Where a goddess might trail her garments

 

 

Non Fiction November

Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) Sarah’s Book Shelves  is hosting Week 2 of Choosing Nonfiction:

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

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Right: Extract of cover from Richard Powers The Overstory

 

Thoreau wrote in Walden

“This was an airy and unflustered cabin, fit to entertain a travelling god, and where a goddess might trail her garments.  The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as weep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music.”

Writers like Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald combine deep knowledge of natural history with literature and spirit with geology. I want a writer that I know has put in the ten thousand hours of research about their subject and will offer up insights into the way that knowledge works in the world.  Or the way it doesn’t.

In The Old Ways Macfarlane writes:

“By an old stone bridge he dropped down to the riverside to show me where two yews had grown into one another.  Their joint foliage was covered with translucent red berries, life half-sucked cherry drops. ‘These are the oldest living beings of the Guadarrama….”

Trees are often the oldest living beings of anywhere but we choose to forget that.  We think nothing of burning and cutting trees for our furniture, for palm oil and other products.   But the writers are fighting back, along with the activists.  Richard Powers Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory examines how trees affect the lives of a group of people who pass by them everyday – sometimes unknowingly.  A disparate group of characters – an artist, an under-graduate from an actuarial course, a scientist, an air force veteran come together for differing reasons of their own but all with the same aim – a desperate attempt to save a few remaining forests in the US from annihilation.

These places where a goddess might trail her garments I am looking for in non-fiction work.  But such places are tragically few and perhaps soon will exist only between the covers of books.

Thank you also to the hosts for 2019 – Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves, and Leann of Shelf Aware.This event runs for five weeks, with five weekly discussion topics, giving us a chance to highlight and talk about our non-fiction reads.

The Stray Cats of Homs, Eva Nour (Doubleday)

Partly fiction, but mostly not,  the story charts Sami’s life a young man growing up – or trying to – in modern day Syria.

The protagonist Sami is a child when the story starts, a loved child of a good family.

‘On the surface, nothing was wrong or lacking. There were hospitals, schools, holiday resorts, churches , mosques.   The problem was the arbitrariness, that you could never know when the fabric would rip in two and reveal the other side.’

The fabric starts to tear shortly after Sami leaves University and is a little slow to sign up for his compulsory military service.  He is rounded up and carted off in handcuffs by the militia to endure two years of brutal military training which, though agonising, he survives.   When he is finally and belatedly discharged more than two years later he feels freedom beckons.

On the bus home, a sense of freedom filled Sami’s chest.  His body was no longer owned by anyone he was free to come and go as he pleased.  Outside the landscape rushed by, the air had a new edge of cold and the evening sun dipped the trees in gold.

This sense of freedom is shortlived.  In fact his problems are truly just starting.   By the time Sami receives his longed for discharge from military service,  his country has plunged into Civil War.

The regime would never dare, they said.  As soon as the first missile is fired, the US, France and the international community will react.  They said.

Assad’s regime forces and anti-government protestors battle it out over a red line which goes plum through the middle of Sami’s home town of Homs.  The international community sits on its sofa with a glass of wine and watches  as the bombs start falling.

Sami’s family leave but he chooses to stay.   More and more checkpoints are erected until fourteen city blocks are surrounded and those who have elected to stay are trapped.

The streets where he lived and attended school are reduced to white dust and rubble.   Food becomes difficult to find, then impossible.   Gradually his friends leave if they are able or some are killed either in the fighting or just because.  Sami starts to photograph the war, still believing that someone will care about these blatant abuses of human rights, this devastation by Assad’s forces of his own people.

This is not a political book.  It is a book about a humanitarian disaster.  If the author  makes judgement at all,  is of one of the tragedy of any civil war – when boys who were at school together, who ate in each other houses and played football round the streets, grow up and kill each other.    These days children play football among the ruins and a little girl wears a necklace made of spent cartridges.

