A Paean to Women Everywhere, The Uncounted and Unconsidered Survivors of War

No-one knows who Homer was and it is most unlikely that the epic poems called The Iliad and The Odyssey are the result of a single author.   There is one line of thought that these epic poems were written by a single author and another that they are the result of many contributions and that “Homer” is in fact a tradition rather than the name of an individual.

Does it matter? Well yes it does matter – in fact I believe it matters a lot. Perhaps not the authorship but the ideology, the assumptions.   Because we are our stories.  We are what we believe.  If Homeric is a tradition, then Natalie Haynes has just added a new voice which doesn’t exactly blow great holes in the original.  Rather it fills an existing void.

Haynes book 1000 Ships is a feminist retelling of the epic poems of Homer, of the Trojan Wars.  No longer voiceless or invisible,  the story is told through the women, the daughters, brides, wives, sisters – by Haynes’ pen given shape and substance, flesh and blood, personalities, anger, suffering and courage of their own.

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The Greeks and Trojans fought for over a decade – principally according to the myth so that Helen of Troy – the world’s most beautiful woman and wife of Menelaus of Sparta, can be retrieved from Paris himself the son of King Priam of Troy,  who has stolen her away.

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Despite the book’s title 1000 Ships, these stories are not about Helen of Troy.  In fact, she has a minor part.   Although the lines from which the title comes are famous ( I assumed they were Shakespeare. No.  They are from The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus written by the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe and published in 1604).

Was this the face that launch’d 1000 ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

It is amply worth noticing that Haynes in giving her book its title has removed references to Helen, leaving only the ships.     If men go to war, she is saying, it is not just because of a woman however beautiful she may be.  And don’t let yourself off the hook for all the killing and bloodshed by blaming her.

This conversation between Hecabe (mother of Paris) and Helen is key.

“The Trojan whore, is that what they’re calling you now? Hecabe asked.

“I would think so” Helen replied.  They’ve never been a very imaginative group of people my husband’s soldiers.

The Greeks finally win the Trojan wars as most schoolchildren know – or used to –   by trickery.  They appear to sail away with their fleet but leave behind a giant wooden horse apparently as an offering.  The wooden horse conceals Greek soldiers inside.

I found myself willing the Trojans not to take the wooden horse inside the city gates.  I mean why would you even do that?  But of course they do, and that is pretty much that. End of.  It is at this point that Haynes starts her story.

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At the opening of the book Troy is in flames.  We watch the destruction of the city through the eyes of Creusa who is searching through the dense smoke and dark night for her husband and son.  She will never find either.   Soon after the sacking of the city.   The surviving women of Troy – of whatever status – are lined up and parcelled out amongst their Greek conquerors to rape and enslaved futures.   This is the bit that the bards don’t sing about.

 

A Thousand Ships

“If he truly wants to understand the nature of the epic story I am letting him compose, he needs to accept the casualties of war are not just the ones who die.” So speaks Calliope (the poet’s muse).

But it is Penelope who is the star of this show.  At least for me.  Poor patient Penelope who sits at Ithaca and waits and waits for her husband Odysseus to return from the Trojan wars.  Meanwhile ten years pass!   On the way back he gets very busy having to outwit the cyclops and the nymph Calypso who wants Odysseus for herself.  Then there is as well a witch called Circe.  Penelope hears of all this through bardic tales, there being no email.  We in our turn only hear about this from Penelope’s increasingly ironic and irritated letters as she is exasperated by what sounds like the most ridiculous series of excuses ever invented by an adulterer.

“Because really, how many cannibalistic giants can one Greek plausibly meet as he sails the open seas.  Even I, expert in your ability to create trouble, think one set is probably sufficient for your story.”

I cannot say I loved this book unreservedly – there is a great cast of characters and I sometimes felt detached from them.  But I did love its sometime irony and wit.  Its humanity.   The writing is  clever, insightful and based on a mountain of classical knowledge.   Like all the best ideas, it is obvious once someone else has thought of it.  1000 Ships is not only a feat of imagination which creates living personalities out of mere mythic stereotypes, but it is a paean to women everywhere who have been the uncounted survivors of war.

Penelope writes:

“The bards all sing of the bravery of heroes and the greatness of your deeds: it is one of the few elements of your story on which they all agree.  But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind.”

