2015 Book Challenge – #23 – Gone With The Wind

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

You know Gone With The Wind. Or you know of it at least. Or you think you do. Before reading this I thought I’d better figure out exactly what I knew, and it wasn’t much.

  • Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler – I know their names and I know they are probably in love, if not at the beginning the by the end
  • Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn
  • With God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again (rich girl digs in ground for potatoes or some such)
  • Making a dress out of curtains
  • It’s in the South, there are slaves
  • The film is really long
  • Er…. that’s it

I assumed this was a romance story, but it’s much more than that. Spoilers ahead, if you can say that about a book that’s nearly 80 years old. Under a quarter of the way through the book, Scarlett is a widow with a child. What?! I expected her to be single and flirting her way through the whole thing, even if there was a war on.

Instead what I found was almost a story about another world, with its own rituals and expectations and gender roles. Particularly gender roles. Then there’s a war, and the world is turned upside down. Everyone’s training in how to survive in their old world is positively counter-productive in the new world.

If the science fiction or fantasy that I read has as good an explanation of the world in which it is set, I am happy.

I also didn’t expect it to be FUNNY. Rhett Butler is wonderfully sarcastic at all turns. The discussion of how women should pretend to be in order to bag a husband is both painful and hilarious. Sometimes the narration appears to be what Scarlett thinks and believes, other times it’s a general announcement of “the way things are”. I chose to take it as a cutting commentary on the generally-accepted beliefs, in the style of Jane Austen, rather than thinking it being said in an approving manner.

It was all written so smoothly and naturally that it was almost possible to ignore the fact that at no point does any slave say anything or act in any way to suggest that they are not keen on slavery. Seriously. Nothing. They are all “one of the family” or “like children who need looking after”. Slaves are proud of the family that they belong to, house slaves look down on field hands, and they all look down on “poor whites”. The way their speech is written just emphasises the difference between the “white folks” and the “darkies”. If this were a science fiction book I would assume them to be a different species altogether. And most of the scifi that I read has an appreciation that it’s wrong to enslave any sentient species.

Best quotes:

“The only difficulty was that by being just and truthful and tender and unselfish, one missed most of the joys of life, and certainly many beaux.”

“A gentleman always appeared to believe a lady even when he knew she was lying. That was Southern chivalry.”

“It doan make a gempmum feel lak mahyin’ a lady ef he suspicions she got mo’ sense dan he has.”

(Remember how I don’t like speech written in dialect? This was too good a line to miss even if it does hurt the brain.)

“After all, she was nineteen and getting along and men had a way of chasing silly young things”

“There was something unbecoming about a woman understanding fractions and business matters… should a woman be so unfortunate as to have such unladylike comprehension, she should pretend not to”



2015 Book Challenge – #22 – The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas David Mitchell, not Mitchell and Webb David Mitchell, although I like him too and I’m particularly impressed at his marrying Victoria Coren) was mentioned in the article that promoted me to read The End of Mr Y. Apparently “Mitchell has an untroubled relationship with the devices he borrows from genre science fiction and fantasy”, and I think I’m OK with that.

The book passes from 1984 – just a little out of my memory, past us and into the future, where I enjjoyed the unforced use of futuristic slang. “I’ll device him”. “These slates are threaded”.
In contrast to the traditional “Yer a wizard, Harry” early-book revelations of what is going on, The Bone Clocks gradually lets us see things that are happening, switching points of view to allow us to piece things together as we go, with no promise that our current protagonist will discover the secret themselves (or even necessarily survive).
The end is, er, well, not necessarily the best in the world, but I enjoyed the journey so I don’t mind so much. A deus ex machina is tolerable if you’ve known all along that there are deuses around.

2015 Book Challenge #20 – The Bell Jar

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

Things I knew about The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath before reading it

  1. It’s by Sylvia Plath
  2. If you want to fake someone’s suicide,  put a copy of this book on their bedside table with bits underlined
  3. She was married to Ted Hughes
  4. She killed herself (head in oven?)
  5. She left out bread and jam for the kids when she killed herself
  6. Gwyneth Paltrow cycled an old-fashioned bike near the library here I was revising while pretending to be Sylvia Plath

Things I did not know

  1. Where/when it was set
  2. Anything about what happens
  3. Whether the character actually does kill herself

I enjoyed this more than I expected to. It is quite describey, and Plath uses a lot of adjective phrases. I’m not sure of the precise term for them, but the first page alone has “google-eyed” and “country-wet” and “mirage-grey”. Too many of these drive me mad (see Suite Francaise and the pre-war parts of Birdsong) but in this case it added a tangible feel to the descriptions without making me impatient for action.

