Monday, 29 November 2010

Let The Geat World Spin by Colum McCann

I’m finding it difficult to actually summarise what Let The Great World Spin is actually about. It actually includes a fictionalised account of Philllipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Centre, but it’s not really about this. It is actually a series of stories about a rather large cast of characters, all of whom ether witnessed, or were in some way involved in Petit’s daring stunt. The stories are all set in New York, and although we are presented with a ‘no holds barred’, gritty overview of New York, particularly its darker, grubbier side, this book is not really about that either. It is more about the personal stories of the characters themselves and the connections between the characters, although in the majority of cases they are connections they are not aware of.

Although the action takes pace mainly on the day of the high wire walk itself, with each character, we get a view of what they are doing on the day, usually interlinked with their history, so we discover the situation they are in now, as well as finding out how their life has panned out to get them there. It is difficult to detail the connections as that is part of the beauty of this novel, the connections between the characters do not become apparent until the latter half of the book. We start with an Irish Jesuit priest living in the Bronx, being a friend to the prostitutes and struggling with a personal dilemma involving his vow of celibacy and falling in love. There are also stories involving a drug addled bohemian couple, at least one of who’s life is turned around in a car accident, a prostitute telling her story from jail, and her daughter (also a prostitute), as well as a group of women all grieving the loss of children in Vietnam, and a judge presiding in court the day the tightrope walker is brought in.

All of the lives detailed in the book are precariously balanced, an obvious parallel to the walker high above the city, precariously balanced himself. I think thats what I liked most about this book. All of the characters have some horrendous things thrown at them, whether through circumstance, their own making, or a little of both, yet somehow, they seem to carry on, in some way or another. They all seem to find ways of coping with heartbreak or grief, and most of the characters seem to find a point or meaning to their lives. They are all characterised so well, and in a way they all seem so individual, yet the ordinariness of their lives and their daily struggles seem so universal, even though most of their situations are alien to me. To each character, their life is all they have, and all they are fighting for, yet as a reader, with the knowledge of all the characters, it was fascinating to see how small events and small kindnesses in fact can have an impact on someone else’s life. It is almost managing to convey that life is so small, but also so big both at the same time.

I think there is so much more in this book than I could possibly write about here. I loved it. I think I loved everything about it. From the troubled Irish Priest to Tillie, the career prostitute, I loved them all, I was rooting for them all. Tillie particularly was heartbreaking. Her voice telling her story from prison, lamenting the fact that her daughter ended up in the same position as her, even though she promised her she never would. Somehow, through all their faults, and all their bad choices, I felt so much for these people. And of course, the tightrope walker. I need to know more about him. I did read a bit about him here, but I think I will be searching out more about him, and this event in particular. And of course, it was interconnected stories, always a hit with me anyway, especially with the gradual reveal that makes everything come together at the end.

Favourite bits.

“It had never occurred to me before, but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing is as strange as the last, and connected.”

“We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don’t attribute it to God or sentiment. Perhaps it’s chance. Or perhaps chance is just another way to convince ourselves we are valuable.”

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

I usually try not to read books when everyone else is reading them (or writing about them), mainly because I think too much information previous to reading a book will always lead to a sense of disappointment when I do actually read it. But I really wanted to red Room, so tried to avoid as much as possible anything written about it, and come to it as fresh as I could. This wasn’t altogether successful, but it didn’t matter in this case, because I loved this book!

The basic concept I think everyone knows by now, that Jack and his mother are imprisoned in a single room by Jack’s Ma’s kidnapper, and Jack himself was born into the room (or Room as he knows it) so has never known anything else. Room, and everything in it, is his world. He does watch television although only in small amounts, but he believes everything he sees on TV to be pretend, an idea given to him by Ma, so that he doesn’t feel he is missing out on anything.

This could have been a depressing, almost unreadable book, if not for the fact that it was narrated by Jack himself. I thought the way he narrated the story, and the language he used, particularly giving each object in Room a proper name really gave an insight into how he saw the room as the world. It was ‘Bed’ ‘Wardrobe’ ‘Plant’ etc, just as we would say school, home, work. And once in the outside world, his actions and thoughts are indicative of exactly how difficult it will be for him to adjust to living in society, and how many apparently simple things he will have to learn that come naturally if you’ve grown up in ‘Outside’, as Jack calls it.

“There’s something going zzzzz, I look in the flowers an it’s the most amazing thing, an alive bee that’s huge with yellow and black bits, it’s dancing right inside the flower. ‘Hi’, I say. I put out my finger to stroke it and- Arghhhhhh,”

I liked Jack’s insight into this whole story. And it really was what saved it from being too heart wrenching to read. When the focus is totally on Room, and Ma’s efforts to entertain and educate Jack, it is easy to forget the torment she must be going through cooped up in a small space, repeatedly raped, and being forced to have Jack sleep in the wardrobe, in order for him never to see her kidnapper. But what would her mental state be when they do finally make it out of captivity? And how difficult would it be to read her conversations when she actually has someone else (other than a six year old) to talk to them about.

However, because everything is seen through Jack’s perspective, and because this is so well written, any of the issues and traumas that might be affecting his mother are seen through his eyes. That is, with total bewilderment, and mainly relating to how this affects him, and how he is going to deal with this totally new world in which he has found himself. Issues that she might face are briefly touched upon, and suggested, but filtered through Jack’s odd, stilted language, they become issues to ponder, rather than have it spelt out.

Even though this book is told totally through Jack’s eyes, there is still a strong sense of love that comes through. Jack loves is mother unconditionally, as he would, as he is he only person he speaks to. But the sense of total and unconditional love that ma feels for Jack is portrayed so well, even when the narrative is written from a child’s perspective. Love for Jack is what keeps Ma going, and it is amazing to me the imagination she put in to keeping her child entertained and educated all day, everyday in such a small, claustrophobic space. I think that says lot about the nature of love and motherhood, and in a way, society as a whole.

I can’t really praise this book enough. It kept me gripped all the way through, I was constantly picking it up ‘just to read that little bit more’, and left me thinking bout the whole situation, and about love, and motherhood, and what it really means.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna

The Birth of Love is really four different stories, two set in the present and one each in the past and the future. There are slight connections between the stories, but really they are just four different perspectives on childbirth and motherhood. We start in turn of the century Vienna with a man named Semmelweiss imprisoned in a horrific lunatic asylum for daring to suggest that many more women could survive childbirth if doctors washed their hands between performing autopsies and attending births. We then move to Brigid, just beginning to feel early contractions with her second child in twenty-first century London, and from there on to Michael Stone, a reclusive author struggling to deal with the publicity involved with the publication of his first book, which happens to be about Semmelweiss, and struggling to decide whether to visit his aging mother whom he has not spoken to for many years. And finally, a story set in 2153, when climate change has caused irreversible destruction of the planet, and all reproduction is carried out in laboratories. Women are harvested for eggs at eighteen and the forcibly sterilised. In the midst of all this, a woman somehow gets naturally pregnant and escapes from the compound, although this story is told through prisoner interviews once the escapees have been recaptured.

The running theme throughout the novel is of motherhood as a powerful force in nature. The women in all of the stories are dealing with different aspects of childbirth and motherhood, but they all feel an overwhelming urge to have children, and protect their children. The women in the first section are terrified of the hospital for fear of losing their own lives, and that of their babies. Brigid constantly talks in terms of her body doing this to her whilst she is in labour, Michael feels the need to visit his mother a final time, even though she will not really know f his presence, and the women in the final section feel unfulfilled and incomplete because of their forced sterility. And obviously, the child born from a supposedly closed womb is an obvious symbol for the natural and all-encompassing nature of motherhood.

It is difficult to say which of these was my favourite thread, because they were all interesting, and very different. I found it difficult to understand how such a simple thing as hand washing could be refuted, and fascinated by the different theories that the doctor in charge of childbirth hospitals came up with to avoid having to wash their hands. And the images of the treatment/incarceration at the lunatic asylum were difficult to read .Childbirth in the past was obviously a much more dangerous procedure. Brigid’s story was pretty graphically described, and not pleasant reading in places, as it spares no details about the nature of childbirth, but the realism in he description was necessary to get across the impression of childbirth as all consuming, and a powerful experience. And the sparse almost robotic language used in the interrogation of the prisoners in the futuristic section contrasted well with Brigids section as it makes clear that this force and power is what they are missing from their lives. With familial terms replaced with words such as egg and sperm donor, and progeny of the species, all human ties with reproduction have been severed and what we are left with is an emotionless, businesslike society, but without love.

