Thursday, May 26, 2016

may 2016 books…

More book stuff:
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (Penelope Mortimer): First of all, this was one of Moira’s (very) small collection of beautiful Persephone books. Not only are they are wonderful to look at, but they’re also an absolute pleasure to use (they “feel” very good to hold while you read… look, just get one yourself and try it out!). First published in 1958, this is a novel about a time when expectations of most women were to be home-makers and mothers, who stayed out of the workplace to raise their children. It’s about a middle-class woman who lives in a large house (probably in the Home Counties), whose husband works in London and who, for convenience, has a flat to enable him to work longer hours (and for the convenience of his various mistresses), whose daughter is away studying at Oxford, and whose two younger sons spend all but 16 weeks a year at Boarding School. The woman is lonely, depressed and living a life without purpose. Thanks to an excellent preface (by Valerie Grove), I’m now aware that Mortimer’s writing is invariably indivisible from her personal life (she married divorce lawyer/writer/playwright John Mortimer in 1949 and you can discern exactly what stage the Mortimers’ marriage had reached in this book). It’s a poignant, compelling story and a beautifully written, impressive book.
Quiet (Susan Cain): This is a brilliant book, written by an introvert. The front cover sums up its gist: “The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”. Moira had read it and had enthusiastically endorsed it. But why would I want to read a book about introverts? On a personal level, I suspect that most of my family and friends would categorise me as being more extravert than introvert but, interestingly (for me anyway!), I scored 13 out 20 on the book’s self-assessment survey – which rates me more introvert than extravert(?!). Cain argues persuasively about a world that, she maintains, “excessively and misguidedly respects extroverts”. Again and again, I found myself being reminded about situations in our own family and in my own career. Cain talks about the need, for example, for artists and designers (amongst others) to have “extra quiet and privacy in order to do their best work”; she talks about schools (and corporations) where being a “team player” is seen as the only path to “success”; she even refers to research that points to “forceful extroverts” being responsible for the global financial crash! She talks about Harvard Business School where socialising is "an extreme sport". Cain had to persuade a publisher she could conquer her stage fright and promote herself at book festivals before they agreed to take her on. In America, extroverted parents have been known to send their introverted children to psychiatrists to have their introversion "treated" out of them. We admire extroverts because they're charismatic, chatty and self-assured, but Cain maintains we're committing a grave error structuring our society around based on such a premise. She also helpfully (for me) and frequently made her points by relating stories of “real people” and their situations. If I do have a criticism, it’s the huge of number of psychologists she cites in conveying her arguments, but hey! It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking book and a surprising and rewarding one too.
If you haven’t got time to read the book for yourself(!), then please check out this 20 minute TED talk to get a flavour.
My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante): This is our Book Group’s next book. It’s the first of four novels that make up “The Neapolitan Novels”. The book’s narrator, Elena Graco, recalls her childhood and early adolescence in Naples in the late 1950s, where she meets her “brilliant friend”, Lila Cerullo, at school. They both come from relatively impoverished households, they are both clever, but very different (James Wood in The New Yorker describes Lila as “feral, quick, unafraid, vicious in word and deed” while Elena remains on the academic straight and narrow). It’s a powerful, impressive book about Sicilian poverty and deprivation, hopes and ambition, violence and honour - where men dominate society and family feuds are commonplace. The two main characters are wonderfully portrayed. An enthralling, intense book.
The Squire (Enid Bagnold): Another beautiful Persephone book (this relates to the book as an object, rather than the quality of the novel!)... again, I borrowed Moira’s copy. It was first published 1938 and, according to the book’s jacket, Bagnold herself “led a sociable, comfortable, servanted life” and this novel very much encapsulates a similar middle class existence. “The Squire” is in fact a reference to the wife (her husband spends 3 months of the year in India on business) who heads the family of five children – including one by the name of Boniface(!) - and runs a household of seven staff. The wife is in her mid-forties and, in many ways, is a reflection of Bagnold’s own life and attitudes towards middle age with respect to sex and the family (the author herself had four children). Men are essentially eliminated from the book altogether – the butler being the one occasional exception. I found the references to non-family members (staff and Caroline, the squire’s more attractive, aristocratic friend and neighbour… who is “pursued by men”!) slightly more interesting than the squire or her children but, overall, I found myself constantly reacting against the privileged, upper middle-class way of life the book portrayed.
A Song Flung Up To Heaven (Maya Angelou): I’ve been a big fan of Maya Angelou over the years… and have especially loved listening to her voice. I read “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” (the first volume of her autobiography) several years ago, but hadn’t read (until now) any of the others – this is the sixth out seven. It recalls the time she returned to America, after a few years living in Ghana, at the height of the civil rights movement. She was returning to work with Malcolm X – who had created a foundation called the Organisation of African-American Unity… and intended to approach the UN world council to intercede on the part of beleaguered blacks. Within days of her return, Malcolm X had been shot dead. The book describes her life at a time of an extraordinarily exciting and tragic political period – including her acquaintance with Martin Luther King and ‘Jimmy’ Baldwin. Despite the cruelty, discrimination and poverty she experienced in her life, the book is full of her compassion, wisdom and wit. I’ll no doubt be reading the other volumes in due course.

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