Book review – “Fear of Flying” by Erica Jong

I chose this book for the penultimate month of my 2021 reading challenge, the theme of which was an erotic novel. It is a genre that has a lot of trash, for sure, and most serious readers probably don’t delve into it that much, not for their reading pleasure anyway! But it is a legitimate literary genre and some undoubtedly heavyweight books and authors would be included on any list: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of course, probably comes to mind first, but then there are also The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Fanny Hill by John Cleland, The Story of O by Pauline Reage, and Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. Some of these I’ve read, others not.

For me ‘erotic fiction’ is more than just ‘a book with lots of sex’; from more recent times I’d say, for example that Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel (probably, since I haven’t read that either!) whereas others have fairly graphic sex in them, but it’s just part of the characters’ lives rather than being the main subject of the novel. Books I’ve reviewed here which I would put in this category include Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Beautiful World Where Are You?, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Call Me By Your Name, and Luster, to name but a few. Some of these are about sexual awakening, and there are others where sex involves a degree of abuse or exploitation. All of the above books appeared in various lists I consulted when I was considering which title to read, but I think there is nuance that is missing: many of these are good books where the sex scenes are well-written and won’t make you cringe, while in others the whole purpose of the story is an exploration of sex and sexuality, meant to in some way stimulate the reader’s own feelings on the subject – the depths and darknesses, fantasy, the timelessness of it, the human condition, the reproductive drive and animal pleasure.

So, that’s my mini-essay on what constitutes an erotic novel! The question is does Fear of Flying fall into that category? For me, no it doesn’t, though many compilers of lists of erotic fiction disagree with me (I wonder how many of them have read the books they are recommending!) What’s the book about? Well, the narrator and main character is Isadora Wing, a Jewish New Yorker, writer and daughter of a bohemian mother who had ambitions to be become an artist but ended up having children instead. This is the central tension in the novel: can a woman be an artist while also being a mother (for me this is the greater question, not the sexual freedom). Remember it was written in the early 1970s when the act of sex was still, in the minds of many, inextricably linked to reproduction rather than pleasure (at least for women), and for many more, confined to marriage. So, it was probably more erotic in its time than it feels today.

The novel opens with Isadora and her psychiatrist husband Bennett on a plane to Vienna (along with many other psychoanalysts of various types) where she will accompany him at a conference (it is no accident that the city is the birthplace of Sigmund Freud). Whilst there she meets English academic Adrian to whom she is deeply sexually attracted. Adrian has a partner and children in London but seems to have a fairly open relationship (though it becomes clear later that he is more committed to the mother of his children than Isadora originally believes). Adrian and Isadora have a passionate affair; the sex scenes are graphic, but perhaps more shocking to a 1970s reader would have been how much Isadora wants and enjoys the sex. And so the expression “the zipless fuck”, for which this book is so well-known, is coined. The problem is that Isadora also loves her husband and he has many qualities Adrian does not: he brings her calm and stability and we learn later on that Bennett came to her rescue when she was in a very difficult place, her first husband, a brilliant musician, having been committed to an asylum. Isadora leaves Bennett for a time and sets out on an adventure touring around Europe with Adrian living out a carefree life of sex and fun.

I have to admit that I found this book quite boring at times! As with many books that have a lot of sex in them, you become a bit immune to it after a while. This book did not fit my definition of exploring sex and sexuality. Rather, it struck me as a fictionalisation of the same sorts of issues raised by Nancy Friday in My Mother My Self. It seems to me to be more about feminism and about breaking free of a patriarchy which says that women are only entitled to a limited experience of sex, a view that no longer holds in developed societies. *(Largely anyway. In secular ones. With some notable exceptions.) It is also a book about the struggle of an artistic personality to reconcile her creativity with her femininity and what this means for her reproductive status. Again, an issue that I think most developed societies have moved on from (the same caveats * as above apply).

This book was more interesting and meaningful to me as a student of feminist writing than as a reader of erotic fiction although it probably does deserve its place in the erotic pantheon too. I have just started reading Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown, following a recommendation. This book explores sexual pleasure from a much broader perspective (brown identifies as a pan-sexual woman of colour) and although it is a work of non-fiction it will be interesting to explore how or if the debate has shifted. A topic I will return to!

