AUGUST READING - Stars and Bars; Half the Sky; The Cast Iron Shore; The Wonder Spot

THE WONDER SPOT by Melissa Bank

February last year I read The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by the same author and wasn't terribly impressed. It was all very Bridget-Jones-try-hard, Jane the main character was incredibly dull and I am just did not get it. In fact when the book was published, according to Wikipedia, Melissa Bank was compared to Helen Fielding (creator of Bridget) and held, along with Helen, for being the creators of chick lit. Maybe in America...So I wasn't terribly fussed about starting this one, but because I had actually bought it many many months ago, I thought I should at least start it.

And what a different type of book it is!

It is exactly the same plot line and structure as Hunting and Fishing. Beginning when the main character, Sophie, is a teenager, then moving onto college, work, friends, love life, inappropriate men, keeping family happy etc etc, it follows Jane's life almost to a T, right down to a frightful despotic female boss and terminally ill parent. So why do I like this one so much better than the first one? Sophie is a vastly more interesting person than Jane, very self deprecating, a biting wit and doesn't seem to be quite so desperate for a man. More like Bridget really (apart from the getting a man bit). Perhaps the author has matured a bit - Hunting and Fishing was published six years earlier. It is almost as if she has wanted to rewrite the earlier book, seeing its flaws and wanting to improve on them. There is a lot more depth to the characters, to the story and especially to the relationships. It is set, initially in a suburban Pennsylvania, but primarily in New York City with excursions into Brooklyn and other neighbourhoods; the author would appear to have great love of the city.

I really enjoyed this one, so much I may even be tempted to read her third novel, if there is a third.


Linda Grant has become a bit of favourite in our book club lately, starting with 'The Clothes on Their Backs' which was short listed for the Man Booker in 2008, and the non-fiction 'The Thoughtful Dresser'. These two books both reveal the author's very deep love and appreciation of clothes as more than just garments. She sees what you wear as crucial to self-identity, self-esteem, inner peace and harmony. Clothes are not just what we wear, but what we are.

So what does all this have to do with this particular novel, Linda Grant's first one, first published in 1996, and re-published last year? Although the story is not really about what we wear or what we look like, it is very much a central theme to the whole story and the raison d'etre of its main character, Sybil Ross and a number of other characters in the story.

The story begins in Liverpool, in 1938. Sybil is a teenager, living with her Serbian Jewish furrier father with his dark East European features, and her very stylish and beautiful mother, blond and blue eyed from Holland. Sybil has taken after her father in her looks and her personality although adores her mother with her gorgeousness and has considerable of appreciation of beautiful clothing and furs even as a 14 year old. Furs are a recurring symbol through the whole story and central to the essence of Sybil in her life.

The war changes everything. Liverpool is blitzed to bits, and on one the worst night of the blitz Sybil learns something about her parents that changes her view of the world and how she perceives her place in it. From then on she drifts, and that is really what the rest of the book is about - Sybil's drifting: through life, men, jobs, belief systems. And I don't think she ever really finds her true self either. Interestingly enough, after spending her life looking for whatever she is looking for, she ends up exactly where she started.

As soon as the war is over, just 21, she flees Liverpool plus all the things her parents stand for, and sails to New York, with her furs of course (the one thing she can't let go), in search of Stan, her Royal Navy boyfriend also from Liverpool. Stan has his own identity problems but he is a very snappy dresser - a spiv. She finds Stan and being both pretty and stylish she finds a job in a top department store. Big changes are afoot in the post-war world and Sybil finds herself drawn to the black community, persecuted and downtrodden in America much like the Jews had always been in Europe. Communism is on the rise and is seen as the vehicle of change for the black population. Sybil is soon immersed into the local red circle, despite her very bourgeois background, after falling for Julius, a charismatic black man. Naturally she has to give up her comfort blanket - her furs - and working in the store - the ultimate symbol of consumerism and capitalism and live like the other comrades. In other words owning nothing, completely divorced from anything remotely bourgeois, and unable to do anything that doesn't have the express approval of the committee.

Against her inner most judgement she goes with Julius to a grotty little working class town in the middle of the mid-West, Michigan or Minnesota - read middle of nowhere, works in a potato chip factory. Julius is 'chosen' for further training and education in Moscow, leaving Sybil alone and stranded. All this is happening during McCarthyism and the manic anti-communism witch hunts and persecutions that were going on in the 1950s. With Julius gone Sybil basically has to live an underground sort of existence for quite some time and eventually makes her way to the west coast, which had always been her goal. She has to make a few difficult decisions, but even then her continuing indecision about her life is infuriating to the reader. This endless drifting... More choices are made and after quite a lot more drifting Sybil finds herself living in England again having come full circle back to her bourgeois roots.

