Surviving Bad Books

I don’t often write negative reviews.  I try to avoid doing it .  But as a second generation holocaust survivor with a polish grandfather, the background against which this novel is written is something I know a bit about.  This is my history too. And whatever I was looking for in these pages, I didn’t find it.

Review :  Surviving the War by Adiva Geffen. Arrow Books.   Translated from Hebrew.

Set in the late 1930s and 40s against a backdrop of increasing pogroms, this story concerns the flight of a Jewish family from their village in the Lublin area of Poland, first to the ghetto of Ostrow Lubelski and then to the forest of Parczew to join the Jewish partisans fighting there.

According to the website of the US Holocaust Museum around 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought in partisan groups based in the forests of Eastern Europe.  Few survived. Although in this story we see nothing true of their struggle – a missed opportunity in my view.

 

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It is one thing to research historical background accurately on the holocaust and quite another to write a convincing story of based on the suffering of those who lived and died in that time.   Perhaps because for most of us,  thankfully, such hardship is almost impossible to imagine.

So to the plot.  The chief character in Surviving is Shurka.  She grows up in a village not far from the Parczew forest against which – Peter style –  she is sternly warned about wolves.   Shurka is of course beautiful  and when she grows up she does what every well behaved and dutiful Jewish daughter does and marries handsome Avraham.  They have a chubby cheeked – equally dutiful daughter ‘little Irena –  who chases chickens round the yard of their perfect home in Glebokie while the grandparents beam with delight.   An excruciating scene takes half a page in which Shurka tries to tell her beloved Avraham that she’s expecting a baby but doesn’t like to use the word ‘pregnant’ so there is a lot of discussion about storks which he seems remarkably slow to catch on to.   Sentimental or what?

Surviving the War?  No.  What war? The war is off screen, manifesting only as sounds of gunshots heard  through a window, or rumours of shootings reported by a neighbour who heard about it from another neighbour and occasional shouts.  The characters have no interior lives of their own.

The omniscient narrator is constantly telling us what is going to happen and what the reader should think about it.  And in case we still don’t get it, there’s the exposition! Don’t even get me started.  Every piece of dialogue is there to inform the reader of things they can’t possibly be expected to glean for themselves or understand from a wider context.

Everytime a child is referred to they are ‘little’ as if the reader might suddenly imagine a newborn to be huge.  ‘Little Irena’ is followed by ‘Little Yitzhak’.     Various well meaning family members and neighbours warn the family that the war is coming closer and that ethnic cleansing of Jews has started and that the Germans are using Polish collaborators to identify the Jewish families.

The family is forced to flee – because they are Jews living in Poland and this is the 1930s and 1940s and anti-semitism in Poland is a grisly historical fact.  Eventually, more than half way through the book,  we get to the whole point of the story.  Polish collaboration.  Displacement.

The Orlitzky family goes to Ostrow Lubelski, the ghetto,  where they find an apartment.   Numerous new family members appear – many that the reader has not been introduced to including an (adult) younger sister of Shurka, called Devorah,  who is in love with somebody else we haven’t met.   Apparently Shurka has brothers too somewhere –   they are like film extras,  you never see their faces, not even while she is growing up. Although we do see the chickens.  And a doll called Alinka who gets referred so often it becomes irritating.   A crude effort to ramp up the pathos of a scene involving a child.   But to me the pathos of the plight of Polish Jews in history is a given.  It doesn’t need such artifice.

While the family is debating whether to move from the ghetto to the dreaded forest of Parczew, Shurka’s mother says:

“And what choice do we have?

To go like sheep to the slaughter?”

How could they know – the narrator asks/tells/instructs us –  that in no more than a month the whole ghetto would be cleared and the inmates taken to Sobibor.

Well they couldn’t.  That’s the point.  But at last we do have a point.

German Philosopher Hannah Arendt (14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975)

asks in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem:

“How could the Jews through their own leaders co-operate in their own destruction?”… “Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?”

A question for which Arendt received little gratitude, but which nevertheless remains unanswered.

I downloaded Surviving the War onto my kindle.  The publisher does not state the name of the translator.  The ‘Acknowledgements’ page mentions one Arlyn Roffman and ‘Zoe’ but fails to mention whether either or both of them were responsible for translating the book into English.

Thank you to  Meytal at Biblibio for hosting the Women in Translation  project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Challenge, Challenge, Challenge! Women in Translation Month August 2020

It’s not over till the fat lady sings as Will Smith said in Independence Day.  But nine titles read and only four weeks left to complete my 20 books of Summer .  I have to be honest it looks like it might be 15 books of summer for the Rune.

