Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
I have to tackle this now so that I can return the book to Julie tomorrow, she says she wants to try reading it again, having struggled with it in her 20's, and I agreed it was definitely not a book for a young woman. I can imagine that if I had tried reading it when younger it would have been very difficult to find a point of contact.

It was quite interesting to read on the wikipedia page that it was criticised initially for it's inaccessibility to ordinary readers, because my superficial reaction was exactly that. "Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself" is probably one of the most well known and quoted opening lines, but I got so bogged down in her unfathomable sentences that I was left wondering if she actually remembered to buy the damn things, and whether I cared at all. With many books the disclosure of the story is an essential element of the reading, making re-reading a marginally less satisfying experience. But in Mrs Dalloway nothing of any note happens, so I am hoping that I might follow the writing better second time around.

This was a very hard book to read. What it made me think of most was Olive Kitteridge (by Elizabeth Strout) and the way the story was not so much about Mrs Dalloway but that she was the glue that held it all together. And she was not a very sympathetic character, in fact I don't think I liked anyone very much. There is the stream-of-consciousness element to her writing, but it is all written in third person, so you still feel as if you are looking in from the outside. Woolf is like a bee with ADD, hopping from flower to flower, from character to character, absorbing their essence but flitting on as soon as something new appears. It follows Clarissa (Mrs Dalloway) on her shopping expedition, meeting an old friend, Hugh Whitbread but then the bee is distracted by the mysterious car that causes a crowd to gather and then the aeroplane skywriting and then the bee finds Septimus and Lucrezia sitting in Regents park, and then gets distracted again by Maisie Johnson, just walking past and asking them directions, and finding them both 'queer'. It pauses by each person, allowing us to get a moment inside their head, so by the time you are 40 pages in you are lost, having left Clarissa far behind and wondering just what this book is really about.

I did get to the stage when I began to read the writing in a stream-of-consciousness way, to stop trying to make sense of the sentences but just let them roll over me. I stopped expecting any progress in the story, though Big Ben strikes the hour at regular intervals through the book to mark the passage of time, almost to bring both the reader and the characters back to their senses, and remind them there is a party to go to. This quote below is a single sentence with Clarissa's thoughts and actions blended seamlessly, a good example of the way the book reads (and I just love the expression 'this secret deposit of exquisite moments'). Tish (who dictated it for me) said it reminded her of the way the bible is written.

"It was her life, and, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence, felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds in the tree of life, flowers of darkness they are, she thought (as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only) ; not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, taking up the pad, must one replay the daily life to servant, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it - of the gay sounds, of the green lights, of the cook even whistling, for Mrs Walker was Irish and whistled all day long - one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments, she thought, lifting the pad, while Lucy stood by her, trying to explain how
"Mr Dalloway, ma'am" -
Clarissa read on the telephone pad, "Lady Bruton wishes to know if Mr Dalloway will lunch with her today." (p.42-43)

Her other stylistic penchant is 'why use one adjective when six will do'. I think here she is describing love and religion, represented by the person of Miss Kilman (her dislike of whom you can well understand):
"The cruelest things in the world, she thought, seeing them clumsy, hot, domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel and unscrupulous, dressed in a macintosh coat, on the landing" (p.191)
Miss Kilman has an equally vehement disdain for Mrs Dalloway, and she regards her "with steady and sinister serenity" (p.198)
I find this is just the most marvellous selection and use of words, and this is what marks out Woolf's writing as above and beyond. It is the way that she can use the absurd description above, and yet really get to the root of Mrs Dalloway's feelings, and in other places use one word so deftly and precisely (here talking of Hugh's wife):
"She was one of those obscure mouse-like little women who admire big men. She was almost negligible." (p.112)

It is a book all about the writing. I could not tempt you to read it by describing the story or the characters, or even the sociology, for there is quite a bit of social commentary going on in the background. It is the words, that at first make it so difficult, but are in the end the thing worth reading. Most writers would just tell you the time if that was what the story required, but not Virginia Woolf:

"Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford Street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one." (p.154-5)

Since I may have lost most readers by now I will stop quoting, though I have not even touched on the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a remnant of the Great War, suffering from the effects of his experiences, who's troubled life seems to be there as a sharp contrast and disruption to the comfort and control of Clarissa's. I am looking forward to reading more of Virginia Woolf because I hope they will be as challenging as this one.

It is funny how the mind makes it's own connections, (as an aside, an essential part of understanding the nature of human learning but I will leave the education debate for another time) and I found this tiny quote referring to old Miss Parry (Mrs Dalloway's aunt): "She would die like some bird in a frost gripping her perch." (p.247) and it reminded me so forcefully of a D.H. Lawrence poem that I had to go searching for our copy of The Rattle Bag to look it up. It is entitled Self Pity:

I never saw a wild thing
Sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

Monday, 28 December 2009

53rd Book

an experiment in love by Hilary Mantel
I liked this book, but that almost feels like damning it with faint praise. With everyone raving about Wolf Hall, her Booker prize winner, I guess I was expecting something startling. It is engaging and well written, but the story is rather ordinary. It feels rather a well used device to tell a story by scattering pieces of the past through the ongoing story of the current situation, I have certainly encountered it before.

Carmel is going off to university and the story relates her first year, and also the background of her friendships and how she came to get there. She comes from a somewhat cliched catholic background, an only child with distant but self-sacrificing parents, particularly her mother who seems to be living vicariously through her daughter. You don't get any kind of feminist 'girls can do anything they want' message, it is more a determined desperation on the mother's part, to lift her daughter out of the poverty she has experienced. Her mother also enforces her friendship with Karina, who seems to embody everything she approves of. Together they plod through primary school and sit for scholarships to the aspirational 'Holy Redeemer' secondary school. The place is plainly out of their league and it is their outsider status there that continues to bind them together in the face of middle class indifference. They don't appear to like each other much, are just friends by force of circumstance, in fact Carmel frequently appears to despise Karina, mainly for her nasty habit of belittling everything that she values. Her friendship with Julianne develops through her teenage years, but instead of leaving Karina behind they seem to remain bound together by their shared history.

