Wednesday 28 August 2013

The book of lost things

'The Book of Lost Things' by John Connolly was bought back in January, so has barely had time to gather dust. He is mostly a writer in the murder/crime/horror genre and I confess that if it had a cover that resembled his usual fare I would have been unlikely to pick it up, but this one evokes quite poetically the 'fairy story' that it more closely resembles, and shows a writer who is deeply immersed in the classic story telling tradition. 

All traditional folk tales are about the protagonist taking a journey of some kind, either literal or metaphorical, in order to learn something about themselves or the meaning of life in general, and coming out the other end as better people. Our hero David begins the book in classic style by becoming an orphan (well kind of, his mum dies and his dad remarries) and he seeks consolation for his loneliness in books, until he finds that the books are talking back to him and a strange and threatening little man begins appearing in the real world. Also in classic style (à la Wizard of Oz) he is whisked off to a strange land where he is obliged to go in search of an elusive king who may be able to provide him with assistance to return home. What follows is David's adventure that takes him through several hundred years of folk tales as he encounters along his path Connolly's own version of many familiar tales like Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and also less familiar ones like The Three Army Surgeons; a more traditional version of each of the stories is given in an extensive appendix at the end of the book, with a brief explanation of how each was twisted or adapted to play a part in this story. It is quite gruesome in the telling, as of course fairy tales were in their original incarnation. There is death and destruction, and our hero is forced to face trials and challenges, tests of his physical and moral courage, beyond his tender years. There is very much the sense of a clear cut good versus bad scenario, with the wolves and their 'offspring' the Loups in pursuit throughout the journey and the rather sinister 'Crooked Man' about whom, being familiar with this kind of story, you are sure there is more than meets the eye.  You follow as this quiet, quite sensitive little boy is exposed to the harsh realities of life, but takes them in his stride and makes his own sound judgements about the new situations he encounters. 

The book is thoroughly engaging and even though the stories within it were mostly familiar, and thus you did not have any sense that David was going to be harmed (because they tended, at least in the versions I know, to have a happy ending), and you could be (almost) certain that evil would get its comeuppance, you still had a sense of gruesome fascination with the horrors of the imagination. I was drawn on by the sense of wondering just what the writer was going to inflict on poor David next and just how he was going to extricate himself.  The ending is clever and satisfying, and has the classical moral message of truth and courage winning out and natural justice being achieved. All round an excellent read, but probably not for the very young. Here David meets the harpies:

"It had a female form: old, and with scales instead of skin, yet still female for all that. He risked another look and saw the creature descending now in diminishing circles, until suddenly its wings folded in, streamlining its form, and it fell rapidly, its claws extended as it seemed to head directly for the canyon wall. It struck the stone and David saw something struggle in its claws: it was a little brown mammal of some kind, scarcely bigger than a squirrel. Its paws flailed at the air as it was plucked from the rocks. Its captor changed direction and headed for an outcrop beneath David in order to feed, shrieking in triumph. Some of its rivals, alerted by its cries, approached in the hope of stealing its meal, but it struck at the air with its wings in warning and they drifted away. David had the opportunity to examine its face as it hovered: it resembled a woman, but was longer and thinner, with a lipless mouth that left its sharp teeth permanently exposed. Now those teeth tore into its prey, ripping great chunks of bloody fur from its body as it fed." (p.113)

Monday 26 August 2013

Culture and all that

Two things to tell you about briefly if you happen to live in or visit Manchester. 
The wonderful Manchester Literature Festival is all ready for action and the website is now taking bookings (if you look closely at the word search on the cover it says 7th to 20th October). I will be volunteering again this year and hopefully a blogging slot too. As usual a wide variety of creative talent, from the well known to the relatively obscure. I am pleased to see a much wider representation from writers for young people, notably Eoin Colfer and Malorie Blackman, and also Neil Gaiman talking about his new children's novel. Lionel Shriver is doing the Manchester sermon (which Ali Smith did last year and was so brilliant). I am a bit spoiled for choice and have so many things I would love to go and see. Do go and check out all the events, many are free, and get yourself a culture fix.
Secondly is the 'do it 2013' exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery (created in collaboration with the International Festival) that I went to see with my mum last week. What you might call a 'conceptual' collection of artworks aimed at engaging ordinary people in the process of creating art; not so much come and look at the pretty pictures, more come and have your brain bombarded with crazy ideas. Go prepared to join in. On until the 22nd September.

Saturday 24 August 2013

After the fire, a still small voice

(Am playing catch-up here on all the posts that have been waiting to be written.)
'After the fire, a still small voice' by Evie Wyld was recommended on Savidge Reads, or rather he mentioned it in passing while singing the praises of 'All the birds, singing', which I put on the wishlist for later. There are some problems with audiobooks; firstly I will sometimes wander away momentarily and not pause it, or I will be listening but not really listening (if you see what I mean) and not realise I have missed some vital point in the story, but more importantly this one had the second CD missing from the box, but I just carried on regardless and hoped I could just catch up with the story. 

The story follows two men, Frank and Leon, separated by a generation but sharing a history that is not made precisely clear but can be guessed at early on in the tale. The chapters alternate between the two of them. It is all very quiet and slow, not very much happens; in fact even when Leon goes off to fight in the Vietnam war, it's as if he is watching the whole thing happen to someone else in slow motion. There is such a strong sense of detachment and isolation, it is in both the events of the story and in the characters of the two men. But everything about the writing is lovely. She creates the atmosphere of rural Australia so deftly, and then introduces us to a scrawny little runt of a girl called Sal who's blunt, no-nonsense view of life forces Frank out of his isolation. Maybe it was a sign that life had actually changed very little over the time gap, since I sometimes had trouble remembering which part of the story we were in, but that did not detract from it, in fact it drew on the sense of similarity between the men, and yet at the same time you were intensely aware of the gulf between them. Then Frank tries to go and visit, but fails at the last hurdle and drives away. I was left a little confused, as if I missed something, but then maybe life is just not that simple.
If you go to Evie Wyld's wiki page you will find links to some of her short stories online, also lovely.

Ceci est ma femme

Over the summer Creature and I had been doing an Introduction to Psychology course on Coursera (I know I've mentioned Coursera several time recently, it seems to have appropriated rather a great deal of my time these days) and Steve (the exuberant Canadian tutor) recommended 'The man who mistook his wife for a hat' by Oliver Sacks as a good read.
While psychology isn't entirely about brain problems the fact is that psychologists seem to have learned most about brain function by studying the many and various ways in which it can go wrong. While this was a fascinating read, and certainly Mr Sacks has made a career out of writing and talking about the many and various ways the human mind can go awry, I was left not quite knowing what this teaches us about the way normal minds work. The book is divided into sections that focus on losses and excesses, people with temporary interruptions to normality and then others who have a whole different 'normality'. He takes us through a catalogue of different types of memory loss and altered perception, a variety of quirks and ticks, visions and hallucinations and totally different ways of understanding the world. I was left feeling slightly perturbed, as if I had just visited a freak show and was invited to gawp at the curious individuals inside, except that they had mental rather than physical peculiarities. So often it seemed nothing could be done and the people involved were often trapped inside the new version of reality that their brain perceived. Mostly they served to make you grateful for wholeness. Here he talks with Jimmie, a man who, through alcoholism, has lost 30 years of memory and exists believing it is 1945 and he is a young man:

"One day I asked him not about his memory or past, but about the simplest and most elemental feeling of all:
'How do you feel?'
'How do I feel,' he repeated, and scratched his head. 'I cannot say I feel ill. But I cannot say I feel well. I cannot say I feel anything at all.'
'Are you miserable?' I continued.
'Can't say I am.'
'Do you enjoy life?'
'I can't say I do...'
I hesitated, fearing that I was going down too far, that I might be stripping a man down to some hidden, unacknowledgeable, unbearable despair.
'You don't enjoy life,' I repeated, hesitating somewhat. 'How then do you feel about life?'
'I can't say that I feel anything at all.'
'You feel alive though?'
'Feel alive? Not really. I haven't felt alive for a very long time.'
His face wore a look of infinite sadness and resignation." (p.34-5)

Certainly a very readable book however, thought provoking and a window of sorts into the workings of the human mind.

Thursday 8 August 2013

A Labyrinthine Disquisition

I first read about 'Austerlitz' by W.G. Sebald back in 2010 in Susan Hill's book 'Howards End is on the Landing' so when I came across it in a charity shop I bought it, and it has sat waiting patiently ever since. The book has developed a worrying spray of mildew inside the cover after getting a mild soaking during a thunderstorm at Hesfes, in fact the front pages are also still damp and watermarked, but it was the perfect book to take camping because it really needs some serious quiet time; I read the last forty pages or so to a background of some folk music being played on the outdoor acoustic stage.

The cover image of an old black and white photo of a young boy in a very flamboyant formal outfit sets the scene for a historical mystery; who is he, and what became of him, but not in the way you might think. 
"Otherwise, all I remember of the denizens of the Nocturama is that several of them had strikingly large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking." (p.3)
There is a Battle of Austerlitz and so I had imagined the book was about a place, but it is about a man and his life, and his search to find things in the darkness of his past. We have a nameless narrator who recalls his first encounter with Austerlitz in the waiting room at Antwerp station and so begins his retelling of the story that Austerlitz starts on that day and picks up on each occasion at their future meetings. I was fifty or so pages into the book before I realised that not only were there no chapters but there were no paragraphs. The writing continues, unbroken, in one solid block down the pages (this was a stylistic technique I encountered in The Road, and it is very effective for drawing you into the flow of the tale). At a couple of points, maybe half a dozen or so in a 400 page book, there are little asterisks that mark a break in the story, a long gap between meetings, just the briefest pause for breath, otherwise the words march on. This aspect of the writing has a kind of mesmerising quality, hypnotic, and when you look up or are interrupted it is the kind of experience you sometimes get from a very long and engaging film when you come out of the cinema and blink in unexpected daylight, coming back to the real world. The other aspect of the writing that also struck me was how he is the master of digression; he would be telling you of a particular incident or event, only to make an aside comment and then go off to describe in exquisite detail a room he found himself in or a person, and then he would digress again, and again, and then finally a page or so later return to the original event and the point he had been about to make. And yet he does this without it feeling as if he is rambling, every word feels as if it has been deliberately chosen and placed. His style also reminded me forcefully of Virginia Woolf; his sentences were often incredibly long and convoluted, with sub-clause after sub-clause that would often take a second reading to be sure of the meaning. And then almost to prevent you getting too overwhelmed he, almost randomly it seems, inserts the words, 'said Austerlitz', so that his name becomes almost like punctuation. It is as if to remind you that our narrator is merely the conveyor of someone else's story; it is rarely any word other than 'said', just a simple interruption to the flow, mostly just once on each page, but occasionally, perhaps for emphasis, it will be there two or three sentences in succession.

As usual it's going to be hard to get across everything that I loved about this book, the way that the writing conveys the atmosphere. It is a story about a stretch of human history that the world has tried to move on from and yet which is so deeply embedded in our memory, in living memory. Austerlitz lives though his childhood and youth before discovering that the part of his life that he had chosen to forget would not stay silent. And then there are the photographs, scattered throughout the book, some referenced so precisely within the story that you would be forgiven for thinking it was all real; of course some of them are real, of real places he visits, but some are chosen to fit in with characters he has created. Of course you are meant to feel they are real, because it is about the idea that history is a story and stories are history, and how do you know what is real, and why is this book less real than a biography of a child torn from his parents to save him from the consequences of war. Austerlitz draws our narrator into this search for the past and at times you wonder if the lines between the two of them had become a little blurred, here they become 'we':

"It was night by the time the ferry sailed. We stood together on the stern deck. The white wake vanished into the darkness, and I remember that we once thought we saw a few snowflakes swirling in the lamplight." (p.41-2)

Describing his school experiences Austerlitz recalls his history teacher's passion for the Battle of Austerlitz; it seems to take on a kind of symbolism for the way history sweeps over such events and fails to understand the significance of an individual day, in the same way that the experiences of individuals are subsumed under that of the general population:

"... as he several times told us, it would take an endless length of time to describe the events of such a day properly, in some inconceivably complex form recoding who had perished, who survived, and exactly where and how, or simply saying what the battlefield was like at nightfall, with the screams and groans of the wounded and dying. In the end all anyone could ever do was sum up the unknown factors in the ridiculous phrase, 'The fortunes of battle swayed this way and that,' or some similarly feeble and useless cliché." (p.100-1)  

It is this teacher who begins to draw the young Austerlitz out of his shell and open him to a new understanding of the world. As well as his own life he gives us detailed background to the events and places that surrounded him, all of which is vital to the atmosphere. His early years are dominated by the impression of cold and desolation. This is his reflection when passing through his former home town on the way to the home of a school friend, the only relationship that lifted the weight of loneliness:

"And every time I set eyes on Lake Bala, particularly when its surface was churned up by the wind in winter, I remembered the story Evan the cobbler had told me, about the two headstreams of Dwy Fawr and Dwy Fach which are said to flow right through the lake, far down in its dark depths, never mingling their waters with its own. The two rivers, according to Evan, said Austerlitz, were called after the only human beings not drowned but saved from the biblical deluge in the distant past." (p.112)

Not only does Austerlitz digress in the telling of his story but his mind wanders into all manner of subjects, upon which he then gives his duly considered opinion (and here is where I came across the word 'disquisition' {a long or elaborate essay or discussion on a particular subject} which I love and have added to my vocabulary):

"... and while he was still busy with his camera he embarked on a disquisition of some length on time, much of which has remained clear in my memory. Time, said Austerlitz in the observation room in Greenwich, was by far the most artificial of all our inventions, and in being bound to the planet turning on its own axis was no less arbitrary than would be, say, a calculation based on the growth of trees or the duration required for a piece of limestone to disintegrate, quite apart from the fact that the solar day which we take as our guideline does not provide any precise measurement, so that in order to recon time we have to devise an imaginary, average sun which has an invariable speed of movement and does not incline towards the equator in its orbit." (p. 141-2)

And then there were myriad lovely lyrical moments:

"After our game  we usually stayed in the ballroom for a little while, looking at the images cast on the wall opposite the tall, arched window by the last rays of the sun shining low through the moving branches of a hawthorn, until at last they were extinguished." (p.158)

followed by a crashing back into the late twentieth century:
"Only at Liverpool Street station, where he waited with me in McDonald's until my train left ..." (p.159)

As Austerlitz gradually opens himself up to the memories he had long denied about his early years he finds himself travelling back to Prague where his unusual name makes discovering his family background surprisingly straightforward. Trapped by her own memories of the events of 1939 he finds Vera, the young woman who had been his nanny, now an elderly recluse. And she in her turn begins a tale for him of the years of his infancy and the threat of war that led to his being sent to safety in Britain. This part of the book creates another layer of storytelling, as Vera relates to Austerlitz, who in turn is relating her words to our narrator, who in turn is relating the story to the reader, so the pages are now punctuated with 'said Vera' as well as 'said Austerlitz'. It is almost as if she intuitively understand what he needs to know, what details he craves most, and how to spark in him his own memories of those years. It is poignant and heartbreaking to read her retelling of his departure and the impact it had on the two women (Vera and his mother Agáta) left behind:

"I have only an indistinct, rather blurred picture of the moment of farewell at the Wilsonova station, said Vera, adding, after a few moments' reflection, that I had my things with me in a little leather suitcase, and food for the journey in a rucksack - un petit sac a dos avec quelques viatiques, said Austerlitz, those had been Vera's exact words, summing up, as he now thought, the whole of his later life." (p.245)

He retraces his mother's wartime experience of having been interned at the ghetto at Terezin and he describes the making of a propaganda film by the Nazis created to dupe the Red Cross and to be used as a tool to counter Allied reports about persecution of Jews. He goes seeking some meaning but finds only an apparently deserted town. Having spent several pages describing in detail the random contents of a shop window:

"I could not tear myself away from staring at the hundreds of different objects, my forehead pressed against the cold window, as if one of them or their relationship with each other must provide an unequivocal answer to the many questions I found it impossible to ask in my mind." (p274-5)

then he finally walks away:

"I found myself outside the so-called Ghetto Museum, which I had overlooked before. I climbed the steps and entered the lobby, where a lady of uncertain age in a lilac blouse, her hair waved in an old fashioned style, sat behind a kind of cash desk. She put down the crochet work she was doing and leaned slightly forward to give me a ticket. When I asked if I was the only visitor today she said that the museum had only recently been opened and not many people from outside the town had come to see it, particularly at this time of year and in such weather. And the people of Terezin didn't come anyway, she added, picking up the white handkerchief  she was edging with loops like flower petals. So I went round the exhibition by myself, said Austerlitz..." (p.277-8)

The intertwining of real events and places with the story is very vivid; it is as if we follow Austerlitz as he discovers for himself this part of history that he had chosen to avoid. The emptiness of the places he goes (several places he visits are similarly devoid of other visitors) feels very symbolic of how alone he is, how alone he has chosen to be but also how the search he is making is deeply personal and solitary. It is intensified as he then also retraces his own journey away from Prague (this one is long, showing off Sebald's meandering style and also mentioning yet again a scene devoid of people):

"As the train rolled very slowly out of the station, through a passage between the backs of blocks of flats and into the dark tunnel under the New Town, and then crossed the Vltava with a regular beat, it really seemed to me, said Austerlitz, as if time had stood still since the day when I first left Prague. It was a dark, oppressive morning. The small lamp with a pink pleated shade, the kind of thing one used to see in the windows of Belgian brothels, stood on the white cloth covering the little table in the Czech State Railways dining car, where I was sitting in order to get a better view. The chef, his toque at an angle on his head, leaned in the entrance to the galley smoking and talking to the waiter, a curly-haired, slight little man in a check waistcoat and yellow bow-tie. Outside, under the lowering sky, meadows and fields passed by, fishponds, woods, the curve of a bend in a river, a stand of alders, hills and valleys, and at Beroun, if I remember correctly, a lime-works extending over a square mile or more, with chimneys and towering silos disappearing into the low clouds above, huge square buildings of crumbling concrete roofed with rusty corrugated iron, conveyor belts moving up and down, mills to grind the stone, conical mounds of gravel, huts and freight trucks, all of it uniformly covered with pale-grey sinter and dust. Then the wide countryside opened out again, and all the time I was looking out I never saw a vehicle on the roads, or a single human being except for the station masters who, whether from boredom or habit or because of some regulation which they had to observe, had come out on the platform at even the smallest stations such as Holoubkov, Chrast or Rokycany in their red uniform caps, most of them, it seems to me, sporting blond moustaches, and determined not to miss the Prague express as it thundered by on this plaid April morning." (p. 309-11)

There is no nice tidy ending, no completion of the mission, life goes on, and his quest to understand the fate of his parents goes on. I am not sure how to draw all my thoughts together because it is so complex, so as usual I will just have to leave it there. The book certainly deserves the praise that has been heaped upon it. There are very few books that I am certain I will read again, this will be one of them.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

HESFES bunnies

Hesfes this year was another triumph (last year's post). Last year I posted loads of photos from the cabaret so this year I thought I would include all the other random stuff that went on. 
HESFES bunnies made their first of, I hope, many appearances. Knitted to this pattern, I made a dozen and hid them randomly around the site and to hopefully be discovered, taken home and cherished.
I made fruit salad for breakfast. This is kind of symbolic because my memory of our first home ed gathering, an EO event at Featherstone Castle, was of having fruit salad for breakfast, something that had never previously occurred to me.
So, as an event for all ages, here are some of the things that the attendees got up to.
The very tiny people in the toddler tent:
other random small people making stuff in the cowshed:
the workshops 3 marquee was home to the recycled clothing workshop:
the bee tent was open two days and people got kitted up for a close encounter with the bees:
the grown ups spent time listening to Fiona who seemed to be chatting away most lunchtimes about home ed stuff:
and again, large groups regularly congregated in the main marquee for all sorts of strange performances:
And here is the Boy doing his debut performance:

Wise Children

'Wise children' by Angela Carter is book number eight in my TBR Pile Challenge 2013, and I think I want Dora Chance to be my grandma, or my next door neighbour, or something. The book reads as if you are sat chatting with her over a cuppa, or maybe a cheap bottle of wine. Although Nora and Dora are twins the story is narrated by Dora and she is the one we come to know and we follow their wild ride though the twentieth century as dancers and actresses, and unacknowledged offspring of the renown Melchior Hazard. The book starts where the elderly pair receive an invitation to their father's hundredth birthday party and works though the story until we reach the event in question. Raised by the wise and wily Grandma Chance after the death of their mother (not really a relative at all but the landlady) the girls work hard and make the most of their talents, sharing the ups and downs of a very chequered career. They watch from the sidelines as their father's career takes him from obscurity to 'national treasure', yearning not to bask in his reflected glory, but simply to be accepted as his daughters. Their consolation is the unreliable but adorable Peregrine, uncle and sometime pretend father, who descends into their lives and provides entertainment and sustenance in times of need. 

Twins they are, and devoted to each other, with neither love nor friendships ever really coming between them, but they could not be more different. Nora's 'first time' tells the whole story:

"The goose had Nora up against the wall in the alley outside the stage door one foggy night, couldn't see your hand in front of your face, happily for them. You don't get fogs like that, these days. It was after the cast Christmas party. I looked round the Green Room but they'd gone.
Don't be sad for her. Don't run away with the idea that it was a squall, furtive miserable thing, to make love for the first time on a cold night in a back alley with a married man with strong drink on his breath. He was the one she wanted, warts and all, she would have him, by hook or by crook. She had a passion to know about Life, all its dirty corners, and this is how she started, in at the deep end, for better or worse, while I stood shivering on the edge like the poor cat in the adage." (p.81)

while this is Dora's first affair, with 'Irish':

"Attracted as he was to my conspicuous unrefinement, all the same Irish thought it would only make sleeping with me all right in the end if we could read Henry James, together, afterwards, and I was nothing loath because there'd been precious little time for book-learning in my short life as I'd been earning a living from age twelve and sometimes Irish, when he remembered that, would forgive me everything.
Don't misunderstand me. He was a lovely man in many ways. But he kept on insisting on forgiving me when there was nothing to forgive.
Meanwhile Nora was eating pasta and making love with the magnificent simplicity I always envied." (p.123)

If anything the main player in the book is Melchior, the convolutions of his marriages and various offspring are a source of fascination for the Chance twins, but it is the women who dance around him who are the characters. In true theatrical style everything is so dramatic and sometimes you feel as if you are watching the scenes from a hilarious farce. Here Daisy arrives to demand that Melchior accept responsibility for her pending baby. Lady A, his current wife, accepts her fate and fades quietly into the background, ending up being taken in by the twins:

"It was the Lady A that I felt sorry for. I could even find it in my heart, at that moment, to feel sorry for Imogen and Saskia. The girls clung to their mother's skirts (she was wearing a lovely mid-calf crepe de Chine with fichu plus a wide-brimmed hat with an old rose ribbon), too scared to cry, too overwhelmed by the horror of it, the madwoman in her underwear, the screams, the tears, the recriminations. Meanwhile, the English Colony, ever unflappable, took their final bites of kipper and laid their knives and forks together on their plates." (p.147)

But what you really love about the girls is their zest for life; nothing is done by halves, it's all or nothing. They have relished every moment, seized every opportunity that comes their way and you can bet your life they will end it with no regrets. Here they are at the party, coincidentally their own seventy fifth birthday  ('Wheelchair' is their name for Lady A in her old age):

"We gave up on Wheelchair, surrendered our furs and, hand in hand, did another Hollywood ascension  up the staircase although I suffered the customary nasty shock when I spotted us both in the big gilt mirror at the top - two funny old girls, paint an inch thick, clothes sixty years too young, stars on their stockings and little wee skirts skimming their buttocks. Parodies. Nora caught sight of us as the same time as I did and she stopped short, too.
'Oooer, Dor,' she said. 'We've gone and overdone it.'
We couldn't help it, we had to laugh at the spectacle we'd made of ourselves and, fortified by sisterly affection, strutted our stuff boldly into the ballroom. We could still show them a thing or two, even if they couldn't stand the sight." (p.197-8)

This was a wonderful book, lit up by the women who populate it. A world of bright lights and grease paint and everyone takes a bow at the end. Large bunches of flowers all round.