Friday, 17 August 2018

New Boy

'New Boy' by Tracy Chevalier is the third novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read (see Hag-seed and Vinegar Girl), and one I felt confident to tackle having studied Othello for A level. It is set in an elementary school in 1970's America, where the arrival of Osei Kokote as the new boy causes a stir amongst the white children, upsetting the precarious balance of power and established relationships. It is a wonderful recreation of the story because the world of children acts as a microcosm for adult society and the compression of the story into a single day encapsulates the intensity and the transience of their emotions. Bonds between the children are formed and broken over the course of the day as Osei and Dee take an immediate liking to each other and the school bully Ian conspires to break them up. It is cleverly written, capturing the racial tension of the era and has a subtle understanding of children's concerns; it would have been easy to have portrayed them as petty jealousies and shallow emotions but Chevalier takes the reader inside the children's world and you feel the full weight of their experiences. 

"The moment the black boy walked onto the playground that morning, Ian had felt something shift. It was what an earthquake must feel like, the ground being rearranged and becoming unreliable. The students had had almost the whole year - indeed, the past seven years at elementary school - to get into their established groups, with their hierarchies of leaders and followers. It ran smoothly - until one boy arrived to destabilise everything. One massive kick of a ball, one touch of a girl's cheek, and the order had changed. He scrutinised O, now in his line, and could see the rearrangement gong on to include this new leader - the shifts as other students subtly turned towards him, as if he were a light they followed, like plants seeking the sun. As Ian watched, Casper stepped up behind O and began talking to him. He gestured over the fence, clearly discussing O's kick, and then nodded. Just like that, the black boy had gained the respect of the most popular boy in school, and was going with the most popular girl, and had laughed with Ian's girlfriend - and it wasn't even lunchtime yet." (p.79)

As with both the other two Hogarth Shakespeare this one was a satisfying retelling, a very creative resetting but one that captured perfectly the essence of the original. Recommended for Shakespeare lovers everywhere, and for those alienated by previous experience.

Monday, 30 July 2018

The Trick to Time

I have loved 'The Trick to Time' by Kit De Waal; it is an intimate portrait of a woman, both young and older, and how she copes with love and loss. Mona makes dolls. In her earlier life she had a husband, but you sense from the beginning that things took a tragic turn for them. The story follows her current life, a budding romance with a gentleman neighbour, her motherly affection for her assistant Joely, and a strange oblique relationship with the carpenter who makes her dolls. Other chapters take us back to her youth, her  arrival from Ireland and her whirlwind romance with the charming William.
I liked Mona, and then sometimes I didn't. She is quite old fashioned and somewhat unreflective, but she is also loyal and devoted. She likes things to be just so, which explains the perfectionism she exhibits when she creates her dolls, reusing old fabrics for their clothes and even real hair collected by a local hairdresser. Here she is discovering the joy of creating when she is pregnant:

"By the time she is eight months pregnant Mona has made, in various shades of yellow, lilac, cream and white, seven romper suits, two cot blankets, four bonnets, a quilted coat, a christening gown, two pairs of linen dungarees, and three sleepsuits. then she gives up work and begins to knit as well. She sits on the bus to and from the community centre and works on a cardigan or shawl, she knits while she watched television with William in the evening and knits and knits until her fingers ache or her eyes close.
She keeps everything in a wooden box under the bed. The box is also handmade, painted white with a little rocking horse engraved on the side. Later, she will paint the baby's name and date of birth on the top.
One Thursday before she leaves for her class she pulls the box out and examines the stock she has built up. Everything is perfect. Now Mona can say she has a bottom drawer. Yes, she has a bottom drawer and she has beautiful things that can be passed down from her children to their children, handmade garments, heirlooms that, one day, someone will touch and say 'My granny made this in 1974'. the thought fills her with joy and peace." (p.130-1)

What is lovely about the book is Mona's relationships that are so beautifully drawn. Her mother died when she was young and she is consequently very close to her father; it is from him that she learns the lesson about the trick to time. Here she comes home from school on the day her mother has died:

