The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Anne-Marie has provided the forward for this week’s Blog. She writes:

Sylvia Plath’s classic novel, The Bell Jar was written in Primrose Hill in north London after her husband, poet Ted Hughes, left her. Published in England under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, to mostly tepid reviews (“girlish” “amateur”- the New Yorker), in January 1963, a month before Plath took her life on Feb 11. The novel is a young woman’s coming of age, with ambitions that reject the confining ideals of the 1950s housewife, and struggles with crippling mental illness, which afflicted Plath and others in her family. Plath didn’t live to enjoy her colossal literary stature. Her book was cancelled by her American publisher, Harper & Row (“disappointing, juvenile, overwrought”), and rejected by many others.

In 1971, it was finally published in America. Its reputation gradually grew, far beyond the still-disdainful reviews of male critics. The BBC has listed it as one of 100 Most Inspiring Novels. Hughes was forever shadowed by Plath’s suicide. He was a serial philanderer, and he left Plath for a woman who bore him a child, then killed herself in 1969. Plath told her therapist Hughes beat her, and some suspected that her accounts of abuse was his motivation for destroying her final diary. In the words of a 1979 Bell Jar film poster: “Sometimes just being a woman is an act of courage.”

Please do take a look at Anne-Marie’s Instagram page #hampsteadbookclub

So what did bookclub think?

This book is clearly divided into two parts. The first part of the book deals with Esther’s life in 1950’s New York, the second part deals with Esther’s decent into madness and her time in a psychiatric hospital.  

Most of the bookclub preferred the first part of the book before the protagonist Esther fell into a deep depression. In fact, Rebecca said that she found the second part of the book so depressing she could not finish the book and preferred to read work documents rather than the book.

The first part of the book contains some funny and light moments, Madeleine particularly liked the lunch scene and the relationship with Buddy. Jan too enjoyed the first part she found the depiction of 1950’s New York fascinating. She kept wanting more of the first part. Stephanie loved all the descriptions of the outfits she said it was like ‘Emily in Paris’ and was full of nostalgic charm. Millie said it reminded her of the Netflix series The Marvelous Mrs Maisel; it was full of romanticism of New York more than the reality of how it probably was.  

Most of us agreed even if it was depressing the second part of the book was exceptionally well written. Jan felt that Plath gave a wonderful description of what it was like to be depressed. She felt that this was enriched my Plath’s own experiences with depression. We all agreed that the trigger for Esther descending into depression was not getting on the writer’s course, but as Jan said it might have come out some other time.

There was some discussion on electric shock therapy and it was noted that it is still used today and can be very helpful with depression but nowadays people are given proper anaesthetics.

Anne-Marie commented on how hard it was for female writers to publish in the 1950’s and how harsh the critics were. Rebeca asked if the book was such a classic why did it get such bad criticism?  Anne-Marie said that sexism played a huge role in the 1950’s. Lots of female authors were ignored. She mentioned the writer Ann Petry who wrote ‘The Street’, the book sold over one million copies but it was ignored completely. For an idea of how women were treated Anne-Marie suggested watching the movie The Wife with Glenn Close

There was some discussion about Ted Hughes and how much he contributed to Plath’s depression. It was generally agreed that he was probably an awful person, but Jan loved his birthday letters. There was also some discussion of how grim it was to live in a post war Britain with having to put coins into the meters to keep the heaters going. It was in this climate, in a small rented flat in London with two young children and a husband that had just left her for another woman that Plath wrote The Bell Jar.

There was no doubt that Ted Hughes was an attractive man and as Stephanie pointed out it was important to Plath in her book that men were attractive. Anne-Marie said it was interesting to Americans Ted Hughes is simply Plath’s husband; it is only in the UK that he has a big stature.

Many felt that The Bell Jar was an iconic book and was part of the history of feminism. They could remember reading it as they grew up. Madeleine wished that Plath had been born twenty to thirty years later so she could have benefited from the women’s rights movement. Millie was in her late teens when all her friends went through a Sylvia Plath period. She avoided the book for many years but finally read it. She loved the first part but found the second part hard to follow as she felt it was jumbled, but that was probably because Esthers thoughts were jumbled as she descended into madness.

Rebeca asked why it was called ‘The Bell Jar’. Madeleine said it was because The Bell Jar was something claustrophobic coming down on her but she could see through it.

If you are finding the book depressing, persevere it all works out in the end. It’s a pity the same can’t be said for Sylvia Plath’s life.

If you are interested in finding out more about the life of Sylvia Plath I would strongly recommend the movie Sylvia staring Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow it is available on Amazon Prime.

Movie Recommendations in relation to the book:

Sylvia – available for purchase on Amazon Video

The Wife – available for purchase on Amazon Video.

Future books:

  • 15 March – Do No Harm by Henry Marsh
  • 29 March – Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield
  • 12 April – The White Tiger by Avarind Adiga
  • 3 May – Never Split the Difference by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz

Other movie recommendations:

Lupin on Netflix.

Les Miserables on Netflix – a modern take on the classic.

I Care a Lot – available for purchase on Amazon Video.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

American Wife is a fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush. Like many fictionalised accounts of real people, it can sometimes be hard to decipher the truth from the fiction. It tells the story of Alice (Laura Bush) and Charlie (George W Bush) from Alice’s early ears growing up in Wisconsin (Texas) to Charlie’s years in the white house as president.

Many people are put off reading this book because of their dislike of the foreign policy of George W, particularly the war in Iraq, however the part of the book dealing with the presidential years is only in the last 100 pages and this is a 600 page book. Don’t let your dislike of George W put you off this book. Sittenfeld is a wonderful writer, her characters are well drawn and the book is a fascinating read of a very interesting and conflicted character. Laura is a moderate and very sensible. I immediately liked her when I heard that she wore flat shoes to the inauguration of Biden– knowing that she would be on her feet all day. I thought to myself what a sensible woman – here is someone who puts practicality above fashion. The book just made me like her even more.

Because the book was so long book club discussed it in two meetings over a month. The first meeting dealt with part one and two and two weeks later we met to discuss parts three and four.

So, what did book club think?

Parts One and Two.

Like many of the book club attendees Anne-Marie was put off reading the book because of the fact it was about the Bush family. She also mentioned the Bush’s connection to the Walker family who were notorious slave traders and segregationists in St Louis. However, after reading the book, like other members of book club, she was pleasantly surprised. She was glad that we had picked this book and said that Curtis Sittenfeld was a particularly good writer. She also said that she had read Rodham also by Sittenfeld which she also enjoyed.

Rebeca said that the first two sections of the book focused on Alice’s relationships and friends. It was an engaging read. She did feel however that it was all about ‘finding a husband’ and did little for the liberation of women. Madeleine said she identified with Alice as they were about the same age and had gotten married about the same time. Alice’s liberal outlook appealed to Madeleine and she thought the Andrew and Pete Imhoff relationships were very well described.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Michelle also loved the first half of the book. She had read the book some time ago and when she finished it she went on to read Rodham. She liked the way that Sittenfeld had re-imagined the past. It didn’t really bother her that a lot of the book was not factually true although it was true that Laura Bush did have a car accident resulting in her boyfriend’s death when she was seventeen (Andrew in the book). She said she became much more interested in fact checking in the second half of the book. Michelle had also read Eligible, Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice.

Rebeca said it was interesting to see how times had changed and that no one talked to Alice about Andrew’s death, nowadays there would be lots of therapy to discuss feelings. Madeleine said that abortion would also be less common in those days.

Both Rebeca and Madeleine commented that they loved the grandmother. Madeleine admired her for saying what she thought, particularly about Charlie’s family. She had integrity. Michelle thought that the grandmother was the type of character that Alice aspired to. She wanted to be as brash and open as her and almost revered her.

Jan felt it was a wonderful story although she too initially was put off by the fact it was about Laura Bush. She loved listening to the first two parts of the book and loved how Alice’s feelings about the prom and her family and grandmother were described. She also loved the depiction of Charlie’s Halcyon house were all the clan met with all the bedrooms and one toilet. Madeleine agreed and said the story about her pulling the toilet chain four times was very funny. Jan could remember the story of a New York millionaire who took his girlfriend to a summer house in the Adirondack’s which was a bit like Halcyon but only worse with intermittent electricity and how she had seen a boat and asked for help.

