Sunday, 7 April 2019

Phylogeny


Barbara Kingsolver came to the Manchester Literature Festival last year and it was my most anticipated event. She commented at the beginning of the chat how enamoured she was with the british version of her book, because the publisher had commissioned this wonderful edging to the pages, a continuation of the wallpaper pattern in the cover image. It's not really a book to read when you are about to lose your house because it's all about two people who's houses are falling down around their ears.

I started writing this back in January and no longer have strong impressions of the book (nor a memory of why I entitled the post Phylogeny). I so wanted to do it justice because the story spoke volumes for me about how important it is to have a home, to feel you belong somewhere. I loved it also because of the inclusion of real people in the narrative, the way she did with The Lacuna. She made a comment in her discussion about working on her sentences and I wished I had been able to say how much I appreciate writers who take that much trouble; how when you read you can tell they have cared about each sentence and what it says.

Again, much reading has gone on recently as I have battled my impatience with the vendors and the solicitors, and waited, and packed books, and waited for the contracts to be exchanged. Quickest of quick summaries of some enjoyable reads:

'Bitter Orange' by Claire Fuller: a dark tale of Frances, who just yearns for acceptance, and is sucked in to the mixed up lives of Peter and Cara. A beautifully related tale of a long hot summer where hidden things are revealed and secrets come back to haunt her.
'Foucault's Pendulum' by Umberto Eco took me a long time to read, it was ponderously slow and detailed. I kept waiting for something to happen, and it didn't. It is like 'The Da Vinci Code' but ramped up by several notches. It covers much of the same ground; the templars and all that historical stuff about secret societies, but the young men involved seem to be inventing it as they go along, creating false connections to ingratiate themselves with their publisher, and then finding things are more real than they imagined. I loved the depth in 'The Name of the Rose' and was hoping for something as engaging but just found myself utterly bogged down by it.


'The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden' by Jonas Jonasson: I had packed most of my books so Monkey took this off her shelf for me. I loved The 100 Year old Man and settled down to this one with relish. It follows something of the same format, though this time we have a young South African girl as our heroine making her way doggedly through a life that seems determined to thwart her. Similarly resourceful and pragmatic you can't help but like her, and again the story is a mixture of real life events and characters artfully blended with fictitious ones. 


'Travelling in a Strange Land' by David Park was recommended by Dove Grey Reader a few weeks ago and I loved it, and happily he has quite a list of other books for me to seek out. A father battles through the snow to collect his son from university, and while he drives he cogitates over their family history, and all the ways in which he feels he has failed his children. It is beautifully understated book, just my kind of read. Isolated in his car Tom allows himself hours of introspection, interrupted by moments of connection to people he encounters along the way. A gentle and sympathetic study of the human condition with all its strengths and weaknesses. 


'Rings of Saturn' by W.G. Sebald is from my 101 Books list. I loved Austerlitz and was looking forward to reading this, having started and stopped several times because I was distracted and wanted to give it my full attention. I wanted to like it but I didn't. The style felt so familiar with meandering digressions, but the central premise of the book, a travelogue by the narrator of a journey around Suffolk, did not engage me the way the character and story of Austerlitz did. The narrator himself did not seem to have much enthusiasm for his journey and the places he stopped were lifeless and bleak. I found much of the digressing to be dull and there were few of the intense moments that I encountered in Austerlitz. I will give you just this, a description of his garden in the spring following the hurricane in 1987:

"Now, in the truest sense of the word, everything was turned upside down. The forest floor, which in the spring of last year had still been carpeted with snowdrops, violets and wood anemones, ferns and cushions of moss, was now covered with a layer of barren clay. All that grew in the hard-baked earth were tufts of swamp grass, the seeds of which had lain in the depths for goodness knows how long. The rays of the sun, with nothing left to impede them, destroyed all the shade-loving plants so that it seemed as if we were living on the edge of an infertile plain. Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows, where larks had risen on the morning air above the fields and where, in the evenings, we occasionally even heard a nightingale in the thicket, its pure and penetrating song punctuated by theatrical silences, there was now not a living sound." (p.268)