"She finds her father there holding his head, howling like a banshee, his mouth wide open and his throat swollen with the effort of making a noise loud and deep enough to argue with the waves and the injustice of life. Mona stands by him and takes his hand. The scream together until they are fetched back by someone, until they are sitting down in the best room, like visitors in their own home, saved tea from the special china and fruit cake smothered with butter. Mona and her father sit hand in hand until everyone leaves, then he puts his arm round her, nestles her into his chest.
'We had her for a long time,' he says, 'longer than they said. And we loved her to the end.'
'Yes, Dadda, we did.'
'It was a precious time, Mona.'
'Is that the trick, Dadda?'
He says nothing for a long, long time then wipes his sleeve across his face.
'Yes, Mona, it is.'
In the days that follow after the mother and wife is taken away, they often walk down to the beach and round the Forlorn Point to cry with the sea, and afterwards she shows him how to play, how to make dolls from seashells and stones, seven or eight at a time, until her father says, 'Come on, lovely girl. Time to go home.'
And he does make it a home. By the time Mona is twelve, she's nearly forgotten what it is to have a mother. Her father keeps the house almost by himself, tidies and cooks, sweeps the flags from front to back, moves ornaments to dust beneath them, and Mona doesn't have to help if she doesn't want to. But she always does and they change sheets either side of the bed, bash the dust from the rugs, clean the windows and boil the ham as a team, her father six feet four inches, and Mona small and quick." (p.31-32)

But Mona is not all she appears, what is the strange ritual with the wooden babies, is her life really guided by chance as she tells people or she is in this little seaside town for a reason. She is a little stuck in a rut, but changes are coming that will force her to confront the trauma of the past. A lovely, lovely book that deals with its subject matter sensitively.

How to be a limousine drive

'The Black Swan' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb has popped in and out of my life for quite a while. I listened to the audiobook last year some time, but then borrowed it again and listened to it three times while I was sorting letters at work. Then I had to borrow a hard copy so I could write some quotes for you.

It's hard to put your finger on quite what this book is about, because it is about so many things. It is in parts the story of his life, and the things that happened to him to make him realise that he was seeing everything backwards. He describes how people's attitude to rare and highly unlikely events, Black Swans, is twisted in a way to make us think they should have been predictable. Throughout he uses vignettes from the real world, and invented ones, to highlight such Black Swan events and how the human race responds.

I wrote down a few things as I was listening that made sense to me: the link between busyness and being able to claim responsibility for success; managers in a business busy doing their managing stuff, the business does well, they get to claim it was all their doing, but when disaster strikes they claim it was events out side their control. What the book argues a lot is that what humans do mostly bears little relation to the outcome. He talks about how people are notoriously bad at predicting things, and so probably shouldn't bother. Opinions are like possessions and we don't like to let go of them; when we have a precious belief and someone or some event shows it to be mistaken we are very loath to change it.
We narrate backwards to give an illusion of understanding; this is another way of being wise after the fact. He discusses 9/11 at some length, and the notion that authorities should have been able to predict and thus prevent it. People point to all the clues, and with hindsight, show how it was not only predictable but patently obvious. Then when authorities put in place precautions to prevent exactly the same thing happening again, he points out that if some politician had suggested these precautions prior to 9/11 he would have been argued with or even laughed at.

"Being a Fool in the Right Places
The lesson for the small is: be human! Accept that being human involves some amount of epistemic arrogance in running your affairs. Do not be ashamed of that. Do not try to always withhold judgement - opinions are the stuff of life. Do not try to avoid predicting - yes, after this diatribe about prediction I am not urging you to stop being a fool. Just be a fool in the right places.
What you should avoid is unnecessary dependence on large-scale harmful predictions - those and only those. Avoid the big subjects that may hurt your future: be fooled in small matters, not in the large. Do not listen to economic forecasters or to predictors in social science (they are mere entertainers), but do make your own forecast for the picnic. By all means, demand certainty for the next picnic; but avoid government social-security forecasts for the year 2040.
Know how to rank beliefs not according to their plausibility but by the harm they may cause.
Be Prepared
The reader might feel queasy reading about these general failures to see the future and wonder what to do. But if you shed the idea of full predictability, there are plenty of things to do provided you remain conscious of their limits. Knowing that you cannot predict does not mean that you cannot benefit from unpredictability.
The bottom line: be prepared! Narrow-minded prediction has an analgesic or therapeutic effect. Be aware of the numbing effect of magic numbers. Be prepared for relevant eventualities. " (p.203)

