Books – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

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Short novels are not fashionable at the moment. I’ve read many 500+ page beasts recently and I can’t remember a single one where I didn’t think it could have done with a stricter edit. This classic (published 1961) is a breath of fresh air in comparison, with just 128 (plus introduction). The skill in which this story is told, to convey a lifetime of a woman who is both aspirational and tragic to watch, to see the attitudes of those girls she inducts into her set mature and move against her, in such a relatively small number of words is masterful.

This is the tale of a woman who is, in her own words, in her prime. An unmarried woman in her thirties whose fiancé fell at Flander’s Field, she carries out two love affairs with male teachers at the school, in the full knowledge of her girls (and, later, the school authorities). She is ahead of her time, though she operates within strict moral guidelines of her own making. Her actions at times are quite shocking, even by today’s standards. For a teacher to take a group of students to the houses of her lovers is  unorthodox to say the least, and would lead to the dismissal of any teacher if discovered. To then actively encourage a love affair between a man whom she has renounced (since he is married and she will not break her own code of conduct) and one of her girls is rather odd, but in character for this progressive woman. At this time it was still expected that a married woman should not work. Jean Brodie’s entire identity seems tied up with the compulsion to teach her girls, no matter what it takes, and it is seemingly for this reason that she rejects marriage.

Of her set there are five girls: Sandy, Monica, Rose, Mary and Eunice. One of the charms of this book is watching them grow, seeing them become women who unwittingly thwart Jean Brodie’s plans for them. There later comes the ‘outsider’, Joyce Emily Hammond, whose desire to join the set and please Miss Brodie leads to her fatal decision to run away to Spain and join the Spanish Civil War. Her influence on her girls is really what, in the end, leads to her downfall, betrayed and at last discredited by the school authorities who for years have tried to find good reason to dismiss her. Written with the benefit of hindsight, we know that Jean Brodie’s fascination and admiration for Mussolini and Franco is a grave mistake. Her undoing is her inability to bend, or to accept other opinions to her own, and it is one of her own who finally rebels against her.

Although this book is set very firmly in 1930s Edinburgh, it is not difficult to imagine the bold and unconventional Miss Brodie still creating a stir today. I have been taught by teachers who had their clique of favourites (though I was never one of them). She is most definitely an iconic figure, and this book worthy of all its accolades.

 

Books – The Green Road – Anne Enright

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The Green Road

Having decided that this will be the year I finally read all the books on the shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, it seemed appropriate to begin with this novel. Mainly as I meant to read it last year when it was nominated for the Man Booker. All I knew about the book before picking it up was that it was about a family, and I was sure that it would be beautifully written. Enright was appointed the first Laureate for Irish Fiction last year and won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for The Gathering.

This is an interesting book in that there is an awful lot that goes unwritten and unsaid (I suppose like in many families). It reads almost like a short story collection as we hop from one member of the Madigan family to another, only bringing them all together at the end for one final Christmas in the family home. The book begins in 1980, finishing in 2005, each section taking a voyeuristic peek into the life of one of Rosaleen Madigan’s children before leaving and jumping forward half a decade or more to  a sibling. We travel as well, from Hanna’s schooldays which open the novel in the west of Ireland, to Dan’s New York gay scene of the 1990s, Emmet dealing with the breakdown of a relationship in Mali and Constance stuck in a rut back in their home town.

Each chapter is exquisitely written, authentic and with an effortless feel. No overblown metaphors or unnecessarily long words, it nevertheless feels impressive. The voice changes as well, so that we get the stripped back Malian experience, where bread is weevil infested and the power supply unreliable. You feel Constance’s panic rising as she waits in the hospital for her mammogram, Rosaleen’s position as the family matriarch becoming irrelevant as she struggles to force her family together. Because so much time passes between chapters, there are things that we will never know. Why Dan, who in 1980 had decided to join the priesthood, ended up in New York eleven years later, girlfriend in tow but starting on the road to accepting his true sexuality, we never find out. It doesn’t really matter; the reader can decide for themselves. The New York chapter is heartbreaking and that is enough.

The second half of the book is taken up with the events of 2005. We revisit each Madigan in their current state, most of them in disarray, and see them react to Rosaleen’s call to come home. I found this half less engaging somehow. The chapters become shorter, the catch ups  having more of a ‘get up to speed’ function than the first part of the novel. Of course, no family Christmas can go smoothly in a book, and so I found the inevitable predicament, and its outcome, a little predictable. What redeemed this section for me is that the book didn’t end quite there. By the final page there is still much unresolved, with both Hanna and Constance in their own separate crises. Again, the trust is placed in the hands of the reader: you decide how the Madigan family of 2016 would look and that is the beauty of this book.

The 2016 winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on 8th June.