Thursday, 21 February 2019

The perks of insomnia

Not sleeping too well, what with all the house stress going round my head, so there has been quite a lot of middle-of-the-night reading over the last few weeks. The backlog has built so here is a brief snapshot of the books I have read, in no particular order of either reading or interest.
Sarah Winman's 'A Year of Marvellous Ways' is a lovely feel-good tale of an elderly woman taking care of a traumatised soldier. Over the course of the chapters we learn their life stories and watch the quiet unfolding of their friendship. A book to remind you of the essential goodness of people.

"That night an old woman at the end of her life, and three young people at the start of their lives lie in bed listening to the earth turn. It has a melody that only the gentle hear. They each lie thinking about love. Lost love and love to come. the old woman falls asleep first. She falls asleep with moonlight lips upon her lips and the sweet scent of china tea and gorse flower whispering tales from youth-drenched time. The young woman who smells of bread thinks love is like yeast. It needs time to prove. It is complex. She thinks she might get a dog instead. Along the coast in a cottage called Long Gone a young fisherman thinks only of her. He thinks love is like the sea, beautiful and dangerous but something he would like to know. And in the boathouse a young man lights a cigarette. He takes two puffs, one for sorrow tow for joy. He thinks about a woman called Missy Hall. for once it is a good memory. The moon falls behind the trees and the lights go out." (p.254)



My sister Claire bought me 'Small Wars' by Sadie Jones for Christmas. It is a wonderful period piece of a novel, set in Cyprus during the 1950s. It is a bit of British history I know very little about so the story itself was interesting. I enjoyed the well created atmosphere of the time and the situation and the strong character development, both of Clara and Hal, but then was utterly let down by the ending. Hal is a major in the army, and appears to have a crisis of confidence about what is happening in Cyprus and his role in it, then an actual breakdown, and the 'cover-up' of the situation by the army was perfectly handled, but then he just kind of pulls himself together at the end and everything is fine. It lacked any credibility, and that's not even mentioning flying his wife home from Cyprus in a military plane only days after major surgery. Endings matter, so I felt let down.

"Clara, in the garden, was enjoying herself. Hal may have had his first small triumph as a soldier, but she'd had her first triumph as a real army wife. She hadn't cried and clung to him and told him not to get blown up. She had spent the day having lunch with Deirdre Innes, taking the children to the beach, and when he'd come back she hadn't cried either, but laughed." (p.83)



'The Incendiaries' by R.O. Kwon; I thought it was on the Women's fiction longlist, but I was wrong, so I'm not sure where I read about it. It is a weird story about a young woman, Phoebe, who gets sucked into a religious cult, and about the young man, Will, who is enamoured with her. The chapters hop between their points of view, with a strange switch of style between first and third person. There are also brief chapters by John Leal who is the cult leader, they don't give you much insight into his thinking, I kept suspecting he was a fraud, if he is, he keeps up a very good front. It is more of a love story than anything else, I didn't learn much about the cult side of the story. Certainly if you are into experimental type fiction you would find it worth seeking out.

"I approached the dining hall. I'd been up since six, while she was in bed, idling. Lions in a cage. Had she petted them, and did she wake to find the tawny fur glinting on her skin? She might have rubbed the fur around as she slept. The coarse hairs strewn in Phoebe's sheets, bijou rays of gold. But my step felt light. If I could be anyone, I'd ask to be the Will rushing to see more, again, of Phoebe. In the distance, an advertisement painted on the side of a brick building showed a young girl, lips pursed as if to send a wish. The suck and howl of a siren pierced the cold, and the fall wind smelled of reasons to live." (p.20)


