September 2007


Stephen King, ITKill you all!” The clown was laughing and screaming. “Try to stop me and I’ll kill you all! Drive you crazy and then kill you all! You can’t stop me! I’m the Gingerbread Man! I’m the Teenage Werewolf!”
And for a moment It was the Teenage Werewolf, the moon-silvered face of the lycanthrope peering out at them from over the collar of the silver suit, white teeth bared.
Can’t stop me, I’m the leper!”
Now the leper’s face, haunted and peeling, rotting with sores, stared at them with the eyes of the living dead.
Can’t stop me, I’m the mummy!”
The leper’s face aged and ran with sterile cracks. Ancient bandages swam halfway out of his skin and solidified there. Ben turned away, his face white as curds, one hand plastered over his neck and ear.
Can’t stop me, I’m the dead boys!”

Seven kids tried to kill a child-killing monster back in 1958. It is a monster with many faces, sometimes taking a shape deliberately to lure its victims toward It, sometimes reflecting back their own worst nightmare. And grownups can’t see It: more accurately, they don’t see It – either way, they cannot stop It. Only the children have any sort of chance, and they did hurt It. They thought they had killed It, but the monster returns 27 years later, and they are drawn back to their hometown of Derry to give it one more shot. Only this time they are grownups themselves, and the situation is desperate.

OK, so it was quite scary, but nothing like as scary as it would have been had I been reading this 15 years ago when I would probably have got myself into checking-under-the-bed territory. Phew. Actually, the violence of the human foes was more troubling, more heartstopping to me than the violence of the monster. Perhaps because it seemed more real, more plausible. Less amenable to a magical cure. Having said that, the scariness and the violence are in some ways only the context for the book, they are not the point of it. The point of it, is that it is a story about friends, love, bravery, laughter, belief, desire – and about the power of those things in the face of what is monstrous.

So it was good, but there were a number of things that niggled me.

The quality of writing wasn’t stratospheric. Don’t get me wrong, it was good on the whole and to sustain anything for 1100 pages is quite a feat. But he really should have had a better editor – too many annoying little repetitions, too frequent use of slightly pompous expressions such as “depended from” in the sense of “hung down from” (wow that one was so annoying it has lodged in my brain never to depart).

Also, I was not so impressed with some of the characterisations. I mean, back in the day one thing I liked about King was his characters, and the way even minor bozos who were about to get splatted were real people rather than walking targets. But, honestly – the kid who was fat because his mum kept pouring seconds and thirds down him (You’re a growing lad, you need a good dinner inside you, blah, blah) and who lost weight to prove he wasn’t a loser? the asthmatic kid who was wimpy because his mum cosseted him, terrified of letting him grow up and away so that he might no longer need her? the woman who grew up to marry a violent shit who pretended to care about her because he was just like her dad? I could go on. Basically, superficial stereotyped horse poo. Maybe it was positively enlightened in 1986 – after all it has a black hero complete with HIS BLACK EXPERIENCE even a nearly sympathetic portrayal of a gay man – but I mean. Gah.

Oh, and the sex bit at the end? Ick.

Overall, probably not one for grownups. Not unless you’re already scared of clowns, balloons, or things that go bump in the night….

Here’s an Amazon link.
I used the local library.

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl“Poor fellow,” the Centipede said, whispering in James’s ear. “He’s blind. He can’t see how splendid I look.”
“In my opinion,” the Earthworm said, “the really marvellous thing is to have no legs at all and to be able to walk just the same.”
“You call that walking!” cried the Centipede. “You’re a slitherer, that’s all you are! You just slither along!”
“I glide,” said the Earthworm primly.
“You are a slimy beast,” answered the Centipede.
“I am
not a slimy beast,” the Earthworm said. “I am a useful and much loved creature. Ask any gardener you like. And as for you…”
“I am a pest!” the Centipede announced, grinning broadly and looking round the room for approval.

Poor little orphaned James lives with his two revolting aunts and has nobody at all to play with until one day something peculiar happened, which caused another, very peculiar thing to happen, which in turn caused something to occur which was really fantastically peculiar. The upshot is that we find James setting out on a journey aboard a giant peach, with enormous bugs for company.

As with pretty much all of Dahl’s books (especially the ones with Quentin Blake illustrations) you can’t really go wrong. I do find the plot a bit lacking, but at least there are lots of interesting facts about bugs to distract you. Most of which are more or less true.

Here is am Amazon link.
I already had a copy :)

The Green Mile, Stephen KingI tried to comfort him. I don’t feel that I ever did, and part of my heart was glad he was suffering, you know, Felt he deserved to suffer. I even thought sometimes of calling the governor… and asking for a stay of execution. We shouldn’t burn him yet, I’d say. It’s still hurting him too much, biting into him too much, twisting in his guts like a nice sharp stick…. that John Coffey who was afraid of the dark perhaps with good reason, for in the dark might not two shapes with blonde curls – no longer little girls but avenging harpies – be waiting for him? That John Coffey whose eyes were always streaming tears, like blood from a wound that can never heal.

Memories of scaring myself witless as a teenager reading Stephen King novels were probably far more the reason why it has taken so long to get around to this than anything else. Those books were scary.

This one is not so scary. Not horrorbook scary, I mean. It is set on death row in a 1932 prison and features several descriptions of executions, including one truly horrific scene of an electrocution gone wrong. There is also a little bit of the supernatural in there. But it isn’t the kind of scary that is painted in such lurid detail that it haunts your dreams or makes you check under the bed before you turn out the light. Phew. (I have to read IT pretty soon, though, which will not be so easy…)

Oh, I nearly forgot a plot synopsis. The narrator is Paul Edgecombe, head warder on the death row block, who is an old old man telling about the time in 1932 when he oversaw the last of his 78 executions, the execution of John Coffey. Coffey is an enormously big and strong but docile and not-very-bright black man who was caught more or less red-handed with two twin girl-children. Dead, bloody, raped, white girl-children. But did he really do it? And, more to the point, can he be saved?

So it was OK. Not gripping. A bit blokey maybe. And, you know, just not quite enough naked teen bloody psycho murders committed by freaky zombies controlled by a pulsing alien superbrain.

Here is your Amazon link.
My copy was from the library.

The Women's Room, Marilyn FrenchOver the years, Mira had picked up a little sexual knowledge. She had, for some months, tried to get Norm to make love in a somewhat more tender way, but he was totally resistant to change. He believed that anything other than what he did impeded his pleasure, and that seemed to him wrong, unnatural. The only other act he was willing to perform was fellatio, and that Mira firmly vetoed. On the whole, Norm probably felt that what was pleasant for him was pleasant for her, or if it were not, it was because like so many women, she was frigid. Mira gave up her attempts to change him, but she sought other ways to make the whole thing less wretched for her. She would try to think of other things, to let him do what he wanted and keep her mind elsewhere. But she was never successful at this because the moment his head came down on her breast, she was so full of rage that she could not concentrate on anything else. And no matter how short it was, she felt violated and used and will-less, and every month, every year, this feeling grew. She dreaded the least sign of desire in him. Fortunately, these signs appeared less and less often.

This book is on the money, time and time again. As I read it, I found myself inwardly recognising so much of what the characters and narrative express. It does not just speak truly (I assume) and movingly of women’s lives and experiences in the 1950s and 1960s, but in many ways it speaks truly to our lives and experiences today. Some things have changed. Many have not.

It is also a winding narrative, a soap opera that follows its main protagonist Mira from her youth into marriage and motherhood, and then from divorce into her new life as a post-graduate student at Harvard. Along the way, Mira’s friends from her two lives have their own stories, each woven into the fabric of Mira’s own.

The trouble is, however, that the two elements – the engaging soap opera and the feminist messages – are not well blended. There are times when the feminist agenda is painfully obvious. It feels as though characters are invented and incidents are included merely to show off or drive home a second wave slogan, merely as a vehicle for the feminism and not because they are valuable or interesting in their own right. They are a little two-dimensional, a little bit stereotypical: they are rarely surprising.

It is a grand tour of second wave feminism in novel form: here, the personal is political from beginning to end. Worthy and readable? yes. Great art? not really.

Ahab's Wife, Sena Jeta NaslundCaptain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.

This is an opening line to rival the famous “Call me Ishmael” of Moby Dick. Better, too, because you spend the first half of the book wondering who the first husband will be, and practically the whole rest of the book trying to guess the third. And it doesn’t just have a better opening line, either. Where the “original”, narrated by a sailor on board Ahab’s ship the Pequod, is slow and tedious and filled up with annoyingly irrelevant dry facts about whales and whaling this retelling, narrated by Ahab’s young wife from her own very different perspective, is like a story spun from rich gold.

Ishmael wants to understand all that is possible to know about ships and whales. Mrs Maynard sent him out to interview me on masthead figures.”

And Una is no young lady, no inexperienced girl, not the “sweet, resigned” wife referred to so briefly in Moby Dick, whose horizons are no broader than the seaside whaling town where she awaits her lord. Oh no.

Born in a one-roomed log cabin at the Frontier in Kentucky, she escapes her violently Christian father to her maternal aunt’s family in the isolation of a lighthouse island. At sixteen, an impulse takes her to sea dressed as a cabin boy. Disaster strikes, and unimaginable horrors are endured, before she and her companions are rescued. She finds herself in Nantucket, married and then abandoned, with her grief lost in a passionate love for the considerably older Ahab – a love barely consummated before he returns to the sea and leaves her with a child to bear and lose.

Una is a strong woman, a fighting woman – atheist, staunchly pacifist, viscerally opposed to slavery, interested in the status of women, radical and progressive. And she is a woman who does not merely survive: she is a woman who finds home and joy even with the disaster that continually rains down upon her. She is also a woman who seems to fall into connections, even with people you and I remember now. She is friends with early feminist Margaret Fuller, she stays briefly with Ralph Waldo Emerson and even meets a five-year-old Henry James on the beach. Writes the fictional Margaret Fuller:

“I accept the universe” – that’s what I told Mr Thomas Carlyle, in London.
And that renowned writer Thomas Carlyle replied, without a shred of understanding, “Madam, you had better.” ‘Twas then, dear Una, I thought to write to you… Who is he to say?… Ah, Carlyle could not modulate my egotism, but you, the thought of your thought, brings me to a humbler plane. And it is the way of women. We allow each other our individuality. We do not insist that we dominate or control.

This is possibly the most politically charged, feminist novel I have read (Alice Walker the possible exception), yet at the same time it is exactly what is says on the cover: beautifully written, lyrical, alluring and wise. Wonderful.

(Subtitled: The true story of Phoolan Devi)

India's Bandit Queen, Mala Sen“There are various versions of what happened to Phoolan Devi after Vikram Mallah’s death. When I spoke to her she was reluctant to speak of her bezathi (dishonour), as she put it, at the hands on the Thakurs. She did not want to dwell on the details and merely said, “Un logo ne mujhse bahut mazak ki”. (Those people really fooled with me.) I was not surprised at her reticence to elaborate. First of all, because we had an audience, including members of her family, other prisoners and their relatives. Secondly because we live in societies where a woman who is abused sexually ends up feeling deeply humiliated, knowing that many will think that it was her fault, or partly her fault, that she provoked the situation in the first place. Phoolan Devi, like many other women all over the world, feels she will only add to her own shame if she speaks of this experience.”

This book investigates the story of Phoolan Devi. She was born into a low caste, and into a poverty that was brought about by her father having been swindled out of his rightful inheritance by a ruthless older brother. Her fighting spirit, her refusal to allow this theft go unchallenged, got her into trouble right from the start when her influential uncle and cousin ensured that she was brutally punished for her protests. The consequence was that she was married unusually young, to a man who turned out to be brutish and unable to protect her (as was the intention of her marriage) from the trouble that her uncle and cousin could and did bring.

To cut a long story short, she was kidnapped by dacoits (people living as outlaws in the ravines, surviving primarily on robbery and ransoms) and ended up becoming a bandit herself. She suffered unspeakably at the hands of various men, but at the same time was tough enough, sharp enough and clever enough not only to survive but to come out more or less on top – she had her revenge, she surrendered on terms that she has herself dictated, served her prison sentence and so escaped ravine life. (Postscript – after publication of the book, Devi was released from prison and later murdered, apparently by those she is said to have wronged in her bandit days.)

