Friday, 14 May 2021

How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis


Samantha Ellis has recently written a book about Anne Brontë called: Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life.  I was rattending a zoom meeting with The Brussels Brontë Group a couple of weeks ago, where Samantha held a talk about the book, her research and her relationship with the Brontës. A must read. In the meantime, I found one of her earlier books in the library, How to be a Heroine - Or What I Have Learned From Reading Too Much.

"While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirtysomething playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she's been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.

With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives."

A wonderful, witty account of her reading and how it has formed her life. The heroines she has chosen to highlight has guided her through different phases of her life and also gave some comfort when times were hard. We get a good background to her life as a teenager and as a grown up. It is very well done and makes for interesting reading.

So, who are the heroines who have been such an important part and an inspiration in life? 

The Little Mermaid, Anne of the Green Gables, Lizzy Bennet, Scarlett O'Hara, Franny Glass, Esther Greenwood, Valley of he Dolls, Cathy Earnshaw, Flora Poste and Scheherazade. 

I can't say I know of all of them, but most. Some of them has also affected me during my reading. An easy read and a must for anyone with heroines in their life. 

For those of you interested in a summary of her talk for The Brussels Brontë Group, here are two links. 

A review by Pauline Ghyselen and by Helen MacEwan

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Morgan's Passing by Anne Tyler

 The Anne Tyler project is hosted by Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home. We read two books a month and this is the second book for May. So, slightly late here is my review. 

"Morgan Gower works at Cullen's hardware store in north Baltimore. He has seven daughters and a warmhearted wife, but as he journeys into the gray area of middle age, he finds his household growing tedious. Then Morgan meets two lovely young newlyweds under some rather extreme circumstances--and all three discover that no one's heart is safe..."

The young protagonists in this novel are Emily and Leon. Emily fell head over heal in love with Leon at university. Leon is a very extrovert young man, aiming to be an actor, while Emily is rather introvert. As we have seen in other Tyler novels, a relationship starts out with a strong and driving man, loved by a rather quiet but determined woman. Somewhere along the line this balance of power slowly changes. This love story reminds me of Evie and Casey in A Slipping Down Life

We first meet the young couple as they are managing a puppet show. In the middle of it all Emily, who is pregnant, goes into labour. Leon asks the public if there is any doctor there. After a short while a man gets up and says he is a doctor. He says not to worry, babies do not come that fast, I will take you to the hospital. On the way there the baby is also on its way and they have to stop midway. The doctor helps out with the birth and has everything in his hands by the time the ambulance comes. 

This is our introduction to Morgan Gower, a man of many talents. We soon learn he is not a doctor at all, but he goes around town pretending to be someone else. He dresses out in strange costumes, help out where is needed. Whatever need there is, he is the specialist needed. He is so convincing so people always believe in him.

With the birth of Emily's and Leon's baby he forms a special interest in them. He starts following Emily around, wearing different disguises. She soon discovers that he is there but pretends she does not know. Today we would call this behaviour for stalking and it is not a good thing. However it is, Morgan soon becomes a part of the couple's life.

At home he has a wife and seven, or is it eight(?) daughters so the house is full. Most of them have already got married and moved out. His mother and sister have moved in instead. As in other Tyler novels, here is a big house, described in detail, inhabited with strange characters. Everyone seems to be living life in their own style and occasionally they intermingle. A problem with Morgan is that he loves his daughters while they are young but when they grow up he looses interest. There is no indication of anything inappropriate, but today we are more aware of sensitive situations.

"She said, "Couldn't you still love the girls anyhow? You don't stop loving people just because they change size."

I am fascinated by Tyler's occupation with houses and their inhabitants. Here I find similarities with The Clock Winder which is also about a big house with strange inhabitants. Bonnie, the wife of Morgan, is like a queen holding the strings to keep the house on its course.

"He never saw the mysterious way the house started slipping downward, or sideways, or whatever it was that it was doing."

The story takes an unexpected turn when Morgan, rather tired of the unruly and loud environment of his house, more often venture out in different disguises. And when he and Emily become more entangled their lives take another turn.

The character of Morgan is quite different from other characters in her novels. He sticks out, just like Jeremy in Celestial Navigation. Two characters who live in their own world, but sometimes integrate with other people. Even if this is not my absolute favourite of her books, I enjoyed the story and to see what Morgan would do with his life. Emily and Leon, like Evie and Casey do grow apart and start new lives. Tyler always has an interesting approach to family ties and that is what her books are about. It will be interesting to see how I feel about the different family connections once I have read them all.

I cannot help finishing off with a letter Morgan wrote to one of his daughters. He writes a lot of letters but never send them off. Maybe it is some kind of therapy. Anyway, this letter reveals a lot of his character, and I would say, fits quite well into the thinking of modern people when it comes to belongings.

"Dear Amy,

I notice that you appear to be experiencing some difficulty with household clutter.

Understand that I'm not blaming you for this, your mother has the same problem. But as I've been telling her for years, there is a solution.

