Knowledge is always a kind of magic – but some libraries hold the deepest secrets

Binding

 

Review of The Binding, Bridget Collins. Borough Press.

Just about everything I thought I knew about this book was disrupted by the end.    I thought there would be bookish secrets from the past, lost keys, messages on torn paper,  appearances, vanishings, learned tomes in chained libraries.  And to a certain extent these things are present.  Books,  libraries and hidden secrets are hardly new in literature – even the cover design of the book is a romantic blazon of blue and gold with floral motifs.    But these are different secrets and a very different sort of library

The author, Bridget Collins, has published YA novels before but this is her first adult novel.

Part Copperfield with elements of Potter, my first impression was that this was a YA novel with a couple of four lettered words dotted around in order to aim the work at an adult market.   In this I was wrong I suppose.  Yet I often find I don’t understand artificial distinctions that are made between adult reading and young adult.  Yes there have always been children’s books but teenagers used to read pretty much the same as their parents – minus the Kama Sutra of course which was kept locked away somewhere.

It is ironic that the central characters in the narrative are themselves young adults.  The things which happen in the book – both good and bad – happen to young people, while their elders and betters circle around creating havoc and making everything much, much worse.  And yet it is not considered suitable for certain age groups to read about things which happen to their own kind?

The title The Binding does not refer to the most obvious definition of a book binding – ie the gold tooled leather cover and marbled endpapers – although these certainly play a part in the story,  but ‘binding’ is a metaphor for quite a different field of endeavour.

Collins has a magic realist way of evoking settings and particularly the weather which is almost an extra character.  Here there is  a rustic way of life, tumbledown cottages on the moors, snow on the thatch,  the wind sighs, the cold sears, the sun when it shines casts its rays over dusty floorboards,  tools in the binder’s workshop wait patiently in the racks.

There are polished bannisters and light rooms with tall windows, there is quite a lot of moonlight and a young man who has suffered a mysterious illness is despatched from his family farm where he is happy and where he expects to spend his life,  to serve an apprenticeship in a book binding workshop which he knows nothing about and where he does not wish to be.  The reasons for this become clear as the book unfolds.

There is no definitive historical context for the work much of which is fantasy – yet there are horses and carriages and the postman calls once a week.    The shade of Mr. Dickens peeps out from among the pages of the narrative, particularly in the obsequious and sinister character of de Havilland,  descriptions of Castleford with its grime, its brothels, freezing alleyways and workhouse.

Knowledge is always a kind of magic, says one of the characters. Or is ignorance bliss?  That is the question that lies at the heart of the book.

As well as being a page turner The Binding is an elegant disquisition on memory, the meaning of memory and what constituent part of our mindset is played out by the things that have happened to us in the past.  What would we choose to forget if we were able and what would that forgetting do to us?  It is also a love story.

 

 

Birds, Behaviourism and a Broken Promise

Review  Eva Meijer. Bird Cottage Pushkin Press.  Translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett

I always enjoy books about women who break the mould which was what attracted me to this one. I particular enjoy books which dwell on the study of nature since those are increasingly invaluable records of what we are losing .

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The title  is taken from the name of a house in Ditchling, Sussex in which the naturalist Len (Gwendolen) Howard lived and wrote from 1938  books on birds, based on years of living with them  and closely observing their behaviours. Meijer’s book is partly fictional, partly biographical based on Howard’s letters and archive.

Born in the early years of the 20th century to a poet father and depressed mother Howard gave up an early career as a violinist and the possibility of marriage in order to live alone and write about her birds.  At least  this is how the book presents her.

This reimagining of her life brings to light her struggles to be taken seriously as a naturalist – well it was the early part of the twentieth century and she was (a) a woman and (b) not a formally trained scientist.

Howard notes in her letters:

Konrad Lorenz’s book in which he describes how he lives with all kinds of animals, is treated far more seriously that mine, probably because he has proper qualifications, writes scientific articles, is a man.  Yet his observations are less original than mine.  Moreover the birds have freely chosen to live with me whereas Lorenz rears his and so influences their behaviour.

The factual elements of the book are interesting for observations on animal behaviour such as:

Darwin’s work on animal intelligence, for example, is regarded as unscientific because it is primarily based on anecdotal evidence.  Behaviourism, however, does not properly take account of the fact that many animals behave differently in captivity than when they are free.

Yet I found some of the dialogue slow moving and unconvincing which may be a result of translation, the evocation of period a bit clunky.

“Cook rings the bell. Tea is ready.  I go upstairs to put away my violin.  Mike is singing in the garden.  Ta-da-da, tada.”

There’s not much sense of the history against which the story is set  – a brief mention of some suffragettes  and force feeding “it must be dreadful”.  Gwen recognises a soldier as “one of the chaps Kingsley used to play tennis with”.   The second world war gets barely a mention.

