Monthly Archives: October 2013

10 books that sum up Britain

Today, Thomas at MyPorch and Simon at Savidge Reads identified ten fiction books that sum up their respective countries (the US and the UK). Their approach is geographical which is totally logical but the end result for the UK didn’t really work for me. So I got to musing on what ten books I would choose, and how I might categorize them… Geographical might work for the US but the UK is tiny in comparison – I think I’d choose to represent some of the experiences of different types of people in Britain over the last century, looking at how these experiences have moulded the country. So with that flagrant disregard of Thomas and Simon’s rules, and in no particular order, here are my ten:

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

This book characterizes the mid-20th century crumbling aristocracy in Britain, while fondly poking fun at their quirks and eccentricities, in a quintessential Oxbridge setting. I feel both the fall of the upper class and the Oxbridge experience are very British entities which are depicted beautifully in this book.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

This book about four disenchanted Englishwomen abroad is all about charm, wit, British-style fantasy, and muddling through in a very English way. It might seem odd to choose a book that is largely set in Italy on this sort of list, but personally, I can’t think of a better encapsulation of a very specific British type of charm.

The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sheriff

This book is about the quirk and ‘keep calm and carry on’ Britishness of ordinary country folk as a ridiculous end-of-the-world calamity looms. This might be a controversial choice given that it’s sci-fi, but I would argue that the setting of extreme peril specifically magnifies the elements of the British ‘character’ in a way that earns it a place on this list.

Staying On by Paul Scott

This book depicts the last days of colonialism, as mannerly, dislocated British people negotiate the concluding years of the British Raj in India. Britain was built on a diet of colonialism and I would argue that the experiences depicted in this book help explain some of modern day Britain and Britishness.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Britain has been shaped by its World Wars, and the Night Watch is a great example of the deep impact of WW2 – the big events and the little things – on a diverse group of everyday Londoners. Being that we are going on my tastes, I chose a book with a lesbian theme – so much the better! This is a beautifully written book that made me really start to understand what it was like for those left at home, and the true meaning of ‘keep calm and carry on’.

253 by Geoff Ryman

A fully occupied London subway car holds 253 people; this intriguing book explores the appearance, thoughts and dreams of each one of them, building up a 253-word picture of diverse lives, sometimes linked, fleetingly caught together in one place. I think it builds a really interesting picture of who British people are, what they have in common, and the exciting diversity of people.

The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy

Set near where I used to live, it is an ordinary place where various people find the meaning and humanity in their variously downtrodden lives. This book really digs into the lives of the characters and I just found it beautifully atmospheric and sympathetic as it hovers at the nexus of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

This book deals with the huge impact of the Thatcher years, and the grinding struggles and cheery joys of growing up poor in Scotland. I recognize a lot of the juxtaposition and think not only does it depict a certain influential time in Britain, it also encapsulates the British way of making light of dreadful situations, addressing them with dry wit.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

We are taken on an adventure of a search for roots, a quintessential Scottishness, and the experience of being black in predominantly white Scotland. Despite this book being set largely in Nigeria, it speaks to me as a book that defines what makes people feel British.

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

This book gives an important insight into one of the many subcultures that make up the melting pot of Britain, and how to reconcile modern Britishness with a distinctive ‘otherness’. When I lived Britain I often received tiny snapshots into the very different cultures others were living in – and reading this book felt like getting to open the door and peek into a life that is just as British as any other, but also very different. It emphasizes the differences and also the similarities of Brits.

It’s not a perfect list. It misses out anything about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which had a major impact on the British psyche. Wales doesn’t feature explicitly either. And I might have liked something set near the sea. But when I look at these books together, they make up a Britain I personally recognize. What would your list be?

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

This blog has felt a bit neglected of late. But not because I haven’t been reading. I’ve just finished Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward but I read it for a new book group, so I want to wait for that discussion before I blog about it. And I’m currently reading Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver. So dear reader, you have both of these reviews to anticipate. But the real reason for my silence is, alas, my personal struggle with pretension.

I am not generally a reader of trashy books. And yet, when a cultural phenomenon springs in the form of a book, I’m not above dabbling. This is where I confess to having read fairly trashy books (ahem, Dan Brown, ahem) in the name of pop culture. But where, dear reader, does Bridget Jones fall on the spectrum of lofty literature to trashy ‘chick lit’? I’m not quite sure. But having read the preceding two volumes, I felt compelled to finish the trilogy while on the plane home from a wedding in Scotland. And since I can barely find another book blog that has lowered itself to review the book, I shall suppress my snobbishness and apply myself to the task.

One sentence plot

The eponymous Bridget, now in her fifties and bereaved, sets about haplessly exploring social media, weight loss, and romantic opportunities in a context of single motherhood and misery.