Madeleine thought that Ms Ruby was a nice vignette, and it was interesting how when Alice took her to the theatre Priscilla became enraged. Anne-Marie said that the Bush’s had a good relationship with the butlers at the White House and when the book on White House butlers came out, the favourite president was George W.

We discussed why no one had sued Curtis Sittenfeld for taking any liberties with the truth. Anne=Marie said that as public figures it is difficult to sue, you have to show malice. Libel laws are set up to favour the artist. Michelle said it must be interesting to be a public figure who was alive and written about in this way. She said Rodham would be the book that would be more likely to the subject of a libel case.

Michele loved the way that Alice’s friendship with other wives was portrayed. She also felt it was interesting how Alice forgave Charlie’s short comings. Madeleine wondered whether she was right to leave him because of his drinking and wondered if she would have done the same thing. Anne-Marie said it was more of an Americian thing to leave, the advice was not to put up with it or enable it. Madeleine agreed saying it had the right effect in the long term. Michelle said there were other issues than just merely drinking, he had a DUI and he had taken the babysitter out. There was some discussion on how things like that were covered up, for example the incident with Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne.

Madeleine felt that Alice got off lightly over the Andrew Imhoff affair. Michelle said that it had really happened but that the abortion was probably fiction. Michelle mentioned that Laura had written her own autobiography in 2010. Anne-Marie said that Curtis Sittenfeld made it clear that the book was fictionalised. Michelle said it was similar to the Crown. It was obvious that a lot of it was fiction but it was easy for people to become confused about what is fiction and what is not.

Michelle said that Curtis Sittenfeld wrote this in 2008 and that no one liked the Bush’s at the time, but over time people had forgotten how much they hated them and the critical acclaim for the book was growing.

Part Three and Four

Most people including Madeleine preferred the first two parts of the book to the second two parts. I think this was in part because they didn’t like Bush’s presidency. Rebeca, however felt that the second part was quite good and pointed out that the book didn’t mention the presidency until the last 100 pages.

Madeleine hated how Alice compromises her principles so much in her marriage. Rebeca again saw it differently and said that Alice had tried to make things right with Dina and Pete and with Edgar Franklin. She thought the fact that she had gone to try and make amends with Dina and Pete showed she was a well-rounded character.

As Madeleine pointed out Alice had a lot to put up with, but she was disappointed she didn’t stand up to him more, even if she didn’t vote for him as president. Stephanie said it reminded her of how Hillary stood by Bill even though he was a philanderer. Stephanie loved the book and said she couldn’t say anything against it.

There was some discussion about the Halcyon home. Many felt it was a sign of the privileged life that the family lived, but Diana pointed out it was much more common to have second homes in America and you didn’t have to be rich to have one. Stephanie said even if that was the case that this particular summer home oozed an upper class feel despite only having one loo. Madeleine said it was like second homes of the British aristocracy that didn’t have heating.

Anne-Marie felt that she had trouble sustaining her interest in the book because the book was about the Bush’s but she did find the writing of a high standard.

There was some discussion about what was truth and what was fiction. Stephanie didn’t think Laura Bush had an abortion in real life and pointed out she actually had two daughters. She was a librarian but was from Texas. It was also true about George W’s alcoholism and finding religion.  He was also the part owner of a baseball team.

Rebeca gave this book four out of five and said she couldn’t put it down when she started it and was often reading it past midnight. Stephanie agreed that Sittenfeld was a very good writer and Madeleine wondered what she was currently working on. Stephanie recommend her short stories and said her book Prep was also very good.

Michelle felt that Sittenfeld wrote about women and female friendships particularly well. In this book her struggles with Dina were particularly well written. Michelle felt that Sittenfeld made you contemplate your own situation and your own marriage and ask if you are culpable for the sins of your spouse even if you’re not first lady. Should a spouse have culpability for policy issues even if she wasn’t elected and should she have any role?  She questioned whether Alice (Laura) really had any say in the picking of the vice president.

Stephanie felt that Sittenfeld skirted away from political issues. But she did feel that Alice (Laura) must have felt conflicted if she was a progressive. Rebeca said she knew what she was getting into from the outset.  Stephanie said she probably thought she could take a back seat but was drawn in. Jo who hadn’t read the book asked if it was the case in America that the First Lady had to be involved. Michelle said that they were not supposed to have a role in policy. Hillary however was very involved. Stephanie felt that it didn’t seem as if Alice was after fame or notoriety or was overly ambitious. Rebeca agreed and said she didn’t seem like a gold digger. She was a small town librarian. Anne-Marie agreed but said in Texas success was measured by your ability to marry an Alpha male and that Bush was from an important dynastic family. Michelle said he married him despite those things. She also said it was interesting that she married him when she was in her thirties.

I would recommend this book whether or not you like George W. It is a superbly written, interesting, fictionalised account of a fascinating woman.

Interview with the author

Future Books

1st March The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath

15th March –Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Movies to See

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on you tube.

The Autobiography of Ms Jane Pitman – you tube

Ted Lasso on Apple TV – an Americian football coach moves to the UK to manage a soccer team

Children of Men staring Clive Owen and Michael Cane a science fiction thriller – to purchase on prime movies

The Dig– The story of the Sutton Hoo find on Netflix

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Man Booker Prize Winner 2019

This  a story about women, lots of black women. They are all connected in some way be it daughters, work colleges, friends or family. At times it does become difficult keeping track of who is who such is the number of characters and the number of links between them. But it is astonishingly well written with well drawn characters and it is a page turner.

It is inter-generational and provides a good social commentary on the treatment of black people  and women in the UK through out history up to the present day. But I think it makes the point that the black experience is not homogeneous.

It is not a dry book and is modern in its style of prose.  Men feature only tangentgently in this book, only in terms of their connection to the women, it is a book just as much about gender as it is about colour.  

I loved this book and would thoroughly recommend it. What did book club think of it?

Initially the writing style put Anne-Marie off, as it did with a lot of book club members. The lack of punctuation and prose style reminded her a bit of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ initially, but she started re-reading it and now loves it. She felt the characters were great and felt she really got to know them. Madeleine is also re-reading the book and felt that all the characters were so different. She loved the book not only because of the fun language in it but because she felt Evaristo was a very good writer. She really loved Anna and her connection with the National Theatre. She felt that the rape of Carol was particularly well done, you could really feal the trauma. The impact was incredible.

Caroline felt that the lack of punctuation reminded her a bit of ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns which we read at an earlier bookclub. Yulia felt that you quickly got used to the writing style. What was interesting Yulia said is how she made it possible for us to feel experiences very different from our own.

Michelle listened to the book on Audio. Like Anne-Marie she didn’t immediately warm to the book but soon loved it.

Madeleine felt that although there were twelve characters a lot of detail was given to each one and the book was engaging. Yulia felt that the writer was good at portraying different generations. Madeleine said she heard an interview with Evaristo where she said she felt she ‘got’ the younger voice because of her experience as a teacher.

Jan felt that she could read the book again. She too became engaged with the book after the Dominque story. Jan felt that there were too many characters you needed a map to see the connections between them. Michelle said this was easier to do if you read the book rather than listened to it as it was easier to take notes. Jan felt that each story was very well told and that her favourite character was Shirley.

Stephanie was one person who didn’t like the book. She felt that there were too many characters and that the book attempted to tick too many boxes. It was full of stereotypes and did not have rounded characters. She felt that some of the characters were cartoonish and played into our prejudices. We didn’t learn enough about the characters and it wasn’t nuanced enough. However, she felt to do justice to so many characters the book would have to be of Dickensian length. Stephanie admitted she wasn’t a social scientist but she flet that Evaristo made characters more extreme than necessary. She asked if anyone was not defined by their colour or gender? And said that there is a life to be lived outside of race.

Jan loved the different pictures painted of different people. She said it was a montage with some characters more vivid than others.

Shelia felt that the book did a good job of showing different ways to live as a woman and a person of colour but also felt that there were too many characters and themes. Shelia said more isn’t always better. She felt because of the lack of punctuation and stream of consciousness writing, it was better listening to it on audible rather than reading it. Shelia didn’t like the way that Shirley was portrayed. She said as someone with teaching experience herself, it was wrong to think teachers were only in it for the thanks they got. Teaching came from somewhere deeper. It was like throwing wildflower seeds out and you just hoped some would grow. She would be happy for Carole’s success.