What to do if you are already behind on your existing challenges, why take on another one of course.

During August in addition to my other challenges – both literary and non-literary –  I propose taking part in Women in Translation Month.  Thank you to

 Meytal at Biblibio for hosting this project which I found at Annabookbel

So far as well as  20 books of summer I have reading through the shortlist of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

How am I doing so far?   I have read the following since July 1:

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht 

1000 Ships Natalie Haynes

Ash before Oak, Jeremy Cooper

No Time to Spare:  Thinking about What Matters, Essays by Ursula Le Guin

Grove, by Esther Kinsky

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson –  a reread. Not yet reviewed.

***

I will be  adding the following 4 translated works :

King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Original Language French

Surviving the War, Adiva Geffen  (Penguin) original language Hebrew – I have purchased a kindle edition of this one.  I’m about half way throuth  …mmm..!

Surviving the War: based on an incredible true story of hope, love and resistance by [Adiva Geffen]

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadano – not Miyazaki’s film but a children’s book and a departure for me on this blog –  Original language Japanese. It’s not published until August 20.

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Winter in Sokcho Elisa Dusapin (Daunt Books) Original language French

 

How to Build a Life When No-one Has Left You the Manual

“Not only could you see into the Dutch house, you could see straight through it.  The house was shortened in the middle, and the deep foyer led directly into what we called the observatory, which had a wall of windows facing the backyard.  From the driveway you could let your eye go up the front steps, across the terrace, through the front doors, across the long marble floor of the foyer, through the observatory, and catch sight of the lilacs waving obliviously in the garden behind the house.”

In Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House this description of the house as see-through,  its  insubstiantiality,  is an interesting idea and I’m not sure if the metaphor is deliberate.     Do we lose our sense of self over a house?  If that is true the converse must also be true, that we can gain one.    We can love a house, or we can dislike it.  See it as status symbol, or be bored by it.  Be obsessed or haunted by it or completely indifferent.  We can also feel that the place where we live is so far removed from anything that we think of as being ‘us’ that it becomes impossible to live there.   But a house – whether glass or otherwise –  cannot be anything other than a reflection of those who live within its walls.   

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This book was longlisted for the 2020 prize for Women’s Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for fiction) but for some reason failed to make the shortlist.   The last time Patchett won was with Bel Canto in 2002.  There are  fine books on the shortlist, yet the omission of this one does seem to me extraordinary.

It is hard to pin down this jewel of a book into any category – it is a family drama among many family dramas.  It is  a Cinderella narrative without a Prince.   It is clever; the dialogue pitch perfect and it shines with humanity.

The narrator, Danny and his Sister Maeve start off the novel as children of a wealthy father living in an exceptional house – the house of the title.  But Danny and Maeve’s lives are about to be changed beyond recognition by the departure of their mother from the family home, and the arrival of a woman called Andrea.  So far so nothing much unusual in literary terms.  But it is not so much what happens in The Dutch House as the way that it happens.   We follow in real time the unfolding of Danny and Maeve’s ‘new normal’ and while their lives may not be pure joy, reading this book surely is.

The finest character is Danny’s sister, Maeve, a few years older than him it is she who takes on the task of rebuilding what has been broken, it is her portrait – painted when she was 10 years old – that hangs above the fireplace in the drawing room of The Dutch House,  and which graces the front cover of Bloomsbury’s paperback edition.  We could all do with a Maeve in our lives.

The FT reviewer called Ann Patchett  ‘a chronicler of the burdens of emotional inventory’. 

The emotional inventory in this book is huge, but what causes it?  The house?  The people who loved it excessively and the people who didn’t?  A past that can somehow never be caught up with?  A past than can never be reclaimed?    All those things. 

Mostly The Dutch House is a story about coping with abandonment and rejection.   While the house itself is a constant presence in the story, the book is less about the house and more about how to build a life when no-one has left you a manual.   

 

Two Narratives of Slavery

How do you escape slavery mentally even if you manage to physically? Do you ever? These are questions more relevant than ever in view of the events of recent weeks and the Black Lives Matter protests.  Colson Whitehead in his book The Underground Railroad (Fleet,2017) touches on this, with a speech by Lander, one of his characters, prefiguring Martin Luther King by a century.

In the first half of the 18th century, ideas of freedom were ever present. But an idea of organized freedom for enslaved peoples was then in its infancy.  The central characters in both books escape the plantations in the South where they are enslaved, by using a system called the underground railroad. But the conception of this system in the two books is different.

Avoiding the terminology ‘black’ and ‘white’, in Coates’ book The Water Dancer slaves are the Tasked and owners are the Quality.

