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 20...so 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...

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Post 62: On Meeting Your Heroes

I had just finished book 27 of the year and was about to go to France when I published my last blog.  I'm now reading book 36, so it has clearly been far too long between posts. I blame arriving back from holiday on Sunday evening and then being catapulted into a much busier role at work on the Monday! I've just about recovered my sense of equilibrium, so hopefully I'll be writing more regularly again.

Headline news...I HAVE MET PATRICK GALE AND MAGGIE O FARRELL!!! More detail below the McEwan review!

Patrick interviewing Maggie at the North Cornwall LitFest

Now I realise that you won't want to read reviews of 8 titles, so I'll give you the list and then take my pick: 
          Black Dogs, Ian McEwan
          Heidi, Johanna Spyri (we were in the Alps...I couldn't help myself!)
          All That I Am, Anna Funder
          Notes From an Exhibition, Patrick Gale
          1984, George Orwell
          The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
          Zoo Station: A Memoir by Christiane F
The final one was a novel in draft form by a friend of mine, so I'm not going to reveal anything about that until it reaches its publication phase.

Those of you who are loyal readers with a good memory might be noting that I have read several of these titles before.  That is the joy and irritation of teaching A Level!  It is coursework time and students can choose a text to accompany a set book. I make sure that I read or re-read all the choices so that I can be at my most useful with advice.  It is a joy because a good book just keeps on giving and an irritation because there are so many other titles out there and a lifetime isn't long enough!
I admit however, that my re-reading of The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a revelation.  I thought it was a good book the first time round, but the second read was even better.  I made connections I hadn't done initially and the writing is supremely clever. Anyone interested in a post 9/11 society should read this book.  It challenges stereotypes, preconceptions and attitudes.  It intrigues and appalls in equal measure, and it is written in a dramatic monologue but with the twists and turns of a thriller.  An important piece of literature and definitely on my list of must-reads.

Finished whilst sitting on a balcony over Lake Annecy, Black Dogs by Ian McEwan was another book with a political dimension. Bought for us by our children as part of our 25th wedding anniversary celebration, (the book was published in 1992), the novel features a fearful encounter in France which changes the course of the life of the protagonist. Remember where I was reading this! I can assure you however, that no black dogs plagued us on any of our Alpine walks, and so far, my life hasn't changed because of our stay there!

The narrator of this novel is Jeremy and he is reconstructing the lives of his parents-in-law, Bernard and June Tremain.  Having promised June that he would write her memoir, she spent much of the last months of her life impressing upon him the significance of the encounter with two dogs on a french mountain pass.
The incident becomes a source of contention, with Bernard dismissing it as no more than a frightening moment made worse by local gossip and lore. June however, felt as though she had come face-to-face with, even wrestled with a physical manifestation of evil.
The book operates on two levels.  Firstly it is a love story, a broken one, where passion and differences are never fully accommodated. Concurrently, it is an existential exploration, examining why we are here.  A modern novel, it draws on a lifetime which experienced the Second World War and its political ramifications.  It addresses the appeal of communism in the wake of the rise of Nazi Germany and shows how war affected individual lives.
It could be considered bleak, "The evil I am talking about lives in us all. It takes hold of an individual...and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself." but at the heart of the book there is hope.  This is carried entirely by the contentment of the narrator - Jeremy and his wife are happy - they have their family and know depth of love and security in each other. I liked him and his honest desire to reflect the truth about his in-laws and respect their histories.
A relatively short novel, it is complex in its themes and well-constructed.