The Geffrye Museum

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View across the front gardens

The Geffrye Museum, 136 Kingsland Rd, London, E2 8EA. Free entry.                  http://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk

The Geffrye is a unique museum in that it is set in the former almshouses of the Ironmongers’ company, built in 1714 with a bequest from Sir Robert Geffrye. These Grade I listed buildings have been home to a museum since 1914, and today the Geffrye is known as the Museum of the Home.

The almshouses were originally home to around 50 pensioners, for around 200 years. One of these almshouses has been restored and can now be visited, but only on a few days per year (see website for dates). The main draw for me was the period rooms, of which there are 11. These take visitors through London history, looking at the central rooms of the house, from a 1630s halls into the drawing rooms of the 19th century and up to the living room of a late 20th century loft apartment. Currently they are holding an exhibition: Swept Under the Carpet: Servants in London Households 1600-2000 (until 4 September)  and so there is a focus on the changing nature of the servant’s work and their relationship with their employer. There are also several events for adults and children related to the exhibition so please look online for dates.

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View from the reading room on to the gardens

As well as the impressive front garden which is open all year and provides access to the museum, there are period and herb gardens which are open between April and October. The period gardens have been based very carefully on evidence gleaned from drawings, maps and garden plans, and also from literature in order to be as accurate as possible. Whilst the 17th century garden is quite functional, providing plants that were useful for household or medicinal use, the 19th century Victorian garden is more decorative and also boasts a greenhouse.

After a good exploration of the grounds, the café at the Geffrye is a perfect place to stop. This is in the newer section of the museum and is very welcoming, overlooking the gardens. As well as coffee and cake, there is a full menu offering breakfast and lunch, a kids menu plus wine, beer and soft drinks. There was zero cafeteria feel  which is an annoyance of cafés in the bigger museums and I would visit again just to use this.

And then – next to the café is the shop! I spend far too much money in museum shops as it is and this one is particularly dangerous. I escaped with only 2 books but could easily have bought more. They had beautiful cups, teapots (I don’t drink tea but was tempted!), hefty but beautifully wrapped bars of carbolic and laundry soap.  I will be back.

The Geffrye is a registered charity so, although entry is free, donations are very much welcomed. There is a Just Giving page set up with the aim of raising £25000 (more info about the project is on there). You can also become a Friend for only £20 per year which is very reasonable compared to the bigger museums and galleries.

 

 

 

Books – This Is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz

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This is one of those books that had to be read. Although this collection of short stories was published in 2012, the diversity debate on Twitter, which I follow quite closely, has meant that this book has been recommended by several people who know what they’re on about. Then when I walked into my local library last week it was sitting there – centre stage on the Recommended book case. I checked it out.

Until recently I haven’t been a huge reader of short stories. Some people like them as you can dip in and out of a book, but I’ve always been a committer to a long story and have been loyal to the novel. As I’ve tried to improve my own writing I’ve discovered the short story anew. It’s a real skill to be able to tell a story in a small number of words and have the reader come away satisfied. This collection takes the theme of love and the pain that goes along with it. For those who like to spend time with a character, this particular collection may be especially of interest: Yunior is the centre of these stories, a young Dominican living in New Jersey. Several stories link tightly to one another, setting up a character in one, then visiting them again later on in the book.

Diaz is a Pulitzer prize winner, so no matter whether this is usually your type of writing or not, it’s a safe pair of hands even when the words themselves are unfamiliar (there is much use of slang and Spanish but only brief moments and you can get the gist). It’s a very male voice – Yunior is a hugely chauvinistic character and, in the earlier stories especially, seems to have little respect for women. The first story, The Sun, the Moon, the Stars begins with Yunior’s girlfriend finds out that he’s been cheating on her. It’s a bit of a recurrence throughout the book, the infidelities of Yunior and other men. The good news is that cheats never prosper and so, as much as reading the misogynistic thoughts of Yunior et al can be infuriating, you just have to hold on and the retribution will come sooner or later.

There are many heart-breaking moments as well. The stories which feature Yunior’s family life are incredibly moving – Nilda is the introduction to brother Rafa, and from that moment you can watch the influence he has on Yunior and how these experiences turned Yunior into the man we have already seen. The stories aren’t told chronologically, they flit back and forwards, but it doesn’t matter. It adds in some ways as superficial judgements that I made based on the earlier stories then change later on as I learn about the boys’ childhood, their arrival in the US from Santo Domingo and about their family life.

There are many books written on the subject of love but, if you want to try something touching and funny, different, colourful and thought-provoking, you should read this.

 

 

 

Cityread London

Last Thursday I went to my first Cityread event and it struck me that an awful lot of Londoners still don’t know about this great initiative. There’s still time to get involved. Cityread is an annual month-long celebration of literature with a variety of different events taking place across the boroughs.

