Thursday, 10 May 2018

Post 73: 3 Books and 5 Farm Machines

Well, would you believe it? A bank holiday weekend when the sun shone every day! That posed a dilemma for me: sunshine equals blissful relaxing reading in the garden, but it also gives rise to lots of other summery possibilities...and this time round, I spurned my books!

Bit of buttercream practice
Day 1 of the long weekend saw me and hubby mooching around the lovely town of Marlow and scouting for designer bargains in the charity shops.  We had lunch in the garden and then got all DIY and mixed concrete to repair our back step.  On Sunday we dined al fresco with a Thai meal at church and then met up with Child 1 plus fiance to discuss weddingy things.  It was on Monday where things became a bit more alternative.

Long-suffering my wistful desires to have married a farmer called Robert and ride tractors, hubby bought me A Day In The Country tractor driving experience.  He realised that he could do nothing about desires 1 or 2, but 3 was solvable! So it was that we found ourselves in Aynho on the Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire border, where I could put my farm skills to the test.

A spot of cultivating!
We arrived to find I was one of three would-be farmers; perhaps predictably, I was the only girl! Sticking to polite convention, the gents decided I should go first on a vintage tractor with trailer around a slalom course. No pressure there then.  Pride and adrenalin surged as I was determined not to fulfil the stereotype of a female driver and, I'm pleased to say, I was pretty sharp!  That wasn't the case on the bigger, butch JCB and giant tractor...the boys were better than me at the computer-style boom operations and they were soooo much better than me at reverse parking with a 14ft trailer, (those who have laughed whilst I try to reverse park my Polo will not be surprised that that bit was my most challenging moment!) But all in all, I wasn't bad.  So, if anyone has a farm and a need for a very nifty vintage tractor driver who can cultivate in a straight line, then message me!

And all this excitement has taken me away from the printed page, but I have read three books since the last post.  The first was the appropriately agriculturally-titled, How To Measure A Cow by Margaret Forster.  And I'm pleased to say that the book did deliver on its aim.  I now know that to measure a bovine I need to go from the shoulder to the second joint of the tail, multiply that length by 5 and divide by 21 to get the weight! I'm sure this is a very useful skill to someone!

The storyline was, I have to admit, disappointing.  The main premise is that Tara, now "Sarah Scott" is living with her new identity in a town in the north of England in order to start afresh following a long spell in prison. Despite auguring well, the characterisation and plot never fully deliver.  Sarah is an invention which Tara Fraser finds hard to maintain. Through encounters with an elderly neighbour and three former friends, all of whom are stereotypes and fail to become fully rounded characters, Tara's former life is revealed.  By the ending (no spoilers, though I wouldn't give this book your time), I was nonplussed and totally unconvinced by her past history or present situation. One that despite its engaging title, will be bypassing my shelves and going straight to the charity shop.

My second read was also less than inspiring, but its author has so many accolades I think I must be missing something.  It is a novella by Philip Roth called Goodbye Columbus. Motivated by the A-Level reading list for this module, I am attempting to lead by example and encourage my students to read beyond the set texts. I think however, that they can miss this one out!  It is a coming of age novel, centred on a summer of sexual awakening in America in the 1950's or thereabout.  Young lovers meet around an outdoor pool and end up making a clandestine visit to a doctor to get the Dutch Cap. Their couplings are eager and furtive but have a temporary air about them. Indeed it is all rather symbolic...even their names don't seem to matter, other than that they denote them as Jewish Americans.  Neither Neil nor Brenda ever become fully developed characters. It was always more about the experience than the romance, and the young couple cannot survive once they are found out. And perhaps it is this that means I don't like the book.  Maybe I am more of a romantic than I give myself credit for. 

So by this time I'm getting desperate for a book where the characters have some heart.  I turned to Emma Donoghue's, The Wonder.  I liked The Room and I admit, I was totally attracted to the very beautiful cover (though the lettering on the spine did rub off on my thumb!).  This is set in Ireland in the late nineteenth century, with Lib Wright, the protagonist, being a nurse who had served and trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. This assignment is very different however, and allows the author to probe the religious beliefs and superstitions that cloak Catholic Ireland at the time.  She is employed to watch Anna, an eleven-year-old girl who, so her parents, doctor and priest purport, has not eaten for the four months since her birthday.  Lib recognised the physiological impossibility of this and sets out to disprove the stories of manna and miracles.

