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Solomon Northup – Twelve Years A Slave

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Whilst I’ve formatted this post as I do my reviews, this isn’t quite a review, more an information post.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A (Collins is 978-0-007-58042-2)
First Published: 1853
Date Reviewed: 27th February 2018
Rating: 5/5

Twelve Years A Slave is Solomon Northup’s account of his time as a slave in Southern states America, the Bayou Boeuf to be exact. It was used by the abolition movement though not necessarily written for it; like so many others, Northup was forced into slavery and his story has a specific background – he was one of a number of Northern states freemen who were kidnapped and sold into bondage.

Every sentence in this book has been thought through. Debate has surrounded who exactly wrote this book – whilst unarguably Northup’s account, there are a few possibilities due to the presence (most definitely in the preface) of an ‘editor’, one David Wilson [see the US History Scene article linked to above]. There’s the possibility Wilson took Northup’s story and wrote it up, which seems most likely, reading around the subject [see end note]; the possibility it is completely Northup’s work; the possibility that it’s a bit of both. These possibilities are apparent upon reading the preface and then subsequent work and situating the book in its political and social context; in the same way the work of other former slaves – such as Olaudah Equiano, who wrote 60 years prior to Northup – seeks to reassure the reader that there are good white people out there, including some masters, so too does Northup.

The book is as harrowing as you’d expect though a lot may well have been left out; you get a report of horrors but there were surely more details. Included also are the good days, the few days of leisure in which Northup expresses the normality of his fellow slaves, demonstrating further how inhumane slavery is, how everyone is the same.

Northup drops out of history ten years after this publication – we know that he was often a speaker at abolition events but the records then start to become ambiguous. Someone saw him at someone’s house once – that sort of thing. History believes he was kidnapped back into slavery or simply died of natural causes. You can’t but hope it was the latter possibility and that it happened in due course rather than soon after Northup was freed. The first doesn’t bare thinking about.

As Northup himself did, so too did the book fall into obscurity. It’s quite possible that, with slavery abolished, Northup’s book was deemed to have served its purpose and was dually forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 1960s.

Certainly you have to be prepared to read between the lines on occasion and this is one of those few books that would be difficult to read out of context. It’s an incredibly important book.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the authorship, this is an interesting read. It says that Wilson was not an abolitionist – which would suggest a less political motive on that man’s part, and goes further into general reasoning and the way the book was written.

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Jessie Greengrass – Sight

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Acknowledgement and the desire to know more.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 193
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-65237-8
First Published: 22nd February 2018
Date Reviewed: 21st February 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our narrator looks back at the part of her life when she was considering whether to have a child, and then the subsequent pregnancy. She interweaves into this story another, of her grief at her mother’s death, as well as the discomfort she felt staying with her grandmother, and the history surrounding the discovery of X-Rays, Freud, and the work of early doctors.

Sight is a sensational novel about one woman’s journey to parenthood and the worry of being good enough; it’s also about longing and grief, and the self.

Greengrass is a master of subtlety and letting the story unfold at its own pace. Never worrying about speed, the tale is very slow but a wonder to read, the writing calling to mind novels from decades, even hundreds, of years ago, that same sense of the narrator sitting by the window at their desk writing, that is most prominent in film adaptations, here in full bloom. To be sure it is a page turner but it’s of that lovely lazy afternoon kind, the book being the perfect companion for a cup of tea and a chair on the lawn as the sun shines overhead. (The writing is similar in its subtly to the author’s short story collection, An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It, though the length of Sight allows the author to take her way of executing ideas further than she could in the short stories.)

Yes, that sounds rather at odds with the content of the story – the narrator’s anxiety and grief, the constant struggles she has to work through that her writing of them seems to help but not necessarily conquer. (It’s a somewhat open-ended work, very much a character study that nevertheless sports a conclusion.) And with all the chopping and changing of narrative – one moment in the present day, the next in the past, the next describing history – it can take a little while to find your bearings. But when you find your way (not too far into the novel, it must be said) there is a lot of literary enjoyment to be had.

In writing about Freud and Rontgen and other historical people – which is a factual aspect of the novel – Greengrass has used a particular type of showing. The cause of the narrator’s anxieties and doubtless depression is shown in what she teaches the reader about Rontgen and Freud – she knows about Freud because her grandmother was a psychoanalyst and she knows about Rontgen because she read up on him. These in turn, particularly the information about Freud as related to her grandmother and upbringing, help the reader to understand her nervousness about having a child, the way her mother’s passing affected her and so on. It becomes apparent that whilst, in a sense, the information about historical people reads as an info-dump, irrelevant to the narrator herself, those very facts are things that were not only something to become perhaps obsessed by as a way of working out her grandmother and her own life, but also a way of coping; in the narration of Freud and Anna, the narrator lives wildly through others without perhaps realising it.

Whilst there is no direct historical story in relation to the death of the narrator’s mother, the literary result is much the same.

Taking character further in terms of Greengrass’s subtlety, to the concept of characterisation itself, this is another factor worth looking at. The novel is very much about the narrator, in many ways everyone else mentioned is but a device, and Greengrass engages with this every so often. There’s the place wherein the narrator looks at Johannes’ role in the proceedings to good effect. As the narrator acknowledges – more so points out in terms of social roles – the way Johannes is but on the periphery of the pregnancy – not essential, a bit-player who can stay in the waiting room whilst the pregnancy unfurls, makes him irrelevant to what’s going on. This mixes in with the overall feeling that the narrator is the person to listen to – the others are not so important; whilst they may have affected her, it’s now the narrator’s time to shine.

Sight is fascinating. The narrator comes to a greater knowledge of herself but the knowledge the reader gains about her is the most important thing, and that effect makes the novel what it is. It’s both difficult in terms of content and wonderful in terms of its execution, a very self-contained and meticulously planned tale that is very effective and moving without any sort of pointing to itself to tell you so. An average person with a sad story that, when you look at it, shows just how much depth there is to every one of us and how our childhoods have a colossal effect on who we become, no matter how it pans out.

I received this book for review.

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Adrian Mourby – Rooms Of One’s Own

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For some writers.

Publisher: Icon Books
Pages: 228
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-78185-8
First Published: 11th July 2017
Date Reviewed: 3rd September 2017
Rating: 3/5

Mourby travels around the world to experience the living and working spaces of famous past writers in order to get a feel for it all.

Room’s Of One’s Own presents a very specific idea that is appealing but doesn’t always achieve its purpose. Where it focuses on its premise of the way a writer interacted with their residence, it’s excellent, with some choice quotations included, great anecdotes, and the sort of information that you do have to travel to the place in order to learn.

It’s good to note straight away that this is as much about Mourby’s experience than a general report on the places. Most pieces of information are filtered through his own thoughts on the subject and the book is in many ways a travel log. However the histories of the buildings, away from the context of the writers’ lives, are often there to make up for the lack of personal experience and description Mourby is able to include; a sizeable number of the buildings are inaccessible to him – he is barred access by the staff or present residents – which will almost inevitably result in a sense of disappointment on your own part as you wonder why he didn’t just exclude that particular place in favour of another. On a few occasions, the places chosen were not used for writing.

There is a lack of diversity in the book, which is very noticeable. All 50 chosen are white, despite the fair number from the 20th century in particular.

Mourby’s interest in the writers is apparent and some of the angles he takes on them are particularly good to read, it’s just that the book is in many ways more for those interested in architecture.

I received this book for review.

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Magda Szubanski – Reckoning

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Baa ram ewe.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 371
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-24043-6
First Published: 30th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

British-born, Polish and Scottish rooted, Australian household name Magda Szubanski writes about growing up as the daughter of a man who rebelled against the Nazis – leading him to want the best for his children – finding herself as a comedian after years of academia, working through her sexuality, and the stories of her ancestors.

As the purposefully long heritage-detailed sentence hopefully shows, Reckoning is a book of both Szubanski’s own life, and the life of her Polish relatives living during World War Two. It’s a stunning book that is all the more poignant for the historical information Szubanski includes and it’s a bit of a literary experience to boot.

Szubanski, known best outside Australia for her role as Esme Hoggett in the film Babe as well as Sharon in Kath & Kim, details her life as her family made the move from gloomy Britain to brighter Australia right up until recent professional work. Weather differences, A-grade tennis, convent school. The author sports an open, easy writing style that shows off all her influences. It’s a text full of general cultural and more specific references – films old and new, classical literature – that help to bring clarity to what she says and makes it very readable. Brontë spars with black and white Polish cinema and the book is soaked in philosophical references, the latter in particular owing to Szubanski’s educational choices.

One of the themes is sexuality; in Szubanski’s telling of her life story you see the contention and confusion of a lesbian woman – or, as she puts it, ‘gay gay gay gay gay not gay gay’ – growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the way Szubanski came to understand her feelings and the changes in society’s views. It’s a constant element that looks right back to childhood and right up to her coming out during which she details what was going on in her head, the confusion, her discomfort and later embrace of terminology. Another theme is Szubanski’s weight, as she talks openly about the way her size has often corresponded to the goings on in her life and also the way she has and is happy with her weight, indeed feels more like herself. Szubanski’s career in comedy lends the book a certain slant; the way the humour is written, opinions conveyed.

The book is also harrowing. One of the most important aspects of it is the look at the German occupation of Poland. Szubanski’s Polish heritage and in particular her father’s life, means that her work is full of information of the sort that is often forgotten.

We arranged to meet up again and I rejoined my family. As we shuffled through the cemetery, something caught my eye. A long line of wonky headstones, uniform and yet misaligned.
‘What does it say? Who are they?’ I asked Uncle Andrzej.
‘Girl scouts,’ he replied. ‘Among the first to be killed by the Nazis. Enemies of the Reich. This is how they frighten people. Killing girl scouts.’

Szubanski’s telling of the occupation and her father’s role in the Polish resistance is hard-hitting and superbly told. She leaves out nothing; there is a lot of shocking violence in this book that puts the spotlight on things that get lost in amongst the publication of the larger scale happenings. The killing of children, the choice to kill or be killed, the constant acting required of young people delivering anti-German information. To see this solely as a memoir of a modern day icon would be a mistake.

‘…a very evil man put this number on me.’
‘Why?’
‘Because he wanted to kill me.’
‘Why?’
‘Because I am a Jew.’
I didn’t really understand what a Jew was. Or why anyone would want to kill such a nice lady. Was she related to the Little Jewish boy Dad was always going on about?
‘I am telling you this, Magda, because it must never happen again.’
I nodded. I felt bad that this had happened to the nice woman. And I agreed it should never happen again. And I remember now – as I looked up, the other women all held out their arms and showed me their numbers.

At least on the face of it, Reckoning is bound to appeal more to Australian readers and those outside Australia who are familiar and interested in its popular culture, but if there’s one memoir you should read this year regardless of whether or not you know the author, it’s this one.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Dan Richards – Climbing Days

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Almost every mountain.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 322
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-31192-7
First Published: 14th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 15th August 2016
Rating: 5/5

Dan Richards discovers his great-great aunt by marriage, Dorothy Pilley, was a well-known mountaineer in the early 1900s. He sets out to find out more, staying in Cambridge to read the letters and articles left there by his aunt and her husband, Ivor, interviewing friends and family, and making various journeys of his own to cover the routes taken all those years ago.

Climbing Days is a humorous and intelligently written book that blends biographical history with a personal journey and nature writing. For its mix of subjects and the overall tone, it has wide appeal.

The book sports history in abundance. Richards spends a good few chapters sharing his research and the day to day of his time in Cambridge before he goes on to detail his own climbing ventures, adhering to his own chronology to set the scene. This means there’s a lot to get through but it’s peppered with anecdotes; the pace is swift. When it comes to Dorothy and Ivor themselves, the author favours subject over timeline, sectioning his text by mountain climbed. Richards writes from his own interests, telling the stories from a certain viewpoint with the result that you feel you know the couple very well. And he’s big on facts, using quotations liberally so you’re always hearing the thoughts of others.

As a reading experience it’s a delight. Richards’ style is friendly and inviting. There are footnotes aplenty, sometimes for reference purposes but mostly because the larger story surrounding the one being told he finds too good to leave out:

My mother’s Scottish grandmother, Margaret Greenland, was also famous for wearing a hat but she wore hers whilst she did the housework so that, should anyone come to the door, she could claim that she was ‘just on her way out’ and so not have to invite them in. She was a great exponent of ‘You’ll have had your tea’ as well, I’m told, from earliest afternoon onwards.

The writing is incredibly readable with the sort of attention to detail that means errors are few. It’s got that literary factor, good language, and articulation that at times may require a dictionary but never suggests the author used a thesaurus – there’s no pretentiousness here.

I picture the Pinnacles assembling – travelling to North Wales by train and motor car, collecting each other like raindrops on a window pane.

A lot of learning is part and parcel to the reading experience. Much of the studious detail is down to Ivor’s career in academia. Want to know why we as students in school and university have those difficult, often annoying exams in which we must study poems without knowing the context or who the poet is? Ivor Richards. Author Dan includes his own schooling, his time following the exam structure without knowing he was related to the man who created it.

‘In those days, even up in the Lakes, a girl couldn’t walk about a village in climbing clothes without hard stares from the women and sniggers from the louts.’1

Naturally there’s a lot of focus on women and independence. Women were not allowed to venture up a mountain alone so Dorothy’s younger brothers had to learn to climb. She left them far behind her when the time came. There is information about the first ladies’ climbing clubs, one of which Dorothy co-founded. And there are the blue prints for Richards’ 21st century follow-up journeying – Dorothy’s memoir, the original Climbing Days.

The climbs themselves see Richards travel to The Dent Blanche, The Lake District, and Barcelona among other places. Not a climber by nature, there are technical details included but a lot more about the room for error and danger, about training, and the process of climbing when you don’t know what you’re doing, all contrasted with Dorothy and Ivor’s passion and competence in a time when there were fewer safety measures.

It is Richards’ passion that makes Climbing Days what it is, that creates the broad appeal and enjoyment. There are no big surprises, no plot-like thrills, just that overall pleasure of reading, of the slow progress of the journey. It’s both escapist and anything but.

References

1 Taken from Pilley, Dorothy, ‘The Good Young Days’, Journal Of The Fell And Rock Climbing Club, no. 50, Vol. 17 (III), 1956; cited on page p.67.

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