Her mother is an obsessive knitter and sewer, and creates an amazing wardrobe for Carmel, bestrewn with frilly collars and embroidered flowers. She is surprisingly unselfconscious and I suppose, like most young children, totally accepting of all that passes for 'parenting' and submits herself unprotesting to her mother's plans. Her mother remains the defining force of her childhood, right up to the point where she leaves home. This description of her is just perfect:
"Her hair was greying and wild and held back by springing kirby grips. When she frowned, a cloud passed over the street. When she raised her eyebrows - as she often did, amazed each hour by what God expected her to endure - a small town's tram system sprang upon her forehead. She was quarrelsome, dogmatic and shrewd; her speech was alarmingly forthright, or else bewilderingly circumlocutory. ... When she laughed I seldom knew why, and when she cried I was no wiser. Her hands were large and knuckly and calloused, made to hold a rifle not a needle." (p.9-10)

The school environment is very controlling. The description of them going to buy uniform reminded me of a conversation I once had with a teacher at school, where she described having to kneel down to have the length of her school skirt checked, it had to touch the floor exactly, not an inch too short or too long. I think that in comparison having the Head Teacher moan at me all through sixth form for wearing my duffel coat round school doesn't seem so harsh. Then suddenly Carmel discovers rebellion, and I loved this incident so much (reminds me that of course schools only function by the compliance of children, if they chose to say No occasionally it would be complete anarchy):
"The next time Sister Basil asked me a stupid question, I didn't answer her. I just folded my arms and looked back sadly. She was a small nun, old, who looked as if a cobweb had been draped over her face. 'Come on, come on,' she said. 'Either you know or you don't know, which is it?' I passed my eyes over her. Suddenly she came to life, spitting and dancing like a cat. Two red spots grew on her grey cheeks. She propped up the lid of her desk with one arm while the other hand rummaged around for her cane. She stood over me and shouted that I would be caned for dumb insolence. I looked back, sadder. There was really no chance of her caning me because I would not hold out my hand when she asked me; I had made a decision on this. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Karina watching me. Her big pink face had turned white." (p.54)

But then they go away to university and appear to choose a hall of residence that is almost more restrictive than the school. It is almost as if they are still scared of the outside world. Shared flats and bedsits are viewed with both fear and derision. The hall offers the comforts of home, with parental figures to impose the regulations, that the girls relish finding way to circumvent. The hall is full of girls, who Carmel refers to simply as Sophy, she views them as a homogenous mass with the same concerns and preoccupations. This felt slightly misogynistic, except she also refers to their boyfriends universally as Roger, who are a real sorry bunch. "What was the matter with them, the girls who lived with me on C Floor? Did they think these were the only men they could get? Inferiority was working away inside these girls, guilt at being so clever, wanting so much, taking so much from the world. If they were to have a man as well it seemed to them right that he should be a very poor specimen." (p. 75)

Carmel's concerns however remain money and food. She has only a tiny grant, mostly swallowed up by hall fees and her parents appear to have just left her to struggle. She is surrounded by her more affluent peers who go out and enjoy life, while she sits and studies, since she discovers that this does not cost money. The meagre meals supplied by the hall barely hold body and soul together, but her expenditure on food is the only means of control that she has and so it is the food bill that gets cut when other needs arise. The book claims to be about their experiments in life and love but in reality there seems very little of either. You see absolutely nothing of their university life outside the hall of residence. Carmel has a boyfriend, Niall, from home, with whom she exchanges obsessively long letters. Julianne seems to have a string of casual affairs, but all of it occurs 'off-screen' and you know nothing about any of them. And Karina is reduced to someone who they pass in the corridor occasionally. Julianne returns after a weekend away, having patently had an abortion, but Carmel is so wrapped up in her own problems that she fails to notice her friend's distress. They discover Sue is pregnant when she throws up on the letter in which Niall breaks up with Carmel, and her heartbreak has to take second place to the friends rallying round to help her decide what to do (her Roger is a complete looser of course and runs off).

And to top it all off suddenly they have to go buy a new wardrobe: "The first, simplest thing was that the minskirt fell totally and decisively out of favour. For some months the fashion had been on the wane, but that October a few of the old guard were out on the streets; by November, the maxi-skirt had won, and there was not a knee to be seen between Heathrow and the Essex coast." (p.153) With all the talk of contraception, age of the Pill and the new abortion law, the young women of 1970 were still victims of fashion. Poor Carmel has no money and has to struggle on with the clothes she owns, lusting after, throughout the book, a fox fur coat owned by Karina's room mate Lynette.

The tragic ending is almost too symbolic and felt a bit like another over-used device. I guess the book is mostly saying that certain points in your life can become defining moments by accident, but there was not enough information about where the characters went next to help you decide if it was so important. Between 1970 and when I went to polytechnic in 1982 I certainly think a great many things changed. I think women's expectations and experience changed enormously. I certainly never felt guilty for wanting more, or that I had to be grateful that as a woman I was permitted these opportunities. It is a worthwhile read if only for that, to reflect on progress and be glad.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Reading challenges 2010

After setting out on what was quite a demanding challenge over the last year I have given some thought to what I might pursue in the next twelve months. I am thinking that I will avoid pure numbers in favour of tackling some specific challenges.

