Sunday, 18 February 2018

Post 69: Romance, Costa Winners and The Gower

We are taking romantic to dizzy new heights this Valentine’s day as I sit in our holiday flat writing
Culver House Aparthotel
my blog and hubby is deep in some Japanese number puzzle that is something other than a sudoku! Ah, companionable independence is much underrated in modern relationship parlance!

I am being a tad unfair here; romance was very much in evidence as we spent Valentines morning walking along a very blustery Port Eynon Bay and then running back to the apartment over the sand dunes.  We topped that off with a lengthy lunch at King Arthur Hotel in Reynoldston where we enjoyed good food, good company and a log fire. If any of you have yet to discover the Gower peninsula, then I heartily recommend it…and in February, you get all the beaches to yourself!

Speaking of romance, the big news since my last entry has been the engagement of Child 1 to her boyfriend of the past three years…eek!  That must mean I’m old enough to be a mother-in-law!  It also means unlimited licence to shop!  So many congrats to them.  Maybe I now need to widen my reading to wedding etiquette...

And speaking of reading…a damp February break in Wales has given me ample opportunity to sink down into the leather sofa cushions which we have artfully positioned on the floor so that we both get a good sea view, and read for more hours than normal life allows.

I will begin with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This formed part of the delicious package of Costa winners that plopped through my door just in time for half term.  Gail Honeyman won best debut title. 

The writing style of this novel is light and well-constructed.  Told in the first-person, I immediately liked the central character’s self-deprecating tone. The premise is simple. Eleanor Oliphant lives a perfectly acceptable life.  It is however, predictable, safe and routine.  She is existing rather than living.  Why she lives like this and whether she has the courage to change it forms the crux of the fiction.

Early in the book, we learn that she has scarring to her face that she suffered following a fire.  This piques curiosity about the circumstances behind this.  My interest was heightened by the use of names that readers of classical texts will quickly recognise as being from Jane Eyre.   Thus in the first social work report we see that the Deputy Head Of Children and Families in the Social Work Department is a certain Robert Brocklehurst, Mr and Mrs Reed are the foster parents and their children are, yes you’ve guessed it,  John, Eliza and Georgie. This continues when we meet Maria Temple a counsellor, later on in the book. 

Now I may have missed a trick here, but a face scarred by burning and unsubtle use of nomenclature led me to want to make a connection with Charlotte Bronte’s work. But it didn’t happen.  The allusions were merely that, just allusions.  A tenuous link to a madwoman in the attic can be drawn, (but no spoilers) but still the references added nothing to either text.
Perhaps such literary self-consciousness masks a fear of inferiority from this new writer, but as the Costa accolade and clamouring for film rights  have proved, that is not necessary. This is a good novel. Gail Honeyman is a completely fine writer, if you’ll forgive my blatant allusion to her own title.  The story is entertaining and Eleanor is executed with just enough empathy that you care about the outcome. The book conveys what it is like to be lonely in the modern world.  This is an important topic and one which needs to be aired in fiction.  There are a lot of Eleanors out there in some guise or other who appear to be completely fine, but are not. I wouldn’t agree with one critic who said the book was “powerful;” I found it a good read, one that I thoroughly enjoyed but possibly not one I will re-read.

Stories where loneliness and isolation form a central part of the protagonist’s identity have featured in my other reads for this month.  One was  Andrea Levy’s Never Far from Nowhere. The title speaks for itself, and is a direct quotation from Olive, one of the focalised voices.  Told from the perspective of two sisters, born of Jamaican parents and living in Islington in London, Olive states that folk like them, no matter how far they feel they have been accepted are never far from nowhere. Never far from rejection, never far from realisation that they never quite fit.

The story centres around finding identity and belonging.  Like all teenagers regardless of race, colour, ethnicity or religion, Vivien and Olive feel their way to independence.  The paths the sisters take are very different and both veer between bleak despair and hope.  This is a story that encompasses racism and class divide.  It shows how education can be a tool to inspire, or, if misrepresented, another reason to rebel.

In our multicultural, multinational, international world, we must learn to accept each other on the basis of our shared humanity.  That alone should be enough to ensure compassion and equal access to education, welfare, health and employment. It is time we all believed that our humanity across all nations is more unifying than our flags, our colour, our heritage.  No-one should summarise their lives as being so close to the lonely abyss that they are never from nowhere.