Nour’s book is a book which celebrates small moments of freedom; it bears witness to our attempt to cling to some kind of normal domestic routines in the face of desperate odds.  It bears witness to our inability to rationalise such waste, such senselessness. 

He didn’t think about revenge or justice, only this one simple thing: that there’s a limit to what you can get away with.  That life couldn’t be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.

May usually smelled of jasmine flowers, now it smelled of dust and fires.   Among all the other concerns, there is the worry about what to do with family pets when there is no-one left to look after them.

The book is levied with moments of humour as when Sami receives a letter from a German lady enquiring after Homs’ population of cats:

 I will try to shoot some more, he tells her.

No! The woman replied.  We must save the cats not shoot them.

I meant photograph them, Sami replied.

Sami is a beautifully realised character and I hope he is real and exists somewhere out there because that means there is hope for the rest of us.

Eva Nour is a pseudonym. A name taken to protect people in the book.   Whoever she may be, this author has penned a book that will do for the suffering of the Syrian people what Khaled Hosseini (an acknowledged influence) did for Afghanistan and Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak for Turkey.  Placing the Syrian people firmly in the centre of Western consciousness Nour’s quiet voice says:  look,  this happened. This is still happening.   What did you do when you knew?

***

 

 

#TheStrayCatsOfHoms #NetGalley  

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House (Doubleday) for this review copy.

 

 

Non-fiction November: Your Year in Non-fiction

I seem to be getting a bit of a challenge addict.  Thank you to She Reads Novels where I found this one.

Thank you also to the hosts for 2019 – Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves, and Leann of Shelf Aware.This event runs for five weeks, with five weekly discussion topics, giving us a chance to highlight and talk about our non-fiction reads.

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (hosted by Julz of Julz Reads):

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Here are my non-fiction reviews for 2019 – seven so far, including two writerly memoires.  I say ‘so far’ in the falsely optimistic hope that the year doesn’t have much more than two months to run and the pile of books TBR is undiminishing.

Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Ghost Trees by Bob Gilbert

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Caroline Criado Perez. A review.

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World, by Steinunn Sigurdardottir and Heida Asgeirsdottir

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adelaide Bon

And on my Kindle,  Lisa Appignanesi’s minutely researched book on the history of women mental health, and male doctors –

Lisa Appignanesi. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors From 1800 to the Present. London: Virago P, 2008.

and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, a tract already passing into the realms of literary orthodoxy – if not mythology –  to which has wrongly been ascribed the coining of the term ‘mansplaining’.

Which is my favourite?  I loved Antony Beevor’s book about Crete – especially as I read it in Crete which is my favourite place on the planet.  But overall, it  has to be Ocean Vuong.  As a poetic and visionary recording of often traumatic memory,  it may be a long time before I read anything quite as beautifully shattering.

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As for topics – courageous women – or rather women who find their power and courage even when they don’t know they have it –  is a dominant theme of the list above. Purnell, Perez, Asgeirsdottir,  Bon, Appignanesi and Solnit all write on this theme.

The elephant in everyone’s room at the moment is climate crisis which I am studiously avoiding because it’s too painful.  I suppose Bob Gilbert’s book is the closest I have come to that.  Macfarlane is still to be read as is global blogger and polymath, Maria Popova.

Finally, what am I hoping to get out of participating in non-fiction November?  I’ve already got a lot out of it because its made me look back again at all the fabulous books I’ve read, rather than just clock watching and worrying about the next one.  Also hoping to meet more wonderful book addicted bloggers.

 

 

 

 

 

Review of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. (Granta Books)

The Topeka School by [Lerner, Ben]

Born from a Cambridge University publication in 1989,  Granta Books is a prestigious independent literary publisher which publishes about 25 titles a year.  From their website I note that an original launch list included works by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Martha Gellhorn and Salman Rushdie.   The website lists prizewinning works they have since published,  including Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

To be published by Granta is to be part of an important literary conversation.