Yulia felt that you got to know parts of London well like Peckham. Anne-Marie also felt that it gave her insight into parts of London that she did not know about. Anne-Marie said she had low expectations of the book and it had exceeded them.

Lisa liked the book, although she too warmed to it slowly. She initially thought it would be formulaic but was pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t. She loved the characters blind spots. She did however feel that the end ‘surprise’ was not necessary, it was a loop that did not need to be closed. It made the story less complex and more like an Agatha Christie. She also felt that it was superficial to make the racist turn into a non-racist by giving her black heritage.

Michelle liked that that there were such different stories and all were unique. Anne-Marie said it was like quick brush strokes that left you wanting to know more. Yulia felt that she was saying here is the character you deal with it, but sometimes it left her wanting to know more. She particularly liked the character of Bumi and felt a whole book could be written about her.

Anne-Marie said it is interesting that this was a Man Booker winner as it shows how the Man Booker Prize is trending towards more experimental novels.

Next books

1st February American Wife part one by Curtis Sittenfeld

15th February American Wife part two

1st March The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

15th March Frist Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Television recommendations

Virgin River – on the strength of recommendations made on here before I started watching this and I was hooked every episode leaves you on a cliff hanger, perfect binge watching material. Available on NetFlix

Staged – brilliant lock down conversations over zoom between Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Great comedy series. Available on BBC Iplayer

Videos to make you smile and think

Book Club Bash

The blog is a little different this week. Instead of discussing a particular book we had a fantastic book club bash last night where we all talked about our best and worst books. I thought I would post a  the list in case you are looking for books to read or avoid in Lockdown.

Books to read or avoid in Lockdown

Madeleine really liked The Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel – it is the third in the Wolf Hall series. She couldn’t get into the first one and started on this one and loved it. She also loved Silver Sparrow which was written by Tayari Jones the same author who wrote the suburb American Marriage which we have read in book club. The one she hated was Leaving of Atocha Station which seemed to be a common thread amongst attendees.

Anne-Marie loved The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett which tells the tale of two sisters separated – one who can is passed off as white and one who is brought up Afro American. She also loved Dancing in the Mosque – An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son by Homeira Qaderi written by a refugee after fleeing Afghanistan. She also thought that Leaving of Atocha Station was the worst book she had read this year.

Marilyn said the best books she had read this year were The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – where a girl is stuck in purgatory and can choose books with different life paths and the Switch by Beth O’Leary about two people from different generations who change places. Very sensibly Marilyn said that she didn’t finish books she didn’t like so she didn’t have any worst books she had read.

Jane’s favourite was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. This is one we have read in book club and everyone loved it. She also loved another book club read – The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri. Other books that she suggested included Let the Great World Spin by Colum  McCann and Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. The worst read was Little Fires Everywhere but as most said the TV series was much better than the book.

Rebeca’s best read of the year was Overstory by Richard Powers which was a book club read, she described it as ‘a piece of US history’. Like Jane she also loved Where the Crawdads Sing. Her worst was Gayle’s Secret by Michelle Harris.

Caroline as always had a wealth of books to recommend. They included, The Imortalists by Chloe Benjamin. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Unsheltered by Barbara Kingslover, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (mentioned in Overstory supra) and that great 80’s classic Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. Her worst and I am sensing I was the only one who liked it was Leaving Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.

Yulia like many loved Maya Angelou’s I know why the Caged Bird Sings. She also recommended two of Elif Shafak’s books 10 minutes and 38 seconds and 40 Rules of Love. Her worst was Leaving Atocha Station (supra) and Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.

Jo’s favourite was Three Women by Lisa Taddeo which just shows the diversity in the group. It can be someone’s worst and someone’s favourite. She also loved Normal People by Sally Rooney which I hated. I thought the lead character needed to be shaken into action. Books she hated included Leaving Atocha Station (supra), Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Broadesser- Akner which we all mumbled agreement to,  Queenie by Candice Carty Williams and finally the Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Jo doesn’t like parting with her books but all of those are to go out to the charity shop.

Stuti like me loved  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. She also Loved our recent read Manual for a Decent Life by Kavita A Jindal. Another one she loved which we read a long long time ago in book club was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her worst book was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I loved Shantaram but it is a very thick book, it is about shanty towns in India.

Lisa’s favourite was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. For discussion purposes her favourites were Three Women (supra) and Flieshman is in Trouble (supra). Her least favourite was American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins which Lisa described as ‘trauma porn’. She also could not get into Jane Fallon’s Queen Bee which is set in Hampstead. She would love book club to read more Anne Pachett and also Fates and Furies by Lauren Croff.

Millie’s favourites were American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and The Beekeeper of Aleppo (supra).  She would also recommend the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini which we all agreed we wanted on next years book list.

My three favourites where From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan, Atonement by Ian McKwan, and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings (supra). My least favourite were Overstory (supra) and Fleishman is in Trouble (supra).

Recommendations of TV shows

Recommended TV shows to watch included The Restaurant, Ethos, Trapped and Virgin River and Borgen, I think these are all on Netflix.

Clothing recommendations

Millie also recommended the Uniglo fleece lined leggings if you are getting cold on your walks.

Pilates Recommendation  

If you have stacked on the kilos over Christmas my friend Olivia is offering very reasonable online Pilates classes see https://fitwoman.co.uk/. She was bridesmaid at my wedding, is godmother to my children and is the nicest person you will ever meet. I think her classes are only about £8 a class for an hour. She is a fully qualified instructor.

Dumplings

The Ugly Dumpling can deliver frozen dumplings around Hampstead and London, they can be frozen for up to 6 months.  There are great flavours including desert ones.  The menu can be found here: https://uglydumpling.co.uk/hideout-app/app-uploads/2020/08/frozen-dumplings-menu-Aug-2020.pdf  

Gin and Whiskey

For great gins and Whiskeys with free delivery in North London or to organise a virtual tasting contact Mike from Artisan Drinks on info@artisandrinks.co.uk

Find Humour in the horror

A Manual for a Decent Life by Kavita A Jindal

Bookclub were very lucky to be joined by the author Kavita A Jindal to discuss her book Manual for a Decent Life.

I loved the book. It tells the story of Waheeda and her relationship with Monish. Waheeda is an Islamic woman from the providence of Uttar Pradesh, India who is separated from her husband and lives with her daughter Hira. Originally a university lecturer she becomes involved in politics when her stepfather who heads a political party, puts her name forward after her two brothers are killed in a bombing. In the meantime, she falls in love with a Hindu Monish. 

The book is highly topical given the recent Jihad love laws that have been passed by the nationalistic Hindu government in Uttar Pradesh which prevent marriages from being arranged to convert Hindu women into Muslims (see articles at the end of this review).

Kavita A Jindal

The book makes one think about gender issues, religion and politics and what it truly means to live a free life. Waheeda has all the trappings of freedom, it looks as if she is truly independent, standing for parliament and forging a career, but she is not, her life is very circumscribed and she is in fact trapped.

The characters in the book are beautifully drawn and the pace is fast and it keeps you turning the pages, especially towards the end of the book where the pace picks up leading to a shocking and unexpected climax.

Kavita was asked what inspired her to write the book. She said that as a young adult she had campaigned in villages for a woman candidate in Uttar Pradesh and left India shortly afterwards. After she left India she continued to follow the trajectory of women who entered politics. She found that if a woman ran for a seat it was usually dynastic. She wanted to meld political issues with romance. Although the book is set in the 1990’s she doesn’t see it as a historical novel, but it is before the digital era. Her book has been called historical fiction or a political thriller, but it is not really either. It is the story of a woman which encompasses wider issues.

I asked her about the new Love Jihad laws, she was unaware they had actually been passed but said that the novel ends before the rise of Hindu nationalism and the religious agenda became as dominant as it currently is. The tensions between Muslim and Hindu is something that has become worse in the last decade.

Madeleine felt that the story was well told and was moving. She thought the relationship between Monish and Waheeda was particularly well described, but she was jolted by the last 40 pages.  Kavita said that many people had told her to have an uplifting ending but the reality was that many women candidates get punished and can’t escape unscathed.