Andrea Levy is a powerful writer whose words challenge her readers and make us address stereotypes and unconscious prejudice.

My next blog post will be looking at a novel by John Updike.  I’d not read any of his work before, and now I want to read it all!

I'll leave you with a few photos of our walking, reading and relaxing time on Gower.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Post 68: Off to a slow and steady start

Matt Haig signing my
"forgotten" title at the
North Cornwall Literary
Festival in October.
I begin with an apology to Matt Haig. For some reason, I failed to write down his novel, How to Stop Time, in my reading journal and therefore didn't count it in my annual reckoning, (now at 42 and accurate!) or give it opportunity to make my top ten reads, (which it most certainly would have done)! So, if any of you are noting down my top ten as books to look out for this year, then please add Matt Haig to your list!  Hubby was very amused at my reaction once I realised my miscalculation! Woe was me for at least quarter of an hour after I had pressed "publish"!

Perhaps more woeful is that I have only managed to read one book so far in 2018...I'm going to have to step up if I'm going to complete my to-be-read shelf this year.  But, despite my tardiness, the book was excellent, and I am now a committed fan of Anthony Doerr.  Many of you will remember that All The Light We Cannot See was my number 1 read of 2016, and so I looked forward to reading About Grace. This was his first published novel, and so I steeled myself to expect something less than his award winning wartime epic. But I needn't have done; I don't think I would rate it as a top read of a lifetime, but it was a very sound start to my reading year. He writes evocatively and sensuously; in this novel he recreates the icy cold of Alaska juxtaposed against the Caribbean blue of a small remote island where the main character spends a quarter century running away from his former life.

I really liked this protagonist.  Named David Winkler, he is an unlikely central character.  He is basically very ordinary, maybe even bordering on dull (aren't we all?!) except for one particular quirk.  He sleepwalks.  Now I realise that readers who know me well are likely to be chuckling at this is well-known in my family that I have had some fairly spectacular episodes of somnambulism, a trait I inherit from my father and have graciously passed onto to Child 2.  My most famous sleepwalking has included, whilst at university, ripping down all the posters in a friend's bedroom, waking a whole corridor whilst screaming "help" and attempting to bang down my Yale-locked door, and perhaps more sinister still, upending everything on my bedside table, leaping out of bed and attempting to jump out of a sash window...I am forever grateful to my now-husband for a) staying over that weekend and b) grabbing hold of me and possibly saving my life!  It's amazing he ever walked me up the aisle really!  Child 2 has been known to put an entire school uniform down the toilet, and tear down a child safety gate on holiday in France before careering down a spiral staircase and landing in the lounge... and my Dad...perhaps less of a walker and more of a writher; his most famous was a nighttime wrestle with an you see, sleepwalking interests me!

The main character of About Grace sleepwalks in a manner comparable to my family, but with a twist.  He is convinced that what he dreams is a premonition of a life event.  This conviction followed his helpless response, when, as a child,  he watched a man lose his life under a bus. He had dreamt the whole scene, and as it unfolded before him, he warned his mother of the outcome, but not in enough time to prevent it from occurring.

When he dreams the innocuous scenario of picking up a magazine for a customer in a supermarket,we know that when a certain Sandy Sheeler drops her copy of the latest read out of her wire basket that she will become significant in David's life.  Indeed, they fall in love and despite complications, they become a couple and have a child: Grace. And it is indeed About Grace where David Winkler's life becomes a living, waking nightmare.  After dreaming of a flood engulfing their Anchorage home and "seeing" his own abject failure to rescue his baby daughter from the floodwaters, David becomes tortured by the seeming inevitability of his daughter's death.  He tries to avoid sleeping and when he does succumb, he is restless.  On several occasions Sandy finds him sleepwalking with Grace in the car, or in a parking lot, desperate to take her away from harm.

I'm not going to give any spoilers about the fate of Grace, suffice it to say that David became so terrified of what he might inflict upon her during his sleeping hours that he ran away, hostage to his fears.  He blindly took a ship and ended up on a remote Caribbean island. Here, he was befriended by a Chilean family exiled from their home country by political conflict.

