Monday, 10 April 2017

Post 53: Persuasion...a rumination on Jane Austen and the modern woman!

The unseasonable sunshine of the past weekend has seen me in my sunglasses on the decking with a
china teapot, Teapigs tea and a Jane Austen novel.  Bliss.  There is nothing quite like a pot of tea properly brewed and whilst, like most of you, I dunk a bag and run most of the time, a patient brew is the best.  Jane Austen novels have the same feel to them. These are not to be rushed, but to be savoured and enjoyed time and time again.

I was prompted back to Jane after seeing a competition to rewrite the ending of one of her novels in 500 words. This is easier said than done. The word limit means that you can't significantly alter the story, but more than that, Jane Austen, unlike many modern authors, actually completes her novels. All ends are tied and all the characters are rewarded or chastened as befits their conduct.

So it was that I revisited Persuasion. This was my first experience of Austen, taught for A-Level circa 1987! I had brilliant A-Level teachers.  They lifted my love of reading to an appreciation of literature.  I literally swapped Shirley Conran and Mills and Boon for E.M.Forster and Jane Austen. For that, I have a lifelong debt of gratitude to Messrs Williams and Naylor of Cirencester Sixth Form. It saddens me that the restrictions on curriculum and the unmitigated pressure to achieve exam success has lessened the opportunity for teachers to pass on the love of a subject.  My first term at A-Level consisted of Messrs Naylor and Williams teaching their favourite texts by way of an introduction to the course.  Such diversions are likely to deemed unjustifiable today and the students themselves would see little point if it wasn't on the syllabus.

I still love an Austen novel.  The array of characters, the liberal hope of independent thought amongst small-minded convention and the sheer pleasure of slowing down to the pace of nineteenth century gentility is a pastime all should indulge in every once in a while. It makes me want to address hubby as Mr Martin and spend my days walking and leaving the odd visiting card here and there!  Despite Jane Austen's own independent spirit, earning her own living and remaining single, her heroines are singularly in pursuit of happiness and some material security.  These desirabilities are inevitably to be found in the attentions of a good man.

Where the method may have changed in modern life, I think we still pursue contentment and security. But we are, thankfully, not so hemmed in by the very nature of our sex.  We no longer "live at home, quiet,confined.." whilst the men "are forced on exertion [with] always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or another."

What would Anne Elliot have done with the freedom of 21st century life?  I think she would have left her hapless father and superficial sister (who would have been an instagram sensation with lots of followers but no friends) and gone to university.  She would have gone despite the lack of funds from said father, and she would have paid her own way by playing barista in her spare hours.  I like to think though, that she would still have found her Captain Wentworth.  But she wouldn't have been open to the cautionary prohibition exacted on her by Lady Russell. She would have met him at 19, finished her studies and worked for a year or two.  She would have defied her family's disapproval and together they would have forged their way in the world, not even being too bothered that they were proving the others wrong.  But, because she is tenderhearted and kind, she would be a nurse or a doctor, a social worker or a family lawyer. She would care for others, love her man and retain a sense of self-respect and self-esteem that wasn't dependent on his approbation.

No more do we sigh at home and hope for opportunity.  No more do we faint away at the sight of an accident on the Cobb or lie-in for weeks on end because of a minor concussion. But at the heart of an Austen novel is always the potential for modernity.  Mrs Croft is the example in Persuasion; liberated enough to defy convention, remain childless and travel the world with her husband.  But she too, was defined by his role. The idea of total independence was perhaps a tad too radical for Jane.

As for an alternative ending, I'm not sure.  Jane Austen herself wrote two versions of the denouement which are readily available, (and a great example of good editing and redrafting for the modern writer), but the romantic in me can't conceive of Anne Elliott  forever without Fredrick Wentworth.

I may be a modern woman, but I am still a sucker for a conventional happy ending!

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Post 52: Anatomy of a Soldier

It is always a luxury to come to school holidays and be able to write a blog entry immediately after finishing a book.  I love that bittersweet feeling of turning the final pages.  The story is over, but the narrative carries on in your head for a little while afterwards.  You find yourself reflecting, wondering, extending the stories of the characters and letting them live on a little longer.

And that is where I find myself now.  I'm poised halfway between the reality of getting dinner ready for an hour's time, and the stronger urge to stay in the story I have just finished.  This book was a reward of patience for me.  I heard author Harry Parker speak at the Henley Literary Festival in the Autumn, and really wanted to buy his book.  Now loyal blog readers will know that I am a sucker for a signed copy, but I am, I must confess, also a lover of the paperback.  Hardbacks maybe majestic, but they mess up my shelves a bit, and to be honest, they are a little pretentious!  So I waited.  I dropped strong hints around my birthday by casually leaving my Amazon wish list open.And finally, not being fully confident in hubby's ability to pick up hints (!), I pointed out the title online, (possibly more than once!)

And so it was a delightful surprise, on my birthday, to open the only shocking pink book that I possess!  And it is this novel that I have just finished devouring.  Not sure why its cover is so lurid, but that's by-the-by.
Anatomy of a Soldier had me hooked from the moment Harry Parker explained his narrative strategy from the stage of the Kenton Theatre in Henley. Each chapter is narrated by an inanimate object. They tell their part of the tale and then sign off.  I love a unique narrative voice, and this intrigued me.

