Monday, 27 September 2021

Autumn books

"he found himself here in a world that had no meaning for him, meaning being a thing human beings constructed out of familiarity, out of what scraps they possessed of the known, like a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing. Meaning was the frame human beings placed around the chaos of being to give it shape" (p.193)

I felt ambivalent about 'Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights' by Salman Rushdie (though the front page of his website is an interesting collage of images). In it the world is invaded by strange forces and even stranger beings, and Geronimo Manezes, a perfectly ordinary bloke, finds he has the fate of the world in his hands. The human beings are just powerless victims of the jinni that have arrived, but the jinni are just all powerful destroyers with no particular aim in mind and little to distinguish between them. It makes numerous references to 1001 Nights and I kept expecting tales to emerge during the story, but it just turned into a battle for the world, with a somewhat predictable ending. Faintly unsatisfying. Sometimes I dislike a book when you get the feeling that the writer is trying too hard to be clever, but this is Salman Rushdie; I just was unconvinced by the fairyland thing and the motivations of pretty much everyone. Sorry.

I ordered 'Pandemonium' by Andrew McMillan after reading a Guardian review. They manage to be both clever with words and images, creating allusions to more abstract thought and emotion, and also about something real. That's a hard thing to pull off in my opinion. Really liked this one, from the section entitled Knotweed:

how many evenings have I thought the garden done
walked out and seen fresh clumps of weed mithering
the dirt    some people cannot tell the difference
between what should be there and not    I'm one of them
ignorant   till one thing overgrows another
or gets choked    there is always something needing
to be tended  a small salvage down in the muck
I've grown to think if I go out at night
I might catch them at it   but the soil lays still
beneath the harvest moon that is the size
of your sadness   and growing   waxing   until
its whole face peers over at our house   pockmarked skin
like a ploughed field picked clean of all its crops
still   you will not come outside

It seems like the library has mostly done away with actual audiobooks, what with the downloading thing that everyone likes to do, but I found this one, when I went searching for this book (probably another Guardian review). 'Doppler' by Erlend Loe is about a bloke (lot of them about) who begins to question everything about his life, and so walks away into the forest and abandons everything and everyone. He kills an elk (to eat, not for the fun of it) and is then adopted by it's orphaned calf. They have a nice contented, quiet life together, pilfering from unguarded houses and suchlike, until people begin to intrude back into his life. It is quite surreal and made me laugh out loud, which is not something that reading has done for me in a while. He talks to and about the elk as if it were a friend, it's a nice relationship. I totally get where he was coming from when he tries to steal a giant toblerone. You can't help but admire his single minded pursuit of avoiding the world, but somehow keeps drawing it to him. The unabashed thievery is refreshing. An unlikely hero for our time. Highly recommended.

'An Island' by Karen Jennings was serious reading, longlisted for the Booker this year. I see she is South African but the book feels like it has been translated from something east european. The country is unspecified but has a troubled and chequered political history. Samuel lives as a lighthouse keeper, but mostly it emerges because an extended prison stay has left him unable to function around people. He looks after his chickens and grows some vegetables and once a fortnight the boat brings him some supplies. A man washes up on the shore, alive rather than dead like most of the flotsam, and over the course of the following days an uneasy relationship develops between the two, who cannot understand each other. We learn the story of the rest of Samuel's life; as a young man he joined a political organisation opposed to the government. He was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, then ostracised by the other prisoners when they suspected him of collaborating. He is eventually released after 25 years but understands little of what has passed in the world outside. You begin to understand the suspicion he feels towards the man. 
"There had been thirty-two of these washed-up corpses during the twenty-three years that he had been lighthouse keeper. All thirty-two nameless, unclaimed. In the beginning, when the government was new, crisp with promises, when all was still chaos, and the dead and missing of a quarter of a century under dictatorial rule were being sought, Samuel had reported the bodies. The first time officials had come out, with clipboards and a dozen body bags, combing the island for shallow graves, for remains lodged between boulders, for bones and teeth that has become part of the gravelly sand.
'You understand,' the woman in charge had said, as she looked down at a scuff mark on her patent-leather heels, 'we have made promises. We must find all those who suffered under the Dictator so that we can move forward, nationally. In a field outside the capital, my colleague found a grave of at least fifty bodied. Another colleague discovered the remains of seven people who had been hanged from trees in the forest. They were still hanging, you understand, all this time later. Who knows how many we will find here? I am certain it will be many. This is an idea dumping ground.' " (p.5)

