Monthly Archives: February 2020

For women it’s a different world, thank God

Review: Vivien Horler

Mrs Everything, by Jennifer Weiner (Piatkus)

I remember as a small girl in the 1950s, being told to sit with my knees together like “a little lady”. I remember overhearing my mother once telling my dad, apologetically, that she couldn’t seem to interest me in domestic matters, like cooking.

It was such a different world from the one we’ve partly inherited, partly created today. Expectations, particularly of women, have changed so much, thank God.

Mrs Everything is a family saga about two Jewish sisters growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, and how expectations can be turned upside down. There is Jo, tomboyish and the despair of her mother, and Bethie, sweet, pretty and biddable.

The book opens with the Kaufman family moving from an apartment in the poor part of town to a nice house with a lawn in the suburbs. Proud that he has been able to buy it for his family, Jo’s dad tells his wife this is “the American dream”.

He sets up a picture of them in front of the house, but Jo ruins it. She hates girly clothes, she feels as though she’s in disguise when forced to wear lacy socks and puffed-sleeve dresses.

Jo doesn’t know how to fit in, how to be good, like Bethie. Later she realises she likes girls much more than boys, and that she really is different.

But years later life has turned out not as planned. Jo is the wife who stays home with her daughters, while Bethie has joined the counter culture, going to music festivals and enthusiastically embracing drugs and free love, all against a background of Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib.

This is a love story – occasionally a fairly raunchy one – but it is also about expectations met and unmet, about being Jewish in a largely non-Jewish society, racism, and frustration.

It is also about how sisters can blame each other for the way their lives develop, about guilt, and eventually about feeling whole and accepted in one’s own body.

And it illustrates the change in society from the 60s to now, from a time when an abortion can upend a life to the present when an unplanned pregnancy is not a disaster and the resulting baby is accepted and loved.

It’s a different world.

Tenderness and the Beast

Review: Archie Henderson

Beast, by Tendai Mtawarira with Andy Capostagno (Macmillan)

Even for those who have played rugby over the years, the front row is the place to avoid. It’s where the grunts of the game live, and terrible stories are told at beer-drinking sessions in the clubhouse about it after games. 

The front row is the front line; it’s where opponents literally knock heads. Once a scrum is set, the exponents on both sides – from the left, the loosehead prop, the hooker and the tighthead – engage in activities that the referee cannot see, not even the television match official with his probing cameras. Punches can be thrown, ears can be bitten, testicles can be kicked, thumbs can be broken. And all of it out of sight. Continue reading

How Hitler misled Chamberlain – and other lies with fatal results

Review: Vivien Horler

Talking to Strangers – What we should know about the people we don’t know, by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane/ Penguin Books)

Malcolm Gladwell is a bestselling, interesting and insightful writer credited with developing the 10 000 hours theory of success: anyone can be an “overnight” winner when they’ve put in the hard work, usually around 10 000 hours of it.

Until Talking to Strangers, I’d read two of his books, The Tipping Point and Outliers, both of which I found fascinating. Actually Talking to Strangers is interesting too, full of striking anecdotes about how strangers tend to misunderstand each other, often with fatal consequences.

A story familiar to most of us is that of the meetings between Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in Germany a year or so before the outbreak of World War 2. Hitler was being increasingly bellicose and, amid fears of war, Chamberlain went to see him to judge whether he was going to be satisfied with annexing Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, or whether he had wider territorial ambitions. Continue reading

Novel of courage to make a life in a narrow society

Review: Vivien Horler
A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier (The Borough Press/ Jonathan Ball)
The deaths of millions of young men in World War I meant a generation of young women was unable to marry and have children.
Society has changed so much since the early 1930s when this novel, by the author of the bestselling Girl with a Pear Earring, is set. We may think our world lacks kindness and tolerance today, but prejudice was rife in middle class England in 1932 and being a “spinster” was a challenge.
Violet Speedwell, born in the last years of the 19th century, loses both a brother and a fiance in the war. In her mid-30s at the start of this novel, she has moved away from her family home in Southampton, Continue reading