Well now someone has.  And it is a song which is much overdue.

 

20 Books of Summer – for a Less than 2020 Summer

It’s been a tough week here down at the old Rune stead with not a lot of reading getting done.  I have parked a snail on top of my TBR pile – a glass one, not a real one.  He’s there to represent the speed at which I am coursing through my  list at the moment.    And can someone please tell me why – apart from the fact that we need the water – does it have to rain all the time so that the stuck at home-ness becomes even more oppressive!

This week I have been playing my harp which I do slowly and far from expertly but the great thing about  the harp as an instrument is that even when you mess up it still sounds ok.

I have also been exercising in my local park which is next the river Thames.    I am watching a family of Canada Geese   – at the moment the geese are keeping me sane.  Thank you geese.  Unlike me, they never seem to miss the tide.  The tiny fluffy goslings became teenagers very quickly.

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We are having to realise our place and how we disturb the balance in the ecosystem now – more than ever.  Having to recognise that we are part of the whole nature thing, not dominant over it.  I firmly believe that the massive increases we have seen in the last decades of mental health issues (the silent pandemic) are directly connected to breakdown of the biosphere and our destruction of the environment.

Anyway,   to the books. This year again I am taking part in the 20 books of Summer challenge

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Hosted by Cathy@746Books – thank you Cathy –  my 20 books of Summer is roughly 10 books at the moment.  I don’t know what the other ten will be yet,  but they will come into focus hopefully.

Those paying close attention will know that I have already read Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (!!) but I do not consider this cheating.  I’m including it because I have read it since 1st June which is when the challenge started and we have until September 1st to read the others. Some of these books I have already committed to over the same period as part of my Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist reading commitment.   Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is such a tough read I am balancing it with some hopeful things including Daisaku Ikeda’s excellent collection of essays Hope is a Decision (Middleway Press, 2017).

I have read Richard Powers The Overstory but would like to read it again.   It is a book which recognises how humans are abusing their place in the universe.  There are no doubt many of those  –  regrettably I can’t get to them all  but happy to take suggestions.  Powers’ book probably does this as well as any.    But its also true to say that the poets got there first.  I think fiction writers have been late to this particular, gloomy party.

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I am waiting for a copy of  Ash before Oak written by Jeremy Cooper and published by the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions.  I have another of their books on my list too – Grove by Esther Kinsky (translated by Caroline Schmidt) which I have started reading and which drips atmosphere and yearning from every page of its lyrical prose.

Of Ash before Oak the publisher’s blurb says:

Ash before Oak is a novel in the form of a fictional journal written by a solitary man on a secluded Somerset estate. Ostensibly a nature diary, chronicling the narrator’s interest in the local flora and fauna and the passing of the seasons, Ash before Oak is also the story of a breakdown told slantwise, and of the narrator’s subsequent recovery through his reengagement with the world around him.

I am proud that I have avoided a single purchase during lockdown from certain online giants who shall remain nameless.  However I found a book by Janie Chang called The Library of Legends on Tomorrow is Another Day and downloaded that onto my kindle because it sounded sweet and comforting and it is so far.

 

 

 

The Double Edged Sword of the Literary Prize – and The Legend of The Tiger’s Wife

I’m currently reading my way through the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.  What a talented lot of writers are out there.   It occurred to me that I knew nothing about the ethos of the prize so looked it up.

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction came about after a group of people – journalists, novelists, agents, publishers, came together in 1992 in a flat in London.   The Booker Prize of 1991 had included no women at all, and the group got together to discuss whether this mattered and what should be done about it.

The novelist Kate Mosse, one of the founder members of the prize, writes on the website:

“After some hours and several bottles of wine, the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize – one which would celebrate women’s creativity, one that would be truly international (nationality or country of residence being no bar to eligibility), one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives as integral to the Prize – was born. A prize that would be fun!”

Originally sponsored by Orange, the prize is currently sponsored by Deloitte, Nat West and Bailey’s.

I have a  natural aversion to commercial sponsorship of literary prizes.  But I am overcoming that on the grounds that we have to live in the real world and to do this costs money, plus I understand authors badly need the publicity and book sales which a win brings in its wake.   I am also struggling to overcome my even more natural aversion to having Orange or Deloitte tell me what to read.  Yet I have come to the conclusion I must at least to some extent get off my high horse about commercial sponsorship of literary prizes and the arts in general – with the exception of fossil fuel companies or bad pharma naturally.

