Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week – Review Round-up

Thank you again to everyone who has joined in Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week. I said I’d do a full round up – so here are all the links so far. If I’ve missed you out, please leave a link in the comments and I’ll add you in. As Simon did for his Review Round-up for Muriel Spark Reading Week back in April, I’ve listed Beryl’s books chronologically(ish) — ie in publication order.  As you can see, there’s a few in the middle none of us have got to so far, so that’s where my ongoing reading will continue I think…

These links will also get transferred into my new Reading Beryl page on the tab above.

Harriet Said… (1972) – Seamus at Vapour Trails, Harriet Devine, Gaskella
The Dressmaker (US: The secret glass) (1973) – Alex in Leeds
The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) – Ali at Heavenali, Skiourophile, Sophia at Page Plucker, Gaskella from my archive,
Sweet William (1975) – Simon T at Stuck in a book, Gaskella
A Quiet Life (1976) – Margaret at Books Please, Gaskella
Injury Time (1977) – Simon T at Stuck in a book, Stu at Winston’s Dad, Gaskella
Young Adolf (1978)
Another Part of the Wood (revised) (1979)
Winter Garden (1980)
A Weekend with Claude (revised) (1981)
Watson’s Apology (1984)
Mum and Mr Armitage (short stories) (1985)
Filthy Lucre (juvenalia from 1946) (1986) – Simon S from Savidge Reads
An Awfully Big Adventure (1989) – Harriet Devine, David H at Follow the Thread, Geranium Cat, Chris at The Book Trunk
The Birthday Boys (1991) – Gaskella from my archive,
Collected Stories (short stories) (1994)
Every Man For Himself (1996) – Alex in Leeds, Harriet Devine, Sophia at Page Plucker
Master Georgie (1998) – Col at The Only Way Is Reading, Sophia at Page Plucker
According to Queeney (2001) – Chris at The Book Trunk, Harriet Devine
The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress (2011)

English Journey or The Road to Milton Keynes (1984) – Alex in Leeds (and see her other link below).
Forever England: North and South (1987)
Something Happened Yesterday (1993) – Simon T at Stuck in a Book
Front Row: Evenings at the Theatre (2005) – Gaskella

Other Beryl posts and links you must see:


It’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week!

Welcome to Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week

I hope that many of you will join us in reading one of her books this week, and maybe posting about it, or leaving a comment on any of the Beryl posts here. Please do leave a link to your review in the comments below so everyone can follow the trail.  I will do a round-up post with all of the links in one place at the end of the week.

I really hope that you enjoy reading this very British author’s works.  Let me know your favourites; whether you prefer her historical works or her gritty dramas; whether you find her writing funny, wicked, or anything else.

I’m off to continue reading … my first review will follow soon. It’ll be about one of these…

A Farm Girl’s Tale …

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.
in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with their cries. i can see the trees and i can see the leaves.
and each leaf has veins which run down it.
and the bark of each tree has cracks.
i am not very tall and my hair is the colour of milk.
my name is mary and I have learned to spell it, m. a. r. y. that is how you letter it.
i want to tell you what it is that happened but i must be ware not to rush at it like the heifers at the gate for if I do that I will get ahead of my self so quick that I will trip and fall and anyway you will want me to start where a person ought to.
and that is at the beginning.

Mary’s tale is a story simply told by the girl herself. The youngest of four sisters in a farming family that needed sons, she works from dawn to dusk as hard as her crippled leg allows.  However her father tells her one day that she will go to live and work for the vicar helping to take care of his ill wife.  Mary has never left the environs of the farm, except to go to church, and even though the vicarage is only the other end of the village, she cannot expect to see her family often, if at all.

It takes her a good while to adjust to the different work and Mary really misses her old grandfather, and her favourite cow.  Mary is a very forthright girl, and despite her sharp-tongue, Mrs Graham takes to her, but it is not to last.  Mary is surprised to be kept on after she dies, and when Mr Graham offers to teach her to read and write, she can’t wait, but there is a price to pay …

This beautifully crafted short novel was a total delight, easily readable in one sitting, (it held well too, being a petite-sized edition).  Mary was instantly likeable, and her lack of skill in writing didn’t hamper her story at all.  It brought the plight of women from poor families at this time to life vividly. All the characters were well-rounded, from Mary’s violent father and subservient mother, to the kindly yet ‘needy’ vicar and his predatory son. There was a lot of story in this little volume, and comparisons with Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles come to mind, but with the story being told by Mary herself, there was a real freshness to it. I thought I knew what was going to happen, as certain elements are predictable, but the climax was  a surprise in the end, and I loved this little book. (9/10)

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My ARC was kindly supplied by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon. Pub by Fig Tree on 31st May 2012. Small hardback, 170 pp.