The Topeka School  is a book with a number of literary conversations and they are not always easy to follow.  At the centre of the narrative is a family: Dr. Jane Gordon,  second wife to her psychologist husband Jonathan (“a Jewish long-haired hippie from New york”) and her son Adam a brilliant debater and migraine sufferer.  The book charts the years as Adam heads through school in a patchily brilliant way to college.  The Gordon family comes to Topeka where the parents work for ‘The Foundation”, a mental health facility.   At school Adam becomes  a questionable friend  to Darren, a traumatized teenager completely ill equipped for life in modern America.

Darren is jeered at, laughed at, punched and beaten for no seeming purpose other than he is what he represents and what he represents is

“ … the bad surplus.  The man-child, descendant of the jester and village idiot and John Clare, the poet roaming the countryside after enclosure. “

A group of Darren’s ‘friends’ including Adam drive him to a lakeside spot then abandon him, drunk, drive off and leave him asleep.  Darren wakes confused the next morning and has to walk home as best he can.

The key that unlocks this otherwise rather confusing narrative I believe is a response given by the narrator to Darren’s mother –  a nurse at The Foundation (and therefore a colleague of Adam’s parents) – when she questions the ‘dumping Darren’ episode: surely these children of professional families knew better?

“Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state; you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy, develop the right desires from within the wrong life; the travesty of inclusion they were playing out with Darren-their intern- was also a citation and critique of the Foundation’s methods…”

It’s hard for people to behave outside the norm.  We cannot behave any old how and yet somehow  expect our children to perceive what their parents are doing wrong – all the cock ups they’ve made –  and distance themselves accordingly.    Sometimes that happens.  Most of the time it doesn’t.  Nature or nurture.

The account of Darren trying to find his way home on foot from this unfortunate escapade is interesting less for his state of mind than for the reactions he encounters or rather doesn’t encounter.  No-one stops.  No-one asks if he’s OK.  When he is spied limping and  dishevelled  and walking into (the wrong) town by a woman  she pulls her own children closer towards her, while completely ignoring the distress of someone else’s child.

The book seems to highlight the callous and sometimes appalling treatment of these young people by each other,  but it also asks where are these exalted and professional parents while their senior school kids are beating each other up?

The answer:

“Watching Friends or Frasier… doing desk work… reading Adrienne Rich or “Non Interpretive Mechanisms in Psychoanalytic Therapy”.   Some were eating or opening a window or just walking dully along on a treadmill.  Some were drinking gin and tonics in Taipei…”

Lerner’s book manifests the US as a country in some sort of hypnotic slide to the road crash that will become the Trump era; it is almost as if they can see it coming but are unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it.  Or maybe they think that the power of psychoanalytic theory or linguistic pyrotechnics will save them, as some rather naively now think that technology will save us.

Much attention is given within the story to the skill of debate – a subject in which Adam excels.  Yet the ‘linguistic overkill’ of the cleverness of debates, does nothing to address human understanding and particularly nothing to address relationships.  Debate is adversarial.  Someone wins and someone loses.  Debate is not dialogue.

“We thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.”  Adam’s father says, pointing up the limits of psychology, as a science, as a medical approach. And the limits of language.

No-one in The Topeka School does transcend their feelings, nor surmount them, nor transform them.  They just dose their feelings up with alcohol and drugs,  both of the prescription and non-prescription variety.   –  Unsurprisingly this does little to halt the underlying tension and violence in which the story finally erupts.    The building in which The Foundation is housed, itself ends up empty and comprehensively trashed and no one could claim to be sorry.

The Topeka School is work which is concerned with the legacy of toxic masculinity – a legacy of which we are all in some way survivors.

Dr. Jane Gordon says:

“Once I asked another senior analyst why he referred to male postdocs as “Doctor” and female postdocs by their first names, and there I was, on the couch again, getting the penis envy lecture.”

Her response is “…the Foundation’s unexamined Freudian tradition, which pathologized women’s experience when it didn’t fit the great man’s theory.”