The review

I have always had rather a soft spot for Bridget Jones. I don’t really like (or read) ‘chick lit’ in the generic sense, but I’ve found Helen Fielding’s books to combine chick littiness with sufficient literariness to be cheery, charming, and enjoyable – without having to be too much of a guilty reading secret. There’s no need to be a snob about it: Bridget Jones is fun. And yet, Mad About The Boy, sadly, is not.

Clearly Fielding, having married off a character whose main premise was haplessly and humorously looking for love, needed to somehow resurrect that premise. I was amused by the distress she apparently caused her fans on her killing off Bridget’s husband to resurrect it. And I have skimmed some reviews that say she succeeded. I don’t think she did, because it’s hard to go from tragedy to lighthearted froth – and I don’t just think Fielding does it well. Instead, Mad About the Boy is a self-conscious downer that doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to achieve. The new characters are only moderately interesting. The old ones show little new depth. Bridget’s insecurities which were charming in her thirties become tedious in her fifties. Meanwhile, her adventures on Twitter don’t sound much like my experiences of Twitter, but rather like a 20th century author trying to make her new book sound 21st century.

All in all, it’s a bit crass. It’s a bit sad. It’s a bit disappointing that Fielding has chosen to resurrect her old self rather than showing much maturing with age. It’s occasionally funny; more often, there are fart jokes. It’s a bit dull. It feels a bit dated. It’s chick-lit, but without the froth. It emphasizes that a woman can’t be happy unless she has a man to look after her. Fielding’s writing is quite pleasant, and bits definitely made me chuckle. But bringing Bridget back at this later stage of her life feels like it’s one for the diehard fans rather than a book that stands up well in its own right.

The verdict: 2/5 stars (because some of the writing is quite funny and nicely written, and I can imagine duller things to read)

My Huffington Post ramble about libraries

A few weeks ago, after 1) visiting the famous new fancy library in Medellin, Colombia, 2) reading a few articles musing on the modern library experience, and 3) listening to authors pontificating on the future of reading/eReaders at the National Book Festival, I wrote a Huffington Post blog to add my own, somewhat rambling thoughts on the subject of libraries. You might enjoy reading it, dear readers. Click here.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

One sentence plot

Fleeing the Jim Crow laws of the south, Hattie moves to Philadelphia as an bright young African American woman soon embittered by the death of her first two children; the rest of her story is told through episodes in the lives of her many subsequent children.


The review

I was primed to love this book after hearing the charming Ayana Mathis speaking about it at the National Book Festival in Washington last month, not to mention the numerous audience members who declared it the best book they have ever read. It was not the best book I have ever read (though I doubt I could name that without some extensive musing!), but I did enjoy The Twelve Tribes of Hattie as an insight into the lives of African American people impacted by the Jim Crow laws in the south of the United States.

The ‘twelve tribes’ in question are the twelve people who depend on Hattie to raise them and care for them (eleven children and a grandchild), and after the first chapter, the book is told through their various voices. The first chapter addresses the pivotal point in Hattie’s life: the death of her first children, her beloved twins. That event changes Hattie from the bright, optimistic young girl whose voice is so charming on the page, to a rather lost, disappointed, cynical woman who can only express her love for her children by grimly focusing on keeping them alive. The first chapter is a delight (though it made me cry). But I’m not sure what to make of the rest of the chapters.

Each chapter is a snapshot into the life of one of Hattie’s children, and these provide interesting and varied insights into some of the paths that an African American person who grew up in relative poverty (of money and affection) in the mid-20th century might take. The paths taken range from a life of preaching and womanizing, to a jazz musician discovering his homosexuality, to a soldier in Vietnam, to various versions of unhappy marriages and alcoholism, struggling to move up the social classes, and sometimes falling even lower. While we receive these snapshots, we receive insight into different aspects of Hattie, and slowly as the book progresses, the sympathy for her that we originally had and started to lose midbook comes creeping back near the end.

I thought the book was patchy – using so many different voices can be risky, because they inevitably hit different levels of compelling… in fact I found myself flicking through parts of a couple of the chapters, though many of them held me. I really liked the technique of revealing Hattie through her children, but I found it frustrating that each chapter felt as though it stood alone – it would have been much more pleasing for links and parallels and characters to run through the different stories, as might reasonably be expected from the varied stories of one family. It might also have been a more enjoyable read if at least some of Hattie’s charges had ended up happy, or contented, or even not entirely miserable. Or if any of the men in the book had turned out to be anything other than pathetic losers. The book itself has quite an upbeat tone… but the more I read about these children doing so badly, the more I felt pessimistic about the world. It’s like an anti-American dream, somehow.

All that said, I would, with caveats, recommend the book. It’s an interesting read and historically informative, it paints an intriguing picture of living in a certain time and place, and many of the characters come alive off the page. The writing is lovely. And the technique of revealing Hattie through the third person voices of her adult children, while not perfectly rendered, is compelling. I think that those who adore this book relate to it in ways that I didn’t. But I still thought it was quite good.

The verdict: 3/5 shoes