Book review – “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark

150120Last week I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge and promised I would post this week, my thoughts on the final book of 2019 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. The theme for December was a novella – I wanted something short as I know it is a busy time of year and I never get as much reading done as I think I’m going to! In some ways, though, this does not do full justice to what is a highly complex, multi-layered and thematically dense piece of work. You simply have to read every word on its 127 pages and read them at the measured pace of how you imagine Miss Brodie might speak.

Dame Muriel Spark is considered one of the finest writers in English and one of Scotland’s finest writers. She won many glittering international literary awards in her life, and was made a Dame in 1993. She was married briefly, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, during which time she gave birth to a son, from whom she later became bitterly estranged. In the 1960s she lived in New York and in Rome, where she met her long-term female partner. The couple settled in Italy, where Dame Muriel died in 2006 at the age of 88. Quite a life!

Muriel Spark
Dame Muriel Spark

I think the author’s background makes this novella all the more interesting because it is such an ‘Edinburgh’ book – I say this as a non-Scot, so please forgive me if you disagree! – or at least, an Edinburgh of a certain time (pre-war). Spark left Scotland quite early in her adult life and her father was a Lithuanian Jew. Perhaps this makes her acute observation of Miss Brodie and her other characters even more profound.

 

You will probably know the basic plot of the book; the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith is widely considered a classic. There was also a television series made in the late ‘70s starring Geraldine McEwan, which I vaguely recall having seen, though I was very young at the time – I definitely would not have ‘got’ it; although the book is set in a girls’ school, Malory Towers it most definitely is not! Miss Brodie initially cuts a dominant and impressive figure – determined to influence a selected group of pre-pubescent girls about the broader aspects of life which she feels the school curriculum neglects, such as genuine appreciation of art, social and cultural awareness and matters of the heart (or, more accurately, matters of sex). The strictures of the girls’ school, with its emphasis on knowledge, facts required to pass the exam for the secondary level, and the protestant ethos are seen by Miss Brodie (so she tells us) as narrow and not a true preparation for life. She tells the girls:

“I have no doubt Miss Mackay [the headmistress] wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word “education” comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning and the stem trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning.”

maggie smith
Dame Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie in the 1969 film

At first, we may see these girls as lucky to have such a dynamic, interesting and strong female personality in their young lives who, for example, is prepared to take them to the theatre off her own bat. What we gradually learn, however, is that the girls are merely Miss Brodie’s ‘project’, that it is not altruism and genuine care that drive her, rather it is her ego. She manipulates the girls, in some cases to their tragic detriment, and they become a vicarious extension of her own ambitions and disappointments, particularly in the matter of sex. Here, she acts as little more than a ‘pimp’, though I am aware this may be a 21st century reading of what may have been regarded at the time as less shocking (a sexual relationship between one of the girls and the married one-armed art master with whom Miss Brodie is herself in love).

In the end we can only see Miss Brodie as disappointed, disappointing, manipulative and manipulated, a deceiver and ultimately deluded. She becomes increasingly troublesome morally, as she expresses her admiration for Mussolini and fascism, and the various fates of the girls she once sought to educate are laid out before us.

This is such a clever book which I would encourage anyone to read. And read again once you’ve got to the ending!

Recommended.

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Happy New Reading Challenge!

The Christmas period never really ends for me until twelfth night – I’m a bit attached to this concept and I’m not sure why. From a Christian perspective I believe it is when the Magi are said to have arrived in Bethlehem, but personally, I feel more in tune with pre-Christian rituals, to do with celebrations of the solstice and the importance of honouring the human instinct for quiet and a slower pace at this time of year, so I am very protective of the ‘downtime’ that follows the hectic Christmas preparations. For me it means time for reflection and, since I am fortunate to have a family, time together to relax and have fun.

So, I make no apology for launching my 2020 Reading Challenge one week into the new year, and here it is!

2020 reading challenge

This is my fourth reading challenge and it has been hard to come up with new genres, so if my themes this year seem rather random, it’s because I was having to think outside the usual boxes.