Chapter 1 opens with the story of the tourniquet used to stem the blood flow as"fear and pathetic hopelessness gripped BA5799."  This is a highly engaging start, as immediately the reader wants to know the identity and personality of the injured man.  The use of serial numbers, clipped sentence structure and rigid procedure evoke the military setting in which the story takes place. But the plot is not chronological and, through the objects, we get a full picture of life at base camp, the emergency military hospital,the intensive care treatment and the rehabilitation centre. Perhaps even more interesting is the wider picture gained of the war zone.  It is not named, but frequent contemporary news reports suggest that the dry landscape is that of Afghanistan.  Parker conveys, without romanticism or preamble, the tension of war in a landscape of insurgency.  The fighting is different, the violence sporadic and messy, and the fear constantly at the edge of consciousness. These complexities were portrayed with an honest voice.

As a former soldier who suffered horrific injury and subsequent amputation, it is clear that author, Hary Parker, drew on his own experiences in this book. He was adamant however, in the Q&A session at the festival, that protagonist, BA5799, or Captain Tom Barnes is not him.  He has, he insisted, fictionalised his life experiences.  But it cannot be doubted that such experience has helped to create authenticity.  Sometimes this is at the expense of empathy. At times, the objectified narration created a little too much distance between the reader and the action described, but when taken as a whole, with each story woven together to make the big picture, then a story is created that evokes understanding of insurgent, soldier and family members on both sides. It succeeds in creating a tale that is not self-piteous and doesn't result in the reader feeling sorry for Tom.  In short, it is an honest story of suffering, human resolution and determination.  These qualities are seen in BA5799 and in all the other players in this theatre of war.

I enjoyed this book and will be very interested to see how Harry Parker develops his writing career from this autobiographical starting point.  His style is succinct and the chapters short. Whether this is because of the nature of his narrative voice, or whether this will be a trademark of Parker remains to be seen.

I recommend that you read the book quickly.  If you sup at the odd chapter every now and then, you will lose the wider arc of the story.  I found the points where the plot evolved through being told by different objects quite exciting.  It was a bit like doing a jigsaw, (but WAY more interesting!)  The novel starts at the climax and then takes you back to the beginning and leads you through several strands of experience before the denouement and resolution.

Interestingly, I relate to the main character more as BA5799 than as Tom.  I wonder whether this is because he saw himself as a soldier first and foremost, or because many of the objects were etched in this identification mark.  It is only in England that he is referred to as Tom.  During active service, all the objects refer to him as his serial number, perhaps further dehumanising the whole experience of war.

A courageous, honest and well-constructed first novel.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Post 51: Tree Surgery for Beginners meets Five Rivers on a Wooded Plain!

It's been an indulgent couple of weeks as I've settled on our new "snuggle" chair to read the two books chosen by Child 2 for my birthday last month. His track record is good and he had unearthed a Patrick Gale I'd not yet come across and a new author he thought I might like...
And the snuggle chair?  Well, the idea behind it is that it is very cosy for two...or alternatively, it provides ample space to curl up by yourself and read for hours at a time!  The cat has also decided it is the best chair in the house for stretch room; we can sometimes be found vying for available space!

Since I last wrote, hubby and I have signed up for a 26-mile charity walk for Macmillan Nurses.  This takes place in July, so expect to get regular updates!  We are now the proud owners of bottle green t-shirts, and training has begun. We did have long-legged Child 2 as our pace-maker on a speedy 7.5-miler this weekend, so maybe we need to employ him to accompany us...for the first few miles at least. The astute amongst you will have realised that it is marathon distance, so we really need to pace it if we're going to complete the challenge in a day. We're aiming for about 9 hours, but we'll see.  Thanks to those who have kicked off the fundraising.  If you feel moved to spare a few coins, find us on

Now onto life's readathon.  Don't you find, whenever you are in a bookshop - whether it be somewhere huge like Foyles, a boutique like London Review of Books, an Oxfam charity shop or an independent that somehow survives despite Amazon - that you are struck by how many titles there are, and you know that your lifetime isn't going to be long enough.  There is so much to learn, so many stories to uncover and authors to discover.

My latest read is by a favourite of mine, Patrick Gale. The title is appealing in itself, and I found myself wondering if I might acquire a few woodland skills as I opened the pages of Tree Surgery for Beginners! It begins by setting the context of the town of Barrowcester and the protagonist Lawrence Frost, who has grown up there.  I have to admit at this point, that I wasn't as gripped by this novel as I have been with all other Gales.  It is indeed an earlier publication and if you haven't yet sampled any of his writing, I wouldn't start with this one.  The recent A Place Called Winter is significantly more accomplished.  I began with Notes from an Exhibition, and that is a splendid read.

