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October 2018 Reading Round Up

I didn’t do badly in October. Looking at this list has made me realise how long the month was, and in a good way; whilst the last week of October was very cold – in relative terms – the majority was sunny and warm and I think the number of summery days, with the change following, afforded the effect of more time. This month was also about library usage – I’ve reviewed books I’ve borrowed from the library in recent times but this time it made up almost half of my reading, and I gave the books back with the idea in mind to purchase at least one of them at some point. (It’s likely the Whitehead will be on my ‘best of’ list, and I think not having my own copy when there’s a big chance I’ll want to re-read it or think on it further would be difficult.)

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn – A young Irish girl is sent by her family to a growing America in the hope she’ll find a better life there. Lacks a real plot and characterisation.

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Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad – Two slaves run away from the plantation and board an underground train to a less southerly state where life is likely better. Fantastic.

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Eloisa James: A Duke Of Her Own – Villiers needs a mother for his six illegitimate children and thinks to choose between enticing Eleanor and ‘mad’ Lisette; if Eleanor has anything to do with it it’ll be she he chooses. The best of the entire series – awesome characterisation and often very funny.

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Eloisa James: This Duchess Of Mine – Jemma knows it’s high time she and Elijah had an heir to the dukedom, and both husband and wife secretly hope love will blossom. Not as good as the rest of the series.

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Jenny Colgan: Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop – Despite decreasing sales at her shop, Rosie is looking forward to Christmas in a snowy village and spending it with her reluctant-to-be-a-Lord boyfriend, but her family want to come over from Australia and there’s a problem ahead for the community to deal with. Pretty fun and festive.

No contest, the Whitehead won it this month. A Duke Of Her Own was a very close second, and certainly if I hadn’t read The Underground Railroad at the 11th hour, it would have won, but Whitehead’s commentary and ending was just something else. The Colgan was a lot of fun to read.

Quotation Report

This is another occasion wherein paraphrasing the quotation just won’t work. Here it is in full, from The Underground Railroad:

Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.

Finally the end of my busy period is in sight, even if it’ll soon be replaced by Christmas planning. I’m looking forward to reading (I believe the vernacular is ‘well, duh!’), evenings on the sofa listening to Eva Cassidy, and looking for gifts.

How was your October, and how is the weather where you are?

 
Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

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A subway before there was a subway.

Publisher: Fleet (Little, Brown)
Pages: 364
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-708-89840-6
First Published: 2nd August 2016
Date Reviewed: 29th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Caesar approaches Cora to ask her to run away from the plantation with him, she considers it for a short while before agreeing – it’s an incredibly dangerous idea but even her fellow slaves are against her and she feels it is worth the likely death to escape. What she doesn’t know is that Caesar has chosen her due to her own mother’s escape and presumed freedom. They may be able to make it to an underground railroad station and hitch a ride on a locomotive that will take them on the first leg of their journey. The railroad has various stations dotted about the country, and it is up to the individual runaway as to whether they stay in a particular place or return to the train and keep travelling.

(The ‘underground railroad’ is a widely known fact of history in the States – any readers who are from other countries that do not cover the railroad in their general curriculum and don’t know about it, will want to read up on it whether before or after having read the book1.)

The Underground Railroad is a historical fantasy about the American slave trade and slavery, and about the country’s history with race as a whole. Using both history from the slavery era and the further racial discrimination that followed in the decades after abolition, Whitehead’s book is both a stunningly creative look at the country’s growth as a nation, and a fantastic commentary and criticism of the same.

This is very much a plot-and-commentary-driven novel. Whitehead has himself said that his initial idea was of what would happen if the underground railroad had been a real train2. He has also said that this choice to make the fantastical railroad the central element of the book allowed him to play with time and different elements of history3.

The other patrollers were boys and men of bad character; the work attracted a type. In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.

The book starts at a plantation and shows not only the violence and hatred of the slave owners (the book in general is very violent, with Whitehead including various punishments in a way some primary sources do not, his novel making up for the relative censorship in those books) but the hierarchy and violence that arose as a natural consequence of a situation that caused everyone to be focused on their own survival at the detriment of others. As the train takes Cora – the narrative mostly concerns her – to different Southern States, Whitehead uses these assorted pauses to look at different ideas and acted-out discriminatory practices that were not a part of the exact historical time Cora is living in but were a part of the future decades.

