Saturday, 26 December 2015

Reading Roundup Post 2015

Boxing day afternoon has been a leisurely game of Upwords, bought for me many, many Christmases ago by my mother-in-law. Having conducted extensive living room research we have concluded that cooperation is superior to competition: today we worked together to build our words and achieved a score of 685, which exceeds previous competitive games where the best total game score (either just the two of us or with four players when Claire visited) was only 669.

As the end of the year fast approaches here is my roundup of the year's reading. 50 books, which was a surprise as I have felt somewhat lacklustre for much of the time. Of my 101 Books challenge I have read a mere 13, the most wonderful of which has to be The Lord of the Rings, which absorbed Monkey and myself completely for several weeks. The best non-fiction was definitely 'This Changes Everything' by Naomi Klein, but a fiction choice is more tricky. I seem to have read a lot of more 'experimental' type writing, like 'A Girl is a Half-formed Things' and 'Dept. of Speculation', which were more challenging than enjoyable as such, so I think I will have to plump for 'A Tale for the Time Being' by Ruth Ozeki. Lots of interesting books in the pipeline; 'H is for Hawk' acquired from my dad and 'Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her family feuds' by Lyndall Gordon lent to me by Julie, that will definitely lead to some more poetry reading. Mum also sent me a paper copy of this fascinating article about Jane Austen's novel Emma, which has really inspired me to give her another chance. 

On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz
The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman
We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang
Hunger by Knut Hansun
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe
Twelve Moons by Mary Oliver
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Weathering by Lucy Wood
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee
Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor
Love, Again by Doris Lessing
Kierkegaard: a guide for the perplexed by Claire Carlisle
Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore
The Explorer by James Smythe
Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
This is not the End of the Book by Jen-Claude Carriere
Post capitalism by Paul Mason
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin
Things to Make and Break by May Lan Tan
Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Run by Ann Patchett
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald
Paper Towns by John Green
Lost Cat by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Friday, 25 December 2015

Penguin and Piglet at Christmas

Wishing regular and random visitors a very Happy Christmas.
Our Christmas tree this year used to be a tree a very long time ago.
Seeking something to wear this morning I came across a waistcoat that I used to be very fond of, with this Piglets for Peace badge.
My most anticipated gift was this package courtesy of Simon Savage at Savage Reads that came as a surprise giveaway from Penguin Books. It contained three books: How to be Both by Ali Smith, Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín and The Peripheral by William Gibson, so there is much good reading to be done in the months to come.
This afternoon we have accompanied our viewing of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with decorating our gingerbread Hobbit Hole (BBC Good Food Gingerbread Recipe). The dome was baked over a pyrex casserole dish with the door, the front and garden baked separately.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Many Reasons to Stay Alive

'Reasons to Stay Alive' by Matt Haig. When people you love go through things that you cannot understand, it is helpful to find that there are other people out there struggling to not only make sense of their own experiences, but also to allow you a glimpse of the inner workings of their troubled minds. I reviewed Matt Haig's book 'The Humans' a while ago and as such his name was familiar and also this one has this nice upbeat title; we all occasionally need to read some reasons to be alive. It relates his abrupt descent into a very deep black hole and his slow and torturous journey back out; it does so with a perspective and humour only possible at quite some years distance. Everyone's path will be different, but it gives you hope to know that there are paths. 

"Warning signs are very hard with depression.
It's especially hard for people with no direct experience of depression to know them when they see them. Partly this is because some people are confused about what depression is. We use 'depressed' as a synonym for 'sad', which is fine, as we used 'starving' as a synonym for 'hungry', though the difference between depression and sadness is the difference between genuine starvation and feeling a bit peckish." (p.90)

I am a doer. I wanted to learn what I can do, but mostly it reinforced what I have already, tentatively, come to understand, that it is not something I can fix. Mostly you have to 'not do' things. But this description of his girlfriend was very helpful:
"She was someone I could talk to, someone I could say anything to. Being with her was basically being with an outer version of myself.
The force and fury she'd once only displayed in arguments she now used to steer me better. She accompanied me on trips to the doctors. She encouraged me to ring the right helplines. She got us to move into our own place. She encouraged me to read, to write. She earned us money. She gave us time. She handled all the organisational side of my life, the stuff you need to do to tick over.
She filled on the blanks that worry and darkness had left in its wake. She was my mind-double. My life-sitter. My literal other half when half of me had gone. She covered for me, waiting patiently like a war wife, during my absence from myself." (p.125)

It is a book of lists: Things depression says to you, Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression, Things you think during your first panic attack, Famous people with depression, Things that make me worse, Things that (sometimes) make me better. 
I don't think that such books are a solution to anything, but neither that they present a 'fake' happy ending (since they are invariably written by people who have 'recovered'), but they offer possibilities and encouragement to keep struggling, and even the tiniest moment of understanding between fellow human beings might be all it takes.
I went back to visit my parents in Newark about a month ago. They don't live in the same house, but the street they are on is parallel to the street where we used to live. It is a five minute walk.
The corner shop is still there. I walked there on my own and bought a newspaper and could happily wait for the shopkeeper to give me my change. The houses I passed were the same orange brick houses. Nothing much had changed. Nothing makes you feel smaller, more trivial, than such a vast transformation inside your own mind while the world carries on, oblivious. Yet nothing is more freeing. To accept you smallness in the world." (p.247)

Monday, 14 December 2015

Girl building

I can't help but love Caitlin Moran, she was home educated after all (we are awaiting a further season on the wonderful 'Raised by Wolves' that she and her sister have written about their childhood in Wolverhampton) and I remember being so delighted by her book 'The Chronicles of Narmo' because it presented home education as this slightly wild and chaotic thing rather than 'kids round the kitchen table with textbooks' that is the image most peddled by the mainstream media. Mum sent me 'How to Build a Girl', again to entertain me during my recuperation, and it has been wildly entertaining. Its story is so far from my own teenage years as to imagine I am a different species but there are still things that ring true about how young people try to make sense of growing up. It is a story of self-invention and re-invention, but of course having to learn the hard way. I also admire the way she gets the politics in there too, without ever feeling like she is lecturing, it is just part of life. 

