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Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

We broke up from school/work last week.

Isabel went to her first big end of term party, in a field (like you do when you live in a semi-rural area).  Middle class teenage girls are so funny when they’re drunk.  (“I’ve done all the recycling!!”)

Rhiannon and I went on a walk across the Downs for a pub lunch, and I stupidly got slightly sunburnt, as I decided not to wear sun cream because I was fed up with having white arms and shoulders.


Apart from this healthy interlude, the last 5 days for me have been pretty much an unending blur of cooking/baking/eating/drinking.  Oh, and getting stuck into the particular pile of the books I’ve accumulated over the year, where I’ve looked at them and thought “that’s a really big book”, and put them on the really big book pile.

It’s been ages since I had a book that I just couldn’t wait to get back to, and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was it.

It’s the story of two tailors in India, nephew and uncle, who go to work for a woman who is trying to make an independent living as a “middle (wo)man” in the tailoring business, and who is also providing lodgings to a young student.  The story starts during the Partition and runs up to the Hindu-Sikh violence of 1984 (which I remember from the news), although most of it is set in the 1970s.

The story has a broad sweep, examining the violently murderous oppression of the lower castes by the uppers in rural areas, and constructing a detailed portrait of the ways in which people survive the different pressures of living in the city.  The characters come from a variety of backgrounds – from lost riches, from among beggars and slums, from the innocence of the mountains, hauled up from The Untouchables, and the story is admirably constructed from all the elements that go into it.  It’s the pressure of these elements that give the book its irresistible narrative drive – how do people live among all these daily threats to livelihood?  Although at times you could be cynical and say that the book comes across as over constructed, I chose to take it as a touch of magical realism in the tradition of eg the much harder to swallow Salman Rushdie (hated that Haroun book, I have the Satanic Verses to look forward to next.)

I was also intrigued to see how Mistry would sort out what sort of an ending to give the book – a happy ending would seem trite against the background of such poverty and hopelessness, but a sad ending would be a brave thing for an author to inflict on the reader who’d just invested 600 pages of their lives in them.

Hopefully without giving too much away, it was a fitting ending.  It underlined a main theme of the book for me – how to make a reader understand a world that was in all probability totally alien to them, and quite frightening, and possibly easily overwhelming.  Without sentimentalising it, it did give me a glimpse into how people are able to live, and not just to survive, when surrounded by the constant possibilities of death, starvation, mutilation.

(I can’t believe this didn’t win The Booker Prize, which it was shortlisted for.  The winner that year was Last Orders.)



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Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve written something here.  Not sure where all the time has gone, but among other things, I’ve been cooking for dinner parties.  Most recently, a mini-quiche party.  The girls like them for lunch too.  I am really into whizzing things in with the pastry (still can’t believe how much better pastry is when made in a food processor and not a blender).  These Camembert quiches have sun dried tomato mixed into them, and there is dill mixed in with the smoked salmon ones.


This weekend, I helped out on a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition.  It rained a lot on the first day, but was also sunny, (one of the students spotted a double rainbow! although you can’t see it here)


and I was really lucky to be stationed on a hill with a great view during the sunshine.  It was encouraging to see so many bees and butterflies feasting on all the flowers.




While waiting around for groups to arrive, I managed to read the whole of Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  With its heavy going subject matter of the Japanese treatment of Australian prisoners of war in the “Death Railway” camps, I’d been putting off reading this for a while.

It was much easier to get into than I thought it would be, as it begins by looking back on the trauma as something in the past, including also non-war childhood, adolescent and adult based reminiscences of the hero, Dorrigo Evans, and is written in a softly lyrical style.  But then the periods of taking the reader back to the camps become longer, until we are stuck there, just like the prisoners were stuck there.  Strangely, the style retains much of its tenderness, as the relationships between the prisoners, taking care of each other as best they can, even while gravely sick, are described.

