Friday, October 17, 2008

And Next Up Is....

In the end the clear winner is Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry. We'll be posting on and discussing the book from 31st January 2009 (and where did 2008 go...?).

I found some reading group questions for this novel and thought I'd post them here to give members something to think about while they are reading:

  1. There are multiple narrators in the novel – the Dog Woman, Jordan, the Princesses. How do the narrators compare with each other? Has the author used the multiple narrators to different effect? Which narrator do you like best and why?

  2. Are there any similarities between the seventeenth-century Jordan and the nineteenth-century naval cadet Nicholas Jordan we meet at the end of Sexing the Cherry? How does the author use the different narrators?

  3. Jordan undertakes voyages across foreign lands, discovering pineapples and to fantastical lands to find Fortunata. What does he discover in terms of his own ambitions for the voyage he is on?

  4. The Dog Woman provokes a multitude of reactions from those who lay eyes on her physical being. Is she accepted by society or considered an outcast?

  5. Do you pity her? Does she deserve pity?

  6. The Sunday Times claimed ‘The Dog Woman is one of the most appealing, alarming giants in literature since Gargantua.’ Would you agree?

  7. The Dog Woman has committed many murders including her own father. Is she evil? Can they be forgiven? Are they the only characters in both Where might that evil spring from? Could she be forgiven? Is she the only character in the book that could be considered evil?

  8. Sexing the Cherry is set at the beginning of the English Civil War. What relevance does the setting have to the story? Is it an integral part of the book?

  9. John Tradescant is something of a teacher and mentor for Jordan. What lessons does he teach to his pupil?

I hope these help a bit! Looking forward to the discussion next year....

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Time To Choose Again!

Dorothy kindly asked me to prepare a selection of books for the next Slaves discussion, which will take place on 31st January 2009. I so very nearly went for five comfortable reads in the category of social comedy (and you may well wish I had!) but then I changed my mind and, true to the tradition of the Slaves, I’ve been looking for books that are a bit different, this time in a genre-bending sort of way.

Here’s some suggestions:

Drusilla Modjeska – The Orchard

Balanced on an uncertain boundary between fiction and non-fiction, this book is a series of three interlinked essays on the theme of women, love and creativity that draws its material from the lives of Stella Bowen and Virginia Woolf as well as from myth and legend. From the amazon reviews: ‘three years in a row I have been using this book with my female students. Most of them have asserted that The Orchard changed their lives, as it changed mine when I first read it. The story of the handless maid, which epitomizes the book's message, invites women readers to reflect on issues such as maturity, identity, education, interpersonal relationships, autonomy and self-sufficiency. The magic mixture of essay, narrative, folk tale and biography creates a beautiful and complex tapestry, in which any woman, no matter her age, can recognize herself.’

Marianne Wiggins – The Shadow Catcher

Wiggins’ latest novel mixes autobiography and fiction in an undecidable way, intertwining the story of Edward S. Curtis, a Western photographer, and his muse-wife, Clara, with a tale of a narrator, also named Marianne Wiggins, driving to Vegas to confront a man claiming to be her long-dead father. Both men are subject to wanderlust that will ultimately trouble their relationships and leave a confusing remainder for those who try to understand them. From a Powell’s review: ‘Photographs taken by Curtis and from the Wiggins's family album, which she approaches from multiple angles, give the story several layers of immediacy. Curtis emerges as a fascinating, complex figure, one who inhabited any number of American contradictions. Suffused with Marianne's crackling social commentary and deceptively breezy self-discovery, Wiggins's eighth novel is a heartfelt tour de force.’

Ali Smith – Boy Meets Girl

One of the Canongate myth series, Ali Smith rewrites Ovid’s tale of Iphis from the Metamorphoses, displacing its scenario to a water-bottling factory in Inverness. It’s a love story that involves gender transformations, moral messages and rather more joyfulness, it seems, than the average Greek myth. This from the review in The Guardian: ‘Smith is a gravely moral writer - and that is partly why her contribution to the world of myth is so powerful. There is nothing detached or ironic here. Beneath all her jagged jumps and leaps of verbal facility, her sheer cliffhanging turns of storytelling, her books run deeply with the differences between right and wrong, love versus lies. By the time I finished the book, my heart was beating and tears stood in my eyes, even as I had the biggest smile written all over my face.’