Lawrence Frost discovers in the first chapter that his wife and daughter have disappeared.  It transpires that he may well be the cause of their departure as he recalls drunkenness, shouting and jealousy over a work colleague.  The story then takes many twists and turns, moving away from Barrowcester via a bridge cruise that takes in Miami,the Virgin Islands and California. If this geographical sweep isn't broad enough, there is also an incident with a tiger, the curiosity of an androgynous cabaret singer, a murder, a tragedy and long-lost relatives.  I'll concede that the plot isn't the strong point of the book.  But it does have a heart.  You can see the embryonic writer here, the Patrick Gale who will eventually guide you through people and their lives and emotions with total empathy.  There is hope in this novel, a hope that no matter what befalls us as a human race, we can love each other through it, we can help each other to heal.  It is not trite; the human angle is its strongest strand, but the story arc that supports its purpose is not comparable with the sophistication of his later novels.

From an early Gale to the debut novel of Barney Norris.  Cutting his storytelling teeth with a string of very highly acclaimed plays, this first novel is accomplished.  The premise is romantic; set in Salisbury where five rivers meet on a wooded plain, there is a strong sense that we are a part of a much bigger history. In its foreword chapter, The Burning Arrow of the Spire, Norris details how generations of settlers have been drawn to this corner of Wiltshire to live their lives. This big backdrop remains at the heart of the novel as he begins to tell the stories of five individuals whose lives merge in this place. But the novel is cleverer than that.  I was duped into thinking that I would have five separate narratives whose stories would conjoin at a given point, but it is more sophisticated; whilst there is a central device of a car accident, not all the characters are directly involved. More, it serves as a catalyst where we are privileged to be allowed access to their lives at a given point.

The first character is Rita the flower-seller, whose colourful language and existence serve as an antithesis to the romanticised depiction of Salisbury given in the preceding chapter. Her life seems to be over as she faces up to who she is and what she has done.  There is a swift change in tempo and writing style as Sam is introduced.  He is a teenager who is remembering the scared boy he had been, whilst the reader can still see the fear that lies just beneath the veneer of foetal maturity. His story is about him facing up to an unpleasant reality, and one where no-one has the words to explain or express themselves. In the middle of his story the car crash occurs.  He witnesses it and moves on.

Another character is a beautifully constructed elderly man in his eighties who has just lost his wife. The portrayal of loss and old age is finely drawn and written to evoke a natural empathy.  There is Liam, a drifter and a drop-out who is just sitting it out in his home town without really understanding why he is there or what he might do next.  And there is Alison, the army wife who lives in fear of the phone ringing or uniformed personnel turning up at her door to tell her of her husband's demise at the hands of insurgents.

The novel reads like a series of short stories with an integral thread. The centrality of the story is that we live for a mere whisper of a moment before we recede into history. The setting evokes such considerations, as Norris makes us aware of the number of people who have gone before: from the ancient settlers, to the druids, to the early christian populations and now the secular mass of modern commuters.  The cathedral is simultaneously a metaphor for the safe and the temporal.  Beneath its shadow people live their lives, occasionally coming in for succour, but mostly ignoring it.

It ends with natural imagery that fits perfectly with the vast backdrop of the plain and its five rivers;
"there is a grace to cupping your hands and catching your life as it pours past you, holding it close for just a few moments water, new time flows over..."

This is a novel that beats to natural rhythm of place and human experience.  The narratives are all singular and the changes in tone, pace and style make this a stimulating read. It is quiet and unprepossessing, and yet, as I turned the book closed, I said to hubby with a sigh that it was a novel that had got my heart.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Post 50 where I would expect a fanfare...

As I write this 50th post, I have just finished watching episode 1 of the 50th series of Gardener's World, my parents are just about to enter the 50th year of their marriage and I am not yet near 50!! It would have been nice and neat if I was on the 50th book of the year, but that really is pie in the sky!  Come on, it's only March! I'm proud of my 9 books so best start to a reading year ever. But I was looking through Litsy, a kind of Instagram for bibliophiles yesterday ( you can follow me there too, under the name karenmartinreads) when someone posted a photo of their 100th read of 2017...already!   There is a serious question here and I am going to take my 50th entry to ruminate a little on reading and perhaps even a little on life in general! Are books something that should be consumed and ticked off, or is there more to the whole process of reading?

I'm the first to recognise that if a book is read too slowly, even if it has the potential to become a favourite, it is likely to wither and die in your hands.  Some momentum is necessary.  a chapter a night isn't enough to fully engage with plot and character.  But as I was driving along recently, I caught a snippet of a radio 4 programme where an author said that he hated the idea of his readers reading too quickly. He pointed out that a novel took him a year to write and he didn't want it gobbled up in one sitting! Assessment of your reading enthusiasm should not be defined by the number of books consumed.  And it is that word consumed that holds the key.  Consumed has connotations of speed without pleasure. Even a chocolate bar, if consumed, goes down barely hitting the sides and we need another one, rather than savouring and enjoying the single treat. Maybe we all just need to slow down. With everything. Look around, breathe, take pleasure in things.

Snowdrops catch your breath at Welford
Modernity has got a bit lost.  We have forgotten to take pleasure. To experience rather than consume.