I did enjoy the slight moments of interconnectedness between the various threads in this story (but then I always like that in a novel), however, I think it was the differing experiences of childbirth and motherhood that I found most appealing, however difficult they were to read. Giving birth today is described in full detail, but as much as childbirth is painful I think we have it lucky. I can’t imagine a society where just going into hospital to give birth is a life and death situation, or conversely, a situation where childbirth and family relationships are stripped away altogether. I really hope we never end up in such a dystopic society.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns is not a happy story. It is a brilliant book however. Telling the story of two women living their lives through some of the most tumultuous times in Afghan history, it is sad, harrowing, depressing and ominous. But I loved it all the same.

Mariam is the illegitimate child of a wealthy Afghan and his housekeeper, who was forced to leave his service when her pregnancy was discovered. Having lived a very solitary life with mainly just her mother for company, and revelling in the weekly visits from her father, she leaves to live with her father, who she is sure will be overjoyed to receive her. However, this is not the case and at fifteen she is married off to a much older man and sent to live in Kabul. She gradually adjusts to her new life and eventually stars to enjoy it, but as her husband Rasheed, gets more and more impatient that she cannot produce a child his behaviour towards her becomes more and more violent and degrading. Eventually, a local girl, Laila, ends up staying with Rasheed and Mariam as her parents are killed in a rocket attack and Rasheed also takes an interest in her, also fifteen.

This book is really the story of these two women, and how Afghanistan has treated them over the course of their lives. Although they are characterised very well, both individually, and the turbulent development of their friendship, the tragic events that happened to them could have been that of many women in Afghanistan. It’s a bit of a portent when Laila’s father says early in the story ‘it’s a good time to be a woman n Afghanistan’. At the time he said this, it was. Education and career prospects for women were more available than ever before, yet as readers we know this is all about to change. And when the Taliban finally roll in, Mariam and Laila are in the forefront of our minds, as we already know that they are trapped with a man who believes the Taliban to be a good thing. In a way it is possible to read the interplay between Rasheed, Mariam and Laila as a microcosm of Afghanistan as a whole, male leaders oppressing women as mere possessions and baby making machines, and God help them if they don’t produce male heirs.

I leant a lot from this book. I was well aware of recent events n Afghanistan but I wasn’t aware of the violent history that had preceded it, and because this book encompasses a relatively long period of time it also shows how the fighting and wars preceding the Taliban’s emergence into power devastated the country, both physically and emotionally. I also think this book does a very good job of pointing out that the Taliban did not come to power with totally new ideas. The attitudes they based heir theocracy on, and enforced brutally, were already present in many area of Afghan society, and when the Taliban took power, by many people they were simply legitimising attitudes already felt by many Afghan men.

Despite all the moments of horror and degradation, especially for women, this book is tempered with stories of how individual people fight the theocracy, in small but very relevant ways. Female doctors breaking the law to operate without Burkha (nurses posted on watch) and orphanage staff trying to look after children with no resources and still taking in children in need.

However, this book is essentially about Mariam and Laila. Their plight can come to represent that of all Afghani women, but the story of their friendship and bond is central to this story. Although at first they hardly speak to each other, they eventually develop a bond that is as close to mother and daughter as either of them has ever known, as they both had emotionally distant relationships with their respective mothers. With women being the central theme of this novel, it comes as no surprise that one of is strongest elements is mother/daughter relationships, especially living in a country where being female was a distinct disadvantage. The juxtaposition of the emotionally deficient relationships of both Mariam and Laila with their mothers, and the love Laila shows her daughter is enlightening.

It might be obvious that I loved this book. It was so well written, and with both large and small themes juxtaposed, but neither made more important than the other. It was harrowing, and upsetting. But also informative, and overall about love, and how that is the most important thing in the world.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

What do I want to say about this book? I don’t really know what to say about it. Part of that is because it’s been a few week since I read it, and although I remember it clearly, I can’t seem to produce any articulate thoughts. So I might just ramble, and hope some of this makes sense.

It was David Mitchell’s first novel, and is similar both in structure and theme to Cloud Atlas. As with Cloud Atlas there is no real central story, as the novel is comprised of nine very different, but all slightly interconnected stories. Starting and finishing with Quasar, a member of the Japanese apocalyptic cult that gassed the Tokyo Subway, this story is concerned with his retreat from Tokyo once the attacks are carried out. From there we move to a love story between two youngsters, a British banker in Hong Kong who is involved in some dodgy deals that are all about be uncovered, his girlfriend has left him and his apartment is haunted, a souls progression through various hosts in search of a particular story he can remember, art theft and the Russian mafia, a ghost writers life and loves, a quantum physicists refusal to co-operate with her American employers in creating new and more deadly weapons, and finally a new York late night radio show and the host’s annual conversation with some apparently cognitive artificial intelligence.

The individual stories themselves are fascinating enough. We seem to move throughout the twentieth/twenty-first century and in all of them the sense of place and atmosphere is created quickly and seemingly effortlessly. Mitchell tackles so many theme in this book it is possible to identify them all but there is a definite emphasis on modernisation, commercialisation and so called progression, usually with a negative slant.

But the stories themselves don’t make the novel. It is the interconnectedness of the individual stories that makes the whole thing complete. Characters from the various stories turn up, both characters we’ve already read about, and ones that we have yet to meet. I did find there was always a slight jolt when moving from one section to the next, but that didn’t last long and the scene setting was so well done, with numerous ‘ah ha’ moments when previous events or characters were referenced, that the whole concept came together very quickly.

It’s difficult to say much about how this interconnectedness is so important without giving away too much of the conclusion of this book (if it could be said to be that), but there are definite ideas of interconnectedness, chance and fate running throughout this book. How much of what happens in our lives is because of random meetings and events, and how much is destined to happen to us anyway. A lot of the meetings and crossed paths in this book seem to be total chance (one of the characters even plays in a band called ‘The Music of Chance’), but one memorable quote from the book for me was

"We're all ghostwriters, my boy. And it's not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we're in control of our own lives, but really they're pre-ghostwritten by forces around us."

This book is full of little gems like that, but unfortunately that was the only one I noted down before returning this book to the library!

And just as a point of interest, and definitely another one of those ‘Aha’ moments, there are characters named Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish in this book (from Cloud Atlas), and one of the characters has a birth mark shaped like a comet! There may well be other references I didn’t pick up on, but they were the ones I spotted.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was a book I found impossible to put down, and one that will stay with me for a long time. It had an odd structure, written from three perspectives and without any real chapters, but I really just couldn’t stop turning the pages. For a book, that can only be high praise!

Esme Lennox has spent nearly all of her adult life in a psychiatric institute, and when the institution is being closed down, and all the patients re-located, she is judged to be no danger to herself or society, so is being released into the community. Her named family member is Iris Lockhart, her great-niece, but the first problem here is that Iris doesn’t know of her existence since she had always been told that her grandmother was an only child. And just to throw another spanner in the works, Kitty, Iris’s grandmother is herself in an institution, with fairly advanced alzheimers, so is unable to answer when Iris asks about Esme.

Esme and Kitty grew up in India, in a relatively well-to-do, society family, where there were huge expectations placed upon them on the proper way to behave. Having suffered a horrific family tragedy they return from India to Scotland when the sisters are still young, to live with their paternal grandmother, who makes even more of proprieties and conforming than their parents. Kitty falls into line with this, and even revels in it, but Esme becomes more and more averse to the ideas purported by her family, and wants to go her own way, and do her own thing. She doesn’t like dancing, enjoys books and doesn’t want to get married. Her ‘unruly’ behaviour leads her parents to despair of her, although in fact all she is doing is refusing to conform to expectations.

So why was Esme locked away at sixteen years of age, and why does nobody know of her existence? What secrets are waiting to be discovered? The answer to that is plenty, but they are revealed slowly and in a very non-linear way throughout the book. The book jumps around both from point of view and in time, as it is told from the viewpoints of Iris, Esme and Kitty. From Iris we see what is happening with Esme and how she goes about dealing with the knowledge and physical presence of a relative she didn’t know she had. The sections told from Esme’s point of view are a little more confusing, as she jumps between the present and the past, as something that happens will remind her of her previous life and she goes off into a reverie about life in the asylum, or before she was committed. And then probably the most illuminating sections are the chunks of internal stream of consciousness thought from Kitty, whose sections are difficult to read, but read in conjunction with Esme’s memories, eventually create a complete picture of the events that lead to Esme’s committal and abandonment.