The story gradually builds up the tension between the two men. At first Samuel is sympathetic, the man is afraid when the supply boat comes and Samuel hides him, but later he feels threatened as the man tells him something he cannot understand but with a finger across the throat gesture that seems unambiguous. His feelings of weakness and impotence are made worse by memories of his youth when he participated in an unsuccessful protest and was unable to kill a soldier in a fight. He feels the security of his life on the island is threatened, he thinks the man wants to take it all from him, he is old and fears he can do nothing to prevent it. Things are bought to a head when another body washes up. I liked this quote, it is as if the island has become a microcosm for his country, that he is trying to protect, the man becomes like the Dictator in his mind. The trauma he has experienced is both personal and national, but all he has left in his life now is the island:

"It seemed a hundred years since he had last been here. A century within which he had trebled, quadrupled in age. He was older now, very old; older than any man had ever been. His body was in pain, as were his bones. His mind hurt to think of anything other than home and bed. He could capture nothing, everything had become intangible, a dream. There was no man on the island. There was no one but himself. He was alone.
He caught hold of the man again in his mind, forced himself to remember him. The threat of him. Would he be able to avoid death for a fortnight, keep alive until the supply boat returned, then flee to the jetty, beg to be let on board, hurrying them to start the motor, to go, to make haste? The island, the tower, the cottage, the wall, and his vegetables. All of it would be left behind, to be taken over and ruled by this other man. The smotherweed would be allowed to grow wild. It would cover the buildings, the garden, the land. The stone perimeter would collapse as the sea moved in, carving away the island, making away with it, until nothing remained.
He could not allow that to happen. He would not give up his land; he would not leave; he would never leave. The land was his always." (p.146)

An excellent read, thoroughly absorbing, and frightening, and troubling, so yes, I had a lot of reactions to it. 

Stay safe. Be kind. It's Banned Books Week, enjoy a banned book.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

September strawberries

I have been away for a spell. The garden has survived without me; some new things pop up, and old things continue to delight. The wild strawberries continue to produce.
The honeysuckle flowers on:
as does the campanula:
The evening primrose produces more buds just when you think it has all finished:
and despite cutting the growth back we still have a few left on the violas:
Half a dozen cosmos plants produced one tiny flower, but I came home to find it had tried again:
We had pretty much given up on the red hot poker; I cut it back last autumn as instructed and all summer it has looked leafy but no buds, but suddenly it decided it would flower after all:
And the sedum, which has rather taken over the space, has also finally bloomed:
I drove down to Devon in a hire car, which was most fortunate because I had rather a lot of plants to bring back with me:
I ordered a crab apple tree from Chris Bowers and it arrived too, but I think the spring blossom will make a better photo.
Stay safe. Be kind. Have more plants than space to plant them.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Holiday joys

Yesterday Dunk and I went to Strines, who's claim to fame is to be the home of 'The Railway Children' (linking to the film there, having never read the book but the 1970 film with Jenny Agutter is one of my most favourite). We walked up the lane to the Peak Forest canal and along the Goyt to New Mills, where we had a lovely lunch at the Clockwork CafĂ©. We then walked in a loop back to Strines station, where the revised timetable meant we had to wait an hour and 40 minutes for a train home.
I did appreciate the local council's no-beating-about-the-bush attitude to littering:
This morning Royal Mail bought me some books from Bookshop, including a couple for Ady. I read about 'If you come to earth' by Sophie Blackall on Brainpickings, and it's so nice when things are as beautiful when they arrive as you anticipate. She's a bit young for it still so will keep for a birthday or so:
Talking of anticipation: Julie and I finally went back to the Tea Hive for lunch. We went last March, they day before the first lockdown, and had 'Eggs Tea Hive'. I have been thinking about them ever since (that's bagel with avocado, bacon, mushrooms, eggs and hollandaise):
Stay safe. Be kind. Antici ... ... ... pation😋