So firstly I will be continuing with an ad hoc pursuing of my coincidental 'Orange Prize' Challenge. I have discovered incidentally over the last year that I have read quite a few of the Orange Fiction Prize winners and have a vague ongoing plan to try and read the rest. There are only 14 winners so it is not too tall an order. If any passers by wish to join me in my endeavour they are more than welcome.

Secondly is the Women Unbound, which has already been started and promises to offer ongoing interest.

Thirdly, one I found a while ago and then could not find the blog it was on again ... until this afternoon ... the Woolf in Winter Challenge
This is something more of a 'read-along', with four books being read through January and February: Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves.

Lastly a slightly more challenging prospect is the Complete Booker. Over the years I have frequently ended up reading the Booker winner as my mum usually has a copy, so here is a starting point for either taking on some of the winners I have missed, or perhaps doing the 'pick a year' challenge and trying some of the near misses.
All in all I hope 2010 will be an interesting reading year.

Family twins club

I just wanted to post this lovely photo that my dad sent of my girls with the latest addition to our family twins club, though I believe these two are the first identical ones. We went down to mum and dad's last weekend to have a little family get-together. So to introduce they are, on the left Finlay (remembered and identified as 'Fuzzy Finlay' as he has more hair), and on the right, Isaac. They belong to Carly who is my brother Bart's step-daughter. The other youngster in the photo is her son Joel.
Fraternal twins are a hereditary feature of both sides of our family, caused by a genetic propensity to produce more than one egg at a time. Both of my grandmothers bore fraternal twins, but unfortunately both sets died in infancy. My mum went on to have twins, my brothers, Giles and Bart, and then I had Tish and Jacob. Giles and his partner Cynthia also have a set of twins, Mirri and Jay, though they are IVF babies so are not strictly related to genetics. One of my other cousins on my dad's side of the family also has a set of twins, though I think out of a couple of dozen cousins she is the only one. Then to add to the story, Bart's partner Vieanne is also parent to twin girls. So it feels like we have our own exclusive family twins club.

52 Books in 52 Weeks

We have reached the end of the year and I feel pretty chuffed that I made it. It was a bit doubtful at times when I got distracted with the crafty stuff, but it is good to go out with a bit of literary high brow. I have enjoyed looking back to see what a huge variety of styles and subject matter I have got through during the year and hope I might have inspired a few passers by the try something new, it has certainly made me try a few new things.

I debated whether to pass opinion on which books were the best of the year and after some thought I came up with my top three: The Road, for intense atmosphere, Any Human Heart, for the most real character, and The Eyre Affair, for sheer imagination and creativity.

So here is the list of books I have read with links to the reviews (not all have been reviewed I confess) if you are interested in knowing a bit more about, or mainly just my vain opinions on them (and that took forever messing about with the links) or you can just click the 'book review' button in the link cloud and go through them all:

  1. Johnny panic and the bible of dreams by Sylvia Plath
  2. Hiroshima by John Hersey
  3. The Double Tongue by William Golding
  4. Cats Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  5. Catching shellfish between the tides by Roslyn Chissick
  6. Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
  7. Fragile things by Neil Gaimon
  8. Any human Heart by William Boyd
  9. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss
  10. rape a love story by Joyce Carol Oates
  11. Pedals and Petticoats by Mary Elsy
  12. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  13. No one belongs here more than you by Miranda July
  14. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
  15. All Shall be Well... by Tod Wodicka
  16. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
  17. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
  18. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett (tape)
  19. Eve Green by Susan Fletcher
  20. Chocolat by Joanne Harris (tape)
  21. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (tape)
  22. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (tape)
  23. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  24. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  25. The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
  26. Far North by Marcel Theroux
  27. Larry's party by Carol Shields
  28. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
  29. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
  30. Living the Creative Life by Rice Freeman-Zachary
  31. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  32. We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson
  33. The philosopher and the wolf by Mark Rowlands
  34. Raking the Ashes by Anne Fine
  35. The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin
  36. A Handspindle Treasury - 20 years of spinning wisdom from Spin-Off Magazine
  37. The Republic of Love by Carol Sheilds
  38. Kensuke's Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo (tape)
  39. Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore
  40. Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
  41. Knitting Nature by Norah Gaughan
  42. One Skein by Leigh Radford
  43. A crime in the neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne
  44. What was lost by Catherine O'Flynn
  45. The Story of You by Julie Meyerson
  46. The Newton Letter by John Banville
  47. The Lollipop shoes by Joanne Harris
  48. Creative spinning by Alison Daykin and Jane Deane
  49. From A to X by John Berger
  50. Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett (tape)
  51. The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury
  52. Weird Sisters by Terry Pratchett (tape)

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Sylvia Plath

Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath.
I tend to think of Plath as a poet but her writing output was much more varied, and this is a collection of prose writings. In the introduction Ted Hughes describes how she struggled with her writing and finding subject matter for her stories. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, the first story is based on her work at the records office of a mental hospital, a job taken partly in search of 'life experience'.

I am finding it hard because with someone like Plath who has such a mythology surrounding her you cannot help but read her writing in light of what you know about her. The introduction admits that much of her writing is autobiographical, so I read a woman with deep insecurities and lack of self belief. In 'The Wishing Box' we see a young, recently married woman crushed by feelings of inadequacy because of her husband's vivid dreams, which he describes with relish each breakfast time, ending in her suicide when she can find no imagination and no escape. In 'The Fifty-ninth Bear" a married couple on holiday count the wild bears they have encountered. But the wife comes across as being patronised and submissive, the husband viewing her as being incapable of independent thought or action, and you sense a feeling a intense satisfaction for the author when she choses to have him killed by the 59th bear, outside their tent. In 'Sunday at the Mintons' we have a brother and sister, recently reunited for some unstated reason, and she back looking after him, seeing to his every need. Another man belittling and talking down to the woman he lives with. And then you get this fantasy moment as he is swept away by a wave at the beach, getting his comeuppance because of his obsessive knowledge of tide times, although this time it may have been only in her imagination. It was the themes of the stories that were most interesting and her astute character observations. I liked the most a little journal piece from the last section. It is entitled 'Widow Mangada' and describes an elderly woman from whom they rent a room in Benidorm in the summer of 1956, and it is just the most lovely portrait.

