Monday 29 March 2010


The first thing that comes into my mind when you mention rope bridges is the one that appears so dramatically in the film 'The Man Who Would be King', and the scene at the end where Sean Connery plunges to his death. It is exactly the kind of bridge that is described in 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey' by Thornton Wilder (a novel that won the author a Pulitzer Prize in 1928), it is based on a real Inca bridge that was still in use in the 19th century, and the book pursues the stories of the five travellers who also plunge to their deaths when the bridge gives way as they are crossing.

The opening part tells us of this terrible accident, and the impact it had on the people of Peru, and most crucially on Brother Juniper, the only witness to the event, and his determination to find some meaning in the apparently random loss of life. He is determined to bring some science to religion and so prove that God acts in the world; right from the outset he has in his mind the outcome he desires from his research (I'm pretty sure that's unscientific) but in the end the church burns him as a heretic, along with his book.

The Marquesa de Montemayor and her servant Pepita are the first story. The Marquesa, Dona Maria, spends her life mourning the loss of her daughter, who is not dead, but who failed to return the adoration she feels and accepted a marriage proposal that would take her as far from her mother as she could go. Dona Maria writes endless letters to her daughter, seeking some sign of the love she craves, allowing her own existence to become meaningless. Pepita has been placed as her companion by MadreMaria del Pilar, the Abbess at the convent that raised her.

Esteban is another of MadreMaria del Pilar's orphans, who is suffering inconsolably following the death of his twin brother Manuel. In her attempts to protect him from his own misery she arranges for Captain Alvarado to offer him employment, an agreement which leads to his crossing the bridge at the fateful moment. He is linked to the other travellers because his brother had been in love with a certain actress called Camila Perichole, protégée and mother respectively to the final two unfortunate travellers.

Uncle Pio is returning to Lima with Jaime, whom he has undertaken to protect and educate, following his mother's withdrawal from a society that she has worked so hard to integrate into. He is the most enigmatic of the characters having led a somewhat dissolute life, his protective relationship with the Perichole is his saving grace, he mentors her acting and promotes her career, until she decides she wants to leave behind this disreputable profession and seek social acceptability. Despite the rift between them he determines to save her son Jaime from isolation after she is scarred by smallpox and retreats from the city.

It is really the closing part that draws together the aftermath of the accident, focussing on the people left behind. The Abbess is visited by Dona Clara, the daughter of the Marquesa, who's rejection had caused her so much suffering, seeking, it seems, some kind of redeption for her behaviour. The Abbess suffers her own sense of loss, for she had hoped to mould Pepita in her own image, to continue her work with the poor and the desperate of Lima after her death. She is also visited by Camila Perichole, inconsolable from the death of her son and the removal of her two daughters to school in Spain, again seeking to make some sense of what has happened. But I was left with the feeling that some consolation comes from these new bonds and that positive changes could result.

The writing reminded me very much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; maybe it's just something about Latin America and the way of life there, the formal way in which people are named, and the historical setting, it made me think of 'Love in the Time of Cholera'. It is the lovely quiet little details about the people and their setting that really make the book, give you a sense of them being real. But the book is really about the meaning of life. It is a philosophical reflection on whether life and death can be meaningful. Not just from a religious point of view, but in the general sense of whether there is purpose in the choices we make and the lives we lead, when it can all disappear to abruptly, unforeseen. I liked it because it did not try and give any answers, but just told the stories of the people who die and the convoluted ways their lives are interconnected and interdependent. The book is about these bonds between people, and how important they are to the meaning of life. All of the characters in the story had stong bonds with the others that affected their lives in powerful ways: Esteban's bond with his twin was so strong that his life became unbearable without him. His devotion to Manuel is shown most poignantly in his reaction to the love affair with Camila and then Manuel's injury and infection that led to his death. Dona Maria's devotion to her daughter simply dominates her life, but her love demands so much in return that the girl's only defense is to run away. Uncle Pio, so selfish for the most part, is equally devoted to Camila, unable to stay away even when she banishes him from her home. Pepita becomes strangely devoted to Dona Maria, in spite of really being a very lonely and confused young girl. I ended up feeling that really the Abbess, MadreMaria del Pilar, was the central character of the book. Her devotion to the poor, unloved and unwanted people is the ultimate example of selfish selflessness. She is afraid that no one can take on her role because no one will have quite the same level of commitment and devotion, how can she trust anyone to do the job properly. Then she finds Pepita, and works to instill in her all the atributes and virtues she feels are necessary. And then Pepita is taken from her, and she finally realises that there is only herself and she must do what she can in her life and not concern herself with what might happen after.
I'm not sure I have really managed to get across the subtleties of this tale but I hope it might interest some out there. Another very short book (120 pages), and one that will give a great deal of food for thought.

Saturday 27 March 2010

Introduction to Poetry

'Short and Sweet - 101 very short poems' edited by Simon Armitage

For some reason I started out reading the introduction to this little book, rather than just flicking casually through and reading at random, as is mostly the case with poetry books. I am beginning to wonder if maybe poets have arranged their books with much care, and that you are supposed to read them in the prescribed order, that there is something subtle to be gained from doing so that I am missing out on. This collection is arranged by size, so if read in one sitting, you get a slight sense of acceleration as they get shorter and shorter and you turn the pages more swiftly (though some you might pause at and read again), until the final one, which is title but no actual poem: 'On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him' by Don Paterson.

