Monthly Archives: April 2012

Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan

Red Spikes - Margo LanaganRed Spikes – Margo Lanagan
David Fickling Books, 2008
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository

Red Spikes is a short story collection. Each story is set in a world tinged by fantasy, but, as the GoodReads summary states “each one illuminates what it is to be human”. The subject matter is often dark and unsettling, but the collection also has overcoming of fears and personal growth as uniting themes.

I am not always a fan of short story collections. They can leave you unsatisfied, feeling that the stories should not quite end where they did. In the case of Red Spikes I definitely wanted more, but this time, the feeling was not one of disappointment, but one of enjoying these stories so much that I longer for more.

I felt not all of the stories were as strong as others, or perhaps I should say that not all of them spoke to me as deeply. However, all of them were well worth reading, which is not how I commonly feel about these collections.

I should warn that when I say dark and unsettling, I do mean dark and unsettling. There are a lot of themes here that you might not find in regular YA fiction. There was something so entirely unsettling about the stories “Monkey’s Paternoster” and “Winkie”, that I wonder if I would not rather forget some of the images called up in them. Because of that, those stories were not my favourites.

Favourite stories include:

  • Hero Vale: About a boy who learns to overcome his fears and stand up for himself and his friends at a boys’ school through an adventure in one of Lanagan’s fantasy settings.
  • Under Hell, Over Heaven: A story about the afterlife, inspired by the Catholic teachings about Limbo (though I think there are elements of purgatory as well?). We all know I love stories in which religion is a grand theme. I especially liked how Lanagan managed to be both respectful to religion, as well as evoke the darker feelings that come with worldviews that include a place like hell, or the underworld.
  • Forever Upwards: Oh, Margo Lanagan. To include a story that combines elements of colonial settlement, Christianisation, “indigenous” religion, the relationship between class, gender, power, and religion. The loss of power and the empowerment through religion. The personal agency and growth through tradition and standing out from it. This story was simply perfect.
  • Daughter of the Clay: A story about a girl from the Clay who is caught in the world of humans.

One of Lanagan’s particular strengths is, I think, her ability to evoke different personalities and worlds in such a short story-span. At the beginning of each story, through the difference in prose and the accents of her characters, you just know that you are in an entirely different place, dealing with an entirely different set of people. Another thing I loved is how, in particular in the latter half of the collection, Lanagan manages to evoke both the overwhelming sense of oppression the world can have on you, but also how each person has an agency and voice of their own.

After reading Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan last year, I knew I had to read everything she published one way or another. I, of course, still need to tell you about my utter and complete love for Tender Morsels, but at the end of this post about Red Spikes, let me tell you that reading this collection did not change anything about that assessment. I may, in general, enjoy novels more than short stories, and I don’t think this quite tops what my first experience with Lanagan’s prose made me feel, and what I still feel and think about today, but Lanagan is definitely on my list of “The Complete Works of..” authors. And Red Spikes is definitely my favourite short story collection to date. All I need to do now is make that dedicated page.

Other Opinions: Bookshelves of Doom, A Striped Armchair, My Favourite Books, The OF Blog, Reading Rants.
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Announcing Dutch Literature Month & a Giveaway

Like last year, I am hosting a month dedicated solely to Dutch (and Flemish, if you so wish) literature on my blog. Following Caroline‘s and Lizzie‘s German Literature month, I am renaming the event Dutch Lit Month, instead of the longer and more inconvenient title A Month of Dutch Literature that I used last year.

I would love it if you would join me in reading one or more books that were originally written in the Dutch language. In the upcoming weeks, I will post a few lists of suggestions, but in the meantime, I can direct you to last year’s posts, as well as my previous posts outlining suggested reading. All can be found under the tag Dutch Lit Month on my blog.

A further suggestion is to check the books offered for review by Lemniscaat USA on Netgalley, all four of which are children/teen books that have been released in English in the last year. Another children’s title available from Netgalley is Joke van Leeuwen’s “Eep!”, which was published in March by Gecko Press.

You can follow updates about Dutch Literature Month, or link to your own post about it, on twitter through the hashtag #dutchlitmonth

Want to sign up for participation early? Leave your name on the Mr. Linky below:

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The Tea Lords Read Along

Last year, I hosted a read along of Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven, in commemoration of his death in 2010. This year, I’d like to host a read along of Hella Haasse’s The Tea Lords. Hella Haasse is one of the most renowned female authors in the Netherlands. She is known to be a favourite author of the Dutch Queen. Unfortunately, she passed away last year.