I work part-time in a full-time world and I see the ravages of overwork etched on my colleagues.  I like to think that I do my job well, that I care about the students that I teach, but I care as much about their experience of being in my classroom, under my direction, as I do about their end results.  I think I have this luxury because I can come up for air.

I do have stalwart colleagues though, ones who doggedly make time to read for pleasure amidst the clamour of increased targets in an under-resourced world. And reading does refresh you.  It can form escapism, fire new interests and hone empathy.  We all need kindness in a consuming world.

And so what have we been reading since the last blog?  My Head of Department was so evangelical about Guilia Enders' book, Gut, that she had all of us reading the biology of the stomach and wondering about our own eating habits, our toilet habits and the connections between belly and brain. It is very well written, not bogged down with science, but not pop-science only (in my humble, very non-scientific opinion!) I was most fascinated by the connections between our psychology and our gut; this is ground breaking research which is being studied in various facets of medical exploration.

Despite the fact that it was a good read, non-fiction is not my first love, so I'll direct you to The Independent Review of the book which discusses the bestselling qualities of a book that breaks the "poo taboo!"

More collective reading has been completed for the departmental book club. We have a resident youngster in the department who, I believe, joined the teaching staff in order to make me feel old.  I taught him when he was in year 9 and he now has the audacity to be 25 or thereabouts and walks around as a living reminder that I have been in this game too long! He is also our resident DNF in the book club. (Did Not Finish, for those of you unfamiliar with bookish acronyms!) So, we challenged him to choose the next read.  He did so with much trepidation, not wanting to foist a title on us that we would loathe....trepidation that was not without grounds!

When All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy was mooted, we found an online version of
chapter one to whet our appetites.  Reading aloud at the end of our last meeting, it was universally acknowledged to be a powerful start to a novel.  The protagonist is seeing his dead Grandfather for the first time and the repetition of "That was not sleeping" was more evocative a reaction to death than anything I have ever read. It communicated shock, sadness and natural human objection to the process which robs us of our loved ones.  We were all hooked.

Now I have to confess that it was downhill from here for me. Having tried to read The Road some years ago, I was wary of McCarthy's style.  He makes the reader work very hard, refusing, except in rare instances, to include narrative tags to his dialogue, so it is sometimes very difficult to work out who is speaking.  He is kind enough to set out his dialogue on separate lines, as per standard grammatical structure but he doesn't deign to use speech marks.  This winds me up!  I am not a total purist when it comes to Standard English writing; I acknowledge that deviation from the standard can be creative, but this I found totally annoying.  I should not be reading a story and be distracted by its graphology.

That aside, the novel itself has received high critical acclaim.  Time for a link to a positive review for comparison.  Do read it...there are no spoilers and it is a beautiful response to an evocative title.  But for me, there wasn't enough empathy built with any of the characters.  The premise of the novel is based on two young men leaving their home in Texas to go to Mexico.  They are on horseback and their love of horses and horsemanship drives their relationship, and indeed much of the plot.  They meet up with another traveller on horseback who seeks to fall in with them.  John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins reluctantly accept this addition to their adventure, and it is Blevins, the new recruit, who causes a series of disasters which form the backbone of the plot.

The mastery of description is undisputed.  I just thought there was too much of it.  Despite my earlier thoughts that a novel needs to be experienced rather than consumed, I found myself the master of skim reading.  I was using the Kindle, and was more interested in the hours left to complete than the story itself.  I found myself setting consumable goals...can I get reading time down by 30 minutes? So it became a challenge to complete rather than a pleasure to read.

But I have completed it. I remain unmoved by the characters and the events.  The Aunt at the hacienda seemed to be included only to move the plot forward and enable a potted history of the Mexican revolution.  She could have been interesting, but she wasn't.  The love affair that Cole experiences is a rite of passage, but despite its profound affects on him, held no heart for me.  At the climax of the novel they find themselves in prison and reunited with Blevin. It is dark and corrupt and was the most meaningful part of the tale for me. It was also the most character driven part, with more dialogue to balance the descriptive narrative voice, but I still wasn't moved to care very much about the characters or their fate.

Maybe cowboy stories are for boys....(brace myself for gender bias onslaught), maybe I missed something profound.  But if you're looking for effective description, profound relationships and exploration of itinerant life in the Americas,then go to Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. This, despite its bumbled interpretations by generations of O-Level and GCSE students, retains its brilliance.  For me, characters have to be convincing and have to be empathised with, otherwise a novel remains flat.

So apologies to Tom for my failure to engage with his book club choice, but I would also like to add at this point, that just because a book fails to make your must-read list, there is still no excuse for a DNF!

As always, feel free to comment, write and suggest.
Buds...take the time to appreciate the
world around us. Photo courtesy of
my Dad xx

Thankyou for reading.  It is so delightful to hear from my readers, and it is very heartwarming that some of you are using karemartinreads as a place to go to decide what to read next.