“And what was this Underground? It was said among the Tasked that a secret society of colored men had built their own separate world deep in the Virginia swamps.”

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Thanks to The New York Public Library for sharing their work on Unsplash.

To enslave another race is an act of pure violence so therefore it is impossible to separate  cruelty from the slave narrative.  Coates’ book is more soft focus – the bad stuff happens but tends to happen off screen. In Whitehead’s book it’s a bit more in your face.  Coates book contains fantasy elements combined with its slavery narrative, and I wasn’t sure how well the two sat together.

At the commencement of The Water Dancer, the protagonist Hiram Walker is still a child, his mother is sold by her owner (also Hiram’s father) and the boy is left alone, then raised by a strange, solitary woman called Thena.

Hiram’s almost perfect recall ability indicates a mysterious power known as conduction which involves mysterious physical travel based on the power of memory.  This power relies on deep memory – specifically memories related to Hiram’s mother.

Not everything needs to be realist. But it struck me as a little incongruous to involve what is effectively magic and fantasy within a narrative of lives when all too often such things were woefully lacking.  This I found to be interesting – a dichotomy.  Fiction is fiction, yes you can make the whole thing up. But against such an historical background what are the duties and responsibilities of the writer?   It is an enquiry into the ultimate power of memory – perhaps.  If we can come to terms with our memories, that is itself a form of freedom.

Whatever questions The Water Dancer asks, and however lyrical its prose or rounded its characterization, in terms of its plot structure I found it  lacking. And because of this, I also found it difficult to believe in any real sense of risk to the protagonist, Hiram Walker.

The story is this.  Hiram is noticed by his slave owning father for having a photographic memory, he is taken up to the big house Lockless, as a servant and educated by his father. Hiram is ‘tasked’ with looking out for his half brother Maynard – heir to the fading Lockless estate – a duty in which it could be said he signally fails when, Hiram driving on the return from a trip to town – the carriage plunges into the river Goose and Maynard drowns. Hiram survives.

If you were a slave and driving the horse and carriage and took the master’s son with you into the River Goose – even though it wasn’t your fault – there would be some sort of penalty to pay, surely? Yet Hiram seems to escape retribution.  This was only one of the plot turns that I found less than credible.

Nevertheless enslaved  even in relative comfort is still enslaved. Taking the decision to run, Hiram gets himself into all sorts of difficulties and adventures before eventually finding those involved in the underground, the work of resistance and the abolition movement called the underground, a series of sympathisers, abolitionists and safe houses.

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In Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad, the protagonist Cora is a very different person to Hiram.   Her mother has run off leaving her daughter behind aged 8.   Unlike Hiram, Cora has no-one to take on the role of her absent mother and is left to fend for herself on the plantation – coping both with the overseers and masters as well as the behaviour of other slaves.   She is old enough to carry the memory of her abandonment by her mother – whom she believes to have escaped to safety.

In this story the railroad is conceived as an actual railway, buried black and deep in the earth run by an eclectic and jolly mix of boy/men depositing frightened and starving runaways into abandoned mines, earthworks or ruined cottages.  A brilliant idea.  It is pure gothic. When Cora asks who built it, the reply comes the same people who build everything.

Because she has been abandoned by her mother she has difficulty relating to anyone at all, even her co-slaves.    She is not going to be anyone’s pushover though.  Even aged 8, Cora first shows her mettle when taking a hatchet to the property of another slave who has decided to build a kennel for his dog on her patch.  The dog escapes.  Just.

Cora comes from a long line of such hardship.

“Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times… passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase …”

In both books, we see the impossibility of escape, how well the opposition is organized using informers of all creeds and colours – whereas any organization on the slave side is left to a courageous few prepared to risk everything.

Who do you trust?  In both Virginia and Georgia as well as South Carolina and other places where these novels are set–– the slave system was buttressed not only by the masters and owners but by gangs of ruthless men who had nothing better to do than roam the land hunting down escaped slaves for the bounty money offered for their return. One such man is called Ridgeway – and he has a particular grudge against Cora.  We feel his malign presence throughout her struggle.

Colson Whitehead interleaves some of his chapters with excerpts from real ads taken from a Californian archive for the return of escaped ‘property’ in case any reader is inclined to think,  its just a novel.

If freedom is gained, then what? How are memories of persecution expunged?  This is the part of the story as yet unwritten.

I enjoyed both these books.  But for me Whitehead’s book has the edge in terms of delivering a believable narrative.  I am delighted to discover both these authors and will be looking out for more of their work.