I would have happily read some more of the story of a college-aged girl in the 50s (?) who has a summer internship on a magazine, even without the rest.

I liked that there was no attempt to explain WHY she felt as she did. She just did. That’s what mental illness is like sometimes. It’s not always caused by a childhood trauma. It’s sometimes just how things are.

2015 Book Challenge – #19 – Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

This was recommended by a colleague, who neglected at first to mention that the author is FASCINATING.

First, the book.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James TipTree Jr is a collection of SF short stories from the 70s (ish).

I am not usually a fan of short stories – I find the format very tiring as I need to adjust to a new world anew characters every few pages. My preference for a book is that if I like it I want it long, I want lots of that one book so I can get the maximum benefit out of my effort in getting into it. That’s probably why I like a long series (e.g. Wheel of Time), and why I enjoyed the doorstopper The Pillars of the Earth.

So I found this book a bit difficult, but in most cases it was worthwhile. The stories often deal with sex, gender, violence, and the state of being human. The colleague who recommended it, on hearing that I was actually reading, commented “they are a bit depressing”. It’s true. And the nature of the stories makes it entirely unsurprising to me that James Tiptree Jr was a woman. (go look her up). Apparently many other writers of the time were very surprised.

So, recommended but not “easy”. Only if you are in the mood to feel challenged (and a little disgusted, in a few cases).

2015 Book Challenge – #16 – My Family and Other Animals

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell was recommended to me without any particular explanation, so I started it “cold”.

I only really glanced at the cover – if I had paid attention I would have noticed the “50 year anniversary edition” badge. When I read The Goldfinch, I stopped a little way through to look at when it was set, because I felt that it could be any time from 1950 to the present. In this book I also stopped to check the time – 1930s.

This is a very pleasant and nicely-described story without much going on. It reminded me rather a lot of the early parts of Life of Pi (before they get on the boat), where Pi is dabbling in every religion going.

The eccentric family and Greek “peasants” feel a little over-the-top, but exaggeration can be forgiven in reminiscences.

The anthropomorphizing about of all of the animals (particularly dogs, and magpies) is by turns amusing and just a bit too much for me.

2015 Book Challenge – #15 – The Pillars of the Earth

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

This book was recommended by a friend who knows I like historical fiction, and knows that I like books that are thick.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is apparently 980 pages long

I was lent a physical copy of this book – normally I read everything on my Kindle – and as such it took me until I went on holiday to get into it. I started it a couple of times before and only got as far as and then the family had their pig stolen before putting it down and not feeling inclined to pick it up again.

I was glad that I did pick it up again. While it can most easily be described as a book about building a cathedral, this is really a multi-generation family drama set in the 12th century, during a time of political unrest where if you had a horse and a sword and a bunch of friends with horses and swords you could pretty much do as you pleased, because nobody was really in power to tell you off.

Our protagonists do not have horses and swords, and plenty of people nearly die of starvation. Everything seems very precarious.

The sex scenes are admittedly excruciating, but elsewhere the over-the-top detail is great for knowing what people’s houses were like, where they slept, what they ate, etc. I love this kind of thing and much prefer a museum of everyday objects to one of fancy pieces. I’d rather see the cup you really drink out of than the vase that sits on a shelf.

Amazon says something about a TV adaptation, so I’m now off to look that up!

2015 Book Challenge – #14 – The Children of Men

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

I picked this book up in a charity shop, having spotted the title and wondered if it was the same as the film. I’ve not read much PD James but I know her as a crime author and also as the author of Death Comes To Pemberley (which I do recommend if it sounds at all like the kind of thing you would enjoy).

The Children of Men by P D James has much more to it than the film that it inspired.

I am not even sure I can say “the film that was based on the book”. I spent the first half of the book wondering if the film was based on the second half, and the second half realising that even the denouement played out quite differently.

This is a very thoughtful book, with a wonderful examination of what it’s like to be in the middle of a slowly-happening gentle apocalypse. The world outside of Britain is not revealed to us but I suspect that it is rather unpleasant. Inside, things seem reasonably pleasant as long as you. Dystopia-implied or dystopia-light rather than a full-on disaster, but the clues are there if you look for them.