Reading has heart.  It is good for you.  Take the time and be refreshed.  This is not a guilty pleasure.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Post 49: where I both loathe and delight in half-term novels

This post is going to be almost totally devoted to Kafka On The Shore, but before I dive right in and get a little over-excited about that reading experience, I need to dispense of  two other titles completed since my last blog. My nerdy English-teacher book group met earlier this month to discuss Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I recommend this book heartily and point you in the direction of blog post 26.  I enjoyed the re-read as much as the first read and that is always a good sign that a book has "meat"!

My next review is going to be very brief. I was drawn to the novel by its inclusion in an A-Level anthology where the opening pages of the book were quoted.  This set up a delightful tension between reformists and traditionalists at a thinly-disguised Cambridge college.  In these early pages, the modernist ideology of Sir Godber Evans, the new Master of the college, seem laudable to any enlightened reader; but the resistance implied by the other academics who gorge on their opulent feast of swan and indulge in ever-flowing good wine, creates an excellent premise for a good plot.  Skullion, the Head Porter is effervescent in his disapproval of the new man and thus the stage is set for a war of privilege and principles.

Whilst I recognise that this novel is lighthearted, I hadn't expected absolute farce.  Other reviews have deemed it highly comedic; I'm afraid I found it bawdy and ridiculous.  To me, the plot had so much potential, but I wanted it to result in a different novel.  That Porterhouse Blue engendered many sequels is something that I cannot quite comprehend, as the ending was so totally unconvincing that any suspension of disbelief was totally arrested.  It was a relief when I finished it and it is with gratitude that I don't ever have to read it again.

I am glad, at this point, to tell you that I finished the Tom Sharpe novel on the train to London.  This meant that my Karen-alone-in-London-doing-her-reading-thing was not wasted on a book I loathed! So I headed up the Charing Cross Road to Foyles. I'm ashamed to admit that I had never been there before. But I made up for lost time, by perusing the shelves, taking a tea break, indulging in guilt-free
uninterrupted reading time and spending a joyful hour (or maybe three) just soaking up the whole blissful bookishness of the place. It was here in Foyles, that I opened the first pages of my next read...

Reading Kafka On The Shore by Murakami is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Recommended to me by one of my students, (who, I might add, consumes book at an equal or faster pace than I do); I was intrigued to see what had captivated her. I was also delighted to see it as Foyles-recommends title, so I felt I was reading the right book in the right place.

This book precludes much explanation but instead demands more of a visceral, sensory, spiritual response.  The prologue almost made me put it back on the shelf: the protagonist is in discussion with some sort of alter ego, known as "The boy named Crow." It is apparent, even at this early stage of the novel, that this boy Crow is somehow a part of Kafka Tamura, the central character.  How this works is never fully explained, but by the end of the novel, there is a greater understanding of the symbiosis between them.

If you can see beyond this surreal, slightly disembodied opening, chapter one then goes on to set up the plot.  15 year-old Kafka is running way from home and at this point, we have no idea why. This works as an effective hook and the first person narrative builds some empathy with Kafka from the outset.  The second chapter then changes typeface and writing style as it reports on an incident, possibly chemical, that affected a class of Japanese schoolchildren whilst out on a field trip in 1944. Here context comes into play, and readers will wonder whether this might turn into an apocalyptic novel that draws on the horrendous aftermath of the atom bomb.  Essentially, mysteries are set up in these opening chapters.  We have no idea how Kafka relates to events that occurred years before he was born, but we are already seeking a resolution where one influences the other.

This is further intensified by the introduction of the third set of key characters and events.  We are introduced to Nakata in chapter 6.  He is a man, advanced in years, who cannot read or write.  He realises that he used to have such knowledge but an accident earlier in his life robbed him of much of his intellectual and reasoning capacity.  We meet him talking to cats!  (I know, but stay with me, I implore you. It's worth it!)  By this juncture, my brain was reeling so hard from the assault of the opening section of the novel that I wasn't sure whether I was loving it or hating it, but I know that I was compelled by it.  I wanted to find out how all these elements      would tie together.  I was beginning to make connections and I wanted to see if I was right!

So, no spoilers, and whilst this is a novel that I could write a dissertation on (indeed that might be fun!), I will cut to the chase.  Child 1 tells me that my blog is only properly interesting if I don't get too bookish!

This novel is one of the most clever constructs that I have read.  It draws on Japanese religion, Greek myth and drama, Christian teaching, secular philosophy, fate and ideas associated with author Franz Kafka and probably many other allusions that I have missed.  At its essence is an exploration of who we are, of what it means to be human.  There are deaths in the book that prompt an examination of where we go next, and whether this life impacts the next.

I was particularly struck by discussion of memory and forgiveness. We are encouraged to build
memories, to create safe places that our children can look back to.  When facing the death of a loved one we are encouraged to make memory boxes, to keep them in some ways alive for us.  But this novel challenged that way of thinking.  Characters are trapped by their memories, they are held back by the past.  This leads Miss Saeki to lead a half-life as she constantly looks back.  In comparison, Nakata has no ability to remember much, and he is shown to be free, albeit dysfunctional in this modern world.  Interesting was how Murakami moved this concept of memory into the afterlife, deeming all worldly recollections as unnecessary.  This releases us.