This altering of history creates another fantasy thread in the book, though not nearly as close to ‘fantasy’ as the railroad; Cora steps into situations that you’ll rightly see are at odds with the places that came before it. In one such case, the technology in the State seems too far advanced for a short train journey away. Here, mandatory regular health checks for black people in a state that gives them education, housing (if in a dormitory), and relatively lowly jobs, seem at first a thoughtful acknowledgement of escaped slaves’ trauma… until the doctor offers Cora a not-so-elective-as-described sterilisation, discussing how the state is working on health ideas and performing surgeries on black women who have had a couple of children.

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib.

Stolen bodies working stolen land.

Whitehead’s commentary on this and other subjects is incredibly blunt yet never leaves that element of fantasy out; it’s safe to say he’s providing a damning criticism but he does what he can to make you question the reality of different concepts. (Though again, as with the railroad, if your knowledge of American history is solid you’ll probably see a lot more of the facts amongst the fiction without having to look them up.)

And then Whitehead returns to the train and gives you a break for a moment so you can consider what you’ve read and consider what might lay ahead. In a similar way he uses chapter breaks for the different States, and changes the character discussed from Cora to a variety of secondary characters. The novel is written in the third person – with one excellent diversion into first person for Caesar’s story – and mainly concerns Cora; Whitehead changes perspective to give details of a scene that Cora is not privvy to, scenes that further explore the purpose of the novel and add different voices and historical perspectives to it. There are notes about laws, and chapters begin with ‘reward’ notices for anyone who turns in the escaped slave discussed within – these appear to be primary sources.

Backing up the story and the commentary is an unsurprisingly good use of language. Whitehead uses controversial words when warranted; as with everything else this book uses extremes in order to display the history correctly and get to the point.

Certainly you have to suspend some belief for the book – a railroad that stretches for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, created by slaves and only shut down in sections a long time after it was created (the creation itself being a metaphor) – but no more so than at the end, which will produce in you one (or more) of a few possible conclusions as to what has happened, each in turn adding to the various metaphors and making you question everything you’ve already read.

It’s astounding.

The Underground Railroad is not a book to read with a cosy cup of tea and it’s not one to be rushed (as this library user did when the return date crept up on her). It requires your attention, your time, and in a few places your willingness to search for third-party information. For your efforts you will be handsomely rewarded.

Footnotes

1 The historical reality of the railroad, far from Whitehead’s fantastical re-imagining – that many readers have likened to their initial, childhood, conceptions of it – was a secret network of black people, both free men and women and escaped slaves, as well as supportive white people and Native Americans, who aided the escape of slaves from plantations in the Southern States to states further north, and often as far as Canada. The railroad was a network that traded coded information to allow the movements of escapees to pass between them so that various people could aid their escape – the network had people who would themselves visit plantations, people who would house escapees along their route, and people who would work to disrupt the success of any slave owners or slave catchers from using the law to get people back. I’ve written the basics here – the information in the Wikipedia article on the Underground Railroad should suffice in terms of understanding the background to Whitehead’s re-imagining of the network.
2 ‘Before there was Cora, or any other possible protagonist, I was sittin’ around thinking “What if instead of a metaphor, the Underground Railroad was a real train?” So the concept came first before the characters.’ (Whitehead, 2018)
3 ‘…Once I made the choice to have this central fantastic element of a literal underground railroad, it allowed me to play with time and bring in elements of The Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and things like that.’ (Whitehead, 2016)

Online References

Whitehead, Colson (2016) Colson Whitehead’s Subterranean Odyssey, Electric Literature, accessed 28th October 2018.

Whitehead, Colson (2018) Re: I’m author Colson Whitehead – just another down on his luck carny with a pocketful of broken dreams – AMA, Reddit, accessed 28th October 2018.

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Elizabeth Is Missing: Who Killed Sukey?

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This post has lingered in my mind for a few years; it seems somewhat old now to discuss the question but I know that if I don’t, I’ll just keep thinking about it.

Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing is a novel with a varied sort of storytelling. Told in the first person by Maud, the main aspect of it is Maud’s present life, her deterioration through dementia. The other part of it covers Maud’s childhood, which she is looking back on. The variety comes from the dementia; due to Maud’s fading memory, the two narratives aren’t always linear, sections often cover the same details as before, and those that are repeated are subject to changed details due to the dementia. Just in terms of its structure it’s a fantastic book.