Rebeca also found it a fabulous book but was also surprised by the ending. She found the frequent use of Indian phrases a bit difficult to grapple with whilst reading. Madeleine agreed and said the book needed a glossary. Kavita said that she had asked her publishers to include a glossary, but was dissuaded from doing so. The reason why so many phrases were included were because she wanted the book to be authentic to her Indian readership. She said that when she did use an Indian phrase she tried to explain it in the following sentence.

Stuti said that that she appreciated that her exposure to Indian culture gave her extra depth when reading the book. She did wonder how the use of Hindu language came across to people who did not speak it. She did feel, as Kavita said, that it was adequately explained in the following sentences.

Rebeca was surprised with the book as she thought India was very traditional. Kavita said she wanted to show the difference between those who lived in the town and those who lived in the country and how having resources changed things for you. But she said even in Delhi, even among the wealthy, the ending would not be shocking. Things like that are an everyday occurrence in India and the book was realistic in that sense.

Kavita said that the book was available in India and the reaction was good. An anthropology and politics student from SOAS had stated that she wished there was more politics in the book and that the book had not concentrated on the elites. But Kavita said the point of the book is that politics for women in India is largely dynastic. You couldn’t really enter politics as a poor woman, the women who do enter have their families behind them pushing them forward.

Jan asked Kavita if she would release the book on audio – Kavita said it was a big project to do but it would be lovely if it happened.

Jo asked if she would ever translate her book to Hindi. Kavita said she wouldn’t do it herself as she hadn’t really used Hindi for the last 15 years. She said that the book is very expensive in India and many cannot afford it. It is currently only really available to the elites in India but she is keen to find out what the wider community would think of the book when it is available in a more-affordable Indian edition.

Rebeca asked if someone like Monish and Waheeda would ever have a future. Kavita said that Monish had tried to arrange one for them but it would have required Waheeda to remove herself from her ambitions-  she had to be willing to follow his lead – it spoke to the gender inequality. She reiterated that there was no reason you could not have a happy marriage if you had the resources.

Jan asked what her next novel was Kavita said she has published a set of short stories set in London.

Madeleine asked Kavita how long Manual for a Decent Life had taken Kavita to write. Kavita said it had taken seven years. This surprised Madeleine who said the book flowed so well.  Madeleine also asked Kavita about her publisher Brighthorse. Kavita said it was a small indie publisher in the US, but her UK publisher was Linen Press a feminist publisher.

Madeleine loved the book so much she is giving it to her daughters as a Christmas present this year.

Rebeca said that the first 100 pages were difficult particularly with the establishment of characters but as soon as she had read the first 100 pages she got really into the book and couldn’t put it down. She felt it was harder because with so many characters she couldn’t tell immediately if they were male or female.

Stuti asked about the title – she felt it was something she would be told by older Indian ladies. Kavita said she chose the title at the final edit. She liked the title because it raised the question of ‘what is decent?’ It had different meanings for different people. It was up to the reader to fathom. The issue is raised in the novel when Monish’s father says that Kiriti is not decent. Kavita wanted people to think about who was decent and who has the right to say someone is decent.

Anne-Marie said that she was relieved that at the end of the book Waheeda’s husband accepted that things were not Waheeda’s fault. She felt it redeemed him and she was heartened by how both men in Waheeda’s life helped her in the end.

Kavita said the book had twists and turns but at the end of the day had redeeming qualities. She said one young person who had read the book was annoyed that all the men around Waheeda were telling her what to do. This is easy to say from London. In small villages in India this is the reality. Kavita would like the role of women in society to be different but she writes social realism.

Anne-Marie asked about the writer’s groups that Kavita belonged to.

Kavita said that she belonged to three writers’ groups the first one was the Collier Street writer’s group, she also belonged to a South Asian writers group called The Whole Kalani and there was a fiction group that meet in Bloomsbury.

Post script – After the meeting Kavita sent me a lovely email saying she had looked it up and a Love Jihad Law had been passed in Uttar Pradesh but it is not a national law although the Indian population seem to be heading that way. She still maintained that if a couple had enough resources they could still have a relationship or marriage as they could be influential enough that politicians or police would not touch them. It seems to be that the law is used to deter inter faith marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men, only Muslim men would get charged with a crime and it does nothing to stop Christian or Buddhist men from marrying Hindus.

I will leave you with the last words in her email  ‘it does make my book very topical, but my views are probably out of favour at the moment. But that is exactly what writers are there for – to not let the authorities do the thinking for them’.

I would like to be in a world were two people who loved each other like Monish and Waheeda could be together. Thank goodness we have writers like Kavita who see the possibilities of inter faith relationships. Thank you Kavita for writing such a moving and beautiful love story and for taking the time to come to talk to us about it.

Articles on the Love Jihad Law:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/12/12/first-woman-detained-indias-controversial-love-jihad-laws-forced/

https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/758024-first-woman-detained-under-india-s-controversial-love-jihad-laws

Future books

18 January Girl. Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

1st and 15th February American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield

To make you smile

F

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

The language in this book is beautiful, as is the writing style. Whilst some have stated that it is short on plot, (and it is true, the narrative meanders rather than races along), the prose is stunning.

It tells the story of Adam a young American who is in Spain on a foundation scholarship to write poetry. He is full of all the neurosis and insecurities of youth compounded by an incomplete grasp of the language. My daughter who has Asperger’s often says to me that for her it is like everyone is speaking a different language, she has the dictionary, but she has to decipher everything everyone says to understand what they mean. Socially she is adrift. I got the feeling that in addition to being young naive and insecure Adam had a little bit of what my daughter Charlotte has. That he too was somewhere on that spectrum. Gifted, a genius, but unable for the life of him to work out what to do in social situations and resorting to various drugs to help him deal with the anxiety they provoke. Not I hasten to add that my daughter does drugs.

Ben Lerner

The book deals with various relationships he has and his experiences in Spain from walking through galleries to seeing the aftermath of an Al Qaeda bombing at Atocha Station. If I try to describe the plot to you it is going to be a very short paragraph. Books however can be more than just plots. This one stands out above other novels I have read because of the beauty of the writing and the sensitivity with which Adam is portrayed. A poet, a thinker, who constantly reflects on his life and his surroundings, who searches for meaning. His exaggerations and little lies only serve to endear me to him. He is awkward just like any teen, just like my daughter, and I love him all the more for it.

So what did Bookclub think of it ?

To be honest they weren’t enamoured of it. Universally reviled is probably a better description. Short on plot, unlikable protagonist and sesquipedalian (that is a long word for use of long words and being long winded).

Madeleine found it difficult to read and said he used the most ridiculous words. It was obviously meant to be funny, but it just wasn’t. The only reasonable bit was when he was describing his trips. The self-analysis and self-reflection was boring.

Caroline said the book made her fall asleep.

Jan listened to it on audio book and found it melodic to be read to, but said it was just sad the way he lied to so many people. It left her wondering how the mother had messed him up so much.

Anne-Marie liked the character. His learning of the language resonated with her. She had a similar experience of learning the language when she was learning Spanish. She would just guess at meanings and just get the gist of things. She felt his description of being young was good and he captured the insecurities of youth quite well but agreed there was not enough plot.

Shelia said she could only read it in small doses. She listened to some of it on audio book but had to listen to it at 1.4 times the speed as it was too slow for her. She felt it read like a poem. It did make her a bit nostalgic for her time in Spain when she was a student. She can remember how they too did not have phones. She felt it captured the American student in Spain well. She also felt that it captured the mood of the Spanish well. Adam was so pretentious and he was always worried what others would think. Shelia pointed out that the Spanish are simply not hung up about things, it wouldn’t occur to them to make an issue of things. Rebeca agreed and also  felt that the Southern Europeans were generally more spontaneous. Diana pointed out that it was much easier to be spontaneous when you didn’t have to worry about the weather.

Rebeca felt the protagonist Adam certainly wasn’t a high achiever. Anne-Marie said he wasn’t motivated and obviously had a mood disorder.

Jo recommended the book as it was one of her sister’s favourites. She hadn’t read it at the time. She wanted to apologise as she hated it and found it excruciating. She felt that there was a clumsy insertion of prose and felt like Madeleine that there was an over-use of obscure words and phrases and that he perversely put words in that no one understood.

