Alice Munro, Carried Away: A Selection of Stories (2006)

I’ve been getting more interested in Alice Munro since reading one of her short stories in The Penguin Book of International Stories by Women and following it up with her 1998 collection, The Love of a Good Woman.

This collection covers the period 1968 to 2004 and the earlier, more autobiographical stories, while solid and interesting, are not as good as her later work, though the first story in the collection, ‘Royal Beatings’, is a great look at the family.  For me, the collection really picks up at ‘The Progress of Love’, which is a tremendous story about memory.  I noticed that a lot of the stories are about attempts to reconstruct women’s lives, usually by a narrator who wants to put the story to some kind of use in her own life.  In ‘The Friend of my Youth’, the narrator tries to reconstruct the story of a woman called Flora Grieves who appears to have been done-down her entire life, but Flora determinedly resists her attempts to confirm the story.  ‘Meneseteung’ is another story reconstructing a woman’s life, this time that of a late nineteenth-century female poet’; it’s a lot weirder and darker, pointing to the historical silence that often falls over such women’s lives.   In ‘The Albanian Virgin’, the narrator comes to terms with her own sexual desires through reconstructing the story of an eccentric English woman and her strange Albanian husband.  ‘Vandals’ is a sinister and suggestive story about a young woman who takes it upon herself to destroy the house of the neighbours who appeared to befriend her when she was a child – make of it what you will.   ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage’ is an awesome story about actions having unexpected consequences.

Munro has tremendous insight into women’s lives, especially into the constraints that shape our lives.  In Munro’s stories people make constrained choices and those choices have (often unforeseen) consequences.   She isn’t judgemental, seeming to understand that people generally try and do their best with the hand they’re dealt in life.   But she’s a great writer because she’s prepared to go there, to take an unflinching look at the randomness and cruelty of life. Despite the often dark themes (even the underlying sense of horror) I find that a high proportion of her stories give me that ‘Ah yes’ moment when a writer manages to get to the root of some kind of experience.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry simultaneously.

David Copperfield is the classic Victorian novel: a huge, moral, sentimental bildungsroman published slap bang in the middle of the century.  It has Dickens writing at the top of his form in beautifully balanced prose.  I love the way, in the famous opening quoted above, Dickens subtly undermines the confidence of his tone with that “(as I have been informed and believe)”.   This comment in parentheses is the important part of the paragraph, reminding us that we tell stories about our lives based on stories told to us by others, that in order to construct our stories we must rely, not only on our own memories, but on the memories of others.

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Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)

Northanger Abbey is the Austen novel that I’ve read least over the years.  This is odd, considering how much I love the late eighteenth-century gothic that it satirizes so well.  Austen started writing the book in 1898 when she was 23 and while it’s not as sophisticated or well-written as her later works, this is Austen at her liveliest – witty, sarcastic and impudent.

Seventeen year-old Catherine Morland sets out on her career as a heroine with a trip to Bath, where she has to negotiate her way through the perils of insincere friends, boorish admirers and rainy days which foil her plans to take a walk with Henry Tilney, the man she really likes.  In the meantime, she reads a lot of gothic novels and starts to get a little confused about the distinction between fiction and reality.  Invited by Henry’s bad-tempered father to stay at Northanger Abbey, Catherine begins to wonder what really happened to Henry’s mother who seems to have died mysteriously … Much misunderstanding and embarrassment follows before our hero and heroine can be brought together.

The ending is rushed and feels contrived, and the love relationship between Henry and Catherine is not tremendously believable, but Northanger Abbey is more about fiction and reading than it is about romance.

Reading the novel again, I think its critique of the female gothic actually affirms the importance of that genre for women of the period. Gilbert and Gubar in their book The Madwoman in the Attic point out that, although Catherine over-reads her situation, she isn’t entirely wrong.  General Tilney is a villain and Mrs Tilney has been mistreated and “killed”.  And, since Catherine is going to be the next Mrs Tilney, she really does need to find out what happened to the last one.  The female gothic, which Jane Austen is poking fun at in this novel (but obviously loved too), provided a space for women to express and explore jusifiable anxieties about patriarchy.  Perhaps Catherine’s real problem is that she takes the gothic too literally and, in so doing, doesn’t appreciate the metaphorical warnings it contains.  I’m not sure I’d want to be shut up in a vicarage with Mr Henry-uses-humour-as-a-defence-mechanism-Tilney for the rest of my life!