So, as for Fear of Flying, would I recommend? Well, yes, if you’re interested in the topic, but not necessarily for “pleasure”!

If you have read this book, I would be interested in your views.

Reading Challenge – December choice

And so, the final month of the year begins and it’s time for the last book in my 2021 reading challenge. I usually choose a theme for each month, but this year I picked a very specific book for December- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I almost always select something short for December because it is such a busy month, and this novella fits the bill perfectly at less than 100 pages, which should be easily achievable. I have an almost complete collection of vintage Dickens editions, bought in secondhand bookshops in the 1980s, as I did a special study of the author for my English literature degree. Strangely, A Christmas Carol is not in my library so I will have to acquire a copy. I quite fancy one of those lovely clothbound editions, even though they are quite pricey, to match all my other Dickens hardbacks.

We all know the story but how many of us have actually read this 1843 Dickens novella?

I love Dickens and A Christmas Carol might be one of the only books of his that I have not read. Honestly, I cannot remember if I have because of course most of us will know the story and all the main characters – Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim. Published in December 1843 it was an instant best-seller. It has never been out of print and has been adapted for stage and screen many times. It was Dickens’s sixth work to be published; his well-known classics Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop had already been serialised to great acclaim. My own personal Dickens favourite, Barnaby Rudge, came out just before A Christmas Carol.

November was a very busy month for me so after my Booker Prize reading marathon, I have not actually managed to read very much this last month and have only just started my reading challenge choice (Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying). I don’t expect it to take me very long, however; it’s quite a page-turner! My day job has kept me very busy, my kitchen renovation drags on and my youngest child had an operation (a routine procedure) so life has been pretty hectic. I am expecting December to be quieter and I am looking forward to a gentle build-up to Christmas. With the Covid Omicron variant threatening to alter everyone’s plans in the coming weeks, I will most likely be hunkering down at home with the family and not doing too much in the way of partying. My Christmas shopping will be largely local and outdoors, no bad thing, as I await my booster jab.

So, I hope to be able to get back to regular posting in the coming weeks and will be sharing my usual thoughts on bookish Christmas gift ideas, so look out for those.

Happy reading!

Booker book review #3 – “Bewilderment” by Richard Powers

This is my third Booker review of this year. The winner will be announced this coming Wednesday. At this point I have completed four novels, almost finished the fifth and have yet to start my final one, although, at this point, I am pretty hopeful that I will succeed in my goal of completing and reviewing all six before the winner is announced. That will be a first and I am particularly pleased with that since my house in in chaos, due to a long-awaited kitchen refurbishment, my day job has been super-busy and there has been a lot of family stuff going on these last few weeks.

I was really looking forward to reading Bewilderment; Powers’s 2018 novel The Overstory, which was also shortlisted for the Booker that year, remains one of the most powerful books I have ever read and is particularly apt for our times as the Cop26 negotiations get underway in Glasgow today. The Overstory did not win in 2018, Anna Burns’s Milkman did. That was also a brilliant book, although for me Powers had the slight edge. I don’t envy the Booker judges!

The stunning cover of Bewilderment

The reviews of Bewilderment have not been quite as strong. It is indeed a very different book, but it bears the author’s characteristic attention to detail, and a quite breathtaking amount of research.

Theo Byrne is an astro-physicist whose life’s work is to try and uncover the secrets of the universe. His research has furthered knowledge on the stars and planets with whom we share this universe and he is pursuing the biggest question of all – is there other life out there? And yet, he struggles to understand his nine year-old son Robin. Theo’s partner Alyssa, Robin’s mother and an activist advocating for the rights of animals, is killed in a car accident and their lives are thrown into turmoil. Robin, neuro-divergent, it is intimated, struggles at school, both with the constraints of the routine and getting on with other kids. After he fractures another child’s nose when the boy repeats a disparaging remark about his dead mother, Robin is threatened with exclusion from school. Theo comes under significant pressure to medicate his son, which he refuses to do. Instead he takes the decision to home-school him, but this presents numerous other challenges, not least with managing his own work.