Everyone agreed the second half of the book was better. Diana felt that this contained some very funny observations.

As far as Adam’s character was concerned, Shelia probably spoke for most of the group when she said he was such a horrible guy you couldn’t like him and you just didn’t want to laugh at him. She said in the first part of the book she would read five pages, give up and do laundry.

Its safe to say despite my personal thoughts on this book, it was not loved or even remotely liked by book club.

A review of the book

Next books

We have changed the schedule of books. Due to the length of American Wife we will now be discussing it over two book groups in January / February.  I will be having a break next week and there will be no bookclub. There will also be a break from bookclub on the 28 December so people can spend time with their families.

The new schedule therefore is as follows:

14 December-  Meet the author event Manual for a Decent Life by Kavita A Jindal.

 

11 January- Girl, Women, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

25 January and 8 February – American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Virtual Events

Join this digital discussion with this year’s winner of the Booker Prize with Bernardine Evaristo Tickets are £5 see

https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/literature-poetry/2020-booker-prize-winner-conversation?

Purchase tickets to Tim Minchin’s Apart Together on the 19 November, you have until the 21 November to watch the live stream

https://www.universe.com/events/tim-minchin-apart-together-the-album-live-australia-tickets-9KNGZY

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

I read this book about a year ago when it first came out. It was so heavily hyped. I walked into a Waterstones and the sales lady positively jumped out at me and said, ‘This is a book you have to read. It’s amazing.’ I read it, staggered through it. I didn’t really love it. I couldn’t see what the fuss was about and I promptly forgot it.

I started reading it again for book club but honestly, I couldn’t get through it a second time. I felt like a voyeur of Lina and Stone’s life and I felt like I was abusing Maggie all over again by pouring over the nuance of her life.

Let me back track a bit here perhaps I should tell you what Three Women is all about. Firstly, its non -fiction. Secondly it is about the sex lives of three women. Maggie is a student who has been raped by her teacher. That’s what it is, you can fluff around it with adjectives all you like. She was underage and he raped her. You can’t consent as a minor. He’s on trial for it and we go through the entire court case and the train wreck of her life with her. Lina is also raped by three men and then forms a loveless union with her husband Ed before having a torrid affair with her high school lover Aiden. Slone has threesomes with, and in front of, her partner Richard.

All of them are damaged people. Taddeo apparently started interviewing a number of people until they dropped out and she was left with three. I can’t help feeling this book is exploitative rather than celebrating sex and desire in women. With Maggie she didn’t even change her name. Taddeo seemed to feel that somehow screaming out about the crime internationally in print would make it less hurtful, that somehow it would be redemptive. I don’t buy it. I know you can’t be silent on sexual assault and I agree with the ‘me too’ movement in principle. But Maggie was a child who Lisa Taddeo exploited to sell books. It sickens me how we are pulled into the most private areas of these very damaged women’s lives in the name of entertainment or enlightenment. I don’t find it liberating, I find it profoundly sad.

Not only do I have problems with the premise of this book, I have a problem with the writing style. Its crass and its poor. Her similes are something a 4th grader would come up with. ‘The wine felt like a cold sneeze’,  she ‘mated for life like a penguin’, his ‘tongue was like a wet water slide’,  are a few that spring to mind.

So, I am sitting here, its midweek, I still have a week to read it before book club. I know I could get it finished. I have a hard copy I bought in Waterstones and an audible version to listen to while I walk. I’m thinking it’s not just that I can’t be bothered, it’s that I don’t want to be sullied by it. I don’t want to be part of the three ringed circus that pervades this book. I don’t want to ogle at Slone, gawp at Lina or relive Maggie’s trauma with her. I’m not a prude. I like sex as much as the next person. But this is not a story I’m wasting any more of my time on. I just don’t want to pry.

So, what did book club think?

This book really divided book club, some loved it, some hated it and some sat on the fence.

Diana said it was good to have a novel where we could hear other woman’s stories. Anne-Marie felt since the 1970’s there was a move to talk more about female sexuality and not cover it up. Yulia felt that although it was now fashionable to talk about female sexuality this author victimised her characters, she didn’t empower them, her writing was just to sell books.

Rebecca felt that the book said a lot about mother daughter relationships and how they affected a women’s sexuality. Debra also thought that the book said that women look for the love in relationships that they didn’t get from their parents. She also said that it was Maggie’s vulnerability that drew the teachers to her, that predators often look for the vulnerable.

Anne-Marie felt that the book said a lot about dissonance and misogyny and how those things project on sexuality. Michelle felt it also revealed a lot about how women treat other women. Diana agreed and felt that the book was an attempt to make women be more empathetic.

Debra read one character at a time, starting with Maggie, Madeleine and Diana both though this was an excellent idea.

Lisa said that over writing did make you doubt the veracity of the story. She didn’t feel that the book was exploitative but felt that it gave a voice to those who didn’t have a voice. Maggie probably needed a voice. Lina had no empathy from the women she was speaking to. Taddeo, Lisa felt, was making the invisible visible. Lisa did wonder what three men would look like. She felt it would be one page linked to a Linkedin profile. She did agree however that the book had a journalistic feel and was not great writing.  

Michelle felt that we were meant to compare the stories of the women, to see what each was missing.

Yulia said that not enough was made of the rape of Lina – it would have had a profound effect on her, and it was not dealt with sufficiently. It made it unrealistic. Some people felt that Taddeo was telling the story as the protagonists told it and maybe Lina herself was dismissive of the rape as she was trying to supress it. As Lisa said it was the narrative of the victim. Maybe Lina was trying to say the rape didn’t define me – Aiden was my true love.

I talked about my objections to the similes used which I mentioned above. Some in book club felt that maybe these were the similes used by the women and reported on and not created by the author. I must admit that is an interesting thought.

Many at book club liked the psychological exploration of the women, some found it sad and empty. The best discussions we have in book club is where the room is divided, some love it and some hate it – this was no exception. I hated the book but loved the discussion.

Interview with the author:

Reviews of the book:

Next books

Monday 16 November ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ by Ben Lerner.



Monday  30 November ‘American Wife’ by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Exciting authors event

I am very happy to announce that we will be having a ‘meet the author’ event with Kavita A Jindal an author of Manual for a Decent Life on the 14 December. It is a well reviewed novel about politics and gender in India. Michelle Roberts in her review on Amazon writes ‘a gripping story featuring family dynasties, violent death, conflicts between love and ambition, sex and betrayal and an original take on the absurdities of societal conventions in small towns and big cities’.

Movies to watch in lock down

My Octopus Teacher recommended by Anne-Marie. This movie is on Netflix, it tells the story of a friendship between a film maker and an octopus living in South Africa.

Bombshell  on Netflix  recommended by Anne-Marie.  The story of three women who were sexual harassment victims of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, staring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.

Unforgotten on Netflix recommended by Claudine – a great series – kept me up to three in the morning. Focuses on historic murders and the search for justice. Fiction and incredibly well acted – won a couple of Baftas.

Other recommendations:

Jo recommends the How to Academy – this costs £17.50 a month plus VAT and gives you access to a number of talks from a number of famous people such as Pulitzer prize winners artists and thinkers who share their incites and ideas in live streams and live events. There is also a video library of past talks.

Recommendations of exercises online

My good friend Oliva Johnson does fantastic online pilates classes on zoom. They run every morning and Monday and Wednesday evenings and are only about £6 a class. She is a fantastic teacher and the classes are great fun. She is also doing on line personal training and I have lost 10 kilos in about 7 weeks and am feeling much fitter. Thoughly recommend her details can be found here https://fitwoman.co.uk/

Recommendations of home delivery

Chop Chop

If you are having problems getting deliveries in lockdown, I thoroughly recommend the Sainsburys app Chop Chop you can get up to 20 items within an hour. Available from the app store.