The story builds on this premise and the reader gains an insight into David's thoughts, fears, loves and losses.  But this is literary fiction. It has a strong plot and characterisation. but it is also lyrically beautiful.  A meteorologist by profession, David Winkler's passion is the unique and beautiful patterning found in snowflakes.  This obsession enables him to engender a love of natural shapes and patterns in indigenous Caribbean species in Naaliyah, the young daughter of his Chilean family. The plot takes him to Kingston, Jamaica and then on a long journey across America from Miami and eventually back to Alaska.  The evocation of Caribbean tropical heat and beauty and the snow, ice and life in the depths of an Alaskan winter is breathtaking.

I have been "accused" of being unadventurous in my travels.  I love the UK and am happy to stay on terra firma, but we venture to France quite regularly and have been known to dabble in an Italian holiday or two.  In fact, the children famously informed me that there were more than 2 countries in mainland Europe, and maybe some others beyond that!  But, as my lovely bookish friend once said, I am content to travel through the voices and adventures of the characters I read about.  Perhaps a little sad, and a little unambitious, but it certainly felt true of this book.  The winter months trapped off-grid in a woodshed in Alaska were beautifully described: the sights, sounds and even tastes of the cold permeate the pages.

If you like good literary fiction, this is an excellent read. I like David Winkler!  His writer, Anthony Doerr is a master storyteller, who succeeds not only in telling a good tale, but he finishes it well, leaving behind a very satisfied reader.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Post 67: Happy New Year

Happy New Year to you all!  My final reading total for 2017 was 41, finishing with a re-read of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I wonder what were your reading highlights of 2017? And what is in store for 2018?

My resolution this year is to give, where possible, at least 30 minutes a day to reading. I'd love to reach 50...or even a 52 book total, so keep watching this space!

Hopefully lots of you got books in your Christmas stockings this year. I did my annual Mum-gift to the "children", adding an extra title for Child One's Significant Other. He has been around long enough to be persuaded that reading for pleasure is a joy waiting to be discovered by everyone...I'll keep you posted! And it is with joy that I report that since leaving uni, Child One has rediscovered reading! The fact that she says it fills an otherwise dull lunch hour is by-the-by. She has read 2 books since September and has willingly purchased a 3rd.  I call that a result!  Child Two continues to be  a willing and effective critic of my reading and writing, though no books for me under the tree this year (see note in #1 of my top 10)!

I'm not going to rank all 41 titles of  2017, but The Times recently published their  top 50 Novels of the past 50 years. I am ashamed to say that I hadn't even read half of them. In discussion with colleagues, we decided we could let ourselves off the hook if we had read other titles by the same authors!  Whilst these lists can be a great starting point to broaden horizons and introduce authors that we might have either dismissed or not otherwise heard of, they are to be read with caution.  We shouldn't feel guilty if we have never read a certain classic. There will, alas, always be more books than we have time-in-a-lifetime to read!

So with that in mind, I'm sure you are all waiting with bated breath to see my top 10 reads of 2017!

10. Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris
Coming in at number 10, this was simply beautiful.  It is evocative throughout, and though I am not a fan of lengthy description, the use of setting was far more than a backdrop to events; in some ways it seemed to determine them.

9.  The Help by Kathryn Stockett
This was a re-read and was just as good second time round.  Challenging and honest...two qualities which stand out in my criteria for 2017.

8.  Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker
This debut novel finds a place in my top ten for its originality of narrative voice.  Told through a series of objects, the different perspectives on warfare, injury and recovery are clearly communicated. The style may have reduced empathy in places, but I liked the premise.

7.  Zoo Station by Christiane F
Highly recommended literary non-fiction.  If you haven't tried this genre, I urge you to give it a
go.This personal account is open and wretched in places.  Its honesty replaces judgement with empathy... another example of the power of language to change its readers.

6.  This Must be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell
This fiction was saved up til my summer holiday and it didn't disappoint. I admit to a slight bias here: I am such a fan that I am loathe to be a critic.  Good story, great characterisation, excellent writing.

5.  All That I Am by Anna Funder
A highly complex narrative woven around real people and events but fictionalised to fill in the gaps.  A very interesting period of history from an original perspective.  Funder writes intelligently and with integrity.

4.  I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell
This memoir is pithy and honest.  And it's Maggie O'Farrell, mistress of the written word...nothing more needs to be said!