Gone Girl img

I’m starting the year, the new decade, with a look back at the 2010s and have chosen what was one of the biggest selling books of the decade, and which became an international phenomenon – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It was also critically acclaimed, although being at the more ‘popular’ end of the market, it wasn’t nominated for the usual high-profile literary awards. Published in 2014, I’m afraid I never read it; I confess I got it mixed up with Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train so for years I thought I had in fact read it! I’ve decided to do this one on an audiobook as it’s quite long and I have some car journeys coming up this month.

 

 

The book that closed off the 2019 Reading Challenge (a novella), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, was very short so I don’t feel too guilty about setting a long one for this month. Look out for my review of that book in the coming days.

I hope you will join me at some point on the Reading Challenge this year – why not start this month and pick up a copy of Gone Girl. I am sure there will be plenty of copies knocking around in charity shops – it sold 20 million after all! If you’d like to join us, why not hop over to the Facebook Reading Challenge Group now.

Enjoy your reading year – there are some exciting titles due to be published this year. More of that in another blog!

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Facebook reading challenge – catching up and November’s book

Recent events in my life, which I have posted about here, have played havoc with my reading – if I haven’t been driving up, down and across the country I’ve been dealing with my mother’s funeral and handling all the necessary administration (it has been enormously time-consuming even though my mother had a fairly straightforward situation. It has made me realise I need to get my own affairs well and truly in order!)

I’ve listened to a couple of audiobooks (historical thriller The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as I wanted to refresh my memory before reading her Booker Prize-winning follow-up The Testaments), but sit-down reading has suffered. As some of you will know, I have been running a Facebook Reading Challenge for a couple of years now, choosing a book with a different theme each month. September’s theme was a memoir and I selected Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals inspired by my summer holiday in Jersey and visit to the Durrell Zoo there. October’s theme was a science fiction novel, a genre I have only dabbled in, and I selected Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I have only just finished both books (the Le Guin at 11pm last night!) but enjoyed both. My thoughts on My Family and Other Animals follow and look out for my review of Le Guin soon.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgSo now it is time top get back on track and announce the book for November. Our theme is a children’s book; we are winding down towards the end of the year, but I am not going to make it too easy, because this book is a challenging one – John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped PyjamasI have been meaning to read this ever since it was published to great acclaim in 2006. My elder daughter read it recently and has been nagging me to follow suit. She found it very moving so I am looking forward to it.

Why not join the conversation by hopping over to the Facebook group.

 

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Durrell zoo
The secondhand bookshop at the Durrell Zoo, Jersey

Our visit to the Durrell Conservation Trust (better known as Jersey Zoo) this summer was  wonderful and inspiring. 2019 is also the 60th anniversary of the founding of the zoo so it was a fortuitous time to be there. I have always been ambivalent about zoos (although reading The Life of Pi altered my perspective somewhat) but there aren’t actually that many animals at the Durrell Zoo (considering its size) and mostly the focus there is on protecting vulnerable species, and involvement in breeding programmes, particularly for some lesser-known and perhaps less glamorous creatures, such as the endangered Livingstone’s fruit bat and the Sumatran orangutan. I was fully won-over when I discovered that the Zoo has an on-site secondhand bookshop! All contributions to the Trust.

So, when the memoir theme came up for September in the reading challenge My Family and Other Animals seemed an obvious choice. It is one of those books that I was sure I had read, but once I got into it, I realised I probably hadn’t, but it seemed to be part of my consciousness. I did watch, and enjoy, the television series The Durrells when it came out a couple of years ago. The TV series followed the book very closely – perhaps that is because it is hard to improve on. It’s not particularly challenging and tells the story of how young Gerald and his family (widowed mother, and three older siblings) move from England to Corfu at the behest of Gerald’s eldest brother, by then in his twenties, the writer Lawrence Durrell. This is the first volume of Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy, and tells of how young Gerald’s love of nature was inspired and nurtured on the Greek island. The book is an entertaining mix of family mishaps (the characters are all brilliantly drawn and leap off the page), a child’s-eye observation about life and culture on the island, plus accounts of the friends the family makes, the animals in the menagerie that Gerald creates and the various adventures they all have, which invariably end in slapstick catastrophe.

There were times when I felt the book was of its time and of its ‘class’ and I was uncomfortable with the slightly patronising portrayal of some of the locals, who were overly caricatured for a 21st century taste. But I can excuse the book these minor faults because it was light, it was entertaining and it lifted my slightly gloomy spirits.