Two quotes, one from the beginning, one from the end. The first is Joanna describing her home town, and you are certain this is Caitlin Moran at her most autobiographical:

"The town centre is always quiet - as if half the people who should be here had left some time ago. Buddleia grows through the top windows of Victorian blocks. The canal basin is solid with old washing machines. Whole roads of factories have closed down: the ironworks, the steelworks, all the locksmiths, save Chubb. The bicycle factories: Percy Stallard, Marston Sunbeam, Star, Wulfruna and Rudge. The steel jewellery and japanned-ware workshops. The coal merchants. The trolleybus system - once the largest in the world - is just a series of dreamlike veins left on old maps.
Growing up during the Cold War, and the persistent threat of nuclear apocalypse, I have always vaguely presumed that the nuclear apocalypse had, in fact, already happened - here. Wolverhampton feels like the ruined citadel of Charn in The Magician's Nephew (C.S. Lewis, Bodley Head, 1958). A city that suffered obvious, massive trauma when I was very small, but to which no one refers now. The city died on their watch, and there is a communal sense of misplaced culpability about it. This is what dying industrial cities smell of: guilt and fear. The older people silently apologising to their children." (p.23)

Secondly when Joanna is finally brought up short and forced to think about the way she is both behaving and writing. It is not something I personally felt that the character was capable of grasping and articulating so succinctly, and so again felt that maybe it was Caitlin reflecting back on her own growing understanding of teenage cynicism. A young man, the morning after a party, asks her why she doesn't write about music she likes:

"Because I am the weakest, youngest one in the gang at the D&ME, and need to kill to prove my loyalty. Because I am still learning to walk and talk, and it is a million times easier to be cynical, and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish. Because I still don't know what I really think or feel, and i'm throwing grenades and filling the air with smoke while I desperately, desperately try to get off the ground: to get elevation. Because I haven't yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.
At the time, I think of my own, new pugilist air as utterly righteous. I am a lone gunslinger, come to town. I am Travis Bickle, taking the scum off the streets. If someone has the right to do something, then I have the right to try and undo it. Every time I shoot down some no-hoper band, I leave a little more room for the new David Bowie to appear.
Of course, the thing about Travis Bickle, and lone gunslingers, is that they're not really the kind of people you want to invite to parties. For if your self-appointed role is coming into the party, late, dressed in black, and shooting over everyone's heads towards the stage, the party will begin to ... sour. People who have quieter voices, or who aren't so sure of themselves, do not want to speak up any more. They will not take to the stage. Only the more confident, and boisterous, will want to address the crowd.
The atmosphere changes - for now, it's just the extroverts left, shouting each other down. The introverts have gone back underground - taking with them the quieter notes, the minor chords. The playlist constricts, stultifies: people only play old favourites. Everyone is too scared to stand up and risk something new, that might sound odd to impatient ears." (p.260-261)

The two pages where she waxes lyrical about the size of Big Cock Al's cock was just hysterical, mocking by hyperbole is always the best kind, but the sex and the drinking and the drugs were balanced beautifully by Joanna's relationships with her brothers Krissi and Lupin and this remain her strongest redeeming feature. I am not sure I would have wanted her for a friend, I would probably have watched from the corner in terrified fascination.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

And Lo, hither and thither .... something in elvish

Monkey and I started on 'The Lord of the Rings' as soon as we finished 'The Hobbit', because once you get immersed in the land of Middle Earth you are loath to leave. By the time we were coming to the end of 'The Return of the King' the other day I was drawing it out, reluctant to reach the final chapter. We loved this book. I could almost leave it there, I mean, you either already appreciate the awesomeness of Tolkien or nothing I might say will convince you. I came to the conclusion that maybe I had never made it beyond the first book as a teenager, but we are talking thirty years ago so who knows.

'The Lord of the Rings' is amongst the most beloved and admired of all writing in English Literature and routinely appears on lists of must-read classics. Apparently over 100 million copies have been sold around the world. I have been wondering if the appearance of the films has managed to absolve some people of the nagging feeling that they should read the book, or whether it has done the opposite and sparked more people to want to know the story better. For me part of the pleasure has been all the stuff that is missing from the films, that make it a so much better and richer story than could ever be told on screen. I confess that, since we sat down and watched the films again straight afterwards, this may become a bit of a 'why the book is better' review (though it was also lovely to find which moments in the film are exact reproductions of the book). 
So, there's this ring ... and these hobbits, and these wizards, and these elves, and these men, and this dwarf ... yes, it seems only one dwarf gets involved (there are a few others mentioned but they are mostly dead), they are even more poorly represented than the women. I was going to write a bit of waffle about the story but as I was mulling over writing this post earlier (it has been on the go for several days now) I realised what is different about Tolkien. Some books are all about the story, some about the characters, some are making a political or philosophical point, but this is Tolkien, and this book is all about the place. You might think you are reading some kind of epic adventure tale, but I have not ended up feeling that this is what I took away. I wanted to stay in the land of Middle Earth. Yes, you go on a journey with these characters, but what is remarkable about his writing is that you end up feeling as if you have walked beside them every step of the way. Every bend in the road, every trickling stream, every tree and stubby bush and tuffet of grass, every view of the hills ahead, every single sunset and sunrise, is described in pointlessly unnecessary, but utterly vital, detail.

Here are Frodo, Sam, and Pippin leaving Hobbiton:
"After some time they crossed the Water, west of Hobbiton, by a narrow plank bridge. The stream there was no more than a winding black ribbon, bordered by lean alder-trees. A mile or two further south they hastily crossed the great road from the Brandywine Bridge; they were now in the Tookland and bending south-eastwards they made for the Green Hill Country. As they began to climb its first slopes they looked back and saw the lamps in Hobbiton far off twinkling in the gentle valley of the Water. Soon it disappeared in the folds of the darkened land, and was followed by Bywater beside its grey pool. When the light of the last farm was far behind, peeping among the trees, Frodo turned and waved a hand in farewell.
'I wonder if I shall ever look down into that valley again,' he said quietly.
When they had walked for about three hours they rested. The night was clear, cool, and starry, but smoke-like wisps of mist were creeping up the hill-sides from the streams and deep meadows. Thin-clad birches, swaying in the light wind above their heads, made a black net against the pale sky. They ate a very frugal supper (for hobbits), and then went on again. Soon they struck a narrow road, that went rolling up and down, fading grey into the darkness ahead: the road to Woodall and Stock, and the Buckleberry Ferry. It climbed away from the main road in the Water-valley, and wound over the skirts of the Green Hills towards Woody-End, a wild corner of the Eastfathing.
After a while they plunged into a deeply cloven track between tall trees that rustled their dry leaves in the night. It was very dark. At first they talked, or hummed a tune softly together, being now far away from inquisitive ears." (p. 94-5 Book 1 The Fellowship of the Ring)