 

 

Be careful! The E flat is Dead

In 2012 there was a French language film called In Your Hands (Director: Lola Douillon) which starred Kristin Scott Thomas.    This is relevant because there is a 2020 french language film out  called In Her Hands (originally Au bouts des doigts Director: Ludovic Bernard) which stars none other than Kristin Scott Thomas.    Wait. There is also a dance short film called In Her Hands starring Mathew Ball.   For the avoidance of considerable confusion – especially my own –  it is Ludovic Bernard’s film I am reviewing. I streamed this on the Curzon Home Cinema platform.

The owner of the hands matters in this story both from a gender perspective and from the point of view of taking personal responsibility, as well as metaphorically since the film is about a young pianist, Mathieu Malinski.

Mathieu is a teenage angst-y sort of person,  a working class lad from a single parent family with an understandably exhausted mother and various cute siblings.  Under circumstances which are not explained, as a child Mathieu has learned to play the piano – we see him having a first lesson from an elderly man –  perhaps a neighbour.  We later learn that this avuncular gentleman is called Monsieur Jacques.

When Mr. Jacques passes on from this vale of tears leaving Mathieu his beloved and rather ancient upright piano with a hand written note (‘be careful the E flat is dead’) there is no one to help Mathieu  further his musical studies.  This causes considerable tension at home as his mother, juggling various childcare and cleaning jobs, displays bemusement at being asked about piano lessons, as well she might given the cost of music tuition these days.  We presume Monsieur Jacques did not charge and was content to eat every third day.

Jules Benchetrit in Au bout des doigts (2018)

 

We pick up Mathieu’s  life again aged around 17 or 18. By this time he has got in with a bad lot but we see him playing the piano – Bach if my memory serves – on a ‘libre a jouer’ instrument in none other august arena than the concourse of the Gare du Nord.

The head of the Paris conservatoire happening by stops to listen.  He manages to hand the young man his business card and tells him to call.

Fast forward and Mathieu gets into big trouble – he is caught mid burglary  and is carted away in handcuffs.  Again our intrepid conservatoire head happens along in time for Mathieu to avoid a custodial sentence and get community service instead – 6 months of cleaning – guess where?  The Paris conservatoire.  You can see where this is going, right?  I mean subtle it ain’t.

The conservatoire is short of a genius for a prestigious competition upcoming.  So out goes the cleaning and in comes hours and hours of practise under the tutelage of La Countess, aka, Kristin Scott Thomas.

I’ve seen this film reviewed as ‘formulaic’ (Rotten Tomatoes).  And ‘sentimental, middlebrow, schlock’ (The Guardian).  I would say it is more accurate to describe it as  sentimental, derivative schlock.

The film leans like a ton of bricks on Matt Damon’s performance in Gus Van Sant’s  Good Will Hunting (1997) even down to the cleaning trope.  Remember Matt Damon mopping the night time corridors at the mathematics department of MIT?

Then there is Jamie Bell in Stephen Daldry’s iconic working class boy makes good tale  Billy Elliott (2000).  Add to that a scene somewhere near the end cribbed directly from Shine – Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar winning account of the life and times of virtuoso pianist David Helfgott – and what you have here is a mish mash of other much better films.

Formulaic yes, the well rehearsed trials of teen angst, exacerbated by poverty and too many temptations to nick a pair of branded trainers are all present, as are cupcakes and ample sprinkles of magical coincidence as well as forbearing benefactors willing to stake their considerable careers that they have no doubt  spent decades building up on a complete unknown with a volatile temperament.

Having said all of the above I have to admit to a guilty secret.  I actually quite enjoyed this film!  There is a  semi-chase scene towards the end which was quite gripping.  And also because I am a great fan of Kristin Scott Thomas who never disappoints.

But I wonder what  films like this do to create real opportunities for real young people who are never going to be discovered playing Bach on the concourse of the Gare du Nord?   Are we missing out on another Clara Schumann? Another Chopin?  Another Sviatoslav Richter? Yes of course we are.   What a silly question.     That is the whole point of no opportunity – it equals no one ever finding out you exist.

There is a lot of money in the film industry is there not.  Or at least there used to be pre-Covid-19.  How about using some of it to provide music scholarships for talented youngsters instead of inventing silly stories about fairy godmothers.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Look for Lemon Trees or Cafe Society in this Wintry Version of Italy

A Review of Grove, by Esther Kinsky.  Trans, Caroline Schmidt.  (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Nothing happens in this book – at least nothing that will not happen to every single one of us at some time in our lives.  Esther Kinsky’s writing underlines the temporary  and porous nature of the divide between those who have passed and those of us who, for the moment, remain.