Jeanette Winterson – Sexing the Cherry

I was going to plump for the more recent The Stone Gods, but in the end went for this one because it is such an amazing read. It’s the story of orphan Jordan who is discovered and brought up by the Dog Woman, a magnificent giantess. It’s set in the seventeenth century but its exoticness and charm is such that it could just as well be a fairy tale – and they abound in the narrative in any case. Funny and hugely imaginative, a fusion of history, fable and myth, it’s Winterson at her very best. From an amazon review: ‘Reading her words is a joy in and of itself. Her settings are bold, her characters are compelling, and she does not fill either her pages or her plots with minutia. This work is very much like an opera -- breathtakingly beautiful arias abound, strung together with plot-enhancing threads which glitter and glimmer. Take the journey, and savor it’.

David Markson – Reader’s Block

Apparently Markson heads a list somewhere of the best modern authors that people rarely read. This novel is an experimental mix that blends the story of a reader contemplating the creation of a protagonist who continually interrupts himself with a stream of literary trivia, including the fate of Auden's royalties; the suicide of Adrienne Rich's husband and Conrad's verdict on Moby-Dick (“not a single sincere line”). It sounds unlikely but the reviews seem collectively inclined to find it entertaining. From the amazon reviews: ‘I anticipated a slow and perhaps even difficult read. Instead, I found Reader's Block to be one a the most purely entertaining novels I've read in a long time. So long as you aren't a reader enslaved by narrative expectations (as perhaps Reader, the central "character" of the novel, might be enslaved by narrative expectations?) this book is a literary joyride, a feast of anecdotes, details, ephemera, and hesitation.’

I’ll count up the votes on Friday morning and let you know the outcome!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Avenging Angel

Back in the middle of the nineteenth century in America, the women were taking the publishing world by storm. Yes, Hermann Melville wrote Moby Dick, and Thoreau wrote the enduring classic Walden, and Nathaniel Hawthorn had himself a modest success with The Scarlet Letter, which sold a little over 10,000 copies. But the women were wiping the floor with them, bestseller-wise. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 10,000 copies in the first two weeks of publication, and by the end of the year it would have sold 310,000. But like so much women’s writing, no place was reserved in the canon for the other great popular books of that period, and writers like Susan Warner and Susanna Cummins have dwindled in obscurity until excavating literary critics have recently dug them back up. Amongst their number was Sara Willis Eldridge Farrington, who managed to achieve the accolade of being one of the highest paid writers of her era under the name of Fanny Fern. She was famous primarily for her journalism, and out of that came her books, most compilations of her articles, but one an autobiographical novel, Ruth Hall. Like all good bestsellers, the novel Ruth Hall came with controversy attached, as publicity around its publication brought forth the revelation of Fanny Fern’s true identity and the fact that the book told the story of her life. And what a life it was – a good rags to riches tale of a young woman, beset by tragedy and cruel relations who managed to turn her life around for the sake of her children by her writing talents.

Nathaniel Hawthorn, who generally didn’t have a good word to say about the women invading the literary scene, made an exception for Ruth Hall: ‘I must say I enjoyed it a good deal. The woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading.’ I was very struck by this remark when I read it in my trusty introduction, because for all the embroidered-hanky waving weepiness of the novel, I knew just what he meant. Poor Ruth Hall suffers bitterly from unjust fate, marriage bringing her quite the most appalling set of in-laws to add to her own mean and money-grabbing relatives. So when she loses both her baby and her husband to illness, there is no family to cushion the blow with love or with financial aid. Ruth is thrown back on her own resources, which, as any aficionado of the nineteenth century will tell you, were worth pretty much zilch back then. Women had merely ornamental value in this era, or else they tumbled out of their class, into an unreasonable form of social ostracism and poverty. Without a male protector, women didn’t stand a chance, and Ruth Hall’s family (just like Fanny Fern’s) knew this and simply stood back to watch.