Seeing the pain of debilitation as my friend with Alzheimers struggles to square the circles in her battles to recall, it was comforting to think that one day this will no longer matter. I saw Christian theology in much of the final third of the novel, but I think that the book will speak to a universal theology and philosophy and appeal to different readers in different ways.

My colleague loves books that have an element of magical realism.  This one has much of it, where dreams and reality merge and the reader is left wondering which has most significance. There is a bit of a Lord of The Rings quest feel about it, and there is even a stone endowed with much significance. At times, (and I acknowledge that I am a bit of a prude), there was too much explicit sexual content for my sensibilities, but the overriding impression I have of this novel is that it was time worth spending.

I confess that the middle part of the book was a determined rather than an enjoyable read, but, by the final pages I felt encouraged and uplifted. And I wanted to talk about it, as hubby will testify. (He is, as I type, making the lunch so that I can get my bookishness down "on paper" whilst it is still fresh and real, and dare I say it, important in my mind.  I feel like I have read something important, but don't be surprised, if you take the road to the Kafka shore, if you're not entirely able to pinpoint exactly what it is that has so affected you.

And if this is too much bookishness for child 1, let me add that, as well as reading,  I have had a lovely birthday, which has seen delightful additions to my to-read shelf and book tokens to boot. I also got to see the most beautiful carpets of snowdrops at Welford Park (of Bake-off tent fame) and hubby and I came 3rd in a London Underground Treasure Hunt!

I'm off to peruse that shelf now.  I reckon I can squeeze in one more novel before I need to start on the next book club read!

As always, thank you for reading.  Please feel free to share, comment and enthuse!

Monday, 30 January 2017

Post 48: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I am not a fan of January.  In fact, I am not a fan of winter at all.  Despite the cosy evenings that make reading a more permissable activity, winter just seems to go on for too long.  My trowel hand is itching for a warmer day to dig around in the soil and speed springtime on its way.

And so it was with delight and relief that hubby and I managed a sneaky midweek stay in Brighton last week.  We arrived in dense fog, where our romantic sea view looked out on nothing but murk. Allegedly, we were a stone's throw from the beach.

Lou Fellingham live at The Old Market
We were stoic. We were British.  We wrapped up in a comedy of layers and headed out for an evening of Cafe Nero soup and coffee before going to The Old Market to the live recording of Lou Fellingham's latest album This Changes Everything.  A live album, and we were there, right at the front singing along.  The applause on that CD, when it is released, is ours!

It was a brilliant evening. The music was great and the musicians were friendly, making us feel very much a part of what was going on.  We had never been to a live recording before so weren't sure if we'd be encouraged to sing along, or whether we'd just have to be a polite audience, keeping mousy quiet so as not to interfere in the technical stuff.

It was great fun.  They ran through the whole album in one go, interspersing the worship songs with chat, bible readings and prayer.  There were only three repeats needed for the final take and we were on our way.  It was a brilliant evening, and I amassed many wife-points for making the tickets appear in  Hubby's Christmas stocking.

I can see the sea!
And hallellujah and praise the Lord, the fog had lifted and we were pretty sure that we could see the sea.  The problem now was that it was late and dark.  But we're British, and having missed the sea on arrival, we were just going to make sure that it was there, as promised in the sunny photos of the Granville Hotel.
So we giggled our way down the pebbly beach (or stony, depending on your opinion...I am firmly in the pebbly camp, hubby is not!), sliding through the undulations until we reached the shore.  There is something magical about the white of the foam in the night.  Incandescent is an overused word, but that is what it was. The light was eerie and shimmering as the waves rolled laconically towards the shore.
And in the morning, miraculously, the sun shone.  It was a glorious day, so lovely that we felt it necessary to take out two blue stripy deckchairs and eat fish and chips on the pier!  Such a contrast to the day before.

So for a day at least, winter wasn't bad at all, (probably because it felt like spring!) and we really enjoyed being way from it all for 24 hours.

So refreshed and perhaps a little less grumpy than of late I headed home with just a few chapters left of Half of a Yellow Sun.  I've said before that literature, especially fiction, has capacity both to inform and challenge readers.  Fiction has a mass audience and it has a power to change the way that we think.  This is one such book.  Told through the privileged eyes of Lagos-born Olanna, her  house boy, Ugwu and her sister's partner, British-born Richard, the book allows the civil war of Nigeria to unfold.  Based on true events that overwhelmed the country from 1967-70, this novel tells a story that I had not heard before.

It is not unusual for news of African and Asian nations to fall down the schedule or disappear completely, even now.  How many of us give much thought to the horrors in Burundi, the hunger in South Sudan and the starving in the Yemen?  All of this is current, and yet to look at our TV screens, our inboxes and our social media streams, it would appear that the only news is Donald Trump.  And so the most vulnerable and dispossessed are forgotten, they don't even impinge on our conscience.