Simon Armitage (who's very thought provoking introduction makes me want to read his poems) talks about the nature of words, how they were precious when literacy was less common, and how in the digital age mass communication and intrusive advertising seems to have devalued words. He comments on how it is short poems that stay in the mind, being easier to remember and hence "more successful" (assuming success in poetry equates with people recognising it), whereas longer poems are taken as being serious, as if length is important to make you mark. But he does not necessarily agree:

"And yet the short poem, at its best, brings about an almost instantaneous surge of both understanding and sensation unavailable elsewhere; its effect should not be underestimated and its design not confused with convenience." (p. xi)

He goes on to define 'short' so that readers can see the parameters that have defined his selection. The sonnet, at 14 lines he decides has stepped over the mark of brevity, being structurally defined, and so he begins at 13 lines. Then he says something very helpful about poetry in general that in definitely worth quoting:

"As far as I can tell, there are two kids of poets: those who want to tell stories and sing songs, and those who want to work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poems."

I just loved this way of expressing the subtlety, "the chemical equation for language". Then he goes on to define a poem, also helpful:

"a poem is a poem when its context declares it: e.g. here is a group of words that appears alongside other poems, in a book with the word poetry in its title, edited by a poet, published by a press famous for publishing poetry: it is a poem."

It reminds me of the assertion that 'art' is art if it is made by an 'artist'. I liked him even more when he declared that he would resist the sensed obligation to include some haiku, so you really get the feeling that he has chosen these poems out of liking and respect, not because of reputation or just because they fit the category.

I decided to quote two contributions. Now much as I love D.H. Lawrence's 'Piano' I will resist the temptation to quote it, I'm sure you can read it online somewhere. Instead from among the 'longer' ones I chose one that I did not know but was hauntingly poignant, 'Second Marriage' by Stanley Cook:

The sky stopped crying and in a sudden smile
Of childish sunshine the rain steams on the roofs;
Widow who has married widower
Poses outside the Registry for photographs.

Their grown up children are there
And damp confetti like a burst from a bag
Accumulated from a morning's marriage
Is second hand for them against the door.

In the wood of the world where neither of them is lost
They take each other by the hand politely;
Borrowers going to and from the Library
Passing through the group as if it were a ghost.

And from the other, more brief, end of the book. Again I resisted Carol Ann Duffy's 'Mrs Darwin' (and 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner', as I didn't want two poignant ones), and picked out instead 'An Expedition' by Peter Didsbury:

Down to the end of the garden in the night
With cigarette and glass of ice-cold milk.
I pick my way over heaps of builders' rubble
Light from the new kitchen window comes along too.

And if you pop over to Dunk's blog he has been experimenting with a new camera in the dark, and click on the first photo (this will enlarge it), it accompanies this poem quite nicely (though he never drinks milk:-).

Friday 26 March 2010

The Driver's Seat

'The Driver's Seat' by Muriel Spark has got to be one of the most disturbing books I have read since Shirley Jackson's 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle'. I have been keen to read something else by her since I read 'Not to Disturb' back in December and this has been on the pile for a few weeks now.

The introduction to the book talks at length about the strength of Muriel Spark's novel openings, how they grab the reader with questions about the characters and circumstances of the story, and this is certainly true of The Driver's Seat. In the first sentence we find a woman buying a new dress, but her adverse reaction to the innocuous comments of the salesgirl leads you to realise within a few lines that there is something very wrong with this woman. We are told about her working life, and shown a picture of her stifled and highly controlled home, and you try to cut her a little slack, put her strange behaviour down to stress, but her actions become more and more bizarre as the story progresses.

Lise is taking a holiday, her first in quite some time. She buys an outrageous outfit, flamboyant to the point of garish, packs her things with just a hint of OCD, and goes off to catch her flight. When she is just described doing things when alone you could see that perhaps she is somewhat stressed, and possibly a little eccentric, but it is when she comes into contact with other people that her behaviour takes a turn for the worse. You think to begin with that she is trying to make an impression, pretending at the airport to be a seasoned traveller, and then engaging her neighbours in conversation on the plane, about things which are plainly invented. With each encounter it is as if she becomes a different person, from the flight attendants, to the concierge at the hotel, the shop assistants, the taxi driver, and, of course, poor unsuspecting Mrs Fiedke. Each one gets a different tale; she almost seems to relish the enjoyment of creating a new story for herself, going to unnecessary lengths to explain her thoughts and actions to people.

The reader is told right out that this is a kind of murder mystery in reverse. We are informed that the outcome of this holiday is that Lise will be found dead the following morning. What we are doing is observing the build up to the event. There are frequent mentions of how small characters that Lise encounters during the course of the day will recite to the police their part in the events in question. Let me tell you this does not detract from the book in any way. You are just constantly wondering why and how things are going to evolve. Each individual action or event is so innocuous, there are no 'bad' characters and even Lise' crazy behaviour seems on the surface to be totally harmless.