Dim Sum

I strongly recommend deliveries from the Ugly Dumpling their menu can be found here https://uglydumpling.co.uk/hideout-app/app-uploads/2020/08/frozen-dumplings-menu-Aug-2020.pdf  they are easy to cook and last for quite a while. Phone  07539 614694

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Pulitzer Prize winner 2017

I thought it was appropriate that in Black History Month we discuss this book. This book is a Pulitzer Prize winner and tells the story of Cora, a runaway slave from Georgia as she flees from the brutality of a Georgia plantation in a desperate bid for freedom. Along the way she uses an underground railroad system. This system is a figment of the author’s imagination. Although there were people who helped slaves flee, there was no actual subterranean system of railroads, but it provided a useful literary device for Colson Whitehead. The network of people who helped slaves flee was always referred to as ‘The Underground Railroad’. Whitehead just took it a step further and asked what would it look like if it was an actual rail network? How would it work?

It does intrigue me that the last author we discussed, Jeanine Cummins, encountered so much hostility for writing ‘American Dirt’ because she was not a Mexican and was white and privileged. Whitehead’s only connection with slavery is the colour of his skin. He lives in Manhattan, went to private school, had a summer house in the Hamptons growing up and attended Harvard. He is certainly part of the privileged elite. I don’t know, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps just the colour of his skin qualifies him to write about the horror of slavery. Or perhaps as I said with Cummins, the colour of a person’s skin is not as important as the message they impart, or the stories they tell, or how they tell them.

The story does sometimes jump between timelines and places and it is not always linear, but I found it honest and candid in it is depiction of the brutality of slavery. It is gritty realism. As Whitehead said, ‘He wanted to make a psychologically credible plantation and that means thinking about people who have been traumatised, brutalised and dehumanised their whole lives. Its not going to be the pop culture plantation where there’s one Uncle Tom and everyone is just really helpful to each other. Everyone is going to be fighting for the one extra bite of food in the morning. Fighting for the small piece of property.’ (Interview with Colson Whitehead by Emma Brockes The Guardian 7 July 2017).

To be credible he trawled through oral history archives, in particular the 2,300 first person accounts of slavery collected by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930’s.  However, as Alex Preston writes in his review in The Guardian, ‘This is a book that wears its research lightly, but the suitably antique prose and detailed descriptions combine to create a world that is entirely convincing’ (The Guardian Alex Preston The Underground Railroad  9 October 2016).

The book is tense and suspenseful. Whitehead was asked whether he was ‘squeamish about deploying the customary tricks of the novelist when the subject matter is so traumatic.’ He replied ‘I was aware of the conventions of a suspenseful book and of withholding information, red herrings and distracting the reader. And I think the plot like humour, or what kind of narrator you have is just a tool you use for the right story at the right time. ‘(Interview with Colson Whitehead Emma Brockes supra).

Here again I have problems with the double standards. How Whiteheads book won a Pulitzer Prize despite its fictionalisation of elements of slavery for the purpose of narrative development and Cummins’ book ‘American Dirt’ was lambastestised for doing just that. As stated in the New York Times review ‘We begin to notice as readers slight departures from historical fact, places where The Underground Railroad becomes something much more interesting than just a historical novel. It doesn’t merely tell us about what happened, it also tells us what might have happened. Whitehead’s imagination unconstrained by stubborn facts takes the novel to new places in the narrative of slavery’.  (Is Colson Whitehead’s latest, The Underground Railroad more than a metaphor. Juan Gabriel Vasquez The New York Times 5 August 2016).

As much as I would love to, I don’t think I would recommend this book, not just because of my problems with American Dirt. I think there are better books about slavery. The writing to me just doesn’t make the grade.

So what did book club think?

Interestingly I wasn’t alone in my dislike of the book. Only Anne-Marie and Jennie liked it. Jan, Caroline and Madeleine hated it, with Caroline and Madeleine going so far as to say they struggled to read it.

Madeleine said it was not the  subject matter that bothered her, but it was like doing a complicated crossword. It wasn’t linear and new characters who you knew nothing about kept emerging. It was like the author was trying to trick you. She would go back and read parts of the book again to see if she had missed that character, but she hadn’t. Jennie suggested that the author was trying to emulate the confusion of the escape. Madeleine didn’t buy that – she felt she was being played with.  Jo also felt that it mirrored the real characters in the Underground Railroad – you didn’t know who they were. Madeleine also felt he was the sort of writer who would use ten words when one would do.

Others felt the character of Cora was poorly developed. Caroline said it was if she was just a vehicle to tell a story. Madeleine agreed and felt that she was like a stick that things were glued to. She didn’t have any real independence. Jo asked if that was the point. Cora didn’t know her own history herself.

A lot of people at book club felt, like I did, that the use of a real railroad was contrived. Jan said she liked her historical fiction to be historically accurate. She also said that although Whitehead had read the oral histories of Federal Writers project, he had a tendency to try and ‘jam everything in’ and that bothered her.

Caroline said that there were many other books on slavery which were better written. Ones she mentioned include The Kitchen House (Kathleen Grissom), The Book of Night Women (Marlon James), and Property (Valerie Martin).

We did discuss my concerns about American Dirt. Jennie  pointed out, and I think on this point I agree with her and I was wrong before, that Whitehead may be privileged but he would still be judged by the colour of his skin and he would still have trauma as part of his history and this gave him the right to write about slavery. Although I now feel that he had an authentic voice, it doesn’t detract from my view that Jeanine Cummins also had a right to write American Dirt.  

Most of us also felt it unfair that Whitehead was able to deploy literary techniques to heighten suspense and to bend the truth when Cummins was pilloried for it.  The vast majority of us preferred Cummins book.  As Jan said American Dirt had dark and light and was linear. With this one she was always wondering did I miss something?

I said it was interesting that this book won the Pulitzer. Anne-Marie and I have a theory that the Pulitzer is not always the best book as it is often a consensus choice. Much like the Oscars do not always go to the best movie. I certainly couldn’t see why The Overstory by Richard Powers won.  Jan said The Shipping News by Annie Proulx was an exception to this – it was excellent.

Even Jennie who I feel did enjoy this book pointed out that it was not one of Whiteheads best books and said we should try to read some of his other works. Jennie said for a more literal take on The Underground Railroad, the film Harriet, about Harriet Tubman was excellent and was available on Prime video.

Jennie did make me realise that I should check my privilege and that my earlier comments in this blog where disingenuous. She said, she doesn’t experience racism on a daily basis as Whitehead or other black Americans do, she can try to put herself in their position but she will never really understand what they are going through. Whatever she does it will never be enough.

Perhaps therefore this was a good choice for Black History Month, although not a great book, it has made me question my assumptions and made me more aware of inherent racism, even I hate to say it, my own and the importance of checking my privilege.

Reviews online

Interview with the author

Future books

Monday 2 November, ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo.



Monday 16 November ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ by Ben Lerner.


Monday 30 November ‘American Wife’ by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Just because I can’t resist and I love Evita

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

This is a profoundly moving story of a perilous escape to El Norte (America) by a mother (Lydia) and her eight-year-old son (Luca) across Mexico. It deals with robberies, rape, dangerous journeys on the top of trains, through deserts all while being followed by members of a cruel cartel. Their journey is prompted by the massacre of Lydia’s family, including her husband Sebastian, a journalist who is trying to expose the cartel, at her niece Yenifer’s birthday party by the local cartel leader Javier.

The book moves at a dramatic pace and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. It has been described as a modern-day Odyssey (American Dirt – A Desperate Odyssey – The Guardian – by Beejay Silcox 15 January 2020). Don Winslow called it a ‘Grapes of Wrath of our times’, (Evening Standard – 31 March 2020 Katie Law).

There have also been a number of objections to this book. Firstly, along the lines of cultural appropriation and secondly because it is argued that it is inauthentic to the immigrant experience and poorly written. Those who argue it is inauthentic have often not even read the book or have read it with a preconception that it is poorly written or contrived.

The Latin American and Mexican community have argued it is wrong that a white woman’s version (Cummins is in fact of Puerto Rican dissent) of such an escape should garner so much attention whilst so many books by Latino authors with similar escape stories to American Dirt get ignored. One article quoted Latin works such as Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario and The Beast by Oscar Martinex as being books that were not given the same attention. (American Dirt controversy explained http://www.Vulture.com/ article / American Dirt book- controversy explained). [NB I since found out at Bookclub that Nazario is in fact Argentinian not Mexican].

They also objected to Jeannie Cummins comments in her authors notes that ‘she wished someone browner than her had written the book’ and that she emphasised because her husband was also an undocumented illegal, when in fact he was actually Irish, not Latino.