She discovers however, that Irish beliefs run deep in this central part of the country, long scarred by English colonialism and the famine roads that leaded to nowhere other than humiliation and death. Breaking the fast and saving Anna's life become a mission that Lib had not expected.  As the story unfolds the book becomes more than a competition between rationality and superstition, between science and faith, as the child's past holds more conflicts and contradictions than Anna can cope with.

The plot line works well.  It is a gentle story where the setting and premise do not change.  It is ostensibly a story about a nurse who tries to persuade a child to eat.  Much of the novel takes place in the dark mud walls of Anna's bedroom.  And yet it is compelling. It centres around understanding people and making sense of their actions. And so I finally got to read a book this month where character is at its heart.  It is an easy, well-constructed read. Some of the minor characters are less convincing, (William Byrne is a bit disappointing, but he serves well as a plot device), but it is a book I would recommend.  It will be added to my bookshelves!

My next read is Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks. I am a bit of a Faulks fan, so my expectations are high. I am also very fond of the book already as it is a signed copy that has survived a night in the airing cupboard following a bedside table spilt water incident!

As always,thanks for reading. Please feel free to share and comment!

Friday, 13 April 2018

Post 72: Truth, Art and Fiction: The Goldfinch Reviewed

Second post in a month must mean it is school holidays! I have had a beautifully laid-back fortnight,
edging the grass (not in anyone's estimation is it a lawn!), weeding and digging the borders and nearly crippling both Child 2 and my car by making them carry nigh-on a tonne of compost and bark in one sitting! Getting adventurous in the garden, hubby and I have started a patio at the needs to be finished soon because I have bought a little greenhouse-shelf-construction for my seeds.  Monty Don would be aghast to realise that I haven't got round to sowing any yet... salad and chillies might be a bit late in the Martin kitchen this year.

With the wedding of the year later in August, I also made my first attempts at an outfit.  I had great fun with two friends: one trying on hats (all a bit ludicrous to be honest!) and one buying a full regalia.  And then the inevitable return of said full regalia as I reconsidered... just proving that I am, at heart, such as girl!  Traumatised by the whole mother-of-the-bride pressure, I am resolved to give up for a few weeks before re-immersing myself in the High Street!

Now other forms of real enjoyment have been the decadence of  being brought a cuppa in bed in the morning and a subsequent hour's reading.  That is the way to start every day! And further enjoying the freedom of not too many scheduled events, I have done some writing. That at least gave me some relief that I can put a sentence or two together for the gap-year-mid-life-crisis MA I'm doing in the autumn.  The course is a year, but the book I have just finished reading took the author eleven years to write...that is real dedication to a story-line!

In writing this review I am fully aware that I come very late to the The Goldfinch party.  I have had it downloaded as an audio-book for months and had a couple of abortive listens to the opening chapter.  Abortive, not because I didn't like it, but because I did and I needed to commit to listen regularly, rather than haphazardly between Radio 4 comedies and a premature penchant for The Archers Omnibus!

So Easter baking gave rise to my third attempt at listening.  It is a deceptively simple opening.  Young Theo Decker is with his Mum on the way to a meeting with the school Principal. He doesn't quite know what is going to be discussed; his guilt spans several misdemeanours and the reader is immediately empathetic with his agony over which of his infringements have been discovered. The more arresting and compelling hook however, occurs in the Frick Art Gallery in New York.  Theo's Mother decides to kill time before the appointment doing something she loves: exploring art galleries.  A particular painting, The Goldfinch by  Fabritius was being exhibited and she particularly wanted to see it. It is evident from the title that the painting will have far-reaching significance and this begins when a bomb is detonated in the gallery. Trapped and separated from his Mother, he forms a crucial bond with a dying man that leads to Theo taking the painting from the debris.  This act reverberates through the rest of his story and can be seen to be a fundamental link to his Mother and a central pivot around which his development turns.

This book is long: after listening to the opening chapters, I bought the novel on my Kindle and switched to reading.  I like audio, but even when I listen to certain sections whilst cooking, if it is a book I am invested in then I re-read the pieces I have already heard.  This won't be the same for everyone, but I am essentially a kinaesthetic learner and auditory processing is my weakest area of retention.

So, with my Kindle noting 868 pages, I was grateful that the hours were per chapter rather than per the novel as a whole!  And because this is so long, it needs to be read with momentum.  I don't advocate racing through a book, but a steady reading rhythm will make even the thinnest of plots have more resonance.  A story needs to be told, and weekly episodes do very few novels the justice they deserve.

