Deborah Levy – The Cost of Living

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There’s something about Deborah Levy’s writing that draws me in instantly. I especially like the way she is able to take profound concepts and stuff them economically in a short sentence. Take her latest novel, Hot Milk, within it’s brief 200 pages, the reader is presented with symbols alluding to relationships and personal freedom, be it the appearance of jellyfish or milk. A Levy book is readable but it pays to take your time and figure the significance of certain animals or events that occur in her novels.

Which brings us to The Cost of Living, Levy’s second volume of her autobiography. This time the theme focuses on Levy’s divorce, and, as always, how it affected her as a writer.

Levy starts the book by an anecdote she heard when travelling; a girl tries to ward off a stalker by telling him that she was diving and then lost her boat. Levy uses this theme to describe her marriage. For there on the Levy describes her move, living with her daughters, her new writing quarters, her relationship with her mother and the genesis of Hot Milk.

Essentially this is a book about the importance of writing but as this is Deborah Levy expect philosophical digressions, such as the symbolism of mythology, with reference to Medusa, the female’s ‘role’ in a relationship, where she focuses on Simone de Beauvoir’s relations with Sartre  and author, Nelson Algren, which leads to a meditation on old age. Although Levy prose is sparse, each page is a heady trip, but a pleasure to read.

One thing I liked is that I got an insight to all the elements that went into Hot Milk, which does go to show that the adage that life imitates art is not as ludicrous as it seems. In all this second part of a planned trilogy is a fascinating look at how a writer views the world, this being Deborah Levy, that viewpoint is unique.

Many thanks to Hamish Hamilton for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Paula McLain – Love & Ruin

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I know very little about Ernest Hemingway, bar some simple facts such as his love for cats, drinking and his involvement during the Spanish civil war, (Probably, like most people I read The Old Man and the Sea in my early teens). Thus when finding out that Love & Ruin is about Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, my interest piqued.

Love & Ruin is essentially about Gellhorn’s relationship with Hemingway. Us readers get a bit of backstory but the book itself really starts when Gellhorn meets Hemingway for the first time at a bar and then joins him during the Spanish civil war as a journalist. After meeting secretly, the couple married in 1940 until 1945 when Gellhorn left Hemmingway.

On a deeper level us readers get a portrait of a person who started out as a fan and then took it to another level as through persistence. There is speculation on whether Gellhorn really loved Hemingway (and vice versa) but McLain makes it clear that it was obvious that love was present.

The other part of the relationship that is given attention is the tension that can exist between two writers. At the time of the Love & Ruin, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls has just been published and Gellhorn had published one novel, a collection of short stories and was becoming a well renowned journalist, albeit having trouble to get her novels published. At first there’s the impression that there’s a power struggle. At one point of the book Hemingway suggests that Gellhorn should use her married surname in order to make things easier but she refuses. This, for me, was a crucial element of the book as it displays Gellhorn’s strength and her perseverance not to give up. Eventually Gellhorn’s journalistic success was one of the factors that made her leave Hemingway as he hijacked her post in the magazine she was writing for.

McLain stuffs a lot of biographical and historical detail, kudos for the cat passages and Gellhorn’s attempts to neuter them, to Hemingway’s disgust (which could symbolise that  of the marriage was castrated and made ‘powerless’)  in this book and yet it flows nicely without feeling exhausted, which I enjoyed. Every chapter is only a couple of pages long yet by the time I was finished I felt like I had become an expert on this topic. Besides the relationship, there’s the historical context which is Franco’s Spain, China during the second world war, pre war Paris, wartime US, post war London and Hemingway’s second home, Cuba and all lovingly described.

What struck me about Love & Ruin was Mclain’s treatment of both Gellhorn and Hemingway, which is fair. Despite Hemingway’s boorish behaviour towards the end of the relationship, he is not portrayed as a monster. Neither is Gellhorn portrayed as a schemer. There is a lot of respect between both protagonists, also I was glad that the book did not descend into melodrama and yet this is neither cold documentation. There’s a great balance.