Before they had Robin, Theo and Alyssa were involved in some highly experimental research by an esteemed neuro-scientist and former lover of Alyssa’s, Marty Currier. He is trying to map the brain patterns associated with certain emotional responses in the hope that in the future, others might be able to learn to manage their behaviour through a treatment which would involve their brain ‘learning’ from the better response patterns of others. Theo and Alyssa agree to be early guinea pigs. When Theo approaches Marty for help with his son, Marty suggests putting Robin through the treatment where his brain will learn how to mimic his mother’s responses to events. Although she is dead, Alyssa is a powerful presence throughout the book. Theo places her on a pedestal and is constantly reaching for her as he grapples with what to do about Robin, believing she was the only one who could truly understand him and was therefore able to support him.

They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.

“Bewilderment”, by Richard Powers

Theo finds his own ways of parenting his son and the relationship the two of them develop in the absence of Alyssa, the new way of being that they must find for themselves, is delicately and beautifully handled by Powers. Theo is able to share his fascination with the universe with his son, but also learns from his attention to detail, his fascination with the minutiae of nature, that Robin has inherited from his mother. The degree of knowledge and understanding of these disciplines (astrophysics and natural history) that Powers brings to the story is astonishing, as it was in The Overstory.

Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for The Overstory. Can Bewilderment bag him the Booker?

This is a powerful story with two highly contrasting themes – the devastating human impact on the natural world, and the struggle to parent in the face of tragedy and adversity, especially in a world that seems so hostile to anything outside the norm. It has a huge canvas (the universe), but also intimate detail (a father-son relationship).

I did not find the book as gripping The Overstory, but frankly, it would be unjust to compare anything to that book, in my view. Some parts of it I struggled with, the long passages on the universe, for example, I found the least engaging. But the characters are well-drawn and I felt close to both Theo and Robin, pulled into their small world.

Highly recommended, but a tough read at times.

The river of forms is long. And among the billions of solutions it has so far unfolded, humans and cows are close cousins. It wasn’t surprising that something on the fringe of life – a strand of RNA that codes for only twelve proteins – was happy, after one small tweak, to give another host a try.

A devastating disease amongst livestock threatens to jump the species barrier in “Bewilderment”.

Booker book review #1 – “No One is Talking About This” by Patricia Lockwood

And thus begins my annual attempt to read my way through the Booker Prize shortlist before the winner is announced. Customarily, the shortlist is announced in mid-September and the winner announced at the beginning of November, giving about six weeks to read six novels. I have never yet managed all six. I think the closest I have come is about four. I am optimistic this year as I have a strategy – a mixture of audiobook, e-reader and actual book – and a plan. So far I have completed one (the shortest), am part-way through another (the longest) and I am the proud owner of a signed copy of a third. With just over four weeks to go I am, if not optimistic, then at least hopeful. I expect kitchen renovations at the end of the month to disrupt all my plans!

The first book I am ticking off the list is Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which has become one of the most talked about books of the year since it was first published in February. This is Lockwood’s first novel; she is better known as a poet and published a memoir in 2017 entitled Priestdaddy which was highly acclaimed. No One Is Talking About This has been compared variously to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I count all three of those among my all-time favourite reads so I should have loved this book.

It is a really difficult book to describe (for me, that’s where the comparison with Ulysses ends). I should also add, by way of a caveat, that I listened to this on audio and may well have been affected by the slightly manic reading of it. It is narrated in the first person by an unnamed character who has an unnamed family but who lives, we can assume, in New York City. The first half of the book is pure stream of consciousness, a portrayal of the wildness of modern life, particularly those parts conducted through ‘the portal’, which is pretty much everything. We see the ridiculousness of life lived out online, where only appearances matter, where substance and empathy and humanity appear to have vanished. Where photographing and documenting your food is more important than eating it. Where how your relationships look is more important than the relationships themselves. I think most of us can recognise this as the way we might all actually be heading if we are not careful. If indeed, we are not already there.

The second half of the book, described by the author herself as ‘autofictional’ centres around a devastating family event. The narrator’s sister becomes pregnant and the journey is duly recorded on the portal, until a scan reveals an irregularity in the baby’s head measurement. The pregnancy and the baby are no longer as photogenic or fit for the portal, but the event will have a seismic impact on the family and on our narrator in particular. She is completely unprepared for the immense love she feels for the severely disabled baby girl her sister delivers, a child whose life expectancy is limited and whose quality of life would usually be described as poor. And yet, the baby, with her rudimentary abilities, her dependency on her loved ones and her complete helplessness, draws out the humanity in those around her, that, because of the evils of the portal, they had forgotten they had.

