Review-ish: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

‘We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’

I picked up this beast with some trepidation, after it had been mentioned so many times on various podcasts that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I’m a massive fan of modern American fiction, including Truman Capote, so it made sense that a book that explores his downfall would peak my interest, but I was also worried that it might have been over-hyped. In all honesty, I think I got into writers like Capote and Kerouac because I thought they made me look terribly cool when I was in my early 20’s, but I still do really enjoy the style of the time.

I actually devoured this book and then immediately passed it onto a friend, which is very unusual for me as I’m such a book hoarder. The subject matter itself is fascinating; I found myself googling each individual Swan and gawping at the glamour of them, but its wonderfully composed. Greenberg-Jephcott is a magician at conjuring up these waspy scenes, but also at capturing Capotes voice perfectly.

It would be too easy to paint portraits of these women as awful, self-centred and vain (says the socialist in me) OR as innocent victims to Capotes machinations, but instead, the Swans are far more fascinating to me than the writer himself. Although, his re-telling of his own history is so deftly done.  

The chorus of the Swans throughout the narration is so clever, a modernised version of the choruses used in Greek drama (for those of you who had rubbish English teachers like me). I have just read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which is part of Canongates ‘Myths’ series, and she utilises the same tool.

I have no criticisms of the book at all, and really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So please read this and tell me what you think! And tell me your favourite Swan. I”m obsessed with Lee Radziwill.

Review-ish: Kindred by Octavia E Butler

‘Slavery was a long slow process of dulling’.

I was really thrilled to have stumbled across this on one of my many charity shops jaunts around South Wales, as I had heard of it, but knew nothing of the plot. The copy I picked up, as you can see, is a contemporary edition, so I hadn’t really considered when it was written.

I read it whilst on holiday in Portugal, and whilst it wasn’t an easy beach read, it was still good to be able to be fully-absorbed in it. Kindred is a hugely popular book, written in 1979 and therefore there are many, many better musings and academic writings on this than I can ever provide, so rather than delving too deeply into themes etc, I’ll just share my thoughts.

The concept is clever, and allows the reader to consider the similarities between the African American experiences in LA, 1976 to the Maryland of 1815. The linking of fates, the brutal and disgusting treatment of human beings as property, the realities of life for mixed race couples and the exploration of ancestry were brilliantly executed and fascinating.

In recent years, I have discovered that I have an aversion to time-travel stories (I think this began with the trauma of The Time-Travellers Wife). I struggle to watch films about it. I can’t handle the sliding-doors of it all, or the missing-people-by-moments-ness. Very articulate, I know. But I actually found the time-travel nature of this worked really well and wasn’t too painful for me!

So yeah. There’s a reason why its considered a classic. Get to it. It would make a great book club read as there’s so much to talk about. And I can see why its used for educational discussions.

Well 2019 might have been a ominshambles of a year, but holy moly I read some good books. I have never bought so many copies of the same books, but have loved forcing them upon friends and family as gifts (top buys were All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, not reviewed on here due to Doerr being a British male, The Electric Michaelangelo by Sarah Hall and A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman).

What books did everyone get for Xmas? I got a beautiful illustrated Studio Ghibli book of Princess Mononoke and maybe my 5th version of the Wizard of Earthsea as part of a stunning omnibus. I’m very aware that the book hoarding might one day kill me.

On another note, the reason its taking me so long to get my reviews out is because my laptop is. just. so. slow and I really have to talk myself into even turning the bloody thing on. I’m having cold sweats thinking about doing my tax return on it.

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club – December

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

This month saw us being welcomed graciously into the Insole Court Volunteer festivities, and for many of us, seeing a Mari Llwyd for the first time (worth a Google if you are unfamiliar with this Welsh tradition).

The Mars Room caught my eye after being short-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2018, having recently read Telex from Cuba, Kushner’s debut novel. I was really pleased that it prompted such interesting discussions for the group, of which you can read more below, and as always, comment if you feel like it!

Quite divisive. Some found it hard work. Some couldn’t finish it. Some found it very compelling.

Very sad, no feeling of hope.

Really felt like you knew Romy.

Indictment of the US judicial system.