We get into many different characters’ heads, and I think this omniscient narrator style suits the book’s subject matter and aims.  Without wishing to take anything away from this novel’s achievements, I think it is a novel that doesn’t have any great artistic aim, but which passionately wishes to preserve in its readers’ minds the sufferings and endurance of the men, and how it affected them in the years afterwards in ways that could never be extricated or healed.

This portrait was made deeper by the inclusion of the same portraits of the Japanese and Korean camp guards, illustrating the effects of the systematic brutalisation of the Japanese war machine, and I found the political points observed regarding what was ignored and what was condemned afterwards by the victors very illuminating.

One of the Australian characters, Rabbit Hendricks, captures the conditions in the camp in secret drawings, which are saved and later published as a book, and I feel that the novel has many parallels with this.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about any of the plot or narrative devices used, and indeed, many of them verge dangerously on the hackneyed.  One of the, the one with Dorrigo’s brother Tom, actually goes well over the top, and the novel could have done without it, but overall, it just about stays within the boundaries of OK-ness. The point is not cleverness, or newness, but that these men experienced a scarring we can’t even imagine, and we should understand and remember the whys of the happenings and the whys of the afterwards, always.



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Books for our times: From The Da Vinci Code to The Year of the Runaways…

Twelve years ago, my husband had just died, and I was having a lot of difficulty sleeping.  For my birthday, someone gave me a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  They didn’t know anything about it, just that it might involve maths/code and so I might like it.

I really loved it!  I was totally immersed in its urgency and it made me forget about everything going on around me.  I stayed up till about three in the morning so I could finish it (there wasn’t much point trying to sleep anyway.)  I remember being awestruck by the fact that the main characters seemed to be awake for about seventy-two hours solid, as every time they found somewhere they thought they were safe, they had to run away again.

It was only later that I realised the disdain with which the book is regarded🙂 In particular, I read a review which said that a much better read on a similar subject, the secret life of the Templars, was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, so when someone suggested that we read this for our next book group read, I said I would definitely go for that.

I actually did prefer The Da Vinci Code over Foucault’s Pendulum.  For a start, Foucault’s Pendulum is huge, and it wasn’t a good start when members of the group had to go down to the Post Office depot to pick up their orders because they were too large to fit into people’s letter boxes.

I was also surprised by how hilariously dated Foucault’s Pendulum was.  It was like watching an Eighties computer hacking-crossed-with-horror film.  Near the beginning of the book, there’s a scene in which the hero has about ten thousand attempts at guessing the password for a computer belonging to his friend, in times that were clearly set before the rules for setting up a strong password became commonplace knowledge.  Near the end, there is a scene where some people get eaten by a blob.  At least I think that is what happens.  It gets very confusing.  The hero becomes very confused as to what is real and what is fantasy and spends a lot of the latter stages of the novel with a headache induced by the twists of what he has discovered or not discovered.  I empathised with this in a way similar to my identification with sleeplessness in The Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code could almost have been made-to-measure for the nineties consumer, who were being treated to fast developing adventure and special effects driven films in the cinema.  Both I think were products of their time in terms of subject matter too, as well as aesthetic approach.  I found it difficult to care about the worldwide conspiracy theory that underpinned Foucault’s Pendulum; such themes seem now to be the domain of the crackpot in the street.  Likewise, The Da Vinci Code also holds fast to the tenet of the conspiracy, albeit in a less arcane and more immediately compelling way; I am not sure I can think of or imagine conspiracy forming the backbone of a major modern novel in a way that it did in FP and TDVC.  Am I wrong to conjecture that we are more cynical people now and we tend not to believe in things that are not material and individualistic?

Our most recent book group discussion culminated in our first ever unanimous agreement in twelve meetings that we had all enjoyed the book, which was Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Biafran War.  At my other, work, book group, someone asked what novels I would give ten out of ten to, as I had just done that with Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  I could only remember 100 Years of Solitude, and I’d forgotten Half of a Yellow Sun, which is my other ten out of ten read.