The two sisters are portrayed really well through the varying narratives, and it’s easy to see how Esme was different when she is juxtaposed with her sister, who tried to do everything that was expected of her, make the good marriage, take up embroidery and the like. That juxtaposition was necessary, both to illuminate how a well-to-do girl of this era should behave, and show how Esme’s rebellion would have been viewed by their social circle. Ultimately though it is Esme I felt sorry for, and Kitty who comes across as selfish, self-absorbed and superficial. I actually felt angry reading this book at what Esme went through at the hands of her family, more and more so as more of the truth was revealed in glimpses from the sisters memories.

I really enjoyed this book, particularly the actual act of reading the disjointed narratives and piecing them all together to try and decide what really happened. It does however paint a pretty damning picture of life for women in the early part of the 20th century, particularly if they want to veer even slightly off course from what is expected of them. I think this is what interested me most about this story. This subject has cropped up in a few novels, and each time it does I get the urge to find out more about the reality of this, and then ever do. Maybe this time I will.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ is Philip Pullman’s retelling of the story of the life of Jesus. He doesn’t actually change much in the story of Jesus’ life, but by the addition of a twin brother (Christ), from whose viewpoint his book is written, puts a different perspective on the story.

Jesus and Christ are very different from the moment of their birth. Jesus is outgoing and headstrong and often in trouble, whereas Christ is quiet and introverted and is often found getting the young Jesus out of trouble. Their differences run over into their theological beliefs and here they really are at odds. Christ believes in the ultimate power of an all encompassing church

“Groups of families worshipping together with a priest in every village and town, an association of local groups under the direction and guidance of a wise elder in the region, the regional elders all answering to the authority of one supreme director, a kind of regent of God on earth”

And Jesus’ reply to this is a pretty conclusive rebuke

“What you describe sounds like the work of Satan. God will bring about his kingdom in his own way, and when he chooses.”

Jesus’ life follows the path we all know so well from biblical stories, but with some clever twists on the miraculous events that define his life. The book is scattered with common stories from the bible, but their miraculous nature is called into question by Christ’s running commentary on these events. For Jesus’ life is chronicled by Christ, who after tempting him to turn stones to bread in the wilderness (sound familiar), observes Jesus’ preaching from a distance. Other familiar stories include the lame man who got up and walked, only to lie down again as soon as he realised he had lost his living, the steward persuaded to find the wine he had hidden at the wedding, and Jesus persuading the 5000 to share whatever food they had so everybody could eat, including his loaves and fishes!

Christ doesn’t write the events down exactly as they happen though. Jesus’ words are manipulated by Christ, and with the assistance of a mysterious stranger, whom Christ meets periodically to pass over is writings. Between them, these two concoct a plan to create the bigger truth from the actual history, with the ultimate aim of creating a church based around Jesus’ teachings, but bigger and better, representing the kingdom of god on earth.

“There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting the truth into history. You are the word of God”

This book is re-telling a story, and it’s emphasis is on stories, and on how the way stories can be used to change and even control the way people think. As well as the events in Jesus’ life, many of his parables are included and the style of this book is very like a parable. I love the way this book spends a lot of time re-telling Jesus’ parables to express what the author believes to be Jesus’ message, and is in itself a parable on how stories should be read simply as stories, with the meaning to be drawn out, not taken as gospel truth. (I just felt the need to use that phrase!)

It is an interesting take on the story, with Jesus being used to create the very church he had already stated he despised. His compassion for the poor, weak and abused is emphasised heavily in this book, and organised religion takes a fairly substantial battering here. Using the knowledge of the abuse of power that has been perpetrated by the Christian church throughout history, Pullman puts prophetic words into Jesus’ mouth in a couple of long monologues towards the end of the book. The point is simple enough, reduced to its most basic, it would be institutionalised religion is bad and equates to a few people with power having excessive control over the many. At no point is faith or belief called into question though. And somehow, the end managed to have a twist, difficult for a story we all know the ending to. It was a good story, with a lot of things to think about, and definitely a novel take on the well documented idea that biblical stories really are just that, stories.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

My Driver by Maggie Gee

My driver is the follow up to My Cleaner, which I loved when I read it. My cleaner was set in the UK, whereas My Driver picks up the same characters a few years later, but is set mainly in Uganda.

Mary Tendo is a Ugandan woman, who has worked for Vanessa Henman as a cleaner when she lived in London. They had a fairly turbulent relationship, and eventually Mary returns to Uganda, where she now lives with her boyfriend Charles, and their three year old daughter. She works in The Sheraton Hotel, which as the novel opens is preparing for writers conference, which numerous well known authors will be attending. Vanessa is preparing to leave for Uganda to attend this conference, and unknown to her, her ex-husband Trevor is also on his way out to Uganda, at Mary’s request, to build a well for the people in her village.

The book alternates between the experiences of all three of these people in Uganda, with each of them unaware that they are all present in Uganda at the same time. Obviously Mary is aware that Trevor is there, as she invited him, but neither of them know that Vanessa is in Uganda, and Vanessa is unaware of Trevor’s presence, and is unable to contact Mary, as the hotel she believed her to work at no longer exists. Adding to the intrigue of this are numerous scenes where they almost meet, are in the same place minutes after each other, or actually pass each other and fail to recognise each other. When they all do eventually meet, it is all very dramatic, if slightly far fetched, and pushes the boundaries of co-incidence just a little too far, but is also compulsively readable and incredibly moving.

There is also a thread running throughout of a wounded, half starved, child soldier running through this book. He is tormented by what he has seen and done, and although his identity has a huge significance upon the conclusion of the story, his presence is a stark reminder of the brutal conflict occurring in parts of Africa and the fear that Ugandan citizens are constantly living with. His identity is finally revealed at the conclusion, and his role in the bringing together of everybody was one of the elements I found just too co-incidental.

The main crux of the story revolves around these three characters, and their reactions to the experiences they have in Uganda. Vanessa faces some home truths about herself her status as a writer, and the consequences her rather uppity attitude to life has had on the people closest to her. And throughout her time in Uganda, we see both the publicly presented side of the country, as well as witnessing a slightly darker, poorer side of Africa, both through her eyes, and through Mary’s on her return to the village she grew up in.

What we do see in this novel is a shift in the characters mental attitudes, particularly that of the women. Vanessa is portrayed all the way through the previous book, and at the start of this one, as a self-righteous, self obsessed middle aged women with delusions of grandeur and an impression of her own superiority. Throughout this book, we see her gradually come to realise how life in Africa really is, and start to see the internal dilemmas she has with herself about how she has lived her life compared to how she should have lived it. Mary, however, just seems to get more extreme when she is in her own country. She was always feisty, and during her second stint in London stood up for what she wanted, but in her own country, she is downright obnoxious at times. I did like both women though, even if at times they were both incredible difficult to like!

There is also a definite shift in where my sympathies lay. In the previous novel it was Mary that appeared to be the more sympathetic character and the one that was a little hard done to at times. In this book Mary seemed to be much less likeable, and although Vanessa arrived with grand ideas, it didn’t take log for them to be stripped away by the harsh realities of life in Africa, and for her to come to some realisation of her luck and position in the world.

Although this book could quite easily be read without having read the previous novel, I think the aspect of reading this I enjoyed the most was see the character transformation and the subtle (and not so subtle) change in attitudes of the characters, over the period they have been apart, and their time in Uganda.

I did enjoy this book, although probably not quite as much as My Cleaner. It had the same mix of humour and seriousness as the previous one but I think the strong reliance on co-incidence and being in the right place at the right time, was just a little too much for me.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters. I’ve only read two of her books so far, with this being the third. Both Fingersmith and The Little Stranger were very different from each other, and this one was different gain, despite being set in the same time period as The Little Stranger. The one crucial, stand out fact about The Night Watch is that is told backwards, with the focus of the narrative being on how the characters ended up in the situations they are in, rather than what is going to happen.