I don’t think that she had no right to write this book because she was white. I think that is a kind of reverse racism. I do think her motives were good and I do think she tried her best to meticulously research this book. I think perhaps her authors note at the end of the book was clumsy and her wording could have been a bit better, but it was heartfelt.

It is wrong that Latino authors are underrepresented in the literary world and can’t get taken on by publishers because of structural racism but does that mean that she shouldn’t be published because she is white?  Especially as by all accounts Cummins motives and intentions are to humanise and personalise the struggle that immigrants face and put a face to their suffering in order to end prejudice and persecution. Objectors are shooting themselves in the foot – this book has raised the profile dramatically of the plight that immigrants face. Isn’t that a good thing?

This was a book I couldn’t put down. It kept me riveted from beginning to end.

So what did Bookclub think?

Jan started off the meeting by confronting the controversy head-on saying that Cummins had been accused of cultural liberties and of turning a serious immigration issue into a thriller. She agreed with me that it was great as a thriller and said that by turning it into a thriller it had allowed her to reach a wider audience.

We discussed Cummins’ cultural background and her husband’s.  Jan pointed out that Cummins was born in Spain to parents who were stationed there and she had no connection with Mexico. We talked about how her husband who was Irish and not a Mexican illegal and Anne-Marie said that the Irish were hardly ever deported as there were so many Irish in the INS and FBI.

We talked about Cummins motivation for writing the novel. Jan said that she had hesitated writing it from a Mexican perspective but that the grief over the loss of her father gave her the courage to write it from a Mexican perspective and that she had researched the book for over five years.

I asked why a white person couldn’t write the book and if that was a form of reverse racism? Michelle said no, it wasn’t so much an inditement of her, it was an inditement of the publishing industry. They were arguing that if you were not white you couldn’t get a publishing deal. It was a criticism of structural racism in the publishing industry.

Lisa asked why weren’t there other Mexican writers? She said it was probably because they had more at stake. Maybe they didn’t want to write their stories because they were scared there would be retribution to their families at home.

Anne-Marie said it was sad that sometimes people wanted a white face to tell the story. She said it was like ‘A Million Little Pieces’ by James Frey which turned out to be fake; if the story hadn’t been told by a preppie American maybe it wouldn’t have been so popular.

Lisa felt like many of us, that controversy had increased sales, even the use of barbed wire on the front of the book and her not going to a signing because of a security threat added to the publicity and sales of this book.

Many at bookclub felt like Michelle, that it didn’t feel authentic, that there were too many plot lines that didn’t make sense. Jan also asked ‘did all the stories need to me there’, for example the boy who broke his leg or the Marisol story. She felt some of the stories particularly the latter did not make sense.  

Michelle also felt it was implausible that they wouldn’t have believed they were in danger and they would have taken more precautions. She did however also feel that Cummins had done a lot of research and tried to ‘put every horrific thing’ into the story. She felt the Marisol story was added because it was a hot topic and that people who previously felt safe in America no longer did – and that was why it was added to the mix. Cummins was trying to achieve a purpose by including it.

Lisa also said that she liked the Guardian article that referred to this book as ‘Trauma Porn’ and she had also read a review that compared Lydia to a pearl bag clutching American tourist. Caroline felt it read like a movie.

LA Bestia

Anne-Marie said there were things that were implausible.  A women of comparative wealth like Lydia would never have ridden on La Bestia the train, only the poorest of the poor do, she would have got a friend to drive her to the border. She said it was easy to find people to take you across the border. Anne-Marie in her research as a journalist there had found someone in an hour once.  She said it was almost as if Cummins book was a pastiches of all the facts she had. Jan agreed it was implausible and said that she would have been able to download Lucas birth certificate from a website if she had wanted to. She just needed that as a plot device so she could talk about La Bestia. Yulia agreed and said she would have known she needed documents.

Caroline felt that Javier was implausible. Anne-Maire who had covered the cartels for a major American newspaper in Tijuana said it was not uncommon for drug cartel leaders to dress well or be well read. Jane said it was wrong to stereotype drug lords and that there must be some highly educated ones. Anne-Marie said that she liked what someone had said, that in a better society the narcos would be a Bill Gates, it was just because of lack of opportunity that they became narcos.

We talked about the cartels in Mexico generally. Anne-Marie said 60-80% of Mexico was controlled by cartels. Yulia said it was a good time to publicise the cartels. Michelle had said that she was smart to choose her setting as Acapulco which conjured up glamour. It was if she was trying to depict a fall. Anne-Marie said that Acapulco was beset by cartel violence. She told a true story about ten labourers who had all gone to Acapulco on holiday but who were all shot as they were mistaken for people in another cartel. Jane asked if any of the Americans in the group would still go to Mexico. Jan said she would, but she would wear a money belt and be careful. Anne-Marie said parts of Mexico are still fine, she would stay in the Yucatan but places like Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta are dangerous. There is extortion everywhere.

How true was it to the immigrant experience? Anne-Marie had a friend who was a journalist in Mexico who said the book was awful, but again she hadn’t read it. But as Anne-Marie said, this book is going to become a first reference for many in America and at least it publicises the issues. Others like Caroline thought it was probably a good representation of what was actually going on.

Yulia felt that adding Spanish words to the text was unnecessary. You knew they were Spanish, why add Spanish phrases? Anne-Marie agreed and said yes it did sound a bit cartoonish. It was like Ricky Ricardo saying Ay Caramba in a I love Lucy episode.

Jan felt the ending was an anti-climax in that she ended up as a cleaner in Maryland. Yulia hated it that in the end when she was struggling for money Lydia bought expensive books. She felt that was implausible. I didn’t understand how one of the books that she bought was ‘Love In the Time of Cholera’,  a book that Javier had talked to her about  – surely she wouldn’t buy a book that had a connection with him. Michelle had a hard time believing in their relationship from the beginning, let alone why she wanted a connection with him after all he had done.

Putting all the controversies aside Jane did feel it was well written. She said it was vivid and she was scared for them, particularly when they jumped on the train. Anne-Marie said it was very effective that it was written in the present tense.

For all the criticism Cummins has brought this important issue to the surface. As Michelle said – it gives you pause to think and makes you think about the stories.

It is interesting that Anne-Marie said that ‘The Pearl’ by Steinbeck was a better story of Mexican migration. He wasn’t criticised for not being Mexican.

Despite this we all wanted to know how it ended.

Reviews of the book online

This reviewer hasn’t read the book, but has interesting things to say about the controversy. Read the comments below where one commenter has said that decorating the room with barbed wire centre pieces at the function was akin to celebrating the release of ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ by decorating a room as a gas chamber.

This is also an interesting clip on the controversy, all the authors on the panel say that her writing did not ring true, but they also all admit at various times that they haven’t read the book.

Up coming books:-

19 October Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 

2 November Three women by Lisa Taddeo

Virtual activities:

There are some great talks being run by the National Gallery on Zoom. Many of them are free. My husband and I are going to one with Michael Palin which unfortunately is now fully booked. Details of other talks can be found here

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/events/online.

If you still want to see Tenet but don’t want to risk going to a public cinema, it is playing this Friday at the Drive In in Enfield. All films are 50 % off in October.

https://www.thedrivein.london/whats-on?gclid=CjwKCAjwq_D7BRADEiwAVMDdHiAAoBn0ZNzCYXuKCRgcP8Bl7M4TEdUVvCESmKwxHnjoVRFGti7dnBoC9aQQAvD_BwE

There is also a heap  of interesting  events been run for Black History Month some of which you can find here:-

https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/listings/region/online-event/

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a 1969 Autobiography of African American author and poet Maya Angelou. It is the first in a seven-volume series and deals with her life between the ages of three to seventeen.

The book is thematic, eloquent and profound. It deals with issues such as identity, rape, trauma and racism. As well as being a prodigiously talented author and poet Maya was also a composer, singer, actor, journalist and educator and worked in the civil rights movement with such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X. 

It is an uniquely brilliant book. It is a ming vase, a first edition of a Shakespeare play, a Michelangelo statue or a Van Gogh painting.

Maya has said that when writing this book she would get up at five in the morning in her hotel room, remove pictures from the walls, lie on the bed with a bottle of sherry and a pack of cards and write on a yellow notepad with the bible and Roget’s Thesaurus next to her.

