Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Stay with me

'Stay With Me' by Ayòbámi Adébáyò was a lovely book. I picked it from the shortlist for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, a place that has supplied me with many of my favourite reads. Yejide and Akin tell their story in alternating chapters, of their struggle to make their marriage work in a world that expects so much of them. Their idyllic life is marred by the intrusion of their extended families, who have become more and more concerned over the lack of children. Yejide had a lonely, motherless childhood, surrounded by siblings and four step-mothers in her father's huge household. She has determined from early on that she will be an only wife, and so is shocked and horrified to discover that her husband has bowed to pressure and secretly married a second wife. Things go from bad to worse as in her desperation to conceive Yejide undertakes a strange pilgrimage and subsequently believes herself pregnant to the extent that she has the physical symptoms, and refuses to believe the scans that show no baby. 
When Yejide finally has a daughter it is as if all is suddenly right with the world, but their happiness is short-lived. A second child is born swiftly after but his life is tainted by Sickle cell disease. Their struggles to raise a family are however overshadowed by a secret that Akin has shared with no one but his brother Dotun, a secret that undermines the foundations of their relationship. As Yejide faces losing yet another child she begins to withdraw from her family and her marriage. From a distance of many miles and 15 years she receives an invitation to the funeral of Akin's father and finds herself contemplating a return. The story focusses on the pressures on both men and women within Nigerian society to live up to certain expectations, to prove their masculinity and femininity with offspring. It is a love story, both of the couple, but also of parental love, the utter desolation of a child's death and how hard it is to recover from. I found the social mores difficult; the close familial and social bonds should feel like a good thing, supportive and loving, but they were instead so often restrictive and prescriptive, telling the couple how they should feel and what they should do rather than helping them cope with their losses. 

Here at Olamide's funeral:

"It was as if nobody would miss her. No one was sorry that Olamide had died. They were sorry that I had lost a child, not that she had died. It was as though, because she had spent so little time in the world, it did not really matter that she was gone - she did not really matter. One would think we had lost a dog that was dear to our hearts. It squeezed me deep inside so see people so calm, as if nothing much had been lost. And when voices from the too-calm stream of consolers told me to imagine how terrible it would have been for this to happen at a later date, on the eve of her graduation or the eve of her wedding, I wished I could will, scream, roll on the ground and give her the mourning she deserved. But I could not. The part of me that could do that had gone into the morgue's freezer with Olamide to keep her company and to beg her forgiveness for all the signs I had missed.
the funeral took place within five days. Akin and I were not allowed to attend and we would never know the burial spot. My mother-in-law kept reminding me that I should not pester anyone about the spot that had been chosen. She whispered into my ears that I must never see her grave because then my eyes would have seen evil, and then I would have experienced the worst thing that could happen to a parent, which was to know a child's burial place. I did not respond to my mother-in-law's words. I lay on the sitting-room couch through the morning, holding myself perfectly still, waiting for the moment they would place her little coffin in the ground. I was sure that if I lay still enough, I would know." (p.146-7)

What I enjoyed was the portrayal of the relationships between the women, the ones she works with, her customers at the salon and her various maternal figures. Yejide does not seem to have friends or sisters, which feels sad, no one to confide her secrets to, and so has to live with her sadnesses and insecurities. And much as Akin's secret tears them apart I felt for him too, and the solution he chose from their situation was born out of his love for Yejide. The story certainly runs the gamut of extreme emotions and wrings you out at the end. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Growing and Making things post

I planted the tomatoes about eight weeks ago now; they have reached the ceiling of the porch (well the big one has):
There are lots of flowers ... and lots of fruits:
They have been joined by a courgette plant and a squash plant; lots of flowers, no fruits yet:
The basil on the kitchen window sill has been joined by a chilli plant, that has sprouted these lovely delicate white flowers:
The avocado pit is coming along well. I have managed to sprout these before but they have usually withered and died once the plant was six inches or so. I have been following these helpful instructions. It did take about six or seven weeks for the root to grow and may take a few more before we get a sprout, the advice is to be patient:
In the garden the apples
and pears are all relishing the sunshine:
I finished my Shalom cardigan in time for Jo and Jan's wedding in May, though it still lacks a button. It is made in Noro Ginga that I bought in the sale from Black Sheep Wools. It is a lovely simple pattern, I have made one previously as a present for mum:
Still working on the grannie squares, more than 100 so far, out of 144:
Still working on the hexipuffs. Monkey has also been making one a day for a while now and I am guessing we are approaching the 400 mark. The pink one with PW on is stuffed with gleaned sheep wool collected on our walk on the Pennine Way. I have a couple of others labelled L and P stuffed with wool collected in the Lake District and Peak District respectively:

Monday, 3 July 2017

Portrait of a Writer as a Young Wife

I read about 'When I Hit You' by Meena Kandasmy, and rather wished I hadn't. It was very hard to read. I was angry the entire time I was reading it. It is the story of an abusive marriage, about how one person breaks down and annihilates another. It is different from other description of abusive relationships because it is based on politics. Or rather the abuse is hidden behind politics. The young woman is enamoured by the radical political ferocity of an older man, and after their marriage he uses politics as a means to criticise and undermine her, to justify what he demands of her. The book is her internal monologue, telling us what he does and what he says, and what she thinks, why she reacts as she does. Her isolation is begun by moving them to a place where she does not speak the local language, and then exacerbated by incrementally removing her links to the outside world. She endures, the societal pressures on her to maintain appearances adding to the burden of her husband's behaviour. You watch him try to crush her, but can see her resistance and the thinking that allows her to imagine the future. In some ways the story also serves to highlight the prison that such a marriage would be for women who have no education or resources to draw on. 