The book incorporates dizzying time switches and changes of narrative viewpoint often within the same chapter.    There are disintegrations everywhere, hidden, revealed.  Marital collapse. The mess of politically correct parenting, the inception of abusive parenting.  The sexual fantasies of those who write books on how to control the mind.  It is a book about about the human cost of trying to survive within an arid monoculture.

Thank you to #Net Galley and #Granta for this review copy.

 

Judy (2019) Dir. Rupert Goold

Judy Poster

The film opens with the young Judy (Darci Shaw) being given a fatherly talking to by Louis B. Meyer (as of Metro Goldwyn Meyer or MGM).  I am not sure which actor took that role as IMDB doesn’t list him.   They are in the middle of filming The Wizard of Oz.

I would just like some time, Judy says.

Time to do what?  he asks.

To do whatever other 15 year old girls do.   She is not sure what that is but not working 18 hour days at the studio and being starved in the process to avoid Dorothy putting on weight.

She is, Meyer tells her,  welcome to go and rejoin the ranks of ‘ordinary’ 15 years olds out there – as he points dramatically beyond the studio gate –  like “a drop of rain falling into the Pacific Ocean” never to be heard of again.   We know she does not take him up on that offer.  Follow this with shots of Judy being denied food by the studio, being given anti-hunger pills, pills to help her sleep when she can’t, being told she can’t swim in a pool (disarranges the hair) or eat her own birthday cake.  It is also implied that she was sexually assaulted by Meyer.

The camera pans out to show a fake yellow brick road surrounded by banks of garish and plastic red roses – if you seek a monument to Hollywood look around you.

Cut to thirty years later.  Adult Judy (Renée Zellweger) sees her career in freefall owing largely to her unreliability caused by alcohol dependency.   And yes it’s a good performance from Zellweger if you enjoy watching people disintegrate, she does it well.

Judy is now a survivor of three marriages and has three children.   Two of them ride in the car with her – it is nearly 1 o’clock in the morning and they have school next day.  At the  usual hotel she is told “Miss Garland we regret your suite has been released”.

Released where? Bring it back, she says.

But the suite is not recalled or recovered because it has not been paid for.

To cut a very, very long story short, Judy is forced to go to London to do a tour.  Why London?  Because they still want her and will pay good money to see her.  Quite reasonably she doesn’t want to go and leave her children but go she does.

One of the greatest mysteries of this film was the role given to Jessie Buckley who starred in Wild Rose (the story of a young working class girl with a yen to be a famous country singer) and was rather fantastic in that I seem to remember,  with a lovely voice of her own.    She has the  unenviable  role here of Rosalyn Wilder –  a minion assigned to Garland while she is on tour in the UK.  Her job is to get Judy onto the stage, on time,  and not in a state of disarray.  There are various agonising scenes of Rosalyn looking agonised.

Toe curlingly embarrassing scene follows upon toe curlingly embarrassing scene   of drunkenness interspersed with the odd successful song and cheering audience and all liberally soaked in pathos and awash with sentimentality – the faithful gay fan in the audience who bursts into song with Judy at the end because she can’t get through Over the Rainbow.  At this point I felt like throwing up.

I have no idea what point this film was trying to make.  That it’s a bad idea to appear in The Wizard of Oz at 15?  That it’s a bad idea to be Judy Garland. That she was a victim and we should all feel sorry?  Why, as Mr. Rune quite rightly asked, would you make a film exclusively focusing on the nadir of someone’s life?

Liza Minnelli apparently wanted nothing whatever to do with this film, and that at last is something I completely understand.

Notes from under the lemon tree

 

2014-05-19 08.44.11

They were olive trees really but I only have a lemon tree picture.   Sometimes you can’t have everything.

Books I read were:

The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes (Vintage, 2016)

We are not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas (Fourth Estate, 2014)

In the Light of What we Know, Zia Haider Rahman (Picador, 2014)

Crete: The Battle and the Resistance , Antony Beevor (John Murray, 1991)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage, 2013)

An all guys list but those were the books that were there.   A lady up next.

***

  1. The Noise of Time   Julian Barnes,

This is a book about the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer, crafted into life by this most able of authors.  The composer’s music was loved round the world but he had an unhappy relationship with Stalin’s regime (was there any other kind?), was feted and honoured at one moment, hounded and threatened the next.

At a  performance of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ Shostakovich watched white faced and horrified as Stalin shuddered everytime the brass section played too loudly.  This debacle was quickly followed by a tirade in Pravda–thought to be written by Stalin himself –  calling the opera dissonant and muddled.

Stephen Johnson’s excellent little book How Shostakovich Changed my Mind(Notting Hill Editions, 2018) states:

Many composers have experienced key premieres as ‘a matter of life and death’ but in the case of Shostakovich Fifth Symphony that was nothing less than the truth.   Life in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Communist utopia could be very cheap indeed.

As Osip Mandelstam (whose memoir gave rise to Barnes title), Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva and  numerous poets, writers and musicians could ably testify.

Shostakovich received a telephone call from Stalin himself asking the composer to attend a prestigious event in America representing the Soviet state.  Shostakovich refused (brave man) firstly because he had no suit to wear and secondly because he didn’t know how to explain in the US why his music was so popular there but banned in his home country.   A suit was found and his music unbanned.  Shostakovich went to the USA, but didn’t give in to the temptation to ‘jump out of the window’ (a euphemism for seeking asylum) and returned to the Soviet Union.

  1. We are not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

Eileen an Irish American born of hard drinking parents finds herself, aged 10,  becoming a carer for her mother after the latter’s slide into alcoholism.  Eileen – like many young people –  wants to avoid the fate of relative poverty and underachievement that has blighted the lives of her parents.  She is bright enough to train as a Doctor – but this being the ‘60s when women were not expected to train much for anything –  she follows instead a nursing career.

She marries Ed,  a scientist,  who appears at first devoted to her and she gives birth to a son.   But, hey, this is life.  And it’s a novel.  Worse, its an epic novel so nothing can go smoothly.  And sure enough it doesn’t.  Eileen’s quietly desperate attempts to move to a ‘better’ neighbourhood, to somehow raise herself and her family up from where they are (Jackson Heights) to where she feels they ought to be (not Jackson Heights) encompass the American Dream writ large, and like all dreams, doomed to fray at the edges.

A tragic illness turns everything Eileen thinks she knows and wants upside down, but this is a credible and empathetic lead character and a highly enjoyable read.

3          In the Light of What We Knowby Zia Haider Rahman

‘All novels are autobiographical’ says the lead character and this one certainly feels as though it is. This is Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel written in 2014 which earned its author the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

The book concerns Bangladeshi born Zafar a mathematics prodigy and polymath, graduate of  Oxford, linguist,  who may or may not be part of the British Secret Services.  Part philosophy, part adventure story, part scientific enquiry, part meditation on class –   ranging over the Afghan war and the financial meltdown of 2008,   the story is narrated sometimes by Zafar himself in the first person,  and sometimes in the third person by a Charles-Ryder-of-Brideshead style narrator who is a friend from Oxford.

Interestingly, the full title of Evelyn Waugh’s novel is Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryderwhich is something I didn’t know until I read Rahman’s book.  In memory, what is sacred, what is profane?  There are no disquisitions on Catholicism here – the world has moved on from Sebastian Flyte and his teddy.  But there are some parallels, particularly in the character of  Zafar’s ‘best friend’ from Oxford, whose own career in investment banking at Morgan Stanley (or some such) has fallen victim to the American sub-prime mortgage debacle,  therefore affording him plenty of time to reflect on the emptiness at the heart of his own life.

The book is too complex to attempt a resume of the narrative but I found it compelling and probably will re-read it at some point, as well as look out for other work by this author.

  • Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, Anthony Beevor

Fascinating and extremely readable account of how Hitler’s forces advanced through mainland Greece beating both the Brits and the Greek forces,  and how Crete originally considered to be a bit of a side story in the WW2, became horribly strategic.  Although there were British forces present on Crete during the German occupation, it seems that many advances against the enemy were facilitated by the Cretan resistance, a group  largely composed of shepherds and farmers armed with whatever lay to hand.

One of the great romantic heroes of the resistance in Crete was Patrick Leigh Fermor, an aristocratic young Englishman,  who enlisted in the army at the start of WW2 and – being a fluent Greek speaker –  was sent to Crete as part of the newly formed Special Operations Executive to train and organise rebels.  Beevor recounts how Leigh Fermor was also sent to Cairo to be in charge of weapons training at the SOE base there, despite having experienced only one type of gun.    He later took part in the kidnap of a German General on Crete,  the story of which is recounted on Leigh-Fermor’s own books A Time of Giftsand Between the Woods and the Wateras well as in Stanley Moss’ ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ which became a film with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh-Fermor.

One of the things that struck me in Beevor’s account of the early years of the war is how all the officers were either from Eton or Winchester (or Harrow) and all seemed to know each other from school and had conversations about who wore what at the Coronation, even while fleeing German bombs and bullets.     It all felt very Boys Own.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthRichard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s Booker prizewinning novel about the Japanese use of POW  slave labour to build the ‘death’ railway in Burma. Narrated by Dorrigo Evans, a young man from a rural and forgotten part of Tasmania who rises through invisible societal ranks to become a surgeon in the Aussie armed forces and who is captured and sent to work on the railway. The story follows him through this hellish horror into a kind of post war survival and fame, married to a woman whose name he can barely remember after he is freed from ‘the line’.   His whole life, he says,  has become a duty.

Interestingly the narrative follows Namakura, the Japanese commander of the Thai railway camp, as he tries to evade capture for war crimes in post holocaust Japan.   Namakura too is a victim of a lethal philosophy too deeply ingrained to question.

The author’s father was a survivor of the death railway, who died the day the book was finished.

 

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

Summer has come and gone.  The expiry date for my ten books of summer has passed.   I only made it to No. 6. I apologise.

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous outshines anything else on my reading list.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it outshines anything else on anyone else’s reading list.  In whatever genre.  Forget genres.  Here is something new.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Vietnamese and from a refugee family which immigrated to the US when he was two years old,  the poet burst out of his allotted lowly refugee status and on to  the literary scene with a T.S. Eliot  prize winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry, 2017) On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.

I do not know what there is to say about this book.  Next to Vuong’s poetry and prose any routine use of language that I might come up with would instantly collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy.

On Earth takes the form of a letter to Vuong’s mother who was violent towards him and who married a man who was imprisoned for violence towards her.  In short Vuong grew up surrounded by violence, whether or the domestic or other kind,  in Hartford,

…where we made a kind of life digging in and out of one brutal winter after another, where nor’easters swallowed our cars overnight.  The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends at the C-Town  checkout with black eyes and cut lips who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say mind your business

… where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces Oxy-Contin gaunt

Thank goodness the author does not mind his business. Thank goodness for his genius to  humanise modern America, to bring the  worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience.    How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK

“OxyContin, first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996 is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form”.

If you find this a totally inadequate review, so do I.  “Brilliant “shattering” “luminous” “a masterpiece” are some of the epithets I took from the publisher’s  back cover.  But I would say this.  Ocean Vuong is a writer whose work will appear on exam syllabi into the future.  This is a writer whose work will be studied, written about, lectured on, whose work will be the subject of dissertations and doctoral theses.

And still no-one will know how he did this.

 

 

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (4thEstate)

This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.

Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere,  getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime.    These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition.  The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert,  to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.

These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death.  They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.

“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself.  Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”

And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America  as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest.  In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.

