Escapism with Satirical Bite: Martha Batalha

It has been a horrible couple of weeks to follow a few anxious years, so I was in the mood for something light and escapist, and the promise of this bright yellow cover was something I couldn’t resist. Brazilian writer Martha Batalha’s novel The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao (transl. Eric M.B. Becker) might be set quite a few decades back (in the 1940s-60s) and in a macho culture such as Brazil, but it will bring a wince of recognition to women everywhere.

Euridice is the daughter of Portuguese immigrants growing up in 1940s Rio. Although she is bright, talented and ambitious, the only career path which seems open to her is to marry and be a good wife and mother. She certainly doesn’t want to rebel and be disowned by her family like her older sister Guida. So she marries the very conventional Antenor, raises two rather ungrateful children, gets bored and frustrated… and tries to find creative outlets for her talents. She becomes a fantastic chef and writes a cookbook. She learns to sew and becomes a hugely popular seamstress. But every time she finds a new way of expressing herself, her family and her gossipy neighbourhood crush her dreams. But Euridice doesn’t give up – and when her long-lost sister reappears, the two of them manage to find a way of life that suits them both.

This potentially serious subject matter is treated with much humour and sly, sassy irony. Whole families or lives are deftly handled in just one paragraph of wry description. There is a delightful air of fable about the story, and so many archetypes parade through its pages. Perhaps there is a tendency for some of the secondary characters to become caricatures, but this merely adds to the enjoyment of this quick, fun read. Yet it’s not just fun and games – it has quite a bit of satirical bite to it.

I amused myself by comparing the fictional characters with people I’ve met in my life.

For instance, this one sounds like my Greek ex-father-in-law:

That man, she knew, was a good husband. Antenor never disappeared for days and never lifted a hand to her. He brought in a good salary, complained very little, and conversed with the children. The only thing he didn’t like was to be interrupted when he was listening to the radio or reading the newspaper, when he slept until late or when he took a nap after lunch. And as long as his slippers were set parallel to the foot of the bed, his coffee was nearly scalding, there weren’t any fatty bits in the milk. the children didn’t run through the house, the sofa pillows were arranged the right way, the windows were closed no later than four o’clock, no racket was made before seven in the morning, the radio was never too loud or too soft, the bathrooms smelled like eucalyptus and he never had to eat the same dish two meals running, he didn’t ask too much.

In the following paragraph, it sounds more like my own marriage (not through lack of trying to change things, I might add):

Antenor’s familiarity with the house was almost nonexistent. He had no idea what was in the refrigerator or kitchen cabinets, much less the kitchen sink… Everything else was everything else, and everything else was the domain of Euridice. Antenor was there to bring a paycheck and to dirty plates and rumple sheets, not to know how the clothes were laundered or the dinner made.

The incompetent doctor from a privileged background, although rooted in the history of slavery in Brazil, nevertheless sounds a lot like some of the politicians we see today, especially Trump:

Despite having rejected his family, the young man retained the haughtiness of his caste. He thought he could do with his studies what his ancestors had done with Brazil: he thought that money could buy his diploma and arrogance would bring him knowledge. His grandfathers and great-grandfathers had been made barons and landowners for much less. Graduating with a medical degree would be the fulfilment of a dream, and with the Monteiro Godoys, dreams were transformed into reality with a snap of the fingers, followed by vast sums of money to buy possessions and to buy off people, along with a few swords, rifles, and whips to accelerate the process.

Of course this is escapist literature: although it starts out from a similar premise to Tales from the Vienna Woods, with a girl very much expected to meet the needs of the men in her life, it ends on a much cheerier note. Whether that is because of the setting or because the author couldn’t resist injecting a contemporary note in a story that is set several decades ago, it felt good to read about women emerging victorious for once.

Mood-Boosting Books in the Library

A couple of years ago I discovered that there is a trend now to promote ‘mood-boosting books’ in our local libraries (and perhaps nationally). Perhaps this is to counteract the trauma caused by the daily, weekly, monthly news cycle, or perhaps it’s a bread and circuses distraction so that the population stays calm and carries on. Whatever the reason behind it, it was something I welcomed, even as an inveterate and unrepentant reader of noir literature.

However, the selection is somewhat controversial, to say the least. No disrespect to the librarians who made the selection from what were probably limited resources, but I cannot resist suggesting some alternatives to the more blatant discrepancies between stated purpose and actual effect on the reader.

Completely gratuitous image of Aidan Turner as Poldark – and no, not the torso…

The choice of the Poldark series may have more to do with the phwoar appeal of Aidan Turner’s torso than with the actual storyline, which is often full of cruelty, grim poverty and sadness. If you were aiming for a family saga in which you can sink in, forgetting about your own worries for a minute, then I would recommend Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance or the Jalna series by Mazo de la Roche.