Simply take a cardboard box, carry it through the rooms, load into it everyone's toys and dirty clothes and such, and hide it all in a closet. If people ask for some missing object, you'll be able to tell them where it is. If they don't ask (now, here is the important part), if a week goes by and they don't notice the object is gone, then you can be sure it's nonessential, and you throw it away. You would be surprised at how many things are non-essential. Throw everything away, all of it! Simplify! Don't hesitate!

All my love, sweetheart,


A good advice even today for cluttered houses. 


Friday, 7 May 2021

How To Read Novels Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster

I am not a professor in literature, but I would like to be. Unfortunately, this will never happen, so, I have to go along trying to read novels and literature like a professor. Thomas C. Foster's book is therefor a very useful tool. He has also written How To Read Literature Like A Professor, which sounds like another useful read.

It is not only a book for readers. I would say it is also useful for aspring writers. How do you make a novel interesting? What does it have to contain? Who should be the narrator and what should he/she do? The content gives a hint on what makes up a good book. 

Pickup Lines and Open(ing) Seductions, or Why Novels Have First Pages - are we not fascinated by how certain writers manage to hook you on the first sentence? This seems to be one of the most important sentences in a book and Foster mentions a few excellent openings. I love good openings and cannot help but quote them here, although I am sure you are already familiar with them (I only knew 2,4 and 5):

  • "What's it going to be, then?"
  • "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."
  • "This is the saddest story I ever heard."
  • "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife."
  • "At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to al-haj' Ali Abu Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar."

"The first page, sometimes the first paragraph, even the first sentence, can give you everything you need to know to read the novel. How? By conveying some or all of the eighteen things the first page can tell you." Eighteen things to include in the first page! That must be rather tough. Let's see what he partly says (more reflections in the book).

  1. Style - short or long sentences? Simple or complex? Rushed or leisurely? "The first page of any Hemingway novel will impress us with short sentences and a strong sense that the writer was badly frightened in infancy by words ending in "ly"." Writers inspired by Hemingway; Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.
  2. Tone - Every book has a tone. Is it elegiac, or matter-of-fact, or ironic? A tonal masterpiece is the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. 
  3. Mood - Similar to tone but not quite the same. Not like tone which is about what the voice sounds like, here it is about what it is telling. For example Nick Carraway's narration in The Great Gatsby. "So what is it, we wonder at once, that he's not quite saying here?"
  4. Diction - What kind of words does the novel use? Common or rare? Friendly or challenging? Are the sentences whole or fractured...? A Clockwork Orange set as example with the "deceptive simple query, "What's it going to be, then?".
  5. Point of view  - Who is the narrator? 
  6. Narrative presence - Is the narrator inside or outside the story? First person narrators are clear, but what about third-person narrators? In the old days the third person narrator was more someone of the world, amused by what was going on, while in modern times the narrator is often impersonal, detached and cool (Hemingway, Anita Brookner).
  7. Narrative attitude - toward characters and events. "Austen's are generally amused, slightly aloof, a little superior. Dickens's tend to be earnest, involved direct... Flaubert's narrator in Madame Bovary is famously cool and impersonal..."
  8. Time frame - When is all this happening? Contemporaneously or a long time ago? How can we tell? Does the novel cover a lot of time or a little? "That "many years later" of the García Marzquez opening is magical. It says, first of all, that this novel will cover a great deal of time, enough for a small child holding his farther's hand to rise to power and fall from it."
  9. Time management - Will time go fast or slow in this novel? Is it being told in or near the now of the story or long after?
  10. Place - Place is a sense of things, a mode of thought, a way of seeing. 
  11. Motif - Stuff that happens again and again. Motif can be image, action, language pattern, anything that happens again and again. Like miracles and the colonel's narrow escapes in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like the flowers in Mrs. Dalloway.
  12. Theme - Story is what gets a novel going and what we focus on, but theme is one of the things that makes it worthwhile.
  13. Irony - Or not - some novels are in dead earnest. The entire nineteenth century springs to mind.
  14. Rhythm -There are two levels of rhythm in a novel: prose and narrative.
  15. Pace - How fast do we go? Foster quotes the opening from Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. This is not going to be a hundred-yard dash. Everything about the passage says "leisurely" - the long, abstract words, the embedded "some people never do," the sense that his should be no more rushed than the event, if you can call it that, that it describes. James is never frantic, never in a hurry.
  16. Expectations - Of the writer, of the reader. 
  17. Character -Not always on page one, but more often than not. The bottom line: people are helpful to start a novel.
  18. Instructions on how to read the novel - All of these previously mentioned elements go into teaching us how the novel wants to be read. Whether we read it that way or not is, naturally, our call. But every novel wants to be read in a certain way. 

Who's in Charge Here? - yes, narration could be difficult. "Perhaps the novelist's hardest task is deciding who should tell the story. Main character? Secondary character?" Can we trust the narrator? Is he/she reliable? Obviously more important than one usually realise. 

