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Book Review: POSSESSION by A. S. Byatt

PossessionPOSSESSION by A.S. Byatt employs a parallel plot device, in which two modern researchers (Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell) try to find out what (if any) was the relationship between two Victorian poets, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte in the years 1859 to 1861.

The first time we meet them is in a railway compartment on page 299:

“We are travelling together,” he said. “We decided–you decided–to come. What I do not know is whether you would wish–whether you would choose–to lodge and manage yourself separately from me after his point–or whether–or whether–you would wish to travel as my wife…

“I want to be with you,” she said…She spoke quickly and clearly; but the gloved hands, in their warm kid, turned and turned in his. He said, still in the quiet, dispassionate tone they had so far employed: “You take my breath away. This is generosity–”

“This is necessity.”

“But you are not sad, you are not in doubt, you are not–”

“That doesn’t come into it. This is necessity. You know that.” She turned her face away and looked out, through a stream fine cinders, at the slow fields. “I am afraid, of course. But that seems to be of no real importance. None of the old considerations–none of the old cares–seem to be of any importance. They are not tissue paper, but seem so.”

“You must not regret this, my dear.”

“And you must not speak nonsense. Of course I shall regret. So will you, will you not? But that too, is of no importance at this time.” (299-300)

Victorian In this scene, we are not just limited to the words written down as part of a one-sided conversation that characterizes a letter. We are also given, in A. S. Byatt’s text, additional information that conveys more vividly the emotions. Here, she characterizes Ash’s embarrassment, hesitancy and fear of failure by the rhythms of his speech. He does not speak fluently, he pauses and repeats himself, sometimes changing a word (from ‘we’ to ‘you’, from ‘wish’ to ‘choose’) to acknowledge that Christabel LaMotte isn’t his wife, but an independent being. LaMotte is nervous and somewhat self-deceiving, telling herself and him that staying in his room is a ‘necessity’ rather than a choice. In all other aspects, she employs a steely clear-sightedness, knowing that she is ignoring feelings of guilt and fear and regret in her single-minded determination to have an affair with him. Lastly, she doesn’t hesitate to contradict him. So this is no typical coy Victorian Miss. This is a clear thinking woman making choices, with one dash of self-deception thrown in to make her human.

I loved the way this novel ends. Five stars.

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“Frenzy” by David Grossman

HerBodyKnows“Frenzy” is one of two novellas (the other one is titled “Her Body Knows”) published together in one volume, titled HER BODY KNOWS, by David Grossman.

Shaul, the main point-of-view character in David Grosmann’s “Frenzy”, is a respectable academic, who is widely admired and gives interviews on television about such things as budget cuts to science education (17). Behind his calm exterior however, lies a stew of jealousy and torment. For Shaul believes that his wife visits her lover every day, driving her green car to see him. As he closes his eyes, he pictures what happens:

She charges ahead, the green car dances through the network of arteries that spreads from here all the way to him, and when Shaul emerges from the wave of pain, she’s already there with him. He can see them dimly, a large wide blur of warmth, solid arms, and her brisk movements as she holds on to his shoulder with one hand and bends over to pull of her shoes without unbuckling them. Her fingers stiff with longing, she touches his naked body; his clothes are already at his feet, and hers fall on top of them, and Shaul shuts his eyes and absorbs the blow embodied in this intermingling of fabric, and it hurts so much that he has to look away from the man’s clothes, because, for a moment, even the man himself is less painful than the clothes shed on top of one another. (5)

Shaul imagines his wife’s delight at visiting her lover. Her car charges ahead, it dances as it makes it way through the network of streets that separates them (emphasis added). His imagination gallops ahead of the pain he feels. She’s already with him. We are told by the author that Shaul can see them, if only dimly. But even in this dimness, he sees a great deal of detail, a blur of warmth, solid arms, her brisk movements as she holds onto his shoulder and takes her shoes off. He sees her fingers stiff with longing, his naked body, his clothes on the floor, hers falling on top. It is in these details in this lush prose full of words that divert us that Grossman is able to get away with telling the reader what happens. The details are so precise and compelling that even though the characters are not actually in a scene, the writing sweeps us along so that we almost believe that we are seeing what Shaul imagines.

gymbagTowards the end of this novella, Grossman reveals that Shaul is an unreliable narrator. His wife has not been visiting her lover in her green car, as he thinks. She’s been going swimming as she says she has. Later, when he checks her gym bag, “the towel is wet as it should be, the bathing cap is damp, there is slightly less shampoo in the tube.” (116) He checks every day, because “these minute signs and tokens are, as he well knows, his one and only proof of her guilt.”