I recently borrowed The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, which was also on that mood-boosting shelf, expecting a book about a cat adopting a youngish couple to be charming and tender. Well, yes it was, but also rather wistful and sad, connected to the end of an era (Showa) and perhaps an end of a certain way of life in Japan. For a cheerier account of cats as saviours, try A Streetcat Named Bob or The Good, the Bad and the Furry. And if you want a satire of a changing Japan, then Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat is a classic.

Portrait of Natsume Soseki with his cat, by Okamoto Ippei.

I’ve laughed before how Alice Munro was mysteriously shelved under Happiness with her stark and unflinching short stories. I could say the same about The Miniaturist, or Chekhov’s short stories, or Louis Sachar’s Holes or A Month in the Country or even The Camomile Lawn. I suppose the idea is to read something about triumph in the face of adversity, but some of the titles seem to wilfully misinterpret what could make people happy. Maybe reading about other people’s suffering makes us more content with our own life?

There are, of course, some excellent choices that I cannot help but agree with: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, the irrepressible Adrian Mole, The Enchanted April, Matt Haig’s The Humans and even Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (aka These Foolish Things, although I have problems at times with the ‘white tourists going to exotic locations and poking gentle fun at them’.

What other books would you recommend to people who need escapism or cheering up? Top of my list would be Pippi Longstocking, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, Paul Berna’s A Hundred Million Francs. What would be top of your list?

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

I’m sorry I did not take the advice of my fellow bloggers AT ONCE and dive into this charming, funny novel by Winifred Watson. It is sweet without being too sickly, an escapist fairytale with a good dose of humour and wisecracks to keep it grounded. It has the feel and style of those 1930s Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers comedies which I used to watch after coming home from school in the afternoon, before I sat down to do my homework. It was – for once – not relegated to the underground storage room of the library, but up proud and yellow on the ‘mood boosting books’ shelf. And never a truer word was spoken!

It is a fairy-tale, a Cinderella story of a middle-aged, downtrodden governess who is sent by mistake to the apartment of a glamorous nightclub singer, Delysia LaFosse, rather than a household full of unruly children. Before she has a chance to clear up the misunderstanding, she becomes involved in Delysia’s complicated love life and, with her level-headed, prim attitude and warm-hearted if slightly bossy style of questioning, she soon gains Delysia’s trust and gratitude. She gets swept up in the hedonistic lifestyle of her employer and over the next 24 hours experiences the most intoxicating period of her life. But once those giddy hours are over, she is very much afraid she will have to go back to her drab, near-unbearable life.

There is just enough backbone to Guinevere Pettigrew (that first name says it all), and just enough careless charm and genuine warmth to Delysia and her friends to make this story seem almost feasible, while the witty, self-deprecating observations keep us one step removed from fantasy land.  One could dismiss this as ‘romantic tosh’, but it is far more subversive than that. The lifestyle described is a little too decadent and Miss Pettigrew’s conclusion almost too forward for the time period she was living in:

I find it much pleasanter not to be a lady. I have been one all my life. And what have I to show for it? Nothing. I have ceased to be one.

The original illustrations by Mary Thomson are equally humorous and reminded me very much of the illustrations for Ballet Shoes (although those were drawn by Ruth Gervis). Just one note of caution: there are one or two offensive remarks about Jews and ‘dagos’ in there, reflecting the attitudes of the time, but not excessively so, it doesn’t sour the rest of the story.

As I said above, this book has been reviewed extensively by book bloggers I admire, such as Jacqui, Kate Vane, Simon Savidge , Emma, Max and Resh Susan. I haven’t seen the film but Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew strikes me as an inspired choice.

Escapist Reading Mini Reviews – and One That’s Not

I’m never going to catch up on all of my reviewing, so here is a brave and brief snapshot of some recent reading. All of the below are quite engrossing and make for good escapist literature (entertaining but not ‘light and cosy’ reading). Except the last one, as you’ll see.

magpieAnthony Horowitz: Magpie Murders

Horowitz is amazingly prolific (he cites Charles Dickens as an influence, so it’s not surprising), but in this book he gives us a bit of a bargain: two mysteries for the price of one. We start out with a classic Golden Age-type mystery written by recently deceased author Alan Conway but set in sleepy 1950s English villages, featuring his much-loved detective Atticus Pund. Any similarities to a certain Belgian detective with a moustache and hyperactive grey cells are entirely deliberate and Horowitz is clearly having enormous fun playing around with the tropes of the genre (and also showing us the weaknesses of Conway’s writing). However, just as Pund is about to assemble all the suspects and tell them who the murderer is, the manuscript ends and Conway’s editor Susan Ryeland has to find the rest of the story. And of course uncovers much more in the course of things, because it appears that this last manuscript contains many secret codes and messages and point to a real-life murderer. Much mocking of the publishing world and literary egos ensues.