Me and Maggie O'Farrell
Before I go, I must share my joy at having completed a crazy weekend trip from Maidenhead to St Endellion for the North Cornwall Literary Festival. Seeing that my favourite authors Patrick Gale and Maggie O'Farrell (yes, I know, I could hardly contain my excitement either!) were appearing on the same stage meant that I really had no choice but to fill my car with petrol and head southwest. I had checked whether it was possible by train....when I said this to a local attendee in the damp marquee, she just laughed!
Needless to say, with my equally crazy sister-in-law accompanying me, we jumped out of bed at 6.15 to make sure we were there in good time.  As we neared the village venue, the mist rolled in and the rain poured. I parked somewhat nervously in the already muddy field and just prayed we could drive out again a few hours later (all was well, "just keep low revs on the grass and you'll be fine!")
At this point,I must point out that I have been to Henley Lit Fest and Oxford Lit Fest before...for my sis-in-law, this was her first one. When we arrived at a church hall for lunch, served by lovely ladies in the kitchen, I did wonder what I might have brought her to.  This was not the Bodleian Library or the Kenton Theatre! The venues were two very soggy marquees reached by a path of matting to prevent an utter quagmire.  Oxford it was not.  But it was so good; the local feel to it (we were the only incomers that we found) made it a very intimate event.  It felt as though Patrick Gale (he's the artistic director) had invited a few of his awesome author pals down for the weekend and we just happened to be there too!
Hehe!  This is me and Patrick!
Blessed by waiting in the rain for Matt Haig's talk, we secured front row seats which we able to hold for James Naughtie and Maggie and Patrick, (first name terms you notice! I wish!) All the talks were good. Matt Haig, whose book Reasons to Stay Alive  is reviewed in another blog post, was incredibly entertaining. He is funny, warm and open to the audience. I am really looking forward to reading his latest novel How to Stop Time. James Naughtie was interesting as he read from his spy thriller Paris  Spring; he too made us laugh by refering to the infamous Jeremy Hunt slip-of-the-tongue made whilst he was on the Today programme. I was slightly nervous for the O'Farrell/Gale finale....should you meet your heroes?
I needn't have worried.  They were personable and intelligent, witty and warm.  Maggie spoke honestly about the move to memoir from fiction
Me and Matt Haig
and spoke of her family with deep affection. Then the damp got into the lights and they sat in disco red and green for a while, then in semi-darkness and then back to bright again.  And it was this almost parochial feel to it that made it intimate.  I don't think a photo opportunity like this would be afforded by the bigger festivals, and I certainly don't think a chat with the authors and their publicists would be possible.
So I reflect on my North Cornwall book festival with a fuzzy warmth. It was an excellent weekend.  We came home with new books and a sense of privilege at being welcomed by a very friendly team to an "exclusive" inclusive readers experience. Arts Council: please take note.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Post 61: If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need!

Off on holiday tomorrow (I know, far too decadent a summer this year!), I really wanted to finish my current read and blog about it before I slammed the car boot down on my suitcases.  This is the 27th read of the year and so I might just squeeze in the magic number 40 by Christmas.  I've packed optimistically, taking 4 books with me, but I don't imagine I'll be so antisocial as to read them all! But we are staying in an apartment overlooking a lake with mountain views...so maybe sitting still and reading is exactly what we'll all want to do.

Recommended by hubby and child 2, I picked up the first of the roman trilogy by Robert Harris,  As you will remember, I read and enjoyed Conclave relatively recently and I have also read Pompeii  in the past. I like Robert Harris.  He is erudite without being pretentious and he can weave a good story. He is also very personable.  He spoke at Henley Literary Festival last year and he came across as friendly, open and modest. (By the way, ticket sales are now open for the 2017 event. It is a well-organised and varied programme; I highly recommend it, even though I am defecting to the North Cornwall Book Festival this year instead...more of that craziness in a later blog!)

I struggled with this novel to begin with.  Based on highly factual content, it didn't have enough story to grip me at first. The narrative voice however, is endearing.  Written from the point of view of Tiro, Cicero's private secretary (slave), his characterisation is convincing.  He conveys his own lack of freedom ably, but without resentment.  It is clear that he is loyal and trustworthy and highly intelligent.  Indeed, he is famous in his own right as being the forefather of modern shorthand. Envied by other lawyers and aristocrats for his slave who could write as                                                            fast as anyone spoke, Cicero refused all offers to sell Tiro.

The novel opens with a contextual introduction to Tiro and Cicero and quickly develops to centre on a legal case where Cicero is prosecuting a notorious but well-connected Roman aristocrat, Verres. Charged with many cases of corruption and bribery, only Cicero is brave enough to put him through the Roman courts.

Despite my slow start with the novel, I became absorbed in this case.  Harris writes succinctly, which I like, but I was a little wrong-footed when part one ended at the close of the Verres court case.  It seemed as though that marked the natural end to the novel.  I felt as though I had to take a deep breath to enter part 2 where Cicero campaigns to become consul and we follow the progress of his career through two further prominent plots and cases.  In fact, there are three identifiable story arcs. Cicero's career development is the key factor that holds the book as a single story, but it was not as cohesive as I would have liked.