Charlotte Bronte, Villette (1853)

I first read Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, Villette, for my MA about 10 years ago. I remember being impressed, while finding it very bleak.  On the second reading, I find it even more impressive and even bleaker than I did the first time around.  Although I do love Jane Eyre, I think Villette is Bronte’s masterpiece.  It isn’t anything like as enjoyable as Jane Eyre, but it’s a deeper and far more complex work.

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2009 in Books

With links to the ones I’ve written about on this blog.

Books read for the first time (in the order in which I read them)

George Eliot, The Lifted Veil (1859)
Carol Ann Duffy, Rapture (2005)
Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer theory and the Death Drive (2005)
Sheridan Le Fanus, Uncle Silas (1864)
John Sam Jones, Fishboys of Vernazza (2003)
Poppy Z Brite, Lost Souls (1992)
Susan Williams (ed) The Penguin Book of Classic Fantasy by Women (1995)
Clive Barker, Cabal (1988)
Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories (2005 edition)
Ursual K. Le Guin, Worlds of Exile and Illusion (1966- 7)
Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)
Sarah Eyre and Ra Page (eds), The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease (2008)
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (2006)
Stephen King, On Writing (2000)
Kate Figes (ed) The Penguin Book of Interational Women’s Stories (1996)
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1981)
Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road (1970)
Alice Walker, Anything we Love can be Saved (1997)
Martin H. Greenberg (ed) New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1991)
Stephen King, The Dark Tower Book 1: The Gunslinger (2003)
Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality (2000)
Dorothy Alison, Skin: Talking Sex, Class and Literature (1994)
Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence (2008)
Stephen King, The Dark Tower Book II: The Drawing of the Three
Henry James, Selected Tales (2005)
David Brazier, The Feeling Buddha (2001)
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese (2004)
Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)
Susan Hill (ed) The Penguin Book of Modern Stories by Women (1990)
Marcey Alderman, Long Time Passing: Lives of Older Lesbians (1986)
Winnifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938)
Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (1989)
Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman (1998)
Tanith Lee, Red as Blood (1983)
Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)

Re-reading

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four (1890)
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman (1998)

What is “love”? And what is a “good woman”? Alice Munro’s collection, The Love of a Good Woman, offers eight ambivalent stories which imply that “Love” is not something that can be pinned down and the concept of a “good woman” is oppressive at best.

Munro is a Canadian writer often hailed as one of the best short story writers of recent times.   I first read her work in The Penguin Book of International Stories by Women.  That story really impressed me, but it took me a while to dig up a collection because Munro is not widely read in the UK.

The quality of Munro’s writing is extremely good and I would recommend her work to anyone who wants to learn about the art of the short story.  There is something unsettling about her style. I think it’s the way that she very subtly undermines her statements with qualifiers.  One of the most impressive qualities of her writing is her ability to keep you guessing; I couldn’t predict the course of any of the stories in this collection.

All of the stories centre on themes of motherhood, daughterhood, marriage and family.  In ‘The Love of a Good Woman’ a nurse and local “saint” must decide whether or not to reveal the identity of a murderer.  In ‘Jakarta’, an old man visits his ex-wife’s former best friend in the hope of understanding why his wife left him all those years ago.  In ‘Cortes Island’ a woman looks back to the early days of her own marriage and tells as much as she can of the sinister story underlying the marriage of her neurotic neighbour.  ‘Save the Reaper’ is a terrifying story about a grandmother who encounters something which totally undermines her safe existence.  ‘The Children Stay’ is about a marriage which appears fine on the surface, but has gone rotten underneath.   In ‘Rich as Stink’ a little girl’s attempt to make sense of confusing adult relationships results in a terrible accident.  ‘Before the Change’ is the most gruesome story with a graphic description of a backstreet abortion.  ‘My Mother’s Dream’ is possibly my favourite in the collection: it’s about a woman’s difficult acceptance of her role as a mother and its representation of the desperate position of her unmarried sisters-in-law is also very astute.

These are bleak stories, but one of their great strengths lies in Munro’s ability to get under the skin of ordinary people and pull out the deep emotional significance of apparently inconsequential events.

Book Meme

I have been tagged by my girlfriend.

“List fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you, for whatever reason. Make sure it’s the first fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.”

Here goes (in no order):

1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
2. Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
3. Toni Morrison, Beloved
4. Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
5. Sarah Schulman, Rat Bohemia
6. David Brazier, The Feeling Buddha.
7. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet
8. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
9. Stephen King, The Dead Zone
10. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
11. Sara Maitland, Women Fly when Men aren’t Watching
12. Sue Thomas (ed), Wild Women: Contemporary Short Stories by Women Celebrating Women
13. Corey K. Creekmuir and Alexander Doty (eds), Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian and Queer Essays on Popular Culture
14. Alice WAlker, The Color Purple
15.  Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

I tag Josh, Irrational Point .