Each year (this is the 6th) there is a chosen novel, the focal point from which the programme spreads from. This year it is Ten Days by novelist and playwright Gillian Slovo. We were given free copies of the book at the event I attended, the aim being that Londoners are brought together to read the same book and open a discussion around the topic.

Ten Days is a thriller focusing on a fictional period of rioting in the capital (though partly based on the author’s research into the 2011 London riots) and looking at the issues through three main characters with different perspectives and agendas – a newly appointed police chief, the Home Secretary, and a resident on an estate marked for demolition. Gillian is doing a related author event on the 19th April at Chelsea Library.

Ten Days

I attended a talk at Westminster Reference Library – London: A City in Turmoil. I was prompted to go due to my interest in London history. It was an interesting look at various uprisings that have taken place over the last 900 years in the city. Unsurprisingly, race and religion have been key motivators in most cases, though there are other examples such as football hooliganism and other rivalries that have erupted into violence. There is another chance to catch this talk at the Kensington Central Library on the 18th April (free but booking required).

There aren’t just talks on the programme. On the 17th there is a guided tour – A Rebel’s Guide to Westminster. This walking tour (2 hours) will investigate how Westminster has not only been the seat of political power for centuries, but also the place for those excluded from power to come to try and force change. There is a virtual cruise and a virtual trip on the tube network, taking in some of the many literary sites and sights of London.

World Book Night falls on the 23rd and there are also several events across London for it. Anyone who has books to give out is invited to go along and hand them out. Check your local library for info.

There’s too much going on to list in a short piece here but do check out the Cityread London website as there is something for everyone: reading groups, story and craft for kids, and exhibitions. Almost all events are free but require booking. Free copies of Ten Days are being made available at events until stocks run out.

 

Books – The Law and the Lady – Wilkie Collins

 

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I have long been a fan of Wilkie Collins, ever since I first read The Moonstone as a child. Famous for being considered the first detective novel in the English language, this along with his other big commercial success The Woman in White are the books that come to mind when one thinks of Collins. Whilst researching for my own novel, set around the period when Collins was making a name for himself with his sensation novels, I read more about the man who, whilst never quite as famous as his great friend Charles Dickens, has achieved a longevity which most of his fellow sensation novelists failed to match.

Where Dickens is often criticised for his rather bland female characters, Collins, for the most part, was skilled in creating well-rounded women to populate his stories. Just as Dickens wrote about social injustice, so Collins used his pen to bring to the public’s attention those issues he felt passionately about. This particular novel is unusual in that his narrator is female. We follow this story through Valeria’s eyes, witness to the prejudiced ideas of the men around her and her reactions to them.

The novel begins with Valeria’s wedding to her beloved Eustace is overshadowed by a grave omen: instead of signing the marriage-register in her maiden name she accidentally writes her married name. This being a Wilkie Collins novel, the reader knows instantly from the second page that all is bound to go wrong! We find out that, though Valeria and her husband undoubtedly love each other very much, both families were against the match. Eustace’s family have refused to even meet Valeria. A mutual friend, Major Fitz-David dispels her concerns before the marriage takes place but we know that there is a secret there to be discovered.

In love and on honeymoon, who should Valeria stumble across on the Ramsgate sands one day but – Eustace’s mother! Coincidence has always been the friend of the sensation novel and this one is no exception. Some quick digging finds that Eustace has in fact changed his name, a fact he did not choose to disclose to his new bride. Heading back to London, she confronts Fitz-David and eventually, in a very convoluted fashion, comes across a book: the report of the trial of her husband for the alleged poisoning of his first wife, Sara. As soon as he realises that Valeria has sussed his secret Eustace vanishes, promising that she can have the marriage annulled and that he will not be a bother to her.

This is where the detective story begins. Valeria is no wallflower and is determined to win her husband back and prove his innocence. The story really hinges on the Scottish juries verdict of ‘Not Proven’. Eustace feels the shame of not being absolved of the crime (which of course he did not commit) and so Valeria’s only option is to discover who did. This investigation takes us through the trial report and into the homes of several of those who were present in Eustace’s home on the days surrounding Sara’s death.

As well as looking at the role of women, the novel also features a disabled character, Miserrimus Dexter. This gentleman receives unusual treatment by Collins. On one hand we are shown the grossly unfair prejudice that others heap upon a man who is acknowledged as highly intelligent, strong and determined to overcome the obstacles that his birth defect have left in his path. On the other, Dexter does descend into caricature, with even Valeria repulsed by him but forced into contact as he seems to hold the key to solving the mystery. It is no surprise that he meets a less than happy end, though it is suggested that his whole life has been so miserable and full of unrequited love, that this is a blessing.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read. It does not have the brilliance of Collins better known novels but is refreshing for its female narrative and lacks the stuffiness that stilts a number of other Victorian novels.