So Americanah, Adichie’s next novel after HoaYS, had so much to live up to.  The subject matter is very different.  It’s a study of racism in North America, as seen through the eyes of Nigerian immigrant Ifemelu.  We see Ifemelu’s early life in Nigeria, where things could be a struggle financially, and her contrasting life as she works her way up the ladder in America, which is an experience not only financially difficult but socially so as well.

The novel is good, in a much more subtle way than HoaYS – there would have been little point in trying to write something that would better it on the same terms.  Taken together, I think the two books show what makes Adichie such a great writer, that she can get so meaningfully into the lives of so many different types of people.

Ifemelu’s boyfriend’s mother is a lecturer in Nigeria, and refers to Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter as being a great book, which incidentally I had just read a post about here: it seems that George Orwell didn’t like it.  Such a polarising book, of course, had to be investigated, especially as another recent strand in my reading is novels from the post-war era – Waugh, Mitford, Greene, et al, and I will include Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour in that list, even though it wasn’t published until 1981.  Someone asked me whether I read all the words in novels, since I get through so many, and it depends on the book.  For example, reading all the words was never going to be key to my appreciation or otherwise of Foucault’s Pendulum, as the whole novel basically boiled down to: Man hiding in museum – Flashback to man with his student-type friends – some conspiracy stuff with the history of the Templars – some investigations performed by the student-type friends – some dangerous pursuit-type activities between Templars and students – The End.

But I really enjoy the way that you generally have to read all the words in the post-war novels, where there is so much unsaid that you have to pick up from the construction of the sentences.  It’s almost like the difference between a time when paper was more expensive and more had to be said in a shorter space, as opposed to our times now when I often feel that the meaning of a book has been diluted down with too many words because publishers think that it will make for a thicker book that buyers will think of as better value for money.

I have to say that The Heart of the Matter was a very uncomfortable read in places, as the setting, an unnamed African colony, was so miserable and grim.  Nobody would be there by choice, so they were either there because they had to be, or because they had some chronic personal issues that caused them to choose to be miserable.  And then every so often, this hot, sweating fug of misery would be torn through by a really clear piercing image of the true awfulness of existence.  It was very memorable, if not exactly enjoyable.

Good Behaviour was my last example of enjoying reading every single word in a book, but that’s before I started The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota.   It’s not often that I read like I did when I was a child, with a compulsion to find out what happens to the characters, and with an enjoyment of learning about the world from their point of view, but I felt that very strongly.  The book is about three immigrants, legal and illegal, from India, and a British born young Sikh woman.  I thought the plotting was very well done, with all the characters’ motivations, which were often less than straightforward, well explored and then used to make them run into each other with dramatic results.  The ending was a little bit weak, however, and the writing style was adequate, if not inspirational, so this is not going to be another ten out of ten book – I’m still on the lookout if anyone has any suggestions!


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Review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

It’s been ages since I posted.  I’ve been busy working, reading, writing and doing a bundle of school governance related tasks.

I’ve slightly lost count of who all my reading recommendations have come from, which is a shame, as I’d like to thank whoever thought that I would love A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson, because I did!

I wasn’t mad about Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I found a bit emotionally detached due to all the different possible lives its heroine, Ursula led – I didn’t have a sense of her as one distinct character.

I thought that the descriptions of the war were the best part of Life after Life.  A God in Ruins follows the story of Teddy, Ursula’s brother, in a more conventional narrative: what happens to him in the war, and subsequently, through marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood and old age.

Again, I felt a little frustrated at a certain emotional evasiveness, especially in the context of the war writing.  I’m not that experienced a reader of war writing, but of the books I’ve read, I’d say that Atkinson rates as one of the best, if not the best, at capturing the pathos of both war and death. (War and Peace, yes I know, it’s arrived and is sitting staring at me from the bookcase, all 900 tiny fonted pages of it.  We’ll see how it compares.)

By contrast, the strained relationships of the family members during peacetime seemed a little petty, and some of the characters, such as Teddy’s daughter Viola, were almost completely unsympathetic.

