A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley

Standard

Mary Wesley and I usually get on like a house on fire – I’ve enjoyed eight of the ten novels she wrote for adults – but this wasn’t the case with the ninth, A Sensible Life, the story of Flora who we first meet as a 10 year old child on holidays in France, walking a dog on a beach, as observed by 15 year old Cosmo from the shore, but who we never really get to know in any profound way.

Flora’s parents have no time for her and in the way of Mary Wesley’s ‘orphans’ she soon finds herself observing the people around her, including Cosmo’s family, and becoming peripherally involved – which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but isn’t if you’re Mary Wesley – on an irregular basis.

The main problem I had with A Sensible Life was the way that Flora was treated as an object by most of the other characters – from her parents who palm her welfare off on to other people, and then send her to boarding school in England, to the two young men, Cosmo and Hubert, who foist their sexual attentions upon Flora aged 15 but ignore her otherwise, to Cosmo’s mother, who is threatened by Flora’s sexual power and deliberately neglects her welfare as a consequence.  It was not only joyless reading but it also reflected badly on a culture that objectifies young women.

Problematically for the book, there doesn’t seem to be any point to this treatment of Flora.  She is barely affected by others’ behaviour towards her and they in turn, do not grow or develop in any way over.  Because nothing changes, there is no shape and no colour to the book, and no need for a resolution or climax, which, overall, makes for fairly pointless reading.

A Sensible Life is not one of Mary Wesley’s best.

Book Details:
A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley
Black Swan, 1990, 380 pages, personal copy.

The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk

Standard

Rachel Cusk is a genius.  The Lucky Ones is a brilliant book.  Five chapters – each told from the perspective of a different character, yet each linked to the other chapters through the relationships of the characters within.  A modern tale which sometimes skewers our preoccupied, self-absorbed lives, and sometimes portrays them sympathetically. There were many ‘ah-hah’ moments of recognition for me in The Lucky Ones as Cusk’s insights illuminated contemporary habits and behaviour.  Her writing is to be cherished.

Here’s an example from the second chapter, wherein a group of six friends have travelled away together to ski:

   The bar was clad in pine from floor to ceiling.  It was crowded with people speaking German and French, who looked large and loudly coloured.  The claustrophobic interior seemed to erase the memory of proportion, so that Martin could no longer remember the size of anything, the mountain on which they were perched, the infinity of space and darkness above and below them, nor how far he was from his city, his house and the rooms in which he lived.
‘It’s funny how having children has made me see my own parents as much more vulnerable,’ said Lucy. ‘My sister still sees them as the enemy. I’m sure that’s because, in an important way, she hasn’t grown up.’
‘How’s Dominique doing?’ said Jane.
‘She’s fine.’
‘How’s the breastfeeding going?’
‘Fine. Great.’
‘Did you say she’s got her mother staying with her this week?’
‘That’s right.’
‘She must have really wanted to come,’ said Lucy, her face screwed up in sympathy as though watching someone in pain.
‘You’ve just had a baby,’ Josephine stated, tagging on to their conversation.
‘Yes,’ said Martin.
‘Congratulations.’ She said the word with a slow incomprehensible smile. He felt imprisoned behind the barrier, the fact, his life had become. The women were staring at him, and stupidly he rubbed his face as if there were some mark on it at which they were looking.
‘Thanks.’
‘It must be really difficult,’ said Josephine, ‘for you. You know, do I get on with my life, do I stay at home being supportive—‘
Martin looked at Thomas, who was sitting next to Christian at the other end of the table arranging matchsticks around his bottle of beer.

Martin stood and took his beer down to the other end of the table.  Josephine glanced at him as he went, and out of the corner of his eye he saw her lean over and say something to Jane.

I like this for so many reasons – the fatuous discussion about the effect of children on adults’ lives, the divide between the genders, the self-absorption of seemingly intelligent people and the consequent inability to be truly involved in others’ lives, and the alienation — from others, from reality — that all of this creates for a character like Martin, from whose perspective we see this interaction.

I’ve been reading Rachel Cusk’s books in order, beginning with Saving Agnes (1993), then The Temporary (1995), The Country Life (1997) and the non-fiction about childrearing, A Life’s Work (2001).  They’re all very different but what they do have in common is a distinctive point of view and a rock-hard, uncompromising intelligence.  Further novels are In the Fold (2005), Arlington Park (2006), for which she was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2007, and The Bradshaw Variations (2009).  Additional non-fiction is The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009) and the very recent non-fiction about the break-up of her marriage, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012).

