Wednesday 30 March 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue was shortlisted for the Booker last year, it didn't win but it was the one that raised a lot of interest, and the one that I read about and thought 'I *really* want to read that!' I am sure I was still about 17th on a waiting list of 35 for this book but it turned up at the library for me yesterday. I finished it this afternoon.

I am not sure how to write about this book because you really don't want to give any of the actual story away. It is the story of Ma and Jack and the Room that they live in. It is told by Jack. He is five. He describes the intricacies of their life together and it soon becomes apparent how they come to be in Room, and that this place is all that Jack has ever known. Their life is both utterly horrific and utterly normal. It is a story about the bond between mother and child, written by an author who obviously has real true empathy for the child's perspective as Jack is totally credible as a character and the voice of the story. The more I have thought about it since I finished reading the more I felt that it is not so much a story about their terrible situation as about children and how they understand the world. For Jack Room is his world. For him everything in Room is named with a capital letter; Table, Wardrobe, Mirror etc. When Ma talks these things do not have capital letters, because to her they are just things amongst so many other things. She is the only person in his world and everything he knows and understands is through her and he trusts her utterly. Jack has a certain precociousness considering the limiting environment but this does not make him less believable because his level of emotional maturity continually reminds you how young he is meant to be. Like most young children Jack has only a partial sense of himself as having a separate existence but the story is pitched just perfectly because he is just at the age where this understanding of 'separateness' starts to develop. Having spent many intensive years caring for my own young children his voice felt very authentic; the way he spoke, the kind of things he asked, the things that frightened or consoled him, the struggle to understand and make sense of the world around him.

"It's 12.13, so it can be lunch. My favourite bit of the prayer is the daily bread. I'm the boss of play but Ma is the boss of meals, like she doesn't let us have cereal for breakfast and lunch and dinner incase we'd get sick and anyway that would use it up too fast. When I was zero and one, Ma used to chop and chew up my food for me, but now I'got all my twenty teeth and I can gnash up anything. This lunch is tuna on crackers, my job is to roll back the lid of the can because Ma's wrist can't manage it.
I'm a bit jiggly so Ma says let's play Orchestra, where we run around seeing what noises we can bang out of things. I drum on Table and Ma goes knock knock on the legs of Bed, then floomf floomf on the pillows, I use a fork and spoon on Door ding ding and our toes go bam on Stove, but my favourite is stomping on the pedal of Trash because that pops his lid open with a bing." (p.16)

The style is very straightforward and almost simplistic, and from this quote, and after a few pages, you begin to worry that it is going to become monotonous, but if you persevere it becomes part of what holds your attention and draws you in, because Jack is a good story teller. There are no embellished descriptions, just things that happen, and his and Ma's reactions to them.

The story itself is engaging and I really needed to find out how things resolved, but in the end l felt it is a novel with two lessons, firstly it is about loss of innocence and growing up, that it is difficult whatever, and secondly that children's struggles to make sense of the world in the best way they can is mostly hampered by the 'assistance' of the adults around them, few adults really take the time to listen to what a child is trying to say. All in all quite a unique book. I have read several people say they could not finish it ... I could not put it down.

To explain what I mean I just wanted to quote a little example which will spoil the story. When Jack escapes and is trying to explain to the policewoman what happened she actually stops her own thoughts and really listens to him, and in doing so can work out the journey he has just taken in the truck and thus how to find where he came from:

" 'Jack,' she says, 'you told me you were supposed to jump out of the truck the first time it slowed down?'
'Yeah but I was still in Rug, then I unpeeled the banana but I wasn't scave enough.' I'm looking at Officer Oh and I'm talking at the same time. 'But after the third time stopping, the truck went wooooo -'
'It went what?'
'Like -' I show her. 'All a different way.'
'It turned'
'Yeah, and I got banged and he, Old Nick, he climbed out all mad and that's when I jumped.'
'Bingo.' Officer Oh claps her hands.
'Huh?' says the man police.
'Three stop signs and a turn. Left or right?' She waits. 'Never mind, great job, Jack' " (p.149)

Monday 28 March 2011

Work Perk of the Week: revision

No I don't mean the exam kind.
Work has had a few whinges recently what with the census forms, then the council tax bills, both times pushing the trolley out at 117 kg (only 12kg over the weight limit) and now the polling cards, and my knuckles getting shredded over the past few days and feeling very sorry for myself. Today however I arrived back in the office after a nice brisk morning to find people rearranging the frames (the photo, borrowed from an old BBC report, shows a sorting frame, it basically has lots of slots in which you sort the letters into delivery order. ) There has been some discussion about the 'revision' which will involve changing duties round and reallocating job ... and it finally means that I will get to learn something new!! Hurray. I have been sat doing the same duty for five months now and feel like I will never get to know the area and will never be any use to the office. My compensations for doing a repetitive job were always the variety that I got being a 'floater' and being a team leader, so I always knew what was going on and was involved in decision making about how the office was organised. These have been sorely missed since the move so I hope this is the start of things getting more interesting.

Sunday 27 March 2011

Chorlton Ees Litter Pick

I frequently spend my sundays being very lazy, blog browsing or lying in bed reading, but today, after filling in our census form, Dunk had suggested we go down and join in with a litter pick that was being organised down at Chorlton Ees by the Mersey Valley Countryside Wardens. I haven't been down there much since we moved back but it was somewhere we walked and played with the children regularly when they were young; one of Lewis' best birthday parties took place there. So we walked on down and were issued with gloves and plastic bags and sent off into the undergrowth.
I came across this plastic coat-hanger and was about to add it to the bag when I realised the little sapling, which was about 2-3 feet tall, was growing through it.
Mostly the process was a bit depressing to think of the distain with which so many people treat their environment but Dunk and I worked hard and felt very satisfied to fill seven bin bags between us. Chatting to a lady when we had finished she said they had found a safe, open and with no money, and that on a previous occasion she had found part of a pair of false teeth. I found a child's glove with little characters on the fingers that I put on the railings by the car park, and I came home with this lovely ceramic bird feeder, probably put up some years ago by the wardens but now lying empty and abandoned in the bushes.

Saturday 26 March 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

My mum and dad came up to visit last weekend and as we were headed to the Whitworth Art Gallery we stopped at a pavement book sale outside St Peter's and I picked up a copy of 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot. I had heard of it previously but read another review just the other day and was so pleased to find a copy. I started it over my cup of tea when we got home and have been gripped by it all week.

Where to start with such a book? The story begins and ends with Henrietta, who was a young black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, and while she was being treated a sample of the cells from her cancer were taken for research. Something about the virulent nature of her cancer meant that instead of dying, like most cell samples, hers continued to grow and the resulting cell culture has since spread and been used all over the world, in a million different ways, in a million different experiments, helping to test new drugs and treatments, having the biggest ever impact on the advancement of medical science by a single person. This book is not just her untold story, but the story of many other people besides, her family, the scientists involved and the author herself. It is also the story of medical research ethics and how it has changed, or not, and the impact the story has had on the debate into health care provision in the US.

The book is partly about Rebecca, her enduring fascination with Henrietta's story and her struggle to write the book. It took her ten years of research, of getting to know and earning the trust of Henrietta's family, and following up every aspect of the scientific impact of her cells. Obviously using reminiscences from her extended family she describes Henrietta's life, from early childhood, growing up on a tobacco plantation where her forebears had been slaves, her marriage to her cousin Day and her life with her growing family, up to the point where she falls ill with the cancer and dies. The story then follows the cells, known as 'HeLa' cells, an abbreviation of her names. The original sample was grown by George Gey a researcher at Johns Hopkins who immediately realised the potential uses for the cell culture and began sending samples to other scientists for their research. In a very short space of time HeLa cells are being used all over the world. In between the story of the cells is the story of Henrietta's children and the impact on them of discovering their mother's cells had been taken and were still 'alive'. Henrietta's young children, in spite of the presence of extended family, suffered extensive neglect and abuse at the hands of a woman who was supposed to be caring for them. The shining light of the story is Bobette, wife of their older brother Lawrence, who after several years rescues Deborah, Joe and Sonny and does her best to raise them and make their lives better. We are taken into a world that felt to me like another planet; poverty and deprivation like it is hard to imagine existing in the western world and ignorance and suspicion of anything outside their experience. They grew up in a time when segregation was normal and prejudice all pervasive. Their lack of education makes them fearful of the medical profession and Deborah particularly suffers because she imagines that her mother is experiencing the pain inflicted on her cells in all the experiments. Nobody bothers to explain anything to them and they become angry at how many companies have become rich from growing their mother's cells when their family cannot afford proper health care.

So the story weaves back and forth between the science and the family. The style is very journalistic and Rebecca stays very true to the reality of the events. She doesn't talk down when presenting the science but makes it very accessible for the ordinary reader. She doesn't try and pull any punches in her presentation of the family: as she quotes one family member in the opening page, "If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that's dishonest. It's taking away their lives, their experiences, and their selves." So you get a real sense of how and why Henrietta's family reacted and have come to an understanding of all that has happened. The book is also about her developing friendship with Deborah and her promise to help her find out about her older sister Elsie, sent to an institution some time before her birth, so in spite of her original intentions the story becomes so much more than a mere retelling of the life of Henrietta. Her 'afterword' takes the story further and discusses the implications of her research into this case. It has thrown up all sorts of issues surrounding 'informed consent' for research subjects and the ownership of tissue, and the need for the scientific/medical community to change it's attitudes towards the people who's tissue they use for research and who is really benefitting from tissue donations? It then also links into the issue of access to health care, something being hotly debated in the US at the moment.

I really have not done this book justice here as there is far more to say about it. It is a brilliant book. Well written, thoroughly researched and very readable, much more a human story than a popular science book, but packed with information and food for thought. A real eye-opener in more ways than one, allowing you to wonder at the miracle that is the HeLa cells at the same time as being drawn into the lives of the Lacks family.

Saturday 19 March 2011

Company of Liars

'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland. Another audiobook from the library that has held me captive over the last few days, waking up early to knit and listen (am on holiday for a few days), but it has left me distinctly dissatisfied. I had the feeling of being left slightly in the lurch on the final page, exacerbated by discovering on the author's website that a limited edition paperback contained a 'lost chapter' written in the voice of one of the characters, adding extra information about the tale. My audiobook did not have this chapter, nor did the copy I found on the library shelves and you have no way of knowing if any particular online second hand copy might have it. You would think that since it has been in print for a couple of years now she would have the decency to put it on her website for the benefit of other loyal readers who have enjoyed her books.

So the book is set in the 1300s as the Plague reaches England for the first time, and follows a disparate group of travellers who find themselves thrown together by chance, all of them with something they want to hide, but finding safety in numbers. Most of them make a living on the road, buying and selling or entertaining for their living, two musicians, a dealer in relics, a storyteller and a magician, excepting a young couple, expecting their first child, who are plainly not suited to the demands of medieval travel. And with them a young girl, marked out by her white hair and translucent skin, who reads runes and tells fortunes, and sits unassumingly in the background of their little band, watching and listening, searching for the chinks in everyone's armour. They begin travelling between fairs to earn money until the first rumours of the plague mean that they prefer to avoid contact with towns and try to fend for themselves, living off the land. They become more mutually dependent, sharing skills and resources. Their fear of the pursuing illness is intensified by the growing feeling that they are being hunted by a lone wolf that they hear howling at night near their camp. The scene is set for a gradual cranking up of the tension between the characters, they turn on each other and a series of horrific events overtake them but they seem set on a path that they cannot escape.

It is clever and fast paced and gives you just enough clues that you think you know what is going on. The background research is impressive and the historical detail convincing, the lives and concerns of ordinary people, the dominant role of the church in their existence. The ignorance and superstition that pervades the society is quite chilling. It all fits together very neatly and creates an enthralling atmosphere. The characters are all convincing and interesting; a little like the Canterbury Tales as they sit around their fire they all tell stories that give nothing direct away about themselves and yet with hindsight are very revealing. And yet it is almost because they are all hiding their own little secret that makes them more forgiving of the flaws of their travelling companions, but you do feel they are bound together by genuine friendship.

It was a good book, thoroughly engaging, but, without giving anything away, the ending left me with too much to be assumed or guessed at. I needed more explanation of what was driving the mystery, there was too much of a sense of these characters being the victims of random events, their 'lies' did not drive the story, did not seem to be integral to it. I think I will be making an ad hoc search for a copy with the lost chapter just to satisfy my curiosity, but I am put off reading her book 'The Owl Killers' because she has done the same thing again and I am not in the mood to be cheated twice.

Thursday 17 March 2011

The Accidental

I picked up 'The Accidental' by Ali Smith at a charity shop a few weeks ago. As you can clearly see in the photo the cover claims not only did it win the Whitbread and was Booker shortlisted but it also won the Orange Prize in 2006. I was sure it was not on my list, and on inspection I find that it was merely shortlisted, and hope that this cover will now becomes a collectors item having been published in haste and over eager anticipation of the announcement.

What a weird book. An inside view of what is really probably quite a normal family, with normal kind of hangups, who's lives are disrupted and altered, not necessarily for the better, by the arrival of the wild, bohemian Amber on the doorstep of their holiday cottage. I was left feeling, as I frequently am when people do stupid things, "why did no-one ask who she was and what she was doing there?" The parents, Eve and Michael, are being terribly polite and offer her dinner, and she just moves right in. 12 year old Astrid is delighted just to have a distraction from the tedium and Amber does the job of a slightly distracted older sister, alternately paying focussed attention and ignoring her. Magnus, a teenager with real troubles, is on the edge of the bath about to hang himself when he finds himself quite literally swept off his feet and then seduced by Amber. Michael is distantly infatuated and utterly rebuffed, in spite of being a serial seducer of his female students. Eve, a writer suffering from a crisis of confidence, seems strangely desperate for approval from her, constantly trying to impress and also failing. There is that slightly surreal atmosphere that you get on holiday, that this is not 'real life' for them, they are almost in suspended animation, out of their familiar environment, isolated, with only each other for company. Amber becomes their focus because it is too difficult to talk properly to each other. So the story hops from person to person, seeing each perspective, except Amber, who remains an enigma, making her all the more intriguing. She is like the catalyst that highlights all the flaws in their relationships, as if she is deliberately setting them up against each other. They all have their secrets and she is the one stirring it all up. She seems to find them all extremely tedious and is like some kind of superior being who deigns to bestow her gracious favours upon them and they should be duly grateful. In many ways she is not really a character, but a tool used by the author to upset everyone, to point out how vulnerable our lives are to the vagaries of chance.

What I found most vivid about the writing is her description of Magnus and the breakdown he is going through. He has been involved in an incident that resulted in a girl at school committing suicide. He has admitted it to no-one and the events go round and round his head, things replaying in a loop, it is as if he is looking in on himself from the outside. He is grasping the terrifying unforeseen consequences of his actions, consumed with horror at himself and unassuageable guilt. You get this sense of how fast his brain is working, and how his own thoughts are tormenting him, he repeats the phrase 'First they. They then. Then they. Then she' over and over mixed up with the other thoughts, knowing what he has done but hardly being able to say it to himself:

"He talks all about things. He talks as if they matter. He talks about calculus, about how plants grow or how insects reproduce or about what the inside of a frog's eye is like. He talks about films, computers, binaries. he talks about how holograms are produced. He himself is a hologram. He has been created by laser, lenses, optical holders, a special vibration-isolated optical table. He is the creation of coherent light. He is squeaking about it now. He says coherent light is well cool. He is quality. He contains all the necessary information about his shape, size, brightness. He is sickeningly excited about himself. He is quite dodgy really. He only seems to be dimensional. He is a three-dimensional reproduction of something not really there. He was never really there. Look at him. He's lucky. First of all, he doesn't exist. That's lucky. Second, he's so small. He could slip away under a door. He could slip away in a crack through a wood floor. Third, he's back then, before. The real Magnus is this, now, massive, unavoidable. The real Magnus is too much. He is all bulk, big as a beached whale, big as a floundering clumsy giant. He looks down at his past self squeaking, shining, clambering about on his own giant foot as if the foot is a mountain, an exciting experiment or adventure. Hologram boy has no idea what the foot belongs to. Hologram boy could never imagine such monstrous proportions. First they. They then. Then they. Then she." (p.37-8)

There were some slightly surreal passages, almost random words, I think they might have been Michael's attempts at poetry but that is just a guess, but on the whole a fascinating book. The family are all so real and believable, and sympathetic (well maybe less so Eve, I am having trouble with middle aged women in books recently, they tend to irritate me ... can't imagine why:-) Amber is not real, but I don't think she is meant to be. Amber's impact makes them all look at themselves differently, and make different decisions, or understand that their decisions are not so vital as they once thought. I just loved the symbolism of the moment that they return home from the cottage to find that Amber (we are left to assume it was her) has emptied their house, utterly, except for the telephone answering machine with three significant messages on it. It's as if she were telling them that they really were in such a mess it would be better to start again from scratch. And they do.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman.
I really wanted this book to be something engaging and it just wasn't. We have been fans of Pullman for years, I started reading His Dark Materials to the children on the recommendation of a friend and have loved them ever since, I recall waiting impatiently for the final instalment to be published.

This book is a retelling of the story of Jesus as if he were twins, Jesus being the one going out doing the preaching and the miracles, and Christ observing him from the sidelines and watching and planning for the future. So he retells briefly lots of little incidents that are related in the gospels, and meanwhile Christ is busy writing it all down under the guidance of a mysterious stranger claiming to be an angel. There is only one character really, that is Christ, but I don't get him at all. He is not particularly devious or anything and you get no sense of his motivation. Jesus is just this distant figure in the background, until the very end where we see him in the Garden of Gethsemane basically praying to a god he no longer seems to believe exists, and then Christ himself plays the role of both betrayer and the resurrected Jesus.

I guess it is a neat little critique of how 'the church' has altered and twisted the original message of Jesus and become this monolithic institution that is only interested in perpetuating it's own power and influence. But it doesn't say anything that has not been argued better in other places, and to put it in a novel adds nothing to the debate. He makes little jibes about the virgin birth (having a handsome young man come through the bedroom window claiming to be an angel) and then Christ participating in a 'fake' resurrection, but you are not sure what he is trying to achieve, whether it is a criticism of the Jesus story or of the institution of the church as a whole. I am not sure who the book is aimed at, the writing is a little deadpan and devoid of any real characters. All in all I was very disappointed.

Cosy feet

This bright roving that I bought about two years ago has finally become a lovely pair of homespun multi-coloured socks, I like the way that they do not match but are still a pair.

Monday 14 March 2011

The Secret Scripture

While knitting I have been listening to 'The Secret Scripture' by Sebastian Barry, which, I read on the Wikipedia page, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2008. The library has a very limited selection of books available that are Mac compatible so it was, I confess, chosen a little at random, but what an engaging book it turned out to be. Now I commented in reviewing 'The Gathering' that I did not read many irish authors so I am pleased to find that I have not clung to my prejudice. I read some of the online reviews and loved the fact that the book comes from his direct family history, he describes the inspiration coming from a comment from his mother: "We were driving through Sligo, and my mother pointed out a hut and told me that was where my great uncle's first wife had lived before being put into a lunatic asylum by the family. She knew nothing more, except that she was beautiful."

The story has two voices; Dr Grene, who is a psychiatrist overseeing the closure of an asylum, and Roseanne, one of his elderly patients, in whose story he find himself caught up. Both parties are writing their own stories, Dr Grene in the form of a diary reflecting on his life, his work and his marriage, and Roseanne, in secret, writing the tale of her early life that bought her to where she finds herself, a lifetime of exclusion and isolation for unspecified crimes. They form a bond of real friendship as, in the process of making an assessment about her future, he spends time with her and begins to learn about her background and to wonder, and then investigate, why she was committed in the first place. What is so good about the book is that both voices are strong and distinct, with such different experiences and yet bound together by this place where they have spent so much of their lives.

Roseanne is over 100 and as such her story is also partly the story of the history and politics of Ireland, taking us from the civil war through to WWII. Her family were protestants and her father may have been the victim of a political murder. Politics and religion both play an important role in the events that shape her life. The local parish priest is the only other central character, who intervenes in Roseanne's life at vital moments, usually trying to set her on a proper catholic path, and eventually taking his revenge for her rejection of his well-meaning 'assistance', appearing to have acted as judge and jury in the process of her being incarcerated. Roseanne leads a drab childhood and then, after the death of her father, ends up having to support her mentally ill mother. She marries happily, to a catholic, but of course is viewed with intense suspicion by her husband's mother and the community, but at the same time seems haunted by the loss of her father to whom she was devoted. Then she is falsely accused of adultery, abandoned, ostracised and has her marriage annulled, and is forced to live in almost total isolation. It is when she has a child that she is eventually condemned by both society and the church and is placed in the asylum. If that's not enough to send anyone mad I'm not sure what is. What I got most from her story was her sense of powerlessness, a woman to whom life just happened, with no sense of being able to make choices. You sense her immense anger and unhappiness over all the events but this is swamped by her feelings of guilt, that she was made to feel responsible for what befell her. I felt angry on her behalf, as I often find myself when I read stories like this, about women being judged and condemned as immoral, and punished by having their lives stolen. As she writes her story she is of course looking back across over half a century, so the book is also about memory, and how we create memories of things as we might have wanted them to be, as well as remembering things. Dr Grene gives us an alternate version of the events as described in a deposition by the priest, which may or may not be more literally accurate, but are still skewed by his own prejudices. Dr Grene is equally sympathetic, because he also feels as if his life has been swallowed up by the asylum. I liked him because he had obviously been rather introverted and self-interested and it is his growing relationship with Roseanne that begins to make sense of other parts of his life and quite literally makes him a better person.

Alongside these two strong characters you have the intense atmosphere of poverty, and of small town Ireland, narrow minded, inward-looking and intolerant. It was almost like reading a book in 'black and white', the sense that life did not have much colour, it was drab and an unremitting grind. But that doesn't mean it was horrible to read, it was so beautifully written. Good atmosphere is so important to place you right in the story, to take the events in their context, it draws you in and stops you feeling like an outsider, with an outsider's viewpoint. A sign of a well told tale is that you care about the protagonists, and I did. I loved the twist at the end which bought the story full circle. Though in some ways I wanted a neat happy ending it was satisfying because you felt that Roseanne had made her peace by writing her story down, and feeling that she had someone she wanted to tell it to.

Finished projects

I have been enjoying wearing my 'Cables and Eyelet Hoodie' for the last week having spent an entire evening sewing it up, though the final finishing has only just been completed. I bought some lovely wooden buttons from a little ebay store called Textile Garden, they come with little holes so you can decorate them, or as I have done here, make them match your garment by threading some yarn around the edge.
Here is the finished article. I am very pleased and it is lovely and cosy.

M intensely dislikes having her photo taken but she did oblige by actually putting the socks on so I could take a picture. I had a minor panic when I fastened off the second sock and found to my horror that I had dropped several stitches in the final decrease, so had to undo the toe and redo the last two rows.
Then I found that I did not have any knitting project on the go so dug out some rainbow homespun yarn from the stash and started another pair of socks.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize in 2009. I have read quite a few of the more recent winners but this one had not tempted me, mostly I confess on the basis of it's sheer size. It is a mammoth book. I have been listening to it on CD and have been totally absorbed. I will give all due credit to Simon Slater who read the book and has the most wonderful voice, he executed (excuse the pun) the various characters wonderfully so I was always able to follow the sometimes intense and convoluted conversations perfectly.

It is the story of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power under Henry VIII and his part in the English Reformation and the relationship and marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn. I confess my attention drifted in and out a bit for the first few CDs but it begins with he early life, as a blacksmith's son, where he was treated mostly with harshness and neglect. He becomes later in life, after some years abroad as both a mercenary and a merchant, a close advisor to Cardinal Wosley, a man who had a dominant influence over the court of Henry. The events surrounding the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon form the central story of the book. It follows Wolsey's fall from favour after he is unable to obtain the annulment that Henry demands, though it appears to be the direct influence of Anne that leads to his eventual death. Cromwell survives this fall from grace and instead finds himself drawn further into court and over the next few years becomes Henry's closest advisor, presiding over the eventual dissolution of his first marriage and having extensive influence over the House of Commons.

Anyway, for those who are interested, the history of the period is easy enough to look up. The research that must have gone into the book is extensive and impressive; I was totally sucked in to the history, even though it is a part of history that people think they know, the intricacies of the story were fascinating. For a start I had never realised how long the whole thing went on, over seven years from Henry's first obsession with Anne to actually being able to marry her (and she appeared to manage to keep him out of her bed the entire time, quite a feat). And mixed up with the personal story is the political/religious aspect, the pressure for reformation, already happening across europe, people's changing attitudes to the church and the desire for more knowledge and understanding. So you have the two sides of the Catholic church, one side backing Catherine and the other taking advantage of Henry's anger with Rome (over the annulment) and using it to their advantage, offering him what he wants and getting what they want which is freedom from the control of Rome. It is a really powerful political drama, with a cast of domineering characters, all struggling to maintain their influence. What I really liked were the women, who are so often relegated to mere chattels in the history books, but here they are real people, often with more influence of their own; Catherine, her daughter Mary, and even Mary Boleyn. Though equally Henry himself becomes more of a real person, where he is so often swallowed up by history, being 'that king who beheaded all those wives', Cromwell spends so much time with him and observes him so closely, we get to see him more human. Anne Boleyn I came to love to hate. M thought I was being a bit harsh when I said I felt like she deserved what she got in the end. But she did. She played the game to get what she wanted, which was to be queen. She used people, manipulated, bought and sold influence, and in the end the whole thing turned on her. I guess there has to be some pity there too, because Henry is fickle, and she is a victim of biology (you begin to wonder why these royal women had so much trouble when the average woman at the time probably had a dozen children). And it took me ages to find out the relevance of the title; Wulfhall is the family seat of the Seymour family and Jane herself appears in passing in the story, being present at court some times, but you notice her name immediately and it hangs there, ominously, because of course you know the next part of the story, you know where it is leading and how it will end.

But there is the other side to the story that I found just as engaging, and that is the part that is 'invented', because Mantel creates the personal, intimate side of Thomas Cromwell. He is a real family man, adores his children and is a very benign employer, seeming to run a household that is relaxed, happy and carefree. He picks up waifs and strays and gives them a home and takes seriously his social responsibilities to those less fortunate; a real 'christian', though his own personal beliefs are not really something that is dwelt on. There is this lovely scene where he is holding a religious text that had belonged to his wife (she and his daughters succumbed to the 'sweating sickness' and he never remarries) and he imagines her holding it, his enduring love for her throughout the book, in an environment where most marriages seem to be about convenience and financial advantage, it very poignant. Because so much of it is historical detail you are not sure how much is invention or if much is known about him personally, but she really succeeds in making him into a person I cared about and sympathised with deeply. He is loyal and trustworthy, and keeps his own council. He works at a prodigious rate, never seeming to tire, is at the beck and call of the King, who is frequently as demanding as a petulant toddler, and yet he appears to admire and even to genuinely like him. I think he achieved all he did because of an ability to see all sides and weigh things up carefully, and of course is plainly very intelligent. A very shrewd politician he mostly keeps his own views, both political and religious, to himself, in favour of doing what is expected of him by the king. In his work and his behaviour he is not directly seeking advantage for himself, and that is almost why the advantages seem to come to him, he is genuinely highly principled and not self-seeking. He is obviously involved in other less savoury aspects of the time; arrest and tortures, and gruesome public executions were commonplace, meted out to rich and poor alike for many and various forms of disloyalty, but he seems to try and distance himself from these, returning regularly to his family and his beloved home at Austin Friars.

Add to all this the extensive cast of minor characters who return over again, from his family to other less consequential historical/political figures, all of whom add depth to the story. The social history is also extensive in detail; the importance of the church in everyday life, how it preoccupied the thinking and dominated lives of ordinary people, the episodes of the plague and other diseases interrupting the normal flow of life. Though much of it is life as seen from the more affluent side of society it is all part of what draws you in to the story and the history, making it more vivid.

I am still not sure if I could have ever read this book, but I would certainly highly recommend it; the rewards of such a book match the effort necessary to obtain them. I'm sorry I can't add quotes, I do not have the text of the book to refer to, because the writing is so wonderful, she captures the subtleties of the situation and the conversations, the descriptions, particularly of his encounters with Anne are excellent, and the period detailing is beautifully done. I can imagine this book would make perfect background reading for anyone studying the period, the historical detail in immense (I read an interview where she describes keeping notes on each character detailing where they were at each moment, so she didn't accidentally write them into a situation where they could not possibly have been) and it adds so much atmosphere to such a well studied part of our history.
The review in the Guardian from when it was first published finishes thus, and I could not have put it better:
"Lyrically yet cleanly and tightly written, solidly imagined yet filled with spooky resonances, and very funny at times, it's not like much else in contemporary British fiction. A sequel is apparently in the works, and it's not the least of Mantel's achievements that the reader finishes this 650-page book wanting more."

Friday 4 March 2011

Further knitting progress

The main pieces are all complete for the Cables and Eyelet Hoodie that has been in the pipeline for a week or so. I have never blocked my knitting before but since it was knitted from another project the yarn was very crinkly so I decided to do the whole thing properly. It was damped slightly, then pinned to shape and left to dry.
M's only pair of home knitted socks were unfortunately machine washed a few weeks ago turning them into a nice pair of toddler slipper socks, and I promised her some new ones. My only other unfinished project was a pair of fingerless gloves in some lovely Violet Green merino/silk sock yarn (a gift from Julie back in 2009), so I have begun unravelling them to do her some socks.
Then yesterday M and I did a traditional day-off charity shop trawl: she came home with five videos, including Bugsy Malone, and a copy of tales by Edgar Allen Poe; I found 'The Ballad of Peckham Rye' by Muriel Spark and this lovely vibrant multi-coloured thick-and-thin yarn, which I am knitting into a baby blanket. It is only acrylic but is lovely and soft and the colours are so fabulous, it was only £3 and weighed over 500g. I may have to go back and buy the others, though they were rather more dominantly pink.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa.
I requested this from the library after reading a blog review somewhere and it was an excellent, if slightly confusing read. Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian writer now living mostly in Spain who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. I had noticed that the main character in the story shares his name but it did not occur to me to think, as the wikipedia page tells me, that the book is based on his own early life experiences and first marriage.

It is an initially very confusing read because the chapters lurch from story to story without any explanation of what the writer is doing. So half the chapters are actually story-lines from radio soap operas that are being written by the scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, and the alternate chapters are the ongoing (real life) saga of Mario and his Aunt Julia. Mario is an 18 year old law student who lives with his grandparents and works at a local radio station preparing news bulletins, but who's dream is to be a writer. At lunch one day with one of his many and various aunts and uncles he meets the glamorous Aunt Julia, 32 and recently divorced, arrived from Bolivia to find herself a new husband. They venture to the cinema together after she uses him as an excuse to escape the unwanted attentions of another suitor, and their relationship, starting with amicable friendship, soon blossoms into romance.

In the other part of his life Mario is developing a friendship with Pedro Camacho, also arrived from Bolivia, to save the fortunes of the radio station. He is incredibly dedicated, working 18 hour days, writing, directing and performing in several serials every day, which quickly becomes the talk of the whole city. The plots are very involved and torturous: a wedding where the bride is in an incestuous relationship with her brother; a man obsessed with annihilating the city's rats after his own baby sister is eaten alive while under his care; an elderly couple appear to try and marry off their daughter to her supposed rapist, a man who offers to castrate himself to prove his own innocence.

Meanwhile in spite of their attempts to keep it secret the relationship between Mario and Aunt Julia (always referred to in this way, even after the marriage!) becomes more complicated in the face of family and societal disapproval, and they make very convoluted plans to marry, without his parents permission. The two halves of the plot kind of come together in a totally insane and hysterical climax. Pedro Camacho begins to go crazy from overwork, can no longer remember which character is in which soap and begins to get very confused, and so in a desperate attempt to save the situation creates a series of increasingly bizarre violent catastrophes in each story so that he can begin again from scratch. At the same time Mario and his friends pawn most of their possessions to raise money, and there ensues a farcical chase across the countryside trying to find a local mayor corrupt or negligent enough to marry them without the proper documents.

I am not sure how much I liked it, but I stuck it out to the end. It makes an interesting contrast to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the few other Latin American writers I have read. It is apparently supposed to be mocking the plots of radio soap operas, and since I am not familiar with what they are like the joke was lost on me. I think that maybe the humour is very culturally specific, having a dig at family relationships, social pressure and other aspect of modern Peruvian culture. I found it didn't flow as a novel because of the interruptions of the soap opera chapters, which initially I though were separate parts of the same story, and these chapters in themselves were just plain weird, little snippets of totally surreal characters and situations without any story resolution. I might well be tempted to try something else by the same writer, he was apparently very politically radical in his early career.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Oh, the places you'll go

"Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting."
(Oh, the places you'll go! by Dr Seuss)

Who better than Dr Seuss to sum up so succinctly the problems of modern life. M chose this little book this afternoon having been given a World Book Day token at the adventure playground meeting, and we have sat around and read it aloud and enjoyed reminiscing about the books of his that we have loved.

And she has decided to decorate her room on a Dr Seuss theme, with characters from his books and random quotes, so now we have an excuse to go out and rebuild the book collection, since many of them have been lost in the damp depths of her dad's garage.

Census Campaign 2011

You may or may not have noticed this recent addition to the top of the sidebar. I don't delve into the world of politics very often, even less so religion but I am just writing a brief post to encourage other bloggers to consider linking to the Census Campaign website (run by the British Humanist Association). This is definitely not an 'anti-religion' issue, the aim of the campaign is to get people to pause and think about what they really believe.
As the website points out:
"In 2001, a highly leading question, "What is your religion?" was added.
By assuming that all participants held a religious belief, the question captured some kind of loose cultural affiliation, and as a result over 70% responded 'Christian', a far higher percentage than nearly every other significant survey or poll on religious belief in the past decade." In spite of vigorous efforts by the Humanist Association this same question will appear in the 2011 census.

So what the campaign is wanting people to do is really consider the nature of their own beliefs, irrespective of their parents, their upbringing, whether they might have been christened or baptised, and asking that if they do not have any personal faith/belief in any kind of deity they should tick the 'no religion' box. Statistics from this census will be used to decide all sorts of political/economic policies over the coming years and a skewed result about the extent of religious commitment would not be a good thing (why it matters here).
They make some interesting arguments (here and here) for the importance of answering the question rather than just ignoring it (it is the only voluntary question) and if you are interested enough they have some blog buttons available (here).