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.

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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.

#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.”

CzeslawMiloszDHcover

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.

Last season’s dust sheets or Jimmy Choos

When you’re dead you don’t need to worry about image.  Groaning away in last season’s dust sheets or Jimmy Choos is one and the same thing.  And it doesn’t matter how many likes you get because you don’t have a FB page.  There has not yet been a generation of computer literate ghosts to worry about their image on social media.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

How will manifestations of ghostliness be dealt with in literary fashion as we move further into the 21st century and is there anyone left to care?

I am fascinated by how and when spirits will modernize. What will happen to the ghost in the machine, given that self development is unlikely in the beyond. Not for these modern ghosts the task of operating as Dickensian warning signs;  no dreary chain rattling or informing the living of their error of their ways.  The new ghosts will surely want to trend on twitter.      Maybe they will copy humanity and become abusive, distributing fake news. Who knows.  Maybe they will just go because humanity will no longer have the element of any spiritual belief that sustains the realm of the other.

I have experienced apparitions of a sort the film industry became bored with decades ago; you know the  watch out, ghost! sort of ghost  with misty bits and drifty bits and stormy bits.    In short, a coughing, banging about, whispering cliché.  Hark!  Is that the sound of paying customers yawning!   We are bored ghost.  Away with thee and thy foleying nonsense.   There are more lethal darknesses upon us.

What is the mystery that brings prose writers and poets back to the hinterlands of dream and being? The hope of standing on the pinafores of giants and creating some Brontë-esque masterpiece for without the realm of the psychological many of our great works could not exist. Jane Eyre to quote the most obvious example.

Yet increasingly the realm of the unknown is being beaten around its metaphorical head by tub thumping 21st century bureaucracies and an educational system that penalises young people; that teaches them not to dream of anything other than being fed into the maw of a capitalist system they increasingly see as irrelevant to their future.   Because the future of our young people is inextricably linked to climate change and its potential disasters.  As usual, politicians are light years behind on this thinking. The children are way ahead as we have seen in the last couple of weeks.

The literary ghost is still a manifestation of spirit rather than a collection of undeleted files left lying around in the ether.   Let us celebrate this.   Despite the cliché of knocking and whispering and sounds of the audience yawning,  I kind of hope he stays that way.     But maybe he or she doesn’t want our hope. Like Greta Thunberg – the young Swedish climate activist –  the ghosts want us to panic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The planet has 50 years left to live – but hey! It’s Awards season again

In this week when we are told that the planet has about 50 more years to live, a self-congratulatory industry beanfeast doesn’t really seem relevant or appropriate. That said, it’s hard not to get swept along in the tidal miasma that represents awards season at this time of year.

I usually try to see as many of the usual suspects as I can in order to nod sagely or expostulate that yes I agree or no, it was the wrong decision, when an actor glides,  stalks, staggers or stumbles up onto the stage at the BAFTAS or Oscars.  Of course if a decision goes my way, it is the correct decision.  If it doesn’t it was undoubtedly wrong. However all is irrelevant because this year my best intentions have gone awry and I missed most of them.

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Despite my existential angst, I was able to nod sagely at a win for best actor Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.   When we came out of seeing the film we got into conversation with a gentleman who had been involved in the music industry and said he had been at Freddie Mercury’s 21st birthday party.  Now that is impressive.   I think Malek is too young to have done anything but watch Freddie on youtube which makes him impressive too.

I saw Roma which I loved although feminist interpretation of this film is not exactly positive, one critic claiming that it ‘glorified servitude’; the implication I suppose being female servitude since there are not really any significant male roles in the film.   Mmm! Not sure about that one.  I think it was just Alfonso Cuaron making a film about his home and childhood in Mexico and the two women who raised him which I imagine he is entitled to do.  Also I regret watching  Roma on Netflix even though they paid for it because this is a film that needs to be watched on a cinema screen.

Staggering on to Mary Queen of Scots.  So much blood and gore.  Yes  I know that it was how they behaved.  And yes Saoirse Ronan is great and woman in a man’s world and the whole nine yards.   And yes I know David Rizzio was stabbed 57 times and yes you can still go to Holyroodhouse and see the plaque in the chamber where it happened.  In fact it claims on the Palace website that you can still see bloodstains on the floor.  But do I really need to?