 I have read others by Rose Tremain, notably 'The Gustav Sonata' during the Readathon in 2017, so finding 'Trespass' on a charity shop trawl was a definite purchase. I disliked Anthony Verey right from the start, but am not sure he deserved his fate. I liked the dynamics of the two brother/sister relationships, it was an interesting way to frame the story, and a much neglected relationship in fiction. It is a story very much about belonging in a particular place, and feeling safe there, and how important home is for the human psyche. Here Anthony is house hunting in southern France:

"For a little while, he was able to distract himself from his feelings of collapse by imagining the Swiss couple who'd put this room together: lawyers or professors, educated people, a couple with a full address book which connected them, perhaps, to many different worlds. People on whom life had smiled. And yet they'd hung on to their souls. They weren't vulgar. They weren't afraid of silence.
But then, when a certain amount of time had passed, they'd understood what Anthony understood: that this house exposed them in too terrible a way. It sat too high on a pitiless plateau, unguarded, unprotected - with a precipice at its feet. The wind bent the pines planted to give it shade and shelter, bent them and bowed them." (p.292-3)



The girls and I read 'Unseen Academicals' by Terry Pratchett over a couple of weeks. Its about football, and the crazy levels of devotion that it seems to instil in people. I think I missed some bits by dozing off on the sofa, but Terry is always entertaining, without getting repetitive. His humour is strangely predictable but he always somehow puts unexpected twists on the things he chooses to mock. We don't have many evening when we are all around together at the moment so its nice to just hang out reading when we do.

I just realised I had forgotten all about Foucault's Pendulum ... I also have a couple of other books but they deserve a bit better treatment so will get their own posts. All my energy is now focussed on getting the house bought and us moved in as quickly as possible. See you on the other side.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Optimism Over Despair

 Noam Chomsky's book 'Optimism Over Despair' was sitting on the top of Monkey's TBR pile and it seemed like an appropriate title for my Blogiversary post since, despite having a lot of stuff to despair over, I am still here after 10 years. I am a week late with this post because the despair struck hard last week with the news that we are not, after all, going to be buying our lovely little house and have to move out. We have done a lot to make it feel like our home and now we are going to have to start from scratch. We are soldiering manfully on in our hunt for a new place to live.

In other news, the world as we know it is imminently coming to an end. This fact has been preoccupying me for quite a long time and it was nice to find that there are, in fact, a lot of other people who also think we should be doing something more serious about the problems. So while on the one hand I expend pointless energy agonising over pretty much everything I buy and am trying to cut my own plastic use with homemade soap-on-a-rope:
Monkey and I are also getting involved in more direct action to force the government and the wider public to be aware of how urgent the problems are (Waterloo Bridge, London November 2018):
I have spent quite some time ploughing through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, trying to understand what is happening and what can be done to prevent the total collapse of our ecosystem and thus human life on this planet. It's a work in progress but I will try and post about it soon. I feel like I want to walk around with one of those 'The End Is Nigh' sandwich boards like weird people used to do. I am concerned about the shift in political attitudes away from international cooperation and towards an insular carry-on-regardless approach. I fear that the tipping point will come and we will be over it before people wake up to the realities. I look around and the world seems the same, because the things that are already changing are not apparent. I don't know how to communicate all this. The media gets people all excited about giving up plastic straws to save the turtles and I just sit there furious because it is so distracting from the real changes that need to be made. But I force myself to be optimistic; we will buy a house, because I want to believe that the world will still be inhabitable when I am old and I will need somewhere to live. 
So here's looking to the next decade ... will my blog still be here ... will any of this matter ... I hope there will still be books.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Our Endless Numbered Days

