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Dear friends and readers,

We're going for a short holiday to Vermont - where it's supposed to be cool. I've still a sense of a new life in front of me. I've many feelings, some include regret that I won't be teaching any more as I enjoyed it, was a good teacher, and genuinely contributed to some students' lives, but all trouble and bitterness is swallowed up in this sense of relief. I can take what books I please!

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Clary on the Admiral's puff, taken by Caroline

One I've just finished (first up as it were): Hilary Mantel's Eight Months on Ghazza Street.  This is in her vein of apparent fiction which is really a memoir of her life. See her own commentary in the Guardian. It has had good reviews and the topic looks relevent. Mantel went to live with her husband in the middle east at one point and found herself totally isolated in her apartment: like Jhabvala, she didn't belong in the ex-patriot community, nor at all in the native one. The blurb calls it a modern gothic Turn of the Screw. It had an appealing cover:

It is a semi-autobiographical memoir, a fictionalization of something that really happened and as such is important. What really does happen counts. There are lots of people who are willing to go live in these ruthless totalitarian states and do the bidding of the individuals who run them for tons of money. These are the people who are the servants of some of the individuals Taryn Simon traced.

Those writing about Mantel winning the Booker mention this book as pro-woman and a political thriller: At first I thought it was an expose of the social realities of Muslim life, unashamed unqualified: what does a group of men with colluding powerful families have to do to make sure that not one inch of public space is open to women to live in, to meet other people in. Since women make up 50% of the population and human beings are promiscuously wandering in their ways this represents a considerable difficulty. Don't have halls in apartment houses is one start. Have no walkable sidewalks or areas to wander in outside stores is another. Then the women themselves collude and are complicit and justify their masters: like someone whose hands are chopped off is first given a strong anesthetic one Muslim neighbor tells our heroines.

But then I realized it's equally an expose of the western wives' lives. It's about as compulsive a book for me as her Black Book.

It closes just as the culture close in on our heroine and her engineer husband. Upstairs is not an adulterous tryst place but something scarier: perhaps a nest of torturers? Our heroine's flat has been ransacked and it's not clear she is not a target for killing as she talks openly of her anxieties. The company is no longer being paid. Clearly our friends need to leave.Does anyone on this list know for sure that a Muslim dictatorship like Saudi Arabia does make it very difficult for any westerner who has come there on a work permit to leave?

It just sort of petered out at the end: we never learn who or what was going on upstairs, who has broken in and ruined their apartment, stolen a number of their goods, why two friends suddenly die in accidents. They move to a house in another compound and on the last page are anxiously awaiting visas to leave.

Yet this petering out was appropriate. A society where no information at all is permitted to get out into the public is a scary place. A society where no one is held accountable, no laws are even pretended to be universal for all. Hilary Mantel persuaded me to never go to such a country, as a wife especially but also as an employee. The heroine's husband is no longer being paid by the end nor is his firm sure they have their task to do any more. All could turn around the next day but it could also turn back again.

Women are just erasable. Bad as US society is, it's not this and we are as yet far from it. I think this was the point, not a political thriller or whatever rubbish the blurb says. It made me remember the Bookseller of Kabul While Mantel's historical fiction soars with a strange creative poetry when she recreates the earlier time, she is often disguising herself as a man, and the fictions can be wooden, overdone, these memoirs and memoir-fictions are her real powerful metier.

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Cindy Sherman's Masquerade Ball

Sylvia

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