In that last little half paragraph he says, 'It was very dark'. It was night time, of course it was dark, surely he did not need to tell the reader it was dark. But yet he does, and somehow when he says it, you become more aware of the darkness. He continually reminds you of their place within the larger scheme of things. As they travel the world expands around them as he constantly refers to their direction of travel and how it relates to all the various landmarks and mountains both nearby and distant; you find yourself scanning the maps, trying to see the path they are taking. Often he will just continue beyond the eyesight of the characters and describe what they would be able to see if only they were eagles. Middle Earth is not a place you imagine, you can see it, it is all there laid out for you. It is not a vague notion of a place where the reader is left to fill in the blanks, the empty corners that the writer has not bothered about; Tolkien draws his picture all the way to the edge of the map. 

Here is one of those lovely sunrises: Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are chasing the orcs:
"Turning back they saw across the River the far hills kindled. Day leapt into the sky. The red rim of the sun rose over the shoulders of the dark land. Before them in the West the world lay still, formless and grey; but even as they looked, the shadow of night melted, the colours of the waking earth returned: green flowed over the wide meads of Rohan; the white mists shimmered in the water-vales; and far off to the left, thirty leagues or more, blue and purple stood the White Mountains, rising into peaks of jet, tipped with glimmering snows, flushed with the rose of morning." (p.17 Book 3 The Two Towers)

'Day leapt into the sky'. Is that not the most beautiful way to describe a sunrise. I wish I had noted down more examples, but we were too busy reading. We kept stopping and remarking on the fact that the previous two pages had just been a description of them passing down into a valley and back up the other side.

And then we come to the women. To be honest, it did not spoil it for me one bit that there are so few women, because we have Éowyn and she is fabulous. Here is a man who fought in the First World War, there should be no way he was going to put any female characters into battle, and yet he does, and for this I judge him less harshly. In the short time that we know her I feel like she becomes a strong fully-developed character, not a token gesture by any means, and vital to the denouement of the story. And that reminds me of another thing that I loved: there is no recourse to prophesies or fate or destiny, the history and its unfolding is in the hands of the characters; their choices and decisions and actions are what drive events. Even the magic does not hold sway, Gandalf cannot wipe out the enemy with spells, and even the power of the ring itself can be fought by force of will. 

Here is Éowyn talking to Aragorn, one of several conversations that are reproduced almost word for word in the films:
" 'Shall I be chosen?' she said bitterly. 'Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart? To mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?'
'A time may come soon,' said he, 'when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.'
And she answered: 'All you words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.'
'What do you fear, lady?' he asked.
'A cage,' she said. 'To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.' " (p. 55 Book 5 The Return of the King)

I may come back and add other thoughts because it is far too big to write about in one go. 'The Silmarillion' is hopefully winging its way in our direction even as I write, though I did say to Monkey that maybe we should read something as far from fantasy as we can get for a while, since nothing is going to live up to this.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Lost Cat

The library sent me 'Lost Cat' by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton from my 101 books list. It came recommended by Brainpickings so I felt a little disappointed that it did not really have much about it. I mean, it's a cute little story and all that, but that's pretty much it. It's a book for cat devotees, and while I am definitely a cat person and not a dog person, I am not that kind of cat person. I refer to my cat as a cat for a start, not a 'kitty'. I think my decline in fond affection for cats dates from taking Lulu to live in a terraced house in inner-city Manchester, that she hated, and started peeing on the playroom carpet, and I clean it up, and cleaned it up again, and again, but always felt like the house smelt faintly of cat pee, and so although, when we moved to the countryside and she was content again that was lovely, when she was killed by a car a couple of years later I was not really so sad. The other cats I have owned have all been at the request of the children and I am convinced that I am highly unlikely to become a crazy cat lady in my old age.

I think it is the case that people who are silly over animals will very easily bond over that silliness, and that is the enduring appeal of this book. If you check out the website it appears to be a catalogue of lost and found stories from around the world. I think that the appeal of cats can be that, unlike dogs, at least part of their existence is unknown to us as owners. They go off into the night and we have no idea where. But at the same time people want their cat to be attached to them in the same way that they are attached to the cat; anthropomorphism is the main problem here, when it comes down to it, cats really do not give a bugger. So the story is not so much about the cat as about the people. It passed from the sublime to the ridiculous for me when she goes to a class to learn to communicate with her pet:

"Suddenly there was a rush of thoughts in my brain.
'Is Wendy staying?' Tibby asked. 'Are we going to get another comfy chair? Are you going to calm down?'
'Aren't I calm?' I said back in thought picture.
'Not really. You seem to be worried about things. About the future. The past. What's so great about the future and the past?'
'Well, I don't know,' I said. 'This is what humans worry about.'
'Well, humans are kind of dumb,' Tibby responded.
'Hey,' I said, adding a thought-picture of OFFENDED, ' this human has fed and cared for you for thirteen years.'
Tibby ignored this. Instead I heard, 'So, what's going on with this injury anyway. Is it ever going to heal?'
'Heck if I know,' I sighed, touched that he cared.
'Hey, class is wrapping up, so I gotta go,' I told him.
'You humans, in such a rush,' Tibby said. 'You know, this injury might be the best thing for you.'
'Really?' I said. But Tibby was already gone.
The teacher told us, 'Great job! What a success,' but I wasn't so sure. Had I really talked to Tibby, or had I just been talking to myself?
That night, I stared into Tibby's eyes, trying to put all I'd learned that day into play. I stared at him and he stared at me.
Eventually, bored of our game, Tibby put his head on his paws and went to sleep." (p.83-4)

Amusing, if you like that kind of thing, but glad I hadn't spent money on it.

