Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Amnesia, memory, madness and history. They would be the key words I would use if I had to try and describe this novel in single words. Luckily, I don’t because short, simple words can never do this complicated story justice. More precisely, the book is concerned with the effect of memory, or its absence, on humanity, and how memories, both personal and historical can affect a person’s state of mind. That’s a few more words, but it still doesn’t do it justice.

Margaret Taub emerges from a forest, tired, dirty and wearing men’s clothes with no knowledge of how she got there, what she was doing to get into that state, and no recollection of the previous six months of her life. However, she returns to her life, studying in Berlin, and conducting walking tours for tourists, taking in some of the key points of Berlin’s history. When, out of the blue, she receives a letter from an unknown Dr Araschebilis inviting a Margaret Taubner to an appointment, she decides to attend, if only to let this doctor know she must have the wrong person, but also to try and shed some light on her amnesia. It takes the whole of the novel for the shocking revelation to what Margaret was actually doing in the forest to emerge, and we witness the gradual degeneration of Margaret as she remembers and comes to terms with her own past, via an obsession with some specific historical characters from Berlins murky Nazi past.

Margaret has an in depth knowledge of Berlin’s history due to her studies at the university, which she puts to good use on her tours of Berlin. However, when the morning after her first appointment with the doctor, she wakes up to find all the buildings have turned to flesh, it is our first realisation that something is not quite right with Margaret. She becomes obsessed with Magda Goebbels, who infamously killed her six children in the bunker at the end of the war, and also with the history of Regina Strauss, a Jewish mother who killed herself and her three children in their kitchen to escape the camps. Her obsession centres on whether these killings were justified, or even ethically correct, and she is haunted by the ghost of Regina, and a representation of Magda as a half woman, half bird creature.

Margaret is a fairly disturbed character, but it is through her eyes we see Berlin, juxtaposed with memories of hr past coming back to her. Through Margaret’s disintegrating present, we see the history of the city, or at least the version she creates. As Margaret continues her tours, she glosses over certain facts, because she believes no tourist would know what to do with the information that Jewish prisoners availed themselves of the brothel services provided by female Jewish prisoners, who were then killed at the first sign of disease. She may be right there and I think this was one of he key points of the novel for me. Margaret is trying to reconstruct her past, just as the tourists on her walks are trying to recreate the Berlin of Nazi Germany. But this is never possible, as looking back filters history through your own particular lens, just as the tourists do, and just as Margaret does with her obsession with the characters of the time. The doctor who becomes Margaret’s guide through her delirium says

“You, my pet, are having an identity crisis that has become moral despair. It is impossible for the human animal to remember his or her own life without cleaving a line, a line of some kind, however capriciously zigzag lay, narcissistic, arrogant or, on the other hand, self-blaming and unforgiving, between right and wrong, credit and blame.”

As much as I enjoyed this book, I would have to say that I think a lot of the meaning went over my head. I’m sure it would benefit from a second read. That said, I don’t feel this detracted from what I did get from this book. The images created, whether they be of buildings turned to flesh, families committing suicide or playing cards with ghosts at the kitchen table were intense and beautifully portrayed. Margaret herself continues her tours of Berlin throughout most of the book, and the information given in the tours was illuminating both as information about Nazi run Germany and in light of Margaret’s situation. And as bizarre and odd as the book was at times, as the novel progresses, and the information about what actually happened to Margaret, or more precisely, what she brought on herself, becomes clear, it is heartbreakingly easy to see why she chose to forget those six months, and why her mental state deteriorated as she was forced to remember them.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Booking Through Thursday-Age Innapropriate (or censorship)

What do you think of censoring books BECAUSE of their intended age? Say, books too “old” for your kids to read?

Generally, I don't believe in censoring books. Offhand I can't think of a book that either of my children would want to read that I wouldn't let them if they chose to. I have on occasion suggested to my daughter (she's eight) that a book she is interested in may be too complicated for her to enjoy, but that is much more about the text itself instead of the subject matter. If she still wanted to read it, I would let her, but just make her aware that it may be too hard for her and not to let it put her off reading, just to try something else.