Starting in 1947, we are introduced to Vivien, Kaye, Duncan and Helen, when they are surrounded by a post war gloom, and their personal lives seem to be in a bit of a sad, depressing state. Vivien is in a totally unsatisfactory relationship with a married man, Kaye walks the streets all day then visits the pictures alone in the evenings, Helen is obsessively jealous in her relationship although not necessarily without reason, and Duncan is living a lonely life lodging with a much older man. All the characters seem to have secrets, and it’s these secrets that propel the story forwards because for the majority of the book, as one question gets answered, it only opens up another set of questions! For example, questions from the first few chapters are what exactly happened in Helens past, who is Viv’s boyfriend, what was Duncan’s transgression, who is Mr Mundy, why is Kay like she is and what is the significance of the ring? It’s difficult to say any more about the plot without giving anything away, but during this first part, we really find out nothing more than the eventual fates of the characters, and learn about a few of the interconnections between the characters. Because all these characters stories intertwine, whether it be through family relationships, place of residence, sexual relationships or chance meetings.

As we move on to the second and third parts of the story, most things are gradually revealed, and everything becomes clear. It is really a story that could only work this way round. The characters lives are fairly mundane really, apart from the odd dramatic incident, and obviously, the ever present threat of bombing in both the second and third parts of the novel. To read about these characters lives in chronological order would just be like reading a story about four people, who due to totally random circumstances, happen to cross paths. For me the interest came from the gradual reveal of secrets and mysteries.

Secrets and secrecy are a big part of this book. All the characters are keeping secrets from other people, and this secrecy continues right to the conclusion (or beginning, depending which way you look at it). It is the secrets that they keep from each other that keep the story going, and add the trademark twists that seem to be a staple of Sarah waters books. They are not big, shocking twists here, but nevertheless they are moments of ‘oh, now why didn’t I see that coming’ scattered throughout the story, with most not being totally resolved until the end.

It’s probably obvious from this that I enjoyed the structure of this, and I loved the secrecy involved both from the characters in the story, and as a natural consequence of that, from the reader. But it’s not the only thing that makes this book work. The setting within London, both during the blitz, and in the immediate post war years is written about with a terrific clarity. I said earlier that the characters themselves lead relatively mundane lives, which in their individual personal lives, they do, specifically in the first part, once the war has finished. But their melancholic gloom is set against the much bigger picture of war devastated London, both after and during the blitz. Throughout the course of this story we witness how the war has a direct impact on the lives of the characters, particularly the women, but not exclusively, as well as how living in 1940’s Britain had a serious impact on any less than normal relationships as, being a Sarah Waters book, some of these characters are homosexual. Trying to conduct any kind of homosexual relationship then was done behind closed doors. And there we come full circle, back to the secrets again. Secrets, lies and hidden truths!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Battle of the Sun by Jeanette Winterson

When I read Tanglewreck last year, I was very impressed. But then I do like Jeanette Winterson’s writing anyway. That was her first foray into young adult literature and although The Battle of the Sun is not really a sequel, it does include some of the same characters, and follow some of the same themes. Knowledge of Tanglewreck would add something to the experience of reading this rather than not having knowledge taking anything away.

On the eve of his 12th birthday, in London 1601, Jack Snap is rushing home to receive the pet dog he has been promised as his present. Unfortunately, he never makes it home, and is kidnapped and transported through a waterless well to a house full of orphan boys (also kidnapped), known as the dark house. Overseen by a man known only as the Magus, the boys are forced to work on his alchemy projects, and are kept in line by a pair of creatures known as Wedge and Mistress Split, who are actually two halves of the same whole, born in a bottle, and were themselves created by the magus. The image of this pair hopping around the room on their single legs has to be read to be appreciated! And as an extra incentive, the boys are surrounded by previous captives, who having tried to escape, are then turned to stone as a punishment.

The Magus’ ultimate aim is to turn London into a city of gold, and he believes Jack to be the Radiant boy who is necessary to make the alchemy complete. Jack however, is not prepared to do his, and with the help of various fantastical characters, including a dragon in a moat, an imprisoned king sunk in a tank and a summoned knight, sets out to defeat the magus, and save London.

Simple enough story, but full of twists, and everybody trying to outwit each other. With the arrival of Silver, the heroine of Tanglewreck, Jack is whipped away to solve these problems, whilst getting a brief lesson in the problems of time travel, and the ability to exist in more than one place at once. Quantum physics makes a strong appearance in this book, just as it did in Tanglewreck, and again, it goes over my head, but it really doesn’t seem to matter! How do you go about processing the idea that The Dark House only exists in the Magus’s head and when he chooses to stop imagining it, it will collapse, even though the boys are still inside? Or that the Dragon is not in the moat, he is he moat, but also not the moat? The dragon in fact has some of the most interesting lines in this story, if a bit obtuse, but maybe that’s what makes them interesting.

“For whatever has stood in the world leaves behind an imprint, an echo, a scent, a spirit. What is destroyed is also reclaimed. What is lost waits to be found.”
I loved this book. It was a fast and relatively easy read, but a brilliant story, a really well created world, both the real life descriptions of London 1601, and the fantastical elements, with some very vivid characters. As well as the story, as well as the quantum physics thread, there is also a lot of understated humour, the prime example being Wedge trying any means possible to hatch a coconut, as he believes it is a magical egg, which perhaps in 17th century London, it would be! A good story, interesting ideas, and a very definite moral thread too, although I won’t go into that because it would ruin the conclusion. It was brilliant!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon

Suggested by my mum, I really wasn’t sure whether I would like this book, and it took me a while to actually get round to reading it. The first few lines intrigued me though,:-

“Two years after I was born, my mother had a miscarriage. Had she not, I would have grown up with a younger sister. This is the sister’s story, set in an alternate universe which closely mirrors our own.”

The alternate reality in question is a world very much like ours, set a few years in the future, but almost unrecognisable from our own mostly due to a complete economic and social breakdown caused by the financial crisis of 2009! The consumerist society is well and truly defunct; the days of plenty are over. The country is ruled by a National Utility Government (NUG), and supplies that we take for granted today are in short supply, such as coffee, tea, fresh meat, water and electricity. There is also an emphasis on growing your own vegetables, with the gardens of many terraces being converted to communal vegetable plots. The full picture of the state the country is in is drip fed to us through the course of the novel, as Frances relates her life story, mainly from her home in Chalcot Crescent.

In this world where everything has degenerated Frances starts telling us her story whilst she is sat on the stairs avoiding the bailiffs who are knocking on her door, to repossess her house and confiscate her property. Frances is an author of numerous successful novels, but in the current climate, the money for publishing has vanished so she is now living a subsistence level existence, along with virtually everybody else. Her grandson, Amos is sat with her, and he is determined to extricate her, or at least her property from this mess.

Frances herself is the main narrator, although not the main focus of this book. She is telling us the events, and they are obviously filtered through her perspective, but it is the stories of her family that are important. She tells us a lot about her past, her relationships both with men, and with her sister Fay. Frances is not altogether a very pleasant character, although unfalteringly honest about what she has done in her life. I was going to say, the mistakes she made, but she doesn’t see them as mistakes, she s quite straightforward about the things she did. Her acceptance of the new regime is a little odd though, as she seems to just want to let it be, when in the good times, she was a voracious campaigner, and witnessed all sorts of injustices.

As to whether I liked this book, I’m not sure. There was a story running through, mainly concerning Amos and her other grandchildren, and how involved they were in Redpeace and an attempt to overthrow NUG, and this as aspect of the book felt a bit flat for me. The story itself never seemed to kick off properly, and was all wrapped up very quickly, and I personally thought rather unsatisfactorily. However, I did enjoy reading about this imagined world where everything had gone so horribly wrong, and because it pulled so much from events that have happened recently or are happening now, it was an amusing satire on government and use of power. The NUG had slogans for everything, and food that cold not be grown was provided by the state, but in a nationalised form (as in WWII), such as national bread, coffee, and National Meat Loaf, marketed as suitable for vegetarians! The reason for this is bizarre, and a bit creepy but I won’t give that away.