I have dithered and dithered over writing this review, and then in searching about him last week I came across this old review in the Guardian for 'Antifragile', but had much more fun reading the comments at the bottom, many of them attacking Black Swan. It can make you feel a bit stupid sometimes to enjoy a book, and then have other people point out how not-clever it really is. But then I thought to myself that what I liked about the book is all the things that people were criticising it for. I loved his anecdotes and the stuff that he made up to make a point, I found the style engaging and allowed myself to be carried along by his arguments. Yes, it was a bit rambling and repetitive in places, but you know what ... so is Harry Potter and you rarely read a critical review of her writing. I even liked the fact that he is a bit full of himself and hyped up on his own cleverness. And so what if his ideas are not that original, it's being able to get the ideas across in an interesting and accessible way that can often be the thing that matters. I trawled through trying to find another quote but he is so constantly circling round and referring back to other points in his argument that it is impossible to find any single paragraph that tells you anything succinct. Review quotes on the back use words like idiosyncratic, opinionated, provocative and bouncy ... make of it what you will.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

If We Were Villains

'If We Were Villans' by M.L. Rio was an impulse purchase by Monkey in Waterstones that she insisted I had to read too so we could discuss the plot. What a good book, is my first response. I mean there are gaping plot holes in places but I was thoroughly engrossed the entire time, and I did not see 'whodunnit' until the final reveal.

It is set in a tiny private drama school that concentrates entirely on Shakespeare and focusses on the lives of the exclusive final year students and the events surrounding the death of one of them. It is jam packed with Shakespeare references and quotes, so Monkey was in her element; some knowledge of the plot lines of some of the more well known plays is definitely as advantage when reading, allowing you to know immediately the nature of the different characters and the potential sequence of events. One of the students has served a prison sentence for the killing of another, but the police officer in charge is not convinced he has got to the bottom of what really occurred, so on his release he persuades Oliver to tell him the real story. 

Act II Scene 1
"Two weeks before opening night we had our photos taken for publicity, and the FAB was an absolute madhouse. In order to take phots we needed costumes, and everyone was running back and forth from the dressing rooms to the rehearsal hall, changing ties and shirts and shoes until Gwendolyn was satisfied. The previous year's election had inspired Frederick to do Caesar as a presidential race, so we were all dressed as White House hopefuls. I had never worn a suit that really fir me in my life, and my own reflection surprised me more than once. for the first time, I entertained the idea that I could be handsome, with enough effort. (Previously, I'd thought of myself as attractive only in a forgettable, inoffensive way - an idea reinforced by the fact that the few girls I'd been mixed up with inevitably seemed to realise that they liked me better onstage as Antonio or Demetrius than offstage as my mid-mannered self.) Of course, among my classmates I might as well have been invisible. Alexander looked like a mafioso in shimmering grey, an onyx tiepin glinting on his chest. James, immaculate in deep ink blue, could have been the heir apparent of some small European monarchy. But Richard, in pale pearl grey and a blood-red tie, cut the most impressive figure of all." (p.111)

It's hard to talk about books like this without giving stuff away, not that the revelation of the outcome is the only good bit of the book. The whole gradual disclosure is beautifully done with the tension building between the characters, a wonderful tight knit group with a tangle of dislike, jealousy and sexual tension. I will leave you with Oliver telling the policeman, Colborne, about their discovery of Richard's body (this is the original interview, not the true version of events):

Act III Scene 2
" 'I saw Richard,' I told him. Not a proper dead man, not really floating. 'Just sort of hanging there. But broken and crushed, like everything was bent the wrong way.'
'And you - ' He cleared his throat. 'You got in the water.' It was the first time he hesitated. 
'Yes.' I pulled the blanket closer, as if it could somehow thaw me, shield me from the feeling of cold water closing in around me. I knew, sitting there in the dry warmth of Holinshed's office, that I'd never forget it - how my lungs shrank so suddenly I thought they would shatter, gasping more in shock that for oxygen. Richard's face, much too close, white as bone. The sour iron smell of blood. That insane urge to laugh was back, as strong as the urge to vomit, and for one harrowing moment I thought I would be sick all over the carpet at Colborne's feet. I swallowed again, choked everything down. He mistook my wave of nausea for emotion and respectfully waited for me to compose myself.
Eventually I managed to say, 'Someone had to.'
'And he was dead?'
I could have told him how it felt, to reach for Richard's throat and find the flesh cold, that vein that had once bulged and throbbed in anger flat and finally still. Instead all I said was 'Yes.' " (p.197-8)

Mushrooms and Idiots

I managed almost exactly 7 hours of reading on Saturday for the 24 in 48 readathon. Sunday Dunk and I went for our annual day out to New Mills in Derbyshire, a mere half an hour on the train, to take a little stroll along the Goyt Way. The girls went to the coast with some friends and played on the beach, so a good time was had by all. This morning I checked on the avocado tree and found the pot now has its own little ecosystem.



'The Idiot' by Elif Batuman is my number four from the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist (though I have not read the winner yet) and also a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Fiction prize. 'Sprawling' is what Miranda July called it on the front cover, and I think that would be my reaction too. It follows the freshman college experience of Selin as she struggles to make friends and find out what she thinks about life, the universe and everything. There is a wonderful cast of characters who all seem to have themselves much more 'together' making Selin feel that she must be doing something wrong. She drifts between classes, seeking something that will tell her the true direction her life should take. Although written in past tense it has a very immediate feel to it, as if she is relating stuff that only just happened, with lots of extraneous and trifling details about what people (and Selin herself) wore and ate and said, but this has the effect of making you feel intimately involved in their lives. All of the characters are either learning languages, or not native english speakers, and much of the discussion revolves around national and linguistic identity, and also interesting conversations about language use and how it differs and how words are shared between cultures. Selin is rather sweet and naive and often takes things too much at face value:

"In philosophy class, we talked about the problems we would have on Mars - the language problems. Supposing we went to Mars and the Martians said 'gavagai' every time a rabbit ran by; we would have no way of knowing whether 'gavagai' referred to rabbits, to running, or to a kind of fly that lived in rabbit's ears. I found this incredibly depressing - both the obstacles to understanding and the rabbits with flies in their ears." (p.125-6)

"At some point in our conversation, Ivan mentioned that strawberries grew on trees. I said I thought they grew on little plants close to the ground. No, he said - trees.
'Okay,' I said. I knew that in my life I had seen strawberries growing, on plants, but this didn't seem like irrefutable proof that they didn't grow on trees.
'You're easy to convince,' he said.
We walked for three hours. On the way back we got lost and had to climb down a steep hill. I really didn't want to climb down the hill. I actually walked into a tree and then stayed there for a minute.
'What are you doing?' Ivan asked.
'I don't know,' I said.
He nodded. He said that there were lots of possible ways down the hill, but probably the best way was one where you didn't have to go through a tree. Then he started talking about the execution of Ceausescu and his wife." (p.161)

At the same time she can also be quite astute. She sums up nicely a conversation Monkey and I have had on several occasions about the consumption of alcohol. I find this does not just apply to college students but in my own experience with work colleagues, people thinking that if you don't drink on a regular basis it is for some kind of principle like being a vegetarian:

"This obsession with drinking was one of the things that had most surprised me abut college. I had always looked down on alcohol, both my parents liked to drink at dinner and it always made them more annoying. I had known that alcohol was supposed to be a big part of college life and that some people would really care about it, but I hadn't realised it would be basically everyone, except the most humourless or childish people, and also some people who were religious. There didn't seem to be any way of not drinking without it being a statement." (p.174)

Somewhat in pursuant of Ivan, her elusive, email love interest, she takes herself off to teach English in Hungary for the summer, an experience that seems to serve to leave her more confused about the whole life and universe thing. I liked Selin immensely and the book is very witty and perceptive; that while it sometimes tries to argue that language and culture dictate identity equally people's experience of their struggle with identity is universal and something we share across national boundaries.

"I read a book of fables and read two fables about harts. They both ended badly. In 'The Hart in the Ox-Stall', the hart hid from the hunter in an ox-stall. The hunter noticed its antlers sticking out of the straw and killed it, proving that 'nothing escapes the master's eye.' In 'The Hart and the Hunter', the hart deplored its legs for being less handsome than its antlers. Later, when it was running from a hunter on its legs, its antlers got tangled in a tree and it got killed. The moral was: 'We often despise that which is most useful to us.' In general, the hart's biggest problem was antlers. Or no, it wasn't antlers at all, it was hunters." (p.189)

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Politics and Reading

Today and probably a bit tomorrow we are participating in the 24 in 48 readathon, designed for people who want to join in with Dewey but need their sleep. It's always nice to have another excuse to stuff the house cleaning and sit on the sofa all day. Other more out-doorsy stuff happening tomorrow for everyone (trying to make the most of the sunshine before it leaves us) so it will be mainly today ... we will just see how much we can manage. I thought I would join in with their suggestion and time the reading instead of doing our usual page count. Not really planned the day as such, I just have a couple of things that are already in progress so I am going to get on with them: The Idiot by Elif Batuman, yet another from the Women's Fiction Prize shortlist, and The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal. Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald needs some concentration rather than my usual bedtime twenty minutes so I thought I would give it another start today too.
Monkey and I popped down to London last week for the big Festival of Resistance that accompanied the visit from whats-his-name. It was a fantastic day, even though we could not hear the speakers due to Trafalgar Square being too packed, just great to be reminded that there are lots of people who care. Here is my favourite protest sign:
I made this banner/sunshade at the last minute having not been inspired with anything witty or profound to put on a placard. We met up with my sister Claire, but missed my brother Giles who also took the day off. A right wing relative in the States was disgusted that all those people failed to turn up for work, which left us just a little bemused.
In other news I have been in correspondence with Her Majesty over modern forms of address for married couples. My parents recently celebrated their diamond 60th wedding anniversary and if you get in touch with the palace (or through the central registry office as I did) the Queen will very kindly send them a congratulatory message. The message came, however, addressed to 'Mr and Mrs Martin Frampton', as if my mother has no separate existence of her own ... so I wrote a very polite letter expressing my disappointment that such an antiquated form of address should be used in the 21st century. Here is the disappointing reply:
I am not sure that Charles would be any more receptive so am thinking of writing to William if they make it to 70 years.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Sight

Having read about great auks in 'The Sixth Extinction' I had been quite intrigued by Jessie Greengrass's short story collection entitled 'An account of the decline of the great auk, according to one who saw it', but it is her first novel 'Sight' that I have read, one of several I am reading on the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist. 

The story is an interesting interplay of narratives; it follows our unnamed narrator through her second pregnancy and also her childhood relationship with her grandmother, interwoven with the story of Freud's relationship with his youngest child Anna and also the life of John Hunter, an 18th century surgeon and founder of the Hunterian Museum. While I enjoyed the historical stuff more than the story of the narrator I find that the quotes I have saved are all about her experience of expectancy. I found her irritating because I could not imagine agonising so profoundly over the choice to have a child, as if she thinks it is a decision made through rational thought. Though I did not articulate, or even think them so much at the time, I found she manages to express the experience of pregnancy, the loss of self and the overwhelming sense of responsibility and the impossibility of doing it 'right'. 

"This is the crux of it; that we have no point of comparison and therefore cannot say things would have been better otherwise. I remember how it was with my daughter - how she coughed, and spat, and cried, and after being weighed was passed over to Johannes, who undid the buttons of his shirt and held her slippery, aquatic form against his freckled skin, and how from that moment on it seemed to me that the infinite stretch of possibilities she had started as began to collapse, falling away from our touch to leave behind the emergent outlines of her shape - curious, incautious, kind - and I remember how it terrified me, the sudden yawning space between what is meant and what is done." (p.126)

Here talking about the change in her and her daughter's needs as she grows up (This one is also a nice example of her style, with lovely complex sentences that require proper attention when reading.):

"Then she still hung from me, all mouth and fingers, and treated my presence as an unconsidered right, neither looked for nor enjoyed but only expected, so that to leave was respite, a moment when I could feel myself briefly to be whole. Now she has become something else, a mind inside a body, separate, and it seems to me that the extent of that separation from me is the extent to which I cannot bear to be apart from her. I had thought that I would continue to fall backwards into singularity as to a norm from which my deviation was temporary, and that without her I would be myself again, whole and undivided; but instead I am half-made, a house with one wall open to the wind - " (p.133)

Here, the changed bond with her husband:

"The way my body interposed itself between Johannes and his child gave me an unacknowledged right to disregard him if I chose, and it gave me privilege of access, touch, an assurance of my necessary place that Johannes lacked. It was there in the way he trailed after me through hospital corridors, his presence an afterthought, and in the subtle, unarticulated presumption made by others that he would feel love less than I, or loss; but his life too had been made strange and would be altered - and it was hard in the end to say which of us had been put more in the other's keeping. Standing in the supermarket queue behind a man buying twenty-five bottles of bathroom cleaner I saw for the first time the unintended consequences of our actions: that in choosing to have a child we had become that we had thought ourselves to be already: inextricably involved with one another, knotted up, as though a part of our child's chimerical genetics had transferred itself to us and now we were each partially the other; and, so, waiting in the checkout line, we held ourselves very carefully, just apart, to save both ourselves and each other from accidental injury." (p.141-2)

On her changed relationship with her body:

"I had always, before my first pregnancy, regarded my body as a kind of tool, a necessary mechanism, largely self-sustaining, which, unless malfunctioning, did what I instructed of it, and so to have my agency so abruptly curtailed, revealed as little more than conceit, felt like a betrayal. I no longer listened to my own command. Inside me, while I wished that I might be able to be elsewhere, that I might leave my body in the frowsty sheets and go downstairs to sit in the dark kitchen, unswollen and cool, cells split to cells, thoughtless and ascending, forming heart and lungs, eyes, ears - a hand grew nails - this child already going about its business, its still uncomprehending mind unreachable, apart." (p.161)

And the overwhelming anxiety about parenthood:

"... I had felt myself becoming increasingly unfamiliar, emptied out of all the thoughts I'd had before and refilled with there new concerns; and the stranger I became the stranger too Johannes was, different and far away, until the old presumption of ease was replaced with an algorithm of concern and debt. The we were along together, when we sat down to eat or when we walked in the park during the long light evening, our pace a poor equivocation between Johannes' long stride and my ponderous shamble, I was not peaceful but spoke at length, planning out a future that we hadn't yet the means to imagine, my speech an obsessive examination of the possible ways we might live after the baby was born, how we might divide the labour up, and what we needed, what there was to do and what might be left till later. I harangued and argued with myself, considered out loud the possible effects of a weight of historical wrongs, the flaws of our respective characters, the way I wished things might be done, as though i might talk myself into quietness or as though, by talking, I might call into being there between the heavy summer alders the best possible version of ourselves - as though I might make myself ready; but I could not prepare myself for something so unknown nor find any way across the next months except by living them, and so my monologue was little more than benediction, the filling up of empty space with prayer. I didn't know what to do with myself otherwise. All that I had been before I had given up already and the emptiness was appalling." (p.179-80)

The narration has very much the feel of an inner monologue, the way your mind goes over and over, stuck in a rut, searching for an answer. It also conveys how all consuming pregnancy can be, you cannot escape it, your own physicality becomes the focus of all your attention in a way it is not normally. Maybe it's a sign that pregnancy is long and boring and gives you far too much time for introspection. You either end up focused on the practicalities of caring for a tiny human being, which is more what I felt overwhelmed by, or you agonise over your loss of identity. Having said all that it did not feel as if that is what the book is about; with all the other threads at times I forgot all about the baby. A strange and subtle book that was a very satisfying read, and who doesn't love a novel that needs a list of 'further reading' at the back.

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