Prizes can be a double edged sword.  Yes its great to win them, the publicity, the fuss, the champagne, what’s not to die for?  But maybe this draws attention away from equally worthy writing.  But then we have to live in the real world, which costs money, etc.  So I go round in circles.

Also I worry what are the criteria against which these things are judged?  It is gobsmacking that even in the final decade of the 20th century books by women were not thought worthy of even longlisting for a major prize.  Yes this is true according to Wiki.  Unbelievable but true!  We’re not talking 19th century here, we talking 1990s.

Since the inception of The Booker Prize (in 1969) 31 men have won, 16 women.    But when in 2019 Margaret Atwood won for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other (the latter being incidentally the first black woman ever to win)  there was reason to hope that things were changing.  I would like to think that this change is in part due to the influence and the success of the Women’s Prize.

Tiger'sWife

Still I digress, back to the shortlist.  Téa Obreht’s book  The Tiger’s Wife  is set against the background of war in The Balkans fought in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia – therefore in the last decade of the 20th century.

If this book was  a cake recipe it would contain a splash of realism, a large handful of magic realism and (like Jenny Offill’s book Weather) a dollop of insight into the losses we incur faced with our failing relationship with the natural world that sustains us.  As a story, it is quite hard to sum up.  It is a storyteller’s book which juggles a seemingly realist narrative against a world of spirit and superstition.   In short it is rather wonderful.

“The tree stands near the fence where the braided cornfields begin, and Marko Parovic tells me the people of Galina avoid it all costs; its branches he says cast a net in which souls are caught as they rise to heaven and the ravens that roost there pick the souls out of the bark like worms.”

The tiger’s wife is not real – or she is real in the minds of some of the locals – which leads to tragedy and then legend.  There is a deathless man and two Doctors, one the granddaughter of the other who form the backbone of the narrative.  There is of course, a tiger, and some of the writing about him form the most lyrical passages in the book.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December.  Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees; but on that day, the herdsman Vladiša lost a calf in the blizzard and went up the mountain to retrieve it.  In a thicket of saplings, he came across the tiger yellow eyed and bright as a blood moon, with the calf already dead, hanging in its jaws.”

Someone from The Guardian describes  the story as a ‘matryoshka-style narrative’ referring to the Russian dolls that nest one inside the other, which seems to me an ideal description.   The Tiger’s Wife is a story on many levels, some of them real, some mythological.

The question is whether it works overall.  I found it very readable and readily entertaining, thought provoking and humane.  Will it win?  Who knows.  Obreht is obviously massively talented, but there is strong competition.  I’d love to know what others think about literary prizes.

Next up is A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.

 

Lockdown Summer? With no books!

Well the weather is sunny here in  London but all else seems much awry. Are we facing a whole summer in lockdown? With closed bookshops?   I very much hope not. 

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Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

The good news is that I have discovered that my local bookshop is still doing deliveries – it took me weeks to have the commonsense to check their website to find out.  I am so over buying things from certain online giants who shall remain nameless that I’m only reading real books from now on!

Here is a look at some of my planned summer reads. These books are from the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 #ReadingWomenChallenge which includes both suggested reads and books from the 2020 prize shortlist. It’s an exciting list.

From the 2020 prize shortlist, I will not be reading the third book in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy The Mirror and the Light because I haven’t yet read the second book.

Some of their suggested books I have already read:

  • Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin which I read some years ago and is shattering and iconic and I don’t think I could add anything to the reams that have already been written about it.
  • Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna which I adored and preferred to her more recent books Flight Behaviour and Unsheltered, the latter reviewed here.
  • I have already reviewed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo here.
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So here are my TBR’s from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for 2020.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ((Fourth Estate) 2006

This book is so famous I can’t believe I haven’t got to it yet. I am now rectifying that mistake. The story is set in Nigeria in the 1960s against the backdrop of approaching civil war. I am only a couple of chapters in but I already love the compelling character of the house boy, Ugwu, Odenigbo the man he calls Master, and the elegant soon to be arriving Olanna. There is a palpable atmosphere about the early chapters and I look forward to learning much about Africa through the story.

