Wednesday 28 December 2016

Appearance and disappearance

'The Sudden Appearance of Hope' by Claire North was a weird book. I think that is its defining quality. Hope has this quality of 'being forgotten', not just 'not memorable' but that, moments after leaving her presence, people have no recollection of ever meeting her. It makes life quite hard, as you might imagine, so her life has become a little unconventional. Living by stealing and gambling means she has become part of a subculture that includes the criminal underworld. When a young woman she considers a 'friend' commits suicide she blames it on the insidious 'Perfection' app that is taking over people's lives, and she becomes involved in a plot to destroy the app. I think Claire North is trying to write a book for the iPhone age, and as someone who doesn't own a smartphone I found it hard to care that much. It was a really long book that went round in circles, with the recurring fact of Hope being forgotten by everyone she meets as a tediously repetitive feature of the narrative. I persevered with it because ... well to be honest I just stared at the pages for a bit then turned them. Are we really all being programmed by phone apps to be and buy what is fed to us? I don't know anyone like that. I liked this bit about Manchester:

"I took the train to Manchester. Straight streets between stiff, industrial architecture. Short cathedral tucked in between shopping mall and roaring traffic. Museum dedicated to football, galleries from warehouses, town hall snaked around with trams, stone columns, red brick, not enough trees, crossing the canals at the lock gates, clinging to the black iron handles as you edge, one foot at a time to the other side. The screech of the railway lines, the cyclists ready to pedal through the Pennines, is this home?" (p.326)

Sunday 25 December 2016

Books of 2016 (because the rest was too awful)

It's been a bad year; politically, socially, economically, environmentally, and pretty much all the other allys. The kind of year when you just want to crawl under a rock and hide. I have tried not to hide from it, to, at the very least, know a little about what has been happening around the world even though the sense of being unable to affect it can be overwhelming. To all my regular and random visitors, Happy Christmas and I hope wherever you are that life is treating you kindly.

I feel a little lacklustre about the reading I have done this year so I hope my annual review of books is going to remind me that it has not been a total dead loss. 

Night Waking by Sarah Moss
Lives like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Emma by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Ausen and Seth Graeme Smith
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
The Bluebird Cafe by Rebecca Smith
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
How to be Both by Ali Smith
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
Camila by Chingiz Atimatov
The Boy who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Letters of Note by Shaun Usher
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim
Boneland by Alan Garner
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
may we be forgiven by A.M. Holmes
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon van Booy
Alone in Berlin by Hans Falada
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
The Offering Grace McCleen
Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
My Antonia by Willa Cather
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving
This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Holmes
Without a Map by Meredith Hall
The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
The Boat by Nam Le
The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
The Sneetches and other stories by Dr Seuss
The Crow Road by Iain Banks
The Many by Wyl Menmuir
Tony Hogan bought me an ice-cream float by Kerry Hudson
The Motorcycle Diaries by Erneso Guevara
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
How to be Wild by Simon Barnes
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood
Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century by Neil Postman
Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Children at the Gate by Lynn Reid Banks

54 books, which is about average for me, though sometimes reading has felt like wading through treacle and I have made myself finish a couple of books even when I wondered why I was bothering. Recommendations from the year: unexpectedly fascinating, Lives Like Loaded Guns, about Emily Dickinson and her legacy; for a totally absorbing story, A Prayer for Owen Meany; for lovely understated writing, Grief is the Thing with Feathers; to understand another's experience Yellow Birds. The best, best thing I have read this year however is Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake that Monkey and I have been reading aloud together. We are only about half way through, and she has been away a lot recently so little progress is being made but do watch out for a coming review of this, it is a classic and a book unlike anything else you will have read.

I have done little knitting, more crochet and quite a bit of sewing, though my Turkish coat project has been sorely neglected, finishing it may be my new year resolution. Dunk has a new job, which seems to be less depressing than the old one, as least he feels appreciated. All other things are pretty much the same. In case you are wondering the Christmas tree was inspired by this video, and what with having to buy a glue gun it cost as much as a real tree.

Monday 19 December 2016

Children at the Gate

Lynn Reid Banks is a writer who has been part of my life for a very long time. I read the 'L-Shaped Room' trilogy when I was a teenager and it had quite an influence on me. I picked up 'Children at the Gate' in Hay a couple of weeks ago because I have not read anything else by her since. 
Ostensibly about a woman recovering from the death of her young son and the subsequent breakdown of her marriage it is a very atmospheric book that captures Israel of the 1960s, painting us pictures of the Arab quarter in Acco, the Kibbutz and then the port of Jaffa. Gerda lives on the seedy side of town in a run down house, befriended only by Kofi who wants to save her from her self-destructive behaviour. When she finally confides her history to him he arranges for her to adopt two supposed Arab orphans. To avoid the attentions of the authorities she takes them to live at a nearby Kibbutz. Though they all settle into the life there the children's past catches up with them and they are forced to move on.

"The square outside was pitch dark except for a paraffin lamp hissing high up on one of the arched galleries opposite. Our house has iron balconies but the rest of the square was built much earlier and has a kind of cloister with beautiful arches at first-floor level which goes round three sides of the square. I say 'beautiful' because at night they are - this is Acco's second self, her night-self, when all the day-smells are lifted from her and replaced by cool sea-winds drifting through her narrow alleys and flooding softly into the open squares; when darkness covers the dirt and squalor like snow, leaving only the shapes, the smooth outlines of domes and minarets against the stars, the perfectly balanced archways, the mysterious broken flights of stairs and half-open doorways, the cold but not unkind flare of a paraffin lamp showing a brief interior, its walls painted in grotto shades of blue and green and hung with prints whose cheap tastelessness a passing glimpse does not show." (p.28)

"I hardly slept at all, and only a great mug of black coffee in the grey damp early morning cleared my head sufficiently so I could stumble through the empty streets to Kofi's house. Only when I got there did I realise it was far too early to burst in upon him. I wandered about in a fever of impatience; the rain began to fall again in sheets and I took shelter in a tunnel-like archway. I could see the minaret of the big mosque from there, and soon the muezzin came out on the circular balcony, a small, oddly heroic figure, and gave his call to the wet empty morning like some lonely bird crying for company. The minor-key notes burst from his throat like a series of underwater bubbles and streamed through the rain almost visibly, splashing open on closed wooden doors and bruised yellow walls and the eardrums of faithful and unbelieving alike." (p.98)

Since I was a child I have been fascinated with the idea of Kibbutz, I am not sure where I learned about them but the notion of living communally was something that drew me. So although the story is about mothering and it's impact I was almost more interested in the picture it drew of life in this most unusual of organisations. The book is told first person by Gerda and is full of self hatred and exquisite examination of all her inadequacies. It takes her several years, but the story charts her struggle to learn to value herself again as she learns to take care of the needs of the children and build a relationship with them. However, when her new life crumbles around her she falls back into her old habits of thought very easily. I found her a not very likeable character, desperately needy and selfish; she wants to be a better person than she is but struggles so hard to believe herself capable of it. I enjoyed it for the honesty of how Gerda tells her story, the contrast between her self-doubt and the growing confidence in her role as mother to Ella and Peretz, she is a very real human being. Lynne Reid Banks spend time living on a kibbutz and her experiences found their way into several of her novels. Politically the story is very neutral, not presenting Israel in either a positive or negative light; the difficulties of the children being illegal immigrants is very matter of fact, and though the 'war' starts at the end of the book the story manages to stay away from the fraught political situation of the time.  

Friday 16 December 2016

The Well of Loneliness

'The Well of Loneliness' by Radclyffe Hall.
This fascinating Brainpickings article outlines the ins and outs of the obscenity trials, both here and in the US, that made this book and its author cultural icons of the 20th century. I nearly gave up on it during the early chapters as it is deathly dull, as a young child she is just confused and made bereft by the loss of her beloved father, but once Stephen begins to confront rather than hide from the difference she knows marks her out it became more interesting. The book charts the life of a young woman as she comes to understand her sexuality and gender identity, from her childhood crush on a young housemaid, through an intense friendship with a married woman, to an enduring love affair with a young woman she meets during the First World War. Her unease with all things female is evident from a young age and her inability to conform the social expectations weighs heavily on her as the years pass. Born into the wealth she is somewhat protected from the consequences of what would have been a catastrophic ostracising by her social class; her inheritance provides for her and when events takes her to Paris she has the means to establish a new life for herself. I expected the move to Paris to provide her with a bohemian enclave of support and friendship but it is a rather small and sorry little group that she becomes part of, all of them equally on the run from disapproval. She longs wistfully for home and her childhood throughout the book and never confronts her mother over her cruel rejection. She looks at herself and sees only oddness, never learning to relish and celebrate her unconventionality, constantly, it seems, wishing she were more normal and acceptable. 

I think that what I liked about the book is that it is just the story of a woman trying to make her way in the world, trying to make her mark and trying to protect the person she loves. The style is very dated and somewhat repetitive, long descriptions of Stephen's inner thoughts that go over the same subjects time and again. She is a very strong and likeable character, and in fact most of the other people in the story are somewhat shallow and underdeveloped; the book is about Stephen, the other players just people the background of her life. I think the book of course is very much of its time and the gender roles (and social class divides) that it describes are so much more rigid than nowadays. Here are two contrasting quotes on how Stephen relates to women and men:

"There she would stand with her strong arms folded, and her face somewhat strained in an effort of attention. While despising these girls, she yet longed to be like them - yes, indeed, at such moments she longed to be like them. It would suddenly strike her that they seemed very happy, very secure of themselves as they gossiped together. There was something so secure in their feminine conclaves, a secure sense of oneness, of mutual understanding; each in turn understood the other's ambitions. They might have their jealousies, their quarrels even, but always she discerned underneath, that sense of oneness." (p.74)

"Could Stephen have met men on equal terms, she would always have chosen them as her companions; she preferred them because of their blunt, one outlook, and with men she had much in common - sport for instance. But men found her too clever if she ventured to expand, and too dull if she suddenly subsided into shyness. In addition to this there was something about her that antagonised slightly, an unconscious presumption. shy though she might be, they sensed this presumption; it annoyed them, it made them feel on the defensive. she was handsome but much too large and unyielding both in body and mind, and they liked clinging women. They were oak-trees, preferring the feminine ivy. It might cling rather close, it might finally strangle, it frequently did, and yet they preferred it, and this being so, they resented Stephen, suspecting something of an acorn about her." (p.74-5)

It is very much a cry for tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality and gender fluidity, and the thing that the book does well is to allow the reader to feel the depth of her sorrow and vulnerability over being shunned by society. I am not sure I would recommend it other than for its curiosity value, but it began a conversation that continues to this day and the story has an enduring relevance simply because there is still so far to go towards the tolerance she yearned for.