Saturday 28 August 2021

Post 5 - Assembly

'Assembly' by Natasha Brown (who does not have her own website) is a very concise, tightly written book, there is no waffling going on here, documenting, from the inside of her head, what it is like to be a black woman. She is a superficially successful black woman, financially secure, making progress in her career, but racism is still there, infused in her everyday existence, reminding her who she is. She is obliged by the company to give talks to schools, to parade herself as a role model, something to aspire to, when she know it's all fake. She knows she's acting a part, but can't seem to stop herself. She feels very aware of how she has to become someone else in order to be acceptable. She has been fed the line about working harder and being better and aspiring to more, and as she begins to move up she questions if it is worth it. There are the two parts to her life, the one at work and the one with her upper class boyfriend, and they impact in ways both different, and the same.

At work:

"But it's there. Dread. Every day is an opportunity to fuck up. Every decision, every meeting, every report. There's no success, only the temporary aversion of failure. Dread. From the buzz and jingle of my alarm until I finally get back to sleep. Dread. Weighing cold in my gut, winding up around my oesophagus, seizing my throat. Dread. I lie stretched out on the couch or on my bed or just supine on the floor. Dread. I repeat the day over, interrogate it for errors or missteps or - anything. Dread, dread, dread, dread. Anything at all could be the thing that fucks everything up. I know it. That truth reverberates in my chest, a thumping bass line. Dread, dread, it's choking me. Dread." (p.28)

But with the boyfriend:

"But what it takes to get there isn't what you need once you've arrived.
A difficult realization, and a harder actualization.
I understand what this weekend means. Pulling back the curtain, he's invited me to the chambers beyond. It's not acceptance, not yet. It's just a step further, closer. I must learn to navigate it. Through him, and Rach, I study this cultural capital. I learn what I'm meant to do. How I'm meant to live. What I'm supposed to enjoy. I watch, I emulate. It takes practice. And an understanding of what's out of reach. What I can't pull off.
Born here, parents born here, always lived here - still, never from here. Their culture becomes parody on my body." (p.50)

It's a hard book to read because it is bringing out the infinite subtleties of how endemic racism is in our culture, that this one person's experience is symptomatic of millions of experiences, and why the lie of assimilation is so awful, because whatever she does it will not be enough. Here she talks about the anniversary party for the boyfriend's parents that they have come to attend:

"I will be watched, that's the price of admission. They'll want to see my reactions to their abundance: polite restraint, concealed outrage, and a base, desirous hunger beneath. I must play this part with a veneer of new-millennial-money coolness; serving up savage witticisms alongside the hors d'oevres. It's a fictionalization of who I am, but my engagement transforms the fiction into truth. My thoughts, my ideas - even my identity - can only exist as a response to the partygoers' words and actions. Articulated along the perimeter of their form. Reinforcing both their selfhood, and its centrality to mine. How else can they be certain of who they are, and what they aren't? Delineation requires a sharp, black outline." (p.68-9)

"Is it true that his family's wealth today was funded in part by that bought freedom; the loan my taxes paid off? Yes. And he is an individual and I am an individual and neither of us were there, were responsible for the actions of our historical selves? Yes. Yet, he lives off the capital returns, while I work to pay off the interest? Yes. But, here I am now, walking through the fruits of it; land he owns, history he cherishes; the familiar grounding, soil, bricks and trees stretching metres high; the sense of belonging, of safety, of being home. He has that here, always, to return to? Yes. Sleeping this morning, did he look renewed? Yes. Yes, of course. He is home." (p.93)

I belong in this country and take it utterly for granted. She talks in places about colonialism and the ongoing impact it has on the world, and it is so huge. And I don't know what needs to be done. 

Stay safe. Be kind. Think about what needs to change.

Post 4 - Little Fires

'Little Fires Everywhere' by Celeste Ng was another trawled book. Monkey and I had listened to 'Everything I Never Told You' on audio book at some point and enjoyed it so her name felt familiar. There was something a little contrived about the hippy-types-arrive-and-disrupt-conventional-family story line but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Why are American families in stories the same; there are always four children, they are always 'the jock', 'the pretty one', 'the geek' and 'the outcast'. Mia and Pearl arrive in one of those towns where everyone likes things just the way they are, and they have been this way for more generations than anyone cares to remember, and they frown ever so gently and patronisingly at people who aren't like them. Mrs Richardson thinks of herself as a liberal minded person and so offers Mia a job, as well as renting her their 'little rental house on Winslow Road'. Mia has a somewhat shadowy past, as a result of which they move around a lot, but this time she has promised Pearl they will settle down. Each family member in turn (excepting Mr Richardson I realise, who barely gets a mention) becomes drawn in by the promise of something different. However Mia's subtle intervention in the potential adoption of an abandoned baby causes Mrs Richardson to dig around in her past. The book opens and closes with the house on fire, so you know that conflagration is inevitable (and a nice little allusion in this quote too I just realised), but the question become who and why? And the hypocrisy of course, they look, they judge, they make assumptions, but there are no lengths they will not go to to protect their little corner of America. Why should anyone get to do what they want, and what, after all, does make a good mother?:

"And here was Mia, causing poor Linda such trauma, as if she hadn't been through enough, as if Mia were any kind of example of how to mother. Dragging her fatherless child from place to place, scraping by on menial jobs, justifying it by insisting to herself - by insisting to everyone - she was making Art. Probing other people's business with her grimy hands. Stirring up trouble. Heedlessly throwing sparks. Mrs Richardson seethed, and deep inside her, the hot speck of fury that had been carefully banked within her burst into flame. Mia did whatever she wanted, Mrs Richardson thought, and what would result? Heartbreak for her oldest friend. Chaos for everyone. You can't just do what you want, she thought. Why should Mia get to, when no one else did?
It was only this loyalty to the McCulloughs, she would tell herself, the desire to see justice for her oldest friend, that led her to step over the line at last: as soon as she could get away, she would take a trip to Pennsylvania and visit Mia's parents. She would find out, once and for all, who this woman was." (p185-6)

Stay safe. Be kind. Cause some chaos.

Post 3 - The Children Act

I love Ian McEwan (particularly Black Dogs from 2017) so readily picked out 'The Children Act' when we trawled the other week (and am very curious to see the film now too). In it Fiona and Jack's marriage is on the line, as is the life of a young man, and both are in Fiona's hands. She is a high court judge. I was a bit hesitant at first but it was fascinating (and presumably incredibly well researched) to see the inside of such a job, the inside of the legal world that is so hidden. Fiona must make a decision concerning medical treatment for Adam, who, as a Jehovah's Witness, is refusing a blood transfusion, with the support of his parents. What I enjoyed was watching her decision making process, all the things she took into consideration, all the things she learned about along the way. And then there was this contrast of Fiona in her private life, where she is so uncertain and acts impulsively. I loved it for the complexity and ambiguity of the character. It is everything you want from literary fiction, real people, moral dilemma and genuine human emotion. And then there are consequences to her decisions, both good and not so good, and that is real too, because in life there are consequences, often unforeseen. 
Quote, (but I was not convinced that a high court judge would be obliged to drink bad coffee in a plastic cup from a machine):

"On a furious impulse, she pulled out her phone, scrolled through the numbers to their locksmith on the Gray's Inn Road, gave her four-digit PIN, then instruction for a change of lock. Of course, madam, right away. They held details of the existing lock. New keys to be delivered to the Strand today and nowhere else. Then, proceeding rapidly, hot plastic cup in her free hand, fearful of changing her mind, she called the Deputy Director of Estates, a gruff good-natured fellow, to let him know to expect a locksmith. So, she was bad, and feeling good about being bad. There must be a price for leaving her and here it was, to be in exile, a supplicant to his previous life. She would not permit him the luxury of two addresses.
Coming back along the corridor with her cup, she was already wondering at her ridiculous transgression, obstructing her husband from rightful access, one of the clich├ęs of marital breakdown, one that an instructing solicitor would advise a client - generally the wife - against in the absence of a court order. A professional life spent above the affray, advising then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide." (p.48-9)

Also this one, when she goes to the hospital to talk directly to Adam:
"As he said this, looking at her directly, with no particular challenge in his voice, she believed him completely, he and his parents, the congregation and the elders knew what was right for them. She felt unpleasantly light-headed, emptied out, all meaning gone. The blasphemous notion came to her that it didn't much matter either way whether the boy lived or died. Everything would be much the same. Profound sorrow, bitter regret perhaps, fond memories, then life would plunge on and all three would mean less and less as those who loved him aged and died, until they meant nothing at all. Religions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a  great distance, none obviously higher, more important, truer than another. What was to judge?" (p.112)

Stay safe. Be kind. Read some Ian McEwan.

Post 2 - three women

One of the few books I was obliged to read at school that I **hated** was 'Three Men in a Boat' by Jerome K Jerome. Three profoundly annoying and stupid men and a really unpleasant dog. Then I read a review of 'Three Women and a Boat' by Anne Youngson (who coincidentally was interviewed in the Guardian yesterday). It reminded me very much of 'The Keeper of Lost Things' from 2018, not because of the story but because it is a lovely-cup-of-tea book. Everyone is nice and immediately bond and form lifelong friendships and crotchety old women are all soft and vulnerable underneath but everyone is devoted to them even though they are mean and demanding and take everyone for granted. And of course it makes you want to go and live on a house boat, which part of me has always thought would be a lovely life. 

