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.

 

 

 

 

‘Like a Ghostly Roll of Drums’: Four Inspirational Women Writers Beat the Measure of Life

I’ve been posting about people who have changed or are changing the way we see the world as part of my inspiration for Spring series.  Last week was the turn of the guys . Here are my four  inspirational women writers.

Virginia Woolf

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In Hermione Lee’s 800 page biography of  Virginia Woolf (Chatto & Windus, 1996) there is a photograph of Virginia  wearing her mother’s dress, taken for Vogue in 1926.   The dress appears to be of taffeta silk,  has voluminous puffed sleeves and a lace collar, a fitted waist barely visible in the picture.  It is a lovely photograph, taken at an age when Virginia was in her forties – no longer to be strictly defined as young,  yet she looks it, young, very thin and fragile.

This was the year she wrote ‘To the Lighthouse’.    In the same year there was a general strike and the first ‘talkie’ films would shortly be produced.  In two years time women over 21 would receive the vote.

Perhaps we think of Virginia as fragile in some respects, her illnesses and need to be secreted away from her London life.  But what enormous strength she must have required as a writer and founder of a new way of seeing, as minute examiner of the internal life of her characters (no one reads a Woolf novel for the plot).   Few would argue that Woolf was one the great writers of the 20th century.  Her work created, witnessed and recorded the extraordinary from the ordinary, the epiphanic moment in going to buy the flowers oneself.

Virginia was also a survivor of sexual abuse and incest.  A sufferer from mental illness – for which she became outcast to Richmond from her accustomed London circles, and scion of the famous Bloomsbury group.   She was wife to Leonard and lover to Vita Sackville-West.

I am fascinated as to why she would choose to be photographed in Vogue.  Perhaps it was just an appealing idea;  who doesn’t love to dress up and have a professional quality photo taken?   But perhaps also she was aware of being watched, as a woman, as an artist,  aware of being visible in ways that women were not meant to be visible.

In the novel Orlando, Virginia’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West, the hero Orlando starts life as a man but along the way goes into a trance like state and emerges as a woman.  As Lee points out Orlando’s biographer keeps disassembling then re-assembling Orlando’s selves: a reflection of Virginia Woolf’s sense of her own great variety of selves….

“Her life can be seen as a complicated range of performances.’

Maybe.  But I believe Virginia’s life can also be seen as having been lived to its best and fullest range and as inviting us to a different way of seeing.

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Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit in 2010

This leading light of the feminist movement and author of the famed essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ which eventually gave rise to the use of the term ‘mansplaining’, is also a climate activist and documentarian of the changes that urgently need to be made before ‘we see the world in full colour’.

I have reviewed her autobiography Recollections of my Non Existence here.

For decades Solnit has been writing about unconscious bias against women in society and picking apart the ‘normality’ of ways in which women have every aspect of their lives dictated to them – not just women but persons of colour and non-straight people.

“One of the rights that the powerful often assume is the power to dictate reality.”

If marginalised and repressed groups are now reclaiming their own realities and ownership of their stories – including herstories – it is because writers like Solnit are helping to highlight the operation of (mainly, white male) power structures and the many ways such people have previously been silenced.

 

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Someone who understood those power structures,  and spent her life fighting them especially within the US legal system, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

This lady has quite a CV and I will briefly reiterate a few elements of it because if this was my CV I would definitely want someone to briefly reiterate a few elements!

  • Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. RBG was one of nine women at Harvard (class of ‘56) – in a class of approximately 500.   She went on to Columbia Law School and to teach and practise law, becoming Professor at Rutgers School of law in 1963.
  • Only the second woman in history to be appointed to the US Supreme Court as a Judge (the first was Sandra Day O’Connor) Ginsburg is the recipient of numerous awards, was listed as an Icon in Time 100 (2015) and by Fortune as one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.
  • Dedicating her life to equality for women, Ginsburg was co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

In the preface to her book My Own Words (Simon & Schuster, 2016) she writes:

“[in the 1970’s] …  we were engaged in moving the law in the direction of recognizing women’s equal citizenship stature.”

My Own Words  is a collection of Ginsburg’s articles, reviews, essays and speeches including a moving remembrance speech for a colleague and friend – Justice Scalia – who had died unexpectedly.

“I will miss the challenges and the laughter Justice Scalia provoked., his pungent, eminently quotable opinions, so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp, the roses be brought me on my birthday, the chance to appear with him once more as supernumeraries at the opera.”

Her book can be a challenging read at times but it is incredibly generous, with constant references to others that have paved the way for women in the legal profession.