Censorship in terms of content is much more dangerous ground. My core belief about reading is that books are a way of learning about the world, other people, ourselves and the relationships between these things, and I don't see how censoring books for children can fit with that idea. Thinking about my son, who at a bright thirteen, is more likely to be reading adult books, I would prefer him to read things with my knowledge, and for him to know that any issues he doesn't understand, or that make him uncomfortable he can talk to me about. That's got to be better than him possibly reading something surreptitiously, and either misunderstanding the content, or just feeling unable to talk abut it because he's not supposed to have read it.

I do also believe that banning, or even restricting books is counter-productive. As a case in point, my son recently tried to take a young adult book out of the library (Iboy by Kevin Brooks) and was told he couldn't as he would have to be sixteen. It was a young adult book, and one by an author he's read before. However, it made him all the more keen to read the book. It's a natural reaction to want to know what you're missing out on! He read the book in the end, (I took it out on my ticket) and we discussed the controversial scene. In this instance it was a book that appealed to him anyway, it's central character being a boy who has an IPhone dropped on his head and wakes up to discover he has technological powers transferred from the phone! It's his dream, his Ipod touch never being more than an arms reach away from him! But in other circumstances, I feel he could be pushed to read a book he wasn't overly interested in, just because he's told he can't. And I don't see how that can ever be a good thing.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Artemis Fowl and the Atantis Complex by Eoin Colfer

I do like Artemis Fowl. Actually, he’s not my favourite character in the series, that’s an honour reserved for Mulch Diggums, who is always called upon to use his rather unique talents to save the day, but as far as children’s/young adult literature goes, Artemis Fowl is up there with the best of them. I don’t read a lot of children’s books though, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to. This one is the seventh in the series, and the fact that I‘ve got that far is testament to how much I like them, because I don’t read much in the way of series either.

To anyone familiar with Artemis, this one is a little different. For a start, Artemis has summoned a meeting with his fairy contacts on a totally altruistic basis, to showcase his new idea to save the polar icecaps, which incidentally they are just as concerned about saving to protect their underground world. This in itself arouses suspicion in Captain Holly Short, who although she classes Artemis as her friend, is aware he rarely does something for nothing. Added to that is Artemis’s peculiar obsession with the number five, there needing to be five people at the meeting, and trying to construct sentences in multiples of five words whenever possible. And avoiding the number four, as that means death in Chinese! Compared to a usually uber- rational and never superstitious Artemis, it is not long before Holly spots the difference, and is sending concerned messages to Foaly, the genius, technical wizard of the party. Wirelessly, through communications devices far superior to human capability, obviously.

The end result is that between them they diagnose Atlantis Complex, more commonly known in human circles as multiple personality disorder. But this is best described by the Fairy encyclopaedia, Wicca-Pedia (this bit made me smile)

“Atlantis Complex is a psychosis common amongst guilt-ridden criminals first diagnosed by Dr E.Dypess of the Atlantis Brainology Clinic. Other symptoms include obsessive behaviour, paranoia, delusions and in extreme cases, multiple personality disorder. Dr E.Dypess is also known for his hit song ‘I’m in two minds about you’.
Holly thought that this last bit was probably Wicca-humour”

As usual, things do not go entirely to plan, and it is not long before a fairy spaceship of unknown origin comes crashing down on the group, nearly killing Artemis, and leading the group to sort out the mess, and save the fairy people once again. However, this time they must do it without Artemis, as the disaster has pushed him over the edge and left him as Orion, who is the total antithesis of Artemis and of virtually no use at all. For example his response to the crisis is:

“I have been taking stock of the situation from the rear seat as it were, and I suggest that we retire to a safe distance and construct some form of bivouac”

Although different in style slightly, this has all the trademarks of the previous books. And to be honest I’m surprised to see myself writing that, and saying I like the book. All the characters are there, they all play a part in saving the day, because obviously everything works out okay in the end, and the group save the day at the last moment. Even Orion/Artemis plays his part, complete with hilarious comments throughout. In fact Orion as Artemis sheds a little more light on the self awareness begun in Artemis in the last book, and since this one doesn’t really conclude the story of the icecaps, since the crash landing became of crucial importance, I wouldn’t mind betting that that’s where the next, and final book will go. But I’m probably wrong there!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

For what is quite a short book, To Bed with Grand Music packs one hell of a punch. The tone of the book is set from the striking first sentence;

“Graham and Deborah Robertson lay in bed together and tried to say goodbye to each other”

Set during WWII, Graham is being posted to Cairo, all be it to a fairly cushy office job, and Deborah is being left behind in the country to look after their child and home. On this last evening together, Deborah promises complete fidelity, yet Graham will not be drawn into such a commitment, and will only go so far as to say that he will not fall in love with another woman, therefore ensuring his emotional fidelity to Deborah. Deborah however is not really the maternal type, and the limited opportunities of life in a village with her child soon begin to take their toll on her. With a gentle nudge from her mother, she decides that a job would be the right thing for her, and taking the bull by the horns, she finds one in London, moves in with an old college friend and leaves her son in the care of her housekeeper for the week, returning only at weekends to spend time with Timmy.

On her first exploratory visit to London, Deborah immediately compromised the vow of fidelity she made to Graham, leaving the next morning disgusted with herself and determined to stay at home and be a good wife and mother and wait for Graham to return. However, when a job almost lands in her lap, it doesn’t take long for Deborah to justify returning to London, even managing to use Timmy’s well being as justification for the necessity for her to go.

“Then, she said, there’s the question of Timmy. I rather think ones got to take the long view. Of course it would be nicer for him, and for me too, to stay together, but one’s got to consider what’s best for him, not what’s nicest. It’s no good bringing him up to a comfortable dependent security that certainly doesn’t exist nowadays and isn’t likely to in the world he’ll grow up in. Surely, however much it may hurt me, I owe it to my child to make him strong enough to face all knocks of life rather than to protect him against them?”

Justifying her actions, usually only moments after she has stated how wrong they are, is something Deborah makes a bit of a habit of throughout her time in London. At first, she does make an effort to stay away from all forms of socialising, rebutting all attempts by her socialite flatmate to include her in her partying, but it is not long before she is involved in a relationship with an American officer, who is also married, but has promised his wife he will only philander with someone he respects as much as her. From this point Deborah moves from man to man, soon getting to a point where she is never without a lover, even asking one of her beaus to teach her how to be a good mistress, with which he duly obliges.

Deborah is the sole focus of this book character wise, as Graham departs in the first few pages, and is just the absent husband all the way through the novel. And it left me in a bit of a quandary about my reaction to her. I honestly have to say I didn’t like Deborah very much. All the justification and the seemingly materialistic concerns which led to her descent into promiscuity did not compel her to me very much at all. Obviously, this book is set in a different time, when it was very much the norm that women married and stayed faithful, yet men seemed to have to promise no such thing. It was not expected of them. I do feel I can understand Deborah’s frustrations with the restrictions on her life, particularly since they are restrictions that Graham, from his letters, does not seem to be suffering. For more than half of the book, I did feel like I could sympathise with her plight, although not empathise, yet there came a point where within a couple of pages she composes a letter to her husband requesting he increase her allowance to fund her lifestyle (although obviously she does not tell him this), and then makes a passing comment that really changed my opinion of her.

“Well, darling, thts just one of the things I’ve really thought out for myself and I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well. I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no-one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

However, although at this point I lost sympathy for Deborah, and to be honest, she doesn’t do much to redeem herself in my estimation, particularly with her actions at the very end of the book, I did finish the novel wondering about what it meant to be a woman left behind during the war. This story paints a very different picture to the common wartime images of women at home, digging for victory and such, that it is impossible not to finish it thinking about possible alternative lifestyles women may have led. If the truth behind this book is to be believed, then there was a whole subculture (I’m aware that word would not have been used then, but it just seems to fit), of women taking up independent lives for themselves, and part of me wants to say ‘who can blame them’. Especially with the double standards between the expectations of men and women. It does make me think that my reaction to Deborah should not be as cut and dry as it is, but I just can’t get over her constant justification of her lifestyle and more than that, her virtual abandonment of her child to further her own desires.

Despite my dislike of the main character, I did love this book. All credit to the author for creating such a dislikeable character, but a book that I love! I haven’t really been compiling a favourites list for this year, either physically or mentally, but if I had, this would be on it. It was very thought provoking, and above all left me grateful for being born in a time where I can, within reason, do as I choose, and not ever really be put in a position where I would have to make the kind of decisions Deborah had to make, however much I disliked the reasoning behind her making those choices.