That is how I felt when reading this.  I am ashamed to say that I knew nothing of this conflict, and am uncertain whether I had ever even heard of Biafra, the breakaway state that longed to be independent from Nigeria. I was born as the conflict ended, but it has never entered my history books.  In fact, the first time I was made conscious of Nigeria other than as just another African placename, was through Adichie's other novel, Purple Hibiscus.  That one has children as its main characters and I read it when my son was given it as his GCSE text.  It served as a powerful introduction to the potentially corrupting influences of foreign missionaries, and made me eager to read this novel.

Olanna spends significant time teaching the children of Biafra in makeshift classrooms and refugee camps, teaching them English and patriotism inbetween bombing raids. "She taught them about the Biafran was the blood of the siblings massacred in the north, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of the yellow sun stood for the glorious future."

This book doesn't shy away from atrocities, indeed some are even committed by the central characters, but it doesn't indulge in them either.  There is a matter-of-fact tone that reports deaths, bullets, lice and disease, but underpinning it all is a hearty compassion.  This compassion is felt between friends and strangers. In many cases, all they have in common is hope for an independent nation that they cannot allow themselves to believe might fail.

The story is cleverly woven, beginning before the conflict and setting up the difficult relationship between Olanna and her twin sister Kainene.  The imposing character of Odenigbo is introduced as Olanna's lover.  Both families disapprove of the match and this tension is a backdrop for the national crisis that ensues.  Ogwu is Odenigbo's houseboy.  His differing social class enables us to see another side of life in Nigeria and the cultural tensions that existed between the educated and those still steeped in village tradition and spirit worship.  The western-centric Lagos life introduces Richard, a Briton whose love for Africa has inspired him to study the language and culture and make Lagos and later Nsukka, his home. His white skin and privilege do not make him immune from the suffering endured by the baby nation of Biafra, and he serves to give yet another perspective on the conflict.

As much as the civil war is the untold story that Adichie implores us "never to forget," it remains the backdrop to a compelling human story. The interwoven lives of the protagonists make you turn page after page. Amidst the bombs, there is fear, there is jealousy and recrimination.  There are people attempting to live their lives as best they can.

The structure of the novel works well.  We arrive in the early sixties when Ugwu begins his services to the esteemed lecturer of Nsukka University.  The gruff kindness he receives from Odenigbo warms us to both characters.  Odenigbo's house is one where fellow academics meet freely to debate politics and share differing opinions.  The food and drink are plentiful and it provides a stark contrast to later deprivations when sharing political opinion is dangerous. Once characters are established, part two moves to the late sixties and tensions in the house seem to be high, but we are uncertain why. Against personal conflict the civil war emerges as the force of change, but many questions remain unanswered.  Dipping back to the sanctity of the early decade, Adichie builds more context around the protagonists which leads to the closing section where civil war reaches its peak and is then ended.
The final pages show the initial aftermath of the ceasefire and the reader is left with a full account of each of the characters.

Realism makes this a profoundly sad read, as we are faced with what human beings can do to one another.  Maybe it was also a timely read as we look about us at an increasingly unstable political future.  One sighs and wonders whether we will ever learn the lessons of a complex, bloody and violent history that embraces us all.

This is a modern classic.  Read and be compelled by finely drawn, convincing character. Read and be challenged by our own ignorance and silent complicity.  The power of fiction.

I leave you with the Biafran symbol of hope.  A sun shining over the beach at Brighton, giving winter warmth as if to say, all will be well.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Post 47: A Good Start...

It all began with Hubby downloading Northanger Abbey onto his Kindle and announcing that "this book takes 3 hours 38 minutes to read."  Is that all?  Then why on earth can't I manage reading a book a week?  Surely everyone wastes at least three hours a week?!  So, not brave enough to up my never-reached target of 40 books in a year to 52, I am making a sterling attempt. It's January 15th and I've finished three books and am into my fourth. A good start at any rate!
One of my favourite Christmas presents this year was given to me by a good friend who knows me well.  The things in life that I need to keep me happy are books and a bottomless supply of tea. I fantasise about being famous enough to go on Desert Island Discs (well doesn't everybody?)  and I have already decided that my luxury would have to be a lifetime supply of teabags. So this mug really hit the spot.  It also got me thinking.  There are 30 classic titles pictured on the mug and I had only read half of them! Shocking, I know. So, as well as a mission to read at least 40 books in 2017, I now have an added ambition, to complete my mug list.  This is not without its of the books is War and Peace and I'm wondering whether watching the BBC series counts?????And try as I might, I don't think a whale interests me much, so Moby Dick might be a challenge...and Kafka?  Not sure I'm clever enough for him!  But I have made a start and am now up to 16/30. 

My first book of the year was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  It's a novella, so a nice short one to choose from the mug list to begin with. I read it, and then read some essays on it to make sure that I had understood it!  It is a quietly compelling book, heavily descriptive and with minimal interaction between characters.  It needs to be read quickly I think, otherwise you could lose the thread or forget the plot lines in the midst of the description.  The premise is the retelling of a tale by a mariner, Marlow, who had sailed up the Congo piloting a steamer. His mission was to bring home a white trader by the name of Kurtz whose behaviour had been worrying the Company.  Kurtz has a reputation that precedes him and everyone Marlow meets has an awed opinion of him. A specific company is never mentioned, but it is clear that white Imperialists are exploiting the area for ivory.  

