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

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

 

Binding

Review of The Binding, Bridget Collins. Borough Press.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Birds, Behaviourism and a Broken Promise

Review  Eva Meijer. Bird Cottage Pushkin Press.  Translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett

I always enjoy books about women who break the mould which was what attracted me to this one. I particular enjoy books which dwell on the study of nature since those are increasingly invaluable records of what we are losing .

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The title  is taken from the name of a house in Ditchling, Sussex in which the naturalist Len (Gwendolen) Howard lived and wrote from 1938  books on birds, based on years of living with them  and closely observing their behaviours. Meijer’s book is partly fictional, partly biographical based on Howard’s letters and archive.

Born in the early years of the 20th century to a poet father and depressed mother Howard gave up an early career as a violinist and the possibility of marriage in order to live alone and write about her birds.  At least  this is how the book presents her.

This reimagining of her life brings to light her struggles to be taken seriously as a naturalist – well it was the early part of the twentieth century and she was (a) a woman and (b) not a formally trained scientist.

Howard notes in her letters:

Konrad Lorenz’s book in which he describes how he lives with all kinds of animals, is treated far more seriously that mine, probably because he has proper qualifications, writes scientific articles, is a man.  Yet his observations are less original than mine.  Moreover the birds have freely chosen to live with me whereas Lorenz rears his and so influences their behaviour.

The factual elements of the book are interesting for observations on animal behaviour such as:

Darwin’s work on animal intelligence, for example, is regarded as unscientific because it is primarily based on anecdotal evidence.  Behaviourism, however, does not properly take account of the fact that many animals behave differently in captivity than when they are free.

Yet I found some of the dialogue slow moving and unconvincing which may be a result of translation, the evocation of period a bit clunky.

“Cook rings the bell. Tea is ready.  I go upstairs to put away my violin.  Mike is singing in the garden.  Ta-da-da, tada.”

There’s not much sense of the history against which the story is set  – a brief mention of some suffragettes  and force feeding “it must be dreadful”.  Gwen recognises a soldier as “one of the chaps Kingsley used to play tennis with”.   The second world war gets barely a mention.

Gwen’s character comes across as completely self-absorbed, out of touch with her family -she fails to attend her own father’s funeral – and certainly out of touch with the momentous events that shook the world through the first half of the twentieth century.  She’s not the most empathetic of characters but obviously the birds like her.    The author writes in a note that Howard’s books Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds were once best sellers, but now only available second hand.

I understand that the intention may have been to show that this is what it took to live life on your own terms for a woman.  If so I’m not entirely sure it worked for me. I felt I did not know the character any better by the end of the book than at the beginning.

Sadly the author tells us that Howard left Bird Cottage in her will to the Sussex Naturalist Trust who promised to turn it into a bird sanctuary.  This never materialised and the land was sold to someone who felled all the trees in the back garden, apart from a single oak.

 

Thank you to #PushkinPress and #NetGalley for this review copy.

Even by the Standards of Pianos this one is Heavy

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

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

grayscale piano keys
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are other things to be confused about too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featuring probably the worst sex scene I have ever read

 “Oh Katya,” he moaned.

“Misha” she whispered back.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A house with no foundations and lessons in survival A Review of ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver

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.

Poets, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Biologists: Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring

“We snatch our freeze frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives.  All the while we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things, for the things themselves, our records for our history.   History is not what happened but what survives the shipwrecks of judgement and chance.”

Maria Popova

The title of the book Figuring refers to Popova’s ideas about:

‘figuring and reconfiguring of reality – it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony …’

Her book ranges widely across philosophical ideas and scientific notions, starting with mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

Kepler would, says the author ‘quarry the marble out of which classical physics would be sculpted’.

Kepler had investigated and proposed the claim (made 50 years earlier by Copernicus) that the Earth moves around the sun, even before Galileo Galilei plucked up the courage to say that he had himself thought along these lines but kept silent to avoid being charged with heresy.  Eventually he could keep silent no longer.    Kepler, Before Newton,  also conceived the notion of a gravitational force which directed the movement of the planets.

The book moves on to American Journalist and women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) and the life of astronomer and mathematician Maria Mitchell (1818-1889).   Mitchell rose to be the first female Professor of Astronomy at Vassar.  Maria Mitchell knew that the surest route to empowerment of women was through education.

We are taken by the author on a journey through the  life and poems of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and on to the groundbreaking work of environmental scientist, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) with others in between.

Among the questions Popova asks, and seeks to answer through the examination of the lives of the (mostly women) in this book.     What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement?

This last is a question which courses like blood through the veins of the book because, if it is axiomatic that we should seek to achieve greatness in our chosen field, whether science, literature, art, then what part does societal recognition play?  The lives of the women in this book were lived out against a background of the utter disbelief  of those particular societies in which they lived concerning the suitability of women even to partake in education, let alone to make world changing scientific or artistic discoveries.   Yet this is exactly what they did.