Till Dawn Do Us Part

Al bought me copy of 'Paper Towns' by John Green to comfort me in my houseboundness and it was lovely.

I just want to be sure that people who haven't read it yet avoid any info that will ruin the story disclosure. I was alternately convinced our hero Margo was dead and then alive and then dead and then ... I have not read 'The Fault in our Stars' but I did review 'Looking for Alaska' a few years ago, and it has a similar focus on a quirky female character on whom the male lead has a crush, and who's presence and then absence forms the structure of the book. Q (Quentin), Radar and Ben are on the verge of graduating from high school, living in their secluded little world of video games and band practice and somehow managing to say out of the path of the resident bully. Radar has a nicely understated relationship with a girl called Angela, Ben is searching frantically for a 'honeybunny' to take to prom and Q just longs for the lost days of his childhood when Margo Roth Spiegelman was his best friend. As the end of their school career approaches they are all anticipation of their new adult lives, college and the future, but Margo is about to throw a spanner in the works. After she discovers her boyfriend's infidelity she enlists Q's help for a wild night of revenge on the people who have wronged her, and just when he thinks they may have reforged their former bond she vanishes. What ensues is a race to make sense of the clues she appears to have left behind. So does Margo want to be found or not?

Lovely things about the book: Q struggling to understand Walt Whitman, that inspired me to give it another go. Friendships between young people and their culture generally being presented in a positive, non-judgemental way, and the adults all being somewhat extraneous to the story. The 'dork' hits it off with the 'super hot girl' and they both defy their stereotypes, grow as characters and get to know each other as real people. Some lovely backhand comments about the schooling system, it's always good when authors see through the crap. The road trip, because who doesn't love a road trip. The suspense. The avoidance of a clichéd ending. 

Ben understanding Lacey:
"I'm just saying that it was easy for me to like Lacey before. It's easy to like someone from a distance. But when she stopped being this amazing unattainable thing or whatever, and started being, like, just a regular girl with a weird relationship with food and frequent crankiness who's kinda bossy - then I had to basically start liking a whole different person." (p.267)

Q in school:
"I spent the next three hours in classrooms, trying not to look at the clocks above various blackboards, and then looking at the clocks, and then being amazed that only a few minutes had passed since I had last looked at the clock. I'd had nearly four years of experience looking at these clocks, but their sluggishness never ceased to surprise. If I am ever told that I have one day to live, I will head straight to the hallowed halls of Winter Park High School, where a day has been known to last a thousand years." (p.18)

I liked Margo, because she's not taken in by her own hype:
"Q, you're going to go to Duke. You're going to be a very successful lawyer-or-something and get married and have babies and live your whole little life, and then you're going to die, and in your last moments, when you're choking on your own bile in the nursing home, you'll say to yourself: 'Well, I wasted my whole goddamned life, but at least I broke into SeaWorld with Margo Roth Spiegelman my senior year of high school. At least I carpe'd that one diem." (p.70)

because a few pages later:
"Margo didn't respond. She was staring past me, her eyes squinting almost closed. 'I felt this exact same way when I got into Universal Studios,' she said after a moment. 'It's kind of cool and everything, but there's nothing much to see. The rides aren't working. Everything cool is locked up. Most of the animals are put in different tanks at night.' She turned her head and appraised the SeaWorld we could see. 'I guess the pleasure isn't being inside.'
'What's the pleasure then?' I asked.
'Planning, I guess. I don't know. Doing stuff never feels as good as you hope it will feel.' " (p.77)

Here Q empties his locker on the last school day, and seems to get some idea of what Margo is trying to tell him:
"All along, I kept thinking, I will never do this again, I will never be here again, this will never be my locker again, Radar and I will never write notes in calculus again, I will never see Margo across the hall again. This was the first time in my life that so many things would never happen again.
As paralysing and upsetting as all the never agains were, the final leaving felt perfect. Pure. The most distilled possible form of liberation. Everything that mattered except one lousy picture was in the trash, but it felt so great. I started jogging, wanting to put even more distance between myself and school.
It is so hard to leave - until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamn thing in the world.
As I ran, I felt myself for the first time becoming like Margo. I knew: she is not in Orlando. She is not in Florida. Leaving feels too good, once you leave. If I'd been in a car, and not on foot, I might have kept going, too. She was gone and not coming back for graduation or anything else. I felt sure of that now.
I leave, and the leaving is so exhilarating I know I can never go back. But what then? Do I just keep leaving places, and leaving them, and leaving them, tramping a perpetual journey?
Ben and Radar drove past me a quarter of a mile from Jefferson Park, and Ben brought RHAPAW to a screeching halt right on Lakemont in spite of traffic everywhere, and I ran up to the car and got in. They wanted to play Resurrection at my house, but I had to tell them no, because I was closer that I'd ever been." (p228-9)

I have never read a book where they talked so much about needing to pee, and it was fecking hysterical. It worked perfectly as a distraction from talking about where they were going too much, acting (weirdly) to both lessen and heighten the tension of the situation. John Green always does exactly what he says on the tin, rely on him for a bloody good story.

Broken Wheel Readers

The not-reviewed book pile is getting a bit out of hand again so today is going to (hopefully) by a multi-post day.
First off is 'The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend' by Katarina Bivald, who sounds from her website just like a version of Sara from her book. I bought this as a little treat for myself in anticipation of my trip to hospital and it has been as thoroughly heartwarming as the review promised. 

When she loses her job with the closure of the bookstore our young hero Sara arrives in Broken Wheel, Iowa to visit her long time pen-friend Amy, only to discover that Amy has died (not altogether unexpectedly to her friends and neighbours, but it is to Sara). Amy, it seems, was pretty much the hub of her local community and they all seem a little adrift without her, but they hold it together enough to insist that Sara stays on in her house and that they will all share in taking care of her. Rather overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers Sara decided upon a plan to repay them; she will share her love of reading with the residents of Broken Wheel. Unbeknownst to her, they also have a plan for her. 

It is the story of a declining community that is bought back to life under the influence of a driving passion. They are all a little curious about this reading thing, but at the same time suspicious. The harsh realities of life in a place with very little hope makes most of them wary of delving into the unknown, and it takes quite a bit of coaxing by Sara. The tipping point comes with the previously unspoken 'rivalry' between Broken Wheel and the neighbouring town of Hope, a place they feel has contributed to sucking the life from their town. The desire to prove that they still have some life and some fight left in them culminates in a market and a party that draws the efforts of the townsfolk together. 