And that is the basis of the plot.  Marlow recounts his tale in detail, describing what it was like to sail the treacherous river and encounter the native people. He tells of the differences and difficulties in working in such a tribal and hostile environment.  He narrates the story seemingly without judgement; hence I was left wondering whether I had read a subjective account, a piece that condemned Imperialism or condoned it, or, as has been suggested by some recent critics, famously the author Chinua Achebe, a wholly racist depiction of the times.  It is true that it is the voice of the white man that gets heard, but then it is written from the experience of a white man.  It is also true that he draws attention to the native Congolese by their colour and depicts them as something other than human. There is a distinct whiff of arrogant superiority when he writes, "The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us, who could tell?" And yet there is a naive honesty in its tone.  He describes"going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the word, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were Kings." And he creates an overwhelming impression of oppressive heat that lay heavy on the soul, "The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.  There was no joy or brilliance in the sunshine." For me,some of that oppression was found to have its source in Kurtz, a man who had enthralled the native population and earned their respect.  How he had done it however, was through cruelty and savagery that certainly Marlow failed to comprehend. Indeed the Heart of Darkness itself is not the river or the people who inhabit its environs, but rather Kurtz himself who Conrad describes as the "ivory face [with] an impenetrable darkness."
The discussions over this classic novella will continue, but I was left with the impression that Conrad felt ashamed by the white man's interference in the Congo, and scarred by his experiences there.

I have gone into more detail than I intended there, so I will be more succinct about the next two texts enjoyed this year so far. Appalled by my distaste for The Nutshell, I wanted to give Ian McEwan another chance!  And, as he has done so many times before, he wrote something that I was captivated by. This one was Amsterdam. One thing I loved  about it was that no action took place in the titular city until the denouement of the novel.  I kept saying to hubby, "Well, I'm this far in and no-one has been to Amsterdam yet!" The significance of the place was subtly foreshadowed, but I missed it. This made the ending more exciting as I hadn't recognised the significance of previous clues. (No spoilers here!) 

The basic plot is that of two lifelong friends, united by experiences shared and a woman that they had both loved at certain times of their lives. Vernon Halliday is the editor of a broadsheet newspaper and Clive Linley is a composer.  Both are more concerned with their own lives than anyone else's, and yet their flaws are those that most people will empathise with at some level.  Both men make moral decisions in this novel that impact their friendship and have consequences for others.

This is a modern novel for a modern age.  It is contemporary and the moral questions raised are current. There is a sense when you complete the novel that you need to examine your own motives for actions, your own responses to events and to other people.  It reminded me that we are a body of people co-existing in the same space.  We have responsibilities that come with that. Community is a much brandished word, and I think, little understood or lived out. The world could be a better place if we considered our morals, our actions and our decisions in a broader light, recognising that for every action there is reaction and consequence.

My final read for this blog entry is another Kazuo Ishiguro.  I confess myself a fan.  I love his gentle
narrative tone. The Remains of the Day has the simplest of formats.  A butler of the old-school, Mr Stevens, is taking a road trip to the West coast to see a former employee of  Darlington Hall, the housekeeper with whom he had shared many years of service.  The book is set in 1956 and Stevens is aware that everything around him is changing.  His employer is now an American who has bought the house from the English nobility who had lived there for many years, the staff is skeletal and the demand for the services of a butler is dwindling to nothing.

In short, this is a novel where Stevens is allowed to reminisce, to define his role as butler and legitimise his working life. His narrative voice is gently defiant as he explains what makes a butler great and what counts as dignified behaviour in service.  There is, as you might expect with Ishiguro, another significant strand to the tale. Stevens' deferment to Lord Darlington in all matters led to a willing blindness to his politics.  Recognising that important statesmen were meeting in the house, Stevens tells the story of utter servitude, staying in post to meet the needs of the party even while his father lay dying upstairs. His loyalty meant that he refused to see his master's involvement in pre-war Germany. Even when others tried to tell him of Lord Darlington's closeness to Hitler's agenda, Stevens deferred to him as the nobler, and therefore wiser man.

This is a nostalgic tale, but it is sad.  Stevens failed to recognise his own opportunity for personal happiness in his desire to serve his Master.  He failed to be at his father's deathbed and he failed to hear the warnings uttered to him by others.  His story is proud as he justifies his work. We see a butler determined to be the best he could be, and we respond to that.  And we empathise with him rather than judge him.  He wrestles with his conscience as he admits to occasions where he pretends that he has never known Lord Darlington.  Through these slips, the wider political background is revealed.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that after his trip, he seeks to return to the same life.  He knows no different and so promises himself that he will be the best he can be in his servitude under his new Master.  New skills may be needed, but he will try his best to attain them.

A gentle story with an unlikely, likeable protagonist.

Thank you for bearing with me through this long post!  If I'm to read this voraciously, I'll need to blog more often...My current read is a longer novel, so I may give you a little bit of breathing space. I am compelled by it so far, so watch this space for a review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.

Thank you for reading.