 

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Wiedenfield & Nicholson) 2011

The sound of this storyline is intriguing. There is an intergenerational mystery which is always a winner with me. When a tiger escapes from the local zoo – what happened to the boy who refused to be terrified of the escaped tiger? His grandaughter would very much like to know. Her investigations will, apparently,  lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book …

This is also partly a war time story set during the conflict in the Balkans.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December. Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees…”

Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships (Mantle) 2019

Natalie Haynes gives voice to all the women – not just the famous Helen – whose lives were affected by the fall of Troy. No longer are women the minor characters in the stories of men.

The blurb reads:

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greems and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash….

If and when I can get copies, I will add other shortlisted titles including:

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farell 

Weather by Jenny Offill

 Dominicana by Angie Cruz.

and hope to announce my own winner before the Judges decide in the Autumn. 

When writerly technique stares at you with bloodshot eyes …

It’s not often I rant on this blog.  But there are a number of things I feel very strongly about: income inequality for instance,   surveillance,   online giants who put bookshops out of business – oh and punctuation!

I am not talking about ‘correct’ punctuation or the efficacy of semi-colons or full stops or commas or apostrophes.    But there are a few  books around at the moment that see no reason to use any, ever.  Either that or they bombard you with  legions and legions of commas and little else.     Lucy Ellman’s book Ducks, Newburyport is an example.  ( Galley Beggar Press. )

 

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The fact that this book contains 1020 pages broken down into a mere 8 sentences, the fact that according to the Guardian review you eventually stop noticing the fact that, the fact that may or may not be true, the fact that I never got to the point where I could find out whether that was a fact or not, the fact that the book won awards and was shortlisted for the Booker prize, the fact that it still drives me absolutely bonkers.

My patient and much admired reviewer above said:

“There were a few dark moments while working my way through Ducks, Newburyport, where death seemed positively appealing as I was faced with another page of dense type…”

This I can understand.

Our poor brains derive meaning not just from one word to the next – but range back and forth across  paragraphs, pages or chapters, across clauses and sub-clauses because our poor brains need to take a break sometimes, or mine does.   Punctuation, like life,  is an opportunity to breathe. Punctuation is like the rests in a musical notation or rhthym.  Punctuation is the give-me-a-break friend of the sentence, our saviour from massive indigestible and exhausting tons of words piled unceasingly one after the other across 1020 pages.

Yes its true our minds produce things in bits:  ideas, dreams, scraps of proposed speech, memories, anger, to-do lists.  Our thoughts dart from one thing to another.  That was how stream of consciousness started and how Virginia Woolf used it.   But not many people can do what Virginia Woolf did.     And how interesting are the contents of my mind – or anyone else’s – if there are thousands of reams of stuff put down in no particular order?

Aye but here’s the rub.  Because of course in books there is an order so why pretend there is not?   For  all its technical in-your-face-ery Ducks, Newburyport is still a story  about a  woman in Ohio looking back across her life.  And oh boy can this lady look back.

Ducks’ author Lucy Ellman is  the daughter of James Joyce according to my much admired Guardian reviewer,  and therefore I do not get into a discussion about what should or should not constitute stream of consciousness because I really do not know.  I only know what I find manageably readable.  I only know when writerly technique rams itself into your face about an inch away and stays there staring at you with bloodshot eyes going “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah”  for 1000 pages  it’s time to close the book and your eyes in sheer exhaustion.

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From the same publisher comes Toby Litt’s Patience.  This is certainly not anything like 1000 pages long nor is it comprised of one sentence.  Here – oh joy, one may find such luxuries as full stops and paragraphs  although now I look again not very many commas.  Hardly any in fact. OK. None.

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I worry slightly that this stream of consciousness thing is catching.

Litt’s story concerns itself with a  young boy who suffers from cerebral palsy.  He lives in an orphanage run by nuns. The date is 1979.

There are many things to love about this book.   Not least the poignant way even well meaning human beings treat the disabled.    We have access to the narrator Elliott’s interior rebellion  which his disability renders impossible to action.  But when a new boy Jim comes to the ward, the rebellion is definitely on!

Elliott’s  age is not given.  He measures his life in Christmas Cards from his family at the beginning of the book which itself a bit of tear jerker and then later on he measures his life in days after Jim’s arrival.