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Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland

Born in Dublin in 1944, Boland published her first volume of poetry New Territory in 1967 when she was 22.

That early realisation about the complex relationship between power, politics and poetry came to Boland when as a young mother living in Dublin in the early seventies she came to see that her life experience was not included in the male and bardic traditions of Irish poetry that she had grown up reading.

How then to write, if what you wrote was based on someone else’s history?

Eavan Boland said in an interview in 1989:

 “As an Irish woman poet I have very little precedent.  There were none in the nineteenth century or early part of the twentieth.  You didn’t have thriving sense of the witness of the lived life of women poets and what you did have was a very compelling and at times oppressive relationship between Irish poetry and the national tradition.”

Through ten books of poetry and numerous essays Boland wrote herself into numerous awards and Honorary Doctorates but more importantly, she wrote herself and all women into being in a new lyrical and feminist writing,  and in so doing altered the course of Irish poetry as well as opening up its history to include untold stories.

The late Irish poet Seán Dunne wrote:  “She has widened the landscape to include things that were always a part of it, but were ignored.”

 

“You can see nothing of her but her head

Bent over the page, her hand moving

Moving again, and her hair.

I wrote like that once.

But this is different.

This time, when she looks up, I will be there.

 

From:  Is it Still the Same?

(References and poem in Eavan Boland : A Sourcebook (Carcanet) 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Books of Solitude and Isolation

There is a difference between choosing solitude and being forced into isolation.   From the writer’s point of view at least.  But I think for the reader too.  I have struggled in the last week or so to turn to the books on my TBR pile.  My mind is searching for solace.

Before all the chaos started I had finally got into reading Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy.  But with the greatest respect to her genius, who the hell wants to read about 16th century plagues and beheadings at the moment!

History has left us littered with determined literary isolationists from Thoreau to Yeats, they perhaps were more easily able to arrange their lives to be free of any domestic responsibilities and never once had to go to Lidl or worry about standing six feet apart.

Now in our forced isolation we no longer have the luxury of popping home for Sunday lunch or nipping into town to get a packet of seeds for our nine bean rows.

Here are  five books that find solace in isolation.

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Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton

I first came across this journal of American poet May Sarton about a decade ago and I still return to passages.  She could turn the simplest observation into a wonder.

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“The autumn crocus is marvellous and the lavendar asters, blue flames among the fallen leaves. I picked crocus for the Venetian glass on the mantel in the cozy room, and a few late roses. Then I cooked supper. The puffball was a terrifying mustardy green and tasted rather bitter.”

Sarton said: The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the light of a changing room…

Of Virginia Woolf – inventor of A Room of One’s Own, the work that more than any forged an indelible link between peace and quiet and the writer’s art – Sarton says:

“Fragile she may have been, living on the edge of psychic disturbance, but think what she managed to do nonetheless – not only the novels (every one a breakthrough form) but all those essays and reviews, all the work of the Hogarth Press, the social life…two houses…”

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My second choice is the wonderful Olivia Laing’s meditation on the art of being alone which I reviewed some time back.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Olivia Laing (Canongate)

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“You can be lonely anywhere , but there is a particular flavor that comes from being lonely in a city”

The author writes:

“What does it feel like to be lonely?  It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.”

Now here is something interesting.  At the moment no-one is feasting.  No matter where you might go on the planet (in your imagination of course) would it be possible to envisage any feast.   Misfortune is a great leveller in that respect.

Maybe it is harder to feel lonely and isolated indoors when everyone else is in the same boat.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

This story about a young woman trying to transform her life against all the odds is definitely an isolationist’s dream read.

When I originally reviewed this In April 2018 I wrote : ….

“This is a book to curl up with and if you are feeling a tiny bit sorry for yourself it will magic you better. Indeed you cannot help but compare yourself with Eleanor and feel better – unless your backstory is even worse than hers. In which case dear reader you are much to be pitied.”

Many people loved this book and I was one of them with its message that even the loneliest of us can be fixed if we can just find the will to get up and out the door and address our problems, preferably leaving the vodka bottle in the bin where it belongs.

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For me one of the most perfectly formed literary ‘outsider’ characters is the protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.

Beirut is a city which has survived numerous attacks and invasions, sometimes from within, sometimes from without.  As with most wars, to those trying to save their ordinary lives from damage and destruction, it hardly matters who the aggressor is.

Aaliya is an elderly woman living alone in an apartment in Beirut. She has lived there alone since her husband left, fighting off the impredations of various half-brothers, in-laws and her despised mother –  who would like to take the apartment away from her.