Grove is about the search for consolation in bereavement by journeying both physically through landscape and re-visiting the landscape of memory.  The book is set in Italy – but this is not the Italy that many of us will know from 2 week vacations, with pasta and singing waiters,  nor is it necessarily a dark place.  Rather the language of the book makes it seem as though the landscape is waiting to emerge from some sort of limbo.

There are  gothic elements that surprise.  Do not look for lemon trees or olive groves.

Kinsky subverts our usual expections of Italian sunshine  in the cold and fog which predominate here.   There are wide terrains, often empty.    Commercial premises  are closed or abandoned.  Shops are shuttered.

Death is ever present whether in the stonework of the necropolis of Spina, the house by the cemetery, in visited mausolea,  or in the narrator’s own memories of bereavement – and all these things combine into a narrative of acute loss.   This is the language of psychogeography – where the external landscape reflects the narrator’s internal mindset.  The colours are all grey, white and blue, the colour of winter light.

‘This small plain in the winter light, too, was punctuated by tumuli.  The field of burial chambers … which the living prepared for the dead…’

 

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Photo by Oscar Nord on Unsplash

A woman who is unnamed – rents a house in winter in a hillside village called Olevano, South East of Rome.   There is no dialogue, there are very few characters other than the narrator herself.  We do meet a few ethereal others, they blow across the pages like autumn leaves:   a woman passed in a visit to the local cemetery, a man selling citrus fruit from a cart,  a cheesemonger in a shop who keeps laminated photos of goats in a binder to prove to his customers that his cheese is local, a few sullen teenagers on mopeds in the square.   Then there are the cats.

“There were cat days and dog days in Olevano.  The windless waiting days were for the cats.  They crept around every corner… as if born of the same quarry stone most of the old houses were built from.”

 

 

In wandering and looking, recording and layering new impressions  over the old ones partly recalled, there is for the narrator a coming to terms, a movement towards the hope.  Threaded through it all are memories of a man who we simply know as ‘M’.

“I knew exactly how we would have walked between these graves together.  How we would have entered the chambers, the stony beds, how we would have looked at the things depicted with a near tender accuracy…”

The book is divided more or less into two halves.  In the first half are the journeys, the observations, the descriptions of the narrator’s trips around the area of Olevano and the rented house.

“The leaden heart grew entwined with all I had seen that took root in me.  With the sight of the olive groves in fog, the sheep on the hillside, the holm oak hill, the horses that from time to time grazed silently behind the cemetery, with the view past the plain and its small shimmering fields on cold mornings frosted bluish.”

Ruminations on long past family trips to the area dominate the second half of the book  – the father wanders off for hours leaving  child and mother alone  in a strange guest house where ‘every piece of furniture and every step creaked’.  It is interesting that a great deal of the second half of the book is given over to descriptions of the father, yet he  is not the one being mourned but  ‘M’.  We learn nothing about M except that his death has inspired this grief and this journey and that he took photographs:

 “… these sepulchre images were a plea not to be forgotten, an anxious call of the visible, which arose with the invention of photography and wanted to be more powerful than any name.”

This is not a book for those who want plot and action, but for those who admire the intense poetry and lyricism of description and who find comfort in this excellent evocation of a coming to terms with the past.

I will definitely be ordering more books of these  collectible books from this indie press although maybe I wouldn’t want a whole row of these dark blue spines on my shelves – please change up the covers guys –  but the paper used is of excellent and sturdy quality designed to last, as it will need to. Like poetry this book requires more than one reading.

Grove is the fourth of my 20 Books of Summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Doesn’t Have To Be the Way It Is – Lessons from Fairytales and Fantasy

Come with me to another place,   a hall house perhaps, where torchlight glances off stone walls hung with scarlet and gold tapestries to keep out the bitter winter draughts;  a world where people are not always kind to each other but they are at least allowed to meet – sometimes next the bridge, on horseback with a sword in hand – and sometimes in someone else’s bedchamber.

In another life (or so it seems) I have been a storyteller.   Equipped with tales of dastardly deeds and magical spells, and together with my lovely friend B, we ran a story circle in a local venue.

Live storytelling is on hold for the moment of course although some have taken their art online. Part of me thinks it would take more ingenuity than even the great wizard of Earthsea possesses to create a suitable atmosphere online.

And yet? One of the things that struck me about the experience of telling stories to a live audience is that however digital and relentlessly modern society, and however mundane the hired room that surrounds, it still takes very little to transport us back in our imaginations to that forest, to sit round the fire, breathing woodsmoke, listening.