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1981)

Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, is often described as a ‘classic’, a ‘masterpiece’ and regularly makes ‘Greatest Novel of all time’ lists. I read her Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead (2004) a couple of years ago. I found that story  – about the spiritual and moral crises experienced by an old man in the few weeks before his death – profound and moving. So I opened Housekeeping prepared to be impressed, which I was. But, while I closed Gilead with a gentle sense of sadness, I put Housekeeping down feeling like I’d received a kick in the stomach. The prose is equally stunning, but these are two completely different books.

Housekeeping is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are progressively abandoned by their family, until they find themselves left in the care of their eccentric drifter aunt, Sylvie. They live in the isolated North Western mountain town of Fingerbone.  As they grow up, the sisters are faced with a stark choice, turn away from the past and attempt to re-join society, or follow Sylvie into her strange world.

I found Housekeeping so disturbing that at first I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to write about it. It’s taken me a few days to work out that what disturbed me so much about this book is the horrifying absence of love at its core. This lack is not explained; it just is. We can interpret it as the result of layers of trauma. There is no sense of human warmth or connection, none of the relationships that ground us in our lives and give us reasons to stay in one place or carry on living. The story, told by Ruth, traces the effects on a handful of lives of this trauma which seems to manifest itself in an inability to grieve or love.

The lake at the centre of the novel symbolises the trauma that causes this absence: cold, black, silent; it covers the body of the girls’ mother, who left them on their grandmother’s doorstep and drove her car “into the blackest depth of the lake”, to join their grandfather who died on a train which “slid into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock” never to be seen again.

The narrative is also disturbing because it forces us into identification with a narrator so traumatised that she has almost no sense of self; yet, at the same time, is utterly selfish and immovable. At the end of the novel she tells us about a terrible thing that she has done, but there is no real sense that she feels regret or sadness for it; she may even think that the person concerned deserves dreadful punishment.Terrifying

Gilead is almost a counter-narrative to Housekeeping.  It, too, is about a handful of ordinary people living in a quiet, isolated part of America, but the story is presented as an act of love — a letter John Ames writes to his young son because he knows he won’t live to see him grow up.  Where Housekeeping has a terrible emptiness at its heart, Gilead is full of human feeling.  I’ve decided to keep Gilead for Robinson’s prose, but Housekeeping is going to the charity shop because I know I’ll never want to dive into its “airless depths” again.

Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1865)

This is Victorian Gothic/Sensation Fiction at its best.  I’m a fan of Sheridan Le Fanu. I think that In a Glass Darkly is one of the best collections of supernatural fiction ever written and the “lesbian” vampire story ‘Carmilla’ is a masterpiece of the uncanny.  This is a writer who really knows how to play on our fears and he was a big influence on one of my other favourite writers of the supernatural, M.R. James.

Uncle Silas takes up the female gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe and builds the tension to almost unbearable levels.  There were honestly times when I felt I might not be able to continue reading this book because it was making me feel sick with anxiety.  It is the story of Maud, your classic innocent, gothic heroine.  She’s an heiress and has been brought up in almost complete isolation, which is never a good combination.  Maud’s father dies and leaves a very strange will in which he gives his sinister brother Silas guardianship over our trembling heroine.  Someone was once murdered in Silas’s house and he wants to clear his brother’s reputation by trusting him with his daughter until she comes of age in a few years time.  Hmmm.  He doesn’t seem to consider the potential danger of dangling an heiress in front of his spendthrift opium-addicted brother if Silas does turn out to be a murderer after all, but incompetent fathers are a feature of the nineteenth-century gothic, which often takes the failings of patriarchy as a starting point.  Poor Maud is packed off to live with Silas in his even more isolated, dilapidated housem, with only a garrulous servant for company.  Here she has to figure out if the conspiracy she suspects is real or if she’s imagining the threat.

One of the things that impressed me about this novel (and there is much) is Le Fanu’s apparent awareness of the socially constructed aspects of gender.  Women like Maud are not born; they are created.  He makes this apparent when we are introduced to Silas’s “hoyden” of a daughter, Milly, who, motherless and wild, has not been through the feminizing process.  I loved Milly with her “swaggering walk,” her loud voice, saucy but honest talk and physical exuberance.  Milly is a representation of what middle-class woman were not allowed to be and, of course, Maud immediately sets about “civilising” her (lengthening her dresses and telling her to keep her mouth shut in the company of men).