Book details:
The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk
Harper Perennial, 2005 (originally published in the UK in 2003), 228 pages.

The TBR Double Dare 2012 is Over!

Standard

Well, I’m glad that’s over.

It seemed like a good idea at the time – nominate the books you want to read for a three month period and then read ’em.  But although I managed to read 10 books from the nominated 30, there were great chunks of wasted time in between books as I tried to decide what to read next and rejected most I picked up.  It got to the point where nothing interested me – weeks went by with nothing read.  I think the rot set in after Penelope Fitzgerald’s mess-of-a-book, Human Voices, which I didn’t finish – a short, 143 page book that I was unable to finish.  But perhaps more on that later.

This is what I did manage to read:

1.  One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

2.  The Magician King by Lev Grossman

3.  Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley

4.  Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

5.  The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

6.  Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald (DNF)

7.  The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk

8.  Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

9.  The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

10.  A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley

In the last two weeks of the challenge after a couple of weeks of non-reading, I thought I should at least give it a bit of a go so marched through Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, and wafted through Mary Wesley’s A Sensible Life.  The latter was not a high point – for both Mary Wesley and me – but, again, perhaps more on that later.

If I’m honest, however, and why wouldn’t I be, my forced reading helped me to discover that Jane Gardam’s novel The Flight of the Maidens is a wonder, and that Rachel Cusk is a genius – the evidence before me is her book The Lucky Ones.  Hazel Rowley’s Eleanor & Roosevelt was brilliant and inspiring and Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek an entertaining romp.  Tim Powers seems like a very nice man if his friendly and entertaining characters are anything to go by.

Would I do this challenge again?  Maybe, but I’d nominate the whole of my unread books so I’d hundreds to choose from.  Though knowing my reading is whim- or fancy-driven, I probably wouldn’t be able to find anything to read amongst that lot either.

Review: The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

Standard

I really enjoyed this book.  Within a few pages it created a sense of anticipation about the direction of three young lives, which I looked forward to resolving as I read.

It begins with a scene in a graveyard in the late summer of 1946 where three young women — Hester ‘Hetty’ Fallowes, Lieselotte Klein and Una Vane – have gathered following the news that morning that each of them has been awarded a state scholarship, an important award because it finances their place at university, which they can now take up.

Hetty is to read Literature at London, Una is off to Cambridge to read Physics and Lieselotte is to Cambridge as well to read Modern Languages.  As the girls lounge among the gravestones, their feet on a tomb, Gardam gradually introduces us to their lives.

We learn that Hetty’s father is a former intellectual, ruined by the effects of World War 1 and not suitable for much besides gravedigging; her mother is an anxious individual, constrained by her husband’s lack of ambition, and one of those characters that sets the restrictive moral tenor for the small town in which they all live.  Una’s father was a doctor who committed suicide when Una was young so Una’s mother tries to make ends meet running a hair salon.  Lieselotte is a Jew from Hamburg, who arrived in England in 1939 ‘on the last train full of refugee children, the Kindertransport’, and as a consequence has no parents.  She has lived with a childless Quaker couple for six years after losing her papers that would have seen her united with a relative.

The book follows the group in the couple of months before they begin university in October: Hetty takes herself off to the Lakes District to study, Una bicycles around the countryside with her friend Ray, and Lieselotte vanishes to London following a bureaucratic breakthrough in finding her relative.

What I liked about this book was the strong, feisty, multi-dimensional characters –- from the three young women to their parents, and other adults in their lives.  In the cases of Hetty and Una, I enjoyed the exploration of the relationships each had with their mothers — a type of exploration I haven’t really encountered before in much fiction.  Mothers tend to be characterized as foils, as others, as objects to be defined against, or just plain perfect.  But in The Flight of the Maidens this bond is examined, looking at how it’s maintained and valued despite its imperfections.

Read the rest of this entry

Review: Franklin & Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley

Standard

I don’t know quite where to start this post.  Even though this book was incredibly enjoyable and highly uplifting, I’ve avoided writing anything about it because it was so darned good and I fear that anything I have to say about it is going to do it little justice.  But as Franklin Roosevelt himself said: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’   My fear is off to the kitchen to make me a cup of tea so while it’s away, here goes.

I’m Australian and American history is not taught here in schools though it does occur at some universities.  When I was at university, I chose British politics and Middle Eastern politics to study so I know zip about American history.  I’d heard of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States in the 1940s or thereabouts, but only in the context of his visit to Australia during the war and that was about it.