Wrinkles in Time, or Chapters Just Might Matter - "You pick up a novel, open to page one, and your heart sinks. Why? No number, no title. In other words, no chapters. You're facing the black prospect of life without breaks, the long, long slog through an untrammelled narrative wilderness." I understand the feeling. 

Drowning in the Stream of Consciousness - "Once upon a time, narrative was simple. You said what characters did, you quoted their dialogue, and, if need be, you told what they thought: ... But then, as Virginia Woolf points out. "On or about December 1910, human nature changed." Certainly the novelist's relationship to consciousness did. As a result of huge changes in the scientific and philosophical understanding of the mind - the by-products of work by Freud and Jung ... the depiction of consciousness became much more fluid. And messy."

Foster guides us through novels of various kinds. Often he comes back to Ulysses, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Alice in Wonderland, but he refers to other novels as well, from classics having made a mark in literature, to more modern stories.

It is an easy, enjoyable read down literature lane. Lots of good advice how to interpret or find out what the author is trying to convey to the reader. It is written in a humorous way and sometimes I laughed out loud. A perfect non-fiction book about fiction books.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne by Linda Lappin


"Amedeo Modigliani, embittered and unrecognized genius, dies of meningitis on a cold January day in Montparnasse in 1920. Jeanne Hébuterne, his young wife and muse, follows 48 hours later, falling backwards through a window. Now a ghost, Jeanne drifts about the studio she shared with Modigliani—for she was not only his favorite model, but also an artist whose works were later shut away from public view after her demise. Enraged, she watches as her belongings are removed from the studio and her identity as an artist seemingly effaced for posterity, carried off in a suitcase. Thus begins Loving Modigliani, retelling the story of Jeanne Hébuterne’s fate as a woman and an artist through three timelines and three precious objects stolen from the studio: a diary, a bangle, and a self-portrait of Jeanne depicted together with Modi and their daughter. A century later, Jeanne Hébuterne’s artwork will be rescued from oblivion."

I am fascinating by historical fiction about artists. They seem to be people so different from the rest of us. As we admire their free spirits, the sacrifices they make for their art and the simple, and often, poor lives they live (at least before they become famous), we can stay outside and look in. 

 The beginning of the novel takes you straight into the action and into a paranormal and gothic world.

"The ringing in my ears ceased with the dull thud of a heavy weight hurled out from a high window, crashing into the courtyard. I blacked out as a wave of pain surged through my body, traveling to the tips of my fingers and the roots of my hair. I'd barely had time to glimpse my brother André's face gawking through the open window frame, to hear the neighbours cat yowling on the balcony below us or the precipitation of feet on the stairs. Then there I was, conscious again, rather bewildered but intact, suspended in the air a few inches above that bloody heap on the cobblestones. A taut, transparent string protruding from my belly seemed to be attaching me to it."

It is an excellent opening to the story. Jeanne's travel in the other world continues over time. She is looking for Modigliani with whom she wants to be re-united. With the help of a cat she wanders restlessly around this new, unknown world, searching for her man. Going in and out of different 'doors' she enters other time zones and dimensions, where she soon becomes aware of what is happening with her inheritance. It is magically written and we are there with Jeanne as she roams around the streets of Paris that is so well known to her. It is a mixture of fantasy, gothic and magic and Lappin makes it look so true. First I thought we were going to stay in this world the whole book, and I was a little bit disappointed. But, as the story continues I found it a rather genius way of telling the story. But Lappin does not let us stay there, she has two other story lines up her sleeve. 

In the second part the story moves to 1981 and an American art student in Paris on a scholarship. She encounters a woman who new Jeanne. As strange things are happening she is drawn deeper and deeper into the life of Jeanne and Modigliani. Underlying secrets coming up to the surface, and lost paintings see the daylight again. To find out the secret, the two of them goes on a trip from Paris, to the French Riviera, to Rome, in search of answers. 

The third part takes place some ten years later in Venice when an art critic is organising the first ever exhibition of Jeanne Hébutern's works. All of a sudden a lost painting is turning up. And, we hear from Jeanne again. She, still invisible to the world, but her art is about to come out of its hiding. 

After her death at only 22 years old, her brother, André, collected and kept her art in the family. Her relationship with Modigliani and her work was shameful for them.  Only after André's death could her drawings and paintings be shown to the public. Jeanne is one of all those muses to famous painters and sculptures that were talented and could have made a career of their own. 

Linda Lappin has written a magical and fantastic story of the life of Jeanne Hébuterne. Thorough research and dedication to the object, she has given us the pleasure, for a moment, to get to know Jeanne, her life, feelings and inheritance. The story is treated with love and sensitivity. Well written both in prose, story development and historical facts, it contains fantasy, magic, suspense and gothic elements. It is a tribute to Jeanne Hébuterne and her art. One of the best historical fictions I have read.  

I received the novel via NetGalley and Linda Lappin for an impartial review. The views above are my own.