So Eve, who has just been sacked, and Sally, who has just left her husband, meet on a tow path and rescue a 'trapped' dog. As a result of the chaos they find themselves agreeing to take a narrowboat to be repaired while its owner, the crotchety Anastasia, goes into hospital.

I liked it because it felt like a suspension of 'real life'; the canals are a world unto themselves, somehow apart from everything, and slow, so slow. And the slowing down has an effect on the characters. I think I liked Sally because she just dives in and loves everything about her new existence, but I also like this quote because of 'Chipper', because anyone would think it was the 1950s, nobody ever uses the word chipper now:

"She stood up, ready to throttle back as she approached a bridge and moored boats. 'Thrupp', said a sign on the wharf. Sally added this to 'clutter' as another word she liked the taste of and would never have spoken, even to herself, before. When she reached Yardley Gobion (was she creating these names from the depth of her happiness, or had they always existed?) Eve was waiting for her. A bit red in the face, a bit damp and muddy.
'I hit a bump,' she said, climbing aboard as Sally slid the Number One into the side. 'And fell off.'
'Are you all right?'
'Chipper. I bounce, or so it seems.' " (p.103)

Other quote from the end. Chatting to my friend Julie the other day by text, about her wanting to quit her job and do something else and I asked her what she wanted from a job and she said she wanted to feel competent at something, and here we have Sally, feeling competent, and how important that can be:

"Owen did talk to passers by, but briefly, and never diverting his attention from the state of the lock. He did have ways of doing things that were a bit different to the ways that Anastasia had taught Eve and Sally, but Sally felt safe. She relaxed; she drove the boat perfectly, in full control. If Owen was watching out for her, checking to make sure she did not need any help, it was not obvious. And she no longer had to be responsible for Noah. The dog had been ecstatic at Owen's arrival, which Owen reciprocated by informing him that he was an atrocious dog, possibly good for only one thing, but no one had worked out what that one thing was. after this, for as long as Owen was with them, Noah ignored Sally, much as he had done when Eve was on the boat. She'd been demoted to fourth place in his affections.
After the first eight of the flight of fifteen, they swapped over. Sally strode ahead and engaged in the usual conversations with other boaters - Where have you come from? Where are you headed? Have you heard there are problems on the Llangollen locks? Do you know where the next water point is? Isn't it a lovely day? ... The inexperienced boaters were always keen to share their lack of experience. Listening to a woman from Wolverhampton explaining her total inability to grasp how a lock worked, Sally remembered that she had done this, too, that first week. Apologised for being useless. She had never felt less like apologising or less useless in her life than now, working her way down the Audlem flight." (p.268)

Stay safe. Be kind. Feel competent.

Post 1

So it's been raining quite a bit. Most of August. Monkey comes back from volleyball training in the park a bit grubby. It feels like a long time since I posted, and the pile of unreviewed books ... (you know the drill). But we are not beating ourselves up about that. Nor the fact that I ordered something on ebay yesterday and didn't notice that it was being sent from China. I am usually very careful. I mean I know all the crap gets made in China but if I buy from someone in this country it has at least probably arrived by ship rather than being flown here. Monkey pointed out I had a hole in my backpack, and Tish pointed out that said backpack had been bought for her when she was in primary school, and having already mended it several times I finally felt justified in replacing it. This is not the thing being sent from China, this will be a beautiful fair trade hemp backpack made in Nepal. The lady from Ipso Mori did not want my opinions yesterday evening because she had filled her quota of people in my age bracket with my education level. She said such people were more than willing to answer questions compared to other groups. 
We went to visit the northerners again, finally meeting Kerri and Aisla (Jacob's family) and had another day passing our little potato around (Tish's name for her). I spent ages showing her the trees outside the bedroom window because she seems to mainly sleep whenever she is taken out for a walk so has barely experienced the outside:
I have rearranged (oh fuck, forgot to pour my tea) part of the garden. I realised that the compost bin was hogging part of the sunny space so moved it by the back door and shifted the Julians in the worm bin next to the water buttts. It works quite satisfactorily. Still just about room to get past:
Compare it to this from 2020, I feel like I have made good progress:
While some things are dying off a bit the sunflowers are going strong and giving me joy:
Tomatoes it seems thrive on neglect. The ones on the ground that have been lovingly tended are tiny and tomato-less; this one was probably a seed in the worm compost and grew in the hanging basket with one of the heucheras, and was frequently left to dry out:
I planted more borage a month or so ago. They are lovely:
Have just started a well-earned 17 day break from work so am determined to review all the pile, since I will read a load more in the coming weeks.
Stay safe. Be kind. Don't beat yourself up about stuff.

Friday 6 August 2021

Hiroshima Day

Today is the anniversary of the destruction of the city of Hiroshima by atomic bomb. Despite decades of protests and treaties nuclear weapons still exist on this planet, more than enough to kill us all many times over. It is abominable. Here I repost from 2009 my review of 'Hiroshima' by John Hersey.

The contents of John Hersey's book Hiroshima first appeared in the New Yorker in August 1946, the editors choosing to dedicate an entire issue of the magazine to the series of articles which he had been commissioned to write. The introduction to this slim volume describes the incredible response that the article received around the world and the impact that it had. The dropping of the first atomic bomb had huge political and historical significance. What this book is trying to do is put a human face on the event, to remind us that it was real people who suffered and died, and it is important to hear and remember their story as well.
I found myself reading it a little dispassionately, partly, on reflection, because it is written slightly dispassionately. Although John Hersey uses directly the accounts of the people he met he does not report their exact words but describes everything in the third person, so you get a disconcerting sense of being disconnected from the events. I feel everything about the story and the way it is told, and the public reaction to it, is a reflection of when it was written. Nowadays we have such instantaneous access to news from all over the world, seeing people's reactions to disasters in the most intimate of detail, practically being 'in the thick of' real events as they happen, but in 1946 this was not the case. During WW2 it might be months before a family learned of their loved ones' death, now every individual loss is announced on the evening news bulletin. To have such personal stories retold around the world only a year after such an event was much more startling then than it would be today.
Hersey tells the stories of six individuals in some detail, moving abruptly from one person to another to progress the chain of events. He describes first a brief background of their life and then what was happening to them in the period immediately before the bomb exploded. Then he gives us their individual experience of the moment of the explosion. You get a sense of how unexpected and unreal the experience was for them all, a white flash and then the blast hitting whatever building they were in, and of course the strangest little aspects of their situation that meant they survived rather than died. Then you have what they did in the minutes, hours and days that followed. Nobody knew what had happened, nor could any of them envisage the scale of what had happened, people mainly assumed it was an air raid (which they had been anticipating for some time), and it is not until months later that there is any understanding of the nature of the weapon used against them. 
I think the book tells us a great deal about Japanese society and people, the strange (to me that is) things people talked about doing or thinking about, or what was important to them in the aftermath of the bomb. There is no hysteria or panic, people help each other as much as they are able. Those who are uninjured bring food and water for others, one of the interviewees ferries people across the river to escape the fires, people just get on and try and do what needs to be done, faced with a horrific situation. And yet by the end of the day it is almost as if they become immune to the suffering of others and resigned to their own fate. In such a short space of time each of them witnesses such extremes of suffering that you can only assume you stop being able to take it in. No one complains; Mr Tanimoto describes the crowds of people who arrive at a park, many horribly injured, and they just lie down and wait patiently, in hope that someone will help them. Many, many of them die overnight the first night, of injuries or the first effects of the radiation sickness, but there is almost complete silence. The atmosphere in the description of this first day is quite eerie. 
I think the book gives a true picture and that the people involved were brutally honest, no one tries to make themselves heroic or to exaggerate their own personal suffering or loss. The other thing you notice is the total lack of self pity, that they accepted that their country was at war and that they themselves could be a target of that war, and that in effect they were suffering for their Emperor. This loyalty and patriotism was most strikingly shown when someone describes hearing the Emperor announcing the end of the war on the radio, and how important that was, because they had never heard his actual voice before. As a group there did not appear to be any lasting resentment or anger towards America, in fact, just as they stoically endured their suffering, they appear to dismiss as not so important the discovery of the nature of the atomic bomb, seeing it as just another part of war and not some especially evil weapon. It is as if we (in the West that is) have given it so much significance, but for the people of Hiroshima it was not viewed like that. They don't dwell on what is done but focus more on the future and rebuilding their city.
Being a student of politics I was very interested to learn about this event from a more human level. There is quite a mythology surrounding the dropping of this bomb, and the impact that it has had and the way it is presented in history does not tell the full story. I am left thinking that Hiroshima has become symbolic only of the worst that human being are capable of; there was most certainly horror and immense suffering, but there was also great human strength and resilience.

Stay safe. Be kind. Remember.

Thursday 5 August 2021

Joy and delight


Monty says to pick your sweet peas and more flowers will come.
So I did.
In other news Ady is being adorable and we can't wait to go and visit again.
Work is crap at the moment so am trying to focus on the lovely things.
Stay safe. Be kind. Focus on the lovely things.