I liked Sara because of her wonderfully eclectic reading taste, it was the only time she became unselfconscious when she was trying to persuade her new neighbours to read. One day she sits reading in the shop, oblivious to the growing crowd observing her through the window; her behaviour is seen as so peculiar that it arouses people's curiosity. She helped people see new aspects of themselves, not by being clever and telling people what they ought to read but simply by handing them books. 

Things that annoyed me: you would not have a bar in a small community like that run by two gay men and not have it already be the hub of whatever gay community lived locally. John, the only black man in the story, and a lifelong close friend of Amy does not really feature in the story; I kept expecting his part in her life to be bought to the fore but it was utterly neglected. There is no a single other person in either Broken Wheel or Hope who is an avid reader and comes to the shop with enthusiasm, I find this impossible to believe. Now while I am frequently naive about stuff, human nature in particular, Sara's protective concern about 'unhappy endings' annoyed me, because books are real life, they are not some kind of rose garden of happy ever after. Here she is categorising the shelves in her shop:

"SMALL-TOWN LIFE felt like a given, when she thought about it. People wanted to read about themselves. The only problem was that the category involved a lot of sex, violence and weaponry too, but no categorisation system would be perfect.
She paused at Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Clearly small-town life, but also with such loathsome ending that she wondered whether it was morally defensible to sell them. Eventually, she put them out anyway, but used one of the pieces of cardboard to cut out a smaller sign which she stuck up next to them. 'Warning: unhappy ending!' she wrote.
If bookshop owners had taken the responsibility to hang warning signs, her life would have been much easier. Cigarette packets came with warnings, so why not tragic books? There was wording on bottles of beer warning you not to drink and drive, but not a single word about the consequences of reading books without tissues to hand."

Sorry, but if you only read books that make life easier you're doing it wrong. Having said that it helps me to occasionally read a book that shows people working together to make their lives better, because I like to believe it really happens.

Monday, 23 November 2015


I picked up 'Run' by Ann Patchett on one of my charity shop trawls. She is an author that I really love: here are reviews of Bel Canto from 2010, 'State of Wonder' from 2012 and 'Truth and Beauty' from 2013.

This book was very different in scope and theme from the others, always a sign of a good writer. This story covers 24 hours in the life of a family, introducing us to Tip and Teddy and their father Doyle. Actually, rewind, it introduces us first of all to the statue of the Virgin Mary, a family heirloom that bears a striking resemblance to their mother Bernadette and the stories (both the true and the false one) of how it arrived in their family. Left in the lurch by the death of their mother Doyle has become somewhat of an overbearing parent and has dragged them, on this evening, to hear Jessie Jackson give a speech (outings that have apparently been a consistent feature thought their childhood, and Tip has taken to memorising political speeches.) As they leave the event and stand in the falling snow, discussing a party that Doyle is trying to persuade them to attend, a woman comes, apparently out of nowhere, and saves Tip from being struck by a car. In the ensuing chaos they find themselves taking care of the woman's daughter after she is left in the snow by the departing ambulance. The surprise return of their estranged older brother Sullivan  adds an extra twist to the slightly surreal unfolding drama. 

The books touches variously on issues around the family and the nature of belonging, and the obligations that come with belonging. Catholicism is there in the shape of Father Sullivan, their mother's uncle, and Teddy's apparent determination to become a priest, but it is an influence on the family that has waned significantly. Much of the story focusses quite closely on Kenya, the young daughter of the injured woman, and her fascination with Tip and Teddy. I don't want to spoil the plot disclosure, so suffice to say that many things are not as simple as their first appear. 

Here Kenya wakes up having passed the night in the boy's old room at the top of the house:

"When Kenya opened her eyes it was to a flood of astonishing sunlight. So bright was this room, so radiant, that for the first few moments she was awake she did not consider her mother or the Doyles at all. She did not think of where she was or what had happened. She could do nothing but take in the light. It had never occurred to her before that all the places she had slept in her life had been dark, that her own apartment had never seen a minute of this kind of sun. Even in the middle of the day, every corner hung tight to its shadows and spread a dimness over the ceiling and walls. Draw the curtains back as far as they could possibly go and still the light seemed to skim just in from of the window without ever falling inside. No matter what time of day it was she had to switch on the overhead bulb to do her homework, or her mother would shout at her, Your eyes! But in the light that soaked this room a girl could read the spines of the books on the very top shelf. 'The Double Helix,' she said aloud. 'A Separate Peace.' She stretched her arms down the comforter and admired them. She spread her fingers wide apart and took her fingernails under consideration. Every bit of her was straight and strong and beautiful in this light. She glowed. She felt it pouring into her and yet she could tell by her skin, which looked ashy must mornings where she lives, that it was pouring out of  her as well. It was just like the leaves they had studies in science class. She was caught in the act of photosynthesising. The light was processed through her and she was improved by it." (p.157-8)

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The great pony massacre of 1341

One afternoon about four years ago, when Monkey was not feeling well, I started reading 'The Hobbit' aloud to her. It has been a long time, but we have finally finished it. It sat neglected on a shelf somewhere, being picked up at odd moments with the question, 'Shall we have a chapter of The Hobbit?' This method works okay when you are quite familiar with a story, because you can just read a bit and pick up where you are in the tale. My primary school teacher used to read to the class last thing on Friday afternoons and this was one of the books he read us, though I do not recall reaching the end that time.

This is not really a review, because I would be surprised if there was anyone left out there who needed telling about 'The Hobbit'. People bemoan the lack of female character in Tolkien, and in fact there are fewer in The Hobbit (none at all, that is) than there are in 'Lord of the Rings', but to be honest this book is all about the story, and most of them aren't human anyway. Monkey gave me, inadvertently, the title to this post, because she got very upset about the vast number of ponies that are eaten by Trolls or Goblins or Dragons, and we were very pleased to find that the ones that get lost in Bree in Fellowship of the Ring made their way safely back to Tom Bombadil and Fatty Lumpkin.