Definitely not a misery memoir…

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

In anyone else’s hands, this would be a misery memoir, however, in Jeanette Winterson’s, the memoir become more of a search for happiness.

Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not at all the same as being happy – which I think is fleeting, dependent on curcumstances, and a bit bovine.
If the sun is shining, stand in it – yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass – they have to – because time passes.
The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is life-long, and it is not goal-centred.
What you are pursuing is meaning – a meaningful life…
… The pursuit isn’t all or nothing – it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories.

It covers two periods in her life. Her childhood up until finishing university, and then jumping twenty-five years to a time when a long-term relationship broke up and she started to search for her birth-mother.

Those who’ve read Winterson’s debut novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, or seen her TV adaptation of it, will recognise much autobiographical detail that went into the novel. Here though, she is trying to understand the odd couple that adopted her as a baby – the mother that married down, and shows she is better than others by having a display cabinet of Royal Albert china; and the working class  father who survived the first push of the D-Day landings with just his bayonet.

But it is Mrs Winterson that looms the largest over Jeanette’s life. The woman that gave her the title for this book – a parting question, said as Jeanette walked out aged sixteen after having been caught being too close to another girl. Mrs Winterson was complex. “She was an intelligent woman, and somewhere in the middle of the insane theology and the brutal politics, the flamboyant depression and the refusal of books, of knowledge, of life, she had watched the atomic bomb go off and realised that the true nature of the world is energy and not mass.”

Jeanette was so determined, and thanks to a friend or two, a helpful teacher and a librarian, not only survived college and arrived at Oxford, where her passion for literature was nurtured.  Here I felt a bond with her – I was at university too in 1979 when I was first able to vote, and similarly voted for a woman rather than her policies!

The latter few chapters in which she describes her breakdown after the end of her relationship with Deborah Warner make for tough reading, and then when she comes through that slough of despond in her happiness meter, she takes on the legal system that depersonalises everything and put her on the emotional roller-coaster again to search out her birth-mother.

This book was candid, funny and emotional; full of philosophical insight and interesting short digressions into the history of Manchester and its satellites, and all about literary passions of course.  Winterson has had a lot to be miserable about, but, being a scrapper, she has nearly always been able to turn it around to get something positive out of it – but always, always, she is looking for love and belonging.  (9/10)

For another view, read John Self’s review here.

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I was given my copy for Christmas. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, pub 2011 by Jonathan Cape, 240pp.  Vintage Paperback now out.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit [DVD]

Reading on the train

On the rare occasions when I go somewhere by train, the minute we set off, I whip out my book and read. Cars, buses, coaches, small boats are a no-no for reading for me – instant headache, but trains and planes are fine.

Edward Hopper is one of my favourite artists.  I love the way he does white light, and I particularly love the stories in his paintings, although some of his women tend to have over-strong features. I stumbled across the first of these two paintings in A Booklover’s Companion from Folio books, and thought I’d share it with you – then I remembered another Hopper painting of a woman reading on a train – so you have two to contemplate below…

The 1965 Hopper painting, Chair Car, sold for a record-breaking $14 million at Christie’s to a private buyer in 2005. It’s a strange-looking train car – so tall! The statuesque woman is totally engrossed in what she’s reading, her position doesn’t look comfortable. Has she turned away from the windows deliberately to avoid the distraction of the landscape passing by, to get better light on the page, or just not to get the sun in her eyes? Do you think she knows the guy on the other side is looking at her? So many questions!

The 1938 painting Compartment C Car is, by contrast, a scene that raises fewer questions, the reader seems relaxed, but is why a young woman travelling alone at night on a (tall) train? Interestingly, this painting is fairly small at 20 x 18 inches, a size which suits the subject.

I remember seeing my first Hopper at the Boston Fine Arts Museum, and was smitten.  On my next visit to the USA we went to MOMO in NYC, and there was the iconic Gas (1940), which you can buy as a giant print in IKEA!  In reality it’s another small painting, but I love its welcoming sinisterness. This was followed by another US vacation – Chicago this time and his most famous work in the Art Institute – Nighthawks – a must for fans of Tom Waits.

Sadly, there are no Hopper works on public display in British galleries, but I was lucky enough to go to the 2004 exhibition at the Tate Modern which was amazing, and only cemented him in my mind as perhaps my favourite artist.

