Tuesday 29 August 2017

History of Wolves

I seem to be reading my way through the Booker longlist, purely by coincidence, so the next book the library bought me was 'History of Wolves' by Emily Fridlund. I was disappointed that there were no wolves. It is the story of Linda who lives with her parents in a remote lakeside cabin. Members of a former commune they tend to keep to themselves and she is something of an outsider. A young family acquire the cabin opposite and Linda is gradually drawn in by the mother and son who take up residence while the father works elsewhere. Alongside runs the story of her school life, a girl called Lily and the history teacher Mr Grierson.

It is a very intense and claustrophobic book. Linda's world is very small and she is lonely in ways I don't think even she understands, so when Patra offers her a token of friendship she grasps it with both hands. Over the months they settle into a comfortable routine, though Patra often takes her presence for granted and there remains something of a parent/babysitter relationship between them. So the story meanders between various quite discrete part of Linda's life: home life, taking care of their four dogs and preparing the fish her father catches; school life of eating her lunch in the toilet and surreptitiously following Lily around; life at the Gardners, exploring the woods with Paul and eating pancakes. It is punctuated with brief asides, references to 'the trial' and her future life that contains a housemate and a boyfriend. 

I was discomfited by the relationship between Patra and Paul, it seemed strained and slightly unnatural. It was the thing that I liked about the book that she achieved this very subtly, nothing was said, nothing very particular happened, it was just there. Linda seems to like taking on a big sister role with him, sharing her love of the wildness, though sometimes awkward and unable to engage with him at his own level. You get little hints of an oppressive atmosphere in the family, but again it is not explicit. As soon as Leo arrives home though the atmosphere changes and Linda is as discomfited as I was, but she just does not know what to do about it. The references to religion and god only slip in very late in the day and it is not entirely clear what is going on, though the repeated assertion that Paul is 'fine' quickly begins to make it obvious that he isn't. She lets you know at the beginning of the story that Paul is dead, but I had initially anticipated something much more sinister. The effect of this information is also to make you want (inside your head) for things to turn out differently, you find yourself willing Linda to do something. It's like when you watch a film you have seen many times, in which something tragic happens, and you yearn each time for something to happen to save the day. Linda gives a long convoluted description of what she actually does when she walks into town to buy medicine for Paul; she knows somewhere in her mind that he is seriously ill but there is no urgency in her behaviour, as if she is desperate for someone else to take the responsibility away from her, she does not have the strength to challenge the internal dynamics of Leo and Patra's relationship. 

I have a nice long quote just to give you a taste. Here Linda and Paul have been camping in the living room while Patra drove to the airport to meet Leo. It is an incident in which Linda seems more sure of herself than she does at any other point in the book, yet it is not out of character:

"Later when I woke up, I found Patra had curled up around Paul. Back to me. But I could feel her curved spine through her jacket when I pushed in closer, all those littler vertebrae linked up, all those bones laid out, like a secret. The night had come down hard, finally. Thunder was rumbling far away. Wind had kicked up waves, and they were loud enough now that I could hear them on the shore of the lake, shoving pebbles forward and back. I could hear pine needles whipping the roof of the house. I could hear Paul and Patra breathing in syncopation.
Happy, I was happy.
I barely recognised the feeling.
So who could blame me for wishing that the husband's rescheduled plane would drift into a low-lying thunderhead? That it would shunt into sudden turbulence, lose elevation fast? Who could blame me for hoping his pilot would be young and scared, that he'd turn around and fly back over the ocean? The husband had his own baby stars to watch over and his own mountains to do it from, in Hawaii. I longed for straight line winds between him and me, for hurricanes off the California coast. Downpours and lightening. The thunder was getting louder now. I felt the tent I'd built gather us in, Paul and Patra. Patra and me.
I slept and woke. I dreamed of the dogs. I dreamed of taking Patra and Paul out on the canoe, currents like underwater hands thrusting the boat around, so we had to fight to go forward. My paddle guiding us towards the shore. Or maybe guiding us away from it, maybe we were leaving after all. I slept and woke. Slept.