So, recommended, especially as we find the nights drawing in and the temperatures dropping.

Would you like to join us this month for the Facebook Reading Challenge?

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Time for a September re-boot

It’s been a busy summer holiday in my household; we’ve been doing a lot of travelling, both individually and together, visiting family and friends, as well as taking our own family holiday in Jersey (more of that in a moment), and getting my eldest prepared to start his new life as a university student later this month. The weather has taken a distinctly autumnal turn this week here in north west England, and with the children back at school it’s a definite reminder of the change of season.

Booker Prize

With all the “excitement” in the British Parliament this week it was nearly possible to miss the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist and goodness what a list! As well as the serious literary heavyweights (arguably celebrities) Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, you have a literally heavyweight book! – Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport must surely be one of the longest shortlisted books ever at over 1,000 pages. With other entries from Bernardine Evaristo, Nigeria’s Chigozie Obioma and Turkey’s Elif Shafak it is one of the most exciting shortlists I have seen in years.

 

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As usual I will set out to read all the books on the shortlist, and will post about that in due course, but I don’t think I have any hope of getting all six read by 14 October, when the winner will be announced.

Beautiful Jersey

We booked our family holiday very late this year and ended up taking a last minute trip to Jersey in the Channel Islands. It is a location that has never before crossed my radar – we just needed an easy, low-key week together that did not involve too much preparation or travel hassle (it’s less than an hour’s flight from the UK. You can also go by boat but this would have been much longer for us.) We had a truly wonderful time. It’s not a particularly diverse place, but it’s extremely friendly and welcoming. The beaches are beautiful and the rural interior is charming. It’s small so very easy to get around – we cycled or walked everywhere (slightly offsetting our guilt about flying) or made use of the extensive and great value bus network. The weather was sunny and warm, without being too hot (for us pale rain-soaked Brits!) And, historically, it’s a fascinating place. It was the only part of the British Isles to be occupied during World War Two and the story of the Occupation is told in fascinating detail at the Jersey War Tunnels Museum – brilliantly done. You can see that the events of over 70 years ago have left an indelible mark on the islanders’ consciousness.

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Beautiful beaches and clifftop walks in the north of Jersey

We came back from Jersey relaxed and happy and grateful for the time we had together as a family. It’s a destination I recommend highly.

Facebook reading challenge

I’m thoroughly enjoying my Facebook Reading Challenge this year and getting some lovely comments from fellow participants – so glad you are enjoying the books. I think we’ve only had one dud so far this year? Whilst in Jersey we visited the island’s famous zoo, formally known as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Founded by author and naturalist Gerald Durrell 60 years ago in 1959 it is a wonderful, open green space with a relatively small but fascinating collection of creatures, that campaigns for a wilder, healthier, more colourful world”.

Our visit inspired my choice for September’s reading challenge, the theme being a memoir – I have of course chosen Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. I read this book many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the television series The Durrells, so I’m looking forward to reading it again. The first incarnation of this blog was in fact called My family and other books in honour of the man himself and his work (I changed the name as it felt a bit unwieldy after a while). So, if you would like to join us for this month’s challenge and read along, hop over to the Facebook group and leave your comments.

I’ll back on book reviewing duty in the coming weeks. It’s great to be back!

What have you been up to this summer?

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Care to join us for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month?

A few days ago I published a review of Fear of Falling by Cath Staincliffe, which was the July choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The book seemed to go down quite well and I enjoyed it too. The theme for August is ‘a beach read’, reflecting the fact that many people will be going on holiday this month (if, like me, you are confined to school holidays). But even if you are a holiday free agent and choose June or September to go away (I know I would!), August is often languid month when the pace of things tends to slow and you can take the opportunity to rest mind and body. The ‘beach read’ theme reflects this too as I wanted something that will be pure pleasure and not too demanding of our normally over-taxed brains.

The Lido imgI have chosen a book which caught my eye a couple of months ago – The Lido by Libby Page. It concerns a friendship between two women, 86 year-old widow Rosemary and 26 year-old Kate, who strike up a bond when their local outdoor swimming pool in Brixton, south London, is threatened with closure. The two women have different reasons for wanting to campaign to keep the lido open, but they are brought together in a common cause.

