Grace and Mary

by Melvyn Bragg

I picked this book up in the library, having had it on my ‘ to read’ list a while ago while reading up about dementia (but then let it drop off).

There are two stories here, loosely connected.  One is the story of Mary towards the end of her life, and the memories that she is able to evoke vividly with the help of her son John, who sees reminiscing as a valuable way for Mary to experience brief moments of pleasure in her increasing dementia.  I have the feeling that this is a thinly-disguised autobiographical story of Bragg and his mother.

The second story is that of Grace, who, as we later learn, is Mary’s mother.  We follow Grace’s birth, her childhood under the care of grandparents (her mother having died in childbirth), her relationship with her father and jealous stepmother, and her seduction by an injured solider in WWI which ends in Mary’s illegitimate birth.

Whilst both stories are well told, it is Mary’s (and John’s) story that grabbed my attention.  Bragg writes well but his prose does not sparkle; he writes, I would say, popular rather than literary fiction.  Nothing wrong with that!  But then the story, setting and characters must be interesting enough to make the book worth reading.  For me, Grace’s story was sad but predictable, and hers was the only character in this story that really came to life.  Mary and John, on the other hand, have a present-day story that is meaningful, and there characters held my interest.

I would not read more Bragg in a hurry, though I have huge respect for him a presenter and scholar.


by Jonathan Franzen

What got me started on Franzen?  It was in fact a FutureLearn course that I have started but not progressed very far with – Literature in the Digital AgeI’m still not sure whether I will continue with this course, but a photograph of the cover of this novel was shown alongside another cover page – of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – on one of the course videos.  I don’t remember the point that was being made, but it encouraged me to look up Franzen and Freedom, and download a sample.  I liked what I read, and immediately ordered this book from my local library.

On my next visit to the library, I saw a copy of Franzen’s Purity on the shelf, and borrowed it.  But I hadn’t started to read this before Freedom arrived, so I turned to my first choice and returned Purity to the library.

I love Franzen’s writing style and the stories, and especially the characters, that he is able to bring to life.  I feel as if I know Patty and Walter Berglund, their son Joey and Walter’s best friend Richard at least as well as I know my own family members.  Perhaps it helps that three of the four main characters are contemporaries of mine, so I can see their lives and choices in the context of my own life.  Growing up in the seventies; raising a young family in the eighties; being interested in matters of global concern while still trying to create a comfortable and warm home environment; nurturing and encouraging one’s children but being unsure whether you have done it right.  There are so many freedoms that the book’s title may refer to.  Fundamentally, I think this novel is about choices and their consequences.  Patty fancies Richard but chooses to live her life with Walter.  Richard chooses the lifestyle of a rock musician but values (and secretly envies) Patty’s and Walter’s  home life.  Patty has achieved success as an athlete but is insecure and has never met her parents’ aspirations for her.  Walter and Joey choose to become involved with what turns out to be a corrupt organisation – and subsequently choose to distance themselves from it.

We are, perhaps, the ‘freedom generation’.  Our parents and grandparents had far fewer choices.  And, in some ways, we had more choice than our children, who are more financially constrained than we were.  I chose, like Patty, to stay at home with my young children.  Few new parents these days have the freedom to make that choice.

The novel seems to me to be asking the question: “Does freedom of choice make you happy?”  The answer appears to be a qualified “No”.  You make mistakes, not all of which can be remedied.

This novel also contains plenty of humour, and some stupendous images and accomplished writing.  An brief example:

Patty felt like she was dealing with a huge ball of Bazooka that she couldn’t get unguided from her fingers; the strands of Veronica’s logic were boundlessly elastic and adhered not only to Patty but to themselves.

Or the often-quoted observation by Walter Berglund:

People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.

I’m about to read some of Franzen’s non-fiction, and will definitely return to his other novels at some point.  He is a couple of years younger than me – and so I hope that he has a few more novels in him!

The Sunrise

by Victoria Hislop

I picked out this book from my mother’s collection, when I was just about to go away with my parents for a short break.  I felt it might make good holiday reading – and I was right.  Although I persevered for a few days with my previous book, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, I gave up on it soon enough and reached for the Hislop.

I’ve read two of Hislop’s earlier books, The Thread and The Island (neither of them reviewed on this site) as well as some of her short stories, and although I am not a fan of her writing style, she is a master of plot, and this story held my attention thoughout.  The setting for this story is Cyprus in the early 1970s, immediately before, during and after the 1974 coup and Turkish invasion.  I knew little enough about this history, despite having visited southern Cyprus (in 2002, shortly before the border to the north was opened) and having spoken with a colleague who was actually on holiday in Northern Cyprus when the invasion took place.

The real strength of this story is the way it demonstrates ordinary people caught up in seismic events that change their lives forever; how they support each other and try to retain friendships in the face of calamity; and how, even when we lose everything, life has to carry on.

The villain of the story (apart from the war itself) is a character who, at first, can be almost liked or at least admired.  His true deviousness is hinted at but it is only towards the end of the story that his bad character is fully exposed to the reader, as well as to the other actors in the story.  Through all their troubles, the Turkish Cypriot Özkan family and the Greek Cypriot Gorgeous stick together. But the fate of the island, and the populations who had formerly lived side by side, is forever changed.

The Little Stranger

by Sarah Waters

i can’t quite bring myself to finish this book. I have read about half of it, having picked it up in the library a few days ago while waiting for my latest reservation to arrive.

Waters writes fluently and naturally, and the historical and physical setting are interesting and well-observed. But I find that the story moves oh-so-slowly, and there is little or not character development.

Some critics have described these early novels of Sarah Waters as echoing the style of earlier authors: Dickens, or in this case, Du Maurier. I can’t really comment, as I have only read one novel by Du Maurier (Rebecca).  But I think it was more engaging – and more threatening – than this. Perhaps it is just that I am not keen on ghost stories.

A Little History of Religion

by Richard Holloway

This book was recommended, I believe, by my fellow Bahá’í Rob Weinberg.  I had only vaguely heard of Richard Holloway, and while waiting for this book to arrive in my local library, I read his memoir Leaving Alexandria – a Memoir of Faith and Doubt.  This gave me some insights into the man, and was quite helpful while reading his ‘little history’.

The book lives up to its name, with each chapter four to five pages in length, and no more than three chapters given to any one religion or topic.  The book is neatly structured: each new topic is introduced at the very end of the previous chapter, given the impression that there is indeed some kind of progression or common theme running through religions.  Holloway does not gloss over the shortcomings of religions and their adherents over the years.  Far from it; the last two chapters, on Holy War and the future of religions, asks some very serious questions.

It would be hard for me here to give much of a picture of this book without writing it again!  (And I am sure I could not do such a good job.)  The author gives the historical and social context of each of the religions and sects that he writes about, so that the reader can get a feel for how they evolved and the impact they had.  It is assumed that the reader knows something about religion – a reasonable assumption, if you have elected to read this book.  But he does not assume that they know anything in detail about any one religion, and so is able to explain in basic language, for instance, the content and message behind various of Christ’s parables; the difference between the Abrahamic religions’ emphasis on a continuing spiritual life after death and Indian religions’ belief in a continuing cycle of life on this earth; and the political as well as theological basis for the Reformation.

This is an excellent book, written in clear, accessible but not simplistic language.  It is one that I may well end up purchasing to read again and share with others.

Brighton Rock

by Graham Greene

Hot on the heels of Travels with my Aunt, which I really enjoyed (8/10), I selected this book from my bookshelf.

A slight aside at this point: though our house remains full of books, I have been fairly drastically reducing my library over the past few years, and controlling what comes in.  I buy new books only rarely, and then I try to buy them from an independent bookseller such as alison’s bookshop and musicroom in Tewkesbury, The Book Shop in Liskeard, Blandford Books in Broadway or Coach House books and art materials in Pershore.  If I’m looking for a specific book, I take a quick look around local charity shops and, if not found, reserve it from the library.  I also buy new books in Kindle format quite often.  The criteria for keeping a book are: might I want to introduce it to my book group? Is there any chance I will read it again? Is this a book I may wish to pass on to someone else (but not immediately)?  If it doesn’t meet any of these criteria, I will usually pass it on or donate it.

Nevertheless, three Graham Greene novels had found their way onto a bookcase.  Perhaps they were from my parents-in-law’s vast library, which we are slowly dismantling and sorting into three groups: British Library, charity shop and ‘keepsies’.

So, to the text itself.  Greene’s writing is so accomplished it looks effortless.  He seems to be able to ‘get inside the head’ of his main character, whom the narrator  calls “the Boy” and whom his fellow gang members call “Pinkie”, as well as Pinkie’s girlfriend, the innocent young waitress, Rose.

Pinkie seems to be a person with – to use a term current today – no moral compass.  His reflections on his upbringing, which the reader is to understand was poor and perhaps squalid, amount to a horror of sex derived from having to witness his parents’ Saturday afternoon couplings (one assumes they were too poor – or unimaginative – to send the young boy to the cinema). Is the reader supposed to empathise with Pinkie at all?  I think not, but the writing is clever in that it encourages you to see the world from Pinkie’s point of view, even though the story is written in the third person.

