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.

Geese

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

Inspiration for Spring: People Who Changed the Way we See The World

There are many who would qualify as having changed the way we see the world,  but I could only pick four, both for my sanity and yours.  Before anyone gets in touch and says they’re all guys, next week I shall be writing about four ladies that changed the way we see the world.

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Is there any more inspiring artist than Van Gogh  both in the intense suffering of his personal life and the transformative and (still) stunningly original nature of his art?.

In letters to his brother Theo (Penguin Classics, 1997), Vincent wrote:

“I don’t know myself how I paint it.”

VanGogh

Although Vincent was unable to describe his working methods,  from his substantial body of letters it is possible to follow the workings of his mind and stand in awe of his  powers of observation.   For example this description of a wood.

Behind those saplings, behind that brownish-red ground, is a sky of a very delicate blue-grey, warm, hardly blue at all sparkling.  And against it there is a hazy border of greenness and a network of saplings and yellowish leaves.  A few figures of wood gatherers are foraging about, dark masses of mysterious shadows.

In 1884 Van Gogh wrote to Theo after the latter had complained about the quality of some drawings Vincent had sent and told him his work needed to improve a great deal!

Vincent’s reply was:

“As far as saleability or unsaleability  is concerned, that’s a dead horse I don’t intend to go on flogging.”

One of the prime lessons  Van Gogh’s  life offers us is how to believe in yourself as an artist, when the rest of the world doesn’t.  I often wonder what would he and Theo make of the crowd control measures now necessary outside the Van Gogh Museum in Amerstdam?

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Including poems inspired by the work of Vincent Van Gogh –  No Enemies,  No Hatred  is the title of  a collection of writings by  dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017).

For the role he played in drafting and advocating the human rights manifesto called Charter 08 which called for democratic reform in China,   Liu Xiaobo was arrested and in December 2009 sentenced to 11 years in Jinzhou prison.

In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize much to the chagrin of the authorities in China who tried to prevent any celebration of this award.  Unable even to send a family member to Oslo,   Liu’s Nobel lecture speech was given in absentia and read by the actress Liv Ullman.   He died in July 2017.  Here is an extract from his speech:

“But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed … twenty years ago – I have no enemies and no hatred.  None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies.  Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity ….”

 

And on free speech:

“Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.” ~ Liu Xiaobo

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Daisaku Ikeda is one of the world’s foremost living Buddhist philosophers, spiritual leader to millions across the globe who practise Nichiren Buddhism.  He is the recipient of numerous peace and humanitarian awards and author of more than sixty books.

Here he is on the power of reading.

Ikeda

“Reading is dialogue with oneself, it is self-reflection which cultivates profound humanity. Reading is therefore essential to our development.  It expands and enriches the personality like a seed that germinates after a long time and sends forth many blossom laden branches.

People who can say of a book “this changed my life” truly understand the meaning of happiness.  Reading that sparks inner revolution is desperately needed to escape drowning in the rapidly advancing information society,  Reading is more than intellectual  ornamentation, it is a battle for the establishment of the self, a ceaseless challenge that keeps us young and vigorous.”

(Middleway Press, 2006)

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No post on inspiration can be complete without a poet.  But which poet to choose?  I have decided on Rainer Maria Rilke not because I can read him in the original which I can’t sadly, but because the soul tearing profundity of his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ is the same in any language.

On Solitude:

And to speak again of solitude, it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something we can choose or reject.  We are solitary.  We can delude ourselves about it, and pretend that it is not so.  That is all.  But how much better it is to realise that we are thus, to start directly from that very point.  Then to be sure, it will come about that we grow dizzy; for all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is infinitely far.

Next week I shall be posting about four inspirational ladies who changed (or are changing)  the way we see the world.

 

 

 

5 Books of Solitude and Isolation

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

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

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

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

Here are  five books that find solace in isolation.

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Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author writes:

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

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

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

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

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 …

 

 

 

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!

Review of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. (Granta Books)

The Topeka School by [Lerner, Ben]

Born from a Cambridge University publication in 1989,  Granta Books is a prestigious independent literary publisher which publishes about 25 titles a year.  From their website I note that an original launch list included works by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Martha Gellhorn and Salman Rushdie.   The website lists prizewinning works they have since published,  including Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

To be published by Granta is to be part of an important literary conversation.

The Topeka School  is a book with a number of literary conversations and they are not always easy to follow.  At the centre of the narrative is a family: Dr. Jane Gordon,  second wife to her psychologist husband Jonathan (“a Jewish long-haired hippie from New york”) and her son Adam a brilliant debater and migraine sufferer.  The book charts the years as Adam heads through school in a patchily brilliant way to college.  The Gordon family comes to Topeka where the parents work for ‘The Foundation”, a mental health facility.   At school Adam becomes  a questionable friend  to Darren, a traumatized teenager completely ill equipped for life in modern America.

Darren is jeered at, laughed at, punched and beaten for no seeming purpose other than he is what he represents and what he represents is

“ … the bad surplus.  The man-child, descendant of the jester and village idiot and John Clare, the poet roaming the countryside after enclosure. “

A group of Darren’s ‘friends’ including Adam drive him to a lakeside spot then abandon him, drunk, drive off and leave him asleep.  Darren wakes confused the next morning and has to walk home as best he can.

The key that unlocks this otherwise rather confusing narrative I believe is a response given by the narrator to Darren’s mother –  a nurse at The Foundation (and therefore a colleague of Adam’s parents) – when she questions the ‘dumping Darren’ episode: surely these children of professional families knew better?

“Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state; you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy, develop the right desires from within the wrong life; the travesty of inclusion they were playing out with Darren-their intern- was also a citation and critique of the Foundation’s methods…”

It’s hard for people to behave outside the norm.  We cannot behave any old how and yet somehow  expect our children to perceive what their parents are doing wrong – all the cock ups they’ve made –  and distance themselves accordingly.    Sometimes that happens.  Most of the time it doesn’t.  Nature or nurture.

The account of Darren trying to find his way home on foot from this unfortunate escapade is interesting less for his state of mind than for the reactions he encounters or rather doesn’t encounter.  No-one stops.  No-one asks if he’s OK.  When he is spied limping and  dishevelled  and walking into (the wrong) town by a woman  she pulls her own children closer towards her, while completely ignoring the distress of someone else’s child.

The book seems to highlight the callous and sometimes appalling treatment of these young people by each other,  but it also asks where are these exalted and professional parents while their senior school kids are beating each other up?

The answer:

“Watching Friends or Frasier… doing desk work… reading Adrienne Rich or “Non Interpretive Mechanisms in Psychoanalytic Therapy”.   Some were eating or opening a window or just walking dully along on a treadmill.  Some were drinking gin and tonics in Taipei…”

Lerner’s book manifests the US as a country in some sort of hypnotic slide to the road crash that will become the Trump era; it is almost as if they can see it coming but are unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it.  Or maybe they think that the power of psychoanalytic theory or linguistic pyrotechnics will save them, as some rather naively now think that technology will save us.

Much attention is given within the story to the skill of debate – a subject in which Adam excels.  Yet the ‘linguistic overkill’ of the cleverness of debates, does nothing to address human understanding and particularly nothing to address relationships.  Debate is adversarial.  Someone wins and someone loses.  Debate is not dialogue.

“We thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.”  Adam’s father says, pointing up the limits of psychology, as a science, as a medical approach. And the limits of language.

No-one in The Topeka School does transcend their feelings, nor surmount them, nor transform them.  They just dose their feelings up with alcohol and drugs,  both of the prescription and non-prescription variety.   –  Unsurprisingly this does little to halt the underlying tension and violence in which the story finally erupts.    The building in which The Foundation is housed, itself ends up empty and comprehensively trashed and no one could claim to be sorry.

The Topeka School is work which is concerned with the legacy of toxic masculinity – a legacy of which we are all in some way survivors.

Dr. Jane Gordon says:

“Once I asked another senior analyst why he referred to male postdocs as “Doctor” and female postdocs by their first names, and there I was, on the couch again, getting the penis envy lecture.”

Her response is “…the Foundation’s unexamined Freudian tradition, which pathologized women’s experience when it didn’t fit the great man’s theory.”

The book incorporates dizzying time switches and changes of narrative viewpoint often within the same chapter.    There are disintegrations everywhere, hidden, revealed.  Marital collapse. The mess of politically correct parenting, the inception of abusive parenting.  The sexual fantasies of those who write books on how to control the mind.  It is a book about about the human cost of trying to survive within an arid monoculture.

Thank you to #Net Galley and #Granta for this review copy.

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

Summer has come and gone.  The expiry date for my ten books of summer has passed.   I only made it to No. 6. I apologise.

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous outshines anything else on my reading list.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it outshines anything else on anyone else’s reading list.  In whatever genre.  Forget genres.  Here is something new.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Vietnamese and from a refugee family which immigrated to the US when he was two years old,  the poet burst out of his allotted lowly refugee status and on to  the literary scene with a T.S. Eliot  prize winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry, 2017) On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.

I do not know what there is to say about this book.  Next to Vuong’s poetry and prose any routine use of language that I might come up with would instantly collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy.

On Earth takes the form of a letter to Vuong’s mother who was violent towards him and who married a man who was imprisoned for violence towards her.  In short Vuong grew up surrounded by violence, whether or the domestic or other kind,  in Hartford,

…where we made a kind of life digging in and out of one brutal winter after another, where nor’easters swallowed our cars overnight.  The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends at the C-Town  checkout with black eyes and cut lips who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say mind your business

… where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces Oxy-Contin gaunt

Thank goodness the author does not mind his business. 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

“OxyContin, first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996 is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form”.

If you find this a totally inadequate review, so do I.  “Brilliant “shattering” “luminous” “a masterpiece” are some of the epithets I took from the publisher’s  back cover.  But I would say this.  Ocean Vuong is a writer whose work will appear on exam syllabi into the future.  This is a writer whose work will be studied, written about, lectured on, whose work will be the subject of dissertations and doctoral theses.

And still no-one will know how he did this.

 

 

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (4thEstate)

This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.

Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere,  getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime.    These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition.  The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert,  to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.

These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death.  They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.

“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself.  Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”

And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America  as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest.  In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.

“Unreal desert.  Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many.  None thought the trains would bring so many.  Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”

In one scene as children cross the desert  a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children.  They two groups will not know each other.   They will never meet.  But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb.  He is being  “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth.     “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”

In a parallel storyline and universe  a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost:  the Apaches,   the children.  A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’.   At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.

Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading  thousands of acres of poetry.

But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book.  For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before –  short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids.  But I asked around,   found some teen fiction titles and read them.

Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group?   Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story?  But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?

This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.