This second half of the book is based on an event in Lockwood’s own family – her sister gave birth to a child with Proteus syndrome – and knowing there is truth in it, makes it a powerful read indeed. For me, it is not Ulysses, and Lockwood is not yet Woolf or Faulkner. I wasn’t awed or stunned by the book, but it is innovative. Her instincts as a poet serve her well. It reminded me a little of the 2018-shortlisted book Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, which I have recently finished. I have to say I found that book better, but Lockwood has a good chance of winning with this novel.

So, recommended. I’m looking forward to what the rest of the shortlist has to offer.

Book review – “Beautiful World Where Are You” by Sally Rooney

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a work trip to London. I’d bought a copy of the very newly minted Sally Rooney novel Beautiful World, Where Are You which had been published earlier that week amid great excitement (there were queues and bookshops were opened at midnight to enable the keenest readers to get their hands on a copy). Whilst in London I also happened to stumble on a ‘pop-up’ in Shoreditch selling not only the novel, but other books to which there are references in the novel, and some merchandise echoing the design of the book’s cover. This book has surely been the most anticipated of the year, and who can blame the publishers, but it has definitely become a ‘product’. As has the author I suspect. I hope she is okay.

I sort of hoped I might devour the novel on the return train trip to London, but I didn’t and in fact it took me a further week or so to finish it. Rooney’s previous novel, Normal People, was a sensation, not least because of the success of the television series, one suspects, which was brilliantly put together with brilliant performances from the two wonderful new young Irish actors playing the lead parts. It was all a moment of pure serendipity and it was a joy that something so good got the attention it deserved.

Rooney’s follow-up novel therefore was always going to be a challenge and I admire her for just getting the thing out under what must have been intense pressure. It is unmistakeably Rooney – the beautiful prose, the masterful dialogue, the introspective characters, Dublin, the palpable tensions between the characters and the things unsaid. There are four characters: Alice, a successful, famous and thus fairly wealthy author (hmm) who has recently had a nervous breakdown and whom we meet when she is renting a seaside house in the country. Felix, her lover, whom she meets on Tinder, a warehouse worker and cash-strapped under-achiever. Eileen, who lives in Dublin and is Alice’s best friend from childhood. Eileen works for a publishing company in a junior role which pays poorly. She is intellectually and emotionally unfulfilled, and bitter at the hand life has dealt her. Simon is Alice and Eileen’s friend, also from their youth, but a little older, a political researcher he lives in Dublin too. He is single, but seems to have a series of much younger girlfriends, handsome, gentle and compassionate, with a strong Catholic faith.

Much of the novel is an exchange of long and detailed communications between Alice and Eileen. They are more like letters, the kind that middle class people of previous centuries might have exchanged, full of lengthy discourse on the meaning of life, love, sex, career, fame and mental health, cleverly punctuated with much more prosaic gossipy tidbits on their love lives. These of course are emails, though, not letters. In between the letters chapters we follow the various events of the characters’ lives, primarily Eileen’s gradual descent into personal crisis and her relationship with Simon, and Alice’s recovery and unlikely relationship with Felix.

It is some way into the book before the characters collide, when Simon travels with Eileen to visit Alice at her rural retreat. The weekend is a kind of catharsis for them all. Everything must break before it can be reassembled in a meaningful way.

If you are expecting a re-run of Normal People you will get some of the same things – a good deal of sex, middle-class angst and working-class insecurity, and a grown-up exploration of Irish identity in the 21st century. But it is a very different book. There are surely some autobiographical elements. It has a lot less pace and it seems a long time before anything significant happens. This novel is a much slower burn. I liked it but I didn’t love it. I did not care as much about any of the characters as I did about Marianne and Connell. I think it is the book Sally Rooney needed to write though, good enough to follow Normal People but perhaps not quite as good, so that, one hopes, some of the hype around her dissipates and she can get on with being a brilliant author and not have to worry about being a celebrity.

I think it will always be worth reading what Sally Rooney writes, so I have no hesitation in recommending this book.