This is largely because the book is written from evidence of Cicero's speeches and other Roman scholarly texts.  I loved the way Harris used this primary evidence.  The authenticity of Cicero's words are undoubted, as the author weaves the Roman statesman's phrases and language seamlessly with his own narration.  As the author states in his afterword, "Although Imperium  is a novel, the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened."  He goes onto state that it is widely acknowledged that Tiro did write a biography of Cicero which has long since been lost. This gives the novel a sniff of romanticism amongst the realism as Harris creates a voice and temperament for this master of shorthand.

As an introduction to the great Roman families and politics of the time, this is excellent.
I am certainly interested enough in Cicero and Tiro to read the other books in the trilogy, but not yet. Don't judge the book harshly by this decision; I rarely read all the way through a series, preferring to read other titles in between for greater breadth and variety. And I am certainly enamoured of Cicero,as you can see from the quote opposite, he really did have his priorities right!

I do think that this is more of a history than a novel; but it is a palatably written history that gives insight into the players and fleshes them out as characters.  Further titles are described as thrillers, so perhaps the storytelling will dominate the history in the rest of the series.  I will wait and see.

So, suitcases are full and I've been optimistic about shorts and sunglasses!  I've packed re-reads of Patrick Gale's, Notes from an Exhibition and Anna Funder's All That I Am and new to me are Ian McEwan's Black Dogs and the non-fiction text, Zoo Station, the story of Christiane F.  There are some back-ups on my Kindle if I want them, and I always like to see the selection in a holiday cottage before I fully make up my reading mind.

Thanks for reading. I'll update you again once term is under way.  My challenge this autumn is to enthuse 16-17 years olds with Macbeth and Hamlet.  I have a feeling David Tennant might come in handy!

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Post 60: Where the Place?

I'm going to start with moments of pride.  Since I last blogged, child 1
has graduated and is in the process of renting her first house in readiness for the job that starts in September.  Although it doesn't have quite the same Seuss-like ring to it, I suppose this means she is now adult 1! Graduation day was uncharacteristically warm and sunny for Sheffield and it was a wonderful way to celebrate her achievements.

We have also completed our Macmillan Marathon Cotswold Challenge.  That was not a day of unadulterated sunshine!  Hubby taught me the delights of being a middle-aged baseball cap wearer. Despite our slightly questionable fashion sense, the ability to shield one's specs from the torrents of rain was very welcome.  We made it the 26 miles and we are proud owners of a challenge medal. We've raised £845 for Macmillan and the JustGiving page is still open if you have a last-minute desire to boost our total. All I need now is a new right hip and I'd do it all again tomorrow!

But this is a reading blog, not a what-have-I-been-doing-with-my-life blog, so let's get down to business.  I have finished The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, The House on Bellevue Gardens by Rachel Hore and This Must Be The Place by Maggie O'Farrell.  I am going to dismiss the middle read quite quickly.  It is an easy read with a good central premise.  The house is a large London property surrounded by its contemporaries which have all been converted into modern apartments. Resisting such change and still in its original state, the Bellevue House is home to a number of folk, all brought under the wing of the resident landlady.  Everyone there is a bit lost, a bit of an outsider and the plot revolves around revelation of their individual stories and how each occupant finds contentment.  It is a simple book, and somewhat predictable, but an easy holiday read for anyone who doesn't want to have to think too hard about what they are reading.

Image result for The Shipping NewsThe Shipping News is far more complex.  It was the Pulitzer Prize winner in 1994 and it was the association with Radio 4's shipping forecast that drew me to the copy I picked up in a charity bookshop. It is however, nothing to do with the strange-sounding shipping areas intoned on a regular basis on the radio, (but maybe there is a novel idea in there somewhere!). It is about a man named Quoyle, who, on the death of his wife (plot device only, so no need to be too empathetic here), decides to leave New York and head to the remote Newfoundland peninsula where an old aunt still owned a long-neglected property.

Together with the Aunt and his two children, Quoyle re-starts his life in a hostile climate.  He gets a job as a journalist reporting the shipping news, hence the title, and succeeds in making the role more interesting than his predecessor.  The story is comic and intelligent. Each chapter begins with the definition of a shipping term and each episode can be seen to bear some relation to its epigraph. Unable to swim or navigate a boat, Quoyle nonetheless lives on a barely accessible point on the peninsula, making sea travel a necessity.  The track to his house becomes impassable in the winter and the family is forced to move out almost as soon as they have improved the place enough to move in.

The novel communicates naive optimism and real human hope.  It celebrates the human condition at the same time as exposing its folly.  I really enjoyed this book.  It is original, intelligent and quirky.

