Monday, February 23, 2009

Book Review: Iris & Ruby (Rosie Thomas)

{Image from}

A word of warning: I think this review may give more details than the cover synopsis. I found it impossible to write about the book without giving away some of the details, so if you wish to read the book without knowing everything perhaps you should read the book first and then come back to the review and leave your thoughts then...

A lifetime of memories of another era, of love & dancing, of passion, of life and of death crowd Iris' mind, and confusing them with old age or loneliness she is consumed by worry that they will slip from her grasp like a cup and shatter, lost for ever. Ruby, her eighteen year old granddaughter, battling her own demons, some of which are expanded on more fully than others, arrives in Cairo barely knowing Iris, but eventually the joining of grandmother and granddaughter allows them both to heal and in telling Ruby her stories, and facing her daughter, Lesley, Iris is able to finally be at peace.

Iris & Ruby is narrated by Iris yet moves easily into the third person when describing events through Ruby's eyes. Memories of Iris in Cairo during the war are intertwined with episodes of Ruby's exploration of Cairo some 60 years later. It is an intriguing book and at times reminded me in part of The English Patient, partially through context (Cairo, the desert) and partially through the desire to ensure that memories have been told, voiced, images becoming real in being given a voice, before the end.

Iris' wartime Cairo seems at once glamorous and carefree yet tinged, as life in wartime surely was, with that steely determination to live life as if it was for the last time. It seemed an endless round of parties, cocktails, silk dresses and dances with army boys, but these descriptions conceal their harder, less glamorous reflection of the reality of a young women in love with a soldier, waiting anxiously for his return, filling her days with work and friends and airmail letters. Although reading the synopsis of the book tells the reader that Iris' one true love is never to return from the desert, I still found myself willing him to return. Even though I knew from the beginning that they would never reach their wedding day, I still cried when they didn't.

I don't think Iris ever did 'get over' losing Xan. I don't think, in actual fact, that you do 'get over' losing your true love. I think time and distance helps one deal with living. I don't know, thankfully, but that is my belief. I found it telling that Iris returned to Cairo, to a house where she had known Xan, as soon as she was able to escape her daughter who could never be the son she had lost. In contrast, the death of Ruby's boyfriend Jas was the catalyst for her departure to Cairo but her grief for Jas was not in the same league. Rather I think the incident Ruby touches on when she says "I don't want you to touch me ever again" to a family member is the more serious issue, as is the fleeting glimpse we are given in to her thoughts when she is at a nightclub with Ash: "She was used to trading elements of herself as a powerful currency, the dollar standard, with everyone from boys she met in clubs to Will (the family member). She had been doing it since she was fifteen. Only Jas had been different". Perhaps Lesley's grief in relation to her mother (Iris) - someone doesn't have to die for there to be grief, I don't think - especially since the issue was unresolved, had affected Ruby to the extent that she had begun to believe that she had to give something to be loved and wanted, that it wasn't an automatic right, and that giving her body was the only thing she had.

Iris' relationship with Xan was easy. Not in the sense of not knowing where he was, terrified that he would never return, but in that they both seemed to know, immediately, that they were each other's. "...That was how certain we both wanted and believed... 'I love you, Iris Black,' he said. 'Xan Molyneau, I love you too.'..." They had found each other and each was quite sure . In contrast, Ruby's relationship with Ash plays out in the same city but with none of the same surety. Even Ash's words are different "Perhaps I love you" he says. A product of a different era or an underlying emphasis that sometimes you know immediately, other times a relation creeps up on you?

Grief and relationships. Relationships between lovers, between mother & daughter, grand-mother & grand-daughter. Grief over death, of things that might have been, of people being someone that they are not. The hardest part of considering this book was the knowledge that next month I would be discussing it at a book group at which the author will be present. And that the book was deeply moving and is often concerned with the two things hardest to discuss honestly.

Peonies & Polaroids opens Etsy Shop

{Images by Peonies & Polaroids}

Look out for Peonies & Polaroids Etsy shop opening this coming weekend... Peonies takes the most beautiful, ethereal, whimsical photographs and I was rather excited when she started mentioning an Etsy shop. I wanted to buy M one for V-Day so we could hang it on our bedroom wall, but the shop wasn't open then. I mentioned it to him last night and he said I should just go for it anyway. The photo below is one of my favourites. I know I am a sucker for anything sea related but there is something very peaceful about this beach scene, which says to me childhood holidays and reminiscing. Anyway, enough promotion from me. On Saturday, have a look yourself...