3.  The Shock of the Fall  by Nathan Filer
Best newcomer award from me this year (a high accolade indeed!) I loved the story. The central character is crafted with empathy and the plot twists are ably handled.  Compassionate.

2.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
This one has a top spot because it is quite simply the cleverest book I have ever read.  It is a title that is worthy of study beyond a simple read.  The voice is cleverly manipulated and every reference and allusion is loaded with meaning.  This novel is challenging and confronts stereotypes.

And now for the big reveal...KarenMartinReads Top Read of 2017 goes to:

1.  Half  of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
This one is at number one because it was a compelling read that taught me about a country and a period of colonial history of which I had previously been ignorant.  Literature has the power to open eyes and change viewpoints.  Adiche achieves this with excellent fiction, well-rounded characterisation and a superbly complex and well-executed plot. I now want to read all her other novels (family members please note...only a few weeks til my birthday!)

Onto my most Unusual Read of the year:
Kafka on the Shore by Murakami
Another challenging one!  Not because of political or social issues, but because it was a real stretch for me.  Its genre - magical realism, is not one I am particularly at home with, but the surreal events and characterisation kept me reading!

And my Don't Bother Read of the year:
Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe
All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (With apologies to Mr Clark who recommended this for our nerdy book club!)

Me with Maggie...last excuse
 to post this pic!
And so I begin my reading of 2018.  I am genuinely excited to be starting again!  My first book of the year is About Grace by Anthony Doerr.  His All The Light We Cannot See was my top read of 2016, so let's see how I feel about this one.

Happy New Year to you all. Thank you for reading my blog; I am genuinely humbled by the numbers of you that wander onto my pages. Please feel free to get in touch, to recommend and keep the conversation buzzing about books!

Monday, 18 December 2017

Post 66: And she reaches her target of 40 books in 2017!

Tada!  I am very happy to report that at long last I have achieved my goal of reading 40 books in a year.  And what's more, with school breaking up early this Christmas, I harbour a sneaky hope that I might even surpass that total.

It has been a good reading year.  In the quiet week between Christmas and New Year I will offer the KarenMartinReads review of 2017 and aim to give you my top 10.

But for now, the final two titles of the golden 40 were The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and The Child in Time by Ian McEwan. Both were charity shop purchases and eagerly bought.  I had wanted to read the first of the Myth series by Atwood ever since a former student had used the chorus as the backbone for a creative transformation of the text.  I'm now more diligent and read every base text that my A-Level candidates select, but back then I was content to read only the relevant extracts. (Apologies Lizzie, if you're reading this, but if I remember rightly, your grades came out perfectly)!

The Penelopiad is a short read and takes a feminist view of Homer's account of The Odyssey. Having
read that at university many moons ago, I was interested to see Atwood's perspective.  In short, she tells the story from Penelope's, (Odysseus's wife) point of view.  The tale tells of a marriage bargain and the loneliness and trepidation of a young girl made to sail from her home to the unknown and much smaller island of Ithaca.  Once there, she sets about becoming a good wife, fulfilling the traditional roles expected of her and negotiating around proprietorial nannies and servants.  When Odysseus leaves to rescue Helen from the arms of Paris in Troy, Penelope is left alone and vulnerable.

Atwood portrays her protagonist with strength and conviction.  Wanting her husband to be proud of her on his return, Penelope sets about maximising his assets, growing his production and increasing his yields and his livestock.

With Odysseus's failure to return long after the other adventurers had been reunited with their families, others began to assume him dead.  Rumours circulated and once more Penelope was vulnerable.  Prospective suitors, wooed by her increased wealth and assets set up camp.  She was obliged to show hospitality and they plundered her crops, her foodstores, her livestock and her maids.

And it is here that the story is really interesting. Atwood uses the Greek dramatic device of a chorus throughout the novel.  This is voiced by the 12 maids and is often in deliberate poetic construct.  These maidens were a central part of the ending of the original tale - central because Odysseus ordered their deaths.  Even if you didn't know the original tale, then this isn't a spoiler: they announce their own demise very early on in the book.

Atwood constructs her book around the maids, making their voices even more compelling than Penelope's.  Perhaps because they have no privilege and are, in effect, prisoners to the role that life has assigned them, Atwood gives them a voice and it is a powerful one.  They are not meek and they do not die quietly.  Even in Elysian Fields, the maids give Penelope no peace.