So, for atmosphere and amusement, the quote here has Gandalf and Bilbo introduce themselves at the house of Beorn, before bringing in the dwarves, but it is also a lovely example of Tolkien's descriptions of apparently insignificant things :

" 'I am Gandalf,' said the wizard.
'Never heard of him, ' growled the man, 'and what's this little fellow?' he said, stooping down to frown at the hobbit with his bushy black eyebrows. 
'That is Mr Baggins, a hobbit of good family and unimpeachable reputation,' said Gandalf. Bilbo bowed. He had no hat to take off, and was painfully conscious of his missing buttons. 'I am a wizard,' continued Gandalf. 'I have heard of you, if you have not heard of me; but perhaps you have heard of my good cousin Radagast who lives near the southern borders of Mirkwood?'
'Yes, not a bad fellow as wizards go, I believe. I used to see him now and again,' said Beorn. 'Well, now I know who you are , or who you say you are. What do you want?'
'To tell the truth, we have lost our luggage and nearly lost our way, and are rather in need of help, or at least of advice. I may say we have had rather a bad time with goblins in the mountains.'
'Goblins?' said the big man less gruffly. 'O ho, so you have been having trouble with them have you? What did you go near them for?'
'We did not mean to. They surprised us at night in a pass which we had to cross, we were coming out of the Lands over West into these countries - it is a long tale.'
'You had better come inside and tell me some of it, if it won't take all day,' said the man leading the way through a dark door that opened out of the courtyard into the house. 
Following him they found themselves in a wide hall with a fireplace in the middle. Though it was summer there was a wood-fire bring and the smoke was rising to the blackened rafters in search of the way out through an opening in the roof. They passed through this dim hall, lit only by the fire and the hole above it, and came through another smaller door into a sort of verandah propped on wooden posts made of single tree-trunks. It faced south and was still warm and filled with the light of the westering sun which slanted into it, and fell golden on the garden full of flowers that came right up to the steps. 
Here they sat on wooden benches while Gandalf began his tale, and Bilbo swung his dangling legs and looked at the flowers in the garden, wondering what their names could be, as he had never seen half of them before. 
'I was coming over the mountains with a friend or two ... ' said the wizard.
'Or two? I can only see one, and a little one at that,' said Beorn.
'Well to tell you the truth, I did not like to bother you with a lot of us, until I found out if you were busy. I will give a call, if I may.' " (p.118-121)

Since I have been on leave we have launched straight after into 'The Lord of the Rings' and are half way through Two Towers, and enjoying it immensely, it is lovely to get really immersed in another world for a while. 

A Song for Issy Bradley

'A Song for Issy Bradley' by Carys Bray. As usual I read about this on a blog very recently and now cannot remember where. I am not sure I would have requested it if I had realised it was about a Mormon family, but once I had read the first chapter I already wanted to persevere with it. It is not that I have anything against Mormons in particular, just that books about 'faith' do not really interest me. This book gave me a fascinating insight into a world that is utterly outside my knowledge, and, although the author is a 'lapsed' Mormon (if there is such a thing), I felt it was a very open and honest picture of their beliefs. The thing with the Mormon religion seems to be is that it is not so much an overarching code but more a rulebook that governs every single aspect of how you live your life. Maybe it's just my interpretation of the way it is presented, but it seems mostly to be a list of things that you cannot do. The story is, however, just as much about a family struggling with grief.

Claire is an incomer, having met her husband Ian at university and been converted then married into the faith. Their four children, Zippy, Al, Jacob and Issy have been raised within the Mormon church and their father has recently become a 'bishop', which seems to be kind of pastor, someone who offers both spiritual and practical guidance for the congregation. So on the day of Jacob's birthday party he is whisked away on urgent business to visit the sick and Claire is left to cope with all of Jacob's excited expectations, and the stressful experience of having strange children in the house. Issy, feeling unwell, is dosed up with Calpol and left in bed to sleep it off. When they finally realise how sick she is, it is too late. The story moves between each person in the family, watching as they struggle to make sense of their loss, while also dealing with their own private concerns. 

While his rule book props up Ian and gives him a way to handle everything that life has dealt, it gives him no mechanism to support Claire, who refuses to grieve in the proper manner. The older children bottle up their feelings, absorbed as they are partly with other concerns; Zippy (Zipporah) with a crush on a fellow church member, and Al (Alma) with his football. Jacob however has other plans, and he begins an experiment to test the power of his faith. This is the part of the story I found so heartbreaking, not the death of a child. If you bring up a child to believe that prayer and faith will be answered if it is strong enough how is he supposed to understand when it does not work. The children in the story were all so well drawn, struggling to balance the demands of their religion with what they see and experience in the real world. Claire collapses into herself and hides from the world, in a very graphic portrayal of grief. But Ian I hated, for the entire book. His narrow dogmatism was, to me, everything that is bad about organised religion. His hypocrisy is just predictable. His wife is handling it all wrong; you should not be sad for someone who has gone to heaven, nor mourn over the body that is left behind, and he lies to cover up her failure. The scene where he rapes his catatonic wife on their daughter's bed was the most disgusting thing I have ever read a character doing. He does not redeem himself in the end, in my eyes; he steps outside his box for a tiny moment, because he realises it is the only way to draw his wife back inside. 

I will leave you with a lighter moment that I laughed at, in fact I giggled aloud at several points in the book where the author seemed by be gently mocking her lost religion. Here Zippy has 'snuck out' to a party, and is offered something to drink:
" 'No thanks,' she says.
'Oh, yeah. You're Muslim, aren't you?'
'Mormon,' she mutters.
Will's wearing a cardigan and big glasses that he probably doesn't need. At least he's talking to her, even though she'd rather not talk about religion because whenever she has to stick up for the Church the words come out wrong. Dad makes it all sound sensible and logical, yet when she borrows his language and ideas, it always sounds absurd.
'Oh, right, A Mormon,' he says. 'You shouldn't be at a party, should you? It's not allowed, is it?'
'I'm allowed.'
'Sorry, I must've got mixed up.'
'I think it's Jehovah's Witnesses, the no-parties thing.' Zippy's face grows hot under its glaze of make-up. She's embarrassed to have been mistaken for a Jehovah's Witness. Dad says they don't let people have blood transfusions and they believe only a few people can get to heaven. She doesn't know much about them, but they sound weird and she doesn't want anyone to imagine that she's got anything to do with them." (p.208)

Ignoring that I found the subject matter a little outside my comfort zone this was a lovely book, beautifully written, and honestly portraying the good and bad sides of family, faith and religious community. I liked the way she gave them miracles and answered prayers without making it seem significant. While I can see that having a guiding message would help you through such an experience, when it tells you what you are supposed to be feeling it has crossed a line. Even though it ends hopefully for them as a family I was left feeling somewhat ambivalent.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Station Eleven

I bought 'Station Eleven' by Emily St. John Mandel for Monkey last Christmas because it is a post-apocalyptic novel about Shakespeare. We read it aloud together recently (though she had already read it herself). I loved it because it is about human beings making something new, rather than, like most post-apocalyptic stories, tearing each other to pieces.

