Books Read in 2015 – 12. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

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Genre: Myth, Feminist

Narrative style: first person with Greek chorus

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2005Unknown

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2015 – genre rewriting myth

Synopsis: Penelope is left behind when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan Wars. He is then gone for ten years. Penelope has to deal with the rumours about his behaviour and all the suitors who try to convince her he is dead. She cleverly keeps them at bay by sewing and then undoing the shroud she is making. On his return, Odysseus slaughters the suitors and hangs Penelope’s maids, an act which haunts Penelope yet.

I have a fair understanding of The Illiad and know the story of Penelope fairly well. (I researched it when teaching the Carol Ann Duffy poem about Penelope in The World’s Wife, another fab rewriting of the story.) So I was quite excited to see what Atwood would make of it. I was not disappointed.

Atwood’s retelling starts in the fields of Asphodel with Penelope dead and haunted by the death of her maids. She still sees Odysseus (who is still able to trick her into thinking he will stay with her forever) and Helen who she hates. She then begins to tell her story.

Atwood’s Penelope is strong and clever but loses out to the stunning good looks of her cousin Helen. Intelligence in a woman is not appreciated. She has to deal with her mother-in-law who does not approve of her and Odysseus’s nurse, Eurycleia who thinks no one knows Odysseus like her. But she survives through her wit and with the support of her maids.

She sets them to work, like a spy network, to discover what the suitors are really planning. This leads to them being raped by the suitors and Penelope tends them kindly although she does not stop them spying for her. Some of them, she feels, are like her own children. She is closer to them then her son, Telemachus who is little more than a bundle of testosterone and muscle. Ultimately, this is their undoing. As when Odysseus returns he deals with them, second only to the suitors.

The Greek chorus is used to give a different side of the story. Often the chorus is made up of the maids who feel they know the truth of the situation. At one stage, the chorus becomes a modern day court room and Odysseus is put on trial for the crimes of killing the suitors. The maids then appear and demand justice for themselves as well. The scene quickly descends into chaos as the ancient legends mix with a modern court scene.

Finally, it is suggested that Penelope may have been part of a matriarchal goddess cult and so may actually be a lot more powerful than The Iliad gives her credit. Atwood addresses the double standards of the original story – Odysseus is adulterous but expects Penelope to remain pure, for example but the narrative is never merely preachy. Atwood’s women are always complicated and Penelope is not completely innocent, being herself complicit in the deaths of her maids. This is made apparent by her inability to lose them even in death. They follow her around, making forgetting impossible.

Overall, this was funny and clever, typical Atwood in a lot of ways. But really, I wouldn’t have chosen to read this if it was’t Atwood and while it was interesting, Greek myth isn’t really on my list of areas to read about.

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Books Read in 2015 0 8. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine

Genre: Autobiography, Music

Narrative Style: First Person NarrationBlav494CIAA1lWx.jpg-large

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2014

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Viv Albertine used to be in The Slits. This charts her life before, during and after, looking specifically at the three things mentioned in the title. It is an honest and at times emotional journey through one woman’s life. 

I love The Slits. They are one of my favourite punk bands. So last year, for my birthday, my husband bought tickets to go and hear Viv Albertine read from Clothes, Clothes, Clothes… and then he bought the book for me. Albertine was entertaining and her life has certainly been interesting but I didn’t completely take to her. I felt similarly when I was reading the book. I’m not entirely sure why but I could never completely relate to her.

The book is written with humour and is self-depricating as if all the way through writing, Albertine couldn’t quite believe that anyone would want to read it. She begins with school days, moves through her parents divorce and her entrance into the punk scene then through the domesticity and illness that followed after up to the present day. I found my interest peaked and fell at various points in the book and sometimes I didn’t really want to pick it up at all.

It is best – perhaps obviously – when Albertine is talking about the punk scene and her experience with The Slits. Personal descriptions of the stars  of the scene – Rotten, McLaren, Thunders, Jones, to name but a few – are all entertaining and added to my understanding of the scene and what it was like for a woman at those times. I was less interested in what came after. I guess that makes me pretty shallow but I would happily have read more about those times and less about her family life.

Not that those times didn’t warrant describing. Albertine had early experience of the difficulties of IVF and then discovered she had cancer and her marriage broke down. All of which are described with an emotional honesty it is rare to find. I’m just not very interested in the long fight to have a baby. I have no children and at forty two, it is unlikely I will now. I wouldn’t really choose to read about these experiences if it weren’t for Albertine’s status as punk legend.

For me, my interest picked up again towards the end when Albertine starts to perform and record again despite her crippling anxiety about how good she was. It was rewarding to see her confidence build again and she finally seemed happy with her life.   There is no doubt that Albertine is a strong woman to have come through all she has and also to be able to be so open about what she perceives as her faults but I still felt at the end as if I hadn’t quite got it, as if I still couldn’t really understand her.

 

Books Read in 2015 – 4. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

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Genre: Post-Colonial, Feminist, Classics

Narrative Structure: Various first person accounts

Rating: 3/5481558

Published: 1966

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: This tells the back story of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. It starts with her childhood and her mother’s story and then moves to tell the story from Rochester’s point of view when he meets her and then she resumes the story when they are in England. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: This is one of those books that has been on my metaphorical shelf for a long time. Although I only bought this copy about three years ago, I first heard of Rhys’ novel about twenty years ago when I was doing my first degree. 

I enjoyed this less than I expected to. It wasn’t a bad story but I expected to love it and I just didn’t. Maybe that was the problem.

