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.

***

Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton

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

solitude

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

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

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

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

***

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)

lonely

“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)

crawdads

 

“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.

***

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 …

 

 

 

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

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

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



Anton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

In the place where I grew up, and in the time that I grew up  I never felt safe on the streets. 

This is not because I grew up in a particularly violent place – not at all.   I never felt safe on the streets because I was an object.   An object about which or to which people could say or do more or less as they chose, and with impunity.  I did not understand this at the time.  Or if I understood it,  it was normal.  We objects, we just carried on, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, millions of us.   We wore hotpants,  thought we were liberated, worked in offices where single paragraph letters were dictated to us, as if we were the machines which would shortly be invented.

I was not a child in Victorian England (!) but I may as well have been.  But hey that’s all history, now.  We’ve moved on right?

I take my hat off to Keira Knightley. In a recent newspaper interview to promote her latest film Misbehaviour (2020 Dir.  Philippa Lowthorpe) about the Women’s Liberation Movement and the 1970 Miss World contest. she said she was keen to work with more female directors.  You go girl.  But it may not be the path to awards heaven, however good you are.

In 2019 The Souvenir directed by Joanna Hogg starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke.  The film is a lavishly photographed, beautifully restrained, semi-auto-biographical story of a young film maker student and her relationship with an older, enigmatic man.  It was completely ignored at the awards as were – from a directorial point of view –  Greta Gerwig’s two films Ladybird (2017) and Little Women (2019) both starring the inimitable and profoundly talented Saoirse Ronan.

This year’s celebratory awards went to a macho spin off from a 1950s comic book glorifcation of violence  (in the place where I grew up and in the time I grew up, I never felt safe on the streets)  and the ultra violent, gruesome and in my eyes completely pointless Parasite  which raised the spectre of equality to the level of ‘everybody dies’.  In that at least it was accurate.   

“Patriarchy kills off women and stories to maintain its power.  

(Rebecca Solnit)

And our film industry celebrates that.  One of the ways it does this is by either completely ignoring, or at least failing to promote,  stories about women told through the eyes of women.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Binding

 

Review of The Binding, Bridget Collins. Borough Press.

Just about everything I thought I knew about this book was disrupted by the end.    I thought there would be bookish secrets from the past, lost keys, messages on torn paper,  appearances, vanishings, learned tomes in chained libraries.  And to a certain extent these things are present.  Books,  libraries and hidden secrets are hardly new in literature – even the cover design of the book is a romantic blazon of blue and gold with floral motifs.    But these are different secrets and a very different sort of library

The author, Bridget Collins, has published YA novels before but this is her first adult novel.

Part Copperfield with elements of Potter, my first impression was that this was a YA novel with a couple of four lettered words dotted around in order to aim the work at an adult market.   In this I was wrong I suppose.  Yet I often find I don’t understand artificial distinctions that are made between adult reading and young adult.  Yes there have always been children’s books but teenagers used to read pretty much the same as their parents – minus the Kama Sutra of course which was kept locked away somewhere.

It is ironic that the central characters in the narrative are themselves young adults.  The things which happen in the book – both good and bad – happen to young people, while their elders and betters circle around creating havoc and making everything much, much worse.  And yet it is not considered suitable for certain age groups to read about things which happen to their own kind?

The title The Binding does not refer to the most obvious definition of a book binding – ie the gold tooled leather cover and marbled endpapers – although these certainly play a part in the story,  but ‘binding’ is a metaphor for quite a different field of endeavour.

Collins has a magic realist way of evoking settings and particularly the weather which is almost an extra character.  Here there is  a rustic way of life, tumbledown cottages on the moors, snow on the thatch,  the wind sighs, the cold sears, the sun when it shines casts its rays over dusty floorboards,  tools in the binder’s workshop wait patiently in the racks.

There are polished bannisters and light rooms with tall windows, there is quite a lot of moonlight and a young man who has suffered a mysterious illness is despatched from his family farm where he is happy and where he expects to spend his life,  to serve an apprenticeship in a book binding workshop which he knows nothing about and where he does not wish to be.  The reasons for this become clear as the book unfolds.

There is no definitive historical context for the work much of which is fantasy – yet there are horses and carriages and the postman calls once a week.    The shade of Mr. Dickens peeps out from among the pages of the narrative, particularly in the obsequious and sinister character of de Havilland,  descriptions of Castleford with its grime, its brothels, freezing alleyways and workhouse.