The review I read gave the impression that the story is autobiographical, but it is listed on her website as a novel. Her wiki page does not mention a marriage, but another article I read about her work mentioned a legal battle with her ex-spouse, so it is unclear how much of this tale is related to her own experience, but it feels very visceral. The style has the effect of being very intimate and immediate, as if the reader is a fly on the wall. This, from early on in the marriage, when there is still an element of discussion between them:

"He accuses me of carrying my part into our present , and this treason is evidence enough that there is no hope or space for the future to flourish. At this point I am not listening to him. I have no intention of responding. I am thinking of being at a point in the future when I would be writing about this moment, about this fight, about the stinging slaps that mark my cheeks and only stop when I have deleted what I have written, about how I am forced into arguing about freedom of expression with the man I have married, about the man I have married with whom it has finally come to this, to this argument about the freedom of expression. And I am thinking of how I am someday going to be writing all this out and I am conscious that I am thinking about this and not about the moment, and I know that I have already escaped the present and that gives me hope, I just have to wait for this to end and I can write again, and I know that because I am going to be writing about this, I know that this is going to end." (p.87-8)

Over a very short space of time the situation deteriorates, but she withdraws inside her head, which continues to be a safe place to be. I found her resilience the saving grace against his unremitting physical and psychological aggression. The way the narrator talks about language makes me think that Meena's poetry will certainly be worth reading too.

"The coarseness of my husband's insults makes me cringe. I'm ashamed that language allows a man to insult a woman in an infinite number of ways. Every image conjured up is repellent. Every part of my body is a word spat out in disgust. My cunt, sequestered and quarantined, is nothing but a spittoon for his insults.
Once, this language was something else for me. It was a secret place of pleasure. It was my face in the water, the sudden comfort of far-away laughter, the smell of woodsmoke clinging to my hair, the eager arrival of my breasts - it was all mine to explore. Like a lover's body, there were things about my language that I thought only I knew.
I remember mining my language for words from the deepest, most forgotten seams, words that people no longer wrap around their tongues, words that stay mouldering in lexicons and old works of literature that nobody bothers to read anymore. I found the word for a flirtatious girl who chatters too much, the word for the first meeting of the eyes of two people who will eventually fall in love, the word for an intoxicating drink that induces dance. Keep in mind that this is a language where the word for obstinacy is also the word for intercourse." (p.171)

Meena Kandasmy is a writer and activist who uses her talents to battle on many fronts, certainly someone to look out for both politically and literarily. 
p.s. Interesting review of one of her poems here on the Los Angeles Review

The Rabbit Back Literature Society

'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is a most peculiar book. It tells the story of a famous writer called Laura White who lives in the town of Rabbit Back, and a group of children who she invites to join a literature society, with the aspiration that she will turn them all into great writers. Fast forward thirty years and Ella submits a story to the local newsletter and is subsequently invited to join the society, that has remained a closed shop with just nine members for all the preceding years. At the glamorous party at Laura White's house Laura White herself mysteriously vanishes in front of her guests, leaving the town, and the literature society itself in something of a limbo. Ella's new status as member of the society however allows her to participate in The Game, and access the innermost thoughts and secrets of the society's members, and so she begins to try and uncover its history. 

While I enjoyed the book and it was clever and engaging I felt that the strange supernatural elements never really went anywhere. In the opening scenes we are presented with the idea of books that have 're-written' themselves, some kind of virus that the local librarian (also a Society member) is trying to control by burning the affected books. I liked this, it was curious, but the idea never went anywhere and was then only mentioned in passing later on. The mystery of Laura White's disappearance in a puff of snow is never resolved. And the thing with all the dogs was just weird; was he trying to create an atmosphere of menace, I was not sure and that was certainly not the effect I felt. There were many moments where surreal incidents occurred, randomly and without further context, but within a story that was so much based around the relationships between the Society members. So in the end I felt that the book was trying to do a lot more than it managed and as such was vaguely unsatisfying. Still, it is always interesting to read books from unusual countries and it has intrigued me about the world of Finnish literature.

"Ella took Martti Winter's novel Hidden Agendas down from the shelf and opened it. There was the photo on the inside cover - a soft-focussed studio portrait, sensitively lit and no doubt retouched. The picture let you know that the author wasn't an ordinary person, he was some kind of literary god made flesh, an enlightened, more evolved being. Ella remembered how Silja Saaristo had greeted her at the party: Ella! Welcome to the demigod gang!
Ella's finger ran down the list of names. All of them had spoken to her at the party. She must have made a clumsy, childish impression. She wasn't used to that kind of attention.
She thought about how Arne C. Ahlqvist had greeted her. Something about it has bothered her at the time. Because of her schooling, something had caught her attention, something that other people wouldn't have taken any notice of. She had almost started a discussion with her about comma placement, because Ahlqvist had said to her: It's so nice to meet the new tenth member of the Society.
As a language and literature expert, Ella, of course, would have put a comma between new and tenth. Without a pause there, or some kind of emphasis, indicated in writing by a comma, the sentence seemed to mean that it was nice to meet a new tenth member who had replaced the old tenth member." (p.126-7)

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Vinegar Girl

I like Anne Tyler; I read 'A Spool of Blue Thread' last year but most other of her books predate my blogging years. This is the second from the Hogarth Shakespeare series; mum sent it to me the other day, she had been reading it when we were away for a family wedding and I asked for it. This story is a retelling of 'The Taming of the Shrew', which is Monkey's most hated Shakespeare play. 