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Post 5 - Assembly

'Assembly' by Natasha Brown (who does not have her own website) is a very concise, tightly written book, there is no waffling going on here, documenting, from the inside of her head, what it is like to be a black woman. She is a superficially successful black woman, financially secure, making progress in her career, but racism is still there, infused in her everyday existence, reminding her who she is. She is obliged by the company to give talks to schools, to parade herself as a role model, something to aspire to, when she know it's all fake. She knows she's acting a part, but can't seem to stop herself. She feels very aware of how she has to become someone else in order to be acceptable. She has been fed the line about working harder and being better and aspiring to more, and as she begins to move up she questions if it is worth it. There are the two parts to her life, the one at work and the one with her upper class boyfriend, and they impact in ways both different, and the same.

At work:

"But it's there. Dread. Every day is an opportunity to fuck up. Every decision, every meeting, every report. There's no success, only the temporary aversion of failure. Dread. From the buzz and jingle of my alarm until I finally get back to sleep. Dread. Weighing cold in my gut, winding up around my oesophagus, seizing my throat. Dread. I lie stretched out on the couch or on my bed or just supine on the floor. Dread. I repeat the day over, interrogate it for errors or missteps or - anything. Dread, dread, dread, dread. Anything at all could be the thing that fucks everything up. I know it. That truth reverberates in my chest, a thumping bass line. Dread, dread, it's choking me. Dread." (p.28)

But with the boyfriend:

"But what it takes to get there isn't what you need once you've arrived.
A difficult realization, and a harder actualization.
I understand what this weekend means. Pulling back the curtain, he's invited me to the chambers beyond. It's not acceptance, not yet. It's just a step further, closer. I must learn to navigate it. Through him, and Rach, I study this cultural capital. I learn what I'm meant to do. How I'm meant to live. What I'm supposed to enjoy. I watch, I emulate. It takes practice. And an understanding of what's out of reach. What I can't pull off.
Born here, parents born here, always lived here - still, never from here. Their culture becomes parody on my body." (p.50)

It's a hard book to read because it is bringing out the infinite subtleties of how endemic racism is in our culture, that this one person's experience is symptomatic of millions of experiences, and why the lie of assimilation is so awful, because whatever she does it will not be enough. Here she talks about the anniversary party for the boyfriend's parents that they have come to attend:

"I will be watched, that's the price of admission. They'll want to see my reactions to their abundance: polite restraint, concealed outrage, and a base, desirous hunger beneath. I must play this part with a veneer of new-millennial-money coolness; serving up savage witticisms alongside the hors d'oevres. It's a fictionalization of who I am, but my engagement transforms the fiction into truth. My thoughts, my ideas - even my identity - can only exist as a response to the partygoers' words and actions. Articulated along the perimeter of their form. Reinforcing both their selfhood, and its centrality to mine. How else can they be certain of who they are, and what they aren't? Delineation requires a sharp, black outline." (p.68-9)

"Is it true that his family's wealth today was funded in part by that bought freedom; the loan my taxes paid off? Yes. And he is an individual and I am an individual and neither of us were there, were responsible for the actions of our historical selves? Yes. Yet, he lives off the capital returns, while I work to pay off the interest? Yes. But, here I am now, walking through the fruits of it; land he owns, history he cherishes; the familiar grounding, soil, bricks and trees stretching metres high; the sense of belonging, of safety, of being home. He has that here, always, to return to? Yes. Sleeping this morning, did he look renewed? Yes. Yes, of course. He is home." (p.93)

I belong in this country and take it utterly for granted. She talks in places about colonialism and the ongoing impact it has on the world, and it is so huge. And I don't know what needs to be done. 

Stay safe. Be kind. Think about what needs to change.

