Saturday, 7 December 2019

book neglect

What do you do when the pile of books to review gets out of hand again? Well, firstly, you don't beat yourself up about it. Then you give in and write a little quickie about each one, even those that deserve a much better assessment. I do worry that I am reading without reflecting properly, or maybe just that I am but only inside my head and not being able to get it into words on the screen. I have had much enjoyment from my books recently, all very different.

First up, 'The Cockroach' by Ian McEwan, a wonderful rethinking of Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis'. I was really slow on the uptake and it took me a whole page to realise it was a cockroach transformed into a human. Very much a story of the moment, where the cockroaches are on a mission to fulfil the will of the people at any cost. I bought it for my sister, with the intention of borrowing it, but read it overnight when I visited so she could lend it to Geoff and then sent it on to dad, so we really got our money's worth out of that copy. I won't spoil the plot. The only bit that disappointed was that they seemed to adapt to being human far too quickly. Here is the last time their natural insect instincts are mentioned:

"They were in the cabinet room. Halfway down the long table by the largest chair was a tray of coffee, which the Prime Minister approached with such avidity that over the last few steps he broke into a run. He hoped to arrive ahead of his companion and snatch a moment with the sugar bowl. But by the time he was lowering himself into the chair, with minimal decorum, his coffee was being poured. There was no sugar on the tray. Not even milk. But in the grey shadow cast by his saucer, visible only to him, was a dying bluebottle. Every few seconds its wings trembled. With some effort Jim wrenched his gaze away while he listened. He was beginning to think he might sneeze.
'About the 1922 committee. The usual bloody suspects.'
'Ah, yes.'
'Last night.'
'Of course.'
When the bluebottle's wings shook they made the softest rustle of acquiescence.
'I'm glad you weren't there.'
When a bluebottle has been dead for more than ten minutes it tastes impossibly bitter. Barely alive or just deceased, it has a cheese flavour. Stilton, mostly.
'Yes?'
'It's a mutiny. And all over the morning papers.'
There was nothing to be done. The Prime Minister had to sneeze. He felt it building. Probably the lack of dust. He gripped the chair. For an explosive instant he thought he had passed out.
'Bless you. There was talk of a no-confidence vote.'
When he opened his unhelpfully lidded eyes, the fly had gone. Blown away.
'Fuck.' " (p.13-14)

'The Boy Next Door' by Irene Sabatini is set in Zimbabwe in the period after the end of colonial rule. It is the story of Lindiwe and Ian, the boy next door. It follows the years and struggles of their relationship, and the years of political chaos in a country struggling the decide what it wants for its future. It is such an intense picture of how a country copes with the aftermath of colonialism and how that history continues to impact so much of people's lives. While it focusses on the personal situation of the characters the political events sit in the background throughout.  This is the one that should have gotten a proper write up, so much stuff going on in the story



'The Bean Trees' by Barbara Kingsolver had been on the shelf for several years, picked out at random. It is the story of Taylor's escape from her claustrophobic home town, picking up a small child along the way, until she finds a random place and ends up staying there. It is just a lovely life affirming book, about people forming new bonds and building a life. It is about how community is built on mutual support and caring for those less fortunate. She leaves home not knowing what she is looking for, but has the wisdom to accept what comes and see the value of it. As always, thanks to Barbara for the sentences:

"The sun was setting, and most of the west-facing windows on the block reflected the fierce orange light as if the houses were on fire inside, but I could see plainly into Mattie's upstairs. A woman stood at the window. Her hair was threaded with white and fell loose around her shoulders, and she was folding a pair of men's trousers. She moved the flats of her hands slowly down each crease, as if folding these trousers were the only task ahead of her in life, and everything depended on getting it right." (p.119-120)


'Oranges are not the only Fruit' by Jeanette Winterson has sat on the shelf even longer. I had totally the wrong impression about this book. I assumed the rebellion was going to be against the religious upbringing, but she stays devoted to the church throughout, despite its rejection of her. Jeanette's religious devotion felt at odds with her growing sexual awakening, yet she seems perfectly able to reconcile the different viewpoints. She was just all round wonderful, thoughtful, assertive, forthright and morally certain; I could admire the way she stands up for herself even while disliking the upbringing she was getting. They really do eat oranges all the time. I thought the title was a metaphor. And again, she finds people who support her and works to build a different life for herself. Here she is chatting with the head teacher:

"'Well,' pressed Mrs Vole, 'I'm waiting.'
'I don't know,' I replied.
'And why, and this is perhaps more serious, do you terrorise, yes, terrorise, the other children?'
'I don't,' I protested.
'Then can you tell me why I had Mrs Spencer and Mrs Sparrow here this morning telling me how their children have nightmares?'
'I have nightmares too.'
'That's not the point. You have been talking about Hell to young minds.'
It was true. I couldn't deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident, and I gave her all my cough sweets afterwards.
'I'm very sorry,' I said, 'I thought it was interesting.'
Mrs Vole and Miss shook their heads.
'You'd better go,' said Mrs Vole. 'I shall be writing to your mother.' (p.41-2)


Whenever we go to Waterstones to browse I always end up in the poetry section, and I bought 'Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes' by Billy Collins, well, just because I love Bill Collins. The title poem is very subversive, but I found the four page meditation on the Victoria's Secret catalogue a little self indulgent. It has been bedtime reading for a week or two.





Sweet Talk
You are not the Mona Lisa
with that relentless look.
Or Venus borne forth over the froth
of waves on a pink half shell.
Or an odalisque by Delacroix,
veils lapping at your nakedness.

You are more like the sunlight 
of Edward Hopper,
especially when it slants
against the eastern side
of a white clapboard house
in the early hours of the morning,
with no figure standing
at a window in a violet bathrobe,
just the sunlight,
the columns of the front porch,
and the long shadows
they throw down
upon the dark green lawn, baby.


Making my way gradually through 'This is not a drill', a handbook of ideas and understanding the reality of the climate crisis. Get a copy if you want to be better informed about what is happening across the globe, and what people need to do about it. 
The election and the prospect of another Tory government has driven me to bury my head in the sand somewhat, but I did go out last week with some people from 'Stitch Up' in Chorlton to do some flyposting for the Labour Behind the Label campaign. 

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