Love & Ruin is a perfect book if one has no historical knowledge of Hemingway or Gellhorn (as was in my case) and doesn’t want a non fiction account. Although I have said that the book is a quick read, it goes into complexity of how society treats women writers, something which is still a hot topic today.

Manny thanks to Little Brown for providing me with a copy of Love & Ruin and allowing me to take part in this blog tour.

Sarah Perry – The Essex Serpent

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Generally when there’s a lot of hype around a book, I do get put off. Over the last ten months, I have heard nothing but praise for this book. I did buy a copy in December but I was going to wait until the fuss about The Essex Serpent dies. However it was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction so I decided to try it.

Wow

The actual Essex Serpent was a mythological beast who roamed the waters in Essex, terrorising people, but in the book this is purely a McGuffin. The real story of the book is one about gender. I am getting ahead of myself though.

It is 1893 and newly widowed Cora Seaborne, along with her ‘partner’ Martha and autistic (my diagnosis) son Francis, move to Essex in order to escape city life and unveil the myth of the Essex Serpent, which seems to have made a reappearance and is snatching people. In the process Cora gets caught in a complicated love triangle between a doctor and a vicar.

As I said this book focuses a lot on gender. Cora states that she does not like her body and dresses in masculine clothing and has a relationship with Martha. These traits make her an outcast in the Essex village of Aldwinter but she’s quite oblivious to that as the vicar, William Ransome falls in love with her, despite being a family man. Yet he questions Cora’s refusal to conform to her gender stereotypes. Martha is another character who questions gender but she makes a decision later on in the book which is quite surprising and puts an interesting spin on gender and rights.

Cora isn’t William’s only problem though as he knows that the Essex Serpent is just a myth but the residents of Aldwinter are thinking otherwise and are partaking in superstitious rituals, which he is trying to curb.

The other major plot is about the faith vs science conundrum, which is represented by William and the Dr. Luke Garrett and their relationship with each other. 1893 was a time when scientific discoveries were happening such as evolution and hypnosis. Dr. Garrett is a big fan but William considers it garbage, although he is well informed, so there this constant tension when the two characters meet.

The third plot is one that focuses on social class and worker’s rights and although not really integral to the story, it does deserve a mention.

So why did I like this story so much? for starters I thought the writing style was great. It’s terribly post post modern but it flows. The characters are excellent, To a certain extent it is unpredictable and I do like the dark undertones, with mentions of monsters and witchcraft. I also do like the fact that Perry kept the whole novel grounded in reality. There are also little allusions to water which I did find fun – Cora’s surname is Seaborne, another major character is called Stella which refers to Stella Maris – Star of the Sea. There are other treats like this buried in the narrative and those are the more obvious ones.

Do believe the hype.

This review was originally on Goodreads

Jennifer Egan – Manhattan Beach

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Book 11 out of 16 from the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 longlist

After the fantastic A Visit from the Goon Squad (yes for shame I have not read Egan’s earlier novels) I was looking forward to the new Egan novel mostly because I was wondering what she would do next. I mean ….Goon Squad had a fractured timeline, a plot that mentions music and a section consisting of a power point!

So after an eye opening experimental novel, Egan’s follow up Manhattan Beach is even more eye opening for one reason:

It is a novel with a conventional structure.

Yes. Manhattan Beach has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s got 30 chapters, and each piece fits in beautifully.

At first it did come as a shock but that left after the first five pages because it is an amazing novel.

Twelve year old Anna accompanies her father to visit the mysterious Dexter Styles. An event which has repercussions on her family. Later as the novel progresses Anna’s father disappears and Anna, now an adult AND a diver , runs into Dexter Styles again and the events of her past come to the forefront. I will say right now that this summary is purposefully scanty due to the fact that there is more detail which really should be approached by reading the novel.