It tells the story of Kate (obviously) Battista, who's eccentric scientist father takes her for granted as chief cook and bottle washer, and supervisor of her somewhat wayward younger sister Bunny. When the father's lab assistant Pyotr's visa expires and he is threatened with deportation, Dr Battista cooks up a plan that will enable him to remain; it involves an arranged marriage to Kate. Between them they then set about winning her over to the idea. This Kate is by no means a shrew, a little abrasive maybe but that's only to be expected in someone who's life hasn't panned out as she hoped. She feels trapped in the life that has developed since quitting college some years previously and she gradually comes to think that maybe marriage to Pyotr might be a way out of her rut. Her father finds the new turn of events a bit unsettling, as he had hoped to retain his domestic servant as well as his assistant by the new arrangement. While people around Kate, at work and in the family, try to make an occasion out of the marriage she is desperately trying to keep it on a 'purely business' footing. However Pyotr is quite an endearing chap and his efforts to woo her begin to wear down her resistance. 

I don't feel that Anne Tyler did such a good job as Margaret Atwood at retelling the story faithfully. There is no attempt to break Kate as a woman and subdue her to her new husband's will. She is not presented as an unpleasant person, the kids at school like her, just someone disappointed in life. The fact that her father seems to view her as a 'thing' to be used for his own purposes is just symptomatic of his general disregard for anyone outside his singleminded scientific pursuits. The other side of the story with the sister's suitors conspiring to get Kate married off is entirely missing, so it becomes a somewhat flat story of an unwilling girl being won over by quite a nice bloke. 

Here, Pyotr pops round while Kate is gardening:

"She turned back to find him smiling down at her, rocking from heel to toe with his hands in his pockets. Apparently he imagined that they were on good terms now. She picked up her sandwich and took a large, defiant bite and started chewing. He just went on smiling at her. He seemed to have all the time in the world.
'You realise you could be arrested,' she told him once she'd swallowed. 'It's a criminal offence to marry somebody for a green card.'
He didn't look very concerned.
'But I accept your apology,' she said. 'So. See you around.'
Not that she had any intention of seeing him ever again.
He let out a long breath and took his hands from his pockets and stepped over to sit beside her on the bench. This was unexpected. Her plate sat between then and she feared for its safety, but if she picked it up he might feel encouraged to move closer. She let it be.
'Was a foolish notion anyhow,' he said, speaking to the lawn in general. 'It is evident you could choose and husband you want. You are very independent girl.'
'You are very independent woman and you have the hair that avoids beauty parlours and you resemble dancer.'
'Lets not go overboard,' Kate said.
'Resemble flamingo dancer,' he said.
'Oh,' she said. 'Flamenco.'
Stomping the floorboards. Made sense.
'Okay, Pyotr, she said. 'Thanks for stopping by.'
'You are only person I know who pronounces my name right,' he said sadly.
She took another bite from her sandwich and chewed it, staring straight out across the lawn now the same way he was doing. But she couldn't help feeling a little stab of sympathy.' " (p.99-100)

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Tempest

I bought 'Hag-Seed' by Margaret Atwood for Monkey for Christmas, since we seem to be working our way through her complete oeuvre (her 'by the same author' section in this book takes up two pages). Monkey recommended I read the story of The Tempest from Leon Garfield's Shakespeare Stories, and it was certainly a good idea because what you are appreciating in this book is the skill in the retelling of the classic tale of enchantment and revenge. This book is one of eight being published under the title of Hogarth Shakespeare (named for the Hogarth Press founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf), that are retellings of Shakespeare stories by modern authors (more to come as I have just, by coincidence, read another of them).

In this tale we have Felix, a renown theatre director, who gets usurped by one of his assistants and pushed out of his beloved Makeshiweg Festival, just as he is planning a flamboyant production of The Tempest. He takes his ejection seriously and disappears himself to a remote farmhouse cottage where he lives an austere and lonely life with only the ghost of his long dead daughter Miranda for company. After many years of brooding and plotting he sees an advertisement for someone to take over a Literacy Through Literature project for inmates at the local prison. Estelle, the woman who hires him, knows who he is, but agrees to keep his real identity secret when he takes on the job. He introduces the inmates to the joys of Shakespeare, and over the next few years they create productions (on film for the entertainment of the staff and other inmates only) of some of the more macho tragedies. I was a little disappointed with Margaret Atwood's assumption that the men would reject anything vaguely sappy or sentimental and would only play the female parts if they were 'nasty' people. Felix develops quite a reputation and the courses are popular, and then one year he hears that his former adversaries, who have now both gone into politics, will be coming to visit the prison and are planning to remove the funding for his project. It is at this point that he decides to exact his revenge. With the help of Bent Pencil, SnakeEye, 8Handz, Wonderboy, Leggs and the rest of the gang they put on a performance that will not be soon forgotten. 

The book takes us through the stages of their rehearsals and develops Felix's relationships with the prisoners, and the young woman Anne-Marie who he brings in to play Miranda opposite himself as Prospero. And all the while, back at his cottage waits the ghost of his daughter, who, strangely, has grown up with the passing years, and gone from playing outdoors to playing chess with him in the evenings. What is so good about the book is how closely she has stuck to the plot and characters of the play, their motivations and alterations, and even the denouement with its nightmare-like tempest. I found myself both rooting for Prospero/Felix and despising his selfishness. I particularly liked the way that the inmates are only allowed to use curse words that appear in the play, and then how at the end they all have to write a piece about what might happen to their character after the play, and their ideas point out quite neatly how the ending that Shakespeare wrote was rather limp and does not follow well from the previous behaviour of the characters. 