So again just for a moment or two, turn down the striplighting and all the neon, replace with fairy lights – the prettiest ones you can find. Add a tall, woven, round backed storyteller’s chair, some candles (sadly batteries essential these days – even the elves have a safety department now) a couple of low, round wooden tables that could double as mushrooms, and I’ll begin…

Once upon a time in a cottage deep in the forest there lived an old lady with two beautiful daughters…

How deeply the forest lies in all our psyches.

 

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In the second volume of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkein wrote of Ents, the tree shepherds, guarding their ancient realm of Fangorn Forest where a conversation between trees may take years but it will be one well worth having.  Other beings are scared to enter this forest, yet it is a place of mutual support, sustenance and regard where light, air and the earth’s nutrients are shared among all.

Our two intrepid hobbits Merry and Pippin ask Treebeard (the chief of the Ents) to marshall his forces in support of the war against Sauron and his odious orcs. Treebeard agrees to call a meeting – an Ent moot – to ask the others what they think. After some considerable days spent waiting Merry asks if a decision has been made, to which Treebeard replies: Yes. We have decided that you are not orcs.

It takes a long time to make a decision in Fangorn forest. Interestingly, the book presaged and foresaw the era of environmental catastrophe in which we now live in which Saruman the wizard who has gone to the bad, cuts down trees relentlessly to fuel his war efforts.

In a more scientific way Richard Powers’ stunning novel The Overstory references too the spiritual connections we are losing as we destroy the trees that have guarded over our air and our light for centuries. Powers’ book is more an elegy than a warning. It is almost too late for the latter. Yet there are still trees to save – and they are in our DNA. As are their stories. And there need be no idea of mutual exclusiveness between the realm of fantasy and the realm of science. Each needs the other.

 

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Tolkein’s first book The Hobbit (1937) was written with World War 1 in mind and with the intention of warning against a second world war. (Jack Zipes, Spells of Enchantment, Viking, 1991). Zipes further warns against the saccharine “Disneyising” effect of the film industry and especially its sexual stereotyping. It is fair to add that Zipes’ book is now 30 years old and thankfully in the 21st century some effort is finally being made to address at least this latter point in films such as Frozen.   It took a while.

In her collection of Essays No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 2017, Ursula Le Guin writes:

The test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.

There are many people it our own world it might be said who don’t like that it doesn’t have to be the way it is. People who are used to pursuing their own ends and being what is regarded in cultural terms as successful. They are happy that everything should stay exactly as it is.  Within their control. People who have what Le Guin terms “rigid reality constructs” don’t like fantasy or the idea that things don’t have to be the way they are.

How, she asks, does the fantastic tale suspend the law of physics? There is a distinction, Le Guin tells us between It doesn’t have to be the way it is thus promoting the idea of other ways and other possibilities and “Anything goes” the latter invoking an idea of being completely irresponsible. The ultimate conclusion of the ‘anything goes’ philosophy is be damned to everyone and everything else.

Not everyone has such extreme views about reading fantasy fiction of course. Some just prefer to read something else – biography or crime or something – considering fantasy to be ‘escapist’. But then what is inherently wrong with escapism? As Le Guin points out, is not the purpose of an escape to move towards freedom?

And is not the whole point of literature to free the mind? So that we can truly believe it doesn’t have to be the way it is.

 

 

 

 

All the lovely silence has gone: A Review of ‘Ash before Oak’ by Jeremy Cooper

Lockdown was a situation that could not continue nor should it.  It has caused far too much suffering.  But there were a couple of benefits – a slowing down and some peace – if not peace of mind then peace and quiet.   Birdsong too.  The birds are back fighting a losing battle with horrendous building works and the smell of traffic fumes on the air.

On another level, this happens internally.  Our brains start running horror movies in our heads.   In the vicissitues and general exhaustingness of life, we  lose our peace of mind, our lovely silence.

Increasingly and perhaps because of this I have been attracted to works on and about   the natural world.  This week I have read Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper published by indie press Fitzcarraldo Editions.  This is the second book I have purchased from them  the other being Grove by Esther Kinsky which I am also reading.  All Fitzcarraldo’s books are given a uniform dark blue cover.   I’m not a great fan of the look.    I can understand the commercial imperatives but maybe  give an artist or graphic designer some work folks as they have commercial imperatives too!

This book is way better than its  bland cover suggests, combining as it does two subjects very close to my heart – the natural world and mental health.    It’s hard to get much more topical than that at the moment.

Author Jeremy Cooper has an original author bio.  He has a track record of expertise on art postcards, having appeared in the first 24 episode sof the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.  He is also a novelist and writer of non-fiction works.

