Tuesday 6 November 2018

The Quarry

Last up from my review backlog is 'The Quarry' by Ian Banks, his final novel before his untimely death in 2013. I have read several of his novels after discovering 'Wasp Factory' back in 2011 but none that had quite the same unique voice as my first encounter, however Kit, the autistic young man in The Quarry, does manage to be both quirky and thoroughly engaging.

Kit is caring for his father Guy who is dying of cancer, and the story covers a long weekend visit by a close-knit group of university friends. They are an odd group, seemingly bound together by their shared history as much as a liking for each other. They all lived together during their university years in the house owned by Guy, and appeared to have had quite a wild time of it. Their visit becomes an excuse to relive some of their past, but a particular old film project has become the focus of interest, something that most of the group's members want to find and ensure is destroyed. And then there is the lingering issue for Kit of who his mother is.

The story is narrated by Kit so we are only getting his impression of the relationships between the friends, some of whom he is closer to, while others still treat him like a child. There are plenty of unspoken tensions between the group, caused by earlier sexual entanglements, but also by differing political opinions and life choices. It is an interesting examination of how long term friendship operates, that they can like each other in spite of differences and their history is more important than any current disagreements. But it is Kit who is the focus of the story, his struggles to learn how to be with people, to get to grips with social niceties and understand how the world works. I liked the way the reader get inside his head and his thinking. He explains constantly how he sees things and the minutiae of his daily life. Here the group are visiting a local landmark after dark:

"Actually I do have a torch; a little credit-card-sized thing Mrs Willoughby gave me as a birthday present a couple of years ago, but it's for emergencies only, and I wouldn't call this an emergency. If somebody falls on the stairs and needs help, that would be an emergency; then I could use it.
Of course if I let them have the torch, that might help prevent them falling on the stairs in the first place, so maybe I should loan it to them after all. However, by the time I think all this through it's a bit late anyway, and I might even cause an incident if I suddenly dash up the stairs after them, yelling about having a torch and saying I'd forgotten, sorry, but here it is - who needs it most?
I get quite hot thinking about all this; it's just the kind of thing that trips me up and makes me panic. I start taking deep, measured breaths, the way Mrs Willoughby taught me." (p.139)

Guy's cancer sits there partly in the background of the story, but it bursts through intermittently, mostly in angry tirades. The awkwardness of the visitors is palpable, they try to be 'normal' with Guy but can't escape the fact that he is dying and they are all going to carry on living. The relationship between Kit and Guy has become fixed in a pattern of Kit dealing with the practicalities and Guy resenting him, almost blaming him for his dependency. It comes across as a very real and honest picture of someone suffering, devoid of any sentimentality, and you admire Guy's refusal to give in to acceptance, he sticks with the anger stage because it suits him:

"Guy breaks off, coughs again. He's looking sweaty, his eyes are bright.
'You might as well walk into a burning building and try and put out the fire through the medium of modern dance. But it means when you do lose your brave fucking battle - because it always has to be a brave fucking battle, doesn't it? You're never allowed to have a cowardly battle or just a resigned one; that'd be letting the fucking side down, that would ... Anyway, they can secretly think, Well, fucker didn't think positively enough, obviously. If that had been me, I'd have thought so positively I'd have been fine; I'd be fit as a fucking fiddle by now and out publicising my number one best-seller How I Beat the Big C and appearing on chat shows and talking with Spielberg's people about the fucking film version.' Guy coughs again. 'So you don't even get to die in peace; you don't even get to die without the implication that it's somehow your own fucking fault because you weren't fucking positive enough.'
It's your fault you smoked! I want to scream at him. I can feel tears trying to well up behind my eyes.
Guy looks at me, face flushed and glistening in the bedside light. I should probably take a facecloth to him. He smiles. Or maybe he sneers. It's something in between." (p.195)

Like several of his other books I have read the story is very much about human relationships and through the voice of the somewhat reticent Kit the reader becomes a fly on the wall watching this group of friends negotiate a somewhat sticky situation. 

Sunday 4 November 2018

Three Elegies for Kosovo

I picked out this slim little volume at the charity shop on our recent trawl. 'Three Elegies for Kosovo' by Ismail Kadare is a dramatic history of Kosovo told by some travelling musicians at a decisive battle in 1389 when a Christian army was defeated by the might of the Ottoman empire, an event that has impacted down the centuries. It is not a period in history, or a part of the world, I know much about but the impression I was left with is one of both deep seated animosities but also a strong sense of the bonds between the communities of the region. The ordinary people seems to accept the fact that they live or die at the whim of their leaders, they are resigned to their fate. As the musicians travel together away from the battlefield they jealously guard their instruments and share their songs with people along the way, each place they stop having a differing view of the unfolding events. The tales aim to highlight the tragic consequences of the historical conflict and how the lessons of history do not seem to have been learned. I give you this interesting quote, which in the current political climate seems highly appropriate, but also shows how political tactic haven't changed much:

"Ever since the Venetians began using mute couriers, political rumours, particularly those emanating from the roadside inns, had fallen off considerably. But as if often the case when greed incites an individual or a state to foolish deeds, the Venetians were not satisfied with simple secrecy, but strove to go even further. And since the only courier more secretive than one whose tongue has been cut out is a dead courier, the Venetian's quest moved in an unexpected direction. Their new couriers were not deaf-mutes and not blind mutes, as one would have expected, but normal couriers with eyes, ears, and tongues - in fact, tongues that wagged far more than usual. In short, the often gloomy and taciturn couriers of the past were replaced by talkative couriers who were eager to sit down for a chat with any traveller they came across at wayside inns.
It was not all that difficult to guess that they had two types of information: true information, which they guarded carefully, and falsehoods, which they dropped in fragments of an evening by the fireside as if by a slip of the tongue or from too much drink.
That spring the false news was often enough injurious to the opposition, as was to be expected, but quite often also it came back to haunt those who had spread it. The road from the Turkish capital to Venice was long, and to carry both truths and lies at the same time was not easy. At times the truth, and at times the lies, would colour each other, adding to the surrounding fog, which was heavy in the month of March." (p.11-12)

The book is a fascinating insight into a very troubled part of the world, but I also enjoyed it for its story and the characters who shared their woes at the inevitable fate of their country.


Apparently, according to mum who lent me the book, Ian McEwan was put out by not being invited to write a book for the Hogarth Shakespeare series and decided to write one anyway ... so here we have 'Nutshell', in which Trudy and Claude (Gertrude and Claudius) are plotting the demise of John, witnessed only by the foetus awaiting its imminent birth. Narrated entirely by the foetus, who is pretty worldly wise for someone who hasn't been outside much, it is a wonderfully effective way of relating what amounts to a prequel to Hamlet. As Monkey tells me, Hamlet is a very much play of soliloquies and so the unborn baby gives his unformed, but not uninformed, opinions about the drama that he is party to. The conversations between the lovers are related second hand, often abridged and sometimes confused by the wine that passes across the placenta to dull his senses. He lurches between fierce love for his mother and frustration at being unable to protect his father from the unfolding events. It is nothing like any of the other Hogarth books, all of which followed the plot of their respective plays quite closely, and yet it manages very successfully to capture the essence of the play and the character of Hamlet.

Here he hints at what he has been hearing within the womb:
"I used to think that their discretion was no more than ordinary, amorous intimacy. But now I'm certain. They airily bypass their vocal cords because they're planning a dreadful event. Should it go wrong, I've heard them say, their lives will be ruined. They believe that if they're to proceed, they should act quickly and soon. They tell each other to be calm and patient, remind each other of the cost of their plan's miscarriage, that there are several stages, that each must interlock, that is any single one fails, then all must fail 'like old-fashioned Christmas tree lights' - this impenetrable simile from Claude, who rarely says anything obscure. What they intend sickens and frightens them, and they can never speak of it directly. Instead, wrapped in whispers are ellipses, euphemisms, mumbled aporia followed by throat-clearing and a brisk change of subject." (p.9)

Trudy lives in the marital home, a crumbling wreck that is worth a small fortune, surrounded by decay and neglect. I came to feel that the state of the house is some extended metaphor for the corruption of their plans:

"I try to see her as she is, as she must be, the gravidly ripe twenty-eight-year-old youngly slumped (I insist on the adverb) across the table, blonde and braided like a Saxon warrior, beautiful beyond realism's reach, slender but for me, near naked, sunnily pink on the upper arms, finding space on the kitchen table for her elbows amongst the yolk-glazed plates of a month ago, the toast and sugar crumbs that houseflies daily vomit on, the reeking cartons and coated spoons, the fluids dried to scabs on junk-mail envelopes. I try to see her and love her as I must, then imagine her burdens: the villain she's taken for a lover, the saint she's leaving behind, the deed she's spoken for, the darling child she'll abandon to strangers. Still love her? If not, then you never did. But I did, I did, I do." (p.47)

It is a very intense and intimate book, very much about the uncertainty of the future and a life determined by forces beyond our control. The question remains, how can someone so small and vulnerable thwart the plans of these murderers, is there a means for him to ensure their just deserts? Read and find out.

Saturday 3 November 2018

Love is Blind

It is nine years since I read 'Any Human Heart' by William Boyd and strangely, despite how much I loved that book, I have not managed to read anything else by him. 'Love is Blind' is his most recent novel that the library kindly supplied for me. It tells the story of Brodie and his obsessive love for Lika Blum. Brodie is a piano tuner for an Edinburgh piano manufacturer and the story follows his life and career as he moves to Paris and tries to expand the business by sponsoring significant pianists on their concert tours. It is in this way that he meets Lika, and the Kilbarron brothers, John the pianist and Malachi, his 'manager'. They begin an affair that leads eventually to a life on the run from the vengeful Malachi. I liked it in the same way as 'Any Human Heart' because you allow yourself to become attached to Brodie, to care about his fortunes, in spite of the sometimes stupid decisions he takes. Unlike 'Any Human Heart' however the timescale is much shorter, encompassing a mere decade rather than a lifetime, and focussing on the doomed love affair. The story is clever and engaging because it is only looking back that you see how events are linked and the characters are only partially responsible for or in control of their own destiny. Brodie shares a song with Lika, and this piece of music plays a significant role in the unfolding events. Here is the seemingly innocuous conversation:

"He felt a hand come to rest softly on his shoulder and turned to find Lika standing there, a tear running down one cheek, wordless. 
Brodie jumped to his feet. 'Lika! My God, is everything all right?'
'That music. That tune ...' she said, wonderingly. 'What is it? I heard it. I was standing in the doorway, listening - and it made me cry. Look.' She wiped her tears away, smiling. 'How strange. It was like an instinct, a reflex. I heard you playing and the next thing I knew my eyes were full of tears.'
Brodie explained. 'It's a folk song from Scotland. My mother used to sing it to me when i was young. I've changed it a bit - but I use it when I'm tuning. At the end, you know, just to see if everything's fine. If the piano's ready.'
'But it's beautiful. Play it again, will you?'
'Of course.'Brodie sat down and played the song through, all two minutes of it.
'What's it called?'
'It's called 'My Bonny Boy'.' He said the title in English and translated it. Mon beau garçon. 'There are words to the song - just three verses.'
Lika frowned. 'It's most extraordinary. There's one bit of it - one transition. Is it a key change? It makes me want to cry, instantly. How can that happen?'
Then they heard the front door open and Kilbarron appeared, having handed his hat and coat to the manservant.
'Well, help, hello,' he said. 'All done, Master Brodie?' He looked at Lika. 'Are you well, my sweet?'
Lika, in some excitement, explained about the effect Brodie's folk song had had on her. A completely new, unheard piece of music that seemed to provoke a direct attack in her tear ducts.
'Good Lord above. What miraculous music is that?'
Brodie recounted the story once more. 'It's just an old Scottish folk song that I've adapted,' he added. Kilbarron was intrigued and asked him to play it again. So Brodie sat down at the piano and ran through the song once more, Kilbarron listening intently.
'See! There!' Lika exclaimed. 'That moment, those few bars. Don't you feel it? So much emotion.'
'I do - in a way,' Kilbarron said and asked Brodie to play it again.
'Yes,' he said when Brodie had finished. 'It's very simple but effective. An interrupted cadence on a rising scale - accented passing notes. Play it again if you will, Brodie, old man.'
Brodie did so.
'You expect the tonic, you see. Every instinct is telling you which way the music will go,' Kilbarron said, almost to himself. 'But it's unresolved - that's where the emotion springs from.' He smiled. 'An old trick. But old tricks are the best.'
He budged Brodie away from the piano and sat down at the stool and played the song himself." (p.107-8)

A much more intellectual review of the book is available on the Guardian, including an analysis of the 'Chekhov' links, of which I was entirely oblivious, so there you go. Despite his dearth of women characters, the fact that even Lika is fairly 'mysterious', a technique used to save having to make her more than a one dimensional 'beautiful opera singer', I thoroughly enjoyed the book. 
Ian McEwan's 'Nutshell' and a novella from Kosovo still waiting to be reviewed, I will get back on track soon.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Banned Books and all that

For Banned Books Week this year Monkey and I each decided on a book which we read and then swapped, for a double dose of banned literature. Monkey already had on her TBR pile 'We' by Yevgeny Zamyatin which we had found in Waterstones quite some time ago. It is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a world after a 200 year war, where perfect happiness has been achieved by everyone having absolute equality (or rather sameness, a distinction that sometimes eludes people). The 'wild' outside world is kept at bay by a huge glass wall, and everyone's lives are under constant observation because everything else is made of this same glass, including the houses. Our hero D-503 (there is not much individuality) comes into contact with a strange unconventional woman and finds himself drawn into a subversive underground movement bent on disrupting the Benefactor's plans. George Orwell credits the book as inspiration for Big Brother and 1984. It was written in the 1920s and, denied publication in the Soviet Union, the book first appeared in translation in the West. This caused him some problems at home and he eventually wrote to Stalin and asked to be allowed to leave the country. He  was duly given permission and he lived out the rest of his relatively short life in Paris. The introduction to the book gives the publication saga in detail and was quite fascinating. 
I have a couple of quotes that allow the reader to understand the thinking behind the society:

"I'll be completely honest with you: Even we haven't yet solves the problem of happiness with 100 percent accuracy. Twice a day - from 16:00 to 17:00 and again from 21:00 to 22:00 - the single mighty organism breaks down into its individual cells. These are the Personal Hours, as established by the Table. During these hours you'll see that some are in their rooms with the blinds modestly lowered; others are walking along the avenue in step with the brass beat of the March; still others, like me at this moment, will be at their desks. But I firmly believe - let them call me idealist and dreamer - but I firmly believe that, sooner or later, one day, we'll find a place for even these hours in the general formula. One day all 86,400 seconds will be on the Table of Hours." (p.13)

and the participants willingness to participate (and an explanation of the title):

"Look here - suppose you let a drop fall on the idea of 'rights.' Even among the ancients the more grown-up knew that the source of right is power, that right is a function of power. So, take some scales and put on one side a gram, on the other a ton; on one side 'I' and on the other 'We,' OneState. It's clear, isn't it? - to assert that 'I' has certain 'rights' with respect to the State is exactly the same as asserting that a gram weighs the same as a ton. That explains the way things are divided up: To the ton go the rights, to the gram the duties. And the natural path from nullity to greatness is this: Forget that you're a gram and feel yourself a millionth part of a ton." (p.111)

And this lovely little critique of democracy (contrasting it with their 'Day of Unanimity'):

"It goes without saying that this bears no resemblance to the disorderly, unorganised elections in ancient times, when - it's hard to say this with a straight face - they couldn't even tell before the election how it would come out. To establish a state on the basis of absolutely unpredictable randomness, blindly - could there be anything more idiotic? Still, it looks like centuries had to pass before this was understood." (p.132)

The second book could not be more of a contrast: 'The Man Who Wouldn't Stand Up' by Jacob M Appel. According to the Wikipedia list of books banned by governments it was banned by Qatar in 2014 for its depiction of Islam, leaving the reader a little bemused since there is a passing mention of 9/11 and not much else. It was written in the aftermath of 9/11 but failed to find a publisher in the US until 2012, admitted by several publishers to be because of its political content. Predating but foreshadowing the national anthem protests the book tells the story of Arnold Brinkmann who refuses to stand at a baseball match for the singing of 'God Bless America'. What was a spontaneous action spirals out of control after the press run with his story and protestors begin to gather outside his house. Arnold sticks to his guns and refuses to back down. A young woman with journalistic ambitions climbs over the back wall and it turns out that a long standing employee is not what he appears. Then all hell breaks loose and after that Arnold's life is never going to be the same again. The book was written as a critique of the unpleasant jingoistic patriotic conformity that sometimes characterises American politics and life, it gets quite surreal in places, even silly ... but I won't spoil the plot for you because it was an excellent, entertaining read. I give you Arnold's thoughts while he listens to the people around him in the crowd:

"This was the amazing thing about democracy, thought Arnold - everybody felt entitled to their own pet theory: That Lyndon Johnson had orchestrated the Kennedy assassination, or that Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare's plays, or that Glenn Miller had survived World War II in a Soviet gulag and formed a marching band for prisoners with Raoul Wallenberg. Judith had a colleague at school, an eighth grade teacher in his forties, who taught his classes that Amelia Earhart had been shot down and tortured by the Japanese. If history judged nations by their pet theories, no one could ever doubt that Americans were creative." (p.7)

Thursday 4 October 2018

That Awkward Age: National Poetry Day

I have an ongoing fondness for Roger McGough because he writes poetry for children. I first developed a love for poetry when the children were small and as such used to read a lot of poetry books to them; there is one that sticks in my mind (but I can't find anywhere) that used an elevator/alligator word play that Jacob particularly liked. I picked out 'That Awkward Age' at the Central Library the other week and thought I would share one with you for National Poetry Day. There is a lovely selection of poems, mirroring Carol Ann Duffy's 'The World's Wife', that tell the tale of the men behind famous women, and another group of elegy poems that are quietly unsentimental. His dry sense of humour comes through in many of them, writing mostly about the ordinary stuff of life. So I give you this one:

Queue Music

At a bus stop on Princes Road
two people, unaware
that there is a bus strike,
form an orderly queue.

September 1977
and a lovely evening for a walk.
The people in the queue grow restless.
Begin to talk.

Time passes, but not buses.
Eventually the queue, dying of thirst,
sets off down the road
leaving the bus stop to its own devices.

In the corner of a pub
three empty bus shelters away
the queue is sitting at a table
drinking and chatting.

At closing time
(early in those far-off days)
the queue has decided
to form an orderly life together.

Promises are made
as hand in hand 
it walks out into the night.
Cue music and fade.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

The Man Who Rained

After enjoying 'The Girl with Glass Feet' so much I found Ali Shaw's second novel 'The Man Who Rained'. It is about Elsa, and Finn, mostly, both of whom have a strong connection to storms; Elsa because he father was a storm chaser, and Finn because he is a storm. We first meet him as he is dissolving into the air, called back to solid form by Elsa's intervention.

The story is set, similarly to Girl with Glass Feet, in a remote and isolated island community. There is both serious religion and a whole bunch of weird superstitions swimming around within the community, making them suspicious of outsiders and afraid of random animals, and creating a rather claustrophobic and occasionally threatening atmosphere. I liked it because it had the same magical realism blended into the tale; most of the residents are afraid of the things they do not understand but Elsa is curious and finds her landlord Kenneth and an elderly nun Dot who help her make sense of the history of Thunderstown. There is a bit of a theme running through the story of missing mothers and men who struggle with their sense of identity. There is also a bit of a power play going on between the influential men in the town, and it fuels the onset of the final crisis. Like with the tiny winged cows in Girl with Glass Feet I felt again that some of the magical aspects were extraneous to the actual story and were just there because the author is enjoying the process of creating the feeling of the story, and I just allowed myself to enjoy them too. I like the development of the bond between Elsa and Finn, it was believable and coherent, but I'm sorry, the ending was just plain creepy and it spoiled the story for me. As a result I did not like the book as much. Having said that his third book 'The Trees' looked excellent and is definitely on the waiting list.

Here are Finn and Elsa bonding:

"'Now,' he whispered, 'hold out your hands.'
She did so, wondering if he was going to take hold of them. Instead he produced from his good pocket a sachet of seeds, and placed one fat grain in her palms. Then they waited. A canary bustled through the treetops, springing and zipping from branch to branch, getting closer in stops and starts. It paused for a while on the twigs above Finn's head, leaning its head left and right, its eyes swivelling hard at Elsa. She smiled at it, in case that would help.
Then it flicked wide its yellow wings and whirred down to perch on her hands. She felt the pin-tip of its beak tapping against her skin as it gobbled up the seed.
'Catch it,' whispered Finn.
Nervously - it felt wrong to touch a wild creature - she slid her free hand over the canary and cupped it to trap the bird in her hold. It burbled at her furiously, and she yelped when its wings whirred and tickled her skin. Still she kept it trapped, and then she felt a change come over it.
'Finn ... something's happening!'
'Don't worry. It can't hurt you.'
The canary had stopped struggling. It crouched still, virtually weightless in her hands. It was getting hot - not just with the compact warmth from its small heart and muscles, but with the penetrative warmth of a summer afternoon. And not around her hands a dim light glowed, getting brighter as she watched it, until golden shafts shone through the cracks between her fingers.
Some fearful switch tripped inside of her and she let go of the canary with a start. but her hands were empty and the bird had vanished, as had the light she had been holding, gone in a yellow shimmer of air. The only evidence that remained was the warmth in her palms, as if she had been holding them to a campfire." (p90-91)

Friday 21 September 2018

Convenience Store Woman

I don't think you could not get more of a contrast between two books: after 'Girl with Glass Feet' I bring you 'Convenience Store Woman' by Sayaka Murata. The thing that strikes first is how culturally specific this story is; if someone were to write a story about a supermarket worker set in Britain it would be nothing like this. Employees in this country do not call out a greeting when you enter a shop, but in Japan they do.
Furukura Keiko is odd, her family know it so they make allowances for her, but really the rest of society is slightly uncomfortable with odd people. Here she is as a small child finding a dead bird:

"'What's up Keiko? Oh! a little bird ... where did it come from I wonder?' she said gently, stroking my hair. 'The poor little thing. shall we make a grave for it?'
'Let's eat it!' I said.
'Daddy like yakitori, doesn't he? Let's grill it and have it for dinner!'
She looked at me, startled. Thinking she hadn't heard properly, I repeated what I'd said, this time clearly enunciating my words. The mother sitting next to her gaped at me, her eyes, nostrils, and mouth forming perfect O's. She looked so comical I almost burst out laughing. But then I saw her staring at the bird in my hand and I realised that one of these little birds probably wouldn't be enough for Daddy.
'Shall I get some more?' I asked, glancing at two or three other birds strutting around." (p.6-7)

Keiko is a student but she gets what is described as a 'part-time' job in a local convenience store, and to her it feels as if she has found her place in the world. She relishes the order and routine, a place for everything, and the pure functionality of her interactions with the customers. So instead of graduating and moving on to a proper career she stays working in the convenience store, she stays there for eighteen years. She is not sure how to go about being a 'person' and finds that she can learn by watching her co-workers:

"I'd noticed soon after starting the job that whenever I got angry at the same things as everyone else, they all seemed happy. If I went along with the manager when he was annoyed or joined in the general irritation at someone skiving off the night shift, there was a strong sense of solidarity as everyone seemed pleased that I was angry too.
Now, too, I felt reassured by the expression on Mrs Izumi and Sugawara's faces: Good, I pulled off being a 'person.' I'd felt similarly reassured any number of times here in the convenience store." (p.29)

Learning how to be a person and the behaviour that is expected of her continues throughout the story, in difference circumstances. What she mainly wants is to be left alone to live the life she has chosen, but pressures put on her by her family and her small group of friends, to both get a 'proper' job and get married, cause her to have to rethink ... or rather to pretend to rethink, her choices. At a party with friends they all gang up and try and persuade her to join a marriage website, claiming she must be desperate and it's nearly too late for her, but she doesn't understand why they feel she must be wanting to change her life:

"The next thing I knew, just like that time in elementary school, they all turned their backs on me and started edging away, staring curiously at me over their shoulders as though contemplating some ghastly life form.
Oh, I thought absently, I've become a foreign object.
In my mind's eye I saw Shiraha, who had been forced to leave the store. Maybe it would be my turn next.
The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.
So that's why I needed to be cured. Unless I'm cured normal people will expurgate me.
Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me." (p.80-81)

In one way the story is about one woman's struggle to be accepted, but I also saw something completely different. Here Keiko talks about her walk to work:

"For a convenience store worker, walking through the area around the store is a way to glean valuable information. If a nearby restaurant starts selling lunch boxes it will impact our sales, and road works starting up will mean more customers. It was really tough when a rival closed down four years after our store opened and we were inundated with their customers. We all had to work overtime since the lunchtime peak had gone on and on, and when we ran out of lunch boxes the manager was reprimanded by head office for not doing enough research. That's when I decided to walk around the area keeping my eye on things to make sure nothing like that ever happened again." (p.40)

I felt quite strongly as I was reading about Keiko's life, though I am not sure it was in any way intentional, that the story was a critique of capitalism, and the way it expects its workers to just exist for their job. Everything about Keiko's life is geared towards being a better convenience store worker. She is thinking about work when she is not there, planning ways to make things run more smoothly, she stays well nourished for work, keeps her appearance neat and cuts her nails to more efficiently operate the till. She is the perfect worker. I was conflicted because I felt sympathy for her in her resistance against society's expectations, but the place she had found for herself was so small, it made me sad. A very interesting book, a glimpse of Japanese society from the point of view of someone at the bottom.

Tuesday 18 September 2018

Danger Deep Bogs

It is over a year since Monkey and I did part two of our Pennine Way walk. We have been put off part three because it is a very long way from Hadfield to the next place where you can get to a railway station. Feeling in the need of getting away from the city we studied the map on Saturday and found that there was a footpath that left the main route and cut across the moor to the Chew Reservoir, ending up in Greenfield. It seemed like a manageable distance. 
So yesterday we took our sandwiches and headed back up the Trans Pennine Trail from Hadfield. We wandered off the path the first time as we headed uphill, finding ourselves clambering up the side of a stream, having to struggle across a boggy patch and managed to rejoin the path on the ridge at the top. Then we came across this helpful sign: "DANGER DEEP BOGS please keep to the main path". Next time we'll be more careful.
At our first rest stop we chose a lovely big flat rock to sit on, only to find some disgusting people had chosen to stuff their rubbish down the crack in the rock. This was no accidental littering but obviously quite deliberate. I pulled it all out and carried it home.
We only walked about three miles along the Pennine Way before taking our turning. This was the one place where we managed to take the correct path despite there being no sign. Basically, for the next couple of hours we followed the stream, first uphill, then, apparently the same stream, down the other side. There was not really much of a path, mostly we had to climb up onto the heather to avoid the bogs. I definitely would not recommend this route. We assumed the stream would lead us to the reservoir, which it duly did.
There are very, very few trees on the top of the Pennines, but we came across this random Christmas tree ... how the hell did it get here ... and now I want to go back up in December to decorate it.
There was still not much path as we skirted the reservoir but we finally arrived at the dam, and once again took the wrong path. I looked across the ravine and saw some walkers confidently striding up the paved road on the other side, and persuaded Monkey to take another look at the map. At the bottom of the long descent we again found the correct path, the Oldham Way, taking us away from the Dovestone Reservoir and towards Greenfield. As we arrived at the edge of the town we were supposed to find a path leading down into Greenfield. We ended up just tromping across a couple of fields, avoiding the highland cattle and shooing away the aggressive sheep. The trains back to Manchester are only once an hour. The 16.46 train pulled out as we trudged up the road towards the station. We made it home about 7.
The Pennine Way distance calculator shows a walk of 10.87 miles, rising to a high of a mere 1750 feet. We have currently completed approximately 17.3 miles of the 267 mile route.

Monday 3 September 2018

Girl with Glass Feet

Today's book comes to you courtesy of Charlotte who stopped by and commented on the review of Keeper of Lost Things. When I clicked on her profile I found 'The Girl with Glass Feet' on her, very brief, list of favourite books and was intrigued by the curious title. They had a copy at the City library so I hopped on my bike to get it; luckily I was on late shifts last week so it didn't matter that I sat up late reading. 

This is the story if Ida, and the story of Midas: what a lovely prophetic choice of name. But it is also the story of Henry and Evaline, and of Carl and Freya. There are lots of stories going on within the narrative, with long nurtured sadnesses lingering down the years, and the generations. But firstly there is the magical realism, which is something I love to find in literature. I remember, years ago, talking to someone about Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, and hearing the expression 'magical realism', and instinctively understanding what it meant. Ida's feet are made of glass, and not in a good way. The glass is spreading, slowly, and she has returned to the place she believes it all began, hoping ... The strange, isolated island feels vaguely Scottish, or maybe Scandinavian; the community is both close knit and rather elusive, the kind of place people seem to have come to escape, and the locals find it hard to leave. Midas does not offer to help her, in fact he decides repeatedly not to help, but she wheedles her way into his life almost by instinct, he is one of the few people who might be able to help her. The story takes us back and forth in time, telling us the background to his life and his parents. Carl, an old family friend, has lent his cottage to Ida, but when he sees her again he is reminded of her dead mother Freya for whom he had nurtured an unrequited passion. He rather unpleasantly starts to interfere in the slowly blossoming relationship between Ida and Midas. I think what makes the story so effective is the atmosphere that Ali Shaw creates as he writes, the place is so vivid, and it feels like the kind of place where supernatural things could be real; the story becomes as much about the place as it is about Ida. 

"From an aeroplane the three main islands of the St Hauda's Land archipelago looked like the swatted corpse of a blob-eyed insect. The thorax was Gurm Island, all marshland and wooded hills. The neck was a natural aqueduct with weathered arches through which the sea flushed, leading to the eye. That was the towering but drowsy hill of Lomdendol Tor on Lomdendol Island, which (local supposition had it) first squirted St Hauda's Land into being. The legs were six spurs of rock extending from the south-west coast of Gurm Island, trapping the sea in sandy coves between them. The wings were a wind-torn flotilla of uninhabited granite islets in the north. The tail's sting was the sickle-shaped Ferry Island in the east, the quaint little town of Glamsgallow a drop of poison welling on its tip." (p.22)

I had originally assumed that the author was a woman, but then realised he was a man, and it did explain the one aspect of the story that frustrated me. The women in the story, including Ida, are treated somewhat as muses, people who inspire emotions in the men who encounter them. Henry falls in love with Evaline (Midas' mother) but no longer wants her after her husband's death because she has become what he sees as a shell of her former self. Carl idolises Freya, is angry about her death and responds by wanting to control Ida. Emiliana remains devoted to a husband who has distanced himself from her. Even Ida's role in the story seems to be to help Midas break out of the unemotional straitjacket that he has become confined by. Having said that, this in no way spoiled my enjoyment of the book, it was utterly enthralling and I even enjoyed the fact that the questions, the mystery of the glass, all remained unanswered.

"He stared.
Kept staring.
Peeled off the socks entirely.
Her toes were pure glass. Smooth, clear, shining glass.  Glinting crescents of light edged each toenail and each crease between the joints of each digit. Seen through her toes, the silver spots on the bed sheets diffused into metallic vapours. The ball of her foot was glass too, but murkier, losing its transparency in a gradient until, near her ankle, it reached skin: matt and flesh-toned like any other. And yet ... Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bone materialised faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle, shrouded along the way by translucent red ligaments in the denser layers. In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles. And there were places in the glass where the petrification was incomplete. Here was a pinprick mole, there a fine blond hair." (p.62)

Do visit Ali Shaw's website, his drawings are wonderful, they will definitely inspire you to read his books.


I bought Ann Patchett's 'Commonwealth' for my sister for Christmas, with the unashamed intention of pinching it back at some point. Ann admits apparently to the autobiographical nature of this book, but within the story it is the unwitting Franny who tells her family history to a writer who's subsequent, very successful, novel lays bare all their uncomfortable truths. It is very much a story about the children, though it is the actions and decisions of the grown ups that decides their fate.

I had mixed feeling about the book, but reading it over the course of a day or so at Claire's I was equally sucked right into the story and the relationships between the six young people. On the surface they seem to adapt to their new family arrangements but tensions emerge in subtle ways over time. The death of one of the children becomes an unspoken tragedy that overshadows their future, with blame and responsibility being shifted and shouldered by parents and siblings alike. I like her writing because it is always so perceptive of human relationships and the quiet, ordinary moments of life; nothing dramatic has to happen to make the story interesting. Here is an after-work scene, Albie has been living on the sofa of his sister Jeanette and her husband Fodé for some time:

"Jeanette washed the salad greens. Fodé wrapped the sliced bread in tinfoil and put it in the oven. They worked around one another in the tiny space, each one stepping out of the other's way.
'Tell me about your day instead,' he said to her. 'Let's think of something better.'
'You want to think about MRI demonstrations in the hospital basements?'
Fodé stopped for a moment, then smiled and shook his head. 'No, no.' He turned then to his brother-in-law, so pleased to have another opportunity. 'What I meant to say is - Albie, please, tell us about your day.'
Albie shifted the weight of his nephew in his arms. He spoke to the baby. 'I was stopped by security guards in four buildings today. I showed my ID, was told I could go up, and then I was stopped by a second guard at the elevator who told me I couldn't go up.'
Fodé nodded with appreciation. 'This is most impressive for a white man.'
'And I was almost hit by the M16 bus.'
'Stop it,' Jeanette said, putting a bowl of salad in the middle of the table. 'No more about your day either.'
'That leaves us with Dayo,' Albie said.
Fodé took the baby from his arms. 'Dayo. There is no one I would rather hear from. My son, tell us, was it a beautiful day to be alive?'
'Uncle,' Dayo said, and held out his arms to go back.
Albie, who had lived close to the edge for so long, and at times had strayed past the edge, looked out the window to see the lights shining down from those countless Brooklyn apartments. He wondered if this was what people were doing - were they making dinners with their family, holding babies, recounting days? Was this was what life was like for them?" (p.173)

Other Ann Pratchett books I have loved: State of Wonder, Bel Canto, Run, and Truth and Beauty.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Lots of books

This is cheating I know but I have gotten so far behind that today I give you a mass half-arsed review of books that I have read in the last few months but have languished on the 'To Be Reviewed' pile.

'The Making of Henry' by Howard Jacobson, was picked up in a charity shop because I enjoyed 'The Finkler Question' so much, but this one, written several years before was nothing like as good a read; too much navel-gazing and self-pity on the part of Henry and not enough of the other characters. Like Finkler it is very much just about the people and their relationships but I found Henry much less relatable or likeable, in fact it felt suspiciously self indulgent and playing to his readership profile; rather boring and shallow middle aged bloke is strangely very attractive to women, who fall over themselves to make him happy. Having said that I did enjoy the story and it had plenty of entertaining moments to make it worth the reading. This quote pretty much sums Henry up, but I am sure that many people, myself included, recognise this feeling:

"Something that had tormented Henry all his life, something he felt at school, at university, still feels today when he goes to a party, a conference, a concert, the theatre even: how well acquainted everybody but Henry is with everybody else. Leave aside coincidences of sympathy or interest, where do they actually meet, at what Henry-free time and in what Henry-free dimension do they make contact, dock, establish intimacy, and agree, without so much as mentioning Henry's name, to exclude him? Let Henry be the first person in the room, it will transpire as soon as the room fills that every single person there except Henry is on close terms with every other. does it happen when he goes to get himself a drink? Does it happen when he blinks? Or, as seems much more likely, was it all laid down long ago in anterior time? Was there another world before this one, a sort of metaphysical prep school, a preliminary universe, to which someone forgot to send Henry?" (p.67)

Tish, Monkey and I had a little spate of reading together. Both the girls use Terry Pratchett audiobooks to get themselves to sleep so they have become a firm family favourite. 'Monstrous Regiment' is the wonderful tale of a gang of trainee soldiers joining up to fight in some foreign skirmish. It gradually emerges that some of the lads are lasses, but by this time they have formed a strong bond, and using some pretty unconventional tactics they set about winning the war.

'Sourcery' has the entire Discworld disrupted by the arrival at Unseen University of Coin, the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son ... which makes him Sourcerer, and able to command magic at an existential level. But it's ok, Rincewind and the Luggage are on hand to save the day, with some assistance from Conina, daughter of the infamous Cohen the Barbarian. 

'Yesterday's Weather' by Anne Enright is the second book in the pile from a Booker Prize winner. It is a collection of short stories that I was reading back in March, so far too long ago for comment. Her writing is always lovely and understated, with perceptive observation of the human condition, what more can you ask for. This is from 'Little Sister', a young woman telling of her sister's demise: 

"We waited for ninety-one days. On Saturday that thirteenth of September there was the sound of a key in the door and a child walked in  - a sort of death-child. She was six and a half stone. Behind her was a guy carrying a suitcase. He said his name was Brian. He looked like he didn't know what to do.
We gave him a cup of tea, while Serena sat in the corner of the kitchen, glaring. As far as we could gather, she just turned up on his doorstep, and stayed. He was a nice guy. I don't know what he was doing with a girl just out of school, but then again, Serena always looked old for her age.
It is hard to remember what it was like in those days, but anorexia was just starting then, it was just getting trendy. We looked at her and thought she had cancer, we couldn't believe this was some sort of diet. Then trying to make her eat, the cooing and cajoling, the desperate silences as Serena looked at her plate and picked up one green bean. They say anorexics are bright girls who try too hard and get tipped over the brink, but Serena sauntered up to the brink. She looked over her shoulder at the rest of us, as we stood and called to her, and then she turned and jumped. It is not too much to say that she enjoyed her death. I don't think it's too much to say that." (p.162)

I bought Megan Beech's poetry collection 'When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard' purely on the basis of the title, because who doesn't want to be Mary Beard; she's up for my third life because I plan to be Victoria Coren next time around. As is often the case poets who write for performance sometimes don't translate brilliantly to book form, and while I enjoyed reading her poems I do think they would come across much better live; if she makes it to the literature festival some time that will be a date for the diary.

"When I grow up I want to be Mary Beard.
A classy, classic, classicist,
intellectually revered.
Wickedly wonderful and wise
full to brim with life,
while explaining the way in which Caligula died,
on BBC prime time." 
And life goes on, and other books arrive to fill the gaps. This new shelf-full came partly from a charity shop trawl in Brighton with Claire and partly from work a couple of months ago, when I came across two bags of books left out in the hallway of a block of flats in Withington. 

Monday 27 August 2018

The lovely cup of tea

My lovely Auntie Ann recommended 'The Keeper of Lost Things' by Ruth Hogan, and was going to send me her copy but we found a slightly damaged one on the Waterstones sale table so I bought it. As a book it is indeed very much like a lovely cup of tea, warm and satisfying. The book snob in me could witter on about clichés and predictable plots and nice tidy endings, but I really enjoyed it. The Lady calls it 'exquisite', and I'm not surprised because they get not one, but two mentions. 

So Laura and Eunice, both dissatisfied with their current lives, both find jobs via The Lady, one as an elderly writer's dogsbody and the other as a publisher's assistant. Anthony, the elderly writer, lost the love of his life and also the token of her love, and as such has spent his life finding and keeping other people's lost things. Then he dies and leaves the whole kit and caboodle to Laura, on the proviso that she works to return the lost things to their owners. We follow Eunice and Laura's separate, but historically linked, existences, through the decades, with their loves and losses and friendships, until they are finally brought together by inevitable events. I nearly gave up on it on page 122 when Eunice and Bomber get a pug, since they are my most unfavourite of all the dogs, and I completely fail to understand why people find these disgustingly genetically modified animals to be cute. I also debated with Monkey the treatment of Sunshine, a young woman with Downs Syndrome who befriends Laura; while it is refreshing to see disabled characters as just a normal part of life there was a rather saccharine cutesie-ness to the way she is portrayed. I think I need a book like this every now and then, one in which everyone is caring and lovely and the sun shines and people have happy endings even when they die, and even the baddies are allowed their moment of redemption. They are undemanding but give you a pleasant feeling of completeness because all the loose ends are always tidied up. And they did drink an inordinate amount of tea.

"'I think he needs a biscuit,' said Sunshine, tenderly stroking the bundle of fur and bones that ought to have been a lurcher. He watched her with frightened eyes that mirrored the beatings he had endured. Tired of their torture, his tormentors had kicked him out to fend for himself. Freddy had found him the previous evening lying on the grass verge outside Padua. It was raining hard and he was soaking wet and too exhausted to resist when Freddy had picked him up and brought him inside. He had been clipped by a car and had a superficial wound on his rump that Laura has cleaned and dressed while Freddy had held him shaking and wrapped in a towel. He refused to eat anything but drank a little water, and Laura stayed up with him all night, sleeping fitfully in an armchair while the dog lay inches from the fire, wrapped in a  blanket and never moving. As the first wraithlike light of the winter damp seeped through the lace panels of Anthony's study, Laura stirred. Her neck was cricked and complaining after a night spent folded awkwardly into a chair. The fire was reduced to  few struggling embers but the dog hadn't moved." (p.155)

Sunday 26 August 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing

'Sing, Unburied, Sing' by Jesmyn Ward was number three of my reads from the Women's Fiction shortlist. It is a family tale of three generations, with quiet, and then not so quiet supernatural undertones. It is told in alternating chapters, in the first half, by Jojo and Leonie, son and mother, living together with Pop and Mam, who is dying quietly in the back room. But they live in very different worlds; Leonie exists in the current day, the journey to collect her partner Michael from prison and all that involves, and Jojo lives in a past that his Pop has shown him, while also trying desperately to care for his little sister Kayla. On their journey they acquire a hitchhiker in the form of Richie, a ghost from their Pop's past, who's story joins theirs in the second half. I was confused at first, but he really is a ghost and only Jojo can see him. 

I spent the entire book wanting to wrap Jojo up and take care of him. He is a young boy desperately trying to make sense of the world, but with no-one to help him, and at the same time being forced to grow up and protect his sister from the worst of Leonie's parental neglect. Where Leonie has rejected the history of their family and wants to inhabit a world of drugs, Jojo is drawn to the past that Pop has tried to share with him, all tangled up with a collection of weird superstitions. It is a strange slow unravelling of a disturbing tale from Pop's youth, becoming more of a ghost story as it evolves, with Leonie's murdered brother Given reappearing too, all of whom seem unable to find peace in death. There is such a stark contrast between the tales of violence and the tenderness with which Jojo watches over Kayla. I found myself, quite common with this style of story telling, liking some narrators more than others, and I so actively disliked Leonie because of her attitude towards her children that it coloured my view of the book. The saving grace for me was Jojo and his determination to be a good person. 

Two quotes, this one from when they arrive at the prison, it evokes the grinding, relentless poverty of the place:

"The jail is all low, concrete buildings and barbed-wire fences crisscrossing through fields. The road stretches onward, out into the distance, and for a while, the road points us toward the men housed here. There's no other sign, nothing in those fields, no cows, no pigs, no chickens. There are crops coming in, baby plants, but they looks small and stunted, as if they'll never grow. But a great flock of birds wheels through the sky, swooping and fluttering, moving graceful as a jellyfish. I watch them as Kayla mewls in my ear, as we pass another sign, old and wooden, that says Welcome to Parchman, Ms. And then: Coke is it! But by the time we get out of the car in the parking lot, the birds have turned north, fluttered over the horizon. I hear the tail end of their chatter, of all those voices calling at once, and I wish I could feel their excitement, feel the joy of the rising, the swinging into the blue, the great flight, the return home, but all I feel is a solid ball go something in my gut, heavy as the head of a hammer." (p.123)

This second is Leonie talking as she watches her children asleep, part of it is tenderness towards them, but it is pushed away by her resentment of their closeness:

"They sleep as one: Michaela wraps herself around Jojo, her head on his armpit, her arm over his chest, her leg over his stomach. Jojo pulls her in to him: his forearm curled under her head and around her neck, his other arm a bar across them both to lay flat against her back. His hand hard in protection, stiff as siding. But their faces make me feel two ways at once: their faces turn towards each other, sleep-smoothed to an infant's fatness, so soft and open that I want to leave them asleep so they can feel what they will. I think Given must have held me like that once, that once we breathed mouth to mouth and inhaled the same air. But another part of me wants to shake Jojo and Michaela awake, to lean down and yell so they startle and sit up so I don't have to see the way they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky. They are each other's light." (p.151)

An intense and atmospheric book that packs a lot into 24 hours or so, and leaves the reader dazed and unsteady at the end. There is no neat and tidy resolution for the ghost, nor for the people either. Yet another book that deserves a more thoughtful review but has lingered too long in the draft folder.

Friday 17 August 2018

New Boy

'New Boy' by Tracy Chevalier is the third novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read (see Hag-seed and Vinegar Girl), and one I felt confident to tackle having studied Othello for A level. It is set in an elementary school in 1970's America, where the arrival of Osei Kokote as the new boy causes a stir amongst the white children, upsetting the precarious balance of power and established relationships. It is a wonderful recreation of the story because the world of children acts as a microcosm for adult society and the compression of the story into a single day encapsulates the intensity and the transience of their emotions. Bonds between the children are formed and broken over the course of the day as Osei and Dee take an immediate liking to each other and the school bully Ian conspires to break them up. It is cleverly written, capturing the racial tension of the era and has a subtle understanding of children's concerns; it would have been easy to have portrayed them as petty jealousies and shallow emotions but Chevalier takes the reader inside the children's world and you feel the full weight of their experiences. 

"The moment the black boy walked onto the playground that morning, Ian had felt something shift. It was what an earthquake must feel like, the ground being rearranged and becoming unreliable. The students had had almost the whole year - indeed, the past seven years at elementary school - to get into their established groups, with their hierarchies of leaders and followers. It ran smoothly - until one boy arrived to destabilise everything. One massive kick of a ball, one touch of a girl's cheek, and the order had changed. He scrutinised O, now in his line, and could see the rearrangement gong on to include this new leader - the shifts as other students subtly turned towards him, as if he were a light they followed, like plants seeking the sun. As Ian watched, Casper stepped up behind O and began talking to him. He gestured over the fence, clearly discussing O's kick, and then nodded. Just like that, the black boy had gained the respect of the most popular boy in school, and was going with the most popular girl, and had laughed with Ian's girlfriend - and it wasn't even lunchtime yet." (p.79)

As with both the other two Hogarth Shakespeare this one was a satisfying retelling, a very creative resetting but one that captured perfectly the essence of the original. Recommended for Shakespeare lovers everywhere, and for those alienated by previous experience.