Saturday 25 September 2010

Two More Books

I don't want you all to think I have been slacking, having not posted much recently, especially on the book front. I have had several things on the go at once, and to be honest spent too much time just blog browsing. I am doing well with War and Peace, up to page 50 (maybe a little behind schedule) but am following the story and wondering if it is going to irritate me too much. It has something of Jane Austen about it, all upper class polite society and social manners, though the men are much less well behaved.

Anyway I have finished two over the last couple of days; firstly Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler. I went through a bit of an Anne Tyler phase a few years ago and read many of her books but this one is a little different from others I have read. She is very much a character writer, her books frequently being small stories about ordinary people, set in small town America, but also very much about communities. This book is a community too, but on a very small scale, one living inside a single house. The house in question is a boarding house, owned at the outset by Mrs Pauling, who's daughters Amanda and Laura have just arrived for her funeral. The book centres however around Jeremy, their slightly odd brother, artist and agoraphobe. The book's chapters are told from the perspective of different people in the story; Amanda, Jeremy, Mary, Miss Vinton and Olivia. Only Jeremy's are told in third person, from the outside watching him rather than giving his version of events.

So, the middle-aged Jeremy's isolated and self-contained existence is thrown into confusion by his mother's death and the arrival of Mary and her daughter, with whom he becomes besotted. It reminded me strongly of a book I read a couple of years ago call 'Send in the Idiots' by Kamran Nazeer which is about autism, and in it he described the process by which autistic people have to quite literally learn how to behave in social situations, because they do not pick up on social cues or often really understand what is going on, so they learn to play a role. Jeremy is forced to do this because he wants to get to know Mary, and the process of being around others and communicating with them is so alien to him. So begins a most peculiar relationship that we follow through the next decade of children and domesticity. The book is all about the atmosphere of the house and different people's perception of it, but mainly about Jeremy, who's focus on things is so intense he seems to hear everything at once, and you come to appreciate why he has to try and shut it all out:

"For the first time that morning he listened to what was going on downstairs, sorting out the separate noises from the steady hum that was present all day long. Someone was playing a Sesame Street record and someone else was running the blender at high speed - Olivia, no doubt, fixing one of her peculiar meals of seed-paste patties or fresh-ground peanut butter. The blender ran at the level of scream, on and on, spitting when it came upon nuts as yet unbroken. A child was crying, but not very seriously. He could not hear Mary anywhere. What time was it? He looked at the clock on the windowsill but it had run down, long ago. It occurred to him that he had not bathed or shaved or changed his clothes in days. He had a musty yellow smell and his teeth seemed to be made of flannel. Well, when he had finished cutting the tin he would take care of all that. He would come downstairs newly washed and freshly dressed, and locate Mary among all those jumbled voices. He pictured himself descending into the noise as he would enter the sea - proceeding steadily with his hands lifted and his mouth set, submerging first his feet and then his legs and then his entire body, last of all his head."

But of course he would rather not deal with the outside world, or think about anything except his work, which absorbs him totally, so Mary packs up and leaves. Jeremy is forced to think about what is really important and to confront his worst fears, but I was left with the message at the end that perhaps you cannot really break free from your own true nature. I love Anne Tyler's writing, it is quiet and lyrical without being pretentious and she really engages you closely in her character's lives. She won the Pulitzer prize for 'Breathing Lessons' and is certainly a writer worth trying, this one was a very enjoyable read.

'The Behaviour of Moths' by Poppy Adams is at the other end of the spectrum. While Anne Tyler is a well respected and experienced author Poppy Adams is a newcomer, this novel shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award. It is described on the back as a gothic tale, which was strange because I didn't find it very dark, even the climax of the story.

It is the story of Virginia and Vivien, sisters, and their parents who live in a Victorian mansion in Dorset. Their mother is a bit of a social bee but their father studies moths and is a typical slightly scatty, reclusive scientist. The book happens over the course of a weekend when the elderly Ginny's isolated life (can we see a theme here:-) is disrupted by the reappearance of her sister. As she tiptoes uncertainly around her sister and watches her breezy comings and goings from behind the curtains she tells snippets of their childhood and family life, their expulsion from private school and Vivien's subsequent escape to London.

Then the story begins to get complicated. Ginny becomes apprentice to their father Clive and joins him in his research full time. Their mother Maud takes to drinking and also takes to abusing Ginny, who thinks that she is doing the best thing to hide what is happening and protect the rest of the family from the truth of Maud's decline. She then dies falling down the cellar steps and Clive decides to retire and books himself into a home. Running alongside these events is the arrival of Arthur, Vivien's boyfriend and then husband. Because of a childhood accident she is unable to have children and she asks Ginny to bear a child for her. The consequences of this request and resulting pregnancy echo down over the years and become the cause of the final showdown, when the bonds of sisterly affection are tested to the limits.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It has been my 'breakfast table' book for over a month and at times the book was far too slow, you could see she was building the atmosphere and while it was incredibly well researched, at times I found all the details about moths rather tedious. There was obviously an extended metaphor going on through the entire story, though I was not entirely sure what it was; metamorphosis perhaps? What I did like was the description of how a pupa becomes like primordial soup before it transforms into a moth, that was amazing, I assumed the caterpillar grew in some way into another creature rather than dissolving and being recreated. I was not surprised by the ending, which was a pity, nor did I feel like I really understood Ginny, although the story is told by her, her motivations remained a mystery. Like Jeremy above she lived her own little isolated life, with her own narrow concerns, never really getting to grips with the outside world. Give it a go if you like trying new writers and you want something with a bit of intrigue.

Friday 17 September 2010

Outdoor poetry and all that

I was going to write a post about our weekend in Cornwall, but I've had a somewhat hectic week and Dunk beat me to it, so you can pop over here to his blog and read his post instead; there is a youtube clip and links to some of the performers we saw as part of the September Festival in St Ives. It was a wonderful eclectic mix of performance poetry, folk and rock music all taking place in Norway Square, a dozen square yards of walled garden squashed between the jumbled houses, where the performers battled interruptions from a passing ambulance, a persistent car alarm and a circling helicopter. All good fun, and certainly a temptation to return and stay longer another time, they have a literature festival in the spring.

Friday 10 September 2010

Some thoughts on the news

Interesting as always debate on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 about the American preacher planning to burn copies of the Quran. It is always very disturbing to hear of such things as they inevitably bring to mind the fascists in Germany in the 1930's. And there is also this interesting article in The Guardian today about the long history of the symbolism of burning books. It brings some strange attitudes out of the woodwork, people getting all worked up about freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate your rejection of some idea in this manner. Why I find it so disturbing is because it implies a wish to destroy an idea or way of thinking, taken to the extreme it would imply a destruction of all books containing these ideas in an attempt to eradicate them. I'm not one of the 'books are sacred' brigade, by all means recycle them when they get past their useful life (like the out-of-date computer software guides on the bookshelf I'm currently surveying) but burning is a definite no no, I mean it's adding to your carbon footprint for a start.

On a more positive note there has been some guerilla poetry going on. Another article reports an artist who has been putting 'advertising' signs, or 'Roadside Haiku', around his city as a commentary on modern life.

I also discovered via the Guardian that David Almond has just published a book called 'My Name is Mina', about the home educated character who appears in Skellig. It is great to see a well respected author writing about and raising the issue of alternative views of learning, even if he does see Mina as some kind of special case, not suited to school. Anyway I will reserve judgement, read it and see how he presents her experiences.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Joining a read-along

Apparently today is Leo Tolstoy's 182nd birthday and over at Dove Grey Reader there is a read-along starting today of War and Peace, which, in a fit of naive enthusiasm, I have decided to join. This is not as ambitious as it initially sounds as we will be taking an entire year to read the book, which averages to just short of four pages a day. It is the sheer number of people in the book that is far more intimidating, though DGR has quite helpfully designed a bookmark with all the main characters listed to help you keep track.
So anyway, I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Woman in Black

The other of Susan Hill's books that I have read this year, 'Howard's End is on the Landing', has been probably one of my favourites so far, and it's not even a novel. My daughter M read 'The Woman in Black' at school and really enjoyed it so it had been on the list for a while. This book is very much reading outside my comfort zone because it is a ghost story, and I do not like being scared, ask anyone, I am a complete wuss, hid behind the sofa for Dr Who when I was a child, but this book was worth being scared.

Our narrator begins his tale with a little background information about his life and then sets out for us a warm and comfortable scene of his family around the fire at Christmas and his teenage step-sons telling ghost stories. His own emotional outburst on being asked to contribute a story is definitely out of character as he relates to the reader, but not his family, the reasons why, and vows to finally put on paper the story of his experiences at Eel Marsh House. The whole book reads somewhat like a 'film noir', starting at some 'future' point and then flashing back to the past to tell the story. The narrators voice is very strong and his view and his thoughts are the only ones that you have. This adds to the mystery as none of the other characters give him any information, only their scared expressions, hints and warnings which add to the tension of the tale.

The date is not specified but it seems to be set in Victorian/Edwardian times, there are steam trains and people still travel by horse and cart. Mr Kipps is a solicitor and is sent north to attend the funeral and to deal with the papers of a Mrs Drablow, who had lived in a lonely isolated house. The locals are distinctly evasive on the subject of this woman and her house, and reluctant to discuss anything about her. Only Mr Daily, who he meets on the train, offers any help or advice. At the funeral he sees a woman dressed in black, who's appearance causes great distress to Mr Jerome, the local solicitor, but who refuses to talk further. Kipps then travels out to Eel Marsh House to begin the task of sorting out papers. While at the house he sees the woman again and after dark hears strange noises in the house and then hears what sounds like some travellers being drowned in the marshes that surround the house. He is frightened but then in the cold light of day rationalises his experiences and accompanied by a little dog (given as companionship by Mr Daily) returns to the house to continue his task. The following night he discovers the source of the mysterious noises and also some letters that begin to explain the background to what happened in the house, the story of a young woman, a baby adopted and her fight to regain him. But the worst is yet to come.

I don't want to spoil the story as I want people to read it. It's very short, 150 pages, you could read it in one sitting. The book is all about the story. In some ways the characters are a little cliched, the educated gentleman telling the story, the polite but uninformative pub landlord, the jovial local landowner, the gang of silent children and the surly retainer who drives the pony and trap. What was so good about the book was the way Susan Hill builds up the tension in the story. There are a series of small incidents, and after each one Kipps calms down and talks himself out of being scared. So you get tension and then relaxation, and then tension again, and along with him you rationalise the events. It is pure ghost story. There is no attempt to 'make it turn out ok in the end' or provide an explanation. I kept expecting something else to happen, like for this outsider, Mr Kipps, to solve the mystery, but he doesn't. He is an unwilling participant just like the local community. This is malevolent supernatural forces at work. You don't have to believe in ghosts to enjoy the story, you do have to just accept the events as they unfold and not try to impose rationality on them. I actually enjoyed the process of being frightened by it. An excellent story, read it.

Like some really bad horror film ...

I am getting a bit of deja vu here as we took the same photo this time last year when Jacob departed for the far north. This time Tish left for the near north. Uni is not really starting for a fortnight but she had her new home all sorted and wanted the chance to settle in and find a job and get to know the neighbourhood.
We were sat in the car and about to leave when Tish made a joke about the boxes at her feet that contained the snakes, it says 'Keep Frozen', when the words reminded us that we had forgotten their food ... the frozen mice! So we jumped out again and packed them up with an ice pack.
However we were an hour up the road when the real drama started ... she looked down at the boxes again and shrieked that Trixie had escaped. So there we are, on the hard shoulder of the motorway, Tish in hysterics, the car packed to the roof ... and a loose snake somewhere in it. I got out and looked under the bonnet of the car, fervently hoping that it had not managed to find it's way into the engine (and more than likely died!). We had some debate about whether it might have got out before even being put in the car and should we turn round and go home. Then Tish peered again into the gap above the footwell and caught sight of a bit of snake. She had headed, of course, for the warmth, and had got behind the carpet and up inside the moulding between the glove compartment and the engine.
In a way it broke the tension, the worst had happened so nothing else could go wrong ... and it didn't. The room was nice as we remembered, the housemates are nice, we bought boxes for under the bed and stocked her food cupboard, had a lovely dinner at the Ridley Birks and then she stayed up half the night with the new housemates chatting and shooting stuff with her (toy) crossbow. I wish I was going off to uni:-)

Friday 3 September 2010

Work Perk of the Week: THE Election

So I opened a mailing from the Communication Workers Union when I came home from work today and found the smiling face of Ed Balls, who's candidature for the Labour Party leadership election they are sponsoring, causing me to recoil in horror and seriously debate leaving the union. However on looking further I discovered to my delight that it also contained a ballot paper for said election. So I get to have my own little influence on the potential future leader of the country. I found it very interesting, and somewhat hypocritical (and therefore not necessarily unexpected, they are politicians after all), that the Labour Party uses a Single Transferable Vote system for the election of it's leaders, something that they are not prepared to accept for the election of members of our parliament.
Ten minutes later I have read the ballot paper more closely, and it asks me to tick a box to indicate that "I support the policies and principles of the Labour Party, and am not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it and pay a political subscription to the body that issued this ballot paper."
Suddenly it has got a whole lot more complicated, so I had to go looking for these 'principles' that they want me to support. So Dunk found the 'Rule Book' which contains these words of wisdom on the values of the Labour Party:

Clause 4 - Aims and Values

1 The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few; where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

2 To these ends we work for:

(a) a dynamic economy, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs and the opportunity for all to work and prosper with a thriving private sector and high-quality public services where those undertakings essential to the common good are either owned by the public or accountable to them

(b) a just society, which judges its strength by the condition of the weak as much as the strong, provides security against fear, and justice at work; which nurtures families, promotes equality of opportunity, and delivers people from the tyranny of poverty, prejudice and the abuse of power

(c) an open democracy, in which government is held to account by the people, decisions are taken as far as practicable by the communities they affect and where fundamental human rights are guaranteed

(d) a healthy environment, which we protect, enhance and hold in trust for future generations.

3 Labour is committed to the defence and security of the British people and to co-operating in European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection for all.

4 Labour shall work in pursuit of these aims with trade unions and co-operative societies and also with voluntary organisations, consumer groups and other representative bodies.

5 On the basis of these principles, Labour seeks the trust of the people to govern.

My feeling is that it is vague enough with nothing objectionable or outside my own political attitudes, and they are not asking for a lifelong commitment to voting Labour, but something still troubles my political conscience ... so ... I will give it some more thought ... and take opinions on the subject in the comments box ... What would you do?