The other thing that Atkinson definitely does better than any other author I know is to convey the sense and wonderment of “What if…?” When I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I was totally blown away by the way she described all the things the characters  would never know about each other, heartbreaking juxtapositions of connections that would never be made.

Yet as I counted down the pages to the end of them book, I could feel myself appreciating these, thinking they were good, but feeling it still wasn’t quite enough…

… until I got to the end and everything came together and it was amazing.  I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

I am going to go and do some more governor stuff, and finish laminating my pain au chocolat now.  I have tried these twice and am still trying to get them right.  Am mainly having problems with the butter leaking out and losing the layers.  The latest theory I have read is not to prove the dough before layering, and make sure the butter is not too hard, that way it won’t burst through.

We shall see…





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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Something that didn’t seem to exist when I did GCSE and A-level English Lit, is the “compare and contrast” question.  This currently seems to form a staple of my children’s essay writing experience, ie taking two authors/books with a tenuous link and sitting there stumped for hours working out how to segue them into one seamless commentary.

I thought about this over the last two weeks, when I found myself reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and then A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Both were very long books (not unusual in publishing these days), and both had scenes in that I found too horrific to read to the end (quite unusual for me).

I can see why A Little Life divided critics.  It’s the story of 4 friends, from college age to middle age, focusing on one character in particular, Jude St Francis.

The opening is a bit slow; the four friends start out rather devoid of individual characteristics, and it is only slowly that we learn that Willem has a brother who died in childhood, and that something awful has happened to Jude in the past, from his physical and mental scars.

Once it gets going, the tension as Jude’s story is skilfully handled.  The slow revelations of his back story are almost unbearable.  Also, the story moves to focus on Jude’s struggle to live a normal life, and the extent to which his refusal to completely do so affect those who love him.

When I was fourteen, I read Deborah Moggach’s Porky, about a girl who is sexually abused by her father, and the terrible consequences it has on her ability to form intimate relationships as an adult.  I remember thinking, “Why is she behaving like that?  Why can’t she just do X?  Everything would be OK if she did that.”

I imagine that says something about one’s perception of how easy it is to change when one is young.  Would it have been easier for me to change myself at that age, or did I just think it would be, because I hadn’t experienced the difficulty of trying to break habits?

So I would disagree with what The New Statesman had to say about A Little Life, which was:

“Although it is not the job of fiction to educate, it is odd to foreground such extreme subject matter without wanting to say something new about it. And it is odd to read such an in-depth treatment of it and come away thinking: well, yeah, obviously.”


There was amazing tension in the question of whether those who loved Jude would ultimately be able to accept him, and as well as being more moved by the depiction of Jude’s abuse than almost any other book I have read, I was also moved by the struggles of those around Jude when they realised that they could not heal him as they thought he deserved to be healed.  I would say that this, in an age where every television programme is either written or edited to portray a positive “journey” counts as “something new,” or at least as a timely reminder.

I did, however, find two things about A Little Life very frustrating.  Firstly, it was unnecessarily long, with people meandering around doing utterly banal everyday things.  There was also too much repetitive and interminable piledriving home about what various people were thinking and feeling.

Also, after the big reveal about the culmination of Jude’s backstory, which ironically I couldn’t read, I rather lost interest in the book.   There was a noticeable lack of the character development you would expect to occur naturalistically over thirty odd years of the characters’ lives.  More fundamentally, I do like a traditional end to a story ie for all the decisions a character has made over their destiny to lead to a revelation, which is not the same as a solution or a healing, about themselves.  There was no revelation, and the events seemed to peter out into a series of happenings, leaking direction and purpose as they went.

Thank you to all of you who recommended Murakami books for me🙂

Following my underwhelmed reading of Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World, I found The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle much more satisfying because of the stronger “real” strand that ran alongside the surreal/fantasy strand.  Again, this was a book that was too long, although its problem was that it took a while to get going rather than going on too long.  It’s the story of Toru Okada, whose wife disappears, and his quest to get her back, which involves him meeting an oddball cast of characters along the way, and his encounters with various dangers and downright unpleasantness.