While it is impossible to know for certain every life chance or turn that led to these women becoming exactly who they did, they all shared the fortune of coming from families enlightened as to the education of its daughters.  They all shared a need to work, and like every human soul, a need for love which came in all sorts of shapes and guises.

Popova writes about women who were major achievers in their fields but this is not just an account of certain lives however remarkable they may be.  What Figuring does is the same thing that Popova’s blog Brain Pickings (www.brainpickings.org) does, it makes beautiful connections between art and life, between sinew and spirit, soul, chance and choice.  In her inimitable way she makes the reader not just wish to know more but insist on knowing more, to relish the ‘down the rabbit-hole’ effect of research,  to want to delve further, find more tunnels.

 

silentspring

 

The last ‘life’ to be covered in Figuring is that of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), author of Silent Spring.

Carson was a biologist, nature writer and oceanographer, an ecologist before the term was even known.   Although ailing and nearing the end of her life at the time of writing Silent Spring this was the book that it fell to her to write simply because she was the best qualified to do the job,  and in so doing she founded an ecological movement which today is more desperately needed than ever.

Carson was informed by the establishment of the time that despite her meticulously evidenced research on the damage caused by the use of DDTs in crop sprays and pesticides in decimating bird and insect populations,  there was no ‘evidence’ of permanent damage.  In other words, it was thought by some in a gung-ho way that populations might be decimated but, hey, they would recover.  They didn’t.  My life had stood a loaded gun’ as the poet Emily Dickinson wrote.

The conflation of such gung-ho attitudes towards chemically manufactured carcinogens, in pursuit of profit, and the disparagement by those engaged in such activities of individuals who challenge them, has given rise to the environmental activism we see today.    It is shocking how little attitudes have changed since Carson wrote in the 60s and how much there is still to achieve.  For example in the last few days it has been reported in the Guardian that the peaceful environmental group Extinction Rebellion was listed by the Metropolitan Police on its Prevent list of radicalisation, alongside neo-Nazi groups, meaning that to be concerned about ecological destruction and the death of species, is considered extreme even though we ourselves are part of the ecology we destroy.

Carson would no doubt  take little pleasure in – but equally might not be surprised by  narratives being pursued today by powerful corporates and those who serve their interests  regarding the damage done to human tissue by ultra-fine particles in the air that we breathe.

Governments cannot be trusted with environmental crises.  Although DDT’s may be banned in certain countries our legal and regulatory systems lag behind desecration and mayhem caused by chemical pollutants in our air and water systems, particularly from vehicle and aviation exhaust fumes.

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

This work flows like a river out of Eden

A Review of Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton) 2019

Evaristocover

I didn’t think I was going to review this joyous book.  It won the Booker Prize which restricts the conversation a bit.  What is there left to say?    Yet   I was fortunate to be in the audience to attend a talk given by the author at the Hay Festival and this changed my mind. So here are my thoughts.

Evaristo’s prose sits on the page in all its poetic wholeness with scarcely a capital letter or full stop to be seen.  Yet unlike Woolf who can sometimes leave you scrabbling for a handhold or for a breath, this work flows perfectly like a river out of Eden.  It’s not officially stream of consciousness.    I have no idea how she did it,  but Evaristo’s background is in poetry and her knowledge of scansion must have helped.

The book which in un-Booker-like fashion is not a challenging read,  follows the lives of 12 women in modern Britain.

The first question that Peter Florence, the Director and co-founder of Hay Festival who also happened to be Chair of the Booker panel this year asked was:  We understand ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ but what about ‘other’  The reply from Evaristo was that she wanted to show how these women come to be perceived as being ‘other’.   What it is about societies that ‘others’ people.

What does it mean to be ‘other’.  Race, identity and belonging – the topic that gave birth to a thousand and one theses and to which we can add gender and sexual orientation, are all things which can confuse, emotionally and intellectually.  Which of us really knows ourselves?    But the author does not seem in the least confused about any of it, getting inside the heads of each of her characters, taking them from childhood to the epiphanic moment when they find a way to be.

It is not just a matter of being black in a society in which to be black meant you could not book a bed for the night because your putative landlady thought your colour might rub off on her sheets (welcome to Great Britain pre-Race Discrimination laws).  It is not just a book about having a particular skin colour – to be a woman even in 2019 is to be ‘other’ from the standpoint of many aspects of our societies in which our institutions are still crawling out of Victorian patriarchal attitudes and doing so relatively slowly, changing only when forced to do so by law or scandal or both.

A lot of books (thankfully) are now written by women – some treat of the reality of lived female experience in a modern world.   Many do not.  Some writers of both sexes add female characters – even strong female characters – as a box ticking exercise or as characters to be exploited in some way by men.

Girl Woman Other is a breath of fresh air in the contemporary literary scene and I am so happy that Evaristo has been recognised.

Elif Shafak. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Viking) 2019

Elif

Elif Shafak I regard as one of today’s greatest writers.  I loved The Forty Rules of Love and Three Daughters of Eve although I struggled a bit with the Architect’s Apprentice but that’s OK.  It was an earlier work and it’s not always possible to love everything.