Next up in the new year backlog is 'Our Endless Numbered Days' by Claire Fuller which I was immediately drawn to when I read about it. The story tells of 'Punzel', as she comes to be called by her father, and how she is taken from her ordinary existence and hidden away in a remote hut on the pretext that the world has come to an end. It hops back and forth in time, giving the history as well as the present day, when Peggy has returned from where she went, to her mother and brother. Her father is fascinated by the 'survivalist' philosophy, the idea of living off the land, away from civilization, being answerable to no-one. When Peggy's pianist mother goes off on tour he begins to draw her further into his world. To begin with they spend weeks camping in the garden, but after her parents have an argument on the phone the two of them pack up and set off across Europe. They finally arrive at 'die Hutte', a rather more dilapidated building than her father had anticipated, but he tells her that everyone else has died and they must live here and fend for themselves. She is eight, so she accepts his version of events and they struggle together to live in this place. Even as she grows she does not question their situation, and having been traumatised by a river crossing that nearly drowned her she makes no attempt to explore outside the boundary that he has set for their world. Hidden in her secret hideout one day she sees a stranger's feet go past and then things begin to change. Her father's behaviour becomes more extreme and erratic and she is both frightened but utterly dependent on him. When she finally meets the stranger you begin to anticipate that their existence is about to be turned on its head. 

The whole atmosphere of the book is wonderful, so intense and, despite the mountains and forest, very claustrophobic. It is about the changing relationship between father and daughter, the trust and the betrayal. But I felt it is also very much about how children learn about the world; they must trust in the things that adults tell them, and only slowly come to their own understanding of the way things are, the process of growing up. We all, as children, inhabit the world as created for us by our parents. The young woman she is in the other part of the story, where she is back in the 'real world', is more confused and uncertain than the trusting 8-year-old in the woods. 

I was totally sucked in by both the story and the writing. I loved Punzel; she is not precocious and resourceful but full of the fears and inadequacies of a normal child. I have just this one quote, it is her with her brother Oskar (born after she disappeared), trying to ease herself gently back into her old life, learning how to be with people, but not knowing if she will ever be that person again. They have been discussing the swing seat in the garden:

"For a second he was confused, as though he was trying to work out how I knew so much about a seat that was his seat and had always been his seat, but a flush rose in his cheeks and I realised I had gone too far. We walked down on to the lawn, flanked by tidy borders, brown and crisp with winter plants.
'Can you still walk straight through to the cemetery at the bottom of the garden?' I asked, to make amends.
He didn't answer, just carried on walking. All day the frost had stayed, rimming every stalk, every leaf, every blade of grass. Oskar's shoes left shallow prints across the lawn. I trod close behind him, matching his stride and placing my feet where his had been.
If I can fit inside every one of his footsteps, I said to myself, my brother and I will be friends.
I averted my eyes as we passed the tennis court, constructed on the patch of ground where once my father and I had pitched our tent and built our campfire. Instead I looked beyond it, where the brambles and thistles had been cleared and there was more lawn and a summer house. It seemed to take only a few moments to reach the bottom of the garden, whereas in my memory the walk down from the house to the cemetery took five minutes or more. A high chain-link fence now separated the lawn from the trees, but I recalled their outlines as soon as I set eyes on them, like the furniture and ornaments in the house - unremembered until seen once more, and then familiar. Ivy was creeping its way back into the garden, reclaiming old territory." (p.127)

It is nothing like it, but it suddenly brought to mind 'Room' by Emma Donoghue, about a young woman kidnapped and held against her will, and how she struggles to cope back in the real world. I loved this book and will definitely be seeking out Claire Fuller's other novels.

The Vegetarian

Ok, the new year has arrived and my resolution is to not beat myself up about stuff ... so I am not going to beat myself up about the fact that I read 'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang several months ago now and no review has been forthcoming. In fact the review queue is getting a little out of hand. I had requested this from the library before I read 'Convenience Store Woman' and although the author is Korean not Japanese there are some striking cultural similarities, mainly their discomfort with unconventionality. 

The book is written in three parts (apparently it started out as a short story); the first from the perspective of the husband, the second from the perspective of the brother-in-law and the third part from the perspective of the sister, so at no point do we get to know what is going on in the mind of Yeong-hye. She stops eating meat. It is not explained why, but to me the story is one of an emotional/mental breakdown that this young woman suffers utterly without care or support from her family. They are all so focussed on their own feelings about what she is doing to try and understand her experience. I spent the entire book wanting someone to just show her a little compassion, until the end when the sister finally realises how much Yeong-hye needs her and decides to side with her rather than with society and the medical profession. I found the book very curious, a window in a very different set of cultural attitudes. The style is rather reserved, almost distanced from any emotional engagement, the relationships between the characters quite formal. I cannot add much more than that since it is long gone back to the library, but it certainly deserves all the interested it has received since it was translated to english.