Atwood's depiction of Elysium is amusing; the main characters continue their feuds beyond the grave.  Helen of Troy remains smug in her beauty and ability to woo any man; Penelope remains jealous of her cousin.  Odysseus is condemned to disquiet, choosing reincarnation multiple times with little success and little evidence of having learnt from prior experience.

This novel was both lighthearted and challenging. Anyone who is interested in this reworking, might also like the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy in The World's Wife, where she re-imagines real and fictional male characters through the voices of women who loved them.

And having your own voice is important.  No-one should be overshadowed by one that is louder or more insistent. We all need to be heard in order for us to have a sense of self, a conviction of our own worth. We all need someone who thinks we are worth listening to.

In Ian McEwan's novel, introspection is at its heart.  The protagonist opens the book with an ordinary life in an ordinary family.  This quickly changes when his daughter is snatched at a supermarket and suddenly he is capitulated into a life which is extraordinary for all the wrong reasons.  The loss of his daughter, Kate occurs in chapter one and the rest of the novel shows how he copes, how he goes on from there.

And it is significant that the loss of identity brought about by such grief, robs Stephen of his voice.  He doesn't know what to say or who to say it to.  His wife Julie, responds similarly, retreating into herself and then going away. Other key characters, Charles Darke and his wife Thelma, and Stephen's parents, all keep silent, all keep secrets and in doing so, seek to protect themselves from the outside world.

There is a thread of truth running through the whole novel.  Working for a government sub-committee, Stephen exposes a deceit.  His ultimate conclusion is that in public office, civil servants work between the lines of truth and lies and nothing has any integrity.  As is often seen in McEwan's fiction, he also makes a nod to science.  In this novel he examines the concept of time through coincidence, hallucination and the paranormal.  In all of this Stephen is seeking meaning, trying to make sense of what has happened, who he is and what he is to become.

This is a beautiful story, told with typical McEwan control.  The novel seems episodic, with some vignettes seemingly random in their inclusion.  But the master storyteller draws all these elements to a pleasing conclusion and not a word has been erroneous or wasted.

The overall impression is of an evocative novel that explores the interior life of an ordinary, decent man. The ending is wholly satisfactory and I would be interested to hear whether any of you predicted it.  I'm left with an optimistic view of humanity, and with the novel's bleak premise, that is a pretty amazing feat.

So now to watch the film version with Benedict Cumberbatch and see if TV can evoke as effectively as the real thing!

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Post Number 65: White Teeth

Perhaps deciding to read White Teeth by Zadie Smith this late in the year was not my wisest choice.  I now need to complete two further books in order to meet my target of 40 reads in twelve months.  Hubby suggested I borrow Child One's infant school readathon tactics and start on the Mr Men books! Though my next two reads will be less than 500 pages (I'm leaving Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks until 2018!), I'm also keen to try and squeeze in a poetry anthology by Inua Ellams.

Poetry has always been something I have enjoyed studying, but I have never managed to make that move to reading it for pleasure or relaxation.  I do have favourites: Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage catches in my throat every time I read it aloud, so beautifully does it capture the love of a mother as her children leave home.  And now I have found a new voice to enthuse about: Inua Ellams was recently at Norden Farm, our local independent theatre, and, in an intimate studio, he read from his work.

The set was titled an Evening With an Immigrant and so I really wasn't sure what to expect.  My sixth
Inua Ellams
form students are reading for a module with immigration literature at its heart, so we took a leap of faith and booked tickets for the class.  To be honest, with a title like that, I was expecting it to be satirical, comical, light.  And it was entertaining.  Inua is personable and genuine and some of his stories made us laugh.  He appeared on set in a Nigerian robe and bounced in to some African drumming.  But there the stereotype faded.  He punctuated the reading of his poetry with the most powerful autobiographical tales that made us want to weep both with him and for him.

Having fled Nigeria for fear of their lives, Inua arrived in England aged 12 with his parents and siblings. The family were then defrauded of their papers and had to flee again, this time to Ireland. Here, they were subject to taunts and abuse.  When his parents received photographs of his sisters on their phones, accompanied by threats, they had to move on again.  By the age of 18, Inua was back in London but still without papers and without much hope.  Now in his thirties, he tells a tale of immigration that is heartbreaking and real.  The poetry of his experiences is rhythmical, beautiful and good.  When asked how he could write with such generosity and love when he and his family have been so rejected, his reply was simple: if we cling to hatred and bitterness, that is what we become.  Despite everything, love and compassion shine through his work. And I have another poem to add to my favourites, Dear Tina.