“Unreal desert.  Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many.  None thought the trains would bring so many.  Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”

In one scene as children cross the desert  a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children.  They two groups will not know each other.   They will never meet.  But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb.  He is being  “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth.     “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”

In a parallel storyline and universe  a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost:  the Apaches,   the children.  A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’.   At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.

Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading  thousands of acres of poetry.

But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book.  For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before –  short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids.  But I asked around,   found some teen fiction titles and read them.

Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group?   Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story?  But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?

This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.

Sorry Mr. Fleming, WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy was in fact a lady

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (Virago Press, 2019)

 

 

An unscheduled No.4 from my 10 books of Summer  but a worthy addition to the list.

Hall’s wartime service is described  by Purnell as “a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage”,  her service even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.

Virginia Hall experienced many rejections in her life but she never allowed these to stand in her way.  Repeatedly refused work in the diplomatic corps in the US (she was a woman for goodness sake who had ever heard of such a thing) Hall nevertheless in 1940 (aged 34)  travelled to France to volunteer as  an ambulance driver.  Later she went to England where she got picked up by Churchill’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed to carry out disruptive work behind enemy lines –  and sent to France to help coordinate the resistance movement.

In 1940 the SOE itself was not the fait accompli that, with the wisdom of hindsight and Sebastian Faulks’ novels, we now assume it to be.  Purnell explains:

“Advertising for recruits for such subversive work was obviously out of the question – the government never mentioned SOE in public and if asked they would deny its very existence.  Traditionally, British Secret Services had drawn from a shallow pool of posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories, but this regard for breeding over intellect was scarcely a match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich.”

Virginia Hall, however, was.

Subtitled The Untold Story of Virginia Hall WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy, Purnell gives us the story of this courageous  lady whose exploits are not dissimilar although in many ways even more extreme than those of war reporter Marie Colvin who was killed in Iraq in 2012.

Reporter for a US newspaper was the  alias that Hall first used when she went to France where she had been tasked with coordinating and building up the French resistance, starting in Lyon when she fought to stay one step ahead of the notorious butcher Klaus Barbie.  This ‘staying one step ahead’ at one stage involved Hall having to  travel to Perpignan and  cross the Pyrenees in midwinter in order to reach Spain which was, at least officially, neutral.    This unimaginable feat – with a prosthesis – this  treacherous crossing that had felled plenty of fit and able young men:

“sometimes escape parties would come across a frozen corpse, occasionally in an upright position, gazing forward with a fixed stare.”

was undertaken by Hall with the slimmest chance of survival,  along with an unfriendly guide and two other men,  even as the Wehrmacht combed the town behind her with sniffer dogs.

Despite the fact that the internet age was still half a century in the future, the germans were never short of information or the ability to trap spies from other nations, yet Virginia eluded them, even though they knew about her, including a description,  even though she limped and had a prosthesis.  Even thought they put her on their most wanted list.  She seemed to have an uncanny ability not only to adopt different physical disguises but different demeanours too.

The book is hugely readable and fascinating.  But most of all it made me feel ashamed that I had barely heard of this lady.  Yet which of us has not heard of Douglas Bader? In 1956, barely a decade after WW2 ended, a film was produced with Kenneth More in the title role playing Bader.   If Hall had been a man it is unlikely we would have had to wait so long to hear her story.  Purnell’s book is more than a biography it is the setting straight of a record that has long needed setting straight. I urge you to read it.

 

Nature has not given up, nor should we

This is the third book of my 10 books of Summer

A Review of Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish. Bob Gilbert (Saraband)

I am as ambivalent as many Londoners about my city, loving it but longing, much of the time, to be out of it; living somewhere overhung with trees or with a sight of the sea or with the shape of hills to look at.  And this is my compromise; this untidy patch of garden with its chickens and its struggling vegetables, this defiant gash in the city’s concrete skin.  It is a wound that I tend with broccoli and potatoes…

Not exactly on a mission to re-wild London, but certainly to examine more closely what is beside, behind, beneath and above us as we all rush about, what has survived and adapted, the author has traced ghost outlines of the wild that once covered the area of East London known as Poplar.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson said:  “The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.”

