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.'
'Woman.'
'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.

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