As for the book, I think this was a better one than Death by Fire in that there was much less in it of Mala Sen’s own personal feelings and difficulties. It is more objective. And that’s important, because Devi’s story is already complicated and confusing enough (often involving unresolved conflicts between different versions of events) without having to hear about how hot it was in the author’s taxi.

I do have some reservations about the book as a True Story, though – just because there has been so much controversy surrounding the film that is apparently based on the book.

In commenting on this, I am somewhat hampered because I will not watch that film. It reduces Devi to a rape victim turned revenging angel and spends too much time depicting rapes, rapes and more rapes. Rapes that Devi will not even talk about or admit to in any specific or explicit way. In a film made without even obtaining (not in any real sense) Devi’s consent and for which she was paid three-quarters of sweet FA.

More about the film:

  • Two contemporary articles by writer Arundhati Roy, who knew Devi and talked to her in detail about the film after it had been made. (Here and Here.)
  • A two-part article published after Devi’s death, detailing the views of Indira Jaisingh, the lawyer who helped Devi sue the film-makers for falsifying and distorting her life and for portraying numerous rapes without her consent. (Part 1 and Part 2.)
  • A contemporary review of the film by Madhu Kishwar. (Here.)

Given those massive problems with the film, and given that Sen willingly co-operated with the film-makers and (according to Indira Jaisingh) was the person who got Devi to sign up to the making of this film… how does that make me feel about Sen and her book?

In an Afterword added to the edition of the book I read, Mala Sen goes back to talk to Devi in 1994, at the time when the controversy about the film was blowing up.

In the Afterword, Sen downplays her role in the film, saying that it was “based partly on this book – and on other various sources – and directed by Shekhar Kapur.” She then details a number of Devi’s objections to the film, but does not mention the central objection that Arundhati Roy and Indira Jaisingh highlight – the fact that it portrays Devi as little more than the sum of her rapes and the vengeance she took for them.

Sen’s own comments on the matter? She was “saddened by the rift” between Devi and Kapur. She thought the film (despite the fact that it portrays her as being guilty of 22 murders that she had denied committing) would help in her fight for justice. She seems to dismiss Devi’s own position (“I felt bad watching – my mother felt bad – it’s wrong, all wrong”), saying that Devi “had made up her mind to take a stand” – with the implication that it was because of this that she refused to listen to reason – and then suggesting that her battle to prevent release of the film may not be in her long term interests. And then, perhaps tellingly, Sen ends by saying “I have yet to resolve the moral and political issues surrounding the film.”

So – although the book reads well, although it struck me as balanced and well-researched – there is just something that leaves me feeling… unsure.

The Magician's Guild, Trudi CanavanJonna had told her that the daughters of rich families were carefully watched until they married the husband their fathers chose for them. Women made no important decisions within the Houses.

In the slums no-one arranged marriages. Though women tried to find a man who could support a family, they usually married for love. While Jonna believed this was better, Sonea was cynical. She had noticed that women often put up with a lot when in love, but, at some stage, love tended to wear off. Better to marry a man you liked and trusted.

Were female magicians cosseted away? Were they encouraged to leave the running of the Guild to the men? It would be frustrating to be magically powerful, but still completely under the control of others…

Sonea is a slum dweller in the city of Imardin, home of the powerful Magician’s Guild. One day, caught up in a protest against the oppression of the “dwells”, she discovers that she has unsuspected magical powers. The guild magicians find out too, and since the law forbids a magician from living outside their control, they must track her down – whether she will come willingly or not. Will she manage to escape the hated Guild? Can she learn to control her powers without their help? And what does the unpleasant Lord Fergun have in store for the slum girl who knocked him out cold?

I was totally into this book, and Sonea is the best kind of heroine – clever, strong, frank, honourable, quick on the uptake and decidedly self-reliant. The writing isn’t brilliant, but then this isn’t meant to be great literature: it’s an adventure story for teenagers. The only real complaint is that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax, leaving you feeling like you’ve read the first book of a trilogy (which, as it happens, you have) rather than a novel in its own right. I guess I’ll just have to go out and get the second book, right?