The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This book has been covered by a number of blogs and I liked the premise of the story so I took it away on holiday. Taking an actual event as its start point, the novel covers a year from spring 1666-7, when the Derbyshire village of Eyam took a brave and drastic measure to try and contain the plague when it hit their village, by imposing a quaranteen upon themselves.
Written in the first person, we follow Anna Frith, a shepherdess and house maid to the young Rector, Mr Mompellion and his wife Elinor. Anna is only young and already widowed with 2 children, and is blessed with a keen sense of survival and common sense. She recounts the year with all of its rural beauty, the folklore, her community,and she is a shrewd judge of character with more than a little kindness. The quaranteen, which was advocated by the Rector, throws them into a bizarre existence, where elaborate measures ensure food is brought in, but they have contact with no one from the outside for fear of infection. The village boundaries are set and their internment is kept.
While bodies drop in every household, yielding to the cruellest of diseases, the Rector, Anna and Elinor try to administer to the sick, while trying to keep order as villagers are consumed with grief and fear. It is not long before they start to turn upon each other as superstition and religious fervour gets a foothold in a frayed society. Desperate survival is sought, however unscrupulously, and many die along the way.
I liked Anna, even though she seemed like something of a wonder woman in parts. Quietly savvy, loving and sensible, she has the fortunate position of being a working girl who is also in with the privileged and educated, hearing their plans and being part of them, enabling us to see many sides of village life. I particularly enjoyed the accounts of herbal lore and rural living, the partnership between people and nature.
Many of the scenes have raw descriptions of death, either by disease, or by punishment. I didn't find these overwhelming, and anyone reading about the plague must expect this, but I didn't think it was gratuitous, however shocking. It pulls no punches.
The language includes some dialect and references to simple country living, which I found added to the beauty of the story, setting place and time. It also helps to place Anna's character within the story.
This is not just a story about death, but also survival, friendship, and sacrifice. It is also about love.
There was only really one part that I wasn't keen on and that was the ending, which didn't really fit with the rest of it. I felt as if I had wandered unguarded into another novel, and when I remember the book, I find I have brushed that part under the carpet, as if it doesn't belong. I know I am not the only one who feels this way.
Otherwise, I really enjoyed it, being part of Anna's world for a short time, and I missed it when I finished it, re-reading some passages again.
Geraldine Brooks has a website here, where you can read about her and her work.
There is also a Penguin Reading Guide which may be of interest to reading groups.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Modern Literary Theory: Helene Cixous

This was a course book that I hadn't got around to reading so I thought it would be a good source for the 2 essays that I need to read for #4 of the 2009 Mini Challenges.
I have read articles by the French writer and theorist Helene Cixous before and found her theories about feminism in literature interesting, so the first one that I have picked is by her.
Helene Cixous, 'Sorties', New French Feminisms, Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivoron, eds (1975), pp. 366-71
In summary, Cixous talks about how the definition of femininity, especially feminine sexuality, has been determined by language. Her theory is that 'thought has always worked by opposition', eg high/low, big/small, light/dark, male/female. All theory is based upon the same system and the hierarchization in male dominated patriarchal society has assigned the male role as being active, and so on the same system females must be assumed to be passive. 'In philosophy, woman is always on the side of passivity.' The father has a will, desire and authority, but if woman is opposite, what does she have? According to Cixous she can be passive or nothing.
All literary theory refers back to 'man and his torment, his desire to be the origin'. Therefore, for everything to fit together, women must be subordinate.
Cixous then brings in her thoughts about Freud, and his representations of women as 'an imperfect man'. In terms of sexuality, Freud anatomically places man in a position of power, with women in a position of 'defectiveness'. Libido can only be male. Cixous calls this obsession with male and female exterior anatomy as a 'voyeur's theory'. There ends up being no place for female desire in all of this because the system cites that she is the opposite of man.
Cixous argues that men and women lose out by such theory, but we are currently living through a 'transitional period' and that 'men and women are caught up in a network of millenial cultural determinations of a complexity that is practically unanalyzable.'
The nature of theory is that we can agree or disagree with them. I found a lot to interest me in her work, and certainly to look out for in language patterns of writing, by male and females. I am sure that there are those who believe that such theories are feminist twaddle, but there are many, both male and female, who believe that language has a lot of power, especially in patriarchal societies, however reformed.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Woman In Black by Susan Hill