Autumn is officially here

As I write this, the sun is setting for the day and the moon (a waning one now, since it was also a full one just two days ago) will soon be visible. We are at the precise mid-point between the summer and winter solstices when the sun is positioned directly above the equator, giving equal time to darkness and light. In the northern hemisphere, our nights will now start to grow longer, while in the southern hemisphere it is the day that is lengthening as the spring turns into summer.

Not the view from my window! Rather, beautiful photography from Ingo Jakubke on Pixabay

It is an important time of the year in the literary world too; as we begin to spend more time on home-based pursuits we inevitably read more. The shortlist for the Booker Prize was announced last week and a number of literary festivals traditionally take place in the autumn – I am looking forward to the Manchester Literary Festival in October. And like it or not, some of us will be starting to think about Christmas shopping and publishers are competing to attract our attention in the hope that one of their new releases will make it into your shopping basket as the perfect gift. So, it’s a bumper time of year for new books to be published. I posted on here last week about the furore surrounding the publication of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World Where Are You? It is surely one of the most hotly anticipated books of the year.

But the noise surrounding that book has obscured somewhat the many other big publications of the season. Here are some of those that have caught my eye and which I very much hope to add to my TBR list over the coming weeks.

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Powers maintains his Booker-nominated streak with his new novel. The Overstory was shortlisted in 2018 and remains one of the best books I have read in recent years. Bewilderment is a good deal shorter but continues with similar themes of the environmental damage wrought by humanity. The main characters are a widowed father and his troubled 9 year-old son seeking connection in the face of global, national and personal tragedy. I can’t wait to read this.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Another author whose last work was one of my absolute favourites of recent years (All the Light We Cannot See, 2015). Doerr’s latest novel is a complex interweaving of five characters and three parallel storylines set in the past (the 15th century siege of Constantinople), the present (during an attack on a public library in Idaho) and the future (a community under threat). They might all be separated by centuries, but the author explores the things that connect them.

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

Lost for 75 years, this novel was not published in de Beauvoir’s lifetime as its themes were not considered appropriate. It concerns the friendship between two young girls and how it unravels as they grow up. It is based on a friendship de Beauvoir herself had. The novel’s discovery has caused a frenzy and you can read an extract from The Guardian here.

The Magician by Colm Toibin

I am always wishing I’d read more Toibin, but I never seem to manage it and have only read Brooklyn (after I’d seen the film!). So, I’m determined to read this one as its subject is the great German author Thomas Mann, a favourite from my German A level days.

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

I watched a discussion between Burkeman and Guardian journalist Zoe Williams a couple of weeks ago about this book. I have enjoyed Burkeman’s columns in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine for some years and like his take on life. This is not a traditional book about producitivity, apparently, despite what the title might suggest, it sounds more like an ‘anti-producitivity’ book, encouraging the reader to focus on what is really meaningful in life.

Pax, Journey Home by Sara Pennypacker

I make it my business to read plenty of children’s literature. It helps me reconnect with the sheer joy of reading that I felt as a child. I loved Pax, Pennypacker’s first novel, and this is a follow-up. I am keen to find out what happened to the young fox and his human companion Peter.

And yet more…

There are a number of other books out which readers might like to note: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman is the second in his Thursday Murder Club series, and looks to be an equally big success. Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is out – will it continue her run of best sellers, following Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers? I expect so! And in a similar vein, Paula Hawkins’s A Slow Fire Burning looks set to bring the author more success. I probably would not pick up this kind of novel, but I loved The Girl on the Train so I might give it a go. Michaela Coel is everywhere at the moment, deservedly so after the phenomenal success of her television series I May Destroy You. She is an incredible role model and continues to campaign on the issues the series raised. She has now written Misfits: A pesonal manifesto which promises to be a powerful read. Finally, Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, the follow-up to her 2019 success The Silence of the Girls. I found that book difficult to get into, but it was critically acclaimed and shortlisted for The Women’s Prize.

So, plenty to get my teeth into there. Not sure how many of these I’ll actually manage, given that my present TBR pile is toppling, but I am ever the optimist!

What are you reading this autumn? Do enjoy this beautiful time of the year, before the winter kicks in.