Who wouldn’t be hopping mad under those circumstances? Although the novel is a relatively unexpurgated version of Fanny Fern’s life, she did miss out a bit, and that was an ill-advised marriage to a brute of a man named Farrington, a suitor forced upon her by her family when her first husband died. The marriage was a disaster from the start, and after two years, Fanny Fern took the unprecedented step of leaving him. Farrington was so enraged by this that he took some time and trouble slandering her with infidelities she had never committed. It is amazing to think that Fanny Fern managed to fight back in the face of such obstacles, finding an editor who would take her work, slowly building up her reputation and her portfolio and finally becoming one of the most prominent voices in journalism. So if there is a choppiness to the novel Ruth Hall, if it seems a strange mix of comedy and tragedy, of social comment and sentimentalism, of one-dimensional schemers and, in the center of it all, the almost unbearable paragon of virtue and magisterial talent that is our heroine, then it’s because the life it records is one that was wholly out of synch with its time. Fanny Fern was what the social critic Pierre Bourdieu would have called a ‘miraculeuse’, a woman who somehow managed to transcend her social condition in a way that beggared belief. And doesn’t she know it.

If the first half of the novel is a relentless sob of misery, the second half that charts Ruth’s rise to fame is an involuntary retch of sycophancy. Ruth finds herself a patron in the form of honest newspaperman, John Walter. Thanks to his stewardship and mentoring, every person who has thought badly of Ruth is obliged to confront her virtue and her meteoric rise in society. Can you imagine what it must feel like, as an author who has finally made it in the teeth of reputation-destroying slander, to create a character who will say things like: ‘The truth is simply this: “Floy” [Ruth’s nom de plume] is a genius; her writings, wherever published, would have attracted attention, and stamped the writer as a person of extraordinary talent; hence her fame and success’. Or who takes Ruth to a phrenologist (who reads bumps in the skull for character traits, considered quite plausible back then) who pronounces ‘in the general tone of your mind, in elevation of thought, feeling, sympathy, sentiment, and religious devotion, you rank far above most of us, above many who are, perhaps, better ranked to discharge the ordinary duties of life…. we seldom find the faculties so fully developed, or the powers so versatile as in your case.’ Oh my goodness me, such a sweet, sweet taste to revenge, to show up all the family and friends who failed to support you, who looked the other way when you were poor and down on your luck, who listened to cruel gossip and enjoyed it. And to rub their faces in a newly-minted reputation founded on adulation and admiration and great big, fat royalty cheques. What a thrill that must have been.

For this reason, the novel was not a critical success at the time of its publication. A reviewer for the New York Times wrote: ‘If Fanny Fern were a man, - a man who believed that the gratification of revenge were a proper occupation for one who has been abused, and that those who have injured us are fair game, Ruth Hall would be a natural and excusable book. But we confess that we cannot understand how a delicate, suffering woman can hunt down even her persecutors so remorselessly.’ Oh we can’t, can we? Such failures of the imagination have to be put down to the blinkers of gender politics that insisted a woman could only be certain things; the same sort of rules and regulations, in other words, that put Fanny Fern in the gutter in the first place. The novel is riddled with the kind of contradiction that the social constraints fostered – Ruth Hall cannot enjoy writing because no woman could be so manly as to welcome occupation, she cannot enjoy success because she must remain humble and modest at all times, she had to be indifferent to her own comforts and only act for the sake of her children. But Fanny Fern was brave enough to end the book with Ruth still unmarried – something that was in fact unthinkable to the audience of her day. Reading the novel, I see that so much has changed in the way we consider women’s lives – and thank goodness for that. But I also cannot help but think that some things haven’t changed at all. Are we ready yet to accept that women can be angry and vengeful without seeing them as monsters? Is it not still the case that women are quietly coopted into being conciliatory, modest, forgiving, sweet-tempered, and still, oh so very nice, no matter what trials they have had to endure? Well, that was the part of Ruth Hall that made me most uncomfortable, as I pondered the journey the heroine had taken, and the conclusion that left her ready to take off once more for unchartered lands. Would she have ended up in the 21st century in the place that Fanny Fern would have wanted for her?