For a male writer, Le Fanu did a good job of constructing a “feminine” subjectivity for Maud as she develops from her victim role and works out how to use the powers available to her, namely, passive resistance, deceit and manipulation.  And you really can’t blame her under the circumstances.

There’s plenty of gender-inversion in the book as whole.  Silas is strangely effeminate, but the most frightening and grotesque figure is the malevolent, drunken French governess Madame De La Rougierre:

On a sudden, on the grass before me, stood an odd figure – a very tall woman in grey draperies, nearly white under the moon, curtseying extraordinarily low, and rather fantastically.

I stared in something like horror upon the large and rather hollow features which I did not know, smiling very unpleasantly on me; and the moment it was plain that I saw her, the grey woman began gobbling and cackling shrilly – I could not distinctly hear what through the window – and gesticulating oddly with her long hands and arms.

Although the book is full of these kinds of threatening, uncanny moments, in fact, until about the last quarter, it’s all suspense.  Nothing much happens and you don’t know whether or not there really is a conspiracy against Maud, but the ending, when it comes, does not disappoint; it’s quite shockingly violent and gruesome for a Victorian novel.

Mary Oliver,”I don’t mean it’s easy or assured”

Quote

“I don’t mean it’s easy or assured, there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself out of work and love, a handsome life […] And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And I can do what I want with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.”

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese, pp. 16 – 17.

The Best Things I Read all Year 2008

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

This book seems to divide people into two camps: a. Amazing, b. Incomprehensible.  I’m in the first camp and I really don’t think it’s that difficult to read.  It’s an incredibly vivid story of forbidden love and contains one of the best evocations of childhood I’ve ever read.  I think it needs to be read quickly, though; I made the mistake of lingering over it too long and had to go back and read the beginning again when I’d finished.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Of course I’d read the famous extracts in English Literature seminars, but it really is worth reading all the way through.  It’s feminism with a sense of humour and while the conclusion is pretty simple (women writers need their own space and economic independence if they are write with integrity), she manages to weave together observations on literature, history and life in the process.

Katherine Mansfield, Selected Stories

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  I love short stories anyway and Mansfield is an absolute master of the form.  It’s such a shame she died young having worn her body out by taking Oscar Wilde’s advice to give in to temptation a little too literally. It took me over a year to finish the collection because the stories are so intense I couldn’t read more than one or two at a time.  Mansfield is particularly good at representing the inner life of the secret self.  Her characters tend to have failed in their lives and often lack self-awareness.  Some stories, such as ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ and ‘The Garden Party’ are classics of the genre which turn up all in the ‘best short stories ever’ anthologies.   My favourite is the story ‘Bliss,’ one of the best coded tales of lesbian desire I’ve come across. Others are tragic (‘Miss Brill,’ ‘Life of Ma Parker’) and some are macabre (‘A Married Man’s Story’).  I can see why Virginia Woolf said Mansfield was the only writer who made her feel jealous.

Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen

Ooh, a totally unsentimental biography of Jane Austen.  I think Tomalin does as well as anyone can at getting under the skin of such a spiky, difficult person as Jane Austen.  She does away with the myth that Austen never did anything or went anywhere in her life and while I generally hate biographical criticism, her readings of the novels are also really interesting.

The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women

I loved this. It contained such a wide range of high quality fantasy writing and introduced me to a lot of writers I now want to explore further.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

In wrote about this my last book post. It’s a masterpiece, one of those must-read books.

I’ve had to re-read a lot of books this year for work, including Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights and Willkie Collins, The Woman in White and Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

The one that struck me most was Wuthering Heights. I’ve read this several times and it only gets more disturbing as I get older. I’ve been meaning to write a longer post about it, but in brief, I think it remains one of the best allegories about the madness and death that results from the splitting of female subjectivity and the “fall” into civilised “femininity.”

 

The find the year may well be one I haven’t finished reading yet

Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry

I almost didn’t buy this because it was £7.00 in Oxfam but my friend persuaded me to it and I’m very thankful.  It’s organised in both historical events and themes, this anthology tells the story of the twentieth century on poetry and it’s just fantastic. Poetry anthologies can be hit and miss affairs but this is really intelligently put together with a very wide range of poets included.

Most challenging read:

Robert Browning, The Selected Poems of Robert Browning

Long Victorian dramatic monologues are not my thing, but I got through it and I’m sure I learned something.

 

Poem: Aphra Behn, ‘To the Fair Clarinda’

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We don’t know that much about Aphra’s Behn’s life (beyond the fact that it was pretty riotous and seemed to involve a lot of love affairs and a certain amount of spying), but we do know that she was one of the first professional women writers.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote that “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”  She is buried in Westminster Abbey.