It doesn't take much insight to realise that I am a bit disillusioned with the current education system with its emphasis on exams and assessment and constant monitoring of data, but I am so glad that I still have opportunity to take young people to events like this.  That evening alone was worth more than an A-Level grade.  Listening to the experiences of others broadens our horizons and increases compassion.  The world needs to hear voices other than their own.

And that leads me nicely to White Teeth. I confess I have looked at other reviews before writing my blog, something I usually avoid doing... but this novel is huge and I had no idea how I was going to encapsulate it.  It was therefore something of a relief that professional reviewers had the same difficulty.

This novel is an epic!  It is 542 pages of family saga that centres around a friendship between Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal. It flits from past to present, and with the help of a Jamaican Jehovah's Witness mother-in-law, there is also focus on the future, or at least when the day of judgement will come.  In the midst of all this variety there is a third family, the Chalfens. They are self-assured, middle-class and educated.They are so comfortable                                             with their own world view that they have even coined their own abstract                                               noun: Chalfenism! 

The plot is complex and, in places, bizarre.  In essence it asks big questions: who are we and how do we fit in?  How do we accommodate others?  How do we seek our own contentment?  Against a background of socially and culturally diverse Willesden in London, Zadie Smith focalises alternately on the two men, Samad and Archie and then their children, twins Magid and Millat and a daughter Irie. The book explores the experiences of second-generation immigrants and their families, but it is not a politically correct investigation of immigration.  It seeks to tell you the stories of the array of characters and somehow weave them all together in a climax and denouement that is perhaps the weakest part of the plot.  If I tell you that it involves a mouse and eugenics, a clash of science and religion, a gun and a fundamentalist group under the acronym KEVIN, then you will begin to see what I mean!

For me the book was too busy to either fully absorb or enjoy. It is Zadie Smith's debut novel and I would be very interested to read some of her later work. If any of you have any recommendations for me, do let me know. She writes well, and she captures the messiness of life in which we all scramble around. 

The novel achieved critical acclaim and launched a highly successful career.  It is her originality and fearlessness that impressed me the most. She dares to write what others might even avoid thinking.

And for the record, my favourite character is Abdul-Mickey, the cafe owner of O'Connells!

Now, off to read super-fast and achieve that elusive 40 in a year! I'm starting with Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, and I'm already a quarter through.  With any luck, I'll squeeze in two reads and a blog before Christmas, so I'll save my festive greetings 'til then!

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Post 64 If I could turn back time...

I recently asked my students to list three things that defined them; I was surprised to find that their age was significant to several of them.  The idea of being defined by our number of years horrifies me somewhat. I have to admit that I don't like doing online surveys anymore because I've crept up into an age range that I don't feel that I identify with yet.  Years ago when I announced my first pregnancy, my Dad's reaction was not one of adulterated joy...I had catapulted him into the  "Grandparent" category at the tender age of 50.  And so I think my students are right: we are defined in some way by our age.  When perusing house details the other day, my Mum, on seeing a reasonable sized property with a lovely big garden, was swift to point out that I'm not getting any younger! Hubby, on the other hand, refuses to countenance any utterance of the phrase, "We're nearly 50," in the house! But we have a "child" of very-nearly 22: Happy Birthday Child One, and another of coming up go figure!

Matt Haig at the North Cornwall Literary Festival
So age does shape us and other people's expectations of us, even if we don't want it to.  And thus Matt Haig's latest novel,  How to Stop Time, poses an interesting conundrum.  The central character, Tom has a fictional condition called anageria that means, though mortal, he will live a biblical span of years. His ageing process is therefore very delayed.  A decade can pass by with very little physical change. At the end of the novel he is 439 years old, but could pass for 40.

This premise allows for a lot of fun.  Haig writes well and lightly, managing to communicate the human condition with a combination of wry humour and pathos. Tom is born in an era of witch-hunts and his mother is publicly ducked for a hag because of her son. He meets Shakespeare and gets to work at the Globe Theatre, he plays jazz piano in a 1920's Parisian restaurant and he sails the oceans with Cook. All these impossibilities are handled beautifully as we make a tour of the human condition across centuries of experience. And we learn that the fundamentals don't change.  People live, love, and die.  Meaning is created through relationships whether you are a market seller in 1599 or a french teacher in 2017.

