Books Read in 2022 – 11. Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North – Stuart Maconie.

Genre: Travel writing

Narrative Style: informal

Rating 2/5

Published: 2007

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Stuart Maconie is proud of being a northerner but it is a long time since he lived in the north. Exiled in the south for too long, he decides to return to his roots and investigate what is true and what is cliché about his birthplace.

Time on shelf: I bought this a couple of years from a charity shop. We certainly had it during lockdown because my husband made an attempt at reading it. He didn’t get very far before he put it back on the shelf. I really should have taken more notice.

I wouldn’t say I was a massive fan of Stuart Maconie but I always quite enjoy his 6radio show with Mark Radcliffe and I am Northern so I thought this might be an interesting read. And in someone else’s hands it might have been. As it was, it irritated me from the very start.

The book opens with Maconie describing a scene where he and an old friend (also Northern) were making Sunday brunch and they were looking for the sun-dried tomatoes and it turned out they were behind the cappuccino machine. They looked at each other and wondered what they had become. Maconie knows the answer to that: Southerners. I would like to give him a different answer: middle class people. Throughout this book, Maconie equates being Northern with being working class – an annoying stereotype that he seems quite happy to perpetuate. Don’t get me wrong, I know there was a lot of industry in the North and so obviously, there were a lot of workers but every city in the North has its share of moneyed people, just as every Southern city has working class people. To be fair, Maconie does talk about the revitalisation of cities such as Leeds and Manchester that have had a lot of money thrown at them – he mentions how journalists called Leeds ‘the Knightsbridge of the North’ when Harvey Nichols was opened there. But that isn’t what he was talking about in the opening which is about people and how they act. When Maconie comes to talk about Northerners with money, the main place he talks about is Cheshire which is barely in the North. It’s as if he couldn’t countenance anywhere further into the North having that sort of money. There are 28000 millionaires in Yorkshire but I guess that would have spoiled his impression of the cheeky, salt of the Earth, Northerner.

This book should really be called In Search of the North West because that is where Maconie spends most of his time. I understand that he is from Wigan and he loves the North West; that really does come across. However, the whole of Yorkshire and the whole of the North East get one chapter each which seems remiss when Blackpool got nearly a whole chapter to itself. (Incidentally, not all Northerners have been to Blackpool, holiday makers in Newcastle tended to go to Scarborough or Berwick, not somewhere on the other side of the country.) As a result, Durham and Newcastle get only a few pages each. Okay, so I am biased, being from Newcastle, but surely both of these cities deserved more.

Finally, it turns out that Maconie writes like he talks and it is really annoying. I guess having Radcliffe to bounce off on his radio show really takes the edge of how irritating he is. Throw in some needless name dropping and you have a book that I almost didn’t finish. It was only the fact the he deals with the North East (which he calls The Great North but only gives it one chapter) right at the end that kept me reading.

Books Read in 2022 – 3. Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee – Meera Syal

Genre: Chick lit, Indian Lit, Family

Narrative Style: First person and third person sections from various points of view.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1999

Format: Paperback

Synposis: Chila, Sunita and Tania have been friends since school. Now, Tania is a documentary maker, Sunita is married with two children and Chila is about to marry Deepak. They are as close ever until Tania makes a documentary about modern Indian life staring Chila and Sunita and their friendship falls apart.

Time on shelf: This was inherited from my husband’s aunt, six years ago. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages but it kept getting overtaken by newer purchases.

This book was largely as I expected it would be. Syal paints a clear picture of what it is like to be Indian in Britain at the end of the twentieth century. It is well-observed, at least as far as the events and emotions generated by them go. The prose is easy to read and the plot was easy to follow. For all that, at times it annoyed me.

The main issue I had with this novel was the switching between viewpoints. I don’t mind multiple narrators and, in fact, the first person sections were largely successful. When in third person mode, however, Syal tended to jump between points of view quickly – often after only a paragraph or two – and I found that a little disorientating. It didn’t help further the plot, just made it seem chaotic.

The characters seemed a little one dimensional at times and sometimes slipped into stereotype. The men existed merely as foils to the women and were little developed beyond that. I did enjoy the difference between generations and the way the three women tried to live up to their parents expectations while also fulfilling their own wishes. However, I found Chila’s naivety irritating and unbelievable and Tania remarkably insensitive. Sunita was probably the most favourably drawn but even then I wasn’t 100 percent convinced by her transformation from mother to fun-loving feminist.

Having said that, I did enjoy reading it. At times, it was laugh out loud funny, at others it was heartbreakingly sad. I’m not a big fan of chick-lit so, perhaps inevitably, it was never going to be the perfect read for me. It did keep me gripped but I wished that Syal had settled for fewer point of view changes.