I didn’t really take to Antoinette as a narrator although she did not narrate the entire novel. The first part is from her point of view and again, certain parts are narrated  by her later in the novel. As a child, she watches her mother’s life ruined by her marriage and the hatred of fellow islanders. The family fall prey to violent attacks, one of which results in a fire that kills Antoinette’s brother and sends her mother into madness. Her husband is unable to understand and instead hides his wife away. This foreshadows Antoinette’s experience with Rochester (although he is never actually named).

Rochester narrates the next part and it is quickly clear that while he is sexually attracted to Antoinette, he does not love her and the marriage has been for money. He does not understand or even try to understand his new wife and she resorts to Obeah ( a sort of voodoo) to try and control him. He falls prey to the gossip of Daniel who claims to be Antoinette’s illegitimate brother who impugns Antoinette’s reputation and demands money to be kept quiet. There is a clear gulf between the two, caused mostly by the patriarchal society in which they live and the fact that Antoinette with her Creole heritage fits in with neither the black Jamaican nor the White Europeans.

At first, I felt a bit sorry for Rochester. He seemed as much a victim of the time as Antoinette but then he began to act more cruelly towards her – openly committing adultery, for example – I realised that while he had been used, he was still the one who was ultimately in control of the situation. He had all the power, Antoinette had to resort to black magic to try and gain some control.

Finally, they arrive in England and Antoinette has control of the narrative again. Now she is clearly unbalanced and her husband adds to this by keeping her locked in the attic. However, she manages to roam around the house at night like a dream reminder of Rochester’s casual cruelty. She dreams of setting fire to the house and the novel ends as she seems about to bring this dream into reality.

The final part was probably the most successful. I’m not sure that Rhys really captured Rochester’s voice or convinced me of his motivations. Antoinette’s narration was most successful when she was maddest and about to exact her revenge. Ultimately I didn’t feel much about the ending or all the way through really. There is no doubt that this is a clever novel but it left me feeling a little cold.

Chrys Fey’s 30 day writing challenge – Pick one of your favourite songs and write a piece about it.

Okay, so I’ve skipped ahead a couple of days as I was feeling uninspired and this challenge caught my eye straightaway. I will go back and do the others later when I have some ideas for them. This day 8 of Chrys Fey’s writing challenge. I thought of quite a few possible songs – in fact, I may still write those stories as well. The song I picked is M-Bike by PJ Harvey.

“Why did you do it?” They had asked that straight away. The female cop asked it. No sympathy there. You’d think she would understand. It wasn’t like she was God’s gift. How would she manage to keep a man when Lise hadn’t been able? Lise had a nice figure, good boobs, long legs. The female cop was chunky, to put it politely.

“He looked at her shape, not at mine.” Lise’s voice had been cold. She didn’t care. She wasn’t sorry. She had got what she deserved.Lise had looked down the cliff side at the burning carcass at the bottom and her heart had sung. Served the bastard right. Not giving Lise the attention she deserved. That had to be punished. 

It had started about six months ago. That was when she had arrived. A Sunday night. Lise hadn’t known she was coming. No warning. Lise had arrived at his house and there she was on the drive. Foolishly, Lise hadn’t even realised that she might be a threat. But that was before the spell had been cast. He was mesmerised. Lise was second best. He’d even cancelled seeing her a couple of times. Imagine that if you will. It was unheard of.

Even when they were going out, Lise would arrive and she would be on the drive. Lise would see him look over his shoulder at her as they left. It was mere anger at first, the warm glow that rose to her face. It wasn’t long before it was hot, red rage. She burned with it.

But at first she tried. Perhaps it was a novelty that would wear off. That meant she could be accepting at first. So much so that she even came on a couple of dates with them. Lise allowed it. Foolish. That had showed her to be weak. That he didn’t need to care about her feelings.

It had been on one of those dates that Lise had realised exactly how smitten he was. She was recounting her day, playing it for laughs, pausing so he could supply the requisite chuckles. Only they didn’t come. Lise realised that he was staring out of the window. Staring at her, out there on the pavement. Longing for the moment when he could be on her back again. His eyes were filled with it: need. That had been how he looked at Lise at first.

Later that evening, when they made love in his bedroom, Lise imagined that he was still thinking about her, her streamlined shape, her chrome curves and about the way it felt when she was between his legs. She had dug her nails into his shoulders until he yelped.

Plans for murder started then. Lise watched them carefully, thinking about opportunity, about vulnerability. When did he leave her alone, when was he out, where did he keep the keys to the garage and so on until a plan began to form.

It was the middle of the night. It seemed apt. She’d pulled him in to kiss her, earlier that day, swiped the keys from his pocket while he was sticking his tongue down her throat. Now she crept up to the garage, let herself in. She had wondered if she would been able to do it, once she was there but the sight of her gleaming in the moonlight, it brought unbearable hatred. It had to be done.

Quietly, she began to roll her out of the garage. It’s okay, Lise whispered, I’m a friend, remember. She moved slowly and was far heavier than Lise had reckoned but she didn’t have far to go.

Lise wasn’t sure how long it took to get her there but she knew she was panicked by the thought of spying eyes. There was no hiding what she was doing. It would be clear that there was something wrong. Still, they would understand when Lise told them. The usurper had to go.

When she stood at the cliff edge, Lise revved her engines up. That’s the last time I’ll have to listen to that, she thought as she gave one final push. Away it went, over the edge. Lise smiled for what felt like the first time in ages.
“I fucking hate his motor bike,” she screamed as the machine bounced down the hill.