The book has received pretty universal praise, so far as I can tell, is a Sunday Times bestseller and looks like being one of the hits of the summer. I’m looking forward to this one as I’ll be doing some family visiting and some holidaying myself over the next few weeks, and after some books which have been either quite tough reads on the reading challenge this one feels like a reward for hard work!

I hope you will join us on the challenge this month. Hop over to the Facebook page if you’d like to join the group.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Does your reading taste change in the summer or at holiday time?

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Facebook Reading Challenge July – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

The start of the month is rolling around with alarming regularity! It does not seem four weeks since I was setting June’s title (Tayari Jones’s “An American Marriage”) – which I still haven’t finished by the way. I’ve had a very busy few months and this has seriously curtailed my reading time. I try to read for an hour every day, which means I get through one and a bit books a week, and I find this is by far the best way for me to relax and re-energise. It also gets me out of ‘doing’ mode and into ‘creative thinking’ mode – a must for the writing side of my life. The focus of recent weeks, however, has been very much about ‘doing’ and early summer is usually a time when I know I’m not going to have much writing time. This blog has suffered too….

Fear of Falling imgHowever, the full diary will be emptying out a little as this month progresses, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to restore my daily reading hour. My selection for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month will also help. The theme is contemporary crime fiction and I’ve chosen the latest book by north-west (England) crime writer Cath Staincliffe, Fear of Fallling, which was published last year. I met Cath at a writer’s conference a couple of years ago and she was such a lovely, warm, down to earth person that she really inspired me to think that I too might be able to pursue a writing life. Crime is not usually my genre of choice, but I read a couple of her books, including The Girl in the Green Dress, which I reviewed on this blog, and was gripped. Cath tackles major contemporary issues fearlessly and her writing style draws you subtly into the world she creates.

Fear of Falling is about the friendship between two women Lydia and Bel who have known each other for many years. As mothers, both face challenges – Bel has a difficult relationship with her daughter Freya, while Lydia and her partner adopt after she is unable to conceive. Lydia’s daughter Chloe’s actions as a teenager place immense pressures on the relationship between the two friends.

I’m really looking forward to getting into this; recent titles I have set on the Reading Challenge have been hard-going. I’m not expecting this to be ‘light’ but I’m hoping for a page-turner to get lost in and get me back on my reading track!

 

I would love for you to join us on the reading challenge. The book is available on Kindle if you can’t get hold of a copy.

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Facebook reading challenge – join us in June

Despite the awful British weather, it is actually June at the moment, halfway through it in fact, so it must be time for a new book on my Facebook Reading Challenge. Earlier in the week, I published a review of the May title – Lord of the Flies by William Golding, one of the great literary classics of the 20th century. So many people have studied this book at school, at a time, perhaps, when English literature was not the thing they were most into, that it can often elicit groans of anguish! In fact, coming to it again after so many years (and as a mother!), I saw new things in this book. That’s the great thing about a reading challenge; you pick up books that you might otherwise have turned away from.

This month’s theme is something from the Women’s Prize shortlist. At the time of setting the challenge I obviously did not know what was going to be on the shortlist. The title I selected is a book I have had my eye on for some time. In fact, I recommended it over a year ago in a post Hot new books for springAn Amercian Marriage by Tayari Jones has since been announced as the winner of the prize, as of 5 June, so I’m delighted to be reading it this month.

2019-06-14 10.49.53The book is about a young newly-married couple, Celestial and Roy, and is set in the American Deep South. Their lives appear full of potential until Roy is accused of a crime he did not commit. He is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. The book concerns the effect of the separation on their marriage, how Celestial copes alone and what this means for their shared dreams.

The chair of judges of the women’s prize described the book as one that “shines a light on today’s America” and it has won praise from the likes of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, as well as achieving wide acclaim in the review columns. The whole shortlist was extremely impressive and I could have chosen any of the books on; the fact that it beat Anna Burns’s Man Booker winner Milkman, which I loved, tells you something about the high calibre.

So, if you fancy a good read and getting involved in the discussion, do join us, it’s not too late. 

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