Gwen’s character comes across as completely self-absorbed, out of touch with her family -she fails to attend her own father’s funeral – and certainly out of touch with the momentous events that shook the world through the first half of the twentieth century.  She’s not the most empathetic of characters but obviously the birds like her.    The author writes in a note that Howard’s books Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds were once best sellers, but now only available second hand.

I understand that the intention may have been to show that this is what it took to live life on your own terms for a woman.  If so I’m not entirely sure it worked for me. I felt I did not know the character any better by the end of the book than at the beginning.

Sadly the author tells us that Howard left Bird Cottage in her will to the Sussex Naturalist Trust who promised to turn it into a bird sanctuary.  This never materialised and the land was sold to someone who felled all the trees in the back garden, apart from a single oak.

 

Thank you to #PushkinPress and #NetGalley for this review copy.

A house with no foundations and lessons in survival

Unsheltered,  Barbara Kingsolver.  Faber & Faber

Taking my TBR list somewhat out of order this is my third review out of my initial list.  My target is 50 so only 47 more to go!

A new Barbara Kingsolver book is always an event in the literary calendar, although I haven’t read them all.  I loved The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and Flight Behaviour.  In the latter the central character is a woman from small town America whose life normally bounded by childcare, domestic duties and caring for the in-laws,  is changed by the arrival of a scientific observation team who have come to examine the effects of climate change on the migration patterns of Monarch butterflies.

Kingsolver

Unsheltered uses similar tropes for the central character of the modern story Willa although reverses them.  Willa is a professional woman (a journalist) with two adult children who having moved to Vineland, New Jersey for her husband’s job finds herself trying to undertake freelance work and then trying to survive, in that order.

The book has two time shifts.  One, the modern story,  is set in Trump’s America (2016  ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ says Willa on hearing the result of the New Hampshire primary) and the historic story set in 1871 amongst the same community.

Willa’s journalistic ambitions are seriously stymied by the illness of her ageing and impossible father-in-law, Nick,  who has no plans to go gently into that good night and whose care falls to Willa.  Another catastrophe strikes as Willa’s adult son Zeke, married with a newborn, is suddenly faced with the death of his own partner.  Urgent childcare is needed, a breach into which Willa also steps.  As if those things are not enough, the Vineland house into which the family has recently moved is diagnosed as literally falling to pieces.

Because this is Kingsolver we know there will be science.  The historic section of the book is set in houses on the same street, and concerns a lady called Mary Treat (a real person), a naturalist and entomologist who wrote many books and articles and corresponded with Charles Darwin.

Willa’s belief that Mary Treat might have lived in the house that her family currently occupies  gives her hope that she could register the house as being of historic interest and so be eligible for grant funding to do urgent repairs. After research, though,  It turns out acclaimed biologist Mary Treat did not live in Willa’s house but in a house over the road.  Willa’s house was in fact occupied by the family  of a local school master named rather uproariously Thatcher Greenwood.

We learn that Thatcher is a proponent of Darwinian science –  beliefs considered dangerous and ungodly by the head of the school in which he is employed as a teacher.   He is peremptorily told not to fill the children’s heads with ungovernable nonsense such as evolution.   Ultimately Thatcher is told to disavow his Darwinian beliefs which -sensibly on the side of history – he refuses to do.

Back to the future, and undaunted by research showing the absence of Mary Treat or her ilk from her home, Willa sets about trying to find a possible connection between Thatcher and Mary.   Was there a connection between Thatcher Greenwood and Mrs Mary Treat, Willa wonders (you’ll have to read the book to find out)  and if so was it sufficient to enable her to make an application for historic registration of her property?

‘These two iconoclasts living in one another’s line of sight, anode and cathode, had some current flowing between them that Willa had accidentally stuck a hand into.’

This story is not just about someone trying to apply for a housing grant.  As part of the modern story, Unsheltered is also about generational differences but not the sort of generational differences that the boomers had with their parents which was all about cool and uncool and music and vibes. The expectations of the boomer generation was achiever fever,  to outdo their parents in wealth, position collecting of stuff, size of house.    The new generational differences are much more fundamental.  They relate to understanding the depths of disaster that the planet is facing and the price of survival.  They are about recognising:

‘The global contempt for temperance and nurture, the fierce entitlement to every kind of consumption’

This whole books is a metaphor for how we are going to have to completely redefine things which are important to us in the future.  A timely metaphor indeed on a day when Greta Thunberg has addressed the World Economic Forum at Davos asking us to act as if nothing matters more than our children.