Travelogue – Bali

Last stop on my six week trip was the island of Bali. We flew from Singapore to Denpasar to KLM (top tip – we only paid £40 more per person to go Business class compared to an Air Asia low cost economy ticket! KLM stop off in Singapore on their way to Bali from Amsterdam and must need to fill the seats so it’s a super cheap option and gives access to the lounge). Arriving in the evening we headed straight to the resort of Sanur, our first of three stops. The first thing you notice as you  get out onto the highway is the traffic – there must be a system to it otherwise there would be accidents every five minutes but between cars switching lane with no warning, the hundreds of mopeds (most with two or more occupants) weaving through impossible gaps, and the general chaos, I would consider driving in Bali to be an extreme sport. We made it to our hotel in around half an hour and were relieved to find our hotel along a quiet driveway. Another note about Bali: security is extremely high everywhere. All the hotels we stayed at have a barrier before the entrance and do a vehicle check on all cars that pull in – even if they are the hotel’s own.

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The pool at Fairmont Sanur

The Fairmont Sanur is fairly new, only two years old, and is an all suite hotel. We had an Oceanview suite but the best views were from the resort pool (see above). For breakfast aficionados, Fairmont offer the best of both worlds: an extensive a la carte menu plus buffet. For anyone on a diet or healthy eating regime, Bali is perfect for you. Everywhere we went offered myriad low-carb, gluten-free, etc options (which I ignored) but there is something for everyone. Sanur itself is pretty large – the resort is based along its lengthy beach with plenty of restaurants and bars. There’s no noisy nightlife here so the town caters mainly to families and older couples. Beaches in Bali are definitely not of the white sand category – as you go further north the beaches turn to volcanic black – but Sanur is the better side for those who like calmer waters. The busier Kuta/Seminyak coast boasts great surfing waves which bring in the flocks of Aussies.

 

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Ubud cocktails

We stayed two nights in Sanur, mainly relaxing by the pool, and then headed up to the centre of the island. Ubud is known as the cultural heart of Bali. Think arts and crafts, rice fields, yoga and spa. Getting there took ninety minutes, mainly due to traffic. The Maya Ubud Resort and Spa is only ten minutes drive from the town centre (there are hotels right in town but the views from the resorts on the outskirts tend to be much superior) and they run a shuttle bus throughout the day (FOC). We stayed in a plunge pool villa which was stunning, and we even had a monkey visitor one day. Again, if you stay in town closer to the Monkey Forest you may see more but they are crafty creatures so I was happy to only see the one!

The town itself is quite sprawling, with little lanes and alleyways running off the main road. Monkey Forest Road is a main thoroughfare lined with shops, bars, restaurants at the top, changing into hotel driveways further down. There is a huge mix of people here from backpackers to young families, and accommodation to match. You can find cocktail 2 for 1 deals from 1pm right up until 11pm if you want to bar crawl, and we couldn’t find a bad restaurant. Local cuisine includes nasi goreng (fried rice, usually with chicken or shrimp) and we also tried mie goreng (noodles rather than rice) and kari ayam (chicken curry).

 

 

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Sunset at Double Six

 

Another ninety minute took us back, further past Sanur and to the extremely popular resort of Seminyak. A favourite with Aussies for many a year, Seminyak is at the northern end of the tourist strip that starts at Kuta (think cheap beer, buckets of cocktails and crazy nightlife), runs into Legian (busy but family friendly) and then up to our final destination. We stayed at the Double Six Luxury, another new hotel just across the road from the beach. This is a modern hotel, again offering all suites, and again we had a plunge pool room. The views at sunset from the rooftop nightclub are incredible, and we never heard music from the club in our room which had been a concern. For more traditional types the hotel also have a prohibition style bar attached to their upmarket Plantation Grill which has enough varities of gin on offer to keep any connoisseur happy.

 

Whilst in Seminyak we booked a tour with Bali Urban Adventures. The VW Kombi Cocktail tour takes guests on a tour of the coastal region, stopping at several beach bars (suitable for everyone – despite the name, since no drinks are included in the price you can still enjoy the sights and drink whatever you wish) and a local temple. Above are some photos showing the view out from a bar at Batubelig and also the Pura Batu Ngaus, a fertility temple near Canggu, just north of the Seminyak area. Off the tourist track, it was an authentic look at the local culture.  The tour finished at Ku De Ta, a well known restaurant and bar overlooking the beach in the heart of Seminyak. At around £9 each and not a drink offer in sight, this was the most expensive place we visited all week but it was worth it – they make their dark and stormys with homemade ginger beer that I’d very much like to find the recipe for!

And that is it – the end of my six week trip. I had a great time but am happy to be home and moving on to my next challenge – an MA in Creative Writing! I am  going to spend the rest of my sabbatical reading and exploring some new spots around London so will update with these asap.