Post 4 - Little Fires

'Little Fires Everywhere' by Celeste Ng was another trawled book. Monkey and I had listened to 'Everything I Never Told You' on audio book at some point and enjoyed it so her name felt familiar. There was something a little contrived about the hippy-types-arrive-and-disrupt-conventional-family story line but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Why are American families in stories the same; there are always four children, they are always 'the jock', 'the pretty one', 'the geek' and 'the outcast'. Mia and Pearl arrive in one of those towns where everyone likes things just the way they are, and they have been this way for more generations than anyone cares to remember, and they frown ever so gently and patronisingly at people who aren't like them. Mrs Richardson thinks of herself as a liberal minded person and so offers Mia a job, as well as renting her their 'little rental house on Winslow Road'. Mia has a somewhat shadowy past, as a result of which they move around a lot, but this time she has promised Pearl they will settle down. Each family member in turn (excepting Mr Richardson I realise, who barely gets a mention) becomes drawn in by the promise of something different. However Mia's subtle intervention in the potential adoption of an abandoned baby causes Mrs Richardson to dig around in her past. The book opens and closes with the house on fire, so you know that conflagration is inevitable (and a nice little allusion in this quote too I just realised), but the question become who and why? And the hypocrisy of course, they look, they judge, they make assumptions, but there are no lengths they will not go to to protect their little corner of America. Why should anyone get to do what they want, and what, after all, does make a good mother?:

"And here was Mia, causing poor Linda such trauma, as if she hadn't been through enough, as if Mia were any kind of example of how to mother. Dragging her fatherless child from place to place, scraping by on menial jobs, justifying it by insisting to herself - by insisting to everyone - she was making Art. Probing other people's business with her grimy hands. Stirring up trouble. Heedlessly throwing sparks. Mrs Richardson seethed, and deep inside her, the hot speck of fury that had been carefully banked within her burst into flame. Mia did whatever she wanted, Mrs Richardson thought, and what would result? Heartbreak for her oldest friend. Chaos for everyone. You can't just do what you want, she thought. Why should Mia get to, when no one else did?
It was only this loyalty to the McCulloughs, she would tell herself, the desire to see justice for her oldest friend, that led her to step over the line at last: as soon as she could get away, she would take a trip to Pennsylvania and visit Mia's parents. She would find out, once and for all, who this woman was." (p185-6)

Stay safe. Be kind. Cause some chaos.

Post 3 - The Children Act

I love Ian McEwan (particularly Black Dogs from 2017) so readily picked out 'The Children Act' when we trawled the other week (and am very curious to see the film now too). In it Fiona and Jack's marriage is on the line, as is the life of a young man, and both are in Fiona's hands. She is a high court judge. I was a bit hesitant at first but it was fascinating (and presumably incredibly well researched) to see the inside of such a job, the inside of the legal world that is so hidden. Fiona must make a decision concerning medical treatment for Adam, who, as a Jehovah's Witness, is refusing a blood transfusion, with the support of his parents. What I enjoyed was watching her decision making process, all the things she took into consideration, all the things she learned about along the way. And then there was this contrast of Fiona in her private life, where she is so uncertain and acts impulsively. I loved it for the complexity and ambiguity of the character. It is everything you want from literary fiction, real people, moral dilemma and genuine human emotion. And then there are consequences to her decisions, both good and not so good, and that is real too, because in life there are consequences, often unforeseen. 
Quote, (but I was not convinced that a high court judge would be obliged to drink bad coffee in a plastic cup from a machine):

"On a furious impulse, she pulled out her phone, scrolled through the numbers to their locksmith on the Gray's Inn Road, gave her four-digit PIN, then instruction for a change of lock. Of course, madam, right away. They held details of the existing lock. New keys to be delivered to the Strand today and nowhere else. Then, proceeding rapidly, hot plastic cup in her free hand, fearful of changing her mind, she called the Deputy Director of Estates, a gruff good-natured fellow, to let him know to expect a locksmith. So, she was bad, and feeling good about being bad. There must be a price for leaving her and here it was, to be in exile, a supplicant to his previous life. She would not permit him the luxury of two addresses.
Coming back along the corridor with her cup, she was already wondering at her ridiculous transgression, obstructing her husband from rightful access, one of the clichés of marital breakdown, one that an instructing solicitor would advise a client - generally the wife - against in the absence of a court order. A professional life spent above the affray, advising then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide." (p.48-9)