Knowledge is always a kind of magic, says one of the characters. Or is ignorance bliss?  That is the question that lies at the heart of the book.

As well as being a page turner The Binding is an elegant disquisition on memory, the meaning of memory and what constituent part of our mindset is played out by the things that have happened to us in the past.  What would we choose to forget if we were able and what would that forgetting do to us?  It is also a love story.

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

Always Winter, never Christmas: The Hero’s Journey to The Ivory Towers

Review of #Becoming C.S. LewisA Biography of young Jack Lewis (1898-1918) (Crossway)

 Harry Lee Poe

This biography of C.S. Lewis (1898-1918) covers the formative years:  his childhood, his mother’s untimely death, family relationships with especial emphasis placed on the rather miserable scool years  in a place called Wynyards, which thankfully doesn’t exist any more,  and later on,  Malvern College.

Poe writes:

“In September 1908, without benefit of trial by a jury of his peers, contrary to magna carta, and in the absence of habeas corpus, young Jack Lewis found himself interred in a concentration camp.”

(aka boarding school)

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.

The latter half of the book deals with Lewis as a teenager from leaving Malvern to being tutored for Oxford Entrance in the private home of a man called Fitzpatrick – a friend of his father’s. There is also a lengthy section dealing with Lewis’ literary influences including:

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey,  Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Chretien de Troyes.  William Morris’ tales of Siegrfried and The Well at the World’s End – a story set in an historical medieval world where the four sons of King Peter of Upmeads set out to explore the world.  Spenser’s Faerie Queene,  The Norse myths.

The horrors of the First World War, in which his brother Warnie was fighting for his and everyone else’s lives, scarcely impinged upon the young Jack sheltered in his mentor Kirkpatrick’s house in Great Bookham in those days surrounded by open country.  Jack’s letters to his friend Arthur continue to reflect his literary obsessions.  Lewis referred in other writings to that sense of longing and desire that nothing in ordinary experience could satisfy and doesn’t strike me as being anyone who ever wished to engage with the world.  Given what was happening at the time perhaps that’s unsurprising.

But the values that he cared about in literature were not reflected in the ‘brute universe that consisted of a meaningless dance of atoms’

But then oddly after such arguments Poe states of Lewis:

“He could be dismissive of imaginations as a teenager because he thought the world of imagination was not real.”

Yet it seemed the imagination is where Lewis mostly dwelt. Rejecting his father’s faith in his struggle for his own identity and independence “the last thing Jack wanted was an interfering God from whom one could never escape,” there followed a struggle with various ideologies, materialist and metaphysical. Lewis embraced theories such as ‘logical positivism’ (the view that only what can be verified by sensory evidence actually exists and has meaning) and a confusion of scientific and philosophical strands.

Describing him as a typical teenager – a construct that barely existed at the beginning of the 20th century – Poe’s descriptions of Lewis immersing himself in classics, philosophy, literature and history from a young age, in Homer, Spenser and Ruskin,  show a young man earmarked for the ivory towers of Oxford,  where he meets and befriends J.R.R. Tolkein.

The book covers Lewis’ entry into Oxford and his concerns about the possibility of conscription.  In 1916 apparently oblivious to the fact that his brother was fighting in the Battle of the Somme, Jack and his father were making plans regarding his entrance examinations into Oxford.  Until a letter arrived from his brother describing being surrounded by “things which were once men”.

The author describes Jack as being adolescent and rebellious and perhaps for those days he was but he comes across more as complacent and the idea of a seventeen year old being considered rebellious because he doesn’t want to do what his father tells him is  a bit old hat.  Certain sections of the book covering whether or not Jack would enlist, or with whom he would spend the Easter holidays, which operas he may or may not have attended,  struck me as being superfluous.

For fans of the Chronicles of Narnia and other of Lewis’ writings,  there is some interest here in following the trail of white stones that led through the forest of his young psyche.

But for those who wish to find the wardrobe and pass through behind the fur coats to the forest where it is always winter, never Christmas – and especially for those who wish to meet Mr. Tumnus carrying his packages wrapped in brown paper –  you are much better off reading the books.

 

Thanks to #NetGalley and #Crossway for this review copy.