Rose very definitely does have a moral compass, and her view of the world is shaped by her Catholic upbringing, which she is unable to shake off.  Even after the couple is legally married at a registry office, she is convinced that they have committed a mortal sin by having sex without the sacrament of marriage in a church. Rose will do anything for her man, and until almost the end of the story she seems to have no promptings to act independently even though she can see him for what he is.  She is an extreme example of a woman who is prepared to “stand by her man”.

Greene explores life, death, religion, justice, guilt – as applied to the lives of ordinary people caught up in an underworld.  There is violence and needless murder.  But there are also moments of tenderness.

Perhaps one of the most interesting characters is Ida Parsons, a woman who has come down for the day from London and becomes aware of the circumstances of the first murder in the book, following which she is determined to act as an unofficial detective and bring the murderer to light and to justice.  The tension in the book comes mainly from the way in which she catches up on the gang but always remains one step behind. The reader fears for her life even though she does not appear to do so, despite warnings from others.  It seems that her quest is just another kind of adventure for someone who is, by her own admission, a good time girl.

There is plenty of sex (of a rather sordid variety) in this book written in the 1930s.  It is a subject that Greene does not shy away from, and it makes the book accessible on yet another level.  To have ignored Ida’s pursuing of casual relationships purely for sexual pleasure, or Pinkie’s and Rose’s fear of something of which they are both very ignorant, would have made this a lesser book.

The last Greene on my shelf is The Quiet American.  I plan to read this in due course – and maybe also Our Man in Havana, to set against the John le Carré book The Tailor of Panama.


by Hilary Mantel

Recommended by our book group.  I am reading ahead, so had better make some notes as we are not due to discuss this book for another two months!

I have read other books by Mantel: Beyond Black, Giving up the Ghost, A Place of Greater Safety, Wolf Hall.  This is the first one that our book group has taken on, and I anticipate it will get a very mixed response.

I found that I couldn’t put this book down.  The writing is very direct and engaging, and draws the reader into what is, after all, a slightly fantastic story.  On one level, it is the story of a young nun’s sexual awakening when she comes into contact with, and eventually runs away with, a young man who may or may not be a priest.  The setting is an important part of the story: a remote and backward working-class community near Manchester; cotton mills; wild moorland; daily toil.  The surroundings are unremittingly bleak.  Mantel has evidently based this story on the area in which she grew up, and the date when the events in the story unfold mirrors a similar event in her home community, when the local Catholic church removed the statues of various saints.

On another level, the story is about religion, superstition, the hold that faith can have on an individual and a community, and the dangers (and pleasures) involved in breaking the rules.  At no point does the reader feel inclined to urge Sister Philomena (or Roisin O’Halloran, to use her real name) not to run away from the convent.  And indeed, the other nuns – with the exception of Mother Perpetua – seem inclined to encourage her.  Mother ‘Purpiture’ (as she is known in the neighbourhood) gets her come-uppance, and again this story can be read on various levels: did she spontaneously combust?  Or did the ever-lurking Judd McEvoy have something to do with it?  As Father Angwin muses: “It is a wise man who can tell the firefighter from the arsonist”.

Demonic figures abound: Judd McEvoy is seen as a demonic figure, though he is, in his own words, merely an onlooker.  Fludd himself is apparently a con-man: neither priest nor doctor, but convincingly impersonating the new curate.  Is he an incarnation of the devil, or simply an opportunist?  I find it intriguing that Mantel chose to name the book after this character.  He is intriguing and also rather attractive in his self-assuredness and his ability to get the parishioners, priests and nuns (apart from Purpiture) onside.

Mantel deals in this novel with great complexity in the Catholic faith.  This is not just a tale of one Catholic’s rejection of the religion they grew up with, and the associated guilt.  The religious storyline takes in Father Angwin’s attachment to the old rites (statues of saints, Latin mass) as opposed to the bishop’s iconoclastic tendency – and touches on the hypocrisy that allows the bishop to take this stance, when in his earlier life he was a vocal proponent of everything Angwin holds dear.  It goes into minute and ridiculous detail on matters of doctrine: it is permissible to fry fish in beef fat on a fast day?  Can you eat jam on a fast day?  Mantel clearly knows (or has researched) her Catholic doctrine.  But she is not just sending up the faith of her birth.  She takes in penitence, contrition, evil (in various forms), and suffering.

Philomena/Roisin is Irish, and there is a contrast drawn between the firm faith shown by Irish Catholics, and the catholicism she encounters in North West England.  She is drawn to the former, and abhors the latter.  But in the end, she makes a her choice and leaves both behind her.  The reader is left wondering what will become of this woman.  I can’t help thinking that hers will not be a good end.