The Tea Lords - Hella HaasseThe Tea Lords* was published in English by Portobello books in 2010 (paperback 2011). Ina Rilke translated the book. It is a book set in Dutch colonial Indonesia (The Dutch East Indies) and follows a tea planters family, and especially the conservative Rudolf and his wife Jenny, as they try to establish a life while running a plantation. It is a novel of historical fiction, but is based on a wealth of historical sources. The book is considered to be one of Haasse’s masterpieces and I’d love to read it together with a few of you.

As the book is around 335 pages long, I want to suggest discussing it in two parts:

  • Friday 15 June: Up to page 187, or the start of the chapter titled “The Family”.
  • Friday 29 June: Finish the book, or read to the end of the chapter titled “Gamboeng, the last day”.
Feel free to read the book in one go and discuss on Friday the 29th, or you can write about it at any time during the month and I will link up to your post on the 29th.

Sign up by leaving a comment, and I will add you to the list of participants.

List of participants:

  • Iris
  • You?

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Giveaway of The Tea Lords:

For those who are joining the read along, I am offering one (or possibly two depending on interest and my finances) copies as a giveaway. To enter please:
  • sign up in a comment and let me know you’d like to be entered
  • be sure to leave your email address in your comment, either in the comment itself, or by leaving it in the name/url/email field.
  • you need to participate in the read along if you win
  • make sure the book depository ships to your country*
  • giveaway closes at midnight GMT, 4 May. 
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I hope I will have the pleasure of seeing you participate in June, be it through participation in the read along, a post on a Dutch book you have read, or by publishing an author interview, or any other way.

If anyone wants to offer to make a better looking button (I know mine suck because, unfortunately, I am limited to paint, since I do not have photoshop on this computer) you’d make me very happy :)

* This is an affiliate link. If you buy a product through this link, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

the girls of slender means - muriel sparkThe Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark
Avon, 1963

Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository

A few days ago, Claire posted: “I always feel like I should have stronger reactions to Spark’s books.” She continues to explain how she finds Spark’s books thought-provoking, clever, and humorous, but that she misses a special click with any of them, apart from perhaps The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

I tend to agree with Claire’s feelings, even if I have only read three Spark novels up to now. You see, I have been puzzling over what exactly I could say about The Girls of Slender Means that would make a worthwhile post, but I find I do not have much to tell.

The Girls of Slender Means is about the May of Teck Club, a house in London where single women reside. Set between the end of World War II in Britain, and the capitulation of Japan, the novel follows a number of girls while they try to continue their regular life of diets, dating, elocution, and jobs.

That is all I want to say about the plot to avoid revealing too much for future readers.

As with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Finishing School, Muriel Spark’s prose is artful and clever. The manner in which she manages to tell full stories with multiple characters in a relatively short manner surprises me each time. It has become such a joy to find how so many small details that might seem marginal on first glance fit into the larger plot in the end. And I appreciate her humour, absurdity, and play with words. As a personal note, and this will be uninteresting to anyone else, no doubt, I should add that the story about Nicholas, the reformed anarchist turned martyred missionary, made me chuckle each time. I assume this has to do with my endless perusing of missionary literature for my master thesis.

But I have to wonder if it is not exactly the humour and the subtly mocking tone Spark applies to most of the girls that keeps me at a certain distance from the characters, and makes me unable to feel more than a detached interest in them. I am not sure that even matters, as it is really the storytelling itself, the themes and subversion, that I enjoy in Spark’s novels. But at the same time, I cannot shake this sense of detachment and move beyond it.

Do not get me wrong, I enjoyed The Girls of Slender Means much better than The Finishing School, though I do still think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is my favourite. I appreciate Muriel Spark’s cleverness, and certainly agree that she is a most accomplished author. But there’s something that keeps me from going from appreciation and enjoyment to loving her stories. I wish it wasn’t so.

Other Opinions: Savidge Reads, My Porch, A Work in Progress, Fifty Books Project, Books for Breakfast, Paperback Reader, Harriet Devine.
Did I miss your post? Let me know and I will add it to the list. 