She seems to be searching for a man. She tells Mrs Fiedke that he is her boyfriend, and that she is expecting to meet him, but she does not know where. She keeps talking to the most unsavoury of men, and then announcing categorically that they are 'not her type'. She spends the day shopping with Mrs Fiedke, starting with a taxi journey where Lise stuffs her passport down the back of the taxi seat, telling her she is leaving it there for safe keeping. It is the first hint that she does not plan to be needing it again. She proceeds to buy a selection of random items, and then wanders off, losing interest when her companion fails to emerge from the toilets. They get caught up in some kind of student riot that has got out of hand, and become separated again. At this point the real downward spiral begins, as if with the approach of evening Lise becomes desperate to put her plan into action. Eventually she encounters Mrs Fiedke's nephew back at the hotel, fresh out of prison, with already well established problems, and, as if he is powerless to resist her compelling personality, he becomes the linchpin in her disturbing scheme.

Muriel Spark is certainly a very well thought of author, who writes in a very distinctive and unique style. At just over 100 pages ('Not to Disturb' was also very brief) this could be an intriguing novel for anyone interested in going a little off the beaten track.

I have just read, over at Verity's Virago Adventure about The Lost Man Booker Prize, and interestingly 'The Driver's Seat' is on the shortlist, having been published in 1970. I have not read any of the others so voted for it. Nice to see them asking the public for their opinion for a change.

Monday 22 March 2010


The Peachgrowers Almanac by Elaine Di Rollo

What a wonderful book. That's got to be the only word for it. When I picked this up at the library I had no recollection of ordering it at all, though I must have done, so thank you to whoever might have written about it somewhere and brought it to my attention. I didn't write down any artful quotations to demonstrate the subtlety of the writing, because it's not like that. The story totally carries this book, and the picture on the front lets you know that it is really going to be a swash buckling adventure (no pirates, but I couldn't come up with a better expression). And although somewhat in the background it turns out that the cultivation of peaches is vital to the tale.

Alice and Lilian are twins, divided by circumstances beyond their control. The trouble is that, since it is set in the victorian era, most things are beyond their control. This story is, to a certain extent, a commentary on the position of women in victorian times, most particularly society's (i.e. men's) views on the sexuality of women and what was considered correct/feminine behaviour. At the start of the tale Alice is living in the company of a variety of aged aunts and her grandmother, taking care of her eccentric father's huge collection of interesting and educational objects, many of which seem to have been purchased after the end of the Great Exhibition. He is a retired successful businessman, and his interests and passions seem to vary from day to day and almost from moment to moment, constantly trying to keep up with the scientific advances and new inventions. Alice spends her time dusting and cataloging, caring for plants in the hot-house and strangely filling the small bowls of water under the feet of the furniture (I think it keeps in ants away).

Lilian, now on the other side of the world, has been married off to an awful minister and gone to spread christianity to the heathens of India. She relishes the challenges of this new and alien environment, whilst he suffers every illness and insect, the heat and the dust, and rather swiftly dies of tetanus. Lilian is left with the expat community, who judge most harshly her interest and assimilation into the local culture. And then someone from her past turns up unexpectedly, and he can't resist trying to pick up where they left off.

Back home meanwhile Alice has struck up a friendship with, Mr Blake, a young photographer who has come to record her father's collection. Her intelligence and intellectual curiosity, which had been encouraged and even fostered by her father up till now, has suddenly come under the scrutiny of a Mr Cattermole, a new friend of her father. Her previous contact with him, involving the cover up of her sister's 'disgrace', was not something she will quickly forget. He considers that her intellect is damaging her 'femininity' and causing mental health problems resulting in changes to her sexuality, which require horrific medical intervention. His attitudes were apparently commonplace at the time, and it can only be the tip of the iceberg of what treatment was meted out to women over the years in the name of 'science'. Another of the many reasons to be grateful for feminism in all it's forms.

In the end these two spunky and resourceful women overcome the obstacles that threaten to confine their lives (with the assistance of the thoroughly underestimated aunties) and stride confidently into a new future.
A really great fun read, but with quite a serious political edge to it, and some interesting stuff about colonialism too. Mr Blake redeems himself but not enough to merit abandoning each other and their lust for freedom.

Saturday 20 March 2010

Still Hungry (spoiler warning)

I will put up with a bland background for a while to restore order, and reconsider my options, hopefully the comments facility will go back to working properly now.

Here we have the second book in the 'Hunger Games' Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, called 'Catching Fire'.

It is going to be really difficult to write anything about this book without spoiling but I will try not to give too much away.

I kind of spoiled the first one a little for myself because I looked up the second book on Amazon and saw that Peeta was in it along with Katniss, so that I knew he didn't die in the first book. This took the anxiety out of the climax of the story, M said she kept thinking they were going to kill him at the last minute. This second book starts in the aftermath of their victory. It turns out that the watching audience has been stirred up by Katniss' subversion of the rules of the game and her apparent rebellion against the power of the Capitol. And the image of the Mockingjay that she wore as her token has become a symbol of the resistance. In the months that follow political unrest sweeps some districts and a clampdown in District 12 swiftly follows. Katniss is rather too taken up with her own confused feelings for Gale and Peeta to realise quite how important she has become, until on one of her hunting trips she journeys to a lake she had visited with her father and discovers two escaped rebels from District 8 who open her eyes somewhat to the wider situation. But the year turns and by a cruel twist of the rules Katniss and Peeta find themselves returned to the arena for a second year. In this book you get to know more of the competitors as a group of them form an alliance for strength and protection. In spite of the scenario there is much more humour in this book, though frequently rather ironic, but it made us laugh (M read much of the book with me, having read it twice already, because she wanted to be able to discuss the plot as we went along). I was concerned that it was going to be a bit repetitive but actually it is a very clever mechanism to develop the story line, using the second games, and the new characters she introduces to drop hints about the political situation and the potential rebellion. There are lots of twists and turns and you don't know who to trust and what is really going on until the very end. We were left with a terrible cliff-hanger and have to wait till AUGUST (156 days!) for 'Mockingjay', the final instalment.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

bear with me

Hi dear readers, I became bored with the appearance of my blog and foolishly decided to fiddle, but am now thinking it is not the best thing, this craving for change can have it's down sides because now I find I have no 'new post' or even 'sign in' buttons at the top of the page. Maybe I should just go back to my book(s), this is what comes of getting all cocky and thinking I am now techno-chick. So please don't hurry off thinking you have arrived at the wrong blog ... order will be restored forthwith.
Instead I will send you here to Siren Voices (I am so thick I only just spotted how neat the title is) which I discovered yesterday. An ambulance man, with the most subtle ability to capture the scary and intimate moments he encounters in people's lives.
And here to Total Feckin' Eejit's Poetry Bus, and lots of interesting contributions on the subject of Stella.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Hungry for more

I kept reading about this book, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, on blogs I have been visiting over the last few months, and in an attempt to lift Tish out of an 'I can't concentrate long enough to read anything' slump I requested it from the library. It has been a great success!

Tish picked it up, must have been Monday, because she took it with us when we went to the cinema and tried to read in the car. She was all finished probably by Wednesday and M took over and finished it by Thursday (5 am she tells me), and was already jumping up and down and telling me I had to read it. Now I resisted this insistence when they were in their 'Twilight' phase, I don't like vampires much, am very squeamish, but this time I gave in. I started with a little taster at bedtime on Friday, and then took it in to work Saturday morning (when I have half an hour to kill) and sat till after 1am this morning to finish it. This included a trip out yesterday afternoon. I had requested the second book, 'Catching Fire', but people were getting impatient. Tish had tried our local bookshop with no success, so we eventually drove over to Jaffé and Neale's in Chipping Norton. Unfortunately they did not have a copy so we had to go to WHS over the road, but then went back and I browsed their poetry section for a while and came away with 'Answering Back' edited by Carol Ann Duffy, which consists of poets selecting a poem and then writing their own response to it, which seems like a wonderful idea, so watch this space. And we had World Book Day tokens so I bought M a copy of 'The Harsh Cry of the Heron' by Lian Hearn, the last book in the 'Across the Nightingale Floor' series that she has loved.

(Spoiler warning)
So, to the book. A really nasty post apocalyptic dystopia, basically a slave society, set in the far future, but in what is left of America. The country is divided up into a series of 'districts' controlled by a 'Capitol', and most of them kept in grinding poverty to maintain a lavish lifestyle for those in charge. The authoritarianism is not the worst of it. In order to reinforce the 'divide and rule' situation each year they hold 'The Hunger Games', where 'tributes' of one girl and one boy are sent from each district to fight it out to the death in a specially prepared and controlled arena. And it is all compulsory viewing for the rest of them.

It is told in a first person narrative, so you kind of know Katniss is not going to get killed, but that does not lessen the tension of the story. It is written very fast paced, but with enough pauses for breath that you can relax for a moment. The first few chapters set the scene, describing her family background, how she lives and survives, and keeps her family alive, and her friendship with Gale. Then she takes her sister Prim's place when she is selected for the games, and she gets on the rollercoaster ride that must be ridden to the very end. The games have something of Big Brother about them as the contestants are first brushed and polished and dressed up for the entertainment of the audience, who can choose to 'sponsor' the contestants, providing them with gifts to help them survive. Then they are thrown in to the arena and must pits their skills and their wits against people much more brutal and just as determined.

Katniss is an excellent heroine, tough and resourceful, but believably so because of her history. Peeta is the boy from her district and it turns out she already has a bond with him, and he with her. The other participants are more vague, many die within moments, and what happens to them is peripheral to Katniss' struggle for survival. Then the rules are changed, apparently allowing the two district tributes to work together, and so Katniss goes in search of Peeta, saving his life as he once saved hers.

There were moments when I was irritated by 'inventions' that seemed out of place in the environment that the author had created, but on the whole this was a very satisfying read, and I am in the queue for the next one.

Saturday 13 March 2010

The Gathering

The Gathering by Anne Enright was the Booker Prize winner in 2007. I picked it up slightly at random in the library and then persuaded my little book group that it would make an interesting read. The reviews on the back include the words 'eloquent and powerful', 'tender and subtle', 'dark and lyrical', and I think I would have to agree with all of them. This has been probably the most beautifully written book I have read in some time. It almost leaves me not knowing where to start because there is so much to say.

Veronica (an ugly name, and she agrees) appears to be the only one of her many, many siblings who still lives near her family home. This is probably why she ends up taking responsibility for arranging her brother's funeral. I think that her physical proximity is quite telling. She is the one who can't seem to escape from the past, is haunted by half remembered memories and struggles to make sense of her family's tangled history, most especially that of her grandmother Ada. So, her brother Liam is dead, suicide by drowning, at Brighton, and it is Veronica who bears the brunt of this event, dealing with the practicalities but failing to cope with the loss. As her brothers and sisters gather from their disparate lives and converge on the house their elderly mother still occupies, Veronica tells us the background of her relationship with Liam, and the deeper history of Ada and Charlie and the strangely ever-present Lamb Nugent.

So she rambles through her life story, intermittently inventing the story about her grandparents, part of her attempt to get to grips with all the unspoken parts. The only person left to ask is her mother, and she doesn't want to talk. She and her brother were only eleven months apart in age and as such shared their childhood experiences very closely, but she knows once they get away to university together that Liam is headed down a road that she does not want to follow. So she marries and has two daughters, and supports her husband as he struggles to establish his own business, but is left feeling somewhat peripheral to her own existence. The book is as much about Veronica's life as about Liam's death, and the breakdown of her marriage. Liam's death exacerbates her sense that she let him down, and in telling her story she is trying to understand what went wrong, and in the telling to make amends.

I am going to just string some quotes together, which I jotted down as I read, that captured for me something about the family, their relationships, and the absolute beauty of the writing:

Veronica's reaction to her mother's initial grief:
"She would cry the same for Ivor, less for Mossie, more for Ernest, and inconsolably, as we all would, for the lovely Jem. She would cry no matter what son he was. It occurs to me that we have got something wrong here, because I am the one who has lost something that can not be replaced. She has plenty more."

Reflecting on the nature of love, part of the imagined first meeting between Ada and Nugent:
"There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty, have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given us to love and they all stick."

Leaving to go to Brighton to collect Liam's body:
"There is something wonderful about death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important."

Describing her husband Tom:
"He is very clear sighted about the world, and yet he questions himself, constantly. He pushes himself hard, and is rarely satisfied. He is completely selfish, in other words, but in the poshest possible way. I look at him, a big, sexy streak of misery, with his face stuck in a glass of obscure Scotch, as he traces the watermark of failure that runs through his life, that is there on every page."

After Ada's funeral, the instruction to 'take what you like' the girls fight over her trinkets:
"Kitty always needed things more than you did, Bea always deserved them more, while poor Midge - well, Midge always refused everything until she was persuaded to grab the lot. So I left the house with a howl of regret for all that I had been denied, though there was nothing there I actually wanted .... I did not know how to want what she left behind, I wanted out of there, that was all. I wanted a larger life."

Thinking of Ada, doing the dishes:
"I think of her when I do the dishes. Of course I have a dishwasher, so if I ever have to cry, it is not into the sink, quietly like Ada. The sink was her place for this. Facing out of the back of the house, something about the endless potatoes that needed peeling, or the paltriness of the yard, but, like all women maybe, Ada occasionally had a little sniffle and then plink, plink, a few tears would hit the water in the sink. Like all women Ada would have to wipe her nose on her forearm because her hands were wet."

She and Kitty revisit the site the cemetery of the mental hospital, an unexplained trip taken with Ada during their time with her:
"There are no markers, no separate graves. I wonder how many people were slung into the dirt in this field and realise, too late, that the place is boiling with corpses, the ground is knit out of their tangled bones.
I look back, helpless at Kitty in the front seat of the car.
They have me by the thighs. I am gripped at the thighs by whatever feeling this is. A vague wind. It clutches at me, skitters between my clothes and my skin. It lifts every hair. It grazes my lip and is gone."

The feeling that she can now look back and understand something about Liam that was beyond her when they were children:
"Now I know that the look in Liam's eye was the look of someone who knows they are alone. Because the world will never know what has happened to you, and what you carry around as a result of it. Even you sister - your saviour in a way, the girl who stands in the light of the hall - even she does not hold or remember the ting she saw. Because, by that stage, I think I had forgotten it entirely."

At the wake, with all the siblings gathered to keep company with Liam's body:
"Here it comes. Ita has been drinking so long she has been made sober by it, and slow, and violent. She has some terrible revelation to make and I wonder what it will be. You never told me I was beautiful. Or something worse: You stole my best hairband in 1973 (I did actually). Family sins and family wounds, the endless pricking of something we find hard to name. None of it important, just the usual, You ruined my life, or What about me? because with the Hegartys a declaration of unhappiness is always a declaration of blame."

I have not read much 'Irish' writing, possibly because I find catholicism a bit tedious, and basically I think Irish writers cannot escape having a catholic thread running through whatever they write, it is so pervasive in the culture. (Am happy to be corrected here with good suggestions for Irish authors.) I think I didn't mind the catholic aspect because it was not 'religious' in this book. There was not really any talk of God or anything, it was more to do with the whole guilt thing, and the way it affects attitudes to sex in particular. The story is mostly about family bonds, how we try and escape them, but how they make us what we are. Anne Enright creates such wonderful atmosphere for all the different eras she evokes, from the 20's through to the present day, reflecting on both the changes of history and the immutable aspects of life and relationships. But it is a book mostly about grief, and it is good because you grieve along with Veronica, for her blue eyed brother, and the promise of a life wasted.

Friday 12 March 2010

ipods and Johnny Depp

I spent yesterday afternoon putting CDs on to the laptop to load them on to my *new* ipod. I think I may be a convert. I have, up to now, not really seen the appeal; all these people walking along, oblivious to what is around them, plugged in to their MP3 machines. But today I really enjoyed having this little purple pod in my pocket, being able to have music as I delivered. This is my entire music collection, about 15 CDs, so plenty of room for all the other fun stuff that the ipod can do, like taking videos and recording voice notes.

Anyway, we went to see Alice in Wonderland on Tuesday and I was not that impressed. Some idiot (the screenwriter) took Lewis Carroll's poem Jabberwocky and turned it into the plot for a film. It was a very flimsy plot, and Johnny was the saving grace of the film (not that we're prejudiced in our house). The girls both hated Anne Hathaway but loved Helena Bonham Carter. The writer had plainly either not read the poem or not even tried to understand it. In a way it is the perfect poem, because you create the meaning for it inside your own head. It has an obvious story line, wonderful rhythm and rhyme, and even though so much of the vocabulary is invented it flows off the tongue beautifully when you read aloud. It is interesting to find that some of the words Carroll created for this poem are now in the dictionary and in common usage. I always thought 'galumphing' was a real word, use it all the time. But in the film the references to 'vorpal sword' and 'frabjous day' becomes 'Vorpal Sword' and 'Frabjous Day' (with capital letters), a thing and a day both with a purpose, not the mere adjectives that they are in the poem. It just all irritated me, sorry. Was all very pretty so go anyway if you like that kind of thing. Here's the poem, which is much better than the film.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree.
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came wiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Granny Smith (a work related rant)

I had an unusual birthday at the weekend, including a surprise party, with cake and balloons and everything. I got to spread the occasion over two days as we went to Julie's for Saturday (Tish had a 'visit day' at MMU to meet her tutors and all that jazz) where we had the cake, and then came home first thing on Sunday and had more presents then, plus a nice chat with Lewis, even though it was a pure coincidence that he called:-) So I had a fabulous collection of pressies, which, when you get to my age, you no longer anticipate.

Julie bought me a copy of 'Dear Granny Smith: A letter from your postman', a neat little book that sums up very readably what has been going on in Royal Mail for the last 30 years. It is very frustrating that the media often presents such an over simplified version of what is going on, like the recent agreement reported by the bbc, which focusses on the money, and Christopher Hope at the Telegraph doing the usual hatchet job (and not to even mention the Dispatches fiasco) So it's nice to see a book, which seems to have been quite well received, telling the other side of the story. To be fair it is not a real story, the supposed writer is a bit of a caricature of everything about being a postie, but he is trying to show the reader what the job is about, how the system works and how it has changed over the years. What the book does well is highlight for customers of Royal Mail (and means everyone) how the managerial style has changed, away from an emphasis on the 'public service' aspect of the company, towards a business model that talks in terms of profits and losses, and sees the sending customer as the important part of the equation rather than those on the receiving end. In a way the most important point he makes is that management never come into contact with the public, and so don't see how important that part of our job is. What marks out Royal Mail from other businesses is the the Universal Service Obligation (USO), we have binding legal responsibilities towards our customers that ordinary companies don't. Although the next few years are going to see a lot of changes, we have had rumours about an 8am-4pm day, and machines that will strip full time jobs from the company, I think there is a long term future for a universal postal service. The thing I didn't like about the book is the nostalgia, I get that a lot at work, from people who have been in the job for 15 years+. They go on about getting out on delivery a 7am, 'real' letters with stamps on them, the postmaster who kept all the young ones in line and an ongoing joke about someone making the bacon butties. It's like some idealised version of life as a postie in the 1950's, when life was in sepia and the summers were always sunny. I don't agree that it is all doom and gloom now. I see a good sense of camaraderie in our office, people do work well together. Posties still know their customers, still care about the community they are part of, everyone in our office lives local, most have lived here their entire lives. We do work hard for our money, we do work harder even than when I started 7 years ago. We did a revision and took 40 hours out of our office (on a promise of a share in the savings made, that has never materialised, the non-existent bonus is another running joke), but this is still a good job. Many people would kill for the terms and conditions that we take for granted. I don't object to the idea that I have to work the whole 40 hours that I get paid for, it seems fair. All those nostalgic posties who hanker for the 'good old days' when they went home at 11 o'clock leave me a bit irritated. I try very hard not to worry about the junk that goes through people's letter boxes, it is the presence of the junk that means that the birthday cards and personal letters get the decent service that people expect. I don't believe an e-card or an itunes voucher is ever going to completely replace the "Now you are 10" little boy with a football card and a nice crisp tenner folded inside.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Hmmm .... chocolate?

'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' by Muriel Barbery

I have waited some months for this and the library lady told me there are another seven people in the queue, so please give it priority. I can see why this book has developed such an enthusiastic following, there is nothing to dislike about this book; the setting and atmosphere are beautifully portrayed and the characters genuine and engaging. I am left feeling as if enough has already been written about this book in so many places. The Guardian loved it, The Telegraph was less keen, almost dismissive in parts, accusing it of being over simplistic, and The New York Times has more of a tendency to pick apart the philosophy.

So we have this story, about two people, living parallel lives, each aware of the other's existence, but not really knowing them. They are identified unusually by the use of different typefaces for their respective chapters. It feels a little as if the book, and the characters of Renée and Paloma are merely vehicles for the philosophical discussions and reflections. Renée is a middle aged concierge, trapped by her own perceptions of her social role and position, an autodidact who pursues in secret her own passions for art, music and literature, particularly Tolstoy. So fearful of the scorn of others she keeps up an elaborate charade of being the subservient, ignorant person she feels society expects her to be. Paloma is at the other extreme. The daughter of a politician she feels equally trapped by the confines of a predetermined role that she will be obliged to play out, and has plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, seeing it as the only escape and unable to imagine life offering enough inducements to remain alive. Their quiet existence is disrupted by the death of one of the residents, who's apartment is then bought by a curious elderly Japanese gentleman. Mr Ozu's arrival opens new doors for them all in unexpected ways.

They are linked by a shared passion for language, it's use and peculiarities, an interest that borders on the obsessive neurotic at times. (Sorry, going to slip now into the first of a few lengthy quotes) Here Renée has received a note from one of the residents:

"I was not prepared for such an underhand attack. I collapse in shock on the nearest chair. I even begin to wonder if I am not going mad. does this have the same effect on you, when this sort of thing happens?
Let me explain:
The cat is sleeping.
You've just read a harmless little sentence, and it has not caused you any pain or sudden fits of suffering, has it? Fair enough.
Now read agin:
The cat, is sleeping.
Let me repeat it, so that there is no cause for ambiguity:
The cat comma is sleeping.
The cat, is sleeping.
Would you be so kind as, to sign for.
On the one hand we have an example of a prodigious use of the comma that takes great liberties with language, as said commas have been inserted quite unnecessarily, but to great effect:
'I have been much blamed, both for war, and for peace ...'
And on the other hand, we have this dribbling scribbling on vellum, courtesy of Sabine Pallieres, this comma slicing the sentence in half with all the trenchancy of a knife blade." (p.105)

This is precisely what is so appealing about her character, you are allowed, even encouraged, to indulge in frequent bouts of intellectual snobbery, as you share with her the horror she experiences at the ignorance and lack of refinement of her supposedly well educated upper class residents.

Reading that the author is a philosophy professor and lives in Japan you can see that on one level this novel is pure self indulgence. She writes about, in these character's lives, all the things that interest her. There are lots of literary and film references, and Paloma and Renée's preexisting shared interest in japanese culture (manga and films respectively) ensures that Mr Ozu's arrival is guaranteed to intrigue them both. Taking into account the fact that I am reading a translation from the french Ms Barbery has a wonderful vocabulary, and knows how to use it. But it's not just the fancy words, it's the way she expresses things so beautifully. Some random (carefully chosen) examples:

"twenty years wasted stalking dust" (talking of her friend Manuela, the cleaner)
"From time to time I rewind, thanks to this secular rosary known as the remote control." (p.95)
"Goodbye, says Paloma, with her first, faint smile, a poor little out-of-pactice smile that breaks your heart." (p.241)
"Come in, I say without thinking, in the heat of the conversation.
Solange Josse looks in round the door.
All three of us look at her questioningly, as if we were guests at a banquet being disturbed by an ill-mannered servant." (p.262)

and the best one (a bit longer):

"To the chapter of my turpitudes I must now add the abduction of a dress that does not belong to me, in place of one stolen from a dead woman, by me. The evil is rooted, moreover, in the infinitesimal nature of my hesitation. If my vacillation had been the fruit of a sense of compunction linked to the concept of ownership, I might yet be able to implore St Peter's forgiveness; but i fear it is due to nothing more that the time needed to ensure the feasibility of my misdeed." (p.265, on deliberately acquiring the 'wrong' dress from the dry cleaners.)

On another tack altogether I got the feeling sometimes that I was reading Virginia Woolf. Firstly there is the whole slightly stream of consciousness thing, and most of the story is being written from the perspective of the inside of the character's heads. In several places Renée describes her own thought processes when she decides how to respond in conversation, when she is trying to conceal her true reaction to whatever has been said or asked of her. With Paloma it is less so, her chapters are more self obsessed, concerned with her own little world and how it conspires to make life horrible, quite a clichéd teenage neurosis really. But Renée frequently muses on more esoteric abstract emotions (here reflecting about a painting that she sees at Mr Ozu's apartment) :

"The seal of eternity ... What absent world does our heart intuit when we see these dishes and cups, these carpets and glasses? Beyond the frame of the painting there is, no doubt, the tumult and boredom of everyday life - itself an unceasing and futile pursuit, consumed by plans; but within the frame lies the plenitude of a suspended moment, stolen from time, rescued from human longing. Human longing! We cannot cease desiring, and this is our glory, and our doom. Desire! It carries us and crucifies us, delivers us every new day to a battlefield where, on the eve, the battle was lost; but in sunlight does it not look like a territory ripe for conquest, a place where - even though tomorrow we will die - we can build empires doomed to fade to dust, as if the knowledge we have of their imminent fall had absolutely no effect on our eagerness to build them now." (and so on for another page) (p.199)

Anyway, circumstances conspire to throw them together and a friendship grows up between them, and Mr Ozu has a profound, positive and enduring effect on both their lives. Just when I was beginning to think that the story itself was a little lame and predictable the finale completely threw me. The story is about both main characters trying to make some meaning in their lives, and although verging on the sentimental at the end I think it offers an uplifting reflection on the importance of friendship and a seeking for beauty.

So why the chocolate of the post title? This bit made me laugh out loud, so i have to quote it to you, even though it is kind of a private family joke. Dunk will probably use the comments to deny all knowledge, but this is exactly what he does to make me think he is listening (Paloma describing her mother's visits to her analyst):

"Personally I don't think she is taking the anti-depressants to ease her anxiety but rather to endure the analysis. When she describes her sessions, it's enough to make you want to bang your head against the wall. The guy says 'hmmm' at regular intervals, and repeats the end of her sentences ('And I went to Lenotre's with my mother': 'Hmmm, your mother?' 'I do so like chocolate': 'Hmmm, chocolate?')" (p.162)

I do try and resist hype usually, but this one was worth the wait. Do read it.

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Boris Pasternak

Over the last few months I have been reading 'Letters to Georgian Friends' by Boris Pasternak. It's not the kind of book that you can write a review of as such. It is quite simply a collection of letters, most of them to literary friends and poets in Georgia. Many of them are quite ordinary, sending greetings and good wishes, asking after their health and wellbeing, discussing domestic arrangements and holiday plans, but in quiet subtle ways I feel like I have had an intimate glimpse of the life of a great writer. I should own up to not having read Doctor Zhivago (his only full length novel), thought I do feel quite inspired to at some point. I guess this book dominated his reputation to such an extent that I was not even aware that poetry was the more significant part of his literary output.

His career covered the time from the revolution until his death in 1960, but this book includes letters from the early 30's, the time of his first visit to Georgia and his initial acquaintance with many of the Georgian poets who were to become significant friends. Surprisingly, in spite of his prominence, he was never subject to imprisonment or expulsion during the Stalinist years, a period when when literary figures, as well as political ones, were subject to both literary controls and arbitrary arrest and detention. He does seem to have adapted his writing somewhat in order to fit in with the 'Socialist Realism' that was approved by the Communist Party, though he became increasingly disenchanted with the regime. As time went on he supported himself mostly by translating rather than his own writing, which was subject to official hostility and frequent bans.

It was his friendships with Titsian Tabidze and Paolo Iashvili (both influential Georgian poets) that make this collection so interesting. In amongst the everyday there is the background of a horrific, repressive political regime. Tabidze was arrested and executed during the purges of 1936, though his wife and friends lived for many years with the hope of his imprisonment, not learning officially until 1955 that he had been executed within two months of arrest. Iashvili tried to save himself by renouncing his work and avowing loyalty to Stalin and the revolution but faced with being forced to denounce his friend he committed suicide. Many of the letters in the book are to Nina, Tabidze's wife, with whom Boris and his family remained in close contact for the rest of his life. The letters show how closely linked their literary world was, how people knew each other, worked together, Boris translating works for many of the Georgians to make them accessible to a wider russian audience. The endnotes give a brief biography of the people mentioned in the book, and could be an interesting starting point for an exploration of some pretty obscure poetry.

It is hard to pin down why I persevered with this book. Maybe it was the chat and personal anecdotes, although they were written long ago and far away, that showed life was pretty much the same for literary geniuses as it is for us mere mortals. The background details of his ordinary life make him so very real. I grew very fond of him, he was very self depreciating, unassuming, and a loyal devoted friend. He mostly signs himself "your Borya" and is always warm and affectionate. In spite of bouts of ill health and the worsening political situation he was very positive, sometimes almost naively so, and frequently expresses his gratitude for the life he had been privileged to lead:

"I am very satisfied with my life, with the chance of earning an honest living, and with the serenity of my state of mind. I have never considered myself in any way offended or passed over. If anyone thinks that to a detached observer I may appear to be a 'martyr', then let me say that, first, I am not responsible for anyone's crazy ideas or ridiculous fancies and secondly, it is sufficient that they who may be interested in such a theory should life the ban on my books and let me mount the rostrum and this 'semblance of martyrdom', which does not exist as far as I am concerned, will disappear by itself." (letter to Nina, 1950)