But over the last few years, I’ve become greatly interested in American political history and the cause is rather an unusual one.  A few years ago I read a brilliant biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, the English feminist, educator and thinker of the late eighteenth century.  The biography was by Lyndall Gordon, called Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, a passionate and highly-researched account of Wollstonecraft’s life.

In her book, Gordon outlines how Mary in her early twenties started a school in the North London suburb of Newington Green.  It was the 1780s and Mary’s neighbours were dissenters and radicals, most notably the preacher Dr Richard Price, a radical intellectual and supporter of the American War of Independence who was to have a significant influence on Mary’s thought.  His published pamphlets on Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty and Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution were highly influential, the last being written for American revolutionary leaders such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin (an old friend of Price), John Adams and others.  Through her exposure to Price and his ideas, Wollstonecraft was able to develop her own ideas on education for children and women’s rights.

Read the rest of this entry

Thoughts on the TBR Double Dare

Standard

I’ve read five books from my TBR Double Dare pile, which is great, of course, but what I’ve read has caused me to think about all the other books crammed around the house and how long some of them have been crammed around the house.

You see, with the exception of Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch, the books I nominated for the TBR Double Dare are all relatively recent acquisitions, occurring within the last couple of years, mainly from BookMooch.  There are other books around the house that have been with me for much longer – in some cases, almost twenty years or so.

While I’m pleased to have knocked a few intended books off my list, I feel as though I could take this reading challenge a bit deeper.  In other words, figure out which books have been around the longest and either read ‘em or ditch ‘em according to my level of interest in ‘em.

Three examples:

The Confessions of Aubrey Beardsley by Donald S. Olson

 According to the docket still in this book, I bought it from the Electric Shadows Bookshop in Canberra on 28 February 1995 for the princely sum of $32.90.  I liked the idea of this book – a dramatization of the life of artist Aubrey Beardsley – but I could never find a way into it when I tried to read it.  Am I interested now?  A bit.

Betrayals by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser’s Betrayals has been with me as long as the Donald S. Olson.  I’m put off by the reference to Italo Calvino on the back, who I’ve always thought of as a tricksy post-modernist and while I appreciate tricksy post-modernism, I’m currently more in love with plot and highlighting historical injustices towards women.  Am I interested in this one today?  Not much.

Immortality by Milan Kundera

This last was a present from my dad in 1993 – he inscribed it for me.  I used to like Kundera’s work, particularly The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.  I think I just never got round to reading this one.  Do I want to read it still?  Yes.

It’s only a vague thought at present but I feel as though continuing on with the TBR Double Dare after April and focusing on books like those I’ve mentioned could make a very real and valuable contribution to my TBR pile.  While making me feel incredibly virtuous in the process.

Hmm, worth a thought.  There’s nothing quite like feeling virtuous.

Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

Standard

I think I was too old for this book.  I think I would’ve appreciated it when I was in my twenties at university when the world was newish but I’m old and jaded now so the story of a 17 year old girl plotting to ruin the life of her libertine father’s new fiancée seemed all a bit fanciful, a bit yawn-making.

Set on the French Riviera, Cécile is living a high and hedonistic life with her forty-something-year-old father Raymond and his girl of the moment, redheaded Elsa.  They live a life of drinking, gambling, staying out late and not thinking too much.  When Anne, the seemingly level-headed and intellectual forty-something-year-old family friend comes to visit, her presence changes the louche dynamic forever.  Raymond proposes marriage to Anne, Elsa is forced to find comfort in the arms of someone else, while Cécile has to study daily for an exam she has failed previously.

Cécile dislikes these changes so with the help of Cyril, her 26 year old boyfriend in the next villa, and using Elsa’s continuing feelings for Raymond to further her own ends, she concocts a plan to destroy Anne.

Sagan has created a morally ambiguous character in Cécile.  By turns young and old, wise and stupid, tragic and ridiculous, she embodies the flightiness of youth, with its penchant for melodrama and a narcissistic appreciation of its developing talents.  Cécile is also that thing that fails to recognise when it’s being cruel or callous and if it does, continues in the same way anyway.  Sooo, like, adolescent.

Apparently this book caused a stir when it was published in the 1950s.  And with the sexually and morally emboldened Cécile at its core, I’m not surprised.  In 2012 it’s a bit passé.

Book details:
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, published by John Murray books 1954, Penguin 1958, 108 pages, personal copy mooched from BookMooch.