The core question of the book, if viewed in its entity, is how much really concerns Maud’s worries about Elizabeth, and how much is actually Maud’s worries about Sukey mixed up with the ‘idea’ of Elizabeth (not that Elizabeth isn’t a real person). It’s this that fascinated me most during my re-read for this post, the way the narratives are both separate and the same, and the way it comes together at the end to be the same but separate.

In working out what happened to Sukey, it’s a good idea to ignore the majority of the present-day sections at least until a fair way through the book – skimming the present-day sections for references to Sukey, Douglas, Frank, and Maud’s parents is important, but generally only paramount towards the end.

Considering Maud’s dementia, however, everything has to be read with a thought to the idea of a pinch of salt – not everything is likely true but at the same time nothing should be disregarded, even past the last page. We have to be the detective Maud can only wish to be.

The story of Sukey’s disappearance just after World War II is given piece meal, but here’s an attempt to put the potential facts in order:

  • Sukey met Douglas at work; she liked him; she arranged for him to be her family’s lodger.
  • Douglas’ house had been bombed and he had nowhere to live.
  • Douglas’ mother wouldn’t leave her house and he had a difficult time getting her to leave. She was severely effected by the bombing.
  • Sukey met Frank and later marries him; Frank had inherited a removal’s business and has connections to the black market where he gets extra food for Sukey’s family, food they are not entitled to in this time of rationing.
  • Sukey and Frank’s house is full of old furniture because Frank thinks they might sell it.
  • Sukey still sees Douglas – Douglas lies about going to the cinema and on one occasion when Sukey was over, he left a little after her.
  • Sukey knows about Douglas’ mother; Douglas says she cared about her, but we readers know that she didn’t.
  • The smashed gramophone records in the garden turned out to be the result of a row between Douglas and Sukey.
  • When Sukey disappeared, it seemed she’d last been seen at a hotel, only the receptionist later told Maud that Frank had signed Sukey in and Sukey hadn’t been seen by anyone. Frank had left that night.
  • Neighbours reported shouting in the street, and one said Sukey had always had men over (Douglas it seems).
  • Douglas kept going ‘to the cinema’ but in reality he was going to the pavilion where he had met up with Sukey, thinking she might turn up there.
  • While all this was going on, Douglas had been feeding the ‘mad woman’, his mother, who is later run over by a car.

This is not everything, but it’s the basics. The rest concerns the family search and Maud’s interactions with Frank, which show to the reader a potentially violent man, confirming others’ descriptions of him as often drunk. As Healey writes everything from Maud’s perspective, which has the added ‘hindrance’ of a child’s mind together with the older woman’s forgetfulness, the details arrive slowly and without the benefit of real understanding. When Frank pushes Maud against the banister, she glimpses the possibility of him wanting to throw her down the stairs but instead takes in his talk about trying to stop her falling. She tells him all she knows about Sukey when he tells her he misses her – when, whilst the full reason isn’t revealed to the reader, we can see manipulation and Frank wanting to make sure he’s covered all the bases. We can also see a potential feeling of guilt, which is at once also shot through with violence.

It’s very possible to say Frank killed Sukey and that he was jealous – Healey pitches Douglas as a red herring but tells the reader straight at the end when he’s named as the prime suspect. Frank had access to the new housing estate, and designed the planting areas, which would have given him the ability to make sure they were away from where he had buried Sukey. The house appears to have been sold to Elizabeth who at some point in time became Maud’s friend. We do not know where Elizabeth’s arrival comes into play, but if Frank planted marrows in the garden(s) he ‘designed’, then Maud unconsciously put two and two together.

At the same time, that Douglas seemed to know a lot…

It would seem possible that Sukey never made it to the car that was supposedly outside the hotel; she may well have been killed in her house. If so, it is slightly possible that Douglas’ mother, the mad woman who Sukey doesn’t like, killed her. If Maud is to believed, there were birds found in the burial place, and this brings Healey’s use of birds through the book to a close; birds certainly seem to be symbols, for one thing they are a theme in terms of Douglas’ mother.

Frank’s going to London ensured the idea of her having gone with him would take hold, and Maud’s worry about the idea that Sukey may have left Frank in the same way lots of people left their spouses after the war, didn’t have anything to do with it. Frank may have made the trip to London as a cover up or because he knew he’d be blamed (in the case that he didn’t do it).