Although I did say that this novel was conventional in structure, Egan still does not play the game and Manhattan Beach is full of plot twists and red herrings. This makes exciting reading due to the unpredictability. At first Egan creates a narrative with loose ends but all questions are answered and tied up nicely.

There is nothing wrong with this book: the characters are well developed, the language is gorgeous, a pure joy to read and I liked the way the novel progressed. As the book takes place during the great depression and the second world war, Egan mentions events which happened at the time and these are meticulously researched.

However, although Manhattan Beach seems to be a murder mystery, it is a book about women’s rights and the strength to persevere despite all obstacles. As Anna struggles to become a deep sea diver, she is verbally humiliated by her male instructor and is the subject of jokes from some of her peers. After all the exams though Anna survives and proves to be the best diver in her squad. There is another episode where Anna has to make some decisions and Egan once displays the difficulties of society’s view of women. If one looks at how things are today, some things have improved but sneering attitudes towards women in supposed ‘masculine’ roles still happens.

While reading Manhattan Beach, I had the exact same feeling of euphoria when I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and there are similar. Both have written a satisfying novel that has ‘classic’ stamped all over them.  Now the question on my lips is:

What will Jennifer Egan write next? who knows?

 

Many thanks to Little Brown/Corsair for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Other Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2018 reviews:

Nicola Barker – H(A)PPY

Arundhati Roy – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Sarah Schmidt – See What I have Done

Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire

Rachel Seiffert – A Boy in Winter

Meena Kandasamy – When I Hit You

Jessie Greengrass – Sight

Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Fiona Mozley – Elmet

 

Ali Smith – Girl Meets Boy

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While I was reading Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy, I kept playing this track by Antony and the Johnsons in my head:

 

Ali Smith’s contribution to the Canongate Myths Series is considered one of the highlights of the whole set and although I have only read four of them, I can definitely say that this one is a stunner.

Ali Smith takes the tale of Iphis and Ianthe and places it in a modern setting. A small summary of the myth: Iphis was born a girl but had to live like a boy and eventually fell in love with Ianthe. Ianthe understood that she could not marry a woman (remember this is ancient Greece and written by Ovid) so she asked the gods to change her into a boy, which they did.

Ali Smith take on the myth is the notions of gender. The story focuses on Anthea who falls in love with her schoolmate Robin (gender neutral name) to the dismay of her sister Imogen, who is finding it difficult to accept the fact that Anthea is a lesbian.

Imogen has her own problems as she is working for a bottled water company and she encounters sexism among her colleagues and harassment from her boss. Eventually she is put in a position that questions her ethics and makes her understand gender roles.

For its brief 160 pages, Girl Meets Boy stuffs in a lot of notions. Besides gender and sexism, there’s the environment, memory, eating disorders and media, with a gentle nod to Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. As always Ali Smith makes this so simple and manages to get a great story out of it.

Strangely enough Ali Smith’s myth treatment was written in 2007 and now it is quite fashionable to use big name authors modernise Shakespearean plays, mythology, (ok Angela Carter got Fairy Tales) or even classic tales. Can I say that Girl Meets Boy might have started the revival??

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Martin McDonagh (dir) Two Mini Reviews.

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In order to try something new both my girlfriend, Camille and I decided to write a mini review of Three Billboards… Really the experiment is to see what aspects we would tackle. To make sure we don’t influence each other we won’t be seeing each other’s reviews until the post is up.

Camille’s review:

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a person? Being raped & killed is quite bad, but having someone you love raped & murdered is worse, I think. The premise of this film is set out quite plainly, as plainly as a message on a billboard.

Femininity

Strength and femininity are at odds in this narrative. In the scene with Angela, Mildred’s hair is long, but after the murder Mildred’s image changes. Her hair is cut short: shaved at the back, but with a ponytail on top – an amalgamation of masculine and feminine, she wears the same blue overalls, no make up. Did Mildred ‘toughen up’ and become masculine to be strong in her tragedy?