The straightforward narrative, which strangely had a similar theme to A Little Life, was essentially very simple, but made more mysterious and lyrical by the surreal quest.  I found that this made it a bit of an inside-out story, which, for those of you who know what happens in it, is not an idle comparison.


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Review: House of Cards

Not the American version, since I don’t have a spare 30+ hours on my hands, but the original BBC series that was first made when I was slightly too young to appreciate it.

House of Cards is set in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1990.  It’s about the deceitful ambition of Chief Whip Francis Urquhart in the subsequent battle for power, and the attempts of young journalist Mattie Storin to find the real story behind the power struggle

I’ve always meant to watch it, knowing it was an iconic piece of television for Urquhart’s calculating evilness, his bold straight-to-camera addresses and for coining the phrase,”You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment,” which Urqhart uses to plant rumours without leaving a trace of himself behind them.

It was as elegantly done as you would expect.  I was surprised by how totally unredeemedly nasty Urquhart was, I think that is quite unusual, even in a villain. I was also sceptical about how easy it was for Urquhart to fool so many people without being discovered, but then, some of the politicians were of the nice-but-dim variety, which was probably fairly true to life in some cases.

I was much more surprised by the sexual relationship that developed between Storin and Urquhart, and its nature.  There was a point where she said, “I want to call you Daddy!” and I went “Urggggh!!!” out loud, and then started laughing.   Although this was after two nights without much sleep, by which time I was laughing at pretty much any stupid thing.  I can never sleep the night before I go back to work, and since I went back Monday and the teachers and pupils came back Tuesday, my brain interpreted both as going back to work dates.

Isabel didn’t go back to school until today, so she spent Tuesday doing her art homework, which was to take photos in the style of Martin Parr, who takes satirical photos eg of food next to photos of food.  Since she actually bothers with things like lighting and decent background, her photos are much better than mine.

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(She also had to make the garishly coloured cake.)

Talking about photos of photos, and photos “in the style of”, did anyone see the news story about Richard Prince, the photographer who’s being sued for “re-photographing” other people’s Instagrams?  And being paid $100,000 for his “works” too?




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Review: Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

Following her birthday present of, Love, Nina, Nina Stibbe’s warm and hilarious memoir about being a live-in nanny for LRB Editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, my sister gave me Stibbe’s comic novel, Man at the Helm for Christmas.

Love, Nina was superb, tart, observant comedy genius, so Man at the Helm had a lot to live up to and on paper, I wasn’t sure it was going to work.  It’s the story of two sisters and a brother, whose parents get divorced in the early seventies, and their subsequent move to a rural village, where single parenthood is still viewed as a curious thing.  The goal of the children is immediately to find another man for their mother to hook up with, and also to integrate themselves into village life.  The tone of the nine year old girl narrator is darkly knowing, and the first few chapters veer through a set of experiences which might have others in therapy for a good chunk of the rest of their lives.

The children are towers of strength and sense for the useless adults around them and go around trying to organise life the best they can, in the manner of I Capture the Castle.  It’s verging on unbelievable to think that a nine and ten year old could do the things that they do, but the events and tone are so funny that I skated over this aspect of the book.

Later on in the book, as the mother’s situation unravels further, the book does become a bit darker, and the emotional implications on the children are explored further, and I was reminded of a line from a Muriel Spark book where the narrator describes her treatment of a situation as being “with a light and heartless hand, as is my way when I have to give a perfectly serious account of things.”  The novel skilfully captured the financial pressures, the social isolation and the loneliness of single parenthood just as well as any “serious” novel I have read on the subject (which is not that many – it’s not a very glamorous subject to write about.)  There were some passages that made me cry, remembering some of the low points of what it was like for our family in a similar situation.  I don’t like thinking about those times much, I was just so badly equipped for dealing with life, never mind life alone with two small kids.

Talking of families, my kids (now bigger) let me take a photo of us all together for the first time in years and years:


My daughter had to point out that I was holding the camera too close the first time round: