October 2007


[Note: I originally blogged this in December 2006, only to find now that it’s in the BRP . So I’m changing the date, bumping it up and adding links at the end. Easy game!]

The Color PurpleI think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

This book was on my mental to-read list for ages – and with good reason.

It is a novel telling the story of Celie through her letters to God and, later, to her sister Nettie. She writes these letters because of what her Pa told her: You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.

The letters tell, in Celie’s own language – the voice it seems of black people in the southern states of the US – of her life from the time when her Pa first rapes her through her loveless marriage to an abusive husband, her discovery of her own sexuality with the beautiful singer Shug Avery (short for “Sugar”, I think, and presumably not pronounced to rhyme with “slug”!), the missionary life of her sister Nettie who escaped the family home to live with the couple that adopted both of Celie’s children by her Pa. We follow her as she gains in strength and comes to know, against all odds, both contentment and happiness.

The women in the story are amazing. Apart from Celie herself, there is the powerful magnetism of Shug, the hardworking loyalty and determination of Nettie, the uncompromising Sofia, the blossoming Mary Agnes (“Squeak”) and others. They each shine out from the pages.

As for the men… Walker received a great deal of criticism for her portrayal of black men in this novel* – although I’m not remotely convinced that such cricism is justified.

[* I should point out that much – but by no means all – of the criticism followed the release of the film version which, I understand, misses out some of the nice bits about men. That criticism affected Walker so greatly that she responded by writing a book about the film about The Color Purple – The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult.]

It is true that there are some bad men in the novel. Celie’s Pa treated her mother badly, turned his attentions to Celie, and would have treated Nettie in the same way but for Celie’s intervention. Celie’s husband also mistreats her: marrying her purely as a worker to care for his children, beating her and using her sexually. Celie’s stepson Harpo would have gone the same path had he not been married to the extraordinarily tough Sofia.

But these characters are not one-dimensional, they have their own journey to make, and the negative portrayals are balanced by portrayals of better men. There isn’t much to redeem Celie’s Pa, it is true. But her husband (known through the book mostly as “Mr -“) learns the error of his ways, and he later becomes a dear friend. Harpo is straightened out by the women in his life and becomes a valued member of the family. Sofia’s brother-in-law Jack is a quiet man who loves his children and honours his wife. The adoptive father of Celie’s children, Samuel, is a good and respectful man who takes Nettie in and effectively rescues her. Celie’s son Adam grows into a fine young man.

This novel is about abuse that poor black women suffer when living with poverty and racism and misogyny. It is also about sexuality, spirituality and survival. But the backdrop is one of overcoming, and flourshing in spite of, abuse: and a big part of that abuse is that these women are treated badly by black men. That is not the only part, but the part that is closest to home. Walker could not have written this novel, or expressed what her characters go through, without showing some men* in a bad light.

[* And not just black men, either. For example, Mary Agnes is raped by a white man when she goes to him to try and seek help for the imprisoned Sofia.]

In the circumstances, the positivity with which many of the men in this novel are ultimately portrayed is remarkable. Yet what was remarked upon was, instead, the negativity with which the abusers were portrayed. How can one write about abuse without abusers? And how can one write about abusers in a wholly positive light? One can’t. The fact that some people have chosen to condemn the negative portrayal of abusers rather than condemning the abuse merely shows, to me, where their sympathies lie. It is evidently better for women to remain silent about the misogynist abuse they and their sisters suffer, than to talk about it and to risk an accusation of misandry.

And now well over half of my post about this book is taken up with how it is NOT a man-hating novel. Damn those MRA goons.

This book is wonderful. Everyone should read it.

PS Many of the characters in this book appear in others. For example Tashi, the protagonist in Possessing the Secret of Joy is a part of Nettie’s story – and the Olivia and Adam who appear in that novel are Celie’s children. I’ve got to go back and read it again now to see what other links I can spot!

Here’s an Amazon link
I own a copy.

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Hogfather, Terry PratchettOne should always be wary of people who talk unashamedly of ‘fellowship and good cheer’ as if it were something that can be applied to life like a poultice. Turn your back for a moment and they may well organise a Maypole dance and, frankly, there’s no option then but to make for the treeline.