At some point Maud’s story of Sukey gets blended with Elizabeth’s – it may be that Sukey’s house was not cluttered with furniture and that Maud was thinking of the time Elizabeth’s house was sold. Sukey’s clothes may or may not have been in the suitcase. Maud and Sukey may or may not have had a nice time on the beach as children.

What exactly happened to Sukey we don’t know, we just know the aftermath: the skeleton in the garden with a fracture in its head.

One thing to think about, though – what was all that about Sukey being buried by Maud in the sand, but then Sukey having buried Maud first and Maud not having liked it? And the sea shells which later became fingernails… perhaps, with this, the parting vignette of the book, Healey is suggesting another culprit entirely, one who did at points seem jealous of Sukey’s relationship with Frank…

This, and the remaining possible killers, certainly align with the memory loss narrative. I kind of want to end this post on a note of touché, Ms Healey…

 
Reading Life: 17th October 2018

A photograph of an open gate in a stone wall, surrounded by autumn leaves, part of the Hever Castle mock-Roman gardens

Reading a Christmas book in October has been an experience, especially considering the current weather. It’s not been particularly cold and there have been a lot of sunny days; of course October isn’t the correct month for seasonal reading anyway, but the fact it’s been so mild has made it actively feel unusual. Has it put me in a Christmasy mood? No, but it’s given me a gentle reminder of the atmosphere, not that one was needed because I’m planning for Christmas in other ways and have had In Dulci Jublio in my head for several days. It’s just as well there aren’t any lyrics and it’s difficult to hum.

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The book was Jenny Colgan’s Christmas At Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop; I finished it yesterday evening but will be leaving the review until December. It was very seasonal despite its relative lack of time spent on the event itself – there was a lot of plot set during Advent but the Christmas days were dealt with swiftly, using a few romantic notions to make it more cosy. It may well be even better if read in December but to be honest I don’t think it particularly matters; the return dates stamped on the library issue paper at the front of the copy I read backs this up – there have been 5 other borrows (the book was published in 2013) but none have been at Christmas. In fact my late September issuing is the latest of the lot.

Having finished This Duchess Of Mine, book #5 in the Desperate Duchesses series, I’m looking at reading the last book, A Duke Of Her Own. I’m usually one to procrastinate over finishing a series I’ve enjoyed but as I didn’t like This Duchess Of Mine as much as most of the others (I wasn’t keen on book #2, An Affair Before Christmas, but it was for different reasons) I kind of want to get back to a better story; the plot of A Duke Of Her Own sounds more promising, seeming to be more focused on the ‘duke’ than the ‘duchess’, which may be an interesting change.

Something I did enjoy about book #5, however, was the information about medical advances, mostly factual. James included the basic story of Dr William Withering’s discovery of foxglove as a cure (or partial cure, she didn’t go into it) for heart problems. In the past it was proffered that this came about when Withering discovered a woman pharmacist giving people a mixture of various plants that seemed to work; Withering conducted a process of elimination to find out the effective active ingredient and then the right dosage. In reality, and whilst James included this anecdote, it has been debunked1 – it’s more likely to have been a family recipe. It seems James was keen to include Withering particularly as the discovery was hijacked by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, who published a paper with but a footnote about the doctor. The two had been acquainted earlier before Darwin’s need for a second opinion on a patient, resulting in the relationship breaking down. Withering has since been established as the discoverer of foxglove.

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As well as this, James made far more than a passing reference to the 1700s usage of old war hulks as prisoner ships on the Thames. Whilst the riots she wrote in weren’t so real – she switched locations and reasons – the prison ships of the time were based on history. I’m not sure what keywords to look for in order to find out much about this, but did find this snippet on Wikipedia.

In non-reading but still bookish news, I’m slowly writing the draft of a blog post I’ve been loitering around for a few years, ever since I read The Awakening. I’m not sure why I never finished the post at the time but recent reading brought in another possibility for it and suddenly the basic idea I had had has taken extra shape. I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading around the subject, including looking at the origins of the rediscovery of Chopin’s work in general2. I’m not sure when I’ll have finished the post as I’ve added a lot of extra work into it and became a bit too enthusiastic about research which means lots of opinions to par down, but it’s been quite fun.

Whilst I’ve not read as many books as I was hoping I would have by this time, I have watched a lot of films and am currently in a situation that rarely happens – I’ve not got any books lingering on my ‘currently reading’ list except the eternal Vanity Fair. It’s making me want to pick my next few reads very carefully so that I keep it up.

A photograph of a scene from Wicked

Photo copyright © 2013/14 London Company, photo by Matt Crockett.

And as a sort of literary aside, because I found out yesterday it is based on a book, I saw the latest touring production of Wicked. I didn’t think much of the plot, but the set design, and the singing in itself, were fantastic. It’s in Southampton for the next week before moving on to Wales and Manchester.

Footnotes

1 Kirkler (1985) says: “In republishing a plate suggesting a discussion between Withering and “Mother Hutton,” presumably a rural herbalist, in which she appeared to give him the “family receipt,” Willius and Keys (7) did, however, acknowledge that this was an imaginary depiction. There is no need to improve on the account given by the author; town and country were then still much intertwined, and the crucial aspect is surely Withering’s botanical expertise.” (p. 5A) [Willius and Keys published their piece in the 1940s.]
2 It happened in the 1960s – the main facts passed around have to do with Per Seyersted, a Professor of American Literature, who found out about Chopin and reintroduced her work to the literary scene in 1969. However Chopin had been discovered already, in the 50s, by a Frenchman, Cyrille Arnavon, who translated the 1899 English book into French, calling it, simply, Edna. Arnavon wrote an essay to introduce the book, saying that it should be more well-known and studied.

Online References

Krikler, Dennis (1985) The foxglove, “the old woman from Shropshire” and Willam Withering, Journal Of American College Of Cardiology, Vol. 5, Issue 5, Supplement 1, pp3A-9A

 
Eloisa James – This Duchess Of Mine

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Working with stereotypes.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62682-1
First Published: 26th May 2009
Date Reviewed: 15th October 2018
Rating: 3/5

The Beaumont line needs an heir and Jemma wants her husband to be by her side. Knowing she’s not getting any younger and seeing her friends happily paired up, Jemma looks at getting close to Elijah through a few rounds of flirtation; she knows he won’t be wooed in the regular fashion and might take better to being flirted with by someone else. Meanwhile, Elijah has discovered it’s high time he made an effort to be with his wife; nine years of a long-distance marriage to the woman he loves, and a hapless cousin for an heir, mean he’s looking to change things.

This Duchess Of Mine is the fifth and penultimate book in James’ Desperate Duchesses series, and focuses on the ‘leading’ couple of the group of friends.

This book isn’t as strong as the others. The romance isn’t particularly well-written or plotted and there are a lot of conveniences and devices used. Nor is the editing as good, in fact it seems the book is suffering from the ‘author knows best’ or ‘editor won’t touch famous author’s work’ idea that goes along with further works – whereas James’ prose and use of language in general has previously been very good, This Duchess Of Mine is full of contemporary American English that doesn’t match its 1700s England setting.

The romance takes its time; when it finally does get there, it’s rather too cute and perfect. There’s a major lack of chemistry between the pair, meaning that the flirtation and subsequent sex scenes don’t really work – you would expect to feel the love between the characters but that’s difficult.

However – and I realise I’m going back and forth between positive and negative points here – the devices James’ uses are interesting in their historical context. There’s not a ton of focus on them of course, but the information about what appear to be the Roman Baths in Bath, and the inclusion of Dr Withering, a real person who worked on cures for heart conditions using foxgloves, are good. (The Roman Baths are, during the course of the book, provided with funding to restore/develop them further, which fits enough with the time period in which they were truly developed – the 1800s – to say it’s a plausible plot point.)

In terms of the book in general, the best parts are the chess games and the secondary plot of Villiers’ plight at finding a wife, the necessary set-up to his own book which follows.

Perhaps it’s the lack of previous characters – Jemma and Elijah have played a role in everyone else’s lives but here only Villiers walks onto the stage. And perhaps that was something the author wanted in particular – few friends this time, after all the time Jemma has spent with others – but it doesn’t feel the same, especially when so much that occurs in this book has already occurred. (Jemma and Elijah’s story has been in place for a while and by the point of this book really ought to have been quick.) Perhaps, too, it’s the sheer lack of comedy compared to the other books. There are many reasons it doesn’t work.

Read it if you’ve read the others and want to complete the series, but you could easily skip this book in favour of moving straight to #6. Or at least skip the epilogue, which moves several decades forward in time and is at odds with the here-and-now mode of the rest of the saga.

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