For sheer unadulterated fun, great imagination and verve of storytelling, few can match Horowitz. He’s a great favourite with my boys, of course, but I’ve also enjoyed his versatility as a scriptwriter (Foyle’s War is a particular favourite). I’ve not read his Sherlock Holmes series yet, but I know he can echo and then subvert existing crime fiction styles and themes: James Bond in Alex Rider, Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett in The Diamond Brothers, and now Agatha Christie.

schollAnja Reich-Osang: The Scholl Case (transl. Imogen Taylor)

For anyone familiar with German history, the name Scholl evokes the brother and sister Scholl who dared to confront Nazi ideology back in the 1930s and were executed for their efforts. This book has nothing to do with them, but it’s what made me request it from Netgalley. Long live misunderstandings and serendipity!

What it does instead is present the real-life case of the 2011 murder of a 67-year-old woman in Ludwigsfelde, a small town just outside Berlin. The victim was Brigitte Scholl, wife of former mayor Heinrich Scholl, regarded as one of the most successful local politicians of East Germany after the reunification. At first, there were rumours that Brigitte was raped and killed by a serial killer, but a few weeks later her husband was arrested, pronounced guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, he pleads not guilty and German journalist Anja Reich-Osang examines the evidence in this factual recount of events.

There is no miscarriage of justice here, no spectacular revelations, just a chronological examination of two egocentric main characters and a thorough analysis of a long and difficult marriage. Despite the rather dry style and the often conflicting statements from friends and relatives, the events themselves are sensational enough to make this a compelling read. It’s also impossible not to see the sudden rush to a free market economy as a contributing factor in this domestic tragedy.

essexSarah Perry: The Essex Serpent

I’ve been keen to read this one ever since it came out and I heard so many reviewers raving about it. I’m not all that keen on historical fiction nowadays, but I was sucked into the story and atmosphere right from the beginning. There is something so beguiling about settling down with a proper, old-fashioned tale of wonder, mystery and subverting of clichés about Victorian life. There are also some great characters to sink your teeth into, each one of them interesting in its own right, none of them two-dimensional, even if they only have the briefest of  appearances. I didn’t personally warm too much to Cora and Will, the traumatised widow and the questioning vicar, although I appreciated the complex relationship between them, a marriage of true minds rather than lust. However, I was intrigued by Cora’s son, Will’s wife and the surgeon Luke Garrett. The atmosphere of menace, the sense of doom and waiting for the curse of the serpent to strike the village is so well conveyed.

It felt like a rich medieval tapestry to me (very much in keeping with the beautiful cover): flamboyant, easy on the eye (readable), full of poetry and grace, but not quite providing enough insulation for the bare stone walls. The ending felt as if the author had run out of ideas, rushed and yet repetitive. So, a wonderful premise and world-building in the first half of the book, but a bit of a drag and a disappointment in the last few chapters.

publiclibraryAli Smith: Public Library and Other Stories

Not really a collection of stories (although it does contain some fiction), more of a love ode to the power of reading and of public libraries. Certainly something with which all book lovers will concur, and she talks with authors and librarians about what reading means to them and why libraries are important. So it does have the feel of a specially commissioned work. Yet the stories are wacky, dream-like, written in an off-kilter tone which will surprise you, interspersed with personal anecdotes. There is the story of a man who can simply not understand his ex-wife’s love of books, until he too falls under the spell of Katherine Mansfield. The life story of an obscure Scottish poet Olive Fraser. What happened to the ashes of DH Lawrence. The woman who starts growing a tree out of her chest. Uneven, odd, but a great book to dip in and out of, and allow oneself to be surprised – much like in a library.

suspiciousLaura Kasischke: Suspicious River

This was the book I was reading the night I was following the results of the American election and I wouldn’t recommend it as the best escapist fiction. In fact, it shows depressed, hopeless small-town America (a town called Suspicious River) in all its grey drabness, male sexual predatory behaviour and women’s collusion to it in grimly plausible detail. At any other time, perhaps, I would have appreciated the disturbing poetic style (which contrasts so much with the bleak storyline), but on this occasion it went over my head. Admittedly, the poetic descriptions and metaphors did try a bit too hard on occasion, but it’s worth remembering that this was the debut novel by a confirmed poet.

Leila is a young married woman, working as a motel receptionist and dabbling in prostitution with the male clients checking in. Flashbacks to her childhood, her glamorous mother carrying on with her father’s brother behind his back, her mother’s sudden death and all the neglect which followed, explain to a certain extent Leila’s strange apathy and seeking out of painful experiences. A very troubling book, because of its subject matter and the cold way in which Leila seems to depersonalise her experiences and almost invite bad things into her life. So save this one for when you have a very strong stomach, or when you have got over the pain of the American election results.

Still, I enjoy Kasischke’s poetry and was really impressed by her more recent novel Mind of Winter, so I will continue to seek out her work. I will also be attending a poetry masterclass with her this coming weekend, so wish me luck!