My favourite of the trio will probably come as no surprise to those of you who have been reading my blog for a while.  Maggie O'Farrell is my favourite author and This Must Be The Place did not disappoint. I had indulged in elongated delayed gratification with this title.  I heard the author discussing her new novel last year on radio 4 and I listened eagerly to the discussion of a story about a household celebrity who walked away from fame and constant media attention to live the life of a recluse on a remote Irish farmhouse.  I decided not to buy on Kindle, as I love to collect books, and especially those by my favourite writers.  I also decided to be patient and wait for the paperback.  I watched the hardback version in bookshops become the large paperback version (what is that all about?) and then I heard the hearty plop of a book-shaped package land on my doormat a few weeks ago. I kept it in its wrapping for a while as I didn't want to consume it as soon as it arrived.  Then I decided I would wait until my holiday to indulge.

Reading Maggie O'Farrell is a delight to be savoured.  She creates characters that are rounded and empathetic.  This novel is no exception.  Written in the third person, it is constructed in an ambitious structure where O'Farrell focalises on a specific character from her riotous cast. Daniel Sullivan is the protagonist; all the other characters have some bearing on his life at some point.  The novel sweeps time and place, and the title of the book is open to interpretation.  Donegal is the geographical location that roots the novel, but there is a deeper meaning to the sentiment. The use of the modal form, "must" has semantics of a need to have a place, a place where we feel that we can belong.  This is more than geography and O'Farrell explores family life and all its permutations in a tender and honest way.

Daniel is flawed. He can be selfish and self-absorbed. Claudette is vulnerable.  She has run away from celebrity, has absolute need for secrecy and she demands trust from those she chooses to let into her life.  She home-schools her children and lives in a house that is separated from the nearest road by numerous five-bar gates. No taxi will go up there.  It is isolated and isolating.

The novel turns around the relationship between Daniel and Claudette, but to understand them means that we have to understand their past.  Maggie O'Farrell creates this through multiple points of view. These voices are as intimate as their offspring and as random as a woman met on a weekend tour of salt flats in Bolivia.  If this isn't complex enough, she also uses disassociation at times.  She opens the novel with "There is a man.He is standing on the back steps... There is a man and that man is me."  I wasn't sure about this at first, but the technique is used sparingly and to good effect.  It explores moments when the characters are not entirely sure of their reactions or options and are a little outside of their own lives.

I loved the afterword to this novel when the author explains how she had organised the complex geographical and anachronistic structure by a myriad of post-it notes on her bedroom wall. A third of the way through, a toddling child decided to pull down all those within reach and force Maggie O'Farrell into further rethinking and planning.  Real life is complicated and this is fully communicated in this novel.

It is a story of love, of families, of siblings and of parenthood.  And like no other author I know, Maggie O'Farrell can communicate what is feels like to love, to belong and to need to belong.

I read This Must be The Place in Guernsey.  This is a special place
for us as we honeymooned there 25 years ago, returning only last week to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary.  It was fitting that the geography I was in as I read the novel was significant to our story.  It was also fitting that the book centres around what makes a marriage and what might threaten its stability. I am proud to have been alongside hubby for a quarter of a century.  Despite making me feel a tad past-it, it also gives security and time for contented reflection as we look forward to hiking our way into the next 25 years.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Post 59: Read this One, a new talent that needs to be shared

This is Nathan Filer's first novel.  It is compellingly brilliant.  Easy to read, it is also very well-constructed.  The characters are all well-imagined and convincing, even the peripheral ones such as Steve, the community worker who winks and Claire-or-maybe-Anna, a character so peripheral that Matthew can't quite recall her name.

You will know that I have occasionally pondered why we read.  Perhaps, when faced with the lethargy of some of my A-Level students, I should ask why many people don't read....but that is for another blog.  For now, I have a crystal-clear answer to my first question.  We read, because, every so often, we discover an absolute gem. We read something that makes us laugh out loud or weep alongside the characters.  We find ourselves living the book even when we should be marking essays, even as we chat about what we're having for dinner (thanks must go to hubby for cooking this evening, recognising my need to get my response to this book in blog form as soon as I have closed the final pages!); in other words, we read a book that makes life seem like a distraction from the real event!