Some of us read it quite quickly, others read it in chunks.

First third of the book slower than the rest.

Reflected on how hard it must be to have so little information about the outside world, we were shocked.

Interesting how they made their own lives behind bars.

At times could be quite amusing, some dark humour.

Tremendous characters.

But paints such a bleak picture – particularly the woman slumped on the bus at the beginning.

So hard for rehabilitation to happen in that environment.

Many of the characters are the victims of circumstance.

Shared histories and history repeating. Cycles of poverty. Hard to survive.

Romy was close to making a better life for herself before Jimmy betrayed her.

Jumping between time lines was clever but didn’t always work out.

It definitely didn’t reflect the San Francisco that we picture, and we felt that many American cities aren’t what they seem, like Washington DC. Every city has a darker side.

Her memories, although often at a distance, are very specific.

Juxtaposition of the Mars Room and prison.

Discussed what would happen to Jackson if it were in the UK.

Jackson represents hope and goodness, the only character in the book to do so.

At the end, she reflects that she gave him life, but is it such a good thing?

Her use of train tracks to present life and inevitability.

Kushner is very good at writing different view points. Reflections of different classes.

The chapters written in a different font were Ted Kaczynski, which was totally missed by some of us (me.)

Prison is a primitive way of dealing with crime. Lack of resources and will for rehabilitation.

She doesn’t talk much about race in prison, which is often a key focus of many prison dramas in the US.

Kayne West says that 1/3 black men have been in prison in the US.

Discussed the classism of crack cocaine vs. cocaine use.

Discussed institutionalisation, routine, living alongside other people.

Discussed what books we would pick if we were giving books to people in prison.

  • Responsible Boy on BBC
  • Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner
  • Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix
  • Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

Better late than never with the notes, I hope! We’re always keen to hear your thoughts, so please comment below.

We’re next meeting on Tuesday 28th January at 7pm, where we’ll be discussing My Sister, The Serial Killer by Okinyan Braithwaite. See you then!

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club – November

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This month, we took a slight departure from reading new releases to discuss the 1980’s classic, The Remains of the Day. It was lovely to catch up with the group again and welcome a new member, despite it being a dark and damp evening. As always, thoughts and further reading/watching below. Please feel free to comment. 


Nearly all of us had read it and finished it.

Heard Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson’s voices while reading it (the stars of the film).

Very slow-paced, could be a bit samey.

Some found it an easy read, but not massively engaging, due to a lack of action.

Dignified.Duty, dignity and grit come up many times throughout.

What has Steven’s missed out on? Does he know?

Back then, butler’s didn’t marry. But his father must have?

His mother is never mentioned.

Steven’s is an odd character, very set in his ways. 

Some still feel like its a love story. All that is unsaid. 

Some want to shake him! But also angry at the way he was treated by people. The classism. 

Some felt sad that it took a stranger to remind him to make the most of his time. 

The most English story ever. 

‘Too much Celt in me to enjoy it!’ in reference to Steven’s saying that only the English make good butlers.

Does Steven’s have autistic tendencies? Social awkwardness. 

His pride in how he managed his fathers death. Felt very tragic, despite the fact that he felt peace with it.

He has no social norm to adhere to as he doesn’t socialise and has no social group.

In some ways, he is self-aware. Analytical and critical.

Insight into the upper classes. 

Moderism/modernisation/transistion. Britain is changing.

There was immaturity on the side of Miss Kenton too. 

Sense of duty.

He didn’t leave the house whereas she did. 

He must have known what was going on with Darlington. 

Interesting that he always attributes opinions to others.

Similarities with Downton Abbey.

Wondered if some aspects were inspired by the book.

He’s a spectator. He compartmentalised everything.

The odd request of Steven’s to have the birds and the bees conversation. There to show that he has some awareness? A moment of dark humour.

Why doesn’t he correct the townspeople when they assume he’s a Lord of some sort. maybe he wants to spare their embarrassment?

Marked difference between when he is talking about his ‘tour’ compared to reflecting on the past.

He gains a wider perspective on the outside world. Freed from the job.

His lack of concern for her when her Aunt died!