Eventually, just after dawn, I heard a scuffling outside. It sounded like a slow-moving mammal, a possum or raccoon, unsettling the driveway stones. ThenI heard a car door thump. Very gently I sat up and pulled the hatchet from under Paul's pillow. I unzipped the tent, tiptoed across the braided rugs, crept to the front window. There, in the driveway, in the early morning light, stood a man in a blue slicker next to a rental car. He held a brown sack of groceries, a duffel bag. He looked bland and harmless - so when he opened the door I let the hatchet hang in my hand where he could see it. And Patra was right: I could hear him think. I could hear him taking in the dark room and the tent on the floor and the tall, scrawny kid coming out from the shadows, with a good-sized weapon." (p.87-8)

So, a story that takes a sidelong look at the issue of religious based medical neglect, without somehow passing judgement on it. It was certainly an engaging and well written novel, though not I think Booker material. 

And just because I wanted wolves:

What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?

Arundhati Roy's new book 'The Ministry of Utmost Happiness' is on the Booker Prize longlist, not surprising for a book that has been anticipated for twenty years. It is now overdue at the library so I will probably fail to do it justice. It's hard to know where to start because it is a book about so many things, but, primarily, as with my vague memories of 'God of Small Things', it is a story about people. So many people. And somehow she manages to get you attached to all of them.

It begins with the life of Anjum, who is a hijra, who is making her life in an abandoned graveyard after years of random confusion and disappointment. The community of people she builds up around her populates the book, coming and going about their own lives, which she details along with the lives of the central characters. I enjoyed the backstories of these minor players, it creates depth and colour. The first part of the book covers Anjum's world, it has its troubles but it is relatively calm and stable. It is not a social critique or a demand for a change to the caste system, it is simply a portrayal of the way things are. The picture she paints of this world is both sordid and divided. Poverty is endemic but the people are accepting of the status quo and seem to find comfort in their own little niches. 

"Right next to  the waste-recyclers and the sewage workers was the plushest part of the pavement, a glittering public toilet with floating glass mirrors and a shiny granite floor. The toilet lights stayed on, night and day. It cost one rupee for a piss, two for a shit and three for a shower. Not many on the pavement would afford these rates, Many pissed outside the toilet, against the wall. So, though the toilet was spotlessly clean inside, from the outside it gave off the sharp smoky smell of stale urine. It didn't matter very much to the management; the toilet's revenue came from elsewhere. The exterior wall doubled up as a billboard that advertised something new every week." (p.112)

While it is a political book it is also a literary book, and she always gets her point across in elegant ways:

"The horse's hooves echoed on an empty street.
Payal the thin day-mare clop-clipped through a part of the city she oughtn't to be in.
On her back, astride a red cloth saddle edged with gold tassels, two riders: Saddam Hussain and Ishrat-the-Beautiful. In a part of the city they oughtn't to be in. No signs said so, because everything was a sign that any fool could read: the silence, the width of the roads, the height of the trees, the unpeopled pavements, the clipped hedges, the low white bungalows in which the Rulers lived. Even the yellow light that poured from the tall street lights looked encashable - columns of liquid gold." (p.135)

The second part of the book is narrated by Biplab Dasgupta, one of a group of friends who's bond is formed during play rehearsals, from where he gets his nickname, Garson Hobart. Their India is a much more volatile place. The book from here on is peppered with violence, some of it quite extreme, that often left me shaken. The religious divide she portrays is something it is hard to understand for someone looking in from the outside. This, the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, an event I recall vividly:

"For a few days after the assassination, mobs led by her supports and acolytes killed thousands of Sikhs in Delhi. Homes, shops, taxi stands with Sikh  drivers, whole localities where Sikhs lives were burned to the ground. Plumes of black smoke climbed into the sky from the fires all over the city. From my window seat in a bus on a bright beautiful day, I saw a mob lynch an old Sikh gentleman. they pulled off his turban, tore out his beard and necklaced him South African-style with a burning tyre while people stood around baying their encouragement. I hurried home and waited for the shock of what I had witnessed to hit me. Oddly it never did. The only shock I felt was the shock at my own equanimity. I was disgusted by the stupidity, the futility of it all, but somehow, I was not shocked. It could be that my familiarity with the gory history of the city I had grown up in had something to do with it. It was as though the Apparition whose presence we in India are all constantly and acutely aware of had suddenly surfaced, snarling, from the deep, and had behaved exactly as we expected it to. Once its appetite was sated it sank back into its subterranean lair and normality closed over. Maddened killers retracted their fangs and returned to their daily chores - as clerks, tailors, plumbers, carpenters, shopkeepers - life went on as before." (p.150)

Tilo is the character who dominates much of the rest of the story;

"She smoked Ganesh beedis that she kept in a scarlet Dunhill cigarette packet. She would look right through the disappointment on the faces of those who had tried to scam what they thought was an imported filter cigarette off her, and ended up instead with a beedi that they were too embarrassed not to smoke, especially when she was offering to light it for them. I saw this happen a number of times, but her expression always remained impassive - there was never a smile or the exchange of an amused glance with a friend, so I could never tell whether she was playing a practical joke or whether this was just the way she did things. The complete absence of a desire to please, or to put someone at their ease, could, in a less vulnerable person, have been construed as arrogance. In her it came across as a kind of reckless aloneness. Behind her plain, unfashionable spectacles, her slightly slanting cat-eyes had the insouciant secretiveness of a pyromaniac. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash. As thought she was taking herself for a walk while the rest of us were being walked - like pets. As though she was watching considerately, somewhat absent-mindedly, from a  distance, while we minced along, grateful to our owners, happy to perpetuate our bondage." (p.153-4)

She is idolised by Biplab, he remains at a distance never admitting his feelings for her, but, like a true love never abandons her, ensuring her rescue (spoiler) from her darkest moment.

"I asked her - it was a stupid question - what precautions she took to make sure she stayed safe. She said she didn't dispute the rumour in the neighbourhood that she worked for a well-known drug dealer. That way, she said, people assumed she had protection.
I decided to brazen it out and ask about Musa, where he was, whether they were still together, whether they planned to get married. She said, 'I'm not marrying anybody.' When I asked her why she felt that way, she said she wanted to be free to die irresponsibly, without notice and for no reason." (p.159)

By the time you have staggered through the 400 pages you almost become immune to the random killing, though you feel as if this is deliberate on the authors part. I felt there was an element of cynicism and fatalism to people's attitude to the violence.

"The post-massacre protocol was quick and efficient - perfected by practice. Within an hour the dead bodies had been removed to the morgue in the Police Control Room, and the wounded to hospital. The street was hosed down, the blood directed into the open drains. Shops reopened. Normalcy was declared. (Normalcy was always a declaration.)
Later it was established that the explosion had been caused by a car driving over an empty carton of Mango Frooti on the next street. Who was to blame? Who had left the packet of Mango Frooti (Fresh'n'Juicy) on the street? India or Kashmir? Or Pakistan? Who had driven over it? A tribunal was instituted to inquire into the causes of the massacre. The facts were never established. Nobody was blamed. This was Kashmir. It was Kashmir's fault." (p.324)

How does a society continue to function when so many of its people have been so traumatised? You get some of the answer in the closing pages when the characters create memorials to their loved ones within the graveyard. The bonds of friendship are the driving force of this novel and it is the thing that leaves the book feeling hopeful. It is quite a hard book to read but also an important one. The world so often forgets about people who's trauma becomes old news. Arundhati Roy's writing and activism over the last twenty years has been focussed on political change, and in this story you can sense her passionate commitment to the fate of Kashmir. While she is not necessarily making a case here for separation, she is telling the world about this tiny corner of humanity, trying to shine a light on the injustices of the current situation.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

All the shows we did not see

Dunk and I ventured back to Edinburgh yesterday, to see if it was as good as we remembered. It was. The streets teemed, the flyers flew, lines, jokes, poems and tunes tumbled in abundance, much tea was drunk, some good (at the Bedlam Theatre), some not so good (St Giles Café again). We took an early train, via Wigan, and arrived just as the Mile was waking up. Much loitering and dithering ensued, during which I wished we had planned more in advance and not gone with the 'lets just do stuff on the spur of the moment' thing. We saw a sketch show at the Underbelly then had a mediocre sandwich. More dithering then we went back to Underbelly and saw 'The Man on the Moor' written and performed by Max Dickins, based around the story of an unidentified man found dead on Saddleworth Moor at the end of 2015. An excellent show, brilliantly performed, it certainly made my visit worthwhile. We took a more leisurely stroll down South Bridge and on to the Meadows to pass the time until we wandered back to St George's Square to see Wereldband: Slapstick, a riotous blend of musical virtuosity and slapstick comedy. After dinner at Café Turquaz we hot-footed it back for the 8.14 train that got us home just after midnight. Long day. Not sure I would recommend it was a way to experience the Fringe but we were glad we went in the end.

Thursday 17 August 2017

There and back again

The second stretch of the Pennine Way has been planned since the first one two months ago, so yesterday Monkey and I took the train to Glossop and retraced our steps across the troll bridge and up the boggy valley to what is known as Doctor's Gate and rejoined the Pennine Way to cross Devil's Dyke and Shelf Moor towards Bleaklow Head. From there we followed the precipitous Clough Edge and descended to the chain of reservoirs that led us, via the Trans Pennine Trail, (finally) to Hadfield. On the map it is big loop, but we didn't quite go in a complete circle as the train home bypassed Glossop.
This time we were armed with a newly acquired map cover so there would be no struggling to check the route:
and we paid close attention to the stone arrows, though they are not necessarily as frequent as you need and you still have to sometimes just follow your nose.
The previous walk's cottongrass had been superseded by the heather:
and instead of the carcass of the aeroplane we discovered this skeleton; at first glance I thought was a rabbit, but on closer inspection it appears to be a large bird of prey, the flesh rotted away but clumps of feathers still obvious in the mud:

The handy Pennine Way distance calculator tells me we walked over twelve miles, and climbed again to nearly 2,000 feet.

Monday 14 August 2017

Pipe Dream

Building my own home is my pipe dream. I have had a crush on Kevin McCloud ever since Grand Designs started eighteen years ago, that's a lot of years of watching other people build their own houses. Though in fact mostly builders build them, and the people just swan around in hard hats. I don't want to swan around in a hard hat, I want to create a place to live by my own effort, I figure it will be the only way I will ever afford to do it. I have no money, but I have to start somewhere so I decided to start learning more systematically about eco design and house construction. Will Anderson's 'Diary of an Eco-Builder' started as a series of articles in The Independent, and it tells of the trials and tribulations of building a timber framed house on a tiny plot in Clapham. This is not what I have in mind but there is always plenty to learn from other's experiences and he gives lots of advice and links to suppliers and so on. He is a real purist and works very hard to build the most ecological home he can. I liked what he says at the end, because I very much agree:

"Very occasionally, when the accumulating evidence of global climate breakdown saps my optimism, I wonder what difference our radical eco-specifications will actually make. But I have no such doubts about acts and works of beauty. After all, if we cannot sustain a delight in life itself, whatever future we face, what is it we are fighting to preserve?" 

This book is also available as a PDF download
I have been doing much more reading here, The Mud Home. My parents used to live in a house made of cob, and it was four hundred years old, so it seems like a reliable material. All I need now is a plot of land ...

Black Dogs

I picked 'Black Dogs' by Ian McEwan off the shelf because I knew that judging from his other books I have read (that apparently all predate the blog) I would love it, and I have.

Black Dogs is narrated by Jeremy and tells the story of his parents-in-law, Bernard and June; their marriage, their political and philosophical beliefs and the gulf that separates them despite a passionate love. He explains in the preface his own situation and his unusual habit of adopting other people's parents, which explains the close relationship he has with his wife's. The story hops around a bit from the immediate post-war era when Bernard and June married and their enthusiastic adoption of communism, to June's later life, dying very slowly in a nursing home, and later still to the dying days of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The incident with the black dogs is referred to repeatedly, and you sense that the book is leading you to this significant moment in June's life, but he keeps backtracking and deviating, giving what feels like extraneous details about their lives. But maybe they are not. What I like about Ian McEwan is that his books are small, at least the ones I have read are; about very small incidents, and the impact that they have on people's lives. The stories about about the stones, but also the ripples. I keep coming back to the sense that you do not notice good writing; characters become real and individual by osmosis as you read, you cannot put your finger on what the writer is doing to achieve this. I liked and identified with Jeremy, and you feel you get to know him well, even though the story is not about him, he reveals himself as he describes his parents-in-law and their lives. 

This is June's life, reduced from the (to me) idyll that she inhabited in the bergerie to the drawn out end in a remote nursing home:

"When she was satisfied that I had brought exactly what she ordered, I stowed the goods, except for the ink which she kept on the locker. The heavy fountain pen, the greyish-white cartridge paper and the black ink were the only visible reminders of her former daily life. Everything else, her delicatessen luxuries, her clothes, had their special places, out of sight. Her study at the bergerie, with its views westward down the valley towards St Privat, was five times the size of this room and could barely accommodate her books and papers; beyond, the huge kitchen with its jambons de montagne hung from beams, demijohns of olive oil on the stone floor, and scorpions sometimes nesting in the cupboards; in the living room which took up all of the old barn where a hundred locals once gathered at the end of a boar hunt; her bedroom with the four-poster bed and french windows of stained glass, and the guest bedrooms through all of which, over the years, her possessions flowed and spread; the room where she pressed her flowers; the hut with gardening tools in the orchard of almonds and olives, and near that, the henhouse that looked like a miniature dovecote - all this boiled down, stripped away, to one free-standing bookcase, a tallboy of clothes she never wore, a steamer trunk no one was allowed to look inside, and a tiny fridge." (p.36)

During the same visit, revealing himself as he watches another resident. A beautiful subtle moment, he does not say what he is thinking, only leaves you with the impression of thought:

"I offer to make her tea and she assents by lifting a finger off the sheet. I crossed to the handbasin to fill the kettle. Outside, the rain had stopped but the wind still blew, and a tiny woman in a pale blue cardigan was making her way across the lawn with the aid of a walking frame. A strong gust could have carried her away. She arrived at a flower bed against the wall and knelt down before her frame, as though at a portable altar. When she was down on the grass on her knees, she manoeuvred the frame to one side, and took from one pocket of her cardigan a tea spoon, and from the other a handful of bulbs. She set about digging holes and pressing the bulbs into them. A few years ago I would have seen no point at all in planting at her age, I would have watched the scene and read it as an illustration of futility. Now, I could only watch." (p.44)

This book was published in 1992 but I came across this next quote, where Jeremy first meets his wife, and in it he manages to encapsulate the casual and everyday misogyny that is finally being acknowledged and (occasionally) challenged:

"In October 1981 I was in Poland as a member of an amorphous cultural delegation invited by the Polish government. I was then the administrator of a moderately successful provincial theatre company. Among the group were a novelist, an arts journalist, a translator and two or three cultural bureaucrats. The only woman was Jenny Tremaine, who represented an institution based in Paris and funded from Brussels. Because she was both beautiful and rather brisk in her manner, she drew hostility from some of the others. The novelist in particular, aroused by the paradox of an attractive woman unimpressed by his reputation, had a racing bet with the journalist and one of the bureaucrats to see who could 'all' her first. The general idea was that Miss Tremiane, with her white freckled skin and green eyes, her head of thick red hair, her efficient way with her appointment book and perfect French, had to be put in her place. In the inevitable boredom of an official visit there was a good deal of muttering over late-night drinks in the hotel bar. The effect was souring. It was impossible to exchange word or two with this woman, whose sharp style, I soon discovered, merely concealed her nervousness, without some of the others nudging and winking in the background, and asking me later if I was 'in the race'." (p.105-6)

The incident with the dogs happens when June and Bernard are on honeymoon. Already pregnant and already feeling ambivalent to her commitment to the communist party, June walks ahead of Bernard and finds herself confronted with two large feral dogs. For June it becomes a defining moment in her life, one that alters everything, and one that you feel Bernard never understands. The tension of the situation is drawn out and visceral, but without being overly dramatic, another example of engaging writing. But it is Bernard's moment that I want to quote last. There is an undercurrent in the book of references to the war, and its lasting impact on both individuals and the world itself. Here the political idealist Bernard is suddenly struck by an aspect he had not appreciated previously, after an encounter with a woman watching a stonemason working on a war memorial:

"This sombre incident remained with them as they struggled up the hill in the heat, heavy with lunch, towards the Bergerie de Tédenat. They stopped half way up in the shade of a stand of pines before a long stretch of open road. Bernard was to remember this moment for the rest of his life. As they drank from their water bottles he was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions, like the woman in black for a husband and two brothers, each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise. It seemed as though he had never thought about the war before, not about its cost. He had been so busy with the details of his work, of doing it well, and his widest view had been of war aims, of winning, of statistical death, statistical destruction, and of post-war reconstruction. For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories. This came upon Bernard by a pine tree in the Languedoc in 1946 not as an observation he could share with June but as a deep apprehension, a recognition of a truth that dismayed him into silence and, later, a question: what possible good could come of a Europe covered in this dust, these spores, when forgetting would be inhuman and dangerous, and remembering a constant torture?" (p.165)

I will leave it there, because what more is there to add.

Sunday 13 August 2017


A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. This is even more of a quickie than the other two today. Jill Fisher started reading this book aloud at an EO gathering years ago and I have been curious about it ever since, so I put it on my 101 books list. I was somewhat disappointed by it. Maybe if I had been reading it to the kids I would have enjoyed it more but although it was quite well written it lacked any subtlety in the story and the references to god put me off. I feel disappointed by my disappointment, because I wanted to like it, she is  much admired children's author. I think Philip Pullman has spoiled me.

Puzzles and Profiteroles

After about two months we are finally getting a regular supply of tomatoes ... when I say regular I mean I am eating one every time I pass through the porch, sometimes we have as many as four or five ripe at the same time. But they are delicious, you can taste that they are home grown.
While Dunk is away the mice will play, and we really know how to live it up in our house; the girls and I have passed the week living on takeaway food and doing a puzzle while watching a marathon of all eight Harry Potter films. 
There have been some minor indulgences, yesterday I conjured up some profiteroles. I used the choux pastry recipe in my very ancient Marks and Spencer cookery book, but Delia's instructions are pretty much identical. 
And we also took a much anticipated trip to Countess Ablaze, a new yarn shop and dye studio that opened a while ago in the Northern Quarter. They dye all their own yarn and fibre for spinning. This one is for a scarf/cowl to go with my turkish coat:
This one is for Monkey, possibly socks, and Tish has plans, and yarn, for an octopus hat.

Buxton and Blackberries

Buxton is an unassuming little town, its main claim to fame is the Buxton water, that you can still drink for free from St Anne's Well, but it was to Poole's Cavern that Dunk and I ventured for our annual day out. It has been a tourist attraction for many centuries, visited, it is claimed, by Mary, Queen of Scots during her imprisonment by Elizabeth I. Dissolved limestone from the rocks above has dripped down into the cavern for a few hundred thousand years and you can go down in the cold and admire the stalagmites (on the floor) and stalactites (on the ceiling).

We had some lovely lunch courtesy of the food festival and then popped along to Scriveners, that claims to be the largest second hand bookshop in Derbyshire: 
and the Green Man Gallery that had this wonderful staircase waterfall among its exhibits:
A lovely low key excursion; there and back on the train for the princely sum of £15.30.

Blackberry season has started early this year, and the berries are in abundance. 
Not just abundant, the bubbling berries were pretty enthusiastic too... here is the floor:
and the ceiling:
Today Monkey and I picked and bottled. Ten pounds of fruit picked, just four of which became twelve pots of jam. I am out of empty jars so the rest are in the freezer for now.
More catch up posts to follow.

Tuesday 1 August 2017

Sorry Doris

On my parents bookshelf when I was a teenager was the book 'The Four-Gated City: Book Five of Children of Violence' by Doris Lessing. I was curious about this book title for years, but they didn't seem to own parts one to four, so in the end I bought them myself when I was a student. I had a bit of a Doris Lessing phase for some years and consider myself a great admirer. Mum said I could keep her copy of 'The Golden Notebook' because she didn't care for Doris much any more. I have started to read it twice, I'm sorry but this one is not for me.