Fire From Water

{Image by Peonies & Polaroids}

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"...have a baby. You'll find it so much more fulfilling than writing..."

I have been re-reading Erica Jong's Fear of Flying this weekend in preparation for tonight's book club meeting. I haven't finished it yet but the above line is spoken/shouted to the narrator by her older sister during an argument at their parents house, an event which the narrator is recalling as she muses on why she is not deliberately getting pregnant.

I then was reading the Observer Woman's magazine which is not something I usually read (M prefers the Guardian and I prefer The Times but he won) when I came across two articles, one by Rachel Cooke "...conversations I have had in which the majority of the other female's sentences began with the words: "When you have a baby..." (which I felt echoed the narrator's questioning of her sister's superior complex as a Mother in Fear of Flying) and one by Polly Vernon (defending her choice to not have/ not want children - which you would rarely see a man do).

Both were badly written/researched and left me wondering why these articles had been written. Sadly Cooke referenced the infernal Alpha Mummy blog which meant that the rather irritating Jennifer Howze picked up the story and re-published it leading to the never-ending flood of commenters struggling to justify themselves and define their positions as mothers, mostly by being exceedingly rude against any one who had made a different choice leading one poster, Expat Mum (blogger), to question "Why, I keep asking myself, must women justify their own choices by slagging everyone else off?". Indeed, even bloggers who I actually read (and respect) like Potty Mummy seemed to imply that tasks one completed as a Mother were far more important than anyone else's:

"And whilst I'm on the subject, where are all the articles written by mothers on how their childless friends are incredibly boring, self centred, obsessed by shoes and living in their own me-me-me sitcom world? Oh, I know... There aren't any. Because we know there are two sides to every story, that it never pays to generalise - and of course we are far too busy cleaning up puke and wee to get round to it". Potty Mother.

As I am just four months away from getting married and potentially beginning the years when I decide whether or not to have a family, this topic niggled. On the one hand I am hoping to have children but I do not think that having children is necessarily more fulfilling for every woman than not having them. I do not doubt that for some people having children gives them meaning that they would otherwise lack, but others, I would argue, have meaningful lives regardless of whether or not they are able to procreate. It makes me so cross, this superior attitude that some women seem to show once they become mothers.

Last night, M and I were watching 90210. In one scene, the headmaster's son bashed his car into another boy's. Words were exchanged, a quote was obtained, the money was paid back and the two lads ended the transaction by the maimed car owner inviting the payee to a basketball game. This conversation was watched by a girl who at some point in the past had been betrayed by her then best-friend in relation to something to do with divorced parents and the then-best-friend telling everyone. The two girls had not spoken since and both were still clearly affected by the situation some years later. She expressed her surprise at the lads' ability to sort things out and he in turn expressed his at girls' abilities to hold grudges. He had a point.

Even in seemingly superficial and shallow shows such as 902010 and Sex & the city these issues are being raised. Do we as girls define ourselves only in context of how we are in relation to each other? Can something only be good if we make out that girls not making this choice are somehow wrong or bad? Why do those who are mothers act superior to those without children, even going so far as to infer that those without will only understand when they have children? (Quote: SATC - Carrie "but you used to buy Manolos" Kyra "that was before I had a real life" or something similar). We need journalists who encourage us to celebrate our own individual choices and to be happy and non-judgemental for those who make their choice which differs from our own. Not articles like those by Cooke & Vernon who perpetuate the circle of 'my choice is better than yours'.

The narrator in Fear of Flying considers what it means to be defined as a women and whether or not the bearing children is an intrinsic part of being a woman. Actually, her main consideration is freedom, as a woman, and for me that includes a choice whether or not to have children. Yet I think it is worth considering how the construct of femininity sits against the choice not to have a child. Just as there are many who would argue that adolescence is a male construct and question whether is it possible to conform to the ideals of femininity and adolescence, what are those who state that women are only fulfilled when they have children doing? Is it too far to state that it seems these women define being a women by being a mother and that by implication that if you are not a mother you struggle to be a woman?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Black & White in Paris

{Image via The Sartorialist}

I gave up 3 months ago. But I still think the cigarette makes this photograph.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Book Reviews (a preview)

*I have realised I never wrote/posted my review of Wife in the North which I shall endeavour to do at some point soon. I have bought and read and reviewed the books of the two other bloggers I read (Petite Anglais & Rachel North London) so I really should get around to Judith's.

