This work flows like a river out of Eden

A Review of Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton) 2019

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I didn’t think I was going to review this joyous book.  It won the Booker Prize which restricts the conversation a bit.  What is there left to say?    Yet   I was fortunate to be in the audience to attend a talk given by the author at the Hay Festival and this changed my mind. So here are my thoughts.

Evaristo’s prose sits on the page in all its poetic wholeness with scarcely a capital letter or full stop to be seen.  Yet unlike Woolf who can sometimes leave you scrabbling for a handhold or for a breath, this work flows perfectly like a river out of Eden.  It’s not officially stream of consciousness.    I have no idea how she did it,  but Evaristo’s background is in poetry and her knowledge of scansion must have helped.

The book which in unBooker-like fashion is not a challenging read,  follows the lives of 12 women in modern Britain.

The first question that Peter Florence, the Director and co-founder of Hay Festival who also happened to be Chair of the Booker panel this year asked was:  We understand ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ but what about ‘other’  The reply from Evaristo was that she wanted to show how these women come to be perceived as being ‘other’.   What it is about societies that ‘others’ people.

What does it mean to be ‘other’.  Race, identity and belonging – the topic that gave birth to a thousand and one theses and to which we can add gender and sexual orientation, are all things which can confuse, emotionally and intellectually.  Which of us really knows ourselves?    But the author does not seem in the least confused about any of it, getting inside the heads of each of her characters, taking them from childhood to the epiphanic moment when they find a way to be.

It is not just a matter of being black in a society in which to be black meant you could not book a bed for the night because your putative landlady thought your colour might rub off on her sheets (welcome to Great Britain pre-Race Discrimination laws).  It is not just a book about having a particular skin colour – to be a woman even in 2019 is to be ‘other’ from the standpoint of many aspects of our societies in which our institutions are still crawling out of Victorian patriarchal attitudes and doing so relatively slowly, changing only when forced to do so by law or scandal or both.

A lot of books (thankfully) are now written by women – some treat of the reality of lived female experience in a modern world.   Many do not.  Some writers of both sexes add female characters – even strong female characters – as a box ticking exercise or as characters to be exploited in some way by men.

Girl Woman Other is a breath of fresh air in the contemporary literary scene and I am so happy that Evaristo has been recognised.

Elif Shafak. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Viking) 2019

Elif

Elif Shafak I regard as one of today’s greatest writers.  I loved The Forty Rules of Love and Three Daughters of Eve although I struggled a bit with the Architect’s Apprentice but that’s OK.  It was an earlier work and it’s not always possible to love everything.

Leila is the author’s masterwork so far. 10 minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World was  on the shortlist for the Man Booker when Bernadine Evaristo won with Margaret Atwood.  It must have been an unenviable task to judge this year’s prize.

Like Evaristo, Shafak takes a culture – her culture –and shows us how it excludes, abases and abuses women in a way that is culturally so normal that it is invisible.  Such invisibility does not extend to the minds of  writers and artists, of course, many of whom are currently subject to persecution in Turkey.   In a moving tribute to her grandmother, whose funeral she did not feel able to attend for political reasons, the author says that she felt the fictional character of Leila and her grandmother had met and become good friends:

“… sister-outsiders.  After all boundaries of the mind mean nothing for women who continue to sing songs of freedom under the moonlight ….”

Leila, Or Tequila Leila as she is called – is the lead character in 10 minutes 38 seconds.  ‘Is’ I say.  Not ‘was’.    It’s important to Leila to be counted among the present tense, we find that out in the prologue before the story proper even starts.  The reason being that she is dead by the time the story starts.   She still narrates the story.  Raped by her uncle as a child (and blamed – look what you made me do) her life slowly falls apart.  She ends up working in a brothel in Istanbul.  But life is regenerated in a human and beautiful fashion by a strange and curious circle of friends that come into being. Shafak’s storytelling seems to me second to none in so many ways but her characters are particularly wonderful.  Magic realist, perhaps, but wonderful nevertheless.

“Perhaps it was not that different when it came to death.   People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath.  But things were not clear-cut like that.  Just as there were countless shades between jet black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called ‘eternal rest’  If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of Afterlife, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.”

I believe in the permeability of that sandstone.  And the book’s ending is a celebration of freedom.

 

 

#NonFicNovember week 4/5: Sublime writing and representations of the sublime in writing

Leann from Shelf Aware is our host this week where we are exploring our nonfiction favorites.

Week 5 is upon us and I’m just getting to Week 4.  Story of my life. Apologies for the brief post.

