Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends

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In Conversations with Friends Sally Rooney introduces us to the cosmopolitan and privileged world of modern day Dublin through the first person narrator, Frances. It’s a sensual and intimate account focusing on a troubled and adulterous relationship doomed to failure and regret.

Frances is at university in Dublin. She has a part time internship in a publishing house, and is a performance poet, with a professional partner called Bobbi. They are on the fringes of the radical Dublin scene, and meet artists, writers and actors at readings or performances.

Frances is from a less privileged background than the rest of the circle. This accounts to some extent for her lack of self confidence, which she hides behind a calm, restrained and ironic approach to life. To an outsider Frances appears cool and above it all, but of course she’s not.

Frances and Bobbi bump into Nick and Melissa at readings and parties. Nick is a handsome older man, and an actor with some minor credits to his name. Nick and Melissa watch Frances and Bobbi perform, and offer them tickets to a play that Nick is in. The couple are drawn closer together.

Pretty soon Nick and Frances are having an affair, which begins at Melissa’s birthday party when Nick is stoned. It’s an intimate scene and quite typical of the writing in this book. Rooney is very good at evoking the physical sensations of intimacy, and I found the extent of these desriptions quite surprising at first, coming in a book entitled Conversations with Friends. I suppose the title is ironic.

Melissa goes away on business, and Frances moves in with Nick for a few days. These scenes are again described in sensual prose revealing physical and emotional intimacy. For a while the relationship cools. Then Melissa invites Frances and Bobbi to holiday with them, and other wealthy Dubliners, in a French villa. Nick and Melissa are not sleeping together so Frances sneaks into his room at night for emotional sharing, and some more good old rumpy pumpy.

The relationship develops in its inevitable way, strewing damage in its wake. Melissa discovers the situation and is obviously angry. There is a parting of the ways, and Nick and Melissa appear to become a happy couple again.

Frances writes a short story featuring a barely disguised Bobbi, Frances’ flatmate. Seemingly in revenge for the affair, Melissa sends Bobbi a copy. Bobbi is angry when she reads it, and storms out of the flat, taking her suitcase with her. Frances is alone. There is a hospital appointment that has been booked for a while. She discovers she has an incurable gynaecological condition that puts her fertility into doubt, and means a life of regular pain. Her father, separated from the family,  clearly has mental health issues. He fails to pay her monthly allowance. She goes to his house which is filthy and neglected. Her mother accuses her of being cold and unloving towards him.

It seems that everything is conspiring to make life worse for Frances. A more traditional writer might have contrived this as a kind of poetic justice. Rooney does not take that approach. Instead it seems she is just laying on the agony to stir an emotional response. This novel is chick-lit, and especially so at moments like this.

Conversations with Friends is a gripping and interesting book because the character of Frances is realised with absolute conviction. The prose is direct and simple, and the characters presented with wit and humour.

These are people whose moral compass, by Biblical standards, has gone hugely awry. Bobbi especially has all the fashionable intellectual answers about patriarchy and so on. They regard sex as meaningless and seem happy to engage is a series of sexual relationships without really considering the long term implications for others involved. It’s cool to put a brave face on it, and to share partners, to pretend not to care.

Rooney recognises that this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, but her characters don’t manage to find a way out. Their appetites crowd out more disinterested feelings and they drift along, living for the moment and wreaking havoc.

We know that someone, sometime will have to clear up the mess.

 

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Non-Fiction Titles – History

Ackroyd, Peter                                                Thames – Sacred River

               The History of England – V1 Foundation

               London

Beard, Mary                                                     SPQR

Clarke, Stephen                                             1000 Years of Annoying the French

Cooper, John                                                   The Queen’s Agent

Downing, David                                              Sealing their Fate

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe                         1492

Frankopan, Peter                                            The Silk Roads

Goldsworthy, Adrian                                     In the Name of Rome

Goodwin, George                                            Fatal Colours

Harari, Yuval Noah                                        Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind

Hindley, Geoffrey                                           The Anglo-Saxons

Hobsbawm, Eric                                             The Age of Revolution

Holland, Tom                                                  In the Shadow of the Sword