 

Ring of Bright Water, An epitaph

It has taken me a long time to read Gavin Maxwell’s  Ring of Bright Water.  I remember the book coming out.  I even remember the film with Virginia McKenna and the infernal song! Now that I’ve read it the thing that fascinates me most – more than the story about otters more even than its Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of the new nature writing but Maxwell’s writing feels different.   As if he writes from the inside out, rather than from outside looking in as most do.

I didn’t even know that the title of the work is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems.  Ignorant? Probably.  I thought I could dispel my ignorance by reading a biography.    There is only one that I could find -that by Douglas Botting – read that I told myself and all will be revealed.    Well, no.  What is revealed is that Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland; a wartime instructor in the  Special Operations Executive, Guards Officer, adventurer, traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond) there is no shortage of material here. The  authorised biography  is by Douglas Botting who explains that other would-be biographers of Maxwell came up against the twin obstacles of family and literary estate,  but that his own application was granted because he had known Maxwell personally during the last years of the author’s life. 20060630-Hampton Court -DSC_0337

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own work and from Botting’s biography,  that this fully paid up member of the hero club was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.  These aspects of his life being more acutely realised in the work than human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for a trip or adventure – there usually seems to be the odd old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

What is not revealed because of course no-one knows is where the writing comes from.    Ironic also that the overwhelming success of Maxwell’s book and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life he chose in remote Camusfeàrna – with no made up road no electricity one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop – were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  These books were an elegy for a way of life which was vanishing even mid-20th century during the author’s lifetime; but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has taken place,  they now feel like an epitaph for a failed conservation movement.

 

 

Grassroots is us

 

How modern we like to think ourselves. How clever.  We know about waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Whatever else we in the UK may die of we won’t at least die of those. We beat those years back. Dragged ourselves out of our 19th century health ignorance, discovered new medicines and technologies needed to keep our water and air clean. Health and long life – a massive reduction in child morbidity and mortality – these were the prizes to be fought for and won.

Yet here we are in the 21st century and our air and water quality are under threat again: our water supplies at risk from the Government’s fracking cronies while our air is being poisoned by emissions of nitrous oxides and particulates PM2.5, so liberally handed out to us by diesel cars and a greedy, expansionist aviation industry with shareholders to feed. As at 6th January London has already exceeded its illegal air levels for the whole of 2017.

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The Government that was elected in this strange ‘democracy’ is no longer interested in supporting us, in caring about our health or our children’s education. Instead they follow the money and back the big boys, for example, taking away the right of local Councils to refuse planning permission to an untried and untested fracking industry, while in other cases forcing individuals and local Councils to Court to defend the freedoms of their communities against the violent noise and choking poisons belching out of Heathrow airport and its dirty energy planes. Client Earth has twice taken the Government to Court over its failure to protect the quality of our air in accordance with EU regulations. Twice they have won. May’s response? To announce a 3rd runway at Heathrow.

Apparently, we must show the UK is ‘open for business’ particularly after the result of the EU referendum. Although it is not currently known how many business people wish to come to the UK wearing gas masks or carrying their own water supplies.

Far from fighting to keep its communities safe and healthy, this government is siding with those who completely disregard communities as interfering nuisances to be brushed aside and/or intimidated into submission. The need to show that the UK is ‘open for business’ does not excuse the poisoning of our air.   New energy sources cannot be found at a cost of fouling our water supplies or with a total disregard for the health and welfare of communities that have to live alongside massive infrastructure projects.

When climate justice wins we win the world we want.  We can’t sit this one out, not because we have too  much  to lose but because we have too much to gain….

Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything

So who will protect us now? We will. The granny that Cuadrilla tried and failed to get put in prison; the very ordinary people that chained themselves to Heathrow’s railings or lay down on the M4 motorway; these unlikely heroes are the new guardians of our air and water.

Communities of unimprisoned grannies are being protected by the Courts against land and air grabbing corporates prepared to go to any lengths to get what they want. In the absence of a political solution, there will be a people-centred movement. It has already started. A coming together of community groups united by a desire to be treated as citizens with rights and responsibilities (rather than that favoured Thatcherist term ‘consumers’).

What does it mean to consume? To use up air and water and spit out foulness? To take the money and run?   It is not the people that are doing that.