I think the thing that kept me reading most though was the complete unreliability of Frances. She is telling this story, but at various points she can’t remember something that others say has happened. She also spends a lot of time imagining what may be happening if it outside her area of experience, and at one point she is unsure herself whether what she has just narrated has actually happened, or if her writers brain has imagined it. That was the most fascinating aspect of this book for me, especially as at the very end, it is made clear what we are actually reading is a second draft, after NUG approval, which throws the whole validity issue into disarray. And obviously, this is all imaginary anyway, as Frances didn’t exist in the first place, so is this Fay Weldon’s take on an alternative life for herself!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Imagine a world in which everybody living in it had turned blind. It’s a pretty horrific thought, and in Blindness, Jose Saramago has created a pretty unpleasant scenario for what would happen to the world and humanity if this was to occur. Out of all the things that could happen to me, blindness is one of the things that frightens me most, and to be honest this book didn’t do much to quell those fears.

However, that does make it sound like I had a negative reaction to this book, which I didn’t at all. I thought it was fantastic. I loved virtually everything about it, the story, the ideas expressed, the slightly odd writing style, and most of all the way it made me think what I would do.

Told both by an omniscient narrator, and through dialogue between the characters, the story starts with one man going blind in his car at a set of traffic lights. Helped home by another man, he is petrified and quite understandably goes to see the doctor an eye specialist. Then we briefly follow the characters that come into contact with him, and any they in turn come into contact with, and gradually see them all turn blind, the way an epidemic generally tends to spread. Soon, the government is in panic mode and confines all the blind and those suspected of being contagious to a disused mental asylum, in a desperate attempt to stop the white blindness spreading. Everyone in the asylum ends up blind, except one solitary woman, the doctor’s wife, who pretended to be blind to be able to stay with her husband, and through whose eyes we see a lot of what conditions in the asylum are like.

Understandably, living conditions in the unit assigned for the blind are pretty grim, and organisation pretty poor too. Although promised supplies of essentials such as food and hygiene products, these very rarely arrive at the required frequency or in a substantial quantity, and the deliveries become scarcer as time goes on. There are also more and more blind people being assigned to the unit and more and more animosity from the army officials guarding them. As will happen in any place where large numbers of human beings are gathered with limited resources, a minority will attempt to hold power, and assert control, which for a while succeeds, but eventually leads to the ‘patients’ escape from the hospital, after some violence, and their comprehension of what the outside world has become with everybody blind.

I mentioned the writing style earlier and there is no doubting hat this book is written in a very odd style. Generally each chapter starts with the omniscient narrator setting the scene, and making moral comment on the events as they are unfolding, but then when the story switches to dialogue, virtually all punctuation disappears and it is never marked who is speaking to who, or when the speakers change. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. It seemed to transmit the sense of helplessness and blindness that the characters felt, and I think possibly the immense concentration that was required to read this book mirrored the concentration needed by the blind characters simply to converse with each other, or do anything vaguely resembling normality. Possibly I’m thinking too much here, but I don’t think this book would have had the effect it did if the writing was more conventional. Also none f the characters were ever identified by names. They are simply termed, the doctor, doctor’s wife, girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint and so on. The most powerful effect of this book is the sense of reality it portrays and that this could so easily happen, which is only achieved through the immediacy of the writing style, and the lack of names, so it is almost impossible not to put yourselves in the story to some extent. It could be anyone, anywhere. It could be you!

All through the book, there is a sense that what we term humanity and civilisation is a pretty fragile concept, and in dire circumstances, it will disappear almost in a flash. The particular group of blind people that we follow retain a small amount of dignity, but how much of that is simply because they have the eyes of the doctor’s wife to see for them is open to debate. Events both inside and outside the asylum show a world that degenerates into barbarism alarmingly quickly and it is an unflinchingly depressing view of humanity that is portrayed. Whether things would degenerate this quickly simply through the loss of sight I wouldn’t like to speculate, but you would have to hope not. But I wouldn’t be so sure. This book certainly makes it clear how much we rely on being able to see to live any kind of reasonable life. Horrific, harrowing, depressing, but ultimately fantastic, brilliant and I loved it!

Best Bits

“I only mean that this is all we are good for, listening to someone reading us the story of a human mankind that existed before us, lets be glad of our good fortune at still having a pair of seeing eyes with us here, the last pair left, if they are extinguished one day, I don’t even want to think about it, then the thread that links us to that human mankind would be broken,”

Friday, 4 June 2010

Small Wars by Sadie Jones

Small Wars is a novel based Cyprus and England during the military emergency over there in the 1950’s. Focused around Hal, a Major in the British army, and Clara his wife, it is more a book about how war changes and affects people, and by extension, the effects it has on a marriage.

Clara and Hal are presented as a very solid, together couple, with both trying to do what is best for each other and their children. Clara knows and accepts the responsibilities of being an army wife, and Hal accepts his duty to provide for her, look after her and keep her as safe as possible. But more than this, they seem happy simply being together and in love. However separately defined their roles are, they always seem to find time to be together, this closeness is always apparent at the start of the novel, shown most effectively through their sharing of a brandy and cigarette after a meal. Hal and Clara have spent Hal’s first commission in Germany, where although Hal has done well and risen through the ranks, he has seen no real action, and is actually looking forward to his posting in Cyprus.

However, this seemingly blissful situation can’t continue, else obviously there would be no story! It is not long before the atrocities Hal witnesses in his day to day life stat to affect him, and as a consequence he starts to gradually withdraw from Clara. It is not long before the things Hal is dealing with start to affect the way he feels and how he sees himself fitting into his home life. Throughout the book Hal is torn between his family life, and his army career.

“His own self was overwhelming him and everything else was far distant”

“The room felt extraordinarily big to him, and very clean. He was too big for it, and not welcome”

There is a sense of what is right and wrong in military action running throughout this novel, and although it is seen through Hal’s eyes, it is also seen through the eyes of Lawrence Davis, a national service soldier, who works as interpreter. In this line of work, he is witness to some things he would rather not see, and spends a lot of time reconciling himself to what is acceptable. In a way, Hal’s struggle with himself is more personal and expressed through his actions, whereas Lawrence voices his feelings to himself (and the readers), making it clear in words what Hal is experiencing through his behaviour.

“Davis was surprised that his capacity for dread and disgust had not diminished. The boy was kept awake, standing, for hours at a time, and with each interrogation, seeing his deterioration, Davis jumped through the same hoops in the circus of his mental process. Steeped in shame, he condemned himself, but always, in the back of his mind, the thought: This is still within the realms of acceptable. If something really bad were to happen, I’d do something.”

“He clung to the notion that he had a limit, that his threshold lay somewhere, uncrossed and ready to save him, if only he were given the opportunity.”

Whether either Hal or Davis has a limit, and whether they are ever prepared to cross it, or what it would take to push them over the limit is a question to be answered as the novel continues. This theme continues throughout the book though. At times the British army seemed to be quite forceful and didactic towards the locals, and this is what both Hal and Lawrence are railing against, in their own different ways they both seem to have a dilemma between what they have been conditioned to believe, and what they actually believe to be right.

However, having said that this book is about Hal and Clara, and the strain that the war puts on their marriage, that is not what I actually liked best about this book. They go through some horrific things, but their personal story never really grabbed me that much. It all seemed to fall a bit flat where they were concerned. As well as the ideas mentioned above abut where your personal limit is, and what you can actually do about it, which were written about brilliantly in this book, what I actually liked best about this book was the horrific descriptions of warfare, both the guerrilla actions of the opposing side, and the reprehensible actions of the British army. There seems to be a despair throughout the book that this ‘war’ is not really about anything, it is not important and therefore the deaths and horrors involved are all pointless. It’s an interesting idea, in fact suggesting that if it was over territory it would all be ok, but it does a god job of showing how this feeling of pointlessness can affect even the most revered soldier.

“At least a battle-at least they would have the name of a battle to say he died in, not just a row of letters most of them didn’t understand, at least a country to fight against, or defend, not this small, dirty struggle. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his wet hands”

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Legend of a Suicide

As much as I loved this book, I find it very difficult to organise my thoughts about it, never mind write anything sensible! I actually read this about a month ago and have been putting off writing about it in the hopes that my thoughts might organise themselves into some kind of coherent order without me having to try to do it. But unfortunately, no such luck, so here goes!

