See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

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On 4th August 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden, a prosperous bourgeois couple living in the Fall River area of Massachusetts, were bludgeoned to death with a hatchet in their own home. Andrew Borden’s face was so severely destroyed that he was unrecognisable. The culprit? According to the police, the daughter; 32-year-old Lizzie Borden.

This brutal crime and subsequent sensational trial (which ended with Lizzie Borden’s acquittal – women just weren’t capable of such violent crimes after all) is so well-known in America, they even have a song:

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

Shudder. (US readers – it isn’t a nursery rhyme or something horrendous is it? Like ‘ring a ring o’ roses??!’):

It is so hard now, with the passage of time and the no doubt questionable and inadequate  investigative techniques of yor, not only to know for certain who actually committed these gruesome murders but to understand the woman who was most likely the culprit. It is for this reason, along with the sheer infamy of these crimes even today (seriously, just have a quick Google there are some absolute diehard ‘fans’/theorists out there) that Sarah Schmidt is a brave woman to take on this crime as her subject, as ripe for retelling as it inevitably is.

This was April’s choice for the Manchester Book Club and I honestly thought we were in for one of those chats where, because everyone loved it, beyond explaining why we loved it there really wouldn’t be much left to say. This wasn’t to be so. To my delight (quite frankly, because I love a good discussion) some found the oppressive, sickening atmosphere that Schmidt so deftly builds up to be a little too much to stomach. I personally thought it was genius, and so cleverly done. This novel is less about the ‘whodunnit’ (covered so many times), ‘howdunnit’ or even necessarily the ‘whodunnit’ (that is kind of left up to the reader) than the hot, sticky, sickening atmosphere of the Borden house in the height of the Massachusetts summer.

Along with the heat, the actual illness of the main characters in the house (bar, ever suspiciously, Lizzie herself) helps to exacerbate the stomach churning feeling. A pot of mutton stew sits on the stove throughout the novel, to be reheated again and again. Watching the family tuck into the meat is disgusting enough in itself… are they making themselves ill? Or have they been poisoned?

The Lizzie Borden story will always be a guessing game. Schmidt paints her as a needy, vulnerable, slightly manic character who we can perfectly place with a hatchet in her hands. But why the mania, why the murder? Mr and Mrs Borden are not the most endearing of characters, particularly Andrew Borden, who Schmidt shows to be both distant and abusive. We can only wonder at what went on behind closed doors. We are also introduced to the creepy uncle ‘John’, in real life the only ‘outsider’ known to be staying in the Borden house around the time of the murders. His relationship with his ‘girls’ is, again, painted as a little off. Is he an abuser? Or, indeed, is he capable of murder himself?

I loved this book and promptly lent it to Mummy Relish (with a warning not to read it when in the house on her own, ironically I found the creepiest bit to be the epilogue where Schmidt describes her own stay in the murder house). The only part that jarred and I felt was thrown in just for the sake of throwing up the question of Lizzie’s guilt was a random character called ‘Billy’, whom John hires to hurt/threaten Andrew Borden (he never gets the chance). There is mystery enough in the Bordens’ sad story without throwing in an extra character, and an unendearing one at that.

This is more than worthy of the Women’s Prize Longlist. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for her for next week’s shortlist!

 

 

Books That Take Place Abroad

Courtesy of That Artsy Reader Girl, I’ll be dipping into books I’ve read that take place abroad (i.e. not the UK) this week. It feels a bit of a cheat really because, when I think about it, I don’t read a great many books set in England in the first place!

For these purposes, therefore, I need to think a little deeper. About those books with the greatest sense of place, that would be devoid of meaning without it.

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

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The first time we went to India my other half and I were determined to read literature to go along with our trip. He read Shantaram (ridiculous, apparently) and I read Rohinton Mistry’s chunk of a novel. It is a phenomenal book, capturing India and its hierarchical society in all its glory. Brilliant, evocative and added a perfect extra layer to the holiday.

Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

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I read this classic so many years ago that the details are vague. However, what has easily remained with me is both how much I adored it (maybe time for a reread?) and its deeply evocative sense of place.

The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht

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It seems odd I suppose to include a book here that I, controversially given its prize-winning status, didn’t much care for. In reality I found Obreht’s surreal tale to be unnecessarily confusing and meandering. That said, the bleak portrait she paints of an unknown Balkan state, with its icy weather, traditions and folklore has stuck with me ever since.

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

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Another one that I read years and years ago but whose images; dusty courtyards, bombed out houses, women gazing through the mesh of their burqa, have seared themselves in my mind. And I haven’t even read The Kite Runner yet. Yey.

Ruby –  Cynthia Bond

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As tough as some of the scenes are in this tale of abuse and betrayal in America’s Deep South, the atmosphere and imagery of rural East Texas are undeniably beautiful.

The Orchard of Lost Souls – Nadifa Mohamed

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I’ve said it countless times but I really need (still) to read more African literature. Somalia is a real black hole on a map for me, thankfully less so after reading this Mohamed’s thoughtful, complex second novel.