Here we get an idea of the early years in the cottage, Felix 'imagining' Miranda:

"During the day she was often outside, playing in the field behind the house or in the woodlot at the back. He would see a cloud of butterflies lift in the meadow : she must have startled them. When blue jays or crows would make a fuss in the woods, he'd conclude that Miranda had been walking there. Squirrels chattered at her, grouse whirred away at her approach. In the dusk, fireflies marked her path, and owls greeted her with muffled calls.
In winters, when the snow drifted in the laneway and the wind howled, she'd slip outside without a second thought. She didn't dress as warmly as she ought to have done, despite his nagging about mittens, but nothing happened as a consequence: no colds, no flu. In fact, she was never ill, unlike himself. When he was sick she tiptoed around him, anxious; but he never had to worry about her, because what harm could possibly come to her? She was beyond harm." (p.46-7)

Now Miranda is a teenager. While I felt sad for him in his grief what you also see is, like Prospero, Felix has his daughter captive, he can turn her into exactly the person he wants her to be:

"But what has his care amounted to? He's protected her, true, but hasn't he overdone it? There are so many things he should be able to offer her. She should have what other girls her age take for granted, not that he know what those things are. Clothes, certainly. Pretty clothes, more clothes than she has at her disposal now. She seems to go around in makeshifts, fabricated out of cheesecloth and old bedsheets. She ought to have silks and velvets, or mini-skirts and those tall boots girls these days seems so fond of. She ought to have an iPhone, in a pastel shade. She ought to be painting her nails blue or silver or green, chattering with her friends, listening to music through pink ear buds. Going to parties.
He's been such a failure as a parent. How can he make it up to her? It's a wonder she isn't sulkier, cooped up here with nobody but her shabby old father; but then, she doesn't know what she's missing. Still, he's been able to teach her a lot of things that most girls her age would never have a chance of learning."

I enjoyed that the book is not just a rewriting of the play, but it is also about the play itself; I felt like I got to know the plot and the characters in two layers, from both the overarching story and the play within it. Here Felix is preparing for the final performance:

"His voice sounded fraudulent. Where is the authentic pitch, the true note? Why did he ever think he could play this impossible part? So many contradictions to Prospero! Entitled aristocrat, modest hermit? Wise old mage, revengeful old poop? Irritable and unreasonable, kindly and caring? Sadistic, forgiving? Too suspicious, too trusting? How to convey each delicate shade of meaning and intention? It can't be done.
They had cheated for centuries when presenting this play. They cut speeches, they edited sentences, trying to confine Prospero within their calculated perimeters. Trying to make him one thing or the other. Trying to make him fit.
Don't quit now, he tells himself. There's too much at stake.
He'll try the line again. Should it be more like an order or more like an invitation? How far away does he think Ariel is when he's saying this? Or calling it? A sibilant or a shout? He's imagined himself in the scene so often he hardly knows how to play it. He can never match his own exalted conception of it.
'Approach, my Ariel.' He leans forward, as if listening. 'Come!'
Right next to his ear he hears Miranda's voice. It's barely a whisper, but he hears it.

All hail, great master, grave sir, hail! I come
to answer thy best pleasure, be't to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds; to thy strong bidding, task
Ariel and all his quality.

Felix drops his staff as if it's burning him. Did that really happen? Yes, it did! He heard it! 
Miranda's made a decision: she'll be understudying Ariel - surely he can't raise any objection to that.
How clever of her, how perfect! She's found the one part that will let her blend seamlessly at rehearsals. Only he will be able to see her, from time to time. Only he will hear her. She'll be invisible to every eyeball else." (p.179-80)

Unlike Prospero we see a change in Felix, his life is transformed by his connection with the people who are in a real life prison, they are not just tools with which he wishes to enact his revenge, they make his life better and he learns from them. I think the book is an excellent testament to Margaret Atwood's true skill as a writer. She tells the story faithfully as Shakespeare created it, but still manages to make both it and the characters her own. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Taking a packet of Ginger Nuts for a walk

Wednesday was a good day to go for a walk, bright and sunny, but not too hot, at least we were fooled by the cooling breeze into thinking it wasn't too hot. Monkey and I started the day at the Nag's Head in Edale, where Simon Armitage finished his Pennine walk. Confident that even with our cobbled together kit we would make it to Glossop by dinner time we set off up the hill. 

It is important as you go along the Pennine Way to stop regularly to admire the view, or you are missing the point.
After getting hot and sweaty on the first uphill stretch we cooled off in the stream at the foot of Jacob's Ladder:
An hour or so later we found ourselves at the triangulation point, the summit of our walk.
We followed the path as it wound across Kinder Scout, we skirted the Kinder reservoir from high above, and then the route descended precipitously to the River Kinder.
A group of students had taken the nice spot by the river so we continued back on up to look for a place to eat. Considering its popularity with walkers the sheep were still rather miffed at having their space invaded, bleating but keeping their distance, except this one, who came to watch us as we huddled by some rocks for lunch.
It was a little while after this that we made our minor detour. We reached Mill Hill, and a stone sign gave us somewhat ambiguous directions. It being rather too windy to try and open the map we trusted our instincts and followed the beautiful paved stone path that headed straight on. We were striding out when I spotted what looked like huge pieces of metal only a few meters away alongside the path. It turns out this engine and some panels is all that remains of the crash site of a US RB29 bomber that came down in 1948. The gouge in the earth caused by the crash is still clearly visible though now much overgrown. Thirteen men died here on a routine flight to the base at Burtonwood near Warrington.
It was not until we neared the road and Monkey commented that she was not expecting to see a junction that we checked the map and found we should have followed the arrow back at Mill Hill.
Continuing would involve a long walk along the roadside.
Some debate ensued.
We decided to turn back.
The walk across to Snake Pass took us until around 5pm. We rested by the roadside and then continued the few hundred yards until we found the turning to the bridleway that descends into Glossop.
We'll be back at the train station in no time, we thought. Alas, it was not to be. Away from the National Trust maintained route we had to pick our way over broken and fallen rocks, collapsed paths and numerous bogs as we made our way down the valley of the Shelf Brook. It was really beautiful and felt remote from civilization, but by this time we were too exhausted to appreciate it. Around each bend we kept expecting to catch sign of the town. 
No walk of ours, it seems, is complete without a troll bridge:
Having left the house before 8am to catch the train to Edale we reached Glossop station at 6.40pm, and finally arrived home about 8pm.
I found this very handy Pennine Way distance calculator which told us that we walked over 16 miles. It also gave me this gradient profile for our walk. Our legs can still feel every foot of the nearly 2,000ft.
I am most pleased with this wonderful photo that I took just after we crossed Snake Pass. The whole walk had been dotted with this cottongrass but on this stretch it blanketed the landscape off into the distance, making it appear almost as if snow-covered. 
Today we are nursing our sunburn and planning our next expedition. The packet of ginger nuts came home again uneaten.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

My Brilliant Career

'My Brilliant Career' by Miles Franklin is one of those books that has been on my radar for years. I think I should have read it when I was a teenager. It is like the antithesis of John Green, who is lovely, don't get me wrong, but his books are all about relationships, and despite the appearance of early death in many of his novels they are mostly romantic depictions of teenage-hood. I did see the film many years ago and its version of the story is slightly different from the events related in the book. I had assumed there was a biographical element to the story but apparently, although the life and people she describes are close to her own it was written to entertain friends. 

It tells the story of Sybylla, eldest child of a poor family living in outback Australia. After an almost idyllic beginning the family move in her early childhood and her father's attempts at cattle dealing leads to them becoming almost destitute. They lived a harsh, merciless life, battling drought, pests and the father's alcoholism, but Sybylla is saved by going to live with her grandmother and begins to have other ideas about where her life could go. Despite claiming ugliness and an utter lack of social graces she is courted by Harold Beecham, a local landowner, whom she agrees to marry when she is twenty-one. Her good-for-nothing father borrows money from an old acquaintance, and in exchange, to pay the interest, sends Sybylla as tutor to the man's children. It is worse than being at home, nothing to break the monotony of heat and boiled beef. She has a break down and is finally released from her obligations, and returns home to drudgery. Harold regains his lost fortunes and comes to claim his bride, but she knows it is not what she wants from life and reluctantly rejects him. Despite the intellectual poverty of her existence she knows somehow that there is more to life, that the world is bigger and that she can be something more than the narrow openings that are apparently on offer to her. She berates herself throughout the book, but has quite an astute self-understanding. I liked this about her, and I think my teenage self would have liked her too. But what I think my teenage self needed was her utter rejection of romantic notions and how resolutely, as a woman, you have to pursue your own life. I remember how much I found myself swept along by what was expected of me, how hard it is to fight expectations. While Sybylla is loyal to her family and accepts her obligation to help support the family, she is single-minded in her assertion that she will have a brilliant career and that she wants to write. I felt sad that the father who loves and supports her as a small child, who fosters her sense of adventure, becomes a burden and shame to his family, his role in her life seems to just end overnight as he sinks into alcoholism. She is wild and passionate and unconventional, and yet in the way she talks about gender roles she is very much a product of her time. When I read books from this era I always find myself grateful for the progress fostered by the feminist movement. This quote comes from near the end of the book, when Harold visits them at Possum Gully, but it shows so nicely the strict social boundaries of the time:

"I knew the appearance of Harold Beecham would make quite a miniature sensation, and form food for no end of conjecture and chatter. In any company he was a distinguished-looking man, and particularly so among these hard-worked farmer-selectors, on whose careworn features the cruel effects of the drought were leaving additional lines of worry. I felt proud of my quondam sweetheart. there was an unconscious air of physical lordliness about him, and he looked such a swell - not the black-clothed, clean-shaven, great display of white collar-and-cuffs swell appertaining to the office and city street, but of the easy sunburnt squatter type of swelldom, redolent of the sun, the saddle, the wide open country - a man who is a man, utterly free from the least suspicion of effeminacy, and capable of earning his bread by the sweat of his brow - with an arm ready and willing to save in an accident.
All eyes were turned on us as we approached, and I knew that the attentions he paid me out of simple courtesy - tying my shoe, carrying my book, holding my parasol - would by put down as those of a lover.
I introduced him to a group of men who were sitting on a log, under the shade of a stringybark, and leaving him to converse with them, made my way to where the women sat beneath a gumtree. The children made a third group at some distance. We always divided ourselves thus. A young fellow had to be very far gone ere he was willing to run the gauntlet if all the chaff levelled at him had he the courage to single out a girl and talk to her.
I greeted all the girls and women, beginning at the great-grandmother of the community, who illustrated to perfection the grim sarcasm of the fifth commandment. She had worked hard from morning till night, until too old to do so longer, and now hung around with aching weariness waiting for the grave. She generally poured into my ears a wail about her 'rheumatisms', and 'How long it do be waiting for the Lord'; but today she was too curious about Harold to think of herself." (p.217-8)

The book ends without any real expectation of change for Sybylla, she sees her life going on, trapped by her family's poverty. The harshness of the life led by most settlers in Australia is very vividly portrayed. Life was tough for most people 100 years ago, something it's good to be reminded of in the  struggles of modern life. The book complements quite nicely My Antonia that I read last summer, a similar tale of rural life in America but narrated by a young boy. 