Week 4 is:

We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites

I definitely don’t do light and humorous in my reading. Maybe I should. I’m not sure if I’ve ever laughed enough, or if any of us laugh much at the moment.

I Iook for inspirational lives, with the substance of that inspiration made real in some way.    The style of writing is very important– it doesn’t matter how amazing someone is its still difficult to read long, rambling and off focus thoughts. Nor is it enough to make a lot of money and get famous although that’s great and wouldn’t we all love it.  Some who achieve are wonders, those are the stories that interest me.  Some who achieve this got lucky and someone ghost wrote them into a shallow form of importance.  Not interested in those.   I don’t like hype or the next big thing.

I’m partial to a bit of lyricism. I’m also interested to know what drives us to read about other people’s lives: sometimes I think I’m looking for a key, the hermeneutic secret.  If such exists, it is not to be found within the pages of a book. But knowledge, yes.  Wisdom even?  Maybe.  Right from wrong? Hopefully.

One of my all time favourite books is by Katherine Swift – The Morville Hours (Bloomsbury, 2009).  I’ve probably talked about this book before and will talk about it again  because it’s sublime.   A beautiful combination of history, topography, philosophy, religion and life writing.  The author was a rare-book librarian at Oxford and then Trinity College,  Dublin before moving to Shropshire turning to full time gardening and writing.

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The book is structured around chapters named after the Hours of the Divine Office: Vigils, Prime, Terce, Sext, None,  which were an essential part of her mother’s Catholic faith.

The passing of time – how it has perplexed us, fascinated us, and terrified us every since man walked upon the earth. Few are better than Swift at evoking a response to what it means to be a part of the history of something, a house, a faith, a love.

Of carvings of Mathew, Mark, Luke & John in her local church she says they have presided over four hundred years of the village:

“What secret glances, what lovers’ trysts, what hopes and fears, faded now into dust! What spring mornings, what early frosts, what mothers’ tears – writing it all down, their pens scratching away into the night.”

It’s taking Swift forever to write her next book (those time consuming gardens!)and some of us are waiting impatiently.

Continuing the theme of  philosophy and mysticism:Rumi

Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love by Brad Gooch (HarperCollins, 2017) describes the life of Rumi, poet and Sufi mystic and his complex relationship with Shams of Tabriz who was reputed to be Rumi’s teacher and the source of much of his poetry.   Gooch is interesting on the tensions that inevitably arose between these two men from their interdependency and ultimately the sense of betrayal felt by Rumi when Shams left.

1000 years after he lived we are still comforted by this man’s words.

There’s a wonderful story that Gooch tells about Rumi.

“When his daughter Maleke  complained of the stinginess of her husband, Rumi told her a story of a rich man so miserly he wouldn’t open his door for fear the hinges would wear out.”

Only a few words yet It perfectly highlights how we imprison and make ourselves miserable with our obsession with the material.

The connection between poetry and spirituality is a massive interest of mine. It was going to be the subject of my Ph.D before it wasn’t.

 

 

Read this book and never touch a computer or smartphone again

#Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

Who out there has not heard of Snowden?   Few I imagine.  He is the NSA and CIA worker who blew the whistle  on the massive surveillance dragnet that the US government (the UK as well and every other government that has access to a terminal) perpetrates routinely on its private citizens – who are no longer private citizens at all but mere data subjects.

snowdencover

Although it’s not in the book, I remember Snowden being quoted as saying we are building the greatest weapon for oppression of mankind that has been seen.  He was talking about the internet.

When I listened to the interview that he did on the podcast The Joe Rogan Experience (it’s still available on Overcast) I was shocked to hear Rogan admit that he hadn’t read Snowden’s book.  Why I wondered to myself would you go into a three hour interview with one of the most famous whistleblowers of the 21st century without having read his book?

I have read the book.  And I was happy to see it.  Having watched Laura Poitras film Citizenfour (2014), and knowing that Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill the Guardian journalists who broke the Snowden story  – have all raised their profiles and had stories out of this young man’s sacrifice, it was time that we heard his own story.  And here it is, beautifully written and entertaining as well as vitally important.

I was worried that the book might be quite technical and I wouldn’t understand it.  But I need not have worried.  Permanent Record is much more about the why rather than the how.  Why a young man might give up his whole life as he knows it – home, family, friends, extremely well paid job – for his principles.