"My mother-in-law gathered up the chopsticks with an attitude of despair. Her old woman's face seemed on the brink of crumpling into tears, tears that would explode from her eyes and then course down her wrinkled cheeks in silence. My father-in-law took up a pair of chopsticks. He used them to pick up a piece of sweet and sour pork and stood tall in front of my wife, who turned away.
My father-in-law stooped slightly as he thrust the pork at my wife's face, a lifetimes's rigid discipline unable to disguise his advanced age.
'Eat it! Listen to what your father's telling you and eat. Everything I say is for your own good. So why act like this if it makes you ill?'
The fatherly affection that was almost choking the old man made a powerful impression once, and I was moved to tears in spite of myself. Probably everyone gathered there felt the same. With one hand my wife pushed away his chopsticks, which were shaking silently in empty space.
'Father, I don't eat meat.'
In an instant, his flat palm cleaved empty space. My wife cupped her cheek in hand.
'Father!'  In-hye cried out, grabbing his arm. His lips twitched as though his agitation had not yet passed off. I'd known of his incredibly violent temperament for some time, but it was the first time I'd directly witnessed him striking someone." (p.38-9)

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

the choccys are running out!

Happy New Year to all my visitors. It has been a hectic time, work and non-work wise. The trouble with my job is that you are so busy in the run up to Christmas that you don't get the chance to anticipate the upcoming festivities, and mostly end up relieved when it's all over. I have been working in the cage for about six months now, so it has been my first Christmas in 16 years in the warm and dry. We do get sent out on delivery on a regular basis so I have not missed the outdoors too much. 

On the home front, we were given notice to leave our lovely little house as the landlord wants to sell, but it turns out we can gather enough money in one place to buy it ... so that is the plan. Tish has increased her aerial silks/hoop training with a view to learning how to be an instructor. Monkey has been doing an access to higher education course and is all set to go to university in September to study Japanese. UCAS application submitted and five offers of places later the next impossible decision is between staying in Manchester or venturing further afield. 

So, reading has been a bit sluggish, but not quite as bad as the regularity of blog posts would imply. I have definitely lost my blogging mojo. Books have been read and then I have moved on. I have enjoyed some things but struggled to get truly absorbed by anything. Crafting has ground to a halt a bit too. I made a blanket and some sofa cushions for Dunk but nothing else for some months now. After our initially flurry of activity making stuff for the house we have stalled there too, though we have more significant decorating plans for once the brick and mortar are all ours. 

I find that unusually for me I have read more men than women this year, 25 of the 41 books listed. I have a couple of things stalled in the draft folder, and Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco has been on the go for most of the year (it feels like) and I am down to the last fifty pages, and hopefully the denouement of the story. Plenty of things I enjoyed this year, but nothing jumps out at me as a favourite. 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
The Dumb House by John Burnside
La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt
So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba
The Sunset Limited by Cormac Mccarthy
Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
What We lose by Zinzi Clemmons
Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore
Barracoon: the story of the last slave by Zora Neale Hurston
Harvest by Jim Crace
The Trick to Time by Kit De Waal
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
The Making of Henry by Howard Jacobson
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
Sourcery by Terry Pratchett
Yesterday's Weather by Anne Enright
When I Grow up I want to be Mary Beard by Megan Beech
The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmny Ward
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Man who Wouldn't Stand Up by Jacob M Appel
That Awkward Age by Roger McGough
The Quarry by Iain Banks
Three Elegies for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Love in Blind by William Boyd

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

The Quarry

Last up from my review backlog is 'The Quarry' by Ian Banks, his final novel before his untimely death in 2013. I have read several of his novels after discovering 'Wasp Factory' back in 2011 but none that had quite the same unique voice as my first encounter, however Kit, the autistic young man in The Quarry, does manage to be both quirky and thoroughly engaging.