The Green Road

Anne Enright read a lovely piece from The Green Road at the Literature Festival, and so I bought the book, as you do. I did like it, but not as much as The Gathering that I read back in 2010. It felt more like a collection of stories rather than a novel; the lives of the family members are so separate that the links between them have become tenuous and I found that I did not get enough sense of the sibling bond between them.

I did bond with Constance. Here she is going for a mammogram:

"All Constance wanted to do was to make people happy.Why was it her job to fix them? Not one of the people she cared so much about knew where she was, right now. There wasn't a sinner to remember that she had a mammogram today, or enquire how it had gone, and a terrible sharp desire came over Constance to be told that the lump was malignant, so she could say to Dessie, 'You know where I was this morning?' and tell her mother, ' Yes, Mammy, cancer, they saw it on the scan,' then wait for the news to filter, finally, through to Lauren, Eileen, Martha Hingerty: who would then be obliged to call, 'Why didn't you tell me? I just heard.' " (p.96)

I like Anne Enright because she is a master of beautiful understated passages like this one; Dan with his therapist, talking about the death of his father:

"Scott sat across from Dan, his careful face flushed with the effort of staying with him in his sorrow, while Dan threw one Kleenex after another into the wooden wastepaper basket at his feet. He thought about all the discarded tears that ended up in it, from all the people who took their turn weeping, sitting in that chair. Many people, many times a day. The bin was made of pale wood, with a faint and open grain. It was always empty when he arrived. Expectant. The wastepaper basket was far too beautiful. The air inside it was the saddest air." (p.176)

The book gives us these glimpses into the separate lives of Rosaleen's four children, and then, in the second half, brings the family back together for Christmas, where Rosaleen plans to tell them she is selling the family home (and move in with Constance, that might come as a bit of a surprise). I think I found them so real because the gathering was not all cosy and affectionate, but slightly tense and uncomfortable. Each of them is aware of some kind of judgement from the others, each feeling uncertain about their own reception, wanting to be accepted but at the same time reluctant to feel familial obligation. It is the mixed emotions of the family that brings about the drama. And then Mammy goes off for her afternoon constitutional, and doesn't come back. A classic case of dramatic events bringing people's emotions to the surface and people seeing what is important to them. 

Here Emmet neatly sums up family life, not just for the Madigans but probably for many families:

"He could see the next couple of days stretching out in front of them. there would be much talk about house prices, how well Dessie McGrath was doing, what everything was worth these days - more expensive than Toronto, Dan, yes, that cowshed down the road. Emmet would start an argument with Constance about the Catholic Church  - because Constance, who believed nothing, would not admit it in front of her children who were expected to believe everything or at least pretend they believed it, just like their mother. Hanna would have a rant about some newspaper critic, their mother would opine that these people sometimes knew what they were talking about, and on they would all go. It was, Emmet thought, like living in a hole in the ground." (p.215)

Works in Progress

Stuff going on at home at the moment, besides worrying about the outcome of the election.
Tomato plants from Unicorn potted up in the porch (which is something like a greenhouse much of the summer), in three year old home made compost. I have only been intending to do this for the entire time we have lived here, so six years later I get around to it:
Three weeks later they are looking pretty good. I kept the sign from the NHS protest we went to back in March, and it has come in very handy as a plant support. 
Crochet blanket for Claire is coming along well, over half way towards my 144 granny square target.  I sorted the yarn stash and gave the project its own box.
And a trip to town with the girls yielded a lovely wicker basket in which I have hidden my Turkish Coat project. I have done bits of it occasionally but the mammoth task of hand quilting the pieces turned it from a labour of love into just a labour. I need new impetus to renew my enthusiasm.
Julie had a stash clear out and gave me some yarn, partly to encourage my crochet ambitions, and she started me on the Lost in Time shawl. I have combined it with some leftover from my Still Light Tunic. It is slow going but is going to be beautiful.

Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum

I probably read 'The Handmaid's Tale' by Margaret Atwood thirty years ago; recent reading of her other books has provoked the desire to reread it, so we decided to have a little Margaret Atwood book group with some friends and get together to chat about the book.
I had very vague memories of the book so it was almost like reading it again for the first time. The Handmaid's Tale is set in some not necessarily very distant future where falling birthrates and a right wing fundamentalist regime has led to a new world order where women have no rights and those that are found to have viable ovaries are conscripted as child bearers for the government elite. We are thrust directly into this new reality, some vague explanations come later. Here Offred meets her partner on their daily shopping trip:

"'Blessed be the fruit,' she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.
'May the Lord open,' I answer, the accepted response. We turn and walk together past the large houses, towards the central part of town. We aren't allowed to go there except in twos. This is supposed to be for our protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable.
This woman has been my partner for two weeks. I don't know what happened to the one before. On a certain day she simply wasn't there any more, and this one was there in her place. It isn't the sort of thing you ask questions about, because the answers are not usually answers you want to know. Anyway there wouldn't be an answer." (p.29)

We gradually get some background to the events leading to this new theocracy, a violent revolution by christian fundamentalists. Offred gives some information about her past life, and hints at the loss of her husband and child. She does not know what has become of them, but she clings to the old memories and hope, it feels like a sign that her spirit is not broken:

"Any day now there may be a message from him. It will come in the most unexpected way, from the least likely person, someone I would never have suspected. Under my plate, on the dinner tray? Slipped into my hand as I reach the tokens across the counter in All Flesh?
The message will say that I must have patience: sooner or later he will get me out, we will find her, wherever they've put her. She'll remember us and we will be all three of us together. Meanwhile I must endure, keep myself safe for later. What has happened to me, what's happening to me now won't make any difference to him, he loves me anyway, he knows it isn't my fault. The message will say this also. It's this message, which may never arrive, that keeps me alive. I believe in the message.
The things I believe can't all be true, though one of them must be. But I believe in all of them, all three versions of Luke, at one and the same time. This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way I can believe anything. Whatever the truth is, I will be ready for it.
This is also a belief of mine. This also may be untrue." (p.115-6)

But life has become almost too focussed on hopes and beliefs; the women know nothing. Moira, a friend from her former life, escapes from the Handmaid training centre, and becomes another beacon of hope for the women, but as she acknowledges, they are already accustomed to their new life and afraid of what rebellion could mean:

"The story passed among us that night, in the semi-darkness, under our breath, from bed to bed.
Moira was out there somewhere. She was at large, ordeal. What would she do? The thought of what she would do expanded till it filled the room. At any moment there might be a shattering explosion, the glass of the windows would fall inwards, the doors would swing open ... Moira had power now, she'd been set loose, she'd set herself loose. She was now a loose woman.
I think we found this frightening.
Moira was like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy. Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure. In the upper reaches of the atmosphere you'd come apart, you'd vaporise, there would be no pressure holding you together.
Nevertheless Moira was our fantasy. We hugged her to us, she was with us in secret, a giggle; she was lava beneath the crust of daily life. In the light of Moira, the Aunts were less fearsome and more absurd. Their power had a flaw in it. They could be shanghaied in toilets. The audacity was what we liked.
We expected her to be dragged in at any minute, as she had been before. We could not imagine what they might do to her this time.It would be very bad, whatever it was. 
But nothing happened. Moira didn't reappear. She hasn't yet." (p.143)

Offred begins to have these strange, unorthodox meetings with the Commander. They play scrabble. And then he gives her an old copy of Vogue, and I had the best laugh of the book, it shows that along with her other intentions Margaret Atwood certainly does not lack a sense of humour:

"But why show it to me? I said, and then let stupid. What could he possibly say? That he was amusing himself, at my expense? For he must have known how painful it was for me, to be reminded of the former time.
I wasn't prepared for what he actually did say. Who else could I show it to? he said, and there it was again, that sadness.
Should I go further? I thought. I don't want to push him, too far, too fast. I knew I was dispensable. Nevertheless I said, too softly, How about your Wife?
He seemed to think about that. No, he said. she would't understand. Anyway, she won't talk to me much any more. We don't seem to have much in common these days.
So there it was, out in the open: his wife didn't understand him.
That's what I was there for, then. The same old thing. It was too banal to be true." (p.166)

This is how it happens, how the world might be turned upside down:

"It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on the television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger one.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They've been building up to this. It's you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting some expression of my mother's, but she wasn't intending to be funny." (p.182-3)

And this, maybe this, is how the men would feel about it (after the women lose their jobs):

"We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?
He kissed me then, as if now I'd said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.
He doesn't mind this, I thought. He doesn't mind at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's any more. Instead, I am his.
Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.
So Luke: what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I right? Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that, I was afraid to. I couldn't afford to lose you." (p.191-2)

It is not until Moira reappears that I think Offred realises how important a symbol of resistance she had become; you can feel her courage sinking, her ability to continue, there is no longer an idea of escape:

"'So here I am. They even give you face cream. You should figure out some way of getting here. You'd have three or four good years before your snatch wears our and they send you to the boneyard. the food's not bad and there's drink and drugs, if you want it, and we only work nights.'
'Moira,' I say. 'you don''t mean that.' She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken something away - what? - that used to be so central to her? But how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not?
I don't want her to be like me, give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack." (p.261)

Amongst the utter horror of her experience she finds hope is some unexpected places, and Atwood gives us something to cling on to at the end, but as she has said, all experiences in the story are from real life, they are all things that have happened, or are happening to women in the world today. Out there, in the real world, there is so much still to be accomplished.
We had a lovely evening munching crackers and hummus and talking round in circles, and getting off the subject. We did use some of the suggested questions from this discussion guide, they seemed less schooly than many of the links I found. Plans are afoot for another book.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Empathy is like cholesterol ...

... with a good type and a bad type.
I did a Coursera course on morality by Paul Bloom several years ago, so I was already familiar with his work when I requested 'Against Empathy' from the library. Just to reassure you the book is not an argument for cold hard logic and that human beings should not feel compassion for each other, just that empathy is often not the panacea for decision making (both personal and political) that it is often made out to be. He does say at the beginning that 'Empathy plus reason makes a great combination' is a less snappy and provocative title.

The book lays out definitions and explanations of the role of empathy in human relations, and the way our thinking about empathy is related to our thinking about morality; is it necessary to have empathy to be good, are empathic people 'better' people? In examining its definition he begins to outline what he sees as the weaknesses of empathy as a guide for human action, how it can make us behave morally, but it need not. Here he gives a literary example from The Island of Doctor Moreau, where a character hears the screaming of a suffering animal:

"This has been cited as an example of the moral force of felt experience and the power of empathy. But what does Prendick do? He leaves. He goes for a walk to escape the noise, finds a space in the shade, and takes a nap.
So if vicarious suffering were the sole outcome of empathy, empathy would be mostly useless as a force for helping others. There is almost always an easier way to make your empathic suffering go away than the hard work of making someone else's life better: Turn the page. Look away. Cover your ears. Think of something else. Take a nap." (p.75)

In the next chapter he looks more closely at empathy as something that leads to 'doing good', and how doing good for one person can often ignore the effects it has on others:

"This sort of effect takes us back to the metaphor of empathy as a spotlight. The metaphor captures a feature of empathy that is fans are quick to emphasise - how it makes visible the suffering of others, makes their troubles real, salient, and concrete. From the gloom, something is seen. Someone who believes we wouldn't help if it weren't for empathy might see its spotlight nature as its finest aspect,
But the metaphor also illustrates empathy's weaknesses. A spotlight picks out a certain space to illuminate and leaves the rest in darkness; its focus is narrow. What you see depends on where you choose to point the spotlight, so its focus is vulnerable to your biases.
Empathy is not the only facet of our moral lives that has a spotlight nature. Emotions such as anger, guilt, shame, and gratitude are similar. But not all psychological processes are limited in this way. We can engage in reasoning, including moral reasoning, that is more abstract. We can make decisions based on considerations of costs and benefits or through appealing to general principles. Presumably this is what people who choose not to move Sheri Summers up the list were doing - they weren't zooming in on her, but rather taking a more distanced perspective. Now one might worry that this less emotional perspective is too cold and impersonal - maybe the right metaphor for this type of impartial reasoning is the ugly illumination of florescent light." (p.87)

I ended up feeling as if he made the same argument several times over, phrasing it differently and citing different examples to make very similar points. Sometimes it was also a case of trying to show how non-empathic based decisions are often equally 'moral', as in this example about the arguments over slavery:

"Carlyle has a specific issue in mind, a case where he wanted to ridicule economists for objecting to something that was the subject of considerable feeling and heart, something that Carlyle had defended with great emotion.
What was this issue the economists were being so negative about? Slavery. Carlyle was upset because the economists were against slavery. He argued for the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies and was annoyed that the economists railed against it. Think about this when you're tempted to scorn economists and the cool approach they take to human affairs, and when you hear people equating strong feelings with goodness and cold reason with nastiness. in the real world, as we've seen the truth is usually the opposite." (p.112)

He even gets right down to genetics in his argument, explaining how supposed having 'selfish' genes does not mean the same thing as selfish human beings:

"Genes that cause a person to sacrifice his life in order to help three brothers or nine cousins would have an advantage over genes that caused a person to save himself at all costs. The 'goals' of natural selection transcend our bodies. So, strange as it might seem, selfish genes create altruistic animals, motivating kindness towards others." (p.169)

I think he makes a good case for the fact that 'empathy' and 'morality' are often confused in the way people talk and think about human behaviour. So much of what we do, and also how we think about what other people do is dictated by our own perception of situations and behaviours:

"the moralisation gap leads to a natural escalation of reprisals, both at the everyday level - disputes among friends, siblings, spouses - and at the level of international conflict. You do something nasty to me, and this seems so much nastier (more significant, unjustified, just meaner) to me than it does to you. And when I retaliate in what I see as an appropriate and measured way, it seems disproportionate to you, and you respond accordingly, and so on." (p.182)

"It shouldn't be surprising that morality can incite violence. Morality leads to action; it gets you to stick your nose in other people's business. I don't like raisins. But this isn't a moral belief, so it just means that I don't eat raisins; it doesn't motivate me to harass others who behave differently than I do towards raisins. I also don't like murder. But this is a moral belief, so it motivates me to try and stop others from doing this, to encourage the government to punish them, and so on. In this way, moral beliefs motivate action, including violent action." (p.185)

I felt like the book almost became an argument against 'gut reactions' and in favour of reason. Empathy becomes another way of saying that people respond to how they 'feel' about a situation rather than thinking through what might be the best course of action. I don't think that Bloom is arguing that we should not be helping others or responding to emergency situations, but we should be honest about why we do things. Sometimes people respond empathically because it makes them feel better as much as it might be doing good for the person they empathise with. Recently the US dropped bombs on an air base in Syria, and Trump put on a big show of empathising with the victims of the chemical weapons attack; I didn't believe him for a minute, since every one of his other policies shows no interests is helping the victims fleeing the ongoing conflict there. Empathy is something that is so easy to manipulate, to appeal to people's innate empathy to justify policy is just the kind of thing that Bloom is arguing against. The book is an excellent argument for something that in some ways is bleeding obvious: life is mostly much more complicated than it appears and solutions to problems are rarely simple. The same people who donate money to famine relief because they see starving children on the television will often vote for government policies that exacerbate the economic, environmental and political situation that causes the starvation. Empathy so often offers only a short term fix. One last quote, just because he sums up a political dilemma quite neatly. The book is thoughtful, well researched and intelligently argued, certainly well worth a read.

"Unless I'm a member of a tiny powerful community, my beliefs have no effect on the world. This is certainly true as well for my views about the flat tax, global warming, and evolution. They don't have to be grounded in truth, because the truth value doesn't have any effect on my life.
I am unhappy making this argument, because my own moral commitments lean me towards the perspective that it's important to try to be right about issues even if they don't matter in a practical sense. I would be horrified if one of my sons thought that our ancestors rode dinosaurs, even though I can't think of a view that matters less for everyday life. I would feel similarly if he supported ridiculous claims as true just because they fit his political ideology. We should try to believe true things.
But that's just me. Others see things differently. My point is just that the failure of people to attend to data in the political domain does not reflect a limitation of their capacity for reason. It reflects how most people make sense of politics. They don't care about truth because, for them, it's not really about truth." (p.237)


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