And so back to Theo Decker.  This is a bildungsroman told in the first person and spans his life from thirteen to his mid-twenties.  The voice is thus youthful and at times, naive. There is an essential goodness about Theo and I found myself hoping that the denouement would move him from a Pawn to at least a Knight in his own game. Motherless in a family where the Father had long gone and any Grandparents had surrendered interest years ago, he begins as a victim.  Cornered by well-meaning social services, Theo blurts out the name of a family whose son had been a friend in Elementary School, and so he begins his life post-Frick-explosion with the Barbours.

It is a story that is difficult to predict, and it sweeps the reader with a wide narrative arc that moves from New York to Las Vegas back to New York and then to Amsterdam.  In every episode of Theo's life he makes friends or has a significant character who is important to him, but he remains essentially alone.  At one point in the story he takes a long and lonely bus journey, and this, for me, perhaps more than the at-times contrived metaphor with The Goldfinch, summed up his character.

The book spans Theo's maturation: it is perhaps inevitable that with his background and the influence of those around him, he will find drugs, alcohol and intensity of friendship that eclipses sense. But the central relationship with Boris always has some tenderness at its heart. In his fearlessness Boris retains a primitive affection for Theo which means that readers always tolerate him even when they see his influence over the protagonist is not good.  Their relationship is in some jeopardy in the final stages of the novel, but I won't give any spoilers to the ending just in case there are any of my readers who, like me, have come very late to The Goldfinch party.

There are two delightful characters who resonated fully with me: Welty, whose dialogue takes place over only a very small number of pages, and his business partner and friend, Hobie.  These old men are, like the antiques they restore, from a bygone age of trust, simplicity and mutual respect.  They act as ballast in the storm of Theo's life and they are a simple juxtaposition to the seedy and tortured worlds of drugs, gambling and crime that become Theo's normality in Vegas and beyond.

Alongside this cast of characters there are female figures.  The most important remains Theo's mother who represents love and stability; a safe place.  It is made clear from the outset that her death changed everything for Theo.  Indeed, very early on in the novel he states, "It would have been better if she had lived." But despite her absence being her very presence in the novel, Tartt rightly creates other female characters for Theo. These are not as fully realised as any of the male characters, though Pippa, despite a certain aura of mystery, is the most tangible.

This novel is acclaimed: it won the Pulitzer prize for Fiction in 2014 and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. But it is not without its critics. I really enjoyed the book.  I was convinced by the protagonist and though I resisted some of the changes of scene and significant characters at different points, I found each element of the novel compelling.  Some have said that it is not well-written and is overly dependant on cliche. This I don't agree with.  What I found challenging was the persistent metaphor of life and art.  This is fully expounded in the closing chapter and reads almost as a philosophical essay on the subject. This seems to have been the authorial purpose to the novel as a whole, but Tartt created Theo Decker in order to provide a context for the viewpoint.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch
I prefer to remain character-centrist and see the purpose of the story as one of self-discovery.  Integral to Theo understanding himself is his attachment to the picture.  But I doubt he would have formed such an affinity with The Goldfinch had it not been for its associations with his Mother. There is no doubt however, that Tartt evokes the painting well.  I was certainly curious to see it online and would be very happy to encounter it in a gallery and see it for real.  So here, she truly succeeds.  She awakens our artistic curiosity and perhaps encourages readers to experience art in a way that they have not considered before.

Comparisons have been made between this novel and the style of Charles Dickens.  I can see that Tartt writes at length, but her detail is not in the description nor in evocation of mood.  Instead, I found myself comparing more with the episodic nature of Jane Eyre.  Whilst the bildungsroman connection is obvious, both texts do have similar blocks of story.  Bronte utilises Jane's childhood, Lowood School, Thornfield, the Rivers' house and then back to Rochester.  In The Goldfinch, there is the accident, the Barbours' house, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam and then its almost worldwide conclusion. Like Jane Eyre, each story is dependent for its context on the one that went before, but it reads almost as a series of cameos.

Ultimately, Donna Tartt conveys that life is fleeting and that we have choices to make.  She makes interesting assertions in defining what might be perceived to be morally good and what might be its opposite.  Voicing these thoughts through Boris, Theo and Hobie at the conclusion of the novel makes the viewpoint persuasive.

I really enjoyed this book.  It needs to be read at a pace so that its gargantuan length doesn't put you off.  I recommend the Kindle for this (or any other electronic reading device of course!) as it disguises the thickness of the spine! Having said this, I might give it a place in my physical library as I quite like the visual of all the books I have enjoyed being ranged in my shelves!