I got a copy! (The publication of Sally Rooney’s new novel)

Last week, the books and publishing industry got itself into the biggest lather that I have seen since before the pandemic. In fact, the last time I can remember such excitement was almost exactly two years ago when Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), was published. I did not, like some, form an orderly queue outside a participating bookshop to buy my copy on the stroke of midnight Tuesday, 7 September. I managed to hang on until Thursday before succumbing!

Have you got your copy of the biggest book of the year yet?

I was working in London at the weekend and decided it would be a good opportunity to read the book on the train. I imagined that I would devour it in a couple of sittings. I didn’t and am still only about halfway through. You may be wondering if that tells you something about how I feel about the book, but you will have to wait until I have finished it before getting my full and considered opinion.

Reception of the book so far has been positive, but with acknowledgement of the difficulties of producing work that reaches the same dizzying heights as her first two books: Anthony Cummins in The Guardian senses the difficulties the author has had writing this novel in “the glare of expectation”. John Williams in the New York Times, hates the book’s title, but mostly loves what is inside the covers, especially the author’s partly-ironic exploration of what must certainly be the autobiographical elements. He finds parts of the novel clichéd, but acknowledges the impossible situation this young (Rooney is still only 30) author is in and admires what she has achieved. The Independent gave it three stars out of five.

Sally Rooney has cited Natalia Ginzburg’s Little Virtues as an influence on her work

By chance I heard that there would be a special ‘pop-up’ event in east London, close to where I was going to be working, so I took the opportunity to go along on Saturday afternoon. A huge mural replicating the book’s cover had been painted on the outside of the venue, so it was impossible to miss. That was the highlight really; inside was a sparse,rather bleak windowless room, up some shabby stairs, with the books laid out on a couple of cloth-covered tables. The impromptu bookshop, was a joint venture between Waterstones and Faber, Rooney’s publisher. The super-enthusiastic young staff was selling copies of the novel, plus some books that Rooney had selected based on her influences for the work. I was also told I would get a free canvas bag and some ‘merch’ (badges and bookmarks) if I bought the book there and then. I said this was unlucky as I had already purchased it two days before. This did not generate the desired response; I was not offered a freebie in acknowledgement of my support. Even more disappointingly, I purchased two of “Rooney’s recommendations”, but only the main act entitled me to some ‘merch’. Shame. I would have liked a bookmark.

So, I got a bit caught up in the hype. I went along to the ‘pop-up event’ hoping some sort of magic might rub off on me. Unlike some other customers I saw, all looking like the millennials who are the main subject of the novel, I did not do a selfie with the shop mural in the background. I came away feeling slightly suckered. And hoping that this had been the publisher’s and not the author’s doing, that she had no control over how the book was marketed.

Indeed. The ‘pop-up’ event in Shoreditch, London, last weekend

I hope for her sake, Sally Rooney’s third novel is more ‘moderately’ successful than Normal People, and that she can then get on with what she does best, writing books. Does Beautiful World, Where Are You live up to the hype? I’ll let you know next week!

Literary sightseeing #2 – James Joyce’s Dublin

I have just returned from a couple of weeks holiday in Dublin where we were visiting my in-laws whom we had not seen since Christmas 2019. We spent most of our time with family, naturally, but with two whole weeks to fill (and not wanting to go any further afield on this trip) it was a good opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing in the city. Remarkably, in all the years that I have been visiting Dublin, this is something I have rarely done. I decided to start re-reading Ulysses a few months ago. I had not got very far into my mission so I used the downtime to read, listen and study the book. I took my Ulysses companion with me and at a secondhand book stall in Dun Laoghaire market I picked up a copy of The Ulysses Guide: Tours through Joyce’s Dublin by Robert Nicholson (first published in 1988) which offers several tour options corresponding to the different chapters in the book, in the order that Leopold Bloom takes them.

James Joyce was actually born less than a mile from where my in-laws live in Rathgar, a south Dublin suburb. Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, a red-brick Victorian terraced house in a quiet residential area. The house is very typical of the area, but fairly unremarkable.

The building with which Joyce is most associated, however, and the venue for the first part of Ulysses (Telemachus) is the martello tower at Sandycove. This is now home to the James Joyce Tower and Museum. I visited it many years ago on a trip I once made to Dublin in the ’90s. I would have loved to have gone again this time, but unfortunately, at the time of writing, it has not yet reopened following the pandemic.