Leila is the author’s masterwork so far. 10 minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World was  on the shortlist for the Man Booker when Bernadine Evaristo won with Margaret Atwood.  It must have been an unenviable task to judge this year’s prize.

Like Evaristo, Shafak takes a culture – her culture –and shows us how it excludes, abases and abuses women in a way that is culturally so normal that it is invisible.  Such invisibility does not extend to the minds of  writers and artists, of course, many of whom are currently subject to persecution in Turkey.   In a moving tribute to her grandmother, whose funeral she did not feel able to attend for political reasons, the author says that she felt the fictional character of Leila and her grandmother had met and become good friends:

“… sister-outsiders.  After all boundaries of the mind mean nothing for women who continue to sing songs of freedom under the moonlight ….”

Leila, Or Tequila Leila as she is called – is the lead character in 10 minutes 38 seconds.  ‘Is’ I say.  Not ‘was’.    It’s important to Leila to be counted among the present tense, we find that out in the prologue before the story proper even starts.  The reason being that she is dead by the time the story starts.   She still narrates the story.  Raped by her uncle as a child (and blamed – look what you made me do) her life slowly falls apart.  She ends up working in a brothel in Istanbul.  But life is regenerated in a human and beautiful fashion by a strange and curious circle of friends that come into being. Shafak’s storytelling seems to me second to none in so many ways but her characters are particularly wonderful.  Magic realist, perhaps, but wonderful nevertheless.

“Perhaps it was not that different when it came to death.   People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath.  But things were not clear-cut like that.  Just as there were countless shades between jet black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called ‘eternal rest’  If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of Afterlife, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.”

I believe in the permeability of that sandstone.  And the book’s ending is a celebration of freedom.

 

 

#NonFicNovember week 4/5: Sublime writing and representations of the sublime in writing

Leann from Shelf Aware is our host this week where we are exploring our nonfiction favorites.

Week 5 is upon us and I’m just getting to Week 4.  Story of my life. Apologies for the brief post.

Week 4 is:

We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites

I definitely don’t do light and humorous in my reading. Maybe I should. I’m not sure if I’ve ever laughed enough, or if any of us laugh much at the moment.

I Iook for inspirational lives, with the substance of that inspiration made real in some way.    The style of writing is very important– it doesn’t matter how amazing someone is its still difficult to read long, rambling and off focus thoughts. Nor is it enough to make a lot of money and get famous although that’s great and wouldn’t we all love it.  Some who achieve are wonders, those are the stories that interest me.  Some who achieve this got lucky and someone ghost wrote them into a shallow form of importance.  Not interested in those.   I don’t like hype or the next big thing.

I’m partial to a bit of lyricism. I’m also interested to know what drives us to read about other people’s lives: sometimes I think I’m looking for a key, the hermeneutic secret.  If such exists, it is not to be found within the pages of a book. But knowledge, yes.  Wisdom even?  Maybe.  Right from wrong? Hopefully.

One of my all time favourite books is by Katherine Swift – The Morville Hours (Bloomsbury, 2009).  I’ve probably talked about this book before and will talk about it again  because it’s sublime.   A beautiful combination of history, topography, philosophy, religion and life writing.  The author was a rare-book librarian at Oxford and then Trinity College,  Dublin before moving to Shropshire turning to full time gardening and writing.

Swift2

The book is structured around chapters named after the Hours of the Divine Office: Vigils, Prime, Terce, Sext, None,  which were an essential part of her mother’s Catholic faith.

The passing of time – how it has perplexed us, fascinated us, and terrified us every since man walked upon the earth. Few are better than Swift at evoking a response to what it means to be a part of the history of something, a house, a faith, a love.

Of carvings of Mathew, Mark, Luke & John in her local church she says they have presided over four hundred years of the village:

“What secret glances, what lovers’ trysts, what hopes and fears, faded now into dust! What spring mornings, what early frosts, what mothers’ tears – writing it all down, their pens scratching away into the night.”

It’s taking Swift forever to write her next book (those time consuming gardens!)and some of us are waiting impatiently.

Continuing the theme of  philosophy and mysticism:Rumi

Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love by Brad Gooch (HarperCollins, 2017) describes the life of Rumi, poet and Sufi mystic and his complex relationship with Shams of Tabriz who was reputed to be Rumi’s teacher and the source of much of his poetry.   Gooch is interesting on the tensions that inevitably arose between these two men from their interdependency and ultimately the sense of betrayal felt by Rumi when Shams left.

1000 years after he lived we are still comforted by this man’s words.

There’s a wonderful story that Gooch tells about Rumi.

“When his daughter Maleke  complained of the stinginess of her husband, Rumi told her a story of a rich man so miserly he wouldn’t open his door for fear the hinges would wear out.”

Only a few words yet It perfectly highlights how we imprison and make ourselves miserable with our obsession with the material.

The connection between poetry and spirituality is a massive interest of mine. It was going to be the subject of my Ph.D before it wasn’t.