Kit is caring for his father Guy who is dying of cancer, and the story covers a long weekend visit by a close-knit group of university friends. They are an odd group, seemingly bound together by their shared history as much as a liking for each other. They all lived together during their university years in the house owned by Guy, and appeared to have had quite a wild time of it. Their visit becomes an excuse to relive some of their past, but a particular old film project has become the focus of interest, something that most of the group's members want to find and ensure is destroyed. And then there is the lingering issue for Kit of who his mother is.

The story is narrated by Kit so we are only getting his impression of the relationships between the friends, some of whom he is closer to, while others still treat him like a child. There are plenty of unspoken tensions between the group, caused by earlier sexual entanglements, but also by differing political opinions and life choices. It is an interesting examination of how long term friendship operates, that they can like each other in spite of differences and their history is more important than any current disagreements. But it is Kit who is the focus of the story, his struggles to learn how to be with people, to get to grips with social niceties and understand how the world works. I liked the way the reader get inside his head and his thinking. He explains constantly how he sees things and the minutiae of his daily life. Here the group are visiting a local landmark after dark:

"Actually I do have a torch; a little credit-card-sized thing Mrs Willoughby gave me as a birthday present a couple of years ago, but it's for emergencies only, and I wouldn't call this an emergency. If somebody falls on the stairs and needs help, that would be an emergency; then I could use it.
Of course if I let them have the torch, that might help prevent them falling on the stairs in the first place, so maybe I should loan it to them after all. However, by the time I think all this through it's a bit late anyway, and I might even cause an incident if I suddenly dash up the stairs after them, yelling about having a torch and saying I'd forgotten, sorry, but here it is - who needs it most?
I get quite hot thinking about all this; it's just the kind of thing that trips me up and makes me panic. I start taking deep, measured breaths, the way Mrs Willoughby taught me." (p.139)

Guy's cancer sits there partly in the background of the story, but it bursts through intermittently, mostly in angry tirades. The awkwardness of the visitors is palpable, they try to be 'normal' with Guy but can't escape the fact that he is dying and they are all going to carry on living. The relationship between Kit and Guy has become fixed in a pattern of Kit dealing with the practicalities and Guy resenting him, almost blaming him for his dependency. It comes across as a very real and honest picture of someone suffering, devoid of any sentimentality, and you admire Guy's refusal to give in to acceptance, he sticks with the anger stage because it suits him:

"Guy breaks off, coughs again. He's looking sweaty, his eyes are bright.
'You might as well walk into a burning building and try and put out the fire through the medium of modern dance. But it means when you do lose your brave fucking battle - because it always has to be a brave fucking battle, doesn't it? You're never allowed to have a cowardly battle or just a resigned one; that'd be letting the fucking side down, that would ... Anyway, they can secretly think, Well, fucker didn't think positively enough, obviously. If that had been me, I'd have thought so positively I'd have been fine; I'd be fit as a fucking fiddle by now and out publicising my number one best-seller How I Beat the Big C and appearing on chat shows and talking with Spielberg's people about the fucking film version.' Guy coughs again. 'So you don't even get to die in peace; you don't even get to die without the implication that it's somehow your own fucking fault because you weren't fucking positive enough.'
It's your fault you smoked! I want to scream at him. I can feel tears trying to well up behind my eyes.
Guy looks at me, face flushed and glistening in the bedside light. I should probably take a facecloth to him. He smiles. Or maybe he sneers. It's something in between." (p.195)

Like several of his other books I have read the story is very much about human relationships and through the voice of the somewhat reticent Kit the reader becomes a fly on the wall watching this group of friends negotiate a somewhat sticky situation. 


LinkWithin

Blog Widget by LinkWithin