Dynasty – House of Caesar

Hunt, Tristam                                               Ten Cities That Made and Empire

Miles, David                                                    The Tribes of Britain

Paxman, Jeremy                                            The English

Punke, Michael                                              The Revenant

Pye, Michael                                                    The Edge of the World

Robb, Graham                                                 Parisians

Snow, Peter                                                      To War with Wellington

Stothard, Peter                                                On the Spartacus Road

Sykes, Bryan                                                   The Seven Daughters of Eve

Tremlett, Giles                                                Ghosts of Spain

Urban, Mark                                                    Tank War

Fiction Titles – Authors A to E

Adichie, Chiamando Negozi                Americanah

Atkinson, Kate                                       Life After Life

      Case Histories

      Started Early, Took my Dog

      Emotionally Weird

A God in Ruins

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Banks, Iain                                              A Song of Stone

              Stonemouth

Banville, John                                         The Sea

Beatty, Paul                                             The Sellout

Binet, Laurent                                         HHhH

Boyd, William                                         The New Confessions

               Ordinary Thunderstorms

               Waiting for Sunrise

Bullough, Tom                                       Addlands

Byers, Sam                                               Idiopathy

Carey, Peter                                             Amnesia

Cannon, Joanna                                     The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Catton, Eleanor                                      The Luminaries

Chevalier, Tracy                                     Burning Bright

Coe, Jonathan                                         Number 11

Collins, Suzanne                                    The Hunger Games

Cross, Helen                                            Spilt Milk, Black Coffee

DeLillo, Don                                            Americana

              Cosmopolis

              Point Omega

Doerr, Anthony                                     All the Light We Cannot See

About Grace

Ephron, Nora                                          Heartburn

Fiction Titles – Authors M-P

McCabe, Patrick                                    The Stray Sod Country

McCann, Colum                                     Let the Great World Spin

McCullers, Carson                                 The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Miller, AD                                                Snowdrops

Miller, Andrew                                        Pure

Mitchell, David                                       Ghostwritten

              number9dream

              The Bone Clocks

              The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Mo Yan                                                     Big Breasts and Wide Hips

Mo, Timothy                                           An Insular Possession

Murakami                                                1Q84

Naipaul, VS                                             Half a Life

Nicholls, David                                       One Day

              Us

Norris, Barney                                       Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain

O’Farrell, Maggie                                   The Hand that First Held Mine

Obrecht, Tea                                             The Tiger’s Wife

Pamuk, Orhan                                       A Strangeness in my Mind

Powell, Anthony                                   A Buyer’s Market

A Question of Upbringing

The Acceptance World

At Lady Molly’s

Power, Kevin                                           Bad Day in Black Rock

The Anglo-Saxons – Geoffrey Hindley

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The Anglo-Saxons by Geoffrey Hindley is a “brief’ history of England from the fall of the Roman Empire in 410AD to the defeat of Harold in 1066. It stretches to 300 pages with two appendices and a bibliography.

I’m an English man with working class northern origins so I class myself as an Anglo-Saxon, with maybe a bit of Viking thrown in, and I have always had a romantic view of the period before the conquest. The Normans are those guys down south who have all the money and go to privileged schools. They speak posh and yes that is a big chip on my shoulder. Sorry!

I was hoping that Hindley would support my view, and in any case I wanted to find out more about this fairly neglected period of history. But Hindley just gives a run down on the current research on this topic – it’s the sort of academic overview you’d do in a student history essay. He doesn’t really offer any interesting opinions and it’s all quite dry and factual.

It’s interesting to discover the details of Alfred’s life, to learn about Bede and the flowering of Christian culture in Northumbria, and to learn that it was the English who took Christianity to Germany during the dark ages, founding many monasteries and bringing the benefits of civilisation to the wild German woods where even the Romans had failed to get a foothold.

Hindley explains the way that English Christianity developed from Irish and later Catholic sources, and was then intertwined with Rome, contributing to the growth of papal power. It’s amazing to think of Alfred in Rome, and of many English clerics travelling there on foot, or by boat down the Rhine. What an experience that must have been. Or Robert, walking barefoot to Jerusalem. And St Omer, a backwater now, once a thriving centre of cultural exchange between the regions. But Hindley doesn’t make any attempt to help you imagine this or imbue it with any sense of wonder or excitement. It’s just facts.

