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.

solitude

“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.

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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.

 

 

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.

Even by the standards of pianos this one is heavy

Review:  The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander.  Europa Editions

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many of us choose a book if not exactly by its cover then by reading the first couple of paragraphs.  That’s why every writer knows it pays to have a good opening paragraph.

grayscale piano keys
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I picked this book up recently in a store in Waterloo station on the strength of the following:

“Hidden in dense forests high in the Romanian mountains, where winters were especially cold and long , were spruce trees that would be made into pianos: exquisite instruments famous for the warmth of their tone and beloved of the likes of Schumann and Liszt.  One man alone knew who to choose them.”

Damn that’s a good sentence.  It has a sense of place, romance (in the original meaning of the word) mystery and it kicks off a good first chapter describing the making of a Blüthner Piano (No. 66,825) the subject of the story.

Certainly a story about a piano is not unique but there’s always room for one more.  Sadly it’s not this one. I could hardly imagine that a book that starts this well could ultimately be such a disappointment.

Like Unsheltered this book is in two time shifts, but there the similarities end.  Kingsolver relates her two different periods in entirely credible ways and gives us two strong, female characters.

The Weight of a PIano  set partly  in Soviet Russia and partly in  contemporary USA , offers us two heroines named Katya and Clara – names close enough to confuse if you’re not concentrating.   Neither lady benefits from character development  away from their reactions to the various men in their lives.

There are other things to be confused about too.

Chapter 2 kicks off with a typo so that Clara’s surname ‘lundy’ is not given a capital letter – at least not in the copy I was reading.  That’s a major error for a publisher to allow to go through to final printing, and on page 15.

Moving swiftly on, the modern tale is centred around Clara who is a car mechanic :

“when the lines were bled, she stuffed the towel into her back pocket and went to her toolbox to grab… ”.

You may wonder how we got  from Schumann and the Romanian mountains to Clara stuffing a towel in her back pocket – at least I did.

Both Clara and Katya become at various times in their different lives owners of the said piano yet I struggled to believe in either of them or their convoluted back stories.   Neither Garage girl Clara or soviet émigré,  victim of domestic abuse Katya are convincing.  Nor is the dialogue.

‘Greg’s eyes glistened in the moonlight but he didn’t cry again’

Featuring probably the worst sex scene I have ever read

 “Oh Katya,” he moaned.

“Misha” she whispered back.

and an unlikely story line about the sale of the piano which relies on coincidence,  followed by an unlikely trip to California’s Death Valley, it felt to me like the book has been written by two different people and neither being able to make up their mind as to what the storyline should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Are the only sparrows left the ones we dream about?

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I dreamed about sparrows last night which I found rather sad if the only sparrows left are in dreams.

“Miners use canaries to warn them of deadly gases.  It might not be a bad idea if we took the same warning from the dead birds in our countryside.”

So wrote Lord Shackleton in 1963 in his introduction to Rachel Carson’s now iconic book Silent Spring

We couldn’t see it then could we – yet now it’s here.

Reading the right books  suddenly feels like a huge responsibility but which are the right books?

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woman sitting while reading a book
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books in 2020 and to read more books about the environment, painful though it is.     Suggestions welcome in the fields of poetry, memoir, biography, literary fiction, philosophy and new nature writing.

So far on my list I have:

Figuring by writer, genius, blogger and writer of genius Maria Popova.

This was a daunting looking read coming in at a cool 545 pages – but fascinating and endlessly erudite.   I’m on p429 (yes, thank you Christmas).   Published by Canongate. Review upcoming  in the next week–

Bird Cottage by author, artist, singer, songwriter and philosopher Eva Meijer. Pushkin Press.

Really looking forward to this one on the connections between ourselves, the natural world and the epidemic of loneliness.

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar,

the latest book from American born British/Libyan Pulitzer prize winning author of The Return, about the author’s search for his father. Published by Viking.

Dark Enchantment by Dorothy Macardle (Tramp Press).

Not an author I know anything about but I found this reviewed in the FT Weekend and thought it sounded intriguing – a sort of gothic ghost story set just after the Second World War.

Whose Story is This? Rebecca Solnit (Granta).

Who gets to shape the narrative of our times?

Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman. (David Fickling Books).

Famed author of His Dark Materials trilogy in a series of talks/lectures about his influences including Milton and Stephen Hawking.

Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber).

Mmm! A long way short of 50 but it’s a start!

2019 goodbye to all that …

As 2020 is upon us,  here is a brief look at some of the titles I reviewed in 2019. I would like to wish everyone a Happy – and not at all volatile – New Year.

January I looked at Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant:

“Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.”

April

VanGogh

“Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.’

This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.”

May

I reviewed this savage memoir of rape and childhood trauma

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe,  Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver

 

 Also in May I looked at a collection of essays by Mary Oliver,

 

He was probably only looking for a partner. So begins one of Mary Oliver’s short essays from this collection ‘Who cometh here?’about a black bear.    This poor bear having struggled long and hard to reach Provincetown (‘crossing Massachusetts, swimming the channel, striding the length of the Cape’) got tranquilised and put in a van and returned to,  as far as the rangers knew, the point where he had begun.”

 

 

June – From bears to invisible women,  Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

I reviewed Caroline Criado Perez research on the data bias that causes invisibility of the female in data about ‘mankind’.  Essential reading for anyone who assumes that in the 21st century equality of the sexes is a done deal.

 

July – Virginia Hall’s daredevil exploits during World War 2

Review:

“her service is even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.”

 

In September – my book of the year,  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

At once both ultra contemporary and completely ageless, this book sums up societies both sides of the Atlantic as they ruthlessly are rather than as we might like to see ourselves.

” Thank goodness for his genius to  humanise modern America, to bring the  worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience.    How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK.”

 

In November Edward Snowden came to tell us about the world we are creating for ourselves through unbridled and poorly understood – yes even by those who are supposed to know  – technology.

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

 

In December, Harry Lee Poe’s  biography of writer C.S. Lewis

“Written with a sense of irony perhaps but also not so far from the truth of what many endured at such institutions – many were scarred for life by such experiences.   I found this early section of the book the most interesting as Lewis negotiates life without his mother, surviving the horrendous Wynyards, his closeness to his brother Warnie (a closeness later lost) and their father Albert’s struggles to raise two motherless boys.”