This would be funny if it weren’t so heartbreakingly sad. Shaul is crazy, his judgement has gone to pieces in a poisonous stew of jealousy, to the extent that factual evidence that should exonerate only serves to condemn in his eyes. It is these precise details that enable us to see Shaul’s world through Shaul’s eyes even though we are constantly being told how he thinks and feels. Five Stars.

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Book Review: ANGELA’S ASHES by Frank McCourt

AngelasAshesI don’t think anyone would describe Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his account of growing up poor and starving in Ireland, as funny. Nevertheless, the many tragedies in his story are leavened by glimpses of humor. Near the beginning of his memoir, McCourt sets the scene in the following way:

Out in the Atlantic Ocean great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges…

The rain drove us into the church–our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. At Mass, Benediction, novenas, we huddled in great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone, while steam rose again from our clothes to mingle with the sweetness of incense, flower and candles.

Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain. (1-2)

We learn that it rains in LimerickLimerick, but Limerick is not just wet, it stays wet for eternity. The great sheets of rain drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick (emphasis added). We learned that the rain dampened the city from the Feast of Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. Not only does the detail of the ‘Feast of Circumcision’ sound humorous, but that sentence actually means that it stayed wet from January 1 to December 31. In the next sentence, McCourt takes things up a notch by providing us with a marvelous list of alliteration and onomatopoeia. Again, the details are compelling. We don’t just have a cacophony of coughs, which sounds clichéd, but a cacophony of hacking coughs. Just when you think this can’t possibly get any worse, McCourt tops that sentence with the next one: “It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges.” After a few more sentences (omitted for brevity), we learn that the rain drove everyone into church, it was “our refuge, our strength, our only dry place.” In this sentence, McCourt gives us a list which acts like a garden path sentence. It implies that it’s talking about one thing (the piety of the people of Limerick), when it’s actually talking about something else (their wish to get out of the rain). The next sentence gives us a marvelous image of all those people crowded into church in “great damp clumps, dozing through priest drone,” and this sets us up for the punch line at the end, that Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but “we knew it was only the rain.”

And so the story begins with some humor, to ease the way for the tragedies that follow. I highly recommend this memoir. Five Stars.


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Book Review: “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin

SonnysBLuesJames Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is about a black family in twentieth-century America, particularly about the un-named narrator and his younger brother Sonny. After time in jail for peddling heroin, Sonny returns to his brother’s home in a housing project in Harlem.

At the end of the story, Sonny, out of jail and back home with his brother, rediscovers his lifeline, the one thing that makes his life worth living, his music. But his first attempts to play piano are rocky:

And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seem to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck (49)

The rhythm of the sentences mirrors Sonny’s panicky attempts to play jazzHonkyTonk. The first two sentences start with ‘And’, a short word that sounds like a gulp. In the third sentence, one can almost hear Sonny try to play. The sentence is full of clauses of different lengths, that mirror the lengths of the musical phrases. So Sonny and the piano stammer, they “started one way”, “got scared”, “stopped,” started another way” and so on. What is so brilliant about this passage is that you don’t have to know anything about jazz to hear it. Each word contributes to the effect. Five Stars.

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Book Review: Charles Dicken’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES

A Tale of Two CitiesIf there is one thing that people remember about Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, it is of Madame Defarge knitting while the heads roll: “The ministers of Sainte Guillotine are robed and ready. Crash!–A head is held up, and the knitting-women who scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it a moment ago when it could think and speak, count One.” (178)

This is a brilliant example of how brutality dulls the mind in the face of horror. Dickens uses knitting, which we normally associate with a cozy home life, and pairs it with the guillotine to make it seem sinister and arresting. What is odd about this scene is that it is the only example I could find of Madame Defarge actually knitting beside the guillotine, and she isn’t there, a fact that is made much of by her side-kick ‘The Vengeance’. So one could say that this scene is also a perfect example of how memory has difficulty in processing negatives. Because what people actually remember is that she is there, in her chair, knitting. Here is an actual example of Madame Defarge knitting, and why it is so important:

 Next noontide saw the admirable woman in her usual place in the wine-shop, knitting away assiduously. A rose lay beside her, and if she now and then glanced at the flower, it was with no infraction of her usual preoccupied air. There were a few customers, drinking or not drinking, standing or seated, sprinkled about. The day was very hot, and heaps of flies, who were extending their inquisitive and adventurous perquisitions into all the glutinous little glasses near madame, fell dead at the bottom. Their decease made no impression on the other flies out promenading, who looked at them in the coolest manner (as if they themselves were elephants, or something as far removed), until they met the same fate. Curious to consider how heedless flies are!–perhaps they thought as much at Court that sunny summer day.

A figure entering at the door threw a shadow on Madame Defarge which she felt to be a new one. She laid down her knitting, and began to pin her rose in her head-dress, before she looked at the figure.

It was curious. The moment Madame Defarge took up the rose, the customers ceased talking, and began gradually to drop out of the wine-shop…(85)

MmeDefargeMadame Defarge, while talking with the spy Barsad in the most unhelpful fashion possible, is knitting in code such details as his name and appearance. Which is presumably why she wants the other inhabitants of the shop to go away, so that she can concentrate. I love the way in which Dickens picks out seemingly unimportant details to make a point. For example, the flies are compared to those courtiers who lounged around Versailles, pursuing pleasure with abandonment, heedless of the storm that is brewing up beneath them. Five Stars.

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Book Review: THE EMPEROR by Ryszard Kapucinski

TheEmperorThe Emperor is so powerful that when he elevates someone to a new position, he changes their body language completely:

First, the whole figure of a man changes. What had been slender and trim-waisted now starts to become a square silhouette. It is a massive and solemn square: a symbol of the solemnity and weight of power. We can already see that this is not just anybody’s silhouette, but that of visible dignity and responsibility. A slowing down of movements accompanies this change in the figure. A man who has been singled out by His Distinguished Majesty will not jump, run, frolic, or cut a caper. No. His step is solemn: he sets his feet firmly on the ground, bending his body slightly forward to show his determination to push through adversity, ordering precisely the movement of his hands so as to avoid nervous disorganized gesticulation. Furthermore, the facial features become solemn, almost stiffened, more worried and closed, but still capable of a momentary change to optimism or approval. (34)

The man becomes old, he becomes slow, he becomes massive and solemn as he attempt to stifle his quirks to fit into that stagnant court atmosphere. Power sits heavily on his shoulders. All of these observations become ironic when one realizes, by reading through Kapucinski’s piece, that in fact the ministers spend most of their time not doing their jobs, but hanging around court just to catch the Emperor’s eye to indicate their “unshakable loyalty”. (50) And that, moreover, the Emperor doesn’t like his ministers to be good at their jobs, so that he “shined by contrast”. (33)

Kapucinski doesn’t need to write a voluminous tome in order to convey what life was like under the repressive rule of Emperor Haile Selassie.  Instead he chooses a few details that stick out in the mind: such as the specific way in which a new minister’s body posture changes upon his promotion to power. There is something about each of these images that causes the reader to pause and think, and remember them afterwards. Five Stars.

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Book Review: THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras

TheLoverMarguerite Duras’ The Lover is a semi-autobiographical story of forbidden love between  a 15-year-old French girl and her 27-year-old Chinese lover, the son of a millionaire. The nameless young woman, the narrator of this story, comes from an abusive family, and this causes her to be emotionally shut down. Thus Duras has the difficult task of rendering emotion on the page via a character who doesn’t have easy access to her emotions. Throughout this story, Duras deploys silence as a way of expressing emotion:

Never a hello, a good evening, a happy New Year. Never a thank you. Never any talk. Never any need to talk. Everything always silent, distant. It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable. Every day we try to kill one another, to kill. (54)

The emotional information is given via the narrator’s internal monologue. The sentences are carefully put together to build an arc of tension. In the first and second sentences, Duras lists common greetings that have become so familiar they are clichés. Thus the emotional energy is low. Then the tension is raised in the third sentence when we learn that these people never talk, and in the fourth sentence that they don’t need to talk. Sentence five builds on this thought, while sentence six provides a description of this family by using a metaphor that likens it to stone: “It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable.” (54) This metaphor brings other images to mind. Stone is cold, hard, unyielding, inflexible. It explains this family brilliantly. If that were not enough, the next sentence raises the stakes even more: “Every day we try to kill one another, to kill.” (54) The violence of this sentence enacts the emotions powerfully on this page, pulling the reader in. It tells us that silence is habitually used by this family as a weapon to kill. Notice how effectively Duras uses repetition to make her point more powerful. I highly recommend this novel. Five stars.