And here is the rub.  Tom is a member of Albatross, an organisation made up of people like him. Recruited into the organisation by Hendrich in 1891, it is set up to protect those with the condition.  Hendrich organises new identities and ensures that Alba members move every 8 years, the time he has allotted that is safe. Beyond 8 years and people start to notice that you are different and questions are asked.  Terrified that first the witch-hunters, then the scientists will want to use those with anageria, Hendrich is obsessive about keeping his members anonymous in the wider world. The only rule of the club therefore, is that you must never fall in love.

And yet, the book shows us the universality of human experience.  We are essentially social beings.We have a primeval desire to couple, to procreate.  The anonymity enforced  by the Albas results only in loneliness and isolation, and Tom inevitably falls foul of the rules. It is this "failure" that creates pathos.  It means that the reader can empathise with him in a way that it is impossible with the mechanical, robotic logic of Hendrich.

In the present, Tom is a history teacher in London.  This allows for comedic moments where he lets slip facts that only an eyewitness might know.  He makes wry comments about modern life from the perspective of someone who has known Hackney as a village, and the city with no cars. The novel is essentially a whistle-stop tour of world history give-or-take a few key events!

The book is helpfully structured into chapters that let us know where, and more importantly, when we are! It begins with a context of the condition and then gives us some bearings for Tom in the present. It then jumps around across centuries and cities as we discover a collection of salient experiences in Tom's very long life. In doing so, it builds a story of control, smoke and mirrors perpetuated by the Albatross team and a more compelling strand of a life that is hard to live and harder to enjoy.  It is a book where Tom loses his way and finds it again (more than once!) and is essentially about learning how to be comfortable in your own skin.

My Granny with Child 2!
I may be in the 45+ bracket in the marketing surveys, but this book has made me very grateful for my mortality.  By the appearance of my first grey hair in Cirencester Sixth form aged 17, it is pretty obvious that, even if blessed with longevity, I'm not likely to be here in 2070! I  can't think of anything much worse than staying young whilst those around you age and die. I remember my Gran saying to me, whilst in her 90's that she had lost her husband, her siblings and her friends...I think one lifetime of love and loss is quite enough for most of us.

So seize the day! Be blessed and look around you with joy. We have one life: love one another, appreciate one another and take time to breathe, to read, to walk along the riverbank and enjoy! As the bard himself famously wrote, (although I wasn't there to hear it!) "Above all to thine own self be true!"

Monday, 30 October 2017

Post 63: Reading for the Absolute Pleasure of it

Isn't it such a delight when you get a run of excellent reads?  Looking back over my reading lists of the past few years, there are often barren patches where all the novels seem to be entertaining enough, but not sufficiently demanding or thrilling to ever warrant a re-read.  Not so at the moment, and I am relishing the joy of being enveloped in good writing.

One that definitely warrants a revisit is The Help.  Published in 2009 and made into a film in 2011, this is a debut novel by Kathryn Stockett. I first encountered this as an audio-book a few years ago and was prompted to re-read it by one of my students. It is a wonderful combination of good writing, good plot and open, empathetic characterisation.  Set in Jackson, Mississippi, the book explores the social and cultural milieu of a small town whose defining characteristic is its separation between black and white residents.

The most significant character is Aibileen, a black house-maid who agrees to help Skeeter first with a domestic advice column in a newspaper and then on a much more risky publication.  She begins to meet Skeeter in secret, telling the truth about what it was like to work for middle class white families. She recruits other maids, who because of their faith in Aibileen and their disgust at the treatment of Yule Mae by Hilly Holbrook, risked their livelihoods and their lives to speak openly about the discrimination suffered every day.

The book serves, as all good fiction should, to illuminate truth.  Though a novel, the segregation is factual, the way the domestic maids were treated is representative and the oppression of a whole sector of society is honestly depicted.  This honesty comes in part from the sections narrated by Skeeter.  A reasonable, educated white woman, the book details her gradual awakening to a system in which she had been unintentionally complicit.  Born to wealthy white parents who owned a cotton plantation, she had been brought up by Constantine her maid, and was used to having black workers toiling her father's land.  Through her story, we see real love and affection between black maids and white children.  This storyline is echoed in Aibileen's relationship with Mae Mobley.