Elliott has been unable to engage with any traditional education but has spent a large amount of time listening to the radio and taught himself, particularly about music.    He has very cogent and philosophical thoughts some of which are about the nature of god, guilt and Jesus.

“Creation must be forgiveness or else God is not God but Jehovah Jesus is not Jesus by the Thief and the Holy Spirit is not Holy but Hollow and is not a Spirit but a Sprite full of Spite and full of Holes and thus was I angry that afternoon at the Sisters and especially Sister Britta for making a guiltless boy pray to a guilty God or a God who did not exist making him pray for forgiveness for a sin that never existed except in the guilty head of a Sister.”

If you feel out of breath after reading the above quote, the whole book is like this but at least it feels to be like there is some internal logic to this idea.  Elliot cannot speak so the whole book is one long thought.    But Litt, unlike his stable mate Ellman, writes sentences that we know will end sometime although in opposition to Ducks, Patience takes out most of the commas, it is at least possible to tune in to a natural rhythm in these sentences.

Elliott befriends  Jim, a new boy on the ward.  Jim is not pliable.  He persists in defiance.   Taking up a position by a wooden gate between the ward and the lift, between the ward and the exit and freedom and the normal lived world that is inaccessible to these children.   But  to stand thus is very much Against the Rules.   Jim is not allowed to stand by the wooden gate and he knows this.  But he challenges the authority of the nuns by doing so.

I liked the wooden gate.  It was a brilliant metaphor for the shut away-ness of lives that are seen as other, as less.

 

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

 

 

Daemons, Giants but Mostly Elves – A Brief Walk Round the Literary Marketplace

Unlike the real literary marketplace which is peopled by giants with 3 for 1 tables and  websites with a zillion hits,   the blogosphere literary reviews marketplace is peopled by elves.

Book elves,  that’s us folk who love to read and who do an awful lot of it and some of the books we love we hope and pray that someone else may love as well.  And even if they don’t or they can’t get to it right now well, there’s still a conversation to be had.

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Sometimes I think there is too much ‘should this’ and ‘should that’ around reading.Too much of the latest thing, the big hype.  Happy the writers who are on the beneficial end of being the next big thing but that is a small number of people.

Meanwhile there is the rest of us.

At a time when we are sharply being reminded of the porous nature of our national borders have chosen I would like to share something from one of Philip Pullman’s essays ‘Children’s Literature without Borders’ from his collection entitled Daemon Voices (David Fickling Books).  The  His Dark Materials trilogy writer talks about the art of storytelling and why children’s literature ‘shouldn’t need passports’.

Can we read the wrong things or read things for the wrong reasons?  There are those that will say we can.

Reading for the wrong reasons is something that the guards on the border never do, but which other people do all the time unless they are supervised.

What Pullman is referring to  is the reading of adult books by children or vice versa.  This is different, he points out, to feminists writing books for other feminists, or gardeners writing books for other gardeners.  Children’s books are written by adults and most usually bought by adults.

When we categorise books and reading we are more likely shutting folk out than being inclusive.  He likes to imagine the literary marketplace as if it were precisely that.

A busy place with lots of people buying and selling, stopping for a gossip, a cup of coffee, or to watch a juggler or stop to listen to the storyteller…

The real literary marketplace is not like that.   There are many intermediaries who come between the storyteller and his audience, who come bearing gifts or influence, or gifts of influence, advice, marketing, ticket sales, book signings.

When Pullman wrote this in 2001 we were pretty much pre-internet.  But to me the blogosphere has become the nearest thing we have to that bustling market place that Pullman envisaged – unlike the shop with its regulated shelves for this age group or that age group,  books specially for women, or specially for men, cookbooks for those who like to eat, diet books for those who like to diet, books on politics for clever people.

A book blog is not a place of  commercial influence, or very few.  I guess that’s not why people do it.  It’s certainly not why I do it.   So why do it?  Do I hope to make a fortune? Hah!

I blog  to be part of a community.  Because someone may stop by for a chat or a virtual coffee, agree or say I’ve read that book too and it was amazing (or total rubbish).     At other times people may rush on by.   And that’s fine too.

Meanwhile, excuse me, I need to go and watch the juggler and listen to that storyteller over there …

 

 

 

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?

20201

 

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?

***

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.

snowdencover

 

“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.”