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Book Review: “The Chain” by Tobias Wolff

The Night In Question“The Chain”, a short story by Tobias Wolff in his collection THE NIGHT IN QUESTION, begins with a dog attacking Brian Gold’s daughter Anna. Anna is saved, but Brian is still upset, and thus a chain of events is set in motion that leads to the murder of Marcel Foley by an enraged Victor Barnes, who believes his car has been damaged by the drug-pusher to whom he owes money.

When Victor forces his way into the home where Marcel Foley is staying, he ends up murdering Marcel with the crowbar that was used to damage his car. After Marcel’s death, Victor drops the crowbar, runs downstairs and drives to his grandmother’s house where she comforts him. This is a truly wonderful story, which repays close study. Five Stars.

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I hope you all have enjoyed your summer as much as I have. I thought I’d reopen my blog with a fun activity. The first person who can guess where I’ve been (from the photo below), will win a FREE e-copy of ONE SEED SOWN. Just fill out the form below.

This Fall, I’ve decided to change the content of my blog a little, in response to your requests. Next Monday, I will be doing a series of articles on time management, Wednesday will be my book review day, as a number of you have been kind enough to tell me how much they enjoy reading them, and on Fridays, I though I would do a mix of poems, epigrams, haikus, provocative pictures from the internet and writing prompts just to get your weekend off to a good start. I hope you enjoy this new content, and, as always, please let me know what you think!

Now, where was I in this photo?




Have a wonderful Fall!




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THE SILVER LOCKET by Margaret James

Margaret James’ THE SILVER LOCKET is the story of a spirited young woman on the eve of World War One who decides that she can no longer bear the tedium of waiting to be married to the right gentleman, and leaves home to become a nurse during the war.

What is really great about this novel is the detail about what nursing was like during the 1914-18 war. What is less great is the plot, which provides the predictably unpredictable happy ending. What really needs work is the pacing of the story, which doesn’t work at all. What I mean by that is that events happen suddenly and abruptly with no setup. For example, when Rose returns to her home in Dorset with Phoebe’s baby, her mother immediately assumes that it must be hers. When Rose protests that it isn’t, her mother won’t believe her.

The problem with this is that the reader isn’t given much basis for judging this incident. We know that there are the inevitable mother-daughter tensions, and that Rose’s mother wants her to marry well, whereas Rose would prefer to educate herself. But we don’t get much interior monologue, because the book is replete with tells, in which Ms. James tells the reader what to think. In the example below, the tells appear in BLOCK CAPS.

“Mummy, don’t be ridiculous!” ROSE COULD NOT BELIEVE WHAT SHE WAS HEARING. SHE SHOOK HER HEAD AS IF TO CLEAR IT. “This is not my child! I wasn’t pregnant, I—”
“You expect me to believe you?” Lady Courtenay turned her head away.
“Mummy, pregnant women are enormous, they have bulging stomachs, they—”
[At this point, Rose’s mother makes a long speech.]

This passage would have been better if it had been re-written as follows:

“Mummy, don’t be ridiculous!” Rose scrutinized her mother’s face. Where was that warm smile she’d come to expect? Why was Mummy staring at her in that way? Her light blue eyes had gone cold, the color of an icy lake. Rose’s stomach clenched.
“You expect me to believe you?” Lady Courtenay turned away.
She moved closer. “Mummy, pregnant women are enormous, they have bulging stomachs, they—”
But Frances Courtenay wouldn’t look at her daughter. She twisted her white hands, pulling and tugging at her jeweled rings.

The result of using tells as opposed to interior monologue means that we don’t really know in detail what Rose thinks about her mother, or what her mother thinks about Rose. And so this clash seems abrupt, jarring and not believable. Three stars.

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