I don't think she would have thought of herself as a feminist as such, just an observer of women's experience. You can also read that at heart she is a poet. Just occasionally the way she uses words screams poetry, they stand out from the rest of the writing that is often mundane and ordinary. The pieces from her journals are mostly so everyday, giving practical life details, then just occasionally you get a real glimpse of how vitally she needed recognition for her work: "Crash! I am psychic, only not quite drastic enough. My baby 'The Matisse Chapel' which I had been spending the imaginary money from and discussing with modest egoism, was rejected by The New Yorker this morning with not so much as a pencil scratch on the black-and-white doom of the printed rejection. I hid it under a pile of papers like a stillborn illegitimate baby." (Cambridge notes February 1956)

I confess to not being familiar with Plath's poetry beyond 'Not Waving but Drowning' but have become fascinated by the whole story and plan to read more and also to find a copy of Birthday Letters, in which Hughes responds to her death and sheds some light on one of the most intriguing of literary relationships.

The Double Tongue

I am including this in my Women Unbound Reading Challenge, almost because it is by a man and I find it interesting to discover male authors who can write convincingly about women's experience.

So The Double Tongue by William Golding is that strangest of literary artefacts, the posthumous novel. This book was put together by his editors from several completed drafts after the author's death in 1993. It is set in ancient Greece and concerns the central character Arieka, who lives a privileged but neglected childhood until she is plucked from obscurity to take on the role of the Oracle at Delphi.

I have struggled to write more about this book, with the draft started over a week ago, feeling I have to say something thoughtful about such a well respected author, but I wasn't that impressed. Although the book centres on Arieka she is merely this figurehead and the more interesting character is Ionides, who is in charge of the Oracle and the public's contact with it and becomes her guardian and also her friend. Arieka takes on the role of maid to the Second Lady, but following the somewhat precipitous deaths of both the First and Second Ladies she finds herself elevated to the position of First Lady and is initiated into the realities of prophesy. Arieka herself really does believe in the gods, while Ionides most definitely does not and his role in the proceedings is about political manipulation, and is certainly where all the power resides. While she is left to give answers to the questions of the 'ordinary people', he acts as intermediary, and when important people come with important questions it is he who gives the answers. And she discovers that there is high speed communication (messenger pigeons) carrying information between the oracles at different religious sites ensuring a consistent response.

To be fair the book does have much to say on the position of women. Women are not free, even though Arieka considers herself above the slaves. When her periods start she in thrown abruptly into the world of seclusion and ritual that accompanies menstruation and comments "They were just enough to remind me that women aren't free. not even the free ones." (p.17) When she refuses to marry, tries to run away and is then returned under inauspicious circumstances she is practically sold to the Foundation at Delphi. Not that Arieka minds because it offers her the chance to educate herself from the extensive library in a way that was just not available to women then. But then later when she first encounters the cave where she must prophesy and is mortally afraid, "The fear was still there but mixed, I do not know how or why, with grief. It was grief about women I think. Grief for them as instruments to be played on by gods or men." (p.68) Later still when they travel to try and get money to restore the Foundations buildings another woman is much more accepting of her position: "We women are never free,' murmured the Phoenician's lady. 'It's rather nice really.'" (p.107). But during the same conversation Ionides then describes the First Lady as "the only really free person in the world".

The book gives you a portrait, though you cannot be sure how true, of a very narrow aspect of ancient culture. It was all very interesting but the novel itself did not go anywhere or say anything very enlightening about the people or their situation. My favourite quote was just something that amused me, "Latin .... a language with too much grammar and no literature." And I learned the word 'apotropaic' which means averting evil, and it referred to little superstitious hand gestures that were supposed to ward off bad things. All in all if I were to recommend any William Golding it would have to remain 'Lord of the Flies'.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Bushes and Bans

I usually prefer the keep any christmassy stuff until the week of the 25th, but the girls were determined to do some decorating. We decided this year to abandon the whole tree thing (after the very expensive rooted tree bought last year died when planted out) and have gone for a holly bush, which has just lights and the collection of animals decorating it.

On a completely non Christmas topic I got my regular e-mail from Spiked today which included this interesting article about the banning of a poem by Carol Ann Duffy. The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance has decided to remove one of her poems from an anthology studied by GCSE students. Apparently the imagery was considered potentially dangerous, that some people might be upset by it and some teachers may be uncomfortable with the subject matter. The article concludes with the idea that many great works of literature have been banned and "Great literature challenges our assumptions and forces us to rethink the world around us and to se it in a new light, to sharpen our moral and aesthetic judgement. These are the works most worth studying in our schools and universities, the ones that can most help the younger generation to grow into responsible adults."
At the risk of being deliberately contrary I would like to hope that being banned has had a much more positive effect on this poem. I hope it means that young people all over the country have read the poem with renewed interest and probably got far more out of it now. It has always seemed obvious to me that the quickest way to kill a piece of literature stone dead is to put it on an exam syllabus and require people to study it. I kind of wish the AQA would ban a few more things and really get the nation reading again.

Anyway, judge for yourself. The text is available online in many places to I assume it is ok to quote in full.

Education for Leisure by Carol Ann Duffy

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.

I have had enough of being ignored and today

I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,

a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.

we did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in

another language and now the fly is in another language.

I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half

the chance. But today I am going to change the world.

something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat

knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.

I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.

Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town

For signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio

and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.

he cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.

the pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

Friday, 11 December 2009


The contents of John Hersey's book Hiroshima first appeared in the New Yorker in August 1946, the editors choosing to dedicate an entire issue of the magazine to the series of articles which he had been commissioned to write. The introduction to this slim volume describes the incredible response that the article received around the world and the impact that it had. The dropping of the first atomic bomb had huge political and historical significance. What this book is trying to do is put a human face on the event, to remind us that it was real people who suffered and died, and it is important to hear and remember their story as well.

I found myself reading it a little dispassionately, partly, on reflection, because it is written slightly dispassionately. Although John Hersey uses directly the accounts of the people he met he does not report their exact words but describes everything in the third person, so you get a disconcerting sense of being disconnected from the events. I feel everything about the story and the way it is told, and the public reaction to it, is a reflection of when it was written. Nowadays we have such instantaneous access to news from all over the world, seeing people's reactions to disasters in the most intimate of detail, practically being 'in the thick of' real events as they happen, but in 1946 this was not the case. During WW2 it might be months before a family learned of their loved ones' death, now every individual loss is announced on the evening news bulletin. To have such personal stories retold around the world only a year after such an event was much more startling then than it would be today.

Hersey tells the stories of six individuals in some detail, moving abruptly from one person to another to progress the chain of events. He describes first a brief background of their life and then what was happening to them in the period immediately before the bomb exploded. Then he gives us their individual experience of the moment of the explosion. You get a sense of how unexpected and unreal the experience was for them all, a white flash and then the blast hitting whatever building they were in, and of course the strangest little aspects of their situation that meant they survived rather than died. Then you have what they did in the minutes, hours and days that followed. Nobody knew what had happened, nor could any of them envisage the scale of what had happened, people mainly assumed it was an air raid (which they had been anticipating for some time), and it is not until months later that there is any understanding of the nature of the weapon used against them.

I think the book tells us a great deal about Japanese society and people, the strange (to me that is) things people talked about doing or thinking about, or what was important to them in the aftermath of the bomb. There is no hysteria or panic, people help each other as much as they are able. Those who are uninjured bring food and water for others, one of the interviewees ferries people across the river to escape the fires, people just get on and try and do what needs to be done, faced with a horrific situation. And yet by the end of the day it is almost as if they become immune to the suffering of others and resigned to their own fate. In such a short space of time each of them witnesses such extremes of suffering that you can only assume you stop being able to take it in. No one complains; Mr Tanimoto describes the crowds of people who arrive at a park, many horribly injured, and they just lie down and wait patiently, in hope that someone will help them. Many, many of them die overnight the first night, of injuries or the first effects of the radiation sickness, but there is almost complete silence. The atmosphere in the description of this first day is quite eerie.

I think the book gives a true picture and that the people involved were brutally honest, no one tries to make themselves heroic or to exaggerate their own personal suffering or loss. The other thing you notice is the total lack of self pity, that they accepted that their country was at war and that they themselves could be a target of that war, and that in effect they were suffering for their Emperor. This loyalty and patriotism was most strikingly shown when someone describes hearing the Emperor announcing the end of the war on the radio, and how important that was, because they had never heard his actual voice before. As a group there did not appear to be any lasting resentment or anger towards America, in fact, just as they stoically endured their suffering, they appear to dismiss as not so important the discovery of the nature of the atomic bomb, seeing it as just another part of war and not some especially evil weapon. It is as if we (in the West that is) have given it so much significance, but for the people of Hiroshima it was not viewed like that. They don't dwell on what is done but focus more on the future and rebuilding their city.

Being a student of politics I was very interested to learn about this event from a more human level. There is quite a mythology surrounding the dropping of this bomb, and the impact that it has had and the way it is presented in history does not tell the full story. I am left thinking that Hiroshima has become symbolic only of the worst that human being are capable of; there was most certainly horror and immense suffering, but there was also great human strength and resilience.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Science Fiction?

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. What an interesting man, I've just been reading his wikipedia page (I will resist the temptation to waffle and let you read it yourself.) This is another from mum's collection. Strangely in two years the price of books seems to have doubled, since in 1976 this one cost 50p. I picked it out because his name was familiar from my teenage years. I recall discussing my university application with the Head Teacher and his querying my having 'reading' listed as an interest and asking me what I was reading, so I said 'Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut' (weird how such tiny things stick in your memory).

Anyway by the time I reached the bottom of the first page I knew I had read this one as well (probably this copy), I mean you're not going to completely forget something as crazy as an invented religion called Bokononism. As a philosophical novel I think this book has got to be up there with Candide and good old Dr Pangloss, the procession of events has something of the faintly ridiculous about them. In fact I am left with the impression that Vonnegut (as a humanist) was giving the message that all religion is simply a means by which people struggle to make sense of how ridiculous life is. And Bokononism makes about as much sense as a means of looking at the world as any other religion.

The story is written by Jonah, who is writing a book about the Hiroshima bomb called 'The Day the World Ended', and finds himself caught up in the lives of others that sets him on a path towards the real day the world ended. It is funny also how, when you read and reflect (which has been partly the purpose of this blog), you find all sorts of links and themes running between books you encounter. In common with Any Human Heart this book is centred round an invented character who is part of the 'real world'. So Dr Felix Hoenikker is one of the group of scientists who created the atomic bomb, and in researching his life Jonah find himself caught up with the lives of his slightly strange children, whose decisions and actions are destined to have profound repercussions.