He gives us the facts about the patchwork of small kingdoms splattered across England, and the shifting balance of power between Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. There is the early history of Northumbria which arose from two warring neighbours, and all the usual power struggles, the deceit and the treachery that we always associate with rulers, the powers and principals against which we as Christians must fight in our small way by being the light, and witnessing to the truth.

Hindley covers the role of women, and the wealth, and cultural life of England.  It was way ahead of anywhere else in Europe, he says.

Of course he writes about the various Danish or Viking invasions. Alfred dealt with one lot. He was a great propagandist according to Hindley, and as he was the victor, it’s his version of history we read and know. The second wave led finally to the downfall of Anglo-Saxon England, when the invasion of Harald Hardrada more or less coincided with old Bill the Conqueror setting foot in Sussex. The rest is history, you might say.

I always thought the Normans stole our country and we never got it back. William certainly devastated the north of England,. The soldiers who received estates in the north complained there was nothing left, just empty villages, burnt to the ground. He wasn’t the only King or ruler to treat the north like that. Remember Thatcher? And we don’t forget up there. The nights are dark and long and we’ve had centuries to mull it all over.

Hindley himself is more forgiving. He gives us a brief history of the years after the conquest, one of the few times when he tells us his own opinion. For him the conquest was a victory for the English anyway. Within a hundred years the King was speaking English, English soldiers were fighting for him in France, and he had an English wife, so that was all right.

Well he might think so but I’m afraid I disagree. Marrying the locals might give you some credibility amongst the more gullible members of the population, but it cuts no ice with me.

They stole our country all right, and they’ve still got it. Just look at today’s news. Princess Eugenie got married in Windsor. They spent two million on security and moved the homeless off the streets so they wouldn’t spoil the view. In the heart of Norman London a Banksy was sold for a million pounds whilst on more or less every street corner in Bath there’s a rough sleeper looking hungry and cold.

Norman rule morphed into a complex matrix of social control and financial privilege that still dominates England. It’s called the Conservative party, and it’s time it was ended.

Fiction Titles – Authors F-L

Farrell, JG                                 The Siege of Krishnapour

  Singapore Grip

Ferrante, Elena                      My Brilliant Friend

 The Story of a New Name

Flanagan, Richard                 The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Franzen, Jonathan                Freedom!!

Frayn, Michael                        Headlong

Gardam, Jane                           The Man in the Wooden Hat

        Old Filth

Grenville, Kate                        The Lieutenant

Guareschi, Giovanni              The Little World of Don Camillo

Haig, Matt                                 The Humans

Hawkins, Paula                       The Girl on the Train

Hollinghurst, Alan                  The Stranger’s Child

Ishiguro, Kazuo                         Never Let Me Go

Jacobson, Howard                    The Finkler Question

Jonasson, Jonas                         The 100 Year Old Man etc

Joyce, Rachel                               Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Kane, Ben                                     Spartacus the Gladiator

Kaufman, Andrew                     All My Friends are Superheroes

Kelman, Stephen                        Pigeon English

Krauss, Alison                             The History of Love

Lanchester, John                         Capital

Llosa, Mario Vargas                    The Feast of the Goat

Fiction Titles – Authors R-Z

Redfern, Elizabeth                               The Music of the Spheres

Russo, Richard                                      Nobody’s Fool

Shaffer and Barrows                            The Guernsey Lit Potato Peel Pie Society

Sheers, Owen                                         Resistance

Simonson, Helen                                  Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Strout, Elizabeth                                  Olive Kitteridge

My Name is Lucy Barton

Swift, Graham                                       Last Orders

Tempest, Kate                                       The Bricks that Built the Houses

Thompson, Hunter S                           The Rum Diary

Toole, John Kennedy                           A Confederacy of Dunces

Torday, Paul                                          Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Unsworth, Barry                                   The Quality of Mercy

Ward, Katie                                            Girl Reading

Winton, Tim                                          Dirt Music

Yanagihara, Hanya                              A Little Life