That is why reading is addictive.  When Child 1 says that she can't understand why I am prepared to invest so many hours of my life into so many books (I know, I have failed), it is because she hasn't found that experience of totally escaping from the real world for a while and being drawn into another.  It is because you need to be patient with the books that are good or good enough, (or let's face it, sometimes not our cup of tea at all...) because you know that sometimes one will come along which has the absolute capacity to change your life, to alter your outlook or challenge your preconceptions. Fiction builds imagination, but more than that, it builds our capacity for human empathy.  It can teach us about humanity in all manner of circumstances.  Through fiction I have come to know about  historical and political fact that I didn't even know I was interested in!   Human beings need to tell stories.  Stories make sense of a sometimes bewildering world.  And sometimes stories leave you feeling raw and exposed as you are drawn so completely into the experience and feelings of another.

So it was with NATHAN FILER's Shock of the Fall.  I have had this book on my shelf since 2016, but for some reason have not picked it up to read. It needs to be picked up by all of you.  It demands to be read.

Image result for shock of the fallThe premise of the novel is set out in the blurb, "I'll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother.  His name's Simon.  I think you're going to like him.  I really do.   But in a couple of pages he'll be dead.  And he was never the same after that."
This hook is undoubtedly emotional, and the novel remains utterly human throughout.  The story is told through the first person narration of Matthew Homes. He is an unreliable narrator with some of his account told in fragments that do not reach full completion until later in the plot.  Some of the story is told in retrospect and other parts are in the present.  We are not necessarily told which is which, but the writing makes it easy to navigate. The compulsion created by the hook is retained by the gradual unfolding of a story.  It is not a thriller, but there are questions that need to be answered and there is just the right amount of tension and suspense to keep you turning those pages.

As the blurb suggests, the key event that causes this story is the death of Matthew's brother Simon. Matthew was only 6 at the time, and so it is understandable that his memories of the death of his brother maybe blurred.  He writes from the point of view of a 19 year old, attempting to comprehend the effect of this tragedy on his family.

I love the title of this book. It has connotations of sin and guilt when considered against the biblical fall into sin; it also suggests aftershock following trauma and has implications of shock-waves that resound long after the initial disturbance has taken place.  All of these have a place in the interpretation of this novel.

However, the book is not bleak.  At times you will laugh.  At times you will be moved to tears.  But this book is hopeful.  It gives insight into grief, into love and into mental health.  It ends well, though in some ways it doesn't end at all.  Anyone who has ever lost someone, especially out of the natural order, will know that grief is always there; it just becomes a bit easier to hold with time.

Matthew's family are beautifully crafted.  We get to know his Mum, Dad and Nanny-Noo intimately, despite their relatively little page space. And I think this is the genius of Nathan Filer.  He gets people.  He knows what we need to know about them to make them real.  Mum's little yellow pills, Dad's special handshake and Nanny Noo's desire to feed everyone make them into familiar characters from our own lives.  An inconsequential event on a family holiday that leads to Dad calling Matthew "mon ami" forevermore will ring true with so many other family traditions that begin out of seemingly nothing.  And it is these seemingly nothing things that make up a happy, thriving family.

This book celebrates family whilst examining one that has been torn apart,  It celebrates life in the midst of death and it celebrates triumph over adversity without ever becoming trite.  The latter triumph is even one that is celebrated with caution, recognising that further adversity will inevitably follow and that life is never ever plain sailing.

This book won Costa Book of the Year in 2013,along with The National Book Award for Popular Fiction, The Betty Trask Prize and The Writer's Guild Award for Best First Novel.  It certainly gets my award for being the best book I have read this year.

So, keep reading...and if you haven't found your book of the year, start with this one.  Who knows, even Child 1 might be inspired......

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Post 58: A World of Dystopia

How many of you are watching or have seen the new dramatisation of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood?  I love this book, not least because it gifted me my favourite word, “palimpsest,” now taught to all my students as a matter of course.  It is a rich, beautiful word and is surprisingly useful!

Its dystopian genre is sinister in its credibility and perhaps rings even more true in the world in which
we now live than in the time it was written.  However it is the characterisation of Offred the protagonist that moved me the most.  She repeats a single phrase throughout the novel, “This is just a story I am telling,” or sometimes embellishing it, “I have to believe this is just a story I’m telling.”  I believe human beings have a deep, visceral need for narratives. We seek stories to both escape and make sense of reality.  In this case, Offred yearns to believe that what she is experiencing is not truth.  If it is just a story then it will end, and none of the terrible things will be true.