Sandymount strand, another site in Ulysses is lovely, really typical Dublin by the sea, with a view of Howth on the opposite side of Dublin Bay, a haven for walkers and dog owners and now also a protected area due to some rare grasses having taken root there. You can reach both the museum and the Strand from the city centre by taking the Dart train at Connolly station (to Sydney Parade for Sandymount Strand, then a 10 minute walk, and Sandycove for the Museum, followed by a 15 minute walk). On the left hand side you can also see Ringsend pier, another site in Ulysses.

Sandymount Strand – a panorama

Chapter six of the book, also known as Hades, covers Paddy Dignam’s funeral procession (an associate of Bloom’s and many of the other characters appearing throughout the book) from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery. The cortege passes through and along many of the city’s most well-known locations – O’Connell Street, the bridges over the Liffey, the Dodder and Grand and Royal Canals (these four waterways represent the four rivers on Odysseus’s journey to the underworld). They also pass through Ringsend and Pigeonhouse Road (Poolbeg Road), where a family member of mine actually now owns a house.

Glasnevin Cemetery, where the funeral cortege ends up, is a Dublin ‘must-see’. It is one of the most important historic sites in the country. Covering 124 acres, it is the final resting place of approximately 1.5 million people. Its inhabitants include Michael Collins, Daniel O’Connell, Eamon de Valera, Charles Stewart Parnell, Maud Gonne, Brendan Behan and Christy Brown. Tours of the cemetery are usually possible and are expected to resume shortly. The cemetery is also adjacent to the National Botanical Gardens, nothing to do with Joyce, but a beautiful place that should be high on the list of any Dublin visitor.

The Round Tower, which stands over the grave of Daniel O’Connell, at Glasnevin Cemetery, as seen from the Botanical Gardens

That’s as far as I got this holiday, both in my reading and my sightseeing. James Joyce devotees in Dublin run a programme of events every year on 16 June, the day depicted in Ulysses. These include talks, tours, readings and dressing-up! It is on my bucket list to participate sometime, but always falls in term time for me so has not been possible yet…but soon! For more detail on all of the above as well as many of the other wonderful things you can do in the beautiful city of Dublin see www.visitdublin.com

Audiobook review – “Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann

I reached a reading milestone recently – I finished Ducks, Newburyport. This humungous novel, which clocks in at a whopping 1030 pages (paperback) is easily the longest book I have ever read. I listened to it on audio, brilliantly read by Stephanie Ellyne, and it lasted over 45 hours, easily the length of six or seven “normal” books. I started it around Christmas time I think, so it has taken me months. I would probably have got through it more quickly in ‘normal’ times as I would have listened to it while driving, but I have hardly driven at all this last year. Mostly I listened to it while cleaning the house, which seemed very appropriate.

The un-named central character and narrator is a middle-aged American woman living in Newcomerstown, Ohio. She is a mother of four, cancer survivor, former college lecturer, and self-employed baker, who makes pies for a number of local cafes and restaurants which she delivers each day. The novel is a written in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, almost entirely in the present, and many of the sentences begin with the phrase “the fact that…” as she tells us about the various aspects of her life, her family, her husband, her dead parents, their parents, baking, her past career, her cancer and American society. The ‘action’, such as it is, takes place over a short period of time, but, let’s be clear, very little happens in this novel.

A big image for a very big book!

It has been criticised for its length; indeed, I read that Lucy Ellmann’s usual publisher, Bloomsbury, declined to publish it for this reason, so instead she went with a small independent, Galley Beggar Press, which is based in Norwich.

The themes of the novel are emptiness and loneliness in modern American life, the dilemmas of being a woman, motherhood, loss. Our narrator commentates scathingly on Trump, on guns, and on the violence in society. She bemoans the decline of childhood, how young people have been lost to technology, social media and advertising and the inequalities not just in American society, but across the world. Yet at the same time, she is a woman who wants the best for her children and therefore perpetuates those inequalities. The essential dilemma. She laments climate change and the loss of the natural world while also contributing to it with her own lifestyle. (As do almost all of us). Yet another modern dilemma. She loves her children, but has a somewhat estranged relationship with her eldest daughter, Stacey, who has a different father to her three siblings.