Wild Swans – Jung Chang

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This task is so useful for reflecting on books I read years ago. I stared at this one on my auntie’s bookshelves for years before finally picking it up. It is an absolute must read. Epic.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

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An entirely different side to America than Ruby, Donna Tartt’s doorstop novel, which I dog-eared to bits, is phenomenal, ranging from a cosy, antique New York to a cold, hard Los Angeles, whose dusty streets and sterile homes magnify the sense of unease and foreboding.

Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

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This classic really gets mixed reviews so I felt rather dubious when it was chosen by the book club one month. To my surprise I really loved it and that was helped by the vivid picture Rhys paints of life in nineteenth century Jamaica/Dominica. Hot, oppressive and delirious.

Carmen – Prosper Mérimée

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I was so excited to read the novella that inspired Bizet’s famous opera. Mérimée is always good for a short story and Carmen is no exception. It also helps that I lived in wonderful Sevilla for a very short time and have LIVED that famous cigar factory. Yas.

Oh No, George! – Chris Haughton

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Ah George. Your perfectly rounded dome head, your dopey stare, your perfectly floppy ears…your great big clumsy body….hang on, I’ve seen you somewhere before….

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Inspired by our very own dome head, my other half bought Chris Haughton’s book on a whim whilst loitering around Waterstones one chilly afternoon. This tale of doggy mischief and mayhem is hilarious and heartwarming and another absolute fave in the Relish household at the moment.

George the Labrador (this isn’t specified by the way, I just like to think of him as a lab) lives with owner, Harris (who is, I’d like to note here, both smaller than George and rather green around the gills) who decides to leave poor George to his devices one day. I say poor George as the prospect of being left alone in the house with a cake, a cat AND some lovely potted plants makes him incredibly nervous.

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What follows are the disastrous consequences of Harris’ departure, as George, unable to resist his doggy instincts, makes mistake after mistake, all accompanied by the cry ‘Oh no George!’ Reading to a toddler every day you swiftly come to realise the value of Repetition, with a capital R.

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Harris of course has to eventually come back, George is rumbled and absolutely devastated by his behaviour. In a scene that I think is simply the saddest I’ve read in a long time (yes, more than THAT scene in One Day) George, with a tear rolling down his cheek, apologises and offers his beloved Harris his toy duck. Oh George, you break my heart.

Being a sensible sort of chap Harris suggests going for a nice walk to clear the air, a walk where George redeems himself by ignoring all temptation. What a good boy. But wait……an overflowing bin looms on the horizon. Baby is left with a nerve-wracking cliff hanger. Will he go for the rubbish? I personally like to think he does.

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I love this book. From a personal point of view it makes me feel like I understand our great daft dog a little better and, I hope, makes me a little kinder to him when he snaffles in the rubbish bin. Ish! I wasn’t overly keen on the Microsoft-paint style illustrations at first but the naive style really does grow on you and after a while, I cottoned on to what I think Haughton is trying to do here. And its charming.

But never mind me, does baby like it? The answer is a big fat yes. The colours are bold and the characters recognisable (it helps that we have our very own teeny black cat and great big dog at home). The constant repetition of ‘oh no George!’ (and, later, ‘well done George!’) is something he’s waiting for, the anticipation making it all the more hilarious. I also think it’s important for young children to get to know characters like George, who make mistakes despite their best intentions. It seems an important message to send that we’re not all perfect after all and that, if you’re genuinly sorry for stealing that slice of cake and make a big effort to redeem yourself afterwards, everything’s probably going to be absolutely fine.

Warm, funny, colourful, relatable, all we need in a baby book.

 

‘Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of one’s desires, but by the removal of desire…No man is free who is not master of himself.’              

 EPICTETUS   (and George, the dog)

 

We Were Eight Years in Power – Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Along with much of the sane world, in January of last year, I sat, pinned to my sofa in utter horror as Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. How had this country, or indeed, the world, gotten into such a state where a openly racist, misogynist tycoon/tv personality could rise to the most powerful seat in the world? A fact all the more astounding given his car crash of a presidential campaign. It was this question I was hoping to answer when I put forward Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book as an option for the book club last month. We took the tantalising bait.

Coates’ book consists of a series of articles, originally published in The Atlantic magazine, written over the course of Barack Obama’s time in power. He takes us from the Civil War, Malcolm X and black conservatism right through to the election of Donald Trump; whom he dubs America’s first ‘White President‘. Each article is preceded by a brief introduction from Coates explaining his motivations for each article in relation to each stage of the Obama presidency.

Coates obviously has a clear agenda with this book and that is ostensibly to demonstrate how the explanation for Trump’s victory lies not purely in struggling rust belt states and their distaste for a liberal, elitist class that they feel has forgotten them, but in racism, pure and simple. With the relevant facts and figures he demonstrates that the Trump electorate came from every class, gender and creed. Their unifying characteristic? They were overwhelmingly white.

Is this tribalism at its purist? The reaction of a spooked white populace desperate to claim back power? I really don’t know and am nowhere near qualified to answer. My instinct tells me that the answers are far more complex than even this book demonstrates, but Coates’ arguments are nevertheless compelling.