Just hearing snippets of the Darlington story made us really intrigued. We would read a book about that!

A good picture of life as it was then.

Do people still have staff?

Steven’s and Miss Kenton were stuck in the social structure of the day.

Their jobs would have been desirable/sought after.

Faraday really seems taken with the English way of life.

She did love him. he would have infuriated her though, if they were together. He might have changed under her influence.

Hers was also a story of duty. Heart-breaking.

Never hear her perception. 

We then discussed whether we were satisfied with the ending, and then endings in general!

  • The Remains of the Day Film (plenty of Oscar noms!)
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
  • A Pale View of the Hills and An Artist of the Floating World (first two novels by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (very different)
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For something completely different, we’ll be meeting on Tuesday 17th December to discuss The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, with some mince pies! Our 2020 books are up now and should be in the Insole Court Visitors Centre before Christmas so plenty of time to get ahead of the game. 

Insole Court Book Club – October and birthday!

Amateur by Thomas Page McBee

Huge thank you to all those who braved the horribly dark and grim evening on Tuesday to come out and humour my excitement at the Book Club reaching the grand old age of one! It was lovely to have celebratory cake (rather than just our normal Tuesday cake) and a drink at the Maltsters afterwards, and as always, it was great to welcome new faces.

Amateur prompted some really fascinating discussions, which I’m not sure I managed to fully capture in short hand, but I’ll do my best!

When he talks about his own story, it is very compelling.

Some found the first section of the book quite hard-going.

Some really enjoyed the passages directly related to boxing.

Author was extremely self-aware and great at unpicking his own thoughts and feelings. Not typical in men?

For some, the book gave them an insight into the patriarchy and built in stereotypes. The assumption of competence being very interesting.

Such a unique perspective, not just because he is a trans man but also because of his ability to ‘pass’.

Many reflected on feeling like an ‘ornament’ around men; not listened to, talked over etc. and connected to the passages about feeling vulnerable on the streets, vulnerable in our own bodies.

Great insight into the mental/emotional transition.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

We loved the passages about his mum: ‘A golden core’

Similar to Born a Crime by Trevor Noah in that the mother is present throughout.

The physical touch and its acceptability in the boxing ring; tender and intimate.

The duality of the boxing ring.

Would love to hear what boxers think of this book.

Does that fact the he’s a journalist explain why the first section of the book felt a bit more disjointed?

Boxing is what makes it special, it wouldn’t have the same impact if he’d trained at tennis or joined a team sport. Boxing is such a good metaphor for life.

Really liked both of the coaches.

A great insight as we tend to see and hear from more trans women in the media.

The fact that McBee reports that every time he’s on TV, there’s always another man there to tell him why he’s not a man.

The argument that this offers ‘balance’. Some things don’t need balance. No-platforming.

The ‘snow-flake generation’ and the health and safety analogy. Just making sure people are safe.

Having to constantly out yourself, as well as there always being images online of you pre-transition. Removing images from Google, will become more of a thing in the future?

McBee is the masculinity expert for Vice.

Womens fear of men is ingrained. We are taught from a young age how to protect ourselves, boys not necessarily taught to look out for girls.

We really liked Jess.

Workplaces and emotional intelligence.

Maggie Nelson quote ‘sitting with someone uncurling his hands, then holding them out to you, open, so that you can behold all the hard-won strength, insight, agility and love to be found there’.

The ‘crisis of masculinity’ in America. Is it because of its unique culture? The Greatest Country in the World philosophy. What happens if you’re not living up to the ideal?

Further reading/watching/listening:

–          Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee

–          The Power of One by Bryce Courtney

–          The Fight by Norman Mailer

–          Million Dollar Baby by F.X Toole

–          Rethinking Masculinity on the Guardian Books Podcast

–          Seahorse: documentary

Please do comment below if you’ve read along and want to share your thoughts!

Looking forward to the next book club meeting on Tuesday 26th November where we’ll be discussing Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Keep an eye out for our 2020 book club pick, coming soon!

Kelly

Review-ish: The Assassins Quest by Robin Hobb (#3 in the Farseer Trilogy)

‘Sometimes a man doesn’t know how badly he’s hurt until someone else probes the wound.’