Hope you enjoyed this little arty diversion. Are you a Hopper fan?                    I’d love to hear what you think about the interior life of these paintings?

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Hopper (Basic Art Album) by Rolf G Renner, from the art publisher Taschen, provides a great introduction if you’re interested in exploring more about this artist.

A new heart of darkness?

The Devil’s Garden by Edward Docx

Set primarily in the last inhabited river station up a tributary of the mighty Amazon, The Devil’s Garden conjures up strong visions and parallels.

You immediately think of other ‘jungle’ novels – Heart of Darkness being the obvious one of course, and indeed they do share some heavy themes. This novel is billed as a literary thriller, which I suppose it is, but very much in slow-burn Graham Greene mould – I’m thinking The Quiet American meets A Burnt Out Case here … but let me tell you a little about the book.

Dr Forle and his assistant Kim, aided by German guide Lothar, work in the jungle carrying on the work of Forle’s partner studying a particular species of ant; ones that create Devil’s Gardens – poisoning all the plants around their nest except their favoured home making strange glades in the forest – like man of course!

One day, the peaceful existence of the station residents is disturbed by the arrival of the Judge and a Colonel and soon a band of soldiers. Officially there to register the jungle tribes to vote, their presence upsets everything, and after Forle witnesses a boy being tortured one night, it is clear that life can’t go on as normal, although Forle tries to assert his authority. You just know that it’s going to go wrong …

For the non-indigenous folk, (except perhaps Lothar who seems to know his way around in the jungle), life revolves around the river.  The settlement itself only goes skin deep.  Everything arrives and departs via the river and the path between the communal building, the comedor, and the jetty is the only highway.

Forle is rather naïve, like Conrad’s view of those Europeans that haven’t gone native, he seems to believe that by letting the Colonel and Judge know that he knows what’s going on, (although of course he only knows the tip of the iceberg), that perpetrators will be dealt with and life can go on.  And go on it does, but only sort of. He doesn’t realise the ulterior motives behind the soldier’s actions and those of the judge, and the danger that they are all in and this leads up to an all-action thrilling climax. Earlier on in the novel though, the judge is holding forth at dinner, replying to Kim who hopes that his motives in registering the Indians is for their own good…

The Judge’s match flared as he spoke. ‘Miss Van der Kisten, we hear a lot of this talk in our country. And so we ask ourselves, why do you people come to the jungle?’ He raised his jaw and exhaled towards the sky. His voice had an incantatory quality so that his words seemed to range out into the darkness of the night beyond and to echo in on the silence. ‘Let me tell you. Always, always, it is for one of two reasons: either to find a green hell and to see some kind of a freak show; or to find a green heaven and so rediscover some ancient truth that you pretend to yourself humanity has lost but in reality has everything to do with your own feelings of emptiness and worthlessness and nothing whatsoever to do with the Indians of their lives. And what happens the moment your own way of life is threatened? You retreat – you retreat the better to commune with your narcissistic little sense of entitlement, which simply will not go away no matter however much you recycle your packaging.’
‘I come for the ants,’ I said, softly.

Told by Forle who, being a scientist, is a trained observer, life in the station contrasts with extracts from his journals about the ants.  The ebb and flow of life on, and in, the river also contrasts vividly with the menace within the jungle. This certainly sets the scene, together with a growing suspicion that something bad will happen – there are hints of spies and double-crossing.  It really takes its time to get there though.  This is where it felt very Graham Greene-ish to me, and I rather enjoyed this aspect.

What I also liked is that life at the station hasn’t changed much from other earlier jungle novels.  Yes, they have a computer in a laboratory, but that all had to be shipped in boatload by boatload, and they only have the oil to charge the batteries for a few hours use each night.  Everything else is done the traditional way, and initially, Forle’s biggest worry is that the Judge will drink them dry before new supplies arrive.

I didn’t mind the slow-burn at all, I revelled in the foetid darkness at the heart (!) of this novel. I also hoped that Forle would find himself as, at the start of the novel, like a Graham Greene lead character, he was in danger of burning out too soon.  Docx can really write, and I will look forward to reading his previous Booker long-listed novel Self Help.  The two stars of The Devil’s Garden are really the river and the jungle, and they drive the book at their own pace making fascinating reading companions. (8.5/10)

For another view see Kim’s thoughts at Reading Matters.
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My ARC was supplied by Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Devil’s Garden by Edward Docx, pub Apr 2011, Picador, 304 pages. (Now in p.bk)
Self Help by Edward Docx
Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad
A Burnt Out Case & The Quiet American by Graham Greene