Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Throwback Books – Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Now, where do I begin with Elizabeth Gaskell?

As it happens, where I began with Elizabeth Gaskell was with her most famous novel, North and South, which I read when I was about thirteen years old. I then read Wives and Daughters and Cranford, and several shorter works – and then promptly and unjustly forgot about Elizabeth Gaskell. That is, until last month, when I picked up Mary Barton.

Written in 1848, Mary Barton follows the lives of several families of industrial workers in Victorian Manchester. It centres on Mary Barton, a young seamstress, and her father factory worker John Barton. After the death of his wife, John Barton falls into depression and becomes involved in the Chartist movement. Meanwhile his daughter grows up unattended, and attracts two suitors – one, her childhood friend Jem Wilson, and the other, Harry Carson, the son of a wealthy mill owner. But this is so much more than a love story. Its chief subjects are the poverty and difficulties of the working class in Manchester, and what such poverty can drive them too. The novel is bound up in factory politics, but never in a way that would be inaccessible to a modern reader. Moreover, the novel shifts effortlessly between the political and the domestic, and it is a deeply human story, a tale of grief, violence and family, the darkest of Gaskell’s novels that I have read.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Books – The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is one of those books that I had been meaning to read for a very, very long time. I read the opening pages in a lesson at school when I was seventeen and had been intending to get round to it ever since. It had been sitting on my shelf for nearly five years, and I had heard so many things about it – almost exclusively good things, if not brilliant things, life-changing things, this-is-the-best-book-ever things. I say this as a sort of disclaimer, because although I did like and was interested by The Handmaid’s Tale, I wasn’t quite as impressed as I had expected to be.

The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps one of the most famous dystopian novels of the twentieth century, alongside George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, there are many similarities between these two books, and in a way The Handmaid’s Tale is for gender what Nineteen Eighty-Four is for class – or, more accurately, The Handmaid’s Tale is for misogyny what Nineteen Eighty-Four is for radical communism. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian North America, where society has been systematically rearranged following some kind of war or coup, and partly triggered by declining birth rates. Women are no longer allowed property, and have to conform to one of four roles in life: wife, Martha (servant), Aunt (a sort of teacher), or Handmaid. The role of Handmaids is to bear children for high-ranking officials and their wives.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Books with Friends – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen (sort of) – reviewed by Chris King

Today, another guest review, by Chris King:

Zombies stand in for many situations and make unusual and extreme situations more understandable. They are consumerism, they are conscription and militarisation, a metaphor for the elderly and inevitable death. Zombies can make living in the horrors of a warzone more relatable. Zombies even work wonderfully in the Regency period, as they can stand in for dehumanised people. Imagine the French revolution with the king fleeing his residence when a force of zombies shamble up to the gates and Marie Antoinette declaring: ‘if they cannot eat bread, let them eat meat’– that would work well. What does not work is making violence acceptable because the human victims have been swapped for zombies or just shoehorning zombies in because they are considered cool. Ironically, adding zombies to something makes it a prime target for consumerism. So now Jane Austen has zombies in it, and this will become a movie. Also ninjas.

The entire purpose of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is to make Austen’s classic relatable to people who don’t think they will like it. It is for A-level students that think a 200-year-old book must be stupid, for people who think they should read the classic but assume it will be boring, or worse it is for those men who don’t like “women’s literature” (whatever that is, apparently Pride and Prejudice is part of it). So zombies get added to make it interesting. It is the same principle as 50 Sheds of Grey; it is not designed for lovers of Fifty Shades of Grey but instead for people who don’t like it but want to get involved in the discussion of it.

Now, I should talk about the plot, characters and style like I do for most reviews rather than just being hung up on the premise, but then again, for this book, the premise is the book.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Short Stories – Used To Be, by Elizabeth Baines

(Note: this book was sent to me by the publisher for review.)

Nearly a year ago, I reviewed two short story anthologies, Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës and Best British Short Stories 2015. Within these, I read two short stories by an author called Elizabeth Baines. Both mesmerised me. They had an intriguing narrative style and a self-conscious awareness of storytelling that intrigued me. I was keen to read more by her and now finally have.

Her new book Used To Be certainly lived up to my high expectations. The collection is separated into two halves. ‘What Was, What Is’ contains stories that deal with the theme of memory, of the shifting connections between the past and the present. The second section, ‘What May Be’, deals with what if stories and hypotheticals, with dreams and turning points and possibilities. Both sections have a wide variety of stories, ranging in perspective, theme and even the time period in which they’re set. We have middle-aged women looking back at the turning point of their life. We have sisters who have never understood each other, nineteenth century men being haunted by the ghosts of their deeds. We have black holes and near train crashes and ruined castles. These stories are journeys into the past and into possible futures and strike a superb balance between the thought-provoking and the poignant.