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Simon and Harriet are hosting a Muriel Spark Reading Week from April 23rd to April 29. Pop over to their blog to check out their dedicated posts. For more posts on Muriel Spark this week, I’d like to redirect you to the twitter tag #MurielSparkReadingWeek.

Library Loot: 26 April 2012

I am like a child discovering a stack of hidden toys. Every time I visit the library because a hold came in, or because I need to return a book, I cannot help but browse a few of my favourite sections, and I keep coming home with stacks of books that I cannot possibly read in the time I am allowed to keep them home. These are the books I have out from the library at the moment:

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue came in from the hold I had put on it when the Orange Prize Longlist was revealed. The Submission by Amy Waldman also came in for that same reason: I had put it on hold for my longlist reading. Away by Amy Bloom was a random selection out of the available English audiobooks. I don’t expect a lot from it, but it was one of the few unabridged audiobooks available that was not a Jane Austen. And as I’m almost finished with listening to Wuthering Heights while running, I desperately needed a new audiobook.

The following two are selections for projects I’m participating in during May. For A Year of Feminist Classics I will be reading Jane Eyre combined with Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I got The Color Purple by Alice Walker for the May readalong of the novel over at Liburuak.

I am so happy to have discovered the teens and children section over at the library. This is where I got Matched by Ally Condie from, because I felt in desperate need of a YA dystopian trilogy type of book. I put in an inter library loan request for Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan. In a strange twist, my library (which is the largest of the province) does not own any of Lanagan’s books, but there appear to be some copies scattered across the smallest libraries. Yay! I also took out the Dutch version of Jostein Gaarder’s The Orange Girl, simply because I enjoyed his Through a Glass, Darkly last year, and I want to read more by the author of one of my childhood favourites, Sophie’s World. And last but not least, after discovering Eva Ibbotson by reading her One Dog and His Boy, I could not resist borrowing The Dragonfly Pool when I came across it on the shelves.

Library Loot is a weekly meme co-hosted by Claire (The Captive Reader) and Marg (The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader) that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Harriet – Elizabeth Jenkins
Persephone Books, April 2012

Originally published 1934
Review copy from the publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository

Harriet - Elizabeth Jenkins

Harriet is a novel written by Eizabeth Jenkins. Most may know her from her work The Tortoise and the Hare. In Harriet Jenkins tackles a heavier subject matter, for the book is based on the 1877 Penge Murder Mystery, a case against family members who murdered a young woman by the name of Harriet through neglect in order to get to her money. In her novel, Jenkins traces the story of Harriet’s marriage to Lewis, who designs to marry her for her large inheritance from the first, up to the trial of Lewis and his partners in crime, by which time Harriet has died of neglect.

Harriet was a young women who we would describe today as having learning disabilities. Her mother, in the novel, calls her “a very simple-minded girl”. Because of this, Harriet is raised protectively by her mother: Harriet lives a sheltered life of luxury and loves pretty things, she also spends a lot of her time visiting relatives. At the house of one of these relatives, step cousins of Harriet, she meets Lewis, who, when he learns about her fortune, relinquished his intended engagement to one of the step cousins, in order to gain money through a marriage to Harriet. From there on out, her mother, and Harriet herself, are powerless to protect Harriet from harm.

The subject matter of Harriet is harrowing, which is why I was a little hesitant to start reading this book at first. How horrible would it be? How disturbed would I feel? Will it focus more on the horror of the crime, or on the psychological aspect of it? In short, would I have nightmares, and end up disliking the book for it? I am glad to say that the latter proved untrue. The book maintains a balance between storytelling and highlighting the disturbing nature of this occurrence, which turns this not into an enjoyable read, per se, as it will not have you laughing at the world much. However, it is enjoyable in a different manner, for it is a highly readable and very worthwhile read.

Three things in particular stood out to me.

First of all, Jenkins highlights the limited possibilities to protect a woman, let alone a woman who is considered “simple-minded” legally from unhealthy designs by men, or fellow humans. She does so through the storyline of Mrs. Ogilvy, Harriet’s mother.

“And may I ask,” he said, “how you propose to put a stop to it?” He saw that she was for a moment nonplussed and went on, “Your daughter is considerably over age; she is her own mistress; her money’s her own. I want to marry her – she wants to marry me. May I ask you again what you think you have to do with it?”