Satisfying read? Not really. Plot all over the place; not sure if the discovery on blitz night is really catastrophic enough to turn one communist; although can see how New York would be considerably more exciting than Liverpool in 1945; still don't really understand why she stayed in that horrible little town in the middle of nowhere with Julius who did not treat her at all well; can sort of see why she had to give up all her beautiful furs, but then why keep only one? All a bit messy and wishy washy for my liking! But having read two of her subsequent books, I love the way the author's love affair with how and why we dress was so important to her way back in her first book. Her books have definitely got better over time.

HALF THE SKY: HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl Wuduun

'Women hold up half the sky' - Chinese Proverb.

Although after reading this book you may wonder what went wrong with this worthy thought. It is well known that sons in China are more highly valued than daughters - it has 107 males for every 100 females, and in Pakistan and India the ratios are higher.

We females in the Western World really are the lucky ones, whether we hold up half the sky or not. We live in our comfortable homes, we eat good food, we are well educated, we have labour saving devices in our homes, fresh tap water and electricity, first class health care. We are productive and functional members of society. We have freedom of speech, of movement, of dress, we have financial independence, we have the law on our side, we are equal members of society with men. But we are unique: the majority of women in the world have none of these things, not one single one.

The authors are Pulitzer Prize winning journalists, both have been foreign correspondents and editors for the New York Times, so are well qualified to comment on the lamentable plight of the female sex in our world. Their research and investigation has shown that there are more females in sex slavery than there ever were men, women and children in slavery prior to the American Civil War of the 1860s. The authors write about women and girls in China, many places in Africa, India, Thailand and Cambodia on the subjects of prostitution, sex slavery, genital mutilation, maternal deaths and sickness in child birth and post natal, the lack of education and freedom, rape as a weapon - wide ranging, sobering and depressing subjects summarising the complete and utter powerlessness females have over their destinies in many societies throughout the world.

But, this book is littered with stories of women who have risen above the dreadful circumstances they have found themselves in, and this is what kept me wanting to read this book. We, in our comfortable little worlds, don't know what real hard work, determination, sacrifice and courage are - these women put us to shame. These women have gone on to do great things for the women in their local communities. The key, of course, is education, as the authors point out, which allows women to see opportunities, possibilities, and ways to achieve a better life.

The last chapters are a call to action, targeted mainly at the American reader, but equally applicable to readers in other countries. And a long list of websites of course to access! Like many commentators of the world we live in have noted, the United Nations has been completely useless in protecting or furthering the welfare of women and girls from these countries.

Despite it's unpleasant subject matter, this is a very readable book, very well written and very thought provoking. Much of it is not nice reading, but really I think quite essential for every woman to read and discuss openly with friends and daughters. Then maybe women really will hold up half the sky.

STARS AND BARS by William Boyd

I have just counted up the number of books written by William Boyd - 17 in the 30 years! That is prolific by anyone's standards. This novel is his 4th, published in 1984 and the 7th of his books I have read. Apart from Harry Potter books and Enid Blyton decades ago, I don't think I have read so many books by the same author. He really is very good. His stories full of interesting characters, trying to go about their normal lives but then finding themselves in difficult circumstances that somehow they manage to get themselves out of. And this story follows much the same theme, which you think you might actually start to get a bit sick of, but it really is like meeting an old friend - the stories are all different but also very familiar, and his plots and characters are so good you don't really mind!

So in this story, we meet Henderson Dores, a very English Englishman, art assessor, nearly 40, who has recently moved to New York to lend his considerable expertise to an art auction house. His personal life is in chaos - trying to rebuild his relationship with his ex wife, and a mistress on the side. He finds New York chaotic and is literally a fish out of water living there. Nothing seems to be going right. His chance to escape comes in the form of an unexpected assignment to the Deep South, Atlanta to be specific, to assess a rare art collection. And finds himself the middle man in a quite peculiar and dysfunctional family situation which threatens both his mental health and physical safety.

Through the ever more bizarre things that happen to him, including a crazy few hours in a theme hotel in Atlanta, and finding himself running for his life in the middle of the night in New York wearing nothing but some cardboard, he somehow retains his English-ness - his dignity, his manners, his impeccable dress sense. This just makes those all around him more buffoon like and madder than they already are.

I see the book was made into a movie in 1988, the screen play written by the author and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Henderson Dores. I think it would be well worth seeing!