I’m getting quite fond of Terry Pratchett again, you know.

This one revolves around DEATH and his extraordinarily sensible granddaughter, Susan (I’m a big fan of hers), as they try to defeat the auditors, rescue the Hogfather from disbelief, and find out what’s going on with the Tooth Fairy. There are Wizards too, and Assassins and the Watch and all that stuff. Plus, you get to explore with Susan the true meaning of Hogswatch – it’s got something to do with pigs. And blood on the snow.

Here’s an Amazon link.
Waterstones were doing 3 for 2 on Pratchett books so I bought this one. :)

John Buchan, the Thirty-Nine StepsDedication (to Thomas Arthur Nelson):

My Dear Tommy
You and I have long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’ – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my store of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it in memory of our long friendship, in the days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.
JB

This is an adventure story written just after and set just before the outbreak of the first world war. In it, the resourceful hero Richard Hannay finds himself catapulted one day from the boredom of a vigorous young man, at something of loss now that he is back in London after making his fortune in Rhodesia, into a world of danger and intrigue. When a corpse turns up in his flat, he has to go on the run from both the police and a more sinister enemy, with the fate of nations upon his shoulders.

It’s all good blokey fun, although it is only fair to confirm that the book is as Buchan himself describes it – a dime novel, a shocker, a penny dreadful. Why it’s so often trotted out as a Great Classic I’m just not sure. But there are worse books, and at least it is (delightfully) short – a mere 100 pages, hooray!

So anyway, here’s an Amazon link.
I have had a copy for years which has somehow escaped all my periodic clearouts. (I can’t imagine it will escape too many more, though…)

Jacqueline Wilson, Girls in TearsIt’s good, of course. Dad’s always been great at painting, though he hasn’t worked properly on anything for ages. He’s painted himself with almost painful precision, putting in every line and grey hair. He’s emphasised his sagging tummy, his hunched stance, his worn old shoes.

In the portrait he’s standing at his easel, painting. He’s gazing intently at the picture on the easel. This is a portrait of a very different Dad. He looks much younger, with a trimmed beard and trendy haircut, a flat stomach and stylish black clothes. He seems to be at some art exhibition. Maybe it’s his own private view. He’s surrounded by admirers. There’s Anna, there’s me and Eggs, there’s a whole flock of pretty leggy girls raising their glasses of champagne to him, there are older men in suits writing in their cheque books, paying a fortune for each painting.

“Oh, Dad,” I say softly.

This is the fourth book in the “Girls in Love” series and fourteen-year-olds Ellie, Nadine and Magda spend most of it crying. Tears of sadness, loneliness, joy, despair and the general rollercoaster of emotions that is female puberty. The three of them seem to spend the whole time falling out with each other and having boyfriend trouble; Ellie’s family seems to be falling apart; and Magda has killed her hamster.

PS There is a happy ending, with tears.

Here is am Amazon link.
I have so many Jacqueline Wilson books I’ve lost count, and this is one of them.

Jacqueline Wilson, SleepoversAmy has bunk beds so Bella got to go on the top bunk above Amy. Amy’s mum had made up a mattress on most of Amy’s floor for two more girls.
“That’s fine for Emily and me,” said Chloe.

“It’s a very big mattress,” said Emily. “I’m sure there’s heaps of room for Daisy too.”
“No, it would be too much of a squash,” said Chloe, firmly. “Daisy had better have that camp bed thing in the corner.”

Four best friends – and the new girl Daisy. Daisy is lucky to be invited to their sleepovers at all – so surely it is too much to ask that one of them should ever be her best friend? Especially when Daisy is terrified about what they will make of her sister if she ever has the courage to invite them round to her house. Yet Daisy does want one of them to be her best friend, and Chloe seems determined to keep her out. Will she succeed?