The book is written in retrospect, as the author looking back, not recounting things as they happen, so he is constantly referring to events and relating them to his new found belief in Bokononism. Shakespeare has his sonnets, the Bible has the psalms ... and Bokononism has Calypsos, in keeping I felt with it's Caribbean origins, like little mini songlets that expound some philosophical point. I don't think it is meant in any way to be mocking the ignorance and gullibility of the people of San Lorenzo, but more pointing out how easily human beings in general are taken in. I loved the way Johnson and McCabe take over this island, create a religion and then ban it, thus making it all the more appealing and romanticising the prophet Bokonon as a outlaw. I think the most telling and interesting term in Bokononism is the 'granfalloon'. In Bokononism the most important thing is the 'karass', a group of people with whom you are linked in some mysterious way in order to fulfil some higher purpose. A granfalloon is a false karass, where people create in their imagination a bond with other people that is not real; his prime example of this in the book is Hazel Crosby and her obsession with 'Hoosiers' (people who come from Indiana). I think it is quite a profound concept because it says so much about human nature, and the need to belong and to connected to other people in a significant way. The karass is the other side of the coin in a way, the idea that God (in whatever form) has plans for you and there is real meaning and real connections to others involved in these plans, and that is exactly what is attractive about religion.

I like the structure of the book, very short chapters, mostly only one or two pages, each with a nice helpful title giving progress to the story. The characters are quirky and occasionally slightly outrageous but totally believable. There is no waffle, everything is important, with snippets of information and details scattered throughout that add authenticity to the tale. I am not sure why it is labelled as Science Fiction. It is not futuristic nor is it set in outer space, and the 'ice nine', although it is mentioned regularly through the book, feels merely like a vehicle for precipitating the ultimate ending that ensures life really is ridiculous and meaningless. So if I were to catalogue it by subject it would be put with the philosophy books, a really thought provoking 'what is the meaning of life' book; at the end of the book you finally meet Bokonon, smiling and "thumbing my nose at You Know Who."

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Books and more books

So Peter over on Kyusireader is conducting a 'bookshelf project' and has up some pretty impressive photographs of people's book collections. What a lovely eclectic mix, some all neat and tidy and others just piled up in a wonderful jumble of reading pleasure. So I decided to take photos of the current state of my own collection.
As an aside I'll just fill you in on the background. Most of the books were, post divorce, stacked on an old and increasingly tatty stained pine shelving unit. Then we were flooded in July 2007 and the books were hurriedly stacked in the boys bedroom. They were subsequently put in boxes under the bunk beds when Jacob moved to live with us and some were moved to the loft (during this time we were still without carpeting and repairs were non existent). Then we moved out while repairs were done. We moved back after 5 months (just over a year after the flood) and the books remained in the loft while bookcase plans were made. After a visit to Ikea mine and Dunk's relationship underwent it's first real test as were put the two bookcases together. You can't see in the picture but one of the shelves is unfinished on the front edge. We put it together before we discovered this ... we thought we had done it wrong and so pulled it apart again ... and found that it was not us, it was Ikea's fault. I arranged for a new piece to be sent but by this time I just wanted to get the job done so put all the books on them anyway. So there is a nice new shelf in the loft, for some occasion when we might move house and I feel so inclined to deconstruct and reconstruct the bookshelf.
First picture is the fiction/poetry/biography shelf (and my politics stuff on the bottom shelf). My only system was honestly based on size, the gap at the top was tiny so only certain books would fit there. Both shelves were pretty much full so new acquisitions have been stacked on the front. The photo you can see clearly is my mum, the home made paper chains are from last Christmas, the pale blue thing is a toy M made at school, the envelope rack I made at school, the pile of fluffy stuff is the camel hair I still have not spun and the hat was Tish's for her Borneo trip. The lovely lamp on the table was made from an elm tree that my parents had to have taken down from their garden at Lewdon Farm (they don't live there now by the way), and they had lamps made with some of the wood.
The other side is the non-fiction shelf. Now I think the books on the other one are pretty much all mine, but probably at least half of these are Dunk's. He has another bookcase in our bedroom which is almost entirely computer books but I am not including them here. This one does have a plan, but you still get the size problem so the big ones go on the bottom shelf. We have education stuff, philosophy, history, music, art (all very vaguely), a small knitty/crafty bit, and then a miscellaneous bit for anything that didn't fit elsewhere. There are more paper chains, the little wooden box M made at school and the wooden calendar came from my dad's office in Liverpool when I was about 13. It was something he acquired when they redecorated and because I was the only person who ever changed the date he gave it to me, so probably another of my most long standing possessions.

Catching Shellfish ...

.. between the Tides by Rosalyn Chissick.
A strange little book that I picked up at a charity shop, probably attracted by the esoteric title, and the fact that Helen Dunmore's name is on the front recommending it.

It is a story about stories. Magda has a life that is going nowhere and falling apart at the same time and she tells stories, probably invented ones, about her past life to people she meets and to the reader. She seems to be always trying to escape to something better, she suffers very badly from 'the grass is greener' syndrome. And never finds anything better nor people who can give her what she appears to so badly need. All in all not a very satisfying tale, none of the characters have much solidity to them, many are even nameless, as they float past on the breeze, and Magda is not in any way sympathetic. As it comments on the back she lives in some kind of fantasy world where she no longer knows or remembers which bits are real and which aren't. She clings to people but seems strangely emotionally detached from everything. The only thing that I did like was the quiet little observations she makes about life, the universe and everything.

"The tick of her watch as the seconds fall away. She imagines she can catch them, one by one, dropping off the end of her wrist. Catch them before they disappear." (p.105)
And then towards the end when she is abandoned once again by someone she thought she could trust:
"After an hour, she knew. Though she fought against knowing.
After two hours, she thought: Sheboy has gone, I should be crying. But when what you have most feared happens, suddenly, and for a moment, there is nothing to fear." (p.154)

But mainly I just found the book somewhat depressing. There is no link to anywhere as I could find very little information about the author. She appears to have collaborated on a book called The Gift with a psychic called Mia Dolan, which I refuse to link to because I find all such things to be utter tosh.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

crazy old women

I don't do this much, I mean what's the point of writing a blog and just directing people to go somewhere else instead, but I was random browsing and found the most fabulous tale.
So now you can pop over to Sue's Blog and read about what crazy old women get up to when they are not busy knitting and reading, in fact the rest of you should be grateful for all the knitting because it keeps us off the streets and out of this kind of trouble.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Not to Disturb

Not To Disturb by Muriel Spark
I acquired (borrowed) this book from my mum's extensive collection. It was printed in 1974 and cost 25p. I love the idea that you could once buy a book for 25p. It is also nice to have a family who reads as you always have a source of new suggestions and books to borrow. It wasn't until I read the mini biography that I learned that she also wrote 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie', which I have never read, but it is one of my most favourite films.

This book reminded me very much of 'Chronicle of a Death Foretold' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (there is a review of this on my other STB site, but I am thinking of moving it all over here review can now be read on the 'More Reviews' page) but I mean just the theme, nothing else about they way it is written, in fact it would be hard to find two more different novels. In this tale it is the Baron and Baroness who are going to die. Everyone else in the house knows it but them. We barely get to meet them, they are peripheral to the tale, which focusses on their staff, and their excited anticipation of the event in question. It was a dark and stormy night, and as the rain comes down in torrents and the thunder crashes about the castle everyone from the butler to the pregnant maid is keeping vigil in the kitchen and making arrangements to sell their stories to the highest bidders. They don't seem to see anything strange in the way they are already discussing the Baron and Baroness in the past tense.

It is a book about characters: Lister the butler, who's only concern is carrying out his assigned duty of ensuring that they are not disturbed; Eleanor, I think, the housekeeper, who goes on about her carrot juice for much of the book; Heloise the maid, who cannot figure out who is the father of her unborn child; Clovis the exasperated chef; and through to minor players like Theo and Clara, the porter and his wife who live at the gatehouse. Then you have a rather confused Reverend, who ends up marrying Heloise to the mad brother in the attic in a somewhat surreal ceremony, Prince Eugene, a neighbour who pops round trying to get some of the staff to defect and come and work for him and Mr McGuire and Mr Samuel, there to make a record of the events.

So the Baron and Baroness Klopstock are locked in the library with Victor Passerat, the secretary, and a revolver (it feels like a scene from Cluedo). It has been decided that after a night of heated discussion they will reach an inevitable situation who's only resolution is the death of all three. The other people in the house wait the night out, in both eager anticipation and resigned acceptance of the events. In fact they mostly spend their time preoccupied with their own petty concerns and determinedly ensuring that nothing will disrupt the preordained outcome. It comes as no surprise when the door is forced open the next morning by the police that this is exactly the case, the Baroness and Victor dead at the hand of the Baron, who then shot himself after writing an efficient explanation for the situation. The staff all play their parts magnificently, looking suitably shocked and horrified and convincingly feigning absolute ignorance of what might have occurred.

"Clovis leads the way to the servants' quarters while the Inspector says to Lister, 'Didn't you hear anything during the night? No shots? No shouting or screaming?'
The wind encircles the house and the shutters bang. From the attic comes a loud clatter. 'No Inspector. It was a wild night,' says Lister"
Just so you know, Hadrian had loosened the shutters on purpose, to make sure they banged loudly.
Not sure I will suggest people rush out and read this one. A curious little book.

Fragile things

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
I have not read anything else by Neil Gaiman, though I have started reading The Graveyard Book. I am not sure (yet again) what to say about this book. Many of the pieces are very brief, many are not exactly stories, all of them are totally bizarre. I think my favourite was one about a student going to interview an elderly woman who turns out to be Susan from the Narnia stories. Gaiman's writing comes across as somewhat stream-of-consciousness, as if an idea occurs and he just runs with it in the moment, but who knows, maybe every word is meticulously planned.

I am just going to quote the final part of my other favourite, it is called The Day the Saucers Came:

That day, the saucer day the zombie day
The Ragnarok and fairies day, the day the great winds came
And snows, and the cities turned to crystal, the day
All the plants died, the plastics dissolved, the day the
Computers turned, the screens telling us we would obey, the day
Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars,
And all the bells of London sounded, the day
Animals spoke to us in Assyrian, the Yeti day,
The fluttering capes and arrival of the Time Machine day,
You didn't notice any of this because
you were sitting in your room, not doing anything,
not even reading, not really, just
looking at your phone,
wondering if I was going to call.

I am not going to be able to do justice to the variety and ingenuity of this book so I'll just leave it at that.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Never again!

I am NEVER taking time off work again! Came home today and I could hardly stand up, and hardly sit down either, every bit of me ached. It goes to show how much this job really does keep me fit. I have done nothing ... and I mean nothing ... for nearly four weeks. I didn't even clean the house, which is saying something 'cos I hate to sit around if I think the place looks filthy. It's like my muscles have atrophied, they have completely forgotten how to work. So you could say it was a bit of a shock to the system.
On the up side I didn't waste my last day off yesterday. The lovely Sadie, eldest daughter of my dear friend Julie, went off to uni in September. I promised her a new duvet cover at the time and then totally failed to live up to the promise. The whole family are coming down to spend the weekend, partly to see us but also so they can go and spend the day with Sadie, so I thought I would make one for her now. It is done in mainly royal blue and bottle green satin with some bits of velvet thrown in for good measure. As an experiment I appliqued some of the leaf designs into the centre since I had only used a relatively small amount of the embroidered satin. It was nearly a big mistake as the machine decided to try and chew up the fabric, but I just managed to rescue it and fix what was going wrong. I am very pleased with the outcome, the overall effect is lovely, just don't look too close as the stitching on the applique.
The original laptop is now sporting a nifty little antenna, as you can see in this photo of Tish. We were getting very annoying 'kernel panic' crashes (you really don't want to know, unless you are a computer geek, in which case you already know) which Dunk sorted by getting an external pickup for the wireless internet. I managed to take this photo and she didn't even notice, you can see her new hair cut, which is quite a transformation if you look back at the old one. She had worn her hair long her entire life ... kind of like me only I am too big a chicken to risk the change.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


Any Human Heart by William Boyd was lent to me by my dear friend Al, and you can't have better friends than ones who take the trouble to share good books with you. I started this quite some weeks ago and it has been on hold in favour of a couple of library books. I got back into the swing of the story in the last few days and I found I liked Logan more and more as the story went along.
I confess that after the first couple of chapters I had to go and look the book up on Wikipedia because I was not sure if Logan Mountstuart was a real person or an invented character. This was almost my favourite aspect of the book. It is subtitled inside as 'The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart' and is written as if it is the collected journals and diaries of Logan (all in the first person of course), with brief explanatory notes in places to fill in extraneous details and explain the gaps in the story (written by an anonymous editor). He is referred to in these notes, and the footnotes as LMS, even though he insists to the SPK (Socialist Patients' Kollective) that it is not a double-barreled name.
The tale follows Logan through his life, from the age of 6 when he lives in Uruguay to his death in France aged 85. And it is a real roller-coaster of a ride. He comes from a relatively wealthy and privileged background, attending a public school and going on automatically to Oxford University. The reader gets an inside view of the way the world works for the upper classes and the importance of social connections. The two friends he makes at school, Ben and Peter, remain lifelong, though increasingly distant, friendships. His first marriage is to Lottie, an Earl's daughter, with whom he has a son, Lionel, but his literary aspirations seem to put him at odds with his in-laws and he finds their world somewhat stifling. He uses his writing and journalism as an excuse to escape and he travels widely in Europe, meeting many significant literary and artistic figures along the way. He begins a relationship with Freya, falling in love at first sight with her at the consulate in Lisbon. This continues for some years, with Logan establishing a second home in London with her and leading a double life. Their discovery precipitates the first of Logan's downward plunges. He has a tendency to take money for granted and the loss of his wife's income comes as a bit of a shock. His widowed mother had entrusted the family finances to an American investor and Wall Street Crash reduces the carefully built up family fortune to nothing, so not only does she have to resort to renting out rooms in the family home but Logan not longer has any inheritance to fall back on. Logan and Freya marry and have a daughter, Stella, but then the war intervenes in their lives.
He spends the war working for Naval Intelligence; entrusted with 'keeping an eye on' the Duke and Duchess of Windsor after they are moved to the Bahamas, and then being sent on a secret mission that goes terribly wrong. He ends up spending two years in a Swiss prison, only being released some months after the war ends. He returns to London to discover he had been presumed dead, Freya had married again and then she and Stella had both been killed by a bomb. Logan is devastated and this dominates the next few years of his life until he attempts suicide in 1949.
He is discovered by a girlfriend and the crisis forces him to get some help. His friend Ben, who has become an art dealer in Paris offers him the chance to help run a gallery in New York, so he moves there and starts a new phase of his life. He enters the art world and comes to love american life. He marries again, to Alannah, though still struggles with his grief for his former family. A relatively uneventful part of life, lived in comfort and newfound domesticity. The marriage ends acrimoniously, with both parties having affairs and Logan is then cut off from his two step-daughters. The younger of the two, Gail, he is particularly fond of because she reminds him of Stella, and they manage to sustain an intermittent relationship through the book in spite of her mother's animosity. His son Lionel reenters his life after many years absence, tragic events overtake them and the 'New York Phase' has an abrupt and undignified end.
I am not quite sure why he goes to Africa next. It was the one part of the book that felt a little contrived, to put him in a new environment and open up new journalistic possibilities for him with the proximity of the Biafra War. I like the way that Logan is so adaptable. He goes to new places and seems to find it very easy to acclimatise, and in no time at all is dismissing his former life as dull and unsatisfying. He works as a lecturer in English literature but also writes articles about the political situation, something he has some experience of, having also been to report on the Spanish Civil War. This period also ends abruptly with his enforced retirement.
I suddenly realised I am writing far more about the plot than I usually do so I think I may leave you in the lurch now and hope that I can tempt you to read it yourself. As I said above I found myself liking Logan more as time went on and he turns into a wonderfully cantankerous old bloke, with his strong self reliance and flexibility ensuring that he copes with all the crap that life proceeds to dump on him. His friends and other acquaintances resurface from time to time, sometimes to offer something, sometimes needing something from him.
What I love most about the book (as I also said above) is the way it is so real. William Boyd has integrated his character and his character's life within the real world and real historical events. I love the fact that the world Logan inhabits is authentic. He becomes part of the literary world and comes into contact with a wide range of influential writers and artists. Boyd doesn't try and make him a major figure himself, he is just a minor player on a big stage, but he sees everything and comments on it, and in some cases his actions even impact on real events. You feel as if you looked hard enough you might find his name somewhere in a history book. A fascinating tour through modern history from an unusual perspective. Logan lives a most full and varied life. When he is thrown out of a society party at the request of the Duke of Windsor the hostess exclaims, "What a funny old life you've led, Logan." (p.361) However he sums up his own life right at the end of the book. He is watching a group of young people on the seafront in the south of France, "Play on, boys and girls, I say, smoke and flirt, work on your tans, figure out your evening's entertainment. I wonder if any of you will live as well as I have done." (p.484) I knew how the story would end but that didn't stop me feeling sad. A thoroughly thoroughly engaging book.


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