Ash before Oak is definitely not about postcards.   It is fiction written in the form of a series of journal entries which chart the narrator’s stay at a house Somerset where he is renting a house on an estate called Cothelstone.  Initially the book appears to be a record of a man’s attempts to tame this house, garden and its surrounding woodland,  as the narrator learns to tell sorrel from not-sorrel and to plant Field Scabious and Ox Eye daisy in his new wildflower meadow, much of which he does ably assisted by local carpenter Beth.

Llanychaeron

 

“Three cats live here now, in the old part of the cottage… “

But slowly into the lovely descriptions of flora and fauna, the ‘still warm sun of a cloudless October morning’  it becomes clear that all is not well in this rural idyll.   This is a man who has lived in the city and had other lives and other careers.  For someone in that situation to move to the country and choose a different life is not at all unusual.  Yet there has to be a ‘why’.  Ever since The Tenant of Wildfell Hall there has had to be a why.  Why is he here? It is a question that the narrator asks himself too.

A story that begins as an endearing battle with a mouse that moves into the house and refuses to move out suddenly becomes worrying, as do the references amidst the descriptions to feelings of being trapped and anxious.   Trapped?  When surrounded by all this natural wonder?  Something can’t be right.  And surely enough, something isn’t.  The fragility of the narrator’s mental state becomes apparent.

And while connections between nature and recovery from mental illness are not earth shatteringly new, they do not need to be.  It is the writing which counts and Ash before Oak is beautifully written.   The advantage of the journalistic entry style of writing is the author can get carried away with memories of hearing Alfred Brendel play or an anecdote about the composer Messiaen playing the piano in a prisoner of war camp, it’s fine to pop it in.   There are many references to both art and music throughout the book and these build a picture of a former life lived in London,  but one that has been abandoned.

Not many books have felt to me to be relevant or indeed as easy to read during this time of the world’s desperate uncertainty and difficulty – at least that has been my personal experience.  But Ash Before Oak felt completely right.  It is a complex book cleverly written which reveals it’s secrets slowly, or perhaps some of them not at all.

A Paean to Women Everywhere, The Uncounted and Unconsidered Survivors of War

No-one knows who Homer was and it is most unlikely that the epic poems called The Iliad and The Odyssey are the result of a single author.   There is one line of thought that these epic poems were written by a single author and another that they are the result of many contributions and that “Homer” is in fact a tradition rather than the name of an individual.

Does it matter? Well yes it does matter – in fact I believe it matters a lot. Perhaps not the authorship but the ideology, the assumptions.   Because we are our stories.  We are what we believe.  If Homeric is a tradition, then Natalie Haynes has just added a new voice which doesn’t exactly blow great holes in the original.  Rather it fills an existing void.

Haynes book 1000 Ships is a feminist retelling of the epic poems of Homer, of the Trojan Wars.  No longer voiceless or invisible,  the story is told through the women, the daughters, brides, wives, sisters – by Haynes’ pen given shape and substance, flesh and blood, personalities, anger, suffering and courage of their own.

***

The Greeks and Trojans fought for over a decade – principally according to the myth so that Helen of Troy – the world’s most beautiful woman and wife of Menelaus of Sparta, can be retrieved from Paris himself the son of King Priam of Troy,  who has stolen her away.

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Despite the book’s title 1000 Ships, these stories are not about Helen of Troy.  In fact, she has a minor part.   Although the lines from which the title comes are famous ( I assumed they were Shakespeare. No.  They are from The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus written by the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe and published in 1604).

Was this the face that launch’d 1000 ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

It is amply worth noticing that Haynes in giving her book its title has removed references to Helen, leaving only the ships.     If men go to war, she is saying, it is not just because of a woman however beautiful she may be.  And don’t let yourself off the hook for all the killing and bloodshed by blaming her.

This conversation between Hecabe (mother of Paris) and Helen is key.

“The Trojan whore, is that what they’re calling you now? Hecabe asked.

“I would think so” Helen replied.  They’ve never been a very imaginative group of people my husband’s soldiers.

The Greeks finally win the Trojan wars as most schoolchildren know – or used to –   by trickery.  They appear to sail away with their fleet but leave behind a giant wooden horse apparently as an offering.  The wooden horse conceals Greek soldiers inside.

I found myself willing the Trojans not to take the wooden horse inside the city gates.  I mean why would you even do that?  But of course they do, and that is pretty much that. End of.  It is at this point that Haynes starts her story.

***

At the opening of the book Troy is in flames.  We watch the destruction of the city through the eyes of Creusa who is searching through the dense smoke and dark night for her husband and son.  She will never find either.   Soon after the sacking of the city.   The surviving women of Troy – of whatever status – are lined up and parcelled out amongst their Greek conquerors to rape and enslaved futures.   This is the bit that the bards don’t sing about.