Oh boy can Kingsolver do metaphors!  You only have to look at the central tenet of the story –    a house with no foundations!   And one of the minor characters in the story quite literally gets away with murder.  The title of the debate ‘Darwin versus Decency’ in which Thatcher takes part,  sounds as ridiculous to modern ears, as the utterings of climate deniers will sound to the ears of generations into the future.

But though I admired this book, somehow I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to enjoy it – not as much as some of the previous books.  I found the historical storyline less absorbing than the modern day one, the characters harder to get a handle on.  I think I kept waiting for a ta-dah sort of revelation, but there was none.  The reader has to be satisfied with small victories and uplifting moments, against a background of relative awfulness. And isn’t that just like life.

Poets, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Biologists: Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring

“We snatch our freeze frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives.  All the while we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things, for the things themselves, our records for our history.   History is not what happened but what survives the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.”

Maria Popova

The title of the book Figuring refers to Popova’s ideas about:

‘figuring and reconfiguring of reality – it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony …’

Her book ranges widely across philosophical ideas and scientific notions, starting with mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

Kepler would, says the author ‘quarry the marble out of which classical physics would be sculpted’.

Kepler had investigated and proposed the claim (made 50 years earlier by Copernicus) that the Earth moves around the sun, even before Galileo Galilei plucked up the courage to say that he had himself thought along these lines but kept silent to avoid being charged with heresy.  Eventually he could keep silent no longer.    Kepler, Before Newton,  also conceived the notion of a gravitational force which directed the movement of the planets.

The book moves on to American Journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) and the life of astronomer and mathematician Maria Mitchell (1818-1889).   Mitchell rose to be the first female Professor of Astronomy at Vassar.  Maria Mitchell knew that the surest route to empowerment of women was through education.

We are taken by the author on a journey through the  life and poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and on to the groundbreaking work of environmental scientist, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) with others in between.

Among the questions Popova asks, and seeks to answer through the examination of the lives of the (mostly women) in this book.     What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement?

This last is a question which courses like blood through the veins of the book because, if it is axiomatic that we should seek to achieve greatness in our chosen field, whether science, literature, art, then what part does societal recognition play?  The lives of the women in this book were lived out against a background of the utter disbelief  of those particular societies in which they lived concerning the suitability of women even to partake in education, let alone to make world changing scientific or artistic discoveries.   Yet this is exactly what they did.

While it is impossible to know for certain every life chance or turn that led to these women becoming exactly who they did, they all shared the fortune of coming from families enlightened as to the education of its daughters.  They all shared a need to work, and like every human soul, a need for love which came in all sorts of shapes and guises.

Popova writes about women who were major achievers in their fields but this is not just an account of certain lives however remarkable they may be.  What Figuring does is the same thing that Popova’s blog Brain Pickings (www.brainpickings.org) does, it makes beautiful connections between art and life, between sinew and spirit, soul, chance and choice.  In her inimitable way she makes the reader not just wish to know more but insist on knowing more, to relish the ‘down the rabbit-hole’ effect of research,  to want to delve further, find more tunnels.

 

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The last ‘life’ to be covered in Figuring is that of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of Silent Spring.

Carson was a biologist, nature writer and oceanographer, an ecologist before the term was even known.   Although ailing and nearing the end of her life at the time of writing Silent Spring this was the book that it fell to her to write simply because she was the best qualified to do the job,  and in so doing she founded an ecological movement which today is more desperately needed than ever.

Carson was informed by the establishment of the time that despite her meticulously evidenced research on the damage caused by the use of DDTs in crop sprays and pesticides in decimating bird and insect populations,  there was no ‘evidence’ of permanent damage.  In other words, it was thought by some in a gung-ho way that populations might be decimated but, hey, they would recover.  They didn’t.  My life had stood a loaded gun’ as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote.

The conflation of such gung-ho attitudes towards chemically manufactured carcinogens, in pursuit of profit, and the disparagement by those engaged in such activities of individuals who challenge them, has given rise to the environmental activism we see today.    It is shocking how little attitudes have changed since Carson wrote in the 60s and how much there is still to achieve.  For example in the last few days it has been reported in the Guardian that the peaceful environmental group Extinction Rebellion was listed by the Metropolitan Police on its Prevent list of radicalisation, alongside neo-Nazi groups, meaning that to be concerned about ecological destruction and the death of species, is considered extreme even though we ourselves are part of the ecology we destroy.

Carson would no doubt  take little pleasure in – but equally might not be surprised by  narratives being pursued today by powerful corporates and those who serve their interests  regarding the damage done to human tissue by ultra-fine particles in the air that we breathe.

Governments cannot be trusted with environmental crises.  Although DDT’s may be banned in certain countries our legal and regulatory systems lag behind desecration and mayhem caused by chemical pollutants in our air and water systems, particularly from vehicle and aviation exhaust fumes.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.