I’m basically just going to rhapsodise about this so please bear with me.

I have been recommending this trilogy to ANYone who will listen. It really is just perfectly constructed fantasy. I’m going to throw it out there, and I’m ready to bear the wrath, but I prefer it to the Game of Thrones books. Here’s why (and then I promise, I’ll actually talk about this particular book!):

–          The violence isn’t gratuitous

–          ALL of the characters are nuanced and are capable of growth

–          The magic is hard-won and not taken lightly

A huge amount happens in this final book of the trilogy. Its not so much a culmination of action, as the previous 2 books had plenty of that, but it does take us through what feels like the final part of this particular journey for Fitz. These books are huge. Finger-achingly and crampingly huge. But its all so necessary for the feeling that you get at the end. The big sigh. Questions are answered, some further questions are raised, but overall the narrative is extremely satisfying. 

As a central character, Fitz is more than worthy, offering us fist-bump opportunities as well as moments where we want to give him a good shake. The new characters that are introduced are fantastic (Starling and Kettle in particular) and the more familiar characters just grow and develop in sometimes quite unexpected ways. I won’t go too much further into the characters or plot, as if you haven’t already been sold by my review of #2, then this barely-a-review isn’t going to change your mind. And I’d rather that anyone who is interested, doesn’t have anything spoiled by me. Make sense? 

Its a testament to Hobb’s exceptional writing that upon finishing the Farseer Trilogy, the lad-at-home and I have sought out and started the next trilogy (The Liveship Traders) and have the following trilogy lined up (The Tawny Man Trilogy) so if I can keep up this sham of a review-site, you’re going to get a lot of Robin Hobb content. We also very nearly started a conversation with an unsuspecting woman on a beach in Portugal who was peacefully reading Robin Hobb unaware that we were excitedly whispering about confronting a fellow Hobb-nob and making her our friend.  Reader, we did not ruin that poor persons day, don’t worry.

I have been reading A LOT recently so the ol’ review back-log is significant at the moment. But the nights are drawing in, the leaves are falling and my favourite time of year commences so I WILL be getting my reviews in order.

Whats everyone reading at the moment? Does anyone read seasonally?? Im intruiged.

Kelly

Review-ish: The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Translated by Philip Gabriel.

‘The truth sometimes reminds me of city buried in sand. As time passes, the same piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.’

Sometimes, I really wish that I had read Murakami’s work in the order they were written, as I think I’d find it so fascinating. But alas, I read Norweigan Wood as a teenager and came to his others as I found them in libraries, charity shops or second-hand book shops. This is the most similar to Norwegian Wood that I have read so far. It lacks the totally nutty magic of Hard-Boiled Egg and Kafka on the Shore. But it’s still a very charming read.

I was convinced that I had found this book slow, but according to my notes, I was absolutely gripped by it! In this way, I think its an easier read than his more fantastical books, but it didn’t haunt me for weeks afterwards in the way The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle did. 

It felt like a meditation on the internal workings of someone’s mind. How easily it can be misled. A gentle story, really about one man, Tsukuru Tazaki, as he tries to reconcile his past with his present. I liked the slowness of it, which I think is  reflected its singular focus. I enjoyed how every moment was described in great detail, like his time at the lake. Murakami’s work is very evocative, but it was surprisingly enjoyable to feel this in stillness rather than action.

It offers a really interesting reflection on loneliness and isolation, comparing emptiness or unease in our own skin to physical or emotional colourlessness. Of feeling like you are the one that lacks personality when surrounded by bolder, more colourful people. And how reality can be very different to your own perception.

The language is more accessible than some of his other novels, but the lack of drama might put some readers off. I found his lyrical descriptions of music, particularly noticeable in this book, really beautiful and moving.

The characters, similar to in Norwegian Wood, are a little bit bleak, a little bit morose. But realistic, reflecting a different side to humanity. And as always, Murakami can create a fully-formed and 3D character in a few words. But he always allows you a deep-dive into his main characters sub-conscious.

There’s other Murakami books I might recommend first, depending on your interests, but if anyone is reading them in order, I’d love to hear about it!

Kelly