The book starts with the author’s childhood,

“Many of the first 2000 or so nights of my life ended in civil disobedience – until the night I turned six years old – I discovered direct action.  The authorities weren’t interested in calls for reform,”

moves on to his love of tech born of playing early console games,   a chequered school career dogged by illness, boredom and parental divorce and his attempt to join special forces which was cut brutally short by a training injury.

He felt that tech was too easy for him – that he didn’t want computers to be the way he earned his living.   But it seems the digital writing was already on the wall.   Snowden was catapaulted forward by determination, and the need to earn a living.

What followed was a meteoric rise within the intelligence community.

“It’s only in hindsight that I’m able to appreciate just how high my star had risen.  I’d gone from being the student who couldn’t speak in class to being the teacher of the language of a new age….  In just seven short years of my career, I’d climbed from maintaining local servers to crafting and maintaining globally deployed systems – from graveyard-shift security guard to key master of the puzzle palace.”

But his unfettered access to documents set him on his path to questioning … and the questioning led to his discovery of a program called XKEYSCORE.  He describes this as the exact point of the interface between the state and its surveillance targets.

 ‘Everyone’s communications were in the system – everyone’s.’

And this information we learn is being kept, stored in gigantic underground servers somewhere, forever.

The book covers his flight to Hong Kong and the breaking of the story to the world’s press, the US authorities cancelling his passport stranding him in Russia (where he still lives) and his partner (now wife) Lindsay’s unfailing support despite being targeted herself after he left.

Recently someone tweeted “Why is there only one whistleblower?”   Snowden’s response? “Gee, I wonder!”

Changes have to come.  In the EU we now have the General Data Protection Regulations which posits the data as the property of the person it represents, not of the body collecting it.  But the internet, as Snowden points out, is global and we all have numerous digital selves wandering about out there stateless.

What started out in the 80s as a few capable people exchanging geeky programming language with one another across the globe, has turned into an instrument of state oppression the Stasi would have wept to possess.

“Any elected government that relies on surveillance to maintain control of a citizenry that regards surveillance as anathema to democracy has effectively ceased to be a democracy.  Such cognitive dissonance on a geopolitical scale has helped to bring individual privacy concerns back into the international dialogue within the context of human rights.”

I sincerely hope that the US and all of our so-called democracies can move past the fearmongering to more humanistic models of society which recognise and uphold individual freedoms,  and that one day this courageous young man will be allowed to return home.

#NonficNov  Week 3 Asking the experts : Surveillance, Tyranny and a Movement for Peace

NON FICTION-NOVEMBER WEEK 3 HOSTED  BY

DOING DEWEY

You can share 3 or more books on a single topic that you’ve read and can recommend (be the expert); you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you’ve been dying to read (ask the expert); or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Certainly making no claim to being expert at anything.  But I am increasingly concerned about how fragile our freedoms are and how easily they can be taken away from us.    This seems a good time to celebrate books that tackle tyrannical regimes.

Here are three learned books that to consult on that very topic.

The polish poet Czeslaw Milosz says in his note to his own book:   The Captive Mind (Penguin Modern Classics, 1953)

“It’s subject is the vulnerability of the twentieth century mind to seduction by socio-political doctrines and its readiness to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of a hypothetic future.”

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Or to put it another way.  How did Stalin get away with it?  How did the nazis?  The century may have changed but the ideas and concerns haven’t – only the methods used by oppressors change not the fundamental intent.  It has yet to be seen whether the West is currently moving towards totalitarianism.

Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record which I am  currently reading deals with a digital reign of terror, mass surveillance,  bulk data collection and data storage currently being perpetrated on millions and tens of millions of global citizens.  All in contravention of the US constitution.   Yet  congress knowing this finds itself unable to unwilling to act.   Full review will be posted shortly.

 

And belief in a better way – A Forum for Peace: Daisaku Ikeda’s Proposals to the UN Ed. Olivier Urbain, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. 2014

Buddhist Philosopher and President of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) Daisaku Ikeda has written Peace Proposals to the United Nations every year since 1983 focusing on areas of great importance and relevance to our modern world.

This book is a collection of Peace Proposals on such topics as climate change, global poverty, health, human rights and nuclear abolition.

  Ikeda states:  As a Buddhist I deeply believe that no individual can experience true happiness or tranquility until we turn humankind away from its obsession with war.”

ForumforPeace

 

 

 

With the intro post hosted by Julz and Julz Reads and the fiction/nonfiction pairing hosted by Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves. And don’t miss the next two weeks discussion either, coming from co-hosts Rennie at What’s Nonfiction and Leanne at Shelf Aware.

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.