One thing that is clear is that racism, specifically towards African Americans, is an inherent part of American society. This is a country that, whilst advertising itself as the land of the free, was built on the backs of African slaves and their descendants. It is also a country where government legislation has actively cold-shouldered the African American community, be it through Jim Crow law or practices such as redlining. This is all fact (trust me, I fell into a Google hole with something every other page). And it is deeply shocking.

Most of the group found this book a bit of a slog. Thinking back to my university days this isn’t the densest non-fiction I’ve ever read but, since all I’ve read for years is novels I did find this slow going, but god is it illuminating and I do feel, as cliched as it may sound, a better person for having finished it. Coates is clearly writing, of course, from his particular point of view, which makes it tricky for someone who, although completely  on side, doesn’t have the depth of understanding of American history and politics to hold her own (I’m repeating myself here I know but I’m wary about sticking my oar into such a sensitive subject when I understand so little). There’s also, due to the book being a series of articles, a lot of repetition which, although helping to hammer some points home that I may not have previously grasped, massively increased the slog factor.

Coates maintains that Barack Obama is the best of the best and that, including his unusual, multiracial, international upbringing made him uniquely qualified to rise up and take the seat of power. Now his legacy is threatened by a man who thinks that global warming is a ruse created by the Chinese and whose attitude towards women and ethnic minorities is deplorable. Nice one America.

Books I Could Re-read Forever

Back in 2016 the pressure to think up startlingly original reviews/bookish posts finally got the better of me and I gave in – albeit temporarily. Life happened and what has followed has been quite a simple epiphany – it doesn’t fudging matter if my posts are any good as long as I’m enjoying myself! It has been all to easy too forget just how fantastic the online bookish community is and the past couple of weeks I’ve spent reconnecting with people have been just wonderful and reminded me just how much I’ve missed everyone.

I always enjoy writing reviews but, if I’m honest, anything beyond that (unless I have a clear subject matter; e.g. a bookshop I’ve visited, etc) I sometimes struggle for inspiration and I have so much admiration for those who churn out quality post after post. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed the eternally popular Top Ten Tuesday (originally hosted by Jamie at The Broke and the Bookish who has since moved on and has now courageously been taken on by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) for a little mental jig around and inspiration (which if any of you have seen my woeful Goodreads so far this year will understand is sorely needed). Today I’m starting on a positive note and looking at the books I could reread forever (but never do since rereading feels like time-wasting – I know that that’s the wrong attitude to have – feel free to tell me how wrong in the comments section below!):

1. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell 

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Now, because of when/where it is set (i.e. Civil War era Georgia) Gone With the Wind can make you squirm; specifically with its depiction of slavery – oh how content they seem! However, regardless of these sinister misgivings, this is a CRACKER of a story and I could read it all. day. long.

2. Snowflake – Paul Gallico

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I’m sure I’ve mentioned this book on here a million times, no doubt in lists identical to this one but do give it a read. It’s not a terribly well-known book these days but it is oh so sweet and ever so magical. Read it before the snow disappears!

3. His Dark Material Trilogy – Philip Pullman

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It’s so many years now since I read Philip Pullman’s legendary trilogy, I’ve definitely passed my 10 year rule on re-reads. It’s time to dust these off again because the fantastical adventures of Lyra and her Pantalaimon have never left me.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

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Does this one need any explanation? I unfortunately didn’t make it very far into the popular TV adaptation last year (I couldn’t cope with my OH spoiling it for himself) but a million and one people have told me I need to give it another crack.

5. The Snowchild – Eowyn Ivey

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Another beautiful novel. Rich with imagery and meaning. This modern fairytale reminds me in this lull that there are wonderful books out there, I just need to search a little harder (and read a little more thoughtfully).

6. The Snowgoose – Paul Gallico

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Another beautiful, fable-like tale from one of my all time faves (I’m sure those of you who have been around here a while are familiar with my twee Paul Gallico obsession – sorry). The Snow Goose is arguably his most famous work.

7. I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

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I often get myself into a mood where I relish eccentric, quintessentially English books that don’t need to necessarily go anywhere plot-wise, they just need to be beautifully written. This is a book for all your lazy summer afternoons.

8. All My Friends are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufman

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After reading his fantastical fable; The Tiny Wife, I was so excited to return to Andrew Kaufman’s famous first book. It is funny, quirky in the extreme, touching and can be read on so many different levels. It definitely needs to be read more than the once.

9. Cider with Rosie – Laurie Lee

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Ooooo Laurie Lee. More quintessential ‘englishness’ (the original, in my opinion). Although the Spanish novels recounting his time there during the civil war are wonderful, I adore Cider with Rosie. It’s idyllic picture of rural England makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I just can’t help myself.

10. We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Adichie is not only an immensely talented novelist but an awesome woman, an intellectual force to be reckoned with and this tract; based on her 2013 TEDx talk, is food for thought. You have no excuse not to improve yourself by reading this again and again; it’s oh so short and oh so important.