Roy is the central focus of these stories, and the narrator of most of them. And the suicide of the title is that of his father. I suppose now is the time to say that David Vann himself suffered the suicide of his father, so he is writing these stories from personal experience, even though he does himself say they are fictional. The first story, iythycology, seems to encompass a large portion of Roy’s life including his father’s suicide, and his reactions afterwards. We then move on to stories that detail his fathers disastrous relationships with his wives, both Roy’s mother and Rhoda, who came after, as well as a story that concerns itself with Roy’s mother’s string of relationships, none of which last long. The central story Sukkwan Island is a bit of a ‘boys own’ adventure, describing a year that Roy and his father spent living completely self sufficiently on an Island in Alaska. Followed by two very different, more philosophical stories, with Roy considering his father as flawed and why he was the way he was.

Sukkwan Island is a much longer story than all the others, and for me, delivered the moment when it became clear that everything was not as it seemed, and it was possible Roy was inserting himself into his father’s life, in various situations, and drawing on elements he remembers to create various alternate histories. I’d love to say more about it, however it is a real bombshell moment, and the story really needs the shock aspect those few lines provide. But I defy anyone who reads this not to put the book down in horror at this point!

There is however so much more to this book than a series of stories. Even though all these stories are different, they are sort of interlinked. At first I thought they were all describing the same event, and in a way they are, but in another way, they are definitely not. This is where the Legend of the title fits in. These are all stories of a suicide, but they are just that. They are the stories of the child left behind, almost interpreting the facts in various ways. There is the odd phrase or event that turns up in more than one story, but always in a different context. And obviously I don’t think it spoils too much to say that the suicide occurs in each story, but never in quite the same way. Sukkwan Island is by far the best, but the other stories are needed to frame this one. The idea of this being the crux of the book is only enhanced by the sudden change of tense from first person to third person in this story.

I think this is what I liked so much about this book. The reader is very much left to figure it out for themselves. What is true, what is not, whether any of it is true at all! Trying to match up the pieces was part of the fun of this book. If fun is a word that can be applied to a book that is essentially writing about a suicide! Repeatedly! Having said that, I did enjoy the stories up to and including Sukkwan Island better than the final two. But as I have already mentioned the shock factor to this one, it is almost understandable that anything that came after would be an anti-climax.

What makes this book work so well is the emotion contained within the writing. The structure of the book s crucial in making this the raw, emotional read it is. The intensity in each story makes the inevitable suicide shocking, even when we know it happens. Somehow, it still manages to come as a surprise. Without this repeated jolt the stories would have less impact, apart from Sukkwan Island, which would always be shocking. As I mentioned previously, David Vann knows what it’s like to suffer a father committing suicide, and his grief and attempts to deal with this comes across vividly and makes this an uncomfortable read in places. It really does express the difficulties of trying to develop a father/son relationship if circumstances are less than ideal, and the effects that parents actions can have on a child. It was brilliant!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Based on recorded events, Arthur and George is a novel spanning the lifetimes of two men, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji. We all know who Arthur is, but George is less well known, the son of a Parsee Vicar living in Staffordshire. Myopic, shy but hardworking, George keeps himself to himself works hard at school and eventually becomes a solicitor as well as becoming mildly famous in law circles for writing a book on railway law for the layperson. All in George’s life is not as idyllic as it seems though. George’s family is persecuted by an unknown letter writer, as is another family in the village, all be it to a lesser extent. With seeming disinterest from the police, it continues, running parallel with some horrendous mutilations on animals occurring in the village. George is arrested for the crimes, yet even with some pretty flimsy evidence, is convicted and incarcerated.

The novel is narrated in alternating sections, those that describe George’s life, and those describing the early life and career of Arthur Conan Doyle. They lead totally different lifestyles and come from totally different backgrounds. Arthur trains as a eye doctor, moves from medicine to writing, marries, has children and generally insert himself into society. We come to know a lot about is own personal character and morals, particularly after his wife falls ill, and he falls in love with another woman. I think the overriding character trait apparent in Arthur is his belief in doing what is right and honourable.

However, the crux of this novel is the fight to prove George innocent, and the efforts of everybody surrounding him to achieve this, both during and after his incarceration. Both the police case against him, and his defence is clearly se out during the investigation and trial, although it is made fairly clear to the reader that his prosecution was manipulated by the police for their own ends.

Once Arthur is involved, it becomes interesting how differently the two men approach the case. George just wants to be able to live his peaceful life, and to be able to work again, whilst Arthur wants to make a big noise and expose he corruption for what it was, as well as prove who did actually commit the atrocities. I really enjoyed this fictional Arthur using the skills he attributes to Holmes in his books to meticulously go over the evidence to produce his own take on George’s case. Even though e goes to great pains throughout the book to state he is not Holmes, he can just write a good mystery!

As well as the mystery as to who did actually commit the crimes, which is really I think what kept me reading, the portrayal of the characters, both major and minor is what makes this novel so compulsively readable. There is a very strong flavour of what it was like to be an Indian in this time in Britain, and the way people who both knew them and didn’t now them, but knew of the case reacted to them. As an added bonus, the details of Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s life, although woven into fiction, were fascinating.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes

This is a really odd book! I can’t think of a more descriptive term than that I’m afraid. Trying to describe what it’s actually about is just as difficult. It’s sort of about a dog, the Timoleon Vieta of the title, but then again, sort of not really about him at all! The book is in two definitively separate parts, and they could almost be two different books.

Since that really wasn’t helpful I’ll start again! Timoleon Vieta is the dog of Cockcroft, an elderly British man, who currently lives in Italy. Cockcroft seems to get through dogs and lovers (male) at an alarming rate of knots, the lovers disappearing and the dogs either dying or disappearing, usually both. Timoleon Vieta loves Cockcroft, and in his way he loves him, although, he is cajoled into doing the unthinkable when he falls for a Bosnian that turns up on his doorstep, responding to a brief invitation from Cockcroft at some foreign party.

The Bosnian, as he introduces himself, is obviously looking to hide somewhere, and chooses the unpleasantness of paying his rent by sexual favours as an easy way to hide out in the Italian Countryside. Cockcroft immediately falls in lust with this man, but more than anything, he appreciates having company. Most of the first part of the book is concerned with Cockcroft reminiscing about various lovers that have graced his life, all be it only for a short period of time. And the Bosnian just wants to be bored somewhere quiet. All in all, it seems like a perfect arrangement, except for two things. One is that both men are gradually revealed to be not quite what they seem, and the second is Timoleon Vieta. The Bosnian can’t stand him, and eventually persuades Cockcroft to abandon him in Rome, which he duly does.

This is the end of the first part of the book, and although we learn a bit about what the to men are pretending to each other to be, we don’t get their true stories until they are gradually revealed in little bits throughout the second half of the book. After his abandonment, Timoleon Vieta attempts to make his way home, coming into contact with various people along the way. Each chapter is like a snapshot of a person’s life, usually a love story of some sort, and all depressing! The ending is no less depressing although Timoleon Vieta does eventually make it home, and in fact it seems as if Cockcroft has finally found some happiness although based on his track record, it is unclear how long this will last.

This book is definitely showing the darker and gloomy side of life. As the stories of Cockcroft are revealed they definitely show the underside of society, and these two men become more and more dislikeable as the story progresses. They are never particularly likeable in he first place however, but my impression of them just degenerated the novel progressed.

I enjoyed this book immensely, but it is quite hard to say why. A much as I enjoyed the stories of Cockcroft and The ‘Bosnian’, particularly the unravelling of their stories as the book progresses, I think the melancholy and slightly surreal stories of the relationships in the second half were my favourite. This was when I felt the book really came alive for me. He author seemed to be able to draw me into these stories, and they could almost have been books in themselves. They definitely packed a punch, and they all seemed to end on a pretty shocking bombshell. But as to whether I liked the novel, or the author’s obvious skill with short stories, I’m still not sure. Worth reading though, especially the second half

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God was brilliant! I just thought I'd start with that before I go any further. Janie Crawford is a black woman, living in the early days of black emancipation in America, struggling to find her place in the world. She is raised by her grandmother after her mother deserts her, although this is after a brutal rape, of which Janie is the product. The grandmother herself escaped from slavery at its very end and raised both her daughter and her grand-daughter in the home of a sympathetic white family. Janie herself has a contented childhood, not even realising she is black until seeing a photograph of herself with the other children in the household. Her Grandmother, however, is very conscious of this fact and is determined to push Janie towards a life where she will not be used and abused.