The plot is narrated in turn by Skeeter, Aibileen and Aibileen's friend, Minnie.  Each has a function.  The two maids are foils for one another.  Aibileen is steady and measured whilst Minnie is impetuous and impulsive.  Minnie has lost countless jobs because she has failed to keep quiet when mistreated by the white ladies.  Suspicious of all of them, she took a great deal of persuading to trust Skeeter Phelan and her project.

The novel is the story of the publication of a book, from idea to draft to its reading audience.  It tells the stories of maids in the deep South and their employers.  It tells the story of a young white woman who wakes up to who she is and how she came to be that person.  It is a story of a nation begging for change.  Set in the period of civil rights, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, this novel sits at an uncomfortable period of American history whose echoes resonate as sadly all too relevant today.

Despite its difficult content this is a heart-warming story where empathy is given to all three central characters. There is comedy, pathos, compassion and an overarching positive tone that encourages us to believe that humanity, at its best will prevail over the shame and degradation of humanity at its very worst.

This links nicely with my next read, I Am, I Am, I Am. The title comes from a line in Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  The repetitious phrase reflects the sound, beat and insistence of her heart, a rhythm which reinforces her life rather than her desire to escape it.  Maggie O'Farrell's memoir however, is not one of suicidal agony, rather it is a celebration of life.  This is something of a paradox when you consider that the whole book is about encounters with death! Each chapter details a life-threatening moment in O'Farrell's own life.  And it is seventeen chapters long.  At the North Cornwall Literary Festival, she said that near-death experiences were not unusual, that we would all have stories to tell.  I am not so sure. She has certainly experienced more than most of us. And whilst some can be deemed as "trivial", such as her mother narrowly avoiding shutting a young Maggie's head in the boot of a car or as "commonplace", such as swimming out too far and finding yourself tired and out of your depth (admittedly made more tense by the fact that her young non-swimming son was on her shoulders at the time), others are dramatic and terrifying.

Most of us can be thankful that our vehicles were not targeted by bandits, machetes were not held to our necks or that our rambles in the countryside were not interrupted by psychopaths.

Think this is already one of my
most treasured possessions!
But horrific (and disturbingly gripping) though these tales were, it is the ones of searing vulnerability that evoke the most response.  The chapter on miscarriage is open and begs us to consider the question why we keep our early pregnancies under wraps, "I've never understood the blanket secrecy you're supposed to apply to early pregnancy. Certainly I've never felt the need to broadcast the news far and wide, but it seems to me that pregnancy at any stage is significant.."  Why is it that we choose to suffer alone when we grieve the loss of an embryo?  This is indeed one of society's final taboos, and one which we need to speak out about.  It doesn't need to be sentimentalised with social media campaigns, but rather we need to be free to speak about such pain if we so choose.  In the same way that we can speak about any loss, this one needs to be aired.

The chapter about her own childhood illness is also unspeakably honest.  She learns that she is the "little girl dying in there" by listening to an over-loud conversation outside her hospital door. Her subsequent recovery and the ineptitude of the authorities, "where [they]agreed to move my classroom downstairs but not the lunch room...[so] I ate a lot of packed lunches in the downstairs toilets, with the door locked, my feet tucked up so that no one could locate me." makes me cry out for the child she once was.

Maggie reading at the
 North Cornwall Lit Fest
And this is Maggie O'Farrell.  There are few authors who can capture and take possession of what it means to be human.  There are few authors who can create characters with such depth and empathy.  She brings these skills to her memoir. It is not told in chronological order but each chapter has a connection to the one before.  Her childhood encephalitis precedes the chapter on her own daughter's constant fight to cling to this world, from her conception to her daily struggles with multiple allergies.  It is written in the same unequivocal tone as the rest of the book, and yet a mother's fears are transparent through it all.  Honest and raw in places, Maggie O'Farrell stated that this is the chapter that had the most attention, the most care,the most revisions.  And it is the chapter that she cannot read at festivals and readings because she cannot do so without tears.

It is a book of life rather than a book of death.  It is about valuing it, holding onto it and squeezing it for all it is worth.

And speaking of which, this is my half-term charity shop haul.  I am going to be reading for all I am worth, for as long as I am able...