* I have moved WI branches and joined the book club of my new branch, so shall try and post the reviews of those books and perhaps even some of the subsequent discussions where possible. First up is Erica Jong's Fear of Flying which I read at university so am going to re-read quickly to refresh my memory.

* If anyone else wants to review the same books, let me know and I shall do a collective post which includes other links too.

Book Review: Gerrard - My Autobiography

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No, not my usual sort of book either, but we were on holiday and M (and all his family) are Liverpool fans, so I picked it up for a brief look and a few hours later had finished the book. And that was how I came to know the names of the last three Liverpool managers and the reasons why Stevie G has played poorly in each of the last tournaments for England.

To be honest, the most overwhelming thing I felt for the book was pity for Gerrard's wife, Alex. Perhaps it was his lack of language skills and therefore ability to express how he really feels about her, but saying that she is a close friend, he loves her and he loves Liverpool Football Club (same sentence) and that she has a small career but is not a model but a Mum did not do anything to endear him to me.

I didn't have high expectations when I started the book but they were pretty damn low when I finished. Gerrard has an explanation for everything and seems to be a rather angry man, blaming everything but himself for his poor playing, performances or tackling issues. And yet, I didn't really feel that I gained much of an insight into his life. Yes, I discovered some interesting facts that I didn't know about the organisation of the F.A and players and clubs but I am sure that those won't be new to anyone who follows football 'properly'. Yes, there was information about some of his early years but a quick search on the Internet revealed almost as much information. There were pages and pages of drivel about formations and tackles and passes but a quick poll of my male friends interested in football revealed that they knew most of that information anyway, despite having not read the book. In short, there may have been several hundred pages but there was very little in the way of actual content.

In fact, perhaps the most intriguing part of the book was the index, which is something I have rarely seen in an autobiography. Still, useful if you are a footballer and can't be bothered/can't read the whole thing and just want to see what Gerrard wrote about you, if anything...

Yet not all is lost, I am going to try and read another autobiography or two of similar aged/standard players to put Gerrard's work into context. But as I had to give up on David Beckham's book 2/3 of the way through out of sheer boredom, do not hold your breath for the reviews.

London in the snow

Lincoln's Inn Postbox, originally uploaded by rachel-catherine.

Yes, just like every other Londoner (do I count as a Londoner - I've lived here since 2004, but perhaps that is for another post) I couldn't help but take photos yesterday during the snow.

You may have gathered that I work near Lincoln's Inn, for whatever the weather I seem to have taken a photo there. Something about the red of the postbox against the snow and the distant red of the bricks of the buildings seemed very Victorian. The photo isn't quite as I would have liked though - the cars for instance, but it was taken very quickly with my blackberry as I walked along.

This morning, by contrast, we still have some snow but also bright sunshine.

Monday, February 02, 2009

From one snow scene to another...

...and please forgive the double post...

Returned to London over the weekend, swapping the snow scenes of the alps for the ones of London. Except the light in London was rather less bright...

{Image Author's own and not to used without explicit permission}
Sunset over Montgenevre
Oh, and in the Alps everything works no matter how much snow there seems to be. In London, no buses were running, no trains, all tubes were severely delayed and it took me an hour and a half to do a 30 minute journey to work. Still, at least I made it. No-one else did.

{Image Author's own and not to used without explicit permission}
Spent the morning doing odd jobs and tasks and trying not to notice the continuous snowfall outside my window. Am posting this at lunchtime and then I shall finish off and head home before the snow gets any worse and I am stranded in central London. I know I could walk home in about the same time as it took me to get here, but it is cold. Plus, I want to make chocolate cake.

{Image Author's own and not to used without explicit permission}
Lincoln's Inn Fields

I wonder what the situation will be like tomorrow? One noticeable thing about the snow is that it is so quiet. Without the buses and with the snow muffling all sound, it is actually peaceful.

{Image Author's own and not to used without explicit permission}
Lincoln's Inn

Proper wedding posts to resume again shortly when things are back to normal. Still trying to catch up on a week's worth of blog reading and e-mails...