That, in a nutshell, is Janie's back story, but that is not where this novel starts. It starts with a middle aged Janie returning to Eatonville (an all coloured town in Florida), and sitting on her porch explaining her life to her friend, and how she ended up returning. Throughout her life, Janie has had three marriages, two unhappy, and the third finally fulfilling her hopes, but ending tragically. The first marriage is arranged by her grandmother, but ultimately does not fulfill Janie and she leaves, and runs off with Joe Stark, which is when she ends up in Eatonville. Joe is business minded, and transforms Eatonville, sets up the shop, post office and eventually becomes mayor. In effect, this is the point when Janie has what her grandmother wants for her, but she is stifled by her husband. She is the mayors wife, and can do nothing unless he permits it, or tells her to do it. When he dies, she runs off a much younger man, named teacake, and finally becomes happy, although she comes down in the world to achieve this. She is by this point a fairly wealthy woman, and owns property, but she is happiest working on the plantations with Teacake, simply because she wants to spend as much time with him as possible.

In essence, this is the main discovery Janie has to make in this book. As a teenager she discovers what she wants and what love is through lying under a pear tree.

"She saw a dust bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch cramming in every blossom and frothing with delight"

Immediately after this she kisses a local boy, which sets in motion the train of events that lead to her grandmother to arrange her first marriage, which she grudgingly submits too, hoping love will come whilst at the same time not seeing how this will happen. Janie is constantly searching for her own pear tree moments in all of her husbands, and she finally finds this in Teacake.

Teacake is a fantastic character. Talking in rhyme, no pretences to be what he's not and so wonderfully in love with Janie. And Janie with him. Her Grandmother may have wanted her to be protected from the will of men, and that is totally understandable considering what she suffered in her life, but Janie just wanted happiness. And that is the major contradiction. Whilst trying to do her best for Janie, the grandmother forces the unhappiness, but she really was just trying to do her best for her beloved grand-daughter. Janie is such a strong woman, she seems to develop as the story progresses and eventually hold out for what she really wants, despite what people may think. The love she and Teacake feel for each other is total, and beautifully evoked that as readers we never doubt their feelings for each other. For example, when Teacake asks her to come and work with him in the fields, not as a submission, but just because he doesn't like to be apart from her, it is totally believable, and only enhances what we feel about the depth of their relationship.

I don't really know how Hurston manages to do this, but I think the reality of the situation is expressed mainly through the use of dialect. Janie tells the majority of the story herself, using a thick black-American dialect, which was difficult at first to interpret, but got easier as the novel progressed.

There is so much to this novel, I think it is one I would get more out of on subsequent readings. But as an insight into life as a coloured American in troubled times it's fantastic. Also a brilliant love story, a quest for personal fulfillment, with or without love, and an exploration of what makes happiness and contentment. In this case, it ends with a packet of flower seeds expressing hope for the future.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

My Cleaner by Maggie Gee

My Cleaner is the story of two very different women, living two very different lifestyles, with very little comprehension of how things are different for each other. Vanessa Henman is a white, middle class single mother living in London, although her son is an adult, but has sunk into a deep depression and very rarely leaves his room. Mary Tendo is a fiercely proud Ugandan woman who was previously employed as Vanessa's cleaner, and unofficial childminder, but who returned to Uganda many years since.

Struggling to know how to deal with her son, Justin,Vanessa writes a desperate letter to Mary, asking her to return and work for her again as 'nanny' to Justin, in an attempt to raise him from his depression. Surprisingly, Mary accepts the offer and returns, although she is motivated primarily by the monetary reward, although her love for Justin comes across strongly in her conversations. The dialogue between these two women, and their differences and similarities make up the bulk of this story, with the added thread of Justin's recovery and reasons for his depression, and a more sombre storyline involving Mary's own child, who went missing in Libya a few years before the events in this book, and who Mary fears is dead.

The book is generally a small story about these two women, and the complexities of their relationship, but it would be impossible to write this story, and make it authentic without including some background about the wider worlds in which both women live. I think this is done better with Mary's descriptions of her life in Uganda, but maybe that is just because it is less familiar to me. The descriptions of a busy, working mother in London and a busy working woman in Africa are compared wonderfully, along with occasional references to the low paid status of African people living and working in service to British people. The bias of this book seems to be that Mary's hard but fulfilling life in Uganda is of a better quality than Vanessa's superficial one in London, but there are small hints that it is not all it seems.

At first reading, the differences between the women come across more obviously than any possible similarities. Vanessa is a high flying college lecturer and author who spends most of her time working and has no time for Justin, or her home, whilst Mary seems to have all the time in the world for this boy. Mary cannot stomach what she calls all the 'white food' that Vanessa serves up, and soon takes over the kitchen, producing some very vividly described meals using fresh, usually African vegetables.

The women are characterised wonderfully, both through their own actions and their conversations with each other. they at times seem to be at cross purposes and both seem to feel they have the upper hand. This book is obviously raising issues of gentle racism, as Vanessa is repeatedly written voicing sweeping assumptions about Africans in general. it is definitely a not very subtle dig at middle class racism, with Vanessa constantly assuming that Mary is grateful for the supposed better quality of life that Vanessa is providing for her, and allowing her liberties, because she is African, the implication being that she doesn't know any better. Yet, in a much more subtle way, the racism can be seen to work both ways. Mary is viciously proud of her status as an African woman, and makes reference to this herself as something that is superior to Vanessa. Neither of the women seem to have any sympathy for each other, and each other's lives, and although life for Justin comes together well at the conclusion, which was the whole purpose of Mary's stay in London, the two women part with their lives just as much in turmoil as they were at the start.

I think what makes this book work so well is the gentle humour that is used, both in the author's narrative and in the two women's conversations with each other. The conversations they have are seen from either one perspective or the other, occasionally both, and the different ways they both view the speech and actions of the other is told with such a humorous slant that you can't fail to be amused by the culture clash and complete lack of understanding. It's quite a sad subject to treat with humour, but it's probably the only way it could be told.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Howards End is on the landing by Susan Hill

Howards End is on the Landing is the book Susan Hill wrote whilst spending a year reading only books from her own (extremely copious) bookshelves, whilst also trying to compile a list of 40 books she couldn't do without if she had to forsake all others.

It's not just about those 40 books though. In fact, the process of selection is not really discussed until the final third if the book. This book is more of a journey through Susan Hill's life, how she feels about books and the reading process. It is more like a series of short essays on a variety of aspects of her reading life, including meetings with well known authors, gushing essays about why she loves particular authors and when she was first introduced to them, confessions of who she doesn't like, praise of the physical books themselves and other such subjects.

Structurally, the book follows her around her house as she moves from room to room, shelf to shelf, with each new shelf bringing out a series of reminiscences about her literary life. The chapters fall mainly into two camps, those about a specific author and those about the books and the reading process themselves. Although I enjoyed reading about her love of Thomas hardy and Virginia Woolf, and conversely her dislike of Jane Austen, my favourite parts were when she talked about books themselves. Enthusing about how books are shelved, where books are shelved and why they should be kept was lovely. Also the sections on children's books, reading slowly and writing in books was brilliant. And in case you're interested, in her opinion, books should be shelved where they fit, where they seem to belong, and never in alphabetical order!

I think the main appeal of this book for me was the obvious love of books and reading that permeated virtually every page. She made her books seem like such an important part of her life and her character. I just wanted to read the books she talked about (not all but most), and more than that, I wanted to visit her house and mooch around her bookshelves. I think I could quite easily spend a year reading from her bookshelves, reading her well loved books. The descriptions of the various rooms and shelves full of books were just wonderful.


"But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who has ever lived has read exactly the the same books, all the same books and only the same books as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA."

"How can she not understand that if I let her do such a terrible thing as organise my books, I would never find what I was looking for again? Worse, there would never be any wonderful surprises, as I look for X and Y but find Z, which I thought I had lost years ago. Never the marvellous juxtaposition of a biography of Marilyn Monroe next to Charlie and the Chocolate factory."

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids wasn't what i was expecting, but was no less well received for it. I think, given that title, and having only previously read The Day of the Triffids, I was expecting this to be more science fiction, with some kind of other-worldly intervention but I'd label this as dystopian.

