern’s book, the mother died when the daughter was only 4 years old, it took her more than 30 years to begin searching.

Lucy Atkins protagonist Kal is 38 years old, the mother of an 18 month old boy Finn and living in England when her mother dies. It is both her death and the discovery of suspicious text messages on her husbands telephone that prompt her somewhat irrational, spur of the moment decision to dig into her mother’s past, the period around her birth, when she lived in North America.

Kal is grieving not just her mother’s death, but a loss she can’t explain, the reason her relationship with her mother was so fraught, what it was she reminded her of that seemed to cause such angst. On an impulse, she runs away from confronting her own relationship difficulties, an escape that carries her to the small island of Spring Tide, near Vancouver to find Susannah, a woman who sent her mother a postcard on the same day every year, a friend she had never ever mentioned.

Orca by Ayman

Orca by Ayman

Lucy Atkins brings an air of tension and menace to the story, as those with knowledge of the questions Kal is asking actively avoid answering to prevent her from finding out. She creates a story with pace and suspense while a captivating back-story recounts to the reader little by little the events that occurred in her mother Elena’s life leading up to her birth.

The author evokes this sense of place well, although for a British woman arriving on a small Canadian island for the first time, she makes few observations relating to its foreignness, we forget that she is in a place where we would likely be noticing many of the differences of a foreign culture, although it might be said that Kali is completely blinded by her grief and outrage, because she makes plenty of decisions that will make the average reader gasp in disbelief. If anything, England felt more foreign and the wildness of Canada described with real familiarity.

Orca by Allia

Orca by Allia

The author uses a dual narrative technique to tell  a little of the back-story of Kal’s mother Elena’s life.  She met her British husband while doing a PhD at a university in California, and as the story will reveal, ended up in Canada.

The narrative around the mother and the sharing of her passion for sea creatures, their unique behaviours, relationships and ways of communicating – did you know that orca whales speak in different dialects? – was a fascinating distraction from the drama of our foolhardy heroine and the not so friendly friend she pursued for enlightenment.

Atkin’s uses various “mystery” devices to create intrigue, like failing to mention characters that would have been present in the narrative and mind of the character, and although this sometimes interrupted my reading occasionally, ultimately I just wanted to continue to know what was going to happen, especially as there was a young child involved!

An Island Floathouse

An Island Floathouse

It was an enjoyable read  even though I was a aware at times of the author pulling strings in the narrative to create effect and had to try to stop myself from expecting that Kal act more sensibly or true to her instinct, as anyone who has ever had an 18 month old baby would likely agree, her journey was indeed just what she needed to teach her some sense.

I took this book with me on a flight to London and it was the perfect in-flight read, no likelihood of dozing with The Missing One, you’ll want to stay awake until its finished.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley and Artwork provided by my children, one who likes to draw, the other who likes to make digital art. Yes, it’s the school holidays!