 

A Thousand Ships

“If he truly wants to understand the nature of the epic story I am letting him compose, he needs to accept the casualties of war are not just the ones who die.” So speaks Calliope (the poet’s muse).

But it is Penelope who is the star of this show.  At least for me.  Poor patient Penelope who sits at Ithaca and waits and waits for her husband Odysseus to return from the Trojan wars.  Meanwhile ten years pass!   On the way back he gets very busy having to outwit the cyclops and the nymph Calypso who wants Odysseus for herself.  Then there is as well a witch called Circe.  Penelope hears of all this through bardic tales, there being no email.  We in our turn only hear about this from Penelope’s increasingly ironic and irritated letters as she is exasperated by what sounds like the most ridiculous series of excuses ever invented by an adulterer.

“Because really, how many cannibalistic giants can one Greek plausibly meet as he sails the open seas.  Even I, expert in your ability to create trouble, think one set is probably sufficient for your story.”

I cannot say I loved this book unreservedly – there is a great cast of characters and I sometimes felt detached from them.  But I did love its sometime irony and wit.  Its humanity.   The writing is  clever, insightful and based on a mountain of classical knowledge.   Like all the best ideas, it is obvious once someone else has thought of it.  1000 Ships is not only a feat of imagination which creates living personalities out of mere mythic stereotypes, but it is a paean to women everywhere who have been the uncounted survivors of war.

Penelope writes:

“The bards all sing of the bravery of heroes and the greatness of your deeds: it is one of the few elements of your story on which they all agree.  But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind.”

Well now someone has.  And it is a song which is much overdue.

 

20 Books of Summer – for a Less than 2020 Summer

It’s been a tough week here down at the old Rune stead with not a lot of reading getting done.  I have parked a snail on top of my TBR pile – a glass one, not a real one.  He’s there to represent the speed at which I am coursing through my  list at the moment.    And can someone please tell me why – apart from the fact that we need the water – does it have to rain all the time so that the stuck at home-ness becomes even more oppressive!

This week I have been playing my harp which I do slowly and far from expertly but the great thing about  the harp as an instrument is that even when you mess up it still sounds ok.

I have also been exercising in my local park which is next the river Thames.    I am watching a family of Canada Geese   – at the moment the geese are keeping me sane.  Thank you geese.  Unlike me, they never seem to miss the tide.  The tiny fluffy goslings became teenagers very quickly.

Geese

We are having to realise our place and how we disturb the balance in the ecosystem now – more than ever.  Having to recognise that we are part of the whole nature thing, not dominant over it.  I firmly believe that the massive increases we have seen in the last decades of mental health issues (the silent pandemic) are directly connected to breakdown of the biosphere and our destruction of the environment.

Anyway,   to the books. This year again I am taking part in the 20 books of Summer challenge

20 books

Hosted by Cathy@746Books – thank you Cathy –  my 20 books of Summer is roughly 10 books at the moment.  I don’t know what the other ten will be yet,  but they will come into focus hopefully.

Those paying close attention will know that I have already read Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (!!) but I do not consider this cheating.  I’m including it because I have read it since 1st June which is when the challenge started and we have until September 1st to read the others. Some of these books I have already committed to over the same period as part of my Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist reading commitment.   Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is such a tough read I am balancing it with some hopeful things including Daisaku Ikeda’s excellent collection of essays Hope is a Decision (Middleway Press, 2017).

I have read Richard Powers The Overstory but would like to read it again.   It is a book which recognises how humans are abusing their place in the universe.  There are no doubt many of those  –  regrettably I can’t get to them all  but happy to take suggestions.  Powers’ book probably does this as well as any.    But its also true to say that the poets got there first.  I think fiction writers have been late to this particular, gloomy party.

10BooksofSummer

I am waiting for a copy of  Ash before Oak written by Jeremy Cooper and published by the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions.  I have another of their books on my list too – Grove by Esther Kinsky (translated by Caroline Schmidt) which I have started reading and which drips atmosphere and yearning from every page of its lyrical prose.

Of Ash before Oak the publisher’s blurb says:

Ash before Oak is a novel in the form of a fictional journal written by a solitary man on a secluded Somerset estate. Ostensibly a nature diary, chronicling the narrator’s interest in the local flora and fauna and the passing of the seasons, Ash before Oak is also the story of a breakdown told slantwise, and of the narrator’s subsequent recovery through his reengagement with the world around him.

I am proud that I have avoided a single purchase during lockdown from certain online giants who shall remain nameless.  However I found a book by Janie Chang called The Library of Legends on Tomorrow is Another Day and downloaded that onto my kindle because it sounded sweet and comforting and it is so far.