Harriet, having received numerous pretty gifts from Lewis, fancies they are in love and wants to marry, for she feels, and sees around her, that marriage is the suitable station for any girl. In the face of this, Harriet’s mother is helpless, for the reasons expressed by Lewis in the quote above. But also, because she cannot give enough proof of Harriet’s disability to renounce her as mistress of her own money, since her mother never wanted to diagnose her as such before, happy in the knowledge that she could offer Harriet a comfortable and sheltered life. A question that is implicitly raised in the book is whether Mrs. Ogilvy would not have achieved more to protect Harriet by letting her husband handle things, but Mrs. Ogilvy is proud of being able to handle her own business (as Harriet is the daughter of a previous marriage) and Mr. Ogilvy, though recognising that he might do more, concedes in letting her try. It is sad to realise that, as a reader, I sometimes felt that perhaps the mother had better concede her agency for the greater good, a pattern that I think only underlines the marginal position of women in law at the time more.

The manner in which these interactions and power relations based on gender, class, and position of authority, play out in the book were fascinating.

Second, and this is where I come to Jenkins’ strength as a storyteller, is that she allows the reader a wide perspective of Harriet’s life and death through the eyes of several of the characters involved. We not only learn about Mrs. Ogilvy’s actions and points of view, but also about the four main characters involved in the murder case (Lewis, Patrick, Alice, and Elizabeth), as well as the maid of Patrick and Elizabeth, Clara, although none of them become narrators themselves. This scope of characters guarantees that, as a reader, you get to know the possible psychological motivations of most people involved with Harriet, one way or another. And, as happens in the case of the women described, how inaction and passive cooperation, are in many ways actions that have consequences too. Elizabeth Jenkins manages to weave such an intricate web of views and tacit understandings between several of the characters involved that is hard not to get caught up in the events and the bleak view of humanity expressed.

Interestingly, and this is the third thing that stood out upon my reading of Harriet, the character of Harriet herself, her voice, thoughts, and actions, are described almost as secondary. You learn so little about her, apart from her hopes turning to hurt in the end. Things happen to her, things are decided for her, and everything is described for, instead of by, her. And so the utter helplessness of her situation comes across very powerfully. Furthermore, Jenkins allows many of the things that occur to remain unsaid. She lets the reader gauge the cruelty of the situation from the details, that almost seem to accidentally slip through for most of the story. For example, at one point the reader finds out that Harriet is pregnant, and it is not until then that you realise that Lewis actually had intercourse with her. It might be a natural thing, in marriage, at the time, but knowing how Lewis speaks and feels about Harriet, it becomes an act of cruelty. When Harriet comes to stay with Elizabeth and Patrick for a while, you learn that she is beaten and abused by the latter. But you do not really learn about the extent of this treatment until the court case. Before, you can only infer it from passages such as this one:

In the meantime Lewis had walked over to the Woodlands to fetch Harriet and drive with her to the station. Elizabeth had taken pains to produce her looking respectfully dressed and as became a woman about to endow her husband with a large sum of money. Harriet’s boots had been cleaned and her hair carefully done, not without some distaste, by Elizabeth herself. The dark green dress she wore, after a shaking and brushing, still looked good; her jacket had been little worn since she came down, so that was more than presentable; gloves were found, and Clara brought out Harriet’s hat from behind the curtain. Elizabeth took it, and then paused, considering. It was unfortunate that there should be a bruise on Harriet’s cheek under the right eye. Elizabeth went into her room and returned with a bonnet of her own, which had a black fall attached to it.

I cannot tell you how painful it is, in many ways, to read this short passage again. Knowing what happens later, knowing what evidence is brought to light, it is  extra hard to read all the small details that hide the larger facts. But, at the same time, I am a little bit in awe of Jenkins for so precisely, so levelheaded and almost humanely, portraying the thoughts and actions of those involved in Harriet’s neglect, and also being able to evoke the sense of inhumanity in the treatment of Harriet through small details and glimpses of the larger picture.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins is a worthwhile, though never a light, read. She managed to evoke horrid circumstanced through subdued and precise prose, and furthermore paints a picture of the slipping scale of morality, and, perhaps, the loss of the broader view of circumstances, actions, and consequences, for some of those involved in a crime of the magnitude of the Penge Murder Mystery, without painting those involved in a positive light. Really, the more I think about it, the more I respect the clever manner in which this novel was set up.

If you want to learn more about Harriet, I would recommend Fleur Fisher‘s review of the book.
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