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Post 71: Reservoir 13 and other musings

Family Easter stroll!
You find me in the first week of the holidays where I have deliberately kept my diary relatively free in order to read and breathe following a chaotic term. Easter weekend was lovely, with all the family together. 

I had eagerly ordered all the Costa Prizewinners in January and so far I have read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and dipped into the poems of  Helen Dunmore in her last anthology Inside The Wavewritten in the months leading up to her death. The latter is a contemplative collection, made poignant by the circumstances surrounding the writing.  As poetry is not my forte, the link will take you to the Guardian review.

And to bring you right up to date, I have allowed an hour to pass since completing Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor in the hope that I can be excited about it.  Alas, I cannot. It is original, but not in a way that I found helpful. There are no "natural" paragraphs, making the pages dense and demanding.  Any dialogue is embedded within the sections, with no graphological breaks.  There are no speech marks and no line breaks.  This forces the reader to concentrate to keep the sense of the page.  Whilst this is no bad thing, it is, to me, a bit of a gimmick that detracts from the beauty of the prose.

And the narrative is beautiful: several commentators have likened it to poetry, and it certainly has
both lyricism and rhythm.  I felt however that the rhythm got a little tedious.  Each chapter spans a year and charts the seasons in this Archers-esque village that seems to be situated somewhere generically near the Peak District.  I imagined Bakewell without the tourists combined with the Damflask Reservoir in the Peaks near Sheffield.  The setting, as indicated by the title, is nestled in quarry territory with thirteen reservoirs near the village. 

The chapters open with New Year celebrations and their observation is enthusiastic or muted depending on the circumstances redolent in the village in any given year. The year is then measured by the natural world. There are badgers in their sets, fish in the rivers, foxes and their cubs and goldcrests in the yew trees in the church yard whose appearance usually signalled the ending of a chapter...

The background to the story is a missing teenager, who disappears whilst on holiday in the village. But this novel is less about the human story than the world in which human stories take place.  Throughout the book, it seems to me as though the characters, though carefully constructed and cleverly matured over the period of the novel, are always superimposed onto the landscape they inhabit.  This means the humanity of the book never really gets centre-stage.  Lack of connection with character makes this book difficult for me to enthuse over.

I don't normally give spoilers in my reviews and if you want to read this novel you may wish to look away now...I'll put a few line breaks in so that your eye doesn't travel, but just this once I want to comment on the ending of a story. 

                                                   **********Spoiler Alert!**********

The fact remains that the ending changes nothing,so commenting on it doesn't seem like a spoiler.  There is no resolution to the event which hooks readers in the first instance.  The disappearance of "Rebecca or Becky or Bex" remains just that.  We find a shoe, a reference to her hoody and frequent reminders of her parents, but not at any visceral level.  I appreciate that the novel communicates that no matter what tragedies or disasters occur, life goes on.  The emphasis on the natural world reduces human behaviour almost to an irrelevance. Rain keeps raining, the sun keeps shining, the birds sing, nest and mate, the foxes roam and the badgers nose their way into the undergrowth.  Nature is beyond and above human tragedy.  That I get, and as such, it is beautifully written and conceived.  On another level, the people also turn their backs.  Babies are born, people die, change jobs, get married and divorced, grow up, leave home and come back again.  Spanning the years, we are almost as predictable as the land around us.  But there is a malevolence lurking there: secrets, lies, disappointments, perversions and threats, as mistakes are made and sinful natures revealed.  Again, a story as old as time itself, and one that remains unexplained and unexplored in Reservoir 13.

The Costa judges of the Novel Award said that the book was “Hypnotic, compelling and original..." And whilst it is hypnotic in its evocation of place, I didn't find it compelling as a novel. The cyclical chapters and the minute observations I found a little soporific if I'm honest.  I would have preferred it as a short story or novella...thirteen chapters was too much hypnosis for me! I also accept its originality: in form and in content.  However, I prefer stories to have greater engagement at a character level, and the narrative voice remained too detached for me to invest fully in any of them.  The originality in form I found distracting.

However, Jon McGregor is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham and a Costa prize-winning author.  As I prepare myself to write under scrutiny at Warwick next academic year, I am looking at this book and getting ready to learn, to discover new ways of thinking about and responding to texts.  But for now, this one has beauty and poetry...and to me they are less compelling than empathetic human and political stories. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Post 70: Americanah, Immigration and Warwick

It has been too long between blog posts.  Blame the modern exam system!  I'm working more days in school than I have for a few years and have three exam classes.  Lots of mocks (or PPEs...pre-public examinations as we now call them in order to either a) give them gravitas or b) heap a load more pressure on the students by making the papers sound far more important than they are. Take your pick!) Either way it makes for heaps of marking!