Also this one, when she goes to the hospital to talk directly to Adam:
"As he said this, looking at her directly, with no particular challenge in his voice, she believed him completely, he and his parents, the congregation and the elders knew what was right for them. She felt unpleasantly light-headed, emptied out, all meaning gone. The blasphemous notion came to her that it didn't much matter either way whether the boy lived or died. Everything would be much the same. Profound sorrow, bitter regret perhaps, fond memories, then life would plunge on and all three would mean less and less as those who loved him aged and died, until they meant nothing at all. Religions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a  great distance, none obviously higher, more important, truer than another. What was to judge?" (p.112)

Stay safe. Be kind. Read some Ian McEwan.

Post 2 - three women

One of the few books I was obliged to read at school that I **hated** was 'Three Men in a Boat' by Jerome K Jerome. Three profoundly annoying and stupid men and a really unpleasant dog. Then I read a review of 'Three Women and a Boat' by Anne Youngson (who coincidentally was interviewed in the Guardian yesterday). It reminded me very much of 'The Keeper of Lost Things' from 2018, not because of the story but because it is a lovely-cup-of-tea book. Everyone is nice and immediately bond and form lifelong friendships and crotchety old women are all soft and vulnerable underneath but everyone is devoted to them even though they are mean and demanding and take everyone for granted. And of course it makes you want to go and live on a house boat, which part of me has always thought would be a lovely life. 

So Eve, who has just been sacked, and Sally, who has just left her husband, meet on a tow path and rescue a 'trapped' dog. As a result of the chaos they find themselves agreeing to take a narrowboat to be repaired while its owner, the crotchety Anastasia, goes into hospital.

I liked it because it felt like a suspension of 'real life'; the canals are a world unto themselves, somehow apart from everything, and slow, so slow. And the slowing down has an effect on the characters. I think I liked Sally because she just dives in and loves everything about her new existence, but I also like this quote because of 'Chipper', because anyone would think it was the 1950s, nobody ever uses the word chipper now:

"She stood up, ready to throttle back as she approached a bridge and moored boats. 'Thrupp', said a sign on the wharf. Sally added this to 'clutter' as another word she liked the taste of and would never have spoken, even to herself, before. When she reached Yardley Gobion (was she creating these names from the depth of her happiness, or had they always existed?) Eve was waiting for her. A bit red in the face, a bit damp and muddy.
'I hit a bump,' she said, climbing aboard as Sally slid the Number One into the side. 'And fell off.'
'Are you all right?'
'Chipper. I bounce, or so it seems.' " (p.103)

Other quote from the end. Chatting to my friend Julie the other day by text, about her wanting to quit her job and do something else and I asked her what she wanted from a job and she said she wanted to feel competent at something, and here we have Sally, feeling competent, and how important that can be:

"Owen did talk to passers by, but briefly, and never diverting his attention from the state of the lock. He did have ways of doing things that were a bit different to the ways that Anastasia had taught Eve and Sally, but Sally felt safe. She relaxed; she drove the boat perfectly, in full control. If Owen was watching out for her, checking to make sure she did not need any help, it was not obvious. And she no longer had to be responsible for Noah. The dog had been ecstatic at Owen's arrival, which Owen reciprocated by informing him that he was an atrocious dog, possibly good for only one thing, but no one had worked out what that one thing was. after this, for as long as Owen was with them, Noah ignored Sally, much as he had done when Eve was on the boat. She'd been demoted to fourth place in his affections.
After the first eight of the flight of fifteen, they swapped over. Sally strode ahead and engaged in the usual conversations with other boaters - Where have you come from? Where are you headed? Have you heard there are problems on the Llangollen locks? Do you know where the next water point is? Isn't it a lovely day? ... The inexperienced boaters were always keen to share their lack of experience. Listening to a woman from Wolverhampton explaining her total inability to grasp how a lock worked, Sally remembered that she had done this, too, that first week. Apologised for being useless. She had never felt less like apologising or less useless in her life than now, working her way down the Audlem flight." (p.268)

Stay safe. Be kind. Feel competent.


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