The story follows some characters who are bound together by their links with a man, Arthur Leander, who dies in the opening moments of the book. We witness the beginning of the epidemic that will wipe out the human race, watching a few of the random people who will survive, and then jump forward some years into the future and meet them again, in their new found communities. The story revolved mostly around the people of the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who tour between small communities giving performances in exchange for food. Another group are based at an airport, there they found themselves stranded as the events around the epidemic unfolded, and expecting constantly to be 'rescued' they just ended up staying. The story jumps back and forth in time, giving us the backstories of various characters, and also the history of 'Station Eleven', a far distant satellite/planet that exists in the imagination of Arthur's first wife Miranda and which formed the basis for a series of comic books that she was creating. Only two of the books exist and a copy of each are held (not so coincidentally, since they all had a link to Arthur) by two of the characters. They have become a kind of talisman for Kirsten, a link to the world that is now past. The characters are marked out by age; those who remember the world as it was, and those who don't. Kirsten is one on the borderline, with glimpses of her childhood that she clings to but a sense that she will never know which memories are real and which imagined.

The plot seems initially quite low key, but then tension builds after the Travelling Symphony passes through a place governed by an enigmatic 'Prophet', and they find themselves with a stowaway. It is a largely empty world there are land and resources enough for everyone, so unlike, for example, 'The Road', there are not roaming bands of outlaws killing randomly for food, so although they are wary they do not take the new threat seriously until some of their number disappear. 

You can tell I was engaged with the story as I did not stop to note any quotes. So somewhat at random, here Kirsten and August have become separated from the group and they come across a remote house, unusually untouched since the end of the world:

" 'Nice dress,' August said, when she found him downstairs in the living room.
'The old one smelled like smoke and fish guts.'
'I found a couple of suitcases in the basement,' he said.
They left with a suitcase each, towels and clothing and a stack of magazines that Kirsten wanted to go though later, an unopened box of salt from the kitchen and various other items that they thought they might use, but first Kirsten lingered for a few minutes in the living room, scanning the bookshelves while August searched for a TV guide or poetry.
'You looking for something in particular?' he asked after she'd given up the search. She could see he was thinking of taking the remote. He'd been holding it and idly pressing all the buttons.
'Dr. Eleven, obviously. But I'd settle for Dear V.'
The latter was a book she'd somehow misplaced on the road two or three years ago, and she'd been trying ever since to find a replacement. The book had belonged to her mother, purchased just before the end of everything. Dear V: An Unauthorised Portrait of Arthur Leander. White text across the top proclaimed the book's status as a number-one bestseller. The cover photo was back-and-white, Arthur looking over his shoulder as he got into a car. The look on his face could have meant anything; a little haunted, perhaps, but it was equally possible that someone had just called his name and he was turning to look at him or her. The book was comprise entirely of letters written to a friend, the anonymous V.
When Kirsten had left Toronto with her brother, he'd told her she could bring one book in her backpack, just one, so she'd taken Dear V. because her mother had told her she wasn't allowed to read it. Her brother had raised an eyebrow but made no remark." (P.151-152)

It is an unassuming book, without heroes, but it speaks volumes about the human condition and will leave you hopeful. 

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Oscar Wao

This is going to be the very brief mention of 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' by Junot Diaz because it is now quite some time since I finished reading it. 

It was quite a demanding book, and one that made me eternally grateful for a life that has been utterly devoid of random violence, since it seems to be an everyday feature of Oscar's. Although he is supposedly the central character the book revolves much more around the lives of La Inca (his great-grandmother), Beli, (his mother) and his sister Lola, and seems to be narrated in part by the long term, on-again-off-again boyfriend of Lola. The story skates back and forth from some run down corner of America to a run down corner of the Dominican Republic, relating the history of the three women and how they manage to keep a grip on life, when it is trying very hard to push them under. ( I learned a heck of a lot about the history of the Dominican Republic too; there are copious footnotes in the early parts of the book giving all sorts of interesting cultural and political background.) And Oscar sits there somewhat oblivious, in his own nerdy world of fantasy writing, hoping vainly that some day a woman will come into his life and make it worthwhile. It is written almost entirely in what we middle class people politely call 'vernacular' (and a copious scattering of Spanish too), which meant that some of it went right over my head and I occasionally had to guess what they were talking about, and I spent much of the time wondering if people really talk like that. It was almost like reading science fiction, they could have been on another planet for all their lives, attitudes and experiences had in common with mine. But then that's why they invented novels, and if they don't kick you out of your comfort zone occasionally then you're probably doing it wrong.