In contrast to Mildred, the male characters show only weakness. Chief Willoughby does not solve the crime. He doesn’t spend his last few months alive trying to find a solution, he gives up and leaves loose ends, he is afraid of pain. Officer Dixon’s weakness frustrates him into violent anger, and he too does not solve the crime.

Town as character

This film takes on a lot of issues that are particularly problematic in the south of the US. There are many references to an outdated way of thinking, on racism and homophobia, and sexism. Are progressive ways of thinking changing the landscape of America? Or is everything staying the same?

Hope

In the end, nobody solves the crime. Girls will be raped, and murdered, and criminals will get away. The world is cruel and nothing has any meaning. Life will go on, we will die, and life will still go on.

 

My review:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri poses an ethical question: What if an unsolved investigation was exposed to the public in the most outrageous way possible? would there be repercussions? and if so what type?

This is the main plot of Martin McDonagh’s latest film. The main protagonist, Mildred, played excellently by Frances McDormand hires three billboards and pastes the sentences ‘Raped While Dying’ ‘And Still No Arrests?’ and ‘How Come Chief Willoughby?’ Her aim being to coerce the police force to find the person who raped and burnt Mildred’s daughter, which has taken seven months.

At first the plan works but McDonagh throws another ethical problem. Chief Willoughby has cancer and the stress of the billboards is not helping it. Nonetheless Mildred will keep the billboards up.

As a result the police force rebel and Willoughby is getting worse, which results with him committing suicide. We viewers know it’s not the billboards, although as one of his final acts Willoughby pays to keep the billboards up for another month, in order to keep the investigation going AND to get her into further trouble. However Mildred becomes the enemy.

The final ethical question comes from officer Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, who is superb as the officer who does not behave like someone is to protect law and order: he is a racist, violent, is homophobic and a drunk. By the end of the film he is fired and yet does something which is character worthy and does not get his job back.

Although I want to keep this short. There’s a scene where Mildred gives a speech about culpability, and yet she commits two actions. One is drilling a hole in a dentist’s finger and she denies it. The other act is a form of mistaken revenge and she only admits this to Dixon, who cannot do anything to her.

Was Mildred’s actions correct? should she have put the billboards down in order to help the sick policeman? despite her talk of culpability she refuses to acknowledge her actions, is she a hypocrite for doing so?  Although Three Billboards leaves it up to the viewer to decide and rightly so. Ultimately despite what happens life still continues, regardless of our actions.

 

Charlotte Wood – The Natural Way of Things

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I am in awe.

On February 19th in the morning I picked up Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and I could not put it down and read it in practically one sitting. Now I am staring at the screen trying to put all those jumbled thoughts into words.

I can’t stop gushing over it. I haven’t read such a powerful book that hit a nerve like this one. The Natural Way of Things is a great big nasty filthy book. It is animalistic at times and yet it is compelling. However I could be biased as this novel has a lot of things I like in books; namely it has elements of dystopian literature and it also has feminist undertones.

The setting takes place in a room, where two women, Yolanda and Verla,  wake up, have their heads shaved and then are herded into a room with eight other women, all are being punished for contradicting/offending their male superiors. The remainder of the novel switches between Yolanda and Verla’s points of view.

This pen is a horrific edifice. There’s electrical wiring, and the two males who run it beat all ten women at any offence. That is until everyone realises that they cannot leave and then things start to change. Yolanda reverts to acting like an animal, all the women latch on too a physical object, Verla makes it her mission to kill the head of the prison, and one other character, Hetty becomes a sex slave in order to have privileges.

If the description is horrifying then I am doing the book justice. The Natural Way of Things has moments of pure horror. Blood, guts, the whole lot, this is the first novel I’ve read where rabbit fetuses have a symbolic role,  but as a statement about patriarchy all the gore and body juices are secondary.  The main message here is that even when oppressed by masculinity, the opposite sex will find a way to triumph. Whether by violence or reverting back to nature. There are different ways to rebel and Wood emphasises that.

