Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Banned Books and all that

For Banned Books Week this year Monkey and I each decided on a book which we read and then swapped, for a double dose of banned literature. Monkey already had on her TBR pile 'We' by Yevgeny Zamyatin which we had found in Waterstones quite some time ago. It is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a world after a 200 year war, where perfect happiness has been achieved by everyone having absolute equality (or rather sameness, a distinction that sometimes eludes people). The 'wild' outside world is kept at bay by a huge glass wall, and everyone's lives are under constant observation because everything else is made of this same glass, including the houses. Our hero D-503 (there is not much individuality) comes into contact with a strange unconventional woman and finds himself drawn into a subversive underground movement bent on disrupting the Benefactor's plans. George Orwell credits the book as inspiration for Big Brother and 1984. It was written in the 1920s and, denied publication in the Soviet Union, the book first appeared in translation in the West. This caused him some problems at home and he eventually wrote to Stalin and asked to be allowed to leave the country. He  was duly given permission and he lived out the rest of his relatively short life in Paris. The introduction to the book gives the publication saga in detail and was quite fascinating. 
I have a couple of quotes that allow the reader to understand the thinking behind the society:

"I'll be completely honest with you: Even we haven't yet solves the problem of happiness with 100 percent accuracy. Twice a day - from 16:00 to 17:00 and again from 21:00 to 22:00 - the single mighty organism breaks down into its individual cells. These are the Personal Hours, as established by the Table. During these hours you'll see that some are in their rooms with the blinds modestly lowered; others are walking along the avenue in step with the brass beat of the March; still others, like me at this moment, will be at their desks. But I firmly believe - let them call me idealist and dreamer - but I firmly believe that, sooner or later, one day, we'll find a place for even these hours in the general formula. One day all 86,400 seconds will be on the Table of Hours." (p.13)

and the participants willingness to participate (and an explanation of the title):

"Look here - suppose you let a drop fall on the idea of 'rights.' Even among the ancients the more grown-up knew that the source of right is power, that right is a function of power. So, take some scales and put on one side a gram, on the other a ton; on one side 'I' and on the other 'We,' OneState. It's clear, isn't it? - to assert that 'I' has certain 'rights' with respect to the State is exactly the same as asserting that a gram weighs the same as a ton. That explains the way things are divided up: To the ton go the rights, to the gram the duties. And the natural path from nullity to greatness is this: Forget that you're a gram and feel yourself a millionth part of a ton." (p.111)

And this lovely little critique of democracy (contrasting it with their 'Day of Unanimity'):

"It goes without saying that this bears no resemblance to the disorderly, unorganised elections in ancient times, when - it's hard to say this with a straight face - they couldn't even tell before the election how it would come out. To establish a state on the basis of absolutely unpredictable randomness, blindly - could there be anything more idiotic? Still, it looks like centuries had to pass before this was understood." (p.132)

The second book could not be more of a contrast: 'The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up' by Jacob M Appel. According to the Wikipedia list of books banned by governments it was banned by Qatar in 2014 for its depiction of Islam, leaving the reader a little bemused since there is a passing mention of 9/11 and not much else. It was written in the aftermath of 9/11 but failed to find a publisher in the US until 2012, admitted by several publishers to be because of its political content. Predating but foreshadowing the national anthem protests the book tells the story of Arnold Brinkmann who refuses to stand at a baseball match for the singing of 'God Bless America'. What was a spontaneous action spirals out of control after the press run with his story and protestors begin to gather outside his house. Arnold sticks to his guns and refuses to back down. A young woman with journalistic ambitions climbs over the back wall and it turns out that a long standing employee is not what he appears. Then all hell breaks loose and after that Arnold's life is never going to be the same again. The book was written as a critique of the unpleasant jingoistic patriotic conformity that sometimes characterises American politics and life, it gets quite surreal in places, even silly ... but I won't spoil the plot for you because it was an excellent, entertaining read. I give you Arnold's thoughts while he listens to the people around him in the crowd:

"This was the amazing thing about democracy, thought Arnold - everybody felt entitled to their own pet theory: That Lyndon Johnson had orchestrated the Kennedy assassination, or that Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare's plays, or that Glenn Miller had survived World War II in a Soviet gulag and formed a marching band for prisoners with Raoul Wallenberg. Judith had a colleague at school, an eighth grade teacher in his forties, who taught his classes that Amelia Earhart had been shot down and tortured by the Japanese. If history judged nations by their pet theories, no one could ever doubt that Americans were creative." (p.7)

Thursday, 4 October 2018

That Awkward Age: National Poetry Day

I have an ongoing fondness for Roger McGough because he writes poetry for children. I first developed a love for poetry when the children were small and as such used to read a lot of poetry books to them; there is one that sticks in my mind (but I can't find anywhere) that used an elevator/alligator word play that Jacob particularly liked. I picked out 'That Awkward Age' at the Central Library the other week and thought I would share one with you for National Poetry Day. There is a lovely selection of poems, mirroring Carol Ann Duffy's 'The World's Wife', that tell the tale of the men behind famous women, and another group of elegy poems that are quietly unsentimental. His dry sense of humour comes through in many of them, writing mostly about the ordinary stuff of life. So I give you this one:

Queue Music

At a bus stop on Princes Road
two people, unaware
that there is a bus strike,
form an orderly queue.

September 1977
and a lovely evening for a walk.
The people in the queue grow restless.
Begin to talk.

Time passes, but not buses.
Eventually the queue, dying of thirst,
sets off down the road
leaving the bus stop to its own devices.

In the corner of a pub
three empty bus shelters away
the queue is sitting at a table
drinking and chatting.

At closing time
(early in those far-off days)
the queue has decided
to form an orderly life together.

Promises are made
as hand in hand 
it walks out into the night.
Cue music and fade.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Man Who Rained

After enjoying 'The Girl with Glass Feet' so much I found Ali Shaw's second novel 'The Man Who Rained'. It is about Elsa, and Finn, mostly, both of whom have a strong connection to storms; Elsa because he father was a storm chaser, and Finn because he is a storm. We first meet him as he is dissolving into the air, called back to solid form by Elsa's intervention.

The story is set, similarly to Girl with Glass Feet, in a remote and isolated island community. There is both serious religion and a whole bunch of weird superstitions swimming around within the community, making them suspicious of outsiders and afraid of random animals, and creating a rather claustrophobic and occasionally threatening atmosphere. I liked it because it had the same magical realism blended into the tale; most of the residents are afraid of the things they do not understand but Elsa is curious and finds her landlord Kenneth and an elderly nun Dot who help her make sense of the history of Thunderstown. There is a bit of a theme running through the story of missing mothers and men who struggle with their sense of identity. There is also a bit of a power play going on between the influential men in the town, and it fuels the onset of the final crisis. Like with the tiny winged cows in Girl with Glass Feet I felt again that some of the magical aspects were extraneous to the actual story and were just there because the author is enjoying the process of creating the feeling of the story, and I just allowed myself to enjoy them too. I like the development of the bond between Elsa and Finn, it was believable and coherent, but I'm sorry, the ending was just plain creepy and it spoiled the story for me. As a result I did not like the book as much. Having said that his third book 'The Trees' looked excellent and is definitely on the waiting list.

Here are Finn and Elsa bonding:

"'Now,' he whispered, 'hold out your hands.'
She did so, wondering if he was going to take hold of them. Instead he produced from his good pocket a sachet of seeds, and placed one fat grain in her palms. Then they waited. A canary bustled through the treetops, springing and zipping from branch to branch, getting closer in stops and starts. It paused for a while on the twigs above Finn's head, leaning its head left and right, its eyes swivelling hard at Elsa. She smiled at it, in case that would help.
Then it flicked wide its yellow wings and whirred down to perch on her hands. She felt the pin-tip of its beak tapping against her skin as it gobbled up the seed.
'Catch it,' whispered Finn.
Nervously - it felt wrong to touch a wild creature - she slid her free hand over the canary and cupped it to trap the bird in her hold. It burbled at her furiously, and she yelped when its wings whirred and tickled her skin. Still she kept it trapped, and then she felt a change come over it.
'Finn ... something's happening!'
'Don't worry. It can't hurt you.'
The canary had stopped struggling. It crouched still, virtually weightless in her hands. It was getting hot - not just with the compact warmth from its small heart and muscles, but with the penetrative warmth of a summer afternoon. And not around her hands a dim light glowed, getting brighter as she watched it, until golden shafts shone through the cracks between her fingers.
Some fearful switch tripped inside of her and she let go of the canary with a start. but her hands were empty and the bird had vanished, as had the light she had been holding, gone in a yellow shimmer of air. The only evidence that remained was the warmth in her palms, as if she had been holding them to a campfire." (p90-91)

Friday, 21 September 2018

Convenience Store Woman

I don't think you could not get more of a contrast between two books: after 'Girl with Glass Feet' I bring you 'Convenience Store Woman' by Sayaka Murata. The thing that strikes first is how culturally specific this story is; if someone were to write a story about a supermarket worker set in Britain it would be nothing like this. Employees in this country do not call out a greeting when you enter a shop, but in Japan they do.
Furukura Keiko is odd, her family know it so they make allowances for her, but really the rest of society is slightly uncomfortable with odd people. Here she is as a small child finding a dead bird:

"'What's up Keiko? Oh! a little bird ... where did it come from I wonder?' she said gently, stroking my hair. 'The poor little thing. shall we make a grave for it?'
'Let's eat it!' I said.
'What?'
'Daddy like yakitori, doesn't he? Let's grill it and have it for dinner!'
She looked at me, startled. Thinking she hadn't heard properly, I repeated what I'd said, this time clearly enunciating my words. The mother sitting next to her gaped at me, her eyes, nostrils, and mouth forming perfect O's. She looked so comical I almost burst out laughing. But then I saw her staring at the bird in my hand and I realised that one of these little birds probably wouldn't be enough for Daddy.
'Shall I get some more?' I asked, glancing at two or three other birds strutting around." (p.6-7)

Keiko is a student but she gets what is described as a 'part-time' job in a local convenience store, and to her it feels as if she has found her place in the world. She relishes the order and routine, a place for everything, and the pure functionality of her interactions with the customers. So instead of graduating and moving on to a proper career she stays working in the convenience store, she stays there for eighteen years. She is not sure how to go about being a 'person' and finds that she can learn by watching her co-workers:

"I'd noticed soon after starting the job that whenever I got angry at the same things as everyone else, they all seemed happy. If I went along with the manager when he was annoyed or joined in the general irritation at someone skiving off the night shift, there was a strong sense of solidarity as everyone seemed pleased that I was angry too.
Now, too, I felt reassured by the expression on Mrs Izumi and Sugawara's faces: Good, I pulled off being a 'person.' I'd felt similarly reassured any number of times here in the convenience store." (p.29)

Learning how to be a person and the behaviour that is expected of her continues throughout the story, in difference circumstances. What she mainly wants is to be left alone to live the life she has chosen, but pressures put on her by her family and her small group of friends, to both get a 'proper' job and get married, cause her to have to rethink ... or rather to pretend to rethink, her choices. At a party with friends they all gang up and try and persuade her to join a marriage website, claiming she must be desperate and it's nearly too late for her, but she doesn't understand why they feel she must be wanting to change her life:

"The next thing I knew, just like that time in elementary school, they all turned their backs on me and started edging away, staring curiously at me over their shoulders as though contemplating some ghastly life form.
Oh, I thought absently, I've become a foreign object.
In my mind's eye I saw Shiraha, who had been forced to leave the store. Maybe it would be my turn next.
The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.
So that's why I needed to be cured. Unless I'm cured normal people will expurgate me.
Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me." (p.80-81)

In one way the story is about one woman's struggle to be accepted, but I also saw something completely different. Here Keiko talks about her walk to work:

"For a convenience store worker, walking through the area around the store is a way to glean valuable information. If a nearby restaurant starts selling lunch boxes it will impact our sales, and road works starting up will mean more customers. It was really tough when a rival closed down four years after our store opened and we were inundated with their customers. We all had to work overtime since the lunchtime peak had gone on and on, and when we ran out of lunch boxes the manager was reprimanded by head office for not doing enough research. That's when I decided to walk around the area keeping my eye on things to make sure nothing like that ever happened again." (p.40)

I felt quite strongly as I was reading about Keiko's life, though I am not sure it was in any way intentional, that the story was a critique of capitalism, and the way it expects its workers to just exist for their job. Everything about Keiko's life is geared towards being a better convenience store worker. She is thinking about work when she is not there, planning ways to make things run more smoothly, she stays well nourished for work, keeps her appearance neat and cuts her nails to more efficiently operate the till. She is the perfect worker. I was conflicted because I felt sympathy for her in her resistance against society's expectations, but the place she had found for herself was so small, it made me sad. A very interesting book, a glimpse of Japanese society from the point of view of someone at the bottom.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Danger Deep Bogs

It is over a year since Monkey and I did part two of our Pennine Way walk. We have been put off part three because it is a very long way from Hadfield to the next place where you can get to a railway station. Feeling in the need of getting away from the city we studied the map on Saturday and found that there was a footpath that left the main route and cut across the moor to the Chew Reservoir, ending up in Greenfield. It seemed like a manageable distance. 
So yesterday we took our sandwiches and headed back up the Trans Pennine Trail from Hadfield. We wandered off the path the first time as we headed uphill, finding ourselves clambering up the side of a stream, having to struggle across a boggy patch and managed to rejoin the path on the ridge at the top. Then we came across this helpful sign: "DANGER DEEP BOGS please keep to the main path". Next time we'll be more careful.
At our first rest stop we chose a lovely big flat rock to sit on, only to find some disgusting people had chosen to stuff their rubbish down the crack in the rock. This was no accidental littering but obviously quite deliberate. I pulled it all out and carried it home.
We only walked about three miles along the Pennine Way before taking our turning. This was the one place where we managed to take the correct path despite there being no sign. Basically, for the next couple of hours we followed the stream, first uphill, then, apparently the same stream, down the other side. There was not really much of a path, mostly we had to climb up onto the heather to avoid the bogs. I definitely would not recommend this route. We assumed the stream would lead us to the reservoir, which it duly did.
There are very, very few trees on the top of the Pennines, but we came across this random Christmas tree ... how the hell did it get here ... and now I want to go back up in December to decorate it.
There was still not much path as we skirted the reservoir but we finally arrived at the dam, and once again took the wrong path. I looked across the ravine and saw some walkers confidently striding up the paved road on the other side, and persuaded Monkey to take another look at the map. At the bottom of the long descent we again found the correct path, the Oldham Way, taking us away from the Dovestone Reservoir and towards Greenfield. As we arrived at the edge of the town we were supposed to find a path leading down into Greenfield. We ended up just tromping across a couple of fields, avoiding the highland cattle and shooing away the aggressive sheep. The trains back to Manchester are only once an hour. The 16.46 train pulled out as we trudged up the road towards the station. We made it home about 7.
The Pennine Way distance calculator shows a walk of 10.87 miles, rising to a high of a mere 1750 feet. We have currently completed approximately 17.3 miles of the 267 mile route.


Monday, 3 September 2018

Girl with Glass Feet

Today's book comes to you courtesy of Charlotte who stopped by and commented on the review of Keeper of Lost Things. When I clicked on her profile I found 'The Girl with Glass Feet' on her, very brief, list of favourite books and was intrigued by the curious title. They had a copy at the City library so I hopped on my bike to get it; luckily I was on late shifts last week so it didn't matter that I sat up late reading. 

This is the story if Ida, and the story of Midas: what a lovely prophetic choice of name. But it is also the story of Henry and Evaline, and of Carl and Freya. There are lots of stories going on within the narrative, with long nurtured sadnesses lingering down the years, and the generations. But firstly there is the magical realism, which is something I love to find in literature. I remember, years ago, talking to someone about Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, and hearing the expression 'magical realism', and instinctively understanding what it meant. Ida's feet are made of glass, and not in a good way. The glass is spreading, slowly, and she has returned to the place she believes it all began, hoping ... The strange, isolated island feels vaguely Scottish, or maybe Scandinavian; the community is both close knit and rather elusive, the kind of place people seem to have come to escape, and the locals find it hard to leave. Midas does not offer to help her, in fact he decides repeatedly not to help, but she wheedles her way into his life almost by instinct, he is one of the few people who might be able to help her. The story takes us back and forth in time, telling us the background to his life and his parents. Carl, an old family friend, has lent his cottage to Ida, but when he sees her again he is reminded of her dead mother Freya for whom he had nurtured an unrequited passion. He rather unpleasantly starts to interfere in the slowly blossoming relationship between Ida and Midas. I think what makes the story so effective is the atmosphere that Ali Shaw creates as he writes, the place is so vivid, and it feels like the kind of place where supernatural things could be real; the story becomes as much about the place as it is about Ida. 

"From an aeroplane the three main islands of the St Hauda's Land archipelago looked like the swatted corpse of a blob-eyed insect. The thorax was Gurm Island, all marshland and wooded hills. The neck was a natural aqueduct with weathered arches through which the sea flushed, leading to the eye. That was the towering but drowsy hill of Lomdendol Tor on Lomdendol Island, which (local supposition had it) first squirted St Hauda's Land into being. The legs were six spurs of rock extending from the south-west coast of Gurm Island, trapping the sea in sandy coves between them. The wings were a wind-torn flotilla of uninhabited granite islets in the north. The tail's sting was the sickle-shaped Ferry Island in the east, the quaint little town of Glamsgallow a drop of poison welling on its tip." (p.22)

I had originally assumed that the author was a woman, but then realised he was a man, and it did explain the one aspect of the story that frustrated me. The women in the story, including Ida, are treated somewhat as muses, people who inspire emotions in the men who encounter them. Henry falls in love with Evaline (Midas' mother) but no longer wants her after her husband's death because she has become what he sees as a shell of her former self. Carl idolises Freya, is angry about her death and responds by wanting to control Ida. Emiliana remains devoted to a husband who has distanced himself from her. Even Ida's role in the story seems to be to help Midas break out of the unemotional straitjacket that he has become confined by. Having said that, this in no way spoiled my enjoyment of the book, it was utterly enthralling and I even enjoyed the fact that the questions, the mystery of the glass, all remained unanswered.

"He stared.
Kept staring.
Peeled off the socks entirely.
Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass.  Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease between the joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bed sheets diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet ... Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bone materialised faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in the denser layers. In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places in the glass where the petrification was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there a fine blond hair." (p.62)

Do visit Ali Shaw's website, his drawings are wonderful, they will definitely inspire you to read his books.

Commonwealth

I bought Ann Pratchett's 'Commonwealth' for my sister for Christmas, with the unashamed intention of pinching it back at some point. Ann admits apparently to the autobiographical nature of this book, but within the story it is the unwitting Franny who tells her family history to a writer who's subsequent, very successful, novel lays bare all their uncomfortable truths. It is very much a story about the children, though it is the actions and decisions of the grown ups that decides their fate.

I had mixed feeling about the book, but reading it over the course of a day or so at Claire's I was equally sucked right into the story and the relationships between the six young people. On the surface they seem to adapt to their new family arrangements but tensions emerge in subtle ways over time. The death of one of the children becomes an unspoken tragedy that overshadows their future, with blame and responsibility being shifted and shouldered by parents and siblings alike. I like her writing because it is always so perceptive of human relationships and the quiet, ordinary moments of life; nothing dramatic has to happen to make the story interesting. Here is an after-work scene, Albie has been living on the sofa of his sister Jeanette and her husband Fodé for some time:

"Jeanette washed the salad greens. Fodé wrapped the sliced bread in tinfoil and put it in the oven. They worked around one another in the tiny space, each one stepping out of the other's way.
'Tell me about your day instead,' he said to her. 'Let's think of something better.'
'You want to think about MRI demonstrations in the hospital basements?'
Fodé stopped for a moment, then smiled and shook his head. 'No, no.' He turned then to his brother-in-law, so pleased to have another opportunity. 'What I meant to say is - Albie, please, tell us about your day.'
Albie shifted the weight of his nephew in his arms. He spoke to the baby. 'I was stopped by security guards in four buildings today. I showed my ID, was told I could go up, and then I was stopped by a second guard at the elevator who told me I couldn't go up.'
Fodé nodded with appreciation. 'This is most impressive for a white man.'
'And I was almost hit by the M16 bus.'
'Stop it,' Jeanette said, putting s bowl of salad in the middle of the table. 'No more about your day either.'
'That leaves us with Dayo,' Albie said.
Fodé took the baby from his arms. 'Dayo. There is no one I would rather hear from. My son, tell us, was it a beautiful day to be alive?'
'Uncle,' Dayo said, and held out his arms to go back.
Albie, who had lived close to the edge for so long, and at times had strayed past the edge, looked out the window to see the lights shining down from those countless Brooklyn apartments. He wondered if this was what people were doing - were they making dinners with their family, holding babies, recounting days? Was this was what life was like for them?" (p.173)

Other Ann Pratchett books I have loved: State of Wonder, Bel Canto, Run, and Truth and Beauty.

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