The other phrase that has become a mantra for my teaching, and I would even argue for life per se is “context is everything.”  In linguistics we have a word for this; pragmatics.  Pragmatics make up the part of meaning and interpretation that can only be derived from the context in which the language is used.  Thus, reading our world with understanding and emotional intelligence is entirely dependent on comprehension of context.

So for these reasons, the book has snaked its way into my consciousness.  It is a well-written, graphic and disturbing tale where empathy for Offred is demanded.  The first person narrative is commanding and her situation is revealed gradually.  Just one warning…when you get to the Historical Notes section at the back of the novel, keep reading.  This isn’t a bibliography or research acknowledgements, it is a fundamental part of the novel.  Stick with it.

My lengthy discussion of everything Handmaid’s Tale was prompted in part by my watching the TV dramatisation, but also owes a debt to the fact that I have recently completed The Power by Naomi Alderman.  Indeed, the two books could be read in tandem, though that might be an overdose of dystopia!

The Power has recently won the Baileys Women's Prize for fiction 2017. Alderman cites Atwood as both an inspiration and a practical support to her whilst writing the novel, and it is clear why the seasoned Canadian author would be the mentor of choice for this book.

It is written in contemporary times with more than a nod to worldwide politics.  Its focus, like Handmaid’s Tale, is on women.  Early in the novel it is clear that women are discovering an ability to unlock power, literally, through their fingertips.  A physical electricity, this power can be used to tease and tantalise others or it can be used for a defensive or destructive force.  The imagery makes comparison with historical patriarchal dominance impossible to miss.  The women soon realise that they can overpower men, and in some disturbing scenes, they force their power on unwilling or unwitting subjects.  Its parallel to rape is unmistakable.

And yet the novel isn’t entirely dark. Women use their new discovery to escape abusive situations and to gain control over their lives.  As more women worldwide, (and the scope of this novel is astonishing as political fears fuel strategic responses from the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa) learn to utilise their power, they unite.  Such unity brings fear, and an influential faction of men seeks to regain their dominance through force and aggression.  To resist the electric currents used by the women in battle, they wear protective suits and wield weapons.

But this is not a trite feminist novel where women seize power and the men are reduced.  Granted, it seems that Naomi Alderman wanted to show how centuries of subjugation and abuse have diminished women, and it is evident that she relishes her story-telling of emancipation. There is, at the heart of the novel, a recognition that power corrupts. 

The narrative method is stories told through the experiences of several women and one man.  Each chapter is dedicated to one of the key characters, and their stories, contexts and motivations are gradually revealed as the novel progresses.  The two central female characters, Allie (also known as the Mother Eve) and Roxy come to polarise the struggle to use power wisely.  Cited as an historical novel, the book has pace from the start. The opening section is entitled, Ten Years to Go and so expectation that a crisis will shape the novel is created from the outset. 

Allie’s background is one of ritual sexual abuse.  As a child she suffered much and discovery of her power enabled first escape and then realisation that she could influence others.  A born leader, she recognises how to manipulate power to gather a following.  After an initial escape to a house of nuns, she harnesses the power to create miracles that create a following.  She is revered by women everywhere as her power is seen to be a catalyst for change.  Hence, the name-change to Mother Eve as she leads girls to unite and fight for lasting shifts in gender politics.

Roxy is vastly different.  A child of a notorious gang member, she knows the underworld and has tasted death.  Indeed, in her opening chapter she witnesses the arranged killing of her own mother. She finds her way to Mother Eve’s base and the two become friends.  Allie sees immediately that Roxy has exceptional power.  She can control her electrical impulses with mastery (forgive the masculine description!) and Mother Eve recognises that if they worked together then they could achieve lasting change.

Such change will not go uncontested. The novel explores the morality of power, the responsibility of the individual, the globalisation and polarisation of gender politics and through it all, the base human need for relationship above all else.

The novel was not a comfortable read.  It is, as its prize-winning status suggests, well-written.  It is much more global than the popular teen dystopias like Hunger Games  and Divergent, but it is not as credible as The Handmaid’s Tale.  Atwood’s supremacy is created in the credibility of her plot.  Based around falling fertility rates, all the action in the latter novel is chillingly plausible.  The Power, though telling truths about control and subjugation through its storyline, remains reliant on a gimmick that never fully creates total suspension of disbelief. 

I would definitely recommend Atwood as the more intelligent read, Alderman the more quirky.  And if you are watching Handmaid on TV, I strongly advocate reading the book too.