This is where the boyfriend (who's name I can't remember) has offered to room with Oscar at college to 'keep an eye on him':

"Point is when her brother lapsed into that killer depression at the end of sophomore year - drank two bottles of 151 because some girl dissed him - almost fucking killed himself, and his sick mother in the process, who do you think stepped up?
Surprised the shit out of Lola when I said I'd live with him the next year. Keep an eye on the fucking dork for you. After the suicide drama nobody in Demarest wanted to room with homeboy, was going to have to spend junior year by himself; no Lola, either, because she was slotted to go abroad to Spain for that year, her big fucking dream finally come true and she was worried shitless about him. Knocked Lola for a loop when I said I'd do it, but it almost killed her dead when I actually did it. Move in with him. In fucking Demarest. Home of all the weirdos and losers and freaks and fem-bots. Me, a guy who could bench 340 pounds, who used to call Demarest Homo Hall like it was nothing. Who never met a little white artist freak he didn't want to smack around. Put in my application for the writing section and by the beginning of September, there we were, me and Oscar. Together." (p169-170)

So, culture shock, most definitely, but I rooted for Oscar right to the bitter end.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

May-Lan Tan and Rosa Liksom

I heard May-Lan Tan at the literature festival this year and was intrigued by the story she began reading. The library very helpfully provided me with a copy of 'Things to Make and Break'. They are slightly disturbing stories, mostly about very vulnerable people. Many of her protagonists are children, often trying to make sense of the mysteries of adulthood: a young girl wanting to meet the stranger that her mum is going on a date with, two children called Lauren who both lose a parent, another young girl who has an abortion and has to watch her sister enjoying parenthood. One quote from a story about Jimmy and Erin, friends negotiating the challenges of adolescence together:

"They take off their shoes and leave them outside on the rack. The hall light is on and her parents' door is open. Erin goes to talk to them.
Jimmy stop in the bathroom to wash the Sharpie Xs off the backs of her hands. She doesn't have a curfew, but they never stay at hers because she lives up at the far corner of Hoboken and shares a room with little twin sisters who never shut up. Erin lives six blocks from the station and has a queen-size bed. She says Jimmy's lucky, but Jimmy thinks curfews are nice, in a way. It means someone else is the adult.
The ink isn't coming off. Even though Erin didn't get X-ed tonight, she didn't try and get served; she never risks it unless they're in some nowhere dive. She's honestly the only person Jimmy knows who can pull off a fake ID. At seventeen, Erin looks fourteen, but she always wears a full face of makeup and a push-up bra and dresses neck to toe in black, so the glamour quotient kind of throws it off. Jimmy has never worn a bra of any kind, and she's had her period twice so far. She hopes some of Erin's girlness will rub off on her." (p.169-170 from New Jersey)

At the end of the same event I was chatting to a young man who recommended Rosa Liksom. Well, I didn't remember her name but I remembered she was Finnish and wrote short stories, so I googled that (isn't the internet wonderful). The library also had one of hers. 'Compartment No.6' was definitely a bit of culture shock. I did, many years ago, travel across eastern Germany by train, and it was something of a similar experience, though that was only a day, compared to this journey, that seems to go on for weeks. A young woman, apparently escaping a strange relationship in Moscow, finds herself sharing a train compartment with a hard drinking ex-soldier who regales her with lurid tales of violence and sexual conquest. We learn little about her though the story follows her more closely, and he comes across as a rather archetypal Russian, stubbornly loyal to his country in spite of the privations and indignities that have been inflicted upon him in the name of progress. It is quite a vivid portrayal of the Russian character, explaining why the country has continued to function in spite of, rather than because of, communism and its subsequent collapse. 
"The man sat on his bed. He wore a plaid shirt open over his white longjohns. Under the wrinkles of the white shirt peeped a sweaty muscular belly. He picked up a small orange from the table and started to tear roughly at the peel. When he'd eaten the fruit he dug a tattered newspaper from under his bunk and blurted out from behind it in an irritated tone, 'People are restless when they're young. No patience at all. Always rushing somewhere. Everything goes at its own pace. Time is just time.'
He wrinkled his brow and sighed.
'Look at me. An old duffer, a melancholy soul filled with a dull calm. A heart that beats out of sheer habit, with no feelings in it any more. no more pranks in him, not even any pain. Just dreariness.' " (p.15)

As a seasoned traveller the man takes her under his wing and between them a kind of bond forms. 

"A fire-red afternoon sun spread over the wind-whipped sky. Behind it dripped vast sheets of sleet. The girl rummaged in her knapsack, the man set the table for dinner. they ate slowly and silently, drinking well-steeped tea - black, Indian Elephant tea she'd bought at the foreign exchange shop. After the meal the man would have liked to talk but she wanted to be quiet. He took his knife out from under his pillow and started to scratch the back of his ear with it. She rested with her eyes closed. And that's how they travelled that whole long twilit evening, each of them sleeping and waking in their own time." (p.80)

The story paints a picture of him and as they travel it also paints a picture of Russia, though there is not much light it in. They stop at random places along the way to 'rest' the engine, but they are either told they cannot get off, or the carriage attendant tells them the place is not worth seeing. There are some lengthy descriptions of decay and neglect as they crawl across the frozen wastes towards Mongolia. When they cross the border they leave it all behind; the final sentence here is repeated at several points throughout the book, symbolising something I felt, but what, I was left to ponder:

"The Soviet Union is left behind, the Lenin statues and portraits, the watercolour paintings of deserted shores on a foam-flecked stormy sea, the mechanics, oil workers, wretched men working on kolkhozes, miners, address and phone-number kiosks, the monuments to the Revolution, the dance pavilions in the parks, the old couples swaying to the beat of a mournful waltz with fur hats on their heads, the stair brooms, entryway brooms, cabin brooms, chamber brooms, cellar brooms, pavement brooms, barn brooms, stable brooms, bathroom brooms, front yard brooms, back yard brooms, garden brooms, well brooms, the old ladies wrapped in big black cardigans with dusty leggings and threadbare slippers on their feet, lackadaisically swinging their wilted brooms. ...
The clocks on the walls in the street lobbies of Moscow's official buildings, telling the time, the cabinets of experts, the factory party committees, secret gambling dens, clandestine home concerts, art exhibitions in artists' studios, the local committees, sentry booths, blini booths, biscuit booths, patched roofs, houses collapsed under the snow, the millions of peasants who died of hunger, the city dwellers, the workers, the millions in prisons, the loyal citizens broken down by work camps and labour sites who died of cold, the denunciations, the Party tyranny, the choiceness elections, the election fraud, the grovelling and inordinate mendacity, the millions fallen in useless wars, the men, women and children executed at the edge of mass graves, the millions of Soviet citizens that the machine had abused, tortured, mistreated, neglected, trampled, cowed, humiliated, oppressed, terrorised, cheated, raised on violence, made to suffer, are all left behind. The Soviet Union, a tired, dirty country, is left behind, and the train plunges into nature, throbs across the sandy, desert landscape. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts." (p.143-144)


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