At times there are shades of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as it also emphasises masculine power and manipulative sex but Wood is more visceral in her descriptions and is quite open with her views.  The Natural Way of things is a shocker but through its descriptions it also makes the reader aware of pure suffering and how to survive it. An unforgettable reading experience.

 

 

 

Elena Favilli, Francesca Cavallo – Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women

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As part of my quest to learn more about gender equality, I just had to purchase this book.

The title is self explanatory. There are 100 page long bios about famous women with an illustration of the said person. The range here is fantastic, from pirates, authors, astronauts and a lot of them are slightly obscure so I was glad that I only knew about 15 of the famous people depicted here. The bios go into detail but the overall tone is light and readable.

The book does stress that the majority of these women had to struggle in order to reach their dream but it also proves that if one acts strong one will achieve. Considering we are living in an age where gender equality is still mocked, I think this is an important book, especially if there are people who think that feminism is a ‘stupid’ term as it could easily change their minds.

 

Anwen Crawford – Live Through This.

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This review was originally on Goodreads.

I first listened to Live Through This back in 2003, which is pretty late and to be honest I re-listened to it recently – I like do to that before I read the book – and that strong 90’s alt sound makes the album feel a bit dated (except Asking for it) but lyrically it still is very relevant.

Anyway Anwen Crawford dissects the album and she does a fantastic job. First of all I like the fact that she dispels the silly rumors that Kurt Cobain wrote the album and the other Courtney Love conspiracy theories. Also she doesn’t just focus on Courtney Love but on the band, especially during the recording process. Thirdly I like the fact that Crawford contacted the fans and got their opinons on Live Through This AND she interviewed producers Paul Q. Koldrie and Sean Slade. The end result is an insightful book about an album that is a gateway to Riot Grrrl culture and is the work of a person who wanted to make a powerful statement of independence.

Leila Slimani – Lullaby

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Usually my standout reads occur towards February but I guess I was lucky and my first great read was the second book I picked up this year.

First of all ignore the tags such as the new Gone Girl, Lullaby is nothing like that. Lullaby tackles a lot of topics under the guise of a brutal murder which happens within the first chapter.

With this murder Slimani has probably pulled the greatest macguffin ever. Upon reading the gruesome first chapter, the reader is fooled into thinking that the rest of the book is about the murder itself, but Lullaby is not about that.

Instead Lullaby is about French attitudes towards migrants. The book itself is about a Moroccan lawyer, Myriam, who needs to find a nanny for her children. She is warned about hiring a foreigner as is common practice. Throughout the book foreigners and  migrants are treated disdainfully and resort to hanging out in a park in order to be hired as a nanny. The main protagonist, Myriam, as mentioned, is a foreigner so she has to convince people that she is a good lawyer and works harder than her working partner.

The other theme is gender equality. As the novel progresses the reader gets a glimpse into Louise, the nanny’s background, and she is a victim of psychological abuse from all the males she encounters in her life. Her first husband Jacques, the landlord of her dingy flat , Myriam’s husband and the new partner she finds. Slimani hints that this may contribute to the murder but really it’s a jab at male superiority.

Mental illness is one of the main themes as well. Louise suffers from depression due to her past; she gives birth to a child who eventually abandons her, thus making Louise suffer from severe loneliness AND a lust for Myriam and her husband Paul to have another child so that she can take care of it (or if you’re cynical to stay employed) and despite her schemes both Paul and Myriam do not plan on having a child, which drives Louise crazy and may be the biggest contributor to her killing both children and attempting suicide.

Slimani is not clear about the actual motive because Lullaby is not a crime novel but the way she delves into the above themes I mentioned to such depth that her characters are rendered as complex humans, especially Louise and Myriam. I find it rare that in a 200 page novel Slimani manages to create a handful of unforgettable characters.

Lullaby is not just a story but it is representative of the current world situation: there is racial hatred despite attempts at tolerance, sexism is still rampant and I think Slimani’s  descriptions of Louise are both shocking and sympathetic for the reader. It is no surprise that this multi-layered novel won the Prix Goncourt. A brilliant novel.