Aaliya’s life has been books.  She spent her working life in a bookshop and read her way through most of the stock and then some.   All the learning she has acquired has been by reading.  She has an intellectual life which manifests in translating great works of literature into Arabic, including Anna Karenina, and then carefully storing the results away from prying eyes.

Looking back over her war torn city and her life,  Aaliya often feels small and worthless.  She says:

“In order to live,  I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe.”

From the reader’s perspective this lady is no more or less infinitesimal anybody else.  It does have an upbeat ending though.  The narrator thinks she is friendless and alone but finds in her hour of most need that people pop out of the woodwork.

Alameddine’s book is one of my top ten books on the planet about which I am hoping to post.

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Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens (Corsair)

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“The Marsh was guarded by a torn shoreline, labelled by early explorers as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because riptides, furious winds and shallow shoals wrecked ships like paper hats along what would become the North Carolina Coast.”

From a shack in this environment in the early 1950s, a young mother walks away from her life with a violent husband and from her children.  The youngest child, Kya, is just 7 years old.  For a couple of years she still has the remnants of her family but later Kya’s older brothers and sisters are driven out too.  Eventually the father walks out, leaving Kya alone aged 10 years old, in a shack in the middle of a swamp.

Within the context of the story,  Kya’s survival as the ‘Marsh girl’ as she comes to be known by the locals, is credible although from a modern sensibility it seems unlikely.  Living on the ragged edge of a forgotten and derided community, at a time when there was no social services and certainly no surveillance.   No one noticed much if a child was not in school.

But the scientist author is obviously extremely knowledgeable about the ecology of the marshlands and there are many passages of lyrical description which make up for any slightly suspect plot points of which there are many.  There is a plot twist at the end relating to a murder which I found unlikely in the extreme.

 

 

If you do not like the way we tell our story then you are an enemy of the state…

Who shall have control over the story? The grand narratives.  Who allows or disallows them? Who decides what punishments shall follow on from perceived breaches?

Salman Rushdie’s  posed this question in his autobiographical work Joseph Anton (2012) which I have recently re-read.   It is a question that is more urgent than ever.    For the ‘crime’ of having written The Satanic Verses – a novel claimed to be anti-Islam – Rushdie was sentenced to death, by a citizen he had never met of a country he had never visited.



 

Attempts to control ‘the story’ are only increasing as the world turns back to nationalistic governments and the word ‘security’ is regularly  used as carte blanche for  breaches of human rights.

Famed whistleblowers, journalists, artist and writers await their fate either in prison or exile, it is a question more urgent than ever.   Do we know how much fear stalks the world of writing and publishing ?   For those who peddle it, fear is its own reward.

Right now, there are countries in the world where journalists and writers live under constant threat of imprisonment or worse. Bloggers too.  Pen International, an organization that works to protect freedom of thought and expression, regularly updates its website and hosts a Day of the Imprisoned Writer which reminds us:

Without literature, there can be no meaningful freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression, there can be no meaningful literature…

With a murderous team of jihadists after his blood Rushdie entered  a tunnel of fear, surveillance and protection, for himself and his family as well (at the time he had a young son), a scenario mostly terrifying, sometimes bleakly comic,   trailing from borrowed property to borrowed property with a team of protection officers with varying degrees of patience.

He was fortunate (if that’s the right term) that these events just predated the internet age.  At least someone had to look you in the eye to kill you back then.  In fact the author admits that is probably the only reason he survived.

The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered; there were savage attacks on the Italian and Norwegian translators of the book although the latter two thankfully survived. These were people stood up with courage for their beliefs that somewhere, there has to be a bottom line.  But what was the bottom line? Rushdie describes it as:

  “the freedom of the imagination and the overwhelming, overarching issue of freedom of speech, and the right of human beings to walk down the streets of their own countries without fear.”

We think that (within the laws of libel) we are free to think and write as we wish but it isn’t true.   Whose story is this and who has the right to tell it?  Who owns our history, our mythology, our religions? As Rushdie states:

In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased.  It was the argument itself that mattered.  The argument was freedom.  But in a closed society those who possessed  political or ideological power tried to shut down these debates.  We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means.  We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tell it any other way.  If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state…

In the age of Julian Assange, the questions posed by this book are as relevant as ever.  Perhaps not for people who like to believe everything they’re told by the newspapers, but for the rest of us, I recommend it.

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

Binding

Review of The Binding, Bridget Collins. Borough Press.

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?

Anyway, to the book.  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 A Review of ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver

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.

 

silentspring

 

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.