Monday 22 July 2013


We are off on Thursday to HESFES 2013. The multi-talented Ridley Birks Boy will be performing this year (pictured here caught in a rare moment without a musical instrument in his hands) and it was a bit of a last minute decision to go. We had such a brilliant time last year but things had seemed to be conspiring against a return visit to Suffolk. Creature is busy volunteering at the 24/7 Festival so will be joining us a few days late, so I won't even have her to worry about. I hope to find a moment this week to review Angela Carter's 'Wise Children' but to get myself in holiday mode I spent the day creating a banner for our campsite; it is made with felted letters appliquéd onto a piece of muslin fabric. I hope everyone in blogland is enjoying wherever and however you spend your holiday time that you are all making the most of the brilliant weather.
postscript: as I re-read last year's 'we are going to Hesfes' post I found that I mentioned reaching 40,000 blog views, and that gave me cause to feel very smug, because this year I have just passed 80,000 ...woo hoo!

Thursday 18 July 2013

Island Beneath the Sea

I have been listening to 'Island Beneath the Sea' by Isabel Allende for the last several weeks now; it is very long, over 17 hours of audio that I am sure I would not have stuck with in print. I have not read anything by Allende before and having trawled through a few reviews I find that this book was less than well received, not having the magical realist type themes of some of her earlier novels. It is a sprawling saga of slavery, revolt and one woman's pursuit of freedom. It jumps from narrator to narrator, and this I felt was its strength as I found all of them to be variously compelling and convincing. Set in the late 18th century the story follows the relationship between Valmorain, a frenchman who arrives on Saint-Dominigue (now Haiti) to take over his father's sugar plantation, and a young slave Zarité who is acquired to take care of his new wife, all set against the history of the island at a very turbulent time. There is nothing romantic in it; he owns her, rapes her, abuses her and gives away her first child. She, while accepting her lot in life, develops a strange intense loyalty to her mistress who sinks into mental illness and the drugged stupor imposed by the doctor to ensure the preservation of a final ditch pregnancy. This same loyalty is then transferred to the son who grows up alongside her own daughter Rosette. The tale follows the drama of the slave uprisings that freed the colony from French rule and abolished slavery. To ensure the safety of the children Zarité alerts her master to the coming attack and enables their escape from certain death, and earns as reward a paper that promises her emancipation. Their life takes them to New Orleans; Valmorain struggles with an equally strange sense of loyalty to her, when a new wife brings trouble and conflict into their slightly unorthodox domestic arrangements. Everything about the book was fascinating and well researched. The historical detail was well integrated into the story, they live through events and we see the effects of the social upheaval from both sides. The convoluted social strata was dwelt on at length; the way all the possible combinations of races related to each other, who looked down on who, who had this right or freedom, the subtleties of skin tone denoting everything about how life could be lived. Although he never acknowledges her as an equal, nor acknowledges what he owes her I did feel that over the course of the story Valmorain does have a subtle shift in the way he views Zarité, and the reader, like Zarité herself, cannot help but feel pity for how he ends up. The novel sweeps up all sorts of things in it's wake, from the influence of Catholicism and Voodoo, to Napoleon and the war in Europe, to the growing political divide in America. It is unflinching in its portrayal of slavery but the multiple narratives allows the reader to see the pains and pleasures of different life experiences, showing us the social and political situation from all perspectives and gives us a glimpse into the world of each one. History, drama and a enthralling human story, what more do you need; I will certainly come back to her writing again.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Dog Awareness Week

Apparently this week is 'Dog Awareness Week'. This really badly photoshopped image accompanies Royal Mail's ongoing efforts to remind us not to get bitten. In addition to reminding us not to put ourselves at risk and not to accept owners assurances about the behaviour of their dogs, it is nice to read on the posters that they are also working with doggy type organisations to raise awareness amongst owners of the importance of keeping their animals under control. I know the vast majority of dog owners are nice responsible people, so thank you in advance, but in the spirit of the occasion here are a few reminders:

  • In the nice weather it is lovely to sit in the garden with your dog ... please do not wander off and leave the dog unattended, you won't get your post.
  • Big dogs jumping up at small gates make me very nervous, I probably will not even come close enough to hand you your letters.
  • Having your front door standing open is lovely for the fresh air but will also make me nervous - I will call out hello to see if anyone comes but we have been advised to walk away if in any doubt.
  • I know it's the holidays but children should not be left in charge of dogs in the garden.
  • Also remind your children not to open the door to the postman when the dog is going berserk in the hall.
  • If you haven't used your garden much recently please ensure all fences and gates are secure and check for places where small dogs might get out.

Sunday 7 July 2013

The Father

'The Father' by Sharon Olds: I read a review of 'Stag's Leap' somewhere but when I search on the library catalogue this was the only thing they had available (so much stock is still in storage until the new Central Library opens next year). I am left wondering if maybe I should take the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course as I feel singularly inadequate to say anything about this book. 

Having reviewed Christopher Reid's 'A Scattering' the first question that comes to mind concerns the potential autobiographical nature of the poems. Although written in the first person there is a peculiar sense of impersonality and distance in the whole atmosphere of the book. I searched online for further clues and came across this interview in The Guardian in which she is initially very vague; then she describes a student at a reading saying; "If I thought you'd made up all the stuff in your poems, I'd be really mad at you", and she says in response; "It had not crossed my mind really that anyone would make up a life, make up these stories - it seemed so obvious to me they were being told, sung, from some inner necessity that rose in an actual life. But at that point I couldn't come out and say that, I think I had some idea I was protecting someone, I'm not sure who . . ." (I don't think she is talking specifically about 'the Father' here, just her poetry generally.) In fact reading the interview was much more illuminating than the poems, she is not someone I knew anything about and I found her really engaging.

The poems are a catalogue of decline but at the same time almost a homage to the love between daughter and father. The minutiae that are contained within the poems express just how the narrator is focussed entirely on the him to the exclusion of all else. They contain long descriptions of the visceral physical nature of his illness, the destruction wrought on his body, she is acutely aware of his vulnerability and the change this has brought to their relationship. In the opening poem 'The Waiting': 

"Now he would have some company
as he tried to swallow an eighth of a teaspoon
of coffee, he would have his child to give him
the cup to spit into, his child to empty it
I would be there all day, watch him nap,
be there when he woke, sit with him
until the day ended, and he would get back into
bed with his wife."

The first half of the book catalogues his decline, from a man who reaches out to cut a stray thread from her nightdress:

"Suddenly, he sees a thread
dangling from the cuff of my nightie, he cries out
Stay there! and goes to his desk drawer.
I hold my wrist out to him
and he stares with rigid concentration,
his irises balls of impacted matter." (Nulipara)

until one day he can no longer rise in his bed to greet the minister:

"And then, one day, he tried,
his brain ordered his body to heave up,
the sweat rose in his pores but he was not
moving, he cast up his eyes as the minister
leaned to kiss him, he lay and stared, it was
nothing like the nights he had lain on the couch passed
out, nothing." (The Struggle)

She lingers and lingers over the day and moment of his death, some of the images quite repetitive until it is almost a relief for the end to finally arrive, but the tenderness she describes is quite exquisite:

"I put my head on the bed beside him
and breathed and he did not breathe, I breathed and
breathed and he darkened and lay there,
my father. I laid my hand on his chest
and I looked at him, at his eyelashes
and the pores of his skin, cracks in his lips,
dark rose-red inside his mouth,
springing hair deep in his nose, I
moved his head to set it straight on the pillows,
it moved so easily, and his ear,
gently crushed for the last hour,
unfolded in the air." (The Last Day)

The second half of the book negotiates the aftermath with equal delicacy, how she feels about his body and what will happen to it, the funeral, how he occupies her thoughts in the time afterwards. I liked this reflection on how their relationship becomes frozen in time, in limbo, that she can almost treasure what it had become and not worry about earlier time:

"A week after my father died
suddenly I understood
his fondness for me was safe - nothing
could touch it. In that last year,
his face would sometimes brighten when I would
enter the room, and his wife said
that once, when he was half asleep
he smiled when she said my name." (Beyond Harm)

But after a year the motel she stayed in while visiting him is hospital is knocked down and it felt like accepting that the world must move on, she is more philosophical:

"They will have
sold the beds, set aside the triple-milled
amber fluted soaps - and did they
save the pool, unsuction it up and
leave a hole like a grave, or did they
cave it in, Pompeiian. Anyway,
every trace of everything
that held me
holding him
will be removed from the planet." (The Motel)

I found on my searching this essay written by a postgrad student which, if you are interested, is way more articulate and astute than me. I think this is the kind of poetry collection that needs the analysis, someone to point out for you what the poet is trying to do, and quite how clever they are being about it. It is also important to take in the collection as a whole. I think this kind of book is different from 'anthology' type collections because of the way the poems are focussed on a single event and the multitudinous ways that it impacts. Again 'enjoy' is probably the wrong word for reading 'The Father' but it has certainly given me much to reflect on and I will await her other book's emergence from library storage.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Self-referential confessional cartooning

I'm guessing that anyone who spends any time on the interweb has heard of the 'Bechdel Test'; initially developed for film but it can be applied to any media, it has the simple criteria that the film must have two female characters, they must have a conversation and that conversation must be about something other than a man. Once you know about it you start applying it to everything you encounter (randomly picking 'A near thing for Captain Najork' up from the desk I find it fails.) 
Anyway, my eye was caught in the library some time ago by 'Are you my mother?' penned by the famed Alison Bechdel and I have drifted through it in a haphazard way over the last couple of months. I should start by saying I have a very low key relationship with my mum; we are both (I hope) glad the other is around but we don't demand a great deal. Maybe it's just a sign that she is a really good mum and I was securely attached as a child, but I find fraught mother/child relationships a bit unfathomable. 
Maybe I just wasn't tuned in to her humour but I utterly failed to find it funny, or maybe only in a very tragic kind of way. The book follows her through the process of (having written one book about her relationship with her father) writing a book (this book) about her fraught relationship with her mother. What I did find amusing on flicking through was thinking of a recent lecture on the Coursera Psychology course on clinical psychology when Steve told us that there is no experimental evidence that therapy actually fixes anything, though plenty of anecdotal evidence that it is better than nothing. The most striking feature of therapy is that it takes a long, long time and therefore, to be honest, it's only for rich people.
 So here she is at the beginning of the book talking to her therapist:
and here she is in the middle of the book (different therapist I think):
and here she is at the end ... still talking:
This was another of those reading experiences that made me feel grateful for ordinariness; as Alison trawls though the minutiae of how she feels about her mother I found merely reading about all those years of agonising completely exhausting. Certainly if you are a student of psychology this would be a fascinating read, and it's full of little quotes from the background reading that she was doing as well, but I think you'd have a be a fan to pick it up otherwise.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Swaddled in Stories

"As my aunt twisted in her seat in the shade searching for the right word, as Vincent licked his fingers and filled his mouth with jerk pork, and as Violet scowled and chided me to listen, they laid a past out in front of me. They wrapped me in a family history and swaddled me tight in its stories. And I was taking back that family to England. But it would not fit in a suitcase - I was smuggling it home." (p.325-6)

This little quote pretty much sums up 'Fruit of the Lemon' by Andrea Levy, which I have been reading for the TBR Pile Challenge 2013 (but also because of how much I loved Small Island). This book is similarly about a family who's roots are in Jamaica, but it focusses on Faith, the daughter of the family and her experience of growing up black in Britain. She is vaguely embarrassed by the notion that her parents 'came over on a banana boat' and seems more concerned with fitting in than understanding her family history. She gets her degree, starts work in a lowly job at the BBC and moves into a shared house with some friends, including, to the horror of her parents, two boys. They in turn try to pair her up with a nice young man who works with her dad, and her brother Carl's new girlfriend is aghast that she seems to have no sense of her true identity. Her parents are also making plans to return to Jamaica. She cannot understand their link to the island and is determined to separate herself from them and forge her own sense of belonging. Then she witnesses a violent incident and it brings home for her the realities of racial politics. 

The second half of the book takes Faith to visit her extended family in Jamaica and here she learns her family history and develops a real sense of connection to who they were and what they experienced. Various members of the family each in turn tell the the story of various other members and gradually the whole story is built up. 

What I loved about this part of the book was the family tree that appears at the beginning of each chapter, and that is gradually added to as we are introduced to new people and go further back in time. It was very helpful too as it allowed me to visualise the links between each generation and remember who was married to who, or grandmother to who, or sister to who; it did all get quite complicated. It was all so beautifully written, the whole atmosphere of the place and particularly the culture shock that Faith experiences when she arrives that is transformed over her visit into a genuine sense of belonging.

Here she is arriving:
"My aunt took both my hands in hers then moved my arms open and looked me up and down. 'You skinny,' she concluded with a laugh. I laughed too then leant forwards to hug her. She was angular and brittle like a bag of crisps and I didn't use my full force in the hug for fear of crushing her.
'I was scared you wouldn't be here,' I said with a smile. One of my aunt's eyebrows rose alarmingly on her forehead and her lips tightened into a thin line as she pierced Vincent with a stare. Vincent looked at his mother and then at me and laughed, 'Of course we here.' " (p.176)

Grace's story (Faith's grandmother) as told by Aunt Coral:
"Nathaniel and Grace had known each other since they were little children. They used to play together by the river when she met him on her way from school. It was Nathaniel who taught her to climb trees and it was Nathaniel's fault Grace got beaten for ripping the sleeve of her dress. 'I don't think your mummy knows this so don't go tellin' her...' Nathaniel asked grace to marry him and she said she would. But Grace's mother did not approve of the match. She said that Nathaniel's family were only cane cutters. That he was too rough, too poor, too dark, too ignorant, for her daughter. Her mother told Grace she must never see Nathaniel again. But they met in secret and nathaniel gave Grave a ring that he made form an old coin. It didn't fit her finger so she kept it in her pocket. 'I saw it once - big ugly thing.' " (p.229-30)

Cecelia story (Faith's great grandmother) told by cousin Vincent:
"Then one day Cecelia was standing on a chair and stretching up to pick tamarinds from a tree with her baby strapped to her back in an old curtain, she slipped and was caught by a man. The man was Benjamin Nelson Hilton. 'Your great-grandfather. But when my mummy tells that story there is no baby, no curtain - nothing is strapped to her back.' " (p.260)

Obadiah and Margaret (Wade's parents, Faith's paternal grandparents) told by Violet:
"Obadiah began to import ribbons. He bought then from an American man who sent Obadiah the finest-quality ribbons in Kingston. Silk ribbon - grosgrain and watered. Satin ribbon - plain, brocaded and striped. Obadiah then sold them to shops. After a while he added lace - torch on, Chantilly and fine silk chiffon - gentlemen's collars and cuffs, embroidery silks, sewing silks, cotton thread on spools and the occasional bolt of novelty gingham cloth.
He met Margaret Little, my grandmother, in one of the shops he supplied. She worked at the back of the shop as a seamstress. 'Although she say she was dressmaker. No one knew the difference but her. But she stick up her nose and say dressmaker not seamstress, if you please. All show.' " (p.281-2)

The whole book has a real sense of history, both as a big thing that encompasses everyone and as a personal tale of the events of individual lives. And Faith is drawn in to the story of her family, and sees and experiences the island that forms the backdrop to the stories. It is a complex interweaving of events that brings her to understand where she comes from and where she belongs. All the story tellers are open and honest, seeing the flaws of their family characters but loving them anyway, not judging, just telling it like it was. Very engaging and real characters, the book takes you into a family and almost makes you feel like you belong too.