Well, this feels a bit like blasphemy, especially loving Jacqueline Wilson as much as I do, but actually I’m a bit tired of stories where the young heroine just longs for a best friend and then gets one and they live happily every after. What about, for a change, a story where the heroine longs for a best friend and doesn’t find one, but actually everything turns out more or less OK after all? And what about the spoiled brat of the story, the poor ousted Chloe, jealous Chloe? Have we not a little conscience, a little understanding about why she is who she is? Must she be a villain entirely? Can there be no space for pity? Or is the target audience of females under 10 deemed too insensitive, too unsympathetic to grasp such complexity?

Whatever. I carp. And I still love Wilson.

Here’s an Amazon link.
I have my own copy already.

All Quet on the Western Front, Erick Maria RemarqueOn the next floor below are the abdominal and spine cases, head wounds and double amputations. On the right side of the wing are the jaw wounds, gas cases, nose, ear and neck wounds. On the left the blind and the lung wounds, pelvis wounds, wounds in the joints, wounds in the kidneys, wounds in the testicles, wounds in the intestines. Here a man realises for the first time in how many places a man can get hit.

Two fellows die of tetanus. Their skin turns pale, their limbs stiffen, at last only their eyes live – stubbornly. Many of the wounded have their shattered limbs hanging free in the air from a gallows; underneath the wound a basin is placed into which drips the pus. Every two or three hours the vessel is emptied. Other men lie in stretching bandages with heavy weights hanging from the end of the bed. I see intestine wounds that are constantly full of excreta. The surgeon’s clerk shows me X-ray photographs of completely smashed hip-bones, knees, and shoulders.

A man cannot realise that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, one single station… How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible.

That about says it all. This is as truthful, direct an account as any – warm, alive, horrifying – of what war is. War in general; the first world war in particular, the trench warfare of the Western front to be precise. It is the story of one ordinary soldier, a boy when he joined up, a boy of 18 who endures life at the front for four long years. It is the story of his generation, rootless, brutalised, lost.

Every time I read it, it makes me feel cold, empty – at a loss. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible?

Here’s an Amazon link.
My copy, pretty well thumbed.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate atkinsonWe’re fed by the clock so that we don’t become spoilt and demanding. The general feeling amongst the mothers is that the babies are in a conspiracy against them (if only we were). We can scream until we’re exhausted it won’t make any difference to the ceremonial feeding ritual, the time when all the little baby parcels are fed, winded, changed, laid down again and ignored. I am nearly a week old and still nameless, but at least Bunty now takes a cursory interest in me. She never speaks to me though, and her eyes avoid me, sliding over me as soon as I enter her field of vision… The nights are still the worst time, each night a dark voyage into uncertainty. I do not believe that Bunty is my real mother. My real mother is roaming in a parallel universe somewhere, ladling out mother’s milk the colour of Devon cream. She’s padding the hospital corridors searching for me, her fierce, hot, lion-breath steaming up the cold windows. My real mother is Queen of the Night, a huge galactic figure, treating the Milky Way in search of her lost infant.

This is something like a modern(ist?) version of The Red Tent. At least, that is what I often thought of when reading this book, and it has certainly taken my equally by surprise and made a similarly big impression on me. The connection is that both books are about hidden history; women’s history; the life stories that are barely recorded, except through the traditions of family gossip.

This is a life story – beginning, slightly weirdly actually, at conception – narrated by the protagonist Ruby Lennox, a child born into early 1950s Yorkshire to a reluctant mother. It is also a grand family epic – sweeping back in time to the late nineteenth century and then forward to the present. These are interwoven scenes from the past, telling the stories of the mothers and sisters, wives and daughters in Ruby’s sprawling family, sneaking occasionally into unsuspected by-ways. The “front-story” – the story of Ruby’s life, simultaneously ordinary and traumatic – is almost a side show. But not quite, because it all hangs together. The novel is about motherhood and family ties and the way that daughters are shaped by mothers, the way that lives are repeated or at least echoed through generations. It is about what happens when a woman has no choice but to get married and raise children, however miserable such a life makes her and them, and however far down the family tree that misery will reach.

You wonder whether it is possible to escape the cycle: but in the end there is, I think, hope. Wonderful, readable, funny, beautiful. Read it!

Here is an Amazon link
I got my copy at Oxfam (hooray, I can read it again!)

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