Mostly, the narrator is grieving; there are frequent pained references to “Mommy”. Her mother died some years earlier after a long illness and the narrator cannot let go of her feeling that she should have done more for her mother, and, mostly, that she misses her terribly. The loss continues to blight her life, and she feels deeply the lack of nurturing she has in her own life. She seems to have a good and loving relationship with her husband, bridge engineer Leo, but it cannot make up for the loss of mother.

There is a parallel story going on in the narrative; a female mountain lion roams Ohio, creating fear throughout the state and leading to a frenzy of trackers and gun-owners who try to hunt her down. She is simply looking for food for her cubs and the reduced wild territory available to her means she trespasses on human occupied land. Our narrator is aware of the lion and fears for her children’s safety, while also virtue-signalling and taking positions on habitat destruction for wildlife. The cubs are captured and taken to the zoo, but the mountain lion continues to search, ceaselessly. Her drive to mother is all-encompassing.

This novel is profound and if you can stick with it, it will reward you handsomely. There is so much complexity, it is so multi-layered. The length also means we bond quite closely with the narrator, in a way that I don’t think would have happened if it had been shorter.

I recommend this book highly, while recognising that few will have the time and opportunity to embrace it. Take a year, six months at least. Get the audio – it is read brilliantly and you can at least do the vacuuming/ironing/cooking as you do so!

Book review: “Luster” by Raven Leilani

Luster has been causing a bit of a literary storm since it was published in the US late last year. It has won numerous prizes, was a bookshop favourite and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in the UK this year. It’s subject is similar to a couple of books I have already read this last year (Queenie and Such a Fun Age), but it does take a more unconventional journey through the experience of a woman of colour in a mainly white middle-class world. What lifts it above the other two books mentioned above, is the quality of the writing; this is most definitely in the ‘literary’ category and Leilani is a phenomenally talented writer.

Set in New York, twenty-something Edie is working as a publishing assistant, a job she finds boring. She has a very modest lifestyle, just about surviving on her salary, and her life seems without interest or stimulation. There are frequent references to her past, her family background, and, in particular, her mother who died relatively young in unhappy circumstances. Edie is still somewhat grief-stricken, something she expresses through her interest in art.

Fine praise indeed, from none other than Zadie Smith

Edie meets Eric, a forty-something archivist from New Jersey, and they begin a relationship. Eric tells Edie he and his wife have an “open relationship”, but it is clearly not something he is used to. When we meet his wife later on, it becomes apparent that she has, at best, mixed feelings about the arrangement, and it appears more like a compromise to him than something she is wanting to engage in too. Much to Edie’s frustration it takes some weeks before the relationship with Eric becomes sexual, but when it does, the sex is fairly graphic. This is certainly one of the features of the book that critics have commented upon!

One of the boundaries that Eric’s wife Rebecca had set, was that he should not bring his lover to their home. Eric breaks this fairly quickly and this piques Edie’s interest. Eventually, and inevitably, Edie ends up meeting Rebecca, and finds that Eric has a thirteen year-old daughter, who is adopted and black. Rebecca is a pathologist whose job is to carry out autopsies. She too finds she has an interest in Edie, rather like a scab she cannot help but pick. The two women seem drawn together in a mutual kind of hostile fascination. When Edie loses her job (and therefore her income and her home), Rebecca tells Edie that she can move in with them temporarily (while Eric is away at a conference and therefore blissfully unaware!).

The novel changes tack at this point as it becomes about the emotional dance between the two women and the effect this has on Edie. Unemployed and unable to find sustainable employment, she takes up her art in earnest. Edie also latches onto Akila, the daughter, who is at first resentful of Edie, but then grows warmer towards her when she realises what they have in common. Eric is mortified when he returns home and finds Edie has moved in. His sexual interest in her declines rapidly and he nearly becomes irrelevant at this point.

This is not a ‘plot’ novel, though I won’t say any more about what happens. It is a novel about psychological tension and about the growth of a young woman into someone able to express herself through art and not just through her sexual relationship to a white male, and this says something significant about the black female experience.

Recommended.

%d bloggers like this: