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Chitra Ramaswamy – Expecting

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Bun in the oven and all those typical phrases.

Publisher: Saraband
Pages: 181
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-19221-4
First Published: 1st April 2017
Date Reviewed: 29th September 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Ramaswamy and her partner felt the time had come to have a baby, they got married (a necessity for same-sex couple looking to conceive) and started the process. The author chronicles those following nine months, detailing the day-to-day, the ways things about pregnancy and childbirth are often not known until a woman is already on the road, and the social factors, all with an eye to the story as a literary experience.

If you’ll pardon the pun, this book is not what you may be expecting from a book about pregnancy. This is a book that has true appeal for a great many people. Ramaswamy has written a book that manages to explore a specific subject in the kind of detail an interested party would expect but with enough – more than enough – of things on the periphery to intrigue others.

Very much a literary memoir, the appeal of Expecting is evident from the first moment. Ramaswamy fills the pages with quotes and other references to pregnancy, from Victorian views to Sylvia Plath’s poetry, to Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo’s work, and even Leo Tolstoy’s reverence of childbearing. It’s one of those memoirs that’s an absolute delight to read for its academic elements, a real book about books.

This is where Ramaswamy’s journalistic background comes in – the book is just beautiful. Full of imagery and lovely writing, it’s like reading a mid-20th century classic, and due to Ramaswamy’s various holidays in Scotland (where she lives – this isn’t a book full of exotic locations, and indeed there’s only a couple of trips abroad for work) it’s also somewhat of a nature book. At times it could give Amy Liptrot’s recent The Outrun a run for its money. And because of Ramaswamy’s literally burgeoning pregnancy, there’s often a wonderful juxtaposition of busy-ness and calm.

In addition to this, the author looks the two sides of the same coin, life and death, straight in the eye:

On foot, I had to walk up a vertiginous hill to get there, which meant arriving with my heart kicking at my breast, making me feel as appallingly flushed with life as you could be when entering a place where people go to die. I feared walking in there, hearing the doors shoosh closed behind me, sealing normal life out. Yet once I was in it was not such a fearful place. Entering a hospice was like being let in on a secret. There was a certain amount of privilege involved in being permitted early entry to a club to which, eventually, we would all belong. It had the power to level and soothe, like the calm one enjoys walking through a graveyard, reading strangers’ headstones and feeling a secondary sadness that is not so different from an appreciation of life.

There is only one area in which Expecting isn’t quite as good. One is the way that the detailing and explanation, so great when the author’s dealing with place, falls a bit flat when it’s to do with pregnancy details that are very much common knowledge, enough that they don’t need to be addressed.

Apart from this, there is a lot Ramaswamy notes that may seem obvious, a ‘why didn’t you know that before?’ situation, that can be odd to read – indeed why didn’t she know? – but in fact just goes to show how much society keeps from women, a topic the author addresses on a number of occasions. (These details are different to the common knowledge facts I discussed in the previous paragraph.) The lengthy bleed that occurs after birth that she doesn’t find out about until well into her time; the discomfort, exhaustion, and pain. Things that everyone should be told as a matter of course long before they come to decide whether or not they want children. In many ways this book is as much a social questioning as it is a memoir.

It doesn’t take long to read Expecting, certainly compared to a pregnancy it’s over in a blink, and it’s incredibly well worth it. The cover may align with something light-hearted, and the book can be, but it’s also so much more.

I received this book for review. It has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. The winner will be announced on 13th October.

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Herland

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This is a difficult book to write about!

Publisher: Various
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1915
Date Reviewed: 12th February 2017
Rating: N/A (Historical value is significant but it’s not the best book out there)

Van and his friends are exploring new regions and during their travels they are told of a land bereft of men. Highly intrigued, they make for that country for different reasons. Terry thinks he’ll conquer the ladies, Jeff thinks it all sounds marvellous, and Van is simply interested. It might not turn out as they expect, particularly for Terry.

Herland is a science fiction utopia novella – a sociological text – that looks at what might happen if men were not around. Understandably based around early 20th century American society – and a lot of academia – there is much to recommend it today both in terms of the history of feminism and eternally relevant concepts. There is also a lot to be said for reading it in our modern day where, in our further cultural and scientific progress, some of the concepts are more poignant and relevant than they were in Gilman’s day.

Herland asks many questions under the umbrella subject of womanhood. What is a woman? What is femininity and how much is nature versus nurture? How much should motherhood (back then almost an inevitability) impact upon a woman’s life?

Gilman’s narrator is a man, Van, and he is joined by two others. In the trio, the author makes use of different personalities in order to be able to fully explore her ideas in the context of her fictional world as well as to pull it apart both in favour of it and not so. Van is somewhere on the middle of a scale; he’s critical of both his friends who in turn represent viewpoints at the extremes, one of them loving Herland a lot. Jeff doesn’t take long to align himself with the country, indeed he is presented, once the trio get there, as a major ally of it. Gilman, through narrator Van, questions the wisdom of falling completely for the female-only society, always leaning towards equality for both genders. Jeff takes Herland in his stride and as the novel continues you can see Gilman’s questions – is Jeff’s a complete submission, his almost ‘mummy’s boy’ approach a good one?

Then there’s Terry. Granted, Terry goes through a cycle of changes that’s in favour of Gilman’s ideas – which I’ll get to in a moment – but on the whole in Terry you have a ‘man’s man’ who thinks all the women will love him and submit to him. Gilman wants you to see that both Terry’s and Jeff’s views are problematic – Van, too – to various extents.

Terry’s change, from ‘man’s world’ to a bit more ‘woman’s and man’s world’ is never completed – Gilman does make him more amenable for a time but it’s in her continued decision to not change him completely (she shatters his good progression to major effect) that you can see her thought that equality is best – and in fact Gilman uses him to show the increasing realisation that women can do just as good a job in traditionally male work. It’s a slow development but there is a distinctive span of time between Terry’s reckoning that the female-only country will be ‘savage’ and his statement in which he terms the people ‘highly civilised ladies’.

On the question of what femininity is, there is much. Gilman builds it up, as she does her exploration of ‘people’, speaking of Terry’s description of ‘real women’ (those in his society) and using character development to say the following through Van:

This led me very promptly to the conviction that those ‘feminine charms’ we are so fond of are not feminine at all, but mere reflected masculinity – developed to please us because they had to please us, and in no way essential to the real fulfilment of their great process.

Gilman looks at the differences between Herland women and American women, the way Herland’s are the equivalent of American men. She doesn’t go too far into the idea that Terry, Jeff, and Van should do the housework, too, but the point is made: a woman doesn’t have to conform to societal expectations to be a woman.

Where Gilman looks most critically at her creation is on the subject of motherhood. She uses the real world expectation in her fictional one, taking it to the extreme so that becoming a mother is the absolute be all and end all of life, it’s just that they happen to live full lives otherwise. (She has by this stage built up your imagination of the world enough that you can see the patriarchy and western concept of manhood aligning perfectly with this taken-to-the-extreme concept of motherhood.)

The country revolves around motherhood. It’s the highest, best thing, a woman – a person – can live for; it’s a religion. It’s both a clever criticism of the west and a criticism of itself:

“The only thing they can think of about a man is Fatherhood!” said Terry in high scorn. “Fatherhood! As if a man was always wanting to be a father!”

Motherhood is where the novella meets its biggest present day opposition. The basic history of the land is science fiction – it might even disappoint you because Gilman takes a giant definite leap towards fantasy, away from real world concepts. Herland women started experiencing immaculate conceptions and this reproduction produces only females. The contention today is in the continual effect of that propagation (because it’s now natural) – in order to not become overwhelmed by overpopulation, the highest people in Herland decreed that some women must ‘suppress the urge’ to reproduce and leave it to a select number of chosen women. Some women are so favoured they have more than one child.

The criticism itself comes in where Gilman places what we would now call a cheeky child outside of the circle of those chosen to later be mothers. If you combine this concept with Herland’s success at eradicating disease, illness, harm, it’s not the happiest picture, despite that this eradication of suffering is for the benefit of everyone in the land.

(The interesting thing about the views of children, in general, displayed here is Gilman’s view of how the west treats them: ‘no Herland children ever met the overbearing rudeness we so commonly show to children’.)

So disability and mental illness become suspect, too. Gilman does not speak of it outright – the illnesses she mentions read as cold and flu – but it creates unease, particularly in the context of today. It’s much like the situation surrounding Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre – you have to consider where prejudice as we view it meets what were average societal thoughts back then and come to your own conclusion.

Gilman says little directly about race. Terry calls the people who reside next to Herland ‘savages’ but given his character in general, in the context of the book it’s hard to say that this is Gilman’s view. Gilman’s Herland could be ethnically mixed; again it’s down to the reader. (I will note here that the question of the author’s views on race are answered in the next book. Since I wouldn’t recommend reading the next book I’d propose you read essays about her instead.)

Herland is an enjoyable read on an entertainment level, at least in terms of being entertained by history and barriers being broken, but it’s not something to read to escape daily life. It demands you think – that is it’s very purpose – and it’s a book you’d be hard pressed not to take a thousand notes on. It has its faults, it has its dated aspects, but it is a triumph in terms of progressive thinking. The only thing really amiss is the ending – the book finishes almost mid movement, but there’s a sequel that continues where the flying machine takes off.

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Rory Gleeson – Rockadoon Shore

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If we took a holiday… it would be so nice.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 291
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63407-7
First Published: 12th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 12th July 2017
Rating: 3/5

A group of friends go away to a house in a remote part of Ireland for a weekend break. There have been tensions for a while but despite Cath’s best wishes, confining them all to a small space and adding in drink and drugs just makes things worse. The friends start to split off, fights begin, and from where local resident, Malachy sits with his view of the house, it looks like things will get awry rather soon.

Rockadoon Shore is a fairly short, focussed book, that looks at the sudden breakdown of a friendship group composed of very differing people. Told in third person through the various characters’ viewpoints, it’s a look at an average situation with more thought than tends to happen in reality.

There are six friends and one outsider (or, in the context of location, insider), and Gleeson casts the spotlight on each of them in turn, always continuing the narrative of the whole rather than reiterating it from different perceptions, but he does pause sometimes to look back when decisions in the group have had a lasting effect on any particular person. Whilst this style makes the book move slowly – though with its three-day focus confined to a house it was always going to be like this – it’s one of the defining aspects and when the plot – what there is, as the story is character-driven – drifts, it can be the reason to keep reading.

Part of this style’s reason for being is the characterisation. Whilst obviously devices and slight stereotypes – in many ways this book is like an episode of a soap opera – Gleeson’s characters have been developed to a fair extent. For the author, meanings are most important, personalities a little less so. This creates an interesting situation, particularly in the case of the women, where you have characters being written in a way that echoes the stereotype of men writing about women and then other times that echoes women writing about women. Due to Gleeson’s general idea to study the breakdown of friendship, this style, the switching of gender gazes, if you will, seems intentional. It allows for more reality, for ultimately broken stereotypes, to show that people aren’t all one way or another. It’s more obvious with the female characters – at least from this reviewer’s standpoint – but it does happen with the men, too.

The writing itself is okay; difficult is the decision to use dashes instead of quotation marks. It could well be, indeed, it seems to be sometimes, that the confusion as to who is talking at any one time is deliberate because it often doesn’t matter who’s saying what, but that does not necessarily put paid to reader frustration. There are grammatical and tense errors but they may well be intended.

The character of Malachy is a bit redundant. He goes through some realisations but as he does not really affect the group of friends beyond a plot device, you can skip his chapters without issue. His personal drama at the end is difficult to care about.

Of that plot device, the ending, which is more a metaphor for fissure than anything else, it must be repeated that there’s not much plot. As much as the book does an excellent job of reflecting current life, there’s little to take away with you. Rockadoon Shore isn’t a bad book or a good book, it just is.

This book was one of several available at a showcase I attended.

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Nicholas Royle – An English Guide To Birdwatching

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Things are about to get birdy, wordy, and full of critique.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 334
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43494-4
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 23rd May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Silas Woodlock moves to Seaford with his wife, Ethel, leaving their undertaking business in the hands of their son. The couple find the town a bit too elderly for their tastes; in time Ethel proposes they join a local writing course as a way to keep busy. By the end of the course an initially reluctant Silas has written a short story about birds; by accident it’s left in the local pub, not to be found again… until Silas spots it in an anthology. He goes to confront the plagiarist, one Nicholas Royle. Meanwhile a minor literary critic, Stephen Osmer, is struggling to make his mark but gains a pinch of notoriety interrupting and later reporting on an event held by two writers of the same name, the novelist Nicholas Royle and the literary theorist Nicholas Royle.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is the highly meta second novel/non-fiction mash-up from literary theorist Nicholas Royle, not to be confused with the novelist Nicholas Royle, writer of In Camera and Salt Publishing’s short story anthologies, though both men are included on the page. On the surface and, in fact, in some ways once the surface is scratched, it’s as confusing as it has likely been so far in this review – expect a lot of commentary.

This is a novel of a sort not often seen. It’s a novel that pushes deep into and past what’s not often seen to become something incredibly literary, requiring all of the reader’s attention but to great reward. Many descriptions are possible; Robert Macfarlane’s thoughts, featured on the back cover, sum it up well: “a curiously compelling investigation of the nature of writing and the writing of nature”. Royle takes the concept of literary criticism, spins it around, scrunches it up and creates something new from it. There is a story included; it’s not the most important part, but then it’s not unimportant either.

Near the start of the novel we read a fictional report of a factual event, a conversation type evening in which the two writers named Nicholas Royle spoke of their discovery of the other. Speaking of real world happenings here, the novelist Nicholas Royle (published by Salt) sent for consideration to a literary magazine a short story. Literary theorist Nicholas Royle (author of the book you’re currently reading a review of) did the same. Both stories were rejected and both rejections sent to critic Nicholas – the editor of the magazine thought they were both novelist Nicholas. Theorist Nicolas contacted novelist Nicholas about the mix up and they have since become friends. One day fairly recently they spoke together at an event about their respective work, which is the event theorist Nicholas refers to in this book currently being reviewed. Theorist Nicholas is now also a novelist as evidenced by this and one previous book.

If you’re still with me, you may appreciate the following quotation, which is taken from a scene after the event in which the two Nicholas Royles are discussing the evening and which effectively describes the book you are currently reading a review of (ellipses mine):

I’d like to write a novel that would try to do justice to the reality of birds… but also to observe the novel itself, a kind of screened-off or embedded space within a novel in which it would be possible to explore the relations between birds and words, birdwatching and wordwatching… It wouldn’t be subtext, though. It’s not a matter of providing the real or underlying meaning… It wouldn’t be a commentary either… a new way of thinking about surveillance, including self-surveillance…

So Royle, theorist now novelist, who for the rest of this review will be referred to as the author, makes himself a major part of his work. As himself. As the author. As an idea. Through the fictional character of Stephen Osmer, the author has fun with his own success:

…not long ago published his tenth book of literary criticism, variously praised as ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’ and exuberant’; as a ‘book that shows the way forward for literary studies’. I should straight away add that these accolades are, as so often, grossly exaggerated’.

He also plays with the idea of fact and fiction, for example by the inclusion of a sex scene that could be seen as an admission of something… interesting, if not for this:

He could think, at times, of no better way of describing it than that he was ‘living in the pages of a novel’.

It is through this scene and those related to it that are included later, that Royle looks back on his fictional Stephen Osmer, his own critic, his fiction-real-life troll, and looks at the idea of an author’s reaction to reactions of their work. It’s exaggerated for effect – both literal effect and in order to explain the literary concepts the author is going for – but achieves the whole looking-at-literature-and-the-theory-and-everything-surrounding-it that he’s going for. (On this note, which might be considered a spoiler but which in the circumstances seems appropriate to include, is the author’s rather boldly killing off his own self for both fictional hilarity and as another look at the nature of writing.)

In view of the absolute fiction of the novel – the story of Silas and his wife – this comes to an abrupt halt about two thirds of the way through. If you were particularly enjoying it for its fiction you may be disappointed but the halt does fit neatly alongside – same spoiler as above incoming – the occurrence of the author’s fictional death.

It comes to a halt so that the author can move on to something else – prioritising the ‘birdwatching’ aspect of the book which up to now has been prevalent but somewhat obscured. This section of the book is composed of a series of chapters labelled ‘Hide X’ (where X corresponds to its number in the proceedings). In these sections the author analyses the word and concept of ‘bird’ and ‘birdwatching’, looking meticulously at a vast variety of meanings and possibilities. Could some of it be considered over-thinking? Most definitely, but that appears to be part of the point. Illustrated by artist Natalia Gasson’s beautiful drawings, it effectively provides you with a guide to ideas, which just happens to involve information about said bird hides, different species, and habitations as well as birds in various mediums – Du Maurier and Hitchcock; Thomas Hardy; ornithologists; battery hens; the military and the relationship with novelist Nicholas Royle’s work; Twitter.

Included in this is the drip-by-drip explanation of what the author was looking to achieve some chapters back. It’s not written as such; it’s more a series of ‘ah ha!’ moments you will have – unless, perhaps, you have a good knowledge of birds, this is the time when you find out that some of the things you thought were included just for fun were in fact a big part of the literary exploration. This is where the genius of the work really shines, the superb summit of all the other summits so far experienced.

The book is mostly written in the third person, and the narrative looks at things both from a regular point of past view and a retelling of events long gone. As part of the studious, analytical, process, the author gives a nod to Dickens, and there afterwards you find yourself reading reams of streams of consciousness which, as with everything else, is for a specific reason.

To review this book is only to add to all of what has been discussed, to be meta in one’s own right; to use a word preferred by Stephen Osmer, it’s almost ‘absurd’, effectively tacking something onto the end of the book, becoming a tertiary source – a real life Stephen Osmer, just without the vitriol.

This is a book that will bring delight to anyone who likes the idea of a novel in a novel in a novel, studying the already studied, the extremely experimental. In terms of attention required it’s incredibly needy – not one for bedtime reading, and desirous of a certain mood.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is a fantastic work of literary fiction, non-fiction, and academia, breaking boundaries and fourth walls to become something unique and highly enjoyable, particularly on a literary level.

I received this book for review.

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Joanna Cannon – The Trouble With Goats And Sheep

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Please note: I talk about who started the fire in another blog post.

Lambs (and kids) of god.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 453
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-13217-0
First Published: 28th January 2016
Date Reviewed: 10th May 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Mrs Creasy has disappeared and no one on the avenue knows anything about it. They’ve only two things to go on – the police don’t seem too interested, and Mr Creasy says his wife will be back given time. Grace is interested in the disappearance but more so in the idea of God – if the vicar says God is with us then God must be somewhere on the avenue. One of the neighbouring houses must host him; together with her many-jumpered friend, Tilly, she’s going to find him.

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep is a wholly character-driven dual-narrative novel that looks at the way groups of people deal with individuals who aren’t like them. It’s also about how exclusive a small community can become.

Cannon’s backdrop is the British heatwave of 1976, a time when rain ceased entirely for a couple of months (we had 4 weeks here recently, which was weird enough), the temperature shot to a still-unbeaten record high, and water had to be rationed. This backdrop allows Cannon to look at emotions and personalities pushed to their relative limit. It also ensures that for the sections relating to that year, the neighbours spend a lot of time together by virtue of being outside.

The neighbours are insulated by their unchanged residence; whether by personality or through time (it’s mostly personality but the author covers both bases) these people are very set in their ways; as the then Conservative leader and later Prime Minister is known for saying, they are “not for changing”. There are some rather unfavourable characters here. To name but a few: Harold – a man full of hate who has convinced his wife that she forgets, making her create lists of tasks for the day; Sheila, who heartedly joins in on verbal attacks and is generally unable to see beyond her misconceptions; Grace’s parents who don’t take responsibility for what they’ve done and thus enable bullies to pursue others.

The person they hate, because ‘dislike’ is not a strong enough word, is a man who keeps to himself. You don’t find out if social circumstances were ever different, but the neighbours have turned their backs on Walter completely. In interviews, Cannon has said she wrote the book to shine a light on the situation of people on the edge of society and it is through Walter that she accomplishes this. Walter has supposedly stolen a baby in his time and everyone was secretly happy when his house went up in smoke – from the first, Cannon shows the reader how it’s more likely that Walter is misunderstood… not that anyone on the avenue would care that they got it wrong. The author doesn’t answer the question of the stolen baby until the end – it’s one of the whodunnit elements of the book – but what she says before that is enough for you to conclude that if Walter did steal the baby, it likely wasn’t malicious. Walter may have a learning disability and/or social anxiety – the what, if any, isn’t important, it’s the idea of difference that Cannon focuses on. The neighbours don’t like difference. Intolerance, arrogance, and as it happens, racism, is best in their books. Cannon tends to lace this with clever comebacks:

‘How exactly should they have prepared themselves?’
‘Got used to our customs.’ Harold pulled at his shoelace. ‘Learned a bit of our language, you know.’
‘I’m fairly sure they speak English, Harold.’
‘Well if they do, it’s only thanks to the Raj. You can’t just go marching into somebody else’s country and expect them to follow your rules, you know.’
‘India?’ said Dorothy.
‘No, Britain.’

As this is a character-driven novel, you spend a lot of time with these people – the entire time, in fact – but Cannon makes it worth your while. Aside from providing a reprieve in the form of Grace, who is a caring soul, the author takes time to de-construct how the neighbours’ personalities and biases can lead them to take action when most people would simply shrug and move on.

In terms of the whodunnit elements, the book sports rough pointers as to who might have caused the house fire that killed Walter’s mother, which is revealed at the end. (Have I said how awful these people are?) The mystery isn’t at the forefront and in fact the revelation, which is a bit murky and requires some thought, isn’t much of one – it does answer the question, but it’s only slight in terms of impact.

The ending itself, which returns to the mystery of Mrs Creasy, like the answer to the fire isn’t particularly interesting – Mrs Creasy’s non-presence is more akin to Du Maurier’s Rebecca – an off-stage character, no lines, yet nevertheless managing to make a sizeable impact.

In case all the nastiness is wearing on you, Cannon offers moments of humour. Seen most prominently near the beginning in order that you start the book knowing the deal straight out, there is a chapter that is almost entirely dedicated to making you laugh.

The hall filled with people. It was far more crowded than the church had been, and pairs of jeans mixed with Sunday best. It appeared that Jesus pulled a much bigger crowd if He provided garibaldis.

[…]

No one mentioned Jesus.
In fact, I didn’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked into the room, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Arctic roll.

The Trouble With Goats And Sheep has a lot going for it. The detailing is excellent, the characterisation and dialogue spot on; many aspects of it are objectively very good, the subjective aspect falls firmly in the personalities. It’s altogether a well conceived and well-executed book, you just have to pick the right moment to read it.

I received this book for review.

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