Books Read in 2021 – 21 Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: First person, Moves between past and present

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1979

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Dana lives in California in 1976. Just after her 26th birthday, she is pulled back to the time of slavery to save the life of Rufus, a white boy who is drowning. Over the next few weeks, she is dragged back in time again and again, always to save his life. It transpires that Rufus is her ancestor and she must keep him alive in order for her ancestral line to be created.

Time on shelf: I was given this for Christmas by a friend who had just read it. It is a book I was aware of but hadn’t got round to purchasing myself.

I really thought I’d enjoy this more. In some ways, I feel I should give it two ratings as it felt almost like reading two books. First of all, I would give 5 out of 5 for the idea of the time travel and the way that Butler put across the way that the trauma of slavery still affects black people in the present day. However, I did not enjoy the execution of the idea and I found it hard to suspend my disbelief.

First the good, then. Dana learns a lot about her ancestry over the course of her visits back to save Rufus’ life. She hadn’t known that she had any white ancestors as her family bible with all the names of her ancestors in it didn’t go back that far. It becomes apparent that Rufus has raped the woman that will become Dana’s ancestor. This is uncomfortable for Dana as her existence is based on the rape of another women and she becomes complicit in arranging for Rufus and Alice to be together. It is also uncomfortable for the reader to realise that this repressed trauma is at the centre of African American experience. It brings to the fore things that America would rather forget, forcing the reader to confront uncomfortable truths about slavery and Black experience.

There is an interesting parallel between Dana’s relationship with her white husband, Kevin in the present day and the relationships between master and slave in the past. In the present day, Dana has chosen her husband, enjoys having sex with him and he has rejected his racist family in order to be with her. When they are both pulled into the past, their dynamic changes. They have to play the role of master and slave as they were not allowed to be married. The difference in their treatment on the plantation brings home the difference in their status compared to the modern day where they view themselves as equals.

In some ways, to complain about this book at all seems like petty nitpicking but, for me, it was nowhere near perfect. I found the way Rufus and the slaves accepted the appearance and disappearance of Dana quite ridiculous. It irritated me all the way through. In truth, I’m not sure what Butler could have done that would have solved this problem but it did spoil my reading somewhat.

I didn’t really take to Dana or Kevin. Not that there is that much character development. The focus here is on history and its effects and maybe that is fair enough given the issues that Butler is trying to address. Still, I found it unfulfilling as a novel or a story. It is much better as an exploration of the ways race, gender and power intersect and the way that history doesn’t stay in the past but still effects our daily lives.

Full House Challenge – The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Genre: South Korean Literature, Madness, Family

Narrative Style: First and Third Person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2007

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Yeong-Hye decides to stop eating meat, much to the annoyance of her husband who makes no effort to understand her reasons. When questioned, she replies that she had a dream and after that, she had to stop eating meat. It is a dream of violence and blood and she finds it impossible to put into words exactly why she can no longer eat meat. After a disastrous visit to her parents’ home, her family life begins to fall apart and she ends up in the asylum.

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre: Diversity

 This was a very strange read. I must admit that I don’t know that much about South Korea’s culture. That was one of the reasons this book appealed to me. Having said that, if I had just a little more knowledge, it might have made more sense to me.

The novel is split into three sections. The first is narrated by Yeung-hye’s husband (with italicised sections that describe her bloody dreams) as she makes the decision to give up meat. He is not a very understanding man and comes across as harsh in his treatment of her. However, it is also apparent that the social mores in South Korea have no place for this woman who has decided to stop eating meat. No one can understand her position and her husband is no better or worse than any of her family. The section ends with a visit to her family which finishes with her father trying to force her to eat meat, an act of violence that seems akin to rape it is so cruel.

The next two sections are written in the third person. The second is from the point of view of Yeung-Hye’s brother in law who becomes obsessed with her birthmark which he calls a ‘Mongolian Mark’. He begins to create strange, pornographic art works which have her at the centre. Finally, in the third section, which is from the point of view of her sister, In-Hye, Yeung-Hye is in the hospital and is refusing to eat anything. She believes that she will transform into a tree and so no longer needs human nourishment.

There are many things that Yeung-Hye’s retreat into madness could represent. It transpires that their father was always a cruel man and that Yeung-Hye has always been attempting to escape. There are also the strict social rules of South Korea which leave little space for creativity. Finally, it could be seen an attempt to escape the violence of life and to live innocently.

I did enjoy this book. I’m not sure I fully understood it and I think it would definitely stand up to a re-reading. But it certainly sparked my curiosity and opened up a new reading area for me.