Gilbert’s book seeks out those memoranda and signatures.  But to focus purely on history, on the lonely open landscape that once existed – a landscape of ‘wide and windswept estuarine marshes’ where now there are tower blocks and urbanisation. That would be a book only about loss.

‘It was possible, on a day of shifting, watery grey cloud to still feel the imprint of the reed beds and the osiers, of lonely cattle grazing on the open marshes, of the cry of a passing curlew…’

I doubt if many curlews cry over East London now.  But this book is not a eulogy. Far from it.   There is much wildlife here to celebrate.    Gilbert charts  new habitats in surprising places, gives us new causes for appreciation of the here and now.  He seeks at the edges of shopping centres, at the side of rail tracks,  the base of lamposts in the  cracks between paving stones, in Churchyards and parks and in allotments for the new urban ecology  As well as a biographer of the ghost outlines of estuarine marshes which once covered Poplar,   Gilbert is a chronicler of our contemporary urban adaptees of the natural world.

Thus in an imaginary conversation the writer has with Richard Adams, (he of Watership Down fame) who apparently was rather grumpy about London and claimed to see nothing inspiring other than a few crocuses in a hotel garden, the author writes:

“I wanted to tell him of the black redstart I had seen feeding in front of the building’s bulldozer, of the pheasant I had found foraging on an urban allotment and of the skylarks I heard singing in a landscape of chemical works and pylons.”

Ghost Trees is the result of what must have been thousands of hours of painstaking research not to say hundreds of miles of walking and hours of looking and note taking.  It traces the outlines of the rural places that have been.   It also charts the history of the mulberry tree, plane tree and other arborial inhabitants cultivated by humans in this our great city of London for one reason or another.  It is a book of plant histories but especially of plant stories

I found the account of the Mulberry’s arrival in the UK  particularly fascinating.  In order to facilitate a supply of raw silk without having to buy the stuff from abroad somewhere because that is (a) too expensive and (b) vulnerable to political interference,  England in the l6th century  needed its own Mulberry trees.   Mulberry leaves are bread and meat and wine to silkworms; they require many of them to sustain their arduous workload.  Under the patronage of King James,  10,000 mulberry plants were ordered, Gilbert tells us, including a plantation at Westminster.  All this is now subsumed beneath concrete, with the poetically termed Mulberry Gardens the sole surviving relic of the project, along with  Mulberry Street; Mulberry House; Mulberry Tree pubs etc etc. Sadly and for various reasons this is a project which failed and England never was able to support its own silk industry.  But next time you go for a pint at the Mulberry Tree pub spare a thought for the little silkworms.

***

Gilbert also gives us an image of the post-human forest, and perhaps given current events that is not such a fantastical idea.  These are the trees and plants that will colonise the land when humans no longer do. The goat willow, buddleia, plants that are happy to colonise neglected areas, abandoned  urban corners, thickets of broom, cherry, aspen and birch, taking their place in the empty streets, decaying buildings, fractured windows and disused doorways of a post apocalyptic world.  I rather like the idea that nature will go on, rather like Celine Dion’s heart, regardless of the worst man can do.

“But there was wildness too, in those individual trees that sprang up outside the confines of cultivation; the seedlings and the saplings that appeared without permission on lawns, in flowerbeds, along pavement edges and in pots in my back garden…. This would be the wilderness returning, and these would be the post human trees.”

Where there are trees can the shades and the Forest of Arden and the magic be far behind?   I found this book awe inspiring in its wisdom and abundant historical and horticultural knowledge,  although perhaps a little impersonal at times.  No doubt the author, like the rest of us, has been inspired by the work of Robert Macfarlane and although not quite in the same poetic bracket, this book is an inspiration and a wake up call.  Nature has not given up, nor should we.