Set a few hundred years into our future, with most of the world ravaged by nuclear catastrophe, large tracts of the earth are left uninhabitable, with what land did manage to escape total destruction more often than not growing mutated flora and fauna, and even what is left of the human race being prone to mutations and deviations from the 'norm'. It is never stated how much of humanity survived, but from the descriptions of the wrecked land, it is implied that it is really only small pockets. In a place called Labrador, a child called David lives with his preacher family in a mainly arable setting, with very little machinery, so the assumption is that civilisation has returned to a more subsistence level of surviving. It is through David's eyes that we view this story.

However, civilisation is not a good word to use for this post-nuclear society. I used the word 'norm' very purposely earlier on because it plays an important part in their worldview. It is obviously a staunchly religious society, as is made clear by the dogmatic biblical quotes in the first few pages. However on closer inspection these precepts are not quite as we would know them and as the book progresses, it becomes clear that this society is not civilised at all!

"And any creature that shall seem to be human, but is not formed thus is not human. It is neither man nor woman. It is a blasphemy against the true Image of God, and hateful in the sight of God."

What this all boils down to in the end is that in attempt to keep humanity pure, and restore it to God's true intention, anyone who deviates slightly from what is defined as the 'True Image' is cast out into what is known as the Fringes to take their chances. Deviant babies are simply exposed at birth, and all this is regulated by an inspector, because every human being has to have a certificate to prove their humanity. Eventually it becomes apparent that David himself has a 'mutation', although invisible to the naked eye. He can communicate telepathically with other children in the surrounding neighbourhood. When this ability is eventually discovered, David has to flee, with his cousin and younger sister, Petra, to avoid capture. What follows moves a little into an adventure story, with a posse hot on their heels trying to capture them, with a run in with the people who live in the fringes thrown in for good measure. It becomes clear that Petra's psychic abilities are far stronger than the rest, and she communicates with someone far away, who also get involved in the final confrontation.

I really enjoyed this and thought that the points being made were still current today. Some of the descriptions of nuclear radiation were a little dated, especially comments about things glowing in the dark, but when this was written total annihilation was a new thing and was very much on peoples minds. But more importantly this book is about persecution, fear of difference, fear of change and the wrongs humanity can inflict on each other because of fear. The society in Labrador doesn't want change. In modern terms it would be called fundamentalist. David's father has given up his own children because of slight genetic faults, and at one point, he turns away his own sister-in-law who is asking for help to keep her baby because it only has 'a very small thing' wrong with it. He is a despicable character who even joins the hunt to bring back his own children, refusing them the chance of relative safety. He must be seen as a symbol for all that is wrong with a society that persecutes anyone with a slight difference, whatever that may be.

One of the reasons this book worked so well for me was the way the information about the society was revealed. It was a gradual drip feed throughout the first half of the book. Each time David moves on to a new event, we learn about something else that is horrific and dogmatic about this society. Part of the effect of this book is that we could see this happening in our world, and for this to have the impact it does, we need to see this world as similar to ours. If all the information was revealed in one chunk, it would seem too obscure and irrelevant. For me anyway.

I also liked that this was seen totally through David's eyes, and at various points we see his conflict with the beliefs he has had drummed into him as a child, and how he cannot believe that this can be right.

"Clearly there must be a mistake somewhere. Surely having one very small toe extra-well, two very small toes, because I supposed there would be one to match on the other foot- surely that wouldn't be enough to make her 'hateful in the sight of God...?"

This internal debate is what I like most about this book. David quickly moves away from this and sees his society for what it is, but the debate about the rights and wrongs of society rages throughout the book. And although the end is slightly predictable, it does seem to suggest that the author is making a point that all civilisations will see themselves as superior to another and inflict their beliefs into them. David moves into a new civilisation, but is it any better than the one he left?

Monday, 8 March 2010

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

A Fraction of the Whole. As well as the book title, this is probably a good description of what this review is going to cover! This was such a long book, with so much in it, I really feel like it would be impossible to do it justice here. In a nutshell it is the story of Martin and Jasper Dean, father and son. Martin spends all of his adolescent and adult life in a deep depression, although with moments of euphoria, trying to escape from out of the shadow of his younger brother, Terry Dean, sportsman turned criminal mastermind and mass murderer, and trying to bring his son up to not be like him and live in no-one's shadow. Jasper Dean spends most of the novel in conflict with his father, or at least his father's actions, yet towards the end seems to become more and more like him.

Stripped down like this to it's bare essentials, this book is a family saga, encompassing father, brother and son. The story is narrated mostly by Jasper Dean, and is really an autobiography, at least that what he intends to write. I was intrigued from the start, when Jasper admits he is writing this book in prison, although he doesn't say why. He does give the indication that we will find out during the course of the book though. (we do, right at the end) It is not however written as a straightforward biography. As Jasper himself says in the first few pages

"I guess I should admit it. This will be as much about my father as it is about me. I hate how no one can tell the story of his life without making a star of his enemy, but that's just the way it is. The fact is the whole of Australia despises my father perhaps more than any other man, just as they adore his brother, my uncle, perhaps more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them, though I don't intend to undermine your love for my uncle or reverse your hatred for my father, especially if its an expansive hatred. I don't want to spoil things if you use your hate to quicken your awareness of who you love."

That simple quote says quite a lot about what this book is concerned with. There is a lot in here about family relationships, particularly between father and son, but also between brothers, as well as between mothers and sons, but to a lesser extent. It should be obvious from this that Jasper and his father, Martin have quite a complex relationship, and that Jasper's feelings towards his father are quite complicated and confused. After the brief introduction from jasper, we move into Martin telling a teenage Jasper the story of his own childhood and early adult life, culminating in his birth in Paris and their return to Australia. Martin was a sickly child, and after spending seven years of his life in a coma in his bedroom, he embarks on his life of thinking, philosophising and generally trying to make the world a better place. His projects include installing a suggestion box in his town, which although initially well received, eventually leads to the incarceration of his criminal brother in a mental asylum and the building of an observatory, which eventually leads to the burning down of the town, and the death of his brother. With a brief interlude which involved a visit to a notorious criminal in the local prison, and the publishing of a book titled the Handbook of Crime, which although well intentioned, also ends in disaster. The descriptions of this book are probably the funniest moments of the whole book

Later on, as Jasper takes up the story of his life once again, it is clear that his father's madcap schemes to change the world have not ended, and although his father is constantly plagued by doubt and periods of depression, which at one point sees him confined to a mental hospital himself, he is constantly trying to make the world a better place, and educate his son how to live a good and non-conformist life himself. His sanity is repeatedly called into question though, especially when he decides to build himself a house in the middle of a labyrinth, so they will be hidden away from the world. The whole thing culminates in a scheme to make everyone in Australia millionaires, which true to form, goes disastrously wrong, and leads to the biggest of the many twists and turns in this book.

Jasper himself has a strange relationship with his father. He is there for him, and apart from a brief interlude when he leaves home, he is always with him. But it is clear he gets frustrated with his dad's constant philosophising on life, and pulls him up on his arguments sometimes. Jasper himself is concerned with who he is, and whether he is just a carbon copy almost of his father. He is plagued by the idea that he is turning into his father, which is an idea he abhors. Yet he can't abandon him.

The story itself is only part of this book though. As just this story it would have been interesting, but nothing special. And very long! It is more Martin's snarky commentary on modern life that make this book worth reading. Sometimes serious, sometimes melancholy and sometimes humorous they are peppered throughout the novel, and although there are just a few samples here, I could have quoted hundreds!

"There's nothing wonderful or interesting about unrequited love. I think it's shitty, just plain shitty. To love someone who doesn't return your affections might be exciting in books, but in life it's unbearably boring. I'll tell you what's exciting: sweaty, passionate nights. But sitting on the veranda outside the home of a sleeping woman who isn't dreaming about you is slow moving and just plain sad."

"Honestly, I've never known how people do married life. I mean, when I go from the bedroom to the bathroom or the kitchen to the bathroom, the last thing I want to do is stop to have a chat."

"I thought there must be something secret and sinister about Lionel Potts. I couldn't believe people hated him for being rich, because I'd noticed most people were aching to be rich too; otherwise they wouldn't buy lottery tickets and plan get rich quick schemes. It made no sense to me that people would hate the very thing they aspired to become."

It was these comments, and many many more that made the book for me. The totally dysfunctional family, the outrageous events, gripping story, unbelievable plot twists well drawn, if slightly over the top characters were all essential too, but it wouldn't be what it was (brilliant), without these philosophical musings from Martin and Jasper. And they do continue throughout the whole book.