Now this is a ghost story!
After my disappointment at taking the plunge to scare myself witless with The Turning of the Screw and not getting so much as a shiver, I went for this one when I saw it for £1 in Reid of Liverpool. I saw it as a film one Christmas Eve some years ago on TV and it is one of the scariest things I have seen, (you can read about it on IMDb, read the users comments too). So I knew the story beforehand. It has also been adapted for stage as a play that has been on at the Fortune Theatre in London for over 20 years.
It starts on another Christmas Eve with another family telling ghost stories, leading Arthur Kipps to write down something unspeakable that happened to him earlier in his life.
As a young solicitor, level headed, engaged and with his whole life ahead of him, Kipps is sent to wind up an elderly lady's estate on the edge of a remote Northern England town. Misty and surrounded in marshes, the towns people are shifty and secretive, especially when Kipps explains his business there. At the womans funeral, attended only by himself and Mr Jerome, a local agent, Kipps sees a woman dressed all in black Victorian clothing, first at the back of the church and then in the graveyard some way from them. She appears to have a body wasting disease, her skin hangs on her bones. When Kipps asks Mr Jerome about her, the poor man becomes a dithering wreck, almost panicking to get away.
Kipps is obliged to go to the dead womans house to sort through her papers. She lived in a lonely house on the marshes, reachable only by a causeway at low tide. Only one person from the town will take him there. It is at Eel Marsh House that the main body of the story takes place. Kipps is determined that local superstition will not deter him and he decides to stay at the house to avoid the difficulties that arise getting to it. Poor naive soul!
With all the elements of a good haunting, suffused with good doses of malevolence and menace, this part of the book rockets along without pausing for breath, towards its conclusion.
This is a ghost story in its traditional sense, lots of gothic imagery, scene setting, and gentle tension building. When the roller coaster has finished its climb, the main part of the story whooshes along relentlessly with barely a breath.
I have always said that ghost stories scare me, a lot, and this one did raise my blood pressure more than once. Had I not known the story I may have found the tension and unpredictability more than I could cope with. Thank goodness for Spider, the little dog who stays with Kipps at the house. There is a decent story behind the happenings, leaked to us in pieces like a good mystery. The book uses lots of anticipation to keep us on the edge of our seat. All in all I found it an enjoyably exciting story, well paced and interesting with a number of scenes that made me nervous more than actually frightened (unlike the film where I thought my heart was coming through my ribs and I watched most of it peeping behind a cushion!).
Susan Hill has her own website where you can read about this book and her other work.
Readers Place also have a reading guide that includes starting points for discussion.
I read this for #11 of the 2009 mini challenges, to read something that was out of your comfort zone.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


In case you thought I'd disappeared for good, I have just got home, having been on holiday to lovely sunny Greece, relaxing in beautiful surroundings, where I managed to finish Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks and also The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.
Normal service will resume soon with a review of The Woman in Black by Susan Hill posted soon, followed by the others after that.
With my batteries recharged I'm rearing to go...

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

While chatting to a friend recently about another book (The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale) which is on my TBR pile, she said that it mentions 2 other classics, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, which I have read, and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James which was on my TBR pile thanks to our recent Book Swap in work. Being only 94 pages long I decided to pick it up.
Written in 1898 it is about a governess taking up a position at a large country house, taking care of 2 children who are under the charge of their uncle who lives in London. Their parents are dead. One of the clauses of the contract is that the governess does not contact the uncle and is to take sole charge. She is clearly attracted to her employer and excited at the rise in her position so she agrees even if a little overwhelmed with the responsibility. She is to share the house with Mrs Grose the housekeeper, the children, Flora who is the youngest, and Miles, who is to come home from school later in the week, and a few other servants.
Very soon after arrival the governess learns that Miles has been expelled from school, and no reason is given immediately, but on meeting him she finds he is a model pupil and perfectly behaved, like his sister and she quickly becomes attached to them. However, very soon after taking the position she finds strange things happening in the house and in the grounds, and she believes that the children are in grave danger from a supernatural influence.
The beginning has more than a flavour of Jane Eyre arriving at Thornfield Hall half a century before and references it clearly. It also mentions Anne Radcliffes Mysteries of Udolpho, setting the scene for another gothic mystery, and the house and grounds are a very atmospheric base for such a story. I have read Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and so have encountered his writing style before, and it can seem very long winded and evasive as to what the characters are thinking or even communicating to each other. This story I found particularly so. There are long sections of dialogue where nothing is actually said but only vaguely insinuated. This suits the main character very well, as it is her that is telling the story in the first person, and she jumps about 10 paces ahead of everything that happens to her, fixing her own meaning to everything, sometimes wildly, as she becomes more obsessed with the children, citing that they are hers alone.
Although not strictly a sensationalist novel, there are definitely elements of such that James has used here it seems to me. It is also deliberately ambiguous and so anyone who likes their stories straightforward will find this one frustrating. The introduction by Dr Claire Seymour from the University of Tokyo concludes that "The dilemma for the reader is how to preserve James' ambiguity while also locating its 'meaning' ". I agreed with this statement.
I have to say that I quite like ambiguous writing, for example Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which does not explain the whole meaning but leaves it for your own conclusions. However in this case it drove me nuts. I think it was because I did not find our story teller too credible. Apparently there are 2 camps of readers for this story, those who believe it to be a supernatural mystery, and those who believe it is a story about an emotionally fragile woman who starts hallucinating. I fall into the 2nd camp. I thought she was deranged.
Ghost stories scare the pants off me, very easily, and I tend to avoid them. This story did not scare me at all, and disappointed on that level. Maybe that was James’ intention, to make a joke of those who like to be spooked. Especially as the whole tale is related as a Christmas Eve ghost story by someone called Douglas at the beginning. Is James playing with our expectations and love of a good mystery? I don’t know, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. Maybe my own expectations were too high. I found the discussion about its meaning more interesting than the actual reading of it, and so it is probably a good choice for readers groups.
You can download a free eBook version of the story here.
There is also an interesting article called Ghost story, or study in libidinal repression by Sumia S. Abdul Hafidh

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye