Saturday 26 January 2019

Optimism Over Despair

 Noam Chomsky's book 'Optimism Over Despair' was sitting on the top of Monkey's TBR pile and it seemed like an appropriate title for my Blogiversary post since, despite having a lot of stuff to despair over, I am still here after 10 years. I am a week late with this post because the despair struck hard last week with the news that we are not, after all, going to be buying our lovely little house and have to move out. We have done a lot to make it feel like our home and now we are going to have to start from scratch. We are soldiering manfully on in our hunt for a new place to live.

In other news, the world as we know it is imminently coming to an end. This fact has been preoccupying me for quite a long time and it was nice to find that there are, in fact, a lot of other people who also think we should be doing something more serious about the problems. So while on the one hand I expend pointless energy agonising over pretty much everything I buy and am trying to cut my own plastic use with homemade soap-on-a-rope:
Monkey and I are also getting involved in more direct action to force the government and the wider public to be aware of how urgent the problems are (Waterloo Bridge, London November 2018):
I have spent quite some time ploughing through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, trying to understand what is happening and what can be done to prevent the total collapse of our ecosystem and thus human life on this planet. It's a work in progress but I will try and post about it soon. I feel like I want to walk around with one of those 'The End Is Nigh' sandwich boards like weird people used to do. I am concerned about the shift in political attitudes away from international cooperation and towards an insular carry-on-regardless approach. I fear that the tipping point will come and we will be over it before people wake up to the realities. I look around and the world seems the same, because the things that are already changing are not apparent. I don't know how to communicate all this. The media gets people all excited about giving up plastic straws to save the turtles and I just sit there furious because it is so distracting from the real changes that need to be made. But I force myself to be optimistic; we will buy a house, because I want to believe that the world will still be inhabitable when I am old and I will need somewhere to live. 
So here's looking to the next decade ... will my blog still be here ... will any of this matter ... I hope there will still be books.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Our Endless Numbered Days

Next up in the new year backlog is 'Our Endless Numbered Days' by Claire Fuller which I was immediately drawn to when I read about it. The story tells of 'Punzel', as she comes to be called by her father, and how she is taken from her ordinary existence and hidden away in a remote hut on the pretext that the world has come to an end. It hops back and forth in time, giving the history as well as the present day, when Peggy has returned from where she went, to her mother and brother. Her father is fascinated by the 'survivalist' philosophy, the idea of living off the land, away from civilization, being answerable to no-one. When Peggy's pianist mother goes off on tour he begins to draw her further into his world. To begin with they spend weeks camping in the garden, but after her parents have an argument on the phone the two of them pack up and set off across Europe. They finally arrive at 'die Hutte', a rather more dilapidated building than her father had anticipated, but he tells her that everyone else has died and they must live here and fend for themselves. She is eight, so she accepts his version of events and they struggle together to live in this place. Even as she grows she does not question their situation, and having been traumatised by a river crossing that nearly drowned her she makes no attempt to explore outside the boundary that he has set for their world. Hidden in her secret hideout one day she sees a stranger's feet go past and then things begin to change. Her father's behaviour becomes more extreme and erratic and she is both frightened but utterly dependent on him. When she finally meets the stranger you begin to anticipate that their existence is about to be turned on its head. 

The whole atmosphere of the book is wonderful, so intense and, despite the mountains and forest, very claustrophobic. It is about the changing relationship between father and daughter, the trust and the betrayal. But I felt it is also very much about how children learn about the world; they must trust in the things that adults tell them, and only slowly come to their own understanding of the way things are, the process of growing up. We all, as children, inhabit the world as created for us by our parents. The young woman she is in the other part of the story, where she is back in the 'real world', is more confused and uncertain than the trusting 8-year-old in the woods. 

I was totally sucked in by both the story and the writing. I loved Punzel; she is not precocious and resourceful but full of the fears and inadequacies of a normal child. I have just this one quote, it is her with her brother Oskar (born after she disappeared), trying to ease herself gently back into her old life, learning how to be with people, but not knowing if she will ever be that person again. They have been discussing the swing seat in the garden:

"For a second he was confused, as though he was trying to work out how I knew so much about a seat that was his seat and had always been his seat, but a flush rose in his cheeks and I realised I had gone too far. We walked down on to the lawn, flanked by tidy borders, brown and crisp with winter plants.
'Can you still walk straight through to the cemetery at the bottom of the garden?' I asked, to make amends.
He didn't answer, just carried on walking. All day the frost had stayed, rimming every stalk, every leaf, every blade of grass. Oskar's shoes left shallow prints across the lawn. I trod close behind him, matching his stride and placing my feet where his had been.
If I can fit inside every one of his footsteps, I said to myself, my brother and I will be friends.
I averted my eyes as we passed the tennis court, constructed on the patch of ground where once my father and I had pitched our tent and built our campfire. Instead I looked beyond it, where the brambles and thistles had been cleared and there was more lawn and a summer house. It seemed to take only a few moments to reach the bottom of the garden, whereas in my memory the walk down from the house to the cemetery took five minutes or more. A high chain-link fence now separated the lawn from the trees, but I recalled their outlines as soon as I set eyes on them, like the furniture and ornaments in the house - unremembered until seen once more, and then familiar. Ivy was creeping its way back into the garden, reclaiming old territory." (p.127)

It is nothing like it, but it suddenly brought to mind 'Room' by Emma Donoghue, about a young woman kidnapped and held against her will, and how she struggles to cope back in the real world. I loved this book and will definitely be seeking out Claire Fuller's other novels.

The Vegetarian

Ok, the new year has arrived and my resolution is to not beat myself up about stuff ... so I am not going to beat myself up about the fact that I read 'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang several months ago now and no review has been forthcoming. In fact the review queue is getting a little out of hand. I had requested this from the library before I read 'Convenience Store Woman' and although the author is Korean not Japanese there are some striking cultural similarities, mainly their discomfort with unconventionality. 

The book is written in three parts (apparently it started out as a short story); the first from the perspective of the husband, the second from the perspective of the brother-in-law and the third part from the perspective of the sister, so at no point do we get to know what is going on in the mind of Yeong-hye. She stops eating meat. It is not explained why, but to me the story is one of an emotional/mental breakdown that this young woman suffers utterly without care or support from her family. They are all so focussed on their own feelings about what she is doing to try and understand her experience. I spent the entire book wanting someone to just show her a little compassion, until the end when the sister finally realises how much Yeong-hye needs her and decides to side with her rather than with society and the medical profession. I found the book very curious, a window in a very different set of cultural attitudes. The style is rather reserved, almost distanced from any emotional engagement, the relationships between the characters quite formal. I cannot add much more than that since it is long gone back to the library, but it certainly deserves all the interested it has received since it was translated to english.

"My mother-in-law gathered up the chopsticks with an attitude of despair. Her old woman's face seemed on the brink of crumpling into tears, tears that would explode from her eyes and then course down her wrinkled cheeks in silence. My father-in-law took up a pair of chopsticks. He used them to pick up a piece of sweet and sour pork and stood tall in front of my wife, who turned away.
My father-in-law stooped slightly as he thrust the pork at my wife's face, a lifetimes's rigid discipline unable to disguise his advanced age.
'Eat it! Listen to what your father's telling you and eat. Everything I say is for your own good. So why act like this if it makes you ill?'
The fatherly affection that was almost choking the old man made a powerful impression once, and I was moved to tears in spite of myself. Probably everyone gathered there felt the same. With one hand my wife pushed away his chopsticks, which were shaking silently in empty space.
'Father, I don't eat meat.'
In an instant, his flat palm cleaved empty space. My wife cupped her cheek in hand.
'Father!'  In-hye cried out, grabbing his arm. His lips twitched as though his agitation had not yet passed off. I'd known of his incredibly violent temperament for some time, but it was the first time I'd directly witnessed him striking someone." (p.38-9)

Tuesday 1 January 2019

the choccys are running out!

Happy New Year to all my visitors. It has been a hectic time, work and non-work wise. The trouble with my job is that you are so busy in the run up to Christmas that you don't get the chance to anticipate the upcoming festivities, and mostly end up relieved when it's all over. I have been working in the cage for about six months now, so it has been my first Christmas in 16 years in the warm and dry. We do get sent out on delivery on a regular basis so I have not missed the outdoors too much. 

On the home front, we were given notice to leave our lovely little house as the landlord wants to sell, but it turns out we can gather enough money in one place to buy it ... so that is the plan. Tish has increased her aerial silks/hoop training with a view to learning how to be an instructor. Monkey has been doing an access to higher education course and is all set to go to university in September to study Japanese. UCAS application submitted and five offers of places later the next impossible decision is between staying in Manchester or venturing further afield. 

So, reading has been a bit sluggish, but not quite as bad as the regularity of blog posts would imply. I have definitely lost my blogging mojo. Books have been read and then I have moved on. I have enjoyed some things but struggled to get truly absorbed by anything. Crafting has ground to a halt a bit too. I made a blanket and some sofa cushions for Dunk but nothing else for some months now. After our initially flurry of activity making stuff for the house we have stalled there too, though we have more significant decorating plans for once the brick and mortar are all ours. 

I find that unusually for me I have read more men than women this year, 25 of the 41 books listed. I have a couple of things stalled in the draft folder, and Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco has been on the go for most of the year (it feels like) and I am down to the last fifty pages, and hopefully the denouement of the story. Plenty of things I enjoyed this year, but nothing jumps out at me as a favourite. 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
The Dumb House by John Burnside
La Belle Sauvage by Phillip Pullman
A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt
So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba
The Sunset Limited by Cormac Mccarthy
Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
What We lose by Zinzi Clemmons
Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore
Barracoon: the story of the last slave by Zora Neale Hurston
Harvest by Jim Crace
The Trick to Time by Kit De Waal
The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
The Making of Henry by Howard Jacobson
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
Sourcery by Terry Pratchett
Yesterday's Weather by Anne Enright
When I Grow up I want to be Mary Beard by Megan Beech
The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmny Ward
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Man who Wouldn't Stand Up by Jacob M Appel
That Awkward Age by Roger McGough
The Quarry by Iain Banks
Three Elegies for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Love in Blind by William Boyd