But I have news on the work front.  I have recently been accepted on an MA course at Warwick University from October to study Writing.  This is very daunting and exciting.  It's my mid-life crisis I suppose. I looked around and realised I could stay the same for the next 15 years or I could screw up my eyes, hold my nose and jump in at the deep end! It's the first time in my adult life where I haven't really got a plan. I know I'm excited to have a reading list and I'm excited to study, but beyond that I have no idea whether it will take me anywhere or whether I'll end up returning to the chalk (whiteboard) face!

And the chalk-face isn't all slog.  Every year a new batch of students makes it worthwhile. It is a privilege to help young people to reach their potential and guide them to confident independence. It has been a real joy to get back in the saddle of teaching Literature A-Level.  Having spent years running the amazing Language and Literature Combined A-Level, it has been refreshing to return to a revamped version of the more traditional qualification.

One of the joys is the fact that it embraces modernity in some of its modules.  My reading has certainly been more varied because of it.  The "Immigration Literature" unit has Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist as its lead text and Lahiri's The Namesake as a comparison.  Beyond that however, there is encouragement to read widely; to learn about the politics of immigration and its stories.  So I have read A Very Short Introduction To American Immigration (well the introduction at least) and have its companion text A Very Short Introduction to International Immigration in my bag for reading over the Easter holidays.  If you haven't discovered this delightful series of non-fiction texts, then pop to Oxford University Press to check them out.  If you ever managed to read them all, you'd be a whizz at University Challenge.  I really need to read all the ones I have collected so far (they look very attractive on the bookshelves you see), as my scores in the recent quarter-final episodes have been shameful!

On the fiction front, I have completed John Updike's The Terrorist and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's Americanah.  I have also re-read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell, but that one has no link with the A-Level unit!

John Updike
In my last post I indicated that I was enjoying John Updike.  Having completed the novel, I'm not so convinced.  A real boon to teaching this year has been a move away from the nerdy book club formed of English department staff (though we did have reunion last weekend and consumed a lot of cake!) to a new reading group of year 12 students where we discuss wider reading associated with the module.  Together we managed to pan Updike's novel as a text far inferior to that of Mohsin Hamid.  Whilst I freely admit that The Reluctant Fundamentalist  is one of the most intelligent and cleverly conceived books I have ever read, Updike's postmodern take on the immigration question in a world post-9/11 was never much more than stereotype.  Where Hamid challenges such preconceptions, Updike manages to reinforce them. His characters are either stock or unconvincing, and the plot, with the possible exception of the            ending, was predictable.

Americanah was a very different read and though not as gripping as Half of a Yellow Sun, it was a satisfying book.  The immigration theme continues, but this time from a Nigerian perspective.  The central character Ifemelu has grown up in Nigeria and moved to America for university.  Like The Namesake, it conveys the difficulties of assimilation and through fiction, forces readers to confront their own subconscious bias. It is interesting that she states that it was only when she moved to America that she had any concept of race or being black. She discovered a hierarchy where she was not near the top, despite her education and abilities.  She discovered that the American Dream was not all it promises. Once she had graduated, Ifemelu made a living from her writing, and her blog posts make up a significant element of Part 4 of the novel.  Adiche uses them to make political comment that is sociological and contemporary.  It is a voice for a significant minority that, despite the years since the civil rights movement began, have got used to not being heard.

Parallel to the American story is a brief glimpse into life in the UK as an African immigrant.  Obinze, Ifemelu's teenage boyfriend, comes to Britain to seek opportunity.  He arrived as a successful, well-educated young man, but never once received acknowledgement of that.  Any jobs he had were unskilled and there was little possibility of his achieving a long-term visa or British legality.

The story ends back in Nigeria.  Both Obinze and Ifemelu return to their homeland.  Here the story becomes one of readjustment, of re-assimilation to the country of birth after experiencing Western culture.

The literature of immigration is sociology through fiction.  It demands something of its readers.  It asks us to address our own preconceptions and, like Inua Ellams said, asks us to question whether it is ever right to label a human being as illegal.

Fiction and the lives of well-drawn characters have the capacity to change the way people think.

Reading is not a passive activity or a harmless hobby: it is an invitation to explore the lives of other people and a tool to help us make up our own minds about the world in which we live.

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!