The title comes from a poem by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and the caged bird is symbolic of the chained slave struggling for freedom.

The book was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970, pipped at the post by Joyce Carole Oates ‘Them’. The Caged Bird Sings remained on the New York Times best seller list for two years, and is considered an American literary classic. It is often studied at high schools and universities. It remains as relevant today as the day it was writte, and in my view far better remembered and more widely read than ‘Them’.  

The book basically tells the story of Maya who in the book is referred to as Margarite. Maya (Margarite) was sent to the southern town of Stamps, Arkansas, with her brother Bailey to live with her paternal grandmother Moma and her Uncle Willie when she was three. Moma ran the local shop at the heart of the black community and had even lent money to some of the white folk like the dentist during the depression.

The book deals with a lot of the racism she and the black community faced in Stamps, such as the dentist refusing to treat her when her tooth was rotten, saying he would rather put his hand in a dog’s mouth. Also a white speaker at her eighth-grade graduation telling her and the other graduates that there are limited jobs open to them, or Uncle Willie hiding under a barrel full of potatoes and vegetables as the Ku Klux Klan rode into town.

The book also deals with the rape of Maya by her mother’s boyfriend and her subsequent elective mutism until Ms. Bertha Flowers encourages her through books to speak again.

Maya eventually goes back to her mother in San Francisco and gets pregnant, hiding the pregnancy from her parents until the end of the book. She gives birth when she is 17.

The power of words and their ability to transform is a theme through-out the book. Angelou recited her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and sales of A Caged Bird rose by 600 percent. Now Trump is in the ascendancy and racism is on the rise we need her voice and voices of those like her, more than ever.

Not everyone wants to listen though — America has a large reactionary, ultra-Christian, red-necked white demographic, and many of them began to try and censor this book from high school reading lists in 1983. It has been challenged in 15 U.S. states and removed from reading lists and library shelves. Ostensibly this was because of the childhood rape, but I think it is much more about what it has to say about equality and dignity and race and the power with which it says it.

In a Barnes and Noble review of this book they conclude by saying’ Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a modern American classic that will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read’. – please people continue to read and read this book because the times they need a changing.

So what did book club think of this book?

We started off book club a bit differently this week. I thought because Maya Angelou was so eloquent and voice played such a large role in the story it would be appropriate to hear from her as well as discuss her writing. So, to start the meeting I played an eight minute montage of her that I had seen on Facebook just the past week. The link is below but you may need Facebook to see it. It was incredibly moving.

After the montage Anne-Marie mentioned the worlds that Clinton had said at Maya Angelou’s funeral when he said, ‘ She was without a voice for five years and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her his voice. She had the voice of God, then he decided he wanted it back’.

Anne-Marie said her book was ground-breaking. It was written at a time when black Americans really had no rights and were treated very badly. She said it was sad that the book did not win a major award at the time it was written and it should have got more recognition (ed it was not until 2013 nearly 50 years after it was written that it got a National Book Foundation Award). She said although black people should not have to teach white people how to view them, this book did that. It made black people impossible to dehumanize them and it gave them a voice.

Madeleine loved the book so much she is reading the entire series of seven books and is already well into the second book. She said the message of Maya is that you should always go forward and never give up. She said it was interesting that in the 1960’s no one really wanted to buy the European rights to the book but Virago brought them for hardly anything printed 6,000 copies and sold them all in a couple of weeks. It soon became a best seller and has been selling well ever since. Madeleine described Maya as a revolutionary who knew how to tell a story.

Jan particularly loved listing to the audio book which was read by Maya and said she listened to it while she was walking, but sometimes she just had to sit down and really hear the words as they were so moving. She didn’t want it to end and felt that it ended on a cliff hanger, you wanted to find out what happened to her son.

Jan wondered if given the sexual trauma both as a child and as a teen that Maya had gone through whether she ever found the sexual act enjoyable. Madeleine said Maya did fall in love with someone called Curley later but he went back to his wife. Anne-Marie said in her later years Maya had a much younger lover.

We all agreed she had the most amazing resilience. I said I had to do a video for a friends 50th and I ended it with a quote from Angelou where she said a friend should be ‘a rainbow to someone’s cloud’. Despite all the trials and tribulations in her life she wanted to bring happiness to others.

Madeleine felt that Moma her grandmother was her rock and gave her her sense of stability. Anne-Marie agreed and said Moma was her emotional core. Jan said she provided a good role model particularly with incidents like taking Maya to the dentist.

Diana said the prose in the book was amazing and it really showed the strength and importance of words and the power of literature. Yulia agreed and said she had a natural talent and was unique. She had an ability to observe, reflect and describe things from different angles. Anne-Marie said that she had a wiliness to describe experiences that were shameful. It was a gift she could talk about them and give strength to others. As Madeleine said though, she didn’t dwell on things or pity herself, she just told her story and it moved along at a pace.

One thing we all noticed was a lack of any positive male role model as Madeleine said, ‘men don’t feature too well’. As Anne-Marie pointed out the black adults of that time would have lived through a horrific life experience themselves with the legacy of Jim Crow, their parenting skills were probably influenced by the environment they grew up in.

Jan wondered what had happened to her brother Bailey – she thought he had become a merchant marine. As Yulia said Maya had a good role model in her grandmother but Bailey had no good male role model. Jan wondered as Maya had so many talents and was so exceptional, if he ever felt over shadowed by her.

We also wondered what would have happened to Maya if her parents had stayed together and had she not suffered the trauma she did. Would she have done so much?

Diana said it was interesting the role that religion played. On the one hand it gave them the will to persevere but on the other hand it told them to endure and kept them downtrodden in a way. Anne-Marie said that black American’s at that time just didn’t have options most jobs were agricultural and religion was an important life raft. Yulia said that religion was meant to give them hope, but noted how Maya was punished in church for misbehaving, church was strict and prescribed and just another hierarchy like the racial hierarchy they lived in.

Jan loved the way that Maya said she wrote her books by going to a hotel. Jan said when she was writing her thesis she also went away and that going somewhere special made it easier to write.

Yulia and Diana both pointed out that her writing style changes throughout the book. Yulia said you feel her growing up and you feel her happiness with friends.

Diana pointed out her ability to make acute observations like how she said the music of the sinners was very similar to the music of the revivalists in the church.

Caroline found the book extremely moving . She had the good fortune to see Maya Angelou at a NAACP event in 1990 and had also seen her make the speech at Clinton’s inauguration.

As Madeleine said – this is a book that is powerful from page one.

We concluded the meeting by listening to Maya’s poem ‘I Rise’, which is bellow on you tube.

As Maya said – be a rainbow to someone’s cloud.

Maya Angelou videos

Montage

And So I Rise

Bill Clinton eulogy

Future Books

The next books we are reading are

5 October American Dirt by Jennie Cummins 

19 October Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 

2 November – Three Women by Lisa Taddeo – Be warned this one is sexually explicit!

Other information

HWC kick off

A reminder that the Hampstead Women’s Club will be holding its kick off meeting on Zoom on the 30 September at 1:30pm – 3pm. This is open to members and non-members who might want to join the club for more information contact hospitality@hwcinlondon.co.uk. There will be quizzes, prizes and a whole heap of fun.

Covid Testing

I know a lot of people are struggling to get tests from the government website  you can get them privately from Zoom Doc, here https://zoomdoc.selz.com/ for £129 They provide Same day delivery of Covid-19 PCR tests across London, next day across the UK & instant access to video based GPs results are available in 1 -2 days.

Creative writing Classes

Lisa strongly recommends the creative writing classes at Imperial. She met Stuti there, another book club member and says that the classes are very enjoyable. More information can be found here

http://www.imperial.ac.uk/evening-classes/autumn-spring-courses/writing/

The vegan kind

My Charlotte has gone Vegan – and we found this great supermarket that delivers. It even has Bond Beef Burgers. You can get the app from the ap store or the website is at

Lock down art

Have a look at the photos of lock down art at the National Portrait Gallery they are incredibly moving.

https://www.npg.org.uk/hold-still/

Fire Tech courses for kids

My daughter’s have done a couple of these courses and love them. If you are looking for something to keep your kids entertained virtually this half term but teach them at the same time try Fire Tech.

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